"I wouldn't say 'please'—but you're right. Let's take a look through that window."
Fraser assented. Shoulder to shoulder, they tiptoed forward and, keeping out of the shaft of light, viewed the scene within.
It was a busy one, and well bore out the inviting legend of the shingle sign. Along the plank bar, "the troopers" were thickly ranged, smacking their lips in "delight" over greasy glasses. Beyond them was a squint-eyed man who trotted untiringly to and fro, mixing and pouring. Nearer was the stove, its angular barrel and widespread legs giving it the appearance of some horrid, fire-belching animal.
An unbroken circle of men surrounded it, hats on, rawhide-bottomed chairs tilted back to an easy slant. From their pipes and cigars smoke rose steadily and hung, a blue mist, against the sloping rafters of the roof.
There was little talking in the circle. Two or three were asleep, their heads sagging on their necks with maudlin looseness. The others spoke infrequently, but often let down their chairs while they spat in the sand-box under the stove, or screwed about in the direction of the gaming-table. Among these was Old Michael. He sat nearest the door, a checkerboard balanced on his knees, his black stub pipe in its toothy vise. And when he was not feeding the stove's flaming maw with broken boxes, barrel-staves and green wood, his blowzy countenance was suspended over the pasteboards he was thumbing in a game of solitaire.
The two outside went under the shaft of light and peeped into the rear of the room. There was Matthews, one of five at a square table. A cigar-box partly filled with coin and chips was before him. In front of the other players were other chip-piles. About the five, hanging over them, almost pressing upon them, were a number of troopers. Two or three were idle onlookers. But the majority were following with excited interest every turn of the cards.
"Wretches being plucked of their good six months' pay," whispered Fraser.
"Looks like they're in for all night," Lounsbury returned.
But the officer was pinching him. "Sh! See there!"
A half-drunken trooper was interrupting the game. He had reeled forward to the table, and seemed to be addressing himself to Matthews, who, as he answered, glanced up indifferently. The trooper continued, emphasising his words by raising a clenched fist and striking the board a blow.
The chip-piles toppled. He turned to those about, gesticulating. A few surrounded him, evidently bent on leading him toward the door. Others appeared to be continuing the dispute with Matthews. But as the disturber was pushed out, they gradually subsided.
"I've got an idea," announced the storekeeper. And he disappeared around a corner.
When he returned he was leading the trooper and talking low to him. All three retired to the shadow of the wall.
Here there was a colloquy. First, Lounsbury held forth; next, the trooper, protestingly. When the lieutenant broke in, two phrases were frequently repeated—"to the guard-house," and "won't if you will."
At last the three went back to the window.
"Remember," cautioned the storekeeper, "we don't want all these shebangs stirred up."
"Needn't worry," said Fraser. "Just listen to that rumpus down street."
The disjointed music of a wheezy accordion was rending the night. With it sounded the regular stamp of feet.
Now, the trooper rounded the corner. A moment and, through the window, Lounsbury and the officer saw him enter the door.
He slipped down to a seat beside Old Michael. There he stayed for a while. Whenever a brother trooper looked his way, he called him up by the crooking of a finger and whispered to him. Before long a knot of men had again surrounded him. But this time their attention was all for the table at the rear of the room.
There the game was going on. Matthews' chip-pile showed where the winnings were gravitating. In the dim light there was a strained look on the faces of the players.
Deal after deal passed. Finally, one of the five, having no more disks before him, pushed back his chair and got up.
As he stood, dazed and dismayed, the trooper who had been ejected appeared at his side, clapped him upon the back and spoke. At their elbows was the knot that had gathered at the stove.
The next moment the trooper turned to the table and snatched the pack of cards from Matthews' hand. He held up one, pointing at its back; snapped it down; pointed at a second, then scattered the pack in the air.
Lounsbury and Fraser whipped round the corner and in through the door.
An uproar greeted them—"Cheat!" "Clean him out!"
"Do him like Soggy did!" Before them was a jostle of blue backs. Across these, on the farther side of the plank bar, they saw Matthews, facing the crowd. His left hand held the cigar-box against his chest, his right was up and empty.
"Hold on, boys!" It was Lounsbury.
As if he had caught a cue, the foremost trooper—he who had been the disturbing element—repeated the cry, and directed the eyes of his comrades to the door.
There was a sudden lull. The men in blue wavered. Here and there, a revolver was covertly returned to place.
Lounsbury pushed forward to the stove, Fraser beside him. "Hold on, boys," he said again, and pointed at Matthews; "hold on—I've got a message for that man."
The lull became a dead silence. To the troopers, the sight of shoulder-straps was discomfiting. For the officer at once became the personification of the guard-room, chilly, poorly bedded, and worse provisioned, of all places the one to be dreaded in raw weather. To Matthews, the interruption was welcome. His right hand slowly lowered to join its mate.
"I'm going to ask you to call your little differences with that gentleman off," continued Lounsbury.
Matthews fairly blinked. The storekeeper's voice was soft, confidential, ingratiating.
"Mr. Fraser and I have come to say that Mr. Matthews is wanted to serve as interpreter for Colonel Cummings."
"Interpreter?" queried Matthews.
A bullet-head made itself visible from behind a barrel. "Don't let him bluff y', Nick," called a voice.
The other looked round. "Shut y' fly-trap, Babe," he commanded.
"Thank you," said Lounsbury, pleasantly, "interpreter is right. Two white women are held as captives in an Uncapapa camp somewhere west of here. It's been learned that you understand and speak the tongue. So, we present Colonel Cummings' compliments. He would like very much to have a talk with you at Brannon."
It was a solution to Matthews. "Yes? Yes?" he said approvingly; then hesitated in suspicion as he measured the storekeeper.
"Oh, I guess I don't want to be no interpreter," he said.
Lounsbury smiled. "Just as you say, just as you say. Boys,"—cheerily—"sorry if I cut in at the wrong time. Don't let us stop your fun. Mr. Fraser is not here officially."
A murmur ran around. The disturbing trooper advanced toward Matthews aggressively.
Up went Matthews' hand again. "Jus' a minute," he said.
The trooper quieted.
Matthews turned to Fraser, mustering an expression of importance.
"Lieutenant," he said, "you give me your word this is so—that there ain't no put-up job about it?"
"Put-up job?" Fraser reddened, keeping a straight face with difficulty. "I give my word," he said solemnly, "that you're wanted as interpreter, and that I'll conduct you safely to headquarters."
Matthews put down the cigar-box and saluted.
"Word of an officer," he said, "is different. And if I can do anythin'—long's it's ladies——"
He reached to a shelf for his hat.
That night, after Squaw Charley had come and gone, Dallas returned from the lean-to, where she had fed and bedded Simon and the team, to find Marylyn lying before the hearth, her face flushed and wet with tears. Instantly, all concern, the elder girl knelt beside her.
"Marylyn," she begged, smoothing the soft, unbraided hair spread out upon the robe, "Marylyn, what's the matter?"
A long sob.
"Why, dear baby, don't you fret. We're going to be all right. Dad'll soon be back, Mr. Lounsbury's watching, and we won't lose the little home."
"Oh, it ain't that, it ain't that," weeping harder than before; "I'm so unhappy!"
It was an answer that smote Dallas to the heart. Some trouble, heretofore concealed, was threatening her sister's peace of mind. And she had not discovered it in time, had not prevented it, had not shielded her as she ought.
"Marylyn, honey, tell me what's the matter."
The younger girl crept closer, screening her eyes.
Dallas lifted her into her arms. Her cheek was feverish, her hands were dry and hot.
Sudden terror seized the elder girl—the old terror that had fastened upon her through all the years of her mother's failing.
"Marylyn," she said huskily, "do you feel that—that you're not as well as you was? are you afraid you'll be sick like—mother?"
There was an answering shake of the head.
Dallas pressed her close, murmuring her thankfulness, whispering broken endearments. "Oh, Dal's so glad! She couldn't stand it if her baby sister was to suffer. Oh, honey-heart! honey-heart!"
But Marylyn was not comforted.
"Listen," bade Dallas. "In all your life have you ever asked me to do anything that I didn't do? or to give you anything that I didn't give you if I could? And now something's fretting you. I can't think what it is. But you got to tell me, and I'll help you out."
"I don't care what it is, I won't blame you; if it's something wrong,—why, it couldn't be,—I'll forgive you. You know that, Marylyn."
Again, "No, no," but with less resistance.
"Tell me," said Dallas, firmly.
Marylyn looked up. "You'll hate me if I do," she faltered.
The elder girl laughed fondly. "As if I could!"
"You promise not to tell pa?"
"Course, I promise."
"Oh, Dallas!" She buried her face in her hands. "It's—it's that I—I like him! I like him!"
A moment of perplexity. Then, gradually, it dawned upon the elder girl whom the other meant. In very surprise her arms loosened their hold.
"You do hate me," Marylyn said plaintively.
"No, honey, no—why should I hate you?" Her words were earnest. But her voice—something had changed it. And she felt a strange hurt, a vague hurt that seemed to have no cause.
Marylyn raised herself on an elbow. "He liked me—once," she said. "He showed it, just as plain. It was right here, that day the cattle went by."
Dallas got up. She had begun to tremble visibly; her breath was coming short, as if she had been running.
But the younger girl did not notice. "He stayed away so long," she went on. "Then, to-day when he came—you remember, Dallas,—he just said a word or two to me, and laughed at me because I was afraid. And—and I saw that I was wrong, and I—I saw—he liked—you."
