Still breathing hard, Smith hunted Tubbs.
“Tubbs, will you be ready for business, to-day?”
“The sooner, the quicker,” Tubbs answered, with his vacuous wit.
“Do you know the gulch where they found that dead Injun?”
“Saddle up and meet me over there as quick as you can.”
“Right.” Tubbs winked knowingly, and immediately after breakfast started to do as he was bid.
Smith’s face was not good to look upon as he sat at the table. He took no part in the conversation, and scarcely touched the food before him. His disappointment was so deep that it actually sickened him, and his unreasoning anger toward the woman was so great that he wanted to get out of her sight and her presence. She was like a dog which after a whipping tries to curry favor with its master. She was ready to go to him at the first sign of relenting. She felt no resentment because of his injustice and brutality. She felt nothing but that he was angry at her, that he kept his eyes averted and repelled her timid advances. Her heart ached, and she would have grovelled at his feet, had he permitted her. In her desperation, she made up her mind to try on him the love-charm of the Sioux women. It might soften his heart toward her. She would have sacrificed anything and all to bring him back.
Smith was glad to get away into the hills for a time. He was filled with a feverish impatience to bring about that which he so much desired. The picture of the ranch-house with the white curtains at the windows became more and more attractive to him as he dwelt upon it. He looked upon it as a certainty, one which could not be too quickly realized to please him. Then, too, the atmosphere of the MacDonald ranch had grown distasteful to him. With that sudden revulsion of feeling which was characteristic, he had grown tired of the place, he wanted a change, to be on the move again; but, of more importance than these things, he sensed hostility in the air. There was something significant in the absence of the Indians at the ranch. There was an ominous quiet hanging over the place that chilled him. He had a feeling that he was being followed, without being able to detect so much as a shadow. He felt as if the world were full of eyes—glued upon him. Sudden sounds startled him, and he had found himself peering into dark stable corners and stooping to look where the shadows lay black in the thick creek-brush.
He told himself that the trip through the Bad Lands had unnerved him, but the explanation was not satisfying. Through it all, he had an underlying feeling that something was wrong; yet he had no thought of altering his plans. He wanted money, and he wanted Dora. The combination was sufficient to nerve him to take chances.
Tubbs was waiting in the gulch. Smith looked at the spot where White Antelope’s body had lain, and reflected that it was curious how long the black stain of blood would stay on sand and gravel. He had been lucky to get out of that scrape so easily, he told himself as he rode by.
“I guess you know what you’re up against, feller,” he said bluntly, as he and Tubbs met.
“I inclines to the opinion that it’s a little cattle deal,” Tubbs replied facetiously.
“You inclines right. Now, here’s our play—listen. The Bar C outfit is workin’ up in the mountains, so they won’t interfere with us none, and about three or three and a half days’ drive from here there’s some fellers what’ll take ’em off our hands. We gets our wad and divvies.”
“What for a hand do I take?”
“By rights, maybe, we ought to do our work at night, but I’ve rode over the country, and it looks safe enough to drive ’em into the gulch to-day. They isn’t a human in sight, and if one shows up, I reckon you know what to do.”
“It sounds easy enough, if it works,” said Tubbs dubiously.
“If it works? Feller, if you’ve got a yeller streak, you better quit right here.”
“I merely means,” Tubbs hastened to explain, “that it sounds so easy that it makes me sore we wasn’t doin’ it before.”
The reply appeared to pacify Smith.
“I hates to fool with cattle,” he admitted, “’specially these here Texas brutes that spread out, leavin’ tracks all over the flat, and they can’t make time just off green grass. Gimme horses—but horses ain’t safe right now, with the Injuns riled up. Now, you start out and gather up what you can, and hold ’em here till I get back. I’ll go to the ranch and get a little grub together and get here as quick as it’s safe.”
Smith galloped back to the ranch, to learn that Dora had ridden to the Agency to spend the day. He was keenly disappointed that he had missed the opportunity of saying good-by. She had chided him before for not telling her of his contemplated absence, and he had promised not to neglect to do so again; for she was in the habit of arranging the table for her night-school and waiting until he came. Then it occurred to Smith that he might write. He was delighted with the idea, and undoubtedly Dora would be equally delighted to receive a letter from him. It would show her that he remembered his promise, and also give her a chance to note his progress. Since Smith had learned that a capital letter is used to designate the personal pronoun, and that a period is placed at such points as one’s breath gives out, he had begun to think himself something of a scholar.
