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A Sidekick’s Tale

by Elisabeth Grace Foley

Cover design copyright © Jennifer Zemanek/Seedlings Design Studio

Illustrations by Annie Grubb

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Copyright © 2017 by Elisabeth Grace Foley

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Meredith Fayett Makes a Proposal

Chapter 2: Clinching the Deal

Chapter 3: One Thing Leads to Another

Chapter 4: Hide and Seek

Chapter 5: Dinner With Lem

Chapter 6: What Grandma Started

Chapter 7: Chance Learns a Little More About My Family

Chapter 8: Aunt Bertha

Chapter 9: Family Meeting

Chapter 10: We Give a Surprise, and Get One

Chapter 11: Welcome Home

Chapter 12: Some More Give and Take

Chapter 13: Silver Tongue and Lead Bullet

Chapter 14: I Play Detective

Chapter 15: We Capture the Cabin

Chapter 16: How the Justice of the Peace Was Taken For a Ride

Chapter 17: Chance Issues Two Invitations

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Chapter 1: Meredith Fayett Makes a Proposal

The trouble began with a mortgage, which shouldn’t be taken lightly any more than a marriage. And if any of you think marriage should be taken lightly—well, you’ll find out, that’s all. That’s the whole moral of the story right there, really, but since people generally prefer the story to the moral, I suppose I’d better let you have the whole thing.

I wasn’t the principal player in it, but if it hadn’t of been for me none of it would have happened, which is saying something. There’s lots of fellows whose names don’t get into the history books, but if they hadn’t been there at the other fellow’s elbow at the right moment, the world would have—well, either have missed out on something sensational or been spared a lot of grief, I don’t know which. I’ll leave it to you to decide what I contributed.

There had to be a woman in the case, of course. Search for a female, as the French say. Meredith Fayett didn’t even look grown-up enough to be called a woman the first time I saw her. That was in—oh, ninety-seven or ninety-eight, a few years before the story really begins. Before the Maine blew up. She was just a bit of a girl with red-gold hair and a pretty smile who used to come down from St. Louis with her aunt for a few weeks in the summer. The old lady owned the Fayett ranch, which didn’t fit her too well—it let in too much fresh air at the seams—but that wasn’t her fault because it had come to her from a late older brother she didn’t get along with. But her niece liked the outdoors and she liked her niece, so she endured the outdoors. The ranch was a nice little place—small, I’ll grant, but it had a white frame house with creeping vines all over the front porch, and grew good crops of imported cattle and native alfalfa. Not a showpiece, but the barns didn’t leak and the house had been brought up to date with an icebox and screen doors and such.

Well, when the old lady died of a surplus of years the ranch came to Meredith Fayett. She came to the ranch about a month later, since she had always preferred it to St. Louis, and set right in learning how to manage the place. She learned quick and didn’t pester the lives out of us with foolish questions, neither. There was half a dozen of us working there, and during the old lady’s time we’d been mostly left to our own devices, though since the last foreman left Chance Stevens had been more or less in charge. We all thought for a lady boss, Meredith Fayett was all right—before long there wasn’t a one of us who wouldn’t have stood on his head if he thought it would do her some good.

She ended up asking for something a little more difficult.

One day when she’d been at the ranch for a couple of months, the banker in Culver’s Corners asked her to drop by his office. When she got there she found it wasn’t to take afternoon tea but to hear some startling financial facts. It seems a city lawyer had had the job of juggling her aunt’s investments and shares and salaries by long distance, and neither he nor Aunt had bothered much with the ranch. The brother beforehand had left the place mortgaged to the neck, and the Aunt preferred to spend as little of her income as possible on paying it off. So Banker Ross explained to Meredith Fayett that if she couldn’t put a lump sum on those back-payments right off, she’d lose the place in about a week.

