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little face deeply troubled. Suddenly she grabbed up her books and
started toward the stove. "Then this here civilizing is going to
stop," she declared.

"Lahoma!" Brick cried in dismay.

"Yes, it is - unless you promise to stay with me when I go to live in
the big world."

"Honey, I'll promise you this: When you are ready to live out there,
I'll sure go with you and stay with you - if you want me, when the time
comes."

Lahoma seized his hand, and jumped up and down in delight.

"It's a safe promise," remarked Bill Atkins dryly.



CHAPTER IX

A YOUNG MAN'S FANCY

One evening in May, a tall lithe figure crept the southern base of the
mountain range, following its curves with cautious feet as if fearful
of discovery. It was a young man of twenty-one or two, bronzed, free
of movement, agile of step. His face was firm, handsome and open,
although at present a wish to escape observation caused the hazel eyes
to dart here and there restlessly, while the mouth tightened in an
aspect of sternness. This air of wild resolution was heightened by the
cowboy's ordinary garments, and the cowboy's indispensable belt
well-stocked with weapons.

On reaching the spur that formed the western jaw of the horseshoe, he
crept on hands and knees, but satisfied by searching glances that the
inner expanse was deserted, he half rose and stole shadow-like along
the granite wall, until he had reached the hill-island that concealed
the cove. Again falling on hands and knees, he drew himself slowly up
among the huge flat rocks that covered the hill in all directions. In
a brief time he had traversed it, and a view of the cove was suddenly
unrolled below. A few yards from Brick Willock's dugout, now stood a
neat log cabin, and not far from the door of this cabin was a girl of
about fifteen, seated on the grass.

She had been reading, but her book had slipped to her feet. With hands
clasped about her knee, and head tilted back, she was watching the lazy
white clouds that stretched like wisps of scattered cotton across the
blue field of the sky. At first the young man was startled by the
impression that she had discovered his presence and was scrutinizing
his position, but a second glance reassured him, and he stretched
himself where a block of granite and, below it, a cedar tree,
effectually protected him from discovery. Thus hidden, he stared at
the girl unblinkingly.

He was like a thirsty traveler drinking at a cool well unexpectedly
discovered in a desert country. For two years he had led the life of
the cowboy, exiled from his kind, going with the boys from lower Texas
to Kansas along the Chisholm Trail, overseeing great herds of cattle,
caring for them day and night, scarcely ever under a roof, even that of
a dugout. Through rain and storm, the ground had been his bed, and
many a blistering summer day a pony captured wild from the plains, and
broken to stand like a dog, had been his only shade. During these two
years of hard life, reckless companions and exacting duties, he had
easily slipped into the grooves of speech and thought common to his
fellows. Only his face, his unconscious movements and accents,
distinguished him from the other boys of "Old Man Walker" - the boss of
the "G-Bar Outfit." On no other condition but that of apparent
assimilation could he have retained his place with Walker's ranchmen;
and in his efforts to remove as quickly as possible the reproach of
tender-foot it was not his fault that he had retained the features of a
different world, or that a certain air, not of the desert, was always
breaking through the crust under which he would have kept his real self
out of sight. He himself was the least conscious that this was so.

For two years he had seen no one like the girl of the cove,
none - though he had seen women and girls of the settlements, often
enough - who even suggested her kind. Her dress, indeed, was plain
enough, and obviously chosen in cheerful ignorance of forms and
conventions, though the color, a delicate pink, was all he could have
wished. After all, the clothes revealed nothing except absence from
city shops and city standards.

That was wonderful hair, its brown tresses gleaming though untouched by
the sun, as if in it were enmeshed innumerable particles of light. It
seemed to glow from its very fineness, its silkiness - the kind of hair
one is prompted to touch, to feel if it is really that way! The face
was more wonderful, because it told many things that can not be
expressed in mere hair-language. There was the seal of innocence on
the lips, the proof of fearlessness in the eyes, the touch of thought
on the brow, the sign of purpose about the resolute little chin. The
slender brown hands spoke of life in the open air, and the glow of the
cheeks told of burning suns. Her form, her attitude, spoke not only of
instinctive grace, but of a certain wildness in admirable harmony with
the surrounding scene. Somehow, the ruggedness of the mountains and
the desolate solitudes of the plains were reflected from her face.

