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A Girl Waits








From: 'drag' Harlan

Lamo, sprawling on a sun-baked plain perhaps a mile from the edge of the
desert, was one of those towns which owed its existence to the instinct
of men to foregather. It also was indebted for its existence to the greed
of a certain swarthy-faced saloon-keeper named Joel Ladron, who,
anticipating the edict of a certain town marshal of another town that
shall not be mentioned, had piled his effects into a prairie
schooner--building and goods--and had taken the south trail--which would
lead him wherever he wanted to stop.

It had chanced that he had stopped at the present site of Lamo. Ladron
saw a trail winding over the desert, vanishing into the eastern distance;
and he knew that where trails led there were sure to be thirsty men who
would be eager to look upon his wares.

Ladron's history is not interesting. As time fled to the monotonous clink
of coins over the bar he set up in the frame shack that faced the desert
trail, Ladron's importance in Lamo was divided by six.

The other dispensers had not come together; they had appeared as the
needs of the population seemed to demand--and all had flourished.

Lamo's other buildings had appeared without ostentation. There were
twenty of them. A dozen of the twenty, for one reason or another, need
receive no further mention. Of the remaining few, one was occupied by
Sheriff Gage; two others by stores; one answered as an office and
storage-room for the stage company; and still another was distinguished
by a crude sign which ran across its weather-beaten front, bearing the
legend: "Lamo Eating-House." The others were private residences.

Lamo's buildings made some pretense of aping the architecture of
buildings in other towns. The eating-house was a two-story structure,
with an outside stairway leading to its upper floor. It had a flat roof
and an adobe chimney. Its second floor had been subdivided into
lodging-rooms. Its windows were small, grimy.

Not one of Lamo's buildings knew paint. The structures, garish husks of
squalor, befouled the calm, pure atmosphere, and mocked the serene
majesty of nature.

For, beginning at the edge of "town," a contrast to the desert was
presented by nature. It was a mere step, figuratively, from that land
from which came the whisper of death, to a wild, virgin section where the
hills, the green-brown ridges, the wide sweeps of plain, and the cool
shadows of timber clumps breathed of the promise, the existence, of life.

To Barbara Morgan, seated at one of the east windows of the Lamo
Eating-House--in the second story, where she could look far out into the
desert--the contrast between the vivid color westward and the dun and
dead flatness eastward, was startling. For she knew her father had
entered the desert on his way to Pardo, on some business he had not
mentioned; and the whispered threat that the desert carried was borne to
her ears as she watched.

On a morning, two days before, Morgan had left the Rancho Seco for Pardo.
The girl had watched him go with a feeling--almost a conviction--that she
should have kept him at home. She had not mentioned to him that she had a
presentiment of evil, for she assured herself that she should have
outgrown those puerile impulses of the senses. And yet, having watched
him depart, she passed a sleepless night, and early the next morning had
saddled her horse to ride to Lamo, there to await her father's return.

It was late in the afternoon when she reached Lamo; and she had gone
directly to the Eating-House, where she had passed another restless
night--spending most of her time sitting at the window, where she was at
this minute.

Of course it was a three-day trip to Pardo, and she had no reason to
expect Morgan to return until the end of the sixth day, at the very
earliest. And yet some force sent her to the window at frequent
intervals, where she would sit, as now, her chin resting in her hands,
her eyes searching the vast waste land with an anxious light.

An attache of the Eating-House had put her horse away--where, she did
not know; and her meals had been brought to her by a middle-aged
slattern, whose probing, suspicion-laden glances had been full of mocking
significance. She had heard the woman speak of her to other female
employees of the place--and once she had overheard the woman refer to her
as "that stuck-up Morgan heifer."

Their coarse laughter and coarser language had disgusted the girl, and
she had avoided them all as much as possible.

It was the first time she had remained overnight in the Eating-House
lodging-rooms, though she had seen the building many times during her
visits to Lamo. It wasn't what she was accustomed to at the Rancho Seco,
nor was it all that a lodging-house might be--but it provided shelter for
her while she waited.