I could tell she had something bothering her when she got back from town. She’d really come to love that place, and the idea of it going at auction wasn’t a pleasant one. She’d ridden to town and back, and she gave her horse to one of the boys to take care of and walked over to the house, twisting her quirt in her hands and wearing a little frown that was almost as pretty as her smile. She went up on the front porch, which ran along the front of the house and round the corner, and walked along it slowly till she came abreast of where Chance Stevens and I were unsaddling our horses near the yard pump on the other side of the railing. It’s something to think, you know, that if we’d unsaddled in the barn that day I might not be telling this story at all. Just goes to show you it’s the little things that count after all.

She wasn’t looking at us to begin with; we were just there; but then her eyes widened a little like she’d got an idea, and it was Chance her eyes were on. I don’t know why she picked him. All the boys were pretty decent upstanding fellows. I suppose it was because he was young and fairly good-looking, while the rest of us were over thirty and there wasn’t any artist who was going to ask to paint our pictures.

I could tell that whatever idea had come to her, it was the kind that scares you a little at first, because it’s so big you wonder how you could be the one to think of it. Then her face changed so I could see she was getting used to it, getting to the point where you begin to think it might actually work. It’s right about then that some people just blurt it out, before they’ve had a chance to think it over a second time and have second thoughts. That’s what Meredith did.

She put her hands on the railing and leaned over it. “Chance, could you do me a favor?”

He looked up quick and smiled at her. “Sure, Miss Meredith. What’s the trouble?”

“Would you—could you marry me?”

Chance was just bending down on the other side of his horse as she spoke, and he popped up and gave her a look across the saddle to make sure he’d heard what he thought he did. “What?”

“Well, not really. I mean, yes, really. But it wouldn’t be—I mean, you wouldn’t have to—” She turned about as pink as a June rose and stuck for a minute.

“Miss Meredith, are you—are you feeling all right?” said Chance, looking at her kind of concerned, and you couldn’t blame him.

“Oh, yes, I’m all right,” she said, smiling and looking a little embarrassed. “But I’ve got to be married before next Friday or I’m going to lose the ranch.”

That didn’t sound any saner to me. But Meredith Fayett was dead in earnest. She got up on the porch rail and sat there with her back to the post and explained it all, and Chance leaned his folded arms over his saddle and listened to her. She made an awfully pretty picture perched up there with the greenery hanging down behind her, swinging one little riding-boot back and forth as she talked. She looked like a sweet innocent little girl, and let me tell you, there had to be a fair amount of little girl left in any woman who could make a proposal like this and make it seriously.

“I never knew this property was mortgaged until recently. My father left me some money in trust that would help pay it off, but I can’t touch the capital until I come of age or marry. The interest isn’t enough to pay what’s due on the mortgage—and I won’t be twenty-one for six months. So I thought—if I could find someone to marry me—only on paper, you understand. I only thought I’d ask you, but of course you needn’t do it if you’d rather not. I just thought…”

She stopped, and sighed. I suppose she thought it was really too ridiculous and the ranch was as good as gone—and I agreed with her. The story of the pretty girl who’s going to lose the ranch is as old as barbed wire, but this adaptation was a new one on me and not likely to catch on with the public.

Chance pushed his hat back on his forehead. He was the sort who grasps things much too quickly—you know, the ones who can blurt out the answer to the arithmetic problem before you’ve got through reading it—which had frustrated me many a time before. But when he spoke I inwardly blessed my comparative slow-wittedness. Better slow than sorry, as the saying goes.

He said, “Well, no—I understand. I’d like to help you if I can…”

“It would only be for a few months,” said Meredith hopefully, “and it wouldn’t really mean anything. Unless—unless there’s another girl, or something of that sort—”

“No—no,” said Chance, looking almost as embarrassed as she did.

“And you needn’t worry about losing your job here. I suppose you can come back and work here just the same after you’ve abandoned me.”

“Hold up. When did I do that?” said Chance.

“That’s what’s required in order to get an annulment, afterwards,” said Meredith. “It’s a legal term,” she added, the way people do when they’re not quite sure what something means themselves.

