"All right, then, Bess," he said at last. "You mustn't sit there in the window. It's getting chilly. Good-night."
The girl drew back until her face was in shadow.
"Good-night," she echoed for the second time, and the shade closed as before.
For five minutes longer the Indian sat as he was, bare of head, motionless; but the light did not return, nor did he hear a sound, and at last he rode slowly out the gate and toward his own quarters.
The place where he lived was exactly a half mile from the Buffalo Butte ranch house, and due north. Originally a one-room shack, grudgingly built according to government requirements to prove up on a homestead, it had recently been enlarged by the addition of a second larger room, and as a whole the place further improved by the building of a sod and weather-board barn. The reason for this was obvious, to one acquainted with the tenant's habits particularly so. Just how long the Indian had remained separate, just why he had first made the change, Landor himself could hardly have told. Suffice it to say it had been for years, and in all that time, even in the coldest weather, the voluntary exile had never lived under a roof. Primitive or evolved as it might be, as youth and as man, the Indian was a tent-dweller. Just now the little house was being fitted up for occupancy, How himself doing it at odd moments of the day and at evenings; but as yet he still lived, as always, under eight by ten feet of canvas near at hand.
A lighted tent stands out very distinctly by contrast against a dark horizon, and almost before he had left the ranch house yard the man on the impatient, mouse-coloured broncho knew that he had company; yet, characteristic in his every action, he did not hurry. Methodically he put up the pony in the new barn, fed and bedded him for the night. From the adjoining stall, out of the darkness, there came a nasal puppyish whine and the protest of a straining chain. Had it been daylight, an observer would have seen a woolly grey ball with a pointed nose and a pair of sharp eyes tugging at the end of that tether; but as it was, two gleaming eyes, very close together, were all that were visible. It was to the owner of these eyes that the man gave the scraps from his lunch remaining in the saddlebag. For it, as for the pony, he made a bed; then—though the little beast was only a grey prairie wolf, it was a baby and lonely—he knelt down and for a moment laid his own face against the other's softly shaggy face.
When, a bit later, he arose and went toward the light there was a moist spot on his cheek where a rough little tongue had inscribed its affection.
On the tent wall was a shadow such as that made by a big man with his back to the light, and as the newcomer opened the flap and stepped inside the maker of the shadow roused himself in the manner of one whose thoughts had been far away.
"You're late to-night," he commented.
Characteristic of the two men, no explanation was offered or expected, and the subject dropped.
There was a small soft-coal stove in one corner, and in silence the Indian threw in fresh fuel. The lantern hanging opposite was burning low, and, turning it higher, he shifted the tin reflector so that the light would play on the scene of operations. Leaving the tent for a moment, he returned with a young grouse, and, dressing it skilfully, put it in a skillet to fry. From the chest where he had been sitting he produced a couple of cold boiled potatoes and sliced them into the opposite side of the same pan. He did not hurry, he rather seemed to be dawdling; yet almost before the observer awoke to the fact that supper was under preparation a tiny folding table with a turkey red cloth was set, the odour of coffee—cheap coffee, yet surprisingly fragrant—was in the air, and the bird and potatoes were temptingly brown. It was almost uncanny the way this man accomplished things. Landor himself never ceased to marvel. How always seemed unconscious of what he was doing, seemed always thinking of something else; yet he never wasted a motion, and when the necessity arose the thing required was done. It was so in small things. It was identical in large.
Up to this time, since that first perfunctory greeting not a word had been spoken. Now, the meal complete, its maker halted hospitably.
"Better join me," he invited simply. "You must have had an early supper. I noticed the kitchen was dark at the house."
"Yes. I'm not hungry, though." The big man sank lower into his seat wearily. "I'm not feeling very well to-night."
In silence the younger man sat down to eat alone. He did not press his invitation, he did not express sympathy at the other's admission. Either would have been superfluous. Instead he ate with the hearty appetite of a healthy human, and thereafter, swiftly and methodically as he had prepared the meal, cleared the table and put all in order. Then at last, the fire replenished and a couple of long-haired buffalo robes thrown within the radius of its heat, he stretched full length thereon in the perfect contentment of one whose labor for the day is done, and awaited the something he knew had brought the other to him at this unusual hour. "There's a pipe and tobacco in the drawer of the little table at your right," he assisted.
Landor roused with a trace of surprise.
"I didn't know you ever smoked," he commented.
"I don't," simply. Again there was no suggestion of the superfluous, the obvious explanation.
Nervously, almost jerkily, Landor filled the brier bowl and pressed the brown flakes tight with his little finger. The match he lit crackled explosively, and he started at the unexpected sound as one whose nerves were on edge. The pipe aglow, he still sat for a moment puffing hard.
"How," he initiated then abruptly, "I wish you would do me a favour. Will you promise me?"
The younger man did not hesitate, did not question. "If in my power, yes, sir," he said.
That was all, yet better than a complete chapter it told the relation of the two men; the unquestioning confidence of the younger, the trace of almost patriarchal respect that never left his manner when, addressing the elder. "If in my power, yes, sir."
"It isn't much I'm going to ask," continued Landor hurriedly. "It's simply that you and Bess be married at once instead of waiting until the day set." Puff, puff went the pipe as though the speaker were uncertain whether or no to say more. "I have a particular reason for wishing it," he completed inadequately.
For a moment the Indian hesitated; but even then no question was voiced; there was no probing of the confidence the other preferred not to give.
"I will speak to Bess to-morrow if you wish," he said.
Landor lit another match absently and held it to the already glowing bowl; then threw it away, unconscious of what he had done.
"Another thing," he introduced hurriedly. "I'm pretty strong now, but nevertheless I'm getting to be an old man, and so to-day while I was in town I had Bob Manning witness my will. I know it's all form, but I feel better to have things settled." With forced matter of factness he knocked the burned contents of the pipe into the grate and filled the bowl afresh. "Mary isn't used to having any responsibility, so I left practically everything to Bess. I know that if anything should happen to me you'd take care of her mother."
No answer, though Landor waited expectantly.
"I don't need to ask your promise to be good to Bess." Very different from his usual peremptory self was the big rancher to-night, very obvious, pathetically so, his effort to appear natural. "I know you'll make her happy, my boy."
Even yet there was no response, and the visitor shifted uncomfortably. As well as he knew his own name he knew that his secret was secret no longer. Yet with the instinct of the wild thing that hides itself to die alone he avoided direct mention of the fact, direct wording of the inevitable. But something in the attitude of the motionless figure before him prevented further dissimulation. Some influence urged him to hasten the denouement which he knew was but postponed. With an effort he straightened in his seat and for the first time met the other's black eyes steadily.
"I did right, don't you think, How?" he questioned directly.
"Right, perhaps; I don't know." A pause. "What I do know is that I'm sorry you did as you did."
"Yes, sir. Very sorry."
The light from the tin reflector had been playing full upon the Indian's face, and now, rising, he shifted it until the corner by the stove was in shadow.
"I will tell you why." He returned to his place and stretched himself as before, his hands locked beneath his head. "You are a rich man, Mr. Landor, and Bess is human. She doesn't know what money is yet, but you will compel her to learn. From what I have read and the little I have seen, I think she would be happier if she never knew."
For the third time Landor filled the pipe bowl and lit it with a fragment of coal from the grate.
"I don't see why, How," he refuted.
"You do, though, sir."
"No. Tell me."
There was a long pause, so long that Landor fancied the other would not answer; then of a sudden he found the intense black eyes fixed upon him unshiftingly.
"The reason is because not only Bess but others are human. As we are now I can make her happy, very happy. I know it because—I love her." He paused, and into the tent there came the long-drawn-out wail of the baby prisoner. Silence returned. "As surely as that little wolf is lonely, Bess will know the trouble money brings if you do as you intend. Not myself, but other men will teach her."
Landor was not smoking now. The pipe had gone dead in his fingers.
"Once more I ask why, How?"
The other's eyes did not shift, nor a muscle of his body.
"Because she is white and they are white, and I—am an Indian."
At last it had come: the thing Landor had tried to avoid, had hitherto succeeded in avoiding. Yet face to face the big man could ignore it no longer. It was true, as true as human nature; and he knew it was true. Other men, brothers of his own race, would do this thing—as they would do anything for money; and he, Landor, he who had raised her from a child, who had adopted her as his own daughter, he it was who would make it possible!
