'I'm pretty near down to my last chip, son, an' before I get outa the game there's somethin' I wanta say.'
The voice was weak, little more than a whisper, and the breath came with difficulty from the speaker's labouring lungs. Out of the gaunt, angular face, deeply graven with lines of suffering, hard eyes rested approvingly upon the youth who, with downcast head, stood beside the bed. Tall, slim, and supple, wide-shouldered and narrow-hipped, strength showed in every line of him. In his eyes lay a deep-seated misery.
'I've allus had the name for a square shooter, but I ain't done right by yu, Jim,' the sick man went on. 'There won't be nothin' for yu--but a debt-to two men.'
'yu've been mighty good to me,' the boy muttered, and despite his iron effort for control there was a quaver in his voice.
The other was silent awhile, fighting for breath, and then, 'Peterson stole my li'l gal an' broke my heart,' he said slowly. 'An' when yu was East, gettin' some larnin', that houn' Webb stripped me.' His voice was harsh, pregnant with passion ; hatred gave him a last spasm of strength. 'yo're the fastest fella with a gun I ever see, an' I've knowed some o' the best ; I'm leavin' them two skunks to yu.'
The younger man's bronzed face remained impassive as a redskin's, save that the muscles of the square jaw firmed up and the grey-blue eyes became icy.
'I'll get 'em,' he promised, and this time there was no tremor in the low vibrant voice.
A gleam of fierce satisfaction flitted over the pallid features of the dying man and then his head sagged sideways. The boy just caught the whispered words, 'S'long--Jim.'
For a moment he stood dazed, hardly realizing that all was over. Death he had seen before, but not in this guise. Now, as he looked down upon the stark form of the man who had been his only friend, a convulsive sob tore at his throat. Gently he drew up the sheet to cover the glazed expressionless eyes, and went out.
Seated on a bench in front of the ranch-house, he mechan cally rolled and lighted a cigarette, his mind delving into the past. He saw himself, a half-starved, lanky lad, parentless, nameless, friendless, practically the property of an old Piute brave, travelling the country with a band of ponies. How he had come to be with them he had never learned, but he knew that he was white--the Indian woman had once told him as much, after a successful sale when her lord and master became drunk before the fire-water was finished, an unusual occurrence of which she promptly took advantage. The nomad life toughened the boy, gave him self-reliance, and the ability to stay on the back of anything that wore hair. He was not unhappy, for the Indian couple were kind enough when sober. And he loved the horses.
With the advent of Bill Evesham had come a complete change, for the kindly-faced, lonely rancher took a fancy to the boy and bought him, together with a string of ponies, from the Indian horse-trader. So Jim--Evesham called him that--had come to the ranch at Crawling Creek. The ensuing years were happy ones. He acquired some rudiments of knowledge at a school fifteen miles distant, and learned the cattle business. Then Evesham sent him East to complete his education and for nearly two years he paid only flying visits to the ranch. He had returned finally a few months ago to find his benefactor ailing and broken, a glum, dispirited man who remained obstinately silent respecting his troubles.
'Things ain't gone none too well, Jim, an' I've had to sell stock,' was his grudging explanation when the young man remarked on the depleted herds..
'yu should 'a' fetched me back--I've been spendin' coin yu couldn't afford,' Jim had protested.
'Shucks! Had to give yu yore chance. We'll make the grade,' the rancher had replied.
But although Jim had applied himself whole-heartedly to work on the range, matters did not improve, and the cattleman's failing health proved a heavy handicap. One by one the few remaining riders had drifted until only Limpy, a disabled cowboy who acted as cook, and Jim, were left. And now... . A halting step on the porch aroused him.
'Jim, he's--gone,' Limpy announced in a shocked voice. The boy nodded miserably. The older man put a hand on his shoulder.
'I'm powerful sorry,' he said. 'Bill was a good fella--one o' the best I ever knowed. 'S'pose the place'Il be yores now?'
Jim shook his head. 'Reckon not, Limpy,' he replied. 'I figure the ranch is pretty well hawg-tied. I expect I'll be ridin'.'
The following afternoon found Jim again on the porch seat, brooding, restless, his eyes on the blue mountains which rimmed the horizon and hemmed in the broad undulating stretches of sun-scorched grass. Though he had seen Evesham buried that morning, he still found it difficult to believe that the man who had been all the father he had ever known was gone.
Presently a tiny blot appeared on the trail to town, gradually growing in size until it became a rider, jog- trotting leisurely towards the ranch. The visitor proved to be a short, stout man of more than middle age, dressed in rusty black, and obviously ill at ease in the saddle. He got down clumsily, tied his mount to the hitch-rail, and mopped his moist face.
'Damn hosses anyway,' he complained. 'Why didn't the A'mighty give us wings?'
Despite his sadness, a glint of a smile wrinkled the corners of the young man's mouth as he tried to vision the stumpy form of the speaker flapping its way through the air.
'yu'll get 'em in the next world, Pyke--mebbe,' he said, sardonically, adding, 'There's liquor inside.'
Pyke shook his head. 'On'y makes yu hotter,' he said, and plumped himself down on the bench.
Neither spoke for a while. The visitor filled and lighted a pipe and the other constructed a cigarette. Pyke did not seem in a hurry to open the conversation, and Jim sensed the reason. He had seen him at the little cemetery in the morning and had noticed his constraint.
'Well, ol'-timer, spill the beans,' he said quietly. 'Come to tell me to pull my freight, huh?'
Pyke looked still more uncomfortable. 'Hell, no, Jim,' he protested. 'Stay as long as yu've a mind to, but--' He paused awkwardly and then went on with a rush. 'Pore of Bill owed a lot o' coin an' this yer ranch is all there is to show for it. Won't cover the debt nohow ; he didn't own more'n a section o' the land, an' if what I've heard is correct, he's been losin' cattle, so ... '
'There'll be no pickin's for me,' the young man helped him out. 'I knowed that a'ready.'
'yu see, Jim, I ain't alone in this,' Pyke said hastily. 'Two --three of us chipped in to tide Bill over. If it was just me I'd be willin' to let the debt run, but--'
The other smiled sombrely. 'yu don't have to tell me,' he replied. 'What's come o' Webb?'
'Ain't a notion,' was the answer. 'He faded 'bout the time yu was due to get back. Never liked the fella m'self but Bill usted him--too much, I reckon.'
Jim nodded a gloomy acquiescence. He had seen the man on the last of his brief visits from the East, and recalled him as big-built, red-headed, and something of a blustering bully. Evesham had made him foreman, and with increasing ill-health, had left things largely in his hands.
'I didn't oughta gone away,' he muttered, voicing an ever-present regret.
'He was dead sot on yore goin',' the elder man consoled. What yu aimin' to do, Jim?'
'I've got a job,' came the instant reply, rasped out through enched teeth.
Pyke's mild gaze noted the set, out-thrust jaw, the frosty gleam in the grey-blue eyes, and shook his head as he guessed the boy's intention.
'She's a large country,' he offered. 'Now, I was thinkin' we'll want someone here to run the ranch....'
Jim stood up. 'It's mighty kind o' yu, Pyke, but ...' He looked at the familiar scene. 'No, I couldn't stand it-- without --him,' he said. 'I reckon I'll scratch gravel.'
'Well, chew it over--there's no hurry,' Pyke told him, as he climbed into his saddle.
The young man's smile was tight-lipped. 'I'll be away early in the mornin',' he said. 'Mebbe I'll be back-- some day.' There was a finality in his tone which conveyed that further argument would be futile. Pyke had no more