The Christmas Angel Plays Ghost





At midnight, the Peaceful Hart ranch lay broodily quiet under its

rock-rimmed bluff. Down in the stable the saddle-horses were but

formless blots upon the rumpled bedding in their stalls--except

Huckleberry, the friendly little pinto with the white eyelashes and the

blue eyes, and the great, liver-colored patches upon his sides, and the

appetite which demanded food at unseasonable hours, who was now munching

and nosing industriously in the depths of his manger, and making a good

deal of noise about it.



Outside, one of the milch cows drew a long, sighing breath of content

with life, lifted a cud in mysterious, bovine manner, and chewed

dreamily. Somewhere up the bluff a bobcat squalled among the rocks,

and the moon, in its dissipated season of late rising, lifted itself

indolently up to where it could peer down upon the silent ranch.



In the grove where the tiny creek gurgled under the little stone bridge,

someone was snoring rhythmically in his blankets, for the boys had

taken to sleeping in the open air before the earliest rose had opened

buds in the sunny shelter of the porch. Three feet away, a sleeper

stirred restlessly, lifted his head from the pillow, and slapped

half-heartedly at an early mosquito that was humming in his ear. He

reached out, and jogged the shoulder of him who snored.



"Say, Gene, if you've got to sleep at the top of your voice, you better

drag your bed down into the orchard," he growled. "Let up a little,

can't yuh?"



"Ah, shut up and let a fellow sleep!" mumbled Gene, snuggling the covers

up to his ears.



"Just what I want YOU to do. You snore like a sawmill. Darn it, you've

got to get out of the grove if yuh can't--"



"Ah-h-EE-EE!" wailed a voice somewhere among the trees, the sound rising

weirdly to a subdued crescendo, clinging there until one's flesh went

creepy, and then sliding mournfully down to silence.



"What's that?" The two jerked themselves to a sitting position, and

stared into the blackness of the grove.



"Bobcat," whispered Clark, in a tone which convinced not even himself.



"In a pig's ear," flouted Gene, under his breath. He leaned far over and

poked his finger into a muffled form. "D'yuh hear that noise, Grant?"



Grant sat up instantly. "What's the matter?" he demanded, rather

ill-naturedly, if the truth be told.



"Did you hear anything--a funny noise, like--"



The cry itself finished the sentence for him. It came from nowhere,

it would seem, since they could see nothing; rose slowly to a subdued

shriek, clung there nerve-wrackingly, and then wailed mournfully down to

silence. Afterward, while their ears were still strained to the sound,

the bobcat squalled an answer from among the rocks.



"Yes, I heard it," said Grant. "It's a spook. It's the wail of a lost

spirit, loosed temporarily from the horrors of purgatory. It's sent as a

warning to repent you of your sins, and it's howling because it hates to

go back. What you going to do about it?"



He made his own intention plain beyond any possibility of

misunderstanding. He lay down and pulled the blanket over his shoulders,

cuddled his pillow under his head, and disposed himself to sleep.



The moon climbed higher, and sent silvery splinters of light quivering

down among the trees. A frog crawled out upon a great lily--pad and

croaked dismally.



Again came the wailing cry, nearer than before, more subdued, and for

that reason more eerily mournful. Grant sat up, muttered to himself, and

hastily pulled on some clothes. The frog cut himself short in the middle

of a deep-throated ARR-RR-UMPH and dove headlong into the pond; and the

splash of his body cleaving the still surface of the water made Gene

shiver nervously. Grant reached under his pillow for something, and

freed himself stealthily from a blanketfold.



"If that spook don't talk Indian when it's at home, I'm very much

mistaken," he whispered to Clark, who was nearest. "You boys stay here."



Since they had no intention of doing anything else, they obeyed him

implicitly and without argument, especially as a flitting white

figure appeared briefly and indistinctly in a shadow-flecked patch of

moonlight. Crouching low in the shade of a clump of bushes, Grant stole

toward the spot.



When he reached the place, the thing was not there. Instead, he glimpsed

it farther on, and gave chase, taking what precautions he could against

betraying himself. Through the grove and the gate and across the road

he followed, in doubt half the time whether it was worth the trouble.

