"Ah do! Ah do!"
"Then I promise." Her tone was sorrowful.
The younger girl faced about slowly.
"D' you promise?"
"Promise?" she repeated. "Yes,—I—I promise."
Dallas knew that the trip to the land-office was impossible unless Lounsbury should chance along—which was unlikely, some weeks having passed since his last visit. Undoubtedly were he to come, he would help them. But would her father allow her to ask the storekeeper's aid? Probably not.
"I'll tell Charley about it to-night," she said finally. "We just got to find a way."
"What c'n he do?" retorted her father. "Far's him's gitting a team's concerned, we-all might's well look fer someone t' come right outen th' sky."
Her determination to ask advice of the pariah was a natural one. The morning that succeeded the night of the mules' terror, she had awakened to find a reassuring explanation for their fear: In the growing light, as the trumpet sounded reveille from the fort, she sprang up and looked out expectantly. On the top of a drift in front of the door was a bundle of sticks! A hard crust had formed during the night; and moccasin tracks, leading up to the wood, and then pointing away again, were cast in it with frozen clearness.
"That poor Indian!" she had exclaimed, in grateful relief.
Not once after his summoning before Colonel Cummings had The Squaw forgotten daily to leave firewood at the shack. The evening of his second trip across the Missouri, Dallas had lain in wait for him, secreted under the dismantled schooner, which she had drawn into place beside the door. And as, bringing his offering, he crossed the snow softly and approached, the terrified mules again announced his coming, and she hailed him.
"Come on, come near," she had called; "I want to see you."
Eager to prove his good intent, he had hastened forward; and she, just as eager to show her thankfulness, had led him into the house. There, with the distrustful eye of the section-boss upon him, and with Marylyn watching in trepidation from a distance, he had eaten and drunk at Dallas' bidding.
At the very moment when Dallas decided to confide in him, Squaw Charley was not unmindful of her. Where the river-bluffs back of Brannon shoved their dark shoulders through the snow, the wind having swept their tops clean of the last downfall, he was working away like a muskrat. To and fro, he went, searching diligently for buffalo-chips. A sack followed him on a rope tied to his leather belt, so that he could beat his hands against his breast as he covered every square rod of dead, curly grass on the uplands. The bag crammed to the top, he took off his blanket and, despite the cold, began to fill it also. For he knew, and fully as well as they who watched the thermometer hanging just outside the entrance at headquarters, that the night would require much fuel.
As he hunted along the bare ridge, something more than the frigid gusts that whipped the skirt about his lean shanks urged him to finish his gathering and go riverward. In the little snug cabin out on the prairie a cheery welcome awaited him; before the glowing coals in the stone fireplace he could warm his shaking legs; there was good food for his empty stomach. But, better than all else, there a kindly face always smiled a greeting.
The blanket piled so high with chips that its weight balanced the grain-sack, he prepared to start riverward. But first, prompted by an old habit, he climbed to a high point of bluff near by, and, standing where lookouts had maintained a post before severe weather compelled their withdrawal, carefully scanned the white horizon. To the west, from where—the band in the stockade boasted—warriors of their tribe would come in the spring to make a rescue; to the north, on either side of the ice-bound Missouri; to the east, in the wide gap between the distant ranges of hills, he saw no creature moving. But facing southward, his hands shading his eyes carefully from the glare, he spied, on the eastern bank, and at not a great distance, the approach of a familiar milk-white horse, drawing a heavy pung.
The stooping pariah was transformed by the sight. He threw up his arms with an inarticulate cry, and sprang away down the slope to his sack and blanket. Seizing them, he made for the level ground north of the barracks, descended to the ice, swiftly crossed and dragged the fuel up to the cottonwoods. Then he started down the river, taking long leaps.
The upper part of the improvised sleigh that was tilting its way across the drifts like a skiff on angry water, was the green box of an ordinary farm-wagon, set on runners. The wheels of the vehicle lay on some hay in the rear of the box. On the broad wooden seat was a man, facing rearward to get the wind at his back. He was almost concealed by quilts, his arms being wrapped close to his body, and the milk-white horse was taking his leisurely way unguided. Above the man, and nailed so loosely to the wagon-seat that it wavered a little from side to side and kept up a squeaking, was a tall board cross, rude and unpainted.
When he came close to the sleigh, Squaw Charley caught the sound of singing, and stopped. The traveller was comforting his lonely way with a sacred hymn, the words of which, scattered by the wind, reached the Indian in broken, but martial, phrases.
"Onward, Christian soldiers, Marching ... war, ... the cross of Jesus ... on before."
Again Squaw Charley spurred himself into long leaps. And behind Shanty Town, on the open prairie, he brought the horse to a halt.
Once more he gave his wordless cry—a cry like the shrill hail of a mute. It brought the man face about. Another second, answering, he stood up, shook off the quilts to free his arms, reached down and caught the pariah to his breast.
Tall and spare, he was, and aged; over his shoulders flowed long, white hair; a beard as white fell to his waist; his sharp eyes were shaded by heavy brows; he wore a coat of coarse cloth that touched his feet, and about his head was wound a nubia; as, with face upraised, he embraced the Indian, he was a stately, venerable figure.
"God be praised!" he said over and over. Then he held Squaw Charley away from him a moment to look him up and down. "I feared some harm had come to you—that your people had behaved so cruelly to you that you had died. But you are well. Yet how thin! Ah! I am so glad to see you once more!"
He held him close again, murmuring a blessing. When he released him, it was to make room for him on the seat, and wrap him up in a thick, soft quilt. All the while the benevolent old face was shining with happiness, and tears were streaming down the wrinkled cheeks.
Squaw Charley, too, was overcome. His black eyes were no longer sad and lowered. They glowed softly, almost adoringly, as he watched his friend.
"David Bond had not forgotten you, Charles," the old man said, as he clucked to the white horse. "I was at Dodge City—that wickedest town of the plains—when news came of the capture of your village. At once I started, for I knew that my duty lay here, here with your poor people, who will not realise how foolish and puny is their warfare. I did not come alone," he added, casting a look behind; "a white man accompanied me—a man so full of evil and blasphemy that I quake for the safety of his miserable soul. He has walked most of the distance, for he is warmer walking, and there are scarce enough quilts for two."
They looked back. A mile to the rear, trailed a solitary man.
Squaw Charley made a quick, questioning sign.
"His name is Matthews," replied David Bond; "and his mission, I fear, is a bad one. All the way he has urged my poor Shadrach on and on, so that we have hardly had time to rest and eat. And all the day, as he rides or tramps, he mutters to himself. When I ask him what he is saying, he replies, 'You'll find out quick enough!' and curses more vilely than before."
The pung was now opposite the stockade. Looking across the river, David Bond got his first view of the high-walled prison with its ever-moving and wary guards.
He pulled up his horse. "Alas!" he exclaimed mournfully, "how misguided they are—white and red men alike!"
The pung slid on until the cut in the river-bank was reached. Again the old man reined. "I cannot cross the river while the ice is so smooth. Shadrach could not keep his feet. And I will not leave him behind. But where can I stop on this side?"
Glancing to the left, he saw the line of saloons. "There, Charles," he said. "I shall drive there and ask for shelter."
He turned the white horse into the cut. As they approached the shanties, a woman's voice was heard, raised in ribald song.
"God sends David Bond whither he is most needed," the old man murmured fervently.
A shingle sign was nailed over the door of the first building. On it, in bold, uneven letters, were the words: The Trooper's Delight. David Bond climbed down and knocked.
There was a moment of dead silence within; then, sounds as if several persons were moving about on tiptoe; again, silence. The old man knocked louder. After a short wait, the door was thrown wide. A thick-set man, whose eyes squinted at cross purposes over his flat, turned-up nose, filled the entrance.
"What in the devil do you want?" he demanded roughly, when he saw David Bond. But his seeming anger illy concealed his relief that it was not an officered guard, searching for recreant soldiers.
"I wish for nothing in the name of the devil," was the simple answer. "But in the name of God, I ask for a roof."
"That buck with you?" The squint-eyed man shut the door behind him as he pointed at Squaw Charley.
"No; he lives in the stockade yonder."
"Oh! He's the one that goes prowlin' 'round here day an' night, sneakin' an' stealin'!"
"He may prowl," said David Bond, stoutly, "but he does not steal. He is a good, honest Indian."
The keeper of The Trooper's Delight laughed immoderately. "Get out! Who ever heerd tell of a' honest Injun? Say!"—tauntingly—"where'd you an' your broom-tail come from, anyhow?"
"From Dodge City."
"Dodge City!" the man cried. "Then maybe you seen my brother there, or heerd if he' comin'. Nick Matthews is his name——"
David Bond lifted one hand and opened his mouth to answer. But the words stopped at his lips. For, from the top of the high bank behind the line of shanties, there came a shout. Looking up, the squint-eyed man, David Bond, and The Squaw saw a face peering down upon them.
