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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesStarr, Of The Desert - Chapter 4. Starr Would Like To Know
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Starr, Of The Desert - Chapter 4. Starr Would Like To Know Post by :jellon Category :Long Stories Author :B. M. Bower Date :May 2012 Read :1594

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Starr, Of The Desert - Chapter 4. Starr Would Like To Know


Properly speaking Starr did not belong to New Mexico. He was a Texas man, and, until a certain high official asked him to perform a certain mission for the Secret Service, he had been a ranger. Puns were made upon his name when he was Ranger Starr, but he was a ranger no longer, and the puns had ceased to trouble him. His given name was Chauncy DeWitt; perhaps that is why even his closest friends called him Starr, it was so much easier to say, and it seemed to fit him so much better.

Ostensibly, and for a buffer to public curiosity, Starr was acting in the modest capacity of cattle buyer for a big El Paso meat company. Incidentally he bought young sheep in season, and chickens from the Mexican ranchers, and even a bear that had been shot up in the mountains very early in the spring, before the fat had given place to leanness. Whatever else Starr did he kept carefully to himself, but his meat buying was perfectly authentic and satisfactory. And if those who knew his past record wondered at his occupation, Starr had plenty of reasons for the change, and plenty of time in which to explain those reasons.

As to his personal appearance, there is not a great deal to say. I'm afraid Starr would not have attracted any notice in a crowd. He was a trifle above average height, perhaps, and he had nice eyes whose color might be a matter of dispute; because they were a bit too dark for gray, a bit too light for real hazel, with tiny flecks of green in certain lights. His lashes were almost heavy enough to be called a mark of beauty, and when he took off his hat, which was not often except at mealtime and when he slept in a real bed, there was something very attractive about his forehead and the way his hair grew on his temples. His mouth was pleasant when his mood was pleasant, but that was not always. One front tooth had been gold-crowned, which made his smile a trifle conspicuous, but could not be called a disfigurement. For the rest, he was tanned to a real desert copper, and riding kept him healthily lean. But as I said before, you would never pick him out of a crowd as the hero of this story or of any other.

Like most of us, Starr did not dazzle at the first sight. One must come into close contact with him to find him different from any other passably attractive, intelligent man of the open. Oh, if you must have his age, I think he gave it at thirty-one, the last time he was asked, but he might have said twenty-five and been believed. He was bashful, and he got on better with men than he did with women; but if you will stop to think, most decent men do if they have lived under their hats since they grew to the long-trouser age. And if they have spent their working days astride a stock saddle, you may be sure they are bashful unless they are overbold and impossible. Well, Starr was of the bashful, easily stampeded type. As to his morals, he smoked and he swore a good deal upon occasion, and he drank, and he played pool, and now and then a little poker, and he would lie for a friend any time it was necessary and think nothing of it. Also, he would fight whenever the occasion seemed to warrant it. He had not been to church since he wore square collars starched and spread across his shoulders, and the shine of soap on his cheeks. And a pretty girl would better not make eyes too boldly if she objected to being kissed, although Starr had never in his life asked a girl to marry him.

It doesn't sound very promising for a hero. He really was just a human being and no saint. Saint? You wouldn't think so if you had heard what he said to his horse, Rabbit, just about an hour before you were introduced to him.

Rabbit, it seems had been pacing along, half asleep in the blistering heat of midday, among the cactus and the greasewood and those depressing, yellowish weeds that pretend to be clothing the desert with verdure, when they are merely emphasizing its barrenness. Starr had been half asleep too, riding with one leg over the saddle horn to rest his muscles, and with his hat brim pulled down over his eyebrows to shade his eyes from the pitiless glare of New Mexico sunlight. Rabbit might be depended upon to dodge the prairie dog holes and rocks and dirt hummocks, day or night, waking or sleeping; and since they were riding cross-country anyway, miles from a trail, and since they were headed for water, and Rabbit knew as well as Starr just where it was to be found, Starr held the reins slack in his thumb and finger and let the horse alone.

That was all right, up to a certain point. Rabbit was a perfectly dependable little range horse, and sensible beyond most horses. He was ambling along at his easy little fox-trot that would carry Starr many a mile in a day, and he had his eyes half shut against the sun glare, and his nose almost at a level with his knees. I suppose he was dreaming of cool pastures or something like that, when a rattlesnake, coiled in the scant shade of a weed, lifted his tail and buzzed as stridently, as abruptly as thirteen rattles and a button can buzz.

