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Miss Conroy Refuses Shelter








From: Rowdy Of The Cross L

The storm lifted suddenly, as storms have a way of doing, and a low,
squat ranch-house stood dimly revealed against the bleak expanse of
wind-tortured prairie. Rowdy gave an exultant little whoop and made for
the gate, leaned and swung it open and rode through, dragging Chub after
him by main strength, as usual. When he turned to close the gate after
Miss Conroy he found her standing still in the lane.

"Come on in," he called, with a trace of impatience born of his
weariness and hunger.

"Thank you, no." Miss Conroy's voice was as crisply cold as the wind
which fluttered the Navajo blanket around her face. "I much prefer the
blizzard."


For a moment Rowdy found nothing to say; he just stared. Miss Conroy
shifted uneasily in the saddle.

"This is old Bill Brown's place," she explained reluctantly. "He--I'd
rather freeze than go in!"

"Well, I guess that won't be hard to do," he retorted curtly, "if you
stay out much longer."

The dog was growing hysterical over their presence, and Bill Brown
himself came out to see what it was all about. He could see two dim
figures at the gate.

"Hello!" he shouted. "Why don't yuh come on in? What yuh standing there
chewing the rag for?"

Vaughan hesitated, his eyes upon Miss Conroy.

"Go in," she commanded imperiously, quite as if he were a refractory
pupil. "You're tired out, and hungry. I'm neither. Besides, I know where
I am now. I can find my way without any trouble. Go in, I tell you!"

But Rowdy stayed where he was, with the gate creaking to and fro between
them. Dixie circled till his back was to the wind. "I hope you don't
think you're going to mill around out here alone," Rowdy said tartly.

"I can manage very well. I'm not lost now, I tell you. Rodway's is only
three miles from here, and I know the direction."

Bill Brown waded out to them, wondering what weighty discussion was
keeping them there in the cold. Vaughan he passed by with the cursory
glance of a disinterested stranger, and went on to where Miss Conroy
waited stubbornly in the lane.

"Oh, it's you!" he said grimly. "Well, come in and thaw out; I hope yuh
didn't think yuh wouldn't be welcome yuh knew better. You got lost, I
reckon. Come on--"

Miss Conroy struck Badger sharply across the flank and disappeared into
the night. "When I ask shelter of you," she flung back, "you'll know
it."

Rowdy started after, and met Bill Brown squarely in the gate. Bill eyed
him sharply. "Say, young fellow, how'd you come by that packhorse?" he
demanded, as Chub brushed past him.

"None of your damn' business," snapped Rowdy, and drove the spurs into
Dixie's ribs. But Chub was a handicap at any time; now, when he was
tired, there was no getting anything like speed out of him; he clung to
his shuffling trot, which was really no better than a walk. After
five minutes spent alternately in spurring Dixie and yanking at Chub's
lead-rope, Rowdy grew frightened and took to shouting. While they were
in the lane Miss Conroy must perforce ride straight ahead, but the lane
would not last always. As though with malicious intent, the snow swooped
down again and the world became an unreal, nightmare world, wherein was
nothing save shifting, blinding snowfloury and wind and bitter, numbing
cold.

Rowdy stood in his stirrups, cupped his chilled fingers around his
numbed lips, and sent a longdrawn "Who-ee!" shrilling weirdly into the
night.

It seemed to him, after long listening, that from the right came faint
reply, and he turned and rode recklessly, swearing at Chub for
his slowness. He called again, and the answer, though faint, was
unmistakable. He settled heavily into the saddle--too weak, from sheer
relief, to call again. He had not known till then just how frightened he
had been, and he was somewhat disconcerted at the discovery. In a minute
the reaction passed and he shouted a loud hello.

"Hello?" came the voice of Miss Conroy, tantalizingly calm, and as
superior as the greeting of Central. "Were you looking for me, Mr.
Vaughan?"

She was close to him--so close that she had not needed to raise her
voice perceptibly. Rowdy rode up alongside, remembering uncomfortably
his prolonged shouting.

"I sure was," he admitted. And then: "You rode off with my blanket on."
He was very proud of his matter-of-fact tone.

"Oh!" Miss Conroy was almost deceived, and a bit disappointed. "I'll
give it to you now, and you can go back--if you know the way."

