WHERE THE TRAIL DIVIDES
By WILL LILLIBRIDGE
Author of "BEN BLAIR," Etc.
With Frontispiece in Colors By The Kinneys
V. THE LAND OF LICENCE
VI. THE RED MAN AND THE WHITE
VII. A GLIMPSE OF THE UNKNOWN
VIII. THE SKELETON WITHIN THE CLOSET
IX. THE VOICE OF THE WILD
X. THE CURSE OF THE CONQUERED
XI. THE TREE OF KNOWLEDGE
XII. WITHIN THE CONQUEROR'S OWN COUNTRY
XIII. THE MYSTERY OF SOLITUDE
XIV. FATE, THE SATIRIST
XV. THE FRUIT OF THE TREE OF KNOWLEDGE
XVI. THE RECKONING
XIX. IN SIGHT OF GOD ALONE
The man was short and fat, and greasy above the dark beard line. In addition, he was bowlegged as a greyhound, and just now he moved with a limp as though very footsore. His coarse blue flannel shirt, open at the throat, exposed a broad hairy chest that rose and fell mightily with the effort he was making. And therein lay the mystery. The sun was hot—with the heat of a cloudless August sun at one o'clock of the afternoon. The country he was traversing was wild, unbroken—uninhabited apparently of man or of beast. Far to his left, just visible through the dancing heat rays, indistinct as a mirage, was a curling fringe of green trees. To his right, behind him, ahead of him was not a tree nor a shrub nor a rock the height of a man's head; only ungrazed, yellowish-green sun-dried prairie grass. The silence was complete. Not even a breath of wind rustled the grass; yet ever and anon the man paused glanced back the way he had come, listened, his throat throbbing with the effort of repressed breathing, in obvious expectation of a sound he did not hear; then, for the time relieved, forged ahead afresh, one hand gripping the butt of an old Springfield rifle slung over his shoulder, the other, big, unclean, sunbrowned, swinging like a pendulum at his side.
Ludicrous, unqualifiedly, the figure would have been in civilisation, humorous as a clown in a circus; but seeing it here, solitary, exotic, no observer would have laughed. Fear, mortal dogging fear, impersonate, supreme, was in every look, every action. Somewhere back of that curved line where met the earth and sky, lurked death. Nothing else would have been adequate to arouse this phlegmatic human as he was now aroused. The sweat oozed from his thick neck in streams and dripped drop by drop from the month-old stubble which covered his chin, but apparently he never noticed it. Now and then he attempted to moisten his lips; but his tongue was dry as powder, and they closed again, parched as before.
No road nor trail, nor the semblance of a trail, marked the way he was going; the hazy green fringe far to the east was his only landmark; yet as hour after hour went by and the sun sank lower and lower he never halted, never seemed in doubt as to his destination. The country was growing more rolling now, almost hilly, and he approached each rise cautiously, vigilantly. Once, almost at his feet a covey of frightened prairie chickens sprang a-wing, and at the unexpected sound he dropped like a stone in his tracks, all but concealing himself in the tall grass; then, reassured, he was up again, plodding doggedly, ceaselessly on.
It was after sundown when he paused; and then only from absolute physical inability to go farther. Outraged nature had at last rebelled, and not even fear could suffice longer to stimulate him. The grass was wet with dew, and prone on his knees he moistened his lips therefrom as drinks many another of the fauna of the prairie. Then, flat on his back, not sleeping, but very wide awake, very watchful, he lay awaiting the return of strength. Upon the fringe of hair beneath the brim of his hat the sweat slowly dried; then, as the dew gathered thicker and thicker, dampened afresh. Far to the east, where during the day had appeared the fringe of green, the sky lightened, almost brightened; until at last, like a curious face, the full moon, peeping above the horizon, lit up the surface of prairie.
At last—and ere this the moon was well in the sky—the man arose, stretched his stiffened muscles profanely—before he had not spoken a syllable—listened a moment almost involuntarily, sent a swift, searching glance all about; then moved ahead, straight south, at the old relentless pace.
* * * * *
The lone ambassador from the tiny settlement of Sioux Falls vacillated between vexation and solicitude.
"For the last time I tell you; we're going whether you do or not," he announced in ultimatum.
Samuel Rowland, large, double-chinned, distinctly florid, folded his arms across his chest with an air of finality.
"And I repeat, I'm not going. I'm much obliged to you for the warning. I know your intentions are good, but you people are afraid of your own shadows. I know as well as you do that there are Indians in this part of the world, some odd thousands of them between here and the Hills, but they were here when I came and when you came, and we knew they were here. You expect to hear from a Dane when you buy tickets to 'Hamlet,' don't you?"
The other made a motion of annoyance.
"If you imagine this is a time for juggling similes," he returned swiftly, "you're making the mistake of your life. If you were alone, Rowland, I'd leave you here to take your medicine without another word; but I've a wife, too, and I thank the Lord she's down in Sioux City where Mrs. Rowland and the kid should be, and for her sake—"
"I beg your pardon."
The visitor started swiftly to leave, then as suddenly turned back.
"Good God, man!" he blazed; "are you plumb daft to stickle for little niceties now? I tell you I just helped to pick up Judge Amidon and his son, murdered in their own hayfield not three miles from here, the boy as full of arrows as a cushion of pins. This isn't ancient history, man, but took place this very day. It's Indian massacre, and at our own throats. The boys are down below the falls getting ready to go right now. By night there won't be another white man or woman within twenty-five miles of you. It's deliberate suicide to stand here arguing. If you will stay yourself, at least send away Mrs. Rowland and the girl. I'll take care of them myself and bring them back when the government sends some soldiers here, as it's bound to do soon. Listen to reason, man. Your claim won't run away; and if someone should jump it there's another just as good alongside. Pack up and come on."
Of a sudden, rough pioneer as he was, his hat came off and the tone of vexation left his voice. Another actor, a woman, had appeared upon the scene.
"You know what I'm talking about, Mrs. Rowland," he digressed. "Take my advice and come along. I'll never forgive myself if we leave you behind."
"You really think there's danger, Mr. Brown?" she asked unemotionally.
"Danger!" In pure impotence of language the other stared. "Danger, with Heaven knows how many hostile Sioux on the trail! Is it possible you two don't realise things as they are?"
"Yes, I think we realise all right," tolerantly. "I know the Tetons are hostile; they couldn't well be otherwise. Any of us would rebel if we were hustled away into a corner like naughty little boys, as they are; but actual danger—" The woman threw a comprehensive, almost amused glance at the big man, her husband. "We've been here almost two years now; long before you and the others came. Half the hunters who pass this way stop here. It wasn't a month ago that a party of Yanktons left a whole antelope. You ought to see Baby Bess shake hands with some of those wrinkled old bucks. Danger! We're safer here than we would be in Sioux City."
"But there's been massacre already, I tell you," exploded the other. "I don't merely surmise it. I saw it with my own eyes."
"There must have been some personal reason then." Mrs. Rowland glanced at the restless, excited speaker analytically, almost superciliously. "Indians are like white people. They have their loves and hates the same as all the rest of us. Sam and I ran once before when everyone was going, and when we got back not a thing had been touched; but the weeds had choked our corn and the rabbits eaten up our garden. We've been good to the Indians, and they appreciate it."
A moment Brown hesitated impotently; then of a sudden he came forward swiftly and extended his hand, first to one and then to the other.
"Good-bye, then," he halted. "I can't take you by force, and it's pure madness to stay here longer." Baby Elizabeth, a big-eyed, solemn-faced mite of humanity, had come up now and stood staring the stranger silently from the side of her mother's skirts. "I hope for the best, but before God I never expect to see any of you again."
"Oh, we'll see you in the fall all right—when you return," commented Rowland easily; but the other made no reply, and without a backward glance started at a rapid jog trot for the tiny settlement on the river two miles away.
Behind him, impassive-faced Rowland stood watching the departing frontiersman steadily, the pouches beneath his eyes accentuated by the tightened lids.
"I don't believe there's a bit more danger here now than there ever was," he commented; "but there's certainly an unusual disturbance somewhere. I don't take any stock in the people down at the settlement leaving—they'd go if they heard a coyote whistle; but Brown tells me there've been three different trappers from Big Stone gone through south in the last week, and when they leave it means something. If you say the word we'll leave everything and go yet."
"If we do we'll never come back."
"Yes. I'm either afraid of these red people or else I'm not. We went before because the others went. If we left now it would be different. We'd be tortured day and night if we really feared—what happens now and then to some. We came here with our eyes wide open. We can't start again in civilisation. We're too old, and there's the past—"
"You still blame me?"
"No; but we've chosen. Whatever comes, we'll stay." She turned toward the rough log shanty unemotionally.
"Come, let's forget it. Dinner's waiting and baby's hungry."
A moment Rowland hesitated, then he, too, followed.
"Yes, let's forget it," he echoed slowly.
* * * * *
"Well, in Heaven's name!" Rowland's great bulk was upon its feet, one hand upon the ever-ready revolver at his hip, the dishes on the rough pine dining table clattering with the suddenness of his withdrawal. "Who are you, man, and what's the trouble? Speak up—"
The dishevelled intruder within the narrow doorway glanced about the interior of the single room with bloodshot eyes.
His great mouth was a bit open and his swollen tongue all but protruded.
"Water!" The word was scarce above a whisper.
"But who are you?"
"Water!" fiercely, insistently.
