Her father and sister were asleep. Next morning, on a plea of not wishing to alarm them, she refrained from telling of the shot. It may have been a hunter, she reasoned, or a drunken trooper, or one of the Shanty Town gang. But the laugh—it rang in her ears.
Several twilights passed, then she ventured out again. A lip of moon was dropping down an unclouded sky; the stars hung low and white. And when she neared the swale, she saw, a good distance before her, that small black object separate itself from the grove again and move forward.
She stopped. She was not frightened now. She knew who it was. And when she saw his arms come up, and caught the glint of metal, she called out to him: "Don't! don't! It's me!"
There was a muttered exclamation, and the arms fell. "Miss Dallas," he cried, and sprang forward.
"I—I was sure it was you," she admitted tremulously. "And you've been guarding here all the time!"
Lounsbury was panting. "Suppose I'd fired?" he said. "I had a mind to. Crimini!"
"You'd 'a' missed, likely."
"Maybe not. You see, I thought, well—that Matthews or that precious brother of his, they might get to bothering you folks. Anyway, ain't it dangerous for you to be out here late like this?"
"It is for you. You get shot at—keeping guard on us."
He thumped the swale impatiently with the butt of his gun.
"Oh, it was you," she persisted, gravely enough; "that is why I came to-night."
"Ah! You mean that I can help you, Miss Dallas. Tell me—tell me, what can I do?"
"Don't let Matthews kill you."
Lounsbury laid down his gun. When he straightened, he stepped to her side. "Me?" he said. "Well, I'm a match for him. You ain't. But what else?"
She moved aside, averting her face.
"There is something, Miss Dallas?"
He saw she was disconcerted, and strove to put her at ease. "Do you know," he said, "you're so tall in that coat, you almost look like a 'heap big chief.'"
She did not hear him. She was not listening. The wished-for opportunity was come. She was trying desperately to rally a speech. "You—you ain't been 'round of late," she began at last. "I hope——" But she could not finish,
"No," he said slowly. He rammed his hands into his trouser pockets. "I haven't been around lately. But—I didn't think you'd notice it." He darted a glance at her.
"Was it dad?" she asked. "Did you think——"
"Yes, it was your father. I thought he went out of his way to be—well, kinda short, you know. I was only trying t' be decent."
"Dad's funny," she said reflectively. "Whenever we get to a chuck-hole, where all of us ought to pull t'gether, he goes slack on the tugs. He's like Ben that way. So I have t' go up to him, stroke his mane, fix his curb, and let some cool air under his collar. After while, he gives a haw-hee-haw and goes on."
Lounsbury did not laugh. "He balked when it came to me," he said soberly. "And it hurt. Afterward—I kinda got it into my head that none of you wanted me."
She looked straight at him. "But one did—one did," she whispered, choking.
He pulled his hands free of his pockets. "One—one," he said huskily. "Who?"
And now everything was clear to her. She knew just what to say. She had no feelings of self; the duty was not hateful, nor embarrassing. "Who?" she repeated. "Don't you know, Mr. Lounsbury? Why, Marylyn."
"Marylyn," he echoed as if in a puzzle; "Marylyn. You're joking!"
She caught a shade of reproach in that, and misunderstood it. "I reckon you won't like her so well now," she said.
"Like her so well? I don't know what you mean."
"She—she likes you," stammered Dallas.
Still he was puzzled. "I supposed she didn't hate me."
"But now you know."
There was no mistaking her. Utterly dumfounded, he could not trust an immediate answer. "I see, I see," he said finally.
"And you'll like her just the same?"
He drew a deep breath. His eyes were on her face, trying to read it in the dimness. Then, "I am not a cub boy, Miss Dallas."
"You won't stay away," she persisted. "You'll come."
"If I'm judging right, I mustn't. I'm—I'm sorry."
He strode back and forth a few times. "Why—why, Miss Dallas, you must understand that a man can't—when a girl——Well, it'd be low for me to talk about it, that's all—out and out low."
Something stirred her powerfully then—something she combated, and concealed from him by a touch of apparent anger. "There's nothing low about it," she said. "A man ought to be proud. Oh," as he was about to reply, "you don't know how she's felt. She's been sick over it, white and sad, and at night she'd cry."
"And you're just sorry!"
"When did you find this out?"
"That day you drove Matthews away. She told me."
He walked about again. "I can't see why she does," he mused pathetically. "I can't remember doing anything."
"But you've been so good to us—even after the way dad acted—guarded out here, and sent that land-office man down from Bismarck——"
He made a protesting gesture. "Pshaw!"
"Oh, yes, you did. And why? Why?—if you don't care——"
A long silence followed. During it she watched him, her very attitude imploring, while he continued to pace.
All at once he stopped determinedly. "There's a reason," he said, "why I can't do what you ask: Come to see Marylyn, and—and all that."
"Dad? Ah, he's got to think like me."
"No; not your father."
"Maybe"—the bitterness of Mrs. Cummings' slight impelled it—"maybe you don't think she's good enough."
"Dallas! No! No!" He put out a hand to her.
"There's a reason." He let his arm fall. "And it is fair and square. I'm proud of it, too, and you must hear it." His tone was significant, tender.
No hint of his meaning suggested itself to her. "Then I want to know it," she said.
"I didn't intend to tell you," he began, "at least for a while. When I was at the shack last I made up my mind it wouldn't do any good. I said to myself, 'You keep quiet.' But"—he plucked off his hat and sent it whirling to the gun—"I guess you'll have to know now. Dallas, the reason—is you."
"Me?" The question was a cry.
Lounsbury waited, standing very still before her. Then reaching out again, he touched her hand. "You," he said quietly.
Again she retreated.
"Please don't go," he begged. "I want to tell you more. And I want you to say you believe me. You must believe me."
There was another long silence. Presently he went back and picked up his hat and gun. "I know just where it puts you," he said. "But, just the same, I love you."
He was certain now that he had earned her displeasure. When he spoke again, it was as one who accepts a sad finality. "I love you, and I want you. I hoped you might think a little of me some day. For I believe I could make you happy. So it was disappointing to find out that you hadn't thought of me that way; that you were figuring on seeing me take Marylyn.
"I never had much idea of marrying. But when I saw you that first time, when you came in through the door, you remember—why, then, I began to think. Couldn't help it." He put on his hat and lifted the gun to his shoulder. "I even wrote mother about you," he said.
He was unprepared for the answer she gave him, for it was an answer. Without speaking, she buried her face in the curve of her arm, and, as if seized with an ague, began to tremble.
"Dallas," he whispered tenderly. "Oh, my dear girl! I'm so glad! so glad! You will—you do?"
But he found himself pleading into space.
THE SMOKING MOUNTAIN
Medicine Mountain was a volcano. Out of its rocky summit and into the quiet air of the May morning was rising a straight, blue column of smoke.
A flag wigwagged from the southern lookout station to herald the phenomenon, and in a moment the post was agog. Keen-sighted scouts hurried to points of vantage, where they studied the mounting plume. Far-reaching glasses were trained amid lively surmise from the galleries fronting the parade. While at barracks, blocking the windows and thronging the porch, the eager troopers gossiped and craned.
But in the stockade interest reached its highest pitch. Braves, squaws, and children were strung along the upper end of the enclosure, breathlessly watching the vapour-thread. Each swarthy face had dropped the mask of listlessness; each figure was rooted. Not an eye forsook a straight line to the belching mountain-top.
For full three minutes, the distant fire sent up a steady pillar. Then, fort and stockade saw that pillar suddenly wobble, as if caught in the vagaries of a fitful breeze—saw it wobble, thicken, break, and disappear; when the butte again stood, a jagged tooth, against the sky. Above it, innocently white, floated a hand's breadth of cloud.
And now the trumpet rang. Obeying it, two detachments mounted. One spurred away down-river, keeping close in the lee of the bluffs. The other boarded the ferry and was landed at the cut north of Shanty Town, from where it made toward the Norwegian's. Behind, an envious, but feverishly happy, garrison set about putting an extra polish on its arms. The grass was too short for a war-pony. Active duty had not been expected within the month. Yet the time of dreary waiting was up at last. For here, within striking distance, were the hostile reds!
The warriors in the stockade knew better. Like so many whipped dogs, they were scattered to cover, there to hide their bitter chagrin. No war-party was come to harry Brannon, to lure the troopers into battle, to free the captive village. A lone Indian—the looked-for messenger—had fanned that signal-fire on the mountain. And, by a wave of his blanket, he had told them evil news!
To Colonel Cummings, the seeming early boldness of the enemy gave an inkling of what might be expected later on—in the summer—when there would be good grazing, and a smaller force at the post. Already he feared for the safety of the settlers living within sight of the garrison flag. The detachment landed at the cut was ordered to warn two of them. The third was Evan Lancaster. To him the commanding officer sent David Bond.
But it was Dallas whom the evangelist sought. He found her at work upon the plowed strip, cross-dragging it in preparation for the planting of the corn. As she drove up and down, she walked hatless in the sun. Her hair was down, and hung forward in two braids. She wore the snug jersey that had been her mother's. Her skirt was tucked up, back and front, to be out of the way. It disclosed no red flannel petticoat, however.
Not far away was Simon, a starling riding him to gobble the greenheads as they bit. The bull was revolving sulkily on his picket-rope, and shedding his long winter coat upon the new grass. In deference to his inborn dislike, Dallas was wearing an underskirt of blue.
Though the evangelist had never seen her trudging behind the mules, he had often spoken of it pityingly. Yet, as he came toward her now, he felt only an unbounded pride—in her unselfishness, and in her brave efforts to wrest a living from the soil.
"A splendid Ruth," he murmured, advancing, "a splendid Ruth, toiling in the fields!"
Seeing him, she gave a swift, troubled glance at the shack. Then, avoiding his eyes, and without speaking, she pulled up Ben and Betty and held out a hand.
