Ben Blair

       Will Lillibridge / Western
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Ben Blair
Produced by Roger Frank and the Online DistributedProofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net

Florence touched his arm. ”Ben,” she pleaded, ”Ben,forgive me. I've hurt you. I can't say I love you.” Page 114.]

BEN BLAIRTHE STORY OF A PLAINSMAN

By WILL LILLIBRIDGE

Author of ”Where the Trail Divides,” etc.

A. L. BURT COMPANY, PUBLISHERSNEW YORK

* * * * *

COPYRIGHT BYA. C. MCCLURG & CO.A. D. 1905

Entered at Stationers' Hall, London

_All rights reserved_

Published October 21, 1905Second Edition October 28, 1905Third Edition November 29, 1905Fourth Edition December 9, 1905Fifth Edition December 14, 1905Sixth Edition February 28, 1907

* * * * *

_To My Wife_

* * * * *

CONTENTS

CHAPTER PAGE

I. IN RUDE BORDER-LAND 1 II. DESOLATION 9 III. THE BOX R RANCH 23 IV. BEN'S NEW HOME 37 V. THE EXOTICS 44 VI. THE SOIL AND THE SEED 53 VII. THE SANITY OF THE WILD 66 VIII. THE GLITTER OF THE UNKNOWN 74 IX. A RIFFLE OF PRAIRIE 83 X. THE DOMINANT ANIMAL 94 XI. LOVE'S AVOWAL 106 XII. A DEFERRED RECKONING 117 XIII. A SHOT IN THE DARK 134 XIV. THE INEXORABLE TRAIL 148 XV. IN THE GRIP OF THE LAW 164 XVI. THE QUICK AND THE DEAD 185 XVII. GLITTER AND TINSEL 193XVIII. PAINTER AND PICTURE 204 XIX. A VISITOR FROM THE PLAINS 217 XX. CLUB CONFIDENCES 230 XXI. LOVE IN CONFLICT 242 XXII. TWO FRIENDS HAVE IT OUT 258XXIII. THE BACK-FIRE 270 XXIV. THE UPPER AND THE NETHER MILLSTONES 287 XXV. OF WHAT AVAIL? 304 XXVI. LOVE'S SURRENDER 318

* * * * *

BEN BLAIR

CHAPTER I

IN RUDE BORDER-LAND

Even in a community where unsavory reputations were the rule, MickKennedy's saloon was of evil repute. In a land new and wild, hisestablishment was the wildest, partook most of the unsubdued, unevolvedcharacter of its surroundings. There, as irresistibly as gravitationcalls the falling apple, came from afar and near--mainly from afar--themalcontent, the restless, the reckless, seeking--instinctivelygregarious--the crowd, the excitement of the green-covered table, thetemporary oblivion following the gulping of fiery red liquor.

Great splendid animals were the men who gathered there; hairy, powerful,strong-voiced from combat with prairie wind and frontier distance;devoid of a superfluous ounce of flesh, their trousers, uniformly baggyat the knees, bearing mute testimony to the many hours spent in thesaddle; the bare unprotected skin of their hands and faces speakinglikewise of constant contact with sun and storm.

By the broad glow of daylight the place was anything but inviting. Theheavy bar, made of cottonwood, had no more elegance than the rude sodshanty of the pioneer. The worn round cloth-topped tables, imported atextravagant cost from the East, were covered with splashes of grease andliquor; and the few fly-marked pictures on the walls were coarselysuggestive. Scattered among them haphazard, in one instance through alithographic print, were round holes as large as a spike-head, throughwhich, by closely applying the eye, one could view the world without.When the place was new, similar openings had been carefully refilledwith a whittled stick of wood, but the practice had been discontinued;it was too much trouble, and also useless from the frequency with whichnew holes were made. Besides, although accepted with unconcern by_habitues_ of the place, they were a source of never-ending interest tothe ”tenderfeet” who occasionally appeared from nowhere and disappearedwhence they had come.

