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Authors: Ridgwell Cullum

The Forfeit

BOOK: The Forfeit
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The Forfeit

Ridgwell Cullum

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Author Of "The Night Riders," "The Way Of The Strong," "The Trail Of The Axe," Etc.

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A companionable silence prevailed in the room. At intervals it was broken, but only by the rustle of paper or the striking of a match. The heavy breathing, almost amounting to a snore, of one of the two men, and the inarticulate protests of a laboring "rocker" chair-these things were only a part of it.

The man at the table was deeply immersed in a miniature sea of calculations. His fair brows were drawn in deep concentration. Frequently he was at great pains to relight a pipe which contained nothing but charred remnants of tobacco and a moist, unsmokable mixture which afforded only a somewhat offensive taste and aroma.

The partner in this companionship overflowed an undersized "rocker," which withstood, with supreme heroism, the overwhelming forces of its invader. But its sufferings, under the rhythmic rise and fall imposed upon it, found expression at intervals, although they failed to inspire the least sympathy. The heedless giant's whole attention seemed to be absorbed in the personality and effort of his friend.

Finally the latter raised a pair of deep blue eyes. Following upon a sigh, he thrust his papers aside with a brusque movement of relief. Then he raised a hand to his broad forehead and smoothed his disheveled fair hair, which seemed to have undergone some upheaval as a result of the mental disturbance his efforts had inspired in the brain beneath. The handsome eyes smiled a reassuring smile into the rugged face of his friend.

"Well?" he enquired, without seeming to desire a reply.

"Wal?" echoed the gruff voice of the man in the rocker.

"It's done."

"So-I guessed."

The patient amusement in the twinkling eyes of the man in the rocker was good to see. There was confidence, too, in his regard of the younger man.

"Can we do it-sure?" he enquired, as the other remained silent.

"Without a worry."

"Then dope it out, boy. The easiest thing in the world is handin' out dollars on a right enterprise. I don't know nothin' better-except it is takin' 'em in on the same sort o' play."

Jeffrey Masters smiled more broadly into his friend's good-humored face.

"Five years back, handing out twenty thousand dollars would have given us a nightmare, even on a right proposition," he said. "It isn't that way now. Guess we'll sleep on this thing like new-born babes with our tanks filled right. Nat Williams is out to sell quick, and if we're bright, it's up to us to buy quick. For twenty thousand dollars," he proceeded, referring to his figures, "we get his house, barns, corrals, and all his rolling stock. His growing crops and machinery. The bunch of old cows and calves he's pleased to call his 'herds.' Also three teams of Shire-bred heavy draft horses, and six hundred and forty acres of first-class wheat land and grazing that only needs capital and hustle to set right on top. I don't guess it'll worry us any to hand it all it needs that way. This buy will join up my 'O--' territory with your 'T.T.' grazing, and will turn the combination into one of the finest ranching propositions west of Calthorpe, and one which even Montana needs to be proud of."

He leaned back in his chair with a certain air of satisfaction. But there was just a shade of anxiety, too, in the glance with which he favored his friend. However, he need have felt no misgivings. Bud Tristram had none. He understood the keen business brain underlying his friend's tumbled fair hair. Moreover, Jeff, who was only half the older man's age, was regarded with something like parental affection.

They had fought their way up together from obscure beginnings to their present affluence, as the owners of the "T.T." ranch and the "O--" ranch respectively. They had been partners in all but name. Now they contemplated a definite deed of that nature. It was a consummation which the older man had looked forward to ever since he first lent a hand to his new and youthful neighbor. It was a consummation which Jeffrey, with acute foresight and honest purpose, had set himself to achieve. If the older man regarded him with almost parental affection, that regard was fully reciprocated. The business conference between them had for its purpose their mutual advantage, and both men were perfectly aware of the fact.

