This time, the elder girl met Oliver with no incoherence, but with brave quiet. All her self-command had returned. She asked him in, and showed a tender forethought for Marylyn by sending her out into the sunshine and the garden before she listened to what he had to tell. When he was done, she began her story with the finding of the pole.
"Redskins!" he exclaimed.
"Boot-marks were around it, though," she said.
"You are sure? I wish your father had asked my advice. I feel as if I had come short in my duty."
"Please don't," she entreated. "You see, we thought we could tend to it—long's we knew who it was."
He turned astonished eyes upon her. "Knew!" he exclaimed. "Well, for Heaven's sake out with it, then!"
"Matthews—he wanted the land."
"The interpreter! But last night's tracks were made by moccasins. There's one Indian free——"
She let him get no further. "It's not Charley," she declared. "Matthews meant us to think it was Indians. Moccasins are easy to get."
"That's true." He frowned. "Hm!—Well, I shall inquire into his whereabouts during the last two days." And the captain fell to studying the figures on the Navajos.
Outside, Lieutenant Fraser was passing the shack. He rode on to the cornfield, where he flung himself off his horse.
"Marylyn! Marylyn!" he said tremblingly. "You poor girl! I'm so sorry—What can I say? It's my fault."
She lifted a scared face to his. "No, it's mine," she answered; "if I'd told Dallas about you, we'd never 'a' gone to Clark's——"
"Thank goodness you did! But if your father had known about me—if I could have come to the house. I must after this. We'll tell your sister about us now. Come on."
She shrank back in sudden fright. "No, no. Don't you see? She'd think it was awful I didn't say something yesterday!"
"Why didn't you, Marylyn?"
She looked down. "You don't know Dallas. She don't like soldiers any more'n pa. She said so, and she'd——"
"Oh, I think she does," he argued. "Now, let's try her—let's make a clean breast of it."
Her hands came out in wild imploring. "You won't, you won't, you won't," she begged. "Don't you understand?—my keeping still was just as if I'd killed pa! Oh, it was! So I can't tell—now!"
"Promise you won't, oh, promise you won't!" And she went down, crumpling into a little, miserable heap.
Quickly, he lifted her. "Well, we won't tell her then, not if you don't want to—but we'll have to some day."
"Some day—maybe—but not now."
"All right, then—not now." He led her from garden to coulee and back again, trying to comfort her all the while as best he could.
"You see, Marylyn," he said, "you're wrong about its being your fault. It's mine. I promised Lounsbury I'd look after you folks."
She stopped short. "Did you tell him about you and me?"
"Oh." She was relieved. "You mustn't, either. Not him, or anyone."
"I don't see how I can ever look Lounsbury in the face again," he said bitterly.
Whereupon, she straightway began to comfort him.
At the shack, Oliver and Dallas had arrived at the question of future safety.
"I must insist," the captain was saying, "upon your coming to live at the Fort. I cannot spare a permanent guard for this side of the river—a scouting party up and down once a day is about the best I could do. We have our hands full already."
"Live at the Fort——" Her lips tightened a little. She got up to walk. She was thinking of the cold stares, the "Ahs," the "Ohs," and the laughter of the post ladies in their bowling ambulance; the nudges and the grins of the passing musicians; and "There's allus room at the Fort when there's good-lookin' gals in the fambly."
She shook her head.
"You love your sister," he reminded. "Think of her."
"I am thinking of her. I'd go to the Fort if there was danger. But—answer me honest—outside of what's happened here, do you think there's really any danger?"
"From Indians, you mean? Well, I'll tell you—this was a complete surprise, a shock to me. Because so far we haven't seen a sign of the hostiles beyond that signal in the spring. North of here, at Lincoln, they've shown themselves. But they're largely concentrated in the northwest, to meet the troops."
"Then, there's no danger from Indians."
"Still, there might be, and I want you to come. Frankly, I've omitted to tell you of one disquieting report that has reached us. After the recent battle on the Rosebud, one of the warriors of Crazy Horse was captured by General Crook. The prisoner said that within a day's ride to the west of here, our—and your—aged friend——"
She stopped him, lifting her hands to her face. "Not him!" she whispered; "not him! Oh, he was so good to us, Captain!"
Oliver sighed. "I fear it's so—yet it's only a report."
Some time went by. Meanwhile, she walked about the room in silence. Her lips were trembling.
"You'll come?" he said.
"When you're sure"—she spoke with difficulty—"the Indians are going to make trouble, I will. But—but I think I'd rather stay. I made dad a promise once—I'd hate to break it—now."
"Your father didn't like us, I understand. I'm sorry. And of course you feel that you should keep your promise to him. Well, I can send a convoy with you to Bismarck."
"We haven't a cent. You see, I'm counting a heap on my garden."
"Oh, we would get something together for you."
She flinched. "No, I wouldn't like that. And dad'd hate it worse than if I broke the promise. Besides, I'm going to pay back B Troop."
"B Troop! My troop? What do you owe B Troop?"
"Why, B Troop's been sending us its surplus rations."
"Well, the sutler said so."
"I think there's a mistake. B Troop has had no surplus rations."
"Had no——" she began, amazed.
"Must have been the sutler's own stuff."
"But he wrote——" From between the leaves of a book on the mantel, she produced a folded paper.
"Or someone else's," went on Oliver.
She had been about to hand him Blakely's letter. Now, as if struck by an idea, she put it back into the book. When she turned, her eyes were swimming.
"It likely was 'someone else,'" she said.
"God bless you anyway! To think of such a thing in the midst of your worry! Even if you did owe B Troop, it would vote you its full rations, and be proud to go hungry. Please think again about Bismarck for the summer."
"I can't give up the claim, Captain. I want to know what happened—I want to be here if—if dad comes back."
"But aren't you forgetting that, Indians or no Indians, there's danger from this secret enemy?"
"Secret enemy," she echoed; "secret enemy. Go to Bismarck is just the thing he wants to see us do. You heard what he did in the winter? Well, he came again yesterday. He saw the wagon leave, and he thought it was a good chance to move in."
"Move in?" rejoined Oliver. "If that was all, why did he bother about moccasins?"
"You're right," she cried. "He meant to kill!"
And now as if some great hidden spring of feeling had been touched, she came round upon the officer, defiant, resolute and undaunted.
"Maybe I'd 'a' gone before—I'd go this minute for Indians. But that man!—he's had his price for this claim, he's had his price! Now, the Bend belongs to me—and I'm going to stay."
The captain bent toward her. "Too risky, too risky, Miss Lancaster," he advised, "unless we get the man. For how could you ever do any outside work——"
Dallas interrupted, intrepid spirit ringing in her voice.
"Get him or not, I'll stick it out all the same. And my outside work—I'll plow and I'll plant just like I used to. But this time, I'll do it with a gun!"
A Ree scout scoured every foot of ground leading up to the shack. He trailed the mules, The Squaw, the troopers. He followed those moccasin prints that came across the draw and went again. He found the last behind the lean-to, along the side nearest the coulee, on the back-fire strip in front. And declared they had been made by a white man.
Two circumstances pointed strongly to the truth of this: The body had been carried away in the direction of Shanty Town; a white man would have taken so much trouble, not an Indian, who would have left his handiwork for all to see. And again, when Shanty Town was searched, one of the huts was found to contain evidence of late occupancy—scraps of food that were not yet stale, and, in a rusty stove, fresh coals. But though the coulee, the road, the prairie and the timber edging the river were all faithfully scanned, one thing concerning the murderer's doings remained a mystery. At Shanty Town, the traces of him began and ended. But how had he reached Shanty Town?
Old Michael furnished the clue of time. He related how he had heard the crack of a gun to the eastward the previous evening, "about th' ind av th' furst dog-watch."
Captain Oliver stayed until the last rod had been travelled and the last stone turned. Then, he was ferried to Brannon. On landing, he went at once to the wife of his colonel, who had vacated her home when the command left and was now living with Mrs. Martin at Major Appleton's.
"Mrs. Cummings," he said, "the old man on the Bend is missing. It looks like murder. His two girls are left, orphaned and heart-broken. They need a woman's comfort, ma'am. Will you not go to them, and will you find a woman to stay with them for a few nights?"
"Oh, how very sad!" exclaimed that lady; then, turned away as if suddenly perplexed. "I—I—really don't care to go myself," she went on, when she had given his request a moment's thought. "I know these country people—so touchy and taciturn, always ready to think one is patronising them."
"One usually is," retorted the captain, sharply. "Then, I must ask somebody else?"
"One of the troopers' wives would probably be glad to go."
"You are evidently quite mistaken regarding these young women," declared Oliver, with some heat. "Mrs. Oliver will think differently."
"Really, I haven't thought of them," she answered petulantly. "But why, may I ask, don't they come to the post?"
"They prefer to stay in their own little home. In their present trouble and grief, it is particularly dear to them—would be to anyone."
"I think it odd, Captain, that they should choose to stay over there alone. Can—can they be—eh—quite nice?"
"Madame," replied Oliver, sternly, "they wish to do what would please their father; they wish to be independent."
"Ah!" Mrs. Cummings threw up her head.
"And let me say that I heartily commend them," Oliver fairly roared. "They are made of the stuff of our forefathers, who pushed their way into the wilderness. Their spirit is the spirit of the frontier." With which, bowing and fuming, the captain stamped out.
Mrs. Oliver, a motherly chunk of a woman, thought very "differently." Work and babies she consigned to a thrifty trooper's wife and, in a jiffy, pinned on a bonnet that had stood various seasons. "I'll be back in the morning," she said, with a kiss for each of the seven. Then, stuffing a tidbit or two into the wide pockets of a duster, she hastened away.
Captain Oliver, meanwhile, had cleared the front room of his progeny and summoned the surgeon, Lieutenant Fraser and Matthews.
Matthews came last. As he entered, the three men were struck by a curious change in him. He was erect and somewhat soldierly in his bearing; he had let his hair grow until it rested upon the handkerchief knotted about his throat; while his dress now aped that of the more picturesque scouts, yet was still half military. Buckskin trousers, down which, at the outer seams, was a dripping of fringe, were tucked into high boots. Over his red flannel shirt he wore a tunic or blouse, also of buckskin, fringed the length of the arms, and belted at the waist like a hunting-shirt. A vest no longer concealed his revolvers; his weapons were at his side, like a trooper's. In one gauntleted hand, he held a wide, grey hat.
"You want to see me, Cap'n?" he asked, meeting that officer's look squarely.
