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

SETH PAYS

As the weeks crept by and the torrid heat toned down to the delightful temperature of the Indian summer, news began to reach White River Farm from England. After the first excitement of her arrival had worn off, Rosebud settled down to a regular correspondence.

Even her return to the scenes of her childhood in no way aided her memory. It was all new to her. As her letters often said, though she knew she was grown up, yet, as far as memory served her, she was still only six years old. Servants who had nursed her as a baby, who had cared for her as a child of ten, aunts who had lavished childish presents upon her, cousins who had played with her, they were all strangers, every one.

So she turned with her confidences to those she knew; those old people on the prairie of Dakota, and that man who had been everything to her. To these she wrote by every mail, giving details of the progress of affairs, telling them of her new life, of her pleasures, her little worries, never forgetting that Ma and Pa were still her mother and father.

Thus they learned that the lawyer’s prophecies had been fulfilled. Rosebud was in truth her father’s heiress. The courts were satisfied, and she was burdened with heritage under certain conditions of the will. These conditions she did not state, probably a girlish oversight in the rush of events so swiftly passing round her.

The winter stole upon the plains; that hard, relentless winter which knows no yielding till spring drives it forth. First the fierce black frosts, then the snow, and later the shrieking blizzard, battling, tearing for possession of the field, carrying death in its breath for belated man and beast, and sweeping the snow into small mountains about the lonely prairie dwellings as though, in its bitter fury at the presence of man, it would bury them out of sight where its blast proved powerless to destroy them. Christmas and New Year were past, that time of peace and festivity which is kept up wherever man sojourns, be it in city or on the plains.

Through these dark months Seth and Rube worked steadily on building their stockade, hauling the logs, cutting, splitting, joining. The weather made no difference to them. The fiercest storm disturbed them no further than to cause them to set a life-line from house to barn, or to their work, wherever that might be. No blizzard could drive them within doors when work was to be done. This was the life they knew, they had always lived, and they accepted it uncomplainingly, just as they accepted the fruits of the earth in their season.

No warning sound came from the Indians. The settlers forgot the recent episode, forgot the past, which is the way of human nature, and lived in the present only, and looked forward happily to the future.

Seth and Rube minded their own affairs. They were never the ones to croak. But their vigilance never relaxed. Seth resumed his visits to the Reservation as unconcernedly as though no trouble had ever occurred. He went on with his Sunday work at the Mission, never altering his tactics by one iota. And in his silent way he learned all that interested him.

He learned of Little Black Fox’s protracted recovery, his lately developed moroseness. He knew whenever a council of chiefs took place, and much of what passed on these occasions. The presence of Nevil Steyne at such meetings was a matter which never failed to interest him. He was rarely seen in the company of the Agent, yet a quiet understanding existed between them, and he frequently possessed news which only Parker could have imparted.

So it was clearly shown that whatever the general opinion of the settlers, Seth, and doubtless Rube also, had their own ideas on the calm of those winter months, and lost no opportunity of verifying them.

New Year found the ponderous stockade round the farm only a little more than half finished in spite of the greatest efforts. Rube had hoped for better results, but the logs had been slow in forthcoming. The few Indians who would work in the winter had been scarcer this year, and, in spite of the Agent, whose duty it was to encourage his charges in accepting and carrying out remunerative labor, the work had been very slow.

At Rube’s suggestion it was finally decided to seek white labor in Beacon Crossing. It was more expensive, but it was more reliable. When once the new project had been put into full working order it was decided to abandon the Indian labor altogether.

With this object in view Seth went across to the Reservation to consult Parker. He was met by the Agent’s sister. Her brother was out, but she expected him home to dinner, which would be in the course of half an hour.

“He went off with Jim Crow,” the amiable spinster told her visitor. “Went off this morning early. He said he was going over to the Pine Ridge Agency. But he took Jim Crow with him, and hadn’t any idea of going until the scout came.”

Seth ensconsed himself in an armchair and propped his feet up on the steel bars of a huge wood stove.

“Ah,” he said easily. “Guess there’s a deal for him to do, come winter. With your permission I’ll wait.”

Miss Parker was all cordiality. No man, in her somewhat elderly eyes, was more welcome than Seth. The Agent’s sister had once been heard to say, if there was a man to be compared with her brother in the whole country it was Seth. She only wondered he’d escaped being married out of hand by one of the town girls, as she characterized the women of Beacon Crossing. But then she was far more prejudiced in favor of Seth than her own sex.

“He’ll be glad, Seth,” she said at once; “James is always partial to a chat with you. You just make yourself comfortable right there. I’ve got a boil of beef and dumplings on, which I know you like. You’ll stay and have food?”

“I take that real friendly,” said Seth, smiling up into the plain, honest face before him. “Guess I’ll have a pipe and a warm while you’re fixin’ things.”

Somehow Miss Parker found herself retiring to her kitchen again before she had intended it.

During the next half hour the hostess found various excuses for invading the parlor where Seth was engaged in his promised occupation. She generally had some cheery, inconsequent remark to pass. Seth gave her little encouragement, but he was always polite. At last the dinner was served, and, sharp to time, Jimmy Parker returned. He came by himself, and blustered into the warm room bringing with him that brisk atmosphere of the outside cold which, in winter, always makes the inside of a house on the prairie strike one as a perfect haven of comfort. He greeted Seth cordially as he shook the frost from his fur-coat collar, and gently released his moustache from its coating of ice.

