HotFreeBooks.com
Blazed Trail Stories - and Stories of the Wild Life
by Stewart Edward White
Previous Part     1  2  3  4     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

"Oh, now it's all right, isn't it?" said she.

"I am glad," he replied, the look of amusement deepening in his gray eyes. "And a moment ago it was all wrong. What was the matter?"

"I am lost," answered Barbara, contentedly, as one would say, "My shoes are a little dusty."

"That's bad," sympathised the other. "Where are you lost from?"

"The Adamses' or the Maxwells', I don't know which. I started to go from one to the other. Then there was the deer, and so I got lost."

"I see," he agreed with entire assurance. "And now what are you going to do?"

"I am not going to do anything. You are to take me home."

"To the Adamses or the Maxwells?"

"To whichever is nearest."

The young man seemed to be debating. Barbara glanced at his thoughtful, strong face from under the edge of her picture-hat, which slyly she had rearranged. She liked his face. It was so good-humoured.

"It is almost sunset," replied the youth at length. "You can see the shadows are low. How do you hope to push through the woods after dark? There are wild animals—wolves!" he added, maliciously.

Barbara looked up again with sudden alarm.

"But what shall we do?" she cried, less composedly. "You must take me home!"

"I can try," said he, with the resignation of the man who can but die.

The tone had its effect.

"What do you advise?" she asked.

"That we camp here," he proposed, calmly, with an air of finality.

"Oh!" dissented Barbara in alarm. "Never! I am afraid of the woods! It will be wet and cold! I am hungry! My feet are just sopping!"

"I will watch all night with my rifle," he told her. "I will fix you a tent, and will cook you a supper, and your feet shall not be wet and cold one moment longer than you will."

"Isn't your home nearer?" she asked.

"My home is where night finds me," he replied.

Barbara meditated. It was going to be dreadful. She knew she would catch her death of cold. But what could she do about it?

"You may fix the wet-feet part," she assented at last.

"All right," agreed the young man with alacrity. He unslung the pack from his back, and removed from the straps a little axe. "Now, I am not going to be gone but a moment," he assured her, "and while I am away, you must take off your shoes and stockings and put these on." He had been fumbling in his pack, and now produced a pair of thick woollen lumberman's socks.

Barbara held one at arm's length in each hand, and looked at them. Then she looked up at the young man. Then they both laughed.

While her new protector was away, Barbara not only made the suggested changes, but she did marvels with the chiffon. Really, it did not look so bad, considering.

When the young man returned with an armful of hemlock bark and the slivers of a pine-stump, he found her sitting bolt upright on a log, her feet tucked under her. Before the fire he shortly hung the two webs of gossamer and the two dear little ridiculous little high-heeled shoes, with their silver buckles. Then in a most business-like fashion he pitched a diminutive shelter-tent. With equal expedition he built a second fire between two butternut-logs, produced a frying-pan, and set about supper.

The twilight was just falling. Somehow the great forest had lost its air of unfriendliness. The birds were singing in exactly the same way they used to sing in the tiny woods of the Picnic Grounds. It was difficult to believe in the wilderness. The young man moved here and there with accustomed ease, tending his pot and pan, feeding the fire. Barbara watched him interestedly. Gradually the conviction gained on her that he was worth while, and that he had not once glanced in her direction since he had begun his preparations. At the moment he was engaged in turning over sizzling things in the pan.

"If you please," said Barbara, with her small air of decision, "I am very thirsty."

"You will have to wait until I go to the spring," replied the man without stirring.

Barbara elevated her small nose in righteous indignation. After a long time she just peeped in his direction. He was laughing to himself. She hastily elevated her nose again. After all it was very lonely in the woods.

"Supper is ready," he announced after a time.

"I do not think I care for any," she replied, with dignity. She was very tired and hungry and cross, and her eyes were hot.

"Oh, yes you do," he insisted, carelessly. "Come now, before it gets cold."

"I tell you I do not care for any," she returned, haughtily.

For answer he picked her up bodily, carried her ten feet, and deposited her on another log. Beside her lay a clean bit of bark containing a broiled deer-steak, toasted bread, and a cup of tea. She struggled angrily.

"Don't be a fool," the man commanded, sternly, "you need food. You will eat supper, now!"

Barbara looked up at him with wide eyes. Then she began to eat the venison. By and by she remarked, "You are rather nice," and after she had drained the last drop of tea she even smiled, a trifle humbly. "Thank you," said she.

It was now dark, and the night had stolen down through the sentry trees to the very outposts of the fire. The man arranged the rubber blanket before it. Barbara sat upon the blanket and leaned her back against the log. He perched above her, producing a pipe.

"May I?" he asked.

Then, when he had puffed a few moments in quiet content, he inquired: "How did you come to get lost?"

She told him.

"That was very foolish," he scolded, severely. "Don't you know any better than to go into the woods without your bearings? It was idiotic!"

"Thank you," replied Barbara, meekly.

"Well, it was!" he insisted, the bronze on his cheek deepening a little.

She watched him for some time, while he watched the flames. She liked to see the light defining boldly the clean-shaven outline of his jaw; she liked to guess at the fire of his gray eyes beneath the shadow of his brow. Not once did he look toward her. Meekly she told herself that this was just. He was dreaming of larger things, seeing in the coals pictures of that romantic, strenuous, mysterious life of which he was a part. He had no room in the fulness of his existence for such as she—she, silly little Barbara, whose only charm was a maddening fashion of pointing outward her adorable chin. She asked him about it, this life of the winds of heaven.

"Are you always in the woods?" she inquired.

"Not always," said he.

"But you live in them a great deal?"

"Yes."

"You must have a great many exciting adventures."

"Not many."

"Where did you come from just now?"

"South."

"Where are you going?"

"Northwest."

"What are you going to do there?"

There ensued a slight pause before the stranger's reply. "Walk through the woods," said he.

"In other words, it's none of my business," retorted Barbara, a little tartly.

"Ah, but you see it's not entirely mine," he explained.

This offered a new field.

"Then you are on a mission?"

"Yes."

"Is it important?"

"Yes."

"How long is it going to take you?"

"Many years."

"What is your name?"

"Garrett Stanton."

"You are a gentleman, aren't you?"

A flicker of amusement twinkled subtly in the corner of his eye. "I suppose you mean gently bred, college-educated. Do you think it's of vast importance?"

Barbara examined him reflectively, her chin in her hand, her elbow on her knee. She looked at his wavy hair, his kindly, humorous gray eyes, the straight line of his fine-cut nose, his firm lips with the quaint upward twist of the corners, the fine contour of his jaw.

"No-o-o," she agreed, "I don't suppose it does. Only I know you are a gentleman," she added, with delightful inconsistence. Stanton bowed gravely to the fire in ironic acknowledgment.

"Why don't you ever look at me?" burst out Barbara, vexed. "Why do you stare at that horrid fire?"

He turned and looked her full in the face. In a moment her eyes dropped before his frank scrutiny. She felt the glow rising across her forehead. When she raised her head again he was staring calmly at the fire as before, one hand clasped under his arm, the other holding the bowl of his brier pipe.

"Now," said he, "I will ask a few questions. Won't this all-night absence alarm your relatives?"

"Oh, no. I often spend the night at the Adamses'. They will think I am there."

"Parents are apt to be anxious."

"But mine are not here, you see."

"What is your name?"

"Barbara Lowe."

He fell silent. Barbara was distinctly piqued. He might have exhibited a more flattering interest.

"Is that all you want to know about me?" she cried in an injured tone.

"I know all about you now. Listen: Your name is Barbara Lowe; you come from Detroit, where you are not yet 'out'; you are an only child; and eighteen or nineteen years of age."

"Why, who has been telling you about me?" cried Barbara, astonished.

Stanton smiled. "Nobody," he replied. "Don't you know that we woodsmen live by our observation? Do you see anything peculiar about that tree?"

Barbara examined the vegetable in question attentively. "No," she confessed at last.

"There is an animal in it. Look again."

"I can see nothing," repeated Barbara, after a second scrutiny.

Stanton arose. Seizing a brand from the fire, he rapped sharply on the trunk. Then slowly what had appeared to be a portion of the hole began to disintegrate, and in a moment a drowsy porcupine climbed rattling to a place of safety.

"That is how I know about you," explained the woodsman, returning to the fire. "Your remark about staying overnight told me that you were visiting the Maxwells rather than the Adamses; I knew the latter must be relatives, because a girl who wears pretty summer dresses would not visit mere friends in the wilderness; you would get tired of this life in a few weeks, and so will not care to stay longer; you wear your school-pin still, so you are not yet 'out'; the maker's name in your parasol caused me to guess you from Detroit."

"And about my being an only child?"

"Well," replied Stanton, "you see, you have a little the manner of one who has been a trifle——"

"Spoiled!" finished Barbara, with wicked emphasis.

Stanton merely laughed.

"That is not nice," she reproved, with vast dignity.

A cry, inexpressibly mournful, quivered from the woods close at hand.

"Oh, what is that?" she exclaimed.

"Our friend the porcupine. Don't be frightened."

