Riding home next morning with his bed on a borrowed pack-horse, morose, his mind occupied with divers plans for punishing the cowpunchers who had spoiled his evening and made him ridiculous before the Schoolmarm, “Babe” came upon something in a gulch which caused him to rein his horse sharply and swing from the saddle.
With an ejaculation of surprise, he pulled a fresh hide from under a pile of rock, it having been partially uncovered by coyotes. The brand had been cut out, and with the sight of this significant find, the two cowpunchers, their obnoxious joke, even the Schoolmarm, were forgotten; for there was a new thief on the range, and a new thief meant excitement and adventure.
Colonel Tolman’s deep-set eyes glittered when he heard the news. As Running Rabbit had said, on the trail of a cattle-thief he was as relentless as a bloodhound. He could not eat or sleep in peace until the man who had robbed him was behind the bars. The Colonel was an old-time Texas cattleman, and his herds had ranged from the Mexican border to the Alberta line. He had made and lost fortunes. Disease, droughts, and blizzards had cleaned him out at various times, and always he had taken his medicine without a whimper; but the loss of so much as a yearling calf by theft threw him into a rage that was like hysteria.
His hand shook as he sat down at his desk and wrote a note to the Stockmen’s Association, asking for the services of their best detective. It meant four days of hard riding to deliver the note, but the Colonel put it into “Babe’s” hand as if he were asking him to drop it in the mail-box around the corner.
“Go, and git back,” were his laconic instructions, and he turned to pace the floor.
When “Babe” returned some eight days later, with the deputy sheriff, he found the Colonel striding to and fro, his wrath having in no wise abated. The cowboy wondered if his employer had been walking the floor all that time.
“My name is Ralston,” said the tall young deputy, as he stood before the old cattleman.
“Ralston?” The Colonel rose on his toes a trifle to peer into his face.
“Not Dick Ralston’s boy?”
The six-foot deputy smiled.
“The same, sir.”
The Colonel’s hand shot out in greeting.
“Anybody of that name is pretty near like kin to me. Many’s the time your dad and I have eaten out of the same frying-pan.”
“So I’ve heard him say.”
“Does he know you’re down here on this job?”
The young man shook his head soberly.
The Colonel looked at him keenly.
“Had a falling out?”
“No; scarcely that; but we couldn’t agree exactly upon some things, so I struck out for myself when I came home from college.”
“No future for you in this sleuthing business,” commented the old man tersely. “Why didn’t you go into cattle with your dad?”
“That’s where we disagreed, sir. I wanted to buy sheep, and he goes straight into the air at the very word.”
The Colonel laughed.
“I can believe that.”
“Over there the range is going fast, and it’s fight and scrap and quarrel all the time to keep the sheep off what little there is left; and then you ship and bottom drops out of the market as soon as your cattle are loaded. There’s nothing in it; and while I don’t like sheep any better than the Governor, there’s no use in hanging on and going broke in cattle because of a prejudice.”
“Dick’s stubborn,”—the Colonel nodded knowingly—“and I don’t believe he’ll ever give in.”
“No; I don’t think he will, and I’m sorry for his sake, because he’s getting too old to worry.”
“Worry? Cattle’s nothing but worry!—which reminds me of what you are here for.”
“Have you any suspicions?”
“No. I don’t believe I can help you any. The Injuns been good as pie since we sent Wolf Robe over the road. Don’t hardly think it’s Injuns. Don’t know what to think. Might be some of these Mormon outfits going north. Might be some of these nesters off in the hills. Might be anybody!”
“Is he an old hand?”
“Looks like it. Cuts the brand out and buries the hide.” The Colonel began pacing the floor. “Cattle-thieves are people that’s got to be nipped in the bud muy pronto. There ought to be a lynching on every cattle-range once in seven years. It’s the only way to hold ’em level. Down there on the Rio Grande we rode away and left fourteen of ’em swinging over the bluff. It’s got to be done in all cattle countries, and since they’ve started in here—well, a hanging is overdue by two years.” The Colonel ejected his words with the decisive click of a riot-gun.
