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- The Desert Valley - 6/46 -

fifteen miles from the Ridge, and so, you see, we're next-door neighbours.'

To Helen, as she gazed whither his finger led, came a strange, unaccustomed thrill. For the first time she felt the glory, and forgot the discomfort, of the hot sun and the hot land. There was a man's home; set apart from the world and yet sufficient unto itself; here was a man's holding, one man's, and it was as big and wide as a king's estate. She looked swiftly at the tall man at her side; it was his or would be his. And he need not have told her; what she had read in the timbre of his voice she saw written large in his eyes; they were bright with the joy of possession.

'Neighbours, folks,' he was saying. 'So let's begin things in neighbourly style. Come on home with me now; stick over a day or so resting up. Then I'll send a wagon and a couple of the boys over to the ridge with you and they'll lend you a hand at digging in for the length of your stay. It's the sensible thing,' he insisted argumentatively as he saw how Longstreet's gaze grew eager for the Ridge. 'And I'd consider it an honour, a high honour.'

'You are extremely kind, sir,' said Longstreet hesitatingly. 'But----'

'Come on,' cut in Howard warmly, his hand on the older man's shoulder. 'Just as a favour to me, neighbour. Everything's plain out our way; nothing fancy. But I've got clean beds to sleep in and the kitchen store-room's full and---- Why, man, I've even got a bathtub! Come ahead; be a sport and take a chance.'

Longstreet smiled; Helen watched him questioningly. Suddenly she realized that she was a trifle curious about Alan Howard; bath and clean beds did tempt her weary body, and besides there would be a certain interest in looking in upon the stranger's establishment. She wondered for the first time if there were a young Mrs. Howard awaiting him?

'How about it, Helen?' asked her father. 'Shall we accept further of this gentleman's kindness?'

'If we were sure,' hesitated Helen, 'that we would not be imposing----'

So it was settled, and Howard, highly pleased, led the way down into the valley. Making the gradual descent their trail, well marked now by the shod hoofs of horses, wound into a shady hollow. In the heart of this where there was a thin trickle of water Howard stopped abruptly. Helen, who was close to him, heard him mutter something under his breath and in a new tone of wrath. She looked at him wondering. He strode across the stream and stopped again; he stooped and she saw what he had seen; he straightened up and she saw blazing anger in his eyes.

Here, no longer ago than yesterday, a yearling beef had been slaughtered; the carcass lay half hidden by the bushes.

'Now who the hell did that for me?' cried out the man angrily. 'Look here; he's killed a beef for a couple of steaks. He's taken that and left the rest for the buzzards. The low-down, hog-hearted son of a scurvy coyote.'

Helen held back, frightened at what she read in his face. Her father came up with her and demanded:

'What is it? What's wrong?'

'Some one has killed one of his cows,' she whispered, catching hold of his arm. 'I believe he would kill the man who did it.'

Howard was looking about him for signs to tell whence the marauder had come, whither gone. He picked up a fresh rib bone, that had been hacked from its place with a heavy knife and then gnawed and broken as by a wolf's savage teeth. He noted something else; he went to it hurriedly. Upon a conspicuous rock, held in place by a smaller stone, was a small rawhide pouch. It was heavy in his palm; he opened it and poured its contents into his palm. And these contents he showed to Longstreet and Helen, looking at them wonderingly.

'The gent took what he wanted, but he paid for it,' he said slowly, 'in enough raw gold to buy half a dozen young beeves! That's fair enough, isn't it? The chances are he was in a hurry.'

'Maybe,' suggested Helen quickly, 'he was the same man whose camp fire we found. _He_ was in a hurry.'

Howard pondered but finally shook his head. 'No; that man had bacon and coffee to leave behind him. It was some other jasper.'

Longstreet was absorbed in another interest. He took the unminted gold into his own hands, fingering it and studying it.

'It is around here everywhere, my dear,' he told Helen with his old placid assurance. 'It is quite as I have said; if you want fish, look for them in the sea; if you seek gold, not in insignificant quantities, but in a great, thick, rich ledge, come out toward the Last Ridge country.'

He returned the raw metal to Howard, who dropped it into its bag and the bag into his pocket. Silent now as each one found company in his own thoughts, they moved down the slope and into the valley.