Rabbit had been bitten once when he was a colt and had gone around with his head swollen up like a barrel for days. He gave a great, horrified snort, heaved himself straight up in the air, whirled on his hind feet and went bucking across the scenery like a rodeo outlaw.

Starr did not accompany him any part of the distance. Starr had gone off backward and lit on his neck, which I assure you is painful and disturbing to one's whole physical and moral framework. I'll say this much for Starr: The first thing he did when he got up was to shoot the head off the snake, whose tail continued to buzz in a dreary, aimless way when there was absolutely nothing to buzz about. Snakes are like that.

Starr was a little like that, also. He continued to cuss in a fretful, objectless way, even after Rabbit had stopped and waited for him with apology written in the very droop of his ears. When he had remounted, and the horse had settled again to his straight-backed, shuffling fox-trot, Starr would frequently think of something else to say upon the subject of fool horses and snakes and long, dry miles and the interminable desert; but since none of the things would bear repeating, we will let it go at that. The point is that Starr was no saint.

He knew of a spring where the water was sweet and cold, and where a lonesome young fellow lived by himself and was always glad to see some one ride up to his door. The young fellow was what is called a good feeder, and might be depended upon to have a pot of frijoles cooked, and sourdough bread, and stewed fruit of some kind even in his leanest times, and call himself next door to starvation. And if he happened to be in funds, there was no telling; Starr, for instance, had eaten canned plum pudding and potted chicken and maraschino cherries and ginger snaps, all at one sitting, when he happened to strike the fellow just after selling a few sheep. Thinking of these things, Starr clucked to Rabbit and told him for gosh sake to pick his feet off the ground and not to take root and grow there in the desert like a several-kinds of a so-and-so cactus.

Rabbit twitched back his ears to catch the drift of Starr's remarks, rattled his teeth in a bored yawn, and shuffled on. Starr laughed.

"Durn it, why is it you never take me serious?" he complained. "I can name over all the mean things you are, and you just waggle one ear, much as to say, 'Aw, hell! Same ole tune, and nothing to it but noise.' Some of these days you're going to get your pedigree read to you--and read right!" He leaned forward and lovingly lifted Rabbit's mane, holding it for a minute or two away from the sweaty neck. "Sure's hot out here to-day, ain't it, pardner?" he murmured, and let the mane fall again into place. "Kinda fries out the grease, don't it? If young Calvert's got any hoss-feed in camp, I'm going to beg some off him. Get along, the faster you go, the quicker you'll get there."

The desert gave place to scattered, brown cobblestones of granite. Rabbit picked his way carefully among these, setting his feet down daintily in the interstices of the rocks. He climbed a long slope that proved itself to be a considerable hill when one looked back at the desert below. The farther side was more abrupt, and he took it in patient zigzags where the footing promised some measure of security. At the bottom he turned short off to the right and made his way briskly along a rough wagon trail that hugged the hillside.

"Fresh tracks going in--and then out again," Starr announced musingly to Rabbit. "Maybe young Calvert hired a load of grub brought out; that, or he's had a visitor in the last day or two--maybe a week back, though; this dry ground holds tracks a long while. Go on, it's only a mile or so now."

The trail took a sudden turn toward the bottom of the wide depression as though it wearied of dodging rocks and preferred the loose sand below. Of his own accord Rabbit broke into a steady lope, flinging his head sidewise now and then to discourage the pestiferous gnats that swarmed about his ears. Starr, also driven to action of some kind, began to fling his hands in long sweeping gestures past his face. He hoped that the cabin, being on a higher bit of ground, would be free from the pests.

Bounding a sharp turn, Starr glimpsed the cabin and frowned as something unfamiliar in its appearance caught his attention. For just a minute he could not name the change, and then "Curtains at the windows!" he snorted. "Now, has the dub gone and got married, wonder?" He hoped not, and his hope was born not so much from sympathy with any woman who must live in such a place, but from a very humanly, selfish regard for his own passing comfort. With a woman in the cabin, Starr would not feel so free to break his journey there with a rest and a meal or two.

He went on, however, sitting passively in the saddle while Rabbit headed straight for the spring. The bit of white curtain at the one small, square window facing that way troubled Starr, though it could not turn him back thirsty into the desert.