Of a sudden he spied a wooden pail upon a shelf in the corner, and without invitation, almost as a wild beast springs, he made for it, grasped the big tin dipper in both hands; drank measure after measure, the overflow trickling down his bare throat and dripping onto the sanded floor.
"God, that's good!" he voiced. "Good, good!"
After that first involuntary movement Rowland did not stir; but at his side the woman had risen, and behind her, peering around the fortress of her skirts as when before she had argued with Frontiersman Brown, stood the little wide-eyed girl, type of the repressed frontier child.
Back to them came the stranger, his great jowl working unconsciously.
"You are Sam Rowland?" he enunciated thickly.
"The settlement hasn't broken up then?"
"Why do you ask?"
"Is it possible that you don't know, that they don't know?" Involuntarily he seized his host by the arm. "I've heard of you; you live two miles out. We've no time to lose. Come, don't stop to save anything."
Rowland straightened. The other smelled evilly of perspiration.
"Come where? Who are you anyway, and what's the matter? Talk so I can understand you."
"You don't know that the Santees are on the 'big trail'? of the massacre along the Minnesota River?"
"I know nothing. Once more, who are you?"
"Who am I? What does it matter? My name is Hans Mueller. I'm a trapper." Of a sudden he drew back, inspecting his impassive questioner doubtfully, almost unbelievingly. "But come. I'll tell you along the way. You mustn't be here an hour longer. I saw their signal smokes this very morning. They're murdering everyone—men, women, and children. It's Little Crow who started it, and God knows how many settlers they've killed. They chased me for hours, but I had a good horse. It only gave out yesterday; and since then—But come. It's suicide to chatter like this." He turned insistently toward the door. "They may be here any minute."
Rowland and his wife looked at each other. Neither spoke a word; but at last the woman shook her head slowly.
Hans Mueller shifted restlessly.
"Hurry, I tell you," he insisted.
Rowland sat down again deliberately, his heavy double chin folding over his soft flannel shirt.
"Where are you going?" he temporised with almost a shade of amusement.
"Going!" In his unbelief the German's protruding eyes seemed almost to roll from his face. "To the settlement, of course."
"There is no settlement."
Rowland repeated his statement impassively.
"They've—gone?" The tongue had grown suddenly thick again.
"I said so." The look of pity had altered, become almost of scorn.
For a half minute there was silence, inactivity, while despite tan and dirt and perspiration the cheeks of Hans Mueller whitened. The same expression of terror, hopeless, dominant, all but insane, that had been with him alone out on the prairie returned, augmented. Heedless of appearances, all but unconscious of the presence of spectators, he glanced about the single room like a beaten rabbit with the hounds close on its trail. No avenue of hiding suggested itself, no possible hope of protection. The cold perspiration broke out afresh on his forehead, at the roots of his hair, and in absent impotency he mopped it away with the back of a fat, grimy hand.
In pity motherly Mrs. Rowland returned to her seat, indicated another vacant beside the board.
"You'd best sit down and eat a bit," she invited. "You must be hungry as a coyote."
"Eat, now?" Swiftly, almost fiercely, the old terror-restless mood returned. "God Almighty couldn't keep me here longer." He started shuffling for the door. "Stay here and be scalped, if you think I lie. We're corpses, all of us, but I'll not be caught like a beaver in a trap." Again he halted jerkily. "Which way did they go!"
Lower and lower sank Rowland's great chin onto his breast.
"They separated," impassively. "Part went south to Sioux City; part west toward Yankton." Involuntarily his lips pursed in the inevitable contempt of a strong man for one hopelessly weak. "You'd better take a lunch along. It's something of a journey to either place."
Swift as the suggestion, Mrs. Rowland, with the spontaneous hospitality of the frontier, was upon her feet. Into a quaint Indian basket of coloured rushes went a roast grouse, barely touched, from the table. A loaf of bread followed: a bottle of water from the wooden pail in the corner. "You're welcome, friend," she proffered.
Hans Mueller hesitated, accepted. A swift moisture dimmed his eyes.
"Thanks, lady," he halted. "You're good people, anyway. I'm sorry—" He lifted his battered hat, shuffled anew toward the doorway. "Good-bye."
Impassive as before, Rowland returned to his neglected dinner.
"No wonder the Sioux play us whites for cowards, and think we'll run at sight of them," he commented.
Mrs. Rowland, standing motionless in the single exit through which Mueller had gone, did not answer.
"Better come and finish, Margaret," suggested her husband.
Again there was no answer, and Rowland, after eating a few mouthfuls, pushed back his chair. Even then she did not speak, and, rising, the man made his way across the room to put an arm with rough affection around his wife's waist.
"Are you, too, scared at last?" he voiced gently.
The woman turned swiftly and, in action almost unbelievable after her former unemotional certainty, dropped her head to his shoulder.
"Yes, I think I am a bit, Sam. For baby's sake I wish we'd gone too; but now,"—her arms crept around his neck, closed,—"but now—now it's too late!"
For a long minute, and another, the man did not stir but involuntarily his arms had tightened until, had she wished, the woman could not have turned. He had been looking absently out the door, south over the rolling country leading to the deserted settlement.
In the distance, perhaps a quarter of a mile away, Hans Mueller was still in sight, skirting the base of a sharp incline. Through the trembling heat waves he seemed a mere moving dark spot; like an ant or a spider on its zigzag journey. The grass at the base of the rise was rank and heavy, reaching almost to the waist of the moving figure. Rowland watched it all absently, meditatively; as he would have watched the movement of a coyote or a prairie owl, for the simple reason that it was the only visible object endowed with life, and instinctively life responds to life. The words of his wife just spoken, "It is too late," with the revelation they bore, were echoing in his brain. For the first time, to his mind came a vague unformed suggestion, not of fear, but near akin, as to this lonely prairie wilderness, and the red man its child. In a hazy way came the question whether after all it were not foolhardy to remain here now, to dare that invisible, intangible something before which, almost in panic, the others had fled. To be sure, precedent was with him, logic; but—of a sudden—but a minute had passed—his arms tightened; involuntarily he held his breath. Hans Mueller had been moving on and on; another half minute and he would have been behind the base of the hill out of sight; when, as from the turf at one's feet there springs a-wing a covey of prairie grouse, from the tall grass about the retreating figure there leaped forth a swarm of other similar dark figures: a dozen, a score—in front, behind, all about. Apparently from mother earth herself they had come, autochthonous. Almost unbelieving, the spectator blinked his eyes; then, as came swift understanding, instinctively he shielded the woman in his arms from the sight, from the knowledge. Not a sound came to his ears from over the prairie: not a single call for help. That black swarm simply arose, there was a brief, sharp struggle, almost fantastic through the curling heat waves; then one and all, the original dark figure, the score of others, disappeared—as suddenly as though the earth from which they came had swallowed them up. Look as he might, the spectator could catch no glimpse of a moving object, except the green-brown grass carpet glistening under the afternoon sun.
Yet a moment longer the man stood so; then, his own face as pale as had been that of coward Hans Mueller, he leaned against the lintel of the door.
"Yes, we're too late now, Margaret," he echoed.
The log cabin of Settler Rowland, as a landmark, stood forth. Barred it was—the white of barked cotton-wood timber alternating with the brown of earth that filled the spaces between—like the longitudinal stripes of a prairie gopher or on the back of a bob-white. Long wiry slough grass, razor-sharp as to blades, pungent under rain, weighted by squares of tough, native sod, thatched the roof. Sole example of the handiwork of man, it crowned one of the innumerable rises, too low to be dignified by the name of hill, that stretched from sky to sky like the miniature waves on the surface of a shallow lake. Back of it, stretching northward, a vivid green blot, lay a field of sod corn: the ears already formed, the ground whitened from the lavishly scattered pollen of the frayed tassels. In the dooryard itself was a dug well with a mound of weed-covered clay by its side and a bucket hanging from a pulley over its mouth. It was deep, for on this upland water was far beneath the surface, and midway of its depth, a frontier refrigerator reached by a rope ladder, was a narrow chamber in which Margaret Rowland kept her meats fresh, often for a week at a time. For another purpose as well it was used: a big basket with a patchwork quilt and a pillow marking the spot where Baby Rowland, with the summer heat all about, slept away the long, sultry afternoons.
Otherwise not an excrescence marred the face of nature. The single horse Rowland owned, useless now while his crop matured, was breaking sod far to the west on the bank of the Jim River. Not a live thing other than human moved about the place. With them into this land of silence had come a mongrel collie. For a solitary month he had stood guard; then one night, somewhere in the distance, in the east where flowed the Big Sioux, had sounded the long-drawn-out cry of a timber wolf, alternately nearer and more remote, again and again. With the coming of morning the collie was gone. Whether dead or answering the call of the wild they never knew, nor ever filled his place.
Lonely, isolated as the place itself, was Sam Rowland that afternoon of late August. Silent as a mute was he as to what he had seen; elaborately careful likewise to carry out the family programme as usual.
"Sleepy, kid?" he queried when dinner was over.
Baby Bess, taciturn, sun-browned autocrat, nodded silent corroboration.
"Come, then," and, willing horse, the big man got clumsily to all fours and, prancing ponderously, drew up at her side.
"Hang tight," he admonished and, his wife smiling from the doorway as only a mother can smile, ambled away through the sun and the dust; climbed slowly, the tiny brown arms clasped tightly about his neck, down the ladder to the retreat, adjusted the pillow and the patchwork quilt with a deftness born of experience.