"Yes," answered Oliver, shortly. "I demand an exact account of your time for the past thirty-six hours, beginning with the evening after the departure of the command. I need not tell you why I ask this, and I make no apology for asking. There are reasons for your wanting that old man over there out of the way. You attacked his house in the winter during his absence, when two defenceless women were at home to repel your attack. That lays you open to mistrust. I may add that Lancaster's eldest girl regards you as her father's murderer."
As Oliver talked, his woe-begone face had grown fierce and dark. Now, he arose, lifting clenched fists. "Murder," he cried; "under my very nose, and against a household that I had sworn to guard. Speak, Matthews, speak!"
Matthews screwed up his mouth thoughtfully and looked into space. "Beginning the ev'ning after the command left?" he said. "Let me see. Why, I ain't crossed since the Colonel left."
"Account for your time," repeated Oliver.
"I messed at Blakely's that night. Afterward, me and Kippis had a little game."
"Ah!" At once, Oliver sent for the sutler and the sergeant, and, waiting for them, tramped up and down. When the men came, he halted and with pointed finger asked Matthews to repeat his story. The interpreter did so.
"And how long did that game last?" demanded Oliver.
Without looking in Kippis' direction, the interpreter answered. "Till revelly," he said.
Fraser grunted, the surgeon smiled broadly. But the captain frowned.
"Of that, later," he said significantly. "Kippis?"
The sergeant stepped forward. "Hit's hall true, sir," he faltered. It was Kippis' misfortune always to look more guilty than he was. With Oliver's angry gaze upon him, he flushed redder than fire.
The captain was only half satisfied. He turned to the sutler. "And you, Blakeley?"
The sutler had a round, jolly figure—a figure that was a living advertisement of the fat-producing quality of his edible wares. At Oliver's question that figure gave a startled bounce, like a kernel of corn on a hot grid. "True, sir, true," he vowed huskily, and coughed in apprehension behind a plump hand.
The captain looked keenly from man to man. "Very well," he said. Those twelve hours accounted for, Matthews was shown innocent of planting the pole. "Tell me what you did yesterday from revelly on."
"Slept till stables."
"I know that's so," said Fraser.
"After that?" Oliver asked.
"I goes into the stockade. Little Thief was carving his bride."
The captain glanced at Fraser. The latter nodded back.
"I remember," said Oliver, slowly. "Then——?"
"Cards till revelly."
The listening officers laughed.
But there was no softening of the captain's face. "Who played with you?"
Matthews indicated the sutler and the sergeant by a sideways move of the head. "Them two," he answered.
"True—true." And Blakely gave another bounce.
"True's far's Hi know, sir."
The thirty-six hours were now covered. Oliver sat down. "That'll do. I want The Squaw and the men who have been on duty at the stockade since the command left. Matthews, you may go."
Matthews bowed, Blakely and the sergeant saluted, and the three withdrew. Outside, beyond hearing, they exchanged congratulatory shakes of the hand.
"My! but the dander!" breathed the relieved sutler, rolling his apple-round head. "I was that scairt!"
"Make you happreciate the K. Ho. w'en you got 'im," returned Kippis, sagely.
Matthews shrugged his shoulders pityingly. But he had nothing to say.
The three gone, Oliver had turned to those with him. "A complete alibi," he said.
"I knew it," said Fraser. "But I wanted you to get it first hand."
"Yes, sir. And I hope you'll be easy on Kippis. He and Blakely have been helping me keep tab on Matthews to prevent the very thing that's happened."
An hour later, a second group of men gathered in the captain's front room. These were the troopers for whom the commanding officer had asked. With them came Squaw Charley, quaking in his tatters, flinching at every look. As Oliver appeared, the wretched Indian was half-dragged, half-pushed before him.
The examination was short. The sentries who had tramped the high board walk vouched for The Squaw's constant presence in the stockade throughout the whole of the required time. The guards at the sliding-panel lent corroboration. From sun-up till taps of the previous day, Charley had fleshed at the hide of an elk, the scarred fury, Afraid-of-a-Fawn, hanging over him the while. Both nights, from taps on, he had watched outside the lodge occupied by the hag and an Indian girl.
Captain Oliver crossed to the bend to tell Dallas his results. "Matthews has witnesses who know where he was every minute of the time," he said. "Undoubtedly he had no active part in this affair."
"He knows about it, though," she answered.
"That would be hard to prove."
Before he went, the captain proposed certain defensive improvements for the shack. She accepted them gratefully. Later, a carpenter nailed thick cleats across the warped door, and the post blacksmith put heavy lashes of iron over the eyes of the shack.
At nightfall, a detachment landed on the east bank, divided, and went on a scout in opposite directions. It was only part of Oliver's plan of guarding, for he did one thing more—spoke plainly to Matthews in regard to the bend.
"I advise you to relinquish all claim to the Lancaster place," he said. "I shall allow no warring on girls."
Matthews gave his promise.
During the first few days that followed, Marylyn's heart beat pendulum-like between grief and dread. It was grief when, in a moment of forgetfulness, she found that she had set the table for three; or when, missing her father sorely—for in the past year he had been much with her—she spoke of him to Dallas. At such times, with sweet impartiality, she mourned him as sincerely as she had mourned her mother. But at night, when the detachment came back from its scouting, she felt a terrible dread—dread least the hunt had been successful, and the troopers should ride across the prairie to the shack door, bearing something solemnly home.
Those first days past, however, the sharp edge of her sorrow, together with her fears, wore gradually away. She had the elastic spirit of eighteen. And she was impatient of this new heartache, which possessed none of the romantic qualities of the old. A doubt of her father's death, fostered by Dallas, grew until it became a conviction. He had been taken away, or he had fled; he would return. Meanwhile, though nothing could have induced her to leave the shack after dark, it fretted her sorely, that, in the daytime, she was not permitted to go as far as the grove.
That restriction was the only hardship that the elder girl allowed the younger to bear. Dallas believed that their father had come to mortal harm. But she never shared that belief with Marylyn.
"We got to keep a stiff upper lip, baby sister," she would say, with an encouraging pat. And her smile was always hopeful and cheering.
Mrs. Oliver came daily, and spent her time with Marylyn. She did not feel that Dallas needed buoying—Dallas, quiet, self-poised, and staunch. Yet, all the while, the elder girl was growing wan under the strain. For, having given generously of her strength, there was no one from whom, in turn, she might take. And so her thoughts came often to be of the one who had faithfully watched over them, how faithfully, shown by the fact that catastrophe had followed swift upon his leaving. And in her heart she cried out for him.
The tragedy on the bend furnished a nine days' wonder for Brannon. But the garrison felt little grief over it. Lancaster had earned their dislike by insults open and veiled, and by his determination to cut his family off from every friendly influence. The enlisted men were even inclined to treat his disappearance facetiously. When they heard about the pole, they declared that in his fright over it, he had fired a shot, cut a finger, broken a crutch—and "lit out." One wag announced that the section-boss was mired in some alkali mud-hole; another, that he had been bitten by a polecat; a third composed some doggerel lines in which Lancaster was described as having gone "over the range." Notwithstanding this, the troopers had deep sympathy for the bereaved girls.
Oliver, never too popular, they scored roundly for his treatment of Matthews, and vowed to the latter that he had ample grounds for walking off and leaving the whole "shooting-match." But Matthews gently chided them, reminding them that any moment an interpreter might be badly needed. Furthermore, he said, he would disregard the unfairness shown him, for he knew his duty.
Brannon was still asking Who? and Why? and How? in the Lancaster affair when Squaw Charley discovered and showed to Captain Oliver the testimony that had in some way escaped the scout. Under a willow clump on the beach before Shanty Town, was a well-defined mark in the sand, V-shaped, long, and quite deep. It was the mark left by the prow of a boat that had been pulled out of the water and hidden at the river's edge. It was almost certain proof of the route taken, going and coming, by Lancaster's assailant.
But no absolute facts were unearthed. As the days slipped by, this cruel one became apparent: the section-boss, with his wild outbursts of anger, his implacable hatreds, his suspicions, and his tantrums of jealousy—was gone.
Across the sky, a pale shining ribbon, stretched the Milky Way. The braves in the stockade were watching it, their faces reverently upturned. They sat before their lodges in silent knots of two or three; or stood apart here and there, shrouded in summer sheets of dressed cow skin, and motionless as statues. When they moved, it was to draw heavily upon a pipestone bowl and waft the incense of kinnikinick toward the glimmering strip overhead—the sacred road that leads the Sioux to the Happy Hunting Grounds.
One moon had passed since the signal smoke arose on Medicine Mountain. In that time, though they had fasted and prayed, not a crumb of hope had come to feed their languishing spirits. Truly, it seemed as if the pied buffalo were bringing them more than a generous share of ill-luck. The interpreter told them only evil news: That all but sixty of the pony soldiers had gone to hunt and kill Indians. As for the distant peak, from it had curled up no news at all!
They gambled no more. They spoke no more of the captive white women. The four condemned brooded in their wigwams, with eyes gloomy, with hair unkempt. Among the squaws, hot discontent was working. They greeted even those who brought them rations with black looks and menacing gestures. And all—warriors as well as squaws—got up with the sun and paced along the log walls like prisoned animals, wearing a deep rut into the earth.
Throughout the winter they had been contented enough with their lot. In no other winter had they enjoyed such freedom from labour and care, such health, comfort, and abundant food. But now—the grass was grazing high. The new leaves were opening. The willows were in bud. The wild fowl were back, and nesting by river and slough. In lonely ravines, the antelope kids were bleating—proof that it was the killing season of the prong-horn. And here the village was yet shut in a pen—like pigs!
Soon—it might be any day—the four chiefs would be dragged out to die by the rope. If the rest were sent away, would it not be to some reservation? And if, by chance, they got free? Their ponies were gone. Where could they get others? Then it would be late in the summer, perhaps. On what would their women and children live? There would be no dried meat for pemmican; no caches of roots or berries; no packed fish; no smoked tongue; no backfat—nothing. And all would go hungry.
The post saw how terrible was the ferment among the hostage crew. And following David Bond's last visit to the stockade, had used extra precautions. The officers' families never entered the sliding-panel now, but climbed a ladder and viewed the Indians from the safe height of the board walk. An armed escort went with the rations on issue days. The sentry beats were halved, and the number of watchers thus doubled. And every night a detail entered and rigidly searched each lodge, to see that no brave was trying, after the fashion of the badger, to burrow a way out. Squaw Charley alone was exempt from any new ruling, for he came and went when he chose.
