Read CHAPTER XVI - THE RESERVATION TRIP of The Biography of a Prairie Girl , free online book, by Eleanor Gates, on ReadCentral.com.

A HUGE pen with V-shaped wings, patterned after those built by the Indians to imprison antelope, thrust its long, high neck over the railroad embankment and against the open doors of the cattle-cars as they were rolled along the siding.  Through the pen and up the jutting neck into the stifling, wheeled boxes, lowing in fright and advancing unwillingly, were driven the Dutchman’s fat steers and the beeves belonging to the cattleman.  When a long train was filled with them, a wildcat engine backed down from the station, coupled on to the waiting freight, and went lumbering away with its hungry, thirsty load, bound for a packing-house in a distant city.

The little girl watched the shipping of the stock, her heart sore with the thought that only a short week stood between the home herd and the shambles.  Never before had she mourned the departure of the cattle, for, spared the long ride in foul, torturing confinement, they had simply disappeared across the prairie in the direction of Sioux Falls or Yankton, contentedly feeding as they went, and with the three big brothers riding slowly behind them.  It had always been the same with the sheep.  But now there rang continually in her ears the piteous bleating of the little flock she had learned to love through the summer months, and that, lured by a treacherous bell-wether, had passed through the pen, some days before, and crossed the long, high Bridge of Sighs.

But what she feared for the animals yet to be sold never came to pass.  The morning before the big brothers were to round-up, a trooper rode in from the reservation with an urgent message from the new commandant, asking that as many head of beeves as possible be sent to the post.  The letter stated that a stock-raiser, with whom negotiations had been all but closed, had received an offer from a Kansas City buyer that advanced the army terms by a fraction of a cent per pound on the hoof.  The commissary, therefore, was compelled to look elsewhere for meat.

A reply was at once sent back, promising a drove from the farm-house within a week.  And as the little girl saw the cavalry horse speeding westward with the message, she flew into the kitchen with a happy song on her lips and set about helping her mother prepare provisions for the trip.

That afternoon, while the biggest and the youngest brothers divided the cattle, putting those that were to be wintered into the wire pen, the eldest shod four ponies, three for riding and one for a pack-horse.  The start was planned for the next day, and since the trip must be a leisurely one in order that the animals should arrive in as good condition as when they set out, a cow was included in the drove to furnish milk during the two days or more that the big brothers would be en route.

But the following morning all plans for the journey were upset.  One of the ponies tried its newly shod heels on the youngest brother with such viciousness that he had to be carried into the house.  The biggest brother decided to remain at home and take care of him.  So, while the pack-horse was being loaded with blankets, food, and a coffee-pot, the eldest brother and his mother discussed the situation and at last agreed that the little girl would have to help in the drive.

It was the fall before the little girl’s thirteenth birthday, and she was wearing her hair in a braid and her dresses to her shoe-tops.  That summer, for the first time in her life, she had not gone barefoot.  She had also taken to riding a side-saddle with a red plush seat.  When her mother, therefore, suggested that the trip would be a hard one, that the post was a rough place, and that, since the colonel’s family had gone to a new fort in Wyoming, there was no house on the reservation at which she could stay overnight, the eldest brother pooh-poohed and declared that the little girl was no baby and that very good accommodations could be secured at a hotel near the barracks.

They started immediately after dinner, taking two dogs along, and crossed the Vermillion to the West Fork.  There the cattle were brought to a stand and a camping-place was selected.  They were still so near the farm that the eldest brother, anxious to know how matters were at home, induced the little girl to return to the farm-house for the night.  She did so, and joined him before sunrise next morning.

There was a worried look on her face as she came galloping up, and the eldest brother, fearful that the youngest was worse, demanded the news.

“Everything’s just as it was when we left,” said the little girl, “only mother’s awfully scared about my going, because the Swede told her last night, when he heard that I was gone, that the hotel at the post is an awful place, full of gamblers and thieves.  Two or three men that had money have disappeared there, and never been seen since.  The Swede says he thinks the proprietor isn’t any better than he should be.”