Involuntarily the big man got to his feet. He did not attempt to move about, he did not speak. There, standing, he fought himself inch by inch; battled against the knowledge of the inevitable that had been dogging him day by day, hour by hour. A long time he stood so, his great hands locked, his face toward the blank tent wall opposite; then at last he turned.
"I realise what you mean, How," he said swiftly, "and understand the way you feel. God knows I wish it were different, wish I did not believe what you say true; but things are as the are. What we have to do now is the best thing possible under the circumstances." He sat down in the chair again heavily, his hands still locked in his lap. "If wrong has been done I am to blame, I myself, in raising you and Bess together. I might have known that it was inevitable, you two here alone to care for each other; but I was poor then, and I never thought that Bess—"
The big man halted. For the first time he realised the admission of what he had been saying, the inevitable implication—and he was silent. For seconds likewise the Indian was still; but in them he was looking at the other steadily, in a way he had never looked at him before, with an intensity that was haunting.
"So you, too, feel that way," he said at last slowly. There was no anger in the voice, nor menace; merely wonder, and, yes, pathos—terrible, gripping pathos. "I knew that everyone else felt so—everyone except Bess herself; but you—you—I did not know that before, Mr. Landor."
Mute as before the big man sat motionless, listening. From the bottom of his soul he wished to say something in refutation, in self-defence; but he could not. There was nothing to say.
"No, I never even dreamed of such a thing," went on the repressed voice, "not even when at first you were slow to give your consent to our marriage. I fancied it was merely because you thought me impractical, because I cared nothing for a life that was different, was not my own. Nor again, even a bit ago when you asked me to promise—what I did promise—I did not suspicion such a thing. I thought it a compliment, the sincerest compliment I had ever received in my life: the fact that you should trust me so, with all that was dear to you in the world." Just perceptibly he halted, but his eyes did not leave the white man's face. "But I see it all now. I was blind before, but I see at last. You are like the rest, like everyone with a white skin. The fact that we've lived together for half a generation makes no difference. You're square, square to the end. You even like me in a way. You've given your word and won't go back on it; but nevertheless you're sorry. Even while you urge us to marry, to have the thing over, to have a responsibility off your mind, you feel you are sacrificing Bess to an inferior." He halted for a second, and even at this time Landor was conscious that it was infinitely the longest speech he had ever heard the man make. "I don't blame you, Mr. Landor; you can't help it; it's the instinct of your race; but nevertheless, nevertheless—"
The voice halted abruptly, repressedly. The intense black eyes were of a sudden looking directly past the other, straight up at the roof of the tent. No power on earth could have made him complete that sentence, made him admit the deadly hurt it suggested. From the unusual confidence of a bit ago he merely lapsed into the normal, his own repressed, impassive self. Yet as plainly as though he had spoken Landor recognised the difference, realised as well that while outwardly there would be no change, from this moment on so long as they both lived the confidence of the Indian would be as dead to him as though he had ceased to exist. He had seen it happen before. He knew the signs. With the knowledge for the first time in the years they two had lived together he realised how much after all he had grown to depend upon this laconic human, how much he had lost. It was the last drop in his cup of bitterness, the crushing straw. His great ungainly body dropped forward until his face was hid in his hands. On the walls of the tent a distorted, exaggerated shadow marked the movement of his shoulders as they rose and fell with his deep, irregular breathing. Again silence fell upon them, silence that by word of mouth was to remain unbroken. In it from the stable there sounded again the wail of the lonely baby, and a moment later, muffled, echo-like from the distance, the answering call of one of its own kind free upon the infinite prairie; but apparently neither man noticed, neither man cared—and the silence returned. Long minutes passed. The fire in the stove burned lower and lower. Into the tent crept a suggestion of the coolness without. Then at last Landor roused. Without a word he put on his hat and buttoned his coat. His fingers were unnaturally clumsy and he found the task difficult. Just for a moment he had a wild idea of asking the other's forgiveness, of attempting an explanation where none was possible; but he realised it would but make matters worse, and desisted. The Indian, too, had arisen, and repressedly courteous, stood ready to open the flap of the tent for the other to pass. For a moment, the last moment they were ever to see each other alive, they stood so, each waiting for the other to speak, each knowing that the other would not speak; then heavily, shufflingly, Landor took a step forward.
The tent curtain opened before him, was held back while he passed; then closed again, shutting him out.
For five long dragging minutes after he was gone the other man remained as he stood, motionless as a bronze statue, as an inanimate thing. The kerosene lamp was burning low now and sputtered dismally; but he did not notice, did not hear. For the third time, tremulous against the background of night and of silence, came the wail of the lonely little captive. It was a kindred sound, an appealing sound, and at last the figure responded. Hatless as he was he left the tent, returned a minute later with something tagging at his heels: a woolly, grey, bright-eyed something, happy as a puppy at release and companionship. Methodically the man banked the coal fire and put out the lantern. He did not make a bed, did not undress. Instead, weary as Landor himself, he dropped amid the buffalo robes, lay still. "Sniff, sniff," sounded a pointed, inquiring nose in the darkness, "sniff, sniff, sniff." There was no response, and becoming bolder, its owner crept close to the face of the silent being on the ground, squirmed a moment contentedly—and likewise became still.
THE TREE OF KNOWLEDGE
The darkness that precedes morning had the prairie country in its grip when Howard, the gaunt foreman of the B.B. ranch, drew rein before the silent tent, and with the butt end of his quirt tapped on the heavy canvas.
"Wake up," he called laconically. "You're wanted at the ranch house."
Echo-like, startling in its suddenness, an inverted V opened in the white wall and in it, fully dressed, vigilant, appeared the figure of its owner.
"What is it?" asked a voice insistently.
The Texan stared in unconcealed surprise.
"In Heaven's name, man, don't you ever sleep?" he drawled. "The boss is dead," he added baldly at second thought.
The black V closed again, and distinct in outline against the white background appeared the silhouette of the listener. His arms were folded across his chest in a way that was characteristic, and his moccasined feet were set close together. He spoke no word of surprise, asked no question; merely stood there in the silence and the semi-darkness waiting.
The foreman was by no means a responsive soul, yet, watching, there instinctively crept over him a feeling akin to awe of this other silent human. There was the mystery of death itself in that motionless, listening shadow.
"It was just before I came over to tell you that Mrs. Landor raised the house," he explained. "She woke up in the night and found the boss so—and cold already." Unconsciously his voice had lowered. "She screamed like a mad woman, and ran down-stairs in her nightdress, chattering so we could hardly understand her." He slapped at his baggy chaperajos with his quirt absently. "That's all I know, except there's no particular use to hurry. It's all over now, and he never knew what took him."
Silently as before the aperture in the tent opened and closed and the listener disappeared; to reappear a moment later with a curled-up woolly bundle in his arms. Without a word of explanation he strode toward the barn, leaving Howard staring after him uncertainly. Listening, the latter heard a suppressed little puppyish protest, as though its maker were very sleepy, a moment later the soft, recognising whinny of a broncho, and then, startlingly sudden as the figure had first emerged from the tent, it appeared again, mounted, by his side.
For half the distance to the ranch house not a word was said; then of a sudden Howard drew his horse to a walk meaningly.
"I suppose it's none of my business," he commented without preface, "but unless I'm badly mistaken there'll be hell to pay around the Buffalo Butte now."
Again, as at the tent door, his companion made no answer; merely waited for the something he knew was on the other's mind. The east was beginning to lighten now, and against the reddening sky his dark face appeared almost pale.
Howard shifted in his saddle seat and inspected the ground at his right as intently as though there might be jewels scattered about.
"The boss's relative—Craig," he added, "has taken possession there as completely as if he'd owned the place a lifetime instead of been a visitor two days." The long moustaches that gave the man's face an unmeritedly ferocious expression lifted characteristically. "I like you, How, or I wouldn't stick my bill into your affairs. That boy is going to make you trouble, take my word for it."
Even then there was no response; but the overseer did not seem surprised or offended. Instead, the load he had to impart off his mind, his manner indicated distinct relief. But one thing more was necessary to his material comfort—and that solace was at hand. Taking a great bite of plug tobacco, a chew that swelled one of his thin cheeks like a wen, he lapsed into his normal attitude of disinterested reverie.
