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a man from way off, not hereabouts. You sure he ain't deceivin' you,
dearie?"

The girl flashed her eyes in answer.

"Yes, I'm sure. He's a good man. He prays to our Father. No, he's not a
neighbor, nor an uncle, nor a cousin. He's just a man that got lost. We
were both lost on the prairie in the night; and he's from the East, and
got lost from his party of hunters. He had nothing to eat, but I had; so I
gave him some. Then he saved my life when a snake almost stung me. He's
been good to me."

The woman looked relieved.

"And where you goin', dearie, all 'lone? What your folks thinkin' 'bout to
let you go 'lone this way?"

"They're dead," said the girl with great tears in her eyes.

"Dearie me! And you so young! Say, dearie, s'pose you stay here with me.
I'm lonesome, an' there's no women near by here. You could help me and be
comp'ny. The men would like to have a girl round. There's plenty likely
men on this ranch could make a good home fer a girl sometime. Stay here
with me, dearie."

Had this refuge been offered the girl during her first flight in the
wilderness, with what joy and thankfulness she would have accepted! Now it
suddenly seemed a great impossibility for her to stay. She must go on. She
had a pleasant ride before her, and delightful companionship; and she was
going to school. The world was wide, and she had entered it. She had no
mind to pause thus on the threshold, and never see further than Montana.
Moreover, the closing words of the woman did not please her.

"I cannot stay," she said decidedly. "I'm going to school. And I do not
want a man. I have just run away from a man, a dreadful one. I am going to
school in the East. I have some relations there, and perhaps I can find
them."

"You don't say so!" said the woman, looking disappointed. She had taken a
great fancy to the sweet young face. "Well, dearie, why not stay here a
little while, and write to your folks, and then go on with some one who is
going your way? I don't like to see you go off with that man. It ain't the
proper thing. He knows it himself. I'm afraid he's deceivin' you. I can
see by his clo'es he's one of the fine young fellows that does as they
please. He won't think any good of you if you keep travellin' 'lone with
him. It's all well 'nough when you get lost, an' he was nice to help you
out and save you from snakes; but he knows he ain't no business travellin'
'lone with you, you pretty little creature!"

"You must not talk so!" said the girl, rising and flashing her eyes again.
"He's a good man. He's what my brother called 'a white man all through.'
Besides, he's got a lady, a beautiful lady, in the East. She rides in some
kind of a grand carriage that goes of itself, and he thinks a great deal
of her."

The woman looked as if she were but half convinced.

"It may seem all right to you, dearie," she said sadly; "but I'm old, and
I've seen things happen. You'd find his fine lady wouldn't go jantin'
round the world 'lone with him unless she's married. I've lived East, and
I know; and what's more, he knows it too. He may mean all right, but you
never can trust folks."

The woman went away to prepare breakfast then, and left the girl feeling
as if the whole world was against her, trying to hold her. She was glad
when the man suggested that they hurry their breakfast and get away as
quickly as possible. She did not smile when the old woman came out to bid
her good-by, and put a detaining hand on the horse's bridle, saying, "You
better stay with me, after all, hadn't you, dearie?"

The man looked inquiringly at the two women, and saw like a flash the
suspicion of the older woman, read the trust and haughty anger in the
beautiful younger face, and then smiled down on the old woman whose kindly
hospitality had saved them for a while from the terrors of the open night,
and said:

"Don't you worry about her, auntie. I'm going to take good care of her,
and perhaps she'll write you a letter some day, and tell you where she is
and what she's doing."

Half reassured, the old woman gave him her name and address; and he wrote
them down in a little red notebook.

When they were well started on their way, the man explained that he had
hurried because from conversation with the men he had learned that this
ranch where they had spent the night was on the direct trail from Malta to
another small town. It might be that the pursuers would go further than
Malta. Did she think they would go so far? They must have come almost a
hundred miles already. Would they not be discouraged?

But the girl looked surprised. A hundred miles on horseback was not far.
Her brother often used to ride a hundred miles just to see a fight or have
a good time. She felt sure the men would not hesitate to follow a long
distance if something else did not turn them aside.

