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   Chapter 14 THE CLAIM-JUMPERS

Good Indian By B. M. Bower Characters: 22807

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


"Guess that bobcat was after my ducks again, last night," commented Phoebe Hart, when she handed Baumberger his cup of coffee. "The way the dogs barked all night-didn't they keep you awake?"

"Never slept better in my life," drawled Baumberger, his voice sliding upward from the first word to the last. His blood-shot eyes, however, rather gave the lie to his statement. "I'm going to make one more try, 'long about noon, for that big one-girls didn't get him, I guess, for all their threats, or I'd heard about it. And I reckon I'll take the evening train home. Shoulda gone yesterday, by rights. I'd like to get a basket uh fish to take up with me. Great coffee, Mrs. Hart, and such cream I never did see. I sure do hate to leave so many good things and go back to a boardin' house. Look at this honey, now!" He sighed gluttonously, leaning slightly over the table while he fed.

"Dogs were barking at something down in the orchard," Wally volunteered, passing over Baumberger's monologue. "I was going down there, but it was so dark-and I thought maybe it was Gene's ghost. That was before the moon came up. Got any more biscuits, mum?"

"My trap wasn't sprung behind the chicken-house," said Donny. "I looked, first thing."

"Dogs," drawled Baumberger, his enunciation muffled by the food in his mouth, "always bark. And cats fight on shed-roofs. Next door to where I board there's a dog that goes on shift as regular as a policeman. Every night at-"

"Oh, Aunt Phoebe!" Evadna, crisp and cool in a summery dress of some light-colored stuff, and looking more than ever like a Christmas angel set a-flutter upon the top of a holiday fir in a sudden gust of wind, threw open the door, rushed halfway into the room, and stopped beside the chair of her aunt. Her hands dropped to the plump shoulder of the sitter. "Aunt Phoebe, there's a man down at the farther end of the strawberry patch! He's got a gun, Aunt Phoebe, and he's camped there, and when he heard me he jumped up and pointed the gun straight at me!"

"Why, honey, that can't be-you must have seen an Indian prowling after windfalls off the apricot trees there. He wouldn't hurt you." Phoebe reached up, and caught the hands in a reassuring clasp.

Evadna's eyes strayed from one face to another around the table till they rested upon Good Indian, as having found sanctuary there.

"But, Aunt Phoebe, he was WASN'T. He was a white man. And he has a camp there, right by that tree the lightning peeled the bark off. I was close before I saw him, for he was sitting down and the currant bushes were between. But I went through to get round where Uncle Hart has been irrigating and it's all mud, and he jumped up and pointed the gun AT me. Just as if he was going to shoot me. And I turned and ran." Her fingers closed upon the hand of her aunt, but her eyes clung to Good Indian, as though it was to him she was speaking.

"Tramp," suggested Baumberger, in a tone of soothing finality, as when one hushes the fear of a child. "Sick the dogs on him. He'll go-never saw the hobo yet that wouldn't run from a dog." He smiled leeringly up at her, and reached for a second helping of honey.

Good Indian pulled his glance from Evadna, and tried to bore through the beefy mask which was Baumberger's face, but all he found there was a gross interest in his breakfast and a certain indulgent sympathy for Evadna's fear, and he frowned in a baffled way.

"Who ever heard of a tramp camped in our orchard!" flouted Phoebe. "They don't get down here once a year, and then they always come to the house. You couldn't know there WAS any strawberry patch behind that thick row of trees-or a garden, or anything else."

"He's got a row of stakes running clear across the patch," Evadna recalled suddenly. "Just like they do for a new street, or a railroad, or something. And-"

Good Indian pushed back his chair with a harsh, scraping noise, and rose. He was staring hard at Baumberger, and his whole face had sharpened till it had the cold, unyielding look of an Indian. And suddenly Baumberger raised his head and met full that look. For two breaths their eyes held each other, and then Baumberger glanced casually at Peaceful.