Chapter IV

In Desert Valley

The world is an abiding-place of glory. He who cannot see it dyed and steeped in colourful hues owes it to his own happiness to gird up his loins and move on into another of the splendid chambers of the vast house God has given us; if the daily view before him no longer offers delight, it is merely and simply because his eyes have grown accustomed to what lies just before them and are wearied with it. For, after all, one but requires a complete change of environment to quicken eye and interest, to fill again the world with colour. Thus, put the man of the sea in the heart of the mountains and he stares about him at a thousand little things which pass unnoted under the calm eyes of the mountaineer. Or take up the dweller of the heights and set him aboard a wind-jammer bucking around the Horn and he will marvel at a sailor's song or the wide arc of a dizzy mast. So Helen Longstreet now, lifted from a college city of the East and set down upon the level floor of the West; so, in the less nervous way of greater years, her father.

The three were full two hours in walking from the base of the hills to Howard's ranch headquarters. Continuously the girl found fresh interests leaping into her quick consciousness. They waded knee-deep in lush grass of a meadow into which Howard had brought water from the hills; among the grass were strange flowers, red and yellow and blue, rising on tall stalks to lift their heads to the golden sun. From the grass rose birds, startled by their approach, one whirring away voicelessly from a hidden nest, another, a yellow and black-throated lark, singing joyously. They crossed the meadow and came up the swelling slope of a gentle hill; upon its flatfish top were oaks; in the shade of the oaks three black-and-white cows looked with mild, approving eyes upon their three tiny black-and-white calves. With the pictured memory unfading, Helen's eyes were momentarily held by an eagle balancing against the sky; the great bird, as though he were conscious that he held briefly centre stage, folded his wings and dropped like a falling stone; a ground squirrel shrilled its terror through the still afternoon and went racing with jerking tail toward safety; the great bird saw the frantic animal scuttle down a hole and unfolded its wings; again it balanced briefly, close to the ground; then in a wide spiral reascended the sky.

Came then wide fields with cattle browsing and drowsing; it was the first time Helen had harkened to a bellowing bull, the first time she had seen one of his breed with bent head pawing up grass and earth and flinging them over the straight line of his perfect back; she sensed his lusty challenge and listened breathlessly to the answering trumpet call from a distant, hidden corral. She saw a herd of young horses, twenty of them perhaps, racing wildly with flying manes and tails and flaring nostrils; a strangely garbed man on horseback raced after them, shot by them, heading them off, a wide loop of rope hissing above his head. She saw the rope leap out, seeming to the last alive and endowed with the will of the horseman; she heard the man laugh softly as the noose tightened about the slender neck of one of the fleeing horses.

'That's Gaucho,' said Howard. 'He's my horse breaker.'

But already the girl's interests had winged another way. Within ten steps they had come to a new view from a new vantage point. From some trick of sweep and slope the valley seemed more spacious than before; through a natural avenue in an oak grove they saw distinctly the still distant walls of the ranch house; the sun touched them and they gleamed back a spotless white. Helen was all eagerness to come to the main building; from afar, here of late having seen others of its type, she knew that it would be adobe and massive, old and cloaked with the romance of another time; that even doors and windows, let into the thick walls, would be of another period; that somewhere there would be a trellis with a sprawling grape-vine over it; that no doubt in the yard or along the fence would be the yellow Spanish roses.

Below the house they came to the stable. Here Howard paused to tie the three horses, but not to unpack or unsaddle.

'I haven't anybody just hanging around to do things like this for me,' he said lightly as he rejoined his guests. 'Not until I get the whole thing paid off. What men I've got are jumping on the job from sun-up to dark. I'll turn you loose in the house and then look after the stock myself.'

They passed several smaller outbuildings, some squat and ancient-looking adobes, others newer frame buildings, all neatly whitewashed. And then the home itself. Quite as Helen had provisioned, there was a low wooden fence about the garden; over the gateway were tangled rose vines disputing possession with a gnarled grape; the walk from the gate was outlined with the protruding ends of white earthen bottles, so in vogue in the southland a few years ago; a wide, coolly-dark veranda ran the length of the building; through three-feet-thick walls the doorways invited to further coolness. Howard stood aside for them to enter. They found underfoot a bare floor; it had been sprinkled from a watering pot earlier in the afternoon. The room was big and dusky; a few rawhide-bottomed chairs, a long rough table painted moss-green, some shelves with books, furnished the apartment. At one end was a fireplace.

Howard tossed his hat to the table and opened a door at one end of the room. Before them was a hallway; a few steps down were two doors, one on each hand, heavy old doors of thick slabs of oak, hand-hewn and with rough iron bands across them, top and bottom, the big nail heads showing. Howard threw one open, then the other.

The Desert Valley - 6/46

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