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Barbara Is Puzzled








From: 'drag' Harlan

Half an hour later, with Barbara Morgan, on "Billy"--a piebald
pinto--riding beside him, Harlan loped Purgatory out of Lamo. They took a
trail--faint and narrow--that led southward, for Barbara had said that
the Rancho Seco lay in that direction.

Harlan had not seen Deveny or Rogers or Lawson after the scene in front
of the sheriff's office. He had talked for some time with Gage, waiting
until Barbara Morgan recovered slightly from the shock she had suffered.
Then when he had told her that he intended to accompany her to the Rancho
Seco--and she had offered no objection--he had gone on a quest for her
pony, finding him in the stable in the rear of the Eating-House.

So far as Harlan knew, no one in Lamo besides Sheriff Gage had watched
the departure of himself and Barbara. And there had been no word spoken
between the two as they rode away--Lamo becoming at last an almost
invisible dot in the great yawning space they left behind them.

Barbara felt a curious unconcern for what was happening; her brain was in
a state of dull apathy, resulting from shock and the period of dread
under which she had lived for more than a day and a night.

She did not seem to care what happened to her. She knew, to be sure, that
she was riding toward the Rancho Seco with a man whom she had heard
called an outlaw by other men; she was aware that she must be risking
something by accepting his escort--and yet she could not bring herself to
feel that dread fear that she knew any young woman in her position should
feel.

It seemed to her that nothing mattered now--very much. Her father was
dead--murdered by some men--two of whom had been punished by death, and
another--a mysterious person called the "Chief"--who would be killed as
soon as she could find him. That resolution was deeply fixed in her mind.

Her gaze though, after a while, went to Harlan, and for many miles she
studied him without his suspecting. And gradually she began to think
about him, to wonder why he had protected her from the man, Higgins, and
why he was going with her to the Rancho Seco.

She provided--after a while--an answer to her first question: He had
protected her because she had run into his arms in her effort to escape
the clutches of the man who had pursued her--Higgins. She remembered that
while she had been at the window, watching Harlan when he had dismounted
in front of the sheriff's office, he had seemed to make a favorable
impression upon her.

That was the reason, when she had seen him before her in the street, after
he had shot Laskar, she had selected him as a protector. That had seemed
to be the logical thing to do, for he had arrayed himself against her
enemies in killing Laskar, and it was reasonable to suppose--conceding
Laskar and Higgins were leagued with Deveny--that Harlan would protect
her.

It all seemed exceedingly natural, that far. It was when she began to
wonder why Harlan was with her now that an element of mystery seemed to
rule. And she was puzzled.

She began to speculate over Harlan, and her mental efforts in that
direction banished the somber thoughts that had almost overwhelmed her
after the discovery of her father's death. Yet they had ridden more than
ten miles before she spoke.

"What made you decide to ride with me to the Rancho Seco?" she demanded
sharply.

Harlan flashed a grin at her. He was riding a little in advance of her,
and he had to turn in the saddle to see her face.

"I was headin' that way, an' wanted company. It sure gets lonesome ridin'
alone."

She caught her breath at this answer, for it seemed that he had not
revealed the real reason. And she had got her first good look at his
face. It was lean and strong. His eyes were deep-set and rimmed by heavy
lashes and brows, and there was a glow in them as he looked at her--a
compelling fixity that held her. Her own drooped, and were lifted to his
again in sheer curiosity, she thought at first.

It was only when she found herself, later, trying to catch his glance
again that she realized they were magnetic eyes, and that the glow in
them was of a subtle quality that could not be analyzed at a glance.

The girl was alert to detect a certain expression in his eyes--a gleam
that would tell her what she half feared--that the motive that had
brought him with her was like that which had caused Deveny to hold her
captive. But she could detect no such expression in Harlan's eyes, she
could see a quizzical humor in his glances at times, or frank interest,
and there were times when she saw a grim pity.

And the pity affected her strangely. It brought him close to
her--figuratively; it convinced her that he was a man of warm sympathies
in spite of the reputation he held in the Territory.

She had heard her father speak of him--always with a sort of awe in his
voice; and tales of his reckless daring, his Satanic cleverness with a
six-shooter, of his ruthlessness, had reached her ears from other
sources. He had seemed, then, like some evil character of mythology,
remote and far, and not likely to appear in the flesh in her section of
the country.

It seemed impossible that she had fled to such a man for protection--and
that he had protected her; and that she was now riding beside him--or
slightly behind him--and that, to all appearances, he was quite as
respectful toward her as other men. That, she surmised, was what made it
all seem so strange.

Harlan did not seem disposed to talk; and he kept Purgatory slightly in
the lead--except when the trail grew dim or disappeared altogether. Then
he would pull the black horse up, look inquiringly at Barbara, and urge
Purgatory after her when she took the lead.

But there were many things that Barbara wanted to inquire about; and it
was when they were crossing a big level between some rimming hills, where
the trail was broad, that she urged her pony beside the black.

"Won't you tell me about father--how he died?" she asked.

He looked sharply at her, saw that she was now quite composed, and
drawing Purgatory to a walk, began to relate to her the incident of the
fight at Sentinel Rock. His story was brief--brutally brief, she might
have thought, had she not been watching his face during the telling,
noting the rage that flamed in his eyes when he spoke of Dolver and
Laskar and the mysterious "Chief."

It was plain to the girl that he had sympathized with her father; and it
was quite as plain that he now sympathized with her. And thus she
mentally recorded another point in his favor:

He might be a gunman, a ruthless killer, an outlaw of such evil
reputation that men mentioned his name with awe in their voices--but she
knew, now, that he had a keen sense of justice, and that the murder of
her father had aroused the retributive instinct in him.