It was Rabbit who, ignorant of the significance of that flapping bit of white, was taken unawares and ducked sidewise when Helen May, standing precariously on a rock beside the spring, cupped her hands around her sun-cracked lips and shouted "Vic!" at the top of her voice. She nearly fell off the rock when she saw the horse and rider so close. They had come on her from behind, round another sharp nose of the rock-strewn hillside, so that she did not see them until they had discovered her.

"Oh!" said Helen May quite flatly, dropping her hands from her sunburned face and looking Starr over with the self-possessed, inquiring eyes of one who is accustomed to gazing upon strange faces by the thousands.

"How do you do?" said Starr, lifting his hat and foregoing instinctively the easy "Howdy" of the plains. "Is--Mr. Calvert at home?"

"That depends," said Helen May, "on where he calls home. He isn't here, however."

Rabbit, not in the least confused by the presence of a girl in this out-of-the-way place, pushed forward and thrust his nose deep into the lower pool of the spring where the water was warmed a little by the sun on the rocks. Starr could not think of anything much to say, so he sat leaning forward with a hand on Rabbit's mane, and watched the muscles working along the neck, when the horse swallowed.

"Oh--would you mind killing that beast down there in that little hollow?" Helen May had decided that it would be silly to keep on shouting for Vic when this man was here. "It's what they call a young Gila Monster, I think. And the bite is said to be fatal. I don't like the way he keeps looking at me. I believe he's getting ready to jump at me."

Starr glanced quickly at her face, which was perfectly serious and even a trifle anxious, and then down in the direction indicated by a broken-nailed, pointing finger. He did not smile, though he felt like it. He looked again at Helen May.

"It's a horned toad," he informed her gravely. "The one Johnny Calvert kept around for a pet, I reckon. He won't bite--but I'll kill it if you say so." He dismounted and picked up a stone, and then looked at her again inquiringly.

Helen May eyed the toad askance. "Of course, if it's accustomed to being a pet--but it looks perfectly diabolical. It--came after me."

"It thought you would feed it, maybe."

"Well, I won't. It can think again," said Helen May positively. "You needn't kill it, but if you'd chase it off somewhere out of sight--it gives me shivers. I don't like the way it stares at a person and blinks."

Starr went over and picked up the toad, holding it cupped between his palms. He carried it a hundred feet away, set it down gently on the farther side of a rock, and came back. "Lots of folks keep them for pets," he said. "They're harmless, innocent things."

He washed his hands in the pool where Rabbit had drunk, took the tin can that had stood on a ledge in the shade when Starr first came to the spring a year ago, and dipped it full from the inner pool that was always cool under the rocks. He turned his back to Helen May and drank satisfyingly. The can was rusted and it leaked a swift succession of drops that was almost a stream. Helen May decided that she would bring a white granite cup to the spring and throw the can away. It was unsanitary, and it leaked frightfully, and it was a disgrace to civilized thirst.

"Pretty hot, to-day," Starr observed, when he had emptied the can and put it back. He turned and pulled the reins up along Rabbit's neck and took the stirrup in his hand.

"Oh, won't you stop--for lunch? It's a long way to town." Helen May flushed behind her sunburn, but she felt that the law of the desert demanded some show of hospitality.

"Thanks, I must be getting on," said Starr, touched his hat brim and rode away. He had a couple of fried-ham sandwiches in his pocket, and he ought to make the Medina ranch by two o'clock, he reminded himself philosophically. A woman on Johnny Calvert's claim was disconcerting. What was she there for, anyway? From the way she spoke about Johnny, she couldn't be his wife, or if she were, she had a grudge against him. She didn't look like the kind of a girl that would marry the Johnny Calvert kind of a man. Maybe she was just stopping there for a day or so, with her folks. Still, that white curtain at the window looked permanent, somehow.

Starr studied the puzzle from all angles. He might have stayed and had his curiosity satisfied, but it was second nature with Starr to hide any curiosity he might feel; his riding matter-of-factly away, as though the girl were a logical part of the place, was not all bashfulness. Partly it was habit. He wondered who Vic was--man, woman or child? Man, he guessed, since she was probably calling for help with the horned toad, Starr grinned when he thought of her naming it a Gila Monster. If she had ever seen one of those babies! She must certainly be new to the country, if she didn't even know a horned toad when she saw one! What was she doing there, anyway? Starr meant to find out. It was his business to find out, and besides, he wanted to know.

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