“Oh, that Swede’s a regular croaker,” replied the eldest brother.  “’Fraid as death of his own shadow.  I can take care of you and myself and the money to boot.  Needn’t to fret while I’ve got my pistols handy.”

“Well, mother says,” added the little girl, “that she hopes nothing happens to the money, because it’ll finish putting us in as good shape as we were before the fire.  She doesn’t think anybody’d hurt us, exactly.”

Nothing more was said about the hotel after that, and the little girl soon forgot her disquiet in the pleasures of the trip.  She had made it but two or three times since the return from her christening, and had always gone so fast in the light wagon or the buckboard that she had no time to enjoy the changing scenery.  Now they were not keeping to the main road, and she saw landmarks and farms that were new to her as they traveled from the West Fork to the “Jim,” and on to the Missouri.

That night the eldest brother pitched camp on a hillock not far from the herd and well out of way of the mosquitos.  To make the little girl’s safety certain, he put her blankets at the center of a square that was roped in by lariats, the stakes being black willows cut from a clump on the river bank.  She lay down with the dogs beside her, but, unused to the strangeness of her bed, slept little.  The eldest brother stayed with the herd, so she passed the long hours before midnight looking up at the stars and thinking.

She could hear the yelping of some coyotes that were cautiously reconnoitering from a neighboring bluff.  When they came near, the dogs sprang up and challenged them, and soon their cries died away as they slunk down a deep coulee.  The dogs quieting again, she caught the sound of faint movements and calls in the grass.  An owl hooted, and it was so like the signal-cry of some prowling Blackfeet who had visited the farm one night that she was startled and sat up.  A bird chirped and a rabbit hopped by.  Down among the cattle a steer coughed, or grunted as it got awkwardly to its feet.  And there was an occasional click of horn against horn as an animal moved its head.  At last all the sounds blended and faded, and she fell asleep, lulled by the song that the eldest brother was singing to the herd.

At three o’clock the following afternoon, though they had gone at a grazing pace since sun-up, they arrived in sight of the post and halted a mile away from the nearest dugout.  The little girl and the dogs remained with the cattle while the eldest brother cantered in to report his arrival.  When he returned, a young lieutenant came with him to inspect the drove; and by six o’clock the beeves had been declared satisfactory and were in a stockade pen behind the barracks.  Then the eldest brother, his belt heavy with good government coin, rode with the little girl toward the hotel, a rough, one-story building flanked on either side by a gambling-house.

They ate their supper in the small, unpapered parlor which adjoined the bar, for the eldest brother had looked into the dining-room and found it as thick with smoke and men as the saloon.  When the meal, which was served by an Indian woman, was over, the little girl remained quietly in her chair while the eldest brother went out to sell the pack-pony.  He returned late, delighted over making a fine bargain with a Canadian fur-trader, to find her waiting patiently but tremblingly for him.

“Oh, they’ve been making such a terrible noise in the saloon,” she told him, as she sprang up to let him in.  “I locked the door because I was scared.  I could hear swearing and quarreling, and poker chips rattling around.”

He did not answer until he had carefully hidden the price of the pony in his belt.  Then he put his revolvers on the table and drew a chair close to hers.

“I just met Eagle Eye,” he whispered, “an’ he says that what the Swede told ma is true.  This hotel’s a tough place, and the man that runs it ’s got a bad name.  It’s full of gamblers now, too, because the troopers have just been paid.  I don’t like to think of bunkin’ here to-night one bit.  Pretty nearly every man knows I’ve got a lot of money on me.  But what c’n we do?”

The little girl knit her brows.  “We might stay right in this room,” she whispered at last.  “You could bring in the blankets and I’d watch while you slept a little while; and then you could watch till morning.”

“Oh, I guess it ain’t so bad as all that.”

“Or we could ride toward home and camp.  I’m not tired, and I’d rather ride than stay here, especially alone in a room.”

