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Lonesome Land

B. M. Bower

  Produced by Charles Aldarondo, Tiffany Vergon, CharlesFranks, and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team


  By B. M. Bower

  Author of "Chip, of the Flying U," etc.

  With Four Illustrations (not included)

  By Stanley L. Wood

  As he raced over the uneven prairie he fumbledwith the saddle string]



  _List of Illustrations_

  As he raced over the uneven prairie he fumbled with the saddle string

  He was jeered unmercifully by Fred De Garmo and his crowd

  "Little woman, listen here," he said. "You're playing hard luck, and I knowit"

  To draw the red hot spur across the fresh VP did not take long


  In northern Montana there lies a great, lonely stretch of prairie land,gashed deep where flows the Missouri. Indeed, there are many such--big,impassive, impressive in their very loneliness, in summer given over tothe winds and the meadow larks and to the shadows fleeing always over thehilltops. Wild range cattle feed there and grow sleek and fat for the fallshipping of beef. At night the coyotes yap quaveringly and prowl abroadafter the long-eared jack rabbits, which bounce away at their hunger-drivenapproach. In winter it is not good to be there; even the beasts shrink thenfrom the bleak, level reaches, and shun the still bleaker heights.

  But men will live anywhere if by so doing there is money to be gained, andso a town snuggled up against the northern rim of the bench land, where thebleakness was softened a bit by the sheltering hills, and a willow-fringedcreek with wild rosebushes and chokecherries made a vivid green backgroundfor the meager huddle of little, unpainted buildings.

  To the passengers on the through trains which watered at the red tank nearthe creek, the place looked crudely picturesque--interesting, so long asone was not compelled to live there and could retain a perfectly impersonalviewpoint. After five or ten minutes spent hi watching curiously the onelittle street, with the long hitching poles planted firmly and frequentlydown both sides--usually within a very few steps of a saloon door--and thehorses nodding and stamping at the flies, and the loitering figuresthat appeared now and then in desultory fashion, many of them imaginedthat they understood the West and sympathized with it, and appreciated itsbigness and its freedom from conventions.

  One slim young woman had just told the thin-faced school teacher on avacation, with whom she had formed one of those evanescent travelingacquaintances, that she already knew the West, from instinct and fromManley's letters. She loved it, she said, because Manley loved it, andbecause it was to be her home, and because it was so big and so free.Out here one could think and grow and really live, she declared, withenthusiasm. Manley had lived here for three years, and his letters, shetold the thin-faced teacher, were an education in themselves.

  The teacher had already learned that the slim young woman, with theyellow-brown hair and yellow-brown eyes to match, was going to marryManley--she had forgotten his other name, though the young woman hadmentioned it--and would live on a ranch, a cattle ranch. She smiled withsomewhat wistful sympathy, and hoped the young woman would be happy; andthe young woman waved her hand, with the glove only half pulled on, towardthe shadow-dappled prairie and the willow-fringed creek, and the hillsbeyond.

  "Happy!" she echoed joyously. "Could one be anything else, in such acountry? And then--you don't know Manley, you see. It's horribly bad form,and undignified and all that, to prate of one's private affairs, but I justcan't help bubbling over. I'm not looking for heaven, and I expect to haveplenty of bumpy places in the trail--trail is anything that you travelover, out here; Manley has coached me faithfully--but I'm going to behappy. My mind is quite made up. Well, good-by--I'm so glad you happenedto be on this train, and I wish I might meet you again. Isn't it a funnylittle depot? Oh, yes--thank you! I almost forgot that umbrella, and Imight need it. Yes, I'll write to you--I should hate to drop out ofyour mind completely. Address me Mrs. Manley Fleetwood, Hope, Montana.Good-by--I wish--"

  She trailed off down the aisle with eyes shining, in the wake of thegrinning porter. She hurried down the steps, glanced hastily along theplatform, up at the car window where the faded little school teacher wassmiling wearily down at her, waved her hand, threw a dainty little kiss,nodded a gay farewell, smiled vaguely at the conductor, who had beenrespectfully pleasant to her--and then she was looking at the rear platformof the receding train mechanically, not yet quite realizing why it was thather heart went heavy so suddenly. She turned then and looked about her ina surprised, inquiring fashion. Manley, it would seem, was not at hand towelcome her. She had expected his face to be the first she looked upon inthat town, but she tried not to be greatly perturbed at his absence; somany things may detain one.