So Dick Ralston, Jr., rode the range for the purpose of getting the lay of the country, and, on one pretext or another, visited the squalid homes of the nesters, but nowhere found anybody or anything in the least suspicious. He learned of the murder of White Antelope, and of the “queer-actin’” bug-hunter and his pal, who had been accused of it. It was rather generally believed that McArthur was a desperado of a new and original kind. While it was conceded that he seemed to have no way of disposing of the meat, and certainly could not kill a cow and eat it himself, it was nevertheless declared that he was “worth watching.”
While the hangers-on at the MacDonald ranch were all known to have records, no particular suspicion had attached to them in this instance, because the squaw was known to kill her own beef, and no shadow of doubt had ever fallen upon the good name of the ranch.
The trapping of cattle-thieves is not the work of a day or a week, but sometimes of months; and when evidence of another stolen beef was found upon the range, Ralston realized that his efforts lay in that vicinity for some time to come. He decided to ride over to the MacDonald ranch that evening and have a look at the bad hombre who masqueraded as a bug-hunter—bug-hunter, it should be explained, being a Western term for any stranger engaged in scientific pursuits.
While Ralston was riding over the lonely road in the moonlight, Dora was arranging the dining-room table for her night-school, which had been in session several evenings. Smith was studying grammar, of which branch of learning Dora had decided he stood most in need, while Susie groaned over compound fractions.
Tubbs, with his chair tilted against the wall, looked on with a tolerant smile. In the kitchen, paring a huge pan of potatoes for breakfast, Ling listened with such an intensity of interest to what was being said that his ears seemed fairly to quiver. From her bench in the living-room, the Indian woman braided rags and darted jealous glances at teacher and pupil. Smith, his hair looking like a bunch of tumble-weed in a high wind, hung over a book with a look of genuine misery upon his face.
“I didn’t have any notion there was so much in the world I didn’t know,” he burst out. “I thought when I’d learnt that if you sprinkle your saddle-blanket you can hold the biggest steer that runs, without your saddle slippin’, I’d learnt about all they was worth knowin’.”
“It’s tedious,” Dora admitted.
“Tedious?” echoed Smith in loud pathos. “It’s hell! Say, I can tie a fancy knot in a bridle-rein that can’t be beat by any puncher in the country, but darn me if I can see the difference between a adjective and one of these here adverbs! Once I thought I knowed something—me, Smith—but say, I don’t know enough to make a mark in the road!”
Closing his eyes and gritting his teeth, he repeated:
“‘I have had, you have had, he has had.’”
“If you would have had about six drinks, I think you could git that,” observed Tubbs judicially, watching Smith’s mental suffering with keen interest.
“Don’t be discouraged,” said Dora cheerfully, seating herself beside him. “Let’s take a little review. Do you remember what I told you about this?”
She pointed to the letter a marked with the long sound.
Smith ran both hands through his hair, while a wild, panic-stricken look came upon his face.
“Dog-gone me! I know it’s a a, but I plumb forget how you called it.”
Tubbs unhooked his toes from the chair-legs and walked around to look over Smith’s shoulder.
“Smith, you got a great forgitter,” he said sarcastically. “Why don’t you use your head a little? That there is a Bar A. You ought to have knowed that. The Bar A stock run all over the Judith Basin.”
“Don’t you remember I told you that whenever you saw that mark over a letter you should give it the long sound?” explained Dora patiently.
“Like the a in ‘aig,’” elucidated Tubbs.
“Like the a in ‘snake,’” corrected the Schoolmarm.
“Or ’wake,’ or ’skate,’ or ‘break,’” said Smith hopefully.
“Fine!” declared the Schoolmarm.
“I knowed that much myself,” said Tubbs enviously.
“If you’ll pardon me, Mr. Tubbs,” said Dora, in some irritation, “there is no such word as ‘knowed.’”
“Why don’t you talk grammatical, Tubbs?” Smith demanded, with alacrity.
“I talks what I knows,” said Tubbs, going back to his chair.
“Have you forgotten all I told you about adjectives?”
“Adjectives is words describin’ things. They’s two kinds, comparative and superlative,” Smith replied promptly. He added. “Adjectives kind of stuck in my craw.”
