But Crook did not look like a man who wished to receive confidences. He was asking for facts, and[Pg 301] seeking them out with a cold, sharp eye. "I have been married nearly a year," said Cairness, shortly.

She sprang to her feet so suddenly that her arm struck him a blow in the face, and stood close in front of him, digging her nails into her palms and breathing hard. "If you—if you dare to say that again, I will kill you. I can do it. You know that I can, and I will. I mean what I say, I will kill you." And she did mean what she said, for the moment, at any rate. There was just as surely murder in her soul as though those long, strong hands had been closed on his throat. Her teeth were bared and her whole face was distorted with fury and the effort of controlling it. She drew up a chair, after a moment, and sat in it. It was she who was leaning forward now, and he had shrunk back, a little cowed. "I know what you are trying to do," she told him, more quietly, her lips quivering into a sneer, "you are trying to frighten me into marrying you. But you can't do it. I never meant to, and now I would die first."

The bids, duly sealed, were given into the keeping of the commissary officer to be put in his safe, and kept until the day of judgment, when all being opened in public and in the presence of the aspirants, the lowest would[Pg 188] get the contract. It was a simple plan, and gave no more opportunity for underhand work than could be avoided. But there were opportunities for all that. It was barely possible—the thing had been done—for a commissary clerk or sergeant, desirous of adding to his pittance of pay, or of favoring a friend among the bidders, to tamper with the bids. By the same token there was no real reason why the commissary officer could not do it himself. Landor had never heard, or known, of such a case, but undoubtedly the way was there. It was a question of having the will and the possession of the safe keys. She did not. She would as lief touch a toad.

She denied the idea emphatically. Cairness started for the salt lick, then changed his mind and his destination, and merely rode with Forbes around the parts of the ranch which were under more or less cultivation, and to one of the water troughs beneath a knot of live oaks in the direction of the foot-hills. So they returned to the home place earlier than they otherwise would have done, and that, too, by way of the spring-house.

After tea the ranchers settled down to smoke and read. The Reverend Taylor brought out his collection of specimens and dilated upon them to Cairness.

He changed his position leisurely, stretching out at full length and resting his head on his hand by way of gaining time. Then he told her that it was not until after he had caught and landed her husband that he had discovered that Stone was in it.