The Flying U's Last Stand by B.M. Bower
Chapter 26. Rosemary Allen Does a Small Sum in Addition
Miss Rosemary Allen, having wielded a wet gunny sack until her eyes were red and smarting and her lungs choked with cinders and her arms so tired she could scarcely lift them, was permitted by fate to be almost the first person who discovered that her quarter of the four-room shack built upon the four contiguous corners of four claims, was afire in the very middle of its roof. Miss Rosemary Allen stood still and watched it burn, and was a trifle surprised because she felt so little regret.
Other shacks had caught fire and burned hotly, and she had wept with sympathy for the owners. But she did not weep when her own shack began to crackle and show yellow, licking tongues of flame. Those three old cats--I am using her own term, which was spiteful--would probably give up now, and go back where they belonged. She hoped so. And for herself--
"By gracious, I'm glad to see that one go, anyhow!" Andy Green paused long enough in his headlong gallop to shout to her. "I was going to sneak up and touch it off myself, if it wouldn't start any other way. Now you and me'll get down to cases, girl, and have a settlement. And say!" He had started on, but he pulled up again. "The Little Doctor's back here, somewhere. You go home with her when she goes, and stay till I come and get you."
"I like your nerve!" Rosemary retorted ambiguously.
"Sure--folks generally do. I'll tell her to stop for you. You know she'll be glad enough to have you--and so will the Kid."
"Where is Buck?" Rosemary was the first person who asked that question. "I saw him ride up on the bench just before the fire started. I was watching for him, through the glasses--"
"Dunno--haven't seen him. With his mother, I guess." Andy rode on to find Patsy and send him back down the line with the water wagon. He did not think anything more about the Kid, though he thought a good deal about Miss Allen.
Now that her shack was burned, she would be easier to persuade into giving up that practically worthless eighty. That was what filled the mind of Andy Green to the exclusion of everything else except the fire. He was in a hurry to deliver his message to Patsy, so that he could hunt up the Little Doctor and speak her hospitality for the girl he meant to marry just as soon as he could persuade her to stand with him before a preacher.
He found the Little Doctor still fighting a dogged battle with death for the life of the woman who laughed wildly because her home was a heap of smoking embers. The Little Doctor told him to send Rosemary Allen on down to the ranch, or take her himself, and to tell the Countess to send up her biggest medicine case immediately. She could not leave, she said, for some time yet. She might have to stay all night--or she would if there was any place to stay. She was half decided, she said, to have someone take the woman in to Dry Lake right away, and up to the hospital in Great Falls. She supposed she would have to go along. Would Andy tell J. G. to send up some money? Clothes didn't matter--she would go the way she was; there were plenty of clothes in the stores, she declared. And would Andy rustle a team, right away, so they could start? If they went at all they ought to catch the evening train. The Little Doctor was making her decisions and her plans while she talked, as is the way with those strong natures who can act promptly and surely in the face of an emergency.
By the time she had thought of having a team come right away, she had decided that she would not wait for her medicine-case or for money. She could get all the money she needed in Dry Lake; and she had her little emergency case with her. Since she was going to take the woman to a hospital, she said, there was no great need of more than she had with her. She was a thoughtful Little Doctor. At the last minute she detained Andy long enough to urge him to see that Miss Allen helped herself to clothes or anything she needed; and to send a goodbye message to Chip--in case he did not show up before she left--and a kiss to her manchild.
Andy was lucky. He met a man driving a good team and spring wagon, with a barrel of water in the back. He promptly dismounted and helped the man unload the water-barrel where it was, and sent him bumping swiftly over the burned sod to where the Little Doctor waited. So Fate was kinder to the Little Doctor than were those who would wring anew the mother heart of her that their own petty schemes might succeed. She went away with the sick woman laughing crazily because all the little black shacks were burned and now everything was black so everything matched nicely--nicely, thank you. She was terribly worried over the woman's condition, and she gave herself wholly to her professional zeal and never dreamed that her manchild was at that moment riding deeper and deeper into the Badlands with a tricky devil of a man, looking for a baby bear cub for a pet.
Neither did Chip dream it, nor any of the Happy Family, nor even Miss Rosemary Allen, until they rode down into Flying U Coulee at supper-time and were met squarely by the fact that the Kid was not there. The Old Man threw the bomb that exploded tragedy in the midst of the little group. He heard that "Dell" had gone to take a sick woman to the hospital in Great Falls, and would not be back for a day or so, probably.
"What'd she do with the Kid?" he demanded. Take him with her?"