“Can you give me examples?” Dora felt encouraged.
“You got a horrible pretty hand,” Smith replied, without hesitation. “‘Horrible pretty’ is a adjective describin’ your hand.”
Dora burst out laughing, and Tubbs, without knowing why, joined in heartily.
“Tubbs,” continued Smith, glaring at that person, “has got the horriblest mug I ever seen, and if he opens it and laffs like that at me again, I aims to break his head. ’Horriblest’ is a superlative adjective describin’ Tubbs’s mug.”
To Smith’s chagrin and Tubbs’s delight, Dora explained that “horrible” was a word which could not be used in conjunction with “pretty,” and that its superlative was not “horriblest.”
Smith buried his head in his hands despondently.
“If I was where I could, I’d get drunk!”
“It’s nothing to feel so badly about,” said Dora comfortingly. “Let’s go back to prepositions. Can you define a preposition?”
Smith screwed up his face and groped for words, but before he found them Tubbs broke in:
“A preposition is what a feller has to sell that nobody wants,” he explained glibly. “They’s copper prepositions, silver-lead prepositions, and onct I had a oil preposition up in the Swift Current country.”
Smith reached inside his coat and pulled out the carved, ivory-handled six-shooter which he wore in a holster under his arm. He laid it on the table beside his grammar, and looked at Tubbs.
“Feller,” he said, “I hates to make a gun-play before the Schoolmarm, but if you jump into this here game again, I aims to try a chunk of lead on you.”
“If book-learnin’ ud ever make me as peevish as it does you,” declared Tubbs, rising hastily, “I hopes I never knows nothin’.”
Tubbs slammed the door behind him as he went to seek more amiable company in the bunk-house.
Save for the Indian woman, Smith and Dora were now practically alone; for Ling had gone to bed, and Susie was oblivious to everything except fractions. Smith continued to struggle with prepositions, adjectives, and adverbs, but he found it difficult to concentrate his thoughts on them with Dora so close beside him. He knew that his slightest glance, every expression which crossed his face, was observed by the Indian woman; and although he did his utmost not to betray his feelings, he saw the sullen, jealous resentment rising within her.
She read aright the light in his eyes; besides, her intuitions were greater than his powers of concealment. When she could no longer endure the sight of Smith and the Schoolmarm sitting side by side, she laid down her work and slipped out into the star-lit night, closing the door softly behind her.
Smith’s judgment told him that he should end the lesson and go after her, but the spell of love was upon him, overwhelming him, holding him fast in delicious thraldom. He had not the strength of will just then to break it.
Dora had been reading “Hiawatha” aloud each evening to Susie, Tubbs, and Smith, so when she finally closed the grammar, she asked if he would like to hear more of the Indian story, as he called it, to which he nodded assent.
Dora read well, with intelligence and sympathy; her trained voice was flexible. Then, too, she loved this greatest of American legends. It appealed to her audience as perhaps no other poem would have done. It was real to them, it was “life,” their life in a little different environment and told in a musical rhythm which held them breathless, enchanted.
Dora had reached the story of “The Famine.” She knew the refrain by heart, and the wail of old Nokomis was in her voice as she repeated from memory:
Would that I had perished for you!
Would that I were dead as you are!
· · · · · · · · · ·
“Then they buried Minnehaha;
In the snow a grave they made her,
In the forest deep and darksome,
Underneath the moaning hemlocks;
Clothed her in her richest garments,
Wrapped her in her robes of ermine,
Covered her with snow, like ermine;
So they buried Minnehaha.”
The pathos of the lines never failed to touch Dora anew. Her voice broke, and, pausing to recover herself, she glanced at Smith. There were tears in his eyes. The brutal chin was quivering like that of a tender-hearted child.
“The man that wrote that was a chief,” he said huskily. “It hurts me here—in my neck.” He rubbed the contracted muscles of his throat. “I’d feel like that, girl, if you should die.”
He repeated softly, and choked:
“All my heart is buried with you,
All my thoughts go onward with you!”
