The Ghost of One Man Coulee
The Ghost of One Man Coulee
Author of “The Happy Family Stories,” “Lonesome Land,” Etc.
The reappearance of Olafson, the violinist, who had gone out in the blizzard and was lost seeking the north wind that he might learn the song it sang, and who, according to Happy Jack, returned to earth on moonlight nights to play his violin in the doorway of the deserted shack in One Man Coulee
HAPPY JACK, by some freak of misguided ambition, was emulating rather heavily the elfish imagination of Andy Green. He was—to put it baldly and colloquially—throwing a big load into the Native Son who jingled his gorgeous silver spurs close alongside Happy’s more soberly accoutered heel.
“That there,” Happy was saying, with ponderous gravity, “is the shack where the old fiddler went crazy trying to play a tune like the wind—or some blamed fool thing like that—and killed himself because he couldn’t make it stick. It’s haunted, that shack is. The old fellow’s ghost comes around there moonlight nights and plays the fiddle in the door.”
The Native Son, more properly christened Miguel, turned a languidly velvet glance toward the cabin and flicked the ashes from his cigarette daintily. “Have you ever seen the ghost, Happy?” he asked indulgently.
“Ah—yes, sure! I seen it m’self,” Happy lied boldly.
“And were you scared?”
“Me? Scared? Hunh!” Happy gave a fairly good imitation of dumb disgust. “Why, I went and——” Happy’s imagination floundered in the stagnant pool of a slow-thinking brain. “I went right in and——”
“Exactly.” Miguel smiled a smile of even, white teeth and ironical lips. “Some moonlight night we will come back here at midnight, you and I. I have heard of that man, and I am fond of music. We will come and listen to him.”
Some of the other boys, ambling up from behind, caught a part of the speech, and looked at one another, grinning.
“The Native Son’s broke out all over with schoolbook grammar ag’in,” Big Medicine remarked. “Wonder what Happy’s done? I’ve noticed, by cripes, that the guilty party better duck, when that there Miguel begins to talk like a schoolma’am huntin’ a job! Hey, there!” he bellowed suddenly, so that one might hear him half a mile away. “What’s this here music talk I hear? Who’s goin’ to play, and where at, and how much is it a head?”
Miguel turned and looked back at the group, smiling still. “Happy was telling me about a ghost in that cabin down there.” He flung out a hand toward the place so suddenly that his horse jumped in fear of the quirt. “I say we’ll come back some night and listen to the ghost. Happy says he frequently rides over to hear it play on moonlight nights, and——”
“Aw, g’wan!” Happy Jack began to look uncomfortable in his mind. “I said——”
“Happy? If he thought there was a ghost in One Man Coulee, you couldn’t tie him down and haul him past in aat noon,” Andy asserted sharply. “There isn’t any ghost.”
Andy set his lips firmly together, and stared reminiscently down the hill at the lonely little cabin in the coulee. Memory, the original moving-picture machine, which can never be equaled by any man-made contrivance, flashed upon him vividly a picture of the night when he had sat within that cabin, listening to the man who would play the north wind, and who wept because it eluded him always; who played wonderfully—a genius gone mad under the spell of his own music—and at last rushed out into the blizzard and was lost, seeking the north wind that he might learn the song it sang. The scene gripped Andy, even in memory. He wondered fancifully if Olafson was still wandering with his violin, searching for the home of the north wind. They had never found him, not even when the snows had gone and the land lay bare beneath a spring sky. He must have frozen, for the night had been bitter, and a blizzard raged blindingly. Still, they had never found a trace of him.
There had been those who, after searching a while in vain, had accused Andy to his face of building the story to excite his fellows. He had been known to deceive his friends heartlessly, and there had been some argument over the real fate of the vanished Olafson. If Andy had told the truth, asked the doubters, where was Olafson’s body? And who had ever tried to play the wind? Who, save Andy Green, would ever think of such a fantastic tale? Happy Jack, Andy remembered resentfully, had been unusually vociferous in his unbelief, even for him.
