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   Chapter 6 THE CHRISTMAS ANGEL PLAYS GHOST

Good Indian By B. M. Bower Characters: 18422

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


At midnight, the Peaceful Hart ranch lay broodily quiet under its rock-rimmed bluff. Down in the stable the saddle-horses were but formless blots upon the rumpled bedding in their stalls-except Huckleberry, the friendly little pinto with the white eyelashes and the blue eyes, and the great, liver-colored patches upon his sides, and the appetite which demanded food at unseasonable hours, who was now munching and nosing industriously in the depths of his manger, and making a good deal of noise about it.

Outside, one of the milch cows drew a long, sighing breath of content with life, lifted a cud in mysterious, bovine manner, and chewed dreamily. Somewhere up the bluff a bobcat squalled among the rocks, and the moon, in its dissipated season of late rising, lifted itself indolently up to where it could peer down upon the silent ranch.

In the grove where the tiny creek gurgled under the little stone bridge, someone was snoring rhythmically in his blankets, for the boys had taken to sleeping in the open air before the earliest rose had opened buds in the sunny shelter of the porch. Three feet away, a sleeper stirred restlessly, lifted his head from the pillow, and slapped half-heartedly at an early mosquito that was humming in his ear. He reached out, and jogged the shoulder of him who snored.

"Say, Gene, if you've got to sleep at the top of your voice, you better drag your bed down into the orchard," he growled. "Let up a little, can't yuh?"

"Ah, shut up and let a fellow sleep!" mumbled Gene, snuggling the covers up to his ears.

"Just what I want YOU to do. You snore like a sawmill. Darn it, you've got to get out of the grove if yuh can't-"

"Ah-h-EE-EE!" wailed a voice somewhere among the trees, the sound rising weirdly to a subdued crescendo, clinging there until one's flesh went creepy, and then sliding mournfully down to silence.

"What's that?" The two jerked themselves to a sitting position, and stared into the blackness of the grove.

"Bobcat," whispered Clark, in a tone which convinced not even himself.

"In a pig's ear," flouted Gene, under his breath. He leaned far over and poked his finger into a muffled form. "D'yuh hear that noise, Grant?"

Grant sat up instantly. "What's the matter?" he demanded, rather ill-naturedly, if the truth be told.

"Did you hear anything-a funny noise, like-"

The cry itself finished the sentence for him. It came from nowhere, it would seem, since they could see nothing; rose slowly to a subdued shriek, clung there nerve-wrackingly, and then wailed mournfully down to silence. Afterward, while their ears were still strained to the sound, the bobcat squalled an answer from among the rocks.

"Yes, I heard it," said Grant. "It's a spook. It's the wail of a lost spirit, loosed temporarily from the horrors of purgatory. It's sent as a warning to repent you of your sins, and it's howling because it hates to go back. What you going to do about it?"

He made his own intention plain beyond any possibility of misunderstanding. He lay down and pulled the blanket over his shoulders, cuddled his pillow under his head, and disposed himself to sleep.

The moon climbed higher, and sent silvery splinters of light quivering down among the trees. A frog crawled out upon a great lily-pad and croaked dismally.

Again came the wailing cry, nearer than before, more subdued, and for that reason more eerily mournful. Grant sat up, muttered to himself, and hastily pulled on some clothes. The frog cut himself short in the middle of a deep-throated ARR-RR-UMPH and dove headlong into the pond; and the splash of his body cleaving the still surface of the water made Gene shiver nervously. Grant reached under his pillow for something, and freed himself stealthily from a blanketfold.

"If that spook don't talk Indian when it's at home, I'm very much mistaken," he whispered to Clark, who was nearest. "You boys stay here."

Since they had no intention of doing anything else, they obeyed him implicitly and without argument, especially as a flitting white figure appeared briefly and indistinctly in a shadow-flecked patch of moonlight. Crouching low in the shade of a clump of bushes, Grant stole toward the spot.

