Midnight Prowlers





Came midnight and moonlight together, and with them came also Good

Indian riding somewhat sullenly down the trail to the ranch. Sullen

because of Evadna's attitude, which seemed to him permanently



antagonistic, and for very slight cause, and which made the ranch an

unpleasant abiding place.



He decided that he would not stop at the ranch, but would go on up

the valley to where one Abuer Hicks lived by himself in a half-dugout,

half-board shack, and by mining a little where his land was untillable,

and farming a little where the soil took kindly to fruit and grasses,

managed to exist without too great hardship. The pension he received for

having killed a few of his fellow-men at the behest of his government

was devoted solely to liquid relief from the monotony of his life,

and welcome indeed was the man who brought him a bottle of joy between

times. Wherefore Good Indian had thoughtfully provided himself with a

quart or so and rode with his mind at ease so far as his welcome at the

Hicks dwelling place was concerned.



Once again the Peaceful Hart ranch lay in brooding silence under the

shadow of the bluff. A few crickets chirped shrilly along the trail, and

from their sudden hush as he drew near marked unerringly his passing.

Along the spring-fed creek the frogs croaked a tuneless medley before

him, and, like the crickets, stopped abruptly and waited in absolute

silence to take up their night chant again behind him. His horse stepped

softly in the deep sand of the trail, and, when he found that his rider

refused to let him stop at the stable-door, shook his head in mute

displeasure, and went quietly on. As he neared the silent house, the

faint creak of saddle-leather and the rattle of spur-chains against his

iron stirrups were smothered in the whispering of the treetops in the

grove, so that only the quick hushing of night noises alone betrayed him

to any wakeful ear.



He was guilty of staring hard at that corner of the house where he knew

Evadna slept, and of scowling over the vague disquiet which the thought

of her caused him. No girl had ever troubled his mind before. It annoyed

him that the face and voice of Evadna obtruded, even upon his thoughts

of other things.



The grove was quiet, and he could hear Gene's unmistakable snore over

by the pond--the only sound save the whispering of the trees, which

went on, unmindful of his approach. It was evident, he thought, that

the ghost was effectually laid--and on the heels of that, as he rode out

from the deep shade of the grove and on past the garden to the meadows

beyond, he wondered if, after all, it was again hardily wandering

through the night; for he thought he glimpsed a figure which flitted

behind a huge rock a few rods in advance of him, and his eyes were not

used to playing him tricks.



He gave a twitch of his fingers upon the reins, and turned from the

trail to investigate. He rode up to the rock, which stood like an island

of shade in that sea of soft moonlight, and, peering into the shadows,

spoke a guarded challenge:



"Who's that?"



A figure detached itself without sound from the blot of darkness there,

and stood almost at his stirrup.



"Yo' Good Injun--me likum for talk yo'."



Good Indian was conscious of a distinct disappointment, though he kept

it from his voice when he answered:



"Oh, it's you, Peppajee. What you do here? Why you no sleepum yo'

wikiup?"



Peppajee held up a slim, brown hand for silence, and afterward rested it

upon the saddle-fork.



"Yo' heap frien' Peaceful. Me heap frien' all same. Mebbyso we talk.

Yo' get down. No can see yo', mebbyso; yo' no likum bad man for se--" He

stepped back a pace, and let Good Indian dismount; then with a gesture

he led him back into the shadow of the rock.



"Well, what's the row?" Good Indian asked impatiently, and curiously as

well.



Peppajee spoke more hastily than was usual. "Me watchum

Man-that-catchum-fish. Him hee-eeap kay bueno. Me no sabe why him walk,

walk in night--me heap watchum."



"You mean Baumberger? He's all right. He comes down here to catchum many

fish--trout, up in the Malad, you sabe. Heap friend Peaceful. You no

likum?"



"Kay bueno." Peppajee rested a forefinger upon Good Indian's arm. "Sun

up there," he pointed high in the west. "Me go all same Hartley. Come

stable--Pete stable--me walkum close--no makum noise. Me hear talk.

Stoppum--no can see--me hear much bad talk. All time me hear, heap

likum for steal dis ranch. Me no sabe"--his tone was doubtful for a

space--"all same, me hear stealum this ranch. Man, you callum--"



"Baumberger?" suggested Grant.



"Him. All same Baumberga, him talk Man-that-coughs. All time say

stealum ranch. Makum much bad talk, them mans. Me come ranch, me tellum

Peaceful, him all time laugh, me. All time shakum head. Mebbyso thinkum

I lie--shont-isham!"



"What more you do?" Good Indian, at least, did not laugh.



"Me go camp. Me thinkum, thinkum all time. Dat man have bad heart. Kay

bueno. No can sleep--thinkum mebbyso do bad for Peaceful. Come ranch,

stop all time dark, all time heap watchum. Bimeby, mebbyso man--all same

yo' callum Baumberga--him come, look, so--" He indicated, by a great

craning of neck in all directions, the wariness of one who goes by

stealth. "Him walk still all time, go all time ova there." He swept his

arm toward the meadows. "Me go still, for watchum. Yo' come, mebbyso

make heap much noise--kay bueno. Dat mans, him hear, him heap scare.

Me tellum, yo' mebbyso go still." He folded his arms with a gesture of

finality, and stood statue-like in the deep gloom beside the rock.



