Chapter 2. Miss Conroy Refuses Shelter.
 

The storm lifted suddenly, as storms have a way of doing, and a low, squat ranch-house stood dimly revealed against the bleak expanse of wind-tortured prairie. Rowdy gave an exultant little whoop and made for the gate, leaned and swung it open and rode through, dragging Chub after him by main strength, as usual. When he turned to close the gate after Miss Conroy he found her standing still in the lane.

"Come on in," he called, with a trace of impatience born of his weariness and hunger.

"Thank you, no." Miss Conroy's voice was as crisply cold as the wind which fluttered the Navajo blanket around her face. "I much prefer the blizzard."

For a moment Rowdy found nothing to say; he just stared. Miss Conroy shifted uneasily in the saddle.

"This is old Bill Brown's place," she explained reluctantly. "He--I'd rather freeze than go in!"

"Well, I guess that won't be hard to do," he retorted curtly, "if you stay out much longer."

The dog was growing hysterical over their presence, and Bill Brown himself came out to see what it was all about. He could see two dim figures at the gate.

"Hello!" he shouted. "Why don't yuh come on in? What yuh standing there chewing the rag for?"

Vaughan hesitated, his eyes upon Miss Conroy.

"Go in," she commanded imperiously, quite as if he were a refractory pupil. "You're tired out, and hungry. I'm neither. Besides, I know where I am now. I can find my way without any trouble. Go in, I tell you!"

But Rowdy stayed where he was, with the gate creaking to and fro between them. Dixie circled till his back was to the wind. "I hope you don't think you're going to mill around out here alone," Rowdy said tartly.

"I can manage very well. I'm not lost now, I tell you. Rodway's is only three miles from here, and I know the direction."

Bill Brown waded out to them, wondering what weighty discussion was keeping them there in the cold. Vaughan he passed by with the cursory glance of a disinterested stranger, and went on to where Miss Conroy waited stubbornly in the lane.

"Oh, it's you!" he said grimly. "Well, come in and thaw out; I hope yuh didn't think yuh wouldn't be welcome yuh knew better. You got lost, I reckon. Come on--"

Miss Conroy struck Badger sharply across the flank and disappeared into the night. "When I ask shelter of you," she flung back, "you'll know it."

Rowdy started after, and met Bill Brown squarely in the gate. Bill eyed him sharply. "Say, young fellow, how'd you come by that packhorse?" he demanded, as Chub brushed past him.

"None of your damn' business," snapped Rowdy, and drove the spurs into Dixie's ribs. But Chub was a handicap at any time; now, when he was tired, there was no getting anything like speed out of him; he clung to his shuffling trot, which was really no better than a walk. After five minutes spent alternately in spurring Dixie and yanking at Chub's lead-rope, Rowdy grew frightened and took to shouting. While they were in the lane Miss Conroy must perforce ride straight ahead, but the lane would not last always. As though with malicious intent, the snow swooped down again and the world became an unreal, nightmare world, wherein was nothing save shifting, blinding snowfloury and wind and bitter, numbing cold.

Rowdy stood in his stirrups, cupped his chilled fingers around his numbed lips, and sent a longdrawn "Who-ee!" shrilling weirdly into the night.

It seemed to him, after long listening, that from the right came faint reply, and he turned and rode recklessly, swearing at Chub for his slowness. He called again, and the answer, though faint, was unmistakable. He settled heavily into the saddle--too weak, from sheer relief, to call again. He had not known till then just how frightened he had been, and he was somewhat disconcerted at the discovery. In a minute the reaction passed and he shouted a loud hello.

"Hello?" came the voice of Miss Conroy, tantalizingly calm, and as superior as the greeting of Central. "Were you looking for me, Mr. Vaughan?"

She was close to him--so close that she had not needed to raise her voice perceptibly. Rowdy rode up alongside, remembering uncomfortably his prolonged shouting.

"I sure was," he admitted. And then: "You rode off with my blanket on." He was very proud of his matter-of-fact tone.

"Oh!" Miss Conroy was almost deceived, and a bit disappointed. "I'll give it to you now, and you can go back--if you know the way."

