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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesStarr, Of The Desert - Chapter 18. A Page Of Writing
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Starr, Of The Desert - Chapter 18. A Page Of Writing Post by :Allnewe Category :Long Stories Author :B. M. Bower Date :May 2012 Read :3109

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Starr, Of The Desert - Chapter 18. A Page Of Writing


Wind came with the sun and went shrieking across the high levels, taking with it clouds of sand and bouncing tumbleweeds that rolled and lodged for a minute against some rock or bush and then went whirling on again in a fresh gust. Starr had not ridden two miles before his face began to feel the sting of gravel in the sand clouds. His eyes, already aching with a day's hard usage and a night of no sleep, smarted with the impact of the wind. He fumbled at the band of his big, Texas hat and pulled down a pair of motor goggles and put them on distastefully. Like blinders on a horse they were, but he could not afford to face that wind with unprotected eyes--not when so very much depended upon his eyes and his ears and the keenest, coolest faculties of his mind.

Still worry nagged at him. He wanted to know who was the man that had visited Helen May so soon after he had left, and he wanted to know why a light had shone from her window at one o'clock last night; and whether the automobile had been going to Sunlight Basin, or merely in that direction.

He hurried, for he had no patience with worries that concerned Helen May. Besides, he meant to beg a breakfast from her, and he was afraid that if he waited too late she might be out with Pat and the goats, and he would have to waste time on the kid (Vic would have resented that term as applied to himself) who might be still laid up with his sprained ankle.

He was not thinking so much this morning about the knowledge he had gained in the night. He had given several quiet hours to thought upon that subject, and he had his course pretty clearly defined in his mind. He also had Sheriff O'Malley thoroughly coached and prepared to do his part. The matter of Elfigo Apodaca, then, he laid aside for the present, and concerned himself chiefly with what on the surface were trifles, but which, taken together, formed a chain of disquieting incidents. Rabbit felt his master's desire for haste, and loped steadily along the trail, dropping now and then into his smooth fox-trot, that was almost as fast a gait; so it was still early morning when he dropped reins outside and rapped on the closed door.

Helen May opened the door cautiously, it seemed to him; a scant six inches until she saw who he was, when she cried "Oh!" in a surprised, slightly confused tone, and let him in. Starr noticed two things at the first glance he gave her. The first was the blue crocheted cap which she wore; he did not know that it was called a breakfast-cap and that it was very stylish, for Starr, you must remember, lived apart from any intimate home life that would familiarize him with such fripperies. The cap surprised him, but he liked the look of it even though he kept that liking to himself.

The second thing he noticed was that Helen May was hiding something in her right hand which was dropped to her side. When she had let him in and turned away to offer him a chair, he saw that she had the pearl-handled six-shooter.

She disappeared behind a screen, and came out with her right hand empty, evidently believing he had not seen how she had prepared herself for an emergency. She had only yesterday told him emphatically how harmless she considered the country; and he had been careful to warn her only about rabid coyotes, so that without being alarmed, she would not go unarmed away from home. It seemed queer to Starr that she should act as though she expected rabid coyotes to come a-knocking at her door in broad daylight. Had she, he thought swiftly, been only pretending that she considered the country perfectly safe?

He could not help it; that six-shooter hidden in the folds of her skirt stuck in his mind. It was just a trifle, like her lighted window at one o'clock in the morning; like that strange man who had called on her just after Starr had left her, and with whom she had seemed to be on such friendly terms. He had warned her of coyotes. She was not supposed to know that it was wise to arm herself before she opened her door to a daylight caller. At night, yes. But at seven o'clock in the morning? Starr did not suspect Helen May of anything, but he had been trained to suspect mysterious trifles. In spite of himself, this trifle nagged at him unpleasantly.

He fancied that Helen May was just a shade flustered in her welcome; just a shade nervous in her movements, in her laughter, in the very tones of her voice.

"You're out early," she said. "Vic isn't up yet; I suppose the goats ought to be let out, too. You couldn't have had your breakfast--or have you? One can expect almost anything of a man who just rides out of nowhere at all hours, and disappears into nowhere."

"I shore wish that was so," Starr retorted banteringly. "I wish I had to ride nowhere to-day."

"Oh, I meant the mystery of the unknown," she hurried to correct herself. "You come out of the desert just any old time. And you go off into the desert just as unexpectedly; by the way, did you--"

"Nope. I did not." She might forget that Vic was in the house, but Starr never forgot things of that sort, and he wilfully forestalled her intention to ask about the shooting. "I didn't have any supper, either, beyond a sandwich or two that was mostly sand after I'd packed 'em around all day. I just naturally had to turn tramp and come ask for a handout, when I found out at daylight how close I was to breakfast."

