Read CHAPTER XXIX - HETTY DECIDES of The Cattle-Baron's Daughter , free online book, by Harold Bindloss, on ReadCentral.com.

It was in a pale flash of silvery light that Larry saw the girl against the gloom of the trees.  The moaning of the birches and roar of the river drowned the faint sound her footsteps made, and she came upon him so suddenly, statuesque and slender in her trailing evening dress and etherealized by the moonlight, that as he looked down on the blanched whiteness of her upturned face, emphasized by the dusky hair, he almost fancied she had materialized out of the harmonies of the night.  For a moment he sat motionless, with the rifle glinting across his saddle, and a tightening grip of the bridle as the big horse flung up its head, and then, with a sudden stirring of his blood, moved his foot in the stirrup and would have swung himself down if Hetty had not checked him.

“No!” she said.  “Back into the shadow of the trees!”

Larry, seeing the fear in her face, touched the horse with his heel, and wheeled it with its head towards the house.  He could see the warm gleam from the windows between the birches.  Then, he turned to the girl, who stood gasping at his stirrup.

“You sent for me, dear, and I have come.  Can’t you give me just a minute now?” he said.

“No,” said Hetty breathlessly, “you must go.  The Sheriff is here waiting for you!”

Larry laughed a little scornful laugh, and slackening the bridle, sat still, looking down on her very quietly.

“I don’t understand,” he said.  “You sent for me!”

“No,” the girl again gasped.  “Oh, Larry, go away!  Clavering and the others who are most bitter against you are in the house.”

Instinctively Larry moved his hand on the rifle and glanced towards the building.  He could see it dimly, but no sound from it reached him, and Hetty, looking up, saw his face grow stern.

“Still,” he persisted, with a curious quietness, “somebody sent a note to me!”

“Yes,” said Hetty, turning away from him, “it was my wicked maid.  Clavering laid the trap for you.”

The man sat very still a moment, and then bent with a swift resoluteness towards his companion.

“And you came to warn me?” he said.  “Hetty, dear, look up.”

Hetty glanced at him and saw the glow in his eyes, but she clenched her hand, and would have struck the horse in an agony of fear if Larry had not touched him with his heel and swung a pace away from her.

“Oh,” she gasped, “why will you waste time!  Larry, they will kill you if they find you.”

Once more the little scornful smile showed upon Grant’s lips, but it vanished and Hetty saw only the light in his eyes.

“Listen a moment, dear,” he said.  “I have tried to do the square thing, but I think to-night’s work relieves me of the obligation.  Hetty, can’t you see that your father would never give you to me, and you must choose between us sooner or later?  I have waited a long while, and would try to wait longer if it would relieve you of the difficulty, but you will have to make the decision, and it can’t be harder now than it would be in the future.  Promise me you will go back to New York with Miss Schuyler, and stay with her until I come for you.”

Hetty trembled visibly, and the moonlight showed the crimson in her cheeks; but she looked up at him bravely.  “Larry,” she said, “you are sure ­quite sure ­you want me, and will be kind to me?”

The man bent his head solemnly.  “My dear, I have longed for you for eight weary years ­and I think you could trust me.”

“Then,” and Hetty’s voice was very uneven, though she still met his eyes.  “Larry, you can take me now.”

Larry set his lips for a moment and his face showed curiously white.  “Think, my dear!” he said hoarsely.  “It would not be fair to you.  Miss Schuyler will take you away in a week or two, and I will come for you.  I dare not do anything you may be sorry for; and they may find you are not in the house.  You must go home before my strength gives way.”

The emotion she had struggled with swept Hetty away.  “Go home!” she said passionately.  “They wanted to kill you ­and I can never go back now.  If I did, they would know I had warned you ­and believe ­Can’t you understand, Larry?”

Then, the situation flashed upon Grant, and he recognized, as Hetty had done, that she had cast herself adrift when she left the house to warn him.  He knew the cattle-baron’s vindictiveness, and that his daughter had committed an offence he could not forgive.  That left but one escape from the difficulty, and it was the one his own passions, which he had striven to crush down, urged him to.