The ranch house was lighted from top to bottom, abnormally brilliant, and as the Indian entered the odour of kerosene was strong in his nostrils. In the kitchen as he passed through were the other two herders. They sat side by side in uncomfortable inaction, their big sombreros in their hands; and with the suppression of those unused to death nodded him silent recognition. The dining-room was empty, likewise the living-room; but as he mounted the stairs, he could hear the muffled catch of a woman's sobs, and above them, intermittent, authoritative, the voice of a man speaking. His moccasined feet gave no warning, and even after he had entered the room where the dead man lay none of the three who were already present knew that he was there.
Just within the doorway he paused and looked about him. In one corner of the room, well away from the bed, sat Mary Landor. She did not look up as he entered, apparently did not see him, did not see anything. The first wild passion of grief past, she had lapsed into a sort of passive lethargy. Her fingers kept picking at the edge of the loose dressing sack she had put on, and now and then her thin lips trembled; but that was all.
Only a glance the newcomer gave her, then his eyes shifted to the bed; shifted and halted and, unconsciously as he had done when Howard first broke the news, his feet came close together and his arms folded across his chest in characteristic, all-observing attention. Not a muscle moved, he scarcely seemed to breathe. He merely watched.
And this was what he saw: The shape of a dead man lying as at first beneath the covers; only now the sheet had been raised until the face was hid. Beside it, stretched out in abandon as she had thrown herself down, her head all but buried from view, was the girl Bess. She was sobbing as though her heart would break: sobbing as though unconscious of another human being in the world. Above her, leaning over her, was the form of a man: Craig. His uncle had brought his belongings from the tiny town the day before, and even at this time his linen and cravat were immaculate. He was looking down at the little woman before him, looking and hesitating as one choosing between good and evil.
"Bess," he was saying, "you must not. You'll make yourself sick. Besides, it's nearly morning and people will be coming. Don't do so; please!"
No answer, no indication that he had been heard; only the muffled, racking, piteous sobs.
"Bess," insistently, "Bess! Listen to me. I can't have you do so. Uncle Landor wouldn't like it, I know he wouldn't. He'd be sorry if he knew. Be brave, girlie. You're not alone yet."
Still no response of word or of action. Still the dainty, curved shoulders trembled and were quiet and trembled again.
The man's hand dropped to the coverlet beside him. His face went very close.
"Cousin Bess," he repeated for the last time tensely, "I can't let you cry so. I won't. I care for you too much, little girl; infinitely too much. It hurts me to have you feel so terribly, hurts me more than I can tell." Just for a moment he hesitated, and like an inexperienced gambler his face went tense and white. "You must listen to me, Elizabeth, Uncle has gone, but there are others who will take care of you. I myself will take care of you, girlie. Listen, Bess, for there's something I must tell you, something you make me tell you now." Swiftly, unhesitatingly, he leaned still nearer; with one motion his arm passed about her and he clasped her close, so close she could not struggle, could not prevent. "I love you, little girl. Though I've only known you two days, I love you. That is what you compel me to tell you. This is why it hurts me to have you cry so. I love you, Bess; I love you!"
This is what, there in that tiny unplastered bed-room next the roof, came to pass that October morning. Just so the four living actors remained for a second while the first light of day sifted in through the tiny-paned windows; the elderly woman unconscious of the drama enacting before her eyes, unconscious of anything, her thin fingers still picking at the edge of her sack; the motionless watcher rigid as a casting in bronze: the passionate gambling stranger man holding the girl to him tightly, so tightly she could not but remain so, passive; then came the climax. Of a sudden the image that had been lifeless resolved itself into a man. Muscles played here and there visibly beneath the close-fitting flannel shirt he wore. Swiftly, yet still without a sound, one moccasined foot moved forward, and its mate—and again the first. Unexpected as death itself would have been at that instant, Craig felt two mighty irresistible hands close on his shoulders; close with a grip that all but paralysed. Irresistibly again he felt himself turned about, put upon his feet; realised of a sudden, too suddenly and unexpectedly even to admit of a cry, that the girl was free, that, not a foot distant, he was staring into the face of the one being on earth from whom he had most to fear. All this in seconds; then, mercifully intervening, a Providence itself, the tense wet face of the girl came between. The first sound that had been spoken came to his ears.
"How! In God's name don't! He didn't mean any harm; I know he didn't. Forgive him, How; please, please," and repeated: "Forgive him—for my sake."
* * * * *
The lamps had long been out, but the odour of low-test kerosene still hung about the closed living-room where the same four people sat in council. No effort had as yet been made to put the place to rights, and in consequence it was stuffy and disordered and proportionately depressing. The mound of cigarette stumps which Craig had builded the night before lay unsightly and evil of odour on the table. The faded rag carpet was littered with the tobacco he had scattered. His gaudy riding blouse and cap reposed on a lounge in one corner. His ulster and hat, which he had unpacked the last thing before retiring, lay across a chair. Look where one might about the place, there were evidences of his presence, of his dominant inhabitance. Already after two days' residence, as Howard had said, he had taken complete possession. Whosoever may have possessed the voice of authority in the past, concerning the future there was to be no doubt. That voice was speaking now.
"To be sure I shall take him East," it said. "His father is buried in Boston, and his grandfather, and his grandfather's father." The voice halted, lowered. "Besides, my mother and his other sister, who died years and years ago, are both there." Obviously, too obviously, he turned away until his face was hid. Into the voice there crept a throb that was almost convincing. "They'd all want him with them, I'm sure, even though he wouldn't have cared; and I think he would. He mentioned it the first night I came, but of course I didn't realise—then—" The voice was silent.
As hours before in the room above, Mary Landor showed no emotion, did not speak. Not even yet had her sorrow-numbed brain awakened, had she grasped the full meaning of the thing which had happened to her. Later, indefinitely later, the knowledge would come, and with it the hour of reckoning; but for the present she was a mere puppet in the play. Craig, the dominant, had told her to dress, and she had dressed. He had summoned her to the council, and she had obeyed. But it was not to her now that he had spoken, nor to the other man who, silent as he had entered, stood erect, his arms folded, listening. To yet another he had spoken. She it was, Elizabeth, who answered.
"But to take him clear back there, away from everyone who cares for him or ever has cared for him." The soft lower lip was becoming unmanageable and the girl halted, winking hard. "It seems cruel."
"Not if he would have wished it, Bess."
"But if he hadn't wished it—"
"I repeat I think he would." Craig shifted until his back was toward the other man. "I think that his mentioning the possibility at all, the first night I came, proves that he wished it."
"Perhaps.... I don't know." ... A long pause; then of a sudden the girl arose and walked to the window. But subterfuge was from her a thing apart, and she merely leaned her face against the casement. "I can't bear to think of it," she trembled.
Craig moved half way toward her; then remembered, and halted.
"Yes, let's decide, and not talk about it," he returned swiftly. "You agree with me after all, don't you, Bess?"
The girl did not look up.
"Don't ask me. You and How and Aunt Mary decide." With an effort she resumed her former place; but even yet she did not glance at him. "Wherever you take him I shall go along, is all."
Swiftly, exuberantly swiftly, Craig took her up.
"Yes, I think he would have liked that. I ... You agree with me too, don't you, Aunt Mary?"
The older woman started at sound of her name, looked up vacantly. "What?" she queried absently.
Craig repeated the question perfunctorily.
"Yes, he was always good to me, very good to me," she returned monotonously.
In sympathy, the girl's brown eyes moistened anew; but Craig turned away almost impatiently. "Let's consider it settled then," he said.
For the first time the girl glanced up; but it was not at Craig that she looked. It was at that other figure in the background, the figure that not once through it all had stirred or made a sound. "What shall we do, How? what ought we to do?" she asked.
For ten seconds there was silence; but not even then did Craig recognise the other's presence by so much as a glance. Only the look of exultation left his face, and over his blue eyes the lids tightened perceptibly.
"Don't consider what I think, Bess," said a low voice at last. "Do what you feel is right."
It was the white man who had decided, but it was another who brought the decision to pass. How Landor, the Indian, it was who, alone in the dreary chamber beneath the roof, laid the dead man out decently, and for five dragging minutes thereafter, before the others had come, stood like a statue gazing down at the kindly, heavy face, with a look on his own that no living human had ever seen or would ever see. How Landor, the Indian, it was who, again alone in the surrey, with the closely drawn canvas curtains, drove all that day and half the night to the nearest undertaker at the railroad terminus beyond the river, seventy-five miles away. How Landor, the Indian, again it was who, with a change of horses, but barely a pause to eat, started straight back on the return trail, and ere it was again light was within the limits of Coyote Centre, knocking at the door of Mattie Burton, the one woman friend of Mary Landor he knew. How Landor it was once more who, before twenty-four hours from the time he had left, had passed, with the unwilling visitor by his side, re-entered the Buffalo Butte ranch yard. Last of all, How Landor, the Indian, it was who faced the old surrey once more to the east, and with still another team before him and a cold lunch in his pocket, sat waiting within the hour to take the departing ones away.
