Chapter XVI
 

With the descent upon his breast of the limp body of his big woods- bully, Colonel Pennington had been struck to earth as effectively as if a fair-sized tree had fallen on him. Indeed, with such force did his proud head collide with terra firma that had it not been for the soft cushion of ferns and tiny redwood twigs, his neck must have been broken by the shock. To complete his withdrawal from active service, the last whiff of breath had been driven from his lungs; and for the space of a minute, during which Jules Rondeau lay heavily across his midriff, the Colonel was quite unable to get it back. Pale, gasping, and jarred from soul to suspenders, he was merely aware that something unexpected and disconcerting had occurred.

While the Colonel fought for his breath, his woodsmen remained in the offing, paralyzed into inactivity by reason of the swiftness and thoroughness of Bryce Cardigan's work; then Shirley motioned to them to remove the wreckage, and they hastened to obey.

Freed from the weight on the geometric centre of his being, Colonel Pennington stretched his legs, rolled his head from side to side, and snorted violently several times like a buck. After the sixth snort he felt so much better that a clear understanding of the exact nature of the catastrophe came to him; he struggled and sat up, looking around a little wildly.

"Where--did--Cardigan--go?" he gasped.

One of his men pointed to the timber into which the enemy had just disappeared.

"Surround him--take him," Pennington ordered. "I'll give--a month's pay--to each of--the six men that bring--that scoundrel to me. Get him--quickly! Understand?"

Not a man moved. Pennington shook with fury. "Get him," he croaked. "There are enough of you to do--the job. Close in on him--everybody. I'll give a month's pay to--everybody."

A man of that indiscriminate mixture of Spaniard and Indian known in California as cholo swept the circle of men with an alert and knowing glance. His name was Flavio Artelan, but his straight black hair, dark russet complexion, beady eyes, and hawk nose gave him such a resemblance to a fowl that he was known among his fellows as the Black Minorca, regardless of the fact that this sobriquet was scarcely fair to a very excellent breed of chicken. "That offer's good enough for me," he remarked in businesslike tones. "Come on-- everybody. A month's pay for five minutes' work. I wouldn't tackle the job with six men, but there are twenty of us here."

"Hurry," the Colonel urged them.

Shirley Sumner's flashing glance rested upon the Black Minorca. "Don't you dare!" she cried. "Twenty to one! For shame!"

"For a month's pay," he replied impudently, and grinned evilly. "And I'm takin' orders from my boss." He started on a dog-trot for the timber, and a dozen men trailed after him.

Shirley turned helplessly on her uncle, seized his arm and shook it frantically. "Call them back! Call them back!" she pleaded.

Her uncle got uncertainly to his feet. "Not on your life!" he growled, and in his cold gray eyes there danced the lights of a thousand devils. "I told you the fellow was a ruffian. Now, perhaps, you'll believe me. We'll hold him until Rondeau revives, and then--"

Shirley guessed the rest, and she realized that it was useless to plead--that she was only wasting time. "Bryce! Bryce!" she called. "Run! They're after you. Twenty of them! Run, run--for my sake!"

His voice answered her from the timber: "Run? From those cattle? Not from man or devil." A silence. Then: "So you've changed your mind, have you? You've spoken to me again!" There was triumph, exultation in his voice. "The timber's too thick, Shirley. I couldn't get away anyhow--so I'm coming back."

She saw him burst through a thicket of alder saplings into the clearing, saw half a dozen of her uncle's men close in around him like wolves around a sick steer; and at the shock of their contact, she moaned and hid her face in her trembling hands.

Half man and half tiger that he was, the Black Minorca, as self- appointed leader, reached Bryce first. The cholo was a squat, powerful little man, with more bounce to him than a rubber ball; leading his men by a dozen yards, he hesitated not an instant but dodged under the blow Bryce lashed out at him and came up inside the latter's guard, feeling for Bryce's throat. Instead he met Bryce's knee in his abdomen, and forthwith he folded up like an accordion.

The next instant Bryce had stooped, caught him by the slack of the trousers and the scruff of the neck and thrown him, as he had thrown Rondeau, into the midst of the men advancing to his aid. Three of them went down backward; and Bryce, charging over them, stretched two more with well-placed blows from left and right, and continued on across the clearing, running at top speed, for he realized that for all the desperation of his fight and the losses already inflicted on his assailants, the odds against him were insurmountable.

Seeing him running away, the Laguna Grande woods-men took heart and hope and pursued him. Straight for the loading donkey at the log- landing Bryce ran. Beside the donkey stood a neat tier of firewood; in the chopping block, where the donkey-fireman had driven it prior to abandoning his post to view the contest between Bryce and Jules Rondeau, was a double-bitted axe. Bryce jerked it loose, swung it, whirled on his pursuers, and rushed them. Like turkeys scattering before the raid of a coyote they fled in divers directions and from a safe distance turned to gaze apprehensively upon this demon they had been ordered to bring in.

