It was Sunday, a day later, when Susie came into the living-room and noticed her mother sewing muskrat around the top of a moccasin. It was a man’s moccasin. The woman had made no men’s moccasins since her husband’s death. The sight chilled the girl.
“Mother,” she asked abruptly, “what do you let that hold-up hang around here for?”
“Who you mean?” the woman asked quickly.
“That Smith!” Susie spat out the word like something offensive.
The Indian woman avoided the girl’s eyes.
“I like him,” she answered.
“Maybe he stay all time.” Her tone was stubborn, as though she expected and was prepared to resist an attack.
“You don’t—you can’t—mean it!”. Susie’s thin face flushed scarlet with shame.
“Sa-ah,” the woman nodded, “I mean it;” and Susie, staring at her in a kind of terror, saw that she did.
“Oh, Mother! Mother!” she cried passionately, dropping on the floor at the woman’s feet and clasping her arms convulsively about the Indian woman’s knees. “Don’t—don’t say that! We’ve always been a little different from the rest. We’ve always held our heads up. People like us and respect us—both Injuns and white. We’ve never been talked about—you and me—and now you are going to spoil it all!”
“I get tied up to him right,” defended the woman sullenly.
“Oh, Mother!” wailed the child.
“We need good white man to run de ranch.”
“But Smith—do you think he’s good? Good! Is a rattlesnake good? Can’t you see what he is, Mother?—you who are smarter than me in seeing through people? He’s mean—onery to the marrow—and some day sure—sure—he’ll turn, and strike his fangs into you.”
“He no onery,” the woman replied, in something like anger.
“It’s his nature,” Susie went on, without heeding her. “He can’t help it. All his thoughts and talk and schemes are about something crooked. Can’t you tell by the things he lets drop that he ought to be in the ’pen’? He’s treacherous, ungrateful, a born thief. I saw him take Tubbs’s halter, and there was the regular thief look in his eyes when he cut his own name on it. I saw him kick a dog, and he kicked it like a brute. He kicked it in the ribs with his toe. Men—decent men—kick a dog with the side of their foot. I saw his horse fall with him, and he held it down and beat it on the neck with a chain, where it wouldn’t show. He’d hold up a bank or rob a woman; he’d kill a man or a prairie-dog, and think no more of the one than the other.
“I tell you, Mother, as sure as I sit here on the floor at your feet, begging you, he’s going to bring us trouble; he’s going to deal us misery! I feel it! I know it!”
“You no like de white man.”
“That’s right; I don’t like the white man. He wants a good place to stay; he wants your horses and cattle and hay; and—he wants the Schoolmarm. He’s making a fool of you, Mother.”
“He no make fool of me,” she answered complacently. “He make fool of de white woman, maybe.”
“Look out of the window and see for yourself.”
They arose together, and the girl pointed to Smith and Dora, seated side by side on the cottonwood log.
“Did he ever look at you like that, Mother?”
“He make fool of de white woman,” she reiterated stubbornly, but her face clouded.
“He makes a fool of himself, but not of her,” declared Susie. “He’s crazy about her—locoed. Everybody sees it except her. Believe me, Mother, listen to Susie just this once.”
“He like me. I stick to him;” but she went back to her bench. The unfamiliar softness of Smith’s face hurt her.
The tears filled Susie’s eyes and ran down her cheeks. Her mother’s passion for this hateful stranger was stronger than her mother-love, that silent, undemonstrative love in which Susie had believed as she believed that the sun would rise each morning over there in the Bad Lands, to warm her when she was cold. She buried her face in her mother’s lap and sobbed aloud.
The woman had not seen Susie cry since she was a tiny child, save when her father and White Antelope died, and the numbed maternal instinct stirred in her breast. She laid her dark, ringed fingers upon Susie’s hair and stroked it gently.
“Don’t cry,” she said slowly. “If he make fool of me, if he lie when he say he tie up to me right, if he like de white woman better den me, I kill him. I kill him, Susie.” She pointed to a bunch of roots and short dried stalks which hung from the rafters in one corner of the room. “See—that is the love-charm of the Sioux. It was gifted to me by Little Coyote’s woman—a Mandan. It bring de love, and too much—it kill. If he make fool of me, if he not like me better den de white woman, I give him de love-charm of de Sioux. I fix him! I fix him right!”