Through it all he scarcely spoke a word, not one that was superfluous. What he was thinking of no one but he himself knew. That he had expected what had taken place in his absence, his bringing Mrs. Burton proved. At last realisation had come, and Mary Landor was paying the price of the brief lethargic respite; paying it with usury, paying it with the helpless abandon of the dependent. The dreary weather-coloured ranch house was not a pleasant place to be in that day. Craig left it thankfully, with a shrug of the shoulders beneath the box-fitting topcoat, as the door closed behind him. The other passenger, the one who should have left also and did not, the girl Elizabeth—.
How Landor it was again who, when minutes of waiting had passed, minutes wherein Craig consumed cigarettes successively, tied the team and disappeared within doors. What he said none save the girl herself knew; but when he returned he was not alone, and though the eyes of his companion were red, there was in her manner no longer a trace of hesitation.
The two passengers comfortably muffled in the robes of the rear seat, the driver buttoned the curtains tight about them methodically. The day was very still, not a sound came to them from over the prairie, and of a sudden, startlingly clear, from the house itself there came an interruption: the piteous, hopeless wail of a woman in a paroxysm of grief, and a moment later the voice of another woman in unemotional, comforting monotone.
"How," said a choking, answering voice, "I can't go after all, I can't!"
Within the carriage, safe from observation, her companion took her hand authoritatively, pressed it within his own.
"Yes, you can, Bess," he said low. "Aunt Mary will have to fight it out for herself. You couldn't help her any by staying."
But already the Indian was gone. Within the house as before, even keen-eared Mattie Burton failed to catch what he said. Had she done so, she would have been no wiser, for apparently that moment a miracle took place. Of a sudden, the hysterical voice was silent. The man spoke again and—the watcher stared in pure unbelief—her own hand in her companion's hand, Mary Landor followed him obediently out to the surrey.
"We haven't any time to lose," he said evenly, as he drew back the flap of the curtain. "You'd better say good-bye now."
"Bessie, girl. Bessie!"
Again within the ranch house, Mary Landor sank into a seat with the utter weariness of a somnambulist awakened. Fully a half minute the Indian stood looking down at her. For one of the few times in his life his manner indicated indecision. His long arms hung loose from his shoulders. His wide-brimmed hat hid his eyes. The watcher thought he looked very, very weary. Then of a sudden he roused. Bending over—did he foresee what was to come, that moment?—he did something he had never done before.
"Good-bye, mother," he said, and kissed her on the lips.
The door closed behind him noiselessly, and a half minute later the loose-wheeled old surrey went rumbling past the door. Mrs. Burton was feminine and curious, and she went to the window to watch it from sight. The Indian, alone on the front seat, sat looking straight ahead. The bronchos, fresh from the stall, and but a few weeks before wild on the prairie, tugged at the bit wickedly, tried to bolt; but the driver did not stir in his place. The left hand, that held the reins, rose and fell with their motion, as an angler takes up slack in his line; that was all. The woman had lived long on the frontier. She was appreciative and pressed her face against the pane the better to see. They were through the gate now, well out on the prairie. The clatter of the waggon had ceased, the figure of the driver was concealed by the curtains; but the bronchos were still tugging at the bit, still—.
"Mary! In heaven's name!" The sound of a falling body had caught her ear and she had turned. "Mary Landor!" The dishes in the cupboard against the wall shook as something heavy met the floor. "Mary!" A pause and a tongue-tied examination. "My God! The woman is dead!"
* * * * *
It was ten minutes before starting time. The old-fashioned engine, contemptuously relegated to the frontier before going to the junk heap, was puffing at the side of the low sanded station platform. The rough cottonwood box was already in the baggage car. How himself had assisted in putting it there, had previously settled for its transportation. Likewise he had bought the girl's ticket, and checked her scanty baggage. The usual crowd of loafers was about the place, and his every action was observed with the deepest interest. Wherever he moved the spectators followed. Urchins near at hand fought horrible mimic duels for his benefit; duels which invariably ended in the scalping of the vanquished—and with expressions of demoniacal exultation playing upon the face of the conqueror. From far in the rear a war whoop sounded; and when the effort was to all evidence ignored, was repeated intrepidly near at hand. They put themselves elaborately in his way, to move at his approach with grunts of guttural protestation. Already, even here on the frontier, the Sioux and his kind were becoming a novelty. Verily they were rare sportsmen, those mimicking loafers; and for Indians it was ever the open season. All about sounded the popping of their artillery; to be, when exhausted, as often reloaded and fired again.
But through it all, apparently unseeing, unconscious, the man had gone about his business. Now as he left the ticket window and approached the single coach, it was nearly starting time. The girl had already entered and sat motionless in her seat watching him through the dusty window glass. Craig, his feet wide apart, stood on the platform smoking a last cigarette. He shrugged in silence as the other passed him and mounted the steps.
Save for the girl, the coach was empty; but, destitute of courtesy, the spectators without stared with redoubled interest. Without a word the man handed over the ticket and checks. Still in silence he slipped a roll of bills into her passive hand. Until that moment the girl had not thought of money; but even now as she accepted it, there never occurred the wonder from whence it had come. Had she known how those few dollars had been stored up, bit by bit, month by month—But she did not know. Unbelievably unsophisticated, unbelievably innocent and helpless, was Elizabeth Landor at this time. Sitting there that morning on the threshold, she had no more comprehension of the world she was entering, she had entered, than of eternity itself. She was merely passive, trusting, waiting to be led. Like a bit of down from the prairie milkweed plant, she was to be the sport of every breath of wind that blew. And already that wind was blowing. She had watched the scene on the platform, had understood the intent of the mimicry, had seen the winks and nudges, had heard the mocking war whoop. All this she had seen, all this had been stored away in her consciousness to recur again and again in the future. Even now her cheeks had burned at the knowledge, and at last she had watched the man's coming with a feeling of repression she had never known before, whose significance she did not try to analyse, did not in the least understand. She did not thank him for the money. To do so never occurred to her. It was the moment for parting, but she did not throw her arms about his neck in abandon, as she would have done a week before. Something, she knew not what, prevented. She merely sat there, repressed, passive, waiting. A moment, by her side, the Indian paused. He did not speak, he did not move. He merely looked at her; and in his dark eyes there was mirrored a reflection of the look there had been in the eyes of the wild thing he had stalked and captured that day alone on the prairie. But the girl was not looking at him, did not see. A moment he stood so, unconsciously as so many, many times before, in pose; then deliberately, gently, ignoring the row of curious observant eyes, he took her hand and raised it to his lips.
"Good-bye, Bess," he said low. "Come back as soon as you can; and don't worry. Everything will come right." Gently as he had lifted the hand, he released it. A smile—who but he could have smiled at that moment?—played for an instant over his face. Then, almost before the girl realised the fact, before the repressive something that held her in its grip gave release, he was gone.
As he left the coach, Craig, who was waiting, started without a word or a hint of recognition to enter. His foot was already on the step, when he felt a hand upon his arm; a hand with a grip whose meaning there was no misinterpreting. Against his will he drew back. Against his will he met the other, face to face, eye to eye. For what seemed to him minutes, but which in reality was only a second, they stood so. Not a word was spoken, of warning or of commonplace. There was no polite farce for the benefit of the spectators. The Indian merely looked at him; but as once before, alone under the stars, that look was to remain burned on the white man's memory until he went to his grave.
"A'board," bawled the conductor, and as though worked by the same wire, the engineer's waiting head disappeared within the cab window.
Side by side, Clayton Craig and Elizabeth Landor sat watching the weather-stained station and the curious assembled group, as apparently they slowly receded. The last thing they saw was the alien figure of an Indian in rancher's garb, gazing motionless after them; and by his side, in baiting pantomime, one gawky urchin engaged in the labour of scalping a mate. The last sound that reached their ears was the ironic note of a war whoop repeated again and again.
