BY ELEANOR GATES
Author of The Biography of a Prairie Girl
NEW YORK McCLURE, PHILLIPS & CO. MCMVI
Copyright, 1906, by McCLURE, PHILLIPS & CO.
Published, September, 1906
Copyright, 1906, by The Pearson Publishing Company
To Robert Underwood Johnson, Esq.
I. IN THE FURROW 3
II. A TRIP AND TROUBLE AHEAD 17
III. DALLAS MAKES A FRIEND 30
IV. MISUNDERSTANDINGS 41
V. THE DESPISED 52
VI. FROM DODGE CITY 62
VII. OUT OF THE SKY 76
VIII. BEFORE THE WARPED DOOR 86
IX. A HAND IN THE FUN 96
X. AN APPEAL TO HEADQUARTERS 106
XI. A LITTLE STRATEGY 118
XII. A CONFESSION 129
XIII. A PROPOSAL AND A PROMISE 134
XIV. ANOTHER PROMISE 145
XV. NECESSITY 151
XVI. BACK FROM THE WINTER CAMP 169
XVII. THE AWAKENING 178
XVIII. THE SMOKING MOUNTAIN 191
XIX. AL BRADEN OF SIOUX FALLS 200
XX. A CHARGE 210
XXI. A MEETING BY THE FORD 216
XXII. A FIRST WARNING 223
XXIII. AND WHAT FOLLOWED IT 228
XXIV. THE SPIRIT OF THE FRONTIER 245
XXV. THE INQUIRY 254
XXVI. BACKSLIDING 264
XXVII. SIMON PLAYS A PART 270
XXVIII. A CHANGE IN PLAN 277
XXIX. LOUNSBURY'S RETURN 284
XXX. THE TRYST 297
XXXI. BY THE LIGHT OF A MATCH 303
XXXII. THE EVE OF OTHER THINGS 309
XXXIII. THE END OF A DREAM 312
XXXIV. FIRE AND ESCAPE 318
XXXV. THE LAST WARNING 325
XXXVI. SOME UNEXPECTED DISCOVERIES 330
XXXVII. THE FLIGHT TO MURPHY'S THROAT 335
XXXVIII. FRASER HEARS A CALL 342
XXXIX. STANDING AT BAY 345
XL. SOME ENDINGS AND BEGINNINGS 351
XLI. TAPS 361
THE PLOW-WOMAN CHAPTER I
IN THE FURROW
The coulee was a long, scarlet gash in the brown level of the Dakota prairie, for the sumach, dyed by the frosts of the early autumn, covered its sides like a cloth whose upper folds were thrown far over the brinks of the winding ravine and, southward, half-way to the new cottonwood shack of the Lancasters. Near it, a dark band against the flaming shrub, stretched the plowed strip, narrow, but widening with each slow circuit of the team as the virgin, grass-grown land was turned by the mould-board to prepare for the corn-planting of the coming spring.
The sun, just risen, shone coldly upon the plain, and a wind, bearing with it a hint of raw weather and whirling snow, swept down the Missouri valley from the north, marshalling in its front hosts of gabbling ducks and honking geese that were taking noisy flight from a region soon to be buried and already bleak. Yet with all the chill in the air, Ben and Betty, the mules, steamed as they toiled to and fro, and lolled out their tongues with the warmth of their work and the effort of keeping straight in the furrow; and Dallas, following in their wake with the reins about her shoulders and the horns of the plow in a steadying grasp, took off her slouch hat at the turnings to bare her damp forehead, drew the sleeve of her close-fitting jersey across her face every few moments, and, at last, to aid her in making better progress, as well as to cool her ankles, brought the bottom of her skirt through the waistband, front and back, and walked in her red flannel petticoat. As she travelled, she looked skyward occasionally with a troubled face, and, resting but seldom, urged the team forward. Clear weather and sunshine would not long continue, and the first field on the claim must be turned up and well harrowed before the opening of winter.
"Come, Ben, come," she called coaxingly to the nigh mule. "If you don't dig in now, how d' you expect to have anything to eat next winter? Betty, Betty, don't let Ben do it all; I'm talking to you, too. Come along, come along."
Ben and Betty, lean, and grey with age, bent willingly to their labour at the sound of her voice. Their harnesses creaked a monotonous complaint with their renewed efforts, the colter came whining behind them. As Dallas gently slapped the lines along their backs, now and then, to emphasise her commands, clouds of dust, which had been gathered as mud in the buffalo-wallow where they went each evening to roll, ascended and were blown away. Faithfully they pulled, not even lifting an eyelid or flapping an ear in protest when Simon, the stray yearling bull that had adopted the claim as its home and tagged Dallas everywhere, bellowed about their straining legs or loitered at their very noses and impeded their way.
Plowing was strange work to the patient mules and to the girl who was guiding them. To her, the level prairie, rank with goldenrod, pink-flowered smartweed, and purple aster, was a land of wondrous growth. For twenty years her home had been an arid mesa far to the south, where her father captained the caretakers of a spur railroad track. The most western station-house in Texas, standing amid thorny mesquite, was her birthplace and that of her sister Marylyn; the grey plateau across which the embankment led was their playground; there they grew to womanhood under the careful guidance of their frail, Northern-born mother.
And then two casualties, coming close upon each other, had suddenly changed their life. Their father was brought home one night so maimed and crushed by the wheels of a flat-car that he could never hope to take up his work again; and while he lay, bandaged and broken, fighting to keep the soul in his crippled body, their mother bravely yielded her life to a lingering illness.
Many months later, when Evan Lancaster's wounds were at last healed, Ben and Betty were unhitched from a dirt-laden scraper on the siding and put before a white-topped prairie-schooner. Then the old section-boss, with his crutches beside him and his daughters seated in the all but empty box behind, said a husky farewell to the men crowding around the wagon, and started the mules along the road that led northward beside the rails.
He gave no backward glance at the wind-battered house where he had brought an ailing bride; instead, eager to leave that plain of flying sand and scanty grasses, he drove the team rapidly forward, bound for a country where there were wells, and not water-cars, where rain fell oftener, and where food, both for man and beast, could be gotten easily from the earth. But Dallas, seated in the schooner's bed, her weeping sister held soothingly against her breast, watched, dry-eyed, as a mound by a giant mesquite faded slowly from her sight, and saw her girlhood's home give way, as a lighthouse sinks behind a speeding vessel, until only its grey-sprinkled roof showed through the scattered trees. Then, after pillowing Marylyn's head on a Navajo blanket beside the swashing water cask, she climbed forward to the driver's seat and took the reins from her father.
It was April, and when the mesa was left far to rearward, a world almost forgotten by the crippled section-boss burst in new, green loveliness upon his desert children. Towering pines and spreading oaks, lush grass strewn with blossoms, clear-running streams and gay-feathered birds replaced thirsty vegetation, salt lakes, and hovering vultures. They travelled slowly, each day bringing some fresh delight to ear and eye, until one evening in the waning Dakota summer they camped beside a great crooked split in the prairie, on a flat peninsula made by a sweeping westward bend of the muddy Missouri.
Across the river from their stopping-place, where an amber sun was going down, the horizon was near. High bluffs, like a huge wind-break, stood upon the plain, leaving at their feet only enough space for the whitewashed frame buildings of Fort Brannon. But to the east, the paralleling bluffs lay at a distance, and broke their ridge-back far up the scarlet coulee; from where, southward, stretched a wide gap—ten broad and gently undulating miles—that ended at the slough-studded base of Medicine Mountain. Evan Lancaster, as he stood bareheaded under the unclouded sky, looked about him upon acres heavy with tangled grass and weeds; and pleased with the evident richness of the untouched ground, and with the sheltered situation of the claim on the bend, swore that the white-topped schooner, with its travel-stained crew of three, had found on the yellow billows of that northern prairie its permanent moorings at last.
The felling and hewing of cottonwoods for the shack had occupied the first few weeks that followed, citizen carpenters from Brannon doing the heavy cutting and lifting. But when the little house stood, its square log room and dirt floor open to the sun, Dallas performed her part of the building, and thatched the hip-roof with coarse grass from a meadow. Next, the well was dug; and the barn built as a lean-to, for the Lancasters knew little, but had heard much, about the blizzards of the territory. Then, while the elder girl covered the slanting rafters over Ben and Betty's stall, the section-boss hauled a scanty stock of hay and provisions from Clark's, a cattle-camp and settlement to the northeast. And finally, when shack and barn were alike done, Dallas put the mules to the end of an oak beam and took up the task of plowing.
Now she was winding at a black mat that was gradually growing upon the brown carpet of the prairie. Up and down she walked, her whiplash trailing behind her like a lively snake, her hands striving to guide the cleaving share she followed, a look of deep content, despite all fear for bad weather, upon her sun-browned face.
But while, working the morning hours slowly away, she gave full attention to the nodding mules and the young bull straggling at their head, she did not stop to watch the flocks winging by above her, or to look off to where the plains fell away from the pale azure line of the sky. So she failed to see, at the middle of the long forenoon, a group of dark figures that came into sight to the eastward and moved slowly forward in the direction of the bend.
Toward noon, however, the furrows were turned less regularly. Ben and Betty were so tired that they no longer drew evenly, but wavered from side to side. Again and again the off mule jerked the share out of the sod; each time Dallas patiently circled the team and steered it back into place again, for her arms were not strong enough to swing the plow on the whiffletrees. And each time Simon caught sight of her red flannel petticoat, and, faint, half-awakened objections stirring beneath his sprouting horns, came back to challenge the goading colour and butt her crossly in the skirts.
Just before dinner-time, and half-way of the plowed strip, going east, Dallas suddenly lifted her shoulders to tighten the slack of the reins, let go the horns and brought the mules to a stand. And then, as they halted with lowered heads, she caught sight of the distant figures between her and the horizon, recognising them as men, mounted and on foot, with wagons hanging at their rear.
She stepped to the head of the team and shaded her eyes for a moment. As she did so, a part of the advancing body detached itself and approached more swiftly, only to retreat again; and the sun, climbing toward the centre of the sky, flashed back upon bright objects carried at the front of the group.
"Soldiers for Brannon, I reckon," she said aloud to Simon, who had given over his butting and was thoughtfully sniffing the air. "Still," she added, "they're coming slow for soldiers."
