Infomotions, Inc.Where the Trail Divides / Lillibridge, Will (William Otis), 1878-1909



Author: Lillibridge, Will (William Otis), 1878-1909
Title: Where the Trail Divides
Publisher: Project Gutenberg
Tag(s): landor; bess; craig; prairie; clayton craig; ranch house; indian; halted; elizabeth landor; pete sweeney
Contributor(s): Mabie, Hamilton Wright, 1845-1916 [Editor]
Versions: original; local mirror; HTML (this file); printable
Services: find in a library; evaluate using concordance
Rights: GNU General Public License
Size: 74,330 words (short) Grade range: 8-10 (high school) Readability score: 66 (easy)
Identifier: etext11683
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Title: Where the Trail Divides

Author: Will Lillibridge

Release Date: March 23, 2004  [eBook #11683]

Language: English

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WHERE THE TRAIL DIVIDES

By WILL LILLIBRIDGE

Author of "BEN BLAIR," Etc.

With Frontispiece in Colors
By The Kinneys

1907






CONTENTS

    I. PRESENTIMENT

   II. FULFILMENT

  III. DISCOVERY

   IV. RECONSTRUCTION

    V. THE LAND OF LICENCE

   VI. THE RED MAN AND THE WHITE

  VII. A GLIMPSE OF THE UNKNOWN

 VIII. THE SKELETON WITHIN THE CLOSET

   IX. THE VOICE OF THE WILD

    X. THE CURSE OF THE CONQUERED

   XI. THE TREE OF KNOWLEDGE

  XII. WITHIN THE CONQUEROR'S OWN COUNTRY

 XIII. THE MYSTERY OF SOLITUDE

  XIV. FATE, THE SATIRIST

   XV. THE FRUIT OF THE TREE OF KNOWLEDGE

  XVI. THE RECKONING

 XVII. SACRIFICE

XVIII. REWARD

  XIX. IN SIGHT OF GOD ALONE





CHAPTER I


PRESENTIMENT

The man was short and fat, and greasy above the dark beard line. In
addition, he was bowlegged as a greyhound, and just now he moved with a
limp as though very footsore. His coarse blue flannel shirt, open at the
throat, exposed a broad hairy chest that rose and fell mightily with the
effort he was making. And therein lay the mystery. The sun was hot--with
the heat of a cloudless August sun at one o'clock of the afternoon. The
country he was traversing was wild, unbroken--uninhabited apparently of
man or of beast. Far to his left, just visible through the dancing heat
rays, indistinct as a mirage, was a curling fringe of green trees. To
his right, behind him, ahead of him was not a tree nor a shrub nor a
rock the height of a man's head; only ungrazed, yellowish-green
sun-dried prairie grass. The silence was complete. Not even a breath of
wind rustled the grass; yet ever and anon the man paused glanced back
the way he had come, listened, his throat throbbing with the effort of
repressed breathing, in obvious expectation of a sound he did not hear;
then, for the time relieved, forged ahead afresh, one hand gripping the
butt of an old Springfield rifle slung over his shoulder, the other,
big, unclean, sunbrowned, swinging like a pendulum at his side.

Ludicrous, unqualifiedly, the figure would have been in civilisation,
humorous as a clown in a circus; but seeing it here, solitary, exotic,
no observer would have laughed. Fear, mortal dogging fear, impersonate,
supreme, was in every look, every action. Somewhere back of that curved
line where met the earth and sky, lurked death. Nothing else would have
been adequate to arouse this phlegmatic human as he was now aroused. The
sweat oozed from his thick neck in streams and dripped drop by drop from
the month-old stubble which covered his chin, but apparently he never
noticed it. Now and then he attempted to moisten his lips; but his
tongue was dry as powder, and they closed again, parched as before.

No road nor trail, nor the semblance of a trail, marked the way he was
going; the hazy green fringe far to the east was his only landmark; yet
as hour after hour went by and the sun sank lower and lower he never
halted, never seemed in doubt as to his destination. The country was
growing more rolling now, almost hilly, and he approached each rise
cautiously, vigilantly. Once, almost at his feet a covey of frightened
prairie chickens sprang a-wing, and at the unexpected sound he dropped
like a stone in his tracks, all but concealing himself in the tall
grass; then, reassured, he was up again, plodding doggedly, ceaselessly
on.

It was after sundown when he paused; and then only from absolute
physical inability to go farther. Outraged nature had at last rebelled,
and not even fear could suffice longer to stimulate him. The grass was
wet with dew, and prone on his knees he moistened his lips therefrom as
drinks many another of the fauna of the prairie. Then, flat on his back,
not sleeping, but very wide awake, very watchful, he lay awaiting the
return of strength. Upon the fringe of hair beneath the brim of his hat
the sweat slowly dried; then, as the dew gathered thicker and thicker,
dampened afresh. Far to the east, where during the day had appeared the
fringe of green, the sky lightened, almost brightened; until at last,
like a curious face, the full moon, peeping above the horizon, lit up
the surface of prairie.

At last--and ere this the moon was well in the sky--the man arose,
stretched his stiffened muscles profanely--before he had not spoken a
syllable--listened a moment almost involuntarily, sent a swift,
searching glance all about; then moved ahead, straight south, at the old
relentless pace.

       *       *       *       *       *

The lone ambassador from the tiny settlement of Sioux Falls vacillated
between vexation and solicitude.

"For the last time I tell you; we're going whether you do or not," he
announced in ultimatum.

Samuel Rowland, large, double-chinned, distinctly florid, folded his
arms across his chest with an air of finality.

"And I repeat, I'm not going. I'm much obliged to you for the warning.
I know your intentions are good, but you people are afraid of your own
shadows. I know as well as you do that there are Indians in this part of
the world, some odd thousands of them between here and the Hills, but
they were here when I came and when you came, and we knew they were
here. You expect to hear from a Dane when you buy tickets to 'Hamlet,'
don't you?"

The other made a motion of annoyance.

"If you imagine this is a time for juggling similes," he returned
swiftly, "you're making the mistake of your life. If you were alone,
Rowland, I'd leave you here to take your medicine without another word;
but I've a wife, too, and I thank the Lord she's down in Sioux City
where Mrs. Rowland and the kid should be, and for her sake--"

"I beg your pardon."

The visitor started swiftly to leave, then as suddenly turned back.

"Good God, man!" he blazed; "are you plumb daft to stickle for little
niceties now? I tell you I just helped to pick up Judge Amidon and his
son, murdered in their own hayfield not three miles from here, the boy
as full of arrows as a cushion of pins. This isn't ancient history, man,
but took place this very day. It's Indian massacre, and at our own
throats. The boys are down below the falls getting ready to go right
now. By night there won't be another white man or woman within
twenty-five miles of you. It's deliberate suicide to stand here
arguing. If you will stay yourself, at least send away Mrs. Rowland and
the girl. I'll take care of them myself and bring them back when the
government sends some soldiers here, as it's bound to do soon. Listen to
reason, man. Your claim won't run away; and if someone should jump it
there's another just as good alongside. Pack up and come on."

Of a sudden, rough pioneer as he was, his hat came off and the tone of
vexation left his voice. Another actor, a woman, had appeared upon the
scene.

"You know what I'm talking about, Mrs. Rowland," he digressed. "Take my
advice and come along. I'll never forgive myself if we leave you
behind."

"You really think there's danger, Mr. Brown?" she asked unemotionally.

"Danger!" In pure impotence of language the other stared. "Danger, with
Heaven knows how many hostile Sioux on the trail! Is it possible you two
don't realise things as they are?"

"Yes, I think we realise all right," tolerantly. "I know the Tetons are
hostile; they couldn't well be otherwise. Any of us would rebel if we
were hustled away into a corner like naughty little boys, as they are;
but actual danger--" The woman threw a comprehensive, almost amused
glance at the big man, her husband. "We've been here almost two years
now; long before you and the others came. Half the hunters who pass this
way stop here. It wasn't a month ago that a party of Yanktons left a
whole antelope. You ought to see Baby Bess shake hands with some of
those wrinkled old bucks. Danger! We're safer here than we would be in
Sioux City."

"But there's been massacre already, I tell you," exploded the other. "I
don't merely surmise it. I saw it with my own eyes."

"There must have been some personal reason then." Mrs. Rowland glanced
at the restless, excited speaker analytically, almost superciliously.
"Indians are like white people. They have their loves and hates the same
as all the rest of us. Sam and I ran once before when everyone was
going, and when we got back not a thing had been touched; but the weeds
had choked our corn and the rabbits eaten up our garden. We've been good
to the Indians, and they appreciate it."

A moment Brown hesitated impotently; then of a sudden he came forward
swiftly and extended his hand, first to one and then to the other.

"Good-bye, then," he halted. "I can't take you by force, and it's pure
madness to stay here longer." Baby Elizabeth, a big-eyed, solemn-faced
mite of humanity, had come up now and stood staring the stranger
silently from the side of her mother's skirts. "I hope for the best, but
before God I never expect to see any of you again."

"Oh, we'll see you in the fall all right--when you return," commented
Rowland easily; but the other made no reply, and without a backward
glance started at a rapid jog trot for the tiny settlement on the river
two miles away.

Behind him, impassive-faced Rowland stood watching the departing
frontiersman steadily, the pouches beneath his eyes accentuated by the
tightened lids.

"I don't believe there's a bit more danger here now than there ever
was," he commented; "but there's certainly an unusual disturbance
somewhere. I don't take any stock in the people down at the settlement
leaving--they'd go if they heard a coyote whistle; but Brown tells me
there've been three different trappers from Big Stone gone through south
in the last week, and when they leave it means something. If you say the
word we'll leave everything and go yet."

"If we do we'll never come back."

"Not necessarily."

"Yes. I'm either afraid of these red people or else I'm not. We went
before because the others went. If we left now it would be different.
We'd be tortured day and night if we really feared--what happens now and
then to some. We came here with our eyes wide open. We can't start again
in civilisation. We're too old, and there's the past--"

"You still blame me?"

"No; but we've chosen. Whatever comes, we'll stay." She turned toward
the rough log shanty unemotionally.

"Come, let's forget it. Dinner's waiting and baby's hungry."

A moment Rowland hesitated, then he, too, followed.

"Yes, let's forget it," he echoed slowly.

       *       *       *       *       *

"Well, in Heaven's name!" Rowland's great bulk was upon its feet, one
hand upon the ever-ready revolver at his hip, the dishes on the rough
pine dining table clattering with the suddenness of his withdrawal. "Who
are you, man, and what's the trouble? Speak up--"

The dishevelled intruder within the narrow doorway glanced about the
interior of the single room with bloodshot eyes.

His great mouth was a bit open and his swollen tongue all but protruded.

"Water!" The word was scarce above a whisper.

"But who are you?"

"Water!" fiercely, insistently.

Of a sudden he spied a wooden pail upon a shelf in the corner, and
without invitation, almost as a wild beast springs, he made for it,
grasped the big tin dipper in both hands; drank measure after measure,
the overflow trickling down his bare throat and dripping onto the sanded
floor.

"God, that's good!" he voiced. "Good, good!"

After that first involuntary movement Rowland did not stir; but at his
side the woman had risen, and behind her, peering around the fortress of
her skirts as when before she had argued with Frontiersman Brown, stood
the little wide-eyed girl, type of the repressed frontier child.

Back to them came the stranger, his great jowl working unconsciously.

"You are Sam Rowland?" he enunciated thickly.

"Yes."

"The settlement hasn't broken up then?"

"Why do you ask?"

"Is it possible that you don't know, that they don't know?"
Involuntarily he seized his host by the arm. "I've heard of you; you
live two miles out. We've no time to lose. Come, don't stop to save
anything."

Rowland straightened. The other smelled evilly of perspiration.

"Come where? Who are you anyway, and what's the matter? Talk so I can
understand you."

"You don't know that the Santees are on the 'big trail'? of the massacre
along the Minnesota River?"

"I know nothing. Once more, who are you?"

"Who am I? What does it matter? My name is Hans Mueller. I'm a trapper."
Of a sudden he drew back, inspecting his impassive questioner
doubtfully, almost unbelievingly. "But come. I'll tell you along the
way. You mustn't be here an hour longer. I saw their signal smokes this
very morning. They're murdering everyone--men, women, and children. It's
Little Crow who started it, and God knows how many settlers they've
killed. They chased me for hours, but I had a good horse. It only gave
out yesterday; and since then--But come. It's suicide to chatter like
this." He turned insistently toward the door. "They may be here any
minute."

Rowland and his wife looked at each other. Neither spoke a word; but at
last the woman shook her head slowly.

Hans Mueller shifted restlessly.

"Hurry, I tell you," he insisted.

Rowland sat down again deliberately, his heavy double chin folding over
his soft flannel shirt.

"Where are you going?" he temporised with almost a shade of amusement.

"Going!" In his unbelief the German's protruding eyes seemed almost to
roll from his face. "To the settlement, of course."

"There is no settlement."

"What?"

Rowland repeated his statement impassively.

"They've--gone?" The tongue had grown suddenly thick again.

"I said so." The look of pity had altered, become almost of scorn.

For a half minute there was silence, inactivity, while despite tan and
dirt and perspiration the cheeks of Hans Mueller whitened. The same
expression of terror, hopeless, dominant, all but insane, that had been
with him alone out on the prairie returned, augmented. Heedless of
appearances, all but unconscious of the presence of spectators, he
glanced about the single room like a beaten rabbit with the hounds close
on its trail. No avenue of hiding suggested itself, no possible hope of
protection. The cold perspiration broke out afresh on his forehead, at
the roots of his hair, and in absent impotency he mopped it away with
the back of a fat, grimy hand.

In pity motherly Mrs. Rowland returned to her seat, indicated another
vacant beside the board.

"You'd best sit down and eat a bit," she invited. "You must be hungry as
a coyote."

"Eat, now?" Swiftly, almost fiercely, the old terror-restless mood
returned. "God Almighty couldn't keep me here longer." He started
shuffling for the door. "Stay here and be scalped, if you think I lie.
We're corpses, all of us, but I'll not be caught like a beaver in a
trap." Again he halted jerkily. "Which way did they go!"

Lower and lower sank Rowland's great chin onto his breast.

"They separated," impassively. "Part went south to Sioux City; part west
toward Yankton." Involuntarily his lips pursed in the inevitable
contempt of a strong man for one hopelessly weak. "You'd better take a
lunch along. It's something of a journey to either place."

Swift as the suggestion, Mrs. Rowland, with the spontaneous hospitality
of the frontier, was upon her feet. Into a quaint Indian basket of
coloured rushes went a roast grouse, barely touched, from the table. A
loaf of bread followed: a bottle of water from the wooden pail in the
corner. "You're welcome, friend," she proffered.

Hans Mueller hesitated, accepted. A swift moisture dimmed his eyes.

"Thanks, lady," he halted. "You're good people, anyway. I'm sorry--" He
lifted his battered hat, shuffled anew toward the doorway. "Good-bye."

Impassive as before, Rowland returned to his neglected dinner.

"No wonder the Sioux play us whites for cowards, and think we'll run at
sight of them," he commented.

Mrs. Rowland, standing motionless in the single exit through which
Mueller had gone, did not answer.

"Better come and finish, Margaret," suggested her husband.

Again there was no answer, and Rowland, after eating a few mouthfuls,
pushed back his chair. Even then she did not speak, and, rising, the man
made his way across the room to put an arm with rough affection around
his wife's waist.

"Are you, too, scared at last?" he voiced gently.

The woman turned swiftly and, in action almost unbelievable after her
former unemotional certainty, dropped her head to his shoulder.

"Yes, I think I am a bit, Sam. For baby's sake I wish we'd gone too; but
now,"--her arms crept around his neck, closed,--"but now--now it's too
late!"

For a long minute, and another, the man did not stir but involuntarily
his arms had tightened until, had she wished, the woman could not have
turned. He had been looking absently out the door, south over the
rolling country leading to the deserted settlement.

In the distance, perhaps a quarter of a mile away, Hans Mueller was
still in sight, skirting the base of a sharp incline. Through the
trembling heat waves he seemed a mere moving dark spot; like an ant or a
spider on its zigzag journey. The grass at the base of the rise was rank
and heavy, reaching almost to the waist of the moving figure. Rowland
watched it all absently, meditatively; as he would have watched the
movement of a coyote or a prairie owl, for the simple reason that it was
the only visible object endowed with life, and instinctively life
responds to life. The words of his wife just spoken, "It is too late,"
with the revelation they bore, were echoing in his brain. For the first
time, to his mind came a vague unformed suggestion, not of fear, but
near akin, as to this lonely prairie wilderness, and the red man its
child. In a hazy way came the question whether after all it were not
foolhardy to remain here now, to dare that invisible, intangible
something before which, almost in panic, the others had fled. To be
sure, precedent was with him, logic; but--of a sudden--but a minute had
passed--his arms tightened; involuntarily he held his breath. Hans
Mueller had been moving on and on; another half minute and he would have
been behind the base of the hill out of sight; when, as from the turf
at one's feet there springs a-wing a covey of prairie grouse, from the
tall grass about the retreating figure there leaped forth a swarm of
other similar dark figures: a dozen, a score--in front, behind, all
about. Apparently from mother earth herself they had come,
autochthonous. Almost unbelieving, the spectator blinked his eyes; then,
as came swift understanding, instinctively he shielded the woman in his
arms from the sight, from the knowledge. Not a sound came to his ears
from over the prairie: not a single call for help. That black swarm
simply arose, there was a brief, sharp struggle, almost fantastic
through the curling heat waves; then one and all, the original dark
figure, the score of others, disappeared--as suddenly as though the
earth from which they came had swallowed them up. Look as he might, the
spectator could catch no glimpse of a moving object, except the
green-brown grass carpet glistening under the afternoon sun.

Yet a moment longer the man stood so; then, his own face as pale as had
been that of coward Hans Mueller, he leaned against the lintel of the
door.

"Yes, we're too late now, Margaret," he echoed.




CHAPTER II


FULFILMENT

The log cabin of Settler Rowland, as a landmark, stood forth. Barred it
was--the white of barked cotton-wood timber alternating with the brown
of earth that filled the spaces between--like the longitudinal stripes
of a prairie gopher or on the back of a bob-white. Long wiry slough
grass, razor-sharp as to blades, pungent under rain, weighted by squares
of tough, native sod, thatched the roof. Sole example of the handiwork
of man, it crowned one of the innumerable rises, too low to be dignified
by the name of hill, that stretched from sky to sky like the miniature
waves on the surface of a shallow lake. Back of it, stretching
northward, a vivid green blot, lay a field of sod corn: the ears already
formed, the ground whitened from the lavishly scattered pollen of the
frayed tassels. In the dooryard itself was a dug well with a mound of
weed-covered clay by its side and a bucket hanging from a pulley over
its mouth. It was deep, for on this upland water was far beneath the
surface, and midway of its depth, a frontier refrigerator reached by a
rope ladder, was a narrow chamber in which Margaret Rowland kept her
meats fresh, often for a week at a time. For another purpose as well it
was used: a big basket with a patchwork quilt and a pillow marking the
spot where Baby Rowland, with the summer heat all about, slept away the
long, sultry afternoons.

Otherwise not an excrescence marred the face of nature. The single horse
Rowland owned, useless now while his crop matured, was breaking sod far
to the west on the bank of the Jim River. Not a live thing other than
human moved about the place. With them into this land of silence had
come a mongrel collie. For a solitary month he had stood guard; then one
night, somewhere in the distance, in the east where flowed the Big
Sioux, had sounded the long-drawn-out cry of a timber wolf, alternately
nearer and more remote, again and again. With the coming of morning the
collie was gone. Whether dead or answering the call of the wild they
never knew, nor ever filled his place.

Lonely, isolated as the place itself, was Sam Rowland that afternoon of
late August. Silent as a mute was he as to what he had seen; elaborately
careful likewise to carry out the family programme as usual.

"Sleepy, kid?" he queried when dinner was over.

Baby Bess, taciturn, sun-browned autocrat, nodded silent corroboration.

"Come, then," and, willing horse, the big man got clumsily to all fours
and, prancing ponderously, drew up at her side.

"Hang tight," he admonished and, his wife smiling from the doorway as
only a mother can smile, ambled away through the sun and the dust;
climbed slowly, the tiny brown arms clasped tightly about his neck, down
the ladder to the retreat, adjusted the pillow and the patchwork quilt
with a deftness born of experience.

"Go to sleepy, kid," he directed.

"Sing me to sleep, daddy," commanded the autocrat.

"Sing! I can't sing, kid."

"Yes, you can. Sing 'Nellie Gray.'"

"Too hot, girlie. My breath's all gone. Go to sleep."

"Please, papa; pretty please!"

The man succumbed, as he knew from the first he would do, braced himself
in the aperture, and sang the one verse that he knew of the song again
and again--his voice rough and unmusical as that of a crow, echoing and
re-echoing in the narrow space--bent over at last, touched his bearded
lips softly to the winsome, motionless brown face, climbed, an
irresistible catch in his breath, silently to the surface, sent one
swift glance sweeping the bare earth around him, and returned to the
cabin.

Very carefully that sultry afternoon he cleaned his old hammer shotgun,
and, loading both barrels with buckshot, set it handy beside the door.

"Antelope," he explained laconically; but when likewise he overhauled
the revolver hanging at his hip, Margaret was not deceived. This done,
notwithstanding the fact that the sun still beat scorchingly hot
thereon, he returned to the doorstep, lit his pipe, drew his
weather-stained sombrero low over his face, through half-closed eyes
inspected the lower lands all about, impassively silent awaited the
coming of the inevitable. Of a sudden there was a touch on his shoulder,
and, involuntarily starting, he looked up, into the face of Margaret
Rowland.

The woman sat down beside him, her hand on his knee.

"Don't keep it from me," she requested steadily. "You've seen
something."

In the brier bowl before his face the tobacco glowed more brightly as
Rowland drew hard.

"Tell me, please," repeated Margaret. "Are they here?"

The pipe left the man's mouth. The great bushy head nodded reluctant
corroboration.

"Yes," he said.

"You--saw them?"

Again the man's head spoke an affirmative. "It's perhaps as well, after
all, for you to know." One hand indicated the foot of the rise before
them. "They waylaid Mueller there."

"And you--"

"It was all over in a second." Puff, puff. "After all he--Margaret!"

"Don't mind me. I was thinking of baby. The hideous suggestion!"

"Margaret!" He held her tight, so tight he could feel the quiver of her
body against his, the involuntary catch of her breath. "Forgive me,
Margaret."

"You're not to blame. Perhaps--Oh, Sam, Sam, our baby!"

Hotter and hotter beat down the sun. Thicker and thicker above the
scorching earth vibrated the curling heat waves. The very breath of
prairie seemed dormant, stifled. Not the leaf of a sunflower stirred, or
a blade of grass. In the tiny patch of Indian corn each individual plant
drooped, almost like a sensate thing, beneath the rays, each broad leaf
contracted, like a roll of parchment, tight upon the parent stalk. In
sympathy the colour scheme of the whole lightened from the appearance of
the paler green under-surface. Though silently, yet as plainly as had
done Hans Mueller when fighting for life, they lifted the single plea:
"Water! Water! Give us drink!"

Silent now, the storm over, side by side sat the man and the woman; like
children awed by the sudden realisation of their helplessness, their
hands clasped in mute sympathy, mute understanding. Usually at this time
of day with nothing to do they slept; but neither thought of sleep now.
As passed the slow time and the sun sank lower and lower, came the hour
of supper; but likewise hunger passed them by. Something very like
fascination held them there on the doorstep, gazing out, out at
motionless impassive nature, at the seemingly innocent earth that
nevertheless concealed so certain a menace, at the patch of sod corn
again in cycle growing darker as the broad leaves unfolded in
preparation for the dew of evening. Out, out they looked, out, out--.

"Sam!"

"Yes."

"You saw, too?"

An answering pressure of the hand.

"The eyes of him, only the eyes--out there at the edge of the corn!"

"It's the third time, Margaret." Despite the man's effort his breath
tightened. "They're all about: a score at least--I don't know how many.
The tall grass there to the east is alive--"

"Sam! They're there again--the eyes! Oh, I'm afraid--Sam--baby!"

"Hush! Leave her where she is. Don't seem afraid. It's our only chance.
Let them make the first move." Again the hand pressure so tight that,
although she made no sound, the blood left the woman's fingers. "Tell me
you forgive me, Margaret; before anything happens. I'm a criminal to
have stayed here,--I see it now, a criminal!"

"Don't!"

"But I must. Tell me you forgive me. Tell me."

"I love you, Sam."

Again in the expanse of grass to the east there was motion; not in a
single spot but in a dozen places. No living being was visible, not a
sound broke the stillness of evening; simply here and there it stirred,
and became motionless, and stirred again.

"And--Margaret. If worst comes to worst they mustn't take either of us
alive. The last one--I can't say it. You understand."

"Yes, I understand. The last load--But maybe--"

"It's useless to deceive ourselves. They wouldn't come this way
if--Margaret, in God's name--"

"But baby, Sam!" Of a sudden she was struggling fiercely beneath the
grip that kept her back. "I must have her, must see her again; must,
must--"

"Margaret!"

"I must, I say!"

"You must not. They'll never find her there. She's safe unless we show
the way. Think--as you love her."

"But if anything should happen to us--She'll starve!"

"No. There are soldiers at Yankton, and they'll come--now; and Landor
knows."

"Oh, Sam, Sam!"

There was silence. No human being could give answer to that mother wail.

Again time passed; seconds that seemed minutes, minutes that were a hell
of suspense. Below the horizon of prairie the sun sank from sight. In
the hot air a bank of cumulus clouds glowed red as from a distant
conflagration. For and eternity previous it seemed to the silent
watchers there had been no move; now again at last the grass stirred; a
corn plant rustled where there was no breeze; out into the small open
plat surrounding the house sprang a frightened rabbit, scurried across
the clearing, headed for the protecting grass, halted at the edge
irresolute--scurried back again at something it saw.

"You had best go in, Margaret." The man's voice was strained, unnatural.
"They'll come very soon now. It's almost dark."

"And you?" Wonder of wonders, it was the woman's natural tone!

"I'll stay here. I can at least show them how a white man dies."

"Sam Rowland--my husband!"

"Margaret--my wife!" Regardless of watchful savage eyes, regardless of
everything, the man sprang to his feet. "Oh, how can you forgive me, can
God forgive me!" Tight in his arms he kissed her again and again;
passionately, in abandon. "I've always loved you, Margaret; always,
always!"

"And I you, man; and I you!"

       *       *       *       *       *

It came. As from the darkness above drops the horned owl on the field
mouse, as meet the tiger and the deer at the water hole, so it came.
Upon the silence of night sounded the hoarse call of a catbird where no
bird was, and again, and again. In front of the maize patch, always in
front, a dark form, a mere shadow in the dusk of evening, stood out
clear against the light of sky. To right and left appeared others, as
motionless as boulders, or as giant cacti on the desert. Had Settler
Rowland been other than the exotic he was, he would have understood. No
Indian exposes himself save for a purpose; but he did not understand.
Erect now, his finger on the trigger of the old smoothbore, he waited
passive before the darkened doorway of the cabin, looking straight
before him, God alone knows what thoughts whirling in his brain. Again
in front of him sounded and resounded the alien call. The dark figures
against the sky took life, moved forward. Simultaneously, on the thatch
of the cabin roof, appeared two other figures identical with those in
front. Foot by foot, silent as death, they climbed up, reached the ridge
pole, crossed to the other side. On, on advanced the figures in front.
Down the easy incline of the roof came the two in the rear, reached the
edge, paused waiting. Of a sudden, out of the maize patch, out of the
grass, seemingly out of space itself, came a new cry--the trilling call
of the prairie owl. It was the signal. Like twin drops of rain from a
cloudless sky fell the two figures on Rowland's head; ere he could utter
a sound, could offer resistance, bore him to earth. From somewhere,
everywhere, swarmed others. The very earth seemed to open and give them
forth in legion. In the multitude of hands he was as a child. Within the
space of seconds, ere waiting Margaret realised that anything had
happened, he had disappeared, all had disappeared. In the clearing
before the door not a human being was visible, not a live thing; only on
the thatched roof, silent as before, patient as fate, awaited two other
shadows, darker but by contrast with the weather-coloured grass.

Minutes passed. Not even the call of the catbird, broke the silence.
Within the darkness of the cabin the suspense was a thing of which
insanity is made.

"Sam!" called a voice softly.

No answer.

"Sam!" repeated more loudly.

Again no answer of voice or of action.

In the doorway appeared a woman's figure; breathless, blindly fearful.

"Sam!" for the third time, tremulous, wailing; and she stepped outside.

A second, and it was over. A second, and the revel was on. The earth was
not silent now. There was no warning trill of prairie owl. As dropped
the figures from above there broke forth the Sioux war-cry: long drawn
out, demoniac, indescribable. Blood curdling, more savage infinitely
than the cry of any wild beast, the others took it up, augmented it by a
score, a hundred throats. Again the earth vomited the demons forth.
Naked, breech-clouted, garbed in fragments of white men's dress, they
swarmed into the clearing, into the cabin, about the two prisoners in
their midst. Passively, patiently waiting for hours, of a sudden they
seemed possessed of a frenzy of haste, of savage abandon, of drunken
exhilaration in the cunning that had won the game without a shot from
the white man's gun, without the injury of a single warrior. They were
in haste, and yet they were not in haste. They looted the cabin like
fire and then fought among themselves for the plunder. They applied the
torch to the shanty's roof as though pressed by the Great Spirit; then
capered fiendishly in its illumination, oblivious of time until, tinder
dry, it had burned level with the earth. Last of all, purposely reserved
as a climax, they gave their attention to the pair of half-naked, bound
and gagged figures in their midst. Then it was the scene became an orgy
indeed. The havoc preceding had but whetted their appetite for the
finale. Savagery personified, cruelty unqualified, deadly hate,
primitive lust--every black passion lurking in the recesses of the human
mind stalked brazenly into the open, stood forth defiant, sinister,
unashamed. But let it pass. It was but a repetition of a thousand
similar scenes enacted on the swiftly narrowing frontier, a fraction of
the price civilisation ever pays to savagery, inevitable as a nation's
expansion, as its progression.

It was eight of the clock when came that final warning whistle of
prairie owl. It was not yet ten when, silent as they had come,
unbelievably impassive when but an hour before they had been
irresponsible madmen, temporarily cruelty-surfeited, they resumed their
journey. Single file, each footstep of those who followed fair in the
print of the leader, a long, long line of ghostly, undulatory shadows,
forming the most treacherous deadly serpent that ever inhabited earth,
they moved eastward until they reached the bank of the swift little
river; then turned north, leaving the abandoned, desolated settlement,
the ruined cornfields, as tokens of their handiwork, as a message to
other predatory bands who might follow, as a challenge to the white man
who they knew would return. As passed the slow hours toward morning they
moved swiftly and more swiftly. The gliding walk became a dog trot,
almost a lope; their arms swung back and forth in unison, the pat, pat
of their moccasined feet was like the steady drip of eaves from a summer
rain, the rustle of their passing bodies against the dense vegetation a
soft accompaniment. Autochthonous as they had appeared they disappeared.
Night and distance swallowed them up. But for a trampled, ruined
grainfield, the smouldering ruins of what had once been a house, the
glaring white of two naked bodies in the starlight against the
background of dark earth, it was as though they had not come. But for
this, and one other thing--a single sound, repeated again and again,
dulled, muffled as though coming from the earth itself.

"Daddy! Daddy! I want you." Then repeated with a throb in its depths
that spoke louder than words. "Daddy, come! I'm afraid!"




CHAPTER III


DISCOVERY

More than a mere name was Fort Yankton. Original in construction, as
necessity ever induces the unusual, it was nevertheless formidable. To
the north was a typical entrenchment with a ditch, and a parapet eight
feet high. To the east was a double board wall with earth tamped
between: a solid curb higher than the head of a tall man. Completing the
square, to the south and west stretched a chain of oak posts set close
together and pierced, as were the other walls of the stockade, by
numerous portholes. Within the enclosure, ark of refuge for settlers
near and afar, was a large blockhouse wherein congregated, mingled and
intermingled, ate, slept, and had their being, as diverse a gathering of
humans as ever graced a single structure even in this land of myriad
types. Virtually the entire population of frontier Yankton was there.
Likewise the settlers from near-by Bon Homme. An adventurer from the
far-away country of the Wahpetons and a trapper from the hunting ground
of the Sissetons drifted in together, together awaited the signal of the
peace pipe ere returning to their own. Likewise from the wild west of
the great river, from the domain of the Uncpapas, the Blackfeet, the
Minneconjous, the Ogallalas, came others; for the alarm of rapine and of
massacre had spread afar. Very late to arrive, doggedly holding their
own until rumour became reality unmistakable, was the colony from the
Jim River valley to the east; but even they had finally surrendered, the
dogging grip of fear, that makes high and low brothers, at their
throats, had fled precipitately before the conquering onslaught of the
Santees. Last of all, boldest of all, most foolhardy of all, as you
please, came the tiny delegation from the settlement of Sioux Falls.
Hungry, thirsty, footsore, all but panic-stricken, for with the actual
retreat apprehension had augmented with each slow mile, thanking the
Providence which had permitted them to arrive unmolested, a
sorry-looking band of refugees, they faced the old smoothbore cannon
before the big south gate and craved admittance. Out to them went
Colonel William Landor, colonel by courtesy, scion of many generations
of Landors, rancher at present, cattle king of the future. The
conversation that followed there with the east reddening in the morning
sun was very brief, very swift to the point.

"Who are you, friends?" The shrewd grey eyes were observing them
collectively, compellingly.

"My name is McPherson."

"Mine is Horton."

"Never mind the names," shortly. "I can learn them later."

"We're homesteaders." Again it was stubby, sandy-whiskered McPherson who
took the lead.

"From where?"

"Sioux Falls."

"Any news?"

Curt as the question came the answer, the tale of massacre now a day
old.

"And the rest of your settlement--where are they?"

McPherson told him.

"They all went, you say?"

For the first time the Scotchman hesitated. "All except one family," he
qualified.

"There was but one family there." Landor was not observing the company
collectively now. "You mean to tell me Sam Rowland did not go?"

"Yes."

"That you--men here went off and left him and his wife and little girl
alone at this time?" The questioner's eyelids were closing ominously.
"You come here with that story and ask me to let you inside?"

McPherson was no coward. His short legs spread belligerently, his
shoulders squared.

"We're here," he announced laconically.

"I observe." Just a shade closer came the tightened eyelids. "Moreover,
strange to say, I'm glad to see you." He leaned forward involuntarily;
his breath came quick. "It gives me the opportunity, sir, to tell you to
your face that you're a damned coward." In spite of an obvious effort at
repression, the great veins of the speaker's throat swelled visibly. "A
damned coward, sir!"

"What! You call me--"

"Men! Gentlemen!"

"Don't worry." Swift as had come the burst of passion, Landor was
himself again; curt, all-seeing, self-sufficient, "There'll be no blood
shed." Early as it was, a crowd had collected now, and, as he had done
with the newcomers, he addressed them collectively, authoratively. "When
I fight it will not be with one who abandons a woman and a child at a
time like this.... God! it makes a man's blood boil. I've known the
Rowlands for ten years, long before the kid came." Cold as before he had
been flaming, he faced anew the travel-stained group. "Out of my sight,
every one of you, and thank your coward stars I'm not in command here.
If I were, not a man of you would ever get inside this stockade--not if
the Santees scalped you before my eyes."

For a second there was silence, inaction.

"But Rowland wouldn't come," protested a voice. "We tried--"

"Not a word. If you were too afraid of your skin to bring them in, there
are others who are not." Vital, magnetic, born leader of men, he turned
to the waiting spectators. "It may be too late now,--I'm afraid it is;
but if Sam Rowland is alive, I'm going to bring him here. Who's with me?
Who's willing to make the ride back to Sioux Falls?"

"Who?" It was another rancher, surnamed Crosby, hatchet-faced, slow of
speech, who spoke, "Ain't that question a bit superfluous, pard? We're
all with you--that is, as many as you want, I reckon. None of us ain't
cats, so we can't croak but once--and that might as well be now as ten
years from now."

"All right." Hardened frontiersman, Landor took the grammar and the
motive alike for granted. "Get your horses and report here. The first
twenty to return, go."

From out the group of newcomers one man emerged. It was McPherson.

"Who'll lend me a horse?" he queried.

No man gave answer. Already the group had separated.

For a moment the Scotchman halted, grim-jawed, his legs an inverted V;
then silent as they, equally swiftly, he followed.

Very soon, almost unbelievably soon, they began to trickle back. Not in
ignorance of possibilities in store did they come. They had no delusions
concerning the red brother, these frontiersmen. Nor in the hot
adventurous blood of youth did they respond. One and all were
middle-aged men; many had families. All save Landor were strangers to
the man they went to seek. Yet at a moment's call they responded; as
they took it for granted others would respond were they in need. Had
they been conscious of the fact, the action was magnificent; but of it
they were not conscious. They but answered an instinct: the eternal
brotherhood of the frontier. Far away in his well-policed, steam-heated
abode urban man listens to the tale of unselfishness, and, supercilious,
smiles. We believe what we have ourselves felt, we humans. First of all
to come was lean-faced Crosby, one cheek swelled round with a giant
quid. Close at his heels followed Trapper Conway: grizzled,
parchment-faced veteran, who alone had followed the Missouri to its
source and, stranger to relate, had alone returned with his scalp. Then
came Landor himself, the wiry little mustang he rode all but blanketed
under the big army saddle. Following him, impassive, noncommittal as
though an event of the recent past had not occurred, came McPherson,
drew up in place beside the leader. All-seeing, Crosby spat
appreciatively, but Landor gave never a glance. Following came not one
but many riders; a half dozen, a score,--enough to make up the
allotment, and again. In silence they came, grim-faced, more grimly
accoutred. All manner of horseflesh was represented: the broncho, the
mustang, the frontier scrub, the thoroughbred; all manner of apparel,
from chaperajos to weather-beaten denim; but, saddled or saddleless,
across the neck of every beast stretched the barrel of a long rifle, at
the hip of every rider hung a holster, from every belt peeped the hilt
of a great knife. Long ere this word of the unusual had passed about,
and now, on the rise of ground at the back of the stockade, a goodly
group had gathered. Silent as the prairies, as the morning itself, they
watched the scene below, awaited the _denouement._ Not without influence
was the taciturn example of the red man in this land from which he was
slowly being crowded. From over the uplands to the east the red face of
the morning sun was just peeping when Landor separated himself from the
waiting group, led the way to the big gate and paused. "Twenty only,
men," he repeated. "All ready."

First through the opening went Crosby.

"One."

Close as before, at his horse's heels followed Conway.

"Two."

From out the motley, looking neither to right nor left, came Scotchman
McPherson; but though he passed fair before the leader's eyes and not a
yard away, no number was spoken; no hint of recognition, of cognisance,
crossed the latter's face. Implacable, relentless as time, he awaited
the next in line, then voiced the one word: "Three."

On filed the line; close formed as convicts, as convicts silent--halting
at a lifted hand. A moment they paused, one and twenty men who counted
but as a score, started into motion, halted again; as by common consent
every head save one of a sudden going bare. Hitherto silent as they, the
watching group back in the stockade had that instant found voice. All
but to the ground swept twenty sombreros as out over the prairies, out
where no human ear could hear, rolled a cheer, and repeated, and again;
tribute of Fort Yankton to those who went. At the rear of the column one
rider alone did not respond, apparently did not hear. Implacable as
Landor himself, he looked straight before him, awaited the silence that
would bring with it renewed activity.

And it came. With a single motion as before, every hat returned to its
place, was drawn low over its owner's eyes. From his position by the
gate Landor advanced, took the lead. Behind him, impassive again as
figures in a spectacle, the others fell in line. At first a mere walk,
the pace gradually quickened, became a canter, a trot. By this time the
confines of the tiny frontier town were passed. Before them on the one
hand, bordering on the river, stretched a range of low hills, dun-brown
from its coat of sun-dried grass. On the other, greener by contrast,
glittering now in the level rays of the early morning sun on myriad
dew-drops, and seemingly endless, unrolled the open prairie. Straight
into this Landor led the way, and as he did so the cavalcade for the
first time broke into a gallop; not the fierce, short-lived pace of
civilisation, but the long-strided, full-lunged lope of the frontier,
which accurately and as tirelessly as a clock measures time, counts off
the passing miles. Hitherto a preliminary, at last the play was on.

Sixty-odd miles as migrates the sandhill crane, separated the
settlements of Yankton and Sioux Falls. Trackless as a desert was the
prairie, minus even the buffalo trails of a quarter century before; yet
with the sun only as guide, they forged ahead, straight as a line drawn
taut from point to point. Nothing stopped their advance, nothing made
them turn aside. Seemingly destitute of animal life, the country fairly
teemed at their approach. Grouse, typical of the prairie as the
blue-faced anemone, were everywhere; singly, in coveys, in flocks.
Troops of antelope, startled in their morning feeding, scurried away
from the path of the invaders; curious as children, paused on the safety
of the nearest rise, to watch the horsemen out of sight. Every marshy
spot, every prairie pond, had its setting of ducks. The teal, the
mallard, the widgeon, the shoveller, the canvasback--all mingled in the
loud-voiced throng that arose before the leader's approach, then, like
smoke, vanished with almost unbelievable swiftness into the hazy
distance. Prairie dog towns, populous as cities of man a minute before
their approach, went lifeless, desolate, as they passed through. In the
infrequent draws and creek beds between the low, rolling hills,
great-eyed cotton tails scampered to cover or, like the antelope, just
out of harm's way, watched the passage of this strange being, man.
Wonder of wonders that display of life would have been to another
generation; but of it these grim-faced riders were apparently
unconscious, oblivious. Their eyes were not for things near at hand, but
for the distance, for the possibility that lurked just beyond that
far-away rise which formed their horizon, when they had reached that for
the next beyond, and the next.

Hour by hour the morning wore away. Hotter and hotter rose the sun above
them. Instead of drops of dew, tiny particles of sun-dried grass flew
away from beneath the leaders' feet, mingled with the dust of prairie,
became a cloud shutting the leaders from the sight of those in the rear.
From being a mere breath, the south wind augmented, became positive,
insistent. Hot with the latent heat of many days, it sang in their ears
as they went, bit all but scorching, at their unprotected hands and
throats. Under its touch the horses' necks, dark before with sweat,
became normal again: between their legs, under the, edges of the great
saddles where it had churned into foam, dried into white powder, like
frostwork amid the hair. Gradually with the change, their breathing
became audible, louder and louder, until in unison it mingled with the
dull impact of their feet on the heavy sod like the exhaust of many
engines. No horseman who values the life of the beast between his legs,
fails to heed that warning. Landor did not, but at the first dawdling
prairie creek that offered water and, with its struggling fringe of
willows, a suggestion of shade, he gave the word to halt, and for four
mortal, blistering hours while, man and beast alike, the others slept,
kept watch over them from the nearest rise. Relentless to others this
man might be, but not even his dearest enemy could accuse him of sparing
himself.

