VI: The Great Secret

It was the day they buried White Antelope that Smith approached Yellow Bird, a Piegan, who was among the Indians paying visits of indefinite length to the MacDonald ranch. “Eddie” Yellow Bird, he was called at the Blackfoot mission where he had learned to read and write—though he would never have been suspected of these accomplishments, since to all appearances he was a “blanket Indian.”

Smith spoke the Piegan tongue almost as fluently as his own, so he and Yellow Bird quickly became compadres, relating to each other stories of their prowess, of horses they had run off, of cattle they had stolen, and hinting, Indian fashion, with significant intonations and pauses, at crimes of greater magnitude.

“How is your heart to-day, friend? Is it strong?”

“Weak,” replied Yellow Bird jestingly, touching his breast with a fluttering hand.

“It would be stronger if you had red meat in your stomach,” Smith suggested significantly.

“The bacon is not for Indians,” agreed Yellow Bird.

“But the woman would have no cattle left if she killed only her own beef.”

“Many people stop here—strangers and friends,” Yellow Bird admitted.

“There is plenty on the range.” Smith looked toward the Bar C ranch.

“He is a dog on the trail, that white man, when his cattle are stolen,” Yellow Bird replied doubtfully.

“I’ve killed dogs—me, Smith—when they got in my way. Yellow Bird, are you a woman, that you are afraid?”

“Wolf Robe, who stole only a calf, sits like this”—Yellow Bird looked at Smith sullenly through his spread fingers.

“You have talked with the forked tongue, Yellow Bird. You are not a Piegan buck of the great Blackfoot nation; you are a woman. Your fathers killed men; you are afraid to kill cattle.” Smith turned from him contemptuously.

“My heart is as strong as yours. I am ready.”

It was dusk when Smith returned and held out a blood-stained flour sack to the squaw.

“Liver. A two-year ole.”

The squaw’s eyes sparkled. Ah, this was as it should be! Her man provided for her; he brought her meat to eat. He was clever and brave, for it was other men’s meat he brought her to eat. MacDonald had killed only his own cattle, and secretly it had shamed her, for she mistook his honesty for lack of courage. To steal was legitimate; it was brave; something to be told among friends at night, and laughed over. Susie, she had observed with regret, was honest, like her father. She patted the back of Smith’s hand, and looked at him with dog-like, adoring eyes as they stood in the log meat-house, where fresh quarters hung.

“I’d do more nor this for you, Prairie Flower;” and, laying his hand upon her shoulder, he pressed it with his finger-tips.

“Say, but that’s great liver!” Tubbs reached half the length of the table and helped himself a third time. “That’d make a man fight his grandmother. Who butchered it?”

“Me,” Smith answered.

“It tastes like slow elk,” said Susie.

“Maybe you oughtn’t to eat it till you’re showed the hide,” Smith suggested.

“Maybe I oughtn’t,” Susie retorted. “I didn’t see any fresh hide a-hangin’ on the fence. We always hangs our hides.”

“I never hangs my hides. I cuts ’em up in strips and braids ’em into throw-ropes. It’s safer.”

The grub-liners laughed at the inference which Smith so coolly implied.

The finding of White Antelope’s body, and its subsequent burial, had delayed the opening of Dora’s night-school, so Smith, for reasons of his own, had spent much of his time in the bunk-house, covertly studying the grub-liners, who passed the hours exchanging harrowing experiences of their varied careers.

A strong friendship had sprung up between Susie and McArthur. While Susie liked and greatly admired the Schoolmarm, she never yet had opened her heart to her. Beyond their actual school-work, they seemed to have little in common; and it was a real disappointment and regret to the Schoolmarm that, for some reason which she could not reach, she had never been able to break through the curious reserve of the little half-breed, who, superficially, seemed so transparently frank. Each time that she made the attempt, she found herself repulsed—gently, even tactfully, but repulsed.

Dora Marshall did not suspect that these rebuffs were due to an error of her own. In the beginning, when Susie had questioned her naïvely of the outside world, she had permitted amusement to show in her face and manner. She never fully recognized the fact that while Susie to all appearances, intents, and purposes was Anglo-Saxon, an equal quantity of Indian blood flowed in her veins, and that this blood, with its accompanying traits and characteristics, must be reckoned with.

