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- Openings in the Old Trail - 18/35 -

in the direction of the vanished herald. "And what could you do?" he said. "The boy's only a messenger."

"I'll get at that d----d skunk Brown, who's back of him," said Dexter Rice.

"And what then?" persisted Jackson, with a certain show of independence. "If this stuff belongs to the girl, I'm not certain I shan't give them up without any fuss. Lord! I want nothing but what the old man left me--and certainly nothing of HERS."

Here Ned Wyngate was heard to murmur that Jackson was one of those men who would lie down and let coyotes crawl over him if they first presented a girl's visiting card, but he was stopped by Rice demanding paper and pencil. The former being torn from a memorandum book, and a stub of the latter produced from another pocket, he wrote as follows:--

SIR,--In reply to the hogwash you have kindly exuded in your letter of to-day, I have to inform you that you can have what you ask for Miss Wells, and perhaps a trifle on your own account, by calling this afternoon on--Yours truly--

"Now, sign it," continued Rice, handing him the pencil.

"But this will look as if we were angry and wanted to keep the plants," protested Wells.

"Never you mind, sonny, but sign! Leave the rest to your partners, and when you lay your head on your pillow to-night return thanks to an overruling Providence for providing you with the right gang of ruffians to look after you!"

Wells signed reluctantly, and Wyngate offered to find a Chinaman in the gulch who would take the missive. "And being a Chinaman, Brown can do any cussin' or buck talk THROUGH him!" he added.

The afternoon wore on; the tall Douglas pines near the water pools wheeled their long shadows round and halfway up the slope, and the sun began to peer into the faces of the reclining men. Subtle odors of mint and southern-wood, stragglers from the garden, bruised by their limbs, replaced the fumes of their smoked-out pipes, and the hammers of the woodpeckers were busy in the grove as they lay lazily nibbling the fragrant leaves like peaceful ruminants. Then came the sound of approaching wheels along the invisible highway beyond the buckeyes, and then a halt and silence. Rice rose slowly, bright pin points in the pupils of his gray eyes.

"Bringin' a wagon with him to tote the hull shanty away," suggested Wyngate.

"Or fetched his own ambulance," said Briggs.

Nevertheless, after a pause, the wheels presently rolled away again.

"We'd better go and meet him at the gate," said Rice, hitching his revolver holster nearer his hip. "That wagon stopped long enough to put down three or four men."

They walked leisurely but silently to the gate. It is probable that none of them believed in a serious collision, but now the prospect had enough possibility in it to quicken their pulses. They reached the gate. But it was still closed; the road beyond it empty.

"Mebbe they've sneaked round to the cabin," said Briggs, "and are holdin' it inside."

They were turning quickly in that direction, when Wyngate said, "Hush!--some one's there in the brush under the buckeyes."

They listened; there was a faint rustling in the shadows.

"Come out o' that, Brown--into the open. Don't be shy," called out Rice in cheerful irony. "We're waitin' for ye."

But Briggs, who was nearest the wood, here suddenly uttered an exclamation,--"B'gosh!" and fell back, open-mouthed, upon his companions. They too, in another moment, broke into a feeble laugh, and lapsed against each other in sheepish silence. For a very pretty girl, handsomely dressed, swept out of the wood and advanced towards them.

Even at any time she would have been an enchanting vision to these men, but in the glow of exercise and sparkle of anger she was bewildering. Her wonderful hair, the color of freshly hewn redwood, had escaped from her hat in her passage through the underbrush, and even as she swept down upon them in her majesty she was jabbing a hairpin into it with a dexterous feminine hand.

The three partners turned quite the color of her hair; Jackson Wells alone remained white and rigid. She came on, her very short upper lip showing her white teeth with her panting breath.

Rice was first to speak. "I beg--your pardon, Miss--I thought it was Brown--you know," he stammered.

But she only turned a blighting brown eye on the culprit, curled her short lip till it almost vanished in her scornful nostrils, drew her skirt aside with a jerk, and continued her way straight to Jackson Wells, where she halted.

