Chapter XIV. The Common Yeller Kind.
 

Mr. Howitt stood quietly by the corral gate when the horseman rode up. It was Wash Gibbs, on his way home from an all day visit with friends on the river.

When the big mountaineer took the short cut through Mutton Hollow, he thought to get well past the ranch before the light failed. No matter how well fortified with the courage distilled by his friend, Jennings, the big man would never have taken the trail by the old ruined cabin alone after dark. He had evidently been riding at a good pace, for his mule's neck and flanks were wet with sweat. Gibbs, himself, seemed greatly excited, and one hand rested on the pistol at his hip, as he pulled up in front of the shepherd.

Without returning Mr. Howitt's greeting, he pointed toward the two empty chairs in front of the house, demanding roughly, "Who was that with you before you heard me comin'?"

"Sammy Lane was here a few minutes ago," replied the shepherd.

Gibbs uttered an oath, "She was, was she? Well, who was th' man?"

"There was no man," returned the other. "Young Matt and Pete were here for supper, but they went as soon as the meal was finished, before Sammy came."

"Don't you try to lie to me!" exclaimed the big man, with another burst of language, and a threatening movement with the hand that rested on the pistol.

Mr. Howitt was startled. Never in his life before had such words been addressed to him. He managed to reply with quiet dignity, "I have no reason for deceiving you, or anyone else, Mr. Gibbs. There has been no man here but myself, since Matt and Pete left after supper." The shepherd's manner carried conviction, and Gibbs hesitated, evidently greatly perplexed. During the pause, Brave growled again, and faced toward the cliff below the corral, his hair bristling.

"What's th' matter with that dog?" said Gibbs, turning uneasily in his saddle, to face in the direction the animal was looking.

"What is it, Brave?" said Mr. Howitt. The only answer was an uneasy whine, followed by another growl, all of which said plainly, in dog talk, "I don't know what it is, but there is something over there on that cliff that I don't like."

"It must be some animal," said the shepherd.

"Ain't no animal that makes a dog act like that. Did any body pass while you was a sittin' there, jest before I come in sight?"

"Not a soul," answered the other. "Did you meet someone down the road?"

The big man looked at the shepherd hard before he answered, in a half-frightened, half-bullying tone, "I seed something in th' road yonder, an' hit disappeared right by th' old shack under th' bluffs." He twisted around in his saddle again, facing the cliff with its dense shadows and dim twilight forms, as he muttered, "If I was only right sure, I--" Then swinging back he leaned toward the man on the ground; "Look a here, Mister. There's them that 'lows there's things in this here Holler t' be afeared of, an' I reckon hit's so. There's sure been hell t' pay at that there cabin down yonder. I ain't a sayin' what hit was I seed, but if hit war anywhere else, I'd a said hit was a man; but if hit was a man, I don't know why you didn't see him when he come past; er else you're a lyin'. I jest want t' tell you, you're right smart of a stranger in these here parts, even if you have been a workin' fer Ol' Matt all summer. You're too blame careful 'bout talkin' 'bout yourself, or tellin' whar you come from, t' suit some folks. Some strangers are alright, an' again some ain't. But we don't aim t' have nobody in this here neighborhood what jumps into th' brush when they see an honest man a comin'."

As he finished speaking, Gibbs straightened himself in the saddle, and before Mr. Howitt could reply, the dun mule, at a touch of the spur, had dashed away up the road in the direction taken by Sammy Lane.

It was quite dark in the heavy timber of the Hollow by the time Sammy had reached the edge of the open ground on the hill side, but once on the higher level, clear of the trees, the strong glow of the western sky still lighted the way. From here it was not far to the girl's home, and, as she climbed a spur of Dewey, Sammy saw the cabin, and heard distinctly the sweet strain's of her father's violin. On top of the rise, the young woman paused a moment to enjoy the beauties of the evening, which seemed to come to her with a new meaning that night. As she stood there, her strong young figure was clearly outlined against the sky to the man who was riding swiftly along the road over which she had just passed.

