E-text prepared by Al Haines
BOB HAMPTON OF PLACER
Author of "When Wilderness Was King," "My Lady of the North," "Historic Illinois," Etc.
Illustrated by Arthur I. Keller
[Frontispiece: "I Read It in your Face," He Insisted. "It Told of Love."]
Eighth Edition Chicago A. C. McClurg & Co. 1907 Copyright A. C. McClurg & Co. 1906 Entered at Stationers' Hall, London All rights reserved Published, September 22, 1906 Second Edition October 1, 1906 Third Edition October 15, 1906 Fourth Edition November 1, 1906 Fifth Edition November 15, 1906 Sixth Edition December 1, 1906 Seventh Edition January 5, 1907 Eighth Edition January 9, 1907
FROM OUT THE CANYON
I HAMPTON, OF PLACER II OLD GILLIS'S GIRL III BETWEEN LIFE AND DEATH IV ON THE NAKED PLAIN V A NEW PROPOSITION VI "TO BE OR NOT TO BE" VII "I'VE COME HERE TO LIVE" VIII A LAST REVOLT IX AT THE OCCIDENTAL
WHAT OCCURRED IN GLENCAID
I THE ARRIVAL OF MISS SPENCER II BECOMING ACQUAINTED III UNDER ORDERS IV SILENT MURPHY V IN HONOR OF MISS SPENCER VI THE LIEUTENANT MEETS MISS SPENCER VII AN UNUSUAL GIRL VIII THE REAPPEARANCE OF AN OLD FRIEND IX THE VERGE OF A QUARREL X A SLIGHT INTERRUPTION XI THE DOOR OPENS, AND CLOSES AGAIN XII THE COHORTS OF JUDGE LYNCH XIII "SHE LOVES ME, SHE LOVES ME NOT" XIV PLUCKED FROM THE BURNING XV THE DOOR CLOSES XVI THE RESCUE OF MISS SPENCER XVII THE PARTING HOUR
ON THE LITTLE BIG HORN
I MR. HAMPTON RESOLVES II THE TRAIL OF SILENT MURPHY III THE HAUNTING OF A CRIME IV THE VERGE OF CONFESSION V ALONE WITH THE INSANE VI ON THE LITTLE BIG HORN VII THE FIGHT IN THE VALLEY VIII THE OLD REGIMENT IX THE LAST STAND X THE CURTAIN FALLS
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
"I Read It in your Face," He Insisted. "It Told of Love" . . . . . . Frontispiece
They Advanced Slowly, the Supported Blankets Swaying Gently to the Measured Tread
"Mr. Slavin Appears to have Lost his Previous Sense of Humor," He Remarked, Calmly
Together They Bore Him, now Unconscious, Slowly down below the First Fire-Line
BOB HAMPTON OF PLACER
FROM OUT THE CANYON
HAMPTON, OF PLACER
It was not an uncommon tragedy of the West. If slightest chronicle of it survive, it must be discovered among the musty and nearly forgotten records of the Eighteenth Regiment of Infantry, yet it is extremely probable that even there the details were never written down. Sufficient if, following certain names on that long regimental roll, there should be duly entered those cabalistic symbols signifying to the initiated, "Killed in action." After all, that tells the story. In those old-time Indian days of continuous foray and skirmish such brief returns, concise and unheroic, were commonplace enough.
Yet the tale is worth telling now, when such days are past and gone. There were sixteen of them when, like so many hunted rabbits, they were first securely trapped among the frowning rocks, and forced relentlessly backward from off the narrow trail until the precipitous canyon walls finally halted their disorganized flight, and from sheer necessity compelled a rally in hopeless battle. Sixteen,—ten infantrymen from old Fort Bethune, under command of Syd. Wyman, a gray-headed sergeant of thirty years' continuous service in the regulars, two cow-punchers from the "X L" ranch, a stranger who had joined them uninvited at the ford over the Bear Water, together with old Gillis the post-trader, and his silent chit of a girl.
Sixteen—but that was three days before, and in the meanwhile not a few of those speeding Sioux bullets had found softer billet than the limestone rocks. Six of the soldiers, four already dead, two dying, lay outstretched in ghastly silence where they fell. "Red" Watt, of the "X L," would no more ride the range across the sun-kissed prairie, while the stern old sergeant, still grim of jaw but growing dim of eye, bore his right arm in a rudely improvised sling made from a cartridge-belt, and crept about sorely racked with pain, dragging a shattered limb behind him. Then the taciturn Gillis gave sudden utterance to a sobbing cry, and a burst of red spurted across his white beard as he reeled backward, knocking the girl prostrate when he fell. Eight remained, one helpless, one a mere lass of fifteen. It was the morning of the third day.
The beginning of the affair had burst upon them so suddenly that no two in that stricken company would have told the same tale. None among them had anticipated trouble; there were no rumors of Indian war along the border, while every recognized hostile within the territory had been duly reported as north of the Bear Water; not the vaguest complaint had drifted into military headquarters for a month or more. In all the fancied security of unquestioned peace these chance travellers had slowly toiled along the steep trail leading toward the foothills, beneath the hot rays of the afternoon sun, their thoughts afar, their steps lagging and careless. Gillis and the girl, as well as the two cattle-herders, were on horseback; the remainder soberly trudged forward on foot, with guns slung to their shoulders. Wyman was somewhat in advance, walking beside the stranger, the latter a man of uncertain age, smoothly shaven, quietly dressed in garments bespeaking an Eastern tailor, a bit grizzled of hair along the temples, and possessing a pair of cool gray eyes. He had introduced himself by the name of Hampton, but had volunteered no further information, nor was it customary in that country to question impertinently. The others of the little party straggled along as best suited themselves, all semblance to the ordinary discipline of the service having been abandoned.
Hampton, through the medium of easy conversation, early discovered in the sergeant an intelligent mind, possessing some knowledge of literature. They had been discussing books with rare enthusiasm, and the former had drawn from the concealment of an inner pocket a diminutive copy of "The Merchant of Venice," from which he was reading aloud a disputed passage, when the faint trail they followed suddenly dipped into the yawning mouth of a black canyon. It was a narrow, gloomy, contracted gorge, a mere gash between those towering hills shadowing its depths on either hand. A swift mountain stream, noisy and clear as crystal, dashed from rock to rock close beside the more northern wall, while the ill-defined pathway, strewn with bowlders and guarded by underbrush, clung to the opposite side, where low scrub trees partially obscured the view.
All was silent as death when they entered. Not so much as the flap of a wing or the stir of a leaf roused suspicion, yet they had barely advanced a short hundred paces when those apparently bare rocks in front flamed red, the narrow defile echoed to wild screeches and became instantly crowded with weird, leaping figures. It was like a plunge from heaven into hell. Blaine and Endicott sank at the first fire; Watt, his face picturing startled surprise, reeled from his saddle, clutching at the air, his horse dashing madly forward and dragging him, head downward, among the sharp rocks; while Wyman's stricken arm dripped blood. Indeed, under that sudden shock, he fell, and was barely rescued by the prompt action of the man beside him. Dropping the opened book, and firing madly to left and right with a revolver which appeared to spring into his hand as by magic, the latter coolly dragged the fainting soldier across the more exposed space, until the two found partial security among a mass of loosened rocks littering the base of the precipice. The others who survived that first scorching discharge also raced toward this same shelter, impelled thereto by the unerring instinct of border fighting, and flinging themselves flat behind protecting bowlders, began responding to the hot fire rained upon them.
Scattered and hurried as these first volleys were, they proved sufficient to check the howling demons in the open. It has never been Indian nature to face unprotected the aim of the white men, and those dark figures, which only a moment before thronged the narrow gorge, leaping crazily in the riot of apparent victory, suddenly melted from sight, slinking down into leafy coverts beside the stream or into holes among the rocks, like so many vanishing prairie-dogs. The fierce yelpings died faintly away in distant echoes, while the hideous roar of conflict diminished to the occasional sharp crackling of single rifles. Now and then a sinewy brown arm might incautiously project across the gleaming surface of a rock, or a mop of coarse black hair appear above the edge of a gully, either incident resulting in a quick interchange of fire. That was all; yet the experienced frontiersmen knew that eyes as keen as those of any wild animal of the jungle were watching murderously their slightest movement.
Wyman, now reclining in agony against the base of the overhanging cliff, directed the movements of his little command calmly and with sober military judgment. Little by little, under protection of the rifles of the three civilians, the uninjured infantrymen crept cautiously about, rolling loosened bowlders forward into position, until they finally succeeded in thus erecting a rude barricade between them and the enemy. The wounded who could be reached were laboriously drawn back within this improvised shelter, and when the black shadows of the night finally shut down, all remaining alive were once more clustered together, the injured lying moaning and ghastly beneath the overhanging shelf of rock, and the girl, who possessed all the patient stoicism of frontier training, resting in silence, her widely opened eyes on those far-off stars peeping above the brink of the chasm, her head pillowed on old Gillis's knee.
Few details of those long hours of waiting ever came forth from that black canyon of death. Many of the men sorely wounded, all wearied, powder-stained, faint with hunger, and parched with thirst, they simply fought out to the bitter ending their desperate struggle against despair. The towering, overhanging wall at their back assured protection from above, but upon the opposite cliff summit, and easily within rifle range, the cunning foe early discovered lodgment, and from that safe vantage-point poured down a merciless fire, causing each man to crouch lower behind his protecting bowlder. No motion could be ventured without its checking bullet, yet hour after hour the besieged held their ground, and with ever-ready rifles left more than one reckless brave dead among the rocks. The longed-for night came dark and early at the bottom of that narrow cleft, while hardly so much as a faint star twinkled in the little slit of sky overhead. The cunning besiegers crept closer through the enshrouding gloom, and taunted their entrapped victims with savage cries and threats of coming torture, but no warrior among them proved sufficiently bold to rush in and slay. Why should they? Easier, safer far, to rest secure behind their shelters, and wait in patience until the little band had fired its last shot. Now they skulked timorously, but then they might walk upright and glut their fiendish lust for blood.
