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Dust of the Desert, Page 3

Robert Welles Ritchie



  Grant Hickman was not one of that tribe dignified by the name ofhe-flirts. He abominated the whole slimy clan with the loathing of aclean man. When he had seized upon the part of studied rudeness towardthe Spaniard it was not with the ulterior purpose of winning a smileor paving the way for acquaintance with a pretty woman; Grant's vividrecollection of the sidewalk cafes of Paris in war time and theirhunting women left him cold toward the type that is careless of men'sapproaches. In flouting the foreigner and preventing his scheme to gaina place in the car with the girl he had bullied on the station platformthe New York man had acted merely on instinct; he had protected agirl from annoyance. Yet now that he had won through by dint of crassboorishness--and the young man's conscience gave him a twinge over thesubstance of his discourtesy--he suffered a not unreasonable curiosityregarding the possessor of that glorious beacon in the seat across theaisle.

  Who was she? What circumstances had led to that scene on the platformwhich had ended with the unexpected dagger thrust of the steel hairornament? Was this little black-and-tan whipper-snapper a lover--abrother--blackmailer? Grant's galloping imagination built up flimsyhypotheses only to rip them apart. And his eyes dwelt upon the softinvolutions of flame coloured hair, which were the only physicalindices of personality granted him thus far.

  Once the object of his conjectures shifted her seat so that a profilepeeped out from behind the wide seat arm. Grant's eyes hungrily conneddelectable details: one broad wing of hair sweeping down in a line ofstudied carelessness over a forehead somewhat low and rounded; fineline of nose with the hint of a passionate spirit in the modelling;mouth that was all girlish, mobile, ready to reflect whims or laughter.The sort of mouth, Grant reflected, that could load a laugh withpoison--even as he had seen it done that tense instant on the platformat El Paso--or freight it with sweetness for a favoured one. A worldof fire and seduction untried lay in the full round lips, yet a chinwith the thrust of will in it warned that the promise of those lips wasjealously guarded.

  A broad sheaf of sunlight lay across her cheek. Grant saw that herswas not the usual apple tint of the red-haired, the characteristicskin so delicate as to suggest translucence. Rather a touch of the sunhad spread an impalpable film of tan, warm as the colour of old ivory,over cheek and throat. Duskiness of a southland dyed cheek and throatdespite the anomaly of the burning hair, quite Celtic.

  The afternoon waned with no favouring fortune throwing Grant's wayopportunity to study the girl closer. When the sunset was in the sky hewalked through the train to the observation platform. As he drew nearthe glassed-in end of the observation car he noted with a little leapof elation that the girl was sitting under the awning beyond the screendoor. He saw, too, the objectionable Spanish gentleman. His midget bodywas packed into a chair, one neatly booted foot under him; like somehunting cat he sat in watchful patience inside the body of the car, hiseyes never leaving the figure of the girl beyond the screen door.

  Grant passed through to the platform, not giving the Spaniard so muchas a glance. As the door slammed behind him the girl looked up quickly.Grant saw her eyes were blue, saw, too, a fighting gleam quickly passfrom them. Evidently he was not the one they expected to fall upon.A pretty confusion which tried to deny recognition swiftly replacedthe strained look. Grant allowed himself to be bold to the extent oftip-tilting his cap. The girl evidently decided that to overlook aservice done would be pushing decorum too far; she gave Grant a quick,shy smile which might have carried a hint of gratitude mingled withnaive humour.

  "You were very kind," she said as Grant took the camp-stool next toher, "and very amusing. The high hand--you possess the art of using it,sir."

  "I should be ashamed of my rudeness," he answered with a quick smile."But somehow I am not. Your way of repelling attack has its advantages,too--" His eyes strayed to the silver comb, whose concealed steel hadbeen so efficacious on the El Paso platform. The girl reddened prettily.

  "Always one must be--prepared against--persuasion," was the answerthat put a period to all reference which might be distasteful. Grantwould have liked to know more of circumstances that had pushed thisradiant young person into the grip of a bullying little civet cat of aSpaniard, but he dared not risk rudeness by further questioning. Rewardenough was his already; he had it in the swift play of laughter acrossdelicate features, in the sweetly resonant quality of her voice, all ofa part with the engaging exotic character of the girl. For American sheassuredly was not, though her trim tailoring was impeccably the mode ofthe moment. Her speech had a rippling musical lilt to it suggestive ofa mother tongue less harsh than Anglo-Saxon; her enunciation was tooperfect to be American. There was a trick of the eyes, something almostvocal, which was an inheritance from mothers whose speech is sternlyhedged about by conventions but who find subtler ways of expression.

  What could her nationality be? Assuredly not Irish, though eyes andhair were exactly what Grant had seen in the green island during afurlough spent in jaunting cars and peaty inns. Mexican? The flame hairdenied that. Here was another mystery to be set aside with that of theencounter at the station. With two avenues of conversation closed Grantplunged blindly along one strictly innocuous.

  "We seem to be getting rather deep into the desert." He waved out at ahundred mile vista of sunset painted waste, all purple and hot gold inthe glory from the west--a new picture for the eastern man. The girlmade an unconscious movement of half-stretched arms as if to free hersoul for wandering in limitless spaces.

  "Yes, the desert," she breathed. "How wonderful! And for me, returningto it after two years in cities--in cities where one chokes from wallsall about--you see how the desert welcomes with all its glory." Grantlooked at her curiously; he saw a vision in her eyes.

  "Then you like this--this dry and barren land? Why, I thoughtnobody lived out here unless he had to. No trees, no water--" Thegirl's wondering eyes upon him checked his summary of the desert'sshortcomings.

