VIII: The Bug-Hunter Elucidates

The same instinct which made Ralston recognize Susie as his friend told him that Smith was his enemy; though, verily, that person who would have construed as evidences of esteem and budding friendship Smith’s black looks when Ralston presumed to talk with Dora, even upon the most ordinary topics, would have been dull of comprehension indeed.

While no reason for remaining appeared to be necessary at the MacDonald ranch, Ralston hinted at hunting stray horses; and casually expressed a hope that he might be able to pick up a bunch of good ponies at a reasonable figure—which explanation was entirely satisfactory to all save Smith. The latter frequently voiced the opinion that Ralston lingered solely for the purpose of courting the Schoolmarm, an opinion which the grub-liners agreed was logical, since they too, along with the majority of unmarried males for fifty miles around, cherished a similar ambition.

Dora had long since ceased to consider as extraordinary the extended visits which strangers paid to the ranch; therefore, she saw nothing unusual in the fact that Ralston stayed on.

If furtive-eyed and restless passers-by arrived after dark, slept in the hay near their unsaddled horses, and departed at dawn, assuredly no person at the MacDonald ranch was rude enough to ask reasons for their haste. Its hospitality was as boundless, as free, as the range itself; and if upon leaving any guest had happened to express gratitude for food and shelter, it is doubtful if any incident could more have surprised Susie and her mother, unless, mayhap, it might have been an offer of payment for the same.

Ralston told himself that, since he could remain without comment, the ranch was much better situated for his purpose than Colonel Tolman’s home; but the really convincing point in its favor, though one which he refused to recognize as influencing him in the least, was that he was nearer Dora by something like eight miles than he would have been at the Bar C. Then, too, though there was nothing tangible to justify his suspicions, Ralston believed that his work lay close at hand.

Like Colonel Tolman, he had come to think that it was not the Indians who were killing; and the nesters, though a spiritless, shiftless lot, had always been honest enough. But the bunk-house on the MacDonald ranch was often filled with the material of which horse and cattle thieves are made, and Ralston hoped that he might get a clue from some word inadvertently dropped there.

He often thought that he never had seen a more heterogeneous gathering than that which assembled at times around the table. And with Longfellow in the dining-room, ethnological dissertations in one end of the bunk-house, and personal reminiscences and experiences in gun-fights and affairs of the heart in the other end, there was afforded a sufficient variety of mental diversion to suit nearly any taste.

McArthur in the rôle of desperado seemed preposterous to Ralston; yet he remembered that Ben Reed, a graduate of a theological seminary, who could talk tears into the eyes of an Apache, was the slickest stock thief west of the Mississippi. He was well aware that a pair of mild eyes and gentle, ingenuous manners are many a rogue’s most valuable asset, and though the bug-hunter talked frankly of his pilgrimages into the hills, there was always a chance that his pursuit was a pose, his zeal counterfeit.

One evening which was typical of others, Ralston sat on the edge of his bunk, rolling an occasional cigarette and listening with huge enjoyment to the conversation of a group around the sheet-iron stove, of which McArthur was the central figure.

McArthur, riding his hobby enthusiastically, quite forgot the character of his listeners, and laid his theories regarding the interchange of mammalian life between America and Asia during the early Pleistocene period, before Meeteetse Ed, Old Man Rulison, Tubbs, and others, in the same language in which he would have argued moot questions with colleagues engaged in similar research. The language of learning was as natural to McArthur as the vernacular of the West was to Tubbs, and in moments of excitement he lapsed into it as a foreigner does into his native tongue under stress of feeling.

“I maintain,” asserted McArthur, with a gesture of emphasis, “that the Paleolithic man of Europe followed the mastodon to North America and here remained.”

Meeteetse Ed, whose cheeks were flushed, laid his hot hand upon his forehead and declared plaintively as he blinked at McArthur:

“Pardner, I’m gittin’ a headache from tryin’ to see what you’re talkin’ about.”

“Air you sayin’ anything a-tall,” demanded Old Man Rulison, suspiciously, “or air you joshin’?”

“Them’s words all right,” said Tubbs. “Onct I worked under a section boss over on the Great Northern what talked words like them. He believed we sprung up from tuds and lizards—and the likes o’ that. Yes, he did—on the square.”

“There are many believers in the theory of evolution,” observed McArthur.

“That’s it—that’s the word. That’s what he was.” Then, in the tone of one who hands out a clincher, Tubbs demanded: “Look here, Doc, if that’s so why ain’t all these ponds and cricks around here a-hatchin’ out children?”

“Guess that’ll hold him for a minute,” Meeteetse Ed whispered to his neighbor.