It was three by the clock when again they took up the trail. It was 3.45
when they swam what is now the Vermilion River, the last water-course of
any size on their way. The dew was again beginning to gather when, well
to the south, they approached the bordering hills that concealed the
site of Sioux Falls settlement. Then for the first time since they
began that last relay Landor gave an order.

"It'll be a miracle if we don't find Sioux there in the bottom, men," he
prophesied. "Perhaps there are a whole band, perhaps it'll only be
stragglers; but no matter how many or how few there may be, charge them.
If they run you know what to do--this is no holiday outing. If they
stand, charge them all the harder." He faced his horse to the north and
gave the word to go. "It's our only chance," he completed.

What followed belongs to history. Over that last intervening rise they
went like demons. The first to gain the crown, to look down into the
valley beyond, was Landor. As he did so, grim Anglo-Saxon as he was, his
whole attitude underwent a transformation. Back to the others he turned
his face, and, plain as on canvas thereon was portrayed war, carnage,
and the lust of battle.

"They're there; a hundred, if a single red!" he shouted. "Come on!" and
the rowels of his great spurs dug deep at his horse's flanks, dug until
the blood spurted.

But a few minutes it took to make the run, yet only a fraction of the
time that mounted swarm in the valley held their ground. Outnumbering
those who charged many times, it was not in savage nature to face that
unformed oncoming motley of howling, bloodthirsty maniacs. Slowly at
first began the retreat; then as, with great swiftness, the others
shortened the distance intervening, it became a contagion, a mania, a
stampede. Every brave for himself, stumbling, crowding through the
dismantled ruins of what had the day before been a settlement, howling
like their pursuers, seeking but one thing, escape, they headed for the
thicket surrounding the river bank; the whistle of bullets in their
ears, cutting at the vegetation about them. Into its friendly cover they
plunged, as a fish disappears beneath the surface of a lake, and were
swallowed from sight. That is, all but one. That one, unhorsed by
accident, was left to face that oncoming flood. . . . But why linger.
Like the charge itself, his fate is history. These men were but human,
and thick about them were the ashes from the roof-trees of their
friends.

Summer night, dreamy with caress of softest south wind, musical with the
drone of myriad crickets, with the boom of frogs from the low land
adjoining the river, melancholy with the call of the catbird, with the
infrequent note of the whip-poor-will, was upon the land of the Mandans
when the score and one, their dripping ponies once more dry, took up the
last relay of their journey. Night had caught them there in the deserted
settlement, and Landor had given the word to halt, to wait. Now, far to
the east, apparently from the breast of Mother Earth herself, the face
of the full harvest moon, red as frosted maple leaves through the heated
air, slowly rising, lit up the level country softly as by early
twilight. Lingeringly, almost reluctantly, Landor got into his saddle.
Just to his left, impassive as the night, well to the front of the
company as he had been that mortal dragging day, sat Scotchman
McPherson. Not once since that early morning scene at Fort Yankton had
he spoken a word, not once had he been addressed, had another man shown
consciousness of his presence. A pariah, he had so far kept them
company; a pariah, he now awaited the end. A moment, fair in his seat,
Landor paused; then that which the watchers had expected for hours came
to pass. Deliberately he crossed over, drew rein beside the other man.

"McPherson," he said, "this morning I called you coward. That you are
not such you have proven, you are proving now. For this reason I ask
your pardon. For this reason as well, I give you warning. What we will
find--where we are going, I do not doubt, now. I do not believe you
doubt. For it I hold you responsible. You had best turn back before
belief becomes certainty." Unnaturally precise, cold as November
raindrops came the words, the sentences. Deadly in meaning was the pause
that followed. "I repeat, you had best turn back."

For a long half minute, face to face there in the moonlight, Landor
waited; but no answer came. Just perceptibly he shifted in his place.

"I may forget, give my promise of the morning the lie. Do you
understand?"

"Yes, I understand."

Another half minute, ghastly in its significance, passed; then without a
word Landor turned. "You have heard, men," he said, "and may God be my
judge."

The full moon was well in the sky, showing clear every detail in that
scene of desolation, when they arrived. Patter, patter, patter sounded
their hoof-beats in the distance. More and more loud they grew, muffled
yet penetrating in the silence of night, always augmenting in volume.
Out of the shadows figures came dimly into view, taking form against the
background of constellations. The straining of leather, the music of
steel in bit and buckle, the soft swish of the sun-dried grass
proclaimed them very near; then across the trampled corn patch, into the
open where had stood the shanty, where now was a thin grey layer of
ashes, came the riders, and drew rein; their weary mounts crowding each
other in fear at something they saw. Like a storm cloud they came; like
the roll of thunder following was the oath which sprang to the lips of
every rider save one. Good men they were, God-fearing men; yet they
swore like pirates, like humans when ordinary speech is not adequate. In
the pause but one man acted, and none intervened to prevent what he did.
Out into the open, away from the others, rode Scotchman McPherson;
halted, his hand on the holster at his hip. For a second, and a second
only, he sat so, the white moonlight drawing clear every line of his
grizzled face, his stocky figure. Then deliberately his hand lifted,
before him there appeared a sudden blaze of fire, upon the silence there
broke a single revolver report, from beneath his lifeless bulk the
horse he rode broke free, gave one bound, by instinct halted, trembling
in every muscle; then over all, the quick and the dead, returned
silence: silence absolute as that of the grave.

How long those twenty men sat there, gazing at that mute, motionless
figure on the ground not one could have told. Death was no stranger to
them. For years it had lurked behind every chance shrub they passed, in
the depths of every ravine, in the darkness of night, from every tangle
of rank prairie grass in broad daylight. To it from long familiarity
they had become callous; but death such as this, deliberate,
cold-blooded, self-inflicted--it awed them while it fascinated, held
them silent, passive.

"In God's name!" Again it was Landor who roused them, Landor with his
hand on the holster at his hip, Landor who sat staring as one who doubts
his own sight. "Am I sane, men? Look, there to your right!"

They looked. They rubbed their eyes and looked again.

"Well, I'll be damned," voiced Crosby; and no man had ever heard him
express surprise before. To the north, from the edge of the tall
surrounding grass, moving slowly, yet without a trace of hesitation or
of fear, coming straight toward them across the trampled earth, were two
tiny human figures, hand in hand. No wonder they who saw stared; no
wonder they doubted their eyes. One, the figure to the right, was plump
and uncertain of step and all in white; white which in the moonlight
and against the black earth seemed ghostly. The other was slim and
certain of movement and dark--dark as a copper brown Indian boy, naked
as when he came on earth. On they came, the brown figure leading, the
white following trustfully, until they were quite up to the watchers,
halted, still hand in hand.

"How," said a voice, a piping childish voice.

Like rustics at a spectacle the men stared, turned mystified faces each
to each, and stared anew. All save one. Off from his horse sprang
Landor, caught the bundle of white in his arms.

"Baby Rowland! Baby Bess! And you,"--he was staring the other from head
to toe, the distance was short,--"who are you?"

"Uncle Billy," interrupting, ignoring, the tiny bit of femininity
nestled close, "Uncle Billy, where's papa and mamma! I want them."

Closer and closer the big bachelor arms clasped their burden; unashamed,
there with the others watching him, he kissed her.

"Never mind now, Kiddie. Tell me how you came here, and who this is with
you."

About the great neck crept two arms, clinging tightly.

"He just came, Uncle Billy. I was calling for papa. Papa put me to sleep
and forgot me. The boy heard me and took me out. I was afraid at first,
but--but he's a nice boy, only he won't talk and--and--" The narrative
halted, the tousled head buried itself joyously. "Oh, I'm so glad you
came, Uncle Billy!"

In silence Landor's eyes made the circle of interested watching faces,
returned to the winsome brown face so near his own.

"Aren't you hungry, Kid?" he ventured.

On his shoulder the dark poll shook a negative.

"No. We had corn to eat. The boy roasted it. He made a big fire. He's a
nice boy, only--only he won't say anything."

Again Landor's eyes made the circle, halted at the intrepid brown waif
who, that first word of greeting spoken, had silently stared him back.

"You're sure you don't know anything more, baby? You didn't hear
anything until the boy came?"

"No, Uncle Billy. I was asleep. When I woke up it was dark, and I was
hungry and--and--" At last it had come: the spattering, turbulent tear
storm. Her small body shook, her arms clasped tighter and tighter. "Oh,
Uncle Billy, I want my papa and mamma. I tried to find them, and I
couldn't. Please find them for me, Uncle Billy, Please! Please!"

       *       *       *       *       *

It was well past midnight. The big full moon, high now in the sky, cast
their shadows almost about their feet when, their labour complete, the
party took up the homeward trail. But there were twenty no longer. At
their head as before rode Landor, in his arms not a rifle but a blanket;
a blanket from which as they journeyed on came now and anon a sound
that was alien indeed: the sobs of a baby girl who wept as she slept.
Back of him, likewise as when they had come, rode hatchet-faced Crosby;
but he, too, was not as before. His saddle had been removed and, in
front of him, astride the horse's bare back, warmed by the animal heat,
was a brown waif of a boy; not asleep or even drowsy, but wide awake
indeed, silently watchful as a prairie owl of every movement about him,
every low-spoken word. What whim of satirist chance had put him there,
what fate for good or evil, they could only conjecture, could not know,
could never know; yet there he was, strangest figure in a land that knew
only the bizarre, with whom the unbelievable was the normal. Slowly now,
weary to death with the long, long day, depressed with the inevitable
reaction from the excitement of the past hours, they moved away, to the
south, to the west. In front of them, glittering in the moonlight,
seemingly infinite, stretched the waves of the rolling prairie, bare as
the sea in a calm. Behind them, growing lesser and lesser minute by
minute, merging into the infinite white, were three black dots like tiny
boats on the horizon's edge. On they went, a half mile, a mile, looked
behind; and, with an awe no familiarity could prevent, faced ahead anew.
Back of them now as well as before, uniformly endless, uniformly
magnificent, stretched that giant ocean: silent, serene, as mother
nature, as nature's master, God himself.




CHAPTER IV


RECONSTRUCTION

The day of the Indian terror had passed. No longer did the name of
Little Crow carry stampede in its wake. The battles of Big Mound, of
White Stone Hill, and of the Bad Lands had been fought, had become mere
history; dim already to the newcomer as Lexington or Bull Run. Still in
the memory, to be sure, was the half-invited massacre of Custer at the
Little Big Horn; but the savage genius of Sitting Bull, of Crazy Horse,
and of Gall, who had made the last great encounter bloodily unique in
the conflict of the red man and the white, was never to be duplicated.
Rightly or wrongly deprived of what they had once called their own,
driven back, back on the crest of the ever-increasing wave of
settlement, facing the alternative of annihilation or of submergence in
that flood, the Sioux had halted like a wild thing at bay, with their
backs to the last stronghold, the richest plot of earth on the face of
the globe, the Black Hills country, and as a cornered animal ever
fights, had battled ferociously for a lost supremacy. But, robbers
themselves, holding the land on the insecure title of might alone,
fighting to the end, they had at last succumbed to the inevitable: the
all-conquering invasion of the dominant Anglo-Saxon. Here and there a
name stood out: "Scarlet Point," "Strikes-the-Ree," "Little Crow,"
"Sitting Bull," "Crazy Horse," "Spotted Tail," "Red Cloud," "Gall,"
"John Grass," names that in multiple impressed but by their fantastic
suggestion; but their original pulse-accelerating meaning had long since
passed. Now and then a prairie mother, driven to desperation, might
incite temporary rectitude in the breast of an incorrigible by a
harrowing reference to one or to another; yet to the incoming swarms of
land-hungry settlers they were mere supplanted play actors, fit heroes
for fiction, for romance perhaps; but like the bison to be kept in small
herds safe in the pasture of a reservation, preserved as a relic of a
species doomed to extinction.

A thing at which to marvel was the growth of the eastern border of
Dakota Territory in this, the time of the great boom. History can
scarcely find its parallel. In the space of a decade the census leaped
from two-score thousand to nearly a half million. New towns sprang up
like fungi in a night. Railroads reached out like the tentacles of an
octopus, where a generation before the buffalo had tramped its tortuous
trail. Prosperous farms came into being in the meadows where the
antelope had pastured. Artesian wells, waterworks, electric lights,
street railways, colleges, all the adjuncts of a higher civilisation,
blossomed forth under the magic wand of Eastern capital. Doomed to
reaction, as an advancing pendulum is doomed to retrace its cycle, was
this premature evolution; but temporarily, as a springtime freshet
bears onward the driftwood in its path, it carried its predecessor, the
unconventional, fighting, wild-loving adventurer, before. On it went, on
and on until at last, fairly blocking its path, was the big, muddy,
dawdling Missouri. Then for the first time it halted; halted in a pause
that was to last for a generation. But it had fulfilled its mission.
High and dry on the western side of the barrier, imbued as when they had
settled to the east, with the restless spirit of the frontier,
unsubdued, unchanged, it cast its burden. There, as they had done
before, the newcomers immediately took root, and, after the passage of a
year, were all but unconscious of the migration. Over their heads was
the same blue prairie sky. Around them, treeless, trackless, was the
same rolling, illimitable prairie land. In but one essential were
conditions changed; yet that one was epoch-making. Heretofore,
surrounded by a common, an alien danger, compelled at a second's warning
to band together for life itself, all men were brothers. Now, with the
passing of the red peril, with eradication of necessity for any manner
of restraint, an abandon of licence, of recklessness, born of the wild
life, of overflowing animal vitality insufficiently employed, swept the
land like a contagion. Unique in the history of man's development was
this the era of the cowboy, as fantastic now as the era of the red
peril, its predecessor; yet vital, bizarre, throbbing, unconsciously
human, as no other period has ever been, as in all probability none
will ever be again. Generous, spendthrift, murderous when crossed,
chivalrous, fearless, profane, yet fundamentally religious, inebriate,
wilful and docile by turns, ceaselessly active, eternally discontented,
seeking they knew not what, they were their own evil genius; as
certainly as nature surrounded them with Heaven, they supplied their own
Hell and, impartial, chose from each to weave the web of their lives.

Of this period, life of this life, was Colonel William Landor; colonel
no longer, plain Bill, from the river to the Hills, husband these ten
years now, but not father, Cattle King of an uncontested range. Of this
life likewise, bred in it, saturated in it, was a dark young woman, his
adopted daughter, two years past her majority, Elizabeth Rowland Landor
by name. Of it most vitally of all, born of it, rooted in it through
unknown centuries of ancestral domicile, was a copper-brown young man,
destitute as a boy of twelve of a trace of beard, black as a prairie
crow of hair and eyes, deep-lunged like a race-track thoroughbred, wiry
as a mustang, garbed as a white man, but bearing the liquid name of a
Teton Sioux, "Ma-wa-cha-sa, the lost pappoose," yet known wherever the
Santee Massacre and the tale of his appearance was known, as "How"
Landor. Of this period, last of all, was the great B.B.--Buffalo
Butte--ranch, giant among the giants, whose brand was familiar as his
own name to every cowboy west of the Missouri, whose hospitable ranch
house, twenty-odd miles from the vest pocket metropolis of Coyote
Centre, which in turn, to quote Landor himself, was "a hundred miles
from nowhere," was the Mecca of every traveller whom chance drew into
this wild, of every curious tenderfoot seeking a glimpse of the reverse
side of the coin of life, of every desperate "one lunger," who, with
gambler instinct, staked his all on prairie sun and prairie air.




CHAPTER V


THE LAND OF LICENCE

For twenty-four hours the two cowmen from the distant Clay Creek ranch
had owned Coyote Centre. An hour before sunset on the day previous they
had suddenly blown in from the north; a great cloud of yellow dust,
lifting lazily on the sultry air, a mighty panting of winded bronchos, a
single demoniacal dare-man whoop heralding their coming, a groaning of
straining leather, a jingle of great spurs, and an otherwise augmented
stillness even in this silent land, marking their arrival. Pete it was,
Pete Sweeney, "Long Pete," who first dismounted. Pete likewise it was
who first entered the grog shop of Red Jenkins. Pete again it was who,
ere ten words had passed, drew cold-blooded, point blank at the only man
who saw fit to question the invader's right of absolute ownership. Pete
it was once again who, when the smoke had cleared away, assisted in
laying out that same misguided citizen, in decent fellowship, beneath
the cottonwood bar, and thrust an adequate green roll in the stiffening
hand for funeral expenses.

"It's Bill's own fault," he commented lucidly the while. "I don't visit
you very often; but when I do I've got the dough to make it square, and
this town's my sausage, skin, curl, and all. D'ye understand?" and from
Manning, the greybearded storekeeper, to Rank Judge, the one-legged
saddler, there was no one to say him nay, none to contest his right of
authority.

By no means without an officer of the law was Coyote Centre. Under
ordinary conditions its majesty was ably, even aggressively, upheld by
its representative, Marshal Jim Burton. Likewise there was no lack of
pilgrims, who by devious and circuitous routes sought his residence on
this occasion, with tales of distress and petitions for succour; but one
and all departed with their mission unfulfilled. The doughty James was
not to be found. Urgent business of indefinite duration, at an even more
indefinite destination, had called him hence. No one regretted the
mischance so much as stalwart Mrs. Burton, who imparted the information,
no one deplored the lost opportunity for distinction so much as she; but
nevertheless the fact remained. For the time being, Coyote Centre was
thrown upon its own resources, was left to work out its own salvation as
best it might.

Thus it came about that for a long, long dragging day, and the beginning
of a second, the gunpowder had intermittently burned, and that more than
intermittently, all but continuously, the red liquor had flowed; to the
alternate aggrandisement of Red Jenkins and his straw-haired Norwegian
rival across the street--Gus Ericson. Unsophisticated ones there were
who fancied that ere this it would all end, that Mr. Sweeney's capacity
for absorption had a limit. Four separate gentlemen, with the laudable
intention of hastening that much to be desired condition, had sacrificed
themselves for the common weal; but to the eternal disgrace of the town,
all of them were now down and out, and in various retired spots, where
they had been deposited by their sympathising friends, were snoring in
peaceful oblivion. Even Len Barker, game disciple of the great master,
had reached his limit and, no longer formidable, had, without form of
law, been deposited for safekeeping, and with a sigh of relief, in the
corporate Bastile; but Mr. Sweeney himself, Mr. Sweeney of the hawk eye
and the royal tread, despite a lack of sleep and of solid sustenance,
was, to all visible indications, as fresh and aggressive as at the
beginning.

Now for the second time night was coming on. Neither up nor down the
single business thoroughfare did a street lamp show its face. One and
all had succumbed long before to the god of gunpowder. Not a stray dog,
and Coyote Centre was plethoric of canines, raised its voice nor showed
even a retreating tail near the area of disturbance. Wisdom and a desire
for deepest obscurity had come to the many, swift and sudden
annihilation to the few. Temporarily, yet effectively as though a
cyclone were imminent, business and social life were paralysed. They
were a tolerant breed, these citizens of Coyote Centre; repeated similar
experience had not been without its effect; moreover, the object lesson
of the day before was still vivid in their minds; but at last patience
was reaching its limit. In the closed doorway of the town hall a tiny
group of men were gathered, a group who spoke scarcely above a whisper,
who kept a sharp lookout all surrounding, who stood ready at the twitch
of an eyelash to disperse to the four winds. This was revolt incipient.
In the single room of Bob Manning's general store was open revolt and
plotting. Manning himself, grizzled, grey of hair, shaggy bearded, had
the floor.

"You're a bunch of measly cowards," he included indiscriminately. "You
come here with your stories and croak and croak, and still not one of
you would dare say a word to Pete's face, not one of you but would stand
and let him twist your nose if he saw fit." He glowered from one horn of
the silent, listening semicircle to the other, with all-including
disdain. "If you don't like it, why don't you put a stop to it? If Jim
Burton has sneaked, why don't you elect a new marshal? You're damned
cowards, I say."

In his place on the cover of a barrel of dried apples, Bud Smith, the
weazened little land man, shifted as though the seat hurt him.

"P'raps you're right, dad," he commented imperturbably, "and agin p'raps
you're not. It's all well enough to say appoint a new marshal, but as
fer's I've been able to discover there's no one hereabouts hankerin' fer
the job." He spat at a crack in the cottonwood floor meditatively,
struck true, and seemed mildly pleased. "Our buryin' patch is growin'
comfortably rapidly as it is, without adding any marshals to the
collection. I've known Pete Sweeney fer quite a spell, and my private
advice is to let him alone. There ain't coffins enough this side the
river to supply the demand, if you was to try to arrest him when he's
feelin' as he's feelin' now."

"Who mentioned arresting?" broke in Walt Wagner, the lanky Missourian,
who drove the stage. "Pot him, I say. Pot him the first time he isn't
looking."

For a long half minute Bud observed the speaker; analytically,
meditatively.

"Evidently you ain't been a close observer, my boy," he commented at
last, impersonally, "or you wouldn't be talkin' of Pete not lookin'. I
ain't no weather prophet, but I'd hint to the feller who tackles that
job to say his prayers before he starts. He won't have much time
afterwards." With a swifter movement than he had yet made, the speaker
slid from his place to the floor, involuntarily cast a glance into the
street without. "I ain't perticularly scared, boys," he explained, "and
I ain't lookin' fer trouble neither. Between yourselves and myself, it
ain't at all healthy to sit here discussin' the matter. Someone's bound
to peach on you, and then there's sure to be a call. You better scatter
and let it blow over."

"Scatter nothing," exploded Wagner, belligerently. "Slide if you want
to, if you've got cold feet. I for one intend staying here as long as I
see fit, Sweeney or no Sweeney."

"You do, do you?" It was Manning this time who spoke, Manning with his
deep-set eyes flashing over his high cheek bones. "Well, maybe I've got
something to say about that." He came out from behind the counter, faced
the lanky figure before him, with deliberate contempt. "You're a mighty
stiff-backed boy in the daytime, you are, Walt Wagner, but in the
dark--" He halted and his mouth curled in bitterest sarcasm. "Why, if
you're so anxious for a scrap, don't you run for marshal? Why don't you
take the job right now and put Pete out of business?" And his mouth
curled again.

Beneath its coat of tan Wagner's face reddened; then went white.
Involuntarily his lip curled back like that of a cornered dog, and until
it showed the lack of a prominent front tooth.

"Seeing you are so free with your tongue," he retorted, "I might ask you
the same question. I ain't no property interest here being destroyed
like you have. Why don't you do the trick yourself, dad?"

For a moment there was silence, inaction; then of a sudden the old man
stiffened. With an effort almost piteous, he attempted to square his
shoulders; but they remained round as before.

"Why don't I?" He held up his right hand--minus the index and middle
fingers. He held up his left, stiffened and shrivelled with rheumatism.
"Why don't I?" He clumped the length of the tiny storeroom and back
again; one crippled leg all but dragging. "Why don't I?" repeated for
the third time. "Do you imagine for the fraction of a second, Walt
Wagner, that if I was back twenty years and sound like you are, I'd be
asking another man why he didn't do the job?" Terrible, almost ghastly,
he stood there before them, the picture of bitter rage, of impotent,
distorted senility. "Have you got the last spark of manhood left in you,
and ask that question of me?"

In the pockets of his trousers Wagner's hands worked nervously. His face
went red again, but he gave no answer. Bud Smith it was, Bud Smith,
five-feet-two, with a complexion prairie wind had made like a lobster
display in a cafe window, who had halted at the door, but who now came
back, he it was who spoke.

"And while you're in the talkin' business," he suggested slowly, "you
might elab'rate what you meant a bit ago by intimatin' that I had cold
feet. We'll listen to that, too, any time you see fit to explain,
pardner."

"You want to know, do you?" Wagner's countenance had become normal
again, and with an effort at nonchalance he leaned his elbows back
against the glass showcase, glancing the while down at the small man,
almost patronisingly. "Well, then, for your benefit, I was merely
observing that you filled the bill of what dad here said a bit ago we
all were." He smiled tantalisingly; again showing the vacancy in his
dental arch. "You remember what that was, don't you?"

"P'raps and p'raps not," still deliberately. "I ain't lookin' fer
trouble, mind you, but I just like to have things explicit. To be dead
sure, I'd like to have you repeat it."

Again there was silence. In it Bob Manning returned to his place behind
the counter; his game leg shuffling behind him as he moved. In it
likewise there was an interruption from without; the subdued clatter of
a horse's feet on the packed earth of the street, the straining of
leather, as the man, its rider, alighted, a moment later the click of
the door latch as the same man, a stranger if they had noticed, entered
and halted abruptly at what he saw. But those within did not notice.
Silent as the night without, forgetful for the moment of even Pete
Sweeney, they were staring at those two actors there before them.

"I'm listening," repeated Bud Smith gently. "I ain't lookin' fer
trouble, you understand; but as fer as I recollect, no feller of my own
age ever called me coward. If you think so, I'd like to hear you say it.
I'm listenin' fer you to say it now, Walt Wagner."

Again within the room there was silence, and again from without there
approached an interruption. From up the street, from out the door of Red
Jenkins's joint it came; the patter, patter of many feet, leading it the
heavy clump of mighty cowhide boots on the cottonwood sidewalk, the
jingle of spurs on those same boots at every step, the deep breathing of
a cowman intoxicated at last. Down the walk they came, past the darkened
doorways of the deserted shops; wordless, menacing, nearer and nearer.
Within the tiny storeroom no one had spoken, no one had noticed. The
arms of Walt Wagner were not on the showcase now. In the depths of his
pockets they were fumbling again, aimlessly, nervously. His face had
gone whiter than before. Once he had opened his lips to speak, revealing
the blackness of the vacant tooth; but he had closed them again
silently. Now at last he cleared his throat, involuntarily he drew in a
long breath. Whether he was about to speak they who watched never knew.
What if he had spoken he would have said they likewise never knew; for
at that moment, interrupting, compelling, the door to the street swung
open with a crash, and fair in the aperture, filling it, blocking it,
appeared the mighty, muscular figure of a cowman, while upon their ears,
like the menacing bellow of an enraged bull, burst a voice--the
challenging, bullying voice of Pete Sweeney, inebriate.

"What the hell be you fellers doin' here?" And when there was no answer
repeated, "What the hell be you doin', I say?"

For a space that dragged into a half minute there was inaction while
every man within sound of his voice gazed at the speaker; at first
almost with fascination, then as the real meaning of the interruption
came over them, with sensations as divergent as their various individual
minds. There was no need to tell them who looked at that towering,
intruding figure that tragedy lurked in the air, that death on the
slightest provocation, at the twitch of a trigger finger, dwelt in
those big twin Colts lying menacingly across the folded arms. A lunatic
escaped was a pleasant companion, a child, to deal with, compared with
Pete Sweeney at this time. Malevolent, irresponsible, dare god--bull
mastery fairly oozed from his presence. Bad every inch of him,
hopelessly, irredeemably bad was this mountain of humanity. Bad from the
soles of his misshapen boots to the baggy chaperajos, to the bulging
holsters at his hips, to the gleaming cartridge belt around his waist,
to the soft green flannel shirt, to the red silk handkerchief about his
throat, to the dark unshaven face, to the drink-reddened nose, to the
mere slits of eyes, to the upturned sombrero that crowned the shock of
wiry hair; bad in detail, in ensemble, was this inebriate cowman, bad.

"Well, why don't you talk?" Himself interrupting the silence he came a
step nearer, braced himself with legs far apart. "What've you got to say
for yourselves? This ain't no Quaker meeting. Speak up. What're you all
doin' here?"

Among the crowd one man alone spoke, and that was lobster-red Bud Smith.

"Tendin' to our own business, I reckon, Pete," he explained evenly.

"You lie!" Narrower and narrower closed the slit-like eyes. "You lie by
the clock. You were planning to fix ME, you nest of skunks." From man to
man he passed the look, halted at last at the figure of the lanky
Missourian. "Some feller here figgered to pot me, and I'm lookin' to
see the colour of his hair. Who was it, I'd like to know?"

"Someone's been stuffin' you, Pete." Even, deliberate as before Smith
spoke the lie. "We don't give a whoop what you do. You can own the whole
county so far as we care. Go back and 'tend to your knittin'. Dad here
wants to close up, now."

"He does, does he? Well, he can in just a minute, just as soon as you
name the feller I mention." Of a sudden his eyes shifted, dropped like
claws on the figure of the little land man. "You know who it is I'm
lookin' for. Tell me his name."

"You don't know me very well, Pete."

"I don't, eh? You think I don't know you?" The speaker was inspecting
the other as a house cat inspects the mouse within its paws. "In other
words, you mean you know, but won't tell me." Lingeringly, baitingly,
almost exultingly, he was dragging the _denouement_ on and on. "That's
what you mean to imply, is it?"

"You've guessed it, Pete." Not a muscle in the small man's body
twitched; there was not the slightest alteration of the even tone.
There, facing death as surely as harvest follows seedtime, knowing as he
knew that but one man present could interfere to prevent, that that man
wouldn't, he spoke those four words: "You've guessed it, Pete." And but
minutes before Manning had called this man coward!

For a moment likewise Sweeney did not stir. For a second his slow brain
failed to grasp the truth, the deliberate challenge of the refusal;
then of a sudden, in a blinding, maddening flood, came comprehension,
came action. Swifter than any human being would have thought possible,
unbelievably ferocious even in this land of licence, something took
place, something which the staring onlookers did not realise until it
was done. They only knew that with a mighty backward leap the cowman had
reached the single heavy oak door, had sent it shut with a bang. That at
the same time there was the vicious spit of a great revolver, that the
odour of burnt gunpowder was in their nostrils, that lifting slowly
toward the ceiling was a cloud of thin blue smoke; a curtain that once
raised made them shudder, made their blood run cold, for it revealed
there, stretched on the floor, huddled as it had dropped, lifeless,
motionless, the figure of the man who had refused, the weazened face of
Land Man Bud Smith! All this they realised in that first second; then
something that was almost fascination drew away their eyes to the man
who had done this deed, to the man who, his back to the great door, the
only means of egress, was covering them, every soul, with the two great
revolvers in his hands. For Pete Sweeney was not drunk now. As swiftly
as that horrible thing had been done he had gone sober. Yet no man who
saw him that instant feared him one whit less. Not a man present,
believer or scoffer, but breathed a silent prayer. And there was reason.
If Pete Sweeney, Long Pete, had possessed a real friend on earth, he
possessed that one no more. Disciples he had, imitators a-plenty; but
friends--there had been but one, and now there was none. In an instant
of oblivion, of drunken frenzy, he had murdered that friend; murdered
him without a chance for self-defence, fair in his tracks. Not another
had done this thing but he himself, he, Cowman Pete. Small wonder that
they who watched this man prayed, that surreptitious glances sought for
an avenue of escape where there was none, that the face of Walt Wagner
went whiter and whiter; for as certain as Bud Smith lay dead there upon
the floor, there would be a reckoning,--and what that reckoning would be
God alone could tell!

And Sweeney himself. After that first, all but involuntary movement, he
had not stirred. In his hands the big revolvers did not waver the
breadth of a hair. Out of bloodshot, terrible eyes he was looking at
that mute figure on the floor; looking at it immovably, indescribably,
with an impassivity that was horrible. For the moment he seemed to have
forgotten the others' presence, seemed at their mercy; and to the mind
of Walt Wagner there came a suggestion. Slowly, surreptitiously one hand
came out of his pocket, advanced by the fractions of inches towards his
hip; advanced and halted and advanced again, reached almost--almost--.

"That'll do, you!" It was not a voice that spoke, it was a snarl: the
snarl of an angry animal. "Put that fist back in your breeches or by
God--"

No need to complete that threat. Back went the hand, back as though
drawn by a spring, back as though it were a paralysed, useless thing.

"Now line up." At last the move had come, the move they had known was
but a question of time. "Toe the crack, every mother's son of you. Step
lively."

They obeyed. As Wagner's hand had done, they obeyed. Six men of them
there were: surly crippled Manning, with eyes ablaze and jaws set like a
trap; lank Wagner with his hands still in his pockets; Rank Judge,
stumping on his wooden leg; greasy adipose Buck Walker, who ran the meat
market; Slim Simpson, from the eating joint opposite, pale as the
tucked-in apron around his waist; last of all the stranger, tall,
smooth-shaven, alien in knickerbockers and blouse, his lips compressed,
at his throat the arteries pounding visibly through his fair skin. Up
they came at the word of command, like children with ill-learned lessons
to recite, like sheep with a collie at their heels. Humorous at another
time and another place, that compliance would have been; but with that
mute, prostrate figure there before them on the floor, with that other
menacing, dominating figure facing them, it was far from humorous. It
was ghastly in its confession of impotence, in its mute acquiescence to
another's will.

The shuffling of feet ceased and silence fell; yet for some reason Pete
did not act. Instead he stood waiting; his red-rimmed eyes travelling
from man to man, the fissure between them deepening, the heavy lids
narrowing, moment by moment. A long half minute he waited, gloating on
their misery, prolonging their suspense; then came the interruption. A
step sounded on the walk without, a step that was all but noiseless. A
hand tried the knob of the door, found it bolted, and tapped gently on
the panel.

Not a soul within the room stirred, not even Long Pete; but the
narrowing lids closed until they were mere slits, and the unshaven jaws
tightened.

Again the knock sounded; louder, more insistent.

This time there was action. One of the revolvers in Pete's hand moved to
the end of the line, halted. "Up with your hands," snarled a voice.

Two gnarled, distorted hands, the hands of Bob Manning, lifted in air.

"Up with you," and another pair, and another and another followed, until
there were not two but twelve.

"Make a move, damn you,"--one of the revolvers had returned to its
holster, the free hand was upon the bolt,--"and I'll drop you, every
cursed one of you, in your tracks. I'll drop you if I swing the next
second." With a jerk, the door opened wide, and like a flash the hand
returned to the holster. "Come in, you idiot," he challenged into the
darkness without, "come in and take your medicine with the rest."

Within the room the six peered at the blackness of the open doorway,
peered and held their breath. For an instant they saw nothing; then of a
sudden, fair in the opening, walking easily, noiselessly on moccasined
feet, entered a brand new actor, advanced half across the room, while
his eyes adjusted themselves to the light, halted curiously. Back of him
that instant the door again returned to its case with a crash, the rusty
bolt grating in its socket; and above the noise, drowning it, sounded
the snarl the others knew so well.

"It's you, is it, redskin? What the hell are you doin' here?"

Deliberately, soundlessly as he had entered, the newcomer turned. From
his height of six feet one, an inch below that of Pete himself, he
returned the other's look fixedly, without answer. He wore a soft
flannel shirt, and a pair of dark brown corduroy trousers, supported by
a belt. Unconsciously, as though he were alone, he hitched the corduroys
up over his narrow hips, in the motion of one who has been riding. That
was all.

Closer and closer came the red lids over Pete's veritable disfigurement.
Involuntarily his great nostrils opened.

"Talk up there, Injun," he repeated slowly; and this time his voice was
almost gentle. "My name's Sweeney, and I'm speakin' to you. What the
devil are you here for?"

No answer, not a sound; not even the twitching of an eyelid or a muscle.

Ten seconds passed, fifteen.

"I'll give you one more chance there, aborigine;" slowly, with an
effort, almost gratingly came the words, like the friction of a rusty
spring at the striking of a clock; "and I ain't in the habit of doin'
that either, pard." He halted and his great chest heaved with the effort
of a mighty breath, his whole body leaned a bit forward. "Tell me what
you want here, and tell me quick, or by the eternal I'll fill you so
full of holes your own mother wouldn't recognise you."

One by one the two repeaters shifted, shifted until they were focussed
upon a spot midway between the belt and the rolling collar of the
flannel shirt. "I'm listening, How Landor."

At last the moment had come, the climax, the supreme instant in the
career of those eight men in that tiny weather-boarded room. No need to
tell seven of them at least that it was a moment of life or death. If
something, something which seemed inevitable, happened, if one of those
curling, itching fingers on the triggers tightened, if but once that
took place, their lives were not worth the wording of a curse. If once
again that black-visaged, passion-mastered human smelt powder, there
would be no end while a target had power to move, while a tiny gleaming
cylinder remained in the row within his belt. This they knew; and man by
man, as the Creator made them, revealed the knowledge. The jaws of Bob
Manning were quiet now, but the old eyes blazed from beneath their
sockets like the eyes of a grey timber wolf, the centre of a howling
pack. Next to him lank Wagner stood, waiting with closed lips; his lips
as grey as those of the dead man on the floor. Rank Judge had not moved,
but the harness on his wooden stump creaked softly as his weight shifted
from leg to leg. Fat Buck Walker was perspiring almost grotesquely, like
an earthenware pitcher. Great drops hung from his chin, from his
uptilted nose, and his cotton shirt was dark. Slim Simpson, white
before, was like a corpse; only his great boyish eyes stared out, as a
somnambulist stares, as one hypnotised. Last of all, at the end of the
line was the stranger from the East, representative of another world.
Piteous, horrible, the others had been; but he--but for his clothes, his
most intimate friend would not have recognised him at that moment. In
him, blind, racking terror was personified. To have saved his soul he
could not keep still, and his heavy walking shoes grated as they
shuffled on the rough floor. He had bitten his lip and the blood stood
in his mouth and trickled down, down his clean-shaven face. His eyes,
like those of Slim Simpson, were abnormally wide, but shifting
constantly in a hopeless search for a place of concealment, of safety.
If aught in his life merited retribution, the man paid the price a
hundred times over and over that second.

Thus man by man they stood waiting; a background no art could reproduce,
no stage manager prodigal of expense. If on earth there ever was a hell,
that tiny frontier room with the smoke-blackened ceiling and the single
kerosene lamp sputtering on the wall, was the place. Not an imp
thereof, but Satan himself, stood in the misshapen boots of Cowman Pete;
doubly vicious in the aftermath of a debauch, Pete with the lust of
blood in his veins. And against him, scant hope to those who watched,
was a man; tall, but not heavy, smooth-cheeked as a boy of fourteen,
soft-eyed, soft-handed, without the semblance of a weapon. One branded
unmistakably a sleeper, a dreamer, one apparently helpless as a woman.
Yet there that night, within the space of minutes, from the time there
fell that last speaking silence, with this man the chief actor, there
took place something, the report of which spread swifter than wildfire,
from the river to the Hills, from the north Bad Lands to the sandy
Platte, that will live and be repeated while tales of nerve and of man
mastery quicken the pulses of listeners. For after that night Coyote
Centre knew Long Pete Sweeney no more; Dakota knew him no more. Not that
he was murdered in cold blood as he had murdered others: it was not
that. Alone, unmolested, he left, in the starlight of that very night;
but he knew, and they who permitted him to go, knew that it had been
better--

But we anticipate.

"I'm listening, How Landor," he had said.

But he heard nothing:--yet he saw. He saw a tall, lithe, catlike figure
straighten until it seemed fairly to tower. He saw this same figure look
at him fully, squarely; as though for the first time really conscious of
his presence. He saw two unflinching black eyes, flanked by high cheek
bones, out of a copper-brown face meet his own, meet them and hold them;
hold them immovably, hold them so he could not look away. He saw the
owner of those eyes move--he did not hear, there was no sound, not even
a pat from the moccasined feet, he merely saw--and move toward him. He
saw that being coming, coming, saw it detour to pass a prostrate body on
the floor; always silent, but always coming, always drawing nearer. He
saw this thing, he, Pete Sweeney, he, Long Pete, whose name alone was
terror. He knew what it meant, he knew what he should do, what he had
sworn to do; the muzzles of his two revolvers were already focussed, but
he made no move. His fingers lay as before on the triggers. Once in
unison they tightened; then loosened again. He did not act, this man. As
his maker was his judge, he could not. He was wide awake,
preternaturally wide awake; he tried to act, tried to send the message
that would make the muscles tense; but he could not. Those two eyes were
holding him and he could not. All this he knew; and all the while that
other was coming nearer and nearer. He began to have a horror of that
coming that he could not halt. The great unshaven jaw of him worked;
worked spasmodically, involuntarily. His skin, flaming hot before, of a
sudden felt cool. The sweat spurted, stood damp on the hairy hands.
Something he had never felt before, something he had observed in others,
others like those six in the background, began to grip him; something
that whitened his face, that made him feel of a sudden weak--weak as he
had never felt before. And still those eyes were upon him, still that
dark face came closer and closer. Once more his brain sent the message
to kill, once more he battled against the inevitable; and that message
was the last. There was no more response than if he were clay, than if
his muscles were the muscles of another man. In that instant, without
the voicing of a word, the deed was done. That instant came the black
chaotic abandon that was terror absolute. In pure physical impotence,
his arms dropped dangling at his sides. The other was very near now, so
near they could have touched, and the cowman tried to brace himself,
tried to prepare for that which he knew was coming, which he read on the
page of that other face. But he was too late. Watching, almost doubting
their own eyes, the six saw the end. They saw a dark hand of a sudden
clench, shoot out like a brown light. They heard an impact, and a second
later the thud of a great body as it met the floor. They saw the latter
lift, stumble clumsily to its feet, heard a muffled, choking oath. Then
for a second time, the last, that clenched fist shot out, struck true.
That was all.

For a minute, a long, dragging minute, there was silence, inaction. Then
for the first time the victor turned, facing the spectators.
Deliberately he turned, slowly, looked at them an instant almost
curiously,--but he did not smile. Twelve arms, that had forgotten to
lower, were still in the air--but he did not smile. Instead he sought
out the stranger in knickerbockers and blouse.

"I came to meet Mr. Craig, Mr. Clayton Craig, and guide him to the B.B.
ranch," he explained, "It is Mr. Landor's wish. Is this he?"




