Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
Perhaps there were ten of them--these galloping dots were hard to count--down in the distant bottom across the river. Their swiftly moving dust hung with them close, thinning to a yellow veil when they halted short. They clustered a moment, then parted like beads, and went wide asunder on the plain. They veered singly over the level, merged in twos and threes, apparently racing, shrank together like elastic, and broke ranks again to swerve over the stretching waste. From this visioned pantomime presently came a sound, a tiny shot. The figures were too far for discerning which fired it. It evidently did no harm, and was repeated at once. A babel of diminutive explosions followed, while the horsemen galloped on in unexpected circles. Soon, for no visible reason, the dots ran together, bunching compactly. The shooting stopped, the dust rose thick again from the crowded hoofs, cloaking the group, and so passed back and was lost among the silent barren hills.
Four emigrants had watched this from the high bleak rim of the Big Bend. They stood where the flat of the desert broke and tilted down in grooves and bulges deep to the lurking Columbia. Empty levels lay opposite, narrowing up into the high country.
"That's the Colville Reservation across the river from us," said the man.
"Another!" sighed his wife.
"The last Indians we'll strike. Our trail to the Okanagon goes over a corner of it."
"We're going to those hills?" The mother looked at her little girl and back where the cloud had gone.
"Only a corner, Liza. The ferry puts us over on it, and we've got to go by the ferry or stay this side of the Columbia. You wouldn't want to start a home here?"
They had driven twenty-one hundred miles at a walk. Standing by them were the six horses with the wagon, and its tunneled roof of canvas shone duskily on the empty verge of the wilderness. A dry windless air hung over the table-land of the Big Bend, but a sound rose from somewhere, floating voluminous upon the silence, and sank again.
"Rapids!" The man pointed far up the giant rut of the stream to where a streak of white water twinkled at the foot of the hills. "We've struck the river too high," he added.
"Then we don't cross here?" said the woman, quickly.
"No. By what they told me the cabin and the ferry ought to be five miles down."
Her face fell. "Only five miles! I was wondering, John--Wouldn't there be a way round for the children to--"
"Now, mother," interrupted the husband, "that ain't like you. We've crossed plenty Indian reservations this trip already."
"I don't want to go round," the little girl said. "Father, don't make me go round."
Mart, the boy, with a loose hook of hair hanging down to his eyes from his hat, did not trouble to speak. He had been disappointed in the westward journey to find all the Indians peaceful. He knew which way he should go now, and he went to the wagon to look once again down the clean barrel of his rifle.
"Why, Nancy, you don't like Indians?" said her mother.
"Yes, I do. I like chiefs."
Mrs. Clallam looked across the river. "It was so strange, John, the way they acted. It seems to get stranger, thinking about it."
"They didn't see us. They didn't have a notion--"
"But if we're going right over?"
"We're not going over there, Liza. That quick water's the Mahkin Rapids, and our ferry's clear down below from this place."
"What could they have been after, do you think?"
"Those chaps? Oh, nothing, I guess. They weren't killing anybody."
"Playing cross-tag," said Mart.
"I'd like to know, John, how you know they weren't killing anybody. They might have been trying to."
"Then we're perfectly safe, Liza. We can set and let 'em kill us all day."
"Well, I don't think it's any kind of way to behave, running around shooting right off your horse."
"And Fourth of July over too," said Mart from the wagon. He was putting cartridges into the magazine of his Winchester. His common-sense told him that those horsemen would not cross the river, but the notion of a night attack pleased the imagination of young sixteen.
"It was the children," said Mrs. Clallam. "And nobody's getting me any wood. How am I going to cook supper? Stir yourselves!"
They had carried water in the wagon, and father and son went for wood. Some way down the hill they came upon a gully with some dead brush, and climbed back with this. Supper was eaten on the ground, the horses were watered, given grain, and turned loose to find what pickings they might in the lean growth; and dusk had not turned to dark when the emigrants were in their beds on the soft dust. The noise of the rapids dominated the air with distant sonority, and the children slept at once, the boy with his rifle along his blanket's edge. John Clallam lay till the moon rose hard and brilliant, and then quietly, lest his wife should hear from her bed by the wagon, went to look across the river. Where the downward slope began he came upon her. She had been watching for some time. They were the only objects in that bald moonlight. No shrub grew anywhere that reached to the waist, and the two figures drew together on the lonely hill. They stood hand in hand and motionless, except that the man bent over the woman and kissed her. When she spoke of Iowa they had left, he talked of the new region of their hopes, the country that lay behind the void hills opposite, where it would not be a struggle to live. He dwelt on the home they would make, and her mood followed his at last, till husband and wife were building distant plans together. The Dipper had swung low when he remarked that they were a couple of fools, and they went back to their beds. Cold came over the ground, and their musings turned to dreams. Next morning both were ashamed of their fears.
By four the wagon was on the move. Inside, Nancy's voice was heard discussing with her mother whether the school-teacher where they were going to live now would have a black dog with a white tail, that could swim with a basket in his mouth. They crawled along the edge of the vast descent, making slow progress, for at times the valley widened and they receded far from the river, and then circuitously drew close again where the slant sank abruptly. When the ferryman's cabin came in sight, the canvas interior of the wagon was hot in the long-risen sun. The lay of the land had brought them close above the stream, but no one seemed to be at the cabin on the other side, nor was there any sign of a ferry. Groves of trees lay in the narrow folds of the valley, and the water swept black between untenanted shores. Nothing living could be seen along the scant levels of the bottom-land. Yet there stood the cabin as they had been told, the only one between the rapids and the Okanagon; and bright in the sun the Colville Reservation confronted them. They came upon tracks going down over the hill, marks of wagons and horses, plain in the soil, and charred sticks, with empty cans, lying where camps had been. Heartened by this proof that they were on the right road, John Clallam turned his horses over the brink. The slant steepened suddenly in a hundred yards, tilting the wagon so no brake or shoe would hold it if it moved farther.
"All out!" said Clallam. "Either folks travel light in this country or they unpack." He went down a little way. "That's the trail too," he said. "Wheel marks down there, and the little bushes are snapped off."