Yet he had changed in no less degree than his brothers, though in a different way. The word from Medicine Mountain had been a blow to quiver under. For months the outcast whose loyalty The Plow-Woman boasted, had been slipping from his old-time fealty to her, made false by his dream of winning back his rank. In a moment he had seen his chance for honour wiped out. Before him again there lay only woman's work, curses, beatings, and a life with the dogs—even worse: to see her whom he coveted going to Standing Buffalo!
He could bear the curses and the cruelty. He could sit quiet under the ridicule that outraged the childish vanity of his kind. He could thirst. He could starve. But, returning to the roof one night, he had prowled yearningly past her lodge. And had come upon her and her new lover, standing cheek to cheek, close wrapped in a single blanket.
And so this night, while the warriors watched the sacred track upon the sky, he made his way to the river. For there he meant to plead the God of David Bond, that He send him a chance for valour—a chance to slay. Out in the starlight, therefore, he fell upon his knees.
But before his simple mind had framed his petition, there entered a thought that puzzled and alarmed. He pondered upon it. The God of David Bond was a God of Peace, Who frowned in awful anger upon fighting and bloodshed. The preacher had said so. Had taught "Thou shalt not kill!" Had taught that no answers were vouchsafed to wicked prayers; but punishments, instead. How then could a prayer of that kind be sent to Him!
The outcast was dismayed.
Then came a happier idea. The God of David Bond being a God of peace, why trouble His ear? Why not pray this one prayer for blood to the Great Spirit he had served before—the Great Spirit who marked out the destinies of the Dakotas, who was ever strongest in times of war?
Hurriedly The Squaw got to his feet and ran to the edge of the bank, where there were climbing lengths of grapevine. Degraded, he might not use tobacco for a rite. But the Great Spirit would understand. In the dark, his hands felt for and found a dry stalk. He snapped off a finger-length of it.
A second to take flint and steel from his buckskin pouch. Another to light the bit of vine. Then——
But he did not sit upon the ground with crossed legs. Neither did he pull upon the vine. He let it go out, instead. And sank hesitatingly to his knees. For, again, he had remembered!
David Bond had said: "The red man's god is poor and stingy. He lets his people want and starve. He lets enemies triumph over them, and destroy. But the God of the white man is rich and good. See how generously He gives to those who serve Him! Yet—lest you anger Him—have none other. Because He is a jealous God!"
He might not pray to either then! He lifted despairing eyes—and saw above him, divinely luminous, that sacred path, glittering white with the hastening spirits of the dead.
He put a ragged sleeve across his eyes to shut out the sight. It brought a picture he longed to forget—the terrible picture of his downfall:
It was a spring day, and the Uncapapas, to make ready for battle, were dancing the great sun-dance. He was the chief Moon Dog then, haughty as any, brave as the next, given to warfare and the shedding of blood. In the great tent, it was he who led.
He was naked, save for a loin-cloth. Coup-sticks were braided in his hair. Eagle feathers trailed from his scalp-lock. The skin of his body was hidden beneath devices.
He signified a wish to suffer wounding, to have willow wands run through the flesh of his back. Standing Buffalo was dancing beside him. And it was that warrior's knife which leaped from its beaded sheath to do the cutting.
And then the wounds weakened the chief Moon Dog. The wands tore his flesh past all power to endure. And he knew nothing. But when the squaws brought him to life again, they told him that, like a squaw, he had pleaded for mercy—and wept!
For this he was branded, spat upon, cast out, and cursed. For this he had gone hungry, scoured kettles, and herded with the dogs.
David Bond had come, telling him of One Who was bruised, reviled, and nailed to a tree. That One was the God of the white man. Broken in spirit, The Squaw had accepted Him.
Yet—what had the new God done for him? Was his work lighter? No! Was the food not the cast-off's still, fouled by the touch and the tongues of others and by the dirt of the pen? Yes. If the new God was good, why had He not saved the evangelist?
The soul of Squaw Charley tottered.
Overhead, a high-sailing crane bugled. But to the outcast, the lonely night-cry seemed supernatural, a hail from one of the departed!
He uncovered his eyes and looked up. Above him stretched the pale, shining ribbon of the Milky Way.
Again the crane sounded its rousing, guttural cry. He shook himself, as if to free his body from a chain.
Once more he took out flint and steel and lit the bit of grapevine. Then, he sank to the prairie, where he crossed his legs like a brave. Now, with deep breath, he drew upon the stem. His nostrils filled, he tipped back his head; and from them, upward to the path, sent wreath upon wreath of adoring smoke.
SIMON PLAYS A PART
One morning in early July, Matthews came swaggering into the post barber-shop, his air that of a man who is mightily pleased with himself. "Bill," said he, as he flung off blouse and hat, "wish you'd mow down this stubble of mine."
The barber set about stropping a razor. "Don't want your mane trimmed?" he inquired. "Strikes me—eh—it's pretty long."
The interpreter loosened the collar of his shirt and took a chair. "Never you mind about my mane," he answered. "It's just as long's I want it. You turn loose on my chin." He leaned back to elevate a pair of bright-topped boots.
The other directed his gaze upon the sharpening blade. "Do you happen t' know Portugee?" he asked humbly. "One of the boys is loony on a gal at Bismarck that he ain't writ to for a year. She's Portugee——"
Matthews gave a dismissing wave of the hand. "I savvy English and most Injun," he said; "none of them fancy languages, though. I been to school only a week in my hull life. That was down in Omyha, and one week was plenty." At the remembrance, he shook with silent laughter. "That week, as I say, was 'nough for me. The teacher—she was a lady, mind y'!—tries to tell me that it's the same blamed sun we see comin' up every mornin'. 'Look a-here, now,' I says; 'don't we git a new moon onct in a while? Then, what's the matter with havin' a change of sun?' Well, that plumb stumped her. She shut up."
The barber was now ready for operations, so Matthews adjusted his shoulders, closed his pink-lidded eyes, and followed the suit of his nonplussed teacher.
"Bill" felt there was something in the wind, and longed to question Matthews, yet dared not. The interpreter, formerly so feared, and even disliked, by the enlisted men, was now regarded in B Troop as a generally misunderstood and maligned individual—this in consequence of the Lancaster inquiry. Hence, he was playing the role of injured innocence, and seriously taking himself for a popular hero. He was more cocksure and conceited than ever before, and more prone to brag and bully. Scraping diligently away, the barber shuddered at the thought of even letting the razor slip.
Kippis was less respectful. He entered when Matthews was rising, all redolent of bay-rum, and surveyed the latter in mock amaze. "My, ho, my!" he cried. "Hain't we bloomin' fine!"
Matthews wriggled those faint lines upon his glistening forehead that served for eyebrows. "You go soak your head," he retorted.
"And no gun hon 'is 'ip," went on the sergeant. "But w'y, ho, w'y does 'e wear red shirts?"
The interpreter spraddled out his legs. "Folks git rich mindin' their own business," he said meaningly.
Kippis could not forego a last jibe. "Person'd halmost think you's goin' sparkin'," he declared.
Matthews gave a start, and his keen eyes shot a searching glance at the sergeant's smiling countenance. What he read there reassured him. The other was bantering without a notion that he approached the truth. The interpreter shrugged and stalked out. Within the hour, he was on his way to the Lancasters'.
He did not go to the shack, however. From the cottonwoods, he spied Dallas at work in the corn, so he directed his steps thither. She did not see him. Her back was toward the river, and the sun was glinting on her swinging hoe. Beyond her, on a picket-rope, was Simon, the bull. He was travelling in a restless circle, and sending lonesome blasts across the deserted prairie. He, alone, saw the interpreter, and paused in his rounds, head raised and eyes bulging inquiringly.
Dallas weeded on, unconscious of a visitor. The corn was shoulder-high now, and bearded. Its long leaves swayed and whispered, covering the sound of Matthews' approach. But when he was yet some rods off, a flock of ground-sparrows rose before him with startled twitters. At that, she looked back. The next instant, she had caught up the Sharps.
Matthews halted and lifted his hat, displaying hair pasted down to a silky smoothness. "I ain't got no gun," he said quietly. "I jus' come for to have a talk."
She made no answer.
The interpreter shifted from foot to foot and mopped his forehead. "I allus been sorry for what I done las' winter," he went on. "I was a blame fool to come scarin' you gals—ought to knowed better. But, you see, when I started, nobody told me there was women folks over here."
Dallas took a deep breath.
"I wanted to tell you," continued Matthews. "And—and I wanted to say I feel sorry about you' losin' your pa. Now he's dead, I wouldn't take this here land if you come to me and says, 'Nick, it's yourn.' That's jus' the way I feel—yes, ma'am. I savvy how to treat a lady, Miss Lancaster, gentlemanly and honourable."
"You talk nice," commented the girl.
His look faltered from hers. He gave his hard laugh. "You're a little out of temper," he said soothingly. "That's natural, though. You had a lot of trouble."
"My trouble's all owing to you," she answered passionately. "And I'll thank you to go—right now."
He put out a hand in expostulation. "Jus' a minute," he begged. "You done me wrong, but I don't hold it ag'in you. Jus' believe I didn't hurt your pa. And I admire you and your sister—sure I do. By golly! You're blamed sandy!"
"You take big chances to come here."
"Now, Miss Lancaster!" His chin sank. He wagged his head dolefully. Then, whether from warmth, or a desire to display the glories of his raiment, he took off his blouse.
As he talked, in a half-whine that was meant to be placating, Simon suddenly became a more interested spectator. He began to revolve again, and at the very end of his rope, slipping around with tigerish gracefulness; or, the rope taut, he halted as near as possible to the two in the corn, stamped one forefoot angrily and shook his curly head. There, a bold affront, was that blot of glaring scarlet. It awoke in him a long-slumbering lust for fight.
But the interpreter did not remark the bull. After repeated praise and condolence, he had arrived at the main object of his visit.
"I got a proposition to make you," he was saying, the while he cooled himself with his hat. "It's jus' this, and it puts a' end to the hull row. You and me will forgit what's past and done. Eh?" He paused impressively, and threw out an arm toward the shack. Smoke was curling out of the chimney. A slender figure was flitting to and fro within the open door. "And if I come to see the little one, maybe it'll be O. K.?" To make himself clearer, he touched a hand to his mouth and wafted toward the house a smacking kiss.
Sudden fury seized Dallas. Her lips moved.
