WITH ILLUSTRATIONS BY
GROSSET & DUNLAP
Copyright 1911 By J. B. Lippincott Company
Published February 15, 1911 Second printing, February 25, 1911 Third printing, March 5, 1911 Fourth printing, March 20, 1911 Fifth Printing, June 5, 1911 Sixth Printing, July 1, 1911 Seventh Printing, August 17, 1911
CHAPTER PAGE I. "Me—Smith" 11 II. On the Alkali Hill 18 III. The Empty Chair 29 IV. A Swap in Saddle Blankets 48 V. Smith Makes Medicine with the Schoolmarm 58 VI. The Great Secret 79 VII. Cupid "Wings" a Deputy Sheriff 95 VIII. The Bug-hunter Elucidates 110 IX. Speaking Of Grasshoppers—— 123 X. Mother Love and Savage Passion Conflict 130 XI. The Best Horse 142 XII. Smith Gets "Hunks" 156 XIII. Susie's Indian Blood 162 XIV. The Slayer of Mastodons 169 XV. Where a Man Gets a Thirst 190 XVI. Tinhorn Frank Smells Money 205 XVII. Susie Humbles Herself to Smith 213 XVIII. A Bad "Hombre" 228 XIX. When The Clouds Played Wolf 240 XX. The Love Medicine of the Sioux 248 XXI. The Murderer of White Antelope 272 XXII. A Mongolian Cupid 293 XXIII. In Their Own Way 303
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
"That Look in Your Eyes—That Look as if You Hadn't Nothin' to Hide—is it True?" Frontispiece
"She's a Game Kid, All Right," Said Smith to Himself at the Top of the Hill. 22
It Meant Death—but it was Wet!—it was Water! 196
Smith Reached for the Trailing Rope and They Were Gone! 284
They Quirted Their Horses at Breakneck Speed In the Direction of the Bad Lands. 308
A man on a tired gray horse reined in where a dim cattle-trail dropped into a gulch, and looked behind him. Nothing was in sight. He half closed his eyes and searched the horizon. No, there was nothing—just the same old sand and sage-brush, hills, more sand and sage-brush, and then to the west and north the spur of the Rockies, whose jagged peaks were white with a fresh fall of snow. The wind was chill. He shivered, and looked to the eastward. For the last few hours he had felt snow in the air, and now he could see it in the dim, gray mist—still far off, but creeping toward him.
For the thousandth time, he wondered where he was. He knew vaguely that he was "over the line"—that Montana was behind him—but he was riding an unfamiliar range, and the peaks and hills which are the guide-boards of the West meant nothing to him. So far as he knew, he was the only human being within a hundred miles. His lips drew back in a half-grin and exposed a row of upper teeth unusually white and slightly protruding. He was thinking of the meeting with the last person to whom he had spoken within twenty-four hours. He closed one eye and looked up at the sun. Yes, it was just about the same time yesterday that a dude from the English ranch, a dude in knee breeches and shiny-topped riding boots, had galloped confidently toward him. He had dismounted and pretended to be cinching his saddle. When the dude was close enough Smith had thrown down on him with his gun.
"Feller," he had said, "I guess I'll have to trade horses with you. And fall off quick, for I'm in kind of a hurry."
The grin widened as he thought of the dude's surprised eyes and the dude's face as he dropped out of the saddle without a word. Smith had stood his victim with his hands above his head while he pulled the saddle from his horse and threw it upon his own. The dude rode a saddle with a double cinch, and the fact had awakened in the Westerner a kind of interest. He had even felt a certain friendliness for the man he was robbing.
"Feller," he had asked, "do you come from the Manana country?"
"From Chepstow, Monmouth County, Wales," the dude had replied, in a shaking voice.
"Where did you get that double-rigged saddle, then?"
The answer had pleased Smith.
"You ain't losin' none on this deal," he had then volunteered. "This horse that you just traded for is a looker when he is rested, and he can run like hell. You can go your pile on him. Just burn out that lazy S brand and run on your own. You can hold him easy, then. I like a feller that rides a double-rigged saddle in a single-rigged country. S'long, and keep your hands up till I'm out of range."
"Thank you," the dude had replied feebly.
When Smith had ridden for a half a mile he had turned to look behind him. The dude was still standing with his hands high above his head.
"I wonder if he's there yet?" The man on horseback grinned.
He reached in the pocket of his mackinaw coat and took out a handful of sugar.
"You can travel longer on it nor anything," he muttered.
He congratulated himself that he had filled his pocket from the booze-clerk's sugar-bowl before the mix came. The act was characteristic of him, as was the forethought which had sent him to the door to pick the best saddle-horse at the hitching-post, before the lead began to fly.
The man suddenly realized that the mist in the east was denser, and spreading. He jabbed the spurs into his horse and sent the jaded animal sliding on its fetlocks down the steep and rocky trail that led into the dry bed of a creek which in the spring flowed bank high. In the bottom he pulled his horse to its haunches and leaned from his saddle to look at a foot-print in a little patch of smooth sand no larger than his two hands. The print had been made by a moccasined foot, and recently; otherwise the wind would have wiped it out.
He threw his leg over the cantle of the saddle and stepped softly to the ground. Dropping the reins, he looked up and down the gulch. Then he drew his rifle from the scabbard and began to hunt for more tracks. As he searched, his movements were no longer those of a white man. His pantomime, stealthy, cautious, was the pantomime of the Indian. He crept up the gulch to a point where it turned sharply. His stealth became the stealth of the coyote. In spite of the leather soles and exaggerated high heels of the boots he wore his movements were absolutely noiseless.
An Indian of middle age, in blue overalls, moccasins, a limp felt hat coming far down over his braided hair, a gaily striped blanket drawn about his shoulders, stood in an attitude of listening, carelessly holding a cheap, single-barrelled shotgun. He had heard the horse sliding down the trail and was waiting for it to appear on the bench above.
The stranger took in the details of the Indian's costume, but his eye rested longest upon the gay blanket. He might need a blanket with that snow in the air. It looked like a good blanket. It seemed to be thick and was undoubtedly warm.
The Indian saw him the instant he rose from his hiding-place behind a huge sage-brush. Startled, the red man instinctively half raised his gun. The stranger gave the sign of attention, then, touching his breast and lifting his hand slightly, told him in the sign language used by all tribes that "his heart was right"—he was a friend.
The Indian hesitated and lowered his gun, but did not advance. The stranger then asked him where he would find the nearest house, and whether it was that of a white or a red man. In swift pantomime, the Indian told him that the nearest house was the home of a "full-blood," a woman, a fat woman, who lived five miles to the southeast, in a log cabin, on running water.
Before he turned to go, the stranger again touched his breast and raised his hand above his heart to reiterate his friendship. He took a half-dozen steps, then whirled on his heel. As he did so, he brought his rifle on a line with the Indian's back, which was toward him. Simultaneously with the report, the Indian fell on his back on the side of the gulch. He drew up his leg, and the stranger, thinking he had raised it for a gun-rest, riddled him with bullets.
The white man's bright blue eyes gleamed; the pupils were like pin-points. The grin which disclosed his protruding teeth was like the snarl of a dog before it snaps. The expression of the man's face was that of animal ferocity, pure and simple. He edged up cautiously, but there was no further movement from the Indian. He had been dead when he fell. The white man gave a short laugh when he realized that the raising of the leg had been only a muscular contraction. To save the blanket from the blood which was soiling it, he tore it from the limp, unresisting shoulders, and rubbed it in the dirt to obliterate the stain. He cursed when he saw that a bullet had torn in it two jagged, tell-tale holes.
He glanced at the Indian's moccasins, then, stooping, ripped one off. He examined it with interest. It was a Cree moccasin. The Indian was far from home. He examined the centre seam: yes, it was sewed with deer-sinew.
"The Crees can tan to beat the world," he muttered, "but I hates the shape of the Cree moccasin. The Piegans make better." He tossed it from him contemptuously and picked up the shotgun.
"No good." He threw it down and straightened the Indian's head with the toe of his boot. "I despises to lie cramped up, myself."
Returning to his horse, he removed his saddle, and folded the Indian's blanket inside of his own. Then he recinched his saddle, and turned his horse's head to the southeast, where "the full-blood—the woman, the fat woman—lived in a log cabin by running water."
He glanced over his shoulder as he spurred his horse to a gallop.
"I'm a killer, me—Smith," he said, and grinned.
ON THE ALKALI HILL
There was at least an hour and a half of daylight left when Smith struck a wagon-road. He looked each way doubtfully. The woman's house was quite as likely to be to the right as to the left; there was no way of telling. While he hesitated, his horse lifted its ears. Smith also thought he heard voices. Swinging his horse to the right, he rode to the edge of the bench where the road made a steep and sudden drop.
At the bottom of the hill he saw a driver on the spring-seat of a round-up wagon urging two lean-necked and narrow-chested horses up the hill. They were smooth-shod, and, the weight of the wagon being out of all proportion to their strength, they fell often in their futile struggles. At the side of the road near the top of the hill the water oozed from an alkali spring, which kept the road perpetually muddy. The horses were straining every nerve and muscle, their eyes bulging and nostrils distended, and still the driver, loudmouthed and vacuously profane, lashed them mercilessly with the stinging thongs of his leather whip. Smith, from the top of the hill, watched him with a sneer on his face.