  "You do not know the desert then," she reproved. "You have never seenthe _palo verde_ tree when every branch is heavy with gold. You do notknow how the _sahuaro_ wreathes itself a crown of blossoms--the toughold _sahuaro_, a giant with flowers on his head ready to play withspring fairies. Water!"--a crescendo gust of laughter--"You think wateronly comes from a faucet. If you dug for it with your bare hands--dugand dug in hot sands while death moved closer to you each hour, thenyou would come to see a real beauty in water."

  "You know something of the desert," Grant conceded.

  "Something! Senor"--the alien word slipped from her in her flurry ofdevotion--"senor, my home is there and my father's home has been theremore than a hundred and fifty years. I have been away from it in theslavery of the cities--two years at music in New Orleans and Baltimore.Now I return. To-morrow morning at Arizora big Quelele, my father'sIndian servant, meets me to take me a hundred miles--a hundred milesoff the railroad and away from the nearest city to my home."

  "But Arizora is where I am bound," Grant eagerly caught her up. "That'son the Line, isn't it? A hundred miles--why, then you must live inMexico." She nodded. His curiosity would not down:

  "Then you are Mexican?"

  An instant her blue eyes sparkled resentment. Grant sensed he had madesome blunder, though he could not for the life of him guess how hisinnocent question could have offended. The girl, on her part, quicklyregretted her show of displeasure; one new to the Southwest naturallycould not know much about its social distinctions.

  "Not Mexican," she amended gently. "We are Spanish folk living inMexico. We have always been Spanish since the time one of my ancestorsgot his grant from the king of Spain. Never Mexican. That sounds likesilly boasting to you. When you have lived in this country for a littlewhile you will understand why we have pride in our blood. Just as youhave pride, senor, in your American blood when all the cities of yourcountry are choked with mongrels."

  Hoping to hear her name, Grant gave her his own. She repeated it asif to fix it in me
mory; then she told him hers. Benicia O'Donoju itis written, but in her mouth the two words had a quality like a mutedviolin note, too fugitive to be imprisoned in letters. She spoke thesurname without accent on any syllable--"Odonohoo." The man grasped atsomething evanescent in the sound:

  "Why, I'd pronounce that 'O'Donohue.'"

  "My great-great-grandfather did." Once more Grant's ears drank in thatvelvety contralto laughter which bubbled to her lips so easily. "Youwould pronounce his first name 'Mike,' and so did he."

  "Then your first name should be Peg or Molly-o," Grant rallied. Sheshook her head in gay denial.

  "Senorita Peg--impossible! Benicia is much better. It means 'Blessed'in our tongue. 'Blessed are the pure in heart,' Senor Hickman; or'Blessed are the meek.' I might be either if I could forget I am anO'Donoju."

  "Benicia." Grant tried to copy the slurring softness she gave to theword.--"B'nishia: that sounds like little bells. I like it."

  "You are gracious, senor. I thought Americans were too busy withskyscrapers and wheat markets to learn the art of paying complimentsgracefully."

  "Compliments are born, not paid," he joked. Conversation limped nolonger. Youth has a way of opening little windows in the souls of twobrought together under its wizardry and giving each elusive peepsinto secret chambers. It was Benicia who first became conscious ofthe lateness of the hour and the strain on strict canons of proprietyher presence alone with a stranger on the observation platform hadentailed. She arose with a little laugh.

  "My guardian"--a roguish glance toward the tiny figure of the Spaniardstill on the watch beyond the platform's glass--"I fear he does notapprove. And so--_adios_." She gave Grant the tips of her fingers andwas gone.

  He watched her pass where the sentinel was sitting. The little manuncurled himself from his hump-shouldered crouch and scrambled to hisfeet as if he would speak to her. But Benicia, bowing sweetly, passedon up the aisle and into the alley of rosewood and glass beyond. Aftera moment's hesitation the Spaniard came to the screen door giving ontothe platform, where Grant now stood alone, and opened it. He scratcheda match and put it to his cigarette. Grant saw the flare illuminea cruel hawk's nose and thin, saturnine lips. The Spaniard inhaleddeeply, then let thin streams of smoke seep from his nostrils.

  "Senor"--his voice was cold as a lizard's foot--"perhaps you do notknow that Senorita O'Donoju is travelling under my protection."

  Grant took time to tap a cigarette on the heel of his palm and light itbefore he answered. His eyes were brimming with laughter.

  "Perhaps not," he said. "I congratulate the lady on her protector."Again blue smoke played over the toy moustache; little eyes weresnapping like a badger's.

  "I have the honour to inform you, senor, that your attentions to thelady do her no credit and that they must cease."

  "Really!" Grant's settled good humour received a jar. He felt atingling of fighting nerves down his back. "Really? And who constitutedyou judge of the value of my attentions?"

  "Very naturally I have appointed that position to myself, senor, sinceSenorita O'Donoju is to become my wife."

  "Ah!" Grant's interjection did not carry all the irony he would havewished. His assurance was a trifle shaken.

  "And so," the little man continued, "it is understood. You will notaddress the lady further." Grant laughed.

  "My understanding is very weak and not at all reliable. I promise youthat unless the lady objects I shall continue to address her wheneveropportunity presents."

  The little figure in the doorway straightened itself in an access ofdignity. He snapped his cigarette over the car rail.

  "Senor, let us have no misunderstanding. We approach the Border,where every man works justice according to the dictates of his ownconscience. To-morrow we touch Mexico, where it is known that ColonelHamilcar Urgo is a law unto himself. I am that Colonel Hamilcar Urgo.Need I go farther?"

  "And I am Captain Grant Hickman, formerly of the First Division,Expeditionary Forces. Go as far as you like!"