Down through the trees sighed a little wind. "Whoo! whoo! whoo!" droned an owl, monotonously. The sparks from the fire shot up and eddied. A chill was in the air. Barbara's eyes grew heavier and heavier. She tucked her feet under her and expanded in the warmth like a fireside kitten. Then, had she known it, the man was looking at her, looking at her with a strange, wistful tenderness in his gray eyes. Dear, harmless, innocent little Barbara, who had so confidingly trusted in his goodness!

"Come, little girl," he said, softly, at last.

He arose and held out his hand. Awakened from her abstraction, she looked at him with a faint smile and eyes from which all coquetry had gone, leaving only the child.

"Come," he repeated, "time to turn in."

She arose dutifully. The little tent really looked inviting. The balsam bed proved luxurious, soft as feathers.

"When you are ready," he told her, "let me know. I want to open the tent-flap for the sake of warmth."

The soft woollen blanket was very grateful. When the flap was open, Barbara found that a second fire had been built with a backing of green logs so arranged as to reflect the heat directly into her shelter.

She was very sleepy, yet for a long time she lay awake. The noises of the woods approached mysteriously, and drew about the little camp their mystic circle. Some of them were exceedingly terrifying, but Barbara did not mind them, for he sat there, his strong, graceful figure silhouetted against the light, smoking his pipe in contemplation. Barbara watched him for a long time, until finally the firelight blurred, and the great, solemn shadows stopped dancing across the forest, and she dozed.

Hours later, as it seemed, some trifling sound awakened her. The heat still streamed gratefully into the tiny shelter; the solemn shadows still danced across the forest; the contemplative figure still stared into the embers, strongly silhouetted by the firelight. A tender compunction stole into Barbara's tender little heart.

"The poor dear," said she, "he has no place to sleep. He is guarding me from the dangers of the forest." Which was quite ridiculous, as any woodsman will know.

Her drowsy eyes watched him wistfully—her mystery, her hero of romance. Again the fire blurred, again the solemn shadows paused. A last thought shaped itself in Barbara's consciousness.

"Why, he must be very old," she said to herself. "He must be twenty-six."

So she fell asleep.

III

Barbara awoke to the sun and the crisp morning air and a delightful feeling that she had slept well and had not been uncomfortable at all. The flap of the tent was discreetly closed. When ready she peeped through the crack and saw Stanton bending over the fire.

In a moment he straightened and approached the tent. When within a few feet he paused. Through the hollow of his hands he cried out the long, musical, morning call of the woodsman.

"R-o-o-oll out!" he cried. The forest took up the sound in dying modulations.

For answer Barbara threw aside the tent-flap and stepped into the sun.

"Good-morning," said she.

"Salut!" he replied. "Come and I will show you the spring."

"I am sorry I cannot offer you a better variety for your breakfast. It is only the supper over again," he explained, after she had returned, and had perched like a fluffy bird of paradise on the log. Her cheeks were very pink from the cold water, and her eyes were very beautiful from the dregs of dreams, and her hair very glittering from the kissing of the early sun. And, wonderful to say, she forgot to thrust out her pointed chin in the fashion so entirely adorable.

She ate with relish, for the woods-hunger was hers. Stanton said nothing. The time was pregnant with unspoken things. All the charming elements of the little episode were crystallising for them, and instinctively Barbara felt that in a few moments she would be compelled to read their meaning.

At last the man said, without stirring:

"Well, I suppose we'd better be going."

"I suppose so," she replied.

They sat there some time longer, staring abstractedly at the kindly green forest; then Stanton abruptly arose and began to construct his pack. The girl did not move.

"Come," he said at last.

She arose obediently.

"Follow close behind me," he advised.

"Yes," said she.

They set off through the greenery. It opened silently before them. Barbara looked back. It had already closed silently behind them, shutting out the episode forever. The little camp had ceased to exist; the great, ruthless, calm forest had reclaimed its own. Nothing was left.

Nothing was left but the memory and the dream—yes, and the Beginning. Barbara knew it must be that—the Beginning. He would come to see her. She would wear the chiffon, another chiffon, altogether glorious. She would sit on the highest root of the old elm, and he would lie at her feet. Then he could tell her of the enchanted land, of the life of the winds of heaven. He would be her knight, to plunge into the wilderness on the Quest, returning always to her. The picture became at once inexpressibly dear to her.

Then she noticed that he had stopped, and was looking at her in deprecation, and was holding aside the screen of moose-maples. Beyond she could see the familiar clearing, and the smoke from the Maxwell cabin.

She had slept almost within sight of her own doorstep.

"Please forgive me," he was saying. "I meant it only as an interesting little adventure. It has been harmless enough, surely—to you."

His eyes were hungry. Barbara could not find words.

"Good-by," he concluded. "Good-by. You will forgive me in time—or forget, which is much the same. Believe me, if I have offended you, my punishment is going to be severe. Good-by."

"Good-by," said Barbara, a little breathlessly. She had already forgotten the trick. She could think only that the forest, the unfriendly forest, was about to recall her son.

"Good-by," he repeated again. He should have gone, but did not. The situation became strained.

"When are you coming to see me?" she inquired at length. "I shall be here two weeks yet."

"Never," he replied.

"What do you mean?" she asked after a moment.

"After Painted Rock, the wilderness," he explained, almost bitterly, "the wilderness and solitude for many years—forever!"

"Don't go until to-morrow," she urged.

"I must."

"Why?"

"Because I must be at Painted Rock by Friday, and to reach it I must travel fast and long."

"And if you do not?"

"My mission fails," he replied.

They stood there silent. Barbara dug tiny holes with the tip of her parasol.

"And that is ruin?" she asked softly, without looking up.

"I have struggled hard for many years. The result is this chance."

"I see," she replied, bending her head lower. "It would be a very foolish thing for you to stay, then, wouldn't it?"

He did not reply.

"But you are going to, aren't you?" she went on in a voice almost inaudible. "You must not go like that. I ask you to stay."

Again the pause.

"I cannot," he replied.

She looked up. He was standing erect and tall, his face set in the bronze lines of a resolution, his gray eyes levelled straight and steady beyond her head. Instantly her own spirit flashed.

"I think now you'd better go!" said she superbly.

They faced each other for a moment. Then Barbara dropped her head again, extending her hand.

"You do not know," she whispered, "I have much to forgive."

He hesitated, then touched the tips of her fingers with his lips. She did not look up. With a gesture, which she did not see, he stooped to his pack and swung into the woods.

Barbara stood motionless. Not a line of her figure stirred. Only the chiffon parasol dropped suddenly to the ground.

———————————————————————————————————-

STORIES OF THE WILD LIFE



I

THE GIRL WHO GOT RATTLED

This is one of the stories of Alfred. There are many of them still floating around the West, for Alfred was in his time very well known. He was a little man, and he was bashful. That is the most that can be said against him; but he was very little and very bashful. When on horseback his legs hardly reached the lower body-line of his mount, and only his extreme agility enabled him to get on successfully. When on foot, strangers were inclined to call him "sonny." In company he never advanced an opinion. If things did not go according to his ideas, he reconstructed the ideas, and made the best of it—only he could make the most efficient best of the poorest ideas of any man on the plains. His attitude was a perpetual sidling apology. It has been said that Alfred killed his men diffidently, without enthusiasm, as though loth to take the responsibility, and this in the pioneer days on the plains was either frivolous affectation, or else—Alfred. With women he was lost. Men would have staked their last ounce of dust at odds that he had never in his life made a definite assertion of fact to one of the opposite sex. When it became absolutely necessary to change a woman's preconceived notions as to what she should do—as, for instance, discouraging her riding through quicksand—he would persuade somebody else to issue the advice. And he would cower in the background blushing his absurd little blushes at his second-hand temerity. Add to this narrow, sloping shoulders, a soft voice, and a diminutive pink-and-white face.

But Alfred could read the prairie like a book. He could ride anything, shoot accurately, was at heart afraid of nothing, and could fight like a little catamount when occasion for it really arose. Among those who knew, Alfred was considered one of the best scouts on the plains. That is why Caldwell, the capitalist, engaged him when he took his daughter out to Deadwood.

Miss Caldwell was determined to go to Deadwood. A limited experience of the lady's sort, where they have wooden floors to the tents, towels to the tent-poles, and expert cooks to the delectation of the campers, had convinced her that "roughing it" was her favorite recreation. So, of course, Caldwell senior had, sooner or later, to take her across the plains on his annual trip. This was at the time when wagon-trains went by way of Pierre on the north, and the South Fork on the south. Incidental Indians, of homicidal tendencies and undeveloped ideas as to the propriety of doing what they were told, made things interesting occasionally, but not often. There was really no danger to a good-sized train.

The daughter had a fiance named Allen who liked roughing it, too; so he went along. He and Miss Caldwell rigged themselves out bountifully, and prepared to enjoy the trip.

At Pierre the train of eight wagons was made up, and they were joined by Alfred and Billy Knapp. These two men were interesting, but tyrannical on one or two points—such as getting out of sight of the train, for instance. They were also deficient in reasons for their tyranny. The young people chafed, and, finding Billy Knapp either imperturbable or thick-skinned, they turned their attention to Alfred. Allen annoyed Alfred, and Miss Caldwell thoughtlessly approved of Allen. Between them they succeeded often in shocking fearfully all the little man's finer sensibilities. If it had been a question of Allen alone, the annoyance would soon have ceased. Alfred would simply have bashfully killed him. But because of his innate courtesy, which so saturated him that his philosophy of life was thoroughly tinged by it, he was silent and inactive.