"He drives like a Missourian," he muttered.
He could have helped the troubled driver, knowing perfectly well what to do, but it would have entailed an effort which he did not care to make. It was nothing to him whether the round-up wagon got up the hill that night—or never.
Smith thought the driver was alone until he began to back the team to rush the hill once more. Then he heard angry exclamations coming from the rear of the wagon—exclamations which sounded not unlike the buzzing of an enraged bumble-bee. He stretched his neck and saw that which suggested an overgrown hoop-snake rolling down the hill. At the bottom a little mud-coated man stood up. The part of his face that was visible above his beard was pale with anger. His brown eyes gleamed behind mud-splashed spectacles.
"Oscar Tubbs," he demanded, "why did you not tell me that you were about to back the wagon?"
"I would have did it if I had knowed myself that the team were goin' to back," replied Tubbs, in the conciliatory tone of one who addresses the man who pays him his wages.
The man in spectacles groaned. "Three inexcusable errors in one sentence. Oscar Tubbs, you are hopeless!"
"Yep," replied that person resignedly; "nobody never could learn me nothin'. Onct I knowed——"
"Stop! We have no time for a reminiscence. Have you any reason to believe that we can get up this hill to-night?"
"No chanst of it. These buzzard-heads has drawed every poun' they kin pull. But I has some reason to believe that if you don't hist your hoofs out'n that mud-hole, you'll bog down. You're up to your pant-leg now. Onct I knowed——"
The little man threw out his hand in a restraining gesture, and Tubbs, foiled again, closed his lips and watched his employer stand back on one leg while he pulled the other out of the mud with a long, sucking sound.
"What for an outfit is that, anyhow?" mused Smith, watching the proceedings with some interest. "He looks like one of them bug-hunters. He's got a pair of shoulders on him like a drink of water, and his legs look like the runnin'-gears of a katydid."
So intently were they all engaged in watching the man's struggles that no one observed a girl on a galloping horse until she was almost upon them. She sat her sturdy, spirited pony like a cowboy. She was about sixteen, with a suggestion of boyishness in her appearance. Her brown hair, worn in a single braid, was bleached to a lighter shade on top, as if she rode always with bared head. Her eyes were gray, in curious contrast to a tawny skin. She was slight to scrawniness, and, one might have thought, insufficiently clad for the time of year.
"Bogged down, pardner?" she inquired in a friendly voice, as she rode up behind and drew rein. "I've been in that soap-hole myself. Here, ketch to my pommel, and I'll snake you out."
Smiling dubiously he gripped the pommel. The pony had sunk to its knees, and as it leaped to free itself the little man's legs fairly snapped in the air.
"I thank you, Miss," he said, removing his plaid travelling cap as he dropped on solid ground. "That was really quite an adventure."
"This mud is like grease," said the girl.
"Onct I knowed some mud——" began the driver, but the little man, ignoring him, said:
"We are in a dilemma, Miss. Our horses seem unable to pull our wagon up the hill. Night is almost upon us, and our next camping spot is several miles beyond."
"This is the worst grade in the country," replied the girl. "A team that can haul a load up here can go anywhere. What's the matter with that fellow up there? Why don't he help?"—pointing to Smith.
"He has made no offer of assistance."
"He must be some Scissor-Bill from Missouri. They all act like that when they first come out."
"Onct some Missourians I knowed——"
"Oscar Tubbs, if you attempt to relate another reminiscence while in my employ, I shall make a deduction from your wages. I warn you—I warn you in the presence of this witness. My overwrought nerves can endure no more. Between your inexpiable English and your inopportune reminiscences, I am a nervous wreck!" The little man's voice ended on high C.
"All right, Doc, suit yourself," replied Tubbs, temporarily subdued.
"And in Heaven's name, I entreat, I implore, do not call me 'Doc'!"
"Sorry I spoke, Cap."
The little man threw up both hands in exasperation.
"Say, Mister," said the girl curtly to Tubbs, "if you'll take that hundred and seventy pounds of yourn off the wagon and get some rocks and block the wheels, I guess my cayuse can help some." As she spoke, she began uncoiling the rawhide riata which was tied to her saddle.
"I appreciate the kindness of your intentions, Miss, but I cannot permit you to put yourself in peril." The little man was watching her preparations with troubled eyes.
"No peril at all. It's easy. Croppy can pull like the devil. Wait till you see him lay down on the rope. That yap up there at the top of the hill could have done this for you long ago. Here, Windy"—addressing Tubbs—"tie this rope to the X, and make a knot that will hold."
The girl's words and manner inspired confidence. Interest and relief were in the face of the little man standing at the side of the road.
"Now, Windy, hand me the rope. I'll take three turns around my saddle-horn, and when I say 'go' you see that your team get down in their collars."
"She's a game kid, all right," said Smith to himself at the top of the hill.
When the sorrel pony at the head of the team felt the rope grow taut on the saddle-horn, it lay down to its work. The grit and muscle of a dozen horses seemed concentrated in the little cayuse. It pulled until every vein and cord in its body appeared to stand out beneath its skin. It lay down on the rope until its chest almost touched the ground. There was a look of determination that was almost human in its bright, excited eyes as it strained and struggled on the slippery hillside with no word of urging from the girl. She was standing in one stirrup, one hand on the cantle, the other on the pommel, watching everything with keen eyes. She issued orders to Tubbs like a general, telling him when to block the wheels, when to urge the exhausted team to greater efforts, when to relax. Nothing escaped her. She and the little sorrel knew their work. As the man at the roadside watched the gallant little brute struggle, literally inch by inch, up the terrible grade he felt himself choking with excitement and making inarticulate sounds. At last the rear wheels of the wagon lurched over the hill and stood on level ground, while the horses, with spreading legs and heaving sides, gasped for breath.
"Awful tired, ain't you, Mister?" the girl asked dryly, of the stranger on horseback, as she recoiled her rope with supple wrist and tied it again to the saddle by the buckskin thongs.
"Plumb worn to a frazzle," Smith replied with cool impudence, as he looked her over in much the same manner as he would have eyed a heifer on the range. "I was whipped for working when I was a boy, and I've always remembered."
"It must be quite a ride—from the brush back there in Missouri where you was drug up."
"I ranges on the Sundown slope," he replied shortly.
"They have sheep-camps over there, then?"
Again the slurring insinuation pricked him.
"Oh, I can twist a rope and ride a horse fast enough to keep warm."
"So?"—the inflection was tantalizing. "Was that horse gentled for your grandmother?"
He eyed her angrily, but checked the reply on his tongue.
"Say, girl, can you tell me where I can find that fat Injun woman's tepee who lives around here?"
"You mean my mother?"
He looked at her with new interest.
"Does she live in a log cabin on a crick?"
"She did about an hour ago."
"Is your mother a widder?"
"Lookin' for widders?"
"I likes widders. It happens frequent that widders are sociable inclined—especially if they are hard up," he added insolently.
"Oh, you're ridin' the grub-line?" Her insolence equalled his own.
"Not yet;" and he took from his pocket a thick roll of banknotes.
"Blood money? Some sheep-herder's month's pay, I guess."
"You're a good guesser."
"Not very—you're easy."
The girl's dislike for Smith was as unreasoning and violent as was her liking for the excitable little man whom she had helped up the hill, and whose wagon was now rumbling close at her horse's heels.
They all travelled together in silence until, after a mile and a half on the flat, the road sloped gradually toward a creek shadowed by willows. On the opposite side of the creek were a ranch-house, stables, and corrals, the extent of which brought a glint of surprise to Smith's eyes.
"That's where the widder lives who might be sociable inclined if she was hard up," said the girl, with a sneer which made Smith's fingers itch to choke her. "Couldn't coax you to stop, could I?"
"I aims to stay," Smith replied coolly.
"Sure—it won't cost you nothin'."
The girl waited for the wagon, and, with a change of manner in marked contrast to her impudent attitude toward Smith, invited the little man to spend the night at the ranch.
"We should not be intruders?" he asked doubtfully.
"You won't feel lonesome," she answered with a laugh. "We keep a kind of free hotel."
"Colonel, I cakalate we better lay over here," broke in Tubbs.
His employer winced at this new title, but nodded assent; so they all forded the shallow stream and entered the dooryard together.
"Mother!" called the girl.
One of the heavy plank doors of the long log-house opened, and a short woman, large-hipped, full-busted—in appearance a typical blanket squaw—stood in the doorway. Her thick hair was braided Indian fashion, her fingers adorned with many rings. The wide girdle about her waist was studded with brass nail-heads, while gaily-beaded moccasins covered her short, broad feet. Her eyes were soft and luminous, like an animal's when it is content; but there was savage passion too in their dark depths.
"This is my mother," said the girl briefly. "I am Susie MacDonald."
"My name is Peter McArthur, madam."
The little man concealed his surprise as best he could, and bowed.
The girl, quick to note his puzzled expression, explained laconically:
"I'm a breed. My father was a white man. You're on the reservation when you cross the crick."