Twice during that long night volunteers sought vainly to pierce those lines of savage watchers. A long wailing cry of agony from out the thick darkness told the fate of their first messenger, while Casey, of the "X L," crept slowly, painfully back, with an Indian bullet embedded deep in his shoulder. Just before the coming of dawn, Hampton, without uttering a word, calmly turned up the collar of his tightly buttoned coat, so as better to conceal the white collar he wore, gripped his revolver between his teeth, and crept like some wriggling snake among the black rocks and through the dense underbrush in search after water. By some miracle of divine mercy he was permitted to pass unscathed, and came crawling back, a dozen hastily filled canteens dangling across his shoulders. It was like nectar to those parched, feverish throats; but of food barely a mouthful apiece remained in the haversacks.
The second day dragged onward, its hours bringing no change for the better, no relief, no slightest ray of hope. The hot sun scorched them pitilessly, and two of the wounded died delirious. From dawn to dark there came no slackening of the savage watchfulness which held the survivors helpless behind their coverts. The merest uplifting of a head, the slightest movement of a hand, was sufficient to demonstrate how sharp were those savage eyes. No white man in the short half-circle dared to waste a single shot now; all realized that their stock of ammunition was becoming fearfully scant, yet those scheming devils continually baited them to draw their fire.
Another long black night followed, during which, for an hour or so in turn, the weary defenders slept, tossing uneasily, and disturbed by fearful dreams. Then gray and solemn, amid the lingering shadows of darkness, dawned the third dread day of unequal conflict. All understood that it was destined to be their last on this earth unless help came. It seemed utterly hopeless to protract the struggle, yet they held on grimly, patiently, half-delirious from hunger and thirst, gazing into each other's haggard faces, almost without recognition, every man at his post. Then it was that old Gillis received his death-wound, and the solemn, fateful whisper ran from lip to lip along the scattered line that only five cartridges remained.
For two days Wyman had scarcely stirred from where he lay bolstered against the rock. Sometimes he became delirious from fever, uttering incoherent phrases, or swearing in pitiful weakness. Again he would partially arouse to his old sense of soldierly duty, and assume intelligent command. Now he twisted painfully about upon his side, and, with clouded eyes, sought to discern what man was lying next him. The face was hidden so that all he could clearly distinguish was the fact that this man was not clothed as a soldier.
"Is that you, Hampton?" he questioned, his voice barely audible.
The person thus addressed, who was lying flat upon his back, gazing silently upward at the rocky front of the cliff, turned cautiously over upon his elbow before venturing reply.
"Yes; what is it, sergeant? It looks to be a beauty of a morning way up yonder."
There was a hearty, cheery ring to his clear voice which left the pain-racked old soldier envious.
"My God!" he growled savagely. "'T is likely to be the last any of us will ever see. Was n't it you I heard whistling just now? One might imagine this was to be a wedding, rather than a funeral."
"And why not, Wyman? Did n't you know they employed music at both functions nowadays? Besides, it is not every man who is permitted to assist at his own obsequies—the very uniqueness of such a situation rather appeals to my sense of humor. Pretty tune, that one I was whistling, don't you think? Picked it up on 'The Pike' in Cincinnati fifteen years ago. Sorry I don't recall the words, or I'd sing them for you."
The sergeant, his teeth clinched tightly to repress the pain racking him, stifled his resentment with an evident effort. "You may be less light-hearted when you learn that the last of our ammunition is already in the guns," he remarked, stiffly.
"I suspected as much." And the speaker lifted himself on one elbow to peer down the line of recumbent figures. "To be perfectly frank with you, sergeant, the stuff has held out considerably longer than I believed it would, judging from the way those 'dough boys' of yours kept popping at every shadow in front of them. It 's a marvel to me, the mutton-heads they take into the army. Oh, now, you need n't scowl at me like that, Wyman; I 've worn the blue, and seen some service where a fellow needed to be a man to sport the uniform. Besides, I 'm not indifferent, old chap, and just so long as there remained any work worth attending to in this skirmishing affair, I did it, did n't I? But I tell you, man, there is mighty little good trying to buck against Fate, and when Luck once finally lets go of a victim, he's bound to drop straight to the bottom before he stops. That's the sum and substance of all my philosophy, old fellow, consequently I never kick simply because things happen to go wrong. What's the use? They 'll go wrong just the same. Then again, my life has never been so sweet as to cause any excessive grief over the prospect of losing it. Possibly I might prefer to pass out from this world in some other manner, but that's merely a matter of individual taste, and just now there does n't seem to be very much choice left me. Consequently, upheld by my acquired philosophy, and encouraged by the rectitude of my past conduct, I 'm merely holding back one shot for myself, as a sort of grand finale to this fandango, and another for that little girl out yonder."
These words were uttered slowly, the least touch of a lazy drawl apparent in the low voice, yet there was an earnest simplicity pervading the speech which somehow gave it impressiveness. The man meant exactly what he said, beyond the possibility of a doubt. The old soldier, accustomed to every form of border eccentricity, gazed at him with disapproval.
"Either you 're the coolest devil I 've met during thirty years of soldiering," he commented, doubtfully, "or else the craziest. Who are you, anyhow? I half believe you might be Bob Hampton, of Placer."
The other smiled grimly. "You have the name tolerably correct, old fellow; likewise that delightful spot so lately honored by my residence. In brief, you have succeeded in calling the turn perfectly, so far as your limited information extends. In strict confidence I propose now to impart to you what has hitherto remained a profound secret. Upon special request of a number of influential citizens of Placer, including the city marshal and other officials, expressed in mass-meeting, I have decided upon deserting that sagebrush metropolis to its just fate, and plan to add the influence of my presence to the future development of Glencaid. I learn that the climate there is more salubrious, more conducive to long living, the citizens of Placer being peculiarly excitable and careless with their fire-arms."
The sergeant had been listening with open mouth. "The hell you say!" he finally ejaculated.
"The undented truth, every word of it. No wonder you are shocked. A fine state of affairs, isn't it, when a plain-spoken, pleasant-mannered gentleman, such as I surely am,—a university graduate, by all the gods, the nephew of a United States Senator, and acknowledged to be the greatest exponent of scientific poker in this territory,—should be obliged to hastily change his chosen place of abode because of the threat of an ignorant and depraved mob. Ever have a rope dangled in front of your eyes, sergeant, and a gun-barrel biting into your cheek at the same time? Accept my word for it, the experience is trying on the nerves. Ran a perfectly square game too, and those ducks knew it; but there 's no true sporting spirit left in this territory any more. However, spilled milk is never worth sobbing over, and Fate always contrives to play the final hand in any game, and stocks the cards to win. Quite probably you are familiar with Bobbie Burns, sergeant, and will recall easily these words, 'The best-laid schemes o' mice and men gang aft agley'? Well, instead of proceeding, as originally intended, to the delightful environs of Glencaid, for a sort of a Summer vacation, I have, on the impulse of the moment, decided upon crossing the Styx. Our somewhat impulsive red friends out yonder are kindly preparing to assist me in making a successful passage, and the citizens of Glencaid, when they learn the sorrowful news of my translation, ought to come nobly forward with some suitable memorial to my virtues. If, by any miracle of chance, you should pull through, Wyman, I would hold it a friendly act if you suggest the matter. A neat monument, for instance, might suitably voice their grief; it would cost them far less than I should in the flesh, and would prove highly gratifying to me, as well as those mourners left behind in Placer."
"A breath of good honest prayer would serve better than all your fun," groaned the sergeant, soberly.
The gray eyes resting thoughtfully on the old soldier's haggard face became instantly grave and earnest.
"Sincerely I wish I might aid you with one," the man admitted, "but I fear, old fellow, any prayer coming from my lips would never ascend very far. However, I might try the comfort of a hymn, and you will remember this one, which, no doubt, you have helped to sing back in God's country."
There was a moment's hushed pause, during which a rifle cracked sharply out in the ravine; then the reckless fellow, his head partially supported against the protecting bowlder, lifted up a full, rich barytone in rendition of that hymn of Christian faith—
"Nearer, my God, to Thee! Nearer to Thee! E'en though it be a cross That raiseth me, Still all my song shall be, Nearer, my God, to Thee! Nearer to Thee."
Glazed and wearied eyes glanced cautiously toward the singer around the edges of protecting rocks; fingers loosened their grasp upon the rifle barrels; smoke-begrimed cheeks became moist; while lips, a moment before profaned by oaths, grew silent and trembling. Out in front a revengeful brave sent his bullet swirling just above the singer's head, the sharp fragments of rock dislodged falling in a shower upon his upturned face; but the fearless rascal sang serenely on to the end, without a quaver.
"Mistake it for a death song likely," he remarked dryly, while the last clear, lingering note, reechoed by the cliff, died reluctantly away in softened cadence. "Beautiful old song, sergeant, and I trust hearing it again has done you good. Sang it once in a church way back in New England. But what is the trouble? Did you call me for some special reason?"
"Yes," came the almost gruff response; for Wyman, the fever stealing back upon him, felt half ashamed of his unshed tears. "That is, provided you retain sufficient sense to listen. Old Gillis was shot over an hour ago, yonder behind that big bowlder, and his girl sits there still holding his head in her lap. She'll get hit also unless somebody pulls her out of there, and she's doing no good to Gillis—he's dead."
Hampton's clear-cut, expressive face became graver, all trace of recklessness gone from it. He lifted his head cautiously, peering over his rock cover toward where he remembered earlier in the fight Gillis had sought refuge.