There is a great deal to recommend a plains journey at first. Later, there is nothing at all to recommend it. It has the same monotony as a voyage at sea, only there is less living room, and, instead of being carried, you must progress to a great extent by your own volition. Also the food is coarse, the water poor, and you cannot bathe. To a plainsman, or a man who has the instinct, these things are as nothing in comparison with the charm of the outdoor life, and the pleasing tingling of adventure. But woman is a creature wedded to comfort. She also has a strange instinctive desire to be entirely alone every once in a while, probably because her experiences, while not less numerous than man's, are mainly psychical, and she needs occasionally time to get "thought up to date." So Miss Caldwell began to get very impatient.

The afternoon of the sixth day Alfred, Miss Caldwell, and Allen rode along side by side. Alfred was telling a self-effacing story of adventure, and Miss Caldwell was listening carelessly because she had nothing else to do. Allen chaffed lazily when the fancy took him.

"I happened to have a limb broken at the time," Alfred was observing, parenthetically, in his soft tones, "and so——"

"What kind of a limb?" asked the young Easterner, with direct brutality. He glanced with a half-humourous aside at the girl, to whom the little man had been mainly addressing himself.

Alfred hesitated, blushed, lost the thread of his tale, and finally in great confusion reined back his horse by the harsh Spanish bit. He fell to the rear of the little wagon-train, where he hung his head, and went hot and cold by turns in thinking of such an indiscretion before a lady.

The young Easterner spurred up on the right of the girl's mount.

"He's the queerest little fellow I ever saw!" he observed, with a laugh. "Sorry to spoil his story. Was it a good one?"

"It might have been if you hadn't spoiled it," answered the girl, flicking her horse's ears mischievously. The animal danced. "What did you do it for?"

"Oh, just to see him squirm. He'll think about that all the rest of the afternoon, and will hardly dare look you in the face next time you meet."

"I know. Isn't he funny? The other morning he came around the corner of the wagon and caught me with my hair down. I wish you could have seen him!"

She laughed gayly at the memory.

"Let's get ahead of the dust," she suggested.

They drew aside to the firm turf of the prairie and put their horses to a slow lope. Once well ahead of the canvas-covered schooners they slowed down to a walk again.

"Alfred says we'll see them to-morrow," said the girl.

"See what?"

"Why, the Hills! They'll show like a dark streak, down past that butte there—what's its name?"

"Porcupine Tail."

"Oh, yes. And after that it's only three days. Are you glad?"

"Are you?"

"Yes, I believe I am. This life is fun at first, but there's a certain monotony in making your toilet where you have to duck your head because you haven't room to raise your hands, and this barrelled water palls after a time. I think I'll be glad to see a house again. People like camping about so long——"

"It hasn't gone back on me yet."

"Well, you're a man and can do things."

"Can't you do things?"

"You know I can't. What do you suppose they'd say if I were to ride out just that way for two miles? They'd have a fit."

"Who'd have a fit? Nobody but Alfred, and I didn't know you'd gotten afraid of him yet! I say, just let's! We'll have a race, and then come right back." The young man looked boyishly eager.

"It would be nice," she mused. They gazed into each other's eyes like a pair of children, and laughed.

"Why shouldn't we?" urged the young man. "I'm dead sick of staying in the moving circle of these confounded wagons. What's the sense of it all, anyway?"

"Why, Indians, I suppose," said the girl, doubtfully.

"Indians!" he replied, with contempt. "Indians! We haven't seen a sign of one since we left Pierre. I don't believe there's one in the whole blasted country. Besides, you know what Alfred said at our last camp?"

"What did Alfred say?"

"Alfred said he hadn't seen even a teepee-trail, and that they must be all up hunting buffalo. Besides that, you don't imagine for a moment that your father would take you all this way to Deadwood just for a lark, if there was the slightest danger, do you?"

"I don't know; I made him."

She looked out over the long sweeping descent to which they were coming, and the long sweeping ascent that lay beyond. The breeze and the sun played with the prairie grasses, the breeze riffling them over, and the sun silvering their under surfaces thus exposed. It was strangely peaceful, and one almost expected to hear the hum of bees as in a New England orchard. In it all was no sign of life.

"We'd get lost," she said, finally.

"Oh, no, we wouldn't!" he asserted with all the eagerness of the amateur plainsman. "I've got that all figured out. You see, our train is going on a line with that butte behind us and the sun. So if we go ahead, and keep our shadows just pointing to the butte, we'll be right in their line of march."

He looked to her for admiration of his cleverness. She seemed convinced. She agreed, and sent him back to her wagon for some article of invented necessity. While he was gone she slipped softly over the little hill to the right, cantered rapidly over two more, and slowed down with a sigh of satisfaction. One alone could watch the directing shadow as well as two. She was free and alone. It was the one thing she had desired for the last six days of the long plains journey, and she enjoyed it now to the full. No one had seen her go. The drivers droned stupidly along, as was their wont; the occupants of the wagons slept, as was their wont; and the diminutive Alfred was hiding his blushes behind clouds of dust in the rear, as was not his wont at all. He had been severely shocked, and he might have brooded over it all the afternoon, if a discovery had not startled him to activity.

On a bare spot of the prairie he discerned the print of a hoof. It was not that of one of the train's animals. Alfred knew this, because just to one side of it, caught under a grass-blade so cunningly that only the little scout's eyes could have discerned it at all, was a single blue bead. Alfred rode out on the prairie to right and left, and found the hoof-prints of about thirty ponies. He pushed his hat back and wrinkled his brow, for the one thing he was looking for he could not find—the two narrow furrows made by the ends of teepee-poles dragging along on either side of the ponies. The absence of these indicated that the band was composed entirely of bucks, and bucks were likely to mean mischief.

He pushed ahead of the whole party, his eyes fixed earnestly on the ground. At the top of the hill he encountered the young Easterner. The latter looked puzzled, in a half-humourous way.

"I left Miss Caldwell here a half-minute ago," he observed to Alfred, "and I guess she's given me the slip. Scold her good for me when she comes in—will you?" He grinned, with good-natured malice at the idea of Alfred's scolding anyone.

Then Alfred surprised him.

The little man straightened suddenly in his saddle and uttered a fervent curse. After a brief circle about the prairie, he returned to the young man.

"You go back to th' wagons, and wake up Billy Knapp, and tell him this—that I've gone scoutin' some, and I want him to watch out. Understand? Watch out!"

"What?" began the Easterner, bewildered.

"I'm a-goin' to find her," said the little man, decidedly.

"You don't think there's any danger, do you?" asked the Easterner, in anxious tones. "Can't I help you?"

"You do as I tell you," replied the little man, shortly, and rode away.

He followed Miss Caldwell's trail quite rapidly, for the trail was fresh. As long as he looked intently for hoof-marks, nothing was to be seen, the prairie was apparently virgin; but by glancing the eye forty or fifty yards ahead, a faint line was discernible through the grasses.

Alfred came upon Miss Caldwell seated quietly on her horse in the very centre of a prairie-dog town, and so, of course, in the midst of an area of comparatively desert character. She was amusing herself by watching the marmots as they barked, or watched, or peeped at her, according to their distance from her. The sight of Alfred was not welcome, for he frightened the marmots.

When he saw Miss Caldwell, Alfred grew bashful again. He sidled his horse up to her and blushed.

"I'll show you th' way back, miss," he said, diffidently.

"Thank you," replied Miss Caldwell, with a slight coldness, "I can find my own way back."

"Yes, of course," hastened Alfred, in an agony. "But don't you think we ought to start back now? I'd like to go with you, miss, if you'd let me. You see the afternoon's quite late."

Miss Caldwell cast a quizzical eye at the sun.

"Why, it's hours yet till dark!" she said, amusedly.

Then Alfred surprised Miss Caldwell.

His diffident manner suddenly left him. He jumped like lightning from his horse, threw the reins over the animal's head so he would stand, and ran around to face Miss Caldwell.

"Here, jump down!" he commanded.

The soft Southern burr of his ordinary conversation had given place to a clear incisiveness. Miss Caldwell looked at him amazed.

Seeing that she did not at once obey, Alfred actually began to fumble hastily with the straps that held her riding-skirt in place. This was so unusual in the bashful Alfred that Miss Caldwell roused and slipped lightly to the ground.

"Now what?" she asked.

Alfred, without replying, drew the bit to within a few inches of the animal's hoofs, and tied both fetlocks firmly together with the double-loop. This brought the pony's nose down close to his shackled feet. Then he did the same thing with his own beast. Thus neither animal could so much as hobble one way or the other. They were securely moored.

Alfred stepped a few paces to the eastward. Miss Caldwell followed.

"Sit down," said he.

Miss Caldwell obeyed with some nervousness. She did not understand at all, and that made her afraid. She began to have a dim fear lest Alfred might have gone crazy. His next move strengthened this suspicion. He walked away ten feet and raised his hand over his head, palm forward. She watched him so intently that for a moment she saw nothing else. Then she followed the direction of his gaze, and uttered a little sobbing cry.

Just below the sky-line of the first slope to eastward was silhouetted a figure on horseback. The figure on horseback sat motionless.