CHAPTER VI


THE RED MAN AND THE WHITE

Well out upon the prairie, clear of the limits of the tiny town, two men
were headed due west, into the night, apparently into the infinite.
There was no moon, but here, with nothing to cast a shadow, it was not
dark. The month was late October, and a suggestion of frost was in the
air: on the grass blades of the low places, was actually present. As was
all but usual at that day, the direction they were going bore no trace
of a road; but the man astride the vicious-looking roan cayuse who led
the way, the same copper-brown man with the corduroys of Bob Manning's
store, showed no hesitation. Like a hound, he seemed to discern
landmarks where none were visible to the eye. He rode without saddle or
blanket, or spur, or quirt; yet, though he had not spoken a word from
the moment they had started, the roan with the tiny ears had not broken
its steady, swinging, seemingly interminable lope, had scarcely appeared
conscious of his presence. Almost as unit seemed this beast and human.
It was as though the man were born in his place, as though, like a
sailor on a tiny boat, accustomed through a lifetime to a rolling,
uncertain equilibrium, the adjustment thereto had become involuntary as
a heart beat, instinctive as breathing. A splendid picture he made there
in the starlight and the solitude; but of it the man who followed was
oblivious. Of one thing alone he was conscious, and that was that he was
very tired; weary from the effect of an unusual exercise, doubly
exhausted in the reaction from excitement passed. With an effort he
urged his own horse alongside the leader, drew rein meaningly.

"Let's hold up a bit," he protested. "I've come twenty-five miles to-day
already, and I'm about beat." He slapped the breast pocket of his coat a
bit obviously, and as his companion slowed to a walk, produced a
silver-mounted, seal-covered flask and proffered it at arm's length.
"The cork unscrews to the left," he explained suggestively.

The dark figure of the guide made no motion of acceptance, did not even
glance around.

"Thanks, but I never drink," he declined.

"Not even to be sociable,"--the hand was still extended,--"not when I
ask you as--a friend?"

"I am a Sioux," simply. "I have found that liquor is not good for an
Indian."

For a second the white man hesitated; then with something akin to a
flush on his face, he returned the flask to his pocket untasted.

Again, without turning, the other observed the motion.

"Pardon me, but I did not mean to prevent you."

He spoke stiffly, almost diffidently, as on unused to speech with
strangers, unused to speech at all; but without a trace of embarrassment
or of affectation.

"I do not judge others. I merely know my people--and myself."

Again the stranger hesitated, and again his face betrayed him. He had
scratched an aborigine, and to his surprise was finding indications of a
man.

"I guess I can get along without it," shortly. "I--" he caught himself
just in time from framing a self-extenuation. "I didn't have time--back
there," he digressed suddenly, "to thank you for what you did. I wish to
do so now." He was looking at the other squarely, as the smart civilian
observes the derelict who has saved his life in a runaway. Already,
there under the stars, it was difficult to credit to the full that
fantastic scene of an hour ago; and unconsciously a trace of the real
man, of condescension, crept into the tone. "You helped me out of a
nasty mess, and I appreciate it."

No answer. No polite lie, no derogation of self or of what had been
done. Just silence, attentive, but yet silence.

For the third time the white man hesitated, and for the third time his
face shaded red; consciously and against his will. Even the starlight
could not alter the obtrusive fact that he had cut a sorry figure in the
late drama, and his pride was sore. Extenuation, dissimulation even,
would have been a distinct solace. Looking at the matter now, the
excitement past, palliation for what he had done was easy, almost
logical. He had not alone conformed. He had but done, without
consideration, as the others with him had done. But even if it were not
so, back in the land from which he had come, a spade was not always so
called. His colour went normal at the recollection. The habitual, the
condescending pressed anew to the fore.

He inspected the silent figure at his side ingenuously, almost
quizzically; as in his schoolboy days he had inspected his plodding
master of physics before propounding a query no mortal could answer.

"I know I waved the white flag back there as hard as any of them," he
proffered easily. "I'm not trying to clear myself; but between you and
me, don't you think that Pete was merely bluffing, there at the end when
you came?" The speaker shifted sideways on the saddle, until his weight
rested on one leg, until he faced the other fair. "The fellow was drunk,
irresponsibly drunk, at first, when the little chap stirred him up; but
afterwards, when he was sober.... On the square, what do you think he
would have done if--if you hadn't happened in?"

For so long that Craig fancied he had not given attention to the
question, the guide did not respond, did not stir in his seat; then
slowly, deliberately, he turned half about, turned and for the first
time in the journey met the other's eyes. Even then he did not speak;
but so long as he lived, times uncounted in his after life, Clayton
Craig remembered that look; remembered it and was silent, remembered it
with a tingling of hot blood and a mental imprecation--for as indelibly
as a red-hot iron seals a brand on a maverick, that look left its
impress. No voice could have spoken as that simple action spoke, no
tongue thrust could have been so pointed. With no intent of discourtesy,
no premeditated malice was it given; and therein lay the fine sting, the
venom. It was unconscious as a breath, unconscious as nature's joy in
springtime; yet in the light of after events, it stood out like a signal
fire against the blackness of night, as the beginning of an enmity more
deadly than death itself, that lasted into the grave and beyond. For
that silent, unwavering look set them each, the red man and the white,
in their niche; placed them with an assurance that was final. It was a
questioning, analytic look, yet, unconcealed, it bore the tolerance of a
strong man for a weak. Had that look been a voice, it would have spoken
one word, and that word was "cad."

For a moment the two men sat so, unconscious of time, unconscious of
place; then of a sudden, to both alike, the present returned--and again
that return was typical. As deliberately as he had moved previously, the
Indian faced back. His left arm, free at his side, hung loose as before.
His right, that held the reins, lay motionless on the pony's mane. In no
detail did he alter, nor in a muscle. By his side, the white man
stiffened, jerked without provocation at the cruel curb bit, until his
horse halted uncertain; equally without provocation, sent the rowels of
his long spurs deep into the sensitive flank, with a curse held the
frightened beast down to a walk. That was all, a secondary lapse, a
burst of flowing, irresponsible passion like a puff of burning
gunpowder, and it was over; yet it was enough. In that second was told
the tale of a human life. In that and in the surreptitious sidelong
glance following, that searched for an expression in the boyishly soft
face of his companion. But the Indian was looking straight before him,
looking as one who has seen nothing, heard nothing; and, silent as
before the interruption, they journeyed on.

A half hour slipped by, a period wherein the horses walked and galloped,
and walked again, ere the white man forgot, ere the instinct of
companionship, the necessity of conversation, urban-fostered, gained
mastery. Then as before, he looked at the other surreptitiously, through
unconsciously narrowed lids.

"I haven't yet asked your name?" he formalised baldly, curtly.

The guide showed no surprise, no consciousness of the long silence
preceding.

"The Sioux call me Ma-wa-cha-sa: the ranchers, How Landor."

Craig dropped the reins over his saddle and fumbled in his pockets.

"The Indian word has a meaning, I presume?"

"Translated into English, it would be 'the lost pappoose.'"

The eyebrows of the Easterner lifted; but he made no comment.

"You have been with my uncle, with Mr. Landor, I mean, long?"

"Since I can remember--almost."

The search within the checkered blouse ended. The inquisitor produced a
pipe and lit it. It took three matches.

"My uncle never wrote me of that. He told me once of adopting a girl.
Bess he called her, was it not?"

"Yes."

Already the pipe had gone dead, and Craig struggled anew in getting it
alight, with the awkwardness of one unused to smoking out of doors.

"Do you like this country, this--desert?" he digressed suddenly.

"It is the only one I know."

"You mean know well, doubtless?"

"I have never been outside the State."

Unconsciously the other shrugged, in an action that was habitual.

"You have something to look forward to then. I read somewhere that it
were better to hold down six feet of earth in an Eastern cemetery than
to own a section of land in the West. I'm beginning to believe it."

No comment.

"I suppose you will leave though, some time," pressed the visitor. "You
certainly don't intend to vegetate here always?"

"I never expect to leave. I was born here. I shall die here."

Once more the shoulders of the Easterner lifted in mute thanksgiving of
fundamental difference. Of a sudden, for some indefinite reason, he felt
more at ease in his companion's presence. For the time being the sense
of antagonism became passive. What use, after all, was mere physical
courage, if one were to bury it in a houseless, treeless waste such as
this? The sense of aloofness, of tranquil superiority, returned. He even
felt a certain pleasure in questioning the other; as one is interested
in questioning a child. Bob Manning's store and Pete Sweeney were
temporarily in abeyance.

"Pardon me, if I seem inquisitive," he prefaced, "but I'll probably be
here a month or so, and we'll likely see a good deal of each other. Are
you married?"

"No."

"You will be, though." It was the ultimatum of one unaccustomed to
contradiction. "No man could live here alone. He'd go insane."

"I eat at the ranch house sometimes, but I live alone."

"You won't do so, though, always." Again it was the voice of finality.

The Indian looked straight ahead into the indefinite distance where the
earth and sky met.

"No, I shall not do so always," he corroborated.

"I thought so." It was the tolerant approval of the prophet verified.
"I'd be doing the same thing myself if I lived here long. Conformity's
in the air. I felt it the moment I left the railroad and struck
this--wilderness." Once again the unconscious shoulder shrug. "It's an
atavism, this life. I've reverted a generation already. It's only a
question of time till one would be back among the cave-dwellers. The
thing's in the air, I say."

Again no comment. Again for any indication he gave, the Indian might not
have heard.

Craig straightened, as one conscious that he was talking over his
companion's head.

"When, if I may ask, is it to be, your marriage, I mean?" he returned.
"While I am here?"

For an instant the other's eyes dropped until they were hid beneath the
long lashes, then they returned to the distance as before.

"It will be soon. Three weeks from to-day."

"And at the ranch, I presume? My uncle will see to that, of course."

"Yes, it will be at the ranch."

"Good! I was wondering if anything would be doing here while I was
here." Craig threw one leg over the pommel of his saddle and adjusted
the knickerbockers comfortably. "By the way, how do you--your
people--celebrate an event of this kind? I admit I'm a bit ignorant on
the point."

"Celebrate? I don't think I understand." The Easterner glanced at his
companion suspiciously but the other man was still looking straight
ahead into the distance.

"You have a dance, or a barbecue or--or something of that sort, don't
you? It's to be an Indian wedding, is it not?"

Pat, pat went the horses' feet on the prairie sod. While one could count
ten slowly there was no other sound.

"No, there will be no dance or barbecue or anything out of the ordinary,
so far as I know," said a low voice then. "It will not be an Indian
wedding."

Craig hesitated. An instinct told him he had gone far enough. Lurking
indefinite in the depths of that last low-voiced answer was a warning, a
challenge to a trespasser; but something else, a thing which a lifetime
of indulgence had made almost an instinct, prevented his heeding. He was
not accustomed to being denied, this man; and there was no contesting
the obvious fact that now a confidence was being withheld. The latent
antagonism aroused with a bound at the thought. Something more than mere
curiosity was at stake, something which he magnified until it obscured
his horizon, warped hopelessly his vision of right or wrong. He was of
the conquering Anglo-Saxon race, and this other who refused him was an
Indian. Racial supremacy itself hung in the balance: the old, old issue
of the white man and the red. Back into the stirrup went the leg that
hung over the saddle. Involuntarily as before he stiffened.

"Why, is it not to be an Indian wedding?" he queried directly. "You
seemed a bit ago rather proud of your pedigree." A trace of sarcasm
crept into his voice at the thinly veiled allusion. "Have you forsaken
entirely the customs of your people?"

Pat, pat again sounded the horses' feet. The high places as well as the
low bore their frost blanket now, and the dead turf cracked softly with
every step.

"No, I have not forsaken the customs of my people."

"Why then in this instance?" insistently. "At least be consistent, man.
Why in this single particular and no other?"

The hand on the neck of the cayuse tightened, tightened until the tiny
ears of the wicked little beast went flat to its head; then of a sudden
the grip loosened.

"Why? The answer is simple. The lady who is to be my wife is not an
Indian."

For an instant Craig was silent, for an instant the full meaning of that
confession failed in its appeal; then of a sudden it came over him in a
flood of comprehension. Very, very far away now, banished into remotest
oblivion, was Pete Sweeney. Into the same grave went any remnants of
gratitude to the other man that chanced to remain. Paramount, beckoning
him on, one thought, one memory alone possessed his brain: the
recollection of that look the other had given him, that look he could
never forget nor forgive. "Since you have told me so much," he
challenged "you will probably have no objection to telling me the lady's
name. Who is it to be?"

Silence fell upon them. Far in the distance, so far that had the white
man seen he would have thought it a star, a light had come into being.
Many a time before the little roan had made this journey. Many a time he
had seen that light emerge from the surface of earth. To him it meant
all that was good in life: warmth, food, rest. The tiny head shook
impatiently, shifted sideways with an almost human question to his rider
at the slowness of the pace, the delay.

"That light you see there straight ahead is in the ranch house,"
digressed the Indian. "It is four miles away."

Again it was the warning, not a suggestion, but positive this time; and
again it passed unheeded.

"You have forgotten to answer my question," recalled Craig.

Swift as thought the Indian shifted in his seat, shifted half about;
then as suddenly he remembered.

"No, I have not forgotten," he refuted. "You tell me you have already
heard of Bess Landor. It is she I am to marry."

At last he had spoken, had given his confidence to this hostile stranger
man; not vauntingly or challengingly, but simply as he had spoken his
name. Against his will he had done this thing, despite a reticence no
one who did not understand Indian nature could appreciate. Then at
least it would not have taken a wise man to hold aloof. Then at least
common courtesy would have called a halt. But Clayton Craig was neither
wise nor courteous this night. He was a great, weary, passionate child,
whose pride had been stung, who but awaited an opportunity to retaliate.
And that opportunity had been vouchsafed. Moreover, irony of fate, it
came sugar coated. Until this night he had been unconscious as a babe of
racial prejudice. Now of a sudden, it seemed a burning issue, and he its
chosen champion. His blood tingled at the thought; tingled to the tips
of his well-manicured fingers. His clean-shaven chin lifted in air until
his lashes all but met.

"Do you mean to tell me,"--his voice was a bit higher than normal and
unnaturally tense,--"do you mean to tell me that you, an Indian, are to
marry a white girl--and she my cousin by adoption? Is this what you
mean?"

Seconds passed.

"I have spoken," said a low voice. "I do not care to discuss the matter
further."

"But I do care to discuss it," peremptorily. "As one of the family it is
my right, and I demand an answer."

Again the tiny roan was shaking an impatient head. It would not be long
until they were home now.

"Yes," answered the Indian.

"And that my uncle will permit it, gives his consent?" Again the
silence and again the low-voiced "Yes."

Over Craig's face, to his eyebrows and beyond, there swept a red flood,
that vanished and left him pale as the starlight about him.

"Well, he may; but by God I won't!" he blazed. "As sure as I live, and
if she's as plain as a hag, so long as her skin is white, you'll not
marry her. If it's the last act of my life, I'll prevent you!"

The voice of the white man was still, but his heart was not. Beat, beat,
beat it went until he could scarcely breathe, until the hot blood fairly
roared in his arteries, in his ears. Not until the challenge was spoken
did he realise to the full what he had done, that inevitable as time
there would be a reckoning. Now in a perfect inundation, the knowledge
came over him, and unconsciously he braced himself, awaited the move.
Yet for long, eternally long it seemed to him, there was none. The swift
reaction of a passionate nature was on, and as in Bob Manning's store,
the suspense of those dragging seconds was torture. Adding thereto,
recollection of that former scene, temporarily banished, returned now
irresistibly, cumulatively. Struggle as he might against the feeling, a
terror of this motionless human at his side grew upon him; a blind,
unreasoning, primitive terror. But one impulse possessed him: to be
away, to escape the outburst he instinctively knew was but delayed. In
an abandon he leaned far forward over his saddle, the rowel of his spur
dug viciously into his horse's flank. There was a deep-chested groan
from the surprised beast, a forward leap--then a sudden jarring halt.
As by magic, the reins left his hand, were transferred to another hand.

"Don't," said a voice. "It will not help matters any to do that. It will
only make them worse." The two horses, obeying the same hand, stopped
there on the prairie. The riders were face to face. "I have tried to
prevent this, for the sake of the future, I have tried; but you have
made an understanding between us inevitable, and therefore it may as
well be now." The voice halted and the speaker looked at his companion
fixedly, minutely, almost unbelievingly. "I know I am not as you white
men," went on the voice. "I have been raised with you, lived my life so
far with you; yet I am different. No Indian would have done as you have
done. I cannot understand it. Not three hours ago I saved your life. It
was a mere chance, but nevertheless I did it; and yet already you have
forgotten, have done--what you have done." So far he had spoken slowly,
haltingly; with the effort of one to whom words were difficult. Now the
effort passed. "I say I cannot understand it," he repeated swiftly. "Mr.
Landor has been very good to me. For his sake I would like to forgive
what you have done, what you promise to do. I have tried to forgive it;
but I cannot. I am an Indian; but I am also a man. As a race your people
have conquered my people, have penned them up in reservations to die;
but that is neither your doing nor mine. We are here as man to man. As
man to man you have offered me insult--and without reason." For the
first time a trace of passion came into the voice, into the soft brown
face. "I ask you to take back what you have just said. I do not warn
you. If you do so, there is no quarrel between us. I merely ask you to
take it back."

He halted expectant; but there was no answer, Craig's lips were
twitching uncontrollably, but he did not speak.

Just perceptibly the Indian shifted forward in his seat, just
perceptibly the long brown fingers tightened on his pony's mane.

"Will you not take it back?" he asked.

Once more the white man's lip twitched. "No," he said.

"No?"

"No."

That was all--and it was not all. For an instant after the Easterner had
spoken the stars looked down on the two men as they were, face to face;
then smiling, satiric they gazed down upon a very different scene: one
as old and as new as the history of man. Just what happened in that
moment that intervened neither the white man nor the red could have
told. It was a lapse, an oblivion; a period of primitive physical
dominance, of primitive human hate. When they awoke--when the red man
awoke--they were flat on earth, the dust of the prairie in their
nostrils, the short catch of their breath in each other's ears, out one,
the dark-skinned, was above. One, again the dark-skinned, had his
fingers locked tight on the other's throat. This they knew when they
awoke.

A second thereafter they lay so, flaming eyes staring into their
doubles; then suddenly the uppermost man broke free, arose. In his ears
was the diminishing patter of their horses' hoofs. They were alone there
on the prairie, under the smiling satiric stars. One more moment he
stood so; he did not turn; he did not assist the other to rise; then he
spoke.

"I do not ask your pardon for this," he said. "You have brought it upon
yourself. Neither do I ask a promise. Do as you please. Try what you
have suggested if you wish. I am not afraid. Follow me," and,
long-strided, impassive as though nothing had happened, he moved ahead
into the distance where in the window of the Buffalo Butte ranch house
glowed a light.




CHAPTER VII


A GLIMPSE OF THE UNKNOWN

It was very late, so late that the sun entering at the south windows of
the room shone glaringly upon the white counterpane of his bed when
Craig awoke the next morning. Breakfast had long been over, but
throughout the unplastered ranch house the suggestion of coffee and the
tang of bacon still lingered. At home those odours would have aroused
slight sensations of pleasure in the man, even at this time of day; but
now and here they were distinctly welcome, distinctly inviting. With the
aid of a tin pail of water and a cracked queensware bowl, he made a
hasty toilet, soliloquised an opinion of a dressing-room without a
mirror, and descended the creaking stairs to the level below.

The main floor of the ranch house contained but three rooms. Of these,
it was the living-room which he entered. No one was about. The pipe
which he had smoked with his uncle before retiring the night before
remained exactly as he had put it down. His cap and gloves were still
beside it. Obviously there was no possibility of breakfast here, and he
moved toward the adjoining room. On his way he passed a hook where upon
arrival he had hung his riding blouse. Telltale with its litter of dust
and grass stems, it hung there now; and unconsciously he scowled at the
recollection it suggested.

Opening the door, he was face to face with a little fast-ticking cheaply
ornate clock. Its hands indicated eleven, and the man grimaced
tolerantly. As in the living-room, no human was present, but here the
indications for material sustenance were more hopeful. It was the
dining-room, and, although in the main the table had been cleared, at
one end a clean plate, flanked by a bone-handled knife and fork and an
old-fashioned castor, still remained. Moreover, from the third room, the
kitchen, he could now hear sounds of life. The fire in a cook-stove was
crackling cheerily. Above it, distinct through the thin partition, came
the sound of a girlish voice singing. There was no apparent effort at
time or at tune; it was uncultivated as the grass land all about; yet in
its freshness and unconsciousness it was withal distinctly pleasing. It
was a happy voice, a contented voice. Instinctively it bore a suggestion
of home and of quiet and of peace; like a kitten with drowsy eyes
purring to itself in the sunshine. A moment the visitor stood silent,
listening; then, his heavy shoes clumping on the uncarpeted floor, he
moved toward it. Instantly the song ceased, but he kept on, pushed open
the door gently, stepped inside.

"Good-morning!" he began, and then halted in an uncertainty he seldom
felt among women folk. He had met no one but his uncle the previous
night. Inevitably the preceding incident with his guide had produced a
mental picture. It was with the expectation of having this conception
personified that he had entered, to it he had spoken; then had come the
revelation, the halt.

"Good-morning!" answered a voice, one neither abnormally high nor
repressedly low, the kind of voice the man seldom heard in the society
to which he was accustomed--one natural, unaffected, frankly interested.
The owner thereof came forward, held out her hand. Two friendly brown
eyes smiled up at him from the level of his shoulder. "I know without
your introducing yourself that you're Mr. Craig," she welcomed. "Uncle
Landor told me before he left what to expect. He and Aunt Mary had to go
to town this morning. Meanwhile I'm the cook, and at your service," and
she smiled again.

For far longer than civility actually required, to the extreme limit of
courtesy and a shade beyond, in, fact, until it unmistakably sought to
be free, Clayton Craig retained that proffered hand. Against all the
canons of good breeding he stared. Answering, a trace of colour,
appearing at the brown throat, mounted higher and higher, reached the
soft oval cheeks, journeyed on.

"I beg your pardon," apologised the man. He met the accusing eyes
fairly, with a return of his old confidence. "You had the advantage of
me, you know. I was not forewarned what to expect."

It was the breaking of the ice, and they laughed together. The girl had
been working with arms bare to the elbow, and as now of a sudden she
rolled the sleeves down Craig laughed again; and in unconscious echo a
second later she joined. Almost before they knew it, there alone in the
little whitewashed kitchen with the crackling cook-stove and the
sunshine streaming in through the tiny-paned windows, they were friends.
All the while the girl went about the task of preparing a belated
breakfast they laughed and chatted--and drew nearer and nearer. Again
while Craig ate and at his command the girl sat opposite to entertain
him, they laughed and chatted. Still later, the slowly eaten meal
finished, while Elizabeth Landor washed the dishes and put everything
tidy and Craig from his seat on the bottom of an inverted basket
reversed the position of entertainer, they laughed and chatted. And
through it all, openly when possible, surreptitiously when it were wise,
the man gave his companion inspection. And therein he at first but
followed an instinct. Very, very human was Clayton Craig of Boston,
Suffolk County, Massachusetts, and very, very good to look upon was
brown-eyed, brown-skinned, brown-haired Elizabeth Landor. Neither had
thought of evil, had other thought than the innocent pleasure of the
moment that first morning while the tiny clock on the wall measured off
the swift-moving minutes. Good it is to be alive in sun-blessed South
Dakota on a frosty warm October day, doubly good when one is young; and
these two, the man and the girl, were both young. Months it takes, years
sometimes, in civilisation, with barriers of out on the prairie, alone,
with the pulse of nature throbbing, throbbing, insistently all about,
the process is very swift, so swift that an hour can suffice. No, not
that first hour wherein unconsciously they became friends, did the angel
with the big book record evil opposite the name of Clayton Craig; not
until later, not until he had had time to think, not until--.

But again we anticipate.

"I'm so glad you've come," the girl had ejaculated, "now when you have."
At last the work was over, and in unconscious comradery they sat side by
side on the broad south doorstep; the sun shining down full upon their
uncovered heads--smiling an unconscious blessing more potent than
formula of clergy. She was looking out as she spoke, out over the level
earth dazzling with its dancing heat waves, mysterious in its suggestion
of unfathomable silence, of limitless distance. "It's such a little time
now before I am going away, and Uncle Landor has talked of you so much,
particularly of late." A pause, a hesitating pause. "I suppose you'll
laugh at me, but I hope you'll stay here, for a time, anyway, after I'm
gone."

Clayton Craig, the listener, was not gazing out over the prairie. The
object at which he was looking was very near; so near that he had leaned
a trifle back the better to see, to watch. He shifted now until his
weight rested on his elbow, his face on his hand.

"You are going away, you say?" he echoed.

"Yes. I supposed you knew--that Uncle had told you." Despite an effort,
the tiny ears were reddening. She was very human also, was Elizabeth
Landor. "I am to be married soon."

"Married?" A long pause. "And to whom, please?" The voice was very low.

Redder than before burned the tiny ears. No more than she could keep
from breathing could she prevent telling her secret, her happiness, this
prairie girl; no more than she could prevent that accompanying telltale
scarlet flood.

"You didn't know it, but you've met him already," she confided. "You met
him last night." To her at this time there was no need of antecedent.
There was but one to whom the pronoun might refer. "It was he who showed
you here--How Landor."

For a long time--for he was thinking now, was Clayton Craig, and did not
answer--there was silence. Likewise the girl, her confession voiced,
said no more; but her colour came and went expectantly, tantalisingly,
and the eyes that still looked into the distance were unconscious of
what they saw. From his place the man watched the transparent pantomime,
read its meaning, stored the picture in his memory; but he did not
speak. A minute had already passed; but still he did not speak. He was
thinking of the night before, was the man, of that first look he had
received--and of what had followed. His eyes were upon the girl, but it
was of this he was thinking. Another minute passed. A big shaggy-haired
collie, guardian of the dooryard, paused in his aimless wandering about
the place to thrust a friendly muzzle into the stranger's hand; but even
then he did not respond. For almost the first time in his irresolute
life a definite purpose was taking form in the mind of Clayton Craig,
and little things passed him by. A third minute passed. The colour had
ceased playing on the face he watched now. The silence had performed its
mission. It was the moment for which he was waiting, and he was
prepared. Then it was the angel of the great book opened the volume and
made an entry; for then it was the watcher spoke.

"I met him last, night, you say?" It was the hesitating voice of one
whose memory is treacherous, "I have been trying to recall--Certainly
you must be mistaken. I saw no one last night except Uncle Landor and an
Indian cow-puncher with a comic opera name." He met the brown eyes that
were of a sudden turned upon him, frankly, innocently. "You must be
mistaken," he repeated.

Searchingly, at first suspiciously, then hesitatingly, with a return of
the colour that came as easily as a prairie wind stirs the down of a
milk-weed plant, Elizabeth Landor returned his look. It was an instinct
that at last caused her eyes to drop.

"No, I was not mistaken," she voiced. "How Landor is an Indian. It is he
I meant."

For a carefully timed pause, the space in which one recovers from
hearing the unbelievable, Craig was silent; then swiftly, contritely he
roused. "I beg a thousand pardons," he apologised. "I meant no
disrespect. I never dreamed--Forgive me." He had drawn very near. "I
wouldn't hurt you for the world. I--Please forgive me." He was silent.

"There's nothing to forgive." The girl's colour was normal again and she
met his eyes frankly, gravely.

"But there is," protested the man humbly. "Because he happened to be
minus a collar and had a red skin--I was an ass; an egregious,
blundering ass."

"Don't talk that way," hurriedly. "You merely did not know him, was all.
If you had been acquainted all your life as I have--" Against her will
she was lapsing into a defence, and she halted abruptly. "You were not
at fault."

Again for a carefully timed pause the man was silent. Then abruptly,
obviously, he changed the subject.

"You said you were going away," he recalled. "Is it to be a wedding
journey?"

"Yes," tensely.

"Tell me of it, please; I wish to hear."

"You would not be interested."

"Elizabeth--" syllabalised, reproachfully. "Am I not your cousin?"

No answer.

"Haven't you forgiven me yet?" The voice was very low. Its owner was
again very near.

"You'd laugh at me if I told you," repressedly. "You wouldn't
understand."

Slowly, meaningly, Clayton Craig drew away--resumed the former position;
the place from which, unobserved, he could himself watch.

"We're going away out there," complied the girl suddenly, reluctantly.
Her hand indicated the trackless waste to the right. "Just the two of us
are going: How and I. We'll take a pack horse and a tent and How's camp
kit and stay out there alone until winter comes." Against her will she
was warming to the subject, was unconsciously painting a picture to
please the solitary listener. "We'll have our ponies and ammunition and
plenty to read. The cowboys laugh at How because ordinarily he never
carries a gun; but he's a wonderful shot. We'll have game whenever we
want it. We'll camp when we please and move on when we please." Again
unconsciously she glanced at the listener to see the effect of her art.
"We'll be together, How and I, and free--free as sunshine. There'll be
nothing but winter, and that's a long way off, to bring us back. It's
what I've always wanted to do, from the time I can remember. How goes
away every year, and he's promised this once to take me along."
Suddenly, almost challengingly, she turned, facing the man her
companion. "Won't it be fine?" she queried abruptly.

"Yes," answered a voice politely, a voice with a shade of listlessness
in its depths, "fine indeed. And if you want anything at any time you
can go to the nearest ranch house. One always does forget something you
know."

"That's just what we can't do," refuted the girl swiftly. "That's the
best of it all. The Buffalo Butte is the last ranch that way, to the
west, until you get to the Hills. We probably won't see another human
being while we're gone. We'll be as much alone as though we were the
only two people in the world."

Craig hesitated; then he shrugged self-tolerantly.

"I'm hopelessly civilised myself," he commented smilingly. "I was
thinking that some morning I might want toast and eggs for breakfast.
And my clean laundry might not be delivered promptly if I were changing
my residence so frequently." He lifted from his elbow. "Pardon me again,
though," he added contritely. "I always do see the prosaic side of
things." The smile vanished, and for the first time he looked away,
absently, dreamily. As he looked his face altered, softened almost
unbelievably. "It would be wonderful," he voiced slowly, tensely, "to be
alone, absolutely alone, out there with the single person one cared for
most, the single person who always had the same likes and dislikes, the
same hopes and ambitions. I had never thought of such a thing before; it
would be wonderful, wonderful!"

No answer; but the warm colour had returned to the girl's face and her
eyes were bright.

"I think I envy you a little, your happiness," said Craig. Warmer and
warmer tinged the brown cheeks, but still the girl was silent.

"Yes, I'm sure I envy you," reiterated the man. "We always envy other
people the things we haven't ourselves; and I--" He checked himself
abruptly.

"Don't talk so," pleaded the girl. "It hurts me."

"But it's true."

Just a child of nature was Elizabeth Landor; passionate, sympathetic,
unsophisticated product of this sun-kissed land. Just this she was; and
another, this man with her, her cousin by courtesy, was sad. Inevitably
she responded, as a flower responds to the light, as a parent bird
responds to the call of a fledgling in distress.

"Maybe it's true now--you think it is," she halted; "but there'll be a
time--"

"No, I think not. I'm as the Lord made me." Craig laughed shortly,
unmusically. "It's merely my lot."

The girl hesitated, uncertain, at a loss for words. Distinctly for her
as though the brightness of the day had faded under a real shadow, it
altered now under the cloud of another's unhappiness. But one suggestion
presented itself; and innocently, instinctively as a mother comforts her
child, she drew nearer to the other in mute human sympathy.

The man did not move. Apparently he had not noticed.

"The time was," he went on monotonously, "when I thought differently,
when I fancied that some time, somewhere, I would meet a girl I
understood, who could understand me. But I never do. No matter how well
I become acquainted with women, we never vitally touch, never become
necessary to each other. It seems somehow that I'm the only one of my
kind, that I must go through life so--alone."

Nearer and nearer crept the girl; not as maid to man, but as one child
presses closer to another in the darkness. One of her companion's hands
lay listless on his knee, and instinctively, compellingly, she placed
her own upon it, pressed it softly.

"I am so selfish," she voiced contritely, "to tell you of my own love,
my own happiness. I didn't mean to hurt you. I simply couldn't help it,
it's such a big thing in my own life. I'm so sorry."

Just perceptibly Craig stirred; but still he did not look at her. When
he spoke again there was the throb of repression in his voice; but that
was all.

"I'm lonely at times," he went on dully, evasively, "you don't know how
lonely. Now and then someone, as you unconsciously did a bit ago, shows
me the other side of life, the happy side; and I wish I were dead." A
mist came into his eyes, a real mist. "The future looks so blank, so
hopeless that it becomes a nightmare to me. Anything else would be
preferable, anything. It's so to-day, now." He halted and of a sudden
turned away so that his face was concealed. "God forgive me, but I wish
it were over with, that I were dead!"

"No, no! You mustn't say that! You mustn't!" Forgetful entirely, the
girl arose, stood facing him. Tears that she could not prevent were in
the brown eyes and her lip twitched. "It's so good to be alive. You
can't mean it. You can't."

"But I do. It's true." Craig did not stir, did not glance up. "What's
the use of living, of doing anything, when no one else cares, ever will
care. What's the use--"

"But somebody does care," interrupted the girl swiftly, "all of us here
care. Don't say that again, please don't. I can't bear to hear you." She
halted, swallowed hard at a lump which rose hinderingly in her throat.
"I feel somehow as though I was to blame, as though if you should mean
what you said, should--should--" Again she halted; the soft brown eyes
glistening, the dainty oval chin trembling uncontrollably, her fingers
locked tight. A moment she stood so, uncertain, helpless; then of a
sudden the full horror of the possibility the other had suggested came
over her, swept away the last barrier of reserve. Not the faintest
suspicion of the man's sincerity, of his honesty, occurred to her, not
the remotest doubt. In all her life no one had ever lied to her; she had
never consciously lied to another. The world of subterfuge was an unread
book. This man had intimated he would do this terrible thing. He meant
it. He would do it, unless--unless--

"Don't," she pleaded in abandon. "Don't!" The hand was still lying idle
on the man's knee, and reaching down she lifted it, held it prisoner
between her own. It was not a suggestion she was combating now. It was a
certainty. "Promise me you won't do this thing." She shook the hand
insistently; at first gently, then, as there was no response, almost
roughly. "Tell me you won't do it. Promise me; please, please!"

"But I can't promise," said the man dully. "I'm useless absolutely; I
never realised before how useless. You didn't intend to do it, but
you've made me see it all to-day. I don't blame you, but I can't
promise. I can't."

Silence fell upon them; silence complete as upon the top of a mountain,
as in the depths of a mine, the absolute silence of the prairie. For
seconds it remained with them, for long-drawn-out, distorted seconds;
then, interrupting, something happened. There was not a cloud in the
sky, nor the vestige of a cloud. The sun still shone bright as before;
yet distinctly, undeniably, the man felt a great wet spattering drop
fall from above upon his hand--and a moment later another. He glanced
up, hesitated; sprang to his feet, his big body towering above that of
the little woman already standing.

"Elizabeth!" he said tensely. "Cousin Bess! I can't believe it." He took
her by the shoulders compellingly, held her at arm's length; and the
angel who watched halted with pen in air, indecisive. "We've known each
other such a ludicrously short time--but a few hours. Can it be possible
that you really meant that, that at least to someone it does really
matter?" It was his turn to question, to wait breathlessly when no
answer came. "Would you really care, you, if I were dead? Tell me, Bess,
tell me, as though you were saying a prayer." One hand still retained
its grip on her shoulder, but its mate loosened, instinctively sought
that averted, trembling chin, as hundreds of men, his ancestors, had
done to similar chins in their day, lifted it until their eyes met. Had
he been facing his Maker that moment and the confession his last,
Clayton Craig could not have told whether it were passion or art, that
action. "Tell me, Bess girl, is it mere pity, or do you really care?"

Face to face they stood there, eye to eye as two strangers, meeting by
chance in darkness and storm, read each the other's mind in the glitter
of a lightning flash. It was all so swift, so fantastic, so unexpected
that for a moment the girl did not realise, did not understand. For an
instant she stood so, perfectly still, her great eyes opening wider and
wider, opening wonderingly, dazedly, as though the other had done what
she feared--and of a sudden returned again to life; then in mocking,
ironic reaction came tardy comprehension, and with the strength of a
captured wild thing she drew back, broke free. A second longer she stood
there, not her chin alone, but her whole body trembling; then without a
word she turned, mounted the single step, fumbled at the knob of the
door. "Bess," said the man softly, "Cousin Bess!" But she did not
glance back nor speak, and, listening, his ear to the panel, Craig heard
her slowly climb the creaking stairs to her own room and the door close
behind her.




CHAPTER VIII


THE SKELETON WITHIN THE CLOSET

Comparatively few men of cheerful outlook and social inclination attain
the age of five and fifty without contracting superfluous avoirdupois
and distinctive mannerism. That Colonel William Landor was no exception
to the first rule was proven by the wheezing effort with which he made
his descent from the two-seated canvas-covered surrey in front of Bob
Manning's store, and, with a deftness born of experience, converted the
free ends of the lines into hitch straps. That the second premise held
true was demonstrated ten seconds later in the unconscious grunt of
soliloquy with which he greeted the sight of a wisp of black rag tacked
above the knob of the door before him.

"Mourning, eh," he commented to his listening ego. "Looks like a strip
of old Bob's prayer-meeting trousers." He tried the entrance, found it
locked, and in lieu of entering tested the badge of sorrow between thumb
and finger. "Pant stuff, sure enough," he corroborated. "It can't be Bob
himself, or they'd have needed these garments to lay him out in. Now
what in thunder, I wonder--"

He glanced across the street at Slim Simpson's eating house. Like the
general store, the door was closed, and just above the catch, flapping
languidly in a rising prairie breeze, was the mate to the black rag
dangling at his back. The spectator's shaggy eyebrows tightened in
genuine surprise, and with near-sighted effort he inspected the fronts
of the short row of other buildings along the street.

"Civilisation's struck Coyote Centre good and proper, at last,
evidently," he commented. "They'll be having a bevel plate hearse with
carved wood tassels and a coon driver next!" He halted, indecisive, and
for the first time became conscious that not a human being was in sight.
In the street before him a pair of half-grown cockerels with ludicrously
long legs and abbreviated tails were scratching a precarious living from
amid the litter. On the sunny expanse of sidewalk before Buck Walker's
meat market a long-eared mongrel lay stretched out luxuriously in the
physical contentment of the subservient unmolested; but from one end of
the single street to the other not a human being was in sight; save the
present spectator, not a single disturber of the all-pervading quiet.
Landor had seen the spot where the town now stood when it was virgin
prairie, had watched every building it boasted rise from the earth, had
hitherto observed it through the gamut of its every mood from nocturnal
recklessness to profoundest daybreak remorse; but as it was now with the
sun nearing the meridian, deserted, dead--.

"Well, I'm beat!" he exploded as emphatically as though another were
listening. "There must have been a general cleanup this time. I fear
that the report of my respected nephew--" He checked himself suddenly, a
bit guiltily. Even though no one was listening, he was loath to voice an
inevitable conclusion. Decision, however, had triumphed over surprise at
last, and, leaving the main street, he headed toward what the proud
citizens denominated the residence quarter--a handful of unpainted
weather-stained one-story boxes, destitute of tree or of shrub
surrounding as factory tenements. The sun was positively hot now, and as
he went he unbuttoned his vest and sighed in unconscious satisfaction at
the relief. At the second domicile, a residence as nearly like the first
as a duplicate pea from the same pod, he turned in at the lane leading
to the house unhesitatingly, and without form of knocking opened the
door and stepped inside.

The room he entered was bare, depressingly so; bare as to its uncarpeted
cottonwood floor, bare in its hard-finished, smoke-tinted walls. In it,
to the casual observer, there were visible but four objects: an
old-fashioned walnut desk that had once borne a top, but which did so no
longer; two cane-bottomed chairs with rickety arms; and, seated in one
thereof, a man. The latter looked up as the visitor entered, revealing
an unshaven chin and a pair of restless black eyes over the left of
which the lid drooped appreciably. He was smoking a long black stogie,
and scattered upon his vest and in a semicircle surrounding his chair
was a sprinkling of white ash from vanished predecessors. Though he
looked up when the other entered, and Landor returned the scrutiny,
there was no salutation, not even when, without form of invitation, the
rancher dropped into the vacant seat opposite and tossed his broad felt
hat familiarly amid the litter of the desk. A moment they sat so, while
with an effort the newcomer recovered his breath.

"I thought I'd find you here, Chantry," he initiated eventually. "I've
noticed that the last place to look for a doctor is in the proximity of
a funeral." He fumbled in his pocket and produced a stogie, mate to that
in the other's mouth. "This particular ceremony, by the way, I gather
from the appearance of the metropolis, must have been of more than
ordinary interest." And lighting a match he puffed until his face was
concealed.

"Rather," laconically.

"Never mind the details," Landor prevented hurriedly. The haze had
cleared somewhat, and he observed his taciturn companion appreciatively.
"I left Mary up with Jim Burton's wife, and I think she can be trusted
to attend to such little matters."

Chantry smoked on without comment, but his restless black eyes were
observing the other shrewdly. Not without result had the two men known
each other these five years.

"It's a great convenience, this having women in the family," commented
Landor impersonally. "It's better than a daily paper, any time." Again
the deliberate, appreciate look. "You haven't decided yet to prove the
fact for yourself, have you?"

Still Chantry smoked in silence, waiting. The confidence that had
brought the other to him was very near now, almost apparent. Only too
well he knew the signs--the good-natured satire that ill concealed a
tolerance broad as the earth, the flow of trivialities that cleared the
way later of non-essentials. In silence he waited; and, as he had known
the moment that big figure appeared in the doorway, it came.

Deliberately Landor removed the stogie from his lips, as deliberately
flicked off the loose ash onto the floor at his side, inspected the
burning tuck critically.

"Supposing," he introduced baldly, "a fellow--an old fellow like
myself," he corrected precisely, "was to be going about his business as
an old fellow should, in a two-seated surrey with canvas curtains such
as you've seen me drive sometimes." The speaker paused a second to clear
his throat. "Supposing this old fellow was just riding through the
country easy, taking his time and with nothing particular on his mind,
and all of a sudden he should feel as though someone had sneaked up and
stuck him from behind with a long, sharp knife. Supposing this should
happen, and, although it was the middle of the day, everything should go
black as night and he should wake up, he couldn't tell how much later,
and find himself all heaped up in the bottom of the rig and the team
stock still out in the middle of the prairie." Deliberately as it had
left, the cigar returned to the speaker's lips, was puffed hard until
it glowed furiously; and was again critically examined. "Supposing such
a fat old fellow as myself should tell you this. As a doc and a
specialist, would you think there was something worth while the matter
with him?"

Still Chantry did not speak, but the burned-out stump in his fingers
sought a remote corner of the room, consorted with a goodly collection
of its mates, and the drooping eyelid tightened.

"Supposing," continued Landor, "the thing should happen the second time,
and the old fellow, who wasn't good at walking, should be spilled out
and have to foot it home three miles. What would you think then?"