As a matter of fact, Susie was suspicious, unforgiving, with all the Indians’ sensitiveness to and fear of ridicule. She meant never again to entertain the Schoolmarm by her ignorant questions, although she yearned with all a young girl’s yearning for some one in whom to confide—some one with whom she could discuss the future which she often questioned and secretly dreaded.

With real adroitness Susie had tested McArthur, searching his face for the glimmer of amusement which would have destroyed irredeemably any chance of real comradeship between them. But invariably McArthur had answered her questions gravely; and when her tears had fallen fast and hot at White Antelope’s grave, she had known, with an intuition both savage and childish, that his sympathy was sincere. She had felt, too, the genuineness of his interest when, later, she had repeated to him many of the stories White Antelope had told her of the days when he and her father had trapped and hunted together in the big woods to the north.

So to-night, when the living-room was deserted by all save her mother, at work on her rugs in the corner, Susie confided to him her Great Secret, and McArthur, some way, felt strangely flattered by the confidence. He had no desire to laugh; indeed, there were times when the tears were perilously close to the surface. He had been a shy, lonely student, and quite as lonely as a man, yet through the promptings of a heart sympathetic and kind and with the fine instinct of gentle birth, he understood the bizarre little half-breed in a way which surprised himself.

There was a settee on one side of the room, made of elk-horns and interwoven buckskin thongs, and it was there, in the whisper which makes a secret doubly alluring, that Susie told him of her plans; but first she brought from some hiding-place outside a long pasteboard box, carefully wrapped and tied.

McArthur, puffing on the briar-wood pipe which he was seldom without, waited with interest, but without showing curiosity, for he felt that, in a way, this was a critical moment in their friendship.

“If you didn’t see me here on the reservation, would you know I was Injun?” Susie demanded, facing him.

McArthur regarded her critically.

“You have certain characteristics—your rather high cheek-bones, for instance—and your skin has a peculiar tint.”

“I got an awful complexion on me,” Susie agreed, “but I’m goin’ to fix that.”

“Then, your movements and gestures——”

“That’s from talkin’ signs, maybe. I can talk signs so fast that the full-bloods themselves have to ask me to slow up. But, now, if you saw me with my hair frizzled—all curled up, like, and pegged down on top of my head—and a red silk dress on me with a long skirt, and shiny shoes coming to a point, and a white hat with birds and flowers staked out on it, and maybe kid gloves on my hands—would you know right off it was me? Would you say, ‘Why, there’s that Susie MacDonald—that breed young un from the reservation’?”

“No,” declared McArthur firmly; “I certainly never should say, ‘Why, there’s that Susie MacDonald—that breed young un from the reservation.’ As a matter of fact,” he went on gravely, “I should probably say, ‘What a pity that a young lady so intelligent and high-spirited should frizz her hair’!”

“Would you?” insisted Susie delightedly.

“Undoubtedly,” McArthur replied, with satisfying emphasis.

“And how long do you think it would take me to stop slingin’ the buckskin and learn to talk like you?—to say big words without bitin’ my tongue and gettin’ red in the face?”

“Do I use large words frequently?” McArthur asked in real surprise.

“Whoppers!” said Susie.

“I do it unconsciously.” McArthur’s tone was apologetic.

“Sure, I know it.”

“I shrink from appearing pedantic,” said McArthur, half to himself.

“So do I,” Susie declared mischievously. “I don’t know what it is, but I shrink from it. Do you think I could learn big words?”

“Of course.” McArthur wondered where all these questions led.

“Did you ever notice that I’m kind of polite sometimes?”

“Frequently.”

“That I say ’If you please’ and ’Thank you,’ and did you notice the other morning when I asked Old Man Rulison how his ribs was getting along that Arkansaw Red kicked in, and said I was sorry the accident happened?”

McArthur nodded.

“Well, I didn’t mean it.” She giggled. “That was just my manners that I was practisin’ on him. He was onery, and only got what was comin’ to him; but if you’re goin’ to be polite, seems like you dassn’t tell the truth. But Miss Marshall says that ’Thank you,’ ‘If you please,’ and ‘Good morning, how’s your ribs?’ are kind of pass-words out in the world that help you along.”

“Yes, Susie; that’s true.”

“So I’m tryin’ to catch onto all I can, because”—her eyes dilated, and she lowered her voice—“I’m goin’ out in the world pretty soon.”

“To school?”

She shook her head.