When he took it, the pride of a moment before changed to compassion. He remembered that he must tell her what would alarm. For in her face he saw the traces of many a sleepless night, and of a sapping worry.
"Daughter, you are ill!" he declared, and kept a tight hold on her fingers.
"No, there ain't anything the matter with me. Only"—still avoiding his eyes, she turned to survey the harrowed land—"only, I'm some put out. This sod——"
"Never mind the sod," he said gravely. "I want to ask—did you see the mountain?" He loosed her fingers, and pointed an arm to the south.
She laughed, following his pointing. "Yes, I did. Looks as if claims are getting scarce, don't it? When a nester has to file up there!"
Midway between shack and butte was an ox-team that had been travelling to and fro across a quarter-section since dawn. The team was now at a stand, and their driver was slouching against his plow. Beyond him were several galloping dots.
"And you saw the cavalry?" said David Bond.
"One word will tell you what it means, Dallas. It's Indians!"
She showed no sign of disquiet. Presently, when she had thought over the announcement, she turned round to him, frankly meeting his gaze for the first time. "That's funny," she said. "Why, last year, all the way up from Texas, there wasn't an Indian bothered us!"
"Last summer, before you came, the soldiers at Brannon did not dare go more than a mile outside the lines to hunt. It will be the same this summer. There is that stockade full of prisoners, and four of them are condemned to be hanged. Before long the Indians will be circling the post."
She looked away at the ox-team. They were being taken from the plow and put to a wagon.
Then, again, she turned squarely. "What about Shanty Town?" she said with meaning.
He understood. "Shanty Town goes when the troops go. But"—hesitatingly—"Matthews does not. He will stay at Brannon to act as interpreter."
"He will!" she said, and coloured.
He coloured, too, feeling himself reproved. But from under the wide, battered felt that had supplanted the nubia, his eyes shone with no resentment, only fatherly tenderness.
"You wonder why I do not remain," he began, "so that Matthews could be sent away. I shall tell you."
She let the reins fall to the drag. "That isn't it," she answered quickly. "We have no right to ask you to do anything after the way dad treated you. But the Colonel sent you over to tell us to look out. Didn't he? And he keeps a man over there—pays him to stay—and that man is a sight worse than an Indian!"
"I could have that man dismissed," he said slowly. "Please let me tell you why I don't. In the first place, the Indians are beginning to act badly—very badly. They are invading Crow territory, and stealing from peaceful bands. They are molesting whites wherever they can find them, and murdering. So we can judge that there will be hard fighting. For the troops will seek to pay them up.
"Oh, Dallas, how I pray to see trouble stop! I am going to the Indians. I know their leaders—have known them for ten years or more. I shall ask them to consider the good of their squaws and children and property, and ask them to accept reservation life. If they won't, I shall beg a few of them to come in with me and at least talk treaty.
"That is the first reason for my going. The second is the Jamiesons. If I find those poor women, and tell their captors that the four chiefs here are in danger, I know mother and daughter will be handed over to me——"
"You're right! You can save them!"
"God bless you for saying that! It won't be pleasant with Matthews here——"
"But you must go. Never mind about Matthews."
"I cannot go without being satisfied that you and Marylyn will be safe. The Colonel said——"
"The Colonel," she interrupted. Then, half resentfully, "Did the women folk send any word?"
He was mildly surprised. "N-n-no," he answered, "they didn't, but——"
She laughed, and picked up the reins.
"Well, dad'll never leave this quarter," she said decisively, "if that's what the Colonel wants."
The evangelist shook his head. "'Thou dwellest in the midst of a rebellious house,'" he quoted sadly. "Now, if you come to the Fort to live——"
"Matthews could move into the shack."
"Hardly that, with the backing you have. The boys at the post would never see Matthews take your home. Believe me, as long as you and your father care to live here, you can. Public opinion over there"—he pointed to Brannon—"is strong in your favour. And there is Lounsbury, too. Why, that man is helpless."
She averted her face.
"So you will lose nothing by coming to the Fort," he persisted, "while you may save a great deal—your lives!"
"Dad will never go to the Fort. He hates 'em like poison."
"Yes—yes—he's foolish and stiffnecked. For such is punishment meted out. See!" The ox-team was travelling toward them, prodded by the driver.
They stood in silence for a while.
"Then, go to Bismarck," urged David Bond, finally. "Stay there until the autumn."
"Live on what?" she asked.
From a hind pocket he slowly brought forth a narrow buckskin pouch, tied with a thong. He opened it, and emptied a handful of coins upon a palm. "This is only a little," he said apologetically. "But it will help. And—you must think first of your safety."
"I can't take it," she said, her voice all gentleness. "Even if I did—what about next winter? I must stay and raise things. Don't you see?"
"At Bismarck you would have a double market, Dallas. There is Fort Lincoln, and the town."
"I'd—I'd have to plow new ground," she went on. "And—we'd have to build again, and dig another well——"
"There are men in Bismarck who——"
Suddenly she lowered her voice and stepped nearer. "That's just the reason dad wouldn't go there," she said. "We'd be close to town. We'd have to meet folks. Here, he keeps away from the Fort, and you, and Mr. Lounsbury—everyone but Charley."
"Oh—oh—oh," breathed the evangelist, helplessly.
"Now, you know. It's no use. I don't complain. But, he's fastened to the Bend with a diamond hitch!"
"Now, I know!" David Bond exclaimed.
A halloo sounded from the shack. Facing that way they saw the section-boss. He was standing just outside the door, balanced on one crutch. The other he was thrusting angrily at the ground.
"You see!" said Dallas. "You see! And he can't help it. Poor dad!"
The evangelist groaned and held out a hand. "Dear girl," he said, "it is good-by. God keep you all, and God help me! I see truly that you are tied; that I can do no good. The Colonel will surely take care that you are protected. Lounsbury and Charles will watch. I must go with that comforting knowledge. My love to Marylyn—Good-by."
She steadied her voice to answer. "I watch," she said. "I don't sleep well, so it's easy. If they heard a gun at Brannon——"
He raised his hand to bless her. Then, without speaking again, walked slowly away. She unhooked the tugs and headed the mules for home.
"Wal," called her father, sarcastically, as she approached, "what's thet ol' sniffler want? Is day aft' t'morrow th' en' o' th' world?"
She ignored his questions, and told him of the warning.
Instantly, his anger rose. Planting himself before her, he shook a finger close to her face. "So th' Kunnel's tryin' t' skeer us, is he?" he demanded. "Tryin' t' git us t' come in an' leave th' Ben'. Wal!—ain't we right under his nose? Kain't he watch out fer us? W'at's he here fer? W'at's he paid fer?"
Then, riding in on the tide of his wrath, came dark suspicion. "An' w'at's he so crazy t' git us away fer?" he queried. "Yah! yah! Ah'd like t' know—Ah do know! He's got thet low-down card-sharp of a Matthews fer his interpreter. He knows thet card-sharp wants this lan'. Thet's his game! An' he kain't fool me!"
"Maybe, maybe," said Dallas, leaving him to stand beside Marylyn. "But, of course, dad, we mustn't forget that he's warned the other folks on this side, too."
Her father glared at her. "You takin' his part, ain't y'?" he said. "M-m-m! how's thet? Are you so all-fired anxious t' git t' Brannon?"
"No, dad, I'll never go to Brannon. Never! never! If I did, you, my father, oughtn't t' misunderstand it."
He quailed before her vehemence, and hobbled shamefacedly toward the door. "O' course, if th' Injuns come——" he began.
"They won't." She drew Marylyn to her. "And if they do, a shot'll bring help."
He was in the doorway, now. "W'y," he cried, "here's thet fool Norwegian goin' t' th' landin'. Wal, he is pritty shy on sand!"
"We'll be killed if the Indians come, Dallas." It was Marylyn, whispering up fearfully to her sister.
"We'll be careful, honey. Keep away from the coulee after this. Walk toward Brannon, always."
Dallas spent the afternoon out of doors, where everything spoke of peace. Not even a hand's breadth of cloud floated upon the sky. The air was warm, and fragrant with the new growth. Magpies chattered by. The bobolinks sent up their hearty song.
When she left off work, she saw the settler from the "little bend" drive by with his wife and children. Going home, she found her father cleaning and caressing the Sharps. But in her ability to sense danger, as in her love of the gloaming, Dallas was like a wild thing. And she felt not the slightest disquiet.
AL BRADEN OF SIOUX FALLS
Midway of the even, broad expanse between shack and gap stood an A-tent, very new, very white, and very generous in dimension. Like a giant mushroom, it had cropped forth during the night. About it stretched the untouched prairie, all purpling over with morning-glories.
The tent opened toward the river, and was flanked on one side by a pile of short pickets, their tops dipped the colour of the canvas, their bases nicely sharpened for the plotting out of ground. Near by, thrown flat, was a wide board sign, which read, in staring blue letters:
"AL BRADEN, REAL ESTATE."
It was well on toward noon before the tent showed life. Then there emerged from it a bulky man of middle age, who dusted at his high boots as he came, stretched, drawing his long coat snug, and settled an elaborate vest. He completed his costume by donning a black hat that was of wool, and floppy. Then, thumbs tucked in armholes, he strolled away toward the Lancasters'.
The section-boss and his daughters were lined up on the warm side of the lean-to, shading their faces from the sun. When the comer was so near that they could see he was strange to them, Lancaster gave a peremptory wag of the head, and the two girls disappeared around a corner. Their father stayed on watch, his jaws working nervously with the ever-present chew.
The burly man advanced upon the lean-to. "Mornin', mornin'," was his greeting. He made several swinging bows at Lancaster, and took him in shrewdly from eyes that were round and close-set.
The section-boss grunted.
"Lovely day," observed the other, with a bland smile. He changed his tack a little, as if he were going by.
