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   Chapter 7 MISS GEORGIE HOWARD, OPERATOR

Good Indian By B. M. Bower Characters: 23296

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


"Where is the delightful Mr. Good Indian off to?" Evadna stopped drumming upon the gatepost and turned toward the person she heard coming up behind her, who happened to be Gene. He stopped to light a match upon the gate and put his cigarette to work before he answered her; and Evadna touched tentatively the wide, blue ribbon wound round her arm and tied in a bow at her elbow, and eyed him guardedly.

"Straight up, he told me," Gene answered sourly. "He's sore over something that happened last night, and he didn't seem to have any talk to give away this morning. He can go to the dickens, for all I care."

"WHAT-happened last night?" Evadna wore her Christmas-angel expression; and her tone was the sweet, insipid tone of childlike innocence.

Gene hesitated. It seemed a sheer waste of opportunity to tell her the truth when she would believe a falsehood just as readily; but, since the truth happened to be quite as improbable as a lie, he decided to speak it.

"There was a noise when the moon had just come up-didn't you hear it? The ghost I told you about. Good Injun went after it with a gun, and I guess they mixed, all right, and he got the worst of it. He was sure on the fight when he came back, and he's pulled out this morning-"

"Do you mean to tell me-did you see it, really?"

"Well, you ask Clark, when you see him," Gene hinted darkly. "You just ask him what was in the grove last night. Ask him what he HEARD." He moved closer, and laid his hand impressively upon her arm. Evadna winced perceptibly. "What yuh jumping for? You didn't see anything, did you?"

"No; but-was there REALLY something?" Evadna freed herself as unobtrusively as possible, and looked at him with wide eyes.

"You ask Clark. He'll tell you-maybe. Good Injun's scared clean off the ranch-you can see that for yourself. He said he couldn't be hired to spend another night here. He thinks it's a bad sign. That's the Injun of it. They believe in spirits and signs and things."

Evadna turned thoughtful. "And didn't he tell you what he-that is, if he found out-you said he went after it-"

"He wouldn't say a blamed thing about it," Gene complained sincerely. "He said there wasn't anything-he told us it was a screech-owl."

"Oh!" Evadna gave a sigh of relief. "Well, I'm going to ask Clark what it was-I'm just crazy about ghost stories, only I never would DARE leave the house after dark if there are funny noises and things, really. I think you boys must be the bravest fellows, to sleep out there-without even your mother with you!"

She smiled the credulous smile of ignorant innocence and pulled the gate open.

"Jack promised to take me up to Hartley to-day," she explained over her shoulder. "When I come back, you'll show me just where it was, won't you, Gene? You don't suppose it would walk in the grove in the daytime, do you? Because I'm awfully fond of the grove, and I do hope it will be polite enough to confine its perambulations entirely to the conventional midnight hour."

Gene did not make any reply. Indeed, he seemed wholly absorbed in staring after her and wondering just how much or how little of it she meant.

Evadna looked back, midway between the gate and the stable, and, when she saw him standing exactly as she had left him, she waved her hand and smiled. She was still smiling when she came up to where Jack was giving those last, tentative twitches and pats which prove whether a saddle is properly set and cinched; and she would not say what it was that amused her. All the way up the grade, she smiled and grew thoughtful by turns; and, when Jack mentioned the fact that Good Indian had gone off mad about something, she contented herself with the simple, unqualified statement that she was glad of it.

Grant's horse dozed before the store, and Grant himself sat upon a bench in the narrow strip of shade on the porch. Evadna, therefore, refused absolutely to dismount there, though her errand had been a post-office money order. Jack was already on the ground when she made known her decision; and she left him in the middle of his expostulations and rode on to the depot. He followed disapprovingly afoot; and, when she brought her horse to a stand, he helped her from the saddle, and took the bridle reins with an air of weary tolerance.