"No hurry," said Rowdy politely. "I'll go on and see if you can find a
place that looks good to you. You seem pretty particular."

Miss Conroy may have blushed, in the shelter of the blanket. "I suppose
it did look strange to you," she confessed, but defiantly. "Bill Brown
is an enemy to--Harry. He--because he lost a horse or two out of a
field, one time, he--he actually accused Harry of taking them! He lied,
of course, and nobody believed him; nobody could believe a thing like
that about Harry. It was perfectly absurd. But he did his best to
hurt Harry's name, and I would rather freeze than ask shelter of him.
Wouldn't you--in my place, I mean?"

"I always stand up for my friends," evaded Rowdy. "And if I had a
brother--"

"Of course you'd be loyal," approved Miss Conroy warmly. "But I didn't
want you to come on; it isn't your quarrel. And I know the way now. You
needn't have come any farther."

"You forgot the blanket," Rowdy reminded wickedly. "I think a lot of
that Navajo."

"You insisted upon my taking it," she retorted, and took refuge in
silence.

For a long hour they plodded blindly. Rowdy beat his hands often about
his body to start the blood, and meditated yearnigly upon hot coffee
and the things he liked best to eat. Also, a good long pull at a
flask wouldn't be had, either, he thought. And he hoped this little
schoolma'am knew where she was going--truth to tell, he doubted it.

After a while, it seemed that Miss Conroy doubted it also. She took
to leaning forward and straining her eyes to see through the gray wall
before.

"There should be a gate here," she said dubiously, at last.

"It seems to me," Rowdy ventured mildly, "if there were a gate, it would
have some kind of a fence hitched to it; wouldn't it?"

Miss Conroy was in no mood for facetiousness, and refused to answer his
question. "I surely can't have made a mistake," she observed uneasily.

"It would be a wonder if you didn't, such a night as this," he consoled.
"I wouldn't bank on traveling straight myself, even if I knew the
country--which I don't. And I've been in more blizzards than I'm years
old."

"Rodway's place can't be far away," she said, brightening. "It may be
farther to the east; shall we try that way--if you know which is east?"

"Sure, we'll try. It's all we can do. My packhorse is about all in, from
the way he hangs back; if we don't strike something pretty soon I'll
have to turn him loose."

"Oh, don't do that," she begged. "It would be too cruel. We're sure to
reach Rodway's very soon."

More plodding through drifts high and drifts low; more leaning from
saddles to search anxiously for trace of something besides snow and wind
and biting cold. Then, far to the right, a yellow eye glowed briefly
when the storm paused to take breath. Miss Conroy gave a glad little cry
and turned Badger sharply.

"Did you see? It was the light from a window. We were going the wrong
way. I'm sure that is Rodway's."

Rowdy thanked the Lord and followed her. They came up against a fence,
found a gate, and passed through. While they hurried toward it, the
light winked welcome; as they drew near, some one stirred the fire and
sent sparks and rose-hued smoke rushing up into the smother of snow.
Rowdy watched them wistfully, and wondered if there would be supper, and
strong, hot coffee. He lifted Miss Conroy out of the saddle, carried
her two long strides, and deposited her upon the door-step; rapped
imperatively, and when a voice replied, lifted the latch and pushed her
in before him.

For a minute they stood blinking, just within the door. The change
from numbing cold and darkness to the light of the overheated room was
stupefying.

Then Miss Conroy went over and held her little, gloved hands to the
heat of the stove, but she did not take the chair which some one pushed
toward her. She stood, the blanket shrouding her face and her slim young
figure, and looked about her curiously. It was not Rodway's house, after
all. She thought she knew what place it was--the shack where Rodway's
hay-balers bached.

From the first, Rowdy did not like the look of things--though for
himself it did not matter; he was used to such scenes. It was the
presence of the girl which made him uncomfortable. He unbuttoned his
coat that the warmth might reach his chilled body, and frowned.

Four men sat around a small, dirty table; evidently the arrivals had
interrupted an exciting game of seven-up. A glance told Rowdy, even
if his nose had not, that the four round, ribbed bottles had not been
nearly emptied without effect.

"Have one on the house," the man nearest him cried, and shoved a bottle
toward him.