The man's face looked sternly out from under his wide hat. He felt a great
responsibility for the girl since he had seen the face of the man who was
pursuing her.

Their horses were fresh, and the day was fine. They rode hard as long as
the road was smooth, and did little talking. The girl was turning over in
her mind the words the woman had spoken to her. But the thing that stuck
there and troubled her was, "And he knows it is so."

Was she doing something for which this man by her side would not respect
her? Was she overstepping some unwritten law of which she had never heard,
and did he know it, and yet encourage her in it?

That she need fear him in the least she would not believe. Had she not
watched the look of utmost respect on his face as he stood quietly waiting
for her to awake the first morning they had met? Had he not had
opportunity again and again to show her dishonor by word or look? Yet he
had never been anything but gentle and courteous to her. She did not call
things by these names, but she felt the gentleman in him.

Besides, there was the lady. He had told about her at the beginning. He
evidently honored the lady. The woman had said that the lady would not
ride with him alone. Was it true? Would he not like to have the lady ride
alone with him when she was not his relative in any way? Then was there a
difference between his thought of the lady and of herself? Of course,
there was some; he loved the lady, but he should not think less honorably
of her than of any lady in the land.

She sat straight and proudly in her man's saddle, and tried to make him
feel that she was worthy of respect. She had tried to show him this when
she had shot the bird. Now she recognized that there was a fine something,
higher than shooting or prowess of any kind, which would command respect.
It was something she felt belonged to her, yet she was not sure she
commanded it. What did she lack, and how could she secure it?

He watched her quiet, thoughtful face, and the lady of his former troubled
thoughts was as utterly forgotten by him as if she had never existed. He
was unconsciously absorbed in the study of eye and lip and brow. His eyes
were growing accustomed to the form and feature of this girl beside him,
and he took pleasure in watching her.

They stopped for lunch in a coulee under a pretty cluster of cedar-trees a
little back from the trail, where they might look over the way they had
come and be warned against pursuers. About three o'clock they reached a
town. Here the railroad came directly from Malta, but there was but one
train a day each way.

The man went to the public stopping-place and asked for a room, and boldly
demanded a private place for his "sister" to rest for a while. "She is my
little sister," he told himself in excuse for the word. "She is my sister
to care for. That is, if she were my sister, this is what I should want
some good man to do for her."

He smiled as he went on his way after leaving the girl to rest. The
thought of a sister pleased him. The old woman at the ranch had made him
careful for the girl who was thus thrown in his company.

He rode down through the rough town to the railway station, but a short
distance from the rude stopping-place; and there he made inquiries
concerning roads, towns, etc., in the neighboring locality, and sent a
telegram to the friends with whom he had been hunting when he got lost. He
said he would be at the next town about twenty miles away. He knew that by
this time they would be back home and anxious about him, if they were not
already sending out searching parties for him. His message read:

"Hit the trail all right. Am taking a trip for my health. Send mail to me
at - - "

Then after careful inquiry as to directions, and learning that there was
more than one route to the town he had mentioned in his telegram, he went
back to his companion. She was ready to go, for the presence of other
people about her made her uneasy. She feared again there would be
objection to their further progress together. Somehow the old woman's
words had grown into a shadow which hovered over her. She mounted her
horse gladly, and they went forward. He told her what he had just done,
and how he expected to get his mail the next morning when they reached the
next town. He explained that there was a ranch half-way there where they
might stop all night.

She was troubled at the thought of another ranch. She knew there would be
more questions, and perhaps other disagreeable words said; but she held
her peace, listening to his plans. Her wonder was great over the telegram.
She knew little or nothing about modern discoveries. It was a mystery to
her how he could receive word by morning from a place that it had taken
them nearly two days to leave behind, and how had he sent a message over a
wire? Yes, she had heard of telegrams, but had never been quite sure they
were true. When he saw that she was interested, he went on to tell her of
other wonderful triumphs of science, the telephone, the electric light,
gas, and the modern system of water-works. She listened as if it were all
a fairy tale. Sometimes she looked at him, and wondered whether it could
be true, or whether he were not making fun of her; but his earnest, honest
eyes forbade doubt.