OLD GILLIS'S GIRL
Excepting for a vague knowledge that Gillis had had a girl with him, together with the half-formed determination that if worse came to worst she must never be permitted to fall alive into the hands of the lustful Sioux, Mr. Hampton had scarcely so much as noted her presence. Of late years he had not felt greatly interested in the sex, and his inclination, since uniting his shattered fortunes with this little company, had been to avoid coming into personal contact with this particular specimen. Practically, therefore, he now observed her for the first time. Previously she had passed within range of his vision simply as the merest shadow; now she began to appeal faintly to him as a personality, uninteresting enough, of course, yet a living human being, whom it had oddly become his manifest duty to succor and protect. The never wholly eradicated instincts of one born and bred a gentleman, although heavily overlaid by the habits acquired in many a rough year passed along the border, brought vividly before him the requirements of the situation. Undoubtedly death was destined to be the early portion of them all; nevertheless she deserved every opportunity for life that remained, and with the ending of hope—well, there are worse fates upon the frontier than the unexpected plunge of a bullet through a benumbed brain.
Guided by the unerring instinct of an old Indian fighter, Gillis, during that first mad retreat, had discovered temporary shelter behind one of the largest bowlders. It was a trifle in advance of those later rolled into position by the soldiers, but was of a size and shape which should have afforded ample protection for two, and doubtless would have done so had it not been for the firing from the cliff opposite. Even then it was a deflected bullet, glancing from off the polished surface of the rock, which found lodgment in the sturdy old fighter's brain. The girl had caught him as he fell, had wasted all her treasured store of water in a vain effort to cleanse the blood from his features, and now sat there, pillowing his head upon her knee, although the old man was stone dead with the first touch of the ball. That had occurred fully an hour before, but she continued in the same posture, a grave, pathetic figure, her face sobered and careworn beyond her years, her eyes dry and staring, one brown hand grasping unconsciously the old man's useless rifle. She would scarcely have been esteemed attractive even under much happier circumstances and assisted by dress, yet there was something in the independent poise of her head, the steady fixedness of her posture, which served to interest Hampton as he now watched her curiously.
"Fighting blood," he muttered admiringly to himself. "Might fail to develop into very much of a society belle, but likely to prove valuable out here."
She was rather a slender slip of a thing, a trifle too tall for her years, perhaps, yet with no lack of development apparent in the slim, rounded figure. Her coarse home-made dress of dark calico fitted her sadly, while her rumpled hair, from which the broad-brimmed hat had fallen, possessed a reddish copper tinge where it was touched by the sun. Mr. Hampton's survey did not increase his desire for more intimate acquaintanceship, yet he recognized anew her undoubted claim upon him.
"Suppose I might just as well drop out that way as any other," he reflected, thoughtfully. "It's all in the game."
Lying flat upon his stomach, both arms extended, he slowly forced himself beyond his bowlder into the open. There was no great distance to be traversed, and a considerable portion of the way was somewhat protected by low bushes. Hampton took few chances of those spying eyes above, never uplifting his head the smallest fraction of an inch, but reaching forward with blindly groping hands, caught hold upon any projecting root or stone which enabled him to drag his body an inch farther. Twice they fired directly down at him from the opposite summit, and once a fleck of sharp rock, chipped by a glancing bullet, embedded itself in his cheek, dyeing the whole side of his face crimson. But not once did he pause or glance aside; nor did the girl look up from the imploring face of her dead. As he crept silently in, sheltering himself next to the body of the dead man, she perceived his presence for the first time, and shrank back as if in dread.
"What are you doing? Why—why did you come here?" she questioned, a falter in her voice; and he noticed that her eyes were dark and large, yielding a marked impress of beauty to her face.
"I was unwilling to leave you here alone," he answered, quietly, "and hope to discover some means for getting you safely back beside the others."
"But I didn't want you," and there was a look of positive dislike in her widely opened eyes.
"Did n't want me?" He echoed these unexpected words in a tone of complete surprise. "Surely you could not desire to be left here alone? Why didn't you want me?"
"Because I know who you are!" Her voice seemed to catch in her throat. "He told me. You're the man who shot Jim Eberly."
Mr. Hampton was never of a pronounced emotional nature, nor was he a person easily disconcerted, yet he flushed at the sound of these impulsive words, and the confident smile deserted his lips. For a moment they sat thus, the dead body lying between, and looked at each other. When the man finally broke the constrained silence a deeper intonation had crept into his voice.
"My girl," he said gravely, and not without a suspicion of pleading, "this is no place for me to attempt any defence of a shooting affray in a gambling-house, although I might plead with some justice that Eberly enjoyed the honor of shooting first. I was not aware of your personal feeling in the matter, or I might have permitted some one else to come here in my stead. Now it is too late. I have never spoken to you before, and do so at this time merely from a sincere desire to be of some assistance."
There was that in his manner of grave courtesy which served to steady the girl. Probably never before in all her rough frontier experience had she been addressed thus formally. Her closely compressed lips twitched nervously, but her questioning eyes remained unlowered.
"You may stay," she asserted, soberly. "Only don't touch me."
No one could ever realize how much those words hurt him. He had been disciplined in far too severe a school ever to permit his face to index the feelings of his heart, yet the unconcealed shrinking of this uncouth child from slightest personal contact with him cut through his acquired reserve as perhaps nothing else could ever have done. Not until he had completely conquered his first unwise impulse to retort angrily, did he venture again to speak.
"I hope to aid you in getting back beside the others, where you will be less exposed."
"Will you take him?"
"He is dead," Hampton said, soberly, "and I can do nothing to aid him. But there remains a chance for you to escape."
"Then I won't go," she declared, positively.
Hampton's gray eyes looked for a long moment fixedly into her darker ones, while the two took mental stock of each other. He realized the utter futility of any further argument, while she felt instinctively the cool, dominating strength of the man. Neither was composed of that poor fibre which bends.
"Very well, my young lady," he said, easily, stretching himself out more comfortably in the rock shadow. "Then I will remain here with you; it makes small odds."
Excepting for one hasty, puzzled glance, she did not deign to look again toward him, and the man rested motionless upon his back, staring up at the sky. Finally, curiosity overmastered the actor in him, and he turned partially upon one side, so as to bring her profile within his range of vision. The untamed, rebellious nature of the girl had touched a responsive chord; unseeking any such result she had directly appealed to his better judgment, and enabled him to perceive her from an entirely fresh view-point. Her clearly expressed disdain, her sturdy independence both of word and action, coupled with her frankly voiced dislike, awoke within him an earnest desire to stand higher in her regard. Her dark, glowing eyes were lowered upon the white face of the dead man, yet Hampton noted how clear, in spite of sun-tan, were those tints of health upon the rounded cheek, and how soft and glossy shone her wealth of rumpled hair. Even the tinge of color, so distasteful in the full glare of the sun, appeared to have darkened under the shadow, its shade framing the downcast face into a pensive fairness. Then he observed how dry and parched her lips were.
"Take a drink of this," he insisted heartily, holding out toward her as he spoke his partially filled canteen.
She started at the unexpected sound of his voice, yet uplifted the welcome water to her mouth, while Hampton, observing it all closely, could but remark the delicate shapeliness other hand.
"If that old fellow was her father," he reflected soberly, "I should like to have seen her mother."
"Thank you," she said simply, handing back the canteen, but without lifting her eyes again to his face. "I was so thirsty." Her low tone, endeavoring to be polite enough, contained no note of encouragement.
"Was Gillis your father?" the man questioned, determined to make her recognize his presence.
"I suppose so; I don't know."
"You don't know? Am I to understand you are actually uncertain whether this man was your father or not?"
"That is about what I said, was n't it? Not that it is any of your business, so far as I know, Mr. Bob Hampton, but I answered you all right. He brought me up, and I called him 'dad' about as far back as I can remember, but I don't reckon as he ever told me he was my father. So you can understand just what you please."
"His name was Gillis, was n't it?"
The girl nodded wearily.
"Post-trader at Fort Bethune?"
Again the rumpled head silently acquiesced.
"What is your name?"
"He always called me 'kid,'" she admitted unwillingly, "but I reckon if you have any further occasion for addressing me, you'd better say, 'Miss Gillis.'"
Hampton laughed lightly, his reckless humor instantly restored by her perverse manner.
"Heaven preserve me!" he exclaimed good naturedly, "but you are certainly laying it on thick, young lady! However, I believe we might become good friends if we ever have sufficient luck to get out from this hole alive. Darn if I don't sort of cotton to you, little girl—you've got some sand."
For a brief space her truthful, angry eyes rested scornfully upon his face, her lips parted as though trembling with a sharp retort. Then she deliberately turned her back upon him without uttering a word.
For what may have been the first and only occasion in Mr. Hampton's audacious career, he realized his utter helplessness. This mere slip of a red-headed girl, this little nameless waif of the frontier, condemned him so completely, and without waste of words, as to leave him weaponless. Not that he greatly cared; oh, no! still, it was an entirely new experience; the arrow went deeper than he would have willingly admitted. Men of middle age, gray hairs already commencing to shade their temples, are not apt to enjoy being openly despised by young women, not even by ordinary freckle-faced girls, clad in coarse short frocks. Yet he could think of no fitting retort worth the speaking, and consequently he simply lay back, seeking to treat this disagreeable creature with that silent contempt which is the last resort of the vanquished.
He was little inclined to admit, even to himself, that he had been fairly hit, yet the truth remained that this girl was beginning to interest him oddly. He admired her sturdy independence, her audacity of speech, her unqualified frankness. Mr. Hampton was a thoroughgoing sport, and no quality was quite so apt to appeal to him as dead gameness. He glanced surreptitiously aside at her once more, but there was no sign of relenting in the averted face. He rested lower against the rock, his face upturned toward the sky, and thought. He was becoming vaguely aware that something entirely new, and rather unwelcome, had crept into his life during that last fateful half-hour. It could not be analyzed, nor even expressed definitely in words, but he comprehended this much—he would really enjoy rescuing this girl, and he should like to live long enough to discover into what sort of woman she would develop.
It was no spirit of bravado that gave rise to his reckless speech of an hour previous. It was simply a spontaneous outpouring of his real nature, an unpremeditated expression of that supreme carelessness with which he regarded the future, the small value he set on life. He truly felt as utterly indifferent toward fate as his words signified. Deeply conscious of a life long ago irretrievably wrecked, everything behind a chaos, everything before worthless,—for years he had been actually seeking death; a hundred times he had gladly marked its apparent approach, a smile of welcome upon his lips. Yet it had never quite succeeded in reaching him, and nothing had been gained beyond a reputation for cool, reckless daring, which he did not in the least covet. But now, miracle of all miracles, just as the end seemed actually attained, seemed beyond any possibility of being turned aside, he began to experience a desire to live—he wanted to save this girl.
