Chapter XXII
Miss Rutherford Speaks her Mind

FOR the first time in over a year an itinerant preacher was to hold services in the Huerfano Park schoolhouse. He would speak, Beulah Rutherford knew, to a mere handful of people, and it was to mitigate his disappointment that she rode out into the hills on the morning of her disappearance to find an armful of columbines for decorating the desk-pulpit. The man had written Miss Rutherford and asked her to notify the community. She had seen that the news was carried to the remotest ranch, but she expected for a congregation only a scatter of patient women and restless children with three or four coffee-brown youths in high-heeled boots on the back row to represent the sinners.

It was a brave, clean world into which she rode this summer morning. The breeze brought to her nostrils the sweet aroma of the sage. Before her lifted the saw-toothed range into a sky of blue sprinkled here and there with light mackerel clouds. Blacky pranced with fire and intelligence, eager to reach out and leave behind him the sunny miles.

Near the upper end of the park she swung up an arroyo that led to Big Flat Top. A drawling voice stopped her.

"Oh, you, Beulah Rutherford! Where away this glad mo'ning?"

A loose-seated rider was lounging in the saddle on a little bluff fifty yards away. His smile reminded her of a new copper kettle shining in the sun.

"To find columbines for church decorations," she said with an answering smile.

"Have you been building a church since I last met up with you?"

"There will be services in the schoolhouse tomorrow at three p.m., conducted by the Reverend Melancthon Smith. Mr. Charlton is especially invited to attend."

"Maybe I 'll be there. You can't sometimes 'most always tell. I'm going to prove I 've got nothing against religion by going with you to help gather the pulpit decorations."

"That's very self-sacrificing of you." She flashed a look of gay derision at him as he joined her. "Sure you can afford to waste so much time?"

"I don't call it wasted. But since you 've invited me so hearty to your picnic, I'd like to be sure you 've got grub enough in the chuck wagon for two," he said with a glance at her saddle-bags.

"I'm not sure. Maybe you had better not come."

"Oh, I'm coming if you starve me. Say, Beulah, have you heard about Jess Tighe?"

"What about him?"

"He had a stroke last night. Doc Spindler thinks he won't live more than a few hours."

Beulah mused over that for a few moments without answer. She had no liking for the man, but it is the way of youth to be shocked at the approach of death. Yet she knew this would help to clear up the situation. With the evil influence of Tighe removed, there would be a chance for the park to develop along more wholesome lines. He had been like a sinister shadow that keeps away the sunlight.

She drew a deep breath. "I don't wish him any harm. But it will be a good thing for all of us when he can't make us more sorrow and trouble."

"He never made me any," Charlton answered.

"Did n't he?" She looked steadily across at him. "You can't tell me he did n't plan that express robbery, for instance."

"Meaning that I was in the party that pulled it off?" he asked, flushing.

"I know well enough you were in it—knew it all along. It's the sort of thing you could n't keep out of."

"How about Ned? Do you reckon he could keep out of it?" She detected rising anger beneath his controlled voice.

"Not with you leading him on." Her eyes poured scorn on him. "And I'm sure he would appreciate your loyalty in telling me he was in it."

"Why do you jump on me, then?" he demanded sulkily. "And I did n't say Ned was in that hold-up—any more than I admit having been in it myself. Are you trying to make trouble with me? Is that it?"

"I don't care whether I make trouble with you or not. I'm not going to pretend and make-believe, if that's what you want. I don't have to do it."

"I see you don't," he retorted bluntly. "I suppose you don't have to mind your own business either."

"It is my business when Ned follows you into robbery."

"Maybe I followed him," he jeered.

She bit back the tart answer on her tongue. What was the use of quarreling? It used to be that they were good friends, but of late they jangled whenever they met. Ever since the Western Express affair she had held a grudge at him. Six months ago she had almost promised to marry him. Now nothing was farther from her thoughts.

But he was still very much of the mind that she should.

"What's the matter with you, Boots?" he wanted to know roughly. "You used to have some sense. You were n't always flying out at a fellow. Now there's no way of pleasing you."

"I suppose it is odd that I don't want my friends to be thieves," she flung out bitterly.

"Don't use that word if you mean me," he ordered.

"What word shall I substitute?"

He barely suppressed an oath. "I know what's ailing you? We 're not smooth enough up here for you. We 're not educated up to your standard. If I'd been to Cornell, say—"

"Take care," she warned with a flash of anger in her black eyes.

"Oh, I don't know. Why should I cull my words so careful? I notice yours ain't hand-picked. Ever since this guy Beaudry came spying into the park, you 've had no use for me. You have been throwing yourself at his head and could n't see any one else."

She gasped. "How dare you, Brad Charlton?"

His jealousy swept away the prudence that had dammed his anger. "Did n't you take him out driving? Did n't you spend a night alone with him and Dave Dingwell? Did n't you hot-foot it down to Hart's because you was afraid yore precious spy would meet up with what he deserved?"