When he reached the place, the thing was not there. Instead, he glimpsed it farther on, and gave chase, taking what precautions he could against betraying himself. Through the grove and the gate and across the road he followed, in doubt half the time whether it was worth the trouble. Still, if it was what he suspected, a lesson taught now would probably insure against future disturbances of the sort, he thought, and kept stubbornly on. Once more he heard the dismal cry, and fancied it held a mocking note.

"I'll settle that mighty quick," he promised grimly, as he jumped a ditch and ran toward the place.

Somewhere among the currant bushes was a sound of eery laughter. He swerved toward the place, saw a white form rise suddenly from the very ground, as it seemed, and lift an arm with a slow, beckoning gesture. Without taking aim, he raised his gun and fired a shot at it. The arm dropped rather suddenly, and the white form vanished. He hurried up to where it had stood, knelt, and felt of the soft earth. Without a doubt there were footprints there-he could feel them. But he hadn't a match with him, and the place was in deep shade.

He stood up and listened, thought he heard a faint sound farther along, and ran. There was no use now in going quietly; what counted most was speed.

Once more he caught sight of the white form fleeing from him like the very wraith it would have him believe it. Then he lost it again; and when he reached the spot where it disappeared, he fell headlong, his feet tangled in some white stuff. He swore audibly, picked himself up, and held the cloth where the moon shone full upon it. It looked like a sheet, or something of the sort, and near one edge was a moist patch of red. He stared at it dismayed, crumpled the cloth into a compact bundle, tucked it under his arm, and ran on, his ears strained to catch some sound to guide him.

"Well, anyhow, I didn't kill him," he muttered uneasily as he crawled through a fence into the orchard. "He's making a pretty swift get-away for a fellow that's been shot."

In the orchard the patches of moonlight were larger, and across one of them he glimpsed a dark object, running wearily. Grant repressed an impulse to shout, and used the breath for an extra burst of speed. The ghost was making for the fence again, as if it would double upon its trail and reach some previously chosen refuge. Grant turned and ran also toward the fence, guessing shrewdly that the fugitive would head for the place where the wire could be spread about, and a beaten trail led from there straight out to the road which passed the house. It was the short cut from the peach orchard; and it occurred to him that this particular spook seemed perfectly familiar with the byways of the ranch. Near the fence he made a discovery that startled him a little.

"It's a squaw, by Jove!" he cried when he caught an unmistakable flicker of skirts; and the next moment he could have laughed aloud if he had not been winded from the chase. The figure reached the fence before him, and in the dim light he could see it stoop to pass through. Then it seemed as if the barbs had caught in its clothing and held it there. It struggled to free itself; and in the next minute he rushed up and clutched it fast.

"Why don't you float over the treetops?" he panted ironically. "Ghosts have no business getting their spirit raiment tangled up in a barbed-wire fence."

It answered with a little exclamation, with a sob following close upon it. There was a sound of tearing cloth, and he held his captive upright, and with a merciless hand turned her face so that the moonlight struck it full. They stared at each other, breathing hard from more than the race they had run.

"Well-I'll-be-" Grant began, in blank amazement.

She wriggled her chin in his palm, trying to free herself from his pitiless staring. Failing that, she began to sob angrily without any tears in her wide eyes.

"You-shot me, you brute!" she cried accusingly at last. "You-SHOT me!" And she sobbed again.

Before he answered, he drew backward a step or two, sat down upon the edge of a rock which had rolled out from a stone-heap, and pulled her down beside him, still holding her fast, as if he half believed her capable of soaring away over the treetops, after all.

"I guess I didn't murder you-from the chase you gave me. Did I hit you at all?"

"Yes, you did! You nearly broke my arm-and you might have killed me, you big brute! Look what you did-and I never harmed you at all!" She pushed up a sleeve, and held out her arm accusingly in the moonlight, disclosing a tiny, red furrow where the skin was broken and still bleeding. "And you shot a big hole right through Aunt Phoebe's sheet!" she added, with tearful severity.

