"Clark and Gene are over there," said Wally. "But I'd gamble they aren't doing any more than these fellows are. They haven't started to pan out any dirt—they haven't done a thing, it looks like, but lay around in the shade. I must say I don't sabe their play. And the worst of it is," he added desperately, "a fellow can't do anything."
"I'm going to break out pretty darned sudden," Jack observed calmly. "I feel it coming on." He smiled, but there was a look of steel in his eyes.
Good Indian glanced at him sharply.
"Now, you fellows' listen to me," he said. "This thing is partly my fault. I could have prevented it, maybe, if I hadn't been so taken up with my own affairs. Old Peppajee told me Baumberger was up to some devilment when he first came down here. He heard him talking to Saunders in Pete Hamilton's stable. And the first night he was here, Peppajee and I saw him down at the stable at midnight, talking to someone. Peppajee kept on his trail till he got that snake bite, and he warned me a plenty. But I didn't take much stock in it—or if I did—" He lifted his shoulders expressively.
"So," he went on, after a minute of bitter thinking, "I want you to keep out of this. You know how your mother would feel—You don't want to get foolish. You can keep an eye on them—to-night especially. I've an idea they're waiting for dark; and if I knew why, I'd be a lot to the good. And if I knew why old Baumberger took your father off so suddenly, why—I'd be wiser than I am now." He lifted his hat, brushed the moisture from his forehead, and gave a grunt of disapproval when his eyes rested on Jack.
"What yuh loaded down like that for?" he demanded. "You fellows better put those guns in cold storage. I'm like Baumberger in one respect—we don't want any violence!" He grinned without any feeling of mirth.
"Something else is liable to be put in cold storage first," Wally hinted, significantly. "I must say I like this standing around and looking dangerous, without making a pass! I wish something would break loose somewhere."
"I notice you're packing yours, large as life," Jack pointed out. "Maybe you're just wearing it for an ornament, though."
"Sure!" Good Indian, feeling all at once the utter futility of standing there talking, left them grumbling over their forced inaction, without explaining where he was going, or what he meant to do. Indeed, he scarcely knew himself. He was in that uncomfortable state of mind where one feels that one must do something, without having the faintest idea of what that something is, or how it is to be done. It seemed to him that they were all in the same mental befuddlement, and it seemed impossible to stay on the ranch another hour without making a hostile move of some sort—and he knew that, when he did make a move, he at least ought to know why he did it.
The note in his pocket gave him an excuse for action of some sort, even though he felt sure that nothing would come of it; at least, he thought, he would have a chance to discuss the thing with Miss Georgie again—and while he was not a man who must have everything put into words, he had found comfort and a certain clarity of thought in talking with her.
"Why don't you invite me to go along?" Evadna challenged from the gate, when he was ready to start. She laughed when she said it, but there was something beneath the laughter, if he had only been close enough to read it.
"I didn't think you'd want to ride through all that dust and heat again to-day," he called back. "You're better off in the shade."
"Going to call on 'Squaw-talk-far-off'—AGAIN?" She was still laughing, with something else beneath the laugh.
He glanced at her quickly, wondering where she had gotten the name, and in his wonder neglected to make audible reply. Also he passed over the change to ride back to the gate and tell her good-by—with a hasty kiss, perhaps, from the saddle—as a lover should have done.
He was not used to love-making. For him, it was settled that they loved each other, and would marry some day—he hoped the day would be soon. It did not occur to him that a girl wants to be told over and over that she is the only woman in the whole world worth a second thought or glance; nor that he should stop and say just where he was going, and what he meant to do, and how reluctant he was to be away from her. Trouble sat upon his mind like a dead weight, and dulled his perception, perhaps. He waved his hand to her from the stable, and galloped down the trail to the Point o' Rocks, and his mind, so far as Evadna was concerned, was at ease.
Evadna, however, was crying, with her arms folded upon the top of the gate, before the cloud which marked his passing had begun to sprinkle the gaunt, gray sagebushes along the trail with a fresh layer of choking dust. Jack and Wally came up, scowling at the world and finding no words to match their gloom. Wally gave her a glance, and went on to the blacksmith shop, but Jack went straight up to her, for he liked her well.
"What's the matter?" he asked dully. "Mad because you can't smoke up the ranch?"
Evadna fumbled blindly for her handkerchief, scoured her eyes well when she found it, and put up the other hand to further shield her face.
"Oh, the whole place is like a GRAVEYARD," she complained. "Nobody will talk, or do anything but just wander around! I just can't STAND it!" Which was not frank of her.
"It's too hot to do much of anything," he said apologetically. "We might take a ride, if you don't mind the heat."
"You don't want to ride," she objected petulantly. "Why didn't you go with Good Indian?" he countered.
"Because I didn't want to. And I do wish you'd quit calling him that; he has a real name, I believe."
"If you're looking for a scrap," grinned Jack, "I'll stake you to my six gun, and you can go down and kill off a few of those claim-jumpers. You seem to be in just about the proper frame uh mind to murder the whole bunch. Fly at it!"
"It begins to look as if we women would have to do something," she retorted cruelly. "There doesn't seem to be a man on the ranch with spirit enough to stop them from digging up the whole—"
"I guess that'll be about enough," Jack interrupted her, coldly. "Why didn't you say that to Good Indian?"
"I told you not to call him that. I don't see why everybody is so mean to-day. There isn't a person—"
When Jack laughed, he shut his eyes until he looked through narrow slits under heavy lashes, and showed some very nice teeth, and two deep dimples besides the one which always stood in his chin. He laughed then, for the first time that day, and if Evadna had been in a less vixenish temper she would have laughed with him just as everyone else always did. But instead of that, she began to cry again, which made Jack feel very much a brute.
"Oh, come on and be good," he urged remorsefully. But Evadna turned and ran back into the house and into her room, and cried luxuriously into her pillow. Jack, peeping in at the window which opened upon the porch, saw her there, huddled upon the bed.
In the spring-house his mother sat crying silently over her helplessness, and failed to respond to his comforting pats upon the shoulder. Donny struck at him viciously when Jack asked him an idle question, and Charlie, the Indian with the tumor over his eye, scowled from the corner of the house where he was squatting until someone offered him fruit, or food, or tobacco. He was of an acquisitive nature, was Charlie—and the road to his favor must be paved with gifts.
"This is what I call hell," Jack stated aloud, and went straight away to the strawberry patch, took up his stand with his toes against Stanley's corner stake, cursed him methodically until he had quite exhausted his vocabulary, and put a period to his forceful remarks by shooting a neat, round hole through Stanley's coffee-pot. And Jack was the mild one of the family.
By the time he had succeeded in puncturing recklessly the frying-pan, and also the battered pan in which Stanley no doubt meant to wash his samples of soil, his good humor returned. So also did the other boys, running in long leaps through the garden and arriving at the spot very belligerent and very much out of breath.
"Got to do something to pass away the time," Jack grinned, bringing his front sight once more to bear upon the coffee—pot, already badly dented and showing three black holes. "And I ain't offering any violence to anybody. You can't hang a man, Mr. Stanley, for shooting up a frying-pan. And I wouldn't—hurt—you—for—anything!" He had just reloaded, so that his bullets saw him to the end of the sentence.
Stanley watched his coffee-pot dance and roll like a thing in pain, and swore when all was done. But he did not shoot, though one could see how his fingers must itch for the feel of the trigger.
"Your old dad will sweat blood for this—and you'll be packing your blanket on your back and looking for work before snow flies," was his way of summing up.
Still, he did not shoot.
It was like throwing pebbles at the bowlder in the Malad, the day before.
When Phoebe came running in terror toward the fusillade, with Marie and her swollen face, and Evadna and her red eyes following in great trepidation far behind, they found four claim-jumpers purple from long swearing, and the boys gleefully indulging in revolver practice with various camp utensils for the targets.
They stopped when their belts were empty as well as their guns, and they went back to the house with the women, feeling much better. Afterward they searched the house for more "shells," clattering from room to room, and looking into cigar boxes and upon out-of-the-way shelves, while Phoebe expostulated in the immediate background.
"Your father would put a stop to it pretty quick if he was here," she declared over and over. "Just because they didn't shoot back this time is no sign they won't next time you boys go to hectoring them." All the while she knew she was wasting her breath, and she had a secret fear that her manner and her tones were unconvincing. If she had been a man, she would have been their leader, perhaps. So she retreated at last to her favorite refuge, the milk-house, and tried to cover her secret approval with grumbling to herself.
There was a lull in the house. The boys, it transpired, had gone in a body to Hartley after more cartridges, and the cloud of dust which hovered long over the trail testified to their haste. They returned surprisingly soon, and they would scarcely wait for their supper before they hurried back through the garden. One would think that they were on their way to a dance, so eager they were.