Lancaster hobbled along with him. "Y-a-a-s," he drawled. "Right good. Some cool."
The stranger agreed by another series of swinging bows. "You got a nice place here—nice place," he continued affably. He loosened one thumb with a jerk.
The man halted in front of the shack and looked it over. "You're a Southern gentleman," said he, "by your talk."
"Ah am." Lancaster spoke with unfriendly rising inflection.
"Well, well." A hand was extended—a fat hand, where sparkled a diamond. "Say, now, this is lovely, lovely. I'm a Southerner myself, sir. Put it there!"
The section-boss hesitated. So far, Dakota had offered him no compatriot. He could scarce believe that one stood before him now. A second, then he gave a pleased grin. "Howdy," he said. "Hope y' goin' t' settle hereabout."
They shook heartily.
"Settle due east of you, sir," was the answer. "My name's Braden—Al Braden. I'm from Sioux Falls."
"Won't y' come in?"
"Tickled t' death!"
They entered the shack, Lancaster leading. Dallas and Marylyn glanced up in surprise from the fireplace, and arose hastily.
"M' gals," said the section-boss, motioning their visitor to a bench.
Braden took it, with more swinging bows, and a sweep of his floppy headgear. "Glad t' meet you," he smiled, "Miss-a-a-a-Miss——"
"Lancaster's they name," prompted the section-boss, all good nature.
"—Lancaster. Glad t' meet you both."
Dallas nodded, and drew her sister away to the wagon-seat in the corner.
"Jes' fr'm th' Falls, Ah think y' said," began their father, hunting his tobacco plug along the mantel.
"Um. Any—any news fr'm down thet way 'bout this part o' th' country?"
Braden fell to admiring his ring. "No, sir, no. Didn't hear nothin' particular."
The section-boss fidgeted. "S'pose y' know they's some talk 'bout a railroad comin' this way," he said carelessly.
"Don't go much on that talk. Ten years, twenty years—maybe. Too early yet."
Lancaster's face lengthened. He blinked in dismay.
"My idea," went on Braden, "is cows. Goin' t' be a lot of money in 'em, sure as you're alive. Hear Clark's made a good thing of his'n."
"Cows!" said Lancaster, in disgust. "Cows don' help a country; don' raise th' price o' lan'."
"Cows or no cows, your place here's worth a nice little sum," protested the other, condescendingly; "hunderd, anyway."
Lancaster stared. "Hunderd!" he cried. "You got th' grass staggers. Five hunderd."
Braden pursed his lips, his thumbs in his armholes again. "Three hunderd and fifty, say," he compromised. "I'd be willin' t' give you that."
A moment since, the section-boss had been downcast. Now, he guffawed. "Would y'?" he asked; "would y'?" There was a sage gleam in his eye.
Lancaster sucked his teeth importantly. "Y' couldn' hev it a cent short o' seven hunderd an' fifty," he declared.
"You'll never get it, sir, never. Five hunderd's a spankin' figger."
"Telling you what's what. There's thousands of acres around here just as good as your'n any day in the week. But you got this end of the ford. That makes a little difference."
"Makes 'bout fifteen hunderd dollars' diff'rence."
It was Braden's turn to laugh. "My friend, you'll hist to two thousand pretty soon," he warned; and arose. "Better take five hunderd and fifty when it's offered." He flung out his hands as if he were feeding hens.
Lancaster got up with him, righteously angry. "Say, you ain't no South'ner," he cried. "Jes' a slick Yank. Ah c'n see through you like winda-pane!"
Braden laughed again, tapping the shoulder of the section-boss. "You ain't wise," he confided. "Farmin' out here with cows around means fences. But hang on if you want to. It's your land." He ended this with a jovial slap, and made for the door. From it, he could see the girls. He gave them a magnificent bow. "Mornin', mornin'," he said, and walked out.
Lancaster went back to the hearth, fairly weak with delight. Dallas and Marylyn joined him. "W'at d' y' think!" gurgled their father. "Say, he ain't got th' sense he ought 'a' been born with!"
"Don't like him," Dallas declared.
"Pig eyes," suggested Marylyn.
At that the section-boss calmed. "Wal," he said, "he's as good anyhow as slop-over soldiers."
Meanwhile, Braden was on his way to The Trooper's Delight, his face glum, his step quick, his arms cutting the air like propellers. When he lumbered into it, he creaked up to the plank bar and helped himself to a finger of whisky. Then he propped himself on an elbow and stood scowling into the rear of the room.
From the gaming-table sounded the raillery of a dozen men. Matthews was there, heels up, hat tipped back, a cigar set between his little teeth.
"What y' givin' us," cried one of his companions. "You're drunk, Nick—plumb drunk."
Braden listened, turning away. An advertisement of brandy hung from a shelf on the far side of the bar. He toyed with his goblet, his eyes fixed on the gaudy, fly-specked picture.
"I ain't drunk," Matthews declared. "I never been drunk. My stomick ain't big 'nough to hold the reequissit amount."
There was more laughter. The interpreter, well pleased with himself, surveyed his audience, pointing the cigar, now up, now down, so that its glowing end threatened to burn his shirt collar, or, tilting skyward, all but singed what there was of a tow eyebrow.
"And that ain't the best part of the story," he went on. "As I was sayin', not a darned pound of ice was left in Boston. Well, what d' y' think my old man does? He rents the fastest coast-steamer he can find. Then, he goes 'way up north in the Atlantic and lays-to with his weather eye open. Day or two, long comes a' iceberg big as a house. And by——, he hitches to it, and Boston gits ice!"
And now, like a ponderous bobcat descending upon its prey, Braden stole soft-footed across the room. "Nick!" he said. His jaws came together with the click of a steel trap.
Matthews lowered his heels. "Jumpin' buffalo!" he cried in amazement. "Al Braden! Where'd you come from?" He took the other's hand, at the same time pulling him slowly toward the door. Away from the crowd, they brought up.
"Well, you're a nice one!" was Braden's answer. "You're a nice one! Lettin' that Bend slip through your fingers!"
All the interpreter's cocksureness was gone. He threw the cigar into the sand-box under the stove, and looked on the verge of following it.
"Say, you talk of fleecin'," taunted Braden. "Why, you been skinned clean's a whistle! And by a' old fool duffer from Texas!"
"I was at Dodge when he come," snarled Matthews, finding his voice.
"What you go streakin' off to Dodge for, after the tip I give?"
"Well, no one here was talkin' railroad. So I, well, I——"
Braden addressed the ceiling, his fat hands outspread. "No one here was talkin' railroad, no one here was talkin' railroad?" he mimicked.
"—So I didn't put much stock in your letter."
"You didn't, eh?" Braden searched a coat-pocket, found a newspaper clipping and thrust it under Matthews' nose. "Well, read that."
"Read it yourself," said Matthews. "You know blamed well——"
Braden interrupted him by beginning. He lowered his voice, and intoned, giving the interpreter a glance designed to wilt him with the words that called for stress:
"'The proposed line will open up a country of rich grasses and ground and of unexcelled hunting. The Indians, while still troublesome beyond the Missouri, are rapidly being brought to see the advisability of remaining on the reservations, and little more annoyance on their part may be apprehended. Fort Brannon, he declares, is in the hands of several hundred brave fighting men and may be looked upon as a place of certain refuge in case of an outbreak. The soldiers are proving to be such a menace to those Indians who will not agree to reservation life, that whole bands of the more savage redskins are leaving for the Bad Lands and the rougher country farther west. No Indian war-parties have been seen east of the big river for some time. Already there is an increasing interest in land along the survey. And it is believed that when the last ties of the new line are laid there will be few unclaimed quarter-sections between the Big Sioux and the Missouri.'
"There!" Braden wound up. "And gradin' begun already at the Mississippi."
"The h—l you say!"
"Believe me now, won't you? Didn't they have a bankquit with champagney? All the State big-bugs, head surveyor, and so on?"
"That's what I say. And I'll say more. Of course, we was to go pardners on this thing. So far, so good. But here you ain't did your half. And you can't kick if I deal from now on with old man Lancaster."
Matthews understood. "By——, I done my best," he cried. "Y' can't come any of that on me, Braden."
"Keep on your shirt, Nick, keep on your shirt. I looked into this thing at Bismarck, and, under the law, you ain't got one right. Lancaster owns that Bend. And if I pay him out of my own money, why ain't it square?"
The interpreter hung his head.
"Of course," Braden went on, "I'd rather divvy. I can see he's one of them greedy old ducks that's hard to talk money with. Maybe you can think up how to get the land back."
Matthews leaned close. "I had a scheme,"—he nodded south in the direction of Medicine Mountain—"but the reds can't come. I had t' go slow. There's women in th' fambly. Nat'lly, all the men up and down the Muddy want t' see Lancaster stay. There's been a dude fr'm Bismarck here, off and on—tony cuss, sleeps between sheets, nice about his paws as a cat. He's been ready t' tattle or roll a gun."
Braden sniffed. "What trick's he played?"
Matthews evaded the question. "I seen one of the Clark outfit," he continued, "and tried t' git him t' bother old limpy. Says I, 'They's stealin' your slow-elk down there.' Wasn't any use. 'Thunderation!' says the cow-punch. 'You mean that bull? He was a yearlin' when he come to 'em. That's maverick age.'"
Braden sneered. "Such a kid!" he murmured. "Why didn't you lay low, and not go butting down their door? Why didn't you lose the old man and snub up one of the girls—marry her? Big one's a rip-snortin' beauty; pert, by jingo! as a prairie-dog."
"She'd send me a-flyin'," urged Matthews. "But th' little one——"
"Sure! You're a good-looker—handsome. If you'd fix yourself up some."
"If I could git rid of the old man! If I could! Aw! come t' think, what I got that lout of a brother for? Easy—with Indians to lay it on. Blaze the way for 'Babe'—he's a saphead—but he knows enough to follow a spotted line."