“Then,” he said in a strained voice, “you must come with me.  We can be married to-morrow.”

Hetty held up her hands to him.  “I am ready.  Oh, be quick.  They may come any minute!”

Larry swept his glance towards the house, and saw a shaft of radiance stream out as the great door opened.  Then, he heard Flora Schuyler’s voice, and, leaning downwards from the saddle, grasped both the girl’s hands.

“Yes,” he said, very quietly, “they are coming now.  Spring when I lift you.  Your foot on my foot ­I have you!”

It was done.  Hetty was active and slender, the man muscular, and both had been taught, not only to ride, but master the half-wild broncho by a superior daring and an equal agility, in a land where the horse is not infrequently roped and thrown before it is mounted.  But Larry breathed hard as, with his arm about her waist, he held the girl in front of him, and felt her cheek hot against his lips.  The next moment he pressed his heels home and the big horse swung forward under its double burden.

A shout rang out behind them, and there was a crackling in the bluff.  Then, a rifle flashed, and just as a cloud drove across the moon, another cry rose up: 

“Quit firing.  He has the girl with him!”

Larry fancied he could hear men floundering behind him amidst the trees, and a trampling of hoofs about the house, but as he listened another rifle flashed away to the right of them on the prairie, and a beat of hoofs followed it that for a moment puzzled him.  He laughed huskily.

“Breckenridge!  He’ll draw them off,” he said.  “Hold fast!  We have got to face the river.”

It was very evident that he had not a second to lose.  Mounted men were crashing recklessly through the bluff and more of them riding at a gallop across the grassy slope; but the darkness hid them as it hid the fugitives, and the big horse held on, until there was a plunge and a splashing, and they were in the river.  Larry slipped from the saddle, and Hetty saw him floundering by the horse’s head as she thrust her foot into the stirrup.

“Slack your bridle,” he said sharply.  “The beast will bring us through.”

The command came when it was needed, for Hetty was almost dismayed, and its curtness was bracing.  There was no moon now, but she could dimly see the white swirling of the flood, and the gurgling roar of it throbbed about her hoarse and threatening, suggesting the perils the darkness hid.  Her light skirt trailed in the water, and a shock of icy cold ran through her as one shoe dipped under.  Larry was on his feet yet, but there was a fierce white frothing about him, and when in another pace or two he slipped down she broke into a stifled scream.  The next moment she saw his face again faintly white beneath her amidst the sliding foam, and fancied that he was swimming or being dragged along.  The horse, she felt, had lost its footing, and had its head up stream.  How long this lasted she did not know, but it seemed an interminable time, and the dull roar of the water grew louder and deafened her, while the blackness that closed in became insupportable.

“Larry!” she gasped.  “Larry, are you there!”

A faintly heard voice made answer, and Grant appeared again, shoulder-deep in the flood, while the dipping and floundering of the beast beneath her showed that the hoofs had found uncertain hold; but that relief only lasted a moment, and they were once more sliding down-stream, until, when they swung round in an eddy, the head that showed now and then dimly beside her stirrup was lost altogether, and in an agony of terror the girl cried aloud.

There was no answer, but after a horrible moment or two had passed a half-seen arm and shoulder rose out of the flood, and the sudden drag on the bridle that slipped from her fingers was very reassuring.  The horse plunged and floundered, and once more Hetty felt her dragging skirt was clear of the water.

“Through the worst!” a voice that reached her faintly said, and they were splashing on again, the water growing shallower all the time until they scrambled out upon the opposite bank.  Then, the man checking the horse, stood by her stirrup, pressing the water from the hem of her skirt, rubbing the little open shoe with his handkerchief, which was saturated.  Even in that hour of horror Hetty laughed.

“Larry,” she said, “don’t be ridiculous.  You couldn’t dry it that way in a week.  Lift me down instead.”

Larry held up his hands to her, for on that side of the river the slope to the level was steep, and when he swung her down the girl kissed him lightly on either cheek.

“That was because of what we have been through, dear,” she said.  “There was a horrible moment, when I could not see you anywhere.”

