by B. M. Bower
I PEACEFUL HART RANCH II GOOD INDIAN III OLD WIVES' TALES IV THE CHRISTMAS ANGEL V "I DON'T CARE MUCH ABOUT GIRLS" VI THE CHRISTMAS ANGEL PLAYS GHOST VII MISS GEORGIE HOWARD, OPERATOR VIII THE AMIABLE ANGLER IX PEPPAJEE JIM "HEAP SABES" X MIDNIGHT PROWLERS XI "YOU CAN'T PLAY WITH ME" XII "THEM DAMN' SNAKE" XIII CLOUD-SIGN VERSUS CUPID XIV THE CLAIM-JUMPERS XV SQUAW-TALK-FAR-OFF HEAP SMART XVI "DON'T GET EXCITED!" XVII A LITTLE TARGET PRACTICE XVIII A SHOT FROM THE RIM-ROCK XIX EVADNA GOES CALLING XX MISS GEORGIE ALSO MAKES A CALL XXI SOMEBODY SHOT SAUNDERS XXII A BIT OF PAPER XXIII THE MALICE OF A SQUAW XXIV PEACEFUL RETURN XXV "I'D JUST AS SOON HANG FOR NINE MEN AS FOR ONE" XXVI "WHEN THE SUN GOES AWAY" XXVII LIFE ADJUSTS ITSELF AGAIN TO SMALL THINGS
CHAPTER I. PEACEFUL HART RANCH
It was somewhere in the seventies when old Peaceful Hart woke to a realization that gold-hunting and lumbago do not take kindly to one another, and the fact that his pipe and dim-eyed meditation appealed to him more keenly than did his prospector's pick and shovel and pan seemed to imply that he was growing old. He was a silent man, by occupation and by nature, so he said nothing about it; but, like the wild things of prairie and wood, instinctively began preparing for the winter of his life. Where he had lately been washing tentatively the sand along Snake River, he built a ranch. His prospector's tools he used in digging ditches to irrigate his new-made meadows, and his mining days he lived over again only in halting recital to his sons when they clamored for details of the old days when Indians were not mere untidy neighbors to be gossiped with and fed, but enemies to be fought, upon occasion.
They felt that fate had cheated them—did those five sons; for they had been born a few years too late for the fun. Not one of them would ever have earned the title of "Peaceful," as had his father. Nature had played a joke upon old Peaceful Hart; for he, the mildest-mannered man who ever helped to tame the West when it really needed taming, had somehow fathered five riotous young males to whom fight meant fun—and the fiercer, the funnier.
He used to suck at his old, straight-stemmed pipe and regard them with a bewildered curiosity sometimes; but he never tried to put his puzzlement into speech. The nearest he ever came to elucidation, perhaps, was when he turned from them and let his pale-blue eyes dwell speculatively upon the face of his wife, Phoebe. Clearly he considered that she was responsible for their dispositions.
The house stood cuddled against a rocky bluff so high it dwarfed the whole ranch to pygmy size when one gazed down from the rim, and so steep that one wondered how the huge, gray bowlders managed to perch upon its side instead of rolling down and crushing the buildings to dust and fragments. Strangers used to keep a wary eye upon that bluff, as if they never felt quite safe from its menace. Coyotes skulked there, and tarantulas and "bobcats" and snakes. Once an outlaw hid there for days, within sight and hearing of the house, and stole bread from Phoebe's pantry at night—but that is a story in itself.
A great spring gurgled out from under a huge bowlder just behind the house, and over it Peaceful had built a stone milk house, where Phoebe spent long hours in cool retirement on churning day, and where one went to beg good things to eat and to drink. There was fruit cake always hidden away in stone jars, and cheese, and buttermilk, and cream.
Peaceful Hart must have had a streak of poetry somewhere hidden away in his silent soul. He built a pond against the bluff; hollowed it out from the sand he had once washed for traces of gold, and let the big spring fill it full and seek an outlet at the far end, where it slid away under a little stone bridge. He planted the pond with rainbow trout, and on the margin a rampart of Lombardy poplars, which grew and grew until they threatened to reach up and tear ragged holes in the drifting clouds. Their slender shadows lay, like gigantic fingers, far up the bluff when the sun sank low in the afternoon.
Behind them grew a small jungle of trees-catalpa and locust among them—a jungle which surrounded the house, and in summer hid it from sight entirely.
With the spring creek whispering through the grove and away to where it was defiled by trampling hoofs in the corrals and pastures beyond, and with the roses which Phoebe Hart kept abloom until the frosts came, and the bees, and humming—birds which somehow found their way across the parched sagebrush plains and foregathered there, Peaceful Hart's ranch betrayed his secret longing for girls, as if he had unconsciously planned it for the daughters he had been denied.
It was an ideal place for hammocks and romance—a place where dainty maidens might dream their way to womanhood. And Peaceful Hart, when all was done, grew old watching five full-blooded boys clicking their heels unromantically together as they roosted upon the porch, and threw cigarette stubs at the water lilies while they wrangled amiably over the merits of their mounts; saw them drag their blankets out into the broody dusk of the grove when the nights were hot, and heard their muffled swearing under their "tarps" because of the mosquitoes which kept the night air twanging like a stricken harp string with their song.
They liked the place well enough. There were plenty of shady places to lie and smoke in when the mercury went sizzling up its tiny tube. Sometimes, when there was a dance, they would choose the best of Phoebe's roses to decorate their horses' bridles; and perhaps their hatbands, also. Peaceful would then suck harder than ever at his pipe, and his faded blue eyes would wander pathetically about the little paradise of his making, as if he wondered whether, after all, it had been worth while.
A tight picket fence, built in three unswerving lines from the post planted solidly in a cairn of rocks against a bowlder on the eastern rim of the pond, to the road which cut straight through the ranch, down that to the farthest tree of the grove, then back to the bluff again, shut in that tribute to the sentimental side of Peaceful's nature. Outside the fence dwelt sturdier, Western realities.
Once the gate swung shut upon the grove one blinked in the garish sunlight of the plains. There began the real ranch world. There was the pile of sagebrush fuel, all twisted and gray, pungent as a bottle of spilled liniment, where braided, blanketed bucks were sometimes prevailed upon to labor desultorily with an ax in hope of being rewarded with fruit new-gathered from the orchard or a place at Phoebe's long table in the great kitchen.
There was the stone blacksmith shop, where the boys sweated over the nice adjustment of shoes upon the feet of fighting, wild-eyed horses, which afterward would furnish a spectacle of unseemly behavior under the saddle.
Farther away were the long stable, the corrals where broncho-taming was simply so much work to be performed, hayfields, an orchard or two, then rocks and sand and sage which grayed the earth to the very skyline.
A glint of slithering green showed where the Snake hugged the bluff a mile away, and a brown trail, ankle-deep in dust, stretched straight out to the west, and then lost itself unexpectedly behind a sharp, jutting point of rocks where the bluff had thrust out a rugged finger into the valley.
By devious turnings and breath-taking climbs, the trail finally reached the top at the only point for miles, where it was possible for a horseman to pass up or down.
Then began the desert, a great stretch of unlovely sage and lava rock and sand for mile upon mile, to where the distant mountain ridges reached out and halted peremptorily the ugly sweep of it. The railroad gashed it boldly, after the manner of the iron trail of modern industry; but the trails of the desert dwellers wound through it diffidently, avoiding the rough crest of lava rock where they might, dodging the most aggressive sagebrush and dipping tentatively into hollows, seeking always the easiest way to reach some remote settlement or ranch.
Of the men who followed those trails, not one of them but could have ridden straight to the Peaceful Hart ranch in black darkness; and there were few, indeed, white men or Indians, who could have ridden there at midnight and not been sure of blankets and a welcome to sweeten their sleep. Such was the Peaceful Hart Ranch, conjured from the sage and the sand in the valley of the Snake.
CHAPTER II. GOOD INDIAN
There is a saying—and if it is not purely Western, it is at least purely American—that the only good Indian is a dead Indian. In the very teeth of that, and in spite of the fact that he was neither very good, nor an Indian—nor in any sense "dead"—men called Grant Imsen "Good Indian" to his face; and if he resented the title, his resentment was never made manifest—perhaps because he had grown up with the name, he rather liked it when he was a little fellow, and with custom had come to take it as a matter of course.
Because his paternal ancestry went back, and back to no one knows where among the race of blue eyes and fair skin, the Indians repudiated relationship with him, and called him white man—though they also spoke of him unthinkingly as "Good Injun."
Because old Wolfbelly himself would grudgingly admit under pressure that the mother of Grant had been the half-caste daughter of Wolfbelly's sister, white men remembered the taint when they were angry, and called him Injun. And because he stood thus between the two races of men, his exact social status a subject always open to argument, not even the fact that he was looked upon by the Harts as one of the family, with his own bed always ready for him in a corner of the big room set apart for the boys, and with a certain place at the table which was called his—not even his assured position there could keep him from sometimes feeling quite alone, and perhaps a trifle bitter over his loneliness.