"We're in for fight," said Alfred, coming back after a moment. "He won't answer my peace-sign, and he's a Sioux. We can't make a run for it through this dog-town. We've just got to stand 'em off."

He threw down and back the lever of his old 44 Winchester, and softly uncocked the arm. Then he sat down by Miss Caldwell.

From various directions, silently, warriors on horseback sprang into sight and moved dignifiedly toward the first-comer, forming at the last a band of perhaps thirty men. They talked together for a moment, and then one by one, at regular intervals, detached themselves and began circling at full speed to the left, throwing themselves behind their horses, and yelling shrill-voiced, but firing no shot as yet.

"They'll rush us," speculated Alfred. "We're too few to monkey with this way. This is a bluff."

The circle about the two was now complete. After watching the whirl of figures a few minutes, and the motionless landscape beyond, the eye became dizzied and confused.

"They won't have no picnic," went on Alfred, with a little chuckle. "Dog-hole's as bad fer them as fer us. They don't know how to fight. If they was to come in on all sides, I couldn't handle 'em, but they always rush in a bunch, like damn fools!" and then Alfred became suffused with blushes, and commenced to apologise abjectly and profusely to a girl who had heard neither the word nor its atonement. The savages and the approaching fight were all she could think of.

Suddenly one of the Sioux threw himself forward under his horse's neck and fired. The bullet went wild, of course, but it shrieked with the rising inflection of a wind-squall through bared boughs, seeming to come ever nearer. Miss Caldwell screamed and covered her face. The savages yelled in chorus.

The one shot seemed to be the signal for a spattering fire all along the line. Indians never clean their rifles, rarely get good ammunition, and are deficient in the philosophy of hind-sights. Besides this, it is not easy to shoot at long range in a constrained position from a running horse. Alfred watched them contemptuously in silence.

"If they keep that up long enough, the wagon-train may hear 'em," he said, finally. "Wisht we weren't so far to nor-rard. There, it's comin'!" he said, more excitedly.

The chief had paused, and, as the warriors came to him, they threw their ponies back on their haunches, and sat motionless. They turned, the ponies' heads toward the two.

Alfred arose deliberately for a better look.

"Yes, that's right," he said to himself, "that's old Lone Pine, sure thing. I reckon we-all's got to make a good fight!"

The girl had sunk to the ground, and was shaking from head to foot. It is not nice to be shot at in the best of circumstances, but to be shot at by odds of thirty to one, and the thirty of an out-landish and terrifying species, is not nice at all. Miss Caldwell had gone to pieces badly, and Alfred looked grave. He thoughtfully drew from its holster his beautiful Colt's with its ivory handle, and laid it on the grass. Then he blushed hot and cold, and looked at the girl doubtfully. A sudden movement in the group of savages, as the war-chief rode to the front, decided him.

"Miss Caldwell," he said.

The girl shivered and moaned.

Alfred dropped to his knees and shook her shoulder roughly.

"Look up here," he commanded. "We ain't got but a minute."

Composed a little by the firmness of his tone, she sat up. Her face had gone chalky, and her hair had partly fallen over her eyes.

"Now, listen to every word," he said, rapidly. "Those Injins is goin' to rush us in a minute. P'r'aps I can break them, but I don't know. In that pistol there, I'll always save two shots—understand?—it's always loaded. If I see it's all up, I'm a-goin' to shoot you with one of 'em, and myself with the other."

"Oh!" cried the girl, her eyes opening wildly. She was paying close enough attention now.

"And if they kill me first"—he reached forward and seized her wrist impressively—"if they kill me first, you must take that pistol and shoot yourself. Understand? Shoot yourself—in the head—here!"

He tapped his forehead with a stubby forefinger.

The girl shrank back in horror. Alfred snapped his teeth together and went on grimly.

"If they get hold of you," he said, with solemnity, "they'll first take off every stitch of your clothes, and when you're quite naked they'll stretch you out on the ground with a raw-hide to each of your arms and legs. And then they'll drive a stake through the middle of your body into the ground—and leave you there—to die—slowly!"

And the girl believed him, because, incongruously enough, even through her terror she noticed that at this, the most immodest speech of his life, Alfred did not blush. She looked at the pistol lying on the turf with horrified fascination.

The group of Indians, which had up to now remained fully a thousand yards away, suddenly screeched and broke into a run directly toward the dog-town.

There is an indescribable rush in a charge of savages. The little ponies make their feet go so fast, the feathers and trappings of the warriors stream behind so frantically, the whole attitude of horse and man is so eager, that one gets an impression of fearful speed and resistless power. The horizon seems full of Indians.

As if this were not sufficiently terrifying, the air is throbbing with sound. Each Indian pops away for general results as he comes jumping along, and yells shrilly to show what a big warrior he is, while underneath it all is the hurried monotone of hoof-beats becoming ever louder, as the roar of an increasing rainstorm on the roof. It does not seem possible that anything can stop them.

Yet there is one thing that can stop them, if skilfully taken advantage of, and that is their lack of discipline. An Indian will fight hard when cornered, or when heated by lively resistance, but he hates to go into it in cold blood. As he nears the opposing rifle, this feeling gets stronger. So often a man with nerve enough to hold his fire, can break a fierce charge merely by waiting until it is within fifty yards or so, and then suddenly raising the muzzle of his gun. If he had gone to shooting at once, the affair would have become a combat, and the Indians would have ridden him down. As it is, each has had time to think. By the time the white man is ready to shoot, the suspense has done its work. Each savage knows that but one will fall, but, cold-blooded, he does not want to be that one; and, since in such disciplined fighters it is each for himself, he promptly ducks behind his mount and circles away to the right or the left. The whole band swoops and divides, like a flock of swift-winged terns on a windy day.

This Alfred relied on in the approaching crisis.

The girl watched the wild sweep of the warriors with strained eyes. She had to grasp her wrist firmly to keep from fainting, and she seemed incapable of thought. Alfred sat motionless on a dog-mound, his rifle across his lap. He did not seem in the least disturbed.

"It's good to fight again," he murmured, gently fondling the stock of his rifle. "Come on, ye devils! Oho!" he cried as a warrior's horse went down in a dog-hole, "I thought so!"

His eyes began to shine.

The ponies came skipping here and there, nimbly dodging in and out between the dog-holes. Their riders shot and yelled wildly, but none of the bullets went lower than ten feet. The circle of their advance looked somehow like the surge shoreward of a great wave, and the similarity was heightened by the nodding glimpses of the light eagles' feathers in their hair.

The run across the honey-combed plain was hazardous—even to Indian ponies—and three went down kicking, one after the other. Two of the riders lay stunned. The third sat up and began to rub his knee. The pony belonging to Miss Caldwell, becoming frightened, threw itself and lay on its side, kicking out frantically with its hind legs.

At the proper moment Alfred cocked his rifle and rose swiftly to his knees. As he did so, the mound on which he had been kneeling caved into the hole beneath it, and threw him forward on his face. With a furious curse, he sprang to his feet and levelled his rifle at the thick of the press. The scheme worked. In a flash every savage disappeared behind his pony, and nothing was to be seen but an arm and a leg. The band divided on either hand as promptly as though the signal for such a drill had been given, and swept gracefully around in two long circles until it reined up motionless at nearly the exact point from which it had started on its imposing charge. Alfred had not fired a shot.

He turned to the girl with a short laugh.

She lay face upward on the ground, staring at the sky with wide-open, horror-stricken eyes. In her brow was a small blackened hole, and under her head, which lay strangely flat against the earth, the grasses had turned red. Near her hand lay the heavy Colt's 44.

Alfred looked at her a minute without winking. Then he nodded his head.

"It was 'cause I fell down that hole—she thought they'd got me!" he said aloud to himself. "Pore little gal! She hadn't ought to have did it!"

He blushed deeply, and, turning his face away, pulled down her skirt until it covered her ankles. Then he picked up his Winchester and fired three shots. The first hit directly back of the ear one of the stunned Indians who had fallen with his horse. The second went through the other stunned Indian's chest. The third caught the Indian with the broken leg between the shoulders just as he tried to get behind his struggling pony.

Shortly after, Billy Knapp and the wagon-train came along.



II

BILLY'S TENDERFOOT

During one spring of the early seventies Billy Knapp ran a species of road-house and hotel at the crossing of the Deadwood and Big Horn trails through Custer Valley. Travellers changing from one to the other frequently stopped there over night. He sold accommodations for man and beast, the former comprising plenty of whiskey, the latter plenty of hay. That was the best anyone could say of it. The hotel was of logs, two-storied, with partitions of sheeting to insure a certain privacy of sight if not of sound; had three beds and a number of bunks; and boasted of a woman cook—one of the first in the Hills. Billy did not run it long. He was too restless. For the time being, however, he was interested and satisfied.

The personnel of the establishment consisted of Billy and the woman, already mentioned, and an ancient Pistol of the name of Charley. The latter wore many firearms, and had a good deal to say, but had never, as Billy expressed it, "made good." This in the West could not be for lack of opportunity. His functions were those of general factotum.

One evening Billy sat chair-tilted against the walls of the hotel waiting for the stage. By and by it drew in. Charley hobbled out, carrying buckets of water for the horses. The driver flung the reins from him with the lordly insolence of his privileged class, descended slowly, and swaggered to the bar-room for his drink. Billy followed to serve it.

"Luck," said the driver, and crooked his elbow.

