Once out of sight of the house, Smith let his horse take its own gait, while he viewed the surrounding country with the thoughtful consideration of a prospective purchaser. As he gazed, its possibilities grew upon him. If water was to be found somewhere in the Bad Lands the location of the ranch was ideal for—certain purposes.
The Bar C cattle-range bounded the reservation on the west; the MacDonald ranch, as it was still called, after the astute Scotch squawman who had built it, was close to the reservation line; and beyond the sheltering Bad Lands to the northeast was a ranch where lived certain friendly persons with whom he had had most satisfactory business relations in the past.
A plan began to take definite shape in his active brain, but the head of a sleepy white pony appearing above the next rise temporarily changed the course of his thoughts, and with his recognition of its rider life took on an added zest.
Dora Marshall, engrossed in thought, did not see Smith until he pulled his hat-brim in salutation and said:
“You’re a thinker, I take it.”
“I find my work here absorbing,” she replied, coloring under his steady look.
He turned his horse and swung it into the road beside her.
“I was just millin’ around and thought I’d ride down the road and meet you.” Further than this brief explanation, he did not seem to feel it incumbent upon him to make conversation. Apparently entirely at his ease in the silence which followed, he turned his head often and stared at her with a frank interest which he made no effort to conceal. Finally he shifted his weight to one stirrup and, turning in his saddle so that he faced her, he asked bluntly:
“That look in your eyes—that look as if you hadn’t nothin’ to hide—is it true? Is it natural, as you might say, or do you just put it on?”
Her astonished expression led him to explain.
“It’s like lookin’ down deep into water that’s so clear you can see the sand shinin’ in the bottom; one of these places where there’s no mud or black spots; nothin’ you can’t see or understand. Sabe what I mean?”
Since she did not answer, he continued:
“I’ve met up with women before now that had that same look, but only at first. It didn’t last; they could put it on and take it off like they did their hats.”
“I don’t know that I am quite sure what you mean,” the girl replied, embarrassed by the personal nature of his questions and comments; “but if you mean to imply that I affect this or that expression, for a purpose, you misjudge me.”
“I was just askin’,” said Smith.
“I think I am always honest of purpose,” the girl went on slowly, “and when one is that, I think it shows in one’s eyes. To be sure, I often fall short of my intentions. I mean to do right, and almost as frequently do wrong.”
“You do?” He eyed her with quick intentness.
“Yes, don’t you? Don’t all of us?”
“I does what I aims to do,” he replied ambiguously.
So she—this girl with eyes like two deep springs—did wrong—frequently. He pondered the admission for a long time. Smith’s exact ideas of right and wrong would have been difficult to define; the dividing line, if there were any, was so vague that it had never served as the slightest restraint. “To do what you aim to do, and make a clean get-away”—that was the successful life.
He had seen things, it is true; there had been incidents and situations which had repelled him, but why, he had never asked himself. There was one situation in particular to which his mind frequently reverted, as it did now. He had known worse women than the one who had figured in it, but for some reason this single scene was impressed upon his mind with a vividness which seemed never to grow less.
He saw a woman seated at an old-fashioned organ in a country parlor. There was a rag-carpet on the floor—he remembered how springy it was with the freshly laid straw underneath it. Her husband held a lamp that she might see the notes, while his other hand was upon her shoulder, his adoring eyes upon her silly face. He, Smith, was rocking in the blue plush chair for which the fool with the calloused hands had done extra work that he might give it to the woman upon her birthday. Each time that she screeched the refrain, “Love, I will love you always,” she lifted her chin to sing it to the man beaming down upon her, while upstairs her trunk was packed to desert him.
Smith always remembered with satisfaction that he had left her in Red Lodge with only the price of a telegram to her husband, in her shabby purse.
“I like your style, girl.” His eyes swept Dora Marshall’s figure as he spoke.
There was a difference in his tone, a familiarity in his glance, which sent the color flying to the Schoolmarm’s cheeks.
“I think we could hit it off—you and me—if we got sociable.”
He leaned toward her and laid his gloved hand upon hers as it rested on the saddle-horn.
The pupils of her eyes dilated until they all but covered the iris as she turned them, blazing, upon Smith.
“Just what do you mean by that?”
There was no mistaking the genuineness nor the nature of the emotion which made her voice vibrate. But Smith considered. Was she deeper—“slicker,” as he phrased it to himself—than he had thought, or had he really misunderstood her? Surprising as was the feeling, he hoped some way, that it was the latter. He looked at her again before he answered gently:
“I didn’t mean to make you hot none, Miss. I’m ignorant in handlin’ words. I only meant to say that I hoped you and me would be good friends.”
