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The Man of the Desert
By Grace Livingston Hill
Barbour Publishing, Inc.Copyright © 2015 Grace Livingston Hill
All rights reserved.
It was morning, high and clear as Arizona counts weather. A crowd of curious onlookers had gathered around the little railroad station—seven Indians, three women from nearby shacks, the usual loungers, and a swarm of children—to see the private car the night express had left on a side track. The station agent had also come outside to watch the activity.
All morning the private car was an object of deep interest to those who lived within sight, and that was everybody on the plateau. Many and varied were the errands and excuses for going to the station in case the car's occupants or interior might be glimpsed. But the silky curtains remained drawn until after nine o'clock.
In the last half hour, however, a change had taken place in the silent inscrutable car. The curtains were parted here and there, revealing shadowed flitting faces and a table spread with a snowy cloth and wildflowers in a vase, like those that grew along the track, just weeds. It was strange for people who could afford a private car to care for weeds in a glass on their dining table, but perhaps they didn't know.
A stout cook with ebony skin and white linen attire appeared on the rear platform beating eggs, half whistling and half singing, "Be my little baby bumblebee, buzz around, buzz around—" He seemed in no way affected or embarrassed by the natives gradually circling the end of the car or the growing audience.
They could make out the table where the car's inhabitants were having dinner—it surely couldn't be breakfast at that hour. They heard a discussion about horses amid laughter and lively conversation and concluded the car was to remain here for the day at least while some of the party went off on a horseback trip. It wasn't unusual. Such things occasionally occurred in that region but not often enough for them to lose their appeal. And to watch the tourists who stopped in their tiny settlement was the only way for the people to learn the fashions.
Even the station agent felt the importance of the occasion and stood around with the self-consciousness of an usher at a great wedding, considering himself master of ceremonies.
"Sure! They come from the East last night. Limited dropped 'em! Going down to prospect some mine, I reckon. They ordered horses an' a outfit, and Shag Bunce is goin' with 'em. He got a letter 'bout a week ago tellin' what they wanted of him. Yes, I knowed all about it. He brung the letter to me to cipher out fer him. You know Shag ain't so great at readin' ef he is the best judge of a mine anywheres about."
At eleven o'clock the horses arrived, four besides Shag's, and the rest of the outfit. The onlookers regarded Shag with the mournful interest due the undertaker at a funeral. Shag felt it and acted accordingly. He gave short, gruff orders to his men; called attention to straps and buckles everyone knew were in perfect order; and criticized the horses and his men. And everyone, even the horses, bore it with perfect composure. They were all showing off for the important event.
Presently the car door opened, and Mr. Radcliffe stepped out on the platform with his son, a handsome, reckless-looking fellow; his daughter, Hazel; and Mr. Hamar, a thickset, heavy-featured man with dark hair, jaunty black mustache, and handsome black eyes. In the background stood an elderly woman in tailor-made attire, bearing a severe expression. She was Mr. Radcliffe's elder sister who was taking the trip with them, expecting to remain in California with her son. Behind her hovered Hazel's maid. These two weren't in the riding party, it appeared.
The horses were brought forward, and the riders mounted, while the spectators remained oblivious to anything except the scene being enacted before them. Their eyes lingered with special interest on the girl of the party.
Miss Radcliffe was small and graceful. She was so fair she almost astounded the eyes of the men and women accustomed to brown cheeks kissed by the sun and wind of the plain. A wild-rose pink enhanced the whiteness of her cheeks and made her face even more dazzling. Masses of golden hair were wreathed about her head in waves and braids. Dark blue eyes, set off by long curling lashes, made you feel when she looked at you that she meant more by the look than you first suspected. The little company of idlers at the station was promptly captivated by those wonderful eyes. To complete the picture, a dimple in her right cheek flashed into view when she smiled.
Her dark green riding habit, the same she wore when attended by her groom in Central Park, made a sensation among the onlookers, as did the dark green velvet riding cap and the pretty riding gloves. She sat her horse well—daintily, though, and not as women out there rode. On the whole the station saw little else but the girl; all the others were mere accessories to the picture.
They noticed that the young man, whose close-cropped golden curls and dark-lashed blue eyes were so like the girl's that he could only be her brother, rode beside the older man who was presumably the father. And the dark, handsome stranger rode alongside the girl. Every man there resented it, and not a woman regretted it.
At last Shag Bunce gave a parting word to his small but complete outfit riding behind. Then he put spurs to his horse, lifted his sombrero to the lady and shot to the front of the line, with his shaggy mane for which he was named floating over his shoulders.
With the sun shining on a perfect day the riders left, and the group around the platform watched silently until they were a speck in the distance blurring with the sunny plain and occasional ash and cottonwood trees.
