VIEW THE MOBILE VERSION of www.fictionstories.ca Informational Site Network Informational
Privacy
   Home - Science Fiction Stories - Western Stories


An Unwelcome Guest








From: 'drag' Harlan

It was late afternoon when Barbara and Harlan--the girl still riding a
little in advance of the man--rode their horses out of a stretch of
broken country featured by low, barren hills and ragged draws, and came
to the edge of a vast level of sage and mesquite that stretched southward
an interminable distance.

The sun was low--a flaming red disk that swam in a sea of ever-changing
color between the towering peaks of two mighty mountains miles
westward--and the sky above the big level upon which Barbara and Harlan
rode was a pale amethyst set in the dull gray frame of the dusk that was
rising from the southern and eastern horizons.

Eastward the gray was pierced by the burning, flaming prismatic streaks
that stretched straight from the cleft in the mountains where the sun was
sinking--the sun seemed to be sending floods of new color into the
streaks as he went, deepening those that remained; tinging it all with
harmonious tones--rose and pearl and violet and saffron blending them
with a giant, magic brush--recreating them, making the whole background
of amethyst sky glow like a huge jewel touched by the myriad colors of a
mighty rainbow.

The trail taken by Barbara Morgan ran now, in a southeasterly direction,
and it seemed to Harlan that they were riding straight into the folds of
a curtain of gauze. For a haze was rising into the effulgent expanse of
color, and the sun's rays, striking it, wrought their magic upon it.

Harlan, accustomed to sunsets--with a matter-of-fact attitude toward all
of nature's phenomena--caught himself admiring this one. So intent was he
that he looked around with a start when Purgatory halted, to find that
Barbara had drawn Billy down and was sitting in the saddle close to him,
watching him, her eyes luminous with an emotion that thrilled Harlan
strangely.

"This is the most beautiful place in the world," she declared in a voice
that seemed to quaver with awe.

"It's sure a beauty," agreed Harlan. "I've been in a heap of places where
they had sunsets, but dump 'em all together an' they wouldn't make an
edge on this display. She's sure a hummer!"

The girl's eyes seemed to leap at his praise.

"I never want to leave this place," she said. "There is nothing like it.
Those two mountains that you see far out into the west--where the sun is
going down--are about forty miles distant. If you will notice, you can
see that there are other mountains--much smaller--connected with them.
They are two small ranges, and they melt into the plains there--and
there."

She pointed to the south and to the north, where the two ranges,
seemingly extending straight westward, merged into the edge of the big
level where Barbara and Harlan sat on their horses.

The two ranges were perhaps a dozen miles apart, separated by a low level
valley through which ran a narrow river, its surface glowing like
burnished gold in the rays of the sinking sun.

Gazing westward--straight into the glow--Harlan noted the virgin wildness
of the immense valley. It lay, serene, slumberous; its salient
features--ridges, low hills, rocky promontories and wooded slopes--touched
by the rose tints that descended upon them; while in the depressions
reigned purple shadows, soft-toned, blending perfectly with the brighter
colors.

With the sunset glow upon it; with the bastioned hills--barren at their
peaks, ridged and seamed--looming clear and definite above the vast
expanse of green, the colossal valley stretched, with no movement in it
or above it--in a vacuum-like stillness that might have reigned over the
world on the dawn of creation's first morning.

Harlan looked covertly at Barbara. The girl's face was pale, and her eyes
were glowing with a light that made him draw a long breath of sympathy
and understanding. But it had been many years since he had felt the
thrill of awe that she was experiencing at this minute.

He knew that presently the spell would pass, and that material things
would exact their due. And the resulting contrast between the beauty of
the picture upon which she was gazing, and the solemn realization of loss
that memory would bring, instantly, would almost crush her.

Therefore he spoke seriously when he caught her looking at him.

"There's sunsets an' sunsets," he said. "They tell me that they're a
heap common in some parts of the world. Wyoming, now--Wyoming prides
herself on sunsets. An' I've heard they have 'em in Italy, an'
France--an' some more of them foreign places--where guys go to look at
'em. But it's always seemed to me that there ain't a heap of sense in
gettin' fussed up over a sunset. The sun has got his work to do; an' he
does it without any fussin'. An' they tell me that it's the same sun that
sets in all them places I've been tellin' you about.

"Well, it's always been my idee that the sun ain't got no compliments due
him--he'll set mighty beautiful--sometimes; an' folks will get awed an'
thrilly over him. But the next day--if a man happens to be ridin' in the
desert, where there ain't any water, he'll cuss the sun pretty
thorough--forgettin' the nice things he said about it once."

Barbara scowled at him.

"You haven't a bit of poetry in your soul!" she charged. "I'm sorry we
stopped to look at the valley or the sun--or anything. You don't--you
can't appreciate the beautiful!"

He was silent as she urged Billy onward. And as they fled southwestward,
with Purgatory far behind, Harlan swept his hat from his head and bowed
toward the mighty valley, saying lowly:

"You're sure a hummer--an' no mistake. But if a man had any poetry in his
soul--why----"

He rode on, gulping his delight over having accomplished what he had
intended to accomplish.

"She'll be givin' it to me pretty regular; an' she won't have time for no
solemn thoughts. They'll come later, though, when she gets to the Rancho
Seco."

