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A short story by Anna Fuller

At The Keith Ranch

Title:     At The Keith Ranch
Author: Anna Fuller [More Titles by Fuller]

The dance was in full swing--a vehement, rhythmic, dead-in-earnest ranch dance. Eight couples on the floor tramped or tiptoed, as the case might be, but always in perfect time with the two unmelodious fiddles. The tune, if tune it might be called, went over and over and over again, with the monotonous persistency of a sawmill, dominating the rhythmic tread of the dancers, but not subduing the fancy of the caller-out.

The caller-out for the moment was a curly-headed lad of twenty, with a shrewd, good-humored face. He stood in a slouching attitude, one shoulder much higher than the other, and as he gave forth, in a singsong voice, his emphatic rhymed directions, his fingers played idly with the red-silk lacings of his brown flannel shirt. To an imaginative looker-on those idly toying fingers had an indefinable air of being very much at home with the trigger of the six-shooter at the lad's belt. So, at least, it struck Lem Keith.

"Swing him round for old Mother Flannigan!
You've swung him so nice, now swing him again, again!
On to the next, and swing that gent!
Now straight back, and swing your own man again!"

Tramp, tramp, tramp went the rhythmic feet; diddle-diddle-dee went the fiddles. There was not much talking among either dancers or sitters-out. Occasionally one of the babies in the adjoining bedroom waked and wailed, but on the whole they were well-behaved babies. There they lay on the bed, six in a row, while their mothers eagerly snatched their bit of pleasure at the cost of a night's sleep.

Lemuel Keith, joint host with his brother on this occasion, sat on a bench against the wall, contemplating with wonder the energy of these overworked women. Beside him sat the husband of one of them, a tall, gaunt ranchman, with his legs crossed, poising upon a bony knee an atom of humanity in a short plaided woollen frock.

"How old is your baby?" asked Lem, mindful of his duties as host.

"Four months," was the laconic reply; and as though embarrassed by the personal nature of the inquiry, the man rose and repaired to a remote corner, where he began a solemn waltz with his offspring in his arms.

It was an April evening, and the windows were open to the south. A cool night-breeze came in, grateful alike to dancers and lookers-on. Lem sat watching his twin brother Joe, who was taking his turn at the dance. Lem usually watched Joe when he had the chance; for if the brothers were bewilderingly alike in appearance, they were animated by a spirit so unlike, that Joe's every look and action was a source of interest to Lem. Indeed, it was his taste for Joe's society that had made a Colorado ranchman of him. Nature had intended Lemuel Keith for a student, and then, by a strange oversight, had made him the twin-brother of a fascinating daredevil for whom the East was too narrow.

Lem sat and watched Joe, and observed the progress of the dance, philosophizing over the scene in a way peculiar to himself. For his own part, he never danced if he could help himself, but he found the dancing human being a fruitful subject of contemplation. Joe's partner, in particular, amused and interested him. She was a rather dressy young person, with a rose-leaf complexion and a simpering mouth. Rose-leaf complexions are rare on the sun-drenched, wind-swept prairies, and the more effective for that. The possessor of this one, fully aware of her advantage, was displaying, for her partner's delectation, the most wonderful airs and graces. She glided about upon the points of her toes; she gave him her delicately poised finger-tips with a birdlike coyness which the glance of her beady black eyes belied. Joe was in his element, playing the bold yet insinuating cavalier.

Lem Keith found a fascination in this first ranch dance of his. He liked the heartiness of the whole performance; he enjoyed the sharp-cut individuality of the people, their eccentricities of costume and deportment; he was of too sensitive a fibre not to feel the dramatic possibilities of the occasion. "Tenderfoot" as he was, the fact could not escape him that a man in a flannel shirt, with a pistol at his belt,--and most of the men were thus equipped,--was more than likely to have a touch of lawlessness about him.

There was a pause between the two figures of the dance. Joe had taken his partner's fan, which he was gently waving to and fro before her face. She stood panting with affected exhaustion, glancing archly at her new "young man" from under studiously fluttering eyelids. The gaunt father, having stopped waltzing, had discovered that the woollen-clad baby was fast asleep on his shoulder. Over in another corner, under a window, was a red-faced cowboy, slumbering as tranquilly as the baby, his head sunk on his breast, a genial forelock waving lightly in the breeze. The fiddlers resumed their function. "Swing your pards!" cried the curly-headed boy; and once more all was commotion.