Nancy slipped out. "I'm unpacked," said she. "Oh, what a splendid hill to go down! We'll go like anything."
"Yes, that surely is the trail," Clallam pursued. "I can see away down where somebody's left a wheel among them big stones. But where does he keep his ferry-boat? And where does he keep himself?"
"Now, John, if it's here we're to go down, don't you get to studying over something else. It'll be time enough after we're at the bottom. Nancy, here's your chair." Mrs. Clallam began lifting the lighter things from the wagon.
"Mart," said the father, "we'll have to chain lock the wheels after we're empty. I guess we'll start with the worst. You and me'll take the stove apart and get her down somehow. We're in luck to have open country and no timber to work through. Drop that bedding mother! Yourself is all you're going to carry. We'll pack that truck on the horses."
"Then pack it now and let me start first. I'll make two trips while you're at the stove."
"There's the man!" said Nancy.
A man--a white man--was riding up the other side of the river. Near the cabin he leaned to see something on the ground. Ten yards more and he was off the horse and picked up something and threw it away. He loitered along, picking up and throwing till he was at the door. He pushed it open and took a survey of the interior. Then he went to his horse, and when they saw him going away on the road he had come, they set up a shouting, and Mart fired a signal. The rider dived from his saddle and made headlong into the cabin, where the door clapped to like a trap. Nothing happened further, and the horse stood on the bank.
"That's the funniest man I ever saw," said Nancy.
"They're all funny over there," said Mart. "I'll signal him again." But the cabin remained shut, and the deserted horse turned, took a few first steels of freedom, then trotted briskly down the river.
"Why, then, he don't belong there at all," said Nancy.
"Wait, child, till we know something about it."
"She's liable to be right, Liza. The horse, anyway, don't belong, or he'd not run off. That's good judgment, Nancy. Right good for a little girl."
"I am six years old," said Nancy, "and I know lots more than that."
"Well, let's get mother and the bedding started down. It'll be noon before we know it."
There were two pack-saddles in the wagon, ready against such straits as this. The rolls were made, balanced as side packs, and circled with the swing-ropes, loose cloths, clothes, frying-pans, the lantern, and the axe tossed in to fill the gap in the middle, canvas flung over the whole, and the diamond-hitch hauled taut on the first pack, when a second rider appeared across the river. He came out of a space between the opposite hills, into which the trail seemed to turn, and he was leading the first man's horse. The heavy work before them was forgotten, and the Clallams sat down in a row to watch.
"He's stealing it," said Mrs. Clallam.
"Then the other man will come out and catch him," said Nancy.
Mart corrected them. "A man never steals horses that way. He drives them up in the mountains, where the owner don't travel much."
The new rider had arrived at the bank and came steadily along till opposite the door, where he paused and looked up and down the river.
"See him stoop," said Clallam the father. "He's seen the tracks don't go further."
"I guess he's after the other one," added Clallam the son.
"Which of them is the ferry-man?" said Mrs. Clallam.
The man had got off and gone straight inside the cabin. In the black of the doorway appeared immediately the first man, dangling in the grip of the other, who kicked him along to the horse. There the victim mounted his own animal and rode back down the river. The chastiser was returning to the cabin, when Mart fired his rifle. The man stopped short, saw the emigrants, and waved his hand. He dismounted and came to the edge of the water. They could hear he was shouting to them, but it was too far for the words to carry. From a certain reiterated cadence, he seemed to be saying one thing. John and Mart tried to show they did not understand, and indicated their wagon, walking to it and getting aboard. On that the stranger redoubled his signs and shootings, ran to the cabin, where he opened and shut the door several times, came back, and pointed to the hills.
"He's going away, and can't ferry us over," said Mrs. Clallam.
"And the other man thought he'd gone," said Nancy, "and he came and caught him in his house."
"This don't suit me," Clallam remarked. "Mart, we'll go to the shore and talk to him."
When the man saw them descending the hill, he got on his horse and swam the stream. It carried him below, but he was waiting for them when they reached the level. He was tall, shambling, and bony, and roved over them with a pleasant, restless eye.
"Good-morning," said he. "Fine weather. I was baptized Edward Wilson, but you inquire for Wild-Goose Jake. Them other names are retired and pensioned. I expect you seen me kick him?"
"Couldn't help seeing."
"Oh, I ain't blamin' you, son, not a bit, I ain't. He can't bile water without burnin' it, and his toes turns in, and he's blurry round the finger-nails. He's jest kultus, he is. Hev some?" With a furtive smile that often ran across his lips, he pulled out a flat bottle, and all took an acquaintanceship swallow, while the Clallams explained their journey. "How many air there of yu' slidin' down the hill?" he inquired, shifting his eye to the wagon.
"I've got my wife and little girl up there. That's all of us."
"Ladies along! Then I'll step behind this bush." He was dragging his feet from his waterlogged boots. "Hear them suck now?" he commented. "Didn't hev to think about a wetting onced. But I ain't young any more. There, I guess I ain't caught a chill." He had whipped his breeches off and spread them on the sand. "Now you arrive down this here hill from Ioway, and says you: 'Where's that ferry? 'Ain't we hit the right spot?' Well, that's what you hev hit. You're all right, and the spot is hunky-dory, and it's the durned old boat hez made the mistake, begosh! A cloud busted in this country, and she tore out fer the coast, and the joke's on her! You'd ought to hev heerd her cable snap! Whoosh, if that wire didn't screech! Jest last week it was, and the river come round the corner on us in a wave four feet high, same as a wall. I was up here on business, and seen the whole thing. So the ferry she up and bid us good-bye, and lit out for Astoria with her cargo. Beggin' pardon, hev you tobacco, for mine's in my wet pants? Twenty-four hogs and the driver, and two Sheeny drummers bound to the mines with brass jew'lry, all gone to hell, for they didn't near git to Astoria. They sank in the sight of all, as we run along the bank. I seen their arms wave, and them hogs rolling over like 'taters bilin' round in the kettle." Wild-Goose Jake's words came slow and went more slowly as he looked at the river and spoke, but rather to himself. "It warn't long, though. I expect it warn't three minutes till the water was all there was left there. My stars, what a lot of it! And I might hev been part of that cargo, easy as not. Freight behind time was all that come between me and them that went. So, we'd hev gone bobbin' down that flood, me and my piah-chuck."
