Page Two

CHAPTER II.
THE DUEL.
An ordinary duel on the Texas border was only of passing moment; but this one between the Regulator chief and the one-legged stranger was of more than common importance; and the next day’s rising sun beheld men gathering from every quarter, till such a multitude was upon the spot as, had never been seen on Chester Border. All of Chesterville was there, and from neighboring sections of the county, to which the news had spread like wildfire, parties had congregated, all anxiously waiting for the appearance of the duelists, who had not yet arrived.

The crowd was not kept in suspense long, for soon the dashing, handsome figure of Curt Dash, upon his spirited bay gelding, was seen approaching at a smart canter; and but a short distance behind came the mysterious One Leg, erect as a centaur upon his powerful, dark red roan.

The arrival of the duelists was the signal for action, as the appointed time was up; and while the curious spectators were watching the strange horseman, and admiring the coolness and splendid bearing of the Regulator chief, Gil Ray and Mark Waring, who had been chosen to act as seconds, were measuring off the ground, and making other preparations for the coming combat.

When every thing was In readiness, the parties were requested to take their position, which was to be about sixty yards apart, each turned back to the other; and after counting the usual number, three, Gil Ray was to give the word for them to turn and fire as they advanced. If the first attempt should fail to unhorse one or both, it was to be repeated, for they could fire but once at a time, as the stranger carried a single-barreled rifle.

Curt Dash had already made arrangements with his friends to see that his few last requests should be faithfully executed, in case he should fall, and was now impatient to have the affair over. But the Unknown seemed regardless of what the consequences might be to him, and was about to silently take his position, when his second, Mr. Waring, reminded him of it by saying:

“Stranger, as your second in this affair, I feel it my duty to ask if you have no last request to make, for, not knowing what the result may be, it is best to be prepared for the worst. Anything you desire I will do, if you will make It known.”

“Thank you, friend, if I can take the liberty to call you such,” answered the other;” I have one request to make. If I fall, please see that my body has proper burial. I wish that I may lie by the edge of yonder chaparral, if it is not asking too much. For your trouble, I give you my noble horse.”

“Have you no message to leave for anyone?” asked Waring, as the other hesitated.

“No,”. answered the mysterious man, almost sadly; “there is not a single person in the whole wide world to whom it matters whether I live or die.”

At last, all preliminaries are ended; the combatants have taken their places and the anxious, excited crowd is impatiently waiting for the signal word to be given; thinking not, caring not, to their excitement, that it is to sign the death warrant of one or both of the men before them, only wishing to hear it, that the suspense may be broken, the result known.

Every eye is turned upon the horsemen, continually changing from one to the other. But, not a tremor is seen upon either. Both, alike, seem ready and waiting for the crisis. They are well matched; the only advantage going in favor of the Unknown, whose horse is better trained than the Texans high-spirited steed; yet, the Regulator is a splendid rider.

Standing at an equal distance from each adversary, so as to be heard by both alike, Gil Ray is ready for his part of the work; and in a clear, distinct tone, he commences:

“One!”

Like a knell, the word rings out with awful distinctness.

Two!

The duelists clutch their rifles, but show no signs of fear. The silence upon the scene is perfect– the suspense, terrible.

“Three!”

Clear and distinct the monosyllable breaks upon the stillness, fairly stifling the bated breath of the lookers on. The silence seems to crush everything; even the air is hot, and heavy. Breathless the spectators stand riveted to the spot, until–

“Fire!”

The spell is broken; quick almost as the lightning’s flash, the combatants wheel their horses; and as they come into position, each brings his rifle to the shoulder. But quick as is Curt Dash with his rifle, the Unknown is even quicker, and before the Regulator can bring his weapon to bear; the other pulls the trigger; a sharp spang rings out upon the still morning air. But, oh, stranger! where now is thy vaunted skill? for unhurt, untouched, Curt Dash still sits upon his horse, pale as death, but firm as a rock. Instantly the Regulators cheek presses his rifle-stock; his keen eye glances along its barrel; his finger pulls the trigger–a flash–a ringing report–and with a low groan his antagonist falls back upon the haunches of his horse, and slips to the earth.