Recovering himself, the stranger said politely:
"Ah, MacDonald—that good Scotch name is a very familiar one to me. I had an uncle——"
"I go show dem where to turn de horses," interrupted the Indian woman, to whom the conversation was uninteresting. So, without ceremony, she padded away in her moccasins, drawing her blanket squaw-fashion across her face as she waddled down the path.
At the mission the woman had obtained the rudiments of an education. There, too, she had learned to cut and make a dress, after a crude, laborious fashion, and had acquired the ways of the white people's housekeeping. She was noted for the acumen which she displayed in disposing of the crop from her extensive hay-ranch to the neighboring white cattlemen; and MacDonald, the big, silent Scotch MacDonald who had come down from the north country and married her before the reservation priest, was given the credit for having instilled into her some of his own shrewdness and thrift.
In the corral the Indian woman came upon Smith. He turned his head slowly and looked at her. For a second, two, three seconds, or more, they looked into each other's eyes. His gaze was confident, masterful, compelling; hers was wondering, until finally she dropped her eyes in the submissive, modest, half-shy way of Indian women.
Smith moistened his short upper lip with the tip of his tongue, while the shadow of a smile lurked at the corner of his mouth. He turned to his saddle, again, and without speaking, she watched him until he had gone into the barn. His saddle lay on the ground, half covering his blankets. Something in this heap caught the woman's eyes and held them. Swooping forward, she caught a protruding corner between her thumb and finger and pulled a gay, striped blanket from the rest. Lifting it to her nose, she smelled it. Smith saw the act as he came out of the door, but there was neither consternation nor fear in his face. Smith knew Indian women.
THE EMPTY CHAIR
Peter McArthur came into the big living-room of the ranch-house bearing tenderly in his arms a long brown sack. He set it upon a chair, and, as he patted it affectionately, he said to the Indian woman in explanation:
"These are some specimens which I have been fortunate enough to find in a limestone formation in the country through which we have just passed. No doubt you will be amused, madam, but the wealth of Croesus could not buy from me the contents of this canvas sack."
"I broke a horse for that son-of-a-gun onct. He owes me a dollar and six bits for the job yet," remarked Tubbs.
The fire of enthusiasm died in McArthur's eyes as they rested upon his man.
"What for a prospect do you aim to open up in a limestone formation?"
Smith, tipped on the rear legs of his chair, with his head resting comfortably against the unbleached muslin sheeting which lined the walls, winked at Tubbs as he asked the question.
"'What for a prospect'?" repeated McArthur.
"Yes, 'prospect'—that's what I said. You say you've got your war-bag full of spec'mens."
McArthur laughed heartily.
"Ah, my dear sir, I understand. You are referring to mines—to mineral specimens. These are the specimens of which I am speaking."
Opening the sack, McArthur held up for inspection what looked to be a lump of dried mud.
"This is a magnificent specimen of the crustacean period," he declared.
The Indian woman looked from the prized object to his animated face; then, with puzzled eyes, she looked at Smith, who touched his forehead with his finger, making a spiral, upward gesture which in the sign language says "crazy."
The woman promptly gathered up the rag rug she was braiding and moved to a bench in the farthermost corner of the room.
"I can get you a wagon-load of chunks like that."
"Oh, my dear sir——"
"Smith's my name."
"But, Mr. Smith——"
"I trusts no man that 'Misters' me," Smith scowled. "Every time I've ever been beat in a deal, it's been by some feller that's called me 'Mister.' Jest Smith suits me better."
"Certainly, if you prefer," amicably replied McArthur, although unenlightened by the explanation.
He replaced his specimen and tied the sack, convinced that it would be useless to explain to this person that fossils like this were not found by the wagon-load; that perhaps in the entire world there was not one in which the branchiocardiac grooves were so clearly defined, in which the emostigite and the ambulatory legs were so perfectly preserved.
He seemed a singular person, this Smith. McArthur was not sure that he fancied him.
"Say, Guv'ner, what business do you follow, anyhow?" Tubbs asked the question in the tone of one who really wanted to get at the bottom of a matter which had troubled him. "Air you a bug-hunter by trade, or what? I've hauled you around fer more'n a month now, and ain't figgered it out what you're after. We've dug up ant-hills and busted open most of the rocks between here and the North Fork of Powder River, but I've never seen you git anything yet that anybuddy'd want."
In the beginning of their tour, Tubbs's questions and caustic comment would have given McArthur offense, but a longer acquaintance had taught him that none was intended; that his words were merely those of a man entirely without knowledge upon any subject save those which had come under his direct observation. While Tubbs frequently exasperated him beyond expression, he found at the same time a certain fascination in the man's incredible ignorance. In many respects his mind was like that of a child, and his horizon as narrow as McArthur's own, though his companion did not suspect it. The little scientist saw life from the viewpoint of a small college and a New England village; Tubbs knew only the sage-brush plains.
McArthur now replied dryly, but without irritation:
"My real trade—'job,' if you prefer—is anthropology. Strictly speaking, I might, I think, be called an anthropologist."
"Gawd, feller!" ejaculated Smith in mock dismay. "Don't tip your hand like that. I'm a killer myself, but I plays a lone game. I opens up to no man or woman livin'."
Tubbs looked slightly ashamed of his employer.
"I say, never give nobody the cinch on you. Many a good man's tongue has hung him."
McArthur studied Smith's unsmiling face in perplexity, not at all sure that he was not in earnest.
They sat in silence after this, even Tubbs being too hungry to indulge in reminiscence.
The odor of frying steak filled the room, and the warmth from the round sheet-iron stove gave Smith, in particular, a delicious sense of comfort. He felt as a cat on a comfortable cushion must feel after days and nights of prowling for food and shelter. The other two men, occupied with their own thoughts, closed their eyes; but not so Smith. Nothing, to the smallest detail, escaped him. He appraised everything with as perfect an appreciation of its value as an auctioneer.
Through the dining-room door which opened into the kitchen, he could see the kitchen range—a big one—the largest made for private houses. Smith liked that. He liked things on a big scale. Besides, it denoted generosity, and he had come to regard a woman's kitchen as an index to her character. He distinctly approved of the big meat-platter upon which the Chinese cook was piling steak. He eyed the mongrel dog lying at the Indian woman's feet, and noted that its sides were distended with food. He was prejudiced against, suspicious of, a woman who kept lean dogs.
In the same impersonal way in which he eyed her belongings, he looked at the woman who owned it all. She was far too stout to please his taste, but he liked her square shoulders and the thickness of them; also her hair, which was long for an Indian woman's. She was too short in the body. He wondered if she rode. He had a peculiar aversion for women short in the body who rode on horseback. This woman could love—all Indian women can do that, as Smith well knew—love to the end, faithfully, like dogs.
In the general analysis of his surroundings, Smith looked at Tubbs, openly sneering as he eyed him. He was like a sheep-dog that never had been trained. And McArthur? Innocent as a yearling calf, and honest as some sky-pilots.
"Glub's piled!" yelled the cook from the kitchen door. "Come an' git it."
Tubbs all but fell off his chair.
At the back door the cook hammered on a huge iron triangle with a poker, in response to which sound a motley half-dozen men filed from a nearby bunk-house at a gait very nearly resembling a trot.
The long dining-table was covered with a red table-cloth, and at each end piles of bread and fried steak rose like monuments. At each place there was a platter, and beside it a steel knife, a fork, and a tin spoon.
The bunk-house crowd wasted no time in ceremony. Poising their forks above the meat-platter in a candid search for the most desirable piece, they alternately stabbed chunks of steak and bread.
Their platters once loaded with a generous sample of all the food in sight, they fell upon it with unconcealed relish. Eating, McArthur observed, was a business; there was no time for the amenities of social intercourse until the first pangs of hunger were appeased. The Chinese cook, too, interested him as he watched him shuffling over the hewn plank floor in his straw sandals. A very different type, this swaggering Celestial, from the furtive-eyed Chinamen of the east. His tightly coiled cue was as smooth and shining as a king-snake, his loose blouse was immaculate, and the flippant voice in which he demanded in each person's ear, "Coffee? Milk?" was like a challenge. Whatever the individual's choice might be, he got it in a torrent in his stone-china cup.
There was no attempt at conversation, and only the clatter and rattle of knives, forks, and dishes was heard until a laugh from an adjoining room broke the silence—a laugh that was mirthless, shrill, and horrible.
McArthur sent a startled glance of inquiry about the table. The laugh was repeated, and the sound was even more wild and maniacal. The little man was shocked at the grin which he noted upon each face.
"She ought to take a feather and ile her voice," observed a guest known as "Meeteetse Ed."
McArthur could not resist saying indignantly:
"The unfortunate are to be pitied, my dear sir."
"This is jest a mild spasm she's havin' now. You ought to hear her when she's warmed up."
McArthur was about to administer a sharper rebuke when the door opened and Susie came out.
"How's that for a screech?" she demanded triumphantly.
"You'd sure make a bunch of coyotes take fer home," Meeteetse Ed replied flatteringly.
"You have come in my way not once or twice, but thrice; and now you die! Ha! Ha!" Reaching for a spoon, Susie stabbed Meeteetse Ed on the second china button of his flannel shirt.
