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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesStarr, Of The Desert - Chapter 15. Helen May Understands
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Starr, Of The Desert - Chapter 15. Helen May Understands Post by :Allnewe Category :Long Stories Author :B. M. Bower Date :May 2012 Read :1918

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Starr, Of The Desert - Chapter 15. Helen May Understands


Pat, lying at her feet and licking his lips contentedly after his bone and the crusts of her sandwich, raised his head suddenly and rumbled a growl somewhere deep in his chest. His upper lip lifted and showed his teeth wickedly, and the hair on the back of his neck stood out in a ruff that made him look a different dog.

Helen May felt a cold shiver all up and down her spine. She had never seen Pat, nor any other dog for that matter, look like that. It was much more terrifying than that mysterious shot which had effected Starr so strangely. Pat was staring directly behind her, and his eyes had a greenish tinge in the iris, and the white part was all pink and bloodshot. Helen May thought he must have rabies or something; or else a rabid coyote was up on the ridge behind her. She wanted to scream, but she was afraid; she was afraid to look behind her, even.

Pat got up and stood digging his toe nails into the earth in the most horribly suggestive way imaginable. The green light in his eyes terrified her. His ruff bristled bigger on his neck. He looked ready to spring at something. Helen May was too scared to move so much as a finger. She waited, and her heart began beating so hard in her throat that it nearly suffocated her. She never once thought of the six-shooter which Starr had given her. She did not think of anything, except that a rabid coyote was right behind her, and in a minute Pat would jump at it, if it did not first jump at her! And then Pat would be bitten, and would go mad and bite her and Vic, and they'd all die horribly of hydrophobia.

"Ah--is this a modern, dramatic version of Beauty and the Beast? If so, it is a masterpiece in depicting perfect repose on the part of Beauty, while the Beast vivifies the protective instinct of the stronger toward the weaker. Speaking in the common parlance, if you will call off your dog, Miss Stevenson, I might be persuaded to venture within hand-shaking distance." A little laugh, that was much more humorous than the words, followed the speech.

Helen May felt as though she were going to faint. "Pat!" she tried to say admonishingly; but her voice was a weak whisper that did not carry ten feet. She pulled herself together and tried again. "Pat, lie down!"

Pat turned his bead a trifle and sent her a tolerant glance, but the hair did not lie down on his neck, and the growl did not cease to rumble in his throat.

"Pat!" Helen May began to recover a little from the reaction. "Come here to me! I--don't think he'll bite you, Mr. Sommers. It's--it's only Mexicans that he's supposed to hate. I--I didn't know it was you."

Holman Sommers, being careful to keep a safe distance between himself and Pat, came around to where he could see her face. "As a matter of fact," he began, "it's really my sister who came to visit you. Your brother informed us that you were out here, and I came to tell you. Why, did I frighten you so badly, Miss Stevenson? Your face is absolutely colorless. What did I do to so terrify you? I surely never intended--" His eyes were remorseful as he stood and looked at her.

"It was just the way Pat acted. I--I'd been hearing about rabid coyotes, and I thought one was behind me, Pat acted so queer. Lie down, Pat!"

Holman Sommers spoke to the dog ingratiatingly, but Pat did not exhibit any tail-wagging desire for friendly acquaintance. He slunk over to Helen May and flattened himself on his belly with his nose on his paws, and his eyes, that still showed greenish lights and bloodshot whites, fixed on the man.

"It may be," said Sommers judgmatically, "that he has been taught to resent strangers coming in close proximity to the animals he has in charge. A great many dogs are so trained, and are therefore in no wise to blame for exhibiting a certain degree of ferocity. The canine mind is wholly lacking in the power of deduction, its intelligence consisting rather of a highly developed instinctive faculty for retaining impressions which invariably express themselves in some concrete form such as hate, fear, joy, affection and like primitive emotions. Pat, for instance, has been taught to regard strangers as interlopers. He therefore resents the presence of all strangers, and has no mental faculty for distinguishing between strangers, as such, and actual intruders whose presence is essentially undesirable."

Helen May gave a little, half-hysterical laugh, and Holman Sommers looked at her keenly, as a doctor sometimes looks at a patient.

"I am intensely sorry that my coming frightened you," he said gently. Then he laughed. "I am also deeply humiliated at the idea of being mistaken, in the broad light of midday, for a rabid coyote. May I ask just wherein lies the resemblance?"

Helen May looked at him, saw the dancing light in his eyes and a mirthful quirk of his lips, and blushed while she smiled.