Phoebe Hart had mothered him from the time when his father had sickened and died in her house, leaving Grant there with twelve years behind him, in his hands a dirty canvas bag of gold coin so heavy he could scarce lift it, which stood for the mining claim the old man had just sold, and the command to invest every one of the gold coins in schooling.
Old John Imsen was steeped in knowledge of the open; nothing of the great outdoors had ever slipped past him and remained mysterious. Put when he sold his last claim—others he had which promised little and so did not count—he had signed his name with an X. Another had written the word John before that X, and the word Imsen after; above, a word which he explained was "his," and below the word "mark." John Imsen had stared down suspiciously at the words, and he had not felt quite easy in his mind until the bag of gold coins was actually in his keeping. Also, he had been ashamed of that X. It was a simple thing to make with a pen, and yet he had only succeeded in making it look like two crooked sticks thrown down carelessly, one upon the other. His face had gone darkly red with the shame of it, and he had stood scowling down at the paper.
"That boy uh mine's goin' to do better 'n that, by God!" he had sworn, and the words had sounded like a vow.
When, two months after that, he had faced—incredulously, as is the way with strong men—the fact that for him life was over, with nothing left to him save an hour or so of labored breath and a few muttered sentences, he did not forget that vow. He called Phoebe close to the bed, placed the bag of gold in Grant's trembling hands, and stared intently from one face to the other.
"Mis' Hart, he ain't got—anybody—my folks—I lost track of 'em years ago. You see to it—git some learnin' in his head. When a man knows books—it's—like bein' heeled—good gun—plenty uh ca't'idges—in a fight. When I got that gold—it was like fightin' with my bare hands—against a gatlin' gun. They coulda cheated me—whole thing—on paper—I wouldn't know—luck—just luck they didn't. So you take it—and git the boy schoolin'. Costs money—I know that—git him all it'll buy. Send him—where they keep—the best. Don't yuh let up—n'er let him—whilst they's a dollar left. Put it all—into his head—then he can't lose it, and he can—make it earn more. An'—I guess I needn't ask yuh—be good to him. He ain't got anybody—not a soul—Injuns don't count. You see to it—don't let up till—it's all gone."
Phoebe had taken him literally. And Grant, if he had little taste for the task, had learned books and other things not mentioned in the curriculums of the schools she sent him to—and when the bag was reported by Phoebe to be empty, he had returned with inward relief to the desultory life of the Hart ranch and its immediate vicinity.
His father would probably have been amazed to see how little difference that schooling made in the boy. The money had lasted long enough to take him through a preparatory school and into the second year of a college; and the only result apparent was speech a shade less slipshod than that of his fellows, and a vocabulary which permitted him to indulge in an amazing number of epithets and in colorful vituperation when the fancy seized him.
He rode, hot and thirsty and tired, from Sage Hill one day and found Hartley empty of interest, hot as the trail he had just now left thankfully behind him, and so absolutely sleepy that it seemed likely to sink into the sage-clothed earth under the weight of its own dullness. Even the whisky was so warm it burned like fire, and the beer he tried left upon his outraged palate the unhappy memory of insipid warmth and great bitterness.
He plumped the heavy glass down upon the grimy counter in the dusty far corner of the little store and stared sourly at Pete Hamilton, who was apathetically opening hatboxes for the inspection of an Indian in a red blanket and frowsy braids.
"How much?" The braided one fingered indecisively the broad brim of a gray sombrero.
"Nine dollars." Pete leaned heavily against the shelves behind him and sighed with the weariness of mere living.
"Huh! All same buy one good hoss." The braided one dropped the hat, hitched his blanket over his shoulder in stoical disregard of the heat, and turned away.
Pete replaced the cover, seemed about to place the box upon the shelf behind him, and then evidently decided that it was not worth the effort. He sighed again.
"It is almighty hot," he mumbled languidly. "Want another drink, Good Injun?"
"I do not. Hot toddy never did appeal to me, my friend. If you weren't too lazy to give orders, Pete, you'd have cold beer for a day like this. You'd give Saunders something to do beside lie in the shade and tell what kind of a man he used to be before his lungs went to the bad. Put him to work. Make him pack this stuff down cellar where it isn't two hundred in the shade. Why don't you?"
"We was going to get ice t'day, but they didn't throw it off when the train went through."
"That's comforting—to a man with a thirst like the great Sahara. Ice! Pete, do you know what I'd like to do to a man that mentions ice after a drink like that?"
Pete neither knew nor wanted to know, and he told Grant so. "If you're going down to the ranch," he added, by way of changing the subject, "there's some mail you might as well take along."
"Sure, I'm going—for a drink out of that spring, if nothing else. You've lost a good customer to-day, Pete. I rode up here prepared to get sinfully jagged—and here I've got to go on a still hunt for water with a chill to it—or maybe buttermilk. Pete, do you know what I think of you and your joint?"
"I told you I don't wanta know. Some folks ain't never satisfied. A fellow that's rode thirty or forty miles to get here, on a day like this, had oughta be glad to get anything that looks like beer."
"Is that so?" Grant walked purposefully down to the front of the store, where Pete was fumbling behind the rampart of crude pigeonholes which was the post-office. "Let me inform you, then, that—"
There was a swish of skirts upon the rough platform outside, and a young woman entered with the manner of feeling perfectly at home there. She was rather tall, rather strong and capable looking, and she was bareheaded, and carried a door key suspended from a smooth-worn bit of wood.
"Don't get into a perspiration making up the mail, Pete," she advised calmly, quite ignoring both Grant and the Indian. "Fifteen is an hour late—as usual. Jockey Bates always seems to be under the impression he's an undertaker's assistant, and is headed for the graveyard when he takes fifteen out. He'll get the can, first he knows—and he'll put in a month or two wondering why. I could make better time than he does myself." By then she was leaning with both elbows upon the counter beside the post-office, bored beyond words with life as it must be lived—to judge from her tone and her attitude.
"For Heaven's sake, Pete," she went on languidly, "can't you scare up a novel, or chocolates, or gum, or—ANYTHING to kill time? I'd even enjoy chewing gum right now—it would give my jaws something to think of, anyway."
Pete, grinning indulgently, came out of retirement behind the pigeonholes, and looked inquiringly around the store.
"I've got cards," he suggested. "What's the matter with a game of solitary? I've known men to put in hull winters alone, up in the mountains, jest eating and sleeping and playin' solitary."
The young woman made a grimace of disgust. "I've come from three solid hours of it. What I really do want is something to read. Haven't you even got an almanac?"
"Saunders is readin' 'The Brokenhearted Bride'—you can have it soon's he's through. He says it's a peach."
"Fifteen is bringing up a bunch of magazines. I'll have reading in plenty two hours from now; but my heavens above, those two hours!" She struck both fists despairingly upon the counter.
"I've got gumdrops, and fancy mixed—"
"Forget it, then. A five-pound box of chocolates is due—on fifteen." She sighed heavily. "I wish you weren't so old, and hadn't quite so many chins, Pete," she complained. "I'd inveigle you into a flirtation. You see how desperate I am for something to do!"
Pete smiled unhappily. He was sensitive about all those chins, and the general bulk which accompanied them.
"Let me make you acquainted with my friend, Good In—er—Mr. Imsen." Pete considered that he was behaving with great discernment and tact. "This is Miss Georgie Howard, the new operator." He twinkled his little eyes at her maliciously. "Say, he ain't got but one chin, and he's only twenty-three years old." He felt that the inference was too plain to be ignored.
She turned her head slowly and looked Grant over with an air of disparagement, while she nodded negligently as an acknowledgment to the introduction. "Pete thinks he's awfully witty," she remarked. "It's really pathetic."
Pete bristled—as much as a fat man could bristle on so hot a day. "Well, you said you wanted to flirt, and so I took it for granted you'd like—"
Good Indian looked straight past the girl, and scowled at Pete.
"Pete, you're an idiot ordinarily, but when you try to be smart you're absolutely insufferable. You're mentally incapable of recognizing the line of demarcation between legitimate persiflage and objectionable familiarity. An ignoramus of your particular class ought to confine his repartee to unqualified affirmation or the negative monosyllable." Whereupon he pulled his hat more firmly upon his head, hunched his shoulders in disgust, remembered his manners, and bowed to Miss Georgie Howard, and stalked out, as straight of back as the Indian whose blanket he brushed, and who may have been, for all he knew, a blood relative of his.
"I guess that ought to hold you for a while, Pete," Miss Georgie approved under her breath, and stared after Grant curiously. "'You're mentally incapable of recognizing the line of demarcation between legitimate persiflage and objectionable familiarity.' I'll bet two bits you don't know what that means, Pete; but it hits you off exactly. Who is this Mr. Imsen?"
She got no reply to that. Indeed, she did not wait for a reply. Outside, things were happening—and, since Miss Georgie was dying of dullness, she hailed the disturbance as a Heaven-sent blessing, and ran to see what was going on.
Briefly, Grant had inadvertently stepped on a sleeping dog's paw—a dog of the mongrel breed which infests Indian camps, and which had attached itself to the blanketed buck inside. The dog awoke with a yelp, saw that it was a stranger who had perpetrated the outrage, and straightway fastened its teeth in the leg of Grant's trousers. Grant kicked it loose, and when it came at him again, he swore vengeance and mounted his horse in haste.
