Old Wives Tales





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.





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