"I'll try t' scare 'em off."
"Huh! folks that ain't afraid to come this far in a schooner, Indians or no Indians, ain't likely to stampede at one white."
"You don't know how I mean."
"Go ahead. No use our brayin' like starved jackasses. Do somethin'. You was a fool to ever let 'em winter."
Matthews clenched his fists. "Well," he said, "they won't winter again!"
David Bond was on his knees in the bed of his wagon, beneath the high board cross. Before him he held an open Bible. But he was not reading. His head was uncovered. His beard was lifted. His eyes closed in prayer. Beside him knelt Squaw Charley, with hands pressed together, as if reverent; with shoulders bent lower than their wont; with shifting, downward look. North of the barracks, on the road that led from the steamer-landing, the two had met in the early hours to say good-by.
Swift on the first hint of coming trouble, the evangelist had made ready for his long journey to the west. Shadrach was shod, his master fitting the plates to the shaggy hoofs. The runners were taken from the green box and replaced by the red wheels. Canned food, salted meat, hardtack, and forage were boxed or sacked at the sutler's. The harness was greased. A new nail was driven home through the base of the sagging cross.
During these preparations, the post joined in an effort to damp the aged preacher's hopes and to check his going. He was needed at Brannon, they said, so that the regiment could be rid of Matthews. His belief that he could talk peace terms to the hostiles was ludicrous. As for the Jamieson women, they were dead, or they would have been returned long since to save the four condemned from hanging. And his own life was to be uselessly endangered. Already, out upon the prairie, Indian scouts were keeping watch. He might be able, though alone and unarmed, to pass them and reach the coulees beyond. But he would only fall into the murderous clutches of the savages swarming there.
David Bond smiled when they argued. His faith was as firm as the bluffs that ramparted the fort, and his old heart was unafraid. With him, against the rest, ranged two men—Robert Fraser and young Jamieson. They believed, as he did, that, knowing the tongue, and having friends among the Sioux, he would be in no peril; that, by now, the captive mother and daughter were on American ground again, and would be given over to his care more readily than to another's; that the arrival of troops before the enemy's camp would be fraught with risk for the defenceless two; and that an attempt to take them by force would be their death-signal.
Colonel Cummings was harrowed by Jamieson's months of anguish and illness, and angered by the indifference and dawdling of the captors in the face of his demand and threat. His heart was set upon punishment, now, not treaty. He felt that he was being played with. And he longed to find the red Sioux and thrash them soundly. A word about the evangelist's trip put him out of patience. He regarded it as futile and rash. Yet he did not forbid it—he dared not. For there was Jamieson's old-young face and whitening head; and a hidden spark of hope that would not die.
He owed it to his conscience and position, however, to discourage David Bond. "There will be sharp fighting this summer," he told him. "A hundred good men like you couldn't stop it. The cause lies too deep, and it is too well founded. In the matter of the women, you will also fail. They did not come as the price of four chiefs. Will they come because you ask for them politely? They won't. And you will be slaughtered."
"Then I shall die in a noble cause," answered the preacher, simply. "The Indians know me. I am their friend. I have spent my life with them, taught them, advised, converted. What is all my labour worth, Colonel, if I cannot go among them in times of distress?"
"Worth this," said the colonel, "that you should know when to use your common sense. I tell you, you will meet with treachery. Friend, or no friend, this year the Indians are hunting scalps."
"I put my trust in God," murmured David Bond.
"Don't put your trust in redskins," retorted Cummings, crossly. Whereupon he tramped away.
"Waste of breath—nothing else," he declared to his wife. "I'm clean put out with the old fellow. He's daft on going. Now, why doesn't he stay here, instead of sticking his throat to the knife? There's plenty to do. But, no. Off he must rush on a wild-goose chase. Well, he'll have one, mark that! He's either ripe for an insane asylum or he's a religious adventurer—and I'm hanged if I know which!"
It was the bluster that covers an aching wound; that is a vent for outraged helplessness. And David Bond understood.
When he asked leave to address the stockade, the commanding officer willingly consented. The attitude of the hostages on that occasion startled and disturbed the whole post. For the evangelist might as well have harangued the cottonwood grove across the river. He asked the braves for messages to their brothers. By way of reply, they got up, one after the other, from where he had found them, grouped in the sun before the council-tent, and strolled insolently to their lodges. Soon he was discoursing to empty space, and to a line of squaws who threw him malignant glances and jeered at him. He left, surprised, saddened, but unshaken.
Impudence, bold hatred, and defiance—these were following the smoke from Medicine Mountain. They formed a cue that pointed to one fact: The prisoners were disappointed. They had been expecting, not peace and reservation life, but freedom and battle.
David Bond felt a double need for his quick departure and his services among the gathering war-bands. He hastened his few remaining tasks and set the day for the start. Now, the day was come. His farewells had been said at the shack and at headquarters. Breakfast over and Shadrach put to the shafts, he would take his way up the river. But first there must be laid upon Squaw Charley a final and a solemn charge.
The prayer finished, he put out a hand and touched the Indian. Then he opened his tear-blurred eyes and looked at him, his face softening and working. The Squaw did not budge. His palms were still pressed tight. He blinked at the wagon-bed.
"Charles," said the evangelist, earnestly, "you and I love the little family over yonder. They have been good and kind. I want you to watch over them while I am gone, and be faithful to them. The father is crippled and weak, and he has no friends. Charles, you must be a friend to him, and to the girls. No matter what happens, do not fail them. There will be another guarding. Guard with him. Something may call him away; someone may kill him. Take his place. If danger comes, tell of it at the Fort. Do you promise, Charles? do you promise?" He leaned forward, entreating.
The outcast moved from side to side uneasily.
"Promise, promise," said David Bond. "You must give up anything for them, even your life. Remember that—even your life. I have told you often, and you have not forgot: 'Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.'"
Again the Indian moved uneasily.
"'For his friends,'" repeated the evangelist. "Ah! they have been your friends!" He put his fingers beneath The Squaw's chin and lifted it. The two looked long into each other's eyes. Then they arose and parted.
Later, when the last buckle of Shadrach's harness was fixed, David Bond climbed to the seat and took up the reins. A score of troopers about the head of the white horse stepped aside and formed a little lane. Here and there, a man reached up. Here and there, too, were awkward attempts at wit. "Hope y' 've made yer will, parson," called one. "Look out them locks o' yourn don't go t' trick out some big buck," admonished a second. "Good-by," cried a third, saluting with great formality; "tell ol' St. Peter he'll git a bunch of us some time this summer."
To all, the evangelist returned his blessing.
The interpreter shoved forward through the growing crowd and made a show of friendliness. "Gran'pa," he said, "you're pritty game, all right. Most old war-hosses like you'd be stayin' home and enjoyin' their pension."
David Bond threw up his head resentfully. "Pension," he said, and shot a searching look into Matthews' face. "I am not a man who sells his principles for money. What I give to my country, I give free."
The crowd cheered him, swinging their caps.
Then there was a hush. A shrunken figure was hurrying up, stretching out thin hands to detain him. No one scoffed now. But one stout trooper put an arm about Jamieson to steady him while he talked.
"Mr. Bond, the Colonel thinks I oughtn't to go with you. He wants me to wait for the ambulance. But he's fooling—he's fooling. He means me to stay behind, and I know it. So I've come to say that I look to you to find mother and Alice. Tell them to hurry. For I can't stand this—long." The grey head dropped to the trooper's shoulder.
"Jamieson," said the evangelist, "if God spares my life I shall meet your mother and sister. I shall cheer them and help them. I believe I shall save them. If they are given to me, I shall come straight back. Do not go with the command. Stay behind, Jamieson. I'll bring them to you."
"I'll stay, then. I believe——"
The preacher smiled down, and to every side. Then he clucked to Shadrach. The tugs straightened. The wagon rolled slowly out of the post.
The sunlight shone upon the green box and the red wheels, and upon the staunch old driver, who never once looked back. Above him, emblem of the sublime Martyr, sagged the high board cross.
A MEETING BY THE FORD
Under the cottonwoods that shadowed the landing-place, the clematis trailed its tufts of fluffy grey; a cluster of wind-flowers nodded, winking their showy blue eyes; birds whisked about to fetch straws and scraps for their building; and the grass, bright green, but stubby, wore a changing spatterwork of sun and leaf.
Marylyn let drop her bonnet and the cow-horn that hung by a thong to her wrist. Then, with folded hands, she looked up and around her, sniffing the warm air in delight. The Texas home had never offered such a lovely retreat. There, the arid mesa had grown thorny mesquite, scraggled cypress, or stunted live-oak for a shade; sand had whirled ceaselessly before a high, hot wind; no flowers had bloomed but the pale toadflax and the prickly-pear; and beside the salt lakes of that almost waterless waste had nested only the vulture.
But this! It was like the blossom-strewn plain that burst upon them as, desert-wearied, they travelled into Central Texas; like the glimpses of April woodland in the Upper and Lower Cross Timbers. It made generous return for the long, merciless winter; more—in one glance, in one breath, it swept away a whole winter of hateful memories!
She caught up bonnet and horn and chose a seat close to the river. Before her was a gap in the knotted grapevine heaps that clung along the brink of the bank; through it, veiled only by some tendrils that swung wishfully across, lay a wedge-like vista of muddy water, bottom-land, bluff, and sky. The mid-morning sun glinted upon the treacherous current, upon the wet grass of the bottom-land, upon the green-brown bluff and the Gatling at its top, upon the far, curving azure of the sky. Against the dazzle, her blue eyes winked harder than the breeze-tossed anemones; stretching out upon her back, she rested them in the shifting canopy of foliage.
