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“Hi, Rose! Up, girl! There’s another party making for the View by the far path. Get a move on, Rosie.”
The strawberry roan tossed her cropped mane and her dainty little hoofs clattered more quickly over the rocky path which led up from the far-reaching grazing lands of Sunset Ranch to the summit of the rocky eminence that bounded the valley upon the east.
To the west lay a great, rolling plain, covered with buffalo grass and sage; and dropping down the arc of the sky was the setting sun, ruddy-countenanced, whose almost level rays played full upon the face of the bluff up which the pony climbed so nimbly.
“On, Rosie, girl!” repeated the rider. “Don’t let him get to the View before us. I don’t see why anybody would wish to go there,” she added, with a jealous pang, “for it was father’s favorite outlook. None of our boys, I am sure, would come up here at this hour.”
Helen Morrell was secure in this final opinion. It was but a short month since Prince Morrell had gone down under the hoofs of the steers in an unfortunate stampede that had cost the Sunset Ranch much beside the life of its well-liked owner.
The View—a flat table of rock on the summit overlooking the valley—had become almost sacred in the eyes of the punchers of Sunset Ranch since Mr. Morrell’s death. For it was to that spot the ranchman had betaken himself—usually with his daughter—on almost every fair evening, to overlook the valley and count the roaming herds which grazed under his brand.
Helen, who was sixteen and of sturdy build, could see the nearer herds now dotting the plain. She had her father’s glasses slung over her shoulder, and she had come to-night partly for the purpose of spying out the strays along the watercourses or hiding in the distant coulées.
But mainly her visit to the View was because her father had loved to ride here. She could think about him here undisturbed by the confusion and bustle at the ranch-house. And there were some things—things about her father and the sad conversation they had had together before his taking away—that Helen wanted to speculate upon alone.
The boys had picked him up after the accident and brought him home; and doctors had been brought all the way from Helena to do what they could for him. But Mr. Morrell had suffered many bruises and broken bones, and there had been no hope for him from the first.
He was not, however, always unconscious. He was a masterful man and he refused to take drugs to deaden the pain.
“Let me know what I am about until I meet death,” he had whispered. “I—am—not—afraid.”
And yet, there was one thing of which he had been sorely afraid. It was the thought of leaving his daughter alone.
“Oh, Snuggy!” he groaned, clinging to the girl’s plump hand with his own weak one. “If there were some of your own kind to—to leave you with. A girl like you needs women about—good women, and refined women. Squaws, and Greasers, and half-breeds aren’t the kind of women-folk your mother was brought up among.
“I don’t know but I’ve done wrong these past few years—since your mother died, anyway. I’ve been making money here, and it’s all for you, Snuggy. That’s fixed by the lawyer in Elberon.
“Big Hen Billings is executor and guardian of you and the ranch. I know I can trust him. But there ought to be nice women and girls for you to live with—like those girls who went to school with you the four years you were in Denver.
“Yet, this is your home. And your money is going to be made here. It would be a crime to sell out now.
“Ah, Snuggy! Snuggy! If your mother had only lived!” groaned Mr. Morrell. “A woman knows what’s right for a girl better than a man. This is a rough place out here. And even the best of our friends and neighbors are crude. You want refinement, and pretty dresses, and soft beds, and fine furniture——”
“No, no, Father! I love Sunset Ranch just as it is,” Helen declared, wiping away her tears.
“Aye. ’Tis a beauty spot—the beauty spot of all Montana, I believe,” agreed the dying man. “But you need something more than a beautiful landscape.”
“But there are true hearts here—all our friends!” cried Helen.
“And so they are—God bless them!” responded Prince Morrell, fervently. “But, Snuggy, you were born to something better than being a ‘cowgirl.’ Your mother was a refined woman. I have forgotten most of my college education; but I had it once.
“This was not our original environment. It was not meant that we should be shut away from all the gentler things of life, and live rudely as we have. Unhappy circumstances did that for us.”
He was silent for a moment, his face working with suppressed emotion. Suddenly his grasp tightened on the girl’s hand and he continued:
“Snuggy! I’m going to tell you something. It’s something you ought to know, I believe. Your mother was made unhappy by it, and I wouldn’t want a knowledge of it to come upon you unaware, in the after time when you are alone. Let me tell you with my own lips, girl.”
“Why, Father, what is it?”
“Your father’s name is under a cloud. There is a smirch on my reputation. I—I ran away from New York to escape arrest, and I have lived here in the wilderness, without communicating with old friends and associates, because I did not want the matter stirred up.”
“Afraid of arrest, Father?” gasped Helen.