"Your piah-chuck?" Mart inquired.
The man faced the boy like a rat, but the alertness faded instantly from his eye, and his lip slackened into a slipshod smile. "Why, yes, sonny, me and my grub-stake. You've been to school, I'll bet, but they didn't learn yu' Chinook, now, did they? Chinook's the lingo us white folks trade in with the Siwashes, and we kinder falls into it, talking along. I was thinkin' how but for delay me and my grubstake--provisions, ye know--that was consigned to me clear away at Spokane, might hev been drownded along with them hogs and Hebrews. That's what the good folks calls a dispensation of the Sauklee Tyee!--Providence, ye know, in Chinook. 'One shall be taken and the other left.' And that's what beats me--they got left; and I'm a bigger sinner than them drummers, for I'm ten years older than they was. And the poor hogs was better than any of us. That can't be gainsaid. Oh no! oh no!"
"I mean it, son. Some day such thoughts will come to you." He stared at the river unsteadily with his light gray eyes.
"Well, if the ferry's gone," said John Clallam, getting on his legs, "we'll go on down to the next one."
"Hold on! hold on! Did you never hear tell of a raft? I'll put you folks over this river. Wait till I git my pants on," said he, stalking nimbly to where they lay.
"It's just this way," Clallam continued; "we're bound for the upper Okanagon country, and we must get in there to build our cabin before cold weather."
"Don't you worry about that. It'll take you three days to the next ferry, while you and me and the boy kin build a raft right here by to-morrow noon. You hev an axe, I expect? Well, here is timber close, and your trail takes over to my place on the Okanagon, where you've got another crossin' to make. And all this time we're keeping the ladies waitin' up the hill! We'll talk business as we go along; and, see here, if I don't suit yu', or fail in my bargain, you needn't to pay me a cent."
He began climbing, and on the way they came to an agreement. Wild-Goose Jake bowed low to Mrs. Clallam, and as low to Nancy, who held her mother's dress and said nothing, keeping one finger in her mouth. All began emptying the wagon quickly, and tins of baking-powder, with rocking-chairs and flowered quilts, lay on the hill. Wild-Goose Jake worked hard, and sustained a pleasant talk by himself. His fluency was of an eagerness that parried interruption or inquiry.
"So you've come acrosst the Big Bend! Ain't it a cosey place? Reminds me of them medicine pictures, 'Before and After Using.' The Big Bend's the way this world looked before using--before the Bible fixed it up, ye know. Ever seen specimens of Big Bend produce, ma'am? They send 'em East. Grain and plums and such. The feller that gathered them curiosities hed hunt forty square miles apiece for 'em. But it's good-payin' policy, and it fetches lots of settlers to the Territory. They come here hummin' and walks around the wilderness, and 'Where's the plums?' says they. 'Can't you see I'm busy?' says the land agent; and out they goes. But you needn't to worry, ma'am. The country where you're goin' ain't like that. There's water and timber and rich soil and mines. Billy Moon has gone there--he's the man run the ferry. When she wrecked, he pulled his freight for the new mines at Loop Loop."
"Did the man live in the little house?" said Nancy.
"Right there, miss. And nobody lives there any more, so you take it if you're wantin' a place of your own."
"What made you kick the other man if it wasn't your house?"
"Well, now, if it ain't a good one on him to hev you see that! I'll tell him a little girl seen that, and maybe he'll feel the disgrace. Only he's no account, and don't take any experience the reg'lar way. He's nigh onto thirty, and you'll not believe me, I know, but he ain't never even learned to spit right."
"Is he yours?" inquired Nancy.
"Gosh! no, miss--beggin' pardon. He's jest workin' for me."
"Did he know you were coming to kick him when he hid?"
"Hid? What's that?" The man's eyes narrowed again into points. "You folks seen him hide?" he said to Clallam.
"Why, of course; didn't he say anything?"
"He didn't get much chance," muttered Jake. "What did he hide at?"
"I guess so," said Mart. "We took him for the ferry-man, and when he couldn't hear us--"
"What was he doin'?"
"Just riding along. And so I fired to signal him, and he flew into the door."
"So you fired, and he flew into the door. Oh, h'm." Jake continued to pack the second horse, attending carefully to the ropes. "I never knowed he was that weak in the upper story," he said, in about five minutes. "Knew his brains was tenas, but didn't suspect he were that weak in the upper story. You're sure he didn't go in till he heerd your gun?"
"He'd taken a look and was going away," said Mart.
"Now ain't some people jest odd! Now you follow me, and I'll tell you folks what I'd figured he'd been at. Billy Moon he lived in that cabin, yu' see. And he had his stuff there, yu, see, and run the ferry, and a kind of a store. He kept coffee and canned goods and star-plug and this and that to supply the prospectin' outfits that come acrosst on his ferry on the trail to the mines. Then a cloud-burst hits his boat and his job's spoiled on the river, and he quits for the mines, takin' his stuff along--do you follow me? But he hed to leave some, and he give me the key, and I was to send the balance after him next freight team that come along my way. Leander--that's him I was kickin'--he knowed about it, and he'll steal a hot stove he's that dumb. He knowed there was stuff here of Billy Moon's. Well, last night we hed some horses stray, and I says to him, 'Andy, you get up by daylight and find them.' And he gits. But by seven the horses come in all right of theirselves, and Mr. Leander he was missin'; and says I to myself, 'I'll ketch you, yu' blamed hobo.' And I thought I had ketched him, yu' see. Weren't that reasonable of me? Wouldn't any of you folks hev drawed that conclusion?" The man had fallen into a wheedling tone as he studied their faces. "Jest put yourselves in my place," he said.
"Then what was he after?" said Mart.
"Stealin'. But he figured he'd come again."
"He didn't like my gun much."
"Guns always skeers him when he don't know the parties shootin'. That's his dumbness. Maybe he thought I was after him; he's jest that distrustful. Begosh! we'll have the laugh on him when he finds he run from a little girl."
"He didn't wait to see who he was running from," said Mart.
