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   Chapter 24 PEACEFUL RETURNS

Good Indian By B. M. Bower Characters: 15858

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


That afternoon when the four-thirty-five rushed in from the parched desert and slid to a panting halt beside the station platform, Peaceful Hart emerged from the smoker, descended quietly to the blistering planks, and nodded through the open window to Miss Georgie at her instrument taking train orders.

Behind him perspired Baumberger, purple from the heat and the beer with which he had sought to allay the discomfort of that searing sunlight.

"Howdy, Miss Georgie?" he wheezed, as he passed the window. "Ever see such hot weather in your life? I never did."

Miss Georgie glanced at him while her fingers rattled her key, and it struck her that Baumberger had lost a good deal of his oily amiability since she saw him last. He looked more flabby and loose-lipped than ever, and his leering eyes were streaked plainly with the red veins which told of heavy drinking. She gave him a nod cool enough to lower the thermometer several degrees, and scribbled away upon the yellow pad under her hand as if Baumberger had sunk into the oblivion her temper wished for him. She looked up immediately, however, and leaned forward so that she could see Peaceful just turning to go down the steps.

"Oh, Mr. Hart! Will you wait a minute?" she called clearly above the puffing of the engine. "I've something for you here. Soon as I get this train out-" She saw him stop and turn back to the office, and let it go at that for the present.

"I sure have got my nerve," she observed mentally when the conductor had signaled the engineer and swung up the steps of the smoker, and the wheels were beginning to clank. All she had for Peaceful Hart in that office was anxiety over his troubles. "Just held him up to pry into his private affairs," she put it bluntly to herself. But she smiled at him brightly, and waited until Baumberger had gone lumbering with rather uncertain steps to the store, where he puffed up the steps and sat heavily down in the shade where Pete Hamilton was resting after the excitement of the past thirty-six hours.

"I lied to you, Mr. Hart," she confessed, engagingly. "I haven't a thing for you except a lot of questions, and I simply must ask them or die. I'm not just curious, you know. I'm horribly anxious. Won't you take the seat of honor, please? The ranch won't run off if you aren't there for a few minutes after you had expected to be. I've been waiting to have a little talk with you, and I simply couldn't let the opportunity go by." She talked fast, but she was thinking faster, and wondering if this calm, white-bearded old man thought her a meddlesome fool.

"There's time enough, and it ain't worth much right now," Peaceful said, sitting down in the beribboned rocker and stroking his beard in his deliberate fashion. "It seems to be getting the fashion to be anxious," he drawled, and waited placidly for her to speak.

"You just about swear by old Baumberger, don't you?" she began presently, fiddling with her lead pencil and going straight to the heart of what she wanted to say.

"Well, I dunno. I've kinda learned to fight shy of swearing by anybody, Miss Georgie." His mild blue eyes settled attentively upon her flushed face.

"That's some encouragement, anyhow," she sighed. "Because he's the biggest old blackguard in Idaho and more treacherous than any Indian ever could be if he tried. I just thought I'd tell you, in case you didn't know it. I'm certain as I can be of anything, that he's at the bottom of this placer-claim fraud, and he's just digging your ranch out from under your feet while he wheedles you into thinking he's looking after your interests. I'll bet you never got an injunction against those eight men," she hazarded, leaning toward him with her eyes sparkling as the subject absorbed all her thoughts. "I'll bet anything he kept you fiddling around until those fellows all filed on their claims. And now it's got to go till the case is finally settled in court, because they are technically within their rights in making lawful improvements on their claims.

"Grant," she said, and her voice nearly betrayed her when she spoke his name, "was sure they faked the gold samples they must have used in filing. We both were sure of it. He and the boys tried to catch them at some crooked work, but the nights have been too dark, for one thing, and they were always on the watch, and went up to Shoshone in couples, and there was no telling which two meant to sneak off next. So they have all filed, I suppose. I know the whole eight have been up-"

"Yes, they've all filed-twenty acres apiece-the best part of the ranch. There's a forty runs up over the bluff; the lower line takes in the house and barn and down into the garden where the man they call Stanley run his line through the strawberry patch. That forty's mine yet. It's part uh the homestead. The meadowland is most all included. That was a preemption claim." Peaceful spoke slowly, and there was a note of discouragement in his voice which it hurt Miss Georgie to hear.

"Well, they've got to prove that those claims of theirs are lawful, you know. And if you've got your patent for the homestead-you have got a patent, haven't you?" Something in his face made her fling in the question.

"Y-es-or I thought I had one," he answered dryly. "It seems now there's a flaw in it, and it's got to go back to Washington and be rectified. It ain't legal till that's been done."