A few rods away was another as furious, one whose eyes were as red as the interpreter's. Simon was pawing with alternate hoofs, and tossing dirt and grass into the air. With each stroke he gave a sullen rumble.
"Now," proceeded Matthews, speaking from one side of his mouth, "you and me wouldn't jibe." He giggled with a feeble attempt at mirth. "But your sister, she's a nice little gal. And she'd like me. I'm——"
He got no further, nor was Dallas given time to reply. A resonant blare rang through the lanes of corn. Then came the sound of trotting. They turned, to behold Simon advancing. He had jerked up the picket-pin!
Matthews saw his peril. With a curse of alarm he dropped coat and hat and made for the coulee.
But to no use. The sight of that fleeing red maddened the bull. His feet stretched to a gallop, his broad horns lowered until his muzzle touched the grass, his tail sprang out to the level of his curly back. With the picket-rope hissing across his flanks, and with no eye for his mistress, he bore down upon the hapless Matthews.
"Shoot him! Shoot——" screamed Matthews. The bull was at his heels. With quick thought, he side-stepped.
It gave him a brief respite. But, since Simon went on for a space and then wheeled, it also cut him off from the coulee. He tore toward the shack, now. After him, tether whipping among the stalks, charged the bull. Again the interpreter side-stepped, just in time, and with the dexterity of a matador. But Simon was more alert, and came about like a cow-pony, emitting terrible bellows. Matthews fled toward Dallas. His face was a sickly green; his hair was loosened and waved backward in the sun.
"Simon!" cried Dallas, as the two went by.
Matthews was winded, and when the bull's hot breath fanned his back for the third time, he resorted to strategy. Once more stepping aside, and escaping the sharp horns by less than a foot, he followed, and, in desperation, seized Simon by the tail.
And now the bull's anger was suddenly changed to fear; his desire to horn that scarlet thing became a desire to get rid of it. With a bawl of terror he darted this way and that, trying to shake himself free, and swinging Matthews clear of the ground. This method failed. At once he adopted new tactics. Bellowing, he raced away through the corn, dragging the interpreter astride of the stalks, plowing up the earth with him, rolling him feet-first or sidelong down the rows. But like grim death, and with raucous oaths, Matthews hung on.
Out of the corn to the coulee road, they went—when Simon saw the grove at the landing. Among those trees many a pestering buffalo-fly had been outwitted; there, where grapevines tangled, many a mosquito had been rubbed away. Quick as a flash, Simon made for the cut, with Matthews coming breathlessly after.
The interpreter thanked his stars for the bull's manoeuvre. The grove would give him shelter; he could dodge behind a friendly trunk, or shin one to safety. He——
Simon had stopped to indulge in more whiplash waltzing, and the arm-weary Matthews could scarcely keep his hold. "Ma-a-aw! Ma-a-aw!" roared the bull. Then, discouraged, he shot forward again.
But now fright consumed him, and he lost thought of scratching free of his tormentor. His red eyes were popping from his curly face. His mouth was wide. His tongue lolled. With great jumps, he sped straight through the grove.
It was all too swift for calculation. Matthews was conscious only of a great wind, of an invisible power that bound him to that bull's tail, of a dull roar in the ears, a blur in the eyes——
Simon leaped the hedge of fruit-hung grapevines, poised for a second on the brink of the river's caving bank—his feet together, his neck stretched. Then, the red of him disappeared. And, after it, the more vivid tuft at the end of his tail.
A CHANGE IN PLAN
It was Old Michael who fished the interpreter from his unwelcome bath. Choking with rage and spewing muddy water, Matthews was hauled into the stern of a pirogue. There, while the pilot rowed slowly to the Brannon shore, he stretched his sorry, bedrabbled figure—a figure in striking contrast to that of an hour before. His handkerchief hung upon one ear, his red shirt clung, his buckskin trousers, dark and slick from their sousing, bellied with water let in at the band; his bright-topped boots spurted like pump-nozzles, his pale hair straggled and dripped into his eyes.
When the boat touched at the steamer-side, he raised himself to look back. Simon was leisurely ascending the cut, and reaching to left and right for tender wisps of vine. Matthews gave his hard laugh. "I'll make meat of you," he promised savagely. Then he turned to Michael.
The Irishman was leaning back, steadying his craft against the bank with one hand, holding his stub pipe out in the other. His blowzy face was blowzier than ever. Down it, from his closed lids, ran the teardrops, chasing one another into the black-notched cavern of his mouth.
Here was a culprit handy to the moment's anger. Matthews arose in his squashing boots. "You lop-eared son-of-a-gun, who you laughin' at?" he demanded.
The cavern widened till the face was split in two. "W-w-w-ah!" gasped the pilot.
"Maybe you think it was funny," said the interpreter, with suave heat. Cunning deviltry distorted his features. And, stepping forward in the boat, he kicked Michael on a bunion.
Pain sobered the pilot. With a roar of "Howley smoke!" he swung his paddle aloft.
The interpreter was too quick for him. Like a frightened muskrat, he sought the water, floundered to a solid footing, and waded out. "You will monkey with a buzz-saw!" he taunted. "Jus' wait."
Clinging to his injured foot, Old Michael rocked himself and cursed. But not for long. He was soon rambling toward the barracks. "For," he argued, "there's more 'n wan way t' kill a cat."
In a frontier post, news flies with the dust in the air. Soon the story of Matthews and the bull had spread to every soul at Brannon. The Line chatted it from gallery to gallery. Clothes-Pin Row digested it in hilarious groups. At barracks, it set the men to swapping yarns. "I knowed a feller onct that was goin' past a bull-pen," declared one trooper, "and he had a pail of cherries, and I'll be darned if——" "But, say! Down home, one time," put in a second, "there was a vaquero with a red sash that was stoopin' to fix a flank girth, and——" "Why, that ain't a two-spot to what happened in Kansas a year ago this summer. The purtiest gal I ever seen—you know them Kansas gals can be purty—she had a wig that'd keep your hands warm in January. Well——"
When, however, the surgeon recounted the story at the bachelors' noon mess, mirth over it was noticeably lacking. To the little circle of officers there was nothing comical in the fact that a man from the post had molested the girls so recently orphaned. And all save Fraser vowed stormily that Matthews would be called to account. The young lieutenant said nothing.
Before the meal ended, the interpreter came in. He had changed his clothes and restored his hair to its pristine smoothness. He gave the group his usual bob and smile.
Cold stares answered him—from all but one, who fairly bounded from his chair. It was Fraser, face red, shoulders working under the blue of his uniform. He planted himself before Matthews.
"You damned blackguard!" he gasped.
The other looked highly amused. "What's got into your craw, sonny?" he inquired.
"You damned blackguard!" repeated Fraser. And struck out.
An amazed and delighted mess room looked on. For Fraser, the tender-hearted, Fraser, the pink-cheeked "mamma's darling," was battering the interpreter hammer and tongs!
From the doorway the captain's voice interrupted the battle, and the two men were pulled apart. Matthews fell to wiping at his stained lips, which had magically puffed to proportions suggesting those of the colonel's black cook. While the lieutenant was panting, and struggling wildly to get free.
Oliver thrust the latter behind him and addressed the interpreter. "I'm not stopping this boy because I don't think you need a sound thrashing," he said. "I'd like to see you walloped within an inch of your life. But I can't have this kind of thing going on."
"I wasn't goin' to tech them gals," lisped Matthews. "I ain't no city tough."
"We shan't need your services at Brannon any longer. You light out."
After that, mess went merrily on. "Didn't know you had it in you, Fraser," marvelled one officer. "By crackey!" added a second. "How you can slug!" The surgeon sighed. "No one has ever understood Robert," said he, "but women, critters, and kids."
And now Matthews' blood was up, and under his sloping forehead the grey-matter was bubbling and boiling like the soup in the sutler's pot. He hurled out terrible oaths—against the shack, against Captain Oliver, against Fraser, against the old pilot. Dallas Lancaster had made a cheap spectacle of him; the commanding officer had ordered him to leave Brannon; the "unlicked calf" of a lieutenant had whipped him out of hand; and the man most ready to guzzle his liquor had gone through the barracks a-blabbing.
He hurried to his room to pack his belongings. "I'll fix 'em, I'll fix 'em," he raged. "I'll git even with the hull crowd."
He halted at a window and looked across the Missouri at the little shack. "When the reds go to the reservation, that'll do for you," he said. "But—how can I soak them damned shoulder-straps?"
It was then that a change in his plan came to his mind. Why wait until the Indians were sent, if——
The more he thought of the change, the better he liked it. "One deal, and everybody fixed. Land'll be mine, and there'll be some court-martiallin'."
He determined to get into the stockade for a last talk with the hostages. If they approved what he proposed, he would promise them his services. Yes, he would. The value of the quarter-section had made him fight for the Bend. But this was a horse of another colour. His pride had been outraged—for that he would have his quits.
His conduct earlier in the day, and the fight at the sutler's, gave place, that afternoon, to other and more direful news. A steamer touched on its way down the river and told of the Custer massacre. Not a trooper at Brannon but had lost a friend; not an officer but had lost several. Gloom settled upon the post, and Matthews was forgotten.
He took advantage of that. Before an order went out to prevent him, he went through the wicket of the sliding-panel and gathered around him the four chiefs named in Cummings' ultimatum. They were more sullen, unhappy, and discouraged than ever. A few words, and he had them breathless with interest
"You must look to me alone for freedom now," he said. "There has been a great battle in the Valley of the Greasy Grass. Custer, the Long Hair, met Sitting Bull and his allies. And Custer and all his men are dead."
"Ho, hos," of joy greeted the announcement.
"Yet this is not good for you. There will be other battles. Your brothers will have no time to come and rescue you. Even your friends, the Scarred-Arms, will not help. For it is said that the Cheyenne warriors are gone to join the Sioux——"
"What of the two white squaws that were captured?" asked Shoot-at-the-Tree anxiously. "And what of us—is there danger?"
"The women are still with your people. And who knows what may happen soon? So I come to speak of your delivery. I shall get you free—you shall free my land."
"But our women," suggested Standing Buffalo, his eye straying toward a tent at the stockade's centre; "they go free, too?"
"That is impossible. But what does it matter? When you are gone, your women and children will be cared for—put upon a reservation. From there, you can steal them back."
"But how can we get free?" inquired Lame Foot. "Tell us quickly."
Matthews drew the four chiefs' heads together and whispered to them.
After a time, all rose.
"Shall we have guns?" inquired Canada John.
"No—bows and arrows. I can get them, and hide them in my board lodge across the river."
