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A Horseman Of The Hills








From: The Gold Girl

Patty Sinclair reined in her horse at the top of a low divide and
gazed helplessly around her. The trail that had grown fainter and
fainter with its ascent of the creek bed disappeared entirely at the
slope of loose rock and bunch grass that slanted steeply to the
divide. In vain she scanned the deeply gored valley that lay before
her and the timbered slopes of the mountains for sign of human
habitation. Her horse lowered his head and snipped at the bunch grass.
Stiffly the girl dismounted. She had been in the saddle since early
noon with only two short intervals of rest when she had stopped to
drink and to bathe her fare in the deliciously cold waters of mountain
streams--and now the trail had melted into the hills, and the broad
shadows of mountains were lengthening. Every muscle of her body ached
at the unaccustomed strain, and she was very hungry. She envied her
horse his enjoyment of the bunch grass which he munched with much
tongueing of the bit and impatient shaking of the head. With bridle
reins gripped tightly she leaned wearily against the saddle.

"I'm lost," she murmured. "Just plain lost. Surely I must have come
fifty miles, and I followed their directions exactly, and now I'm
tired, and stiff, and sore, and hungry, and lost." A grim little smile
tightened the corners of her mouth. "But I'm glad I came. If Aunt
Rebecca could see me now! Wouldn't she just gloat? 'I told you so, my
dear, just as I often told your poor father, to have nothing whatever
to do with that horrible country of wild Indians, and ferocious
beasts, and desperate characters.'" Hot tears blurred her eyes at the
thought of her father. "This is the country he loved, with its
mountains and its woods and its deep mysterious valleys--and I want to
love it, too. And I will love it! I'll find his mine if it takes me
all the rest of my life. And I'll show the people back home that he
was right, that he did know that the gold was here, and that he
wasn't just a visionary and a ne'er-do-well!"

A rattle of loose stones set her heart thumping wildly and caused her
to peer down the back trail where a horseman was slowly ascending the
slope. The man sat loosely in his saddle with the easy grace of the
slack rein rider. A roll-brim Stetson with its crown boxed into a peak
was pushed slightly back upon his head, and his legs were encased to
the thighs in battered leather chaps whose lacings were studded with
silver chonchas as large as trade dollars. A coiled rope hung from a
strap upon the right side of his saddle, while a leather-covered jug
was swung upon the opposite side by a thong looped over the horn. All
this the girl took in at a glance as the rangy buckskin picked his way
easily up the slope. She noted, also, the white butt-plates of the
revolver that protruded from its leather holster. Her first impulse
was to mount and fly, but the futility of the attempt was apparent. If
the man followed she could hardly hope to elude him upon a horse that
was far from fresh, and even if she did it would be only to plunge
deeper into the hills--become more hopelessly lost. Aunt Rebecca's
words "desperate character" seemed suddenly to assume significance.
The man was very close now. She could distinctly hear the breathing of
his horse, and the soft rattle of bit-chains. Despite her defiant
declaration that she was glad she had come, she knew that deep down in
her heart, she fervidly wished herself elsewhere. "Maybe he's a
ranchman," she thought, "but why should any honest man be threading
unfrequented hill trails armed with a revolver and a brown leather
jug?" No answer suggested itself, and summoning her haughtiest,
coldest look, she met the glance of the man who drew rein beside her.
His features were clean-cut, bronzed, and lean--with the sinewy
leanness of health. His gray flannel shirt rolled open at the throat,
about which was loosely drawn a silk scarf of robin's-egg blue, held
in place by the tip of a buffalo horn polished to an onyx luster. The
hand holding the bridle reins rested carelessly upon the horn of his
saddle. With the other he raised the Stetson from his head.

"Good evenin', Miss," he greeted, pleasantly. "Lost?"

"No," she lied brazenly, "I came here on purpose--I--I like it here."
She felt the lameness of the lie and her cheeks flushed. But the man
showed no surprise at the statement, neither did he smile. Instead,
he raised his head and gravely inspected the endless succession of
mountains and valleys and timbered ridges.