His enthusiasm grew as he thought of it, and he decided that while he was about it he would write a genuine love-letter.
Borrowing paper, an erratic pen, and ink pale from frequent watering, from a shelf in the living-room, he repaired to the dining-room table and gave himself up to the throes of composition.
Bearing in mind that the superlative of dear is dearest, he wrote:
I have got to go away on bizness. I had ought to hav said good-by but I cant wate till you gets back so I thort I wold write. I love you. I hates everyboddy else when I think of you. I dont love no other woman but you. Nor never did. If ever I go away and dont come back dont forget what I say because I will be ded, I mean it. I will hav a stak perty quick then I will show you this aint no josh. You no the rest, good-by for this time.
The perspiration stood out on his forehead, and he wiped it away with his ink-stained fingers.
“Writin’ is harder work nor shoein’ a horse,” he observed to Ling, and added for the Indian woman’s benefit, “I’m sendin’ off to get me a pair of them Angory saddle-pockets.”
His explanation did not deceive the person for whom it was intended. With the intuition of a jealous woman, she knew that he was writing a letter which he would not have her see. She meant to know, if possible, to whom he was writing, and what. Although she did not raise her eyes from her work when he replaced the pen and ink, she did not let him out of her sight. She believed that he had written to Dora, and she was sure of it when, thinking himself unobserved, he crept to Dora’s open window, outside of the house, and dropped the letter into the top drawer of her bureau, which stood close.
As soon as Smith was out of sight, she too crept stealthily to the open window. A red spot burned on either swarthy cheek, and her aching heart beat fast. She took the letter from the drawer, and, going toward the creek, plunged into the willows, with the instinct of the wounded animal seeking cover.
The woman could read a little—not much, but better than she could write. She had been to the Mission when she was younger, and MacDonald had labored patiently to teach her more. Now, concealed among the willows, sitting cross-legged on the ground, she spelled out Smith’s letter word by word,
I love you. I hates everyboddy else when I think of you. I don’t love no other woman but you. Nor never did.
She read it slowly, carefully, each word sinking deep. Then she stroked her hair with long, deliberate strokes, and read it again.
I don’t love no other woman but you. Nor never did.
She laid the letter on the ground, and, folding her arms, rocked her body to and fro, as though in physical agony. When she shut her lips they trembled as they touched each other, but she made no sound. The wound in her arm was beginning to heal. It itched, and she scratched it hard, for the pain served as a kind of counter-irritant. A third time she read the letter, stroking her hair incessantly with the long, deliberate strokes. Then she folded it, and, reaching for a pointed stick, dug a hole in the soft dirt. In the bottom of the hole she laid the letter and covered it with earth, patting and smoothing it until it was level. Before she left she sprinkled a few leaves over the spot.
She looked old and ugly when she went into the house, seeming, for the first time, the woman of middle-age that she was. Quietly, purposefully, she drew out a chair, and, standing upon it, took down from the rafters the plant which Little Coyote’s woman, the Mandan, had given her. It had hung there a long time, and the leaves crumpled and dropped off at her touch. She filled a basin with water and put the plant and root to soak, while she searched for a sharp knife. Turning her back to the room and facing the corner, like a child in mischief, she peeled the outer bark from the root with the greatest care. The inner bark was blood-red, and this too she peeled away carefully, very, very carefully saving the smallest particles, and laid it upon a paper. When she had it all, she burned the plant; but the red inner bark she put in a tin cup and covered it with boiling water, to steep.
“Don’t touch dat,” she warned Ling.
