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A Shepherd Of The Desert

From: A Story Of The Outdoor West

It had been Helen Messiter's daily custom either to take a ride on her
pony or a spin in her motor car, but since Bannister had been quartered
at the Lazy D her time had been so fully occupied that she had given
this up for the present. The arrival of Nora Darling, however, took so
much work off her hands that she began to continue her rides and drives.

Her patient was by this time so far recovered that he did not need her
constant attendance and there were reasons why she decided it best to
spend only a minimum of her time with him. These had to do with her
increasing interest in the man and the need she felt to discourage it.
It had come to a pretty pass, she told herself scornfully, when she
found herself inventing excuses to take her into the room where this
most picturesque of unhanged scamps was lying. Most good women are at
heart puritans, and if Helen was too liberal to judge others narrowly
she could be none the less rigid with herself. She might talk to him of
her duty, but it was her habit to be frank in thought and she knew that
something nearer than that abstraction had moved her efforts in his
behalf. She had fought for his life because she loved him. She could
deny it no longer. Nor was the shame with which she confessed it
unmingled with pride. He was a man to compel love, one of the mood
imperative, chain-armored in the outdoor virtues of strength and
endurance and stark courage. Her abasement began only where his
superlation ended. That a being so godlike in equipment should have been
fashioned without a soul, and that she should have given her heart to
him. This was the fount of her degradation.

It was of these things she thought as she drove in the late afternoon
toward those Antelope Peaks he had first pointed out to her. She swept
past the scene of the battle and dipped down into the plains for a run
to that western horizon behind the jagged mountain line of which the sun
was radiantly setting in a splash of glorious colors. Lost in thought,
space slipped under her wheels unnoticed. Not till her car refused the
spur and slowed to a despondent halt did she observe that velvet night
was falling over the land.

She prowled round the machine after the fashion of the motorist,
examining details that might be the cause of the trouble. She discovered
soon enough with instant dismay that the gasolene tank was empty. Reddy,
always unreliable, must have forgotten to fill it when she told him to.

By the road she must be thirty miles from home if she were a step;
across country as the crow flies, perhaps twenty. She was a young woman
of resolution, and she wasted no time in tears or regrets. The XIX
ranch, owned by a small "nester" named Henderson, could not be more than
five or six miles to the southeast. If she struck across the hills she
would be sure to run into one of the barblines. At the XIX she could
get a horse and reach the Lazy D by midnight. Without any hesitation she
struck out. It was unfortunate that she did not have on her heavy laced
high boots, but she realized that she must take things as she
found them. Things might have been a good deal worse, she reflected

And before long they were worse, for the increasing darkness blotted out
the landmarks she was using as guides and she was lost among the hill
waves that rolled one after another across the range. Still she did not
give way, telling herself that it would be better after the moon was
up. She could then tell north from south, and so have a line by which to
travel. But when at length the stars came out, thousands upon thousands
of them, and looked down on a land magically flooded with chill
moonlight, the girl found that the transformation of Wyoming into this
sense of silvery loveliness had toned the distant mountain line to an
indefinite haze that made it impossible for her to distinguish one peak
from another.

She wandered for hours, hungry and tired and frightened, though this
last she would not confess.

"There's nothing to be afraid of," she told herself over and over. "Even
if I have to stay out all night it will do me no harm. There's no need
to be a baby about it."

But try to evade it as she would, there was something in the loneliness
of this limitless stretch of hilltop that got on her nerves. The
very shadows cast by the moonshine seemed too fantastic for reality.
Something eerie and unearthly hovered over it all, and before she knew
it a sob choked up her throat.

Vague fancies filtered through her mind, weird imaginings born of the
night in a mind that had been swept from the moorings of reason. So
that with no sensible surprise there came to her in that moonlit sea of
desert the sound of a voice a clear sweet tenor swelling bravely in song
with the very ecstacy of pathos.

It was the prison song from "Il Trovatore," and the desolation of its
lifted appeal went to the heart like water to the roots of flowers.

Ah! I have sigh'd to rest me.
Deep in the quiet grave.

The girl's sob caught in her breast, stilled with the awe of that
heavenly music. So for an instant she waited before it was borne in on
her that the voice was a human one, and that the heaven from which it
descended was the hilltop above her.