He did not say a word. He even smiled while he uncoiled his rope, widened the loop, and, while the dog was circling warily and watching for another chance at him, dropped the loop neatly over its front quarters, and drew it tight.
Saunders, a weak-lunged, bandy-legged individual, who was officially a general chore man for Pete, but who did little except lie in the shade, reading novels or gossiping, awoke then, and, having a reputation for tender-heartedness, waved his arms and called aloud in the name of peace.
"Turn him loose, I tell yuh! A helpless critter like that—you oughta be ashamed—abusin' dumb animals that can't fight back!"
"Oh, can't he?" Grant laughed grimly.
"You turn that dog loose!" Saunders became vehement, and paid the penalty of a paroxysm of coughing.
"You go to the devil. If you were an able-bodied man, I'd get you, too—just to have a pair of you. Yelping, snapping curs, both of you." He played the dog as a fisherman plays a trout.
"That dog, him Viney dog. Viney heap likum. You no killum, Good Injun." The Indian, his arms folded in his blanket, stood upon the porch watching calmly the fun. "Viney all time heap mad, you killum," he added indifferently.
"Sure it isn't old Hagar's?"
"No b'long-um Hagar—b'long-um Viney. Viney heap likum."
Grant hesitated, circling erratically with his victim close to the steps. "All right, no killum—teachum lesson, though. Viney heap bueno squaw—heap likum Viney. No likum dog, though. Dog all time come along me." He glanced up, passed over the fact that Miss Georgie Howard was watching him and clapping her hands enthusiastically at the spectacle, and settled an unfriendly stare upon Saunders.
"You shut up your yowling. You'll burst a blood vessel and go to heaven, first thing you know. I've never contemplated hiring you as my guardian angel, you blatting buck sheep. Go off and lie down somewhere." He turned in the saddle and looked down at the dog, clawing and fighting the rope which held him fast just back of the shoulder—blades. "Come along, doggie—NICE doggie!" he grinned, and touched his horse with the spurs. With one leap, it was off at a sharp gallop, up over the hill and through the sagebrush to where he knew the Indian camp must be.
Old Wolfbelly had but that morning brought his thirty or forty followers to camp in the hollow where was a spring of clear water—the hollow which had for long been known locally as "the Indian Camp," because of Wolfbelly's predilection for the spot. Without warning save for the beat of hoofs in the sandy soil, Grant charged over the brow of the hill and into camp, scattering dogs, papooses, and squaws alike as he rode.
Shrill clamor filled the sultry air. Sleeping bucks awoke, scowling at the uproar; and the horse of Good Indian, hating always the smell and the litter of an Indian camp, pitched furiously into the very wikiup of old Hagar, who hated the rider of old. In the first breathing spell he loosed the dog, which skulked, limping, into the first sheltered spot he found, and laid him down to lick his outraged person and whimper to himself at the memory of his plight. Grant pulled his horse to a restive stand before a group of screeching squaws, and laughed outright at the panic of them.
"Hello! Viney! I brought back your dog," he drawled. "He tried to bite me—heap kay bueno* dog. Mebbyso you killum. Me no hurtum—all time him Hartley, all time him try hard bite me. Sleeping Turtle tell me him Viney dog. He likum Viney, me no kill Viney dog. You all time mebbyso eat that dog—sabe? No keep—Kay bueno. All time try for bite. You cookum, no can bite. Sabe?"
*AUTHOR'S NOTE.—The Indians of southern Idaho spoke a somewhat mixed dialect. Bueno (wayno), their word for 'good,' undoubtedly being taken from the Spanish language. I believe the word "kay" to be Indian. It means "no", and thus the "Kay bueno" so often used by them means literally "no good," and is a term of reproach On the other hand, "heap bueno" is "very good," their enthusiasm being manifested merely by drawing out the word "heap." In speaking English they appear to have no other way of expressing, in a single phrase, their like or dislike of an object or person.
Without waiting to see whether Viney approved of his method of disciplining her dog, or intended to take his advice regarding its disposal, he wheeled and started off in the direction of the trail which led down the bluff to the Hart ranch. When he reached the first steep descent, however, he remembered that Pete had spoken of some mail for the Harts, and turned back to get it.
Once more in Hartley, he found that the belated train was making up time, and would be there within an hour; and, since it carried mail from the West, it seemed hardly worthwhile to ride away before its arrival. Also, Pete intimated that there was a good chance of prevailing upon the dining-car conductor to throw off a chunk of ice. Grant, therefore, led his horse around into the shade, and made himself comfortable while he waited.
CHAPTER III. OLD WIVES TALES
Down the winding trail of Snake River bluff straggled a blanketed half dozen of old Wolfbelly's tribe, the braves stalking moodily in front and kicking up a gray cloud of dust which enveloped the squaws behind them but could not choke to silence their shrill chatter; for old Hagar was there, and Viney, and the incident of the dog was fresh in their minds and tickling their tongues.
The Hart boys were assembled at the corral, halter-breaking a three-year-old for the pure fun of it. Wally caught sight of the approaching blotch of color, and yelled a wordless greeting; him had old Hagar carried lovingly upon her broad shoulders with her own papoose when he was no longer than her arm; and she knew his voice even at that distance, and grinned—grinned and hid her joy in a fold of her dingy red blanket.
"Looks like old Wolfbelly's back," Clark observed needlessly. "Donny, if they don't go to the house right away, you go and tell mum they're here. Chances are the whole bunch'll hang around till supper."
"Say!" Gene giggled with fourteen-year-old irrepressibility. "Does anybody know where Vadnie is? If we could spring 'em on her and make her believe they're on the warpath—say, I'll gamble she'd run clear to the Malad!"
"I told her, cross my heart, this morning that the Injuns are peaceful now. I said Good Injun was the only one that's dangerous—oh, I sure did throw a good stiff load, all right!" Clark grinned at the memory. "I've got to see Grant first, when he gets back, and put him wise to the rep he's got. Vad didn't hardly swallow it. She said: 'Why, Cousin Clark! Aunt Phoebe says he's perfectly lovely!"' Clark mimicked the girl's voice with relish.
"Aw—there's a lot of squaws tagging along behind!" Donny complained disgustedly from his post of observation on the fence. "They'll go to the house first thing to gabble—there's old Hagar waddling along like a duck. You can't make that warpath business stick, Clark—not with all them squaws."
"Well, say, you sneak up and hide somewhere till yuh see if Vadnie's anywhere around. If they get settled down talking to mum, they're good for an hour—she's churning, Don—you hide in the rocks by the milk-house till they get settled. And I'll see if—Git! Pikeway, while they're behind the stacks!"
Donny climbed down and scurried through the sand to the house as if his very life depended upon reaching it unseen. The group of Indians came up, huddled at the corral, and peered through the stout rails.
"How! How!" chorused the boys, and left the horse for a moment while they shook hands ceremoniously with the three bucks. Three Indians, Clark decided regretfully, would make a tame showing on the warpath, however much they might lend themselves to the spirit of the joke. He did not quite know how he was going to manage it, but he was hopeful still. It was unthinkable that real live Indians should be permitted to come and go upon the ranch without giving Evadna Ramsey, straight from New Jersey, the scare of her life.
The three bucks, grunting monosyllabic greetings' climbed, in all the dignity of their blankets, to the top rail of the corral, and roosted there to watch the horse-breaking; and for the present Clark held his peace.
The squaws hovered there for a moment longer, peeping through the rails. Then Hagar—she of much flesh and more temper—grunted a word or two, and they turned and plodded on to where the house stood hidden away in its nest of cool green. For a space they stood outside the fence, peering warily into the shade, instinctively cautious in their manner of approaching a strange place, and detained also by the Indian etiquette which demands that one wait until invited to enter a strange camp.
After a period of waiting which seemed to old Hagar sufficient, she pulled her blanket tight across her broad hips, waddled to the gate, pulled it open with self-conscious assurance, and led the way soft-footedly around the house to where certain faint sounds betrayed the presence of Phoebe Hart in her stone milk-house.
At the top of the short flight of wide stone steps they stopped and huddled silently, until the black shadow of them warned Phoebe of their presence. She had lived too long in the West to seem startled when she suddenly discovered herself watched by three pair of beady black eyes, so she merely nodded, and laid down her butter-ladle to shake hands all around.
"How, Hagar? How, Viney? How, Lucy? Heap glad to see you. Bueno buttermilk—mebbyso you drinkum?"
However diffident they might be when it came to announcing their arrival, their bashfulness did not extend to accepting offers of food or drink. Three brown hands were eagerly outstretched—though it was the hand of Hagar which grasped first the big tin cup. They not only drank, they guzzled, and afterward drew a fold of blanket across their milk-white lips, and grinned in pure animal satisfaction.
"Bueno. He-e-ap bueno!" they chorused appreciatively, and squatted at the top of the stone steps, watching Phoebe manipulate the great ball of yellow butter in its wooden bowl.
After a brief silence, Hagar shook the tangle of unkempt, black hair away from her moonlike face, and began talking in a soft monotone, her voice now and then rising to a shrill singsong.