“Aw, you stuck to it there was all the makin’s of a ghost,” Happy defended awkwardly, and wished that Andy Green had not overheard the yarn he told Miguel. “Sure, there’s a ghost!” He fell back a step that he might wink at Big Medicine, and so enlist his sledge-hammer assistance. “I leave it to Bud if we didn’t hear it, one night——”
“And seen it, too, by cripes!” Big Medicine enlarged readily and shamelessly. “Standin’ right in the door, playin’ the fiddle to beat a straight flush.” He glared around the little group with his protruding eyes until is glance met the curious look of Cal Emmett. “You was with us, Cal,” he asserted boldly. “I leave it to you if we didn’t see ’im and hear ’im.”
Cal, thus besought to bear false witness, did so with amiable alacrity. “We sure did,” he declared.
“Funny you never said a word about it before,” snapped Andy, with open disbelief in his tone.
“We thought nobody’d believe us if we did tell it,” Big Medicine explained.
“Pity yuh don’t always think as close to the mark as yuh done then,” Andy retorted.
“How do yuh know there ain’t a ghost?” Big Medicine demanded with some slight rancor, born not of the argument, but of temporary ill feeling between the two. “Is it because yuh know, by cripes, that yuh lied last winter?”
Andy’s lips tightened. “I’ve heard about enough of that,” he said, with a flash of anger. With the cabin in sight, and recalling the tragedy of that night, he was not in the mood to wrangle good-naturedly about it with any one—least of all with Big Medicine. “I didn’t lie. I’m dead willing to back what I said about it with my fists, if——”
Big Medicine twitched the reins to ride close, but Miguel’s horse sidled suddenly and blocked the move. Also, Miguel smiled guilelessly into the angry eyes of Big Medicine.
“Will you fellows come back with me to-night, then, and see the ghost?” he asked lightly. “Or don’t you dare tackle it again?”
Big Medicine snorted and forgot his immediate intentions toward Andy, just as Miguel, perhaps, intended that he should do.
“You wouldn’t dast come along, if we did,” he glowered. “I’d camp there alone for a month, far as I’m concerned, if there was any grub, by cripes!”
“That shows how much you know about the place,” put in Pink, siding with Andy. “Unless somebody’s packed it away lately, there’s all kinds of grub left. Maybe the flour, and bacon, and beans is gone, but there’s enough pickles and stuffed olives to last——”
“Olives!” cried the Native Son, and looked back longingly at the rugged bluff which marked One Man Coulee. “Say, does anybody belong to them olives?”
“Nobody but the ghost,” grinned Pink. “We bought him twelve lovely tall bottles, just to please Jimmie; he told us there wasn’t any sale for stuffed olives in Dry Lake, and he offered ’em to us at cost. We did think uh taking all he had, but we cut it down to twelve bottles afterward. And Olafson never ate a darned olive all the time he was there!”
“And they’re there yet, you say?” It was plain that Miguel was far more interested in the olives than he was in the ghost.
“Sure, they’re there.” Pink was not troubling to warp the truth, as Miguel decided, after a sharp glance. “The stuff all belonged to Olafson, and the shack belongs to the Old Man. And when Olafson went crazy over the wind, and froze to death,” he stipulated distinctly, with a challenging glance at Big Medicine, “we all kept thinking at first he’d come back, maybe. But he never did——”
“Exceptin’ his ghost, by golly!” put in Slim unexpectedly, with a belated snort of amusement at the idea.
“I’d rather,” sighed Miguel, “have a dozen bottles of stuffed olives than a dozen kisses from the prettiest girl in the State.”
“Mamma! they’re easier to get, anyway. If you want ’em that bad——”
“That there ghost may have something to say about them olives,” Happy Jack warned, sticking stubbornly to his story.
Miguel smiled—and there was that in his smile which sent four mendacious cow-punchers hot with resentment.
“Maybe yuh don’t believe in that ghost, by cripes?” Big Medicine challenged indignantly, and gave Miguel a pale, pop-eyed stare meant to be intimidating.
