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Lost In A Blizzard








From: Rowdy Of The Cross L

"Rowdy" Vaughan--he had been christened Rowland by his mother, and
rechristened Rowdy by his cowboy friends, who are prone to treat with
much irreverence the names bestowed by mothers--was not happy. He stood
in the stirrups and shook off the thick layer of snow which clung, damp
and close-packed, to his coat. The dull yellow folds were full of it;
his gray hat, pulled low over his purple ears, was heaped with it. He
reached up a gloved hand and scraped away as much as he could, wrapped
the long-skirted, "sour-dough" coat around his numbed legs, then settled
into the saddle with a shiver of distaste at the plight he was in, and
wished himself back at the Horseshoe Bar.

Dixie, standing knee-deep in a drift, shook himself much after the
manner of his master; perhaps he, also, wished himself back at the
Horseshoe Bar. He turned his head to look back, blinking at the snow
which beat insistently in his eyes; he could not hold them open long
enough to see anything, however, so he twitched his ears pettishly and
gave over the attempt.

"It's up to you, old boy," Rowdy told him resignedly. "I'm plumb lost; I
never was in this damn country before, anyhow--and I sure wish I wasn't
here now. If you've any idea where we're at, I'm dead willing to have
you pilot the layout. Never mind Chub; locating his feed when it's stuck
under his nose is his limit."

Chub lifted an ear dispiritedly when his name was spoken; but, as was
usually the case, he heard no good of himself, and dropped his head
again. No one took heed of him; no one ever did. His part was to carry
Vaughan's bed, and to follow unquestionably where Vaughan and Dixie
might lead. He was cold and tired and hungry, but his faith in his
master was strong; the responsibility of finding shelter before the dark
came down rested not with him.

Vaughan pressed his chilled knees against Dixie's ribs, but the hand
upon the reins was carefully non-committal; so that Dixie, having no
suggestion of his master's wish, ventured to indulge his own. He turned
tail squarely to the storm and went straight ahead. Vaughan put his
hands deep into his pockets, snuggled farther down into the sheepskin
collar of his coat, and rode passive, enduring.

They brought up against a wire fence, and Vaughan, rousing from his
apathy, tried to peer through the white, shifting wall of the storm.
"You're a swell guide--not," he remarked to the horse. "Now you, you
hike down this fence till you locate a gate or a corner, or any darned
thing; and I don't give a cuss if the snow does get in your eyes. It's
your own fault."

Dixie, sneezing the snow from his nostrils, turned obediently; Chub,
his feet dragging wearily in the snow, trailed patiently behind. Half an
hour of this, and it seemed as if it would go on forever.

Through the swirl Vaughan could see the posts standing forlornly in
the snow, with sixteen feet of blizzard between; at no time could he
distinguish more than two or three at once, and there were long minutes
when the wall stood, blank and shifting, just beyond the first post.

Then Dixie lifted his head and gazed questioningly before him, his ears
pointed forward--sentient, strained--and whinnied shrill challenge.
He hurried his steps, dragging Chub out of the beginnings of a dream.
Vaughan straightened and took his hands from his pockets.

Out beyond the dim, wavering outline of the farthest post came answer
to the challenge. A mysterious, vague shape grew impalpably upon the
strained vision; a horse sneezed, then nickered eagerly. Vaughan drew up
and waited.

"Hello!" he called cheerfully. "Pleasant day, this. Out for your
health?"

The shape hesitated, as though taken aback by the greeting, and there
was no answer. Vaughan, puzzled, rode closer.

"Say, don't talk so fast!" he yelled. "I can't follow yuh."

"Who--who is it?" The voice sounded perturbed; and it was, moreover, the
voice of a woman.

Vaughan pulled up short and swore into his collar. Women are not, as a
rule, to be met out on the blank prairie in a blizzard. His voice, when
he spoke again, was not ironical, as it had been; it was placating.

"I beg your pardon," he said. "I thought it was a man. I'm looking for
the Cross L; you don't happen to know where it is, do yuh?"

"No--I don't," she declared dismally. "I don't know where any place is.
I'm teaching school in this neighborhood--or in some other. I was going
to spend Sunday with a friend, but this storm came up, and I'm--lost."

"Same here," said Rowdy pleasantly, as though being lost was a matter
for congratulation.

"Oh! I was in hopes--"

"So was I, so we're even there. We'll have to pool our chances, I guess.
Any gate down that way--or haven't you followed the fence?"

"I followed it for miles and miles--it seemed. It must be some big field
of the Cross L; but they have so very many big fields!"

"And you couldn't give a rough guess at how far it is to the Cross
L?"--insinuatingly.

He could vaguely see her shake of head. "Ordinarily it should be about
six miles beyond Rodway's, where I board. But I haven't the haziest idea
of where Rodway's place is, you see; so that won't help you much. I'm
all at sea in this snow." Her voice was rueful.

"Well, if you came up the fence, there's no use going back that way; and
there's sure nothing made by going away from it.--that's the way I came.
Why not go on the way you're headed?"

"We might as well, I suppose," she assented; and Rowdy turned and rode
by her side, grateful for the plurality of the pronoun which tacitly
included him in her wanderings, and meditating many things. For one, he
wondered if she were as nice a girl as her voice sounded. He could not
see much of her face, because it was muffled in a white silk scarf. Only
her eyes showed, and they were dark and bright.

When he awoke to the fact that the wind, grown colder, beat upon her
cruelly, he dropped behind a pace and took the windy side, that he might
shield her with his body. But if she observed the action she gave no
sign; her face was turned from him and the wind, and she rode without
speaking. After long plodding, the line of posts turned unexpectedly a
right angle, and Vaughan took a long, relieved breath.

