Part 2 out of 5
could not alter the obtrusive fact that he had cut a sorry figure in the
late drama, and his pride was sore. Extenuation, dissimulation even,
would have been a distinct solace. Looking at the matter now, the
excitement past, palliation for what he had done was easy, almost
logical. He had not alone conformed. He had but done, without
consideration, as the others with him had done. But even if it were not
so, back in the land from which he had come, a spade was not always so
called. His colour went normal at the recollection. The habitual, the
condescending pressed anew to the fore.
He inspected the silent figure at his side ingenuously, almost
quizzically; as in his schoolboy days he had inspected his plodding
master of physics before propounding a query no mortal could answer.
"I know I waved the white flag back there as hard as any of them," he
proffered easily. "I'm not trying to clear myself; but between you and
me, don't you think that Pete was merely bluffing, there at the end when
you came?" The speaker shifted sideways on the saddle, until his weight
rested on one leg, until he faced the other fair. "The fellow was drunk,
irresponsibly drunk, at first, when the little chap stirred him up; but
afterwards, when he was sober.... On the square, what do you think he
would have done if--if you hadn't happened in?"
For so long that Craig fancied he had not given attention to the
question, the guide did not respond, did not stir in his seat; then
slowly, deliberately, he turned half about, turned and for the first
time in the journey met the other's eyes. Even then he did not speak;
but so long as he lived, times uncounted in his after life, Clayton
Craig remembered that look; remembered it and was silent, remembered it
with a tingling of hot blood and a mental imprecation--for as indelibly
as a red-hot iron seals a brand on a maverick, that look left its
impress. No voice could have spoken as that simple action spoke, no
tongue thrust could have been so pointed. With no intent of discourtesy,
no premeditated malice was it given; and therein lay the fine sting, the
venom. It was unconscious as a breath, unconscious as nature's joy in
springtime; yet in the light of after events, it stood out like a signal
fire against the blackness of night, as the beginning of an enmity more
deadly than death itself, that lasted into the grave and beyond. For
that silent, unwavering look set them each, the red man and the white,
in their niche; placed them with an assurance that was final. It was a
questioning, analytic look, yet, unconcealed, it bore the tolerance of a
strong man for a weak. Had that look been a voice, it would have spoken
one word, and that word was "cad."
For a moment the two men sat so, unconscious of time, unconscious of
place; then of a sudden, to both alike, the present returned--and again
that return was typical. As deliberately as he had moved previously, the
Indian faced back. His left arm, free at his side, hung loose as before.
His right, that held the reins, lay motionless on the pony's mane. In no
detail did he alter, nor in a muscle. By his side, the white man
stiffened, jerked without provocation at the cruel curb bit, until his
horse halted uncertain; equally without provocation, sent the rowels of
his long spurs deep into the sensitive flank, with a curse held the
frightened beast down to a walk. That was all, a secondary lapse, a
burst of flowing, irresponsible passion like a puff of burning
gunpowder, and it was over; yet it was enough. In that second was told
the tale of a human life. In that and in the surreptitious sidelong
glance following, that searched for an expression in the boyishly soft
face of his companion. But the Indian was looking straight before him,
looking as one who has seen nothing, heard nothing; and, silent as
before the interruption, they journeyed on.
A half hour slipped by, a period wherein the horses walked and galloped,
and walked again, ere the white man forgot, ere the instinct of
companionship, the necessity of conversation, urban-fostered, gained
mastery. Then as before, he looked at the other surreptitiously, through
unconsciously narrowed lids.
"I haven't yet asked your name?" he formalised baldly, curtly.
The guide showed no surprise, no consciousness of the long silence
"The Sioux call me Ma-wa-cha-sa: the ranchers, How Landor."
Craig dropped the reins over his saddle and fumbled in his pockets.
"The Indian word has a meaning, I presume?"
"Translated into English, it would be 'the lost pappoose.'"
The eyebrows of the Easterner lifted; but he made no comment.
"You have been with my uncle, with Mr. Landor, I mean, long?"
"Since I can remember--almost."
The search within the checkered blouse ended. The inquisitor produced a
pipe and lit it. It took three matches.
"My uncle never wrote me of that. He told me once of adopting a girl.
Bess he called her, was it not?"
Already the pipe had gone dead, and Craig struggled anew in getting it
alight, with the awkwardness of one unused to smoking out of doors.
"Do you like this country, this--desert?" he digressed suddenly.
"It is the only one I know."
"You mean know well, doubtless?"
"I have never been outside the State."
Unconsciously the other shrugged, in an action that was habitual.
"You have something to look forward to then. I read somewhere that it
were better to hold down six feet of earth in an Eastern cemetery than
to own a section of land in the West. I'm beginning to believe it."
"I suppose you will leave though, some time," pressed the visitor. "You
certainly don't intend to vegetate here always?"
"I never expect to leave. I was born here. I shall die here."
Once more the shoulders of the Easterner lifted in mute thanksgiving of
fundamental difference. Of a sudden, for some indefinite reason, he felt
more at ease in his companion's presence. For the time being the sense
of antagonism became passive. What use, after all, was mere physical
courage, if one were to bury it in a houseless, treeless waste such as
this? The sense of aloofness, of tranquil superiority, returned. He even
felt a certain pleasure in questioning the other; as one is interested
in questioning a child. Bob Manning's store and Pete Sweeney were
temporarily in abeyance.
"Pardon me, if I seem inquisitive," he prefaced, "but I'll probably be
here a month or so, and we'll likely see a good deal of each other. Are
"You will be, though." It was the ultimatum of one unaccustomed to
contradiction. "No man could live here alone. He'd go insane."
"I eat at the ranch house sometimes, but I live alone."
"You won't do so, though, always." Again it was the voice of finality.
The Indian looked straight ahead into the indefinite distance where the
earth and sky met.
"No, I shall not do so always," he corroborated.
"I thought so." It was the tolerant approval of the prophet verified.
"I'd be doing the same thing myself if I lived here long. Conformity's
in the air. I felt it the moment I left the railroad and struck
this--wilderness." Once again the unconscious shoulder shrug. "It's an
atavism, this life. I've reverted a generation already. It's only a
question of time till one would be back among the cave-dwellers. The
thing's in the air, I say."
Again no comment. Again for any indication he gave, the Indian might not
Craig straightened, as one conscious that he was talking over his
"When, if I may ask, is it to be, your marriage, I mean?" he returned.
"While I am here?"
For an instant the other's eyes dropped until they were hid beneath the
long lashes, then they returned to the distance as before.
"It will be soon. Three weeks from to-day."
"And at the ranch, I presume? My uncle will see to that, of course."
"Yes, it will be at the ranch."
"Good! I was wondering if anything would be doing here while I was
here." Craig threw one leg over the pommel of his saddle and adjusted
the knickerbockers comfortably. "By the way, how do you--your
people--celebrate an event of this kind? I admit I'm a bit ignorant on
"Celebrate? I don't think I understand." The Easterner glanced at his
companion suspiciously but the other man was still looking straight
ahead into the distance.
"You have a dance, or a barbecue or--or something of that sort, don't
you? It's to be an Indian wedding, is it not?"
Pat, pat went the horses' feet on the prairie sod. While one could count
ten slowly there was no other sound.
"No, there will be no dance or barbecue or anything out of the ordinary,
so far as I know," said a low voice then. "It will not be an Indian
Craig hesitated. An instinct told him he had gone far enough. Lurking
indefinite in the depths of that last low-voiced answer was a warning, a
challenge to a trespasser; but something else, a thing which a lifetime
of indulgence had made almost an instinct, prevented his heeding. He was
not accustomed to being denied, this man; and there was no contesting
the obvious fact that now a confidence was being withheld. The latent
antagonism aroused with a bound at the thought. Something more than mere
curiosity was at stake, something which he magnified until it obscured
his horizon, warped hopelessly his vision of right or wrong. He was of
the conquering Anglo-Saxon race, and this other who refused him was an
Indian. Racial supremacy itself hung in the balance: the old, old issue
of the white man and the red. Back into the stirrup went the leg that
hung over the saddle. Involuntarily as before he stiffened.
"Why, is it not to be an Indian wedding?" he queried directly. "You
seemed a bit ago rather proud of your pedigree." A trace of sarcasm
crept into his voice at the thinly veiled allusion. "Have you forsaken
entirely the customs of your people?"
Pat, pat again sounded the horses' feet. The high places as well as the
low bore their frost blanket now, and the dead turf cracked softly with
"No, I have not forsaken the customs of my people."
"Why then in this instance?" insistently. "At least be consistent, man.
Why in this single particular and no other?"
The hand on the neck of the cayuse tightened, tightened until the tiny
ears of the wicked little beast went flat to its head; then of a sudden
the grip loosened.
"Why? The answer is simple. The lady who is to be my wife is not an
For an instant Craig was silent, for an instant the full meaning of that
confession failed in its appeal; then of a sudden it came over him in a
flood of comprehension. Very, very far away now, banished into remotest
oblivion, was Pete Sweeney. Into the same grave went any remnants of
gratitude to the other man that chanced to remain. Paramount, beckoning
him on, one thought, one memory alone possessed his brain: the
recollection of that look the other had given him, that look he could
never forget nor forgive. "Since you have told me so much," he
challenged "you will probably have no objection to telling me the lady's
name. Who is it to be?"
Silence fell upon them. Far in the distance, so far that had the white
man seen he would have thought it a star, a light had come into being.
Many a time before the little roan had made this journey. Many a time he
had seen that light emerge from the surface of earth. To him it meant
all that was good in life: warmth, food, rest. The tiny head shook
impatiently, shifted sideways with an almost human question to his rider
at the slowness of the pace, the delay.
"That light you see there straight ahead is in the ranch house,"
digressed the Indian. "It is four miles away."
Again it was the warning, not a suggestion, but positive this time; and
again it passed unheeded.
"You have forgotten to answer my question," recalled Craig.
Swift as thought the Indian shifted in his seat, shifted half about;
then as suddenly he remembered.
"No, I have not forgotten," he refuted. "You tell me you have already
heard of Bess Landor. It is she I am to marry."
At last he had spoken, had given his confidence to this hostile stranger
man; not vauntingly or challengingly, but simply as he had spoken his
name. Against his will he had done this thing, despite a reticence no
one who did not understand Indian nature could appreciate. Then at
least it would not have taken a wise man to hold aloof. Then at least
common courtesy would have called a halt. But Clayton Craig was neither
wise nor courteous this night. He was a great, weary, passionate child,
whose pride had been stung, who but awaited an opportunity to retaliate.
And that opportunity had been vouchsafed. Moreover, irony of fate, it
came sugar coated. Until this night he had been unconscious as a babe of
racial prejudice. Now of a sudden, it seemed a burning issue, and he its
chosen champion. His blood tingled at the thought; tingled to the tips
of his well-manicured fingers. His clean-shaven chin lifted in air until
his lashes all but met.