One of Chantry's hands, itself not over clean, dusted the ash off his
vest absently.

"When was it, this last time?" he questioned.

"Yesterday," impassively. "I'd started for here to meet my nephew when
the thing struck me; and when I managed to get home I sent How over
instead." He halted reminiscently. "I wrote the boy to come a couple of
weeks ago--that's when it caught me first."

"Your nephew, Craig, knows about it, does he?"

Landor puffed anew with a shade of embarrassment.

"No. I thought there was no call to tell the folks at the ranch. Mary'd
have a cat-fit if she knew. I told them I got out to shoot at a coyote,
and the bronchos ran away." He glanced at the other explanatorily,
deprecatingly. "Clayton is my sister's son and the only real relative I
have, you know. I just asked him to come on general principles."

Chantry made no comment. Opening a drawer of the desk, he fumbled amid a
litter of articles useful and useless, and, extracting a battered
stethoscope, shifted his chair forward until it was close to the other
and stuck the tiny tubes to his ears. Still without comment he opened
the rancher's shirt, applied the instrument, listened, shifted it,
listened, shifted and listened the third time--slid his chair back to
the former position.

"What else do you know?" he asked.

Landor buttoned up the gap in his shirt methodically.

"Nothing, except that the thing is in the family. My father went that
way when he was younger than I am, and his father the same." The stogie
had gone dead in his fingers, and he lit a fresh one steadily. "I've
been expecting it to catch up with me for years."

"Your father died of it, you say?"

"Yes; on Thanksgiving Day." The big rancher shifted position, and in
sympathy the rickety chair groaned dismally. "Dinner was waiting, I
remember, a regular old-fashioned New England dinner with a stuffed
sucking pig and a big turkey with his drumsticks in the air. Mother and
Frances--that's my sister--were waiting, and they sent me running to
call father. He was a lawyer, and a great hand to shut himself up and
work. I was starved hungry, and I remember I hot-footed it proper
upstairs to his den and threw open the door." Puff! puff! went the big
stogie. "An Irish plasterer with seven kids ate that turkey, I
recollect," he completed, "and I've never kept Thanksgiving from that
day to this."

"And your grandfather?" unemotionally.

"Just the same. He was a preacher, and the choir was singing the opening
anthem at the time."

The doctor threw one thin leg over the other and stared impassively out
the single window. It faced the main street of the town.

"The doings are over for this time, I fancy," he digressed evenly. "I
see a row of bronchos tied down in front of Red's place."

Landor did not look around.

"Mary and Mrs. Burton will count them, never fear," he recalled in mock
sarcasm. "What I want to know is your opinion."

"In my opinion there's nothing to be done," said Chantry.

Landor shifted again, and again the chair groaned in mortal agony.

"I know that. What I mean is how long is it liable to be before--" he
halted and jerked his thumb over his shoulder--"before Bob and the rest
will be doing that to me?"

Chantry's gaze left the window, met the shrewd grey eyes beneath the
other's drooping lids.

"It may be a day and it may be ten years," he said.

Unconsciously Landor settled deeper into his seat. His jaws closed
tight on the stump of the stogie. Unwaveringly he returned the other's
gaze.

"You have a more definite idea than that, though," he pressed. "Tell me,
and let's have it over with."

For five seconds Chantry did not speak; but the restless black eyes
bored the other through and through, at first impersonally, as, scalpel
in hand, he would have studied a patient before the first incision in a
major operation; then, as against the other's will, a great drop of
sweat gathered on the broad forehead, personally, intimately.

"Yes, my opinion is more definite than that," he corroborated evenly. He
did not suggest that he was sorry to say what he was about to say, did
not qualify in advance by intimating that his prognosis might be wrong.
"I think the next attack will be the last. Moreover, I believe it will
come soon, very soon." Impassively as he had spoken, he produced a book
of rice paper from his pocket and a rubber pouch of tobacco. The long
fingers were skilful, and a cigarette came into being as under a
machine. Without another word he lit a match and waited until the flame
was well up on the wood. Of a sudden a great cloud of kindly smoke
separated him from the other.

With an effort the big rancher lifted in his seat, passed his sleeve
across his forehead clumsily.

"Thank you, Chantry." He cleared his throat raspingly. "As I said, I
expected this; that's why I came to see you to-day." For the second time
his cigar was dead, but he did not light it again. There was no need of
subterfuge now. "I want you to do me a favour." He looked at the other
steadily through the diminishing haze. "Will you promise me?"

"No," said Chantry.

Landor stared as one who could not believe his ears.

"No!" he interrogated.

"I said so."

A trace of colour appeared in the rancher's mottled cheeks as, with an
effort, he got to his feet.

"I beg your pardon then for disturbing you," he said coldly. "I was
labouring under the delusion that you were a friend."

The brief career of the cigarette was ended. Chantry's long fingers had
locked over his knee. He did not move.

"Sit down, please," he said. "It is precisely because I am your friend
that I will not promise."

Landor halted, a question in every line of his face.

"I think I fail to understand," he groped. "I suppose I'm dense."

"No, you're merely transparent. You were going to ask the one thing I
can't promise you."

Landor stared, in mystified uncertainty.

"Please sit down. You were going to ask me to take charge of your
affairs if anything was to happen. Is it not so?"

"Yes. But how in the world--" "Don't ask it then, please," swiftly. He
ignored the other's suggestion. "Get someone else, someone you've known
for a long time."

"I've known you for a long time--five years."

"Or leave everything in your wife's hands." Again Chantry scouted the
obvious. "If there should be need she could get a lawyer from the
city--"

"Lawyer nothing!" refuted Landor. "That's just what I wish to avoid.
Mary or the girl, either one, have about as much idea of taking care of
themselves as they have of speaking Chinese. They'd be on the county
inside a year, with no one interested to look out for them."

"But How--"

"He's as bad. He can ride a broncho, or stalk a sandhill crane where
there isn't cover to hide your hat, or manage cattle, or stretch out in
the sun and: dream; but business--He wouldn't know a bank cheque if he
saw one; and, what's worse, he doesn't want to know."

"Craig, then, your nephew--" It was not natural for Chantry to be
perfunctory, and he halted.

For a moment the big rancher was silent. In his lap his fingers met
unconsciously, tip to tip, in the instinctive habit of age.

"I anticipated that," he said wearily. "I realise it's the obvious thing
to do. I never adopted How as I did the girl--I was willing to, but he
didn't see the use--and so Craig's the only man kin I have." The life
and magnetism, usually so noticeable in Landor's great figure, had
vanished. It was merely an old man facing the end who settled listlessly
into his seat. "I had big hopes of the boy. I hadn't seen him since he
was a youngster, and Frances, while she lived, was always bragging about
his doings. That's why I sent for him." Pat, pat went the big fingers in
his lap against each other. "I've always felt that if worst came to
worst the women folks would have someone practical to rely on; but
somehow, when I saw him last night, from what he said and what he didn't
say, from the way he acted and the way he explained--what happened here
last evening--" The speaker caught himself. A trace of the old
shrewdness crept into the grey eyes as he inspected his companion
steadily. "I know How pretty well, and when someone intimates to me that
he is a grand-stand player, or goes out of his way to pick a quarrel, or
meddles with someone else's affairs--" Again the big man caught himself.
The scrutiny became almost a petition. "I cut you off short about what
went on here yesterday," he digressed. "I didn't want to hear. I guess I
was afraid to hear. It's been foolish, I know, but I've depended a good
deal upon the boy, and I'm afraid he's going to be a--disappointment."

With the old machine-like precision Chantry rolled another cigarette,
lit it, sent a great cloud of smoke tumbling up toward the ceiling. That
was all.

"You see for yourself how it is," said the rancher. "I wouldn't ask you
again if there was anyone else I could go to; but there isn't. Maybe I'm
only borrowing trouble, maybe there won't be anything for you or anyone
to do; but it would be a big load off my mind to know that if anything
should happen.--" He halted abruptly. It was not easy for this man to
discuss his trouble, even to a friend. "It isn't such a big thing I'm
asking," he hurried. "I'm sure if positions were reversed and you were
to request me--"

"I know you would. I realise I seem ungrateful. I--" Of a sudden,
interrupting, Chantry arose precipitately: a thin, ungainly figure in
shiny, thread-bare broadcloth, exotic to the point of caricature.
Unconsciously he started pacing back and forth across the room,
restlessly, almost fiercely. Never in the years he had previously known
the man had Landor seen him so, seen him other than the impassive,
almost forbidding practitioner of a minute ago. For the time being his
own trouble was forgotten in surprise, and he stared at the
transformation almost unbelievingly. Back and forth, back and forth went
the thin, ungainly shape, the ill-laid floor creaking as he moved,
paused at last before the single dust-stained window, stood like a
silhouette looking out over the desolate town. Watching, Landor shifted
uncomfortably in his seat. Once he cleared his throat as if to speak. An
instinct told him he should say something; but he was in the dark
absolutely, and words would not come. Reaching over to the desk he took
up his broad felt hat and sat twirling it in his fingers, waiting.

As suddenly as he had arisen Chantry returned, resumed his seat. His
face had grown noticeably pale, and his left eyelid drooped even more
than normally.

"I feel I owe you an apology," he said swiftly. "In a way we've been
friends, and as you say, it's not a big thing you ask of me; but
nevertheless I can't grant it. Please don't ask me."

The hat in Landor's hands became still, significantly still.

"I admit I don't understand," he accepted, "but of course if you feel
that way, I shall not ask you again." Unconsciously a trace of the
former stiffness returned to his manner as he arose heavily. "I think
I'd better be going." His mouth twitched in an effort at pleasantry.
"Mary'll be dying to give me the details."

Chantry did not smile, did not again ask the other to resume his seat.
Instead, he himself arose, stood facing his guest squarely.

"I feel that I owe you an explanation as well," he said repressedly.
"Would you like to hear?"

"Yes--if you don't mind. If you'd prefer not to, however--"

"No, I'd rather you--understood than to go that way." The doctor cleared
his throat in the manner of one who smokes overmuch. "We all have our
skeleton hid away somewhere, I suppose. At least I have mine, and it
keeps bobbing out at times like this when I most wish--" He caught
himself, met his companion's questioning look fairly. "Haven't you
wondered why I ever came here; why, having come, I remain?" he queried
suddenly. "You know that I barely make enough to live, that sometimes I
don't have a case a week. Did it never occur to you that there was
something peculiar about it all?"

"Peculiar?" The hat in the rancher's hand started revolving again. He
had, indeed, thought of it before, thought of it tolerantly, with a
vague sense of commiseration--an attitude very similar to that with
which the uninitiated observe a player at golf; but that there might be
another, a sinister meaning--.

"If it hasn't occurred to you before, doesn't it seem peculiar, now that
you consider it?" The question came swiftly, tensely, with a
significance there was no misunderstanding. "Tell me, please."

"Yes, perhaps; but--"

"But you do see, though," relentlessly. "You can't help but see." The
speaker started anew the restless, aimless pace. "The country is full of
us; all new countries are." He was still speaking hurriedly, tensely, as
we tell of a murder or a ghastly tragedy; something which in duty we
must confide, but which we hasten to have over. "It's easier to get here
than to Mexico or to Canada, and until the country is settled, until
people begin to suspect--" He halted suddenly opposite the other, his
face deathly pale, deathly tortured. "In God's name, don't you
understand now?" he questioned passionately. "Must I tell you in so many
words why I refused, why I don't dare do anything else but refuse?"

"No, you don't need to tell me." Absently, unconsciously, the rancher
produced a red bandana handkerchief and wiped his face; then thrust it
back into his pocket. "I think I understand at last." His eyes had
dropped and he did not raise them again to his companion. "I'm sorry,
very sorry, that I asked you; sorry most of all that--" He halted
diffidently, his great hands hanging loose at his side, his broad
shoulders drooping wearily. He was not glib of speech, at best, and this
second blow was hard to bear. A full half minute he stood so, hesitant,
searching for words; then heavily, clumsily, he turned, started for the
door. "I really must be going," he concluded.

Chantry did not ask him to stay, made no motion to prevent his going.
Tense, motionless, he stood where he had last paused, waited in silence
until the visitor's hand was upon the knob.

"Good-bye Landor," he said then simply.

Not the words themselves, but something in the tone caused the rancher
to halt, to look back.

"Good-day, you mean, rather," he corrected.

"No, good-bye. You will not see me again."

"You don't mean--"

"No. I'm too much of a coward for that, or I should have done so long
ago. I merely mean I'll move on to-morrow."

Face to face the two men stood staring at each other. Seconds drifted
by. It was the doctor who spoke at last.

"God knows that if I could, I'd change with you even now, Landor," he
said repressedly. "I'd change with you gladly." A moment he stood so,
tense as a wire drawn to the point of breaking, ghastly tense; then of a
sudden he went lax. Instinctively his fingers sought his pockets, and
there where he stood he started swiftly to roll a cigarette.

"Go, please," he requested. "Good-bye."




CHAPTER IX


THE VOICE OF THE WILD

Eight miles out on the prairie, out of sight of the Buffalo Butte ranch
house--save for a scattering herd of grazing cattle in the distance, and
a hobbled mouse-coloured broncho feeding near at hand, out of sight of
every living thing--a man lay stretched full length upon the ground. It
was the time of day that Landor had tried the door of Bob Manning's
store, and the broad brim of the man's hat was pulled far forward to
keep the glitter from his eyes. Under his head was a rolled-up blanket;
an Indian blanket that even so showed against the brown earth in a blot
of glaring colour. His hands were deep in his pockets; his moccasined
feet were crossed. At first sight, an observer would have thought him
asleep; but he was not asleep. The black eyes that looked forth
motionless from beneath the hat brim, that apparently never for an
instant left that scattering blot where, distorted, fantastic from
distance and through the curling heat waves the herd grazed, were very
wide awake indeed. They were not even drowsy or off guard. They were
merely passive, absolutely passive. The whole body was passive,
motionless, relaxed in every muscle and every nerve; and therein lay the
marvel--to all save the thousandth human in this restless age, the
impossibility. To be awake and still motionless, to do absolutely
nothing, not even sleep--seemingly the simplest feat in life, it is one
of the most difficult. A wild thing can do it, all wild things when need
is sufficient; but man, modern man--Here and there one retains the
faculty, as here and there one worships another God than wealth; but
here and there only. Yet it was such an one that lay alone out there on
the Dakota prairie that October day; one who, as Craig had said, hinted
unfortunately of comic opera, but who never, even in remotest
conception, fancied that comic opera existed, a dreamer and yet,
notwithstanding, a doer, an Indian, and still not an Indian;
Ma-wa-cha-sa by name.

With the approach of midday a light wind had arisen, and now, wandering
northward, it tugged at the pony's long, shaggy mane and tail, set each
individual hair of the little beast vibrating in unjustified ferocity;
and, drifting aimlessly on, stirred the brittle grass stalks at the
man's feet with the muffled crackling of a far-distant prairie fire. The
herd, a great machine cutting clean every foot of the sun-cured grass in
its path, moved on and on, reached a low spot in the gently rolling
country, and passed slowly from view; then, still moving forward, took
shape on the summit of the next rise, more distinct than before.

Time passed as the man lay there, time that to another would have been
interminable, that to him was apparently unnoted. Gradually, as the full
heat of the day approached, the breeze became stronger, set the heat
waves dancing to swifter measure, sang audibly in the listener's ears
its siren song of prairie and of peace. The broncho, its appetite
temporarily satisfied, lay down fair in its tracks, groaned lazily in
the action, and shut its eyes. It was the rest time of the wild, and the
same instinct appealed to the leader of the distant herd. Down it went
where it stood as the pony had done, disappeared absolutely from view. A
moment later another followed, and another, and another. It was almost
uncanny, there in the fantastic glimmer, that disappearance. In the
space of minutes, look where one would, the horizon was blank. Where the
herd had been there was nothing, not even a blot. It was as the desert,
and the vanished herd a mirage. It was like the far northland tight in
the grip of winter, like the ocean at night. It was the Dakota frontier
at midday.

Again time passed and, motionless as at first, wide eyed, the man lay
looking out. The pony was sound asleep now. Its nostrils widened and
narrowed rhythmically and it snored at intervals. Save for this and the
soft crackle of the grass and the aeolian song of the wind the earth was
still; still as death; so still that, indescribably soft as it was
immeasurably distant, the man detected of a sudden against it a new
sound. But he did not stir. The black eyes looked out motionless as at
first. He merely waited a minute, two--and it came again; a bit louder
this time, more distinct, unmistakable.

This time the listener moved. Deftly, swiftly, he unrolled the gaudy
blanket, spread it thin upon the ground, covered it completely with his
body. In lieu of a pillow his arms crossed under his head, and, leaning
back, the hat brim still shading his eyes, he lay gazing up into the
sky, motionless as a prairie boulder.

Again the sound was repeated; not a single note, but a medley, a chorus.
It was still faint, still immeasurable as to distance; but nearer than
before and approaching closer second by second. Not from the earth did
it come, but from the air. Not by any stretch of the imagination was it
an earthly sound, but aerial. It was an alien note and still it was not
alien. There upon the silent earth with its sunshine and its illimitable
distances, it seemed very much a part of the whole. Its keynote was the
keynote of the time and place, its message was their message, the thrill
it bore to the listener the thrill of the whole. It was not a musical
call, that steadily approaching sound. No human being has ever been able
to locate it in pitch or metre; yet to such as the listening man upon
the ground, to those who have heard it year by year, it is nevertheless
the sweetest, most insistent of music. Beside it there is no other note
which will compare, none other which even approaches its appeal. It is
the spirit of the wild, of magnificent distances, of freedom
impersonate. It is to-day, it was then; for the sound that the man heard
drawing nearer and nearer that October afternoon was the swelling,
diminishing note of the migrant on its way south, of the grey Canada
honker en route from the Arctic circle to the Gulf of Mexico.

"Honk! honk!" Sonorous, elusive, came the sound. It was within a half
mile now, and there was no mistaking the destination, the intent of its
makers. "Honk! honk! honk! honk!" from many throats, in many keys,
louder and louder, confused as children's voices at play; then in turn
diminishing, retreating. Very mystifying to one who did not understand
would have been that augmenting, lessening sound; but to that waiting
human boulder it was no mystery. As plainly as though he could see, he
knew every movement of that approaching triangle. As certainly as the
broncho near by and the herd in the distance had responded to the
sunshine and the time of day, he knew they were responding. To all wild
things it was the rest hour, and to those a half mile high in the air as
inevitably as to the beast on earth instinct had said "halt." They were
still going southward, still drawing nearer and nearer; but it would not
be for long. Already they were circling, descending, searching here and
there for a place to alight, to rest. Suspicious even here, they were
taking their time; but distinct now amid the confusion was the sound of
their great wings against the denser air, and the "Honk! honk! honk!"
was a continuous chatter.

Circle after circle made the flock. Once their noise all but ceased, and
the listener fancied for an instant they were down, but in a moment it
was resumed louder than before, and he knew they were still a-wing.
"Honk! honk! honk! honk! honk! honk!" They were very near indeed, so
near that the sleeping pony was aroused at the clamour and, lifting its
head, looked about curiously.

"Honk! honk! honk! Flap! flap! Swish!" Between the sun and the watcher
there fell a moving shadow and another--then a multitude. The clamour
was all-surrounding, the flap of great wings a continuous beating, the
whistle of air like that in a room with a myriad buzzing electric fans.
Temporarily the prairie breeze was lost; swallowed up in the greater
movement. Surprised, for the moment frightened, the broncho sprang to
his feet--paused irresolute. For an instant the sky was hid. Overhead,
to right, to left, all-obscuring, was nothing but a blot of great grey
bodies, of wide wings lighter on the under surface, of long, curious
necks, of dangling feet; then, swiftly as it had come it passed; the sun
shone anew; the cloud and the shadow thereof, going straight in the face
of the wind, wandered on. "Honk! honk! honk! honk! honk! honk!" they
repeated; but it was the voice of departure. The thing was done. There
on the level earth, fair in view, they had passed overhead within twenty
feet of their arch-enemy, man; and had not known. Now less than a
quarter of a mile away they were circling for the last time. One big
gander was already down and stretching his long neck from side to side.
Another, with a great flapping of wings, was beside him; and another,
and another. The prairie wind carried along the sound of their chatter;
but it was subdued now, entirely different from the clamour of a bit
ago. Against the blue of the sky where they had been a blot only, the
curling, dancing heat waves arose. One and all had answered the siesta
call.

Up to this time the man who watched had not stirred. As they had gone
over, the wide-open eyes had stared up at them; but not in the twitching
of a muscle had the long body betrayed him. Not even now that it was
over did he move. Instead, low at first, then louder, a whistle sounded.
The pony, wide awake now, was grazing contentedly; but he paused. The
whistle sounded for the third time, and reluctantly he drew near, halted
obediently. Then at last there was action. With one motion the Indian
was on his feet. Swiftly as it was spread the blanket was rolled and
replaced in the waterproof pouch with the remnants of the lunch and a
book of odds and ends which he carried always with him. The whole was
strapped to the pony's bare back. As swiftly the hobble was removed and,
not a minute from the time the last bird was down, the man and the
beast, the latter only visible from the direction in which they were
going, were moving on a zigzag, circuitous trail toward the resting yet
ever-watchful flock before them.

On they went, the pony first, the crouching man beside, his body even
with the pony's front legs, his eyes peering through the wind-tossed
mane. First to the right, then to the left they tacked, halting at
intervals, as a pony wandering aimlessly will halt now and then to feed;
but never losing the general direction, always bit by bit drawing nearer
and nearer. A half hour passed by and in it they covered forty
rods--half the distance. Thirty minutes more elapsed and they had
crossed an equal portion of the remaining space. Then it was they halted
and a peculiar thing happened.

The wind had gradually risen during the day, and now, the middle of the
afternoon, was blowing steadily. Light objects unattached move easily
across the level prairie at this time of year, and here and there under
its touch one after another of a particular kind were already in motion.
Fluffy, unsubstantial objects they were, as large as a bushel measure
and rudely circular. Looking out over the level earth often a half dozen
at a time were visible, rolling and halting and rolling again on an
endless journey from nowhere to nowhere. They were the well-named tumble
weeds of the prairie; as distinctive as the resting flock of late
autumn, of approaching winter. One of these it was now that came
tumbling in lazily from the south and, barely missing the indifferent
birds themselves, dawdled languidly on toward the pony beyond. On it
came, would have passed to the right; but, under an impulse he in no way
understood, the broncho moved to intercept it. Fair in its path, the
little beast would still have shifted to give it right of way, for the
weed is very prickly; but again the authority he did not question held
him in his place, and the three, the man, the horse, and the plant, came
together. Then it was the _finale_ began, the real test, the matching of
human cunning and animal watchfulness.

Left alone there upon the prairie, the indifferent broncho resumed its
feeding. Away from it, foot by foot, so slowly that a careful observer
could barely have seen it stir, moved the great weed. No animal on the
face of earth save man himself would have been suspicious of that
natural blind; even he would have overlooked it had he not by chance
noted that while every other of its kind was moving with the wind, it
slowly but surely was advancing against it. The scene where the drama
was taking place was level as a floor, the grazed grass that covered it
scarcely higher than a man's hand; yet from in front not an inch of the
Indian's long body was visible, not a sound marked its advance. In
comparison with its movement time passed swiftly; a third half hour
while it was advancing ten rods. Already the short autumn afternoon was
drawing to a close. The sun was no longer uncomfortably hot. The heat
waves had ceased dancing. In sympathy the prairie breeze, torn of the
sun, was becoming appreciably milder. As certainly as it had come, the
brief rest period was drawing to a close.

But the long figure that gave the blind motion showed no haste. Inch by
inch it advanced, never still, yet never hurrying. The great
unsuspicious birds were very near now, so near that a white hunter
would have lost his equanimity in anticipation. Through the meshwork of
the blind the stalker counted them. Twenty-seven there were together,
and near to him another, a sentinel. He was within half the distance of
a city block of the latter, so close that he could see the beady,
watchful eyes, the pencillings of the plumage, the billowing of feathers
as the long neck shifted from side to side. Verily it was a moment to
make a sportsman's blood leap--to make him forget; but not even then did
the Indian show a sign of excitement, not for a minute did the lithe
body cease in its soundless serpentine motion. It was splendid, that
patient, stealthy approach, splendid in its mastery of the still hunt;
but beyond this it was more, it was fearful. Had an observer been where
no observer was, it would inevitably have carried with it another
suggestion--the possibilities of such a man were a real object, one
vital to his life, and not a mere pastime, at stake. What would this
patient, tireless, splendid animal do then? What if another man, his
enemy, were the object, the quarry?

The rest time at last was over. Insidiously into the air had crept a
suggestion of coolness, of approaching night. In the background the pony
ceased feeding, stood patiently awaiting the return of its rider. Far in
the distance, the herd, a darker blot against the brown earth, were once
more upon their feet. The flock, that heretofore like a group of
barnyard fowls in the dust and the sun had remained indolently resting
and preening their plumage, grew alert. One after the other they began
wandering here and there aimlessly, restlessly. The subdued chatter
became positive. Two great ganders meeting face to face hissed a
challenge. Here and these a big bird spread its great wings tentatively,
and folded them again with distinct reluctance. The cycle was all but
complete. The instinct that in the beginning had bid them south, that
had for this brief time sent them to earth, was calling again. In
sympathy the restless head of the sentinel went still. Another minute,
another second even, perhaps, and they would be gone. Through the filmy
screen the stalker saw it all, read the meaning. He had ere this drawn
unbelievably near. Barely the width of a narrow street separated him
from the main flock--less than the breadth of a goodly sized room the
motionless sentinel. It was the moment for action.

And action followed. Like a mighty spring the slim muscular body
contracted in its length. Toes and fingers dug into the earth like a
sprinter awaiting the starting pistol. He drew a long breath. Then of a
sudden, straight over the now useless blind, unexpected, startling as a
thunderclap out of a cloudless sky, directly toward the nearest bird
bounded a tall brown figure, silent as a phantom. For a second the
entire flock stared in dumb paralytic surprise; then following there
came a note of terror from eight and twenty throats that rose as one
voice, that over the now silent prairie could have been heard for
miles. It was the signal for action, for escape, and, terror-mad, they
broke into motion. But a flock of great Canada geese cannot, like quail,
spring directly a-wing. They must first gather momentum. This they
attempted to gain--in its accomplishment all but one succeeded. That
one, the leader, the sentinel, was too near. Almost before that first
note of terror had left his throat the man was upon him. Ere he could
rise two relentless hands had fastened upon his beating wings and held
him prisoner. Hissing, struggling, he put up the best fight he could;
but it was useless. "Honk! honk! honk! honk! honk! honk!" shrilled the
flock now safe in the air. "Honk! honk! honk!" as with wings and feet
they climbed into the sky. "Honk! honk! honk!" softer and softer. "Honk!
honk! honk!" for the last time, faint as an echo; and they were gone.
Behind them the human and the wild thing his prisoner stood staring at
each other alone.

For a long, long time neither moved. Its first desperate effort to
escape past, the bird ceased to struggle, stood passive in its place;
passive as the man himself had remained there on the ground a few hours
before. Its long neck swayed here and there continuously, restlessly,
and its throat was a-throb; but no muscle of the body stirred. It had
made its fight--and lost. For the time being resistance was fatuous, and
it accepted the inevitable. Silent as its captor, it awaited the move of
the conqueror. It would resist again when the move came, resist to the
last ounce of its strength; but until then in instinctive wisdom it
would husband its energy.

Yet that move was very slow in coming. It was the time of day when
ordinarily the herder collected his drove and returned toward the home
corral; still he showed no intention of haste. The broncho was shaking
his head at intervals restlessly; too well trained to leave, yet
impatient as a hungry child for the return--and was ignored. For the
time being the man seemed to have forgotten all external considerations.
Not savagely nor cruelly, but with a sort of fascination he stood gazing
at this wild thing in his power. For a long, long time he did nothing
more, merely looked at it; looked admiringly, intimately. No trace of
blood hunger was in his face, no lust to kill; but pure
appreciation--and something more; something that made the two almost
kin. And they were much alike; almost startlingly alike. Each was
graceful in every movement, in every line. Each was of its kind physical
perfection. Each unmistakably bore a message of the wild; of solitude,
of magnificent distances. Each was a part of its setting; as much so as
the all-surrounding silence. Last of all, each stood for one quality
dominant, one desire overtowering all others; and that was freedom,
unqualified, absolute.

Long as it was they stood there so, the bird was true to its instinct of
passive inaction. It was the human that made the first move. Gently,
slowly, one hand freed itself, stroked the silky soft plumage; stroked
it intimately, almost lovingly--as an animal mother caresses its young.
The man did not speak, made no sound, merely repeated the motion again
and again. Under the touch the restless head became still, the watchful
black eyes more watchful. That was all. Slowly as it had moved before,
the man's hand shifted anew, passed down, down, the glossy throat to the
breast--paused over the heart of the wild thing. There it remained, and
for the first time a definite expression came into the mask-like face; a
look of pity, of genuine contrition. A moment the hand lay there; then,
childish as it may seem, absurd, if you please, the man spoke aloud.

"You're afraid of me, deathly afraid, aren't you, birdie?" he queried
softly. "You think because I'm bigger than you and a cannibal, I'm going
to kill you." Kneeling, he looked fair into the black eyes--deep,
mysterious as the wild itself. "You think this, and still you don't
grovel, don't make a sound. You're brave, birdie, braver than most men."
He paused, and one by one his hands loosened their grip. "I'm proud of
you; so proud that I'm going to say good-bye." He straightened to his
full height. Unconsciously his arms folded across his chest. "Go,
birdie; you're free."

A moment longer there was inaction. Unbelieving, still a captive, the
great bird stood there motionless as before; then of a sudden it
understood; it was free. By some chance, some Providence, this great
animal, its captor, had lost the mastery, and it was free.
Simultaneously with the knowledge the pent-up energy of the last minutes
went active, fairly explosive. With a mighty rush it was away; feet and
wings beating the earth, the air. Swifter and swifter it went, gaining
momentum with each second. It barely touched the frost-brown prairie; it
cleared it entirely, it rose, rose, with mighty sweeps of mighty wings.
Oh, it was free! free! free! "Honk! honk!" Free! free! "Honk! honk!
honk!"

Like a statue, silent again as death, the man watched as the dark spot
on the horizon grew dimmer and dimmer until it faded at last into the
all-surrounding brown.




CHAPTER X


THE CURSE OF THE CONQUERED

It was late, very late on the prairie, when How Landor returned that
evening. The herd safely corralled for the night, he rode slowly toward
the ranch house, and, without leaving the pony's back, opened and closed
the gate of the barb wire fence surrounding the yard and approached the
house. There was a bright light in the living-room, and, still without
dismounting, he paused before the uncurtained window and looked in. Mrs.
Landor, looking even more faded and helpless than usual, sat holding her
hands at one side of the sheet-iron heater, and opposite her, his feet
on the top rim of the stove, sat Craig. The man was smoking a cigarette,
and even through the tiny-paned glass the air of the room looked blue.
Obviously the visitor and his aunt were not finding conversation easy,
and the former appeared distinctly bored. Neither Landor himself nor the
girl was anywhere visible, and, after a moment, the spectator moved on
around the corner. The dining-room as he passed was dark, likewise the
kitchen, and the rider made the complete circuit of the house, pausing
at last under a certain window on the second floor facing the south. It
was the girl's room, and, although the shade was drawn, a dim light was
burning behind. For perhaps a minute the man on the barebacked broncho
hesitated, looking up; then rolling his wide-brimmed hat into a cylinder
he moved very close to the weather-boarded wall. The building was low,
and, by stretching a bit, the tip of the roll in his hand reached the
second story. He tapped twice on the bottom of the pane.

No answer, but of a sudden the room went dark.

Tap! tap! repeated the hat brim gently.

Still no answer.

Again the man hesitated, and, the night air being a bit frosty, the pony
stamped impatiently.

"Bess," said a low voice, "it is I, How. Won't you tell me good-night?"

This time there was response. The curtain lifted and the sash was
opened; a face appeared, very white against the black background.

"Good-night, How," said a voice obediently.

The man settled back in his seat and the sombrero was unrolled.

"Nothing wrong, is there, Bess?" he hesitated. "You're not sick?"

"No, there's nothing wrong," monotonously. "I'm a bit tired, is all."

For a long minute the man said nothing, merely sat there, his black head
bare in the starlight, looking up at her. Repressed human that he was,
there seemed to him nothing now to say, nothing adequate. Meanwhile the
pony was growing more and more impatient. A tiny hoof beat at the
half-frozen ground rhythmically.

"All right, then, Bess," he said at last. "You mustn't sit there in the
window. It's getting chilly. Good-night."

The girl drew back until her face was in shadow.

"Good-night," she echoed for the second time, and the shade closed as
before.

For five minutes longer the Indian sat as he was, bare of head,
motionless; but the light did not return, nor did he hear a sound, and
at last he rode slowly out the gate and toward his own quarters.

The place where he lived was exactly a half mile from the Buffalo Butte
ranch house, and due north. Originally a one-room shack, grudgingly
built according to government requirements to prove up on a homestead,
it had recently been enlarged by the addition of a second larger room,
and as a whole the place further improved by the building of a sod and
weather-board barn. The reason for this was obvious, to one acquainted
with the tenant's habits particularly so. Just how long the Indian had
remained separate, just why he had first made the change, Landor himself
could hardly have told. Suffice it to say it had been for years, and in
all that time, even in the coldest weather, the voluntary exile had
never lived under a roof. Primitive or evolved as it might be, as youth
and as man, the Indian was a tent-dweller. Just now the little house was
being fitted up for occupancy, How himself doing it at odd moments of
the day and at evenings; but as yet he still lived, as always, under
eight by ten feet of canvas near at hand.

A lighted tent stands out very distinctly by contrast against a dark
horizon, and almost before he had left the ranch house yard the man on
the impatient, mouse-coloured broncho knew that he had company; yet,
characteristic in his every action, he did not hurry. Methodically he
put up the pony in the new barn, fed and bedded him for the night. From
the adjoining stall, out of the darkness, there came a nasal puppyish
whine and the protest of a straining chain. Had it been daylight, an
observer would have seen a woolly grey ball with a pointed nose and a
pair of sharp eyes tugging at the end of that tether; but as it was, two
gleaming eyes, very close together, were all that were visible. It was
to the owner of these eyes that the man gave the scraps from his lunch
remaining in the saddlebag. For it, as for the pony, he made a bed;
then--though the little beast was only a grey prairie wolf, it was a
baby and lonely--he knelt down and for a moment laid his own face
against the other's softly shaggy face.

When, a bit later, he arose and went toward the light there was a moist
spot on his cheek where a rough little tongue had inscribed its
affection.

On the tent wall was a shadow such as that made by a big man with his
back to the light, and as the newcomer opened the flap and stepped
inside the maker of the shadow roused himself in the manner of one
whose thoughts had been far away.

"You're late to-night," he commented.

"Yes."

Characteristic of the two men, no explanation was offered or expected,
and the subject dropped.

There was a small soft-coal stove in one corner, and in silence the
Indian threw in fresh fuel. The lantern hanging opposite was burning
low, and, turning it higher, he shifted the tin reflector so that the
light would play on the scene of operations. Leaving the tent for a
moment, he returned with a young grouse, and, dressing it skilfully, put
it in a skillet to fry. From the chest where he had been sitting he
produced a couple of cold boiled potatoes and sliced them into the
opposite side of the same pan. He did not hurry, he rather seemed to be
dawdling; yet almost before the observer awoke to the fact that supper
was under preparation a tiny folding table with a turkey red cloth was
set, the odour of coffee--cheap coffee, yet surprisingly fragrant--was
in the air, and the bird and potatoes were temptingly brown. It was
almost uncanny the way this man accomplished things. Landor himself
never ceased to marvel. How always seemed unconscious of what he was
doing, seemed always thinking of something else; yet he never wasted a
motion, and when the necessity arose the thing required was done. It was
so in small things. It was identical in large.

Up to this time, since that first perfunctory greeting not a word had
been spoken. Now, the meal complete, its maker halted hospitably.

"Better join me," he invited simply. "You must have had an early supper.
I noticed the kitchen was dark at the house."

"Yes. I'm not hungry, though." The big man sank lower into his seat
wearily. "I'm not feeling very well to-night."

In silence the younger man sat down to eat alone. He did not press his
invitation, he did not express sympathy at the other's admission. Either
would have been superfluous. Instead he ate with the hearty appetite of
a healthy human, and thereafter, swiftly and methodically as he had
prepared the meal, cleared the table and put all in order. Then at last,
the fire replenished and a couple of long-haired buffalo robes thrown
within the radius of its heat, he stretched full length thereon in the
perfect contentment of one whose labor for the day is done, and awaited
the something he knew had brought the other to him at this unusual hour.
"There's a pipe and tobacco in the drawer of the little table at your
right," he assisted.

Landor roused with a trace of surprise.

"I didn't know you ever smoked," he commented.

"I don't," simply. Again there was no suggestion of the superfluous, the
obvious explanation.

Nervously, almost jerkily, Landor filled the brier bowl and pressed the
brown flakes tight with his little finger. The match he lit crackled
explosively, and he started at the unexpected sound as one whose nerves
were on edge. The pipe aglow, he still sat for a moment puffing hard.

"How," he initiated then abruptly, "I wish you would do me a favour.
Will you promise me?"

The younger man did not hesitate, did not question. "If in my power,
yes, sir," he said.

That was all, yet better than a complete chapter it told the relation of
the two men; the unquestioning confidence of the younger, the trace of
almost patriarchal respect that never left his manner when, addressing
the elder. "If in my power, yes, sir."

"It isn't much I'm going to ask," continued Landor hurriedly. "It's
simply that you and Bess be married at once instead of waiting until the
day set." Puff, puff went the pipe as though the speaker were uncertain
whether or no to say more. "I have a particular reason for wishing it,"
he completed inadequately.

For a moment the Indian hesitated; but even then no question was voiced;
there was no probing of the confidence the other preferred not to give.

"I will speak to Bess to-morrow if you wish," he said.

Landor lit another match absently and held it to the already glowing
bowl; then threw it away, unconscious of what he had done.

"Another thing," he introduced hurriedly. "I'm pretty strong now, but
nevertheless I'm getting to be an old man, and so to-day while I was in
town I had Bob Manning witness my will. I know it's all form, but I feel
better to have things settled." With forced matter of factness he
knocked the burned contents of the pipe into the grate and filled the
bowl afresh. "Mary isn't used to having any responsibility, so I left
practically everything to Bess. I know that if anything should happen to
me you'd take care of her mother."

No answer, though Landor waited expectantly.

"I don't need to ask your promise to be good to Bess." Very different
from his usual peremptory self was the big rancher to-night, very
obvious, pathetically so, his effort to appear natural. "I know you'll
make her happy, my boy."

Even yet there was no response, and the visitor shifted uncomfortably.
As well as he knew his own name he knew that his secret was secret no
longer. Yet with the instinct of the wild thing that hides itself to die
alone he avoided direct mention of the fact, direct wording of the
inevitable. But something in the attitude of the motionless figure
before him prevented further dissimulation. Some influence urged him to
hasten the _denouement_ which he knew was but postponed. With an effort
he straightened in his seat and for the first time met the other's black
eyes steadily.

"I did right, don't you think, How?" he questioned directly.

"Right, perhaps; I don't know." A pause. "What I do know is that I'm
sorry you did as you did."

"Sorry, How?"

"Yes, sir. Very sorry."

"And why?"

No answer.

The light from the tin reflector had been playing full upon the Indian's
face, and now, rising, he shifted it until the corner by the stove was
in shadow.

"I will tell you why." He returned to his place and stretched himself as
before, his hands locked beneath his head. "You are a rich man, Mr.
Landor, and Bess is human. She doesn't know what money is yet, but you
will compel her to learn. From what I have read and the little I have
seen, I think she would be happier if she never knew."

For the third time Landor filled the pipe bowl and lit it with a
fragment of coal from the grate.

"I don't see why, How," he refuted.

"You do, though, sir."

"No. Tell me."

There was a long pause, so long that Landor fancied the other would not
answer; then of a sudden he found the intense black eyes fixed upon him
unshiftingly.

"The reason is because not only Bess but others are human. As we are now
I can make her happy, very happy. I know it because--I love her." He
paused, and into the tent there came the long-drawn-out wail of the baby
prisoner. Silence returned. "As surely as that little wolf is lonely,
Bess will know the trouble money brings if you do as you intend. Not
myself, but other men will teach her."

Landor was not smoking now. The pipe had gone dead in his fingers.

"Once more I ask why, How?"

The other's eyes did not shift, nor a muscle of his body.

"Because she is white and they are white, and I--am an Indian."

At last it had come: the thing Landor had tried to avoid, had hitherto
succeeded in avoiding. Yet face to face the big man could ignore it no
longer. It was true, as true as human nature; and he knew it was true.
Other men, brothers of his own race, would do this thing--as they would
do anything for money; and he, Landor, he who had raised her from a
child, who had adopted her as his own daughter, he it was who would make
it possible!

Involuntarily the big man got to his feet. He did not attempt to move
about, he did not speak. There, standing, he fought himself inch by
inch; battled against the knowledge of the inevitable that had been
dogging him day by day, hour by hour. A long time he stood so, his great
hands locked, his face toward the blank tent wall opposite; then at last
he turned.

"I realise what you mean, How," he said swiftly, "and understand the way
you feel. God knows I wish it were different, wish I did not believe
what you say true; but things are as the are. What we have to do now is
the best thing possible under the circumstances." He sat down in the
chair again heavily, his hands still locked in his lap. "If wrong has
been done I am to blame, I myself, in raising you and Bess together. I
might have known that it was inevitable, you two here alone to care for
each other; but I was poor then, and I never thought that Bess--"

"Mr. Landor--"

The big man halted. For the first time he realised the admission of what
he had been saying, the inevitable implication--and he was silent. For
seconds likewise the Indian was still; but in them he was looking at the
other steadily, in a way he had never looked at him before, with an
intensity that was haunting.

"So you, too, feel that way," he said at last slowly. There was no anger
in the voice, nor menace; merely wonder, and, yes, pathos--terrible,
gripping pathos. "I knew that everyone else felt so--everyone except
Bess herself; but you--you--I did not know that before, Mr. Landor."

Mute as before the big man sat motionless, listening. From the bottom of
his soul he wished to say something in refutation, in self-defence; but
he could not. There was nothing to say.