"It's just that I happened to be thinking about them," she said, instinctively belittling her fear. "And then I never saw Pat act the way he's acting now."

Holman Sommers regarded the dog with the same keen, studying look he had given Helen May. Pat did not take it as calmly, however, as Helen May had done. Pat lifted his upper lip again and snarled with an extremely concrete depiction of the primitive emotion, hate.

"There _are such things as rabid coyotes, aren't there? Just--do you know how they act, and how a person could tell when something has caught the disease from them?"

"I think I may safely assert that there undoubtedly are rabid coyotes in the country. As a matter of fact, and speaking relatively, they have been, and probably still are, somewhat of a menace to stock running abroad without a herder amply provided with the means of protecting his charge. At the same time I may point with pardonable pride to the concerted action of both State and Stock Association to rid the country of these pests. So far we feel highly gratified at the success which has attended our efforts. I gravely doubt whether you would now find, in this whole county, a single case of infection. But on the other hand, I could not, of course, venture to state unqualifiedly that there may not be certain isolated cases--"

"Pat! Do stop that growling! What ails you, anyway? I never saw him act that way before. I wonder if he could possibly be--" She looked at Sommers questioningly.

"Infected?" he finished for her understandingly. "As a matter of fact, that may be possible, though I should not consider it altogether probable. Since the period of incubation varies from three weeks to six months, as in man, the dog may possibly have been infected before coming into your possession. If that were true, you would have no means of discovering the fact until he exhibits certain premonitory symptoms, which may or may not form in themselves conclusive evidence of the presence of the disease."

Helen May got up from the rock and moved away, eyeing Pat suspiciously. Pat got up and followed her, keeping a watchful eye on Sommers.

"What are the symptoms, for gracious sake?" she demanded fretfully, worried beyond caring how she chose her words for Holman Sommers. "His eyes look queer, don't you think?"

"Since you ask me, and since the subject is not one to be dismissed lightly, I will say that I have been studying the dog's attitude with some slight measure of concern," Holman Sommers admitted guardedly. "The suffused eyeball is sometimes found in the premonitory stage of the disease, after incubation has progressed to a certain degree. Also irritability, nervousness, and depression are apt to be present. Has the dog exhibited any tendency toward sluggishness, Miss Stevenson?"

"Well, he's been lying around most of the time to-day," Helen May confessed, staring at Pat apprehensively. "Of course, there hasn't been anything much for him to do. But he certainly does act queer, just since you came."

Holman Sommers spoke with the prim decision of a teacher instructing a class, but that seemed to be only his way, and Helen May was growing used to it. "His evidencing a tendency toward sluggishness to-day, and his subsequent irritability, may or may not be significant of an abnormality. If, however, the dog progresses to the stage of hyperaesthesia, and the muscles of deglutition become extremely rigid, so that he cannot swallow, convulsions will certainly follow. There will also appear in the mouth and throat a secretion of thick, viscid mucus, with thickened saliva, which will be an undubitable proof of rabies."

Having thus innocently damned poor Pat with the suspicion of a dreadful malady, Sommers made a scientific attempt to soothe Helen May's fears. He advised, with many words and much kind intent, that Pat be muzzled until the "hyperaesthesia" did or did not develop. Helen May thought that the terribly-termed symptoms might develop before they could get a muzzle from town, but she did not like to say so.

Partly to be hospitable, and partly to get away from Pat, she mounted the pinto, told Pat to watch the goats, and rode down to the house to see Martha Sommers. She did not anticipate any pleasure in the visit, much as she had longed for the sound of a woman's voice. She was really worried half to death over Starr, and the rabies, and Pat, and the nagging consciousness that she had not accomplished as much copying of manuscript as Holman Sommers probably expected.

She did not hear half of what Sommers was saying on the way to the cabin. His very amiability jarred upon her nervous depression. She had always liked him, and respected his vast learning, but to-day she certainly did not get much comfort out of his converse. She wondered why she had been so light-hearted while Starr was with her showing her how to shoot, and lecturing her about the danger of going gunless abroad; and why she was so perfectly dejected when Holman Sommers talked to her about the very same thing. Starr had certainly painted things blacker than Holman had done, but it did not seem to have the same effect.

"I don't see what we're going to do for a muzzle," she launched suddenly into the middle of Holman Sommers' scientific explanation of mirages.

"Vic can undoubtedly construct one out of an old strap," Holman Sommers retorted impatiently, and went on discoursing about refraction and reflection and the like.

Helen May tried to follow him, and gave it up. When they were almost to the spring she again unwittingly jarred Holman Sommers out of his subject.

