"HANG it, Slivers, what did you have to go and break your leg for to-day?" Doc Landon set her black medicine-case on a chair and glared at the lusty cowboy who lay in his bunk in the ranch-house.
"Great Scott, Doc, I didn't do it on purpose." His tone was resentful.
"Probably not, but you came in town and got drunk on purpose. I saw you riding into Dill's saloon. Can't you ever come to town without raising Cain? " Doc was deftly at work as she grumbled.
"No," replied Slivers meekly.
"I suppose you thought there wasn't a horse in the Judith Basin could get you off, drunk or sober?" The sarcasm of Doc's voice was not in keeping with the gentleness of her touch.
"I wouldn't say that, ma'am," replied Slivers in mock humility, "but I didn't believe that that onery buckskin could do it. If you won't think me fresh, ma'am, I'd kind of like to know why you object to my breaking my leg to-day any more than any other day. If you say so, I'll set Sunday apart for the breaking of my bones."
"Simpleton!" said Doc, but the corners of her mouth twitched, and the dimple in her chin showed plainly.
"Come, tell me, Doc," he went on coaxingly. "You are hurting me like the mischief, and you ought to do something to make me forget it. You ought to be agreeable in the sick-room. You've got me suffering physically and mentally. I'm all riled up with curiosity."
"My beau's coming in on the train to-night and I wanted to stay home and fix up a little. Does that relieve your mind any?" She spoke jestingly, but the color rushed into her face.
"Is that straight, Doc?"
"Straight," nodded Doc. "He knew me back home. Didn't see much of him after I went away to study medicine and haven't seen him at all in the six years I've been practising in Montana. But we've always written to each other, and -"
"And the rest is understood," added the cowboy, soberly, as she hesitated.
Doc's face grew rosy again and she nodded.
"I reckon he's one of these lily-handed, mustached fellows in a hard-boiled hat?"
"He has fine principles," Doc replied proudly. "And I suppose he does wear nice clothes and take good care of his hands."
"Doc, I don't see what a girl like you wants to marry one of those Willie-boys for, when you can tie your cayuse to my haystack any time you want to, or Bill Thompson's haystack, or -"
"He isn't a Willie-boy!" Doc's hazel eyes were flashing angrily. "He hasn't a cigarette in his mouth all day, and the marshal doesn't take his gun away from him every time he comes to town, and he doesn't howl so people can't sleep, and -"
"Let up, Doc. Am I as bad as that?"
"Worse," said Doc, out of breath.
"Worse?" His tone was one of pained surprise.
"Worse," reiterated Doc, with cold emphasis.
If I'd get my dad to stake me to a good ranch and go into the cattle business in earnest, wouldn't you consider my application?"
"No," replied Doc decisively. "You're too wild; and, besides, you're not my style, Slivers, though you really are a good sort."
"But, listen," he went on earnestly, I could get used to hard-boiled hats. I'll practise wearing them while I'm laid up here, fifteen minutes the first day, half an hour the second day, and so on. I'll begin in earnest and work up to a ranch of my own. I'll give my gun away and use brass knuckles. Honest, Doc, I'll do anything I can to make myself your style."
"Don't excite yourself like that," replied Doc crossly. "You must keep perfectly quiet and give the bone a chance to knit. If Walter comes to-night, we will drive out and see how you are to-morrow."
"Walter! Is that his name? I suppose you call him 'Wattie' when you are alone," sneered Slivers. " If you bring Wattie here, I'll take off the splint and stump out in the sage-brush on the bone. I am an invalid and I must be humored. I won't see Wattie."
The dimple in Doc's chin showed again and Sliver's eyes were wistful as they rested on her face. Sliver's real name was a famous one "back East," but he had been so long in Montana that he attached no importance to that fact. The vital, out-door life of the West appealed to him intensely, and to the disgust and anger of his family he would not leave it. He made forty dollars a month and then spent it all in one history-making visit to town. Slivers undoubtedly was a black sheep.
Walter Stotesbury, carrying a neat fall overcoat on his arm and with a new suit-case in his hand, was stepping gingerly over the rocks which threatened to destroy the shine on his neat shoes, when a shocking sight bearing down upon him brought him up short. A woman riding astride - in gaily checked divided skirts that snapped in the breezes - was coming at a breakneck pace down the street. Her hat was on the back of her head and a long silk necktie fluttered in the wind.
"A woman who unsexes herself in that fashion," the young man muttered, his fascinated but disapproving eyes glued upon her cowboy boots, " forfeits all claim to consideration or respect."
The horsewoman suddenly drew rein and the cavorting bay all but sat down in front of the startled Mr. Stotesbury.
"Upon my word, if it isn't you at last! " Doc Landon thrust out a gauntleted hand impulsively. Mr. Stotesbury's emotions were a jumble. Mingled with the real pleasure of seeing the girl of his youthful dreams was an embarrassment over talking publicly to a young woman whose elaborately stitched boot-tops were more or less visible.