"Of course he didn't. Andy hears your gun and he don't inquire further, but hits the first hole he kin crawl into. That's Andy! That's the kind of boy I hev to work for me. All the good ones goes where you're goin', where the grain grows without irrigation and the blacktail deer comes out on the hill and asks yu' to shoot 'em for dinner. Who's ready for the bottom? If I stay talkin' the sun'll go down on us. Don't yu' let me get started agin. Just you shet me off twiced anyway each twenty-four hours."
He began to descend with his pack-horse and the first load. All afternoon they went up and down over the hot bare face of the hill, until the baggage, heavy and light, was transported and dropped piecemeal on the shore. The torn-out insides of their home littered the stones with familiar shapes and colors, and Nancy played among them, visiting each parcel and folded thing.
"There's the red table-cover!" she exclaimed, "and the big coffee-grinder. And there's our table, and the hole Mart burned in it." She took a long look at this. "Oh, how I wish I could see our pump!" she said, and began to cry.
"You talk to her, mother," said Clallam. "She's tuckered out."
The men returned to bring the wagon. With chain-locked wheels, and tilted half over by the cross slant of the mountain, it came heavily down, reeling and sliding on the slippery yellow weeds, and grinding deep ruts across the faces of the shelving beds of gravel. Jake guided it as he could, straining back on the bits of the two hunched horses when their hoofs glanced from the stones that rolled to the bottom; and the others leaned their weight on a pole lodged between the spokes, making a balance to the wagon, for it leaned the other way so far that at any jolt the two wheels left the ground. When it was safe at the level of the stream, dusk had come and a white flat of mist lay along the river, striping its course among the gaunt hills. They slept without moving, and rose early to cut logs, which the horses dragged to the shore. The outside trunks were nailed and lashed with ropes, and sank almost below the surface with the weight of the wood fastened crosswise on top. But the whole floated dry with its cargo, and crossed clumsily on the quick-wrinkled current. Then it brought the wagon; and the six horses swam. The force of the river had landed them below the cabin, and when they had repacked there was too little left of day to go on. Clallam suggested it was a good time to take Moon's leavings over to the Okanagon, but Wild-Goose Jake said at once that their load was heavy enough; and about this they could not change his mind. He made a journey to the cabin by himself, and returned saying that he had managed to lock the door.
"Father," said Mart, as they were harnessing next day, "I've been up there. I went awful early. There's no lock to the door, and the cabin's empty."
"I guessed that might be."
"There has been a lock pried off pretty lately. There was a lot of broken bottles around everywheres, inside and out."
"What do you make out of it?" said Mart.
"Nothing yet. He wants to get us away, and I'm with him there. I want to get up the Okanagon as soon as we can."
"Well, I'm takin' yu' the soonest way," said Wild-Goose Jake, behind them. From his casual smile there was no telling what he had heard. "I'll put your stuff acrosst the Okanagon to-morrow mornin'. But to-night yourselves'll all be over, and the ladies kin sleep in my room."
The wagon made good time. The trail crossed easy valleys and over the yellow grass of the hills, while now and then their guide took a short-cut. He wished to get home, he said, since there could be no estimating what Leander might be doing. While the sun was still well up in the sky they came over a round knob and saw the Okanagon, blue in the bright afternoon, and the cabin on its further bank. This was a roomier building to see than common, and a hay-field was by it, and a bit of green pasture, fenced in. Saddle-horses were tied in front, heads hanging and feet knuckled askew with long waiting, and from inside an uneven, riotous din whiffled lightly across the river and intervening meadow to the hill.
"If you'll excuse me," said Jake, "I'll jest git along ahead, and see what game them folks is puttin' up on Andy. Likely as not he's weighin' 'em out flour at two cents, with it costin' me two and a half on freightin' alone. I'll hev supper ready time you ketch up."
He was gone at once, getting away at a sharp pace, till presently they could see him swimming the stream. When he was in the cabin the sounds changed, dropping off to one at a time, and expired. But when the riders came out into the air, they leaned and collided at random, whirled their arms, and, screaming till they gathered heart, charged with wavering menace at the door. The foremost was flung from the sill, and he shot along toppling and scraped his length in the dust, while the owner of the cabin stood in the entrance. The Indian picked himself up, and at some word of Jake's which the emigrants could half follow by the fierce lift of his arm, all got on their horses and set up a wailing, like vultures driven off. They went up the river a little and crossed, but did not come down this side, and Mrs. Clallam was thankful when their evil noise had died away up the valley. They had seen the wagon coming, but gave it no attention. A man soon came over the river from the cabin, and was lounging against a tree when the emigrants drew up at the margin.
"I don't know what you know," he whined defiantly from the tree, "but I'm goin' to Cornwall, Connecticut, and I don't care who knows it." He sent a cowed look at the cabin across the river.
"Get out of the wagon, Nancy," said Clallam. "Mart, help her down."
"I'm going back," said the man, blinking like a scolded dog. "I ain't stayin' here for nobody. You can tell him I said so, too." Again his eye slunk sidewise towards the cabin, and instantly back.
"While you're staying," said Mart, "you might as well give a hand here."
He came with alacrity, and made a shift of unhitching the horses. "I was better off coupling freight cars on the Housatonic," he soon remarked. His voice came shallow, from no deeper than his throat, and a peevish apprehension rattled through it. "That was a good job. And I've had better, too; forty, fifty, sixty dollars better."
"Shall we unpack the wagon?" Clallam inquired.
"I don't know. You ever been to New Milford? I sold shoes there. Thirty-five dollars and board."
The emigrants attended to their affairs, watering the horses and driving picket stakes. Leander uselessly followed behind them with conversation, blinking and with lower lip sagged, showing a couple of teeth. "My brother's in business in Pittsfield, Massachusetts," said he, "and I can get a salary in Bridgeport any day I say so. That a Marlin?"
"No," said Mart. "It's a Winchester."
"I had a Marlin. He's took it from me. I'll bet you never got shot at."
"Anybody want to shoot you?" Mart inquired.
"Well and I guess you'll believe they did day before yesterday"
"If you're talking about up at that cabin, it was me."