She added hesitantly, “I could make it worth your while—if you’d like a raise in your pay, or—”

That did it. Chance was the high-spirited, sensitive kind that get offended when you mention money within a day’s march of something personal, and marriage is nothing if not personal. He stiffened up right away, frowning. “The last time I did somebody a favor I didn’t ask to get paid for it,” he said shortly. “I don’t want any money. I’ll do it. I’m glad to help you out.”

“Oh, thank you,” she said, breaking into that smile of hers, and you could tell that even though she’d been too shy to push a delicate question like proposing marriage to a fellow, she really wanted to keep that ranch. Chance brightened up like a mirror when you smile into it, and I couldn’t blame him for that, either. Meredith’s smile was more worth seeing than whatever most people meet there.

“When do you want to do it?” he asked.

She gave it a second’s thought. “Well, would tomorrow do? I want to take care of those payments as soon as I can. Tomorrow afternoon?”

“All right by me. Any time you say.”

All this time I’d been close by, watching like I was at a performance, and not entirely sure it wasn’t an opera of some kind by how improbable it was. Once Meredith Fayett had gone into the house I got out of the audience and let Chance Stevens have it good.

“I’ve witnessed some colossal pieces of impulse in my time,” said I, “but this one takes the cake. And I had you figured for a smart kid. I’ll bet you didn’t know that,” I added, which was probably true. I don’t believe in flattery.

Chance looked at me blankly, like he’d forgotten I was there, which he probably had. That happened sometimes when Meredith and I were both in the vicinity. Then he gave me a funny patronizing smile, like a man does whenever he’s mixed up with a woman and feels like he knows more about her than you ever could, and shrugged. “Aw, it’s nothing much.”

“You’re the first man I ever heard describe marriage as ‘nothing much’.”

Chance only laughed at me. “But Marty, it isn’t really marriage,” he said. “Didn’t you hear anything she said? It’s just on paper.”

“I’ve got ears, and I’ve got eyes, and I’m reasonably sure I’ve got brains,” said I. “I admit no bachelor can be rightly regarded as an expert on matrimony, even if he’s a minister, because his expertness doesn’t even extend as far as the honeymoon, which is a poor example in itself. But—”

“What are you talking about?” demanded Chance, who had been left even further behind than the marriage license, judging from the look on his face. I wondered how I could ever have appraised anyone who could look that foolish as a ‘smart kid.’

“Suffering sassafras!” said I, out of patience. “Listen here, Chance. I come from a large family, with plenty of women in it. Nine aunts and uncles—I mean nine pairs of them—besides my own folks, not to mention girl cousins and so on. I’m not against the married state, but I can say from secondhand experience it’s nothing to go into with your eyes shut and your hands tied behind your back.”

Chance didn’t seem to care. He just laughed again as he loosened the cinch and slid the saddle off his horse. “I told you, it’s not really marriage, the way we’re doing it.”

I shook my head. “Marriage is marriage, no matter how many times you two keep saying ‘not really’ like it’s some kind of hocus-pocus.”

“Oh, shut up,” said Chance good-naturedly. “I’m doing a lady a favor, that’s all; I’m not going to get in trouble. She’s square; she’ll do like she said and it’ll all be over in a few months.”

“It’s too good to be true,” I said gloomily, as I pulled the headstall over my horse’s ears. “I’m no legal or matrimonial expert, but you mark my words, sonny boy, there’s going to be a catch in it somewhere.”

Which there was, of course, though it wasn’t at all what I expected it to be.

Chapter 2: Clinching the Deal

Having seen the first act, I made sure I was on the spot when the curtain went up on the second one. You see, at this point I still thought it was free admission…but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Anyway, it wasn’t hard for me to tag along when Chance Stevens and Meredith Fayett rode into Culver’s Corners together the next afternoon. We didn’t look much like a wedding party. She had on her riding togs with the middy blouse and tie and the wide-brimmed hat she always wore outdoors, and Chance the same old blue shirt he wore every day—and me, I never was one for formal attire even on special occasions.

We reined up in front of the Justice of the Peace’s little office. “You’d better come in, Marty; we might need you for a witness,” said Chance as we dismounted.

“I’m not prepared to stand the damages if the deal falls through,” said I, “but I’ll come along and lend moral support. You’ll need it.”