"Me!" Dallas turned. She felt the blood come driving into her face. She felt that strange hurt ease—and go in a rush of joyful feeling. Then, she understood the cause of it—and why she had trembled—why that day had been the happiest of her life.
Of a sudden she became conscious that Marylyn's eyes were upon her with a look of pathetic reproach. She began to laugh.
"Nonsense! honey," she said. "Don't be silly! Me! Why, he'd never like a great big gawk like me!"
"Me, with my red hair—you know it is kinda red—and my face, sunburned as a' Indian—hands all calloused like—like a man's." She turned back to the dusk through the window. "Oh, no, not me."
"But you looked so funny just now."
"Did I? Did I?" Dallas stammered out her reason: "Well—well, that was because—because I thought you was going to say it was a soldier." She laughed—nervously. "But it was Mr. Lounsbury you meant, honey, wasn't it?"
The suspicion that had troubled the mind of the younger girl was allayed. "Why, Dallas, how could you think such a thing about me! Like a soldier? My, no! It was Mr. Lounsbury—but he don't like me."
She got up and went to the foot of her father's bunk. When she reappeared, she was carrying the soap-box that held her belongings. On the robe once more, she took out and held up to the light of the fire two books and a strip of beaded cloth.
The elder left the window and stood beside her.
"These are what he gave me," went on Marylyn, putting forward the books. "And this"—she showed the beadwork—"he asked me to make for him. But to-day," mournfully, "he didn't even speak of it."
Dallas leaned down and touched her lips to the other's hair. "Baby sister, what did you expect him to do? Hold up a man with one hand and—and reach out for a present with the other?"
Marylyn put away the box. "Anyway, he don't like me."
"Like you? Why, he couldn't help it. There isn't a sweeter, prettier girl on the prairies than my little house-keeper."
"He called me the prairie princess," declared Marylyn, but with lingering doubt.
"Now, that shows," said the elder girl. "Don't you worry another second. When he comes again, you'll see."
So Dallas soothed and comforted her until she fell asleep, when she lifted her to her father's bed and covered her carefully. Then she drew aside a swinging blanket to let the firelight shine through—and saw that there were still tears on her sister's face.
A PROPOSAL AND A PROMISE
The medicine lodge of the Indians stood just within the sliding-panel of the stockade. Thirty poles, their tops lashed together so as to leave a smoke-hole, their bases spread to form a generous circle, supported a covering of tanned buffalo hides seamed with buckskin thongs. Here, barely an hour after Matthews' arrival at Fort Brannon, Squaw Charley entered hastily and thrust some red coals under a stick-pile at the centre of the lodge. And at once, by the flickering light of his fire, the warriors of the band entered the low entrance and seated themselves in a semicircle.
When Colonel Cummings learned that an interpreter had been found, he promptly ordered the completion of preparations for the Jamieson expedition, and the calling of a council, unsatisfactory, but necessary. The redskins jailed in the stockade must know both the object of the trip and his terms, so that they, realising their peril, would reveal the whereabouts of the winter camp of the hostiles.
His interview with Matthews threatened a change in his plans. The latter, having listened to the story of the captured women and to the scheme for their rescue, astonished the commanding officer by declining absolutely to take the proposed journey.
"I'd like t' be obligin'," he said, "but I can't go. I didn't know there was goin' t' be any travellin'. There's business that'll keep me here."
"Why, man!" cried the colonel, "I've made you a good offer."
"I ain't a-sayin' y' didn't," was the curt answer.
Colonel Cummings knew to what "business" he referred; but realised that a discussion of it would not aid in bringing the desired consent. He pretended to guess at reasons for the refusal.
"There's scarcely a possibility of trouble during the journey," he said. "Indians don't like to fight in the snow, especially when their families are with them and their war-ponies are feeding on cottonwood bark. Besides, their head chief will be sharp enough to see that he'll have to treat and not fight if he wants to save the necks of his favourites. Then, as far as the safety and comfort of my men are concerned, everything is being done. Better reconsider, Matthews."
"Can't do it."
Colonel Cummings left his library, where he had been talking, and sought Lounsbury's advice. The two held a short, whispered conversation in the entry.
"Let me have a few words with him," said the storekeeper. Matthews' balking was not altogether a surprise. Nevertheless, it was a keen disappointment. He had hoped to be able to send Squaw Charley across the river soon with good news. "Let me see him. Maybe I can bring him around."
They entered the library.
"Matthews," began Lounsbury, "you might as well go along. If you stay, you can't get a hold o' that claim." He looked at the colonel's clock. "It's midnight. Your six months are up. If you did have a chance, it's gone. Possession's nine points in law, and Lancaster's up at Bismarck nailing the tenth."
If the storekeeper's blunt assertions were of any particular interest to the other, he failed to show it. He occupied himself with finding a cigar, cutting it carefully, and lighting it at the stove. Then he turned about to Colonel Cummings, his glance, as it travelled, utterly ignoring Lounsbury.
"Not to mention the risks you run with the boys," added the storekeeper easily, amused by the play of indifference.
"Oh, I guess Shanty Town can take keer of itself," observed Matthews, sending up smoke rings.
Lounsbury walked out.
There was but one thing left for Colonel Cummings to do: Ask this man to interpret in the Medicine Lodge, that at least the Indians might learn their position. Knowing it, they might be prevailed upon to select one of their own number to accompany the expedition and repeat the terms. The commanding officer, rather provoked at Lounsbury, who, he thought, had harmed, and not helped, his cause, immediately suggested this course to Matthews.
"I can parley-voo for you there, all right," agreed Matthews, patronisingly. "But how you goin'?"
"You and I, alone."
Matthews stared. "Carry any guns?" he asked.
"Not when I go into the stockade. The Indians are without weapons. And I like to show them that I trust them."
The other laughed. "You go t' tell some redskins that they's goin' t' be strung up, and y' don't take no gun. Well! not for me, Colonel!"
"Then, we'll have a guard."
"O. K. I'm with you."
A scout who understood the sign language was despatched to the stockade. And by the time the braves were settled down before the blaze, Colonel Cummings, Matthews, and a detail of armed men were before the aperture of the Medicine Lodge.
The soldiers waited outside the big wigwam, where they made themselves comfortable by moving up and down. Their commanding officer and the interpreter went in. At their appearance, the warriors rose gravely, shook hands, and motioned the white men to take seats upon a robe placed at Lame Foot's left hand. The air in the place was already beginning to thicken with kinnikinick and fire smoke; the mingled smell of tobacco and skins made it nauseating. Colonel Cummings would gladly have hurried his errand. But Indian etiquette forbade haste. He was forced to contain himself and let the council proceed with customary and exasperating slowness.
The first step was the pipe. A young Sioux applied a burning splinter to a sandstone bowl and handed the long stem to the medicine-man. His nostrils filled, he gave the pipe to Colonel Cummings, from whom, in turn, it passed to Matthews, Standing Buffalo, Canada John, and thence along the curving line of warriors. When all had smoked, the bowl was once more filled and lighted, and once more it was sent from hand to hand. Not until this ceremony had been repeated many times did the council come to speech.
But neither the commanding officer nor his interpreter made the first address. Though the braves guessed that something unusual had brought about an assembly at this hour, and though their curiosity on the subject was childishly live, they surpassed their captor in patience. Stolidly they looked on while Lame Foot rose to his feet.
The war-priest was not the figure that had led the band south after the battle; not the haughty, stately brave that the sentimentalist loves to picture. He was feathered and streaked as before. A stone mallet hung from his belt. But he wore no string of bears' claws. They had gone the way of the sutler, which was a tasty way, strewn with bright-labelled, but aged, canned goods. And as for his embroidered shirt, it was much soiled and worn, and he had so gained in weight—through plentiful food and lack of exercise—that he pressed out upon it deplorably with a bulging paunch.
Pompously, but using no gestures or inflections, he began a rambling, lengthy account of his past deeds of valour. From these he finally swerved to the recital of his people's wrongs. He climaxed, after an interminable amount of talking, with a boast that awakened the hearty approbation of his sloven fellows. "We but wait for the winter to go," he said, "for in the spring we shall have freedom. Our brothers, who are sly as foxes and swift as hawks, will sweep down upon the pony soldiers and slay them."
He sat down amid a chorus of "Ho! Hos!" The semicircle moved and bent and nodded. It was plain that he had expressed a common belief.
There was one Indian not of the council to whom his words meant more than freedom. That Indian was Squaw Charley. A moment after Colonel Cummings' arrival, the pariah had crept noiselessly into the lodge and lain down in the shadows. From there, careful all the while to be quiet and to keep himself well screened, he listened to Lame Foot. But when the chief came to his bragging conclusion, Squaw Charley forgot his own degradation for a moment, and forgot to fear discovery. Was a battle indeed coming! New hope all at once!—the hope that he would have the opportunity, long desired, of getting away from the squaws, the old men, and the mocking children, and going with the warriors. Once with them, even in the role of cook or drudge, the chance might come to do a brave act, such an act as would reinstate him. Perhaps he could wound an enemy, and count coup upon him; perhaps he could face bullets or arrows to rescue a brother——
His dull eyes glinted like cut beads. In very excitement, he raised his bent, spare body.
Hearing the movement, Lame Foot glared round, and his eyes fell upon the outcast.
"Woo!" he cried. "A squaw in the council-lodge! Woo!"
