Smith’s return to the ranch was awaited with keen interest by several persons, though for different reasons.
Bear Chief wanted to learn the whereabouts of his race-horse, and seemed to find small comfort in Ralston’s assurance that the proper authorities had been notified and that every effort would be made to locate the stolen ponies.
Dora was troubled that Smith’s educational progress should have come to such an abrupt stop; and she felt not a little hurt that he should disappear for such a length of time without having told her of his going, and disappointed in him, also, that he would permit anything to interfere with the improvement of his mind.
Susie’s impatience for his return increased daily. Her chagrin over being outwitted by Smith was almost comical. She considered it a reflection upon her own intelligence, and tears of mortification came to her eyes each time she discussed it with Ralston. He urged her to be patient, and tried to comfort her by saying:
“We have only to wait, Susie.”
“Yes, I thought that before, and look what happened.”
“The situation is different now.”
“But maybe he’ll reform and we’ll never get another crack at him,” she said dolefully.
Ralston shook his head.
“Don’t let that disturb you. Take certain natures under given circumstances, and you can come pretty near foretelling results. Smith will do the same thing again, only on a bigger scale; that is, unless he learns that he has been found out. He won’t be afraid of you, because he will think that you are as deep in the mire as he is; but if he thought I suspected him, or the Indians, it would make him cautious.”
“You don’t think he’s charmed, or got such a stout medicine that nobody can catch him?”
Ralston could not refrain from smiling at the Indian superstition which cropped out at times in Susie.
“Not for a moment,” he answered positively. “He appears to have been fortunate—lucky—but in a case like this, I don’t believe there’s any luck can win, in the long run, against vigilance, patience, and determination; and the greatest of these is patience.” Ralston, waxing philosophical went on: “It’s a great thing to be able to wait, Susie—coolly, smilingly, to wait—providing, as the phrase goes, you hustle while you wait. One victory for your enemy doesn’t mean defeat for yourself. It’s usually the last trick that counts, and sometimes games are long in the playing. Wait for your enemy’s head, and when it comes up, whack it! Neither you nor I, Susie, have been reared to believe that when we are swatted on one cheek we should turn the other.”
“No;” Susie shook her head gravely. “That ain’t sense.”
The person who took Smith’s absence most deeply to heart was the Indian woman. She missed him, and, besides, she was tormented with jealous suspicions. She knew nothing of his life beyond what she had seen at the ranch. There might be another woman. She suffered from the ever-present fear that he might not come back; that he would go as scores of grub-liners had gone, without a word at parting.
In the house she was restless, and her moccasined feet padded often from her bench in the corner to the window overlooking the road down which he might come. She sat for hours at a time upon an elevation which commanded a view of the surrounding country. Heavy-featured, moody-eyed, she was the personification of dog-like fidelity and patience. Naturally, it was she who first saw Smith jogging leisurely down the road on his jaded horse.
The long roof of the MacDonald ranch, which was visible through the cool willows, looked good to Smith. It looked peaceful, and quiet, and inviting; yet Smith knew that the whole Indian police force might be there to greet him. He had been gone many days, and much might have happened in the interim. It was characteristic of Smith that he did not slacken his horse’s pace—he could squirm out somehow.
It gave him no concern that he had not a dollar to divide with Susie, as he had promised, and his chagrin over the loss of the money had vanished as he rode. His temperament was sanguine, and soon he was telling himself that so long as there were cattle and horses on the range there was always a stake for him. Following up this cheerful vein of thought, he soon felt as comfortable as if the money were already in his pocket.
Smith threw up his hand in friendly greeting as the Indian woman came down the path to meet him.
There was no response, and he scowled.
“The old woman’s got her sull on,” he muttered, but his voice was pleasant enough when he asked: “Ain’t you glad to see me, Prairie Flower?”
The woman’s face did not relax.
“Where you been?” she demanded.
He stopped unsaddling and looked at her.
“I never had no boss, me—Smith,” he answered with significance.
“You got a woman!” she burst out fiercely.
Smith’s brow cleared.
“Sure I got a woman.”
“You lie to me!”
“I call her Prairie Flower—my woman.” He reached and took her clenched hand.
The tense muscles gradually relaxed, and the darkness lifted from her face like a cloud that has obscured the sun. She smiled and her eyelids dropped shyly.
“Why you go and no tell me?” she asked plaintively.
“It was a business trip, Prairie Flower, and I like to talk to you of love, not business,” he replied evasively.
She looked puzzled.
“I not know you have business.”
“Oh, yes; I do a rushin’ business—by spells.”
She persisted, unsatisfied:
“But what kind of business?”
Smith laughed outright.
“Well,” he answered humorously, “I travels a good deal—in the dark of the moon.”
She was keener than he had thought, for she drew her right hand slyly under her left arm in the expressive Indian sign signifying theft. He did not answer, so she said in a tone of mingled fear and reproach:
“You steal Indian horses!”
She grasped his coat-sleeve.