"I've looked forward to this moment for a long time, Agnes," replied Mr. Stotesbury, exerting all his will-power to ignore the unconventionality of Doc's dress and manner. No picture of his imagination had in the least resembled this meeting. "I shall call upon you at the earliest opportunity," he continued; "in other words as soon as my luggage arrives."
"Do!" replied Doc heartily. "Come around to supper at six. I have a Chiny cook who isn't so bad. I've got to go down and set a man's shoulder - he fell off a scaffold - but I'll be back as soon as I can. I'm tickled to death to see you, don't forget that, Walter." And, digging in the spurs, Doc was off, still wearing her hat on the back of her head.
As Doc struggled with Jim Barnes' shoulder, Stotesbury's thin, untanned face was constantly before her. He looked as high-minded as ever, but, somehow his fluttering nostrils, which she had once admired as indicative of a sensitive, high-strung nature, distinctly annoyed her. She would get him out in the sun and tan him up before Slivers was well enough to see him, but his dilating nostrils - Pshaw! What did she care what Slivers thought. She sniffed scornfully in Jim Barnes' face, to the great surprise of that suffering gentleman.
The lukewarm religious interest of the town proved to be a source of pain to Mr. Stotesbury, who found only four persons and the parson's dog at the Sabbath evening service, held in the Opera House over the hardware store. After the services he introduced himself to the clergyman and suggested that together they rent a room and decorate it with mottoes and cheap but refined pictures, and introduce dominoes, checkers, and pinochle; with these wholesome amusements they would be able to entice young men from contaminating plague-spots like Dill's saloon and Mrs. Hill's dance-hall at the end of the street. Similar club-rooms had been opened with great success in the East, he said.
The parson did not greet the proposition enthusiastically. He was a stout person who lived comfortably at the hotel and let his sermons go over from Sunday to Sunday when his congregation fell below four persons. He said that when the Smiley irrigating ditch was completed and the Iowa home-seekers were established upon their claims, some such idea could undoubtedly be carried to a successful consummation; but just at present, ahem, with a certain reckless Western element predominating, he was very sure that the plan would not at all meet the approval of the ruling faction; and indeed, ahem, he was not positive that they would not consider it a reflection upon themselves and demand a satisfaction which it would be painful to give.
Burning with indignation, both at the attitude of the town and the pitiable lack of courage and zeal in the parson, Mr. Stotesbury called upon Doc. That person, with her legs crossed and arms folded, a manly attitude he particularly abhorred, listened to him with flattering attention. She continued to look at him after he had lapsed into a panting silence.
"Don't be a fool, Walter," she said finally, with painful distinctness. "If the boys want to come in town once in six weeks or so and rip up the sod it doesn't hurt you or me or anybody else. They are straight as strings otherwise. They pay their bills and they don't talk scandal about women. They are good enough men for anybody. Say, when are you going to shake those store clothes and look like other folks?"
"Agnes, your language -"
"Never mind my language. Are you going to buy that roan mare of Bill Thompson's and learn to ride off a walk?"
"Agnes, dear, I want to please you. You know I love you in spite of the fact that you have changed greatly and have not developed at all along the lines which I had hoped and expected. I brought with me the wardrobe which I deemed suitable for a gentleman, but if you prefer that I should dress like a ruffian, I will do so. I will also learn to ride at a canter."
"'Lope," corrected Doc.
"At a 'lope," repeated Mr. Stotesbury, taking her hand in both his nervously moist ones.
When Doc finally saw Mr. Stotesbury dressed according to her taste she realized that she had considerably overestimated the power of clothes. She had a vague idea that he would look like Slivers, instead of which he looked like a caricature of Slivers. His garb merely accentuated his physical shortcomings. The blue flannel shirt, which displayed Slivers' broad shoulders to such advantage, showed to the jeering populace a pair of shoulders with a slope like a toboggan slide. Slivers' neck was brown and strong and masculine; Mr. Stotesbury's neck rose from the low collar like a joint of stove-pipe. His thin face, with its narrow, white forehead, was the face of a high-minded gentleman, but it did not look well under a sombrero.
The extraordinary thing about it all was that the rakish apparel seemed to intoxicate Mr. Stotesbury. It went to his head like a glass of wine and transformed him. All his life he had eschewed red neckties as something essentially base; now he purchased a brilliant handkerchief and draped it about his neck. He wore the biggest spurs in the Judith Basin and the supposition was that he slept in the angora "chaps" which encased his slender extremities. His six-shooter and heavy cartridge-belt nearly pulled him in two at the waist line, but at night he cheerfully rubbed his aching back with liniment and developed kodak pictures of himself to send back East.
But the chief shock to Doc's ideals came when, craning her neck one night to look over the frosted half of the window as she passed the hotel bar-room, she saw Mr. Stotesbury engaged in a game of freeze-out for the drinks. Doc had not the slightest objection to freeze-out. Every man she knew sat frequently in the game which was going on from ten in the morning until almost morning again. It was only that Walter and freeze-out were incongruous, like Walter and "chaps" and a six-shooter. Mr. Stotesbury's eyes gleamed, his brow contracted, his mouth was set, as the possibility of losing one dollar and forty-five cents all at once became a probability. Doc remembered that she had seen Slivers lose a small monument of bank-notes and silver without the quiver of an eyelid, but that was Slivers way.
