For the rest of the way Thurston watched the green hills slide by—and the greener hollows—and gave himself up to visions of Fort Benton; visions of creaking bull-trains crawling slowly, like giant brown worms, up and down the long hill; of many high-piled bales of buffalo hides upon the river bank, and clamorous little steamers churning up against the current; the Fort Benton that had, for many rushing miles, filled and colored the speech of Hank Graves and stimulated his childish half-memory.
But when he reached the place and wandered aimlessly about the streets, the vision faded into half-resentful realization that these things were no more forever. For the bull-trains, a roundup outfit clattered noisily out of town and disappeared in an elusive dust-cloud; for the gay-blanketed Indians slipping like painted shadows from view, stray cow-boys galloped into town, slid from their saddles and clanked with dragging rowels into the nearest saloon, or the post-office. Between whiles the town cuddled luxuriously down in the deep little valley and slept while the river, undisturbed by pompous steamers, murmured a lullaby.
It was not the Fort Benton he had come far to see, so that on the second day he went away up the long hill that shut out the world and, until the east-bound train came from over the prairies, paced the depot platform impatiently with never a vision to keep him company.
For a long time the gaze of Thurston clung fascinated to the wide prairie land, feeling again the stir in his blood. Then, when a deep cut shut from him the sight of the wilderness, he chanced to turn his head, and looked straight into the clear, blue-gray eyes of a girl across the aisle. Thurston considered himself immune from blue-gray—or any other-eyes, so that he permitted himself to regard her calmly and judicially, his mind reverting to the fact that he would need a heroine to be kidnapped, and wondering if she would do. She was a Western girl, he could tell that by the tan and by her various little departures from the Eastern styles—such as doing her hair low rather than high. Where he had been used to seeing the hair of woman piled high and skewered with many pins, hers was brushed smoothly back-smoothly save for little, irresponsible waves here and there. Thurston decided that the style was becoming to her. He wondered if the fellow beside her were her brother; and then reminded himself sagely that brothers do not, as a rule, devote their time quite so assiduously to the entertainment of their sisters. He could not stare at her forever, and so he gave over his speculations and went back to the prairies.
Another hour, and Thurston was stiffing a yawn when the coaches bumped sharply together and, with wheels screeching protest as the brakes clutched them, the train, grinding protest in every joint, came, with a final heavy jar, to a dead stop. Thurston thought it was a wreck, until out ahead came the sharp crackling of rifles. A passenger behind him leaned out of the window and a bullet shattered the glass above his head; he drew back hastily.
Some one hurried through the front vestibule, the door was pushed unceremoniously open and a man—a giant, he seemed to Thurston—stopped just inside, glared down the length of the coach through slits in the black cloth over his face and bawled, "Hands up!"
Thurston was so utterly surprised that his hands jerked themselves involuntarily above his head, though he did not feel particularly frightened; he was filled with a stupefied sort of curiosity to know what would come next. The coach, so far as he could see, seemed filled with uplifted, trembling hands, so that he did not feel ashamed of his own. The man behind him put up his hands with the other—but one of them held a revolver that barked savagely and unexpectedly close against the car of Thurston. Thurston ducked. There was an echo from the front, and the man behind, who risked so much on one shot, lurched into the aisle, swaying uncertainly between the seats. He of the mask fired again, viciously, and the other collapsed into a still, awkwardly huddled heap on the floor. The revolver dropped from his fingers and struck against Thurston's foot, making him wince.
Thurston had never before seen death come to a man, and the very suddenness of it unnerved him. All his faculties were numbed before that terrible, pitiless form in the door, and the limp, dead body at his feet in the aisle. He did not even remember that here was the savage local color he had come far a-seeking. He quite forgot to improve the opportunity by making mental note of all the little, convincing details, as was his wont.
Presently he awoke to the realization of certain words spoken insistently close beside him. He turned his eyes and saw that the girl, her eyes staring straight before her, her slim, brown hands uplifted, was yet commanding him imperiously, her voice holding to that murmuring monotone more discreet than a whisper.
"The gun—drop down—and get it. He can't see to shoot for the seat in front. Get the gun. Get the gun!" was what she was saying.
Thurston looked at her helplessly, imploringly. In truth, he had never fired a gun in all his peaceful life.
"The gun—get it—and shoot!" Her eyes moved quickly in a cautious, side-long glance that commanded impatiently. Her straight eyebrows drew together imperiously. Then, when he met her eyes with that same helpless look, she said another word that hurt. It was "Coward!"
Thurston looked down at the gun, and at the huddled form. A tiny river of blood was creeping toward him. Already it had reached his foot, and his shoe was red along the sole. He moved his foot quickly away from it, and shuddered.
"Coward!" murmured the girl contemptuously again, and a splotch of anger showed under the tan of her cheek.
Thurston caught his breath and wondered if he could do it; he looked toward the door and thought how far it was to send a bullet straight when a man has never, in all his life, fired a gun. And without looking he could see that horrible, red stream creeping toward him like some monster in a nightmare. His flesh crimpled with physical repulsion, but he meant to try; perhaps he could shoot the man in the mask, so that there would be another huddled, lifeless Thing on the floor, and another creeping red stream.
At that instant the tawny-haired young fellow beside the girl gathered himself for a spring, flung himself headlong before her and into the aisle; caught the dead man's pistol from the floor and fired, seemingly with one movement. Then he sprang up, still firing as fast as the trigger could move. From the door came answer, shot for shot, and the car was filled with the stifling odor of burnt powder. A woman screamed hysterically.