"Did all those words you used mean that Pat will foam at the mouth like mad dogs you read about?" she asked abruptly.

Holman Sommers, tramping along beside the pinto, looked at her queerly. "If Pat does not, I strongly suspect that I shall," he told her weightily, but with a twinkle in his eyes. "I have been endeavoring, Miss Stevenson, to wean your thoughts away from so unhappy a subject. Why permit yourself to be worried? The thing will happen, or it will not happen. If it does happen, you will be powerless to prevent. If it does not, you will have been anxious over a chimera of the imagination."

"Chimera of the imagination is a good line," laughed Helen May flippantly. "All the same, if Pat is going to gallop all over the scenery, foaming at the mouth and throwing fits at the sight of water--"

"As a matter of fact," Holman Sommers was beginning again in his most instructive tone, when a whoop from the spring interrupted him.

Vic had hobbled obligingly down there to get cool water for the plump lady who was Holman Sommers' sister, and he had nearly stepped on a sleepy rattler stretched out in the sun. Vic was making a collection of rattles. He had one set, so far, of five rattles and a "button." He wanted to get these which were buzzing stridently enough for three snakes, it seemed to Vic. He was hopping around on his good foot and throwing rocks; and the snake, having retreated to a small heap of loose cobblestones, was thrusting his head out in vicious little striking gestures, and keeping the scaly length of him bidden.

"Wait a minute, I'll get him, Vic," called Helen May, suddenly anxious to show off her newly acquired skill with firearms. Starr had told her that lots of people killed rattlesnakes by shooting their heads off. She wanted to try it, anyway, and show Vic a thing or two. So she rode up as close as she dared, though the pinto shied away from the ominous sound; pulled her pearl-handled six-shooter from its holster, aimed, and fired at the snake's head.

You have heard, no doubt, of "fool's luck." Helen May actually tore the whole top off that rattlesnake's head (though I may as well say right here that she never succeeded in shooting another snake) and rode nonchalantly on to the cabin as though she had done nothing at all unusual, but smiling to herself at Vic's slack-jawed amazement at seeing her on horseback, with a gun and such uncanny skill in the use of it.

She felt better after that, and she rather enjoyed the plump sister of Holman Sommers. The plump sister called him Holly, and seemed to be inordinately proud of his learning and inordinately fond of nagging at him over little things. She was what Helen May called a vegetable type of woman. She did not seem to have any great emotions in her make-up. She sat in the one rocking-chair under the mesquite tree and crocheted lace and talked comfortably about Holly and her chickens in the same breath, and frankly admired Helen May's "spunk" in living out alone like that.

"Don't overlook Vic, though," Helen May put in generously. "I honestly don't believe I could stand it without Vic."

The plump sister seemed unimpressed. "In this country," she said with a certain snug positiveness that was the keynote of her personality, "it's the women that have the courage. They wouldn't be here if they didn't have. Think how close we are to the Mexican border, for instance. Anything that is horrible to woman can come out of Mexico. Not that I look down on them over there," she added, with a complacent tolerance in her tone. "They are victims of the System that has kept them degraded and ignorant. But until they are lifted up and educated and raised to our standards they are bad.

"You can't get around it, Holly, those ignorant Mexicans are _bad_!" She had lifted her eyes accusingly to where Holman Sommers sat on the ground with his knees drawn up and his old Panama hat hung upon them. He was smoking a pipe, and he did not remove it from his mouth; but Helen May saw that amused quirk of the lips just the same.

"You can't get around it. You know it as well as I do," she reiterated. "Cannibals are worth saving, but before they are saved they are liable to eat the missionary. And it's the same thing with your Mexicans. You want to educate them and raise them to your standards, and that's all right as far as it goes. But in the meantime they're bad. And if Miss Stevenson wasn't such a good shot, I wouldn't be able to sleep nights, thinking of her living up here alone, with just a boy for protection."

"Why, I never heard of such a thing as any danger from Mexicans!" Helen May looked inquiringly from plump sister to cynical brother.

"Well, you needn't wonder at Holly not telling you," said the plump sister,--her name was Maggie. "Holly's a fool about some things. Holly is trying the Uplift, and he shuts his eyes to things that don't fit in with his theories. If you've copied much of that stuff he's been writing, you ought to know how impractical he is. Holly's got his head in the clouds, and he won't look at what's right under his feet." Again she looked reproof at Holly, and again Holly's lips quirked around the stem end of his pipe.