A startled kingbird flashed past her, coming from a tree by the cut. She got up, and saw a man in uniform standing near. He was a young man, with a flushed face and wildly rumpled hair. In one hand he held a tasselled hat; in the other, a rifle. He leaned forward from behind a bull-berry bush, and his look was guiltily eager and admiring.
As startled as the kingbird, she grasped the cow-horn and lifted it to her lips.
But she did not blow a warning. The uniform retreated in cowardly haste, the tasselled hat lowered, and the eyes beseeched.
A moment. Then, the man smiled and shook his hat at her roguishly. "A-ah!" he said—in the tone of one who has made a discovery—"I didn't know before that a fairy lives in this grove!"
Marylyn glanced over a shoulder. "Does there?" she questioned, half whispering.
He took a forward step. "There does," he answered solemnly. "It's Goldenhair, as well as I can make out. But where on earth are the bears?"
Instantly, she had her bonnet. "My! my!" she said. "Bears! Indians is bad enough." She peered into the long heaps of tangled grapevine.
"Oh, now!" he exclaimed self-accusingly. He whipped a knee with the hat. "Now, I've gone and scared you! Say, honest! There isn't a bear in a hundred miles—I'd stake my stupid head on it."
"But Golden——" she began.
"Goldenhair?" He smiled again, by way of entreaty. "Why, Goldenhair is—you."
She clapped on her bonnet in a little flurry, pulling it down to hide the last yellow wisp.
Misunderstanding the action, he began to plead. "Oh, don't go; please don't go! I've wanted to meet you for months and months. I've heard so much about you—Lounsbury's told me."
She gave him a quick look from under the bonnet's rim. "Mr. Lounsbury," she repeated, and stiffened her lips.
"He don't know much about me, I reckon. He ain't been to see us for 'months and months.'" She began to dig at the ground with the toe of a shoe.
"Well—well——" he floundered, "he's been awful rushed, lately—needed at Clark's—there now. I promised to—to tend to his business here for him. But he told me about you, just the same, and about your sister, too. Say, but she is a brick!"
She gave him another look, slightly resentful, but inquiring. "What's a 'brick'?" she demanded.
"It's a person that's all grit," he answered earnestly.
"That's Dallas," she agreed.
He passaged in cavalry fashion until he was between her and the shack. Then he assumed a front that was cautiously humble. "Lounsbury's had the best of it," he complained. "He's known you right from the start. And this is the first chance I've ever had to know you."
She stopped toeing. "But I don't know you," she returned. "Mr. Lounsbury's never told me——"
"Well, I'll tell you: I'm Robert Fraser, from the Fort. That's really all there is to say about me. You see, I've only been in one fight—that was last fall—and I've never even killed an Indian."
She pulled nervously at her bonnet-strings. "You're a soldier," she said. "And pa—pa'd be mad as a hornet if he knew I'd spoke to you."
Fraser took another step forward. "Pa won't know," he declared.
"Promise you won't tell?" she asked, blushing consciously.
He cast about him as if to find a proper token for his vow. "I promise," he answered, hat on heart; "I promise by the Great Horn Spoon!"
"You're the first I—I ever talked to," she faltered.
"No, it's bad. Because I promised pa once that I wouldn't ever have anything to do with a soldier. And now I'm breaking my word."
"But he's dead wrong——"
"That's what Dallas says."
"Does she? Bless her heart! Then, why don't you both desert and come over to the enemy?"
"Pa says you are enemy."
"We were," he corrected soberly. "But the war is over now."
"Maybe it is," she said, wistful, "but pa is still a-fighting."
"And Goldenhair's drafted when she'd rather have peace. Too bad!" He motioned her to the seat by the gap.
"I can't, I mustn't," she said, and moved a little toward the shack.
"Then I'll go," he said firmly. "I didn't mean to drive you out of here." He also moved—toward the landing-place.
At that, she assented, fearful of hurting his feelings. But she could think of nothing to say, and pulled thoughtfully at the grass.
He studied the farther bluff-top and its warding gun.
"Peace," he repeated after a time. "It's a thing we're not likely to have this summer. And you folks must let us watch out for you, no matter how much you dislike us. The Indians are out and getting ready. They say there isn't a young brave left on any of the reservations up this way. They're all hunting—and we know what that means. They're collecting and arming for battle. Our troops go to find them at daybreak. See!" He bent forward, pointing.
Below the stockade, on a level stretch showing yellow with mustard, where grain had been unshipped the year before, stood long, grey-tented rows.
"They've moved out of barracks and gone into temporary camp."
"That land man back there's moved and gone, too." She waited. Then, "Are—are you going?"
He shook his head. "I'm scheduled to stay. It was a disappointment; but I expected it. I've an idea B Troop won't be idle though."
Her brow knit. "Indians?" she asked.
"Your being on this side of the river assures you folks safety," he hastened to say. "And they shan't get to you while B Troop's in post."
"All the same, I wish pa'd let Dallas take us away."
"If Indians show up, you'll all come to the Fort. And I'd like that."
"No. Pa wouldn't let us. He'd die first."
"And so maybe I shan't see you again—unless you come here some day. Do you think that you can?" He bent to see her face. The bonnet framed it quaintly.
"It's—it's a nice place," she asserted.
He held out his hand to her. "I shall come," he said gently. "But now I've got to go."
She gave him her hand. He got to his feet still holding it, and helped her to rise.
"Good-by," she said bashfully, drawing away.
He freed her hand. "You don't know how glad I am that we've met," he said, "you don't know. It's been pretty lonesome for me since I came out. And you are a taste of—of the old life. You're like one of those prairie-flowers that have escaped from the gardens back home. You sweeten the Western air, Miss Marylyn."
She hung the cow-horn to her wrist and turned away. Overhead the heart-shaped leaves were trembling to the rush of the river. Her heart trembled with them, and her voice. "We ain't Eastern," she said, wistful again. "I was born down yonder in the mesquite, I——" She paused, glancing back at him.
He stood as she had seen him first. His face was flushed, his uncovered hair was rumpled. In one hand he held his rifle, in the other his tasselled hat. And his eyes were eager, admiring. "No, you're not Eastern," he said; "you were born down in the mesquite. But remember this, Miss Marylyn—it's the deepest woods that grow the sweetest violets."
She went on, out of the grove. He lingered to watch her. Beyond the coulee road, she caught sight of some dandelions and, gathering her apron into a generous pouch, started to pick a mess. Her bonnet fell off. She tied it by a string to her braid. Then, flitting here and there, as she spied new clusters, she began an old Texas bunk-house song:
"We saw the Indians coming, We heard them give a yell. My feelings at that moment No mortal tongue could tell."
Her step was light. Her cheek was pink. Her eyes were happy. The corners of her mouth were turned upward smilingly. About her warbled the blackbirds. She mingled her tune with theirs.
A FIRST WARNING
Piercing its shrill way through the heavy mist that hung above the Missouri, came a strange, new trumpet-call from Brannon. The opening notes, reiterated and smooth-flowing, were unlike the first sprightly lilt of reveille. As Dallas stilled the squeaking of the well-pulley to listen, they fell upon her ear disquietly.
The summons ended. From behind, her father's voice called to her querulously. "Seem t' be changin' they mornin' toot over thar," he said. "Ah wonder ef it means anythin' particular."
"I think the soldiers are going," she answered.
"Th' hull passel?" he demanded; then, with a grunt, "Wal, good riddance o' bad rubbish."
Later on, as Dallas circled the shack with the plow, turning up a wide strip as a protection against fires, she found that the reason she had given for the trumpet's varying was the true one. The sun, dispersing the fog, had unshrouded the river and unveiled the barracks and the bluffs. When she saw that, of the canvas row below the stockade not a tent remained, and the campground lay deserted. While from it, heading northward through the post to the faint music of the band, moved an imposing column of cavalry. Arms and equipment flashed gallantly in the sun. Horses curveted. Handkerchiefs fluttered good-bys from the galleries of the Line. Up Clothes-Pin Row, the wives and babies of troopers waited in little groups. At the quarters of the scouts sounded the melancholy beat of a tom-tom. Accompanying it, and contrasting with it weirdly, was a plaintive cadence—the monotonous lament of Indian women.
The column wound on its way, at its rear the heavy-rolling, white-covered wagon-train. The band had ceased to play. The groups that had been waving farewells sorrowfully dispersed. The tom-tom was still, and no wail of squaws was borne across the river. Then, Dallas again started up Ben and Betty.
And now a sudden fit of depression came over her. The dew sparkled on the grass, the air was soft, the breeze caressing, the sun was warm on her shoulders. Yet with all the brightness on every hand, a sense of uneasiness would not be shaken off.
She found herself reining often to look toward Clark's. Midway of the eastern ridge was a long, buff blotch—the crossing of the coulee road. Would a horse and rider pass across that spot to-day? Probably not. A wave of loneliness and of undeserved injury swept her, welling the tears to her eyes.
She was halted close to the corn-land when cheery singing reached her. Marylyn had left the shack and was going riverward, dawdling with studied slowness.
"We saw the Indians coming, We heard them give a yell, My feelings at that moment No mortal tongue could tell.
We heard the bugle sounding, The Captain gave command— 'To arms! to arms! my comrades, And by your ponies stand!'
We fought there full nine hours Before the strife was o'er. Such sight of dead and wounded I ne'er had seen before—
Five hundred noble Rangers As ever saw the West Were buried by their comrades, May peaceful be their rest!"
Dallas shivered. The song suggested a cruel end for the gay troopers who had just gone forth. "Marylyn!" she called.
The younger paused to look back.
"Be careful, honey. Keep in sight."
Marylyn nodded, threw a kiss, and strolled on.
All day, Dallas tried to work away her troublesome thoughts. When she had known that an Indian was signalling from Medicine Mountain, she had felt no fear. Why was she growing fearful now? For it was fear—not any mere nervousness, or sadness over the marching of the troops. It was even more: There was a haunting feeling that something was going to happen! There was a terrible certainty weighing upon her—a certainty of coming harm!