Simon rubbed a red shoulder against her arm confidingly and gave a defiant, sideways toss of the head.
"You know, don't you?" Dallas said, scratching the star in his curly forehead. "Well, I would, too, if I had your nose." She glanced at the mules and noted their lack of fright. "They're not Indians anyhow," she went on, "so I guess we'll do some more plowing."
When the sun was so high that Simon's shadow made but a small splotch upon the ground under him, Dallas again stopped to look toward the east. The men and horses had travelled only a short distance, and were halted for their noon rest. Close to the wagons, the smoke of burning grass-twists was curling up from under the midday meal.
"They ain't soldiers," she said decisively; "if they was, they'd go on to the ferry. And what can they be, headed this way?" She took off her hat and swung it at her father to attract his attention, then pointed toward the men and teams.
Lancaster was sitting before the shack, his crutches across his knees. Seeing her signal, he got up and hobbled hastily around the corner, from where he blinked into the gap. And, unable to make out anything but a blurred collection of moving things, he called Marylyn from her dinner-getting.
"Come an' see w'at y' c'n make out off thar on th' prairie, Mar'lyn," he cried. "Ef it's antelope, bring out th' Sharps."
Marylyn hurried to him and followed the direction of his gaze. "Why, it's men, pa," she said.
"Certainly, it's men," he agreed pettishly. "But w'at kin' o' men? Thet's w'at Ah kain't see."
Marylyn shook her head. Then, as she bent her look inquiringly toward the far-away camp, a horseman suddenly left it and started on a gallop toward them. "One's coming this way fast!" she exclaimed, and rushed back into the shack for her bonnet.
Lancaster and his younger daughter commented excitedly as the rider approached. One troop of cavalry had remained at Brannon throughout the summer to give protection to the wives and children of officers and enlisted men. The remaining troops belonging at the fort were away on Indian service. They were to return soon, and the section-boss believed he saw in the nearing traveller the herald of the home-coming force. Marylyn, however, was just as certain that Indians were about to surround them, and hastily brought out the gun. But Dallas wasted no time in conjectures. She touched up Ben and Betty and finished her round of the plowed land. Not till the stranger was close did she stop at the eastern end of the field and wait, leaning on the cross-bar.
He came forward in a sharp canter, keeping a regular tap upon the flanks of his mount with the end of a lariat. His careless seat in the saddle and the fact that he wore no spurs told Dallas that he was not a trooper, though across the lessening distance now between them his dress of blue shirt, dark breeches and high boots, crowned by a wide, soft hat, was not unlike a campaign uniform. At his approach, Ben and Betty became lazily interested and raised their long ears to the front; Simon advanced a little and took a determined stand beside Dallas, who hung her lines on the plow-handles and prepared to greet the horseman.
The instant he reached her, he halted abruptly beside the mules and bared his head. "Good-morning," he said with cheery politeness; but his swift glance over team, plow, and girl showed a surprise that was almost pity.
She saw his look, and the colour swept up under the tan of her face. "How d' y' do," she answered.
"I'm John Lounsbury from Clark's," he began. "I've been supplying that crowd back there with feed and grub for a couple of weeks." He nodded toward the distant men and horses. "May I ask—I—I didn't know any women folks had settled——"
She faced him squarely for a moment, and he met her eyes. They were grey, with tawny flecks, wide-open, clear and comprehending. "My father's Evan Lancaster," she explained.
"Lancaster—oh, he's traded at my store."
"That's him over there with Marylyn."
Lounsbury turned in his saddle and looked toward the shack. "Marylyn?" he said. "What a pretty name! Sounds like Maryland. How'd she——" He paused questioningly.
"Mother's name was Mary Lynn," she answered, her voice lowered. "So she just put it together."
"Mine's Dallas. I was born in Texas."
He leaned back against his high cantle and smiled. "I could 'a' guessed that," he declared.
Again she coloured sensitively, and hastened to swing the team around until Betty stood in the furrow. "My father's coming," she said.
Instantly Lounsbury was all regret, for he saw that she had misunderstood him. "You don't look Texas," he said earnestly. "It's just the name. And—and I think Dallas is pretty, too."
The implied jest on her native State did not do away with her displeasure. She nodded gravely and, turning, put the lines about her shoulders. The mules started.
"Now I've got you down on me," he said penitently. "Honest, I didn't mean——"
She paid no heed.
He clapped on his hat, whipped his horse and followed alongside, waiting for her to look up. Opposite the shack, Lancaster and his other daughter were standing by the furrow. Here she drew rein. "This is Marylyn," she said, as the storekeeper leaned to grasp her father's hand.
Lounsbury again lifted his hat and looked down, long and admiringly, upon the younger girl. Her fair hair, framing in soft waves a pale, oval face, and her blue eyes, watching him in some confusion, were strongly in contrast with the straight, heavy braids—brown, and showing burnished tints in the light—and the unwavering eyes of her sister. Looking at her, he was reminded of girls he had seen beyond the Alleghanies—girls who knew little, or no, toil, and who jealously guarded their beauty from sun and wind. Answering Lancaster's blunt questions, that followed close upon each other, he paid her prettiness constant and wondering homage; and she, noting the attention, retreated a little and was quiet and abashed.
"Who's you' party?" the elder man demanded, indicating the distant camp with one crutch, and leaning heavily upon the other.
"Surveyors," replied Lounsbury.
"Surveyors!" There was alarm in Lancaster's tone. He suddenly recalled how, slighting Dallas' advice, he had delayed a trip to the land-office for the purpose of filing on the claim. "W'at they doin'?"
"Something right in your line, sir. They're laying out a railroad."
"A railroad? You don' say! How'll it come?"
"Why, right this way."
Lancaster caught the other by the bootstrap. "Shore?" he asked.
"Sure," repeated Lounsbury; "sure as death and taxes. It's bound to run somewhere between the coulee and Medicine Mountain, and it'll stop—at least for a few years—at the Missouri. With those sloughs in the way at the south end of the gap, it can't reach the river without coming over your land. First thing you know, you'll have stores and saloons around your house. There's going to be a town on the Bend, sir."
The elder man scanned the younger's face. Lounsbury was smiling half teasingly, yet undoubtedly he was in earnest.
"W'y, Lawd!" breathed the section-boss, realising the whole import of the news. A railroad would mean immeasurable good fortune to the trio of settlers who, like young prairie-chickens that fear to leave the side of their mother, had chosen quarter-sections near the guarding fort. And to him, penniless, with motherless girls, it meant——
"The ferrying's so good right here," went on the storekeeper. "Why, it's a ten-to-one shot the track'll end on your claim."
With one accord all looked across the level quarter, where the new green was creeping in after the late rains.
"A railroad! An' a town!" The section-boss pulled at his grizzled goatee. "They'll make this piece worth a heap!"
"They will," agreed Lounsbury. "But road or no road, seems to me you've got about the cream of this side of the river."
"You' right," said Lancaster. But the girls were silent, except that Dallas gave a sigh, deep and full of happiness.
Lounsbury glanced at her. "You like the place, don't you?" he asked; "even if——" He suddenly paused. Her palms were open and half turned upward. Across each lay a crimson stripe—the mark of the plow-handle.
For the second time she read his meaning. "Yes, I like the prairie," she answered, "if I do have to plow." And she stepped from the furrow to the unturned sod.
As she stood there, Lounsbury caught the clear outline of her firmly drawn face. Beside her, Marylyn, slight and colourless, was for the moment eclipsed. The hat of the elder girl was brushed back, displaying a forehead upon which shone the very spirit of the unshackled. Her hands, large, yet not too large for the splendid figure of which they were the instruments, were clasped upon her breast. Watching her, it seemed to Lounsbury that she must have sprung as she was from the plains one day—grave, full-grown and gallant.
Her father's voice broke in harshly. "Ah didn' want she should plow," he protested. "Ah figgered t' git someone on tick, but seems like Dallas, she——"
"We like it here," she interrupted, "because the air 's so cool, and there's lots of grass." Then after bending to gather a purple flower, she stepped back to the plow.
"You're planning to stay, then," said Lounsbury.
"Stay!" burst forth the section-boss. "Don' it look like it?"
Lounsbury made no reply, only smiled genially.
"Maybe y' reckon we-all ain't safe?" continued Lancaster. "Wal, th' nesters 'roun' Fort Sully's safe 'nough."
The storekeeper pointed across the river to where a flag was flying at the centre of the post quadrangle. "You're in sight of that," he said simply.
The other snorted. Then, stifling a retort, he searched Lounsbury's face with his milky-blue eyes. "Ah'd like t' ast w'y y' didn' tell me 'bout th' track when Ah seen y' las'," he observed suspiciously.
The storekeeper gave a hearty laugh. "And why didn't you say you had daughters?" he demanded.
Instantly a change came over the elder man. He darkened angrily. His breath shortened, as if he had been running. Visible trembling seized him, body and limbs.
Mystified, Lounsbury turned to Dallas, and saw that her eyes were fastened upon her father imploringly. "No, no, dad," he heard her whisper; "no, no."
The storekeeper hastened to speak. "Joking aside," he said, "the reason is this: The railroad company wants the right kind of people to settle on the land along the survey. It doesn't want men who'd file just to get a price. So the story hasn't leaked much."
Lancaster was fumbling at his crutches. "Ah see, Ah see," he said sulkily. Then, with an attempt at being courteous, "Come up t' th' shack, Lounsb'ry. Y' brung good news; y' got t' hev you' dinner."
"I ate back there," said Lounsbury, dismounting; "but I'll stop off for a while, just the same." As he slipped the reins over his horse's head, Marylyn remembered the meal she had abandoned and started homeward. The storekeeper, leading his mount, strode away beside her.
Dallas clucked to the mules.
"Ain't you comin'?" called her father. "W'y, my gal, you worked 'nough this mornin'."
"I'll keep at it just a little longer," she answered.
"We don' hear ev'ry day thet we live on a town site with a railroad a-comin'," Lancaster said, following her a few steps. "Better come."
Dallas did not reply. When she was some rods farther on, her father called to her again.
"Come, Dallas," he urged, "an' stop plowin' up th' streets."
She shook her head, slapped the reins along Ben and Betty's dusty backs and leaned guidingly on the handles of the plow. And as she travelled slowly riverward, Simon trotted close behind, tossing his stubby horns at the red of her underskirt and bawling wearily.