Bryce lowered the axe, removed his hat, and mopped his moist brow. From the centre of the clearing men were crawling or staggering to safety--with the exception of the Black Minorca, who lay moaning softly. Colonel Pennington, seeing his fondest hopes expire, lost his head completely.

"Get off my property, you savage," he shrilled.

"Don't be a nut, Colonel," Bryce returned soothingly. "I'll get off-- when I get good and ready, and not a second sooner. In fact, I was trying to get off as rapidly as I could when you sent your men to bring me back. Prithee why, old thing? Didst crave more conversation with me, or didst want thy camp cleaned out?"

He started toward Pennington, who backed hastily away. Shirley stood her ground, bending upon Bryce, as he approached her, a cold and disapproving glance. "I'll get you yet," the Colonel declared from the shelter of an old stump behind which he had taken refuge.

"Barking dogs never bite, Colonel. And that reminds me: I've heard enough from you. One more cheep out of you, my friend, and I'll go up to my own logging-camp, return here with a crew of bluenoses and wild Irish and run your wops, bohunks, and cholos out of the county. I don't fancy the class of labour you're importing into this county, anyhow."

The Colonel, evidently deciding that discretion was the better part of valour, promptly subsided, although Bryce could see that he was mumbling threats to himself, though not in an audible voice.

The demon Cardigan halted beside Shirley and stood gazing down at her. He was smiling at her whimsically. She met his glance for a few seconds; then her lids were lowered and she bit her lip with vexation.

"Shirley," he said.

"You are presumptuous," she quavered.

"You set me an example in presumption," he retorted good humouredly. "Did you not call me by my first name a minute ago?" He glanced toward Colonel Pennington and observed the latter with his neck craned across his protecting stump. He was all ears. Bryce pointed sternly across the clearing, and the Colonel promptly abandoned his refuge and retreated hastily in the direction indicated.

The heir to Cardigan's Redwoods bent over the girl. "You spoke to me --after your promise not to, Shirley," he said gently. "You will always speak to me."

She commenced to cry softly. "I loathe you," she sobbed.

"For you I have the utmost respect and admiration," he replied.

"No, you haven't. If you had, you wouldn't hurt my uncle--the only human being in all this world who is dear to me."

"Gosh!" he murmured plaintively. "I'm jealous of that man. However, I'm sorry I hurt him. He is no longer young, while I--well, I forgot the chivalry my daddy taught me. I give you my word I came here to fight fairly--"

"He merely tried to stop you from fighting."

"No, he didn't, Shirley. He interfered and fouled me. Still, despite that, if I had known you were a spectator I think I should have controlled myself and refrained from pulling off my vengeance in your presence. I shall never cease to regret that I subjected you to such a distressing spectacle. I do hope, however, that you will believe me when I tell you I am not a bully, although when there is a fight worth while, I never dodge it. And this time I fought for the honour of the House of Cardigan."

"If you want me to believe that, you will beg my uncle's pardon."

"I can't do that. He is my enemy and I shall hate him forever; I shall fight him and his way of doing business until he reforms or I am exhausted."

She looked up at him, showing a face in which resentment, outrage, and wistfulness were mirrored.

"You realize, of course, what your insistence on that plan means, Mr. Cardigan?"

"Call me Bryce," he pleaded. "You're going to call me that some day anyhow, so why not start now?"

"You are altogether insufferable, sir. Please go away and never presume to address me again. You are quite impossible."

He shook his head. "I do not give up that readily, Shirley. I didn't know how dear--what your friendship meant to me, until you sent me away; I didn't think there was any hope until you warned me those dogs were hunting me--and called me Bryce." He held out his hand. "'God gave us our relations,'" he quoted, "'but thank God, we can choose our friends.' And I'll be a good friend to you, Shirley Sumner, until I have earned the right to be something more. Won't you shake hands with me? Remember, this fight to-day is only the first skirmish in a war to the finish--and I am leading a forlorn hope. If I lose--well, this will be good-bye."

"I hate you," she answered drearily. "All our fine friendship-- smashed--and you growing stupidly sentimental. I didn't think it of you. Please go away. You are distressing me."

He smiled at her tenderly, forgivingly, wistfully, but she did not see it. "Then it is really good-by," he murmured with mock dolorousness.

She nodded her bowed head. "Yes," she whispered. "After all, I have some pride, you know. You mustn't presume to be the butterfly preaching contentment to the toad in the dust."

"As you will it, Shirley." He turned away. "I'll send your axe back with the first trainload of logs from my camp, Colonel," he called to Pennington.

