The Overland drew into Willets, coated from engine to observation with white dust. A porter, in strange contrast of neatness, flung open the vestibule, dropped his little carpeted step, and turned to assist someone. A few idle passengers gazed out on the uninteresting, flat frontier town.
Senor Johnson caught his breath in amazement. "God! Ain't she just like her picture!" he exclaimed. He seemed to find this astonishing.
For a moment he did not step forward to claim her, so she stood looking about her uncertainly, her leather suit-case at her feet.
She was indeed like the photograph. The same full-curved, compact little figure, the same round face, the same cupid's bow mouth, the same appealing, large eyes, the same haze of doll's hair. In a moment she caught sight of Senor Johnson and took two steps toward him, then stopped. The Senor at once came forward.
"You're Mr. Johnson, ain't you?" she inquired, thrusting her little pointed chin forward, and so elevating her baby-blue eyes to his.
"Yes, ma'am," he acknowledged formally. Then, after a moment's pause: "I hope you're well."
"Yes, thank you."
The station loungers, augmented by all the ranchmen and cowboys in town, were examining her closely. She looked at them in a swift side glance that seemed to gather all their eyes to hers. Then, satisfied that she possessed the universal admiration, she returned the full force of her attention to the man before her.
"Now you give me your trunk checks," he was saying, "and then we'll go right over and get married."
"Oh!" she gasped.
"That's right, ain't it?" he demanded.
"Yes, I suppose so," she agreed faintly.
A little subdued, she followed him to the clergyman's house, where, in the presence of Goodrich, the storekeeper, and the preacher's wife, the two were united. Then they mounted the buckboard and drove from town.
Senor Johnson said nothing, because he knew of nothing to say. He drove skilfully and fast through the gathering dusk. It was a hundred miles to the home ranch, and that hundred miles, by means of five relays of horses already arranged for, they would cover by morning. Thus they would avoid the dust and heat and high winds of the day.
The sweet night fell. The little desert winds laid soft fingers on their checks. Overhead burned the stars, clear, unflickering, like candles. Dimly could be seen the horses, their flanks swinging steadily in the square trot. Ghostly bushes passed them; ghostly rock elevations. Far, in indeterminate distance, lay the outlines of the mountains. Always, they seemed to recede. The plain, all but invisible, the wagon trail quite so, the depths of space—these flung heavy on the soul their weight of mysticism. The woman, until now bolt upright in the buckboard seat, shrank nearer to the man. He felt against his sleeve the delicate contact of her garment and thrilled to the touch. A coyote barked sharply from a neighbouring eminence, then trailed off into the long-drawn, shrill howl of his species.
"What was that?" she asked quickly, in a subdued voice.
"A coyote—one of them little wolves," he explained.
The horses' hoofs rang clear on a hardened bit of the alkali crust, then dully as they encountered again the dust of the plain. Vast, vague, mysterious in the silence of night, filled with strange influences breathing through space like damp winds, the desert took them to the heart of her great spaces.
"Buck," she whispered, a little tremblingly. It was the first time she had spoken his name.
"What is it?" he asked, a new note in his voice.
But for a time she did not reply. Only the contact against his sleeve increased by ever so little.
"Buck," she repeated, then all in a rush and with a sob, "Oh, I'm afraid."
Tenderly the man drew her to him. Her head fell against his shoulder and she hid her eyes.
"There, little girl," he reassured her, his big voice rich and musical. "There's nothing to get scairt of, I'll take care of you. What frightens you, honey?"
She nestled close in his arm with a sigh of half relief.
"I don't know," she laughed, but still with a tremble in her tones. "It's all so big and lonesome and strange—and I'm so little."
"There, little girl," he repeated.
They drove on and on. At the end of two hours they stopped. Men with lanterns dazzled their eyes. The horses were changed, and so out again into the night where the desert seemed to breathe in deep, mysterious exhalations like a sleeping beast.
Senor Johnson drove his horses masterfully with his one free hand. The road did not exist, except to his trained eyes. They seemed to be swimming out, out, into a vapour of night with the wind of their going steady against their faces.
"Buck," she murmured, "I'm so tired."
He tightened his arm around her and she went to sleep, half-waking at the ranches where the relays waited, dozing again as soon as the lanterns dropped behind. And Senor Johnson, alone with his horses and the solemn stars, drove on, ever on, into the desert.
By grey of the early summer dawn they arrived. The girl wakened, descended, smiling uncertainly at Susie O'Toole, blinking somnolently at her surroundings. Susie put her to bed in the little southwest room where hung the shiny Colt's forty-five in its worn leather "Texas-style" holster. She murmured incoherent thanks and sank again to sleep, overcome by the fatigue of unaccustomed travelling, by the potency of the desert air, by the excitement of anticipation to which her nerves had long been strung.
Senor Johnson did not sleep. He was tough, and used to it. He lit a cigar and rambled about, now reading the newspapers he had brought with him, now prowling softly about the building, now visiting the corrals and outbuildings, once even the thousand-acre pasture where his saddle-horse knew him and came to him to have its forehead rubbed. The dawn broke in good earnest, throwing aside its gauzy draperies of mauve. Sang, the Chinese cook, built his fire. Senor Johnson forbade him to clang the rising bell, and himself roused the cow-punchers. The girl slept on. Senor Johnson tip-toed a dozen times to the bedroom door. Once he ventured to push it open. He looked long within, then shut it softly and tiptoed out into the open, his eyes shining.
"Jed," he said to his foreman, "you don't know how it made me feel. To see her lying there so pink and soft and pretty, with her yaller hair all tumbled about and a little smile on her—there in my old bed, with my old gun hanging over her that way—By Heaven, Jed, it made me feel almost HOLY!"