Sammy turned when she heard the quick beating of the mule's feet; then, recognizing the huge form of the horseman, as he came out of the woods into the light, she started quickly away towards her home; but the mule and its rider were soon beside her.

"Howdy, Sammy." Gibbs leaped from the saddle, and, with the bridle rein over his arm, came close to the girl. "Fine evening for a walk."

"Howdy," returned the young woman, coolly, quickening her pace.

"You needn't t' be in such a powerful hurry," growled Wash. "If you've got time t' talk t' that old cuss at th' ranch, you sure got time t' talk t' me."

Sammy turned angrily. "You'd better get back on your mule, and go about your business, Wash Gibbs. When I want you to walk with me, I'll let you know."

"That's alright, honey," exclaimed the other insolently. "I'm a goin' your way just th' same; an' we'll mosey 'long t'gether. I was a goin' home, but I've got business with your paw now."

"Worse thing for Daddy, too," flashed the girl. "I wish you'd stay away from him."

Wash laughed; "Your daddy couldn't keep house 'thout me, nohow. Who was that feller talkin' with you an' th' old man down yonder?"

"There wasn't nobody talkin' to us," replied Sammy shortly.

"That's what he said, too," growled Gibbs; "but I sure seed somebody a sneakin' into th' brush when I rode up. I thought when I was down there hit might o' been a hant; but I know hit was a man, now. There's somethin' mighty funny a goin' on around here, since that feller come int' th' neighborhood; an' he'll sure find somethin' in Mutton Holler more alive than Ol' Matt's gal if he ain't careful."

The girl caught her breath quickly. She knew the big ruffian's methods, and with good reason feared for her old friend, should he even unconsciously incur the giant's displeasure.

As they drew near the house, Wash continued, "Young Matt he was there too. Let me tell you I ain't forgot 'bout his big show at th' mill last spring; he'll have t' do a heap better'n he done then, when I get 'round t' him."

Sammy laughed scornfully, "'Pears like you ain't been in no hurry t' try it on. I ain't heard tell of Young Matt's leaving th' country yet. You'd better stay away from Jennings' still though, when you do try it." Then, while the man was tying his mule to the fence, she ran into the cabin to greet her father with a hysterical sob that greatly astonished Jim. Before explanations could be made, a step was heard approaching the door, and Sammy had just time to say, "Wash Gibbs," in answer to her father's inquiring look, when the big man entered. Mr. Lane arose to hang his violin on its peg.

"Don't stop fer me, Jim," said the newcomer. "Jest let her go. Me an' Sammy's been havin' a nice little walk, an' some right peart music would sound mighty fine." Gibbs was angered beyond reason at Sammy's last words, or he would have exercised greater care.

Sammy's father made no reply until the girl had left the room, but whatever it was that his keen eye read in his daughter's face, it made him turn to his guest with anything but a cordial manner, and there was that in his voice that should have warned the other.

"So you and Sammy went for a walk, did you?"

"She was comin' home from th' sheep ranch, an' I caught up with her," explained Gibbs. "I 'lowed as how she needed company, so I come 'long. I seemed t' be 'bout as welcome as usual," he added with an ugly grin.

"Meanin' that my girl don't want your company, and told you so?" asked the other softly.

Wash answered with a scowl; "Sammy's gettin' too dad burned good fer me since Ollie's uncle took him in. An' now, this here old man from nowhere has come, it's worse than ever. She'll put a rope 'round our necks th' first thing you know."

Jim's right hand slipped quietly inside his hickory shirt, where the button was missing, as he drawled, "My girl always was too good for some folks. And it's about time you was a findin' it out. She can't help it. She was born that way. She's got mighty good blood in her veins, that girl has; and I don't aim to ever let it be mixed up with none of the low down common yeller kind."

The deliberate purpose of the speaker was too evident to be mistaken. The other man's hand flew to his hip almost before Mr. Lane had finished his sentence. But Wash was not quick enough. Like a flash Jim's hand was withdrawn from inside the hickory shirt, and the giant looked squarely into the muzzle of Jim Lane's ever ready, murderous weapon.

