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   Chapter 21 SOMEBODY SHOT SAUNDERS

Good Indian By B. M. Bower Characters: 16376

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


The hot days dropped, one by one, into the past like fiery beads upon a velvety black cord. Miss Georgie told them silently in the meager little office, and sighed as they slipped from under her white, nervous fingers. One-nothing happened that could be said to bear upon the one big subject in her mind, the routine work of passing trains and dribbling business in the express and freight departments, and a long afternoon of heat and silence save for the asthmatic pump, fifty yards down the main track. Two-this exactly like the first, except that those inseparables, Hagar, Viney, and Lucy, whom Miss Georgie had inelegantly dubbed "the Three Greases," appeared, silent, blanket-enshrouded, and perspiring, at the office door in mid-afternoon. Half a box of soggy chocolates which the heat had rendered a dismally sticky mass won from them smiles and half-intelligible speech. Fishing was poor-no ketchum. Three-not even the diversion of the squaws to make her forget the dragging hours. Nothing-nothing-nothing, she told herself apathetically when that third day had slipped upon the black cord of a soft, warm night, star-sprinkled and unutterably lonely as it brooded over the desert.

On the morning of the fourth day, Miss Georgie woke with the vague sense that something had gone wrong. True railroader as she had come to be, she thought first that there had been a wreck, and that she was wanted at the telegraph instrument. She was up and partly dressed before the steps and the voices which had broken her sleep had reached her door.

Pete Hamilton's voice, trembling with excitement, called to her.

"What is it? What has happened?" she cried from within, beset by a hundred wild conjectures.

"Saunders-somebody shot Saunders. Wire for a doctor, quick as yuh can. He ain't dead yet-but he's goin' t' die, sure. Hurry up and wire-" Somebody at the store called to him, and he broke off to run lumberingly in answer to the summons. Miss Georgie made haste to follow him.

Saunders was lying upon a blanket on the store platform, and Miss Georgie shuddered as she looked at him.

He was pasty white, and his eyes looked glassy under his half-closed lids. He had been shot in the side-at the stable, he had gasped out when Pete found him lying in the trail just back of the store. Now he seemed beyond speech, and the little group of section-hands, the Chinese cook at the section-house, and the Swede foreman, and Pete seemed quite at a loss what to do.

"Take him in and put him to bed," Miss Georgie commanded, turning away. "See if he's bleeding yet, and-well, I should put a cold compress on the wound, I think. I'll send for a doctor-but he can't get here till nine o'clock unless you want to stand the expense of a special. And by that time-"

Saunders moved his head a trifle, and lifted his heavy lids to look at her, which so unnerved Miss Georgie that she turned and ran to the office. When she had sent the message she sat drumming upon the table while she waited for an answer.

"G-r-a-n-" her fingers had spelled when she became conscious of the fact, flushed hotly, and folded her hands tightly together in her lap.

"The doctor will come-Hawkinson, I sent for," she announced later to Pete, holding out the telegram. She glanced reluctantly at the wrinkled blanket where Saunders had lain, caught a corner of her under lip between her teeth, and, bareheaded though she was, went down the steps and along the trail to the stable.

"I've nearly an hour before I need open the office," she said to herself, looking at her watch. She did not say what she meant to do with that hour, but she spent a quarter of it examining the stable and everything in it. Especially did she search the loose, sandy soil in its vicinity for tracks.

Finally she lifted her skirts as a woman instinctively does at a street crossing, and struck off through the sagebrush, her eyes upon a line of uncertain footsteps as of a drunken man reeling that way. They were not easy to follow-or they would not have been if she had not felt certain of the general direction which they must take. More than once she lost sight of them for several rods, but she always picked them up farther along. At one place she stopped, and stood perfectly still, her skirts held back tightly with both hands, while she stared fascinatedly at a red smear upon a broken branch of sage and the smooth-packed hollow in the sand where he must have lain.

"He's got nerve-I'll say that much for him," she observed aloud, and went on.

The footprints were plain where he crossed the grade road near the edge of the bluff, but from there on it was harder to follow them because of the great patches of black lava rock lying even with the surface of the ground, where a dozen men might walk abreast and leave no sign that the untrained eye, at least, could detect.

"This is a case for Indians," she mused, frowning over an open space where all was rock. "Injun Charlie would hunt tracks all day for a dollar or two; only he'd make tracks just to prove himself the real goods." She sighed, stood upon her tiptoes, and peered out over the sage to get her bearings, then started on at a hazard. She went a few rods, found herself in a thick tangle of brush through which she could not force her way, started to back out, and caught her hair on a scraggly scrub which seemed to have as many prongs as there are briers on a rosebush. She was struggling there with her hands fumbling unavailingly at the back of her bowed head, when she was pounced upon by someone or something through the sage. She screamed.