"When you get ready to go home, you can come to the store," he said bluntly. "Huckleberry wouldn't stand here if you hog-tied him. Just remember that if you ever ride up here alone-it might save you a walk back. And say," he added, with a return of his good-natured grin, "it looks like you and Good Injun didn't get acquainted yesterday. I thought I saw mum give him an introduction to you-but I guess I made a mistake. When you come to the store, don't let me forget, and I'll do it myself."

"Oh, thank you, Jack-but it isn't necessary," chirped Evadna, and left him with the smile which he had come to regard with vague suspicion of what it might hide of her real feelings.

Two squaws sat cross-legged on the ground in the shade of the little red depot; and them she passed by hastily, her eyes upon them watchfully until she was well upon the platform and was being greeted joyfully by Miss Georgie Howard, then in one of her daily periods of intense boredom.

"My, my, but you're an angel of deliverance-and by rights you should have a pair of gauze wings, just to complete the picture," she cried, leading her inside and pushing her into a beribboned wicker rocker. "I was just getting desperate enough to haul in those squaws out there and see if I couldn't teach 'em whist or something." She sat down and fingered her pompadour absently. "And that sure would have been interesting," she added musingly.

"Don't let me interrupt you," Evadna began primly. "I only came for a money order-Aunt Phoebe's sending for-"

"Never mind what you came for," Miss Georgie cut in decisively, and laughed. "The express agent is out. You can't get your order till we've had a good talk and got each other tagged mentally-only I've tagged you long ago."

"I thought you were the express agent. Aunt Phoebe said-"

"Nice, truthful Aunt Phoebe! I am, but I'm out-officially. I'm several things, my dear; but, for the sake of my own dignity and self-respect, I refuse to be more than one of them at a time. When I sell a ticket to Shoshone, I'm the ticket agent, and nothing else. Telegrams, I'm the operator. At certain times I'm the express agent. I admit it. But this isn't one of the times."

She stopped and regarded her visitor with whimsical appraisement. "You'll wait till the agent returns, won't you?" And added, with a grimace: "You won't be in the way-I'm not anything official right now. I'm a neighbor, and this is my parlor-you see, I planted you on that rug, with the books at your elbow, and that geranium also; and you're in the rocker, so you're really and truly in my parlor. I'm over the line myself, and you're calling on me. Sabe? That little desk by the safe is the express office, and you can see for yourself that the agent is out."

"Well, upon my word!" Evadna permitted herself that much emotional relief. Then she leaned her head against the cherry-colored head-rest tied to the chair with huge, cherry-colored bows, and took a deliberate survey of the room.

It was a small room, as rooms go. One corner was evidently the telegraph office, for it held a crude table, with the instruments clicking spasmodically, form pads, letter files, and mysterious things which piqued her curiosity. Over it was a railroad map and a makeshift bulletin board, which seemed to give the time of certain trains. And small-paned windows gave one sitting before the instruments an unobstructed view up and down the track. In the corner behind the door was a small safe, with door ajar, and a desk quite as small, with, "Express Office: Hours, 8 A.M. to 6 P.M." on a card above it.

Under a small window opening upon the platform was another little table, with indications of occasional ticket-selling upon it. And in the end of the room where she sat were various little adornments-"art" calendars, a few books, fewer potted plants, a sewing-basket, and two rugs upon the floor, with a rocker for each. Also there was a tiny, square table, with a pack of cards scattered over it.

"Exactly. You have it sized up correctly, my dear." Miss Georgie Howard nodded her-head three times, and her eyes were mirthful. "It's a game. I made it a game. I had to, in self-defense. Otherwise-" She waved a hand conspicuous for its white plumpness and its fingers tapering beautifully to little, pink nails immaculately kept. "I took at the job and the place just as it stands, without anything in the way of mitigation. Can you see yourself holding it down for longer than a week? I've been here a month."

"I think," Evadna ventured, "it must be fun."

"Oh, yes. It's fun-if you make fun OF it. However, before we settle down for a real visit, I've a certain duty to perform, if you will excuse my absence for a moment. Incidentally," she added, getting lazily out of the chair, "it will illustrate just how I manage my system."

