Read CHAPTER III of The Watchers of the Plains A Tale of the Western Prairies , free online book, by Ridgwell Cullum, on ReadCentral.com.

AN ALARM IN BEACON CROSSING

A horseman riding from White River Homestead to Beacon Crossing will find himself confronted with just eighty-two miles of dreary, flat trail; in summer time, just eighty-two miles of blistering sun, dust and mosquitoes. The trail runs parallel to, and about three miles north of the cool, shady White River, which is a tantalizing invention of those who designed the trail.

In the whole eighty-two miles there is but one wayside house; it is called the “half-way.” No one lives there. It, like the log hut of Nevil Steyne on the bank of the White River, stands alone, a relic of the dim past. But it serves a good purpose, for one can break the journey there, and sleep the night in its cheerless shelter. Furthermore, within the ruins of its old-time stockade is a well, a deep, wide-mouthed well full of cool spring water, which is the very thing needed.

It is sunrise and a horseman has just ridden away from this shelter. He is a man of considerable height, to judge by the length of his stirrups, and he has that knack of a horseman in the saddle which comes only to those who have learned to ride as soon as they have learned to run.

He wears fringed chapps over his moleskin trousers, which give him an appearance of greater size than he possesses, for, though stout of frame, he is lean and wiry. His face is wonderfully grave for a young man, which may be accounted for by the fact that he has lived through several Indian risings. And it is a strong face, too, with a decided look of what people term self-reliance in it, also, probably, a product of those dreaded Indian wars. He, like many men who live through strenuous times, is given much to quick thought and slow speech, which, though excellent features in character, do not help toward companionship in wild townships like Beacon Crossing.

Seth is well thought of in that city whither he is riding now but he is more respected than loved. The truth is he has a way of liking slowly, and disliking thoroughly, and this is a disposition the reckless townsmen of Beacon Crossing fail to understand, and, failing to understand, like most people, fail to appreciate.

Just now he is more particularly grave than usual. He has ridden from White River Farm to execute certain business in town for his foster-parents, Rube Sampson and his wife; a trifling matter, and certainly nothing to bring that look of doubt in his eyes, and the thoughtful pucker between his clean-cut brows. His whole attention is given up to a contemplation of the land beyond the White River, and the distance away behind him to the left, which is the direction of the Rosebud Indian Reservation.

Yesterday his attention had been called in these directions, and on reaching the “half-way” he had serious thoughts of returning home, but reflection had kept him to his journey if it had in no way eased his mind.

Yesterday he had observed a smoky haze spreading slowly northward on the lightest of breezes; and it was coming across the Reservation. It was early June, and the prairie was too young and green to burn yet.

The haze was still hanging in the bright morning air. It had spread right across his path in the night, and a strong smell of burning greeted him as he rode out.

He urged his horse and rode faster than he had ridden the day before. There was a silent sympathy between horse and rider which displayed itself in the alertness of the animal’s manner; he was traveling with head held high, nostrils distended, as though sniffing at the smell of burning in some alarm. And his gait, too, had become a little uneven, which, in a horse, means that his attention is distracted.

Before an hour had passed the man’s look changed to one of some apprehension. Smoke was rising in a new direction. He had no need to turn to see it, it was on his left front, far away beyond the horizon, but somewhere where the railroad track, linking the East with Beacon Crossing, cut through the plains of Nebraska. Suddenly his horse leapt forward into a strong swinging gallop. He had felt the touch of the spur. Seth pulled out a great silver timepiece and consulted it.

“I ken make it in two hours an’ a haf from now,” he muttered. “That’ll be haf past eight. Good! Put it along, Buck.”

The last was addressed to the horse; and the dust rose in great heavy clouds behind them as the willing beast stretched out to his work.

Beacon Crossing is called a city by those residents who have lived in it since the railway brought it into existence. Chance travelers, and those who are not prejudiced in its favor, call it a hole. It certainly has claims in the latter direction. It is the section terminal on the railway; and that is the source of its questionable prosperity.

There is a main street parallel to the railroad track with some stores facing the latter. It has only one sidewalk and only one row of buildings; the other side of the street is given up to piles of metal rails and wooden ties and ballast for the track. The stores are large fronted, with a mockery which would lead the unenlightened to believe they are two-storied; but this is make-believe. The upper windows have no rooms behind them. They are the result of overweening vanity on the part of the City Council and have nothing to do with the storekeepers.

The place is unremarkable for anything else, unless it be the dirty and unpaved condition of its street. True there are other houses, private residences, but these are set indiscriminately upon the surrounding prairie, and have no relation to any roads. A row of blue gum trees marks the front of each, and, for the most part, a clothes-line, bearing some articles of washing, indicates the back. Beacon Crossing would be bragged about only by those who helped to make it.

