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A Spunky Li'l' Devil








From: The Fighting Edge

Houck rode away next morning after breakfast, but not before he had made
a promise June construed as a threat.

"Be back soon, girl."

Her eyes were on the corral, from which her father was driving the
dogies. "What's it to me?" she said with sullen resentment.

"More'n you think. I've took a fancy to you. When I come back I'll talk
business."

The girl's eyes did not turn toward him, but the color flooded the dark
cheeks. "With Father maybe. Not with me. You've got no business to talk
over with me."

"Think so? Different here. Take a good look at me, June Tolliver."

"What for?" Her glance traveled over him disdainfully to the hound puppy
chasing its tail. She felt a strange excitement drumming in her veins.
"I've seen folks a heap better worth lookin' at."

"Because I'm tellin' you to." His big hand caught her chin and swung it
back. "Because I'm figurin' on marryin' you right soon."

Her dark eyes blazed. They looked at him straight enough now. "Take yore
hand off'n me. D'you hear?"

He laughed, slowly, delightedly. "You're a spunky li'l' devil. Suits me
fine. Jake Houck never did like jog-trotters in harness."

"Lemme go," she ordered, and a small brown fist clenched.

"Not now, nor ever. You're due to wear the Houck brand, girl."

She struck, hard, with all the strength of her lithe and supple body.
Above his cheek-bone a red streak leaped out where the sharp knuckles had
crushed the flesh.

A second time he laughed, harshly. Her chin was still clamped in a
vice-like grip that hurt. "I get a kiss for that, you vixen." With a
sweeping gesture he imprisoned both of the girl's arms and drew the slim
body to him. He kissed her, full on the lips, not once but half a dozen
times, while she fought like a fury without the least avail.

Presently the man released her hands and chin.

"Hit me again if you like, and I'll c'lect my pay prompt," he jeered.

She was in a passionate flame of impotent anger. He had insulted her,
trampled down the pride of her untamed youth, brushed away the bloom of
her maiden modesty. And there was nothing she could do to make him pay.
He was too insensitive to be reached by words, no matter how she pelted
them at him.

A sob welled up from her heart. She turned and ran into the house.

Houck grinned, swung to the saddle, and rode up the valley. June would
hate him good and plenty, he thought. That was all right. He had her in
the hollow of his hand. All her thoughts would be full of him. After she
quit struggling to escape she would come snuggling up to him with a
girl's shy blandishments. It was his boast that he knew all about women
and their ways.

June was not given to tears. There was in her the stark pioneer blood
that wrested the West in two generations from unfriendly nature. But the
young virgin soul had been outraged. She lay on the bed of her room, face
down, the nails of her fingers biting into the palms of the hands, a lump
in the full brown throat choking her.

She was a wild, free thing of the hills, undisciplined by life. Back of
June's anger and offended pride lurked dread, as yet indefinite and
formless. Who was this stranger who had swaggered into her life and
announced himself its lord and master? She would show him his place,
would teach him how ridiculous his pretensions were. But even as she
clenched her teeth on that promise there rose before her a picture of the
fellow's straddling stride, of the fleering face with its intrepid eyes
and jutting, square-cut jaw. He was stronger than she. No scruples would
hold him back from the possession of his desires. She knew she would
fight savagely, but a chill premonition of failure drenched the girl's
heart.

Later, she went out to the stable where Tolliver was riveting a broken
tug. It was characteristic of the man that all his tools, harness, and
machinery were worn out or fractured. He never brought a plough in out of
the winter storms or mended a leak in the roof until the need was
insistent. Yet he was not lazy. He merely did not know how to order
affairs with any system.

"Who is that man?" June demanded.

He looked up, mildly surprised and disturbed at the imperative in the
girl's voice. "Why, didn't I tell you, honey--Jake Houck?"

"I don't want to know his name. I want to know who he is--all about
him."

Tolliver drove home a rivet before he answered. "Jake's a cowman." His
voice was apologetic. "I seen you didn't like him. He's biggity, Jake
is."

"He's the most hateful man I ever saw," she burst out.

Pete lifted thin, straw-colored eyebrows in questioning, but June had no
intention of telling what had taken place. She would fight her own
battles.

"Well, he's a sure enough toughfoot," admitted the rancher.

"When did you know him?"

"We was ridin' together, a right long time ago."

"Where?"

"Up around Rawlins--thataway."

"He said he knew you in Brown's Park."

The man flashed a quick, uncertain look at his daughter. It appeared to
ask how much Houck had told. "I might 'a' knowed him there too. Come to
think of it, I did. Punchers drift around a heap. Say, how about dinner?
You got it started? I'm gettin' powerful hungry."

June knew the subject was closed. She might have pushed deeper into her
father's reticence, but some instinct shrank from what she might uncover.
There could be only pain in learning the secret he so carefully hid.

There had been no discussion of it between them, nor had it been
necessary to have any. It was tacitly understood that they would have
little traffic with their neighbors, that only at rare intervals would
Pete drive to Meeker, Glenwood Springs, or Bear Cat to dispose of furs he
had trapped and to buy supplies. The girl's thoughts and emotions were
the product largely of this isolation. She brooded over the mystery of
her father's past till it became an obsession in her life. To be brought
into close contact with dishonor makes one either unduly sensitive or
callously indifferent. Upon June it had the former effect.

The sense of inferiority was branded upon her. She had seen girls
giggling at the shapeless sacks she had stitched together for clothes
with which to dress herself. She was uncouth, awkward, a thin black thing
ugly as sin. It had never dawned on her that she possessed rare
potentialities of beauty, that there was coming a time when she would
bloom gloriously as a cactus in a sand waste.

After dinner June went down to the creek and followed a path along its
edge. She started up a buck lying in the grass and watched it go crashing
through the brush. It was a big-game country. The settlers lived largely
on venison during the fall and winter. She had killed dozens of
blacktail, an elk or two, and more than once a bear. With a rifle she was
a crack shot.

But to-day she was not hunting. She moved steadily along the winding
creek till she came to a bend in its course. Beyond this a fishing-rod
lay in the path. On a flat rock near it a boy was stretched, face up,
looking into the blue, unflecked sky.





Next: Pals

Previous: Pete's Girl



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