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that I got a long time ago; they'd tell something about me but I'd
rather not show 'em, as they're private - "

"From your gal, I reckon?" asked Willock more mildly.

"Yes," he answered gloomily.

"Carried 'em as long as a year?"

"Nearly two years."

"Mean to still lug 'em around?"

"Of course I'm going to keep 'em."

"Well, I don't deny THAT'S pretty favorable. Now look here, son, I've
been half-crazy from lonesomeness, and I don't believe I've got the
heart to send you away. That gal of ours - she's just a kid, you
understand.... Now you wouldn't be taking up no idea that she was what
you'd classify as a young lady, or anything like that, eh?"

"Of course not - she's fifteen or sixteen, I should think. Upon my
honor, Willock, any thought of sentiment or romance is a thousand miles
from my mind."

"Yes, just so. But such thoughts travels powerful fast; don't take 'em
long to lap over a thousand mile."

"But it's because she IS a young girl, fresh and unartificial as the
mountain breezes, that I want to be with her for a little while - yes,
get to know her, if I may."

Willock turned to the taciturn old man standing a little behind him.
"Bill Atkins, what do you say?"

"I say, fire him and do it quick!" was the instant rejoinder,
accompanied by threatening twitchings of the huge white mustache.

Willock was not convinced. "Son, if you sets here till we have had our
breakfast, and has held a caucus over you, I'll bring you the verdict
in about an hour. If you don't like that, they's nothing to do but put
out for your ranch."

"I go on duty at seven," replied the young man composedly, "but I have
a friend riding the line that'll stay with it till I come. So I'll
wait for your caucus."

"That friend - one of them devils I shot at the other day?"

Wilfred Compton smiled with sudden sunniness. "Yes."

Somewhere beneath the immense whiskers, an answering smile slipped like
a breeze, stirring the iron-gray hair. "I kinder believe in you, son!
Nobody can't gainsay that you've played the man in this matter. Now,
just one thing more. You must swear here before me, with Bill Atkins
for an unwilling witness, that should we let you make the acquaintance
of our little gal, and should you get to be friends, you two, that the
very fust minute it comes to you that she ain't no little gal, but is
in the way of being food for love - Bill Atkins, air I making myself
plain?"

"You ain't," returned the old man sourly. "You're too complicated for
ordinary use."

"Then YOU tell him what I mean."

The old man glared at Wilfred fiercely. "If we decide to grant your
request, young man, swear on your honor that the second you find
yourself thinking of our little girl as a WOMAN, to be wooed and won,
you'll put out, and never stop till you're so far away, you'll be clear
out of her world. And not one word to her, not so much as one hint,
mind you, as to the reason of your going; it'll just be good-by and
farewell!"

"You see," Willock interpolated, "she is nothing a little gal, and we
don't want no foolish ideas to the contrary. You takes her for what
she is, nothing took from nor added to. In course, she'll be growed up
some day, I reckon, though may the good Lord take a good long time
finishing up the work He's begun so noble. When she's growed up, when
she's a woman, it ain't for us to say how you come and how you go, take
from or add to. But while she's a kid, it is different, according."

"You have my word of honor to all these conditions," Wilfred cried
lightly. "As a child of the mountains I ask for her acquaintance. If I
should ever feel differently about her, I'll go away and stay away
until she's a woman. Surely that's enough to promise!"

"There ain't too much to promise, when it comes to the peace and
happiness of our little girl," retorted the old man, "but I can't think
of any more for you to take oath to."

"Me nuther, Bill," agreed Willock. "Seems to me the young man is bound
as firm as humans can do the binding. Now you sit right here, son,
don't come a step nigher the house, and we'll go to breakfast; and
later you'll know whether or not all this promising has been idle waste
of time."

"But I can see how it'll turn out," growled Atkins, "for she is always
a-looking for something new, something out of the big world that she
don't know nothing about."

"Never mind, Bill, don't give up so quick," Willock reproached him, as
they turned away. "She's been having a good look at him all this time,
and it may be she have took a distaste to him already."



CHAPTER XI

THE HALF-OPENED BUD

The two men went into the cabin. An hour later they reappeared,
accompanied by the girl. Wilfred was still seated obediently on the
rock, but at sight of them he rose with a gay laugh and advanced.

"Come over here in the shade," Willock called, as he strode toward a
grassy bank that sloped up to a line of three cedar trees of
interlocked branches. "Come over here and know her. This is our gal."