Involuntarily Rowdy reached for it. Now that he was inside, he realized
all at once how weary he was, and cold and hungry. Each abused muscle
and nerve seemed to have a distinct grievance against him. His fingers
closed around the bottle before he remembered and dropped it. He looked
up, hoping Miss Conroy had not observed the action; met her wide,
questioning eyes, and the blood flew guiltily to his cheeks.

"Thanks, boys--not any for me," he said, and apologized to Miss Conroy
with his eyes.

The man rose and confronted him unsteadily. "Dat's a hell off a way! You
too proud for drink weeth us? You drink, now! By Gar, I make you drink!"

Rowdy's eyelids drooped, which was a bad sign for those who knew him.
"You're forgetting there's a lady present," he reminded warningly.

The man turned a brief, contemptuous glance toward the stove. "You got
the damn' queer way to talk. I don't call no squaw no lady. You drink
queeck, now!"

"Aw, shut up, Frenchy," the man at his elbow abjured him. "He don't have
to drink if he don't want to."

"You keep the face close," the other retorted majestically; and cursed
loud and long and incoherently.

Rowdy drew back his arm, with a fist that meant trouble for somebody;
but there were others before him who pinned the importunate host to the
table, where he squirmed unavailingly.

Rowdy buttoned up his coat the while he eyed the group disgustedly. "I
guess we'll drift," he remarked. "You don't look good to me, and that's
no dream."

"Aw, stay and warm up," the fourth man expostulated. "Yuh don't need t'
mind Le Febre; he's drunk."

But Rowdy opened the door decisively, and Miss Conroy, her cheeks
like two storm-buffeted poppies, followed him out with dignity--albeit
trailing a yard of red-and-yellow Navajo blanket behind her. Rowdy
lifted her into the saddle, tucked her feet carefully under the blanket,
and said never a word.

"Mr. Vaughan," she began hesitatingly, "this is too bad; you need not
have left. I--I wasn't afraid."

"I know you weren't," conceded Rowdy. "But it was a hard formation--for
a woman. Are there any more places on this flat marked Unavailable?"

Miss Conroy replied misanthropically that if there were they would be
sure to find them.

They took up their weary wanderings again, while the yellow eye of the
window winked after them. They missed Rodway's by a scant hundred yards,
and didn't know it, because the side of the house next them had no
lighted windows. They traveled in a wide, half circle, and thought that
they were leaving a straight trail behind them. More than once Rowdy was
urged by his aching arm to drop the lead-rope and leave Chub to shift
by himself, but habit was strong and his heart was soft. Then he felt an
odd twitching at the lead-rope, as if Chub were minded to rebel against
their leadership. Rowdy yanked him into remembrance of his duty, and
wondered. Bill Brown's question came insistently to mind; he wondered
the more.

Two minutes and the lead-rope was sawing against the small of his back
again. Rowdy turned Dixie's head, and spoke for the first time in an
hour.

"My packhorse seems to have an idea about where he wants to go," he
said. "I guess we might as well follow him as anybody; he ain't often
taken with a rush of brains to the head. And we can't be any worse lost
than we are now, can we?"

Miss Conroy said no dispiritedly, and they swung about and followed
Chub's leadership apathetically. It took Chub just five minutes to
demonstrate that he knew what he was about. When he stopped, it was with
his nose against a corral gate; not content with that, he whinnied, and
a new, exultant note was in the sound. A deep-voiced dog bayed loudly,
and a shrill yelp cut in and clamored for recognition.

Miss Conroy gasped. "It's Lion and Skeesicks. We're at Rodway's, Mr.
Vaughan."

Rowdy, for the second time, thanked the Lord. But when he was stripping
the pack off Chub's back, ten minutes later, he was thinking many things
he would not have cared to say aloud. It might be all right, but it sure
was strange, he told himself, that Chub belonged here at Rodway's when
Harry Conroy claimed that he was an Oregon horse. Rowdy had thought his
account against Harry Conroy long enough, but it looked now as though
another item must be added to the list. He went in and ate his supper
thoughtfully, and when he got into bed he did not fall asleep within two
minutes, as he might be expected to do. His last conscious thought was
not of stolen horses, however. It was: "And she's Harry Conroy's sister!
Now, what do you think of that? But all the same, she's sure a nice
little schoolma'am."





Next: Rowdy Hires A New Boss

Previous: Lost In A Blizzard



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