His keenly observant eyes, trained by the exigencies of his trade to take note of small things, and rendered eager by this newly awakened ambition, scanned the cliff towering above them. He perceived the extreme irregularity of its front, and numerous peculiarities of formation which had escaped him hitherto. Suddenly his puzzled face brightened to the birth of an idea. By heavens! it might be done! Surely it might be done! Inch by inch he traced the obscure passage, seeking to impress each faint detail upon his memory—that narrow ledge within easy reach of an upstretched arm, the sharp outcropping of rock-edges here and there, the deep gash as though some giant axe had cleaved the stone, those sturdy cedars growing straight out over the chasm like the bowsprits of ships, while all along the way, irregular and ragged, varied rifts not entirely unlike the steps of a crazy staircase.
The very conception of such an exploit caused his flesh to creep. But he was not of that class of men who fall back dazed before the face of danger. Again and again, led by an impulse he was unable to resist, he studied that precipitous rock, every nerve tingling to the newborn hope. God helping them, even so desperate a deed might be accomplished, although it would test the foot and nerve of a Swiss mountaineer. He glanced again uneasily toward his companion, and saw the same motionless figure, the same sober face turned deliberately away. Hampton did not smile, but his square jaw set, and he clinched his hands. He had no fear that she might fall him, but for the first time in all his life he questioned his own courage.
BETWEEN LIFE AND DEATH
The remainder of that day, as well as much of the gloomy night following, composed a silent, lingering horror. The fierce pangs of hunger no longer gnawed, but a dull apathy now held the helpless defenders. One of the wounded died, a mere lad, sobbing pitifully for his mother; an infantryman, peering forth from his covert, had been shot in the face, and his scream echoed among the rocks in multiplied accents of agony; while Wyman lay tossing and moaning, mercifully unconscious. The others rested in their places, scarcely venturing to stir a limb, their roving, wolfish eyes the only visible evidence of remaining life, every hope vanished, yet each man clinging to his assigned post of duty in desperation. There was but little firing—the defenders nursing their slender stock, the savages biding their time. When night shut down the latter became bolder, and taunted cruelly those destined to become so soon their hapless victims. Twice the maddened men fired recklessly at those dancing devils, and one pitched forward, emitting a howl of pain that caused his comrades to cower once again behind their covers. One and all these frontiersmen recognized the inevitable—before dawn the end must come. No useless words were spoken; the men merely clinched their teeth and waited.
Hampton crept closer in beside the girl while the shadows deepened, and ventured to touch her hand. Perhaps the severe strain of their situation, the intense loneliness of that Indian-haunted twilight, had somewhat softened her resentment, for she made no effort now to repulse him.
"Kid," he said at last, "are you game for a try at getting out of this?"
She appeared to hesitate over her answer, and he could feel her tumultuous breathing. Some portion of her aversion had vanished. His face was certainly not an unpleasant one to look upon, and there were others other sex who had discovered in it a covering for a multitude of sins. Hampton smiled slightly while he waited; he possessed some knowledge of the nature feminine.
"Come, Kid," he ventured finally, yet with new assurance vibrating in his low voice; "this is surely a poor time and place for any indulgence in tantrums, and you 've got more sense. I 'm going to try to climb up the face of that cliff yonder,—it's the only possible way out from here,—and I propose to take you along with me."
She snatched her hand roughly away, yet remained facing him. "Who gave you any right to decide what I should do?"
The man clasped his fingers tightly about her slender arm, advancing his face until he could look squarely into hers. She read in the lines of that determined countenance an inflexible resolve which overmastered her.
"The right given by Almighty God to protect any one of your sex in peril," he replied. "Before dawn those savage fiends will be upon us. We are utterly helpless. There remains only one possible path for escape, and I believe I have discovered it. Now, my girl, you either climb those rocks with me, or I shall kill you where you are. It is that, or the Sioux torture. I have two shots left in this gun,—one for you, the other for myself. The time has come for deciding which of these alternatives you prefer."
The gleam of a star glittered along the steel of his revolver, and she realized that he meant what he threatened.
"If I select your bullet rather than the rocks, what then?"
"You will get it, but in that case you will die like a fool."
"You have believed me to be one, all this afternoon."
"Possibly," he admitted; "your words and actions certainly justified some such conclusion, but the opportunity has arrived for causing me to revise that suspicion."
"I don't care to have you, revise it, Mr. Bob Hampton. If I go, I shall hate you just the same."
Hampton's teeth clicked like those of an angry dog. "Hate and be damned," he exclaimed roughly. "All I care about now is to drag you out of here alive."
His unaffected sincerity impressed her more than any amount of pleading. She was long accustomed to straight talk; it always meant business, and her untutored nature instantly responded with a throb of confidence.
"Well, if you put it that way," she said, "I 'll go."
For one breathless moment neither stirred. Then a single wild yell rang sharply forth from the rocks in their front, and a rifle barked savagely, its red flame cleaving the darkness with tongue of fire. An instant and the impenetrable gloom again surrounded them.
"Come on, then," he whispered, his fingers grasping her sleeve.
She shook off the restraining touch of his hand as if it were contamination, and sank down upon her knees beside the inert body. He could barely perceive the dim outlines of her bowed figure, yet never moved, his breath perceptibly quickening, while he watched and waited. Without word or moan she bent yet lower, and pressed her lips upon the cold, white face. The man caught no more than the faintest echo of a murmured "Good-bye, old dad; I wish I could take you with me." Then she stood stiffly upright, facing him. "I'm ready now," she announced calmly. "You can go on ahead."
They crept among low shrubs and around the bowlders, carefully guarding every slightest movement lest some rustle of disturbed foliage, or sound of loosened stone, might draw the fire of those keen watchers. Nor dared they ignore the close proximity of their own little company, who, amid such darkness, might naturally suspect them for approaching savages. Every inch of their progress was attained through tedious groping, yet the distance to be traversed was short, and Hampton soon found himself pressing against the uprising precipice. Passing his fingers along the front, he finally found that narrow ledge which he had previously located with such patient care, and reaching back, drew the girl silently upon her feet beside him. Against that background of dark cliff they might venture to stand erect, the faint glimmer of reflected light barely sufficient to reveal to each the shadowy outline of the other.
"Don't move an inch from this spot," he whispered. "It wouldn't be a square deal, Kid, to leave those poor fellows to their death without even telling them there's a chance to get out."
She attempted no reply, as he glided noiselessly away, but her face, could he have seen it, was not devoid of expression. This was an act of generosity and deliberate courage of the very kind most apt to appeal to her nature, and within her secret heart there was rapidly developing a respect for this man, who with such calm assurance won his own way. He was strong, forceful, brave,—Homeric virtues of real worth in that hard life which she knew best. All this swept across her mind in a flash of revelation while she stood alone, her eyes endeavoring vainly to peer into the gloom. Then, suddenly, that black curtain was rent by jagged spurts of red and yellow flame. Dazed for an instant, her heart throbbing wildly to the sharp reports of the rifles, she shrank cowering back, her fascinated gaze fixed on those imp-like figures leaping forward from rock to rock. Almost with the flash and sound Hampton sprang hastily back and gathered her in his arms.
"Catch hold, Kid, anywhere; only go up, and quick!"
As he thus lifted her she felt the irregularities of rock beneath her clutching fingers, and scrambled instinctively forward along the narrow shelf, and then, reaching higher, her groping hands clasped the roots of a projecting cedar. She retained no longer any memory for Hampton; her brain was completely terrorized. Inch by inch, foot by foot, clinging to a fragment of rock here, grasping a slippery branch there, occasionally helped by encountering a deeper gash in the face of the precipice, her movements concealed by the scattered cedars, she toiled feverishly up, led by instinct, like any wild animal desperately driven by fear, and only partially conscious of the real dread of her terrible position. The first time she became aware that Hampton was closely following was when her feet slipped along a naked root, and she would have plunged headlong into unknown depths had she not come into sudden contact with his supporting shoulder. Faint and dizzy, and trembling like the leaf of an aspen, she crept forward onto a somewhat wider ledge of thin rock, and lay there quivering painfully from head to foot. A moment of suspense, and he was outstretched beside her, resting at full length along the very outer edge, his hand closing tightly over her own.
"Remain perfectly quiet," he whispered, panting heavily. "We can be no safer anywhere else."
She could distinguish the rapid pounding of his heart as well as her own, mingled with the sharp intake of their heavy breathing, but these sounds were soon overcome by that of the tumult below. Shots and yells, the dull crash of blows, the shouts of men engaged in a death grapple, the sharp crackling of innumerable rifles, the inarticulate moans of pain, the piercing scream of sudden torture, were borne upward to them from out the blackness. They did not venture to lift their heads from off the hard rock; the girl sobbed silently, her slender form trembling; the fingers of the man closed more tightly about her hand. All at once the hideous uproar ceased with a final yelping of triumph, seemingly reechoed the entire length of the chasm, in the midst of which one single voice pleaded pitifully,—only to die away in a shriek. The two agonized fugitives lay listening, their ears strained to catch the slightest sound from below. The faint radiance of a single star glimmered along the bald front of the cliff, but Hampton, peering cautiously across the edge, could distinguish nothing. His ears could discern evidences of movement, and he heard guttural voices calling at a distance, but to the vision all was black. The distance those faint sounds appeared away made his head reel, and he shrank cowering back against the girl's body, closing his eyes and sinking his head upon his arm.