"Anything new?" queried Billy.

"Nope."

"Held up?"

"Nope. Black Hank's over in th' limestone."

That exhausted the situation. The two men puffed silently for a moment at their pipes. In an instant the driver turned to go.

"I got you a tenderfoot," he remarked then, casually; "I reckon he's outside."

"Guess I ambles forth and sees what fer a tenderfoot it is," replied Billy, hastening from behind the bar.

The tenderfoot was seated on a small trunk just outside the door. As he held his hat in his hand, Billy could see his dome-like bald head. Beneath the dome was a little pink-and-white face, and below that narrow, sloping shoulders, a flat chest, and bandy legs. He wore a light check suit, and a flannel shirt whose collar was much too large for him. Billy took this all in while passing. As the driver climbed to the seat, the hotel-keeper commented.

"Say, Hen," said he, "would you stuff it or put it under a glass case?"

"I'd serve it, a lay Tooloose," replied the driver, briefly, and brought his long lash 8-shaped across the four startled backs of his horses.

Billy turned to the reinspection of his guest, and met a deprecating smile.

"Can I get a room here fer to-night?" he inquired in a high, piping voice.

"You kin," said Billy, shortly, and began to howl for Charley.

That patriarch appeared around the corner, as did likewise the cook, a black-eyed, red-cheeked creature, afterward counted by Billy as one of his eight matrimonial ventures.

"Snake this stranger's war-bag into th' shack," commanded Billy, "and, Nell, jest nat'rally rustle a few grub."

The stranger picked up a small hand-satchel and followed Charley into the building. When, a little later, he reappeared for supper, he carried the hand-bag with him, and placed it under the bench which flanked the table. Afterward he deposited it near his hand while enjoying a pipe outside. Naturally, all this did not escape Billy.

"Stranger," said he, "yo' seems mighty wedded to that thar satchel."

"Yes, sir," piped the stranger. Billy snorted at the title. "I has some personal belongin's which is valuable to me." He opened the bag and produced a cheap portrait of a rather cheap-looking woman. "My mother that was," said he.

Billy snorted again and went inside. He hated sentiment of all kinds.

The two men sat opposite each other and ate supper, which was served by the red-cheeked girl. The stranger kept his eyes on his plate while she was in the room. He perched on the edge of the bench with his feet tucked under him and resting on the toes. When she approached, the muscles of his shoulders and upper arms grew rigid with embarrassment, causing strange awkward movements of the hands. He answered in monosyllables.

Billy ate expansively and earnestly. Toward the close of the meal Charley slipped into place beside him. Charley was out of humour, and found the meat cold.

"Damn yore soul, Nell," he cried, "this yere ain't fitten fer a hog to eat!"

The girl did not mind; nor did Billy. It was the country's mode of speech. The stranger dropped his knife.

"I don't wonder you don't like it, then," said he, with a funny little blaze of anger.

"Meanin' what?" shouted Charley, threateningly.

"You sure mustn't speak to a lady that way," replied the stranger, firmly, in his little piping voice.

Billy caught the point and exploded in a mighty guffaw.

"Bully fer you!" he cried, slapping his knee; "struck pyrites (he pronounced it pie-rights) fer shore that trip, Charley."

The girl, too, laughed, but quietly. She was just a little touched, though only this winter she had left Bismarck because the place would have no more of her.

In the face of Billy's approval, the patriarch fell silent.

About midnight the four inmates of the frontier hotel were awakened by a tremendous racket outside. The stranger arose, fully clothed, from his bunk, and peered through the narrow open window. A dozen horses were standing grouped in charge of a single mounted man, indistinguishable in the dark. Out of the open door a broad band of light streamed from the saloon, whence came the noise of voices and of boots tramping about.

"It is Black Hank," said Billy, at his elbow, "Black Hank and his outfit. He hitches to this yere snubbin'-post occasional."

Black Hank in the Hills would have translated to Jesse James farther south.

The stranger turned suddenly energetic.

"Don't you make no fight?" he asked.

"Fight?" said Billy, wondering. "Fight? Co'se not. Hank don't plunder me none. He jest ambles along an' helps himself, and leaves th' dust fer it every time. I jest lays low an' lets him operate. I never has no dealin's with him, understand. He jest nat'rally waltzes in an' plants his grub-hooks on what he needs. I don't know nothin' about it. I'm dead asleep."

He bestowed a shadowy wink on the stranger

Below, the outlaws moved here and there.

"Billy!" shouted a commanding voice, "Billy Knapp!"

The hotel-keeper looked perplexed.

"Now, what's he tollin' me for?" he asked of the man by his side.

"Billy!" shouted the voice again, "come down here, you Siwash. I want to palaver with you!"

"All right, Hank," replied Billy.

He went to his "room," and buckled on a heavy belt; then descended the steep stairs. The bar-room was lighted and filled with men. Some of them were drinking and eating; others were strapping provisions into portable form. Against the corner of the bar a tall figure of a man leaned smoking—a man lithe, active, and muscular, with a keen dark face, and black eyebrows which met over his nose. Billy walked silently to this man.

"What is it?" he asked, shortly. "This yere ain't in th' agreement."

"I know that," replied the stranger.

"Then leave yore dust and vamoose."

"My dust is there," replied Black Hank, placing his hand on a buckskin bag at his side, "and you're paid, Billy Knapp. I want to ask you a question. Standing Rock has sent fifty thousand dollars in greenbacks to Spotted Tail. The messenger went through here to-day. Have you seen him?"

"Nary messenger," replied Billy, in relief. "Stage goes empty."

Charley had crept down the stairs and into the room.

"What in hell are yo' doin' yere, yo' ranikaboo ijit?" inquired Billy, truculently.

"That thar stage ain't what you calls empty," observed Charley, unmoved.

A light broke on Billy's mind. He remarked the valise which the stranger had so carefully guarded; and though his common-sense told him that an inoffensive non-combatant such as his guest would hardly be chosen as express messenger, still the bare possibility remained.

"Yo're right," he agreed, carelessly, "thar is one tenderfoot, who knows as much of ridin' express as a pig does of a ruffled shirt."

"I notes he's almighty particular about that carpet-bag of his'n," insisted Charley.

The man against the counter had lost nothing of the scene. Billy's denial, his hesitation, his half-truth all looked suspicious to him. With one swift, round sweep of the arm he had Billy covered. Billy's hands shot over his head without the necessity of command.

The men ceased their occupations and gathered about. Scenes of this sort were too common to elicit comment or arouse excitement. They knew perfectly well the laissez-faire relations which obtained between the two Westerners.

"Now," said Black Hank, angrily, in a low tone, "I want to know why in hell you tried that monkey game!"

Billy, wary and unafraid, replied that he had tried no game, that he had forgotten the tenderfoot for the moment, and that he did not believe the latter would prove to be the sought-for express messenger.

One of the men, at a signal from his leader, relieved Billy's heavy belt of considerable weight. Then the latter was permitted to sit on a cracker-box. Two more mounted the stairs. In a moment they returned to report that the upper story contained no human beings, strange or otherwise, except the girl, but that there remained a small trunk. Under further orders, they dragged the trunk down into the bar-room. It was broken open and found to contain nothing but clothes—of the plainsman's cut, material, and state of wear; a neatly folded Mexican saddle showing use, and a raw-hide quirt.

"Hell of a tenderfoot!" said Black Hank, contemptuously.

The outlaws had already scattered outside to look for the trail. In this they were unsuccessful, reporting, indeed, that not the faintest sign indicated escape in any direction.

Billy knew his man. The tightening of Black Hank's close-knit brows meant but one thing. One does not gain chieftainship of any kind in the West without propping his ascendency with acts of ruthless decision. Billy leaped from his cracker-box with the suddenness of the puma, seized Black Hank firmly about the waist, whirled him into a sort of shield, and began an earnest struggle for the instant possession of the outlaw's drawn revolver. It was a gallant attempt, but an unsuccessful one. In a moment Billy was pinioned to the floor, and Black Hank was rubbing his abraded fore-arm. After that the only question was whether it should be rope or bullet.

Now, when Billy had gone downstairs, the stranger had wasted no further time at the window. He had in his possession fifty thousand dollars in greenbacks which he was to deliver as soon as possible to the Spotted Tail agency in Wyoming. The necessary change of stage lines had forced him to stay over night at Billy Knapp's hotel.

The messenger seized his bag and softly ran along through the canvas-partitioned room wherein Billy slept, to a narrow window which he had already noticed gave out almost directly into the pine woods. The window was of oiled paper, and its catch baffled him. He knew it should slide back; but it refused to slide. He did not dare break the paper because of the crackling noise. A voice at his shoulder startled him.

"I'll show you," whispered the red-cheeked girl.

She was wrapped loosely in a blanket, her hair falling about her shoulders, and her bare feet showed beneath her coverings. The little man suffered at once an agony of embarrassment in which the thought of his errand was lost. It was recalled to him by the girl.

"There you are," she whispered, showing him the open window.

"Thank you," he stammered, painfully, "I assure you—I wish——"

The girl laughed under her breath.

"That's all right," she said, heartily, "I owe you that for calling old whiskers off his bronc," and she kissed him.