He caught her arm, bent his head over it-and for a moment he was perilously near to kissing it; an impulse which astonished him considerably, and angered him more. He dropped the arm rather precip

itately; and she lifted it again, and regarded the wound with mournful interest.

"I'd like to know what right you have to prowl around shooting at people," she scolded, seeing how close she could come to touching the place with her fingertips without producing any but a pleasurable pain.

"Just as much right as you have to get up in the middle of the night and go ahowling all over the ranch wrapped up in a sheet," he retorted ungallantly.

"Well, if I want to do it, I don't see why you need concern yourself about it. I wasn't doing it for your benefit, anyway."

"Will you tell me what you DID do it for? Of all the silly tomfoolery-"

An impish smile quite obliterated the Christmas-angel look for an instant, then vanished, and left her a pretty, abused maiden who is grieved at harsh treatment.

"Well, I wanted to scare Gene," she confessed. "I did, too. I just know he's a cowardy-cat, because he's always trying to scare ME. It's Gene's fault-he told me the grove is haunted. He said a long time ago, before Uncle Hart settled here, a lot of Indians waylaid a wagon-train here and killed a girl, and he says that when the moon is just past the full, something white walks through the grove and wails like a lost soul in torment. He says sometimes it comes and moans at the corner of the house where my room is. I just know he was going to do it himself; but I guess he forgot. So I thought I'd see if he believed his own yarns. I was going to do it every night till I scared him into sleeping in the house. I had a perfectly lovely place to disappear into, where he couldn't trace me if he took to hunting around-only he wouldn't dare." She pulled down her sleeve very carefully, and then, just as carefully, she pushed it up again, and took another look.

"My best friend TOLD me I'd get shot if I came to Idaho," she reminded herself, with a melancholy satisfaction.

"You didn't get shot," Grant contradicted for the sake of drawing more sparks of temper where temper seemed quaintly out of place, and stared hard at her drooping profile. "You just got nicely missed; a bullet that only scrapes off a little skin can't be said to hit. I'd hate to hit a bear like that."

"I believe you're wishing you HAD killed me! You might at least have some conscience in the matter, and be sorry you shot a lady. But you're not. You just wish you had murdered me. You hate girls-you said so. And I don't know what business it is of yours, if I want to play a joke on my cousin, or why you had to be sleeping outside, anyway. I've a perfect right to be a ghost if I choose-and I don't call it nice, or polite, or gentlemanly for you to chase me all over the place with a gun, trying to kill me! I'll never speak to you again as long as I live. When I say that I mean it. I never liked you from the very start, when I first saw you this afternoon. Now I hate and despise you. I suppose I oughtn't to expect you to apologize or be sorry because you almost killed me. I suppose that's just your real nature coming to the surface. Indians love to hurt and torture people! I shouldn't have expected anything else of you, I suppose. I made the mistake of treating you like a white man."

"Don't you think you're making another mistake right now?" Grant's whole attitude changed, as well as his tone. "Aren't you afraid to push the white man down into the dirt, and raise up-the INDIAN?"

She cast a swift, half-frightened glance up into his face and the eyes that glowed ominously in the moonlight.

"When people make the blunder of calling up the Indian," he went on steadily, "they usually find that they have to deal with-the Indian."

Evadna looked at him again, and turned slowly white before her temper surged to the surface again.

"I didn't call up the Indian," she defended hotly; "but if the Indian wants to deal with me according to his nature-why, let him! But you don't ACT like other people! I don't know another man who wouldn't have been horrified at shooting me, even such a tiny little bit; but you don't care at all. You never even said you were sorry."

"I'm not in the habit of saying all I think and feel."

"You were quick enough to apologize, after supper there, when you hadn't really done anything; and now, when one would expect you to be at least decently sorry, you-you-well, you act like the savage you are! There, now! It may not be nice to say it, but it's the truth."

