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Old Wives Tales








From: Good Indian

Down the winding trail of Snake River bluff straggled a blanketed half
dozen of old Wolfbelly's tribe, the braves stalking moodily in front and
kicking up a gray cloud of dust which enveloped the squaws behind them
but could not choke to silence their shrill chatter; for old Hagar was
there, and Viney, and the incident of the dog was fresh in their minds
and tickling their tongues.

The Hart boys were assembled at the corral, halter-breaking a
three-year-old for the pure fun of it. Wally caught sight of the
approaching blotch of color, and yelled a wordless greeting; him had
old Hagar carried lovingly upon her broad shoulders with her own papoose
when he was no longer than her arm; and she knew his voice even at that
distance, and grinned--grinned and hid her joy in a fold of her dingy
red blanket.

"Looks like old Wolfbelly's back," Clark observed needlessly. "Donny, if
they don't go to the house right away, you go and tell mum they're here.
Chances are the whole bunch'll hang around till supper."

"Say!" Gene giggled with fourteen-year-old irrepressibility. "Does
anybody know where Vadnie is? If we could spring 'em on her and make her
believe they're on the warpath--say, I'll gamble she'd run clear to the
Malad!"

"I told her, cross my heart, this morning that the Injuns are peaceful
now. I said Good Injun was the only one that's dangerous--oh, I sure did
throw a good stiff load, all right!" Clark grinned at the memory. "I've
got to see Grant first, when he gets back, and put him wise to the rep
he's got. Vad didn't hardly swallow it. She said: 'Why, Cousin Clark!
Aunt Phoebe says he's perfectly lovely!"' Clark mimicked the girl's
voice with relish.

"Aw--there's a lot of squaws tagging along behind!" Donny complained
disgustedly from his post of observation on the fence. "They'll go to
the house first thing to gabble--there's old Hagar waddling along like
a duck. You can't make that warpath business stick, Clark--not with all
them squaws."

"Well, say, you sneak up and hide somewhere till yuh see if Vadnie's
anywhere around. If they get settled down talking to mum, they're
good for an hour--she's churning, Don--you hide in the rocks by the
milk-house till they get settled. And I'll see if--Git! Pikeway, while
they're behind the stacks!"

Donny climbed down and scurried through the sand to the house as if his
very life depended upon reaching it unseen. The group of Indians came
up, huddled at the corral, and peered through the stout rails.

"How! How!" chorused the boys, and left the horse for a moment while
they shook hands ceremoniously with the three bucks. Three Indians,
Clark decided regretfully, would make a tame showing on the warpath,
however much they might lend themselves to the spirit of the joke. He
did not quite know how he was going to manage it, but he was hopeful
still. It was unthinkable that real live Indians should be permitted to
come and go upon the ranch without giving Evadna Ramsey, straight from
New Jersey, the scare of her life.

The three bucks, grunting monosyllabic greetings' climbed, in all the
dignity of their blankets, to the top rail of the corral, and roosted
there to watch the horse-breaking; and for the present Clark held his
peace.

The squaws hovered there for a moment longer, peeping through the rails.
Then Hagar--she of much flesh and more temper--grunted a word or two,
and they turned and plodded on to where the house stood hidden away
in its nest of cool green. For a space they stood outside the fence,
peering warily into the shade, instinctively cautious in their manner of
approaching a strange place, and detained also by the Indian etiquette
which demands that one wait until invited to enter a strange camp.

After a period of waiting which seemed to old Hagar sufficient, she
pulled her blanket tight across her broad hips, waddled to the
gate, pulled it open with self-conscious assurance, and led the way
soft-footedly around the house to where certain faint sounds betrayed
the presence of Phoebe Hart in her stone milk-house.

At the top of the short flight of wide stone steps they stopped and
huddled silently, until the black shadow of them warned Phoebe of their
presence. She had lived too long in the West to seem startled when she
suddenly discovered herself watched by three pair of beady black eyes,
so she merely nodded, and laid down her butter-ladle to shake hands all
around.

"How, Hagar? How, Viney? How, Lucy? Heap glad to see you. Bueno
buttermilk--mebbyso you drinkum?"

However diffident they might be when it came to announcing their
arrival, their bashfulness did not extend to accepting offers of food
or drink. Three brown hands were eagerly outstretched--though it was the
hand of Hagar which grasped first the big tin cup. They not only
drank, they guzzled, and afterward drew a fold of blanket across their
milk-white lips, and grinned in pure animal satisfaction.

"Bueno. He-e-ap bueno!" they chorused appreciatively, and squatted at
the top of the stone steps, watching Phoebe manipulate the great ball of
yellow butter in its wooden bowl.

