Under Handicap, page 1
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CONNISTON HAD SEEN HER FIRST, A HUDDLED HEAP, ALMOST AT HIS FEET]
By JACKSON GREGORY
AUTHOR OF "The Outlaw," Etc.
A. L. BURT COMPANY Publishers New York
Published by arrangement with HARPER & BROTHERS
COPYRIGHT, 1914 BY HARPER & BROTHERS
TO"MY LADY"LOTUS McGLASHAN GREGORYTHIS BOOK IS DEDICATED
Outside there was shimmering heat and dry, thirsty sand, miles uponmiles of it flashing by in a gray, barren blur. A flat, arid,monotonous land, vast, threatening, waterless, treeless. Its immensityawed, its bleakness depressed. Man's work here seemed but toaccentuate the puny insignificance of man. Man had come upon thedesert and had gone, leaving only a line of telegraph-poles with theirglistening wires, two gleaming parallel rails of burning steel to markhis passing.
The thundering Overland Limited, rushing onward like a frightenedthing, screamed its terror over the desert whose majesty did not evenpermit of its catching up the shriek of the panting engine to fling itback in echoes. The desert ignored, and before and behind theonrushing train the deep serenity of the waste places was undisturbed.
Within the train the desert was nothing. Man's work defied the heatand the sand and the sullen frown outside. Here in the Pullmansmoking-car were luxury, comfort, and companionship. Behind drawnshades were the whir of electric fans, an ebon-faced porter in snowylinen, the clink of ice in long, misted glasses, the cool fragranceof crushed mint. Even the fat man in shirt-sleeves reading the Denver_Times_, alternately drawing upon his fat cigar and sipping the glassof beer at his elbow, was not distressing to look upon. The four menbusy over their daily game of solo might have been at ease in theirown club.
At one end of the long car two young men dawdled in languid comfort,their bodies sprawling loosely in two big, soft arm-chairs, a traywith a couple of half-emptied high-ball glasses upon the table betweenthem. They had created an atmosphere of their own about them, anatmosphere constituted of the blue haze from cigarettes mingled withtrivial talk. The immensity outside might have bored them, so theirshade was drawn low. For a moment one of the two men lifted a cornerof it. He peered out, only to drop it with a disgusted sigh and returnto his high-ball.
He was slender, young, pale-eyed, pale-haired, white-handed,anemic-looking. He was patently of the sort which considers such athing as carelessness in the matter of a crease in one's trousers acrime of crimes. His tie, adjusted with a precision which was ascience, was of a pale lavender. His socks were silk and of the samecolor. His eyes were as near a pale lavender as they were near anycolor.
"The devilish stupid sameness of this country gets on a man's nerves."He put his disgust into drawling words. "Suppose it's like this allthe way to 'Frisco?"
His companion, stretching his legs a bit farther under the table, madeno answer.
"I said something then," the lavender young gentleman said, peevishly."What's the matter with you, Greek?"
Greek took his arms down from the back of his chair where he hadclasped his hands behind his head, and finished his own high-ball.Nature in the beginning of things for him had been more kind than tohis petulant friend. He was scarcely more than a boy--twenty-five,perhaps, from the looks of him--but physically a big man. He mighthave weighed a hundred and eighty pounds, and he was maybe an inchover six feet. But evidently where nature had left off there had beennobody to go on save the tailor. His gray suit was faultlesslycorrect, his linen immaculate, his hose silken and of a brilliant,dazzling blue. His face was fine, even handsome, but indicating aboutas much purpose as did his faultlessly correct shoes. There was anextreme, unruffled good humor in his eyes and about his mouth, andwith it all as much determination of character as is commonly put intothe rosy face of a wax doll.
"Seeing that you have made the same remark seventeen times sincebreakfast," Greek replied, when he had set his empty glass back uponthe tray, "I didn't know that an answer was needed."
"Well, it's so," the pale youth maintained, irritably.
Greek nodded wearily and selected a cigarette from a silvermonogrammed case. The cigarettes themselves were monogrammed, each onebearing a delicately executed _W. C._ His companion reached out ashapely hand for the case, at the same time regarding his empty glass.
"Suppose we have another, eh?"
Again Greek nodded. The lavender young man reached the button, and abell tinkled in the little buffet at the far end of the car. The negrolazily polishing a glass put it down, glanced at the indicator, andhastened to put glasses and bottles upon a tray.
"The same, suh?" he asked, coming to the table and addressing Greek.
It was the pale young man who assured him that it was to be the same,but it was Greek who threw a dollar bill upon the tray.
"Thank you, suh. Thank you." The negro bobbed as he made the properchange--and returned it to his own pocket.
Greek appeared not to have seen him or heard. He poured his own drinkand shoved the bottles toward his friend, who helped himself withskilful celerity.
