IV: A Swap in Saddle Blankets

“Madam,” said McArthur, intercepting the Indian woman the next morning while she was on her way from the spring with a heavy pail, “I cannot permit you to carry water when I am here to do it for you.”

In spite of her surprised protest, he gently took the bucket from her hand.

“Look at that dude,” said Smith contemptuously, viewing the incident through the living-room window. “Queerin’ hisself right along. No more sabe than a cotton-tail rabbit. That’s the worse thing he could do. Feller”—turning to Tubbs—“if you want to make a winnin’ with a woman, you never want to fetch and carry for her.”

“I knows it,” acquiesced Tubbs. “Onct I was a reg’lar doormat fer one, and I only got stomped on fer it.”

“I can wrangle Injuns to a fare-ye-well,” Smith continued. “Over on the Blackfoot I was the most notorious Injun wrangler that ever jumped up; and, feller, on the square, I never run an errant for one in my life.”

“It’s wrong,” agreed Tubbs.

“There’s that dude tryin’ to make a stand-in, and spilin’ his own game all the time by talkin’. You can’t say he talks, neither; he just opens his mouth and lets it say what it damn pleases. Is them real words he gets off, or does he make ’em up as he goes along?”

“Search me.”

“I’ll tip you off, feller: if ever you want to make a strong play at an Injun woman, you don’t want to shoot off your mouth none. Keep still and move around just so, and pretty soon she’ll throw you the sign. Did you ever notice a dog trottin’ down the street, passin’ everybody up till all to once it takes a sniff, turns around, and follers some feller off? That’s an Injun woman.”

“I never had no luck with squaws, and the likes o’ that,” Tubbs confessed. “They’re turrible hands to git off together and poke fun at you.”

As McArthur and the Indian woman came in from the kitchen, he was saying earnestly to her:

“I feel sure that here, madam, I should entirely recover my health. Besides, this locality seems to me such a fertile field for research that if you could possibly accommodate my man and me with board, you may not be conferring a favor only upon me, but indirectly, perhaps, upon the world of science. I have with me my own bath-tub and pneumatic mattress.”

Tubbs, seeing the Indian woman’s puzzled expression, explained:

“He means we’ll sleep ourselves if you will eat us.”

The woman nodded.

“Oh, you can stay. I no care.”

Smith frowned; but McArthur, much pleased by her assent, told Tubbs to saddle a horse at once, that he might lose no time in beginning his investigations.

“If it were my good fortune to unearth a cranium of the Homo primogenus, I should be the happiest man in the world,” declared McArthur, clasping his fingers in ecstasy at the thought of such unparalleled bliss.

“What did I tell you?” said Smith, accompanying Tubbs to the corral. “He’s tryin’ to win himself a home.”

“Looks that way,” Tubbs agreed. “These here bug-hunters is deep.”

The saddle blanket which Tubbs pulled from their wagon and threw upon the ground, with McArthur’s saddle, caught Smith’s eye instantly, because of the similarity in color and markings to that which he had folded so carefully inside his own. This was newer, it had no disfiguring holes, or black stain in the corner.

“What’s the use of takin’ chances?” he asked himself as he looked it over.

While Tubbs was catching the horse in the corral, Smith deftly exchanged blankets, and Tubbs, to whom most saddle blankets looked alike, did not detect the difference.

Upon returning to the house, Smith found the Indian woman wiping breakfast dishes for the cook. She came into the living-room when he beckoned to her, with the towel in her hand. Taking it from her, he wadded it up and threw it back into the kitchen.

“Don’t you know any better not to spoil a cook like that, woman?” he asked, smiling down upon her. “You never want to touch a dish for a cook. Row with ’em, work ’em over, keep ’em down—but don’t humor ’em. You can’t treat a cook like a real man. Ev’ry reg’lar cook has a screw loose or he wouldn’t be a cook. Cookin’ ain’t no man’s job. I never had no use for reg’lar cooks—me, Smith.

“All you women need ribbing up once in awhile,” he added, as, laying his hand lightly on her arm, he let it slide its length until it touched her fingers. He gave them a gentle pressure and resumed his seat against the wall.

The woman’s eyes glowed as she looked at him. His authoritative attitude appealed to her whose ancestors had dressed game, tanned hides, and dragged wood for their masters for countless generations. The growing passion in her eyes did not escape Smith.

In the long silence which followed he looked at her steadily; finally he said:

“Well, I guess I’ll saddle up. You look ‘just so’ to me, woman—but I got to go.”

She laid down the rags of her mat and “threw him the sign” for which he had waited. It said:

“My heart is high; it is good toward you. Talk to me—talk straight.”

He shook his head sadly.

“No, no, Singing Bird; I am headed for the Mexican border—many, many sleeps from here.”

She arose and walked to his side.

He felt a sudden and violent dislike for her flabby, swaying hips, her heavy step, as she moved toward him. He knew that the game was won, and won so easily it was a school-boy’s play.

“Why you go?” she demanded, and the disappointment in her eyes was so intense as to resemble fear. “What you do dere?”

He looked at her through half-closed eyes.

“Did you ever hear of wet horses?”

She shook her head.

“I deals in wet horses—me, Smith.”

The woman stared at him uncomprehendingly.

“Down there on the border,” he explained, “you buy the horses on the Mexico side. You buy ’em when the Mexican boss is asleep in his ’dobe, so there’s no kick about the price. You swim ’em across the Rio Grande and sell ’em to the Americano waitin’ on the other side.”