"I'd rather die than have you laff in my ear like that," declared Meeteetse.
"Next time I'm goin' to learn a comical piece."
"Any of 'em's comical enough," replied a husky voice from the far end of the table. "I broke somethin' inside of me laffin' at that one about your dyin' child."
"I don't care," Susie answered, unabashed by criticism. "Teacher says I've got quite a strain of pathos in me."
"You ought to do somethin' for it," suggested a new voice. "Why don't you bile up some Oregon grape-root? That'll take most anything out of your blood."
"Or go to Warm Springs and get your head examined." This voice was Smith's.
"Could they help you any?" The girl's eyes narrowed and there was nothing of the previous good-natured banter in her shrill tones.
Smith flushed under the shout of mocking laughter which followed. He tried to join in it, but the glitter of his blue eyes betrayed his anger.
The incident sobered the table-full, and silence fell once more, until McArthur, feeling that an effort toward conversation was a duty he owed his hostess, cleared his throat and inquired pleasantly:
"Have any fragments ever been found in that red formation which I observed to the left of us, which would indicate that this vicinity was once the home of the mammoth dinosaur?"
Too late he realized that the question was ill-advised. As might be expected, it was Tubbs who broke the awkward silence.
"Didn't look to me, as I rid along, that it ever were the home of anybuddy. A homestid's no good if you can't git water on it."
McArthur hesitated, then explained: "The dinosaur was a prehistoric reptile," adding modestly, "I once had the pleasure of helping to restore an armored dinosaur."
"If ever I gits a rope on one of them things, I'll box him up and ship him on to you," said Tubbs generously. Then he inquired as an afterthought: "Would he snap or chaw me up a-tall?"
"What's a prehysteric reptile?" interrupted Susie.
"This particular reptile was a big snake, with feet, that lived here when this country was a marsh," McArthur explained simply, for Susie's benefit.
The guests exchanged incredulous glances, but it was Meeteetse Ed who laughed explosively and said:
"Why, Mister, they ain't been a sixteenth of an inch of standin' water on this hull reserve in twenty year."
"Better haul in your horns, feller, when you're talkin' to a real prairie man." Smith's contemptuous tone nettled McArthur, but Susie retorted for him.
"Feller," mocked Susie, "looks like you're mixed. You mean when he's talkin' to a Yellow-back. No real prairie man packs a chip on his shoulder all the time. That buttermilk you was raised on back there in Missoury has soured you some."
Again an angry flush betrayed Smith's feeling.
"A Yellow-back," Susie explained with gusto in response to McArthur's puzzled look, "is one of these ducks that reads books with buckskin-colored covers, until he gets to thinkin' that he's a Bad Man himself. This here country is all tunnelled over with the graves of Yellow-backs what couldn't make their bluffs stick; fellers that just knew enough to start rows and couldn't see 'em through."
"Generally," said Smith evenly, as he stared unblinkingly into Susie's eyes, "when I starts rows, I sees 'em through."
"And any time," Susie answered, staring back at him, "that you start a row on this ranch, you've got to see it through."
The grub-liners raised their eyes in surprise, for there was unmistakable ill-feeling in her voice. It was unlike her, this antagonistic attitude toward a stranger, for, as they all knew, her hospitality was unlimited, and every passer-by whose horse fed at the big hayrack was regarded and treated as a welcome friend.
There was rarely malice behind the sharp personalities which she flung at random about the table. Knowing no social distinctions, Susie was no respecter of persons. She chaffed and flouted the man who wintered a thousand head of cattle with the same impartiality with which she gibed his blushing cowpuncher. Her good-nature was a byword, as were her generosity and boyish daring. Susie MacDonald was a local celebrity in her way, and on the big hay-ranch her lightest word was law.
But the mere presence of this new-comer seemed to fill her with resentment, making of her an irrepressible young shrew who gloated openly in his angry confusion.
"Speakin' of Yellow-backs," said Meeteetse, with the candid intent of being tactful, "reminds me of a song a pardner of mine wrote up about 'em once. Comical? T'—t'—t'—!" He wagged his head as if he had no words in which to describe its incomparable humor. "He had another song that was a reg'lar tear-starter: 'Whar the Silver Colorady Wends Its Way.' Ever hear it? It's about a feller that buried his wife by the silver Colorady, and turned outlaw. This pardner of mine used to beller every time he sung it. He cried like he was a Mormon, and he hadn't no more wife than a jack rabbit."
"Some songs is touchin'," agreed Arkansaw Red.
"This was," declared Meeteetse. "How she faded day by day, till a pale, white corp' she lay! If I hadn't got this cold on me——"
"I hate to see you sufferin', Meeteetse, but if it keeps you from warblin'——"
He ignored Susie's implication, and went on serenely:
"Looks like it's settled on me for life, and it all comes of tryin' not to be a hog."
"I hope it'll be a lesson to you," said Susie soberly.
"That there Bar C cowpuncher, Babe, comes over the other night, and, the bunk-house bein' full, I offers him half my blankets. I never put in such a night since I froze to death on South Pass. For fair, I'd ruther sleep with a two-year-ole steer—couldn't kick no worse than that Babe. Why them blankets was in the air more'n half the time, with him pullin' his way, and me snatchin' of 'em back. Finally I gits a corner of a soogan in my teeth, and that way I manages a little sleep. I vows I'd ruther be a hog and git a night's rest than take in such a turrible bed-feller as him."
Apropos of the restless Babe, one James Padden observed: "They say he's licked more'n half the Bar C outfit."
"Lick 'em!" exclaimed Meeteetse, with enthusiasm. "Why, he could eat 'em! He jest tapped me an easy one and nigh busted my jaw. If he ever reely hit you with that fist of his'n, it ud sink in up to the elbow. I ast him once: 'Babe,' I says, 'how big are you anyhow?' 'Big?' he says surprised. 'I ain't big. I'm the runt of the family. Pa was thirty-two inches between the eyes, and they fed him with a shovel.'"
Susie giggled at some thought, and then inquired:
"Did anybody ever see that horse he's huntin'? He says it's a two-year-old filly that he thinks the world of. It's brown, with a star in its forehead, and one hip is knocked down. He never hunts anywhere except on that road past the school-house, and he stops at the pump each way—goin' and comin'. I never saw anybody with such a thirst. He looks in the window while he's drinkin', and swallows a gallon of water at a time, and don't know it."
"Love is a turrible disease." Tubbs spoke with the emphasis of conviction. "It's worse'n lump-jaw er blackleg. It's dum nigh as bad as glanders. It's ketchin', too, and I holds that anybody that's got it bad ought to be dipped and quarantined. I knowed a feller over in Judith Basin what suffered agonies with it for two months, then shot hisself. There was seven of 'em tyin' their horses to the same Schoolmarm's hitchin'-post."
"Take a long-geared Schoolmarm in a woolly Tam-o'-shanter, and she's a reg'lar storm-centre," vouchsafed the husky voice of "Banjo" Johnson.
"They is! They is!" declared Meeteetse, with more feeling than the occasion seemed to warrant.
The knob of a door adjoining the dining-room turned, and the grub-liners straightened in their chairs. Susie's eyes danced with mischief as she leaned toward Meeteetse and asked innocently:
"They is what?"
But with the opening of the door the voluble Meeteetse seemed to be stricken dumb.
As a young woman came out, Smith stared, and instinctively McArthur half rose from his chair. Believing his employer contemplated flight, Tubbs laid a restraining hand upon his coat-tail, while inadvertently he turned his knife in his mouth with painful results.
The young woman who seated herself in one of the two unoccupied chairs was not of the far West. Her complexion alone testified to this fact, for the fineness and whiteness of it were conspicuous in a country where the winter's wind and burning suns of summer tan the skins of men and women alike until they resemble leather in color and in texture. Had this young woman possessed no other good feature, her markedly fine complexion alone would have saved her from plainness. But her thick brown hair, glossy, and growing prettily about her temples, was equally attractive to the men who had been used to seeing only the straight, black hair of the Indian women, and Susie's sun-bleached pigtail, which, as Meeteetse took frequent occasion to remind her, looked like a hair-cinch. Her eyes, set rather too far apart for beauty, were round, with pupils which dilated until they all but covered the blue iris; the eyes of an emotional nature, an imaginative mind. Her other features, though delicate, were not exceptional, but the tout ensemble was such that her looks would have been considered above the average even in a country where pretty girls were plentiful. In her present surroundings, and by contrast with the womenfolk about her, she was regarded as the most beautiful of her sex. Her manner, reserved to the point of stiffness, and paralyzing, as it did, the glibbest masculine tongue among them, was also looked upon as the acme of perfection and all that was desirable in young ladyhood; each individual humbly admitting that while he never before had met a real lady, he knew one when he saw her.
The young woman returned McArthur's bow with a friendly smile, his action having at once placed him as being "different." Noting the fact, the grub-liners resolved not to be outdone in future in a mere matter of bows.
While nearly every arm was outstretched with an offer of food, Susie leaned forward and whispered ostentatiously behind her hand to Smith:
"Don't you make any cracks. That's the Schoolmarm."