"Suppose the old gent will hold out long this time, Greek?" came thequery, after a swallow of the whisky and seltzer, a shrewd look in thepale eyes.
Greek laughed carelessly.
"I guess we'll have time to see a good deal of San Francisco before hecaves in. The old man put what he had to say in words of one syllable.But we won't worry about that until we get there."
"Did he shell out at all?"
"He didn't quite give me carte blanche," retorted Greek, grinning. "Aticket to ride as far as I wanted to, and five hundred in the longgreen. And it's going rather fast, Roger, my boy."
"And my tickets came out of the five hundred?"
"It's devilish the way my luck's gone lately," grumbled Roger. "Idon't know when I can ever pay--"
Greek put up his hand swiftly.
"You don't pay at all," he said, emphatically. "This is my treat. Itwas mighty decent of you to drop everything and come along with meinto this d----d exile. And," he finished, easily, "I'll have moremoney than I'll know what to do with when the old man getssoft-hearted again."
"He's d----d hard on you, Greek. He's got more--"
"Oh, I don't know." Greek laughed again. "He's a good sort, and we getalong first rate together. Only he's got some infernally uncomfortableideas about a man going to work and doing something for himself inthis little old vale of tears. He shaves himself five times out ofsix, and I've seen him black his own boots!" He chuckled amusedly."Just to show people he can, you know."
Roger shook his head and applied himself to his glass, failing to seethe humor of the thing. And while the bigger man continued to musewith twinkling eyes over the idiosyncrasies of an enormously wealthybut at the same time enormously hard-headed father, with old-fashionedideas of the dignity of labor, Roger sat frowning into his glass.
The silence, into which the click of the rails below had entered sopersistently as to become a part of it rather than to disturb it, wasbroken at last by the clamorous screaming of the engine. The train wasslackening its speed. Greek flipped up the shade and looked out.
"Another one of those toy villages," he called over his shoulder. "Whoin the devil would want to get off here?"
Roger sank a trifle deeper into his chair, indic
"Great country, ain't it?" he called to Greek.
"Yes, it certainly _ain't_! What gets me is, why do people live in aplace like this? Are they all crazy?"
The train now was jerking and bumping to a standstill. Sixty yardsaway was a little, bluish-gray frame building, by far the mostpretentious of the clutter of shacks, flaunting the legend, "PrairieCity." Beyond the station was the to-be-expected general store andpost-office. A bit farther on a saloon. Beyond that another, and thenstraggling at intervals a dozen rough, rambling, one-storied boardhouses. For miles in all directions the desert stretched dry andbarren. The faces of women and children peered out of windows, theforms of roughly garbed men lounged in the doorways of the store andthe saloons. All the denizens of Prairie City manifested a mildinterest in the arrival of Number 1.
"I guess you called the turn," sputtered the fat man. "Here come thecrazy folks now!"
A cloud of dust swirling higher and higher in the still air, theclatter of hoofs, and two horses swept around the farthest house,carrying their riders at breakneck speed into the one and only street.At first Greek took it to be a race, and then he thought it a runaway.As it was the first interesting incident since Grand Central Stationhad dropped out of sight four days ago, he craned his neck to watch.
The two riders were half-way down the street now, a tall bay forgingsteadily ahead of a little Mexican mustang until ten feet or moreintervened between the two horses. The train jerked; the Wells Fargoman, with his truck alongside the express-car far ahead, yelledsomething to the man who had taken his packages aboard.
"The bay wins," grinned the fat man. "It looks--Gad! It's a woman!"
Greek saw that it was a woman in khaki riding-habit, and that thespurs she wore were gnawing into her horse's flanks. He began to takea sudden, stronger interest. He leaned farther out, hardly realizingthat he had called to the conductor to hold the train a moment. For itwas at last clear that these were not mad people, but merely a coupleof the dwellers of the desert anxious to catch Number 1. But theconductor had waved his orders and was swinging upon the slowly movingsteps. From the windows of the train a score of heads were thrust out,a score of voices raised in shouting encouragement. And down to thetracks the woman and the man behind her rushed, their horses' feetseeming never to touch the ground.
A bump, a jar, a jerk, and the Limited was drawing slowly away fromthe station. The woman was barely fifty yards away. As she lifted herhead Greek saw her face for the first time. And, having seen her ride,he pursed his lips into a low whistle of amazement.
"Why, she's only a kid of a girl!" gasped the fat man. "And, say,ain't she sure a peach!"
Greek didn't answer. He was busy inwardly cursing the conductor fornot waiting a second longer. For it was obvious to him that the girlwas going to miss the train by hardly more than that.
But she had not given up. She had dropped her head again and wasrushing straight toward the side of the string of cars. Greek held hisbreath, a swift alarm for her making his heart beat trippingly. He didnot see how she could stop in time.
