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Lure of the Dim Trails, The

CHAPTER VIII. A QUESTION OF NERVE

"That was your victory, Miss Stevens. Allow me to congratulate you." If Thurston showed any ill grace in his tone it was without intent. But it did seem unfortunate that just as he was waxing eloquent and felt sure of himself and something of a hero, Mona should push him aside as though he were of no account and disperse a bunch of angry cowboys with half a dozen words.

She looked at him with her direct, blue-gray eyes, and smiled. And her smile had no unpleasant uplift at the corners; it was the dimply, roguish smile of the pastel portrait only several times nicer. Re could hardly believe it; he just opened his eyes wide and stared. When he came to a sense of his rudeness, Mona was back in the kitchen helping with the supper dishes, just as though nothing had happened—unless one observed the deep, apple-red of her cheeks—while her mother, who showed not the faintest symptoms of collapse, flourished a dish towel made of a bleached flour sack with the stamp showing a faint pink and blue XXXX across the center.

"I knew all the time they wouldn't do anything when it came right to the point," she declared. "Bless their hearts, they thought they would—but they're too soft-hearted, even when they are mad. If yuh go at 'em right yuh can talk 'em over easy. It done me good to hear yuh talk right up to 'em, Bud." Mrs. Stevens had called hi Bud from the first time she laid eyes on him. "That's all under the sun they needed—just somebody to set 'em thinking about the other side. You're a real good speaker; seems to me you ought to study to be a preacher."

Thurston's face turned red. But presently he forgot everything in his amazement, for Mona the dignified, Mona of the scornful eyes and the chilly smile, actually giggled—giggled like any ordinary girl, and shot him a glance that had in it pure mirth and roguish teasing, and a dash of coquetry. He sat down and giggled with her, feeling idiotically happy and for no reason under the sun that he could name.

He had promised his conscience that he would go home to the Lazy Eight in the morning, but he didn't; he somehow contrived, overnight, to invent a brand new excuse for his conscience to swallow or not, as it liked. Hank Graves had the same privilege; as for the Stevens trio, he blessed their hospitable souls for not wanting any excuse whatever for his staying. They were frankly glad to have him there; at least Mrs. Stevens and Jack were. As for Mona, he was not so sure, but he hoped she didn't mind.

This was the reason inspired by his great desire: he was going to write a story, and Mona was unconsciously to furnish the material for his heroine, and so, of course, he needed to be there so that he might study his subject. That sounded very well, to himself, but to Hank Graves, for some reason, it seemed very funny. When Thurston told him, Hank was taken with a fit of strangling that turned his face a dark purple. Afterward he explained brokenly that something had got down his Sunday throat—and Thurston, who had never heard of a man's Sunday throat, eyed him with suspicion. Hank blinked at him with tears still in his quizzical eyes and slapped him on the back, after the way of the West—and any other enlightened country where men are not too dignified to be their real selves—and drawled, in a way peculiar to himself:

"That's all right, Bud. You stay right here as long as yuh want to. I don't blame yuh—if I was you I'd want to spend a lot uh time studying this particular brand uh female girl myself. She's out uh sight, Bud—and I don't believe any uh the boys has got his loop on her so far; though I could name a dozen or so that would be tickled to death if they had. You just go right ahead and file your little, old claim—"

"You're getting things mixed," Thurston interrupted, rather testily. "I'm not in love with her. I, well, it's like this: if you were going to paint a picture of those mountains off there, you'd want to be where you could look at them—wouldn't you? You wouldn't necessarily want to—to own them, just because you felt they'd make a fine picture. Your interest would be, er, entirely impersonal."

"Uh-huh," Hank agreed, his keen eyes searching Phil's face amusedly.

"Therefore, it doesn't follow that I'm getting foolish about a girl just because I—hang it! what the Dickens makes you look at a fellow that way? You make me?"

"Uh-huh," said Hank again, smoothing the lower half of his face with one hand. "You're a mighty nice little boy, Bud. I'll bet Mona thinks so, too and when yuh get growed up you'll know a whole lot more than yuh do right now. Well, I guess I'll be moving. When yuh get that—er—story done, you'll come back to the ranch, I reckon. Be good."

Thurston watched him ride away, and then flounced, oh, men do flounce at times, in spirit, if not in deed; and there would be no lack of the deed if only they wore skirts that could rustle indignantly in sympathy with the wearer—to his room. Plainly, Hank did not swallow the excuse any more readily than did his conscience.

To prove the sincerity of his assertion to himself, his conscience, and to Hank Graves, he straightway got out a thick pad of paper and sharpened three lead pencils to an exceeding fine point. Then he sat him down by the window—where he could see the kitchen door, which was the one most used by the family—and nibbled the tip off one of the pencils like any school-girl. For ten minutes he bluffed himself into believing that he was trying to think of a title; the plain truth is, he was wondering if Mona would go for a ride that afternoon and if so, might he venture to suggest going with her.