Toward night, she began to watch about her—southward, to the shanty of the Norwegian; eastward, to where the tent of the Sioux Falls man had been; west, where the setting sun touched the sentinel guns on the bluffs; along the coulee, where the darkness always crept first.
She found herself examining the tops of distant rises. Medicine Mountain showed a dark speck at its summit,—had she ever noticed that before? Other peaks looked unfamiliar—were they the lookouts of savage spies? And north, far beyond the "little bend" was the smoke of a camp-fire. In fancy, she saw the one who had lighted it—a warrior with vindictive, painted face, who peered at the squat shack on the bend as he fanned and smothered the flame.
Night was at hand. The plover were wailing; the sad-voiced pewits called; one by one, the frogs began a lonesome chant. A light had sprung up in the shack. She glanced that way. And the window eyes of the log-house seemed to leer at her.
A warm supper, Marylyn's bright face, her father's placid retorts—all these did not suffice to drive away her forebodings. What was there in the coming night?
All her instinct spoke for caution. The lantern was shaken out before the table was cleared. Her father and sister early sought their beds. She only lay down in her clothes. The hours passed in a strange suspense. She listened to her father's deep breathing, to the mules, when they wandered into their stalls, to the snap of Simon's long brush as he whipped at the mosquitoes. Her eyes kept searching the black corners of the room, and the pale squares of the windows. Her ears were alert for every sound.
She fell to thinking of Squaw Charley. He had not come for his supper, or brought them the daily basket. Was he growing indifferent—to them?
It was when she could no longer keep awake that her thoughts assumed even a terrible shape. She dreamed, and in her dream a head came through the dirt floor close to her bed. It was covered by a war-bonnet of feathers. Beside it, thrust up by lissome fingers—fingers white and strangely familiar—was a tomahawk.
Soon, she made out a face—Matthews'. She squirmed, striving to summon her father. A flame flickered up in the fireplace. The face changed from white to red, and Charley danced before her. She squirmed again; the face faded——
She found herself sitting bolt upright. Her hands were clenched defensively, her teeth were shut so tight that her jaws ached. She was staring, wide-eyed, at the door.
The shack was no longer in darkness. Morning was come, and its light made everything clear. She sprang up and lifted the latch, then fell back, her stiffened lips framing a cry.
Before the shack, driven deep into the nearest bit of unpacked ground, was a sapling, new-cut and stripped clean of the bark. From its top, flying pennon-like in the wind, was a scarlet square. And at one corner of this, dangling to and fro in horrid suggestiveness, swung a shrivelled patch that held a lock of hair.
AND WHAT FOLLOWED IT
Rifle in hand, forgetful of crutches, bewildered by sleep, the section-boss came diving through the blanket partition to answer her call. "Wha's matter? Wha's matter?" he demanded thickly, rubbing hard at his eyes to unclog their sight.
Dallas leaned in the doorway, facing out. Her shoulders were bent forward heavily, as if she, too, were only half awake. Her head was rested against a casing. She lifted it when she felt him beside her. "Well, dad," she answered grimly, "it's Indians, this time, and—I reckon they got us stampeded." She smiled a little, ruefully, and pointed.
Winking into the light, Lancaster followed her pointing, and saw the pole. Up jerked his chin, as if from a blow on the goatee. He stared wildly. His jaw dropped. "W'y, Lawd!" he breathed perplexedly, and his chest heaved beneath the grey flannel of his shirt. Slowly he hobbled forward in his bare feet, using the gun for a prop. Before the pole, he halted, and began tousling his grizzled crown with trembling fingers. Overhead, the scalp-weighted rag swung to and fro in the breeze, waving him its sinister salute.
Gradually, his brain cleared, and into it there trickled a hint of the pole's meaning and purpose. He stopped ruffling his hair, and caught up the Sharps in both hands. Then, all at once, the trickle swelled to a foaming torrent of suspicion, that carried him close to the truth. Maddened, cursing, he dropped the gun and fell upon the sapling, pried it furiously from the sod, and smashed it into a dozen bits.
To Dallas, watching him in silence, the destruction of the pole was a sore reminder. For, better than ever before, she realised that her father could only accomplish the hasty, childish things; that beyond these, he was powerless. Without a doubt, she must ask elsewhere for aid.
As he came limping and raging back to her, she hurried forward to relieve him of the rifle and to guide his crippled feet. "Dad, I think it's about time we had a' understanding at the Fort," she said quietly, and took him by an arm.
He brought up short and wrung himself out of her grasp. "Th' Fort! th' Fort! th' Fort!" he repeated in a frenzy. "Lawd-a-mighty, Dallas, y' make me sick!"
"It's Indians," she replied steadily. "They're coming too near to be comfortable. We got to have help."
He raised his fists and shook them. "Help an' fiddlesticks!" he blustered. "Thet ain't no Injuns! It's thet Shanty Town blackleg a-tryin' t' skeer us. Go look at th' groun'—go look at th' groun', Ah say. See if they's moccasin tracks thereabout. Ah bet y' won't fin' any!" He turned back to the scattered splinters, pulling Dallas after him.
Together they got down, examining with care. As he had said, there were no prints of an Indian shoe in the soft earth. But mingling with the round, faint marks of his own naked heel were those—more plainly stamped—of a large boot. They led up to the spot from the nearest point on the river; and back upon themselves toward the same point.
"W'at'd Ah tell y'?" demanded the section-boss, almost triumphantly. His voice quavered, however, and he gulped. "It's thet scalawag, an' he wanted us t' know it! Ain't ev'ry Injun in fifty mile shet up tight in yon corral? Ev'ry one 'cept Charley—an' this ain't the job o' thet blamed fool. No, siree! An' then, th' mules didn' make no row las' night. They'd a shore snorted if it was Injuns——"
"I guess that's so," agreed Dallas, hastily, and made him a warning sign. Marylyn was moving about inside, and calling.
But he was beyond thought for another. "Bosh! bosh!" he cried. "She's got t' stop bein' coddled an' know w'at's w'at. You got t' stop talkin' Fort. Ah'm goin' t' ketch thet low-down skunk 'thout no soldiers. An' Ah'll pepper his ugly hide! Ah'll make him spit blood like a broncho-buster. Th' idee o' his havin' th' gall!" He rammed the Sharps into its rack and laughed immoderately.
"Oh, pa!" expostulated Marylyn, in a startled whisper, and flew to Dallas. Her face, still pink from slumber, paled a little. She laid it against her sister. Long ago, she had seen her father roused to the same pitch. The sight had terrified her, and blunted some earlier and tenderer memories.
"You git you' clothes on," he ordered roughly, "an' rustle us some breakfas'."
She retreated, ready for tears.
Dallas walked up to him, gave him his crutches, and put a hand on his shoulder. "Dad," she said firmly, "don't take out your mad on Marylyn. Keep it all for—him." She nodded south toward Brannon. "That's where it belongs."
"Dallas, you plumb disgus' me," he retorted. "Talkin' soldier, when y' know Matthews could buy th' hull kit an' boodle with a swig o' whisky!" He arraigned the Fort with a crutch.
"What do you think of doing, dad?"
"Ah'll fin' out where thet cuss was las' night—Charley'll help me, y' see——"
"Ah'll see thet—thet Oliver knows o' this, thet he keeps a' eye on thet dog-goned——"
"But it'll be easier just to go straight to the Captain; not I, but you——"
"Yes, do pa," urged Marylyn. "Oh, Dallas, what's happened?"
The elder girl told of the pole and the bootmarks, treating them lightly. Then she came back to her father. To find that her argument of a moment before, for all its short-cut logic, had set him utterly against the plan he had himself proposed. And now he was for no man's help, but for a vengeance wreaked with his own gun. Hurling a final defy toward Shanty Town, he disappeared behind the partition.
No breakfast was eaten that morning. The section-boss was too angry to taste of food, Marylyn was too frightened, and Dallas had no time. For she was busy with the mules, currying them and putting them before the wagon. "Can't help what you think about it this time," she said when her father asked her where she was going; "I've made up my mind that if you won't say the Fort, why then I'll have to drive to Clark's for Mr. Lounsbury. We don't know for sure what that pole meant. We must ask."
"Aw, you ain't got a smitch o' pride," he taunted jealously. "Goin' t' Lounsbury. Wal! Wal! You think a heap o' him, don' y'? More 'n you do o' you' father! Thet sticks out like a sore finger."
"No," she answered simply. "I'm putting my pride in my pocket, dad. I'm going to Mr. Lounsbury because I care so much for you, and for Marylyn. And I want to say something—I hate to say it—you've almost discouraged me about Brannon lately. We came here to raise stuff to sell over there. But I can't see how we can sell over there if we won't even speak to a soul. It looks as if we're going to give all that up—as if a lot of my work is for nothing."
It was a new thought for the section-boss. And while Dallas disappeared behind Betty, he pondered it with hanging head. She came around soon to hitch Ben's tugs, when her father looked up shamefacedly. "Ah'll tell y', Dallas," he said, by way of compromise, "ef Lounsbury don't come back with y'——"
"He will," assured Dallas, stoutly.
"W'y, we'll go t' th' Fort, as you say."
"All right, dad," she replied, giving his back a pat.
He began to hobble up and down. "You ain't scairt t' go?" he ventured at last. "Ain't afeerd o' nothin'?"
"No; and I'm going on my own hook, remember. It's not your fault."
"Y' kain't think o' no other way——"
She paused in front of him. "Can you?" she asked.
He could have sworn; but there was something in her face that forbade it. "No—no," he said explosively, and so matched her determination with his hot stubbornness.
He left her, and taking the rifle and all the ammunition there was, seated himself on a bench placed just outside the door. There he was—a pitiful sentinel—as she circled the shack and reined.