Again a clamor of voices from the heads thrust out of car windows,warning, calling, cheering. And then suddenly Greek sat back limply.The thing had been so impossible and in the end so amazingly simple.
Not ten feet away from the train she had drawn in her horse's reins,"setting up" the half-broken animal upon his four feet, bunchedtogether so that with the momentum he had acquired he slid almost tothe cars. As he stopped the girl swung lightly from the saddle and,seeming scarcely to have put foot upon the sandy soil, caught thehand-rail as the car came by and swung on to the lowest step. The manbehind her caught up her horse's reins, whirled, sweeping his hat offto her, and turned back.
"Which is some riding, huh?" chuckled the fat man, his own headwithdrawn as he reached for his beer-glass.
"What's the excitement?" Roger's interest had not been great enough tosend him to the window.
"Some people trying to catch the train," Greek told him, shortly. Forsome reason, not clear to himself, he did not care to be moredefinite.
"I don't blame the poor devils. Think of waiting there until anothercame by!" Roger washed the dryness out of his mouth with a generoussip of his whisky and seltzer.
The fat man finished his glass of beer and rang for another. Greek satgazing out over the wide wastes of the desert. He had never beforebeen in a land like this. Now that more than two thousand mileslengthened out between him and New York, he had felt himself more thanever an exile. Heretofore he had given no thought to the peopledwelling here beyond the last reaches of those things for whichcivilization stood to him. He was not in the habit of thinking deeply.That part of the day's work could be left to William Conniston,Senior, while William Conniston, Junior, more familiarly known to hisintimates as "Greek" Conniston, found that he could dispense withthinking every bit as easily as he could spend the money which flowedinto his pockets. But now, as unexpectedly as a flash from a deadfire, a girl's face had startled him, and he found himself almostthinking--wondering--
Conniston turned swiftly. The girl was passing down the long narrowhallway leading by the smoking-car, evidently seeking theobservation-car. Through the windows he could see her shoulders andface as she walked by him. He could see that there was the sameconfidence in her carriage now that there had been when she had jerkedher horse to a standstill and had thrown herself to the ground. EvenRoger, turning idly, uttered an exclamation of surprised interest.
She was dressed in a plain, close-fitting riding-habit which hidnothing of the undulating grace of her active young body. In her handshe carried the riding-quirt and the spurs which she had not had timeto leave behind. Her wide, soft gray hat was pushed back so that herface was unhidden. And as she walked by her eyes rested for a fleetingsecond upon the eyes of Greek Conniston.
Her cheeks were flushed rosily from her race, the warm, rich bloodcreeping up to the untanned whiteness of her brow. But he did notrealize these details until she had gone by; not, in fact, until hebegan to think of her. For in that quick flash he saw only her eyes.And to this man who had known the prettiest women who drive on FifthAvenue and dine at Sherry's and wear wonderful gowns to theMetropolitan these were different eyes. Their color was elusive, aselusive as the vague tints upon the desert as dusk drifts over it;like that calm tone of the desert resolved into a deep, unfathomablegray, wonderfully soft, transcendently serene. And through theindescribable color as through untroubled skies at dawn there shonethe light which made her, in some way which he could not entirelygrasp, different from the women he had known. He merely felt thattheir light was softly eloquent of frankness and health and cleanness.Their gaze was as steady and confident as her hand had been upon herhorse's reins.
"She must have been born in this wilderness, raised in it!" he mused,when she had passed. "Her eyes are the eyes of a glorious younganimal, bred to the freedom of outdoors, a part of the wild, untamabledesert! And her manner is like the manner of a great lady born in apalace!"
"Hey, Greek," Roger was saying, his droning voice coming unpleasantlyinto the other's musings, "did you pipe that? Did you ever seeanything like her?"
Conniston lighted a fresh cigarette and turned again to look outacross the level gray miles. Ignoring his friend, Greek thought on,idly telling himself that the Dream Girl should be born out here,after all. Here she would have a soul; a soul as far-reaching, asinfinite, as free from shackles of convention as the wide bigness ofher cradle. And she would have eyes like that, drawing their veryshade from the vague grayness which seemed to him to spread overeverything.
"I say, Greek," Roger was insisting, sufficiently interested to sit upstraight, his cigarette dangling from his lip, "that little countrygirl, dressed like a wild Indian, is pretty enough to be the belle ofthe season! What do you think?"
Conniston laughed carelessly.
"You're an impressionable young thing, Hapgood."
"Am I?" grunted Roger. "Just the same, I know a fine-looking womanwhen I clap my bright eyes on her. And I'd like to camp on her trailas long as the sun shines! Say"--his voice half losing its eternaldrawl--"who do you suppose she is? Her old man might own about amillion acres of this God-forsaken country. If she goes on through to'Frisco--"
"You wouldn't be strong for stopping off out here?" the fat man put ingenially. Hapgood shuddered.
