The Claim Jumpers by Stewart Edward White
Chapter V. The Spirit Mountain
"From now on," said the girl, shaking out her skirts before sitting down, "I am going to be a mystery."
"You are already," replied Bennington, for the first time aware that such was the fact.
"No fencing. I have a plain business proposition to make. You and I are going to be great friends. I can see that now."
"I hope so."
"And you, being a--well, an open-minded young man" (Now what does she mean by that? thought Bennington), "will be asking all about myself. I am going to tell you nothing. I am going to be a mystery."
"No, you're not sure of anything, young man. Now I'll tell you this: that I am living down the gulch with my people."
"I know--Mr. Lawton's."
She looked at him a moment. "Exactly. If you were to walk straight ahead--not out in the air, of course--you could see the roof of the house. Now, after we know each other better, the natural thing for you to do will be to come and see me at my house, won't it?"
Bennington agreed that it would.
"Well, you mustn't."
Bennington expressed his astonishment.
"I will explain a very little. In a month occurs the Pioneer's Picnic at Rapid. You don't know what the Pioneer's Picnic is? Ignorant boy! It's our most important event of the year. Well, until that time I am going to try an experiment. I am going to see if--well, I'll tell you; I am going to try an experiment on a man, and the man is you, and I'll explain the whole thing to you after the Pioneer's Picnic, and not a moment before. Aren't you curious?"
"I am indeed," Bennington assured her sincerely.
She took on a small air of tyranny. "Now understand me. I mean what I say. If you want to see me again, you must do as I tell you. You must take me as I am, and you must mind me."
Bennington cast a fleeting wonder over the sublime self-confidence which made this girl so certain he would care to see her again. Then, with a grip at the heart, he owned that the self-confidence was well founded.
"All right," he assented meekly.
"Good!" she cried, with a gleam of mischief. "Behold me! Old Bill Lawton's gal! If you want to be pards, put her thar!"
"And so you are a girl after all, and no sun fairy," smiled Bennington as he "put her thar."
"My cloud has melted," she replied quietly, pointing toward the brow of Harney.
They chatted of small things for a time. Bennington felt intuitively that there was something a little strange about this girl, something a little out of the ordinary, something he had never been conscious of in any other girl. Yet he could never seize the impression and examine it. It was always just escaping; just taking shape to the point of visibility, and then melting away again; just rising in the modulations of her voice to a murmur that the ear thought to seize as a definite chord, and then dying into a hundred other cadences. He tried to catch it in her eyes, where so much else was to be seen. Sometimes he perceived its influence, but never itself. It passed as a shadow in the lower deeps, as though the feather mass of a great sea growth had lifted slowly on an undercurrent, and then as slowly had sunk back to its bed, leaving but the haunting impression of something shapeless that had darkened the hue of the waters. It was most like a sadness that had passed. Perhaps it was merely an unconscious trick of thought or manner.
After a time she asked him his first name, and he told her.
"I'd like to know your's too, Miss Lawton," he suggested.
"I wish you wouldn't call me Miss Lawton," she cried with sudden petulance.
"Why, certainly not, if you don't want me to, but what am I to call you?"
"Do you know," she confided with a pretty little gesture, "I have always disliked my real name. It's ugly and horrid. I've often wished I were a heroine in a book, and then I could have a name I really liked. Now here's a chance. I'm going to let you get up one for me, but it must be pretty, and we'll have it all for our very own."
"I don't quite see----" objected the still conventional de Laney.
"Your wits, your wits, haven't you any wits at all?" she cried with impatience over his unresponsiveness.
"Well, let me see. It isn't easy to do a thing like that on the spur of the moment, Sun Fairy. A fairy's a fay, isn't it? I might call you Fay."
"Fay," she repeated in a startled tone.
Bennington remembered that this was the name of the curly-haired young man who had lent him the bucking horse, and frowned.
"No, I don't believe I like that," he recanted hastily.
"Take time and think about it," she suggested.
"I think of one that would be appropriate," he said after some little time. "It is suggested by that little bird there. It is Phoebe."
"Do you think it is appropriate," she objected. "A Phoebe bird or a Phoebe girl always seemed to me to be demure and quiet and thoughtful and sweet-voiced and fond of dim forests, while I am a frivolous, laughing, sunny individual who likes the open air and doesn't care for shadows at all."
"Yet I feel it is appropriate," he insisted. He paused and went on a little timidly in the face of his new experience in giving expression to the more subtle feelings. "I don't know whether I can express it or not. You are laughing and sunny, as you say, but there is something in you like the Phoebe bird just the same. It is like those cloud shadows." He pointed out over the mountains. Overhead a number of summer clouds were winging their way from the west, casting on the earth those huge irregular shadows which sweep across it so swiftly, yet with such dignity; so rushingly, and yet so harmlessly. "The hills are sunny and bright enough, and all at once one of the shadows crosses them, and it is dark. Then in another moment it is bright again."
"And do you really see that in me?" she asked curiously. "You are a dear boy," she continued, looking at him for some moments with reflective eyes. "It won't do though," she said, rising at last. "It's too 'fancy.'"
"I don't know then," he confessed with some helplessness.