Miguel smiled again as at some secret joke, and made no reply at all.
“Well—don’t yuh b’lieve it?” Big Medicine roared after a minute.
Miguel smiled gently and inspected his cigarette; emotions might surge about this Native Son and beat themselves to a white froth upon the rock of his absolute, inimitable imperturbability, as the Happy Family knew well. Now they rode close-grouped, intensely interested in this struggle between bull-bellowing violence and languid impassivity.
“You don’t believe it yourself, do you?” Miguel inquired evenly at last, rousing himself from his abstraction. “Did you expect me to swallow hook, sinker, and all?”
Big Medicine looked positively murderous. “When I say a thing is so,” he cried, “I expect, by cripes, that folks will take m’ bare word for it. I don’t have to produce no affidavies, nor haul in any witnesses. I ain’t like Andy, here. You’re dealin’ now with a man that can look truth in the face and never bat an eye.”
Miguel smiled again, this time more humanly amused. “I’ve met men before who hadn’t a speaking acquaintance with Dame Truth,” he drawled. “They looked her in the face, too—and she never recognized ’em.”
Big Medicine was at that critical point where make-believe may easily become reality. He had been “joshing” and playing he was mad before; now his glare hardened perceptibly, so that more than one of the boys noticed the difference.
“Aw, if he don’t want to believe it he don’t have to,” Happy Jack intercepted Big Medicine’s belligerent speech. “Chances is them olives’ll stay where they’re at a good long while, though—if Mig-u-ell has to get ’em after dark.”
Miguel smoked while he rode ten rods. “I offered to come and listen to the ghost fiddle his fastest,” he observed at last, “and not one of you fellows took me up on it. To-night I’ll come alone and get those olives. I guess I can carry twelve bottles all right.”
“It’s no use to-night,” Cal Emmett objected. “It’s only on moonlight nights——” He looked a question at Big Medicine.
“Moonlight it’s got to be. There ain’t a moon till——”
“I can find stuffed olives any old kind of a night.” Miguel blew the ashes from his cigarette. “It’s the olives I want, amigo. I don’t give a whoop for your ghost.”
“Aw, I betche yuh dassent come when it’s moonlight, just the same,” cried Happy Jack. “I betche ten dollars yuh dassent.”
It would be tiresome to repeat all that was said upon the subject thereafter. So slight a thing as Happy Jack’s wrongful desire to lie as convincingly as could Andy Green, led the whole Happy Family into a profitless and more or less acrimonious argument. Each man, according to his nature, and the mood he happened to be in at the moment, took up the discussion. And speedily it developed that the faction against Miguel, Andy Green, and Pink included every man of them save Weary, who would stand by Pink regardless of the issue.
It was nearly noon, and they were hungry, and headed toward camp; but despite their haste they argued the foolish question of whether the cabin in One Man Coulee was haunted. Six of them maintained stubbornly that it was—for Irish began to side with Happy Jack just because he did not like the Native Son very well, and that ironical smile of Miguel’s irritated him to a degree; and Jack Bates also espoused the ghost because he scented an opportunity for excitement. The minority, composed of Miguel, Pink, Andy Green, and Weary, confined themselves largely to sarcasm—which is the oil which feeds fastest the flames of dissension.
It was foolish, to be sure; just as foolish as many other things which men drift into doing. But they, nevertheless, reached that point where, as in the case of Big Medicine, make-believe crowded close upon reality. The four rode together into camp ten paces ahead of the six, and they talked in low tones among themselves mostly. When they did deign to look at the six, their glances were unfriendly, and when they spoke their speech was barbed so that it stung the listeners. And the six retaliated vigorously—the more so because they had been silly enough in the first place to declare their belief in the nonexistent, and had been betrayed into making many ridiculous assertions which they were too obstinate to withdraw; so that once again the Happy Family belied the name men had given it, and became for the time being a bunch of as disagreeable cow-punchers as one could find in four days’ ride.