"Why, of course. You know you won't have to beg very hard. I was just going to put on the coffee. So you make yourself at home, and I'll have breakfast in a few minutes. Vic, for gracious sake, get up! Here's company already. And you'll have to let out the goats. Pat can keep them together awhile, but he can't open the gate, and I'm busy."

Starr heard the prodigious yawn of the awakening Vic, who slept behind a screen in the kitchen, bedrooms being a superfluous luxury in which Johnny Calvert had not indulged himself. Starr followed her to the doorway.

"I'll go let out the goats," he offered. "I want to take off the bridle anyway, so Rabbit can feed around a little." He let himself out into the whooping wind, feeling, for some inexplicable reason, depressed when he had expected to feel only relief.

"Lord! I'm getting to the point where anything that ain't accompanied by a chart and diagrams looks suspicious to me. She's got more hawse sense than I gave her credit for, that's all. She musta seen through my yarnin' about them mad coyotes. She's pretty cute, coming to the door with her six-gun just like a real one! And never letting on to me that she had it right handy. I must be getting off my feed or something, the way I take things wrong. Now her being up late--I'm just going to mention how far off I saw her light burning--and how late it was. I'll see what she says about it."

But he did nothing of the kind, and for what he considered a very good reason. The wind was blowing in eddying gusts, of the kind that seizes and whirls things; such a gust swooped into the room when he opened the door, seized upon some papers which lay on her writing desk, and sent them clear across the room.

Starr hastily closed the door and rescued the papers where they had flattened against the wall; and he wished he had gone blind before he saw what they were. A glance was all he gave, at first--the involuntary glance which one gives to a bit of writing picked up in an odd place--but that was enough to chill his blood with the shock of damning enlightenment. A page of writing, it was, fine, symmetrical, hard to decipher--a page of Holly Sommers' manuscript; you know that, of course.

But Starr did not know. He only knew the writing matched the pages of revolutionary stuff he had found in the office of _Las Nuevas. There was no need of comparing the two; the writing was unmistakable. And he believed that Helen May was the writer. He believed it when he glanced up and saw her coming in from the kitchen, and saw her eyes go to what he had in his hand, and saw the start she gave before she hurried to take the paper away.

"My gracious! My work--" she said agitatedly, when she had the papers in her hand. She went to her desk, looking perturbed, and gave a quick, seeking glance at the scattered papers there; then at Starr.

"Did any more--?"

"That's all," Starr said gravely. "It was the wind when I opened the door, caught them."

"My own carelessness. I don't know why I left my desk open," she said. And while he stood looking at her, she pulled down the roll-top with a slam, still visibly perturbed.

It was strange, he thought, that she should have a roll-top desk out here, anyway. He had seen it the other time he was at the house, and it had struck him then as queer, though he had not given it more than a passing thought.

As a matter of fact, it was not queer. Johnny Calvert had dilated on the destructiveness of rats, "pack rats" he called them. They would chew paper all to bits, he said. So Helen May, being finicky about having her papers chewed, had brought along this mouse-proof desk with her other furniture from Los Angeles.

Her perturbed manner, too, was the result of a finicky distaste for having any disorder in her papers, especially when it was work intrusted to her professionally. She never talked about the work she did for people, and she always kept it away from the eyes of those not concerned in it. That, she considered, was professional etiquette. She had strained a point when she had read a little of the manuscript to Vic. Vic was just a kid, and he was her brother, and he wouldn't understand what she read any more than would the horned toad down by the spring. But Starr was different, and she felt that she had been terribly careless and unprofessional, leaving the manuscript where pages could blow around the room. What if a page had blown outside and got lost!

Starr had turned his back and was staring out of the window. He might have been staring at a blank wall, for all he saw through the glass. He was as pale as though he had just received some great physical shock, and he had his hands doubled up into fists, so that his knuckles were white. His eyes were almost gray instead of hazel, and they were hard and hurt-looking.

Something in the set of his head and in the way his shoulders had stiffened told Helen May that things had gone wrong just in the last few minutes. She gave him a second questioning glance, felt her heart go heavy while her brain seemed suddenly blank, and retreated to the kitchen.

Helen May, influenced it may be by Starr's anxious thoughts of her, had dreamed of him; one of those vivid, intimate dreams that color our moods and our thoughts long after we awaken. She had dreamed of being with him in the moonlight again; and Starr had sung again the love song of the desert, and had afterwards taken her in his arms and held her close, and kissed her twice lingeringly, looking deep into her eyes afterwards.

