The Sheriff's Son/Chapter 25
Two and a Camp-Fire
ROY worked his way through the aspens and returned to the place where he had left Beulah. She was still sleeping soundly and did not stir at his approach. Quietly he built a fire and heated water for coffee. From his saddlebags he took sandwiches wrapped in a newspaper. Beside the girl he put his canteen, a pocket comb, a piece of soap, and the bandanna he wore around his neck. Then, reluctantly, he awakened her.
"Supper will be served in just five minutes," he announced with a smile.
She glanced at the scant toilet facilities and nodded her head decisively. "Thank you, kind sir. I 'll be on hand."
The young woman rose, glanced in the direction of the aspens, gathered up the supplies, and fled to the grove. The eyes of Beaudry followed her flight. The hour of sleep had been enough to restore her resilience. She moved with the strong lightness that always reminded him of wild woodland creatures.
In spite of her promise Beulah was away beyond the time limit. Beaudry became a little uneasy. It was not possible, of course, that Meldrum could have escaped from the pit. And yet—
He called to her. "Is every little thing all right, neighbor?"
"All right," she answered.
A moment later she emerged from the aspens and came toward the camp. She was panting a little, as if she had been running.
"Quite a hill," he commented.
She gave him a quick glance. There was in it shy curiosity, but her dark eyes held, too, an emotion more profound.
"Yes," she said. "It makes one breathe fast."
Miss Rutherford had improved her time. The disorderly locks had been hairpinned into place. From her face all traces of the dried tears were washed. Pit clay no longer stained the riding-skirt.
Sandwiches and coffee made their meal, but neither of them had ever more enjoyed eating. Beulah was still ravenously hungry, though she restrained her appetite decorously.
"I forgot to tell you that I am lost," he explained. "Unless you can guide me out of this labyrinth of hills, we 'll starve to death."
"I can take you straight to the park."
"But we 're not going to the park. Everybody is out looking for you. We are to follow Del Oro down to the flats. The trouble is that I 've lost Del Oro," he grinned.
"It is just over the hill."
After refreshments he brought up his pinto horse and helped her to the saddle. She achieved the mount very respectably. With a confidential little laugh she took him into the secret of her success.
"I 've been practicing with dad. He has to help me up every time I go riding."
They crossed to Del Oro in the dusk and followed the trail by the creek in the moonlight. In the starlight night her dusky beauty set his pulses throbbing. The sweet look of her dark-lashed eyes stirred strange chaos in him. They talked little, for she, too, felt a delicious emotion singing in the currents of her blood. When their shy eyes met, it was with a queer little thrill as if they had kissed each other.
It was late when they reached the flats. There was no sign of Charlton's party.
"The flats run for miles each way. We might wander all night and not find them," Beulah mentioned.
"Then we 'll camp right here and look for them in the morning," decided Roy promptly.
Together they built a camp-fire. Roy returned from picketing the horse to find her sitting on a blanket in the dancing light of the flickering flames. Her happy, flushed face was like the promise of a summer day at dawn.
In that immensity of space, with night's million candles far above them and the great hills at their backs, the walls that were between them seemed to vanish.
Their talk was intimate and natural. It had the note of comradeship, took for granted sympathy and understanding.
He showed her the picture of his mother. By the fire glow she studied it intently. Her eyes brimmed with tears.
"She's so lovely and so sweet—and she had to go away and leave her little baby when she was so young. I don't wonder you worship her. I would, too."
Roy did not try to thank her in words. He choked up in his throat and nodded.
"You can see how fine and dainty she was," the girl went on. "I'd rather be like that than anything else in the world—and, of course, I never can be."
"I don't know what you mean," he protested warmly. "You 're as fine as they grow."
She smiled, a little wistfully. "Nice of you to say so, but I know better. I'm not a lady. I'm just a harum-scarum, tempery girl that grew up in the hills. If I did n't know it, that would n't matter. But I do know it, and so like a little idiot I pity myself because I'm not like nice girls."
