XII: Smith Gets “Hunks”

Smith’s ugly mood was still upon him when he picked up his grammar that evening. Jealous, humiliated by the loss of the morning’s race, full of revengeful thoughts and evil feelings, he wanted to hurt somebody—something—even Dora. He had a vague, sullen notion that she was to blame because Ralston was in love with her. She could have discouraged him in the beginning, he told himself; she could have stopped it.

Unaccustomed as Smith was to self-restraint, he quickly showed his frame of mind to Dora. He had no savoir faire with which to conceal his mood; besides, he entertained a feeling of proprietorship over her which justified his resentment to himself. Was she not to be his? Would he not eventually control her, her actions, choose her friends?

Dora found him a dense and disagreeable pupil, and one who seemingly had forgotten everything he had learned during previous lessons. His replies at times were so curt as to be uncivil, and a feeling of indignation gradually rose within her. She was at a loss to understand his mood, unless it was due to the result of the morning’s race; yet she could scarcely believe that his disappointment, perhaps chagrin, could account for his rudeness to her.

When the useless lesson was finished, she closed the book and asked:

“You are not yourself to-night. What is wrong?”

With an expression upon his face which both startled and shocked her he snarled:

“I’m sick of seein’ that lady-killer hangin’ around here!”

“You mean——?”

“Ralston!”

Dora had never looked at Smith as she looked at him now.

“I beg to be excused from your criticisms of Mr. Ralston.”

Smith had not dreamed that the gentle, girlish voice could take on such a quality. It cut him, stung him, until he felt hot and cold by turns.

“Oh, I didn’t know he was such a friend,” he sneered.

“Yes”—her eyes did not quail before the look that flamed in his—“he is just such a friend!”

They had risen; and Smith, looking at her as she stood erect, her head high in defiance, could have choked her in his jealous rage.

He stumbled rather than walked toward the door.

“Good-night,” he said in a strained, throaty voice.

“Good-night.”

She stared at the door as it closed behind him. She had something of the feeling of one who, making a pet of a tiger, feels its claws for the first time, sees the first indication of its ferocious nature. This new phase of Smith’s character, while it angered, also filled her with uneasiness.

It was later than usual when Smith came in to say a word to the Indian woman, after Dora and Susie had retired. He did not bring with him the fumes of tobacco, the smoke of which rose in clouds in the bunk-house, making it all but impossible to see the length of the building; he brought, rather, an odor of freshness, a feeling of coolness, as though he had been long in the night air.

The Indian woman sniffed imperceptibly.

“Where you been?”

His look was evil as he answered:

“Me? I’ve been payin’ my debts, me—Smith.”

He took her impassive hand in both of his and pressed it against his heart.

“Prairie Flower,” he said, “I want you to tell Ralston to go. I hate him.”

The woman looked at him, but did not answer.

“Will you?”

“Yes, I tell him.”

“When?”

She raised her narrowing eyes to his.

“When you tell de white woman to go.”

Ralston had felt that the old Colonel was growing impatient with his seeming inactivity, so he decided, the next morning, to ride to the Bar C and tell him that he believed he had a clue. It would not be necessary to keep Running Rabbit under close surveillance until the beef in the meat-house was getting low. Then the deputy sheriff meant not to let him out of his sight.

Smith had not spoken to the man whom he had come to regard as his rival since he had ridden away from him the morning before. He had ignored Ralston’s conversation at the table and avoided him in the bunk-house. Now, engaged in trimming his horse’s fetlocks, Smith did not look up as the other man passed, but his eyes followed him with a triumphant gleam as he went into the stable to saddle Molly.

Ralston backed the mare to turn her in the stall, and she all but fell down. He felt a little surprise at her clumsiness, but did not grasp its meaning until he led her to the door, where she stepped painfully over the low door-sill and all but fell again. He led her a step or two further, and she went almost to her knees. The mare was lame in every leg—she could barely stand; yet there was not a mark on her—not ever so slight a bruise! Her slender legs were as free from swellings as when they had carried her past Smith’s gray; her feet looked to be in perfect condition; yet, save for the fact that she could stand up, she was as crippled as if the bones of every leg were shattered.

It is doubtful if any but steel-colored eyes can take on the look which Ralston’s contained as they met Smith’s. His skin was gray as he straightened himself and drew a hand which shook noticeably the length of his cheek and across his mouth.

In great anger, anger which precedes some quick and desperate act, almost every person has some gesture peculiar to himself, and this was Ralston’s.

A less guilty man than Smith might have flinched at that moment. The half-grin on his face faded, and he waited for a torrent of accusations and oaths. But Ralston, in a voice so low that it barely reached him, a voice so ominous, so fraught with meaning, that the dullest could not have misunderstood, said:

“I’ll borrow your horse, Smith.”

Smith, like one hypnotized, heard himself saying:

“Sure! Take him.”

Ralston knew as well as though he had witnessed the act that Smith had hammered the frogs of Molly’s feet until they were bruised and sore as boils. Her lameness would not be permanent—she would recover in a week or two; but the abuse of, the cruelty to, the little mare he loved filled Ralston with a hatred for Smith as relentless and deep as Smith’s own.

“A man who could do a thing like that,” said Ralston through his set teeth, “is no common cur! He’s wolf—all wolf! He isn’t staying here for love, alone. There’s something else. And I swear before the God that made me, I’ll find out what it is, and land him, before I quit!”

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