“Well, now, I don’t intend to let you stay alone in a room,” declared the eldest brother.  “But there’s no use of our tryin’ to start home to-night.  We couldn’t get off without somebody knowin’ about it, and I don’t want any cutthroat Indians after me.  If we had fresh horses it’d be a different thing.  We’d lead ’em a run for the farm.  But the ponies are tired.  We’ll start home in the mornin’, and I’ll get this wad into a safe at the station before night.”  He tapped his belt.

A knock brought him to his feet.  On opening the door, the hotel man stood before him.  “I suppose you folks want a brace of rooms,” he said, taking in the revolvers with a swift glance of his little, deep-set eyes.  “I can give you two that have a door between.  Only ones I’ve got left.  Had to put Pinky Jackson into the barn to clear one of ’em.  And he’s a reg’lar boarder, too.”  He looked the little girl up and down so searchingly that she shrank behind the eldest brother.

The eldest brother took up his revolvers.  “One room’ll do us,” he said.  “We’ll jus’ camp like we did on the prairie last night.  Sister’s a little bit nervous; couldn’t think of puttin’ her off by herself.  Give us a room with a shake-down, and I’ll roll up in some blankets on the floor.”

The hotel man slapped the eldest brother on the back.  “You’re the right kind of a brother,” he cried heartily; “like to see it.  We men kind o’ forget, living out in these wilds, how scarey and tender girls are.  Come along, I’ve got the very room for you.”  He picked up the lamp, crossed the crowded saloon, between card-tables full of men, and led the way down a long passage.  The eldest brother and the little girl followed close at his heels, scarcely giving a glance to the gaping crowd in the bar.

The room into which they were shown was at the very end of the passage and in the rear part of the house.  It was uncarpeted, and its ceiling was so low that the eldest brother could reach up and touch it with the flat of his hand.  A wide, rough bedstead occupied one side; against the opposite wall stood a cot of the kind used in military camps.  A chair with a rawhide bottom completed the furniture.  The door from the passage was the only one leading into the room.  There were no windows at all, but at one end a casing had been boarded up.  The eldest brother, after a quick survey, remarked the lack of light.

“Well, you see,” explained the hotel man, “this room originally looked out on the yard.  But when I built on a lean-to, the window was closed.  Won’t make any difference to you, will it?  Heard you were going to leave early.”

“Oh, no,” said the eldest brother.  He took the lamp and set it on the floor.  When the hotel man had given a last sharp look around, he went out and closed the door.

Without losing a moment, the little girl, who was wearied with her long day’s ride, put some matches within easy reach and flung herself down in her clothes on the cot.  But the eldest brother, after rolling the bedstead against the door, examined the window to make sure that it was nailed fast, and gently tapped the walls to see that no spot gave back the hollow sound that would suggest a secret entrance.  Satisfied that all was safe, he unbuckled his belt, put it under the blankets at the little girl’s feet, and extinguished the light.

It was then past eleven, but the hotel was still awake and noisy.  The eldest brother concluded that it would be well to get a short nap at once and remain awake throughout the hours when, the bar-room being deserted, any attempt to molest him would be made.  The little girl was already breathing deeply.  He threw himself across the bed, his pistols beside him.

He did not know how long he had been asleep when he found himself wide awake and conscious that some one was moving softly toward him.  He struggled to spring up, half convinced that he was having a nightmare, but his body refused to obey.  All at once, as he lay silently looking upward, a man arose from beside the bed and leaned over him.

A dim light, which seemed to come from the rear, brought out the menacing figure plainly.  One arm was half raised as if to strike.  It was evident that the assassin was in doubt, since the headboard shaded the bed, as to whether the eldest brother or the little girl was stretched before him.  The next instant he knew, for the eldest brother twisted in agony at sight of the arm poised above him and uttered a groan.

Quick as a flash the figure swayed toward him and the arm descended.  But the eldest brother was quicker.  He rolled sidewise, and at the same time struck out with his right hand.  There was the sound of a dull blow not made by his fist, a scream from the little girl, and the thump of the eldest brother’s body as he struck the floor on the farther side of the bed.