“Oh, shut up,” he said, friendly as ever.

The Justice of the Peace was a fat bald little man with cheeks like apples and fingers like sausages. Taken altogether he’d have kept a whole tribe of cannibals happy for a week. He was a cheerful kind of creature too; he greeted Meredith like a long-lost daughter. She explained that she’d come to be married.

“Oh, then you’ve found one!” said the Justice of the Peace.

It seems the Justice of the Peace had foregathered with Banker Ross shortly after the man of money delivered his broadside to Meredith, and Ross had told him how Meredith needed to take a matrimonial partner into the firm by Friday or go bust—to prepare him for a visit at Thursday midnight if the search went down to the wire, I suppose. The Justice, who you might say had both a friendly and a professional interest in the case, was happy to find she’d succeeded.

“Well, shall we get down to business?” he said, rubbing his fat hands together and looking at Chance and me. “Which one of them is it?”

I withdrew myself from the running and retreated to a chair by the wall that offered a good view; in the dress-circle, you might say. The J. of the P. gets out a paper and busies himself with officialness. “Your full names, please.”

“Chance Alexander Stevens,” says the aforementioned a little stiffly.

(“Alexander!” says I to myself with a chuckle.)

“Meredith Clarice Fayett,” said she, quiet and cool. She’d begun to look a little pale and starry-eyed, just as if it was the real thing. To a woman a wedding is a wedding, with or without the trimmings.

The J. of the P. arranged himself behind the desk with his little book in both hands while they stood side by side opposite, and he sort of threw back his head and puffed out his chest and commenced reading in a pompous voice, enjoying every second of it. “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to join together this man and this woman in holy matrimony. You may now kiss the bride.”

Chance and the girl both kind of jumped and threw a scared look at each other. The J. of the P. gave a foolish giggle. “Oh, excuse me. I skipped a page.”

Both of them looked a sigh of relief, although you couldn’t hear anything, and settled down again. But Chance tugged uneasily at his neckerchief. He was starting to sweat a little.

The J. of the P. had wound himself up again and was rolling on. “Do you, Chance, take this woman to be your lawful wedded wife, to love and to cher—to, er—hmmm…let’s see…”

He frowned at the book. The discrepancy between the ceremony and the circumstances was holding him up a little.

He tried again. “Let’s put it this way: Do you, Chance, promise to adhere to whatever agreement you two have settled between yourselves, for as long as ye both shall deem it necessary?”

He had imagination, that little judge.

“Sure,” said Chance. He didn’t.

“Do you, Meredith, take this man to be your lawful wedded husband, promising to comply with the terms and conditions of said agreement, for better or worse?”

By this time I think he’d forgotten whether he was assisting at a marriage or conspiring at a mortgage.

“I do,” said Meredith, quiet like before. She hadn’t.

“And now the ring!” said the J. of the P. brightly.

“Oh,” said Meredith, looking distressed. She looked up at Chance and over at the Justice. “We forgot about that. Do we need to have one?”

“Well, it isn’t—so far as I know—required by law,” said the J., “but I always recommend it. It adds a certain stamp of—shall we say respectability?—to the proceedings.” The Justice was evidently a fellow who took some pride in his work. He wasn’t one for doing things halfway.

That was when I had my brilliant inspiration.

“Hey!” I said. I sprang up from the witness-chair and began digging in my pockets as I made my way up to the altar. “I’ve got something here that might work.”

I held it out to Meredith. It was no slouch of a ring, either. It was real gold, I think, though a little tarnished, and the green stone in the middle still sparkled nice after quite a while down in my pocket. It looked a lot better out where the light could get to it. Meredith gave a kind of “ohhhh” and took it pretty near reverently. “It’s beautiful, Marty,” she said. “It looks old, too. It must be an heirloom.”

“It was my grandmother’s,” I said with satisfaction.

That touched her even more. “Are you sure you want to give it away? No, you ought to keep it,” she said, trying to hand it back to me.