A wild laugh, followed by an oath, cut the dying echoes of the song. She
could hear the swish of a quirt falling again and again, and the sound
of trampling hoofs thudding on the hard, sun-cracked ground. Startled,
she sprang to her feet, and saw silhouetted against the skyline a horse
and his rider fighting for mastery.

The battle was superb while it lasted. The horse had been a famous
outlaw, broken to the saddle by its owner out of the sheer passion
for victory, but there were times when its savage strength rebelled at
abject submission, and this was one of them. It swung itself skyward,
and came down like a pile-driver, camel-backed, and without joints in
the legs. Swiftly it rose again lunging forward and whirling in the air,
then jarred down at an angle. The brute did its malevolent best, a fury
incarnate. But the ride, was a match, and more than a match, for it. He
sat the saddle like a Centaur, with the perfect: unconscious grace of a
born master, swaying in his seat as need was, and spurring the horse to
a blinder fury.

Sudden as had been the start, no less sudden was the finish of the
battle. The bronco pounded to a stiff-legged standstill, trembled for
a long minute like an aspen, and sank to a tame surrender, despite the
sharp spurs roweling its bloody sides.

"Ah, my beauty. You've had enough, have you?" demanded the cruel,
triumphant voice of the rider. "You would try that game, would you? I'll
teach you."

"Stop spurring that horse, you bully."

The man stopped, in sheer amazement at this apparition which had leaped
out of the ground almost at his feet. His wary glance circled the hills
to make sure she was alone.

"Ce'tainly, ma'am. We're sure delighted to meet up with you. Ain't we,

For himself, he spoke the simple truth. He lived in his sensations,
spurring himself to fresh ones as he had but just now been spurring
his horse to sate the greed of conquest in him. And this high-spirited,
gallant creature--he could feel her vital courage in the very ring
of her voice--offered a rare fillip to his jaded appetite. The dusky,
long-lashed eyes which always give a woman an effect of beauty, the
splendid fling of head, and the piquant, finely cut features, with their
unconscious tale of Brahmin caste, the long lines of the supple body,
willowy and yet plump as a partridge--they went to his head like strong
wine. Here was an adventure from the gods--a stubborn will to bend, the
pride of a haughty young beauty to trail in the dust, her untamed heart
to break if need be. The lust of the battle was on him already. She was
a woman to dream about,

"Sweeter than the lids of Juno's eyes,
Or Cytherea's breath,"

he told himself exultantly as he slid from his horse and stood bowing
before her.

And he, for his part, was a taking enough picture of devil-may-care
gallantry gone to seed. The touch of jaunty impudence in his humility,
not less than the daring admiration of his handsome eyes and the easy,
sinuous grace of his flexed muscles, labeled him what he was--a man bold
and capable to do what he willed, and a villain every inch of him.

Said she, after that first clash of stormy eyes with bold, admiring

"I am lost--from the Lazy D ranch."

"Why, no, you're found," he corrected, white teeth flashing in a smile.

"My motor ran out of gasolene this afternoon. I've been"--there was a
catch in her voice--"wandering ever since."

"You're played out, of course, and y'u've had no supper," he said, his
quiet close gaze on her.

"Yes, I'm played out and my nerve's gone." She laughed a little
hysterically. "I expect I'm hungry and thirsty, too, though I hadn't
noticed it before."

He whirled to his saddle, and had the canteen thongs unloosed in a
moment. While she drank he rummaged from his saddle-bags some sandwiches
of jerky and a flask of whiskey. She ate the sandwiches, he the while
watching her with amused sympathy in his swarthy countenance.

"You ain't half-bad at the chuck-wagon, Miss Messiter," he told her.

She stopped, the sandwich part way to her mouth. "I don't remember your
face. I've met so many people since I came to the Lazy D. Still, I think
I should remember you."

He immediately relieved of duty her quasi apology. "You haven't seen
my face before," he laughed, and, though she puzzled over the double
meaning that seemed to lurk behind his words and amuse him, she could
not find the key to it.

It was too dark to make out his features at all clearly, but she was
sure she had seen him before or somebody that looked very much like him.