“Aw, say, I sure would like to put it on them fellers good!” Happy Jack growled to Cal and Jack Bates on the way to the corralled saddle bunch after dinner. Happy Jack was purple with wrath, for a caustic sentence or two spoken in Miguel’s most maddening drawl was yet stinging his ears. “That there Natiff Son makes me tired! I wisht there was a ghost—I’d sure——”
“Oh, there’s a ghost, all right,” Jack Bates stated meaningly; “all yuh got to do is make one.”
“Say, by golly!” Slim, close behind them, gulped excitedly. “Wouldn’t it——”
“Say, don’t let them faces get to leaking,” Cal advised bluntly. “It’s a whole week till the moon’s good. Shut up!”
Slim goggled at him, caught the hazy beginning of an idea, grinned, and stepped over the rope into the corral. He was grinning when he caught his horse, and he was still grinning widely while he cinched the saddle. He caught Andy Green eying him suspiciously, and snickered outright. But he did not say a word, and, therefore, went his way, believing that he had given no hint of what was in his mind.
Slim and Happy Jack were alike in one respect: Their minds worked slowly and rather ponderously—and, like other ponderous machinery, once in motion they were hard to stop. The others would have left the subject alone, after that hour of hot argument, and in time would have forgotten it except for an occasional jeer, perhaps; but not so Happy Jack and Slim.
The Flying U outfit ate, saddled fresh horses, reloaded the mess wagon, and moved on toward Dry Creek, and that night flung weary bodies upon the growing grass in the shade of the tents, twenty miles and more from One Man Coulee and the little cabin with its grim history of genius blotted out in madness. Nevertheless, Slim searched ostentatiously with plate, knife, and fork in his hand, at supper time, and craned his neck over boxes and cans, until he had the attention of his fellows, who were hungry, and elbowed him out of their way with scant courtesy.
“Sa, Mig-u-ell, where’s them stuffed olives?” he called at last. “I thought, by golly, we was goin’ to have some olives for supper?”
“Olives—stuffed olives, are best picked by moonlight, they tell me,” Miguel responded unemotionally, glancing up over his cup. “Have patience, amigo.”
Slim nudged Happy Jack so that he spilled half his coffee and swore because it was hot, caught Big Medicine’s pale-eyed glare upon him, and subsided so suddenly that he choked over his next sentence, which had nothing at all to do with olives, or ghosts, or insane fiddlers.
Men, it would seem, never quite leave their boyhood behind them; at least, those men do not who live naturally and individually, untainted by the poison of the great money marts where human nature is warped and perverted so that nearly all natural instincts are subordinated to the lust for gain of one sort and another. In the Bear Paw country men labor for gain, it is true; but they also live the lives for which nature has created them. There is that in the wide reaches of plain and valley, in the clean arch of blue sky and drifting clouds overhead, which keeps the best of them boyish till their temples are marked with white—yes, and after.
It was that tenacious element which started Irish, Cal Emmett, Jack Bates, and Big Medicine to tilting hat brims together when none others were near observe them. It was that which sent them off riding by themselves—to town, they said before they started—early on the first Sunday after the wagons had pulled in to the ranch, there to stand until the beef round-up started.
They returned unobtrusively by mid-afternoon, and they looked very well satisfied with themselves, and inclined to facetiousness.
“What’s the matter?” Weary asked them pointedly when they dismounted at the corral. “Come back after some thing you forgot?”
“Yeah—sure,” Cal returned, with a flicker of eyelids. “Nothing doing in that darned imitation of a town, anyway.”
“Where’s the mail?” Pink demanded expectantly.
“We—plumb forgot that there mail, by cripes!” Big Medicine looked up quickly. “Irish was goin’ to git it, but he didn’t.”
Pink said nothing, but he studied the four from under the long, curled lashed which he had found very useful in concealing covert glances.
“Sorry, Little One—honest to grandma, I am!” Big Medicine clapped him patronizingly on the shoulder as he passed him.
