Bailey smoked morosely as he scanned the dusty trail leading down across the "bottom" and away over the dry grey prairie toward the hazy mountains in the west.
From his back-tilted chair on the veranda, the road was visible for miles, as well as the river trail from the south, sneaking up through the cottonwoods and leprous sycamores.
He called gruffly into the silence of the house, and his speech held the surliness of his attitude.
"Hot Joy! Bar X outfit comin'. Git supper."
A Chinaman appeared in the door and gazed at the six-mule team descending the distant gully to the ford.
"Jesse one man, hey? All light," and slid quietly back to the kitchen.
Whatever might be said, or, rather, whatever might be suspected, of Bailey's road-house--for people did not run to wordy conjecture in this country--it was known that it boasted a good cook, and this atoned for a catalogue of shortcomings. So it waxed popular among the hands of the big cattle ranges near-bye. Those given to idle talk held that Bailey acted strangely at times, and rumour painted occasional black doings at the hacienda, squatting vulture-like above the ford, but it was nobody's business, and he kept a good cook.
Bailey did not recall the face that greeted him from above the three span as they swung in front of his corral, but the brand on their flanks was the Bar X, so he nodded with as near an approach to hospitality as he permitted.
It was a large face, strong-featured and rugged, balanced on wide, square shoulders, yet some oddness of posture held the gaze of the other till the stranger clambered over the wheel to the ground. Then Bailey removed his brier and heaved tempestuously in the throes of great and silent mirth.
It was a dwarf. The head of a Titan, the body of a whisky barrel, rolling ludicrously on the tiny limbs of a bug, presented so startling a sight that even Hot Joy, appearing around the corner, cackled shrilly. His laughter rose to a shriek of dismay, however, as the little man made at him with the rush and roar of a cannon ball. In Bailey's amazed eyes he seemed to bounce galvanically, landing on Joy's back with such vicious suddenness that the breath fled from him in a squawk of terror; then, seizing his cue, he kicked and belaboured the prostrate Celestial in feverish silence. He desisted and rolled across the porch to Bailey. Staring truculently up et the landlord, he spoke for the first time.
"Was I right in supposin' that something amused you?"
Bailey gasped incredulously, for the voice rumbled heavily an octave below his own bass. Either the look of the stocky catapult, as he launched himself on the fleeing servant, or the invidious servility of the innkeeper, sobered the landlord, and he answered gravely:
"No, sir; I reckon you're mistaken. I ain't observed anything frivolous yet."
"Glad of it," said the little man. "I don't like a feller to hog a joke all by himself. Some of the Bar X boys took to absorbin' humour out of my shape when I first went to work, but they're sort of educated out of it now. I got an eye from one and a finger off of another; the last one donated a ear."
Bailey readily conceived this man as a bad antagonist, for the heavy corded neck had split buttons from the blue shirt, and he glimpsed a chest hairy, and round as a drum, while the brown arms showed knotty and hardened.
"Let's liquor," he said, and led the way into the big, low room, serving as bar, dining- and living-room. From the rear came vicious clatterings and slammings of pots, mingled with Oriental lamentations, indicating an aching body rather than a chastened spirit.
"Don't see you often," he continued, with a touch of implied curiosity, which grew as his guest, with lingering fondness, up-ended a glass brimful of the raw, fiery spirits.
"No, the old man don't lemme get away much. He knows that dwellin' close to the ground, as I do, I pine for spiritual elevation," with a melting glance at the bottles behind the bar, doing much to explain the size of his first drink.
"Like it, do ye?" questioned Bailey indicating the shelf.
"Well, not exactly! Booze is like air--I need it. It makes a new man out of me--and usually ends by gettin' both me and the new one laid off."
"Didn't hear nothing of the weddin' over at Los Huecos, did ye?"
"No! Whose weddin'?"
"Ross Turney, the new sheriff."
"Ye don't say! Him that's been elected on purpose to round up the Tremper gang, hey? Who's his antagonist?"
"Old man Miller's gal. He's celebratin' his election by gettin' spliced. I been expectin' of 'em across this way to-night, but I guess they took the Black Butte trail. You heard what he said, didn't ye? Claims that inside of ninety days he'll rid the county of the Trempers and give the reward to his wife for a bridal present. Five thousand dollars on 'em, you know." Bailey grinned evilly and continued: "Say! Marsh Tremper'll ride up to his house some night and make him eat his own gun in front of his bride, see if he don't. Then there'll be cause for an inquest and an election." He spoke with what struck the teamster as unnecessary heat.