She stopped and held up her hand as though listening, and Larry laughed softly as a faint drumming of hoofs came back to them through the roar of the flood.

“Breckenridge!  He must have Muller or somebody with him, and they are chasing him,” he said.  “I didn’t know he was following me, but he is gaining us valuable time, and we will push on again.  Your friends will find out they are following the wrong man very soon, but we should get another horse at Muller’s before they can ride round by the bridge.”

They scrambled up the slope, and after Hetty mounted Larry ran with his hand on the stirrup for a while, until once more he made the staunch beast carry a double load.  He was running again when they came clattering up to Muller’s homestead and the fraeulein, who was apparently alone, stared at them in astonishment when she opened the door.  The water still dripped from Larry, and Hetty’s light, bedraggled dress clung about her, while the moisture trickled from her little open-fronted shoes.  She was hatless, and loosened wisps of dusky hair hung low about her face, which turned faintly crimson under the fraeulein’s gaze.

“Miss Torrance!” exclaimed the girl.

“Well,” said Larry quietly, “she will be Mrs. Grant to-morrow if you will lend me a horse and not mention the fact that you have seen us when Torrance’s boys come round.  Where is your father?”

Miss Muller nodded with comprehending sympathy.  “He two hours since with Mr. Breckenridge go,” she said.  “There is new horse in the stable, and you on the rack a saddle for lady find.”

Larry was outside in a moment, and a smile crept into the fraeulein’s blue eyes.  “He is of the one thing at the time alone enabled to think,” she said.  “It is so with the man, but a dress with the water soaked is not convenient to ride at night in.”

She led Hetty into her own room, and when Larry, who had spent some time changing one of the saddles, came back, he stared in astonishment at Hetty, who sat at the table.  She now wore, among other garments that were too big for her, a fur cap and coarse, serge skirt.  There was a steaming cup of coffee in front of her.

“Now, that shows how foolish one can be,” he said.  “I was clean forgetting about the clothes; but we must start again.”

Hetty rose up, and with a little blush held out the cup.  “You are wet to the neck, Larry, and it will do you good,” she said.  “If you don’t mind ­we needn’t wait until Miss Muller gets another cup.”

Larry’s eyes gleamed.  “I have run over most of Europe, but they grow no wine there that was half as nice as the tea we made in the black can back there in the bluff.  Quite often in those days we hadn’t a cup at all.”

He drank, and forthwith turned his head away, while a quiver seemed to run through him; but when Hetty moved towards him the fraeulein laughed.

“It nothing is,” she said.  “It is, perhaps, the effect tobacco have, but the mouth is soft in a man.”

Then, as Larry turned towards them she laid her hands on Hetty’s shoulders, and kissed her gravely.  “You have trust in him,” she said.  “It is of no use afraid to be.  I quick take a man like Mr. Grant when he ask me.”

The next moment they were outside, and when he helped her to the saddle, Hetty glanced shyly at her companion.  “The fraeulein is right,” she said.  “But, Larry, will you tell me ­where we are going?”

“To Windsor.  I have still good friends there.  That is the prosaic fact, but there is ever so much behind it.  We can’t see the trail just now, dear, but we are riding out into the future that has all kinds of brightness in store.”

A silvery gleam fell on the girl as a billow of cloud rolled slowly from a rift of blue, and she laughed almost exultantly.

“Larry,” she said, “it is coming true.  Of course, it’s a portent.  There’s the darkness going and the moon shining through.  Oh, I have done with misgiving now!”

She shook the bridle, and swept from him at a gallop, and the thaw-softened sod was whirling in clods behind them when Larry drew level with her.  He knew it was not prudent, but the fever in his blood mastered his reason, and he sent the stockrider’s cry ringing across the levels as they sped on through the night.  The damp wind screamed by them, lashing their hot cheeks, the beat of hoofs swelled into a roar as they swept through a shadowy bluff, and driving cloud and rift of indigo flitted past above.  Beneath, the long, frost-bleached levels, gleaming silvery grey now under the moon, flitted back to the drumming hoofs, while willow clump and straggling birches rose up, and rushed by, blurred and shadowy.