There was a general turning, and those nearest the pariah made peremptory gestures.
A second Charley stood uncertainly. Then the look of one accused came into his face. He tottered backward, through the lodge opening, and out into the snow.
The council continued.
A dozen warriors followed the war-priest in speech-making. Each of them said no more than he. To Colonel Cummings' disgust, each one said no less. Added to the tediousness of it all were Matthews' interpretations. Toward three o'clock, however, the prime object of the meeting was reached.
When the commanding officer at last rose, he was in no mood to mince matters. He used few words, but they were forcible. He asked the interpreter to repeat them precisely.
They had their effect. While Matthews was doing this, the colonel did not glance away from the council-fire, yet he knew that in the semicircle there was genuine consternation. Grunts, startled, angry, threatening, ran up and down the line. Those warriors named for possible execution alone were silent.
Presently, one of the others spoke. "If we tell you where to go, how do we know the white chief will not fall upon the winter camp of our brothers as Custer, The Long-Hair, fell upon Black Kettle's?"
"I am not going with the pony soldiers," Matthews hastened to say. "Across the Muddy Water, where the road passes, is a wide piece of land which has been stolen from me."
One of the four condemned glanced up. It was Lame Foot. "By The Plow-Woman?" he asked.
"By her father. I shall stay until that land is mine again. One of you must ask your chief that he give up the pale-face squaws."
Canada John answered him. "A brave can but take the words of the white chief. That is not well. One of a double tongue must go."
"The white chief has but one," said Matthews, and tapped his own chest.
A silence followed.
"The journey begins when the sun is little," he added, and sat down.
"Will not the white chief wait until spring?" asked Lame Foot, whose guile made up for his physical defect.
The others studied Colonel Cummings' face as the question was put to him. They saw the purpose—postponement, which might bring freedom for them, and also a retention of the captive women.
The colonel's answer did not need interpreting. "No!" he said, and struck his knees with his open palms.
"Why should two squaws matter?" asked Shoot-at-the-Tree. "Are there not many everywhere? We will give the white chief some of our ponies."
"Your ponies floated, belly up, down the river moons ago," said Matthews.
Twenty pairs of eyes sparkled with hate. That was news indeed!
Lame Foot spoke again. There was a mathematical phase of the terms which troubled him. "Why should four die for two?" he demanded. "Among the whites, has a squaw the value of two soldiers?"
Matthews answered gravely that it was so. The brave snorted contemptuously.
Canada John shook his head. "Thus comes much evil because we shot the pinto buffalo."
At that point, the hoof-sheaths that trimmed a rope near the entrance rattled. The semicircle craned their necks. A plump hand was pulling aside the flap of the lodge. Then, through the low aperture and into the light of the fire stepped an Indian woman. She flung back a head-shawl and faced red man and white. A murmur came from the braves. It was Brown Mink.
As with the men of the band, plentiful food and no exercise had worked wonders with her. She was less slender and more solid than formerly. Her full cheeks shone like the bulging sides of a copper kettle. But her spirit was little changed. She waited no invitation to speak. She paused for no words. In her earnestness, she leaned forward a little.
"Brown Mink is young," she said. "She is but an unfledged crane walking in strange waters. But she speaks with the voice of her father, your mighty chief that was. Canada John talks straight. One of a double tongue must go. The white chief is very angry, so that he plucks the hairs from his hands. The squaws must be brought back, or four braves will be choked by ropes. But who can make things smooth? Only The Double-Tongue. Promise him much—promise to help him drive the thief from his land."
Matthews straightened up.
She put out one arm and measured a small length upon it. "When our warriors come, thus short a space will it take to rid the land," she said. And was gone before any could answer.
There was a long "Ho-o-o!" of assent.
"What's this all about?" asked Colonel Cummings.
"She wants me t' go," said Matthews.
"Well, so do I."
The Indians conferred among themselves. Suddenly, as if they had reached a decision, they fell silent and settled back. Lame Foot spoke.
"In the Moon of Wild Strawberries," he said, "the sun is warm and the grass is growing." He turned to the interpreter. "Ask our brothers to send the women then, and follow them. We shall go free; and as we go, we shall free the land."
"But if your brothers cannot come?" said Matthews.
Lame Foot answered. "The white chief will send us to Standing Rock Agency. From there, braves will go out to hunt—and arrows fly silently. There are some of two tips. These bite like the rattlesnake——"
Matthews rubbed his chin. He knew that what Lounsbury had told him in the colonel's library was true. All legal and moral claims to the valuable town site across the river were gone. He could secure the Bend now only by underhand means. And here were those who would do what he dared not.
"They make a cunning wound," continued Lame Foot, "and no one finds the arrow."
Colonel Cummings was growing impatient. "Interpret, interpret," he ordered.
"They think it's all up with 'em if I don't go," said Matthews. He looked down thoughtfully. The trip would be a comparatively short one, and offered good reward. Whatever happened, if the Indians kept their word with him, he would have both the pay and the land.
"Will they tell me where the camp is?" asked the Colonel.
Matthews met his eye. "Ye-e-e-s," he answered. "If I go." He addressed the warriors: "If your promise is a promise——"
An old chief caught his arm. "We are not liars," he said.
"It is a task for a child," added Lame Foot.
"Enough," answered Matthews. To Colonel Cummings he said, "I'm your man, sir."
Then the interpreter and the Indians, with the commanding officer unwittingly taking a part, sealed their compact in a pipe of peace.
The green pung was ten miles or more beyond Clark's before the section-boss recovered appreciably from his long sulk. "What d' y' s'pose Lounsbury reckoned could happen t' my gals?" he demanded of David Bond.
The evangelist shook the reins at Shadrach. "A storm, cold, want," he replied. "There are many evils that might befall two young women alone in a shanty on the prairie."
"Wal, nothin' 's ever happened t' 'em before," declared Lancaster. But he whistled to stay a change in good fortune, and rapped the wood of the wagon-box with his bare knuckles.
David Bond busied himself with urging on his horse. "God will watch over them," he said devoutly. "'Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.'"
The section-boss sniffed. Sure of the safe trend of his affairs, he was in a mood to scoff at any religious allusion. Reverence, with him, was entirely a matter of urgent physical need. He had called to his Maker but twice in his life: once, when an ugly-tempered peon threatened him with a spade; again, when, falling from his swiftly moving flat-car, he felt the heavy wheels grinding him, flesh and bone.
"Storm kain't tech th' shack," he said proudly. "She 's built like a ship, t' stan' any win'. She's warm, too, an' thet Injun, he brings us plenty of wood. An' they's grub 'nough t' las'."
The evangelist was politely attentive.
"They's jes' one man thet might come botherin' 'em," Lancaster went on. "But 'tain't likely he'll see these parts before spring. An' Ah don' b'lieve he'll come then."
David Bond set his brows together. The previous night an unshaped thought had made him pause a second before leaving Dallas. Now, that thought became a suspicion—a suspicion of the real truth. "A man?" he said questioningly; "a man?"
Being thus prompted on the subject of the claim, Lancaster was willing to proceed, for he had no feeling that he was obeying Dallas. "Ah'm speakin' of a man thet filed on my section in July," he said. "His six months is up t'-day. So Ah reckon he'll hev t' work a new piece of track. For Ah inten' t' hang on t' thet quarter—it's goin' t' be worth a pile."
The evangelist threw him a swift glance. "What is the name of that man?" he asked.
"Ah dunno. Ah clean gone an' f'got it. Ah ought t' wrote it down——"
"Would you know it if you heard it?"
"W'y, yes—'twas some ornery name."
"Was it—was it Matthews?"
Complete bewilderment spoke from Lancaster's wide-open eyes and mouth. He whirled about upon the evangelist and seized the reins. Shadrach came to a squatting stop, his ears turning round to catch a command. "Thet's it! Thet's it!" cried the section-boss. "An' how d' you know?"
The two men looked at each other in silence. Lancaster's face was dark with distrust; David Bond's, pale with alarm.
"How?" exclaimed the latter, when his tongue at last answered his will; "how? Because Matthews came north with me yesterday!"
If Shadrach possessed the sense his master claimed for him, he must have concluded then and there that the human beings in the pung had gone stark mad. For after some excited shouting, the one to the other, they brought him square about and sent him scurrying back toward Brannon.
They did not retrace their way, but steered due south, thus saving the few miles that could take them again through Clark's. Shadrach approved the change in direction, which pointed to a snug corner beside the friendly bull-calf, and fairly skimmed the hard snow. He had already gone forty long miles since morning. Yet, undaunted, he took up the return with good zest, holding a smart pace unwearily. He breathed deep, and his long Roman nose—thrust out on a line with his rocking back—smoked like an eager charger's.
In the first half-hour that followed the evangelist's disquieting admission, he listened to a wild, profane tirade: against himself, for having failed to speak of Matthews; against Dallas, for being in such a tarnal hurry; against Lounsbury on general principles. The section-boss found only one person wholly exempt from blame—himself. So he cursed, he threatened, he wrung his hands, he grabbed a crutch, and, leaning forward, poked the straining flanks of the white horse.
"Gentle, gentle," admonished David Bond. "He goes fastest who goes steadily. I have driven Shadrach ninety miles in twenty-two hours. And if we are patient with him now, he will get us home by reveille."
But Lancaster only groaned ungratefully and continued to ply the crutch.
