23. Love's Progress
It was the night of Rosebud's arrival. Seth and Rube were just leaving the barn. The long day's work was done. Seth had been out all the afternoon riding. Although his ride was nominally in pursuit of health and strength, he had by no means been idle. Now he was bodily weary, and at the door of the barn he sat down on the corn-bin. Rube, pausing to prepare his pipe, saw, by the flickering light of the stable lantern, that his companion's face was ghastly pale.
"Feelin' kind o' mean?" he suggested with gruff sympathy.
"Meaner'n a yaller dawg."
There was anxiety in the older man's deep-set eyes as he noted the flicker of a smile which accompanied the reply.
"There ain't nothin' fresh?" Rube pursued, as the other remained silent.
"Wal, no, 'cep' Rosebud's got back."
"Guess it means a heap," he said, and paused. Then a faint flush slowly spread over his thin, drawn face. "Nothin' could 'a' happened along now wuss than Rosie's gettin' around," he went on with intense feeling. "Can't you see, Rube?" He reached out and laid an emphatic hand on his companion's arm. "Can't you see what's goin' to come? Ther's trouble comin' sure. Trouble for us all. Trouble for that gal. The news is around the Reservation now. It'll reach Black Fox 'fore to-morrow mornin', an' then----Pshaw! Rube, I love that gal. She's more to me than even you an' Ma; she's more to me than life. I can't never marry her, seein' how things are, but that don't cut no figger. But I'm goin' to see after her whatever happens. Ther' ain't no help comin'. Them few soldier-fellers don't amount to a heap o' beans. The Injuns 'll chaw 'em up if they notion it. An' I'm like a dead man, Rube--jest a hulk. God, Rube, if harm comes to that pore gal----Pshaw!"
Seth's outburst was so unusual that Rube stared in silent amazement. It seemed as if his bodily weakness had utterly broken down the stern self-repression usually his. It was as though with the weakening of muscle had come a collapse of his wonderful self-reliance, and against his will he was driven to seek support.
Rube removed his pipe from his mouth. His slow moving brain was hard at work. His sympathy was not easy for him to express.
"Guess it ain't easy, Seth, boy," he said judicially, at last. "Them things never come easy if a man's a man. I've felt the same in the old days, 'fore Ma an' me got hitched. Y' see the Injuns wus wuss them days--a sight. Guess I jest sat tight."
Though so gently spoken, the old man's words had instant effect. Already Seth was ashamed of his weakness. He knew, no one better, the strenuous life of single-hearted courage this old man had lived.
"I'm kind o' sorry I spoke, Rube. But I ain't jest thinkin' o' myself."
"I know, boy. You're jest worritin' 'cause you're sick. I know you. You an' me are goin' to set tight. Your eye 'll be on the gal; guess I'll figger on Ma. These sort o' troubles jest come and go. I've seen 'em before. So've you. It's the gal that makes the diff'rence fer you. Say, lad," Rube laid a kindly hand on the sick man's drooping shoulders, and his manner became lighter, and there was a twinkle in his deep-set eyes, "when I'd located that I wanted Ma fer wife I jest up an' sez so. I 'lows the job wa'n't easy. I'd a heap sooner 'a' let daylight into the carkises of a dozen Injuns. Y' see wimmin's li'ble to fool you some. When they knows you're fixed on 'em they jest makes you hate yourself fer a foolhead. It's in the natur' of 'em. They're most like young fillies 'fore they're broke--I sez it wi'out disrespec'. Y' see a wummin ain't got a roarin' time of it in this world. An' jest about when a man gets fixed on 'em is their real fancy time, an' they ain't slow to take all ther' is comin'. An' I sez they're dead right. An' jest when you're bustin' to tell 'em how you're feelin'--an' ain't got the savee--they're jest bustin' to hear that same. An' that's how I got figgerin' after awhiles, an' so I ups an' has it out squar'. Y' see," he finished, with an air of pride which brought a smile to Seth's face, "I kind o' swep' Ma off her feet."
The younger man had no reply to make. His mind went back to Ma's version of Rube's courtship. Rube, thoroughly enjoying his task of rousing the other's drooping spirits, went on, carried away by his own enthusiasm.
"Say, why has Rosie come back, boy, I'd like to know."