"No hurry," said Rowdy politely. "I'll go on and see if you can find a place that looks good to you. You seem pretty particular."

Miss Conroy may have blushed, in the shelter of the blanket. "I suppose it did look strange to you," she confessed, but defiantly. "Bill Brown is an enemy to--Harry. He--because he lost a horse or two out of a field, one time, he--he actually accused Harry of taking them! He lied, of course, and nobody believed him; nobody could believe a thing like that about Harry. It was perfectly absurd. But he did his best to hurt Harry's name, and I would rather freeze than ask shelter of him. Wouldn't you--in my place, I mean?"

"I always stand up for my friends," evaded Rowdy. "And if I had a brother--"

"Of course you'd be loyal," approved Miss Conroy warmly. "But I didn't want you to come on; it isn't your quarrel. And I know the way now. You needn't have come any farther "

"You forgot the blanket," Rowdy reminded wickedly. "I think a lot of that Navajo."

"You insisted upon my taking it," she retorted, and took refuge in silence.

For a long hour they plodded blindly. Rowdy beat his hands often about his body to start the blood, and meditated yearnigly upon hot coffee and the things he liked best to eat. Also, a good long pull at a flask wouldn't be had, either, he thought. And he hoped this little schoolma'am knew where she was going--truth to tell, he doubted it.

After a while, it seemed that Miss Conroy doubted it also. She took to leaning forward and straining her eyes to see through the gray wall before.

"There should be a gate here," she said dubiously, at last.

"It seems to me," Rowdy ventured mildly, "if there were a gate, it would have some kind of a fence hitched to it; wouldn't it?"

Miss Conroy was in no mood for facetiousness, and refused to answer his question. "I surely can't have made a mistake," she observed uneasily.

"It would be a wonder if you didn't, such a night as this," he consoled. "I wouldn't bank on traveling straight myself, even if I knew the country--which I don't. And I've been in more blizzards than I'm years old."

"Rodway's place can't be far away," she said, brightening. "It may be farther to the east; shall we try that way--if you know which is east?"

"Sure, we'll try. It's all we can do. My packhorse is about all in, from the way he hangs back; if we don't strike something pretty soon I'll have to turn him loose."

"Oh, don't do that," she begged. "It would be too cruel. We're sure to reach Rodway's very soon."

More plodding through drifts high and drifts low; more leaning from saddles to search anxiously for trace of something besides snow and wind and biting cold. Then, far to the right, a yellow eye glowed briefly when the storm paused to take breath. Miss Conroy gave a glad little cry and turned Badger sharply.

"Did you see? It was the light from a window. We were going the wrong way. I'm sure that is Rodway's."

Rowdy thanked the Lord and followed her. They came up against a fence, found a gate, and passed through. While they hurried toward it, the light winked welcome; as they drew near, some one stirred the fire and sent sparks and rose-hued smoke rushing up into the smother of snow. Rowdy watched them wistfully, and wondered if there would be supper, and strong, hot coffee. He lifted Miss Conroy out of the saddle, carried her two long strides, and deposited her upon the door-step; rapped imperatively, and when a voice replied, lifted the latch and pushed her in before him.

For a minute they stood blinking, just within the door. The change from numbing cold and darkness to the light of the overheated room was stupefying.

Then Miss Conroy went over and held her little, gloved hands to the heat of the stove, but she did not take the chair which some one pushed toward her. She stood, the blanket shrouding her face and her slim young figure, and looked about her curiously. It was not Rodway's house, after all. She thought she knew what place it was--the shack where Rodway's hay-balers bached.

From the first, Rowdy did not like the look of things--though for himself it did not matter; he was used to such scenes. It was the presence of the girl which made him uncomfortable. He unbuttoned his coat that the warmth might reach his chilled body, and frowned.

Four men sat around a small, dirty table; evidently the arrivals had interrupted an exciting game of seven-up. A glance told Rowdy, even if his nose had not, that the four round, ribbed bottles had not been nearly emptied without effect.

"Have one on the house," the man nearest him cried, and shoved a bottle toward him.