A TRIP AND TROUBLE AHEAD
Before Dallas reached the end of her furrow she knew that, for at least some days to come, her work on the plowed strip must cease. Far and wide, frontiersmen may have heard of the railroad's coming, and their first move would be, perhaps had been, a rush to the land-office to file upon quarter-sections touching the survey. And so, no hour dared be wasted before her father started on his long-deferred trip. The claim on the peninsula—the claim which the storekeeper had named as the terminus of the proposed line, as the probable site for a new town—must at once be legally theirs.
When the mules were turned eastward again, Dallas brought them up for a breathing spell and, going apart a little distance, sat down, her knees between her hands. A short space of time had made incredible changes in their plans, in the possibilities of their prairie home. Before the cutting of the last two sods, there had stretched ahead only a succession of uneventful years, whose milestones would be the growing record of beeves and bushels. But now—she could not have credited her senses had it not been for a glimpse of Lounsbury's horse, industriously cropping beside the lean-to.
She looked across at the shack, squatting on a gentle rise at the centre of the claim as if it had fled there for refuge out of the grassy sea whose dry waves lapped up to its very door. Its two small windows, looking riverward, the narrow door of warped lumber between, and the shock roof of meadow-grass held down by stones, gave it the appearance of a grotesque human head that was peering from out the plain. As Dallas, for the first time, noted the curious resemblance, the shack seemed to smile back at her—a wise, reassuring smile.
A moment later the north wind hooded the sky with clouds, putting the bend in gloom. She got to her feet and hastened toward the plow. So brief had been her meeting with the storekeeper that, immediately following it, his features had escaped her. Now she recalled them, and thought she recalled that, when he had accosted her, they had worn a mocking expression. What if her father, in his sudden excitement and concern, should tell Lounsbury that the claim was not yet filed upon! should confide in this stranger, who might then take advantage of the ignorance, age and crippled condition of the section-boss! Hurriedly, she unhitched Ben and Betty, hung their bridles on the hames, and turned the team loose to graze. Then she started homeward, with Simon close upon her heels, and as she crossed the cloud-darkened claim, she glanced again at the shack. Its windows were in shadow, its door almost obscured. There was a smirk on its twisted face.
But when, entering the house, she met Lounsbury's kind, level look, the distrust she had felt unconsciously vanished.
He was seated astride a bench to the left of the fireplace, his hat flung down in front of him, his shoulders against the wall, his booted legs thrust out restfully across the floor. Dallas, seeing him out of the saddle for the first time, was struck by his splendid length, next by his heaviness—a round, but muscular, heaviness that she had never noted in a Texan. Leaning back with folded arms, he showed, however, despite his weight and rotundity, the pliance and the litheness of the Westerner. His hair was dark and thick and worn in a careless part, his throat was bronzed above the lacings of his shirt, his face clean-shaven, somewhat square—yet full—and set with blue eyes that showed an abiding glint of merriment.
If Dallas, as she crossed the sill, formed, with the swift keenness of the plainswoman, a new and truer estimate of Lounsbury, he, saluting cordially, failed not to measure her. The dirt-floored shack, partitioned by Navajo blankets and furnished with unplaned benches, was a background totally unsuited to Marylyn's delicate beauty; but for the elder daughter of the section-boss, its very rude simplicity seemed strangely fine and fitting.
Many women had come under the storekeeper's notice during his frontier life: Roughly reared women of pure ways who toiled and bore with the patience of beasts; the women of the army, matching, in dress and habits, those he had known as a boy; and, last of all, the kind that always follows in the track of soldier, scout and gambler. Yet never before on the sundown side of the Mississippi had he seen one who possessed, along with the reserve a lonely bringing-up enjoins, the dignity and poise that are counted the fruits of civilisation.
"It's good blood," he said to himself, "and"—with a glance at the section-boss—"it's from the mother's side."
Lancaster, at that moment, was truly anything but a picture of repose. His season of delight over the morning's news had been brief, and was now succeeded by thorough disquiet. He hobbled to and fro, from the hearth, where hung a pail of fragrant coffee, to the farther front window. Lounsbury remarked his evident worry and, not understanding it, bent down inquiringly toward Marylyn.
She was seated on a buffalo robe before the fire, zealously tending the coffee. As she felt the storekeeper's look upon her, she glanced up, and, meeting his eyes, something other than the firelight swept her throat, neck and brow with crimson touch.
"There's no fretting in that quarter," was Lounsbury's mental comment. He turned on the bench to face Dallas.
She was standing quietly beside the warped door, her arms hanging tensely at her side, her chin up, her eyes gazing straight at him. And in them, as well as in her whole attitude, Lounsbury read determination and anxiety.
"What's the matter, I wonder," he thought. He leaned toward her, resting an elbow on the bench. "You're getting ready for spring seeding, Miss Lancaster," he said.
The section-boss giggled nervously. "Ef th' town was right here, it would n' make no difference t' Dallas. Ah'll bet she'll spen' th' winter shellin' cawn fer plantin', an' pickin' cockle outen th' wheat." He fell to tugging at his goatee.
Again there was silence. Then, with a deep breath, Dallas straightened to speak. It was borne to her of a sudden that they were in need—of one in whom they might confide, of one from whom good advice might come; she felt impelled to tell this stalwart young man, whose eyes read kindness and whose face read right, who seemed to bear them nothing but good-will, that they had not filed the claim. And then——
The fire crackled cosily, the blackened pail steamed from the cross-piece. Lounsbury spread out his hands before the blaze. "I wish I lived on a quarter, like you folks," he said. "I hate the dickering in a store. Been at it ten years. Was in the fur business, at first—bought from the Indians and the skin-hunters up and down. Well, the country got into my blood. You get the West, you know, and it's the only disease out here that you can't shake. So I've stayed, and I guess I'll keep a-staying. But sometimes I get a notion to throw my stores up and go into the cow business or farming."
Dallas sank back, checked, not by Lounsbury's words, but by her father. The section-boss, one hand behind a hairy ear, was glowering at the storekeeper. "Eh, what?" he asked suspiciously.
"I say I've a notion to take up some land," repeated Lounsbury. "Right east of you wouldn't be a bad idea. The soil's wonderful hereabouts. No stumps, no stones, and the loam's thick. Look in the coulee—you can see there how far it is to the clay. That's why she wore down so deep——"
"Yes. I believe I'll just pick out a quarter near it. Could plant a store anyway, when the track comes."
"Yas, certainly," said Lancaster. He passed Dallas, giving her a helpless, apprehensive stare. "But, shucks! Ah wouldn' be in sech a tarnel hurry, ef Ah was you. Spring's plenty o' time."
Lounsbury swung round sharply. "Spring!" he exclaimed in amazement. "I hope that hasn't been your plan, sir. A man can't file too soon."
Dallas leaned toward Lounsbury again, and her lips parted. But a quick, peremptory gesture from her father interrupted. "Mar'lyn," he cried, his eyes warning the elder girl, "look out fer thet coffee; it's a-bilin' over."
And Dallas saw that her father did not trust the storekeeper—perhaps feared him—and that he did not wish his own neglect to be known.
But a hint of the state of affairs at the shack had already entered Lounsbury's mind. As Marylyn rose to pour the coffee, he quickly changed the subject. "Fort 's a quiet place, these days," he observed, accepting a cup. "Wonder when the troops'll be back."
The section-boss sipped at his saucer. "Ah don' carry on no dealin's with Yankee soldier trash," he answered curtly. "They keep they side o' th' river, an' we-all keep ourn."
Lounsbury laughed. "Well," he said, "you'll find when the redskins get nasty that the army blue looks pretty good."
The other shrugged.
The storekeeper tapped the holster hanging upon a thigh. "I carry a pop-gun regular." He set down the cup, pulled at his boot-legs and arose.
"Ah reckon Ah c'n hol' my own, sah." Lancaster's pride was touched.
"No doubt of it," assured the younger man, preparing to go. "I hope," he continued, "that you'll call on me at any time—if you need more provisions, say."
Lancaster did not misunderstand the offer of credit. "Thank y'," he replied stiffly, "but we certainly got 'nough t' las' through."
Lounsbury remembered how small—compared with the orders of other wintering settlers—was the Lancaster stock; and thought, too, how likely it was that every passerby would be fed with true Southern hospitality, thus diminishing the supply. But he refrained from making any further suggestion. He bade the family good-by, lingering a little at parting beside the younger girl.
"Miss Marylyn," he said, "before another winter you'll be the belle of the town of Lancaster."
She put her hand in his bashfully.
"And, Miss Dallas?" His voice entreated a little.
"I hope you'll be the biggest storekeeper," she said.
To Lounsbury's surprise, he saw a trace of fun lurking in her eye. "Ah! you've forgiven me!" he declared triumphantly.
But she made no answer as she turned away.
The next moment he was galloping toward the coulee crossing.
Marylyn watched him go. When, having disappeared into the ravine, he came into sight again on the farther side, he turned in his saddle and saw her. He took off his hat and waved it. She answered with a farewell signal, and stood, looking after him, until distance dwarfed horse and rider to a dot.
On the storekeeper's departure, the shack became a scene of action. Lancaster gave over walking the floor and collected bedding for a journey. Marylyn was called in to prepare a box of food for her father—potatoes from the coals of the fireplace, cured pig-meat from the souse-barrel, bread, and a jug of coffee. While Dallas caught the mules, gave them some grain and a rubbing-down with straw wisps, and greased the wagon wheels. All being made ready, the section-boss took leave of his daughters, urging them to keep within the next day when the surveyors came up, and to deny his going. Then, with Ben and Betty at a smart trot, he set off for Bismarck and the land-office.
When he was gone, the squat shack on the bend became vigilant. Ceaselessly its eyes covered the stretch of road between ferry-landing and coulee—ceaselessly, though Dallas alone kept watch for wayfarers. Not until night fell, and the cloud-masked moon disappeared behind the western bluffs, were small blankets pinned into place across the windows, and the peering shock head made sightless.
But even with the house darkened, the early supper eaten and Marylyn asleep in her bed before the hearth, the elder girl still kept on the alert. A nervousness born of loneliness had taken possession of her. If the doorlatch rattled, she raised herself, listening. If Simon rubbed himself against the warm outer stones of the fireplace, she sprang up, a startled sentinel, with wide eyes and clenched hands.
