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"THEM DAMN SNAKE"
Three hundred yards up the river, in the shade of a huge bowlder, round an end of which the water hurried in a green swirl that it might the sooner lie quiet in the deep, dark pool below, Good Indian, picking his solitary way over the loose rocks, came unexpectedly upon Baumberger, his heavy pipe sagging a corner of his flabby mouth, while he painstakingly detached a fly from his leader, hooked it into the proper compartment of his fly-book, and hesitated over his selection of another to take its place. Absorption was writ deep on his gross countenance, and he recognized the intruder by the briefest of flickering glances and the slightest of nods.
"Keep back from that hole, will yuh?" he muttered, jerking his head toward the still pool. "I ain't tried it yet."
Good Indian was not particularly interested in his own fishing. The sight of Baumberger, bulking there in the shade with his sagging cheeks and sagging pipe, his flopping old hat and baggy canvas fishing-coat, with his battered basket slung over his slouching shoulder and sagging with the weight of his catch; the sloppy wrinkles of his high, rubber boots shining blackly from recent immersion in the stream, caught his errant attention, and stayed him for a few minutes to watch.
Loosely disreputable looked Lawyer Baumberger, from the snagged hole in his hat-crown where a wisp of graying hair fluttered through, to the toes of his ungainly, rubber-clad feet; loosely disreputable, but not commonplace and not incompetent. Though his speech might be a slovenly mumble, there was no purposeless fumbling of the fingers that chose a fly and knotted it fast upon the leader. There was no bungling movement of hand or foot when he laid his pipe upon the rock, tiptoed around the corner, sent a mechanical glance upward toward the swaying branches of an overhanging tree, pulled out his six feet of silk line with a sweep of his arm, and with a delicate fillip, sent the fly skittering over the glassy center of the pool.
Good Indian, looking at him, felt instinctively that a part, at least, of the man's nature was nakedly revealed to him then. It seemed scarcely fair to read the lust of him and the utter abandonment to the hazard of the game. Pitiless he looked, with clenched teeth just showing between the loose lips drawn back in a grin that was half-snarl, half-involuntary contraction of muscles sympathetically tense.
That was when a shimmering thing slithered up, snapped at the fly, and flashed away to the tune of singing reel and the dance of the swaying rod. The man grew suddenly cruel and crafty and full of lust; and Good Indian, watching him, was conscious of an inward shudder of repulsion. He had fished all his life--had Good Indian--and had found joy in the sport. And here was he inwardly condemning a sportsman who stood self-revealed, repelling, hateful; a man who gloated over the struggle of something alive and at his mercy; to whom sport meant power indulged with impunity. Good Indian did not try to put the thing in words, but he felt it nevertheless.
"Brute!" he muttered aloud, his face eloquent of cold disgust.
At that moment Baumberger drew the tired fish gently into the shallows, swung him deftly upon the rocks, and laid hold of him greedily.
"Ain't he a beaut?" he cried, in his wheezy chuckle. "Wait a minute while I weigh him. He'll go over a pound, I'll bet money on it." Gloatingly he held it in his hands, removed the hook, and inserted under the gills the larger one of the little scales he carried inside his basket.
"Pound and four ounces," he announced, and slid the fish into his basket. He was the ordinary, good-natured, gross Baumberger now. Ho reached for his pipe, placed it in his mouth, and held out a hand to Good Indian for a match.
"Say, young fella, have you got any stand-in with your noble red brothers?" he asked, after he had sucked life into the charred tobacco.
"Cousins twice or three times removed, you mean," said Good Indian coldly, too proud and too lately repelled to meet the man on friendly ground. "Why do you ask?"
Baumberger eyed him speculatively while he smoked, and chuckled to himself.
"One of 'em--never mind placing him on his own p'ticular limb of the family tree--has been doggin' me all morning," he said at last, and waved a fishy hand toward the bluff which towered high above them. "Saw him when I was comin' up, about sunrise, pokin' along behind me in the sagebrush. Didn't think anything of that--thought maybe he was hunting or going fishing--but he's been sneakin' around behind me ever since. I don't reckon he's after my scalp--not enough hair to pay--but I'd like to know what the dickens he does mean."
"Nothing probably," Good Indian told him shortly, his eyes nevertheless searching the rocks for a sight of the watcher.
"Well, I don't much like the idea," complained Baumberger, casting an eye aloft in fear of snagging his line when he made another cast. "He was right up there a few minutes ago." He pointed his rod toward a sun-ridden ridge above them. "I got a flicker of his green blanket when he raised up and scowled down at me. He ducked when he saw me turn my head--looked to me like the surly buck that blew in to the ranch the night I came; Jim something-or-other. By the great immortal Jehosaphat!" he swore humorously, "I'd like to tie him up in his dirty blanket and heave him into the river--only it would kill all the fish in the Malad."