"Thank Heaven, you 're not!" he cried. "I 've never met a girl fit to hold a candle to you. Why, you 're the freest, bravest, sweetest thing that ever lived."
The hot blood burned slowly into her cheek under its dusky coloring. His words were music to her, and yet they did not satisfy.
"You 're wrapping it up nicely, but we both know that I'm a vixen when I get angry," she said quietly. "We used to have an old Indian woman work for us. When I was just a wee bit of a thing she called me Little Cactus Tongue."
"That's nothing. The boys were probably always teasing you and you defended yourself. In a way the life you have led has made you hard. But it is just a surface hardness nature has provided as a protection to you."
"Since it is there, I don't see that it helps much to decide why it is a part of me," she returned with a wan little smile.
"But it does," he insisted. "It matters a lot. The point is that it is n't you at all. Some day you 'll slough it the way a butterfly does its shell."
"When?" she wanted to know incredulously.
He did not look at her while he blurted out his answer. "When you are happily married to a man you love who loves you."
"Oh! I'm afraid that will be never." She tried to say it lightly, but her face glowed from the heat of an inward fire.
"There's a deep truth in the story of the princess who slept the years away until the prince came along and touched her lips with his. Don't you think lots of people are hampered by their environment? All they need is escape." He suggested this with a shy diffidence.
"Oh, we all make that excuse for ourselves," she answered with a touch of impatient scorn. "I'm all the time doing it. I say if things were different I would be a nice, sweet-tempered, gentle girl and not fly out like that Katherine in Shakespeare's play. But I know all the time it is n't true. We have to conquer ourselves. There is no city of refuge from our own temperaments."
He felt sure there was a way out from her fretted life for this deep-breasted, supple daughter of the hills if she could only find it. She had breathed an atmosphere that made for suspicion and harshness. All her years she had been forced to fight to save herself from shame. But Roy, as he looked at her, imaged another picture of Beulah Rutherford. Little children clung to her knees and called her "Mother." She bent over them tenderly, her face irradiated with love. A man whose features would not come clear strode toward her and the eyes she lifted to his were pools of light.
Beaudry drew a deep breath and looked away from her into the fire. "I wish time would solve my problem as surely as it will yours," he said.
She looked at him eagerly, lips parted, but she would not in words invite his confession.
The young man shaded his eyes with his hand as if to screen them from the fire, but she noticed that the back of his hand hid them from her, too. He found a difficulty in beginning. When at last he spoke, his voice was rough with feeling.
"Of course, you 'll despise me—you of all people. How could you help it?"
Her body leaned toward him ever so slightly. Love lit her face like a soft light.
"Shall I? How do you know?"
"It cuts so deep—goes to the bottom of things. If a fellow is wild or even bad, he may redeem himself. But you can't make a man out of a yellow cur. The stuff is n't there." The words came out jerkily as if with some physical difficulty.
"If you mean about coming up to the park, I know about that," she said gently. "Mr. Dingwell told father. I think it was splendid of you."
"No, that is n't it. I knew I was right in coming and that some day you would understand." He dropped the hand from his face and looked straight at her. "Dave did n't tell your father that I had to be flogged into going, did he? He did n't tell him that I tried to dodge out of it with excuses."
"Of course, you were n't anxious to throw up your own affairs and run into danger for a man you had never met. Why should you be wild for the chance. But you went."
"Oh, I went. I had to go. Ryan put it up to me so that there was no escape," was his dogged, almost defiant, answer.
"I know better," the girl corrected quickly. "You put it up to yourself. You 're that way."
"Am I?" He flashed a questioning look at her. "Then, since you know that, perhaps you know, too, what—what I'm trying to tell you."
"Perhaps I do," she whispered softly to the fire.
There was panic in his eyes. "—That … that I—"
"—That you are sensitive and have a good deal of imagination," the girl concluded gently.
"No, I 'll not feed my vanity with pleasant lies to-night." He gave a little gesture of self-scorn as he rose to throw some dry sticks on the fire. "What I mean and what you mean is that—that I'm an arrant coward." Roy gulped the last words out as if they burned his throat.