  At that moment a young fellow, whose clothes emphatically proclaimed him acowboy, came diffidently up to her, tilted his hat backward an inch or so,and left it that way, thereby unconsciously giving himself an air of candorwhich should have been reassuring.

  "Fleetwood was detained. You were expecting to--you're the lady he wasexpecting, aren't you?"

  She had been looking questioningly at her violin box and two trunksstanding on their ends farther down the platform, and she smiled vaguelywithout glancing at him.

  "Yes. I hope he isn't sick, or--"

  "I'll take you over to the hotel, and go tell him you're here," hevolunteered, somewhat curtly, and picked up her bag.

  "Oh, thank you." This time her eyes grazed his face inattentively. Shefollowed him down the rough steps of planking and up an extremely dustyroad--one could scarcely call it a street--to an uninviting building withcrooked windows and a high, false front of unpainted boards.

  The young fellow opened a sagging door, let her pass into a narrow hallway,and from there into a stuffy, hopelessly conventional fifth-rate parlor,handed her the bag, and departed with another tilt of the hat which placedit at a different angle. The sentence meant for farewell she did not catch,for she was staring at a wooden-faced portrait upon an easel, the portraitof a man with a drooping mustache, and porky cheeks, and dead-looking eyes.

  "And I expected bearskin rugs, and antlers on the walls, and bigfireplaces!" she remarked aloud, and sighed. Then she turned and pulledaside a coarse curtain of dusty, machine-made lace, and looked after herguide. He was just disappearing into a saloon across the street, and shedropped the curtain precipitately, as if she were ashamed of spying. "Oh,well--I've heard all cowboys are more or less intemperate," she excused,again aloud.

  She sat down upon an atrocious red plush chair, and wrinkled hernose spitefully at the porky-cheeked portrait. "I suppose you're theproprietor," she accused, "or else the proprietor's son. I wish youwouldn't squint like that. If I have to stop here longer than ten minutes,I shall certainly turn you face to the wall." Whereupon, with anothergrimace, she turned her back upon it and looked out of the window. Then shestood up impatiently, looked at her watch, and sat down again upon the redplush chair.

  "He didn't tell me whether Manley is sick," she said suddenly, with someresentment. "He was awfully abrupt in his manner. Oh, you--" She rose,picked up an old newspaper from the marble-topped table with uncertainlegs, and spread it ungently over the portr
ait upon the easel. Then shewent to the window and looked out again. "I feel perfectly sure that cowboywent and got drunk immediately," she complained, drumming pettishly uponthe glass. "And I don't suppose he told Manley at all."

  The cowboy was innocent of the charge, however, and he was doing hisenergetic best to tell Manley. He had gone straight through the saloon andinto the small room behind, where a man lay sprawled upon a bed in onecorner. He was asleep, and his clothes were wrinkled as if he had lainthere long. His head rested upon his folded arms, and he was snoringloudly. The young fellow went up and took him roughly by the shoulder.

  "Here! I thought I told you to straighten up," he cried disgustedly. "Comealive! The train's come and gone, and your girl's waiting for you over tothe hotel. D' you hear?"

  "Uh-huh!" The man opened one eye, grunted, and closed it again.

  The other yanked him half off the bed, and swore. This brought both eyesopen, glassy with whisky and sleep. He sat wobbling upon the edge of thebed, staring stupidly.

  "Can't you get anything through you?" his tormentor exclaimed. "You wantyour girl to find out you're drunk? You got the license in your pocket.You're supposed to get spliced this evening--and look at you!" He turnedand went out to the bartender.

  "Why didn't you pour that coffee into him, like I told you?" he demanded."We've got to get him steady on his pins _somehow!_"

  The bartender was sprawled half over the bar, apathetically reading thesporting news of a torn Sunday edition of an Eastern paper. He looked upfrom under his eyebrows and grunted.

  "How you going to pour coffee down a man that lays flat on his belly andwon't open his mouth?" he inquired, in an injured tone. "Sleep's all heneeds, anyway. He'll be all right by morning."

  The other snorted dissent. "He'll be all right by dark--or he'll feel awhole lot worse," he promised grimly. "Dig up some ice. And a good jolt ofbromo, if you've got it--and a towel or two."

  The bartender wearily pushed the paper to one side, reached languidly underthe bar, and laid hold of a round blue bottle. Yawning uninterestedly, hepoured a double portion of the white crystals into a glass, half filledanother under the faucet of the water cooler, and held them out.

  "Dump that into him, then," he advised. "It'll help some, if you get itdown. What's the sweat to get him married off to-day? Won't the girl wait?"