Good Indian laughed.
"Oh, I know it's funny, young fella," Baumberger growled. "About as funny as being pestered by a mosquito buzzing under your nose when you're playing a fish that keeps cuttin' figure eights in a hole the size uh that one there."
"I'll go up and take a look," Good Indian offered carelessly.
"Well, I wish you would. I can't keep my mind on m' fishing--just wondering what the deuce he's after. And say! You tell him I'll stand him on his off ear if I catch him doggie' me ag'in. Folks come with yuh?" he remembered to ask as he prepared for another cast into the pool.
"They're down there getting a campfire built, ready to fry what fish they catch," Good Indian informed him, as he turned to climb the bluff. "They're going to eat dinner under that big ledge by the rapids. You better go on down."
He stood for a minute, and watched Baumberger make a dexterous cast, which proved fruitless, before he began climbing up the steep slope of jumbled bowlders upon which the bluff itself seemed to rest. He was not particularly interested in his quest, but he was in the mood for purposeless action; he still did not want to think.
He climbed negligently, scattering loose rocks down the hill behind him. He had no expectation of coming upon Peppajee--unless Peppajee deliberately put himself in his way--and so there was no need of caution. He stopped once, and stood long minutes with his head turned to catch the faint sound of high-keyed laughter and talk which drifted up to him. If he went higher, he thought, he might get a glimpse of them--of her, to tell his thought honestly. Whereupon he forgot all about finding and expostulating with Peppajee, and thought only a point of the ridge which would give him a clear view downstream.
To be sure, he might as easily have retraced his steps and joined the group, and seen every changing look in her face. But he did not want to be near her when others were by; he wanted her to himself, or not at all. So he went on, while the sun beat hotly down upon him and the rocks sent up dry waves of heat like an oven.
A rattlesnake buzzed its strident warning between two rocks, but before he turned his attention to the business of killing it, the snake had crawled leisurely away into a cleft, where he could not reach it with the stones he threw. His thoughts, however, were brought back to his surroundings so that he remembered Peppajee. He stood still, and scanned carefully the jumble of rocks and bowlders which sloped steeply down to the river, looking for a betraying bit of color or dirty gray hat-crown.
"But I could look my eyes out and welcome, if he didn't want to be seen," he concluded, and sat down while he rolled a cigarette. "And I don't know as I want to see him, anyway." Still, he did not move immediately. He was in the shade, which was a matter for congratulation on such a day. He had a cigarette between his lips, which made for comfort; and he still felt the exhilarating effects of his unpremeditated boldness, without having come to the point of sober thinking. He sat there, and blew occasional mouthfuls of smoke into the quivering heat waves, and stared down at the river rushing over the impeding rocks as if its very existence depended upon reaching as soon as possible the broader sweep of the Snake.
He finished the first cigarette, and rolled another from sheer force of habit rather than because he really wanted one. He lifted one foot, and laid it across his knee, and was drawing a match along the sole of his boot when his eyes chanced to rest for a moment upon a flutter of green, which showed briefly around the corner of a great square rock poised insecurely upon one corner, as if it were about to hurl its great bulk down upon the river it had watched so long. He held the blazing match poised midway to its destination while he looked; then he put it to the use he had meant it for, pulled his hat-brim down over his right eye and ear to shield them from the burn of the sun, and went picking his way idly over to the place.
"HUL-lo!" he greeted, in the manner of one who refuses to acknowledge the seriousness of a situation which confronts him suddenly. "What's the excitement?"
There was no excitement whatever. There was Peppajee, hunched up against the rock in that uncomfortable attitude which permits a man to come at the most intimate relations with the outside of his own ankle, upon which he was scowling in seeming malignity. There was his hunting-knife lying upon a flat stone near to his hand, with a fresh red blotch upon the blade, and there was his little stone pipe clenched between his teeth and glowing red within the bowl. Also there was the ankle, purple and swollen from the ligature above it--for his legging was off and torn into strips which formed a bandage, and a splinter of rock was twisted ingeniously in the wrappings for added tightness. From a crisscross of gashes a sluggish, red stream trickled down to the ankle-bone, and from there drip-dropped into a tiny, red pool in the barren, yellow soil.
"Catchum rattlesnake bite?" queried Good Indian inanely, as is the habit of the onlooker when the scene shouts forth eloquently its explanation, and questions are almost insultingly superfluous.
"Huh!" grunted Peppajee, disdaining further speech upon the subject, and regarded sourly the red drip.
"Want me to suck it?" ventured Good Indian unenthusiastically, eying the wound.