The afternoon was waning when she went again to the willows, but the air was still hot, for the rocks and sand held the heat until well after nightfall. In the willows she cut a stick—a forked stick, which she trimmed so that it left a crotch with a long handle. Hiding the stick under her blanket, she stepped out of the willows, and seemed to be wandering aimlessly until she was out of sight of the house and the bunk-house. Then she walked rapidly, with a purpose. Her objective point was a hill covered so thickly with rocks that scarcely a spear of grass grew upon it. The climb left her short of breath, she wiped the perspiration from her face with her blanket, but she did not falter. Stepping softly, listening, she crept over the rocks with the utmost caution, peering here and there as if in search of something which she did not wish to alarm. A long, sibilant sound stopped her. She located it as coming from under a rock only a few feet away, and a little gleam of satisfaction in her sombre eyes showed that she had found that for which she searched. The angry rattlesnake was coiled to strike, but she approached without hesitancy. Calculating how far it could throw itself, she stood a little beyond its range and for a moment stood watching the glitter of its wicked little eyes, the lightning-like action of its tongue. When she moved, its head followed her, but she dexterously pinned it to the rock with her forked stick and placed the heel of her moccasin upon its writhing body. Then, stooping, she severed its head from its body with her knife.
She put the head in a square of cloth and continued her search. After a time, she found another, and when she went down the hill there were three heads in the blood-soaked square of cloth. She hid them in the willows, and went into the house to stir the contents of the tin cup. She noted with evident satisfaction that it had thickened somewhat. Little Coyote’s woman had told her it would do so. She found a bottle which had contained lemon extract, and this she rinsed. She measured a teaspoonful of the thick, reddish-brown liquid and poured it into the bottle, filling it afterward with water. The cup she took with her into the willows. Laying the heads of the snakes upon a flat stone, she cut them through the jaws, and, extracting the poison sac, stirred the fluid into the tin cup. While she stirred, she remembered that she had heard an owl hoot the night before. It was an ill-omen, and it had sounded close. The hooting of an owl meant harm to some one. She wondered now if an owl feather would not make the medicine stronger. She set down her cup and looked carefully under the trees, but could find no feathers. Ah, well, it was stout enough medicine without it!
She had brought a long, keen-bladed hunting-knife into the willows, and she dipped the point of it into the concoction—blowing upon it until it dried, then repeating the process. When the point of the blade was well discolored, she muttered:
“Dat’s de strong medicine!”
Her eyes glittered like the eyes of the snakes among the rocks, and they seemed smaller. Their roundness and the liquid softness of them was gone. She looked “pure Injun,” as Smith would have phrased it, with murder in her heart. Deliberately, malevolently, she spat upon the earth beneath which the letter lay, before she returned to the house.
She heard Susie’s voice in the Schoolmarm’s room, and quickly hid the knife behind a mirror in the living-room, where she hid everything which she wished to conceal, imagining, for some unknown reason, that no one but herself would ever think of looking there. Susie often had thought laughingly that it looked like a pack-rat’s nest.
The woman poured the liquid which remained in the tin cup into another bottle, frowning when she spilled a few precious drops upon her hand. This bottle she also hid behind the mirror.
In Dora Marshall’s room, Susie was examining the teacher’s toilette articles, which held an unfailing interest for her. She meant to have an exact duplicate of the manicure set and of the hairbrush with the heavy silver back. To Susie, these things, along with side-combs and petticoats that rustled, were symbols of that elegance which she longed to attain.
As she stood by the bureau, fumbling with the various articles, she caught sight of a box through the crack of the half-open drawer. She had seen that battered box before. It was the grasshopper box—for there was the slit in the top.
Susie was not widely experienced in matters of sentiment, but she had her feminine intuitions, besides remarkably well-developed reasoning powers for her years.
Why, she asked herself as she continued to stare through the crack, why should Teacher be cherishing that old bait-box? Why should she have it there among her handkerchiefs and smelly silk things, and the soft lace things she wore at her throat? Why—unless she attached value to it? Why—unless it was a romantic and sacred keepsake?
Susie rather prided herself on being in touch with all that went on, and now she had an uneasy feeling that she might have missed something. She remembered the day of their fishing trip well, and at the time had thought she had scented a budding romance. Had they quarrelled, she wondered?
She sat on the edge of the bed and swung her feet.
“My, but won’t it seem lonesome here without Mr. Ralston?” Susie sighed deeply.
“Is he going away?” Dora asked quickly.
“He’ll be goin’ pretty soon now, because he’s found most of his strays and bought all the ponies he wants.”
“I suppose he will be glad to get back among his friends.”
Susie thought Teacher looked a little pale.
“Maybe he’ll go back and get married.”
“Did he say so?”
Susie was sure she was paler.