The room seemed hot and crowded. Lem had shifted his position, and was standing opposite the windows. He looked toward them, and his glance was arrested. In the square of light cast outside by the lamps within was a sinister, malignant face. It was the face of a man whom the Keith boys had seen to-night for the first time. He had paid his seventy-five cents, and had received his numbered ticket like the others, by which simple ceremony all the requirements of ranch etiquette were fulfilled. Bub Quinn they called him--Bub Quinn from the Divide. Rather a nice-looking fellow, the brothers had agreed, attracted by his brilliant smile and hearty hand-shake. It was Bub Quinn who had brought the girl that Joe was dancing with, and now that Lem came to think of it, he could not remember having seen her dance with any one else, besides Quinn himself. Lem's heart gave a heavy thump almost before his brain had grasped the situation. Yet the situation was very plain. It was Joe and his little fool of a partner that those malignant eyes were following.

They were light eyes, looking out from under level light eyebrows, and Lem frankly quaked at sight of them. The man's face was clean-shaven, showing high cheekbones and a firm, handsome mouth. He stood in an indolent attitude, with his hands in his pockets; but all the reckless passion of the desperado was concentrated in the level glance of those menacing eyes.

"Meet your partner with a double sashay," cried the curly-headed boy. Diddle-diddle-dee squeaked the fiddles. Lem looked again at his brother. He was flirting outrageously.

A door opened behind Lem, and a woman called him by name. He stepped into the kitchen, where two of his prairie neighbors were busy with the supper. It was Mrs. Luella Jenkins who had summoned him, kind, queer, warm-hearted Mrs. Luella. The "Keith boys" were giving their first dance, and she had undertaken to engineer the supper.

"We've got the coffee on," she remarked, pointing over her shoulder at a couple of gallon-cans on the stove, from which an agreeable aroma was rising.

"That's first-rate," said Lem, who had a much more distinct vision of Bub Quinn's eyes than of the mammoth tin cans. "Is there anything I can do to help?"

"Well, I dunno," Mrs. Luella ruminated. Her speech was as slow as her movements were quick. "I was thinkin' 't was 'most a pity you hadn't had bun sandwiches." She looked regretfully at the rapidly growing pile of the ordinary kind with which the table was being loaded. "The buns taste kind o' sweet and pleasant, mixed up with the ham."

Through the closed door came the scraping of the indefatigable fiddles. "Hold her tight, and run her down the middle!" shouted the voice of the caller-out.

"Over to Watts's last fall," Mrs. Luella rambled on, slicing ham the while at a great rate, "they had bun sandwiches, and in the top of ary bun there was a toothpick stickin' up. If you've got toothpicks enough about the place, we might try it. It looks real tasty."

"Mrs. Jenkins," Lem broke in, "do you know Bub Quinn?"

"No; nor I don't want to," Luella answered curtly.

"Why not?"

"He's too handy with his shooting-irons to suit my taste."

Then, resuming the thread of her discourse: "You don't think, now, you've got toothpicks enough? They'd set things off real nice." But Lem had departed.

"I s'pose he's kind o' flustered with givin' their first dance," she said apologetically to her coadjutor among the sandwiches.

Lem was a great favorite with Mrs. Luella. She liked him better than she did Joe. She was one of the few people who could, at a glance, tell the two brothers apart. She always spoke of Lem as the "little chap," though he was in fact precisely of a height with his brother; and she gave as the reason for the preference, that "the little chap wasn't a ramper." Unfortunately for Lem, perhaps, she was right. He was not a ramper.

As Lem stepped out into the other room, the caller-out was shouting, "Promen-ade all--you know where!" The sets were breaking up, and Joe with his best manner was leading his partner to a seat. The face had vanished from the window. Bub Quinn was striding across the room, and now planted himself in front of the recreant pair.

"You're to come with me, Aggy," he growled.

"Pray don't mention it!" cried Joe, relinquishing the girl to Quinn with a mocking reverence.

Shrugging her shoulders, and pouting, Aggy moved away with her captor; not, however, without a parting glance over her shoulder at Joe. The two brothers met at the kitchen-door.

"I say, Joe," Lem begged, "don't dance with that girl again."

"And why not!"

"You wouldn't ask why not if you had seen that ruffian's face at the window."