“I don’t know as it matters,” said Pink sweetly. “Some of us were just about ready to hit the trail. We can get it, I guess. Say! Ain’t you got that cayuse caught up yet, Mig?” he called out to the Native Son, who was reclining luxuriously against a new stack of sweet-smelling bluejoint hay. “Come out of your trance, or we’ll go off and leave you!”
“Oh—yuh going to town?” Cal looked over his shoulder with some uneasiness in his baby-blue eyes.
“Maybe we are and maybe we ain’t. Maybe we’re going to see our best girls. What’s it to you?” Pink turned his back on Cal and looked full at Weary. “Come on—the girls will be plumb wild if we don’t get a move on,” he said carelessly, and picked up his bridle. “Where’s Andy? I thought he said he wanted to go along. Hurry up, Mig, if you’re going.”
Nobody knew what he was driving at, but the three were mounted well within ten minutes, and flinging back remarks to the four who had lately returned. The departing ones were well up on the hogback before any one of them ventured to question Pink, who rode with the air of one whose destination is fixed, and whose desire outstrips his body in the journey.
“Say, Cadwolloper, where are we headed for?” Weary inquired then resignedly. “And what’s the rush?”
Pink glanced down the hill toward the stable and corrals, decided that they were being observed with something very like suspicion, and faced to the front again. “We’re going to head for Rogers’,” he dimpled, “but we ain’t going to get there. Yuh needn’t look down there—but Irish and Cal are saddling up again. They’re afraid we’re going to town. They’re going to trail us up and find out for sure.”
“They sure did act like they’d been holding up a train, when they rode up,” Weary observed. “I’ve been searching my soul with a spyglass trying to find the answer for all that guilt on their faces.”
“Happy Jack has been mentioning stuffed olives and moonlight pretty often to-day,” the Native Son remarked with apparent irrelevance. “I thought he’d pickled that josh, but he’s working things up again. Two and two make four; that four.” With the slightest of head tilts he indicated those below, and flashed his even, white teeth in a smile. “Do you want me to guess where you’re going, Pink?”
“I wish you fellows would guess how we’re going to ditch them two pirates, first,” Pink retorted, glancing down again at the stable without turning his head. “If we strike straight for Rogers’, maybe they’ll turn back, though. They’ll think we’ve gone over there to see the girls.”
“If I knew the country a little better——” began the Native Son, and stopped with that.
“If they don’t follow us over the ridge,” spoke up Andy, who had been thinking deeply, “we can go up Antelope Coulee instead of down, and follow along in the edge of the breaks to the head of One Man, and down that; that’s where you’re going, isn’t it? It will be five or six miles farther.”
Pink threw up his hand impatiently. “Uh course, that’s what I intended to do. But if they ride over the ridge they’ll know we never kept straight on to Rogers’, and then they’ll know we’re dodging.” He urged his horse up the last steep slope, and led the way over the brow of the bluff and out of sight of the ranch below. “And I’m sure going to find out what that bunch has been making themselves so mysterious about, the last couple uh days,” he vowed grimly. “I slipped up on ’em yesterday down in the hay corral, and I heard Cal say, ‘Sure, we can! There’s one in that Injun grave over in Antelope Coulee.’” He stared at the others with purpling eyes. “What’s in that grave, Weary? I never was right to it, myself.”
“Nothing, Cadwolloper—except what is left of the old boy they tucked under that ledge. There ain’t even a perfume any more. We can go by that way and see if they’ve been there.”
With that wordless understanding common among men who have lived long together, they left the trail and ambled slowly across the prairie in the direction of the Rogers Ranch. And they had not traveled more than half a mile when Miguel, looking back very cautiously, smiled.
“Don’t look,” he said, and then added melodramatically: “We are followed! Hist! The pursuers are in sight. Courage, men!”
Pink risked a glance over his shoulder, and glimpsed two bobbing hat crowns just over the brow of Flying U Coulee.
“Now, wouldn’t that jar yuh?” he exclaimed, just as disgustedly as if he had not all along suspected that very thing to happen.
