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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesStarr, Of The Desert - Chapter 14. A Shot From The Pinnacle
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Starr, Of The Desert - Chapter 14. A Shot From The Pinnacle Post by :Allnewe Category :Long Stories Author :B. M. Bower Date :May 2012 Read :2643

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Starr, Of The Desert - Chapter 14. A Shot From The Pinnacle

CHAPTER FOURTEEN. A SHOT FROM THE PINNACLE


"Why--did some one come with you, Mr. Starr? I thought you were alone."

Starr turned his head and saw Helen May standing quite close, on the other side of him. She was glancing inquiringly from him to the pinto pony, and she was smiling the least little bit, though her eyes had a shamed, self-conscious look. Starr eyed her keenly, a bit reproachfully, and she blushed.

"I thought maybe you'd come around where I was," she defended herself lamely. "It--seemed cooler there--"

"Yes, I noticed it was pretty cool, from the tone of your voice."

"Well--oh, I was just nursing a grouch, and I couldn't stop all at once," Helen May surrendered suddenly, sitting down beside him and crossing her feet. "I've read in stories how sheepherders go crazy, and I know now just why that is. They see so few people that they don't know how to act when some one does come along. They get so they hate themselves and everybody else. I had just finished abusing poor old Pat till he went off and sulked too."

"I thought probably you and Pat had just had a run-in, the way he acted." Starr went back to scanning that part of the mesa where he had glimpsed the rider. He could not afford to forget business in the pleasure of talking aimless, trivial things with Helen May.

"What are you looking for?"

"Stock," said Starr, falling back on the standard excuse of the range man.

"And _what's the idea of two saddle-horses and two saddles and two bridles?" Helen May's voice was as simply curious as a child's.

"The idea is that you're going to ride instead of walk from now on. It's an outfit I got from a fellow that was leaving. He borrowed money from me and left his horse and saddle, for a kind of security. I didn't want it, but he had to leave 'em somewhere. So I thought you might as well keep the horse and use it till he comes back, or something." Starr did very well with this explanation; much better than he had done in explaining Pat. The truth was that he had bought the horse for the express purpose of giving it to Helen May; just as he had bought the dog.

Helen May studied his face while he studied the distant plain. She thought he acted as though he didn't care much whether she kept the horse or not, and for that reason, and because his explanation had sounded like truth, she hesitated over refusing the offer, though she felt that she ought to refuse.

"It ain't right for you to be out here afoot," said Starr, as though he had read her thoughts. "It's bad enough for you to be here at all. What ever possessed you to do such a crazy thing, anyhow?"

"Well, sometimes people can't choose. Dad got the notion first. And then--when he died--Vic and I just went ahead with it."

"Did he know anything about this country? Did he know--what chances you'd be taking?" Starr was trying to choose his words so that they would impress her without alarming her. It angered him to have to worry over the girl's welfare and to keep that worry to himself.

"What chances, for gracious sake? I never saw such a mild, perfectly monotonous life. Why, there are more chances in Los Angeles every time a person goes down town. It's deadly dull here, and it's too lonesome for words, and I hate it. But as for taking chances--" Her voice was frankly contemptuous of the idea.

"Chances of going broke. It takes experience--"

"Oh, as to that, it's partly a matter of health," said Helen May lightly. "I have to live where the climate--"

"You could live in Albuquerque, or some other live town; close to it, anyway. You don't have to stick away down here, where--"

"I don't see as it matters. So long as it isn't Los Angeles, no place appeals to me. And dad had bought the improvements here, so--"

"I'll pay you for the improvements, if that's all," Starr said shortly.

Helen May laughed. "That sounds exactly as though you want to get me out of the country," she challenged.

Starr did not rise to the bait. He took another long look for the horseman, saw not so much as a flurry of dust, and slid the glasses into their case.

"I brought out that carbine I was speaking about. And the shells that go with it. I'm kind of a gun fiend, I guess. I'm always accumulating a lot of shooting irons I never use. I run across a six-shooter and belt, too. Come here, Rabbit!"

