Sunset Pass - Zane Grey - ebook

Sunset Pass ebook

Zane Grey

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When the train pulls into Wagontongue, the reader becomes Trueman Rock, returning to town after killing a man six years earlier. Now he returns to find trouble again, but this time his trouble is caused by love. Rock has fallen in love with Ash Preston’s woman, Thiry, and no man in the valley will let him get away with this. But Rock has faced harder men for lesser prizes, and he is willing to pay any price to win Thiry’s love. As with Romeo and Juliet, this undying love is depicted in the novel with shining sincerity. „Sunset Pass” stands as a powerful story of love, courage and loyalty. It shows how we must never follow with blind faith, how we must hold dear the memory of those we love, and how strong and enduring true love really is.

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Contents

CHAPTER I

CHAPTER II

CHAPTER III

CHAPTER IV

CHAPTER V

CHAPTER VI

CHAPTER VII

CHAPTER VIII

CHAPTER IX

CHAPTER X

CHAPTER XI

CHAPTER XII

CHAPTER XIII

CHAPTER XIV

CHAPTER XV

CHAPTER I

THE dusty overland train pulled into Wagontongue about noon of a sultry June day. The dead station appeared slow in coming to life. Mexicans lounging in the shade of the platform did not move.

Trueman Rock slowly stepped down from the coach, grip in hand, with an eager and curious expression upon his lean dark face. He wore a plain check suit, rather wrinkled, and a big gray sombrero that had seen service. His step, his lithe shape, proclaimed him to be a rider. A sharp eye might have detected the bulge of a gun worn under his coat, high over his left hip and far back.

He had the look of a man who expected to see some one he knew. There was an easy, careless, yet guarded air about him. He walked down the platform, passing stationmen and others now moving about, without meeting anyone who took more than a casual glance at him. Then two young women came out of the waiting-room, and they shyly gazed after him. He returned the compliment.

At the end of the flagstone walk Rock hesitated and halted, as if surprised, even startled. Across the wide street stood a block of frame and brick buildings, with high weatherbeaten signs. It was a lazy scene. A group of cowboys occupied the corner; saddled horses were hitched to a rail; buckboards and wagons showed farther down the street; Mexicans in colorful garb sat in front of a saloon with painted windows.

“Reckon the old burg’s not changed any,” soliloquized Rock, with satisfaction. “Funny, I expected to find her all built up….Let me see. It’s five–six years since I left. Well, I never ought to have come back, but I just couldn’t help it. Somethin’ roped me in, that’s sure.”

Memory stirred to the sight of the familiar corner. He had been in several bad gun fights in this town, and the scene of one of them lay before him. The warmth and intimacy of old pleasant associations suffered a chill. Rock wheeled away and hunted up the baggage-room to inquire about his saddle and bag, which he had checked at Deming. They had arrived with him. Reflecting that he did not know yet where to have them sent, Rock slipped the checks back into his pocket, and went out.

A subtle change had begun to affect his pleasure in returning to Wagontongue. He left the station, giving a wide berth to the street corner that had clouded his happy reflections. But he had not walked half a block before he came to another saloon, the familiar look of which and the barely decipherable name–Happy Days–acted like a blow in his face. He quickened his step, then reacting to his characteristic spirit, he deliberately turned back to enter the saloon. The same place, the same bar, stained mirror, and faded paintings, the same pool tables. Except for a barkeeper, the room was deserted. Rock asked for a drink.

“Stranger hereabouts, eh?” inquired the bartender, pleasantly, as he served him.

“Yes, but I used to know Wagontongue,” replied Rock. “You been here long?”

“Goin’ on two years.”

“How’s the cattle business?”

“Good, off an’ on. Of course it’s slack now, but there’s some trade in beef.”

“Beef? You mean on the hoof?”

“No. Butcherin’. Gage Preston’s outfit do a big business.”

“Well, that’s new,” replied Rock, thoughtfully. “Gage Preston?… Heard his name somewhere.”

“Are you a puncher or a cattleman, stranger?”

“Well, I was both,” replied Rock, with a laugh. “Reckon that means I always will be.”

Several booted men stamped in and lined up before the bar. Rock moved away and casually walked around, looking at the bold pictures on the wall. He remembered some of them. Also he found what he was unostentatiously seeking–some bullet holes in the wall. Then he went out.

“Reckon I oughtn’t have looked at that red liquor,” he decided.