Lame Foot pouted. "Our brothers who are fighting have fine new rifles from Standing Rock."
"Rifles I cannot get," said Matthews.
"But," said Standing Buffalo, "if we cross to your lodge and get our bows and arrows, will not the pony soldiers follow in their smoking-canoe?"
"Bah!" retorted the interpreter. "Am I like a pig for sense? The smoking-canoe shall be gone."
The chiefs nodded.
"I must go," added Matthews. "There is no time for the pipe. Remember, if you are discovered trying to escape, I know nothing of it. Then, I shall try another plan. And keep everything from The Squaw. He is a friend to the pony soldiers. He may tattle."
"And your reward," said Canada John, softly: "It is that The Plow-Woman and her sister shall be——"
Matthews put a finger to his lips. "You will free my land," he said.
"When the night comes?" whispered Lame Foot. They pressed about Matthews, taking his hands.
"When the night comes," he answered, "you will know by a sign. Let a warrior keep watch. For it shall come when the moon dies. It shall be the call of a mourning dove."
Bismarck nearing at last! Since dawn, Lounsbury's head had been poked from a window of the forward car. Now, he followed it with a wedge of shoulder, and muttered a fervent "Thank God!" His face was blackened by the breath of the engine, his hair was roughed by the tugging wind. So that he bore not a trace of the past month's careful grooming. Outside of Chicago, he had shed his Eastern garb for blue flannel shirt, dark breeches, and tall boots. Again he was a frontiersman.
A brakeman entered to call out the final stop. Cramped bulks, here and there, slowly unwound their sleepy lengths and gazed around. A slim recruit in a front seat, who was outward-bound to fight Indians, wakened with a protesting oath. Other occupants of the car grudgingly put away their card packs, but cheerfully clapped on their hats. A long, hot journey was done.
But Lounsbury, when he drew in his head and shoulder, delayed his preparations to alight. He reached down to a boot-leg and fished out a letter, one paragraph of which he carefully re-read.
"As I say, if you look for that rascal, you'll find the right man. He was here, for Charley saw him. 'Who was it?' I asked the Indian. What do you think he did—he crossed his fingers on his nose!"
Lounsbury took a deep breath. "It's likely," he said aloud. "It don't take courage to kill a cripple."
The wheels were yet turning when Lounsbury swung off. His looped belt had been buckled on, and once more his revolver hung handily upon his thigh. As he tossed his satchel to the ticket-agent, he gave the ".45" a swift look over. Then, with the expression that the Clark outfit respected showing through the grime of the train, he started on a tour of saloons.
In a square-fronted groggery, his hunt ended. An assortment of adventurers packed the place—mule-skinners, soldiers, gamblers, settlers. Among them was a sprinkle of women. He pushed his way through the crowd until he reached the bar. There, officiating in pink shirt-sleeves, was the "Babe."
A moment Lounsbury faced him in silence, his cheeks puffing and his chest swelling in an effort at self-control. Then, dropping his hand to the ".45," he gave a jerk of the head. "Come out," he ordered.
The "Babe's" squint eyes made separate inspections of the room. He was in the act of pouring from a bottle to a glass. Now, as he held them before him, they tinkled together.
His customer backed away to the door, where it was cooler. The women cluttered at the farther bar-end. The other loungers rotated to a position behind Lounsbury, and waited, all a-grin.
He came loafing out, the sweat standing in huge beads upon his nose. Lounsbury advanced to him, playing a tattoo along the bar with his left hand.
"'Babe,'" he said quietly, "the train goes back Chicago-way in the morning."
The other blinked and gulped. "W'y, w'y——" he began.
"You take it," continued Lounsbury. "Your family's getting darned unpopular here."
The "Babe's" diverging orbs popped from his face and again played from side to side.
"Y-e-e-s," drawled Lounsbury. He ripped open the other's vest. Two pistols were displayed, snuggling head to head. He plucked them out and kicked them across the room. "The morning train," he repeated. "So long."
"Babe" gave a weak nod. Lounsbury walked out. "Howdy, boys, howdy," he said pleasantly as he went. The admiring crowd returned his salute, and rotated back to the bar.
He wasted no further time, but hurried to his store, a saddle-roofed building farther along the street. Before it paced a Fort Lincoln officer. Lounsbury stopped him for news.
"You ought to be chuck full of it," returned the officer, pumping the storekeeper's arm; "just in from New York."
"Daytime sortie on us yesterday."
"Pretty sassy. How about Brannon?"
"Nothing since old Lancaster——"
"I heard that—Fraser wrote me." Lounsbury gritted his teeth.
"And our poor Custer?"
"Ah, poor Custer! The East's talking about nothing else."
"Awful! awful!" The officer turned away to hide the twitching of his face.
"Going to Lincoln now?" asked Lounsbury.
"Not right away."
"Then, I'm off."
"No, for Brannon."
"Brannon! Alone? Lounsbury! Why, the Indians——"
"I'm going, just the same." He hailed a neighbour to bargain for a cayuse of reputed wind and speed. In another half-hour he was ready.
He rode as light as possible. Behind the cantle, rolled in a poncho, he tied some hardtack, jerked beef, and brandy. His revolver was reinforced by a Henry, which he carried in a holster under his leg. For the ".45," he took fifty rounds. A second fifty, designed for the rifle, occupied the loops of his belt. Thus armed and provisioned, he jogged out of town.
Good fortune made the journey almost uneventful. He saw but one Indian, who loped into sight from a wooded bottom, and turned tail when Lounsbury levelled his gun. Twice only did he come upon signs of savages. Toward the middle of the first night, he passed a pile of glowing embers, where food had been cooked and eaten; and fifty miles lower down, the next afternoon, as he dismounted at a rivulet, the cayuse shied from an antelope kid that had dragged itself to the water for a last drink. There was an arrow through its neck, and the little body was still limber.
Just before dawn, the second morning, he turned with the river, crossed the coulee, and reined upon the yellowing bend. To his left, a black dot, stood the shack. Three smaller dots were near it—Simon and the mule team. South, on the opposite bank, were the low, whitewashed buildings of Fort Brannon. He bared his dust-powdered head in thanksgiving.
The cayuse was warm and dripping. He rode to Shanty Town, loosened the cinch, and led the animal up and down before the deserted huts. When it stopped blowing and reached for grass, he picketed it on a lariat north of The Trooper's Delight. Then he descended to the landing. The light was growing. Already he had been seen from the post. On his hallooing, a small boat shoved off toward him, dancing its way against the current. Old Michael was not in it, only his citizen helpers. Fearing their tittle-tattle, Lounsbury curbed his impatience to ask about the shack. Landed, he made for the "Bach" quarters on the Line.
Fraser was not up. To his "Come in," Lounsbury entered. They shook hands without a word, and the storekeeper sat down on the edge of the bed.
After a while, the lieutenant reached out to put a hand on the other's knee.
"Lounsbury," he said, "I feel like a criminal. But I never dreamed anything would go wrong if I kept track of Matthews."
"Why, we both thought that, Fraser. You're not to blame any more than I am."
"Oh, if I'd only——"
"But we can't spend any time kicking ourselves. After this there mustn't be a loophole. Besides watching Matthews, we must——"
"Matthews isn't here."
"Kicked out. We don't know where he is." Rapidly, Fraser related the story of Simon's gallantry.
There was another piece of news of lesser importance: An Indian girl named Brown Mink was seriously ill. Her wigwam had been moved to the western curve of the stockade, where the ground was clear, and been changed from tepee-shape to the form of a walled wickie-up. Mrs. Cummings, touched with pity, had sent her a comfortable bed, while Captain Oliver, touched no less, and pleased by the good-humour of his prisoners, had ordered that, during the daily search of the enclosure, the tent of the sick girl be left entirely undisturbed.
The young officer omitted to tell of his share in the interpreter's departure, and was distracted over an accident that had befallen him. On visiting his wild pets the previous evening, he had found that a box containing reptiles had been broken open, somehow, and that all his rattlesnakes were gone!
With the first call for the trumpeters, Lounsbury routed the sutler in a quest for breakfast. Then, once more he sought the river. There was no waiting for men to row him. He found the small boat, headed for the beach below Shanty Town, mounted the cayuse, and climbed the steep road to the prairie. Before him, on a green stretch between river and shack, he saw Dallas.
She was cutting grass in that same swale across which, a month before, had been tracked the deep-planted, laboured footprints. As she mowed, she moved forward slowly, the bent snathe describing a regular half-circle, the long, curved blade clearing a fragrant path. Her hat was off, and lay at a distance behind her, where it floated, boat-like, on some blue-stem tops. Still farther behind was Simon, cropping industriously, and keeping a furtive watch upon his mistress out of the corner of one fiery brown eye.
Lounsbury spurred his horse to a run. She saw him coming, but not knowing him, kept her scythe on the swing. When he had covered the greater part of the way, however, she stopped work, retreated to her hat, and put it on. Then, from beside it, she picked up the Sharps.
He saw that, and his jaw squared. The blood darkened his face, too, as if the sight shamed him. He spurred faster, reined so sharply that the horse slid upon its fetlocks, and swung off.
"Dallas!" he cried. It was not a greeting, but a plea.
The moment was one long dreamed of, yearned for. A woman less genuine might have met it without a show of feeling. She—outspoken and simple—could not. Her eyes swam. Dropping the gun, she clasped his hand greedily.
"I knew you'd get back quick as you could," she said, choking.
For a long moment they stood thus, hand-in-hand, looking at each other. She saw that he was changed. The glint of merriment was gone from his eyes. His forehead bore new lines. His mouth had lost its boyishness. With her, the past four weeks had also left their mark. The old look of high purpose was on her face. But she was older and graver, and wore the new expression that Oliver had seen.
She spoke first. "Your mother?" she faltered inquiringly, and withdrew a step.
"My mother—is gone," he said slowly. Then, after a pause, "I came right after that; didn't stop to settle things. I can go back to the States later. But if I'd been here sooner—it mightn't 'a' happened——"
She checked him gently. "Now, you got enough to worry you without us. We wouldn't go to the Fort or Bismarck. And that was the whole trouble." To excuse her father, and to take the blame herself, she told him of the refusal of David Bond's money, and of Mrs. Cummings' slight.
"You see," she explained earnestly, by way of putting the best possible colour to the latter episode, "you see, they think over there that we're trash. So they're bound to let us alone. It ain't that they haven't good manners——"
It was Lounsbury's turn to interrupt. He was tramping about. "Manners!" he said violently; "manners! what's manners to do with it? There's a lot that's good manners—and cursed bad heart!"