"Sounds queer-must be some mistake, though. You must have seen something, girl, that reminded you of stakes. The stub off a sagebrush maybe?" He ogled her quite frankly. "When a little girl gets scared-Sick the dogs on him," he advised the family collectively, his manner changing to a blustering anxiety that her fright should be avenged.

Evadna seemed to take his tone as a direct challenge. "I was scared, but I know quite well what I saw. He wasn't a tramp. He had a regular camp, with a coffee-pot and frying-pan and blankets. And there a line of stakes across the strawberry patch."

Before, the breakfast had continued to seem an important incident temporarily suspended. Now Peaceful Hart laid hand to his beard, eyed his wife questioningly, let his glance flicker over the faces of his sons, and straightened his shoulders unconsciously. Good Indian was at the door, his mouth set in a thin, straight, fighting line. Wally and Jack were sliding their chairs back from the table preparing to follow him.

"I guess it ain't anything much," Peaceful opined optimistically. "They can't do anything but steal berries, and they're most gone, anyhow. Go ask him what he wants, down there." The last sentence was but feeble sort of fiction that his boys would await his commands; as a matter of fact, they were outside before he spoke.

"Take the dogs along," called out Baumberger, quite as futilely, for not one of the boys was within hearing.

Until they heard footsteps returning at a run, the four stayed where they were. Baumberger rumbled on in a desultory sort of way, which might have caused an observant person to wonder where was his lawyer training, and the deep cunning and skill with which he was credited, for his words were as profitless and inconsequential as an old woman's. He talked about tramps, and dogs that barked o' nights, and touched gallantly upon feminine timidity and the natural, protective instincts of men.

Peaceful Hart may have heard half of what he said-but more likely he heard none of it. He sat drawing his white beard through his hand, and his mild, blue eyes were turned often to Phoebe in mute question. Phoebe herself was listening, but not to Baumberger; she was permitting Evadna to tuck in stray locks of her soft, brown hair, but her face was turned to the door which opened upon the porch. At the first clatter of running footsteps on the porch, she and Peaceful pushed back their chairs instinctively.

The runner was Donny, and every freckle stood out distinctly upon his face.

"There's four of 'em, papa!" he shouted, all in one breath. "They're jumpin' the ranch for placer claims. They said so. Each one's got a claim, and they're campin' on the corners, so they'll be close together. They're goin' to wash gold. Good Injun-"

"Oh!" screamed Evadna suddenly. "Don't let him-don't let them hurt him, Uncle Hart!"

"Aw, they ain't fightin'," Donny assured her disgustedly. "They're chewin' the rag down there, is all. Good Injun knows one of 'em."

Peaceful Hart stood indecisively, and stared, one and gripping the back of his chair. His lips were working so that his beard bristled about his mouth.

"They can't do nothing-the ranch belongs to me," he said, his eyes turning rather helplessly to Baumberger. "I've got my patent."

"Jumping our ranch!-for placer claims!" Phoebe stood up, leaning hard upon the table with both hands. "And we've lived here ever since Clark was a baby!"

"Now, now, let's not get excited over this," soothed Baumberger, getting out of his chair slowly, like the overfed glutton he was. He picked up a crisp fragment of biscuit, crunched it between his teeth, and chewed it slowly. "Can't be anything serious-and if it is, why-I'm here. A lawyer right on the spot may save a lot of trouble. The main thing is, let's not get excited and do something rash. Those boys-"

"Not excited?-and somebody jumping-our-ranch?" Phoebe's soft eyes gleamed at him. She was pale, so that her face had a peculiar, ivory tint.

"Now, now!" Baumberger put out a puffy hand admonishingly. "Let's keep cool-that's half the battle won. Keep cool." He reached for his pipe, got out his twisted leather tobacco pouch, and opened it with a twirl of his thumb and finger.

"You're a lawyer, Mr. Baumberger," Peaceful turned to him, still helpless in his manner. "What's the best thing to be done?"