Intense stillness followed.  The eldest brother, a revolver in either hand, got cautiously to his knees and peered across to where his assailant had stood.  The dim light was gone now, however, and he could make out nothing.  He waited, holding his breath, to see if any one were creeping upon him from under or around the bed.  Hearing nothing but a sob from the little girl, he at last arose to his feet, his eyes and his weapons on the alert, and stepped back against the wall.  Then he sidled along until, having passed the boarded-up window and two corners, his knees struck the cot.

“Don’t be afraid,” he said, squatting instantly to one side to dodge any bullet or knife that might be guided by his voice.  After another short wait he added, “I think he’s gone.  Light the lamp.”

While the match flickered in the little girl’s hand, the eldest brother again moved eyes and pistols in a half-circle.  But as the lamp was lifted and its light dispelled the darkness, he saw that they were alone.  To remove every doubt, he looked under the bed and the cot and behind the headboard.  When his search was completed he sat down on the rawhide-bottomed chair, trembling, enraged, and mystified.

“Am I crazy?” he asked in a low voice.  “I was sure there was a man in here.  But if there was, how’d he get out?”

“I heard some one,” whispered the little girl.  She was very pale, and kept close beside him for protection.

The eldest brother thought a moment.  Then he jumped up and strode over to the bed.  “Bring the lamp,” he said.

Together they examined the covers.  Only the top one had been turned down.  Now it lay as the eldest brother had tossed it when he rolled out upon the floor.  The other blankets were undisturbed.  He ran his fingers over them carefully.

Suddenly he uttered a cry and began to fold them back swiftly, finding on each the trace he sought.  When the mattress was at last laid bare, he pointed to a narrow slit that did not penetrate to the under side.

“It was a knife,” said the little girl, and the lamp almost fell from her grasp.

The eldest brother nodded, dragged the bed away from the door, and flung it wide.  The passage was dark and still, apparently empty.  “Hello!” he shouted at the top of his lungs.  “Hello, there!”

As the sound of his voice died away, a distant door creaked and the hotel man came out in his underclothes, a candle in his hand.  “What’s the matter?” he called crossly, coming toward them.  “You’ll wake the whole house.”  He looked around, a trifle dismayed, the eldest brother thought, to see other doors being opened and heads thrust out.

“That’s just what I intend to do,” cried the eldest brother.  “I want to let every man in the hotel know that you keep a murderer handy to stab people in their sleep!”

The proprietor was now close.  He brought up abruptly at the daring accusation and glared at the eldest brother.  “Don’t you give me any such talk as that,” he said.  His teeth came together with a snap, and he reached instinctively to the place where, in the daytime, was the pocket that held a ready pistol.

“Don’t you dare deny it,” answered the eldest brother.  He brought a revolver in line with the hotel man’s eyes.  “Do you see that?” he queried.  “Well, just be very careful, and come here.  I want to show you something.”  He motioned the other to precede him.  Together they entered the bedroom.  A curious crowd followed and filled the apartment.  “Now,” went on the eldest brother, “look at that bed.”

One by one they stepped forward, ran their fingers through the slits in the covers, smiled grimly, and backed away to whisper among themselves.  The hotel man did like the rest, only his smile was pacifying, cringing.

When all had had their turn, the eldest brother faced the crowd.  “I heard last night,” he said, “that more ’n one man has hired a room in this hotel and never been seen again.  So I shoved my bed against the door, before I went to sleep, to make sure we’d be safe.  That knife cut shows how safe we was.”  He seized the proprietor roughly by the shoulder.  “There’s a remedy for holes like this.  Like as not, these gentlemen know about it.”  There was a murmur of assent from the listening crowd.  “Now I’ll give you jus’ a minute to show the gentlemen where that secret entrance is that I looked for last night.  Then we’ll talk remedy.”

He cocked a pistol, his fingers still on the hotel man’s shoulder, and held the eyes of the latter steadily.  They stood thus for a moment, face to face.

“I don’t know anything about a secret entrance,” growled the hotel man at last, with an oath.  “But if you’ll take your hand off me and put down that shooting-iron, I’ll help you hunt it, if there is one.”