He thought of the crimply waves in Mona's hair, and pondered what adjectives would best describe it without seeming commonplace. "Rippling" was too old, though it did seem to hit the case all right. He laid down the pad and nearly stood on his head trying to reach his Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms without getting out of his chair. While he was clawing after it—it lay on the floor, where he had thrown it that morning because it refused to divulge some information he wanted—he heard some one open and close the kitchen door, and came near kinking his neck trying to get up in time to see who it was. He failed to see anyone, and returned to the dictionary.

"'Ripple—to have waves—like running water.'" (That was just the way her hair looked, especially over the temples and at the nape of her neck—Jove, what a tempting white neck it was!) "Um-m. 'Ripple; wave; undulate; uneven; irregular.'" (Lord, what fools are the men who write dictionaries!) "'Antonym—hang the antonyms!"

The kitchen door slammed. He craned again. It was Jack—going to town most likely. Thurston shrewdly guessed that Mrs. Stevens leaned far more upon Mona than she did upon Jack, although he could hardly accuse her of leaning on anyone. But he observed that the men looked to her for orders.

He perceived that the point was gone from his pencil, and proceeded to sharpen it. Then he heard Mona singing in the kitchen, and recollected that Mrs. Stevens had promised him warm doughnuts for supper. Perhaps Mona was frying them at that identical moment—and he had never seen anyone frying doughnuts. He caught up his cane and limped out to investigate. That is how much his heart just then was set upon writing a story that would breathe of the plains.

One great hindrance to the progress of his story was the difficulty he had in selecting a hero for his heroine. Hank Graves suggested that he use Park, and even went so far as to supply Thurston with considerable data which went to prove that Park would not be averse to figuring in a love story with Mona. But Thurston was not what one might call enthusiastic, and Hank laughed his deep, inner laugh when he was well away from the house.

Thurston, on the contrary, glowered at the world for two hours after. Park was a fine fellow, and Thurston liked him about as well as any man he knew in the West, but—And thus it went. On each and every visit to the Stevens ranch—and they were many—Hank, learning by direct inquiry that the story still suffered for lack of a hero, suggested some fellow whom he had at one time and another caught "shining" around Mona. And with each suggestion Thurston would draw down his eyebrows till he came near getting a permanent frown.

A love story without a hero, while it would no doubt be original and all that, would hardly appeal to an editor. Phil tried heroes wholly imaginary, but he had a trick of making his characters seem very real to himself and sometimes to other people as well. So that, after a few passages of more or less ardent love-making, he would in a sense grow jealous and spoil the story by annihilating the hero thereof.

Heaven only knows how long the thing would have gone on if he hadn't, one temptingly beautiful evening, reverted to the day of the hold-up and apologized for not obeying her command. He explained as well as he could just why he sat petrified with his hands in the air.

And then having brought the thing freshly to her mind, he somehow lost control of his wits and told her he loved her. He told her a good deal in the next two minutes that he might better have kept to himself just then. But a man generally makes a glorious fool of himself once or twice in his life and it seems the more sensible the man the more thorough a job he makes of it.

Mona moved a little farther away from him, and when she answered she did not choose her words. "Of all things," she said, evenly, "I admire a brave man and despise a coward. You were chicken-hearted that day, and you know it; you've just admitted it. Why, in another minute I'd have had that gun myself, and I'd have shown you—but Park got it before I really had a chance. I hated to seem spectacular, but it served you right. If you'd had any nerve I wouldn't have had to sit there and tell you what to do. If ever I marry anybody, Mr. Thurston, it will be a man."

"Which means, I suppose, that I'm not one?" he asked angrily.

"I don't know yet." Mona smiled her unpleasant smile—the one that did not belong in the story he was going to write. "You're new to the country, you see. Maybe you've got nerve; you haven't shown much, so far as I know—except when you talked to the boys that night. But you must have known that they wouldn't hurt you anyway. A man must have a little courage as much as I have; which isn't asking much—or I'd never marry him in the world."

"Not even if you—liked him?" his smile was wistful.

"Not even if I loved him!" Mona declared, and fled into the house.

Thurston gathered himself together and went down to the stable and borrowed a horse of Jack, who had just got back from town, and rode home to the Lazy Eight.

When Hank heard that he was home to stay—at least until he could join the roundup again—he didn't say a word for full five minutes. Then, "Got your story done?" he drawled, and his eyes twinkled.

Thurston was going up the stairs to his old room, and Hank could not swear positively to the reply he got. But he thought it sounded like, "Oh, damn the story!"


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