These uncertain sounds ceased, the strained ears of the fugitives heard the crashing of bodies through the thick shrubbery, and then even this noise died away in the distance. Yet neither ventured to stir or speak. It may be that the girl slept fitfully, worn out by long vigil and intense strain; but the man proved less fortunate, his eyes staring out continually into the black void, his thoughts upon other days long vanished but now brought back in all their bitterness by the mere proximity of this helpless waif who had fallen into his care. His features were drawn and haggard when the first gray dawn found ghastly reflection along the opposite rock summit, and with blurred eyes he watched the faint tinge of returning light steal downward into the canyon. At last it swept aside those lower clinging mists, as though some invisible hand had drawn back the night curtains, and he peered over the edge of his narrow resting-place, gazing directly down upon the scene of massacre. With a quick gasp of unspeakable horror he shrank so sharply back as to cause the suddenly awakened girl to start and glance into his face.
"What is it?" she questioned, with quick catching of breath, reading that which she could not clearly interpret in his shocked expression.
"Nothing of consequence," and he faintly endeavored to smile. "I suppose I must have been dreaming also, and most unpleasantly. No; please do not look down; it would only cause your head to reel, and our upward climb is not yet completed. Do you feel strong enough now to make another attempt to reach the top?"
His quiet spirit of assured dominance seemed to command her obedience. With a slight shudder she glanced doubtfully up the seemingly inaccessible height.
"Can we?" she questioned helplessly.
"We can, simply because we must," and his white teeth shut together firmly. "There is no possibility of retracing our steps downward, but with the help of this daylight we surely ought to be able to discover some path leading up."
He rose cautiously to his feet, pressing her more closely against the face of the cliff, thus holding her in comparative safety while preventing her from glancing back into the dizzy chasm. The most difficult portion of their journey was apparently just before them, consisting of a series of narrow ledges, so widely separated and irregular as to require each to assist the other while passing from point to point. Beyond these a slender cleft, bordered by gnarled roots of low bushes, promised a somewhat easier and securer passage toward the summit. Hampton's face became deathly white as they began the perilous climb, but his hand remained steady, his foot sure, while the girl moved forward as if remaining unconscious of the presence of danger, apparently swayed by his dominant will to do whatsoever he bade her. More than once they tottered on the very brink, held to safety merely by desperate clutchings at rock or shrub, yet never once did the man loosen his guarding grasp of his companion. Pressed tightly against the smooth rock, feeling for every crevice, every slightest irregularity of surface, making use of creeping tendril or dead branch, daring death along every inch of the way, these two creepers at last attained the opening to the little gulley, and sank down, faint and trembling, their hands bleeding, their clothing sadly torn by the sharp ledges across which they had pulled their bodies by the sheer strength of extended arms. Hampton panted heavily from exertion, yet the old light of cool, resourceful daring had crept back into the gray eyes, while the stern lines about his lips assumed pleasanter curves. The girl glanced furtively at him, the long lashes shadowing the expression of her lowered eyes. In spite of deep prejudice she felt impelled to like this man; he accomplished things, and he didn't talk.
It was nothing more serious than a hard and toilsome climb after that, a continuous struggle testing every muscle, straining every sinew, causing both to sink down again and again, panting and exhausted, no longer stimulated by imminent peril. The narrow cleft they followed led somewhat away from the exposed front of the precipice, yet arose steep and jagged before them, a slender gash through the solid rock, up which they were often compelled to force their passage; again it became clogged with masses of debris, dead branches, and dislodged fragments of stone, across which they were obliged to struggle desperately, while once they completely halted before a sheer smoothness of rock wall that appeared impassable. It was bridged finally by a cedar trunk, which Hampton wrenched from out its rocky foothold, and the two crept cautiously forward, to emerge where the sunlight rested golden at the summit. They sank face downward in the short grass, barely conscious that they had finally won their desperate passage.
Slowly Hampton succeeded in uplifting his tired body and his reeling head, until he could sit partially upright and gaze unsteadily about. The girl yet remained motionless at his feet, her thick hair, a mass of red gold in the sunshine, completely concealing her face, her slender figure quivering to sobs of utter exhaustion. Before them stretched the barren plain, brown, desolate, drear, offering in all its wide expanse no hopeful promise of rescue, no slightest suggestion even of water, excepting a fringe of irregular trees, barely discernible against the horizon. That lorn, deserted waste, shimmering beneath the sun-rays, the heat waves already becoming manifest above the rock-strewn surface, presented a most depressing spectacle. With hand partially shading his aching eyes from the blinding glare, the man studied its every exposed feature, his face hardening again into lines of stern determination. The girl stirred from her position, flinging back her heavy hair with one hand, and looking up into his face with eyes that read at once his disappointment.
"Have—have you any water left?" she asked at last, her lips parched and burning as if from fever.
He shook the canteen dangling forgotten at his side. "There may be a few drops," he said, handing it to her, although scarcely removing his fixed gaze from off that dreary plain. "We shall be obliged to make those trees yonder; there ought to be water there in plenty, and possibly we may strike a trail."
She staggered to her feet, gripping his shoulder, and swaying a little from weakness, then, holding aside her hair, gazed long in the direction he pointed.
"I fairly shake from hunger," she exclaimed, almost angrily, "and am terribly tired and sore, but I reckon I can make it if I 've got to."
There was nothing more said between them. Like two automatons, they started off across the parched grass, the heat waves rising and falling as they stumbled forward. Neither realized until then how thoroughly that hard climb up the rocks, the strain of continued peril, and the long abstinence from food had sapped their strength, yet to remain where they were meant certain death; all hope found its centre amid those distant beckoning trees. Mechanically the girl gathered back her straying tresses, and tied them with a rag torn from her frayed skirt. Hampton noted silently how heavy and sunken her eyes were; he felt a dull pity, yet could not sufficiently arouse himself from the lethargy of exhaustion to speak. His body seemed a leaden weight, his brain a dull, inert mass; nothing was left him but an unreasoning purpose, the iron will to press on across that desolate plain, which already reeled and writhed before his aching eyes.
No one can explain later how such deeds are ever accomplished; how the tortured soul controls physical weakness, and compels strained sinews to perform the miracle of action when all ambition has died. Hampton surely must have both seen and known, for he kept his direction, yet never afterwards did he regain any clear memory of it. Twice she fell heavily, and the last time she lay motionless, her face pressed against the short grass blades. He stood looking down upon her, his head reeling beneath the hot rays of the sun, barely conscious of what had occurred, yet never becoming totally dead to his duty. Painfully he stooped, lifted the limp, slender figure against his shoulder, and went straggling forward, as uncertain in steps as a blind man, all about him stretching the dull, dead desolation of the plain. Again and again he sank down, pillowing his eyes from the pitiless sun glare; only to stagger upright once more, ever bending lower and lower beneath his unconscious burden.
ON THE NAKED PLAIN
It was two hundred and eighteen miles, as the crow flies, between old Fort Bethune and the rock ford crossing the Bear Water, every foot of that dreary, treeless distance Indian-haunted, the favorite skulking-place and hunting-ground of the restless Sioux. Winter and summer this wide expanse had to be suspiciously patrolled by numerous military scouting parties, anxious to learn more regarding the uncertain whereabouts of wandering bands and the purposes of malecontents, or else drawn hither and thither by continually shifting rumors of hostile raids upon the camps of cattlemen. All this involved rough, difficult service, with small meed of honor attached, while never had soldiers before found trickier foemen to contend against, or fighters more worthy of their steel.
One such company, composed of a dozen mounted infantrymen, accompanied by three Cree trailers, rode slowly and wearily across the brown exposed uplands down into the longer, greener grass of the wide valley bottom, until they emerged upon a barely perceptible trail which wound away in snake-like twistings, toward those high, barren hills whose blue masses were darkly silhouetted against the western sky. Upon every side of them extended the treeless wilderness, the desolate loneliness of bare, brown prairie, undulating just enough to be baffling to the eyes, yet so dull, barren, grim, silent, and colorless as to drive men mad. The shimmering heat rose and fell in great pulsating waves, although no slightest breeze came to stir the stagnant air, while thick clouds of white dust, impregnated with poisonous alkali, rose from out the grass roots, stirred by the horses' feet, to powder the passers-by from head to foot. The animals moved steadily forward, reluctant and weary, their heads drooping dejectedly, their distended nostrils red and quivering, the oily perspiration streaking their dusted sides. The tired men, half blinded by the glare, lolled heavily in their deep cavalry saddles, with encrusted eyes staring moodily ahead.
Riding alone, and slightly in advance of the main body, his mount a rangy, broad-chested roan, streaked with alkali dust, the drooping head telling plainly of wearied muscles, was the officer in command. He was a pleasant-faced, stalwart young fellow, with the trim figure of a trained athlete, possessing a square chin smoothly shaven, his intelligent blue eyes half concealed beneath his hat brim, which had been drawn low to shade them from the glare, one hand pressing upon his saddle holster as he leaned over to rest. No insignia of rank served to distinguish him from those equally dusty fellows plodding gloomily behind, but a broad stripe of yellow running down the seams of his trousers, together with his high boots, bespoke the cavalry service, while the front of his battered campaign hat bore the decorations of two crossed sabres, with a gilded "7" prominent between. His attire was completed by a coarse blue shirt, unbuttoned at the throat, about which had been loosely knotted a darker colored silk handkerchief, and across the back of the saddle was fastened a uniform jacket, the single shoulder-strap revealed presenting the plain yellow of a second lieutenant.
Attaining to the summit of a slight knoll, whence a somewhat wider vista lay outspread, he partially turned his face toward the men straggling along in the rear, while his hand swept across the dreary scene.
"If that line of trees over yonder indicates the course of the Bear Water, Carson," he questioned quietly, "where are we expected to hit the trail leading down to the ford?"
The sergeant, thus addressed, a little stocky fellow wearing a closely clipped gray moustache, spurred his exhausted horse into a brief trot, and drew up short by the officer's side, his heavy eyes scanning the vague distance, even while his right hand was uplifted in perfunctory salute.
"There 's no trail I know about along this bank, sir," he replied respectfully, "but the big cottonwood with the dead branch forking out at the top is the ford guide."