"Hello!" came the voice again. "Hello, Babe! Hello, gran'pa! you beat me here, didn't y'? Look out! I'm a-comin'!"
And amid a little avalanche of snow, icicles, dirt and stones that frightened the milk-white horse so that he all but overturned the pung, Nick Matthews tobogganed down the bank on his overcoat and landed beside them on the shelf.
"Short cut," he said, as he got up and shook out the coat. "Well, Babe, old socks, how's things goin'? How"—he threw his thumb back over his shoulder toward the east—"how 'bout over there? What news y' got?"
Squaw Charley followed the direction of the pointing.
"You ain't come a minnit too soon," declared Babe. "Only just a day or two left of your six months, an' they——" The two moved toward the shanty, whispering together.
David Bond called to the brothers appealingly. "May I put up here?" he asked. "Have you a vacant building that I may share with Shadrach? I have hay and food of my own."
Nick Matthews came back. He had a putty-coloured face upon which his blonde eyebrows failed to show; but he summoned a look that was as near to a scowl as possible. "Look a-here, gran'pa," he said, "d' you think I'm goin' t' let you sponge offen my frien's? Not by a long shot! Hain't I come all the way fr'm Dodge City t' keep th' redskins fr'm takin' your scalp? What more d' y' want?" He gave a laugh in which there was no humour, disclosing small teeth, ranged close, and like the first set of a child's.
David Bond did not quail. "You have accepted my hospitality for a month," he said. "I ask nothing that is not justly mine."
Matthews snapped his fingers derisively. "We can't have you here t' snoop an' spy," he declared. "Git!" As he turned to enter the shanty, he came face to face with the Indian. "What's this?" Then, noting the squaw skirt, "Gran'pa, who's your lady frien'?"
Hate flashed across the pariah's face, like forked lightning on a dark sky.
"One of Sitting Bull's warriors," answered David Bond; "and a good man."
"Uncapapa, eh?" said Matthews. "I savvy their lingo." He plucked at Squaw Charley's dress. "Our warrior wears fine garments," he jeered, speaking in the Indian tongue. Then, with another laugh, he followed his brother into the shanty and banged the door.
David Bond took his horse's bridle. "We must find hospitality elsewhere, Shadrach," he said resignedly. And he headed the pung up the river. As he got back into the wagon-box, he looked round for Squaw Charley.
The pariah was standing close to the shanty, his head held forward, as if he were watching to spring, his hands opening and clenching angrily.
"Charles!" pleaded the old man, reproachfully. "Remember—do good to them that wish you evil, and love them that hate."
The Indian dropped his arm meekly and shuffled over to the pung. But when David Bond again drew him on to the seat, his lips moved silently, and until the cut was reached and Shadrach pulled them out upon the prairie once more, he continued to glower back at the line of saloons.
"It will be a terrible night," the other said, as they came to a standstill beside the cottonwoods. "It is getting late. I suppose I must try to cross the river."
The pariah was recalled from his backward glances. Rising, he extended an arm to direct David Bond's attention. And the old man, rising also, made out the squat shack of the Lancasters, almost hidden from sight by drifts. With a fervent prayer of thanksgiving, he touched up Shadrach and steered him toward it, pausing only long enough for the Indian to load the chip-sack and the filled blanket on top of the wheels and hay.
"If this lonely house will give me shelter and welcome," vowed David Bond, urging his horse on, "it will find me grateful."
Squaw Charley made no answering sign. Bundled again in the soft quilt, he sat in the wagon-box, brooding. For he had divined, with the instinct of the savage, that if the shack on the rise before them would find a faithful friend in him who sat beneath the wavering cross, it was threatened by the presence of a dangerous foe—the man just come to the shanty saloon by the river.
OUT OF THE SKY
When four distinct raps—Squaw Charley's familiar signal—sounded upon the outer battens of the warped door, Dallas drew back the iron bolt eagerly, caught the lantern that lighted the dim room from its high nail above the hearth, and held it over her head. Then, standing in the opening, with the icy wind fluttering the wide flame till it leaped and smoked in its socket, she met, not the faltering eyes of the faithful Indian, but the piercing gaze of aged David Bond.
She fell back and let the lantern drop to her waist. There she held it, her fingers trembling despite her effort to appear calm. Many days and nights she had waited expectantly for the man who, by voice and fist, had displayed an enmity toward them; she had pictured his arrival, or that of his emissary, and planned what she would say and do. Now, certain that he had come at last—after she had long ceased to watch for him—and reading justice and fearlessness in the stern visage before her, she was dumb and helpless.
Her father's voice, rising from the hearth-side, brought her to action. "Wal! wal!" he was saying, "don' keep th' door open all night."
With a defiant step forward, and as if to bar intrusion, she spread out her arms. "You're here," she said in a low tone.
Dallas' words did not penetrate the head-covering worn by David Bond; and the fire having died down for lack of fuel, the interior of the shack was so dark that he could see only her gesture. He thought her alone and frightened.
"Have no fear, daughter," he begged. "I will go somewhere else. But the ice is so——"
His gentle address surprised and disarmed her. She advanced relentingly as her father came up behind.
"W'y—a stranger?" cried the section-boss.
She stopped him. "Yes, but we wouldn't turn a dog away to-night, dad." She motioned David Bond to enter.
As he crossed the sill, Dallas, for the first time, caught a glimpse of the white horse and the pung, and saw Squaw Charley lifting his load of chips from the wagon-box.
"You came together?" she asked.
"Charley pointed out your house to me," was the answer.
A sudden hope came to her. "Maybe I made a mistake," she said. "Tell me, who are you?"
"David Bond—an evangelist by the grace of God."
She lifted the lantern, so that he could see the others. "My father and my sister," she said. Then she put the light on the table, retired to a corner and suddenly sank down.
Squaw Charley, having brought in and emptied the sack and blanket, fed the blaze and crouched at one side of the fireplace. Evan and Marylyn were across from him, intently examining the features and dress of the traveller. It was Dallas who, eased, yet shaken, remembered to be hospitable.
"Come, Charley," she said, rising, "we'll put the horse up. No, no," as their guest would have accompanied her, "we won't need help. The mules are used to Charley, now, and Simon's pretty ugly to strangers." She started out. "Marylyn," she said, from the door, "you take Mr. Bond's coat." Then, to the evangelist, "I'm glad it's you, and not—somebody—else." A rare smile crossed her face.
The aged man, divested of his long ulster, advanced and, with fatherly tenderness, lightly touched her braids.
"'I was a stranger, and ye took me in,'" he quoted solemnly.
Dallas lingered a moment, arrested by the picture: Lancaster was leaning forward from his seat in unaccustomed silence; Marylyn sat beside him, the nubia thrown across her arm; nearer was the Indian, his copper-coloured face marvellously softened; and, before them all, stood the evangelist, priestly, patriarchal.
When Dallas and Squaw Charley were gone, the section-boss and his younger daughter were, for a space, tongue-tied through a lack of something to say. Soon, however, David Bond broke the quiet to assure Lancaster of his gratitude. And thereafter the two men talked freely.
"You need not fear any trouble with my horse," the evangelist said, as Dallas was heard bidding Simon keep to his side of the stall. "Shadrach is a gentle beast."
At the name, the section-boss cocked his head like an inquiring bird. "M-m, Shadrach," he began in important reflection; "y' call y' hoss Shadrach. Ah seem t' hev heerd thet name before."
Marylyn raised to her father a quick, warning finger. "It's in the Bible, pa," she whispered.
"It's in the Bible."
"Don' y' think Ah know?" Evan poked the fire cheerfully. He was fairly started in a conversation. "Thet Shadrach was a prophet, ef Ah recall it jes' right," he said tentatively.
The evangelist shot him a sorrowful glance.
"No, pa," whispered Marylyn again. "He was put in a furnace. Remember the furnace, pa?"
"With th' lions!" cried the section-boss. "Certainly Ah do."
"Oh, pa, that isn't the story."
Evan stroked his moustache. "Ah'm kinda offen th' trail, honey, ain't Ah?" he said aside. Then, to cover his mistake and forestall any embarrassing explanation, he poked the fire again and resolutely began: "Pahson, how'd y' come t' name you' hoss Shadrach?"
"He had been christened Spooks," began the evangelist as if repeating an oft-told tale, "because his last owner mistook him, one night, for a ghost. I could not bear to call the faithful animal by that name, and, day after day, thought over all the names I had ever heard, striving to find one suitable. That summer something happened that decided for me. Spooks and I awoke to find ourselves surrounded by a prairie fire. And I, having hitched up and then gotten down into the bottom of the wagon, my good horse was forced to meet the wall of flame alone. He came out unscorched. I knew at once what his name should be. Henceforth, I called him Shadrach."
The light of returning knowledge—of blessed total recall—illumined the face of the listening section-boss. He gave the fire a glad poke that sent the burning chips to every side, thrust out his chest proudly and pinned the other with a triumphant eye. "Wal, how 'bout Meshach and Abednego?" he demanded.
