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June Prays








From: The Fighting Edge

When June turned away from her husband of an hour she abandoned hope. She
had been like a child lost in the forest. A gleam of light from a window
had cheered her for a moment, but it had flickered out and left her in
the darkness.

In one sense June was innocent as an infant. She knew nothing of feminine
blandishments, of the coquetry which has become so effective a weapon in
the hands of modern woman when she is not hampered by scruples. But she
had lived too close to nature not to be aware of carnal appetite.

It is a characteristic of frontier life that one learns to face facts.
June looked at them now, clear-eyed, despair in her heart. As she walked
beside Jake to the corral, as she waited for him to hitch up the broncos,
as she rode beside him silently through the gathering night, the girl's
mind dwelt on that future which was closing in on her like prison walls.

Not for an instant did she deceive herself. Houck did not mean to take
her to Tolliver. She knew that his conscience would acquit him of blame
for what he meant to do. He had given her a chance to marry him, and she
had made it impossible. That was not his fault. He would take her to
Brown's Park with him when he returned. Probably they were on the way
there now.

After the plunging broncos had steadied down, Jake spoke. "You're well
shet of him. He's no good, like he said himself. A man's got to have
guts. You'd 'a' had to wear the breeches, June." The long whip curved out
inexorably. "Git over there, Buckskin."

Houck drove like a master. After one wild bolt the dancing ponies had
sensed that a strong hand was at the reins. They accepted the fact
placidly. June watched his handling of the lines sullenly, a dull
resentment and horror in her heart. He would subdue her as easily as he
had the half-broken colts, sometimes bullying, sometimes mocking,
sometimes making love to her with barbaric ardor. There were times when
his strength and ruthlessness had fascinated June, but just now she felt
only horror weighted by a dull, dead despair.

No use to fight longer. In a world filled with Jake Houck there was no
free will. She was helpless as a wolf in a trap.

They drove through a country of sagebrush hills. The moon came out and
carpeted the slopes with silver lace. Deep within June was a born love of
beauty as it found expression in this land of the Rockies. But to-night
she did not taste the scent of the sage or see the veil of mist that had
transformed the draws magically to fairy dells.

"Where you goin'?" she asked at last. "You said you'd take me to Dad."

He laughed, slipped a strong arm round her shoulders, and drew her
closer. "Found yore tongue at last, June girl, eh? We're going home--to
my place up in Brown's Park."

She made a perfunctory protest. It was, she knew, quite useless, and her
heart was not in it. No words she used, no appeal she could make, would
touch this man or change his intentions.

"You got no right to take me there. I'm not yore slave. I want to go to
Dad."

"Tha's right," he mocked. "I'm yore slave, June. What's the use of
fighting? I'm so set on you that one way or another I'm bound to have
you."

She bit her lip, to keep from weeping. In the silvery night, alone with
him, miles from any other human being, she felt woefully helpless and
forlorn. The years slipped away. She was a little child, and her heart
was wailing for the mother whose body lay on the hillside near the
deserted cabin in Brown's Park. What could she do? How could she save
herself from the evil shadow that would blot the sunshine from her life?

Somewhere, in that night of stars and scudding clouds, was God, she
thought. He could save her if He would. But would He? Miracles did not
happen nowadays. And why would He bother about her? She was such a trifle
in the great scheme of things, only a poor ragged girl from the back
country, the daughter of a convict, poor hill trash, as she had once
heard a woman at Glenwood whisper. She was not of any account.

Yet prayers welled out in soundless sobs from a panic-stricken heart. "O
God, I'm only a li'l' girl, an' I growed up without a mother. I'm right
mean an' sulky, but if you'll save me this time from Jake Houck, I'll
make out to say my prayers regular an' get religion first chance comes
along," she explained and promised, her small white face lifted to the
vault where the God she knew about lived.