Lahoma looked at the young man with grave interest, taking note of his
garments and movements as she might have examined the skin and actions
of some unknown animal. Bill Atkins also watched him, but with
suspicious eye, as if anticipating a sudden spring on his ward.

"Set down," said Willock, sinking on the grass. "The last man up is
the biggest fool in Texas!"

Lahoma and Wilfred instantly dropped as if shot, at the same time
breaking into unexpected laughter that caused Willock's beard to quiver
sympathetically. Bill Atkins, sour and unresponsive, stood as stiffly
erect as possible, aided no little in this obstinate attitude by the
natural unelasticity of age.

The young man exclaimed boyishly, still smiling at the girl, "We're
friends already, because we've laughed together."

"Yes," cried Lahoma, "and Brick is in it, too. That's best of all."

"_I_ ain't in it," cried Bill Atkins so fiercely that the young man was
somewhat discomposed.

"Now, Bill," exclaimed the girl reprovingly, "you sit right down by my
side and do this thing right." She explained to the young man, "Bill
Atkins has been higher up than Brick, and he knows forms and
ceremonies, but he despises to act up to what he knows. Sit right
down, Bill, and make the move." There was something so unusual in the
attitude of the blooming young girl toward the weather-beaten,
forbidding-looking man, something so authoritative and at the same time
so protecting, at once the air of a superior who commands and who
shelters from the tyranny of others - that Wilfred was both amused and
touched.

"Yes, Bill," said Willock, "make the move. Make 'em know each other."

"This is Miss Lahoma Willock," growled Bill; "and this" - waving at the
young man disparagingly - "SAYS he is Wilfred Compton. Know each other!"

"I'm glad to know you," Lahoma declared frankly. "It's mighty lucky
you came this way, for, you see, I just live here in the cove and never
touch the big world. I believe you know a thousand things about the
world that we ain't never dreamed of - "

"That we have never dreamed of," corrected Bill Atkins.

" - That we have never dreamed of," resumed Lahoma meekly; "and that's
what I would like to hear about. I expect to go out in the big world
and be a part of it, when I am older, when I know how to protect
myself, Brick says. I'm just a little girl now, if I do look so big;
I'm only fifteen, but when I am of age I'm going out into the big
world; so that's why I'm glad to know you, to use you like a kind of
dictionary. Are you coming back here again?"

"I hope so!" he exclaimed fervently.

"And so do I. In my cabin I have a long list of things written down in
my tablet that I'd like to know about; questions that come to me as I
sit looking over the hill into the sky, things Brick doesn't know, and
not even Bill Atkins. You going to tell me them there things?"

Bill interposed: "Will you kindly tell me those things?"

"Will you kindly tell me those things?" Lahoma put the revised
question as calmly as if she had not suffered correction.

"You see how it is, son," Willock remarked regretfully; "Lahoma keeps
pretty close to me, and I'm always a-leading her along the wrong
trails, not having laid out an extensive education when I was planning
the grounds I calculated to live in. When I got anything to say, I
just follows the easiest way, knowing I'll get to the end of it if I
talk constant. People in the big world ain't no more natural in
talking than in anything else. They builds up fences and arbitrary
walls, and is careful to stay right in the middle of the beaten path,
and I'm all time keeping Bill busy at putting up the bars after me, so
Lahoma will go straight."

"So that's why I'm glad to know you," Lahoma said gravely. "But why
did you want to know ME?" She fastened on him her luminous brown eyes,
with red lips parted, awaiting the clearing up of this mystery.

Wilfred preserved a solemn countenance, "I've been awfully lonesome,
Lahoma, the last two years because, up to that time, I'd lived in a
city with friends all about town and no end of gay times - and these
last two years, I've been in the terrible desert. You are the first
girl I've seen that reminded me of home; when I saw you and knew you
were my kind, the way you held yourself and the smile in your eyes - "

Bill interposed: "Don't you forget that binding, young man!"

"Of course not. But I don't know how to tell just what it means to me
to be with her - with all of you, I mean - but her especially,
because - well, I had so many friends among the girls, back home
and - and - It's no use trying to explain; if you've known the horrible
lonesomeness of the plains you already understand, and if you don't..."

"I know what you mean," Willock remarked, with a reminiscent sigh.

"Let it not be put in words," Bill persisted. "If a thing can't be
expressed, words only mislead. I never knew any good to come of
talking about smiles in eyes. There's nothing to it but misleading
words."