"Didn't I see it, though?" scoffed Joe, in high spirits, and Lem knew that he had blundered.

A new caller-out had taken the floor, and was shouting, "Seventeen to twenty-four, get on the floor and dance!"

The pauses are short at a ranch dance, for each man, having a right in only one dance out of three or four, is eager for his turn. The women on this particular occasion might have been glad of a rest, for there were only ten of them to satisfy the demands of all the men, and steady dancing from eight o'clock to three is no light task. Nevertheless, each one rose with sufficient alacrity in response to the polite inquiry, "Will you assist me with this dance?" and in a few minutes the same many-colored woollen gowns, and much befrizzled heads, which had diversified the last sets, were lending lustre to the present dance.

Neither Bub Quinn nor Joe Keith was included this time among those admonished to "get on the floor and dance," and Lem, thankful for the respite, stepped out on the piazza, where a group of men were lounging and smoking. The air outside was sharp and invigorating; the moon was full, and in its cold, clear light the Peak glimmered white and ghostly.

Lem strolled off the piazza, and over to the group of sorry-looking broncos, in saddle or harness, standing hitched to the fence. He pushed in among them, patting their heads, or righting the blankets of the few that were fortunate enough to have such luxuries. He felt as though he should like to enter into confidential relations with them. They seemed, somehow, more of his own kind than the rough, jostling, pugnacious beings passing themselves off as men and brothers within there. He poked about from one to the other of the sturdy, plush-coated little beasts, till he came to a great white plow-horse harnessed to a sulky, and looking like a giant in contrast with the scrubby broncos. The amiability which is supposed to wait upon generous proportions proved to be a characteristic of this equine Goliath, for at Lem's approach he cocked his ears and turned his head with marked friendliness. Lem looked across the creature's rough neck to the firm, strong outlines of "the range," showing clearly in the moonlight; he drew his lungs full of the keen, thin air. But neither "the strength of the hills," nor the elixir of the air, could restore his equanimity. He could not throw off the weight that oppressed him. There was no shirking the truth. He was deadly afraid of Bub Quinn; the sight of that lowering face at the window had caused in him a horrible physical shrinking; the dread of an undefined mischief brewing weighed upon his spirit like a nightmare.

"Great heavens! What a coward I am!" he groaned aloud.

The white horse rubbed his velvet nose in mute sympathy against the young man's shoulder; but there was no solace that the white horse could give. Lem leaned against the friendly neck, and shut his teeth hard together. A lifelong chagrin welled up in him, flooding his soul with bitterness.

If Lemuel Keith had not adored his brother, he would have hated him--hated him for possessing that one quality of rash courage beside which every other virtue seemed mean and worthless.

Presently he found himself looking in at the window again. Joe had disappeared from the scene. Bub Quinn and his Aggy were sitting side by side in stony silence. The fiddles had fallen into a more sentimental strain; hints of "The Mocking Bird" might be heard struggling for utterance in the strings. In this ambitious attempt the pitch would get lower and lower, and then recover itself with a queer falsetto effect. Charley Leroy, the crack "bronco-buster" of the region, was caller-out this time. He was less inventive than the curly-headed boy, but he gave out his commands in the same chanting measure, and the tramp, tramp of the feet was as rhythmic as ever. The curly-headed boy was having his turn at the dance, "assisted" by a sallow, middle-aged woman in a brown woollen dress, who made frequent dashes into the adjoining room to quiet her baby. Lem noticed that the hands of the curly-headed boy were so tanned that the finger-nails showed white by contrast. He also observed that Aggy's neck was as pink as her cheeks, which had not been the case half an hour before. In his effort not to look at Bub Quinn, Lem's attention had become vague and scattered. He fixed his eyes upon an elderly man of an anxious countenance, with a shock of tow-colored hair sticking straight out in all directions. The man was having some difficulty in steering his partner through an intricate figure; he was the only person on the floor who did not keep step, and his movements became at every moment more vague and undecided. When, at last, the wiry, determined-looking "bronco-buster" sprang upon the company the somewhat abstruse direction:

"Lady round the gent, and the gent don't go;
Lady round the lady, and the gent so-lo!"

the "gent" in question became hopelessly bewildered, and stood stock still in the middle of the floor. By the time the set was disentangled, the dance seemed to be over, and the "bronco-buster" dismissed the dancers with the cynical prophecy, "You'll all get married on a stor-my day!"