"Dunno," said the other; "Turney's a brash young feller, I hear, but he's game. 'Tain't any of my business, though, and I don't want none of his contrac'. I'm violently addicted to peace and quiet, I am. Guess I'll unhitch," and he toddled out into the gathering dusk to his mules, while the landlord peered uneasily down the darkening trail.
As the saddened Joy lit candles in the front room there came the rattle of wheels without, and a buckboard stopped in the bar of light from the door. Bailey's anxiety was replaced by a mask of listless surprise as the voice of Ross Turney called to him.
"Hello there, Bailey! Are we in time for supper? If not, I'll start an insurrection with that Boxer of yours. He's got to turn out the snortingest supper of the season to-night. It isn't every day your shack is honoured by a bride. Mr. Bailey, this is my wife, since ten o'clock A. M." He introduced a blushing, happy girl, evidently in the grasp of many emotions. "We'll stay all night, I guess,"
"Sure," said Bailey. "I'll show ye a room," and he led them up beneath the low roof where an unusual cleanliness betrayed the industry of Joy.
The two men returned and drank to the bride, Turney with the reckless lightness that distinguished him, Bailey sullen and watchful.
"Got another outfit here, haven't you?" questioned the bridegroom. "Who is it?"
Before answer could be made, from the kitchen arose a tortured howl and the smashing of dishes, mingled with stormy rumblings. The door burst inward, and an agonized Joy fled, flapping out into the night, while behind him rolled the caricature from Bar X.
"I just stopped for a drink of water," boomed the dwarf, then paused at the twitching face of the sheriff.
He swelled ominously, like a great pigeon, purple and congested with rage. Strutting to the new-comer, he glared insolently up into his smiling face,
"What are ye laughin' at, ye shavetail?" His hands were clenched, till his arms showed tense and rigid, and the cords in his neck were thickly swollen.
"Lemme in on it, I'm strong on humour. What in ---- ails ye?" he yelled, in a fury, as the tall young man gazed fixedly, and the glasses rattled at the bellow from the barreled-up lungs.
"I'm not laughing at you," said the sheriff.
"Oh, ain't ye?" mocked the man of peace. "Well, take care that ye don't, ye big wart, or I'll trample them new clothes and browse around on some of your features. I'll take ye apart till ye look like cut feed. Guess ye don't know who I am, do ye? I'm--"
"Who is this man, Ross?" came the anxious voice of the bride, descending the stairs.
The little man spun like a dancer, and, spying the girl, blushed to the colour of a prickly pear, then stammered painfully, while the sweat stood out under the labour of his discomfort:
"Just 'Shorty,' Miss," he finally quavered. "Plain 'Shorty' of the Bar X--er--a miserable, crawlin' worm for disturbin' of you." He rolled his eyes helplessly at Bailey, while he sopped with his crumpled sombrero at the glistening perspiration.
"Why didn't ye tell me?" he whispered ferociously at the host, and the volume of his query carried to Joy, hiding out in the night.
"Mr. Shorty," said the sheriff gravely; "let me introduce my wife, Mrs. Turney."
The bride smiled sweetly at the tremulous little man, who broke and fled to a high bench in the darkest corner, where he dangled his short legs in a silent ecstasy of bashfulness.
"I reckon I'll have to rope that Chink, then blindfold and back him into the kitchen, if we git any supper," said Bailey, disappearing.
Later the Chinaman stole in to set the table, but he worked with hectic and fitful energy, a fearful eye always upon the dim bulk in the corner, and at a fancied move he shook with an ague of apprehension. Backing and sidling, he finally announced the meal, prepared to stampede madly at notice.
During the supper Shorty ate ravenously of whatever lay to his hand, but asked no favours. The agony of his shyness paralysed his huge vocal muscles till speech became a labour quite impossible.
To a pleasant remark of the bride he responded, but no sound issued, then breathing heavily into his larynx, the reply roared upon them like a burst of thunder, seriously threatening the gravity of the meal. He retired abruptly into moist and self-conscious silence, fearful of feasting his eyes on this disturbing loveliness.