The only building worth consideration is the hotel, opposite the depot. This has a verandah and a tie-post, and there are always horses standing outside it, and always men standing on the verandah, except when it is raining, then they are to be found inside.

It was only a little after eight in the morning. Breakfast was nearly over in the hotel, and, to judge by the number of saddle-horses at the tie-post, the people of Beacon Crossing were very much astir. Presently the verandah began to fill with hard-faced, rough-clad men. And most of them as they came were filling their pipes, which suggested that they had just eaten.

Nevil Steyne was one of the earliest to emerge from the breakfast room. He had been the last to go in, and the moment he reappeared it was to survey swiftly the bright blue distance away in the direction of the Indian Reservations, and, unseen by those who stood around, he smiled ever so slightly at what he beheld. The two men nearest him were talking earnestly, and their earnestness was emphasized by the number of matches they used in keeping their pipes alight.

“Them’s Injun fires, sure,” said one, at the conclusion of a long argument.

“Maybe they are, Dan,” said the other, an angular man who ran a small hardware store a few yards lower down the street. “But they ain’t on this side of the Reservation anyway.”

The significant selfishness of his last remark brought the other round on him in a moment.

“That’s all you care for, eh?” Dan said witheringly. “Say. I’m working for the ‘diamond P’s,’ and they run their stock that aways. Hev you been through one o’ them Injun risings?”

The other shook his head.

“Jest so.”

Another man, stout and florid, Jack McCabe, the butcher, joined them.

“Can’t make it out. There ain’t been any Sun-dance, which is usual ’fore they get busy. Guess it ain’t no rising. Big Wolf’s too clever. If it was spring round-up or fall round-up it ’ud seem more likely. Guess some feller’s been and fired the woods. Which, by the way, is around Jason’s farm. Say, Dan Lawson, you living that way, ain’t it right that Jason’s got a couple of hundred beeves in his corrals?”

“Yes,” replied Dan of the “diamond P’s.” “He bought up the ‘flying S’ stock. He’s holding ’em up for rebrandin’. Say, Nevil,” the cowpuncher went on, turning to the wood-cutter of White River, “you oughter know how them red devils is doin’. Did you hear or see anything?”

Nevil turned with a slight flush tingeing his cheeks. He didn’t like the other’s tone.

“I don’t know why I should know or see anything,” he said shortly.

“Wal, you’re kind o’ livin’ ad-jacent, as the sayin’ is,” observed Dan, with a shadowy smile.

The other men on the verandah had come around, and they smiled more broadly than the cowpuncher. It was easy to see that they were not particularly favorable toward Nevil Steyne. It was as Dan had said; he lived near the Reservation, and, well, these men were frontiersmen who knew the ways of the country in which they lived.

Nevil saw the smiling faces and checked his anger. He laughed instead.

“Well,” he said, “since you set such store by my opinions I confess I had no reason to suspect any disturbance, and, to illustrate my faith in the Indians’ peaceful condition, I am going home at noon, and to-morrow intend to cut a load or two of wood on the river.”

Dan had no more to say. He could have said something but refrained, and the rest of the men turned to watch the white smoke in the distance. Decidedly Steyne had scored a point and should have been content; but he wasn’t.

“I suppose you fellows think a white man can’t live near Indians without ‘taking the blanket,’” he pursued with a sneer.

There was a brief silence. Then Dan answered him slowly.

“Jest depends on the man, I guess.”

There was a nasty tone in the cowpuncher’s voice and trouble seemed imminent, but it was fortunately nipped in the bud by Jack McCabe.

“Hello!” the butcher exclaimed excitedly, “there’s a feller pushin’ his plug as tho’ them Injuns was on his heels. Say, it’s Seth o’ White River Farm, and by the gait he’s travelin’, I’d gamble, Nevil, you don’t cut that wood to-morrow. Seth don’t usually ride hard.”

The whole attention on the verandah was centred on Seth, who was riding toward the hotel from across the track as hard as his horse could lay foot to the ground.

In a few moments he drew up at the tie-post and flung off his horse. And a chorus of inquiry greeted him from the bystanders.

The newcomer raised an undisturbed face to them, and his words came without any of the excitement that the pace he had ridden in at had suggested.

“The Injuns are out,” he said, and bent down to feel his horse’s legs. They seemed to be of most interest to him at the moment.