"Do you mean to tell me,"--his voice was a bit higher than normal and
unnaturally tense,--"do you mean to tell me that you, an Indian, are to
marry a white girl--and she my cousin by adoption? Is this what you
"I have spoken," said a low voice. "I do not care to discuss the matter
"But I do care to discuss it," peremptorily. "As one of the family it is
my right, and I demand an answer."
Again the tiny roan was shaking an impatient head. It would not be long
until they were home now.
"Yes," answered the Indian.
"And that my uncle will permit it, gives his consent?" Again the
silence and again the low-voiced "Yes."
Over Craig's face, to his eyebrows and beyond, there swept a red flood,
that vanished and left him pale as the starlight about him.
"Well, he may; but by God I won't!" he blazed. "As sure as I live, and
if she's as plain as a hag, so long as her skin is white, you'll not
marry her. If it's the last act of my life, I'll prevent you!"
The voice of the white man was still, but his heart was not. Beat, beat,
beat it went until he could scarcely breathe, until the hot blood fairly
roared in his arteries, in his ears. Not until the challenge was spoken
did he realise to the full what he had done, that inevitable as time
there would be a reckoning. Now in a perfect inundation, the knowledge
came over him, and unconsciously he braced himself, awaited the move.
Yet for long, eternally long it seemed to him, there was none. The swift
reaction of a passionate nature was on, and as in Bob Manning's store,
the suspense of those dragging seconds was torture. Adding thereto,
recollection of that former scene, temporarily banished, returned now
irresistibly, cumulatively. Struggle as he might against the feeling, a
terror of this motionless human at his side grew upon him; a blind,
unreasoning, primitive terror. But one impulse possessed him: to be
away, to escape the outburst he instinctively knew was but delayed. In
an abandon he leaned far forward over his saddle, the rowel of his spur
dug viciously into his horse's flank. There was a deep-chested groan
from the surprised beast, a forward leap--then a sudden jarring halt.
As by magic, the reins left his hand, were transferred to another hand.
"Don't," said a voice. "It will not help matters any to do that. It will
only make them worse." The two horses, obeying the same hand, stopped
there on the prairie. The riders were face to face. "I have tried to
prevent this, for the sake of the future, I have tried; but you have
made an understanding between us inevitable, and therefore it may as
well be now." The voice halted and the speaker looked at his companion
fixedly, minutely, almost unbelievingly. "I know I am not as you white
men," went on the voice. "I have been raised with you, lived my life so
far with you; yet I am different. No Indian would have done as you have
done. I cannot understand it. Not three hours ago I saved your life. It
was a mere chance, but nevertheless I did it; and yet already you have
forgotten, have done--what you have done." So far he had spoken slowly,
haltingly; with the effort of one to whom words were difficult. Now the
effort passed. "I say I cannot understand it," he repeated swiftly. "Mr.
Landor has been very good to me. For his sake I would like to forgive
what you have done, what you promise to do. I have tried to forgive it;
but I cannot. I am an Indian; but I am also a man. As a race your people
have conquered my people, have penned them up in reservations to die;
but that is neither your doing nor mine. We are here as man to man. As
man to man you have offered me insult--and without reason." For the
first time a trace of passion came into the voice, into the soft brown
face. "I ask you to take back what you have just said. I do not warn
you. If you do so, there is no quarrel between us. I merely ask you to
take it back."
He halted expectant; but there was no answer, Craig's lips were
twitching uncontrollably, but he did not speak.
Just perceptibly the Indian shifted forward in his seat, just
perceptibly the long brown fingers tightened on his pony's mane.
"Will you not take it back?" he asked.
Once more the white man's lip twitched. "No," he said.
That was all--and it was not all. For an instant after the Easterner had
spoken the stars looked down on the two men as they were, face to face;
then smiling, satiric they gazed down upon a very different scene: one
as old and as new as the history of man. Just what happened in that
moment that intervened neither the white man nor the red could have
told. It was a lapse, an oblivion; a period of primitive physical
dominance, of primitive human hate. When they awoke--when the red man
awoke--they were flat on earth, the dust of the prairie in their
nostrils, the short catch of their breath in each other's ears, out one,
the dark-skinned, was above. One, again the dark-skinned, had his
fingers locked tight on the other's throat. This they knew when they
A second thereafter they lay so, flaming eyes staring into their
doubles; then suddenly the uppermost man broke free, arose. In his ears
was the diminishing patter of their horses' hoofs. They were alone there
on the prairie, under the smiling satiric stars. One more moment he
stood so; he did not turn; he did not assist the other to rise; then he
"I do not ask your pardon for this," he said. "You have brought it upon
yourself. Neither do I ask a promise. Do as you please. Try what you
have suggested if you wish. I am not afraid. Follow me," and,
long-strided, impassive as though nothing had happened, he moved ahead
into the distance where in the window of the Buffalo Butte ranch house
glowed a light.
A GLIMPSE OF THE UNKNOWN
It was very late, so late that the sun entering at the south windows of
the room shone glaringly upon the white counterpane of his bed when
Craig awoke the next morning. Breakfast had long been over, but
throughout the unplastered ranch house the suggestion of coffee and the
tang of bacon still lingered. At home those odours would have aroused
slight sensations of pleasure in the man, even at this time of day; but
now and here they were distinctly welcome, distinctly inviting. With the
aid of a tin pail of water and a cracked queensware bowl, he made a
hasty toilet, soliloquised an opinion of a dressing-room without a
mirror, and descended the creaking stairs to the level below.
The main floor of the ranch house contained but three rooms. Of these,
it was the living-room which he entered. No one was about. The pipe
which he had smoked with his uncle before retiring the night before
remained exactly as he had put it down. His cap and gloves were still
beside it. Obviously there was no possibility of breakfast here, and he
moved toward the adjoining room. On his way he passed a hook where upon
arrival he had hung his riding blouse. Telltale with its litter of dust
and grass stems, it hung there now; and unconsciously he scowled at the
recollection it suggested.
Opening the door, he was face to face with a little fast-ticking cheaply
ornate clock. Its hands indicated eleven, and the man grimaced
tolerantly. As in the living-room, no human was present, but here the
indications for material sustenance were more hopeful. It was the
dining-room, and, although in the main the table had been cleared, at
one end a clean plate, flanked by a bone-handled knife and fork and an
old-fashioned castor, still remained. Moreover, from the third room, the
kitchen, he could now hear sounds of life. The fire in a cook-stove was
crackling cheerily. Above it, distinct through the thin partition, came
the sound of a girlish voice singing. There was no apparent effort at
time or at tune; it was uncultivated as the grass land all about; yet in
its freshness and unconsciousness it was withal distinctly pleasing. It
was a happy voice, a contented voice. Instinctively it bore a suggestion
of home and of quiet and of peace; like a kitten with drowsy eyes
purring to itself in the sunshine. A moment the visitor stood silent,
listening; then, his heavy shoes clumping on the uncarpeted floor, he
moved toward it. Instantly the song ceased, but he kept on, pushed open
the door gently, stepped inside.
"Good-morning!" he began, and then halted in an uncertainty he seldom
felt among women folk. He had met no one but his uncle the previous
night. Inevitably the preceding incident with his guide had produced a
mental picture. It was with the expectation of having this conception
personified that he had entered, to it he had spoken; then had come the
revelation, the halt.
"Good-morning!" answered a voice, one neither abnormally high nor
repressedly low, the kind of voice the man seldom heard in the society
to which he was accustomed--one natural, unaffected, frankly interested.
The owner thereof came forward, held out her hand. Two friendly brown
eyes smiled up at him from the level of his shoulder. "I know without
your introducing yourself that you're Mr. Craig," she welcomed. "Uncle
Landor told me before he left what to expect. He and Aunt Mary had to go
to town this morning. Meanwhile I'm the cook, and at your service," and
she smiled again.
For far longer than civility actually required, to the extreme limit of
courtesy and a shade beyond, in, fact, until it unmistakably sought to
be free, Clayton Craig retained that proffered hand. Against all the
canons of good breeding he stared. Answering, a trace of colour,
appearing at the brown throat, mounted higher and higher, reached the
soft oval cheeks, journeyed on.
"I beg your pardon," apologised the man. He met the accusing eyes
fairly, with a return of his old confidence. "You had the advantage of
me, you know. I was not forewarned what to expect."
It was the breaking of the ice, and they laughed together. The girl had
been working with arms bare to the elbow, and as now of a sudden she
rolled the sleeves down Craig laughed again; and in unconscious echo a
second later she joined. Almost before they knew it, there alone in the
little whitewashed kitchen with the crackling cook-stove and the
sunshine streaming in through the tiny-paned windows, they were friends.
All the while the girl went about the task of preparing a belated
breakfast they laughed and chatted--and drew nearer and nearer. Again
while Craig ate and at his command the girl sat opposite to entertain
him, they laughed and chatted. Still later, the slowly eaten meal
finished, while Elizabeth Landor washed the dishes and put everything
tidy and Craig from his seat on the bottom of an inverted basket
reversed the position of entertainer, they laughed and chatted. And
through it all, openly when possible, surreptitiously when it were wise,
the man gave his companion inspection. And therein he at first but
followed an instinct. Very, very human was Clayton Craig of Boston,
Suffolk County, Massachusetts, and very, very good to look upon was
brown-eyed, brown-skinned, brown-haired Elizabeth Landor. Neither had
thought of evil, had other thought than the innocent pleasure of the
moment that first morning while the tiny clock on the wall measured off
the swift-moving minutes. Good it is to be alive in sun-blessed South
Dakota on a frosty warm October day, doubly good when one is young; and
these two, the man and the girl, were both young. Months it takes, years
sometimes, in civilisation, with barriers of out on the prairie, alone,
with the pulse of nature throbbing, throbbing, insistently all about,
the process is very swift, so swift that an hour can suffice. No, not
that first hour wherein unconsciously they became friends, did the angel
with the big book record evil opposite the name of Clayton Craig; not
until later, not until he had had time to think, not until--.
But again we anticipate.
"I'm so glad you've come," the girl had ejaculated, "now when you have."
At last the work was over, and in unconscious comradery they sat side by
side on the broad south doorstep; the sun shining down full upon their
uncovered heads--smiling an unconscious blessing more potent than
formula of clergy. She was looking out as she spoke, out over the level
earth dazzling with its dancing heat waves, mysterious in its suggestion
of unfathomable silence, of limitless distance. "It's such a little time
now before I am going away, and Uncle Landor has talked of you so much,
particularly of late." A pause, a hesitating pause. "I suppose you'll
laugh at me, but I hope you'll stay here, for a time, anyway, after I'm
Clayton Craig, the listener, was not gazing out over the prairie. The
object at which he was looking was very near; so near that he had leaned
a trifle back the better to see, to watch. He shifted now until his
weight rested on his elbow, his face on his hand.
"You are going away, you say?" he echoed.
