“Well,” snapped Brayley, pushing back his hat and returning the cook’s stare fiercely. “Well, Cookie, what’s eatin’ you? Ain’t you got nothin’ to do but stand an’ gawk? By the Lord, if you ain’t I know where we can git a hash-slinger as is worth his grub!”
Cookie’s bulging eyes ranged from one face to the other. Then he turned back to his stove and began to wash over again a pan which he had laid aside already as clean.
Conniston and Brayley washed with cold water in silence. Then they found a bottle of liniment and applied it to their various cuts with a bit of rag. Brayley, his big fingers unbelievably gentle, bandaged Conniston’s lame hand for him. And then they went back to the corrals.
“You can go out to the east end an’ give Rawhide a hand,” said Brayley, as he swung up to his horse’s back. “I reckon you won’t be much good for a day or two except jest ridin’. An’ say, Con. I had a talk with the Ol’ Man about you this mornin’. He wanted to know if you was makin’ good. Lucky for you,” with a twisted grin, “that he asked before we had our little set-to! You’re to git forty-five a month from now on. An’ at the end of the week you’re to report over to Rattlesnake to go to work.”
As Greek Conniston rode out across the dry fields toward the east there was a subtle exhilaration in the fresh, clean morning air which he drew deep down into his lungs. For the moment the soreness of bruised muscles, the biting pain in his crippled hand, were trifles driven outward to the farthermost rim of his consciousness. His foot was upon the first step of the long stairway which he must climb. He had whipped Brayley in a fair, square, hand-to-hand, man-to-man fight. He had done it through sheer dogged determination that he would do it. He had set himself a task, the hardest task he had ever essayed. And success had come to him as self-vindication.
But it had been to him more, vastly more, than a mere duty, although from the outset he had looked upon it in that light. It had been a test. Had the outcome been reversed, had he failed, had Brayley worsted him, there was every likelihood that Conniston would have left the range. But now, hand in hand with dawning regeneration, there came confidence. There were many things which his destiny had set ahead of him, and he was ready to face them with the same dogged determination with which he had faced the big foreman.
Then, too, this morning he had received more than mere self-approval. Brayley had indorsed his work in his consultation with Mr. Crawford. And Mr. Crawford had seen fit to increase his daily wage. He had not been worth a dollar a day a month ago, and he knew it. Now he was to be paid a dollar and a half a day, and because he was worth that to the Half Moon. So far, in the circumscribed area of his daily duties, he “had made good.” He felt that the first heat of the great race was run, that in spite of his handicap he had held his own. The race itself was almost a tangible thing ahead of him. Greek Conniston was ready for it. And he dared think, with a sharp-drawn breath and a leaping of blood throughout his whole being, of the golden prize at the end of it—for the man who could win that prize.