And now another question was presented: Should Marylyn stay or go? Dallas was for her remaining, so that, in case of need, help could be summoned—from somewhere. Marylyn sided with her. And it was long afterward, when many things were made clear, before the elder girl understood her sister's action—one that seemed so contrary to what the younger one felt. But their father opposed them both, and vehemently.
Dallas upon the wagon-seat, prepared for her long drive, had softened and touched him. She bore herself so bravely. She was so respectful, and concerned.
"You take Mar'lyn," he insisted, "an' th' pistol. Ah c'n git along fine by myself. Charley'll be comin', an' Ah'll hang on t' him. Ah reckon, between us, we'll be O. K. 'Sides, y' know, Ah got a weasel's tail."
The mention of Charley won Dallas to her father's view. He would not be alone all day, for the outcast would surely appear. On the other hand, she longed to have Marylyn with her, where she could shield her from cross words and possible harm. "We'll have Mr. Lounsbury with us coming home," she said.
At that, Marylyn waxed still more eager to remain. And it took some pleading to overcome her reluctance, and to bring about her consent. Finally, however, the two girls drove away.
Before she started the team, Dallas climbed down to say good-by. In all their lives, few caresses had ever passed between father and daughter, and those had been during her babyhood. But now, moved by a common impulse, each reached out at parting to clasp the other. And there were tears in the eyes of both.
As the wagon trundled out of ear-shot, that one of the trio least consulted in the affairs of the shack was hard beset by a temptation: to tell Dallas about Lieutenant Fraser and his earnest, oft-repeated promise of protection. But Marylyn hesitated, afraid to speak—no less afraid of her sister than of her father. She realised that if she mentioned the officer, she would have to admit their meetings. And such a confession would undoubtedly result in an end to those meetings and, perhaps, in severe blaming. Yet—it would also cut short the drive to Clark's. And what might not be awaiting them on that journey? Still, there were only two likely dangers: Indians and the interpreter. "But Mr. Fraser says this upper side of the river's safe," she remembered. As to Matthews, he would not be lingering beside the road to waylay them. Her fears for her own safety were thus argued down.
There was yet her father's safety to consider. Well, her gallant new friend would look to that. "He'll be across again this afternoon," she thought, "and he'll watch the house careful. He couldn't do any more if he knew about the pole." So, her conscience satisfied, she decided to keep her own counsel. That decision cost her abundant grief and penitence in the months to come.
While Marylyn was busy with her troublesome problem, a similar one was running in Dallas' brain, where it called for calculation. Would Matthews threaten the shack that day? It was scarcely probable. Night offered the best hours for an attack. Therefore, the wagon must return before night. But could Ben and Betty make Clark's and the return trip before then? So far, they had never done it. The previous summer, the drive was begun at dawn, when dawn was at three o'clock. "We'll just have to hike along," she said aloud to Marylyn.
Into the coulee slid the wagon, its long tongue in the air, the loose tugs hitting the mules in the hock. When the team had scrambled up the farther side, Dallas put them to a trot by a flick of the black-snake. Then she bent forward over the dashboard, her eyes fixed eagerly on that distant brown blotch at the eastern ridge-top. But Marylyn, as they drew away, looked regretfully backward—to where a clump of tall cottonwoods, shaking their heart-shaped leaves in the wind, dappled a flower-studded stretch below the coulee mouth.
Rod by rod the mules climbed the gently sloping prairie. The morning was perfect, and belied, in its beauty, even a suggestion of lurking harm. The air, crystal-clear and exhilarating, brought far things magically near to the eye. On every hand shimmered the springing grass, now, a pale emerald with the wind brushing it, again, in the still places, a darker green, and yet again—under the ravine's fringing willows, where the deer nibbled—a cool black. Out of it, the meadow-larks showed their good-luck waistcoats and rippled their tunes; out of it, countless wild roses smiled up pinkly to the sun.
But all the loveliness of the new day only mocked at the lonely girls in the wagon. To them, the grey sands of their desert home, the blistering "northers," the brassy skies, were, unconsciously, synonymous of safety and peace. More than once, as they pressed on, the old, red-painted section-house rose before them, a very haven.
Behind, the squat shack was gradually lessening in size. A jutting corner had already shut from view its crippled sentry.
There was little conversation. Marylyn, for a time, could not dismiss the subject that had confronted her at the start. Finally, however, she put it aside impatiently, and let herself drift on a pleasant current. And Dallas—her thoughts were also harried. For as her home dropped, mile by mile, in the distance, and she was forced to meet the question of what she would say and do when she arrived at Clark's, her feelings underwent a marvellous change. It had been easy enough, in the excitement following her discovery, to contemplate a meeting with Lounsbury. But that excitement having dwindled not a little, the idea of seeing him and of talking to him mounted in proportional importance. She saw herself drawing up before his store, or standing just within as she related her story. She saw his face, the blue eyes, full of fun—and she had not met him since that evening! Her heart began to thump with her picturing, its poundings playing up to her throat and down again. Want of food was giving her a sensation of weakness and sinking. But this seemed also to be the result of mental, and not physical, suffering. She was torn by a desire to retreat.
Then darted through her mind the remembrance of Marylyn's midnight confidence. It was a blow on a wound. She glanced at her sister entreatingly. And what she fancied she read in the other's eyes instantly altered the desire to turn—made her send the mules forward at a better pace. Marylyn was sitting stiffly upright, bracing herself with her hands. Her head was up, her look was eager and fixed. There was a smile on her parted lips.
"She's happy about seeing him," thought Dallas, and was overwhelmed by a sense of her own guilt.
A diversion soon came in a horrid guise. The road touched the coulee again, bringing close the giant cottonwoods, where the Sioux dead were lashed; and the girls, glancing toward the trees, suddenly caught a glimpse of long, wrapped bodies.
Marylyn edged toward her sister. "Oh, I hope it'll be light when we get here coming back," she whispered, shuddering.
"We won't be alone," answered Dallas, reassuringly.
The coulee was deep and dark at that point, and full of queer shadows. From the boughs that cradled the braves came uncanny flutterings, as the wind shook loosened scraps of the sleepers' covering. The dead seemed to be moving restlessly upon their bier-boards, and waving an imploring summons to be freed of the thongs that bound them. Overhead was full cause for fear. Floating on motionless wing, with bare necks craning hungrily, circled black watchers.
"They say," whispered Marylyn, watching nervously behind, "they say the Indians are scared to come near these trees, never do till one of 'em dies. I don't wonder. It gives me the shivers just to see that bunch."
Dallas drew the whip across Betty. "A dead Indian's not dangerous," she said, smiling. And forgot to ask Marylyn where she had heard the tale.
Six miles were gone. But the way ahead was still long, the brown blotch at the ridge-top was still only a blotch. And the team was fast tiring. When Murphy's Throat was reached, Dallas drove out to the left, watered the thirsty pair at a slough, and ate with Marylyn the long-deferred breakfast. After that they went at a better pace for a time. Soon, however, the road became steeper, and Betty slacked up. The sun was high, now, and unpleasantly warm. So the wise old mule merely humped her back as Dallas applied the lash, and doggedly refused to increase her speed.
It was noon when the wagon approached the summit. It did not rest there a moment. Behind was spread out a wonderful landscape. The Missouri threaded it quarteringly, the western bluffs walled its farther edge to the sky. Its eastern boundary was the ridge over which the wagon was rolling. From this undulating line, the verdant land slipped down and down and down—to the fantastic turnings of the river. But the girls, peering back upon it, through a haze that was softly blue, were wholly indifferent to its beauty. They sought, and in vain, for a remote dot that might be the shack—the shack they had left at the end of that unswerving road.
And now they went forward again. The scene on the farther side of the summit was newer than that on the other, but did not rival it. Short coulees had eaten the bluff slopes into flutings, and spilled small rivulets upon the plain. Yet, barring these, and a lake that sparkled, a round sapphire, on the right, there was superb uniformity. Not a stream, not a butte, not even a nubbin of rock varied the view. And not a head of cattle! To the south moved a score of yellow animals—antelope. But these and a village of saucy prairie-dogs were the only signs of life. The land dropped away by imperceptible degrees. As imperceptibly, it melted into a mellow sky.
Dallas and Marylyn were each intent upon Clark's, lying far ahead, and to the left, a dun-coloured line which seemed scarcely to get nearer as the time went. But after an hour, their patience was rewarded. When the dun-coloured line resolved itself into two, and they saw the cow-camp: A narrow street flanked by low shanties of canvas and board.
Again, Dallas and Marylyn were absorbed, each with a mental conflict. The younger got fidgety, then petulant, and began to complain of thirst. For once, the elder girl showed scant sympathy. She was hurriedly planning some new speeches.
At the southern end of the camp, their destination was made plain to them by a sign reading, "General Merchandise." It was nailed along the hip of a large building that stood midway of the street. Looking to neither side, they made straight for it.
When the team came to a stand before the store, the girls saw to their surprise that the door was shut. They waited. A minute passed. No one came out. Then, Dallas climbed down and knocked. There was no answer. She waited again. Finally, she tried the knob. It resisted her effort. From within came the rattle of a chain.
"It's locked!" She went back to Marylyn. The two looked at each other. Over the younger's face swept a flush of relief. But Dallas had forgotten her dread of seeing Lounsbury in a keen disappointment at finding him gone. She glanced anxiously up and down the street.
It was deserted and still. Dallas climbed back to the seat. "Maybe he's at the Fort," she said encouragingly. "We'll drive home quick. There's a lot of it down-hill." She clucked to the team.
At that moment the door of a near-by shanty opened. A man came out, waving a letter. "Say! hello!" he bawled; "don't you want your mail?"
Dallas checked the mules.
"I got a letter for you," he went on. It was Al Braden of Sioux Falls.