It was the lowing of cattle that at last brought to Harlan the conviction
that they were near the Rancho Seco--that and the sight of the roofs of
some buildings that presently came into view.

But they had been riding for half an hour before they came upon the
cattle and buildings, and the flaming colors had faded into somber gray
tones. The filmy dusk that precedes darkness was beginning to settle over
the land; and into the atmosphere had come that solemn hush with which
the wide, open places greet the night.

Barbara had no further word to say to Harlan until they reached a group
of buildings that were scattered on a big level near a river. They had
passed a long stretch of wire fence, which Harlan suspected, enclosed a
section of land reserved for a pasture; and the girl brought her pony to
a halt in front of an adobe building near a high rail fence.

"This is the Rancho Seco," she said shortly. "This is the stable. Over
there is the ranchhouse. Evidently the men are all away somewhere."

She got off the pony, removed the saddle and bridle, carried them into
the stable, came out again, and opened a gate in the fence, through which
she sent "Billy." Then she closed the gate and turned to Harlan, who had
dismounted and was standing at Purgatory's head.

"I thank you for what you have done for me," she said, coldly. "And now,
I should like to know just what you purpose to do--and why you have
come."

Harlan's eyes narrowed as he returned her gaze. He remembered Lane
Morgan's words: "John Haydon is dead stuck on Barbara;" and he had
wondered ever since the meeting in Lamo if Barbara returned Haydon's
affection, or if she trusted Haydon enough to confide in him.

Barbara's attitude toward Haydon would affect Harlan's attitude toward
the girl. For if she loved Haydon, or trusted him enough to confide in
him--or even to communicate with him concerning ordinary details, Harlan
could not apprise her of the significance of his presence at the Rancho
Seco.

For Haydon was unknown to Harlan and Harlan was not inclined to accept
Morgan's praise of him as conclusive evidence of the man's worthiness.
Besides, Morgan had qualified his instructions with: "Take a look at John
Haydon, an' if you think he's on the level--an' you want to drift
on--turn things over to him."

Harlan did not want to "drift on." Into his heart since his meeting in
Lamo with Barbara--and during the ride to the Rancho Seco--had grown a
decided reluctance toward "drifting." And not even the girl's scorn could
have forced him to leave her at the ranch, unprotected.

But he could not tell her why he could not go. Despite her protests he
must remain--at least until he was able to determine the character of
John Haydon.

A gleam of faint mockery came into his eyes as he looked at Barbara.

"I'm keepin' my promise to your dad--I'm stayin' at the Rancho Seco
because he told me to stay. He wanted me to sort of look out that nothin'
happened to you. I reckon we'll get along."

The girl caught her breath sharply. In the growing darkness Harlan's
smile seemed to hold an evil significance; it seemed to express a thought
that took into consideration the loneliness of the surroundings, the fact
that she was alone, and that she was helpless. More--it seemed to be a
presumptuous smile, insinuating, full of dire promise.

For Harlan was an outlaw--she could not forget that! He bore a reputation
for evil that had made him feared wherever men congregated; and as she
watched him it seemed to her that his face betrayed signs of his
ruthlessness, his recklessness, and his readiness for violence of every
kind.

He might not have killed her father--Rogers and Lawson had acquitted him
of that. But he might be lying about the promise to her father merely for
the purpose of providing an excuse to come to the Rancho Seco. It seemed
to her that if her father had really exacted a promise from him he would
have written to her, or sent her some token to prove the genuineness of
it. There was no visible evidence of Harlan's truthfulness.

"Do you mean to say you are going to stay here--indefinitely?" she
demanded, her voice a little hoarse from the fright that was stealing
over her.

He smiled at her. "You've hit it about right, ma'am."

"I don't want you to stay here!" she declared, angrily.

"I'm stayin', ma'am." His smile faded, and his eyes became
serious--earnest.

"Later on--when things shape themselves up--I'll tell you why I'm
stayin'. But just now----"

She shrank from him, incredulous, a growing fear plain in her eyes. And
before he could finish what he intended to say she had wheeled, and was
running toward the ranchhouse.

He watched until she vanished through an open doorway; he heard the door
slam, and caught the sound of bars being hurriedly dropped into place.
And after that he stood for a time watching the house. No light came from
within, and no other sound.

He frowned slightly, drawing a mental picture of the girl inside,
yielding to the terror that had seized her. Then after a while he walked
down along the corral fence until he came to another building--a
bunkhouse. And for a long time he stood in the doorway of the building,
watching the ranchhouse, afflicted with grim sympathy.

"It ain't so damn' cheerful, at that," he mused. "I reckon she thinks
she's landed into trouble with both feet--with her dad cashin' in like he
did, an' Deveny after her. It sure must be pretty hard to consider all
them things. An' on top of that I mosey along, with a reputation as a
no-good son-of-a-gun, an' scare the wits out of her with my homely mug.
An' I can't tell her why she hadn't ought to be scared. I call that
mighty mean."





Next: On Guard

Previous: Barbara Is Puzzled



Add to del.icio.us Add to Reddit Add to Digg Add to Del.icio.us Add to Google Add to Twitter Add to Stumble Upon
Add to Informational Site Network
Report
Privacy
SHAREADD TO EBOOK


Viewed 10401