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   Chapter 8 No.8

I Conquered"" By Harold Titus Characters: 10012

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


A Head of Yellow Hair

The next day Jed declared for a trip to Ranger after grub. The trip was necessary, and it would be an education for VB, he said with a chuckle, to see the town. But when they were ready to start a rider approached the ranch.

"If it ain't Kelly!" Jed cried. Then, in explanation: "He's a horse buyer, an' must be comin' to see me."

And the man's desire to look over the VB stuff was so strong that Jed declared it would be business for him to stay at home.

In a way, Danny was glad of the opportunity to go alone. It fed the glowing pride in his ability to do things, to be of use, and after a short interchange of drolleries with the man Kelly, whom he instinctively liked, the boy mounted to the high wagon seat and drove off down the gulch.

It was a long drive, and hours alone are conducive to thought. Danny's mind went back over the days that had passed, wandering along those paths he had followed since that July morning in the luxuriously dim house on Riverside Drive. And the reason for his departing from the old way came back to him now, because he was alone, with nothing to divert his attention. The old turbulence arose; it wore and wore with the miles, eating down to his will, teasing, coaxing, threatening, pleading, fuming.

"Will it always be so?" he asked the distances. "When it comes to challenge me, to take away all that I hold dear, shall I always be afraid? Shan't I be able to stand and fight and triumph, merely raging because it dares tempt me instead of fearing this thing itself?"

And he spoke as he thought in terms of his ideal, as materialized in the Captain.

"But will it always be so with him?" he asked again. "Won't some horse come to challenge him some day and batter him down and make defeat all the more bitter because of the supremacy he has enjoyed? Would it then be-worth the candle?"

And as he bowed his head he thought once more of the beacon in the bottle, corking it up, driving back the shadows, making a livable place in the darkness.

Nothing is ever intrinsically curious. Curiousness comes solely from relationships. Time and place are the great factors in creating oddities. Five miles farther on VB saw a curious thing. This was at the forks of the road. To his right it went off behind the long, rocky point toward Sand Creek; to the left it wandered through the sage brush over toward the S Bar S Ranch, and ahead it ran straight on to Ranger.

Along the prong that twisted to the left went an automobile. Nothing curious about that to VB, for many times he had seen Bob Thorpe driving his car through the country.

But at the wheel was a lone figure crowned by a mass of yellow hair. That was the curious thing he saw!

All VB could distinguish at that distance with his hot eyes was yellow hair. The machine picked its way carefully along the primitive road, checking down here, shooting ahead there, going on toward the horizon, bearing the yellow hair away from him, until it was only a crawling thing with a long, floating tail of dust. But it seemed to him he could still make out that bright fleck even after the automobile had become indistinguishable.

"She's alone," muttered VB. "She's driving that car alone-and out here!"

Then he wondered with a laugh why he should think it so strange. Many times he had ridden down Fifth Avenue in the afternoon traffic congestion beside a woman who piloted her own car. Surely the few hazards of this thoroughfare were not to be compared with that!

But it was the incongruity which his association of ideas brought up that made him tingle a little. That hair! It did not belong out here. He had not been near enough to see the girl's face-he was sure it was a girl, not a grown woman-but the color of her crowning adornment suggested many and definite things. And those things were not of these waste places; were not rough and primal. They were finer, higher.

Once before he had experienced this nameless, pleasurable sensation of being familiar with the unknown. That had been when Jed had sketched with a dozen unrelated words a picture of the daughter of the house of Thorpe.

The motor car with its fair-haired pilot had been gone an hour when Danny, watching a coyote skulk among distant rocks, said aloud: "East-college-I'll bet-I-I wonder-"

Dusk had come when Young VB entered Ranger and put up at the ranch, which made as much pretense of buildings as did the town itself. Morning found him weak and drawn, as it always did after a night of the conflict, yet he was up with the sun, eager to be through with his task and back with Jed.

Purchasing supplies is something of a rite in Ranger, and under other conditions, on another day perhaps, it might have amused VB; but with the unrest within him he found little about the procedure that did not irritate.