Still, if it was what he suspected, a lesson taught now would probably

insure against future disturbances of the sort, he thought, and kept

stubbornly on. Once more he heard the dismal cry, and fancied it held a

mocking note.



"I'll settle that mighty quick," he promised grimly, as he jumped a

ditch and ran toward the place.



Somewhere among the currant bushes was a sound of eery laughter. He

swerved toward the place, saw a white form rise suddenly from the very

ground, as it seemed, and lift an arm with a slow, beckoning gesture.

Without taking aim, he raised his gun and fired a shot at it. The arm

dropped rather suddenly, and the white form vanished. He hurried up to

where it had stood, knelt, and felt of the soft earth. Without a doubt

there were footprints there--he could feel them. But he hadn't a match

with him, and the place was in deep shade.



He stood up and listened, thought he heard a faint sound farther along,

and ran. There was no use now in going quietly; what counted most was

speed.



Once more he caught sight of the white form fleeing from him like the

very wraith it would have him believe it. Then he lost it again; and

when he reached the spot where it disappeared, he fell headlong, his

feet tangled in some white stuff. He swore audibly, picked himself up,

and held the cloth where the moon shone full upon it. It looked like a

sheet, or something of the sort, and near one edge was a moist patch of

red. He stared at it dismayed, crumpled the cloth into a compact bundle,

tucked it under his arm, and ran on, his ears strained to catch some

sound to guide him.



"Well, anyhow, I didn't kill him," he muttered uneasily as he crawled

through a fence into the orchard. "He's making a pretty swift get-away

for a fellow that's been shot."



In the orchard the patches of moonlight were larger, and across one

of them he glimpsed a dark object, running wearily. Grant repressed an

impulse to shout, and used the breath for an extra burst of speed. The

ghost was making for the fence again, as if it would double upon its

trail and reach some previously chosen refuge. Grant turned and ran also

toward the fence, guessing shrewdly that the fugitive would head for the

place where the wire could be spread about, and a beaten trail led from

there straight out to the road which passed the house. It was the short

cut from the peach orchard; and it occurred to him that this particular

spook seemed perfectly familiar with the byways of the ranch. Near the

fence he made a discovery that startled him a little.



"It's a squaw, by Jove!" he cried when he caught an unmistakable flicker

of skirts; and the next moment he could have laughed aloud if he had not

been winded from the chase. The figure reached the fence before him, and

in the dim light he could see it stoop to pass through. Then it seemed

as if the barbs had caught in its clothing and held it there. It

struggled to free itself; and in the next minute he rushed up and

clutched it fast.



"Why don't you float over the treetops?" he panted ironically.

"Ghosts have no business getting their spirit raiment tangled up in a

barbed-wire fence."



It answered with a little exclamation, with a sob following close upon

it. There was a sound of tearing cloth, and he held his captive upright,

and with a merciless hand turned her face so that the moonlight struck

it full. They stared at each other, breathing hard from more than the

race they had run.



"Well--I'll--be--" Grant began, in blank amazement.



She wriggled her chin in his palm, trying to free herself from his

pitiless staring. Failing that, she began to sob angrily without any

tears in her wide eyes.



"You--shot me, you brute!" she cried accusingly at last. "You--SHOT me!"

And she sobbed again.



Before he answered, he drew backward a step or two, sat down upon the

edge of a rock which had rolled out from a stone-heap, and pulled her

down beside him, still holding her fast, as if he half believed her

capable of soaring away over the treetops, after all.



"I guess I didn't murder you--from the chase you gave me. Did I hit you

at all?"



"Yes, you did! You nearly broke my arm--and you might have killed me,

you big brute! Look what you did--and I never harmed you at all!" She

pushed up a sleeve, and held out her arm accusingly in the moonlight,

disclosing a tiny, red furrow where the skin was broken and still

bleeding. "And you shot a big hole right through Aunt Phoebe's sheet!"

she added, with tearful severity.