"I've been around the world some," Smith replied curtly.
"The south side of Billings ain't the world."
It was only a random shot, as she did not know Billings or any other town save by hearsay, but it made a bull's-eye. Susie knew it by the startled look which she surprised from him, and Smith could have throttled her as she snickered.
"Mister McArthur and Mister Tubbs, I'll make you acquainted with Miss Marshall."
With elaborate formality of tone and manner, Susie pointed at each individual with her fork while mentioning them by name.
"Miss Marshall," McArthur murmured, again half rising.
"Much obliged to meet you," said Tubbs heartily as, bowing in imitation of his employer, he caught the edge of his plate on the band of his trousers and upset it.
Everybody stopped eating during this important ceremony, and now all looked at Smith to see what form his acknowledgment of the coveted introduction to the Schoolmarm would take.
Smith in turn looked expectantly at Susie, who met his eyes with a mocking grin.
"Anything I can reach for you, Mister Smith?" she inquired. "Looks like you're waitin' for something."
Smith's face and the red table-cloth were much the same shade as he looked annihilation at the little half-breed imp.
Each time that Dora Marshall raised her eyes, they met those of Smith. There was nothing of impertinence in his stare; it was more of awe—a kind of fascinated wonder—and she found herself speculating as to who and what he was. He was not a regular "grub-liner," she was sure of that, for he was as different in his way as McArthur. He had a personality, not exactly pleasant, but unique. Though he was not uncommonly tall, his shoulders were thick and broad, giving the impression of great strength. His jaw was square, but it evidenced brutality rather than determination. His nose, in contrast to the intelligence denoted by his high, broad forehead, was mediocre, inconsequential, the kind of a nose seldom seen on the person who achieves. The two features were those of the man who conceives big things, yet lacks the force to execute them.
His eyes were unpleasantly bloodshot, but whether from drink or the alkali dust of the desert, it was impossible to determine; and when Susie prodded him they had in them all the vicious meanness of an outlaw bronco. His expression then held nothing but sullen vindictiveness, while every trait of a surly nature was suggested by his voice and manner.
During the Schoolmarm's covert study of him, he laughed unexpectedly at one of Meeteetse Ed's sallies. The effect was little short of marvellous; it completely transformed him. An unlooked-for dimple deepened in one cheek, his eyes sparkled, his entire countenance radiated for a moment a kind of boyish good-nature which was indescribably winning. In the brief space, whatever virtues he possessed were as vividly depicted upon his face as were his unpleasant characteristics when he was displeased. So marked, indeed, was his changed expression, that Susie burst out with her usual candor as she eyed him:
"Mister, you ought to laugh all the time."
Contributing but little toward the conversation, and that little chiefly in the nature of flings at Susie, Smith was yet the dominant figure at the table. While he antagonized, he interested, and although his insolence was no match for Susie's self-assured impudence, he still impressed his individuality upon every person present.
He was studied by other eyes than Dora's and Susie's. Not one of the looks which he had given the former had escaped the Indian woman. With the Schoolmarm's coming, she had seen herself ignored, and her face had grown as sullen as Smith's own, while the smouldering glow in her dark eyes betrayed jealous resentment.
"Have a cookie?" urged Susie hospitably, thrusting a plate toward Tubbs. "Ling makes these 'specially for White Antelope."
"No, thanks, I've et hearty," declared Tubbs, while McArthur shuddered. "I've had thousands."
"Why, where is White Antelope?" Susie looked in surprise at the vacant chair, and asked the question of her mother.
Involuntarily Smith's eyes and those of the Indian woman met. He read correctly all that they contained, but he did not remove his own until her eyelids slowly dropped, and with a peculiar doggedness she drawled:
"He go way for l'il visit; 'bout two, t'ree sleeps maybe."
A SWAP IN SADDLE BLANKETS
"Madam," said McArthur, intercepting the Indian woman the next morning while she was on her way from the spring with a heavy pail, "I cannot permit you to carry water when I am here to do it for you."
In spite of her surprised protest, he gently took the bucket from her hand.
"Look at that dude," said Smith contemptuously, viewing the incident through the living-room window. "Queerin' hisself right along. No more sabe than a cotton-tail rabbit. That's the worse thing he could do. Feller"—turning to Tubbs—"if you want to make a winnin' with a woman, you never want to fetch and carry for her."
"I knows it," acquiesced Tubbs. "Onct I was a reg'lar doormat fer one, and I only got stomped on fer it."
"I can wrangle Injuns to a fare-ye-well," Smith continued. "Over on the Blackfoot I was the most notorious Injun wrangler that ever jumped up; and, feller, on the square, I never run an errant for one in my life."
"It's wrong," agreed Tubbs.
"There's that dude tryin' to make a stand-in, and spilin' his own game all the time by talkin'. You can't say he talks, neither; he just opens his mouth and lets it say what it damn pleases. Is them real words he gets off, or does he make 'em up as he goes along?"
"I'll tip you off, feller: if ever you want to make a strong play at an Injun woman, you don't want to shoot off your mouth none. Keep still and move around just so, and pretty soon she'll throw you the sign. Did you ever notice a dog trottin' down the street, passin' everybody up till all to once it takes a sniff, turns around, and follers some feller off? That's an Injun woman."
"I never had no luck with squaws, and the likes o' that," Tubbs confessed. "They're turrible hands to git off together and poke fun at you."
As McArthur and the Indian woman came in from the kitchen, he was saying earnestly to her:
"I feel sure that here, madam, I should entirely recover my health. Besides, this locality seems to me such a fertile field for research that if you could possibly accommodate my man and me with board, you may not be conferring a favor only upon me, but indirectly, perhaps, upon the world of science. I have with me my own bath-tub and pneumatic mattress."
Tubbs, seeing the Indian woman's puzzled expression, explained:
"He means we'll sleep ourselves if you will eat us."
The woman nodded.
"Oh, you can stay. I no care."
Smith frowned; but McArthur, much pleased by her assent, told Tubbs to saddle a horse at once, that he might lose no time in beginning his investigations.
"If it were my good fortune to unearth a cranium of the Homo primogenus, I should be the happiest man in the world," declared McArthur, clasping his fingers in ecstasy at the thought of such unparalleled bliss.
"What did I tell you?" said Smith, accompanying Tubbs to the corral. "He's tryin' to win himself a home."
"Looks that way," Tubbs agreed. "These here bug-hunters is deep."
The saddle blanket which Tubbs pulled from their wagon and threw upon the ground, with McArthur's saddle, caught Smith's eye instantly, because of the similarity in color and markings to that which he had folded so carefully inside his own. This was newer, it had no disfiguring holes, or black stain in the corner.
"What's the use of takin' chances?" he asked himself as he looked it over.
While Tubbs was catching the horse in the corral, Smith deftly exchanged blankets, and Tubbs, to whom most saddle blankets looked alike, did not detect the difference.
Upon returning to the house, Smith found the Indian woman wiping breakfast dishes for the cook. She came into the living-room when he beckoned to her, with the towel in her hand. Taking it from her, he wadded it up and threw it back into the kitchen.
"Don't you know any better not to spoil a cook like that, woman?" he asked, smiling down upon her. "You never want to touch a dish for a cook. Row with 'em, work 'em over, keep 'em down—but don't humor 'em. You can't treat a cook like a real man. Ev'ry reg'lar cook has a screw loose or he wouldn't be a cook. Cookin' ain't no man's job. I never had no use for reg'lar cooks—me, Smith.
"All you women need ribbing up once in awhile," he added, as, laying his hand lightly on her arm, he let it slide its length until it touched her fingers. He gave them a gentle pressure and resumed his seat against the wall.
The woman's eyes glowed as she looked at him. His authoritative attitude appealed to her whose ancestors had dressed game, tanned hides, and dragged wood for their masters for countless generations. The growing passion in her eyes did not escape Smith.
In the long silence which followed he looked at her steadily; finally he said:
"Well, I guess I'll saddle up. You look 'just so' to me, woman—but I got to go."
She laid down the rags of her mat and "threw him the sign" for which he had waited. It said:
"My heart is high; it is good toward you. Talk to me—talk straight."
He shook his head sadly.
"No, no, Singing Bird; I am headed for the Mexican border—many, many sleeps from here."
She arose and walked to his side.
He felt a sudden and violent dislike for her flabby, swaying hips, her heavy step, as she moved toward him. He knew that the game was won, and won so easily it was a school-boy's play.
"Why you go?" she demanded, and the disappointment in her eyes was so intense as to resemble fear. "What you do dere?"
He looked at her through half-closed eyes.
"Did you ever hear of wet horses?"
She shook her head.
"I deals in wet horses—me, Smith."
The woman stared at him uncomprehendingly.
"Down there on the border," he explained, "you buy the horses on the Mexico side. You buy 'em when the Mexican boss is asleep in his 'dobe, so there's no kick about the price. You swim 'em across the Rio Grande and sell 'em to the Americano waitin' on the other side."
"You buy de wet horse?"
"No, by Gawd,—I wet 'em!"
"Why you steal?"
He looked at her contemptuously.
"Why does anybody steal? I need the dinero—me, Smith."
