Part 1 out of 5
WHERE THE TRAIL DIVIDES
By WILL LILLIBRIDGE
Author of "BEN BLAIR," Etc.
With Frontispiece in Colors
By The Kinneys
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
XIX. IN SIGHT OF GOD ALONE
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
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
* * * * *
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,'
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
"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
"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
"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
"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."
"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
"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.
"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
Rowland straightened. The other smelled evilly of perspiration.
"Come where? Who are you anyway, and what's the matter? Talk so I can
"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
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."
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
"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
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
"Yes, we're too late now, Margaret," he echoed.
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
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
The woman sat down beside him, her hand on his knee.
"Don't keep it from me," she requested steadily. "You've seen
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
"Yes," he said.
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."
"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,
"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--.
"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!"
"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,
"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
"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,
"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.
"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!"
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
"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.
Curt as the question came the answer, the tale of massacre now a day
"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
"There was but one family there." Landor was not observing the company
collectively now. "You mean to tell me Sam Rowland did not go?"
"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
"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--"
"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.
Close as before, at his horse's heels followed Conway.
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
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
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
"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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
"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
For a long half minute Bud observed the speaker; analytically,
"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
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,
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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?"
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
"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
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
"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