He caught her arm, bent his head over it--and for a moment he was

perilously near to kissing it; an impulse which astonished him

considerably, and angered him more. He dropped the arm rather

precipitately; and she lifted it again, and regarded the wound with

mournful interest.



"I'd like to know what right you have to prowl around shooting at

people," she scolded, seeing how close she could come to touching the

place with her fingertips without producing any but a pleasurable pain.



"Just as much right as you have to get up in the middle of the night

and go ahowling all over the ranch wrapped up in a sheet," he retorted

ungallantly.



"Well, if I want to do it, I don't see why you need concern yourself

about it. I wasn't doing it for your benefit, anyway."



"Will you tell me what you DID do it for? Of all the silly tomfoolery--"



An impish smile quite obliterated the Christmas-angel look for an

instant, then vanished, and left her a pretty, abused maiden who is

grieved at harsh treatment.



"Well, I wanted to scare Gene," she confessed. "I did, too. I just know

he's a cowardy-cat, because he's always trying to scare ME. It's Gene's

fault--he told me the grove is haunted. He said a long time ago, before

Uncle Hart settled here, a lot of Indians waylaid a wagon-train here

and killed a girl, and he says that when the moon is just past the full,

something white walks through the grove and wails like a lost soul in

torment. He says sometimes it comes and moans at the corner of the house

where my room is. I just know he was going to do it himself; but I guess

he forgot. So I thought I'd see if he believed his own yarns. I was

going to do it every night till I scared him into sleeping in the house.

I had a perfectly lovely place to disappear into, where he couldn't

trace me if he took to hunting around--only he wouldn't dare." She

pulled down her sleeve very carefully, and then, just as carefully, she

pushed it up again, and took another look.



"My best friend TOLD me I'd get shot if I came to Idaho," she reminded

herself, with a melancholy satisfaction.



"You didn't get shot," Grant contradicted for the sake of drawing more

sparks of temper where temper seemed quaintly out of place, and stared

hard at her drooping profile. "You just got nicely missed; a bullet that

only scrapes off a little skin can't be said to hit. I'd hate to hit a

bear like that."



"I believe you're wishing you HAD killed me! You might at least have

some conscience in the matter, and be sorry you shot a lady. But you're

not. You just wish you had murdered me. You hate girls--you said so. And

I don't know what business it is of yours, if I want to play a joke on

my cousin, or why you had to be sleeping outside, anyway. I've a perfect

right to be a ghost if I choose--and I don't call it nice, or polite, or

gentlemanly for you to chase me all over the place with a gun, trying

to kill me! I'll never speak to you again as long as I live. When I say

that I mean it. I never liked you from the very start, when I first saw

you this afternoon. Now I hate and despise you. I suppose I oughtn't

to expect you to apologize or be sorry because you almost killed me. I

suppose that's just your real nature coming to the surface. Indians love

to hurt and torture people! I shouldn't have expected anything else of

you, I suppose. I made the mistake of treating you like a white man."



"Don't you think you're making another mistake right now?" Grant's whole

attitude changed, as well as his tone. "Aren't you afraid to push the

white man down into the dirt, and raise up--the INDIAN?"



She cast a swift, half-frightened glance up into his face and the eyes

that glowed ominously in the moonlight.



"When people make the blunder of calling up the Indian," he went on

steadily, "they usually find that they have to deal with--the Indian."



Evadna looked at him again, and turned slowly white before her temper

surged to the surface again.



"I didn't call up the Indian," she defended hotly; "but if the Indian

wants to deal with me according to his nature--why, let him! But you

don't ACT like other people! I don't know another man who wouldn't have

been horrified at shooting me, even such a tiny little bit; but you

don't care at all. You never even said you were sorry."



"I'm not in the habit of saying all I think and feel."



"You were quick enough to apologize, after supper there, when you hadn't

really done anything; and now, when one would expect you to be at least

decently sorry, you--you--well, you act like the savage you are! There,

now! It may not be nice to say it, but it's the truth."



Grant smiled bitterly. "All men are savages under the skin," he said.