There were times when it was bad for Trueman Rock to yield to the bottle. This was one of them. The sudden cold in his very marrow, the blank gray shade stealing over his mind, the presagement of a spell of morbid sinking of spirit–these usually preceded his rather rare drinking bouts. He had not succumbed in a long time now, and he hoped something would happen to prevent it in this instance. For if he fell here in Wagontongue, it would be very bad. It would be folly and the poorest kind of business. He had been industrious and fortunate for some years in a Texas cattle deal, and had sold out for ten thousand dollars, which amount of money he carried in cash upon his person.

Rock went to the Range House, a hotel on another corner. It had been redecorated, he noticed. He registered, gave the clerk his baggage checks, and went to the room assigned him, where he further resisted the mood encroaching upon him by shaving and making himself look presentable to his exacting eyes.

“Sure would like to run into Amy Wund,” he said, falling into another reminiscence. “Or Polly Ackers. Or Kit Rand…. All married long ago, I’ll bet.”

He went downstairs to the lobby, where he encountered a heavy-set, ruddy-faced man, no other than Clark, the proprietor, whom he well remembered.

“Howdy, Rock! Glad to see you,” greeted that worthy, cordially, if not heartily, extending a hand. “I seen your name on the book. Couldn’t be sure till I’d had a peep at you.”

“Howdy, Bill!” returned Rock, as they gripped hands.

“Wal, you haven’t changed any, if I remember. Fact is you look fit, an’ prosperous, I may say. Let’s have a drink for old times’ sake.”

They went from the lobby into a saloon that was new and garish to Rock’s eye.

“Fine place, Bill. Reckon you’ve been some prosperous yourself. Do you still run the little game up-stairs that used to keep us punchers broke?”

“It’s a big game now, Rock,” replied the hotel man as they tipped their glasses. “How long since you left Wagontongue?”

“Six years.”

“Wal, so long as that? Time shore flies. We’ve growed some, Rock. A good many cattlemen have come in. All the range pretty well stocked now. Then the sheep business is growin’, in spite of opposition. We have two lumber mills, some big stores, a school, an’ a town hall.”

“Well, you sure are comin’ on. I’m right glad, Bill. Always liked Wagontongue.”

“Did you jest drop in to say hello to old friends, or do you aim to stay?” inquired Clark, his speculative eye lighting.

Rock mused over that query, while Clark studied him. After a moment he flipped aside Rock’s coat.

“Ahuh! Excuse me, Rock, for bein’ familiar,” he went on, with slight change of manner. “I see you’re packin’ hardware, as usual. But I hope you ain’t lookin’ for some one.”

“Reckon not, Bill. But there might be some one lookin’ for me. … How’s my old friend, Cass Seward?”

“Ha!–Wal, you needn’t be curious aboot Cass lookin’ for you. He’s been daid these two years. He was a real sheriff, Rock, an’ a good friend of yours.”

“Well, I’m not so sure of that last, but Cass was a good fellow all right. Dead! I’m sure sorry. What ailed him, Bill?”

“Nothin’. He cashed with his boots on.”

“Who killed him?”

“Wal, that was never cleared up for shore. It happened out here at Sandro. Tough place then. But for that matter it still is. Cass got in a row an’ was shot. There was a greaser an’ a cowpuncher shot up the same night, but they didn’t croak. The talk has always been that Ash Preston killed Seward. But nobody, least of all our new sheriff, ever tried to prove it.”

“Who’s Ash Preston?”

“He’s the oldest son of Gage Preston, a new cattleman to these parts since you rode here. An Ash is as bad a hombre as ever forked a hoss.”

“Bad? What you mean, Bill?”

“Wal, I leave it to you. I ain’t sayin’ any more, an’ please regard that as confidence.”

“Certainly, Bill,” replied Rock, hastily. After another drink and some casual conversation about the range they parted in the hotel lobby. Rock took an instinctive step back toward the saloon door, hesitated, and turned away. He was still stubborn about giving in to the desire for liquor. He declared to himself that he did not really need or want whisky. It was just a need to drive away a mood. He had not calculated that it would hurt to come back to Wagontongue. He told himself that there was no reason why it should. Suppose he had been in love with Amy Wund, and later with Polly and Kit? That had never hurt him, or even prevented him from falling in love with Texas girls. He had never been proof against a pretty girl. He sensed a moral lapse that would land him good and drunk if something did not counteract it. He had always been rather disgusted with this weakness, though he believed it was less pronounced in him than in most cowboys. Sitting there in a chair, he recalled friends and enemies of the old Wagontongue days. It developed that there were many friends and but few enemies. One of his best friends had been Sol Winter, a kindly storekeeper who always overrated a service Rock had once rendered. Whenever Rock got into a scrape, provided it was not a shooting one, Sol was the one who helped him out of it. And as for money, Sol had always been his bank. Rock, remembering many things now clear, one of which was that he had left Wagontongue hastily and penniless, thought he recalled a debt still unpaid. With that he sallied out to find Winter’s store.