But the thought that slightly worried the younger man was the ease, the unconcern of his future partner's attitude. It disquieted him because it increased his responsibility. But long ago he had learned the generous nature of the Great Bud. Long ago he had realized his trusting simplicity. Now he would have preferred a keen cross-examination of his statement. But none was forthcoming, and he was forced to continue in face of the silent acceptance.

"Bud, old friend, I wish I could get you interested in-figures. And I guess they surely are interesting, when you apply them to our own concerns."

But Bud remained unmoved. He stretched himself in an ecstasy of ease, raising his great arms above his grizzled head in profound enjoyment of his bodily comfort.

He shook his head.

"Guess I know a steer. Guess I know grass when I see it. I wouldn't say there's a brand in Montana I ain't familiar with. But figgers-sums-they're hell. An' I don't guess I'm yearning for hell anyway. Figgers is a sort o' paradise to you. You're built that way. Say, I don't calc'late to rob you of a thing-not even paradise. We'll take your figgers as they stand."

Jeffrey Masters shook his head.

"They're right, sure. But it's no sort of way to talk business."

"Business talk always makes me sweat."

It was quite impossible. Jeffrey was growing impatient. A frown settled upon his broad brow, and the man in the rocker watched it with amused eyes.

Quite suddenly the younger man's impatience broke forth into verbal protest.

"Say, you make me mad. Was there ever such a feller looking for sharps to play him? How do you know I'm not out to beat you? Why, I could roll you for every dollar you possess without lying awake five minutes at night. It's not fair, Bud. It's not fair to me-to you-to your little Nan--"

"What's not fair to Nan?"

Bud's twinkling eyes shot round upon the open French window with an alertness scarcely to be expected in a man of such apparent mental indolence. Jeffrey's eyes cleared of their hot impatience as they sought a similar direction. The gaze of both men encountered the picture of a brown-eyed, brown-haired girl of exquisite proportions, standing framed in the open window. She was clad in a riding suit of light material, with a long-skirted coat which obviously concealed the divided skirt beneath. Her long, brown top boots were white with dust of the trail, and her vicious-looking Mexican spurs hung loosely upon her heels. Her eyes were bright with intelligence and good humor, and her pretty oval face smiled out from under the wide brim of an ample prairie hat.

Jeff began to laugh.

"It's your crazy old father, Nan," he cried. "Say, just look at him. Feast your eyes on him. Can you beat it? Here we are right up to our necks in an epoch-making business proposition and he don't concern himself two whoops. Was there ever such a bunch of simple trusting folly as is rolled up in that six feet three of good-hearted honesty?That's what's not fair to-Nan."

The girl came and laid a protecting hand upon the flannel-clad shoulders of her father. Just for a moment her laughing eyes gazed affectionately down upon the recumbent form of the only parent she possessed, and whom she idolized. He was stretched out luxuriously, his great be-chapped legs reaching to the table leg as a support to hold the rocker at a comfortable poise. His shirt sleeves were rolled up displaying a pair of arms like legs of mutton. The beadwork wristlets were held fixed in their position by the distended muscles beneath them. She was proud of him, this father who went through the world trusting human nature, and handling cattle as only an artist in his profession can handle them.

Then her dancing eyes sought the face of Jeffrey Masters. Her smile remained, but a subtle something crept into their depths as she surveyed it. It was the handsome, clean-cut face of a purposeful man. There was a straight-forward directness in the gaze of his blue eyes. It was the face of a man who has no fear, physical or moral. It was almost too uncompromising in its fearlessness.

Nan knew its every line by heart. She had thought of it, dreamed of it, since the time when she had first realized that a woman's life is wholly incomplete without the care of a man upon her hands. Sometimes she had felt that Jeffrey Masters possessed depths which could never be fathomed. Depths of strength, of resource, and all those qualities which make for success. Sometimes she even went further, when her analytical faculties-which she possessed in an unusual degree-were most active. She felt that the possession of all these firm qualities had rather smothered, to an extent, the gentler emotions of the human nature in him. He was strong, passionate, with a conscience of an almost puritanical order, and somehow she felt that a little softening, a little leavening of human weakness would have been all to the good. But this understanding made no difference to her woman's regard, unless it were to strengthen it to a sort of gentle worship such as woman is always ready to yield to strength. It required no effort upon her part to picture this man in the heroic mould of a Spartan warrior.