“You buy de wet horse?”

“No, by Gawd,—I wet ’em!”

“Why you steal?”

He looked at her contemptuously.

“Why does anybody steal? I need the dinero—me, Smith.”

“You want money?”

He laughed.

“I always want money. I never had enough but once in my life, and then I had too much. Gold is hell to pack,” he added reminiscently.

“I have de fine hay-ranch, white man, de best on de reservation. Two, four t’ousand dollars I have when de hay is sold. De ranch is big”—her arms swept the horizon to show its extent. “You stay here and make de bargain with de cattlemen, and I give you so much”—she measured a third of her hand with her forefinger. “If dat is not enough, I give you so much”—she measured the half of her hand with her forefinger. “If dat not enough, I give you all.” She swept the palm of one hand with the other.

Smith dropped his eyelids, that she might not see the triumph shining beneath them.

“I must think, Prairie Flower.”

“No, white man, you no think. You stay!”

Smith, who had arisen, slipped his arm about her ample waist. She pulled aside his Mackinaw coat and laid her head upon his breast.

“The white man’s heart is strong,” she said softly.

“It beats for you, Little Fawn;” and he ran out his tongue in derision.

All the morning she sat on the floor at his feet, braiding the rags for her mat, content to hear him speak occasionally, and to look often into his face with dog-like devotion. It was there Susie saw her when she returned from school earlier in the afternoon than usual, and was beckoned into the kitchen by Ling.

“He’s makin’ a mash,” said Ling laconically, as he jerked his thumb toward the open door of the living-room.

All the girlish vivacity seemed to go out of Susie’s face in her first swift glance. It hardened in mingled shame and anger.

“Mother,” she said sharply, “you promised me that you wouldn’t sit on the floor like an Injun.”

“We’re gettin’ sociable,” said Smith mockingly.

The woman glanced at Smith, and hesitated, but finally got up and seated herself on the bench.

“Why don’t you try bein’ ’sociable’ with the Schoolmarm?” Susie sneered.

“Maybe I will.”

“And maybe you won’t get passed up like a white chip!”

“Oh, I dunno. I’ve made some winnings.”

“I can tell that by your eyes. You got ’em bloodshot, I reckon, hangin’ over the fire in squaw camps. White men can’t stand smoke like Injuns.”

This needle-tongued girl jabbed the truth into him in a way which maddened him, but he said conciliatingly:

“We don’t want to quarrel, kid.”

“You mean you don’t.” Susie slammed the door behind her.

The child’s taunt reawakened his interest in the Schoolmarm. He thought of her riding home alone, and grew restless. Besides, the dulness began to bore him.

“I’ll saddle up, Prairie Flower, and look over the ranch. When I come back I’ll let you know if it’s worth my while to stay.”

Tubbs was sitting on the wagon-tongue, mending harness, when Smith went out,

“Aimin’ to quit the flat?” inquired Tubbs.

“Feller, didn’t that habit of askin’ questions ever git you in trouble?”

“Well I guess so,” Tubbs replied candidly. “See that scar under my eye?”

“I’d invite you along to tell me about it,” said Smith sardonically, “only, the fact is, feller, I’m goin’ down the road to make medicine with the Schoolmarm.”

Tubbs’s eyes widened.

“Gosh!” he ejaculated enviously. “I wisht I had your gall.”

Before Smith swung into the saddle he pulled out a heavy silver watch attached to a hair watch-chain.

“Just the right time,” he nodded.

“Huh?”

“I say, if it was only two o’clock, or three, I wouldn’t go.”

“You wouldn’t? I’ll tell you about me: I’d go if it was twelve o’clock at night and twenty below zero to ride home with that lady.”

“Feller,” said Smith, in a paternal tone, “you never want to make a break at a woman before four o’clock in the afternoon. You might just as well go and lay down under a bush in the shade from a little after daylight until about this time. You wouldn’t hunt deer or elk in the middle of the day, would you? No, nor women—all same kind of huntin’. They’ll turn you down sure; white or red—no difference.”

“Is that so?” said Tubbs, in the awed voice of one who sits at the feet of a master.

“When the moon’s out and the lamps are lit, they’ll empty their sack and tell you the story of their lives. I don’t want to toot my horn none, but I’ve wrangled around some. I’ve hunted big game and humans. Their habits, feller, is much the same.”

While Smith was galloping down the road toward the school-house, Susie was returning from a survey of the surrounding country, which was to be had from a knoll near the house.

“Mother,” she said abruptly, “I feel queer here.” She laid both hands on her flat, childish breast and hunched her shoulders. “I feel like something is goin’ to happen.”

“What happen, you think?” her mother asked listlessly.

“It’s something about White Antelope, I know.”

The woman looked up quickly.

“He go visit Bear Chief, maybe.” There was an odd note in her voice.

“He wouldn’t go away and stay like this without telling you or me. He never did before. He knows I would worry; besides, he didn’t take a horse, and he never would walk ten miles when there are horses to ride. His gun isn’t here, so he must have gone hunting, but he wouldn’t stay all night hunting rabbits; and he couldn’t be lost, when he knows the country as well as you or me.”

“He go to visit,” the Indian woman insisted doggedly.

“If he isn’t home to-morrow, I’m goin’ to hunt him, but I know something’s wrong.”

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