As the stranger was seen to fall, a murmur of assent went up from the throng, which soon Increased and grew into a mighty shout, repeated again and again, till the prairie seemed to echo the cry.

“Is he dead?” asked Curt Dash, as soon as the applause was over, riding forward to the spot which was now the center of an excited crowd.

“Yes, captain,” answered Mark Waring, who had been the first to reach the stranger’s side, and was already examining his wound; “your shot was a fatal one. A man shot straight through the heart can make but a small show for life, I am thinking.”

“I wish it might have been different,” said the Texan; “but he would have it so.”

“Tut, tut, Cap!” exclaimed the redoubtable Hank Webber, “don’t feel bad for what you done. The quarrel was of One Leg’s own making, and he has been the loser.”

The duel was over; and all seemed satisfied with the result. But with the sober second thought all boisterous rejoicing ceased. The first thought told them that their favorite was safe; the second, that his safety was due to the untimely end of his antagonist. Thus what their friend had gained another had lost, and the thought hushing all enthusiasm the clamor was succeeded by silence.

After satisfying himself that the wound was fatal, Waring carefully replaced the unfortunate man’s clothing; and arising to his feet, turned to the company, saying:

“Well, boys, you know I promised the stranger that he should have proper burial, if affairs should turn as they have. Now, if some of you will lend your aid, we will do it at once, unless “and he turned to the crowd- “there is some one here who is a friend or relative of the dead. It there is, that person will please come forward.”

But no one answered the summons; none seemed to know of or care aught for the stranger, except that he was a human being; and seeing this, a couple of the Regulators took up his body and bore it away under the lead of Mark Waring, followed by those present, who fell into a long procession, a line of unweeping mourners.

During all this time, One Leg’s horse had not moved from, his tracks; but as he saw his master borne away, he gave a low whinny, and started to follow, when Gil Roy caught him by the bridle. This so frightened the steed that he reared and plunged furiously, till suddenly, the bridle broke like rotten twine, and slipped from his head. Free! A wild snort, and the roan was fleeing over the plain at a mad gallop. To pursue would be useless, so the discomfited ex-mountaineer was fain to look at the broken bridle, and think of “what might have been.”

With suitable tools and plenty of willing help it was the work of but a few minutes to prepare a grave for the unfortunate One Leg; then his body was placed alongside of the pit, a prayer was offered up for his soul’s salvation by a fitting person; then the maimed body was lowered down to its last resting-place, when it was quickly hidden from all by the cold earth: One Leg, the Duelist was at rest!

After seeing the body covered, with the loose earth,, the crowd turned away, many of them seeking he Prairie Home, leaving Waring and another of the Regulators to fill up the grave, which was soon accomplished, when they two joined the others at the general rendezvous of Chesterville, to join in the “celebration” of the victory of Curt Dash, who now stood higher than ever in the estimation of his followers. But no one cared to think or speak of One Leg, the Unknown. He was a stranger who had died in a duel of his own provoking, and it was not for them to mourn for one who had said, himself, that it mattered not whether he lived or died.

Thus commenced and ended that strange duel, not one of all that crowd dreaming that it was but the beginning of a terrible epoch in the history of Chesterville. It was soon forgotten, and the lonely grave by the edge of Chester chaparral ceased to be even a “nine days’ wonder.”

Alas! many are the graves of unfortunate duelists covered by the long grass of Texas!

CHAPTER III

MAN PROPOSES, WOMAN DISPOSES.

The Prairie Home, owned by one of the leading men of Chesterville, Orman Burley, standing under the shading branches of a huge live-oak in the center of a small tract of prairie, a corner of Chester Plain, separated from the main body on the north by the chaparral already mentioned, was rightly named. Like a sentinel it stood, alone– a Prairie Home truly. Its nearest neighbor was a small plantation a quarter of a mile to the west, owned jointly by a couple of the Regulators, one our friend Mark Waring, and the other a coming acquaintance, Rock Randel, an ex-plains man better known by the sobriquet of Dandy Rock. Chesterville proper lay half a mile to the south, on the banks of the sluggish Rio Burte, which has its source back somewhere in the Red Lands. Half a mile to the east was Conrad Mansion, so called. A third of a mile nearly to the north of this, and a mile north-east of the Prairie Home,partially hidden from view by the straggling growth of acacias that surrounded it, stood the costly residence of the foremost ranch man in Shelby county, and one of the three first settlers of Chesterville, Col. Arthur L. Raymun. And here it is we would have the reader accompany us in imagination, for this is the home of one whom it is now our duty to introduce.