"We'll have the wind on our backs now," he remarked. "I guess we may as
well keep on and see where this fence goes to."

His tone was too elaborately cheerful to be very cheering. He was
wondering if the girl was dressed warmly. It had been so warm and sunny
before the blizzard struck, but now the wind searched out the thin
places in one's clothing and ran lead in one's bones, where should be
simply marrow. He fancied that her voice, when she spoke, gave evidence
of actual suffering--and the heart of Rowdy Vaughan was ever soft toward
a woman.

"If you're cold," he began, "I'll open up my bed and get out a blanket."
He held Dixie in tentatively.

"Oh, don't trouble to do that," she protested; but there was that in her
voice which hardened his impulse into fixed resolution.

"I ought to have thought of it before," he lamented, and swung down
stiffly into the snow.

Her eyes followed his movement with a very evident interest while
he unbuckled the pack Chub had carried since sunrise and drew out a
blanket.

"Stand in your stirrup," he commanded briskly "and I'll wrap you up.
It's a Navajo, and the wind will have a time trying to find a thin
spot."

"You're thoughtful." She snuggled into it thankfully. "I was cold."

Vaughan tucked it around her with more care than haste. He was pretty
uncomfortable himself, and for that reason he was the more anxious
that the girl should be warm. It came to him that she was a cute little
schoolma'am, all right; he was glad she belonged close around the Cross
L. He also wished he knew her name--and so he set about finding it out,
with much guile.

"How's that?" he wanted to know, when he had made sure that her
feet--such tiny feet--were well covered. He thought it lucky that she
did not ride astride, after the manner of the latter-day young woman,
because then he could not have covered her so completely. "Hold on! That
windy side's going to make trouble." He unbuckled the strap he wore
to hold his own coat snug about him, and put it around the girl's slim
waist, feeling idiotically happy and guilty the while. "It don't come
within a mile of you," he complained; "but it'll help some."

Sheltered in the thick folds of the Navajo, she laughed, and the sound
of it sent the blood galloping through Rowdy Vaughan's body so that he
was almost warm. He went and scraped the snow out of his saddle, and
swung up, feeling that, after all, there are worse things in the
world than being lost and hungry in a blizzard, with a sweet-voiced,
bright-eyed little schoolma'am who can laugh like that.

"I don't want to have you think I may be a bold, bad robber-man," he
said, when they got going again. "My name's Rowdy Vaughan--for which I
beg your pardon. Mother named me Rowland, never knowing I'd get out here
and have her nice, pretty name mutilated that way. I won't say that my
behavior never suggested the change, though. I'm from the Horseshoe
Bar, over the line, and if I have my way, I'll be a Cross L man before
another day." Then he waited expectantly.

"For fear you may think I'm a--a robber-woman," she answered him
solemnly--he felt sure her eyes twinkled, if only he could have seen
them--"I'm Jessie Conroy. And if you're from over the line, maybe you
know my brother Harry. He was over there a year or two."

Rowdy hunched his shoulders--presumably at the wind. Harry Conroy's
sister, was she? And he swore. "I may have met him," he parried, in a
tone you'd never notice as being painstakingly careless. "I think I did,
come to think of it."

Miss Conroy seemed displeased, and presently the cause was forthcoming.
"If you'd ever met him," she said, "you'd hardly forget him."
(Rowdy mentally agreed profanely.) "He's the best rider in the whole
country--and the handsomest. He--he's splendid! And he's the only
brother I've got. It's a pity you never got acquainted with him."

"Yes," lied Rowdy, and thought a good deal in a very short time. Harry
Conroy's sister! Well, she wasn't to blame for that, of course; nor for
thinking her brother a white man. "I remember I did see him ride once,"
he observed. "He was a whirlwind, all right--and he sure was handsome,
too."

Miss Conroy turned her face toward him and smiled her pleasure, and
Rowdy hovered between heaven and--another place. He was glad she
smiled, and he was afraid of what that subject might discover for his
straightforward tongue in the way of pitfalls. It would not be nice to
let her know what he really thought of her brother.

"This looks to me like a lane," he said diplomatically. "We must be
getting somewhere; don't you recognize any landmarks?"

Miss Conroy leaned forward and peered through the clouds of snow dust.
Already the night was creeping down upon the land, stealthily turning
the blank white of the blizzard into as blank a gray--which was as near
darkness as it could get, because of the snow which fell and fell,
and yet seemed never to find an abiding-place, but danced and swirled
giddily in the wind as the cold froze it dry. There would be no more
damp, clinging masses that night; it was sifting down like flour from a
giant sieve; and of the supply there seemed no end.

"I don't know of any lanes around here," she began dubiously, "unless
it's--"

Vaughan looked sharply at her muffled figure and wondered why she
broke off so suddenly. She was staring hard at the few, faint traces of
landmarks; and, bundled in the red-and-yellow Navajo blanket, with her
bright, dark eyes, she might easily have passed for a slim young squaw.

Out ahead, a dog began barking vaguely, and Rowdy turned eagerly to
the sound. Dixie, scenting human habitation, stepped out more briskly
through the snow, and even Chub lifted an ear briefly to show he heard.

"It may not be any one you know," Vaughan remarked, and his voice showed
his longing; "but it'll be shelter and a warm fire--and supper. Can you
appreciate such blessings, Miss Conroy? I can. I've been in the saddle
since sunrise; and I was so sure I'd strike the Cross L by dinner-time
that I didn't bring a bite to eat. It was a sheep-camp where I stopped,
and the grub didn't look good to me, anyway--I've called myself bad
names all the afternoon for being more dainty than sensible. But it's
all right now, I guess."





Next: Miss Conroy Refuses Shelter

Previous: How Happiness Returned To The Lazy A



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