At the ranch they found two women, a mother and her daughter. The man
asked frankly whether they could take care of this young friend of his
overnight, saying that she was going on to the town in the morning, and
was in his care for the journey. This seemed to relieve all suspicion. The
two girls eyed each other, and then smiled.

"I'm Myrtle Baker," said the ranch-owner's daughter. "Come; I'll take you
where you can wash your hands and face, and then we'll have some supper."

Myrtle Baker was a chatterer by nature. She talked incessantly; and,
though she asked many questions, she did not wait for half of them to be
answered. Besides, the traveller had grown wary. She did not intend to
talk about the relationship between herself and her travelling companion.
There was a charm in Myrtle's company which made the girl half regret
leaving the next morning, as they did quite early, amid protests from
Myrtle and her mother, who enjoyed a visitor in their isolated home.

But the ride that morning was constrained. Each felt in some subtle way
that their pleasant companionship was coming to a crisis. Ahead in that
town would be letters, communications from the outside world of friends,
people who did not know or care what these two had been through together,
and who would not hesitate to separate them with a firm hand. Neither put
this thought into words, but it was there in their hearts, in the form of
a vague fear. They talked very little, but each was feeling how pleasant
the journey had been, and dreading what might be before.

They wanted to stay in this Utopia of the plains, forever journeying
together, and never reaching any troublesome futures where were laws and
opinions by which they must abide.

But the morning grew bright, and the road was not half long enough. Though
at the last they walked their horses, they reached the town before the
daily train had passed through. They went straight to the station, and
found that the train was an hour late; but a telegram had arrived for the
man. He took it nervously, his fingers trembling. He felt a premonition
that it contained something unpleasant.

The girl sat on her horse by the platform, watching him through the open
station door where he was standing as he tore open the envelope. She saw a
deathly pallor overspread his face, and a look of anguish as if an arrow
had pierced his heart. She felt as if the arrow had gone on into her own
heart, and then she sat and waited. It seemed hours before he glanced up,
with an old, weary look in his eyes. The message read:

"Your mother seriously ill. Wants you immediately. Will send your baggage
on morning train. Have wired you are coming."

It was signed by his cousin with whom he had been taking his
hunting-trip, and who was bound by business to go further West within a
few days more.

The strong young man was almost bowed under this sudden stroke. His mother
was very dear to him. He had left her well and happy. He must go to her at
once, of course; but what should he do with the girl who had within the
last two days taken so strong a hold upon his - he hesitated, and called it
"protection." That word would do in the present emergency.

Then he looked, and saw her own face pale under the tan, and stepped out
to the platform to tell her.




CHAPTER VIII

THE PARTING


She took the news like a Spartan. Her gentle pity was simply expressed,
and then she held her peace. He must go. He must leave her. She knew that
the train would carry him to his mother's bedside quicker than a horse
could go. She felt by the look in his eyes and the set of his mouth that
he had already decided that. Of course he must go. And the lady was there
too! His mother and the lady! The lady would be sorry by this time, and
would love him. Well, it was all right. He had been good to her. He had
been a strong, bright angel God had sent to help her out of the
wilderness; and now that she was safe the angel must return to his heaven.
This was what she thought.

He had gone into the station to inquire about the train. It was an hour
late. He had one short hour in which to do a great deal. He had very
little money with him. Naturally men do not carry a fortune when they go
out into the wilderness for a day's shooting. Fortunately he had his
railroad return ticket to Philadelphia. That would carry him safely. But
the girl. She of course had no money. And where was she going? He realized
that he had failed to ask her many important questions. He hurried out,
and explained to her.

"The train is an hour late. We must sell our horses, and try to get money
enough to take us East. It is the only way. Where do you intend going?"

But the girl stiffened in her seat. She knew it was her opportunity to
show that she was worthy of his honor and respect.

"I cannot go with you," she said very quietly.

