“But not for me, Tom-Jeff; you ain’t wantin’ to kill him like my brother would, if I had one.”
“No; not at all for you, Nan,” he said half-absently. And then he tramped away to the gate, and put a leg over Saladin, and rode down the straggling street of the little settlement, again in the face and eyes of all who cared to see.
The bay had measured less than a mile of the homeward way when there came a clatter of hoof-beats in the rear. Tom awoke out of the absent fit, spoke to Saladin and rode the faster. Nevertheless, the pursuing horseman overtook him, and a drawling voice said:
“Hit’s right smart wicked to shove the bay thataway down-hill, son.”
Tom pulled his horse down to a walk. He was in no mood for companionship, but he knew Pettigrass would refuse to be shaken off.
“Where have you been?” he asked sourly.
“Me? I been over to McLemore’s Valley, lookin’ at some brood-mares that old man Mac is tryin’ to sell the Major.”
“Did you come through Pine Knob?”
“Shore, I did. I was a-settin’ on Brother Bill Layne’s porch whilst you was talkin’ to Nan Bryerson. Seems sort o’ pitiful you cayn’t let that pore gal alone, Tom-Jeff.”
“That’s enough,” said Tom hotly. “I’ve heard all I’m going to about that thing, from friends or enemies.”
“I ain’t no way shore about that,” said the horse-trader easily. “I was ‘lottin’ to say a few things, m’self.”
Tom pulled the bay up short in the cart track.
“There’s the road,” he said, pointing. “You can have the front half or the back half—whichever you like.”
Japheth’s answer was a good-natured laugh and a tacit refusal to take either.
“You cayn’t rile me thataway, boy,” he said. “I’ve knowed you a heap too long. Git in the fu’ther rut and take your medicine like a man.”
Since there appeared to be no help for it, Tom set his horse in motion again, and Japheth gave him a mile of silence in which to cool down.
“Now you listen at me, son,” the horse-trader began again, when he judged the cooling process was sufficiently advanced. “I ain’t goin’ to tell no tales out o’ school this here one time. But you got to let Nan alone, d’ye hear?”
“Oh, shut up!” was the irritable rejoinder. “I’ll go where I please, and do what I please. You seem to forget that I’m not a boy any longer!”
“Ya-as, I do; that’s the toler’ble straight fact,” drawled the other. “But I ain’t so much to blame; times you ack like a boy yit, Tom-Jeff.”
Tom was silent again, turning a thing over in his mind. It was a time to bend all means to the one end, the trivial as well as the potent.
“Tell me something, Japhe,” he said, changing front in the twinkling of an eye. “Is Nan coming back to the dog-keeper’s cabin when the family leaves the hotel?”
“‘Tain’t goin’ to make any difference to you if she does,” said Pettigrass, wondering where he was to be hit next.