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Shadows








From: 'drag' Harlan

A desire to ride once more in the peaceful sunshine of the land she loved
was one of the first indications that Barbara was recovering from the
shock occasioned by her father's death. For two or three days she had not
stirred from her room, except to go downstairs to cook her meals. She had
spent much of her time sitting at a window nursing her sorrow.

But on this morning she got out of bed feeling more composed than usual,
with several new emotions struggling for the mastery. One of those
emotions was that of intolerance.

Harlan's assumption of authority enraged her. He had come to the Rancho
Seco with no credentials other than his mere word that her father had
forced him to promise to "take hold" of "things." And she intended, this
very morning, to send Harlan away, and to assume control of the ranch
herself.

This determination held until after she had breakfasted, and then she
stood for a long time in the kitchen door, looking out into the brilliant
sunshine, afflicted with a strange indecision.

Harlan had helped to fill the void created by her father's death--that
was certain. There had been something satisfying in his presence at the
ranch; it had seemed to mean an assurance for her safety; she had felt
almost as fully protected as when her father had been with her. It
angered her to see him moving about the place as though he had a perfect
right to be there, but at the same time she felt comfortably certain that
as long as he was around no harm could come to her.

Her emotions were so contradictory that she could not reach a decision
regarding the action she should take and she bit her lips with vexation
as she stood in the doorway.

Later, her cheeks a little flushed with the realization that she was
surrendering to an emotion that she could not understand--but which, she
decided guiltily, her face crimson, had its inception in a conviction
that she would regret seeing Harlan ride away, to return no more--she
went to the corral, roped her pony, threw saddle and bridle on it,
mounted the animal, and rode away--westward.

She had not traveled more than half a mile when she heard the rapid
beating of hoofs behind her. Glancing swiftly backward, she saw Purgatory
coming, Harlan in the saddle, smoking a cigarette.

Her pulses leaped, unaccountably, and the crimson flush again stained her
cheeks; but she sat rigid in the saddle, and looked straight ahead,
pretending she had not discovered the presence of horse and rider behind
her.

She rode another half mile before the flush died out of her cheeks. And
then, responding to a swift indignation, she brought Billy to a halt,
wheeled him, and sat motionless in the saddle, her face pale, her eyes
flashing.

With apparent unconcern Harlan rode toward her. The big black horse did
not change his pace, nor did Harlan change expression. It seemed to the
girl that in both horse and rider were a steadfastness of purpose that
nothing could change. And despite her indignation, she felt a thrill of
admiration for both man and horse.

Yet her eyes were still flashing ominously when Harlan rode to within a
dozen paces of her and brought the big black to a halt.

There was an expression of grave respect on Harlan's face; but she saw a
lurking devil in his eyes--a gleam of steady, quizzical humor--that made
her yearn to use her quirt on him. For by that gleam she knew he had
purposely followed her; that he expected her to be angry with him for
doing so. And the gleam also told her that he had determined to bear with
her anger.

"Well?" she inquired, icily.

"Good mornin', ma'am." He bowed to her, sweeping his broad-brimmed hat
from his head with, it seemed to her, an ironical flourish.

"Is there something you want to speak to me about?" she asked, her chin
elevated, disdain in her eyes. She assured herself that when he glanced
at her as he was doing at this instant, she positively hated him. She
wondered why she had tolerated his presence.

"I wasn't havin' any thoughts about speakin' to you, ma'am. Kind of a
nice mornin' for a ride, ain't it?"

"If one rides alone," she returned, significantly.

"I enjoy ridin' a whole lot better when I've got company," he stated,
gravely, with equal significance.

"Meaning that you have made up your mind to ride with me, I suppose?" she
said coldly.

"You've hit it, ma'am."

"Well," she declared, her voice quivering with passion; "I don't want you
to ride with me. You came here and usurped whatever power and authority
there is; and you are running the Rancho Seco as though it belongs to
you. But you shan't ride with me--I don't want you to!"

Had she been standing she must have stamped one foot on the ground, so
vehement was her manner. And the flashing scorn of her eyes should have
been enough to discourage most men.

But not Harlan. His eyelids flickered with some emotion; and his
eyes--she noted now, even though she could have killed him for his
maddening insistence--were blue, and rimmed by heavy lashes that sun and
sand had bleached until the natural brown of them threatened to become a
light tan.

She studied him, even while hating him for she saw the force of him--felt
it. And though she was thinking spiteful things of him, she found that
she was forming a new impression of him--of his character, his
appearance, and of the motives that controlled him.

And she thought she knew why men avoided having trouble with him. She
told herself that if she were a man and she were facing him with violence
in her heart, she would consider seriously before she betrayed it to him.
For in his eyes, in the lips, in the thrust of his chin--even in the
atmosphere that surrounded him at this instant, was a threat, an unspoken
promise, lingering and dormant, of complete readiness--almost eagerness,
she was convinced--for violence.

She drew a sharp breath as she watched him. And when she saw his lips
curving into a slight smile--wholesome, though grave; with a hint of
boyish amusement in them--she got another quick impression of his
character, new and startling and illuminating.