They dug themselves trenches in various parts of the garden, laid themselves gleefully upon their stomachs, and proceeded to exchange, at the top of their strong, young voices, ideas upon the subject of claim-jumping, and to punctuate their remarks with leaden periods planted neatly and with precision in the immediate vicinity of one of the four.
They had some trouble with Donny, because he was always jumping up that he might yell the louder when one of the enemy was seen to step about uneasily whenever a bullet pinged closer than usual, and the rifles began to bark viciously now and then. It really was unsafe for one to dance a clog, with flapping arms and taunting laughter, within range of those rises, and they told Donny so.
They ordered him back to the house; they threw clods of earth at his bare legs; they threatened and they swore, but it was not until Wally got him by the collar and shook him with brotherly thoroughness that Donny retreated in great indignation to the house.
They were just giving themselves wholly up to the sport of sending little spurts of loose earth into the air as close as was safe to Stanley, and still much too close for his peace of mind or that of his fellows, when Donny returned unexpectedly with the shotgun and an enthusiasm for real bloodshed.
He fired once from the thicket of currant bushes, and, from the remarks which Stanley barked out in yelping staccato, he punctured that gentleman's person in several places with the fine shot of which the charge consisted. He would have fired again if the recoil had not thrown him quite off his balance, and it is possible that someone would have been killed as a result. For Stanley began firing with murderous intent, and only the dusk and Good Indian's opportune arrival prevented serious trouble.
Good Indian had talked long with Miss Georgie, and had agreed with her that, for the present at least, there must be no violence. He had promised her flatly that he would do all in his power to keep the peace, and he had gone again to the Indian camp to see if Peppajee or some of his fellows could give him any information about Saunders.
Saunders had disappeared unaccountably, after a surreptitious conference with Baumberger the day before, and it was that which Miss Georgie had to tell him. Saunders was in the habit of sleeping late, so that she did not know until noon that he was gone. Pete was worried, and garrulously feared the worst. The worst, according to Pete Hamilton, was sudden death of a hemorrhage.
Miss Georgie asserted unfeelingly that Saunders was more in danger of dying from sheer laziness than of consumption, and she even went so far as to hint cynically, that even his laziness was largely hypocritical.
"I don't believe there's a single honest thing about the fellow," she said to Good Indian. "When he coughs, it sounds as if he just did it for effect. When he lies in the shade asleep, I've seen him watching people from under his lids. When he reads, his ears seem always pricked up to hear everything that's going on, and he gives those nasty little slanty looks at everybody within sight. I don't believe he's really gone—because I can't imagine him being really anything. But I do believe he's up to something mean and sneaky, and, since Peppajee has taken this matter to heart, maybe he can find out something. I think you ought to go and see him, anyway, Mr. Imsen."
So Good Indian had gone to the Indian camp, and had afterward ridden along the rim of the bluff, because Sleeping Turtle had seen someone walking through the sagebrush in that direction. From the rim-rock above the ranch, Good Indian had heard the shooting, though the trees hid from his sight what was taking place, and he had given over his search for Saunders and made haste to reach home.
He might have gone straight down the bluff afoot, through a rift in the rim-rock where it was possible to climb down into the fissure and squeeze out through a narrow opening to the bowlder-piled bluff. But that took almost as much time as he would consume in riding around, and so he galloped back to the grade and went down at a pace to break his neck and that of Keno as well if his horse stumbled.
He reached home in time to see Donny run across the road with the shotgun, and the orchard in time to prevent a general rush upon Stanley and his fellows—which was fortunate. He got them all out of the garden and into the house by sheer determination and biting sarcasm, and bore with surprising patience their angry upbraidings. He sat stoically silent while they called him a coward and various other things which were unpleasant in the extreme, and he even smiled when they finally desisted and trailed off sullenly to bed.
But when they were gone he sat alone upon the porch, brooding over the day and all it had held of trouble and perplexity. Evadna appeared tentatively in the open door, stood there for a minute or two waiting for some overture upon his part, gave him a chilly good-night when she realized he was not even thinking of her, and left him. So great was his absorption that he let her go, and it never occurred to him that she might possibly consider herself ill-used. He would have been distressed if he could have known how she cried herself to sleep but, manlike, he would also have been puzzled.
CHAPTER XVIII. A SHOT FROM THE RIM-ROCK
Good Indian was going to the stable to feed the horses next morning, when something whined past him and spatted viciously against the side of the chicken-house. Immediately afterward he thought he heard the sharp crack which a rifle makes, but the wind was blowing strongly up the valley, and he could not be sure.
He went over to the chicken-house, probed with his knife-blade into the plank where was the splintered hole, and located a bullet. He was turning it curiously in his fingers when another one plunked into the boards, three feet to one side of him; this time he was sure of the gun-sound, and he also saw a puff of blue smoke rise up on the rim-rock above him. He marked the place instinctively with his eyes, and went on to the stable, stepping rather more quickly than was his habit.
Inside, he sat down upon the oats-box, and meditated upon what he should do. He could not even guess at his assailant, much less reach him. A dozen men could be picked off by a rifle in the hands of one at the top, while they were climbing that bluff.
Even if one succeeded in reaching the foot of the rim-rock, there was a forty-foot wall of unscalable rock, with just the one narrow fissure where it was possible to climb up to the level above, by using both hands to cling to certain sharp projections while the feet sought a niche here and there in the wall. Easy enough—if one were but left to climb in peace, but absolutely suicidal if an enemy stood above.
He scowled through the little paneless window at what he could see of the bluff, and thought of the mile-long grade to be climbed and the rough stretch of lava rock, sage, and scattered bowlders to be gone over before one could reach the place upon a horse. Whoever was up there, he would have more than enough time to get completely away from the spot before it would be possible to gain so much as a glimpse of him.
And who could he be? And why was he shooting at Good Indian, so far a non-combatant, guiltless of even firing a single shot since the trouble began?
Wally came in, his hat far back on his head, a cigarette in the corner of his mouth, and his manner an odd mixture of conciliation and defiance, ready to assume either whole-heartedly at the first word from the man he had cursed so unstintingly before he slept. He looked at Good Indian, caught sight of the leaden pellet he was thoughtfully turning round and round in his fingers, and chose to ignore for the moment any unpleasantness in their immediate past.
"Where you ketchum?" he asked, coming a bit closer.
"In the side of the chicken-house." Good Indian's tone was laconic.
Wally reached out, and took the bullet from him that he might juggle it curiously in his own fingers. "I don't think!" he scouted.
"There's another one there to match this," Good Indian stated calmly, "and if I should walk over there after it, I'll gamble there'd be more."
Wally dropped the flattened bullet, stooped, and groped for it in the litter on the floor, and when he had found it he eyed it more curiously than before. But he would have died in his tracks rather than ask a question.
"Didn't anybody take a shot at you, as you came from the house?" Good Indian asked when he saw the mood of the other.
"If he did, he was careful not to let me find it out." Wally's expression hardened.
"He was more careless a while ago," said Good Indian. "Some fellow up on the bluff sent me a little morning salute. But," he added slowly, and with some satisfaction, "he's a mighty poor shot."
Jack sauntered in much as Wally had done, saw Good Indian sitting there, and wrinkled his eyes shut in a smile.
"Please, sir, I never meant a word I said!" he began, with exaggerated trepidation. "Why the dickens didn't you murder the whole yapping bunch of us, Grant?" He clapped his hand affectionately upon the other's shoulder. "We kinda run amuck yesterday afternoon," he confessed cheerfully, "but it sure was fun while it lasted!"
"There's liable to be some more fun of the same kind," Wally informed him shortly. "Good Injun says someone on the bluff took a shot at him when he was coming to the stable. If any of them jumpers—"
"It's easy to find out if it was one of them," Grant cut in, as if the idea had just come to him. "We can very soon see if they're all on their little patch of soil. Let's go take a look."
They went out guardedly, their eyes upon the rim-rock. Good Indian led the way through the corral, into the little pasture, and across that to where the long wall of giant poplars shut off the view.
"I admire courage," he grinned, "but I sure do hate a fool." Which was all the explanation he made for the detour that hid them from sight of anyone stationed upon the bluff, except while they were passing from the stable-door to the corral; and that, Jack said afterward, didn't take all day.
Coming up from the rear, they surprised Stanley and one other peacefully boiling coffee in a lard pail which they must have stolen in the night from the ranch junk heap behind the blacksmith shop. The three peered out at them from a distant ambush, made sure that there were only two men there, and went on to the disputed part of the meadows. There the four were pottering about, craning necks now and then toward the ranch buildings as if they half feared an assault of some kind. Good Indian led the way back to the stable.
