XVIII: A Bad Hombre

The Indians ceased firing when the woman fell, and when Susie reached her mother Smith was helping her to her feet, and it was Smith who led her into the house and ripped her sleeve.

It was only a painful flesh-wound, but if the bullet had gone a few inches higher it would have shattered her shoulder. It was a shot which told Smith that he had lost none of his accuracy of aim.

He always carried a small roll of bandages in his hip-pocket, and with these he dressed the woman’s arm with surprising skill.

“When you needs a bandage, you generally needs it bad,” he explained.

He wondered if she knew that it was his shot which had struck her. If she did know, she said nothing, though her eyes, bright with pain, followed his every movement.

“Looks like somebody’s squeaked,” Smith said meaningly to Susie.

“Nobody’s squeaked,” she lied glibly. “They’re mad, and they’re suspicious, but they didn’t see you.”

“If they’d go after me like that on suspicion,” said Smith dryly, “looks like they’d be plumb hos-tile if they was sure. Is this here war goin’ to keep up, or has they had satisfaction?”

Through Susie, a kind of armistice was arranged between Smith and the Indians. It took much argument to induce them to defer their vengeance and let the law take its course.

“You’ll only get in trouble,” she urged, “and Mr. Ralston will see that Smith gets all that’s comin’ to him when he has enough proof. He’s stole more than horses from me,” she said bitterly, “and if I can wait and trust the white man to handle him as he thinks best, you can, too.”

So the Indians reluctantly withdrew, but both Smith and Susie knew that their smouldering resentment was ready to break out again upon the slightest provocation.

Susie’s assurance that the attack of the Indians was due only to suspicion did not convince Smith. He noticed that, with the exception of Yellow Bird, there was not a single Indian stopping at the ranch, and Yellow Bird not only refused to be drawn into friendly conversation, but distinctly avoided him.

Smith knew that he was now upon dangerous ground, yet, with his unfaltering faith in himself and his luck, he continued to walk with a firm tread. If he could make one good turn and get the Indian woman’s stake, he told himself, then he and Dora could look for a more healthful clime.

The Schoolmarm never had appeared more trim, more self-respecting, more desirable, than when in her clean, white shirt-waist and well-cut skirt she stepped forward to greet him with a friendly, outstretched hand. His heart beat wildly as he took it.

“I was afraid you had gone ‘for keeps,’” she said.

“Were you afraid?” he asked eagerly.

“Not exactly afraid, to be more explicit, but I should have been sorry.” She smiled up into his face with her frank, ingenuous smile.

“Why?”

“You were getting along so well with your lessons. Besides, I should have thought it unfriendly of you to go without saying good-by.”

“Unfriendly?” Smith laughed shortly. “Me unfriendly! Why, girl, you’re like a mountain to me. When I’m tired and hot and all give out, I raises my eyes and sees you there above me—quiet and cool and comfortable, like—and I takes a fresh grip.”

“I’m glad I help you,” Dora replied gently. “I want to.”

“I’m in the way of makin’ a stake now,” Smith went on, “and when I gets it”—he hesitated—“well, when I gets it I aims to let you know.”

When Dora went into the house, to her own room, Smith stepped into the living-room, where the Indian woman sat by the window.

“You like dat white woman better den me?” she burst out as he entered.

“Prairie Flower,” he replied wearily, “if I had a dollar for every time I’ve answered that question, I wouldn’t be lookin’ for no stake to buy cattle with.”

“De white woman couldn’t give you no stake.”

He made no reply to her taunt. He was thinking. The words of a cowpuncher came back to him as he sat and regarded with unseeing eyes the Indian woman. The cowpuncher had said: “When a feller rides the range month in and month out, and don’t see nobody but other punchers and Injuns, some Mary Moonbeam or Sally Star-eyes begins to look kind of good to him when he rides into camp and she smiles as if she was glad he had come. He gits used to seein’ her sittin’ on an antelope hide, beadin’ moccasins, and the country where they wear pointed-toed shoes and sit in chairs gits farther and farther away. And after awhile he tells himself that he don’t mind smoke and the smell of buckskin, and a tepee is a better home nor none, and that he thinks as much of this here Mary Moonbeam or Sally Star-eyes as he could think of any woman, and he wonders when the priest could come. And while he’s studyin’ it over, some white girl cuts across his trail, and, with the sight of her, Mary Moonbeam or Sally Star-eyes looks like a dirty two-spot in a clean deck.” The cowpuncher’s words came back to Smith as though they had been said only yesterday.

“Why don’t you say what you think?” the woman asked, uneasy under his long stare.