And to Greek Conniston there came a sudden inspiration.
"Anyway," Roger Hapgood went on in his customary drawl, "I'm going tofind out. It's little Roger to learn something about the prairieflower. I'll soon tell you who she is," he added, rising from hisseat.
But he never did. For one thing, young Conniston was not there whenRoger returned five minutes later, and it is extremely doubtful ifRoger Hapgood would have told how his venture had fared. Being dulyimpressed with the fascination of his own debonair little person, andhaving the imagination of a cow, he had smirked his way to the girl,who now sat in the observation-car, and had begun on the weather.
"Dreadfully warm in this desert country, isn't it?" he said, withover-politeness and the smile which he knew to be irresistible.
The girl turned from gazing out the window, and her eyes met his, veryclear and very much amused.
"Very warm," she smiled back at him. Even then he had a faint fearthat she was not so much smiling as laughing. "The surprising thing ishow well things keep, is it not?"
"Ah--yes," he murmured, not entirely confident, and still droppinginto a chair at her side. "You mean--"
"How fresh some things keep!"
Roger Hapgood's pink little face went violently red.
"I say!" he began. "I didn't mean any offense. I thought--"
"Oh, that's all right," she laughed, gaily. "No offense whatever. Willyou please open that window for me?"
His face became normally pink again as he hastened to throw up thewindow in front of her. His eyelid fluttered downward as he met theregard of a couple of men facing them. Then he came back to her side.
"Thank you," she smiled sweetly up at him. And she held out her hand.
He didn't know what she wanted to do that for, but had a confused ideathat in the free and easy spirit of the West she was going to shakehands. The next thing which he realized clearly was that she haddropped a shining ten-cent piece into his palm.
"Oh, look here," he stammered, only to be interrupted by her voice, agurgle of suppressed mirth in it.
"I'm sorry that that's all I have in change! And now, if you will handme that magazine--I want to read!"
Roger Hapgood fumbled with the dime and dropped it. He swept up themagazine from a near-by chair and held it out to her. As he did so hecaught a glimpse of the faces of the two men at whom he had winked soknowingly, heard one of them break into loud, hearty laughter.Dropping the magazine to her lap, the lavender young man, with whatdignity he could command, marched back to the smoking-car.
A few minutes later Greek Conniston, returning to the smoking-car,found his friend pinching his smooth cheek thoughtfully and frowningout the window. He dropped into his chair, deep in thought. In thebrief interval he had taken his resolution, plunging, as was hiscareless nature, after the first impulse. The girl had interested him;he did not yet realize how much. She came aboard the train without bagor baggage. Certainly she could not be going far. And he--it didn'tmatter in the least where he went. All that he had to do was to keepout of his father's way until the old man cooled down, and then towire for money. His ticket read to San Francisco, but he had no desireto go there rather than to any other place. And he told himself thathe had a sort of curiosity about this bleak, monotonous desert land.
An hour later the train ran into another little clutter of buildingsand drew up, puffing, at the station. Conniston's eyes were alert,fixed upon the passageway from the observation-car rather than on theview from his window. Mail-bags were tossed on and off, a few packageshandled by the Wells Fargo man, and the train pulled out. Connistonleaned back with a sigh.
"Roger," he said, at last, "I've got a proposition to make."
"Let's drop off at one of these dinky towns and see what it's like.I've a notion we might find something new."
"That's a real joke, I suppose?"
"Not at all," maintained Conniston. "I'm going to do it. Are you withme?"
Hapgood sat bolt upright.
"Are you crazy, man!" he cried, sharply.
Conniston shrugged. "Why not? You've never seen anything but city lifeand the summer-resort sort of thing any more than I have. It would bea lark."
"Excuse me! I guess I'm something of a fool for having chased cleanacross the continent, but I'm not the kind of fool that's going topick a place like this sand-pile to drop off in!"
"All right, old man. Nobody's asking you to if you feel that way."
Hapgood waited as long as he could for Conniston to go on, and whenthere came no further information he asked, incredulously:
"You don't mean that, do you, Greek? You don't intend to stop off allalone out here in this rotten wilderness?"
"Yes, I do. If you won't stop with me."
"But how about me? What am I to do? Here I am--busted! What do youthink I'm going to do?"
"You can go on to San Francisco if you like. You can have half of whatI've got left--or you can drop off with me."
Hapgood argued and exploded and sulked by turns. In the end, seeingthe futility of trying to reason with a man who only laughed, andseeing further the disadvantage of being cut off from his source ofeasy money, Roger gave in, growling. So when the train drew intoIndian Creek that afternoon there were three people who got down fromit.
Other author's books:
- Judith of Blue Lake RanchMan to ManCombatDaughter of the SunThe Everlasting WhisperThe Spinners' Book of Fiction
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