Miss Georgie half rose from her chair, and dropped back despairingly. "Who found that mistake?" she demanded. "Baumberger?"

"Y-es, Baumberger. He thought we better go over all the papers ourselves, so the other side couldn't spring anything on us unawares, and there was one paper that hadn't been made out right. So it had to be fixed, of course. Baumberger was real put out about it."

"Oh, of course!" Miss Georgie went to the window to make sure of the gentleman's whereabouts. He was still sitting upon the store porch, and he was just in the act of lifting a tall, glass mug of beer to his gross mouth when she looked over at him. "Pig!" she gritted under her breath. "It's a pity he doesn't drink himself to death." She turned and faced Peaceful anxiously.

"You spoke a while ago as if you didn't trust him implicitly," she said. "I firmly believe he hired those eight men to file on your land. I believe he also hired Saunders to watch Grant, for some reason-perhaps because Grant has shown his hostility from the first. Did you know Saunders-or someone-has been shooting at Grant from the top of the bluff for-well, ever since you left? The last shot clipped his hat-brim. Then Saunders was shot-or shot himself, according to the inquest-and there has been no more rifle practice with Grant for the target."

"N-no, I hadn't heard about that." Peaceful pulled hard at his beard so that his lips were drawn slightly apart. "I don't mind telling yuh," he added slowly, "that I've got another lawyer working on the case-Black. He hates Baumberger, and he'd like to git something on him. I don't want Baumberger should know anything about it, though. He takes it for granted I swallow whole everything he says and does-but I don't. Not by a long shot. Black'll ferret out any crooked work."

"He's a dandy if he catches Baumberger," Miss Georgie averred, gloomily. "I tried a little detective work on my own account. I hadn't any right; it was about the cipher messages Saunders used to send and receive so often before your place was jumped. I was dead sure it was old Baumberger at the other end, and I-well, I struck up a mild sort of flirtation with the operator at Shoshone." She smiled deprecatingly at Peaceful.

"I wanted to find out-and I did by writing a nice letter or two; we have to be pretty cute about what we send over the wires," she explained, "though we do talk back and forth quite a lot, too. There was a news-agent and cigar man-you know that kind of joint, where

they sell paper novels and magazines and tobacco and such-getting Saunders' messages. Jim Wakely is his name. He told the operator that he and Saunders were just practicing; they were going to be detectives, he said, and rigged up a cipher that they were learning together so they wouldn't need any codebook. Pretty thin that-but you can't prove it wasn't the truth. I managed to find out that Baumberger buys cigars and papers of Jim Wakely sometimes; not always, though."

Miss Georgie laughed ruefully, and patted her pompadour absent-mindedly.

"So all I got out of that," she finished, "was a correspondence I could very well do without. I've been trying to quarrel with that operator ever since, but he's so darned easy-tempered!" She went and looked out of the window again uneasily.

"He's guzzling beer over there, and from the look of him he's had a good deal more than he needs already," she informed Peaceful. "He'll burst if he keeps on. I suppose I shouldn't keep you any longer-he's looking this way pretty often, I notice; nothing but the beer-keg holds him, I imagine. And when he empties that-" She shrugged her shoulders, and sat down facing Hart.

"Maybe you could bribe Jim Wakely into giving something away," she suggested. "I'd sure like to see Baumberger stub his toe in this deal! Or maybe you could get around one of those eight beauties you've got camping down on your ranch-but there isn't much chance of that; he probably took good care to pick clams for that job. And Saunders," she added slowly, "is eternally silent. Well, I hope in mercy you'll be able to catch him napping, Mr. Hart."

Peaceful rose stiffly,-and took up his hat from where he had laid it on the table.

"I ain't as hopeful as I was a week ago," he admitted mildly. "Put if there's any justice left in the courts, I'll save the old ranch. My wife and I worked hard to make it what it is, and my boys call it home. We can't save it by anything but law. Fightin' would only make a bad matter worse. I'm obliged to yuh, Miss Georgie, for taking such an interest-and I'll tell Black about Jim Wakely."

"Don't build any hopes on Jim," she warned. "He probably doesn't know anything except that he sent and received messages he couldn't read any sense into."

"Well-there's always a way out, if we can find it. Come down and see us some time. We still got a house to invite our friends to." He smiled drearily at her, gave a little, old-fashioned bow, and went over to join Baumberger-and to ask Pete Hamilton for the use of his team and buckboard.

Miss Georgie, keeping an uneasy vigil over everything that moved in the barren portion of Hartley which her window commanded, saw Pete get up and start listlessly toward the stable; saw Peaceful sit down to wait; and then Pete drove up with the rig, and they started for the ranch. She turned with a startled movement to the office door, because she felt that she was being watched.