"Go on, Lahoma," said Willock encouragingly, "we're both staying with
you, to see that you come out of this with flying colors. Just go
ahead."

"I want to ask you all about yourself," remarked Lahoma thoughtfully,
"because I can see from your face, and the way you talk, that you're a
real sample of the big world. If I tell you all about myself, will you
do the same?"

Wilfred promised, and Lahoma entered on the history of her childhood.
Wilfred looked and listened joyously, conscious of the unusual scene,
alive to the subtle charm of her fearless eyes, her unreserved
confidences, the melting harmony of her musical tones. To be sure, she
was only a child, but he saw already the promise of the woman. The
petals as yet were closed, but the faint sweet fragrance was already
astir. He found, too, that in her nature was already developed
something not akin to youth, something impersonal, having nothing to do
with one's number of years - like the breath of experience, or the
ancient freshness of a new day. It was born of the mountains and
nourished in the solitude of the plains.

How different the girls of fifteen or sixteen such as he had known in
the city or in sophisticated villages in the East! Lahoma had not been
so engrossed by trivial activities of exacting days that she had lacked
time for thought. Her housekeeping cares were few and devoid of
routine, leaving most of the hours of each day for reading, for
day-dreaming, for absorbed meditation. Somehow the dreams seemed to
linger in, her voice, to hover upon her brow, to form a part of her;
and the longings of those dreams were half-veiled in her eyes, looking
out shyly as if afraid of wounding her guardians by full revelation.
She wanted to meet life, to take a place in the world - but what would
then become of Willock and Bill?

"Bill used to live seven miles away at the mountain with the
precipice," she went on, after she had told about the wonderful window.
"But it was too far off. When he got to know me, it tired him, walking
this far twice a day, morning and night, - didn't it, Bill! So at last
Brick and Bill decided to cut some cedars from the mountain and make me
a cabin, - they took the dugout to sleep in. There are two rooms in the
cabin, one, the kitchen where we eat - and the other, my parlor where I
sleep. Some time you shall visit me in the cabin, if Brick and Bill
are willing. They made it for me, so I couldn't ask anybody in, unless
they said so."

"We aren't far enough along," observed Bill, "to be shut up together
under a roof."

"I'd like to have you visit my parlor," Lahoma said somewhat wistfully.
"I'd like to show you all my books - they were Bill's when we first met
him, but since then he's given me everything he's got, haven't you, old
Bill!" Lahoma leaned over and patted the unyielding shoulder.

Bill stared moodily at the top of the mountain as if in a gloomy
trance, but Wilfred fancied he moved that honored shoulder a trifle
nearer the girl.

She resumed, her face glowing with sudden rapture: "There are six
books - half a dozen! Maybe you've heard of some of them. Bill's read
'em over lots of times. He begins with the first on the shelf and when
he's through the row, he just takes 'em up, all over again. I like to
read parts of them - the interesting parts. This is the way they stand
on the shelf: The Children of the Abbey - that's Bill's favorite; The
Scottish Chiefs, David Copperfield, The Talisman, The Prairie, The Last
of the Mohicans."

"I like The Children of the Abbey best, too," observed Brick Willock
thoughtfully. "Lahoma, she's read 'em all to me; that's the way we get
through the winter months. They's something softening and enriching
about that there Children of the Abbey; and Scottish Chiefs has got
some mighty high work in it, too. I tells Lahoma that I guess them two
books is just about as near the real thing out in the big world as you
can get. David Copperfield is sort of slow; I've went with people that
knowed a powerful sight more than them characters in David. I used to
drift about with a bunch of fellows that Uriah Heep couldn't have stood
up against for five minutes. The Talisman is noble doings, too, but not
up-to-date. As for The Prairie and The Last of the Mohicans, them is
dissatisfying books, - they make you think, being as you lives in just
such quarters, interesting things might happen most any minute - and
they never does."

"Why, Brick!" Lahoma reproached him. "THIS has happened - " she nodded
at Wilfred Compton. "Don't you call that interesting?"

"That's the way _I_ discusses them books," returned Willock with
manifest satisfaction. "I wasn't never no man to be overawed by no
book, which, however high and by whoever wrote, ain't no more like life
than a shadow in a pool. Try to grab that shadow, and where is it?
Just to go out after game and climb the mountains all day and come home
of an evening to sit down to a plate of bacon and eggs, and another of
the same, with coffee smoking on the little stove, and Lahoma urging on
the feast - that's more of real living than you'd get out of a big
library. Ain't it, Bill?"