"If there was any way of getting around up there without being seen," he began thoughtfully, "but there isn't. And while I think of it," he added, "we don't want to let the women know about this."
"They're liable to suspect something," Wally reminded dryly, "if one of us gets laid out cold."
Good Indian laughed. "It doesn't look as if he could hit anything smaller than a haystack. And anyway, I think I'm the boy he's after, though I don't see why. I haven't done a thing—yet."
"Let's feed the horses and then pace along to the house, one at a time, and find out," was Jack's reckless suggestion. "Anybody that knows us at all can easy tell which is who. And I guess it would be tolerably safe."
Foolhardy as the thing looked to be, they did it, each after his own manner of facing a known danger. Jack went first because, as he said, it was his idea, and he was willing to show his heart was in the right place. He rolled and lighted a cigarette, wrinkled his eyes shut in a laugh, and strolled nonchalantly out of the stable.
"Keep an eye on the rim-rock, boys," he called back, without turning his head. A third of the way he went, stopped dead still, and made believe inspect something upon the ground at his feet.
"Ah, go ON!" bawled Wally, his nerves all on edge.
Jack dug his heel into the dust, blew the ashes from his cigarette, and went on slowly to the gate, passed through, and stood well back, out of sight under the trees, to watch.
Wally snorted disdain of any proceeding so spectacular, but he was as he was made, and he could not keep his dare-devil spirit quite in abeyance. He twitched his hat farther back on his head, stuck his hands deep into his pockets, and walked deliberately out into the open, his neck as stiff as a newly elected politician on parade. He did not stop, as Jack had done, but he facetiously whistled "Tramp, tramp, tramp, the boys are marching," and he went at a pace which permitted him to finish the tune before he reached the gate. He joined Jack in the shade, and his face, when he looked back to the stable, was anxious.
"It must be Grant he wants, all right," he muttered, resting one hand on Jack's shoulder and speaking so he could not be overheard from the house. "And I wish to the Lord he'd stay where he's at."
But Good Indian was already two paces from the door, coming steadily up the path, neither faster nor slower than usual, with his eyes taking in every object within sight as he went, and his thumb hooked inside his belt, near where his gun swung at his hip. It was not until his free hand was upon the gate that lack and Wally knew they had been holding their breath.
"Well—here I am," said Good Indian, after a minute, smiling down at them with the sunny look in his eyes. "I'm beginning to think I had a dream. Only"—he dipped his fingers into the pocket of his shirt and brought up the flattened bullet—"that is pretty blamed realistic—for a dream." His eyes searched involuntarily the rim-rock with a certain incredulity, as if he could not bring himself to believe in that bullet, after all.
"But two of the jumpers are gone," said Wally. "I reckon we stirred 'em up some yesterday, and they're trying to get back at us."
"They've picked a dandy place," Good Indian observed. "I think maybe it would be a good idea to hold that fort ourselves. We should have thought of that; only I never thought—"
Phoebe, heavy-eyed and pale from wakefulness and worry, came then, and called them in to breakfast. Gene and Clark came in, sulky still, and inclined to snappishness when they did speak. Donny announced that he had been in the garden, and that Stanley told him he would blow the top of his head off if he saw him there again. "And I never done a thing to him!" he declared virtuously.
Phoebe set down the coffee-pot with an air of decision.
"I want you boys to remember one thing," she said firmly, "and that is that there must be no more shooting going on around here. It isn't only what Baumberger thinks—I don't know as ho's got anything to say about it—it's what I think. I know I'm only a woman, and you all consider yourselves men, whether you are or not, and it's beneath your dignity, maybe, to listen to your mother.
"But your mother has seen the day when she was counted on as much, almost, as if she'd been a man. Why, great grief! I've stood for hours peeking out a knot-hole in the wall, with that same old shotgun Donny got hold of, ready to shoot the first Injun that stuck his nose from behind a rock."
The color came into her cheeks at the memory, and a sparkle into her eyes. "I've seen real fighting, when it was a life-and-death matter. I've tended to the men that were shot before my eyes, and I've sung hymns over them that died. You boys have grown up on some of the stories about the things I've been through.
"And here last night," she reproached irritatedly, "I heard someone say: 'Oh, come on—we're scaring Mum to death!' The idea! 'scaring Mum!' I can tell you young jackanapes one thing: If I thought there was anything to be gained by it, or if it would save trouble instead of MAKING trouble, 'MUM' could go down there right now, old as she is, and SCARED as she is, and clean out the whole, measly outfit!" She stared sternly at the row of faces bent over their plates.
"Oh, you can laugh—it's only your mother!" she exclaimed indignantly, when she saw Jack's eyes go shut and Gene's mouth pucker into a tight knot. "But I'll have you to know I'm boss of this ranch when your father's gone, and if there's any more of that kid foolishness to-day—laying behind a currant bush and shooting COFFEE-POTS!—I'll thrash the fellow that starts it! It isn't the kind of fighting I'VE been used to. I may be away behind the times—I guess I am!—but I've always been used to the idea that guns weren't to be used unless you meant business. This thing of getting out and PLAYING gun-fight is kinda sickening to a person that's seen the real thing.
"'Scaring Mum to death!"' She seemed to find it very hard to forget that, or to forgive it. "'SCARING MUM'—and Jack, there, was born in the time of an Indian uprising, and I laid with your father's revolver on the pillow where I could put my hand on it, day or night! YOU scare Mum! MUM will scare YOU, if there's any more of that let's-play-Injun business going on around this ranch. Why, I'd lead you down there by the ear, every mother's son of you, and tell that man Stanley to SPANK you!"
"Mum can whip her weight in wildcats any old time," Wally announced after a heavy silence, and glared aggressively from one foolish-looking face to another.
As was frequently the case, the wave of Phoebe's wrath ebbed harmlessly away in laughter as the humorous aspect of her tirade was brought to her attention.
"Just the same, I want you should mind what I tell you," she said, in her old motherly tone, "and keep away from those ruffians down there. You can't do anything but make 'em mad, and give 'em an excuse for killing someone. When your father gets back, we'll see what's to be done."
"All right, Mum. We won't look toward the garden to-day," Wally promised largely, and held out his cup to her to be refilled. "You can keep my gun, if you want to make dead sure."
"No, I can trust my boys, I hope," and she glowed with real pride in them when she said it.
Good Indian lingered on the porch for half an hour or so, waiting for Evadna to appear. She may have seen him through the window—at any rate she slipped out very quietly, and had her breakfast half eaten before he suspected that she was up; and when he went into the kitchen, she was talking animatedly with Marie about Mexican drawn-work, and was drawing intricate little diagrams of certain patterns with her fork upon the tablecloth.
She looked up, and gave him a careless greeting, and went back to discussing certain "wheels" in the corner of an imaginary lunch-cloth and just how one went about making them. He made a tentative remark or two, trying to win her attention to himself, but she pushed her cup and saucer aside to make room for further fork drawings, and glanced at him with her most exaggerated Christmas-angel look.
"Don't interrupt, please," she said mincingly. "This is IMPORTANT. And," she troubled to explain, "I'm really in a hurry, because I'm going to help Aunt Phoebe make strawberry jam."
If she thought that would fix his determination to remain and have her to himself for a few minutes, she was mistaken in her man. Good Indian turned on his heel, and went out with his chin in the air, and found that Gene and Clark had gone off to the meadow, with Donny an unwelcome attendant, and that Wally and Jack were keeping the dust moving between the gate and the stable, trying to tempt a shot from the bluff. They were much inclined to be skeptical regarding the bullet which Good Indian carried in his breast-pocket.
"WE can't raise anybody," Wally told him disgustedly, "and I've made three round trips myself. I'm going to quit fooling around, and go to work."
Whether he did or not, Good Indian did not wait to prove. He did not say anything, either, about his own plans. He was hurt most unreasonably because of Evadna's behavior, and he felt as if he were groping about blindfolded so far as the Hart trouble was concerned. There must be something to do, but he could not see what it was. It reminded him oddly of when he sat down with his algebra open before him, and scowled at a problem where the x y z's seemed to be sprinkled through it with a diabolical frequency, and there was no visible means of discovering what the unknown quantities could possibly be.
He saddled Keno, and rode away in that silent preoccupation which the boys called the sulks for want of a better understanding of it. As a matter of fact, he was trying to put Evadna out of his mind for the present, so that he could think clearly of what he ought to do. He glanced often up at the rim-rock as he rode slowly to the Point o' Rocks, and when he was halfway to the turn he thought he saw something moving up there.
He pulled up to make sure, and a little blue ball puffed out like a child's balloon, burst, and dissipated itself in a thin, trailing ribbon, which the wind caught and swept to nothing. At the same time something spatted into the trail ahead of him, sending up a little spurt of fine sand.