Curiously enough his words were accepted by the men on the verandah without question. That is, by all except Steyne. No doubt he was irritated by what had gone before, but even so, it hardly warranted, in face of the fires in the south, his obstinate refusal to believe that the Indians were out on the war-path. Besides, he resented the quiet assurance of the newcomer. He resented the manner in which the others accepted his statement, disliking it as much as he disliked the man who had made it. Nor was the reason of this hatred far to seek. Seth was a loyal white man who took his life in his own hands and fought strenuously in a savage land for his existence, a bold, fearless frontiersman; while he, Nevil, knew in his secret heart that he had lost that caste, had thrown away that right that birthright. He had, as these men also knew, “taken the blanket.” He had become a white Indian. He lived by the clemency of that people, in their manner, their life. He was one of them, while yet his skin was white. He was regarded by his own race as an outcast. He was a degenerate. So he hated hated them all. But Seth he hated most of all because he saw more of him, he lived near him. He knew that Seth knew him, knew him down to his heart’s core. This was sufficient in a nature like his to set him hating, but he hated him for yet another reason. Seth was as strong, brave, honest as he was the reverse. He belonged to an underworld which nothing could ever drag a nature such as Seth’s down to.

He knocked his pipe out aggressively on the wooden floor of the verandah.

“I don’t believe it,” he said loudly, in an offensive way.

Seth dropped his broncho’s hoof, which he had been examining carefully, and turned round. It would be impossible to describe the significance of his movement. It suggested the sudden rousing of a real fighting dog that had been disturbed in some peaceful pursuit. He was not noisy, he did not even look angry. He was just ready.

“I guess you ought to know, Nevil Steyne,” he said with emphasis. Then he turned his head and looked away down the street, as the clatter of hoofs and rattle of wheels reached the hotel. And for the second time within a few minutes, trouble, such as only Western men fully understand, was staved off by a more important interruption.

A team and buckboard dashed up to the hotel. Dan Somers, the sheriff, and Lal Price, the Land Agent, were in the conveyance, and as they drew up, one of the horses dropped to the ground in its harness. The men, watching these two plainsmen scrambling from the vehicle, knew that life and death alone could have sent them into town at a pace sufficient to kill one of their horses.

“Boys!” cried the sheriff at once. “Who’s for it? Those durned Injuns are out; they’re gittin’ round Jason’s place. I’m not sure but the woods are fired a’ready. They’ve come from the south, I guess. They’re Rosebuds. Ther’s old man Jason and his missis; and ther’s the gals three of ’em. We can’t let ’em ”

Seth interrupted him.

“And we ain’t going to,” he observed. He knew, they all knew, what the sheriff would have said.

Seth’s interruption was the cue for suggestions. And they came with a rush, which is the way with men such as these, all eager and ready to help in the rescue of a white family from the hands of a common foe. There was no hesitation, for they were most of them old hands in this Indian business, and, in the back recesses of their brains, each man held recollections of past atrocities, too hideous to be contemplated calmly.

Those who were later with their breakfast now swelled the crowd on the verandah. The news seemed to have percolated through to the rest of the town, for men were gathering on all sides, just as men gather in civilized cities on receipt of news of national importance. They came at once to the central public place. The excitement had leapt with the suddenness of a conflagration, and, like a conflagration, there would be considerable destruction before it died down. The Indians in their savage temerity might strike Beacon Crossing. Once the Indians were loose it was like the breaking of a tidal wave on a low shore.

The sheriff was the man they all looked to, and, veteran warrior that he was, he quickly got a grip on things. One hard-riding scout, a man as wily as the Indian himself, he despatched to warn all outlying settlers. He could spare no more than one. Then he sent telegraphic messages for the military, whose fort a progressive and humane government had located some two hundred miles away. Then he divided his volunteers, equipped with their own arms, and all the better for that, and detailed one party for the town’s defence, and the other to join him in the work of rescue.

These things arranged, then came the first check. It was discovered that the driver of the only locomotive in the place was sick. The engine itself, a rusty looking ancient machine, was standing coldly idle in the yards.

A deputation waited upon the sick man, while others went and coupled up some empty trucks and fired the engine. Seth was among the latter. The deputation returned. It was fever; and the man could not come. Being ready campaigners, their thoughts turned on their horses.

The sheriff was a blank man for the moment. It was a question of time, he knew. He was standing beside the locomotive which had already begun to snort, and which looked, at that moment, in the eyes of those gathered round it, despite its rustiness, a truly magnificent proposition. He was about to call for volunteers to replace the driver, when Seth, who all the time had been working in the cab, and who had heard the news of the trouble, leant over the rail that protected the foot-plate.

“Say, Dan,” he said. “If none of the boys are scared to ride behind me, and I don’t figger they are, I’ll pump the old kettle along. Guess I’ve fired a traction once. I don’t calc’late she’ll have time to bust up in forty miles. I’ll take the chances if they will.”

The sheriff looked up at the thoughtful face above him. He grinned, and others grinned with him. But their amusement was quite lost on Seth. He was trying to estimate the possible result of putting the “kettle,” as he called the locomotive, at full steam ahead, disregarding every other tap and gauge on the driving plate, and devoting himself to heaping up the furnace. These things interested him, not as a source of danger, but only in the matter of speed.

“Good for you, Seth,” cried Dan Somers. “Now, boys, all aboard!”

And Seth turned to the driving plate and sounded a preliminary whistle.