After a brief silence, Hagar shook the tangle of unkempt, black hair
away from her moonlike face, and began talking in a soft monotone, her
voice now and then rising to a shrill singsong.

"Mebbyso Tom, mebbyso Sharlie, mebbyso Sleeping Turtle all time come
along," she announced. "Stop all time corral, talk yo' boys. Mebbyso
heap likum drink yo' butter water. Bueno."

When Phoebe nodded assent, Hagar went on to the news which had brought
her so soon to the ranch--the news which satisfied both an old grudge
and her love of gossip.

"Good Injun, him all time heap kay bueno," she stated emphatically, her
sloe black eyes fixed unwaveringly upon Phoebe's face to see if the stab
was effective. "Good Injun come Hartley, all time drunk likum pig.

"All time heap yell, heap shoot--kay bueno. Wantum fight
Man-that-coughs. Come all time camp, heap yell, heap shoot some more. I
fetchum dog--Viney dog--heap dragum through sagebrush--dog all time cry,
no can get away--me thinkum kill that dog. Squaws cry--Viney cry--Good
Injun"--Hagar paused here for greater effect--"makum horse all time
buck--ridum in wikiup--Hagar wikiup--all time breakum--no can fix that
wikiup. Good Injun, hee-e-ap kay bueno!" At the last her voice was high
and tremulous with anger.

"Good Indian mebbyso all same my boy Wally." Phoebe gave the butter a
vicious slap. "Me heap love Good Indian. You no call Good Indian, you
call Grant. Grant bueno. Heap bueno all time. No drunk, no yell, no
shoot, mebbyso"--she hesitated, knowing well the possibilities of her
foster son--"mebbyso catchum dog--me think no catchum. Grant all same my
boy. All time me likum--heap bueno."

Viney and Lucy nudged each other and tittered into their blankets,
for the argument was an old one between Hagar and Phoebe, though the
grievance of Hagar might be fresh. Hagar shifted her blanket and thrust
out a stubborn under lip.

"Wally boy, heap bueno," she said; and her malicious old face softened
as she spoke of him, dear as her own first-born. "Jack bueno, mebbyso
Gene bueno, mebbyso Clark, mebbyso Donny all time bueno." Doubt was in
her voice when she praised those last two, however, because of their
continual teasing. She stopped short to emphasize the damning contrast.
"Good Injun all same mebbyso yo' boy Grant, hee-ee-eap kay bueno. Good
Injun Grant all time DEBBIL!"

It was at this point that Donny slipped away to report that "Mamma and
old Hagar are scrappin' over Good Injun again," and told with glee the
tale of his misdeeds as recounted by the squaw.

Phoebe in her earnestness forgot to keep within the limitations of their
dialect.

"Grant's a good boy, and a smart boy. There isn't a better-hearted
fellow in the country, if I have got five boys of my own. You think
I like him better than I like Wally, is all ails you, Hagar. You're
jealous of Grant, and you always have been, ever since his father
left him with me. I hope my heart's big enough to hold them all." She
remembered then that they could not understand half she was saying, and
appealed to Viney. Viney liked Grant.

"Viney, you tell me. Grant no come Hartley, no drunk, no yell, no
catchum you dog, no ride in Hagar's wikiup? You tell me, Viney."

Viney and Lucy bobbed their heads rapidly up and down. Viney, with a
sidelong glance at Hagar, spoke softly.

"Good Injun Grant, mebbyso home Hartley," she admitted reluctantly, as
if she would have been pleased to prove Hagar a liar in all things.
"Me thinkum no drunk. Mebbyso ketchum dog--dog kay bueno, mebbyso me
killing. Good Injun Grant no heap yell, no shoot all time--mebbyso no
drunk. No breakum wikiup. Horse all time kay bueno, Hagar--"

"Shont-isham!" (big lie) Hagar interrupted shrilly then, and Viney
relapsed into silence, her thin face growing sullen under the upbraiding
she received in her native tongue. Phoebe, looking at her attentively,
despaired of getting any nearer the truth from any of them.

There was a sudden check to Hagar's shrewish clamor. The squaws
stiffened to immobility and listened stolidly, their eyes alone
betraying the curiosity they felt. Off somewhere at the head of the tiny
pond, hidden away in the jungle of green, a voice was singing; a girl's
voice, and a strange voice--for the squaws knew well the few women
voices along the Snake.

"That my girl," Phoebe explained, stopping the soft pat--pat of her
butter-ladle.

"Where ketchum yo' girl?" Hagar forgot her petulance, and became curious
as any white woman.