"But you must," said he impatiently. "Don't you see there is no other way?
I must take this train and get to my mother as soon as possible. She may
not be living when I reach her if I don't." Something caught in his throat
as he uttered the horrible thought that kept coming to his mind.

"I know," said the girl quietly. "You must go, but I must ride on."

"And why? I should like to know. Don't you see that I cannot leave you
here alone? Those villains may be upon us at any minute. In fact, it is a
good thing for us to board the train and get out of their miserable
country as fast as steam can carry us. I am sorry you must part with your
horse, for I know you are attached to it; but perhaps we can arrange to
sell it to some one who will let us redeem it when we send the money out.
You see I have not money enough with me to buy you a ticket. I couldn't
get home myself if I hadn't my return ticket with me in my pocket. But
surely the sale of both horses will bring enough to pay your way."

"You are very kind, but I must not go." The red lips were firm, and the
girl was sitting very erect. She looked as she had done after she had shot
the bird.

"But why?"

"I cannot travel alone with you. It is not your custom where you come
from. The woman on the ranch told me. She said you knew girls did not do
that, and that you did not respect me for going alone with you. She said
it was not right, and that you knew it."

He looked at her impatient, angry, half ashamed that she should face him
with these words.

"Nonsense!" said he. "This is a case of necessity. You are to be taken
care of, and I am the one to do it."

"But it is not the custom among people where you live, is it?"

The clear eyes faced him down, and he had to admit that it was not.

"Then I can't go," she said decidedly.

"But you must. If you don't, I won't go."

"But you must," said the girl, "and I mustn't. If you talk that way, I'll
run away from you. I've run away from one man, and I guess I can from
another. Besides, you're forgetting the lady."

"What lady?"

"Your lady. The lady who rides in a carriage without horses."

"Hang the lady!" he said inelegantly. "Do you know that the train will be
along here in less than an hour, and we have a great deal to do before we
can get on board? There's no use stopping to talk about this matter. We
haven't time. If you will just trust things to me, I'll attend to them
all, and I'll answer your questions when we get safely on the train. Every
instant is precious. Those men might come around that corner ever there
any minute. That's all bosh about respect. I respect you more than any
woman I ever met. And it's my business to take care of you."

"No, it's not your business," said the girl bravely, "and I can't let you.
I'm nothing to you, you know."

"You're every - that is - why, you surely know you're a great deal to me.
Why, you saved my life, you know!"

"Yes, and you saved mine. That was beautiful, but that's all."

"Isn't that enough? What are you made of, anyway, to sit there when
there's so much to be done, and those villains on our track, and insist
that you won't be saved?' Respect you! Why, a lion in the wilderness would
have to respect you. You're made of iron and steel and precious stones.
You've the courage of a - a - I was going to say a man but I mean an angel.
You're pure as snow, and true as the heavenly blue, and firm as a rock;
and, if I had never respected you before, I would have to now. I respect,
I honor, I - I - I - pray for you!" he finished fiercely.

He turned his back to hide his emotion.

She lifted her eyes to his when he turned again, and her own were full of
tears.

"Thank you!" She said it very simply. "That makes me - very - glad! But I
cannot go with you."

"Do you mean that?" he asked her desperately.

"Yes," steadily.

"Then I shall have to stay too."

"But you can't! You must go to your mother. I won't be stayed with. And
what would she think? Mothers are - everything!" she finished. "You must go
quick and get ready. What can I do to help?"

He gave her a look which she remembered long years afterward. It seemed to
burn and sear its way into her soul. How was it that a stranger had the
power to scorch her with anguish this way? And she him?

He turned, still with that desperate, half-frantic look in his face, and
accosted two men who stood at the other end of the platform. They were not
in particular need of a horse at present; but they were always ready to
look at a bargain, and they walked speculatively down the uneven boards
of the platform with him to where his horse stood, and inspected it.

The girl watched the whole proceeding with eyes that saw not but into the
future. She put in a word about the worth of the saddle once when she saw
it was going lower than it should. Three other men gathered about before
the bargain was concluded, and the horse and its equipments sold for about
half its value.