"You want money?"
"I always want money. I never had enough but once in my life, and then I had too much. Gold is hell to pack," he added reminiscently.
"I have de fine hay-ranch, white man, de best on de reservation. Two, four t'ousand dollars I have when de hay is sold. De ranch is big"—her arms swept the horizon to show its extent. "You stay here and make de bargain with de cattlemen, and I give you so much"—she measured a third of her hand with her forefinger. "If dat is not enough, I give you so much"—she measured the half of her hand with her forefinger. "If dat not enough, I give you all." She swept the palm of one hand with the other.
Smith dropped his eyelids, that she might not see the triumph shining beneath them.
"I must think, Prairie Flower."
"No, white man, you no think. You stay!"
Smith, who had arisen, slipped his arm about her ample waist. She pulled aside his Mackinaw coat and laid her head upon his breast.
"The white man's heart is strong," she said softly.
"It beats for you, Little Fawn;" and he ran out his tongue in derision.
All the morning she sat on the floor at his feet, braiding the rags for her mat, content to hear him speak occasionally, and to look often into his face with dog-like devotion. It was there Susie saw her when she returned from school earlier in the afternoon than usual, and was beckoned into the kitchen by Ling.
"He's makin' a mash," said Ling laconically, as he jerked his thumb toward the open door of the living-room.
All the girlish vivacity seemed to go out of Susie's face in her first swift glance. It hardened in mingled shame and anger.
"Mother," she said sharply, "you promised me that you wouldn't sit on the floor like an Injun."
"We're gettin' sociable," said Smith mockingly.
The woman glanced at Smith, and hesitated, but finally got up and seated herself on the bench.
"Why don't you try bein' 'sociable' with the Schoolmarm?" Susie sneered.
"Maybe I will."
"And maybe you won't get passed up like a white chip!"
"Oh, I dunno. I've made some winnings."
"I can tell that by your eyes. You got 'em bloodshot, I reckon, hangin' over the fire in squaw camps. White men can't stand smoke like Injuns."
This needle-tongued girl jabbed the truth into him in a way which maddened him, but he said conciliatingly:
"We don't want to quarrel, kid."
"You mean you don't." Susie slammed the door behind her.
The child's taunt reawakened his interest in the Schoolmarm. He thought of her riding home alone, and grew restless. Besides, the dulness began to bore him.
"I'll saddle up, Prairie Flower, and look over the ranch. When I come back I'll let you know if it's worth my while to stay."
Tubbs was sitting on the wagon-tongue, mending harness, when Smith went out,
"Aimin' to quit the flat?" inquired Tubbs.
"Feller, didn't that habit of askin' questions ever git you in trouble?"
"Well I guess so," Tubbs replied candidly. "See that scar under my eye?"
"I'd invite you along to tell me about it," said Smith sardonically, "only, the fact is, feller, I'm goin' down the road to make medicine with the Schoolmarm."
Tubbs's eyes widened.
"Gosh!" he ejaculated enviously. "I wisht I had your gall."
Before Smith swung into the saddle he pulled out a heavy silver watch attached to a hair watch-chain.
"Just the right time," he nodded.
"I say, if it was only two o'clock, or three, I wouldn't go."
"You wouldn't? I'll tell you about me: I'd go if it was twelve o'clock at night and twenty below zero to ride home with that lady."
"Feller," said Smith, in a paternal tone, "you never want to make a break at a woman before four o'clock in the afternoon. You might just as well go and lay down under a bush in the shade from a little after daylight until about this time. You wouldn't hunt deer or elk in the middle of the day, would you? No, nor women—all same kind of huntin'. They'll turn you down sure; white or red—no difference."
"Is that so?" said Tubbs, in the awed voice of one who sits at the feet of a master.
"When the moon's out and the lamps are lit, they'll empty their sack and tell you the story of their lives. I don't want to toot my horn none, but I've wrangled around some. I've hunted big game and humans. Their habits, feller, is much the same."
While Smith was galloping down the road toward the school-house, Susie was returning from a survey of the surrounding country, which was to be had from a knoll near the house.
"Mother," she said abruptly, "I feel queer here." She laid both hands on her flat, childish breast and hunched her shoulders. "I feel like something is goin' to happen."
"What happen, you think?" her mother asked listlessly.
"It's something about White Antelope, I know."
The woman looked up quickly.
"He go visit Bear Chief, maybe." There was an odd note in her voice.
"He wouldn't go away and stay like this without telling you or me. He never did before. He knows I would worry; besides, he didn't take a horse, and he never would walk ten miles when there are horses to ride. His gun isn't here, so he must have gone hunting, but he wouldn't stay all night hunting rabbits; and he couldn't be lost, when he knows the country as well as you or me."
"He go to visit," the Indian woman insisted doggedly.
"If he isn't home to-morrow, I'm goin' to hunt him, but I know something's wrong."
SMITH MAKES MEDICINE WITH THE SCHOOLMARM
Once out of sight of the house, Smith let his horse take its own gait, while he viewed the surrounding country with the thoughtful consideration of a prospective purchaser. As he gazed, its possibilities grew upon him. If water was to be found somewhere in the Bad Lands the location of the ranch was ideal for—certain purposes.
The Bar C cattle-range bounded the reservation on the west; the MacDonald ranch, as it was still called, after the astute Scotch squawman who had built it, was close to the reservation line; and beyond the sheltering Bad Lands to the northeast was a ranch where lived certain friendly persons with whom he had had most satisfactory business relations in the past.
A plan began to take definite shape in his active brain, but the head of a sleepy white pony appearing above the next rise temporarily changed the course of his thoughts, and with his recognition of its rider life took on an added zest.
Dora Marshall, engrossed in thought, did not see Smith until he pulled his hat-brim in salutation and said:
"You're a thinker, I take it."
"I find my work here absorbing," she replied, coloring under his steady look.
He turned his horse and swung it into the road beside her.
"I was just millin' around and thought I'd ride down the road and meet you." Further than this brief explanation, he did not seem to feel it incumbent upon him to make conversation. Apparently entirely at his ease in the silence which followed, he turned his head often and stared at her with a frank interest which he made no effort to conceal. Finally he shifted his weight to one stirrup and, turning in his saddle so that he faced her, he asked bluntly:
"That look in your eyes—that look as if you hadn't nothin' to hide—is it true? Is it natural, as you might say, or do you just put it on?"
Her astonished expression led him to explain.
"It's like lookin' down deep into water that's so clear you can see the sand shinin' in the bottom; one of these places where there's no mud or black spots; nothin' you can't see or understand. Sabe what I mean?"
Since she did not answer, he continued:
"I've met up with women before now that had that same look, but only at first. It didn't last; they could put it on and take it off like they did their hats."
"I don't know that I am quite sure what you mean," the girl replied, embarrassed by the personal nature of his questions and comments; "but if you mean to imply that I affect this or that expression, for a purpose, you misjudge me."
"I was just askin'," said Smith.
"I think I am always honest of purpose," the girl went on slowly, "and when one is that, I think it shows in one's eyes. To be sure, I often fall short of my intentions. I mean to do right, and almost as frequently do wrong."
"You do?" He eyed her with quick intentness.
"Yes, don't you? Don't all of us?"
"I does what I aims to do," he replied ambiguously.
So she—this girl with eyes like two deep springs—did wrong—frequently. He pondered the admission for a long time. Smith's exact ideas of right and wrong would have been difficult to define; the dividing line, if there were any, was so vague that it had never served as the slightest restraint. "To do what you aim to do, and make a clean get-away"—that was the successful life.
He had seen things, it is true; there had been incidents and situations which had repelled him, but why, he had never asked himself. There was one situation in particular to which his mind frequently reverted, as it did now. He had known worse women than the one who had figured in it, but for some reason this single scene was impressed upon his mind with a vividness which seemed never to grow less.
He saw a woman seated at an old-fashioned organ in a country parlor. There was a rag-carpet on the floor—he remembered how springy it was with the freshly laid straw underneath it. Her husband held a lamp that she might see the notes, while his other hand was upon her shoulder, his adoring eyes upon her silly face. He, Smith, was rocking in the blue plush chair for which the fool with the calloused hands had done extra work that he might give it to the woman upon her birthday. Each time that she screeched the refrain, "Love, I will love you always," she lifted her chin to sing it to the man beaming down upon her, while upstairs her trunk was packed to desert him.
Smith always remembered with satisfaction that he had left her in Red Lodge with only the price of a telegram to her husband, in her shabby purse.
"I like your style, girl." His eyes swept Dora Marshall's figure as he spoke.
There was a difference in his tone, a familiarity in his glance, which sent the color flying to the Schoolmarm's cheeks.
"I think we could hit it off—you and me—if we got sociable."
He leaned toward her and laid his gloved hand upon hers as it rested on the saddle-horn.
The pupils of her eyes dilated until they all but covered the iris as she turned them, blazing, upon Smith.
"Just what do you mean by that?"
There was no mistaking the genuineness nor the nature of the emotion which made her voice vibrate. But Smith considered. Was she deeper—"slicker," as he phrased it to himself—than he had thought, or had he really misunderstood her? Surprising as was the feeling, he hoped some way, that it was the latter. He looked at her again before he answered gently:
"I didn't mean to make you hot none, Miss. I'm ignorant in handlin' words. I only meant to say that I hoped you and me would be good friends."