On they went. As the short day ended and darkness came, they steered farther to the left, for there was a possible danger of pitching over the river-bank. When they approached the coulee, the same peril again met them. Shadrach, however, insured them against accident. He struck his own trail, and knew it. At once, he quickened his speed, pulling the reins taut. Behind him, his master, though utterly wearied, kept awake to watch their course and commend him kindly. Not so the section-boss. His anger finally spent, he put up his crutch and made himself comfortable. Then, swaying as the pung swayed, he slept.
Far away at Fort Brannon the council was at an end. Lanterns were whisking to and fro like giant lightning-bugs about the long garrison granary and the quartermaster and commissary storehouse, where wagons were being loaded with tents, ammunition, rations, and forage—enough for sixty days. The library window at headquarters was bright: Colonel Cummings and a surgeon were respectively commanding and persuading young Jamieson to await his mother and sister at the post. Nick Matthews, attended by a watchful sergeant, was having his hair cut by the citizen barber. While Lounsbury, too joyfully excited to sleep, was in the sutler's billiard-room, giving Fraser, who was about to depart with the expedition, a sympathetic history of the Lancasters—a history in which Marylyn was shrewdly made the dainty central figure.
At five o'clock, everything being in readiness, a livelier activity prevailed. The out-going troop was routed from bed and fortified with a hot breakfast. By six, "boots and saddles" had sounded. And, soon, the detachment—protected from the cold by blanket-coats, and with black cutties burning down the whole length of its double line—was leading the wagon-train at a good jog toward the west.
The men went gladly, accepting the long ride as a welcome relief to the stagnation of a garrison winter. To them, the possible dangers of the trip were a mere matter of course, though Guy V. Henry's march of a twelvemonth before—a terrible march from Fort Robinson into the Black Hills—was fresh in their memory. Captain Oliver commanded, B Troop being his own. He was a brave man, but one who let his heart influence his better judgment, who was neither as acute as a soldier should be nor as cautious. Yet his commanding officer selected him for the duty—the choice insured his remaining behind when the campaign of the coming summer opened; when there would arrive from the "States" a certain loyal little wife and her seven babies.
An hour after the cavalry clattered out of Brannon, faithful Shadrach limped home. The approach of the pung did not frighten Dallas. For, long before it crossed the coulee, as she walked noiselessly to and fro across the dirt floor, she heard her father's voice urging the white horse on. She did not understand the quick return, but prepared for it by building up the fire and swinging the coffee-pail into place.
The old men heard her story before they stepped from the sleigh. The evangelist, as he listened, thanked his God for Lounsbury. The section-boss, on the contrary, was made so angry by the recital of Matthews' attack that he called down every manner of punishment upon the latter, and revelled in multiple plans for a sweet revenge.
"Jes' let thet scalawag call again," he cried, shaking a crutch toward Shanty Town. "Ah ain't much on my laigs these days, but Ah'm right good yet with my pistol arm!"
"Without His arm——" began David Bond.
A wondering cry from Dallas stopped him. He turned to see her pointing at the northern sky.
A strange, wild light was creeping up from the horizon and tinting the heavens. A filmy veil was mounting the zenith, and swinging gently. Swiftly the glory grew. The veil became a curtain of rainbow colouring, edged with royal purple and faint red, and lined, here with orange, there with green, again with delicate pink.
Changes followed. Green, gold, and blue lightning darted from plain to sky, trailing fainter colours that danced elfishly; and the sheet of living flame took form. It became a huge clenched fist, resting upright upon the lighted prairie. About it, in a sky made darker by contrast, gleamed the scattered stars. Then, one by one, quivering fingers of light shot forth from the fist. Until, at length, over the little shack was outspread, palm downward, a shimmering giant hand.
To the evangelist, watching the aurora with upturned face, the hand was deified. "It is a divine manifestation!" he whispered reverently. "It brings a message: 'Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day.'"
While David Bond and Dallas were taking Shadrach from the pung, a boot crunched the snow behind them. They turned. And there was Lounsbury, fairly bursting to tell his good news.
When he had told it, he was anxious to get away again, for by a quick retreat the two girls might be saved the knowledge of the Clark episode, and he, a very probable second insult. But the evangelist, having no wish to tattle about Lancaster, yet hoping that the elder girl would learn what her father had done and administer a deserved rebuke, urged him in.
The storekeeper did not consent to enter the shack, however, until Dallas added her invitation; and then he went reluctantly. He was accustomed to courtesy there on the frontier. The plains-bred men that he knew instinctively took him at his real valuation, and treated him accordingly; the men of a more conventional strata (the professional men of Bismarck, and those who officered at the posts up and down the river) freely bestowed their friendship upon him; the lawless element respected him, too, and showed that respect by letting him severely alone. He shrank from placing himself where a man like Lancaster—crippled, old, and therefore beyond disciplining—could have the chance to repeat an affront. And he shrank at the thought of a clash—it meant pain for two helpless women. Nevertheless, he yielded.
The streamers were gone from the sky by then. They had faded as quickly as they had come. Once more, under a dome of cobalt, the river flowed black between its fringe of trees, and the prairie stretched white and still.
A bright fire and a singing coffee-pail welcomed the three as the door swung wide, and the section-boss, who was urging Marylyn to "rustle some grub," turned with a testy word. But he fell silent when he saw Lounsbury, and edged into the dusky shelter of the hearth-side.
The storekeeper nodded to him, shook hands absently with the younger girl, and took a bench. His face looked less full than usual, and was lighted by no hearty smiles.
Little was said until breakfast was ready—a quick breakfast of bacon, pone, and coffee. The three men warmed themselves. The girls moved between fireplace and table. But when the plates were set and the coffee poured, David Bond asked for the story of Matthews' doings, of the affair at the saloon, the meeting with Colonel Cummings, and the council. Dallas and Marylyn heard it from where they stood together before the blaze. Lancaster heard it,—though he pretended not to,—eating and drinking the while with angry smacks.
Lounsbury paid no attention to the section-boss. In fact, before his recital was done, he had forgotten him. He talked quietly and without boasting, his face now turned to David Bond, now to the girls.
"And you think," said the evangelist, when the story was finished, "you think that Matthews will drop his claim to the Bend?"
Lounsbury arose, as if to go, and for the first time since his entrance looked squarely at Lancaster. "This is what I think:" he answered, "in Dakota, if a man jumps land that hasn't been improved, all he's got to do is to hang on to it; don't have to rassle with any fine points of law. This far west of stuffed chairs, there's a whole lot in public sentiment." He crossed the room and picked up coat and cap.
"Of course," added David Bond, "following the law would strengthen the case."
The section-boss adjusted his crutches and stood up. "You-all seem t' be settlin' it 'thout any o' my lip," he said, and laughed mockingly.
"We have your interests at heart," replied the storekeeper.
Lancaster ground his teeth. Now that all danger was past, he felt no gratitude for the routing of Matthews and the strategy at The Trooper's Delight. He could only feel that his authority in his own home was threatened. He turned his back.
Lounsbury glanced at the girls. They were watching their father appealingly.
"I should say," went on Lounsbury, "that we have the interests of your daughters at heart." His hand reached for the latch.
"Mr. Lounsbury!" Dallas made a swift step toward him.
Now, the section-boss came about. Lounsbury was reminded of the day on the plowed strip. For he saw that Lancaster was all a-tremble, and panting as if spent with a hard run. "M' gal!" he cried sternly.
Dallas stepped back and touched her father's arm. And her remonstrance was the remonstrance of that other day. "No, no, dad," she cautioned in a low voice; "no, no."
Lancaster's breast heaved. He swallowed with an effort, and scowled from one to another of the four.
David Bond came forward, addressing Lounsbury. "Will you tell me your name?" he asked. "I want to remember you. You are not a soldier. Do you belong at Clark's——"
"Did y' size him up fer a cow-punch?" broke in Lancaster. "Huh! Wal, Ah never did."
Lounsbury's face dyed to a deep scarlet. "No?" he said. "And why?"
Again the section-boss gave a shrill, mocking laugh. "Too fat an' too mouthy," he answered.
For an instant Lounsbury wavered. In that instant the deep scarlet faded, his eyes opened, his nostrils spread.
"Pa! pa!" It was Marylyn, half-weeping.
Lounsbury's cool voice cleared the air. "I'm a Bismarck man," he said to the evangelist. "I've got a store there. My name is John Lounsbury." He held out his hand to Dallas.
She advanced again and took it. "Oh, thank you! thank you!" she breathed.
"'Bismarck man.'" It was Lancaster once more. "Wal, w'y the devil don' y' stay thar?"
Lounsbury took no notice of him. "I'll be hoofing it," he said to Dallas. "But if I can do anything—you understand." And went out.
David Bond's keen eyes studied the elder girl. He expected an outburst of anger and blame. He was surprised when, without speaking, she brought the benches to the fire and set about clearing the table. Lancaster seated himself and sucked moodily at his pipe. Marylyn flitted behind him, to disappear through the swinging blankets. The evangelist walked up and down.
It was not long before the silence told on the section-boss and forced him to talk. "Ef you-all got anythin' t' say," he snarled presently, "y' might as well spit it out."
No one answered.
"Ah got jes' this t' say:" he continued, "Ah ain't goin' t' hev no lubber o' a storekeep slaverin' aroun' my gals!"
Again no one answered. But David Bond, as he watched Dallas questioningly, determined to be silent no longer. He paused in his walk. "My friend," he said solemnly, "you talk like a madman. For shame!"
Dallas stood stock still, her eyes warning him. But it was too late.
