The Watchers

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19. Seth Plays A Strong Hand



It would seem that the Agent's prompt action in summoning the aid of the troops had averted disaster. No trouble followed immediately on Seth's drastic treatment of Little Black Fox, and the majority of the settlers put this result down to the fact of the overawing effect of the cavalry. One or two held different opinions, and amongst these were the men of White River Farm. They were inclined to the belief that the wounding of the chief was the sole reason that the people remained quiet. Anyway, not a shot was fired, much to the satisfaction of the entire white population, and, after two weeks had passed, by slow degrees, a large proportion of the troops were withdrawn.

Then followed a government inquiry, at which Seth was the principal witness. It was a mere formality by which the affair was relegated to the history of the State. The government knew better than to punish the chief. After all, Little Black Fox was a king of his race, and, however much it might desire to be rid of the turbulent Sioux, it would be a dangerous thing to act with a high hand.

But the matter served as an excuse for one of those mistakes which so often have a far-reaching effect. There was an old fort close by the Pine Ridge Reservation, one of those ancient structures erected by old-time traders. It had long been untenanted, and had fallen into decay. The authorities decided to make it habitable, and turn it into a small military post, garrisoning it with a detachment of about one hundred cavalry.

It was a mistake. And every white man of experience in the district knew that it was so. Even the Agents of the two Reservations sounded a warning note. It is fatal to attempt to bluff the Indian. Bluff and back the bluff. But a handful of cavalry is no backing to any bluff. The older settlers shook their heads; the more timorous dared to hope; even old Roiheim, who would make profit by the adjacency of soldiers, would willingly have foregone the extra trade. Rube and Seth offered no comment outside their own house; but their opinion was worth considering.

"It won't hurt a heap this side of Christmas," Rube said, on learning the decision.

And Seth pointed his remark.

"No, not now, I guess. Mebbe spring 'll see things."

These two had struck at the heart of the thing. It was late summer, and history has long since proved that Indians never go out on the war-path with winter coming on. Besides, Little Black Fox was not likely to be well of his wound for months.

So the farmers went about their work again. Rube and Seth took in their crops, and devoted spare time to building operations. And the district of White River continued its unobtrusive prosperity.

The loss of Rosebud was no small matter to Ma Sampson's little household. But these folk were far too well inured to the hard life of the plains to voice their troubles. They sometimes spoke of her over their meals, but for the most part bore her silently in their thoughts. And the place she occupied with them was surely one that anybody might envy.

For Seth all the brightness of the last six years had gone out of his life, and he fell back on the almost stern devotion, which had always been his, toward the old people who had raised him. That, and the looking forward to the girl's letters from England practically made up his life. He never permitted himself the faintest hope that he would see her again. He had no thought of marriage with her. If nothing else prevented, her fortune was an impassable barrier. Besides he knew that she would be restored to that life--"high-life," was his word--to which she properly belonged. He never thought or hinted to himself that she would forget them, for he had no bitterness, and was much too loyal to think of her otherwise than as the most true-hearted girl. He simply believed he understood social distinctions thoroughly.

But if he were slow in matters of love, it was his only sloth. In action he was swift and thorough, and his perception in all matters pertaining to the plainsman's life was phenomenal.

It was this disposition for swift action which sent him one day, after the troops had withdrawn to their new post, and the plains had returned to their usual pastoral aspect, in search of Nevil Steyne. And it was significant that he knew just when and where to find his man.

He rode into a clearing in the woods down by the river. The spot was about a mile below the wagon bridge, where the pines grew black and ragged--a touch of the primordial in the midst of a younger growth. It was noon; a time when the plainsman knew he would find the wood-cutter at leisure, taking his midday meal, or lazing over a pipe. Nor were his calculations far out.

Nevil was stretched full length beside the smouldering embers on which his coffee billytin was steaming out fragrant odors that blended pleasantly with the resinous fragrance of these ancient woods.

He looked up at the sound of horse's hoofs, and there could be no doubt about the unfriendliness of his expression when he recognized his visitor. He dropped back again into his lounging attitude at once, and his action was itself one of studied discourtesy.

Seth did not appear to notice anything. He surveyed the clearing with a certain appreciation. The vast timbers he beheld seemed of much more consequence to him than the man who lived by their destruction. However, he rode straight over to the fire and dismounted.

"Howdy?" he said, while he loosened the cinches of his saddle.

"What's brought you around?" asked Nevil, ungraciously enough.

Seth turned toward the trees about him.

"Pretty tidy patch," he observed. "We're wantin' big timbers up at the farm. Mebbe you'd notion a contrac'?"

Nevil had noted the loosening of the cinches. He laughed shortly.

"I'm not taking contracts, thanks. But I'll sell you wood which I cut at my pleasure."

"Cord-wood?" Seth shook his head. "Guess we want timbers. Kind o' buildin' a corral around the farm."

"Making a fort of it?"

Nevil's blue eyes followed the upward curling wreath of smoke which dawdled on the still air above the fire.

"Yup."

"Fancy the Injuns are on the racket?"

"Wal, 'tain't what they're doin' now. But ther' ain't no tellin', an' we're slack since the harvest. I 'lows the notion's tol'ble. Mebbe they'll be quiet some--now Rosebud's gone."

There was a quiet emphasis on Seth's final speculation.

"I heard she'd gone away for a bit."

Nevil looked searchingly at this man whom he hated above all men.

"Gone for good," Seth said, with an admirable air of indifference.

"How?"

Nevil suddenly sat up. Seth noted the fact without even glancing in his direction.