"You just keep your eyes open, Miss Stevenson," she admonished, in a purring, comfortable voice. "I ain't afraid, myself, because I've got Holly and my cousin Todd, when he's at home. And besides, Holly's always doing missionary stunts, and the Mexicans like him because he'll let them rob him right and left and come back and take what they forgot the first time, and Holly won't do a thing to them. But you don't want to take any chances, away off here like you are. You lock your door good at night, and you sleep with a gun under your pillow. And don't go off anywhere alone. My, even with a gun you ain't any too safe!"

Helen May gave a gasp. But Holman Sommers laughed outright--an easy, chuckling laugh that partly reassured her. "Danger is Maggie's favorite joke," he said tolerantly. "As a matter of fact, and speaking from a close, personal knowledge of the people hereabouts, I can assure you, Miss Stevenson, that you are in no danger whatever from the source my sister indicates."

"Well, but Holly, I've said it, and I'll say it again; you can't tell _what may come up out of Mexico." Plump Maggie rolled up her lace and jabbed the ball decisively with the crochet hook, "We'll have to go now, or the chickens will be wondering where their supper is coming from. You do what I say, and lock your doors at night, and have your gun handy, Miss Stevenson. Things may look calm enough on the surface, but they ain't, I can tell you that!"

"Woman, cease!" cried Holly banteringly, while he dusted his baggy trousers with his palms. "Miss Stevenson will be haunted by nightmares if you keep on."

Once they were gone, Helen May surrendered weakly to one fear, to the extent that she let Vic take the carbine and the pinto and ride over to where she had left Pat and the goats, for the simple reason that she dreaded to face alone that much maligned dog. Vic, to be sure, would have quarreled with her if necessary, to get a ride on the pinto, and he was a good deal astonished at Helen May's sweet consideration of a boy's hunger for a horse. But she tempered his joy a bit by urging him to keep an eye on Pat, who had been acting very queer.

"He kept ruining up his back and showing his teeth at Mr. Sommers," she explained nervously. "If he does it when you go, Vic, and if he foams at the mouth, you'd better shoot him before he bites something. If a mad dog bites you, you'll get hydrophobia, and bark and growl like a dog, and have fits and die."

"G-oo-d _night_!" Vic ejaculated fervently, and went loping awkwardly down the trail past the spring.

That left Helen May alone and free to think about the horrors that might come up out of Mexico, and about the ignorant Mexicans who, until they are uplifted, are bad. It seemed strange that, if this were true, Starr had never mentioned the danger. And yet--

"I'll bet anything that's just what Starr-of-the-Desert did mean!" she exclaimed aloud, her eyes fixed intently on the toes of her scuffed boots. "He just didn't want to scare me too much and make me suspicious of everybody that came along, and so he talked mad coyotes at me. But it was Mexicans he meant; I'll bet anything it was!"

If that was what Starr meant, then the shot from the pinnacle, and Starr's crafty, Indian-like method of getting away unseen, took on a new and sinister meaning. Helen May shivered at the thought of Starr riding away in search of the man who had tried to kill him, and of the risk he must be taking. And what if the fellow came back, sneaking back in the dark, and tried to get in the house, or something? It surely was lucky that Starr-of-the-Desert had just happened to bring those guns.

But had he just _happened to bring them? Helen May was not stupid, even if she were ignorant of certain things she ought to know, living out alone in the wild. She began to see very clearly just what Starr had meant; just how far he had _happened to have extra guns in his shack, and had just _happened to get hold of a horse that she and Vic could use; and the dog, too, that hated Mexicans!

"That's why he hates to have me stay on the claim!" she deduced at last. "Only he just wouldn't tell me right out that it isn't safe. That's what he meant by asking if dad knew the chances I'd have to take. Well, dad didn't know, but after the price dad paid, why--I've got to stay, and make good. There's no sense in being a coward about it. Starr wouldn't want me to be a coward. He's just scheming around to make it as safe as he can, without making me cowardly."

A slow, half-tender smile lit her chestnut-tinted eyes, and tilted her lips at the corners. "Oh, you desert man o' mine, I see through you now!" she said under her breath, and kept on smiling afterwards, since there was not a soul near to guess her thoughts. "Desert man o' mine" was going pretty strong, if you stop to think of it; but Helen May would have died--would have lied--would have gone to any lengths to keep Starr from guessing she had ever thought such a thing about him. That was the woman of her.

The woman of her it was too that kept her dwelling pleasedly on Starr's shy, protective regard for her, instead of watching the peaks in fear and trembling lest another bad, un-uplifted Mexican should be watching a chance to send another bullet zipping down into the Basin on its mission of wanton wickedness.

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