"Go to sleepy, kid," he directed.
"Sing me to sleep, daddy," commanded the autocrat.
"Sing! I can't sing, kid."
"Yes, you can. Sing 'Nellie Gray.'"
"Too hot, girlie. My breath's all gone. Go to sleep."
"Please, papa; pretty please!"
The man succumbed, as he knew from the first he would do, braced himself in the aperture, and sang the one verse that he knew of the song again and again—his voice rough and unmusical as that of a crow, echoing and re-echoing in the narrow space—bent over at last, touched his bearded lips softly to the winsome, motionless brown face, climbed, an irresistible catch in his breath, silently to the surface, sent one swift glance sweeping the bare earth around him, and returned to the cabin.
Very carefully that sultry afternoon he cleaned his old hammer shotgun, and, loading both barrels with buckshot, set it handy beside the door.
"Antelope," he explained laconically; but when likewise he overhauled the revolver hanging at his hip, Margaret was not deceived. This done, notwithstanding the fact that the sun still beat scorchingly hot thereon, he returned to the doorstep, lit his pipe, drew his weather-stained sombrero low over his face, through half-closed eyes inspected the lower lands all about, impassively silent awaited the coming of the inevitable. Of a sudden there was a touch on his shoulder, and, involuntarily starting, he looked up, into the face of Margaret Rowland.
The woman sat down beside him, her hand on his knee.
"Don't keep it from me," she requested steadily. "You've seen something."
In the brier bowl before his face the tobacco glowed more brightly as Rowland drew hard.
"Tell me, please," repeated Margaret. "Are they here?"
The pipe left the man's mouth. The great bushy head nodded reluctant corroboration.
"Yes," he said.
Again the man's head spoke an affirmative. "It's perhaps as well, after all, for you to know." One hand indicated the foot of the rise before them. "They waylaid Mueller there."
"It was all over in a second." Puff, puff. "After all he—Margaret!"
"Don't mind me. I was thinking of baby. The hideous suggestion!"
"Margaret!" He held her tight, so tight he could feel the quiver of her body against his, the involuntary catch of her breath. "Forgive me, Margaret."
"You're not to blame. Perhaps—Oh, Sam, Sam, our baby!"
Hotter and hotter beat down the sun. Thicker and thicker above the scorching earth vibrated the curling heat waves. The very breath of prairie seemed dormant, stifled. Not the leaf of a sunflower stirred, or a blade of grass. In the tiny patch of Indian corn each individual plant drooped, almost like a sensate thing, beneath the rays, each broad leaf contracted, like a roll of parchment, tight upon the parent stalk. In sympathy the colour scheme of the whole lightened from the appearance of the paler green under-surface. Though silently, yet as plainly as had done Hans Mueller when fighting for life, they lifted the single plea: "Water! Water! Give us drink!"
Silent now, the storm over, side by side sat the man and the woman; like children awed by the sudden realisation of their helplessness, their hands clasped in mute sympathy, mute understanding. Usually at this time of day with nothing to do they slept; but neither thought of sleep now. As passed the slow time and the sun sank lower and lower, came the hour of supper; but likewise hunger passed them by. Something very like fascination held them there on the doorstep, gazing out, out at motionless impassive nature, at the seemingly innocent earth that nevertheless concealed so certain a menace, at the patch of sod corn again in cycle growing darker as the broad leaves unfolded in preparation for the dew of evening. Out, out they looked, out, out—.
"You saw, too?"
An answering pressure of the hand.
"The eyes of him, only the eyes—out there at the edge of the corn!"
"It's the third time, Margaret." Despite the man's effort his breath tightened. "They're all about: a score at least—I don't know how many. The tall grass there to the east is alive—"
"Sam! They're there again—the eyes! Oh, I'm afraid—Sam—baby!"
"Hush! Leave her where she is. Don't seem afraid. It's our only chance. Let them make the first move." Again the hand pressure so tight that, although she made no sound, the blood left the woman's fingers. "Tell me you forgive me, Margaret; before anything happens. I'm a criminal to have stayed here,—I see it now, a criminal!"
"But I must. Tell me you forgive me. Tell me."
"I love you, Sam."
Again in the expanse of grass to the east there was motion; not in a single spot but in a dozen places. No living being was visible, not a sound broke the stillness of evening; simply here and there it stirred, and became motionless, and stirred again.
"And—Margaret. If worst comes to worst they mustn't take either of us alive. The last one—I can't say it. You understand."
"Yes, I understand. The last load—But maybe—"
"It's useless to deceive ourselves. They wouldn't come this way if—Margaret, in God's name—"
"But baby, Sam!" Of a sudden she was struggling fiercely beneath the grip that kept her back. "I must have her, must see her again; must, must—"
"I must, I say!"
"You must not. They'll never find her there. She's safe unless we show the way. Think—as you love her."
"But if anything should happen to us—She'll starve!"
"No. There are soldiers at Yankton, and they'll come—now; and Landor knows."
"Oh, Sam, Sam!"
There was silence. No human being could give answer to that mother wail.
Again time passed; seconds that seemed minutes, minutes that were a hell of suspense. Below the horizon of prairie the sun sank from sight. In the hot air a bank of cumulus clouds glowed red as from a distant conflagration. For and eternity previous it seemed to the silent watchers there had been no move; now again at last the grass stirred; a corn plant rustled where there was no breeze; out into the small open plat surrounding the house sprang a frightened rabbit, scurried across the clearing, headed for the protecting grass, halted at the edge irresolute—scurried back again at something it saw.
"You had best go in, Margaret." The man's voice was strained, unnatural. "They'll come very soon now. It's almost dark."
"And you?" Wonder of wonders, it was the woman's natural tone!
"I'll stay here. I can at least show them how a white man dies."
"Sam Rowland—my husband!"
"Margaret—my wife!" Regardless of watchful savage eyes, regardless of everything, the man sprang to his feet. "Oh, how can you forgive me, can God forgive me!" Tight in his arms he kissed her again and again; passionately, in abandon. "I've always loved you, Margaret; always, always!"
"And I you, man; and I you!"
* * * * *
It came. As from the darkness above drops the horned owl on the field mouse, as meet the tiger and the deer at the water hole, so it came. Upon the silence of night sounded the hoarse call of a catbird where no bird was, and again, and again. In front of the maize patch, always in front, a dark form, a mere shadow in the dusk of evening, stood out clear against the light of sky. To right and left appeared others, as motionless as boulders, or as giant cacti on the desert. Had Settler Rowland been other than the exotic he was, he would have understood. No Indian exposes himself save for a purpose; but he did not understand. Erect now, his finger on the trigger of the old smoothbore, he waited passive before the darkened doorway of the cabin, looking straight before him, God alone knows what thoughts whirling in his brain. Again in front of him sounded and resounded the alien call. The dark figures against the sky took life, moved forward. Simultaneously, on the thatch of the cabin roof, appeared two other figures identical with those in front. Foot by foot, silent as death, they climbed up, reached the ridge pole, crossed to the other side. On, on advanced the figures in front. Down the easy incline of the roof came the two in the rear, reached the edge, paused waiting. Of a sudden, out of the maize patch, out of the grass, seemingly out of space itself, came a new cry—the trilling call of the prairie owl. It was the signal. Like twin drops of rain from a cloudless sky fell the two figures on Rowland's head; ere he could utter a sound, could offer resistance, bore him to earth. From somewhere, everywhere, swarmed others. The very earth seemed to open and give them forth in legion. In the multitude of hands he was as a child. Within the space of seconds, ere waiting Margaret realised that anything had happened, he had disappeared, all had disappeared. In the clearing before the door not a human being was visible, not a live thing; only on the thatched roof, silent as before, patient as fate, awaited two other shadows, darker but by contrast with the weather-coloured grass.
Minutes passed. Not even the call of the catbird, broke the silence. Within the darkness of the cabin the suspense was a thing of which insanity is made.
"Sam!" called a voice softly.
"Sam!" repeated more loudly.
Again no answer of voice or of action.
In the doorway appeared a woman's figure; breathless, blindly fearful.
"Sam!" for the third time, tremulous, wailing; and she stepped outside.
A second, and it was over. A second, and the revel was on. The earth was not silent now. There was no warning trill of prairie owl. As dropped the figures from above there broke forth the Sioux war-cry: long drawn out, demoniac, indescribable. Blood curdling, more savage infinitely than the cry of any wild beast, the others took it up, augmented it by a score, a hundred throats. Again the earth vomited the demons forth. Naked, breech-clouted, garbed in fragments of white men's dress, they swarmed into the clearing, into the cabin, about the two prisoners in their midst. Passively, patiently waiting for hours, of a sudden they seemed possessed of a frenzy of haste, of savage abandon, of drunken exhilaration in the cunning that had won the game without a shot from the white man's gun, without the injury of a single warrior. They were in haste, and yet they were not in haste. They looted the cabin like fire and then fought among themselves for the plunder. They applied the torch to the shanty's roof as though pressed by the Great Spirit; then capered fiendishly in its illumination, oblivious of time until, tinder dry, it had burned level with the earth. Last of all, purposely reserved as a climax, they gave their attention to the pair of half-naked, bound and gagged figures in their midst. Then it was the scene became an orgy indeed. The havoc preceding had but whetted their appetite for the finale. Savagery personified, cruelty unqualified, deadly hate, primitive lust—every black passion lurking in the recesses of the human mind stalked brazenly into the open, stood forth defiant, sinister, unashamed. But let it pass. It was but a repetition of a thousand similar scenes enacted on the swiftly narrowing frontier, a fraction of the price civilisation ever pays to savagery, inevitable as a nation's expansion, as its progression.
