Chapter XVII. How the Pinto Sold
 

The glow of virtuous feeling following the performance of their generous act prepared the men for a keener enjoyment than usual of a night's sport. They had just begun to dispose themselves in groups about the fire for poker and other games when Hi rode up into the light and with him a stranger on Gwen's beautiful pinto pony.

Hi was evidently half drunk and, as he swung himself of his bronco, he saluted the company with a wave of the hand and hoped he saw them "kickin'."

Bill, looking curiously at Hi, went up to the pinto and, taking him by the head, led him up into the light, saying:

"See here, boys, there's that pinto of mine I was telling you about; no flies on him, eh?"

"Hold on there! Excuse me!" said the stranger, "this here hoss belongs to me, if paid-down money means anything in this country."

"The country's all right," said Bill in an ominously quiet voice, "but this here pinto's another transaction, I reckon."

"The hoss is mine, I say, and what's more, I'm goin' to hold him," said the stranger in a loud voice.

The men began to crowd around with faces growing hard. It was dangerous in that country to play fast and loose with horses.

"Look a-hyar, mates," said the stranger, with a Yankee drawl, "I ain't no hoss thief, and if I hain't bought this hoss reg'lar and paid down good money then it ain't mine--if I have it is. That's fair, ain't it?"

At this Hi pulled himself together, and in a half-drunken tone declared that the stranger was all right, and that he had bought the horse fair and square, and "there's your dust," said Hi, handing a roll to Bill. But with a quick movement Bill caught the stranger by the leg, and, before a word could be said, he was lying flat on the ground.

"You git off that pony," said Bill, "till this thing is settled."

There was something so terrible in Bill's manner that the man contented himself with blustering and swearing, while Bill, turning to Hi, said:

"Did you sell this pinto to him?"

Hi was able to acknowledge that, being offered a good price, and knowing that his partner was always ready for a deal, he had transferred the pinto to the stranger for forty dollars.

Bill was in distress, deep and poignant. "'Taint the horse, but the leetle gel," he explained; but his partner's bargain was his, and wrathful as he was, he refused to attempt to break the bargain.

At this moment the Hon. Fred, noting the unusual excitement about the fire, came up, followed at a little distance by his wife and The Duke.

"Perhaps he'll sell," he suggested.

"No," said Bill sullenly, "he's a mean cuss."

"I know him," said the Hon. Fred, "let me try him." But the stranger declared the pinto suited him down to the ground and he wouldn't take twice his money for him.

"Why," he protested, "that there's what I call an unusual hoss, and down in Montana for a lady he'd fetch up to a hundred and fifty dollars." In vain they haggled and bargained; the man was immovable. Eighty dollars he wouldn't look at, a hundred hardly made him hesitate. At this point Lady Charlotte came down into the light and stood by her husband, who explained the circumstances to her. She had already heard Bill's description of Gwen's accident and of her part in the church-building schemes. There was silence for a few moments as she stood looking at the beautiful pony.

"What a shame the poor child should have to part with the dear little creature!" she said in a low tone to her husband. Then, turning to the stranger, she said in clear, sweet tones:

"What do you ask for him?" He hesitated and then said, lifting his hat awkwardly in salute: "I was just remarking how that pinto would fetch one hundred and fifty dollars down into Montana. But seein' as a lady is enquirin', I'll put him down to one hundred and twenty-five."

"Too much," she said promptly, "far too much, is it not, Bill?"

"Well," drawled Bill, "if 'twere a fellar as was used to ladies he'd offer you the pinto, but he's too pizen mean even to come down to the even hundred."

The Yankee took him up quickly. "Wall, if I were so blanked-- pardon, madam"--taking off his hat, "used to ladies as some folks would like to think themselves, I'd buy that there pinto and make a present of it to this here lady as stands before me." Bill twisted uneasily.

"But I ain't goin' to be mean; I'll put that pinto in for the even money for the lady if any man cares to put up the stuff."

"Well, my dear," said the Hon. Fred with a bow, "we cannot well let that gage lie." She turned and smiled at him and the pinto was transferred to the Ashley stables, to Bill's outspoken delight, who declared he "couldn't have faced the music if that there pinto had gone across the line." I confess, however, I was somewhat surprised at the ease with which Hi escaped his wrath, and my surprise was in no way lessened when I saw, later in the evening, the two partners with the stranger taking a quiet drink out of the same bottle with evident mutual admiration and delight.

"You're an A1 corker, you are! I'll be blanked if you ain't a bird--a singin' bird--a reg'lar canary," I heard Hi say to Bill.

But Bill's only reply was a long, slow wink which passed into a frown as he caught my eye. My suspicion was aroused that the sale of the pinto might bear investigation, and this suspicion was deepened when Gwen next week gave me a rapturous account of how splendidly Bill had disposed of the pinto, showing me bills for one hundred and fifty dollars! To my look of amazement, Gwen replied:

"You see, he must have got them bidding against each other, and besides, Bill says pintos are going up."

Light began to dawn upon me, but I only answered that I knew they had risen very considerably in value within a month. The extra fifty was Bill's.

I was not present to witness the finishing of Bill's bluff, but was told that when Bill made his way through the crowded aisle and laid his five hundred and fifty dollars on the schoolhouse desk the look of disgust, surprise and finally of pleasure on Robbie's face, was worth a hundred more. But Robbie was ready and put down his two hundred with the single remark:

"Ay! ye're no as daft as ye look," mid roars of laughter from all.

Then The Pilot, with eyes and face shining, rose and thanked them all; but when he told of how the little girl in her lonely shack in the hills thought so much of the church that she gave up for it her beloved pony, her one possession, the light from his eyes glowed in the eyes of all.

But the men from the ranches who could understand the full meaning of her sacrifice and who also could realize the full measure of her calamity, were stirred to their hearts' depths, so that when Bill remarked in a very distinct undertone, "I cherish the opinion that this here Gospel shop wouldn't be materializin' into its present shape but for that leetle gel," there rose growls of approval in a variety of tones and expletives that left no doubt that his opinion was that of all.

But though The Pilot never could quite get at the true inwardness of Bill's measures and methods, and was doubtless all the more comfortable in mind for that, he had no doubt that while Gwen's influence was the moving spring of action, Bill's bluff had a good deal to do with the "materializin'" of the first church in Swan Creek, and in this conviction, I share.

Whether the Hon. Fred ever understood the peculiar style of Bill's financing, I do not quite know. But if he ever did come to know, he was far too much of a man to make a fuss. Besides, I fancy the smile on his lady's face was worth some large amount to him. At least, so the look of proud and fond love in his eyes seemed to say as he turned away with her from the fire the night of the pinto's sale.