"Now WE want to talk, Brick," interposed Lahoma - "don't we, Wilfred?"

"So your cabin was built," Wilfred prompted her, "and the men took the
dugout."

"Yes - and then, oh! the most wonderful thing happened: a family
settled in the arm of the mountain at the west end - a family that had a
woman and a baby in it - a sure-enough woman with a sweet face and of a
high grade though worked down pretty level what from hardships - and a
baby that laughed, just laughed whenever he saw me coming in the
dugout - and I was over there every day. And that's how I got to be
like a woman, and know how to dress, and how to meet strangers without
being scared, and preside at table, and use language like this. Other
settlers began coming into Greer, but they were far away, and Brick and
Bill don't like folks, so they stayed shut up pretty close. But for
three years I had the mother and her baby to show me how to be a woman.
Then came the soldiers. Brick thinks a big cattle-king stood in with
Congress, and he got the soldiers sent here to drive out all the
settlers because they were beginning to farm the land instead of
letting it grow wild for the cattle. Anyway, all the settlers were
driven out of the country - and it's been four years since I lost my
only friends in the world - except Brick and Bill. What makes me and
Brick and Bill mad is, that the soldiers didn't have any right to drive
out the settlers, because Texas claims this country, and so does the
United States, but it's never been settled."

"But they didn't drive YOU out," Wilfred remarked inquiringly.

"You see," Brick explained simply, "we didn't want to go."

"It nearly broke Mrs. Featherby's heart to have to leave," Lahoma
added, "for they'd got a good stand of wheat and I think she liked me
'most as well as I liked her. But Mr. Featherby came from Ohio, and he
had respect to the government, so when the soldiers said 'Go,' he
pulled up stakes."

"We ain't got no respect to nothing," Brick explained, "that stands in
the way of doing what we're a mind to. The soldiers come to force us
out, but they changed their minds. I reckon they knew they hadn't no
morality on their side. Sure thing, they knowed they had but very
little safety, whilst occupying their position. None was left but us
in this country till you cattlemen come monopolizing Heaven and earth.
Knowing we got just as much right to this cove as Uncle Sam himself, we
expect to stay here at anchor till Lahoma steams out into the big world
with sails spread. She expects to tug us along behind her - but I don't
know, I'm afraid we'd draw heavy. Until that time comes, however, we
'lows to lay to, in this harbor. We feels sheltered. Nothing ain't
more sheltering than knowing you have a moral right and a dependable
gun."

"So that's about all," Lahoma went on. "These past four years, we've
just been to ourselves, with a long journey once a year to the
settlements; and all the time I had those sweet thoughts to dream over,
about the little family that used to live in the west mountain. And
I've tried to do like Mrs. Featherby used to do, and be like she was,
and if I can make as fine a woman I needn't ask any more. She'd been
to Europe, too, and she'd taught school in New England. Bill Atkins is
higher up than Brick - Bill used to know Kit Carson and all those famous
pioneers, and he's been most everywhere - except in settled places.
When a boy he saw Sam Houston and ate with him, and he has heard David
Crockett with his own ears - has heard him say 'Be sure you're right,
then go ahead,' that's how far BILL has been. But it sort of hurt
Brick's neck, and even Bill's, to look up high enough to see where Mrs.
Featherby had risen. She was like you - right out of the big world.
She came out here because the family was awful poor. Is that why you
left the big world?"

Wilfred shook his head. "I'm poor enough," he said, "but it wasn't
that. It was a girl."

Brick Willock explained, "He's got a sweetheart; he's been carrying her
letters for about two years. He's done spoke for, Lahoma, staked out,
as a fellow might say, and squatted on."

Lahoma looked at him in breathless interest. "A girl out in the big
world? Completely civilized, I reckon! Was she as old as I am?"

"Why, honey!" Brick exclaimed uneasily, "YOU ain't got no age at all,
to speak of! What are you but a mere child? This young man is talking
about them as has got up to be old enough to think of
sweethearting - something respectable in YEARS."

"And how old does a sweetheart have to be?" demanded Lahoma with some
displeasure. "I feel old enough for anything, and Wilfred doesn't look
any older than the knight standing guard in THE TALISMAN. Besides,
look at David Copperfield and Little Em'ly."