Also, she was convinced that compared to Deveny, Rogers, and Lawson, he
was a gentleman. At least, so far he had not looked at her as those men
had looked at her. He had been with her now for several hours, in a
lonely country where there was no law except his own desires, and he had
been as gravely courteous and considerate as it was possible for any man
to be.

When he finished his story, having neglected to mention the paper he had
removed from one of the cylinders of Morgan's pistol--upon which was
written instructions regarding the location of the gold Morgan had
secreted--Barbara rode for a long time in silence, her head bowed, her
eyes moist.

At last she looked up. Harlan's gaze was straight ahead; he was watching
the trail, where it vanished over the crest of a high ridge, and he did
not seem to be aware of Barbara's presence.

"And father told you to tell me--wanted you to bring the news to me?"

Harlan nodded.

"Then," she went on "your obligation--if you were under any--seems to
have been completed. You need not have come out of your way."

"I was headed this way."

"To the Rancho Seco?" she questioned, astonished.

Again he nodded. But this time there was a slight smile on his lips.

Her own straightened, and her eyes glowed with a sudden suspicion.

"That's odd," she said; "very odd."

"What is?"

"That you should be on your way to the Rancho Seco--and that you should
encounter father--that you should happen to reach Sentinel Rock about the
time he was murdered."

He looked straight at her, noting the suspicion in her eyes. His low
laugh had a hint of irony in it.

"I've heard of such things," he said.

"What?"

"About guys happenin' to run plumb into a murder when they was innocent
of it--an' of them bein' accused of the murder."

It was the mocking light in his eyes that angered her, she believed--and
the knowledge that he had been aware of her suspicion before it had
become half formed in her mind.

"I'm not accusing you!" she declared.

"You said it was odd that I'd be headed this way--after I'd told you all
there was to tell."

"It is!" she maintained.

"Well," he conceded; "mebbe it's odd. But I'm still headin' for the
Rancho Seco. Mebbe I forgot to tell you that your father said I was to
go--that he made me promise to go."

He had not mentioned that before; and the girl glanced sharply at him. He
met the glance with a slow grin which had in it a quality of that
subtleness she had noticed in him before. A shiver of trepidation ran
over her. But she sat rigid in the saddle, determined she would not be
afraid of him. For the exchange of talk between them, and his considerate
manner--everything about him--had convinced her that he was much like
other men--men who respect women.

"There is no evidence that father made you promise to go to the Rancho
Seco."

"There wasn't no evidence that I made any promise to keep that man Deveny
from herd-ridin' you," he said shortly, with a grin. "I'm sure goin' to
the Rancho Seco."

"Suppose I should not wish it--what then?"

"I'd keep right on headin' for there--keepin' my promise."

"Do you always keep your promises?" she asked, mockery in her voice.

"When I make 'em. Usually, I don't do any promisin'. But when I do--that
promise is goin' to be kept. If you ain't likin' my company, ma'am, why,
I reckon there's a heap of trail ahead. An' I ain't afraid of gettin'
lost."

"Isn't that remarkable!" she jeered.

He looked at her with sober eyes. "If we're figurin' on hittin' the
Rancho Seco before night we'll have to quit our gassin' an' do some
travelin'," he advised. "Accordin' to the figures we've got about forty
miles to ride, altogether. We've come about fifteen--an'," he looked at a
silver watch which he drew from a pocket, "it's pretty near two now."

Without further words--for it seemed useless to argue the point upon
which he was so obviously determined--Barbara urged Billy on, taking the
lead.

For more than an hour she maintained the lead, riding a short distance in
advance, and seemingly paying no attention to Harlan. Yet she noted that
he kept about the same distance from her always--though she never
permitted him to observe that she watched him, for her backward glances
were taken out of the corners of her eyes, when she pretended to be
looking at the country on one side or the other.

Harlan, however, noted the glances. And his lips curved into a faint grin
as he rode. Once when he had dropped behind a little farther than usual,
he leaned over and whispered into Purgatory's ear:

"She's sure ignorin' us, ain't she, you black son-of-a-gun! She ain't
looked back here more'n three times in the last five minutes!"

And yet Harlan's jocular mood did not endure long. During those intervals
in which Barbara kept her gaze straight ahead on the trail, Harlan
regarded her with a grave intentness that betrayed the soberness of his
thoughts.

In all his days he had seen no woman like her; and when she had come
toward him in Lamo, with Higgins close behind her, he had been so
astonished that he had momentarily forgotten Deveny and all the rest of
them.

Women of the kind he had met had never affected him as Barbara had
affected him. He had still a mental picture of her as she had come toward
him, with her hair flying in a golden-brown mass over her shoulders; her
wide, fear-lighted eyes seeking his with an expression of appeal so
eloquent that it had sent a queer, thrilling, protective sensation over
him.

And as she rode ahead of him it was the picture she had made then that
he saw; and the emotions that assailed him were the identical emotions
that had beset him when for a brief instant, in Lamo, he had held her in
his arms, with her head resting on his shoulder.

That, he felt, had been the real Barbara Morgan. Her manner now--the
constrained and distant pose she had adopted, her suspicions, her
indignation--all those were outward manifestations of the reaction that
had seized her. The real Barbara Morgan was she who had run to him for
protection and she would always be to him as she had appeared then--a
soft, yielding, trembling girl who, at a glance had trusted him enough to
run straight into his arms.





Next: An Unwelcome Guest

Previous: Single-handed



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