“No, no, you go ahead and use it. I’ve been carrying that around a long time—always figured I’d find the right girl to give it to someday,” I said, chuckling at my own joke.

The Justice of the Peace shook his fat cheeks a little, like he was trying to clear a muddled head. “I really am getting too old for this sort of thing,” said he to himself.

I didn’t catch on until Chance elbowed me, and then I realized I was breaking up the J.’s field of vision, right there between the bride and groom. I sidestepped and came up on Chance’s right. Meredith had already slipped the ring on her finger and was sort of brooding over it. The J. of the P. perked up again and rolled out the concluding paragraph: “So, by the powers vested in me by the State of Missouri, I pronounce you man and wife, to all legal intents and purposes. And here we are on page twenty-seven again,” he added, with another giggle.

They were beginning to look uncomfortable again, but the ever-resourceful Justice, who was the only one to see the humor in that particular clause of the ceremony, came to the rescue. “Sometimes the letter of the law is not—well, what’s required here is a tangible token of both parties’ willingness to seal the agreement. I suppose shaking hands would do.”

“Works to clinch most deals,” I said.

They followed his suggestion, and Meredith held on to Chance’s hand for a minute and looked up into his face. “Thank you,” she said softly, and you could see just how grateful she was.

“Don’t mention it,” said Chance, with a rather foolish smile.

“Case dismissed,” added the Justice of the Peace.

He shook hands with us all around, and gave Meredith a copy of the marriage certificate—to show the bank she hadn’t taken any shortcuts, I suppose. Once she got that she was all in a flutter, and told Chance she wanted to go over to the bank right away and make sure they wired her father’s lawyer in time. So she said goodbye to the Justice and went out ahead of us.

When we were out on the porch, and she was out of sight, Chance drew his sleeve across his forehead and blew out a deep breath, like a man who’s just escaped from a hot room. The J.’s office hadn’t been particularly stifling.

“Well, that wasn’t so bad after all,” I said with what was supposed to be killing irony. “Really nothing to it, is there?”

“Oh, shut up,” said Chance, but without his usual friendliness.

Chapter 3: One Thing Leads to Another

We met Meredith coming back from the bank, a happy uplifted look on her face. The ring on her hand flashed when the sun hit it, and I remarked to myself that it did go nice with her complexion. One good thing that had come out of that day’s work, at least.

“It’s all right,” she said. “The payment will be made as soon as the money is wired down here. I’m so relieved; I don’t know how to thank you, Chance.”

Then Chance said something that sounded kind of impertinent, but made me look at him like he was a whole lot smarter than I’d had him figured for. I began to think that Meredith Fayett—excuse me, Meredith Stevens—could have done worse.

He said, “If you’re planning to sink a big chunk of that trust on the mortgage, what are you going to live on? There won’t be much interest off what’s left.”

Meredith nodded thoughtfully. “I know. I talked about that with Mr. Ross when this first came up, and I decided I’d have to choose between the ranch and the income. I don’t want to live in the city—and I have a little money my aunt left me. I’ll just have to make the ranch pay from now on.”

There were a lot of choice remarks jostling each other on my tongue about being willing to commit matrimony just to possess yourself of a little one-horse ranch in an indifferent shape and not overmuch cash to run it with, but I swallowed them untasted.

“Well,” said Chance, “if you want to improve the herd, I’d start by culling it down and selling off the odds and ends. You could put a field or two into a cash crop, too; that would help.”

“I’ll do it!” said Meredith decidedly. “It sounds sensible to me. Why did you never suggest it before, Chance? I’ve spent all this spring wondering what more could be done with the ranch that wasn’t being done.”

Chance looked down at the ground and scuffed his boot in the dust. “I’m only a hired hand, Miss Meredith—I didn’t figure I had the right to make suggestions without your asking for them.”

“Well, I wish you would,” said Meredith. “I’ll be glad of any suggestions you can make. I’m going to need all the help I can get!” She gave him another rendition of her particular smile.

“After all,” I told Chance as we headed back to our horses, “maybe you have a little more right to give advice now. You’re not just a hand, you’re a husband. But oh, I forgot—not really.”