Her father snickered, drew on his pipe once or twice, and then grinned up at the evangelist. "It's gittin' light outdoors," he said significantly. "Ah reckon y' could cross th' river."
And so David Bond and the white horse went the way of Lounsbury.
Nearly an hour passed before the section-boss addressed Dallas. "Wal? wal? wal?"
She was wrapping up to do the morning chores. "Just as well, I guess, dad," she said wearily. "The meal and bacon's pretty low. I've been cooking out of the seed-sacks lately."
"Th' meal an' bacon's got t' las'," he answered. "Use th' seed ef y' want t', an' don' give thet Injun so much. We shan't ast tick o' no lallygaggin', do-a-grapevine-twist dandy."
Dallas sighed, found Marylyn to kiss her, and gratefully breasted the chill air beyond the door.
His dismissal from the shack brought no hardship upon David Bond. He found an old acquaintance in Colonel Cummings, who joyfully greeted him as interpreter in the absence of Matthews. He found familiar faces among the hostages, whose sullen reserve in his presence he laid to their imprisonment. At barracks, the enlisted men chaffed him mischievously, christened him "Methuselah," and installed him as "official doom sealer" of the post. But when he passed them by to give every hour of his days and nights to young Jamieson—young Jamieson, battling with all his might against collapse—the men ceased chaffing, and listened to him with respect. A crank on religion was one thing, a man with one eye on the Bible and his sleeves rolled up for hard duty was another. The troopers cared little for sermonising, but they honoured service. Then, it was Jamieson for whom the evangelist was caring. And Jamieson held the very heartstrings of the garrison.
As for Lounsbury, Brannon entertained him no less gladly. His was the rare good-humour that enlivens every occasion. He practised at target-shooting with the enlisted men; he played billiards with the officers; he dined; made up sleigh rides; lent himself to theatricals; furnished a fourth at cards, and, at the frequent dances, led out homely and pretty alike.
To David Bond it seemed as if the storekeeper were indifferent to his own dismissal from the shack. But one morning the evangelist accidentally came upon the younger man. He was watching the Bend through a telescope, and his face was anxious and troubled.
"Lancaster hasn't started for the land-office again," he said. Then, after a moment's silence, "I've just about decided to go Bismarck-way myself to-day. When you can, will you let me know how they are over there?"
"Charles will keep me posted," answered the evangelist, "and I shall send you any news by the mail sleigh."
"Thank you," said Lounsbury, simply. "Good-by." And at the noon mess he was missing.
At the shack, the days were numbered slowly, for all their scant hours of light. Sleep consumed most of the time. The rest was taken by the meals, the chores and the effort of keeping warm. The line of calico-covered books helped to vary the monotony. So did the visits of Squaw Charley. But these were becoming more brief now. Not that Lancaster made them unpleasant—Charley was necessary to him—but that the Indian was always in a fever to be gone. Since the council, his eyes were less downcast, his face was less stolid.
One day brought a totally unexpected visitor, whom Lancaster recognised with some misgivings as the United States land-agent at Bismarck. The section-boss was soon reassured, however. The agent said that, having business near Brannon, and remembering that Lancaster wished to file an entry on the bend when the first claimant's six months were up, he had come by. In the case of a man who was hurt, he said, the law allowed such a course. The section-boss, thus saved the arduous trip, signed the necessary papers with a jubilant mark.
Then came Old Michael for a time or two. It seemed at first as if he were to be a favourite. He could adapt himself with all the art of his race. And before Lancaster he was intensely Southern in his views, whipping the North in many a broguey strife. Until—it befell through a slip of the tongue—a slip that sent him packing off. For he boasted how, in '62, his freckled hands had helped in piloting the Federals to Island Number 10!
It was an outcome that gave Dallas little concern. Marylyn was her worry. The younger girl was listless, pale and moody. Now and then, Dallas believed she saw a look of actual suffering in her eyes. Once, awakening in the night, she heard her sob.
Marylyn was unhappy, and the thought made the elder girl desperate. This led her to a plan: Lounsbury must be asked to forgive their father and come again—must be told of Marylyn's confession!
Soon afterward a second worry presented itself, one fully as serious. The provisions were dwindling, the seed-sacks shrinking fast, and, estranged from Lounsbury, they had nowhere to ask credit but at the Fort.
When Dallas spoke of it to her father, he chuckled. "Wal, we got Simon, ain't we?" he said.
That same night, Marylyn put down her fork and stared across the table at her sister. "Why, Dallas, you don't eat!" she complained.
Dallas laughed. "I don't work, honey," she answered.
The question of fuel entered next, and became a grave one. So far, the weather had been fairly mild for the place and the season. Now, it took a more rigorous turn. The bitter cold was intensified by a stiff wind. Snow began to fall, and the wind, growing, drove the flakes level, so that they cut the face like filings of steel. Charley's trips became uncertain, then impossible. The work of getting out hay for the stock was a desperate tax. It was so difficult that Dallas dared not spare a straw for the fireplace, and Ben and Betty's manger had to be drawn upon for wood. When this source of supply failed, the benches were sacrificed one by one, the cupboard was torn down, and the bunk and part of the table were split into kindling.
The family slept shoulder to shoulder before the hearth, with the brave-coloured blankets of the partition for extra covering. Lancaster and the younger girl stayed in bed all of the twenty-four hours. Dallas got up only long enough to tend the animals and prepare food. But a day came when she could not make her way to the lean-to, and when the warped door could not be opened in the teeth of the raging storm. Toward noon, she cooked some food, however. The seed sacks were empty; there was no rice and no flour. While the blizzard howled without, and Simon and the mules called pitifully for their fodder and drink, she broke up what was left of the table. Over its blaze the last smitch of bacon went to savour the last pint of beans.
After the meal Dallas read aloud. Lying down, she held her book in one hand until her fingers were blue with cold, then changed to the other. Father and sister drowsed, and she put the story aside to study over the predicament in which she felt herself at fault. Counting on blizzards, but knowing nothing of their duration, she had determined to say little about their needs until those needs pressed. When, she knew, her father would see their extremity. The extremity had come. Yet, willing or unwilling, Lancaster was cut off from seeking help.
That day closed in fearful cold. The wind was become a furious gale. Sturdily, the log house withstood it. Only the roof seemed threatened. With each great blast, it lifted a little, as if on the point of whirling away. But when darkness came, even the roof settled into quiet. For the drifts that had been piling up gradually to the north and west of the shack, sealing the windows and the door, had risen to the grassy eaves and overflowed them, and so weighted the thatch.
Next morning, long before Marylyn and her father wakened, Dallas roused. The room was in dusk, and its air was so cold that it seemed fairly to singe the skin. She could not read. Presently, Marylyn turned. The elder girl hastened to soothe her. Then, their father yawned. Dallas feigned sleep.
But the evil moment could not be put off. Lancaster propped himself on an elbow and called to her. He was hungry.
Very quietly, Dallas told him that there was no food.
He grunted, arose and lighted the lantern. "You dish thet snow on th' floor," he commanded. "We'll need it fer drink."
"What're you going to do?" she asked, hastening to obey. Her voice was lowered apprehensively.
He was wrapping some clothes over his shoes. "Butcher Simon," he said curtly.
Her face became a white spot in the gloom.
"Critter'll be tough, like's not," went on her father. "But y' c'n poun' th' meat."
After a long wait, she spoke. "You can't reach him," she declared, half triumphantly.
"Yas, Ah c'n," he answered. "Ah c'n chop through with th' hatchet." He was between the fireplace and a corner, feeling over the logs with his hands.
She ran to him. "Oh, how can you think of it?" she demanded huskily. "Simon's so friendly and—came to us for a home. How can you kill him! Maybe you could eat him, but I couldn't. It'd just choke me!"
"Oh, ain't we sof'!" sneered her father. He was fumbling about near the bunk, as if hunting something. "Mebbe y' 'd like Ah should kill a mule! Ha! ha! No mule-meat fer me. Ah'll give thet bull a tunk 'tween th' eyes, an' we'll hev steak."
She stood in the dim light, one arm crooked up to cover her face. Presently, Marylyn moaned; then, Dallas lowered her arm and looked down at her sister. "One of the mules would be easier," she said bitterly. But remembering the brown eyes of the team, and the long, grey-whiskered noses, she covered her face again.
"Ah don' keer w'at y' say," declared her father. "We'll hev steak." He selected a log and began to hack at it.
Shuddering, she sank to her knees, one hand reached out to touch Marylyn. "Maybe Charley'll come, honey," she whispered hopefully. "Maybe, maybe!"
And now it seemed as if she heard something outside. She crept to the door. Around the latch was a little space. She put her ear to it, and the icy air blew against her cheek. There it was again! The shriek of the gale.
She went back to the bed.
Hack! hack! hack! Then muttered curses. And again the sound of chopping.
When she could bear it no longer, she got up and stumbled over to her father. "Dad," she said, "if I break up the mantel and fix something, will you stop?"
He sat back on his feet, puffing crossly. "Light a fire," he said. "Use these chips. Ah'll res'." He threw down the hatchet and crawled under the blankets. He was glad of the interruption, for the duty ahead was assuming an ugly guise.
Dallas had filled the coffee-pail with snow. Now, she gathered up the chips, lit them, and pried up the wide board of the mantel. This she split with the hatchet.
"What you going to make?" asked Marylyn, from the bed.
"Pepper-tea, honey. It'll warm you up."