It should have been a couple of blocks down the street. Some of the buildings were new, however, and Rock could not be sure. Finally he located the corner where Sol’s place of business had been. A large and pretentious store now occupied this site. Rock experienced keen pleasure at the evidence of his old friend’s prosperity, and he stalked gayly in, sure of a warm welcome. But he was only to learn that Sol Winter did not occupy this store.

“Ah!–Is Winter still in business?” inquired Rock, conscious of disappointment.

“After a fashion. He has been sort of run out of the best part of town.”

“Run out? How?” sharply returned Rock.

“Better store and stock took his trade. If you want anything you’d––”

“Thanks. I don’t want anythin’,” interrupted Rock, and departed.

Through inquiry, he located Sol Winter’s store at the end of the street. It was by no means a small or cheap place, but it was not what it had once been. Rock entered. Sol was waiting upon a woman. He looked older, thinner, grayer, and there were deep lines in his face that seemed strange to Rock. Six years was a long time. Rock gazed round him. It was a large store room crowded with merchandise–hardware, groceries, saddles and harness and farm implements.

“Well, sir, what can I do for you?” inquired a voice at Rock’s elbow. He turned to find Winter beside him.

“Howdy, Sol, old-timer!” said Rock, with a warm leap of his pulse. “Don’t you know me?”

Winter leaned and crouched a little, his eyes piercing. Suddenly the tightness of his face loosened into a convulsive smile.

“True Rock!” he shouted, incredulously.

“Sure as you’re born. How are you, Sol?”

Winter seized him with glad hard hands. “If it ain’t really you!… Why, you ole ridin’, drinkin’, shootin’, love-makin’ son of a gun!”

“Glad to see me, Sol?” returned Rock, tingling under Winter’s grip.

“Glad?–Lordy, there ain’t words to tell you. Why, True, you were always like my own boy. An’ since I lost him––”

“Lost him!–Who? You never had any boy but Nick. What you mean?”

“Didn’t you ever hear aboot Nick?” queried Winter, with jaw quivering.

“No. I’ve never heard any news from Wagontongue since I left,” returned Rock, bracing himself.

“Nick was shot off his hoss out near Sunset Pass.”

“Aw–no! Sol?–Nick shot! Aw, say he wasn’t killed?”

“Yes, he was, True,” replied Winter, sadly.

“That fine sweet lad!… My God! I’m sorry,” exclaimed Rock, huskily, as he wrung Winter’s hands. “But it was an accident?”

“So they say, but I never believed it. There’s still bad blood on the range, True. You must remember. In fact there’s some new bad blood come in since you left.”

Here a customer entered, and Rock was left to himself for the moment. He seated himself on the counter and put aside his sombrero, to find his brow clammy and cold. Nick Winter dead! Shot by rustlers, probably, or some enemy of Winter’s, or perhaps by this new bad element hinted at by Clark and Winter. The last thing Rock would have expected was that anyone could do violence to gentle, kindly, crippled Nick Winter. Here was something to keep Rock around Wagontongue, if nothing else offered. Rock pictured in mind the wild range south of Wagontongue and particularly the broken Sunset Pass country with its sage flats and cedar ridges and piñoned gorges and the purple timber uplands. There had never been a more beautiful wilderness known to Rock or one harder on riders, horses, and cattle.

“True, it’s good to see you sittin’ there,” said Winter, returning to place a hand on Rock’s shoulder. “I never saw you look so well, so clean an’ fine. I don’t need to be told you’ve worked hard.”

“Yes, Sol. I’ve been five years on a cattle job in Texas. Cleaned up ten thousand, all honest and square. I’ve got a roll that would choke a cow.”

“No! Ten thousand? Why, True, that’s a small fortune! It’ll make you. If only you don’t get drunk an’ begin to gamble.”

“Well, Sol, maybe I won’t. But I’ve gone straight so long I’m worried…. How much do I owe you?”

“Owe me? Nothin’,” replied Sol, smiling.

“Look over your books before I hand you one,” ordered Rock, fiercely. Whereupon he helped Winter find the old account, which was not small, and forced him to accept payment with interest.

“Say, Rock, to be honest, this little windfall will help a lot,” declared Winter, brightly. “I got in a cattle deal some time past an’ lost out pretty much in debt. Then the new store–Dabb’s–ate into my trade. I had to move. Lately, though, my business has picked up. Old customers have come back. I think I can pull out.”

