With his hands thrust deep in his trousers pockets, Ralston leaned against the corner of the bunk-house, from which point of vantage he could catch a glimpse of the Schoolmarm’s white-curtained window. He now had no feeling of elation over his success. Smith was a victorious captive. Ralston’s heart ached miserably, and he wished that the day was ended and the morning come, that he might go, never to return.
He too had seen the mist in Dora’s eyes; and, with Smith’s words, the air-castles which had persistently built themselves without volition on his part, crumbled. There was nothing for him to do but to efface himself as quickly and as completely as possible. The sight of him could only be painful to Dora, and he wished to spare her all of that within his power.
He looked at the foothills, the red butte rising in their midst, the tinted Bad Lands, the winding, willow-fringed creek. It was all beautiful in its bizarre colorings; but the spirit of the picture, the warm, glowing heart of it, had gone from it for him. The world looked a dull and lifeless place. His love for Dora was greater than he had known, far mightier than he had realized until the end, the positive end, had come.
“Oh, Dora!” he whispered in utter wretchedness. “Dear little Schoolmarm!”
In the room behind the white-curtained window the Schoolmarm walked the floor with her cheeks aflame and as close to hysteria as ever she had been in her life.
“What will he think of me!” she asked herself over and over again, clasping and unclasping her cold hands. “What can he think but one thing?”
The more overwrought she became, the worse the situation seemed.
“And how he looked at me! How they all looked at me! Oh, it was too dreadful!”
She covered her burning face with her hands.
“There isn’t the slightest doubt,” she went on, “but that he thinks I knew all about it. Perhaps”—she paused in front of the mirror and stared into her own horrified eyes—“perhaps he thinks I belong to a gang of robbers! Maybe he thinks I am Smith’s tool, or that Smith is my tool, or something like that! Oh, whatever made him say such a thing! ‘Our stake—our stake’—and—‘I done it for you!’”
Another thought, still more terrifying occurred to her excited mind:
“What if he should have to arrest me as an accomplice!”
She sat down weakly on the edge of the bed.
“Oh,” and she rocked to and fro in misery, “if only I never had tried to improve Smith’s mind!”
The tears slipped from under the Schoolmarm’s lashes, and her chin quivered.
Worn out by the all night’s vigil at her mother’s bedside, and the exciting events of the morning, Susie finally succumbed to the strain and slept the sleep of exhaustion. It was almost supper-time when she awakened. Passing the Schoolmarm’s door, she heard a sound at which she stopped and frankly listened. Teacher was crying!
“Ling, this is an awful world. Everything seems to be upside down and inside out!”
“Plenty tlouble,” agreed Ling, stepping briskly about as he collected ingredients for his biscuits.
“Don’t seem to make much difference whether you love people or hate ’em; it all ends the same way—in tears.”
“Plitty bad thing—love.” Ling solemnly measured baking-powder. “Make people cly.”
Susie surmised correctly that Ling’s ears also had been close to a nearby keyhole.
“There’d ’a’ been fewer tears on this ranch if it hadn’t been for Smith.”
Susie sat on the corner of his work-table, and there was silence while he deftly mixed, rolled, and cut his dough.
“Mr. Ralston intends to go away in the morning,” said Susie, as the biscuits were slammed in the oven.
Ling wagged his head dolorously.
“And they’ll never see each other again.”
His head continued to wag.
“Ling,” Susie whispered, “we’ve got to do something.” She stepped lightly to the open door and closed it.
There were few at the supper-table that night, and there was none of the noisy banter which usually prevailed. The grub-liners came in softly and spoke in hushed tones, out of a kind of respect for two empty chairs which had been the recognized seats of Tubbs and the Indian woman.
Ralston bowed gravely as Dora entered—pale, her eyes showing traces of recent tears. Susie was absent, having no heart for food or company, and preferring to sit beside her mother for the brief time which remained to her. Even Meeteetse Ed shared in the general depression, and therefore it was in no spirit of flippancy that he observed as he replaced his cup violently in its saucer:
“Gosh A’mighty, Ling, you must have biled a gum-boot in this here tea!”
Dora, who had drank nearly half of hers, was unable to account for the peculiar tang which destroyed its flavor, and Ralston eyed the contents of his cup doubtfully after each swallow.
“Like as not the water’s gittin’ alkali,” ventured Old Man Rulison.
“Alkali nothin’. That’s gum-boot, or else a plug of Battle Ax fell in.”
Ling bore Meeteetse’s criticisms with surprising equanimity.
A moment later the lights blurred for Dora.
“I—I feel faint,” she whispered, striving to rise.
Ralston, who had already noted her increasing pallor, hastened around the table and helped her into the air. Ling’s immobile face was a study as he saw them leave the room together, but satisfaction was the most marked of its many expressions. He watched them from the pantry window as they walked to the cottonwood log which served as a garden-seat for all.
“I wonder if it was that queer tea?”
“It has been a hard day for you,” Ralston replied gently.
Dora was silent, and they remained so for some minutes. Ralston spoke at last and with an effort.
“I am sorry—sorrier than I can tell you—that it has been necessary for me to hurt you. I should rather, far, far rather, hurt myself than you, Miss Marshall—I wish I could make you know that. What I have done has been because it was my duty. I am employed by men who trust me, and I was in honor bound to follow the course I have; but if I had known what I know now—if I had been sure—I might in some way have made it easier for you. I am going away to-morrow, and perhaps it will do no harm to tell you that I had hoped”—he stopped to steady his voice, and went on—“I had hoped that our friendship might end differently.