She took up the scythe, brought a whetstone from the depths of a pocket and ran it down the blade thoughtfully.
"I'm going to look into this whole business from first to last," he went on more quietly. "I'll spend the next few days investigating. You got my letter?"
"We went to Clark's for you, and got it there." She added that she had feared Braden, and spoke of his slack courtesy.
"Oh, well," he said, partly in apology for the real-estate agent, "if a man out here don't take off his hat to a girl, that means nothing."
"It wasn't the hat," she answered, and described Braden's further conduct.
Lounsbury blazed up again. "I'll see about that, too," he declared. "He must be another sample of imported manners."
They heard the cheery grinding of a coffee-mill. As if struck by a thought, she looked toward the shack.
"It's about time for me to go in," she said, a little flurried. Then, "Won't—won't you come, too, and take a snack with us? Marylyn'd like to see you."
"Marylyn!" He had read her meaning. "Why, Dallas, you don't meant to say that you—that she still——"
"Yes," very low.
"Well,"—Lounsbury was determined now,—"there's got to be some kind of an understanding. I told you how I felt, and you ran away from me. You shan't do it this time. I'll go to the house, and I'll tell Marylyn just how things are. I will."
"Oh, my baby sister!" she murmured.
Instantly, he was all gentleness. "No—no, I won't tell her," he said. "But I'm sick and tired of being tied this way, hand and foot. It was your father first. And now this again—Dallas!"
She could not answer him.
"I won't tell her. I'll wait till—till you do. But, you see that I can't go to the house. And I suppose I oughtn't to stay here any longer, for her to see. But I'm coming back here to-night—at taps."
She shook her head. "Marylyn would be alone," she said hastily. "So—so I can't."
"You will, I know you will. She'll be asleep."
"At taps, Dallas." He touched the hand that held the scythe upright. She thought all at once how worn he was, and white. Another moment, he had mounted and was cantering off.
Left alone, she dreaded going into breakfast, expecting a hurt silence, or passionate protests, perhaps tears. And she tried to find it in her heart to blame Lounsbury for not accompanying her.
But Marylyn welcomed her with a question or two, exclaimed sorrowfully at the news of Lounsbury's mother, and, when the elder girl explained that the storekeeper had been too busy to come to the shack, returned a faint smile.
"The brave baby!" thought Dallas.
But Marylyn was puzzling over Lounsbury's true reason for staying away—now when their father was not there to object. He had told Dallas he was busy. That, however, was only a pretext. Finally she concluded that Fraser, in spite of his promise, had made a confidant of the storekeeper, and that the latter had seen the hopelessness of his affection for her.
"I'm glad," she said to herself. "Now, I won't have to tell him."
Lounsbury pursued a feverish investigation that day, and found no one who cared to quibble with him. From the captain, never jealous of his dignity, to the roly-poly sutler, there was a very outrush of facts. As they came, he received them with pitchfork sharpness, examined them and tossed them aside, which led a wag to remark that the storekeeper was kin to Simon. Yet, when "retreat" sounded, he admitted himself hedged in by indisputable testimony. Lancaster's death was beyond easy solving. If Matthews were guilty, he was not the principal, only an accessory, to the crime. Nevertheless, could the storekeeper have come face to face with the interpreter that day, scores would have been settled.
To Dallas, laying the blue-stem of the swale, the hours of the morning went slowly. Yet how warm and golden they seemed! how tuneful the birds! how cottony-white the clouds that flecked the sky! how pleasant the long, hushing sound of the scythe! And all the while, she thrilled with expectancy, and the minutes hung upon each other, as if loath to pass.
The very keenness of her joy brought a swift revulsion. At dinner, with Marylyn sitting across from her, she began to see more clearly. She realised she had been dreaming; that for her there was only self-denial. She ate nothing, but drank her dipper thirstily, as if to wash away a parch in her throat. Back in the swale again, the scythe was swung less steadily, but with more strength, so that its sharp tip often hacked up the ground. She pulled her hat over her eyes, forbore glancing toward the fort—and fought. A thousand times she vowed she would not meet Lounsbury that night. To give herself a better whip-hand, she called up pictures of Marylyn—Marylyn, the baby, all dimples and lisping demands for "Dals!" Marylyn, the child, slender, yellow-haired, pale; Marylyn, entering womanhood, still dependent, and, in her frailty, her pensiveness, more dear than ever before.
Then, with the sun beating upon her, with her temples streaming and throbbing under the heat and the strain, Dallas' spirit began to flag. Had she not always borne a hard load? suffered discomforts? There were the women of the post—they knew little toil or privation. The brunt of her mother's loss, her father's taking, had fallen upon her. Was she always to have only sorrow? Now, when happiness came her way—a happiness that another might not have—must she be denied it? Disheartened, dizzy, she left the swale for the shade of the nearest trees.
It was the hottest part of the day, and the life of the prairie seemed at a standstill. No breeze stirred the high cottonwoods; the corn blades were quiet; the birds, song-less; the frogs, hid. Resting on the fading green, looking out upon the silent reaches, she grew calm. Then she remembered her sister's confession. Again, in fancy, she was leaning down in the light of a winter fire, looking into a tear-stained face. She felt humiliation for her own weakness, and for thoughts disloyal to Marylyn.
"When I see him again, I'll make him promise to come and visit her," she said. "Oh, he must! he must!" At last, renewed in spirit, she returned bravely to her work.
But the afternoon was not without its tormenting thoughts. And she, who feared no physical danger, quailed before a temptation that was overwhelming.
When the shack pointed a stubby finger toward the east, and the mules, with Simon in tag, came trailing home from their grazing, Marylyn called her. Near the door, there wafted out the good smell of corn-pone and roasting fowl. She drew up the well-bucket, hand over hand, and washed in its generous leak.
Within, the night wind was changing and sweetening the air. As the younger girl bustled about, the elder put on a fresher dress, and smoothed and plaited her hair. Again, that strange elation! She was almost glad.
"Supper!" sang out Marylyn.
Dallas started consciously. She was standing at a window, holding before her the broken bit of looking-glass.
The thrashers were singing to the moon. Out of the gaping coulee came their chorus, loud, rich, and artfully melodised. It mingled, as it were, with the scent that the wind fanned from the sumach blossoms, yellowish-green. Moon, music, perfume—and lovers were to meet.
The trysting-place lay in billows of frosty white, like the satin dress of a bride. Lounsbury measured it impatiently, with anxious eyes turned to the shack. At the last trumpet-strain from the fort, Dallas approached it on swift foot, her shadow flitting before.
When he saw her—a slender figure—he leaped forward, eager, grateful. She saw him, and halted, raising defensive hands.
"Dallas! Dallas!" He stretched out his arms to her.
"No, no—no, no."
As well try to stem the Missouri. He caught her close and held her. He pressed his cheek tenderly to hers. She yielded, murmuring to him. Thus—for a space that was matchlessly sweet. When, without releasing her, he lifted his head, and lifted hers by a smoothing caress of her hair. Then he searched her face long and hungrily.
"Oh, Dallas, you do care," he said finally, and his voice was deep with joy.
She did not deny—only, "Just makes things worse," she whispered miserably.
Gently he let her go. "But I love you," he answered.
Her eyes were grave. They seemed to blame him.
"I love you," he repeated.
She was too just to forget her own lack of strength. Her eyes clouded with sadness, and brimmed. "I hate myself for coming," she said fiercely.
"We love each other. That isn't a crime," he declared.
"For you, it isn't. But it is for me. Because—it'll hurt Marylyn. Oh, you don't understand—I can't take her happiness. I can't! I can't!"
"It's not your fault that I love you, Dallas."
"What happens next is."
He shook his head—smiling.
She raised her chin, as if striving to master herself. "I knew all day that I'd come," she said steadily. "I'd 'a' come if I—died for it!"
"Ah, my dearest!" He put his hands upon her shoulders, drawing her near again.
She stepped back determinedly. "Let me tell you," she begged. "Please, I knew I'd come. So I made up my mind I'd do what was white—ask you to visit Marylyn, and talk to her. If you would, if you only would, why, at last, you couldn't help liking her!"
Again he smiled at her, shaking his head. "I love you, not Marylyn."
"You're a good man," she said. "You wouldn't like to see me do anything that wasn't right square. You wouldn't—think much of me if I did. I'll do wrong if—if I take you from her."
"I wouldn't have you do anything wrong," he declared stoutly. "You never could. But, dear, Marylyn is a child yet. She's too young to know her own mind. And we're taking her more seriously than she takes herself."
"You don't know how sick and down in the mouth she's been. Just before father—went, she got a little better. After that, for a while, she was bad again. But I could see it wasn't all about father. There's something else. She's changed so—never talks much, just sits and looks and looks——" She turned away.
"I'm—I'm all she's got," she went on. "All her life I've tended her, just as if I was her mother. I fed her and dressed her. When she hurt herself, she came to me. Now, she's hurt worse than she's ever been, and she's come to me about it. I'm bound to help her."
"I happened to be the first man she got to know this side of Texas. She'd forget me in a week if she met someone else. If she don't meet someone else, I'm afraid she'll have to be hurt."
Dallas straightened proudly. "I'll never hurt her," she said.
"Nor I, if I can help it. She needn't know about us, just yet."
"I won't lie to her, either."
"Not lie, dear. But you won't refuse to come out here——"
"I do! I do! I'll never come again."
"Ah, Dallas, why should we deny ourselves that much? Why keep apart? I've lost the last dear one I had. You've lost your father, you're alone with your little sister. Come to me."
"You'd take me away?" she asked. "You'd have me give up the claim? To forget what happened?"
"God help me—no! I ask you to share your life with me, your work, your revenge, everything."
"I can't bear to see you and Marylyn staying here alone. And I can't stay near enough to protect you as I ought. Matthews is sly. If I meet him, I'll kill him, as I would a wolf. Then, he'll be out of the way. But—suppose he gets ahead of me? does you harm? Your staying here seems all the more terrible to me since I've been East. The idea of your having just Charley to guard, of your plowing and planting and cutting hay——"
She laughed. "Outside work is fine," she said. "Better than cooking over a hot stove or breaking your back over a tub. Men have the best half of things—the air and the sky and the horses. I don't complain. I like my work. Let it make me like a man."
"It couldn't. I don't mean that. You're the womanliest woman I've ever known."
"I don't want you to ever think different."