"Mebbyso Tom, mebbyso Sharlie, mebbyso Sleeping Turtle all time come along," she announced. "Stop all time corral, talk yo' boys. Mebbyso heap likum drink yo' butter water. Bueno."
When Phoebe nodded assent, Hagar went on to the news which had brought her so soon to the ranch—the news which satisfied both an old grudge and her love of gossip.
"Good Injun, him all time heap kay bueno," she stated emphatically, her sloe black eyes fixed unwaveringly upon Phoebe's face to see if the stab was effective. "Good Injun come Hartley, all time drunk likum pig.
"All time heap yell, heap shoot—kay bueno. Wantum fight Man-that-coughs. Come all time camp, heap yell, heap shoot some more. I fetchum dog—Viney dog—heap dragum through sagebrush—dog all time cry, no can get away—me thinkum kill that dog. Squaws cry—Viney cry—Good Injun"—Hagar paused here for greater effect—"makum horse all time buck—ridum in wikiup—Hagar wikiup—all time breakum—no can fix that wikiup. Good Injun, hee-e-ap kay bueno!" At the last her voice was high and tremulous with anger.
"Good Indian mebbyso all same my boy Wally." Phoebe gave the butter a vicious slap. "Me heap love Good Indian. You no call Good Indian, you call Grant. Grant bueno. Heap bueno all time. No drunk, no yell, no shoot, mebbyso"—she hesitated, knowing well the possibilities of her foster son—"mebbyso catchum dog—me think no catchum. Grant all same my boy. All time me likum—heap bueno."
Viney and Lucy nudged each other and tittered into their blankets, for the argument was an old one between Hagar and Phoebe, though the grievance of Hagar might be fresh. Hagar shifted her blanket and thrust out a stubborn under lip.
"Wally boy, heap bueno," she said; and her malicious old face softened as she spoke of him, dear as her own first-born. "Jack bueno, mebbyso Gene bueno, mebbyso Clark, mebbyso Donny all time bueno." Doubt was in her voice when she praised those last two, however, because of their continual teasing. She stopped short to emphasize the damning contrast. "Good Injun all same mebbyso yo' boy Grant, hee-ee-eap kay bueno. Good Injun Grant all time DEBBIL!"
It was at this point that Donny slipped away to report that "Mamma and old Hagar are scrappin' over Good Injun again," and told with glee the tale of his misdeeds as recounted by the squaw.
Phoebe in her earnestness forgot to keep within the limitations of their dialect.
"Grant's a good boy, and a smart boy. There isn't a better-hearted fellow in the country, if I have got five boys of my own. You think I like him better than I like Wally, is all ails you, Hagar. You're jealous of Grant, and you always have been, ever since his father left him with me. I hope my heart's big enough to hold them all." She remembered then that they could not understand half she was saying, and appealed to Viney. Viney liked Grant.
"Viney, you tell me. Grant no come Hartley, no drunk, no yell, no catchum you dog, no ride in Hagar's wikiup? You tell me, Viney."
Viney and Lucy bobbed their heads rapidly up and down. Viney, with a sidelong glance at Hagar, spoke softly.
"Good Injun Grant, mebbyso home Hartley," she admitted reluctantly, as if she would have been pleased to prove Hagar a liar in all things. "Me thinkum no drunk. Mebbyso ketchum dog—dog kay bueno, mebbyso me killing. Good Injun Grant no heap yell, no shoot all time—mebbyso no drunk. No breakum wikiup. Horse all time kay bueno, Hagar—"
"Shont-isham!" (big lie) Hagar interrupted shrilly then, and Viney relapsed into silence, her thin face growing sullen under the upbraiding she received in her native tongue. Phoebe, looking at her attentively, despaired of getting any nearer the truth from any of them.
There was a sudden check to Hagar's shrewish clamor. The squaws stiffened to immobility and listened stolidly, their eyes alone betraying the curiosity they felt. Off somewhere at the head of the tiny pond, hidden away in the jungle of green, a voice was singing; a girl's voice, and a strange voice—for the squaws knew well the few women voices along the Snake.
"That my girl," Phoebe explained, stopping the soft pat—pat of her butter-ladle.
"Where ketchum yo' girl?" Hagar forgot her petulance, and became curious as any white woman.
"Me ketchum 'way off, where sun come up. In time me have heap boys—mebbyso want girl all time. My mother's sister's boy have one girl, 'way off where sun come up. My mother's sister's boy die, his wife all same die, that girl mebbyso heap sad; no got father, no got mother—all time got nobody. Kay bueno. That girl send one letter, say all time got nobody. Me want one girl. Me send one letter, tell that girl come, be all time my girl. Five days ago, that girl come. Her heap glad; boys all time heap glad, my man heap glad. Bueno. Mebbyso you glad me have one girl." Not that their approval was necessary, or even of much importance; but Phoebe was accustomed to treat them like spoiled children.
Hagar's lip was out-thrust again. "Yo' ketchum one girl, mebbyso yo' no more likum my boy Wally. Kay bueno."
"Heap like all my boys jus' same," Phoebe hastened to assure her, and added with a hint of malice, "Heap like my boy Grant all same."
"Huh!" Hagar chose to remain unconvinced and antagonistic. "Good Injun kay bueno. Yo' girl, mebbyso kay bueno."
"What name yo' girl?" Viney interposed hastily.
"Name Evadna Ramsey." In spite of herself, Phoebe felt a trifle chilled by their lack of enthusiasm. She went back to her butter-making in dignified silence.
The squaws blinked at her stolidly. Always they were inclined toward suspicion of strangers, and perhaps to a measure of jealousy as well. Not many whites received them with frank friendship as did the Hart family, and they felt far more upon the subject than they might put into words, even the words of their own language.
Many of the white race looked upon them as beggars, which was bad enough, or as thieves, which was worse; and in a general way they could not deny the truth of it. But they never stole from the Harts, and they never openly begged from the Harts. The friends of the Harts, however, must prove their friendship before they could hope for better than an imperturbable neutrality. So they would not pretend to be glad. Hagar was right—perhaps the girl was no good. They would wait until they could pass judgment upon this girl who had come to live in the wikiup of the Harts. Then Lucy, she who longed always for children and had been denied by fate, stirred slightly, her nostrils aquiver.
"Mebbyso bueno yo' girl," she yielded, speaking softly. "Mebbyso see yo' girl."
Phoebe's face cleared, and she called, in mellow crescendo: "Oh, Va-ad-NIEE?" Immediately the singing stopped.
"Coming, Aunt Phoebe," answered the voice.
The squaws wrapped themselves afresh in their blankets, passed brown palms smoothingly down their hair from the part in the middle, settled their braids upon their bosoms with true feminine instinct, and waited. They heard her feet crunching softly in the gravel that bordered the pond, but not a head turned that way; for all the sign of life they gave, the three might have been mere effigies of women. They heard a faint scream when she caught sight of them sitting there, and their faces settled into more stolid indifference, adding a hint of antagonism even to the soft eyes of Lucy, the tender, childless one.
"Vadnie, here are some new neighbors I want you to get acquainted with." Phoebe's eyes besought the girl to be calm. "They're all old friends of mine. Come here and let me introduce you—and don't look so horrified, honey!"
Those incorrigibles, her cousins, would have whooped with joy at her unmistakable terror when she held out a trembling hand and gasped faintly: "H-how do you—do?"
"This Hagar," Phoebe announced cheerfully; and the old squaw caught the girl's hand and gripped it tightly for a moment in malicious enjoyment of her too evident fear and repulsion.
Viney, reading Evadna's face in one keen, upward glance, kept her hands hidden in the folds of her blanket, and only nodded twice reassuringly.
Lucy read also the girl's face; but she reached up, pressed her hand gently, and her glance was soft and friendly. So the ordeal was over.
"Bring some of that cake you baked to-day, honey—and do brace up!" Phoebe patted her upon the shoulder.
Hagar forestalled the hospitable intent by getting slowly upon her fat legs, shaking her hair out of her eyes, and grunting a command to the others. With visible reluctance Lucy and Viney rose also, hitched their blankets into place, and vanished, soft-footed as they had come.
"Oo-oo!" Evadna stared at the place where they were not. "Wild Indians—I thought the boys were just teasing when they said so—and it's really true, Aunt Phoebe?"
"They're no wilder than you are," Phoebe retorted impatiently.
"Oh, they ARE wild. They're exactly like in my history—and they don't make a sound when they go—you just look, and they're gone! That old fat one—did you see how she looked at me? As if she wanted to—SCALP me, Aunt Phoebe! She looked right at my hair and—"
"Well, she didn't take it with her, did she? Don't be silly. I've known old Hagar ever since Wally was a baby. She took him right to her own wikiup and nursed him with her own papoose for two months when I was sick, and Viney stayed with me day and night and pulled me through. Lucy I've known since she was a papoose. Great grief, child! Didn't you hear me say they're old friends? I wanted you to be nice to them, because if they like you there's nothing they won't do for you. If they don't, there's nothing they WILL do. You might as well get used to them—"
Out by the gate rose a clamor which swept nearer and nearer until the noise broke at the corner of the house like a great wave, in a tumult of red blanket, flying black hair, the squalling of a female voice, and the harsh laughter of the man who carried the disturbance, kicking and clawing, in his arms. Fighting his way to the milk-house, he dragged the squaw along beside the porch, followed by the Indians and all the Hart boys, a yelling, jeering audience.