“That’s good. Who’d you go in cattle deals with?” rejoined Rock, gruffly.

“Dabb.”

“Dabb? Not John Dabb who ran things here years ago?”

“Yes, John Dabb.”

“Well, Sol, you ought to have known better.”

“Sure. But it seemed such a promisin’ deal, an’ it was for Nick’s sake…. But I’m out of cattle deals for good.”

“Go on. Tell me some more bad news,” said Rock, gloomily.

“I guess that’s aboot all, True.”

“What’s become of my old girl, Kit Rand?” inquired Rock.

“Kit. Let me see. I know she married Chess Watkins––”

“What! That drunken loafer?” interrupted Rock, indignantly.

“Yes, an’ she couldn’t change him, either. Kitty had to go to work in a restaurant here, an’ finally they left Wagontongue. Never heard of them since.”

“Kitty Rand? That dainty, clever little girl a waitress! Good Lord! … How about Polly Ackers? There was a girl who was sure to be a success.”

“Polly went to the bad,” returned Sol, gravely. “Some flash gambler got around her. She’s been gone for years.”

Rock groaned. “I’m sorry I ever came back to this darned Wagontongue…. I’ll risk one more question. How about my best girl, Amy Wund?”

“Worse an’ more of it, True,” rejoined Winter. “After you left, Amy played fast an’ loose with many a puncher. There are some who say yet she never got over your runnin’ away.”

“Thunder! They’re crazy!” burst out Rock. “She played fast an’ loose with me. She never cared two snaps for me.”

“Yes, she did, if there’s anythin’ in gossip. Mebbe she never found it out till you were gone. Amy was a highstrung lass. An’ you know, Rock, you were sweet on Polly at the same time.”

“Lord forgive me, I was,” replied Rock, miserably.

“Boys will be boys. I reckon you didn’t know your mind any better’n Amy knew hers. An’ now brace yourself for a shock, True.”

“Fire away, you old Calamity Jane.”

“Amy broke the hearts of all the cowboys on the range–an’ then up an’ married John Dabb.”

Rock glared speechlessly at his friend.

“Dabb was a widower with a daughter ’most as old as Amy. They were married a year or so ago. It was a poor match, they say about town. Amy is not happy an’ she flirts as much as ever.”

Trueman Rock dropped his head.

“Son, it’s the way of life,” went on Winter. “You’ve been gone a long time. An’ things happen to people, most of it sad, I’m sorry to say.”

“Sol, will you keep my money till I come askin’ for it?” queried Rock, with his hand inside his waistcoat.

“Now, True, what’re you up to?”

“I’m goin’ out and get awful, terrible drunk,” declared Rock, tragically.

Winter laughed, though he looked serious enough.

“Don’t do it, True.”

“I am, by gosh!”

“Please don’t, son. It’ll only fetch back the old bad habit. You look so fine now, I’d hate to see you do it.”

“I’m goin’ to drown my grief, Sol,” declared Rock, solemnly.

“Well, wait till I come back,” returned Winter. “I’ve got to go to the station. My clerk is off today. Keep store for me. There’s not much chance of any customer comin’ in at this noon hour, but if one does come, you wait on him–like you used to.”

“All right. I’ll keep store. But you rustle back here pronto. I tell you I want to get terrible drunk.”

Winter hurried out, bareheaded and in his shirt sleeves, leaving Rock sitting on the counter, a prey to symptoms he well knew. This time the still small voice of conscience was lacking. He felt the wild, unreasonable, sickening yearnings to do himself wrong–a black shade encroaching upon the wholesomeness of his mind. If Sol did not hurry back––

A light quick step arrested the current of Trueman’s thoughts. He looked up. A girl had entered the store. His first swift sight of her caused him to slip off the counter. She looked around expectantly, and seeing Rock she hesitated, then came forward. Rock suddenly realized that to get terribly drunk was the very remotest thing that he wanted or intended to do.

“Is Mr. Winter in?” asked the girl, pausing before the counter.

“No. He had to go to the station. Reckon he’ll be there quite some time.”

“Oh–I’m sorry. I–I can’t wait, and I wanted him particularly,” she said, a little embarrassed and impatient.

“Can I do anythin’ for you?” inquired Rock. He was cool, easy, respectful.

“Are you the new clerk Mr. Winter was expecting?” she queried.

“Yes, miss, at your service.”

“I’ve quite a list of things to get,” she said, opening a handbag to pry into it.

“I’ll do my best, miss. But I’m a little new to the business.”