The moving specks stopped, remained stationary for a minute or two, and then went bobbing back again. The four laughed, pressed spurred heels against their horses, and galloped over the ridge and into the lower end of Antelope Coulee. At the bottom they swung sharply to the right, instead of to the left, rode as hurriedly as the uneven ground would permit for a mile or more; crossed the trail to Dry Lake, and kept on up the coulee to its very head.
At one point their quick eyes saw where several horsemen had ridden down into the coulee, dismounted, and climbed through shale rock to the lone Indian grave under a low shelf of sand stone, left there betraying imprints of high-heeled boots, returned again to where their horses had waited, and ridden on. They also rode on, toward One Man Coulee. Before them always lay the trail of shod hoofs, where the soil was not too hard to receive an imprint.
Patsy was standing in the door of the mess house beating his fat knuckles upon a tin pan for the supper call, when Andy Green and Miguel rode leisurely down the grade. The boys were straggling toward the sound, and there was the usual bustle around the washbasins and roller towels, and in the quiet air hung the enticing odor of Patsy’s delectable chicken potpie. The two hurried to the stable, unsaddled with the haste of hungry men, and reached the mess house just as the clatter of feet had subsided and the potpie was making its first round.
Cal looked up from a generous helping. “Hello, where’s the rest of the bunch?” he queried.
“Oh, the girls have got them roped and tied,” Andy responded carelessly. "Mig and I got cold feet, and broke back on them.”
“Didn’t yuh go to town?” Irish spoke as innocently as if he had not watched them well on their way from the shelter of the bluff.
Miguel deigned him one of his heavy-lidded stares. “Why should one go to town, when there are three pretty girls at the next ranch? Town didn’t hold you fellows very long.”
“I thought sure you’d gone after olives, by golly,” blurted Slim, with his mouth half full of dumpling.
“If I’d gone after them, I’d have got them,” Miguel, usually so exasperatingly calm, spoke with some feeling.
“Aw, g’wan! I betche yuh dassent go.” Happy Jack grinned arrogantly.
“You wouldn’t bet anything but words,” retorted Miguel. “There are several of you fellows that seem to be just that brand of sports.” He gave the faint shrug which they all hated.
Big Medicine laid down his knife and fork. “Say, do yuh mind naming over them several fellers?” he inquired abruptly in his booming voice. “I don’t bet words, by cripes—when I bet——”
Miguel smiled across at him blandly. “We were speaking of olives,” he purred “Happy Jack wanted to ‘betche’ I daren’t go after them. He didn’t name the stakes, though.”
“It ain’t because I ain’t willin’ to put ’em up,” glowered Happy. “I’ll betche five dollars, then—if that suits yuh any better.”
Miguel laughed, which was unusual when he was arguing with any one. “Do you mean it? Do you really think that little, weak, pretty-pretty ghost story would scare—a—nigger baby?” His voice taunted the lot of them.
“Don’t yuh believe there’s a ghost, by cripes?” Big Medicine bawled pugnaciously.
“No. Of course I don’t believe it. Neither do you.” Miguel spoke with that weary tolerance which is so hard to endure.
“I do,” Cal Emmett declared flatly. “And I’m willing to bet a horse against them fancy spurs of yours that you dassent go to-night to One Man Coulee and bring away them bottles of stuffed olives.”
“What horse?” asked Miguel, reaching for the chicken platter.
“Well—any darned horse I own!” Cal wore the open-eyed look of innocence which had helped him scare out his opponents in many a poker game. “I say to-night,” he added apologetically to the others, “because it’s going to be clear and lots uh moonlight; and it’s Sunday. But I don’t care what night he tries it. I’ll bet he won’t bring away no olives.”
“Aren’t they there?” Miguel wanted to know.
“Oh—they’re there, I guess. I’ll change the wordin’ a little. I’ll bet yuh dassent go to that shack, and go into it and stay long enough to freeze onto twelve bottles uh anything. To-night,” he added, “at mid—no, any old time between ten and one. And I’ll bet any one uh my four cayuses against your spurs.”
