Dora and Susie had planned to botanize one fine Saturday morning, and Susie, dressed for a tramp in the hills, was playing with a pup in the dooryard, waiting for Dora, when she saw Smith coming toward her with the short, quick step which, she had learned, with him denoted mental activity.
“This is the day for it,” he said decisively. “I had that notorious feelin’ take holt of me when I got awake. How’s your heart, girl?”
It had given a thump at Smith’s approach, and Susie’s tawny skin had paled under its tan, but by way of reply she gave the suggestive Indian sign of strength.
“Good!” he nodded. “You’ll need a strong heart for the ridin’ you’ve got to do to-day; but I’m not a worryin’ that you can’t do it, kid, for I’ve watched you close.”
“Guess I could ride a flyin’ squirrel if I had to,” Susie replied shortly, “but Teacher wanted me to go with her to get flowers. She doesn’t like to go alone.”
“There’s no call for her to go alone. I’ll go with her. It’s no use for me to get to the plant before afternoon. I’ll go on this flower-pickin’ spree, and be at the mouth of the canyon in time to hold the first bunch of horses you bring in. They’re pretty much scattered, you know. What for an outfit you goin’ to wear? You don’t want no flappin’ skirts to advertise you.”
Susie answered curtly:
“I got some sense.”
“You’re a sassy side-kicker,” he observed good-humoredly.
“I don’t care, I wanted to pick flowers.”
Smith said mockingly, “So do I, angel child. I jest worships flowers!”
“From pickin’ flowers to stealin’ horses is some of a jump.”
“I holds a record for long jumps.” As a final warning Smith said: “Now, don’t make no mistake in cuttin’ out, for we’ve picked the top horses of the range. And remember, once you get ’em strung out, haze ’em along—for there’ll be hell a-poppin’ on the reservation when they’re missed.”
Susie had disappeared when the Schoolmarm came out with her basket and knife, prepared to start, and Smith gave some plausible excuse for her change of plan.
“She told me to go in her place,” said Smith eagerly, “and I know a gulch where there’s a barrel of them Mormon lilies, and rock-roses, and a reg’lar carpet of these here durn little blue flowers that look so nice and smell like a Chinese laundry. I can dig like a badger, too.”
Dora laughed, and, looking at him, noticed, as she often had before, the wonderful vividness with which his varying moods were reflected in his face, completely altering his expression.
He looked boyish, brimming with the buoyant spirits of youth. His skin had unwonted clearness, his eyes were bright, his face was animated; he seemed to radiate exuberant good-humor. Even his voice was different and his laugh was less hard. As he walked away with the Schoolmarm’s basket swinging on his arm, he was for the time what he should have been always. He had long since made ample apology to Dora for his offense and there had been no further outbreak from him of which to complain.
The day’s work was cut out for Ralston also, when he saw Yellow Bird and another Indian ride away, each leading a pack-horse, and learned from Ling that they had gone to butcher. They started off over the reservation, in the direction in which the MacDonald cattle ranged; with the intention, Ralston supposed, of circling and coming out on the Bar C range. He thought that by keeping well to the draws and gulches he could remain fairly well hidden and yet keep them in sight.
He heard voices, and turned a hill just in time to see Smith take a flower gently from Dora’s hand and, with some significant word, lay it with care between the leaves of a pocket note-book.
Though it looked more to Ralston, all that Smith had said was, “It might bring me luck.” And Dora had smiled at his superstition.
Ralston would have turned back had it not been too late: his horse’s feet among the rocks had caused them to look up. As he passed Dora replied to some commonplace, with heightened color, and Smith stared in silent triumph.
Ralston cursed himself and the mischance which had taken him to that spot.
“She’ll think I was spying upon her, like some ignorant, jealous fool!” he told himself savagely. “Why, why, is it that I must always blunder upon such scenes, to make me miserable for days! Can it be—can it possibly be,” he asked himself—“that she cares for the man; that she encourages him; that she has a foolish, Quixotic notion that she can raise him to her own level?”