His explanation cleared her face instantly.
"I am sorry if I misunderstood you; but one or two unpleasant experiences in this country have made me quick—too quick, perhaps—to take offense."
"There's lots just lookin' for game like you. No better nor brutes," said Smith virtuously, entirely sincere in his sudden indignation against these licentious characters.
Yes, the Schoolmarm had rebuffed him, as Susie had prophesied, but the effect of it upon him was such as neither he nor she had reckoned. As they rode along a swift, overpowering infatuation for Dora Marshall grew upon him. He felt something like a flame rising within him, burning him, bewildering him with its intensity. She seemed all at once to possess every attribute of the angels, from mere prettiness her face took on a radiant beauty which dazzled him, and when she spoke her lightest word held him breathless. As the mountain towers above the foothills, so, of a sudden, she towered above all other women. He had known sensations—all, he had believed, that it was possible to experience; but this one, strange, overwhelming, dazed him with its violence.
Love frequently comes like this to people in the wilds, to those who have few interests and much time to think. The emotional side of their natures has been held in check until a trifle is sometimes sufficient to loose a torrent which nothing can then divert or check.
She asked him to loop her latigo, which was trailing, and his hand shook as he fumbled with the leather strap.
"Gawd!" he swore in bewilderment as he returned to his own horse, wiping his forehead with the back of his gauntlet, "what feelin' is this workin' on me? Am I gettin' locoed, me—Smith?"
"I'm glad I've found a friend like you," said the Schoolmarm impulsively. "One needs friends in a country like this."
"A friend!" It sounded like a jest to Smith. "A friend!" he repeated with an odd laugh. Then he raised his hand, as one takes an oath, and whatever of whiteness was left in Smith's soul illumined his face as he added: "Yes, to a killin' finish."
If Smith had met Dora among many, the result might have been the same in the end, but here, in the isolation, she seemed from the first the centre of everything, the alpha and omega of the universe, and his passion for her was as great as though it were the growth of many months instead of less than twenty-four hours. The depth, the breadth, of it could not quickly be determined, nor the lengths to which it would take him. It was something new to be reckoned with. To what extent it would control him, neither Smith nor any one else could have told. He knew only that it now seemed the most real, the most sincere, the best thing which had ever come into his life.
Dora Marshall knew nothing of men like Smith, or of natures like those of the men of the mountains and ranges, who paid her homage. Her knowledge of life and people was drawn from the limited experiences of a small, Middle West town, together with a year at a Middle West co-ed college, and as a result of the latter the Schoolmarm cherished a fine belief in her worldly wisdom, whereas, in a measure, her lack of it was one of her charms. Susie, in her way, was wiser.
The Schoolmarm's attitude toward her daily life was the natural outcome of a romantic nature and an imaginative mind. She saw herself as the heroine of an absorbing story, the living of which story she enjoyed to the utmost, while every incident and every person contributed to its interest. Quite unconsciously, with unintentional egotism, the Schoolmarm had a way of standing off and viewing herself, as it were, through the rosy glow of romance. Yet she was not a complex character—this Schoolmarm. She had no soaring ambitions, though her ideals for herself and for others were of the best. To do her duty, to help those about her, to win and retain the liking of her half-savage little pupils, were her chief desires.
She had her share of the vanity of her sex, and of its natural liking for admiration and attention, yet in the freedom of her unique environment she never overstepped the bounds of the proprieties as she knew them, or violated in the slightest degree the conventionalities to which she had been accustomed in her rather narrow home life. It was this reserve which inspired awe in the men with whom she came in contact, used as they were to the greater camaraderie of Western women.
In her unsophistication, her provincial innocence, Dora Marshall was exactly the sort to misunderstand and to be misunderstood, a combination sometimes quite as dangerous in its results, and as provocative of trouble, as the intrigues of a designing woman.
"I reckon you think I'm kind of a mounted bum, a grub-liner, or something like that," said Smith after a time.
"To be frank, I have wondered who you are."
"Have you? Have you, honest?" asked Smith delightedly.
"Well—you're different, you know. I can't explain just how, but you are not like the others who come and go at the ranch."
"No," Smith replied with some irony; "I'm not like that there Tubbs." He added laconically, "I'm no angel, me—Smith."
The Schoolmarm laughed. Smith's denial was so obviously superfluous.
"There was a time when I'd do 'most any old thing," he went on, unmindful of her amusement. "It was only a few years ago that there was no law north of Cheyenne, and a feller got what he wanted with his gun. I got my share. I come from a country where they sleep between sheets, but I got a lickin' that wasn't comin' to me, and I quit the flat when I was thirteen. I've been out amongst 'em since."
The desire to reform somebody, which lies dormant in every woman's bosom, began to stir in the Schoolmarm's.
"But you—you wouldn't 'do any old thing' now, would you?"
Smith hesitated, and a variety of expressions succeeded one another upon his face. It was an awkward moment, for, under the uplifting influence of the feeling which possessed him, he had an odd desire to tell this girl only the truth.
"I wouldn't do some of the things I used to do," he replied evasively.
The Schoolmarm beamed encouragement.
"I'm glad of that."
"I used to kill Injuns for fifty dollars a head, but I wouldn't do it now," he said virtuously, adding: "I'd get my neck stretched."
"You've killed people—Indians—for money!" The Schoolmarm looked at him, wide-eyed with horror.
"They was clutterin' up the range," Smith explained patiently, "and the cattlemen needed it for their stock. I'd 'a' killed 'em for nothin', but when 'twas offered, I might as well get the bounty."
The Schoolmarm scarcely knew what to say; his explanation seemed so entirely satisfactory to himself.
"I'm glad those dreadful days have gone."
"They're gone all right," Smith answered sourly. "They make dum near as much fuss over an Injun as a white man now, and what with jumpin' up deputies at every turn in the road, 'tain't safe. Why, I heard a judge say a while back that killin' an Injun was pure murder."
"I appreciate your confidence—your telling me of your life," said the Schoolmarm, in lieu of something better.
She found him a difficult person with whom to converse. They seemed to have no common meeting-ground, yet, while he constantly startled and shocked, he also fascinated her. In one of those illuminating flashes to which the Schoolmarm was subject, she saw herself as Smith's guiding-star, leading him to the triumphant finish of the career which she believed his unique but strong personality made possible.
It was Smith's turn to look at her. Did she think he had told her of his life? The unexpected dimple deepened in Smith's cheek, and as he laughed the Schoolmarm, again noting the effect of it, could not in her heart believe that he was as black as he had painted himself.
"I wisht our trails had crossed sooner, but, anyhow, I'm on the square with you, girl. And if ever you ketch me 'talkin' crooked,' as the Injuns say, I'll give you my whole outfit—horse, saddle, blankets, guns, even my dog-gone shirt. Excuse me."
The Schoolmarm glowed. Her woman's influence for good was having its effect! This was a step in the right direction—a long step. He would be "on the square" with her—she liked the way he phrased it. Already her mind was busy with air-castles for Smith, which would have made that person stare, had he known of them. An inkling of their nature may be had from her question:
"Would you like to study, to learn from books, if you had the opportunity?"
"I learned my letters spellin' out the brands on cattle," he said frankly, "and that, with bein' able to write my name on the business end of a check, and common, everyday words, has always been enough to see me through."
"But when one has naturally a good mind, like yours, don't you think it is almost wicked not to use it?"
"I got a mind all right," Smith replied complacently. "I'm kind of a head-worker in my way, but steady thinkin' makes me sicker nor a pup. I got a headache for two days spellin' out a description of myself that the sheriff of Choteau County spread around the country on handbills. It was plumb insultin', as I figgered it out, callin' attention to my eyes and ears and busted thumb. I sent word to him that I felt hos-tile over it. Sheriffs'll go too far if you don't tell 'em where to get off at once in awhile."
The Schoolmarm ignored the handbill episode and went on:
"Besides, a lack of education is such a handicap in business."
"The worst handicap I has to complain of," said Smith grimly, "is the habit people has got into of sending money-orders through the mail, instead of the cash. It keeps money out of circulation, besides bein' discouragin' and puttin' many a hard-workin' hold-up on the bum."
"But," she persisted, the real meaning of Smith's observations entirely escaping her, "even the rudiments of an education would be such a help to you, opening up many avenues that now are closed to you. What I want to say is this: that if you intend to stop for a time at the ranch, I will be glad to teach you. Susie and I have an extra session in the evening, and I will be delighted to have you join us."
It had not dawned upon Smith that she had questioned him with this end in view. He looked at her fixedly, then, from the depths of his experience, he said:
"Girl, you must like me some."
Dora flushed hotly.
"I am interested," she replied.
"That'll do for now;" and Smith wondered if the lump in his throat was going to choke him. "Will I join that night-school of yours? Will I? Watch me! Say," he burst out with a kind of boyish impulsiveness, "if ever you see me doin' anything I oughtn't, like settin' down when I ought to stand up, or standin' up when I ought to set down, will you just rope me and take a turn around a snubbin'-post and jerk me off my feet?"