“It’s a go. Does the rest of my riding outfit look good to any of you fellows?” Miguel glanced around the table smilingly. “Happy, for instance——”
“I got five dollars up,” Happy Jack reminded. “But I’ll put twenty with it against your bridle.”
“That bridle’s worth fifty dollars. And my saddle cost two hundred and eighty. I’ll put them up, though, if any one wants to cover the bet.”
“Say, this is a shame. Honest to grandma, I’d hate to see Miggie ridin’ bareback the rest uh the summer—with a rope hackamore, by cripes! Don’t go ’n take all his purty-purties away from him like that, boys! Haw-haw.-haw!” It is unwise to laugh like that with one’s mouth full of chicken. Big Medicine choked and retired from the conversation and the room.
“Say, you don’t reelize, by golly, what you’re up ag’inst,” Slim observed ponderously. “If you did——”
“Are you dead-game sports, or are you a bunch of old women?” drawled Miguel. “My outfit is up, if any one has nerve enough to take the bets.”
They wrangled more or less amicably over it, as was their habit. But they did finally bet a great deal more on the foolish venture than they should have done. When, finally, they reached the time and the point of departure, Miguel, like the plains Indians during the fever of horse-racing, was pledged to his hat and his high-heeled boots; while the Happy Family, if they lost, would have plenty of reason to repent them of their rashness.
They waited an hour for Pink and Weary to return, and, when they did not appear, they rode off without them. They pitied Miguel, and told him so. They told of haunted cabins, and of murders and dreams come true, and of disasters that were weird.
Andy Green, when half of the ten miles had been covered, roused himself from his disapproving silence and told them a fearsome tale of two miners murdered mysteriously and thrown into their own mine, and of their dog which howled up and down the mountain gulches when the moonlight lay soft upon the land; told it so that they rode close-huddled that they might catch it all, down to the last gruesomely mysterious incident of the murdered master whistling from the pit to the dog, and of the animal’s whimpering obedience—long years after, when the dog’s bones were bleaching through sun and storm above, and the master’s bones were rotting in the darkness below.
Happy Jack more than once glanced uneasily toward the shadowy hollows as they rode slowly across the prairies through the night silence. Slim set his jaw and rode stiffly, staring straight ahead of him as if he feared what he might see, if he looked aside. Miguel was seen to shiver, though the air was soft and warm.
“Now, this Olafson——” Andy began after a silence which no one thought to break. “The boys joshed me a lot about that. But it was queer—the queerest thing I ever saw or heard; To see him sitting there in the firelight, listening—and while he listened, to hear the wind whoo-whoo around the corners and down the chimney—and the snow swish-swishing against the walls like grave clothes when the ghosts walk——”
“Aw—I thought yuh said there wasn’t any ghosts!” croaked Happy Jack uneasily.
“And then Olafson would lift his violin and draw the bow across——” Andy, the reins dropped upon the saddle horn, held an imaginary violin cuddled under his chin, and across the phantom strings drew an imaginary bow with slow, sweeping gestures, while his voice went on with the tale, and the Happy Family watched, and listened, and saw what he meant them to see. “And then would come that lonesome whoo-oo of the wind—from the violin. He made me see things. He made me see the storm, like it was a white spirit creeping over the range. He made me——”
They had reached One Man Coulee while he talked. The Happy Family stared down into the lonely place lying nakedly white under the moon, shivered, and rode slowly down the slope. Like one in a trance Andy rode in their midst, and compelled them with his voice to see the things he would have them see. Compelled them to see Olafson, the master musician, striving after the song of the north wind, and the prairie, and the wolf; made them see him as he opened the door and stood there gazing wildly out, playing—always playing—something weird and wonderful, and supernaturally terrible.
“I don’t envy Miguel his job none, by cripes,” Big Medicine said, as they drew near the point beyond which the cabin would stand revealed to them, and for a wonder he spoke softly.
Andy glanced up at the yellow ball floating serenely over the blue ocean of the sky, down the white-lighted coulee, with fringes of black shadows here and there, and then at the cabin squatting deserted against the green background of willows, with blank, staring window and open doorway.