The girl felt--as she looked--decidedly out of place in the shabby room.
Many times during her vigil she had shuddered when looking at the dirty,
threadbare ingrain carpet on the floor of the room; oftener, when her
gaze went to the one picture that adorned the unpapered walls, she shrank
back, her soul filled with repugnance.

Art, as here represented, was a cheap lithograph in vivid colors, of an
Indian--an Apache, judging from his trappings--scalping a white man. In
the foreground, beside the man, was a woman, her hair disheveled, wild
appeal in her eyes, gazing at the Indian, who was grinning at her.

A cheap bureau, unadorned, with a broken mirror swinging in a rickety
frame; one chair, and the bed in which she had tried to sleep, were the
only articles of furniture in the room.

The girl, arrayed in a neat riding habit; her hair arranged in graceful
coils; her slender, lissom figure denoting youth and vigor; the clear,
smooth skin of her face--slightly tanned--indicating health--was as
foreign to her present surroundings as life is foreign to the desert. In
her direct eyes was the glow of sturdy honesty that had instantly
antagonized the slattern who had attended her.

That glow was not so pronounced now--it was dulled by anxiety as she
looked out of the window, watching the desert light fade as twilight
came, blotting the hot sand from her sight, erasing the straight,
unfeatured horizon, and creating a black void which pulsed with mystery.

She sighed when at last she could no longer penetrate the wall of
darkness; got up and moved her chair to one of the front windows, from
where she could look down into Lamo's one street.

Lamo's lights began to flicker; from the town's buildings sounds began to
issue--multisonous, carrying the message of ribaldry unrestrained.

From a point not very far away came the hideous screeching of a fiddle,
accompanied by a discordant, monotonous wail, as of someone singing a
song unfamiliar to him; from across the street floated a medley of other
noises, above which could be heard the jangling music of a heavily
drummed piano. There came to her ears coarse oaths and the maudlin
laughter of women.

She had heard it all the night before; but tonight it seemed that
something had been added to the volume of it. And as on the night before,
she sat at the window, watching--for it was all new and strange to
her--even if unattractive. But at last the horror of it again seized her,
and she closed the window, determined to endure the increased heat.

Half an hour later, lying, fully dressed, on the bed, she heard a voice
in the hallway beyond the closed door of her room--a man's voice.

"It isn't what one might call elegant," said the voice; "but if it's the
best you've got--why, of course, it will have to do."

The girl sat straight up in bed, breathless, her face paling.

"It's Luke Deveny!" she gasped in a suffocating whisper.

The man's voice was answered by a woman's--low, mirthful. The girl in the
room could not distinguish the words. But the man spoke again--in a
whisper which carried through the thin board partition to the girl:

"Barbara Morgan is in there--eh?" he said and the girl could almost see
him nodding toward her room.

This time the girl heard the woman's voice--and her words:

"Yes she's there, the stuck-up hussy!"

The voice was that of the slattern.

The man laughed jeeringly.

"Jealous, eh?" he said. "Well, she is a mighty good-looking girl, for a
fact!"

That was all. The girl heard Deveny step into a room--the room adjoining
hers; she could hear his heavy boots striking the floor as he removed
them.

For a long time the girl rested on her elbow, listening; but no further
sounds came from the room into which Deveny had gone. At last, trembling,
her face white with fear, the girl got up and stole noiselessly to the
door.

A light bolt was the door's only fastening; and the girl stood long, with
a hand upon it, considering its frailty. How easy it would be for a big
man like Deveny to force the door. One shove of his giant shoulder and
the bolt would give.

Stealthily, noiselessly, straining with every ounce of her strength, she
managed to lift the cheap bureau and carry it to the door, placing it
against the latter, barricading it. Not satisfied, she dragged the bed
over against the bureau.

Even when that had been accomplished, she was not satisfied and during
the greater part of the night she sat on the edge of the bed, listening
and watching the door. For in the days that had fled Deveny had said
certain things to her that she had not repeated to her father; he had
looked at her with a significance that no man could have understood; and
there had been a gleam in his eyes at these times which had convinced her
that behind the bland smoothness of him--back of the suave politeness of
his manner--was a primitive animalism. His suave politeness was a velvet
veil of character behind which he masked the slavering fangs of the beast
he really was.





Next: His Shadow Before

Previous: A Man's Reputation



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