The messenger, trembling with self-consciousness, climbed hastily through the window; ran the broad loop of the satchel up his arm; and, instead of dropping to the ground, as the girl had expected, swung himself lightly into the branches of a rather large scrub-oak that grew near. She listened to the rustle of the leaves for a moment as he neared the trunk, and then, unable longer to restrain her curiosity in regard to the doings below, turned to the stairway.

As she did so, two men mounted. They examined the three rooms of the upper story hastily but carefully, paying scant attention to her, and departed swearing. In a few moments they returned for the stranger's trunk. Nell followed them down the stairs as far as the doorway. There she heard and saw things, and fled in bitter dismay to the back of the house when Billy Knapp was overpowered.

At the window she knelt, clasping her hands and sinking her head between her arms. Women in the West, at least women like Nell, do not weep. But she came near it. Suddenly she raised her head. A voice next her ear had addressed her.

She looked here and there and around, but could discover nothing.

"Here, outside," came the low, guarded voice, "in the tree."

Then she saw that the little stranger had not stirred from his first alighting-place.

"Beg yore pardon, ma'am, fer startling you or fer addressing you at all, which I shouldn't, but——"

"Oh, never mind that," said the girl, impatiently, shaking back her hair. So deprecating and timid were the tones, that almost without an effort of the imagination she could picture the little man's blushes and his half-sidling method of delivery. At this supreme moment his littleness and lack of self-assertion jarred on her mood. "What're you doin' there? Thought you'd vamoosed."

"It was safer here," explained the stranger, "I left no trail."

She nodded comprehension of the common-sense of this.

"But, ma'am, I took the liberty of speakin' to you because you seems to be in trouble. Of course, I ain't got no right to ask, an' if you don't care to tell me——"

"They're goin' to kill Billy," broke in Nell, with a sob.

"What for?"

"I don't jest rightly make out. They's after someone, and they thinks Billy's cacheing him. I reckon it's you. Billy ain't cacheing nothin', but they thinks he is."

"It's me they's after, all right. Now, you know where I am, why don't you tell them and save Billy?"

The girl started, but her keen Western mind saw the difficulty at once.

"They thinks Billy pertects you jest th' same."

"Do you love him?" asked the stranger.

"God knows I'm purty tough," confessed Nell, sobbing, "but I jest do that!" and she dropped her head again.

The invisible stranger in the gloom fell silent, considering.

"I'm a pretty rank proposition, myself," said he at last, as if to himself, "and I've got a job on hand which same I oughta put through without givin' attention to anything else. As a usual thing folks don't care fer me, and I don't care much fer folks. Women especial. They drives me plumb tired. I reckon I don't stack up very high in th' blue chips when it comes to cashin' in with the gentle sex, anyhow; but in general they gives me as much notice as they lavishes on a doodle-bug. I ain't kickin', you understand, nary bit; but onct in a dog's age I kind of hankers fer a decent look from one of 'em. I ain't never had no women-folks of my own, never. Sometimes I thinks it would be some scrumptious to know a little gal waitin' fer me somewhere. They ain't none. They never will be. I ain't built that way. You treated me white to-night. You're th' first woman that ever kissed me of her own accord."

The girl heard a faint scramble, then the soft pat of someone landing on his feet. Peering from the window she made out a faint, shadowy form stealing around the corner of the hotel. She put her hand to her heart and listened. Her understanding of the stranger's motives was vague at best, but she had caught his confession that her kiss had meant much to him, and even in her anxiety she felt an inclination to laugh. She had bestowed that caress as she would have kissed the cold end of a dog's nose.

The men below stairs had, after some discussion, decided on bullet. This was out of consideration for Billy's standing as a frontiersman. Besides, he had stolen no horses. In order not to delay matters, the execution was fixed for the present time and place. Billy stood with his back to the logs of his own hotel, his hands and feet bound, but his eyes uncovered. He had never lost his nerve. In the short respite which preparation demanded, he told his opponents what he thought of them.

"Proud?" he concluded a long soliloquy as if to the reflector of the lamp. "Proud?" he repeated, reflectively. "This yere Hank's jest that proud he's all swelled up like a poisoned pup. Ain't everyone kin corall a man sleepin' and git fifty thousand without turnin' a hair."

Black Hank distributed three men to do the business. There were no heroics. The execution of this man was necessary to him, not because he was particularly angry over the escape of the messenger—he expected to capture that individual in due time—but in order to preserve his authority over his men. He was in the act of moving back to give the shooters room, when he heard behind him the door open and shut.

He turned. Before the door stood a small consumptive-looking man in a light check suit. The tenderfoot carried two short-barrelled Colt's revolvers, one of which he presented directly at Black Hank.

"'Nds up!" he commanded, sharply.

Hank was directly covered, so he obeyed. The new-comer's eye had a strangely restless quality. Of the other dozen inmates of the room, eleven were firmly convinced that the weapon and eye not directly levelled at their leader were personally concerned with themselves. The twelfth thought he saw his chance. To the bewildered onlookers there seemed to be a flash and a bang, instantaneous; then things were as before. One of the stranger's weapons still pointed at Black Hank's breast; the other at each of the rest. Only the twelfth man, he who had seen his chance, had collapsed forward to the floor. No one could assure himself positively that he had discerned the slightest motion on the part of the stranger.

"Now," said the latter, sharply, "one at a time, gentlemen. Drop yore gun," this last to Black Hank, "muzzle down. Drop it! Correct!"

One of the men in the back of the room stirred slightly on the ball of his foot.

"Steady, there!" warned the stranger. The man stiffened.

"Next gent," went on the little man, subtly indicating another. The latter obeyed without hesitation. "Next. Now you. Now you in th' corner."

One after another the pistols clattered to the floor. Not for an instant could a single inmate of the apartment, armed or unarmed, flatter himself that his slightest motion was unobserved. They were like tigers on the crouch, ready to spring the moment the man's guard lowered. It did not lower. The huddled figure on the floor reminded them of what might happen. They obeyed.

"Step back," commanded the stranger next. In a moment he had them standing in a row against the wall, rigid, upright, their hands over their heads. Then for the first time the stranger moved from his position by the door.

"Call her," he said to Billy, "th' girl."

Billy raised his voice. "Nell! Oh, Nell!"

In a moment she appeared in the doorway at the foot of the stairs, without hesitation or fear. When she perceived the state of affairs, she brightened almost mischievously.

"Would you jest as soon, ma'am, if it ain't troubling you too much, jest nat'rally sort of untie Billy?" requested the stranger.

She did so. The hotel-keeper stretched his arms.

"Now, pick up th' guns, please."

The two set about it.

"Where's that damn ol' reprobate?" inquired Billy, truculently, looking about for Charley.

The patriarch had quietly slipped away.

"You kin drop them hands," advised the stranger, lowering the muzzles of his weapons. The leader started to say something.

"You shut up!" said Billy, selecting his own weapons from the heap.

The stranger suddenly picked up one of the Colt's single-action revolvers which lay on the floor, and, holding the trigger back against the guard, exploded the six charges by hitting the hammer smartly with the palm of his hand. In the thrusting motion of this discharge he evidently had design, for the first six wine-glasses on Billy's bar were shivered. It was wonderful work, rattling fire, quicker than a self-cocker even. He selected another weapon. From a pile of tomato-cans he took one and tossed it into the air. Before it had fallen he had perforated it twice, and as it rolled along the floor he helped its progression by four more bullets which left streams of tomato-juice where they had hit. The room was full of smoke. The group watched, fascinated.

Then the men against the wall grew rigid. Out of the film of smoke long, vivid streams of fire flashed toward them, now right, now left, like the alternating steam of a locomotive's pistons. Smash, smash! Smash, smash! hit the bullets with regular thud. With the twelfth discharge the din ceased. Midway in the space between the heads of each pair of men against the wall was a round hole. No one was touched.

A silence fell. The smoke lightened and blew slowly through the open door. The horses, long since deserted by their guardians in favour of the excitement within, whinnied. The stranger dropped the smoking Colts, and quietly reproduced his own short-barrelled arms from his side-pockets, where he had thrust them. Billy broke the silence at last.

"That's shootin'!" he observed, with a sigh.

"Them fifty thousand is outside," clicked the stranger. "Do you want them?"

There was no reply.

"I aims to pull out on one of these yere hosses of yours," said he. "Billy he's all straight. He doesn't know nothin' about me."

He collected the six-shooters from the floor.

"I jest takes these with me for a spell," he continued. "You'll find them, if you look hard enough, along on th' trail—also yore broncs."

He backed toward the door.

"I'm layin' fer th' man that sticks his head out that door," he warned.

"Stranger," said Black Hank as he neared the door.

The little man paused.

"Might I ask yore name?"

"My name is Alfred," replied the latter.

Black Hank looked chagrined.

"I've hearn tell of you," he acknowledged.

The stranger's eye ran over the room, and encountered that of the girl. He shrank into himself and blushed.

"Good-night," he said, hastily, and disappeared. A moment later the beat of hoofs became audible as he led the bunch of horses away.

For a time there was silence. Then Billy, "By God, Hank, I means to stand in with you, but you let that kid alone, or I plugs you!"

"Kid, huh!" grunted Hank. "Alfred a kid! I've hearn tell of him."

"What've you heard?" inquired the girl.

"He's th' plumb best scout on th' southern trail," replied Black Hank.