"Yes. I supposed you knew--that Uncle had told you." Despite an effort,
the tiny ears were reddening. She was very human also, was Elizabeth
Landor. "I am to be married soon."
"Married?" A long pause. "And to whom, please?" The voice was very low.
Redder than before burned the tiny ears. No more than she could keep
from breathing could she prevent telling her secret, her happiness, this
prairie girl; no more than she could prevent that accompanying telltale
"You didn't know it, but you've met him already," she confided. "You met
him last night." To her at this time there was no need of antecedent.
There was but one to whom the pronoun might refer. "It was he who showed
you here--How Landor."
For a long time--for he was thinking now, was Clayton Craig, and did not
answer--there was silence. Likewise the girl, her confession voiced,
said no more; but her colour came and went expectantly, tantalisingly,
and the eyes that still looked into the distance were unconscious of
what they saw. From his place the man watched the transparent pantomime,
read its meaning, stored the picture in his memory; but he did not
speak. A minute had already passed; but still he did not speak. He was
thinking of the night before, was the man, of that first look he had
received--and of what had followed. His eyes were upon the girl, but it
was of this he was thinking. Another minute passed. A big shaggy-haired
collie, guardian of the dooryard, paused in his aimless wandering about
the place to thrust a friendly muzzle into the stranger's hand; but even
then he did not respond. For almost the first time in his irresolute
life a definite purpose was taking form in the mind of Clayton Craig,
and little things passed him by. A third minute passed. The colour had
ceased playing on the face he watched now. The silence had performed its
mission. It was the moment for which he was waiting, and he was
prepared. Then it was the angel of the great book opened the volume and
made an entry; for then it was the watcher spoke.
"I met him last, night, you say?" It was the hesitating voice of one
whose memory is treacherous, "I have been trying to recall--Certainly
you must be mistaken. I saw no one last night except Uncle Landor and an
Indian cow-puncher with a comic opera name." He met the brown eyes that
were of a sudden turned upon him, frankly, innocently. "You must be
mistaken," he repeated.
Searchingly, at first suspiciously, then hesitatingly, with a return of
the colour that came as easily as a prairie wind stirs the down of a
milk-weed plant, Elizabeth Landor returned his look. It was an instinct
that at last caused her eyes to drop.
"No, I was not mistaken," she voiced. "How Landor is an Indian. It is he
For a carefully timed pause, the space in which one recovers from
hearing the unbelievable, Craig was silent; then swiftly, contritely he
roused. "I beg a thousand pardons," he apologised. "I meant no
disrespect. I never dreamed--Forgive me." He had drawn very near. "I
wouldn't hurt you for the world. I--Please forgive me." He was silent.
"There's nothing to forgive." The girl's colour was normal again and she
met his eyes frankly, gravely.
"But there is," protested the man humbly. "Because he happened to be
minus a collar and had a red skin--I was an ass; an egregious,
"Don't talk that way," hurriedly. "You merely did not know him, was all.
If you had been acquainted all your life as I have--" Against her will
she was lapsing into a defence, and she halted abruptly. "You were not
Again for a carefully timed pause the man was silent. Then abruptly,
obviously, he changed the subject.
"You said you were going away," he recalled. "Is it to be a wedding
"Tell me of it, please; I wish to hear."
"You would not be interested."
"Elizabeth--" syllabalised, reproachfully. "Am I not your cousin?"
"Haven't you forgiven me yet?" The voice was very low. Its owner was
again very near.
"You'd laugh at me if I told you," repressedly. "You wouldn't
Slowly, meaningly, Clayton Craig drew away--resumed the former position;
the place from which, unobserved, he could himself watch.
"We're going away out there," complied the girl suddenly, reluctantly.
Her hand indicated the trackless waste to the right. "Just the two of us
are going: How and I. We'll take a pack horse and a tent and How's camp
kit and stay out there alone until winter comes." Against her will she
was warming to the subject, was unconsciously painting a picture to
please the solitary listener. "We'll have our ponies and ammunition and
plenty to read. The cowboys laugh at How because ordinarily he never
carries a gun; but he's a wonderful shot. We'll have game whenever we
want it. We'll camp when we please and move on when we please." Again
unconsciously she glanced at the listener to see the effect of her art.
"We'll be together, How and I, and free--free as sunshine. There'll be
nothing but winter, and that's a long way off, to bring us back. It's
what I've always wanted to do, from the time I can remember. How goes
away every year, and he's promised this once to take me along."
Suddenly, almost challengingly, she turned, facing the man her
companion. "Won't it be fine?" she queried abruptly.
"Yes," answered a voice politely, a voice with a shade of listlessness
in its depths, "fine indeed. And if you want anything at any time you
can go to the nearest ranch house. One always does forget something you
"That's just what we can't do," refuted the girl swiftly. "That's the
best of it all. The Buffalo Butte is the last ranch that way, to the
west, until you get to the Hills. We probably won't see another human
being while we're gone. We'll be as much alone as though we were the
only two people in the world."
Craig hesitated; then he shrugged self-tolerantly.
"I'm hopelessly civilised myself," he commented smilingly. "I was
thinking that some morning I might want toast and eggs for breakfast.
And my clean laundry might not be delivered promptly if I were changing
my residence so frequently." He lifted from his elbow. "Pardon me again,
though," he added contritely. "I always do see the prosaic side of
things." The smile vanished, and for the first time he looked away,
absently, dreamily. As he looked his face altered, softened almost
unbelievably. "It would be wonderful," he voiced slowly, tensely, "to be
alone, absolutely alone, out there with the single person one cared for
most, the single person who always had the same likes and dislikes, the
same hopes and ambitions. I had never thought of such a thing before; it
would be wonderful, wonderful!"
No answer; but the warm colour had returned to the girl's face and her
eyes were bright.
"I think I envy you a little, your happiness," said Craig. Warmer and
warmer tinged the brown cheeks, but still the girl was silent.
"Yes, I'm sure I envy you," reiterated the man. "We always envy other
people the things we haven't ourselves; and I--" He checked himself
"Don't talk so," pleaded the girl. "It hurts me."
"But it's true."
Just a child of nature was Elizabeth Landor; passionate, sympathetic,
unsophisticated product of this sun-kissed land. Just this she was; and
another, this man with her, her cousin by courtesy, was sad. Inevitably
she responded, as a flower responds to the light, as a parent bird
responds to the call of a fledgling in distress.
"Maybe it's true now--you think it is," she halted; "but there'll be a
"No, I think not. I'm as the Lord made me." Craig laughed shortly,
unmusically. "It's merely my lot."
The girl hesitated, uncertain, at a loss for words. Distinctly for her
as though the brightness of the day had faded under a real shadow, it
altered now under the cloud of another's unhappiness. But one suggestion
presented itself; and innocently, instinctively as a mother comforts her
child, she drew nearer to the other in mute human sympathy.
The man did not move. Apparently he had not noticed.
"The time was," he went on monotonously, "when I thought differently,
when I fancied that some time, somewhere, I would meet a girl I
understood, who could understand me. But I never do. No matter how well
I become acquainted with women, we never vitally touch, never become
necessary to each other. It seems somehow that I'm the only one of my
kind, that I must go through life so--alone."
Nearer and nearer crept the girl; not as maid to man, but as one child
presses closer to another in the darkness. One of her companion's hands
lay listless on his knee, and instinctively, compellingly, she placed
her own upon it, pressed it softly.
"I am so selfish," she voiced contritely, "to tell you of my own love,
my own happiness. I didn't mean to hurt you. I simply couldn't help it,
it's such a big thing in my own life. I'm so sorry."
Just perceptibly Craig stirred; but still he did not look at her. When
he spoke again there was the throb of repression in his voice; but that
"I'm lonely at times," he went on dully, evasively, "you don't know how
lonely. Now and then someone, as you unconsciously did a bit ago, shows
me the other side of life, the happy side; and I wish I were dead." A
mist came into his eyes, a real mist. "The future looks so blank, so
hopeless that it becomes a nightmare to me. Anything else would be
preferable, anything. It's so to-day, now." He halted and of a sudden
turned away so that his face was concealed. "God forgive me, but I wish
it were over with, that I were dead!"
"No, no! You mustn't say that! You mustn't!" Forgetful entirely, the
girl arose, stood facing him. Tears that she could not prevent were in
the brown eyes and her lip twitched. "It's so good to be alive. You
can't mean it. You can't."
"But I do. It's true." Craig did not stir, did not glance up. "What's
the use of living, of doing anything, when no one else cares, ever will
care. What's the use--"
"But somebody does care," interrupted the girl swiftly, "all of us here
care. Don't say that again, please don't. I can't bear to hear you." She
halted, swallowed hard at a lump which rose hinderingly in her throat.
"I feel somehow as though I was to blame, as though if you should mean
what you said, should--should--" Again she halted; the soft brown eyes
glistening, the dainty oval chin trembling uncontrollably, her fingers
locked tight. A moment she stood so, uncertain, helpless; then of a
sudden the full horror of the possibility the other had suggested came
over her, swept away the last barrier of reserve. Not the faintest
suspicion of the man's sincerity, of his honesty, occurred to her, not
the remotest doubt. In all her life no one had ever lied to her; she had
never consciously lied to another. The world of subterfuge was an unread
book. This man had intimated he would do this terrible thing. He meant
it. He would do it, unless--unless--
"Don't," she pleaded in abandon. "Don't!" The hand was still lying idle
on the man's knee, and reaching down she lifted it, held it prisoner
between her own. It was not a suggestion she was combating now. It was a
certainty. "Promise me you won't do this thing." She shook the hand
insistently; at first gently, then, as there was no response, almost
roughly. "Tell me you won't do it. Promise me; please, please!"
"But I can't promise," said the man dully. "I'm useless absolutely; I
never realised before how useless. You didn't intend to do it, but
you've made me see it all to-day. I don't blame you, but I can't
promise. I can't."
Silence fell upon them; silence complete as upon the top of a mountain,
as in the depths of a mine, the absolute silence of the prairie. For
seconds it remained with them, for long-drawn-out, distorted seconds;
then, interrupting, something happened. There was not a cloud in the
sky, nor the vestige of a cloud. The sun still shone bright as before;
yet distinctly, undeniably, the man felt a great wet spattering drop
fall from above upon his hand--and a moment later another. He glanced
up, hesitated; sprang to his feet, his big body towering above that of
the little woman already standing.
"Elizabeth!" he said tensely. "Cousin Bess! I can't believe it." He took
her by the shoulders compellingly, held her at arm's length; and the
angel who watched halted with pen in air, indecisive. "We've known each
other such a ludicrously short time--but a few hours. Can it be possible
that you really meant that, that at least to someone it does really
matter?" It was his turn to question, to wait breathlessly when no
answer came. "Would you really care, you, if I were dead? Tell me, Bess,
tell me, as though you were saying a prayer." One hand still retained
its grip on her shoulder, but its mate loosened, instinctively sought
that averted, trembling chin, as hundreds of men, his ancestors, had
done to similar chins in their day, lifted it until their eyes met. Had
he been facing his Maker that moment and the confession his last,
Clayton Craig could not have told whether it were passion or art, that
action. "Tell me, Bess girl, is it mere pity, or do you really care?"