WITHIN THE CONQUEROR'S OWN COUNTRY
It was the day set for the wedding, the eighteenth since the girl had left, the sixteenth since a new mound had arisen on the bare lot adjoining that beneath which rested Landman Bud Smith, the twelfth since How Landor had arrived to haunt the tiny railway terminus. The one train from the East was due at 8:10 of the morning. It was now eight o'clock. Within the shambling, ill-kept hotel, with its weather-stained exterior and its wind-twisted sign, the best room, paid for in advance and freshly dusted for the occasion, awaited an occupant. In a stall of the single livery, a pair of half-wild bronchos, fed and harnessed according to directions, were passively waiting. An old surrey, recently oiled and tightened in all its senile joints, was drawn up conveniently to the door. In a tiny room, designated the study, of the Methodist parsonage, on the straggling outskirts of the town, the only minister the settlement boasted sat staring at the unpapered wall opposite. He was a mild-featured young man of the name of Mitchell, recently graduated from a school of theology, and for that reason selected as a sacrifice to the frontier. In front of him on the desk lay a duly prepared marriage licence, and upon it a bright gold half eagle. From time to time he glanced thereat peculiarly, and in sympathy from it to the tiny fast-ticking clock at its side. He did so now, and frowned unconsciously.
At the station the crowd of loafers that always preceded the arrival or departure of a train were congregated. In some way suggestions of the unusual had passed about, and this day their number was greatly augmented. Just what they anticipated they did not know; they did not care. Restless, athirst for excitement, they had dumbly responded to the influence in the air and come. In the foreground, where a solitary Indian stood motionless, waiting, there was being repeated the same puerile pantomime and horse-play of a former occasion. At intervals, from the rear, sounded the war whoop travesty. It was all the same as that afternoon eighteen days before, when the girl had left, similar even to the cloud of black smoke in the distance lifting lazily into the sky; only now the trail, instead of growing thinner and lighter, became denser and blacker minute by minute. In sympathy, the humorists on the platform redoubled their efforts. The instinct of anticipation, of Anglo-Saxon love of excitement that had brought them there, urged them on. Not one throat but many underwent simultaneous pantomimic bisection. A half dozen voices caught up the war whoop, passed it on from throat to throat. Almost before they realised what they were doing, the thing became a contagion, an orgy. Many who had not taken part before, who had come from mere curiosity, took part now. The crowd pressed closer and closer about the alien, the centre of attraction. When he moved farther along the platform to avoid them, they followed. Heretofore passive, the innate racial hostility became active. One youth with a dare-devil air jostled him—and disappeared precipitately. There was no response, no retaliation, and another followed his example. The confusion redoubled, drowned the roar of the approaching train. Spectators in the rear began mounting trucks and empty barrels the better to see. Within the station itself the shirt-sleeved agent surreptitiously locked the door to the ticket-room and sprung the combination of the safe. Beginning harmlessly, the incident was taking on a sinister aspect, and he had lived too long in this semi-lawless land to take any chances. Re-turning to his place of observation at the window, he was just in time to see a decayed turnip come hurtling over the heads of the crowd and, with enviable accuracy, catch the Indian behind the ear. Simultaneously, with a roar and a puff of displaced air, the light train drew into the station, on time.
Through it all the Indian had not spoken a word. Save to move twice farther away along the platform, he had not stirred. Unbelievable as it may seem, even when the missile had struck him, though it had left a great red welt, he gave no sign of feeling. For a space following the arrival of the train there was a lull, and in it, as though nothing had happened, he approached the single coach and stood waiting.
It was the last of the week and travel was very light.
A dapper commercial salesman with an imitation alligator grip descended first, looked about him apprehensively, and disappeared with speed. A big rancher with great curling moustaches and a vest open save at the bottom button followed. He likewise took stock of the surroundings, and discreetly withdrew. Following him there was a pause; then of a sudden onto the platform, fair into view of the crowd, appeared one for whom apparently they had been looking, one who on the instant caused the confusion, temporarily stilled, to break forth anew: the figure of a dainty brown girl with sensitive eyes and a soft oval chin, of Elizabeth Landor returned alone!
"Ah, there she is," shouted a voice, an united voice, the refound voice of the expectant crowd.
"Yes, there she is," repeated the intrepid youth who had introduced the jostle. "Go to, redskin. Kiss her again. Kiss her; we don't mind."
A great shout followed this sally, a shout that was heard far up the single street, and that brought curious faces to a half score of doors.
"No, we don't mind, redskin," they guffawed. "Go to! Go to!"
Hesitant, hopelessly confused, the girl halted as she had appeared. Her great eyes opened wider than before, her face shaded paler momentarily, the soft oval chin trembled. Another minute, another second even.
"Come Bess," said a low voice. "Come on; don't mind them. I'll take care of you."
It was the first speech the man had made, and from pure curiosity the crowd went silent, listening—silent until he was silent; then with the lack of originality ever manifest in a mob, they caught up his words themselves.
"Yes, Bess," they baited, "he'll take care of you. Come, don't keep him waiting."
But the girl did not stir. Had empires depended upon it that moment, she could not have complied. Could she have cried, as the chin had at first presaged, she might perhaps have done so; but she was beyond the reach of tears now. The complete meaning of the scene had come to her at last, the realisation of personal menace; and a fear such as she had never before known, gripped her relentlessly. She could hear, hear every word; but her muscles refused to act. She merely stood there, the old telescope satchel she carried gripped tight in her hand, her great eyes, wide and soft as those of a wild thing, staring out into the now rapidly accumulating rabble; merely stared and waited.
"Bess," repeated the persuading voice, "come, please. Don't stand there, come."
At last the girl seemed to hear, to understand. Hesitatingly, with trembling steps, she came a pace forward, and another; then of a sudden she gave a little cry and her free hand lifted defensively. But she was not quick enough, had seen too late; and that instant came the denouement. A second turnip, decayed like its predecessor, aimed likewise unerringly, caught her fair in the mouth, spattered, and broke into fragments that fell to the car steps. Following, swift as rain after a thunderclap, a spurt of blood came to her lips and trickled down her face.
Simultaneously the crowd went silent; silent as the still prairie about them, awed irresistibly by the thing they had themselves wittingly or unwittingly done. Save one, not a human being stirred. That one, no need to tell whom, transformed visibly; transformed as they had never seen a human being alter before. With not a step, but a bound, he was himself on the platform of the coach; the girl, protected behind him, hid from sight. She was sobbing now; sobbing tumultuously, hysterically. In the stillness every listening ear on the platform could hear distinctly. For an instant after he had reached her the Indian stood so, his left arm about her, his back toward them. He did not say a word, he did not move. For the first time in his life he dared not. He did not see red that moment, this man; he saw black—black as prairie loam. Every savage instinct in his brain was clamouring for freedom, clamouring until his free hand was clenched tight to keep it from the bulging holster behind his right hip. Before this instant, when they were baiting him alone, it was nothing, he could forgive; but now—now—He stared away from them, stared up into the smiling, sarcastic prairie sky; but, listening, they, who almost with fascination watched, could hear beneath the catch of the girl's sobs the sound of his breathing.
Ever at climaxes time seems suspended. Whether it was a second or a minute he stood there so, they who watched could never tell. What they did know was that at last he turned, stood facing them. All their lives they had seen passion, seen it in every phase, seen it until it was commonplace. It was in the very air of the frontier, to be expected, life of the life; but as this man shifted they saw a kind of which they had never dreamed. For How Landor was master of himself again, master, as well—they knew it, every man and youth who saw,—of them. For another indefinitely long deathly silent space he merely looked at them; looked eye to eye, individual by individual, into every face within the surrounding semi-circle. Once before another man, a drunken cowman, had seen that identical look. Now not one but a score saw it, felt a terrible ice-cold menace creep from his brain into their brains. Even yet he did not speak, did not make a sound; nor did they. Explain it as you will, he did this thing. Another thing he did as well; and that was the end. Slowly, deliberately, he stepped to the platform and held out his hand. Obediently the girl followed. She was not crying now. Her eyes were red and a drop of blood came now and then to her lips; but she had grown wonderfully quiet all at once, wonderfully calm—almost as much so as the man. Deliberately as he had stepped down into the spectators' midst, the Indian took the old telescope from the girl's hand and, she following by his side, moved a step forward. He did not touch her again nor did she him. They merely moved ahead toward the sidewalk that led up the single street; moved deliberately, leisurely, as though they were alone. Not around the crowd, but straight through it they passed; through a lane that opened as by magic as they went, and as by magic closed behind them, until they were within a solid human square. But of all the assembled spectators that day, an aggregation irresponsible, unchivalrous as no other rabble on earth—a mob of the frontier,—not one spoke to challenge their action, not one attempted to bar their way. The complete length of the platform they went so, turned the corner by the station—and, simultaneously, the crowd disappeared from view, hid by the building itself. Then in sudden reaction, the girl weakened. Irresistibly she caught at the man's arm, held it fast.
