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Dust of the Desert, Page 2

Robert Welles Ritchie



  The Golden Sunset Limited, Pacific Coast bound, snaked its way througha cleft in mountains and came sighing to a stop at the man's town,El Paso. A patchwork crowd spilled out from the station platform topush around the ladders of the car icers to the train steps. SwarthyMexicans under sombreros, with their black-shawled women and theirlittle tin trunks, scrambled and clogged at the approaches to theoven-like day coaches forward. Pullman passengers sauntered over frogsand switches to plush and rosewood at the train's end.

  Among these was Grant Hickman, civil engineer, New York, lately captainin the First Division overseas. Arizona bound and west of the OhioRiver for the first time in his thirty years, Hickman had broken hisjourney by a day's stopover in El Paso. He had given Juarez a whirl,decided the kind of life he saw across the International Bridge wasspurious and of little worth, and now was entraining again for hisdestination some four hundred miles to the westward. He gave the porterhis bags to stow for him according to the directions scribbled on hisPullman ticket and began a lazy pacing of the platform, his eye alertfor the colour and the bustle of it all. The blending of two races, ofwidely differing civilizations, here in this sturdy city gave Hickman'srestless imagination a smart fillip. He saw men with gaily colouredblankets worn as cloaks over their shoulders like prayer shawls in asynagogue; Indians with ornaments of beaten silver and raw turquoisehasps on their belts had their shoulders planted against solidbrick walls with a grace born only of perfect indolence. All greatstuff--regular musical show background.

  On his first lap down the platform the New York man's eyes restedmomentarily on two figures standing in the drip of one of the caricers' laden pushcarts. A girl and a man; she hatless as she had leftthe car for a stroll, the man all gesticulating hands and eloquentlymoving shoulders. Hickman caught a scrap of the man's fervid speechas he strolled past; it was in a foreign tongue, liquid--almostlisping--with its softly rolled r's and a peculiar singing intonationat the upward lift of each period. Spanish undoubtedly. Just anover-shoulder glimpse of a thin, dark face in sharp profile confirmedGrant in his guess at the speaker's nationality. The girl's bared headattracted his appreciative eye; it bore a glory of wondrously burningred hair, coiled in great masses, vividly alive.

  Grant turned his corner at the platform's end and began to retrace hissteps, consciously bearing in the direction of the beacon hair. When hewas still twenty paces off he saw that the swarthy man had gripped oneof the girl's wrists and that his hawk face was pushed close to hers inwhat might have been an access of fury or of pleading. Grant quickenedhis pace instinctively; he did not like the looks of that man's talongrip on a girl's wrist. He paused a decent distance from the twain andmade a pretence of lighting a cigarette while his eyes glanced steadilyover his cupped palms.

  Then a surprising thing. The girl launched some verbal javelin at theman who gripped her wrist, at the same instant looking down at theclamping fingers as if to emphasize what must have been a commandto release her. No answer but a flash of white teeth beneath a toymoustache. The girl's free hand shot to a great coil of hair over thenape of her neck, came away with twin prongs of thin steel--anchorageof some hair ornament--showing below her clenched fingers. A lightningjab downward, and the Spanish-speaking man dropped the imprisoned handto whip his own to his mouth. He snarled something in sharp falsetto.The girl with the red hair tilted her chin at him, and the laugh thatslipped between her grudging little teeth was thin and sharp as thedouble dagger points she had used.

  She turned, took three steps to a stool below the Pullman's steps,mounted with a quick swirl of skirts and was gone. Grant thought he sawa half-formed determination to follow flash into the Spaniard's eyes.Without knowing why he did it, the New Yorker hastily put one foot uponthe lower Pullman step and bent his body so as to block access to it.Very painstakingly he unloosed the knot on his low shoe, straightenedthe tongue in place and began taking in slack on every loop of thestrings.

  A grunt of exasperation from behind Grant. When at last he straightenedhimself and looked around the Spanish gentleman was gone. He chuckled.

  "Now that, senor, should teach you not to play rough with a red-head."

  He walked down to the Pullman his ticket called for and climbed aboard.Just as the conductor's bellow, "Bo-oa-rd," sounded, Grant, lookingthrough the glass of the vestibule, saw the Spanish gentleman with agrip flying for the train out of the baggage room of the station.

  Passing into the body of the car he found his bags piled upon a seatmidway of its length. As he seated himself he was the least bitstartled to see flaming coils of hair above the top of the seat acrossthe aisle and one beyond his. Grant was not displeased. Girls withspirit always walked straight into his somewhat susceptible affections;and a girl who carried a home-made fish spear in her coiffure--

  "'Scuse me, Cap'n; ef I could jes' have a look at youah berth ticket.This gentmum says he reckons you-all's settin' in his seat." Grantlooked up to see the porter shifting uneasily before him and witha deprecatory grin on his face. By him stood the waspish Spanishgentleman; the latter inclined himself in a stiff bow as Grant's gazemet his. Out of the tail of his eye Grant thought he saw a slow turningof the sunset cloud against the high seat-back ahead.

  "This is my section," Grant drawled with no show of inclination toarbitrate the matter. "I always buy a section when I travel."

  "But, pardon, sir--" The Spanish gentleman extended a pink slip. "Theagent at the station has but now sold me this lower berth."

  "Indeed?" A slow ache of perversity began to travel along Grant'sspine. He had no love for a man who will manhandle women. "Indeed. Theagent at El Paso sold me mine yesterday."

  "Ef I could see youah ticket," the porter began feebly.

  "You couldn't," Grant snapped. "Perhaps the Pullman conductor may."

  A cloud began gathering over the finely chiselled features of theSpaniard. His toy moustache went up. He spoke to the porter:

  "The senor is not what we call _sympatico_. Have the kindness to fetchthe conductor."

  The darkey disappeared. Grant turned to look out of the window,ignoring completely the standing figure in the aisle. But he did notignore the reflection a trick of the sun cast on the double glass ofthe window. He saw there just the faint aura of a fiery head whichrefused to turn, though the compelling gaze of the standing man strovemightily to command it. Faintly in the magic of the dusty glass wascarried to this bystander, whose neutrality already was considerablystrained, the silent battle of wills.

  The Pullman conductor bustled up to Grant's seat. To him the Spaniardappealed, offering the evidence of the berth check. Grant vouchsafedno comment when he passed his own up for inspection. The man in bluecompared them.

  "Some ball-up somewhere," he grunted. Then to Grant: "When was thisticket sold to you?"

  "Yesterday morning at ten-fifteen o'clock," came the prompt answer.The waspish Spanish person admitted he had purchased his only a minutebefore the train started. The conductor waved at Grant.

  "Then I guess the seat belongs to this gentleman. I'll have to find youone in another car."

  "But, senor, I have special reason for remaining in this car." TheSpaniard's carefully restrained wrath began to bubble over. Grantlooked up at him and smiled frankly.

  "So have I," he declared levelly. The other's eyes snapped and his lipslifted over small white teeth in what was meant to be a smile.

  "Senor," he began with a shaking voice, "your courtesy deservesremembrance. I hope some day it may be my pleasure to show you equalconsideration."

  "Until then--_au revoir_," Grant caught him up. With the porterpreceding him, the loser walked down the aisle to the far door of thecar. As he passed the seat where the girl was he half turned with asulky smile. But it was lost. She was looking out at the procession ofthe telegraph poles. Grant, catching this final passage in the littlecomedy, grinned.

  "There's going to be lots of paprika in this Western hike," joyfully he
assured himself--"or do we call it chili?"