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June Asks Questions

From: The Fighting Edge

Houck, an unwelcome guest, stayed at the cabin on Piceance nearly two
weeks. His wooing was surely one of the strangest known. He fleered at
June, taunted her, rode over the girl's pride and sense of decorum, beat
down the defenses she set up, and filled her bosom with apprehension. It
was impossible to score an advantage over his stolid strength and
pachydermous insensibility.

The trapper sweated blood. He neither liked nor trusted his guest, but he
was bound hand and foot. He must sit and watch the fellow moving to his
end, see the gains he made day by day, and offer no effective protest.
For Houck at a word could send him back to the penitentiary and leave
June alone in a world to which her life had been alien.

Pete knew that the cowman was winning the campaign. His assumption that
he was an accepted suitor of June began to find its basis of fact. The
truth could be read in the child's hunted eyes. She was still fighting,
but the battle was a losing one.

Perhaps this was the best way out of a bad situation, Tolliver found
himself thinking. In his rough way Houck was fond of June. A blind man
could see that. Even though he was a wolf, there were moments when his
eyes were tender for her. He would provide well for a wife. If his little
Cinderella could bring herself to like the man, there was always a chance
that love would follow. Jake always had the knack of fascinating women.
He could be very attractive when he wished.

On a happy morning not long since June had sung of her wings. She was a
meadow-lark swooping over the hills to freedom, her throat throbbing with
songs of joy. Sometimes Pete, too, thought of her as a bird, but through
many hours of anguished brooding he had come to know she was a fledgling
with broken wings. The penalty for the father's sins had fallen upon the
child. All her life she must be hampered by the environment his
wrongdoing had built up around them.

Since the beginning of the world masterful men have drawn to them the
eyes and thoughts of women. June was no exception. Among the hours when
she hated Houck were increasing moments during which a naive wonder and
admiration filled her mind. She was primitive, elemental. A little tingle
of delight thrilled her to know that this strong man wanted her and would
fight to win what his heart craved. After all he was her first lover. A
queer shame distressed the girl at the memory of his kisses, for through
all the anger, chagrin, and wounded pride had come to her the first
direct realization of what sex meant. Her alarmed innocence pushed this
from her.

Without scruple Houck used all the weapons at hand. There came a day when
he skirted the edges of the secret.

"What do you mean?" she demanded. "What is it you claim to know about Dad
all so big?"

He could see that June's eyes were not so bold as the words. They winced
from his even as she put the question.

"Ask him."

"What'll I ask? I wouldn't believe anything you told me about him. He's
not like you. He's good."

"You don't have to believe me. Ask him if he ever knew any one called
Pete Purdy. Ask him who Jasper Stuart was. An' where he lived whilst you
was stayin' with yore aunt at Rawlins."

"I ain't afraid to," she retorted. "I'll do it right now."

Houck was sprawled on a bench in front of the cabin. He grinned
impudently. His manner was an exasperating challenge. Evidently he did
not believe she would.

June turned and walked to the stable. The heavy brogans weighted down the
lightness of her step. The shapeless clothes concealed the grace of the
slim figure. But even so there was a vital energy in the way she moved.

Tolliver was mending the broken teeth of a hay-rake and making a poor job
of it.

June made a direct frontal attack. "Dad, did you ever know a man named
Pete Purdy?"

The rancher's lank, unshaven jaw fell. The blow had fallen at last. In a
way he had expected it. Yet his mind was too stunned to find any road of

"Why, yes--yes, I--yes, honey," he faltered.

"Who was he?"

"Well, he was a--a cowpuncher, I reckon."

"Who was Jasper Stuart, then?"

An explanation could no longer be dodged or avoided. Houck had talked too
much. Tolliver knew he must make a clean breast of it, and that his own
daughter would sit in judgment on him. Yet he hung back. The years of
furtive silence still held him.

"He was a fellow lived in Brown's Park."

"What had you to do with him? Why did Jake Houck tell me to ask you about

"Oh, I reckon--"

"And about where you lived while I was with Aunt Molly at Rawlins?" she
rushed on.

The poor fellow moistened his dry lips. "I--I'll tell you the whole
story, honey. Mebbe I'd ought to 'a' told you long ago. But someways--"
He stopped, trying for a fresh start. "You'll despise yore old daddy. You
sure will. Well, you got a right to. I been a mighty bad father to you,
June. Tha's a fact."

She waited, dread-filled eyes on his.

"Prob'ly I'd better start at the beginnin', don't you reckon? I never did
have any people to brag about. Father and mother died while I was a li'l'
grasshopper. I was kinda farmed around, as you might say. Then I come
West an' got to punchin' cows. Seems like, I got into a bad crowd. They
was wild, an' they rustled more or less. In them days there was a good
many sleepers an' mavericks on the range. I expect we used a running-iron
right smart when we wasn't sure whose calf it was."