Beulah drew up Blacky abruptly. "Now you can leave me. Don't stop to say good-bye. I hate you. I don't ever want to see you again."

He had gone too far and he knew it. Sulkily he began to make his apology. "You know how fond I am of you, Boots. You know—"

"Yes, I ought to. I 've heard it often enough," she interrupted curtly. "That's probably why you insult me?"

Her gypsy eyes stabbed him. She was furiously angry. He attempted to explain. "Now, listen here, Beulah. Let's be reasonable."

"Are you going up or down?" she demanded. "I'm going the other way. Take one road or the other, you—you scandalmonger."

Never a patient man, he too gave rein to his anger. "Since you want to know, I'm going down—to Battle Butte, where I 'll likely meet yore friend Beaudry and settle an account or two with him. I reckon before I git through with him he 'll yell something besides Cornell."

The girl laughed scornfully. "Last time I saw him he had just beaten a dozen or so of you. How many friends are you going to take along this trip?"

Already her horse was taking the trail. She called the insult down to him over her shoulder.

But before she had gone a half-mile her eyes were blind with tears. Why did she get so angry? Why did she say such things? Other girls were ladylike and soft-spoken. Was there a streak of commonness in her that made possible such a scene as she had just gone through? In her heart she longed to be a lady—gentle, refined, sweet of spirit. Instead of which she was a bad-tempered tomboy. "Miss Spitfire" her brothers sometimes called her, and she knew the name was justified.

Take this quarrel now with Brad. She had had no intention of breaking with him in that fashion. Why could n't she dismiss a lover as girls in books do, in such a way as to keep him for a friend? She had not meant, anyhow, to bring the matter to issue to-day. One moment they had been apparently the best of comrades. The next they had been saying hateful things to each other. What he had said was unforgivable, but she had begun by accusing him of complicity in the train robbery. Knowing how arrogant he was, she might have guessed how angry criticism would make him.

Yet she was conscious of a relief that it was over with at last. Charlton was proud. He would leave her alone unless she called him to her side. Her tears were for the humiliating way in which they had wrenched apart rather than for the fact of the break.

She knew his temper. Nothing on earth could keep him from flying at the throat of Roy Beaudry now. Well, she had no interest in either of them, she reminded herself impatiently. It was none of her business how they settled their differences. Yet, as Blacky followed the stiff trail to Big Flat Top, her mind was wretchedly troubled.

Beulah had expected to find her columbines in a gulch back of Big Flat Top, but the flowers were just past their prime here. The petals fell fluttering at her touch. She hesitated. Of course, she did not have to get columbines for the preaching service. Sweet-peas would do very well. But she was a young woman who did not like to be beaten. She had plenty of time, and she wanted an excuse to be alone all day. Why not ride over to Del Oro Creek, where the season was later and the columbines would be just coming on?

The ayes had it, and presently Miss Rutherford was winding deeper into the great hills that skirted Flat Top. Far in the gulches, dammed by the small thick timber, she came on patches of snow upon which the sun never shone. Once a ptarmigan started from the brush at her feet. An elk sprang up from behind a log, stared at her, and crashed away through the fallen timber.

Her devious road took Beulah past a hill flaming with goldenrod and Indian paint-brushes. A wealth of color decorated every draw, for up here at the roots of the peaks blossoms rioted in great splashes that ran to the snowbanks.

After all, she had to go lower for her favorite blooms. On Del Oro she found columbines, but in no great profusion. She wandered from the stream, leading Blacky by the bridle. On a hillside just above an aspen grove the girl came upon scattered clumps of them. Tying the pony loosely to a clump of bushes, she began to gather the delicate blue wild flowers.

The blossoms enticed her feet to the edge of a prospect hole long since abandoned. A clump of them grew from the side of the pit about a foot below the level of the ground. Beulah reached for them, and at the same moment the ground caved beneath her feet. She clutched at a bush in vain as she plunged down.

Jarred by the fall, Beulah lay for a minute in a huddle at the bottom of the pit. She was not quite sure that no bones were broken. Before she had time to make certain, a sound brought her rigidly to her feet. It was a light loose sound like the shaking of dried peas in their pods. No dweller of the outdoors Southwest could have failed to recognize it, and none but would have been startled by it.

The girl whipped her revolver from its scabbard and stood pressed against the rock wall while her eyes searched swiftly the prison into which she had fallen. Again came that light swift rattle with its sinister menace.

The enemy lay coiled across the pit from her, head and neck raised, tongue vibrating. Beulah fired—once—twice—a third time. It was enough. The rattlesnake ceased writhing.

The first thing she did was to examine every inch of her prison to make sure there were no more rattlers. Satisfied as to this, she leaned faintly against the wall. The experience had been a shock even to her sound young nerves.