The eldest brother did as he was asked, and the hotel man began to walk about, looking above him, examining the walls, scrutinizing the floor.  Soon all the rest were similarly occupied, even the eldest brother taking his eyes off his host to search the boards at his feet.

The opportunity for which the hotel man was waiting came.  While the attention of all was diverted, he moved around until he was opposite the door, and then slipped through it with a defiant yell.  Down the dark passage he fled, and gained its farther end before the eldest brother, with the crowd behind him, took up the chase.  Shots were fired at haphazard into the gloom.  But when the hotel had been carefully searched, no proprietor was to be found.  His pursuers, certain that he was hidden in some closet known only to himself, adjourned to the bar to discuss ways and means.

The news of the trouble at the hotel spread like thistle-down in a high wind.  In half an hour the saloon was jammed with cattlemen, traders, soldiers, gamblers, half-breeds, and Indians, all more or less under the influence of the absent proprietor’s liquor, which was flowing freely, and all ready to hear what the eldest brother had to say.

He stood on the slippery counter to address them, his weapons still in his hands.  On one side was a solitary lamp that brought out dimly the faces upturned to him; on the other sat the little girl, facing the mob as it waited, sinister, determined, threatening, ready to act upon any mad suggestion.

When the eldest brother had recounted his story, he stood in silence, waiting for some one to speak.  After a short pause there was a movement in the rear of the room, and, with a jingle of spurs, there stepped forward Eagle Eye, the scout.

He pulled off his slouch-hat and shook back his long hair as he leaped to a place beside the eldest brother.  Then he put his hands to his belt and stood, arms akimbo.  “There’s been bad work here before,” he said, “and we’ve let it pass.  But shall we let it pass this time?” There were cries of “No, no,” and curses on the head of the hotel man.  Eagle Eye went on.  “It’s a dark night:  the moon is down, and the sun is slow a-rising.  We had better have a light to show us to our beds.”  There was a hidden meaning in his voice that was read and answered with cheers by the drunken mob.

“What say you, Langdon?” he continued, whirling round upon a man on whose blue flannel shirt shone a star and whose belt gave back the glint of nickel.

Langdon gave a laugh and shrugged his shoulders before draining the flask in his hand.

“This is my friend,” said Eagle Eye, extending one arm above the little girl and resting it on the eldest brother’s shoulder.  “We will help him drive the fox from the haystack.”

Another cheer greeted him.  He jumped to the floor, and the eldest brother followed, lifting the little girl down beside him.  The crowd, eager for the vengeful finale, rushed out of the bar to the street.

Eagle Eye hung back to whisper in the eldest brother’s ear.  “It’s a good time for you to get out,” he said.  “I’ll help you saddle the ponies.”  He knelt to unfasten his spurs and put them on the other’s boots.

The eldest brother felt of his belt, grasped the little girl’s hand, and hurried out of a side door with the half-breed.  A soldier had carried away the lamp to use it as a brand, and no one saw them leave the darkened room.  Once in the stable, the work of getting the horses ready took but a few moments.  Then the eldest brother and the little girl mounted and rode at a walk toward the barracks, with Eagle Eye on foot beside them and the dogs trotting after.

When they were so far that their horses’ hoof-beats could not be heard by the crowd, they gave the half-breed a silent, grateful shake of the hand and galloped rapidly toward home.  Not until the post was a mile behind did they halt at the top of a ridge to look back.

Volleys of shots and shouting were borne to their ears by the early morning breeze, for the crowd was celebrating the progress of a swiftly mounting blaze.  Soon the eldest brother and the little girl could see the men running excitedly about, and caught the smell of kindling lumber.  In a few moments the post sprang into sight as the hotel became a mass of flame.

The mob as it moved about the rim of the burning pile, looked like wooden men pulled by wires.  There were fewer shots now and little shouting.  The conflagration seemed to glut the horde.  The eldest brother and the little girl dared pause no longer, but cantered on.  When they looked around for the last time, the fire had died down, and its thin smoke was carrying up a myriad sparks, to die out in the dome of the slowly brightening sky.