"It's a right nice place," he agreed. To her surprise the girl could
find no hint of sarcasm in the words, nor was there anything to
indicate the "desperate character" in the way he leaned forward to
stroke his horse's mane, and remove a wisp of hair from beneath the
headstall. It was hard to maintain her air of cold reserve with this
soft-voiced, grave-eyed young stranger. She wondered whether a
"desperate character" could love his horse, and felt a wild desire to
tell him of her plight. But as her eyes rested upon the brown leather
jug she frowned.

The man shifted himself in the saddle. "Well, I must be goin'," he
said. "Good evenin'."

Patty bowed ever so slightly, as he replaced the Stetson upon his head
and touched his horse lightly with a spur. "Come along, you Buck,
you!"

As the horse started down the steep descent on the other side of the
divide a feeling of loneliness that was very akin to terror gripped
the girl. The sunlight showed only upon the higher levels, and the
prospect of spending the night alone in the hills without food or
shelter produced a sudden chilling sensation in the pit of her
stomach.

"Oh! Please----"

The buckskin turned in his tracks, and once more the man was beside
her upon the ridge.

"I am lost," she faltered. "Only, I hated to admit it."

"Folks always do. I've be'n lost a hundred times, an' I never would
admit it."

"I started for the Watts's ranch. Do you know where it is?"

"Yes, it's over on Monte's Creek."

Patty smiled. "I could have told you that. The trouble is, someone
seems to have removed all the signs."

"They ought to put 'em up again," opined the stranger in the same
grave tone with which he had bid her good evening.

"They told me in town that I was to take the left hand trail where it
forked at the first creek beyond the canyon."

The man nodded. "Yes, that about fits the case."

"But I did take the trail that turned to the left up the first creek
beyond the canyon, and I haven't seen the slightest intimation of a
ranch."

"No, you see, this little creek don't count, because most of the time
it's dry; an' this ain't a regular trail. It's an' old winter road
that was used to haul out cord wood an' timber. Monte's Creek is two
miles farther on. It's a heap bigger creek than this, an' the trail's
better, too. Watts's is about three mile up from the fork. You can't
miss it. It's the only ranch there."

"How far is it back to the trail?" asked the girl wearily.

"About two mile. It's about seven mile to Watts's that way around.
There's a short cut, through the hills, but I couldn't tell you so
you'd find it. There's no trail, an' it's up one coulee an' down
another till you get there. I'm goin' through that way; if you'd like
to come along you're welcome to."

For a moment Patty hesitated but her eyes returned to the jug and she
declined, a trifle stiffly. "No, thank you. I--I think I will go
around by the trail."

Either the man did not notice the curtness of the reply, or he chose
to ignore it, for the next instant, noting the gasp of pain and the
sudden tightening of the lips that accompanied her attempt to raise
her foot to the stirrup, he swung lightly to the ground, and before
she divined what he was about, had lifted her gently into the saddle
and pressed the reins into her hand. Without a word he returned to his
horse, and with face flushed scarlet, the girl glared at the powerful
gray shoulders as he picked up his reins from the ground. The next
moment she headed her own horse down the back trail and rode into the
deepening shadows. Gaining the main trail she urged her horse into a
run.

"He--he's awfully strong," she panted, "and just horrid!"

From the top of the divide the man watched until she disappeared, then
he stroked softly the velvet nose that nuzzled against his cheek.

"What d'you reckon, Buck? Are they goin' to start a school for that
litter of young Wattses? There ain't another kid within twenty
mile--must be." As he swung into the saddle the leather covered jug
bumped lightly against his knee. There was a merry twinkle of laughter
in his blue eyes as, with lips solemn as an exhorter's, he addressed
the offending object. "You brown rascal, you! If it hadn't be'n for
you, me an' Buck might of made a hit with the lady, mightn't we, Buck?
Scratch gravel, now you old reprobate, or we won't get to camp till
midnight."

"Anyway, she ain't no kin to the Wattses," he added reflectively, "not
an' that clean, she ain't."





Next: At The Watts Ranch

Previous: The Devotion Of Enriquez



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