“No,” she replied nonchalantly. “I just thought so, because anybody that’s as good-looking as he is, gets gobbled up quick. Don’t you think he is good-looking?”
“Oh, he does very well.”
“Gee whiz, I wish he’d ask me to marry him!” said Susie unblushingly. “You couldn’t see me for dust, the way I’d travel. But there’s no danger. Look at them there skinny arms!”
“Susie! What grammar!”
“Those there skinny arms.”
“Those skinny arms; those hair; those eyes—soft and gentle like a couple of augers, Meeteetse says.” Susie shook her head in mock despondency. “I’ve tried to be beautiful, too. Once I cut a piece out of a newspaper that told how you could get rosy cheeks. It gave all the different things to put in, so I sent off and got ’em. I mixed ’em like it said and rubbed it on my face. There wasn’t any mistake about my rosy cheeks, but you ought to have seen the blisters on my cheek-bones—big as dollars!”
“I’m sure you will not be so thin when you are older,” Dora said consolingly, “and your hair would be a very pretty color if only you would wear a hat and take a little care of it.”
Susie shook her head and sighed again.
“Oh, it will be too late then, for he will be snapped up by some of those stylish town girls. You see.”
Dora put buttons in her shirt-waist sleeves in silence.
“I think he liked to stay here until you quarrelled with him.”
“I quarrelled with him?”
“Oh, didn’t you?” Susie was innocence itself. “You treat him so polite, I thought you must have quarrelled—such a chilly polite,” she explained.
“I don’t think he has observed it,” Dora answered coldly.
“Oh, yes, he has.” Susie waited discreetly.
“How do you know?”
“When you come to the table and say, Good-morning, and look at him without seeing him, I know he’d a lot rather you cuffed him.”
“What a dreadful word, Susie, and what an absurd idea!”
Susie noted that Teacher’s eyes brightened.
“You’ll be goin’ away, too, pretty soon, and I s’pose you’ll be glad you will never see him again. But,” she added dolefully, “ain’t it awful the way people just meets and parts?”
Dora was a long time finding that for which she was searching among the clothes hanging on a row of nails, and Susie, rolling her eyes in that direction, was sure, very sure, that she saw Teacher dab at her lashes with the frilly ruffle of a petticoat before she turned around.
“When did he say he was going?”
“He didn’t say; but to-day or to-morrow, I should think.”
“If he cared so much because I am cool to him, he certainly would have asked me why I treated him so. But he didn’t care enough to ask.”
Teacher’s voice sounded queer even to herself, and she seemed intensely interested in buttoning her boots.
“Pooh! I know why. It’s because he thinks you like that Smith.”
The jangle of Ling’s triangle interrupted the fascinating conversation.
“How perfectly foolish!” gasped Dora.
“Not to Smith,” Susie replied dryly, “nor to Mr. Ralston.”
Susie looked at the unoccupied chairs at the table as she and Dora seated themselves. Ralston’s, Tubbs’s, Smith’s, and McArthur’s chairs were vacant.
“Looks like you’re losin’ your boarders fast, Ling,” she remarked.
“Good thing,” Ling answered candidly.
The Indian woman gulped her coffee, but refused the food which was passed to her. A strange faintness, accompanied by nausea, was creeping upon her. Her vision was blurred, and she saw Meeteetse Ed, at the opposite end of the table, as through a fog. She pushed back her chair and went into the living-room, swaying a little as she walked. A faint moan caught Susie’s ear, and she hastened to her mother.
The woman was lying on the floor by the bench where she sewed, her head pillowed on her rag-rug.
“Mother! Why, what’s the matter with your hand? It’s swelled!”
“I heap sick, Susie!” she moaned. “My arm aches me.”
“Look!” cried Susie, who had turned back her sleeve. “Her arm is black—a purple black, and it’s swellin’ up!”
“Oh, I heap sick!”
“What did you do to your arm, Mother? Did you have the bandage off?”
“Yes, it come off, and I pin him up,” said Ling, who was standing by.
A paroxysm of pain seized the woman, and she writhed.
“It looks exactly like a rattlesnake bite! I saw a fellow once that was bit in the ankle, and it swelled up and turned a color like that,” declared Susie in horror. “Mother, you haven’t been foolin’ with snakes, or been bit?”
The woman shook her head.