In the early dawn of womanhood, Bessie Raymun was the embodiment of perfect health. Of medium height, with a symmetrical form, a fair, pure complexion of a type midway between the blond and the brunette, and a sweet, tender face with clearly-cut features, with darkly glowing eyes fringed with long, drooping lashes, with coral-tinted lips, and cheeks softly flushed with the hue of the rose, with a muss of long, glossy-brown hair falling about her neck and shoulders in becoming negligence, she was as graceful as a gazelle, as light-hearted as a bird, as lovely as a flower, and as spirited as an untamed antelope–a true daughter of the frontier–a model for the painter, a theme for the poet.

She was an only daughter–beg pardon, we came near forgetting a certain blue-eyed Alice, an adopted child, whom Colonel Raymun had picked up on Chester Plain, when but a wee bit of a babe, and. tenderly cared for, giving her his name, and allowing her to share every privilege and advantage with his own, and who was expected to become a daughter in reality when the handsome, manly Walter should return from college. So we will say she was the daughter of kind, indulgent parents, sharing with an adopted sister all their great love and pride, knowing naught but happiness, and, apparently, a future as bright as the noonday sun.

Possessing, in addition so her personal charms, a liberal education, and accomplishments which the best might well envy, with a fair expectation of bringing to her husband elect a handsome dowry, it was no wonder that half of the marriageable men of Chesterville would have willingly laid their all at her feet but it was a wonder that she–a woman –should have treated them all so nearly alike that even the shrewdest could not tell the favored one, though surmises were rife. To partially unfold the history and mystery of a young girl’s heart, let us play the part of eavesdropper to a conversation between Col. Raymun and his daughter, in the arbor in front of the house where they have gone. “Well, Bessie,” the colonel is saying, “the captain comes to-day for his answer. I suppose you have decided ere this what it will be.”

“Yes, father; my decision was made at the time. In fact, I gave Captain Dash to understand what he was to expect.”

“What! do you still persist in that absurd aversion to one who is so worthy of your esteem? Why is it, when Captain Dash offers you so much– all that man can offer woman that you treat him so lightly?”

“Father, although I highly respect Curtis Dash, I do not, and can not, love him as a wife ought to love a husband. Is not that sufficient reason?”

“Tut, tut, daughter! the captain’s equal is not found in Chesterville. He is all I would ask for a son-in-law– a handsome, educated, accomplished, true hearted, energetic man, with true military bravery and genius.” (We must forgive the colonel if he slightly emphasizes the last part, as he is every inch a soldier, barely past the prime of life, with an enviable military record, won in defense of his country, under General Jackson, in his southern campaign.) “I know of no one so worthy of your hand; so throw aside your scruples–I know they are unfounded–and come to that decision which will be so gratifying to your mother and me, and which I doubt not will prove so satisfactory to yourself.”

“Father, you know not what you are asking. It is not through any fault of his that I reject Captain Dash, for I consider him worthy of any woman’s love; but-but—I do not love him,”.

“But why this change, Bessie? There was a time when you manifested a decided preference for the captain. Now, without giving single reason for the change, you almost ignore him. But, ah, let me see; if I remember this alteration began about the time that young Will Manners rescued you from the Rio Burte. Tell me, is it because you fancy another that the offer of Curt Dash is about to be rejected ?”

We hear no reply, but a telltale blush answers what speech does not “Can it be that you prefer Will Manners to Captain Dash! I have nothing against Mr. Manners, as far as I know, he may be a good fellow; but he is young, inexperienced, and poor; he lacks, too, the captain’s energy and firmness of character.”

“But, father, he is honest and willing to try for himself.”

“He may be, but we are hardly competent to judge, as it has been so short a time since we have known him. We do know the captain, and why should we throw away a certainty for an uncertainty? I will say there is not a man in all Chesterville whom I should rather have for–“

The sound of rapidly approaching footsteps interrupted the speech and the next moment, the subject of their conversation,. Curt Dash, appeared upon the scene, with a–

“Beg pardon, colonel, Miss Raymun. I did not intend to intrude; but they told me I should find you in the grove, and thither I was bound.”