But at night all was different. Encircling the room with gleaming pointsof light were a multitude of blazing candles, home-made from tallow ofprairie cattle. The irradiance, almost as strong as daylight, butradically different, softened all surrounding objects. The prairie dust,penetrating with the wind, spread itself everywhere. The reflection fromcheap glassware, carefully polished, made it appear of costly make; thesawdust of the floor seemed a downy covering; the crude heavy chairs, animitation of the artistic furniture of our fathers. Even the face ofbartender Mick, with its stiff unshaven red beard and its singleeye,--merciless as an electric headlight,--its broad flaming scarleading down from the blank socket of its mate, became less repulsiveunder the softened light.

With the coming of Fall frosts, the premonition of Winter, thefrequenters of the place gathered earlier, remained later, emptied moreof the showily labelled bottles behind the bar, and augmented whenpossible their well-established reputation for recklessness. About thesoiled tables the fringe of bleared faces and keen hawk-like eyes wasmore closely drawn. The dull rattle of poker-chips lasted longer,frequently far into the night, and even after the tardy light of morninghad come to the rescue of the sputtering stumps in the candlesticks.

On such a morning, early in November, daylight broadened upon acharacteristic scene. Only one table was in use, and around it sat fourmen. One by one the other players had cashed out and left the game. Oneof them was snoring in a corner, his head resting upon the sawdust.Another leaned heavily upon the bar, a half-drained glass before him.Even the four at the table were not as upon the night before. The handswhich held the greasy cards and toyed with the stacks of chips weresteady, but the heads controlling them wavered uncertainly; and the hawkeyes were bloodshot.

A man with a full beard, roughly trimmed into the travesty of a Vandyke,was dealing. He tossed out the cards, carefully inclining their facesdownward, and returned the remainder of the pack softly to the table.

”Pass, damn it!” growled the man at the left.

”Pass,” came from the next man.

”Pass,” echoed the last of the quartette.

Five blue chips dropped in a row upon the cloth.

”I open it.”

The dealer took up the pack lovingly.

”Cards?”

The man at the left, tall, gaunt, ill-kempt, flicked the pasteboards inhis hand to the floor and ground them beneath his heavy boots.

”Give me five.”

The point of the Vandyke beard was aimed straight past the speaker.

”Cards?” repeated the dealer.

”Five! Can't you hear?”

The man braced against the bar looked around with interest. In the maskof Mick Kennedy the single eye closed almost imperceptibly. Slowly theface of the dealer turned.

”I can hear you pretty well when you cash into the game. You already oweme forty blues, Blair.”

The long figure stiffened, the face went pale.

”You--mean--you--” the tongue was very thick. ”You cut me out?”

For a moment there was silence; then once more the beard pointed to theplayer next beyond.

”Cards?” for the third time.

Five chips ranged in a row beside their predecessors.

”Three.”

A hand, almost the hand of a gentleman, went instinctively to the gauntthroat of the ignored gambler and jerked at the close flannel shirt;then without a word the owner got unsteadily to his feet and followedan irregular trail toward the interested spectator at the bar.

”Have a drink with me, pard,” said the gambler, as he regarded theimmovable Mick. ”Two whiskeys, there!”

Kennedy did not stir, and for five seconds Blair blinked his dulled eyesin wordless surprise; then his fist came down upon the cottonwood boardwith a mighty crash.

”Wake up there, Mick!” he roared. ”I'm speaking to you! A couple of'ryes' for the gentleman here and myself.”

Another pause, momentary but effective.

”I heard you.” The barkeeper spoke quietly but without the slightestchange of expression, even of the eye. ”I heard you, but I'm not dealingout drinks to deadbeats. Pay up, and I'll be glad to serve you.”

Swift as thought Blair's hand went to his hip, and the rattle ofpoker-chips sympathetically ceased. A second, and a big revolver wastrained fair at the dispenser of liquors.