Drifts floated across the sky blown by currents from the northwest. They
came in billows, one on top of another, till they had obscured most of
the stars. The moon went into eclipse, reappeared, vanished behind the
storm scud, and showed again.

The climate of the Rockies, year in, year out, is the most stimulating on
earth. Its summer breezes fill the lungs with wine. Its autumns are
incomparable, a golden glow in which valley and hill bask lazily. Its
winters are warm with sunshine and cold with the crisp crackle of frost.
Its springs--they might be worse. Any Coloradoan will admit the climate
is superlative. But there is one slight rift in the lute, hardly to be
mentioned as a discord in the universal harmony. Sudden weather changes
do occur. A shining summer sun vanishes and in a twinkling of an eye the
wind is whistling snell.

Now one of these swept over the Rio Blanco Valley. The clouds thickened,
the air grew chill. The thermometer was falling fast.

Houck swung the team up from the valley road to the mesa. Along this they
traveled, close to the sage-covered foothills. At a point where a draw
dipped down to the road, Houck pulled up and dismounted. A gate made of
three strands of barbed wire and two poles barred the wagon trail. For
already the nester was fencing the open range.

As Houck moved forward to the gate the moon disappeared back of the
banked clouds. June's eye swept the landscape and brightened. The sage
and the brush were very thick here. A grove of close-packed quaking asps
filled the draw. She glanced at Jake. He was busy wrestling with the loop
of wire that fastened the gate.

God helps those that help themselves, June remembered. She put down the
lines Houck had handed her, stepped softly from the buckboard, and
slipped into the quaking asps.

A moment later she heard Jake's startled oath. It was certain that he
would plunge into the thicket of saplings in pursuit. She crept to one
side of the draw and crouched low.

He did not at once dive in. From where she lay hidden, June could hear
the sound of his footsteps as he moved to and fro.

"Don't you try to make a fool of Jake Houck, girl," he called to her
angrily. "I ain't standin' for any nonsense now. We got to be movin'
right along. Come outa there."

Her heart was thumping so that she was afraid he might hear it. She held
herself tense, not daring to move a finger lest she make a rustling of
leaves.

"Hear me, June! Git a move on you. If you don't--" He broke off, with
another oath. "I'll mark yore back for you sure enough with my whip when
I find you."

She heard him crashing into the thicket. He passed her not ten feet away,
so close that she made out the vague lines of his big body. A few paces
farther he stopped.

"I see you, girl. You ain't foolin' me any. Tell you what I'll do. You
come right along back to the buckboard an' I'll let you off the lickin'
this time."

She trembled, violently. It seemed that he did see her, for he moved a
step or two in her direction. Then he stopped, to curse, and the rage
that leaped into the heavy voice betrayed the bluff.

Evidently he made up his mind that she was higher up the draw. He went
thrashing up the arroyo, ploughing through the young aspens with a great
crackle of breaking branches.

June took advantage of this to creep up the side of the draw and out of
the grove. The sage offered poorer cover in which to hide, but her
knowledge of Houck told her that he would not readily give up the idea
that she was in the asps. He was a one-idea man, obstinate even to
pigheadedness. So long as there was a chance she might be in the grove he
would not stop searching there. He would reason that the draw was so
close to the buckboard she must have slipped into it. Once there, she
would stay because in it she could lie concealed.

Her knowledge of the habits of wild animals served June well now. The
first instinct was to get back to the road and run down it at full speed,
taking to the brush only when she heard the pursuit. But this would not
do. The sage here was much heavier and thicker than it was nearer Bear
Cat. She would find a place to hide in it till he left to drive back and
cut her off from town. There was one wild moment when she thought of
slipping down to the buckboard and trying to escape in it. June gave this
up because she would have to back it along the narrow road for fifteen or
twenty yards before she could find a place to turn.

On hands and knees she wound deeper into the sage, always moving toward
the rim-rock at the top of the hill. She was still perilously close to
Houck. His muffled oaths, the thrashing of the bushes, the threats and
promises he stopped occasionally to make; all of these came clear to her
in spite of the whistling wind.