Keno started, perked up his ears toward the place, and went on, stepping gingerly. Good Indian's lips drew back, showing his teeth set tightly together. "Still at it, eh?" he muttered aloud, pricked Keno's flanks with his rowels, and galloped around the Point.
There, for the time being, he was safe. Unless the shooter upon the rim-rock was mounted, he must travel swiftly indeed to reach again a point within range of the grade road before Good Indian would pass out of sight again. For the trail wound in and out, looping back upon itself where the hill was oversleep, hidden part of the time from the receding wall of rock by huge bowlders and giant sage.
Grant knew that he was safe from that quarter, and was wondering whether he ought to ride up along the top of the bluff before going to Hartley, as he had intended.
He had almost reached the level, and was passing a steep, narrow, little gully choked with rocks, when something started up so close beside him that Keno ducked away and squatted almost upon his haunches. His gun was in his hand, and his finger crooked upon the trigger, when a voice he faintly recognized called to him softly:
"Yo' no shoot—no shoot—me no hurtum. All time yo' frien'." She stood trembling beside the trail, a gay, plaid shawl about her shoulders in place of the usual blanket, her hair braided smoothly with bright, red ribbons entwined through it. Her dress was a plain slip of bright calico, which had four-inch roses, very briery and each with a gaudy butterfly poised upon the topmost petals running over it in an inextricable tangle. Beaded moccasins were on her feet, and her eyes were frightened eyes, with the wistfulness of a timid animal. Yet she did not seem to be afraid of Good Indian.
"I sorry I scare yo' horse," she said hesitatingly, speaking better English than before. "I heap hurry to get here. I speak with yo'."
"Well, what is it?" Good Indian's tone was not as brusque as his words; indeed, he spoke very gently, for him. This was the good-looking young squaw he had seen at the Indian camp. "What's your name?" he asked, remembering suddenly that he had never heard it.
"Rachel. Peppajee, he my uncle." She glanced up at him shyly, then down to where the pliant toe of her moccasin was patting a tiny depression into the dust. "Bad mans like for shoot yo'," she said, not looking directly at him again. "Him up there, all time walk where him can look down, mebbyso see you, mebbyso shootum."
"I know—I'm going to ride around that way and round him up." Unconsciously his manner had the arrogance of strength and power to do as he wished, which belongs to healthy young males.
"N-o, no-o!" She drew a sharp breath "o' no good there! Dim shoot yo'. Yo' no go! Ah-h—I sorry I tellum yo' now. Bad mans, him. I watch, I take care him no shoot. Him shoot, mebbyso I shoot!"
With a little laugh that was more a plea for gentle judgment than anything else, she raised the plaid shawl, and gave him a glimpse of a rather battered revolver, cheap when it was new and obviously well past its prime.
"I want yo'—" she hesitated; "I want yo'—be heap careful. I want yo' no ride close by hill. Ride far out!" She made a sweeping gesture toward the valley. "All time I watch."
He was staring at her in a puzzled way. She was handsome, after her wild, half-civilized type, and her anxiety for his welfare touched him and besought his interest.
"Indians go far down—" She swept her arm down the narrowing river valley. "Catch fish. Peppajee stay—no can walk far. I stay. All go, mebbyso stay five days." Her hand lifted involuntarily to mark the number.
He did not know why she told him all that, and he could not learn from her anything about his assailant. She had been walking along the bluff, he gathered—though why, she failed to make clear to him. She had, from a distance, caught a glimpse of a man watching the valley beneath him. She had seen him raise a rifle, take long aim, and shoot—and she had known that he was shooting at Good Indian.
When he asked her the second time what was her errand up there—whether she was following the man, or had suspected that he would be there—she shook her head vaguely and took refuge behind the stolidity of her race.
In spite of her pleading, he put his horse to scrambling up the first slope which it was possible to climb, and spent an hour riding, gun in hand, along the rim of the bluff, much as he had searched it the evening before.
But there was nothing alive that he could discover, except a hawk which lifted itself languorously off a high, sharp rock, and flapped lazily out across the valley when he drew near. The man with the rifle had disappeared as completely as if he had never been there, and there was not one chance in a hundred of hunting him out, in all that rough jumble.
When he was turning back at last toward Hartley, he saw Rachel for a moment standing out against the deep blue of the sky, upon the very rim of the bluff. He waved a hand to her, but she gave no sign; only, for some reason, he felt that she was watching him ride away, and he had a brief, vagrant memory of the wistfulness he had seen in her eyes.
On the heels of that came a vision of Evadna swinging in the hammock which hung between the two locust trees, and he longed unutterably to be with her there. He would be, he promised himself, within the next hour or so, and set his pace in accordance with his desire, resolved to make short work of his investigations in Hartley and his discussion of late events with Miss Georgie.
He had not, it seemed to him, had more than two minutes with Evadna since that evening of rapturous memory when they rode home together from the Malad, and afterward sat upon the stone bench at the head of the pond, whispering together so softly that they did not even disturb the frogs among the lily-pads within ten feet of them. It was not so long ago, that evening. The time that had passed since might be reckoned easily in hours, but to Good Indian it seemed a month, at the very least.
CHAPTER XIX. EVADNA GOES CALLING
"I have every reason to believe that your two missing jumpers took the train for Shoshone last night," Miss Georgie made answer to Good Indian's account of what had happened since he saw her. "Two furtive-eyed individuals answering your description bought round-trip tickets and had me flag sixteen for them. They got on, all right. I saw them. And if they got off before the next station they must have landed on their heads, because Sixteen was making up time and Shorty pulled the throttle wide open at the first yank, I should judge, from the way he jumped out of town. I've been expecting some of them to go and do their filing stunt—and if the boys have begun to devil them any, the chances are good that they'd take turns at it, anyway. They'd leave someone always on the ground, that's a cinch.
"And Saunders," she went on rapidly, "returned safe enough. He sneaked in just before I closed the office last night, and asked for a telegram. There wasn't any, and he sneaked out again and went to bed—so Pete told me this morning. And most of the Indians have pulled out—squaws, dogs, papooses, and all—on some fishing or hunting expedition. I don't know that it has anything to do with your affairs, or would even interest you, though. And there has been no word from Peaceful, and they can't possibly get back now till the four-thirty—five.
"And that's all I can tell you, Mr. Imsen," she finished crisply, and took up a novel with a significance which not even the dullest man could have ignored.
Good Indian stared, flushed hotly, and made for the door.
"Thank you for the information. I'm afraid this has been a lot of bother for you," he said stiffly, gave her a ceremonious little bow, and went his way stiff-necked and frowning.
Miss Georgie leaned forward so that she could see him through the window. She watched him cross to the store, go up the three rough steps to the platform, and disappear into the yawning blackness beyond the wide-open door.
She did not open the novel and begin reading, even then. She dabbed her handkerchief at her eyes, muttered: "My Heavens, what a fool!" apropos of nothing tangible, and stared dully out at the forlorn waste of cinders with rows of shining rails running straight across it upon ties half sunken in the black desolation, and at the red abomination which was the pump-house squatting beside the dripping tank, the pump breathing asthmatically as it labored to keep the sliding water gauge from standing at the figure which meant reproach for the grimy attendant.
"What a fool—what a fool!" she repeated at the end of ten moody minutes. Then she threw the novel into a corner of the room, set her lower jaw into the square lines of stubbornness, went over to the sleeping telegraph instrument which now and then clicked and twittered in its sleep, called up Shoshone, and commanded the agent there to send down a quart freezer of ice cream, a banana cake, and all the late magazines he could find, including—especially including—the alleged "funny" ones.
"You certainly—are—the prize—fool!" she said, when she switched off the current, and she said it with vicious emphasis. Whereupon she recovered the novel, seated herself determinedly in the beribboned rocker, flipped the leaves of the book spitefully until she found one which had a corner turned down, and read a garden-party chapter much as she used to study her multiplication table when she was ten and hated arithmetic.
A freight was announced over the wire, arrived with a great wheezing and snorting, which finally settled to a rhythmic gasping of the air pump, while a few boxes of store supplies were being dumped unceremoniously upon the platform. Miss Georgie was freight agent as well as many other things, and she went out and stood bareheaded in the sun to watch the unloading.
She performed, with the unthinking precision which comes of long practice, the many little duties pertaining to her several offices, and when the wheels began once more to clank, and she had waved her hand to the fireman, the brakeman, and the conductor, and had seen the dirty flags at the rear of the swaying caboose flap out of sight around the low, sage-covered hill, she turned rather dismally to the parlor end of the office, and took up the book with her former air of grim determination. So for an hour, perhaps.