Was there really good in the man which he, Ralston, was unable to see? Was he too much in love with Dora himself to be just to Smith, he wondered.
“No, no!” he reiterated vehemently. “No man who would abuse a horse is fit for a good woman to marry. I’m right about him—I know I am. But can I prove it in time to save her?—not for myself, for I guess I’ve no show; but from him?”
With a heartache which seemed to have become chronic of late, Ralston followed the Indians’ lead up hill and down, through sand coulees and between cut-banks, at a leisurely pace. They seemed in no hurry, nor did they make any apparent effort to conceal themselves. They rode through several herds of cattle, and passed on, drifting gradually toward the creek bottom close to the reservation line, where both Bar C and I. D. cattle came to drink.
Ralston wondered if they would attempt to stand him off; but his heart was too heavy for the possibility of a coming fight to quicken his pulse to any great extent. He believed that he would be rather glad than otherwise if they should make a stand. The thought that the tedious waiting game which he had played so long might be ended did not elate him. The ambition seemed to have gone out of him. He had little heart in his work, and small interest in the glory resulting from success.
He thought only of Dora as he lay full length on the ground, plucking disconsolately at spears of bunch-grass within reach, while he waited for the sound of a shot in the creek bottom, or the reappearance of the Indians.
He had not long to wait before a shot, a bellow, and another shot told him that the time for action had come. He pulled his rifle from its scabbard, and laid it in front of him on his saddle. It was curious, he thought, as he rode closer, that one Indian was not on guard. Still, it was probable that they had grown careless through past successes. He was within a hundred yards of the butchers before they saw him.
“Hello!” Yellow Bird’s voice was friendly.
“Hello!” Ralston answered.
“Fat cow. Fine beef,” vouchsafed the Indian.
“Fine beef,” agreed Ralston. “Can I help you?”
The MacDonald brand stood out boldly on the cow’s flank!
Ralston watched them until they had loaded their meat upon the pack-horses and started homeward. One thing was certain: if Running Rabbit had butchered the Bar C cattle, he had done so under a white man’s supervision. In this instance, with an Indian’s usual economy in the matter of meat, he had left little but the horns and hoofs. The Bar C cattle had been butchered with the white man’s indifference to waste.
Any one of the bunk-house crowd, except McArthur, Ralston believed to be quite capable of stealing cattle for beef purposes. But if they had been stealing systematically, as it would appear, why had they killed MacDonald cattle to-day? Ralston still regarded the affair of the fresh hide as too suspicious a circumstance to be overlooked, and he meant to learn which of the white grub-liners had been absent. He reasoned that the Indians had a wholesome fear of Colonel Tolman, and that it was unlikely they would venture upon his range for such a purpose without a white man’s moral support.
Smith had been missing frequently of late and for so long as two days at a time, but this could not be regarded as peculiar, since the habits of all the grub-liners were more or less erratic. They disappeared and reappeared, with no explanation of their absence.
In his present frame of mind, Ralston had no desire to return immediately to the ranch. He wanted to be alone; to harden his heart against Dora; to prepare his mind for more shocks such as he had had of late. It was not an easy task he had set himself.
After a time he dismounted, and, throwing down his bridle-reins, dropped to the ground to rest, while his horse nibbled contentedly at the sparse bunch-grass. As he lay in the sunshine, his hands clasped behind his head, the stillness acted like a sedative, and something of the tranquillity about him crept into his soul.
Upon one thing he was determined, and that was, come what might, to be a man—a gentleman. If in his conceit and eagerness he had misunderstood the softness of Dora’s eyes, her shy tremulousness, as he now believed he had, he could take his medicine like a man, and go when the time came, without whimpering, without protest or reproach. He wanted to go away feeling that he had her respect, at least; go knowing that there was not a single word or action of his upon which she could look back with contempt. Yes, he wanted greatly her respect. She inspired in him this desire.
