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- The Desert Valley - 3/46 -
weird, supernatural influences as potent and intangible as electric currents?' In her sleep she continued her interesting investigations, but her dreaming vision explained the evening's problem by showing her the camp-fire made, the bacon and coffee set thereon, by a very nice young man with splendid eyes.
She stirred, smiled sleepily, and lay again without moving; after the fashion of one awakening she clung to the misty frontiers of a fading dream-country. She breathed deeply, inhaling the freshness of the new dawn. Then suddenly her eyes flew open, and she sat up with a little cry; a man who would have fitted well enough into any fancy-free maiden's dreams was standing close to her side, looking down at her. Helen's hands flew to her hair.
Plainly--she read that in the first flashing look--he was no less astounded than she. At the moment he made a picture to fill the eye and remain in the memory of a girl fresh from an Eastern City. The tall, rangy form was garbed in the picturesque way of the country; she took him in from the heels of the black boots with their silver spurs to the top of his head with its amazingly wide black hat. He stood against a sky rapidly filling to the warm glow of the morning. His horse, a rarely perfect creation even in the eyes of one who knew little of fine breeding in animals, stood just at its master's heels, with ears pricked forward curiously.
Helen wondered swiftly if he intended to stand there until the sun came up, just looking at her. Though it was scarcely more than a moment that he stood thus, in Helen's confusion the time seemed much longer. She began to grow ill at ease; she felt a quick spurt of irritation. No doubt she looked a perfect fright, taken all unawares like this, and equally indisputably he was forming an extremely uncomplimentary opinion of her. It required less than three seconds for Miss Helen to decide emphatically that the man was a horrible creature.
But he did not look any such thing. He was healthy and brown and boyish. He had had a shave and haircut no longer ago than yesterday and looked neat and clean. His mouth was quite as large as a man's should be and now was suddenly smiling. At the same instant his hat came off in his big brown hand and a gleam of downright joyousness shone in his eyes.
'Impudent beast!' was Helen's quick thought. She had given her mind last night a great deal less to matters of toilet than to mystic imaginings; it lay entirely in the field of absurd likelihood that there was a smear of black across her face.
'My mistake,' grinned the stranger. 'Guess I'll step out while the stepping's good and the road open. If there's one sure thing a man ought to be shot for, it's stampeding in on another fellow's honeymoon. _Adios, senora_.'
'Honeymoon!' gasped Helen. 'The big fool.'
Her father wakened abruptly, sat up, grasping his big revolver in both hands, and blinked about him; he, too, had had his dreams. In the night-cap which he had purchased in San Juan, his wide, grave eyes and sun-blistered face turned up inquiringly; he was worthy of a second glance as he sat prepared to defend himself and his daughter. The stranger had just set the toe of his boot into the stirrup; in this posture he remained, forgetful of his intention to mount, while his mare began to circle and he had to hop along to keep pace with her, his eyes upon the startled occupant of the bed beyond Helen's. He had had barely more than time to note the evident discrepancy in ages which naturally should have started his mind down a new channel for the explanation of the true relationship, when the revolver clutched tightly in unaccustomed fingers went off with an unexpected roar. Dust spouted up a yard beyond the feet of the man who held it. The horse plunged, the stranger went up into the saddle like a flash, and the man dropped his gun to his blanket and muttered in the natural bewilderment of the moment:
'It--it went off by itself! The most amazing----'
The rider brought his prancing horse back and fought with his facial muscles for gravity; the light in his eyes was utterly beyond his control.
'I'd better be going off by myself somewhere,' he remarked as gravely as he could manage, 'if you're going to start shooting a man up just because he calls before breakfast.'
With a face grown a sick white, the man in bed looked helplessly from the stranger to his daughter and then to the gun.
'I didn't do a thing to it,' he began haltingly.
'You won't do a thing to yourself one of these fine days.' remarked the horseman with evident relish, 'if you don't quit carrying that sort of life-saver. Come over to the ranch and I'll swap you a hand-axe for it.'
Helen sniffed audibly and distastefully. Her first impression of the stranger had been more correct than are first impressions nine times out of ten; he was as full of impudence as a city sparrow. She had sat up 'looking like a fright'; her father had made himself ridiculous; the stranger was mirthfully concerned with the amusing possibilities of both of them.