As soon as compatible with decency, he slipped back to his bunk in the shed behind, and lay staring into the darkness, picturing the amazing occurrences of the evening. At the memory of her level glances he fell a-tremble and sighed ecstatically, prickling with a new, strange emotion. He lay till far into the night, wakeful and absorbed. He was able, to grasp the fact but dimly that all this dazzling perfection was for one man. Were it not manifestly impossible he supposed other men in other lands knew other ladies as beautiful, and it furthermore grew upon him blackly, in the thick gloom, that in all this world of womanly sweetness and beauty, no modicum of it was for the misshapen dwarf of the Bar X outfit. All his life he had fought furiously to uphold the empty shell of his dignity in the eyes of his comrades, yet always morbidly conscious of the difference in his body. Whisky had been his solace, his sweetheart. It changed him, raised and beatified him into the likeness of other men, and now, as he pondered, he was aware of a consuming thirst engendered by the heat of his earlier emotions. Undoubtedly it must be quenched.
He rose and stole quietly out into the big front room. Perhaps the years of free life in the open had bred a suspicion of walls, perhaps he felt his conduct would not brook discovery, perhaps habit, prompted him to take the two heavy Colts from their holsters and thrust them inside his trousers band.
He slipped across the room, silent and cavern-like, its blackness broken by the window squares of starry sky, till he felt the paucity of glassware behind the bar.
"Here's to Her," It burned delightfully.
"Here's to the groom." It tingled more alluringly.
"I'll drink what I can, and get back to the bunk before it works," he thought, and the darkness veiled the measure of his potations.
He started at a noise on the stairway. His senses not yet dulled, detected a stealthy tread. Not the careless step of a man unafraid, but the cautious rustle and halt of a marauder. Every nerve bristled to keenest alertness as the faint occasional sounds approached, passed the open end of the bar where he crouched, leading on to the window. Then a match flared, and the darkness rushed out as a candle wick sputtered.
Shorty stretched on tiptoe, brought his eye to the level of the bar, and gazed upon the horrent head of Bailey. He sighed thankfully, but watched with interest his strange behaviour.
Bailey moved the light across the window from left to right three times, paused, then wigwagged some code out into the night.
"He's signalling," mused Shorty. "Hope he gets through quick. I'm getting full." The fumes of the liquor were beating at his senses, and he knew that soon he would move with difficulty.
The man, however, showed no intention of leaving, for, his signals completed, he blew out the light, first listening for any sound from above, then his figure loomed black and immobile against the dim starlight of the window.
"Oh, Lord! I got to set down," and the watcher squatted upon the floor, bracing against the wall. His dulling perceptions were sufficiently acute to detect shuffling footsteps on the porch and the cautious unbarring of the door.
"Gettin' late for visitors," he thought, as he entered a blissful doze. "When they're abed, I'll turn in."
It seemed much later that a shot startled him. To his dizzy hearing came the sound of curses overhead, the stamp and shift of feet, the crashing fall of struggling men, and, what brought him unsteadily to his legs, the agonized scream of a woman. It echoed through the house, chilling him, and dwindled to an aching moan.
Something was wrong, he knew that, but it was hard to tell just what. He must think. What hard work it was to think, too; he'd never noticed before what a laborious process it was. Probably that sheriff had got into trouble; he was a fresh guy, anyhow; and he'd laughed when he first saw Shorty. That settled it. He could get out of it himself. Evidently it was nothing serious, for there was no more disturbance above, only confused murmurings. Then a light showed in the stairs, and again the shuffling of feet came, as four strange men descended. They were lighted by the sardonic Bailey, and they dragged a sixth between them, bound and helpless. It was the sheriff.
Now, what had he been doing to get into such a fix?
The prisoner stood against the wall, white and defiant. He strained at his bonds silently, while his captors watched his futile struggles. There was something terrible and menacing in the quietness with which they gloated--a suggestion of some horror to come. At last he desisted, and burst forth.
"You've got me all right. You did this, Bailey, you ---- traitor."
"He's never been a traitor, as far as we know," sneered one of the four. "In fact, I might say he's been strictly on the square with us."
"I didn't think you made war on women, either, Marsh Tremper, but it seems you're everything from a dog-thief down. Why couldn't you fight me alone, in the daylight, like a man?"
"You don't wait till a rattler's coiled before you stamp his head off," said the former speaker. "It's either you or us, and I reckon it's you."
So these were the Tremper boys, eh? The worst desperadoes in the Southwest; and Bailey was their ally. The watcher eyed them, mildly curious, and it seemed to him that they were as bad a quartette as rumour had painted--bad, even, for this country of bad men. The sheriff was a fool for getting mixed up with such people. Shorty knew enough to mind his own business, anyway, if others didn't. He was a peaceful man, and didn't intend to get mixed up with outlaws. His mellow meditations were interrupted by the hoarse speech of the sheriff, who had broken down into his rage again, and struggled madly while words ran from him.
"Let me go! ---- you, let me free. I want to fight the coward that struck my wife. You've killed her. Who was it? Let me get at him."