“Don’t do dat no more! De Indians’ hearts are stirred. Dey mad. Dis time maybe dey not ketch you, but some time, yes! You get more brave and you steal from white man. You steal two, t’ree cow, maybe all right, but when you steal de white man’s horses de rope is on your neck. I know—I have seen. Some time de thief he swing in de wind, and de magpie pick at him, and de coyote jump at him. Yes, I have seen it like dat.”
“Don’t talk about them things,” he said impatiently. “I’ve been near lynchin’ twice, and I hates the looks of a slip-noose yet; but I gotta have money.”
As he stood above her, looking down upon her anxious face, a thought came to him, a plan so simple that he was amazed that it had not occurred to him before. Undoubtedly she had money in the bank, this infatuated, love-sick-woman—the Scotchman would have taught her how to save and care for it; but if she had not, she had resources which amounted to the same: the best of security upon which she could borrow money. He was sure that her cattle and horses were free of mortgages, and there was the coming crop of hay. She had promised him the proceeds from that, if he would stay, but the sale of it was still months away.
“If I had a stake, Prairie Flower,” he said mournfully, “I’d cut out this crooked work and quit takin’ chances. But a feller like me has got pride: he can’t go around without two bits in his pocket, and feel like a man. If I had the price, I’d buy me a good bunch of cattle, get a permit, and range ’em on the reserve.”
“When we get tied right,” said the woman eagerly, “I give you de stake quick.”
Smith shook his head.
“Do you think I’m goin’ to have the whole country sayin’ I just married you for what you got? I’ve got some feelin’s, me—Smith, and before I marry a rich woman, I want to have a little somethin’ of my own.”
She looked pleased, for Susie’s words had rankled.
“How big bunch cattle you like buy? How much money you want?”
He shook his head dejectedly.
“More money nor I can raise, Prairie Flower. Five—ten thousand dollars—maybe more.” He watched the effect of his words narrowly. She did not seem startled by the size of the sums he mentioned. He added: “There’s nothin’ in monkeyin’ with just a few.”
“I got de money, and I gift it to you. My heart is right to you, white man!” she said passionately.
“Do you mean it, Prairie Flower?”
“Yas, but don’t tell Susie.”
He watched her going up the path, her hips wobbling, her step heavy, and he hated her. Her love irritated him; her devotion was ridiculous. He saw in her only a means to an end, and he was without scruples or pity.
“She ain’t no more to me nor a dumb brute,” he said contemptuously.
Smith felt that he was able to foretell with considerable accuracy the nature of his interview with Susie upon their meeting, and her opening words did not fall short of his expectations.
“You’re all right, you are!” she said in her high voice. “I’d stick to a pal like you through thick and thin, I would! What did you pull out like that for anyhow?”
“Well, sir, Susie, it fair broke my heart to start off without seein’ your pretty face and hearin’ your sweet voice again, but the fact is, I got so lonesome awaitin’ for you that I just naturally had to be travellin’. I ups and hits the breeze, and I has no pencil or paper to leave a note behind. It wasn’t perlite, Susie, I admits,” he said mockingly.
“Dig up that money you’re goin’ to divide.” Susie looked like a young wildcat that has been poked with a stick.
Smith drew an exaggerated sigh and shook his head lugubriously.
“Child, I’m the only son of Trouble. I gets in a game and I loses every one of our honest, hard-earned dollars. The tears has been pilin’ out of my eyes and down my cheeks for forty miles, thinkin’ how I’d have to break the news to you.”
“Smith, you’re just a common, common thief!” All the scorn of which she was capable was in her voice. “To steal from your own pal!”
“Thief?” Smith put his fingers in his ears. “Don’t use that word, Susie. It sounds horrid, comin’ from a child you love as if she was your own step-daughter.”
The muscles of Susie’s throat contracted so it hurt her; her face drew up in an unbecoming grimace; she cried with a child’s abandon, indifferent to the fact that her tears made her ludicrously ugly.
“Smith,” she sobbed, “don’t you ever feel sorry for anybody? Couldn’t you ever pity anybody? Couldn’t you pity me?”
Smith made no reply, so she went on brokenly;
“Can’t you remember that you was a kid once, too, and didn’t know how, and couldn’t, fight grown up people that was mean to you?—and how you felt? I know you don’t have to do anything for me—you don’t have to—but won’t you? Won’t you do somethin’ good when you’ve got a chance—just this once, Smith? Won’t you go away from here? You don’t care anything at all for Mother, Smith, and she’s all I’ve got!” She stretched her hands toward him appealing, while the hot tears wet her cheeks. She was the picture of childish humiliation and misery.
Smith looked at her and listened without derision or triumph. He looked at her in simple curiosity, as he would have looked at a suffering animal biting itself in pain. The unexpected outbreak interested him.
Through a blur of tears, Susie read something of this in his face, and her hands dropped limply to her sides. Her appeal was useless.
It was not that Smith did not understand her feelings. He did—perfectly. He knew how deep a child’s hurt is. He had been hurt himself, and the scar was still there. It was only that he did not care. He had lived through his hurt, and so would she. It was to his interest to stay, and first and always he considered Smith.
“You needn’t say anything,” Susie said slowly, and there was no more supplication in her voice. “I thought I knew you before, Smith, but I know you better now. When a white man is onery, he’s meaner than an Injun, and that’s the kind of a white man you are. I’ll never forget this. I’ll never forget that I’ve crawled to you, and you listened like a stone.”