“That’s all right. I’ll help you,” she returned, graciously. “Now where is that paper?”

The delay gave Trueman opportunity to look at her covertly. She was thoroughbred Western, about twenty-one or two, blond, with fair hair more silver than gold. She was not robust of build, yet scarcely slender. She wore a faded little blue bonnet not of the latest style, and her plain white dress, though clean and neat, had seen long service.

“Here it is,” she said, producing a slip of paper and looking up somewhat flushed. Her eyes were large, wide apart, gray in color. Rock looked into them. Something happened to him then that had never happened before and which could never happen again. “Now, shall I read the list off one at a time or altogether?”

“Well, miss, it really doesn’t–make any difference,” replied Trueman, vaguely, gazing at her lips. They were sweet and full and red, and just now curved into a little questioning smile. But, as he watched, it fled and then they seemed sad. Indeed her whole face seemed sad, particularly the deep gray eyes that had begun to regard him somewhat doubtfully.

“Very well–the groceries first,” she said, consulting her list. “Five of sugar, five of rice, five––”

“Five what?” interrupted Trueman, with alacrity, moving toward the grocery department. Everything was in plain sight. It ought to be easy, if he could keep his eyes off her.

“Five what!” she echoed, in surprise, raising her head. “Did you think I meant barrels? Five pounds.”

“Sure. That’s what I thought,” replied Trueman, hastily. “But some people buy this stuff in bulk. I used to.”

“Oh, you were not always a clerk, then?” she inquired, following him.

“Oh no! I’ve been a–a lot of things.”

She looked as if she believed him. Rock began to grasp that he was bungling the greatest opportunity of his life. He found the sugar and had almost filled a large sack when she checked him: “Not brown sugar. White, please.”

There was something in her tone that made Rock wonder if she were laughing at him. It stirred him to dexterity rather than clumsiness. He filled a large paper bag with white sugar, then turned to her, essaying a smile.

“But you didn’t weigh it,” she said.

“I never weigh out small amounts,” he returned, blandly. “I can guess very accurately.”

“There’s more than five pounds of sugar in that bag,” she protested.

“Probably, a little. Sure I never guess underweight.” He laid the bag on the counter. “What next? Oh, the rice.” And he dove for the bin containing that staple.

“Can you guess the weight of rice, too?” she inquired, as if consumed with curiosity.

“Sure can. Even better. It’s not near so heavy as sugar.” And he filled a larger bag. In attempting to pass this to her he accidentally touched her bare hand with his. The soft contact shot a thrilling current through him. He dropped the bag. It burst, and the rice poured all over her, and like a white stream to the floor.

“There–you’ve done it,” she said, aghast.

“Excuse me, miss. I’m sure awkward this day. But rice is lucky. That might be a good omen. I’m superstitious,” went on Trueman, waxing toward the confidential.

“Well, young man––” she interposed, almost severely. But his gaze evidently disconcerted her.

“You never can tell,” he said. “Spillin’ rice might mean a weddin’?”

She blushed, but spoke up with spirit. “It couldn’t, so far as I’m concerned,” she said. “Of course I don’t know your affairs…. But you are wasting my time. I must hurry. They’ll be waiting.”

Rock humbly apologized and proceeded to fill another bag with rice. Then he went on with the order, and for several moments, in which he kept his eyes averted, he performed very well as a clerk. He certainly prayed that Sol Winter would not come back soon. Who was she? He had never in his life met such a girl. She could not be married. Too young and–he did not know what! But the thought that she might be made his heart sink like cold lead. He stole a glance at her left hand. Ringless! What a strong, shapely hand, neither too large nor too small, nor red and rough like that of most ranchers’ daughters. It was, however, a hand that had seen work. Naturally Rock wondered if she rode a horse. The goddess of every cowboy’s dreams was a horsewoman. Did he dare to ask her if she loved a horse? Rock divined that his usual audacity and adroitness with the feminine sex were wanting here.

“That’s all the groceries,” she said. “Now I want buttons, thread, calico, dress goods, linen and––”

“Is that all?” queried Rock, as she paused.

“It’s all you can get for me,” she answered, enigmatically.

At the dry-goods counter Rock was in a quandary. He could not find anything. The young lady calmly walked behind the counter.

“Can’t you read?” she inquired, pointing at some boxes.

“Read!” exclaimed Trueman, in an injured tone. “Sure I can read. I went to school for eight years. That’s about four more than any cowpuncher I ever met.”

“Indeed! No one would suspect it,” she returned, demurely. “If you’re a cowboy–what’re you doing in here?”

“I just lately went to clerking,” he hastened to reply.

