The Hill Girl
THE Irish cowpuncher guided young Royal Beaudry through Wagon Wheel Gap himself. They traveled in the night, since it would not do for the two to be seen together. In the early morning Ryan left the young man and turned back toward Battle Butte. The way to Huerfano Park, even from here, was difficult to find, but Roy had a map drawn from memory by Pat.
"I'll not guarantee it," the little rider had cautioned. "It's been many a year since I was in to the park and maybe my memory is playing tricks. But it's the best I can do for you."
Beaudry spent the first half of the day in a pine grove far up in the hills. It would stir suspicion if he were seen on the road at dawn, for that would mean that he must have come through the Gap in the night. So he unsaddled and stretched himself on the sun-dappled ground for an hour or two's rest. He did not expect to sleep, even though he had been up all night. He He was too uneasy in mind and his nerves were too taut.
But it was a perfect day of warm spring sunshine. He looked up into a blue unflecked sky. The tireless hum of insects made murmurous music all about him. The air was vocal with the notes of nesting birds. His eyes closed drowsily.
When he opened them again, the sun was high in the heavens. He saddled and took the trail. Within the hour he knew that he was lost. Either he had mistaken some of the landmarks of Ryan's sketchy map or else the cowpuncher had forgotten the lay of the country.
Still, Roy knew roughly the general direction of Huerfano Park. If he kept going he was bound to get nearer. Perhaps he might run into a road or meet some sheepherder who would put him on the right way.
He was in the heart of the watershed where Big Creek heads. Occasionally from a hilltop he could see the peaks rising gaunt in front of him. Between him and them were many miles of tangled mesquite, wooded cañons, and hills innumerable. Somewhere among the recesses of these land waves Huerfano Park was hidden.
It was three o'clock by Royal's watch when he had worked to the top of a bluff which looked down upon a wooded valley. His eyes swept the landscape and came to rest upon an object moving slowly in the mesquite. He watched it incuriously, but his interest quickened when it came out of the bushes into a dry water-course and he discovered that the figure was that of a human being. The person walked with an odd, dragging limp. Presently he discerned that the traveler below was a woman and that she was pulling something after her. For perhaps fifty yards she would keep going and then would stop. Once she crouched down over her load.
Roy cupped his hands at his mouth and shouted. The figure straightened alertly and looked around. He called to her again. His voice must have reached her very faintly. She did not try to answer in words, but fired twice with a revolver. Evidently she had not yet seen him.
That there was something wrong Beaudry felt sure. He did not know what, nor did he waste any time speculating about it. The easiest descent to the valley was around the rear of the bluff, but Roy clambered down a heavily wooded gulch a little to the right. He saved time by going directly.
When Roy saw the woman again he was close upon her. She was stooped over something and her back and arms showed tension. At sound of his approach she flung up quickly the mass of inky black hair that had hidden her bent face. As she rose it became apparent that she was tall and slender, and that the clear complexion, just now at least, was quite without color.
Moving forward through the underbrush, Beaudry took stock of this dusky nymph with surprise. In her attitude was something wild and free and proud. It was as if she challenged his presence even though she had summoned him. Across his mind flashed the thought that this was woman primeval before the conventions of civilization had tamed her to its uses.
Her intent eyes watched him steadily as he came into the open.
"Who are you?" she demanded.
"I was on the bluff and saw you. I thought you were in trouble. You limped as if—"
He stopped, amazed. For the first time he saw that her foot was caught in a wolf trap. This explained the peculiarity of gait he had noticed from above. She had been dragging the heavy Newhouse trap and the clog with her as she walked. One glance at her face was enough to show how greatly she was suffering.
Fortunately she was wearing a small pair of high-heeled boots such as cowpunchers use, and the stiff leather had broken the shock of the blow from the steel jaws. Otherwise the force of the released spring must have shattered her ankle.
"I can't quite open the trap," she explained. "If you will help me—"
Roy put his weight on the springs and removed the pressure of the jaws. The girl drew out her numb leg. She straightened herself, swayed, and clutched blindly at him. Next moment her body relaxed and she was unconscious in his arms.
He laid her on the moss and looked about for water. There was some in his canteen, but that was attached to the saddle on the top of the bluff. For present purposes it might as well have been at the North Pole. He could not leave her while she was like this. But since he had to be giving some first aid, he drew from her foot the boot that had been in the steel trap, so as to relieve the ankle.
Her eyelids fluttered, she gave a deep sigh, and looked with a perplexed doubt upon the world to which she had just returned.
"You fainted," Roy told her by way of explanation.
The young woman winced and looked at her foot. The angry color flushed into her cheeks. Her annoyance was at herself, but she visited it upon him.
"Who told you to take off my boot?"
"I thought it might help the pain."
She snatched up the boot and started to pull it on, but gave this up with a long breath that was almost a groan.
"I'm a nice kind of a baby," she jeered.
