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Pete's Girl








From: The Fighting Edge

She stood in the doorway, a patched and ragged Cinderella of the desert.
Upon her slim, ill-poised figure the descending sun slanted a shaft of
glory. It caught in a spotlight the cheap, dingy gown, the coarse
stockings through the holes of which white flesh peeped, the heavy,
broken brogans that disfigured the feet. It beat upon a small head with a
mass of black, wild-flying hair, on red lips curved with discontent, into
dark eyes passionate and resentful at what fate had made of her young
life. A silent, sullen lass, one might have guessed, and the judgment
would have been true as most first impressions.

The girl watched her father drive half a dozen dogies into the mountain
corral perched precariously on the hillside. Soon now it would be dusk.
She went back into the cabin and began to prepare supper.

In the rickety stove she made a fire of cottonwood. There was a
business-like efficiency in the way she peeled potatoes, prepared the
venison for the frying-pan, and mixed the biscuit dough.

June Tolliver and her father lived alone on Piceance[1] Creek. Their
nearest neighbor was a trapper on Eighteen-Mile Hill. From one month's
end to another she did not see a woman. The still repression in the
girl's face was due not wholly to loneliness. She lived on the edge of a

secret she intuitively felt was shameful. It colored her thoughts and
feelings, set her apart from the rest of the world. Her physical
reactions were dominated by it. Yet what this secret was she could only
guess at.

A knock sounded on the door.

June brushed back a rebellious lock of hair from her eyes with the wrist
above a flour-whitened hand. "Come in."

A big dark man stood on the threshold. His glance swept the girl,
searched the room, and came back to her.

"Pete Tolliver live here?"

"Yes. He's lookin' after the stock. Be in soon, likely."

The man closed the door. June dragged a chair from a corner and returned
to her cooking.

From his seat the man watched her. His regard was disturbing. It had a
quality of insistence. His eyes were cold yet devouring. They were
possessive, not clear but opaque. They did not look at her as other eyes
did. She felt the blood burning in her cheeks.

Presently, as she passed from the table to the stove to look at the
sputtering venison, she flashed a resentful glance at him. It did not
touch his effrontery.

"You Pete's girl?" he asked.

"Yes."

"You've grown. Knew you when you was learnin' to crawl."

"In Brown's Park?" The words were out before she could stop them.

"You done said it." He smiled, not pleasantly, she thought. "I'm a real
old friend of yore father."

Curiosity touched with apprehension began to stir in her. For those early
years she had only memory to rely upon. Tolliver never referred to them.
On that subject the barriers were up between the two. Fugitive flashes of
that first home came back to June. She remembered a sweet, dark-eyed
woman nuzzling her little body with kisses after the bath, an hour when
that mother wept as though her heart would break and she had put little
baby arms in tight embrace round her neck by way of comfort. That dear
woman was not in any of the later pictures. A pile of stones on a
hillside in Brown's Park marked the grave.

Between the day of 'Lindy Tolliver's outburst of grief and the child's
next recollection was a gap. The setting of the succeeding memories was a
frame house on a dusty road at the edge of a frontier town. In front of
it jolted big freight wagons, three of them fastened together and drawn
by a double row of oxen so long she could not count them. The place was
Rawlins, Wyoming, and it was an outfitting point for a back country in
Colorado hundreds of miles from the railroad. The chief figure in June's
horizon was a stern-eyed, angular aunt who took the place of both father
and mother and did her duty implacably. The two lived together forever,
it seemed to the child.

June wakened one night from the light of a lamp in her aunt's hand. A man
was standing beside her. He was gaunt and pallid, in his eyes a look of
hunger that reminded her of a hunted coyote. When he took her tightly in
his arms she began to cry. He had murmured, "My li'l' baby, don't you be
scared of yore paw." As mysteriously as he had come to life, so Pete
Tolliver disappeared again.

Afterward there was a journey with a freight outfit which lasted days and
days. June was in charge of a bullwhacker. All she remembered about him
was that he had been kind to her and had expended a crackling vocabulary
on his oxen. The end of the trek brought her to Piceance Creek and a
father now heavily bearded and with long, unkempt hair. They had lived
here ever since.

Did this big man by the window belong to her father's covered past? Was
there menace in his coming? Vaguely June felt that there was.

The door opened and Tolliver stepped in. He was rather under middle-size,
dressed in down-at-the-heel boots, butternut jeans, cotton shirt, and
dusty, ragged slouch hat. The grizzled beard hid the weak mouth, but the
skim-milk eyes, the expression of the small-featured face, betrayed the
man's lack of force. You may meet ten thousand like him west of the
Mississippi. He lives in every village, up every creek, in every valley,
and always he is the cat's-paw of stronger men who use him for good or
ill to serve their ends.

The nester stopped in his tracks. It was impossible for June to miss the
dismay that found outlet in the fallen jaw and startled eyes.

In the stranger's grin was triumphant malice. "You sure look glad to see
me, Pete, and us such old friends too. Le's see, I ain't seen you
since--since--" He stopped, as though his memory were at fault, but June
sensed the hint of a threat in the uncompleted sentence.

Reluctantly Tolliver took the offered hand. His consternation seemed to
have stricken him dumb.

"Ain't you going to introduce yore old pal to the girl?" the big man
asked.

Not willingly, the rancher found the necessary words. "June, meet Mr.
Houck."

June was putting the biscuits in the oven. She nodded an acknowledgment
of the introduction. Back of the resentful eyes the girl's brain was
busy.

"Old side pardners, ain't we, Pete?" Houck was jeering at him almost
openly.

The older man mumbled what might be taken for an assent.

"Branded a heap of cattle, you 'n' me. Eh, Pete?" The stranger settled
deeper in the chair. "Jake Houck an' you could talk over old times all
night. We was frolicsome colts."

Tolliver felt his hand forced. "Put off yore hat and wash up, Jake.
You'll stay to-night, o' course."

"Don't mind if I do. I'm headed for Glenwood. Reckon I'd better put the
horse up first."

The two men left the cabin. When they returned half an hour later, the
supper was on the table. June sat on the side nearest the stove and
supplied the needs of the men. Coffee, hot biscuits, more venison, a
second dish of gravy: no trained waiter could have anticipated their
wants any better. If she was a bit sulky, she had reason for it. Houck's
gaze followed her like a searchlight. It noted the dark good looks of her
tousled head, the slimness of the figure which moved so awkwardly, a
certain flash of spirit in the undisciplined young face.

"How old's yore girl?" the man asked his host.

Tolliver hesitated, trying to remember. "How old are you, June?"

"Going on sixteen," she answered, eyes smouldering angrily.

This man's cool, impudent appraisal of her was hateful, she felt.

He laughed at her manner, easily, insolently, for he was of the type that
finds pleasure in the umbrage of women annoyed by his effrontery. Of the
three the guest was the only one quite at his ease. Tolliver's
ingratiating jokes and the heartiness of his voice rang false. He was
troubled, uncertain how to face the situation that had arisen.

His daughter reflected this constraint. Why did her father fear this big
dominating fellow? What was the relation between them? Why did his very
presence bring with it a message of alarm?

She left them before the stove as soon as the dishes were washed,
retiring to the bedroom at the other end of the log cabin. Far into the
night she heard them talking, in low voices that made an indistinct
murmur. To the sound of them she fell asleep.

-----

[1] Pronounced Pee-ance.





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