"Wal, y' see she's got folks in England. And ther' is a heap o' dollars; an almighty heap. I reckon she'd be a millionairess in this country. Guess it takes a mighty heap o' bills to reckon a million in your country."

This expansiveness was so unusual in the man of the plains that Nevil understood at once he had come purposely to speak of Rosebud. He wondered why. This was the first he had heard of Rosebud's good fortune, and he wished to know more. The matter had been kept from everybody. Even Wanaha had been kept in ignorance of it.

Seth seated himself on a fallen tree-trunk, and now looked squarely into the wood-cutter's thin, mean face.

"Y' see it's kind o' curious. I got that gal from the Injuns more'n six years back, as you'll likely remember. Her folks, her father an' her ma, was killed south o' the Reservations. Guess they were kind o' big folk in your country. An' ther' was a feller come along awhiles back all the way from England to find her. He was a swell law feller; he'd hit her trail, an' when he comes along he said as she owned 'states in your country, a whole heap. Guess she's to be treated like a queen. Dollars? Gee! She ken buy most everything. I 'lows they ken do it slick in your country."

Seth paused to light his pipe. His manner was exquisitely simple. The narration of the story of the girl's good fortune appeared to give him the keenest pleasure. Nevil removed his pipe from his lips and sat chewing the end of his ragged moustache. There was an ugly look in his eyes as he contemplated the ashes of his fire. He might have been staring at the ashes of his own fortunes. However, he contrived a faint smile when he spoke.

"Then I s'pose you've found out her real name?"

"Sure. Marjorie Raynor. Her father was Colonel Landor Raynor."

"Ah."

"An' ther' ain't no question o' the dollars. She hain't no near folk 'cep' an uncle, Stephen Raynor, an' he don't figger anyways, 'cause the dollars are left to her by will. He only comes in, the lawyer feller says, if the gal was to die, or--or get killed."

Seth had become quite reflective; he seemed to find a curious pleasure in thus discussing the girl he loved with a man he at no time had any use for.

Nevil stared uneasily. A quick, furtive glance at Seth, who at that moment seemed to be watching his horse, gave an inkling of his passing thought. If a look could kill Seth would certainly have been a dead man.

"So the whole thing's a dead cinch for her?"

"Yup. Now."

Nevil gave a short laugh.

"You mean--that matter with Little Black Fox. But she brought it on herself. She encouraged him."

Seth was round on him in a twinkling.

"Maybe he was encouraged--but not by her."

"Who then?"

There was unmistakable derision in the wood-cutter's tone. Seth shrugged. A shadowy smile played round his lips, but his eyes were quite serious.

"That's it," he said, relapsing into his reflective manner, "the whole thing's mighty curious. Them law fellers in your country are smartish. They've located a deal. Don't jest know how. They figger that uncle feller is around either this State or Minnesota--likely this one, seein' the Colonel was comin' this aways when he got killed. We got yarnin', an' he was sayin' he thought o' huntin' out this uncle. I guessed ther' wa'an't much need, an' it might set him wantin' the dollars. The law feller said he wouldn't get 'em anyhow--'cep' the gal was dead. We kind o' left it at that. Y' see the whole thing for the uncle hung around that gal--bein' dead."

"And you think he might have had something----" Nevil's words came slowly, like a man who realizes the danger of saying too much.

"Wal, it don't seem possible, I guess. Them two was killed by the Injuns, sure. An' she--I guess she ain't never seen him."

A slight sigh escaped Nevil.

"That's so," he said deliberately.

"Howsum, I guess I'm goin' to look around for this feller. Y' see Rosebud's li'ble to like him. Mebbe he ain't well heeled for dollars, an' she's that tender-hearted she might--I've got his pictur'. Mebbe I'll show it around--eh, what's up?" Seth inquired in his blandest tone.

Nevil suddenly sat up and there was a desperate look in his eyes. But he controlled himself, and, with an effort, spoke indifferently.

"Nothing. I want another pipe."

"Ah." Seth fumbled through his pockets, talking the while. "The pictur' was took when he was most a boy. His hair was thick an' he hadn't no moustache nor nothin', which kind o' makes things hard. As I was sayin', I'm goin' to show it around some, an' maybe some one 'll rec'nize the feller. That's why I got yarnin' to you. Mebbe you ken locate him."

As he said the last word he drew a photograph from his pocket and thrust it into Nevil's hand.

The wood-cutter took it with a great assumption of indifference, and found himself looking down on a result of early photographic art. It was the picture of a very young man with an overshot mouth and a thin, narrow face. But, as Seth had said, he wore no moustache, and his hair was still thick.

Nevil looked long at that picture, and once or twice he licked his lips as though they were very dry. All the time Seth's steady eyes were upon his face, and the shadow of a smile was still about his lips.

At last Nevil looked up and Seth's eyes held his. For a moment the two men sat thus. Then the wood-cutter handed back the photograph and shifted his gaze.

"I've never seen the original of that about these parts," he said a little hoarsely.

"I didn't figger you had," Seth replied, rising and proceeding to tighten up the cinches of his saddle preparatory to departing. "The lawyer feller gave me that. Y' see it's an old pictur'. 'Tain't as fancy as they do 'em now. Mebbe I'll find him later on."

He had swung into his saddle. Nevil had also risen as though to proceed with his work.

"It might be a good thing for him, since Rosebud is so well disposed," Nevil laughed; he had almost recovered himself.

"That's so," observed Seth. "Or a mighty bad thing. Y' can't never tell how dollars 'll fix a man. Dollars has a heap to answer for."

And with this vague remark the plainsman rode slowly away.