"The-deuce!" Good Indian brought out the milder expletive with the flat intonation which the unexpected presence of a lady frequently gives to a man's speech. "Lucky I didn't take a shot at you through the bushes. I did, almost, when I saw somebody moving here. Is this your favorite place for a morning ramble?" He had one hand still upon her arm, and he was laughing openly at her plight. But he sobered when he stooped a little so that he could see her face, for there were tears in her eyes, and Miss Georgie was not the sort of young woman whom one expects to shed tears for slight cause.

"If you did it-and you must have-I don't see how you can laugh about it, even if he is a crawling reptile of a man that ought to be hung!" The tears were in her voice as well as her eyes, and there were reproach and disappointment also.

"Did what-to whom-to where, to why?" Good Indian let go her arm, and began helpfully striving with the scraggly scrub and its prongs. "Say, I'll just about have to scalp you to get you loose. Would you mind very much, Squaw-talk-far-off?" He ducked and peered into her face again, and again his face sobered. "What's the matter?" he asked, in an entirely different tone-which Miss Georgie, in spite of her mood, found less satisfying than his banter.

"Saunders-OUCH; I'd as soon be scalped and done with, as to have you pull out a hair at a time-Saunders crawled home with a bullet in his ribs. And I thought-"

"Saunders!" Good Indian stared down at her, his hands dropped upon her head.

Miss Georgie reached up, caught him by the wrists, and held him so while she tilted her head that she might look up at him.

"Grant!" she cried softly. "He deserved it. You couldn't help it-he would have shot you down like a dog, just because he was hired to do it, or because of some hold over him. Don't think I blame you-or that anyone would if they knew the truth. I came out to see-I just HAD to make sure-but you must get away from here. You shouldn't have stayed so long-" Miss Georgie gave a most unexpected sob, and stopped that she might grit her teeth in anger over it.

"You think I shot him." As Good Indian said it, the sentence was merely a statement, rather than an accusation or a reproach.

"I don't blame you. I suspected he was the man up here with the rifle. That day-that first day, when you told me about someone shooting at you-he came over to the station. And I saw two or three scraps of sage sticking under his shirt-collar, as if he had been out in the brush; you know how it breaks off and sticks, when you go

through it. And he said he had been asleep. And there isn't any sage where a man would have to go through it unless he got right out in it, away from the trails. I thought then that he was the man-"

"You didn't tell me." And this time he spoke reproachfully.

"It was after you had left that I saw it. And I did go down to the ranch to tell you. But I-you were so-occupied-in other directions-" She let go his wrists, and began fumbling at her hair, and she bowed her head again so that her face was hidden from him.

"You could have told me, anyway," Good Indian said constrainedly.

"You didn't want her to know. I couldn't, before her. And I didn't want to-hurt her by-" Miss Georgie fumbled more with her words than with her hair.

"Well, there's no use arguing about that." Good Indian also found that subject a difficult one. "You say he was shot. Did he say-"

"He wasn't able to talk when I saw him. Pete said Saunders claimed he was shot at the stable, but I know that to be a lie." Miss Georgie spoke with unfeeling exactness. "That was to save himself in case he got well, I suppose. I believe the man is going to die, if he hasn't already; he had the look-I've seen them in wrecks, and I know. He won't talk; he can't. But there'll be an investigation-and Baumberger, I suspect, will be just as willing to get you in this way as in any other. More so, maybe. Because a murder is always awkward to handle."

"I can't see why he should want to murder me." Good Indian took her hands away from her hair, and set himself again to the work of freeing her. "You've been fudging around till you've got about ten million more hairs wound up," he grumbled.

"Wow! ARE you deliberately torturing me?" she complained, winking with the pain of his good intentions. "I don't believe he does want to murder you. I think that was just Saunders trying to make a dandy good job of it. He doesn't like you, anyway-witness the way you bawled him out that day you roped-ow-w!-roped the dog. Baumberger may have wanted him to keep an eye on you-My Heavens, man! Do you think you're plucking a goose?"

"I wouldn't be surprised," he retorted, grinning a little. "Honest! I'm trying to go easy, but this infernal bush has sure got a strangle hold on you-and your hair is so fluffy it's a deuce of a job. You keep wriggling and getting it caught in new places. If you could only manage to stand still-but I suppose you can't.

"By the way," he remarked casually, after a short silence, save for an occasional squeal from Miss Georgie, "speaking of Saunders-I didn't shoot him."

Miss Georgie looked up at him, to the further entanglement of her hair. "You DIDN'T? Then who did?"