"No, I never even dreamed of such a thing," went on the repressed voice,
"not even when at first you were slow to give your consent to our
marriage. I fancied it was merely because you thought me impractical,
because I cared nothing for a life that was different, was not my own.
Nor again, even a bit ago when you asked me to promise--what I did
promise--I did not suspicion such a thing. I thought it a compliment,
the sincerest compliment I had ever received in my life: the fact that
you should trust me so, with all that was dear to you in the world."
Just perceptibly he halted, but his eyes did not leave the white man's
face. "But I see it all now. I was blind before, but I see at last. You
are like the rest, like everyone with a white skin. The fact that we've
lived together for half a generation makes no difference. You're square,
square to the end. You even like me in a way. You've given your word and
won't go back on it; but nevertheless you're sorry. Even while you urge
us to marry, to have the thing over, to have a responsibility off your
mind, you feel you are sacrificing Bess to an inferior." He halted for a
second, and even at this time Landor was conscious that it was
infinitely the longest speech he had ever heard the man make. "I don't
blame you, Mr. Landor; you can't help it; it's the instinct of your
race; but nevertheless, nevertheless--"

The voice halted abruptly, repressedly. The intense black eyes were of a
sudden looking directly past the other, straight up at the roof of the
tent. No power on earth could have made him complete that sentence, made
him admit the deadly hurt it suggested. From the unusual confidence of a
bit ago he merely lapsed into the normal, his own repressed, impassive
self. Yet as plainly as though he had spoken Landor recognised the
difference, realised as well that while outwardly there would be no
change, from this moment on so long as they both lived the confidence of
the Indian would be as dead to him as though he had ceased to exist. He
had seen it happen before. He knew the signs. With the knowledge for the
first time in the years they two had lived together he realised how much
after all he had grown to depend upon this laconic human, how much he
had lost. It was the last drop in his cup of bitterness, the crushing
straw. His great ungainly body dropped forward until his face was hid in
his hands. On the walls of the tent a distorted, exaggerated shadow
marked the movement of his shoulders as they rose and fell with his
deep, irregular breathing. Again silence fell upon them, silence that by
word of mouth was to remain unbroken. In it from the stable there
sounded again the wail of the lonely baby, and a moment later, muffled,
echo-like from the distance, the answering call of one of its own kind
free upon the infinite prairie; but apparently neither man noticed,
neither man cared--and the silence returned. Long minutes passed. The
fire in the stove burned lower and lower. Into the tent crept a
suggestion of the coolness without. Then at last Landor roused. Without
a word he put on his hat and buttoned his coat. His fingers were
unnaturally clumsy and he found the task difficult. Just for a moment
he had a wild idea of asking the other's forgiveness, of attempting an
explanation where none was possible; but he realised it would but make
matters worse, and desisted. The Indian, too, had arisen, and
repressedly courteous, stood ready to open the flap of the tent for the
other to pass. For a moment, the last moment they were ever to see each
other alive, they stood so, each waiting for the other to speak, each
knowing that the other would not speak; then heavily, shufflingly,
Landor took a step forward.

The tent curtain opened before him, was held back while he passed; then
closed again, shutting him out.

For five long dragging minutes after he was gone the other man remained
as he stood, motionless as a bronze statue, as an inanimate thing. The
kerosene lamp was burning low now and sputtered dismally; but he did not
notice, did not hear. For the third time, tremulous against the
background of night and of silence, came the wail of the lonely little
captive. It was a kindred sound, an appealing sound, and at last the
figure responded. Hatless as he was he left the tent, returned a minute
later with something tagging at his heels: a woolly, grey, bright-eyed
something, happy as a puppy at release and companionship. Methodically
the man banked the coal fire and put out the lantern. He did not make a
bed, did not undress. Instead, weary as Landor himself, he dropped amid
the buffalo robes, lay still. "Sniff, sniff," sounded a pointed,
inquiring nose in the darkness, "sniff, sniff, sniff." There was no
response, and becoming bolder, its owner crept close to the face of the
silent being on the ground, squirmed a moment contentedly--and likewise
became still.




CHAPTER XI


THE TREE OF KNOWLEDGE

The darkness that precedes morning had the prairie country in its grip
when Howard, the gaunt foreman of the B.B. ranch, drew rein before the
silent tent, and with the butt end of his quirt tapped on the heavy
canvas.

"Wake up," he called laconically. "You're wanted at the ranch house."

Echo-like, startling in its suddenness, an inverted V opened in the
white wall and in it, fully dressed, vigilant, appeared the figure of
its owner.

"What is it?" asked a voice insistently.

The Texan stared in unconcealed surprise.

"In Heaven's name, man, don't you ever sleep?" he drawled. "The boss is
dead," he added baldly at second thought.

The black V closed again, and distinct in outline against the white
background appeared the silhouette of the listener. His arms were folded
across his chest in a way that was characteristic, and his moccasined
feet were set close together. He spoke no word of surprise, asked no
question; merely stood there in the silence and the semi-darkness
waiting.

The foreman was by no means a responsive soul, yet, watching, there
instinctively crept over him a feeling akin to awe of this other silent
human. There was the mystery of death itself in that motionless,
listening shadow.

"It was just before I came over to tell you that Mrs. Landor raised the
house," he explained. "She woke up in the night and found the boss
so--and cold already." Unconsciously his voice had lowered. "She
screamed like a mad woman, and ran down-stairs in her nightdress,
chattering so we could hardly understand her." He slapped at his baggy
chaperajos with his quirt absently. "That's all I know, except there's
no particular use to hurry. It's all over now, and he never knew what
took him."

Silently as before the aperture in the tent opened and closed and the
listener disappeared; to reappear a moment later with a curled-up woolly
bundle in his arms. Without a word of explanation he strode toward the
barn, leaving Howard staring after him uncertainly. Listening, the
latter heard a suppressed little puppyish protest, as though its maker
were very sleepy, a moment later the soft, recognising whinny of a
broncho, and then, startlingly sudden as the figure had first emerged
from the tent, it appeared again, mounted, by his side.

For half the distance to the ranch house not a word was said; then of a
sudden Howard drew his horse to a walk meaningly.

"I suppose it's none of my business," he commented without preface, "but
unless I'm badly mistaken there'll be hell to pay around the Buffalo
Butte now."

Again, as at the tent door, his companion made no answer; merely waited
for the something he knew was on the other's mind. The east was
beginning to lighten now, and against the reddening sky his dark face
appeared almost pale.

Howard shifted in his saddle seat and inspected the ground at his right
as intently as though there might be jewels scattered about.

"The boss's relative--Craig," he added, "has taken possession there as
completely as if he'd owned the place a lifetime instead of been a
visitor two days." The long moustaches that gave the man's face an
unmeritedly ferocious expression lifted characteristically. "I like you,
How, or I wouldn't stick my bill into your affairs. That boy is going to
make you trouble, take my word for it."

Even then there was no response; but the overseer did not seem surprised
or offended. Instead, the load he had to impart off his mind, his manner
indicated distinct relief. But one thing more was necessary to his
material comfort--and that solace was at hand. Taking a great bite of
plug tobacco, a chew that swelled one of his thin cheeks like a wen, he
lapsed into his normal attitude of disinterested reverie.

The ranch house was lighted from top to bottom, abnormally brilliant,
and as the Indian entered the odour of kerosene was strong in his
nostrils. In the kitchen as he passed through were the other two
herders. They sat side by side in uncomfortable inaction, their big
sombreros in their hands; and with the suppression of those unused to
death nodded him silent recognition. The dining-room was empty, likewise
the living-room; but as he mounted the stairs, he could hear the muffled
catch of a woman's sobs, and above them, intermittent, authoritative,
the voice of a man speaking. His moccasined feet gave no warning, and
even after he had entered the room where the dead man lay none of the
three who were already present knew that he was there.

Just within the doorway he paused and looked about him. In one corner of
the room, well away from the bed, sat Mary Landor. She did not look up
as he entered, apparently did not see him, did not see anything. The
first wild passion of grief past, she had lapsed into a sort of passive
lethargy. Her fingers kept picking at the edge of the loose dressing
sack she had put on, and now and then her thin lips trembled; but that
was all.

Only a glance the newcomer gave her, then his eyes shifted to the bed;
shifted and halted and, unconsciously as he had done when Howard first
broke the news, his feet came close together and his arms folded across
his chest in characteristic, all-observing attention. Not a muscle
moved, he scarcely seemed to breathe. He merely watched.

And this was what he saw: The shape of a dead man lying as at first
beneath the covers; only now the sheet had been raised until the face
was hid. Beside it, stretched out in abandon as she had thrown herself
down, her head all but buried from view, was the girl Bess. She was
sobbing as though her heart would break: sobbing as though unconscious
of another human being in the world. Above her, leaning over her, was
the form of a man: Craig. His uncle had brought his belongings from the
tiny town the day before, and even at this time his linen and cravat
were immaculate. He was looking down at the little woman before him,
looking and hesitating as one choosing between good and evil.

"Bess," he was saying, "you must not. You'll make yourself sick.
Besides, it's nearly morning and people will be coming. Don't do so;
please!"

No answer, no indication that he had been heard; only the muffled,
racking, piteous sobs.

"Bess," insistently, "Bess! Listen to me. I can't have you do so. Uncle
Landor wouldn't like it, I know he wouldn't. He'd be sorry if he knew.
Be brave, girlie. You're not alone yet."

Still no response of word or of action. Still the dainty, curved
shoulders trembled and were quiet and trembled again.

The man's hand dropped to the coverlet beside him. His face went very
close.

"Cousin Bess," he repeated for the last time tensely, "I can't let you
cry so. I won't. I care for you too much, little girl; infinitely too
much. It hurts me to have you feel so terribly, hurts me more than I
can tell." Just for a moment he hesitated, and like an inexperienced
gambler his face went tense and white. "You must listen to me,
Elizabeth, Uncle has gone, but there are others who will take care of
you. I myself will take care of you, girlie. Listen, Bess, for there's
something I must tell you, something you make me tell you now." Swiftly,
unhesitatingly, he leaned still nearer; with one motion his arm passed
about her and he clasped her close, so close she could not struggle,
could not prevent. "I love you, little girl. Though I've only known you
two days, I love you. That is what you compel me to tell you. This is
why it hurts me to have you cry so. I love you, Bess; I love you!"

This is what, there in that tiny unplastered bed-room next the roof,
came to pass that October morning. Just so the four living actors
remained for a second while the first light of day sifted in through the
tiny-paned windows; the elderly woman unconscious of the drama enacting
before her eyes, unconscious of anything, her thin fingers still picking
at the edge of her sack; the motionless watcher rigid as a casting in
bronze: the passionate gambling stranger man holding the girl to him
tightly, so tightly she could not but remain so, passive; then came the
climax. Of a sudden the image that had been lifeless resolved itself
into a man. Muscles played here and there visibly beneath the
close-fitting flannel shirt he wore. Swiftly, yet still without a sound,
one moccasined foot moved forward, and its mate--and again the first.
Unexpected as death itself would have been at that instant, Craig felt
two mighty irresistible hands close on his shoulders; close with a grip
that all but paralysed. Irresistibly again he felt himself turned about,
put upon his feet; realised of a sudden, too suddenly and unexpectedly
even to admit of a cry, that the girl was free, that, not a foot
distant, he was staring into the face of the one being on earth from
whom he had most to fear. All this in seconds; then, mercifully
intervening, a Providence itself, the tense wet face of the girl came
between. The first sound that had been spoken came to his ears.

"How! In God's name don't! He didn't mean any harm; I know he didn't.
Forgive him, How; please, please," and repeated: "Forgive him--for my
sake."

       *       *       *       *       *

The lamps had long been out, but the odour of low-test kerosene still
hung about the closed living-room where the same four people sat in
council. No effort had as yet been made to put the place to rights, and
in consequence it was stuffy and disordered and proportionately
depressing. The mound of cigarette stumps which Craig had builded the
night before lay unsightly and evil of odour on the table. The faded rag
carpet was littered with the tobacco he had scattered. His gaudy riding
blouse and cap reposed on a lounge in one corner. His ulster and hat,
which he had unpacked the last thing before retiring, lay across a
chair. Look where one might about the place, there were evidences of
his presence, of his dominant inhabitance. Already after two days'
residence, as Howard had said, he had taken complete possession.
Whosoever may have possessed the voice of authority in the past,
concerning the future there was to be no doubt. That voice was speaking
now.

"To be sure I shall take him East," it said. "His father is buried in
Boston, and his grandfather, and his grandfather's father." The voice
halted, lowered. "Besides, my mother and his other sister, who died
years and years ago, are both there." Obviously, too obviously, he
turned away until his face was hid. Into the voice there crept a throb
that was almost convincing. "They'd all want him with them, I'm sure,
even though he wouldn't have cared; and I think he would. He mentioned
it the first night I came, but of course I didn't realise--then--" The
voice was silent.

As hours before in the room above, Mary Landor showed no emotion, did
not speak. Not even yet had her sorrow-numbed brain awakened, had she
grasped the full meaning of the thing which had happened to her. Later,
indefinitely later, the knowledge would come, and with it the hour of
reckoning; but for the present she was a mere puppet in the play. Craig,
the dominant, had told her to dress, and she had dressed. He had
summoned her to the council, and she had obeyed. But it was not to her
now that he had spoken, nor to the other man who, silent as he had
entered, stood erect, his arms folded, listening. To yet another he had
spoken. She it was, Elizabeth, who answered.

"But to take him clear back there, away from everyone who cares for him
or ever has cared for him." The soft lower lip was becoming unmanageable
and the girl halted, winking hard. "It seems cruel."

"Not if he would have wished it, Bess."

"But if he hadn't wished it--"

"I repeat I think he would." Craig shifted until his back was toward the
other man. "I think that his mentioning the possibility at all, the
first night I came, proves that he wished it."

"Perhaps.... I don't know." ... A long pause; then of a sudden the girl
arose and walked to the window. But subterfuge was from her a thing
apart, and she merely leaned her face against the casement. "I can't
bear to think of it," she trembled.

Craig moved half way toward her; then remembered, and halted.

"Yes, let's decide, and not talk about it," he returned swiftly. "You
agree with me after all, don't you, Bess?"

The girl did not look up.

"Don't ask me. You and How and Aunt Mary decide." With an effort she
resumed her former place; but even yet she did not glance at him.
"Wherever you take him I shall go along, is all."

Swiftly, exuberantly swiftly, Craig took her up.

"Yes, I think he would have liked that. I ... You agree with me too,
don't you, Aunt Mary?"

The older woman started at sound of her name, looked up vacantly.
"What?" she queried absently.

Craig repeated the question perfunctorily.

"Yes, he was always good to me, very good to me," she returned
monotonously.

In sympathy, the girl's brown eyes moistened anew; but Craig turned away
almost impatiently. "Let's consider it settled then," he said.

For the first time the girl glanced up; but it was not at Craig that she
looked. It was at that other figure in the background, the figure that
not once through it all had stirred or made a sound. "What shall we do,
How? what ought we to do?" she asked.

For ten seconds there was silence; but not even then did Craig recognise
the other's presence by so much as a glance. Only the look of exultation
left his face, and over his blue eyes the lids tightened perceptibly.

"Don't consider what I think, Bess," said a low voice at last. "Do what
you feel is right."

It was the white man who had decided, but it was another who brought the
decision to pass. How Landor, the Indian, it was who, alone in the
dreary chamber beneath the roof, laid the dead man out decently, and for
five dragging minutes thereafter, before the others had come, stood like
a statue gazing down at the kindly, heavy face, with a look on his own
that no living human had ever seen or would ever see. How Landor, the
Indian, it was who, again alone in the surrey, with the closely drawn
canvas curtains, drove all that day and half the night to the nearest
undertaker at the railroad terminus beyond the river, seventy-five miles
away. How Landor, the Indian, again it was who, with a change of horses,
but barely a pause to eat, started straight back on the return trail,
and ere it was again light was within the limits of Coyote Centre,
knocking at the door of Mattie Burton, the one woman friend of Mary
Landor he knew. How Landor it was once more who, before twenty-four
hours from the time he had left, had passed, with the unwilling visitor
by his side, re-entered the Buffalo Butte ranch yard. Last of all, How
Landor, the Indian, it was who faced the old surrey once more to the
east, and with still another team before him and a cold lunch in his
pocket, sat waiting within the hour to take the departing ones away.

Through it all he scarcely spoke a word, not one that was superfluous.
What he was thinking of no one but he himself knew. That he had expected
what had taken place in his absence, his bringing Mrs. Burton proved. At
last realisation had come, and Mary Landor was paying the price of the
brief lethargic respite; paying it with usury, paying it with the
helpless abandon of the dependent. The dreary weather-coloured ranch
house was not a pleasant place to be in that day. Craig left it
thankfully, with a shrug of the shoulders beneath the box-fitting
topcoat, as the door closed behind him. The other passenger, the one who
should have left also and did not, the girl Elizabeth--.

How Landor it was again who, when minutes of waiting had passed, minutes
wherein Craig consumed cigarettes successively, tied the team and
disappeared within doors. What he said none save the girl herself knew;
but when he returned he was not alone, and though the eyes of his
companion were red, there was in her manner no longer a trace of
hesitation.

The two passengers comfortably muffled in the robes of the rear seat,
the driver buttoned the curtains tight about them methodically. The day
was very still, not a sound came to them from over the prairie, and of a
sudden, startlingly clear, from the house itself there came an
interruption: the piteous, hopeless wail of a woman in a paroxysm of
grief, and a moment later the voice of another woman in unemotional,
comforting monotone.

"How," said a choking, answering voice, "I can't go after all, I can't!"

Within the carriage, safe from observation, her companion took her hand
authoritatively, pressed it within his own.

"Yes, you can, Bess," he said low. "Aunt Mary will have to fight it out
for herself. You couldn't help her any by staying."

But already the Indian was gone. Within the house as before, even
keen-eared Mattie Burton failed to catch what he said. Had she done so,
she would have been no wiser, for apparently that moment a miracle took
place. Of a sudden, the hysterical voice was silent. The man spoke again
and--the watcher stared in pure unbelief--her own hand in her
companion's hand, Mary Landor followed him obediently out to the surrey.

"We haven't any time to lose," he said evenly, as he drew back the flap
of the curtain. "You'd better say good-bye now."

"Mother!"

"Bessie, girl. Bessie!"

Again within the ranch house, Mary Landor sank into a seat with the
utter weariness of a somnambulist awakened. Fully a half minute the
Indian stood looking down at her. For one of the few times in his life
his manner indicated indecision. His long arms hung loose from his
shoulders. His wide-brimmed hat hid his eyes. The watcher thought he
looked very, very weary. Then of a sudden he roused. Bending over--did
he foresee what was to come, that moment?--he did something he had never
done before.

"Good-bye, mother," he said, and kissed her on the lips.

The door closed behind him noiselessly, and a half minute later the
loose-wheeled old surrey went rumbling past the door. Mrs. Burton was
feminine and curious, and she went to the window to watch it from sight.
The Indian, alone on the front seat, sat looking straight ahead. The
bronchos, fresh from the stall, and but a few weeks before wild on the
prairie, tugged at the bit wickedly, tried to bolt; but the driver did
not stir in his place. The left hand, that held the reins, rose and fell
with their motion, as an angler takes up slack in his line; that was
all. The woman had lived long on the frontier. She was appreciative and
pressed her face against the pane the better to see. They were through
the gate now, well out on the prairie. The clatter of the waggon had
ceased, the figure of the driver was concealed by the curtains; but the
bronchos were still tugging at the bit, still--.

"Mary! In heaven's name!" The sound of a falling body had caught her ear
and she had turned. "Mary Landor!" The dishes in the cupboard against
the wall shook as something heavy met the floor. "Mary!" A pause and a
tongue-tied examination. "My God! The woman is dead!"

       *       *       *       *       *

It was ten minutes before starting time. The old-fashioned engine,
contemptuously relegated to the frontier before going to the junk heap,
was puffing at the side of the low sanded station platform. The rough
cottonwood box was already in the baggage car. How himself had assisted
in putting it there, had previously settled for its transportation.
Likewise he had bought the girl's ticket, and checked her scanty
baggage. The usual crowd of loafers was about the place, and his every
action was observed with the deepest interest. Wherever he moved the
spectators followed. Urchins near at hand fought horrible mimic duels
for his benefit; duels which invariably ended in the scalping of the
vanquished--and with expressions of demoniacal exultation playing upon
the face of the conqueror. From far in the rear a war whoop sounded; and
when the effort was to all evidence ignored, was repeated intrepidly
near at hand. They put themselves elaborately in his way, to move at his
approach with grunts of guttural protestation. Already, even here on the
frontier, the Sioux and his kind were becoming a novelty. Verily they
were rare sportsmen, those mimicking loafers; and for Indians it was
ever the open season. All about sounded the popping of their artillery;
to be, when exhausted, as often reloaded and fired again.

But through it all, apparently unseeing, unconscious, the man had gone
about his business. Now as he left the ticket window and approached the
single coach, it was nearly starting time. The girl had already entered
and sat motionless in her seat watching him through the dusty window
glass. Craig, his feet wide apart, stood on the platform smoking a last
cigarette. He shrugged in silence as the other passed him and mounted
the steps.

Save for the girl, the coach was empty; but, destitute of courtesy, the
spectators without stared with redoubled interest. Without a word the
man handed over the ticket and checks. Still in silence he slipped a
roll of bills into her passive hand. Until that moment the girl had not
thought of money; but even now as she accepted it, there never occurred
the wonder from whence it had come. Had she known how those few dollars
had been stored up, bit by bit, month by month--But she did not know.
Unbelievably unsophisticated, unbelievably innocent and helpless, was
Elizabeth Landor at this time. Sitting there that morning on the
threshold, she had no more comprehension of the world she was entering,
she had entered, than of eternity itself. She was merely passive,
trusting, waiting to be led. Like a bit of down from the prairie
milkweed plant, she was to be the sport of every breath of wind that
blew. And already that wind was blowing. She had watched the scene on
the platform, had understood the intent of the mimicry, had seen the
winks and nudges, had heard the mocking war whoop. All this she had
seen, all this had been stored away in her consciousness to recur again
and again in the future. Even now her cheeks had burned at the
knowledge, and at last she had watched the man's coming with a feeling
of repression she had never known before, whose significance she did not
try to analyse, did not in the least understand. She did not thank him
for the money. To do so never occurred to her. It was the moment for
parting, but she did not throw her arms about his neck in abandon, as
she would have done a week before. Something, she knew not what,
prevented. She merely sat there, repressed, passive, waiting. A moment,
by her side, the Indian paused. He did not speak, he did not move. He
merely looked at her; and in his dark eyes there was mirrored a
reflection of the look there had been in the eyes of the wild thing he
had stalked and captured that day alone on the prairie. But the girl was
not looking at him, did not see. A moment he stood so, unconsciously as
so many, many times before, in pose; then deliberately, gently, ignoring
the row of curious observant eyes, he took her hand and raised it to his
lips.

"Good-bye, Bess," he said low. "Come back as soon as you can; and don't
worry. Everything will come right." Gently as he had lifted the hand, he
released it. A smile--who but he could have smiled at that
moment?--played for an instant over his face. Then, almost before the
girl realised the fact, before the repressive something that held her in
its grip gave release, he was gone.

As he left the coach, Craig, who was waiting, started without a word or
a hint of recognition to enter. His foot was already on the step, when
he felt a hand upon his arm; a hand with a grip whose meaning there was
no misinterpreting. Against his will he drew back. Against his will he
met the other, face to face, eye to eye. For what seemed to him minutes,
but which in reality was only a second, they stood so. Not a word was
spoken, of warning or of commonplace. There was no polite farce for the
benefit of the spectators. The Indian merely looked at him; but as once
before, alone under the stars, that look was to remain burned on the
white man's memory until he went to his grave.

"A'board," bawled the conductor, and as though worked by the same wire,
the engineer's waiting head disappeared within the cab window.

Side by side, Clayton Craig and Elizabeth Landor sat watching the
weather-stained station and the curious assembled group, as apparently
they slowly receded. The last thing they saw was the alien figure of an
Indian in rancher's garb, gazing motionless after them; and by his side,
in baiting pantomime, one gawky urchin engaged in the labour of scalping
a mate. The last sound that reached their ears was the ironic note of a
war whoop repeated again and again.




CHAPTER XII


WITHIN THE CONQUEROR'S OWN COUNTRY

It was the day set for the wedding, the eighteenth since the girl had
left, the sixteenth since a new mound had arisen on the bare lot
adjoining that beneath which rested Landman Bud Smith, the twelfth since
How Landor had arrived to haunt the tiny railway terminus. The one train
from the East was due at 8:10 of the morning. It was now eight o'clock.
Within the shambling, ill-kept hotel, with its weather-stained exterior
and its wind-twisted sign, the best room, paid for in advance and
freshly dusted for the occasion, awaited an occupant. In a stall of the
single livery, a pair of half-wild bronchos, fed and harnessed according
to directions, were passively waiting. An old surrey, recently oiled and
tightened in all its senile joints, was drawn up conveniently to the
door. In a tiny room, designated the study, of the Methodist parsonage,
on the straggling outskirts of the town, the only minister the
settlement boasted sat staring at the unpapered wall opposite. He was a
mild-featured young man of the name of Mitchell, recently graduated from
a school of theology, and for that reason selected as a sacrifice to the
frontier. In front of him on the desk lay a duly prepared marriage
licence, and upon it a bright gold half eagle. From time to time he
glanced thereat peculiarly, and in sympathy from it to the tiny
fast-ticking clock at its side. He did so now, and frowned
unconsciously.

At the station the crowd of loafers that always preceded the arrival or
departure of a train were congregated. In some way suggestions of the
unusual had passed about, and this day their number was greatly
augmented. Just what they anticipated they did not know; they did not
care. Restless, athirst for excitement, they had dumbly responded to the
influence in the air and come. In the foreground, where a solitary
Indian stood motionless, waiting, there was being repeated the same
puerile pantomime and horse-play of a former occasion. At intervals,
from the rear, sounded the war whoop travesty. It was all the same as
that afternoon eighteen days before, when the girl had left, similar
even to the cloud of black smoke in the distance lifting lazily into the
sky; only now the trail, instead of growing thinner and lighter, became
denser and blacker minute by minute. In sympathy, the humorists on the
platform redoubled their efforts. The instinct of anticipation, of
Anglo-Saxon love of excitement that had brought them there, urged them
on. Not one throat but many underwent simultaneous pantomimic bisection.
A half dozen voices caught up the war whoop, passed it on from throat to
throat. Almost before they realised what they were doing, the thing
became a contagion, an orgy. Many who had not taken part before, who had
come from mere curiosity, took part now. The crowd pressed closer and
closer about the alien, the centre of attraction. When he moved farther
along the platform to avoid them, they followed. Heretofore passive, the
innate racial hostility became active. One youth with a dare-devil air
jostled him--and disappeared precipitately. There was no response, no
retaliation, and another followed his example. The confusion redoubled,
drowned the roar of the approaching train. Spectators in the rear began
mounting trucks and empty barrels the better to see. Within the station
itself the shirt-sleeved agent surreptitiously locked the door to the
ticket-room and sprung the combination of the safe. Beginning
harmlessly, the incident was taking on a sinister aspect, and he had
lived too long in this semi-lawless land to take any chances. Re-turning
to his place of observation at the window, he was just in time to see a
decayed turnip come hurtling over the heads of the crowd and, with
enviable accuracy, catch the Indian behind the ear. Simultaneously, with
a roar and a puff of displaced air, the light train drew into the
station, on time.

Through it all the Indian had not spoken a word. Save to move twice
farther away along the platform, he had not stirred. Unbelievable as it
may seem, even when the missile had struck him, though it had left a
great red welt, he gave no sign of feeling. For a space following the
arrival of the train there was a lull, and in it, as though nothing had
happened, he approached the single coach and stood waiting.

It was the last of the week and travel was very light.

A dapper commercial salesman with an imitation alligator grip descended
first, looked about him apprehensively, and disappeared with speed. A
big rancher with great curling moustaches and a vest open save at the
bottom button followed. He likewise took stock of the surroundings, and
discreetly withdrew. Following him there was a pause; then of a sudden
onto the platform, fair into view of the crowd, appeared one for whom
apparently they had been looking, one who on the instant caused the
confusion, temporarily stilled, to break forth anew: the figure of a
dainty brown girl with sensitive eyes and a soft oval chin, of Elizabeth
Landor returned alone!

"Ah, there she is," shouted a voice, an united voice, the refound voice
of the expectant crowd.

"Yes, there she is," repeated the intrepid youth who had introduced the
jostle. "Go to, redskin. Kiss her again. Kiss her; we don't mind."

A great shout followed this sally, a shout that was heard far up the
single street, and that brought curious faces to a half score of doors.

"No, we don't mind, redskin," they guffawed. "Go to! Go to!"

Hesitant, hopelessly confused, the girl halted as she had appeared. Her
great eyes opened wider than before, her face shaded paler momentarily,
the soft oval chin trembled. Another minute, another second even.

"Come Bess," said a low voice. "Come on; don't mind them. I'll take
care of you."

It was the first speech the man had made, and from pure curiosity the
crowd went silent, listening--silent until he was silent; then with the
lack of originality ever manifest in a mob, they caught up his words
themselves.

"Yes, Bess," they baited, "he'll take care of you. Come, don't keep him
waiting."

But the girl did not stir. Had empires depended upon it that moment, she
could not have complied. Could she have cried, as the chin had at first
presaged, she might perhaps have done so; but she was beyond the reach
of tears now. The complete meaning of the scene had come to her at last,
the realisation of personal menace; and a fear such as she had never
before known, gripped her relentlessly. She could hear, hear every word;
but her muscles refused to act. She merely stood there, the old
telescope satchel she carried gripped tight in her hand, her great eyes,
wide and soft as those of a wild thing, staring out into the now rapidly
accumulating rabble; merely stared and waited.

"Bess," repeated the persuading voice, "come, please. Don't stand there,
come."

At last the girl seemed to hear, to understand. Hesitatingly, with
trembling steps, she came a pace forward, and another; then of a sudden
she gave a little cry and her free hand lifted defensively. But she was
not quick enough, had seen too late; and that instant came the
_denouement._ A second turnip, decayed like its predecessor, aimed
likewise unerringly, caught her fair in the mouth, spattered, and broke
into fragments that fell to the car steps. Following, swift as rain
after a thunderclap, a spurt of blood came to her lips and trickled down
her face.

Simultaneously the crowd went silent; silent as the still prairie about
them, awed irresistibly by the thing they had themselves wittingly or
unwittingly done. Save one, not a human being stirred. That one, no need
to tell whom, transformed visibly; transformed as they had never seen a
human being alter before. With not a step, but a bound, he was himself
on the platform of the coach; the girl, protected behind him, hid from
sight. She was sobbing now; sobbing tumultuously, hysterically. In the
stillness every listening ear on the platform could hear distinctly. For
an instant after he had reached her the Indian stood so, his left arm
about her, his back toward them. He did not say a word, he did not move.
For the first time in his life he dared not. He did not see red that
moment, this man; he saw black--black as prairie loam. Every savage
instinct in his brain was clamouring for freedom, clamouring until his
free hand was clenched tight to keep it from the bulging holster behind
his right hip. Before this instant, when they were baiting him alone, it
was nothing, he could forgive; but now--now--He stared away from them,
stared up into the smiling, sarcastic prairie sky; but, listening, they,
who almost with fascination watched, could hear beneath the catch of the
girl's sobs the sound of his breathing.

Ever at climaxes time seems suspended. Whether it was a second or a
minute he stood there so, they who watched could never tell. What they
did know was that at last he turned, stood facing them. All their lives
they had seen passion, seen it in every phase, seen it until it was
commonplace. It was in the very air of the frontier, to be expected,
life of the life; but as this man shifted they saw a kind of which they
had never dreamed. For How Landor was master of himself again, master,
as well--they knew it, every man and youth who saw,--of them. For
another indefinitely long deathly silent space he merely looked at them;
looked eye to eye, individual by individual, into every face within the
surrounding semi-circle. Once before another man, a drunken cowman, had
seen that identical look. Now not one but a score saw it, felt a
terrible ice-cold menace creep from his brain into their brains. Even
yet he did not speak, did not make a sound; nor did they. Explain it as
you will, he did this thing. Another thing he did as well; and that was
the end. Slowly, deliberately, he stepped to the platform and held out
his hand. Obediently the girl followed. She was not crying now. Her eyes
were red and a drop of blood came now and then to her lips; but she had
grown wonderfully quiet all at once, wonderfully calm--almost as much so
as the man. Deliberately as he had stepped down into the spectators'
midst, the Indian took the old telescope from the girl's hand and, she
following by his side, moved a step forward. He did not touch her again
nor did she him. They merely moved ahead toward the sidewalk that led up
the single street; moved deliberately, leisurely, as though they were
alone. Not around the crowd, but straight through it they passed;
through a lane that opened as by magic as they went, and as by magic
closed behind them, until they were within a solid human square. But of
all the assembled spectators that day, an aggregation irresponsible,
unchivalrous as no other rabble on earth--a mob of the frontier,--not
one spoke to challenge their action, not one attempted to bar their way.
The complete length of the platform they went so, turned the corner by
the station--and, simultaneously, the crowd disappeared from view, hid
by the building itself. Then in sudden reaction, the girl weakened.
Irresistibly she caught at the man's arm, held it fast.

"Oh, How! How!" she trembled, "is it to be always like this with you and
me? Is it to be always, everywhere, so?"

But the man said never a word.

       *       *       *       *       *

Two hours had passed. The girl had breakfasted. A wood fire crackled
cheerfully in the sheet iron heater of the tiny room where the same two
people sat alone. Already the world had taken on a different aspect. Not
that Elizabeth Landor had forgotten that recent incident at the depot.
She would never forget it. It had merely passed into temporary
abeyance, taken its proper place in the eternal scheme of things.
Another consideration, paramount, all-compelling, had inevitably crowded
it from the stage. It was this consideration that had held her silent
far longer than was normal. It was its overshadowing influence that at
last prompted speech.

"How did you know I was coming to-day?" she queried suddenly.

"How did _you_ know I would be at the train to meet you?" echoed a
voice.

The girl did not answer, did not pursue the subject.

"Tell me of Aunt Mary, please," she digressed. "I felt somehow when you
wrote as if I--I--" A swiftly gathered shower called a halt. Tear drops,
ever so near, stood in her eyes. "Please tell me," she completed.

The man told her. It did not take long. As of her prosaic life, so there
was little to record of the death of Mary Landor. "It was best that you
were away," he ended. "It was best for her that she went when she did."

"You think so, How, honestly?" No affectation in that anxious query.
"You think I didn't do wrong in leaving as I did?"

"No, you did no wrong, Bess." A pause. "You could not."

A moment the girl sat looking at him; in wonder and something more.

"I believe you knew all the time Aunt Mary would--go while I was
away," she said suddenly, tensely. "I believe you helped me away on
purpose."

No answer.

"Tell me, How. I want to know."

"I thought so, Bess," simply.

For a long time the girl sat so; silent, marvelling. A new understanding
of this solitary human stole over her, an appreciation that drowned the
sadness of a moment ago. "How you must care for me," she voiced almost
unconsciously. "How you must care for me!"

She did not expect an answer. She was not disappointed. Again a silence
fell; a silence of which she was unconscious, for she was thinking.
Minutes passed. In the barn the bronchos were passively waiting. At the
parsonage the young minister still sat scowling in his study. No time
had been set for the visit he expected. There was no apparent reason why
he should not have gone about his work; but for some reason he could
not. Angry with himself, he thrust the new half eagle into his pocket
and, placing the offending licence beneath a pile of papers, he walked
over to the window and stood staring out into the sunshine.

Within the tiny room at the hotel the gaze of the girl shifted, dropped
to her feet. Despite an effort her face tinged slowly red.

"Did you think," she queried abruptly, "when you expected me to-day that
I would come alone?"

The Indian showed no surprise.

"Yes, Bess," he answered. "I knew you would be alone."

"Why, How?" The question was just audible.

"Because I trusted you, Bess."

Silence again. Surreptitiously, swiftly, the girl's brown eyes glanced
up; but he was not looking at her, and again her glance fell. A longer
pause followed, a pause wherein the girl could not have spoken if she
would. A great preventing lump was in her throat, an obstacle that
precluded speech. Many things had happened in the short time since she
had last been with this man, some things of which she was not proud; and
beside such a trust as this Bess Landor was speechless. Without volition
upon her part, the cup of life had been placed to her lips and, likewise
without knowledge of what it contained, she had tasted. The memory of
that draught was with her now. Under its influence she spoke.

"You are better than I am, How," she said.

If the man understood he gave no evidence of the knowledge. He did not
even look at her. Time was passing, time which should have found them
upon their way, but he showed no impatience. It was his day, his moment,
his by right; but no one looking at him would have doubted that he
himself would never first suggest the fact. Conditions had changed very
rapidly in the recent past, altered until, from his view-point, it was
impossible for him to make the move toward the old relation, to even
intimate its desirability. With the patience of his race he waited. In
the fulness of time he was rewarded.

"How," of a sudden initiated a voice, withal an embarrassed voice, "will
you do me a favour?"

"What is it, Bess?"

The girl coloured. Instinctively the man knew that at last the recall
had come, and for the first time he was looking at her steadily.

"Promise me, please," temporised the girl.

"I promise."

Even yet Elizabeth Landor found it difficult to say what she wished to
say.

"You won't be--offended or angry, How?"

"No, Bess. You could hurt me, but you couldn't make me angry."

"Thank you, How. It's a little thing, but I'd like to have you humour
me." She met his look directly. "It's when we are married to-day you'll
be dressed--well, not the way you usually dress." Her colour came and
went, her throat was a-throb. "Dressed like--You understand, How."

Of a sudden the Indian was upon his feet; then as suddenly he checked
himself. Characteristically, he now ignored the immaterial, went, as
ever, straight to fundamentals without preface or delay. Scarce one
human in a generation would have held aloof at that moment. It was his,
his by every right; but even yet he would not take it, not until--.

"Bess," he said slowly. "I want to ask you a question and I want you to
answer me--as you would answer your mother were she alive." Once again,
unconsciously, he fell into pose, his arms across his breast, his great
shoulders squared. "I have seen Mr. Landor's will. He has left you
nearly everything. You are rich, Bess; I won't tell you how rich because
you wouldn't understand. You are young and can live any life you wish.
You know what marrying me means. I am as I am and cannot change. You
know what others, people of your own race, think when you are with me.
They have shown you to-day. Answer me, Bess, have you thought of all
this? Was it duty that brought you back, or did you really wish to come?
Don't take me into consideration at all when you answer. Don't do it, or
we shall both live to regret. Tell me, Bess, as you know I love you,
whether you have thought of all this and still wish to marry me. Tell
me." He was silent. Once again it was a climax, and once again came
oblivion of passing time. For minutes passed, minutes wherein, with wide
open eyes, the girl made her choice. Not in hot blood was the decision
made, not as before in ignorance of what that decision meant.
Deliberately, with the puerile confidence we humans feel in our insight
of future, she chose; as she believed, honestly.

"Yes, How," she said slowly. "I have thought of it all and I wish to
marry you. I've no place else in the world to go. There's no one in the
world that I trust as I trust you. I wish to marry you to-day, How."

Then, indeed, it was the man's moment. Then, and not until then, he
accepted his reward.

"Bess!" She was in his arms. "Bess!" He tasted Paradise. "Bess!" That
was all.

       *       *       *       *       *

For the second time that day the air of the tiny town tingled with
portent of the unusual. For the second time a crowd was gathered; only
now it was not at the station, but at a place of far more sinister
import, within and in front of the "Lost Hope" saloon. Again in
personnel it was different, notably different from that of the first
occasion. The same irresponsibles were there, as ever they are present
at times of storm; but added to the aggregation now, outnumbering them,
were others ordinarily responsible, men typical in every way of the time
and place. A second difference of even greater portent was the motif of
gathering. For it was not a mere rumour, an idle curiosity, that had
brought them together now. On the contrary they had at last, these
dominant Anglo-Saxons, begun to take themselves seriously. Rumour,
inevitable in a place where days were as much alike as the one-story
buildings on the main street, had begun when How Landor had commenced to
haunt the station at the time of the incoming train. The incident of the
morning had familiarised the rumour into gossip. Hard upon this had
followed a report from the hotel landlord, and gossip had become
certainty. Then it was that horse-play had ceased, and, save at the
point of congregation, a silence, unwonted and sinister, had taken its
place. So marked was the change that when at last the Indian and the
girl left the hotel together on their way to the parsonage the street
through which they passed was as still as though it were the street of a
prairie dog town. So quiet it was that the girl was deceived; but the
ears of the Indian were keener, and faint as an echo beneath it, as yet
well in the distance, he detected the warning of an alien note. Not as
on that other day out on the prairie when he caught the first trumpet
call of the Canada goose, did he recognise the sound from previous
familiarity. Never in his life had he heard its like; yet now an
instinct told him its meaning, told him as well its menace. Not once did
he look back, not one word of prophecy did he speak to the girl at his
side; yet as surely as a grey timber wolf realises what is to come when
he catches the first faint bay of the hounds on his trail, How Landor
realised that at last for him the hour of destiny had struck, that as
surely as the wild thing must battle for life he must do likewise--and
that soon, very, very soon.

Up the street they went: a small dark girl garbed as no woman was ever
garbed in a fashion-plate, a tall copper-brown man all but humorously
grotesque in a ready-made suit of clothes that were far from a fit and
the first starched shirt and collar he had ever worn. Laughable
unqualifiedly, this red man tricked out in the individuality-destroying
dress of the white brother would have been to an observer who had not
the key to the situation; but to one who knew the motive of the
alteration it was far as the ends of the earth from humorous. On they
went, silent now, each in widely separated anticipation; and after them,
at first silent likewise, then as it advanced growing noisier and
noisier, followed the crowd which had congregated at the Lost Hope
saloon. As on the day of the little landman's funeral when Captain
William Landor had passed up the street of Cayote Centre, ahead where
the Indian and the girl advanced not the figure of a human being was in
sight, unless one were suspicious and looked closely, not a face; but to
the Indian eyes were everywhere. Every house they passed--for they were
in the residence section now--had its pair or multiple pairs peering out
through the slats of a blind, or, as in a theatre preceding a
performance, at the side of a drawn curtain. Like wildfire the news had
spread; like turtles timid women folk had drawn close within their
shells; yet everywhere curiosity they could not repress prompted them to
take a last look before the storm. Once, and once only, the pedestrians
were interrupted. Then a house dog came bounding across the lawn to
pause at a safe distance and growl a menace; and again the all-noting
Indian had observed the cause of the unwonted bravery, had heard the low
voice from the kitchen that had urged the beast on.