It was eight of the clock when came that final warning whistle of prairie owl. It was not yet ten when, silent as they had come, unbelievably impassive when but an hour before they had been irresponsible madmen, temporarily cruelty-surfeited, they resumed their journey. Single file, each footstep of those who followed fair in the print of the leader, a long, long line of ghostly, undulatory shadows, forming the most treacherous deadly serpent that ever inhabited earth, they moved eastward until they reached the bank of the swift little river; then turned north, leaving the abandoned, desolated settlement, the ruined cornfields, as tokens of their handiwork, as a message to other predatory bands who might follow, as a challenge to the white man who they knew would return. As passed the slow hours toward morning they moved swiftly and more swiftly. The gliding walk became a dog trot, almost a lope; their arms swung back and forth in unison, the pat, pat of their moccasined feet was like the steady drip of eaves from a summer rain, the rustle of their passing bodies against the dense vegetation a soft accompaniment. Autochthonous as they had appeared they disappeared. Night and distance swallowed them up. But for a trampled, ruined grainfield, the smouldering ruins of what had once been a house, the glaring white of two naked bodies in the starlight against the background of dark earth, it was as though they had not come. But for this, and one other thing—a single sound, repeated again and again, dulled, muffled as though coming from the earth itself.
"Daddy! Daddy! I want you." Then repeated with a throb in its depths that spoke louder than words. "Daddy, come! I'm afraid!"
More than a mere name was Fort Yankton. Original in construction, as necessity ever induces the unusual, it was nevertheless formidable. To the north was a typical entrenchment with a ditch, and a parapet eight feet high. To the east was a double board wall with earth tamped between: a solid curb higher than the head of a tall man. Completing the square, to the south and west stretched a chain of oak posts set close together and pierced, as were the other walls of the stockade, by numerous portholes. Within the enclosure, ark of refuge for settlers near and afar, was a large blockhouse wherein congregated, mingled and intermingled, ate, slept, and had their being, as diverse a gathering of humans as ever graced a single structure even in this land of myriad types. Virtually the entire population of frontier Yankton was there. Likewise the settlers from near-by Bon Homme. An adventurer from the far-away country of the Wahpetons and a trapper from the hunting ground of the Sissetons drifted in together, together awaited the signal of the peace pipe ere returning to their own. Likewise from the wild west of the great river, from the domain of the Uncpapas, the Blackfeet, the Minneconjous, the Ogallalas, came others; for the alarm of rapine and of massacre had spread afar. Very late to arrive, doggedly holding their own until rumour became reality unmistakable, was the colony from the Jim River valley to the east; but even they had finally surrendered, the dogging grip of fear, that makes high and low brothers, at their throats, had fled precipitately before the conquering onslaught of the Santees. Last of all, boldest of all, most foolhardy of all, as you please, came the tiny delegation from the settlement of Sioux Falls. Hungry, thirsty, footsore, all but panic-stricken, for with the actual retreat apprehension had augmented with each slow mile, thanking the Providence which had permitted them to arrive unmolested, a sorry-looking band of refugees, they faced the old smoothbore cannon before the big south gate and craved admittance. Out to them went Colonel William Landor, colonel by courtesy, scion of many generations of Landors, rancher at present, cattle king of the future. The conversation that followed there with the east reddening in the morning sun was very brief, very swift to the point.
"Who are you, friends?" The shrewd grey eyes were observing them collectively, compellingly.
"My name is McPherson."
"Mine is Horton."
"Never mind the names," shortly. "I can learn them later."
"We're homesteaders." Again it was stubby, sandy-whiskered McPherson who took the lead.
Curt as the question came the answer, the tale of massacre now a day old.
"And the rest of your settlement—where are they?"
McPherson told him.
"They all went, you say?"
For the first time the Scotchman hesitated. "All except one family," he qualified.
"There was but one family there." Landor was not observing the company collectively now. "You mean to tell me Sam Rowland did not go?"
"That you—men here went off and left him and his wife and little girl alone at this time?" The questioner's eyelids were closing ominously. "You come here with that story and ask me to let you inside?"
McPherson was no coward. His short legs spread belligerently, his shoulders squared.
"We're here," he announced laconically.
"I observe." Just a shade closer came the tightened eyelids. "Moreover, strange to say, I'm glad to see you." He leaned forward involuntarily; his breath came quick. "It gives me the opportunity, sir, to tell you to your face that you're a damned coward." In spite of an obvious effort at repression, the great veins of the speaker's throat swelled visibly. "A damned coward, sir!"
"What! You call me—"
"Don't worry." Swift as had come the burst of passion, Landor was himself again; curt, all-seeing, self-sufficient, "There'll be no blood shed." Early as it was, a crowd had collected now, and, as he had done with the newcomers, he addressed them collectively, authoratively. "When I fight it will not be with one who abandons a woman and a child at a time like this.... God! it makes a man's blood boil. I've known the Rowlands for ten years, long before the kid came." Cold as before he had been flaming, he faced anew the travel-stained group. "Out of my sight, every one of you, and thank your coward stars I'm not in command here. If I were, not a man of you would ever get inside this stockade—not if the Santees scalped you before my eyes."
For a second there was silence, inaction.
"But Rowland wouldn't come," protested a voice. "We tried—"
"Not a word. If you were too afraid of your skin to bring them in, there are others who are not." Vital, magnetic, born leader of men, he turned to the waiting spectators. "It may be too late now,—I'm afraid it is; but if Sam Rowland is alive, I'm going to bring him here. Who's with me? Who's willing to make the ride back to Sioux Falls?"
"Who?" It was another rancher, surnamed Crosby, hatchet-faced, slow of speech, who spoke, "Ain't that question a bit superfluous, pard? We're all with you—that is, as many as you want, I reckon. None of us ain't cats, so we can't croak but once—and that might as well be now as ten years from now."
"All right." Hardened frontiersman, Landor took the grammar and the motive alike for granted. "Get your horses and report here. The first twenty to return, go."
From out the group of newcomers one man emerged. It was McPherson.
"Who'll lend me a horse?" he queried.
No man gave answer. Already the group had separated.
For a moment the Scotchman halted, grim-jawed, his legs an inverted V; then silent as they, equally swiftly, he followed.
Very soon, almost unbelievably soon, they began to trickle back. Not in ignorance of possibilities in store did they come. They had no delusions concerning the red brother, these frontiersmen. Nor in the hot adventurous blood of youth did they respond. One and all were middle-aged men; many had families. All save Landor were strangers to the man they went to seek. Yet at a moment's call they responded; as they took it for granted others would respond were they in need. Had they been conscious of the fact, the action was magnificent; but of it they were not conscious. They but answered an instinct: the eternal brotherhood of the frontier. Far away in his well-policed, steam-heated abode urban man listens to the tale of unselfishness, and, supercilious, smiles. We believe what we have ourselves felt, we humans. First of all to come was lean-faced Crosby, one cheek swelled round with a giant quid. Close at his heels followed Trapper Conway: grizzled, parchment-faced veteran, who alone had followed the Missouri to its source and, stranger to relate, had alone returned with his scalp. Then came Landor himself, the wiry little mustang he rode all but blanketed under the big army saddle. Following him, impassive, noncommittal as though an event of the recent past had not occurred, came McPherson, drew up in place beside the leader. All-seeing, Crosby spat appreciatively, but Landor gave never a glance. Following came not one but many riders; a half dozen, a score,—enough to make up the allotment, and again. In silence they came, grim-faced, more grimly accoutred. All manner of horseflesh was represented: the broncho, the mustang, the frontier scrub, the thoroughbred; all manner of apparel, from chaperajos to weather-beaten denim; but, saddled or saddleless, across the neck of every beast stretched the barrel of a long rifle, at the hip of every rider hung a holster, from every belt peeped the hilt of a great knife. Long ere this word of the unusual had passed about, and now, on the rise of ground at the back of the stockade, a goodly group had gathered. Silent as the prairies, as the morning itself, they watched the scene below, awaited the denouement. Not without influence was the taciturn example of the red man in this land from which he was slowly being crowded. From over the uplands to the east the red face of the morning sun was just peeping when Landor separated himself from the waiting group, led the way to the big gate and paused. "Twenty only, men," he repeated. "All ready."
First through the opening went Crosby.
Close as before, at his horse's heels followed Conway.
From out the motley, looking neither to right nor left, came Scotchman McPherson; but though he passed fair before the leader's eyes and not a yard away, no number was spoken; no hint of recognition, of cognisance, crossed the latter's face. Implacable, relentless as time, he awaited the next in line, then voiced the one word: "Three."
On filed the line; close formed as convicts, as convicts silent—halting at a lifted hand. A moment they paused, one and twenty men who counted but as a score, started into motion, halted again; as by common consent every head save one of a sudden going bare. Hitherto silent as they, the watching group back in the stockade had that instant found voice. All but to the ground swept twenty sombreros as out over the prairies, out where no human ear could hear, rolled a cheer, and repeated, and again; tribute of Fort Yankton to those who went. At the rear of the column one rider alone did not respond, apparently did not hear. Implacable as Landor himself, he looked straight before him, awaited the silence that would bring with it renewed activity.