In the store there one may buy everything in hardware from safety pins to trace chains; groceries range from canned soup to wormy nuts; in drugs anything, b

ounded on one end by horse liniment and on the other extreme by eye-drops guaranteed to prevent cataracts, is for sale; and overalls and sewing silk are alike popular commodities. All is in fine order, and the manager is a walking catalogue of household necessities.

VB was relieved when the buying had been accomplished. He crowded a can of ten-cent tobacco into the pocket of his new overalls and started for the team. A dozen strides away from the store building he paused to look about. It was his first inspection of Ranger in daylight, and now as he surveyed its extent his sense of humor rose above the storm within him, and he grinned.

The store, with its conventional false front, stood beside the post office, which was built as a lean-to. Next to it was a building of red corrugated iron, and sounds of blacksmithing issued from it. Behind VB was a tiny house, with a path running from it to the store, the home of the manager. Next it a log cabin. Down at the left, near the river, was another house, deserted, the ranch where he had stayed, and beyond it a trio of small shacks on the river bank.

"Ranger," he muttered, and chuckled.

The road, brown and soft with fine dust, stretched on and on toward Utah, off to the west where silence was supreme.

The buildings were all on the north side of the road.

"A south front was the idea, I suppose," VB murmured. "Mere matter of-"

His gaze had traveled across the road to a lone building erected there, far back against a sharp rise of ground. It stood apart, as though consciously aloof from the rest, a one-story structure, and across its front a huge white sign, on which in black characters was painted the word:

SALOON

Unconsciously his tongue came out to wet the parched lips and his fingers plucked at the seams of the new overalls.

Why not? the insidious self argued, why not? All changes must come gradually. Nothing can be accomplished in a moment. Just one drink to cool his throat, to steady his nerves, and brace him for the fight he would make-later.

As he stood there listening to that inner voice, yet holding it off, he did not hear the fall of hoofs behind him or the jingle of spurs as a rider dismounted and approached.

But he did hear the voice-drawling, nasty, jeering:

"Was you considerin' havin' a bit o' refreshment, stranger?"

VB wheeled quickly and looked straight into the green glitter of Rhues's red-lidded eyes. The cruel mouth was stretched in an angular grin, and the whole countenance expressed the incarnate spirit of the bully.

Into Danny's mind leaped the idea that this thing before him, this evil-eyed, jeering, leering, daring being, typified all that was foul in his heart-just as the Captain typified all that was virtuous.

The intuitive repulsion surged to militant hate. He wanted to smother the breath which kept alive such a spirit, wanted to stamp into the dust the body that housed it-because it mocked him and tempted him! But Young VB only turned and brushed past the man without a word.

He heard Rhues's laughter behind him, and heard him call: "Ranger ain't no eastern Sunday school. Better have one an' be a man, like th' rest o' th' boys!"

However, when Rhues turned back to his pony the laugh was gone and he was puzzling over something. After he had mounted, he looked after the boy again maliciously.

VB was on the road in half an hour, driving the horses as fast as he dared. He wanted to be back in Jed's cabin, away from Ranger. This thing had followed him across the country to Colt; from Colt to the Anchor; and now It lurked for him in Ranger. The ranch was his haven.

The settlement by the river reached its claws after him as he drove, fastening them in his throat and shaking his will until it seemed as though it had reached the limit of its endurance.

It was dark when he reached home. A mile away he had seen the light and smiled weakly at thought of it, and the horses, more than willing, carried the wagon over the remaining distance with a bouncing that threatened its contents.

When VB pulled up before the outer gate Jed hurried from the cabin.

"VB," he called, "are you all right?"

"All right, Jed," he answered, dropping from the seat.

And the boy thought he heard the older man thank his God.

Without words, they unharnessed and went to the cabin. Kelly was sleeping loudly in the adjoining room. The table had been moved from its usual place nearer to the window, and the bottle with its burning candle was close against the pane. Jed looked at the candle, then at VB.

"I'm sorry," he said, seeing the strain about the boy's mouth. "I never thought about it until come night, Young VB. I never thought about it. I-I guess I'm an old fool, gettin' scared th' way I do. So I shoved this candle up against th' window-because I'm an old fool and thought-it might help a little."

And VB answered: "It does help, Jed! Every little thing helps. And oh, God, how I need it!"

He turned away.

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