Thus nearer and nearer that sunny fall morning the storm approached.
Long before this, unobservant though she was, had the girl not been
living in the future instead of the present, she would have recognised
its coming. For the pursuers were gaining rapidly now. They had crossed
onto the same street, the principal residence thoroughfare, and were
coming as a crowd ever moves: swiftly, those in the rear exerting
themselves to get to the fore, and so again. Far from silent by this
time, the man ahead, the man who never deigned a backward glance, could
hear their voices in a perpetual rumble; could distinguish at intervals,
interrupting it, above it, a voice commanding, inflaming. Without
seeing, he knew that at last his persecutors had found a commander, a
directing spirit--and as well as he knew his own name he knew who that
leader was. Unsophisticated absolutely in the ways of the world was this
man; but in the reading of his fellows he was a master.

Apparently oblivious when a part of this same crowd had congregated at
the train, he had nevertheless observed them individual by individual;
and in his own consciousness had known that the moment, his moment, had
not come: for a leader, the leader, was not there. Again when the train
had pulled in he had watched--and still the leader did not appear. But
he was not deceived. As he had trusted in the girl's coming he had
trusted in another's following surreptitiously; and as now he heard that
one voice sounding above the other voices he knew he had been right. For
the man at the head of that pursuing mob which gained on them so
rapidly block by block, the man whose influence in those brief hours the
Indian and the girl had been alone in the tiny room at the hotel had
vitalised the lukewarm racial hostility into a thing of menace, was the
same man whose life he had once saved, the same man about whose throat
ere the identical night had passed his fingers had closed: Clayton Craig
by name, one time of Boston, Mass., but now, by his uncle's will, master
of the Buffalo Butte ranch house!

Meanwhile in the study of the parsonage Clifford Mitchell was again
looking out the single window. Time and time again he had tried to
work--and as often failed. At last he had conformed to the inevitable
and was merely waiting. The house was on the outskirts of the town and
the window faced the open prairie; bare and rolling as far as the eye
could reach. He was city bred, this mild-faced servant of God, and as
yet the prairie country was a thing at which to marvel. He was looking
out upon it now, absently, thoughtfully, wondering at its immensity and
its silence--when of a sudden he became conscious that it was no longer
silent. Instead to his ears, growing louder moment by moment,
penetrating the illy constructed walls, came an indistinct roar; rising,
lowering, yet ever constant: a sound unlike any other on earth,
distinctive as the silence preceding had been typical--the clamour of
angry, menacing human voices _en masse._ Once, not long before, in a
city street the listener had heard that identical sound; and
recognition was instantaneous. Swift as memory he recalled the strike
that had been its cause, the horde of sympathisers who had of a sudden
appeared as from the very earth, the white face and desperate figure of
the solitary "scab" fighting a moment, and a moment only, for life, in
their midst. Swift as memory came that picture; and swift upon its
heels, blotting it out, the present returned. Clifford Mitchell had not
been among this people long; yet already he had caught the spirit of the
place, and as he listened he knew full well what a similar gathering
among them would mean. He was not a brave man, this blue-eyed pastor;
not a drop of fighting blood was in his veins; and as moment after
moment passed and the sound grew nearer and nearer, the first real
terror of his life came creeping over him. Not in his mind was there a
doubt as to the destination of that oncoming multitude. Premonition had
been too electric in the air that day for him to question its meaning.
They were coming to him, to him, Clifford Mitchell, these irresponsible
menacing humans. It might be another for whom they had gathered; but he
as well would share in their displeasure, in their punishment: for he
was a party to the thing of which they disapproved. All the day, from
the time the Indian had called and almost simultaneously, vague rumours
of trouble had come floating in the visitor's wake; he had been in
anticipation; and now the thing anticipated had become a certainty.
Answering he felt the cold perspiration come pouring out on his
forehead; and absently, he wiped it away with the palm of his hand.
Following came a purely physical weakness; and stumbling across the room
he took the seat beside the desk. Unconsciously nervous, restless, his
fingers fumbled with the pile of papers before him until they came to a
certain one he had buried. Almost as though impelled against his will to
do so he spread this one flat before him and sat staring at it, dumbly
waiting.

Nearer and nearer came the roar as he sat there, irresistible,
cumulatively menacing as a force of nature; and instinctively, by it
alone, the listener marked the approach of its makers. He could hear
them down the street at the other end of the block before the residence
of Banker Briggs. He knew this to a certainty because part of those who
came were on the sidewalk, and that was the only piece of cement in
town. Again, by the same token, he knew when they passed the only other
house in the block besides his own. There was a gap in the boardwalk
there, and when the leaders reached it the patter of their footsteps
went suddenly muffled on the bare earth. It was his turn next, his in a
moment; yes, the feet were already on the confines of his own yard, the
roar of their owners' voices was all about. He could even distinguish
what they were saying now, could catch names, his own name.

Of a sudden, expected and yet unexpected, a dark shadow passed before
his window, and another; then a swarm. Simultaneously faces, not a few
but as many as could crowd into the space, appeared outside the panes,
staring curiously in. Involuntarily he arose to draw the shade; and at
that moment, interrupting, startlingly loud, there came a knock at his
front door.

Clifford Mitchell paused on his way to the window, stood irresolute;
and, seemingly impossible as it was, the number of curious faces
multiplied.

The knock was repeated; not fearfully or frantically, but deliberately
and with an insistence there was no misunderstanding.

This time the minister responded. He did not pause to blot out the faces
of the curious. The licence he had been absently holding was still in
his hand; but he did not delay to put it down. There was something
compelling in that knock; something that demanded instant obedience, and
he obeyed. The living-room through which he passed on his way had two
windows and, identical with that of his study, each was black with
humanity; but he did not even glance at them. His legs trembled
involuntarily and his throat was dry as though he had been speaking for
hours; yet, nevertheless, he obeyed. With a hand that shook perceptibly
he turned the button of the spring lock, and, opening the door onto the
street, looked out.

While Clifford Mitchell lived, while lived every man of the uncounted
throng gathered there beneath the noon-time sun that October day, they
remembered that moment, the moments that followed. As real life is ever
stranger than fiction, so off the stage occur incidents more stirring
than at the play. Standing there in the narrow doorway, white-faced,
hesitant, awaiting a command, the minister himself exemplified the fact
beyond question; yet of his own grotesque part he was oblivious. He had
thought for but one thing that moment, had room in his consciousness for
but one impression; and that was for the drama ready there before him.
And small wonder, for, looking out, this was what he saw:

An uneven straggling village street, mottled with patches of dead grass
and weeds. Along it, here and there, like kernels of seed scattered on
fallow ground, a sprinkling of one-story houses. This the background. In
the midst of it all, covering his lawn, overflowing into the yards of
his neighbours, dense, crowding the better to see, all-surrounding, was
a solid zone of motley humanity. Old men with weather-beaten faces and
untrimmed beards were there, young men with the marks that dissipation
and passion indelibly stamp, awkward, gawky youths unconsciously aping
their elders, smooth-faced youngsters in outgrown garments; all ages and
conditions of the human frontier male were there--but in that zone not a
single woman. Ranchers there were in corduroys and denims, cowboys in
buckskin and flannel, gamblers in the glaring colours distinctive of
their kind, business men with closely cropped moustaches, idlers in
anything and everything; but amid them all not a friendly face. This the
surrounding zone, the mongrel pack that had brought the quarry to bay.

In the centre of the half circle they formed, within a couple of paces
of the now open doorway, were three people. Two of them, a rather small
brown girl and a tall wiry Indian in a new suit of ready-made clothes
and a derby hat of the model of the year before, were nearest; so near
that the door, which swung outward, all but touched them. The other, a
well-built, smooth-faced Easterner with a white skin and delicate hands,
was opposite. His dress was the dress of a man of fashion, his cravat
and patent leather buttoned shoes were of the latest style; but his
linen was soiled now, and a two-days' growth of beard covered his chin.
Moreover, his eyes were bloodshot and, despite an effort to prevent, as
he stood there now he wavered a bit to right and left. One look told his
story. He had been drinking, drinking for days; and, worst of all, he
had been drinking this day, drinking in anticipation of this very
moment, swallowing courage against the necessity of the now. All this
the stage and its setting, upon which the white-faced minister raised
the curtain. Simultaneously, as ever an audience grows silent when the
real play begins, it grew silent now. The hinges of the little-used
front door were rusty and had squeaked startlingly. Otherwise not a
sound marked the opening of the drama.

A moment following the silence was intense, a thing one could feel; then
of a sudden it was broken--not by words, but by action. One step the
white-skinned man took forward; a step toward the girl. A second step he
advanced, and halted; for, preventing, the hand of the other man was
upon his own.

"Stand back, please," said an even voice. "It's not time for
congratulations yet. Stand back, please."

Answering there was a sound; but not articulate. It was a curse, a
challenge, a menace all in one; and with a hysterical terrified little
cry the girl shrank back into the doorway itself. But none other, not
even the minister, stirred.

"Mr. Craig," the words were low, almost intimately low, but in the
stillness they seemed fairly loud. "I ask you once more to stand back. I
don't warn you, I merely request--but I shall not ask it again." Of a
sudden the speaker's hand left the other's arm, dropped by his own side.
"Stand back, please."

Face to face the two men stood there; the one face working, passionate,
menacing; the other emotionless as the blue sky overhead. A moment they
remained so while the breathless onlookers expected anything, while from
the doorstep the minister's white lips moved in a voiceless prayer; then
slowly, lingeringly, the man who had advanced drew back. A step he took
silently, another, and his breathing became audible, still another, and
was himself amid the spectators. Then for the first time he found voice.

"You spoke your own sentence then, redskin," he blazed. "We'd have let
you go if you'd given up the girl; but now--now--May God have mercy on
your soul now, How Landor!"

Again there was silence; silence absolute. As at that first meeting on
the car platform, the girl had turned facing them. It was the crisis,
and as before an instinct which she did not understand, which she merely
obeyed, brought her to the Indian's side; held her there motionless,
passive, mysteriously unafraid. Her usually brown face was very pale and
her eyes were unnaturally bright; but withal she was unbelievably
calm--calm as a child with its hand in its father's hand. Not even that
solid zone of menacing, staring eyes had terror for her now. Whether or
no she loved him, as she believed in God she trusted in that motionless,
dominant human by her side.

A moment they stood so in a silence wherein they could hear each other
breathe, wherein the prayer that had never left the minister's lips
became audible; then came the end. Incredible after it was over was that
_denouement_, inexplicable to a legion of old men, then among the boys,
who witnessed it, to this day. Yet as the incredible continues to take
place in this world it took place then. As one man can ever dominate
other men it was done that silent noon hour. For that moment the first
challenge that had ever passed the lips of How Landor was spoken. The
only challenge that he ever made to man or woman in his life found
voice; and was not accepted. One step he took toward that listening,
expectant throng and halted. With the old, old motion his arms folded
across his chest.

"Men," he said, "I don't want trouble here to-day. I've done my best to
avoid it; but the end has come. I've stood everything at your hands,
every insult which you could conceive, things which no white man would
have permitted for a second; and so far without resentment. But I shall
stand it no more. I'm one to a hundred; but that makes no difference.
Bess Landor and I are to be married now and here; here before you all. I
shall not talk to you again. I shall not ask you to leave us in peace;
but as surely as one of you speaks another word of insult to her or to
me, as surely as one of you attempts to interfere or prevent, I shall
kill that man. No matter which of you it is, I shall do this thing." A
moment longer he stood so, observing them steadily, with folded arms;
then, still facing, he moved back a step. "Mr. Mitchell," he said, "we
are ready."

And there that October noonday, fair in the open with two hundred
curious eyes watching, in a silence unbroken as that of prairie night
itself, Bess Landor and Ma-wa-cha-sa the Sioux were married. The
minister stumbled in the ritual, and though he held the book close
before his face, it was memory alone that prompted the form; for the
pages shook until the letters were blurred. Yet it was done, and, save
one alone, every spectator who had come with a far different intent
stayed and listened to the end. That one, a tall, modish alien with a
red, flushed face covered with a two-days' growth of bread, was likewise
watching when it began. But when it was over he was not there; and not
one of those who had followed his lead had noticed his going.




CHAPTER XIII


THE MYSTERY OF SOLITUDE

Westward across the unbroken prairie country, into the smiling,
sun-kissed silence and emptiness, two people were driving: a white girl
of two-and-twenty summers and an Indian man a few years older. Back of
them, in the direction from which they had come, was the outline of a
straggling, desolate village. Ahead, to either side, was the rolling
brown earth; and at the end of it, abrupt apparently as a material wall,
the blue of a cloudless October sky. The team they were driving, a
mouse-coloured broncho and a mate a shade darker, were restless after
three days of enforced inactivity and tugged at the bit mightily. Though
the day was perfectly still, the canvas curtains of the old surrey
flapped lazily in a breeze born of the pace alone. The harness on the
ponies shuffled and creaked with every move. Though the bolts of the
ancient vehicle had been carefully tightened, it nevertheless groaned at
intervals with the motion; mysteriously, like the unconscious sigh of
the aged, apparently without reason. Beneath the wheels the frost-dried
grass rattled continuously, monotonously; but save this last there was
no other sound. Since the two humans had left the limits of the tiny
town there had been no other sound. Now and then the girl had glanced
behind, instinctively, almost fearfully; but not once had the man
followed her example, had he stirred in his place. Swiftly, silently, he
was leaving civilisation behind him; by the scarce visible landmarks he
alone distinguished was returning to his own, to the wild that lay in
the distance beyond.

Thus westward, direct as a tight cord, on and on they went; and back of
them gradually, all but unconsciously, the low-built terminus grew
dimmer and dimmer, vanished detail by detail as completely as though it
had never been. Last of all to disappear, already a mere black dot
against the blue, was the water tank beside the station. For three
miles, four, it held its place; then, as, with the old unconscious
motion the girl turned to look back, she searched for it in vain. Behind
them as before, unbroken, limiting, only the brown plain and the blue
surrounding wall met her gaze. At last, there in the solitude, there
with no observer save nature and nature's God, she and the other were
alone.

As the first man and the first woman were alone they were alone. From
horizon to horizon was not a sign of human handiwork, not a suggestion
of human presence. They might live or die, or laugh or weep, or love or
hate--and none of their kind would be the wiser. All her life that she
could remember the girl had lived so, all her life she had but to lift
her eyes above her feet to gaze into the infinite; yet in the irony of
fate never until this moment, the moment when of all she should have
been the happiest, did the immensity of this solitude appeal to her so,
did appreciation of the terrible, haunting loneliness it concealed touch
her with its grip. Care free, thoughtless, never until the whirl of the
last fortnight had the future, her future, appealed to her as something
which she herself must shape or alter. Heretofore it had been a thing
taken for granted, preordained as the alternate coming of light and of
darkness. But in that intervening time, short as it was, she had
awakened. Rude as had been the circumstances that had aroused her, they
had nevertheless been effective. Without volition upon her part the
panorama of another life had been unrolled before her eyes. Sensations,
thoughts, impulses of which she had never previously dreamed had been
hers. Passions unconceived had stalked before her gaze. More a nightmare
on the whole than an awakening it had all been; yet nevertheless the
experience had been hers. Much of its meaning had passed her by. Events
had crowded too thickly for her to grasp the whole; but _en masse_ the
effect had been definite--startlingly definite. Unbelievable as it may
seem, for the first time in her existence she had aroused to the
consciousness of being an individual entity. The inevitable
metamorphosis of age, the thing which differentiates a child from an
adult, belated long in her passive life, had at last taken place.
Bewilderingly sudden, so sudden that as yet she had not adjusted herself
to the change, had barely become conscious thereof, yet certain as
existence itself, the transformation had come to pass. Looking back
there that afternoon, looking where the town had been and now was not,
mingling with the impressions of a day full to overflowing, there came
to the girl for the first time a definite appreciation of this thing
that she had done. And that moment from the scene, never to appear
again, passed Bess Landor the child; and invisibly into her place,
taking up the play where the other had left, came Elizabeth Landor the
woman.

Very, very long the girl sat there so; unconsciously long. With the
swift reaction of youth, the scene of the excitement vanished, the
personal menace gone, the impression it had made passed promptly into
abeyance. As when she and the man had sat alone in the tiny room of the
hotel, another consideration was too insistent, too vital, to prevent
dominating the moment. Any other diversion, save absolute physical pain
itself, would have been inadequate, was inadequate. Gradually, minute by
minute, as the outline of the town itself had vanished, the depressing
impression of that jeering frontier mob faded; and in its stead, looming
bigger and bigger, advancing, enfolding like a storm cloud until it
blotted out every other thought, came realisation of the thing she had
done: came appreciation of its finality, its immensity. Then it was that
the infinite bigness of this uninhabited wild, the sense of its infinite
loneliness, pressed her close. Despite herself, against all reason, as a
child is afraid of the dark there grew upon her a terror of this
intangible thing called solitude that stretched out into the future
endlessly. Smiling as it was this day, unchangeably smiling, she fancied
a time when it would not smile, when its passive eventless monotony
would be maddening. Swiftly, cumulatively as with every intense nature
impressions reproduce, this one augmented. Again into the consideration
intruded the absolute finality, the irrevocability of her choice. More
distinctly than when she had listened to the original, memory recalled
the vow of the marriage ceremony she had taken: "For better or for
worse, in sickness or in health, until death do us part." No, there was
no escape, no possible avenue that remained unguarded. The knowledge
overwhelmed her, suffocated her. Vague possibilities, recently born,
became realities. Closer and closer gripped the solitude. For the first
time in her existence the dead surrounding silence became unbearable.
Almost desperately she shifted back in her seat. Instinctively she
sought the hand of her companion, pressed it tight. A mist came into her
eyes, until the very team itself was blotted out.

"Oh, How," she confessed tensely, "I'm afraid!"

The man roused, as one recalled from reverie, as one awakened but not
yet completely returned.

"Afraid, Bess? Afraid of what?"

"Of the silence, of the future; of you, a bit."

"Afraid of me, Bess?" Perplexed, wondering, the man held the team to a
walk and simultaneously the side curtains ceased flapping, hung close.
"I don't think I understand. Tell me why, Bess."

"I can't. A child doesn't know why it's afraid of the dark. The dark has
never hurt it. It merely is."

At her side the man sat looking at her. He did not touch her, he did not
move. In the time since they had come into his own a wonderful change
had come into the face of this Indian man; and never was it so wonderful
as at this moment. He still wore the grotesque ready-made clothes. The
high collar, galling to him as a bridle to an unbroken cayuse, had made
a red circle about his throat; yet of it and of them he was oblivious.
Very, very young he looked at this time; fairly boyish. There was a
colour in his beardless cheeks higher than the bronze of his race. The
black eyes were soft as a child's, trusting as a child's. In the career
of every human being there comes a time supreme, a climax, a period of
exaltation to which memory will ever after recur, which serves as a
standard of happiness absolute; and in the career of How Landor the hour
had struck. This he knew; and yet, knowing, he could scarcely credit the
truth. His cup of happiness was full, full to overflowing; yet he was
almost afraid to put it to his lips for fear it would vanish, lest it
should prove a myth.

Thus he sat there, this Indian man with whom fate was jesting,
worshipping with a faith and love more intense than a Christian for his
God; yet, with instinctive reticence, worshipping with closed lips. Thus
the minutes passed; minutes of silence wherein he should have been
eloquent, minutes that held an opportunity that would never be his
again. Smiling, ironic, fate the satirist looked on at her handiwork,
watched to the end; and then, observing that _finale_, laughed--and with
the voice of Elizabeth Landor.

"Don't work at it any more, How," derided destiny. "You don't
understand, and I can't tell you."

She straightened in her seat and shrugged her shoulders with a gesture
she had never used before, that had come very lately: come concomitantly
with the arrival of the woman Elizabeth. "Anyway, I think it will be all
right. I at least am not afraid of your eloping with someone else." She
laughed again at the thought and folded her hands carefully in her lap.
"It's quite impossible to think of you interfering with the property of
someone else; even though that property were a girl."

Mechanically the Indian chirruped to the team and shook the reins. On
his face the look of perplexity deepened. Instinctively he realised that
something was wrong; but how to set it right he did not know, and, true
to his instincts, waited.

"You wouldn't be afraid in the least to do so," wandered on the girl,
"even though the woman were another man's wife. You aren't afraid of
anything. You'd take her from before his very eyes if you'd decided to
do so, if you saw fit. It's not that. It merely would never occur to
you; not even as possibility."

Still groping, the man looked at her, looked at her full; but no light
came.

"Yes, you're right, Bess," he corroborated haltingly. "It would never
occur to me to do so."

More ironically than before laughed fate; and again with the voice of
Elizabeth Landor.

"You're humorous, How, deliciously humorous; and still you haven't the
vestige of a sense of humour." She laughed again involuntarily. "I
hadn't myself a few weeks ago. I think I was even more deficient than
you; but now--now--" Once again the tense-strung laugh, while in her lap
the crossed hands locked and grew white from mutual pressure. "Now of a
sudden I seem to see humour in everything!"

More than perplexed, concerned, distressed from his very inability to
fathom the new mood, the man again brought the team to a walk, fumbled
with the reins impotently.

"Something's wrong, Bess," he hesitated. "Something's worrying you. Tell
me what it is, won't you?"

"Wrong?" The girl returned the look fair, almost defiantly. "Wrong?"
Still again the laugh; unmusical, hysterical. "Certainly nothing is
wrong. What could be wrong when two people who have so much in common as
you and I, who touch at so many places, are just married and alone?
Wrong: the preposterous idea!"

She was silent, and of a sudden the all-surrounding stillness seemed to
be intensified. For at last, at last the man understood and was looking
at her; looking at her wordlessly, with an expression that was terrible
in its haunting suggestion of unutterable sadness, of infinite pain. He
did not say a word; he merely looked at her; but shade by shade as the
seconds passed there vanished from his face to the last bit every trace
of the glory that had been its predecessor. Not until it was gone did
the girl realise to the full what she had done, realise the mortal stab
she had inflicted; then of a sudden came realisation in a gust and
contrition unspeakable. Swiftly as rain follows a thunderclap her mood
changed, her own face, hysterically tense, relaxed in a flood of tears.
In an abandon of remorse her arms were about him, her face was pressed
close to his face.

"Forgive me, How," she pleaded. "I didn't mean to hurt you. I'm nervous
and irresponsible, that's all. Please forgive me; please!"

       *       *       *       *       *

At a dawdling little prairie stream, superciliously ignored by the
map-maker, yet then and now travelling its aimless journey from nowhere
to nowhere under the name of Mink Creek, they halted for the night.

Though they had been driving steadily all the afternoon, save once when,
far to the south, they had detected the blot of a grazing herd, they had
seen no sign of human presence. They saw no indication now. The short
fall day was drawing to a close. The sun, red as maple leaf in autumn,
was level with the earth when How Landor pulled up beside the low
sloping bank, and, the girl watching from her observation seat in the
old surrey, unharnessed and watered the team and hobbled them amid the
tall frost-cured grass to feed.

"Now for the tent," he said on returning. "Will your highness have it
face north, south, east, or west?"

"East, please, How. I want to see the sun when it first comes up in the
morning."

With the methodical swiftness of one accustomed to his work the man set
about his task. The tent, his own, was in the rear of the waggon box.
The furnishings, likewise his own, were close packed beside. More
quickly than the watcher fancied it possible the whole began to take
shape. Long before the glory had left the western sky the tent itself
was in place. Before the chill, which followed so inevitably and
swiftly, was in the air the diminutive soft coal heater was installed
and in service. Following, produced from the same receptacle as by
legerdemain, vanishing mysteriously within the mushroom house, followed
the blanket bed, the buffalo robes, the folding chairs and table, the
frontier "grub" chest. Last of all, signal to the world that the task
was complete, the battered lantern with the tin reflector was trimmed
and lit and, adding the final touch of comfort and of intimacy that
light alone can give, was hung from its old hook on the ridge pole.
Then at last, the first shadows of night stealing over the soundless
earth, the man approached the lone spectator and held out his arms for
her to descend.

"Come, Bess," he said. He smiled up at her as only such a man at such a
time can smile. "This is my night. I'm going to do everything; cook
supper and all. Come, girlie."

       *       *       *       *       *

The meal was over, and again, as on that other occasion when Colonel
William Landor had called, the two people within the tent occupied the
same positions. In the folding rocking chair sat the girl, the light
from the single lantern playing upon her brown head and soft oval face.
In the partial darkness of the corner, stretched among the buffalo
robes, lay the man. His arms were locked behind his head. His face was
toward her. His eyes--eyes unbelievably soft and innocent for a mature
man--were upon her. As he had said, this was his night, and he was
living in it to the full. Ever taciturn with her as with others, he was
at this time even more silent than usual, silent in a happiness which
made words seem sacrilege. He merely looked at her, wonderingly,
worshipfully, with the mute devotion of a dog for its master, as a
devout Catholic gazes upon the image of the Virgin Mother. Since they
had entered the tent he had scarcely spoken more than a single sentence
at a time. Only once had he given a glimpse of himself. Then he had
apologised for the meagreness of the meal. "To-morrow," he had said,
"we will have game, the country is full of it; but to-day--" he had
looked down as he had spoken--"to-day I felt somehow as though I could
not kill anything. Life is too good to destroy, to-day."

Thus he lay there now, motionless, wordless, oblivious of passing time;
and now and then in her place the girl's eyes lifted, found him gazing
at her--and each time looked away. For some reason she could not return
that look. For some reason as each time she caught it, read its meaning,
her brown face grew darker. As truly as out there on the prairie she was
afraid of the infinite solitude, she was afraid now of the worship that
gaze implied. She had awakened, had Elizabeth Landor; and in the depths
of her own soul she knew she was not worthy of such love, such
confidence absolute. She expected it, she wanted it--and still she did
not want it. She longed for oblivion such as his, oblivion of all save
the passing minute; and it was not hers. Prescience, without a reason
therefor which she would admit, prevented forgetfulness. She tried to
shake the impression off; but it clung tenaciously. Instinctively,
almost under compulsion, she even went ahead to meet it, to prepare the
way.

"You mustn't look at me that way, How," she laughed at last forcedly.
"It makes me afraid of myself--afraid of dropping. Supposing I should
fall, from up in the sky where you fancy I am! No one, not even you,
could ever put the pieces together."

"Fall," smiled the man, "you fall? You wouldn't; but if you did, I'd be
there to catch you."

"Then you, too, would be in fragments. I'm very, very far above earth,
you know."

"I'd want to be so, if you fell," said the man. "You're all there is in
the world, all there is in life, for me. I'd want to be annihilated,
too, then."

The girl's hands folded in her lap; as they had done that afternoon,
very carefully.

"You don't know me even yet, How," she guided on. "You think I'm
perfect, but I'm not. I know I'm very, very human, very--bad at times."

The other smiled; that was all.

"I'm liable to do anything, be anything. I'm liable to even fancy I
don't like you and run away."

"If you did you'd return very soon."

"Return?" She looked at him fully. "You think so?"

"I know so."

"Why, How?"

"Because you care for me."

"But it would be because I didn't care for you that I'd go, you know."

"You'd find your mistake and come back."

The clasped hand locked, as once before they had done.

"And when I did--come back--you'd forgive me, How?"

"There'd be nothing to forgive."

"It wouldn't be wrong--to leave you that way?"

"To me you could do no wrong, Bess."

"Not if I did anything, if I--ran away with another man?"

The listener smiled, until the beardless face was very, very boyish.

"I can't imagine the impossible, Bess."

"But just supposing I should?" insistently. "You'd take me back, no
matter what I'd done, and forgive me?"

For a half minute wherein the smile slowly vanished from his face the
man did not answer, merely looked at her; then for the first time since
they had been speaking his eyes dropped.

"I could forgive you anything, Bess; but to take you back, to have
everything go on as before--I am human. I could not."

A moment longer the two remained so, each staring at their feet; then of
a sudden, interrupting, the girl laughed, unmusically, hysterically.

"I'm glad you said that, How," she exulted; "glad I compelled you to say
it. As you confess, it makes you seem more human. A god shouldn't marry
a mortal, you know."

The man looked up gravely, but he said nothing.

"I'm going to make you answer me just one more thing," rushed on the
girl, "and then I'm satisfied. You'd forgive me, you say, forgive me
anything; but how about the other man, the one who had induced me to run
away? Would you forgive him, too?"

Silence, dead silence; but this time the Indian's eyes did not drop.

"You may as well tell me, How. I'm irresponsible to-night and I won't
give you any peace until you do. Would you forgive the other man, too?"

Once more for seconds there was a lapse; then slowly the Indian lifted
in his place, lifted until he was sitting, lifted until his face stood
out clear in the light like the carving of a master.

"Forgive _him_, Bess?" A pause. "Do you think I am a god?"

That was all, neither an avowal nor a denial; yet no human being looking
at the speaker that moment would have pressed the query farther, no
human being could have misread the answer. With the same little
hysterical, unnatural laugh the girl sank back in her seat. The tense
hands went lax.

"I'll be good now, How," she said dully. "One isn't married every day,
you know, and it's got on my nerves. I'm finding out a lot of things
lately, and that's one of them: that I have nerves. I never supposed
before that I possessed them."

Deliberately, without a shade of hesitation or of uncertainty, the man
arose. As deliberately he walked over and very, very gently lifted the
girl to her feet.

"Bess," he said low, "there's something that's troubling you, something
you'd feel better to tell me. Don't you trust me enough to tell me now,
girlie?"

Very long they stood so, face to face. For a time the girl did not look
up, merely stood there, her fingers locked behind her back, her long
lashes all but meeting; then of a sudden, swiftly as the passing shadow
of an April cloud, the mood changed, she glanced up.

"I thought I could scare you, How," she joyed softly, "and I have." She
smiled straight into his eyes. "I wanted to see how much you cared for
me, was all. I've found out. There's absolutely nothing to tell, How,
man; absolutely nothing."

For another half minute the man looked at her deeply, silently; but,
still smiling, she answered him back, and with a last lingering grip
that was a caress his hands dropped.

"I trust you, Bess, completely," he said. "It makes me unhappy to feel
that you are unhappy, is all."

"I know, How." Tears were on the long lashes now, tears that came so
easily. "I'll try not to be bad again." She touched his sleeve. "I'm
very tired now and sleepy. You'll forgive me this once again, won't
you?"

"Forgive you!--Bess!" She was in his arms, pressed close to his breast,
the presence of her, intense, feminine, intoxicating him, bearing him as
the fruit of the poppy to oblivion. "God, girl, if you could only
realise how I love you. I can't tell you; I can't say things; but if you
could only realise!"

Passionate, throbbing, the girl's face lifted. Her great brown eyes,
sparkling wet, glorious, looked into his eyes. Her lips parted.

"Say that again, How," she whispered, "only say that again. Tell me that
you love me. Tell me! tell me!"




CHAPTER XIV


FATE, THE SATIRIST

Four months drifted by. The will of Colonel William Landor had been read
and executed. According to its provisions the home ranch with one-tenth
of the herd, divided impartially as they filed past the executor, were
left to Mary Landor; in event of her death to descend to "an only
nephew, Clayton Craig by name." A second fraction of the great herd, a
tenth of the remainder, selected in the same manner, reverted at once
"unqualifiedly and with full title to hold or to sell to the
aforementioned sole blood relative, Clayton Craig." All of the estate
not previously mentioned, the second ranch whereon How Landor had
builded, various chattels enumerated, a small sum of money in a city
bank, and the balance of the herd, whose number the testator himself
could not give with certainty, were willed likewise unqualifiedly to "my
adopted daughter, Elizabeth Landor." That was all. A single sheet of
greasy note paper, a collection of pedantic antiquated phrases, penned
laboriously with the scrawling hand of one unused to writing; but
incontrovertible in its laconic directness. Save these three no other
names were mentioned. So far as the Indian Ma-wa-cha-sa, commonly called
How Landor, was concerned he might never have existed. In a hundred
words the labour was complete; and at its end, before the single sheet
was covered, sprawling, characteristic, was the last signature of him
who at the time was the biggest cattleman west of the river: William
Landor of the Buffalo Butte.

Craig himself did not appear, either at the reading or the execution.
Instead a dapper city attorney with a sarcastic tongue and an isolated
manner was present to conserve his interests; and, satisfied on that
score, and ere the supply of Havanas in a beautifully embossed leather
case was exhausted, in fact, to quote his own words, "as quickly as a
kind Providence would permit," he vanished into the unknown from whence
he came. Following, on the next train, came a big-voiced, red-bearded
Irishman who proclaimed himself the new foreman and immediately took
possession. Simultaneously there disappeared from the scene the Buffalo
Butte ranch and the brand by which it had been known; and in its place
upon the flank of every live thing controlled, stared forth a C locked
to a C (C-C): the heraldry of the new master, Clayton Craig.

Likewise the long-planned wedding journey had taken place and become a
memory. Into the silent places they went, this new-made man and
wife--and no one was present at the departure to bid them adieu. Back
from the land of nothingness they came--and again no one was at hand to
welcome their return. In but one respect did the accomplishment of that
plan alter from the prearranged; and that one item was the consideration
of time. They did not stay away until winter, as the girl had announced.
Starting in November, they did not complete the month. Nor did they stay
for more than a day in any one spot. Like the curse of the Wandering
Jew, a newborn restlessness in the girl kept calling "On, on." Battle
against it as she might, she was powerless under its dominance. She knew
not from whence had come the change, nor why; but that in the last weeks
she had altered fundamentally, unbelievably, she could not question. The
very first night out, ere they had slept, she had begun to talk of
change on the morrow. The next day it was the same--and the next. When
they were moving the morbid restlessness gradually wore away; for the
time being she became her old careless-happy self; and in sympathy her
companion opened as a flower to the sun. Then would come a pause; and
the morbid, dogging spirit of unrest would close upon her anew. Thus day
by day passed until a week had gone by. Then one morning when camp was
struck, instead of advancing farther, the man had faced back the way
they had come. He made no comment, nor did she. Neither then nor in days
that followed did he once allude to the reason that had caused the
change of plan. When the girl was gay, he was gay likewise. When she
lapsed listlessly into the slough of silence and despond, he went on
precisely as though unconscious of a change. His acting, for acting it
was, even the girl could not but realise at that time, was masterly.
What he was thinking no human being ever knew, no human being could ever
know; for he never gave the semblance of a hint. Probably not since man
and woman began under the sanction of law and of clergy to mate, had
there been such a honeymoon. Probably never will there be such another.
That the whole expedition was a piteous, dreary failure neither could
have doubted ere the first week dragged by. That the marriage journey
which it ushered in was to be a failure likewise, neither could have
questioned, ere the second week, which brought them home, had passed.
The Garden of Eden was there, there as certainly in its frost-brown
sun-blessed perfection as though spread luxuriously within the tropics.
Adam was there, Adam prepared to accept it as normally content as the
first man; but Eve was not satisfied. Within the garden the serpent had
shown his face and tempted her. For very, very long she would not admit
the fact even to herself, deluded herself by the belief that this
newborn discontent was but temporary; yet bald, unaltering as the
prairie itself, the truth stood forth. Thus they went, and thus they
returned. Thus again thereafter the days went monotonously by.

One bright spot, and one alone, appeared on their firmament; and that
was the opening of the new house. This was to be a surprise, a climax
boyishly reserved by its builder for their return. The man had
intentionally so arranged that the start should be from the old ranch,
and in consequence the girl had never seen either the new or its
furnishings, until the November day when the overloaded surrey drew up
in the dooryard, and the journey was complete. Pathetic, indescribable,
in the light of the past, in the memory of the solitary hours that
frontier nest represented, the moment must have been to the man when he
led the way to the entrance and turned the key. Yet he smiled as he
threw open the door; and, standing there, ere she entered, he kissed
her.

"It isn't much, but it was mine, Bess, and now it's yours," he said,
and, her hand in his, he crossed the threshold.

A moment the girl stood staring around her. Crude as everything was, and
cheap in aggregate, it spoke a testimony that was overwhelming. Never
before, not even that first night they had been alone, had the girl
realised as at this moment what she meant to this solitary, impassive
human. Never before until these mute things he had fashioned with his
own hands stood before her eyes did she realise fully his love. With the
knowledge now came a flood of repentance and of appreciation. Her arms
flew about his neck. Her wet face was hid.

"How you love me, man," she voiced. "How you love me!"

"Yes, Bess," said the other simply; and that was all.

For that day, and the next, and the next, the mood lasted, an awakening
the girl began to fancy permanent; then inevitably came the reaction.
The man took up his duties where he had laid them down: the supervision
of a herd scattered of necessity to the winds, the personal inspection
of a range that stretched away for miles. Soon after daylight, his lunch
for the day packed in the pouch he slung over his shoulder, he left
astride the mouse-coloured, saddleless broncho; not to return until dark
or later, tired and hungry, but ever smiling at the home-coming, ever
considerate. Thus the third night he returned to find the house dark and
the fire in the soft coal stove dead; to find this and the girl
stretched listless on the bed against the wall, staring wide-eyed into
the darkness.

"I was tired and resting, How," she had explained penitently, and gone
about the task of preparing supper; but the man was not deceived, and
that moment, if not before, he recognised the inevitable.

Yet even then he made no comment, nor altered in the minutest detail his
manner. If ever a human being played the game, it was How Landor. With a
blindness that was masterly, that was all but fatuous, he ignored the
obvious. His equanimity and patience were invulnerable. Silent by
nature, he grew fairly loquacious in an effort to be companionable.
Probably no white man alive would have done as he did, would have borne
what he did; perhaps it would have been better had he done differently;
but he was as he was. Day after day he endured the galling starched
linen and unaccustomed clothing, making long journeys to the distant
town to keep his wardrobe clean and replenished. Day after day he
polished his boots and struggled with his cravat. Puerile unqualifiedly
an observer would have characterised this repeated farce; but to one who
knew the tale in its entirety, it would have seemed very far from
humorous. All but sacrilege, it is to tell of this starved human's doing
at this time. The sublime and the ridiculous ever elbow so closely in
this life and jostled so continuously in those stormy hours of How
Landor's chastening. Suffice it to repeat that every second through it
all he played the game; played it with a smiling face, and the ghost of
a jest ever trembling on his lips. Played it from the moment he entered
his house until the moment he daily disappeared, astride the vixenish
undersized cayuse. Then when he was alone, when there were no human eyes
to observe, to pity perchance, then--But let it pass what he did then.
It is another tale and extraneous.

Thus drifted by the late fall and early winter. Bit by bit the days grew
shorter; and then as a pendulum vibrates, lengthened shade by shade. No
human being came their way, nor wild thing, save roving murderers on
pillage bent. Even the cowmen he employed, the old hands he and Bess had
both known for years, avoided him obviously, stubbornly. After the
execution of the will he had built them another ranch house at a
distance on the range, and there they congregated and clung. They
accepted his money and obeyed his orders unquestioningly; but further
than that--they were white and he was red. Howard, the one man with
whom he had been friendly, had grown restless and drifted on--whither no
one knew. Save for the Irish overseer and one other cowboy, the old
Buffalo Butte ranch was deserted. Locally, there neither was nor had
been any outward manifestation of hostility, nor even gossip. But the
olden times when the hospitable ranch house of Colonel William Landor
was the meeting point of ranchers within a radius of fifty miles were
gone. They did not persecute the new master or his white wife; they did
a subtler, crueller thing: they ignored them. To the Indian's face, when
by infrequent chance they met, they were affable, obliging. His
reputation had spread too far for them to appear otherwise; but, again,
they were white and he was red--and between them the chasm yawned.

Thus passed the months. Winter, dead and relentless, held its sway. It
was a normal winter; but ever in this unprotected land the period was
one of inevitable decimation, of a weeding out of the unfit. Here and
there upon the range, dark against the now background of universal
white, stared forth the carcass of a weakling. Over it for a few nights
the coyotes and grey wolves howled and fought; then would come a fresh
layer of white, and the spot where it had been would merge once more
into the universal colour scheme. Even the prairie chickens vanished,
migrated to southern lands where corn was king. No more at daylight or
at dusk could one hear the whistle of their passing wings, or the
booming of their rallying call. Magnificent in any season, this
impression of the wild was even more pronounced now. The thought of God
is synonymous with immensity; and so being, Deity was here eternally
manifest, ubiquitous. The human mind could not conceive a more infinite
bigness than this gleaming frost-bound waste stretched to the horizon
beneath the blazing winter sun. Magnificent it was beyond the power of
words to describe; but lonely, lonely. Within the tiny cottage, the
girl, Bess, drew the curtains tight over the single window and for days
at a time did not glance without.

Then at last, for to all things there is an end, came spring. Long
before it arrived the Indian knew it was coming, read incontestably its
advance signs. No longer, as the mouse-coloured cayuse bore him over the
range, was there the mellow crunch of snow underfoot. Instead the sound
was crisp and sharp: the crackling of ice where the snow had melted and
frozen again. Distinct upon the record of the bleak prairie page
appeared another sign infallible. Here and there, singly and _en masse_,
wherever the herds had grazed, appeared oblong brown blots the size of
an animal's body. The cattle were becoming weak under the influence of
prolonged winter, and lay down frequently to rest, their warm bodies
branding the evidence with melted snow. The jack rabbits, ubiquitous on
the ranges, that sprang daily almost from beneath the pony's feet, were
changing their winter's dress, were becoming darker; almost as though
soiled by a muddy hand. Here and there on the high places the sparkling
white was giving way to a dull, lustreless brown. Gradually, day by day,
as though they were a pestilence, they expanded, augmented until they,
and not the white, became the dominant tone. The sun was high in the sky
now. At noontime the man's shadow was short, scarcely extended back of
his pony's feet. Mid-afternoons, in the low places when he passed
through, there was a spattering of snow water collected in tiny puddles.
After that there was no need of signs. Realities were everywhere. Dips
in the rolling land, mere dry runs save at this season, became creeks;
flushed to their capacity and beyond, sang softly all the day long. Not
only the high spots, but even the north slopes lost their white
blankets, surrendered to the conquering brown. Migratory life, long
absent, returned to its own. Prairie kites soared far overhead on
motionless wings. Meadow larks, cheeriest of heralds, practised their
five-toned lay. Here and there, to the north of prairie boulders,
appeared tufts of green; tufts that, like the preceding brown, grew and
grew and grew until they dominated the whole landscape. Then at last,
the climax, the _finale_ of the play, came life, animal and vegetable,
with a rush. Again at daylight and at dusk swarms of black dots on
whistling wings floated here and there, descended to earth; and,
following, indefinite as to location, weird, lonely, boomed forth in
their mating songs. Transient, shallow, miniature lakes swarmed with
their new-come denizens. Last of all, final assurance of a new season's
advent, by day and by night, swelling, diminishing, unfailingly musical
as distant chiming bells, came the sound of all most typical of prairie
and of spring. From high overhead in the blue it came, often so high
that the eye could not distinguish its makers; yet alway distinctive,
alway hauntingly mysterious. "Honk! honk! honk!" sounded and echoed and
re-echoed that heraldry over the awakened land. "Honk! honk! honk!" it
repeated; and listening humans smiled and commented unnecessarily each
to the other: "Spring is not coming. It is here."