“I’m goin’ to hunt up Dad’s relations; and when I find ’em, I don’t want ’em to be ashamed of me, and of him for marryin’ into the Injuns.”

“They need never be ashamed of you, Susie.”

“Honest? Honest, don’t you think so?” She looked at him wistfully. “I’d try awful hard not to make breaks,” she went on, “and make ’em feel like cachin’ me in the cellar when they saw company comin’. It’s just plumb awful to be lonesome here, like I am sometimes; to be homesick for something or somebody—for other kind of folks besides Injuns and grub-liners, and Schoolmarms that look at you as if you was a new, queer kind of bug, and laugh at you with their eyes.

“Dad’s got kin, I know; for lots of times when I would go with him to hunt horses, he would say, ‘I’ll take you back to see them some time, Susie, girl.’ But he never said where ’back’ was, so I’ve got to find out myself. Wouldn’t it be awful, though”—and her chin quivered—“if after I’d been on the trail for days and days, and my ponies were foot-sore, they wasn’t glad to see me when I rode up to the house, but hinted around that horse-feed was short and grub was scarce, and they couldn’t well winter me?”

“They wouldn’t do that,” said McArthur reassuringly. “Nobody named MacDonald would do that.”

Susie began to untie the pasteboard box which contained her treasures.

“Nearly ever since Dad died, I’ve been getting ready to go. I don’t mean that I would leave Mother for keeps—of course not; but after I’ve found ’em, maybe I can coax ’em to come and live with us. I used to ask White Antelope every question I could think of, but all he knew was that after they’d sold their furs to the Hudson Bay Company, they sometimes went to a lodge in Canada called Selkirk, where almost everybody there was named MacDonald or MacDougal or Mackenzie or Mac something. Lots of his friends there married Sioux and went to the Walla Walla valley, and maybe I’ll have to go there to find somebody who knew him; but first I’ll go to Selkirk.

“I’ll take a good pack-outfit, and Running Rabbit to find trails and wrangle horses. See—I’ve got my trail all marked out on the map.”

She unfolded a worn leaf from a school geography.

“It looks as if it was only a sleep or two away, but White Antelope said it was the big ride—maybe a hundred sleeps. And lookee”—she unfolded fashion plates of several periods. “I’ve even picked out the clothes I’ll buy to put on when I get nearly to the ranch where they live. I can make camp, you know, and change my clothes, and then go walkin’ down the road carryin’ this here parasol and wearin’ this here white hat and holdin’ up this here long skirt like Teacher on Sunday.

“Won’t they be surprised when they open the door and see me standin’ on the door-step? I’ll say, ‘How do you do? I’m Susie MacDonald, your relation what’s come to visit you.’ I think this would be better than showin’ up with Running Rabbit and the pack-outfit, until I’d kind of broke the news to ’em. I’d keep Running Rabbit cached in the brush till I sent for him.

“You see, I’ve thought about it so much that it seems like it was as good as done; but maybe when I start I won’t find it so easy. I might have to ride clear to this Minnesota country, or beyond the big waters to the New York or Connecticut country, mightn’t I?”

“You might,” McArthur replied soberly.

“But I’d take a lot of jerked elk, and everybody says grub’s easy to get if you have money, I’d start with about nine ponies in my string, so it looks like I ought to get through?”

She waited anxiously for McArthur to express his opinion.

He wondered how he could disillusionize her, shatter the dream which he could see had become a part of her life. Should he explain to her that when she had crossed the mountains and left behind her the deserts which constituted the only world she knew, and by which, with its people, she judged the country she meant to penetrate, she would find herself a bewildered little savage in a callous, complex civilization where she had no place—wondered at, gibed at, defeated of her purpose?

“Are you sure you have no other clues—no old letters, no photographs?”

She was about to answer when a tapping like the pecking of a snowbird on a window-sill was heard on the door.

Susie opened it.

In ludicrous contrast to the timid rap, a huge figure that all but filled it was framed in the doorway.

It was “Babe” from the Bar C ranch; “Baby” Britt, curly-haired, pink-cheeked, with one innocent blue eye dark from recent impact with a fist, which gave its owner the appearance of a dissipated cherub.

“Evenin’,” he said tremulously, his eyes roving as though in search of some one.

“I lost a horse——” he began.

“Brown?” interrupted Susie, with suspicious interest. “With a star in the forehead?”