And it came. With a single motion as before, every hat returned to its place, was drawn low over its owner's eyes. From his position by the gate Landor advanced, took the lead. Behind him, impassive again as figures in a spectacle, the others fell in line. At first a mere walk, the pace gradually quickened, became a canter, a trot. By this time the confines of the tiny frontier town were passed. Before them on the one hand, bordering on the river, stretched a range of low hills, dun-brown from its coat of sun-dried grass. On the other, greener by contrast, glittering now in the level rays of the early morning sun on myriad dew-drops, and seemingly endless, unrolled the open prairie. Straight into this Landor led the way, and as he did so the cavalcade for the first time broke into a gallop; not the fierce, short-lived pace of civilisation, but the long-strided, full-lunged lope of the frontier, which accurately and as tirelessly as a clock measures time, counts off the passing miles. Hitherto a preliminary, at last the play was on.
Sixty-odd miles as migrates the sandhill crane, separated the settlements of Yankton and Sioux Falls. Trackless as a desert was the prairie, minus even the buffalo trails of a quarter century before; yet with the sun only as guide, they forged ahead, straight as a line drawn taut from point to point. Nothing stopped their advance, nothing made them turn aside. Seemingly destitute of animal life, the country fairly teemed at their approach. Grouse, typical of the prairie as the blue-faced anemone, were everywhere; singly, in coveys, in flocks. Troops of antelope, startled in their morning feeding, scurried away from the path of the invaders; curious as children, paused on the safety of the nearest rise, to watch the horsemen out of sight. Every marshy spot, every prairie pond, had its setting of ducks. The teal, the mallard, the widgeon, the shoveller, the canvasback—all mingled in the loud-voiced throng that arose before the leader's approach, then, like smoke, vanished with almost unbelievable swiftness into the hazy distance. Prairie dog towns, populous as cities of man a minute before their approach, went lifeless, desolate, as they passed through. In the infrequent draws and creek beds between the low, rolling hills, great-eyed cotton tails scampered to cover or, like the antelope, just out of harm's way, watched the passage of this strange being, man. Wonder of wonders that display of life would have been to another generation; but of it these grim-faced riders were apparently unconscious, oblivious. Their eyes were not for things near at hand, but for the distance, for the possibility that lurked just beyond that far-away rise which formed their horizon, when they had reached that for the next beyond, and the next.
Hour by hour the morning wore away. Hotter and hotter rose the sun above them. Instead of drops of dew, tiny particles of sun-dried grass flew away from beneath the leaders' feet, mingled with the dust of prairie, became a cloud shutting the leaders from the sight of those in the rear. From being a mere breath, the south wind augmented, became positive, insistent. Hot with the latent heat of many days, it sang in their ears as they went, bit all but scorching, at their unprotected hands and throats. Under its touch the horses' necks, dark before with sweat, became normal again: between their legs, under the, edges of the great saddles where it had churned into foam, dried into white powder, like frostwork amid the hair. Gradually with the change, their breathing became audible, louder and louder, until in unison it mingled with the dull impact of their feet on the heavy sod like the exhaust of many engines. No horseman who values the life of the beast between his legs, fails to heed that warning. Landor did not, but at the first dawdling prairie creek that offered water and, with its struggling fringe of willows, a suggestion of shade, he gave the word to halt, and for four mortal, blistering hours while, man and beast alike, the others slept, kept watch over them from the nearest rise. Relentless to others this man might be, but not even his dearest enemy could accuse him of sparing himself.
It was three by the clock when again they took up the trail. It was 3.45 when they swam what is now the Vermilion River, the last water-course of any size on their way. The dew was again beginning to gather when, well to the south, they approached the bordering hills that concealed the site of Sioux Falls settlement. Then for the first time since they began that last relay Landor gave an order.
"It'll be a miracle if we don't find Sioux there in the bottom, men," he prophesied. "Perhaps there are a whole band, perhaps it'll only be stragglers; but no matter how many or how few there may be, charge them. If they run you know what to do—this is no holiday outing. If they stand, charge them all the harder." He faced his horse to the north and gave the word to go. "It's our only chance," he completed.
What followed belongs to history. Over that last intervening rise they went like demons. The first to gain the crown, to look down into the valley beyond, was Landor. As he did so, grim Anglo-Saxon as he was, his whole attitude underwent a transformation. Back to the others he turned his face, and, plain as on canvas thereon was portrayed war, carnage, and the lust of battle.
"They're there; a hundred, if a single red!" he shouted. "Come on!" and the rowels of his great spurs dug deep at his horse's flanks, dug until the blood spurted.
But a few minutes it took to make the run, yet only a fraction of the time that mounted swarm in the valley held their ground. Outnumbering those who charged many times, it was not in savage nature to face that unformed oncoming motley of howling, bloodthirsty maniacs. Slowly at first began the retreat; then as, with great swiftness, the others shortened the distance intervening, it became a contagion, a mania, a stampede. Every brave for himself, stumbling, crowding through the dismantled ruins of what had the day before been a settlement, howling like their pursuers, seeking but one thing, escape, they headed for the thicket surrounding the river bank; the whistle of bullets in their ears, cutting at the vegetation about them. Into its friendly cover they plunged, as a fish disappears beneath the surface of a lake, and were swallowed from sight. That is, all but one. That one, unhorsed by accident, was left to face that oncoming flood. . . . But why linger. Like the charge itself, his fate is history. These men were but human, and thick about them were the ashes from the roof-trees of their friends.
Summer night, dreamy with caress of softest south wind, musical with the drone of myriad crickets, with the boom of frogs from the low land adjoining the river, melancholy with the call of the catbird, with the infrequent note of the whip-poor-will, was upon the land of the Mandans when the score and one, their dripping ponies once more dry, took up the last relay of their journey. Night had caught them there in the deserted settlement, and Landor had given the word to halt, to wait. Now, far to the east, apparently from the breast of Mother Earth herself, the face of the full harvest moon, red as frosted maple leaves through the heated air, slowly rising, lit up the level country softly as by early twilight. Lingeringly, almost reluctantly, Landor got into his saddle. Just to his left, impassive as the night, well to the front of the company as he had been that mortal dragging day, sat Scotchman McPherson. Not once since that early morning scene at Fort Yankton had he spoken a word, not once had he been addressed, had another man shown consciousness of his presence. A pariah, he had so far kept them company; a pariah, he now awaited the end. A moment, fair in his seat, Landor paused; then that which the watchers had expected for hours came to pass. Deliberately he crossed over, drew rein beside the other man.
"McPherson," he said, "this morning I called you coward. That you are not such you have proven, you are proving now. For this reason I ask your pardon. For this reason as well, I give you warning. What we will find—where we are going, I do not doubt, now. I do not believe you doubt. For it I hold you responsible. You had best turn back before belief becomes certainty." Unnaturally precise, cold as November raindrops came the words, the sentences. Deadly in meaning was the pause that followed. "I repeat, you had best turn back."
For a long half minute, face to face there in the moonlight, Landor waited; but no answer came. Just perceptibly he shifted in his place.
"I may forget, give my promise of the morning the lie. Do you understand?"
"Yes, I understand."
Another half minute, ghastly in its significance, passed; then without a word Landor turned. "You have heard, men," he said, "and may God be my judge."
The full moon was well in the sky, showing clear every detail in that scene of desolation, when they arrived. Patter, patter, patter sounded their hoof-beats in the distance. More and more loud they grew, muffled yet penetrating in the silence of night, always augmenting in volume. Out of the shadows figures came dimly into view, taking form against the background of constellations. The straining of leather, the music of steel in bit and buckle, the soft swish of the sun-dried grass proclaimed them very near; then across the trampled corn patch, into the open where had stood the shanty, where now was a thin grey layer of ashes, came the riders, and drew rein; their weary mounts crowding each other in fear at something they saw. Like a storm cloud they came; like the roll of thunder following was the oath which sprang to the lips of every rider save one. Good men they were, God-fearing men; yet they swore like pirates, like humans when ordinary speech is not adequate. In the pause but one man acted, and none intervened to prevent what he did. Out into the open, away from the others, rode Scotchman McPherson; halted, his hand on the holster at his hip. For a second, and a second only, he sat so, the white moonlight drawing clear every line of his grizzled face, his stocky figure. Then deliberately his hand lifted, before him there appeared a sudden blaze of fire, upon the silence there broke a single revolver report, from beneath his lifeless bulk the horse he rode broke free, gave one bound, by instinct halted, trembling in every muscle; then over all, the quick and the dead, returned silence: silence absolute as that of the grave.
How long those twenty men sat there, gazing at that mute, motionless figure on the ground not one could have told. Death was no stranger to them. For years it had lurked behind every chance shrub they passed, in the depths of every ravine, in the darkness of night, from every tangle of rank prairie grass in broad daylight. To it from long familiarity they had become callous; but death such as this, deliberate, cold-blooded, self-inflicted—it awed them while it fascinated, held them silent, passive.
"In God's name!" Again it was Landor who roused them, Landor with his hand on the holster at his hip, Landor who sat staring as one who doubts his own sight. "Am I sane, men? Look, there to your right!"
They looked. They rubbed their eyes and looked again.