"You tell her shont-isham! Ah-h—you can't break loose, you old she-wildcat. Quit your biting, will you? By all the big and little spirits of your tribe, you'll wish—"
Panting, laughing, swearing also in breathless exclamations, he forced her to the top of the steps, backed recklessly down them, and came to a stop in the corner by the door. Evadna had taken refuge there; and he pressed her hard against the rough wall without in the least realizing that anything was behind him save unsentient stone.
"Now, you sing your little song, and be quick about it!" he commanded his captive sternly. "You tell Mother Hart you lied. I hear she's been telling you I'm drunk, Mother Hart—didn't you, you old beldam? You say you heap sorry you all time tellum lie. You say: 'Good Injun, him all time heap bueno.' Say: 'Good Injun no drunk, no heap shoot, no heap yell—all time bueno.' Quick, or I'll land you headforemost in that pond, you infernal old hag!"
"Good Injun hee-eeap kay bueno! Heap debbil all time." Hagar might be short of breath, but her spirit was unconquered, and her under lip bore witness to her stubbornness.
Phoebe caught him by the arm then, thinking he meant to make good his threat—and it would not have been unlike Grant Imsen to do so.
"Now, Grant, you let her go," she coaxed. "I know you aren't drunk—of course, I knew it all the time. I told Hagar so. What do you care what she says about you? You don't want to fight an old woman, Grant—a man can't fight a woman—"
"You tell her you heap big liar!" Grant did not even look at Phoebe, but his purpose seemed to waver in spite of himself. "You all time kay bueno. You all time lie." He gripped her more firmly, and turned his head slightly toward Phoebe. "You'd be tired of it yourself if she threw it into you like she does into me, Mother Hart. It's got so I can't ride past this old hag in the trail but she gives me the bad eye, and mumbles into her blanket. And if I look sidewise, she yowls all over the country that I'm drunk. I'm getting tired of it!" He shook the squaw as a puppy shakes a shoe—shook her till her hair quite hid her ugly old face from sight.
"All right—Mother Hart she tellum mebbyso let you go. This time I no throw you in pond. You heap take care next time, mebbyso. You no tellum big lie, me all time heap drunk. You kay bueno. All time me tellum Mother Hart, tellum boys, tellum Viney, Lucy, tellum Charlie and Tom and Sleeping Turtle you heap big liar. Me tell Wally shont-isham. Him all time my friend—mebbyso him no likum you no more.
"Huh. Get out—pikeway before I forget you're a lady!"
He laughed ironically, and pushed her from him so suddenly that she sprawled upon the steps. The Indians grinned unsympathetically at her, for Hagar was not the most popular member of the tribe by any means. Scrambling up, she shook her witch locks from her face, wrapped herself in her dingy blanket, and scuttled away, muttering maledictions under her breath. The watching group turned and followed her, and in a few seconds the gate was heard to slam shut behind them. Grant stood where he was, leaning against the milk-house wall; and when they were gone, he gave a short, apologetic laugh.
"No need to lecture, Mother Hart. I know it was a fool thing to do; but when Donny told me what the old devil said, I was so mad for a minute—"
Phoebe caught him again by the arm and pulled him forward. "Grant! You're squeezing Vadnie to death, just about! Great grief, I forgot all about the poor child being here! You poor little—"
"Squeezing who?" Grant whirled, and caught a brief glimpse of a crumpled little figure behind him, evidently too scared to cry, and yet not quite at the fainting point of terror. He backed, and began to stammer an apology; but she did not wait to hear a word of it. For an instant she stared into his face, and then, like a rabbit released from its paralysis of dread, she darted past him and deaf up the stone steps into the house. He heard the kitchen-door shut, and the click of the lock. He heard other doors slam suggestively; and he laughed in spite of his astonishment.
"And who the deuce might that be?" he asked, feeling in his pocket for smoking material.
Phoebe seemed undecided between tears and laughter. "Oh, Grant, GRANT! She'll think you're ready to murder everybody on the ranch—and you can be such a nice boy when you want to be! I did hope—"
"I don't want to be nice," Grant objected, drawing a match along a fairly smooth rock.
"Well, I wanted you to appear at your best; and, instead of that, here you come, squabbling with old Hagar like—"
"Yes—sure. But who is the timid lady?"
"Timid! You nearly killed the poor girl, besides scaring her half to death, and then you call her timid. I know she thought there was going to be a real Indian massacre, right here, and she'd be scalped—"
Wally Hart came back, laughing to himself.
"Say, you've sure cooked your goose with old Hagar, Grant! She's right on the warpath, and then some. She'd like to burn yuh alive—she said so. She's headed for camp, and all the rest of the bunch at her heels. She won't come here any more till you're kicked off the ranch, as near as I could make out her jabbering. And she won't do your washing any more, mum—she said so. You're kay bueno yourself, because you take Good Indian's part. We're all kay bueno—all but me. She wanted me to quit the bunch and go live in her wikiup. I'm the only decent one in the outfit." He gave his mother an affectionate little hug as he went past, and began an investigative tour of the stone jars on the cool rock floor within. "What was it all about, Grant? What did yuh do to her, anyway?"
"Oh, it wasn't anything. Hand me up a cup of that buttermilk, will you? They've got a dog up there in camp that I'm going to kill some of these days—if they don't beat me to it. He was up at the store, and when I went out to get my horse, he tried to take a leg off me. I kicked him in the nose and he came at me again, so when I mounted I just dropped my loop over Mr. Dog. Sleeping Turtle was there, and he said the dog belonged to Viney, So I just led him gently to camp."
He grinned a little at the memory of his gentleness. "I told Viney I thought he'd make a fine stew, and, they'd better use him up right away before he spoiled. That's all there was to it. Well, Keno did sink his head and pitch around camp a little, but not to amount to anything. He just stuck his nose into old Hagar's wikiup—and one sniff seemed to be about all he wanted. He didn't hurt anything."
He took a meditative bite of cake, finished the buttermilk in three rapturous swallows, and bethought him of the feminine mystery.
"If you please, Mother Hart, who was that Christmas angel I squashed?"
"Vad? Was Vad in on it, mum? I never saw her." Wally straightened up with a fresh chunk of cake in his hand. "Was she scared?"
"Yes," his mother admitted reluctantly, "I guess she was, all right. First the squaws—and, poor girl, I made her shake hands all round—and then Grant here, acting like a wild hyena—"
"Say, PLEASE don't tell me who she is, or where she belongs, or anything like that," Grant interposed, with some sarcasm. "I smashed her flat between me and the wall, and I scared the daylights out of her; and I'm told I should have appeared at my best. But who she is, or where she belongs—"
"She belongs right here." Phoebe's tone was a challenge, whether she meant it to be so or not. "This is going to be her home from now on; and I want you boys to treat her nicer than you've been doing. She's been here a week almost; and there ain't one of you that's made friends with her yet, or tried to, even. You've played jokes on her, and told her things to scare her—and my grief! I was hoping she'd have a softening influence on you, and make gentlemen of you. And far as I can make out, just having her on the place seems to put the Old Harry into every one of you! It isn't right. It isn't the way I expected my boys would act toward a stranger—a girl especially. And I did hope Grant would behave better."
"Sure, he ought to. Us boneheads don't know any better—but Grant's EDUCATED." Wally grinned and winked elaborately at his mother's back.
"I'm not educated up to Christmas angels that look as if they'd been stepped on," Grant defended himself.
"She's a real nice little thing. If you boys would quit teasing the life out of her, I don't doubt but what, in six months or so, you wouldn't know the girl," Phoebe argued, with some heat.
"I don't know the girl now." Grant spoke dryly. "I don't want to. If I'd held a tomahawk in one hand and her flowing locks in the other, and was just letting a war-whoop outa me, she'd look at me—the way she did look." He snorted in contemptuous amusement, and gave a little, writhing twist of his slim body into his trousers. "I never did like blondes," he added, in a tone of finality, and started up the steps.
"You never liked anything that wore skirts," Phoebe flung after him indignantly; and she came very close to the truth.
CHAPTER IV. THE CHRISTMAS ANGEL
Phoebe watched the two unhappily, sighed when they disappeared around the corner of the house, and set her bowl of butter upon the broad, flat rock which just missed being overflowed with water, and sighed again.
"I'm afraid it isn't going to work," she murmured aloud; for Phoebe, having lived much of her life in the loneliness which the West means to women, frequently talked to herself. "She's such a nice little thing—but the boys don't take to her like I thought they would. I don't see as she's having a mite of influence on their manners, unless it's to make them act worse, just to shock her. Clark USED to take off his hat when he come into the house most every time. And great grief! Now he'd wear it and his chaps and spurs to the table, if I didn't make him take them off. She's nice—she's most too nice. I've got to give that girl a good talking to."
