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Clipped Wings

From: The Fighting Edge

The Cinderella of Piceance Creek was scrupulously clean even though
ragged and unkempt. Every Saturday night she shooed Pete Tolliver out of
the house and took a bath in the tub which usually hung suspended from a
wooden peg driven into the outer wall of the log cabin. Regularly as
Monday came wash day.

On a windy autumn day, with the golden flames of fall burning the foliage
of the hill woods, June built a fire of cottonwood branches near the
brook and plunged with fierce energy into the week's washing. She was a
strong, lithe young thing and worked rapidly. Her methods might not be
the latest or the best, but they won results. Before the sun had climbed
halfway to its zenith she had the clothes on the line.

Since she had good soapy suds and plenty of hot water left in the iron
kettle, June decided to scrub the bed covers. Twenty minutes later,
barefooted and barelegged, her skirts tucked up above the knees, the
young washwoman was trampling blankets in the tub. She had no reason to
suppose that anybody was within a mile of her. Wherefore, since the world
was beautiful and mere life a joy, she improvised a child's song of

It was a foolish little thing without rhyme or reason. It began nowhere
and finished at the same place. But it lifted straight from the heart and
perhaps it traveled as far heavenward as most prayers. She danced among
the suds as she sang it, brown arms, bare to the elbows, stretched to the
sunlit hills.

I can fly, 'way 'way 'way off,
Over the creek, over the pinons.
Goodness, yes! Like a meadow-lark.
Over the hills, clear to Denver,
Where the trains are.
And it's lovely--lovely--lovely.

It was an unschooled, impulsive cry of the heart to the great soul of
life and beauty that lies back of nature. No human eyes or ears were
meant to see or hear the outburst. A shy girl's first day-dreams of her
lover ought no more to be dragged out to the public gaze than this.

Through the quaking asps by the creek narrowed eyes gloated. Out of the
thicket Jake Houck strode with a ribald laugh.

"Right pretty, my dear, but don't you spread them wings an' leave yore
man alone."

The dancing spirit fled her flying feet. She was no longer a daughter of
the skies, attuned to sunshine and laughter and the golden harmony of the
hills. Joy and life were stricken out of her.

He had heard. He had seen. A poignant shame enveloped and scorched the
girl's body. She was a wild thing who lived within herself. It was easy
to put her in the wrong. She felt the mortification of one who has been
caught in some indecent exhibition.

The humiliation was at first for the song and dance. Not till another
moment did she think of the bare legs rising out of the soapsuds. His
smouldering gaze brought them to mind.

Instantly she leaped from the tub, shook down the skirts, snatched up
shoes and stockings, and fled barefooted to the house. A brogan dropped a
few steps from the start. She stopped, as though to pick it up. But Houck
was following. The girl turned and ran like a deer.

Houck retrieved the brogan and followed slowly. He smiled. His close-set
eyes were gleaming. This was an adventure just to his taste.

The door of the cabin was bolted. He knocked.

"Here's yore shoe, sweetheart," he called.

No answer came. He tried the back door. It, too, had the bolt driven

"All right. If it ain't yore shoe I'll take it along with me. So long."

He walked away and waited in the bushes. His expectation was that this
might draw her from cover. It did not.

Half an hour later Tolliver rode across the mesa. He found Houck waiting
for him at the entrance to the corral. Pete nodded a rather surly
greeting. He could not afford to quarrel with the man, but he was one of
the last persons in the world he wanted to see.

"'Lo, Jake," he said. "Back again, eh?"

"Yep. Finished my business. I got to have a talk with you, Pete."

Tolliver slid a troubled gaze at him. What did Jake want? Was it
money--hush money? The trapper did not have fifty dollars to his name,
nor for that matter twenty.

"'S all right, Jake. If there's anything I can do for you--why, all you
got to do's to let me know," he said uneasily.

Houck laughed, derisively. "Sure. I know how fond you are of me, Pete.
You're plumb glad to see me again, ain't you? Jes' a-honin' to talk over
old times, I'll bet."

"I'd as lief forget them days, Jake," Tolliver confessed. "I done turned
over another chapter, as you might say. No need rakin' them up, looks

The big man's grin mocked him. "Tha's up to you, Pete. Me, I aim to be
reasonable. I ain't throwin' off on my friends. All I want's to make sure
they are my friends. Pete, I've took a fancy to yore June. I reckon
I'll fix it up an' marry her."

His cold eyes bored into Tolliver. They held the man's startled, wavering
gaze fixed.

"Why, Jake, you're old enough to be her father," he presently faltered.

"Maybe I am. But if there's a better man anywheres about I'd like to meet
up with him an' have him show me. I ain't but forty-two, Pete, an' I can
whip my weight in wild cats."