David Bond studied a moment, knitting his brows until their heavy archings met in a single hoary line. "I take their place," he said at last, with dignity.
Following supper, which Dallas prepared, all gathered before the cheery blaze. There, the evangelist, anxious over the welfare of the people among whom he had preached and taught, promptly began to question Squaw Charley.
"You have not told me of your capture," he said, "or of the fight that came before it. Were you taken in the north—in the country of the White Mother—or in Dakota?"
The Indian nodded.
Swiftly, the pariah's whole aspect altered. A moment before, satisfied as to food, happy and comfortable, he had squatted down in his blanket. But, now, his shoulders bent, his chin sank to his breast, his eyes grew dull and sullen.
"Were you in the Mauvaises Terres?" queried the evangelist.
Squaw Charley shook his head.
"On the Powder?"
There was a silent assent.
"The soldiers pursued; maybe they surprised you—which?"
To answer, the Indian rose slowly. With one of Lancaster's crutches he raked out some ashes and levelled them upon the hearth-stones. Next, across them, stooping and using a finger, he drew a varying line that showed the trend of a stream. Far up toward its source, in a bend, he placed bits of bread from the table to indicate the lodges of his tribesmen. Slivers from a stick showed that the tepees had been set thickly in a grove of tall cottonwoods. White beans, from a filled pan on the floor near by him, stood for the warriors that had fought. His fingers moved more quickly as, by means of a handful of corn that Dallas had put in his leather pouch, he planted the United States troops on three sides of the Indian campground, and moved them forward to the attack.
Adroitly he manoeuvred the opposing forces, with advancing here and retreating there, groans when the white men felt the fight too keenly, low whoops to picture an Indian gain, little puffs of the breath to betoken flying bullets. The onlookers saw the battle as it had raged about the tepees. And the flickering lantern, as Squaw Charley moved it in a semicircle, told them that the firing began at daybreak and continued until dark.
All at once he changed the picture. Twelve beans were rapidly counted out and laid in rows, and he mourned softly over these to show that they were slain warriors. Five kernels of corn—a line of pale-faced dead—were placed beside the bean rows. This done, he covered the lantern with the grain-sack and leaned back against the logs.
"Aye, aye," cried David Bond, sadly. "Twelve braves and five troopers perished! Seventeen souls went to their Maker to mark the greed of the white man and the yearning to harry off the red! Why do the Indians not stay in peace and quiet upon the lands set apart for them, and not go abroad stealing and slaughtering? Why do my own people not give back to their brothers the country that is rightly theirs?"
Once more Squaw Charley stooped forward and, resting his weight on one hand, traced the return march of the troopers to a crossing of the Missouri, where the command had buried its dead; from there he drew the route southward, to the ferry and Fort Brannon. Here, he stuck the splinters in a circle to picture the stockade below the barracks. At last, rising, he drew his blanket close about him, put the grain-sack over his tangled hair and, with a parting look toward Dallas and the evangelist, went slowly out.
Perfect quiet followed the pariah's going. His recital of the conflict, dumb though it was, had powerfully stirred the little audience. For, as he had proceeded with his crude mimicry, the imagination of the others had filled in the scenes he could not sketch.
The section-boss spoke first. Not incapable of feeling, yet disliking to show emotion because it might be counted a weakness, he hastened to clear the air. "Say, Dallas," he drawled, with a survey of the battle-field, "he ought t' had some red Mexican beans fer his Injuns." But the remark failed to appeal.
David Bond made a shake-down for himself beside Lancaster's bunk, using an armful of hay and the robes and quilts from his pung. However, the fact that he needed rest, or that his couch was ready, did not tempt him from the fire. Long after his host disappeared behind the swinging Navajo blankets, he sat by the hearth. And Dallas stayed with him, Marylyn's sleepy head pillowed in her lap.
The elder girl felt strangely drawn to him. He returned the interest he inspired. Like Lounsbury, he marked the unusual character of this woman of the far frontier. But he saw further than had the younger man: With her father and sister, she was all firmness and strength, as if she held herself to be the mainstay of the family; yet, now and then, unwittingly, she betrayed qualities that were distinctly opposite. Like Lounsbury, too, when he touched upon the subject of her life it was to inquire if she had spent any of its years in a town. He felt certain that she had not; at the same time, his belief was curiously contradicted by her bearing.
"I'll always live on the plains," she said, having told him of the mesa and their migration north; "if I left 'em for a while, I'd learn things I don't know now; and when I came back, maybe I wouldn't be satisfied with the shack, or with dad and Marylyn."
"Child, where did you get that thought?" he asked, astonished.
"I don't know—only my mother would 'a' been happy in Texas if she'd been born there. But she wasn't, and she wanted her old home till she died."
She wanted her old home till she died—it was only a sentence, yet the quiet pathos of it bared to him the tragedy of that mother's exile.
"Never a great city, daughter," he advised. "Stay here, menaced by Indians, among rough men and women, with storms and toil besetting you, but never go to a great city. It is close and dirty and paved, and in it no man may fill his lungs with pure air, or touch his feet to God's green earth."
"In cities," questioned Dallas, but in a low tone, as if she wished no one to overhear; "in cities, do—do the women dress like me?" She raised herself a little, though without disturbing Marylyn, so that he might see her plain, collarless waist and straight, scant skirt.
He gave her a smile—a smile as rare and transforming as her own. She had allowed him a glimpse of her suppressed girlishness. "Would that they did, my daughter," he answered.
"I mean in cities like—like—Bismarck," she said, a trifle consciously.
"Perhaps—some—eh—let me see." He was perplexed. He saw the eager light in her face; saw that, for some reason, she was striving to compare herself with the women of the settled districts—and to learn from him the very things she had feared might bring dissatisfaction with her life. He did not wish to teach discontent. He would not tell an untruth. So he created a diversion by taking up his ulster and searching in a capacious pocket.
"But they—they—don't plow."
David Bond brought forth a limp and battered Bible. "No," he said; "no, they—they don't plow."
"Ah!" She looked into the fire. Of a sudden, two memories had returned—one, of the passing musicians, with their nudging and insolent smirks; the other, of a man who had leaned back in his saddle and laughed—after all, perhaps, not at her name.
"I—I suppose they're more like Marylyn," she faltered.
The evangelist adjusted his silver-bowed spectacles and smiled down at her. "And if they are, would it worry you, daughter?"
She shook her head slowly, and looked away.
He turned his back, so that both lantern-and firelight could reach his pages, and, opening the Book at random, began to read. The chapter done, he turned round and glanced at her again. Her face was still averted.
He rose to retire. She put Marylyn gently aside and rose with him.
Then, and not till then, did Dallas think of their dilemma of the morning. The evangelist's coming and their talk together had caused her entirely to forget about the trip to the land-office. However, swift on its remembrance, came a comforting certainty in David Bond's sympathy and aid. At once she told him of the necessity of her father's going.
"Shadrach and I will start with him to-morrow," was his ready response. He put out a hand to part the Navajo blankets. But an unshaped thought made him pause. "You will be alone."
"Why, we're not afraid."
"Brave girl!" he said. Her confident answer drove away the moment's vague uneasiness without its having taken the form or the connection he might have given it.
"Good-night," she called softly.
"Good-night, daughter," he answered, and the swinging blankets met behind him.
BEFORE THE WARPED DOOR
The section-boss was thoroughly surprised and not altogether delighted at being roused early the following morning with the news that he could start at once for Bismarck. As Dallas' voice penetrated the partition, he returned the only reply his ice-bound moustache and goatee would permit—a muffled growl. She did not hear it, yet she knew how he felt. The previous day, though a casual observer might have been misled by his garrulous fretting over Ben's lameness, she was quick to note, and with a pang, that, secretly, he was relieved. But her pain at his laxity and indifference was not unmixed with pity. For to her crippled father, whose crutches, in the snow, hindered rather than helped him, she guessed how long and lonely and bitter cold seemed the way to the land-office.
Yet it was something more than these aspects of the journey that caused Lancaster to view it unfavourably. He knew that in another thirty-six hours, when the original applicant's half-year was up, he, and not the other, would have the clearer right to the quarter-section. Therefore, he regarded the proposed declaration of abandonment, the cancelling of the old entry and the filing of a new, as forms which need not be gone through with hurriedly (since the first claimant had undoubtedly disappeared for good and all), but which might be attended to quite as well the coming spring, when the roads would be open and the days warm. Confident of his perfect security on the peninsula, and possessed by a sneaking, but denied, abhorrence for rush and discomfort, he rejoiced at delay. So, having left his snug bed to fumble about in the dark for his clothes, and, these donned, having loosed his speech before the grateful blaze in the fireplace, he did not argue fatigue or freezing as an excuse for procrastination; he passed over these rather too briefly and enlarged upon his safe status as a settler.