Seth deferred his business until after dinner. He never liked talking business before womenfolk. And Miss Parker, like most of her sex in the district, was likely to exaggerate the importance of any chance hint about the Indians dropped in her presence. So the boil of silverside and dumplings was discussed to the accompaniment of a casual conversation which was chiefly carried on by the Agent’s sister. At length the two men found themselves alone, and their understanding of each other was exampled by the prompt inquiry of Parker.

“Well?” he questioned. Seth settled himself in his chair and, from force of habit, spread his hands out to the fire.

“We’re finishing our job with white labor,” he said. Then as an afterthought, “Y’ see we want to git things fixed ’fore spring opens.”

The Agent nodded.

“Just so,” he said.

The beads on his moccasins had much interest for Seth at the moment.

“I’d never gamble a pile on Injuns’ labor,” he remarked indifferently. Parker laughed.

“No. It would be a dead loss just now.”

Seth looked round inquiringly.

“I was wondering when you would give them up,” the Agent went on. “I’ve had a great deal of difficulty keeping them at it. And we’re liable, I think, to have more.”

The last was said very gravely.

“Kind o’ how we’ve figgered right along?” Seth asked.

“Yes.”

The two men relapsed into silence for a while, and smoked on. At last Seth spoke with the air of a man who has just finished reviewing matters of importance in his mind.

“We’ve taken in the well in fixin’ that corral.”

“Good. We’ve got no well here.”

“No.”

“I was over at Pine Ridge to-day.”

“That’s what your sister said.”

“I went for two reasons. Jim Crow has smelt out preparations for Sun-dances. We can’t locate where they are going to be held, or when. I went over to consult Jackson, and also to see how he’s getting on over there. He’s having the same trouble getting the Indians to look at any work. Little Black Fox is about again. Also he sees a heap too much of that white familiar of his, Nevil Steyne. By Jove, I wish we could fix something on that man and get the government to deport him. He’s got a great sway over the chief. What the devil is his object?” Jimmy Parker’s face flushed under his exasperation.

“I’d give a heap to git a cinch on him,” Seth replied thoughtfully. “He’s smart. His tracks are covered every time. Howsum, if things git doin’ this spring, I’ve a notion we’ll run him down mebbe later.”

The Agent was all interest.

“Have you discovered anything?”

“Wal nothin’ that counts your way. It’s jest personal, ‘tween him an’ me.”

The other laughed cheerfully.

“Couldn’t be better,” he exclaimed. “I’d sooner it depended on you than on the government.”

Seth let the tribute pass.

“We must locate them Sun-dances,” he said.

“Yes. We’ve got troops enough to stop them.”

“Troops? pshaw!”

Seth rose. Parker understood his last remark. The presence of troops had long since been discussed between them. The visitor moved toward the door, and the Agent went to his desk. At the door Seth turned as some thought occurred to him.

“Guess I’d not report anything yet. Not till the Sun-dances are located. I’ll git around some.” He slipped into his fur coat and turned up the storm collar.

Parker nodded.

“Keep a smart eye for yourself, Seth,” he said. “Little Black Fox isn’t likely to forget. Especially with Steyne around.”

Seth smiled faintly.

“And Steyne ‘ll kind o’ remember, sure.” He passed out and left his sturdy friend wondering.

“I’d give something to know,” that individual said to himself, when the sound of horse’s hoofs had died out. “Seth’s dead against Steyne, and I’d like to bet it’s over Rosebud.”

The object of the Agent’s thoughts passed unconcernedly on his way. He branched off the ford trail intending to make for the bridge, below which his men were cutting the timbers for the corral. His way was remote from the chief encampment, and not a single Indian showed himself.

The skeleton woods that lined the trail gave a desolate air to the bleak, white prospect. The whole of that northern world offered little promise to the traveler, little inducement to leave the warmth of house or tepee.

As the horseman neared the bridge he paused to listen. Something of his attitude communicated itself to his horse. The animal’s ears were laid back, and it seemed to be listening to some sound behind it. Whatever had attracted master and horse must have been very faint.

A moment later Seth let the horse walk on and the animal appeared content. But if the animal were so, its master was not. He turned several times as he approached the bridge, and scanned the crowding branches on each side of the snow-covered trail behind him.

Seth knew that he was followed. More, he knew that the watcher was clumsy, and had not the stealth of the Indian. At the bridge he faced about and sat waiting. The gravity of his face was relieved by a slight smile.

Suddenly the crack of a rifle rang out. The horseman’s smile died abruptly. His horse reared, pawing the air, and he saw blood on the beast’s shoulder. He saw that the flesh had been ripped by a glancing bullet, and the course of the wound showed him whence the shot had come.

He looked for the man who had fired, and, as he did so, another shot rang out. He reeled forward in his saddle, but straightened up almost at once, and his right hand flew to his revolver, while he tried to swing his horse about. But somehow he had lost power, and the horse was in a frenzy of terror. The next moment the beast was racing across the bridge in the direction of home.

The journey was made at a great pace. Seth was sitting bolt upright. His face was ashen, and his eyelids drooped in spite of his best efforts.

Rube was in the region of the kitchen door as he galloped up, and he called out a greeting.

The rider began to reply. But, at that moment, the horse propped and halted, and the reply was never finished. Seth rolled out of the saddle and fell to the ground like a log.