Face to face they stood there, eye to eye as two strangers, meeting by
chance in darkness and storm, read each the other's mind in the glitter
of a lightning flash. It was all so swift, so fantastic, so unexpected
that for a moment the girl did not realise, did not understand. For an
instant she stood so, perfectly still, her great eyes opening wider and
wider, opening wonderingly, dazedly, as though the other had done what
she feared--and of a sudden returned again to life; then in mocking,
ironic reaction came tardy comprehension, and with the strength of a
captured wild thing she drew back, broke free. A second longer she stood
there, not her chin alone, but her whole body trembling; then without a
word she turned, mounted the single step, fumbled at the knob of the
door. "Bess," said the man softly, "Cousin Bess!" But she did not
glance back nor speak, and, listening, his ear to the panel, Craig heard
her slowly climb the creaking stairs to her own room and the door close
THE SKELETON WITHIN THE CLOSET
Comparatively few men of cheerful outlook and social inclination attain
the age of five and fifty without contracting superfluous avoirdupois
and distinctive mannerism. That Colonel William Landor was no exception
to the first rule was proven by the wheezing effort with which he made
his descent from the two-seated canvas-covered surrey in front of Bob
Manning's store, and, with a deftness born of experience, converted the
free ends of the lines into hitch straps. That the second premise held
true was demonstrated ten seconds later in the unconscious grunt of
soliloquy with which he greeted the sight of a wisp of black rag tacked
above the knob of the door before him.
"Mourning, eh," he commented to his listening ego. "Looks like a strip
of old Bob's prayer-meeting trousers." He tried the entrance, found it
locked, and in lieu of entering tested the badge of sorrow between thumb
and finger. "Pant stuff, sure enough," he corroborated. "It can't be Bob
himself, or they'd have needed these garments to lay him out in. Now
what in thunder, I wonder--"
He glanced across the street at Slim Simpson's eating house. Like the
general store, the door was closed, and just above the catch, flapping
languidly in a rising prairie breeze, was the mate to the black rag
dangling at his back. The spectator's shaggy eyebrows tightened in
genuine surprise, and with near-sighted effort he inspected the fronts
of the short row of other buildings along the street.
"Civilisation's struck Coyote Centre good and proper, at last,
evidently," he commented. "They'll be having a bevel plate hearse with
carved wood tassels and a coon driver next!" He halted, indecisive, and
for the first time became conscious that not a human being was in sight.
In the street before him a pair of half-grown cockerels with ludicrously
long legs and abbreviated tails were scratching a precarious living from
amid the litter. On the sunny expanse of sidewalk before Buck Walker's
meat market a long-eared mongrel lay stretched out luxuriously in the
physical contentment of the subservient unmolested; but from one end of
the single street to the other not a human being was in sight; save the
present spectator, not a single disturber of the all-pervading quiet.
Landor had seen the spot where the town now stood when it was virgin
prairie, had watched every building it boasted rise from the earth, had
hitherto observed it through the gamut of its every mood from nocturnal
recklessness to profoundest daybreak remorse; but as it was now with the
sun nearing the meridian, deserted, dead--.
"Well, I'm beat!" he exploded as emphatically as though another were
listening. "There must have been a general cleanup this time. I fear
that the report of my respected nephew--" He checked himself suddenly, a
bit guiltily. Even though no one was listening, he was loath to voice an
inevitable conclusion. Decision, however, had triumphed over surprise at
last, and, leaving the main street, he headed toward what the proud
citizens denominated the residence quarter--a handful of unpainted
weather-stained one-story boxes, destitute of tree or of shrub
surrounding as factory tenements. The sun was positively hot now, and as
he went he unbuttoned his vest and sighed in unconscious satisfaction at
the relief. At the second domicile, a residence as nearly like the first
as a duplicate pea from the same pod, he turned in at the lane leading
to the house unhesitatingly, and without form of knocking opened the
door and stepped inside.
The room he entered was bare, depressingly so; bare as to its uncarpeted
cottonwood floor, bare in its hard-finished, smoke-tinted walls. In it,
to the casual observer, there were visible but four objects: an
old-fashioned walnut desk that had once borne a top, but which did so no
longer; two cane-bottomed chairs with rickety arms; and, seated in one
thereof, a man. The latter looked up as the visitor entered, revealing
an unshaven chin and a pair of restless black eyes over the left of
which the lid drooped appreciably. He was smoking a long black stogie,
and scattered upon his vest and in a semicircle surrounding his chair
was a sprinkling of white ash from vanished predecessors. Though he
looked up when the other entered, and Landor returned the scrutiny,
there was no salutation, not even when, without form of invitation, the
rancher dropped into the vacant seat opposite and tossed his broad felt
hat familiarly amid the litter of the desk. A moment they sat so, while
with an effort the newcomer recovered his breath.
"I thought I'd find you here, Chantry," he initiated eventually. "I've
noticed that the last place to look for a doctor is in the proximity of
a funeral." He fumbled in his pocket and produced a stogie, mate to that
in the other's mouth. "This particular ceremony, by the way, I gather
from the appearance of the metropolis, must have been of more than
ordinary interest." And lighting a match he puffed until his face was
"Never mind the details," Landor prevented hurriedly. The haze had
cleared somewhat, and he observed his taciturn companion appreciatively.
"I left Mary up with Jim Burton's wife, and I think she can be trusted
to attend to such little matters."
Chantry smoked on without comment, but his restless black eyes were
observing the other shrewdly. Not without result had the two men known
each other these five years.
"It's a great convenience, this having women in the family," commented
Landor impersonally. "It's better than a daily paper, any time." Again
the deliberate, appreciate look. "You haven't decided yet to prove the
fact for yourself, have you?"
Still Chantry smoked in silence, waiting. The confidence that had
brought the other to him was very near now, almost apparent. Only too
well he knew the signs--the good-natured satire that ill concealed a
tolerance broad as the earth, the flow of trivialities that cleared the
way later of non-essentials. In silence he waited; and, as he had known
the moment that big figure appeared in the doorway, it came.
Deliberately Landor removed the stogie from his lips, as deliberately
flicked off the loose ash onto the floor at his side, inspected the
burning tuck critically.
"Supposing," he introduced baldly, "a fellow--an old fellow like
myself," he corrected precisely, "was to be going about his business as
an old fellow should, in a two-seated surrey with canvas curtains such
as you've seen me drive sometimes." The speaker paused a second to clear
his throat. "Supposing this old fellow was just riding through the
country easy, taking his time and with nothing particular on his mind,
and all of a sudden he should feel as though someone had sneaked up and
stuck him from behind with a long, sharp knife. Supposing this should
happen, and, although it was the middle of the day, everything should go
black as night and he should wake up, he couldn't tell how much later,
and find himself all heaped up in the bottom of the rig and the team
stock still out in the middle of the prairie." Deliberately as it had
left, the cigar returned to the speaker's lips, was puffed hard until
it glowed furiously; and was again critically examined. "Supposing such
a fat old fellow as myself should tell you this. As a doc and a
specialist, would you think there was something worth while the matter
Still Chantry did not speak, but the burned-out stump in his fingers
sought a remote corner of the room, consorted with a goodly collection
of its mates, and the drooping eyelid tightened.
"Supposing," continued Landor, "the thing should happen the second time,
and the old fellow, who wasn't good at walking, should be spilled out
and have to foot it home three miles. What would you think then?"
One of Chantry's hands, itself not over clean, dusted the ash off his
"When was it, this last time?" he questioned.
"Yesterday," impassively. "I'd started for here to meet my nephew when
the thing struck me; and when I managed to get home I sent How over
instead." He halted reminiscently. "I wrote the boy to come a couple of
weeks ago--that's when it caught me first."
"Your nephew, Craig, knows about it, does he?"
Landor puffed anew with a shade of embarrassment.
"No. I thought there was no call to tell the folks at the ranch. Mary'd
have a cat-fit if she knew. I told them I got out to shoot at a coyote,
and the bronchos ran away." He glanced at the other explanatorily,
deprecatingly. "Clayton is my sister's son and the only real relative I
have, you know. I just asked him to come on general principles."
Chantry made no comment. Opening a drawer of the desk, he fumbled amid a
litter of articles useful and useless, and, extracting a battered
stethoscope, shifted his chair forward until it was close to the other
and stuck the tiny tubes to his ears. Still without comment he opened
the rancher's shirt, applied the instrument, listened, shifted it,
listened, shifted and listened the third time--slid his chair back to
the former position.
"What else do you know?" he asked.
Landor buttoned up the gap in his shirt methodically.
"Nothing, except that the thing is in the family. My father went that
way when he was younger than I am, and his father the same." The stogie
had gone dead in his fingers, and he lit a fresh one steadily. "I've
been expecting it to catch up with me for years."
"Your father died of it, you say?"
"Yes; on Thanksgiving Day." The big rancher shifted position, and in
sympathy the rickety chair groaned dismally. "Dinner was waiting, I
remember, a regular old-fashioned New England dinner with a stuffed
sucking pig and a big turkey with his drumsticks in the air. Mother and
Frances--that's my sister--were waiting, and they sent me running to
call father. He was a lawyer, and a great hand to shut himself up and
work. I was starved hungry, and I remember I hot-footed it proper
upstairs to his den and threw open the door." Puff! puff! went the big
stogie. "An Irish plasterer with seven kids ate that turkey, I
recollect," he completed, "and I've never kept Thanksgiving from that
day to this."
"And your grandfather?" unemotionally.
"Just the same. He was a preacher, and the choir was singing the opening
anthem at the time."
The doctor threw one thin leg over the other and stared impassively out
the single window. It faced the main street of the town.
"The doings are over for this time, I fancy," he digressed evenly. "I
see a row of bronchos tied down in front of Red's place."
Landor did not look around.
"Mary and Mrs. Burton will count them, never fear," he recalled in mock
sarcasm. "What I want to know is your opinion."
"In my opinion there's nothing to be done," said Chantry.
Landor shifted again, and again the chair groaned in mortal agony.
"I know that. What I mean is how long is it liable to be before--" he
halted and jerked his thumb over his shoulder--"before Bob and the rest
will be doing that to me?"
Chantry's gaze left the window, met the shrewd grey eyes beneath the
other's drooping lids.
"It may be a day and it may be ten years," he said.
Unconsciously Landor settled deeper into his seat. His jaws closed
tight on the stump of the stogie. Unwaveringly he returned the other's
"You have a more definite idea than that, though," he pressed. "Tell me,
and let's have it over with."