"Oh, How! How!" she trembled, "is it to be always like this with you and me? Is it to be always, everywhere, so?"
But the man said never a word.
* * * * *
Two hours had passed. The girl had breakfasted. A wood fire crackled cheerfully in the sheet iron heater of the tiny room where the same two people sat alone. Already the world had taken on a different aspect. Not that Elizabeth Landor had forgotten that recent incident at the depot. She would never forget it. It had merely passed into temporary abeyance, taken its proper place in the eternal scheme of things. Another consideration, paramount, all-compelling, had inevitably crowded it from the stage. It was this consideration that had held her silent far longer than was normal. It was its overshadowing influence that at last prompted speech.
"How did you know I was coming to-day?" she queried suddenly.
"How did you know I would be at the train to meet you?" echoed a voice.
The girl did not answer, did not pursue the subject.
"Tell me of Aunt Mary, please," she digressed. "I felt somehow when you wrote as if I—I—" A swiftly gathered shower called a halt. Tear drops, ever so near, stood in her eyes. "Please tell me," she completed.
The man told her. It did not take long. As of her prosaic life, so there was little to record of the death of Mary Landor. "It was best that you were away," he ended. "It was best for her that she went when she did."
"You think so, How, honestly?" No affectation in that anxious query. "You think I didn't do wrong in leaving as I did?"
"No, you did no wrong, Bess." A pause. "You could not."
A moment the girl sat looking at him; in wonder and something more.
"I believe you knew all the time Aunt Mary would—go while I was away," she said suddenly, tensely. "I believe you helped me away on purpose."
"Tell me, How. I want to know."
"I thought so, Bess," simply.
For a long time the girl sat so; silent, marvelling. A new understanding of this solitary human stole over her, an appreciation that drowned the sadness of a moment ago. "How you must care for me," she voiced almost unconsciously. "How you must care for me!"
She did not expect an answer. She was not disappointed. Again a silence fell; a silence of which she was unconscious, for she was thinking. Minutes passed. In the barn the bronchos were passively waiting. At the parsonage the young minister still sat scowling in his study. No time had been set for the visit he expected. There was no apparent reason why he should not have gone about his work; but for some reason he could not. Angry with himself, he thrust the new half eagle into his pocket and, placing the offending licence beneath a pile of papers, he walked over to the window and stood staring out into the sunshine.
Within the tiny room at the hotel the gaze of the girl shifted, dropped to her feet. Despite an effort her face tinged slowly red.
"Did you think," she queried abruptly, "when you expected me to-day that I would come alone?"
The Indian showed no surprise.
"Yes, Bess," he answered. "I knew you would be alone."
"Why, How?" The question was just audible.
"Because I trusted you, Bess."
Silence again. Surreptitiously, swiftly, the girl's brown eyes glanced up; but he was not looking at her, and again her glance fell. A longer pause followed, a pause wherein the girl could not have spoken if she would. A great preventing lump was in her throat, an obstacle that precluded speech. Many things had happened in the short time since she had last been with this man, some things of which she was not proud; and beside such a trust as this Bess Landor was speechless. Without volition upon her part, the cup of life had been placed to her lips and, likewise without knowledge of what it contained, she had tasted. The memory of that draught was with her now. Under its influence she spoke.
"You are better than I am, How," she said.
If the man understood he gave no evidence of the knowledge. He did not even look at her. Time was passing, time which should have found them upon their way, but he showed no impatience. It was his day, his moment, his by right; but no one looking at him would have doubted that he himself would never first suggest the fact. Conditions had changed very rapidly in the recent past, altered until, from his view-point, it was impossible for him to make the move toward the old relation, to even intimate its desirability. With the patience of his race he waited. In the fulness of time he was rewarded.
"How," of a sudden initiated a voice, withal an embarrassed voice, "will you do me a favour?"
"What is it, Bess?"
The girl coloured. Instinctively the man knew that at last the recall had come, and for the first time he was looking at her steadily.
"Promise me, please," temporised the girl.
Even yet Elizabeth Landor found it difficult to say what she wished to say.
"You won't be—offended or angry, How?"
"No, Bess. You could hurt me, but you couldn't make me angry."
"Thank you, How. It's a little thing, but I'd like to have you humour me." She met his look directly. "It's when we are married to-day you'll be dressed—well, not the way you usually dress." Her colour came and went, her throat was a-throb. "Dressed like—You understand, How."
Of a sudden the Indian was upon his feet; then as suddenly he checked himself. Characteristically, he now ignored the immaterial, went, as ever, straight to fundamentals without preface or delay. Scarce one human in a generation would have held aloof at that moment. It was his, his by every right; but even yet he would not take it, not until—.
"Bess," he said slowly. "I want to ask you a question and I want you to answer me—as you would answer your mother were she alive." Once again, unconsciously, he fell into pose, his arms across his breast, his great shoulders squared. "I have seen Mr. Landor's will. He has left you nearly everything. You are rich, Bess; I won't tell you how rich because you wouldn't understand. You are young and can live any life you wish. You know what marrying me means. I am as I am and cannot change. You know what others, people of your own race, think when you are with me. They have shown you to-day. Answer me, Bess, have you thought of all this? Was it duty that brought you back, or did you really wish to come? Don't take me into consideration at all when you answer. Don't do it, or we shall both live to regret. Tell me, Bess, as you know I love you, whether you have thought of all this and still wish to marry me. Tell me." He was silent. Once again it was a climax, and once again came oblivion of passing time. For minutes passed, minutes wherein, with wide open eyes, the girl made her choice. Not in hot blood was the decision made, not as before in ignorance of what that decision meant. Deliberately, with the puerile confidence we humans feel in our insight of future, she chose; as she believed, honestly.
"Yes, How," she said slowly. "I have thought of it all and I wish to marry you. I've no place else in the world to go. There's no one in the world that I trust as I trust you. I wish to marry you to-day, How."
Then, indeed, it was the man's moment. Then, and not until then, he accepted his reward.
"Bess!" She was in his arms. "Bess!" He tasted Paradise. "Bess!" That was all.
* * * * *
For the second time that day the air of the tiny town tingled with portent of the unusual. For the second time a crowd was gathered; only now it was not at the station, but at a place of far more sinister import, within and in front of the "Lost Hope" saloon. Again in personnel it was different, notably different from that of the first occasion. The same irresponsibles were there, as ever they are present at times of storm; but added to the aggregation now, outnumbering them, were others ordinarily responsible, men typical in every way of the time and place. A second difference of even greater portent was the motif of gathering. For it was not a mere rumour, an idle curiosity, that had brought them together now. On the contrary they had at last, these dominant Anglo-Saxons, begun to take themselves seriously. Rumour, inevitable in a place where days were as much alike as the one-story buildings on the main street, had begun when How Landor had commenced to haunt the station at the time of the incoming train. The incident of the morning had familiarised the rumour into gossip. Hard upon this had followed a report from the hotel landlord, and gossip had become certainty. Then it was that horse-play had ceased, and, save at the point of congregation, a silence, unwonted and sinister, had taken its place. So marked was the change that when at last the Indian and the girl left the hotel together on their way to the parsonage the street through which they passed was as still as though it were the street of a prairie dog town. So quiet it was that the girl was deceived; but the ears of the Indian were keener, and faint as an echo beneath it, as yet well in the distance, he detected the warning of an alien note. Not as on that other day out on the prairie when he caught the first trumpet call of the Canada goose, did he recognise the sound from previous familiarity. Never in his life had he heard its like; yet now an instinct told him its meaning, told him as well its menace. Not once did he look back, not one word of prophecy did he speak to the girl at his side; yet as surely as a grey timber wolf realises what is to come when he catches the first faint bay of the hounds on his trail, How Landor realised that at last for him the hour of destiny had struck, that as surely as the wild thing must battle for life he must do likewise—and that soon, very, very soon.