For behind the hard, unyielding exterior that he presented to men; back
of the promise and the threat of violence, was the impulsiveness and the
gentleness that would have ruled him had not the stern necessity of
self-preservation forced him to conceal them.

The smile disarmed her. It did seem ludicrous--that she should try to
force this man to do anything he did not want to do. And she had known
that he would not obey her, and ride back to the ranchhouse; she was
convinced that she must either go back or suffer him to follow her as he
pleased.

And she was determined not to give up her ride. She was determined to be
very haughty about it, though; but when she wheeled Billy, to head him
again into the western distance, her eyes twinkled her surrender, and her
lips trembled on the verge of a defiant smile.

Then Billy felt the quirt on his flank; he snorted with astonishment and
disgust, and charged forward, tossing his head intolerantly.

Looking sidelong, after Billy had traveled two or three hundred yards,
Barbara observed that the big black horse was not more than half a dozen
steps behind. And curiously, Barbara again experienced that comfortable
assurance of protection, and of satisfaction over the nearness of Harlan.

Moved by an entirely unaccountable impulse, she drew the reins slightly
on Billy, slowing him, almost imperceptibly, so that both horses had
traveled more than a quarter of a mile before the distance between them
lessened noticeably.

And then, with an impatience that caused her cheeks to glow, Barbara
noted that Purgatory had slowed also, Harlan seemingly accommodating the
animal's pace to her own. It was plain to see that Harlan did not intend
to assume that she had relented.

For another quarter of a mile the distance remained the same, and the
silence was unbroken except by the rhythmical beating of hoofs through
the rustling, matted mesquite.

Then Barbara, yielding to an impulse of righteous anger, brought on by
Harlan's obvious intention to remain at a respectful distance,
deliberately brought Billy to a walk and waited until Harlan rode beside
her.

"You don't need to be a brute--even if I did tell you to go back to the
ranchhouse!"

"Meanin' what, ma'am? Why, I don't remember to have done anything. I was
doin' a heap of thinkin' just now--if that's what you mean."

"Thinking mean things of me--I suppose--for what I said to you."

He had been thinking of her--seriously. And his thoughts were far from
fickle as he watched her now, riding within a few feet of him, her
profile toward him, her head having a rigid set, her chin held high, her
lips tight-pressed, and her hair drooping in graceful coils over her
ears, and bulging in alluring disorder at the nape of her neck.

He was thinking that he had braved, to answer a mere whim, greater
dangers than he would be likely to meet in defending her from the
wolf-pack which circumstances had set upon her. He was thinking that
heretofore his life had been lived without regard to order or
system--that he had led a will-o'-the-wisp existence, never knowing that
such women as she graced the world. He was thinking of what might have
happened to her had not Davey Langan been killed, and if he had not
started out to avenge him.

Into his thoughts at this minute flashed a mental picture that paled his
face and brought his lips into straight, hard lines--a picture of Barbara
at the mercy of Deveny.

With a quick turn he brought Purgatory around in front of Billy, blocking
the animal's further progress westward. The girl started at the rapid
movement, and watched him fearfully, dreading--she knew not what.

But his smile--grim and mirthless though it was--partially reassured her,
and she sat silent, looking at him as he spoke, rapidly, earnestly.

"I was thinkin' of you; an' I wasn't thinkin' mean things--about you. I
was thinkin' of Deveny--an' of what your dad told me over there by
Sentinel Rock.

"Your dad told me that you was in danger--that Deveny an' Strom Rogers
an' some more of them had their eyes turned on you. Your dad made me
promise that I'd come here an' look out for you--an' I mean to do it.
That's why I went to Lamo when I had no call to go there an' that's why I
brought Deveny to a show-down in front of you.

"There's somethin' goin' on around here that ain't showin' on the
surface--somethin' that's hidden an' sneakin'. You heard some of them
guys in Lamo gassin' about the 'Chief' bein' one of the three that sent
your dad over the Divide.

"Well, your dad told me that, too--that there was three of them pitched
onto him. It was the fellow they call Chief that shot your dad while he
was sleepin'--when it was too dark for your dad to see his face. Your dad
made me promise to hunt that guy up an' square things for him. That's
what I'm here for. Anyway, it's one reason I'm here. The other reason is
that I'm goin' to see that you get a square deal from them guys.

"An' you won't get a square deal ridin' out alone, like this--especially
when you head toward Sunset Trail, where Deveny an' his gang hang out.
An' I'm settin' down hard on you ridin' that way. I'm keepin' you from
runnin' any chances."

Silently Barbara had watched Harlan's face while he had been talking.
There was no doubt that he was in earnest, and there was likewise no
doubt that he was concerned for her safety. But why? It seemed absurd
that Harlan, an outlaw himself, should protect her from other outlaws.
Yet in Lamo he had done just that.

Behind his actions, his expressed concern for her, must be a motive. What
was it? Was it possible that he was doing this thing unselfishly; that
the promise her father had exacted from him had changed him; that in his
heart at this instant dwelt those finer impulses which must be dormant in
all men, however bad?

The light of that great inquiry was in her eyes; they searched his face
for subtlety and craft and cunning--for something that would give her a
clue to his thoughts. And when she could find in his expression only a
grave concern she pulled Billy around and started him back toward the
ranchhouse.