Grant smiled bitterly. "All men are savages under the skin," he said. "How do YOU know what I think and feel? If I fail to come through with the conventional patter, I am called an Indian-because my mother was a half-breed." He threw up his head proudly, let his eyes rest for a moment upon the moon, swimming through a white river of clouds just over the tall poplar hedge planted long ago to shelter the orchard from the sweeping west winds; and, when he looked down at her again, he caught a glimpse of repentant tears in her eyes, and softened.

"Oh, you're a girl, and you demand the usual amount of poor-pussy talk," he told her maliciously. "So I'm sorry. I'm heartbroken. If it will help any, I'll even kiss the hurt to make it well-and I'm not a kissing young man, either, let me tell you."

"I'd die before I'd let you touch me!" Her repentance, if it was that, changed to pure rage. She snatched the torn sheet from him and turned abruptly toward the fence. He followed her, apparently unmoved by her attitude; placed his foot upon the lower wire and pressed it into the soft earth, lifted the one next above it as high as it would go, and thus made it easier for her to pass through. She seemed to hesitate for a moment, as though tempted to reject even that slight favor, then stooped, and went through.

As the wires snapped into place, she halted and looked back at him.

"Maybe I've been mean-but you're been meaner," she summed up, in self-justification. "I suppose the next thing you will do will be to tell the boys. Well, I don't care what you do, so long as you never speak to me again. Go and tell them if you want to-tell. TELL, do you hear? I don't want even the favor of your silence!" She dexterously tucked the bundle of white under the uninjured arm, caught the loose folds of her skirt up in her hands, and ran away up the path, not once stopping to see whether he still followed her.

Grant did not follow. He stood leaning against the fence-post, and watched her until her flying form grew indistinct in the shade of the poplar hedge; watched it reappear in a broad strip of white moonlight, still running; saw it turn, slacken speed to a walk, and then lose itself in the darkness of the grove.

Five minutes, ten minutes, he stood there, staring across the level bit of valley lying quiet at the foot of the jagged-rimmed bluff standing boldly up against the star-flecked sky. Then he shook himself impatiently, muttered something which had to do with a "doddering fool," and retraced his steps quickly through the orchard, the currant bushes, and the strawberry patch, jumped the ditch, and so entered the grove and returned to his blankets.

"We thought the spook had got yuh, sure." Gene lifted his head turtlewise and laughed deprecatingly. "We was just about ready to start out after the corpse, only we didn't know but what you might get excited and take a shot at us in the dark. We heard yuh shoot-what was it? Did you find out?"

"It wasn't anything," said Grant shortly, tugging at a boot.

"Ah-there was, too! What was it you shot at?" Clark joined in the argument from the blackness under the locust tree.

"The moon," Grant told him sullenly. "There wasn't anything else that I could see."

"And that's a lie," Gene amended, with the frankness of a foster-brother. "Something yelled like-"

"You never heard a screech-owl before, did you, Gene?" Grant crept between his blankets and snuggled down, as if his mind held nothing more important than sleep.

"Screech-owl my granny! You bumped into something you couldn't handle-if you want to know what I think about it," Clark guessed shrewdly. "I wish now I'd taken the trouble to hunt the thing down; it didn't seem worth while getting up. But I leave it to Gene if you ain't mad enough to murder whatever it was. What was it?"

He waited a moment without getting a reply.

"Well, keep your teeth shut down on it, then, darn yuh!" he growled. "That's the Injun of it-I know YOU! Screech-owl-huh! You said when you left it was an Indian-and that's why we didn't take after it ourselves. We don't want to get the whole bunch down on us like they are on you-and if there was one acting up around here, we knew blamed well it was on your account for what happened to-day. I guess you found out, all right. I knew the minute you heaved in sight that you was just about as mad as you can get-and that's saying a whole lot. If it WAS an Indian, and you killed him, you better let us-"

"Oh, for the lord's sake, WILL YOU SHUT UP!" Grant raised to an elbow, glared a moment, and lay down again.

The result proved the sort of fellow he was. Clark shut up without even trailing off into mumbling to himself, as was his habit when argument brought him defeat.

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