"All bosh," he asserted as he watched Dallas and Marylyn busy with preparations for breakfast. "A hull regiment of soldiers couldn' put us offen this lan', t' say nothin' of a man thet ain't done a thing on it sence he took it up. Ah might jes' as well stay home."
But he found that Dallas was firm on the question of his going—"haidstrong," he termed it—and would not even pause for a discussion. She had risen early to feed the occupants of the lean-to—Shadrach in particular; next, with a promise of rest later on, she had awaked Marylyn. Formerly, the younger girl would have persisted in questioning her about the proposed journey, and in knowing its purpose. Now, however, her interest in it, like that in most things, was so small that she appeared totally indifferent, and went about her work silently. Despite the fact that this somewhat revived Dallas' anxiety over her sister, the elder girl felt freshly strengthened in spirit. In all her twenty years of life no other morning had, like this one, promised her so much happiness.
When the evangelist emerged and, after a sojourn in front of the hearth, joined the family at table, Lancaster pined to ask him what he thought of their braving the elements foolishly. Not that the section-boss esteemed his aged guest. On the contrary, Dallas' evident interest in the stranger had stirred the unnatural jealousy in her father's wizen brain. Already, he hated David Bond, and had set him down for a crank. But Dallas needed a lesson. It was all very well for her to do the outside duties as if she were a man; that did not privilege her to ride roughshod over his opinions, or to rule affairs in general with a heavy hand. However, he found no opportunity for questions. She, reading impatience and mutiny in her father's every glance, kept up throughout the meal an unwonted flow of talk.
"Dad," she said, covering his plate with a crisp hot-cake for the dozenth time, "I haven't told Mr. Bond all about the claim—all the reasons why we want him to take you to Bismarck;"—the section-boss grunted at the "we"—"so you please tell him as you're going along. And don't let your coat get unbuttoned, or your ears froze. I heated some big rocks for the bottom of the sleigh and some little ones for your pockets. You'll both weigh so much that Shadrach can't run away if he wants to, and you can't fall out into a drift."
Not a word from the others checked her cheery stream of comment. However, breakfast past, and Dallas in the lean-to, David Bond managed to make a declaration. It was when he saw Lancaster take down the Sharps from its pegs by the mantel. "That should stay behind," he said, touching the rifle. "We are leaving your helpless girls alone. At least they should have something for defence."
Lancaster instantly agreed, observing to himself that the evangelist, after all, had some common sense. "Shore," he replied, "Ah'll put th' gun back an' we'll take yourn."
But he was corrected with severity. "I carry no weapons, sir," said David Bond. "I stand for peace."
"Then th' gun goes," declared the section-boss. "The gals was alone before 'thout it. They was no snow on th' groun' then, an' a heap more chance of someone comin'. They ain't no danger. An' ef Ah take th' gun, mebbe Ah c'n git a deer on th' way back. We need th' meat."
The evangelist considered a moment. "Very well," he said; "but I would advise differently."
"Aw, shucks!" retorted the other, struggling with his coat.
A moment later, his irritation was increased. At the same time the visitor unknowingly covered himself forever with suspicion. Through the frosty air and the darkness rang out the first trumpet blast from Brannon. And, as if totally unconscious of the action, David Bond reached up and bared his head.
"I love that summons," he said; "it bids our good lads wake and do their duty."
Lancaster was not unmindful of the courtesy due a guest. But any reference to patriotism was offensive, and he had been particularly provoked. So, behind the broad shoulders of the other he disdainfully turned up his nose.
They were off at last, with Marylyn watching them from a window, and Dallas walking alongside for a few rods to say good-by and to pat Shadrach's bony, white flanks encouragingly. Morning was stealing up the dun east, yet overhead the stars were shining. And their near radiance, reflected upon the snow, coupled with the light of the slowly growing dawn, made it possible for the girls to follow the travellers' straight course for miles. But long after Marylyn left the window, the elder girl remained outside. The dun of the east was painted out with uprushing waves of pink. The stars sank back into the heavens, grew smaller and dimmer, and, one by one, disappeared. Finally, a yellow rind, haloed in mist, was thrust above the level of the prairie. As Dallas greeted it, the distant ridge of a snow-drift, rose-tinged like the sky, hid the crawling speck that was the pung.
* * * * *
On his arrival behind David Bond, Nick Matthews had found that full pockets were plentiful among the soldiery, and had promptly gone about emptying them. Soon after entering The Trooper's Delight, he sat down to a chip-piled table. His quarry surrounded him. And there he stayed throughout the long night, wide-awake, sharp-witted, unwearied, adding to his heap of coloured discs honestly and otherwise. Not until reveille, a clarion warning, sent his fellow-players scurrying back across the river, did he put his cards one side and throw himself down. For, though a confirmed night-hawk, he needed a short nap to prepare for some business that lay before him.
"Babe," a direct contrast to his brother, being thick-necked, stumpy and dark, had not failed to garner his share of the rich harvest. From his station behind the long counter, which was made of four heavy planks supported on barrels at either end, he had poured strange mixtures into beer mugs and exchanged them for good government coin. When he was not performing his part as bartender, he was scraping illy timed tunes upon a fiddle.
It was he who was left in charge when, shortly after noon, his brother awoke, swallowed some whisky and armed himself with a brace of pistols. Then, with no word to the few loungers in the saloon, the latter set out, following the road that led up the river to the ferry-landing. At the cut, he climbed the bank at a leisurely pace and continued his way eastward, making straight across the snow toward the squat shack of the Lancasters.
His approach was instantly marked. Marylyn was once more at her post, studying the square of landscape framed by a window. When he made a quick figure on that landscape, she saw him, and called to Dallas.
"Here's someone coming," she announced, inwardly glad at the possibility of diversion.
Dallas hurriedly joined her. "Who can it be?" she asked.
The door was unbolted, the other window not fastened. Yet so far were her thoughts from molestation that she left them so.
"Going to ask him in?" questioned Marylyn.
"Not till I find out who he is."
They fell silent, conjecturing.
When Matthews reached the drift before the shack, he halted and signalled for them to open their window. That attitude toward them—clearly he did not expect a welcome—at once roused Dallas' suspicion.
"Marylyn," she said, making as if to obey their visitor, "draw the bolt of the door."
The younger girl, quick to be alarmed, instantly did as she was told, and Dallas then shoved the sash aside. Both girls looked from the opening.
With all Matthews' hostile intent, it must be said that the moment found him disconcerted. He had learned on arriving that the section-boss had two daughters. The news did not alter his determination one whit. Had anyone suggested such a thing, he would have been moved to laughter. But now he noted the prettiness of the younger girl, and a certain conceited desire to appear chivalrous, which had earned him the title of "Lady-Killer" among his associates, made him involuntarily spruce. He smiled ingratiatingly, and prepared to launch into flowery speech when—he met Dallas' grave, steady eyes, and suddenly found himself at a loss for words.
"How d' do, Miss?" he said at last.
"How d' y' do?" she returned. In spite of herself her voice trembled.
That did not escape Matthews. He shamed his momentary embarrassment and resolutely grappled the matter that had brought him. "I want t' see your old man," he said. It was a demand.
"Dad can't see you to-day," she answered with ready caution. She thought it best to keep from him, whoever he was, the knowledge of her father's absence.
"Huh!" ejaculated Matthews, in an ugly tone. He came a few paces nearer. "I got t' see him, jus' th' same."
"But you can't."
"Ain't he t' home?"
Marylyn pressed close to her sister. "Tell him yes," she begged nervously.
Dallas hesitated. Then she answered. "He's not home. Will you please come again—some other time?"
The gambler chuckled. "My dear young lady," he said, his tone the extreme of insolence, "I can't come no other time. Th' business I got t' do has got t' be done t'-day. I might as well tell you that my name's Matthews—Nick Matthews. This claim you're on is mine, an' I mean t' have it. What's more, I mean t' have it t'-day."
"Ah!" Dallas was thinking fast. At her shoulder, aware all at once that they were in danger, was Marylyn, clinging in pitiful terror.
"Yes," added Matthews, as if that clinched the matter.
Dallas looked at him without speaking.
"I jus' come from Dodge City," he went on. "My intention is t' live on my land all winter. I'm very sorry"—this ironically—"your old man took th' trouble to build on it. He ought t' inquired about th' claim before he done that. But—long's it's all one with my plans fer improvin'—I don't see's I ought t' kick." He chuckled again, and spat.
"I know, and so does dad," said Dallas, "that a man filed upon this quarter-section in July. We didn't find it out, though, till long after we built this house. We know his six months is almost up, too. But if you're him, and even if you've got back only a few hours before it's up, I'm willing, and I think dad'll be, for you to have the claim. But you must pay for what we've done on it."
"I never ast y' t' do anything on it."
"That's so. But the law says——"
"Aw, th' law be damned! I don't pay a cent!"
"Then I know dad won't leave."
"Oh, you do."
"Yes," very quietly.
"Well, let me tell y', my dear, that you're dead wrong. You're goin' t' git your duds an' grub t'gether right now; in half a' hour, you leave this cabin."