“No need of apology, captain, for there has been no transgression, I assure you. In fact, Bessie and I were expecting your arrival, and our conversation was of you.”

“Ah!” exclaims Curt, with a smile; “I can only hope it was for my good.”

“It was of a matter of vital importance, which not only concerns you, but the future happiness of my daughter. We were speaking of that answer which I suppose you are expecting to receive. I can only hope, sir, it will be as favorable as you wish; but, as a gentleman, do not abuse this confidence.”

A polite apology for withdrawing, from the colonel In his usual brusque way, and the Regulator chief is alone with his love-alone with his fate. “Yes, Bessie–Miss Raymun,” he cries, as the last sound of the colonel’s footsteps die away in the distance, “your father was right; I have come for that answer you promised me to-day; and, judging by his tone, I am to expect a favorable one. Say, am I hoping in vain?”

A moment of painful embarrassment follows, broken at length by Miss Raymun saying, in a low, beseeching tone:

“Oh, forgive me, Captain Dash, but much as it pains me to say it, I cannot give you a favorable answer.”

As the words so different from those expected fall from the others lips, a shadow passes o’er the handsome features of the Regulator; but in a moment it is gone, when, seizing her hand, and dropping upon his knees before her, he cries in a quick, earnest voice:

“Do not say more, I entreat you. If it can not be ‘yes,’ do not say no!’ It may be folly, it may be wrong, but I love you! I love you!”

Another moment of silence follows, as embarrassing as the first, when the speaker anxiously continues:

“Pardon me, Bess–Miss Raymun–I beseech you I have been too hasty. You shall have more time-a week, a month, a year, to decide in; only give me hope. But speak, and say that ‘I have not offended you!”

“No, no, not that, Captain Dash; but your words pain me. I–I can not answer you to-day.”

“I will not, ask you to, though I was expecting it; and you have given me reason to hope for a favorable one. If it were not rude, I would ask you why this change; but I will bide my time, hoping, ah! knowing, that it will not be in vain, You promise me this?” he half question, half answers.

“I can not, can not promise! The time has been so short, and our acquaintance so brief, that I am not justified in giving you any hope, but, I will try–try–”

Speech gives way to emotion, and the thought remains unspoken.

“Forgive me for the pain I have caused you,” cries Curt, with increasing warmth; “but I feel that my case is not hopeless. I do not blame you for hesitating to answer one whose past history is so unknown as mine. But my love for you drove all this from my mind. It is true, I have come to you comparatively a stranger, for hitherto I have been compelled to remain silent upon the events of my past life. But, thank God, the time has at last come when I can throw off this cloak of silence and stand in my true character. Mine has been a strangely checkered career. Little of the pleasures of life have I known. Thrown upon the cold mercies of the world when but a youth; disowned and driven from home by my own father; an outcast, branded with the crime of another; a hunted, Cain marked fugitive from justice–it is little wonder that I have grown reckless and nomadic, that my fellow men have styled me callous and turn against me, until I have come to care for naught but excitement to drown the cares and sorrows of life. But. thank Heaven, a brighter day is dawning. When spurned by parents and scorned by friends, I took an awful oath that I would never know rest or peace until the hand which blasted my life should meet its punishment. To fulfill this vow has been the great object of my life; and at last it seems almost accomplished, as I have found the very person for whom I have searched so long. I must prove his guilt to the world, and then I can return to the scenes of my boyhood, and remove the dark cloud that hangs over my name. Now that you know the substance of my past history, do not judge me harshly. I know that I have erred, but circumstances have driven me to it. A strange fatality has followed me through life like an evil thing. But its influence is nearly spent, and with your aid I will conquer it altogether, and become a better man, a man worthy of your esteem, whose greatest desire shall be for your happiness. It is true, I can not offer you at present even a name, for I acknowledge the one I bear is assumed but I shall soon be able to prove to the world my innocence of the guilt of another, and reclaim my own. Then, with your love, I shall indeed be happy, and with the wealth I possess, for I am not so penniless as some have thought, the pleasantest home in Shelby county shall be ours; or, if you choose, we shall go back to the old homestead where I passed my childhood. It shall all be as you say, only remember that in your hands lies my future upon your decision rest the prospects of my life. And when I come to you again for an answer, after I have cleared my name from the stigma that now hangs over it, I know you will not, can not refuse me; and then the brightest dream of my life will be realized. Do not forget the pleadings of my first and only love.”