“Show me the buttons. There–in the white boxes…. Thank you.”

While she bent over them, looking and assorting, Trueman regained something near composure, and he feasted his eyes on the little stray locks of fair hair that peeped from under her bonnet, on the small well-shaped ear, on the nape of her neck, beautiful and white, and upon the contour of cheek.

“It isn’t pearl?” she inquired, holding a button in her palm.

“Sure is,” he replied, dreamily, meaning her cheek, suddenly, terribly aware of its nearness and sweetness.

“That pearl!” she exclaimed in amaze, looking up. “Don’t you know bone when you see it?”

“Oh–the button! I wasn’t lookin’ at it…. Sure that’s bone. If you want pearl buttons, maybe I can help.” And he bent over the box. It was not necessary to bend with his head so close to hers, but he did so, until he felt one of those stray silky locks of hair brush his cheek. She felt it, too, for there seemed to come a sudden still check to everything in connection with the business at hand. Then she drew away.

“Thank you. I can help myself. You find the thread.”

It turned out that she had to find the thread, too, and she did it so readily that Trueman inquired if she had ever been a clerk in this store. She laughed merrily and informed him that once, during fair week, she had helped Mr. Winter out for several days.

“That explains. So you’re a good friend of Sol Winter’s?” went on Rock.

“Oh yes indeed, ever since we came here.”

“Well, I’m a good friend of Sol’s, too.”

“You must be–seeing he keeps you in his store,” she said, slyly.

“You think I’m a poor clerk?”

“Not from a customer’s point of view.”

“But I’m a poor clerk for Mr. Winter?”

She caught herself again being drawn into conversation and asked to see some calico. Rock espied the only bolt of this commodity on the shelves and drew it down.

“Calico! Sure this reminds me,” he said with such enthusiasm that she had to attend. “Once in Colorado I rode into a town. Gunnison. It was a Saturday. Big day. All the outfits were in. Everybody for miles around. Horses, wagons, buckboards on the streets. I bought a bolt of red calico, tied one end to the pommel of my saddle and left the bolt lyin’ on the ground. Then I rode up and down. In about ten minutes that street was a roarin’ millin’ mêlée.”

“Please cut me ten yards of this,” she said, with steady eyes of disfavor upon him.

Trueman made a mess of the job, to his secret chagrin and her evident despair. Then she asked for a certain kind of dress goods, utterly foreign to him, and which she had to locate herself.

“How much of this?” asked Rock, stripping off yards of the soft material.

“Five. And I want it cut on the bias,” she returned.

“On the bias,” he echoed. “Oh, sure.” And he went at the task desperately, realizing full well that he could not stand this deception much longer. But he had not progressed very far when she interrupted: “You’re measuring too much. I said yards–not miles.”

Trueman vowed he would finish as he had begun. He went on.

“You can’t guess on dress goods like that,” she protested.

“Me! I could guess on anythin’ once,” he retorted, wildly.

“Indeed you look it. I never saw such a–But I can’t afford–I want only five yards.”

“Miss, this is five yards, roughly,” he rejoined, beginning to cut.

“Stop! You’ll ruin it. That’s not the way I want it cut,” she cried.

“You said on somethin’ or other.”

“Excuse me, Mr. Clerk,” she returned, manifestly at the end of her patience. She brushed him aside, and taking up the shears began carefully to cut the material to suit herself.

“I’m sorry, Miss–Clerk,” spoke up Rock, contritely. “I’m not usually so dumb. But you see I never before waited on such a–a girl as you.”

She shot him a gray glance not wholly doubtful or unforgiving. And meeting his eyes caused her to look down again with a tinge of color staining her cheeks.

“I’m not a clerk. Good Heavens! If the gangs I’ve ridden with would drop in here to see me–doin’ this. Whew!… My name is Trueman Rock. I’m an old friend of Sol Winter’s.”

“Trueman Rock?” she repeated, almost with a start, as she swiftly lifted big, questioning, surprised eyes. That name was not unfamiliar to her, but Rock could not tell whether she attached good or bad to it.

“Yes. I used to ride this range years ago. I’ve been gone six years–five of which I’ve spent in Texas, workin’ hard and–well, I’d like you to know, because maybe you’ve heard talk here. Workin’ hard and goin’ straight. I sold out. Somethin’ drew me back to Wagontongue. Got here today, and when I ran in to see Sol he left me here in charge of the store. Said no one would come in, but if some one did to wait on him… Well, as you see, some one did come in. I’m sorry I’ve annoyed you–kept you waitin’. But it was Sol’s fault. Only, I should have told you first off.”

