XX. Roland Shows His Hand
 

"Perhaps I'd better go." Josie, fluttering with alarm and a little pale, went quickly to the door.

Duncan followed her a pace or two. "I can't leave just now," he stammered.

"I don't mind one bit. I don't want to be in the way. I'll telephone from home.... Good-night, dearest!" On tiptoes she drew his face down to hers and kissed him. "I'm so happy..."

Half dazed, Nat stared after her until her lightly moving figure merged with the shadows beneath the trees and was lost. Then, with a sigh, he turned back to Pete.

The sheriff had undoubtedly suffered at the hands of that militant person, Mrs. Willing. "Great Scott!" Duncan exclaimed as he examined the two-inch gash in his head. "That's a bird, Pete."

"M' wife done it," Willing muttered huskily. "Sh' threw side 'r th' house at me, I think."

"Wife, eh?" The coincidence smote Duncan with redoubled force. He shivered "Well, she certainly gave it to you good." He went behind the counter to prepare a dressing for the wound, which, if wide, was neither deep nor serious and gave him little concern for Pete.

The latter ruminated on the event, breathing stertorously, while Duncan was fixing up a wash of peroxide. "She'll kill me some day," he announced suddenly, with intense conviction in his tone.

"Oh, don't say that...."

Opposition roused Pete to a fury of assertion. "Yes, she will, sure!" he bawled. Then his emotion quieted. "But I'd 'bout as soon be dead's live with her, anyway."

"Um." Nat got some absorbent cotton and adhesive plaster. "Been drinking again, hadn't you?"

"Yesh," Pete admitted with a leer of drunken cunning. "But she druv me to it." He was quiet for a moment. "Mish'r Duncan," he volunteered cheerfully, "you ain't got no idee how lucky y'are y'aint married."

"Is that so?" Nat returned with the dressings.

"No idee'tall." Pete surrendered his head to Nat's ministrations. "'Nd I hope y' won't never have."

"But I'm going to be married, Pete."

The sheriff assimilated this information and became abruptly intractable. He jerked his head away and swung round in his chair to argue the matter.

"Oh, no!" he expostulated. "Don't, Mish'r Duncan. Don't never do it. Take warnin' from me."

"But I'm engaged, Pete."

"Maksh no diff'runsh--break it off." His voice rose to a howl of alarm. "F'r Gaw's sake, break it off!--now, before it's too late! Do anythin' rather'n that: drink--lie--steal--murder--c'mit suicide--don't care what--only keep single!" "Here," said Duncan, laughing, "sit back there and let me'tend to your head." He began to wash the wound with the peroxide. "There: that'll sting a bit, but not long.... But suppose, Pete, I'd get a lot of money by marrying?"

"No matter how mush y'get, 'tain't enough!"

"I'm inclined to think you're about right, Pete."

"You bet I'm right. I'm married 'nd I know."

Nat finished dressing the cut, smoothed down the ends of the adhesive tape, and stood back. "That's all right, now. Go home, wash your face, and sleep it off. Let me see you sober in the morning."

"Huh!" Pete chuckled derisively. "Ain't goin' home t'night."

"You've got to get some sleep: that's the only way for you to straighten up."

"Well," agreed Pete, rising, "then I'll go over to the barn 'nd sleep with the horse."

"Aren't you afraid he'll step on you?" asked Nat, amused.

"Maybe he will," Pete replied fairly, "but I'd ruther risk that 'n m' wife."

He swerved and lurched toward the door. "Thanks, doc, 'nd g'night," he mumbled, and incontinently collided with Roland Barnette.

Roland was working under a full head of steam, apparently; his naturally sanguine complexion was several shades darker than the normal, and he was seething with repressed emotion--excitement, anticipated triumph, jealousy, envy and hatred: all centring upon the hapless head of Nat Duncan. Plunging along with his head down, his thoughts wholly preoccupied with his grievance and its remedy, he bumped into Willing and cannoned off, recognising him with an angry growl. The result of this was to stay Pete's departure; he grasped the frame of the door and steadied himself, glaring round at the aggressor.

"'Lo, Roland," he said, focussing his vision. "Whash masser?"

Roland disregarded him entirely. "Say, you!" he snorted, catching sight of Nat. "I want to see you."

"Oh?" Nat drawled exasperatingly. He had never had much use for Roland, and now with hidden joy he read the signs of passion on the boy's inflamed countenance. Happy he would be, thought Nat, if Roland were to be delivered into his hands that night. He owed the world a grudge, just then, and needed nothing more than an object to wreak his vengeance upon. "Well, I'll stake you to a good long look," he added sweetly.

"Ah-h! don't you try to be so funny; you might get hurt."

Pete seemed to be suddenly electrified by Ro-land's matter. "Here!" he interposed. "Whajuh mean by that?" And relinquishing his grasp on the door, he reeled between the two and thrust his face close to Roland's. "Who're you talkin' to, an'way?" he demanded, truculent.

Nat stepped forward quickly and grabbed Pete's arm. "That's all right, Pete," he soothed him. "Don't get nervous. Roly won't hurt anybody."