"Never will. And I don't ask you to chain yourself up in a house. There's a big future in the cow business. We'd take my share of the Clark herd—you'd ride with me—we'd be partners."
"Wait—wait." Temptation was dragging sorely at her heart. She glanced homeward. Behind her, the tall grass was running with the wind. She longed to run with it. Yet——
"I'll wait and wait," he said; "long as you ask, if it's years."
She retreated a few steps. "I must go now. Don't think I don't know what you've done for us—the sutler, and all that. I'll remember it. But I got to go—good-by."
"Good-night, not good-by," he answered. "Can't I come this far and help you to-morrow with the hay?"
"Let me send a couple of men, then."
"I'll do it alone. I'd rather. It's all in but this little bit."
"But please go slow. Don't wear yourself out, Dallas."
"If my work was all!" she said sorrowfully.
"If you would come here, now and then, to me, dear——"
"I'll never come again. This once, I couldn't help it. Oh, I tried and tried! But next time I can. I'll think of Marylyn. Why, I'd give my life to make her happy!"
"But your love—that goes where it pleases."
"You won't come to see her?"
"It wouldn't help. But I'll be here every night."
She retreated again. He did not attempt to follow.
"Good-night," she said.
The moon was drifting up the eastern sky, and, as she went, her shadow pursued her. He watched until it blended with the shadow of the shack. Then, walked far to the left, and laid out a beat that half circled the squat building.
"There's just one man I got to look out for," he said aloud. "It'd be different if I had to worry about Indians."
That moment, across the river, in the lodge of Standing Buffalo, the young chieftain was bending over an uncovered box, holding in one hand the shaft of an arrow, on the end of which was a piece of freshly killed dog; in the other hand he held a willow wand, sharpened. Beneath him, crawling and coiling and singing, were Lieutenant Fraser's rattlers.
The Indian kept the shaft to one side while he diligently prodded the reptiles with the willow. When he had enraged them so that they began to strike blindly at each other and at themselves, he lowered the shaft and let them drive their fangs into the meat. And when they were spent with their anger and springing, he covered the box and held up the flesh, which had turned from red to green, and was dripping dark with venom. Then, into it, he began thrusting the points of a quiver of arrows.
BY THE LIGHT OF A MATCH
A smudge was burning at the centre of the stockade. In its lee, to be safe from the swarms of pestering mosquitoes, sat the hostage braves. Their pipe-smoke blended with the smoke of the fire. Their loud gibberish was broken only when shrieks of laughter followed a sally of wit. Their black eyes sparkled. Their white teeth flashed.
Before them were their sons, now romping with the favoured dogs of the pack; now gathering to watch a wrestling-match between a chosen couple; again, lining the way while several raced down the enclosure.
The squaws and girls were also outside the lodges, the July night being hot. They cackled together to the windward side of the lordly males, and did not approach except to throw more wet sticks upon the smoulder.
The outcast watched the jollity from his dark corner, and marvelled at it. For were there not two tragedies threatening, either of which should, properly, lay hard upon the hearts of the village?
One was the nearing execution of the four condemned. Two sleeps ago, on the arrival of a runner from the absent cavalry, a wood-wagon had hauled several loads of lumber to the site of the pony corral. From that lumber—it was said openly, and he had told it in sign-language to the braves, was to be built—a scaffold!
The other tragedy hovered in the illness of Brown Mink. Since her lodge had been placed against the upper curve of the pen, there had been much singing, conjuring, dancing and beating of drums. But to no purpose. Daily, she wasted. She was dying!
He was not allowed to see her, to tend her fire or clean her kettle. When, on her removal, he had dared to stop at her tent-flap with a string of pike, Afraid-of-a-Fawn swooped down upon him, her long tushes clicking and frothing, snatched the wall-eyes from his hold and belaboured him with them. He had not gone back. But, in secret, he grieved over Brown Mink's suffering. And often he petitioned in her behalf, and lifted his worshipping vine toward the Milky Way.
In his sorrow, his shoulders were bent lower than ever, his ebon eyes were more doglike. Yet, he still dreamed of reinstatement, for he saw (though he could not understand it) that the warriors were again counting on escape!
They were unkempt no longer, but wore their hair neatly braided and well-greased. They ate sparingly, and only twice a day. They almost forswore water. And by covert exercise they trained away their flesh. Standing Buffalo and his haughty comrades did not waddle now under a weight of fat. As on the day of their capture, they were lank and stately.
Rejoicing in their hopes, he, too, had not been without preparation. A rusty knife found in a rubbish heap by the river had been polished by thrusting it repeatedly into the dirt. In spare moments, he made himself a sinew-backed bow, and practised many hours with it. He spent no time in the lean-to—his guard there had ceased. The necessity for food did not take him to the shack—his arrows brought down game which he cooked. At any time, with a sharp stick, he could root up his fill of wild turnips. He knew where ripe berries loaded the bushes, and where the plums reddened in the thickets. And how could he chance staying out of the stockade after midnight, when any dawn might find his brothers free?
Thoughts of Brown Mink alone took his mind from his dream. He yearned to see her again, to mark how far disease had ravaged, to show her that though all others were indifferent, he was not. And he had determined to tell her farewell—to tell her that he would win back his lost rank. For this, he would even break his vow of silence!
The end that he might gain her side hinged upon two things: His reaching her wickie-up unseen, and the absence of the crone. These he hoped for now, as he peered from his corner.
Despite the smudge he could see whatever went on in the stockade, for the sky was clear, and the stars hung low. Before long his patience was rewarded by a gradual quieting about the grouped wigwams. As the smoke thinned for lack of fuel, the mosquitoes drove the braves, to their beds. The squaws dispersed to attend them. The children, tired with play, straggled after. The lengthening night brought a welcome coolness with it. So a sentry soon roared a command from the board walk. Then the only hostage that was left arose slowly, stretched himself, and disappeared.
The dwindling pack were the last to lie down. Some wolves were challenging saucily from the coulee mouth. The dogs answered them in long-drawn wails. Finally the wolves took off up the river, and the dogs scratched about to find a moist spot and nestled down. There was silence now, except when a cur, dreaming of the chase, yapped in his troubled sleep.
Squaw Charley crawled from under the roof and along the high wall, being careful to mark the whereabouts of the brave that was always on the watch. Above him paced the sentries. But these did not see him because he kept in the shadow. Foot by foot he went, making toward Brown Mink's tent.
At last he was so near to it that, reaching out an arm, he could touch the base of a supporting pole. He drew back then, and squatted, his eyes on the entrance. Thus, upwards of an hour went by. The time passed quickly, for it was good to be near the beloved!
Crouched within the shelter of skins was another who waited—the hag. She was looking down the stockade through a narrow slit. When she judged that the sentries were growing less vigilant, she stood up. The outcast heard the crack of her old joints. A moment, and she stepped out stealthily and scanned the rim of the pen. Against the sky, the figure of each sentry was plainly outlined. None was near. Softly, she padded for the lodge of Standing Buffalo.
The pariah leaped up now, and took a swift step. But as his fingers closed upon the edge of the tent-flap, a whispered summons made him pause and glance around. There was a whispered reply, followed by steps as swift as his own. He sank, rolling himself into a ball. He was not a second too quick. Afraid-of-a-Fawn returned, with the chief at her heel.
Again the outcast waited, and jealously. Those within also waited, for a sentry was passing just above. Presently he was gone, and Charley leaned forward and put his ear against the tent, when he heard the scratch of a match.
It did not light, and there was a teasing laugh. The outcast sat up like a startled gopher, one hand to his breast, one out before him. Again, a scratch. A tiny flame flickered. Too amazed for fear, Charley put his eye to the slit.
Both hands came up to drive back a cry. At the rear of the wickie-up, the skins were pulled aside to reveal the stockade wall. Of this two logs showed—hollowed out so completely at the base that they were mere shells!
Before these logs, all kneeling, were the hag, Standing Buffalo and Brown Mink. The chief held the match; the old woman, a knife; the girl was empty-handed. But she was not ill—not wasted—not dying! She was full-figured. Her face was round. Her cheeks and lips were as bright as the dab of paint at the part in her hair—as crimson with health as a gorgeous cactus-flower!
The match went out. Squaw Charley dropped back to the wall's shadow. His heart was pounding madly with a twofold joy: The hacked logs assured freedom for his brothers, for himself, fighting and rank. And she was still to be won!
"The work is over," said a man's voice.
"And when comes the call of a dove?" asked a maid's.
"Perhaps when the moon dies."
"Who can tell?" It was the growl of the crone. "The Double-Tongue has run to hole like a fox."
Once more there was silence. A sentry, as he neared, was humming an unconscious warning. When he was gone again, there was more talk. But it was low-toned, and Charley could not hear. He did not wait longer. Slipping away a rod, he dropped on all fours.
When Standing Buffalo emerged and looked to see if he might safely return, he observed that in the enclosure nothing moved but a dog, which was going toward the shingle roof. So, composedly drawing his sheet of cow's hide about him, he strode to his lodge.
* * * * *
Until daybreak, two Indians did not join the others in their rest. The one sat harking for the call of a mourning-dove. The other sat cross-legged beside the smudge; and as a splinter new and then revived the fire, he wafted prayers of thanksgiving to the Great Spirit on its upward-rising smoke.
THE EVE OF OTHER THINGS
The wide valley was brown, with green splots and tracings for slough and stream. The distant ranges were grey. The sky showed the misty blue of the dog-days. Far off to the north and west, black streaks edged the horizon, where smoke rolled up from prairie-fires.
Brannon was quiet to the point of lethargy. Guard was mounted, and daily dress-parade held ceremoniously. The trumpet blew its unvarying round of commands. There was no hunting, and no field duty beyond the scouting of the eastern shore. The hoarse salute of an upward-plying steamer roused the garrison to life one morning. But the interruption lasted barely half an hour. Then the steamer, her pilot-house screened by sheet iron, and her decks aswarm with infantry, rounded a bend in the river and went coughing away out of sight. Once again, interest centred at the site of the pony corral, where a platform was slowly building.
Life at the shack was even less eventful. For Dallas, it was a season of idleness. The pumpkins and the melons were swelling; the tasselled corn wanted weeks before it would ripen; the field and garden were free of weeds. With no work to do, alone except for her sister, the elder girl had ample time to worry.