CHAPTER XV


THE FRUIT OF THE TREE OF KNOWLEDGE

A shaggy grey wolf, a baby no longer but practically full grown, swung
slowly along the beaten trail connecting the house and the barn as the
stranger appeared. He did not run, he did not glance behind, he made no
sound. With almost human dignity he vacated the premises to the
newcomer. Not until he reached his destination, the ill-lighted stable,
did curiosity get the better of prudence; then, safe within the doorway,
he wheeled about, and with forelegs wide apart stood staring out, his
long, sensitive nose taking minutest testimony.

The newcomer, a well-proportioned, smooth-faced man in approved riding
togs, halted likewise and returned the look; equally minutely, equally
suspiciously. The horse he rode was one of a kind seldom seen on the
ranges: a thoroughbred with slender legs and sensitive ears. The rider
sat his saddle well; remarkably well for one obviously from another
life. Both the horse and man were immaculately groomed. At a distance
they made a pleasant picture, one fulfilling adequately the adjective
"smart." Not until an observer was near, very near, could the looseness
of the skin beneath the man's eyelids, incongruous with his general
youth, and the abnormal nervous twitching of a muscle here and there,
have been noted. For perhaps a minute he sat so, taking in every detail
of the commonplace surroundings. Then, apparently satisfied, he
dismounted and, tying the animal to the wheel of an old surrey drawn up
in the yard, he approached the single entrance of the house and rapped.

To the doorway came Elizabeth Landor; her sleeves rolled to the elbow, a
frilled apron that reached to the chin protecting a plain gingham gown.
A moment they looked at each other; then the man's riding cap came off
with a sweep and he held out his hand.

"Bess!" he said intimately; and for another moment that was all. Then he
looked her fair between the eyes. "I came to see your husband," he
exclaimed. "Is he at home?"

The girl showed no surprise, ignored the out-stretched hand.

"I was expecting you," she said. "How told me last night that you had
returned."

A shade of colour stole into the man's blonde cheeks and his hand
dropped; but his eyes held their place.

"Yes. I only came yesterday," he returned. "I've a little business to
talk over with How. That's why I'm here this morning. Is he about?"

Just perceptibly the girl smiled; but she made no answer.

"Don't you wish to be friends, Bess?" persisted the man. "Aren't we to
be even neighbourly?"

"Neighbourly, certainly. I have no desire to be otherwise."

"Why don't you answer me, then?" The red shading was becoming positive
now, telltale. "Tell me why, please."

"Answer?" The girl rolled down one sleeve deliberately. "Answer?" She
undid its mate. "Do you really fancy, cousin by courtesy, that after
I've lived the last four months I'm still such a child as that? Do you
really wish me to answer, Neighbour Craig?"

For the first time the man's eyes dropped. Some silver coins in his
trousers pocket jingled as he fingered them nervously. Then again he
looked up.

"I beg your pardon, Bess," he said. "I saw your husband leave an hour
ago. I knew he wasn't here." He looked her straight. "It was you I came
to see. May I stay?"

Again the girl ignored the question.

"You admit then," she smiled, "that if How were here you wouldn't have
come, that nothing you know of could have made you come? Let's
understand each other in the beginning. You admit this?"

"Yes," steadily, "I admit it. May I stay?"

The smile left the girl's lips. She looked him fair in the eyes;
silently, deliberately, with an intensity the other could not fathom,
could not even vaguely comprehend. Then as deliberately she released
him, looked away.

"Yes, you may stay," she consented, "if you wish."

"If I wish!" Craig looked at her meaningly; then with an obvious effort
he checked himself "Thank you," he completed repressedly.

This time the girl did not smile.

"Don't you realise yet that sort of thing is useless?" she queried
unemotionally.

It was the man this time who was silent.

"If you wish to stay," went on the girl monotonously, "do so; but for
once and all do away with acting. We're neither of us good, we're both
living a lie; but at least we understand each other. Let's not waste
energy in pretending--when there's no one to be deceived."

Just for a second the man stiffened. The histrionic was too much a part
of his life to shake off instantly. Then he laughed.

"All right, Bess. I owe you another apology, I suppose. Anyway be it so.
And now, that I'm to stay--" A meaning glance through the open door.
"You were working, weren't you?"

"Yes."

"Go ahead, then, and I'll find something to sit on and watch. You
remember another morning once before, don't you--a morning before you
grew up--"

"Perfectly."

"We'll fancy we're back there again, then. Come."

"I am quite deficient in imagination."

"At least, though, dishes must be washed."

"Not necessarily--this moment at least. They have waited before."

"But, Bess, on the square, I don't wish to intrude or interfere."

"You're not interfering. I've merely chosen to rest a bit and enjoy the
sun." She indicated the step. "Won't you be seated? They're clean, I
know. I scrubbed them this very morning myself."

The man hesitated. Then he sat down.

"Bess," he said, "you've been pretty frank with me and I'm going to
return the privilege. I don't understand you a bit--the way you are now.
You've changed terribly."

"Changed? On the contrary I'm very normal. I've been precisely as I am
this moment for--a lifetime."

"For--how long, Bess?"

"A lifetime, I think."

"For four months, you mean."

"Perhaps--it's all the same."

"Since you did a foolish thing?"

"I have done many such."

"Since the last, I mean."

"No." Just perceptibly the lids over the brown eyes tightened. "The last
was when I asked you to sit down. I have not changed in the smallest
possible manner since then."

The man inspected his boots.

"Aren't you, too, going to be seated?" he suggested at length.

"Yes, certainly. To tell the truth I thought I was." She took a place
beside him. "I had forgotten."

They sat so, the man observing her narrowly, in real perplexity.

"Bess," he initiated baldly at last, "you're unhappy."

"I have not denied it," evenly.

The visitor caught his breath. He thought he was prepared for anything;
but he was finding his mistake.

"This life you've--selected, is wearing on you," he added. "Frankly, I
hardly recognise you, you used to be so careless and happy."

"Frankly," echoed the girl, "you, too, have altered, cousin mine. You're
dissipating. Even here one grows to recognise the signs."

The man flushed. It is far easier in this world to give frank criticism
than to receive it.

"I won't endeavour to justify myself, Bess," he said intimately, "nor
attempt to deny it. There is a reason, however."

"I've noticed," commented his companion, "that there usually is an
explanation for everything we do in this life."

"Yes. And in this instance you are the reason, Bess."

"Thank you." A pause. "I suppose I should take that as a compliment."

"You may if you wish. Leastways it's the truth."

The girl locked her fingers over her knees and leaned back against the
lintel of the door. She looked very young that moment--and very old.

"And your reason?" persisted the man. "You know now my explanation for
being--as I am. What is yours?"

"Do you wish a compliment, also, Clayton Craig?"

"I wish to know the reason."

"Unfortunately you know it already. Otherwise you would not be here."

"You mean it is this lonely life, this man of another race you have
married?"

"No. I mean the thing that led me away from this life, and--the man you
have named."

"I don't believe I understand, Bess."

"You ought to. You drank me dry once, every drop of confidence I
possessed, for two weeks."

"You mean I myself am the cause," said the man low.

"I repeat you have the compliment--if you consider it such."

Again there was silence. Within the stable door, during all the time,
the grey wolf had not stirred. He was observing them now, steadily,
immovably. Though it was bright sunlight without, against the background
of the dark interior his eyes shone as though they were afire.

"Honestly, Bess," said the man, low as before, "I'm sorry if I have
made you unhappy."

"I thought we had decided to be truthful for once," answered a voice.

"You're unjust, horribly unjust!"

"No. I merely understand you--now. You're not sorry, because otherwise
you wouldn't be here. You wouldn't dare to be here--even though my
husband were away."

Again instinctively the man's face reddened. It was decidedly a novelty
in his life to be treated as he was being treated this day. Ordinarily
glib of speech, for some reason in the face of this newfound emotionless
characterisation, he had nothing to say. It is difficult to appear what
one is not in the blaze of one's own fireside. It was impossible under
the scrutiny of this wide-eyed girl, with the recollection of events
gone by.

"All right, Bess," he admitted at last, with an effort, "we've got other
things more interesting than myself to discuss anyway." He looked at her
openly, significantly. "Your own self, for instance."

"Yes?"

"I'm listening. Tell me everything."

"You really fancy I will after--the past?"

"Yes."

"And why, please?"

"You've already told me why."

"That's right," meditatively. "I'd forgotten. We were going to be
ourselves, our natural worst selves, to-day."

"I'm still listening."

"You're patient. What do you most wish to know?"

"Most? The thing most essential, of course. Do you love your husband?
You're unhappy, I know. Is that the reason?"

The girl looked out, out over the prairies, meditatively, impassively.
Far in the distance, indistinguishable to an untrained eye, a black dot
stood out above the horizon line. Her eyes paused upon it.

"You'll never tell anyone if I answer?" she asked suddenly.

"Never, Bess."

"You swear it?"

"I swear."

Just perceptibly the girl's lips twitched.

"Thanks. I merely wished to find out if you would still perjure
yourself. To answer your question, I really don't know."

"Bess!" The man was upon his feet, his face twitching. "I'll stand a lot
from you, but there's a limit--"

"Sit down, please," evenly. "It's wasted absolutely. There's not a soul
but myself to see; and I'm not looking. Please be seated."

From his height the man looked down at her; at first angrily,
resentfully--then with an expression wherein surprise and unbelief were
mingled. He sat down.

The girl's eyes left the dot on the horizon, moved on and on.

"As I was saying," she continued, "I don't know. I'd give my soul, if I
have one, to know; but I have no one with whom to make the exchange, no
one who can give me light. Does that answer your question?"

Her companion stared at her, and forgot himself.

"Yes, it answers the now. But why did you marry him?"

"You really wish to know?" Again the lips were twitching.

"Yes."

"You're very hungry for compliments. You yourself are why."

No answer, only silence.

"You've seen a coursing, haven't you?" wandered on the girl. "A little
tired rabbit with a great mongrel pack in pursuit? You're not plural,
but nevertheless you personified that pack. You and the unknown things
you represented were pressing me close. I was confused and afraid. I was
a babe four months ago. I was not afraid of How, I had loved him--at
least I thought I had, I'm sure of nothing now--and, as I say, I was
afraid of you--then."

"And now--"

Just for a second the girl glanced at the questioner, then she looked
away.

"I'm not in the least afraid of you now--or of anything."

"Not even of your husband?"

"No," unemotionally. "I leave that to you."

Again the man's face twitched, but he was silent.

"I said afraid of nothing," retracted the girl swiftly. "I made a
mistake." Of a sudden her face grew old and tense. "I am afraid of
something; horribly afraid. I'm as afraid, as you are of death, of this
infinite eventless monotony." She bit her lip deep, unconsciously. "I
sometimes think the old fear of everything were preferable, were the
lesser of the two evils."

Just perceptibly the figure of the man grew alert. The loose skin under
his eyes drew tight as the lids partially closed.

"You've been a bit slow about it, Bess," he said, "but I think you've
gotten down to realities at last." He likewise looked away; but
unseeingly. The mind of Clayton Craig was not on the landscape that
spring morning. "I even fancy that at last you realise what a mess
you've made of your life."

The girl showed no resentment, no surprise.

"Yes, I think I do," she said.

"You are perhaps even prepared to admit that I wasn't such a brute after
all in attempting to prevent your doing as you did."

"No," monotonously. "You could have prevented it if you hadn't been a
brute."

Again the man looked at her, unconscious of self.

"You mean that you did really and truly care for me, then, Bess? Cared
for me myself?"

"Yes."

"And that I frightened you back here?"

"Yes."

Unconsciously the man swallowed. His throat was very dry.

"And now that you're no longer afraid of me, how about it now?"

The girl looked away in silence.

"Tell me, Bess," pleaded the man, "tell me!"

"I can't tell you. I don't know."

"Don't know?"

"No. I don't seem to be sure of anything now-a-days--anything except
that I'm afraid."

"Of the future?"

"Yes--and of myself."

For once at least in his life Clayton Craig was wise. He said nothing. A
long silence fell between them. It was the girl herself who broke it.

"I sometimes think a part of me is dead," she said slowly, and the voice
was very weary. "I think it was buried in Boston with Uncle Landor."

"Was I to blame, Bess?"

"Yes. You were the grave digger. You covered it up."

"Then I'm the one to bring it to life again."

The girl said nothing.

"You admit," pressed Craig, "that I'm the only person who can restore
the thing you have lost, the thing whose lack is making you unhappy?"

"Yes. I admit it."

The man took a deep breath, as one arousing from reverie.

"Won't you let me give it you again, Bess?" he asked low.

"You won't do it," listlessly. "You could, but you won't. You're too
selfish."

"Bess!" The man's hand was upon her arm.

"Don't do that, please," said the girl quietly.

The man's face twitched; but he obeyed.

"You're maddening, Bess," he flamed. "Positively maddening!"

"Perhaps," evenly. "I warned you that if you stayed we'd be ourselves
to-day. I merely told you things as they are."

Craig opened his lips to speak; but closed them again in silence. One of
his hands, long fingered, white as a woman's, lay in his lap. Against
his will now and then a muscle contracted nervously; and of a sudden he
thrust the telltale member deep into his trousers pocket.

"But the future, Bess," he challenged, "your future. You can't go on
this way indefinitely. What are you going to do?"

"I don't know."

"Haven't you ever thought of it?"

"It seems to me I've thought of nothing else--for an age."

"And you've decided nothing?"

"Absolutely nothing."

Again the man drew a long breath; but even thereafter his voice
trembled.

"Let me decide for you then, Bess," he said.

"You?" The girl inspected him slowly through level eyes. "By what right
should you be permitted to decide?"

The man returned her look. Of a sudden he had become calm. His eyes were
steady. Deep down in his consciousness he realised that he would win,
that the moment was his moment.

"The right is mine because I love you, Bess Landor," he said simply.

"Love me, after what you have done?"

"Yes. I have been mad--and done mad things. But I've discovered my
fault. That's why I've come back; to tell you so--and to make amends."

Intensely, desperately intensely, the girl continued her look; but the
man was master of himself now, sure of himself, so sure that he voiced a
challenge.

"And you, Bess Landor, love me. In spite of the fact that you ran away,
in spite of the fact that you are married, you love me!"

Into the girl's brown face there crept a trace of colour; her lips
parted, but she said no word.

"You can't deny it," exulted the man. "You can't--because it is true."

A moment longer they sat so, motionless; then for a second time that day
Clayton Craig did a wise thing, inspiration wise. While yet he was
master of the situation, while yet the time was his, he arose.

"I'm going now, Bess," he said, "but I'll come again." He looked at her
deeply, meaningly. "I've said all there is to say, for I've told you
that I love you. Good-bye for now, and remember this: If I've stolen
your happiness, I'll give it all back. As God is my witness, I'll give
it all back with interest." Swiftly, before she could answer, he turned
away and strode toward the impatient thoroughbred. Equally swiftly he
undid the tie strap and mounted. Without another word, or a backward
glance, he rode away; the galloping hoofs of his mount muffled in the
damp spring earth.

Equally silent, the girl sat looking after him. She did not move. She
did not make a sound. Not until the horse turned in at the C-C ranch
house, until the buildings hid the owner from view, did her eyes leave
him. Then, as if compelled by an instinct, she looked away over the
prairie, away where the last time she had glanced a tiny black dot stood
out against the intense blue sky. But look as she might she could not
find it. It was there no more. It had been for long; but now was not.
Clean as though drawn by a crayon on a freshly washed blackboard, the
unbroken horizon line stretched out in a great circle before her eyes.
With no watcher save the grey wolf staring forth from the stable
doorway, she was alone with her thoughts.




CHAPTER XVI


THE RECKONING

It was later than usual when How Landor returned that evening, and as he
came up the path that led from the stable, he shuffled his feet as one
unconsciously will when very weary. He was wearing his ready-made
clothes and starched collar; but the trousers were deplorably baggy at
the knees from much riding, and his linen and polished shoes were soiled
with the dust of the prairie.

Supper was waiting for him, a supper hot and carefully prepared. Serving
it was a young woman he had not seen for long, a young woman minus the
slightest trace of listlessness, with a dash of red ribbon at belt and
throat, and a reflection of the same colour burning on either cheek. A
young woman, moreover, who anticipated his slightest wish, who took his
hat and fetched his moccasins, and when the meal was over brought the
buffalo robes and stretched them carefully on the gently sloping terrace
just outside the ranch house door. Meanwhile she chatted bubblingly,
continuously; with a suggestion of the light-hearted gaiety of a year
before. To one less intimately acquainted with her than the man, her
companion, she would have seemed again her old girlish self, returned,
unchanged; but to him who knew her as himself there was now and then a
note that rang false, a hint of suppressed excitement in the unwonted
colour, an abnormal energy bordering on the feverish in her every
motion. Not in the least deceived was this impassive, all-observing
human, not in the least in doubt as to the cause of the transformation:
yet through it all he gave no intimation of consciousness of the
unusual, through it all he smiled, and smiled and smiled again. Never
was there a more appreciative diner than he, never a more attentive,
sympathetic listener. He said but little; but that was not remarkable.
He had never done so except when she had not. When he looked at her
there was an intensity that was almost uncanny in his gaze; but that
also was not unusual. There was ever a mystery in the depths of his
steady black eyes. Never more himself, never outwardly more unsuspicious
was the man than on this occasion; even when, the meal complete, the
girl had led him hand in hand out of doors, out into the soft spring
night, out under the stars where she had stretched the two robes
intimately close.

Thus, side by side, but not touching, they lay there, the soft south
breeze fanning their faces, whispering wordless secrets in their ears;
about them the friendly enveloping darkness, in their nostrils the
subtle, indescribable fragrance of awakening earth and of growing
things. But not even then could the girl be still. Far too full of this
day's revelation and of anticipation of things to come was she to be
silent. The mood of her merely changed. The chatter, heretofore aimless,
ceased. In its place came a definite intent, a motive that prompted a
definite question. She was lying stretched out like a child, her crossed
arms pillowing her head, her eyes looking up into the great unknown,
when she gave it voice. Even when she had done so, she did not alter her
position.

"I wonder," she said, "whether if one has made a mistake, it were better
to go on without acknowledging it, living a lie and dying so, or to
admit it and make another, who is innocent, instead of one's self, pay
the penalty?" She paused for breath after the long sentence. "What do
you think, How?"

In the semi-darkness the man looked at her. Against the lighter sky her
face stood out distinct, clear-cut as a silhouette.

"I do not think it ever right to live a lie, Bess," he answered.

"Not even to keep another, who is innocent, from suffering?"

"No," quickly, "not even to keep another from suffering."

The girl shifted restlessly, repressedly.

"But supposing one's acknowledging the lie and living the truth makes
one, according to the world, bad. Would that make any difference, How?"

The Indian did not stir, merely lay there looking at her with his steady
eyes.

"There are some things one has to decide for one's self," he said. "I
think this is one of them."

Again the arms beneath the girl's head shifted unconsciously.

"Others judge us after we do decide, though," she objected.

"What they think doesn't count. We're good or bad, as we're honest with
ourselves or not."

"You think that, really?"

"I know it, Bess. There's no room for doubt."

Silence fell, and in it the girl's mind wandered on and on. At last,
abrupt as before, abstractedly as before, came a new thought, a new
query.

"Is happiness, after all, the chief end of life, How?" she questioned.

"Happiness, Bess?" He halted. "Happiness?" repeated; but there was no
irony in the voice, only, had the girl noticed, a terrible mute pain.
"How should I know what is best in life, I, who have never known life at
all?"

Blind in her own abstraction, the girl had not read beneath the words
themselves, did not notice the thinly veiled inference.

"But you must have an idea," she pressed. "Tell me."

This time the answer was not concealed. It stood forth glaring, where
the running might read.

"Yes, I have an idea--and more," he said. "Happiness, your happiness,
has always been the first thing in my life."

Again silence walled them in, a longer silence than before. Step by
step, gropingly, the girl was advancing on her journey. Step by step she
was drawing away from her companion; yet though, wide-eyed, he watched
her every motion, felt the distance separating grow wider and wider, he
made no move to prevent, threw no obstacle in her path. Deliberately
from his grip, from beneath his very eyes, fate, the relentless, was
filching his one ewe lamb; yet he gave no sign of the knowledge, spoke
no word of unkindness or of hate. Nature, the all-observing, could not
but have admired her child that night.

One more advance the girl made; and that was the last. Before she had
walked gropingly, as though uncertain of her pathway. Now there was no
hesitation. The move was deliberate; even certain.

"I know you'll think I'm foolish, How," she began swiftly, "but I
haven't much to think about, and so little things appeal to me." She
paused and again her folded arms reversed beneath her head. "I've been
watching 'Shaggy,' the wolf here, since he grew up; watched him become
restless week by week. Last night,--you didn't notice, but I did,--I
heard another wolf call away out on the prairie, and I got up to see
what Shaggy would do. Somehow I seemed to understand how he'd feel, and
I came out here, out where we are now, and looked down toward the barn.
It was moonlight last night, and I could see everything clearly, almost
as clearly as day. There hadn't been a sound while I was getting up; but
all at once as I stood watching the call was repeated from somewhere
away off in the distance. Before, Shaggy hadn't stirred. He was standing
there, where you had chained him, just outside the door; but when that
second call came, it was too much. He started to go, did go as far as he
could; then the collar choked him and he realised where he was. He
didn't make a sound, he didn't fight or rebel against something he
couldn't help; but the way he looked, there in the moonlight, with the
chain stretched across his back--" She halted abruptly, of a sudden sat
up. "I know it's childish, but promise me, How, you'll let him go," she
pleaded. "He's wild, and the wild was calling to him. Please promise me
you'll let him go!"

Not even then did the man stir or his eyes leave her face.

"Did I ever tell you, Bess," he asked, "that it was to save Shaggy's
life I brought him here? Sam Howard dug his mother out of her den and
shot her, and was going to kill the cub, too, when I found him."

"No." A hesitating pause. "But anyway," swiftly, "that doesn't make any
difference. He's wild, and it's a prison to him here."

Deliberately, ignoring the refutation, the man went on with the
argument.

"Again, if Shaggy returns," he said, "the chances are he won't live
through a year. The first cowboy who gets near enough will shoot him on
sight."

"He'll have to take his chance of that, How," countered the girl. "We
all have to take our chances in this life."

For the second time the Indian ignored the interruption.

"Last of all, he's a murderer, Bess. If he were free he'd kill the first
animal weaker than himself he met. Have you thought of that?"

The girl looked away into the infinite abstractedly.

"Yes. But again that makes no difference. Neither you nor I made him as
he is, nor Shaggy himself. He's as God meant him to be; and if he's bad,
God alone is to blame." Her glance returned, met the other fair. "I wish
you'd let him go, How."

The man made no answer.

"Won't you promise me you'll let him go?"

"You really wish it, Bess?"

"Yes, very much."

Still for another moment the man made no move; then of a sudden he
arose.

"Come, Bess," he said.

Wondering, the girl got to her feet; wondering still more, followed his
lead down the path to the stable. At the door the Indian whistled. But
there was no response, no shaggy grey answering shadow. A lantern hung
from a nail near at hand. In silence the man lit it and again led the
way within. The mouse-coloured broncho and its darker mate were asleep,
but at the interruption they awoke and looked about curiously. Otherwise
there was no move. Look where one would within the building, there was
no sign of another live thing. Still in silence the Indian led the way
outside, made the circuit of the stable, paused at the south end where
a chain hung loose from a peg driven into the wall. A moment he stood
there, holding the light so the girl could see; then, impassive as
before, he extinguished the blaze and returned the lantern to its place.

They were half way back to the house before the girl spoke; then,
detainingly, she laid her hand upon his arm.

"You mean you've let him go already, How?" she asked.

"Yes. I didn't fasten him this evening."

They walked on so.

"You wanted him to go?"

No answer.

"Tell me, How, did you want him to leave?"

"No, Bess."

Again they advanced, until they reached the house door.

"Why did you let him go, then?" asked the girl tensely.

For the second time there was no answer.

"Tell me, How," she repeated insistently.

"I heard you get up last night, Bess," said a voice. "I thought
I--understood."

For long they stood there, the girl's hand on the man's arm, but neither
stirring; then with a sound perilously near a sob, the hand dropped.

"I think I'll go to bed now, How," she said.

Deliberately, instinctively, the man's arms folded across his chest.
That was all.

The girl mounted the single step, paused in the doorway.

"Aren't you coming, too, How?" she queried.

"No, Bess."

A sudden suspicion came to the girl, a sudden terror.

"You aren't angry with me, are you?" she trembled.

"No, Bess," repeated.

"But still you're not coming?"

"No."

Swift as a lightning flash suspicion became certainty.

"You mean you're not going to come with me to-night?" She scarcely
recognised her own voice. "You're never going to be with me again?"

"Never?" A long, long pause. "God alone knows about that, Bess." A
second halt. "Not until things between us are different, at least."

"How!" Blindly, weakly, the girl threw out her hand, grasped the casing
of the door. "Oh, How! How!"

No answer, not the twitching of a muscle, nor the whisper of a breath;
just that dread, motionless silence. A moment the girl stood it, hoping
against hope, praying for a miracle; then she could stand it no longer.
Gropingly clutching at every object within reach, she made her way into
the dark interior; flung herself full dressed onto the bed, her face
buried desperately among the covers.

All the night which followed a sentinel paced back and forth in front
of the ranch house door; back and forth like an automaton, back and
forth in a motion that seemed perpetual. Within the tiny low-ceiled
room, in the fulness of time, the girl sobbed herself into a fitful
sleep; but not once did the sentinel pause to rest, not once in those
dragging hours before day did he relax. With the coming of the first
trace of light he halted, and on silent moccasined feet stole within.
But again he only remained for moments, and when he returned it was
merely to stride away to the stable. Within the space of minutes, before
the east had fairly begun to grow red, silently as he did everything, he
rode away astride the mouse-coloured cayuse into the darkness to the
west.

       *       *       *       *       *

It was broad day when the girl awoke, and then with a vague sense of
depression and of impending evil. The door was open and the bright
morning light flooded the room. Beyond the entrance stretched the open
prairie: an endless sea of green with a tiny brown island, her own
dooryard, in the foreground. With dull listlessness, the girl propped
herself up in bed and sat looking about her. Absently, aimlessly, her
eyes passed from one familiar object to another. Without any definite
conception of why or of where, she was conscious of an impression of
change in the material world about her, a change that corresponded to
the mental crisis that had so recently taken place. Glad as was the
sunshine without this morning, in her it aroused no answering joy.
Ubiquitous as was the vivid surrounding life, its message passed her by.
Like a haze enveloping, dulling all things, was a haunting memory of
the past night and of what it had meant. As a traveller lost in this
fog, she lay staring about, indecisive which way to move, idly waiting
for light. Ordinarily action itself would have offered a solution of the
problem, would have served at least as a diversion; but this morning she
was strangely listless, strangely indifferent. There seemed to her no
adequate reason for rising, no definite object in doing anything more
than she was doing. In conformity she pulled the pillow higher and,
lifting herself wearily, dropped her chin into her palm and lay with
wide-open eyes staring aimlessly away.

Just how long she remained there so, she did not know. The doorway faced
south, and bit by bit the bar of sunlight that had entered therein began
moving to the left across the floor. Unconsciously, for the lack of
anything better to do, she watched its advance. It fell upon a tiny
shelf against the wall, littered with a collection of papers and
magazines; and the reflected light from the white sheets glared in her
eyes. It came to the supper table of the night before, the table she had
not cleared, and like an accusing hand, lay directed at the evidence of
her own slothfulness. On it went with the passing time, on and on;
crossed a bare spot on the uncarpeted floor, and like a live thing,
began climbing the wall beyond.

Deliberately, with a sort of fascination now, the girl watched its
advance. Her nerves were on edge this morning, and in its relentless
stealth it began to assume an element of the uncanny. Like a hostile
alien thing, it seemed searching here and there in the tiny room for
something definite, something it did not find. Fatuous as it may seem,
the impression grew upon her, augmented until in its own turn it became
a dominant influence. Her glance, heretofore absent, perfunctory, became
intense. The glare was well above the floor by this time and climbing
higher and higher. Answering the mythical challenge, of a sudden she sat
up free in bed and, as though at a spoken injunction, looked about her
fairly.

The place where she glanced, the point toward which the light was
mounting, was beside her own bed and where, from rough-fashioned wooden
pegs, hung the Indian's pathetically scant wardrobe. At first glance
there seemed to the girl nothing unusual revealed thereon, nothing
significant; and, restlessly observant, the inspection advanced. Then,
ere the mental picture could vanish, ere a new impression could take its
place, in a flash of tardy recollection and of understanding came
realisation complete, and her eyes returned. For perhaps a minute
thereafter she sat so, her great eyes unconsciously opening wider and
wider, her brown skin shading paler second by second. A minute so, a
minute of nerve-tense inaction; then with a little gesture of weariness
and of abandon absolute, she dropped back in her place, and covered her
face from sight.




CHAPTER XVII


SACRIFICE

A week had gone by. Each day of the seven the thoroughbred with the
slender legs and the tiny sensitive ears had stood in the barren
dooryard before Elizabeth Landor's home. Moreover, with each repetition
the arrival had been earlier, the halt longer. Though the weather was
perfect, nevertheless the beast had grown impatient under the long
waits, and telltale, a glaring black mound had come into being where he
had pawed his displeasure. At first Craig on departing had carefully
concealed the testimony of his presence beneath a sprinkling of dooryard
litter; but at last he had ceased to do so, and bit by bit the mound had
grown. Day had succeeded day, and no one had appeared to question the
visitor's right of coming or of going. Even the wolf was no longer
present to stare his disapproval. Verily, unchallenged, the king had
come into his own in this realm of one; and as a monarch absolute ever
rules, Clayton Craig had reigned, was reigning now.

For he no longer halted perforce at the doorstep. He had never been
invited to enter, yet he had entered--and the girl had spoken no word to
prevent. Not by request were his cap and riding stick hanging from a
peg beside the few belongings of How Landor; yet, likewise unchallenged,
they were there. Not by the girl's solicitation was he lounging
intimately in the single rocker the room boasted; yet once again the
bald fact remained that though it was not yet nine by the clock, he was
present, his legs comfortably crossed, his eyes, beneath drooping lids,
whimsically observing the girl as she went about the perfunctory labour
of putting the place to rights.

"I say, Bess," he remarked casually at length, "you've dusted that
unoffending table three times by actual count since I've been watching.
Wouldn't it be proper to rest a bit now and entertain your company?"

The girl did not smile.

"Perhaps." She put away the cloth judicially. "I fancied you were
tolerably amused as it was. However, if you prefer--" She drew another
chair opposite, and, sitting down, folded her hands in her lap.

A moment longer the man sat smiling at her; then shade by shade the
whimsical expression vanished, and the normal proprietary look he had
grown to assume in her presence took its place.

"By the way, Bess," he commented, "isn't it about time to drop sarcasm
when you and I are together? I know I've been a most reprehensible
offender, but haven't I been punished enough?"

"Punished?" There was just the ghost of a smile. "Is this your idea of
punishment?"

The man flushed involuntarily. His face had cleared remarkably in the
past week of abstinence, and through the fair skin the colour showed
plain.

"Well, perhaps punishment is a little too severe. Leastways you've held
me at arm's length until I'm beginning to despair."

"Despair?" Again the ghost smiled forth. "Do you fancy I'm so dull that
I don't realise what I'm doing, what you've done?"

For the second time the involuntary colour appeared; but the role that
the man was playing, the role of the injured, was too effective to
abandon at once.

"You can't deny that you've held me away all this last week, Bess," he
objected. "You've permitted me to call and call again; but that is all.
Otherwise we're not a bit nearer than we were when I first returned."

"Nearer?" This time the smile did not come. Even the ghost refused to
appear. "I wonder if that's true." A pause. "At least I've gotten
immeasurably farther away from another."

"Your husband you mean?"

"I mean How. There are but you and he in my life."

The pose was abandoned. It was useless now.

"Tell me, Bess," said the man intimately. "You and I mean too much to
each other not to know everything there is to know."

"There's nothing to tell." The girl did not dissimulate now. The
inevitable was in sight, approaching swiftly--and she herself had
chosen. "He's merely given me up."

"He knows, Bess?" Blank unbelief was on the questioner's face, something
else as well, something akin to exultation.

"Yes," repressedly. "He's known since that first night."

"And he hasn't objected, hasn't done anything at all?"

Just for an instant, ere came second thought, the old defiance, the old
pride, broke forth.

"Do you fancy you would be here now, that you wouldn't have known before
this if he objected?" she flamed.

"Bess!"

"I beg your pardon. I shouldn't have said that." Already the blaze had
died, never to be rekindled. "Forget that I said that. I didn't mean
to."

The man did not answer, he scarcely heard. Almost as by a miracle, the
last obstacle had been removed from his way. He had counted upon
blindness, the unsuspicion of perfect confidence; but a passive,
conscious conformity such as this--The thing was unbelievable,
providential, too unnaturally good to last. The present was a strategic
moment, the time for immediate, irrevocable action, ere there came a
change of heart. It had not been a part of Clayton Craig's plans to
permit a meeting between himself and the Indian. As a matter of fact he
had taken elaborate, and, as it proved, unnecessary precautions to
avoid such a consummation. Even now, the necessity passed, he did not
alter his plans. Not that he was afraid of the red man. He had proven to
himself by an incontrovertible process of reasoning that such was not
the case. It was merely to avoid unpleasantness for himself and for the
girl--particularly for the latter. Moreover, no possible object could be
gained by such a meeting. Things were as they were and inevitable. He
merely decided to hasten the move. It was the forming of this decision
that had held him silent. It was under its influence that he spoke.

"When is it to be, Bess," he asked abruptly, "the final break, I mean?"

"It has already been, I tell you. It's all over."

"The new life, then," guided the man. "You can't go on this way any
longer. It's intolerable for both of us."

"Yes," dully, "it's intolerable for all of us."

Craig arose and, walking to the door, looked out. In advance he had
imagined that the actual move, when all was ready, would be easy. Now
that the time had really arrived, he found it strangely difficult. He
hardly knew how to begin.

"Bess." Of a sudden he had returned swiftly and, very erect, very
dominant, stood looking down at her. "Bess," repeated, "we've avoided
the obvious long enough, too long. As I said, you've succeeded in
keeping me at arm's length all the last week; but I won't be denied any
longer. I'm willing to take all the blame of the past, and all the
responsibility of the future. I love you, Bess. I've told you that
before, but I repeat it now. I want you to go away with me, away from
this God-cursed land that's driving us both mad--at least leave for a
time. After a while, when we both feel different, we can come back if we
wish; but for the present--I can't stand this uncertainty another week,
another day." He paused for breath, came a step nearer.

"Your marrying this Indian was a hideous mistake," he rushed on; "but we
can't help that now. All we can do is to get away and forget it." He
cleared his throat needlessly. "It's this getting away that I've
arranged for since I've been here. I've not been entirely idle the last
week, and every detail is complete. There are three relays of horses
waiting between here and the railroad. One team is all ready at the
ranch house the minute I give the signal. They'll get us to town before
morning. You've only to say the word, and I'll give the sign." Again,
nervously, shortly, he repeated the needless rasp, "How may, as you say,
not interfere; but it's useless, to take any chances. There's been
enough tragedy already between you two, without courting more. Besides,
the past is dead; dead as though it had never been. My lawyer is over at
the ranch house now. He'll straighten out everything after we're gone.
Things here are all in your name; you can do as you please with them.
There's no possible excuse for delay." He bent over her, his hands on
her shoulders, his eyes looking into hers compellingly. "God knows
you've been buried here long enough, girl. I'll teach you to live; to
live, do you hear? We'll be very happy together, you and I, Bess;
happier than you ever dreamed of being. Will you come?"

He was silent, and of a sudden the place became very still; still as the
dead past the man had suggested. Wide-eyed, motionless, the girl sat
looking up at him. She did not speak; she scarcely seemed to breathe. As
she had chosen, so had it come to pass; yet involuntarily she delayed.
Deliverance from the haunting solitude that had oppressed her like an
evil dream was beckoning; yet impotent, she held back. Of a sudden,
within her being, something she had fancied dormant had awakened. The
instinct of convention, fundamental, inbred, more vital to a woman than
life itself, intruded preventingly, fair in her path. Warning, pleading,
distinct as a spoken admonition, its voice sounded a negative in her
ears. She tried to silence it, tried to overwhelm it with her newborn
philosophy; but it was useless. Fear of the future, as she had said, she
had none. Good or bad as the man might be, she had chosen. With full
knowledge of his deficiencies she had chosen. But to go away with him
so, without sanction of law or of clergy; she, Bess Landor, who was a
wife--.

The hands on her shoulders tightened insistently, the compelling face
drew nearer.

"Answer me, Bess," demanded a tense voice; "don't keep me in suspense.
Will you go?"

With the motion of a captured wild thing, the girl arose, drew back
until she was free.

"Don't," she pleaded. "Don't hurry me so. Give me a little time to
think." She caught her breath from the effort. "I'll go with you, yes;
but to-day, now--I can't. We must see How first. He must know, must
consent--"

"See How!" The man checked himself. "You must be mad," he digressed. "I
can't see How, nor won't. I tell you it's between How and myself you
must choose. I love you, Bess. I'm proving I love you; but I'm not
insane absolutely. I ask you again: will you come?"

The girl shook her head, nervously, jerkily.

"I can't now, as things are."

"And why not?" passionately. "Haven't you said you care for me?"

For answer the red lower lip trembled. That was all.

The man came a step forward, and another.

"Tell me, Bess," he demanded. "Don't you love me?"

"I have told you," said a low voice.

Answering, coercing, swift as the swoop of a prairie hawk, as a human
being in abandon, the man's arms were about her. Ere the girl could move
or resist, his lips were upon her lips. "You must go then," he
commanded. "I'll compel you to go." He kissed her again, hungrily,
irresistibly. "I won't take no for an answer. You will go."

"Don't, please," pleaded a voice, breathless from its owner's impotent
effort to be free. "You must not, we must not--yet. I'm bad, I know, but
not wholly. Please let me go."

Unconscious of time, unconscious of place, oblivious to aught save the
moment, the man held his ground, joying in his victory, in her effort to
escape. Save that one casual glance long before, he had not looked out
of doors. Had he done so, had he seen--.

But he had forgotten that a world existed without those four walls. His
back was toward the door. His own great shoulders walled the girl in.
Neither he nor she dreamed of a dark figure that had drifted from out
the prairie swiftly into the dooryard, dreamed that that same
all-knowing shadow, on soundless moccasined feet, had advanced to the
doorway, stood silent, watching therein. As the first man and the first
woman were alone, they fancied themselves alone. As the first man might
have exulted over his mate, Clayton Craig exulted now.

"Let you go, Bess," he baited, "let you go now that I've just gotten
you?" He laughed passionately. "You must think that I'm made of clay and
not of flesh and blood." He drew her closer and closer, until she could
no longer struggle, until she lay still in his arms. "I'll never let you
go again, girl, not if God himself were to demand your release. You're
mine, Bess, mine by right of capture, mine--"

The sentence halted midway; halted in a gasp and an unintelligible
muttering in the throat. Of a sudden, darkening, ominous, fateful, the
shadow within the entrance had silently advanced until it stood beside
them, paused so with folded arms. Simultaneously the wife and the
invader saw, realised. Instantly, instinctively, like similar repellent
poles, they sprang apart. Enveloped in a maze of surging divergent
passions, the two guilty humans stood silent so, staring at the intruder
in breathless expectation, breathless fascination.

       *       *       *       *       *

While an observer could have counted ten slowly, and repeated the count,
the three remained precisely as they were. While the same mythical
spectator could have counted ten more, the silence held; but inaction
had ceased. While time, the relentless, checked off another measure,
there was still no interruption; then of a sudden, desperately tense,
desperately challenging, a voice sounded: the voice of Clayton Craig.

"Well," he queried, "why don't you do something?" He moistened his lips
and shuffled his feet restlessly. "You've seen enough to understand, I
guess. What are you going to do about it?"

The Indian had not been looking at him. Since that first moment when the
two had sprang separate he had not even appeared conscious of his
presence. Nor did he alter now. Erect as a maize plant, dressed once
more in the flannels and corduroys of his station, as tall and graceful,
he merely stood there with folded arms, looking down on the girl. More
maddening than an execration, than physical menace itself, was that
passionless, ignoring isolation to the other man. Answering, the hot
blood flooded his blonde face, swelled the arteries of his throat until
his collar choked him. Involuntarily his hand went to his neckband,
tugged until it was free. Equally involuntarily he took a step forward
menacingly.

"Curse you, How Landor," he blazed, "you've learned at last, perhaps,
not to dare me to take something of yours away from you." Word by word
his voice had risen until he fairly shouted. "You've lost, fool; lost,
lost! Are you blind that you can't see? You've lost, I say!"

From pure inability to articulate more, the white man halted; and that
instant the room became deathly still.

A second, or the fraction of a second thereof, it remained so; then,
white-faced, apprehensive, the girl sprang between the two, paused so,
motionless:--for of a sudden a voice, an even, passionless voice, was
speaking.

"You don't know me even yet, do you, Elizabeth?" it chided. Just a step
the speaker moved backward, and for the first time he recognised the
white man's presence. His eyes were steady and level. His voice,
unbelievably low in contrast to that of the other, when he spoke was
even as before.

"I won't forgive you for what you've just done, Mr. Craig," he said.
"I'll merely forget that you've done anything at all. One thing I
expect, however, and that is that you'll not interrupt again. You may
listen or not, as you wish. Later, I may have a word to say to you; but
now there is nothing to be said." Just a moment longer the look held, a
moment wherein the other man felt his tongue grow dumb; then with the
old impassivity, the old isolation, the black eyes shifted until they
rested on the face of the girl.