She mounted the steps to the back porch, tried the kitchen door, and found it locked. She went around to the door on the west side, opposite the gate, found that also secured upon the inside, and passed grimly to the next.
"My grief! I didn't know any of these doors COULD be locked!" she muttered angrily. "They never have been before that I ever heard of." She stopped before Evadna's window, and saw, through a slit in the green blind, that the old-fashioned bureau had been pulled close before it. "My grief!" she whispered disgustedly, and retraced her steps to the east side, which, being next to the pond, was more secluded. She surveyed dryly a window left wide open there, gathered her brown-and-white calico dress close about her plump person, and crawled grimly through into the sitting-room, where, to the distress of Phoebe's order-loving soul, the carpet was daily well-sanded with the tread of boys' boots fresh from outdoors, and where cigarette stubs decorated every window-sill, and the stale odor of Peaceful's pipe was never long absent.
She went first to all the outer rooms, and unlocked every one of the outraged doors which, unless in the uproar and excitement of racing, laughing boys pursuing one another all over the place with much slamming and good-natured threats of various sorts, had never before barred the way of any man, be he red or white, came he at noon or at midnight.
Evadna's door was barricaded, as Phoebe discovered when she turned the knob and attempted to walk in. She gave the door an indignant push, and heard a muffled shriek within, as if Evadna's head was buried under her pillow.
"My grief! A body'd think you expected to be killed and eaten," she called out unsympathetically. "You open this door! Vadnie Ramsey. This is a nice way to act with my own boys, in my own house! A body'd think—"
There was the sound of something heavy being dragged laboriously away from the barricaded door; and in a minute a vividly blue eye appeared at a narrow crack.
"Oh, I don't see how you dare to L-LIVE in such a place, Aunt Phoebe!" she cried tearfully, opening the door a bit wider. "Those Indians—and that awful man—"
"That was only Grant, honey. Let me in. There's a few things I want to say to you, Vadnie. You promised to help me teach my boys to be gentle—it's all they lack, and it takes gentle women, honey—"
"I am gentle," Evadna protested grievedly. "I've never once forgotten to be gentle and quiet, and I haven't done a thing to them—but they're horrid and rough, anyway—"
"Let me in, honey, and we'll talk it over. Something's got to be done. If you wouldn't be so timid, and would make friends with them, instead of looking at them as if you expected them to murder you—I must say, Vadnie, you're a real temptation; they can't help scaring you when you go around acting as if you expected to be scared. You—you're TOO—" The door opened still wider, and she went in. "Now, the idea of a great girl like you hiding her head under a pillow just because Grant asked old Hagar to apologize!"
Evadna sat down upon the edge of the bed and stared unwinkingly at her aunt. "They don't apologize like that in New Jersey," she observed, with some resentment in her voice, and dabbed at her unbelievably blue eyes with a moist ball of handkerchief.
"I know they don't, honey." Phoebe patted her hand reassuringly. "That's what I want you to help me teach my boys—to be real gentlemen. They're pure gold, every one of them; but I can't deny they're pretty rough on the outside sometimes. And I hope you will be—"
"Oh, I know. I understand perfectly. You just got me out here as a—a sort of sandpaper for your boys' manners!" Evadna choked over a little sob of self-pity. "I can just tell you one thing, Aunt Phoebe, that fellow you call Grant ought to be smoothed with one of those funny axes they hew logs with."
Phoebe bit her lips because she wanted to treat the subject very seriously. "I want you to promise me, honey, that you will be particularly nice to Grant; PARTICULARLY nice. He's so alone, and he's very proud and sensitive, because he feels his loneliness. No one understands him as I do—"
"I hate him!" gritted Evadna, in an emphatic whisper which her Aunt Phoebe thought it wise not to seem to hear.
Phoebe settled herself comfortably for a long talk. The murmur of her voice as she explained and comforted and advised came soothingly from the room, with now and then an interruption while she waited for a tardy answer to some question. Finally she rose and stood in the doorway, looking back at a huddled figure on the bed.
"Now dry your eyes and be a good girl, and remember what you've promised," she admonished kindly. "Aunt Phoebe didn't mean to scold you, honey; she only wants you to feel that you belong here, and she wants you to like her boys and have them like you. They've always wanted a sister to pet; and Aunt Phoebe is hoping you'll not disappoint her. You'll try; won't you, Vadnie?"
"Y—yes," murmured Vadnie meekly from the pillow. "I know you will." Phoebe looked at her for a moment longer rather wistfully, and turned away. "I do wish she had some spunk," she muttered complainingly, not thinking that Evadna might hear her. "She don't take after the Ramseys none—there wasn't anything mushy about them that I ever heard of."
"Mushy! MUSHY!" Evadna sat up and stared at nothing at all while she repeated the word under her breath. "She wants me to be gentle—she preached gentleness in her letters, and told how her boys need it, and then—she calls it being MUSHY!"
She reached mechanically for her hair-brush, and fumbled in a tumbled mass of shining, yellow hair quite as unbelievable in its way as were her eyes—Grant had shown a faculty for observing keenly when he called her a Christmas angel—and drew out a half-dozen hairpins, letting them slide from her lap to the floor. "MUSHY!" she repeated, and shook down her hair so that it framed her face and those eyes of hers. "I suppose that's what they all say behind my back. And how can a girl be nice WITHOUT being mushy?" She drew the brush meditatively through her hair. "I am scared to death of Indians," she admitted, with analytical frankness, "and tarantulas and snakes—but—MUSHY!"
Grant stood smoking in the doorway of the sitting-room, where he could look out upon the smooth waters of the pond darkening under the shade of the poplars and the bluff behind, when Evadna came out of her room. He glanced across at her, saw her hesitate, as if she were meditating a retreat, and gave his shoulders a twitch of tolerant amusement that she should be afraid of him. Then he stared out over the pond again. Evadna walked straight over to him.
"So you're that other savage whose manners I'm supposed to smooth, are you?" she asked abruptly, coming to a stop within three feet of him, and regarding him carefully, her hands clasped behind her.
"Please don't tease the animals," Grant returned, in the same impersonal tone which she had seen fit to employ—but his eyes turned for a sidelong glance at her, although he appeared to be watching the trout rise lazily to the insects skimming over the surface of the water.
"I'm supposed to be nice to you—par-TIC-ularly nice—because you need it most. I dare say you do, judging from what I've seen of you. At any rate, I've promised. But I just want you to understand that I'm not going to mean one single bit of it. I don't like you—I can't endure you!—and if I'm nice, it will just be because I've promised Aunt Phoebe. You're not to take my politeness at its face value, for back of it I shall dislike you all the time."
Grant's lips twitched, and there was a covert twinkle in his eyes, though he looked around him with elaborate surprise.
"It's early in the day for mosquitoes," he drawled; "but I was sure I heard one buzzing somewhere close."
"Aunt Phoebe ought to get a street roller to smooth your manners," Evadna observed pointedly.
"Instead it's as if she hung her picture of a Christmas angel up before the wolf's den, eh?" he suggested calmly, betraying his Indian blood in the unconsciously symbolic form of expression. "No doubt the wolf's nature will be greatly benefited—his teeth will be dulled for his prey, his voice softened for the nightcry—if he should ever, by chance, discover that the Christmas angel is there."
"I don't think he'll be long in making the discovery." The blue of Evadna's eyes darkened and darkened until they were almost black. "Christmas angel,—well, I like that! Much you know about angels."
Grant turned his head indolently and regarded her.
"If it isn't a Christmas angel—they're always very blue and very golden, and pinky-whitey—if it isn't a Christmas angel, for the Lord's sake what is it?" He gave his head a slight shake, as if the problem was beyond his solving, and flicked the ashes from his cigarette.
"Oh, I could pinch you!" She gritted her teeth to prove she meant what she said.
"It says it could pinch me." Grant lazily addressed the trout. "I wonder why it didn't, then, when it was being squashed?"
"I just wish to goodness I had! Only I suppose Aunt Phoebe—"
"I do believe it's got a temper. I wonder, now, if it could be a LIVE angel?" Grant spoke to the softly swaying poplars.
"Oh, you—there now!" She made a swift little rush at him, nipped his biceps between a very small thumb and two fingers, and stood back, breathing quickly and regarding him in a shamed defiance. "I'll show you whether I'm alive!" she panted vindictively.
"It's alive, and it's a humming-bird. Angels don't pinch." Grant laid a finger upon his arm and drawled his solution of a trivial mystery. "It mistook me for a honeysuckle, and gave me a peck to make sure." He smiled indulgently, and exhaled a long wreath of smoke from his nostrils. "Dear little humming-birds—so simple and so harmless!"
"And I've promised to be nice to—THAT!" cried Evadna, in bitterness, and rushed past him to the porch.
Being a house built to shelter a family of boys, and steps being a superfluity scorned by their agile legs, there was a sheer drop of three feet to the ground upon that side. Evadna made it in a jump, just as the boys did, and landed lightly upon her slippered feet.
"I hate you—hate you—HATE YOU!" she cried, her eyes blazing up at his amused face before she ran off among the trees.
"It sings a sweet little song," he taunted, and his laughter followed her mockingly as she fled from him into the shadows.
