Brill Healy laughed. “The fat’s in the fire now, sure enough. Just the same, I back your play, Phil.”
He turned recklessly to the man in the doorway. “You may tell your friends up on Bear Creek that we own this range and mean to hold it. We don’t aim to let our cattle be starved, and we don’t aim to lie down before rustlers. Understand?”
The nester smiled, but there was no gayety in his eyes. They met those of the cattleman with a grip of steel, and measured strength with him. Each knew the other would go the limit before Keller made quiet answer:
“I think so.”
And with that he dismissed the subject and his unfriendly audience. With perfect ease, he read his letter, pocketed it, and whistled softly as he impassively took stock of the scenery. Apparently he had wiped Public Opinion from his map, and was interested only in the panorama before him.
Seven Mile Ranch lay rooted at the desert terminus among the foothills, a gateway between the mountains and the Malpais Plain. Below was a shimmering stretch of sand and cactus tortured beneath a blazing sun. Into that caldron with its furnace-cracked floor the sun had poured itself torridly for countless eons. It was a Sahara of mirage and desolation and death.
To the left was a flat-topped mesa eroded to fantastic mockery of some bastioned fort. In the round-topped hills behind it was Noches, fifty miles away. Beyond lay the tangle of hills, rising to the saw-toothed range now painted with orange and mauve and a hint of deepening purple. For dusk was already slipping down over the peaks.
“Mail’s been open half an hour, boys,” Phyllis announced through the open window.
They dropped in to the store, as noisy as schoolboys, but withal deferential. It was clear the young postmistress reigned a queen among the younger ones, but a queen that deigned to friendship with her subjects. Some of them called her Miss Sanderson, one or two of them Phyllie.
Among these last was Healy, who appeared on very good terms with her indeed. He appointed himself a sort of master of ceremonies, and handed to each man his mail with appropriate jocular comments designed to embarrass the recipient. He knew them all, and his hits were greeted with gay laughter. To the man standing in the doorway with his back to them, they seemed all one happy family—and himself a rank outsider. He trailed down the steps and swung himself to the saddle. As he loped away the sound of her warm, clear laughter floated after him.
From a cleft in the hills two riders emerged, following a little gulch to the point where it widened into a draw. The alkali dust of Arizona lay thick upon their broad-brimmed Stetsons and every inch of exposed surface, but through the gray coating bloomed the freshness of youth. It rang from their voices, was apparent in the modelling and carriage of their figures. The young man was sinewy and hard as nails, the girl supple and wiry, of a slender grace, straight-backed as an Indian in the saddle.