"Life on the range ain't just what y'u can call exciting," he continued,
"and when a young lady fresh from back East drops among us while sixguns
are popping, breaks up a likely feud and mends right neatly all the
ventilated feudists it's a corollary to her fun that's she is going to
become famous."

What he said was true enough. The unsolicited notoriety her exploit had
brought upon her had been its chief penalty. Garbled versions of it had
appeared with fake pictures in New York and Chicago Sunday supplements,
and all Cattleland had heard and discussed it. No matter into what
unfrequented canon she rode, some silent cowpuncher would look at her
as they met with admiring eyes behind which she read a knowledge of the
story. It was a lonely desolate country, full of the wide deep silences
of utter emptiness, yet there could be no footfall but the whisper of it
was bruited on the wings of the wind.

"Do you know where the Lazy D ranch is from here?" she asked.

He nodded.

"Can you take me home?"

"I surely can. But not to-night. You're more tired than y'u know. We'll
camp here, and in the mo'ning we'll hit the trail bright and early."

This did not suit her at all. "Is it far to the Lazy D?" she inquired

"Every inch of forty miles. There's a creek not more than two hundred
yards from here. We'll stay there till morning," he made answer in a
matter of course voice, leading the way to the place he had mentioned.

She followed, protesting. Yet though it was not in accord with her
civilized sense of fitness, she knew that what he proposed was the
common sense solution. She was tired and worn out, and she could see
that his broncho had traveled far.

Having reached the bank of the creek, he unsaddled, watered his horse
and picketed it, and started a fire. Uneasily she watched him.

"I don't like to sleep out. Isn't there a ranchhouse near?"

"Y'u wouldn't call it near by the time we had reached it. What's to
hinder your sleeping here? Isn't this room airy enough? And don't y'u
like the system of lighting? 'Twas patented I forget how many million
years ago. Y'u ain't going to play parlor girl now after getting the
reputation y'u've got for gameness, are y'u?"

But he knew well enough that it was no silly schoolgirl fear she had,
but some deep instinct in her that distrusted him and warned her to
beware. So, lightly he took up the burden of the talk while he gathered
cottonwood branches for the fire.

"Now if I'd only thought to bring a load of lumber and some
carpenters--and a chaperon," he chided himself in burlesque, his bold
eyes closely on the girl's face to gloat on the color that flew to her
cheeks at his suggestion.

She hastened to disclaim lightly the feeling he had unmasked in her. "It
is a pity, but it can't be helped now. I suppose I am cross and don't
seem very grateful. I'm tired out and nervous, but I am sure that I'll
enjoy sleeping out. If I don't I shall not be so ungenerous as to blame

He soon had a cup of steaming coffee ready for her, and the heat of it
made a new woman of her. She sat in the warm fire glow, and began
to feel stealing over her a delightful reaction of languor. She told
herself severely it was ridiculous to have been so foolishly prim about
the inevitable.

"Since you know my name, isn't it fair that I should know yours?" she
smilingly asked, more amiably than she had yet spoken to him.

"Well, since I have found the lamb that was lost, y'u may call me a
shepherd of the desert."

"Then, Mr. Shepherd, I'm very glad to meet you. I don't remember when
I ever was more glad to meet a stranger." And she added with a little
laugh: "It's a pity I'm too sleepy to do my duty by you in a social

"We'll let that wait till to-morrow. Y'u'll entertain me plenty then.
I'll make your bunk up right away."

She was presently lying with her feet to the fire, snugly rolled in his
saddle blankets. But though her eyes were heavy, her brain was still
too active to permit her to sleep immediately. The excitement of her
adventure was too near, the emotions of the day too poignantly vivid, to
lose their hold on her at once. For the first time in her life she
lay lapped in the illimitable velvet night, countless unwinking stars
lighting the blue-black dream in which she floated. The enchantment of
the night's loveliness swept through her sensitive pulses and thrilled
her with the mystery of the great life of which she was an atom. Awe
held her a willing captive.