But instead of being covered with confusion by this seemingly unanswerable argument, McArthur gazed at Tubbs in genuine pity.

“Let me consider how I can make it quite clear to you. Perhaps,” he said thoughtfully, “I cannot do better than to give you Herbert Spencer’s definition. Spencer defines evolution, as nearly as I can remember his exact words, as an integration of matter and concomita, dissipation of motion; during which the matter passes from an indefinite heterogeneity to a definite, incoherent heterogeneity, and during which the retained motion undergoes a parallel transformation. Materialistic, agnostic, and theistic evolution——”

Meeteetse Ed fell off his chair in a mock faint and crashed to the floor.

Susie, who had entered, saw McArthur’s embarrassment, and refused to join in the shout of laughter, though her eyes danced.

“Don’t mind him,” she said comfortingly, as she eyed Meeteetse, sprawled on his back with his eyes closed. “He’s afraid he’ll learn something. He used to be a sheep-herder, and I don’t reckon he’s got more’n two hundred and fifty words in his whole vocabulary. Why, I’ll bet he never heard a word of more’n three syllables before. Get up, Meeteetse. Go out in the fresh air and build yourself a couple of them sheep-herder’s monuments. It’ll make you feel better.”

The prostrate humorist revived. Susie’s jeers had the effect of a bucket of ice-water, for he had not been aware that this blot upon his escutcheon—the disgraceful epoch in his life when he had earned honest money herding sheep—was known.

“My enthusiasm runs away with me when I get upon this subject,” said McArthur, in blushing apology to the group. “I am sorry that I have bored you.”

“No bore a-tall,” declared Old Man Rulison magnanimously. “You cut loose whenever you feel like it: we kin stand it as long as you kin.”

After McArthur had gone to his pneumatic mattress in the patent tent pitched near the bunk-house, Ralston said to Susie:

“You and the bug-hunter are great friends, aren’t you?”

“You bet! We’re pardners. Anybody that gets funny with him has got me to fight.”

“Oh, it’s like that, is it?” Ralston laughed.

“We’ve got secrets—the bug-hunter and me.”

“You’re rather young for secrets, Susie.”

“Nobody’s too young for secrets,” she declared. “Haven’t you any?”

“Sure,” Ralston nodded.

“I like you,” Susie whispered impulsively. “Let’s swap secrets.”

He looked at her and wished he dared. He would have liked to tell her of his mission, to ask her help; for he realized that, if she chose, no one could help him more. Like Smith, he recognized that quality in her they each called “gameness,” and even more than Smith he appreciated the commingling of Scotch shrewdness and Indian craft. He believed Susie to be honest; but he had believed many things in the past which time had not demonstrated to be facts. No, the chance was too great to take; for should she prove untrustworthy or indiscreet, his mission would be a failure. So he answered jestingly:

“My secrets are not for little girls to know.”

Susie gave him a quick glance.

“Oh, you don’t look as though you had that kind,” and turned away.

Ralston felt somehow that he had lost an opportunity. He could not rid himself of the feeling the entire evening; and he made up his mind to cultivate Susie’s friendship. But it was too late; he had made a mistake not unlike Dora’s. Susie had felt herself rebuffed, and, like the Schoolmarm, Ralston had laughed at her with his eyes. It was a great thing—a really sacred thing to Susie—this secret that she had offered him. The telling of it to McArthur had been so delightful an experience that she yearned to repeat it, but now she meant never to tell any one else. Any way, McArthur was her “pardner,” and it was enough that he should know. So it came about that afterwards, when Ralston sought her company and endeavored to learn something of the workings of her mind, he found the same barrier of childish reserve which had balked Dora, and no amount of tact or patience seemed able to break it down.

The young deputy sheriff’s interest in Dora increased in leaps and bounds. He experienced an odd but delightful agitation when he saw the sleepy white pony plodding down the hill, and the sensation became one easily defined each time that he observed Smith’s horse ambling in the road beside hers. The feeling which inspired Tubbs’s disgruntled comment, “Smith rides herd on the Schoolmarm like a cow outfit in a bad wolf country,” found an echo in Ralston’s own breast. Truly, Smith guarded the Schoolmarm with the vigilance of a sheep-dog.

He saw a possible rival in every new-comer, but most of all he feared Ralston; for Smith was not too blinded by prejudice to appreciate the fact that Ralston was handsome in a strong, man’s way, younger than himself, and possessed of the advantages of education which enabled him to talk with Dora upon subjects that left him, Smith, dumb. Such times were wormwood and gall to Smith; yet in his heart he never doubted but that he would have Dora and her love in the end. Smith’s faith in himself and his ability to get what he really desired was sublime. The chasm between himself and Dora—the difference of birth and education—meant nothing to him. It is doubtful if he recognized it. He would have considered himself a king’s equal; indeed, it would have gone hard with royalty, had royalty by any chance ordered Smith to saddle his horse. He judged by the standards of the plains: namely, gameness, skill, resourcefulness; to him, there wereno other standards. After all, Dora Marshall was only a woman—the superior of other women, to be sure, but a woman; and if he wanted her—why not?