The young man gazed as if his thirst would never be appeased. The
flavor of nights about the camp-fire and other nights spent in driving
sleet, also days when the first flowers come and the wide beds of the
desert rivers are swollen with overbrimming floods; the cruel exposure
of winter, the thrilling balminess of early spring - all spoke to him
again from that motionless figure. He recalled companions of his
boyhood and youth, but they were not akin to this child of the desert
mountains. Still more alien were those of the saloon stations, the
haunts at the outskirts of civilization. It seemed to him that in this
young girl, who bad the look and poise of a woman, he had found what
hitherto he had vainly sought in the wilderness - the beauty and the
charm of it, refined and separated from its sordidness and its
uncouthness - in a word, from all that was base and ugly. It was for
this that he had left his home in the East. Here was typified that
loveliness of the unbroken wilderness without its profanity, its
drunkenness, its obscenity, its terrible hardships.

At last he tore himself away, retraced his steps as cautiously as he
had conic, and flung himself upon the pony left waiting at a sheltered
nook far from the cove. As he sped over the plains toward the distant
herd, it came to him suddenly in a way not before experienced, that it
was May, that the air was balmy and fragrant, and that the land, softly
lighted in the clear twilight, was singularly beautiful. He seemed
breathing the roses back home - which recalled another face, but not for
long. The last time he had seen that eastern face, the dew had lain on
the early morning roses - how could a face so different make him think
of them? But imagination is sometimes a bold robber, and now it did
not hesitate to steal those memories of sweet scents to encloud the
picture of the mountain-girl.

The G-Bar headquarters was on the western bank of what was then known
as Red River, but was really the North Fork of Red River. "Old Man
Walker," who was scarcely past middle age, had built his corral on the
margin of the plain which extended to that point in an unbroken level
from a great distance, and which, having reached that point, dropped
without warning, a sheer precipice, to an extensive lake. The lake was
fed by springs issuing from the bluffs; not far beyond it and not much
lower, was the bed of the river, wide, very red and almost dry. Beyond
the river rose the bold hills of the Kiowa country, a white line
chiseled across the face of each, as if Time had entertained some
thought of their destruction, but finding each a huge block of living
rock, had passed on to torture and shift and alter the bed of the river.

The young man reached the corral after a ride of twelve or thirteen
miles, most of the distance through a country of difficult sand. He
galloped up to the rude enclosure, surrounded by a cloud of dust
through which his keen gray eyes discovered Mizzoo on the eve of
leaving camp. Mizzoo was one of the men whose duty it was to ride the
line all night - the line that the young man had guarded all day - to
keep Walker's cattle from drifting.

"Come on, Mizz," called the young man, as the other swung upon his
broncho, "I'm going back with you."

The lean, leather-skinned, sandy-mustached cattleman uttered words not
meet for print, but expressive of hearty pleasure. "Ain't you had
enough of it, Bill?" he added. "I'd think you'd want to lay up for
tomorrow's work."

"Oh, I ain't sleepy," the young man declared, as they rode away side by
side. "I couldn't close an eye tonight - and I want to talk."

The cattleman chuckled enjoyingly. It was lonely and monotonous work,
riding back and forth through the darkness, keeping a sharp lookout for
wolves or Indians, driving straggling cattle back to the herd, in
brief, doing the picket duty of the plains.

Mizzoo was so called from his habit of attributing his most emphatic
aphorisms to "his aunt, Miss Sue of Missouri" - a lady held by his
companions to be a purely fictitious character, a convenient "Mrs.
Harris" to give weight to sayings worn smooth from centuries of use.

Of all the boys of the ranch, Mizzoo found Wilfred Compton most
companionable. When off duty, they were usually to be found near each
other, whether awake or asleep; and when Mizzoo, on entering some
village at the edge of the desert, sought relaxation from a life of
routine by shooting through the windows and spurring his pony into the
saloons, it was the young man, commonly known as Bill, who lingered
behind to advance money for damages to the windows, or who kept close
to the drunken ranger in order to repair the damages Mizzoo had done to
his own soul and body.

