XI: The Best Horse

There was a subtle change in Ralston, which Dora was quick to feel. He was deferential, as always, and as eager to please; but he no longer sought her company, and she missed the quick exchange of sympathetic glances at the table. It seemed to her, also, that the grimness in his face was accentuated of late. She found herself crying one night, and called it homesickness, yet the small items of news contained in the latest letter from the spectacled youth had irritated her, and she had realized that she no longer regarded church fairs, choir practice, and oyster suppers as “events.”

She wondered how she had offended Ralston, if at all; or was it that he thought her bold, a brazen creature, because she had let him keep her hand so long upon the memorable occasion of the grasshopper hunt? She blushed in the darkness at the thought, and the tears slipped down her cheeks again as she decided that this must be so, since there could be no other explanation. Before she finally slept, she had fully made up her mind that she would show him by added reserve and dignity of manner that she was not the forward hoyden he undoubtedly believed her. And as a result of this midnight decision, the Schoolmarm’s “Good-morning, Mr. Ralston,” chilled that person like a draught from cold storage.

Susie noticed the absence of their former cordiality toward each other; and the obvious lack of warmth filled Smith with keen satisfaction. He had no notion of its cause; it was sufficient that it was so.

As their conversation daily became more forced, the estrangement more marked, Ralston’s wretchedness increased in proportion. He brooded miserably over the scene he had witnessed; troubled, aside from his own interest in Dora, that she should be misled by a man of Smith’s moral calibre. While he had delighted in her unworldly, childlike belief in people and things, in this instance he deeply regretted it.

Ralston understood perfectly the part which Smith desired to play in her eyes. He had heard through Dora the stories Smith had told her of wild adventures in which he figured to advantage, of reckless deeds which he hinted would be impossible since falling under her influence. He posed as a brand snatched from the burning, and conveyed the impression that his salvation was a duty which had fallen in her path for her to perform. That she applied herself to the task of elevating Smith with such combined patience and ardor, was the grievance of which Ralston had most to complain.

In his darker moments he told himself that she must have a liking for the man far stronger than he had believed, to have permitted the liberty which he had witnessed, one which, coming from Smith, seemed little short of sacrilege. His unhappiness was not lessened by the instances he recalled where women had married beneath them through this mistaken sense of duty, pity, or less commendable emotions.

Upon one thing he was determined, and that was never again to force his attentions upon her, to take advantage of her helplessness as he had when he had held her hand so tightly and, as he now believed, against her wishes. Although she did not show it, she must have thought him a bumpkin, an oaf, an underbred cur. He groaned as he ransacked his vocabulary for fitting words.

If only something would arise to reveal Smith’s character to her in its true light! But this was too much to hope. In his depression, it seemed to Ralston that the sun would never shine for him again, that failure was written on him like an I. D. brand, that sorrow everlasting would eat and sleep with him. In this mood, after a brief exchange of breakfast civilities, far worse than none, he walked slowly to the corral to saddle, cursing Smith for the braggart he knew he was and for the scoundrel he believed him to be.

Smith, it seemed, was riding that morning also, for when Ralston led his brown mare saddled and bridled from the stable, Smith was tightening the cinch on his long-legged gray—the horse he had taken from the Englishman. The Schoolmarm, in her riding clothes, ran down the trail, calling impartially:

“Will one of you please get my horse for me? He broke loose last night and is over there in the pasture.”

For reply, both Ralston and Smith swung into their saddles.

“I aims to get that horse. There’s no call for you to go, feller.”

Above all else, it was odious to Ralston to be addressed by Smith “feller.”

“If you happen to get to him first,” he answered curtly. “And I’d like to suggest that my name is Ralston.”

By way of answer, Smith dug the spurs cruelly into the thin-skinned blooded gray. Ralston loosened the reins on his brown mare, and it was a run from the jump.

Each realized that the inevitable clash had come, that no pretense of friendliness would longer be possible between them, that from now on they would be avowed enemies. As for Ralston, he was glad that the crisis had arrived; glad of anything which would divert him for ever so short a time from his own bitter thoughts; glad of the test which he could meet in the open, like a man.

The corral gate was open, and this led into a lane something like three-quarters of a mile in length, at the end of which was another gate, opening into the pasture where the runaway pony had crawled through the loose wire fence.

The brown mare had responded to Ralston’s signal like the loyal, honest little brute she was. The gravel flew behind them, and the rat-a-tat-tat of the horses’ hoofs on the hard road was like the roll of a drum. They were running neck and neck, but Ralston had little fear of the result, unless the gray had phenomenal speed.

Ralston knew that whoever reached the gate first must open it. If he could get far enough in the lead, he could afford to do so; if not, he meant to “pull” his horse and leave it to Smith. The real race would be from the gate to the pony.

The gray horse could run—his build showed that, and his stride bore out his appearance. Yet Ralston felt no uneasiness, for the mare had still several links of speed to let out—“and then some,” as he phrased it. The pace was furious even to the gate; they ran neck and neck, like a team, and the face of each rider was set in lines of determination. Ralston quickly saw that in the short stretch he would be unable to get sufficiently in the lead to open the gate in safety. So he pulled his horse a little, wondering if Smith would do the same. But he did not. Instead, he spurred viciously, and, to Ralston’s amazement, he went at the gate hard. Lifting the gray horse’s head, he went over and on without a break!