"That was child's work," retorted Brick.

"I was afraid of this," growled Bill Atkins restlessly.

Wilfred laughed out. "Don't worry. My eastern girl is at least
nineteen years old, and so thoroughly civilized that she thinks this
part of the world is still overrun with Indians and buffaloes. She
wouldn't live out here for a fortune, and she wouldn't marry a man back
East without one - that's why I'm here. I didn't have the fortune."

"Does she LOVE you, Wilfred?" Her voice was so soft, her eyes were so
big, that Bill uttered a smothered groan, and even Brick sat up.

"She did the last time I saw her - can't say how she feels now; that's
been about two years ago." He spoke lightly; but gazing into the
wonderful depths of Lahoma's eyes, he felt a queer sensation like a
lost heart-beat.

"Did she send you here as a kind of test?"

"Oh, no, she told me good-by and we parted forever. Both of us were
poor, - you can't live in the city if you're poor; you can BE poor
there, but not LIVE. By this time she's found some one with property,
I dare say - she's tremendously handsome and accomplished, and has a
very distinguished-looking mother and they have friends in
society - she'll make it all right, no doubt." His voice was
matter-of-fact even to indifference; but for all that, he seemed to be
deeply inhaling Lahoma's freshness of morning-rose sparkling with dew.

"Does it pierce your heart to think of her marrying somebody else?" Her
voice was sweet with the dream-passion of a young girl.

"When I left home, I flung myself into the life of a cow-puncher and
did all I could to keep from thinking. So my heart's rather callous by
this time. I don't seem to mind like I thought I would if I should sit
down to think about it. That's what I've avoided like the
plague - sitting down to think about it. But I believe I could sit down
and think about it now, pretty calmly."

"Then that's what I'd do," Lahoma cried. "I'd just face it. She isn't
worthy of you if she'd rather have a fortune than the man she loves.
I'd just sit down and face it."

"I will!" He had never before thought it could be easy. It seemed
very easy, now.

"Maybe I could help you," Lahoma suggested earnestly. "When Mrs.
Featherby lived near, I asked her all about such cases and got her
advice and experience. Change of scene and time are the greatest
remedies. You've had both. Then you must tell yourself that she isn't
worthy. And then you'll remind yourself that there are OTHER girls in
the world. Then you keep your mind occupied, - that is a great thing.
If you come to the cove to visit us, we will try to occupy your
mind - won't we Brick? - and Bill?"

Bill looked at Wilfred glumly. "It's too occupied now, I'm afraid."

"Bill, this is a-growing on you," Brick expostulated. "I like the
young chap first rate. He's open and free. Bill, you are hampering,
at times. I would go to my dugout if I was you, and cool my head."

"Your head'll be hot enough," growled Bill, "when this has gone too
far."

Lahoma opened her eyes wide. "What do you mean?" she demanded,
sincerely perplexed.

"Bill," cried Brick warningly, "you're a-going to start up a fire where
they ain't even been no kindling laid."

Wilfred rose hastily. "I should like dearly to come, and come often,"
he exclaimed, "but I couldn't force myself where I'm not wanted."

"In that case," remarked Bill inflexibly, "you're seeing me for the
last time, and may look your fill!"

Wilfred smiled at him tolerantly and turned to Willock. "I ought to go
to my work, Brick. I won't try to explain what this hour has meant to
me for I believe you understand. I'm like a man crossing the desert
who finds a spring and gets enough water to last him till the next
oasis."

He held out his hand to Lahoma who had risen swiftly at these signs of
departure. "God bless you, little girl!" he said cheerily. "A man's
fortunate who finds such oases along his desert-trail!"

It was not Bill's gruffness, but Lahoma's charm that warned him to flee
lest he break his promise to her guardians.

"But you can't go, yet," cried Lahoma, not taking his hand, "there are
a thousand things I want to do with you that I've never had a chance to
do with anybody else - strolling, for instance. Come and stroll - I'll
show you about the cove. Brick and Bill don't know anything about
strolling as they do in pictures. Hold out your arm with a crook in it
and I'll slip my hand just inside where you'll hold it soft and warm
like a bird in its nest.... Isn't his noble? And I holds back - excuse
me - I HOLD back my skirts with my other hand, and this is the way we


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Online LibraryJ. Breckenridge EllisLahoma → online text (page 7 of 17)