She thought of many things, of her past life and its incongruity with
the present, of the man who lay wounded at the Lazy D, of this other
wide-shouldered vagabond who was just now in the shadows beyond the
firelight, pacing up and down with long, light even strides as he looked
to his horse and fed the fire. She watched him make an end of the things
he found to do and then take his place opposite her. Who and what was
he, this fascinating scamp who one moment flooded the moonlit desert
with inspired snatches from the opera sung in the voice of an angel, and
the next lashed at his horse like a devil incarnate? How reconcile the
outstanding inconsistencies in him? For his every inflection, every
motion, proclaimed the strain of good blood gone wrong and trampled
under foot of set, sardonic purpose, indicated him a man of culture in
a hell of his own choosing. Lounging on his elbow in the flickering
shadows, so carelessly insouciant in every picturesque inch of him, he
seemed to radiate the melodrama of the untamed frontier, just as her
guest of tarnished reputation now at the ranch seemed to breathe forth
its romance.

"Sleep well, little partner. Don't be afraid; nothing can harm you,"
this man had told her.

Promptly she had answered, "I'm not afraid, thank you, in the least";
and after a moment had added, not to seem hostile, "Good night, big

But despite her calm assurance she knew she did not feel so entirely
safe as if it had been one of her own ranch boys on the other side of
the fire, or even that other vagabond who had made so direct an appeal
to her heart. If she were not afraid, at least she knew some vague hint
of anxiety.

She was still thinking of him when she fell asleep, and when she
awakened the first sound that fell on her ears was his tuneful whistle.
Indeed she had an indistinct memory of him in the night, wrapping the
blankets closer about her when the chill air had half stirred her from
her slumber. The day was still very young, but the abundant desert light
dismissed sleep summarily. She shook and brushed the wrinkles out of her
clothes and went down to the creek to wash her face with the inadequate
facilities at hand. After redressing her hair she returned to the fire,
upon which a coffee pot was already simmering.

She came up noiselessly behind him, but his trained senses were apprised
of her approach.

"Good mo'ning! How did y'u find your bedroom?" he asked, without turning
from the bacon he was broiling on the end of a stick.

"Quite up to the specifications. With all Wyoming for a floor and the
sky for a ceiling, I never had a room I liked better. But have you eyes
in the back of your head?"

He laughed grimly. "I have to be all eyes and ears in my business."

"Is your business of a nature so sensitive?"

"As much so as stocks on Wall Street. And we haven't any ticker to warn
us to get under cover. Do you take cream in your coffee, Miss Messiter?"

She looked round in surprise. "Cream?"

"We're in tin-can land, you know, and live on air-tights. I milk my cow
with a can-opener. Let me recommend this quail on toast." He handed her
a battered tin plate, and prepared to help her from the frying-pan.

"I suppose that is another name for pork?"

"No, really. I happened to bag a couple of hooters before you wakened."

"You're a missionary of the good-foods movement. I shall name your
mission St. Sherry's-in-the-Wilderness."

"Ah, Sherry's! That's since my time. I don't suppose I should know my
way about in little old New York now."

She found him eager to pick up again the broken strands that had
connected him with the big world from which he had once come. It had
been long since she had enjoyed a talk more, for he expressed himself
with wit and dexterity. But through her enjoyment ran a note of
apprehension. He was for the moment a resurrected gentleman. But what
would he be next? She had an insistent memory of a heavenly flood of
music broken by a horrible discord of raucous oaths.

It was he that lingered over their breakfast, loath to make the first
move to bring him back into realities; and it was she that had to
suggest the need of setting out. But once on his feet, he saddled and
packed swiftly, with a deftness born of experience.

"We'll have to ask Two-step to carry double to-day," he said, as he
helped her to a place behind him.

Two-step had evidently made an end of the bronco spree upon which he
had been the evening before, for he submitted sedately to his unusual
burden. The first hilltop they reached had its surprise to offer the
girl. In a little valley below them, scarce a mile away, nestled a ranch
with its corrals and buildings.

"Look!" she exclaimed; and then swiftly, "Didn't you know it was there?"

"Yes, that's the Hilke place," he answered with composure. "It hasn't
been occupied for years."

"Isn't that some one crossing to the corral now?"

"No. A stray cow, I reckon."

They dropped into a hollow between the hills and left the ranch on their
left. She was not satisfied, and yet she had not grounds enough upon
which to base a suspicion. For surely the figure she had seen had been
that of a man.

Next: Mistress And Maid

Previous: Miss Darling Arrives

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