The year following, Billy Knapp, Alfred, and another man named Jim Buckley took across to the Hills the only wagon-train that dared set out that summer.



III

THE TWO CARTRIDGES

This happened at the time Billy Knapp drove stage between Pierre and Deadwood. I think you can still see the stage in Buffalo Bill's show. Lest confusion arise and the reader be inclined to credit Billy with more years than are his due, it might be well also to mention that the period was some time after the summer he and Alfred and Jim Buckley had made their famous march with the only wagon-train that dared set out, and some time before Billy took to mining. Jim had already moved to Montana.

The journey from Pierre to Deadwood amounted to something. All day long the trail led up and down long grassy slopes, and across sweeping, intervening flats. While climbing the slopes, you could never get your experience to convince you that you were not, on topping the hill, about to overlook the entire country for miles around. This never happened; you saw no farther than the next roll of the prairie. While hurtling down the slopes, you saw the intervening flat as interminably broad and hot and breathless, or interminably broad and icy and full of arctic winds, according to the season of the year. Once in a dog's age you came to a straggling fringe of cottonwood-trees, indicating a creek bottom. The latter was either quite dry or in raging flood. Close under the hill huddled two buildings, half logs, half mud. There the horses were changed by strange men with steel glints in their eyes, like those you see under the brows of a north-country tug-boat captain. Passengers could there eat flap-jacks architecturally warranted to hold together against the most vigorous attack of the gastric juices, and drink green tea that tasted of tannin and really demanded for its proper accommodation porcelain-lined insides. It was not an inspiring trip.

Of course, Billy did not accompany the stage all of the way; only the last hundred miles; but the passengers did, and by the time they reached Billy they were usually heartily sick of their undertaking. Once a tenderfoot came through in the fall of the year, simply for the love of adventure. He got it.

"Driver," said he to Billy, as the brakes set for another plunge, "were you ever held up?"

Billy had been deluged with questions like this for the last two hours. Usually he looked straight in front of him, spat accurately between the tail of the wheel-horse and the whiffle-tree, and answered in monosyllables. The tenderfoot did not know that asking questions was not the way to induce Billy to talk.

"Held up?" replied Billy, with scorn. "Young feller, I is held up thirty-seven times in th' last year."

"Thunderation!" exclaimed the tenderfoot. "What do you do? Do you have much trouble getting away? Have you had much fighting?"

"Fight nothin'. I ain't hired to fight. I'm hired to drive stage."

"And you just let them go through you?" cried the tenderfoot.

Billy was stung by the contempt in the stranger's tone.

"Go through nothin'," he explained. "They isn't touchin' me none whatever. Put her down fer argument that I'm damn fool enough to sprinkle lead 'round some, and that I gets away. What happens? Nex' time I drives stage some of these yere agents massacrees me from behind a bush. Whar do I come in? Nary bit!"

The tenderfoot, struck by the logic of this reasoning, fell silent. After an interval the sun set in a film of yellow light; then the afterglow followed; and finally the stars pricked out the true immensity of the prairies.

"He's the feller hired to fight," observed the shadowy Billy, jerking his thumb backward.

The tenderfoot now understood the silent, grim man who, unapproachable and solitary, had alone occupied the seat on top of the stage. Looking with more curiosity, the tenderfoot observed a shot-gun with abnormally short barrels, slung in two brass clips along the back of the seat in front of the messenger. The usual revolvers, too, were secured, instead of by the regulation holsters, in brass clips riveted to the belt, so that in case of necessity they could be snatched free with one forward sweep of the arm. The man met his gaze keenly.

"Them Hills ain't fur now," vouchsafed Billy, as a cold breeze from the west lifted the limp brim of his hat, and a film of cloud drew with uncanny and silent rapidity across the stars.

The tenderfoot had turned again to look at the messenger, who interested him exceedingly, when the stage came to a stop so violent as almost to throw him from his seat. He recovered his balance with difficulty. Billy, his foot braced against the brake, was engaged in leisurely winding the reins around it.

"Hands up, I say!" cried a sharp voice from the darkness ahead.

"Meanin' you," observed Billy to the tenderfoot, at the same time thrusting his own over his head and settling down comfortably on the small of his back. "Time!" he called, facetiously, to the darkness.

As though at the signal the night split with the roar of buckshot, and splintered with the answering crackle of a six-shooter three times repeated. The screech of the brake had deceived the messenger as to the whereabouts of the voice. He had jumped to the ground on the wrong side of the stage, thus finding himself without protection against his opponent, who, firing at the flash of the shot-gun, had brought him to the ground.

The road-agent stepped confidently forward. "Billy," said he, pleasantly, "jest pitch me that box."

Billy climbed over the seat and dropped a heavy, iron-bound case to the ground. "Danged if I thinks anybody kin git Buck, thar," he remarked, in thoughtful reference to the messenger.

"Now, drive on," commanded the road-agent.

Three hours later Billy and the sobered tenderfoot pulled into Deadwood. Ten minutes taught the camp what had occurred.

Now, it must be premised that Deadwood had recently chosen a sheriff. He did not look much like a sheriff, for he was small and weak and bald, and most childlike as to expression of countenance. But when I tell you that his name was Alfred, you will know that it was all right. To him the community looked for initiative. It expected him to organise a posse, which would, of course, consist of every man in the place not otherwise urgently employed, and to enter upon instant pursuit. He did not.

"How many is they?" he asked of Billy.

"One lonesome one," replied the stage-driver.

"I plays her a lone hand," announced Alfred.

You see, Alfred knew well enough his own defects. He never could make plans when anybody else was near, but always instinctively took the second place. Then, when the other's scheme had fallen into ruins, he would construct a most excellent expedient from the wreck of it. In the case under consideration he preferred to arrange his own campaign, and therefore to work alone.

By that time men knew Alfred. They made no objection.

"Snowin'," observed one of the chronic visitors of the saloon door. There are always two or three of such in every Western gathering.

"One of you boys saddle my bronc," suddenly requested Alfred, and began to examine his firearms by the light of the saloon lamp.

"Yo' ain't aimin' to set out to-night?" they asked, incredulously.

"I am. Th' snow will make a good trail, but she'll be covered come mornin'."

So Alfred set out alone, at night, in a snowstorm, without the guidance of a solitary star, to find a single point in the vastness of the prairie.

He made the three hours of Billy and the tenderfoot in a little over an hour, because it was mostly down hill. So the agent had apparently four hours the start of him, which discrepancy was cut down, however, by the time consumed in breaking open the strong-box after Billy and the stage had surely departed beyond gunshot. The exact spot was easily marked by the body of Buck, the express messenger. Alfred convinced himself that the man was dead, but did not waste further time on him: the boys would take care of the remains next day. He remounted and struck out sharp for the east, though, according to Billy's statement, the agent had turned north.

"He is alone," said Alfred to himself, "so he ain't in that Black Hank outfit. Ain't nothin' to take him north, an' if he goes south he has to hit way down through the South Fork trail, which same takes him two weeks. Th' greenbacks in that plunder is numbered, and old Wells-Fargo has th' numbers. He sure has to pike in an' change them bills afore he is spotted. So he goes to Pierre."

Alfred staked his all on this reasoning and rode blindly eastward. Fortunately the roll of the country was sufficiently definite to enable him to keep his general direction well enough until about three o'clock, when the snow ceased and the stars came out, together with the waning moon. Twenty minutes later he came to the bed of a stream.

"Up or down?" queried Alfred, thoughtfully. The state of the weather decided him. It had been blowing all night strongly from the northwest. Left without guidance a pony tends to edge more or less away from the wind, in order to turn tail to the weather. Alfred had diligently counteracted this tendency all night, but he doubted whether, in the hurry of flight, the fugitive had thought of it. Instead of keeping directly east toward Pierre, he had probably fallen away more or less toward the south. "Down," Alfred decided.

He dismounted from his horse and began to lead the animal parallel to the stream, but about two hundred yards from it, first taking care to ascertain that a little water flowed in the channel. On discovering that there did, he nodded his head in a satisfied manner.

"He doesn't leave no trail till she begins to snow," he argued, "an' he nat'rally doesn't expect no mud-turkles like me a followin' of him eastward. Consequently he feeds when he strikes water. This yere is water."

All of which seemed satisfactory to Alfred. He walked on foot in order to discover the trail in the snow. He withdrew two hundred yards from the bank of the stream that his pony might not scent the other man's horse, and so give notice of approach by whinnying. After a time he came across the trail. So he left the pony and followed it to the creek-bottom on foot. At the top of the bluff he peered over cautiously.

"Well, you got nerve!" he remarked to himself. "If I was runnin' this yere game, I'd sure scout with my blinders off."

The fugitive evidently believed himself safe from pursuit, for he had made camp. His two ponies cropped browse and pawed for grass in the bottom land. He himself had prepared a warm niche and was sleeping in it with only one blanket over him, though by now the thermometer was well down toward zero. The affair had been simple. He had built a long, hot fire in the L of an upright ledge and the ground. When ready to sleep he had raked the fire three feet out from the angle, and had lain down on the heated ground between the fire and the ledge. His rifle and revolver lay where he could seize them at a moment's notice.

Alfred could stalk a deer, but he knew better than to attempt to stalk a man trained in the West. Instead, he worked himself into a protected position and carefully planted a Winchester bullet some six inches from the man's ear. The man woke up suddenly and made an instinctive grab toward his weapons.