“Yes.”

“One white stockin’?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Roached mane?”

“Ye-ah.”

“Kind of a rat-tail?”

“Yep.”

“Left hip knocked down?”

“Babe” nodded.

“Saddle-sore?”

“That’s it. Where did you see him?”

“I didn’t see him.”

“Aw-w-w,” rumbled “Babe” in disgust.

“Teacher!”

Dora Marshall’s door opened in response to Susie’s lusty call.

“Have you seen a brown horse with a star in its forehead, roached mane——”

“Aw, g’wan, Susie!” In confusion, “Babe” began to remove his spurs, thereby serving notice upon the Schoolmarm that he had “come to set a spell.”

So the Schoolmarm brought her needlework, and while she explained to Mr. Britt the exact shadings which she intended to give to each leaf and flower, that person sat with his entranced eyes upon her white hands, with their slender, tapering fingers—the smallest, the most beautiful hands, he firmly believed, in the whole world.

It was not easy to carry on a spirited conversation with Mr. Britt. At best, his range of topics was limited, and in his present frame of mind he was about as vivacious as a deaf mute. He was quite content to sit with the high heels of his cowboy boots—from which a faint odor of the stable emanated—hung over the rung of his chair, and to watch the Schoolmarm’s hand plying the needle on that almost sacred sofa-pillow.

“Your work must be very interesting, Mr. Britt,” suggested Dora.

“I dunno as ’tis,” replied Mr. Britt.

“It’s so—so picturesque.”

Mr. Britt considered.

“I shouldn’t say it was.”

“But you like it?”

“Not by a high-kick!”

If there was one thing upon which Mr. Britt prided himself more than another, it was upon knowing how to temper his language to his company.

“Why do you stick to it, then?”

“Don’t know how to do anything else.”

“You don’t get much time to read, do you?”

“Oh, yes; P’lice Gazette comes reg’lar.”

“But you have no church or social privileges?”

“What’s that?”

“I say, you have no entertainment, no time or opportunity for amusement, have you?”

“Oh, my, yes,” Mr. Britt declared heartily. “We has a game of stud poker nearly every Sunday mornin’, and races in the afternoon.”

“Ain’t he sparklin’?” whispered Susie across the room to Dora, who pretended not to hear.

“You are fond of horses?” inquired the Schoolmarm, desperately.

“Oh, I has nothin’ agin ’em.” He qualified his statement by adding: “Leastways, unless they come from the Buffalo Basin country. Then I shore hates ’em.” At last Mr. Britt was upon a subject upon which he could talk fluently and for an indefinite length of time. “You take that there Buffalo Basin stock,” he went on earnestly, “and they’re nothin’ but inbred cayuse outlaws. They’re treach’rous. Oneriest horses that ever wore hair. Can’t gentle ’em—simply can’t be done. They’ve piled me up more times than any horses that run. Sunfishers—the hull of ’em; rare up and fall over backwards. ’Tain’t pleasant ridin’ a horse like that. Wheel on you quicker’n a weasel; shy clean acrost the road at nothin’; kick—stand up and strike at you in the corral. It’s irritatin’. Hard keepers, too. Maybe you’ve noticed that blue roan I’m ridin’. Well, sir, the way I’ve throwed feed into that horse is a scandal, and the more he eats the worse he looks. Besides, it spoils them Buffalo Basin buzzard-heads to eat. Give ’em three square meals, and you can’t hardly ride ’em. They ain’t stayers, neither; no bottom, seems-like. Forty miles, and that horse of mine is played out. What for a horse is that? Is that a horse? Not by a high-kick! Gimme a buckskin with a black line down his back, and zebra stripes on his legs—high back, square chest—say, then you got a horse!”

It was apparent enough that Mr. Britt had not commenced to exhaust the subject of the Buffalo Basin stock. As a matter of fact, he had barely started; but the sound of horses coming up the path, and a whoop outside, caused a suspension of his conversation.

Something heavy was thrown against the door, and when Susie opened it a roll of roped canvas rolled inside, while the lamplight fell upon the grinning faces of two Bar C cowpunchers.

“What’s that?” The Schoolmarm looked wonderingly at the bundle.

“Aw-w-w!” Mr. Britt replied, in angry confusion. “It’s my bed. I’ll put a crimp in them two for this.” He shouldered his blankets sheepishly and went out.

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