  "I never asked her. You pound up some ice and bring it in, will you?" Thevolunteer nurse kicked open the door into the little room and went in,hastily pouring the bromo seltzer from one glass to the other to keep itfrom foaming out of all bounds. His patient was still sitting upon the edgeof the bed where he had left him, slumped forward with his head in hishands. He looked up stupidly, his eyes bloodshot and swollen of lid.

  "'S the train come in yet?" he asked thickly. "'S you, is it, Kent?"

  "The train's come, and your girl is waiting for you at the hotel. Here,throw this into you--and for God's sake, brace up! You make me tired. Drinkher down quick--the foam's good for you. Here, you take the stuff in thebottom, too. Got it? Take off your coat, so I can get at you. You don'tlook much like getting married, and that's no josh."

  Fleetwood shook his head with drunken gravity, and groaned. "I ought to bekilled. Drunk to-day!" He sagged forward again, and seemed disposed to shedtears. "She'll never forgive me; she--"

  Kent jerked him to his feet peremptorily. "Aw, look here! I'm tryingto sober you up. You've got to do your part--see? Here's some ice in atowel--you get it on your head. Open up your shirt, so I can bathe yourchest. Don't do any good to blubber around about it. Your girl can't hearyou, and Jim and I ain't sympathetic. Set down in this chair, where we canget at you." He enforced his command with some vigor, and Fleetwood groanedagain. But he shed no more tears, and he grew momentarily more lucid, asthe treatment took effect.

  The tears were being shed in the stuffy little hotel parlor. The youngwoman looked often at her watch, went into the hallway, and opened theouter door several times, meditating a search of the town, and drew backalways with a timid fluttering of heart because it was all so crude andstrange, and the saloons so numerous and terrifying in their very baldsimplicity.

  She was worried about Manley, and she wished that cowboy would come outof the saloon and bring her lover to her. She had never dreamed of beingtreated in this way. No one came near her--and she had secretly expected tocause something of a flutter in this little town they called Hope.

  Surely, young girls from the East, come out to get married to theirsweethearts, weren't so numerous that they should be ignored. If there wereother people in the hotel, they did not manifest their presence, save bydisquieting noises muffled by intervening partitions.

  She grew thirsty, but she hesitated to explore the depths of this drearyabode, in fear of worse horrors than the parlor furniture, and all theplaces of refreshment which she could see from the window or the doorlooked terribly masculine and unmoral, and as if they did not know thereexisted such things as ice cream, or soda, or sherbet.

  It was after an hour of this that the tears came, which is saying a gooddeal for her courage. It seemed to her then that Manley must be dead. Whatelse could keep him so long away from her, after three years of impassionedlonging written twice a week with punctilious regularity?

  He knew that she was coming. She had telegraphed from St. Paul, and hadreceived a joyful reply, lavishly expressed in seventeen words instead ofthe ten-word limit. And they were to have been married immediately upon herarrival.

  That cowboy had known she was coming; he must also have known why Manleydid not meet her, and she wished futilely that she had questioned him,instead of walking beside him without a word. He should have explained. Hewould have explained if he had not been so very anxious to get inside thatsaloon and get drunk.

  She had always heard that cowboys were chivalrous, and brave, andfascinating in their picturesque dare-deviltry, but from the lone specimenwhich she had met she could not see that they possessed any of thosequalities. If all cowboys were like that, she hoped that she would not becompelled to meet any of them. And _why_ didn't Manley come?

  It was then that an inner door--a door which she had wanted to open, buthad lacked courage--squeaked upon its hinges, and an ill-kept bundle ofhair was thrust in, topping a weather-beaten face and a scrawny littlebody. Two faded, inquisitive eyes looked her over, and the woman sidled in,somewhat abashed, but too curious to remain outside.

  "Oh yes!" She seemed to be answering some inner question. "I didn't knowyou was here." She went over and removed the newspaper from the portrait."That breed girl of mine ain't got the least idea of how to straighten upa room," she observed complainingly. "I guess she thinks this picture wasmade to hang things on. I'll have to round her up again and tell her a fewthings. This is my first husband. He was in politics and got beat, and sohe killed himself. He couldn't stand to have folks give him the laugh." Shespoke with pride. "He was a real handsome man, don't you think? You mightatook off the paper; it didn't belong there, and he does brighten up theroom. A good picture is real company, seems to me. When my old man gets onthe rampage till I can't stand it no longer, I come in here and set, andlook at Walt. 'T ain't every man that's got nerve to kill himself--with ashotgun. It was turrible! He took and tied a string to the trigger--"

  "Oh, please!"