At this, Marylyn began to sob.
"Come, get a move on," ordered Matthews, threateningly. He knew that if he wished to regain the land, there would be no time better than the present. He began to walk up and down, flinging his arms about to start the circulation.
Dallas turned to comfort Marylyn, putting an arm about her protectingly. "Hush!" she said. "Keep quiet, honey."
"Oh, let's go! let's go!" wailed the younger girl.
Matthews came forward again, and took out his watch, a large, open-faced timepiece hung to a braided buckskin chain. "Now, look a-here," he said peremptorily; "I don't want no more funny business. This claim's mine. Your old man ain't got a solitary right to it. So you got t' go. I'll give you jus' ten minutes." With this, he resumed his pacing, comforting his beat with occasional draughts from a flask.
Dallas strove hard to collect herself. "I can't do anything till dad comes," she called to him, finally. "You want us to leave. Why, we haven't got any place to go; and it's cold——"
"Guess I know that," interrupted Matthews. "I'm almost friz."
"And you've got no right to ask us to go till you've paid for this house and the well—and—and my plowing."
"I pay fer nothin' I don't see, and fer no hole in th' ground," he said. "And as far 's a place to go is concerned"—this with a leer—"there's Shanty Town. Why, the boys'd be tickled t' death t' see y'. Then there's allus room at the Fort when there's good-lookin' gals in the fambly."
Dallas understood the insult. Her grey eyes flamed in her greyer face. She slammed the window.
Matthews came near, so that his face all but touched the glass. "Oh, that don't do no good, my dear," he said, raising his voice. "When I get ready, I'll come in."
Marylyn had stilled her weeping to listen to him. Now, pallid with fear, she threw herself upon her sister and again burst forth.
Dallas put her swiftly aside. The face that had been grey was now a tense white. Her eyes were blazing. She sprang to the gun rack and put up her arms.
But the pegs were empty!
A HAND IN THE FUN
"What under the shining sun!" exclaimed Lounsbury, spilling ground coffee into his boot-tops. He strode to the front of the store, the tin scoop in his hand still held recklessly upside down. A pung was passing the grocery—a green pung drawn by a milk-white horse. On its quilt-padded seat were two men. Above them, as they slowly proceeded, sagged a high board cross.
Lounsbury glanced inquiringly about him. His neighbours were also watching the strange sight. At the windows of the bunk-house opposite, and at the openings of other buildings near, were many faces, wide with good-natured grins. As Lounsbury turned to the travellers again his own mouth curved in a smile.
But, all at once, he sobered. The pung was now so far away that the backs of the men were presented to him; and between them, projecting at a slant over the seat, were the curved tops of a pair of crutches.
Jocular opinions of the passers-by were being freely exchanged back and forth; he paid no heed to them. The scoop dropped from his hand and clattered upon the floor; he let it lay. Silent and troubled, unaware of the demands of an insistent customer, he looked after the departing sleigh.
At last, he acted. Without waiting even to put on his cap, he started at a run up the street. His race, bareheaded, increased the laughter of those who were still watching. They yelled to him boisterously: "Sic' 'em, Bud!" "Sell 'em somethin', John!" "Drag 'em back an' skin 'em!" But the storekeeper was deaf. Each yard made him more certain of the identity of one traveller; his thoughts, as he pursued, were of him. He gained rapidly on the pung. At the edge of the camp, in the trough of a drift, he stopped it.
Lancaster spoke first, for Lounsbury was too spent. "Wal? wal?" he said crabbedly.
"Excuse me," panted the other, giving, in his eagerness, only a glance at David Bond, "excuse me, but I see you're headed from home. I wondered—I thought maybe I could do a turn for the young ladies while you're gone."
For a moment the section-boss did not reply. He was still smarting over Dallas' generalship, and, if anything, was more disgusted and rebellious than when he left the shack. So, in the brief pause, he gave ready ear to the whispering of the yellow harpy. His lids lowered. His lip curled.
"You understand, I'm sure," Lounsbury hastened to say. "I thought they might be alone, that——"
"Thank y'," answered Lancaster, snapping out each word; "thank y', they is alone. An' you'll oblige me a damn sight by leavin' 'em thet way." He settled himself in his seat. "Git ap!" he said to Shadrach. The pung slipped slowly on.
Lounsbury was too taken aback either to follow or to retreat. For a while, he stayed where he was, busily coining forcible phrases for the relief of his mind. As he retraced his steps, the few who saw him were discreetly silent. For the camp knew that there were rare moments when it was best to give him a wide berth.
The interview in the trough of the drift was so brief that David Bond was shut out of it. But had it been longer—had he been given a chance to speak—the result might have been the same. The section-boss had been mute all the way to Clark's. The fact that Dallas had told him to relate the story of the claim was the strongest reason for his not doing so. David Bond, therefore, was left in ignorance, and had no means of connecting the evil companion of his journey north with the fortunes of the Lancasters. So, as they left Lounsbury behind, he even found some censure in his heart for the storekeeper.
"You were quite right," he said, flicking Shadrach gently. "That young man should pay no visit to your daughters while you are absent. Yet,"—he could not refrain from putting a reproof where it seemed due—"yet, I regret your manner of addressing him, your oath——"
Lancaster glared. "Oh, you' gran'mother's tortoise-shell cat!" he said wrathfully. For several hours thereafter he added nothing to this.
Back in his store, Lounsbury was mixing brown sugar with white, oolong tea with a green variety, and putting thread in the pickle-barrel. Simultaneously, he was torturing himself: Had the section-boss left home with no danger threatening? But—the green pung was undoubtedly bound for Bismarck. What was it that had suddenly made him see the necessity of attending to the claim? Along with this came self-arraignment: After all, he should have told Lancaster that a man who claimed the quarter-section on the peninsula had been called from Dodge City. Lounsbury had been certain that Matthews could not reach Fort Brannon before the spring. But it had never occurred to him that the section-boss would leave his girls alone! Now, he vowed that if any harm befell Dallas and Marylyn, he had only himself to blame.
He buckled on his pistol-belt and padlocked the door. "I don't care whether the old man likes it or not," he declared aloud, "I'm going down there."
As he swung through the camp on his way to the corral, he saw one of Old Michael's helpers coming toward him, picking his steps in the slush. The man motioned, and held out a white something. It was an envelope, grimy and unaddressed.
Lounsbury ripped it open and pulled out a written sheet.
"der mr lunsbery [ran the note] mathuse com las nite in a quere outfit with a krazy preecher the preecher i think is at the landcasters but the other sunuvagun is her i hav a i on him prity kold wether river sollid."
It was partly through the generous employment of his imagination that the storekeeper was able to make out the scrawl, which, though not signed, he knew to be the pilot's. That same imagination enabled him to bring up numberless disturbing—almost terrible—pictures.
The astonished helper gazed after him as he went tearing away in the direction of the horse-herd. "By jingo!" he grumbled; "twenty miles—and he didn't even say treat!"
Soon Lounsbury's favorite saddler, urged on by a quirt, was kicking up a path across the crusted drifts that Shadrach had so recently surmounted. As the storekeeper cantered swiftly forward, a new question presented itself to him: Was the "preacher" in league with Matthews, and so was carrying the section-boss out of the way? He decided negatively. He had given only a glance to Lancaster's companion, but that, together with the passing glimpse from the store, had shown him a venerable man whose piercing eyes held a pious light. He was no scoundrel confederate. He was plainly but a brave, perhaps a fanatic and foolhardy, apostle in the wilderness, and his calling had kept Matthews from confiding in him.
While Lounsbury thus alternately tortured and eased his mind, he had passed the sombre clump of cottonwoods where the Indian dead were lashed, and was fast covering the miles that lay between the burial boughs and Fort Brannon.
* * * * *
When the ten minutes he had allotted were past, Matthews made a great show of putting away his watch and took a last pull at the whisky flask. The bottle disposed of, he walked down the drift to the warped door and rapped a staccato. No answer was returned. Again, he rapped, and more imperatively than before. Again, no answer. He pushed back his hat and applied an ear to the hole through which had hung the lifting-string of the latch. Then he heard long, unfrequent sobs, like those of a child who, though almost asleep, is yet sorrowing. Between the sobs, punctuating them fiercely, sounded the prolonged sucking-in of breath.
"Might as well stop y' bawlin' an' squallin'," he called through the latch-hole. "Time's up!"
Getting no reply, as before, he altered his tactics. First, shading his face with his slim fingers, he looked in. He could not see the girls. Dallas was close to the door and beyond the limit of his vision. So was Marylyn, who, helpless with fright, half knelt, half lay, against her sister. What he could see was—from the south window—the gaudy Navajo blankets forming two partitions of Lancaster's bedroom, and, nearer, two partly filled sacks, some harnesses and the seat of a wagon. The other window afforded a better view. "Looks mighty comfortable," he said as he contemplated it. There was a hearth with its dying fire; in front of it were circling benches and a thick buffalo-skin rug; above was a mantel, piled with calico-covered books; a freshly scrubbed table stood in the farther corner beneath a dish-cupboard, which was made of a dry goods box; to the left of this—high up on the log wall—were a couple of pegs.