”Curse you, Mick Kennedy!” muttered a choking voice, ”when I orderdrinks I want drinks. Dig up there, and be lively!”

The man by the speaker's side, surprised out of his intoxication, edgedaway to a discreet distance; but even yet the Irishman made no move.Only the single headlight shifted in its socket until it lookedunblinkingly into the blazing eyes of the gambler.

”Tom Blair,” commanded an even voice, ”Tom Blair, you white liveredbully, put up that gun!”

Slowly, very slowly, the speaker turned,--all but the terribleCyclopean eye,--and moved forward until his body leaned upon the bar,his face protruding over it.

”Put up that gun, I tell you!” A smile almost fiendish broke over thefurrows of the rugged face. ”You wouldn't dast shoot, unless perhaps itwas a woman, you coward!”

For a fraction of a minute there was silence, while over the visage ofthe challenged there flashed, faded, recurred the expression we pay gooddollars to watch playing upon the features of an accomplished actor;then the yellow streak beneath the bravado showed, and the menacing handdropped to the holster at the hip. Once again Kennedy, who seldom made amistake, had sized his man correctly.

”What do I owe you altogether, Mick?” asked a changed and subdued voice.”Make it as easy as you can.”

Kennedy relaxed into his lounging position.

”Thirty-five dollars. We'll call it thirty. You've been setting them upto everybody here for a week on your face.”

”Can't you give me just a little more credit, Mick?” An expression meantto be a smile formed upon the haggard face. ”Just for old time's sake?You know I've always been a good customer of yours, Kennedy.”

”Not a cent.”

”But I've got to have liquor!” One hand, ill-kept, but long of fingersand refined of shape, steadied the speaker. ”I can't get along withoutit!”

”Sell something, then, and pay up.”

The man thought a moment and shook his head.

”I haven't anything to sell; you know that. It's the wrong time of theyear.” He paused, and the travesty of a smile reappeared. ”NextWinter--”

”You've got a horse outside.”

For an instant Blair's gaunt face darkened at the insult; he grew almostdignified; but the drink curse had too strong a grip upon him and theodor of whiskey was in the air.

”Yes, I've a good horse,” he said slowly. ”What'll you give for him?”

”Seventy dollars.”

”He's a good horse, worth a hundred.”

”I'm glad of that, but I'm not dealing in horses. I make the offer justto oblige you. Besides, as you said, it's an off season.”

”You won't give me more?”

”No.”

Blair looked impotently about the room, but his former companions hadreturned to their game. Filling in the silence, the dull clatter ofchips mingled with the drunken snores of the man on the floor.

”Very well, give me forty,” he said at last.

”You accept, do you?”

”Yes.”

”All right.”

Blair waited a moment. ”Aren't you going to give me what's coming?” heasked.

Slowly the single eye fixed him as before.

”I didn't know you had anything coming.”

”Why, you just said forty dollars!”

There was no relenting in Kennedy's face.

”You owe that gentleman over there at the table for forty blues. I'llsettle with him.”

Instinctively, as before, Blair's thin hand went to his throat,clutching at the coarse flannel. He saw he was beaten.

”Well, give me a drink, anyway!”

Silently Mick took a big flask from the shelf and set it with a decanterupon the bar. Filling the glass, Blair drained it at a gulp, refilledand drained it--and then again.

”A little drop to take along with me,” he whined.

Kennedy selected a pint bottle, filled it from the big flask, andsilently proffered it over the board.

Blair took the extended favor, glanced once more about the room, andstumbled toward the exit. Mick busied himself wiping the soiled bar witha towel, if possible, even more filthy. At the threshold, his hand uponthe knob, Blair paused, stiffened, grew livid in the face.

”May Satan blister your scoundrel souls, all of you!” he cursed.

Not a man within sound of his voice gave sign that he had heard, as theopened door returned to its casing with a crash.


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