It was a chance, but Smith had taken it! He never had tried the horse, but it was from the English ranch, where he knew they were bred and trained to jump. His mocking laugh floated back to Ralston while he tore at the fastenings of the gate and hurled it from him.

Ralston measured the gap between them and his heart sank. It looked hopeless. The only thing in his favor was that it was a long run, and the gray might not have the wind or the endurance. The little mare stood still, her nose out, her soft eyes shining. As he lifted the reins, he patted her neck and cried, breathing hard:

“Molly, old girl, if you win, it’s oats and a rest all your life!”

He could have sworn the mare shared his humiliation.

The saddle-leathers creaked beneath him at the leap she gave. She lay down to her work like a hound, running low, her neck outstretched, her tail lying out on the breeze. Game, graceful, reaching out with her slim legs and tiny hoofs, she ate up the distance between herself and the gray in a way that made even Ralston gasp. And still she gained—and gained! Her muscles seemed like steel springs, and the unfaltering courage in her brave heart made Ralston choke with pride and tenderness and gratitude. Even if she lost, the race she was making was something to remember always. But she was gaining inch by inch. The sage-brush and cactus swam under her feet. When Ralston thought she had done her best, given all that was in her, she did a little more.

Smith knew, too, that she was gaining, though he would not turn his head to look. When her nose was at his horse’s rump, he had it in his heart to turn and shoot her as she ran. She crept up and up, and both Smith and Ralston knew that the straining, pounding gray had done its best. The work was too rough for its feet. There was too much thoroughbred in it for lava-rock and sage-brush hummocks. Blind rage consumed Smith as he felt the increasing effort of each stride and knew that it was going “dead” under him. He used his spurs with savage brutality, but the brown mare’s breath was coming hot on his leg. The gray horse stumbled; its breath came and went in sobs. Now they were neck and neck again. Then it was over, the little brown mare swept by, and Ralston’s rope, cutting the air, dropped about the neck of the insignificant, white “digger” that had caused it all.

“I guess you’re ridin’ the best horse to-day,” said Smith, as he dropped from the saddle to retie his latigo.

He gave the words a peculiar emphasis and inflection which made the other man look at him.

“Molly and I have a prejudice against taking dust,” Ralston answered quietly.

“It happens frequent that a feller has to get over his prejudices out in this country.”

“That depends a little upon the fellow;” and he turned Molly’s head toward the ranch, with the pony in tow.

Smith said nothing more, but rode off across the hills with all the evil in his nature showing in his lowering countenance.

Dora’s eyes were brilliant as they always were under excitement; and when Ralston dismounted she stroked Molly’s nose, saying in a voice which was more natural than it had been for days when addressing him, “It was splendid! She is splendid!” and he glowed, feeling that perhaps he was included a little in her praise.

“You want to watch out now,” said Susie soberly. “Smith’ll never rest till he’s ‘hunks.’”

Ralston thought the Schoolmarm hesitated, as if she were waiting for him to join them, or were going to ask him to do so; but she did not, and, although it was some satisfaction to feel that he had drawn first blood, he felt his despondency returning as soon as Dora and Susie had ridden away.

He walked aimlessly about, waiting for Molly to cool a bit before he let her drink preparatory to starting on his tiresome ride over the range. Both he and the Colonel believed that the thieves would soon grow bolder, and his strongest hope lay in coming upon them at work. He had noted that there were no fresh hides among those which hung on the fence, and he sauntered down to have another look at the old ones. With his foot he turned over something which lay close against a fence-post, half concealed in a sage-brush. Stooping, he unrolled it and shook it out; then he whistled softly. It was a fresh hide with the brand cut out!

Ralston nodded his head in mingled satisfaction and regret. So the thief was working from the MacDonald ranch! Did the Indian woman know, he wondered. Was it possible that Susie was in ignorance? With all his heart, he hoped she was. He walked leisurely to the house and leaned against the jamb of the kitchen door.

“Have the makings, Ling?” He passed his tobacco-sack and paper to the cook.

“Sure!” said Ling jauntily. “I like ’em cigilette.”

And as they smoked fraternally together, they talked of food and its preparation—subjects from which Ling’s thoughts seldom wandered far. When the advantages of soda and sour milk over baking powder were thoroughly exhausted as a topic, Ralston asked casually:

“Who killed your last beef, Ling? It’s hard to beat.”

“Yellow Bird,” he replied. “Him good butcher.”

“Yes,” Ralston agreed; “I should say that Yellow Bird was an uncommonly good butcher.”

So, after all, it was the Indians who were killing. Ralston sauntered on to the bunk-house to think it over.

“Tubbs,” McArthur was saying, as he eyed that person with an interest which he seldom bestowed upon his hireling, “you really have a most remarkable skull.”

Tubbs, visibly flattered, smirked.