They were young, and the cares that must be faced again on the morrow had, for a brief space, fallen from them.  They had bent to the strain to the breaking point, and now it had gone, everything was forgotten but the love each bore the other.  All senses were merged in it, and while the exaltation lasted there was no room for thought or fear.  It was, however, the man who remembered first, for a few dark patches caught his eye when they went at a headlong gallop down the slope.

“Pull him!” he cried hoarsely. “’Ware badger holes!  Swing to the right-wide!”

The girl swerved, but she still held on with loose bridle, until Larry, swaying in his saddle, clutched at it.  Then, as he swung upright, half a length ahead, with empty hands, she flung herself a trifle backwards and there was a brief struggle; but it was at a trot they climbed the opposite slope.

“Now,” she said, with a happy little laugh, “we are sensible once more; but, while I knew it couldn’t last, I wanted to gallop on for ever.  Larry, I wonder if we will ever feel just the same again?  There are enjoyments that can’t come to anyone more than once.”

“There are others one can have all the time, and we’ll think of them to-night,” said the man.  “There are bright days before us, and we can wait until they come.”

Hetty smiled, almost sadly.  “Of course!” she said, “but no bright day can be quite the same as this moonlight to me.  It shone down on us when I rode out into the night and darkness without knowing where I was going, and only that you were beside me.  You will stay there always now.”

They held on across the empty waste while the hours of darkness slipped by, and the sun was rising red above the great levels’ rim when the roofs of a wooden town rose in front of them.  As the frame houses slowly grew into form, Hetty painfully straightened herself.  Her face was white and weary and it was by a strenuous effort she held herself upright, the big horse limped a little, and the mire was spattered thick upon her; but she met the man’s eyes, and, though her lips trembled, smiled bravely.

Larry saw and understood, and his face grew grave.  “I have a good deal to make up to you, Hetty, and I will try to do it faithfully,” he said.  “Still, we will look forward with hope and courage now ­it is our wedding day.”

Hetty glanced away from him across the prairie, and the man fancied he saw her fingers tremble on the bridle.

“It is hard to ask you, Larry ­though I know it shouldn’t be ­but have you a few dollars that you could give me?”

The man smiled happily.  “All that is mine is yours, and, as it happens, I have two or three bills in my wallet.  Is there anything you wish to buy?”

Hetty glanced down, flushing, at the bedraggled dress.  “Larry,” she said softly.  “I couldn’t marry you like this.  I haven’t one dollar in my pocket ­and I am coming to you with nothing, dear.”

The smile faded out of Larry’s eyes.  “I scarcely dare remember all that you have given up for me!  And if you had taken Clavering or one of the others you would have ridden to your wedding with a hundred men behind you, as rich as a princess.”

Hetty, sitting, jaded and bespattered, on the limping horse, flashed a swift glance at him, and smiled out of slightly misty eyes.

“It happened,” she said, “that I was particular, or fanciful, and there was only one man ­the one that would take me without a dollar, in borrowed clothes ­who seemed good enough for me.”

They rode on past a stockyard, and into a rutted street of bare frame houses, and Hetty was glad they scarcely met anybody.  Then, Larry helped her down, and, thrusting a wallet into her hands, knocked at the door of a house beside a store.  The man who opened it stared at them, and when Larry had drawn him aside called his wife.  She took Hetty’s chilled hand in both her own, and the storekeeper smiled at Larry.

“You come right along and put some of my things on,” he said.  “Then, you are going with me to have breakfast at the hotel, and talk to the judge.  I guess the women aren’t going to have any use for us.”

It was some time later when they came back to the store, and for just a minute Grant saw Hetty alone.  She was dressed very plainly in new garments, and blushed when he looked gravely down on her.

“That dress is not good enough for you,” he said.  “It is very different from what you have been accustomed to.”

Hetty glanced at him shyly.  “You will have very few dollars to spare, Larry, until the trouble’s through,” she said, “and you will be my husband in an hour or two.”