III: The Empty Chair

Peter McArthur came into the big living-room of the ranch-house bearing tenderly in his arms a long brown sack. He set it upon a chair, and, as he patted it affectionately, he said to the Indian woman in explanation:

“These are some specimens which I have been fortunate enough to find in a limestone formation in the country through which we have just passed. No doubt you will be amused, madam, but the wealth of Crœsus could not buy from me the contents of this canvas sack.”

“I broke a horse for that son-of-a-gun onct. He owes me a dollar and six bits for the job yet,” remarked Tubbs.

The fire of enthusiasm died in McArthur’s eyes as they rested upon his man.

“What for a prospect do you aim to open up in a limestone formation?”

Smith, tipped on the rear legs of his chair, with his head resting comfortably against the unbleached muslin sheeting which lined the walls, winked at Tubbs as he asked the question.

“‘What for a prospect’?” repeated McArthur.

“Yes, ‘prospect’—that’s what I said. You say you’ve got your war-bag full of spec’mens.”

McArthur laughed heartily.

“Ah, my dear sir, I understand. You are referring to mines—to mineral specimens. These are the specimens of which I am speaking.”

Opening the sack, McArthur held up for inspection what looked to be a lump of dried mud.

“This is a magnificent specimen of the crustacean period,” he declared.

The Indian woman looked from the prized object to his animated face; then, with puzzled eyes, she looked at Smith, who touched his forehead with his finger, making a spiral, upward gesture which in the sign language says “crazy.”

The woman promptly gathered up the rag rug she was braiding and moved to a bench in the farthermost corner of the room.

“I can get you a wagon-load of chunks like that.”

“Oh, my dear sir——”

“Smith’s my name.”

“But, Mr. Smith——”

“I trusts no man that ’Misters’ me,” Smith scowled. “Every time I’ve ever been beat in a deal, it’s been by some feller that’s called me ’Mister.’ Jest Smith suits me better.”

“Certainly, if you prefer,” amicably replied McArthur, although unenlightened by the explanation.

He replaced his specimen and tied the sack, convinced that it would be useless to explain to this person that fossils like this were not found by the wagon-load; that perhaps in the entire world there was not one in which the branchiocardiac grooves were so clearly defined, in which the emostigite and the ambulatory legs were so perfectly preserved.

He seemed a singular person, this Smith. McArthur was not sure that he fancied him.

“Say, Guv’ner, what business do you follow, anyhow?” Tubbs asked the question in the tone of one who really wanted to get at the bottom of a matter which had troubled him. “Air you a bug-hunter by trade, or what? I’ve hauled you around fer more’n a month now, and ain’t figgered it out what you’re after. We’ve dug up ant-hills and busted open most of the rocks between here and the North Fork of Powder River, but I’ve never seen you git anything yet that anybuddy’d want.”

In the beginning of their tour, Tubbs’s questions and caustic comment would have given McArthur offense, but a longer acquaintance had taught him that none was intended; that his words were merely those of a man entirely without knowledge upon any subject save those which had come under his direct observation. While Tubbs frequently exasperated him beyond expression, he found at the same time a certain fascination in the man’s incredible ignorance. In many respects his mind was like that of a child, and his horizon as narrow as McArthur’s own, though his companion did not suspect it. The little scientist saw life from the viewpoint of a small college and a New England village; Tubbs knew only the sage-brush plains.

McArthur now replied dryly, but without irritation:

“My real trade—‘job,’ if you prefer—is anthropology. Strictly speaking, I might, I think, be called an anthropologist.”

“Gawd, feller!” ejaculated Smith in mock dismay. “Don’t tip your hand like that. I’m a killer myself, but I plays a lone game. I opens up to no man or woman livin’.”

Tubbs looked slightly ashamed of his employer.

“Pardon me?”

“I say, never give nobody the cinch on you. Many a good man’s tongue has hung him.”

McArthur studied Smith’s unsmiling face in perplexity, not at all sure that he was not in earnest.

They sat in silence after this, even Tubbs being too hungry to indulge in reminiscence.

The odor of frying steak filled the room, and the warmth from the round sheet-iron stove gave Smith, in particular, a delicious sense of comfort. He felt as a cat on a comfortable cushion must feel after days and nights of prowling for food and shelter. The other two men, occupied with their own thoughts, closed their eyes; but not so Smith. Nothing, to the smallest detail, escaped him. He appraised everything with as perfect an appreciation of its value as an auctioneer.