"I'll tell you what I've always wanted to be called," said she, "ever since I was a little girl. It is 'Mary.'"
"Mary!" he cried, astonished. "Why, it is such a common name."
"It is a beautiful name," she asserted. "Say it over. Aren't the syllables soft and musical and caressing? It is a lovely name. Why I remember," she went on vivaciously, "a girl who was named Mary, and who didn't like it. When she came to our school she changed it, but she didn't dare to break it to the family all at once. The first letter home she signed herself 'Mae.' Her father wrote back, 'My dear daughter, if the name of the mother of Jesus isn't good enough for you, come home.'" She laughed at the recollection.
"Then you have been away to school?" asked the young man.
"Yes," she replied shortly.
She adroitly led him to talk of himself. He told her naively of New York and tennis, of brake parties and clubs, and even afternoon teas and balls, all of which, of course, interested a Western girl exceedingly. In this it so happened that his immaturity showed more plainly than before. He did not boast openly, but he introduced extraneous details important in themselves. He mentioned knowing Pennington the painter, and Brookes the writer, merely in a casual fashion, but with just the faintest flourish. It somehow became known that his family had a crest, that his position was high; in short, that he was a de Laney on both sides. He liked to tell it to this girl, because it was evidently fresh and new to her, and because in the presence of her inexperience in these matters he gained a confidence in himself which he had never dared assume before.
She looked straight in front of her and listened, throwing in a comment now and then to assist the stream of his talk. At last, when he fell silent, she reached swiftly out and patted his cheek with her hand.
"You are a dear big boy," she said quietly. "But I like it--oh, so much!"
From the tree tops below the clear warble of the purple finch proclaimed that under the fronds twilight had fallen. The vast green surface of the hills was streaked here and there with irregular peaks of darkness dwindling eastward. The sun was nearly down.
A sudden gloom blotted out the fretwork of the pine shadows that had, during the latter part of the afternoon, lain athwart the rock. They looked up startled.
The shadow of Harney had crept out to them, and, even as they looked, it stole on, cat-like, across the lower ridges toward the East. One after another the rounded hills changed hue as it crossed them. For a moment it lingered in the tangle of woods at the outermost edge, and then without further pause glided out over the prairie. They watched it fascinated. The sparkle was quenched in the Cheyenne; the white gleam of the Bad Lands became a dull gray, scarce distinguishable from the gray of the twilight. Though a single mysterious cleft a long yellow bar pointed down across the plains, paused at the horizon, and slowly lifted into the air. The mountain shadow followed it steadily up into the sky, growing and growing against the dullness of the east, until at last over against them in the heavens was the huge phantom of a mountain, infinitely greater, infinitely grander than any mountain ever seen by mortal eyes, and lifting higher and higher, commanded upward by that single wand of golden light. Then suddenly the wand was withdrawn and the ghost mountain merged into the yellow afterglow of evening.
The girl had watched it breathless. At its dissolution she seized the young man excitedly by the arm.
"The Spirit Mountain!" she cried. "I have never seen it before; and now I see it--with you."
She looked at him with startled eyes.
"With you," she repeated.
"What is it? I don't understand."
She did not seem to hear his question.
"What is it?" he asked again.
"Why--nothing." She caught her breath and recovered command of herself somewhat. "That is, it is just an old legend that I have often heard, and it startled me for a minute."
"Will you tell me the legend?"
"Not now; some time. We must go now, for it will soon be dark."
They wandered along the ridge toward Deerfoot Gulch in silence. She had taken her sunbonnet off, and was enjoying the cool of the evening. He carried the rifle over the crook of his arm, and watched her pensive face. The poor little chipmunk lay stiffening in the cleft of the rock, forgotten. The next morning a prying jay discovered him and carried him away. He was only a little chipmunk after all--a very little chipmunk--and nobody and nothing missed him in all the wide world, not even his mate and his young, for mercifully grief in the animal world is generally short-lived where tragedies are frequent. His life meant little. His death----
At the dip of the gulch they paused.
"I live just down there," she said, "and now, good-night."
"Mayn't I take you home?"
"Remember your promise."
"Oh, very well."
She looked at him seriously. "I am going to ask you to do what I have never asked any man before," she said slowly--"to meet me. I want you to come to the rock to-morrow afternoon. I want to hear more about New York."
"Of course I'll come," he agreed delightedly. "I feel as if I had known you years already."
They said good-bye. She walked a few steps irresolutely down the hillside, and then, with a sudden impulsive movement, returned. She lifted her face gravely, searchingly to his.
"I like you," said she earnestly. "You have kind eyes," and was gone down through the graceful alder saplings.
Bennington stood and watched the swaying of the leaf tops that marked her progress until she emerged into the lower gulch. There she turned and looked back toward the ridge, but apparently could not see him, though he waved his hand. The next instant Jim Fay strolled into the "park" from the direction of Lawton's cabin. Bennington saw her spring to meet him, holding out both hands, and then the two strolled back down the gulch talking earnestly, their heads close together.
Why should he care? "Mary, Mary, Mary!" he cried within himself as he hurried home. And in remote burial grounds the ancient de Laneys on both sides turned over in their lead-lined coffins.