For five seconds Chantry did not speak; but the restless black eyes
bored the other through and through, at first impersonally, as, scalpel
in hand, he would have studied a patient before the first incision in a
major operation; then, as against the other's will, a great drop of
sweat gathered on the broad forehead, personally, intimately.
"Yes, my opinion is more definite than that," he corroborated evenly. He
did not suggest that he was sorry to say what he was about to say, did
not qualify in advance by intimating that his prognosis might be wrong.
"I think the next attack will be the last. Moreover, I believe it will
come soon, very soon." Impassively as he had spoken, he produced a book
of rice paper from his pocket and a rubber pouch of tobacco. The long
fingers were skilful, and a cigarette came into being as under a
machine. Without another word he lit a match and waited until the flame
was well up on the wood. Of a sudden a great cloud of kindly smoke
separated him from the other.
With an effort the big rancher lifted in his seat, passed his sleeve
across his forehead clumsily.
"Thank you, Chantry." He cleared his throat raspingly. "As I said, I
expected this; that's why I came to see you to-day." For the second time
his cigar was dead, but he did not light it again. There was no need of
subterfuge now. "I want you to do me a favour." He looked at the other
steadily through the diminishing haze. "Will you promise me?"
"No," said Chantry.
Landor stared as one who could not believe his ears.
"No!" he interrogated.
"I said so."
A trace of colour appeared in the rancher's mottled cheeks as, with an
effort, he got to his feet.
"I beg your pardon then for disturbing you," he said coldly. "I was
labouring under the delusion that you were a friend."
The brief career of the cigarette was ended. Chantry's long fingers had
locked over his knee. He did not move.
"Sit down, please," he said. "It is precisely because I am your friend
that I will not promise."
Landor halted, a question in every line of his face.
"I think I fail to understand," he groped. "I suppose I'm dense."
"No, you're merely transparent. You were going to ask the one thing I
can't promise you."
Landor stared, in mystified uncertainty.
"Please sit down. You were going to ask me to take charge of your
affairs if anything was to happen. Is it not so?"
"Yes. But how in the world--" "Don't ask it then, please," swiftly. He
ignored the other's suggestion. "Get someone else, someone you've known
for a long time."
"I've known you for a long time--five years."
"Or leave everything in your wife's hands." Again Chantry scouted the
obvious. "If there should be need she could get a lawyer from the
"Lawyer nothing!" refuted Landor. "That's just what I wish to avoid.
Mary or the girl, either one, have about as much idea of taking care of
themselves as they have of speaking Chinese. They'd be on the county
inside a year, with no one interested to look out for them."
"He's as bad. He can ride a broncho, or stalk a sandhill crane where
there isn't cover to hide your hat, or manage cattle, or stretch out in
the sun and: dream; but business--He wouldn't know a bank cheque if he
saw one; and, what's worse, he doesn't want to know."
"Craig, then, your nephew--" It was not natural for Chantry to be
perfunctory, and he halted.
For a moment the big rancher was silent. In his lap his fingers met
unconsciously, tip to tip, in the instinctive habit of age.
"I anticipated that," he said wearily. "I realise it's the obvious thing
to do. I never adopted How as I did the girl--I was willing to, but he
didn't see the use--and so Craig's the only man kin I have." The life
and magnetism, usually so noticeable in Landor's great figure, had
vanished. It was merely an old man facing the end who settled listlessly
into his seat. "I had big hopes of the boy. I hadn't seen him since he
was a youngster, and Frances, while she lived, was always bragging about
his doings. That's why I sent for him." Pat, pat went the big fingers in
his lap against each other. "I've always felt that if worst came to
worst the women folks would have someone practical to rely on; but
somehow, when I saw him last night, from what he said and what he didn't
say, from the way he acted and the way he explained--what happened here
last evening--" The speaker caught himself. A trace of the old
shrewdness crept into the grey eyes as he inspected his companion
steadily. "I know How pretty well, and when someone intimates to me that
he is a grand-stand player, or goes out of his way to pick a quarrel, or
meddles with someone else's affairs--" Again the big man caught himself.
The scrutiny became almost a petition. "I cut you off short about what
went on here yesterday," he digressed. "I didn't want to hear. I guess I
was afraid to hear. It's been foolish, I know, but I've depended a good
deal upon the boy, and I'm afraid he's going to be a--disappointment."
With the old machine-like precision Chantry rolled another cigarette,
lit it, sent a great cloud of smoke tumbling up toward the ceiling. That
"You see for yourself how it is," said the rancher. "I wouldn't ask you
again if there was anyone else I could go to; but there isn't. Maybe I'm
only borrowing trouble, maybe there won't be anything for you or anyone
to do; but it would be a big load off my mind to know that if anything
should happen.--" He halted abruptly. It was not easy for this man to
discuss his trouble, even to a friend. "It isn't such a big thing I'm
asking," he hurried. "I'm sure if positions were reversed and you were
to request me--"
"I know you would. I realise I seem ungrateful. I--" Of a sudden,
interrupting, Chantry arose precipitately: a thin, ungainly figure in
shiny, thread-bare broadcloth, exotic to the point of caricature.
Unconsciously he started pacing back and forth across the room,
restlessly, almost fiercely. Never in the years he had previously known
the man had Landor seen him so, seen him other than the impassive,
almost forbidding practitioner of a minute ago. For the time being his
own trouble was forgotten in surprise, and he stared at the
transformation almost unbelievingly. Back and forth, back and forth went
the thin, ungainly shape, the ill-laid floor creaking as he moved,
paused at last before the single dust-stained window, stood like a
silhouette looking out over the desolate town. Watching, Landor shifted
uncomfortably in his seat. Once he cleared his throat as if to speak. An
instinct told him he should say something; but he was in the dark
absolutely, and words would not come. Reaching over to the desk he took
up his broad felt hat and sat twirling it in his fingers, waiting.
As suddenly as he had arisen Chantry returned, resumed his seat. His
face had grown noticeably pale, and his left eyelid drooped even more
"I feel I owe you an apology," he said swiftly. "In a way we've been
friends, and as you say, it's not a big thing you ask of me; but
nevertheless I can't grant it. Please don't ask me."
The hat in Landor's hands became still, significantly still.
"I admit I don't understand," he accepted, "but of course if you feel
that way, I shall not ask you again." Unconsciously a trace of the
former stiffness returned to his manner as he arose heavily. "I think
I'd better be going." His mouth twitched in an effort at pleasantry.
"Mary'll be dying to give me the details."
Chantry did not smile, did not again ask the other to resume his seat.
Instead, he himself arose, stood facing his guest squarely.
"I feel that I owe you an explanation as well," he said repressedly.
"Would you like to hear?"
"Yes--if you don't mind. If you'd prefer not to, however--"
"No, I'd rather you--understood than to go that way." The doctor cleared
his throat in the manner of one who smokes overmuch. "We all have our
skeleton hid away somewhere, I suppose. At least I have mine, and it
keeps bobbing out at times like this when I most wish--" He caught
himself, met his companion's questioning look fairly. "Haven't you
wondered why I ever came here; why, having come, I remain?" he queried
suddenly. "You know that I barely make enough to live, that sometimes I
don't have a case a week. Did it never occur to you that there was
something peculiar about it all?"
"Peculiar?" The hat in the rancher's hand started revolving again. He
had, indeed, thought of it before, thought of it tolerantly, with a
vague sense of commiseration--an attitude very similar to that with
which the uninitiated observe a player at golf; but that there might be
another, a sinister meaning--.
"If it hasn't occurred to you before, doesn't it seem peculiar, now that
you consider it?" The question came swiftly, tensely, with a
significance there was no misunderstanding. "Tell me, please."
"Yes, perhaps; but--"
"But you do see, though," relentlessly. "You can't help but see." The
speaker started anew the restless, aimless pace. "The country is full of
us; all new countries are." He was still speaking hurriedly, tensely, as
we tell of a murder or a ghastly tragedy; something which in duty we
must confide, but which we hasten to have over. "It's easier to get here
than to Mexico or to Canada, and until the country is settled, until
people begin to suspect--" He halted suddenly opposite the other, his
face deathly pale, deathly tortured. "In God's name, don't you
understand now?" he questioned passionately. "Must I tell you in so many
words why I refused, why I don't dare do anything else but refuse?"
"No, you don't need to tell me." Absently, unconsciously, the rancher
produced a red bandana handkerchief and wiped his face; then thrust it
back into his pocket. "I think I understand at last." His eyes had
dropped and he did not raise them again to his companion. "I'm sorry,
very sorry, that I asked you; sorry most of all that--" He halted
diffidently, his great hands hanging loose at his side, his broad
shoulders drooping wearily. He was not glib of speech, at best, and this
second blow was hard to bear. A full half minute he stood so, hesitant,
searching for words; then heavily, clumsily, he turned, started for the
door. "I really must be going," he concluded.
Chantry did not ask him to stay, made no motion to prevent his going.
Tense, motionless, he stood where he had last paused, waited in silence
until the visitor's hand was upon the knob.
"Good-bye Landor," he said then simply.
Not the words themselves, but something in the tone caused the rancher
to halt, to look back.
"Good-day, you mean, rather," he corrected.
"No, good-bye. You will not see me again."
"You don't mean--"
"No. I'm too much of a coward for that, or I should have done so long
ago. I merely mean I'll move on to-morrow."
Face to face the two men stood staring at each other. Seconds drifted
by. It was the doctor who spoke at last.
"God knows that if I could, I'd change with you even now, Landor," he
said repressedly. "I'd change with you gladly." A moment he stood so,
tense as a wire drawn to the point of breaking, ghastly tense; then of a
sudden he went lax. Instinctively his fingers sought his pockets, and
there where he stood he started swiftly to roll a cigarette.
"Go, please," he requested. "Good-bye."
THE VOICE OF THE WILD
Eight miles out on the prairie, out of sight of the Buffalo Butte ranch
house--save for a scattering herd of grazing cattle in the distance, and
a hobbled mouse-coloured broncho feeding near at hand, out of sight of
every living thing--a man lay stretched full length upon the ground. It
was the time of day that Landor had tried the door of Bob Manning's
store, and the broad brim of the man's hat was pulled far forward to
keep the glitter from his eyes. Under his head was a rolled-up blanket;
an Indian blanket that even so showed against the brown earth in a blot
of glaring colour. His hands were deep in his pockets; his moccasined
feet were crossed. At first sight, an observer would have thought him
asleep; but he was not asleep. The black eyes that looked forth
motionless from beneath the hat brim, that apparently never for an
instant left that scattering blot where, distorted, fantastic from
distance and through the curling heat waves the herd grazed, were very
wide awake indeed. They were not even drowsy or off guard. They were
merely passive, absolutely passive. The whole body was passive,
motionless, relaxed in every muscle and every nerve; and therein lay the
marvel--to all save the thousandth human in this restless age, the
impossibility. To be awake and still motionless, to do absolutely
nothing, not even sleep--seemingly the simplest feat in life, it is one
of the most difficult. A wild thing can do it, all wild things when need
is sufficient; but man, modern man--Here and there one retains the
faculty, as here and there one worships another God than wealth; but
here and there only. Yet it was such an one that lay alone out there on
the Dakota prairie that October day; one who, as Craig had said, hinted
unfortunately of comic opera, but who never, even in remotest
conception, fancied that comic opera existed, a dreamer and yet,
notwithstanding, a doer, an Indian, and still not an Indian;
Ma-wa-cha-sa by name.