Rabbit came, and Starr untied the weapons, smiling boyishly. "You may as well be using 'em; they'll only rust, kicking around in the shack. Buckle this around you. I punched another hole or two, so the belt would come within a mile or so of fitting. You want to wear that every time you go out on the range. The time you leave it home is the very time when you'll see a coyote or something.

"And if you expect to get rich in the goat business, you never want to pass up a coyote. There's a bounty on 'em, for one thing, because they do lots of damage among sheep and goats. And for another," he added impressively, "the rabies that's been epidemic on the Coast is spreading. You've maybe read about it. A rabid coyote would come right at you, and you know the consequences. Or it would bite Pat, and then Pat would tackle you."

"Oh!" Helen May had turned a sickly shade. Her eyes went anxiously over the slope as though she half expected something of the sort to happen then and there.

"That's why," said Starr solemnly, looking down into her face, "I'm kinda worried about you ranging around afoot and without a gun--"

"But nobody else has even mentioned--"

"Everybody else goes prepared, and they're inclined to take chances as a matter of course. I reckon they think you know all about rabies being in the country. This has always been a scrappy kinda place, remember, and folks are used to packing guns and using 'em when the case demands it. You wear this six-gun, lady, and keep your eyes open from now on. I've got another one for Vic; an automatic. Now we'll go down here in the shade and practice shooting. I brought plenty of shells, and I want to learn you how to handle a gun."

Silently she followed him down the slope on the side toward the Basin. He stopped beside the pinto, took it by the bridle-reins and, whipping out his gun, fired it once to test the horse. The pinto twitched its ears at the sound and looked at Starr. Starr laughed.

"I'll learn you to shoot from horseback," he called back to Helen May. "He's broke to it, I can see now."

"Oh, I wonder if I could! Don't tell Vic, will you? I'd like to take him by surprise. Boys are so conceited and self-sufficient! You'd think Vic was my grandfather, the way he lords it over me. First of all, what is the right way to get on a horse? I wish you'd teach me about riding, too."

This sort of instruction grew absorbing to both. Before either guessed how the time had flown, the sun stood straight overhead; and Pat, standing in front of her with an expectant look in his eyes and an occasional wag of his stubby tail, reminded Helen May that it was time for lunch. They had used almost a full box of shells, and Helen May had succeeded in shooting from the back of the pinto and in hitting a certain small hummock of pure sand twice in six shots. She was tremendously proud of the feat, and she took no pains to conceal her pride. She wanted to start in on another box of shells, but Pat's eyes were so reproachful, and her sense of hospitality was so urgent that she decided to wait until they had eaten the lunch she had brought with her.

The rocks which had cast a shadow were now baking in the glare, and the sand where Helen May and Starr had sat was radiating heat waves. Starr took another long look down toward Medina's ranch through his field glasses, while Helen May went to find a comfortable bit of shade.

"If you'll come over this way, Mr. Starr," she called abruptly, "I'll give you a sandwich. It's hot everywhere to-day, but this is a little better than out in the sun."

Starr took the glasses down from his eyes and let them dangle by their cord while he walked over the nose of the ridge to where she was waiting for him.

Half-way there, a streak of fire seemed to sear his arm near his shoulder. Starr knew the feeling well enough. He staggered and went down headlong in a clump of greasewood, and at the same instant the report of a rifle came clearly from the high pinnacle at the head of Sunlight Basin.

Helen May came running, her face white with horror, for she had seen Starr fall just as the sound of the shot came to tell her why. She did not cry out, but she rushed to where he lay half concealed in the bushes. When she came near him, she stopped short. For Starr was lying on his stomach with his head up and elbows in the sand, steadying the glasses to his eyes that he might search that pinnacle.

"W-what made you fall down like that?" Helen May cried exasperatedly. "I--I thought you were shot!"

"I am, to a certain extent," Starr told her unconcernedly. "Kneel down here beside me and act scared, will you? And in a minute I want you to climb on the pinto and ride around behind them rocks and wait for me. Take Rabbit with you. Act like you was going for help, or was scared and running away from a corpse. You get me? I'll crawl over there after a little."

"W-why? Are you hurt so you can't walk?"

Helen May did not have to act; she was scared quite enough for Starr's purpose.