As the impetuous Regulator ceases speaking, he rises to his feet, and pressing the others hand to his lips one moment, bids her “good day,” and is gone before she has time to utter a single word. Left alone, our heroine seems to watch the space where her almost rejected lover had stood, until, as if overcome by some unseen power, she falls back upon the seat in a flood of tears, murmuring “Oh, Father in Heaven! guide me aright in this, for I know not my duty. I love him! and yet that other face and form will come before me! Can it be he cares for me! Ned—I must not think so. He will never know the sacrifice I make. Father is right, and I will do as he bids–accept the proud Regulator-chief– so noble! so true-hearted! I must! I will!”

CHAPTER IV.
THE PHANTOM RIDER.

After leaving Bessie Raymun, Curt Dash sought his horse, which he had left at the stable; and vaulting into the saddle, he rides leisurely out upon Chester Plain. Rides leisurely because it best suits his mood. Buried in deep meditation, hardly noticing his coarse, he allows his steed to wander along the border of the plain in a westerly direction, until the
colonel’s hacienda is left far behind, and he is nearing the narrow belt of sparsely-grown, and low-limbed timber that skirts the banks of the Rio Burte. With an exclamation of surprise, he draws reins, and is about to turn back to the Prairie Home, when suddenly, ringing out upon the still afternoon air with startling distinctness, comes the sharp report of a rifle, and a bullet whistles by his head uncomfortably near. Then comes the click of a lock, the crash as of a falling body, and the sound of, hurrying footsteps.

Though suddenly aroused from the reverie into which he had fallen, Curt Dash is instantly himself; and snatching his ever ready rifle from its wonted position, he dashes into the timber, regardless of the consequence. As he passes the outer line of the growth, a man leaps from the shrubbery that overhangs the river, and with a wild triumphant shout rushes for an object a short distance above, brandishing over his head the gleaming blade of a huge bowie.

But, suddenly, he hears the rapid approach of the Regulator, and like one frustrated in his designs at the moment of success, he turns upon his intruder with an angry imprecation, to find himself confronted by the muzzle of a rifle looking him full in the face. A wild cry of terror escapes his lips, when regardless of the menacing attitude, regardless of the warning words, he turns like a frightened deer and plunges into the thicket, disappearing from view in the twinkling of an eye, though barely escaping the fire of Curt’s rifle.

Puzzled at the strange proceedings of the Mexican, for such he evidently was, Curt is undecided how to act, until his attention is attracted by a recumbent form a short distance ahead, which soon rises to the upright position of a man, and comes forward, exclaiming:

“By Randel Rock, Cap! ye saved my hide. But where’d the cuss go to I sh’u’d jest like to have one fair draw on him!”

The speaker is a man young in years, fully six feet In height, well formed, as agile as a panther, as strong as a lion, with a sort of reckless, devil-may-care air. Dressed in buckskin, moccasins and all, beautifully beaded, and wearing upon his head the never-to-be parted with sombrero, his jet-black hair falling down his back in long, listening ringlets, which a school-girl might well envy, with a heavy mustache and goatee of the same hue, clearly cut, handsome, though sun-bronzed features, showing a daring almost to desperation, and armed to the teeth, so to speak, with a brace of heavy revolvers and a huge bowie in his belt and a double-barreled rifle now in his hands, he presents a wild, brigandish-looking appearance. But all this is in reality only mere show, as far as it concerns his character, for underneath its dashing exterior beats as true a heart as Texas ever knew. He is known –we say known because really he has no parental name, as he was picked up by an old mountaineer and guide, when but a child, on the great Texan plain near “Randel Rock,” and from this simple fact he is known as Rock, one of those strange waifs so often found in border life.

“Hullo, Rock! that you!” cries Curt, evidently surprised.

“Wal, I reckon it is, Cap! but, where’s the cussed Greaser gone? D’ye think ye hit im?”