“I no been bit,” she groaned, and her eyes had in them the appealing look of a sick spaniel.
Dora and Susie helped her to her room, and though they tried every simple remedy of which they had ever heard, to reduce the rapidly swelling arm, all seemed equally unavailing. The woman’s convulsions hourly became more violent and frequent, while her arm was frightful to behold—black, as it was, from hand to shoulder with coagulated blood.
“If only we had an idea of the cause!” cried Dora, distracted.
“Mother, can’t you imagine anything that would make your arm bad like this? Try to think.”
But though drops of perspiration stood on the woman’s forehead, and her grip tore the pillow, she obstinately shook her head.
“I be better pretty soon,” was all she would say, and tried to smile at Susie.
“If only some one would come!” Dora went to the open window often and listened for Ralston’s voice or McArthur’s—the latter having gone for his mail.
The strain of watching the woman’s suffering told on both of the girls, and the night by her bedside seemed centuries long. Toward morning the paroxysms appeared to reach a climax and then to subside. They were of shorter duration, and the intervals between were longer.
“She’s better, I’m sure,” Dora said hopefully, but Susie shook her head.
“I don’t think so; she’s worse. There’s that look behind, back of her eyes—that dead look—can’t you see it? And it’s in her face, too. I don’t know how to say what I mean, but it’s there, and it makes me shiver like cold.” The girl looked in mingled awe and horror at the first human being she ever had seen die.
Unable to endure the strain any longer, Dora went into the fresh air, and Susie dropped on her knees by the bedside and took her mother’s limp hand in both of hers.
“Oh, Mother,” she begged pitifully, “say something. Don’t go away without sayin’ something to Susie!”
With an effort of will, the woman slowly opened her dull eyes and fixed them upon the child’s face.
“Yas,” she breathed; “I want to say something.”
The words came slowly and thickly.
“I no—get well.”
Unheeding the wail, perhaps not hearing it, she went on, stopping often between words:
“I steal—from you—my little girl. I bad woman, Susie. It is right I die. I take de money—out of de bank dat MacDonald leave us—to give to Smith. De hold-ups steal de money on—de road. I have de bad heart—Susie—to do dat. I know now.”
“You mustn’t talk like that, Mother!” cried Susie, gripping her hand convulsively. “You thought you’d get it again and put it back. You didn’t mean to steal from me. I know all about it. And I’ve got the money. Mr. Ralston found a check you had thrown away—you’d signed your name on it in the wrong place. When we saw the date, and what a lot of money it was, and found you had gone to town, we guessed the rest. It was easy to see Smith in that. So we held you up, and got it back. We knew there was no danger to anybody, but, of course, we felt bad to worry and frighten you.”
“I’m glad,” said the woman simply. She had no strength or breath or time to spare. “Dey’s more. I tell you—I kill Smith—if he lie. He lie. He bull-dog white man. I make de strong medicine to kill him—and I get de poison in my arm when de bandage slip. Get de bottles and de knife behind de lookin’-glass—I show you.”
Susie quickly did as she was bid.
“De lemon bottle is de love-charm of de Sioux. One teaspoonful—no more, Little Coyote’s woman say. De other bottle is de bad medicine. Be careful. Smith—make fool—of me—Susie.” What else she would have said ended in a gurgle. Her jaw dropped, and she died with her glazing eyes upon Susie’s face.
Susie pulled the gay Indian blanket gently over her mother’s shoulders, as if afraid she would be cold. Then she slipped a needle and some beads and buckskin, to complete an unfinished moccasin, underneath the blanket. Her mother was going on a long journey, and would want occupation. There were no tears in Susie’s eyes when she replaced the bottles and the skinning knife with the discolored blade behind the mirror.
The wan little creature seemed to have no tears to shed. She was unresponsive to Dora’s broken words of sympathy, and the grub-liners’ awkward condolences—they seemed not to reach her heart at all. She heard them without hearing, for her mind was chaos as she moved silently from room to room, or huddled, a forlorn figure, on the bench where her mother always had sat.
Breakfast was long since over and the forenoon well advanced when she finally left the silent house and crept like the ghost of her spirited self down the path to the stable and into the roomy stall where her stout little cow-pony stood munching hay.