But an hour passed. The wind lulled. Simon lay down. She fell to thinking of the storekeeper. She felt surer than ever, now, that he did not covet the bend. Setting aside the fact that he had brought them good news, she was glad he had come. It gave them a neighbour. And, yes, she forgave him the smile that had provoked her resentment. After all, the name Dallas did sound Texas.
With morning, and the rising of the sun, she was up and doing the few chores about lean-to and shack. But when the surveyors arrived, making short work of their last few miles, she and Marylyn shut themselves in and escaped being seen. The engineers gone toward Clark's, Dallas again took up her watch.
Twice before night she was rewarded. The mail-sergeant passed, bringing a batch of letters to a grateful post; and, late in the afternoon, an Indian runner came into sight from up the Missouri. Scorning to use the ferry, he dropped into the river, where the coulee emptied, and swam across.
The arrival of the scout Dallas associated instinctively with the expected return of the troopers, and felt a relief that she would not have cared to confess to her father. The unusual bustle that marked the next three days at Brannon seemed to justify her belief. Below the barracks, on the level bottom-land, men were busy erecting a strange structure. Tall cottonwoods were hauled from the river and set on end in the sandy ground. As time passed, these came to form a tight, circular pen.
The night of the third day there was activity on the other bank of the Missouri. Unknown to shack and fort, the squalid line of shanty saloons that stretched itself like a waiting serpent along a high bench opposite the new stockade, sprang into sudden life. Two wagons filled with men and barrels crossed the bend and emptied themselves into the dilapidated buildings. And far into the early hours, loud laughter, the click of chips and the clink of glasses disturbed the quiet of the night. At dawn, an officer, standing, field-glass in hand, on the gallery at headquarters, saw two wagons drawn up in front of Shanty Town and called down a curse upon the heads of the sleeping revellers.
"Just see there!" he exclaimed. "Some vermin got wind of the paymaster's coming and are here to fleece the men."
A lieutenant sauntered up, putting out his hand for the glasses. "There wasn't a soul in those huts yesterday," he said.
"No, of course not," sputtered the other. "The devils stayed at Clark's till the punchers got back from Kansas City. Now, they're on hand to keep our guard-house and hospital full. By gad! if I commanded here, I'd have the whole street fired."
"Well," said the lieutenant, "the men have a way of disciplining that kind, themselves. Some day, when a favourite is cut in a brawl or cheated at cards, they'll shoot up the place. If there's anything left, it'll move on."
"It won't do any harm to keep an eye on Shanty Town, all the same," declared his companion, fiercely. "Remember the man that ran it last year? Slick, by gad! Why, the paymaster might just as well have stopped over there—he and his ilk got every cent! He wasn't a 'bad' man, mind you—not brave enough for that, but keen-nosed as a moose, conceited as an Indian——"
"What was his name?"
"Oh, Dick or Vic Something-or-other, I don't know what. He's a bragging renegade, anyway."
Unaware of a reconnoitre, the occupants of the line of shanties slumbered serenely on; and not until noon did high plumes of smoke, straight as the flag-pole on the parade-ground, announce, to the secretly delighted troopers at Brannon, their tardy rising.
Dallas, too, saw the busy chimneys. But while watching them intently from an open window, her attention was attracted, all at once, in the opposite direction. She heard, coming out of the coulee, a chorus of shrill talking, like the pow-wow of a flock of prairie-chickens. Then, a horse snorted, and there was a low rumble of wheels. Thinking that it was her father, she leaned into sight. As she did so a team came scrambling over the scarlet brink, dragging a wagon full of men and women.
As the horses gained the level prairie, their driver laid aside a huge black-snake whip with which he had been soundly whacking them, and looked about. The next moment, Dallas saw him rein in his team and spring to his feet. He was looking toward the shack, and he raised his whip-hand menacingly.
"Look at that! Look at that!" he cried wildly, his voice carrying through the clear air.
All looked where he pointed, and someone in the back of the wagon cursed.
"What d' you call that for luck?" yelled the man, shaking his mittened fist. "If Nick knew that!"
Dallas could not hear the mingled answers of his companion.
"Well, I call it damned——"
A woman reached up and pulled him into his seat. There was another shrill chorus, the man whacked the horses till they reared, and the wagon went rumbling on.
Dallas watched it until it disappeared into the cut at the landing. Then she sank upon a bench. For a long time she sat, dumb and immovable, her eyes on the floor. When, finally, she got up, she felt about her, as if overcome by blindness.
Marylyn had not seen or heard the threatening wagon-driver. Seated comfortably on the robe by the fire, she strung beads and hummed contentedly.
Dallas started toward her—stopped—then moved slowly back to the window, where she took up her watch.
Late that night she sprang from fitful, troubled sleep to hear Simon lowing and moving about restlessly. A few moments afterward, there came a mule's long bray from below the shack, followed by the voice of the section-boss, urging on the team. She found her long cloak and hastened out.
She could not wait for the wagon to stop before calling anxiously to her father. "Did you file?" she asked, walking beside Betty.
Lancaster did not answer, but scolded feebly, as if worn with his long trip. "W'y d' y' fret a man 'fore he c'n git down an' into th' house?" he demanded. "Ah'm plumb fruz t' death, an' hungry."
She helped him over the wheel and through the door. Then she went back and, in feverish haste, stabled the mules. On entering the shack, now dimly lighted by a fire, she did not need to repeat her question. She read the answer in her father's face.
"No use," Lancaster told her, raising wet, tired eyes to hers. "Th' claim was gone 'fore ever we got here—filed on las' July." He lay down, muttering in a delirium of grief and physical weariness.
The fire, made only of dry grass, began to die, the room to darken. Dallas' face shadowed with it. She was thinking of the level quarter that was to have blossomed under her eager hands; that was to have brought comfort to Marylyn and her crippled father. And now the land was gone from them, had never been theirs—they were only squatters.
Any hour, a nameless man—perhaps he who had gone by that day—might descend upon them and——
The bail of a bubbling pot slipped down the bar that held it, and the vessel clattered upon the hearth. She started as if a gun had exploded at her elbow.
DALLAS MAKES A FRIEND
"Y-a-a-as," drawled Lancaster, reflectively, gnawing the while at a fresh slab of tobacco, "we jes' nat'ally mavericked this claim."
A fortnight had passed since his return from the land-office. In that time, his fear had slowly vanished, his confidence returned. And he had begun to show streaks of the bravado that, in his stronger days, made him an efficient section-boss. Rosy dreams, even, beset his brain—dreams upon which Marylyn, despising her father's meaner structures (and kept in ignorance of what might, at any moment, raze them), piled many a rainbow palace. For, to the younger girl, certain calico-covered books on the mantel had invested the events of the fortnight just gone with a delightful tinge of romance.
Dallas, however, took a sensible view of their situation. She pointed out that the man who had made an entry for the land would, in all probability, return; and that if he did not, five years, at least, would pass before the railroad reached them. Meanwhile, the quarter-section should be properly filed upon for possession and farmed for a living. Now, as she brushed the hearth clean with the wing of a duck, she listened quietly to her father's confident boasting.
"It's this way, m' gal:" he said—he compassed a goodly quid and shifted it dexterously into the sagging pocket of a cheek—"Inside o' six months after a man files, he's got t' dig a dugout er put up a shanty. He's got t' do a leetle farm-work, an' sleep on his claim. When thet six months is up, ef he ain't done no buildin' er farmin', th' claim's abandoned, an' th' first man comin' along c'n hev it.
"In this case, th' gent in question ain't built, dug er farmed. Ef he was t' show up an' want this quarter, he could git it by payin' fer our improvements. Ah reckon we'd hev t' sell an' pull our freight. But ef he was t' show up an' not pay like a' honest man, they'd—they'd—wal, they'd likely be a leetle disagreement."
Dallas shook her head. "If he comes before his six months is up and improves, we got to go. That would be the only square thing. Ain't it so?"
"Wal—wal——" began Lancaster, lamely.
"It is," she said. "He filed on the quarter, and we had no right to settle——"
"We hev settled, an' th' lan' 's goin' t' be worth money," broke in her father.
She put up her hand. "We got to go, if he comes. But"—she arose wearily—"if he didn't offer pay for our improvements, how could we go, or get through the winter, or build again next spring? Our money's gone."
"Look a-here, Dallas," began her father, crossly, "they ain't no use t' worry th' way you do. Winter is clost. It ain't likely th' man'll come along this late. An' ef he don' show up pretty soon, he ain't got a chanst. 'Cause, when his six months is gone, Ah'll make another trip t' Bismarck, contes' his entry, hev it cancelled an' file. Then, we's safe."
She silenced him, for Marylyn was entering, and quit the shack. Outside, before the warped door, she paused.
"He's always so sure of himself. But he can't do anything. And Marylyn—Oh, I wish there was someone with us, now—someone that'd help us if anything—went wrong."
Of a sudden, looking down at her hands, her eyes fell upon the crimson stripes left across her palms by the plow. And, in fancy, a horseman was riding swiftly toward her from the east, again, while she leaned on the cross-brace and waited.
"Twenty miles," she said thoughtfully; "twenty miles." And turned the marks under.
* * * * *
Sun-baked, deep of rut and straight as the flight of a crow, lay the road that led northeast from the swift, shoally ford of the Missouri to the cattle-camp at Clark's. It began at the rough planking upon which the rickety ferry-boat, wheezing like some asthmatic monster, discharged its load of soldiers or citizens, and ran up through the deep cut in the steep, caving river-bank. From there, over the western end of the Lancaster quarter, across the coulee under a hub-depth of muddy backwater—at the only point where the sumach-grown sides sloped gradually—it took its level, unswerving way.
Twice only in its course did it touch the ravine curving along near by it—once, six miles from the ferry-landing, where, on the limbs of a cluster of giant cottonwoods that grew in the bottom of the gully, a score of Indian dead were lashed, their tobacco-pipes, jerked beef and guns under the blanket wrappings that hid them; and, again, at Murphy's Throat, four miles farther up, where the coulee narrowed until a man, standing in its bed with arms outstretched, could place the tips of his fingers against either rocky wall. Beyond the Throat, the crack in the plains grew wider and shallower, veered out to the eastward, and, at last, came to an abrupt end in a high meadow below the distant river-bluffs.