“Oh, shut up,” said Chance in a hurry, like he thought Meredith might hear.

A few blocks along the main street, as we rode out of town, we passed the building that Roger Torrance called his office—which the only things he had to support this claim were that it had four walls, a roof, a door and some windows, as offices generally do. What’s more, Roger Torrance himself was standing on the front porch. He was supposed to be a surveyor, but I don’t know how he made a living at it because I never personally knew him to do a lick of work in his life. He was a young man with smooth black hair who spent his time going about looking smart in suits that looked like they stepped out of a mail-order catalogue, ties too good to be true, a hat tipped at an angle that made you want to knock it the rest of the way off and a charming, supercilious smile that inspired similar thoughts. When I’d been in town with Meredith Fayett a few times before, I’d seen him occupying her vicinity and making himself agreeable, all nods and becks and wreathed smiles. As we passed now, he straightened up from where he’d been artistically leaning against a post and touched his hat to her.

“Good afternoon, Miss Fayett,” he said.

Meredith blushed a little. You could tell from the way he said it that Roger Torrance knew she wasn’t (strictly speaking) Miss Fayett any longer. In a place like Culver’s Corners everybody knows everything about you almost before you know it yourself.

“We haven’t seen as much of you in town lately,” said Torrance. “I hope your ranch doesn’t keep you too busy—because the loss is ours.”

He tossed an indifferent nod somewhere in the neighborhood between Chance and me, like he’d just happened to notice we were there. I rode on thinking that if I’d been the sort to carry a gun all the time, how I would have liked to put a few slugs on the ground near Torrance’s feet and spatter dust all on his pretty new clothes. I had an uncle who taught me that trick once.

I saw Chance throw a disgusted look over his shoulder at him too as we passed. But Meredith just smiled and bowed a little after Torrance spoke to her, and rode on. I think the main reason that kind of bird maddens decent fellows is that they can never understand why women go for it like they do. You’d think any girl with half a grain of sense would know a creature like Torrance isn’t worth half the price of his fancy outfit, but even women with more than their fair share of smarts get taken in by his kind every day.

Where was I? Oh. Well, by all rights that should have been the end of the whole affair, at least until after they’d figured out how the abandonment-and-annulment business worked, when there would have been some more officialness and everybody would have been right back where they started. But it wasn’t—not by a long shot. And the reasons why not were a study in how one thing leads to another.

The first thing I noticed was how after this, Meredith and Chance got to be friends in an odd kind of way. I suppose being married, even if it’s just on paper, has that effect on people. Not that things weren’t a little awkward between them at first, of course. I’d never known Chance to trip over his own feet before. To try and imagine what the two of them must be thinking whenever they met made me feel almost as muddled in the head as the old J. of the P.

But they got over that soon enough and became downright companionable. Chance used to hang around the house sometimes in the evenings, and Meredith would come out to the corner of the porch with the vines on it and talk to him. If I happened to be outside I’d hear their voices, and Meredith’s laugh, which was as simple and pretty as the rest of her, drifting across the yard in that easy kind of quietness you get around sundown, and look over to see her sitting in the porch swing and Chance leaning against the railing, looking like they were getting along first-rate. They’d talk till far past dusk sometimes. That muddled me even more, but if they were content, I wasn’t going to stretch my brain trying to wrap it around the whys and wherefores.

Next came the interest Meredith started to take in raising cattle. Not the old-fashioned way with roundups and branding-irons, but the scientific method of cultivating and grafting them and giving them vitamins and plotting out their geographical bloodlines in a notebook and such. She got books and pamphlets from the livestock societies and read up on the subject, and invested some of the Aunt’s legacy in whitewashing the old barns and buying stainless-steel grain buckets (all of which probably would have horrified the Aunt if she’d been around to see it), and she began making some right-smart little deals in new fancy-blooded stock to help with the cultivating. I suppose this was some of what she and Chance used to talk about in the evenings. Like I said, he was a smart boy; he’d been to school and all that and he’d sometimes come out with surprisingly intelligent ideas. I think he was about the closest thing to a congruous combination of an old-time cowpuncher and what they call the Modern Farmer that you’d ever hope to see.