“No, Rock, I don’t; he is safe I daresay ere this. It would be useless to follow him. But what is the meaning of all this! I came nearer losing my head from that shot than is pleasant, whoever fired it.”

“The deuce!” exclaims Bock; “but it was the carelessness of that’ sneaking yaller-skin! Ye see, I hev bin out scrimigin round a little, jest for exercise; an thinkin’ the old woman might be gitting oneasy, I war steering for home when all tar wunst up kerslap comes that infernal Greaser with his shooter, an let her hev right at me! But the cuss wasn’t worth a Digger squaw for shootin’ an’ he didn’t come no whar. Howsumever, it opened my eyes, an’ seeing I hed got to strike out fur myself, I ups my old iron ter let it speak, but fur the fust time It broke–it was no go! Jest then I ketched my foot in a vine an’ went ter the ground kerchunk. Guess the greasy varmint would hev wrung a cold deal on me, ef you hadn’t come jest es you did. Give us yer paw,old boy!”

Do you know the object of this assault? Have you ever seen the man before?” asked the Regulator chief, abruptly, as he grasps the other’s hand.

“I spect I hev; It am an old quarrel, Cap. Sum yurs ago I got inter a leetle diffikilty in Taos, an’ thar war sum tall fightin’ done! I made more than one of the dirty Greasers bite the dust! When it war all over up comes a couple of the bloody Spaniards an’ swore that I sh’u’d die. They hunted me a leetle, but I throwed ’em off the trail, and ‘s’posed long ago that they hed given it up. But it seems they hain’t, leastways one hain’t, an’ the fight ain’t over yet. No! he got the best of me ter-day, the sneaking coyote! But we shall meet ag’in, an’ then–wal, he or I will go under! Wagh!”

“You can count upon me as your friend in this affair but, for the sake of that little woman of yours, Rock, don’t do anything rash”

“By hookey, Cap! yer touched me in a tender place. For Luella’s sake, I will be careful. But, by Randel Rock! I’ll let no sneaking Greaser go foolin’ round me. No! it’s his own doin’s, an I’ll wipe him out or pass in my checks!”

There was no mistaking the speaker’s meaning,for Rock Randel is no idle boaster.

“Wal, Cap,” he continues, in a far different tone, after a moment’s pause, “I am afeer’d the old woman’ll git oneasy; let’s dig for home.”

“Thank you, Rock; but I must return to Burley’s. Ha! as I live, here comes Deckers! Now I shall have company. Good-day, Look out that you ain’t caught napping again.”

With the words, Curt rides out of the timber to meet the horseman coming down from above; and after exchanging salutations, they ride on together for the Prairie Home, leaving Randel to return to his own abode alone.

As this new-corner, who has so suddenly appeared upon the scene, is to act a strange and important part in our narrative, we may devote a few words to him.

The first thought of a stranger upon seeing Curt Dash and Vall Deckers would be that they are brothers. But the second thought would show the absurdity of this, add leave him wondering how and where the likeness had so suddenly disappeared, for upon a close examination that which seemed at first a similarity, proves a contrast.

Like Curt, Vail Deckers is above medium Height, with a lithe, compactly-built frame, capable of an almost iron endurance; with glossy-brown hair and heavy, drooping mustache, from beneath which occasionally gleams a set of pearly-white teeth; regular, perfectly outlined features; dark, glistening eyes, which seem to wield a fascinating power; a fluency of speech, though silent demeanor; a gentlemanly deportment, in spite of the almost sad expression which accompanies his every look and action; decision, calmness of mind, and stoicism of character stamped upon every lineament of his face, making him a person to command respect if not friendship.

His age is evidently less than Curt’s–perhaps two and twenty. But no one in Chesterville seems to knowaught of his past history, for It has been scarcely six months since he came to the place, a stranger, and unlike the captain, he has made neither friends nor foes; and though he joined the Regulators soon after his arrival, most of his time is spent in wandering over the neighboring country, with his horse and rifle as his sole companions.