"Is Miss Georgie Howard at home?" It was Evadna standing in the doorway, her indigo eyes fixed with innocent gayety—which her mouth somehow failed to meet halfway in mirth—upon the reader.
"She is, chicken, and overjoyed at the sight of you!" Miss Georgie rose just as enthusiastically as if she had not seen Evadna slip from Huckleberry's back, fuddle the tie-rope into what looked like a knot, and step lightly upon the platform. She had kept her head down—had Miss Georgie—until the last possible second, because she was still being a fool and had permitted a page of her book to fog before her eyes. There was no fog when she pushed Evadna into the seat of honor, however, and her mouth abetted her eyes in smiling.
"Everything at the ranch is perfectly horrid," Evadna complained pathetically, leaning back in the rocking-chair. "I'd just as soon be shut up in a graveyard. You can't IMAGINE what it's like, Georgie, since those horrible men came and camped around all over the place! All yesterday afternoon and till dark, mind you, the boys were down there shooting at everything but the men, and they began to shoot back, and Aunt Phoebe was afraid the boys would be hit, and so we all went down and—oh, it was awful! If Grant hadn't come home and stopped them, everybody would have been murdered. And you should have heard how they swore at Grant afterward! They just called him everything they could think of for making them stop. I had to sit around on the other side of the house—and even then I couldn't help hearing most of it.
"And to-day it is worse, because they just go around like a lot of dummies and won't do anything but look mean. Aunt Phoebe was so cross—CROSS, mind you!—because I burnt the jam. And some of the jumpers are missing, and nobody knows where they went—and Marie has got the toothache worse than ever, and won't go and have it pulled because it will HURT! I don't see how it can hurt much worse than it does now—she just goes around with tears running down into the flannel around her face till I could SHAKE her!" Evadna laughed—a self-pitying laugh, and rocked her small person violently. "I wish I could have an office and live in it and telegraph things to people," she sighed, and laughed again most adorably at her own childishness. "But really and truly, it's enough to drive a person CRAZY, down at the ranch!"
"For a girl with a brand-new sweetheart—" Miss Georgie reproved quizzically, and reached for the inevitable candy box.
"A lot of good that does, when he's never there!" flashed Evadna, unintentionally revealing her real grievance. "He just eats and goes—and he isn't even there to eat, half the time. And when he's there, he's grumpy, like all the rest." She was saying the things she had told herself, on the way up, that she would DIE rather than say; to Miss Georgie, of all people.
"I expect he's pretty worried, chicken, over that land business." Miss Georgie offered her candy, and Evadna waved the box from her impatiently, as if her spirits were altogether too low for sweets.
"Well, I'm very sure I'M not to blame for those men being there," she retorted petulantly. "He"—she hesitated, and then plunged heedlessly on—"he acts just as if I weren't anybody at all. I'm sure, if he expects me to be a doll to be played with and then dumped into a corner where I'm to smile and smile until he comes and picks me up again—"
"Now, chicken, what's the use of being silly?" Miss Georgie turned her head slightly away, and stared out of the window. "He's worried, I tell you, and instead of sulking because he doesn't stay and make love—"
"Well, upon my word! Just as if I wanted—"
"You really ought to help him by being kind and showing a little sympathy, instead—"
"It appears that the supply of sympathy—"
"Instead of making it harder for him by feeling neglected and letting him see that you do. My Heavens above!" Miss Georgie faced her suddenly with pink cheeks. "When a man is up against a problem—and carries his life in his hand—"
"You don't know a thing about it!" Evadna stopped rocking, and sat up very straight in the chair. "And even if that were true, is that any reason why he should AVOID me? I'M not threatening his life!"
"He doesn't avoid you. And you're acting sillier than I ever supposed you could. He can't be in two places at once, can he? Now, let's be sensible, chicken. Grant—"
"Oh—h!" There was a peculiar, sliding inflection upon that word, which made Miss Georgie's hand shut into a fist.
"Grant"—Miss Georgie put a defiant emphasis upon it—"is doing all he can to get to the bottom of that jumping business. There's something crooked about it, and he knows it, and is trying to—"
"I know all that." Evadna interrupted without apology.
"Well, of course, if you DO—then I needn't tell you how silly it is for you to complain of being neglected, when you know his time is all taken up with trying to ferret out a way to block their little game. He feels in a certain sense responsible—"
"Yes, I know. He thinks he should have been watching somebody or something instead of—of being with me. He took the trouble to make that clear to me, at least!" Evadna's eyes were very blue and very bright, but there was no look of an angel in her face.
Miss Georgie pressed her lips together tightly for a minute. When she spoke, she was cheerfully impersonal as to tone and manner.
"Chicken, you're a little goose. The man is simply crazy about you, and harassed to death with this ranch business. Once that's settled—well, you'll see what sort of a lover he can be!"
"Thank you so much for holding out a little hope and encouragement, my dear!" Evadna, by the way, looked anything but thankful; indeed, she seemed to resent the hope and the encouragement as a bit of unwarranted impertinence. She glanced toward the door as if she meditated an immediate departure, but ended by settling back in the chair and beginning to rock again.
"It's a nasty, underhand business from start to finish," said Miss Georgie, ignoring the remark. "It has upset everybody—me included, and I'm sure it isn't my affair. It's just one of those tricky cases that you know is rotten to the core, and yet you can't seem to get hold of anything definite. My dad had one or two experiences with old Baumberger—and if ever there was a sly old mole of a man, he's one.
"Did you ever take after a mole, chicken? They used to get in our garden at home. They burrow underneath the surface, you know, and one never sees them. You can tell by the ridge of loose earth that they're there, and if you think you've located Mr. Mole, and jab a stick down, why—he's somewhere else, nine times in ten. I used to call them Baumbergers, even then. Dad," she finished reminiscently, "was always jabbing his law stick down where the earth seemed to move—but he never located old Baumberger, to my knowledge."
She stopped, because Evadna, without a shadow of doubt, was looking bored. Miss Georgie regarded her with the frown she used when she was applying her mental measuring-stick. She began to suspect that Evadna was, after all, an extremely self-centered little person; she was sorry for the suspicion, and she was also conscious of a certain disappointment which was not altogether for herself.
"Ah, well"—she dismissed analysis and the whole subject with a laugh that was partly yawn—"away with dull care. Away with dull everything. It's too hot to think or feel. A real emotion is as superfluous and oppressive as a—a 'camel petticoat!" This time her laugh was real and infectiously carefree. "Take off your hat, chicken. I'll go beg a hunk of ice from my dear friend Peter, and make some lemonade as is lemonade; or claret punch, if you aren't a blue ribboner, or white-ribboner, or some other kind of a good-ribboner." Miss Georgie hated herself for sliding into sheer flippancy, but she preferred that extreme to the other, and she could not hold her ground just then at the "happy medium."
Evadna, however, seemed to disapprove of the flippancy. She did not take off her hat, and she stated evenly that she must go, and that she really did not care for lemonade, or claret punch, either.
"What, in Heaven's name, DO you care for—besides yourself?" flared Miss Georgie, quite humanly exasperated. "There, chicken—the heat always turns me snappy," she repented instantly. "Please pinch me." She held out a beautiful, tapering forearm, and smiled.
"I'm the snappy one," said Evadna, but she did not smile as she began drawing on her gauntlets slowly and deliberately.
If she were waiting for Miss Georgie to come back to the subject of Grant, she was disappointed, for Miss Georgie did not come to any subject whatever. A handcar breezed past the station, the four section-men pumping like demons because of the slight down grade and their haste for their dinner.
Huckleberry gave one snort and one tug backward upon the tie rope and then a coltish kick into the air when he discovered that he was free. After that, he took off through the sagebrush at a lope, too worldly-wise to follow the trail past the store, where someone might rush out and grab him before he could dodge away. He was a wise little pinto—Huckleberry.
"And now, I suppose I'll have the pleasure of walking home," grumbled Evadna, standing upon the platform and gazing, with much self-pity, after her runaway.
"It's noon—stay and eat dinner with me, chicken. Some of the boys will bring him back after you the minute he gets to the ranch. It's too hot to walk." Miss Georgie laid a hand coaxingly upon her arm.
But Evadna was in her mood of perversity. She wouldn't stay to dinner, because Aunt Phoebe would be expecting her. She wouldn't wait for Huckleberry to be brought back to her, because she would never hear the last of it. She didn't mind the heat the least bit, and she would walk. And no, she wouldn't borrow Miss Georgie's parasol; she hated parasols, and she always had and always would. She gathered up her riding-skirt, and went slowly down the steps.
Miss Georgie could be rather perverse herself upon occasion. She waited until Evadna was crunching cinders under her feet before she spoke another word, and then she only called out a flippant, "Adios, senorita!"