They rode down in moody silence into the next depression, and began wearily climbing the long hill opposite, apparently the last before coming directly down the banks of the stream. As his barely moving horse topped the uneven summit, the lieutenant suddenly drew in his rein, and uttering an exclamation of surprise, bent forward, staring intently down in his immediate front. For a single instant he appeared to doubt the evidence of his own eyes; then he swung hastily from out the saddle, all weariness forgotten.
"My God!" he cried, sharply, his eyes suspiciously sweeping the bare slope. "There are two bodies lying here—white people!"
They lay all doubled up in the coarse grass, exactly as they had fallen, the man resting face downward, the slender figure of the girl clasped vice-like in his arms, with her tightly closed eyes upturned toward the glaring sun. Their strange, strained, unnatural posture, the rigidity of their limbs, the ghastly pallor of the exposed young face accentuated by dark, dishevelled hair, all alike seemed to indicate death. Never once questioning but that he was confronting the closing scene of a grewsome tragedy, the thoroughly aroused lieutenant dropped upon his knees beside them, his eyes already moist with sympathy, his anxious fingers feeling for a possible heart-beat. A moment of hushed, breathless suspense followed, and then he began flinging terse, eager commands across his shoulder to where his men were clustered.
"Here! Carson, Perry, Ronk, lay hold quick, and break this fellow's clasp," he cried, briefly. "The girl retains a spark of life yet, but the man's arms fairly crush her."
With all the rigidity of actual death those clutching hands held their tenacious grip, but the aroused soldiers wrenched the interlaced fingers apart with every tenderness possible in such emergency, shocked at noting the expression of intense agony stamped upon the man's face when thus exposed to view. The whole terrible story was engraven there—how he had toiled, agonized, suffered, before finally yielding to the inevitable and plunging forward in unconsciousness, written as legibly as though by a pen. Every pang of mental torture had left plainest imprint across that haggard countenance. He appeared old, pitiable, a wreck. Carson, who in his long service had witnessed much of death and suffering, bent tenderly above him, seeking for some faint evidence of lingering life. His fingers felt for no wound, for to his experienced eyes the sad tale was already sufficiently clear—hunger, exposure, the horrible heart-breaking strain of hopeless endeavor, had caused this ending, this unspeakable tragedy of the barren waterless plain. He had witnessed it all before, and hoped now for little. The anxious lieutenant, bareheaded under the hot sun-glare, strode hastily across from beside the unconscious but breathing girl, and stood gazing doubtfully down upon them.
"Any life, sergeant?" he demanded, his voice rendered husky by sympathy.
"He doesn't seem entirely gone, sir," and Carson glanced up into the officer's face, his own eyes filled with feeling. "I can distinguish just a wee bit of breathing, but it's so weak the pulse hardly stirs."
"What do you make of it?"
"Starving at the bottom, sir. The only thing I see now is to get them down to water and food."
The young officer glanced swiftly about him across that dreary picture of sun-burnt, desolate prairie stretching in every direction, his eyes pausing slightly as they surveyed the tops of the distant cottonwoods.
"Sling blankets between your horses," he commanded, decisively. "Move quickly, lads, and we may save one of these lives yet."
He led in the preparation himself, his cheeks flushed, his movements prompt, decisive. As if by some magic discipline the rude, effective litters were rapidly made ready, and the two seemingly lifeless bodies gently lifted from off the ground and deposited carefully within. Down the long, brown slope they advanced slowly, a soldier grasping the rein and walking at each horse's head, the supporting blankets, securely fastened about the saddle pommels, swaying gently to the measured tread of the trained animals. The lieutenant directed every movement, while Carson rode ahead, picking out the safest route through the short grass. Beneath the protecting shadows of the first group of cottonwoods, almost on the banks of the muddy Bear Water, the little party let down their senseless burdens, and began once more their seemingly hopeless efforts at resuscitation. A fire was hastily kindled from dried and broken branches, and broth was made, which was forced through teeth that had to be pried open. Water was used unsparingly, the soldiers working with feverish eagerness, inspired by the constant admonitions of their officer, as well as their own curiosity to learn the facts hidden behind this tragedy.
It was the dark eyes of the girl which opened first, instantly closing again as the glaring light swept into them. Then slowly, and with wonderment, she gazed up into those strange, rough faces surrounding her, pausing in her first survey to rest her glance on the sympathetic countenance of the young lieutenant, who held her half reclining upon his arm.
"Here," he exclaimed, kindly, interpreting her glance as one of fear, "you are all right and perfectly safe now, with friends to care for you. Peters, bring another cup of that broth. Now, miss, just take a sup or two of this, and your strength will come back in a jiffy. What was the trouble? Starving?"
She did exactly as he bade her, every movement mechanical, her eyes fastened upon his face.
"I—I reckon that was partly it," she responded at last, her voice faint and husky. Then her glance wandered away, and finally rested upon another little kneeling group a few yards farther down stream. A look of fresh intelligence swept into her face.
"Is that him?" she questioned, tremblingly. "Is—is he dead?"
"He was n't when we first got here, but mighty near gone, I'm afraid. I've been working over you ever since."
She shook herself free and sat weakly up, her lips tight compressed, her eyes apparently blind to all save that motionless body she could barely distinguish. "Let me tell you, that fellow's a man, just the same; the gamest, nerviest man I ever saw. I reckon he got hit, too, though he never said nothing about it. That's his style."
The deeply interested lieutenant removed his watchful eyes from off his charge just long enough to glance inquiringly across his shoulder. "Has the man any signs of a wound, sergeant?" he asked, loudly.
"A mighty ugly slug in the shoulder, sir; has bled scandalous, but I guess it 's the very luck that's goin' to save him; seems now to be comin' out all right."
The officer's brows knitted savagely. "It begins to look as if this might be some of our business. What happened? Indians?"
"How far away?"
"I don't know. They caught us in a canyon somewhere out yonder, maybe three or four days ago; there was a lot killed, some of them soldiers. My dad was shot, and then that night he—he got me out up the rocks, and he—he was carrying me in his arms when I—I fainted, I saw there was blood on his shirt, and it was dripping down on the grass as he walked. That's about all I know."
"Who is the man? What's his name?"
The girl looked squarely into the lieutenant's eyes, and, for some reason which she could never clearly explain even to herself, lied calmly. "I don't know; I never asked."
Sergeant Carson rose stiffly from his knees beside the extended figure and strode heavily across toward where they were sitting, lifting his hand in soldierly salute, his heels clicking as he brought them sharply together in military precision.
"The fellow is getting his eyes open, sir," he reported, "and is breathing more regular. Purty weak yit, but he'll come round in time." He stared curiously down at the girl now sitting up unsupported, while a sudden look of surprised recognition swept across his face.
"Great guns!" he exclaimed, eagerly, "but I know you. You're old man Gillis's gal from Bethune, ain't ye?"
The quickly uplifted dark eyes seemed to lighten the ghastly pallor of her face, and her lips trembled. "Yes," she acknowledged simply, "but he's dead."
The lieutenant laid his ungloved hand softly on her shoulder, his blue eyes moist with aroused feeling.
"Never mind, little girl," he said, with boyish sympathy. "I knew Gillis, and, now the sergeant has spoken, I remember you quite well. Thought all the time your face was familiar, but could n't quite decide where I had seen you before. So poor old Gillis has gone, and you are left all alone in the world! Well, he was an old soldier, could not have hoped to live much longer anyway, and would rather go fighting at the end. We 'll take you back with us to Bethune, and the ladies of the garrison will look after you."
The recumbent figure lying a few yards away half lifted itself upon one elbow, and Hampton's face, white and haggard, stared uncertainly across the open space. For an instant his gaze dwelt upon the crossed sabres shielding the gilded "7" on the front of the lieutenant's scouting hat, then settled upon the face of the girl. With one hand pressed against the grass he pushed himself slowly up until he sat fronting them, his teeth clinched tight, his gray eyes gleaming feverishly in their sunken sockets.
"I'll be damned if you will!" he said, hoarsely. "She 's my girl now."
A NEW PROPOSITION
To one in the least inclined toward fastidiousness, the Miners' Home at Glencaid would scarcely appeal as a desirable place for long-continued residence. But such a one would have had small choice in the matter, as it chanced to be the only hotel there. The Miners' Home was unquestionably unique as regards architectural details, having been constructed by sections, in accordance with the rapid development of the camp, and enjoyed the further distinction—there being only two others equally stylish in town—of being built of sawn plank, although, greatly to the regret of its unfortunate occupants, lack of seasoning had resulted in wide cracks in both walls and stairway. These were numerous, and occasionally proved perilous pitfalls to unwary travellers through the ill-lighted hall, while strict privacy within the chambers was long ago a mere reminiscence. However, these deficiencies were to be discovered only after entering. Without, the Miners' Home put up a good front,—which along the border is considered the chief matter of importance,—and was in reality the most pretentious structure gracing the single cluttered street of Glencaid. Indeed, it was pointed at with much civic pride by those citizens never compelled to exist within its yawning walls, and, with its ornament of a wide commodious porch, appeared even palatial in comparison with the log stable upon its left flank, or the dingy tent whose worm-eaten canvas flapped dejectedly upon the right. Directly across the street, its front a perfect blaze of glass, stood invitingly the Occidental saloon; but the Widow Guffy, who operated the Miners' Home with a strong hand, possessed an antipathy to strong liquor, which successfully kept all suspicion of intoxicating drink absent from those sacredly guarded precincts, except as her transient guests imported it internally, in the latter case she naturally remained quiescent, unless the offender became unduly boisterous. On such rare occasions Mrs. Guffy had always proved equal to the emergency, possessing Irish facility with either tongue or club.
Mr. Hampton during the course of his somewhat erratic career had previously passed several eventful weeks in Glencaid. He was neither unknown nor unappreciated at the Miners' Home, and having on previous occasions established his reputation as a spender, experienced little difficulty now in procuring promptly the very best accommodation which the house afforded. That this arrangement was accomplished somewhat to the present discomfort of two vociferous Eastern tourists did not greatly interfere with his pleasurable interest in the situation.