“No,” said Smith, rousing himself; “the Schoolmarm couldn’t give me no stake; and money talks.”

“When you want your money?”

“Quick.”

“How much you want?”

“How much you got?” he asked bluntly. He was sure of her, and he was in no mood to finesse.

“Eight—nine thousand.”

“If I’m goin’ to do anything with cattle this year, I want to get at it.”

“I give you de little paper MacDonald call check. I know how to write check,” she said with pride.

Smith shook his head. A check was evidence.

“It’s better for you to go to the bank and get the cash yourself. Meeteetse can hitch up and take you. It won’t bother your arm none, for you ain’t bad hurt. Nine thousand is quite a wad to get without givin’ notice, and I doubt if you gets it, but draw all you can. Take a flour-sack along and put the stuff in it; then when you gets home, pass it over to me first chance. Don’t let ’em load you down with silver—I hates to pack silver on horseback.”

To all of which instructions the woman agreed.

That she might avoid Susie’s questions, she did not start the next morning until Susie was well on her way to school. Then, dressed in her gaudiest skirt, her widest brass-studded belt, her best and hottest blanket, she was ready for the long drive.

Smith put a fresh bandage on her arm, and praised the scrawling signature on the check which she had filled out after laborious and oft-repeated efforts. He made sure that she had the flour-sack, and that the check was pinned securely inside her capacious pocket, before he helped her in the wagon. He had been all attention that morning, and her eyes were liquid with gratitude and devotion as she and Meeteetse drove away. She turned before they were out of sight, and her face brightened when she saw Smith still looking after them. She thought comfortably of the fast approaching day when she would be envied by the women who had married only “bloods” or “breeds.”

Smith, as it happened, was remarking contemptuously to Tubbs, as he nodded after the disappearing wagon:

“Don’t that look like a reg’lar Injun outfit? One old white horse and a spotted buzzard-head; harness wired up with Mormon beeswax; a lopsided spring seat; one side-board gone and no paint on the wagon.”

“You’d think Meeteetse’d think more of hisself than to go ridin’ around with a blanket-squaw.”

“He said he was out of tobacer, but he probably aims to get drunk.”

“More’n likely,” Tubbs agreed. “Meeteetse’s gittin’ to be a reg’lar squawman anyhow, hangin’ around Injuns so much and runnin’ with ’em. He believes in signs and dreams, and he ain’t washed his neck for six weeks.”

“Associatin’ too much with Injuns will spile a good man. Tubbs,” Smith went on solemnly, “you ain’t the feller you was when you come.”

“I knows it,” Tubbs agreed plaintively. “I hain’t half the gumption I had.”

“It hurts me to see a bright mind like yours goin’ to seed, and there’s nothin’ll do harm to a feller quicker nor associatin’ with them as ain’t his equal. Tubbs, like you was my own brother, I says that bug-hunter ain’t no man for you to run with.”

“He ain’t vicious and the likes o’ that,” said Tubbs, in mild defense of his employer.

“What’s ’vicious’ anyhow?” demanded Smith. “Who’s goin’ to say what’s vicious and what ain’t? I says it’s vicious to lie like he does about them idjot skulls and ham-bones he digs out and brings home, makin’ out that they might be pieces of fellers what could use one of them cotton-woods for a walkin’ stick and et animals the size of that meat-house at a meal.”

“He never said jest that.”

“He might as well. What I’m aimin’ at is that it’s demoralizin’ to get interested in things like that and spend your life diggin’ up the dead. It’s too tame for a feller of any spirit.”

“It’s nowise dang’rous,” Tubbs admitted.

“If I thought you was my kind, Tubbs, I’d give you a chance. I’d let you in on a deal that’d be the makin’ of you.”

“All I needs is a chanct,” Tubbs declared eagerly.

“I believe you,” Smith replied, with flattering emphasis.

A disturbing thought made Tubbs inquire anxiously:

“This here chanct your speakin’ of—it ain’t work, is it?—real right-down work?”

“Not degradin’ work, like pitchin’ hay or plowin’.”

“I hates low-down work, where you gits out and sweats.”

“I see where you’re right. There’s no call for a man of your sand and sabe to do day’s work. Let them as hasn’t neither and is afraid to take chances pitch hay and do plowin’ for wages.”

Tubbs looked a little startled.

“What kind of chances?”

Smith looked at Tubbs before he lowered his voice and asked:

“Wasn’t you ever on the rustle none?”

Tubbs reflected.

“Onct back east, in I-ó-wa, I rustled me a set of underwear off’n a clothes-line.”