He would have been amazed, enraged through wounded vanity, if it had been possible for him to see himself from Dora’s point of view: a subject for reformation; a test for many trite theories; an erring human to be reclaimed by a woman’s benign influence. Naturally, these thoughts had not suggested themselves to Smith.

Ralston looked forward eagerly to the evening meal, since it was almost the only time at which he could exchange a word with Dora. Breakfast was a hurried affair, while both she and Susie were absent from the midday dinner. The shy, fluttering glances which he occasionally surprised from her, the look of mutual appreciation which sometimes passed between them at a quaint bit of philosophy or naïve remark, started his pulses dancing and set the whole world singing a wordless song of joy.

Somehow, eating seemed a vulgar function in the Schoolmarm’s presence, and he wished with all his heart that the abominable grammar lessons which filled her evenings might some time end; in which case he would be able to converse with her when not engaged in rushing bread and meat to and fro.

His most carefully laid plans to obtain a few minutes alone with her were invariably thwarted by Smith. And from the heights to which he had been transported by some more than passing friendly glance at the table, he was dragged each evening to the depths by the sight of Dora and Smith with their heads together over that accursed grammar.

He commenced to feel a distaste for his bunk-house associates, and took to wandering out of doors, pausing most frequently in his meanderings just outside the circle of light thrown through the window by the dining-room lamp. Dora’s guilelessness in believing that Smith’s interest in his lessons was due to a desire for knowledge did not make the tableau less tantalizing to Ralston, but it would have been against every tenet in his code to suggest to Dora that Smith was not the misguided diamond-in-the-rough which she believed him.

Smith, on the contrary, had no such scruples. He lost no opportunity to sneer at Ralston. When he discovered Dora wearing one of the first flowers of spring, which Ralston had brought her, Smith said darkly:

“That fresh guy is a dead ringer for a feller that quit his wife and five kids in Livingston and run off with a biscuit-shooter.”

Dora laughed aloud. The clean-cut and youthful Ralston deserting a wife and five children for a “biscuit-shooter” was not a convincing picture. That she did not receive his insinuation seriously but added fuel to the unreasoning jealousy beginning to flame in Smith’s breast.

Yet Smith treated Ralston with a consideration which was surprising in view of the wanton insults he frequently inflicted upon those whom he disliked. Susie guessed the reason for his superficial courtesy, and Ralston, perhaps, suspected it also. In his heart, Smith was afraid. First and always, he was a judge of men—rather, of certain qualities in men. He knew that should he give intentional offense to Ralston, he would be obliged either to retract or to back up his insult with a gun. Ralston would be the last man to accept an affront with meekness.

Smith did not wish affairs to reach this crisis. He did not want to force an issue until he had demonstrated to his own satisfaction that he was the better man of the two with words or fists or weapons. But once he found the flaw in Ralston’s armor, he would speedily become the aggressor. Such were Smith’s tactics. He was reckless with caution; daring when it was safe.

The rôle he was playing gave him no concern. Though the Indian woman’s spells of sullenness irritated him, he conciliated her with endearing words, caresses, and the promise of a speedy marriage. He appeased her jealousy of Dora by telling her that he studied the foolish book-words only that he might the better work for her interests; that he was fitting himself to cope with the shrewd cattlemen with whom there were constant dealings, and that when they were married, the Schoolmarm should live elsewhere. Like others of her sex, regardless of race or color, the Indian woman believed because she wanted to believe.

Just where his actions were leading him, Smith did not stop to consider. He had no fear of results. With an overweening confidence arising from past successes, he believed that matters would adjust themselves as they always had. Smith wanted a home, and the MacDonald cattle, horses, and hay; but more than any of them he wanted Dora Marshall. How he was going to obtain them all was not then clear to him, but that when the time came he could make a way, he never for a moment doubted.

Smith’s confidence in himself was supreme. If he could have expressed his belief in words, he might have said that he could control Destiny, shape events and his own life as he liked. He had been shot at, pursued by posses, all but lynched upon an occasion, and always he had escaped in some unlooked-for manner little short of miraculous. As a result, he had come to cherish a superstitious belief that he bore a charmed life, that no real harm could come to him. So he courted each woman according to her nature as he read it, and waited blindly for success.

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