"What's the joke, Good Injun? Tell us, so we can laugh too." Wally and Jack hurried in from the kitchen and made for the doorway where he stood.
From under his straight, black brows Grant sent a keen glance into the shade of the grove, where, an instant before, had flickered the white of Evadna's dress. The shadows lay there quietly now, undisturbed by so much as a sleepy bird's fluttering wings.
"I was just thinking of the way I yanked that dog down into old Wolfbelly's camp," he said, though there was no tangible reason for lying to them. "Mister!" he added, his eyes still searching the shadows out there in the grove, "we certainly did go some!"
CHAPTER V. "I DON'T CARE MUCH ABOUT GIRLS"
"There's no use asking the Injuns to go on the warpath," Gene announced disgustedly, coming out upon the porch where the rest of the boys were foregathered, waiting for the ringing tattoo upon the iron triangle just outside the back door which would be the supper summons. "They're too lazy to take the trouble—and, besides, they're scared of dad. I was talking to Sleeping Turtle just now—met him down there past the Point o' Rocks."
"What's the matter with us boys going on the warpath ourselves? We don't need the Injuns. As long as she knows they're hanging around close, it's all the same. If we could just get mum off the ranch—"
"If we could kidnap her—say, I wonder if we couldn't!" Clark looked at the others tentatively.
"Good Injun might do the rescue act and square himself with her for what happened at the milk-house," Wally suggested dryly.
"Oh, say, you'd scare her to death. There's no use in piling it on quite so thick," Jack interposed mildly. "I kinda like the kid sometimes. Yesterday, when I took her part way up the bluff, she acted almost human. On the dead, she did!"
"Kill the traitor! Down with him! Curses on the man who betrays us!" growled Wally, waving his cigarette threateningly.
Whereupon Gene and Clark seized the offender by heels and shoulders, and with a brief, panting struggle heaved him bodily off the porch.
"Over the cliff he goes—so may all traitors perish!" Wally declaimed approvingly, drawing up his legs hastily out of the way of Jack's clutching fingers.
"Say, old Peppajee's down at the stable with papa," Donny informed them breathlessly. "I told Marie to put him right next to Vadnie if he stays to supper—and, uh course, he will. If mamma don't get next and change his place, it'll be fun to watch her; watch Vad, I mean. She's scared plum to death of anything that wears a blanket, and to have one right at her elbow—wonder where she is—"
"That girl's got to be educated some if she's going to live in this family," Wally observed meditatively. "There's a whole lot she's got to learn, and the only way to learn her thorough is—"
"You forget," Grant interrupted him ironically, "that she's going to make gentlemen of us all."
"Oh, yes—sure. Jack's coming down with it already. You oughta be quarantined, old-timer; that's liable to be catching." Wally snorted his disdain of the whole proceeding. "I'd rather go to jail myself."
Evadna by a circuitous route had reached the sitting-room without being seen or heard; and it was at this point in the conversation that she tiptoed out again, her hands doubled into tight little fists, and her teeth set hard together. She did not look, at that moment, in the least degree "mushy."
When the triangle clanged its supper call, however, she came slowly down from her favorite nook at the head of the pond, her hands filled with flowers hastily gathered in the dusk.
"Here she comes—let's get to our places first, so mamma can't change Peppajee around," Donny implored, in a whisper; and the group on the porch disappeared with some haste into the kitchen.
Evadna was leisurely in her movements that night. The tea had been poured and handed around the table by the Portuguese girl, Marie, and the sugar-bowl was going after, when she settled herself and her ruffles daintily between Grant and a braided, green-blanketed, dignifiedly loquacious Indian.
The boys signaled each another to attention by kicking surreptitiously under the table, but nothing happened. Evadna bowed a demure acknowledgment when her Aunt Phoebe introduced the two, accepted the sugar-bowl from Grant and the butter from Peppajee, and went composedly about the business of eating her supper. She seemed perfectly at ease; too perfectly at ease, decided Grant, who had an instinct for observation and was covertly watching her. It was unnatural that she should rub elbows with Peppajee without betraying the faintest trace of surprise that he should be sitting at the table with them.
"Long time ago," Peppajee was saying to Peaceful, taking up the conversation where Evadna had evidently interrupted it, "many winters ago, my people all time brave. All time hunt, all time fight, all time heap strong. No drinkum whisky all same now." He flipped a braid back over his shoulder, buttered generously a hot biscuit, and reached for the honey. "No brave no more—kay bueno. All time ketchum whisky, get drunk all same likum hog. Heap lazy. No hunt no more, no fight. Lay all time in sun, sleep. No sun come, lay all time in wikiup. Agent, him givum flour, givum meat, givum blanket, you thinkum bueno. He tellum you, kay bueno. Makum Injun lazy. Makum all same wachee-typo" (tramp). "All time eat, all time sleep, playum cards all time, drinkum whisky. Kay bueno. Huh." The grunt stood for disgust of his tribe, always something of an affectation with Peppajee.
"My brother, my brother's wife, my brother's wife's—ah—" He searched his mind, frowning, for an English word, gave it up, and substituted a phrase. "All the folks b'longum my brother's wife, heap lazy all time. Me no likum. Agent one time givum plenty flour, plenty meat, plenty tea. Huh. Them damn' folks no eatum. All time playum cards, drinkum whisky. All time otha fella ketchum flour, ketchum meat, ketchum tea—ketchum all them thing b'longum." In the rhetorical pause he made there, his black eyes wandered inadvertently to Evadna's face. And Evadna, the timid one, actually smiled back.
"Isn't it a shame they should do that," she murmured sympathetically.
"Huh." Peppajee turned his eyes and his attention to Peaceful, as if the opinion and the sympathy of a mere female were not worthy his notice. "Them grub all gone, them Injuns mebbyso ketchum hungry belly." Evadna blushed, and looked studiously at her plate.
"Come my wikiup. Me got plenty flour, plenty meat, plenty tea. Stay all time my wikiup. Sleepum my wikiup. Sun come up"—he pointed a brown, sinewy hand toward the east—"eatum my grub. Sun up there"—his finger indicated the zenith—"eatum some more. Sun go 'way, eatum some more. Then sleepum all time my wikiup. Bimeby, mebbyso my flour all gone, my meat mebbyso gone, mebbyso tea—them folks all time eatum grub, me no ketchum. Me no playum cards, all same otha fella ketchum my grub. Kay bueno. Better me playum cards mebbyso all time.
"Bimeby no ketchum mo' grub, no stopum my wikiup. Them folks pikeway. Me tellum 'Yo' heap lazy, heap kay bueno. Yo' all time eatum my grub, yo' no givum me money, no givum hoss, no givum notting. Me damn' mad all time yo'. Yo' go damn' quick!'" Peppajee held out his cup for more tea. "Me tellum my brother," he finished sonorously, his black eyes sweeping lightly the faces of his audience, "yo' no come back, yo'—"
Evadna caught her breath, as if someone had dashed cold water in her face. Never before in her life had she heard the epithet unprintable, and she stared fixedly at the old-fashioned, silver castor which always stood in the exact center of the table.
Old Peaceful Hart cleared his throat, glanced furtively at Phoebe, and drew his hand down over his white beard. The boys puffed their cheeks with the laughter they would, if possible, restrain, and eyed Evadna's set face aslant. It was Good Indian who rebuked the offender.
"Peppajee, mebbyso you no more say them words," he said quietly. "Heap kay bueno. White man no tellum where white woman hear. White woman no likum hear; all time heap shame for her."
"Huh," grunted Peppajee doubtingly, his eyes turning to Phoebe. Times before had he said them before Phoebe Hart, and she had passed them by with no rebuke. Grant read the glance, and answered it.
"Mother Hart live long time in this place," he reminded him. "Hear bad talk many times. This girl no hear; no likum hear. You sabe? You no make shame for this girl." He glanced challengingly across the table at Wally, whose grin was growing rather pronounced.
"Huh. Mebbyso you boss all same this ranch?" Peppajee retorted sourly. "Mebbyso Peacefu' tellum, him no likum."
Peaceful, thus drawn into the discussion, cleared his throat again.
"Wel-l-l—WE don't cuss much before the women," he admitted apologetically "We kinda consider that men's talk. I reckon Vadnie'll overlook it this time." He looked across at her beseechingly. "You no feelum bad, Peppajee."
"Huh. Me no makum squaw-talk." Peppajee laid down his knife, lifted a corner of his blanket, and drew it slowly across his stern mouth. He muttered a slighting sentence in Indian.
In the same tongue Grant answered him sharply, and after that was silence broken only by the subdued table sounds. Evadna's eyes filled slowly until she finally pushed back her chair and hurried out into the yard and away from the dogged silence of that blanketed figure at her elbow.
She was scarcely settled, in the hammock, ready for a comforting half hour of tears, when someone came from the house, stood for a minute while he rolled a cigarette, and then came straight toward her.
She sat up, and waited defensively. More baiting, without a doubt—and she was not in the mood to remember any promises about being a nice, gentle little thing. The figure came close, stooped, and took her by the arm. In the half—light she knew him then. It was Grant.