Out on the cottonwood log Smith and the Schoolmarm had been speaking of many things; for the man could talk fluently in his peculiar vernacular, upon any subject which interested him or with which he was familiar.
The best of his nature, whatever of good there was in him, was uppermost when with Dora. He really believed at such times that he was what she thought him, and he condemned the shortcomings of others like one speaking from the lofty pinnacle of unimpeachable virtue.
In her presence, new ambitions, new desires, awakened, and sentiments which he never had suspected he possessed revealed themselves. He was happy in being near her; content when he felt the touch of her loose cape on his arm.
It never before had occurred to Smith that the world through which he had gone his tumultuous way was a beautiful place, or that there was joy in the simple fact of being strongly alive. When the sage-brush commenced to turn green and the many brilliant flowers of the desert bloomed, when the air was stimulating like wine and fragrant with the scents of spring, it had meant little to Smith beyond the facts that horse-feed would soon be plentiful and that he could lay aside his Mackinaw coat. The mountains suggested nothing but that they held big game and were awkward places to get through on horseback, while the deserts brought no thoughts save of thirst and loneliness and choking alkali dust. Upon a time a stranger had mentioned the scenery, and Smith had replied ironically that there was plenty of it and for him to help himself!
But this spring was different—so different that he asked himself wonderingly if other springs had been like it; and to-day, as he sat in the sunshine and looked about him, he saw for the first time grandeur in the saw-toothed, snow-covered peaks outlined against the dazzling blue of the western sky. For the first time he saw the awing vastness of the desert, and the soft pastel shades which made their desolation beautiful. He breathed deep of the odorous air and stared about him like a blind man who suddenly sees.
During a silence, Smith looked at Dora with his curiously intent gaze; his characteristic stare which held nothing of impertinence—only interest, intense, absorbing interest—and as he looked a thought came to him, a thought so unexpected, so startling, that he blinked as if some one had struck him in the face. It sent a bright red rushing over him, coloring his neck, his ears, his white, broad forehead.
He thought of her as the mother of children—his children—bearing his name, miniatures of himself and of her. He never had thought of this before. He never had met a woman who inspired in him any such desire. He followed the thought further. What if he should have a permanent home—a ranch that belonged to him exclusively—“Smith’s Ranch”—where there were white curtains at the windows, and little ones who came tumbling through the door to greet him when he rode into the yard? A place where people came to visit, people who reckoned him a person of consequence because he stood for something. He must have seen a place like it somewhere, the picture was so vivid in his mind.
The thought of living like others never before had entered into the scheme of his calculations. Since the time when he had “quit the flat” back in the country where they slept between sheets, the world had been lined up against him in its own defense. Life had been a constant game of hare and hounds, with the pack frequently close at his heels. He had been ever on the move, both for reasons of safety and as a matter of taste. His point of view was the abnormal one of the professional law-breaker: the world was his legitimate prey; the business of his life was to do as he pleased and keep his liberty; to outwit sheriffs and make a clean get-away. To be known among his kind as “game” and “slick,” was the only distinction he craved. His chiefest ambition had been to live up to his title of “Bad Man.” In this he had found glory which satisfied him.
“Well,” Dora asked at last, smiling up at him, “what is it?”
Smith hesitated; then he burst out:
“Girl, do I stack up different to you nor anybody else? Have you any feelin’ for me at all?”
“Why, I think I’ve shown my interest in trying to teach you,” she replied, a little abashed by his vehemence.
“What do you want to teach me for?” he demanded.
“Because,” Dora declared, “you have possibilities.”
“Why don’t you teach Meeteetse Ed and Tubbs?”
Dora laughed aloud.
“Candidly, I think it would be a waste of time. They could never hope to be much more than we see them here. And they are content as they are.”
“So was I, girl, until our trails crossed. I could ride without grub all day, and sing. I could sleep on a saddle-blanket like a tired pup, with only a rock for a wind-break and my saddle for a pillow. Now I can’t sleep in a bed. It’s horrible—this mixed up feelin’—half the time wantin’ to holler and laugh and the other half wantin’ to cry.”
“I don’t see why you should feel like that,” said Dora gravely. “You are getting along. It’s slow, but you’re learning.”
“Oh, yes, I’m learnin’,” Smith answered grimly—“fast.”
He saw her wondering look and went on fiercely.