"I'll talk my head off," Mizzoo declared, "if that'll keep you on the
move with me, for it's one thing meeting a ghost in the desert all
alone, and quite another when there's a pair of us. Yes, I know you
don't believe nothing I say about that spirit, and I only hope we'll
come on it tonight! It ain't been a week since I see something
creeping along behind me whilst I was riding the line, a little thing
as swift as a jack-rabbit and as sly as a coyote - something with long
arms and short legs and the face of an Injun - "

"Of course it WAS an Indian," returned the young man carelessly. "He is
hanging about here to steal some of our horses. I don't want you to
talk about your ghost, I've heard of him a thousand times."

"Bill, the more you talk about a ghost, the more impressive he gets. I
tell you that wasn't no live Injun! Didn't I blaze away at him with my
six-shooter and empty all my barrels for nothing? No, sir, it's the
same spirit that haunts the trail from Vernon, Texas, to Coffeyville.
I've shot at that red devil this side of Fort Sill, and at Skeleton
Spring, and at Bull Foot Spring, and a mile from Doan's store - always
at night, for it never rises except at night, as befits a good ghost.
I reckon I'll waste cartridges on that spook as long as I hit the
trail, but I don't never expect to draw blood. Others has saw him,
too, but me more especial. I reckon I'm the biggest sinner of the
G-Bar and has to be plagued most frequent with visitations to make me a
better man when I get to be old."

"He's a knowing old ghost if he's found you out, Mizzoo, but if you
want my company, tonight, you'll drop the Indian. What I want you to
talk about is that little girl you met on the trail down in Texas,
seven years ago."

Mizzoo burst out in a hearty laugh. "I reckon it suits you better to
take her as a little kid," he cried, his tall form shaking
convulsively. "I'll never forget how you looked, Bill, when we tried
to run a bluff on her daddy last month!"

The other did not answer with a smile. Apparently the reminiscence
pleased him less than it did the older man. He spurred his horse
impatiently, and it plunged forward through the drifted banks of white
sand.

Mizzoo hastened to overtake him, still chuckling. "Old Man Walker
never knowed what a proposition he was handing us when he ordered us to
drive the old mountain-lion out of his lair! Looks like the six of us
ought to have done the trick. Them other fellows looked as wild as
bears, and you was just like a United States soldier marching on a
Mexican strongholt, not stopping at nothing, and it ain't for me to say
how brave _I_ done. Pity you and me was at the tail-end of the
attacking party. Fust thing we knowed, them other four galoots was
falling backwards a-getting out of that trap of a cove, and the bullets
was whizzing about our ears - "

He broke off to shout with laughter. "And it was all done by one old
settler and his gal, them standing out open and free with their
breech-loaders, and us hiking out for camp like whipped curs!"

The young man was impatient, but he compelled himself to speak calmly.
"As I never got around the spur of the mountain before you fellows were
in full retreat, I object to being classed with the whipped curs, and
you'll bear that in mind, Mizzoo. You saw the girl all right, didn't
you?"

"You bet I did, and as soon as I see her, I knowed it was the same I'd
came across on the trail, seven year ago. I'd have knowed it from her
daddy, of course, but there wasn't no mistaking HER. Her daddy give it
to us plain that if he ever catched one of us inside his cove he'd kill
us like so many coyotes, and I reckon he would. Well, he's got as much
right to his claim as anybody else - this land don't belong to nobody,
and there he's been a-squatting considerable longer than we've laid out
this ranch. He was in the right of it, but what I admire was his being
able to hold his rights. Lots of folks has rights but they ain't man
enough to hold 'em. And if von could have seen that gal, her eyes like
two big burning suns, and her mouth closed like a steel-trap, and her
hand as steady on that trigger as the mountain rock behind her! Lord,
Bill! what a trembly, knock-kneed, meaching sort of a husband she's
a-going to fashion to her hand, one of these days! But PRETTY? None
more so. And a-going all to waste out here in the desert!"

They rode on for some time in silence, save for the intermittent
chuckling of the cattleman as visions of his companions' pale faces and
scurrying forms rose before his mind.

"And now about that child, seven years ago," the young man said, when
the last hoarse sound of mirth had died away.