"I don't mean that at all," she flamed. "How can you say such a thing about yourself when everybody knows that you 're the bravest man in Washington County?"
"No—no. I'm a born trembler." From where he stood beyond the fire he looked across at her with dumb anguish in his eyes. "You say yourself you 've noticed it. Probably everybody that knows me has."
"I did n't say that." Her dark eyes challenged his very steadily. "What I said was that you have too much imagination to rush into danger recklessly. You picture it all out vividly beforehand and it worries you. Is n't that the way of it?"
He nodded, ashamed.
"But when the time comes, nobody could be braver than you," she went on. "You 've been tried out a dozen times in the last three months. You have always made good."
"Made good! If you only knew!" he answered bitterly.
"Knew what? I saw you down at Hart's when Dan Meldrum ordered you to kneel and beg. But you gamed it out, though you knew he meant to kill you."
He flushed beneath the tan. "I was too paralyzed to move. That's the simple truth."
"Were you too paralyzed to move down at the arcade of the Silver Dollar?" she flashed at him.
"It was the drink in me. I was n't used to it and it went to my head."
"Had you been drinking that time at the depot?" she asked with a touch of friendly irony.
"That was n't courage. If it would have saved me, I would have run like a rabbit. But there was no chance. The only hope I had was to throw a fear into him. But all the time I was sick with terror."
She rose and walked round the camp-fire to him. Her eyes were shining with a warm light of admiration. Both hands went out to him impulsively.
"My friend, that is the only kind of courage really worth having. That kind you earn. It is yours because it is born of the spirit. You have fought for it against the weakness of the flesh and the timidity of your own soul. Some men are born without sense or imagination. They don't know enough to be afraid. But the man who tramples down a great fear wins his courage by earning it." She laughed a little, to make light of her own enthusiasm. "Oh, I know I'm preaching like a little prig. But it's the truth, just the same."
At the touch of her fingers his pulses throbbed. But once more he tried to make her understand.
"No, I 've had luck all the way through. Do you remember that night at the cabin—before we went up the cañon?"
"Some one shot at me as I ran into the cabin. I was so frightened that I piled all the furniture against the door and hid in the cellar. It was always that way with me. I used to jump if anybody rode up unexpectedly at the ranch. Every little thing set my nerves fluttering."
"But it is n't so now."
"No, not so much."
"That's what I'm telling you," she triumphed. "You came out here from a soft life in town. But you 've grown tough because you set your teeth to go through no matter what the cost. I wish I could show you how much I … admire you. Dad feels that way, too. So does Ned."
"But I don't deserve it. That's what humiliates me."
"Don't you?" She poured out her passionate protest. "Do you think I don't know what happened back there at the prospect hole? Do you think I don't know that you put Dan Meldrum down in the pit—and him with a gun in his hand? Was it a coward that did that?"
With a gesture wholly savage and feminine her firm arms crept about his neck and fastened there
"I heard him calling you—and I went close. Yes, I knew it. But you would never have told me because it might seem like bragging."
"It was easy enough. I was n't thinking of myself, but of you. He saw I meant business and he wilted."
"You were thinking about me—and you forgot to be afraid," the girl exulted.
"Yes, that was it." A wave of happiness broke over his heart as the sunlight does across a valley at dawn. "I'm always thinking of you. Day and night you fill my thoughts, hillgirl. When I'm riding the range—whatever I do—you 're with me all the time."
Her lips were slightly parted, eyes eager and hungry. The heart of the girl drank in his words as the thirsty roots of a rosebush do water. She took a long deep breath and began to tremble.
"I think of you as the daughter of the sun and the wind. Some day you will be the mother of heroes, the wife of a man—"
"Yes," she prompted again, and the face lifted to his was flushed with innocent passion.
The shy invitation of her dark-lashed eyes was not to be denied. He flung away discretion and snatched her into his arms. An inarticulate little sound welled up from her throat, and with a gesture wholly savage and feminine her firm arms crept about his neck and fastened there.