Evadna knew no Spanish at all. She lifted her shoulders in what might be disdain, and made no reply whatever.
"Little idiot!" gritted Miss Georgie—and this time she was not speaking of herself.
CHAPTER XX. MISS GEORGIE ALSO MAKES A CALL
Saunders, limp and apathetic and colorless, shuffled over to the station with a wheelbarrow which had a decrepit wheel, that left an undulating imprint of its drunken progress in the dust as it went. He loaded the boxes of freight with the abused air of one who feels that Fate has used him hardly, and then sidled up to the station door with the furtive air which Miss Georgie always inwardly resented.
She took the shipping bill from him with her fingertips, reckoned the charges, and received the money without a word, pushing a few pieces of silver toward him upon the table. As he bent to pick them up clawing unpleasantly with vile finger-nails—she glanced at him contemptuously, looked again more attentively, pursed her lips with one corner between her teeth, and when he had clawed the last dime off the smooth surface of the table, she spoke to him as if he were not the reptile she considered him, but a live human.
"Horribly hot, isn't it? I wish I could sleep till noon. It would make the days shorter, anyway."
"I opened up the store, and then I went back to bed," Saunders replied limply. "Just got up when the freight pulled in. Made so blamed much noise it woke me. I seem to need a good deal of sleep." He coughed behind his hand, and lingered inside the door. It was so unusual for Miss Georgie to make conversation with him that Saunders was almost pitifully eager to be agreeable.
"If it didn't sound cruel, this weather," said Miss Georgie lightly, still looking at him—or, more particularly, at the crumpled, soiled collar of his coarse blue shirt—"I'd advise you to get out of Hartley once a day, if it was no more than to take a walk. Though to be sure," she smiled, "the prospect is not inviting, to say the least. Put it would be a change; I'd run up and down the track, if I didn't have to stick here in this office all day."
"I can't stand walking," Saunders whined. "It makes me cough." To illustrate, he gave another little hack behind his hand. "I went up to the stable yesterday with a book, and laid down in the hay. And I went to sleep, and Pete thought I was lost, I guess." He grinned, which was not pleasant, for he chewed tobacco and had ugly, discolored teeth into the bargain.
"I like to lay in the hay," he added lifelessly. "I guess I'll take my bed up there; that lean-to is awful hot."
"Well, you're lucky that you can do exactly as you please, and sleep whenever you please." Miss Georgie turned to her telegraph instrument, and began talking in little staccato sparks of electricity to the agent at Shoshone, merely as a hint to Saunders to take himself away.
"Ain't been anything for me?" he asked, still lingering.
Miss Georgie shook her head. He waited a minute longer, and then sidled out, and when he was heard crunching over the cinders with his barrow-load of boxes, she switched off the current abruptly, and went over to the window to watch him.
"Item," she began aloud, when he was quite gone, her eyes staring vacantly down the scintillating rails to where they seemed to meet in one glittering point far away in the desert. "Item—" But whatever the item was, she jotted it down silently in that mental memorandum book which was one of her whims. "Once I put a thing in that little blue book of mine," she used to tell her father, "it's there for keeps. And there's the advantage that I never leave it lying around to be lost, or for other people to pick up and read to my everlasting undoing. It's better than cipher—for I don't talk in my sleep."
The four-thirty-five train came in its own time, and brought the two missing placer miners. But it did not bring Baumberger, nor Peaceful Hart, nor any word of either. Miss Georgie spent a good deal of time staring out of the window toward the store that day, and when she was not doing that she was moving restlessly about the little office, picking things up without knowing why she did so, and laying them down again when she discovered them in her hands and had no use for them. The ice cream came, and the cake, and the magazines; and she left the whole pile just inside the door without undoing a wrapping.
At five o'clock she rose abruptly from the rocker, in which she had just deposited herself with irritated emphasis, and wired her chief for leave of absence until seven.
"It's important, Mr. Gray. Business which can't wait," she clicked urgently. "I'll be back before Eight is due. Please." Miss Georgie did not often send that last word of her own volition. All up and down the line she was said to be "Independent as a hog on ice"—a simile not pretty, perhaps, nor even exact, but frequently applied, nevertheless, to self-reliant souls like the Hartley operator.
Be that as it may, she received gracious permission to lock the office door from the outside, and she was not long in doing so, and heaved a great sigh of relief when it was done. She went straight to the store, and straight back to where Pete Hamilton was leaning over a barrel redolent of pickled pork. He came up with dripping hands and a treasure-trove of flabby meat, and while he was dangling it over the barrel until the superfluous brine dripped away, she asked him for a horse.
"I dunno where Saunders is again," he said, letting his consent be taken for granted. "But I'll go myself and saddle up, if you'll mind the store. Soon as I finish waitin' on this customer," he added, casting a glance toward a man who sat upon the counter and dangled his legs while he apathetically munched stale pretzels and waited for his purchases.
"Oh, I can saddle, all right, Pete. I've got two hours off, and I want to ride down to see how the Harts are getting along. Exciting times down there, from all accounts."
"Maybe I can round up Saunders. He must be somewheres around," Pete suggested languidly, wrapping the pork in a piece of brown paper and reaching for the string which dangled from the ball hung over his head.
"Saunders is asleep, very likely. If he isn't in his room, never mind hunting him. The horse is in the stable, I suppose. I can saddle better than Saunders."
Pete tied the package, wiped his hands, and went heavily out. He returned immediately, said that Saunders must be up at the stable, and turned his attention to weighing out five pounds of white beans.
Miss Georgie helped herself to a large bag of mixed candy, and put the money in the drawer, laid her key upon the desk for safe-keeping, repinned her white sailor hat so that the hot wind which blew should not take it off her head, and went cheerfully away to the stable.
She did not saddle the horse at once. She first searched the pile of sweet-smelling clover in the far end, made sure that no man was there, assured herself in the same manner of the fact that she was absolutely alone in the stable so far as humans were concerned, and continued her search; not for Saunders now, but for sagebrush. She went outside, and looked carefully at her immediate surroundings.
"There's hardly a root of it anywhere around close," she said to herself. "Nor around the store, either—nor any place where one would be apt to go ordinarily."
She stood there meditatively for a few minutes, remembered that two hours do not last long, and saddled hurriedly. Then, mounting awkwardly because of the large, lumpy bag of candy which she must carry in her hands for want of a pocket large enough to hold it, she rode away to the Indian camp.
The camp was merely a litter of refuse and the ashes of various campfires, with one wikiup standing forlorn in the midst. Miss Georgie never wasted precious time on empty ceremony, and she would have gone into that tent unannounced and stated her errand without any compunction whatever. Put Peppajee was lying outside, smoking in the shade, with his foot bandaged and disposed comfortably upon a folded blanket. She tossed him the bag of candy, and stayed upon her horse.
"Howdy, Peppajee? How your foot? Pretty well, mebbyso?"
"Mebbyso bueno. Sun come two time, mebbyso walk all same no snake biteum." Peppajee's eyes gloated over the gift as he laid it down beside him.
"That's good. Say, Peppajee," Miss Georgie reached up to feel her hatpins and to pat her hair, "I wish you'd watch Saunders. Him no good. I think him bad. I can't keep an eye on him. Can you?"
"No can walk far." Peppajee looked meaningly at his bandages. "No can watchum."
"Well, but you could tell somebody else to watch him. I think he do bad thing to the Harts. You like Harts. You tell somebody to watch Saunders."
"Indians pikeway—ketchum fish. Come back, mebbyso tellum watchum."
Miss Georgie drew in her breath for further argument, decided that it was not worth while, and touched up her horse with the whip. "Good-by," she called back, and saw that Peppajee was looking after her with his eyes, while his face was turned impassively to the front.
"You're just about as satisfying to talk to as a stump," she paid tribute to his unassailable calm. "There's four bits wasted," she sighed, "to say nothing of the trouble I had packing that candy to you—you ungrateful old devil." With which unladylike remark she dismissed him from her mind as a possible ally.
At the ranch, the boys were enthusiastically blistering palms and stiffening the muscles of their backs, turning the water away from the ditches that crossed the disputed tracts so that the trespassers there should have none in which to pan gold—or to pretend that they were panning gold. Since the whole ranch was irrigated by springs running out here and there from under the bluff, and all the ditches ran to meadow and orchard and patches of small fruit, and since the springs could not well be stopped from flowing, the thing was not to be done in a minute.
And since there were four boys with decided ideas upon the subject—ideas which harmonized only in the fundamental desire to harry the interlopers, the thing was not to be done without much time being wasted in fruitless argument.
Wally insisted upon running the water all into a sandy hollow where much of it would seep away and a lake would do no harm, the main objection to that being that it required digging at least a hundred yards of new ditch, mostly through rocky soil.