"We did not know you were--here alone," he said apologetically.

"Thought I was afraid to come alone, didn't you? Well, you see, I'm not. There!" She made another dive at her hat and hair, and brought the hat down wickedly over her eyebrows. "Gimme my plants."

Jackson had been astonished. He would have scarcely recognized in this willful beauty the red-haired girl whom he had boyishly hated, and with whom he had often quarreled. But there was a recollection-- and with that recollection came an instinct of habit. He looked her squarely in the face, and, to the horror of his partners, said, "Say please!"

They had expected to see him fall, smitten with the hairpin! But she only stopped, and then in bitter irony said, "Please, Mr. Jackson Wells."

"I haven't dug them up yet--and it would serve you just right if I made you get them for yourself. But perhaps my friends here might help you--if you were civil."

The three partners seized spades and hoes and rushed forward eagerly. "Only show us what you want," they said in one voice. The young girl stared at them, and at Jackson. Then with swift determination she turned her back scornfully upon him, and with a dazzling smile which reduced the three men to absolute idiocy, said to the others, "I'll show YOU," and marched away to the cabin.

"Ye mustn't mind Jacksey," said Rice, sycophantically edging to her side, "he's so cut up with losin' your father that he loved like a son, he isn't himself, and don't seem to know whether to ante up or pass out. And as for yourself, Miss--why-- What was it he was sayin' only just as the young lady came?" he added, turning abruptly to Wyngate.

"Everything that cousin Josey planted with her own hands must be took up carefully and sent back--even though it's killin' me to part with it," quoted Wyngate unblushingly, as he slouched along on the other side.

Miss Wells's eyes glared at them, though her mouth still smiled ravishingly. "I'm sure I'm troubling you."

In a few moments the plants were dug up and carefully laid together; indeed, the servile Briggs had added a few that she had not indicated.

"Would you mind bringing them as far as the buggy that's coming down the hill?" she said, pointing to a buggy driven by a small boy which was slowly approaching the gate. The men tenderly lifted the uprooted plants, and proceeded solemnly, Miss Wells bringing up the rear, towards the gate, where Jackson Wells was still surlily lounging.

They passed out first. Miss Wells lingered for an instant, and then advancing her beautiful but audacious face within an inch of Jackson's, hissed out, "Make-believe! and hypocrite!"

"Cross-patch and sauce-box!" returned Jackson readily, still under the malign influence of his boyish past, as she flounced away.

Presently he heard the buggy rattle away with his persecutor. But his partners still lingered on the road in earnest conversation, and when they did return it was with a singular awkwardness and embarrassment, which he naturally put down to a guilty consciousness of their foolish weakness in succumbing to the girl's demands.

But he was a little surprised when Dexter Rice approached him gloomily. "Of course," he began, "it ain't no call of ours to interfere in family affairs, and you've a right to keep 'em to yourself, but if you'd been fair and square and above board in what you got off on us about this per--"

"What do you mean?" demanded the astonished Wells.

"Well--callin' her a 'red-haired gal.'"

"Well--she is a red-haired girl!" said Wells impatiently.

"A man," continued Rice pityingly, "that is so prejudiced as to apply such language to a beautiful orphan--torn with grief at the loss of a beloved but d----d misconstruing parent--merely because she begs a few vegetables out of his potato patch, ain't to be reasoned with. But when you come to look at this thing by and large, and as a fa'r-minded man, sonny, you'll agree with us that the sooner you make terms with her the better. Considerin' your interest, Jacksey,--let alone the claims of humanity,--we've concluded to withdraw from here until this thing is settled. She's sort o' mixed us up with your feelings agin her, and naturally supposed we object to the color of her hair! and bein' a penniless orphan, rejected by her relations"--

"What stuff are you talking?" burst in Jackson. "Why, YOU saw she treated you better than she did me."

"Steady! There you go with that temper of yours that frightened

Openings in the Old Trail - 18/35

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