They had not ridden more than a hundred yards before she stole a glance
at Harlan.

He was now riding beside her, looking straight ahead, his face
expressionless. Had he betrayed the slightest sign of triumph she would
have changed her mind about going back to the ranchhouse with him.

As it was, she felt a pulse of rage over her readiness in yielding to his
orders. Yet the rage was softened by a lurking, stealthy joy she got out
of his masterfulness.

"I presume I may ride in another direction--east, for instance--or north,
or south?"

He apparently took no notice of the mockery in her voice.

"You'll not be ridin' alone, anywhere," he declared.

"Oh!" she returned, raising her chin and looking at him with a cold scorn
that, she thought, would embarrass him; "I am to have a guardian."

He looked straight back to her, steadily, seemingly unaffected by the
hostility of her gaze.

"It amounts to that. But mebbe I wouldn't put it just that way.
Somebody's got to look out for you--to see that you don't go to rushin'
into trouble. There was trouble over in Lamo--if you'll remember."

And now he smiled gravely at her, and her face reddened over the memory
of the incident. She had been eager enough, then, to seek his protection;
she had trusted him.

"That wasn't your fault," he went on gently. "You didn't know then,
mebbe, just what kind of a guy Deveny is. But you know now, an' it
would be your fault if you run into him again."

He saw how she took it--how her color came and went, and how her eyes
drooped from his. He smiled soberly.

"Looks to me that you've got to pin your faith to a mighty small chance,
ma'am."

"What chance?" She looked at him in startled wonderment, for it had not
occurred to her that she faced any real danger, despite the threatening
attitude of Deveny, and her isolation. For the great, peaceful world, and
the swimming sunlight were full of the promise of the triumph of right
and virtue; and the sturdy self-reliance of youth was in her heart.

"What chance?" she repeated, watching him keenly.

"The chance that me an' Red Linton will be able to get things into shape
to look out for you." He was gravely serious.

"It must seem a mighty slim chance to you--me comin' here with a
reputation that ain't any too good, an' Linton, with his red head an' his
freckles. Seems like a woman would go all wrong, pinnin' her faith to red
hair an' freckles an' a hell-raisin' outlaw. But there's been worse
combinations, ma'am--if I do say it myself. An' me an' Red is figurin' to
come through, no matter what you think of us."

"Red Linton?" she said. "That is the little, short, red-haired man you
put in Lawson's place, isn't it? I have never noticed him--particularly.
It seems that I have always thought him rather unimportant."

Harlan grinned. "That's a trick Red's got--seemin' unimportant. Red
spends a heap of his time not sayin' anything, an' hangin' around lookin'
like he's been misplaced. But when there's any trouble, you'll find Red
like the banty rooster that's figurin' to rule the roost.

"I knowed him over in Pardo, ma'am--he rode for the T Down for two or
three seasons."

"You are anticipating trouble--with Deveny?" she asked, a tremor in her
voice.

"There ain't any use of tryin' to hide it, ma'am. Mebbe your dad thought
you'd be better off by him not mentionin' it to you. But I've got a
different idea. Anyone--man or woman--knows a heap more about how to go
about things if they're sort of able to anticipate trouble. Your dad told
me things was in a mixup over here with Deveny an' some more of his kind;
an' I ain't aimin' to let you go ramblin' around in the dark.

"About half the Rancho Seco men belong to Deveny's gang, Linton says.
That's why I put Linton in Lawson's place; an' that's why I'm askin' you
to stick pretty close to the Rancho Seco, an' requestin' you not to go
rummagin' around the country."

She rode on silently, her face pale, digesting this disquieting news. She
remembered now that her father had seemed rather worried at times, and
that upon several occasions he had hinted that he was distrustful of some
of the Rancho Seco men. But as Harlan had said, he had never taken her
completely into his confidence--no doubt because he had not wanted her to
worry. That was very like her father--always making life easy for her.

However, covertly watching Harlan, she was conscious of an emotion that
the latter did not suspect. The emotion was confidence--not in Harlan,
for, though she had seen that he, apparently, was eager to become her
champion, she could not forget that he, too, was an outlaw, with no proof
that he had been sent to the Rancho Seco by her father; with nothing but
his actions to convince her that his motives were founded upon
consideration for her welfare.

She thought of John Haydon as she rode beside Harlan; and it was
confidence in him that was expressed in her glances at Harlan; she was
convinced that she did not have to depend entirely upon Harlan. And when,
as they neared the ranchhouse, and she saw a big gray horse standing near
the entrance to the patio, her face reddened and her eyes grew
brilliant with a light that drew a cold smile to Harlan's face.

"That will be John Haydon's horse, I reckon," he said slowly.

"Why," she returned, startled; "how did you know?"

He rode on, not replying. When they reached the ranchhouse, Harlan loped
Purgatory toward one of the bunkhouses, in front of which he saw Red
Linton standing. Barbara directed Billy to the patio entrance, and
dismounted, her face flushed, to meet a man who came out of the open
gateway to greet her, his face wreathed in a delighted smile.





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