Jack wanted to close all the headgates and just let the water go where it wanted to—which was easy enough, but ineffective, because most of it found its way into the ditches farther down the slope.
Gene and Clark did not much care how the thing was done—so long as it was done their way. At least, that is what they said.
It was Good Indian who at length settled the matter. There were five springs altogether; he proposed that each one make himself responsible for a certain spring, and see to it that no water reached the jumpers.
"And I don't care a tinker's dam how you do it," he said. "Drink it all, if you want to. I'll take the biggest—that one under the milk-house." Whereat they jeered at him for wanting to be close to Evadna.
"Well, who has a better right?" he challenged, and then inconsiderately left them before they could think of a sufficiently biting retort.
So they went to work, each in his own way, agreeing mostly in untiring industry. That is how Miss Georgie found them occupied—except that Good Indian had stopped long enough to soothe Evadna and her aunt, and to explain that the water would really not rise much higher in the milk-house, and that he didn't believe Evadna's pet bench at the head of the pond would be inaccessible because of his efforts.
Phoebe was sloshing around upon the flooded floor of her milk-house, with her skirts tucked up and her indignation growing greater as she gave it utterance, rescuing her pans of milk and her jars of cream. Evadna, upon the top step, sat with her feet tucked up under her as if she feared an instant inundation. She, also, was giving utterance to her feminine irritation at the discomfort—of her aunt presumably, since she herself was high and dry.
"And it won't do a BIT of good. They'll just knock that dam business all to pieces to-night—" She was scolding Grant.
"Swearing, chicken? Things must be in a great state!"
Grant grinned at Miss Georgie, forgetting for the moment his rebuff that morning. "She did swear, didn't she?" he confirmed wickedly. "And she's been working overtime, trying to reform me. Wanted to pin me down to 'my goodness!' and 'oh, dear!'—with all this excitement taking place on the ranch!"
"I wasn't swearing at all. Grant has been shoveling sand all afternoon, building a dam over by the fence, and the water has been rising and rising till—" She waved her hand gloomily at her bedraggled Aunt Phoebe working like a motherly sort of gnome in its shadowy grotto. "Oh, if I were Aunt Phoebe, I should just shake you, Grant Imsen!"
"Try it," he invited, his eyes worshiping her in her pretty petulance. "I wish you would."
As Miss Georgie went past them down the steps, her face had the set look of one who is consciously and deliberately cheerful under trying conditions.
"Don't quarrel, children," she advised lightly. "Howdy, Mrs. Hart? What are they trying to do—drown you?"
"Oh, these boys of mine! They'll be the death of me, what with the things they won't do, and the things they WILL do. They're trying now to create a water famine for the jumpers, and they're making their own mother swim for the good of the cause." Phoebe held out a plump hand, moist and cold from lifting cool crocks of milk, and laughed at her own predicament.
"The water won't rise any more, Mother Hart," Grant called down to her from the top step, where he was sitting unblushingly beside Evadna. "I told you six inches would be the limit, and then it would run off in the new ditch. You know I explained just why—"
"Oh, yes, I know you explained just WHY," Phoebe cut in disconsolately and yet humorously, "but explanations don't seem to help my poor milk-house any. And what about the garden, and the fruit, if you turn the water all down into the pasture? And what about the poor horses getting their feet wet and catching their death of cold? And what's to hinder that man Stanley and his gang from packing water in buckets from the lake you're going to have in the pasture?"
She looked at Miss Georgie whimsically. "I'm an ungrateful, bad-tempered old woman, I guess, for they're doing it because it's the only thing they can do, since I put my foot down on all this bombarding and burning good powder just to ease their minds. They've got to do something, I suppose, or they'd all burst. And I don't know but what it's a good thing for 'em to work off their energy digging ditches, even if it don't do a mite of good."
Good Indian was leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, murmuring lover's confidences behind the shield of his tilted hat, which hid from all but Evadna his smiling lips and his telltale, glowing eyes. He looked up at that last sentence, though it is doubtful if he had heard much of what she had been saying.
"It's bound to do good if it does anything," he said, with an optimism which was largely the outgrowth of his beatific mood, which in its turn was born of his nearness to Evadna and her gracious manner toward him. "We promised not to molest them on their claims. But if they get over the line to meddle with our water system, or carry any in buckets—which they can't, because they all leak like the deuce"—he grinned as he thought of the bullet holes in them—"why, I don't know but what someone might object to that, and send them back on their own side of the line."
He picked up a floating ribbon-end which was a part of Evadna's belt, and ran it caressingly through his fingers in a way which set Miss Georgie's teeth together. "I'm afraid," he added dryly, his eyes once more seeking Evadna's face with pure love hunger, "they aren't going to make much of a stagger at placer mining, if they haven't any water." He rolled the ribbon up tightly, and then tossed it lightly toward her face. "ARE they, Goldilocks?"
"Are they what? I've told you a dozen times to stop calling me that. I had a doll once that I named Goldilocks, and I melted her nose off—she was wax—and you always remind me of the horrible expression it gave to her face. I'd go every day and take her out of the bureau-drawer and look at her, and then cry my eyes out. Won't you come and sit down, Georgie? There's room. Now, what was the discussion, and how far had we got? Aunt Phoebe, I don't believe it has raised a bit lately. I've been watching that black rock with the crack in it." Evadna moved nearer to Good Indian, and pulled her skirts close upon the other side, thereby making a space at least eight inches wide for Miss Georgie's accommodation.
"I can't sit anywhere," said Miss Georgie, looking at her watch. "By the way, chicken, did you have to walk all the way home?"
Evadna looked sidelong at Good Indian, as if a secret had been betrayed. "No," she said, "I didn't. I just got to the top of the grade when a squaw came along, and she was leading Huckleberry. A gaudy young squaw, all red and purple and yellow. She was awfully curious about you, Grant. She wanted to know where you were and what you were doing. I hope you aren't a flirtatious young man. She seemed to know you pretty well, I thought."
She had to explain to her Aunt Phoebe and Grant just how she came to be walking, and she laughed at the squaw's vivid costume, and declared she would have one like it, because Grant must certainly admire colors. She managed, innocently enough, to waste upon such trivialities many of Miss Georgie's precious minutes.
At last that young woman, after glancing many times at her watch, and declining an urgent invitation to stay to supper, declared that she must go, and tried to give Good Indian a significant look without being detected in the act by Evadna. But Good Indian, for the time being wholly absorbed by the smiles of his lady, had no eyes for her, and seemed to attach no especial meaning to her visit. So that Miss Georgie, feminine to her finger-tips and oversensitive perhaps where those two were concerned, suddenly abandoned her real object in going to the ranch, and rode away without saying a word of what she had come to say.
She was a direct young woman who was not in the habit of mincing matters with herself, or of dodging an issue, and she bluntly called herself a fool many times that evening, because she had not said plainly that she would like to talk with Grant "and taken him off to one side—by the ear, if necessary—and talked to him, and told him what I went down there to tell him," she said to herself angrily. "And if Evadna didn't like it, she could do the other thing. It does seem as if girls like that are always having the trail smoothed down for them to dance their way through life, while other people climb over rocks—mostly with packs on their shoulders that don't rightly belong to them." She sighed impatiently. "It must be lovely to be absolutely selfish—when you're pretty enough and young enough to make it stick!" Miss Georgie was, without doubt, in a nasty temper that night.
CHAPTER XXI. SOMEBODY SHOT SAUNDERS
The hot days dropped, one by one, into the past like fiery beads upon a velvety black cord. Miss Georgie told them silently in the meager little office, and sighed as they slipped from under her white, nervous fingers. One—nothing happened that could be said to bear upon the one big subject in her mind, the routine work of passing trains and dribbling business in the express and freight departments, and a long afternoon of heat and silence save for the asthmatic pump, fifty yards down the main track. Two—this exactly like the first, except that those inseparables, Hagar, Viney, and Lucy, whom Miss Georgie had inelegantly dubbed "the Three Greases," appeared, silent, blanket-enshrouded, and perspiring, at the office door in mid-afternoon. Half a box of soggy chocolates which the heat had rendered a dismally sticky mass won from them smiles and half-intelligible speech. Fishing was poor—no ketchum. Three—not even the diversion of the squaws to make her forget the dragging hours. Nothing—nothing—nothing, she told herself apathetically when that third day had slipped upon the black cord of a soft, warm night, star-sprinkled and unutterably lonely as it brooded over the desert.
On the morning of the fourth day, Miss Georgie woke with the vague sense that something had gone wrong. True railroader as she had come to be, she thought first that there had been a wreck, and that she was wanted at the telegraph instrument. She was up and partly dressed before the steps and the voices which had broken her sleep had reached her door.