Her absence was purely theoretical. She stepped off the rug, went to the "express office," and took a card from the desk. When she had stood it upright behind the inkwell, Evadna read in large, irregular capitals:

"OUT. WILL BE BACK LATER."

Miss Georgie Howard paid no attention to the little giggle which went with the reading, but stepped across to the ticket desk and to the telegraph table, and put similar cards on display. Then she came back to the rug, plumped down in her rocker with a sigh of relief, and reached for a large, white box-the five pounds of chocolates which she had sent for.

"I never eat candy when I'm in the office," she observed soberly. "I consider it unprofessional. Help yourself as liberally as your digestion will stand-and for Heaven's sake, gossip a little! Tell me all about that bunch of nifty lads I see cavorting around the store occasionally-and especially about the polysyllabic gentleman who seems to hang out at the Peaceful Hart ranch. I'm terribly taken with him. He-excuse me, chicken. There's a fellow down the line hollering his head off. Wait till I see what he wants."

Again she left the rug, stepped to the telegraph instrument, and fingered the key daintily until she had, with the other hand, turned down the "out" card. Then she threw the switch, rattled an impatient reply, and waited, listening to the rapid clicking of the sounder. Her eyes and her mouth hardened as she read.

"Cad!" she gritted under her breath. Her fingers were spiteful as they clicked the key in answer. She slammed the current off, set up the "out" notice again, kicked the desk chair against the wall, and came back to the "parlor" breathing quickly.

"I think it must be perfectly fascinating to talk that way to persons miles off," said Evadna, eying the chittering sounder with something approaching awe. "I watched your fingers, and tried to imagine what it was they were saying-but I couldn't even guess."

Miss Georgie Howard laughed queerly. "No, I don't suppose you could," she murmured, and added, with a swift glance at the other: "They said, 'You go to the devil.'" She held up the offending hand and regarded it intently. "You wouldn't think it of them, would you? But they have to say things sometimes-in self-defense. There are two or three fresh young men along the line that can't seem to take a hint unless you knock them in the head with it."

She cast a malevolent look at the clicking instrument. "He's trying to squar

e himself," she observed carelessly. "But, unfortunately, I'm out. He seems on the verge of tears, poor thing."

She poked investigatingly among the chocolates, and finally selected a delectable morsel with epicurean care.

"You haven't told me about the polysyllabic young man," she reminded. "He has held my heart in bondage since he said to Pete Hamilton yesterday in the store-ah-" She leaned and barely reached a slip of paper which was lying upon a row of books. "I wrote it down so I wouldn't forget it," she explained parenthetically. "He said to Pete, in the store, just after Pete had tried to say something funny with the usual lamentable failure-um-'You are mentally incapable of recognizing the line of demarcation between legitimate persiflage and objectionable familiarity.' Now, I want to know what sort of a man, under fifty and not a college professor, would-or could-say that without studying it first. It sounded awfully impromptu and easy-and yet he looks-well, cowboyish. What sort of a young man is he?"

"He's a perfectly horrid young man." Evadna leaned to help herself to more chocolates. "He-well, just to show you how horrid, he calls me a-a Christmas angel! And-"

"Did he!" Miss Georgie eyed her measuringly between bites. "Tag him as being intelligent, a keen observer, with the ability to express himself-" She broke off, and turned her head ungraciously toward the sounder, which seemed to be repeating something over and over with a good deal of insistence. "That's Shoshone calling," she said, frowning attentively. "They've got an old crank up there in the office-I'd know his touch among a million-and when he calls he means business. I'll have to speak up, I suppose." She sighed, tucked a chocolate into her cheek, and went scowling to the table. "Can't the idiot see I'm out?" she complained whimsically. "What's that card for, I wonder?"

She threw the switch, rattled a reply, and then, as the sounder settled down to a steady click-clickety-click-click, she drew a pad toward her, pulled up the chair with her foot, sat down, and began to write the message as it came chattering over the wire. When it was finished and the sounder quiet, her hand awoke to life upon the key. She seemed to be repeating the message, word for word. When she was done, she listened, got her answer, threw off the switch with a sweep of her thumb, and fumbled among the papers on the table until she found an envelope. She addressed it with a hasty scrawl of her pencil, sealed it with a vicious little spat of her hand, and then sat looking down upon it thoughtfully.