It was these that finally riveted Matthews' attention and brought him to a temporary halt. "Got th' gun down!" he exclaimed. On finding that Lancaster was gone, he had decided not to produce a weapon. Now, however, he quickly felt for one and dropped on all fours. "That biggest gal 'd no more mind pumpin' lead into me than nothin'," he declared, wagging his head wisely. "I could tell that by the shine in her eyes." He crawled around the corner.
Behind the lean-to, he came to several conclusions: It would be useless to try to get in by either window; both were high and small; the best spot for an attack was the door. Unless he was hard pressed, he must not shoot; women were concerned, and the fort or Clark's might be stirred to unreasonable retaliation in their name; for example, there was that poor devil of a cow-puncher at Dodge who had been riddled simply for slapping his wife.... Obviously, the shack must be occupied without the shedding of blood. But what of his safety? "I'll jus' have t' chance it," he said, and hunted for something to use as a battering-ram.
Not a pole, not even a piece of board, could he find. A scarcity of fuel before Squaw Charley began furnishing it had led to the burning of every odd bit of timber. Disgruntled, but not discouraged, Matthews crawled back to the front of the cabin and closely examined the door. "I thought so!" he declared joyfully when he was done. Rain and snow had swelled the thick boards of which it was built. But through the narrow cracks between these, he saw that the transverse pieces on the inside, like the four without, were only slender battens. "If I can git some of them cleats off," he said, "I can bust in."
With a horn-handle knife he pried up the end of a batten until he could get his fingers beneath it. Then he pulled, and it came away. A light strip from side to side marked where it had been. Three times more he pried and pulled, and the outer transverse pieces lay on the snow. For the rest of his job Matthews had to depend on his shoulders.
Putting his knife in his pocket, he backed to the top of the nearest drift. There he gathered himself together and, with a defiant grunt, hurled himself headlong at the door. As it bent with the force of the impact, a shriek rang out. Well satisfied, Matthews retreated and flung himself forward a second time. The door cracked ominously; the inside bolt rattled in its sockets. Anticipating a speedy entrance, Matthews warmed to his task. And each time he fell upon the barrier, a weak moan from within swelled to a cry of mortal terror.
And then—a few feet behind him, a voice interrupted—a well-modulated voice, in an amused, ironical tone. "Well," it said slowly, "I hope you're enjoying yourself."
Matthews whirled and reached for a weapon. He was too late. As he swung it forward, the single eye of a revolver held his. Beyond was Lounsbury.
A queer tremor ran around the storekeeper's mouth. His nostrils swelled, and he wrinkled his forehead. "Sorry," he said drily, "but it's my bead."
Sheer surprise, together with a lack of breath, made the other dumb.
"Drop your gun," bade Lounsbury.
Matthews' right hand loosed its hold. His revolver fell, and slid, spinning, to the bottom of the drift.
"Now I know all you want to say," said Lounsbury. "That this claim is yours, that your six months ain't up, that Lancaster's jumped it, and so on. But that won't excuse what you've tried to do—break into this house while these young women are alone. Besides, you haven't the ghost of a right to this land. So you'll oblige me by keeping off it from now on."
Matthews found his tongue. "Who in hell are you?" he demanded coolly.
"Who am I?" repeated the storekeeper, smiling down the revolver barrel. "Why, I'm St. George, and you're the dragon." He raised his voice. "Miss Lancaster!" he called. "Miss Lancaster!"
A face appeared at a window, then a second. There were more cries, but not of fear. The sash was pushed open. Dallas and Marylyn, the younger girl still clinging to the elder, looked out.
"It's all right," said the storekeeper, not taking his eyes from the enemy. "I'm here."
Dallas could not answer. But Marylyn, though exhausted, was fully alive to their rescue. Her eyes, wide and tearful, were fixed upon Lounsbury.
"Oh, we're afraid!" she cried plaintively; "pa's gone, and we're afraid!"
"You needn't be, any more," he said reassuringly.
Matthews, under his breath, was cursing the self-contained man in the saddle. Enraged at the storekeeper's interference, hot with disappointment, he saw himself stood up like a tenderfoot. But his caution prevailed. A certain expression in Lounsbury's eyes, a certain square set to his jaw—the very cues that guided the cattle-camp—made him cautious.
"Look a-here," he said to Lounsbury, assuming a conciliatory manner. "Let's talk as one gent to another. These ladies is your friends. So far, so good. But I has my rights, and I can prove that I slep' on this quarter-section three times and——"
Lounsbury's face darkened. He was lightly ironical no longer. He urged his mount forward. "Don't argue with me, you infernal blackguard," he said. "You can prove anything you want to by a lot of perjuring, thieving land-grabbers. Don't I know 'em! If you filed on this claim you were hired to do it. You hadn't an idea of settling, or building a home. You did it for speculating purposes—nothing else. And the law, I happen to know, is dead against that. You're a shark. But your game won't work. These folks are going to stay in this shack and on this Bend. And you be mighty careful you don't make 'em any trouble!"
"I'll git a Bismarck lawyer," declared Matthews.
"Yes, and we'll tar and feather the shyster. What's more, I'll head a bunch of Clark's boys, and we'll wipe Shanty Town off the face of the earth."
Matthews raised his shoulders and put his tongue in his cheek. "You're mighty interested in these ladies, seems t' me," he said insinuatingly.
The slur did not escape the storekeeper. It determined him to parley no further. "Hoist your hands!" he commanded.
Matthews obeyed. His fingers were twitching.
The next command was curt. "Mosey!"
The other moved away. When he was beyond pistol range, he produced his second revolver and waved it above his head. "You jus' wait!" he shouted. "You jus' wait! I'll fix y'!"
Lounsbury returned him a mocking salute.
AN APPEAL TO HEADQUARTERS
As Matthews ceased his threatening and strode on, a new fear came over Dallas. She leaned toward Lounsbury from the window. "What does he mean by 'fixing you'?" she asked hoarsely.
The storekeeper was still watching riverward, and he answered without turning his head. "He means it's a case of shoot on sight," he said.
"Then you mustn't go near him—you must go back to Clark's. Promise me you will! I can take care of Marylyn till dad comes. If you got hurt——"
Lounsbury threw one leg over the pommel and sat sideways for a while, buckling and unbuckling his reins. When he spoke, it was very gently, and again he did not look at her. "Hadn't you better wrap up a little?" he suggested. "It's cold."
She put a coat about Marylyn. "It ain't right for you to make our quarrel yours. You mustn't. I wouldn't have you hurt on our account for anything." Her eyes beseeched him.
He glanced at her. "It's worth a lot to know you feel that way," he said slowly. "But—I'm afraid I can't do what you want. It's your safety that counts with me."
Marylyn's face had been hidden, to shut out the dread sight of Matthews. Now she lifted it. She said nothing. But as if suddenly smitten by a painful thought, she turned from Dallas to Lounsbury, from Lounsbury to Dallas, questioningly, doubtfully. She drew to one side a few steps, and stood alone.
The movement escaped the others. The storekeeper had slipped from his saddle to pick up Matthews' revolver. And the elder girl, against whom was setting in a tide of reaction, was struggling for composure. She put out a trembling hand for the weapon.
"Got a rifle, too, haven't you?" he asked.
"No. Dad took it."
"Good Heavens! I'm glad I didn't know that coming down!"
"How'd you happen to come?"
"I saw the sleigh go by, and was sure something had scared your father about the claim. So I didn't wait to black my boots."
"Oh, it was a comfort to hear you," she said.
"Was it?" eagerly. He stepped toward her; then drew back. "Well,"—with a feeble attempt at humour—"I'd rather be a comfort than a wet blanket." He had remembered that evil eyes were watching; that his least move might subject Lancaster's daughters to the coarse comment of Shanty Town. He dared not even remain out of his saddle. He mounted.
"Oh, you're going to leave us!" exclaimed Marylyn. She began to cry helplessly.
"But I'll be on the lookout every second," he declared. "Miss Dallas,"—he urged his horse up to the window—"don't think I'm idiot enough to try to do up that saloon gang down there single-handed. If I go to Shanty Town, it'll be because I have to. I won't go alone if I can help it. First of all, I intend to see the Colonel over there, and lay this matter before him."
"But dad——" she began.
"Got to do it, whether your father likes it or not. We're dealing with a cutthroat. He knows this land's worth money."
"And you can't tell what he'll do." He bent to her. "That scoundrel scared you," he said regretfully. "You're ready to drop. Oh, yes, you are! And it's my fault. I knew he might come any day—that he'd make trouble. But I didn't believe he'd get here so soon, I——"
"I'd given him up," she said.
"You! You did know, then!"
"Quite a while ago."