Ralston felt very humble, very conscious of his own shortcomings, as he lay there while the afternoon waned; but, humble as he was, resigned as he believed himself to be, he could not think of Smith with anything but resentment and contempt. It hurt his pride, his self-respect, to regard Smith in the light of a rival—a successful rival.
“By Gad!” he cried aloud, and with a heat which belied his self-abnegation. “If he were only a decent white man! But to be let down and out by the only woman I ever gave a whoop for in all my life, for a fellow like that! Say, it’s tough!”
Ralston’s newly acquired serenity, the depth of which he had reason to doubt, was further disturbed by a distant clatter of hoofs. He sat up and watched the oncoming of the angriest-looking Indian that ever quirted a cayuse over a reservation. It was Bear Chief, whom he knew slightly. Seeing Ralston’s saddled horse, the Indian pulled up a little, which was as well, since the white man was immediately in his path.
As the Indian came back, Ralston, who had rolled over to let him pass, remarked dryly:
“The country is getting so crowded, it’s hardly safe for a man to sit around like this. What’s the excitement, Bear Chief?”
“Horse-thief steal Indian horses!” he cried, pointing toward the Bad Lands.
Ralston was instantly alert.
“Him ridin’ my race-pony—fastest pony on de reservation. Got big bunch. Runnin’ ’em off!”
Fast moving specks that rose and fell among the hills of the Bad Lands bore out the Indian’s words.
“Did you see him?”
Ralston was slipping the bit back in his horse’s mouth and tightening the cinch.
“Yas, I see him. Long way off, but I see him.”
“Did you know him?”
“Yas, I know him.”
“Who was it?” Ralston was in the saddle now.
“Little white man—what you call him ‘bug-hunter’—at de MacDonald ranch.”
“McArthur!” Their horses were gathering speed as they turned them toward the Bad Lands.
“Yas. Little; hair on face—so; wear what you call dem sawed-off pants.”
From the description, Ralston recognized McArthur’s English riding-breeches, which had added zest to life for the bunk-house crowd when he had appeared in them. The deputy-sheriff was bewildered. It seemed incredible, yet there, still in sight, was the flying band of horses, and Bear Chief’s positiveness seemed to leave no room for doubt.
“Oh, him one heap good thief,” panted Bear Chief, in unwilling admiration, as their horses ran side by side. “He work fast. No ’fraid. Cut ’em out—head ’em off—turn ’em—ride through big brush—jump de gulch—yell and swing de quirt, and do him all ’lone! Dat no easy work—cut out horses all ’lone. Him heap good horse-thief!”
What did it mean, anyhow? Ralston asked himself the question again and again. Was it possible that he had been deceived in McArthur? That, after all, he was a criminal of an extraordinary type? He found no answer to his questions, but both he and Bear Chief soon realized that they were exhausting their horses in a useless pursuit. It was growing dark; the thief had too much start, and, with the experience of an old hand, he drove the horses over rocks, where they left no blabbing tracks behind. Once well into the Bad Lands, he was as effectually lost as if the earth had opened and swallowed him.
So they turned their tired horses back, reaching the ranch long after sundown. Ralston was still unconvinced that it was not a case of mistaken identity, and, hoping against hope, he asked some one loafing about while he and Bear Chief unsaddled if McArthur had returned.
“He’s been off prowlin’ all day, and ain’t in yet,” was the answer; and Bear Chief grunted at this confirmation of his accusation.
The Indian woman was waiting in the doorway when they came up the path.
“You see Susie?” There was uneasiness in her voice.
It was an unheard-of thing for Susie not to return from her rides and visits before dark.
“Not since morning,” Ralston replied. “Has any one gone to look for her? Is Smith here?”
“Smith no come home for supper.”
“There seems to have been a general exodus to-day,” Ralston observed. “Are you feeling worried about Susie?”
“I no like. Yas, I feel worry for Susie.”
It was the first evidence of maternal interest that Ralston ever had seen the stoical woman show.
“If Ling will give me a bite to eat, I’ll saddle another horse and ride down below. She may be spending the night with some of her friends.”