Leander gave Mart a leer. "That won't do," said he. "He's put you up to telling me that, and I'm going to Cornwall, Connecticut. I know what's good for me, I guess."
"I tell you we were looking for the ferry, and I signalled you across the river."
"No, no," said Leander. "I never seen you in my life. Don't you be like him and take me for a fool."
"All right. Why did they want to murder you?"
"Why?" said the man, shrilly. "Why? Hadn't they broke in and filled themselves up on his piah-chuck till they were crazy-drunk? And when I came along didn't they--"
"When you came along they were nowhere near there," said Mart.
"Now you're going to claim it was me drunk it and scattered all them bottles of his," screamed Leander, backing away. "I tell you I didn't. I told him I didn't, and he knowed it well, too. But he's just that mean when he's mad he likes to put a thing on me whether or no, when he never seen me touch a drop of whiskey, nor any one else, neither. They were riding and shooting loose over the country like they always do on a drunk. And I'm glad they stole his stuff. What business had he to keep it at Billy Moon's old cabin and send me away up there to see it was all right? Let him do his own dirty work. I ain't going to break the laws on the salary he pays me."
The Clallam family had gathered round Leander, who was stricken with volubility. "It ain't once in a while, but it's every day and every week," he went on, always in a woolly scream. "And the longer he ain't caught the bolder he gets, and puts everything that goes wrong on to me. Was it me traded them for that liquor this afternoon? It was his squaw, Big Tracks, and he knowed it well. He lets that mud-faced baboon run the house when he's off, and I don't have the keys nor nothing, and never did have. But of course he had to come in and say it was me just because he was mad about having you see them Siwashes hollering around. And he come and shook me where I was sittin', and oh, my, he knowed well the lie he was acting. I bet I've got the marks on my neck now. See any red marks?" Leander exhibited the back of his head, but the violence done him had evidently been fleeting. "He'll be awful good to you, for he's that scared--"
Leander stood tremulously straight in silence, his lip sagging, as Wild-Goose Jake called pleasantly from the other bank. "Come to supper, you folks," said he. "Why, Andy, I told you to bring them across, and you've let them picket their horses. Was you expectin' Mrs. Clallam to take your arm and ford six feet of water?" For some reason his voice sounded kind as he spoke to his assistant.
"Well, mother?" said Clallam.
"If it was not for Nancy, John--"
"I know, I know. Out on the shore here on this side would be a pleasanter bedroom for you, but" (he looked up the valley) "I guess our friend's plan is more sensible to-night."
So they decided to leave the wagon behind and cross to the cabin. The horses put them with not much wetting to the other bank, where Jake, most eager and friendly, hovered to meet his party, and when they were safe ashore pervaded his premises in their behalf.
"Turn them horses into the pasture, Andy," said he, "and first feed 'em a couple of quarts." It may have been hearing himself say this, but tone and voice dropped to the confidential and his sentences came with a chuckle. "Quarts to the horses and quarts to the Siwashes and a skookum pack of trouble all round, Mrs. Clallam! If I hedn't a-came to stop it a while ago, why about all the spirits that's in stock jest now was bein' traded off for some blamed ponies the bears hev let hobble on the range unswallered ever since I settled here. A store on a trail like this here, ye see, it hez to keep spirits, of course; and--well, well! here's my room; you ladies'll excuse, and make yourselves at home as well as you can."
It was of a surprising neatness, due all to him, they presently saw; the log walls covered with a sort of bunting that was also stretched across to make a ceiling below the shingles of the roof; fresh soap and towels, china service, a clean floor and bed, on the wall a print of some white and red village among elms, with a covered bridge and the water running over an apron-dam just above; and a rich smell of whiskey everywhere. "Fix up as comfortable as yu' can," the host repeated, "and I'll see how Mrs. Jake's tossin' the flapjacks. She's Injun, yu' know, and five years of married life hadn't learned her to toss flapjacks. Now if I was you" (he was lingering in the doorway) "I wouldn't shet that winder so quick. It don't smell nice yet for ladies in here, and I'd hev liked to git the time to do better for ye; but them Siwashes--well, of course, you folks see how it is. Maybe it ain't always and only white men that patronizes our goods. Uncle Sam is a long way off, and I don't say we'd ought to, but when the cat's away, why the mice will, ye know--they most always will."
There was a rattle of boards outside, at which he shut the door quickly, and they heard him run. A light muttering came in at the window, and the mother, peeping out, saw Andy fallen among a rubbish of crates and empty cans, where he lay staring, while his two fists beat up and down like a disordered toy. Wild-Goose Jake came, and having lifted him with great tenderness, was laying him flat as Elizabeth Clallam hurried to his help.
"No, ma'am," he sighed, "you can't do nothing, I guess."
"Just let me go over and get our medicines."
"Thank you, ma'am," said Jake, and the pain on his face was miserable to see; "there ain't no medicine. We're kind of used to this, Andy and me. Maybe, if you wouldn't mind stayin' till he comes to--Why, a sick man takes comfort at the sight of a lady."
When the fit had passed they helped him to his feet, and Jake led him away.
Mrs. Jake made her first appearance upon the guests sitting down to their meal, when she waited on table, passing busily forth from the kitchen with her dishes. She had but three or four English words, and her best years were plainly behind her; but her cooking was good, fried and boiled with sticks of her own chopping, and she served with industry. Indeed, a squaw is one of the few species of the domestic wife that survive today upon our continent. Andy seemed now to keep all his dislike for her, and followed her with a scowling eye, while he frequented Jake, drawing a chair to sit next him when he smoked by the wall after supper, and sometimes watching him with a sort of clouded affection upon his face. He did not talk, and the seizure had evidently jarred his mind as well as his frame. When the squaw was about lighting a lamp he brushed her arm in a childish way so that the match went out, and set him laughing. She poured out a harangue in Chinook, showing the dead match to Jake, who rose and gravely lighted the lamp himself, Andy laughing more than ever. When Mrs. Clallam had taken Nancy with her to bed, Jake walked John Clallam to the river-bank, and looking up and down, spoke a little of his real mind.