His explanation cleared her face instantly.
“I am sorry if I misunderstood you; but one or two unpleasant experiences in this country have made me quick—too quick, perhaps—to take offense.”
“There’s lots just lookin’ for game like you. No better nor brutes,” said Smith virtuously, entirely sincere in his sudden indignation against these licentious characters.
Yes, the Schoolmarm had rebuffed him, as Susie had prophesied, but the effect of it upon him was such as neither he nor she had reckoned. As they rode along a swift, overpowering infatuation for Dora Marshall grew upon him. He felt something like a flame rising within him, burning him, bewildering him with its intensity. She seemed all at once to possess every attribute of the angels, from mere prettiness her face took on a radiant beauty which dazzled him, and when she spoke her lightest word held him breathless. As the mountain towers above the foothills, so, of a sudden, she towered above all other women. He had known sensations—all, he had believed, that it was possible to experience; but this one, strange, overwhelming, dazed him with its violence.
Love frequently comes like this to people in the wilds, to those who have few interests and much time to think. The emotional side of their natures has been held in check until a trifle is sometimes sufficient to loose a torrent which nothing can then divert or check.
She asked him to loop her latigo, which was trailing, and his hand shook as he fumbled with the leather strap.
“Gawd!” he swore in bewilderment as he returned to his own horse, wiping his forehead with the back of his gauntlet, “what feelin’ is this workin’ on me? Am I gettin’ locoed, me—Smith?”
“I’m glad I’ve found a friend like you,” said the Schoolmarm impulsively. “One needs friends in a country like this.”
“A friend!” It sounded like a jest to Smith. “A friend!” he repeated with an odd laugh. Then he raised his hand, as one takes an oath, and whatever of whiteness was left in Smith’s soul illumined his face as he added: “Yes, to a killin’ finish.”
If Smith had met Dora among many, the result might have been the same in the end, but here, in the isolation, she seemed from the first the centre of everything, the alpha and omega of the universe, and his passion for her was as great as though it were the growth of many months instead of less than twenty-four hours. The depth, the breadth, of it could not quickly be determined, nor the lengths to which it would take him. It was something new to be reckoned with. To what extent it would control him, neither Smith nor any one else could have told. He knew only that it now seemed the most real, the most sincere, the best thing which had ever come into his life.
Dora Marshall knew nothing of men like Smith, or of natures like those of the men of the mountains and ranges, who paid her homage. Her knowledge of life and people was drawn from the limited experiences of a small, Middle West town, together with a year at a Middle West co-ed college, and as a result of the latter the Schoolmarm cherished a fine belief in her worldly wisdom, whereas, in a measure, her lack of it was one of her charms. Susie, in her way, was wiser.
The Schoolmarm’s attitude toward her daily life was the natural outcome of a romantic nature and an imaginative mind. She saw herself as the heroine of an absorbing story, the living of which story she enjoyed to the utmost, while every incident and every person contributed to its interest. Quite unconsciously, with unintentional egotism, the Schoolmarm had a way of standing off and viewing herself, as it were, through the rosy glow of romance. Yet she was not a complex character—this Schoolmarm. She had no soaring ambitions, though her ideals for herself and for others were of the best. To do her duty, to help those about her, to win and retain the liking of her half-savage little pupils, were her chief desires.
She had her share of the vanity of her sex, and of its natural liking for admiration and attention, yet in the freedom of her unique environment she never overstepped the bounds of the proprieties as she knew them, or violated in the slightest degree the conventionalities to which she had been accustomed in her rather narrow home life. It was this reserve which inspired awe in the men with whom she came in contact, used as they were to the greater camaraderie of Western women.
In her unsophistication, her provincial innocence, Dora Marshall was exactly the sort to misunderstand and to be misunderstood, a combination sometimes quite as dangerous in its results, and as provocative of trouble, as the intrigues of a designing woman.
“I reckon you think I’m kind of a mounted bum, a grub-liner, or something like that,” said Smith after a time.
“To be frank, I have wondered who you are.”
“Have you? Have you, honest?” asked Smith delightedly.
“Well—you’re different, you know. I can’t explain just how, but you are not like the others who come and go at the ranch.”
“No,” Smith replied with some irony; “I’m not like that there Tubbs.” He added laconically, “I’m no angel, me—Smith.”
The Schoolmarm laughed. Smith’s denial was so obviously superfluous.
“There was a time when I’d do ’most any old thing,” he went on, unmindful of her amusement. “It was only a few years ago that there was no law north of Cheyenne, and a feller got what he wanted with his gun. I got my share. I come from a country where they sleep between sheets, but I got a lickin’ that wasn’t comin’ to me, and I quit the flat when I was thirteen. I’ve been out amongst ’em since.”