She had awakened with the thrill of those kisses still tingling her lips, so that she had covered her face with both hands in a sort of shamed joy that dreams could be so terribly real--so terribly sweet, too. And then, not fifteen minutes after she awoke, and while the dream yet clogged her reason, Starr himself had confronted her when she opened the door. She would have been a remarkable young woman if she had not been flustered and nervous and inclined toward incoherent speech.

And now, it was perfectly idiotic to judge a man's temper by the back of his neck, she told herself fiercely in the kitchen; perfectly idiotic, yet she did it. She was impressed with his displeasure, his bitterness, with some change in him which she could not define to herself. She wanted to cry, and she did not in the least know what there could possibly be to cry about.

Vic appeared, tousled and yawning and stupid as an owl in the sun. He growled because the water bucket was empty and he must go to the spring, and he irritated Helen May to the point of wanting to shake him, when he went limping down the path. She even called out sharply that he was limping with the wrong foot, and that he ought to tie a string around his lame ankle so he could remember which one it was. Which made her feel more disagreeable than ever, because Vic really did have a bad ankle, as the swelling had proven when he went to bed last night.

Nothing seemed to go right, after that. She scorched the bacon, and she caught her sleeve on the handle of the coffee pot and spilled about half the coffee, besides burning her wrist to a blister. She broke a cup, but that had been cracked when she came, and at any other time she would not have been surprised at all, or jarred out of her calm. She took out the muffins she had hurried to make for Starr, and they stuck to the tins and came out in ragged pieces, which is enough to drive any woman desperate, I suppose. Vic slopped water on the floor when he came back with the bucket full, and the wind swooped a lot of sand into the kitchen, and she was certain the bacon would be gritty as well as burned.

Of Starr she had not heard a sound, and she went to the door nervously to call him when breakfast was at last on the table. He was standing exactly as he had stood when she left the room. So far as she could see, he had not moved a muscle or turned his head or winked an eyelid. His stoniness chilled her so that it was an effort to form words to tell him that breakfast was ready.

There was an instant's pause before he turned, and Helen May felt that he had almost decided not to eat. But he followed her to the kitchen and spoke to Vic quite humanly, as he took the chair she offered, and unfolded the napkin that struck an odd note of refinement among its makeshift surroundings; for the stove had only two real legs, the other two corners being propped up on rocks; the dish cupboard was of boxes, and everything in the way of food supplies stood scantily hidden behind thin curtains of white dotted swiss that Helen May had brought with her.

An hour ago Starr would have dwelt gloatingly upon these graceful evidences of Helen May's brave fight against the crudities of her surroundings. Now they gave him a keener thrust of pain. So did the tremble of her hand when Helen May poured his coffee; it betrayed to Starr her guilty fear that he had seen what was on those two papers. He glanced up at her face, and caught her own troubled glance just flicking away from him. She was scared, then! he told himself. She was watching to see if he had read anything that seemed suspicious. Well, he'd have to calm her down a little, just as a matter of policy. He couldn't let her tip him off to the bunch, whatever happened.

Starr smiled. "I sure feel like I'm imposing on good nature," he said, looking at her again with careful friendliness. "Coming here begging for breakfast, and now when you've gone to the trouble of cooking it, I've got one of my pet headaches that won't let me enjoy anything. Hits me that way sometimes when I've had an extra long ride. But I sure wish it had waited awhile."

Helen May gave him a quick, hopeful smile. "I have some awfully good tablets," she said. "Wait till I give you one, before you eat. My doctor gave me a supply before I left home, because I have headache so much--or did have. I'm getting much better, out here! I've hardly felt like the same person, the last two or three weeks."

"You have got to show me where you're any better _acting_," Vic pointed out, with the merciless candor of beauty's young brother. "It sure ain't your disposition that's improved, I can tell you those."

"And with those few remarks you can close," Helen May retorted gleefully, hurrying off to get the headache tablet. It was just a headache, poor fellow! He wasn't peeved at all, and nothing was wrong!

It was astonishing how her mood had lightened in the past two minutes. She got him a glass of water to help the tablet down his throat, and stood close beside him while he swallowed it and thanked her, and began to make some show of eating his breakfast. She was, in fact, the same whimsically charming Helen May he had come to care a great deal for.