"How, Hagar, and Viney, and Lucy," she greeted languidly when she saw the three squaws sidle closer, and reached for a bag of candy for them.

Hagar's greasy paw stretched out greedily for the gift, and placed it in jealous hiding beneath her blanket, but she did not turn to go, as she most frequently did after getting what she came for. Instead, she waddled boldly into the office, her eyes searching cunningly every corner of the little room. Viney and Lucy remained outside, passively waiting. Hagar twitched at something under her blanket, and held out her hand again; this time it was not empty.

"Ketchum sagebrush," she announced laconically. "Mebbyso yo' like for buy?"

Miss Georgie stared fixedly at the hand, and said nothing. Hagar drew it under her blanket, held it fumbling there, and thrust it forth again.

"Ketchum where ketchum hair," she said, and her wicked old eyes twinkled with malice. "Mebbyso yo' like for buy?"

Miss Georgie still stared, and said nothing. Her under lip was caught tightly between her teeth by now, and her eyebrows were pulled close together.

"Ketchum much track, same place," said Hagar grimly. "Good Injun makeum track all same boot. Seeum Good Injun creep, creep in bushes, all time Man-that-coughs be heap kill. Yo' buy hair, buy knife, mebbyso me no tell me seeum Good Injun. Me tell, Good Injun go for jail; mebbyso killum rope." She made a horrible gesture of hanging by the neck. Afterward she grinned still more horribly. "Ketchum plenty mo' dolla, me no tell, mebbyso."

Miss Georgie felt blindly for her chair, and when she touched it she backed and sank into it rather heavily. She looked white and sick, and Hagar eyed her gloatingly.

"Yo' no like for Good Injun be killum rope," she chuckled. "Yo' all time thinkum heap bueno. Mebbyso yo' love. Yo' buy? Yo' payum much dolla?"

Miss Georgie passed a hand slowly over her eyes. She felt numb, and she could not think, and she must think. A shuffling sound at the door made her drop her hand and look up, but there was nothing to lighten her oppressive sense of danger to Grant. Another squaw had appeared, was all. A young squaw, with bright-red ribbons braided into her shining black hair, and great, sad eyes brightening the dull copper tint of her face.

"You no be 'fraid," she murmured shyly to Miss Georgie, and stopped where she was just inside the door. "You no be sad. No trouble come Good Injun. I friend."

Hagar turned, and snarled at her in short, barking words which Miss Georgie could not understand. The young squaw folded her arms inside her bright, plaid shawl, and listened with an indifference bordering closely on contempt, one would judge from her masklike face. Hagar turned from berating her, and thrust out her chin at Miss Georgie.

"I go. Sun go 'way, mebbyso I come. Mebbyso yo' heart bad. Me ketchum much dolla yo', me no tellum, mebbyso. No ketchum, me tell sheriff mans Good Injun all time killum Man-that-coughs." Turning, she waddled out, jabbing viciously at the young squaw with her elbow as she passed, and spitting out some sort of threat or command-Miss Georgie could not tell which.

The young squaw lingered, still gazing shyly at Miss Georgie.

"You no be 'fraid," she repeated softly. "I friend. I take care. No trouble come Good Injun. I no let come. You no be sad." She smiled wistfully, and was gone, as silently as moved her shadow before her on the cinders.

Miss Georgie stood by the window with her fingernails making little red half-moons in her palms, and watched the three squaws pad out of sight on the narrow trail to their camp, with the young squaw following after, until only a black head could be seen bobbing over the brow of the hill. When even that was gone, she turned from the window, and stood for a long minute with her hands pressed tightly over her face. She was trying to think, but instead she found herself listening intently to the monotonous "Ah-h-CHUCK! ah-h-CHUCK!" of the steam pump down the track, and to the spasmodic clicking of an order from the dispatcher to the passenger train two stations to the west.

When the train was cleared and the wires idle, she went suddenly to the table, laid her fingers purposefully upon the key, and called up her chief. It was another two hours' leave of absence she asked for "on urgent business." She got it, seasoned with a sarcastic reminder that her business was supposed to be with the railroad company, and that she would do well to cultivate exactness of expression and a taste for her duties in the office.

She was putting on her hat even while she listened to the message, and she astonished the man at the other end by making no retort whatever. She almost ran to the store, and she did not ask Pete for a saddle-horse; she just threw her office key at him, and told him she was going to take his bay, and she was at the stable before he closed the mouth he had opened in amazement at her whirlwind departure.

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