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- TRENT'S TRUST & OTHER STORIES - 40/45 -
better view, "but darned ef I kin see any outside passengers. I reckon we haven't waited for much."
Indeed, as the galloping horses of the incoming vehicle pulled out of the hanging dust in the distance, the solitary driver could be seen urging on his team. In a few moments more they had halted at the lower end of the station.
"Wonder what's up!" said the mail agent.
"Nothin'! Only a big Injin scare at Pine Barrens," said one of the ostlers. "Injins doin' ghost dancin'--or suthin like that--and the passengers just skunked out and went on by the other line. Thar's only one ez dar come--and she's a lady."
"A lady?" echoed Boyle.
"Yes," answered the driver, taking a deliberate survey of a tall, graceful girl who, waiving the gallant assistance of the station keeper, had leaped unaided from the vehicle. "A lady--and the fort commandant's darter at that! She's clar grit, you bet--a chip o' the old block. And all this means, sonny, that you're to give up that box seat to HER. Miss Julia Cantire don't take anythin' less when I'm around."
The young lady was already walking, directly and composedly, towards the waiting coach--erect, self-contained, well gloved and booted, and clothed, even in her dust cloak and cape of plain ashen merino, with the unmistakable panoply of taste and superiority. A good-sized aquiline nose, which made her handsome mouth look smaller; gray eyes, with an occasional humid yellow sparkle in their depths; brown penciled eyebrows, and brown tendrils of hair, all seemed to Boyle to be charmingly framed in by the silver gray veil twisted around her neck and under her oval chin. In her sober tints she appeared to him to have evoked a harmony even out of the dreadful dust around them. What HE appeared to her was not so plain; she looked him over--he was rather short; through him--he was easily penetrable; and then her eyes rested with a frank recognition on the driver.
"Good-morning, Mr. Foster," she said, with a smile.
"Mornin', miss. I hear they're havin' an Injin scare over at the Barrens. I reckon them men must feel mighty mean at bein' stumped by a lady!"
"I don't think they believed I would go, and some of them had their wives with them," returned the young lady indifferently; "besides, they are Eastern people, who don't know Indians as well as WE do, Mr. Foster."
The driver blushed with pleasure at the association. "Yes, ma'am," he laughed, "I reckon the sight of even old 'Fleas in the Blanket' over there," pointing to the Indian, who was walking stolidly away from the station, "would frighten 'em out o' their boots. And yet he's got inside his hat the business card o' this gentleman--Mr. Dick Boyle, traveling for the big firm o' Fletcher & Co. of Chicago"--he interpolated, rising suddenly to the formal heights of polite introduction; "so it sorter looks ez ef any SKELPIN' was to be done it might be the other way round, ha! ha!"
Miss Cantire accepted the introduction and the joke with polite but cool abstraction, and climbed lightly into the box seat as the mail bags and a quantity of luggage--evidently belonging to the evading passengers--were quickly transferred to the coach. But for his fair companion, the driver would probably have given profane voice to his conviction that his vehicle was used as a "d----d baggage truck," but he only smiled grimly, gathered up his reins, and flicked his whip. The coach plunged forward into the dust, which instantly rose around it, and made it thereafter a mere cloud in the distance. Some of that dust for a moment overtook and hid the Indian, walking stolidly in its track, but he emerged from it at an angle, with a quickened pace and a peculiar halting trot. Yet that trot was so well sustained that in an hour he had reached a fringe of rocks and low bushes hitherto invisible through the irregularities of the apparently level plain, into which he plunged and disappeared. The dust cloud which indicated the coach-- probably owing to these same irregularities--had long since been lost on the visible horizon.
The fringe which received him was really the rim of a depression quite concealed from the surface of the plain,--which it followed for some miles through a tangled trough-like bottom of low trees and underbrush,--and was a natural cover for wolves, coyotes, and occasionally bears, whose half-human footprint might have deceived a stranger. This did not, however, divert the Indian, who, trotting still doggedly on, paused only to examine another footprint--much more frequent--the smooth, inward-toed track of moccasins. The thicket grew more dense and difficult as he went on, yet he seemed to glide through its density and darkness--an obscurity that now seemed to be stirred by other moving objects, dimly seen, and as uncertain and intangible as sunlit leaves thrilled by the wind, yet bearing a strange resemblance to human figures! Pressing a few yards further, he himself presently became a part of this shadowy procession, which on closer scrutiny revealed itself as a single file of Indians, following each other in the same tireless trot. The woods and underbrush were full of them; all moving on, as he had moved, in a line parallel with the vanishing coach. Sometimes through the openings a bared painted limb, a crest of feathers, or a strip of gaudy blanket was visible, but nothing more. And yet only a few hundred yards away stretched the dusky, silent plain--vacant of sound or motion!