"Drop it!" yelled Alfred.

So he dropped it, and lay like a rabbit in its form.

"Jest select that thar six-shooter by the end of the bar'l and hurl her from you some," advised the sheriff. "Now the Winchester. Now stand up an' let's look at you." The man obeyed. "Yo' don't really need that other gun, under th' circumstances," pursued the little man. "No, don't fetch her loose from the holster none; jest unbuckle th' whole outfit, belt and all. Good! Now, you freeze, and stay froze right whar you are."

So Alfred arose and scrambled down to the bottom.

"Good-mornin'," he observed, pleasantly.

He cast about him and discovered the man's lariat, which he picked up and overran with one hand until he had loosened the noose.

"You-all are some sizable," he remarked, in conversational tones, "an' like enough you eats me up, if I gets clost enough to tie you. Hands up!"

With a deft twist and flip he tossed the open noose over his prisoner's upheld wrists and jerked it tight.

"Thar you be," he observed, laying aside his rifle.

He loosened one of his revolvers suggestively and approached to tie the knot.

"Swing her down," he commanded. He contemplated the result. "Don't like that nohow—tied in front. Step through your hands a whole lot." The man hesitated. "Step, I say!" said Alfred, sharply, at the same time pricking the prisoner with his long knife.

The other contorted and twisted awkwardly, but finally managed to thrust first one foot, then the other, between his shackled wrists. Alfred bound together his elbows at the back.

"You'll do," he approved, cheerfully. "Now, we sees about grub."

Two flat stones placed a few inches apart improvised a stove when fire thrust its tongue from the crevice, and a frying-pan and tin-cup laid across the opening cooked the outlaw's provisions. Alfred hospitably ladled some bacon and coffee into their former owner.

"Not that I needs to," he observed, "but I'm jest that tender-hearted."

At the close of the meal, Alfred instituted a short and successful search for the plunder, which he found in the stranger's saddle-bag, open and unashamed.

"Yo're sure a tenderfoot at this game, stranger," commented the sheriff. "Thar is plenty abundance of spots to cache such plunder—like the linin' of yore saddle, or a holler horn. Has you any choice of cayuses for ridin'?" indicating the grazing ponies.

The man shook his head. He had maintained a lowering silence throughout all these cheerful proceedings.

Alfred and his prisoner finally mounted and rode northwest. As soon as they had scrambled up the precipitous side of the gully, the affair became a procession, with the stranger in front, and the stranger's second pony bringing up an obedient rear. Thus the robber was first to see a band of Sioux that topped a distant rise for a single instant. Of course, the Sioux saw him, too. He communicated this discovery to Alfred.

"Well," said Alfred, "they ain't hostile."

"These yere savages is plenty hostile," contradicted the stranger, "and don't you make no mistake thar. I jest nat'rally lifts that pinto offen them yisterday," and he jerked his thumb toward the black-and-white pony in the rear.

"And you camps!" cried Alfred, in pure astonishment. "You must be plumb locoed!"

"I ain't had no sleep in three nights," explained the other, in apology.

Alfred's opinion of the man rose at once.

"Yo' has plumb nerve to tackle a hold-up under them circumstances," he observed.

"I sets out to git that thar stage; and I gits her," replied the agent, doggedly.

The savages appeared on the next rise, barely a half-mile away, and headed straight for the two men.

"I reckon yere's where you takes a hand," remarked Alfred simply, and, riding alongside, he released the other's arms by a single slash of his knife. The man slipped from his horse and stretched his arms wide apart and up over his head in order to loosen his muscles. Alfred likewise dismounted. The two, without further parley, tied their horses' noses close to their front fetlocks, and sat down back to back on the surface of the prairie. Each was armed with one of the new 44-40 Winchesters, just out, and with a brace of Colt's revolvers, chambering the same-sized cartridge as the rifle.

"How you heeled?" inquired Alfred.

The stranger took stock.

"Fifty-two," he replied.

"Seventy for me," vouchsafed Alfred. "I goes plenty organised."

Each man spread a little semicircle of shells in front of him. At the command of the two, without reloading, were forty-eight shots.

When the Indians had approached to within about four hundred yards of the white men they paused. Alfred rose and held his hand toward them, palm outward, in the peace sign. His response was a shot and a chorus of yells.

"I tells you," commented the hold-up.

Alfred came back and sat down. The savages, one by one, broke away from the group and began to circle rapidly to the left in a constantly contracting spiral. They did a great deal of yelling. Occasionally they would shoot. To the latter feature the plainsmen lent an attentive ear, for to their trained senses each class of arm spoke with a different voice—the old muzzle-loader, the Remington, the long, heavy Sharp's 50, each proclaimed itself plainly. The mere bullets did not interest them in the least. Two men seated on the ground presented but a small mark to the Indians shooting uncleaned weapons from running horses at three or four hundred yards' range.

"That outfit is rank outsiders," concluded Alfred. "They ain't over a dozen britch-loaders in the lay-out."

"Betcher anything you say I drops one," offered the stranger, taking a knee-rest.

"Don't be so plumb fancy," advised Alfred, "but turn in and help."

He was satisfied with the present state of affairs, and was hacking at the frozen ground with his knife. The light snow on the ridge-tops had been almost entirely drifted away. The stranger obeyed.

On seeing the men thus employed, the Indians turned their horses directly toward the group and charged in. At the range of perhaps two hundred yards the Winchesters began to speak. Alfred fired twice and the stranger three times. Then the circle broke and divided and passed by, leaving an oval of untrodden ground.

"How many did you get?" inquired Alfred, with professional interest.

"Two," replied the man.

"Two here," supplemented Alfred.

A commotion, a squeal, a thrashing-about near at hand caused both to turn suddenly. The pinto pony was down and kicking. Alfred walked over and stuck him in the throat to save a cartridge.

"Move up, pardner," said he.

The other moved up. Thus the men became possessed of protection from one side. The Indians had vented a yell of rage when the pony had dropped. Now as each warrior approached a certain point in the circle, he threw his horse back on its haunches, so that in a short time the entire band was once more gathered in a group. Alfred and the outlaw knew that this manoeuvre portended a more serious charge than the impromptu affair they had broken with such comparative ease. An Indian is extremely gregarious when it comes to open fighting. He gets a lot of encouragement out of yells, the patter of many ponies' hoofs, and the flutter of an abundance of feathers. Running in from the circumference of a circle is a bit too individual to suit his taste.

Also, the savages had by now taken the measure of their white opponents. They knew they had to deal with experience. Suspicion of this must have been aroused by the practised manner in which the men had hobbled their horses and had assumed the easiest posture of defence. The idea would have gained strength from their superior marksmanship; but it would have become absolute certainty from the small detail that, in all this hurl and rush of excitement, they had fired but five shots, and those at close range. It is difficult to refrain from banging away for general results when so many marks so loudly present themselves. It is equally fatal to do so. A few misses are a great encouragement to a savage, and seem to breed their like in subsequent shooting. They destroy your own coolness and confidence, and they excite the enemy an inch nearer to that dead-line of the lust of fighting, beyond which prudence gives place to the fury of killing. An Indian is the most cautious and wily of fighters before he goes mad: and the most terribly reckless after. In a few moments four of their number had passed to the happy hunting-grounds, and they were left, no nearer their prey, to contemplate the fact.

The tornado moved. It swept at the top jump of ponies used to the chase of the buffalo, as sudden and terrible and imminent as the loom of a black cloud on the wings of storm, and, like it, seeming to gather speed and awfulness as it rushed nearer. Each rider bent low over his pony's neck and shot—a hail of bullets, which, while most passed too high, nevertheless shrieked and spun through the volume of coarser sound. The ponies stretched their necks and opened their red mouths and made their little feet go with a rapidity that twinkled as bewilderingly as a picket-fence passing a train. And the light snow swirled and eddied behind them.

The two men behind the dead horse were not deceived by this excitement into rising to their knees. They realised that this was the critical point in the fight, and they shot hard and fast, concentrating all the energy of their souls into the steady glare of their eyes over the sights of the smoking rifles. In a moment the foremost warrior was trying to leap his pony at the barrier before him, but the little animal refused the strange jump and shied to the left, cannoning and plunging into the stream of braves rushing in on that side. Into the confusion Alfred emptied the last two shots of his Winchester, and was fortunate enough merely to cripple a pony with one of them. The kicking, screaming, little beast interposed a momentary but effective barrier between the sheriff and his foes. A rattling fire from one of his six-shooters into the brown of the hesitating charge broke it. The self-induced excitement ebbed, and the Indians swerved and swept on by.

On the other side, the outlaw had also managed to kill a pony within a few feet of the impromptu breastwork, and, direct riding-down being thus prevented in front, he was lying stretched on his side, coolly letting off first one revolver then the other in the face of imminent ruin. Alfred's attentions, however, and the defection of the right wing, drove these savages, too, into flight. Miraculously, neither man was more than scratched, though their clothes and the ground about them showed the marks of bullets. Strangely enough, too, the outlaw's other pony stood unhurt at a little distance whither the rush of the charge had carried him. Alfred arose and drove him back. Then both men made a triangular breastwork of the two dead horses and their saddles.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4     Next Part
Home - Random Browse