"Well, I'll be damned," voiced Crosby; and no man had ever heard him express surprise before. To the north, from the edge of the tall surrounding grass, moving slowly, yet without a trace of hesitation or of fear, coming straight toward them across the trampled earth, were two tiny human figures, hand in hand. No wonder they who saw stared; no wonder they doubted their eyes. One, the figure to the right, was plump and uncertain of step and all in white; white which in the moonlight and against the black earth seemed ghostly. The other was slim and certain of movement and dark—dark as a copper brown Indian boy, naked as when he came on earth. On they came, the brown figure leading, the white following trustfully, until they were quite up to the watchers, halted, still hand in hand.
"How," said a voice, a piping childish voice.
Like rustics at a spectacle the men stared, turned mystified faces each to each, and stared anew. All save one. Off from his horse sprang Landor, caught the bundle of white in his arms.
"Baby Rowland! Baby Bess! And you,"—he was staring the other from head to toe, the distance was short,—"who are you?"
"Uncle Billy," interrupting, ignoring, the tiny bit of femininity nestled close, "Uncle Billy, where's papa and mamma! I want them."
Closer and closer the big bachelor arms clasped their burden; unashamed, there with the others watching him, he kissed her.
"Never mind now, Kiddie. Tell me how you came here, and who this is with you."
About the great neck crept two arms, clinging tightly.
"He just came, Uncle Billy. I was calling for papa. Papa put me to sleep and forgot me. The boy heard me and took me out. I was afraid at first, but—but he's a nice boy, only he won't talk and—and—" The narrative halted, the tousled head buried itself joyously. "Oh, I'm so glad you came, Uncle Billy!"
In silence Landor's eyes made the circle of interested watching faces, returned to the winsome brown face so near his own.
"Aren't you hungry, Kid?" he ventured.
On his shoulder the dark poll shook a negative.
"No. We had corn to eat. The boy roasted it. He made a big fire. He's a nice boy, only—only he won't say anything."
Again Landor's eyes made the circle, halted at the intrepid brown waif who, that first word of greeting spoken, had silently stared him back.
"You're sure you don't know anything more, baby? You didn't hear anything until the boy came?"
"No, Uncle Billy. I was asleep. When I woke up it was dark, and I was hungry and—and—" At last it had come: the spattering, turbulent tear storm. Her small body shook, her arms clasped tighter and tighter. "Oh, Uncle Billy, I want my papa and mamma. I tried to find them, and I couldn't. Please find them for me, Uncle Billy, Please! Please!"
* * * * *
It was well past midnight. The big full moon, high now in the sky, cast their shadows almost about their feet when, their labour complete, the party took up the homeward trail. But there were twenty no longer. At their head as before rode Landor, in his arms not a rifle but a blanket; a blanket from which as they journeyed on came now and anon a sound that was alien indeed: the sobs of a baby girl who wept as she slept. Back of him, likewise as when they had come, rode hatchet-faced Crosby; but he, too, was not as before. His saddle had been removed and, in front of him, astride the horse's bare back, warmed by the animal heat, was a brown waif of a boy; not asleep or even drowsy, but wide awake indeed, silently watchful as a prairie owl of every movement about him, every low-spoken word. What whim of satirist chance had put him there, what fate for good or evil, they could only conjecture, could not know, could never know; yet there he was, strangest figure in a land that knew only the bizarre, with whom the unbelievable was the normal. Slowly now, weary to death with the long, long day, depressed with the inevitable reaction from the excitement of the past hours, they moved away, to the south, to the west. In front of them, glittering in the moonlight, seemingly infinite, stretched the waves of the rolling prairie, bare as the sea in a calm. Behind them, growing lesser and lesser minute by minute, merging into the infinite white, were three black dots like tiny boats on the horizon's edge. On they went, a half mile, a mile, looked behind; and, with an awe no familiarity could prevent, faced ahead anew. Back of them now as well as before, uniformly endless, uniformly magnificent, stretched that giant ocean: silent, serene, as mother nature, as nature's master, God himself.
The day of the Indian terror had passed. No longer did the name of Little Crow carry stampede in its wake. The battles of Big Mound, of White Stone Hill, and of the Bad Lands had been fought, had become mere history; dim already to the newcomer as Lexington or Bull Run. Still in the memory, to be sure, was the half-invited massacre of Custer at the Little Big Horn; but the savage genius of Sitting Bull, of Crazy Horse, and of Gall, who had made the last great encounter bloodily unique in the conflict of the red man and the white, was never to be duplicated. Rightly or wrongly deprived of what they had once called their own, driven back, back on the crest of the ever-increasing wave of settlement, facing the alternative of annihilation or of submergence in that flood, the Sioux had halted like a wild thing at bay, with their backs to the last stronghold, the richest plot of earth on the face of the globe, the Black Hills country, and as a cornered animal ever fights, had battled ferociously for a lost supremacy. But, robbers themselves, holding the land on the insecure title of might alone, fighting to the end, they had at last succumbed to the inevitable: the all-conquering invasion of the dominant Anglo-Saxon. Here and there a name stood out: "Scarlet Point," "Strikes-the-Ree," "Little Crow," "Sitting Bull," "Crazy Horse," "Spotted Tail," "Red Cloud," "Gall," "John Grass," names that in multiple impressed but by their fantastic suggestion; but their original pulse-accelerating meaning had long since passed. Now and then a prairie mother, driven to desperation, might incite temporary rectitude in the breast of an incorrigible by a harrowing reference to one or to another; yet to the incoming swarms of land-hungry settlers they were mere supplanted play actors, fit heroes for fiction, for romance perhaps; but like the bison to be kept in small herds safe in the pasture of a reservation, preserved as a relic of a species doomed to extinction.
A thing at which to marvel was the growth of the eastern border of Dakota Territory in this, the time of the great boom. History can scarcely find its parallel. In the space of a decade the census leaped from two-score thousand to nearly a half million. New towns sprang up like fungi in a night. Railroads reached out like the tentacles of an octopus, where a generation before the buffalo had tramped its tortuous trail. Prosperous farms came into being in the meadows where the antelope had pastured. Artesian wells, waterworks, electric lights, street railways, colleges, all the adjuncts of a higher civilisation, blossomed forth under the magic wand of Eastern capital. Doomed to reaction, as an advancing pendulum is doomed to retrace its cycle, was this premature evolution; but temporarily, as a springtime freshet bears onward the driftwood in its path, it carried its predecessor, the unconventional, fighting, wild-loving adventurer, before. On it went, on and on until at last, fairly blocking its path, was the big, muddy, dawdling Missouri. Then for the first time it halted; halted in a pause that was to last for a generation. But it had fulfilled its mission. High and dry on the western side of the barrier, imbued as when they had settled to the east, with the restless spirit of the frontier, unsubdued, unchanged, it cast its burden. There, as they had done before, the newcomers immediately took root, and, after the passage of a year, were all but unconscious of the migration. Over their heads was the same blue prairie sky. Around them, treeless, trackless, was the same rolling, illimitable prairie land. In but one essential were conditions changed; yet that one was epoch-making. Heretofore, surrounded by a common, an alien danger, compelled at a second's warning to band together for life itself, all men were brothers. Now, with the passing of the red peril, with eradication of necessity for any manner of restraint, an abandon of licence, of recklessness, born of the wild life, of overflowing animal vitality insufficiently employed, swept the land like a contagion. Unique in the history of man's development was this the era of the cowboy, as fantastic now as the era of the red peril, its predecessor; yet vital, bizarre, throbbing, unconsciously human, as no other period has ever been, as in all probability none will ever be again. Generous, spendthrift, murderous when crossed, chivalrous, fearless, profane, yet fundamentally religious, inebriate, wilful and docile by turns, ceaselessly active, eternally discontented, seeking they knew not what, they were their own evil genius; as certainly as nature surrounded them with Heaven, they supplied their own Hell and, impartial, chose from each to weave the web of their lives.
Of this period, life of this life, was Colonel William Landor; colonel no longer, plain Bill, from the river to the Hills, husband these ten years now, but not father, Cattle King of an uncontested range. Of this life likewise, bred in it, saturated in it, was a dark young woman, his adopted daughter, two years past her majority, Elizabeth Rowland Landor by name. Of it most vitally of all, born of it, rooted in it through unknown centuries of ancestral domicile, was a copper-brown young man, destitute as a boy of twelve of a trace of beard, black as a prairie crow of hair and eyes, deep-lunged like a race-track thoroughbred, wiry as a mustang, garbed as a white man, but bearing the liquid name of a Teton Sioux, "Ma-wa-cha-sa, the lost pappoose," yet known wherever the Santee Massacre and the tale of his appearance was known, as "How" Landor. Of this period, last of all, was the great B.B.—Buffalo Butte—ranch, giant among the giants, whose brand was familiar as his own name to every cowboy west of the Missouri, whose hospitable ranch house, twenty-odd miles from the vest pocket metropolis of Coyote Centre, which in turn, to quote Landor himself, was "a hundred miles from nowhere," was the Mecca of every traveller whom chance drew into this wild, of every curious tenderfoot seeking a glimpse of the reverse side of the coin of life, of every desperate "one lunger," who, with gambler instinct, staked his all on prairie sun and prairie air.