Once more he strode away into the timber. Shirley watched him pass out of her life, and gloried in what she conceived to be his agony, for she had both temper and spirit, and Bryce Cardigan calmly, blunderingly, rather stupidly (she thought) had presumed flagrantly on brief acquaintance. Her uncle was right. He was not of their kind of people, and it was well she had discovered this before permitting herself to develop a livelier feeling of friendship for him. It was true he possessed certain manly virtues, but his crudities by far outweighed these.

The Colonel's voice broke in upon her bitter reflections. "That fellow Cardigan is a hard nut to crack--I'll say that for him." He had crossed the clearing to her side and was addressing her with his customary air of expansiveness. "I think, my dear, you had better go back into the caboose, away from the prying eyes of these rough fellows. I'm sorry you came, Shirley. I'll never forgive myself for bringing you. If I had thought--but how could I know that scoundrel was coming here to raise a disturbance? And only last night he was at our house for dinner!"

"That's just what makes it so terrible, Uncle Seth," she quavered.

"It is hard to believe that a man of young Cardigan's evident intelligence and advantages could be such a boor, Shirley. However, I, for one, am not surprised. You will recall that I warned you he might be his father's son. The best course to pursue now is to forget that you have ever met the fellow."

"I wonder what could have occurred to make such a madman of him?" the girl queried wonderingly. "He acted more like a demon than a human being."

"Just like his old father," the Colonel purred benevolently. "When he can't get what he wants, he sulks. I'll tell you what got on his confounded nerves. I've been freighting logs for the senior Cardigan over my railroad; the contract for hauling them was a heritage from old Bill Henderson, from whom I bought the mill and timber-lands; and of course as his assignee it was incumbent upon me to fulfill Henderson's contract with Cardigan, even though the freight-rate was ruinous.

"Well, this morning young Cardigan came to my office, reminded me that the contract would expire by limitation next year and asked me to renew it, and at the same freight-rate. I offered to renew the contract but at a higher freight-rate, and explained to him that I could not possibly continue to haul his logs at a loss. Well, right away he flew into a rage and called me a robber; whereupon I informed him that since he thought me a robber, perhaps we had better not attempt to have any business dealings with each other--that I really didn't want his contract at any price, having scarcely sufficient rolling-stock to handle my own logs. That made him calm down, but in a little while he lost his head again and grew snarly and abusive--to such an extent, indeed, that finally I was forced to ask him to leave my office."

"Nevertheless, Uncle Seth, I cannot understand why he should make such a furious attack upon your employee."

The Colonel laughed with a fair imitation of sincerity and tolerant amusement. "My dear, that is no mystery to me. There are men who, finding it impossible or inadvisable to make a physical attack upon their enemy, find ample satisfaction in poisoning his favourite dog, burning his house, or beating up one of his faithful employees. Cardigan picked on Rondeau for the reason that a few days ago he tried to hire Rondeau away from me--offered him twenty-five dollars a month more than I was paying him, by George! Of course when Rondeau came to me with Cardigan's proposition, I promptly met Cardigan's bid and retained Rondeau; consequently Cardigan hates us both and took the earliest opportunity to vent his spite on us."

The Colonel sighed and brushed the dirt and leaves from his tweeds. "Thunder," he continued philosophically, "it's all in the game, so why worry over it? And why continue to discuss an unpleasant topic, my dear?"

A groan from the Black Minorca challenged her attention. "I think that man is badly hurt, Uncle," she suggested.

"Serves him right," he returned coldly. "He tackled that cyclone full twenty feet in advance of the others; if they'd all closed in together, they would have pulled him down. I'll have that cholo and Rondeau sent down with the next trainload of logs to the company hospital. They're a poor lot and deserve manhandling--"

They paused, facing toward the timber, from which came a voice, powerful, sweetly resonant, raised in song. Shirley knew that half- trained baritone, for she had heard it the night before when Bryce Cardigan, faking his own accompaniment at the piano, had sung for her a number of carefully expurgated lumberjack ballads, the lunatic humour of which had delighted her exceedingly. She marvelled now at his choice of minstrelsy, for the melody was hauntingly plaintive-- the words Eugene Field's poem of childhood, "Little Boy Blue."

   "The little toy dog is covered with dust,
    But sturdy and stanch he stands;
   And the little toy soldier is red with rust,
    And his musket molds in his hands.
   Time was when the little toy dog was new,
    And the soldier was passing fair;
   And that was the time when our little boy blue,
    Kissed them and put them there."

"Light-hearted devil, isn't he?" the Colonel commented approvingly. "And his voice isn't half bad. Just singing to be defiant, I suppose."

Shirley did not answer. But a few minutes previously she had seen the singer a raging fury, brandishing an axe and driving men before him. She could not understand. And presently the song grew faint among the timber and died away entirely.

Her uncle took her gently by the arm and steered her toward the caboose. "Well, what do you think of your company now?" he demanded gayly.

"I think," she answered soberly, "that you have gained an enemy worth while and that it behooves you not to underestimate him."