Yet Doc was loyal to the man she had told herself for years she loved because it was her nature to be loyal. She would have considered it a weakness of character to have admitted, even to herself, that his peculiarities could influence her. Nevertheless, she could not but realize that her ideals had changed; she felt it more each time that she paid her professional visit to Slivers.
"I'm coming in town to take you to the Thanksgiving ball, Wattie or no Wattie," said Slivers when he could no longer decently demand her services.
"I can't go with you, Slivers, honest, I can't. Walter will expect to take me, and it would cut him up no end if I should go with anybody else. But I will give you the first two-step."
"And I'll sit out the first waltz looking at you and Wattie," said Slivers bitterly. " I know he must be a winner," he continued, "and I realize that I am a poor worm without a ghost of a show, but even a worm can't give up without a squirm. I am surely coming to that dance."
Doc's face was white when, some two hours after the hall had started, she appeared in the wide doorway, alone. Among the half dozen who started to their feet at her entrance was Slivers - Slivers transformed. In evening clothes absolutely correct, he was the well-poised; self-contained New York man of position. His brown face was all that remained of the cowboy whose visits, heretofore, had filled the town marshal with apprehension. He laughed at the astonishment in her expressive face.
"I sent home for them," he explained. "I told you I was coming, you know. Where's my hated rival?"
"Walter could not come," she answered, avoiding his eyes. " He was detained - on business."
Slivers looked at her keenly.
"Perhaps, then, you will waltz with me?"
There was something peculiarly gentle and deferential in his manner which was balm to her sore heart, and she could not but feel flattered that all the attention of the most desirable man in the room was entirely for herself.
With the change from cowboy clothes to evening dress his face appeared to have taken on another expression. He seemed to have gathered himself together, and there was a certain reserve mingled with his easy manners which bespoke him as a man from the world outside. Doc wondered that she had never before noticed the high-bred look in his face and the real strength which lay in the lines that had seemed to her to be merely those of merry mockery. Whoever or whatever Slivers was, he was much more capable of wearing the apparel she had assigned exclusively to Walter than Walter was of wearing either his own or Slivers'. She was thinking these things as they swung about the floor in time to the violin and mandolin which constituted the orchestra.
As the music ceased Collins, the marshal, beckoned her from the doorway.
"Fight down at Hill's," he said briefly. "Come quick and bring your tools."
Slivers followed Doc from the ballroom and threw her cloak about her shoulders. " I'm going with you," he said decisively, as he stepped forward and took the black case without which she never moved, even on festal occasions.
The wide doors of Mrs. Hill's dance-hall were open and the light from the kerosene lamps screwed to the wall showed a group gathered about a limp form, laid out on a row of chairs. Mrs. Hill's husband, a rosy-checked young man with bushy blond hair, was mopping the blood which oozed from several scratches on his fair face.
"The son-of-a-gun!" he kept repeating over and over with varying degrees of emphasis. "He scratched me! He scratched me like a cat!"
The crowd parted and watched Doc's face in curious silence. She blanched to the lips as she saw the unconscious and gory object stretched on the chairs. Then the blood came back in a crimson flood and her mouth hardened.
"Put a slicker on the billiard-table." she said curtly. "That's right, now lay him on it."
"Who is our unfortunate friend?" inquired Slivers in languid curiosity.
"Doc's beau," whispered a bystander.
"I'll carry him," said Slivers in a different voice, and he picked Mr. Stotesbury up as though he were undetermined whether to batter his brains out against the wall or merely to throw him down and jump on him. He held the basin while Doc sponged the blood from the jagged cut in Stotesbury's head and cheek - a bottle in the experienced hand of Mr. Hill had proved a nasty weapon. After a few preliminary gasps and twitches, Mr. Stotesbury opened his eyes.
"I'm hurt?" he asked in a frightened voice.
The recollection of the episode just passed returned to him and his round, innocent eyes lighted with excitement; there was also that in Doc's face which made him stammer in his eagerness to justify himself.
They were cheating me - practising a great deception upon me. They tried to charge me a dollar for beer which I am sure could be purchased anywhere in Indiana for thirty-five cents. I told them I -"
"The most I had hoped for was that you were hurt in some decent, natural row over something worth while, but beer!" Doc's scorn was withering.
"Agnes dear," he said pleadingly.
"Doctor Landon, if you please."
"What shall I do with him? " inquired Mr. Hill.
"It is quite immaterial to me," replied Doc, as she fastened a strip of adhesive plaster whose principal purpose seemed to be the holding of one of Mr. Stotesbury's swollen eyes in the socket.
"Adios - Wattie!" said Slivers. "Come out and see us some time when you grow together again. Eight miles from town, first house on the right."
And as he folded Doc's cloak about her once more, Edward Van Roden, alias Slivers, gave Mr. Stotesbury a look which made that person rise up and wring his thin hands in anger and despair.