He was trying to put the best face on the story. June could see that, and
her heart hardened toward him. She ignored the hungry appeal for mercy in
his eyes.

"You mean you stole cattle. Is that it?" She was willing to hurt herself
if she could give him pain. Had he not ruined her life?

"Well, I--I--Yes, I reckon that's it. Our crowd picked up calves that
belonged to the big outfits like the Diamond Slash. We drove 'em up to
Brown's Park, an' later acrost the line to Wyoming or Utah."

"Was Jake Houck one of your crowd?"

Pete hesitated.

She cut in, with a flare of childish ferocity. "I'm gonna know the truth.
He's not protecting you any."

"Yes. Jake was one of us. I met up with him right soon after I come to

"And Purdy?"

"Tha's the name I was passin' under. I'd worked back in Missouri for a
fellow of that name. They got to callin' me Pete Purdy, so I kinda let it
go. My father's name was Tolliver, though. I took it--after the

"What trouble?"

"It come after I was married. I met yore maw at Rawlins. She was workin'
at the railroad restaurant waitin' on table. For a coupla years we lived
there, an' I wish to God we'd never left. But Jake persuaded 'Lindy I'd
ought to take up land, so we moved back to the Park an' I preempted.
Everything was all right at first. You was born, an' we was right happy.
But Jake kep' a-pesterin' me to go in with him an' do some cattle runnin'
on the quiet. There was money in it--pretty good money--an' yore maw was
sick an' needed to go to Denver. Jake, he advanced the money, an' o'
course I had to work in with him to pay it back. I was sorta driven to
it, looks like."

He stopped to mop a perspiring face with a bandanna. Tolliver was not
enjoying himself.

"You haven't told me yet what the trouble was," June said.

"Well, this fellow Jas Stuart was a stock detective. He come down for the
Cattlemen's Association to find out who was doing the rustlin' in Brown's
Park. You see, the Park was a kind of a place where we holed up. There
was timbered gulches in there where we could drift cattle in an' hide
'em. Then there was the Hole-in-the-Wall. I expect you've heard of that

"Did this Stuart find out who was doing the rustlin'?"

"He was right smart an' overbearin'. Too much so for his own good. Some
of the boys served notice on him he was liable to get dry-gulched if he
didn't take the trail back where he come from. But Jas was right
obstinate an' he had sand in his craw. I'll say that for him. Well, one
day he got word of a drive we was makin'. Him an' his deputies laid in
wait for us. There was shooting an' my horse got killed. The others
escaped, but they nailed me. In the rookus Stuart had got killed. They
laid it on me. Mebbe I did it. I was shooting like the rest. Anyhow, I
was convicted an' got twenty years in the pen."

"Twenty years," June echoed.

"Three--four years later there was a jail break. I got into the hills an'
made my getaway. Travelin' by night, I reached Rawlins. From there I came
down here with a freight outfit, an' I been here ever since."

He stopped. His story was ended. June looked at the slouchy little man
with the weak mouth and the skim-milk, lost-dog eyes. He was so palpably
wretched, so plainly the victim rather than the builder of his own
misfortunes, that her generous heart went out warmly to him.

With a little rush she had him in her arms. They wept together, his head
held tight against her immature bosom. It was the first time she had ever
known him to break down, and she mothered him as women have from the
beginning of time.

"You poor Daddy. Don't I know how it was? That Jake Houck was to blame.
He led you into it an' left you to bear the blame," she crooned.

"It ain't me. It's you I'm thinkin' of, honey. I done ruined yore life,
looks like. I shut you off from meeting decent folks like other girls do.
You ain't had no show."

"Don't you worry about me, Dad. I'll be all right. What we've got to
think about is not to let it get out who you are. If it wasn't for that
big bully up at the house--"

She stopped, hopelessly unable to cope with the situation. Whenever she
thought of Houck her mind came to an impasse. Every road of escape it
traveled was blocked by his jeering face, with the jutting jaw set in
implacable resolution.

"It don't look like Jake would throw me down thataway," he bewailed. "I
never done him a meanness. I kep' my mouth shut when they got me an'
wouldn't tell who was in with me. Tha's one reason they soaked me with so
long a sentence. They was after Jake. They kep' at me to turn state's
evidence an' get a short term. But o' course I couldn't do that."

"'Course not. An' now he turns on you like a coyote--after you stood by
him." A surge of indignation boiled up in her. "He's the very worst man
ever I knew--an' if he tries to do you any harm I'll--I'll settle with

Her father shook his unkempt head. "No, honey. I been learnin' for twelve
years that a man can't do wrong for to get out of a hole he's in. If
Jake's mean enough to give me up, why, I reckon I'll have to stand the

"No," denied June, a spark of flaming resolution in her shining eyes.

Next: Don't You Touch Him!

Previous: Clipped Wings

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