"Oh, I could walk, but walking ain't healthy right now. Jump up now and climb your horse like you was expecting to ride him down to a whisper. Go on--beat it. And when you get outa sight of the pinnacle, stay outa sight. Run!"

There were several questions which Helen May wanted to ask, but she only gave him a hasty, imploring glance which Starr did not see at all, since his eyes were focussed on the pinnacle. She ran to the pinto and scared him so that he jumped away from her. Starr heard and glanced impatiently back at her. He saw that she had managed to get the reins and was mounting with all the haste and all the awkwardness he could possibly expect of her, and he grinned and returned to his scrutiny of the peak.

Whatever he saw he kept to himself; but presently he began to wriggle backward, keeping the greasewood clump, and afterwards certain rocks and little ridges, between himself and a view of the point he had fixed upon as the spot where the shooter had stood.

When he had rounded the first rock ledge he got up and looked for Helen May, and found her standing a couple of rods off, watching him anxiously. He smiled reassuringly at her while he dusted his trousers with the flat of his hands.

"Fine and dandy," he said. "Whoever took a pot-shot at me thinks he got me first crack. See? Now listen, lady. That maybe was some herder out gunning for coyotes, and maybe he was gunning for me. I licked a herder that ranges over that way, and he maybe thought he'd play even. But anyway, don't say anything about it to anybody, will you. I kinda--"

"Why not? If he shot at you, he wanted to kill you. And that's murder; he ought to be--"

"Now, you know you said yourself that herders go crazy. I don't want to get the poor boob into trouble. Let's not say anything about it. I've got to go now; I've stayed longer than I meant to, as it is. Have Vic put that halter that's on the saddle on the pinto, and tie the rope to it and let it drag. He won't go away, and you can catch him without any bother. If Vic don't know how to set the saddle, you take notice just how it's fixed when you take it off. I meant to show you how, but I can't stop now. And don't go anywhere, not even to the mail box, without Pat or your six-gun, or both. Come here, Rabbit, you old scoundrel!

"I wish I could stay," he added, swinging up to the saddle and looking down at her anxiously. "Don't let Vic monkey with that automatic till I come and show him how to use it. I--"

"You said you were shot," said Helen May, staring at him enigmatically from under her lashes. "Are you?"

"Not much; burnt a streak on my arm, nothing to bother about. Now remember and don't leave your gun--"

"I don't believe it was because you licked a herder. What made somebody shoot at you? Was it--on account of Pat?"

"Pat? No, I don't see what the dog would have to do with it. It was some half-baked herder, shooting maybe because he heard us shoot and thought we was using him for a target. You can't," Starr declared firmly, "tell what fool idea they'll get into their heads. It was our shooting, most likely. Now I must go. Adios, I'll see yuh before long."

"Well, but what--"

Helen May found herself speaking to the scenery. Starr was gone with Rabbit at a sliding trot down the slope that kept the ridge between him and the pinnacle. She stood staring after him blankly, her hat askew on the back of her head, and her lips parted in futile astonishment. She did not in the least realize just what Starr's extreme caution had meant. She had no inkling of the real gravity of the situation, for her ignorance of the lawless possibilities of that big, bare country insulated her against understanding.

What struck her most forcibly was the cool manner in which he had ordered her to act a part, and the unhesitating manner in which she had obeyed him. He ordered her about, she thought, as though he had a right; and she obeyed as though she recognized that right.

She watched him as long as he was in sight, and tried to guess where he was going and what he meant to do, and what was his business--what he did for a living. He must be a rancher, since he had said he was looking for stock; but it was queer he had never told her where his ranch lay, or how far off it was, or anything about it.

After a little it occurred to her that Starr would want the man who had shot at him to think she had left that neighborhood, so she called to Pat and had him drive the goats around where they could not be seen from the pinnacle.

Then she sat down and ate her sandwiches thoughtfully, with long, meditative intervals between bites. She regarded the pinto curiously, wondering if Starr had really taken him as security for a debt, and wishing that she had asked him what its name was. It was queer, the way he rode up unexpectedly every few days, always bringing something he thought she needed, and seeming to take it for granted that she would accept everything he offered. It was much queerer that she did accept everything without argument or hesitation. For that matter, everything that concerned Starr was queer, from Helen May's point of view.

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