  The landlady stopped short and stared at her. "What? Oh, I won't go intodetails--it was awful messy, and that's a fact. I didn't git over it for acouple of months. He coulda killed himself with a six-shooter; it's alwaysbeen a mystery why he dug up that old shotgun, but he did. I always thoughthe wanted to show his nerve." She sighed, and drew her fingers across hereyes. "I don't s'pose I ever will git over it," she added complacently. "Itwas a turrible shock."

  "Do you know," the girl began desperately, "if Mr. Manley Fleetwood is intown? I expected him to meet me at the train."

  "Oh! I kinda _thought_ you was Man Fleetwood's girl. My name's Hawley. Yougoing to be married to-night, ain't you?"

  "I--I haven't
seen Mr. Fleetwood yet," hesitated the girl, and her eyesfilled again with tears. "I'm afraid something may have happened to him.He--"

  Mrs. Hawley glimpsed the tears, and instantly became motherly in hermanner. She even went up and patted the girl on the shoulder.

  "There, now, don't you worry none. Man's all right; I seen him at dinnertime. He was--" She stopped short, looked keenly at the delicate face,and at the yellow-brown eyes which gazed back at her, innocent of evil,trusting, wistful. "He spoke about your coming, and said he'd want the useof the parlor this evening, for the wedding. I had an idea you was comingon the six-twenty train. Maybe he thought so, too. I never heard you comein--I was busy frying doughnuts in the kitchen--and I just happened to comein here after something. You'd oughta rapped on that door. Then I'd 'a'known you was here. I'll go and have my old man hunt him up. He must bearound town somewheres. Like as not he'll meet the six-twenty, expectingyou to be on it."

  She smiled reassuringly as she turned to the inner door.

  "You take off your hat and jacket, and pretty soon I'll show you up to aroom. I'll have to round up my old man first--and that's liable to taketime." She turned her eyes quizzically to the porky-cheeked portrait. "Youjest let Walt keep you company till I get back. He was real good companywhen he was livin'."

  She smiled again and went out briskly, came back, and stood with her handupon the cracked doorknob.

  "I clean forgot your name," she hinted. "Man told me, at dinner time, butI'm no good on earth at remembering names till after I've seen the personit belongs to."

  "Valeria Peyson--Val, they call me usually, at home." The homesickness ofthe girl shone in her misty eyes, haunted her voice. Mrs. Hawley read it,and spoke more briskly than she would otherwise have done.

  "Well, we're plumb strangers, but we ain't going to stay that way, becauseevery time you come to town you'll have to stop here; there ain't any otherplace to stop. And I'm going to start right in calling you Val. We don'tuse no ceremony with folk's names, out here. Val's a real nice name, shortand easy to say. Mine's Arline. You can call me by it if you want to. Idon't let everybody--so many wants to cut it down to Leen, and I won'tstand for that; I'm _lean_ enough, without havin' it throwed up to me. Wemight jest as well start in the way we're likely to keep it up, and youwon't feel so much like a stranger.

  "I'm awful glad you're going to settle here--there ain't so awful manywomen in the country; we have to rake and scrape to git enough for threesets when we have a dance--and more likely we can't make out more 'n two.D' you dance? Somebody said they seen a fiddle box down to the depot, witha couple of big trunks; d' you play the fiddle?"

  "A little," Valeria smiled faintly.

  "Well, that'll come in awful handy at dances. We'd have 'em real often inthe winter if it wasn't such a job to git music. Well, I got too much to doto be standin' here talkin'. I have to keep right after that breed girl allthe time, or she won't do nothing. I'll git my old man after your fellowright away. Jest make yourself to home, and anything you want ask for itin the kitchen." She smiled in friendly fashion and closed the door with alittle slam to make sure that it latched.

  Valeria stood for a moment with her hands hanging straight at hersides, staring absently at the door. Then she glanced at Walt, staringwooden-faced from his gilt frame upon his gilt easel, and shivered. Shepushed the red plush chair as far away from him as possible, sat down withher back to the picture, and immediately felt his dull, black eyes boringinto her back.

  "What a fool I must be!" she said aloud, glancing reluctantly over hershoulder at the portrait. She got up resolutely, placed the chair where ithad stood before, and stared deliberately at Walt, as if she would provehow little she cared. But in a moment more she was crying dismally.