It had come on to rain mistily. June was glad of that. She would have
welcomed a heavy downpour out of a black night. The rim-rock was close
above. She edged along it till she came to a scar where the sandstone had
broken off and scorched a path down the slope. Into the hollow formed by
two boulders resting against each other she crawled.

For hours she heard Jake moving about, first among the aspens and later
on the sage hill. The savage oaths that reached her now and again were
evidence enough that the fellow was in a vile temper. If he should find
her now, she felt sure he would carry out his vow as to the horsewhip.

The night was cold. June shivered where she lay close to the ground. The
rain beat in uncomfortably. But she did not move till Houck drove away.

Even then she descended to the road cautiously. He might have laid a trap
for her by returning on foot in the darkness. But she had to take a
chance. What she meant to do was clear in her mind. It would require all
her wits and strength to get safely back to town.

She plodded along the road for perhaps a mile, then swung down from the
mesa to the river. The ford where Jake had driven across was farther
down, but she could not risk the crossing. Very likely he was lying in
wait there.

June took off her brogans and tied them round her neck. She would have
undressed, but she was afraid of losing the clothes while in the stream.

It was dark. She did not know the river, how deep it was or how strong
the current. As she waded slowly in, her courage began to fail. She might
never reach the other shore. The black night and the rain made it seem
very far away.

She stopped, thigh deep, to breathe another prayer to the far-away God of
her imagination, who sat on a throne in the skies, an arbitrary emperor
of the universe. He had helped her once to-night. Maybe He would again.

"O God, don't please lemme drown," she said aloud, in order to be quite
sure her petition would be heard.

Deeper into the current she moved. The water reached her waist. Presently
its sweep lifted her from the bottom. She threw herself forward and began
to swim. It did not seem to her that she was making any headway. The
heavy skirts dragged down her feet and obstructed free movement of them.
Not an expert swimmer, she was soon weary. Weights pulled at the arms as
they swept back the water in the breast-stroke. It flashed through her
mind that she could not last much longer. Almost at the same instant she
discovered the bank. Her feet touched bottom. She shuffled heavily
through the shallows and sank down on the shore completely exhausted.

Later, it was in June's mind that she must have been unconscious. When
she took note of her surroundings she was lying on a dry pebbly wash
which the stream probably covered in high water. Snowflakes fell on her
cheek and melted there. She rose, stiff and shivering. In crossing the
river the brogans had washed from her neck. She moved forward in her
stocking feet. For a time she followed the Rio Blanco, then struck
abruptly to the right through the sagebrush and made a wide circuit.

It was definitely snowing now and the air was colder. June's feet were
bleeding, though she picked a way in the grama-grass and the tumbleweed
to save them as much as possible. Once she stepped into a badger hole
covered with long buffalo grass and strained a tendon.

She had plenty of pluck. The hardships of the frontier had instilled into
her endurance. Though she had pitied herself when she was riding beside
Jake Houck to moral disaster, she did not waste any now because she was
limping painfully through the snow with the clothes freezing on her body.
She had learned to stand the gaff, in the phrase of the old bullwhacker
who had brought her down from Rawlins. It was a part of her code that
physical pain and discomfort must be trodden under foot and disregarded.

A long detour brought her back to the river. She plodded on through the
storm, her leg paining at every step. She was chilled to the marrow and
very tired. But she clamped her small strong teeth and kept going.

The temptation to give up and lie down assailed her. She fought against
it, shuffling forward, stumbling as her dragging feet caught in the snow.
She must be near Bear Cat now. Surely it could not be far away. If it was
not very close, she knew she was beaten.

After what seemed an eternity of travel a light gleamed through the snow.
She saw another--a third.

She zigzagged down the road like a drunkard.





Next: Mollie Takes Charge

Previous: In The Image Of God



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