"Why, yes, me and the boys was bringing about two thousand head up to
Abiline when we come on to this same pardner and another man walking
the trail, with a little gal coming behind 'em on her pony. And it was
this same gal. I reckon she was seven or eight year old, then. Well,
sir, I just thought as I looked at her, that I never seen a prettier
sight in this world and I reckon I ain't, for when I looked at the same
gal the other day, the gun she was holding up to her eye sort of
dazzled me so I couldn't take stock of all her good points. But seeing
that little gal out there in the plains it was like hearing an
old-fashioned hymn at the country meeting-house and knowing a big
basket dinner was to follow. I can't express it more deep than that.
We went into camp that evening, and all of us got pretty soft and
mellow, what from the unusualness of the meeting, and we asked the old
codger if we could all come over to his camp and shake hands with the
gal - he'd drawed back from us about a mile, he was that skeered to be
sociable. So after considerable haggling and jawing, he said we could,
and here we come, just about sundown, all of us looking sheepish enough
to be carved for mutton, but everlasting determined to take that gal by
the paw."

"Well?" said the young man who had often heard this story, but had
never been treated to the sequel, "what happened then, Mizzoo? You
always stop at the same place. Didn't you shake hands with her?"

The other ruminated in deep silence for some time, then rejoined, "I
don't know how it is - a fellow can talk about the worst devilment in
creation with a free rein, and no words hot enough to blister his
tongue, but let him run up against something simple like that, and the
bottom of his lungs seems to fall out. I guess they ain't no more to
be told. That was all there was to it, though I might add that the
next day we come along by old Whisky Simeon's joint that sets out on
the sand-hills, you know, and we put spurs to our bronks and went
whooping by, with old Whisky Sim a-staring and a-hollering after us
like he thought we was crazy. I don't know as I had missed a drunk
before for five year, when the materials was ready-found for its
making. And I ain't never forgot the little kid with the brown hair
and the eyes that seen to your bottom layer, like a water-witch
a-penetrating the ground with a glance, seeing through dirt and clay
and rocks to what water they is."

Mizzoo relapsed into meditative silence, and the young man, in sympathy
with his mood, kept at his side, no longer asking questions. Darkness
came on and the hour grew late but few words were exchanged as they
rode the weary miles that marked the limit of the range. There were
the usual incidents of such work, each bringing its customary comments.
The midnight luncheon beside a small fire, over which the coffee
steamed, roused something like cheerful conversation which, however,
flickered and flared uncertainly like the bonfire. On the whole the
young man was unwontedly reserved, and the other, perceiving it, fell
back contentedly on his own resources - pleasant memories and rank
tobacco.

"Guess I'll leave you now," remarked the young man, when the fire had
died away.

"Yes, better turn in, for you're most uncommon dull you know," Mizzoo
replied frankly. "'Twould be just about as much company for me if
you'd hike out and leave me your picture to carry along."

Instead of taking the direction toward the river, the young man set out
at a gallop for the distant mountain range which, in the gloom, seemed
not far away. After an hour's hard riding, he reached it. His
impatience bad made that hour seem almost interminable, yet it had not
been long enough to furnish him with any clear reason for having come.
If, as Mizzoo had declared, he needed sleep, he would surely not think
of finding it near the cove from which his companions had been warned
under penalty of death. If drawn by longing for another glimpse of the
girl of the cove he could not expect to see her an hour or two after
midnight. Yet here he was, attracted, and still urged on, by impulses
he did not attempt to resist.



CHAPTER X

THE FLAG OF TRUCE

Earliest dawn found the young man seated composedly upon one of the
flattened outcroppings of the bill of stone that lay like an island
between the outer plain and the sheltered cove. As yet, there was no
sign of life within the cove - both the dugout and the cabin of cedar
logs were as silent and as void of movement as the rocks behind them.
The young man watched first one, then the other, as tireless and
vigilant as if he had not been awake for twenty-four hours.

It was the dugout that first started from its night's repose. Before
the sun showed itself over the rim of the prairie, long before its rays
darted over the distant mountain-crest, the door was thrown away from
the casing, and a great uncouth man, strong as a giant, and wild of
aspect as a savage, strode forth, gun in hand, his eyes sweeping the
landscape in quick flashing glances. Almost instantly he discovered
the figure perched on the granite block overlooking his retreat. He
raised his gun to his shoulder.