"I seen the missionary go by early this mornin'," said the station agent deliberately, as though he alone had a right to break the silence. "I wonder whar he could 'a' bin goin'. He passed on t'other side the track er I'd 'a' ast 'im. He 'peared in a turrible hurry. Anybody sick over toward the canyon way?"
"Buck's papoose heap sick," an Indian muttered and shuffled off the platform.
The women heaved a sigh of disappointment and turned to go. The show was over, and they must return to their monotonous lives. They wondered what it would be like to ride off into the sunshine with cheeks like roses and eyes that saw nothing but pleasure ahead. Awed, they went back to their sturdy children and ill-kept houses, to sit in the sun on the doorsteps and muse awhile.
Hazel Radcliffe was content with the world, herself, and her escort as she rode out. Milton Hamar was good company. He was witty and skilled in the delicate art of flattery. Further, he was wealthy and popular in New York society, her father's friend both socially and financially, and in their home a great deal lately because of some vast mining enterprise in which both were interested. And his wife was said to be uncongenial and interested in other men rather than her husband. These facts combined to give Hazel a pleasant, half-romantic interest in the man beside her.
She'd sensed a satisfaction and delightful anticipation when her father told her he'd be in their party. His wit and gallantry would make up for having her aunt along, who always put a damper on things. She was propriety personified. She'd tried to make Hazel think she must remain in the car and rest that day instead of going off on a wild goose chase after a mine. No lady did such things, she told her niece.
Hazel's laugh rang out like a bird's notes as the two rode down the trail, not hurrying, for they had plenty of time. They could meet the others on their way back if they didn't get to the mine so soon, and the morning was lovely.
Milton Hamar could appreciate nature's beauties now and then. He called attention to the distant hills and the sharp steep mountain peak piercing the sunlight. Then he skillfully led his speech around to his companion and showed how lovelier than the morning she was. He'd indulged in such delicate flattery since they first started from New York, whenever the indefatigable aunt left them alone long enough. But this morning his words held something closer and more intimate—a warmth and tenderness that implied joy in her beauty, as he'd never dared before.
It flattered her pride. It was wonderful to be young and charming and have a man say such things with a look like that in his eyes—eyes that had suffered and appealed to her for pity. With her innocent heart she pitied and was glad she might solace his sadness a little while.
With consummate skill the man led her to talk of himself, his hopes in youth, his disappointments, his bitter sadness, his loneliness. Then he asked her to call him "Milton."
The girl declared shyly that she never could; it would seem so strange. But, after much urging, she finally compromised on "Cousin Milton."
"That'll do for a while," he said, smiling.
Then with growing intimacy in his tones he laid his hand on hers as she held the reins, and the horses both slackened their gait, though they'd been far behind the rest of the party for over an hour now.
"Listen, little girl," he said. "I'm going to open my heart to you. I'm going to tell you a secret."
Hazel sat very still, half alarmed at his tone, not daring to withdraw her hand. She felt the occasion was momentous and she must be ready with sympathy as any true friend would be. Her heart swelled with pride that he came to her in his trouble. Then she looked up into the face bending over hers and saw triumph, not trouble, in his eyes. Even then she didn't understand.
"What is it?"
"Dear girl! I knew you'd be interested. I've told you about my sorrow; now I'll tell you about my joy. When I return to New York I'll be a free man. I've been granted a divorce from Ellen, and only a few technicalities must be attended to. Then we'll be free to go our ways and do as we choose."
"A divorce!" gasped Hazel. "Not you—divorced!"
"Yes, I knew you'd be surprised. It's almost too good to be true, after all my trouble to get Ellen to consent."
"But she—your wife—where will she go? What will she do?"
She didn't realize the horses had stopped and that he still held her hand as she grasped the reins.
"Oh, Ellen will marry at once. That's why she's finally consenting. She's going to marry Walling Stacy. From being stubborn about it, she's quite in a hurry to make any arrangement now."
"She's going to marry!" gasped Hazel as if she'd rarely heard of such things. It hadn't come so close to her friendships before.
"Yes, she's going to marry at once, so you see there's no need to think of her again. But why don't you ask me what I'm going to do?"
"Oh yes!" she exclaimed. "You startled me so. What are you going to do? You poor man—what can you do? Oh, I'm so sorry for you!" Tears welled up in her eyes.
"No need to feel sorry for me, little one," said the exultant voice, and he looked at her now with an expression she'd never seen in his face. "I'll be happier than I've ever dreamed," he said. "I'm going to marry, too—someone who loves me, I'm sure, though she's never told me. I'm going to marry you, little sweetheart!"
He leaned toward her before she could understand his meaning and, flinging his free arm around her, pressed his lips on hers.
With a wild cry like some terrified creature, Hazel tried to pull herself away. Finding herself held tight, she lifted the hand holding the whip and slashed the air blindly about her. Her eyes closed; her heart swelled with fear. She felt suddenly repulsed by this man she'd respected deeply. She lashed out again with her whip, not seeing what she struck.
