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For two days they had seen no other traveler, not even a solitary cowhand or an Indian. There had been the usual stops to change teams, and overnight layover at Weston's ranch, but no other break in the monotony of the journey.
There was no comfort in the west-bound stage. The four passengers alternately dozed or stared miserably at the unchanging desert, dancing with heat waves.
No breeze sent a shaft of coolness through the afternoon's heavy heat. Aloma Day, bound for Cordova, a tiny cowtown thirty miles farther down the trail, felt stifled and unhappy. Her heavy dress was hot, and she knew her hair "looked a fright."
The jolting of the heavy coach bouncing over the rocky, ungraded road had settled a thin mantle of dust over her clothes and skin. The handkerchief with which she occasionally touched her cheeks and brow had long since become merely a miserable wad of damp cloth.
Across from her Em Shipton, proprietor of Cordova's rooming and boarding establishment, perspired, fanned, and dozed. Occasionally she glanced with exasperation at Aloma's trim figure, for to her the girl seemed unreasonably cool and immaculate. Em Shipton resembled a barrel with ruffles.
Mark Brewer, cattle buyer, touched his moutache thoughtfully and looked again at the girl in the opposite corner of the stage. She was, he decided, almost beautiful. Possibly her mouth was a trifle wide, but her lips were lovely and she laughed easily.
"I hope," he ventured suddenly, "you decide to stay with us, Miss Day. I am sure the people of Cordova will do all they can to make your visit comfortable."
"Oh, but I shall stay! I am going to make my home there."
"Oh? You have relatives there?"
"No," she smiled, "I am to be married there."
The smile left his eyes, yet hovered politely abot his lips. "I see. No doubt I know the lucky fellow. Cordova is not a large town."
Loma hesitated. The assurance with which she had decided upon this trip had faded with the miles. It had been a long time since she had seen Rod Morgan, and the least she could have done was to await a reply from him. Yet there was no place in which to wait. Her aunt had died and they had no friends in Richmond. She had money now for the trip. Six weeks or a month later she might have used it all. Her decision had been instantly made, but hte closer she came to Cordova the more uncertain she felt.
She looked at Brewer. "Then you probably know him. His name is Roderick Morgan."
Em Shipton stiffened, and Mark Brewer's lips tightened. They exchanged a quick, astonished glance. Alarmed at their reaction, Loma glanced quickly from one to the other.
"What's the matter? Is something wrong?"
"Wrong?" Em Shipton had never been tactful. "I should say there is! Rod Morgan is an insufferable person! What can you be thinking to come all this way to marry a man like that?"
"Please, Em," Brewer interrupted. "Remember, you are speaking of Miss Day's fiancé. Of course, I must admit it is something of a shock. How long since you have seen him, Miss Day?'
"Two years." She felt faint, frightened. What was wrong? What had Rod done? Why did they--
All through her aunt's illness, Rod's love for her had been the rock to which she clung, it had been the one solid thing in a crumbling world. He had always been the one to whom she knew she could turn.
"That explains it then," Brewer said, sympathetically. "A lot can happen in two years. You haven't been told, I presume, of the murders in Buckskin Run?"
"No. What is Buckskin Run?"
"It's a stream, you know. Locally, it is the term used to designate the canyon through which the stream runs, as well as the stream itself. The stream is clear and cold, and it heads far back into the mountains, but the canyon is rather a strange, mysterious sort of place, which all decent people avoid like the plague. For years the place has been considered haunted, and their are unexplained graves in the canyon. Men have died ther under unexplained circumstances. Then Rod Morgan moved into the canyon and built a cabin there."
"You-spoke of murders?"
"Yes, I certainly did. About a year ago Morgan had trouble with a man named Ad Tolbert. A few days later a cowhand found Tolbert's body not far from Morgan's cabin. He had been shot in the back."
"And that was only one of them!" Em Shipton declared. "Tell her about the pack peddler."
"His name was Ned Weisl. He was a harmless old fellow who had been peddling around the country for years. On every trip he went to Buckskin Run, and that seemed strange, because until Morgan moved there, nobody lived in the Run country. He had some wild story he told about gold in Buckskin Run, gold buried there. About a month ago, they found his body, too. And he had been shot in the back."
"You mark my words!" Em Shipton declared. "That Rod Morgan's behind it all!"
The fourth passenger, a bearded man, spoke for the first time, "It appears to me that you're condemning this man without much reason. Has anybody seen him shoot anybody?"
"Who would go into that awful place? Everybody knows it's haunted. We warned young Morgan about it, but he was too smart, a know-it-all. He said all the talk about ghosts was silly, and even if there were ghosts, he'd make them feel at home!"
"We thought it was strange, him going into that dark, lonely place! No wonder. He's deep, he is! With a sight of crime behind him, too!"
"That's not true!" Loma said. "I've known Rod Morgan for years. There isn't a nicer boy anywhere."
Em Shipton's features stiffened with anger. A dictator in her own little world, she resented any contradiction of her opinions.
"I reckon, young lady, you've got a lot to learn, and you'll learn it soon, mark my words!"
From the Paperback edition.