"Knew what?" asked Marylyn, stopping her tears. Then, certain that there was some awful secret behind it all, and that it was being kept from her, she began to cry again.
Dallas soothed her, and explained.
"Do you know when Matthews' six months is up?" Lounsbury inquired.
"To-night, at twelve."
"To-night! Well, we've got to keep him off. He may try to establish residence in a wickie-up."
"But hasn't he a right? Can't he——"
"He hasn't, and he can't. And if he comes this way after midnight, I'll fix him for trespassing!" He laughed.
"I wish you wouldn't go to the Fort, though. You've heard dad—you know how he feels."
"I wouldn't go if I didn't have to. But the temperature's falling. By sundown, they'll begin changing the sentries at Brannon every hour. No one man could stay out even half the night. And this shack has to be guarded till morning. I must get someone to relieve me."
"I suppose you're right," she said reluctantly.
He brought the horse about. "Is there anything I can do before I go?" he asked.
"No. We've got everything but wood, and Charley brings us that."
"Charley," repeated Lounsbury. "Who's Charley?"
She told him.
He seemed relieved. "I'll look that Indian up," he said, and raised his hand to his cap.
From the road, he looked round. Despite the distance, he could see that the girls were where he had left them, and Marylyn's head was once more pressed against her sister. The sight made him writhe in his saddle, and wish he were as old as the river-bluffs themselves, that he might go back and protect them. As he descended to the ice their two faces rose before him: One, pretty and pale, with the soft roundness of a child's, the blue eyes filled with all a child's terror and entreaty; the other, pale, too,—though upon it there still lingered the brown of the summer sun—but firm of outline, its crown a heavy coil of braids, its centre, eyes that were brave, steadfast, compelling.
The first picture blurred in remembering the second. "God bless her!" he murmured. "To think she knew all the time, and never cheeped!"
At the shack, Dallas, too, was pondering—over a strange contrariety: Their home was in danger, perhaps their very lives. Yet the day had fulfilled its promise of the morning—it was the happiest in her life!
* * * * *
The ramshackle ferry-boat was firmly wedged in a dry-dock of ice on the western side of the Missouri. As Lounsbury passed it, with his horse following pluckily in spread-eagle fashion, he shouted for Old Michael. But long before the river had floored, when it was edging and covering only in the least swift places, the pilot had made his final crossing, run the wheezy steamer, nose-in, against the bank, and deserted her. So the storekeeper received no answering halloo. He was disappointed. It was desirable to embroil as few as possible in the Lancaster dispute. Old Michael, already a factor, was needed to act the picket—to fire a warning signal if Matthews left Shanty Town.
A substitute was found at the stables. The storekeeper, as he rushed away after disposing of his mount, came upon Lieutenant Fraser, busily roaching his own riding-animal, a flighty buckskin cayuse that no one else cared to handle, and that was affectionately known in barracks as the "She-devil." The men had met before, around the billiard-table at the sutler's, and Lounsbury had set the young officer down for a chivalrous, but rather chicken-hearted, youngster, who had chosen his profession unwisely. So, his story told, the storekeeper was altogether surprised at Fraser's spirited enthusiasm and quick response.
"I've nothing to do, old man," he said, as they went toward the parade-ground. "I can help as well as not. So just take your time. I'll watch for you."
"I hardly think our man'll show his nose before dark. But I can't leave the way open——"
They parted at the flag-pole, the West Pointer going down to the river, and Lounsbury hurrying off in the opposite direction.
Colonel Cummings' entry and reception-room were crowded when the storekeeper entered. A score of officers were standing about in little groups, talking excitedly. But Lounsbury was too anxious and distraught to notice anything unusual. He hurried up to a tall, sad-faced man whose moustache, thin and coarse, drooped sheer over his mouth, giving him the look of a martyred walrus.
"Can I see the K. O., Captain Oliver?" he asked. "It's important."
"I'll find out," answered the captain. "But I don't believe you can. He's up to his ears." He disappeared into the next room.
Lounsbury bowed to several officers, though he scarcely saw them. He heard Oliver's low voice, evidently announcing him, then the colonel's.
"Yes, bring him in," cried the latter. "Maybe he'll know."
The storekeeper entered without waiting. Colonel Cummings stood in the centre of the room. It was the room known as his library, in compliment to a row of dog-eared volumes that had somehow survived many a wet bivouac and rough march. But it resembled a museum. In the corners, on the walls beneath the bulky heads of buffalo and the branching antlers of elk, there were swords, tomahawks, bows and arrows, strings of glass wampum, cartridge belts, Indian bonnets, drums and shields, and a miscellany of warlike odds and ends. To-day, the room was further littered by maps, which covered the table, the benches, and the whole length of an army cot. Over one of these hung the colonel, making imaginary journeys with the end of a dead cigar.
He turned swiftly to Lounsbury, and caught him by the shoulders. "John," he said, before the other could speak, "I need an interpreter. You've been about here for years—do you know one?"
"There's Soggy, that Phil Kearney fellow——"
The colonel gave a grunt of disgust. "In jail at Omaha," he said. "Played cards with a galoot who had some aces in his boot-tops. Plugged him."
"What's the matter with your Rees?"
"That's just it! You see, that bunch of Sioux out there"—he jerked his head toward the stockade—"helped in a bit of treachery two summers ago. Rounded up some friendly Rees at a dance and scalped 'em. So—there's poison for you! In this business on hand I couldn't trust even my head scout." He began pacing the floor. "Anyway, sign language, when there are terms to be made and kept, isn't worth a hang!"
"I wish I could suggest a man," said Lounsbury. "Fact is, Colonel, I'm terribly worried myself. I came to ask you for help in some trouble——"
The old soldier threw up his hands. "Trouble!" he cried. "Why I'm simply daft with it! Look at that!" He pointed to the farthest side of the room.
It was dimly lighted there. Lounsbury stepped forward and peered down—then recoiled, as startled as if he had happened upon something dead. On the floor was a man—a man whose back was bent rounding, and whose arms and legs were hugged up against his abdomen and chest. Torso and limbs were alike, frightfully shrunken; the hands, mere claws. Lounsbury could not see the face. But the hair was uncovered, and it was the hair that made him "goose-flesh" from head to heel. It was white—not the white of old age, with glancing tints of silver or yellow—but the dead white of an agony that had withered it to the roots. Circling it, and separating the scalp from the face and neck, ran a narrow fringe that was still brown, as if, changing in a night, it had lacked full time for completion.
Lounsbury could not take his eyes from the huddled shape. Colonel Cummings paused beside him. "This morning," he said, speaking in an undertone, "a sentry signalled from beyond the barracks. Two or three men took guns and ran out. They found this. His clothes were stiff with ice. He was almost frozen, though he had been travelling steadily. He was utterly worn out, and was crawling forward on his hands and knees." The ragged sleeves and trousers, stained darker from the wounds on elbows and knees, were mute testimony. "He couldn't see," continued the colonel. "He was snow-blind. They laid him out on a drift and rubbed him. The surgeon did the rest. He begged to see me. They brought him in, and he told his story. It's an old one—you've heard it. But it's always new, too. This is Frank Jamieson, a young——"
As he heard his name, the man stirred, straightened his legs and let fall his arms. He looked up.
"Young!" gasped Lounsbury. "Good God!" The face was aged like the hair!
Jamieson struggled weakly to his feet, using the wall to brace him.
Colonel Cummings hastened across and lent the support of an arm. "No, no," he protested. "You mustn't talk. You're too weak."
But Jamieson did not heed. "You an interpreter?" he asked in a rasping whisper.
"You're too weak——"
"No, I ain't; no, I ain't. If he'll go with us, I'm strong enough—why, I shovelled snow on the special to Bismarck—that's how they let me ride—and skating home I didn't stop to rest——"
"Yes, yes, my boy, we know."
"I walked and walked—straps broke—I forgot to tell you—that's why I had to. But it didn't do any good—it didn't do any good! When I got there——" As if to shut out some terrible sight, he screened his eyes with one palsied hand, and sank back limply into Colonel Cummings' arms. Lounsbury swept the cot clean of maps, and they laid him there.
"His father was dead," said the commanding officer; "dead—and naked, scalped, mutilated, full of arrows and rifle balls. The house and barns were burned."
Jamieson put out his arms. "My mother!" he cried imploringly. "My poor little mother!"
Lounsbury knelt beside him, feeling shaken and half sick.
"If I could only 'a' been there! But I was 'way off at St. Paul. I knew something was wrong when the letters stopped."
"But you must buck up, Jamieson," said the colonel, "so you can help us."
"I will, oh, I will."
"How'd you get down here?" asked Lounsbury.
"I didn't eat for a long time. I was crazy. The snow blinded me, and I was hungry. But I didn't leave the river—I knew enough for that—they found me."
"You think the women are alive, Colonel?" asked the storekeeper.
"Undoubtedly, and with the other half of the very band we've got here—somewhere up in the Big Horn country." He took a turn up and down the room.