With the approach of midday a light wind had arisen, and now, wandering
northward, it tugged at the pony's long, shaggy mane and tail, set each
individual hair of the little beast vibrating in unjustified ferocity;
and, drifting aimlessly on, stirred the brittle grass stalks at the
man's feet with the muffled crackling of a far-distant prairie fire. The
herd, a great machine cutting clean every foot of the sun-cured grass in
its path, moved on and on, reached a low spot in the gently rolling
country, and passed slowly from view; then, still moving forward, took
shape on the summit of the next rise, more distinct than before.
Time passed as the man lay there, time that to another would have been
interminable, that to him was apparently unnoted. Gradually, as the full
heat of the day approached, the breeze became stronger, set the heat
waves dancing to swifter measure, sang audibly in the listener's ears
its siren song of prairie and of peace. The broncho, its appetite
temporarily satisfied, lay down fair in its tracks, groaned lazily in
the action, and shut its eyes. It was the rest time of the wild, and the
same instinct appealed to the leader of the distant herd. Down it went
where it stood as the pony had done, disappeared absolutely from view. A
moment later another followed, and another, and another. It was almost
uncanny, there in the fantastic glimmer, that disappearance. In the
space of minutes, look where one would, the horizon was blank. Where the
herd had been there was nothing, not even a blot. It was as the desert,
and the vanished herd a mirage. It was like the far northland tight in
the grip of winter, like the ocean at night. It was the Dakota frontier
Again time passed and, motionless as at first, wide eyed, the man lay
looking out. The pony was sound asleep now. Its nostrils widened and
narrowed rhythmically and it snored at intervals. Save for this and the
soft crackle of the grass and the aeolian song of the wind the earth was
still; still as death; so still that, indescribably soft as it was
immeasurably distant, the man detected of a sudden against it a new
sound. But he did not stir. The black eyes looked out motionless as at
first. He merely waited a minute, two--and it came again; a bit louder
this time, more distinct, unmistakable.
This time the listener moved. Deftly, swiftly, he unrolled the gaudy
blanket, spread it thin upon the ground, covered it completely with his
body. In lieu of a pillow his arms crossed under his head, and, leaning
back, the hat brim still shading his eyes, he lay gazing up into the
sky, motionless as a prairie boulder.
Again the sound was repeated; not a single note, but a medley, a chorus.
It was still faint, still immeasurable as to distance; but nearer than
before and approaching closer second by second. Not from the earth did
it come, but from the air. Not by any stretch of the imagination was it
an earthly sound, but aerial. It was an alien note and still it was not
alien. There upon the silent earth with its sunshine and its illimitable
distances, it seemed very much a part of the whole. Its keynote was the
keynote of the time and place, its message was their message, the thrill
it bore to the listener the thrill of the whole. It was not a musical
call, that steadily approaching sound. No human being has ever been able
to locate it in pitch or metre; yet to such as the listening man upon
the ground, to those who have heard it year by year, it is nevertheless
the sweetest, most insistent of music. Beside it there is no other note
which will compare, none other which even approaches its appeal. It is
the spirit of the wild, of magnificent distances, of freedom
impersonate. It is to-day, it was then; for the sound that the man heard
drawing nearer and nearer that October afternoon was the swelling,
diminishing note of the migrant on its way south, of the grey Canada
honker en route from the Arctic circle to the Gulf of Mexico.
"Honk! honk!" Sonorous, elusive, came the sound. It was within a half
mile now, and there was no mistaking the destination, the intent of its
makers. "Honk! honk! honk! honk!" from many throats, in many keys,
louder and louder, confused as children's voices at play; then in turn
diminishing, retreating. Very mystifying to one who did not understand
would have been that augmenting, lessening sound; but to that waiting
human boulder it was no mystery. As plainly as though he could see, he
knew every movement of that approaching triangle. As certainly as the
broncho near by and the herd in the distance had responded to the
sunshine and the time of day, he knew they were responding. To all wild
things it was the rest hour, and to those a half mile high in the air as
inevitably as to the beast on earth instinct had said "halt." They were
still going southward, still drawing nearer and nearer; but it would not
be for long. Already they were circling, descending, searching here and
there for a place to alight, to rest. Suspicious even here, they were
taking their time; but distinct now amid the confusion was the sound of
their great wings against the denser air, and the "Honk! honk! honk!"
was a continuous chatter.
Circle after circle made the flock. Once their noise all but ceased, and
the listener fancied for an instant they were down, but in a moment it
was resumed louder than before, and he knew they were still a-wing.
"Honk! honk! honk! honk! honk! honk!" They were very near indeed, so
near that the sleeping pony was aroused at the clamour and, lifting its
head, looked about curiously.
"Honk! honk! honk! Flap! flap! Swish!" Between the sun and the watcher
there fell a moving shadow and another--then a multitude. The clamour
was all-surrounding, the flap of great wings a continuous beating, the
whistle of air like that in a room with a myriad buzzing electric fans.
Temporarily the prairie breeze was lost; swallowed up in the greater
movement. Surprised, for the moment frightened, the broncho sprang to
his feet--paused irresolute. For an instant the sky was hid. Overhead,
to right, to left, all-obscuring, was nothing but a blot of great grey
bodies, of wide wings lighter on the under surface, of long, curious
necks, of dangling feet; then, swiftly as it had come it passed; the sun
shone anew; the cloud and the shadow thereof, going straight in the face
of the wind, wandered on. "Honk! honk! honk! honk! honk! honk!" they
repeated; but it was the voice of departure. The thing was done. There
on the level earth, fair in view, they had passed overhead within twenty
feet of their arch-enemy, man; and had not known. Now less than a
quarter of a mile away they were circling for the last time. One big
gander was already down and stretching his long neck from side to side.
Another, with a great flapping of wings, was beside him; and another,
and another. The prairie wind carried along the sound of their chatter;
but it was subdued now, entirely different from the clamour of a bit
ago. Against the blue of the sky where they had been a blot only, the
curling, dancing heat waves arose. One and all had answered the siesta
Up to this time the man who watched had not stirred. As they had gone
over, the wide-open eyes had stared up at them; but not in the twitching
of a muscle had the long body betrayed him. Not even now that it was
over did he move. Instead, low at first, then louder, a whistle sounded.
The pony, wide awake now, was grazing contentedly; but he paused. The
whistle sounded for the third time, and reluctantly he drew near, halted
obediently. Then at last there was action. With one motion the Indian
was on his feet. Swiftly as it was spread the blanket was rolled and
replaced in the waterproof pouch with the remnants of the lunch and a
book of odds and ends which he carried always with him. The whole was
strapped to the pony's bare back. As swiftly the hobble was removed and,
not a minute from the time the last bird was down, the man and the
beast, the latter only visible from the direction in which they were
going, were moving on a zigzag, circuitous trail toward the resting yet
ever-watchful flock before them.
On they went, the pony first, the crouching man beside, his body even
with the pony's front legs, his eyes peering through the wind-tossed
mane. First to the right, then to the left they tacked, halting at
intervals, as a pony wandering aimlessly will halt now and then to feed;
but never losing the general direction, always bit by bit drawing nearer
and nearer. A half hour passed by and in it they covered forty
rods--half the distance. Thirty minutes more elapsed and they had
crossed an equal portion of the remaining space. Then it was they halted
and a peculiar thing happened.
The wind had gradually risen during the day, and now, the middle of the
afternoon, was blowing steadily. Light objects unattached move easily
across the level prairie at this time of year, and here and there under
its touch one after another of a particular kind were already in motion.
Fluffy, unsubstantial objects they were, as large as a bushel measure
and rudely circular. Looking out over the level earth often a half dozen
at a time were visible, rolling and halting and rolling again on an
endless journey from nowhere to nowhere. They were the well-named tumble
weeds of the prairie; as distinctive as the resting flock of late
autumn, of approaching winter. One of these it was now that came
tumbling in lazily from the south and, barely missing the indifferent
birds themselves, dawdled languidly on toward the pony beyond. On it
came, would have passed to the right; but, under an impulse he in no way
understood, the broncho moved to intercept it. Fair in its path, the
little beast would still have shifted to give it right of way, for the
weed is very prickly; but again the authority he did not question held
him in his place, and the three, the man, the horse, and the plant, came
together. Then it was the _finale_ began, the real test, the matching of
human cunning and animal watchfulness.
Left alone there upon the prairie, the indifferent broncho resumed its
feeding. Away from it, foot by foot, so slowly that a careful observer
could barely have seen it stir, moved the great weed. No animal on the
face of earth save man himself would have been suspicious of that
natural blind; even he would have overlooked it had he not by chance
noted that while every other of its kind was moving with the wind, it
slowly but surely was advancing against it. The scene where the drama
was taking place was level as a floor, the grazed grass that covered it
scarcely higher than a man's hand; yet from in front not an inch of the
Indian's long body was visible, not a sound marked its advance. In
comparison with its movement time passed swiftly; a third half hour
while it was advancing ten rods. Already the short autumn afternoon was
drawing to a close. The sun was no longer uncomfortably hot. The heat
waves had ceased dancing. In sympathy the prairie breeze, torn of the
sun, was becoming appreciably milder. As certainly as it had come, the
brief rest period was drawing to a close.
But the long figure that gave the blind motion showed no haste. Inch by
inch it advanced, never still, yet never hurrying. The great
unsuspicious birds were very near now, so near that a white hunter
would have lost his equanimity in anticipation. Through the meshwork of
the blind the stalker counted them. Twenty-seven there were together,
and near to him another, a sentinel. He was within half the distance of
a city block of the latter, so close that he could see the beady,
watchful eyes, the pencillings of the plumage, the billowing of feathers
as the long neck shifted from side to side. Verily it was a moment to
make a sportsman's blood leap--to make him forget; but not even then did
the Indian show a sign of excitement, not for a minute did the lithe
body cease in its soundless serpentine motion. It was splendid, that
patient, stealthy approach, splendid in its mastery of the still hunt;
but beyond this it was more, it was fearful. Had an observer been where
no observer was, it would inevitably have carried with it another
suggestion--the possibilities of such a man were a real object, one
vital to his life, and not a mere pastime, at stake. What would this
patient, tireless, splendid animal do then? What if another man, his
enemy, were the object, the quarry?