"Oh, I'm glad. Ma made some once."
Pepper-tea it was. When the snow had melted and the water was boiling hot, Dallas added pepper and salt. Then she spread a cloth and turned the wheat and corn sacks out upon it. She got a handful of flour. With this she thickened the water. Three cups were setting upon the floor. She took the coffee-pail over, poured into two, and handed them to her father and Marylyn.
"Don't spill a drop," she cautioned.
"You got some?" queried Marylyn, sitting up.
Dallas went back to the other cup. "Well, what do you think I'm doing?" she asked, and lifted it to her lips.
Soon, the three were lying shoulder to shoulder again, the section-boss drawing a little added comfort from his pipe. Before long, he was asleep; Marylyn, too. When Dallas got up cautiously and brewed a cup of peppered water for herself. The hot draught relieved the pangs of her hunger. She lay down again.
Hours later, she was awakened by hearing faint squeals directly overhead. Hastily, she lit the lantern and took down the Sharps; then, stepped directly under the sounds and poked the rifle's muzzle into the hay of the roof. Above, storm-driven and crowding one another against the stones of the chimney, were some pigs!
In her eagerness, she trembled so violently that she became unsteady on her feet. It lost her the opportunity of firing. For, as she waited, trying to get a blind aim, the squeals suddenly died out. The pigs had gone over toward the edge of the lean-to.
When next she awoke,—awoke from a dream of well-spread tables, she could not guess how much time had passed, or whether it was day or night. The shack was pitch dark. Of one thing she could be sure: The storm had not abated, so there was no hope of aid.
She knew something must be done. Simon and the team wrung her heart with their pleas. Beside her, Marylyn was turning with fretful complaints. The younger girl rolled her head from side to side constantly, and moistened her lips. Dallas chopped up the rifle rack and made a fire of it; then plied Marylyn with more of the pepper-tea. The section-boss refused to partake. The first cup, he said, had burned him. Tobacco was better solace.
Dallas did not taste the tea, either. A fearful nausea beset her. Her heart went like a trip-hammer. She wrapped up, turning her back to the blaze. Oddly enough her father did not make a second attack on the log. His perique went far toward helping him fight the gnawing of hunger. He could afford, having to endure little pain, to let the hours bring Dallas to the point where she would ask the life of the bull. He knew where she was most vulnerable. When Marylyn turned from the tea that now partially eased her hunger, and began a demand for food, Simon would die.
It came sooner than the section-boss expected. His lethargic sleep was broken by Dallas' shaking him. As he opened his eyes, she thrust the hatchet into his hands.
"Dad," she said hurriedly. "Get up. You got to do it. For Marylyn—for Marylyn."
To him, it was a real victory. He wrenched a quid from his tobacco-slab, grasped the hatchet handle and arose. Dallas had lighted the lantern once more. Now she pinned one of the smaller blankets over his shoulders. When he put on his hat and knelt before the chopped-out place in the east wall, she wrapped a second blanket about his feet and legs.
"Go 'long, go 'long," he said, not unkindly. "Keep you'self warm." Then the hack, hack, hack began again.
She did not watch him, but donned the long cloak over her jersey, kissed Marylyn and paced up and down the shack. For every step there was a blow of the hatchet.
"Poor Simon! Poor Simon!" she whispered to herself. The bull was lowing again.
At last the sound of the hatchet became unbearable. She gave a quick glance around the room, then, crossing to her father, pulled at his arm. "If you kill Simon, there's no wood to do any cooking," she said. "Better wait, dad—hour or two, please!"
He twisted from under her hand, and scowled up. "Shucks!" he answered. "Here's chips 'nough fer a fire." And swung the hatchet with fresh zeal.
She lingered a moment, smiling grimly. It was only a play for time. She knew very well that there would be timber when her father reached Simon's stall.
Lancaster was making fast progress. The log upon which he worked was dry from the heat of the hearth. It splintered like weathered pine. A section of it was soon cut away so far that a final blow with the hatchet head drove it in. It rolled to the noses of the mules. Lancaster thrust his head through the hole.
Between the scantlings that penned Simon into his part of the lean-to, the section-boss spied two glowing eyes. They watched him, then the door, then him again. "M-m-m-m!" came a deep protest, as the bull blew and pawed at the dirt floor.
The section-boss drew back nervously. "Simon's actin' funny," he said. "He's locoed, or he's smelt a mice."
He got no answer. Dallas was in the corner farthest from him, crowded against the logs. Her arms were raised. Her head rested between them.
Lancaster grunted disgustedly, and fell to chopping again. The opening in the wall was not quite wide enough up and down for his body. He enlarged it by cutting away at the lower side. Finally, satisfied with its size, he unpinned the shoulder blanket, freed his feet, and crawled through.
And now Dallas looked round, fastening her eyes upon the dark hole beyond the hearth. Beside it, the lantern burned with a sickly flame. "It's murder! It's murder! It's murder!" she breathed.
Marylyn tossed, moaning. Dallas ran to her. There she stayed, eyes and ears buried in the bed-clothes.
Within the lean-to, a curious parley was being held. Lancaster was standing, hatchet in hand, at the bar of Simon's pen. Behind him was the stable door, before him, just out of reach, the bull. Simon was not pawing now. His fore feet were spread wide, his nose touched the ground between them. He was alternately mooing and blowing, and his angry eyes were fixed, not on the section-boss, but on the bottom of the door.
"Simon, Simon," said Lancaster, in a wheedling tone. He could scarcely see the animal, for the eastern window was snowed shut. The bull made no move. Presently, the old man shoved the single bar aside and hopped forward a step or two, his gaze fixed on the star between those glowing eyes.
Still the bull did not move.
"So, Simon," purred the section-boss. He gave another hop forward, and raised the hatchet. "So, Simon, nice Simon!"
It was a roar that fairly shook the lean-to. Simon flung up his head.
Fearful for his safety, Lancaster dodged to the left, stumbled, overturned, and went down with a cry. "Dallas—help!"
A cry answered him. The mules reared. Then, out of the gloom plunged a red bulk, head lowered, tail straight. There was a second roar, a crash, as the stable door flew outward, an in-rush of frigid air, and the swirling sound of wind and sleet. And Simon, leaping something that was lying at the entrance, shot on into the blizzard.
* * * * *
Early morning of the next day, as the Lancasters were enjoying a breakfast of roasted pork, cooked by a scantling of Simon's manger, they heard the storm renew its fury in strange noises that were like the human voice. The warped door creaked, the latch rattled.
They paid little attention to it, being fairly content with the strange good fortune that had left a fat frozen pig in the snow outside the lean-to. The stable had been nailed tight again, and there were enough scantlings in it to last out three or four days. Marylyn was better, having rallied swiftly on a diet of rich broth. Even Ben and Betty were not unhappy, for they were greedily consuming the hay of the bedticks.
"Sam Patch's shore bustin' loose," observed the section-boss, selecting a second juicy rib and salting it from end to end. The salt spilled. He flickered a pinch over one shoulder.
Boof! boof! boof! bang! came the muffled sounds from without.
"The harder it howls now the sooner it'll get over it," answered Dallas, piling on more wood.
Lancaster lit his pipe. "Danged glad Ah got t'baccy."
Hey! hey! yelled the storm.
Marylyn looked up from a book. "Sounds as if men are outside," she said. "Listen!"
They listened, straining their ears.
Something thumped the warped door. They started up. A moment, and a thread of light came through the gap above the latch.
"They is!" cried the section-boss.
A cheer replied. A sharp command was sung out to them. "Keep back! Out of the way!"
Again the door was thumped; then great pressure was put upon it. It opened, letting in a half-dozen men and a wide path of warm sunlight.
"Hurrah! hurrah!" "Folks, you snowed in?" "Thank God, you're all right." "The basket, boys, the basket."
"W'y, Lawd!" cried the section-boss, winking against the light; "ain't they no blizzard?"
A trooper with a chevroned sleeve saluted them. His air was jaunty. His face beamed. "There was, sir, last night," he said gaily, "but there hain't none now. Clear has ha bell, sir."
"Y' fr'm th' Post?" demanded Lancaster, trying to look severe.
He of the chevrons waved his companions out. "Hi'm from Hingland, sir," he answered. "Sergeant Kippis his my name. Will you 'ave some 'soldier's coffee,' sir?"
Dallas hurried past him and into the newly dug tunnel. Overhead was a serene sky. Between shack and river lay a dazzling mile of drifts. And midway, brisket deep, but advancing resolutely, and bugling at every floundering step, was Simon!
BACK FROM THE WINTER CAMP
"Well, Captain?" It was partly a greeting full of relief, partly an eager inquiry, as Colonel Cummings came hurrying out of his library to meet Oliver in the entry.
The latter straightened a little, but hesitated deprecatingly before taking the colonel's hand. "I've nothing to report but failure, sir," he said.
The stinging wind that had blown the command home into barracks, and scourged the humped shoulders of the men and the thin flanks of their mounts, had cut the flesh over the captain's high cheek-bones until it was red and raw. The lower part of his face was hidden under a growth that matched his drooping moustache. On his forehead and about his eyes, the skin was a dark sallow, marked by a lattice of deep lines—lines of worry and weariness.
"Nothing to report but failure," he repeated, and let the orderly pull off his stiffened overcoat.
"The troop?" asked Colonel Cummings, anxiously.
"All safe." The other hung his cap on a nail, his belt upon his overcoat.