That made things harder than ever for Starr. If the tablet had been prescribed for heartache rather than headache, Starr would have swallowed thankfully the dose. The murder, over against the other line of hills, had not seemed to him so terrible as those sheets of scribbled paper locked away inside Helen May's desk. The grief of Estan's mother over her dead son was no more bitter than was Starr's grief at what he believed was true of Helen May. Indeed, Starr's trouble was greater, because he must mask it with a smile.

All through breakfast he talked with her, looked into her eyes, smiled at her across the table. But he was white under his tan. She thought that was from his headache, and was kinder than she meant to be because of it; perhaps because of her dream too, though she was not conscious of any change in her manner.

Starr could have cursed her for that change, which he believed was a sly attempt to win him over and make him forget anything he may have read on those pages. He would not think of it then; time enough when he was away and need not pretend or set a guard over his features and his tongue. The hurt was there, the great, incredible, soul-searing hurt; but he would not dwell upon what had caused that hurt. He forced himself to talk and to laugh now and then, but afterwards he could not remember what they had talked about.

As soon as he decently could, he went away again into the howling wind that had done him so ill a turn. He did not know what he should do; this discovery that Helen May was implicated had set him all at sea, but he felt that he must get away somewhere and think the whole thing out before he went crazy.

He left the Basin, rode around behind it and, leaving Rabbit in the thicket where he had left him the day before, he toiled up the pinnacle and sat down in the shelter of a boulder pile where he would be out of the wind as well as out of sight, and where he could still stare somberly down at the cabin.

And there he faced his trouble bravely, and at the same time he fulfilled his duty toward his government by keeping a watch over the place that seemed to him then the most suspicious place in the country. The office of _Las Nuevas_, even, was not more so, as Starr saw things then. For if _Las Nuevas were the distributing point for the propaganda literature, this cabin of Helen May's seemed to be the fountain head.

First of all, and going back to the beginning, how did he really _know that her story was true? How, for instance, did he know that her father had not been one of the heads of the conspiracy? How did he know that her father--it might even be her husband!--was dead? He had simply accepted her word, as a matter of course, because she was a young woman, and more attractive than the average young woman. Starr was terribly bitter, at that point in his reasoning, and even felt certain that he hated all women. Well, then, her reason for being in the neighborhood would bear a lot of looking into.

Then there was that automobile that had passed where he had found her and her goats, that evening. Was it plausible, he asked himself, that she had actually walked over there? The machine had returned along the same trail, running by moonlight with its lights out. Might it not have been coming to pick her up? Only he had happened along, and she had let him walk home with her, probably to keep him where she could watch him!

There was that shot at him from the pinnacle behind her cabin. There was her evident familiarity with firearms, though she professed not to own a gun. There was the man who had been down there with her, not more than an hour after he had left her with a bullet burn across his arm. Starr saw now how that close conversation might easily have been a conference between her and the man who had shot at him.

There was the light in her window at one o'clock in the morning, and the machine with dimmed headlights making toward her place. There was her evident caution against undesirable callers, her coming to the door with a six-shooter hidden against her skirt. There was that handwriting, to which Starr would unhesitatingly have sworn as being the same as on the pages he had found in the office of _Las Nuevas_. The writing was unmistakable: fine, even, symmetrical as print, yet hard to decipher; slanting a little to the left instead of the right. He had studied too often the pages in his pocket not to recognize it at a glance.

Most damning evidence of all the evidence against her were two or three words which his eyes had picked from the context on the page uppermost in his hand. He had become familiar with those words, written in that peculiar chirography. "Justice... submission ... ruling ..." He had caught them at a glance, though he did not know how they were connected, or what relation they bore to the general theme. Political bunk, his mind tagged it therefore, and had no doubt whatever that he was right.

"She's got brown eyes and blond hair, and that looks like mixed blood," he reminded himself suddenly, after he had sat for a long while staring down at the house. "How do I know her folks aren't Spanish or something? How do I know anything about her? I just swallowed what she handed out--like a damn' fool!"

Just after noon, when the wind had shown some sign of dying down to a more reasonable blow, Helen May came forth in her riding skirt and a Tam o' Shanter cap and a sweater, with a package under her arm--a package of manuscript which she had worked late to finish and was now going to deliver.

She got the pinto pony which Vic had just ridden sulkily down to the corral and left for her, and she rode away down the trail, jolting a good deal in the saddle when the pinto trotted a few steps, but apparently well pleased with herself.

Starr watched until she turned into the main trail that led toward San Bonito. Then, when he was reasonably sure of the direction she meant to take, he hurried down to where Rabbit waited, mounted that long-suffering animal and followed, using short cuts and deep washes that would hide him from sight, but keeping Helen May in view most of the time for all that.

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