"Don't-get-excited." Baumberger nodded his head for every word. "That's what I always say when a client comes to me all worked up. We'll go down there and see just how much there is to this, and-order 'em off. Calmly, calmly! No violence-no threats-just tell 'em firmly and quietly to leave." He stuffed his pipe carefully, pressing down the tobacco with the tip of a finger. "Then," he added with slow emphasis, "if they don't go, after-say twenty-four hours' notice-why, we'll proceed to serve an injunction." He drew a match along the back of his chair, and lighted his pipe.

"I reckon we'd better go and look after those boys of yours," he suggested, moving toward the door rather quickly, for all his apparent deliberation. "They're inclined to be hot-headed, and we must have no violence, above all things. Keep it a civil matter right through. Much easier to handle in court, if there's no violence to complicate the case."

"They're looking for it," Phoebe reminded him bluntly. "The man had a gun, and threw down on Vadnie."

"He only pointed it at me, auntie," Evadna corrected, ignorant of the Western phrase.

The two women followed the men outside and into the shady yard, where the trees hid completely what lay across the road and beyond the double row of poplars. Donny, leaning far forward and digging his bare toes into the loose soil for more speed, raced on ahead, anxious to see and hear all that took place.

"If the boys don't stir up a lot of antagonism," Baumberger kept urging Peaceful and Phoebe, as they hurried into the garden, "the matter ought to be settled without much trouble. You can get an injunction, and-"

"The idea of anybody trying to hold our place for mineral land!" Phoebe's indignation was cumulative always, and was now bubbling into wrath. "Why, my grief! Thomas spent one whole summer washing every likely spot around here. He never got anything better than colors on this ranch-and you can get them anywhere in Idaho, almost. And to come right into our garden, in the right-and stake a placer claim!" Her anger seemed beyond further utterance. "The idea!" she finished weakly.

"Well-but we mustn't let ourselves get excited," soothed Baumberger, the shadow of him falling darkly upon Peaceful and Phoebe as he strode along, upon the side next the sun. Peppajee would have called that an evil thing, portending much trouble and black treachery.

"That's where people always blunder in a thing like this. A little cool-headedness goes farther than hard words or lead. And," he added cheeringly, "it may be a false alarm, remember. We won't borrow trouble. We'll just make sure of our ground, first thing we do."

"It's always easy enough to be calm over the other fellow's trouble," said Phoebe sharply, irritated in an indefinable wa

y by the oily optimism of the other. "It ain't your ox that's gored, Mr. Baumberger."

They skirted the double row of grapevines, picked their way over a spot lately flooded from the ditch, which they crossed upon two planks laid side by side, went through an end of the currant patch, made a detour around a small jungle of gooseberry bushes, and so came in sight of the strawberry patch and what was taking place near the lightning-scarred apricot tree. Baumberger lengthened his stride, and so reached the spot first.

The boys were grouped belligerently in the strawberry patch, just outside a line of new stakes, freshly driven in the ground. Beyond that line stood a man facing them with a.45-.70 balanced in the hollow of his arm. In the background stood three other men in open spaces in the shrubbery, at intervals of ten rods or so, and they also had rifles rather conspicuously displayed. They were grinning, all three. The man just over the line was listening while Good Indian spoke; the voice of Good Indian was even and quiet, as if he were indulging in casual small talk of the country, but that particular claim-jumper was not smiling. Even from a distance they could see that he was fidgeting uncomfortably while he listened, and that his breath was beginning to come jerkily.

"Now, roll your blankets and GIT!" Good Indian finished sharply, and with the toe of his boot kicked the nearest stake clear of the loose soil. He stooped, picked it up, and cast it contemptuously from him. It landed three feet in front of the man who had planted it, and he jumped and shifted the rifle significantly upon his arm, so that the butt of it caressed his right shoulder-joint.

"Now, now, we don't want any overt acts of violence here," wheezed Baumberger, laying hand upon Good Indian's shoulder from behind. Good Indian shook off the touch as if it were a tarantula upon him.

"You go to the devil," he advised chillingly.