“It’s claimed that it’s double by people what have tried to work me over. Onct I crawled in a winder and et up a batch of ’son-of-a-gun-in-a-sack’ that the feller who lived there had jest made. He come in upon me suddent, and the way he hammered me over the head with the stove-lifter didn’t trouble him, but,” declared Tubbs proudly, “he never even knocked me to my knees.”

“It is of the type of dolichocephalic,” mused McArthur.

“A barber told me that same thing the last time I had a hair-cut,” observed Tubbs blandly. “‘Tubbs,’ says he, ‘you ought to have a massaj every week, and lay the b’ar-ile on a-plenty.’”

“It is remarkably suggestive of the skulls found in the ancient paraderos of Patagonia. Very similar in contour—very similar.”

“There’s no Irish in me,” Tubbs declared with a touch of resentment. “I’m pure mungrel—English and Dutch.”

“It is an extremely curious skull—most peculiar.” He felt of Tubbs’s head with growing interest. “This bump behind the ear, if the system of phrenology has any value, would indicate unusual pugnacity.”

“That’s where a mule kicked me and put his laig out of joint,” said Tubbs humorously.

“Ah, that renders the skull pathological; but, even so, it is an interesting skull to an anthropologist—a really valuable skull, it would be to me, illustrating as it does certain features in dispute, for which I have stubbornly contended in controversies with the Preparator of Anthropology at the École des Haute Études in Paris.”

“Why don’t you sell it to him, Tubbs?” suggested Ralston, who had listened in unfeigned amusement.

Tubbs, startled, clasped both hands over the top of his head and backed off.

“Why, I need it myself.”

“Certainly—we understand that; but supposing you were to die—supposing something happened to you, as is liable to happen out here—you wouldn’t care what became of your skull, once you were good and dead. If it were sold, you’d be just that much in, besides making an invaluable contribution to science,” Ralston urged persuasively.

“It not infrequently happens that paupers, and prisoners sentenced to suffer capital punishment, dispose of their bodies for anatomical purposes, for which they are paid in advance. As a matter of fact, Tubbs,” declared McArthur earnestly, “my superficial examination of your head has so impressed me that upon the chance of some day adding it to my collection I am willing to offer you a reasonable sum for it.”

“It’s on bi-products that the money is made,” declared Ralston soberly, “and I advise you not to let this chance pass. You can raise money on the rest of your anatomy any time; but selling your head separately like this—don’t miss it, Tubbs!”

“Don’t I git the money till you git my head?” Tubbs demanded suspiciously.

“I could make a first payment to you, and the remainder could be paid to your heirs.”

“My heirs! Say, all that I’ll ever git for my head wouldn’t be a smell amongst my heirs. A round-up of my heirs would take in the hull of North Dakoty. Not aimin’ to brag, I got mavericks runnin’ on that range what must be twelve-year-old.”

McArthur looked the disgust he felt at Tubbs’s ribald humor.

“Your jests are exceedingly distasteful to me, Tubbs.”

“That ain’t no jest. Onct I——”

“Let’s get down to business,” interrupted Ralston. “What do you consider your skull worth?”

“It’s wuth considerable to me. I don’t know as I’m so turrible anxious to sell. I can eat with it, and it gits me around.” Tubbs’s tone took on the assumed indifference of an astute horse trader. “I’ve always held my head high, as you might say, and it looks to me like it ought to bring a hunderd dollars in the open market. No, I couldn’t think of lettin’ it go for less than a hundred—cash.”

McArthur considered.

“If you will agree to my conditions, I will give you my check for one hundred dollars,” he said at last.

“That sounds reasonable,” Tubbs assented.

“I should want you to carry constantly upon your person my name, address, and written instructions as to the care of and disposal of your skull, in the event of your demise. I shall also insist that you do not voluntarily place your head where your skull may be injured; because, as you can readily see, if it were badly crushed, it would be worthless for my purpose, or that of the scientific body to whom I intend to bequeath my interest in it, should I die before yourself.”

“I wasn’t aimin’ to lay it in a vise,” remarked Tubbs.

While McArthur was drawing up the agreement between them, Tubbs’s face brightened with a unique thought.

“Say,” he suggested, “why don’t you leave word in them instructions for me to be mounted? I know a taxidermist over there near the Yellowstone Park what can put up a b’ar or a timber wolf so natural you wouldn’t know ’twas dead. Wouldn’t it be kinda nice to see me settin’ around the house with my teeth showin’ and an ear of corn in my mouth? I’ll tell you what I’ll do: I’ll sell you my hull hide for a hundred more. It might cost two dollars to have me tanned, and with a nice felt linin’ you could have a good rug out of me for a very little money.”

McArthur replied ironically:

“I never have regarded you as an ornament, Tubbs.”

Tubbs looked at the check McArthur handed him, with satisfaction.

“That’s what I call clear velvet!” he declared, and went off chuckling to show it to his friends.

“When you think of it, this is a very singular transaction,” observed McArthur, wiping his fountain-pen carefully.

“Yes,” and Ralston, no longer able to contain himself, shouted with laughter; “it is.”

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