"She said as she couldn't endure a city no longer. She wanted the plains, the Injuns, Ma, you, an' the farm."
"Pshaw--boy! Plains! Farm! Injuns! Ha, ha! Say, Seth, you ain't smart, not wuth a cent. She come back 'cos she's jest bustin' to hear what you darsen't tell her. She's come back 'cos she's a wummin, an' couldn't stay away when you wus sick an' wounded to death. I know. I ain't bin married fer five an' twenty year an' more wi'out gittin' to the bottom o' female natur'--I----"
"But she didn't know I was sick, Rube."
Rube stood aghast at what he had said. Seth's remark had, in his own way of thinking, "struck him all of a heap." He realized in a flash where his blundering had led him. He had run past himself in his enthusiasm, and given Ma's little scheme away, and, for the moment, the enormity of his offence robbed him of the power of speech. However, he pulled himself together with an effort.
"Guess I wus chawin' more'n I could swaller," he said ruefully. "Ma allus did say my head wus mostly mutton, an' I kind o' figger she has a power o' wisdom. An' it wus a dead secret--'tween her an' me. Say, Seth, boy, you won't give me away? Y' see Ma's mighty easy, but she's got a way wi' her, Ma has."
The old man's distress was painfully comical. The perspiration stood out on his rugged forehead in large beads, and his kindly eyes were full of a great trouble. Seth's next remark came in the form of an uncompromising question.
"Then Ma wrote an' told her?"
"Why, yes, if it comes to that I guess she must have."
Seth rose wearily from his seat, and ranged his lean figure beside the old man's bulk. "All right, dad," he said, in his quiet, sober way. "I'm glad you've told me. But it don't alter nothin', I guess. Meanwhile I'll git round, an' quit whinin'."
The arrival of Rosebud's cousin and her maid somewhat disorganized the Sampsons' simple household. Rosebud's love of mischief was traceable in this incongruous descent upon the farm. Her own coming was a matter which no obstacle would have stayed. Ma's letter had nearly broken her heart, and her anxiety was absolutely pitiable until the actual start had been made.
That Seth was ill--wounded--and she had not known from the first, had distracted her, and her mind was made up before she had finished reading the letter. Her obligations to her new life were set aside without a second thought. What if there were invitations to social functions accepted? What if her cousin's household were thrown into confusion by her going? These things were nothing to her; Seth might be dying, and her heart ached, and something very like terror urged her to hasten.
She had long since learned that Seth, and Seth alone, was all her world. Then the old mischievous leaning possessed her, and she resolved, willy-nilly, that Mrs. Rickards, whose love she had long since won, as she won everybody's with whom she came into contact, should accompany her.
This old lady, used only to the very acme of comfort, had welcomed the idea of visiting Rosebud's home in the wilds. Moreover, until the final stage of the journey, she thoroughly enjoyed herself. It was not until traveling from Beacon Crossing, and the camping out at the half-way house, that the roughness of the country was brought home to her. Then came the final miring of the wagon, and she reviled the whole proceeding.
But the ultimate arrival at the farm, and the meeting with its homely folk, soon restored her equanimity. She at once warmed to Ma, whose gentle practical disposition displayed such a wealth of true womanliness as to be quite irresistible, and, in the confidence of her bedchamber, which she shared with Rosebud, she imparted her favorable impressions. She assured the girl she no longer wondered that she, Rosebud, with everything that money could purchase, still longed to return to the shelter of the love which these rough frontier-folk so surely lavished upon her.
"But, my dear," she added, as a warning proviso, and with a touch of worldliness which her own life in England had made almost part of her nature, "though Mrs. Sampson is so deliciously simple and good, and Mr. Sampson is such an exquisite rough diamond, this Seth, whose trouble has brought us out here, with such undignified haste, is not the man to make the fuss about that you have been doing all the journey. He's a fine man, or will be when he recovers from his illness, I have no doubt; but, after all, I feel it my duty by your dead father to warn you that I think you are much too concerned about him for a girl in your position."
"What on earth do you mean, auntie?" Rosebud exclaimed, pausing in the process of brushing out her obstinately curling hair. "What position have I but that which these dear people have helped me to--that Seth, himself, has made for me? I owe all I have, or am at this moment, to Seth. He saved me from a fate too terrible to contemplate. He has saved my life, not once, but half a dozen times; he found me my father's fortune, or the fortune which father has left for me when I marry. You are more unkind than ever I thought you could be. You wait, auntie, you may yet learn to--to appreciate Seth as I do. You see I know--you don't. You're good, and wise, and all that; but you don't know--Seth."