The rest time at last was over. Insidiously into the air had crept a
suggestion of coolness, of approaching night. In the background the pony
ceased feeding, stood patiently awaiting the return of its rider. Far in
the distance, the herd, a darker blot against the brown earth, were once
more upon their feet. The flock, that heretofore like a group of
barnyard fowls in the dust and the sun had remained indolently resting
and preening their plumage, grew alert. One after the other they began
wandering here and there aimlessly, restlessly. The subdued chatter
became positive. Two great ganders meeting face to face hissed a
challenge. Here and these a big bird spread its great wings tentatively,
and folded them again with distinct reluctance. The cycle was all but
complete. The instinct that in the beginning had bid them south, that
had for this brief time sent them to earth, was calling again. In
sympathy the restless head of the sentinel went still. Another minute,
another second even, perhaps, and they would be gone. Through the filmy
screen the stalker saw it all, read the meaning. He had ere this drawn
unbelievably near. Barely the width of a narrow street separated him
from the main flock--less than the breadth of a goodly sized room the
motionless sentinel. It was the moment for action.
And action followed. Like a mighty spring the slim muscular body
contracted in its length. Toes and fingers dug into the earth like a
sprinter awaiting the starting pistol. He drew a long breath. Then of a
sudden, straight over the now useless blind, unexpected, startling as a
thunderclap out of a cloudless sky, directly toward the nearest bird
bounded a tall brown figure, silent as a phantom. For a second the
entire flock stared in dumb paralytic surprise; then following there
came a note of terror from eight and twenty throats that rose as one
voice, that over the now silent prairie could have been heard for
miles. It was the signal for action, for escape, and, terror-mad, they
broke into motion. But a flock of great Canada geese cannot, like quail,
spring directly a-wing. They must first gather momentum. This they
attempted to gain--in its accomplishment all but one succeeded. That
one, the leader, the sentinel, was too near. Almost before that first
note of terror had left his throat the man was upon him. Ere he could
rise two relentless hands had fastened upon his beating wings and held
him prisoner. Hissing, struggling, he put up the best fight he could;
but it was useless. "Honk! honk! honk! honk! honk! honk!" shrilled the
flock now safe in the air. "Honk! honk! honk!" as with wings and feet
they climbed into the sky. "Honk! honk! honk!" softer and softer. "Honk!
honk! honk!" for the last time, faint as an echo; and they were gone.
Behind them the human and the wild thing his prisoner stood staring at
each other alone.
For a long, long time neither moved. Its first desperate effort to
escape past, the bird ceased to struggle, stood passive in its place;
passive as the man himself had remained there on the ground a few hours
before. Its long neck swayed here and there continuously, restlessly,
and its throat was a-throb; but no muscle of the body stirred. It had
made its fight--and lost. For the time being resistance was fatuous, and
it accepted the inevitable. Silent as its captor, it awaited the move of
the conqueror. It would resist again when the move came, resist to the
last ounce of its strength; but until then in instinctive wisdom it
would husband its energy.
Yet that move was very slow in coming. It was the time of day when
ordinarily the herder collected his drove and returned toward the home
corral; still he showed no intention of haste. The broncho was shaking
his head at intervals restlessly; too well trained to leave, yet
impatient as a hungry child for the return--and was ignored. For the
time being the man seemed to have forgotten all external considerations.
Not savagely nor cruelly, but with a sort of fascination he stood gazing
at this wild thing in his power. For a long, long time he did nothing
more, merely looked at it; looked admiringly, intimately. No trace of
blood hunger was in his face, no lust to kill; but pure
appreciation--and something more; something that made the two almost
kin. And they were much alike; almost startlingly alike. Each was
graceful in every movement, in every line. Each was of its kind physical
perfection. Each unmistakably bore a message of the wild; of solitude,
of magnificent distances. Each was a part of its setting; as much so as
the all-surrounding silence. Last of all, each stood for one quality
dominant, one desire overtowering all others; and that was freedom,
Long as it was they stood there so, the bird was true to its instinct of
passive inaction. It was the human that made the first move. Gently,
slowly, one hand freed itself, stroked the silky soft plumage; stroked
it intimately, almost lovingly--as an animal mother caresses its young.
The man did not speak, made no sound, merely repeated the motion again
and again. Under the touch the restless head became still, the watchful
black eyes more watchful. That was all. Slowly as it had moved before,
the man's hand shifted anew, passed down, down, the glossy throat to the
breast--paused over the heart of the wild thing. There it remained, and
for the first time a definite expression came into the mask-like face; a
look of pity, of genuine contrition. A moment the hand lay there; then,
childish as it may seem, absurd, if you please, the man spoke aloud.
"You're afraid of me, deathly afraid, aren't you, birdie?" he queried
softly. "You think because I'm bigger than you and a cannibal, I'm going
to kill you." Kneeling, he looked fair into the black eyes--deep,
mysterious as the wild itself. "You think this, and still you don't
grovel, don't make a sound. You're brave, birdie, braver than most men."
He paused, and one by one his hands loosened their grip. "I'm proud of
you; so proud that I'm going to say good-bye." He straightened to his
full height. Unconsciously his arms folded across his chest. "Go,
birdie; you're free."
A moment longer there was inaction. Unbelieving, still a captive, the
great bird stood there motionless as before; then of a sudden it
understood; it was free. By some chance, some Providence, this great
animal, its captor, had lost the mastery, and it was free.
Simultaneously with the knowledge the pent-up energy of the last minutes
went active, fairly explosive. With a mighty rush it was away; feet and
wings beating the earth, the air. Swifter and swifter it went, gaining
momentum with each second. It barely touched the frost-brown prairie; it
cleared it entirely, it rose, rose, with mighty sweeps of mighty wings.
Oh, it was free! free! free! "Honk! honk!" Free! free! "Honk! honk!
Like a statue, silent again as death, the man watched as the dark spot
on the horizon grew dimmer and dimmer until it faded at last into the
THE CURSE OF THE CONQUERED
It was late, very late on the prairie, when How Landor returned that
evening. The herd safely corralled for the night, he rode slowly toward
the ranch house, and, without leaving the pony's back, opened and closed
the gate of the barb wire fence surrounding the yard and approached the
house. There was a bright light in the living-room, and, still without
dismounting, he paused before the uncurtained window and looked in. Mrs.
Landor, looking even more faded and helpless than usual, sat holding her
hands at one side of the sheet-iron heater, and opposite her, his feet
on the top rim of the stove, sat Craig. The man was smoking a cigarette,
and even through the tiny-paned glass the air of the room looked blue.
Obviously the visitor and his aunt were not finding conversation easy,
and the former appeared distinctly bored. Neither Landor himself nor the
girl was anywhere visible, and, after a moment, the spectator moved on
around the corner. The dining-room as he passed was dark, likewise the
kitchen, and the rider made the complete circuit of the house, pausing
at last under a certain window on the second floor facing the south. It
was the girl's room, and, although the shade was drawn, a dim light was
burning behind. For perhaps a minute the man on the barebacked broncho
hesitated, looking up; then rolling his wide-brimmed hat into a cylinder
he moved very close to the weather-boarded wall. The building was low,
and, by stretching a bit, the tip of the roll in his hand reached the
second story. He tapped twice on the bottom of the pane.
No answer, but of a sudden the room went dark.
Tap! tap! repeated the hat brim gently.
Still no answer.
Again the man hesitated, and, the night air being a bit frosty, the pony
"Bess," said a low voice, "it is I, How. Won't you tell me good-night?"
This time there was response. The curtain lifted and the sash was
opened; a face appeared, very white against the black background.
"Good-night, How," said a voice obediently.
The man settled back in his seat and the sombrero was unrolled.
"Nothing wrong, is there, Bess?" he hesitated. "You're not sick?"
"No, there's nothing wrong," monotonously. "I'm a bit tired, is all."
For a long minute the man said nothing, merely sat there, his black head
bare in the starlight, looking up at her. Repressed human that he was,
there seemed to him nothing now to say, nothing adequate. Meanwhile the
pony was growing more and more impatient. A tiny hoof beat at the
half-frozen ground rhythmically.
"All right, then, Bess," he said at last. "You mustn't sit there in the
window. It's getting chilly. Good-night."
The girl drew back until her face was in shadow.
"Good-night," she echoed for the second time, and the shade closed as
For five minutes longer the Indian sat as he was, bare of head,
motionless; but the light did not return, nor did he hear a sound, and
at last he rode slowly out the gate and toward his own quarters.
The place where he lived was exactly a half mile from the Buffalo Butte
ranch house, and due north. Originally a one-room shack, grudgingly
built according to government requirements to prove up on a homestead,
it had recently been enlarged by the addition of a second larger room,
and as a whole the place further improved by the building of a sod and
weather-board barn. The reason for this was obvious, to one acquainted
with the tenant's habits particularly so. Just how long the Indian had
remained separate, just why he had first made the change, Landor himself
could hardly have told. Suffice it to say it had been for years, and in
all that time, even in the coldest weather, the voluntary exile had
never lived under a roof. Primitive or evolved as it might be, as youth
and as man, the Indian was a tent-dweller. Just now the little house was
being fitted up for occupancy, How himself doing it at odd moments of
the day and at evenings; but as yet he still lived, as always, under
eight by ten feet of canvas near at hand.
A lighted tent stands out very distinctly by contrast against a dark
horizon, and almost before he had left the ranch house yard the man on
the impatient, mouse-coloured broncho knew that he had company; yet,
characteristic in his every action, he did not hurry. Methodically he
put up the pony in the new barn, fed and bedded him for the night. From
the adjoining stall, out of the darkness, there came a nasal puppyish
whine and the protest of a straining chain. Had it been daylight, an
observer would have seen a woolly grey ball with a pointed nose and a
pair of sharp eyes tugging at the end of that tether; but as it was, two
gleaming eyes, very close together, were all that were visible. It was
to the owner of these eyes that the man gave the scraps from his lunch
remaining in the saddlebag. For it, as for the pony, he made a bed;
then--though the little beast was only a grey prairie wolf, it was a
baby and lonely--he knelt down and for a moment laid his own face
against the other's softly shaggy face.
When, a bit later, he arose and went toward the light there was a moist
spot on his cheek where a rough little tongue had inscribed its
On the tent wall was a shadow such as that made by a big man with his
back to the light, and as the newcomer opened the flap and stepped
inside the maker of the shadow roused himself in the manner of one
whose thoughts had been far away.
"You're late to-night," he commented.
Characteristic of the two men, no explanation was offered or expected,
and the subject dropped.
There was a small soft-coal stove in one corner, and in silence the
Indian threw in fresh fuel. The lantern hanging opposite was burning
low, and, turning it higher, he shifted the tin reflector so that the
light would play on the scene of operations. Leaving the tent for a
moment, he returned with a young grouse, and, dressing it skilfully, put
it in a skillet to fry. From the chest where he had been sitting he
produced a couple of cold boiled potatoes and sliced them into the
opposite side of the same pan. He did not hurry, he rather seemed to be
dawdling; yet almost before the observer awoke to the fact that supper
was under preparation a tiny folding table with a turkey red cloth was
set, the odour of coffee--cheap coffee, yet surprisingly fragrant--was
in the air, and the bird and potatoes were temptingly brown. It was
almost uncanny the way this man accomplished things. Landor himself
never ceased to marvel. How always seemed unconscious of what he was
doing, seemed always thinking of something else; yet he never wasted a
motion, and when the necessity arose the thing required was done. It was
so in small things. It was identical in large.