For decades the road had been a buffalo-trail, a foot wide and half as deep, that, in the dry season, guided the herds in single file from the caking meadow to the distant waters of the Missouri; then the travee poles of Indian tribes gave it the semblance of a wagon track, the centre of which was worn bare by the hoofs of laden ponies and the feet of trudging squaws; and, finally, the lumbering carts of traders, the Studebakers of settlers, and those heavier wagons that roll in the rear of marching men, made of the track a plain and hardened highway.
Down it, that morning, approaching to the accompaniment of loud talking, the tramping of horses, the cracking of whips and the jingling of spurs, came a long procession. Yet so absorbed was Dallas in her plowing that not until the head of its column was close upon her and there was barely time to go to the bridles of the frightened mules did she see it.
A tanned, unkempt officer led the way, with baying foxhounds running about him. On either hand rode his staff, and his scouts—Arickaree Indians, in patched breeches and dusty blankets. And behind, full-bearded, all military look gone from their boots, hats and uniforms, came the cavalry, riding two and two, and flying torn and faded guidons.
Dallas had no chance to view the front of the command, for the mules claimed all her attention by hauling back on their bits. But now they quieted a little, and she was free to watch the dozen or so musicians who came next, mounted, with their brass instruments in hand. She saw that these men were nudging one another, and directing at her glances which were bold and amused.
Something of her father's hatred of soldiers stirred her. She grew defiant; yet only for a moment. The musicians trotted by, and now Indians were passing—men, women and children, whose stolid faces disclosed no hint of grief or hatred for their captivity. The braves, twenty in number, formed the head of the band, and kept no order of march as they spurred forward their ragged, foot-sore ponies. Their Springfield rifles, knives and tomahawks had been taken from them, but they still carried their once gay lances, and shields of buffalo-hide covered with rude pictures of the chase and battle. But though on other occasions these would have betokened the free warrior, they now only emphasised by contrast the blankets that trailed ingloriously from their wearers' shoulders to the ground and the drooping feathers of the conquered chiefs.
A war-priest, whose string of bears' claws, triple feathers, charms and bag plainly betokened the medicine-man, headed the tribe. He was seated upon a gaudily decorated saddle; the nose-band, front and cheek-pieces of his horse's bridle were thickly studded with brass nails; bright pom-poms of coloured wool swung from the curb and the throat-latch; and the nag's tail was stiffly braided with strips of woolen—scarlet and yellow and blue. Close beside him rode two stately braves of high rank, their mounts as richly caparisoned, their buckskin shirts gorgeous with bead and porcupine-quill embroidery, otter-skin head-dresses upon their hair. Like their leader, the dusky faces of the two Indians and of those forming the rest of the party were hideously painted, showing that all had but recently been upon the warpath.
The other half of the redskin company was more squalid. A score of spotted, sway-backed ponies crept along, bearing and, at the same time, dragging, heavy loads. Each saddle held a squaw and one or more small children—the squaw with a cocoon-like papoose strapped to her back. And at the tail of each horse, surrounded by limping Indian dogs, came a travee laden with a wounded or aged Indian, or heaped with cooking utensils, blankets and buffalo-skins.
One woman of all the squaws rode a pony that had not a double burden. She was dressed in buckskin and bright calico, and sat upon a blanket that almost covered her horse. Her hair was braided neatly, her dark cheeks were daubed with carmine. She kept a rigid seat as she passed Dallas, and her black eyes answered the other's kindly look with one full of sullen pride. Beside her hobbled an aged hag across whose wrinkled mouth and chin was a deep and livid scar.
When the Indians were past, more troopers followed. After them trundled a half-dozen light field-pieces, the wagon-train, and ambulances filled with sick or wounded soldiers, all under the conduct of a rear-guard. Soon, the entire cavalcade was gone, and had halted on the river-bank to wait the ferry. Dallas was alone again, listening to the faint strains of the band which, from the cut, was gallantly announcing the return from the long campaign.
At the door of the shack, Lancaster and his younger daughter were watching the portage, piecemeal, of the troops. But Dallas, starting the team again, saw father and sister suddenly turn from the landing to look and point toward the coulee. Glancing that way, too, she saw the object of their interest. Over the brink into sight was toiling a strange figure, bent and almost hidden under an unwieldy load.
She moved aside in some trepidation to await the creature's advance. Upon its back, as it tottered along, was a score of pots and pans, tied together, and topped by a sack of buffalo-chips that, at each slow step, rolled first to one hand and then to the other. Yet with all the difficulty of balancing the fuel-sack and preventing its falling to the ground, the straggler did not fail to keep in place a drab face-covering.
The mules stood perfectly quiet until the figure was near. Then they became uneasy for the second time, and shied back upon the plow, tangling their harness.
The effect of this was startling. The sack of chips came tumbling off the pots and pans, spilling upon the roadway. The tin things followed with a crash. And, with a grunt, the bent figure retreated a few steps and uncovered its face.
In very amazement Dallas let go the mules. The creature facing her was young and pitifully thin. About a face dripping with perspiration fell a mop of tangled hair. Under a tattered mourning blanket, a bulging calico waist disclosed, through many rents, a lean and bony chest. And below the leather strap that belted both the sombre blanket and the waist, hung limply the shreds of a fringed buckskin petticoat. The straggler was an Indian—a male—yet, despite his sex, he wore, not a brave's dress, but the filthy, degrading garb of a squaw!
He watched Dallas with cowed, questioning eyes, strangely soft and un-Indian in their expression. After a moment, seeing that he was ill, as well as unarmed, she ceased to feel afraid of him.
"How," she said, in greeting.
He made no reply, only continued to watch her steadily.
"How," she repeated, and smiled.
His eyes instantly brightened.
"You sick?" she asked, moving her head sorrowfully in pantomime.
For answer, he shambled closer and held up first one naked foot and then the other, like a suffering hound. Dallas saw that they were sore from stone bruises and bleeding from cactus wounds.
"Oh, you're hurt!" she cried.
The Indian nodded, and at once made her a dumb appeal. Lowering himself stiffly until he was seated upon the dead grass before her, he pointed eloquently into his wide-open mouth.
Dallas understood. "Hungry," she said.
He nodded again.
She had never heard a scoffing white declare that the red man is, above all, a beggar, so she did not delay answering his mute petition. She stooped to examine again the cuts and bruises on his feet. Then, "Wait till I come back," she bade him, and his vigorous nod assured her that he understood what she said. She hurried away to the shack.
She tarried only long enough to tell her father of the straggler and to hear his objections at her "fussin'" with a "no-'count Injun." Returning, she found her charge patiently waiting for her. As she came up, he was facing the ford, where, amid cursing, shouting and trumpet blares, some troopers were trying to induce the balky ambulance mules to go aboard the boat. But when she handed him a crockery plate heaped with boiled potatoes, cold meat and pancakes, and a piece of suet wound in a soft white cloth, he became indifferent to the lively doings at the landing and began to eat as if famished.
He made such rapid headway that, before Dallas realised it, the food was gone, the plate scraped clean and the suet direly threatened. He gave her a puzzled look as she put forth a hand objectingly.
"No, no," she said. And while she tore the soft cloth into strips, she put the fat out of reach by slipping it into a skirt pocket.
The bandages ready, she knelt before him and tenderly swathed his wounds.
"There!" she said, as she finished. "Now, you'd better hurry. The soldiers are almost over, and you'll be too late to get across dry."
He scrambled up, but, ignoring her advice, put one hand through a rent in his squaw's waist and began to search for something. Presently, he brought forth a package done up in dirty muslin, and slowly unfastened it. A folded paper as soiled as its wrapper fell out. It was worn through much handling and covered with pencilled words. He handed it to Dallas.
At first, she could not decipher it. But after studying it carefully and placing together several detached bits she was able to make it out. It was written scrawlingly and in a trembling hand.
"The bearer of this [it read] the good chief, Red Moon, I commend to the gentleness and mercy of every God-fearing man and woman. Once, out of the weakness of the flesh, he wept under the tortures of a sun-dance. Since then he has been abused, starved, and spat upon. Yet, hearing from me of Christ, His suffering, and His command to forgive, he has put down his desire to revenge his wrongs in blood, and goes on his way, labouring and enduring in silence. May God be gracious to whomsoever aids this least one among us."
Here the letter ended, but underneath was the signature—so fingered, however, that Dallas could spell out only the word "David"—and a blurred postscript which said:
"I have christened him Charles, and taught him English, but since his punishment he has never——"
The remainder of the paper was illegible.
When Dallas gave it back to the Indian, he wrapped it up carefully and returned it to his bosom. Then he gathered up the scattered chips, lifted his double load to his shoulders, drew his sombre blanket close about him, and shambled slowly away.
"Poor thing!" said Dallas, in compassion.
He stopped to look back.
"Good-by," she said as he went on; "good-by."
When he reached the river-bank, he turned again. The frost-blighted cottonwoods that bordered the Missouri were behind him, gleaming as yellowly as if, during the short, hot summer, their leafy branches had caught and imprisoned all the sunshine. Against that belt of brilliant colour stood out his spare, burdened frame.
Watching, she saw his gaunt face slowly relax in a friendly grin.
Snow fell on the very heels of the cavalry. Scarcely were the Indians safe in the stockade and the troopers once more in barracks, when some first flakes, like down plucked by the wind from the breasts of the southward-hastening wild-fowl, came floating out of the sky. Soon the long sumach leaves on the coulee edge were drooping under a crystalline weight, the black plowed strip was blending with the unplowed prairie, and the shock head of the cottonwood shack was donning a spotless night-cap. And so heavy and ceaseless was the downfall that, at supper-time, the sweet trumpet notes of "retreat" were wafted out from Brannon across a covered plain.
When morning dawned, the heavens were cloudless, and the laggard sun, as it rose, shone with blinding glory upon peaceful miles. Nowhere was a sign of wallow, path or road, and the coulee yawned, white-lipped. Even the Missouri was not unchanged. For, away to the northwest, there had been a mighty rainstorm, and the murky river tumbled by in waves that were angry and swollen.