Hamar's horse reared and plunged, almost unseating his rider. As he struggled to keep his seat, he released the girl, and the second cut of the whip stung across his eyes. He cried out. The horse reared again and sent him sprawling on the ground, his hands to his face.
Knowing only she was free, Hazel instinctively struck her own horse on the flank. The little beast turned sharply to the right from the trail he was following and darted across the level plateau. It was all Hazel could do to keep her seat.
She'd sometimes enjoyed a run in the park with her groom at a safe distance behind her. She was proud of her ability to ride and could take fences as well as her young brother. But a run like this across an undefined space, on a creature of speed like the wind, goaded by fear, was different. She tried to hold on to the saddle with shaking hands, for the reins were flying in the breeze. But each moment she expected to lose her slight hold and find herself lying huddled on the plain with the horse far in the distance.
Her lips grew white and cold, her breath short and painful. She strained her eyes to look ahead at the constantly receding horizon. Was there no end? Would they ever reach civilization? How long could a horse stand a pace like this? And how long could she hold on?
Off to the right at last she thought she saw a building. In a second they neared a cabin, standing alone on the great plain with sagebrush in patches about the door and a neat rail fence around it. She could see one window at the end and a tiny chimney at the back. Could anyone live in such a forlorn place?
Summoning her strength as they passed, she yelled out. But the wind caught the feeble effort and flung it into the vast spaces like a worthless fragment of sound.
Tears stung their way into her wide, dry eyes. The last hairpin left its mooring and slipped down to earth. The loose golden hair streamed back on the wind like hands of despair clutching wildly for help, and the jaunty green riding cap was snatched by the breeze and hung on a bush not fifty feet from the cabin gate. But the horse rushed on with the frightened girl still clinging to the saddle.CHAPTER 2
About noon the same day, John Brownleigh stopped his horse on the edge of a flattopped mesa and looked away to the clear blue mountains. He'd lived in Arizona for nearly three years, but the desert hadn't lost its charm. Now his eyes sought the vast distances stretching in every direction. More than a hundred miles away, the mountains rose distinctly in the clear air but seemed only a short journey from there.
Below him ledges of rock were piled one upon another in yellow and gray, crimson and green, with sunlight playing over them and turning their colors into a blaze of glory. Beyond was the sand, broken here and there by sagebrush, greasewood, or cactus rearing its prickly spines grotesquely. Off to the left stood pink-tinted cliffs and a little farther, dark conelike buttes. Low brown-and-white hills stretched away to the right to the petrified forest, where great tracts of fallen tree trunks and chips lay locked in glistening stone. To the south he could see the familiar waterhole and farther on, the entrance to the canyon, fringed with cedars and pines.
"Beautiful," he murmured, "and a grand God to have it so!"
Then a shadow crossed his face, and he spoke again out loud as was his habit now.
"I guess it's worth the lonely days and discouragement, just to be alone with a wonderful Father like mine!"
He'd just come from a three-day trip with another missionary whose station was two days by horseback from his own. A sweet woman, who'd recently come from the East to share that man's fortunes, presided over the cheerful home. She'd prepared a delicious dinner for her husband and his guests, made the three-room shack comfortable and added the warm touches of a woman's hand.
All these filled Brownleigh with a noble envy; not until this visit had he realized how lonely his life was. But he was busy from morning till night and more enthusiastic about his work now than nearly three years ago when the board sent him to minister to the Indians' needs. He had many friends in the region, whether white man, trader, or Indian, and was always welcome in their homes.
He'd come now to visit an Indian hogan where the shadow of death was lingering over a little maiden beloved by her father. He was weary from spending long days in the saddle. But the young girl smiled when she saw him. And death's dark valley seemed more like her own flower-filled canyon leading to a brighter day, when she heard the message of life he brought her.
But as he looked over the long trail and thought of the home where he dined the day before, the sadness stayed.
"It would be good to have somebody like that," he said out loud again, "somebody to expect me and be happy I've come. But then—I suppose not many girls are willing to give up their homes and go out to rough it as she's done. It's a hard life for a woman—for that kind of woman! And I wouldn't want any other kind!"
His eyes grew large with wistfulness. A cheerful man, John Brownleigh didn't often stop to think about his life. His heart was in his work. He could turn his hand to anything, and there was always plenty to be done. Yet today, for the first time since plunging into the work and outgrowing his first homesickness, he was hungry for companionship. He'd seen a light in his fellow missionary's eyes that revealed the comfort and joy he was missing, and it struck deep into his heart. So he stopped on the mesa, with the vast panorama of the desert before him, to have it out with himself.
Excerpted from The Man of the Desert by Grace Livingston Hill. Copyright © 2015 Grace Livingston Hill. Excerpted by permission of Barbour Publishing, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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