“She no do that without tell me,” declared the woman positively. “Susie no do that.”
She brought the food from the kitchen herself, and padded uneasily from window to window while they ate.
What was in the wind, Ralston asked himself, that Susie, McArthur, and Smith should disappear in this fashion on the same day? It was a singular coincidence. Like her mother, Ralston had no notion that Susie was stopping the night at any ranch or lodge below. He, too, shared the Indian woman’s misgivings.
He had finished and was reaching for his hat when footsteps were heard on the hard-beaten dooryard. They were slow, lagging, unfamiliar to the listeners, who looked at each other inquiringly. Then the Indian woman threw open the door, and Susie, like the ghost of herself, staggered from the darkness outside into the light.
No ordinary fatigue could make her look as she looked now. Every step showed complete and utter exhaustion. Her dishevelled hair was hanging in strands over her face, her eyes were dark-circled, she was streaked with dust and grime, and her thin shoulders drooped wearily.
“Where you been, Susie?” her mother asked sharply.
“Teacher said,” she made a pitiful attempt to laugh, to speak lightly—“Teacher said ridin’ horseback would keep you from gettin’ fat. I—I’ve been reducin’ my hips.”
“Don’t you do dis no more!”
“Don’t worry—I shan’t!” And as if her mother’s reproach was the last straw, Susie covered her face with the crook of her elbow and cried hysterically.
Ralston was convinced that the day had held something out of the ordinary for Susie. He knew that it would take an extraordinary ride so completely to exhaust a girl who was all but born in the saddle. But it was evident from her reply that she did not mean to tell where she had been or what she had been doing.
Although Ralston soon retired, he was awake long after his numerous room-mates were snoring in their bunks. There was much to be done on the morrow, yet he could not sleep. He was not able to rid himself of the thought that there was something peculiar in the absence of Smith just at this time, nor could he entirely abandon the belief that McArthur would yet come straggling in, with an explanation of the whole affair. He could not think of any that would be satisfactory, but an underlying faith in the little scientist’s honesty persisted.
Toward morning he slept, and day was breaking when a step on the door-sill of the bunk-house awakened him. He raised himself slightly on his elbow and stared at McArthur, looming large in the gray dawn, with a skull carried carefully in both hands.
“Ah, I’m glad to find you awake!” He tiptoed across the floor.
His clothing was wrinkled with the damp, night air, and his face looked haggard in the cold light, but the fire of enthusiasm burned undimmed behind his spectacles.
“I do—what for?”
“My dear sir, if I can prove to the satisfaction of scientific sceptics that this cranium is not pathological, I shall have bounded in a single day—night—bounded from comparative obscurity to the pinnacle of fame! Undoubtedly—beyond question—a race of giants existed in North America——”
“Pardon me,” Ralston interrupted his husky eloquence; “but where have you been all night?”
“Ah, where have I not been? Walking—walking under the stars! Under the stimulus of success, I have covered miles with no feeling of fatigue. Have you ever experienced, my dear sir, the sensation which comes from the realization of a life-dream?”
“Not yet,” Ralston replied prosaically. “Where was your horse?”
“Ah, yes, my horse. Where is my horse? I asked myself that question each time that I stopped to remove one of the poisonous spines of the cactus from my feet. Whether my horse lost me or I lost my horse, I am unable to say. I left him grazing in a gulch, and was not again able to locate the gulch. I wandered all night—or until Fate guided me into a barbed wire fence, where, as you will observe, I tore my trousers. I followed the fence, and here I am—I and my companion”—McArthur patted the skull lovingly—“this giant—the slayer of mastodons—whose history lies concealed in ‘the dark backward and abysm of time’!”
As he looked into Ralston’s non-committal eyes with his own burning orbs, he realized that great joy, like great sorrow, is something which cannot well be shared.
“Forgive me,” he said with hurt dignity; “I have again forgotten that you have no interest in such things.”
“You are mistaken. I wanted to hear.”