Through the dining-room door which opened into the kitchen, he could see the kitchen range—a big one—the largest made for private houses. Smith liked that. He liked things on a big scale. Besides, it denoted generosity, and he had come to regard a woman’s kitchen as an index to her character. He distinctly approved of the big meat-platter upon which the Chinese cook was piling steak. He eyed the mongrel dog lying at the Indian woman’s feet, and noted that its sides were distended with food. He was prejudiced against, suspicious of, a woman who kept lean dogs.

In the same impersonal way in which he eyed her belongings, he looked at the woman who owned it all. She was far too stout to please his taste, but he liked her square shoulders and the thickness of them; also her hair, which was long for an Indian woman’s. She was too short in the body. He wondered if she rode. He had a peculiar aversion for women short in the body who rode on horseback. This woman could love—all Indian women can do that, as Smith well knew—love to the end, faithfully, like dogs.

In the general analysis of his surroundings, Smith looked at Tubbs, openly sneering as he eyed him. He was like a sheep-dog that never had been trained. And McArthur? Innocent as a yearling calf, and honest as some sky-pilots.

“Glub’s piled!” yelled the cook from the kitchen door. “Come an’ git it.”

Tubbs all but fell off his chair.

At the back door the cook hammered on a huge iron triangle with a poker, in response to which sound a motley half-dozen men filed from a nearby bunk-house at a gait very nearly resembling a trot.

The long dining-table was covered with a red table-cloth, and at each end piles of bread and fried steak rose like monuments. At each place there was a platter, and beside it a steel knife, a fork, and a tin spoon.

The bunk-house crowd wasted no time in ceremony. Poising their forks above the meat-platter in a candid search for the most desirable piece, they alternately stabbed chunks of steak and bread.

Their platters once loaded with a generous sample of all the food in sight, they fell upon it with unconcealed relish. Eating, McArthur observed, was a business; there was no time for the amenities of social intercourse until the first pangs of hunger were appeased. The Chinese cook, too, interested him as he watched him shuffling over the hewn plank floor in his straw sandals. A very different type, this swaggering Celestial, from the furtive-eyed Chinamen of the east. His tightly coiled cue was as smooth and shining as a king-snake, his loose blouse was immaculate, and the flippant voice in which he demanded in each person’s ear, “Coffee? Milk?” was like a challenge. Whatever the individual’s choice might be, he got it in a torrent in his stone-china cup.

There was no attempt at conversation, and only the clatter and rattle of knives, forks, and dishes was heard until a laugh from an adjoining room broke the silence—a laugh that was mirthless, shrill, and horrible.

McArthur sent a startled glance of inquiry about the table. The laugh was repeated, and the sound was even more wild and maniacal. The little man was shocked at the grin which he noted upon each face.

“She ought to take a feather and ile her voice,” observed a guest known as “Meeteetse Ed.”

McArthur could not resist saying indignantly:

“The unfortunate are to be pitied, my dear sir.”

“This is jest a mild spasm she’s havin’ now. You ought to hear her when she’s warmed up.”

McArthur was about to administer a sharper rebuke when the door opened and Susie came out.

“How’s that for a screech?” she demanded triumphantly.

“You’d sure make a bunch of coyotes take fer home,” Meeteetse Ed replied flatteringly.

“You have come in my way not once or twice, but thrice; and now you die! Ha! Ha!” Reaching for a spoon, Susie stabbed Meeteetse Ed on the second china button of his flannel shirt.

“I’d rather die than have you laff in my ear like that,” declared Meeteetse.

“Next time I’m goin’ to learn a comical piece.”

“Any of ’em’s comical enough,” replied a husky voice from the far end of the table. “I broke somethin’ inside of me laffin’ at that one about your dyin’ child.”

“I don’t care,” Susie answered, unabashed by criticism. “Teacher says I’ve got quite a strain of pathos in me.”

“You ought to do somethin’ for it,” suggested a new voice. “Why don’t you bile up some Oregon grape-root? That’ll take most anything out of your blood.”

“Or go to Warm Springs and get your head examined.” This voice was Smith’s.