THE LAND OF LICENCE
For twenty-four hours the two cowmen from the distant Clay Creek ranch had owned Coyote Centre. An hour before sunset on the day previous they had suddenly blown in from the north; a great cloud of yellow dust, lifting lazily on the sultry air, a mighty panting of winded bronchos, a single demoniacal dare-man whoop heralding their coming, a groaning of straining leather, a jingle of great spurs, and an otherwise augmented stillness even in this silent land, marking their arrival. Pete it was, Pete Sweeney, "Long Pete," who first dismounted. Pete likewise it was who first entered the grog shop of Red Jenkins. Pete again it was who, ere ten words had passed, drew cold-blooded, point blank at the only man who saw fit to question the invader's right of absolute ownership. Pete it was once again who, when the smoke had cleared away, assisted in laying out that same misguided citizen, in decent fellowship, beneath the cottonwood bar, and thrust an adequate green roll in the stiffening hand for funeral expenses.
"It's Bill's own fault," he commented lucidly the while. "I don't visit you very often; but when I do I've got the dough to make it square, and this town's my sausage, skin, curl, and all. D'ye understand?" and from Manning, the greybearded storekeeper, to Rank Judge, the one-legged saddler, there was no one to say him nay, none to contest his right of authority.
By no means without an officer of the law was Coyote Centre. Under ordinary conditions its majesty was ably, even aggressively, upheld by its representative, Marshal Jim Burton. Likewise there was no lack of pilgrims, who by devious and circuitous routes sought his residence on this occasion, with tales of distress and petitions for succour; but one and all departed with their mission unfulfilled. The doughty James was not to be found. Urgent business of indefinite duration, at an even more indefinite destination, had called him hence. No one regretted the mischance so much as stalwart Mrs. Burton, who imparted the information, no one deplored the lost opportunity for distinction so much as she; but nevertheless the fact remained. For the time being, Coyote Centre was thrown upon its own resources, was left to work out its own salvation as best it might.
Thus it came about that for a long, long dragging day, and the beginning of a second, the gunpowder had intermittently burned, and that more than intermittently, all but continuously, the red liquor had flowed; to the alternate aggrandisement of Red Jenkins and his straw-haired Norwegian rival across the street—Gus Ericson. Unsophisticated ones there were who fancied that ere this it would all end, that Mr. Sweeney's capacity for absorption had a limit. Four separate gentlemen, with the laudable intention of hastening that much to be desired condition, had sacrificed themselves for the common weal; but to the eternal disgrace of the town, all of them were now down and out, and in various retired spots, where they had been deposited by their sympathising friends, were snoring in peaceful oblivion. Even Len Barker, game disciple of the great master, had reached his limit and, no longer formidable, had, without form of law, been deposited for safekeeping, and with a sigh of relief, in the corporate Bastile; but Mr. Sweeney himself, Mr. Sweeney of the hawk eye and the royal tread, despite a lack of sleep and of solid sustenance, was, to all visible indications, as fresh and aggressive as at the beginning.
Now for the second time night was coming on. Neither up nor down the single business thoroughfare did a street lamp show its face. One and all had succumbed long before to the god of gunpowder. Not a stray dog, and Coyote Centre was plethoric of canines, raised its voice nor showed even a retreating tail near the area of disturbance. Wisdom and a desire for deepest obscurity had come to the many, swift and sudden annihilation to the few. Temporarily, yet effectively as though a cyclone were imminent, business and social life were paralysed. They were a tolerant breed, these citizens of Coyote Centre; repeated similar experience had not been without its effect; moreover, the object lesson of the day before was still vivid in their minds; but at last patience was reaching its limit. In the closed doorway of the town hall a tiny group of men were gathered, a group who spoke scarcely above a whisper, who kept a sharp lookout all surrounding, who stood ready at the twitch of an eyelash to disperse to the four winds. This was revolt incipient. In the single room of Bob Manning's general store was open revolt and plotting. Manning himself, grizzled, grey of hair, shaggy bearded, had the floor.
"You're a bunch of measly cowards," he included indiscriminately. "You come here with your stories and croak and croak, and still not one of you would dare say a word to Pete's face, not one of you but would stand and let him twist your nose if he saw fit." He glowered from one horn of the silent, listening semicircle to the other, with all-including disdain. "If you don't like it, why don't you put a stop to it? If Jim Burton has sneaked, why don't you elect a new marshal? You're damned cowards, I say."
In his place on the cover of a barrel of dried apples, Bud Smith, the weazened little land man, shifted as though the seat hurt him.
"P'raps you're right, dad," he commented imperturbably, "and agin p'raps you're not. It's all well enough to say appoint a new marshal, but as fer's I've been able to discover there's no one hereabouts hankerin' fer the job." He spat at a crack in the cottonwood floor meditatively, struck true, and seemed mildly pleased. "Our buryin' patch is growin' comfortably rapidly as it is, without adding any marshals to the collection. I've known Pete Sweeney fer quite a spell, and my private advice is to let him alone. There ain't coffins enough this side the river to supply the demand, if you was to try to arrest him when he's feelin' as he's feelin' now."
"Who mentioned arresting?" broke in Walt Wagner, the lanky Missourian, who drove the stage. "Pot him, I say. Pot him the first time he isn't looking."
For a long half minute Bud observed the speaker; analytically, meditatively.
"Evidently you ain't been a close observer, my boy," he commented at last, impersonally, "or you wouldn't be talkin' of Pete not lookin'. I ain't no weather prophet, but I'd hint to the feller who tackles that job to say his prayers before he starts. He won't have much time afterwards." With a swifter movement than he had yet made, the speaker slid from his place to the floor, involuntarily cast a glance into the street without. "I ain't perticularly scared, boys," he explained, "and I ain't lookin' fer trouble neither. Between yourselves and myself, it ain't at all healthy to sit here discussin' the matter. Someone's bound to peach on you, and then there's sure to be a call. You better scatter and let it blow over."
"Scatter nothing," exploded Wagner, belligerently. "Slide if you want to, if you've got cold feet. I for one intend staying here as long as I see fit, Sweeney or no Sweeney."
"You do, do you?" It was Manning this time who spoke, Manning with his deep-set eyes flashing over his high cheek bones. "Well, maybe I've got something to say about that." He came out from behind the counter, faced the lanky figure before him, with deliberate contempt. "You're a mighty stiff-backed boy in the daytime, you are, Walt Wagner, but in the dark—" He halted and his mouth curled in bitterest sarcasm. "Why, if you're so anxious for a scrap, don't you run for marshal? Why don't you take the job right now and put Pete out of business?" And his mouth curled again.
Beneath its coat of tan Wagner's face reddened; then went white. Involuntarily his lip curled back like that of a cornered dog, and until it showed the lack of a prominent front tooth.
"Seeing you are so free with your tongue," he retorted, "I might ask you the same question. I ain't no property interest here being destroyed like you have. Why don't you do the trick yourself, dad?"
For a moment there was silence, inaction; then of a sudden the old man stiffened. With an effort almost piteous, he attempted to square his shoulders; but they remained round as before.
"Why don't I?" He held up his right hand—minus the index and middle fingers. He held up his left, stiffened and shrivelled with rheumatism. "Why don't I?" He clumped the length of the tiny storeroom and back again; one crippled leg all but dragging. "Why don't I?" repeated for the third time. "Do you imagine for the fraction of a second, Walt Wagner, that if I was back twenty years and sound like you are, I'd be asking another man why he didn't do the job?" Terrible, almost ghastly, he stood there before them, the picture of bitter rage, of impotent, distorted senility. "Have you got the last spark of manhood left in you, and ask that question of me?"
In the pockets of his trousers Wagner's hands worked nervously. His face went red again, but he gave no answer. Bud Smith it was, Bud Smith, five-feet-two, with a complexion prairie wind had made like a lobster display in a cafe window, who had halted at the door, but who now came back, he it was who spoke.
"And while you're in the talkin' business," he suggested slowly, "you might elab'rate what you meant a bit ago by intimatin' that I had cold feet. We'll listen to that, too, any time you see fit to explain, pardner."
"You want to know, do you?" Wagner's countenance had become normal again, and with an effort at nonchalance he leaned his elbows back against the glass showcase, glancing the while down at the small man, almost patronisingly. "Well, then, for your benefit, I was merely observing that you filled the bill of what dad here said a bit ago we all were." He smiled tantalisingly; again showing the vacancy in his dental arch. "You remember what that was, don't you?"
"P'raps and p'raps not," still deliberately. "I ain't lookin' fer trouble, mind you, but I just like to have things explicit. To be dead sure, I'd like to have you repeat it."
Again there was silence. In it Bob Manning returned to his place behind the counter; his game leg shuffling behind him as he moved. In it likewise there was an interruption from without; the subdued clatter of a horse's feet on the packed earth of the street, the straining of leather, as the man, its rider, alighted, a moment later the click of the door latch as the same man, a stranger if they had noticed, entered and halted abruptly at what he saw. But those within did not notice. Silent as the night without, forgetful for the moment of even Pete Sweeney, they were staring at those two actors there before them.
"I'm listening," repeated Bud Smith gently. "I ain't lookin' fer trouble, you understand; but as fer as I recollect, no feller of my own age ever called me coward. If you think so, I'd like to hear you say it. I'm listenin' fer you to say it now, Walt Wagner."