"It must hurt like sixty," he ventured. Then, after momentary hesitation: "You'd better let me bind up your ankle. I have water in my canteen. I 'll run up and get some as soon as I'm through."
There was something of sullen suspicion in the glance her dark eyes flashed at him.
"You can get me water if you want to," she told him, a little ungraciously.
He understood that his offer to tie up the ankle had been refused. When he returned with his horse twenty minutes later, he knew why she had let him go for the water. It had been the easiest way to get rid of him for the time. The fat bulge beneath her stocking showed that she had taken advantage of his absence to bind the bruised leg herself.
"Is it better now—less painful?" he asked.
She dismissed his sympathy with a curt little nod. "I'm the biggest fool in Washington County. We 've been setting traps for wolves. They 've been getting our lambs. I jumped off my horse right into this one. Blacky is a skittish colt and when the trap went off, he bolted."
He smiled a little at the disgust she heaped upon herself.
"You 'll have to ride my horse to your home. How far is it?"
"Five miles, maybe." The girl looked at her ankle resentfully. It was plain that she did not relish the idea of being under obligations to him. But to attempt to walk so far was out of the question. Even now when she was not using the foot she suffered a good deal of pain.
"Cornell is n't a bit skittish. He's an old plug. You 'll find his gait easy," Beaudry told her.
If she had not wanted to keep her weight from the wounded ankle, she would have rejected scornfully his offer to help her mount, for she was used to flinging her lithe body into the saddle as easily as her brothers did. The girl had read in books of men aiding women to reach their seat on the back of a horse, but she had not the least idea how the thing was done. Because of her ignorance she was embarrassed. The result was that they boggled the business, and it was only at the third attempt that he got her on as gracefully as if she had been a sack of meal.
"Sorry. I'm awfully awkward," he apologized.
Again an angry flush stained her cheeks. The stupidity had been hers, not his. She resented it that he was ready to take the blame,—read into his manner a condescension he did not at all feel.
"I know whose fault it was. I'm not a fool," she snapped brusquely.
It added to her irritation at making such an exhibition of clumsiness that she was one of the best horsewomen in the Territory. Her life had been an outdoor one, and she had stuck to the saddle on the back of many an outlaw bronco without pulling leather. There were many things of which she knew nothing. The ways of sophisticated women, the conventions of society, were alien to her life. She was mountain-bred, brought up among men, an outcast even from the better class of Battle Butte. But the life of the ranch she knew. That this soft-cheeked boy from town should think she did not know how to get on a horse was a little too humiliating. Some day, if she ever got a chance, she would let him see her vault into the saddle without touching the stirrups.
The young man walking beside the horse might still be smooth-cheeked, but he had the muscles of an athlete. He took the hills with a light, springy step and breathed easily after stiff climbing. His mind was busy making out what manner of girl this was. She was new to his experience. He had met none like her. That she was a proud, sulky creature he could easily guess from her quickness at taking offense. She resented even the appearance of being ridiculous. Her acceptance of his favors carried always the implication that she hated him for offering them. It was a safe guess that back of those flashing eyes were a passionate temper and an imperious will.
It was evident that she knew the country as a teacher knows the primer through which she leads her children. In daylight or in darkness, with or without a trail, she could have followed almost an air-line to the ranch. The paths she took wound in and out through unsuspected gorges and over divides that only goats or cow-ponies could have safely scrambled up and down. Hidden pockets had been cached here so profusely by nature that the country was a maze. A man might have found safety from pursuit in one of these for a lifetime if he had been provisioned.
"Where were you going when you found me?" the young woman asked.
"Up to the mountain ranches of Big Creek. I was lost, so we ought to put it that you found me," Beaudry answered with the flash of a pleasant smile.
"What are you going to do up there?" Her keen suspicious eyes watched him warily.
"Sell windmills if I can. I 've got the best proposition on the market."
"Why do you come away up here? Don't you know that the Big Creek headwaters are off the map?"
"That's it exactly," he replied. "I expect no agents get up here. It's too hard to get in. I ought to be able to sell a whole lot easier than if I took the valleys." He laughed a little, by way of taking her into his confidence. "I 'll tell the ranchers that if they buy my windmills it will put Big Creek on the map."
"They won't buy them," she added with a sudden flare of temper. "This country up here is fifty years behind the times. It does n't want to be modern."
Over a boulder bed, by rock fissures, they came at last to a sword gash in the top of the world. It cleft a passage through the range to another gorge, at the foot of which lay a mountain park dotted with ranch buildings. On every side the valley was hemmed in by giant peaks.
"Huerfano Park?" he asked.
"You live here?"
"Yes." She pointed to a group of buildings to the left. "That is my father's place. They call it the 'Horse Ranch.'"
He turned startled eyes upon her. "Then you are—?"
"Beulah Rutherford, the daughter of Hal Rutherford."