Involuntarily Rowdy reached for it. Now that he was inside, he realized all at once how weary he was, and cold and hungry. Each abused muscle and nerve seemed to have a distinct grievance against him. His fingers closed around the bottle before he remembered and dropped it. He looked up, hoping Miss Conroy had not observed the action; met her wide, questioning eyes, and the blood flew guiltily to his cheeks.

"Thanks, boys--not any for me," he said, and apologized to Miss Conroy with his eyes.

The man rose and confronted him unsteadily. "Dat's a hell off a way! You too proud for drink weeth us? You drink, now! By Gar, I make you drink!"

Rowdy's eyelids drooped, which was a bad sign for those who knew him. "You're forgetting there's a lady present," he reminded warningly.

The man turned a brief, contemptuous glance toward the stove. "You got the damn' queer way to talk. I don't call no squaw no lady. You drink queeck, now!"

"Aw, shut up, Frenchy," the man at his elbow abjured him. "He don't have to drink if he don't want to."

"You keep the face close," the other retorted majestically; and cursed loud and long and incoherently.

Rowdy drew back his arm, with a fist that meant trouble for somebody; but there were others before him who pinned the importunate host to the table, where he squirmed unavailingly.

Rowdy buttoned up his coat the while he eyed the group disgustedly. "I guess we'll drift," he remarked. "You don't look good to me, and that's no dream."

"Aw, stay and warm up," the fourth man expostulated. "Yuh don't need t' mind Le Febre; he's drunk.'

But Rowdy opened the door decisively, and Miss Conroy, her cheeks like two storm-buffeted poppies, followed him out with dignity--albeit trailing a yard of red-and-yellow Navajo blanket behind her. Rowdy lifted her into the saddle, tucked her feet carefully under the blanket, and said never a word.

"Mr. Vaughan," she began hesitatingly, "this is too bad; you need not have left. I--I wasn't afraid."

"I know you weren't," conceded Rowdy. "But it was a hard formation--for a woman. Are there any more places on this flat marked Unavailable?"

Miss Conroy replied misanthropically that if there were they would be sure to find them.

They took up their weary wanderings again, while the yellow eye of the window winked after them. They missed Rodway's by a scant hundred yards, and didn't know it, because the side of the house next them had no lighted windows. They traveled in a wide, half circle, and thought that they were leaving a straight trail behind them. More than once Rowdy was urged by his aching arm to drop the lead-rope and leave Chub to shift by himself, but habit was strong and his heart was soft. Then he felt an odd twitching at the lead-rope, as if Chub were minded to rebel against their leadership. Rowdy yanked him into remembrance of his duty, and wondered. Bill Brown's question came insistently to mind; he wondered the more.

Two minutes and the lead-rope was sawing against the small of his back again. Rowdy turned Dixie's head, and spoke for the first time in an hour.

"My packhorse seems to have an idea about where he wants to go," he said. "I guess we might as well follow him as anybody; he ain't often taken with a rush of brains to the head. And we can't be any worse lost than we are now, can we?"

Miss Conroy said no dispiritedly, and they swung about and followed Chub's leadership apathetically. It took Chub just five minutes to demonstrate that he knew what he was about. When he stopped, it was with his nose against a corral gate; not content with that, he whinnied, and a new, exultant note was in the sound. A deep-voiced dog bayed loudly, and a shrill yelp cut in and clamored for recognition.

Miss Conroy gasped. "It's Lion and Skeesicks. We're at Rodway's, Mr. Vaughan."

Rowdy, for the second time, thanked the Lord. But when he was stripping the pack off Chub's back, ten minutes later, he was thinking many things he would not have cared to say aloud. It might be all right, but it sure was strange, he told himself, that Chub belonged here at Rodway's when Harry Conroy claimed that he was an Oregon horse. Rowdy had thought his account against Harry Conroy long enough, but it looked now as though another item must be added to the list. He went in and ate his supper thoughtfully, and when he got into bed he did not fall asleep within two minutes, as he might be expected to do. His last conscious thought was not of stolen horses, however. It was: "And she's Harry Conroy's sister! Now, what do you think of that? But all the same, she's sure a nice little schoolma'am."