"'That,'" she replied, with a whimsical smile, "is a man, who most generally seems to fancy his own way of doing things." Then she shook her head as her arm slipped protectingly around the big man's bronzed neck. "I don't guess a woman's argument ever made a man see things different yet. What's he done, Jeff?"

Jeff laughed without humor.

"Done?" he exclaimed. Then, with a shake of the head: "It's not what he's done. Guess it's what he hasn't done, and what he don't seem to figure to do. I'd kind of raised a hope when I saw you in the window. But-well, it was only her father's daughter that came in, I guess."

Then he drew his papers toward him again, and glanced seriously at the figures.

"It's Nat's farm," he explained. "And it's the thing we've been waiting on years. We're getting it fixed right, and your Bud's just about as much help as a deaf mute at a talking bee. I hand him figgers, and-and he smiles, just smiles. I hand him facts, and-he keeps on smiling. It's the kind of smile you most generally see on a dog-tired feller's face when you hand him a funny story. He don't care a cuss anyway. He's figuring to hand Nat ten thousand dollars with no more kick than a government spending public money. He don't kick reasonably or unreasonably, and I'd gamble you a new hat he hasn't a notion what he's getting for it. It makes me feel like a 'hold-up,' and I say it's not fair to me-nor to himself-nor to-you."

Jeff was serious enough. In such affairs it would have been difficult to find him otherwise. Nan understood. These two men had long been her profound study. Her smiling regard remained unchanging while the man was talking. When he ceased she bent over her father in a caressing fashion.

"He'd lose his bet. He surely would, daddy dear, wouldn't he? But we really need to answer, don't we? He'd think we were both fools, else. He wouldn't like it either. Say, daddy, shall-shall I talk?"

Bud chuckled comfortably.

"I'd hate to stop you, Nan."

Nan smiled contentedly, and raised a pair of challenging eyes in the direction of the table.

"My daddy thinks I talk too much," she said. "But I s'pose that's my way-most girls talk when they get the chance-just the same as it's his way talking too little. But neither ways suggest a fool, Jeff. And anyway the only sort of fool you need to worry with is the fool who don't see and act in a way of his own. My daddy's acting in his own way, and I guess it isn't his way, working overtime with the band playing. If you're dead fixed on having a gamble, it's a new hat to a new and less smelly pipe than you're smoking now, that he knows the inside of this deal to the last cent's worth. But what's more, Jeff, he knows you, and knows you couldn't 'hold-up' a Sunday-school kiddie without going and telling its teacher first. And now the mail."

She left her father's side and moved to the table, a very picture of gentle decision and practice.

"Three for you, my daddy," she cried, dropping three letters on his chest, where his shirt gaped just below his neck. Then she turned about. "Only one for you, honest Jeff. Just one, and I've guessed at the writing till I'm sick."

Jeff was smiling up with frank amusement.

"Say, that's great. It's got you beat. Well," he added, as he picked up the letter, "I'll just keep you right on guessing. Where's yours?"

The girl laughed merrily.

"Had mine. I don't guess any right-acting girl would sit easy in the saddle twelve miles without reading her mail. Say--" she paused. The smile had died out of her eyes. Jeff's expression had abruptly changed. He was regarding the address on his envelope with startled seriousness. Then she went on quickly: "Guess I'll wait till you're both through. I'll get right out an' off-saddle. Then for supper."

In the parlor the silence remained unbroken. It became unduly prolonged. Bud finished his mail. Jeff was still reading his. It was not a long letter. He had already read it twice through. Now he again turned back to its beginning.

Bud observed him closely. He saw the knitted brows. The curious set of the man's lips. His absorbed interest. Nor did he interrupt. He contented himself with that patient waiting which betrayed much of the solid strength of his character.

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