Dallas gave Marylyn the reins and reached for the letter, noting that the real-estate man did not doff the floppy hat, or make any swinging bows.
"Yep, from Lounsbury. I told him I was going to lope back down to the Bend—but I didn't." He snickered.
"Where's he gone?" she asked, slitting the envelope with a shaking hand.
"Dunno," answered Braden. He was leaning on a wheel now, surveying Ben and Betty with a critical, and somewhat disdainful, eye. For each was hanging upon three legs to rest a fourth. Presently, he glanced up at Marylyn, and his eye lit impudently. "Dunno," he repeated. "You're his girl. You ought to know."
But Dallas did not hear him. She was scanning a page, closely written and addressed to herself.
"A telegram has come calling me home [ran the letter]. It says my mother is ill—'seriously ill'—and I am afraid it's put that way to hide something worse. It is the only thing that could take me out of Dakota now. But I am not leaving you unprotected. Before I left Brannon, I arranged to have Matthews watched every hour of the day and night. And he is the only thing that might make you trouble. For if the Indians get nasty, I know Oliver will insist on bringing you in. Still, I shall worry terribly till I get back. I wish I could write all I would like to. But it would be what I have already told you—you will understand."
Thus, it ended.
Dallas thrust it into the pocket of her skirt, took the reins and lifted the black-snake. Ben saw the threatening movement from behind his bridle blinds. He sprang forward. The wheel rolled from under Braden's elbow.
"Well, I'll be damned!" he growled. "Ain't you going to say ta-ta?" He strode along at the tailboard, smirking up at the two in an attempt to be friendly. "Maybe you'd like company going home," he said. "Lonely trip for girls, 'specially when they ain't got a gun." He gave Marylyn a bold wink.
"Thank you," replied Dallas, shortly. "We don't want company—and we have got a gun." She lifted the pistol from the seat.
Braden fell behind. "Stop and drink some beer, anyway," he called. "Got some in here. You mustn't be mad at me because Johnnie's mamma sent for him. Come on back."
To this, no answer was made. Dallas gave the team a few smart cuts. The wagon rumbled out of the street.
And now began the return journey. Five hours had been consumed in reaching Clark's. Ten minutes had been wasted there. Another five would be passed at the first clear water. But allowing for the team's faster gait when they were headed for home, and for twelve miles of downgrade, they should not take more than four hours to reach the bend. Twilight would be settling then.
Dallas figured the return thus—but it was soon plain to her that sunset would find them miles from the shack. Poor feed, with the plowing and the harrowing, had thinned the mules. After the first spurt, they paid no heed to the whip, and fairly crawled. Marylyn, tired, gave way to passionate complaining. Dallas folded a blanket in the bottom of the wagon and coaxed her sister to lie down upon it, her face shielded by the seat. To further dishearten the elder girl, Ben and Betty showed signs of sore-footedness. Guided out upon the grass, they travelled better.
It took three precious hours to gain the summit. The afternoon was then far gone. Across the wide valley, dark clouds were piling upon the western range; they added to its height, and augured the day's early closing. When the Throat gaped alongside, the fleecy horizon had rolled still higher, and beneath it the setting sun showed through like a harvest moon, blood-red.
Swiftly the day withdrew and the stars came out. Then, the breeze lulled, and a mist rose from the coulee's wooded bottom. From it came the tremulous call of an owl. Dallas slipped to her feet and wielded the black-snake vigorously.
The mules shot forward for a wagon-length. The sudden jolt awakened Marylyn. She got to her knees—and there were the cottonwoods with the laden boughs!
"Spunky little sister," encouraged the elder girl, and helped the other to the seat.
The road was so dark, now, that it took on the aspect of a standing man, who was no sooner overridden than he rose again in the lead. This was a beginning for all manner of fears. Dallas fought her own. But she could not conquer them. For they enlarged enormously, and changed to a premonition that ran riot.
Listening and watching, she had suffered the previous night. Yet that suffering was nothing compared to the agony that stole into her heart and held it—till she forgot Marylyn's presence. She seemed to see a figure skulking through the dusk about the shack; it entered the lean-to and crouched in hiding. She saw it come forth again, keeping close to the logs. Its eyes shone in the dark!
Her father was beside the door, where she had left him. He was gazing straight ahead, as if he expected the enemy to approach only from the front; as if he had no thought of treachery. His figure was relaxed wearily. His face was drawn. But his eyes—like the other's—were strangely luminous.
Ah!—the figure was creeping toward him—noiselessly—step by step!
"Go in! Go in! Daddy!"
The cry was torn from her, though she strove to keep it back. The strain of the past night and day was telling. Frantically, she begged Ben and Betty to hasten. Knowing home was not far, they obeyed her voice, and, presently, were setting back in their collars to block the descent of the wagon; were splashing through the backwater at the coulee-crossing, and jerking their load out upon the level. Eastward, the shack stood out dimly in the starlight. They made for it at a trot.
But all at once they stopped, and began stepping this way and that, as if ready to leap the tongue. Dallas and Marylyn recoiled, forsaking the seat for the shelter of the box.
There was a moment's wait, in a stillness as vast as the prairie. The mules, sidled to the left, shifted their long ears nervously. The girls listened, the younger shielded by the elder's arms.
Then, across the bend, from the deserted houses of Shanty Town, sounded the long, soul-chilling howl of a dog.
THE SPIRIT OF THE FRONTIER
A broken crutch lying close to the shack on the river side, a blood-bespattered pane in the window just above, a rifle ball, embedded deep at a gun's length beyond the pane—these were the traces that, on the following morning, gave an inkling of a deadly clash.
Squaw Charley found them, when the day was yet so young that no human eyes, save those of an Indian, could have used its scanty light. Four raps upon the warped door had brought no answer. Loudly repeated, they had set the wooden latch to shaking lonesomely. Mistrustful, he had entered and groped about the dark room. Table and benches were in place. The blankets hung before the bunk. To one side, rolled up neatly, was the mattress upon which Dallas and Marylyn slept. But nothing else met his expectant hand and foot. Next, he had visited the lean-to, where he felt his way carefully from stall to stall, discovering no occupant. Then, he had gone out to pry around the yard. And lit upon the marks that told of the struggle.
The absence of the wagon was a clue. He stole along the out-going tracks, between which, small, circular and clearly stamped, were the hoof-prints of two mules. Near the coulee-crossing, the tracks ran into others, and fresher ones, that diverged sharply into the corn. The hoof-prints between these pointed eastward. He forsook the out-going and turned back across the field.
At first, the course of the wagon puzzled. After veering north until the canyon yawned, the team had made along the brink, keeping perilously near it; farther on, at the upper end of the plowed strip, the direction abruptly changed. The mules had swung out to the right upon the open prairie, travelling straight for the middle of the gap. So far they had gone at a furious gallop. Now, however, they slowed to a walk. When the course no longer puzzled. To and fro, it wended, this way for a few feet, then, the other—proof that Ben and Betty had fed.
The Squaw halted. The horizon was faintly yellow. Upon it was a moving black object, which presently took the clearer form of a wagon and span. He set off, his loose hair whipping at his back. The team was also travelling rapidly. Behind was a reddish follower that lowed in protest of the speed.
When the mules came by, Dallas was standing at the dashboard, plying the lash. Her face was ashen, her eyes were hollow. She did not see the Indian, for her gaze was upon the shack. He swung himself into the rattling box. There lay Marylyn, still in the grasp of the stupor that had bound them, brain and body, through the night.
Before the mules brought up at the lean-to, Dallas was over a wheel and tottering in quest of her father. Out of the shack, as she searched it, sounded her plaintive cry: "Daddy! daddy! where are you? Oh, Daddy! daddy! come back!"
Squaw Charley, bringing Marylyn in, found the elder girl kneeling behind the partition, her arms thrown out to grasp the vacant bunk.
He put his load down gently; then, unbidden, rushed through the door for Brannon.
When Captain Oliver arrived, with Fraser, a surgeon and a detachment of mounted men, Dallas was seated in the doorway, rocking Marylyn against her breast. She looked up, dry-eyed, as he hurried to her.
"What'd they do it for?" she asked him, brokenly. "How could they hurt you, dad? Oh, the land wasn't worth it! the land wasn't worth it!"
Something to quicken life in Marylyn was the first thought. Then, food and drink were given the girls. Meanwhile, the troopers were sent out under Fraser to range the bend and beat the coulee.
Oliver stayed. But to his questions, Dallas, her reason tottering like her steps, could only return others that were heartrending:
"He'll come back, won't he? They wouldn't kill him? Oh, you don't think he's dead?"
"We'll find him," said the captain. He was pitiful in his regret. This tragedy was striking home to him as even the Jamieson failure had not. His long, sad face was more like a walrus' than ever.
"Mr. Bond said we'd have good luck here," she went on despairingly. "But there was danger by night, wasn't there? There was danger!"
"She's knocked silly," Oliver murmured to the surgeon. "The child doesn't know what she's saying."
"You're right. Clean blunted," was the answer. "But I'll straighten 'em both out by noon."
A long halloo summoned the captain to the door. A group of men were gathered in the swale between the shack and Shanty Town. Fraser was among them. Oliver signalled, and the young officer wheeled and came galloping in.
"What is it?"
"Old man's gun, discharged, out there in the grass——"
"And two sets of footprints coming and going across that bit of low ground. One set looks about two days old, and was made by boots. Other is newer, and made by moccasins."
"There's something strange about these last: Coming this way, the marks are so light you can hardly see 'em; going back, they're sunk way down."
"Carried a load, eh?"
"It looks like it." Oliver mounted, and they rode off to the swale.
Noon was past when the captain called at the shack again. He found the surgeon gone, but his promise fulfilled: Food and medicine had gone far to revive his patients physically; tears had mercifully combined with returning strength to right their minds.