Then a puff of cool, prairie breeze came in through the shattered window behind Thurston, and the smoke-cloud lifted like a curtain blown upward in the wind. The tawny-haired young fellow was walking coolly down the aisle, the smoking revolver pointing like an accusing finger toward the outlaw who lay stretched upon his face, his fingers twitching.
Outside, rifles were crackling like corn in a giant popper. Presently it slackened to an occasional shot. A brakeman, followed by two coatless mail-clerks with Winchesters, ran down the length of the train calling out that there was no danger. The thud of their running feet, and the wholesome mingling of their shouting struck sharply in the silence after the shooting. One of the men swung up on the steps of the day coach and came in.
"Hello, Park," he cried to the tawny haired boy. "Got one, did yuh? That's good. We did, too got him alive. Think uh the nerve uh that Wagner bunch! to go up against a train in broad daylight. Made an easy getaway, too, except the feller we gloomed in the express car. How's this one? Dead?"
"No. I reckon he'll get well enough to stretch a rope; he killed a man, in here." He motioned toward the huddled figure in the aisle. They came together, lifted the dead man and carried him away to the baggage car. A brakeman came with a cloth and wiped up the red pool, and Thurston pressed his lips tightly together and turned away his head; he could not remember when the sight of anything had made him so deathly sick. Once he glanced slyly at the girl opposite, and saw that she was very white under her tan, and that the hands in her lap were clasped tightly and yet shook. But she met his eyes squarely, and Thurston did not look at her again; he did not like the expression of her mouth.
News of the holdup had been telegraphed ahead, and all Shellanne—which was not much of a crowd—gathered at the station to meet the train and congratulate the heroes. Thurston alighted almost shamefacedly into the midst of the loud-voiced commotion. While he was looking uncertainly about him, wondering where to go and what to do, a voice he knew hailed him with drawling welcome.
"Hello, Bud. Got back quicker than you expected, didn't yuh? It's lucky I happened to be in town—yuh can ride out with me. Say, yuh got quite a bunch uh local color for a story, didn't yuh? You'll be writing blood-and-thunder for a month on the strength of this little episode, I reckon." his twinkling eyes teased, though his face was quite serious, as was his voice.
She of the blue-gray eyes turned and measured Thurston with a deliberate, leisurely glance, and her mouth still had that unpleasant expression. Thurston colored guiltily, but Hank Graves lifted his hat and called her Mona, and asked her if she wasn't scared stiff, and if she were home to stay. Then he beckoned to the tawny-haired fellow with his finger, and winked at Mona—a proceeding which shocked Thurston considerably.
"Mona—here, hold on a minute, can't yuh? Mona, this is a friend uh mine; Bud Thurston's his name. He's come out to study us up and round up a hunch uh real Western atmosphere. He's a story-writer. I used to whack bulls all over the country with his father. Bud, this is Mona Stevens; she ranges down close to the Lazy Eight, so the sooner yuh git acquainted, the quicker." He did not explain what would be the quicker, and Thurston's embarrassment was only aggravated by the introduction.
Miss Stevens gave him a chilly smile, the kind that is worse than none at all and turned her back, thinly pretending that she heard her brother calling her, which she did not. Her brother was loudly explaining what would have happened if he had been on that train and had got a whack at the robbers, and his sister was far from his mind.
Graves slapped the shoulder of the fellow they had called Park. "You young devil, next time I leave the place for a week—yes, or overnight—I'll lock yuh up in the blacksmith shop. Have yuh got to be Mona's special escort, these days?"
"Wish I was," Park retorted, unmoved.
"Different here—yuh ain't much account, as it is. Bud, this here's my wagon-boss, Park Holloway; one of 'em, that is. I'm going to turn yuh over to him and let him wise yuh up. Say, you young bucks ought to get along together pretty smooth. Your dads run buffalo together before either of yuh was born. Well, let's be moving—we ain't home yet. Got a war-bag, Bud?"
Late that night Thurston lay upon a home-made bed and listened to the frogs croaking monotonously in the hollow behind the house, and to the lone coyote which harped upon the subject of his wrongs away on a distant hillside, and to the subdued snoring of Hank Graves in the room beyond. He was trying to adjust himself to this new condition of things, and the new condition refused utterly to be measured by his accepted standard.
According to that standard, he should feel repulsed and annoyed by the familiarity of strangers who persisted in calling him "Bud" without taking the trouble to find out whether or not he liked it. And what puzzled Thurston and put him all at sea was the consciousness that he did like it, and that it struck familiarly upon his ears as something to which he had been accustomed in the past.
Also, according to his well-ordered past, he should hate this raw life and rawer country where could occur such brutal things as he had that day witnessed. He should dislike a man like Park Holloway who, having wounded a man unto death, had calmly dismissed the subject with the regret that his aim had not been better, so that he could have saved the county the expense of trying and hanging the fellow. Thurston was amazed to find that, down in the inner man of him, he admired Park Holloway exceedingly, and privately resolved to perfect himself in the use of fire-arms, he who had been wont to deplore the thinly veneered savagery of men who liked such things.
After much speculation he decided that Mona Stevens would not do for a kidnapped heroine. He could not seem to "see" her in such a position, and, besides, he told himself that such a type of girl did not attract him at all. She had called him a coward—and why? simply because he, straight from the trammels of civilization, had not been prepared to meet the situation thrust upon him-which she had thrust upon him. She had demanded of him something he had not the power to accomplish, and she had called him a coward. And in his heart Thurston knew that it was unjust, and that he was not a coward.