"How do YOU know what I think and feel? If I fail to come through with

the conventional patter, I am called an Indian--because my mother was

a half-breed." He threw up his head proudly, let his eyes rest for a

moment upon the moon, swimming through a white river of clouds just over

the tall poplar hedge planted long ago to shelter the orchard from the

sweeping west winds; and, when he looked down at her again, he caught a

glimpse of repentant tears in her eyes, and softened.



"Oh, you're a girl, and you demand the usual amount of poor-pussy talk,"

he told her maliciously. "So I'm sorry. I'm heartbroken. If it will

help any, I'll even kiss the hurt to make it well--and I'm not a kissing

young man, either, let me tell you."



"I'd die before I'd let you touch me!" Her repentance, if it was that,

changed to pure rage. She snatched the torn sheet from him and turned

abruptly toward the fence. He followed her, apparently unmoved by her

attitude; placed his foot upon the lower wire and pressed it into the

soft earth, lifted the one next above it as high as it would go, and

thus made it easier for her to pass through. She seemed to hesitate

for a moment, as though tempted to reject even that slight favor, then

stooped, and went through.



As the wires snapped into place, she halted and looked back at him.



"Maybe I've been mean--but you're been meaner," she summed up, in

self-justification. "I suppose the next thing you will do will be to

tell the boys. Well, I don't care what you do, so long as you never

speak to me again. Go and tell them if you want to--tell. TELL, do you

hear? I don't want even the favor of your silence!" She dexterously

tucked the bundle of white under the uninjured arm, caught the loose

folds of her skirt up in her hands, and ran away up the path, not once

stopping to see whether he still followed her.



Grant did not follow. He stood leaning against the fence-post, and

watched her until her flying form grew indistinct in the shade of the

poplar hedge; watched it reappear in a broad strip of white moonlight,

still running; saw it turn, slacken speed to a walk, and then lose

itself in the darkness of the grove.



Five minutes, ten minutes, he stood there, staring across the level bit

of valley lying quiet at the foot of the jagged-rimmed bluff standing

boldly up against the star-flecked sky. Then he shook himself

impatiently, muttered something which had to do with a "doddering fool,"

and retraced his steps quickly through the orchard, the currant bushes,

and the strawberry patch, jumped the ditch, and so entered the grove and

returned to his blankets.



"We thought the spook had got yuh, sure." Gene lifted his head

turtlewise and laughed deprecatingly. "We was just about ready to start

out after the corpse, only we didn't know but what you might get excited

and take a shot at us in the dark. We heard yuh shoot--what was it? Did

you find out?"



"It wasn't anything," said Grant shortly, tugging at a boot.



"Ah--there was, too! What was it you shot at?" Clark joined in the

argument from the blackness under the locust tree.



"The moon," Grant told him sullenly. "There wasn't anything else that I

could see."



"And that's a lie," Gene amended, with the frankness of a

foster-brother. "Something yelled like--"



"You never heard a screech-owl before, did you, Gene?" Grant crept

between his blankets and snuggled down, as if his mind held nothing more

important than sleep.



"Screech-owl my granny! You bumped into something you couldn't

handle--if you want to know what I think about it," Clark guessed

shrewdly. "I wish now I'd taken the trouble to hunt the thing down; it

didn't seem worth while getting up. But I leave it to Gene if you ain't

mad enough to murder whatever it was. What was it?"



He waited a moment without getting a reply.



"Well, keep your teeth shut down on it, then, darn yuh!" he growled.

"That's the Injun of it--I know YOU! Screech-owl--huh! You said when you

left it was an Indian--and that's why we didn't take after it ourselves.

We don't want to get the whole bunch down on us like they are on

you--and if there was one acting up around here, we knew blamed well it

was on your account for what happened to-day. I guess you found out, all

right. I knew the minute you heaved in sight that you was just about as

mad as you can get--and that's saying a whole lot. If it WAS an Indian,

and you killed him, you better let us--"



"Oh, for the lord's sake, WILL YOU SHUT UP!" Grant raised to an elbow,

glared a moment, and lay down again.



The result proved the sort of fellow he was. Clark shut up without even

trailing off into mumbling to himself, as was his habit when argument

brought him defeat.





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