Again within the room there was silence, and again from without there approached an interruption. From up the street, from out the door of Red Jenkins's joint it came; the patter, patter of many feet, leading it the heavy clump of mighty cowhide boots on the cottonwood sidewalk, the jingle of spurs on those same boots at every step, the deep breathing of a cowman intoxicated at last. Down the walk they came, past the darkened doorways of the deserted shops; wordless, menacing, nearer and nearer. Within the tiny storeroom no one had spoken, no one had noticed. The arms of Walt Wagner were not on the showcase now. In the depths of his pockets they were fumbling again, aimlessly, nervously. His face had gone whiter than before. Once he had opened his lips to speak, revealing the blackness of the vacant tooth; but he had closed them again silently. Now at last he cleared his throat, involuntarily he drew in a long breath. Whether he was about to speak they who watched never knew. What if he had spoken he would have said they likewise never knew; for at that moment, interrupting, compelling, the door to the street swung open with a crash, and fair in the aperture, filling it, blocking it, appeared the mighty, muscular figure of a cowman, while upon their ears, like the menacing bellow of an enraged bull, burst a voice—the challenging, bullying voice of Pete Sweeney, inebriate.
"What the hell be you fellers doin' here?" And when there was no answer repeated, "What the hell be you doin', I say?"
For a space that dragged into a half minute there was inaction while every man within sound of his voice gazed at the speaker; at first almost with fascination, then as the real meaning of the interruption came over them, with sensations as divergent as their various individual minds. There was no need to tell them who looked at that towering, intruding figure that tragedy lurked in the air, that death on the slightest provocation, at the twitch of a trigger finger, dwelt in those big twin Colts lying menacingly across the folded arms. A lunatic escaped was a pleasant companion, a child, to deal with, compared with Pete Sweeney at this time. Malevolent, irresponsible, dare god—bull mastery fairly oozed from his presence. Bad every inch of him, hopelessly, irredeemably bad was this mountain of humanity. Bad from the soles of his misshapen boots to the baggy chaperajos, to the bulging holsters at his hips, to the gleaming cartridge belt around his waist, to the soft green flannel shirt, to the red silk handkerchief about his throat, to the dark unshaven face, to the drink-reddened nose, to the mere slits of eyes, to the upturned sombrero that crowned the shock of wiry hair; bad in detail, in ensemble, was this inebriate cowman, bad.
"Well, why don't you talk?" Himself interrupting the silence he came a step nearer, braced himself with legs far apart. "What've you got to say for yourselves? This ain't no Quaker meeting. Speak up. What're you all doin' here?"
Among the crowd one man alone spoke, and that was lobster-red Bud Smith.
"Tendin' to our own business, I reckon, Pete," he explained evenly.
"You lie!" Narrower and narrower closed the slit-like eyes. "You lie by the clock. You were planning to fix ME, you nest of skunks." From man to man he passed the look, halted at last at the figure of the lanky Missourian. "Some feller here figgered to pot me, and I'm lookin' to see the colour of his hair. Who was it, I'd like to know?"
"Someone's been stuffin' you, Pete." Even, deliberate as before Smith spoke the lie. "We don't give a whoop what you do. You can own the whole county so far as we care. Go back and 'tend to your knittin'. Dad here wants to close up, now."
"He does, does he? Well, he can in just a minute, just as soon as you name the feller I mention." Of a sudden his eyes shifted, dropped like claws on the figure of the little land man. "You know who it is I'm lookin' for. Tell me his name."
"You don't know me very well, Pete."
"I don't, eh? You think I don't know you?" The speaker was inspecting the other as a house cat inspects the mouse within its paws. "In other words, you mean you know, but won't tell me." Lingeringly, baitingly, almost exultingly, he was dragging the denouement on and on. "That's what you mean to imply, is it?"
"You've guessed it, Pete." Not a muscle in the small man's body twitched; there was not the slightest alteration of the even tone. There, facing death as surely as harvest follows seedtime, knowing as he knew that but one man present could interfere to prevent, that that man wouldn't, he spoke those four words: "You've guessed it, Pete." And but minutes before Manning had called this man coward!
For a moment likewise Sweeney did not stir. For a second his slow brain failed to grasp the truth, the deliberate challenge of the refusal; then of a sudden, in a blinding, maddening flood, came comprehension, came action. Swifter than any human being would have thought possible, unbelievably ferocious even in this land of licence, something took place, something which the staring onlookers did not realise until it was done. They only knew that with a mighty backward leap the cowman had reached the single heavy oak door, had sent it shut with a bang. That at the same time there was the vicious spit of a great revolver, that the odour of burnt gunpowder was in their nostrils, that lifting slowly toward the ceiling was a cloud of thin blue smoke; a curtain that once raised made them shudder, made their blood run cold, for it revealed there, stretched on the floor, huddled as it had dropped, lifeless, motionless, the figure of the man who had refused, the weazened face of Land Man Bud Smith! All this they realised in that first second; then something that was almost fascination drew away their eyes to the man who had done this deed, to the man who, his back to the great door, the only means of egress, was covering them, every soul, with the two great revolvers in his hands. For Pete Sweeney was not drunk now. As swiftly as that horrible thing had been done he had gone sober. Yet no man who saw him that instant feared him one whit less. Not a man present, believer or scoffer, but breathed a silent prayer. And there was reason. If Pete Sweeney, Long Pete, had possessed a real friend on earth, he possessed that one no more. Disciples he had, imitators a-plenty; but friends—there had been but one, and now there was none. In an instant of oblivion, of drunken frenzy, he had murdered that friend; murdered him without a chance for self-defence, fair in his tracks. Not another had done this thing but he himself, he, Cowman Pete. Small wonder that they who watched this man prayed, that surreptitious glances sought for an avenue of escape where there was none, that the face of Walt Wagner went whiter and whiter; for as certain as Bud Smith lay dead there upon the floor, there would be a reckoning,—and what that reckoning would be God alone could tell!
And Sweeney himself. After that first, all but involuntary movement, he had not stirred. In his hands the big revolvers did not waver the breadth of a hair. Out of bloodshot, terrible eyes he was looking at that mute figure on the floor; looking at it immovably, indescribably, with an impassivity that was horrible. For the moment he seemed to have forgotten the others' presence, seemed at their mercy; and to the mind of Walt Wagner there came a suggestion. Slowly, surreptitiously one hand came out of his pocket, advanced by the fractions of inches towards his hip; advanced and halted and advanced again, reached almost—almost—.
"That'll do, you!" It was not a voice that spoke, it was a snarl: the snarl of an angry animal. "Put that fist back in your breeches or by God—"
No need to complete that threat. Back went the hand, back as though drawn by a spring, back as though it were a paralysed, useless thing.
"Now line up." At last the move had come, the move they had known was but a question of time. "Toe the crack, every mother's son of you. Step lively."
They obeyed. As Wagner's hand had done, they obeyed. Six men of them there were: surly crippled Manning, with eyes ablaze and jaws set like a trap; lank Wagner with his hands still in his pockets; Rank Judge, stumping on his wooden leg; greasy adipose Buck Walker, who ran the meat market; Slim Simpson, from the eating joint opposite, pale as the tucked-in apron around his waist; last of all the stranger, tall, smooth-shaven, alien in knickerbockers and blouse, his lips compressed, at his throat the arteries pounding visibly through his fair skin. Up they came at the word of command, like children with ill-learned lessons to recite, like sheep with a collie at their heels. Humorous at another time and another place, that compliance would have been; but with that mute, prostrate figure there before them on the floor, with that other menacing, dominating figure facing them, it was far from humorous. It was ghastly in its confession of impotence, in its mute acquiescence to another's will.
The shuffling of feet ceased and silence fell; yet for some reason Pete did not act. Instead he stood waiting; his red-rimmed eyes travelling from man to man, the fissure between them deepening, the heavy lids narrowing, moment by moment. A long half minute he waited, gloating on their misery, prolonging their suspense; then came the interruption. A step sounded on the walk without, a step that was all but noiseless. A hand tried the knob of the door, found it bolted, and tapped gently on the panel.
Not a soul within the room stirred, not even Long Pete; but the narrowing lids closed until they were mere slits, and the unshaven jaws tightened.
Again the knock sounded; louder, more insistent.
This time there was action. One of the revolvers in Pete's hand moved to the end of the line, halted. "Up with your hands," snarled a voice.
Two gnarled, distorted hands, the hands of Bob Manning, lifted in air.
"Up with you," and another pair, and another and another followed, until there were not two but twelve.
"Make a move, damn you,"—one of the revolvers had returned to its holster, the free hand was upon the bolt,—"and I'll drop you, every cursed one of you, in your tracks. I'll drop you if I swing the next second." With a jerk, the door opened wide, and like a flash the hand returned to the holster. "Come in, you idiot," he challenged into the darkness without, "come in and take your medicine with the rest."
Within the room the six peered at the blackness of the open doorway, peered and held their breath. For an instant they saw nothing; then of a sudden, fair in the opening, walking easily, noiselessly on moccasined feet, entered a brand new actor, advanced half across the room, while his eyes adjusted themselves to the light, halted curiously. Back of him that instant the door again returned to its case with a crash, the rusty bolt grating in its socket; and above the noise, drowning it, sounded the snarl the others knew so well.
"It's you, is it, redskin? What the hell are you doin' here?"
Deliberately, soundlessly as he had entered, the newcomer turned. From his height of six feet one, an inch below that of Pete himself, he returned the other's look fixedly, without answer. He wore a soft flannel shirt, and a pair of dark brown corduroy trousers, supported by a belt. Unconsciously, as though he were alone, he hitched the corduroys up over his narrow hips, in the motion of one who has been riding. That was all.
Closer and closer came the red lids over Pete's veritable disfigurement. Involuntarily his great nostrils opened.
"Talk up there, Injun," he repeated slowly; and this time his voice was almost gentle. "My name's Sweeney, and I'm speakin' to you. What the devil are you here for?"