The young man fell sidewise behind the rocks and a bullet clipped the
edge of his barricade. Remaining supine, he fastened his handkerchief
to the end of his whip and waved it above the rampart. Having thus
manifested his peaceful intent, he rose, still holding the flag of
truce above his head, and remained motionless. Brick Willock stared at
him for a moment in hostile indecision, then strode forward. At the
same time, an old man, thin, tall and white-haired, issued from the
dugout evidently attracted by the gunshot; and soon after, the cabin
door opened, and the girl of the cove looked out inquiringly.

In the meantime the young man slowly descended the hill to the oval
valley, while Willock hurried forward to meet him.

"Don't you come no futher!" Willock commanded, threatening with his
gun. "Keep your hands above your head until I can ship your cargo."

Obediently he stood while the great whiskered fellow took the weapons
from his belt, and dived into his hip pockets.

"That'll do. Now - what do you want?"

"It's hard to put it into a few words," the other complained. "I'd
like to have a little talk with you."

"You are one of them fellows that come here to run us out of the
country, ain't you? I don't remember seeing you, but I guess you
belong to the bunch over on Red River. Well, you see we're still here,
meaning to stay. Are your pards outside there, waiting for a message?"

"Nobody knows I'm here, or thought of coming. Let me put that affair
in its true light. The boys are all under our boss, and when he lays
down the law it isn't for us to argue with him - we carry out orders - "

"Unless there's a Brick Willock involved in them orders," returned the
man, with a grim smile.

"But it's our duty to TRY to carry out the orders, whether we like 'em
or not. So you won't hold that against me - that little scrimmage of
last month, especially as you came out best man."

"I used to have a boss, myself," Willock spoke uncompromisingly. "But
when he give me certain orders, one particular night that I recollect,
I knocked him on the head and put out for other parts. You must of
thought yourself in PRETTY business coming over here to take away the
land and all on it, that's belonged to me for nine years, and nobody
never having tried to prize me out of it except some trifling Injuns
and horse-thieves. Ain't they NO honesty in the world? Hasn't no man
his property rights? I guess your boss knowed this wasn't HIS land,
didn't he? What's going to become of this country when man isn't
satisfied with what is his'n? Well, now you've had a little talk with
me, and hoping you've enjoyed it, you can just mosey along. I'll send
your weapons after you by a messenger."

The young man cast a despairing glance toward the girl who stood like a
statue in her doorway, gravely listening. The man with the bushy white
hair had drawn near, but evidently with no thought of interfering.

"Willock," the voice came so eager, so impetuous, that the words were
somewhat incoherent, "I've GOT to talk to your daughter - hold on, don't
shoot, LISTEN! - that's what I've come for, to see her and - and meet her
and hear her voice. I can't help it, can I? It's been two long years
since I left home, back East, and in all these two years I've never
seen anything like your little girl and - and what harm can it do? I
say! Have pity on a fellow, and do him the biggest favor he could
enjoy on this earth when it won't cost you a penny, or a turn of your
hand. Look here - hold on, don't turn away! I'm just so lonesome, so
homesick, so dead KILLED by all these sand-hills and alkali beds and
nothing to talk to from one year's end to the next but men and
cattle...."

Willock glared at him in silence, fingering the trigger thoughtfully.

"There I've sat, on that hill," he continued, "since two o'clock last
night, waiting for daylight so I could ask you to help a miserable
wretch that's just starving to death for the sound of a girl's voice,
and the sight of a girl's smile. Isn't this square, waiting for you,
and telling you the whole truth? I never saw her but once, and that
was from this same hill. She didn't know I was watching; it was
yesterday. Maybe all I'm saying sounds just crazy to you, and I reckon
I am out of my senses, but until I saw her I didn't know how heart-sick
I was of the whole business."

"It IS kinder lonesome," remarked the other gruffly. He lowered his
gun and leaned on it, irresolutely. "You've sure touched me in the
right spot, son, for I knows all you mean and more that you ain't even
ever dreampt of. But you see, we don't know nothing about your name,
your character, if you've got one, nor what you really intends. I like
your looks and the way you talk, fine, just fine, but I've saw bobcats
that was mighty sleek and handsome when they didn't know I was nigh."

"My name in Wilfred Compton. I - I have a letter or two in my pocket


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Online LibraryJ. Breckenridge EllisLahoma → online text (page 6 of 17)