Since his early boyhood, the section-boss had not known snow. Before the previous day, Dallas and Marylyn had never seen it. It was with exclamations of delight, therefore, that, crowding together in the doorway, the three first caught sight of the glistening drifts.
"Pa, it's like a Christmas card," cried the younger girl. And, bareheaded, she ran out to frolic before the shack.
To Dallas, the scene had a deeper meaning. Here was what would discourage and block anyone who had put off necessary improvements! And this would last long after the expiration of that six months! "I guess there'll be no building or plowing now," she said to her father, happily.
He, fully as relieved, returned a confident assent.
A little later, Old Michael, the ferryman, drove by, breaking a track along the blotted road. His ancient corduroys, known to every river-man from Bismarck to Baton Rouge, were hidden beneath layers of overcoats. Through the wool cap pulled down to his collar, two wide holes gave him outlook; a third, and smaller aperture, was filled by the stem of a corn-cob pipe. He was headed for the cattle-camp, the lines over a four-in-hand hitched to three empty wagons, a third team tied to the tailboard of the hindmost box.
On the arrival of the saloon gang, the pilot had left his steamboat in the hands of his two helpers and made his way to Shanty Town. There, in a shingle hut, perched atop a whisky cask, and kicking its rotund belly complacently with his heels, he had wet a throat, long dry, from the amber depths beneath him.
With each succeeding glass, his obligations had grown apace. Nevertheless, for a lifetime of rough service had brought about an immunity that belied his Celtic blood, his brain remained clear, his step steady and his eye unbleared. Thus it happened that when, cut off from grazing, it was necessary for the Shanty Town teams to be returned at once to Clark's, Old Michael was on hand and in condition to take them, and, by so doing, wipe out his drinking-account.
As he came opposite the shack, Marylyn was still running about in the snow, while Dallas was sweeping out some long, narrow drifts that had sifted in through window-and door-cracks. Squinting across at them, he recalled, all at once, a heated conversation that had taken place at Shanty Town the afternoon of the southward departure of a Dodge City courier. And he shook his head sorrowfully.
"Ye'll have yer han's fule before long," he advised aloud, "or it's me that's not good at guessin'." And, lifting the front of his cap, he sympathetically blew the purple bump that served him for a nose till it rang through the crisp air like a throaty bugle.
Farther on, as he sat pondering deeply and letting the leaders choose their course, a horseman came cantering toward him, and drew rein beside his wheel. It was Lounsbury, buried to the ears in a buffalo coat.
"Sure, it's somethin' important, John, that's a-bringin' ye out t'-day," cried Old Michael, roguishly, his brogue disclosing his identity. "It's ayther tillegrams or l-a-a-ydies."
The storekeeper coloured under his visor. "It's nay-ther," he mocked laughingly.
"None o' yer shillyshallin'," warned the ferryman, giving the other a playful whack with his gad. "Oi kin rade ye loike a buke."
"You can't read a book," declared Lounsbury. "But I'll tell you: I'm going to the Lancasters'."
Old Michael nodded, with a sly wink through the portholes of his mask. "Oi knowed it!" he said. Then, after fishing out a tobacco-bag from under his many coats and lighting the corn-cob in the protecting bowl of his palms, "In that case, man, Oi got somethin' t' say t' ye."
He leaned over the wheel confidentially, and Lounsbury bent toward him, so that the smoke of the pipe fed the storekeeper's nostrils. They talked for a half-hour, the one relating his story, the other putting in quick questions. At the end of their conversation, Lounsbury held out his hand.
"If their letter brings him, Mike," he said, "don't you fail to let me know."
"Aye, aye," promised the pilot, earnestly.
They parted. Old Michael continued his way with an easy mind. But Lounsbury was troubled. Instead of carrying—as on his former visit—good news to the little family on the bend, he must now be the bearer of evil.
And when, having stalled his horse with Ben and Betty, he entered the cottonwood shack, his heart smote him still more. For, secretly, he had hoped that he was to tell them what they already knew. But it seemed precisely the reverse. There was nothing in the appearance and actions of the Lancasters that suggested anxiety. The section-boss, though his manner was not without a certain reserve (as if he half believed something was about to be wormed out of him), greeted Lounsbury good-naturedly enough. Marylyn hurried up in a timid flutter to take his cap and coat. While, facing him from the hearth-side, her hair coiled upon her head like a crown, her grey eyes bright, her cheeks glowing, was a new Dallas.
"Well, how've you all been?" asked Lounsbury, accepting a bench.
"Oh, spright 'nough," answered the section-boss. "But it's cold, it's cold. Keeps me tremblin' like a guilty nigger."
"You'll get over that," assured the other, rubbing the blood into his hands. "It's natural for you to be soft as chalk-rock the first winter—you've been living South."
"Ah reckon," agreed Lancaster. He sat down beside the younger man, eyeing him closely. "How d' y' come t' git away fr'm business?" he queried.
"Well, you see," Lounsbury answered, "I've got an A 1 man in my Bismarck store, and at Clark's there's nothing to do week days, hardly. So I just took some tobacco to Skinney's, where the boys could get at it, and loped down here." Then, playfully, "But I don't see much happening in these parts." He stretched toward a window. "The town of Lancaster ain't growing very fast."
Dallas, seated on a bench with Marylyn, looked across at him smilingly. "I'm glad of it," she declared. "We ain't used to towns."
"You folks've never lived in one?"
"No—we never even been in one."
He puckered his forehead. "Funny," he said. "Somehow, I always think of you two as town girls."
"Aw, shucks!" exclaimed Lancaster, scowling.
But Dallas was leaning forward, interested. "That's on account of our teachers," she said. "There was a school-house up the track, in Texas, and we went to it on the hand-car. Every year we had a different teacher, and all of 'em came from big Eastern places like New Orleans or St. Louis. So—so you see, we kinda got towny from our school-ma'ams."
"One had a gold tooth," put in Marylyn. Her eyes, wide with recollection, were fixed upon Lounsbury.
"But you passed through cities coming north," argued the storekeeper.
"N-n-no," said Dallas, slowly; "we—we skirted 'em."
"What a pity!" He turned to the section-boss.
"Pity!" echoed the latter. "Huh! You save you' pity. My gals is better off ef they don' meet no town hoodlums."
It had been "soldier trash" before; now, it was "town hoodlums." Lounsbury wondered why he had been allowed a second call. He glanced at the girls. There was a sudden shadow on each young face. He changed to the fire, and looked hard at it. How cut off they were! Where was their happiness—except in their home? And could he tell them even that was threatened?
"Not by a long shot!" he vowed. "I'll trust Old Michael."
He set himself to being agreeable, and especially toward the section-boss. He told of the Norwegian at Medicine Mountain, and of the old man who lived with wife and children at the "little bend" up the river; he admired the Navajo blankets, and explained their symbolic figures of men, animals and suns; he leaned back, clasping a knee, and branched into comical stories.
The little shack awoke to unaccustomed merriment. Lancaster warmed to the storekeeper's genial attentions, and burst into frequent guffaws; Dallas and Marylyn followed his every word, breaking in, from time to time, with little gleeful laughs.
But in the midst of it, there came from outside a startling interruption: Shouts, and a loud, pistol-like cracking, powdery swirls over the windows, a frightened lowing, and heavy thumps against the shack.
The noise without produced a change within. Incredibly agile, Lancaster got to a pane. While Dallas, springing up, screened Marylyn, and waited, as if in suspense.
Dark bulks now shot past, pursued by mounted men. And very soon the herd was gone, and all was again quiet. Then followed a moment that was full of embarrassment. Keenly, Lounsbury looked from father to daughter, the one striving to assume an easy air, the other incapable of hiding alarm. All at once, he felt certain they shared Old Michael's information. He determined to tell them that he, too, knew what and whom they feared.
"Expecting someone, Miss Dallas?" he asked tentatively.
The section-boss hastened to answer. "Expectin' nothin'," he snapped. Then, to cut short any further questioning, "Dallas, y' clean forgot them mules t'-day. Lawd help us! y' goin' t' let 'em starve?"
Lounsbury sat quiet, realising that the team was but a pretext. The elder girl found her cloak, picked up a bucket and left the room. Marylyn shrank into the dusk at the hearth-side. Lancaster was hobbling up and down, his crutch-ends digging at the packed dirt of the floor.
The storekeeper, putting aside his determination, went on as though he had not noticed the other's attitude. "The storm was hard on the stock last night. They must 'a' drifted thirty miles with it. Our loss is big, likely. The punchers'll bunch everything on four hoofs and drive 'em into the coulee. Cows'll be out of the wind there, and live on browse till the ground clears."
But as he was talking, the section-boss made himself ready for the cold; before he had finished, the elder man had disappeared.
Lounsbury was thoroughly provoked at the treatment shown him—he was hurt at the plain lack of faith. Again, he considered what course to pursue. Granted the family knew all he could tell them, what would be gained by forcing the fact of his knowledge upon them? Nothing—unless it were more suspicion against himself. And if they were in ignorance—well, it was better than premature care. As before, he decided to remain silent and depend upon the pilot.
He glanced at Marylyn. On her father's departure, she had moved out of the shadow. Now, she was sitting bolt upright, with fingers touching the bench at either side. Her lips were half parted. She was watching Lounsbury wonderingly.
The moment their eyes met, her own fell. She reached to the mantel for a beaded belt, and began work upon it precipitately.
"What is the prairie princess doing?" he asked.
"Making something." She held the belt by one hand to let it slip through the other.
He reached for it. "My! it's pretty! Wish you'd make me a watch-fob like that."
She flushed and dimpled. "I'd like to," she said.
"I'll wear it as an amulet." He gave her back the belt, and their hands touched.
She started nervously.
"Why, Miss Marylyn!" he said gently. "You afraid of me?"
"No." It was whispered.
"Well, you mustn't be." His tone was one that might have been used to a child. "Since I rode here a month ago, I've thought of you folks a lot. I'd like to do a real good turn for you. Perhaps it's because you girls seem so lonely——"
"We're not lonely," she declared. "The Fort's near, and we can hear the band. And pa says there'll be three or four steamers go by next summer."
The storekeeper mentally kicked himself. "The idea of suggesting a thing like that," he growled inwardly, "when she hadn't even thought of it! John Lounsbury, you've got about as much sense as a fool mud-hen."
