XIX: When the Clouds Played Wolf

The Indian woman was restless; she had been so from the time they had lost sight of the town, but her restlessness had increased as the daylight faded and night fell.

“You’re goin’ to bust this seat in if you don’t quit jammin’ around,” Meeteetse Ed warned her peevishly.

Meeteetse was irritable, a state due largely to the waning exhilaration of a short and unsatisfactory spree.

The woman clucked at the horses, and, to the great annoyance of her driver, reached for the reins and slapped them on the back.

“They’re about played out,” he growled. “Forty miles is a awful trip for these buzzard-heads to make in a day. We orter have put up some’eres overnight.”

“I could have stayed with Little Coyote’s woman.”

“We orter have done it, too. Look at them cayuses stumblin’ along! Say, we won’t git in before ’leven or twelve at this gait, and I’m so hungry I don’t know where I’m goin’ to sleep to-night.”

“Little Coyote’s woman gifted me some sa’vis berries.”

“Aw, sa’vis berries! I can’t go sa’vis berries,” growled Meeteetse. “They’re too sweet. The only way they’re fit to eat is to dry ’em and pound ’em up with jerked elk—then they ain’t bad eatin’. I’ve et ’most ev’ry thing in my day. I’ve et wolf, and dog, and old mountain billy-goat, and bull-snakes, and grasshoppers, so you kin see I ain’t finnicky, but I can’t stummick sa’vis berries.” He asked querulously: “What’s ailin’ of you?”

The Indian woman, who had been studying the black clouds as they drifted across the sky to dim the starlight, said in a half-whisper:

“The clouds no look good to me. They look like enemies playin’ wolf. I feel as if somethin’ goin’ happen.”

The bare suggestion of the supernatural was sufficient to alarm Meeteetse. He asked in a startled voice:

“How do you feel?”

“I feel sad. My heart drags down to de ground, and it seem like de dark hide somethin’.”

Meeteetse elongated his neck and peered fearfully into the darkness.

“What do you think it hides?” he asked in a husky whisper.

She shook her head.

“I don’t know, but I have de bad feelin’.”

“I forgot to sleep with my feet crossed last night,” said Meeteetse, “and I dreamed horrible dreams all night long. Maybe they was warnin’s. I can’t think of anything much that could happen to us though,” he went on, having forgotten some of his ill-nature in his alarm for his personal safety. “These here horses ain’t goin’ to run away—I wisht they would, fer ’t would git us quite a piece on our road. We ain’t no enemies worth mentionin’, and we ain’t worth stealin’, so I don’t hardly think your feelin’ means any wrong for us. More’n likely it’s jest somebody dead.”

This thought, slightly consoling to Meeteetse, did not seem to comfort the Indian woman, who continued to squirm on the rickety seat and to strain her eyes into the darkness.

“If anybody ud come along and want to mix with me—say, do you see that fist? If ever I hit anybody with that fist, they’ll have to have it dug out of ’em. I don’t row often, but when I does—oh, lordy! lordy! I jest raves and caves. I was home on a visit onct, and my old-maid aunt gits a notion of pickin’ on me. Say, I ups and runs her all over the house with an axe! I’m more er less a dang’rous character when I’m on the peck. Is that feelin’ workin off of you any?” he inquired anxiously.

“It comes stronger,” she answered, and her grip tightened on the flour-sack she held under her blanket.

“I wisht I knowed what it was. I’m gittin’ all strung up myself.” His popping eyes ached from trying to see into the darkness around them. “If we kin git past them gulches onct! That ud be a dum bad place to roll off the side. We’d go kerplunk into the crick-bottom. Gosh! what was that?” He stopped the weary horses with a terrific jerk.

It was only a little night prowler which had scurried under the horses’ feet and rustled into the brush.

“You see how on aidge I am! I’ll tell you,” he went on garrulously—the sound of his own voice was always pleasant to Meeteetse: “I take more stock in signs and feelin’s than most people, for I’ve seen ’em work out. Down there in Hermosy there was a feller made a stake out’n a silver prospect, and he takes it into his head to go back to Nebrasky and hunt up his wife, that he’d run off and left some time prev’ous. As the date gits clost for him to leave, he got glummer and glummer. He’d skerce crack a smile. The night before the stage was comin’ to git him, he was settin’ in a ’dobe with a dirt roof, rared back on the hind legs of his chair, with his hands in his pockets.

“‘Boys,’ he says, ‘I’ll never git back to Genevieve. I feels it; I knows it; I’ll bet you any amount I’m goin’ to cash in between here and Nebrasky. I’ve seen myself in my coffin four times hand-runnin’, when I was wide awake.’