At this juncture, midnight being well passed, supper was announced. The kitchen door swung open, and the fragrant smell of the coffee took possession of the room, and floated out through the open window. As some one closed the window in his face, Lem followed the other loungers into the house. The men had all made a stampede for the kitchen; the women sat on chairs and benches against the wall, some of them leaning their heads back wearily, while others fanned themselves and their neighbors with vigor, not relaxing for a moment the somewhat strained vivacity which they felt that the occasion demanded. Bub Quinn's Aggy--no one knew her last name--sat a little apart from the others. She was apparently absorbed in the contemplation of her pocket-handkerchief, a piece of coarse finery, which she held by the exact middle, flirting it across her face in lieu of the fan, which had slid to the floor.

Lem paused on his way to the kitchen, and observed her closely. He saw the pink of her neck take on a deeper tinge, and at the same moment Bub Quinn and Joe brushed past him and stood before the girl, each offering her a plate on which reposed two sandwiches and a section of cucumber pickle.

This was Aggy's opportunity. She shrugged her shoulders, which were encased in red velveteen; she lifted and then dropped her eyes, poising her head first on one side and then on the other; she clasped her hands and wrinkled her forehead. Lem felt as though he were watching the capricious sparks which mark the progress of a slow match toward a powder-train. Bub Quinn, meanwhile, stood rooted before the girl, while Joe, having possessed himself of the fallen fan, met her coquetry with blandishments of the most undisguised nature. At length, hesitatingly, deprecatingly, she took Quinn's plate, but at the same time she moved along on the bench and offered Joe a seat. He promptly took it, and Quinn went away with the calmness of a silently gathering thunder-cloud.

Quinn did not dance again that night; he withdrew to the piazza, where he kept guard at the window hour after hour. Joe danced with no one but Aggy, and sat beside her between whiles. Lem wandered about, trying not to watch Quinn. He knew his brother too well to remonstrate with him again by so much as a look.

As the night wore on, the hilarity of the company increased, nothing daunted by the sight of a man lying here and there under a bench with a telltale black bottle protruding from his pocket. When the favorite figure of the "Bird in the Cage" was danced, and the caller-out shouted, "Bird flies out, and the crow flies in," everybody in the room, cried "Caw! caw!" in excellent imitation of the sable-hued fowl thereby typified, and the dancers, conscious of an admiring public, "swung" and "sashayed" with increased vehemence. Toward three o'clock Joe was again dancing with Quinn's Aggy, and as the caller-out chanted:

"Swing that girl, that pretty little girl,
That girl you left behind you!"

he advanced toward her with an air of mock gallantry. At the same moment Bub Quinn stalked into the middle of the set, a sombrero planted firmly on his head, a long cowhide whip in his hand. He seized Aggy by the arm with a grip that must have hurt her, and said, "I'm going home now; you can do as you d---- please." A pistol-shot could not have made half the sensation caused by this breach of etiquette; indeed, it would not have been half so unprecedented. Aggy turned with a startled defiance, but at sight of Quinn's face she recoiled.

"I'm all ready to go," she said sullenly; and too thoroughly cowed to cast even a parting glance at Joe, she hurried away to get ready for her twenty-mile drive. Joe, meanwhile, with perfect composure, provided himself with another partner, and the dance went on. And so the thunder-cloud had withdrawn, and the bolt had not fallen.

It was not until the gray dawn was in the sky that the last of the revellers drove through the cow-yard, and out across the prairie to meet the rising sun.

* * * * *

By the time a second dawn had come the daily routine at the Keith ranch was running in its accustomed grooves. The cows had already been milked, yesterday's butter already packed for shipment, and Joe, surrounded by bustling men and barking dogs, was attending to the departure of the milk-carts for the town. The Keith brothers had a young but thriving dairy-trade, and Joe was a great success in his character of "boss."