"Send those two fellows in here to argue it out," he said, languidly, after listening disgustedly to their loud lamentations in the hallway, and addressing his remarks to Mrs. Guffy, who had glanced into the room to be again assured regarding his comfort, and to express her deep regret over the unseemly racket. "The girl has fallen asleep, and I 'm getting tired of hearing so much noise."
"No, be hivings, an' ye don't do nuthin' of thet sort, Bob," returned the widow, good-naturedly, busying herself with a dust-rag. "This is me own house, an' Oi've tended ter the loikes of them sort er fellers afore. There'll be no more bother this toime. Besides, it's a paceful house Oi'm runnin', an' Oi know ye'r way of sittling them things. It's too strenurous ye are, Misther Hampton. And what did ye do wid the young lady, Oi make bould to ask?"
Hampton carelessly waved his hand toward the rear room, the door of which stood ajar, and blew a thick cloud of smoke into the air, his eyes continuing to gaze dreamily through the open window toward the distant hills.
"Who's running the game over at the Occidental?" he asked, professionally.
"Red Slavin, bad cess to him!" and her eyes regarded her questioner with renewed anxiety. "But sure now, Bob, ye mustn't think of playin' yit awhoile. Yer narves are in no fit shape, an' won't be fer a wake yit."
He made no direct reply, and she hung about, flapping the dust-rag uneasily.
"An' what did ye mane ter be doin' wid the young gyurl?" she questioned at last, in womanly curiosity.
Hampton wheeled about on the hard chair, and regarded her quizzingly. "Mrs. Guffy," he said, slowly, "you've been a mother to me, and it would certainly be unkind not to give you a straight tip. Do? Why, take care of her, of course. What else would you expect of one possessing my kindly disposition and well-known motives of philanthropy? Can it be that I have resided with you, off and on, for ten years past without your ever realizing the fond yearnings of my heart? Mrs. Guffy, I shall make her the heiress to my millions; I shall marry her off to some Eastern nabob, and thus attain to that high position in society I am so well fitted to adorn—sure, and what else were you expecting, Mrs. Guffy?"
"A loikely story," with a sniff of disbelief. "They tell me she 's old Gillis's daughter over to Bethune."
"They tell you, do they?" a sudden gleam of anger darkening his gray eyes. "Who tell you?"
"Sure, Bob, an' thet 's nuthin' ter git mad about, so fur as I kin see. The story is in iverybody's mouth. It wus thim sojers what brought ye in thet tould most ov it, but the lieutenant,—Brant of the Seventh Cavalry, no less,—who took dinner here afore he wint back after the dead bodies, give me her name."
"Brant of the Seventh?" He faced her fairly now, his face again haggard and gray, all the slight gleam of fun gone out of it. "Was that the lad's name?"
"Sure, and didn't ye know him?"
"No; I noticed the '7' on his hat, of course, but never asked any questions, for his face was strange. I didn't know. The name, when you just spoke it, struck me rather queer. I—I used to know a Brant in the Seventh, but he was much older; it was not this man."
She answered something, lingering for a moment at the door, but he made no response, and she passed out silently, leaving him staring moodily through the open window, his eyes appearing glazed and sightless.
Glencaid, like most mining towns of its class, was dull and dead enough during the hours of daylight. It was not until after darkness fell that it awoke from its somnolence, when the scattered miners came swarming down from out the surrounding hills and turned into a noisy, restless playground the single narrow, irregular street. Then it suddenly became a mad commixture of Babel and hell. At this hour nothing living moved within range of the watcher's vision except a vagrant dog; the heat haze hung along the near-by slopes, while a little spiral of dust rose lazily from the deserted road. But Hampton had no eyes for this dreary prospect; with contracted brows he was viewing again that which he had confidently believed to have been buried long ago. Finally, he stepped quickly across the little room, and, standing quietly within the open doorway, looked long at the young girl upon the bed. She lay in sound, motionless sleep, one hand beneath her cheek, her heavy hair, scarcely revealing its auburn hue in the gloom of the interior, flowing in wild disorder across the crushed pillow. He stepped to the single window and drew down the green shade, gazed at her again, a new look of tenderness softening his stern face, then went softly out and closed the door.
An hour later he was still sitting on the hard chair by the window, a cigar between his teeth, thinking. The lowering sun was pouring a perfect flood of gold across the rag carpet, but he remained utterly unconscious as to aught save the gloomy trend of his own awakened memories. Some one rapped upon the outer door.
"Come in," he exclaimed, carelessly, and barely glancing up. "Well, what is it this time, Mrs. Guffy?"
The landlady had never before seen this usually happy guest in his present mood, and she watched him curiously.
"A man wants ter see ye," she announced, shortly, her hand on the knob.
"Oh, I'm in no shape for play to-night; go back and tell him so."
"Sure, an' it's aisy 'nough ter see thet wid half an eye. But this un isn't thet koind of a man, an' he's so moighty perlite about it Oi jist cud n't sind the loikes of him away. It's 'Missus Guffy, me dear madam, wud ye be koind enough to convey me complimints to Misther Robert Hampton, and requist him to grant me a few minutes of his toime on an important matter?' Sure, an' what do ye think of thet?"
"Huh! one of those fellows who had these rooms?" and Hampton rose to his feet with animation.
The landlady lowered her voice to an almost inaudible whisper.
"It's the Reverend Howard Wynkoop," she announced, impressively, dwelling upon the name. "The Reverend Howard Wynkoop, the Prasbytarian Missionary—wouldn't thet cork ye?"
It evidently did, for Mr. Hampton stared at her for fully a minute in an amazement too profound for fit expression in words. Then he swallowed something in his throat.
"Show the gentleman up," he said, shortly, and sat down to wait.
The Rev. Howard Wynkoop was neither giant nor dwarf, but the very fortunate possessor of a countenance which at once awakened confidence in his character. He entered the room quietly, rather dreading this interview with one of Mr. Hampton's well-known proclivities, yet in this case feeling abundantly fortified in the righteousness of his cause. His brown eyes met the inquisitive gray ones frankly, and Hampton waved him silently toward a vacant chair.
"Our lines of labor in this vineyard being so entirely opposite," the latter said, coldly, but with intended politeness, "the honor of your unexpected call quite overwhelms me. I shall have to trouble you to speak somewhat softly in explanation of your present mission, so as not to disturb a young girl who chances to be sleeping in the room beyond."
Wynkoop cleared his throat uneasily, his naturally pale cheeks flushed.
"It was principally upon her account I ventured to call," he explained in sudden confidence. "Might I see her?"
Hampton's watchful eyes swept the others face suspiciously, and his hands clinched.
"Relative?" he asked gravely.
The preacher shook his head.
"Friend of the family, perhaps?"
"No, Mr. Hampton. My purpose in coming here is perfectly proper, yet the request was not advanced as a right, but merely as a special privilege."
A moment Hampton hesitated; then he arose and quietly crossed the room, holding open the door. Without a word being spoken the minister followed, and stood beside him. For several minutes the eyes of both men rested upon the girl's sleeping form and upturned face. Then Wynkoop drew silently back, and Hampton closed the door noiselessly.
"Well," he said, inquiringly, "what does all this mean?"
The minister hesitated as if doubtful how best to explain the nature of his rather embarrassing mission, his gaze upon the strong face of the man fronting him so sternly.
"Let us sit down again," he said at last, "and I will try to make my purpose sufficiently clear. I am not here to mince words, nor do I believe you to be the kind of a man who would respect me if I did. I may say something that will not sound pleasant, but in the cause of my Master I cannot hesitate. You are an older man than I, Mr. Hampton; your experience in life has doubtless been much broader than mine, and it may even be that in point of education you are likewise my superior. Nevertheless, as the only minister of the Gospel residing in this community it is beyond question my plain duty to speak a few words to you in behalf of this young lady, and her probable future. I trust not to be offensive, yet cannot shirk the requirements of my sacred office."
The speaker paused, somewhat disconcerted perhaps by the hardening of the lines in Hampton's face.
"Go on," commanded Hampton, tersely, "only let the preacher part slide, and say just what you have to say as man to man."
Wynkoop stiffened perceptibly in his chair, his face paling somewhat, but his eyes unwavering. Realizing the reckless nature before him, he was one whom opposition merely inspired.
"I prefer to do so," he continued, more calmly. "It will render my unpleasant task much easier, and yield us both a more direct road for travel. I have been laboring on this field for nearly three years. When I first came here you were pointed out to me as a most dangerous man, and ever since then I have constantly been regaled by the stories of your exploits. I have known you merely through such unfriendly reports, and came here strongly prejudiced against you as a representative of every evil I war against. We have never met before, because there seemed to be nothing in common between us; because I had been led to suppose you to be an entirely different man from what I now believe you are."
Hampton stirred uneasily in his chair.
"Shall I paint in exceedingly plain words the picture given me of you?"
There was no response, but the speaker moistened his lips and proceeded firmly. "It was that of a professional gambler, utterly devoid of mercy toward his victims; a reckless fighter, who shot to kill upon the least provocation; a man without moral character, and from whom any good action was impossible. That was what was said about you. Is the tale true?"
Hampton laughed unpleasantly, his eyes grown hard and ugly.
"I presume it must be," he admitted, with a quick side glance toward the closed door, "for the girl out yonder thought about the same. A most excellent reputation to establish with only ten years of strict attendance to business."
Wynkoop's grave face expressed his disapproval.
"Well, in my present judgment that report was not altogether true," he went on clearly and with greater confidence. "I did suppose you exactly that sort of a man when I first came into this room. I have not believed so, however, for a single moment since. Nevertheless, the naked truth is certainly bad enough, without any necessity for our resorting to romance. You may deceive others by an assumption of recklessness, but I feel convinced your true nature is not evil. It has been warped through some cause which is none of my business. Let us deal alone with facts. You are a gambler, a professional gambler, with all that that implies; your life is, of necessity, passed among the most vicious and degrading elements of mining camps, and you do not hesitate even to take human life when in your judgment it seems necessary to preserve your own. Under this veneer of lawlessness you may, indeed, possess a warm heart, Mr. Hampton; you may be a good fellow, but you are certainly not a model character, even according to the liberal code of the border."