The desire to reform somebody, which lies dormant in every woman’s bosom, began to stir in the Schoolmarm’s.
“But you—you wouldn’t ’do any old thing’ now, would you?”
Smith hesitated, and a variety of expressions succeeded one another upon his face. It was an awkward moment, for, under the uplifting influence of the feeling which possessed him, he had an odd desire to tell this girl only the truth.
“I wouldn’t do some of the things I used to do,” he replied evasively.
The Schoolmarm beamed encouragement.
“I’m glad of that.”
“I used to kill Injuns for fifty dollars a head, but I wouldn’t do it now,” he said virtuously, adding: “I’d get my neck stretched.”
“You’ve killed people—Indians—for money!” The Schoolmarm looked at him, wide-eyed with horror.
“They was clutterin’ up the range,” Smith explained patiently, “and the cattlemen needed it for their stock. I’d ’a’ killed ’em for nothin’, but when ’twas offered, I might as well get the bounty.”
The Schoolmarm scarcely knew what to say; his explanation seemed so entirely satisfactory to himself.
“I’m glad those dreadful days have gone.”
“They’re gone all right,” Smith answered sourly. “They make dum near as much fuss over an Injun as a white man now, and what with jumpin’ up deputies at every turn in the road, ’tain’t safe. Why, I heard a judge say a while back that killin’ an Injun was pure murder.”
“I appreciate your confidence—your telling me of your life,” said the Schoolmarm, in lieu of something better.
She found him a difficult person with whom to converse. They seemed to have no common meeting-ground, yet, while he constantly startled and shocked, he also fascinated her. In one of those illuminating flashes to which the Schoolmarm was subject, she saw herself as Smith’s guiding-star, leading him to the triumphant finish of the career which she believed his unique but strong personality made possible.
It was Smith’s turn to look at her. Did she think he had told her of his life? The unexpected dimple deepened in Smith’s cheek, and as he laughed the Schoolmarm, again noting the effect of it, could not in her heart believe that he was as black as he had painted himself.
“I wisht our trails had crossed sooner, but, anyhow, I’m on the square with you, girl. And if ever you ketch me ’talkin’ crooked,’ as the Injuns say, I’ll give you my whole outfit—horse, saddle, blankets, guns, even my dog-gone shirt. Excuse me.”
The Schoolmarm glowed. Her woman’s influence for good was having its effect! This was a step in the right direction—a long step. He would be “on the square” with her—she liked the way he phrased it. Already her mind was busy with air-castles for Smith, which would have made that person stare, had he known of them. An inkling of their nature may be had from her question:
“Would you like to study, to learn from books, if you had the opportunity?”
“I learned my letters spellin’ out the brands on cattle,” he said frankly, “and that, with bein’ able to write my name on the business end of a check, and common, everyday words, has always been enough to see me through.”
“But when one has naturally a good mind, like yours, don’t you think it is almost wicked not to use it?”
“I got a mind all right,” Smith replied complacently. “I’m kind of a head-worker in my way, but steady thinkin’ makes me sicker nor a pup. I got a headache for two days spellin’ out a description of myself that the sheriff of Choteau County spread around the country on handbills. It was plumb insultin’, as I figgered it out, callin’ attention to my eyes and ears and busted thumb. I sent word to him that I felt hos-tile over it. Sheriffs’ll go too far if you don’t tell ’em where to get off at once in awhile.”
The Schoolmarm ignored the handbill episode and went on:
“Besides, a lack of education is such a handicap in business.”
“The worst handicap I has to complain of,” said Smith grimly, “is the habit people has got into of sending money-orders through the mail, instead of the cash. It keeps money out of circulation, besides bein’ discouragin’ and puttin’ many a hard-workin’ hold-up on the bum.”
“But,” she persisted, the real meaning of Smith’s observations entirely escaping her, “even the rudiments of an education would be such a help to you, opening up many avenues that now are closed to you. What I want to say is this: that if you intend to stop for a time at the ranch, I will be glad to teach you. Susie and I have an extra session in the evening, and I will be delighted to have you join us.”
It had not dawned upon Smith that she had questioned him with this end in view. He looked at her fixedly, then, from the depths of his experience, he said:
“Girl, you must like me some.”
Dora flushed hotly.
“I am interested,” she replied.
“That’ll do for now;” and Smith wondered if the lump in his throat was going to choke him. “Will I join that night-school of yours? Will I? Watch me! Say,” he burst out with a kind of boyish impulsiveness, “if ever you see me doin’ anything I oughtn’t, like settin’ down when I ought to stand up, or standin’ up when I ought to set down, will you just rope me and take a turn around a snubbin’-post and jerk me off my feet?”