"Search ME," he offered figuratively and briefly.

"Well, I will." Miss Georgie spoke with a certain decisiveness, and reaching out a sage-soiled hand, took his gun from the holster at his hip. He shrank away with a man's instinctive dislike of having anyone make free with his weapons, but it was a single movement, which he controlled instantly.

"Stand still, can't you?" he admonished, and kept at work while she examined the gun with a dexterity and ease of every motion which betrayed her perfect familiarity with firearms. She snapped the cylinder into place, sniffed daintily at the end of the barrel, and slipped the gun back into its scabbard.

"Don't think I doubted your word," she said, casting a slanting glance up at him without moving her head. "But I wanted to be able to swear positively, if I should happen to be dragged into the witness-box-I hope it won't be by the hair of the head!-that your gun has not been fired this morning. Unless you carry a cleaning rod with you," she added, "which would hardly be likely."

"You may search me if you like," Good Indian suggested, and for an engaged young man, and one deeply in love withal, he displayed a contentment with the situation which was almost reprehensible.

"No use. If you did pack one with you, you'd be a fool not to throw it away after you had used it. No, I'll swear to the gun as it is now. Are you ever going to get my hair loose? I'm due at the office right this minute, I'll bet a molasses cooky." She looked at her watch, and groaned. "I'd have to telegraph myself back to get there on time now," she said. "Twenty-four-that fast freight-is due in eighteen minutes exactly. I've got to be there. Take your jackknife and cut what won't come loose. Really, I mean it, Mr. Imsen."

"I was under the impression that my name is Grant-to friends."

"My name is 'Dennis,' if I don't beat that freight," she retorted curtly. "Take your knife and give me a hair cut-quick! I can do it a different way, and cover up the place."

"Oh, all right-but it's a shame to leave a nice bunch of hair like this hanging on a bush."

"Tell me, what were you doing up here, Grant? And what are you going to do now? We haven't much time, and we've been fooling when we should have been discussing 'ways and means.'"

"Well, I got up early, and someone took a shot at me again. This time he clipped my hat-brim." He took off his hat, and showed her where the brim had a jagged tear half an inch deep. "I ducked, and made up my mind I'd get him this time, or know the reason why. So I rode up the other way and back behind the orchard, and struck the grade below the Point o' Rocks, and so came up here hunting him. I kept pretty well out of sight-we've done that before; Jack and I took sneak yesterday, and came up here at sunrise, but we couldn't find anything. I was beginning to think he had given it up. So I was just scouting around here when I heard you rustling the bushes over here. I was going to shoot, but I changed my mind, and thought I'd land on you and trust to the lessons I got in football and the gun. And the rest," he declaimed whimsically, "you know.

"Now, duck away down-oh, wait a minute." He gave a jerk at the knot of his neckerchief, flipped out the folds, spread it carefully over her head, and tied it under her chin, patting it into place and tucking stray locks under as if he rather enjoyed doing it. "Better wear it till you're out of the brush," he advised, "if you don't want to get hung up somewhere again."

She stood up straight, with a long, deep sigh of relief.

"Now, pikeway," he smiled. "And don't run bareheaded through the bushes again. You've still got time to beat that train. And-about Saunders-don't worry. I can get to the ranch without being seen, and no one will know I was up here, unless you tell them."

"Oh, I shall of course!" Miss Georgie chose to be very sarcastic. "I think I shall wire the information to the sheriff. Don't come with me-and leave tracks all over the country. Keep on the lava rock. Haven't you got any sense at all?"

"You made tracks yourself, madam, and you've left a fine lot of incriminating evidence on that bush. I'll have to waste an hour picking off the hair, so they won't accuse you of shooting Saunders." Good Indian spoke lightly, but they both stopped, nevertheless, and eyed the offending bush anxiously.

"You haven't time," Miss Georgie decided. "I can easily get around that, if it's put up to me. You go on back. Really, you must!" her eyes implored him.

"Oh, vey-ree well. We haven't met this morning. Good-by, Squaw-talk-far-off. I'll see you later, perhaps."

Miss Georgie still had that freight heavy on her conscience, but she stood and watched him stoop under an overhanging branch and turn his head to smile reassuringly back at her; then, with a pungent stirring of sage odors, the bushes closed in behind him, and it was as if he had never been there at all. Whereupon Miss Georgie once more gathered her skirts together and ran to the trail, and down that to the station.

She met a group of squaws, who eyed her curiously, but she was looking once more at her watch, and paid no attention, although they stood huddled in the trail staring after her. She remembered that she had left the office unlocked and she rushed in, and sank panting into the chair before her telegraph table just as the smoke of the fast freight swirled around the nose of the low, sage-covered hill to the west.

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