After discussing the topics of the day until exhausted, the two ride on toward the Prairie Home, where they both ledge and board, slowly and silently, each seeming busy with his own thoughts. One revolving in his mind plans for the future, by which he will be able to throw off the evil genius of his destiny, and win his heart’s choice; while the other–well, silence seems his nature, though from the nervous twitching of his mouth, and the tigerish gleam of his eye, thoughts of more than common moment must be surging through his brain.

The Regulators soon come upon the main path leading from the river to their destination; and the lengthening shadows of the trees proclaim that the day Is fast waning. They are in the act of quickening the pace of their horses, when the heavy, regular thud of the hoof-strokes of a horse is heard coming up the beaten track at a smart canter; but without increasing their speed, the two continue on their course, expecting to be speedily overtaken by the approaching horseman, if such it shall prove to be.

Nearer and nearer, but more confused, comes the sound of the hoof-strokes, until it seems almost upon them; and expecting see a horse and rider full in sight, our friends turn in their saddles, when, to their surprise and astonishment, not a single object is in sight, though they command a view of the path for fully twenty rods. Still they hear the same regular, well-known tread almost upon them,and coming nearer, nearer!

Astonished, perplexed, startled, with amazement plainly written upon every feature, the Regulators watch with anxious looks for an explanation of what seems to be the hoof-strokes of an unseen horse. But not a single living thing is to be seen in the level, hard beaten path as far as they can see; neither is there anything in the timber that skirts it upon either side; still that familiar tread, now seemingly slackening to a trot, continues to approach nearer, closer, until it seems as if a horse must be in the open space scarcely ten feet from them, when instinctively, as if fearing to come in contact with they know not what, they rein to one side of the track, and the unseen horse, for it can be naught else, reaches them, and dashes by! As it passes, a wild, unearthly laugh rings out upon the air, rings out with awful suddenness, terrible distinctness, sending the blood curdling through their veins. No wonder Curt Dash, with all his bravery, turns pale as death, and careless, reckless fearless, Vall Deckers trembles from head to foot.

On, on seems to rush the unseen horseman, until, turning an abrupt angle in the path, a few rods ahead, the hoof-strokes suddenly cease. A moment of silence; then, again, breaks upon the air that maniacal laugh, hoarse and scornful, quickly followed by the sharp spang of a rifle, the death-cry as of a stricken victim, the heavy thud as of a body falling to the earth, another laugh as terrible as the first, and again the hoof-strokes are heard, until they die away in the distance.

“My God!” cries Curt Dash, the first to recover his self-possession, “what is the meaning of all this? Somebody has been shot!” and he dashes forward to the place from whence that shot and those strange cries had been heard, closely followed by Vall Deckers.

The stillness of death hangs, over the place when the Regulators draw rein upon the very spot where they expected to find the body of a murdered man. But, upon examination, not a single thing can be found to account for the startling cries and sounds which apparently gave warning of a deadly combat between man and man.

“I don’t believe in omens;” exclaims Vall Deckers, as they ride on once more for thePrairie Home, after satisfying themselves that they can in no way solve the mystery; “but,mark my word, Curt Dash, something terrible is going to happen.”

Ay, mysterious Regulator, your words may prove more prophetic than you will wish!


CHAPTER V.

AN AWFUL WEDDING.

Again all Chesterville is on the qui vive (ed.-condition of heightened watchfulness or preparation for action.) and not only Chesterville but the neighboring sections of the county. Old and young, sad and gay, the rough mountaineer and the prattling child, the staid matron and the coy maiden, the sturdy rancheman and the adventure-loving Regulator, all are alike awake to the keenest interest; all have alike discarded other thoughts to dwell exclusively upon–not the pleasure of a shooting-match, not the excitement of a duel, but the anticipation of a wedding.

Conrad Mansion is all ablaze. In and around it all is life and gayety. Already the musicians are at work, end the merry dance has commenced. Still new guests are continually pouring in; and soon comes the entrance of Bessie Raymun, leaning–not upon the strong arm of the Regulator chief, as we should have expected, but upon that of a tall, gentlemanly looking young man, with a pale skin, and, if it was not for a slight, silken mustache, of almost effeminate appearance. This we know is Will Manners, the general favorite of Chesterville, who is not known to have a single enemy In all Shelby county. Little would the casual observer dream of the fire slumbering in those mild blue eyes, or of the iron nerve and determined will concealed beneath that slender, almost boyish form.