Up to this time, since that first perfunctory greeting not a word had
been spoken. Now, the meal complete, its maker halted hospitably.
"Better join me," he invited simply. "You must have had an early supper.
I noticed the kitchen was dark at the house."
"Yes. I'm not hungry, though." The big man sank lower into his seat
wearily. "I'm not feeling very well to-night."
In silence the younger man sat down to eat alone. He did not press his
invitation, he did not express sympathy at the other's admission. Either
would have been superfluous. Instead he ate with the hearty appetite of
a healthy human, and thereafter, swiftly and methodically as he had
prepared the meal, cleared the table and put all in order. Then at last,
the fire replenished and a couple of long-haired buffalo robes thrown
within the radius of its heat, he stretched full length thereon in the
perfect contentment of one whose labor for the day is done, and awaited
the something he knew had brought the other to him at this unusual hour.
"There's a pipe and tobacco in the drawer of the little table at your
right," he assisted.
Landor roused with a trace of surprise.
"I didn't know you ever smoked," he commented.
"I don't," simply. Again there was no suggestion of the superfluous, the
Nervously, almost jerkily, Landor filled the brier bowl and pressed the
brown flakes tight with his little finger. The match he lit crackled
explosively, and he started at the unexpected sound as one whose nerves
were on edge. The pipe aglow, he still sat for a moment puffing hard.
"How," he initiated then abruptly, "I wish you would do me a favour.
Will you promise me?"
The younger man did not hesitate, did not question. "If in my power,
yes, sir," he said.
That was all, yet better than a complete chapter it told the relation of
the two men; the unquestioning confidence of the younger, the trace of
almost patriarchal respect that never left his manner when, addressing
the elder. "If in my power, yes, sir."
"It isn't much I'm going to ask," continued Landor hurriedly. "It's
simply that you and Bess be married at once instead of waiting until the
day set." Puff, puff went the pipe as though the speaker were uncertain
whether or no to say more. "I have a particular reason for wishing it,"
he completed inadequately.
For a moment the Indian hesitated; but even then no question was voiced;
there was no probing of the confidence the other preferred not to give.
"I will speak to Bess to-morrow if you wish," he said.
Landor lit another match absently and held it to the already glowing
bowl; then threw it away, unconscious of what he had done.
"Another thing," he introduced hurriedly. "I'm pretty strong now, but
nevertheless I'm getting to be an old man, and so to-day while I was in
town I had Bob Manning witness my will. I know it's all form, but I feel
better to have things settled." With forced matter of factness he
knocked the burned contents of the pipe into the grate and filled the
bowl afresh. "Mary isn't used to having any responsibility, so I left
practically everything to Bess. I know that if anything should happen to
me you'd take care of her mother."
No answer, though Landor waited expectantly.
"I don't need to ask your promise to be good to Bess." Very different
from his usual peremptory self was the big rancher to-night, very
obvious, pathetically so, his effort to appear natural. "I know you'll
make her happy, my boy."
Even yet there was no response, and the visitor shifted uncomfortably.
As well as he knew his own name he knew that his secret was secret no
longer. Yet with the instinct of the wild thing that hides itself to die
alone he avoided direct mention of the fact, direct wording of the
inevitable. But something in the attitude of the motionless figure
before him prevented further dissimulation. Some influence urged him to
hasten the _denouement_ which he knew was but postponed. With an effort
he straightened in his seat and for the first time met the other's black
"I did right, don't you think, How?" he questioned directly.
"Right, perhaps; I don't know." A pause. "What I do know is that I'm
sorry you did as you did."
"Yes, sir. Very sorry."
The light from the tin reflector had been playing full upon the Indian's
face, and now, rising, he shifted it until the corner by the stove was
"I will tell you why." He returned to his place and stretched himself as
before, his hands locked beneath his head. "You are a rich man, Mr.
Landor, and Bess is human. She doesn't know what money is yet, but you
will compel her to learn. From what I have read and the little I have
seen, I think she would be happier if she never knew."
For the third time Landor filled the pipe bowl and lit it with a
fragment of coal from the grate.
"I don't see why, How," he refuted.
"You do, though, sir."
"No. Tell me."
There was a long pause, so long that Landor fancied the other would not
answer; then of a sudden he found the intense black eyes fixed upon him
"The reason is because not only Bess but others are human. As we are now
I can make her happy, very happy. I know it because--I love her." He
paused, and into the tent there came the long-drawn-out wail of the baby
prisoner. Silence returned. "As surely as that little wolf is lonely,
Bess will know the trouble money brings if you do as you intend. Not
myself, but other men will teach her."
Landor was not smoking now. The pipe had gone dead in his fingers.
"Once more I ask why, How?"
The other's eyes did not shift, nor a muscle of his body.
"Because she is white and they are white, and I--am an Indian."
At last it had come: the thing Landor had tried to avoid, had hitherto
succeeded in avoiding. Yet face to face the big man could ignore it no
longer. It was true, as true as human nature; and he knew it was true.
Other men, brothers of his own race, would do this thing--as they would
do anything for money; and he, Landor, he who had raised her from a
child, who had adopted her as his own daughter, he it was who would make
Involuntarily the big man got to his feet. He did not attempt to move
about, he did not speak. There, standing, he fought himself inch by
inch; battled against the knowledge of the inevitable that had been
dogging him day by day, hour by hour. A long time he stood so, his great
hands locked, his face toward the blank tent wall opposite; then at last
"I realise what you mean, How," he said swiftly, "and understand the way
you feel. God knows I wish it were different, wish I did not believe
what you say true; but things are as the are. What we have to do now is
the best thing possible under the circumstances." He sat down in the
chair again heavily, his hands still locked in his lap. "If wrong has
been done I am to blame, I myself, in raising you and Bess together. I
might have known that it was inevitable, you two here alone to care for
each other; but I was poor then, and I never thought that Bess--"
The big man halted. For the first time he realised the admission of what
he had been saying, the inevitable implication--and he was silent. For
seconds likewise the Indian was still; but in them he was looking at the
other steadily, in a way he had never looked at him before, with an
intensity that was haunting.
"So you, too, feel that way," he said at last slowly. There was no anger
in the voice, nor menace; merely wonder, and, yes, pathos--terrible,
gripping pathos. "I knew that everyone else felt so--everyone except
Bess herself; but you--you--I did not know that before, Mr. Landor."
Mute as before the big man sat motionless, listening. From the bottom of
his soul he wished to say something in refutation, in self-defence; but
he could not. There was nothing to say.
"No, I never even dreamed of such a thing," went on the repressed voice,
"not even when at first you were slow to give your consent to our
marriage. I fancied it was merely because you thought me impractical,
because I cared nothing for a life that was different, was not my own.
Nor again, even a bit ago when you asked me to promise--what I did
promise--I did not suspicion such a thing. I thought it a compliment,
the sincerest compliment I had ever received in my life: the fact that
you should trust me so, with all that was dear to you in the world."
Just perceptibly he halted, but his eyes did not leave the white man's
face. "But I see it all now. I was blind before, but I see at last. You
are like the rest, like everyone with a white skin. The fact that we've
lived together for half a generation makes no difference. You're square,
square to the end. You even like me in a way. You've given your word and
won't go back on it; but nevertheless you're sorry. Even while you urge
us to marry, to have the thing over, to have a responsibility off your
mind, you feel you are sacrificing Bess to an inferior." He halted for a
second, and even at this time Landor was conscious that it was
infinitely the longest speech he had ever heard the man make. "I don't
blame you, Mr. Landor; you can't help it; it's the instinct of your
race; but nevertheless, nevertheless--"
The voice halted abruptly, repressedly. The intense black eyes were of a
sudden looking directly past the other, straight up at the roof of the
tent. No power on earth could have made him complete that sentence, made
him admit the deadly hurt it suggested. From the unusual confidence of a
bit ago he merely lapsed into the normal, his own repressed, impassive
self. Yet as plainly as though he had spoken Landor recognised the
difference, realised as well that while outwardly there would be no
change, from this moment on so long as they both lived the confidence of
the Indian would be as dead to him as though he had ceased to exist. He
had seen it happen before. He knew the signs. With the knowledge for the
first time in the years they two had lived together he realised how much
after all he had grown to depend upon this laconic human, how much he
had lost. It was the last drop in his cup of bitterness, the crushing
straw. His great ungainly body dropped forward until his face was hid in
his hands. On the walls of the tent a distorted, exaggerated shadow
marked the movement of his shoulders as they rose and fell with his
deep, irregular breathing. Again silence fell upon them, silence that by
word of mouth was to remain unbroken. In it from the stable there
sounded again the wail of the lonely baby, and a moment later, muffled,
echo-like from the distance, the answering call of one of its own kind
free upon the infinite prairie; but apparently neither man noticed,
neither man cared--and the silence returned. Long minutes passed. The
fire in the stove burned lower and lower. Into the tent crept a
suggestion of the coolness without. Then at last Landor roused. Without
a word he put on his hat and buttoned his coat. His fingers were
unnaturally clumsy and he found the task difficult. Just for a moment
he had a wild idea of asking the other's forgiveness, of attempting an
explanation where none was possible; but he realised it would but make
matters worse, and desisted. The Indian, too, had arisen, and
repressedly courteous, stood ready to open the flap of the tent for the
other to pass. For a moment, the last moment they were ever to see each
other alive, they stood so, each waiting for the other to speak, each
knowing that the other would not speak; then heavily, shufflingly,
Landor took a step forward.
The tent curtain opened before him, was held back while he passed; then
closed again, shutting him out.
For five long dragging minutes after he was gone the other man remained
as he stood, motionless as a bronze statue, as an inanimate thing. The
kerosene lamp was burning low now and sputtered dismally; but he did not
notice, did not hear. For the third time, tremulous against the
background of night and of silence, came the wail of the lonely little
captive. It was a kindred sound, an appealing sound, and at last the
figure responded. Hatless as he was he left the tent, returned a minute
later with something tagging at his heels: a woolly, grey, bright-eyed
something, happy as a puppy at release and companionship. Methodically
the man banked the coal fire and put out the lantern. He did not make a
bed, did not undress. Instead, weary as Landor himself, he dropped amid
the buffalo robes, lay still. "Sniff, sniff," sounded a pointed,
inquiring nose in the darkness, "sniff, sniff, sniff." There was no
response, and becoming bolder, its owner crept close to the face of the
silent being on the ground, squirmed a moment contentedly--and likewise
THE TREE OF KNOWLEDGE