The impression which the poem made upon Smith was deep. It was a constant surprise to him also. The thoughts it expressed, the sensations it described, he had believed were entirely original with himself. He had not conceived it possible that any one else could feel toward a woman as he felt toward Dora. Therefore, when the poet put many of his heart-throbs into words, they startled him, as though, somehow, his own heart were photographed and held up to view.
Susie had finished her lesson, and, cramped from sitting, was walking about the living-room to rest herself, while this conversation was taking place. Her glance fell upon a gaudy vase on a shelf, and some thought came to her which made her laugh mischievously. She emptied the contents of the vase into the palm of her hand and, closing the other over it, tiptoed into the dining-room and stood behind Smith.
Dora and he, engrossed in conversation, paid no attention to her. She put her cupped palms close to Smith’s ear and, shaking them vigorously, shouted:
The result was such as Susie had not anticipated.
With a shriek which was womanish in its shrillness, Smith sprang to his feet, all but upsetting the lamp in his violence. Unmixed horror was written upon his face.
The girl herself shrank back at what she had done; then, holding out several rattles for inspection, she said:
“Looks like you don’t care for snakes.”
Only Susie guessed the unspeakable epithet he meant to use. Her eyes warned him, and, too, he remembered Dora in time. He said instead, with a slight laugh of confusion:
“Snakes scares me, and rat-traps goin’ off.”
The color had not yet returned to his face when a knock came upon the door.
In response to Susie’s call, a tall stranger stepped inside—a stranger wide of shoulder, and with a kind of grim strength in his young face.
From the unnatural brightness of the eyes of Susie and of Smith, and their still tense attitudes, Ralston sensed the fact that something had happened. He returned Smith’s unpleasant look with a gaze as steady as his own. Then his eyes fell upon Dora and lingered there.
She had sprung to her feet and was still standing. Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes luminous, and the soft lamplight burnishing her brown hair made the moment one of her best. Smith saw the frank admiration in the stranger’s look.
“May I stop here to-night?” He addressed Dora.
He had the characteristic Western gravity of manner and expression, the distinguishing definiteness of purpose. Though the quality of his voice, its modulation, bespoke the man of poise and education, the accent was unmistakably of the West.
“There’s a bunk-house.” It was Smith who answered.
His unuttered epithet still rankled; Susie turned upon him with insulting emphasis:
“And you’d better get out to it!”
“Are you the boss here?” The stranger put the question to Smith with cool politeness.
“What I say goes!”
Smith looked marvellously ugly.
Susie leaned toward him, and her childish face was distorted with anger as she shrieked:
“Not yet, Mister Smith!”
Involuntarily, Dora and the stranger exchanged glances in the awkward silence which followed. Then, more to relieve her embarrassment than for any other reason, Ralston said quietly, “Very well, I will do as this—gentleman suggests,” and withdrew.
“Good-night,” said Dora, gathering up her books; but neither Smith nor Susie answered.
With both hands deep in his trousers’ pockets, Smith was smiling at Susie, with a smile which was little short of devilish; and the girl, throwing a last look of defiance at him, also left the room, violently slamming behind her the door of the bed-chamber occupied by her mother and herself.
For a full minute Smith stood as they had left him—motionless, his eyelids drooping. Rousing himself, he went to the window and looked into the moonlight-flooded world outside. Huddled in a blanket, a squat figure sat on a fallen cottonwood tree.
Smith eyed it, then asked himself contemptuously:
“Ain’t that pure Injun?”
Taking his hat, he too stepped into the moonlight.
The woman did not look up at his approach, so he stooped until his cheek touched hers.
“What’s the matter, Prairie Flower?”
“My heart is under my feet.” Her voice was harsh.
In the tone one uses to a sulky child, he said:
“Come into the house.”
“You no like me, white man. You like de white woman.”
Smith reached under the blanket and took her hand.
“Why don’t you marry de white woman?”
He pressed her hand tightly against his heart.
“Come into the house, Prairie Flower.”
Her face relaxed like that of a child when it smiles through its tears. And Smith, in the hour when the first real love of his life was at its zenith, when his heart was so full of it that it seemed well nigh bursting, walked back to the house with the squaw clinging tightly to his fingers.