That done, the man turned toward the girl and motioned to her to lead her
horse away to a more quiet place, and set him down to plead steadily
against her decision. But the talk and the horse-selling had taken more
time than he realized. The girl was more decided than ever in her
determination not to go with him. She spoke of the lady again. She spoke
of his mother, and mothers in general, and finished by reminding him that
God would take care of her, and of him, too.

Then they heard the whistle of the train, and saw it growing from a speck
to a large black object across the plain. To the girl the sight of this
strange machine, that seemed more like a creature rushing toward her to
snatch all beauty and hope and safety from her, sent a thrill of horror.
To the man it seemed like a dreaded fate that was tearing him asunder. He
had barely time to divest himself of his powder-horn, and a few little
things that might be helpful to the girl in her journey, before the train
was halting at the station. Then he took from his pocket the money that
had been paid him for his horse; and, selecting a five-dollar bill for
himself, he wrapped the rest in an envelope bearing his own name and
address. The envelope was one addressed by the lady at home. It had
contained some gracefully worded refusal of a request. But he did not
notice now what envelope he gave her.

"Take this," he said. "It will help a little. Yes, you must! I cannot
leave you - I _will_ not - unless you do," when he saw that she hesitated
and looked doubtful. "I owe you all and more for saving my life. I can
never repay you. Take it. You may return it sometime when you get plenty
more of your own, if it hurts your pride to keep it. Take it, please. Yes,
I have plenty for myself. You will need it, and you must stop at nice
places overnight. You will be very careful, won't you? My name is on that
envelope. You must write to me and let me know that you are safe."

"Some one is calling you, and that thing is beginning to move again," said
the girl, an awesome wonder in her face. "You will be left behind! O,
hurry! Quick! Your mother!"

He half turned toward the train, and then came back.

"You haven't told me your name!" he gasped. "Tell me quick!"

She caught her breath.

"Elizabeth!" she answered, and waved him from her.

The conductor of the train was shouting to him, and two men shoved him
toward the platform. He swung himself aboard with the accustomed ease of a
man who has travelled; but he stood on the platform, and shouted, "Where
are you going?" as the train swung noisily off.

She did not hear him, but waved her hand, and gave him a bright smile that
was brimming with unshed tears. It seemed like instant, daring suicide in
him to stand on that swaying, clattering house as it moved off
irresponsibly down the plane of vision. She watched him till he was out of
sight, a mere speck on the horizon of the prairie; and then she turned
her horse slowly into the road, and went her way into the world alone.

The man stood on the platform, and watched her as he whirled away - a
little brown girl on a little brown horse, so stanch and firm and stubborn
and good. Her eyes were dear, and her lips as she smiled; and her hand was
beautiful as it waved him good-by. She was dear, dear, dear! Why had he
not known it? Why had he left her? Yet how could he stay? His mother was
dying perhaps. He must not fail her in what might be her last summons.
Life and death were pulling at his heart, tearing him asunder.

The vision of the little brown girl and the little brown horse blurred and
faded. He tried to look, but could not see. He brought his eyes to nearer
vision to fix their focus for another look, and straight before him
whirled a shackly old saloon, rough and tumble, its character apparent
from the men who were grouped about its doorway and from the barrels and
kegs in profusion outside. From the doorway issued four men, wiping their
mouths and shouting hilariously. Four horses stood tied to a fence near
by. They were so instantly passed, and so vaguely seen, that he could not
be sure in the least, but those four men reminded him strongly of the four
who had passed the schoolhouse on Sunday.

He shuddered, and looked back. The little brown horse and the little brown
girl were one with the little brown station so far away, and presently the
saloon and men were blotted out in one blur of green and brown and yellow.

He looked to the ground in his despair. He _must_ go back. He could not
leave her in such peril. She was his to care for by all the rights of
manhood and womanhood. She had been put in his way. It was his duty.

But the ground whirled by under his madness, and showed him plainly that


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Online LibraryGrace Livingston HillThe Girl from Montana → online text (page 6 of 14)