In a field bordering upon the highway, a mile away from the ranch-house, Lem Keith was plowing. There was something about this pastoral labor which was peculiarly congenial to Lem; perhaps because he did it well. Not one of the ranch "hands" could guide the plow with such precision through the loose prairie soil. Certainly, very few of them would have taken the trouble to set up a stake at the end of the furrow with a flying bit of red flannel to steer by. Lem had the habit of plowing with his eyes fixed upon the stake, his shoulders slightly stooping. Yet the sense of what was going on in the sky and on the prairie was never lost. To-day the sun rose as clear as a bell, flooding the fields with gold. Lem was plowing from east to west, a quarter-mile furrow. Whether he faced the mountains, answering the sunrise with a crimson glow, or the yellow prairie sea, with bold buttes standing out upon it like rock-bound islands, he could not go amiss. His eye met nothing, his thoughts touched upon nothing, which could jar upon his peaceful mood. The horses plodded steadily on with hanging heads; the plow responded like a live thing to his guidance; he knew that the long narrow furrow he was leaving behind him was as straight as the wake of a boat in still water. After all, ranch life was a fine thing. A man must be the better for breathing such air; a man must be the wiser for living so close to good old Mother Earth; a man must be--hark! Was that Joe's pony galloping across the field? Lem turned. No; the pony was a strange one. And the rider?

Bub Quinn had leaped to the ground not ten feet from him. He had flung the rein over the neck of his steaming bronco; but he himself was as calm and as cool as though he had not ridden twenty miles before sunrise at a break-neck gallop.

"I've come to settle accounts with you, mister," Quinn remarked in a drawling voice.

If the fellow had raged and cursed, if he had seemed to be in a passion, if his fists had been clenched, or the muscles of his face set, it would not have been so appalling. But this deadly composure, the careless indifference with which he held his pistol in his right hand, while his left hung loosely at his side, was more than terrifying; it was fairly blood-curdling.

Lem's hands had let the reins drop, and the horses had gone plodding on, the plow lurching and swaying at their heels.

For an instant Lem's brain whirled.

Swing that girl, that pretty little girl,
That girl you left behind you!

His brain seemed to be whirling to the tune of that jingle.

"If you've got anything to say," drawled Quinn, fingering the trigger, the pistol pointed at Lem's forehead--"if you've got anything to say, now's your chance. Sorry I can't allow you time to make a will," he added facetiously, "but I've got to get back to my work."

Lem's brain was clear now. There were no more jingles in it. Nothing was there but an overwhelming conviction that, if the man did not shoot quickly, Joe might arrive, and show Quinn his mistake. That must not be. Joe was too fine a fellow to end like this--like this!

Lem Keith was shuddering from head to foot, and his lips were stiff and blue, yet there was an odd, masterful ring in his voice as he cried, "Make haste, will you, and shoot!"

A shot rang out, and Lem fell, pierced, not by Bub Quinn's bullet, but by the living horror of death. On the furrows beside him Bub Quinn lay stretched, with blood oozing from his right shoulder.

That shot of Joe Keith's, as his pony tore across the plowed field, was long talked of on the prairie. The echo was still ringing in his ears when he sprang to the ground, and knelt beside his brother, searching for a wound. He could find none. He pressed his hand to Lem's heart; his own pulse was pounding so that he could feel no other motion. He lifted his brother's head and laid it against his own breast; he loosened his shirt and chafed his hands. The sun shone straight into the white face, and the eyelids moved.

"Lem! Dear old pal! Speak! Do speak!"

Lem's consciousness returned slowly, reluctantly; but he knew his brother's voice.

"Joe!" he muttered; "Joe!"

He made an effort to look about him; and first his eyes followed vaguely the wanderings of Quinn's bronco, which had strayed far afield, and he strove feebly to account for the pang that the sight gave him. Suddenly his consciousness adjusted itself, as a lock falls into place. He turned his eyes on Quinn, lying where he had fallen, the blood still flowing from his wound; and then he knew that he himself had only swooned.

He sat upright, clasping his knees with his two hands, and Joe stood over him, tenderly brushing the earth from his shoulder. At last Lem spoke, while a dark flush mounted slowly up into his temples.

"Joe!" he said, "I'm not hurt. You may as well despise me. I am a coward."

A look went across Joe's face, half-assenting, half-indulgent.

"Never mind, old boy," he said, with patronizing good-will; "we can't all be cut after the same pattern."

He extended his hand to help his brother to his feet. A movement caused him to turn. Quinn had gathered strength to speak. He was leaning on his left elbow, staring at the two brothers. His face was ghastly, but his voice had lost none of its drawling scorn as he said to Joe, slowly and distinctly, "You in-fernal idiot!"

Then a great light broke in upon Joe Keith's mind, and he knew the truth.

[The end]
Anna Fuller's short story: At The Keith Ranch