"Me ketchum 'way off, where sun come up. In time me have heap
boys--mebbyso want girl all time. My mother's sister's boy have one
girl, 'way off where sun come up. My mother's sister's boy die, his
wife all same die, that girl mebbyso heap sad; no got father, no got
mother--all time got nobody. Kay bueno. That girl send one letter, say
all time got nobody. Me want one girl. Me send one letter, tell that
girl come, be all time my girl. Five days ago, that girl come. Her heap
glad; boys all time heap glad, my man heap glad. Bueno. Mebbyso you glad
me have one girl." Not that their approval was necessary, or even of
much importance; but Phoebe was accustomed to treat them like spoiled
children.

Hagar's lip was out-thrust again. "Yo' ketchum one girl, mebbyso yo' no
more likum my boy Wally. Kay bueno."

"Heap like all my boys jus' same," Phoebe hastened to assure her, and
added with a hint of malice, "Heap like my boy Grant all same."

"Huh!" Hagar chose to remain unconvinced and antagonistic. "Good Injun
kay bueno. Yo' girl, mebbyso kay bueno."

"What name yo' girl?" Viney interposed hastily.

"Name Evadna Ramsey." In spite of herself, Phoebe felt a trifle chilled
by their lack of enthusiasm. She went back to her butter-making in
dignified silence.

The squaws blinked at her stolidly. Always they were inclined toward
suspicion of strangers, and perhaps to a measure of jealousy as well.
Not many whites received them with frank friendship as did the Hart
family, and they felt far more upon the subject than they might put into
words, even the words of their own language.

Many of the white race looked upon them as beggars, which was bad
enough, or as thieves, which was worse; and in a general way they could
not deny the truth of it. But they never stole from the Harts, and they
never openly begged from the Harts. The friends of the Harts, however,
must prove their friendship before they could hope for better than an
imperturbable neutrality. So they would not pretend to be glad. Hagar
was right--perhaps the girl was no good. They would wait until they
could pass judgment upon this girl who had come to live in the wikiup
of the Harts. Then Lucy, she who longed always for children and had been
denied by fate, stirred slightly, her nostrils aquiver.

"Mebbyso bueno yo' girl," she yielded, speaking softly. "Mebbyso see
yo' girl."

Phoebe's face cleared, and she called, in mellow crescendo: "Oh,
Va-ad-NIEE?" Immediately the singing stopped.

"Coming, Aunt Phoebe," answered the voice.

The squaws wrapped themselves afresh in their blankets, passed brown
palms smoothingly down their hair from the part in the middle, settled
their braids upon their bosoms with true feminine instinct, and waited.
They heard her feet crunching softly in the gravel that bordered the
pond, but not a head turned that way; for all the sign of life they
gave, the three might have been mere effigies of women. They heard a
faint scream when she caught sight of them sitting there, and their
faces settled into more stolid indifference, adding a hint of antagonism
even to the soft eyes of Lucy, the tender, childless one.

"Vadnie, here are some new neighbors I want you to get acquainted with."
Phoebe's eyes besought the girl to be calm. "They're all old friends of
mine. Come here and let me introduce you--and don't look so horrified,
honey!"

Those incorrigibles, her cousins, would have whooped with joy at her
unmistakable terror when she held out a trembling hand and gasped
faintly: "H-how do you--do?"

"This Hagar," Phoebe announced cheerfully; and the old squaw caught the
girl's hand and gripped it tightly for a moment in malicious enjoyment
of her too evident fear and repulsion.

"This Viney."

Viney, reading Evadna's face in one keen, upward glance, kept her hands
hidden in the folds of her blanket, and only nodded twice reassuringly.

"This Lucy."

Lucy read also the girl's face; but she reached up, pressed her hand
gently, and her glance was soft and friendly. So the ordeal was over.

"Bring some of that cake you baked to-day, honey--and do brace up!"
Phoebe patted her upon the shoulder.

Hagar forestalled the hospitable intent by getting slowly upon her fat
legs, shaking her hair out of her eyes, and grunting a command to the
others. With visible reluctance Lucy and Viney rose also, hitched their
blankets into place, and vanished, soft-footed as they had come.

"Oo-oo!" Evadna stared at the place where they were not. "Wild
Indians--I thought the boys were just teasing when they said so--and
it's really true, Aunt Phoebe?"

"They're no wilder than you are," Phoebe retorted impatiently.