“Everybody had their mouths open to let out a holler and laff when jest then one of the biggest terrantuler that I ever see dropped down out’n the dirt and straw and lands on his bald head. It hangs on and bites ’fore anybody kin bresh it off, and, ’fore Gawd, he ups and dies while the medicine shark is comin’ from the next town!”

His companion did not find Meeteetse’s reminiscence specially interesting, possibly because she had heard it before, so at its conclusion she made no comment, but continued to watch with anxious eyes the clouds and the road ahead.

“Now if that ud been me,” Meeteetse started to say, in nowise disconcerted by the unresponsiveness of his listener—“if that ud——”

“Throw up your hands!” The curt command came out of the night with the startling distinctness of a gun-shot. The horses were thrown back on their haunches by a figure at their head.

Meeteetse not only threw up his hands, but his feet. He threw them up so high and so hard that he lost his equilibrium, and, as a result, the ill-balanced seat went over, carrying with it Meeteetse and the Indian woman.

The latter’s mind acted quickly. She knew that her errand to the bank had become known. Undoubtedly they had been followed from town. As soon as she could disentangle herself from Meeteetse’s convulsive embrace, she threw the flour-sack from her with all her strength, hoping it would drop out of sight in the sage-brush. It was caught in mid-air by a tall figure at the wagon-side.

“Thank you, madam,” said a hollow voice, “Good-night.”

It was all done so quickly and neatly that Meeteetse and the Indian woman were still in the bottom of the wagon when two dark figures clattered past and vanishing hoof-beats told them the thieves were on their way to town.

“Well, sir!” Meeteetse found his feet, also his tongue, at last.

“Well, sir!” He adjusted the seat.

“Well, sir!” He picked up the reins and clucked to the horses.

“Well, sir! I know ’em. Them’s the fellers that held up the Great Northern!”

The Indian woman said not a word. Her heart was filled with despair. What would Smith say? was her thought. What would he do? She felt intuitively how great would be his disappointment. How could she tell him?

She drew the blanket tighter about her shoulders and across her face, crouching on the seat like a culprit.

The ranch-house was dark when they drove into the yard, for which she was thankful. She left Meeteetse to unharness, and, without striking a light or speaking to Susie, crept between her blankets like a frightened child.

Smith, in his dreams, had heard the rumble of the wagon as it crossed the ford, and he awoke the next morning with a sensation of pleasurable anticipation. In his mind’s eye, he saw the banknotes in a heap before him. There were all kinds in the picture—greasy ones, crisp ones, tattered bills pasted together with white strips of paper. He rather liked these best, because the care with which they had been preserved conveyed an idea of value. They had been treasured, coveted by others, counted often.

Eager, animated, his eyes bright, his lips curving in a smile, Smith hurried into his clothes and to the ranch-house, to seek the Indian woman. He heard her heavy step as she crossed the floor of the living-room, and he waited outside the door.

“Prairie Flower!” he whispered as she stood before him.

She avoided his eyes, and her fingers fumbled nervously with the buckle of her wide belt.

“Could you get it?”

“Most of it.”

“Where is it?” His eyes gleamed with the light of avarice.

She drew in her breath hard.

“It was stole.”

His face went blood-red; the cords of his neck swelled as if he were straining at a weight. She shrank from the snarling ferocity of his mouth.

“You lie!” The voice was not human.

He clenched his huge fist and knocked her down.

She was on the ground when Susie came out.

“Mother!”

The woman blinked up at her.

“I slip. I gettin’ too fat,” she said, and struggled to her feet.

Elsewhere, with great minuteness of detail, Meeteetse was describing the exciting incident of the night, and what would have happened if only he could have laid hold of his gun.

“Maybe they wouldn’t ’a’ split the wind if I could have jest drawed my automatic in time! As ’twas, I put up the best fight I could, with a woman screamin’ and hangin’ to me for pertection. I rastled the big feller around in the road there for some time, neither of us able to git a good holt. He was glad enough to break away, I kin tell you. They’s no manner o’ doubt in my mind but them was the Great Northern hold-ups.”

“But what would they tackle you for?” demanded Old Man Rulison. “Everybody knows you ain’t got nothin’, and you say all they took from the old woman was a flour-sack full of dried sa’vis berries. It’s some of a come-down, looks to me, from robbing trains to stealin’ stewin’-fruit.”

“Well, there you are.” Meeteetse shrugged his shoulders. “That’s your mystery. All I knows is, that I pulled ha’r every jump in the road to save them berries.”

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