The diminutive stung Roland to exasperation. "Why, damn you----!" he screamed, and promptly became inarticulate with rage.

"Ah! ah! ah!" Nat wagged a reproving forefinger. "Naughty word, Roly! Careful, or you'll sour your chewing gum."

"Now, say! Do you think----"

At this juncture Pete drowned his words with an incoherent roar, having apparently reached the conclusion that the time had now arrived when it would be his duty and pleasure to eat Roland alive. Nat saved the young man by the barest inch; he grappled with Pete and drew himself aside just in time.

"Steady, Pete!" he said quietly. "Steady, old man. Let Roland alone."

"Awrh, I ain't 'fraid of him!" spluttered Pete.

"Neither am I. Get out, won't you, and leave him to me."

"Aw'right." Pete became more calm. "I'll leave him 'lone, but all the same I wan' it 'stinctly un'erstood I kin lick any man in town 'ceptin' m' wife. G'night, everybody."

He gathered himself together and by a supreme effort lunged through the door and into the deepening dusk.

"Well, Roly?" Nat asked, turning back.

His ironic calm gave Roland pause. For a moment he lost his bearings and stammered in confusion. "I come in to tell you that me and you's apt to have trouble," he concluded.

"Oh? And are you thinking of starting it?"

"You bet I'll start it, and I'll start it damn' quick if you don't leave Josie Lockwood alone."

"So that's the trouble, is it?" commented Nat thoughtfully.

"Yes, that's the trouble. From now on I want you to let her alone, and you'll do it, too, if you know what's best for you."

A suggestion of menace in his manner, unconnected with any hint of physical correction, caught Nat's attention. He frowned over it.

"Just what do you mean by this line of talk?" he inquired blandly, stepping nearer.

"I'll tell you what I mean." Roland clenched both fists and thrust his chin out pugnaciously. "I'd been a-goin' steady with Josie Lockwood for more'n a year before you come here and thought that, on account of her money, you could sneak in and cut me out...."

"Was her money the reason you were after her, Roly?"

"What----?" The question brought Roland momentarily up in the wind. "'Tain't none of your business if it was!" he snapped, recovering. "But here's what I'm gettin' at." He tapped his breast-pocket with a sneer of bucolic triumph. "Just about ten months ago," he continued meaningly, "they was a cashier skipped out of the Longacre National Bank in Noo Yawk, and they ain't got no track of him yet."

So this was why Roland had been so assiduous a student of the back files in the Citizen office!

"Indeed?"

"Yes, indeed. I had my suspicions all along, but didn't say nothin', but just to-day I got a description of him, and the description just fits, Mr. Mortimer Henry."

"Just fits Mr. Mortimer Henry? But what has that----?"

"Ah, don't you try to seem too darn' innocent," Roland snarled. "You can't fool me!"

A light dawned upon Nat, and laughter flooded his being, although outwardly he remained imperturbable--merely mildly curious. But his fingers were itching.

"So you think I'm the absconding cashier, eh, Roly?"

"You keep away from Josie 'r you'll find out what I think." Nat's placidity deceived Roland, who drew the wholly erroneous conclusion that he had succeeded in frightening his rival, and consequently dared a few lengths further in his tirade. "Why, if I was to go to Mr. Lockwood and tell him you're Mortimer Henry, alias Nat Duncan----"

Duncan's temper suddenly snapped like a taut violin string.

"That will do," he said icily. "That will be all for this evening, thanks."

"Ah... Are you going to quit chasin' after Josie?"

"I'll begin chasing after you if you don't clear out of here."

"You better agree----"

[Illustration: "Betty!"]

Just there the storm burst. Ten seconds later Roland, with a confused impression of having been kicked by a mule, picked himself up out of the dust in the middle of the street and stared stupidly back at the store. Nat was waiting in the doorway for a renewal of hostilities, if any such there were to be. Seeing, however, that Roland had apparently sated his appetite for personal conflict, he picked up a dark object at his feet and held it out.

"Here's your hat, Roly," he called.

Roland spat out a mouthful of dust and swore beneath his breath. "Throw it out here," he replied prudently.

Tossing him the hat, Nat turned contemptuously. "Come in again, any time you want to apologise," he shouted over his shoulder, as an afterthought.

He paused in the middle of the store and felt of his necktie. It proved to be a little out of place, but otherwise he was as immaculate as was his wont. He reviewed the encounter and laughed quietly.

"There's no cure for a fool," he mused....

The telephone bell roused him from his reverie. He went over to the instrument, sat down, and put the receiver to his ear.

"Hello?" he said.... "Oh, hello, Josie! ... What's that?... That's right, but I'm not used to it yet, you know.... Well, I'll try again. Now--ready?"

He schooled his voice to a key of heartrending sentiment: "Hello, darling.... How's that? ... Told your father? Told him what?... Oh, about the engagement! Was he angry? ... Oh, he wasn't, eh? What did he say? ... Wasn't that nice of him!..."

Conscious of a slight noise in the store he looked up. A young woman had just entered. She paused just inside the door, smiling at him a little timidly.

Without another word to his fiancee Nat put down the telephone and hooked up the receiver.

"Betty!" he cried wonderingly.