Shorty stiffened as though a douche of ice-water had struck him. "Killed her! Struck his wife!" My God! Not that sweet creature of his dreams who had talked and smiled at him without noting his deformity--
An awful anger rose in him and he moved out into the light.
Whatever of weakness may have dragged at his legs, none sounded in the great bellowing command that flooded the room. At the compelling volume of the sound every man whirled and eight empty hands shot skyward. Their startled eyes beheld a man's squat body weaving uncertainly on the limbs of an insect, while in each hand shone a blue-black Colt that waved and circled in maddening, erratic orbits.
At the command, Marsh Tremper's mind had leaped to the fact that behind him was one man; one against five, and he took a gambler's chance.
As he whirled, he drew and fired. None but the dwarf of Bar X could have lived, for he was the deadliest hip shot in the territory. His bullet crashed into the wall, a hand's breadth over Shorty's "cow-lick." It was a clean heart shot; the practised whirl and flip of the finished gun fighter; but the roar of his explosion was echoed by another, and the elder Tremper spun unsteadily against the table with a broken shoulder.
"Too high," moaned the big voice. "--The liquor."
He swayed drunkenly, but at the slightest shift of his quarry, the aimless wanderings of a black muzzle stopped on the spot and the body behind the guns was congested with deadly menace.
"Face the wall," he cried. "Quick! Keep 'em up higher!" They sullenly obeyed; their wounded leader reaching with his uninjured member.
To the complacent Shorty, it seemed that things were working nicely, though he was disturbingly conscious of his alcoholic lack of balance, and tortured by the fear that he might suddenly lose the iron grip of his faculties.
Then, for the second time that night, from the stairs came the voice that threw him into the dreadful confusion of his modesty.
"O Ross!" it cried, "I've brought your gun," and there on the steps, dishevelled, pallid and quivering, was the bride, and grasped in one trembling hand was her husband's weapon.
"Ah--h!" sighed Shorty, seraphically, as the vision beat in upon his misty conceptions. "She ain't hurt!"
In his mind there was no room for desperadoes contemporaneously with Her. Then he became conscious of the lady's raiment, and his brown cheeks flamed brick-red, while he dropped his eyes. In his shrinking, grovelling modesty, he made for his dark corner.
One of those at bay, familiar with this strange abashment, seized the moment, but at his motion the sheriff screamed: "Look out!"
The quick danger in the cry brought back with a surge the men against the wall and Shorty swung instantly, firing at the outstretched hand of Bailey as it reached for Tremper's weapon.
The landlord straightened, gazing affrightedly at his finger tips.
"Too low!" and Shorty's voice held aching tears. "I'll never touch another drop; it's plumb ruined my aim."
"Cut these strings, girlie," said the sheriff, as the little man's gaze again wavered, threatening to leave his prisoners.
"Quick. He's blushing again.".
When they were manacled, Shorty stood in moist exudation, trembling and speechless, under the incoherent thanks of the bride and the silent admiration of her handsome husband. She fluttered about him in a tremor of anxiety, lest he be wounded, caressing him here and there with solicitous pats till he felt his shamed and happy spirit would surely burst from its misshapen prison.
"You've made a good thing to-night," said Turney, clapping him heartily on his massive back. "You get the five thousand all right. We were going to Mexico City on that for a bridal trip when I rounded up the gang, but I'll see you get every cent of it, old man. If it wasn't for you I'd have been a heap farther south than that by now."
The open camaraderie and good-fellowship that rang in the man's voice affected Shorty strangely, accustomed as he was to the veiled contempt or open compassion of his fellows. Here was one who recognized him as a man, an equal.
He spread his lips, but the big voice squeaked dismally, then, inflating deeply, he spoke so that the prisoners chained in the corral outside heard him plainly.
"I'd rather she took it anyhow," blushing violently.
"No, no," they cried. "It's yours."
"Well, then, half of it"--and for once Shorty betrayed the strength of Gibraltar, even in the face of the lady, and so it stood.
As the dawn spread over the dusty prairie, tipping the westward mountains with silver caps, and sucking the mist out of the cotton-wood bottoms, he bade them adieu.
"No, I got to get back to the Bar X, or the old man'll swear I been drinking again, and I don't want to dissipate no wrong impressions around." He winked gravely. Then, as the sheriff and his surly prisoners drove off, he called:
"Mr. Turney, take good care of them Trempers. I think a heap of 'em, for, outside of your wife, they're the only ones in this outfit that didn't laugh at me."