“Could they help you any?” The girl’s eyes narrowed and there was nothing of the previous good-natured banter in her shrill tones.

Smith flushed under the shout of mocking laughter which followed. He tried to join in it, but the glitter of his blue eyes betrayed his anger.

The incident sobered the table-full, and silence fell once more, until McArthur, feeling that an effort toward conversation was a duty he owed his hostess, cleared his throat and inquired pleasantly:

“Have any fragments ever been found in that red formation which I observed to the left of us, which would indicate that this vicinity was once the home of the mammoth dinosaur?”

Too late he realized that the question was ill-advised. As might be expected, it was Tubbs who broke the awkward silence.

“Didn’t look to me, as I rid along, that it ever were the home of anybuddy. A homestid’s no good if you can’t git water on it.”

McArthur hesitated, then explained: “The dinosaur was a prehistoric reptile,” adding modestly, “I once had the pleasure of helping to restore an armored dinosaur.”

“If ever I gits a rope on one of them things, I’ll box him up and ship him on to you,” said Tubbs generously. Then he inquired as an afterthought: “Would he snap or chaw me up a-tall?”

“What’s a prehysteric reptile?” interrupted Susie.

“This particular reptile was a big snake, with feet, that lived here when this country was a marsh,” McArthur explained simply, for Susie’s benefit.

The guests exchanged incredulous glances, but it was Meeteetse Ed who laughed explosively and said:

“Why, Mister, they ain’t been a sixteenth of an inch of standin’ water on this hull reserve in twenty year.”

“Better haul in your horns, feller, when you’re talkin’ to a real prairie man.” Smith’s contemptuous tone nettled McArthur, but Susie retorted for him.

“Feller,” mocked Susie, “looks like you’re mixed. You mean when he’s talkin’ to a Yellow-back. No real prairie man packs a chip on his shoulder all the time. That buttermilk you was raised on back there in Missoury has soured you some.”

Again an angry flush betrayed Smith’s feeling.

“A Yellow-back,” Susie explained with gusto in response to McArthur’s puzzled look, “is one of these ducks that reads books with buckskin-colored covers, until he gets to thinkin’ that he’s a Bad Man himself. This here country is all tunnelled over with the graves of Yellow-backs what couldn’t make their bluffs stick; fellers that just knew enough to start rows and couldn’t see ’em through.”

“Generally,” said Smith evenly, as he stared unblinkingly into Susie’s eyes, “when I starts rows, I sees ’em through.”

“And any time,” Susie answered, staring back at him, “that you start a row on this ranch, you’ve got to see it through.”

The grub-liners raised their eyes in surprise, for there was unmistakable ill-feeling in her voice. It was unlike her, this antagonistic attitude toward a stranger, for, as they all knew, her hospitality was unlimited, and every passer-by whose horse fed at the big hayrack was regarded and treated as a welcome friend.

There was rarely malice behind the sharp personalities which she flung at random about the table. Knowing no social distinctions, Susie was no respecter of persons. She chaffed and flouted the man who wintered a thousand head of cattle with the same impartiality with which she gibed his blushing cowpuncher. Her good-nature was a byword, as were her generosity and boyish daring. Susie MacDonald was a local celebrity in her way, and on the big hay-ranch her lightest word was law.

But the mere presence of this new-comer seemed to fill her with resentment, making of her an irrepressible young shrew who gloated openly in his angry confusion.

“Speakin’ of Yellow-backs,” said Meeteetse, with the candid intent of being tactful, “reminds me of a song a pardner of mine wrote up about ’em once. Comical? T’—t’—t’—!” He wagged his head as if he had no words in which to describe its incomparable humor. “He had another song that was a reg’lar tear-starter: ‘Whar the Silver Colorady Wends Its Way.’ Ever hear it? It’s about a feller that buried his wife by the silver Colorady, and turned outlaw. This pardner of mine used to beller every time he sung it. He cried like he was a Mormon, and he hadn’t no more wife than a jack rabbit.”

“Some songs is touchin’,” agreed Arkansaw Red.

“This was,” declared Meeteetse. “How she faded day by day, till a pale, white corp’ she lay! If I hadn’t got this cold on me——”

“I hate to see you sufferin’, Meeteetse, but if it keeps you from warblin’——”

He ignored Susie’s implication, and went on serenely:

“Looks like it’s settled on me for life, and it all comes of tryin’ not to be a hog.”