“I shall be gone in the morning before you are awake, so I will say good-night—and good-by.” He arose and put out his hand. “Shall I send Susie to you?”
The lump in Dora’s throat hurt her.
“Wait a minute,” she whispered in a strained voice. “I want to say something, too, before you go. I don’t want you to go away thinking that I knew anything of Smith’s plans; that I knew he was going to steal cattle; that he was trying to make a ’stake’ for us—for me. It is all a misunderstanding.”
Dora was looking straight ahead of her, and did not see the change which came over Ralston’s face.
“I never thought of Smith in any way except to help him,” she went on. “He seemed different from most that stopped here, and I thought if I could just start him right, if only I could show him what he might do if he tried, he might be better for my efforts. And, after all, my time and good intentions were wasted. He deceived me in making me think that he too wanted to make more of his life, and that he was trying. And then to make such a speech before you all!”
“Don’t think about it—or Smith,” Ralston answered. “He has come to his inevitable end. When there’s bad blood, mistaken ideals, and wrong standards of living, you can’t do much—you can’t do anything. There is only one thing which controls men of his type, and that is fear—fear of the law. His love for you is undoubtedly the best, the whitest, thing that ever came into his life, but it couldn’t keep him straight, and never would. Don’t worry. Your efforts haven’t hurt him, or you. You are wiser, and maybe he is better.”
“It’s awfully good of you to comfort me,” said Dora gratefully.
“Good of me?” he laughed softly. “Little Schoolmarm”—he laid a hand upon each shoulder and looked into her eyes—“I love you.”
Her pupils dilated, and she breathed in wonder.
“You love me?”
“I do.” He brushed back a wisp of hair which had blown across her cheek, and, stooping, kissed her deliberately upon the mouth.
Inside the house a radiant Mongolian rushed from the pantry window into the room where Susie sat. He carried a nearly empty bottle which had once contained lemon extract, and his almond eyes danced as he handed it to her, whispering gleefully:
“All light! Good medicine!”
The big kerosene lamp screwed to the wall in the living-room had long since been lighted, but Susie still sat on the floor, leaning her cheek against the blanket which covered the Indian woman. The house was quiet save for Ling in the kitchen—and lonely—but she had a fancy that her mother would like to have her there beside her; so, although she was cramped from sitting, and the house was close after a hot day, she refused all offers to relieve her.
She was glad to see McArthur when he tapped on the door.
“I thought you’d like to read the letter that came with the picture,” he said, as he pulled up a chair beside her. “I want you to know how welcome you will be.”
He handed her the letter, with its neat, old-fashioned penmanship, its primness a little tremulous from the excitement of the writer at the time she had penned it. Susie read it carefully, and when she had finished she looked up at him with softened, grateful eyes.
“Isn’t she good!”
“The kindest of gentlewomen—your Aunt Harriet.”
“My Aunt Harriet!” Susie said it to herself rapturously.
“She hasn’t much in her life now—she’s lonely, too—and if you can be spoiled, Susie, you soon will be well on the way—between Aunt Harriet and me.” He stroked her hair fondly.
“And I’m to go to school back there and live with her. I can’t believe it yet!” Susie declared. “So much has happened in the last twenty-four hours that I don’t know what to think about first. More things have happened in this little time than in all my life put together.”
“That’s the way life seems to be,” McArthur said musingly—“a few hours at a tension, and long, dull stretches in between.”
“Does she know—does Aunt Harriet know—how green I am?”
McArthur laughed at her anxiety.
“I am sure,” he replied reassuringly, “that she isn’t expecting a young lady of fashion.”
“Oh, I’ve got clothes,” said Susie. “Mother made me a dress that will be just the thing to wear in that—what do you call it?—train. She made it out of two shawls that she bought at the Agency.”
McArthur looked startled at the frock of red, green, and black plaids which Susie took from a nail behind the door.
“The colors seem a little—a little——”
“If that black was yellow, it would look better,” Susie admitted. “I’ve got a new Stetson, too.”
“It will take some little time to arrange your affairs out here, and in the meantime I’ll write Aunt Harriet to choose a wardrobe for you and send it. It will give her the greatest pleasure.”
“Can I take Croppy and Daisy May?”
“The pet badger,” she explained. “I named her after a Schoolmarm we had—she looks so solemn and important. I can keep her on a chain, and she needn’t eat until we get there,” Susie pleaded.
Trying not to smile at the mental picture of himself arriving in the staid college town, with a tawny-skinned child in a red, green, and black frock, a crop-eared cayuse, and a badger on a chain, McArthur ventured it as his opinion that the climate would be detrimental to Daisy May’s health.
“You undoubtedly will prefer to spend your summers here, and it will be pleasant to have Croppy and Daisy May home to welcome you.”
Susie’s face sobered.
“Oh, yes, I must come back when school is over. I wouldn’t feel it was right to go away for always and leave Dad and Mother here. Besides, I guess I’d want to come back; because, after all, you know, I’m half Injun.”
“I wish you’d try and sleep, and let me sit here,” urged McArthur kindly.
Susie shook her head.
“No; Ling will stay after awhile, and I’m not sleepy or tired now.”
“Well, good-night, little sister.” He patted her head, while all the kindliness of his gentle nature shone from his eyes