"Tut, tut!" Baumberger reproved gently. "The ladies are within hearing, my boy. Let's get at this thing sensibly and calmly. Violence only makes things worse. See how quiet Wally and Jack and Clark and Gene are! THEY realize how childishly spiteful it would be for them to follow your example. They know better. They don't want-"

Jack grinned, and hitched his gun into plainer view. "When we start in, it won't be STICKS we're sending to His Nibs," he observed placidly. "We're just waiting for him to ante."

"This," said Baumberger, a peculiar gleam coming into his leering, puffy-lidded eyes, and a certain hardness creeping into his voice, "this is a matter for your father and me to settle. It's just-a-bide-beyond you youngsters. This is a civil case. Don't foolishly make it come under the criminal code. But there!" His voice purred at them again. "You won't. You're all too clear-headed and sensible."

"Oh, sure!" Wally gave his characteristic little snort. "We're only just standing around to see how fast the cabbages grow!"

Baumberger advanced boldly across the dead line.

"Stanley, put down that gun, and explain your presence here and your object," he rumbled. "Let's get at this thing right end to. First, what are you doing here?"

The man across the line did not put down his rifle, except that he let the butt of it drop slightly away from his shoulder so that the sights were in alignment with an irrigating shovel thrust upright into the ground ten feet to one side of the group. His manner lost little of its watchfulness, and his voice was surly with defiance when he spoke. But Good Indian, regarding him suspiciously through half-closed lids, would have sworn that a look of intelligence flashed between those two. There was nothing more than a quiver of his nostrils to betray him as he moved over beside Evadna-for the pure pleasure of being near her, one would think; in reality, while the pleasure was there, that he might see both Baumberger's face and Stanley's without turning more than his eyes.

"All there is to it," Stanley began blustering, "you see before yuh. I've located twenty acres here as a placer claim. That there's the northwest corner-ap-prox'm'tley-close as I could come by sightin'. Your fences are straight with yer land, and I happen to sabe all yer corners. I've got a right here. I believe this ground is worth more for the gold that's in it than for the turnips you can make grow on top-and that there makes mineral land of it, and as such, open to entry. That's accordin' to law. I ain't goin' to build no trouble-but I sure do aim to defend my prope'ty rights if I have to. I realize yuh may think diffrunt from me. You've got a right to prove, if yuh can, that all this ain't mineral land. I've got jest as much right to prove it is."

He took a breath so deep it expanded visibly his chest-a broad, muscular chest it was-and let his eyes wander deliberately over his audience.

"That there's where I stand," he stated, with arrogant self-assurance. His mouth drew down at the corners in a smile which asked plainly what they were going to do about it, and intimated quite as plainly that he did not care what they did, though he might feel a certain curiosity as an onlooker.

"I happen to know-" Peaceful began, suddenly for him. But Baumberger waved him into silence.

"You'll have to prove there's gold in paying quantities here," he stated pompously.

"That's what I aim to do," Stanley told him imperturbably.

"I proved, over fifteen years ago, that there WASN'T," Peaceful drawled laconically, and sucked so hard upon his pipe that his cheeks held deep hollows.

Stanley grinned at him. "Sorry I can't let it go at that," he said ironically. "I reckon I'll have to do some washin' myself, though, before I feel satisfied there ain't."

"Then you haven't panned out anything yet?" Phoebe caught him up.

Stanley's eyes flickered a questioning glance at Baumberger, and Baumberger puffed out his chest and said:

"The law won't permit you to despoil this man's property without good reason. We can serve an injunction-"

"You can serve and be darned." Stanley's grin returned, wider than before.

"As Mr. Hart's legal adviser," Baumberger began, in the tone he employed in the courtroom-a tone which held no hint of his wheezy chuckle or his oily reassurance-"I hereby demand that you leave this claim which you have staked out upon Thomas Hart's ranch, and protest that your continued presence here, after twenty-four hours have expired, will be looked upon as malicious trespass, and treated as such."