“You needn’t apologize, Mr. Rock,” she replied, shyly. “There’s no harm done, except to the rice.”

“I’m not so sure of that,” he returned, coolly. Now that the deception was past, he had begun to feel more like himself.

“Please wrap these for me,” she said, pushing the cut goods along the counter, but she did not look up.

Elaborately Trueman wrapped those parcels.

“Charge to Thiry Preston,” she said.

He found a pencil near at hand, and bending over a piece of wrapping paper, very business-like, he inquired:

“Miss Thiry Preston?”

“Yes, Miss,” she replied.

“Thiry. Pretty name. How do you spell it?”

“T-h-i-r-y,” she replied.

Trueman wrote down the name, in a clear bold hand, obviously to impress her.

“What place?” he went on. Then as she stared, he continued, “Where do you live?”

“Sunset Pass.”

“Way out there?” He glanced up in surprise. “Sixty miles. I know that country–every waterhole, stone, bunch of cactus, and jack-rabbit.”

She smiled fully for the first time, and that smile further fascinated Rock.

“You were well acquainted, weren’t you?”

“I expect to renew old acquaintances out there. And I may be lucky enough to make new ones.”

Miss Preston did not meet his glance and there was other evidence of discouragement.

“What instructions about these parcels?”

“None. I’ll carry them.”

“Carry them! All this heavy load? Thirty pounds or more!”

“Surely. I’m quite strong. I’ve carried far more.”

“Where to?”

“Out to the corral. Our buckboard is there. They’ll be waiting and I’m late. I must hurry.”

In rather nervous haste she took up the several light packages and moved toward the other counter. Rock got there first and intercepted her.

“I’ll carry these.”

“Oh, thank you, but you needn’t trouble. I can carry them easily.”

“Sure, I’m sorry, but I really can’t think of it,” returned Trueman, gathering together the bags of groceries. They made a bulky, if not heavy, load.

“But you shouldn’t leave the store,” she protested.

Fortunately, at this juncture Sol Winter hurriedly entered.

“Well, now, what’s this?” he queried, with broad smile. “Thiry, to think you’d happen in just the wrong minute.”

“Oh, Mr. Winter, I didn’t miss you at all,” returned Thiry, gayly. “Your new clerk was most obliging and–and capable–after I found the things I needed.”

“Haw! Haw!–He’s shore a fine clerk…. Thiry, meet True Rock, old rider an’ pard of mine.”

“Ah–I remember now,” she flashed. “Is Mr. Rock the rider who once saved your son Nick?”

“Yes, Thiry,” he replied, and turning to Rock he added, “Son, this lass is Miss Thiry Preston, who’s helped to make some hard times easier for me.”

“Happy to meet you, Miss Preston,” beamed Rock, over his load of bundles.

“How do you do, Mr. Rock,” returned Thiry, with just a hint of mischief in her gray eyes.

“Sol, I was clerk and now I’m delivery boy,” said Trueman. “I’ll be back pronto.”

“You’ve forgotten your hat,” announced Thiry as he started off.

“So I have. Sol, it’s there behind the counter.”

The storekeeper picked up the sombrero and grinned as he placed it on Rock’s head.

“True, I’ll be gibbered if I don’t believe you hid it.”

“Sure did.”

Thiry laughed with them. “Well,” she said, “if you’d worn that, I’d never have taken you for a clerk.”

They went out together and Trueman felt that he was soaring to the blue sky. The heavy bundles were as light as feathers. Outside in the sunshine he could see her better and it was as if some magic had transformed her. Really he had not seen her at all. He felt more deceitful than ever, for he kept turning to her to say ordinary things, about the heat, the dust, and what not, when he only wanted to look at her. They soon reached the end of the street and started across an open flat toward the corrals. How well Rock remembered them! A strange pang tore his breast. Was it regret and shame for the past–of something of which this girl might have heard?

“You’re in an awful hurry,” finally complained Trueman.

“Yes, I am. I’m late, and you don’t know––”

She did not complete the sentence, but nevertheless it told Rock much.

“This load is heavy. You’d never have packed it,” declared Trueman, slowing up. Any excuse was better than none. He was going to lose this wonderful girl in another moment. He wanted to prolong it. Slyly he pinched a hole in the bag of rice and it began to spill out in a thin stream.

“There! We’ve rushed so we’ve broken the sack,” he went on. “And it’s the rice, too!… Miss Thiry, it’s an omen.”

“Bad or good?” she asked, archly.

“Why, good, of course–wonderful.”