"I guess you see how it is with me. Anyway, I don't commonly hev use for stranger-folks in this house. But that little girl of yourn started cryin' about not havin' the pump along that she'd been used to seein' in the yard at home. And I says to myself, 'Look a-here, Jake, I don't care if they do ketch on to you and yer blamed whiskey business. They're not the sort to tell on you.' Gee! but that about the pump got me! And I says, 'Jake, you're goin' to give them the best you hev got.' Why, that Big Bend desert and lonesome valley of the Columbia hez chilled my heart in the days that are gone when I weren't used to things; and the little girl hed came so fur! And I knowed how she was a-feelin'."
He stopped, and seemed to be turning matters over.
"I'm much obliged to you," said Clallam.
"And your wife was jest beautiful about Andy. You've saw me wicked to Andy. I am, and often, for I rile turruble quick, and God forgive me! But when that boy gits at his meanness--yu've seen jest a touch of it--there's scarcely livin' with him. It seems like he got reg'lar inspired. Some days he'll lie--make up big lies to the fust man comes in at the door. They ain't harmless, his lies ain't. Then he'll trick my woman, that's real good to him; and I believe he'd lick whiskey up off the dirt. And every drop is poison for him with his complaint. But I'd ought to remember. You'd surely think I could remember, and forbear. Most likely he made a big talk to you about that cabin."
John Clallam told him.
"Well, that's all true, for onced. I did think he'd been up to stealin' that whiskey gradual, 'stead of fishin', the times he was out all day. And the salary I give him"--Jake laughed a little--"ain't enough to justify a man's breaking the law. I did take his rifle away when he tried to shoot my woman. I guess it was Siwashes bruck into that cabin."
"I'm pretty certain of it," said Clallam.
"You? What makes you?"
John began the tale of the galloping dots, and Jake stopped walking to listen the harder. "Yes," he said; "that's bad. That's jest bad. They hev carried a lot off to drink. That's the worst."
He had little to say after this, but talked under his tongue as they went to the house, where he offered a bed to Clallam and Mart. They would not turn him out, so he showed them over to a haystack, where they crawled in and went to sleep.
Most white men know when they have had enough whiskey. Most Indians do not. This is a difference between the races of which government has taken notice. Government says that "no ardent spirits shall be introduced under any presence into the Indian country." It also says that the white man who attempts to break this law "shall be punished by imprisonment for not more than two years and by a fine of not more than three hundred dollars." It further says that if any superintendent of Indian affairs has reason to suspect a man, he may cause the "boats, stores, packages, wagons, sleds, and places of deposit" of such person to be searched, and if ardent spirits be found it shall be forfeit, together with the boats and all other substances with it connected, one half to the informer and the other half to the use of the United States. The courts and all legal machines necessary for trial and punishment of offenders are oiled and ready; two years is a long while in jail; three hundred dollars and confiscation sounds heavy; altogether the penalty looks severe on the printed page--and all the while there's no brisker success in our far West than selling whiskey to Indians. Very few people know what the whiskey is made of, and the Indian does not care. He drinks till he drops senseless. If he has killed nobody and nobody him during the process, it is a good thing, for then the matter ends with his getting sober and going home to his tent till such happy time when he can put his hand on some further possession to trade away. The white offender is caught now and then; but Okanagon County lies pretty snug from the arm of the law. It's against Canada to the north, and the empty county of Stevens to the east; south of it rushes the Columbia, with the naked horrible Big Bend beyond, and to its west rises a domain of unfooted mountains. There is law up in the top of it at Conconully sometimes, but not much even to-day, for that is still a new country, where flow the Methow, the Ashinola, and the Similikameen.
Consequently a cabin like Wild-Goose Jake's was a holiday place. The blanketed denizens of the reservation crossed to it, and the citizens who had neighboring cabins along the trail repaired here to spend what money they had. As Mrs. Clallam lay in her bed she heard customers arrive. Two or three loud voices spoke in English, and several Indians and squaws seemed to be with the party, bantering in Chinook. The visitors were in too strong force for Jake's word about coming some other night to be of any avail.
"Open your cellar and quit your talk," Elizabeth heard, and next she heard some door that stuck, pulled open with a shriek of the warped timber. Next they were gambling, and made not much noise over it at first; but the Indians in due time began to lose to the soberer whites, becoming quarrelsome, and raising a clumsy disturbance, though it was plain the whites had their own way and were feared. The voices rose, and soon there was no moment that several were not shouting curses at once, till Mrs. Clallam stopped her ears. She was still for a time, hearing only in a muffled way, when all at once the smell of drink and tobacco, that had sifted only a little through the cracks, grew heavy in the room, and she felt Nancy shrink close to her side.
"Mother, mother," the child whispered, "what's that?"
It had gone beyond card-playing with the company in the saloon; they seemed now to be having a savage horse-play, those on their feet tramping in their scuffles upon others on the floor, who bellowed incoherently. Elizabeth Clallam took Nancy in her arms and told her that nobody would come where they were.
But the child was shaking. "Yes, they will," she whispered, in terror. "They are!" And she began a tearless sobbing, holding her mother with her whole strength.
A little sound came close by the bed, and Elizabeth's senses stopped so that for half a minute she could not stir. She stayed rigid beneath the quilt, and Nancy clung to her. Something was moving over the floor. It came quite near, but turned, and its slight rustle crawled away towards the window.
"Who is that?" demanded Mrs. Clallam, sitting up.
There was no answer, but the slow creeping continued, always close along the floor, like the folds of stuff rubbing, and hands feeling their way in short slides against the boards. She had no way to find where her husband was sleeping, and while she thought of this and whether or not to rush out at the door, the table was gently shaken, there was a drawer opened, and some object fell.
"Only a thief," she said to herself, and in a sort of sharp joy cried out her question again.