The upshot of this was that the old Fayett place began to really wake up and stretch itself. I’d swear the barns stood up straighter. The new coat of paint didn’t bother its antebellum charm, but the scientific methods were being proved in theory to make a pleasant impression on the bank-book. You couldn’t exactly have rolled in the accumulated wealth, but you could have sat on it comfortably. And a comfortable chair is about all anyone can ask for. It would suit me. The new order of things suited most everybody pretty well—I say most because one of the hands did quit; he said there were getting to be too many fences for his taste, but I think he really meant too many gates because he was always forgetting to close them and Chance told him that if he didn’t develop a taste for remembering he’d assist his memory by—but that’s another story. The fellow left, and I got to open and close the gates.

And what all this led to in the end was the cattle-buying trip that Chance and I went on. Meredith had her eye on another batch of experimental livestock, a local recipe cooked up by another scientifically-minded rancher over in the town of Radley Hill, quite a decent distance away, and she wanted Chance to go and take a look at them and see if they were worth considering or just a quack formula. I was going along mainly to keep him company, though I fully intended to shove my oar in if I contracted an opinion of my own. I was generally the fifth wheel to the combine as far as all this Modern Farming was concerned, but life around the Fayett place had been so pleasant lately that I didn’t mind.

We got off early one cool morning just as the sun was giving advance notice over behind the hills. This was around three months after the Justice of the Peace had ad-libbed his way through the wedding scene. Meredith came running out of the house just as we had finished saddling up, with a lunch she’d packed for us to take along. She was prettier than ever, and looked to me like she’d grown up a little since she began taking responsibilities into her own hands. And she was still wearing the ring I’d given her. I don’t know if it was because she felt she ought to, being legally married and all, or if she just liked the ring. Maybe both.

Anyway, she gave Chance the bag of lunch and a few last-minute instructions, which she’d already given him before, of course, and then we said goodbye and mounted up. It was a pretty morning, all right, with the birds singing up in the tops of the trees and everything looking fresh and ready to go, and we were feeling all right and ready to go ourselves. Chance whistled a bit of a tune as we jogged out of the yard. When we got to where the lane bent around the trees to join the road we both turned in our saddles to look back, and Meredith was waving goodbye to us from the porch.

Chapter 4: Hide and Seek

It’s never any use to speculate on what might have happened if what did happen hadn’t happened. For instance, what might have happened if Chance and I had actually reached the laboratory of the scientific rancher. I’ve thought about it sometimes, but never for long. Because there’s probably nothing that could have beaten what did happen.

We were several days into our trip and a considerable distance from home. It was kind of a hot day so we were taking it easy, letting our horses amble along. We were on a flat stretch of road with a pretty steep sandy bank sloping down on the right to something between a creek and a river; and on our left a grassy bank sloped up into some trees with long branches that hung down and trailed on the ground. Up ahead the road made a long curve around to the left, and the river or whatever it was followed it around the curve, so we could see the water twinkling right in front of us about half a mile away.

It really was a prime place for an ambush, but of course we weren’t thinking about that. Having your mind too much on Modern Farming can make you forget about the primitiveness of Missouri, where they still run to bushwhacking on occasion. At any rate, we were going along when all of a sudden a voice behind us says, “Hold up!”—not threateningly, but just to let us know someone was there.

Chance and I reined in and looked around to see who it was, but before we got a good look several other persons came sliding down the bank out of the tree branches, and before we knew it we were surrounded by four men on foot, armed with various models of rifles. They closed in on us without saying a word.

“Don’t shoot,” said Chance, for of course we had our hands well up in the air by this time. “We haven’t got enough money on us to make it worth your while, boys.”

“This crew looks like they’d plug a man for his shirt, even with the hole in it,” said I.

But here a voice spoke up from behind us, which we recognized as the original hold-up voice: “Quit that foolishness. It’s you we’re after, Marty Regan, and you know why.”

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