“We’ll get along famously if you really want to improve yourself!” exclaimed the Schoolmarm, her eyes shining with enthusiasm. “If you really and truly want to learn.”
“Really and truly I do,” Smith echoed, feeling at the moment that he would have done dressmaking or taken in washing, had she bid him.
Once more the world looked big, alluring, and as full of untried possibilities as when he had “quit the flat” at thirteen.
“Have you noticed me doin’ anything that isn’t manners?” he asked in humble anxiety. “Don’t be afraid of hurtin’ my feelin’s,” he urged, “for I ain’t none.”
“If you honestly want me to tell you things, I will; but it seems so—so queer upon such a very short acquaintance.”
“Shucks! What’s the use of wastin’ time pretendin’ to get acquainted, when you’re acquainted as soon as you look at each other? What’s the use of sashayin’ around the bush when you meet up with somebody you like? You just cut loose on me, girl.”
“It’s only a little thing, in a way, and not in itself important perhaps; yet it would be, too, if circumstances should take you into the world. It might make a bad impression upon strangers.”
Smith looked slightly alarmed. He wondered if she suspected anything about White Antelope. At the moment, he could think of nothing else he had done within the last twenty-four hours, which might prejudice strangers.
“I noticed at the table,” the Schoolmarm went on in some embarrassment, “that you held your fork as though you were afraid it would get away from you. Like this”—she illustrated with her fist.
“Like a ranch-hand holdin’ onto a pitch-fork,” Smith suggested, relieved.
“Something,” she laughed. “It should be like this. Anyway,” she declared encouragingly, “you don’t eat with your knife.”
“Did you notice that?”
“Naturally, in a land of sword-swallowers, I would;” the Schoolmarm made a wry face.
“Once I run with a high-stepper from Bowlin’ Green, Kentucky, and she told me better nor that,” he explained. “She said nothin’ give a feller away like his habit of handlin’ tools at the table. She was a lady all right, but she got the dope habit and threw the lamp at me. The way I quit her didn’t trouble me. None of ’em ever had any holt on me when it come to a show-down; but you, girl, you——”
Her sharp exclamation interrupted him, and, following her gesture, he saw a flying horseman in the distance, riding as for his life, while behind him two other riders quirted their horses in hot pursuit.
“Is it a race—for fun?”
“I don’t think it,” Smith replied dryly, noting the direction from which they came. “It looks like business.”
He knew that the two behind were Indians. He could tell by the way they used their quirts and sat their horses. Neither was there any mistaking the bug-hunter on his ewe-necked sorrel, which, displaying unexpected bursts of speed, was keeping in the lead and heading straight for the ranch-house. With one hand McArthur was clinging to the saddle-horn, and with the other was clinging quite as tightly to what at a distance appeared to be a carbine.
“He’s pulled his gun—why don’t he use it?” Smith quickened his horse’s gait.
He knew that the Indians had learned White Antelope’s fate. That was a lucky swap Smith had made that morning. He congratulated himself that he had not “taken chances.” He wondered how effective McArthur’s denial would prove in the face of the evidence furnished by the saddle-blanket. Personally, Smith regarded the bug-hunter’s chances as slim.
“They’ll get him in the corral,” he observed.
“Oh, it’s Mr. McArthur!” Dora cried in distress.
Smith looked at her in quick jealousy.
“Well, what of it?” In her excitement, the gruffness of his tone passed unobserved.
“Come,” she urged. “The Indians are angry, and he may need us.”
Hatless, breathless, pale, McArthur rolled out of his saddle and thrust a long, bleached bone into Tubbs’s hand.
“Keep it!” he gasped. “Protect it! It may be—I don’t say it is, but it may be—a portion of the paroccipital bone of an Ichthyopterygian!” Then he turned and faced his pursuers.
Infuriated, they rode straight at him, but he did not flinch, and the horses swerved of their own accord.
Susie had run from the house, and her mother had followed, expectancy upon her stolid face, for, like Smith, she had guessed the situation.
The Indians circled, and, returning, pointed accusing fingers at McArthur.
“He kill White Antelope!”
By this time, the grub-liners had reached the corral, among them four Indians, all friends of the dead man. Their faces darkened.
“White Antelope is dead in a gulch!” cried his accusers. “He is shot to pieces—here, there, everywhere!”
A murmur of angry amazement arose. White Antelope, the kindly, peaceable Cree, who had not an enemy on the reservation!