The singular broken voice of a woman answered, seemingly in fear. "Match-es," it said; and "Match-es" said a second voice, pronouncing with difficulty, like the first. She knew it was some of the squaws, and sprang from the bed, asking what they were doing there. "Match-es," they murmured; and when she had struck a light she saw how the two were cringing, their blankets huddled round them. Their motionless black eyes looked up at her from the floor where they lay sprawled, making no offer to get up. It was clear to her from the pleading fear in the one word they answered to whatever she said, that they had come here to hide from the fury of the next room; and as she stood listening to this she would have let them remain, but their escape had been noticed. A man burst into the room, and at sight of her and Nancy stopped, and was blundering excuses, when Jake caught his arm and had dragged him almost out, but he saw the two on the floor; at this, getting himself free, he half swept the crouching figures with his boot as they fled out of the room, and the door was swung shut. Mrs. Clallam heard his violent words to the squaws for daring to disturb the strangers, and there followed the heavy lashing of a quirt, with screams and lamenting. No trouble came from the Indian husbands, for they were stupefied on the ground, and when their intelligences quickened enough for them to move, the punishment was long over and no one in the house awake but Elizabeth and Nancy, seated together in their bed, watching for the day. Mother and daughter heard them rise to go out one by one, and the hoof-beats of their horses grew distant up and down the river. As the rustling trees lighted and turned transparent in the rising sun, Jake roused those that remained and got them away. Later he knocked at the door.
"I hev a little raft fixed this morning," said he, "and I guess we can swim the wagon over here."
"Whatever's quickest to take us from this place," Elizabeth answered.
"Breakfast'll be ready, ma'am, whenever you say."
"I am ready now. I shall want to start ferrying our things--Where's Mr. Clallam? Tell him to come here."
"I will, ma'am. I'm sorry--"
"Tell Mr. Clallam to come here, please."
John had slept sound in his haystack, and heard nothing. "Well," he said, after comforting his wife and Nancy, "you were better off in the room, anyway. I'd not blame him so, Liza. How was he going to help it?"
But Elizabeth was a woman, and just now saw one thing alone: if selling whiskey led to such things in this country, the man who sold it was much worse than any mere law-breaker. John Clallam, being now a long time married, made no argument. He was looking absently at the open drawer of a table. "That's queer," he said, and picked up a tintype.
She had no curiosity for anything in that room, and he laid it in the drawer again, his thoughts being taken up with the next step of their journey, and what might be coming to them all.
During breakfast Jake was humble about the fright the ladies had received in his house, explaining how he thought he had acted for the best; at which Clallam and Mart said that in a rough country folks must look for rough doings, and get along as well as they can; but Elizabeth said nothing. The little raft took all but Nancy over the river to the wagon, where they set about dividing their belongings in loads that could be floated back, one at a time, and Jake returned to repair some of the disorder that remained from the night at the cabin. John and Mart poled the first cargo across, and while they were on the other side, Elizabeth looked out of the wagon, where she was working alone, and saw five Indian riders coming down the valley. The dust hung in the air they had rushed through, and they swung apart and closed again as she had seen before; so she looked for a rifle; but the firearms had gone over the Okanagon with the first load. She got down and stood at the front wheel of the wagon, confronting the riders when they pulled up their horses. One climbed unsteadily from his saddle and swayed towards her.
"Drink!" said he, half friendly, and held out a bottle.
Elizabeth shook her head.
"Drink," he grunted again, pushing the bottle at her. "Piah-chuck! Skookurn!" He had a slugglish animal grin, and when she drew back, tipped the bottle into his mouth, and directly choked, so that his friends on their horses laughed loud as he stood coughing. "Heap good," he remarked, looking at Elizabeth, who watched his eyes swim with the plot of the drink. "Where you come back?" he inquired, touching the wagon. "You cross Okanagon? Me cross you; cross horses; cross all. Heap cheap. What yes?"
The others nodded. "Heap cheap," they said.
"We don't want you," said Elizabeth.
"No cross? Maybe he going cross you? What yes?"
Again Elizabeth nodded.
"Maybe he Jake?" pursued the Indian.
"Yes, he is. We don't want you."
"We cross you all same. He not."
The Indian spoke loud and thick, and Elizabeth looked over the river where her husband was running with a rifle, and Jake behind him, holding a warning hand on his arm. Jake called across to the Indians, who listened sullenly, but got on their horses and went up the river.
"Now," said Jake to Clallam, "they ain't gone. Get your wife over here so she kin set in my room till I see what kin be done."
John left him at once, and crossed on the raft. His wife was stepping on it, when the noise and flight of riders descended along the other bank, where Jake was waiting. They went in a circle, with hoarse shouts, round the cabin as Mart with Nancy came from the pasture. The boy no sooner saw them than he caught his sister up and carried her quickly away among the corrals and sheds, where the two went out of sight.
"You stay here, Liza," her husband said. "I'll go back over."
But Mrs. Clallam laughed.
"Get ashore," he cried to her. "Quick!"
"Where you go, I go, John."
"What good, what good, in the name--"
"Then I'll get myself over," said she. And he seized her as she would have jumped into the stream.
While they crossed, the Indians had tied their horses and rambled into the cabin. Jake came from it to stop the Clallams.
"They're after your contract," said he, quietly. "They say they're going to have the job of takin' the balance of your stuff that's left acrosst the Okanagon over to this side."
"What did you say?" asked Mrs. Clallam.
"I set 'em up drinks to gain time."
"Do you want me there?" said Clallam.
"Begosh, no! That would mix things worse."
"Can't you make them go away?" Elizabeth inquired.
"Me and them, ye see, ma'am, we hev a sort of bargain they're to git certain ferryin'. I can't make 'em savvy how I took charge of you. If you want them--" He paused.
"We want them!" exclaimed Elizabeth. "If you're joking, it's a poor joke."
"It ain't no joke at all, ma'am." Jake's face grew brooding. "Of course folks kin say who they'll be ferried by. And you may believe I'd rather do it. I didn't look for jest this complication; but maybe I kin steer through; and it's myself I've got to thank. Of course, if them Siwashes did git your job, they'd sober up gittin' ready. And--"
The emigrants waited, but he did not go on with what was in his mind. "It's all right," said he, in a brisk tone. "Whatever's a-comin's a-comin'." He turned abruptly towards the door. "Keep yerselves away jest now," he added, and went inside.