"May I ask your plan?"
"We are in fine shape to talk terms to the captors. I'll send a command to them, demanding the women. If they are not surrendered, I'll hang four of the redskins I've got here, Lame Foot, the medicine-man, and Chiefs Standing Buffalo, Canada John, and Shoot-at-the-Tree—all ringleaders. Then the rest of the band will be put on a reservation. If the Jamieson women are alive, and they send 'em in, I won't hang the chiefs."
"When'll the command start?"
"Three hours after we get an interpreter. I've sent word up to Custer at Lincoln. But the delay! Think what it means to those women!"
"It was about two women that I wished to speak," said Lounsbury. He felt apologetic, however, the one danger was so trifling beside the other.
Colonel Cummings listened. "Those girls had better come here," he said, as the storekeeper finished. "Then they'd be safe enough. I remember seeing one of 'em the day we got back. She was a fine-looking young woman."
"There are two arguments against their coming, sir. For legal reasons, it's best they should not vacate the shack or leave the claim."
"And, again, the father is—well, he's rather sore about the war."
"You don't say!"
"So, if you could give me a couple of men to take my place now and then during the night—the situation is temporary, you see, the father'll be back in a few days."
"There are very strong reasons against my acting in the matter. I'm here to keep an eye on Indians. The settlers are expected to go to the civil authorities when they have quarrels. Now, I'd like to mix up with Shanty Town, for instance. Our guard-room is jammed with men who've been drugged over there with vile whisky. Yet I can't. I can only punish my men."
"I know that's so."
"Of course, I shan't see defenceless women suffer——"
Lounsbury was piqued. "Not altogether defenceless, Colonel. But I can't stay at the shack——"
"True, true. Why not ask Mrs. Martin, Major Appleton's sister, to go over. Then you might guard from the barn, if they have one."
"That's a splendid suggestion, sir. It would solve the difficulty."
"I'd be glad to speak to Mrs. Martin about it." He thought a moment, passing a hand over his clean-shaven face. "You'd have to be relieved even then, John, I should think."
"Not at all."
"But you might. In that case——" He drew Lounsbury close, and spoke with his lips to the storekeeper's ear. "But you understand," he said aloud as he concluded, "that I know nothing about it. If I hear of it, I shall be very displeased, very."
Lounsbury was wringing his hand, and ready to bolt.
"All the same, John, I wish the civil authorities could get at the man."
"I wish so, too." He leaned over Jamieson.
"Good luck!" said Colonel Cummings, going back to his maps.
And just at that moment, as Lounsbury swung round on his heel, there rang out from the river a single pistol-shot. It echoed sharply against the barracks and went dying away upon the bluffs.
A LITTLE STRATEGY
Fraser's shot drew many eyes to the river. For, in the winter time, any occurrence, however trifling, could get the instant attention of the lonely garrison. Troopers in various stages of dress came tumbling out upon the long porch at barracks; others looked from the many windows of the big frame structure; the washer-women and their hopefuls blocked the doorways of "Clothes-Pin Row"; officers everywhere—at headquarters, at the sutler's, in their homes—and their wives and families, up and down the "Line," remarked the signal. But when Lounsbury brought up beside Fraser, and the two seemed to be occupying themselves with nothing in particular, the onlookers laid the shot to an over-venturesome water-rat, and so withdrew from their points of vantage.
"What is it?" was the storekeeper's first breathless demand.
The young officer, hands on hips, nodded straight ahead. "You see those willows just below the cut?" he asked. "Well, there's a queer, black bunch in 'em."
"Yes. Is it a man?"
"I think so."
"Come on, then. Maybe he's aiming for the coulee mouth, so's to sneak up to the Lancasters' from behind."
They charged away across the mile of ice.
"If it's Matthews, why didn't he wing me as I went by," panted Lounsbury.
"Look, look!" cried Fraser. "Now, he's moving!"
They stopped to loosen their revolvers, after which they started again, cautiously.
The tops of the willows were shaking. Presently, they spread outward, and the "black bunch" lengthened. Then it emerged, and was resolved into a blanketed Indian.
"Charley!" exclaimed the officer. As he spoke, the outcast, shouldering a bundle of sticks, began to climb the cut.
The two men looked at each other and burst into a laugh.
"Fraser," said Lounsbury, "did you ever hear of the fellow that stalked a deer all day and then found it was a speck on his glasses?"
"That's one on me," admitted the lieutenant, sheepishly. "I knew nobody had come out of that door—but you see we were in the stable a while."
"'Charley,'—that squaw Indian they told me about, eh? Pretty good to them."
"Yes. From what I understand, they're pretty good to him."
They followed leisurely, and took up a stand in the cottonwoods above the landing to discuss the situation. At the very outset, Lounsbury determined not to speak of the plan that included Mrs. Martin's aid, the rebuff he had suffered from the section-boss having decided him against it.
"By George!" he said regretfully, "I wish when I had Matthews covered that I'd just marched him up the coulee and on to Clark's."
"Good idea; too bad you didn't."
"But I'll tell you this: I'm not going to stay out here all night just to shoo him off. I've a good mind to happen in down there, sort him out, and do the marching act anyhow."
"Now, look here," reminded Fraser; "that wouldn't do. You don't want to kill Matthews, and you don't want to be killed. It'd be one or the other if you poked your nose in there."
"What do you advise?"
"Lie low till you see a good opportunity. I think the chap'll come out."
"But suppose he doesn't?"
"You'll have to stay here, that's all. I'll divide the watch with you."
"Oh, I don't like to ask you to do that, old man. We ought to be able to think up some kind of a scheme."
The sun was fast declining. Soon it disappeared behind the river-bluffs, when the boom of the evening-gun swelled the last note of "retreat."
Fraser sighed. The trumpet had suggested a certain dire possibility.
"I don't care for the cold," he declared, "but—but"—ruefully—"do you suppose the K. O.'ll give me more than a month in quarters for this? There's that dance at the Major's next week; I'd like awfully to go. If I'm under arrest, I can't. And who'll feed my horse and my rattlesnakes!"
"Some sassy sergeant'll shoot your fiend of a nag," said the storekeeper, "and the rattlers'll be requested to devour one another. When that's over, I'll break it gently to you (and you must be mum) that the K. O. is disciplining you simply to keep his face. He knows—suggested it himself—that I'm to be helped out by some of you fellows."
"Well, that's better!" returned Fraser, relieved. And while they walked back and forth, he launched into a defence of his pets.
"'Fiend of a nag,'" he quoted. "Why, Buckskin's a tactician; knows what the trumpet says better than I do."
Night settled swiftly. Despite Lounsbury's prophecy, the temperature was not unbearable. The wind died with the glow in the west, leaving the air so still that, to the watchers among the trees, sounds from Brannon mingled distinctly with the near laughter and talk of Shanty Town. No moon rose. Only a few stars burned their faint way through the quickly hidden rents of the sheltering cloud-covering that, knitting here, breaking there, again, overlapping in soft folds before an urgent sky breeze, swagged low above the ground.
With darkness, the two left the grove for the ledge upon which was Shanty Town, and stationed themselves where they could still see whoever went in or out of The Trooper's Delight. Matthews did not appear. Numerous men in uniform did. They made noisy exits, and went brawling along to other shanties; they skulked out of the willows, flitted across the bit of snow-crusted beach below the saloons, and scrambled up to hurry in.
When two hours or more had gone by, the storekeeper grew impatient. He walked back and halted in the inky shadow of the wall down which Nick Matthews had tobogganed. From there, he pointed to a shaft of light that was falling upon the north side of the second shanty in the street. It was from an uncurtained, south opening in the first.
"You see that?" asked Lounsbury. "Well, I'm going over there to look in. How do we know he hasn't given us the slip, someway?"
"Let's be careful," said the lieutenant. "A proper amount of caution isn't cowardice. If you're seen, the whole pack'll set on you."
"I will be careful, but I'm not going to——"
"That's all very nice, only you must consider the stripe of man you're dealing with——"
"I can roll a gun, Fraser."
"But, Jupiter! This chap isn't going to fight you in the open. He'll use Indian tactics—fact is, he was raised among 'em."
"What's that?" asked Lounsbury.
"Raised among 'em, I said—with the Sioux."
"Speaks the tongue, then?" For some reason, the storekeeper seemed strangely agitated.
At that, Lounsbury was off, making straight for the entrance of the building they had been watching.
Fraser went tearing after, and not far from the door managed to stop him.
"For Heaven's sake!" he gasped. "What's struck you?"
"Fraser," said Lounsbury, "did you hear that the Colonel wanted an interpreter?"
"Exactly—great Scott!" The storekeeper set off again.
"Hold on." Fraser caught his arm. "Your scheme's all right, but you can't impress the man. He's got to go of his own accord."
"Hm! that's so."
"What you suppose he'll say if you rush in there and ask him to please go away on this long trip and leave your friends serenely in possession of the land?"