"And it's very evident that you think you do, dear," Mrs. Rickards said, wearily rolling over and snuggling down amidst the snowy sheets of the soft feather-bed.
"There is no question of thinking," Rosebud smiled mischievously into the looking-glass in the direction of her relative. "And if Seth were to ask me I would marry him to-morrow--there. Yes, and I'd make him get a special license to avoid unnecessary delay."
Of a sudden Mrs. Rickards started up in bed. For one moment she severely eyed the girl's laughing face. Then her anger died out, and she dropped back on the pillow.
"For the moment I thought you meant it," she said.
"And so I do," was the girl's swift retort. "But there," as a horrified exclamation came from the bed, "he won't ask me, auntie," the girl went on, with a dash of angry impatience in her voice, "so you needn't worry. Seth has a sense of honor which I call quixotic, and one that might reasonably shame the impecunious fortune-hunters I've met since I have lived in England. No, I'm afraid if I were to marry Seth it wouldn't be his doing."
"This Seth said you were a savage--and he's right."
With this parting shot Mrs. Rickards turned over, and, a moment later, was comfortably asleep, as her heavy breathing indicated. Rosebud remained a long time at the dressing-table, but her hair didn't trouble her. Her head was bowed on her arms, and she was quietly weeping. Nor could she have explained her tears. They were the result of a blending of both joy and sorrow. Joy at returning to the farm and at finding Seth on the highroad to recovery; and sorrow--who shall attempt to probe the depths of this maiden's heart?
The day following Rosebud's return was a momentous one. True to her impulsive character the girl, unknown to anybody, saddled her own mare and rode off on a visit to Wanaha. Seth was away from the farm, or he would probably have stopped her. Rube knew nothing of her going, and Ma had her time too much occupied with Mrs. Rickards and her maid to attend to anything but her household duties. So Rosebud was left to her own devices, which, as might have been expected, led her to do the one thing least desirable.
Wanaha was overjoyed at the girl's return. The good Indian woman had experienced a very real sense of loss, when, without even a farewell, Rosebud suddenly departed from their midst. Added to this Wanaha had had a pretty bad time with her husband after the affair in the river woods. Abnormally shrewd where all others were concerned, she was utterly blind in her husband's favor. His temper suddenly soured with Rosebud's going, and the loyal wife suffered in consequence. Yet she failed to appreciate the significance of the change.
There was no suspicion in her mind of the manner in which she had foiled his plans, or even of the nature of them. The attempt to kidnap the white girl she put down to the enterprise of her brother's fierce, lawless nature, and as having nothing whatever to do with her husband. In fact she still believed it was of that very danger which Nevil had wanted to warn Rosebud.
Now, when the girl suddenly burst in upon her, Wanaha was overjoyed, for she thought she had surely left the prairie world forever. They spent the best part of the morning together. Then Nevil came in for his dinner. When he beheld the girl, fair and deliciously fresh in her old prairie habit, sitting on the bed in the hut, a wave of devilish joy swept over him. He already knew that she had returned to the farm--how, it would have been impossible to say--but that she should still come to his shack seemed incredible.
Evidently Seth had held his tongue. Though he wondered a little uneasily at the reason, he was quick to see his advantage and the possibilities opening before him. He had passed from the stage when he was content to avail himself of chance opportunities. Now he would seek them--he would make opportunities.
"And so you have come back to us again," he said, after greeting the girl, while Wanaha smiled with her deep black eyes upon them from the table beyond the stove.
"Couldn't stay away," the girl responded lightly. "The prairie's in my bones."
Rosebud had never liked Nevil. To her there was something fish-like in those pale eyes and overshot jaw, but just now everybody connected with the old life was welcome. They chatted for a while, and presently, as Wanaha began to put the food on the table, the girl rose to depart.
"It's time I was getting home," she said reluctantly. "I'm not sure that they know where I am, so I mustn't stay away too long--after the scrape I got into months ago. I should like to go across to the Reservation, but I've already promised not to go there alone. Seth warned me against it, and after what has passed I know he's right. But I would like to see Miss Parker, and dear old Mr. Hargreaves. However, I must wait."