Chip stared blankly at him, and turned his eyes finally to Andy's face. Andy had not mentioned the Kid to him.
"He wasn't with her," Andy replied to the look. "She sent him a kiss and word that he was to take care of Miss Allen. He must be somewhere around here."
"Well, he ain't. I was looking fer him myself," put in the Countess sharply. "Somebody shut the cat up in the flour chest and I didn't study much on what it was done it! If I'd a got my hands on 'im--"
"I saw him ride up on the hill trail just before the fire started," volunteered Rosemary Allen. "I had my opera glasses and was looking for him, because I like to meet him and hear him talk. He said yesterday that he was coming to see me today. And he rode up on the hill in sight of my claim. I saw him." She stopped and looked from one to the other with her eyebrows pinched together and her lips pursed.
"Listen," she went on hastily. "Maybe it has nothing to do with Buck--but I saw something else that was very puzzling. I was going to investigate, but the fire broke out immediately and put everything else out of my mind. A man was up on that sharp-pointed knoll off east of the trail where it leaves this coulee, and he had field glasses and was looking for something over this way. I thought he was watching the trail. I just caught him with the glasses by accident as I swung them over the edge of the benchland to get the trail focused. He was watching something--because I kept turning the glasses on him to see what he was doing.
"Then Buck came into sight, and I started to ride out and meet him. I hate to leave the little mite riding alone anywhere--I'm always afraid something may happen. But before I got on my horse I took another look at this man on the hill. He had a mirror or something bright in his hands. I saw it flash, just exactly as though he was signaling to someone--over that way." She pointed to the west. "He kept looking that way, and then back this way; and he covered up the, piece of mirror with his hand and then took it off and let it shine a minute, and put it in his pocket. I know he was making signals.
"I got my horse and started to meet little Buck. He was coming along the trail and rode into a little hollow out of sight. I kept looking and looking toward Dry Lake--because the man looked that way, I guess. And in a few minutes I saw the smoke of the fire--"
"Who was that man?" Andy took a step toward her, his eyes hard and bright in their inflamed lids.
"The man? That Mr. Owens who jumped your south eighty."
"Good Lord, what fools!" He brushed past her without a look or another word, so intent was he upon this fresh disaster. "I'm going after the boys, Chip. You better come along and see if you can pick up the Kid's trail where he left the road. It's too bad Florence Grace Hallman ain't a man! I'd know better what to do if she was."
"Oh, do you think--?" Miss Rosemary looked at him wide-eyed.
"Doggone it, if she's tried any of her schemes with fire and--why, doggone it, being a woman ain't going to help her none!" The Old Man, also, seemed to grasp the meaning of it almost as quickly as had Andy. "Chip, you have Ole hitch up the team. I'm going to town myself, by thunder, and see if she's going to play any of her tricks on this outfit and git away with it! Burnt out half her doggoned colony tryin' to git a whack at you boys! Where's my shoes? Doggone it, what yuh all standin' round with your jaws hangin' down for? We'll see about this fire-settin' and this--where's them shoes?"
The Countess found his shoes, and his hat, and his second- best coat and his driving gloves which he had not worn for more months than anyone cared to reckon. Miss Rosemary Allen did what she could to help, and wondered at the dominant note struck by this bald old man from the moment when he rose stiffly from his big chair and took the initiative so long left to others.
While the team was being made ready the Old Man limped here and there, collecting things he did not need and trying to remember what he must have, and keeping the Countess moving at a flurried trot. Chip and Andy were not yet up the bluff when the Old Man climbed painfully into the covered buggy, took the lines and the whip and cut a circle with the wheels on the hard-packed earth as clean and as small as Chip himself could have done, and went whirling through the big gate and across the creek and up the long slope beyond. He shouted to the boys and they rode slowly until he overtook them--though their nerves were all on edge and haste seemed to them the most important thing in the world. But habit is strong--it was their Old Man who called to them to wait.
"You boys wait to git out after that Owens," he shouted when he passed them. "If they've got the Kid, killing's too good for 'em!" The brown team went trotting up the grade with back straightened to the pull of the lurching buggy, and nostrils flaring wide with excitement. The Old Man leaned sidewise and called back to the two loping after him in the obscuring dust-cloud he left behind.
"I'll have that woman arrested on suspicion uh setting prairie fires!" he called. "I'll git Blake after her. You git that Owens if you have-to haze him to hell and back! Yuh don't want to worry about the Kid, Chip--they ain't goin' to hurt him. All they want is to keep you boys huntin' high and low and combin' the breaks to find 'im. I see their scheme, all right."