Smith answered in a voice that was not unkind—as he would have warned her of a sink-hole or a bad crossing:
“You can’t buck me, Susie, and you’d better not try. You’re game, but you’re just a kid.”
“Kids grow up sometimes;” and she turned away.
McArthur, strolling, while he enjoyed his pipe, came upon Susie lying face downward, her head pillowed on her arm, on a sand dune not far from the house. He thought she was asleep until she sat up and looked at him. Then he saw her swollen eyes.
“Why, Susie, are you ill?”
“Yes, I’m sick here.” She laid her hand upon her heart.
He sat down beside her and stroked the streaked brown hair timidly.
“I’m sorry,” he said gently.
She felt the sympathy in his touch, and was quick to respond to it.
“Oh, pardner,” she said, “I just feel awful!”
“I’m sorry, Susie,” he said again.
“Did your mother ever go back on you, pardner?”
McArthur shook his head gravely.
“It’s terrible. I can’t tell you hardly how it is; but it’s like everybody that you ever cared for in the world had died. It’s like standin’ over a quicksand and feelin’ yourself goin’ down. It’s like the dreams when you wake up screamin’ and you have to tell yourself over and over it isn’t so—except that I have to tell myself over and over it is so.”
“Susie, I think you’re wrong.”
She shook her head sadly.
“I wish I was wrong, but I’m not.”
“She worries when you are late getting home, or are not well.”
“Yes, she’s like that,” she nodded. “Mother would fight for me like a bear with cubs if anybody would hurt me so she could see it, but the worst hurt—the kind that doesn’t show—I guess she don’t understand. Before now I could tell anybody that come on the ranch and wasn’t nice to me to ’git,’ and mother would back me up. Even yet I could tell you or Tubbs or Mr. Ralston to leave, and they’d have to go. But Smith?—no! He’s come back to stay. And she’ll let him stay, if she knows it will drive me away from home. Mother’s Injun, and she can only read a little and write a little that my Dad taught her, and she wears blankets and moccasins, but I never was ’shamed of Mother before. If she marries Smith, what can I do? Where can I go? I could take my pack outfit and start out to hunt Dad’s folks, but if Mother marries Smith, she’ll need me after a while. Yet how can I stay? I feel sometimes like they was two of me—one was good and one was bad; and if Mother lets Smith turn me out, maybe all the bad in me would come to the top. But there’s one thing I couldn’t forget. Dad used to say to me lots of times when we were alone—oh, often he said it: ‘Susie, girl, never forget you’re a MacDonald!’”
McArthur turned quickly and looked at her.
“Did your father say that?”
“Just like that?”
“Yes; he always straightened himself and said it just like that.”
McArthur was studying her face with a peculiar intentness, as if he were seeing her for the first time.
“What was his first name, Susie?”
“Yes; there was lots of MacDonalds up there in the north country.”
“Have you a picture, Susie?”
A rifle-shot broke the stillness of the droning afternoon. Susie was on her feet the instant. There was another—then a fusillade!
“It’s the Indians after Smith!” she cried. “They promised me they wouldn’t! Come—stand up here where you can see.”
McArthur took a place beside her on a knoll and watched the scene with horrified eyes. The Indians were grouped, with Bear Chief in advance.
“They’re shootin’ into the stable! They’ve got him cornered,” Susie explained excitedly. “No—look! He’s comin’ out! He’s goin’ to make a run for it! He’s headed for the house. He can run like a scared wolf!”
“Do they mean to kill him?” McArthur asked in a shocked voice.
“Sure they mean to kill him. Do you think that’s target practice? But look where the dust flies up—they’re striking all around him—behind him—beside him—everywhere but in him! They’re so anxious that they’re shootin’ wild. Runnin’ Rabbit ought to get him—he’s a good shot! He did! No, he stumbled. He’s charmed—that Smith. He’s got a strong medicine.”
“He’s not too brave to run,” said McArthur, but added: “I ran, myself, when they were after me.”
“He’d better run,” Susie replied. “But he’s after his gun; he means to fight.”
“He’ll make it!” McArthur cried.
Susie’s voice suddenly rang out in an ascending, staccato-like shriek.
“Oh! Oh! Oh! Mother, go back!” but the cracking rifles drowned Susie’s shrill cry of entreaty.
The Indian woman, with her hands high above her head, the palms open as if to stop the singing bullets, rushed from the house and stopped only when she had passed Smith and stood between him and danger. She stood erect, unflinching, and while the Indians’ fire wavered Smith gained the doorway.
Gasping for breath, his short upper lip drawn back from his protruding teeth in the snarl of a ferocious animal, he snatched a rifle from the deer-horn gun-rack above the door.
The Indian woman was directly in line between him and his enemies.
“Get out of the way!” he yelled, but she did not hear him.
“The fool!” he snarled. “The fool! I’ll have to crease her.”
He lifted his rifle and deliberately shot her in the fleshy part of her arm near the shoulder. She whirled with the shock of it, and dropped.