Up the street they went: a small dark girl garbed as no woman was ever garbed in a fashion-plate, a tall copper-brown man all but humorously grotesque in a ready-made suit of clothes that were far from a fit and the first starched shirt and collar he had ever worn. Laughable unqualifiedly, this red man tricked out in the individuality-destroying dress of the white brother would have been to an observer who had not the key to the situation; but to one who knew the motive of the alteration it was far as the ends of the earth from humorous. On they went, silent now, each in widely separated anticipation; and after them, at first silent likewise, then as it advanced growing noisier and noisier, followed the crowd which had congregated at the Lost Hope saloon. As on the day of the little landman's funeral when Captain William Landor had passed up the street of Cayote Centre, ahead where the Indian and the girl advanced not the figure of a human being was in sight, unless one were suspicious and looked closely, not a face; but to the Indian eyes were everywhere. Every house they passed—for they were in the residence section now—had its pair or multiple pairs peering out through the slats of a blind, or, as in a theatre preceding a performance, at the side of a drawn curtain. Like wildfire the news had spread; like turtles timid women folk had drawn close within their shells; yet everywhere curiosity they could not repress prompted them to take a last look before the storm. Once, and once only, the pedestrians were interrupted. Then a house dog came bounding across the lawn to pause at a safe distance and growl a menace; and again the all-noting Indian had observed the cause of the unwonted bravery, had heard the low voice from the kitchen that had urged the beast on.
Thus nearer and nearer that sunny fall morning the storm approached. Long before this, unobservant though she was, had the girl not been living in the future instead of the present, she would have recognised its coming. For the pursuers were gaining rapidly now. They had crossed onto the same street, the principal residence thoroughfare, and were coming as a crowd ever moves: swiftly, those in the rear exerting themselves to get to the fore, and so again. Far from silent by this time, the man ahead, the man who never deigned a backward glance, could hear their voices in a perpetual rumble; could distinguish at intervals, interrupting it, above it, a voice commanding, inflaming. Without seeing, he knew that at last his persecutors had found a commander, a directing spirit—and as well as he knew his own name he knew who that leader was. Unsophisticated absolutely in the ways of the world was this man; but in the reading of his fellows he was a master.
Apparently oblivious when a part of this same crowd had congregated at the train, he had nevertheless observed them individual by individual; and in his own consciousness had known that the moment, his moment, had not come: for a leader, the leader, was not there. Again when the train had pulled in he had watched—and still the leader did not appear. But he was not deceived. As he had trusted in the girl's coming he had trusted in another's following surreptitiously; and as now he heard that one voice sounding above the other voices he knew he had been right. For the man at the head of that pursuing mob which gained on them so rapidly block by block, the man whose influence in those brief hours the Indian and the girl had been alone in the tiny room at the hotel had vitalised the lukewarm racial hostility into a thing of menace, was the same man whose life he had once saved, the same man about whose throat ere the identical night had passed his fingers had closed: Clayton Craig by name, one time of Boston, Mass., but now, by his uncle's will, master of the Buffalo Butte ranch house!
Meanwhile in the study of the parsonage Clifford Mitchell was again looking out the single window. Time and time again he had tried to work—and as often failed. At last he had conformed to the inevitable and was merely waiting. The house was on the outskirts of the town and the window faced the open prairie; bare and rolling as far as the eye could reach. He was city bred, this mild-faced servant of God, and as yet the prairie country was a thing at which to marvel. He was looking out upon it now, absently, thoughtfully, wondering at its immensity and its silence—when of a sudden he became conscious that it was no longer silent. Instead to his ears, growing louder moment by moment, penetrating the illy constructed walls, came an indistinct roar; rising, lowering, yet ever constant: a sound unlike any other on earth, distinctive as the silence preceding had been typical—the clamour of angry, menacing human voices en masse. Once, not long before, in a city street the listener had heard that identical sound; and recognition was instantaneous. Swift as memory he recalled the strike that had been its cause, the horde of sympathisers who had of a sudden appeared as from the very earth, the white face and desperate figure of the solitary "scab" fighting a moment, and a moment only, for life, in their midst. Swift as memory came that picture; and swift upon its heels, blotting it out, the present returned. Clifford Mitchell had not been among this people long; yet already he had caught the spirit of the place, and as he listened he knew full well what a similar gathering among them would mean. He was not a brave man, this blue-eyed pastor; not a drop of fighting blood was in his veins; and as moment after moment passed and the sound grew nearer and nearer, the first real terror of his life came creeping over him. Not in his mind was there a doubt as to the destination of that oncoming multitude. Premonition had been too electric in the air that day for him to question its meaning. They were coming to him, to him, Clifford Mitchell, these irresponsible menacing humans. It might be another for whom they had gathered; but he as well would share in their displeasure, in their punishment: for he was a party to the thing of which they disapproved. All the day, from the time the Indian had called and almost simultaneously, vague rumours of trouble had come floating in the visitor's wake; he had been in anticipation; and now the thing anticipated had become a certainty. Answering he felt the cold perspiration come pouring out on his forehead; and absently, he wiped it away with the palm of his hand. Following came a purely physical weakness; and stumbling across the room he took the seat beside the desk. Unconsciously nervous, restless, his fingers fumbled with the pile of papers before him until they came to a certain one he had buried. Almost as though impelled against his will to do so he spread this one flat before him and sat staring at it, dumbly waiting.
Nearer and nearer came the roar as he sat there, irresistible, cumulatively menacing as a force of nature; and instinctively, by it alone, the listener marked the approach of its makers. He could hear them down the street at the other end of the block before the residence of Banker Briggs. He knew this to a certainty because part of those who came were on the sidewalk, and that was the only piece of cement in town. Again, by the same token, he knew when they passed the only other house in the block besides his own. There was a gap in the boardwalk there, and when the leaders reached it the patter of their footsteps went suddenly muffled on the bare earth. It was his turn next, his in a moment; yes, the feet were already on the confines of his own yard, the roar of their owners' voices was all about. He could even distinguish what they were saying now, could catch names, his own name.
Of a sudden, expected and yet unexpected, a dark shadow passed before his window, and another; then a swarm. Simultaneously faces, not a few but as many as could crowd into the space, appeared outside the panes, staring curiously in. Involuntarily he arose to draw the shade; and at that moment, interrupting, startlingly loud, there came a knock at his front door.
Clifford Mitchell paused on his way to the window, stood irresolute; and, seemingly impossible as it was, the number of curious faces multiplied.
The knock was repeated; not fearfully or frantically, but deliberately and with an insistence there was no misunderstanding.
This time the minister responded. He did not pause to blot out the faces of the curious. The licence he had been absently holding was still in his hand; but he did not delay to put it down. There was something compelling in that knock; something that demanded instant obedience, and he obeyed. The living-room through which he passed on his way had two windows and, identical with that of his study, each was black with humanity; but he did not even glance at them. His legs trembled involuntarily and his throat was dry as though he had been speaking for hours; yet, nevertheless, he obeyed. With a hand that shook perceptibly he turned the button of the spring lock, and, opening the door onto the street, looked out.
While Clifford Mitchell lived, while lived every man of the uncounted throng gathered there beneath the noon-time sun that October day, they remembered that moment, the moments that followed. As real life is ever stranger than fiction, so off the stage occur incidents more stirring than at the play. Standing there in the narrow doorway, white-faced, hesitant, awaiting a command, the minister himself exemplified the fact beyond question; yet of his own grotesque part he was oblivious. He had thought for but one thing that moment, had room in his consciousness for but one impression; and that was for the drama ready there before him. And small wonder, for, looking out, this was what he saw:
An uneven straggling village street, mottled with patches of dead grass and weeds. Along it, here and there, like kernels of seed scattered on fallow ground, a sprinkling of one-story houses. This the background. In the midst of it all, covering his lawn, overflowing into the yards of his neighbours, dense, crowding the better to see, all-surrounding, was a solid zone of motley humanity. Old men with weather-beaten faces and untrimmed beards were there, young men with the marks that dissipation and passion indelibly stamp, awkward, gawky youths unconsciously aping their elders, smooth-faced youngsters in outgrown garments; all ages and conditions of the human frontier male were there—but in that zone not a single woman. Ranchers there were in corduroys and denims, cowboys in buckskin and flannel, gamblers in the glaring colours distinctive of their kind, business men with closely cropped moustaches, idlers in anything and everything; but amid them all not a friendly face. This the surrounding zone, the mongrel pack that had brought the quarry to bay.