But for still another moment--he was as deliberate as nature herself,
this man--he stood so, looking down. Always slender, he had grown more
so these last weeks. Moreover, he had the look of one weary unto death.
His black eyes were bright, mysteriously bright, and on his thin hands,
folded across his chest, the veins stood out full and prominent; but
look where one would on the lithe body, the muscles lay distinct beneath
the close-fitting clothes, distinct to emaciation. Standing there now,
very grave, very repressed, there was nevertheless no reproach in his
expression, no trace of bitterness; only a haunting tenderness, infinite
in its pathos. When he spoke the same incredible tolerance throbbed in
the low-pitched voice.

"I've just a few things I wish to say to you, Bess," he began, "and a
request to make--and that is all. I didn't come back so, unexpectedly,
to be unpleasant, or to interfere with what you wish to do. I came
because I fancied you were going to do an unwise thing: because I had
reason to believe you were going to run away." Unconsciously, one of the
folded hands loosened, passed absently over his forehead; then returned
abruptly to its place. "Perhaps I was mistaken. If so I beg your pardon
for the suspicion; but at least, if I can prevent, I don't want you to
do so. It's this I came to tell you." Again the voice halted, and into
it there came a new note: a self-conquered throb that lingered in the
girl's recollection while memory lasted.

"It's useless to talk of yourself and of myself, Bess," he went on.
"Things are as they are--and final. I don't judge you, I--understand.
Above everything else in life, I wish you to be happy; and I realise now
I can't make you so. Another perhaps can; I hope so and trust so. At
least I shall not stand in your way any longer. It is that I came to
tell you. It is I who shall leave and not you, Bess." Of a sudden he
stepped back and lifted one hand free, preventingly. "Just a moment,
please," he requested. "Don't interrupt me until I say what I came to
say." His arms folded back as before, his eyes held hers compellingly.

"I said I had a request to make. This is it--that you don't leave until
you are married again. You won't have to wait long if I leave. I have
inquired and found out. A few days, a few weeks at the longest, and you
will be free. Meanwhile stay here. Everything is yours. I never owned
anything except the house, and that is yours also." For the last time he
halted; then even, distinct, came the question direct. "Will you promise
me this, Bess?" he asked.

Save once, when she had tried to interrupt, the girl had listened
through it all without a move, without a sound. Now that he was silent,
and it was her turn to speak, she still stood so, passive, waiting. Ever
in times of stress his will had dominated her will; and the present was
no exception. There was an infinity of things she might have said. A
myriad which she should have spoken, would occur to her when he was
gone. But at the present, when the opportunity was hers, there seemed
nothing to offer; nothing to gainsay. She even forgot that she was
expected to answer at all, that he had asked a question.

"Won't you promise me this one thing, Bess?" repeated the voice gently.
"I've never made a request of you before, and I probably never shall
again."

At last the girl aroused; and of a sudden she realised that her lips
were very dry and hot. She moistened them with her tongue.

"Yes, How," she said dully, "I promise."

Silence fell, a silence deathly in its significance, in its finality;
but the girl did not break it, said no more--and forever the moment, her
moment, vanished into the past.

"Thank you, Bess," acknowledged the man monotonously. Slowly, strangely
different from his usual alert certainty, he moved across the room.
"There are just a few things here I'd like to take with me," he
explained apologetically. "They'd only be in your way if I left them."

With a hand that fumbled a bit, he took down a battered telescope
satchel from a peg on the wall and began packing. He moved about slowly
here and there, his moccasined feet patting dully on the bare floor. No
one offered to assist him, no one interrupted; and in dead silence,
except for the sound he himself made, he went about his work. Into the
satchel went a few books from the shelf on the wall: an old army
greatcoat that had been Colonel William Landor's: a weather-stained cap
which had been a present likewise: a handful of fossils he had gathered
in one of his journeys to the Bad Lands: an inexpensive trinket here and
there, that the girl herself had made for him. The satchel was small,
and soon, pitifully soon, it was full. A moment thereafter he stood
beside it, looking about him; then with an effort he put on the cover
and began tightening the straps. The leather was old and the holes
large, but he found difficulty even then in fastening the buckles. At
last, though, it was done, and he straightened. Both the white man and
the girl were watching him; but no one spoke. For the second time, the
last time, the Indian stood so while his intense black eyes shifted from
nook to nook, taking in every detail of the place that had once been his
heaven, his nest, but now his no more; then of a sudden he lifted his
burden and started to leave. Opposite the girl he paused and held out
his hand.

"Good-bye, Bess," he said. He looked her deep in the eyes, deep into her
very soul. "If I knew what religion is, I'd say God bless you, girl; but
I don't, so I'll only say good-bye--and--I wish you happiness." Just a
moment longer he remained so; then at something he saw, he dropped her
hand and drew away swiftly, preventingly.

"Don't, Bess," he pleaded, "don't say it--as you cared for me once.
Don't make things any harder--make them impossible!" Desperately,
without another pause, ere she could disobey, he started for the door.
Beside the entrance--for he was not watching these last minutes--stood
the white man; and just for a moment at his side the Indian halted.
Despite the will of Clayton Craig, their eyes met. For an instant,
wherein time lapsed, they stood face to face; then swiftly as he did
everything, now the Indian spoke: and, as once before in his life, those
words and the look that accompanied them went with the alien to his
grave.

"As for you, Mr. Craig," said the voice, "I have one thing only to say.
Make Bess happy. There's nothing in the world to prevent your doing so,
if you will. If you do not--" a pause of horrible ice-cold menace--"if
you do not," repeated, "suicide." Just for the fraction of a second not
a civilised man but a savage stared the listener in the face. "I shall
know if you fail, and believe me, it were better, a thousand times
better, if you do as I say."

Again, as beside the girl, there was a mute, throbbing lapse; then,
similarly before there could be an answer, upon the tense silence there
broke the swift pat of moccasined feet, and he was gone.




CHAPTER XVIII


REWARD

The month was late September. The time, evening. The place, the ranch
house of a rawboned Yankee named Hawkins. Upon the scene at the hour the
supper table was spread appeared a traveller in an open road waggon. The
vehicle was covered with dust. The team which drew it were dust-stained
likewise, and in addition, on belly and legs, were covered with a white
powder-like frost where the sweat had oozed to the hair tips and dried.
Without announcing his arrival or deigning the formality of asking
permission, the newcomer unhitched and put his team in the barn. From a
convenient bin he took out a generous feed, and from a stack beside the
eaves he brought them hay for the night. This done, he started for the
house. A minute later, again without form of announcement or seeking
permission, he opened the ranch house door and stepped inside.

Within the room, beside a table with an oilcloth cover, four men were
eating. A fifth, a dark-skinned Mexican, was standing by a stove in one
corner baking pancakes. All looked up as the door opened.

Then, curiosity satisfied, the eyes of all save one, the proprietor,
Hawkins, returned to their plates, and the rattle of steel on heavy
queensware proceeded.

"Good-evening," recognised the Yankee laconically. He hitched along his
chair until a space was clear at his elbow. "Draw up and fall to,
stranger. Bring the gentleman a chair, Pete."

In silence the Mexican obeyed, and in equal silence returned to his
work.

Appetites are keen on the prairie, and not until the meal was complete
was there further conversation. Then after, one by one, the cowmen had
filed out of doors, the host produced two corn-cob pipes from a shelf on
the wall and tendered one across the littered table.

"Smoke?" he again invited laconically.

The visitor fumbled in the pockets of his coat and drew out a couple of
cigars.

"Better have one of these instead," he suggested.

Hawkins accepted in silence, and thereafter--for cigars were a rarity on
the frontier--puffed half the length of the weed in wordless content.
The Mexican went impassively about his work, cleared the table and
washed the dishes methodically. The labour complete, he rolled a
cigarette swiftly and, followed by a vanishing trail of blue,
disappeared likewise out of doors. Then, and not until then, the visitor
introduced himself.

"My name's Manning, Bob Manning," he said. "I run the store over at the
Centre."

The host scrutinised his guest, deliberately, reminiscently

"I thought there was something familiar about you," he commented at
last. "I haven't seen you for twenty years; but I remember you now.
You're one of the bunch who was with Bill Landor that time he picked up
the two kids."

It was the guest's turn to make critical inspection.

"You wouldn't remember me," explained the rancher. "I came in while you
were gone, and only saw you the day you returned." The reminiscent look
reappeared. "I used to know Landor pretty well when we were on the other
side of the river, before the country settled up; but when we came over
here we got too far apart and lost track of each other."

The visitor smoked a full minute in meditative silence. At last he
glanced up.

"You knew he was dead, didn't you?"

"Yes. And the two youngsters grew up and got married and--" Hawkins
laughed peculiarly--"made a fizzle of it."

"Knew them personally, did you?" queried Manning.

"No. I haven't seen the young folks for ten years, and I haven't even
heard anything of them for six months now." He twirled the cigar with
his fingers in the self-consciousness of unaccustomed gossip. "The girl
went East with Landor's nephew, Craig, afterward, I understood."

"Yes."

Hawkins puffed at the cigar fiercely; then blew an avenue in the cloud
of smoke obscuring his companion's face.

"I'm not usually so confoundedly curious," he apologised, "but, knowing
the circumstances, I've often wondered how the affair ended. Did they
hit it off well together?"

Manning settled farther back in his chair. One of his gnarled old hands
fastened of a sudden upon the arm tightly.

"While the money lasted, yes."

"Money! Did they sell the ranch?"

"Mortgaged it, Craig did, until he couldn't get another cent."

"And then--"

"It's the old story."

"They went to pieces?"

"Craig left her--for another woman." The clawlike hands closed tighter
and tighter. "He never really cared for Bess. He couldn't. It seems he
was supporting the other woman all the time."

Hawkins sat chewing the stump of the cigar in silence. In a lean-to the
cowboys were going to bed. Muffled by the intervening wall came the
mocking sound of their intermittent laughter.

"And then what?" asked the rancher at last.

"Bess came back."

"Alone?"

Manning had sunk deeper and deeper into his seat. His face was concealed
by the straggling grey beard, but beneath his shaggy brows his old eyes
were blazing.

"Yes, she was alone," he said.

The cigar had gone dead in Hawkins's lips, and he lit it jerkily. The
blaze of the match illumined a face that was not pleasant to look upon.

"And Craig himself," he suggested, "where is he?"

"He's back at the ranch by this time. He went through town yesterday,
just before I left, with a man who wants to buy."

The rancher looked at the other meaningly.

"Back at the ranch--with the Indian?"

Equally directly Manning returned the look.

"Evidently you didn't hear all the story," he said. "The Indian is not
there."

"No?" swiftly. "Where is he?"

Manning's free hand, his distorted hand, caught at the table before him.

"That's what I came to ask you," he returned equally swiftly. "He came
here, to work for you, six months ago, when he left Bess. Do you mean to
tell me you don't know where he is gone?"

Face to face the two men sat staring at each other. The sounds from the
lean-to had ceased. In the silence they could hear each other breathing.
For perhaps a minute they sat so; while bit by bit on the rancher's face
incredulity merged into belief, and belief into understanding perfect.

"Know where he is? Of course I do--now." He leaned back in his chair.
"To think that I never suspicioned who he was all the time he was here,
or even when he left. I'm an ass, an ass!"

He did not now. "Tell me where he is, if you know."

"About twelve miles from here, unless he's changed camp in the last
week." The rancher looked at the other understandingly. "He worked for
me until about a month ago. Then he left and started away alone. We
never got a word out of him while he was here, not even his name." Of a
sudden came realisation complete, and his great bony fist crashed on the
board. "I'm dull as a post, but I begin to understand at last, and I'm
with you absolutely. I'll take you there to-night, it won't be a
two-hour drive. I'll hitch up right now if you're ready."

For the first time in the last tense minutes Manning relaxed. The hand
on the chair arm loosened its grip.

"I'm glad you know where he is," he said unemotionally. "I don't think
we'll go to-night, though." He fumbled in his pocket and produced two
fresh cigars. One he slid across the table to the other man and lit its
mate carefully. "I don't think we'd better both go anyway. In the
morning you can fit me out with a fresh team, if you will. I crowded
things a bit on the way up."

For a moment the rancher sat staring at his guest blankly,
unbelievingly; then for the second time came understanding.

"Perhaps after all you're right," he acquiesced. "It's only eighty
miles, and there's plenty of time."

Beneath the craggy brows the blaze still glowed undimmed in the old
storekeeper's deep-set eyes.

"Yes, there's plenty of time--after How Landor knows," he said.

       *       *       *       *       *

In the midst of the prairie wilderness Providence had placed a tiny
dawdling creek. At a point where the creek wandered through a spot a
shade lower than the surrounding country, man, a man, had builded a dam.
In the fulness of time the accumulated water had formed a fair-sized
pond that glittered and shimmered in the sunlight, until from a little
altitude it could be seen for miles. To this pond, for open water was
very, very scarce on the prairie in September, came water fowl from near
and afar; from no man knew where. As steel filings respond to a magnet,
they came, and as inevitably; stragglingly, suspiciously by day, in
flocks that grew to be a perfect cloud by night. A tent that had once
been white, but that was now weather-stained and darkened by smoke, was
pitched near at hand; but they minded it not. An evil-looking
mouse-coloured cayuse grazed likewise, hard by; but for them a broncho
had no terror. A rough blind, ingeniously fashioned from weeds and
grasses, stood at the water's edge; yet again even of this they were
unsuspicious. Now and anon, at long intervals, something happened,
something startlingly sudden, bewilderingly loud; and in blind terror
they would take wing and vanish temporarily, like smoke. But this
something never pursued them, never repeated itself the same day, and
invariably after a time they came back, to take up anew, with the
confidence of children, the careless thread of their life where it had
been interrupted.

Thus it had been for days past. Thus it was of a certain morning in late
September. Though it was ten of the clock, they were still there: sleepy
brown mallards, glossy-winged teal, long-necked shovellers, greyish
speckled widgeon: these and others less common, representatives of all
the native tribe. Happy as nature the common mother intended, as
irresponsibly idle, they dawdled here and there, back and forth while
time drifted swiftly by; and unknown to them, concealed from view within
the blind, a dark-skinned man lay watching.

Since before daylight, ere they were yet awake, he had been there. On
soundless moccasined feet he had come. Motionless as an inanimate thing,
he had remained. Not two rods away the flock were feeding. More than
once the water they carelessly spattered had fallen upon him; but he did
not stir. He had no gun or weapon of any kind. Though they were within
stone's throw, he had not brought even a rock. Unbelievable to an
Anglo-Saxon sportsman, he merely lay there observing them. With that
object he had come; for this purpose he remained. A long dark statue, he
peered through the woven grasses steadily, admiringly; with an
instinctive companionship, a mute forbearance, that was haunting in its
revelation. Lonely as death itself were the surrounding unbroken
prairies. Lonely as a desert of sand, their absolute isolation. Lonely
beyond comparison, beyond the suggestion of language, was that silent
human in their midst this autumn day.

How long he would have remained there so, idly watching, no one could
have told; the man himself could not have told; for at last,
interrupting, awakening, a new actor appeared. Answering, with a great
quacking and beating of webbed feet, the flock sprang a-wing; and almost
before the shower of water drops they scattered in their wake had
ceased, a road waggon, with a greybearded old man on the seat, drew up
beside the tent.

Then, for the first time in hours, the Indian arose and stretched
himself. Still in silence he came back to where the newcomer was
waiting.

They exchanged the conventionalities, and thereafter the white man sat
eyeing the other peculiarly, analytically.

"Well, where's your game?" he queried at last. "There seemed to be
enough around when I came."

The Indian smiled; the smile of one accustomed to being misunderstood.

"I wasn't hunting," he said. "I was merely watching."

A moment longer Manning continued the inspection; then with an effort he
dismounted.

"I was over to see Hawkins yesterday on business," he digressed
abruptly, "and he said you were out here somewhere, so I thought before
I went back I'd look you up." The man was not accustomed to
dissimulation, and the explanation halted lamely. "If you don't mind
I'll go inside and smoke a bit."

In silence the Indian led the way to the tent and buttoned back the
flap. There was but one chair and he indicated it impassively.

"I'm very glad to see you," he said then simply.

Manning lit a pipe clumsily with his crippled hand, and thereafter drew
on it deliberately until the contents of the bowl were aglow. Even then,
however, he did not speak. That which had been on his mind trembled now
at the tip of his tongue. The one for whose ear the information was
intended was waiting, listening; yet he delayed. With the suddenness of
a revelation, in those last minutes, there had come to the old
storekeeper an appreciation of the other he had never felt before. The
message of the artificial pond and the harmless watcher at its edge had
begun the alteration. A glimpse of the barren interior of the tent, with
a pathetic little group of valueless trinkets arranged with infinite
care on a tiny folding table, added its testimony. The sight of the man
himself, standing erect in the doorway, gazing immovably out over the
sunlit earth, looking and waiting, but asking no question, completed the
impression. He had known this repressed human long and, as he fancied,
well; but now of a sudden he realised that in fact he had not known him
at all. Fearless unquestionably he had found him to be. That in a
measure he was civilised, he had taken for granted; but more than this,
that he was an individual among individuals, that beneath that
emotionless exterior there lay a subtle, indescribable something
inadequately termed soul, with the supercilious superiority of the white
he had ignored. Before he had been merely a puppet: the play actor of an
inferior, conquered race. Injustice, horrible, unforgivable injustice,
with this being one of the injured, had been done in the white man's
sight; and instinctively he had come to him as the agent of Providence
calculated to mete out retribution. That an irresponsible, relentless
savage lurked beneath the thin veneer of alien civilisation he had taken
for granted, and builded thereon. Now with disconcerting finality he
realised the thing he was doing. It was not a mere agent of divine
punishment he was calling to action; but a fellow human being, an equal,
with whose affairs he was arbitrarily meddling. Whatever the motive that
had inspired his coming, however justifiable in itself, his
interference, as a mere spectator, was under the circumstances
unjustified and an impertinence. This he realised with startling
suddenness; and swift in its wake came a new point of view, a
readjustment absolute in his attitude. Under its influence the
dissimulation of a moment ago vanished. From out of concealment he came
fair into the open. What he knew he would reveal--if the other wished;
but it was for the Indian to request, not him to proffer. With the
decision he aroused. In the interval his pipe had gone dead and he lit
it afresh suggestively.

"I lied to you a bit ago, How," he confessed abruptly. "It was not
Hawkins I came to see at all, but you."

The dark statue did not turn, showed no sign of surprise.

"I thought so," it said simply.

Puff, puff went the white man's pipe, until even though it was daylight,
the glow lit up his face.

"You did me a service once," he continued at last, "a big service--and
I've not forgotten. I'll go now, or stay, as you wish."

Still the Indian stood in the doorway looking out into the careless,
smiling infinite.

"I understand. You have something to tell me, something you think I
should know."

The old man thumbed the ashes in the pipe bowl absently.

"I repeat, it is for you to choose."

Silence fell; a lapse so long that, old man as he was, Manning felt his
heart beat more swiftly in anticipation. Then at last the Indian moved.
Deliberately, noiselessly he turned. Equally deliberately he drew a robe
opposite his visitor and, still very erect, sat down on the ground--his
long fingers locked across his knees.

"I choose to listen," he said. "Tell me, please."

For the second time, because he needs must be doing something, the white
man filled his pipe. The hand that held the tobacco pouch shook a bit
now involuntarily, and a tiny puff of the brown flakes fell scattering
outside the bowl onto his knee.

"About a month ago"--the speaker cleared his throat raspingly--"on
August 16th it was, to be exact, there was a funeral in town. It started
from the C-C ranch house and ended in the same lot with Mary Landor. It
wasn't much of a funeral, either. Besides myself and Mrs. Burton no one
was there." Again the voice halted; and following there came the sharp
crackling of a match, and the quick puff, puff of an habitual smoker.
"It was the funeral of a child: a child half Indian, half white."

Again the story paused; but the steady smoking continued.

"Go on, please," requested a voice.

"Early yesterday morning"--again the narrator halted perforce, to clear
his throat--"just before I left three men went through town on their way
to the same ranch. One was the owner, another a lawyer, the third a man
who wished to buy. They were in a hurry. They only stopped to water
their team and to visit Red Jennings's place. They are at the ranch
house closing the bargain now."

"Yes," repeated the voice, "I'm listening."

The speaker did not respond at once. With the trick of the very aged
when they relax, in the past minutes he seemed to have contracted
physically, to have shrunk, as it were, within himself. The nervousness
and uncertainty of a moment ago had passed now absolutely. The deep-set
eyes of him were of a sudden glowing ominously as they had done when
telling the same tale to Rancher Hawkins the night before; but that was
all. His voluntary offering was given; more than this must come by
request.

"I have nothing more to say--unless you wish," he repeated in the old
formula.

For a second time silence fell; to be broken again by the crackling of a
match in the white man's hand. Following, as though prompted by the
sound, came a question.

"Why,"--the Indian did not stir, but his eyes had shifted until they
looked immovably into those of his companion,--"why, please, was not the
mother of the child at least at the funeral?"

"Because she could not come," impassively. "The baby was less than two
days old."

"She had been back, though, back at the ranch, for some time?"

"Yes. Several weeks."

"She returned alone?"

"Yes."

"And to stay?"

Swifter and more swiftly came the questions. Even yet no muscle of the
inquisitor's body stirred; but in the black eyes a light new to the
other man, ominous in its belated appearance, was kindling.

"Yes," answered Manning.

"She, Bess, had left her husband?"

"No, Craig had left her."

Suddenly, instinctively, the impersonal had been dropped; but neither
man noticed the change.

"There was a reason?"

"Yes," baldly. "Another woman."

The locked fingers across the Indian's knee were growing white; white as
the sunlight without.

"And now he has returned, you say, to sell the ranch, her ranch?"

"It is her ranch no more. It is his."

"She, Bess, gave it to him after all that had happened, all that he had
done? You mean to tell me this?"

Abruptly, instinctively, for the end was very close at hand, the white
man got to his feet, stood so silent.

"Tell me." The Indian was likewise erect, his dark face standing clear
against the white background of the tent wall. "Did Bess do this thing?"

"No," said a voice. "It came to him in another way."

"Another way!" swiftly. "Another way!" repeated. "Another way!" for the
third time; and then a halt. For that moment realisation had come.
"There could be but one other way!"

Swiftly, instinctively, the white man turned about, until the face
opposite was hid. Hardened frontiersman as he was, prepared for the
moment as he had thought himself, he could not watch longer. To do so
was sacrilege unqualified. In his youth the man had been a hunter of big
game. Of a sudden now, horribly distinct, he had a vision of the
expression in the eyes of a great moose, mortally wounded, when at the
end he himself had drawn the knife. Under its influence he halted,
waiting, postponing the inevitable.

"There could be but one other way," repeated the voice slowly,
repressedly. "Tell me, please. Let me know all. Am I not right?"

To hesitate longer was needless cruelty; and in infinite pity, the blow
fell.

"Yes, How," said Manning gently, "Bess is dead."




CHAPTER XIX


IN SIGHT OF GOD ALONE

An hour had passed. Manning had gone; and on the horizon to the east
whither he had taken his way not even a dot now indicated his former
presence. Even the close-fed grass whereon the wheels of the old road
waggon had temporarily blazed a trail had returned normally erect.
Suddenly, as a rain cloud forms over the parched earth, the storm had
gathered and broken; and passed on as though it had not been. All about
smiled the sunshine; sarcastic, isolate as though it had seen nothing,
heard nothing. On the surface of the pond the ducks, again returned,
swam and splashed and dawdled in their endless holiday. The eternal
breeze of the prairie noontime, drifting leisurely by, sang its old, old
song of abandon and of peace. Not in the merest detail had nature, the
serene, altered; not by the minutest trifle had she deviated from her
customary course. Man alone it is who changes to conform with the
passing mood. Man alone it was amid this primitive setting who had
altered now.

For How Landor, the Indian, was no longer idle or dreaming. Instead, his
every action was that of one with a definite purpose. Yet even then he
did not hurry. At first he seemed merely to be going about the ordinary
routine of his life. Methodically he kindled a fire and prepared himself
a generous meal. Deliberately, fair in the sunshine, he ate. Then for
the first time an observer who knew him well would have detected the
unusual. Contrary to all precedent the dishes were not washed or even
touched. Instead, the meal complete, he went swiftly toward the tent and
disappeared inside.

For minutes he remained within, moving about from place to place; and
when he again returned it was to do a peculiar thing indeed. In his arms
were several articles of clothing rolled into a bulky bundle. Without a
halt he made his way back to the place where he had eaten. The fire
which he had builded had burned low ere this; and, standing there beside
it, he scraped away the ashes with the toe of his moccasined foot until
the glowing embers beneath came to view. The bundle he carried had
opened with the action, revealing clearly the various articles of which
it was composed. Outside was an old army-blue greatcoat; within a
battered felt hat and a pair of moccasins, wholly unused. A moment the
Indian stood looking at them meditatively, intensely; then gently as
though they were a lost child he was returning to its mother's arms he
laid them fair upon the glowing coals. Wool is slow to catch ablaze and
for the moment they lay there black against the brown earth; then of a
sudden, like the first lifting of an Indian signal smoke, a tiny column
of blue went trailing upward. Second by second it grew until with a
muffled explosion the whole was ablaze. Before the man had merely stood
watching; now deliberately as before, yet as unhesitatingly, he returned
to the tent.

This time he was gone longer; and when he returned it was with an armful
of books--and something more. The fire was crackling merrily now, and
volume by volume his load disappeared. Then for the first time he
hesitated. There was still something to destroy, something which he had
gathered in the old felt hat from off his own head; yet he hesitated.
Greedy as a hungry animal deprived of its due the fire at his feet kept
sending out spurts of flame like longing tentacles toward him; yet he
delayed. Like the sulky thing it was, it had at last drawn back into
passive waiting, when of a sudden, without a single glance, the man laid
this last sacrifice, as he had done the first, gently down. But this
time he did not watch the end. Swiftly, his bare black head glistening
in the sunlight, he started away toward the now expectant broncho; and
back of him the pathetic little gathering of useless trinkets, bearing
indelibly the mark of a woman's handiwork, a woman's trust, mingled with
the ashes of the things which had gone before.

Long ere the fire had burned itself out, the wicked-looking cayuse
following a bridle's length at his heels, he was back; waiting
impatiently for the flame to die. No frontiersman, in a land where
prairie fires spread as the breath of scandal, ever leaves fire alive
when out of his sight; and to this instinct the Indian was true. Minute
after minute he waited; until the flame vanished and in its stead there
lay a mass of blazing coals. Then with a practical hand he banked the
whole with a layer of earth until, look where one would, not a dot of
red was visible. The act was the last, the culmination of preparation.
At its end, with a single spoken command, the pony was alongside; his
head high in the air, his tiny ears flattened back in anticipation. Well
he knew what was in store, what was expected. No need was there of a
second command nor the touch of a bridle rein. Almost ere the taking of
the single leap that put the rider in his seat the little beast was
away, his wide-spread nostrils breathing deep of the prairie air, the
patter of his tiny hoofs a continuous song upon the close-cropped sod.
As two human beings living side by side grow to know each other, so this
dumb menial had grown to know his master. With a certainty attributed to
the dog alone he had learned to recognise the mood of the hour. He did
so now; and as time passed and the miles flowed monotonously beneath his
galloping feet the relentless determination of the man himself was
repeated in that undeviating pace.

Thus the journey southward was begun. Thus through the dragging hours of
the September afternoon it continued. Many a time before the little
beast had followed the trail from sun to sun. As well as the rider knew
his own endurance he knew the possibilities of his mount, knew that now
he would not fail. He did not attempt to quicken the pace, nor did he
check it. He spoke no word. The earth was dry as tinder in the annual
drouth of fall, and as time passed on the dust the pony raised collected
upon the man's clothes and upon his bare head; but apparently he noticed
it not. Shade by shade the mouse-coloured hair of the broncho grew
darker from sweat, moistened until the man's hand on the diminutive
beast's neck grew wet; but of this likewise he was unconscious. Silent
as fate, as nature the immovable, he sat his place; his lithe body
conforming involuntarily to the motion, to the play of muscles beneath
his legs; yet as unconsciously as one breathes in sleep. Not until the
sun was red in the west, until of its own accord the broncho had drawn
up at the first bit of water they had met on the way--a shallow marshy
pond--did he move. Then, while the pony drank and drank his fill, the
man washed his face and hands, and more from instinct than volition,
shook the dust from his clothing.

For a half hour thereafter the rider did not mount. Side by side the man
and the beast moved ahead at a walk; but ever moved and ever southward.
Darkness fell swiftly. There was no moon; but the sky was clear as it
had been during the day, and the man needed no guide but the stars to
show him the way. As he moved the hand of the Indian remained on the
broncho's neck; and bit by bit as the time passed he felt the moist hair
grow stiff and dry. Then, and not until then, came the final move, the
beginning of the last relay. As when they had started, with one motion,
apparently without an effort, he was once more in his seat; and again
as at first, equally understandingly, equally willingly, that instant
the broncho sprang into a lope. Relentlessly, silent as before, a
ghostly animate shadow, the two forged ahead into the night and the
solitude.

       *       *       *       *       *

Meanwhile, for the second time within the year, the C-C ranch had
changed hands. All day long Craig and the prospective buyer had driven
about the place. One by one the cowboys had given testimony of the
fraction of the herd intrusted to their care. At first resignedly
complaisant, as the hours drifted by Craig had grown cumulatively
impatient at the inevitably dragging inventory. Nothing but necessity
absolute in the shape of an imminent foreclosure had brought him back to
this land at all. Delay had followed delay until at last immediate
action was imperative. Then, having agreed to come personally, he was in
a fever of haste to have the deal complete and to be away. Since they
had left the railroad and crossed the river the mood had been upon him.
The team that had brought them out could not move fast enough. The
preceding night, shortened by liquor as it had been, nevertheless
dragged interminably. Strive as he might to combat the impression, to
ignore it, this land had of a sudden become to him a land of terror.
Every object which met his eye called forth a recollection. Every minute
that passed whispered a menace. In a measure it had been so a half year
ago ere he had tempted fate. Now, with the knowledge of what had
occurred in that time staring him in the face, the impression augmented
immeasurably, haunted him like a ghostly presence. Not for a minute
since his return had he been alone. Not for an instant had he been
without a revolver at hand. All the previous night, despite the
grumbling protest of the overseer with whom he had bunked, a lamp had
burned beside the bed; yet even then he could not sleep. Whether or no
he felt contrition for the past, this man, he could not have told, he
never paused to consider. All he knew was that he had a deathly fear of
this silent waste and of a certain human who dwelt somewhere therein.
Repugnant as consideration of the return had been, it was as nothing
compared with the reality. Had he realised in advance what the actual
experience of his coming would mean, even the consideration of money,
badly as he needed it, could not have bought his presence. Now that he
was here he must needs see the transaction through; he could not well do
otherwise; but as the afternoon drew to a close and the necessity of
tarrying a second night became assured, the premonition of retribution,
that had before lowered merely as a possibility, loomed into the
proportions of certainty. Then it was that in abandon he began to drink;
not at stated intervals, as had been his habit, but frequently, all but
continuously, until even his tolerant companions had exchanged glances
of understanding.

To all things, however, there is an end, and at last the deal was
complete. Within the stuffy living-room, hazy now with tobacco smoke, by
the uncertain light of a sputtering kerosene lamp Craig had accomplished
a sprawling signature and received in return a check on a Chicago bank.
It was already late, and very soon the new owner, with a significant
look at a half-drained flask by the other's hand, and a curt
"Good-night," had departed for bed. Immediately following, with a thinly
veiled apology, the lawyer had likewise excused himself, and Craig and
his one-time overseer were alone. For five minutes thereafter the two
men sat so in silence; then, at last, despite his muddled brain, the
former realised that the big Irishman was observing him with a
concentration that was significant. Ever short of temper, the man's
nerves were stretched to the jangling point this night, and the look
irritated him. Responsive, he scowled prodigiously.

"Well," he queried impatiently, "what is it?"

No answer; only, if possible, the look became more analytic than before.

"What's on your mind?" repeated Craig. "You make me nervous staring that
way. Speak up if you've got anything to say. Don't you like my selling
and putting you out of a job?"

"No, it's not that," refuted the Hibernian. "There are plenty of other
places I can get. I could stay right here for that matter if I wanted
to--but I don't. I wouldn't live in this house any longer if my pay were
doubled." As he spoke he had looked away. Now of a sudden his glance
returned. "I meant to quit anyway, whether you sold or not."

"Why so?" queried Craig, and unconsciously the scowl was repeated. "You
seemed glad enough to come."

"I was--then," shortly.

"And why not now? Talk up, if you've any grievance. Don't sit there like
a chimpanzee, hugging it."

"You know why well enough," ignored the other. He passed a knotty hand
through his shock of red whiskers absently. "I've expected the devil or
worse here every night these last weeks."

Craig tried to laugh; but the effort resulted in failure.

"God," he satirised, "who'd ever imagined you were the superstitious
sort! Weren't you ever in a place where anyone died before?"

"I never was where a woman and her child were murdered," deliberately.

Quick as thought Craig's red face whitened.

"Damn you, O'Reilly," he challenged, "you're free with your tongue." He
checked himself. "I don't wish to quarrel with you to-night, though," he
conciliated.

"Nor I with you," returned the other impassively. "I was merely telling
you the truth. Besides, it's none of my affair; and even if it were, I'm
thinking you'll pay for it dear enough before you're through."

Craig straightened in his seat; but not as before in attitude
supercilious.

"What the deuce do you mean, O'Reilly? You keep suggesting things, but
that is all. Talk plain if you know anything."

"I don't know anything," impassively; "unless it is that I wouldn't be
in your shoes if I got a dollar for every cent you've made out of this
cursed business."

Bit by bit Craig's face whitened. If anything the air of conciliation
augmented.

"You think circumstances weren't to blame?" he queried. "That, in other
words, I've brought things about as they are deliberately?"

"I don't think anything. I know what you've done--and what you've got to
answer for."

Instinctively, almost with a shudder, Craig glanced about him.

The shade of the single window was up, and of a sudden he arose
unsteadily and drew it over the blackness outside with a jerk.

"You're beastly hard on me," he commented, "but let that pass. It's
probably the last time we'll ever see each other, and we may as well
part friends." He was back in his place again with the flask before him,
and with a propitiatory motion he extended the liquor toward the other
man. "Come, let's forget it," he insinuated. "Have a drink with me."

"Not a drop."

"Not if I requested it?"

"Not if you got down on your knees and begged."

"All right." The hand was withdrawn with a nervous little laugh. "I'll
have to spoil it all myself, then."

The Irishman watched in silence while the other gulped down swallow
after swallow. The hand of the drinker trembled uncontrollably, and a
tiny red stream trickled down the unshaven chin to the starched linen
beneath.

"If you'll take a word of advice," commented the spectator at last,
"you'll cut that--for the time being at least." He hesitated; then went
on reluctantly. "I've been in your pay and I'll try to be square with
you. If you've got an atom of presentiment you'll realise that this is
no place for you to get into the shape you're getting." Again he halted,
and again with an effort he gave the warning direct. "If I were you I
wouldn't be at this ranch a second longer than it took me to leave; not
as long as I had a broncho or a leg or a crutch to go on."

Slowly and more slowly came the words. Then followed silence, with the
two men staring each other face to face. Breaking it, the overseer
arose.

"I've said more than I intended already," he added, "and now I wash my
hands of you. Do as you please. I'm going to bed."

Preventing, of a sudden sobered, Craig was likewise on his feet.

"In common decency, even if you're no friend of mine, don't go,
O'Reilly," he pleaded. He had no thought of superiority now, no thought
of malice; only of companionship and of protection. "I know what you
mean. I'm no fool, and what you suggest is exactly what's been driving
me insane these last two days. I'm going in the morning, as soon as it's
daylight; the team is all ordered; but to-night, now--" instinctively he
glanced at the window where recollection pictured the darkness
without--"I haven't nerve to face it now. I'd go plumb mad out there
alone."

The Irishman shrugged in silence and attempted to pass.

"Please don't go," repeated Craig swiftly. "I know I'm acting like a
child, but this cursed country's to blame. Stay with me this last night.
I couldn't sleep, and it's madness to be alone. See me through this and
I swear you'll not regret it. I swear it!"

Just for a second O'Reilly paused; then of a sudden his face flamed red
through his untrimmed beard.

"To hell with your money!" he blazed. "I wouldn't lift my finger for you
if How Landor were to come this second." He checked himself and took a
step forward meaningly. "Besides, I couldn't help you any if I would.
God himself couldn't protect you now unless He performed a miracle. Out
of my way. I tell you I'm done with you."

Craig had not stirred. He did not now; and of a sudden the overseer
turned to pass around. As he did so for the first time he faced the
single window that looked north toward the second ranch house: the house
which How Landor had builded to receive his bride. The curtain was still
down, but to the Irishman's quick eye there rested upon it now a dull
glow that was not a reflection of the light within. A second after he
noticed the man halted, looking at it, speculating as to its meaning.
Then of a sudden he realised; and in two steps he was across the room
and simultaneously the obscuring shade shot up with a crash. Instantly
following, startlingly unexpected, the red glow without sprang through
the glass and filled the room.

"Fire!" announced the observer involuntarily to the sleepers above. "The
other ranch house is afire!" Then, as they were slow in awakening, the
cry was repeated more loudly: "Fire! Fire!"

       *       *       *       *       *

A conflagration is the universal contagion, the one excitement that
never palls. Forth into the night, forgetful of his companion, forgetful
of all save the interest of the moment, rushed O'Reilly. Half dressed,
hatless, working with buttons as they went, Parker, the new owner, and
Mead, the lawyer, descended the rickety stairs like an avalanche and
without pausing to more than look followed running in his wake. The
unused ranch house was dry as cardboard and was burning fiercely. Though
there was still no moon and the overseer had several minutes the start,
against the light they could see his running figure distinctly. Standing
in the living-room as they rushed through, white faced, hesitant, was
Clayton Craig; but though he had spoken to them--they both recalled that
fact afterward--neither had paused to listen or to answer. That he would
not follow never occurred to them until minutes thereafter. Not until,
panting, struggling for breath after the unusual effort, they had
covered the intervening mile, and the heat of the already diminishing
fire was on their faces, did they think of him at all. Even then it was
not the first thought which occurred; for the moment they arrived
O'Reilly, who was waiting, turned, facing them excitedly.

"Do you see that?" he queried, pointing to a black band that surrounded
the building in a complete circle.

Parker nodded understandingly; but Mead, who was city bred, looked
mystified. "What is it?" he returned.

"A firebreak," explained the Irishman. "Someone didn't want the blaze to
spread and scattered earth clear around the place, with a spade."
Leaning over he picked up a clod and thumbed it significantly. "It
hasn't been done a half hour. The dirt isn't even dry."

Brief as the time had been, already the frail walls were settling to
embers. There was nothing to do; and standing there the three men looked
understandingly into each other's faces. The same thought stood clear on
all; for all alike knew every detail of the story.

"The Indian, How Landor," suggested Mead adequately.

"Yes," corroborated Parker, "and I'm glad of it. I'm not squeamish, but
the Lord knows I'd never have used the place myself."

Of a sudden, O'Reilly, who had turned and was staring into the blaze,
faced about. That second he had remembered.

"Where's Craig?" he queried swiftly, glancing back the way they had
come. "Didn't he follow?"

Until that moment none of the three had thought of the other man. Now
they realised that they were alone. But even then two of the trio did
not understand.

"Evidently he didn't start," said Mead. "He couldn't have missed the
light if he did."

"I remember now he was standing by the door when we left," added Parker.

"Standing by the door, was he?" took up the Irishman swiftly. "As
there's a Heaven and a Hell he's not standing there now, I'll wager!"

Again face to face, as when they had first caught sight of that meaning
black band, the three spectators there beneath the stars stood staring
at each other. It was O'Reilly again who broke the silence.

"Don't you people understand yet what this all means, what's happened?"
he interrogated unbelievingly.

"It means there's been an incendiary here; I guess there's no doubt
about that," said Mead.

"Yes," blurted O'Reilly, "and that incendiary's How Landor, and he's
been here within the half hour; and Craig's been alone back there in the
ranch house." He paused for breath. "Can't you see now? At last the
Indian has found out!"

For the fraction of a minute, while understanding came home, not a man
stirred. Then of a sudden Parker turned swiftly and started back into
the night.

"By the Eternal," he corroborated, "I believe you're right. We can't get
there a second too quick."

"Too quick!" caught up the Irishman for the last time. "We couldn't get
there quick enough if we had wings. It's all over before this, take my
word for it."

       *       *       *       *       *

And it was. Though the men ran every step of the mile back they were too
late. As O'Reilly had anticipated, the ranch house was empty, deserted.
Similarly the stables hard by. Likewise the adjoining tool shed. Though
they searched every nook, until a mouse could not have escaped
detection, they found not a trace of him for whom they looked, nor a
clue to his disappearance. Though they shouted his name until they were
hoarse not an answer came back from the surrounding darkness. Within the
ranch house itself, or upon the dooryard without, there was no sign of a
struggle or of aught unusual. The living-room was precisely as it had
been at that last moment when O'Reilly had left. Craig's cap and topcoat
were on a chair as he had thrown them down. At the stable every horse
was within its own stall: every piece of saddlery was intact. While the
three men were looking, attracted by the blaze, the distant cowboys one
by one began drifting in; and when they had heard the tale joined in
the search. All through the night, in ever-widening circles, lanterns,
like giant fireflies, played around the premises until they covered a
radius of a half mile; but ever the report was the same. With the coming
of morning not the home force alone but men from distant ranches
appeared. The reflection of fire on the sky reaches far indeed on the
prairie, and ere the sun shone again a goodly company was assembled.
Then it was that the real search began and a swarm of riders scoured the
country for miles and miles. And once more, from all, the testimony was
as before. There was not a clue to the disappearance, nor the semblance
of a clue. As out of the darkness of night surrounding, a great horned
owl swoops down upon its prey, and as mysteriously disappears, so the
Indian had come and gone; and satisfied at last, irresistibly awed as
well into an unwonted quiet, one by one, as they had arrived, the
ranchers dispersed--and the search was over.

And to this day that disappearance remains a mystery unsurmountable. One
morning a week later, after Mead and O'Reilly had gone, when the new
master of the ranch arose it was to find a wicked-looking mouse-coloured
cayuse standing motionless by the stable door. Upon him was neither
saddle nor bridle nor mark of any kind. Somewhere out on that limitless
waste he had been released, and, true to an unerring homing instinct, he
had returned; but from where no man could do more than speculate. He
could not speak, and his rider was seen no more. Somewhere out there
amid that same solitude a thing of mystery had come to pass; but what it
was only Nature and Nature's God, who alone were witness, could ever
know.



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