In her sorrow, the dumb animal was the one thing to which she turned. He lifted his head when she went in, and threw his cropped ears forward, while his eyes grew limpid as a horse’s eyes will at the approach of some one it knows well and looks to for food and affection.
They had almost grown up together, and the time Susie had spent on his back, or with him in the corral or stall, formerly had been half her waking hours. They had no fear of each other; only deep love and mutual understanding.
“Oh, Croppy! Croppy!” her childish voice quavered. “Oh, Croppy, you’re all I’ve got left!” She slipped her arms around his thick neck and hid her face in his mane.
He stopped eating and stood motionless while she clung to him, his ears alert at the sound of the familiar voice.
“What shall I do!” she wailed in an abandonment of grief.
In her inexperience, it seemed to Susie, that with her mother’s death all the world had come to an end for her. Undemonstrative as they were, and meagre as had been any spoken words of affection, the bond of natural love between them had seemed strong and unbreakable until Smith’s coming. They had been all in all to each other in their unemotional way; and now this unexpected tragedy seemed to crush the child, because it was something which never had entered her thoughts. It was a crisis with which she did not know how to cope or to bear. The world could never be blacker for her than it was when she clung sobbing to the little sorrel pony’s thick neck that morning. The future looked utterly cheerless and impossible to endure. She had not learned that no tragedy is so blighting that there is not a way out—a way which the sufferer makes himself, which comes to him, or into which he is forced. Nothing stays as it is. But it appeared to Susie that life could never be different, except to be worse.
She had talked much to McArthur of the outside world, and questioned him, and a doubt had sprung up as to the feasibility of searching for her kinsfolk, as she had planned. There were many, many trails and wire fences to bewilder one, and people—hundreds of people—people who were not always kind. His answers filled her with vague fears. To be only sixteen, and alone, is cause enough for tears, and Susie shed them now.
McArthur, with a radiant face, was riding toward the ranch to which he had become singularly attached. His saddle-pockets bulged with mail, and his elbows flapped joyously as he urged his horse to greater speed. He looked up eagerly at the house as he crossed the ford, and his kind eyes shone with happiness when he rode into the stable-yard and swung out of the saddle.
He heard a sound, the unmistakable sound of sobbing, as he was unsaddling. Listening, he knew it came from somewhere in the stable, so he left his horse and went inside.
It was Susie, as he had thought. She lifted her tear-stained face from the pony’s mane when he spoke, and he knew that she was glad to see him.
“Oh, pardner, I thought you’d never come!”
“The mail was late, and I stayed with the Major to wait for it. What has gone wrong?”
“Mother’s dead,” she said. “She was poisoned accidentally.”
“Susie! And there was no one here?” The news seemed incredible.
“Only Teacher and me—no one that knew what to do. We sent Meeteetse for a doctor, but he hasn’t come yet. He probably got drunk and forgot what he went for. It’s been a terrible night, pardner, and a terrible day!”
McArthur looked at her with troubled eyes, and once more he stroked her hair with his gentle, timid touch.
“Everything just looks awful to me, with Dad and mother both gone, and me here alone on this big ranch, with only Ling and grub-liners. And to think of it all the rest of my life like this—with nobody that I belong to, or that belongs to me!”
Something was recalled to McArthur with a start by Susie’s words. He had forgotten!
“Come, Susie, come with me.”
She followed him outside, where he unbuckled his saddle-pocket and took a daguerreotype from a wooden box which had come in the mail. The gilt frame was tarnished, the purple velvet lining faded, and when he handed the case to Susie she had to hold it slanting in the light to see the picture.
She looked at McArthur with eyes wide in wonder.
“Donald MacDonald, my aunt Harriet’s brother, who went north to buy furs for the Hudson Bay Company!” McArthur’s eyes were smiling through the moisture in them.
“We’ve got one just like it!” Susie cried, still half unable to believe her eyes and ears.
“I was sure that day you mimicked your father when he said, ‘Never forget you are a MacDonald!’ for I have heard my aunt say that a thousand times, and in just that way. But I wanted to be surer before I said anything to you, so I sent for this.”
“Oh, pardner!” and with a sudden impulse which was neither Scotch nor Indian, but entirely of herself, Susie threw her arms about his neck and all but choked him in the only hug which Peter McArthur, A.M., Ph.D., could remember ever having had.