"We'll get along famously if you really want to improve yourself!" exclaimed the Schoolmarm, her eyes shining with enthusiasm. "If you really and truly want to learn."
"Really and truly I do," Smith echoed, feeling at the moment that he would have done dressmaking or taken in washing, had she bid him.
Once more the world looked big, alluring, and as full of untried possibilities as when he had "quit the flat" at thirteen.
"Have you noticed me doin' anything that isn't manners?" he asked in humble anxiety. "Don't be afraid of hurtin' my feelin's," he urged, "for I ain't none."
"If you honestly want me to tell you things, I will; but it seems so—so queer upon such a very short acquaintance."
"Shucks! What's the use of wastin' time pretendin' to get acquainted, when you're acquainted as soon as you look at each other? What's the use of sashayin' around the bush when you meet up with somebody you like? You just cut loose on me, girl."
"It's only a little thing, in a way, and not in itself important perhaps; yet it would be, too, if circumstances should take you into the world. It might make a bad impression upon strangers."
Smith looked slightly alarmed. He wondered if she suspected anything about White Antelope. At the moment, he could think of nothing else he had done within the last twenty-four hours, which might prejudice strangers.
"I noticed at the table," the Schoolmarm went on in some embarrassment, "that you held your fork as though you were afraid it would get away from you. Like this"—she illustrated with her fist.
"Like a ranch-hand holdin' onto a pitch-fork," Smith suggested, relieved.
"Something," she laughed. "It should be like this. Anyway," she declared encouragingly, "you don't eat with your knife."
"Did you notice that?"
"Naturally, in a land of sword-swallowers, I would;" the Schoolmarm made a wry face.
"Once I run with a high-stepper from Bowlin' Green, Kentucky, and she told me better nor that," he explained. "She said nothin' give a feller away like his habit of handlin' tools at the table. She was a lady all right, but she got the dope habit and threw the lamp at me. The way I quit her didn't trouble me. None of 'em ever had any holt on me when it come to a show-down; but you, girl, you——"
Her sharp exclamation interrupted him, and, following her gesture, he saw a flying horseman in the distance, riding as for his life, while behind him two other riders quirted their horses in hot pursuit.
"Is it a race—for fun?"
"I don't think it," Smith replied dryly, noting the direction from which they came. "It looks like business."
He knew that the two behind were Indians. He could tell by the way they used their quirts and sat their horses. Neither was there any mistaking the bug-hunter on his ewe-necked sorrel, which, displaying unexpected bursts of speed, was keeping in the lead and heading straight for the ranch-house. With one hand McArthur was clinging to the saddle-horn, and with the other was clinging quite as tightly to what at a distance appeared to be a carbine.
"He's pulled his gun—why don't he use it?" Smith quickened his horse's gait.
He knew that the Indians had learned White Antelope's fate. That was a lucky swap Smith had made that morning. He congratulated himself that he had not "taken chances." He wondered how effective McArthur's denial would prove in the face of the evidence furnished by the saddle-blanket. Personally, Smith regarded the bug-hunter's chances as slim.
"They'll get him in the corral," he observed.
"Oh, it's Mr. McArthur!" Dora cried in distress.
Smith looked at her in quick jealousy.
"Well, what of it?" In her excitement, the gruffness of his tone passed unobserved.
"Come," she urged. "The Indians are angry, and he may need us."
Hatless, breathless, pale, McArthur rolled out of his saddle and thrust a long, bleached bone into Tubbs's hand.
"Keep it!" he gasped. "Protect it! It may be—I don't say it is, but it may be—a portion of the paroccipital bone of an Ichthyopterygian!" Then he turned and faced his pursuers.
Infuriated, they rode straight at him, but he did not flinch, and the horses swerved of their own accord.
Susie had run from the house, and her mother had followed, expectancy upon her stolid face, for, like Smith, she had guessed the situation.
The Indians circled, and, returning, pointed accusing fingers at McArthur.
"He kill White Antelope!"
By this time, the grub-liners had reached the corral, among them four Indians, all friends of the dead man. Their faces darkened.
"White Antelope is dead in a gulch!" cried his accusers. "He is shot to pieces—here, there, everywhere!"
A murmur of angry amazement arose. White Antelope, the kindly, peaceable Cree, who had not an enemy on the reservation!
"This is dreadful!" declared McArthur. "Believe me"—he turned to them all—"I had but found the corpse myself when these men rode up. The Indian was cold; he certainly had been dead for hours. Besides," he demanded, "what possible motive could I have?"
"Them as likes lettin' blood don't need a motive." The sneering voice was Smith's.
"But you, sir, met us on the hill. You know the direction from which we came."
"It's easy enough to circle."
"But why should I go back?" cried McArthur.
"They say there's that that draws folks back for another look."
Smith's insinuations, the stand he took, had its effect upon the Indians, who, hot for revenge, needed only this to confirm their suspicions. One of the Indians on horseback began to uncoil his rawhide saddle-rope. All save McArthur understood the significance of the action. They meant to tie him hand and foot and take him to the Agency, with blows and insults plentiful en route.
They edged closer to him, every savage instinct uppermost, their faces dark and menacing. McArthur, his eyes sweeping the circle, felt that he had not one friend, not one, in the motley, threatening crowd fast closing in upon him; for Tubbs, hearing himself indirectly included in the accusation, had discreetly, and with perceptible haste, withdrawn.
The Indian swung from his saddle, rope in hand, and advanced upon McArthur with unmistakable purpose; but he did not reach the little scientist, for Susie darted from the circle, her flashing gray eyes looking more curiously at variance than ever with her tawny skin.
"No, no, Running Rabbit!" She pushed him gently backward with her finger-tips upon his chest.
There was a murmur of protest from the crowd, and it seemed to sting her like a spur. Susie was not accustomed to disapproval. She turned to where the murmurs came loudest—from the white grub-liners, who were eager for excitement.
"Who are you," she cried, "that you should be so quick to accuse this stranger? You, Arkansaw Red, that skipped from Kansas for killin' a nigger! You, Jim Padden, that shot a sheep-herder in cold blood! You, Banjo Johnson, that's hidin' out this minute! Don't you all be so darned anxious to hang another man, when there's a rope waitin' somewhere for your own necks!
"And lemme tell you"—she took a step toward them. "The man that lifts a finger to take this bug-hunter to the Agency can take his blankets along at the same time, for there'll never be a bunk or a seat at the table for him on this ranch as long as he lives. Where's your proof against this bug-hunter? You can't drag a man off without something against him—just because you want to hang somebody!"
Some sound from Smith attracted her attention; she wheeled upon him, and, with her thin arm outstretched as she pointed at him in scorn, she cried shrilly:
"Why, I'd sooner think you did it, than him!"
There was not so much as the flicker of an eyelid from Smith.
"I know you'd sooner think I did it than him," he said, playing upon the word. "You'd like to see me get my neck stretched."
His bravado, his very insolence, was his protection.
"And maybe I'll have the chanst!" she retorted furiously.
Turning from him to the Indians, her voice dropped, the harsh language taking on the soft accent of the squaws as she spoke to them in their own tongue. Like many half-breeds, Susie seldom admitted that she either understood or could speak the Indian language. She had an amusing fashion of referring even to her relatives as "those Injuns"; but now, with hands outstretched, she pleaded:
"We are all Indians together in this—friends of White Antelope! Our hearts are down; they are heavy—so. You all know that he came from the great Cree country with my father, and he has told us many times stories of the big north woods, where they hunted and trapped. You know how he watched me when I was little, and sat with his hand upon my head when I had the big fever. He was like no one else to me except my father. He was wise and good.
"I could kill with my own hand the man who killed White Antelope. I want his blood as much as you. I'd like to see a stake driven through his black heart on White Antelope's grave. But let us not be too quick because the hate is hot in us. My heart tells me that the white man talks straight. Let us wait—wait until we find the right one, and when we do we will punish in our own way. You hear? In our own way!"
Smith understood something of her plea, and for the second time he paid her courage tribute.
"She's a game kid all right," he said to himself, and a half-formed plan for utilizing her gameness began to take definite shape.
That she had won, he knew before Running Rabbit recoiled his rope. After a moment's talk among themselves, the Indians went to hitch the horses to the wagon, to bring White Antelope's body home.
Smith was well aware that he had only to point to the saddle blanket, the barest edge of which showed beneath the leather skirts of McArthur's saddle, to make Susie's impassioned defense in vain. Why he did not, he was not himself sure. Perhaps it was because he liked the feeling of power, of knowing that he held the life of the despised bug-hunter in the hollow of his hand; or perhaps it was because it would serve his purpose better to make the accusation later. One thing was certain, however, and that was that he had not held his tongue through any consideration for McArthur.
THE GREAT SECRET
It was the day they buried White Antelope that Smith approached Yellow Bird, a Piegan, who was among the Indians paying visits of indefinite length to the MacDonald ranch. "Eddie" Yellow Bird, he was called at the Blackfoot mission where he had learned to read and write—though he would never have been suspected of these accomplishments, since to all appearances he was a "blanket Indian."