Nevil crossed over to the table. He looked serious, but his blue eyes shone.
"Seth's quite right. You mustn't go alone. Little Black Fox is about again, you know. And--and the people are very restless just now."
"That's what he said. And I nearly frightened auntie to death telling her she'd get scalped, and nonsense like that."
Nevil laughed in response.
"If you'd like to go----" he began doubtfully.
"It doesn't matter."
"I only meant I've got to go across directly after dinner. I could accompany you. No one will interfere with you while I am there."
Nevil turned to his food with apparent indifference. Wanaha stood patiently by. Rosebud was tempted. She wanted to see the Reservation again with that strange longing which all people of impulse have for revisiting the scenes of old associations. Always she was possessed by that curious fascination for the Indian country which was something stronger than mere association, something that had to do with the long illness she had passed through nearly seven years ago.
Nevil waited. He knew by the delay of her answer that she would accept his invitation, and he wanted her to go over to the Reservation.
"Are you sure I shan't be in the way? Sure I'm not troubling you?"
"By no means. Just let me have my dinner, and I'll be ready. I've half a dozen cords of wood to haul into Beacon, and I have to go and borrow ponies for the work. The roads are so bad just now that my own ponies couldn't do it by themselves."
Rosebud's scruples thus being quieted she returned to her seat on the bed, and they talked on while the man ate his dinner. She watched the almost slavish devotion of Wanaha with interest and sympathy, but her feelings were all for the tall, beautiful woman. For the man she had no respect. She tolerated him because of her friend only.
An hour later they were on the Reservation. And they had come by way of the ford. Rosebud was all interest, and everything else was forgotten, even her dislike of Nevil, as they made their way past Little Black Fox's house, and through the encampment of which it was the centre. She was still more delighted when her companion paused and spoke to some of the Indians idling about there. She was free to watch the squaws, and the papooses she loved so well. The little savages were running wild about the tepees, dodging amongst the trailers and poles, or frolicking with the half-starved currish camp dogs. The air was busy with shrieks of delight, and frequently through it all could be detected the note of small ferocity, native to these little red-skinned creatures.
It was all so familiar to her, so homely, so different from that other life she had just left. The past few months were utterly forgotten; she was back in her old world again. Back in the only world she really knew and loved.
It came as no sort of surprise to her, when, in the midst of this scene, the great chief himself appeared. He came alone, without ceremony or attendants. He stood in the midst of the clearing--tall, commanding, and as handsome as ever. His dusky face was wreathed in a proud, half disdainful smile. He did not attempt to draw near, and, except for a haughty inclination of the head, made no sign.
Rosebud had no suspicion. She had no thought of the man with her. She was far too interested in all she saw to wonder how the chief came to be in the midst of the clearing just as she was passing through it.
On the far side of the camp a path led to the Agency. Its course was tortuous, winding in the shape of the letter S. It was at the second curve that an unexpected, and to Nevil, at least, unwelcome meeting occurred.
Seth, mounted on his own tough broncho, was standing close against the backing of brush which lined the way. He had every appearance of having been awaiting their coming. Nevil's furtive eyes turned hither and thither with the quick glance of a man who prefers a safe retreat to a bold encounter.
Rosebud looked serious, and thought of the scolding that might be forthcoming. Then she laughed and urged her horse quickly forward.
"Why, Seth----" she cried. But she broke off abruptly. The rest of what she was about to say died out of her mind. Seth was not even looking at her. His eyes were on Nevil Steyne in a hard, cold stare. Physically weak as he was there could be no mistaking the utter hatred conveyed in that look.
Rosebud had drawn up beside him. For once she was at a loss, helpless. Nevil was some ten yards in rear of her. There was a moment's silence after the girl's greeting, then Seth said quite sharply--
"You stay right here."
He urged his horse forward and went to meet Nevil. The girl was very anxious, hardly knowing why. She heard Seth's voice low but commanding. His words were lost upon her, but their effect was plain enough. Nevil first smiled contemptuously, then he paled and finally turned his horse about, and slowly returned the way he had come.
Then, and not until then, Rosebud observed that Seth was grasping the butt of his revolver.