“Mr. Rock, I fear you are many things besides a clerk,” she said, shaking her head sadly. “Here, let me take the bag. I’ll turn it upside down. If I had far to go with you I’d have no groceries left.”

“But wouldn’t it be great if we had farther to go?” he asked.

“I can’t see that it would,” she replied, dubiously. “Especially if my dad was at the end of the walk.”

“Your dad. Is he Gage Preston?”

“Yes.”

“Is he a terror?”

“Indeed he is–to boys who come gallivanting after me.”

“Pooh!” exclaimed Trueman, coolly.

By this time they had reached the first corral. The big gate swung ajar. The fence was planked and too high to see over. Loud voices and thud of hoofs came from somewhere, probably the second corral. Thiry led the way in. Rock espied some saddle-horses, a wagon, and then a double-seated buckboard hitched to a fine-looking team of roans.

“Here we are,” said the girl, with evident relief. “No one come yet! I’m glad…. Put the bundles under the back seat, Mr. Rock.”

He did this as directed, and then faced her, not knowing what to say, fearing the mingled feelings that swept over him and bewildered by them.

“After all, you’ve been very kind–even if––”

“Don’t say if,” he broke in, entreatingly. “Don’t spoil it by a single if. It’s been the greatest adventure of my life.”

“Of many like adventures, no doubt,” she replied, her clear gray eyes on him.

“I’ve met many girls in many ways, but there has never been anything like this,” he returned, tensely.

“Mr. Rock!” she protested, lifting a hand to her cheek, where a wave of scarlet burned.

Then a clink of spurs, slow steps, and thuds of hoofs sounded behind Rock. They meant nothing particular to him until he saw the girl’s color fade and her face turn white. A swift shadow darkened the great gray eyes. That broke Rock’s emotion–changed the direction of his thought.

“Hyah she ish, Range,” called out a coarse voice, somehow vibrant, despite a thick hint of liquor. “With ’nother galoot, b’gosh! Schecond one terday.”

Slowly Rock turned on his heel, and in the turning went back to the original self that had been in abeyance for a while. When it came to dealing with men he was not a clerk.

Two riders had entered the corral, and the foremost was in the act of dismounting. He was partly drunk, but that was not the striking thing about him. He looked and breathed the very spirit of the range at its wildest. He was tall, lean, lithe, with a handsome red face, like a devil’s, eyes hot as blue flame, and yellow hair that curled scraggily from under a dusty black sombrero. He had just been clean-shaved. Drops of blood and sweat stood out like beads on his lean jowls and his curved lips. A gun swung below his hip.

The other rider, called Range, was a cowboy, young in years, with still gray eyes like Miss Preston’s, and intent, expressionless face, dark from sun and wind. Rock gathered, from the resemblance, that this boy was Thiry’s brother. But who was the other? Rock had not met many of this type, but a few was enough.

“Thiry, who’s thish?” queried the rider, dropping his bridle and striding forward.

“I can introduce myself,” struck in Rock, coolly. “I’m Trueman Rock, late of Texas.”

“Hell you shay!” returned the other, ponderingly, as if trying to fit the name to something in memory. “Whash you doin’ hyar?”

“Well, if it’s any of your business, I was in Winter’s store and packed over Miss Preston’s bundles,” replied Rock, in slow, dry speech.

“Haw! Haw!” guffawed the rider, derisively. He did not appear to be angry or jealous. He was just mean. Rock had formed his idea of what this man’s wrath might be. That, and mostly a consideration for Miss Preston, made Rock wary. Who was he? Surely not a lover! The thought seemed to cut fiercely into Rock’s inner flesh. “Wal,” went on the tall rider presently, swaggering closer to Rock, “run along, Big Hat, ’fore I reach you with a boot.”

“Ash! You’re drunk!” burst out the girl, as if suddenly freeing her voice.

The disgust and scorn and fear, and something else in her outbreak, caused Rock to turn. Miss Preston’s face most wildly expressed these things. They instantly gave Rock tight rein on his own feelings. This rider, then, was Ash Preston, of whom Rock had heard significantly that day. Her brother! The relief Rock experienced outstressed anything else for the moment.

“Whosh drunk?” queried Preston, placatingly, of his sister. “Your mistake, Thiry.”

“Yes, you are drunk,” she returned, with heat. “You’ve insulted Mr. Rock, who was kind enough to help me carry things from the store.”

“Wal, I’ll help Mishter Rock on his way,” replied Preston, leering.

Range, the other rider, like a flash leaped out of his saddle and jerked Preston’s gun from its sheath.

“Ash, you look out,” he called, sharply. “You don’t know this fellar.”

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