“I hope it’ll be a lesson to you,” said Susie soberly.

“That there Bar C cowpuncher, Babe, comes over the other night, and, the bunk-house bein’ full, I offers him half my blankets. I never put in such a night since I froze to death on South Pass. For fair, I’d ruther sleep with a two-year-ole steer—couldn’t kick no worse than that Babe. Why them blankets was in the air more’n half the time, with him pullin’ his way, and me snatchin’ of ’em back. Finally I gits a corner of a soogan in my teeth, and that way I manages a little sleep. I vows I’d ruther be a hog and git a night’s rest than take in such a turrible bed-feller as him.”

Apropos of the restless Babe, one James Padden observed: “They say he’s licked more’n half the Bar C outfit.”

“Lick ’em!” exclaimed Meeteetse, with enthusiasm. “Why, he could eat ’em! He jest tapped me an easy one and nigh busted my jaw. If he ever reely hit you with that fist of his’n, it ud sink in up to the elbow. I ast him once: ’Babe,’ I says, ‘how big are you anyhow?’ ‘Big?’ he says surprised. ‘I ain’t big. I’m the runt of the family. Pa was thirty-two inches between the eyes, and they fed him with a shovel.’”

Susie giggled at some thought, and then inquired:

“Did anybody ever see that horse he’s huntin’? He says it’s a two-year-old filly that he thinks the world of. It’s brown, with a star in its forehead, and one hip is knocked down. He never hunts anywhere except on that road past the school-house, and he stops at the pump each way—goin’ and comin’. I never saw anybody with such a thirst. He looks in the window while he’s drinkin’, and swallows a gallon of water at a time, and don’t know it.”

“Love is a turrible disease.” Tubbs spoke with the emphasis of conviction. “It’s worse’n lump-jaw er blackleg. It’s dum nigh as bad as glanders. It’s ketchin’, too, and I holds that anybody that’s got it bad ought to be dipped and quarantined. I knowed a feller over in Judith Basin what suffered agonies with it for two months, then shot hisself. There was seven of ’em tyin’ their horses to the same Schoolmarm’s hitchin’-post.”

“Take a long-geared Schoolmarm in a woolly Tam-o’-shanter, and she’s a reg’lar storm-centre,” vouchsafed the husky voice of “Banjo” Johnson.

“They is! They is!” declared Meeteetse, with more feeling than the occasion seemed to warrant.

The knob of a door adjoining the dining-room turned, and the grub-liners straightened in their chairs. Susie’s eyes danced with mischief as she leaned toward Meeteetse and asked innocently:

“They is what?”

But with the opening of the door the voluble Meeteetse seemed to be stricken dumb.

As a young woman came out, Smith stared, and instinctively McArthur half rose from his chair. Believing his employer contemplated flight, Tubbs laid a restraining hand upon his coat-tail, while inadvertently he turned his knife in his mouth with painful results.

The young woman who seated herself in one of the two unoccupied chairs was not of the far West. Her complexion alone testified to this fact, for the fineness and whiteness of it were conspicuous in a country where the winter’s wind and burning suns of summer tan the skins of men and women alike until they resemble leather in color and in texture. Had this young woman possessed no other good feature, her markedly fine complexion alone would have saved her from plainness. But her thick brown hair, glossy, and growing prettily about her temples, was equally attractive to the men who had been used to seeing only the straight, black hair of the Indian women, and Susie’s sun-bleached pigtail, which, as Meeteetse took frequent occasion to remind her, looked like a hair-cinch. Her eyes, set rather too far apart for beauty, were round, with pupils which dilated until they all but covered the blue iris; the eyes of an emotional nature, an imaginative mind. Her other features, though delicate, were not exceptional, but the tout ensemble was such that her looks would have been considered above the average even in a country where pretty girls were plentiful. In her present surroundings, and by contrast with the womenfolk about her, she was regarded as the most beautiful of her sex. Her manner, reserved to the point of stiffness, and paralyzing, as it did, the glibbest masculine tongue among them, was also looked upon as the acme of perfection and all that was desirable in young ladyhood; each individual humbly admitting that while he never before had met a real lady, he knew one when he saw her.