"Thank Heaven! That storm—I was afraid. Where did it catch you?"
"On the Knife. We put up with some half-breeds. It was hard on the horses, but a rest for the men."
The colonel led the way into the library.
On his entrance, a figure in the dusk behind the stove sprang up with a questioning cry. It was young Jamieson.
"Easy, easy, for God's sake!" begged the captain. He put out one arm as if to ward off a blow.
Jamieson brought up. He saw the look of defeat in Oliver's bloodshot eyes, and his voice quaked, his body shuddered in mortal terror of what he was to hear.
"It's bad news, but not as bad as it might be," began the captain. Colonel Cummings offered him a chair. He dropped into it. "It is said that your mother and sister are alive, and will be delivered up to us in the spring, provided there are no executions here. But—I didn't see them, and I don't know where they are."
Jamieson coughed down a heart-broken protest, and, as if stunned, tottered weakly toward the stove.
Colonel Cummings knotted his hands together. "Where's Matthews?" he asked.
He was answered by the slamming of the outside door, and by a voice in the entry; a moment later, there was a sharp tattoo on the library door. The colonel opened it and answered the interpreter's salute.
With Matthews seated on the army cot, and the commanding officer pacing to and fro, Captain Oliver made his report. He stood at the window, his arms folded, his eyes following his superior.
"We located the camp easily," he said. "The directions given by the hostages were exact. But that is about the only thing that did come easily. The rest was all procrastination.
"At noon, on the tenth day out, we saw, ahead of us on a ridge, a single Indian. I selected four men to make a swift detour, thinking that perhaps they would discover a hunting-party just over the crest. But the slope beyond was unoccupied, and there were only the marks of one pair of moccasins. I concluded that the solitary brave was scouting, and I was right.
"A few miles farther, we sighted a half-dozen Indians. They were watching us from a hill. I called a halt. Then I took two men and Mr. Matthews and made forward. We carried a truce flag. They let us come within talking distance. They knew, I am sure, why we were there. But they asked no questions—just told us that the command was expected to advance no farther than a grove that lay a little ahead, to our right. I assented to that, and said I wished a conference with their head-chief. They promised me an answer later on, and at once withdrew to a rise a mile behind. There they stayed until, after a careful reconnoitre, we entered the grove.
"Late that afternoon, Mr. Matthews and I again rode forward to speak to a trio of warriors. One of them, a big, bony fellow in a splendid bonnet, asked what we wanted. The interpreter told him. The Indian said that the head-chief was very sick, and that he could not leave his lodge. He told us we might accompany them to the village, which lay a few miles farther up. Of course I rejected the proposal.
"Well, I saw there was no use to haggle in that fashion. I ordered the interpreter to go into particulars. He proceeded to state your terms."
At this point in the narrative, Colonel Cummings stood still. Captain Oliver advanced toward him a step, and met his eyes in a curious, helpless way.
"It was queer," he continued, "but what Mr. Matthews told them didn't seem to scare them any."
"Oh, it didn't!" cried the colonel, angrily, and once more began to pace.
"No, they grinned at him, and chattered together. Then they rode away. When dark came on, fearing treachery, we left the grove for a sheltered place farther down. Our scouts then set out for the Indian village, going across the river, and far around to the right. On their return, they said that the Sioux camp numbered several hundred wigwams. While just above was a village of Dog Soldiers.
"The night passed quietly. In the morning, a single brave came riding toward us. He stopped beyond rifle-reach. I sent the interpreter out. He returned to say that the chief promised him fair treatment if he would come alone. I took it that the camp was anxious for a little entertainment, and that one white was to furnish it. I didn't consider this second proposal a minute—it was worse than foolish, I thought. But"—he looked toward the cot—"Mr. Matthews didn't agree with me. He went. It was a magnificent bit of courage, sir."
The colonel wheeled. "By Jupiter!" he exclaimed. "You did that?"
Matthews smiled and crossed his legs awkwardly. "Oh, it wa'n't nothin'," he said, forbearing to glance up. "I savvy Injuns, you know. I—I was willin' to take the chances."
Colonel Cummings looked down. After a moment, and without changing the position of his body, he turned his face slowly in Oliver's direction. The eyes of the two officers met, and flashed messages of doubt.
When the commanding officer looked at the interpreter again, it was on his lips to say, "But you were afraid to enter the stockade with me." He checked himself, however, and, instead, reached for Matthews' hand. "It was a magnificent bit of courage," he agreed. "Tell us what happened."
Matthews fingered the blanket on the cot. "I seen the chief," he said, "and told him what you told me to tell him. When I got it all out, he says to me, 'The white women ain't here; they're with the Wyomin' band, and the Wyomin' band's up in Canada. Now,' he says, 'the band'll come south in the spring. So tell Colonel Cummin's, if he don't do no hangin', I'll send the white women home then.'"
A low groan came from behind the stove. Young Jamieson came out, his features distorted with grief and shining with tears. "Think of it! think of it! Not till spring! Are they well? How are they treating them?"
"Oh,—so-so," said Matthews, significantly.
Young Jamieson understood. He went back to his seat, sobbing with the hysterical weakness of a sick man. "He's bungled the business, Colonel," he said bitterly. "Oh, God! If you had only let me go!"
"Yes, yes, my dear boy," answered the other, soothingly. "But please remember that you couldn't have talked with them. The conference would have been carried on through Mr. Matthews just the same."
There was a silence, broken only by Jamieson's weeping.
"Is that—all?" asked Colonel Cummings, at last, addressing himself to the interpreter.
Shortly afterward, when he was gone, the two officers left the library for the reception-room, and discussed the expedition in low tones.
"I have a feeling, Colonel, that our interpreter wasn't fair in this thing," was Captain Oliver's first confidence. They were standing at a front window, watching Matthews cross the parade-ground to the barber-shop.
"The same thought occurred to me."
"And yet—it doesn't seem possible——"
"Oh, if Bond had only come sooner!"
"Bond! He here?"
"Yes—just half a day too late."
While they were talking, Matthews was losing his tow beard and moustache and a good length of hair. This over, and his supper eaten, he reappeared at headquarters, and went with Colonel Cummings to the stockade.
Much to his chagrin, he found the evangelist there, ready to be present at the interview with the hostages. But the Indians understood his predicament, and accepted the speech he made for the little it was worth. It was a speech that, repeated by David Bond, set Colonel Cummings' last suspicion at rest.
Lounsbury arrived at Fort Brannon the next day, appearing in time for breakfast. His early advent, which he explained away nonchalantly, was the cause of some good-natured teasing.
"Say, Lounsbury," observed one officer, "I thought you were keeping a store."
"Get out!" he retorted. "I'm down here to see that you fellows do something for the good money Uncle Sam pays you."
"Why, don't you know?" said Major Appleton. "John's here to sell the sutler some sandy sugar."
"That's right!" agreed the storekeeper. "And I'm going to put up a plant to make brown sugar out of the Muddy."
Lounsbury could afford to laugh with them, not being the only butt of the jokers. Fraser suffered, too. For a tattling private, who had spent the night at Shanty Town, let it out to a corporal, who told it to a sergeant, who told it to a cub of a second-lieutenant, who told it to every officer in post (with the single exception of the "K. O.") that Fraser—the good, the discreet, the unimpeachable—had played poker with Matthews at The Trooper's Delight from taps to "revelly," and lost his last dollar!
The tale had leaked by the hour of Lounsbury's arrival. When the storekeeper heard it, together with the embellishments it carried by reason of its having so often changed hands, he first gave Fraser a grip to show his gratitude, and then sat back and enjoyed the fun. Fraser, sorely tried by the taunts of his brother-officers, repaid Lounsbury with glances of wounded reproof.
"Blame it all! old man," he cried, when he could get a quiet word with the other, "why didn't you help me out? You're a nice one! Letting these chaps think I'm a sport! When you know——"
But Lounsbury only laughed the harder. And was among the first to dub the lieutenant "a sad devil."
The storekeeper did have business with the sutler, though not the kind suggested by the major. For, after being closeted with that worthy a half-hour, Squaw Charley was despatched to the Lancasters' with a basket, and a note which read:
"Mr. Evan Lancaster, Dear Sir—Owing to the fact that a lot of B troop's surplus rations in the way of beans, butter, bacon, flour, salt, pepper, dried apples, prunes, rice, vinegar, molasses, etc., etc., are piling up on my hands, I wish to dispose of same in some way at once and at any sacrifice. Would it be possible for you to relieve me of some of these goods and pay me back next summer out of your garden? Also hope you can find room for a table, benches, and extra lumber on same terms. If you can do this, you will greatly oblige,
"Yours very truly, "JAMES MADISON BLAKELY, "Sutler, Fort Brannon, Dakota Terr.
"P. S. Enclosed find samples which please keep if satisfactory. J. M. B."
When Squaw Charley returned from the shack, he bore an empty basket, and the following reply:
"Dear Sir—Thank you. We would like to do what you said if you will please chalk it down. We will pay next summer, and maybe before. I will keep count too.
It was Lounsbury who took possession of the note. He smiled over it, and put it carefully away in his innermost pocket.
And now there remained one other thing to do. He dropped into the billiard-room and commenced playing, occasionally going to a window that commanded the river. When, after a game or two, he saw a man approaching from Shanty Town, he put up his cue, sauntered opportunely out, and met the interpreter.
"Well, Matthews," was his greeting.