"I suppose I've got to deliver that immediately, at once, without delay," she said. "There's supposed to be an answer. Chicken, some queer things happen in this business. Here's that weak-eyed, hollow-chested Saunders, that seems to have just life enough to put in about ten hours a day reading 'The Duchess,' getting cipher messages like the hero of a detective story. And sending them, too, by the way. We operators are not supposed to think; but all the same-" She got her receipt-book, filled rapidly a blank line, tucked it under her arm, and went up and tapped Evadna lightly upon the head with the envelope. "Want to come along? Or would you rather stay here? I won't be more than two minutes."

She was gone five; and she returned with a preoccupied air which lasted until she had disposed of three chocolates and was carefully choosing a fourth.

"Chicken," she said then, quietly, "do you know anything about your uncle and his affairs?" And added immediately: "The chances are ten to one you don't, and wouldn't if you lived there till you were gray?"

"I know he's perfectly lovely," Evadna asserted warmly. "And so is Aunt Phoebe."

"To be sure." Miss Georgie smiled indulgently. "I quite agree with you. And by the way, I met that polysyllabic cowboy again-and I discovered that, on the whole, my estimate was incorrect. He's emphatically monosyllabic. I said sixteen nice things to him while I was waiting for Pete to wake up Saunders; and he answered in words of one syllable; one word, of one syllable. I'm beginning to feel that I've simply got to know that young man. There are deeps there which I am wild to explore. I never met any male human in the least like him. Did you? So absolutely-ah-inscrutable, let us say."

"That's just because he's part Indian," Evadna declared, with the positiveness of youth and inexperience. "It isn't inscrutability, but stupidity. I simply can't bear him. He's brutal, and rude. He told me-told me, mind you-that he doesn't like women. He actually warned me against thinking his politeness-if he ever is polite, which I doubt-means more than just common humanity. He said he didn't want me to misunderstand him and think he liked me, because he doesn't. He's a perfect savage. I simply loathe him!"

"I'd certainly see that he repented, apologized, and vowed eternal devotion," smiled Miss Georgie. "That should be my revenge."

"I don't want any revenge. I simply want nothing to do with him. I don't want to speak to him, even."

"He's awfully good-looking," mused Miss Georgie.

"He looks to me just like an Indian. He ought to wear a blanket, like the rest."

"Then you're no judge. His eyes are dark; but they aren't snaky, my dear. His hair is real wavy, did you notice? And he has the dearest, firm mouth. I noticed it particularly, because I admire a man who's a man. He's one. He'd fight and never give up, once he started. And I think"-she spoke hesitatingly-"I think he'd love-and never give up; unless the loved one disappointed him in some way; and then he'd be strong enough to go his way and not whine about it. I do hate a whiner! Don't you?"

A shadow fell upon the platform outside the door, and Saunders appeared, sidling deprecatingly into the room. He pulled off his black, slouched hat and tucked it under his arm, smoothed his lank, black hair, ran his palm down over his lank, unshaven face with a smoothing gesture, and sidled over to the telegraph table.

"Here's the answer to that message," he said, in a limp tone, without any especial emphasis or inflection. "If you ain't too busy, and could send it right off-it's to go C.O.D. and make 'em repeat it, so as to be sure-"

"Certainly, Mr. Saunders." Miss Georgie rose, the crisp, businesslike operator, and went to the table. She took the sheet of paper from him with her finger tips, as if he were some repulsive creature whose touch would send her shuddering, and glanced at the message. "Write it on the regular form," she said, and pushed a pad and pencil toward him. "I have to place it on file." Whereupon she turned her back upon him, and stood staring down the railroad track through the smoke-grimed window until a movement warned her that he was through.

"Very well-that is all," she said, after she had counted the words twice. "Oh-you want to wait for the repeat."