The young woman returned McArthur’s bow with a friendly smile, his action having at once placed him as being “different.” Noting the fact, the grub-liners resolved not to be outdone in future in a mere matter of bows.

While nearly every arm was outstretched with an offer of food, Susie leaned forward and whispered ostentatiously behind her hand to Smith:

“Don’t you make any cracks. That’s the Schoolmarm.”

“I’ve been around the world some,” Smith replied curtly.

“The south side of Billings ain’t the world.”

It was only a random shot, as she did not know Billings or any other town save by hearsay, but it made a bull’s-eye. Susie knew it by the startled look which she surprised from him, and Smith could have throttled her as she snickered.

“Mister McArthur and Mister Tubbs, I’ll make you acquainted with Miss Marshall.”

With elaborate formality of tone and manner, Susie pointed at each individual with her fork while mentioning them by name.

“Miss Marshall,” McArthur murmured, again half rising.

“Much obliged to meet you,” said Tubbs heartily as, bowing in imitation of his employer, he caught the edge of his plate on the band of his trousers and upset it.

Everybody stopped eating during this important ceremony, and now all looked at Smith to see what form his acknowledgment of the coveted introduction to the Schoolmarm would take.

Smith in turn looked expectantly at Susie, who met his eyes with a mocking grin.

“Anything I can reach for you, Mister Smith?” she inquired. “Looks like you’re waitin’ for something.”

Smith’s face and the red table-cloth were much the same shade as he looked annihilation at the little half-breed imp.

Each time that Dora Marshall raised her eyes, they met those of Smith. There was nothing of impertinence in his stare; it was more of awe—a kind of fascinated wonder—and she found herself speculating as to who and what he was. He was not a regular “grub-liner,” she was sure of that, for he was as different in his way as McArthur. He had a personality, not exactly pleasant, but unique. Though he was not uncommonly tall, his shoulders were thick and broad, giving the impression of great strength. His jaw was square, but it evidenced brutality rather than determination. His nose, in contrast to the intelligence denoted by his high, broad forehead, was mediocre, inconsequential, the kind of a nose seldom seen on the person who achieves. The two features were those of the man who conceives big things, yet lacks the force to execute them.

His eyes were unpleasantly bloodshot, but whether from drink or the alkali dust of the desert, it was impossible to determine; and when Susie prodded him they had in them all the vicious meanness of an outlaw bronco. His expression then held nothing but sullen vindictiveness, while every trait of a surly nature was suggested by his voice and manner.

During the Schoolmarm’s covert study of him, he laughed unexpectedly at one of Meeteetse Ed’s sallies. The effect was little short of marvellous; it completely transformed him. An unlooked-for dimple deepened in one cheek, his eyes sparkled, his entire countenance radiated for a moment a kind of boyish good-nature which was indescribably winning. In the brief space, whatever virtues he possessed were as vividly depicted upon his face as were his unpleasant characteristics when he was displeased. So marked, indeed, was his changed expression, that Susie burst out with her usual candor as she eyed him:

“Mister, you ought to laugh all the time.”

Contributing but little toward the conversation, and that little chiefly in the nature of flings at Susie, Smith was yet the dominant figure at the table. While he antagonized, he interested, and although his insolence was no match for Susie’s self-assured impudence, he still impressed his individuality upon every person present.

He was studied by other eyes than Dora’s and Susie’s. Not one of the looks which he had given the former had escaped the Indian woman. With the Schoolmarm’s coming, she had seen herself ignored, and her face had grown as sullen as Smith’s own, while the smouldering glow in her dark eyes betrayed jealous resentment.

“Have a cookie?” urged Susie hospitably, thrusting a plate toward Tubbs. “Ling makes these ’specially for White Antelope.”

“No, thanks, I’ve et hearty,” declared Tubbs, while McArthur shuddered. “I’ve had thousands.”

“Why, where is White Antelope?” Susie looked in surprise at the vacant chair, and asked the question of her mother.

Involuntarily Smith’s eyes and those of the Indian woman met. He read correctly all that they contained, but he did not remove his own until her eyelids slowly dropped, and with a peculiar doggedness she drawled:

“He go way for l’il visit; ’bout two, t’ree sleeps maybe.”

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