"Oh, they ARE wild. They're exactly like in my history--and they don't
make a sound when they go--you just look, and they're gone! That old fat
one--did you see how she looked at me? As if she wanted to--SCALP me,
Aunt Phoebe! She looked right at my hair and--"

"Well, she didn't take it with her, did she? Don't be silly. I've known
old Hagar ever since Wally was a baby. She took him right to her own
wikiup and nursed him with her own papoose for two months when I was
sick, and Viney stayed with me day and night and pulled me through. Lucy
I've known since she was a papoose. Great grief, child! Didn't you hear
me say they're old friends? I wanted you to be nice to them, because
if they like you there's nothing they won't do for you. If they don't,
there's nothing they WILL do. You might as well get used to them--"

Out by the gate rose a clamor which swept nearer and nearer until the
noise broke at the corner of the house like a great wave, in a tumult of
red blanket, flying black hair, the squalling of a female voice, and
the harsh laughter of the man who carried the disturbance, kicking and
clawing, in his arms. Fighting his way to the milk-house, he dragged the
squaw along beside the porch, followed by the Indians and all the Hart
boys, a yelling, jeering audience.

"You tell her shont-isham! Ah-h--you can't break loose, you old
she-wildcat. Quit your biting, will you? By all the big and little
spirits of your tribe, you'll wish--"

Panting, laughing, swearing also in breathless exclamations, he forced
her to the top of the steps, backed recklessly down them, and came to
a stop in the corner by the door. Evadna had taken refuge there; and he
pressed her hard against the rough wall without in the least realizing
that anything was behind him save unsentient stone.

"Now, you sing your little song, and be quick about it!" he commanded
his captive sternly. "You tell Mother Hart you lied. I hear she's been
telling you I'm drunk, Mother Hart--didn't you, you old beldam? You say
you heap sorry you all time tellum lie. You say: 'Good Injun, him all
time heap bueno.' Say: 'Good Injun no drunk, no heap shoot, no heap
yell--all time bueno.' Quick, or I'll land you headforemost in that
pond, you infernal old hag!"

"Good Injun hee-eeap kay bueno! Heap debbil all time." Hagar might be
short of breath, but her spirit was unconquered, and her under lip bore
witness to her stubbornness.

Phoebe caught him by the arm then, thinking he meant to make good his
threat--and it would not have been unlike Grant Imsen to do so.

"Now, Grant, you let her go," she coaxed. "I know you aren't drunk--of
course, I knew it all the time. I told Hagar so. What do you care what
she says about you? You don't want to fight an old woman, Grant--a man
can't fight a woman--"

"You tell her you heap big liar!" Grant did not even look at Phoebe,
but his purpose seemed to waver in spite of himself. "You all time kay
bueno. You all time lie." He gripped her more firmly, and turned his
head slightly toward Phoebe. "You'd be tired of it yourself if she threw
it into you like she does into me, Mother Hart. It's got so I can't ride
past this old hag in the trail but she gives me the bad eye, and mumbles
into her blanket. And if I look sidewise, she yowls all over the country
that I'm drunk. I'm getting tired of it!" He shook the squaw as a puppy
shakes a shoe--shook her till her hair quite hid her ugly old face from
sight.

"All right--Mother Hart she tellum mebbyso let you go. This time I no
throw you in pond. You heap take care next time, mebbyso. You no tellum
big lie, me all time heap drunk. You kay bueno. All time me tellum
Mother Hart, tellum boys, tellum Viney, Lucy, tellum Charlie and Tom and
Sleeping Turtle you heap big liar. Me tell Wally shont-isham. Him all
time my friend--mebbyso him no likum you no more.

"Huh. Get out--pikeway before I forget you're a lady!"

He laughed ironically, and pushed her from him so suddenly that she
sprawled upon the steps. The Indians grinned unsympathetically at her,
for Hagar was not the most popular member of the tribe by any means.
Scrambling up, she shook her witch locks from her face, wrapped herself
in her dingy blanket, and scuttled away, muttering maledictions under
her breath. The watching group turned and followed her, and in a few
seconds the gate was heard to slam shut behind them. Grant stood where
he was, leaning against the milk-house wall; and when they were gone, he
gave a short, apologetic laugh.

"No need to lecture, Mother Hart. I know it was a fool thing to do; but
when Donny told me what the old devil said, I was so mad for a minute--"

Phoebe caught him again by the arm and pulled him forward. "Grant!
You're squeezing Vadnie to death, just about! Great grief, I forgot all
about the poor child being here! You poor little--"

"Squeezing who?" Grant whirled, and caught a brief glimpse of a crumpled
little figure behind him, evidently too scared to cry, and yet not quite
at the fainting point of terror. He backed, and began to stammer an
apology; but she did not wait to hear a word of it. For an instant
she stared into his face, and then, like a rabbit released from its
paralysis of dread, she darted past him and deaf up the stone steps into
the house. He heard the kitchen-door shut, and the click of the lock.
He heard other doors slam suggestively; and he laughed in spite of his
astonishment.