In the centre of the half circle they formed, within a couple of paces of the now open doorway, were three people. Two of them, a rather small brown girl and a tall wiry Indian in a new suit of ready-made clothes and a derby hat of the model of the year before, were nearest; so near that the door, which swung outward, all but touched them. The other, a well-built, smooth-faced Easterner with a white skin and delicate hands, was opposite. His dress was the dress of a man of fashion, his cravat and patent leather buttoned shoes were of the latest style; but his linen was soiled now, and a two-days' growth of beard covered his chin. Moreover, his eyes were bloodshot and, despite an effort to prevent, as he stood there now he wavered a bit to right and left. One look told his story. He had been drinking, drinking for days; and, worst of all, he had been drinking this day, drinking in anticipation of this very moment, swallowing courage against the necessity of the now. All this the stage and its setting, upon which the white-faced minister raised the curtain. Simultaneously, as ever an audience grows silent when the real play begins, it grew silent now. The hinges of the little-used front door were rusty and had squeaked startlingly. Otherwise not a sound marked the opening of the drama.
A moment following the silence was intense, a thing one could feel; then of a sudden it was broken—not by words, but by action. One step the white-skinned man took forward; a step toward the girl. A second step he advanced, and halted; for, preventing, the hand of the other man was upon his own.
"Stand back, please," said an even voice. "It's not time for congratulations yet. Stand back, please."
Answering there was a sound; but not articulate. It was a curse, a challenge, a menace all in one; and with a hysterical terrified little cry the girl shrank back into the doorway itself. But none other, not even the minister, stirred.
"Mr. Craig," the words were low, almost intimately low, but in the stillness they seemed fairly loud. "I ask you once more to stand back. I don't warn you, I merely request—but I shall not ask it again." Of a sudden the speaker's hand left the other's arm, dropped by his own side. "Stand back, please."
Face to face the two men stood there; the one face working, passionate, menacing; the other emotionless as the blue sky overhead. A moment they remained so while the breathless onlookers expected anything, while from the doorstep the minister's white lips moved in a voiceless prayer; then slowly, lingeringly, the man who had advanced drew back. A step he took silently, another, and his breathing became audible, still another, and was himself amid the spectators. Then for the first time he found voice.
"You spoke your own sentence then, redskin," he blazed. "We'd have let you go if you'd given up the girl; but now—now—May God have mercy on your soul now, How Landor!"
Again there was silence; silence absolute. As at that first meeting on the car platform, the girl had turned facing them. It was the crisis, and as before an instinct which she did not understand, which she merely obeyed, brought her to the Indian's side; held her there motionless, passive, mysteriously unafraid. Her usually brown face was very pale and her eyes were unnaturally bright; but withal she was unbelievably calm—calm as a child with its hand in its father's hand. Not even that solid zone of menacing, staring eyes had terror for her now. Whether or no she loved him, as she believed in God she trusted in that motionless, dominant human by her side.
A moment they stood so in a silence wherein they could hear each other breathe, wherein the prayer that had never left the minister's lips became audible; then came the end. Incredible after it was over was that denouement, inexplicable to a legion of old men, then among the boys, who witnessed it, to this day. Yet as the incredible continues to take place in this world it took place then. As one man can ever dominate other men it was done that silent noon hour. For that moment the first challenge that had ever passed the lips of How Landor was spoken. The only challenge that he ever made to man or woman in his life found voice; and was not accepted. One step he took toward that listening, expectant throng and halted. With the old, old motion his arms folded across his chest.
"Men," he said, "I don't want trouble here to-day. I've done my best to avoid it; but the end has come. I've stood everything at your hands, every insult which you could conceive, things which no white man would have permitted for a second; and so far without resentment. But I shall stand it no more. I'm one to a hundred; but that makes no difference. Bess Landor and I are to be married now and here; here before you all. I shall not talk to you again. I shall not ask you to leave us in peace; but as surely as one of you speaks another word of insult to her or to me, as surely as one of you attempts to interfere or prevent, I shall kill that man. No matter which of you it is, I shall do this thing." A moment longer he stood so, observing them steadily, with folded arms; then, still facing, he moved back a step. "Mr. Mitchell," he said, "we are ready."
And there that October noonday, fair in the open with two hundred curious eyes watching, in a silence unbroken as that of prairie night itself, Bess Landor and Ma-wa-cha-sa the Sioux were married. The minister stumbled in the ritual, and though he held the book close before his face, it was memory alone that prompted the form; for the pages shook until the letters were blurred. Yet it was done, and, save one alone, every spectator who had come with a far different intent stayed and listened to the end. That one, a tall, modish alien with a red, flushed face covered with a two-days' growth of bread, was likewise watching when it began. But when it was over he was not there; and not one of those who had followed his lead had noticed his going.
THE MYSTERY OF SOLITUDE
Westward across the unbroken prairie country, into the smiling, sun-kissed silence and emptiness, two people were driving: a white girl of two-and-twenty summers and an Indian man a few years older. Back of them, in the direction from which they had come, was the outline of a straggling, desolate village. Ahead, to either side, was the rolling brown earth; and at the end of it, abrupt apparently as a material wall, the blue of a cloudless October sky. The team they were driving, a mouse-coloured broncho and a mate a shade darker, were restless after three days of enforced inactivity and tugged at the bit mightily. Though the day was perfectly still, the canvas curtains of the old surrey flapped lazily in a breeze born of the pace alone. The harness on the ponies shuffled and creaked with every move. Though the bolts of the ancient vehicle had been carefully tightened, it nevertheless groaned at intervals with the motion; mysteriously, like the unconscious sigh of the aged, apparently without reason. Beneath the wheels the frost-dried grass rattled continuously, monotonously; but save this last there was no other sound. Since the two humans had left the limits of the tiny town there had been no other sound. Now and then the girl had glanced behind, instinctively, almost fearfully; but not once had the man followed her example, had he stirred in his place. Swiftly, silently, he was leaving civilisation behind him; by the scarce visible landmarks he alone distinguished was returning to his own, to the wild that lay in the distance beyond.
Thus westward, direct as a tight cord, on and on they went; and back of them gradually, all but unconsciously, the low-built terminus grew dimmer and dimmer, vanished detail by detail as completely as though it had never been. Last of all to disappear, already a mere black dot against the blue, was the water tank beside the station. For three miles, four, it held its place; then, as, with the old unconscious motion the girl turned to look back, she searched for it in vain. Behind them as before, unbroken, limiting, only the brown plain and the blue surrounding wall met her gaze. At last, there in the solitude, there with no observer save nature and nature's God, she and the other were alone.
As the first man and the first woman were alone they were alone. From horizon to horizon was not a sign of human handiwork, not a suggestion of human presence. They might live or die, or laugh or weep, or love or hate—and none of their kind would be the wiser. All her life that she could remember the girl had lived so, all her life she had but to lift her eyes above her feet to gaze into the infinite; yet in the irony of fate never until this moment, the moment when of all she should have been the happiest, did the immensity of this solitude appeal to her so, did appreciation of the terrible, haunting loneliness it concealed touch her with its grip. Care free, thoughtless, never until the whirl of the last fortnight had the future, her future, appealed to her as something which she herself must shape or alter. Heretofore it had been a thing taken for granted, preordained as the alternate coming of light and of darkness. But in that intervening time, short as it was, she had awakened. Rude as had been the circumstances that had aroused her, they had nevertheless been effective. Without volition upon her part the panorama of another life had been unrolled before her eyes. Sensations, thoughts, impulses of which she had never previously dreamed had been hers. Passions unconceived had stalked before her gaze. More a nightmare on the whole than an awakening it had all been; yet nevertheless the experience had been hers. Much of its meaning had passed her by. Events had crowded too thickly for her to grasp the whole; but en masse the effect had been definite—startlingly definite. Unbelievable as it may seem, for the first time in her existence she had aroused to the consciousness of being an individual entity. The inevitable metamorphosis of age, the thing which differentiates a child from an adult, belated long in her passive life, had at last taken place. Bewilderingly sudden, so sudden that as yet she had not adjusted herself to the change, had barely become conscious thereof, yet certain as existence itself, the transformation had come to pass. Looking back there that afternoon, looking where the town had been and now was not, mingling with the impressions of a day full to overflowing, there came to the girl for the first time a definite appreciation of this thing that she had done. And that moment from the scene, never to appear again, passed Bess Landor the child; and invisibly into her place, taking up the play where the other had left, came Elizabeth Landor the woman.