"And," went on Marylyn, "there's the ladies at Fort Brannon. If pa——" She hesitated.
Lounsbury shook his head, smiling. "Well, I wouldn't count on them, if I were you," he advised, remembering certain experiences of Bismarck belles. "Those women over there are as clannish as crows."
"Yes?" plaintively. She went at her beads again.
"As I was saying," he began once more, "I've thought of you folks a lot. Seemed as if I just had to come down to-day. And I brought you something. See here!" He delved into the side pockets of his coat and pulled out two books.
"O-o-oh!" breathed Marylyn. "Books!"
"All I had, but maybe you'll like 'em. They're love stories."
The shadow beyond the firelight claimed her again.
From the lean-to came the sound of Lancaster's voice. It was shrill with anger. A great sadness came over the storekeeper. "I wish I could come down often and look after things," he said. "You need another man around."
There was a short silence. Then, "Dallas likes the work outside," she answered, very low, "and driving Ben and Betty up and down."
He nodded. "But you?"
"I like to stay in and sew."
"'Stay in and sew,'" he mused. "That takes me back to the States. My dear mother sits by the fire and sews. Ah!"—with big-brotherly tenderness—"I hope you'll never have to do anything harder."
"Dallas won't let me work outside. She says she's the man."
Dallas—the man! Somehow it stung him. And then he heard the elder girl pushing an armful of hay before the eager noses of the mules. He got up quickly. "She is tending to those beasts!" he exclaimed. "Why, if I'd 'a' thought——"
She rose also, a wavering figure in the half light.
He picked up hat and coat, then halted. If he offered his help in the lean-to, what would be his reception? He felt utterly hampered, and began twirling his thumbs like a bashful cowboy. Moreover, Lancaster had been gone a good while. Was his absence a hint for his visitor to go?
The storekeeper went up to Marylyn. "Good-by," he said. "I must be hiking along."
She put a trembling hand in his.
The latch clicked behind them, and the section-boss entered. Again the younger girl started, and consciously.
Lancaster banged the door and looked them over. "Huh!" he snorted meaningly. So—he had misled himself with the idea that Lounsbury had come to pry into the matter of the claim. And all the while, underneath, the storekeeper had had another object!
He jerked at a bench, dropped upon it and flung his crutches down.
The other saw the look and heard the sniff. He believed they arose from the fact that he was still there. "Just going, Lancaster," he said. "So long."
"Good-by, Miss Marylyn. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year." He gave her a hearty smile.
"Good-by." She opened the door for him.
John Lounsbury passed out, regretting that he had been unwelcome; indignant that the section-boss had misjudged his interest in the ownership of the claim. But he would have been astounded if he had known the real nature of the false impression he was leaving with Evan Lancaster; or had read the thoughts of the younger girl, country-reared, unused to the little courtesies of speech and action. For there were two who had misunderstood him that day.
Squaw Charley crouched, dull-eyed, among the dogs. The dark folds of his blanket were drawn tight over his tattered waist. Close around his feet, which were shod in old and cracking moccasins, was tucked his fringed skirt. An empty grain-sack covered his head and shielded his face from the wind. As an icy gust now and then filtered in through the chinks of the stockade wall and swept him, he swayed gently back and forth; while the tailless curs snuggling against him whined in sympathy and fought for a warmer place. For the kennel roof of shingles, put up in one corner of the enclosure as a protection for the pack, had served only, during the week that followed the storm, to prevent the pale beams of the winter sun from reaching the pariah and his dumb companions.
Presently the flap of a near-by lodge was flung aside. An Indian woman emerged and threw a handful of bones toward the shelter. At once Squaw Charley awoke to action. Shedding sack and blanket, he scrambled forward with the half-starved, yelping beasts to snatch his portion.
His bone picked clean of its little, the pariah resumed his crouching seat once more; and the pack closed quietly about him, licking his face and the hands that had cuffed them as, with much turning and shivering, they settled down to sleep.
A warrior stalked proudly past, ignoring both his disgraced brother and the sentries that paced the high board walk at the wall's top. Two Indian lads approached, chattering to each other over the heart-shaped horn tops they were swinging on buckskin strings, and tarried a moment to scoff. Squaw Charley paid no heed to either brave or boys. His face was hidden, his eyes shut. He seemed, like the dogs, to be sleeping.
Of a sudden there came a shrill summons from a distant wigwam, and the pariah sprang up eagerly. Afraid-of-a-Fawn stood in the tepee opening, her evil face with its deep scar thrust forward to look about.
"Skunk!" she shrieked, as he hurried toward her, and her long, black teeth snapped together; "a fire!" Then she spat to cleanse her mouth.
Squaw Charley hastened back to the shingle roof for an armful of fuel. Returning, he entered the wigwam and knelt beneath the smoke-hole. And while he arranged the sticks carefully upon a twist of grass, the aged crone hovered, hawk-like, over him, ready with fist or foot for any lack of haste, or failure with the fire. Not until, with flint and steel, he lighted a strip of spongy wood and thrust it under the dry hay, and a flame leaped up and caught the soot on a hanging kettle, did she leave him and go on a quest for breakfast rations.
The pariah had not dared to lift his eyes from his task while the hag was watching. But now he stole a swift glance toward the back of the lodge, where the maid, Brown Mink, was reclining, and his dull eyes, like the fuel at his knees, leaped into sudden flame. But, with the deftness of a woman, he kept on putting bits of wood into the mounting blaze.
Brown Mink did not look his way. She lay on a slanting frame of saplings held together by a network of thongs. The gay blanket on which she had ridden during the march was folded under her. A buffalo-robe was spread over her bead-wrought leggins and shoes, its hairy side under, its tanned face, which was gaudily painted, uppermost. Festoonings of beads fell from her neck to the top of her richly embroidered skirt, and heavy ear-drops of gilt pushed through the purple-black masses of her hair.
Squaw Charley fed his sight gladly with her loveliness, thankful that she, who once had looked upon him kindly, did not now turn to see his squalor. The blaze was thawing his chilled limbs and fast warming him, the brass pot was singing merrily. He kept his hands gratefully near it, and as, from time to time, the girl held up her arms admiringly to let the firelight shine upon her bracelets and pinchbeck rings, he watched her furtively from half-closed eyes.
But not for long. Afraid-of-a-Fawn soon returned with meat and meal and, cursing, ordered him away.
"Off, Ojibway coward," she cried; "to the dogs. But see that there is wood for to-night's cooking and tomorrow's."
The pariah gave the fire under the kettle a last touch, and slunk out hastily into the snow. The hag pursued him, moving backward and pulling after her the partly dressed hide of a black-tailed deer.
"Make it ready for the cutting-board," she bade, and threw the piece of hard stone for the fleshing so that it split the pariah's cheek.
Squaw Charley took up the hide and dug in the snow for the stone.
A young warrior was lingering at the lodge flap, blowing spirals of kinnikinick. He burst into a laugh. "Ho! ho!" he taunted. "The squaw of a squaw drudges to-day. Ho! ho!"
The crone joined in the laugh. Then, "Standing Buffalo may enter," she said, and respectfully led the way into the wigwam.
The pariah heard, yet did not pause. But when, among the dogs again, he cleaned at the deer hide with short, swift strokes, a light once more flamed up in his dull eyes—a light unlike the one that had burned in them at Brown Mink's fireside.
* * * * *
He was still working diligently, the sack over his head as before, when, about the middle hour of the day, Lieutenant Fraser entered the sliding-panel of the stockade and began to go rapidly from lodge to lodge, as if in search of someone. Seeing the intruder, the dogs about Squaw Charley bounded up, hair bristling and teeth bared.
The outcast laid aside his rubbing-stone and strove to quiet them. But the sudden commotion under the roof had already attracted the young officer. Stooping, he caught a glimpse of The Squaw.
"Oh, there you are!" he exclaimed, and motioned for him to come forth.
When the Indian appeared, the deer-skin in his arms, Lieutenant Fraser pointed toward the entrance. "You come with me," he said, with a gesture in the sign language.
Squaw Charley moved slowly along with him. No one was in sight in the enclosure—no one seemed even to be looking on. But, opposite Brown Mink's lodge, the old woman dashed out, seized the hide with a scream of rage and dashed back again. The next moment, Charley passed through the sliding-panel and took up his march to headquarters.
"So this is your last wild pet, eh, Robert?" said Colonel Cummings, as they entered. He backed up to his stove and surveyed Squaw Charley good-naturedly. "Let me see, now: You've run the scale from a devil's darning-needle to a baby wolf. Next thing, I suppose, you'll be introducing us to a youngish rattlesnake."
Lieutenant Fraser rumpled his hair sheepishly. "But you ought to see the way they're treating him—banging him around as if he were a dog."
"Hm. He certainly doesn't look strong."
"They work him to death, Colonel."
The commanding officer laughed. "A redskin, working, must be a sight for sore eyes!"
"But they don't feed him, sir."
The outcast, wrapped close in his blanket, lifted his pinched face to them.
"How'd it happen I didn't notice this fellow during the march?" inquired the colonel, a trifle suspiciously.
"He was with the squaws when there was anything to do; but when we were on the move, he fell to the rear."
"Didn't try to get away?"
"No; just straggled along."
"Ah. Do you know whether or not he took part in the fight the day we captured them?"
At the question, a swift change came over Squaw Charley. He retreated a little, and bent his head until his chin rested upon his breast.
Lieutenant Fraser threw out his arm in mute reply. No feathers, no paint, no gaudy shirt or bonnet marked the Indian as a warrior.
The elder man approached the silent, shrinking figure not unkindly. "And what do you want me to do for him, Robert?" he asked.
Lieutenant Fraser sprang forward eagerly, his face shining. "He's so quiet and willing, sir—so ready to do anything he's told. I'd be grateful if you thought you could trust him outside the stockade. He could get the odds and ends from the bachelor's mess."
"I'll be hanged! Robert," cried his superior, annoyed. "Most men, just out of West Point, have an eye to killing redskins, not coddling 'em."
The other crimsoned. "I'm sorry you look at it that way, Colonel," he said. "I'm ready to punish or kill in the case of bad ones. But—you'll pardon my saying it—I don't see that it's the duty of an officer to harm a good one."
Squaw Charley raised his head, and shifted timidly from foot to foot.