The father's heart sank. He knew Houck. The man would get by hook or
crook what he wanted. He could even foretell what his next move would

"She's only a kid, Jake, not thinkin' none about gettin' married. In a
year or two, maybe--"

"I'm talkin' about now, Pete--this week."

Tolliver wriggled, like a trout on the hook. "What does she say? You
spoke of it to her?"

"Sure. She'll like it fine when she gets her mind used to it. I know how
to handle women, Pete. I'm mentionin' this to you because I want you to
use yore influence. See?"

Pete saw, too well. He moistened his lips with the tip of the tongue.
"Why, I don't reckon I could very well do that. A girl's got to make up
her own mind. She's too young to be figurin' on marryin'. Better give her

"No." Houck flung the word out like an oath. "Now. Right away."

The trapper's voice took on a plaintive note, almost a whine. "You was
sayin' yoreself, Jake, that she'd have to get used to it. Looks like it
wouldn't be good to rush--"

"She can get used to it after we're married."

"O' course I want to do what's right by my li'l' June. You do too for
that matter. We wouldn't either one of us do her a meanness."

"I'm going to marry her," Houck insisted harshly.

"When a girl loses her mother she's sure lost her best friend. It's up to
her paw to see she gets a square deal." There was a quaver of emotion in
Tolliver's voice. "I don't reckon he can make up to her--"

A sound came from Houck's throat like a snarl. "Are you tryin' to tell me
that Pete Tolliver's girl is too good for me? Is that where you're

"Now don't you get mad, Jake," the older man pleaded. "These here are
different times. I don't want my June mixed up with--with them Brown's
Park days an' all."

"Meanin' me?"

"You're twistin' my words, Jake," the father went on, an anxious desire
to propitiate frowning out of the wrinkled face. "I ain't sayin' a word
against you. I'm explainin' howcome I to feel like I do. Since I--bumped
into that accident in the Park--"

Houck's ill-natured laugh cut the sentence. It was a jangled dissonance
without mirth. "What accident?" he jeered.

"Why--when I got into the trouble--"

"You mean when Jas Stuart caught you rustlin' an' you murdered him an'
went to the pen. That what you mean?" he demanded loudly.

Tolliver caught his sleeve. "S-sh! She don't know a thing about it. You
recollect I told you that."

The other nodded, hard eyes gloating over the rancher's distress. "An' o'
course she don't know you broke jail at Canyon City an' are liable to be
dragged back if any one should happen to whisper to the sheriff."

"Not a thing about all that. I wouldn't holler it out thataway if I was
you, Jake," Tolliver suggested, glancing nervously toward the house.
"Maybe I ought to 'a' told her, but I never did. Her maw died of it, an'
I jes' couldn't make out to tell June. You see yoreself how it would be,
Pete. Her a li'l' trick with nobody but me. I ain't no great shakes, but
at that I'm all she's got. I figured that 'way off here, under another
name, they prob'ly never would find me."

"Pretty good guess, Pete Purdy."

"Don' call me that," begged Tolliver.

Houck showed his teeth in an evil grin. "I forgot. What I was sayin' was
that nobody knows you're here but me. Most folks have forgot all about
you. You can fix things so 's to be safe enough."

"You wouldn't give me away, Jake. You was in on the rustlin' too. We was
pals. It was jes' my bad luck I met up with Jas that day. I didn't begin
the shooting. You know that."

"I ain't likely to give away my own father-in-law, am I?"

Again the close-set, hard eyes clamped fast to the wavering ones of the
tortured outlaw. In them Tolliver read an ultimatum. Notice was being
served on him that there was only one way to seal Houck's lips.

That way he did not want to follow. Pete was a weak father, an
ineffective one, wholly unable to give expression to the feeling that at
times welled up in him. But June was all his life now held. He suffered
because of the loneliness their circumstances forced upon her. The best
was what he craved for her.

And Jake Houck was a long way from the best. He had followed rough and
evil trails all his life. As a boy, in his cowpuncher days, he had been
hard and callous. Time had not improved him.

June came to the door of the cabin and called.

"What is it, honey?" Tolliver asked.

"He's got my shoe. I want it."

Pete looked at the brogan sticking out of Jake's pocket. The big fellow
forestalled a question.

"I'll take it to her," he said.

Houck strode to the house.

"So it's yore shoe after all," he grinned.

"Give it here," June demanded.

"Say pretty please."

She flashed to anger. "You're the meanest man I ever did meet."

"An' you're the prettiest barelegged dancer on the Creek," he countered.

June stamped the one shoe she was wearing. "Are you going to give me that
brogan or not?"

"If you'll let me put it on for you."

Furious, she flung round and went back into the house.

He laughed delightedly, then tossed the heavy shoe into the room after
her. "Here's yore shoe, girl. I was only foolin'," he explained.

June snatched up the brogan, stooped, and fastened it.

Next: June Asks Questions

Previous: Pals

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