“This is dreadful!” declared McArthur. “Believe me”—he turned to them all—“I had but found the corpse myself when these men rode up. The Indian was cold; he certainly had been dead for hours. Besides,” he demanded, “what possible motive could I have?”
“Them as likes lettin’ blood don’t need a motive.” The sneering voice was Smith’s.
“But you, sir, met us on the hill. You know the direction from which we came.”
“It’s easy enough to circle.”
“But why should I go back?” cried McArthur.
“They say there’s that that draws folks back for another look.”
Smith’s insinuations, the stand he took, had its effect upon the Indians, who, hot for revenge, needed only this to confirm their suspicions. One of the Indians on horseback began to uncoil his rawhide saddle-rope. All save McArthur understood the significance of the action. They meant to tie him hand and foot and take him to the Agency, with blows and insults plentiful en route.
They edged closer to him, every savage instinct uppermost, their faces dark and menacing. McArthur, his eyes sweeping the circle, felt that he had not one friend, not one, in the motley, threatening crowd fast closing in upon him; for Tubbs, hearing himself indirectly included in the accusation, had discreetly, and with perceptible haste, withdrawn.
The Indian swung from his saddle, rope in hand, and advanced upon McArthur with unmistakable purpose; but he did not reach the little scientist, for Susie darted from the circle, her flashing gray eyes looking more curiously at variance than ever with her tawny skin.
“No, no, Running Rabbit!” She pushed him gently backward with her finger-tips upon his chest.
There was a murmur of protest from the crowd, and it seemed to sting her like a spur. Susie was not accustomed to disapproval. She turned to where the murmurs came loudest—from the white grub-liners, who were eager for excitement.
“Who are you,” she cried, “that you should be so quick to accuse this stranger? You, Arkansaw Red, that skipped from Kansas for killin’ a nigger! You, Jim Padden, that shot a sheep-herder in cold blood! You, Banjo Johnson, that’s hidin’ out this minute! Don’t you all be so darned anxious to hang another man, when there’s a rope waitin’ somewhere for your own necks!
“And lemme tell you”—she took a step toward them. “The man that lifts a finger to take this bug-hunter to the Agency can take his blankets along at the same time, for there’ll never be a bunk or a seat at the table for him on this ranch as long as he lives. Where’s your proof against this bug-hunter? You can’t drag a man off without something against him—just because you want to hang somebody!”
Some sound from Smith attracted her attention; she wheeled upon him, and, with her thin arm outstretched as she pointed at him in scorn, she cried shrilly:
“Why, I’d sooner think you did it, than him!”
There was not so much as the flicker of an eyelid from Smith.
“I know you’d sooner think I did it than him,” he said, playing upon the word. “You’d like to see me get my neck stretched.”
His bravado, his very insolence, was his protection.
“And maybe I’ll have the chanst!” she retorted furiously.
Turning from him to the Indians, her voice dropped, the harsh language taking on the soft accent of the squaws as she spoke to them in their own tongue. Like many half-breeds, Susie seldom admitted that she either understood or could speak the Indian language. She had an amusing fashion of referring even to her relatives as “those Injuns”; but now, with hands outstretched, she pleaded:
“We are all Indians together in this—friends of White Antelope! Our hearts are down; they are heavy—so. You all know that he came from the great Cree country with my father, and he has told us many times stories of the big north woods, where they hunted and trapped. You know how he watched me when I was little, and sat with his hand upon my head when I had the big fever. He was like no one else to me except my father. He was wise and good.
“I could kill with my own hand the man who killed White Antelope. I want his blood as much as you. I’d like to see a stake driven through his black heart on White Antelope’s grave. But let us not be too quick because the hate is hot in us. My heart tells me that the white man talks straight. Let us wait—wait until we find the right one, and when we do we will punish in our own way. You hear? In our own way!”
Smith understood something of her plea, and for the second time he paid her courage tribute.
“She’s a game kid all right,” he said to himself, and a half-formed plan for utilizing her gameness began to take definite shape.
That she had won, he knew before Running Rabbit recoiled his rope. After a moment’s talk among themselves, the Indians went to hitch the horses to the wagon, to bring White Antelope’s body home.
Smith was well aware that he had only to point to the saddle blanket, the barest edge of which showed beneath the leather skirts of McArthur’s saddle, to make Susie’s impassioned defense in vain. Why he did not, he was not himself sure. Perhaps it was because he liked the feeling of power, of knowing that he held the life of the despised bug-hunter in the hollow of his hand; or perhaps it was because it would serve his purpose better to make the accusation later. One thing was certain, however, and that was that he had not held his tongue through any consideration for McArthur.