Close behind the couple who have just passed us comes our dashing Regulator friend Rock Randel, Dandy Rock, who goes even to a wedding armed with a brace of revolvers and a huge bowie. By his side is a dark-eyed Spanish beauty, evidently his “better half.”

Seeing none but strangers following, we turn to look for the happy couple whose union this merry crowd has collected to celebrate.

There is an old saying to the effect that all brides are charming. We are not prepared to prove this assertion, but know that in this case it is true. In her bridal robe of spotless white, relieving to good advantage her fair, pure, blonde complexion, with graceful sylph-like form and free, ingenuous manner, Rose Conrad is indeed a charming bride.

But, who and where is the fortunate man who is to bear off this prize? Is it Mark Waring now conversing with her? No. They say it Is a stranger, the bold, handsome, rollicking Captain Ned Kelley. If so, where is he? All that is the question which is now puzzling one half of the guests, which is fast cooling the ardor of the joyous throng, and is keeping the anxious bride and her friends in fearful suspense, for, though the hour for his arrival has long since passed, the bridegroom has not yet come. Surely, it must be something of more than common importance to keep a bride like this waiting.

_Hark! Outside upon the graveled walk are heard the quick, ringing footsteps of a man rapidly approaching. The merry dancers pause, and every eye in the room is watching the door hoping, expecting to see the captain enter. But, as the owner of the footsteps comes through the entrance, a look of surprise and disappointment takes the place joyous anticipation; the dance is resumed, and the suspense continues, for it is only Vall Deckers.

Unconscious of the disappointment his entrance so innocently caused, Vall wanders through the room in an apparently listless manner, though really his eagle eyes are taking in every object as he passes, until suddenly they rest upon Curt Dash enjoying a tete a-tete with Bessie Raymun, when a dark frown sweeps over his features, and with, a half-muttered malediction upon his lips, he turns and strides out of the house–out into the open air–leaps upon the back of his powerful, fleet footed horse, and rides away for the Red Lands, his form soon disappearing from view. Another half hour and the time for which the wedding was appointed has almost come. Still the bridegroom Is absent; and fearing that something–they know not what–has befallen him, men have been dispatched in different directions to see if anything can be learned of his whereabouts, or the cause of his non-appearance, while the bride has retired to her room with a few chosen friends to await their return, which Is momentarily expected.

The old-fashioned time-piece standing In the corner of the room has given Its warning note of the approaching hour; the music has ceased, the dancing has stopped, and a death-like stillness has fallen upon the wondering crowd; broken at length by the sudden arrival of the messengers, who, breathless and excited, are reporting to the eager, anxious listeners in an almost incoherent tone the startling intelligence that Captain Kelley was last seen upon his way to the wedding, when the old clock suddenly commences in a slow, measured and, seemingly, mournful accent to dole forth the hour.

As the echo of the last chime dies away, a hoarse, mocking laugh, seeming to come from above and filling the room with its awful intonations, breaks upon the death-like stillness with startling suddenness, with fearful vividness, like the knell of doom. A moment, and the quick, sharp spang of a rifle follows from the same direction, plainly heard by every ear; then a sharp, piercing cry of pain, another laugh, and a hushed silence rivaling death falls upon the amazed and awe-stricken assembly.

For a moment the oppressive stillness holds the occupants of the room spell-bound, men, women and children staring at each other in blank astonishment, almost terror, when again they are startled from their stupor, now by a clear, sharp, ringing voice exclaiming:

Will Manners is wanted at the door!

Dreaming not of danger, only thinking some one desires his presence, the Regulator pushes his way forward through the crowd, and pauses midway in the door. Then, the anxious, excited, surging mass impatiently waiting for what Is to follow, hears the dull thud of the hoof-strokes of an unshod horse upon the graveled walk without, a hoarse, unearthly laugh, the sharp, ringing report of a rifle, a quick, gasping death-cry, the crash of a body falling to the floor, another blood-curdling laugh, the continuance of the hoof-strokes, and wildest confusion imaginable reigns.

“My God!” cries old Gil Rey, after pushing himself through the excited crowd, and kneeling by the aide of a prostrate form, “Will Manners is shot!