Pete Hamilton's voice, trembling with excitement, called to her.
"What is it? What has happened?" she cried from within, beset by a hundred wild conjectures.
"Saunders—somebody shot Saunders. Wire for a doctor, quick as yuh can. He ain't dead yet—but he's goin' t' die, sure. Hurry up and wire—" Somebody at the store called to him, and he broke off to run lumberingly in answer to the summons. Miss Georgie made haste to follow him.
Saunders was lying upon a blanket on the store platform, and Miss Georgie shuddered as she looked at him.
He was pasty white, and his eyes looked glassy under his half-closed lids. He had been shot in the side—at the stable, he had gasped out when Pete found him lying in the trail just back of the store. Now he seemed beyond speech, and the little group of section-hands, the Chinese cook at the section-house, and the Swede foreman, and Pete seemed quite at a loss what to do.
"Take him in and put him to bed," Miss Georgie commanded, turning away. "See if he's bleeding yet, and—well, I should put a cold compress on the wound, I think. I'll send for a doctor—but he can't get here till nine o'clock unless you want to stand the expense of a special. And by that time—"
Saunders moved his head a trifle, and lifted his heavy lids to look at her, which so unnerved Miss Georgie that she turned and ran to the office. When she had sent the message she sat drumming upon the table while she waited for an answer.
"G-r-a-n-" her fingers had spelled when she became conscious of the fact, flushed hotly, and folded her hands tightly together in her lap.
"The doctor will come—Hawkinson, I sent for," she announced later to Pete, holding out the telegram. She glanced reluctantly at the wrinkled blanket where Saunders had lain, caught a corner of her under lip between her teeth, and, bareheaded though she was, went down the steps and along the trail to the stable.
"I've nearly an hour before I need open the office," she said to herself, looking at her watch. She did not say what she meant to do with that hour, but she spent a quarter of it examining the stable and everything in it. Especially did she search the loose, sandy soil in its vicinity for tracks.
Finally she lifted her skirts as a woman instinctively does at a street crossing, and struck off through the sagebrush, her eyes upon a line of uncertain footsteps as of a drunken man reeling that way. They were not easy to follow—or they would not have been if she had not felt certain of the general direction which they must take. More than once she lost sight of them for several rods, but she always picked them up farther along. At one place she stopped, and stood perfectly still, her skirts held back tightly with both hands, while she stared fascinatedly at a red smear upon a broken branch of sage and the smooth-packed hollow in the sand where he must have lain.
"He's got nerve—I'll say that much for him," she observed aloud, and went on.
The footprints were plain where he crossed the grade road near the edge of the bluff, but from there on it was harder to follow them because of the great patches of black lava rock lying even with the surface of the ground, where a dozen men might walk abreast and leave no sign that the untrained eye, at least, could detect.
"This is a case for Indians," she mused, frowning over an open space where all was rock. "Injun Charlie would hunt tracks all day for a dollar or two; only he'd make tracks just to prove himself the real goods." She sighed, stood upon her tiptoes, and peered out over the sage to get her bearings, then started on at a hazard. She went a few rods, found herself in a thick tangle of brush through which she could not force her way, started to back out, and caught her hair on a scraggly scrub which seemed to have as many prongs as there are briers on a rosebush. She was struggling there with her hands fumbling unavailingly at the back of her bowed head, when she was pounced upon by someone or something through the sage. She screamed.
"The—deuce!" Good Indian brought out the milder expletive with the flat intonation which the unexpected presence of a lady frequently gives to a man's speech. "Lucky I didn't take a shot at you through the bushes. I did, almost, when I saw somebody moving here. Is this your favorite place for a morning ramble?" He had one hand still upon her arm, and he was laughing openly at her plight. But he sobered when he stooped a little so that he could see her face, for there were tears in her eyes, and Miss Georgie was not the sort of young woman whom one expects to shed tears for slight cause.
"If you did it—and you must have—I don't see how you can laugh about it, even if he is a crawling reptile of a man that ought to be hung!" The tears were in her voice as well as her eyes, and there were reproach and disappointment also.
"Did what—to whom—to where, to why?" Good Indian let go her arm, and began helpfully striving with the scraggly scrub and its prongs. "Say, I'll just about have to scalp you to get you loose. Would you mind very much, Squaw-talk-far-off?" He ducked and peered into her face again, and again his face sobered. "What's the matter?" he asked, in an entirely different tone—which Miss Georgie, in spite of her mood, found less satisfying than his banter.
"Saunders—OUCH; I'd as soon be scalped and done with, as to have you pull out a hair at a time—Saunders crawled home with a bullet in his ribs. And I thought—"
"Saunders!" Good Indian stared down at her, his hands dropped upon her head.
Miss Georgie reached up, caught him by the wrists, and held him so while she tilted her head that she might look up at him.
"Grant!" she cried softly. "He deserved it. You couldn't help it—he would have shot you down like a dog, just because he was hired to do it, or because of some hold over him. Don't think I blame you—or that anyone would if they knew the truth. I came out to see—I just HAD to make sure—but you must get away from here. You shouldn't have stayed so long—" Miss Georgie gave a most unexpected sob, and stopped that she might grit her teeth in anger over it.
"You think I shot him." As Good Indian said it, the sentence was merely a statement, rather than an accusation or a reproach.
"I don't blame you. I suspected he was the man up here with the rifle. That day—that first day, when you told me about someone shooting at you—he came over to the station. And I saw two or three scraps of sage sticking under his shirt-collar, as if he had been out in the brush; you know how it breaks off and sticks, when you go through it. And he said he had been asleep. And there isn't any sage where a man would have to go through it unless he got right out in it, away from the trails. I thought then that he was the man—"
"You didn't tell me." And this time he spoke reproachfully.
"It was after you had left that I saw it. And I did go down to the ranch to tell you. But I—you were so—occupied—in other directions—" She let go his wrists, and began fumbling at her hair, and she bowed her head again so that her face was hidden from him.
"You could have told me, anyway," Good Indian said constrainedly.
"You didn't want her to know. I couldn't, before her. And I didn't want to—hurt her by—" Miss Georgie fumbled more with her words than with her hair.
"Well, there's no use arguing about that." Good Indian also found that subject a difficult one. "You say he was shot. Did he say—"
"He wasn't able to talk when I saw him. Pete said Saunders claimed he was shot at the stable, but I know that to be a lie." Miss Georgie spoke with unfeeling exactness. "That was to save himself in case he got well, I suppose. I believe the man is going to die, if he hasn't already; he had the look—I've seen them in wrecks, and I know. He won't talk; he can't. But there'll be an investigation—and Baumberger, I suspect, will be just as willing to get you in this way as in any other. More so, maybe. Because a murder is always awkward to handle."
"I can't see why he should want to murder me." Good Indian took her hands away from her hair, and set himself again to the work of freeing her. "You've been fudging around till you've got about ten million more hairs wound up," he grumbled.
"Wow! ARE you deliberately torturing me?" she complained, winking with the pain of his good intentions. "I don't believe he does want to murder you. I think that was just Saunders trying to make a dandy good job of it. He doesn't like you, anyway—witness the way you bawled him out that day you roped—ow-w!—roped the dog. Baumberger may have wanted him to keep an eye on you—My Heavens, man! Do you think you're plucking a goose?"
"I wouldn't be surprised," he retorted, grinning a little. "Honest! I'm trying to go easy, but this infernal bush has sure got a strangle hold on you—and your hair is so fluffy it's a deuce of a job. You keep wriggling and getting it caught in new places. If you could only manage to stand still—but I suppose you can't.
"By the way," he remarked casually, after a short silence, save for an occasional squeal from Miss Georgie, "speaking of Saunders—I didn't shoot him."
Miss Georgie looked up at him, to the further entanglement of her hair. "You DIDN'T? Then who did?"
"Search ME," he offered figuratively and briefly.
"Well, I will." Miss Georgie spoke with a certain decisiveness, and reaching out a sage-soiled hand, took his gun from the holster at his hip. He shrank away with a man's instinctive dislike of having anyone make free with his weapons, but it was a single movement, which he controlled instantly.
"Stand still, can't you?" he admonished, and kept at work while she examined the gun with a dexterity and ease of every motion which betrayed her perfect familiarity with firearms. She snapped the cylinder into place, sniffed daintily at the end of the barrel, and slipped the gun back into its scabbard.
"Don't think I doubted your word," she said, casting a slanting glance up at him without moving her head. "But I wanted to be able to swear positively, if I should happen to be dragged into the witness-box—I hope it won't be by the hair of the head!—that your gun has not been fired this morning. Unless you carry a cleaning rod with you," she added, "which would hardly be likely."