“Girl, don’t you see what I mean? Don’t you sabe? My feelin’ for you is more nor friendship. I can’t tell you how I feel. It’s nothin’ I ever had before, but I’ve heard of it a-plenty. It’s love—that’s what it is! I’ve seen it, too, a-plenty.
“There’s two things in the world a feller’ll go through hell for—just two: love and gold. I don’t mean money, but gold—the pure stuff. They’ll waller through snow-drifts, they’ll swim rivers with the ice runnin’, they’ll crawl through canyons and over trails on their hands and knees, they’ll starve and they’ll freeze, they’ll work till the blood runs from their blistered hands, they’ll kill their horses and their pardners, for gold! And they’ll do it for love. Yes, I’ve seen it a-plenty, me—Smith.
“Things I’ve done, I’ve done, and they don’t worry me none,” he went on, “but lately I’ve thought of Dutch Joe. I worked him over for singin’ a love-song, and I wisht I hadn’t. He’d held up a stage, and was cached in my camp till things simmered down. It was lonesome, and I’d want to talk; but he’d sit back in the dark, away from the camp-fire, and sing to himself about ’ridin’ to Annie.’ How the miles wasn’t long or the trail rough if only he was ’ridin’ to Annie.’ Sittin’ back there in the brush, he sounded like a sick coyote a-hollerin’. It hadn’t no tune, and I thought it was the damnedest fool song I ever heard. After he’d sung it more’n five hundred times, I hit him on the head with a six-shooter, and we mixed. He quit singin’, but he held that gretch against me as long as he lived.
“I thought it was because he was Dutch, but it wasn’t. ’Twas love. Why, girl, I’d ride as long as my horse could stand up under me, and then I’d hoof it, just to hear you say, ‘Smith, do you think it will rain?’”
“Oh, I never thought of this!” cried Dora, as Smith paused.
Her face was full of distress, and her hands lay tightly clenched in her lap.
“Do you mean I haven’t any show—no show at all?” The color fading from Smith’s face left it a peculiar yellow.
“It never occurred to me that you would misunderstand, or think anything but that I wanted to help you. I thought that you wanted to learn so that you would have a better chance in life.”
“Did you—honest? Are you as innocent as that, girl?” he asked in savage scepticism. “Did you believe that I’d set and study them damned verbs just so I’d have a better chanct in life?”
“You said so.”
“Oh, yes, maybe I said so.”
“Surely, surely, you don’t think I would intentionally mislead you?”
“When a woman wants a man to dress or act or talk different, she generally cares some.”
“And I do ‘care some’!” Dora cried impulsively. “I believe that you are not making the best of yourself, of your life; that you are better than your surroundings; and because I do believe in you, I want to help you. Don’t you understand?”
Her explanation was not convincing to Smith.
“Is it because I don’t talk grammar, and you think you’d have to live in a log-house and hang out your own wash?”
“Even if I cared for you, those things would have weight,” she answered truthfully. “I am content out here now, and like it because it is novel and I know it is temporary; but if I were asked to live here always, as you suggest, in a log-house and hang out my own wash, I should have to care a great deal.”
“It’s because I haven’t a stake, then,” he said bitterly.
“No, not because you haven’t a stake. I merely say that extreme poverty would be an objection.”
“But if I should get the dinero—me, Smith—plenty of it? Tell me,” he demanded fiercely—“it’s the time to talk now—is there any one else? It’s me for the devil straight if you throw me! You’d better take this gun here, plant it on my heart, and pull the trigger. Because if I live—I’m talkin’ straight—what I have done will be just a kid’s play to what I’ll do, if I ever cut loose for fair. Don’t throw me, girl! Give me a show—if there ain’t any one else! If there is, I’m quittin’ the flat to-day.”
Dora was silent, panic-stricken with the responsibility which he seemed to have thrust upon her, almost terrified by the thought that he was leaving his future in her hands—a malleable object, to be shaped according to her will for good or evil.
A certain self-contained, spectacled youth, whose weekly letters arrived with regularity, rose before her mental vision, and as quickly vanished, leaving in his stead a man of a different type, a man at once unyielding and gentle, both shy and bold; a man who seemed to typify in himself the faults and virtues of the raw but vigorous West. Though she hesitated, she replied:
“No, there is no one.”
And Ralston, fording the stream, lifted his eyes midway and saw Smith raise Dora’s hand to his lips.