After McArthur had retired to his pneumatic mattress, Ralston lay wide-eyed, more mystified than before. Had Bear Chief’s eyes deceived him, or was McArthur the cleverest of rogues?
Breakfast was done when Ralston said:
“Will you be good enough to step into the bunk-house, Mr. McArthur?”
Something in his voice chilled the sensitive man. Ralston, whom he greatly admired, always had been most friendly. He followed him now in wonder.
“You are sure this is the man, Bear Chief?”
The Indian had stepped forward at their entrance.
“Yas, I know him,” he reiterated.
McArthur looked from one to the other.
“Bear Chief accuses you of stealing his horses, Mr. McArthur,” explained Ralston bluntly.
“You slick little horse-thief, but I see you good. Where you cache my race-pony?” The Indian’s demand was a threat.
For reply, McArthur walked over and sat down on the edge of a bunk, as if his legs of a sudden were too weak to support him.
“Bear Chief swears he saw you, McArthur.” Ralston’s tone was not unfriendly now, for something within him pleaded the bug-hunter’s cause with irritating persistence.
“Me a horse-thief? Running off race-ponies?” McArthur found himself able to exclaim at last: “But I had no horse of my own!”
“Have you any credentials—anything at all by which we can identify you?”
“Not with me; but certainly I can furnish them. The name of McArthur is not unknown in Connecticut,” he answered with a tinge of pride.
“Where are your riding-breeches? Bear Chief says you were wearing them yesterday. Can you produce them now?”
McArthur, with hauteur, walked to the nails where his wardrobe hung and fumbled among the clothing.
They were gone!
His jaw dropped, and a slight pallor overspread his face.
Susie, who had been listening from the doorway, flung a flour-sack at his feet.
“Search my trunk, pardner,” she said with her old-time impish grin.
McArthur mechanically did as she bade him, and his riding-breeches dropped from the sack.
“I hope you’ll ’scuse me for makin’ so free with your clothes, like,” she said, “but I just naturally had to have them yesterday.”
A light broke in upon Ralston.
“Yep, I did it, me—Susie.” Her tone and manner were a ludicrous imitation of Smith’s. She added: “I saw you all pikin’ in here, so I tagged.”
“But why”—Ralston stared at her in incredulity—“why should you steal horses?”
“It’s this way,” Susie explained, in a loud, confidential whisper: “I’ve been playin’ a little game of my own. When the right time came, I meant to let Mr. Ralston in on it, but when Bear Chief saw me, I knew I’d have to tell, to keep my pardner here from gettin’ the blame.”
“But the beard,”—Ralston still looked sceptical.
“Shucks! That’s easy. I saw Bear Chief before he saw me, and I just took the black silk hankerchief from my neck and tied it hold-up fashion around the lower part of my face. Bear Chief was excited when he saw his running horse travelling out of the country at the gait we was goin’ then.”
“I don’t see yet, Susie?”
She turned upon Ralston in good-natured contempt.
“Goodness, but you’re slow! Don’t you understand? Smith’s my pal; we’re workin’ together. He cooked this up—him takin’ the safe and easy end of it himself. He sprung it on me that day I had a sull on. Don’t you see his game? He thinks if he can get me mixed up in something crooked, he can manage me. He’s noticed, maybe, that I’m not halter-broke. So I pretended to fall right in with his plans, once I had promised, meanin’ all the time to turn state’s evidence, or whatever you call it, and send him over the road. I wanted to show Mother and everybody else what kind of a man he is. I don’t want no step-papa named Smith.”
The three men stared in amazement at the intrepid little creature with her canny Scotch eyes.
“And do you mean to say,” Ralston asked, “that you’ve held your tongue and played your part so well that Smith has no suspicions?”
“Hatin’ makes you smart,” she answered, “and I hate Smith so hard I can’t sleep nights. No, I don’t think he is suspicious; because I’m to pack grub to him this morning, and if he was afraid of me, he’d never let me know where he was camped. He’s holdin’ the horses over there in a blind canyon, and when I go over I’m to help him blotch the brands.”