"Well, Robert," replied Colonel Cummings, quietly, "you still have the Eastern view of the Indian question. However, let me ask you this: Has this man a story, and what is it? For all you know, he may deserve being 'banged around.'"
Lieutenant Fraser was shaking his head in answer, when swift came one from the pariah. He searched in his bosom, under the tattered waist, drew out the rag-wound paper and handed it to the commanding officer.
Very carefully the latter read it, his interest growing with every line. Finally, giving it over to the lieutenant, he smiled at Squaw Charley.
"That tells the tale," he said. "I knew the man that wrote that when I was with Sibley in Minnesota, the summer after the massacre. He's a man that writes the truth. He talks the truth, too, and I wish I had him here, now, so that he could interpret for me."
"Why, sir!" exclaimed the younger man, "it says this chap knows English!"
"By all the gods! Of course it does. Robert, I'll make him my interpreter." The colonel strode up and down in his excitement, pausing only to contend with the other for the paper. "Red Moon," he said at last, motioning the pariah forward, "do you know what I am saying to you?"
Squaw Charley nodded.
"Good! good! This is fortunate. Now we can have a talk with these Sioux." He addressed the Indian again. "And you speak English?" he asked.
There was a second grave nod.
"You shall be my interpreter, Red Moon. You shall have a log house near the scouts, and the Great Father at Washington will pay you. You shall have double rations for yourself and your squaw, and more, if you have papooses. What do you say to that?"
Squaw Charley had not taken his eyes from the other's face for an instant while he was talking. Now, for answer, he shook his head slowly and sadly from side to side.
"Don't want to?" cried the colonel.
"I'll tell you, sir," interposed Lieutenant Fraser, studying the paper, "I don't believe he ever speaks. You'll notice that it says here: 'but he has never.' I can't be sure, but I think the next word is 'spoken.'"
"Vow of silence?"
"Something of the kind. Captain Oliver has been telling me about these bucks that are degraded; and I don't believe that, even if this fellow spoke, the rest of the tribe would treat with us through him."
"That's probably true."
"They've made a squaw of him, sir."
Deep humiliation instantly showed in the pariah's eyes and posture. He looked at Lieutenant Fraser imploringly, and drew his blanket still more closely about him. Then, as, with a sign, he was bidden to put it off, he suddenly let it drop to the floor.
"Great Scott!" cried the colonel. "He's dressed like one!"
"His punishment, sir. And he won't be taken back as a warrior till he does some big deed."
"What does that paper say again? 'Out of the weakness of the flesh he wept under the tortures of the sun-dance.' So that's the cause of his trouble! What did they do to you, Red Moon?"
To reply, Squaw Charley quickly divested himself of the calico waist and turned about. And Colonel Cummings, uttering his horror, traced with tender finger the ragged, ghastly seams that lined the pariah's back.
"Muscles torn loose," he said. "Not old wounds, either." As Squaw Charley resumed waist and blanket, he looked on pityingly.
"I'll give him his freedom," he said, when the outcast stood ready to depart. "He can come and go in the post as he likes. Robert, see that the adjutant understands my order. Now, let him get something to eat in the kitchen."
When Squaw Charley's hunger had disappeared before the enforced, and rather nervous, generosity of Colonel Cummings' black cook, and Lieutenant Fraser had left him, he hurried away from headquarters. Making his way to the sentry line north of Brannon, he gathered firewood along the Missouri until dark.
* * * * *
The lantern had been out for an hour in the cottonwood shack. Father and daughters were asleep. But, at the end of that time, Dallas was suddenly awakened by the sound of loud stamping and rending in the lean-to. Ben and Betty, roused by the fear of something, were plunging and pulling back on their halter-ropes. Startled, her heart beating wildly, the elder girl crept softly to the warped door.
Her father and sister still slept, undisturbed by the noise in the stable, which now quieted as abruptly as it had begun. Dallas heard the team begin to feed again. And from outside the shack there came only a faint rustle. Was it the uncovered meadow-grass of the eaves as the wind brushed gently through it? Or the whisper of moccasins on snow?
* * * * *
Later, when The Squaw entered the sliding panel of the stockade, he crept noiselessly toward the shingle roof. But he was not to gain it unseen. Afraid-of-a-Fawn, who had been looking about for him, hailed him savagely as he neared.
"Wood for the morning fire," she demanded.
By the light streaming out of a near-by lodge she saw that Squaw Charley was looking at her defiantly. She set upon him, cursing and kicking, and drove him before her to the shelter.
"The pig!" she cried. "Running free since the sun was at the centre of the sky, and yet not a stick! May a thousand devils take the coward! He quakes like an aspen!"
Squaw Charley was indeed trembling, but only with the cold, and soon, under the shingle roof, the snuggling dogs would warm him. Blows and abuse counted nothing this night. He was fed; freedom was his; and he had paid a debt of gratitude.
FROM DODGE CITY
"Dad, what's the day after to-morrow?"
Evan Lancaster pursed out his mouth and thoughtfully contemplated his elder daughter.
"Ah c'd figger it out," he declared after a puzzled silence, "ef Ah had th' almanac." He hunted about, found the pamphlet and began to study the December page. "Trouble is," he said at last, "Ah don' know no day t' figger fr'm—Ah los' track 'way back yonder at th' fore part o' th' month. 'Sides, Ah kain't say whether this is Tuesday er Wednesday er Thursday. Mar'lyn, d' you remember w'at day o' th' week it is?"
Marylyn left the farther window and walked slowly forward. As she halted beside her sister, the latter put an arm about her tenderly and drew her close. A change had recently come over the younger girl—a change that Dallas had not failed to see, yet had utterly failed to understand. Marylyn still performed her few tasks about the house, but with absent-minded carelessness. Her work done, she took up the long-neglected vigil at the windows, spending many quiet, and seemingly purposeless, hours there—all unmindful that the beaded belt lay dusty and unfinished on a shelf. Only by fits and starts was the shack enlivened by her happy chatter. At all other times, she was wistful and distrait. Now, as she answered her father, a faltering light crept into her eyes.
"The last time Mr. Lounsbury was here," she said, hesitatingly, "it was the 6th, and to-day is——"
"Ah c'n git it," the section-boss interrupted. After a moment's tallying on his fingers, he sat back and clapped his knees in excitement. "W'y, Dallas!" he cried, "th' day after t'-morrow's the end o' thet man's six months!"
Dallas released Marylyn. "Yes," she said, watching the younger girl wander back mechanically to the post she had forsaken; "and to-morrow you ought to start for Bismarck. Maybe it wouldn't matter if you waited a while before going; but as long as the weather's good, I think you ought to go right off."
"Ah reckon," he replied, but not heartily.
And so, once more preparations for a trip were made. That night, when all was ready, and Dallas and her father, having given the team a late feed, were leaving the stable together, she spoke to him of her sister.
"There's just one thing that worries me about your leaving," she said. "I don't know if you've noticed it or not, but Marylyn don't seem to be feeling good."
"Y' think mebbe she takes after her ma?" ventured the section-boss.
"No, no," he said, "she favours me, an' they's no need t' fret. They's nothin' th' matter with her—jus' off her oats a leetle, thet's all."
The developments of the next morning swept every thought from Dallas' mind save those concerning the journey. For, when it came time to harness the mules, she found that Ben had unaccountably gone lame. Whether his mate had kicked him, or whether he had sprained a leg while exercising the previous afternoon, she did not know. But it was plain that, as far as he went, the miles between quarter-section and land-office were impossible. At once, Dallas suggested that Betty be driven single to a small pung that had been built for water-hauling when the well froze up. Accordingly, the mule was put before the sleigh. Failure resulted. Though both Dallas and her father alternately coaxed and scolded, Betty, with characteristic stubbornness, refused to budge a rod from the lean-to without Ben.
Dallas was in despair. "She won't go, she won't go," she said. "We've got to think of some other way."
"Yestiddy," observed the section-boss, as he unfastened the tugs, "y' said it wouldn' matter ef Ah didn' go now." He was somewhat complacent over the outcome of the hitch-up.
"I don't feel that way now," asserted Dallas.
"Thet ol' man up at th' leetle ben' has hosses," he volunteered when they were again within the shack.
"He took 'em to Clark's two months ago, and walked back."
"Wal, how 'bout th' Norwegian over by th' Mountain?"
"He keeps oxen. If a blizzard came up, they'd never lead you out of it." Then she was moved to make a suggestion which she felt certain, however, would only be denounced. "There are hundreds of horses and mules at Brannon. I could ask there for a team."
Instantly Lancaster's ire was roused. "Thet's all Ah want t' hear fr'm you 'bout them damned Yankees," he said hotly. "An' Ah want y' t' remember it."
"But you're wrong, dad."
"Eh?" He turned upon her in amazed disgust.
"You're wrong," she repeated gently. "We oughtn't to treat the soldiers as if they was enemies. Some day we'll be in danger here——"
"And then we'll have to take their help."
He began to hobble up and down, working himself into a white heat. "'S long as Ah live on this claim," he said, "Ah'll never go t' Brannon fer anythin', an' they'll be no trottin' back an' forth. Thet ornery trash over thar is th' same, most of it, thet fought th' South, jus' a few years ago. Ah kain't forget thet. An' not one of 'em'll ever set a foot in this house."
After more hobbling, he burst forth again. "Ah tell y', Dallas, Ah won't hev' you gals meetin' them no-'count soldiers——"
She smiled at him. "We don't want to meet any soldiers," she answered. "But there are women at the Fort—women like mother. It seems a shame we can't know them."
"Y' mother raised y' t' be's fine a lady as any of 'em over thar!"
"Maybe that's true. If it is, then they'd like us, wouldn't they? and we could have friends. I'm not thinking about myself—just about Marylyn."
"You gals got each other. Meetin' th' women at Brannon means meetin' th' men. An' Ah won't hev it!" His voice rose almost to a shout.
"I'll never speak to you about it again," she said. And her quiet acceptance mollified him.
"M' gal, y' kain't think how Ah feel about them Yanks," he went on tremulously. "An' Ah want y' t' promise me thet whether Ah'm 'live er dead, y' 'll allus keep on you' own side of th' river."
She glanced up at him quickly. "Do you mean that, daddy?" she asked, using the name he had borne in her babyhood.