Marylyn saw that she was dispirited, and increased in tenderness toward her, following her about with eyes that entreated, yet were not sad. At breakfast she spitted the choicest cuts for Dallas. In the noon heat, she was at her elbow with a dipper of ginger-beer. And supper coaxed the elder girl's failing appetite by offerings of tasty stew, white flour dumplings and pone. As for herself, Marylyn needed neither urging nor tidbits. She ate heartily. Her sleep was a rest for both body and mind. Every afternoon she strolled across the bend to the cottonwoods. The butterflies fared beside her. Overhead, between sun and earth, hung legions of grasshoppers, like a haze. Underfoot, bluebell and sunflower nodded. And the grove was a place for dreams!
And Dallas—was a wild thing that cannot tell of its wound.
She uttered no complaint, even to Simon. The outburst that followed Lounsbury's return was her first and last. She questioned now if her suffering justified a lament. In this, she resembled her mother. A woman, coming to the section-house one torrid day, remarked wonderingly that Mrs. Lancaster gave "nary a whimper." The latter looked up with a smile. "I don't think I'm sick enough," she said. "Other people, worse off, have a right to groan." Dallas, certain that Marylyn's heartache was the keener, would not be behindhand in restraint. And her sister's happiness, forethought, and desire to please, all drove the thrust of penitence to the hilt, and turned the knife in that secret wound.
She found no solace in Marylyn's friends of the calico covers. Her thoughts were too tempestuous for that. They were like milling cattle. Around and around they tore, mingling and warring, but stilling in the end to follow the only course—self-denial. Once so rebellious, she was growing meek at last—meek and full of contrition. She was coming to dwell more too, on the lessons that the evangelist had taught her: She was coming to think of leaning where David Bond had leaned—she, who had always been a prop.
There was the old terror that had stalked beside her down to her mother's death. She had fought her way with it, and the conflict had given her strength. There was the jealousy that had smirched her sister-love. She had fought it, too, and bitterly, scorning it because she knew it for a hateful inheritance. Now was come a third misery, and the worst. She saw herself as a traitor. This was not mere reproach. It was the torture of a stricken conscience.
Her face grew thin, her hand unsteady, her eyes wore a hunted look. At night, hers were the scalding tears that dampened the pillow.
And so the days went by. Whatever pangs of remorse, whatever longing she endured, she remained faithful to the resolution that she would not give way to temptation again. But every night brought the lonely watcher to the swale.
THE END OF A DREAM
The dark of the moon was come.
All that day the sun had baked, and the steady south blow had been like the draught of an oven. As evening came, brushing a glory of red from the sky, the wind quickened, instead of lulling, and fetched up clouds that rested on the ridge-tops and roofed the wide valley. Through these not a star showed. But now and then, for an instant, the post sprang into sight out of the blackness to the weird play of the heat-lightning.
In the stockade there was perfect quiet—a quiet tense with excitement. Secrecy forbade any strong-heart songs and dances. Caution advised against mosquito fires. And suspense did away with drumming, shrill laughter, and feast-shout. The aged men, the women, and the children kept close within their lodges, where they whispered and nodded, nose to nose. The warriors stayed outside, preserving their calm with kinnikinick. In the dark, the open bowls of their scattered pipes were so many ruddy glow-worms.
From the pitchy shelter of the shingle roof, Squaw Charley looked out. He sat on his heels, about him the few mangy dogs that had not found the dinner-pot. One of these stirred. Half rising, he gave it a kick, just as one of his brothers might have done. Then he squatted again, and through the ragged strands of his bang, his black eyes sparkled eagerly. For, of late, every warrior's lodge had seen secret flesh-painting; under every warrior's blanket were hidden gaudy tracings of vermilion, scarlet, orange, and blue; and was he not painted, too!
He had sought in an ash-pile for coals; found a beef bone and snapped it for marrow; next, taken from his worn pouch a lump of red earth. He had rubbed the coals to powder in a square of rag, after which he had mixed the powder and the grease to make a paste. Then, he had pulled off his mourning blanket and his squaw's shirt, and bared his body to the waist.
Vermilion, orange, scarlet, and blue—these colours had been laid in stripes, circles, and figures upon the braves. They were colours that he, an outcast, might not use. But there was one poor privilege in flesh-painting that even he could claim. Kneeling again in clout and squaw's skirt, he had smeared the black and red in rude signs upon his chest. The braves, his brothers, had painted themselves for battle. But he, the pariah, had painted himself in the colours of death.
Suddenly he forsook the roof for the shadow of the log wall. There he waited. Two warriors had left the lodge of Brown Mink and were crossing the pen. He knew them. The shorter was Canada John, the eldest of the four condemned. The other was a Sioux who had been captured that day and cast into prison at sunset. He was a giant in stature, wore full war paint and dress, and a belt that testified his valour. For it hung thick with scalps, some jetty and coarse,—taken from heads of his own kind,—some brown or fair, with the softness that belongs to the hair of white women and little children. The two were talking low together. Presently, as they strolled near, the outcast heard the deep murmur of their voices; then their words. He leaned toward them, all ears.
"How many sleeps before the dove calls?" It was the bass of the stranger.
"Perhaps only another," answered Canada John.
There was a great laugh, like the cry of a full-fed loon. "Surely Big Ox stays not long! But how can my friends be sure that The Double-Tongue will have horses ready?"
"He claims a reward."
"Ho! Ho! and what?"
Canada John halted close to Squaw Charley. "There is a cottonwood lodge beyond the river," he said. "It should belong to The Double-Tongue. He is kept out. An old pale-face and his two daughters seized it in the Moon of Wild Cherries, and they would not go."
"An old man, you say?"
"But he hunts the white buffalo. Only the daughters are there."
"Are they young?"
"Young and sleek. One is called The Plow-Woman. She is tall, and she watches like the antelope. The younger has hair like the grass when it is withered."
"They live alone?"
"The Squaw guards——"
"And The Man-who-buys-Skins. May he be struck by the zigzag fire!"
"Who is to have the women?"
Canada John scratched his nose. "The Medicine-Giver says, 'He that first reaches them.'"
Big Ox shook his head in doubt. "The swiftest may yet fail to keep."
"Should any pursue, the women will be killed. The soldiers will think them bit by rattlesnakes."
Again Big Ox burst forth with laughter.
A hammer clicked from the stockade top. A sentry began to bawl angrily.
"Git, you pup-eaters," he ordered, and slanted his gun to them. Casting dignity aside, they ducked into the nearest lodge.
Squaw Charley dragged himself back to the shingle roof. There he fell prone, resting his forehead against the ribs of a dog. The strength was gone from his body, the light from his eyes. The wind of that other's nostrils had blasted him. He was like the scattering ash-heaps of the evening smudges, where the last bit of fuel was crumbled, and the last red coal was dead.
Long, he stayed upon his face. When the first numbness was past, and his brain was rallying slowly, a very scourge of sorrow visited him—sorrow for the fate of the shack, where he had warmed himself so often, relieved his hunger, and known a kindly smile. With sorrow came remorse. He had not done his part for the little home. He had not guarded as he ought. And he had helped by bringing rattlesnakes—which he had been told were to be used for medicine—in the plot for its destruction. When sorrow and remorse had their turn, a stronger passion gnawed and racked him. It was the yearning for reinstatement.
Dwelling upon this, he became two Indians, and one of him opposed the other. They travelled separate trails—trails that bent different ways, like the horns of a buffalo. The trail to the right was a warpath. It led him behind his brothers, through the hole in the stockade. For a while he loitered, loath to share in the work on the Bend. Afterward, he joined them. They were free, and crazy with their freedom. He matched his strength with theirs; dared where they faltered; won—won——
But there was no hope for The Plow-Woman!
He was back on the other trail, and it led to the gallery where Oliver's hammock swung. The outcast made swift motions with his hands. He was hustled along with the guard. The sliding-panel opened. The tent-flaps of Brown Mink's lodge were lifted. He was caught in a mad onrush; he was howled at; spat upon. Finally, a bruised, exiled traitor, more despised, if possible, than before, he fled skulking away.
And here was no hope for his honour!
He was back at the parting of the trails, one man again, helpless before the knowledge that safety for the shack meant the wiping out forever of his dream of becoming a brave.
When the pack deserted him, his forehead thumped the ground. Lame Foot's woman threw him a bone, hitting him fairly on the shoulder. The blow went unheeded, and he gave no thought to the pickings. The dogs, returning, fought over him. He only clawed the earth in an effort to lie flat. The bone yielded to the strongest and fiercest, the other curs leaped about him, licking at his hair. Now he did not kick them.
Of a sudden, he remembered David Bond. He got feebly to his knees, covering his face from the dogs. The evangelist had laid a charge upon him: No matter what came, he was to think first of the shack. He had accepted it before he knew it would clash with his own purpose. Was he held to the promise now? David Bond was dead. If he were not obeyed, he could never come back to punish.
But he had said to give up all—even life. He had given his own life for the stolen white women. What he preached he had followed. "Greater love," he had said, "hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."
It was a queer saying. If a brave went down when a tribe met another in battle, then a friend of the dead took a life for that life. To give a life—it was different, and foolish! Was it not even cowardly for one to expect another to die for him? And yet——
He found himself upon his feet, listening. Across the stockade he saw the ruddy glow-worms of the scattered pipes dancing in the dark. But a moment later, when blinding flashes lit up the huge pen, the hostages were sitting as before, their faces lowered moodily.
Still he listened. And it came again, from the direction of the river—the long, sad, cooing call of a dove.
FIRE AND ESCAPE
With the third mourning of the dove, a figure left the lodge of Canada John and shuffled to the sliding-panel, where it knocked. In tardy answer, the wicket was pushed aside a little and a lantern was held up.
"Hey, Charley!" said a friendly voice. A white face peered into a red one, noting the uneven bang and the handkerchief tied over the head like a squaw's.
The Indian blinked at the light and showed his teeth in a grin.
Cursing, though not unkindly, the guard pushed the wicket wide. "Don't y' come botherin' me any more t'-night," he counselled, as a black blanket and a ragged skirt wriggled through.
The Indian grinned again, and did not seek to elude the lantern. Released, he shuffled away, going straight for the post. But the stockade left a few rods to the rear, he changed his course, and made toward the river. Close to its edge, he halted, and mocked the signal.
The call was repeated softly. Then call and echo neared by degrees, until the Indian and the interpreter were touching hands.
There was no need for words. The night's work was planned. They started cautiously upstream. Before long they were behind the stables, ready for the second step. It was one that devolved upon Matthews. For it he carried a long knife, single-edged, keen, and slightly curved, like a sabre.