In the same even voice, without the slightest allusion to the unfinished movement of the other, Mr. Lane continued, "I done told you before that my girl would pick her own company, and I ain't never feared for a minute that she'd take up with such as you. Ollie Stewart ain't so mighty much of a man, maybe, but he's clean, he is, and the stock's pretty good. Now you can just listen to me, or you can mosey out of that door, and the next time we meet, we will settle it for good, without any further arrangement."

As Sammy's father talked, the big figure of his visitor relaxed, and when Jim had finished his slow speech, Wash was leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, his hands clasped in front. "We ain't got no call t' fight, now, Jim," he said in a tone of respect. "We got something else t' think about; an' that's what I come here fer t'night. I didn't aim t', 'til I seed what I did at th' ranch down yonder. I tell you hit's time we was a doin' somethin'."

At this, Mr. Lane's face and manner changed quickly. He put up his weapon, and the two men drew their chairs close together, as though Death had not a moment before stretched forth his hand to them.

For an hour they sat talking in low tones. Sammy in the next room had heard the conversation up to this point, but now only an occasional word reached her ears. Gibbs seemed to be urging some action, and her father was as vigorously protesting. "I tell you, Jim, hit's th' only safe way. You didn't use t' be so squeamish." Several times the old shepherd was mentioned, and also the stranger whom Wash had seen that evening. And once, the trembling girl heard Young Matt's name. At length the guest rose to go, and Mr. Lane walked with him to the gate. Even after the big man was mounted, the conversation still continued; Wash still urging and Jim still protesting.

When his visitor was gone, Mr. Lane came slowly back to the house. Extinguishing the light, he seated himself in the open doorway, and filled his pipe. Sammy caught the odor of tobacco, and a moment later Jim heard a light, quick step on the floor behind him. Then two arms went around his neck; "What is it, Daddy? What is it? Why don't you drive that man away?"

"Did you hear us talkin'?" asked the man, an anxious note in his voice.

"I heard you talkin' to him about pesterin' me, but after that, you didn't talk so loud. What is the matter, Daddy, that he could stay and be so thick with you after the things you said? I was sure he'd make you kill him."

Jim laughed softly; "You're just like your mother, girl. Just like her, with the old blood a backin' you up." Then he asked a number of questions about Mr. Howitt, and her visit to the ranch that evening.

As Sammy told him of her ambition to fit herself for the place that would be hers, when she married, and repeating the things that Mr. Howitt had told her, explained how the shepherd had promised to help, Jim expressed his satisfaction and delight. "I knowed you was a studyin' about something, girl," he said, "but I didn't say nothin', 'cause I 'lowed you'd tell me when you got ready."

"I didn't want to say nothing 'til I was sure, you see," replied the daughter. "I aimed to tell you as soon as I got home to-night, but Wash Gibbs didn't give me no chance."

The man held her close "Dad Howitt sure puts the thing just right, Sammy. It'll be old times come back, when you're a lady in your own house with all your fine friends around; and you'll do it, girl; you sure will. Don't never be afraid to bank on the old blood. It'll see you through." Then his voice broke; "You won't never be learned away from your old Daddy, will you, honey? Will you always stand by Daddy, like you do now? Will you let me and Young Matt slip 'round once in a while, just to look at, you, all so fine?"

"Daddy Jim, if you don't--hush--I'll--I'll--" she hid her face on his shoulder.

"There, there, honey; I was only funnin'. You'll always be my Sammy; the only boy I ever had. You just naturally couldn't be nothin' else."

Long after his daughter had gone to her room and to her bed, the mountaineer sat in the doorway, looking into the dark. He heard the short bark of a fox in the brush back of the stable; and the wild cry of a catamount from a cliff farther down the mountain was answered by another from the timber below the spring. He saw the great hills heaving their dark forms into the sky, and in his soul he felt the spirit of the wilderness and the mystery of the hour. At last he went into the house to close and bar the door.

Away down in Mutton Hollow a dog barked, and high up on Old Dewey near Sammy's Lookout, a spot of light showed for a moment, then vanished.