She laid her fingers on the key and sent the message in a whirl of chittering little sounds, waited a moment while the sounder spoke, paused, and then began a rapid clicking, which was the repeated message, and wrote it down upon its form.

"There-if it's correct, that's all," she told him in a tone of dismissal, and waited openly for him to go. Which he did, after a sly glance at Evadna, a licking of pale lips, as if he would speak but lacked the courage, and a leering grin at Miss Georgie.

He was no sooner over the threshold than she slammed the door shut, in spite of the heat. She walked to the window, glanced down the track again, turned to the table, and restlessly arranged the form pads, sticking the message upon the file. She said something under her breath, snapped the cover on the inkwell, sighed, patted her pompadour, and finally laughed at her own uneasiness.

"Whenever that man comes in here," she observed impatiently, "I always feel as if I ought to clean house after him. If ever there was a human toad-or snake, or-ugh! And what does he mean-sending twenty-word messages that don't make sense when you read them over, and getting others that are just a lot of words jumbled together, hit or miss? I wish-only it's unprofessional to talk about it-but, just the same, there's some nasty business brewing, and I know it. I feel guilty, almost, every time I send one of those cipher messages."

"Maybe he's a detective," Evadna hazarded.

"Maybe." Miss Georgie's tone, however, was extremely skeptical. "Only, so far as I can discover, there's never been anything around here to detect. Nobody has been murdered, or robbed, or kidnapped that I ever heard of. Pete Hamilton says not. And-I wonder, now, if Saunders could be watching somebody! Wouldn't it be funny, if old Pete himself turned out to be a Jesse James brand of criminal? Can you imagine Pete doing anything more brutal than lick a postage stamp?"

"He might want to," Evadna guessed shrewdly, "but it would be too much trouble."

"Besides," Miss Georgie went on speculating, "Saunders never does anything that anyone ever heard of. Sweeps out the store, they say-but I'd hate to swear to that. I never could catch it when it looked swept-and brings the mail sack over here twice a day, and gets one to take back. And reads novels. Of course, the man's half dead with consumption; but no one would object to that, if these queer wires hadn't commenced coming to him."

"Why don't you turn detective yourself and find out?" Plainly, Evadna was secretly laughing at her perturbed interest in the matter.

"Thanks. I'm too many things already, and I haven't any false hair or dark lantern. And, by the way, I'm going to have the day off, Sunday. Charlie Green is coming up to relieve me. And-couldn't we do something?" She glanced wearily around the little office. "Honest, I'd go crazy if I stayed here much longer without a play spell. I want to get clear out, away from the thing-where I can't even hear a train whistle."

"Then you shall come down to the ranch the minute you can get away, and we'll do something or go somewhere. The boys said they'd take me fishing-but they only propose things so they can play jokes on me, it seems to me. They'd make me fall in the river, or something, I just know. But if you'd like to go along, there'd be two of us-"

"Chicken, we'll go. I ought to be ashamed to fish for an invitation the way I did, but I'm not. I haven't been down to the Hart ranch yet; and I've heard enough about it to drive me crazy with the desire to see it. Your Aunt Phoebe I've met, and fallen in love with-that's a matter of course. She told me to visit her just any time, without waiting to be invited especially. Isn't she the dearest thing? Oh! that's a train order, I suppose-sixteen is about due. Excuse me, chicken."

She was busy then until the train came screeching down upon the station, paused there while the conductor rushed in, got a thin slip of paper for himself and the engineer, and rushed out again. When the train grumbled away from the platform and went its way, it left man standing there, a fish-basket slung from one shoulder, a trout rod carefully wrapped in its case in his hand, a box which looked suspiciously like a case of some bottled joy at his feet, and a loose-lipped smile upon his face.

"Howdy, Miss Georgie?" he called unctuously through the open door.

Miss Georgie barely glanced at him from under her lashes, and her shoulders indulged themselves in an almost imperceptible twitch.

"How do you do, Mr. Baumberger?" she responded coolly, and very, very gently pushed the door shut just as he had made up his mind to enter.

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