Miss Conroy Refuses Shelter





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."





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