"Come over by the pond," he said, in what was almost a command. "I want to talk to you a little."
"Does it occur to you that I might not want to talk t to you?" Still, she let him help her to her feet.
"Surely. You needn't open your lips if you don't want to. Just 'lend me your ears, and be silent that ye may hear.' The boys will be boiling out on the porch, as usual, in a minute; so hurry."
"I hope it's something very important," Evadna hinted ungraciously. "Nothing else would excuse this high-handed proceeding."
When they had reached the great rock where the pond had its outlet, and where was a rude seat hidden away in a clump of young willows just across the bridge, he answered her.
"I don't know that it's of any importance at all," he said calmly. "I got to feeling rather ashamed of myself, is all, and it seemed to me the only decent thing was to tell you so. I'm not making any bid for your favor—I don't know that I want it. I don't care much about girls, one way or the other. But, for all I've got the name of being several things—a savage among the rest—I don't like to feel such a brute as to make war on a girl that seems to be getting it handed to her right along."
He tardily lighted his cigarette and sat smoking beside her, the tiny glow lighting his face briefly now and then.
"When I was joshing you there before supper," he went on, speaking low that he might not be overheard—and ridiculed—from the house, "I didn't know the whole outfit was making a practice of doing the same thing. I hadn't heard about the dead tarantula on your pillow, or the rattler coiled up on the porch, or any of those innocent little jokes. But if the rest are making it their business to devil the life out of you, why—common humanity forces me to apologize and tell you I'm out of it from now on."
"Oh! Thank you very much." Evadna's tone might be considered ironical. "I suppose I ought to say that your statement lessens my dislike of you—"
"Not at all." Grant interrupted her. "Go right ahead and hate me, if you feel that way. It won't matter to me—girls never did concern me much, one way or the other. I never was susceptible to beauty, and that seems to be a woman's trump card, always—"
"Well, upon my word!"
"Sounds queer, does it? But it's the truth, and so what's the use of lying, just to be polite? I won't torment you any more; and if the boys rig up too strong a josh, I'm liable to give you a hint beforehand. I'm willing to do that—my sympathies are always with the under dog, anyway, and they're five to one. But that needn't mean that I'm—that I—" He groped for words that would not make his meaning too bald; not even Grant could quite bring himself to warn a girl against believing him a victim of her fascinations.
"You needn't stutter. I'm not really stupid. You don't like me any better than I like you. I can see that. We're to be as decent as possible to each other—you from 'common humanity,' and I because I promised Aunt Phoebe."
"We-e-l!—that's about it, I guess." Grant eyed her sidelong." Only I wouldn't go so far as to say I actually dislike you. I never did dislike a girl, that I remember. I never thought enough about them, one way or the other." He seemed rather fond of that statement, he repeated it so often." The life I live doesn't call for girls. Put that's neither here nor there. What I wanted to say was, that I won't bother you any more. I wouldn't have said a word to you tonight, if you hadn't walked right up to me and started to dig into me. Of course, I had to fight back—the man who won't isn't a normal human being."
"Oh, I know." Evadna's tone was resentful. "From Adam down to you, it has always been 'The woman, she tempted me.' You're perfectly horrid, even if you have apologized. 'The woman, she tempted me,' and—"
"I beg your pardon; the woman didn't," he corrected blandly. "The woman insisted on scrapping. That's different."
"Oh, it's different! I see. I have almost forgotten something I ought to say, Mr. Imsen. I must thank you for—well, for defending me to that Indian."
"I didn't. Nobody was attacking you, so I couldn't very well defend you, could I? I had to take a fall out of old Peppajee, just on principle. I don't get along very well with my noble red cousins. I wasn't doing it on your account, in particular."
"Oh, I see." She rose rather suddenly from the bench. "It wasn't even common humanity, then—"
"Not even common humanity," he echoed affirmatively. "Just a chance I couldn't afford to pass up, of digging into Peppajee."
"That's different." She laughed shortly and left him, running swiftly through the warm dusk to the murmur of voices at the house.
Grant sat where she left him, and smoked two cigarettes meditatively before he thought of returning to the house. When he finally did get upon his feet, he stretched his arms high above his head, and stared for a moment up at the treetops swaying languidly just under the stars.
"Girls must play the very deuce with a man if he ever lets them get on his mind," he mused. "I see right now where a fellow about my size and complexion had better watch out." But he smiled afterward, as if he did not consider the matter very serious, after all.
CHAPTER VI. THE CHRISTMAS ANGEL PLAYS GHOST
At midnight, the Peaceful Hart ranch lay broodily quiet under its rock-rimmed bluff. Down in the stable the saddle-horses were but formless blots upon the rumpled bedding in their stalls—except Huckleberry, the friendly little pinto with the white eyelashes and the blue eyes, and the great, liver-colored patches upon his sides, and the appetite which demanded food at unseasonable hours, who was now munching and nosing industriously in the depths of his manger, and making a good deal of noise about it.
Outside, one of the milch cows drew a long, sighing breath of content with life, lifted a cud in mysterious, bovine manner, and chewed dreamily. Somewhere up the bluff a bobcat squalled among the rocks, and the moon, in its dissipated season of late rising, lifted itself indolently up to where it could peer down upon the silent ranch.
In the grove where the tiny creek gurgled under the little stone bridge, someone was snoring rhythmically in his blankets, for the boys had taken to sleeping in the open air before the earliest rose had opened buds in the sunny shelter of the porch. Three feet away, a sleeper stirred restlessly, lifted his head from the pillow, and slapped half-heartedly at an early mosquito that was humming in his ear. He reached out, and jogged the shoulder of him who snored.
"Say, Gene, if you've got to sleep at the top of your voice, you better drag your bed down into the orchard," he growled. "Let up a little, can't yuh?"
"Ah, shut up and let a fellow sleep!" mumbled Gene, snuggling the covers up to his ears.
"Just what I want YOU to do. You snore like a sawmill. Darn it, you've got to get out of the grove if yuh can't—"
"Ah-h-EE-EE!" wailed a voice somewhere among the trees, the sound rising weirdly to a subdued crescendo, clinging there until one's flesh went creepy, and then sliding mournfully down to silence.
"What's that?" The two jerked themselves to a sitting position, and stared into the blackness of the grove.
"Bobcat," whispered Clark, in a tone which convinced not even himself.
"In a pig's ear," flouted Gene, under his breath. He leaned far over and poked his finger into a muffled form. "D'yuh hear that noise, Grant?"
Grant sat up instantly. "What's the matter?" he demanded, rather ill-naturedly, if the truth be told.
"Did you hear anything—a funny noise, like—"
The cry itself finished the sentence for him. It came from nowhere, it would seem, since they could see nothing; rose slowly to a subdued shriek, clung there nerve-wrackingly, and then wailed mournfully down to silence. Afterward, while their ears were still strained to the sound, the bobcat squalled an answer from among the rocks.
"Yes, I heard it," said Grant. "It's a spook. It's the wail of a lost spirit, loosed temporarily from the horrors of purgatory. It's sent as a warning to repent you of your sins, and it's howling because it hates to go back. What you going to do about it?"
He made his own intention plain beyond any possibility of misunderstanding. He lay down and pulled the blanket over his shoulders, cuddled his pillow under his head, and disposed himself to sleep.
The moon climbed higher, and sent silvery splinters of light quivering down among the trees. A frog crawled out upon a great lily—pad and croaked dismally.
Again came the wailing cry, nearer than before, more subdued, and for that reason more eerily mournful. Grant sat up, muttered to himself, and hastily pulled on some clothes. The frog cut himself short in the middle of a deep-throated ARR-RR-UMPH and dove headlong into the pond; and the splash of his body cleaving the still surface of the water made Gene shiver nervously. Grant reached under his pillow for something, and freed himself stealthily from a blanketfold.
"If that spook don't talk Indian when it's at home, I'm very much mistaken," he whispered to Clark, who was nearest. "You boys stay here."
Since they had no intention of doing anything else, they obeyed him implicitly and without argument, especially as a flitting white figure appeared briefly and indistinctly in a shadow-flecked patch of moonlight. Crouching low in the shade of a clump of bushes, Grant stole toward the spot.
When he reached the place, the thing was not there. Instead, he glimpsed it farther on, and gave chase, taking what precautions he could against betraying himself. Through the grove and the gate and across the road he followed, in doubt half the time whether it was worth the trouble. Still, if it was what he suspected, a lesson taught now would probably insure against future disturbances of the sort, he thought, and kept stubbornly on. Once more he heard the dismal cry, and fancied it held a mocking note.
"I'll settle that mighty quick," he promised grimly, as he jumped a ditch and ran toward the place.
Somewhere among the currant bushes was a sound of eery laughter. He swerved toward the place, saw a white form rise suddenly from the very ground, as it seemed, and lift an arm with a slow, beckoning gesture. Without taking aim, he raised his gun and fired a shot at it. The arm dropped rather suddenly, and the white form vanished. He hurried up to where it had stood, knelt, and felt of the soft earth. Without a doubt there were footprints there—he could feel them. But he hadn't a match with him, and the place was in deep shade.