"I just wanted to be sure that you know Lancaster's got that tenth point I spoke about cinched."
"And that what I said before you went away still goes. You hear?"
"I ain't deef," said Matthews, non-committal.
"That's all." And Lounsbury went back to his billiards.
The interpreter continued on to the stockade, where he was more fortunate in the delivery of the true message he had brought.
"The white women were not at the winter camp," he said, "so they could not be sent. But your brothers promise to come to save you. Watch for signals from Medicine Mountain."
That year, in the northland, winter encroached greedily upon spring. The latter end of March, the weather did not moderate. Instead, the wide valley became a channel for winds that were weighted with numbing sleet. Then, April returned angrily, bringing cold rains and blows to check all vegetation.
But April half gone, a tardy thaw set in. The icy covering of the river split into whirling blocks, the snow grew soft and bally, the crust rotted and picked up. Soon the tempering sun drove the drifts from south exposures. When a freshet coursed down the coulee, and the low spots on the prairie filled until they were broad ponds, around which the migrating wild-fowl alighted with joyous cries. Now eaves dripped musically; slushy wagon ruts ran like miniature Missouris, and were travelled by horny frogs; prairie-cocks made each dawning weirdly noisy, and far and near, where showed the welcome green, blue-eyed anemones sprang bravely and tossed their fuzzy heads in the sharp air.
Throughout this season, the shack had but one visitor—The Squaw. He brought fuel, and once a week a basket of supplies from "B Troop." Occasionally, he came swinging a brant by the neck, or carrying a saddle of fresh venison. But though his manner was as friendly as ever, and he seemed no less grateful and devoted, he was always strangely worried and distraught. The evangelist called by once or twice, when storms or the rushing icepack in the river did not prevent his crossing. As for Lounsbury, he traversed the bend often on his way to Brannon and, if he saw a face at a window, waved his hand in pleasant greeting. But he kept to the road.
Since the morning of the aurora, the little family had ceased to speak of him. That silence was neither demanded by the section-boss nor agreed upon by the three. On Lancaster's part, it grew out of the sneaking consciousness of the ingratitude he did not regret; on the part of Marylyn, it arose from two causes: a sense of girlish shame at having confessed her attachment, and a fear that her father would discover it. With Dallas, consideration for the feelings of her sister made her shrink from mentioning Lounsbury. Yet there was another reason, and one no less delicate—she, as well, had a secret to guard.
But in the mind of the elder girl, the thought of Marylyn's happiness was the uppermost. There were dread moments when it seemed to her as if that happiness were to be shattered.
During all the past weeks, Marylyn had carefully harboured her fancies about Lounsbury. Certain of the calico-covered books on the mantel had no little part in this. Their stories of undying affection—of bold men, lorn maidens, and the cruel villains who gloried in severing them—helped her to fit her little circle into proper roles. She loved, and must crush out her passion. Lounsbury, whom she loved, had been sent away by her father. And she lived up to the play consistently. She saw the storekeeper anguished over his banishment; saw depths of meaning in the good-natured salutes he gave the shack. With herself, she accepted loneliness as a sign of deeper suffering. She was tortured by self-pity, by the doubt she had flung at Dallas, by the firm belief that her heart was hopelessly fettered. Gazing into a piece of looking-glass that served her for a mirror, she marked with sorrowful pride her transparent skin and lustreless eye. She sighed as she watched from the windows. Patiently, she listened for footsteps, her face half turned to the door.
And yet what she took so tragically was nothing but failing health. What was not a fact the night of her admission to Dallas, was almost come to pass. The few days of great cold and hunger in February, coupled with long confinement in the dirt-floored house, were having their effect. She was on the verge of illness.
Lancaster, whenever he noticed her dejection, was inclined to pooh-pooh it. "She looks as ef she'd jes' been slapped," he declared, "an' is expectin' another lammin' any minnit. Ef she'd cry, she'd shore weep lemon-juice." Again, he reckoned that she had picked up "some notion." Jealous and suspicious as he was, however, he got no nearer to the truth.
But Dallas—she was misled far more than either Marylyn or their father. She fought away from the idea that her sister might be breaking physically, and tenderly as a mother yearned over her. Anxious-eyed, she noted the pallor of the childlike face, the melancholy expression that had come to be habitual. She fretted over the spareness of the younger girl, who ate only when she was urged. If, sated with sleep, Marylyn moved in the night, Dallas aroused on the instant and hovered beside her.
At last, thoroughly alarmed, the elder girl determined to follow out the idea that had occurred to her in mid-winter. What did it matter how hard and hateful the duty would be? What did her own hidden feelings matter? She would appeal to Lounsbury in her sister's behalf.
But time passed without bringing her the opportunity, and it was borne in upon her finally that Lounsbury meant to remain away, perhaps until he was bidden to come. Undaunted, she made plans to waylay him on the coulee road. Resting the Sharps across her arm, she set out, morning or afternoon, on a long jaunt.
But Lounsbury was not met. On one such ramble, however, an incident occurred that was far-reaching, if not fatal, in its results. She was going, homeward slowly, when she saw, approaching, an ambulance from Brannon, drawn by a four-mule team. She started timidly aside; then paused. The vehicle was filled with ladies. A half-dozen, who were talking and laughing merrily, occupied the lengthwise seats of the carriage. One sat beside the driver. Dallas put herself in their path, and waited.
How often she had watched these same ladies canter out of post on their horseback rides, officers attending them; or seen them make a rollicking walking-party to the bluff-top. And she had pictured how, some day, they would be ferried to the bend. They could not have heard how her father talked. If they had they would not blame her. If they passed her, they would smile and bow—maybe stop to speak!
She was all aglow, now. The ambulance rolled near. It was closed on its sides, and the women within could not see her. The woman on the seat—pretty, slender, daintily clad—did. Dallas leaned forward eagerly, face flushed, eyes shining.
The woman also leaned forward, and looked Dallas up and down, searchingly, coldly. Her lips were set in a sneer. Her eyes frowned. Then, the ambulance bowled smartly along, the driver catching at a leader with his whip.
"Who's that, Mrs. Cummings?" The women in the rear of the vehicle were peering out.
Mrs. Cummings answered over her shoulder. "Why, it's The Plow-Woman."
There were "Ohs" and "Ahs"—and laughter.
The girl by the roadside heard. Slighted, rebuffed, wounded to the quick, she stumbled homeward, her sight blinded by tears.
She did not wait for Lounsbury again. Once she thought of writing him, of summoning him through a note given Squaw Charley. But recalling her father's treatment of the storekeeper, she questioned if the latter would heed her message. She felt herself isolated. But no hint of her bitterness was allowed to reach Marylyn. The younger girl knew only bright words, and unceasing, unselfish care.
For one thing Dallas was deeply thankful: Matthews did not trouble the shack. David Bond had told her that when the troops left for the summer campaign, the interpreter would ride with them, the evangelist being retained at the fort to fill the other's place. The latter declared that, by the pilot's report, Lounsbury's name made Matthews "lay back his ears," but that he no longer stormed about losing the claim.
And now came the warm days—days in swift, sweet contrast to those just gone. Sun and shower banded the sky with triple arcs of promise. The robins arrived, a plump and saucy crew. Bent-bill curlews stalked about, uttering wild and mellow calls. The dwellers of the ground threw up fresh dirt around their burrows. The marsh violets opened pale lilac cups. And the very logs of the shack put forth ambitious sprigs, so that, from the front, the grotesque head displayed a bristle of green whisker. The prairie was awake—blood and soil and sap.
Ben and Betty showed their high spirits with comical sporting. The mules frolicked together, pitching hind quarters, rearing to box and nipping at Simon. Fully as gay was he, though his shaggy flanks were gaunt. He played at goring them, or frisked in ungainly circles. Occasionally, however, he gave signs of ill-humour, lowered his broad horns threateningly, even at Dallas, pawed up the new grown grass, and charged to and fro on the bend, his voice lifted in hoarse challenge.
On the little family, the light, the warmth, and added duties wrought a good effect. Lancaster's grumbling lessened, and he helped to plant some boxes with cabbage and tomato seed that the "sutler" supplied. Marylyn, coaxed out for an hour or two daily, rewarded Dallas with smiles. Her appetite grew (rather to her chagrin). And when she held the looking-glass before her, she saw a faint colour in her cheeks.
To Dallas, the spring brought renewed courage—and a vague longing. With the first mild evenings, she took to venturing out, wrapped in her long cloak, for a lonely walk. In her love of the gloaming, she was like a wild thing. From birth, the twilights of the mesa had proved irresistible. When she was a child they soothed her little troubles; in womanhood, if sorrow pressed heavily, they brought her strength. The half light, the soft air, and the lack of sound were balm to her spirit.
Nightly she strayed up the coulee, eastward, south, or toward the river; until, early in May, a second incident occurred and interrupted her rambles. She had walked as far as the swale that was part way to the Missouri. There she was startled into a sudden halt. From a point ahead of her and to the left, sounded a gun shot.
She sank down cautiously, and stayed close to the ground, her fingers steadying her, her breath suspended. There was no moon, and the stars were obscured by clouds. The cottonwoods were a black, shapeless mass. She watched them.
No answering shot rang out. But, after a long wait, a reply came from the grove. It was a laugh, loud and taunting.
She stayed crouched, and presently saw a small black object leave the big blackness of the trees and advance. Frightened, she arose and retraced her steps, glancing behind her as she went. At the shack, having found the latch-string, she backed into the room.