Smith eyed Tubbs in genuine disgust. He had all the contempt for a petty-larceny thief that the skilled safe-breaker has for the common purse-snatcher. The line between pilfering and legitimate stealing was very clear in his mind. He said merely,

“Tubbs, I believe you’re a bad hombre.”

“They is worse, I s’pose,” said Tubbs modestly, “but I’ve been pretty rank in my time.”

“Can you ride? Can you rope? Can you cut out a steer and burn a brand? Would you get buck-ague in a pinch and quit me if it came to a show-down? Are you a stayer?”

“Try me,” said Tubbs, swelling.

“Shake,” said Smith. “I wisht we’d got acquainted sooner.”

“And mebby I kin tell you somethin’ about brands,” Tubbs went on boastfully.

“More’n likely.”

“I kin take a wet blanket and a piece of copper wire and put an addition to an old brand so it’ll last till you kin git the stock off’n your hands. I’ve never done it, but I’ve see it done.”

“I’ve heard tell of somethin’ like that,” Smith replied dryly.

“Er you kin draw out a brand so you never would know nothin’ was there. You take a chunk of green cottonwood, and saw it off square; then you bile it and bile it, and when it’s hot through, you slaps it on the brand, and when you lifts it up after while the brand is drawed out.”

“Did you dream that, Tubbs?”

“I b’leeve it’ll work,” declared Tubbs stoutly.

“Maybe it would work in I-ó-wa,” said Smith, “but I doubts if it would work here. Any way,” he added conciliatingly, “we’ll give it a try.”

“And this chanct—it’s tolable safe?”

“Same as if you was home in bed. When I says ’ready,’ will you come?”

“Watch my smoke,” answered Tubbs.

Smith’s eyes followed Tubbs’s hulking figure as he shambled off, and his face was full of derision.

“Say”—he addressed the world in general—“you show me a man from I-ó-wa or Nebrasky and I’ll show you a son-of-a-gun.”

Tubbs was putty in the hands of Smith, who could play upon his vanity and ignorance to any degree—though he believed that beyond a certain point Tubbs was an arrant coward. But Smith had a theory regarding the management of cowards. He believed that on the same principle that one uses a whip on a scared horse—to make it more afraid of that which is behind than of that which is ahead—he could by threats and intimidations force Tubbs to do his bidding if the occasion arose. Tubbs’s mental calibre was 22-short; but Smith needed help, and Tubbs seemed the most pliable material at hand. That Tubbs had pledged himself to something the nature of which he knew only vaguely, was in itself sufficient to receive Smith’s contempt. He had learned from observation that little dependence can be placed upon those who accept responsibilities too readily and lightly, but he was confident that he could utilize Tubbs as long as he should need him, and after that—Smith shrugged his shoulders—what was an I-ó-wan more or less?

Altogether, he felt well satisfied with what he had accomplished in the short while since his return.

When Susie came home from school, Smith was looking through the corral-fence at a few ponies which Ralston had bought and driven in, to give color to his story.

“See anything there you’d like?” she inquired, with significant emphasis.

“I’d buy the bunch if I was goin’ to set me some bear-traps.” Smith could see nothing to praise in anything which belonged to Ralston.

Susie missed her mother immediately upon going into the house, and in their sleeping-room she saw every sign of a hurried departure.

“Where’s mother gone?” she asked Ling.

“Town.”

“To town? To see a doctor about her arm?”

“Beads.”

“Beads?”

“Blue beads, gleen beads. She no have enough beads for finish moccasin.”

“When’s she comin’ home?”

“She come ’night.”

Forty miles over a rough road, with her bandaged arm, for beads! It did not sound reasonable to Susie, but since Smith was accounted for, and her mother would return that night, there seemed no cause for worry. Susie could not remember ever before having come home without finding her mother somewhere in the house, and now, as she fidgeted about, she realized how much she would miss her if that which she most feared should transpire to separate them.

She walked to the door, and while she stood idly kicking her heel against the door-sill she saw Ralston, who was passing, stoop and pick up a scrap of paper which had been caught between two small stones. She observed that he examined it with interest, but while he stood with his lips pursed in a half-whistle a puff of wind flirted it from his fingers. He pursued it as though it had value, and Susie, who was not above curiosity, joined in the chase.

It lodged in one of the giant sage-brushes which grew some little distance away on the outer edge of the dooryard, and into this brush Ralston reached and carefully drew it forth. He looked at it again, lest his eyes had deceived him, then he passed it to Susie, who stared blankly from the scrap of paper to him.

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