Suddenly the tall man, smitten by inspiration, slapped his thigh with one hand, while with the other he curbed rebellion in his mare and offered the explosive wager:
'I'll bet a man a dollar I've got your number, friends. You are Professor James Edward Longstreet and his little daughter Helen! Am I right?'
'You are correct, sir,' acknowledged the professor a trifle stiffly. His eye did not rise, but clung in a fascinated, faintly accusing way to the gun which had betrayed him.
The stranger nodded and then lifted his hat for the ceremony while he presented himself.
'Name of Howard,' he announced breezily. 'Alan Howard of the old Diaz Rancho. Glad to know you both.'
'It is a pleasure, I am sure, Mr. Howard,' said the professor. 'But, if you will pardon me, at this particular time of day----'
Alan Howard laughed his understanding.
'I'll chase up to the pool and give Helen a drink of real water,' he said lightly. 'Funny my mare's name should be Helen, too, isn't it?' This directly into a pair of eyes which the growing light showed to be grey and attractive, but just now hostile. 'Then, if you say the word, I'll romp back and take you up on a cup of coffee. And we'll talk things over.'
He stooped forward in the saddle a fraction of an inch; his mare caught the familiar signal and leaped; they were gone, racing away across the sand which was flung up after them like spray.
'Of all the fresh propositions!' gasped Helen.
But she knew that he would not long delay his return, and so slipped quickly from under her blanket and hurried down to the water-hole to bathe her hands and face and set herself in order. Her flying fingers found her little mirror; there wasn't any smudge on her face, after all, and her hair wasn't so terribly unbecoming that way; tousled, to be sure, but then, nice, curly hair can be tousled and still not make one a perfect hag. It _was_ odd about his mare being named Helen. He must have thought the name pretty, for obviously he and his horse were both intimate and affectionate. 'Alan Howard.' Here, too, was rather a nice name for a man met by chance out in the desert. She paused in the act of brushing her hair. Was she to get an explanation of last night's puzzle? Was Mr. Howard the man who had lighted the other fire?
The professor's taciturnity was of a pronounced order this morning. Now and then as he made his own brief and customarily untidy toilet, he turned a look of accusation upon the big Colt lying on his bed. Before drawing on his boots he bestowed upon his toe a long glance of affection; the bullet that had passed within a very few inches of this adjunct of his anatomy had emphasized a toe's importance. He had never realized how pleasant it was to have two big toes, all one's own and unmarred. By the time the foot had been coaxed and jammed down into his new boot the professor's good humour was on the way to being restored; a man of one thought at the time, due to his long habit of concentration, his emotion was now one of a subdued rejoicing. It needed but the morning cup of coffee to set him beaming upon the world.
Alan Howard's sudden call: 'Can I come in now, folks?' from across a brief space of sand and brush, found Professor Longstreet on his knees feeding twigs to a tiny blaze, and hastened Helen through the final touches of her dressing. Helen was humming softly to herself, her back to him, her mind obviously concentrated upon the bread she was slicing, when the stranger swung down from his saddle and came forward. He stood a moment just behind her, looking at her with very evident interest in his eyes.
'How do you like our part of the world?' he asked friendliwise.
Helen ignored him briefly. Had Mr. Alan Howard been a bashful young man of the type that reddens and twists its hat in big nervous hands and looks guilty in general. Miss Helen Longstreet would have been swiftly all that was sweet and kind to him. Now, however, from some vague reason or clouded instinct, she was prepared to be as stiff as the fanged stalk of a cactus. Having ignored him the proper length of time, she replied coolly:
'Father and I are very much pleased with the desert country. But, may I ask just why you speak of it as your part of the world rather than ours? Are we trespassing, pray?' The afterthought was accompanied by an upflashing look that was little less than outright challenge.
'Trespassing? Lord, no,' conceded Howard heartily. 'The land is wide, the trail open at both ends. But you know what I meant.'
Helen shrugged and laid aside the half-loaf. Since she gave him no answer, Howard went on serenely:
'I mean a man sort of acquires a feeling of ownership in the place in which he has lived a long time. You and your father are Eastern, not Western. If I came tramping into your neck of the woods--you see I call it _yours_. Right enough, too, don't you think, professor?'
'In a way of speaking, yes,' answered the professor. 'In another way, no. We have given up the old haunts and the old way of living. We are rather inclined, my dear young sir, to look upon this as our country, too.'
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