Good Indian fingered his horse's mane while he considered the queer

story. There must be something in it, he thought, to bring Peppajee

from his blankets at midnight and to impel him, unfriendly as he usually

seemed, to confide his worry to him at once and without urging. And yet,

to steal the Peaceful Hart ranch--the idea was ludicrous. Still, there

was no harm in looking around a bit. He sought a sagebrush that suited

his purpose, tied his horse to it, stooped, and took the clanking

Mexican spurs from his heels, and touched Peppajee on the shoulder.



"All right," he murmured close to his ear, "we go see."



Without a word, Peppajee turned, and stole away toward the meadows,

keeping always in the shadow of rock or bush, silent-footed as a

prowling bobcat. Close behind him, not quite so silent because of his

riding-boots, which would strike now and then upon a rock, however

careful he was of his footing, went Good Indian.



So they circled the meadow, came into sand and sage beyond, sought there

unavailingly, went on to the orchard, and skirted it, keen of eye and

ear, struck quietly through it, and came at last to the place where,

the night before, Grant had overtaken Evadna--and it surprised him not a

little to feel his heart pounding unreasonably against his ribs when he

stopped beside the rock where they had sat and quarreled.



Peppajee looked back to see why Grant paused there, and then, wrapping

his blanket tightly around him, crawled through the fence, and went on,

keeping to the broad belt of shade cast upon the ground by the row

of poplars. Where the shade stopped abruptly, and beyond lay white

moonlight with the ranch buildings blotching it here and there, he

stopped and waited until Good Indian stood close beside him. Even then

he did not speak, but, freeing an arm slowly from the blanket folds,

pointed toward the stable.



Grant looked, saw nothing, stared harder, and so; feeling sure there

must be something hidden there, presently believed that a bit of the

shadow at that end which was next the corral wavered, stopped, and then

moved unmistakably. All the front of the stable was distinctly visible

in the white light, and, while they looked, something flitted across it,

and disappeared among the sage beyond the trail.



Again they waited; two minutes, three minutes, five. Then another shadow

detached itself slowly from the shade of the stable, hesitated, walked

out boldly, and crossed the white sand on the path to the house.

Baumberger it was, and he stopped midway to light his pipe, and so,

puffing luxuriously, went on into the blackness of the grove.



They heard him step softly upon the porch, heard also the bovine sigh

with which he settled himself in the armchair there. They caught the

aromatic odor of tobacco smoke ascending, and knew that his presence

there had all at once become the most innocent, the most natural

thing in the world; for any man, waking on such a night, needs no

justification for smoking a nocturnal pipe upon the porch while he gazes

dreamily out upon the moon-bathed world around him.



Peppajee touched Grant's arm, and turned back, skirting the poplars

again until they were well away from the house, and there was no

possibility of being heard. He stopped there, and confronted the other.



"What for you no stoppum stable?" he questioned bluntly. "What for you

no stoppum ranch, for sleepum?"



"I go for stoppum Hicks' ranch," said Good Indian, without any attempt

at equivocation.



Peppajee grunted. "What for yo' no stoppum all same Peaceful?"



Good Indian scorned a subterfuge, and spoke truly. "That girl, Evadna,

no likum me. All time mad me. So I no stoppum ranch, no more."



Peppajee grinned briefly and understandingly, and nodded his head. "Me

heap sabe. Yo' all time heap like for catchum that girl, be yo' squaw.

Bimeby that girl heap likum yo'. Me sabe." He stood a moment staring at

the stars peeping down from above the rim-rock which guarded the bluff.

"All same, yo' no go stoppum Hicks," he commanded. "Yo' stoppum dis

ranch all time. Yo' all time watchum man--yo' callum Baumberga." He

seemed to remember and speak the name with some difficulty. "Where

him go, yo' go, for heap watchum. All time mebbyso me watchum

Man-that-coughs. Me no sabe catchum ranch--all same, me watchum. Them

mans heap kay bueno. Yo' bet yo' life!"



A moment he stood there after he was through speaking, and then he was

not there. Good Indian did not hear him go, though he had stood

beside him; neither could he, catching sight of a wavering shadow, say

positively that there went Peppajee.



He waited for a space, stole back to where he could hear any sound

from the porch even if he could not see, and when he was certain that

Baumberger had gone back to his bed, he got his horse, took him by a

roundabout way to the stable, and himself slept in a haystack. At least,

he made himself a soft place beside one, and lay there until the sun

rose, and if he did not sleep it was not his fault, for he tried hard

enough.



That is how Good Indian came to take his usual place at the breakfast

table, and to touch elbows with Evadna and to greet her with punctilious

politeness and nothing more. That is why he got out his fishing-tackle

and announced that he thought he would have a try at some trout himself,

and so left the ranch not much behind Baumberger. That is why he

patiently whipped the Malad riffles until he came up with the portly

lawyer from Shoshone, and found him gleeful over a full basket and

bubbling with innocent details of this gamy one and that one still

gamier. They rode home together, and together they spent the hot

afternoon in the cool depths of the grove.



By sundown Good Indian was ready to call himself a fool and Peppajee Jim

a meddlesome, visionary old idiot. Steal the Peaceful Hart ranch? The

more he thought of it, the more ridiculous the thing seemed.





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