"Extremely kind of you to enter my rooms uninvited, and furnish me with this list of moral deficiencies," acknowledged the other with affected carelessness. "But thus far you have failed to tell me anything strikingly new. Am I to understand you have some particular object in this exchange of amenities?"
"Most assuredly. It is to ask if such a person as you practically confess yourself to be—homeless, associating only with the most despicable and vicious characters, and leading so uncertain and disreputable a life—can be fit to assume charge of a girl, almost a woman, and mould her future?"
For a long, breathless moment Hampton stared incredulously at his questioner, crushing his cigar between his teeth. Twice he started to speak, but literally choked back the bitter words burning his lips, while an uncontrollable admiration for the other's boldness began to overcome his first fierce anger.
"By God!" he exclaimed at last, rising to his feet and pointing toward the door. "I have shot men for less. Go, before I forget your cloth. You little impudent fool! See here—I saved that girl from death, or worse; I plucked her from the very mouth of hell; I like her; she 's got sand; so far as I know there is not a single soul for her to turn to for help in all this wide world. And you, you miserable, snivelling hypocrite, you little creeping Presbyterian parson, you want me to shake her! What sort of a wild beast do you suppose I am?"
Wynkoop had taken one hasty step backward, impelled to it by the fierce anger blazing from those stern gray eyes. But now he paused, and, for the only time on record, discovered the conventional language of polite society inadequate to express his needs.
"I think," he said, scarcely realizing his own words, "you are a damned fool."
Into Hampton's eyes there leaped a light upon which other men had looked before they died,—the strange mad gleam one sometimes sees in fighting animals, or amid the fierce charges of war. His hand swept instinctively backward, closing upon the butt of a revolver beneath his coat, and for one second he who had dared such utterance looked on death. Then the hard lines about the man's mouth softened, the fingers clutching the weapon relaxed, and Hampton laid one opened hand upon the minister's shrinking shoulder.
"Sit down," he said, his voice unsteady from so sudden a reaction. "Perhaps—perhaps I don't exactly understand."
For a full minute they sat thus looking at each other through the fast dimming light, like two prize-fighters meeting for the first time within the ring, and taking mental stock before beginning their physical argument. Hampton, with a touch of his old audacity of manner, was first to break the silence.
"So you think I am a damned fool. Well, we are in pretty fair accord as to that fact, although no one before has ever ventured to state it quite so clearly in my presence. Perhaps you will kindly explain?"
The preacher wet his dry lips with his tongue, forgetting himself when his thoughts began to crystallize into expression.
"I regret having spoken as I did," he began. "Such language is not my custom. I was irritated because of your haste in rejecting my advances before hearing the proposition I came to submit. I certainly respect your evident desire to be of assistance to this young woman, nor have I the slightest intention of interfering between you. Your act in preserving her life was a truly noble one, and your loyalty to her interests since is worthy of all Christian praise. But I believe I have a right to ask, what do you intend for the future? Keep her with you? Drag her about from camp to camp? Educate her among the contaminating poison of gambling-holes and dance-halls? Is her home hereafter to be the saloon and the rough frontier hotel? her ideal of manhood the quarrelsome gambler, and of womanhood a painted harlot? Mr. Hampton, you are evidently a man of education, of early refinement; you have known better things; and I have come to you seeking merely to aid you in deciding this helpless young woman's destiny. I thought, I prayed, you would be at once interested in that purpose, and would comprehend the reasonableness of my position."
Hampton sat silent, gazing out of the window, his eyes apparently on the lights now becoming dimly visible in the saloon opposite. For a considerable time he made no move, and the other straightened back in his chair watching him.
"Well!" he ventured at last, "what is your proposition?" The question was quietly asked, but a slight tremor in the low voice told of repressed feeling.
"That, for the present at least, you confide this girl into the care of some worthy woman."
"Have you any such in mind?"
"I have already discussed the matter briefly with Mrs. Herndon, wife of the superintendent of the Golden Rule mines. She is a refined Christian lady, beyond doubt the most proper person to assume such a charge in this camp. There is very little in such a place as this to interest a woman of her capabilities, and I believe she would be delighted to have such an opportunity for doing good. She has no children of her own."
Hampton flung his sodden cigar butt out of the window. "I'll talk it over to-morrow with—with Miss Gillis," he said, somewhat gruffly. "It may be this means a good deal more to me than you suppose, parson, but I 'm bound to acknowledge there is considerable hard sense in what you have just said, and I 'll talk it over with the girl."
Wynkoop held out his hand cordially, and the firm grasp of the other closed over his fingers.
"I don't exactly know why I didn't kick you downstairs," the latter commented, as though still in wonder at himself. "Never remember being quite so considerate before, but I reckon you must have come at me in about the right way."
If Wynkoop answered, his words were indistinguishable, but Hampton remained standing in the open door watching the missionary go down the narrow stairs.
"Nervy little devil," he acknowledged slowly to himself. "And maybe, after all, that would be the best thing for the Kid."
"TO BE OR NOT TO BE"
They were seated rather close together upon the steep hillside, gazing silently down upon squalid Glencaid. At such considerable distance all the dull shabbiness of the mining town had disappeared, and it seemed almost ideal, viewed against the natural background of brown rocks and green trees. All about them was the clear, invigorating air of the uplands, through which the eyes might trace for miles the range of irregular rocky hills, while just above, seemingly almost within touch of the extended hand, drooped the blue circling sky, unflecked by cloud. Everywhere was loneliness, no sound telling of the labor of man reached them, and the few scattered buildings far below resembling mere doll-houses.
They had conversed only upon the constantly changing beauty of the scene, or of incidents connected with their upward climb, while moving slowly along the trail through the fresh morning sunshine. Now they sat in silence, the young girl, with cheeks flushed and dreamy eyes aglow, gazing far off along the valley, the man watching her curiously, and wondering how best to approach his task. For the first time he began to realize the truth, which had been partially borne in upon him the previous evening by Wynkoop, that this was no mere child with whom he dealt, but a young girl upon the verge of womanhood. Such knowledge began to reveal much that came before him as new, changing the entire nature of their present relationship, as well as the scope of his own plain duty. It was his wont to look things squarely in the face, and unpleasant and unwelcome as was the task now confronting him, during the long night hours he had settled it once for all—the preacher's words were just.
Observing her now, sitting thus in total unconsciousness of his scrutiny, Hampton made no attempt to analyze the depth of his interest for this waif who had come drifting into his life. He did not in the least comprehend why she should have touched his heart with generous impulses, nor did he greatly care. The fact was far the more important, and that fact he no longer questioned. He had been a lonely, unhappy, discontented man for many a long year, shunned by his own sex, who feared him, never long seeking the society of the other, and retaining little real respect for himself. Under such conditions a reaction was not unnatural, and, short as the time had been since their first meeting, this odd, straightforward chit of a girl had found an abiding-place in his heart, had furnished him a distinct motive in life before unknown.
Even to his somewhat prejudiced eyes she was not an attractive creature, for she possessed no clear conception of how to render apparent those few feminine charms she possessed. Negligence and total unconsciousness of self, coupled with lack of womanly companionship and guidance, had left her altogether in the rough. He marked now the coarse ragged shoes, the cheap patched skirt, the tousled auburn hair, the sunburnt cheeks with a suggestion of freckles plainly visible beneath the eyes, and some of the fastidiousness of earlier days caused him to shrug his shoulders. Yet underneath the tan there was the glow of perfect young health; the eyes were frank, brave, unflinching; while the rounded chin held a world of character in its firm contour. Somehow the sight of this brought back to him that abiding faith in her "dead gameness" which had first awakened his admiration. "She's got it in her," he thought, silently, "and, by thunder! I 'm here to help her get it out."
"Kid," he ventured at last, turning over a broken fragment of rock between his restless fingers, but without lifting his eyes, "you were talking while we came up the trail about how we 'd do this and that after a while. You don't suppose I 'm going to have any useless girl like you hanging around on to me, do you?"
She glanced quickly about at him, as though such unexpected expressions startled her from a pleasant reverie. "Why, I—I thought that was the way you planned it yesterday," she exclaimed, doubtfully.
"Oh, yesterday! Well, you see, yesterday I was sort of dreaming; to-day I am wide awake, and I 've about decided, Kid, that for your own good, and my comfort, I 've got to shake you."
A sudden gleam of fierce resentment leaped into the dark eyes, the unrestrained glow of a passion which had never known control. "Oh, you have, have you, Mister Bob Hampton? You have about decided! Well, why don't you altogether decide? I don't think I'm down on my knees begging you for mercy. Good Lord! I reckon I can get along all right without you—I did before. Just what happened to give you such a change of heart?"
"I made the sudden discovery," he said, affecting a laziness he was very far from feeling, "that you were too near being a young woman to go traipsing around the country with me, living at shacks, and having no company but gambling sharks, and that class of cattle."
"Oh, did you? What else?"
"Only that our tempers don't exactly seem to jibe, and the two of us can't be bosses in the same ranch."
She looked at him contemptuously, swinging her body farther around on the rock, and sitting stiffly, the color on her cheeks deepening through the sunburn. "Now see here, Mister Bob Hampton, you're a fraud, and you know it! Did n't I understand exactly who you was, and what was your business? Did n't I know you was a gambler, and a 'bad man'? Didn't I tell you plain enough out yonder,"—and her voice faltered slightly,—"just what I thought about you? Good Lord! I have n't been begging to stick with you, have I? I just didn't know which way to turn, or who to turn to, after dad was killed, and you sorter hung on to me, and I let it go the way I supposed you wanted it. But I 'm not particularly stuck on your style, let me tell you, and I reckon there 's plenty of ways for me to get along. Only first, I propose to understand what your little game is. You don't throw down your hand like that without some reason."