Meanwhile the Sage Wood and Pine Barren stage coach, profoundly oblivious--after the manner of all human invention--of everything but its regular function, toiled dustily out of the higher plain and began the grateful descent of a wooded canyon, which was, in fact, the culminating point of the depression, just described, along which the shadowy procession was slowly advancing, hardly a mile in the rear and flank of the vehicle. Miss Julia Cantire, who had faced the dust volleys of the plain unflinchingly, as became a soldier's daughter, here stood upright and shook herself--her pretty head and figure emerging like a goddess from the enveloping silver cloud. At least Mr. Boyle, relegated to the back seat, thought so--although her conversation and attentions had been chiefly directed to the driver and mail agent. Once, when he had light-heartedly addressed a remark to her, it had been received with a distinct but unpromising politeness that had made him desist from further attempts, yet without abatement of his cheerfulness, or resentment of the evident amusement his two male companions got out of his "snub." Indeed, it is to be feared that Miss Julia had certain prejudices of position, and may have thought that a "drummer"--or commercial traveler--was no more fitting company for the daughter of a major than an ordinary peddler. But it was more probable that Mr. Boyle's reputation as a humorist--a teller of funny stories and a boon companion of men--was inconsistent with the feminine ideal of high and exalted manhood. The man who "sets the table in a roar" is apt to be secretly detested by the sex, to say nothing of the other obvious reasons why Juliets do not like Mercutios!
For some such cause as this Dick Boyle was obliged to amuse himself silently, alone on the back seat, with those liberal powers of observation which nature had given him. On entering the canyon he had noticed the devious route the coach had taken to reach it, and had already invented an improved route which should enter the depression at the point where the Indians had already (unknown to him) plunged into it, and had conceived a road through the tangled brush that would shorten the distance by some miles. He had figured it out, and believed that it "would pay." But by this time they were beginning the somewhat steep and difficult ascent of the canyon on the other side. The vehicle had not crawled many yards before it stopped. Dick Boyle glanced around. Miss Cantire was getting down. She had expressed a wish to walk the rest of the ascent, and the coach was to wait for her at the top. Foster had effusively begged her to take her own time--"there was no hurry!" Boyle glanced a little longingly after her graceful figure, released from her cramped position on the box, as it flitted youthfully in and out of the wayside trees; he would like to have joined her in the woodland ramble, but even his good nature was not proof against her indifference. At a turn in the road they lost sight of her, and, as the driver and mail agent were deep in a discussion about the indistinct track, Boyle lapsed into his silent study of the country. Suddenly he uttered a slight exclamation, and quietly slipped from the back of the toiling coach to the ground. The action was, however, quickly noted by the driver, who promptly put his foot on the brake and pulled up. "Wot's up now?" he growled.
Boyle did not reply, but ran back a few steps and began searching eagerly on the ground.
"Lost suthin?" asked Foster.
"Found something," said Boyle, picking up a small object. "Look at that! D----d if it isn't the card I gave that Indian four hours ago at the station!" He held up the card.
"Look yer, sonny," retorted Foster gravely, "ef yer wantin' to get out and hang round Miss Cantire, why don't yer say so at oncet? That story won't wash!"
"Fact!" continued Boyle eagerly. "It's the same card I stuck in his hat--there's the greasy mark in the corner. How the devil did it--how did HE get here?"
"Better ax him," said Foster grimly, "ef he's anywhere round."
"But I say, Foster, I don't like the look of this at all! Miss Cantire is alone, and"--
But a burst of laughter from Foster and the mail agent interrupted him. "That's so," said Foster. "That's your best holt! Keep it up! You jest tell her that! Say thar's another Injin skeer on; that that thar bloodthirsty ole 'Fleas in His Blanket' is on the warpath, and you're goin' to shed the last drop o' your blood defendin' her! That'll fetch her, and she ain't bin treatin' you well! G'lang!"
The horses started forward under Foster's whip, leaving Boyle standing there, half inclined to join in the laugh against himself, and yet impelled by some strange instinct to take a more serious view of his discovery. There was no doubt it was the same card he had given to the Indian. True, that Indian might have given it to another--yet by what agency had it been brought there faster than the coach traveled on the same road, and yet invisibly to them? For an instant the humorous idea of literally accepting Foster's challenge, and communicating his discovery to Miss Cantire, occurred to him; he could have made a funny story out of it, and
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