Stanley still grinned. "As my own legal adviser," he returned calmly, "I hereby declare that you can go plumb to HEL-ena." Stanley evidently felt impelled to adapt his vocabulary to feminine ears, for he glanced at them deprecatingly and as if he wished them elsewhere.

If either Stanley or Baumberger had chanced to look toward Good Indian, he might have wondered why that young man had come, of a sudden, to resemble so strongly his mother's people. He had that stoniness of expression which betrays strong emotion held rigidly in check, with which his quivering nostrils and the light in his half-shut eyes contrasted strangely. He had missed no fleeting glance, no guarded tone, and he was thinking and weighing and measuring every impression as it came to him. Of some things he felt sure; of others he was half convinced; and there was more which he only suspected. And all the while he stood there quietly beside Evadna, his attitude almost that of boredom.

"I think, since you have been properly notified to leave," said Baumberger, with the indefinable air of a lawyer who gathers up his papers relating to one case, thrusts them into his pocket, and turns his attention to the needs of his next client, "we'll just have it out with these other fellows, though I look upon Stanley," he added half humorously, "as a test case. If he goes, they'll all go."

"Better say he's a TOUGH case," blurted Wally, and turned on his heel. "What the devil are they standing around on one foot for, making medicine?" he demanded angrily of Good Indian, who unceremoniously left Evadna and came up with him. "I'D run him off the ranch first, and do my talking about it afterward. That hunk uh pork is kicking up a lot uh dust, but he ain't GETTING anywhere!"

"Exactly." Good Indian thrust both hands deep into his trousers pockets, and stared at the ground before him.

Wally gave another snort. "I don't know how it hits you, Grant-but there's something fishy about it."

"Ex-actly." Good Indian took one long step over the ditch, and went on steadily.

Wally, coming again alongside, turned his head, and regarded him attentively.

"Injun's on top," he diagnosed sententiously after a minute. "Looks like he's putting on a good, thick layer uh war-paint, too." He waited expectantly. "You might hand me the brush when you're through," he hinted grimly. "I might like to get out after some scalps myself."

"That so?" Good Indian asked inattentively, and went on without waiting for any reply. They left the garden, and went down the road to the stable, Wally passively following Grant's lead. Someone came hurrying after them, and they turned to see Jack. The others had evidently stayed to hear the legal harangue to a close.

"Say, Stanley says there's four beside the fellows we saw," Jack announced, rather breathlessly, for he had been running through the loose, heavy soil of the garden to overtake them. "They've located twenty acres apiece, he says-staked 'em out in the night and stuck up their notices-and everyone's going to STICK. They're all going to put in grizzlies and mine the whole thing, he told dad. He just the same as accused dad right out of covering up valuable mineral land on purpose. And he says the law's all on their side." He leaned hard against the stable, and drew his fingers across his forehead, white as a girl's when he pushed back his hat. "Baumberger," he said cheerlessly, "was still talking injunction when I left, but-" He flung out his hand contemptuously.

"I wish dad wasn't so-" began Wally moodily, and let it go at that.

Good Indian threw up his head with that peculiar tightening of lips which meant much in the way of emotion.

"He'll listen to Baumberger, and he'll lose the ranch listening," he stated distinctly. "If there's anything to do, we've got to do it."

"We can run 'em off-maybe," suggested Jack, his fighting instincts steadied by the vivid memory of four rifles held by four men, who looked thoroughly capable of using them.

"This isn't a case of apple-stealing," Good Indian quelled sharply, and got his rope from his saddle with the manner of a man who has definitely made up his mind.

"What CAN we do, then?" Wally demanded impatiently.

"Not a thing at present." Good Indian started for the little pasture, where Keno was feeding and switching methodically at the flies. "You fellows can do more by doing nothing to-day than if you killed off the whole bunch."

He came back in a few minutes with his horse, and found the two still moodily discussing the thing. He glanced at them casually, and went about the business of saddling.

"Where you going?" asked Wally abruptly, when Grant was looping up the end of his latigo.

"Just scouting around a little," was the unsatisfactory reply he got, and he scowled as Good Indian rode away.

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