The parents sought their children, finding Mart had concealed Nancy in the haystack. They put Mrs. Clallam also in a protected place, as a loud altercation seemed to be rising at the cabin; this grew as they listened, and Jake's squaw came running to hide herself. She could tell them nothing, nor make them understand more than they knew; but she touched John's rifle, signing to know if it were loaded, and was greatly relieved when he showed her the magazine full of cartridges. The quarrelling had fallen silent, but rose in a new gust of fierceness, sounding as if in the open air and coming their way. No Indian appeared, however, and the noise passed to the river, where the emigrants soon could hear wood being split in pieces.
John risked a survey. "It's the raft," he said. "They're smashing it. Now they're going back. Stay with the children, Liza."
"You're never going to that cabin?" she said.
"He's in a scrape, mother."
John started away, heedless of his wife's despair. At his coming the Indians shouted and surrounded him, while he heard Jake say, "Drop your gun and drink with them."
"Drink!" said Andy, laughing with the same screech he had made at the match going out. "We re all going to Canaan, Connecticut."
Each Indian held a tin cup, and at the instant these were emptied they were thrust towards Jake, who filled them again, going and coming through a door that led a step or two down into a dark place which was half underground. Once he was not quick, or was imagined to be refusing, for an Indian raised his cup and drunkenly dashed it on Jake's head. Jake laughed good-humoredly, and filled the cup.
"It's our one chance," said he to John as the Indian, propping himself by a hand on the wall, offered the whiskey to Clallam.
"We cross you Okanagon," he said. "What yes?"
"Maybe you say no?" said another, pressing the emigrant to the wall.
A third interfered, saying something in their language, at which the other two disagreed. They talked a moment with threatening rage till suddenly all drew pistols. At this the two remaining stumbled among the group, and a shot went into the roof. Jake was there in one step with a keg, that they no sooner saw than they fell upon it, and the liquor jetted out as they clinched, wrestling over the room till one lay on his back with his mouth at the open bung. It was wrenched from him, and directly there was not a drop more in it. They tilted it, and when none ran out, flung the keg out of doors and crowded to the door of the dark place, where Jake barred the way. "Don't take to that yet!" he said to Clallam, for John was lifting his rifle.
"Piah-chuck!" yelled the Indians, scarcely able to stand. All other thought had left them, and a new thought came to Jake. He reached for a fresh keg, while they held their tin cups in the left hand and pistols in the right, pushing so it was a slow matter to get the keg opened.
They were fast nearing the sodden stage, and one sank on the floor. Jake glanced in at the door behind him, and filled the cups once again. While all were drinking he went in the store-room and set more liquor open, beckoning them to come as they looked up from the rims to which their lips had been glued. They moved round behind the table, grasping it to keep on their feet, with the one on the floor crawling among the legs of the rest. When they were all inside, Jake leaped out and locked the door.
"They kin sleep now," said he. "Gunpowder won't be needed. Keep wide away from in front."
There was a minute of stillness within, and then a groveling noise and struggle. A couple of bullets came harmless through the door. Those inside fought together as well as they could, while those outside listened as it grew less, the bodies falling stupefied without further sound of rising. One or two, still active, began striking at the boards with what heavy thing they could find, until suddenly the blade of an axe crashed through.
"Keep away!" cried Jake. But Andy had leaped insanely in front of the door, and fell dead with a bullet through him. With a terrible scream, Jake flung himself at the place, and poured six shots through the panel; then, as Clallam caught him, wrenched at the lock, and they saw inside. Whiskey and blood dripped together, and no one was moving there. It was liquor with some, and death with others, and all of it lay upon the guilty soul of Jake.
"You deserve killing yourself," said Clallam.
"That's been attended to," replied Jake, and he reeled, for during his fire some Indian had shot once more.
Clallam supported him to the room where his wife and Nancy had passed the night, and laid him on the bed. "I'll get Mrs. Clallam," said he.
"If she'll be willin' to see me," said the wounded man, humbly.
She came, dazed beyond feeling any horror, or even any joy, and she did what she could.
"It was seein' 'em hit Andy," said Jake. "Is Andy gone? Yes, I kin tell he's gone from your face." He shut his eyes, and lay still so long a time that they thought he might be dying now; but he moved at length, and looked slowly round the wall till he saw the print of the village among the elms and the covered bridge. His hand lifted to show them this. "That's the road," said he. "Andy and me used to go fishin' acrosst that bridge. Did you ever see the Housatonic River? I've fished a lot there. Cornwall, Connecticut. The hills are pretty there. Then Andy got worse. You look in that drawer." John remembered, and when he got out the tintype, Jake stretched for it eagerly. "His mother and him, age ten," he explained to Elizabeth, and held it for her to see, then studied the faces in silence. "You kin tell it's Andy, can't yu'?" She told him yes. "That was before we knowed he weren't--weren't goin' to grow up like the other boys he played with. So after a while, when she was gone, I got ashamed seein' Andy's friends makin' their way when he couldn't seem to, and so I took him away where nobody hed ever been acquainted with us. I was layin' money by to get him the best doctor in Europe. I 'ain't been a good man."
A faintness mastered him, and Elizabeth would have put the picture on the table, but his hand closed round it. They let him lie so, and Elizabeth sat there, while John, with Mart, kept Nancy away till the horror in the outer room was made invisible. They came and went quietly, and Jake seemed in a deepening torpor, once only rousing suddenly to call his son's name, and then, upon looking from one to the other, he recollected, and his eyes closed again. His mind wandered, but very little, for torpor seemed to be overcoming him. The squaw had stolen in, and sat cowering and useless. Towards sundown John's heart sickened at the sound of more horsemen; but it was only two white men, a sheriff and his deputy.
"Go easy," said John. "He's not going to resist."
"What's up here, anyway? Who are you?"
Clallam explained, and was evidently not so much as half believed.
"If there are Indians killed," said the sheriff, "there's still another matter for the law to settle with him. We're sent to search for whiskey. The county's about tired of him."
"You'll find him pretty sick," said John.
"People I find always are pretty sick," said the sheriff, and pushed his way in, stopping at sight of Mrs. Clallam and the figure on the bed. "I'm arresting that man, madam," he said, with a shade of apology. "The county court wants him."
Jake sat up and knew the sheriff. "You're a little late, Proctor," said he. "The Supreme Court's a-goin' to call my case." Then he fell back, for his case had been called.