"And who the deuce might that be?" he asked, feeling in his pocket for
smoking material.

Phoebe seemed undecided between tears and laughter. "Oh, Grant, GRANT!
She'll think you're ready to murder everybody on the ranch--and you can
be such a nice boy when you want to be! I did hope--"

"I don't want to be nice," Grant objected, drawing a match along a
fairly smooth rock.

"Well, I wanted you to appear at your best; and, instead of that, here
you come, squabbling with old Hagar like--"

"Yes--sure. But who is the timid lady?"

"Timid! You nearly killed the poor girl, besides scaring her half to
death, and then you call her timid. I know she thought there was going
to be a real Indian massacre, right here, and she'd be scalped--"

Wally Hart came back, laughing to himself.

"Say, you've sure cooked your goose with old Hagar, Grant! She's right
on the warpath, and then some. She'd like to burn yuh alive--she said
so. She's headed for camp, and all the rest of the bunch at her heels.
She won't come here any more till you're kicked off the ranch, as near
as I could make out her jabbering. And she won't do your washing any
more, mum--she said so. You're kay bueno yourself, because you take Good
Indian's part. We're all kay bueno--all but me. She wanted me to quit
the bunch and go live in her wikiup. I'm the only decent one in the
outfit." He gave his mother an affectionate little hug as he went past,
and began an investigative tour of the stone jars on the cool rock floor
within. "What was it all about, Grant? What did yuh do to her, anyway?"

"Oh, it wasn't anything. Hand me up a cup of that buttermilk, will you?
They've got a dog up there in camp that I'm going to kill some of these
days--if they don't beat me to it. He was up at the store, and when I
went out to get my horse, he tried to take a leg off me. I kicked him
in the nose and he came at me again, so when I mounted I just dropped
my loop over Mr. Dog. Sleeping Turtle was there, and he said the dog
belonged to Viney, So I just led him gently to camp."

He grinned a little at the memory of his gentleness. "I told Viney I
thought he'd make a fine stew, and, they'd better use him up right away
before he spoiled. That's all there was to it. Well, Keno did sink his
head and pitch around camp a little, but not to amount to anything. He
just stuck his nose into old Hagar's wikiup--and one sniff seemed to be
about all he wanted. He didn't hurt anything."

He took a meditative bite of cake, finished the buttermilk in three
rapturous swallows, and bethought him of the feminine mystery.

"If you please, Mother Hart, who was that Christmas angel I squashed?"

"Vad? Was Vad in on it, mum? I never saw her." Wally straightened up
with a fresh chunk of cake in his hand. "Was she scared?"

"Yes," his mother admitted reluctantly, "I guess she was, all right.
First the squaws--and, poor girl, I made her shake hands all round--and
then Grant here, acting like a wild hyena--"

"Say, PLEASE don't tell me who she is, or where she belongs, or anything
like that," Grant interposed, with some sarcasm. "I smashed her flat
between me and the wall, and I scared the daylights out of her; and I'm
told I should have appeared at my best. But who she is, or where she
belongs--"

"She belongs right here." Phoebe's tone was a challenge, whether she
meant it to be so or not. "This is going to be her home from now on; and
I want you boys to treat her nicer than you've been doing. She's been
here a week almost; and there ain't one of you that's made friends with
her yet, or tried to, even. You've played jokes on her, and told her
things to scare her--and my grief! I was hoping she'd have a softening
influence on you, and make gentlemen of you. And far as I can make out,
just having her on the place seems to put the Old Harry into every one
of you! It isn't right. It isn't the way I expected my boys would act
toward a stranger--a girl especially. And I did hope Grant would behave
better."

"Sure, he ought to. Us boneheads don't know any better--but Grant's
EDUCATED." Wally grinned and winked elaborately at his mother's back.

"I'm not educated up to Christmas angels that look as if they'd been
stepped on," Grant defended himself.

"She's a real nice little thing. If you boys would quit teasing the life
out of her, I don't doubt but what, in six months or so, you wouldn't
know the girl," Phoebe argued, with some heat.

"I don't know the girl now." Grant spoke dryly. "I don't want to. If I'd
held a tomahawk in one hand and her flowing locks in the other, and
was just letting a war-whoop outa me, she'd look at me--the way she did
look." He snorted in contemptuous amusement, and gave a little, writhing
twist of his slim body into his trousers. "I never did like blondes," he
added, in a tone of finality, and started up the steps.

"You never liked anything that wore skirts," Phoebe flung after him
indignantly; and she came very close to the truth.





Next: The Christmas Angel

Previous: Good Indian



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