“We want to get the drop on him when he’s using the branding-iron.”
“And you want to see that he shoves up his hands and keeps them there,” suggested Susie further, “for he’ll take big chances rather than have the Schoolmarm see him ridin’ to the Agency with his wrists tied to the saddle-horn.”
“I know.” Ralston knew even better than Susie that Smith would fight like a rat in a corner to avoid this possibility.
“My!” and Susie gave an explosive sigh, “but it’s an awful relief not to have that secret to pack around any longer, and to feel that I’ve got somebody to back me up.”
A lump rose in Ralston’s throat, and, taking her brown little paws in both of his, he said:
“To the limit, Susie—to the end of the road.”
“And my pardner’s in on it, too, if he wants to be,” she declared loyally, slipping her arm through McArthur’s.
“To be sure,” Ralston seconded cordially. “It will be an adventure for your diary.” He added, laying his hand upon McArthur’s shoulder: “I’m more than sorry about the mistake this morning, old man. Will you forgive Bear Chief and me?”
In all McArthur’s studious, lonely life, no person ever had put his hand upon his shoulder and called him “old man.” The quick tears filled his eyes, and a glow, tingling in its warmth, rushed over him. The simple, manly act made him Ralston’s slave for life, but he answered in his quiet voice:
“The mistake was natural, my dear sir.”
“Smith will be gettin’ restless,” Susie suggested, “for his breakfast must have been pretty slim. We’d better be startin’.
“Now, I’ll take straight across the hills in a bee-line, and the rest of you keep me in sight, but follow the draws. When I drop into the canyon, you cache yourselves until I come up and swing my hat. I’ll do my best to separate Smith from his gun, but if I can’t, I’ll throw you the sign to jump him.”
“I shall arm myself with a pistol, and, if the occasion demands, I shall not hesitate to use it,” said McArthur, closing his lips with great firmness.
Bear Chief was given a rifle, and then there was a scurrying about for cartridges. When they were saddled, each rode in a different direction, to meet again when out of sight of the ranch. With varied emotions, they soon were following Susie’s lead, and it was no easy task to keep the flying figure in sight.
McArthur, panting, perspiring, choking his saddle-horn to death, wondered if any person of his acquaintance ever had participated in such a reckless ride. The instructor in Dead Languages, it is true, frequently had thrilled his colleagues with his recital of a night spent in a sapling, owing to the proximity of a she-bear, and McArthur always had mildly envied him the adventure, but now, he felt, if he lived to tell the tale, he had no further cause for envy.
Bear Chief’s eyes were gleaming with the fires of other days, while the faded overalls and flannel shirt of civilization seemed to take on a look of savagery.
Only Ralston’s eyes were sombre. He had no thought of weakening, but he had no feeling of elation; though, for the sake of his own self-respect, he was glad to know that his suspicions of Smith were not inspired by jealousy or malice. Now that the opportunity for which he had hoped and waited had come, his strongest feeling was one of sorrow for Dora. With the tenderness of real love, he shrank from hurting her, from mortifying her by the exposé of Smith.
In no other way were the natures of the two men more strongly contrasted than in this. When Smith flamed with jealousy he wanted to hurt Dora and Ralston alike, and when he had the advantage he shoved the hot iron home. Ralston could be just, generous even, and, though he believed she had unreservedly given her preference to Smith, he still yearned to shield her, to spare her pain and humiliation.
Susie finally disappeared, and when she did not come in sight again they knew she had reached the rendezvous. Dismounting, they tied their horses in a deep draw, and crawled to the top, where they could watch for her signal.
“She’ll give him plenty of time,” said Ralston.
He had barely finished speaking when they saw Susie at the top of the canyon wall waving her hat.
“Something’s gone wrong,” said Ralston quickly.
With rifles ready for action, the three of them ran toward Susie.
Ralston and Bear Chief reached her together. Without a word she pointed into the empty canyon, where a dying camp-fire told the story. Smith had been gone for hours.