"Huh!" Peppajee removed the pipe, his eyes still upon his ankle. "Plenty blood come, mebbyso." To make sure, however, he kneaded the swollen flesh about the wound, thus accelerating slightly the red drip.
Then deliberately he took another turn with the rock, sending the buckskin thongs deeper into the flesh, and held the burning pipe against the skin above the wound until Good Indian sickened and turned away his head. When he looked again, Peppajee was sucking hard at the pipe, and gazing impersonally at the place. He bent again, and hid the glow of his pipe against his ankle. His thin lips tightened while he held it there, but the lean, brown fingers were firm as splinters of the rock behind him. When the fire cooled, he fanned it to life again with his breath, and when it winked redly at him he laid it grimly against his flesh.
So, while Good Indian stood and looked on with lips as tightly drawn as the other's, he seared a circle around the wound--a circle which bit deep and drew apart the gashes like lips opened for protest. He regarded critically his handiwork, muttered a "Bueno" under his breath, knocked the ashes from his pipe, and returned it to some mysterious hiding-place beneath his blanket. Then he picked up his moccasin.
"Them damn' snake, him no speakum," he observed disgustedly. "Heap fool me; him biteum"--he made a stabbing gesture with thumb and finger in the air by way of illustration--"then him go quick." He began gingerly trying to force the moccasin upon his foot, his mouth drawn down with the look of one who considers that he has been hardly used.
"How you get home?" Good Indian's thoughts swung round to practical things. "You got horse?"
Peppajee shook his head, reached for his knife, and slit the moccasin till it was no more than a wrapping. "Mebbyso heap walk," he stated simply.
"Mebbyso you won't do anything of the kind," Good Indian retorted. "You come down and take a horse. What for you all time watchum Baumberger?" he added, remembering then what had brought them both upon the bluff. "Baumberger all time fish--no more." He waved his hand toward the Malad. "Baumberger bueno--catchum fish--no more."
Peppajee got slowly and painfully upon his feet--rather, upon one foot. When Good Indian held out a steadying arm, he accepted it, and leaned rather heavily.
"Yo' eyes sick," said Peppajee, and grinned sardonically. "Yo' eyes see all time Squaw-with-sun-hair. Fillum yo' eyes, yo' see notting. Yo' catchum squaw, bimeby mebbyso see plenty mo'. Me no catchum sick eye. Mebbyso me see heap plenty."
"What you see, you all time watchum Baumberger?"
But Peppajee, hobbling where he must walk, crawling where he might, sliding carefully where a slanting bowlder offered a few feet of smooth descent, and taking hold of Good Indian's offered arm when necessity impelled him, pressed his thin lips together, and refused to answer. So they came at last to the ledge beside the rapids, where a thin wisp of smoke waved lazily in the vagrant breeze which played with the ripples and swayed languidly the smaller branches of the nearby trees.
Only Donny was there, sitting disgruntled upon the most comfortable rock he could find, sulking because the others had taken all the fishing-tackle that was of any account, and had left him to make shift with one bent, dulled hook, a lump of fat pork, and a dozen feet of line.
"And I can catch more fish than anybody in the bunch!" he began complainingly and without preface, waving a dirty hand contemptuously at the despised tackle when the two came slowly up. "That's the way it goes when you take a lot of girls along! They've got to have the best rods and tackle, and all they'll do will be to snag lines and lose leaders and hooks, and giggle alla squeal. Aw--DARN girls!"
"And I'm going to pile it on still thicker, Donny!" Good Indian grinned down at him. "I'm going to swipe your Pirate Chief for a while, till I take Peppajee into camp. He's gentle, and Peppajee's got a snake-bite. I'll be back before you get ready to go home."
"I'm ready to go home right now," growled Donny, sinking his chin between his two palms. "But I guess the walkin' ain't all taken up."
Good Indian regarded him frowningly, gave a little snort, and turned away. Donny in that mood was not to be easily placated, and certainly not to be ignored. He went over to the little flat, and selected Jack's horse, saddled him, and discovered that it had certain well-defined race prejudices, and would not let Peppajee put foot to the stirrup. Keno he knew would be no more tractable, so that he finally slapped Jack's saddle on Huckleberry, and so got Peppajee mounted and headed toward camp.
"You tell Jack I borrowed his saddle and Huckleberry," he called out to the drooping little figure on the rock. "But I'll get back before they want to go home."
But Donny was glooming over his wrongs, and neither heard nor wanted to hear. Having for his legacy a temper cumulative in its heat, he was coming rapidly to the point where he, too, started home, and left no word or message behind; a trivial enough incident in itself, but one which opened the way for some misunderstanding and fruitless speculation upon the part of Evadna.
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