“If such things can be—if the ghost of Olafson can come back, he’ll come to-night and try again to play the wind,” he said solemnly. “Just a low, even, creepy tone first on open G——”
They rode slowly around to where they faced the door, pulled up short fifty feet away from it, and stared.
“There he is!” Andy’s voice was the whisper which carries far. “He’s come, boys—to play the wind again! A low, creepy note on open G——”
In the doorway, where the moon shone radiantly in, stood a black-clothed figure topped by a grinning, fleshless skull. Cuddled under the horrid, bony chin of it was a violin. The right arm was upraised and bent, poising the bow above the strings. The staring, empty eye sockets were lighted with a pale, phosphorescent glow.
“Well, by golly!” gulped Slim, in an undertone, and backed his horse a little involuntarily.
“Aw——” Happy Jack looked at Irish and Cal, grinned sheepishly, and was silent.
“Go on, Miggie, and git your olives,” Big Medicine murmured. “Twelve bottles. We’ll wait for yuh here.”
Miguel slid off his horse without a word and started forward, hesitating a trifle, if the truth were known.
In the doorway the right arm of the figure trembled and moved slowly upward, pulling the bow lightly across the strings. Came a low, wailing note on open G, which swelled resonantly in the quiet air, rose a tone, clung there, and slid eerily down to silence.
Big Medicine started and stared across at Irish, and Cal Emmett, and Jack Bates, who met his look incredulously. Miguel stopped short and stood a moment in the blank silence which followed. The gaunt, black figure bulked huge in the doorway, and the fleshless mouth grinned at him sardonically.
Miguel took a step or two forward. Again that ghostly arm lifted and swept the bow across the strings. Again the eerie tones came vibrantly, sliding up the scale, clinging, and wailing, and falling again to silence when Miguel stood still.
Big Medicine turned his horse short around, so that he faced those three—Cal, Jack Bates, and Irish.
“Say!—the—the thing’s playin’, by cripes!” he muttered accusingly, and edged off fearfully.
“Aw—say!” Happy Jack moved farther away in sudden, unashamed terror. “What makes it—play?”
Miguel stood longer that time, and the silence rasped the nerves of those who waited farther off. When he moved forward again the playing began. When he stopped, the ghostly arm was still.
Happy Jack, with an unexpected, inarticulate squawk, kicked his horse in the ribs and fled down the coulee. Slim went after him, galloping with elbows flapping wildly. Those who waited longer saw Miguel walk slowly up to the very threshold, and face the ghost that played over and over that one, awful strain. They saw him stop as if to gather together his courage, put down his head as if he were battling a blizzard, and edge past the unearthly figure.
As he disappeared within, brushing swiftly past the ghost, the strings twanged ominously. Came an unearthly screech which was like demons howling as howls the gray wolf before a storm. It raised the hair on the scalp with that prickling sensation which is so extremely unpleasant, and it sent Big Medicine, Cal, Jack Bates, and Irish clattering down the coulee in the wake of Slim and Happy Jack.
Andy Green held his horse and Miguel’s back from following, and watched them out of sight before he rode closer to the awful thing which guarded the door.
“All right, boys—yuh may as well stop the concert; the audience is half-way home by this time,” he called out, chuckling as he dismounted and went clanking up to the doorway. “Say, by gracious, yuh done fine! That last screech was sure a pippin—it like to have stampeded me.”
Pink disentangled his fingers from a fine bit of string and grunted. “It ought to be. We’ve been practicing that howl, off and on, for four hours. How was the fiddling, Andy?”
“Outa sight. Say, yuh better take them strings off the bow, and make darned sure you ain’t leaving any tracks, or anything. Let ’em come back and find everything just the way they fixed the plant—and then let ’em put in their spare time figuring the thing out, if they can. They’ll likely come moseying back up here, pretty soon—all but Happy and Slim—so you want to hurry. If you two can beat us home, they’ll never get wise in a thousand years uh hard thinking.” He looked the ghost over critically, gave a snort, and painstakingly straightened the bow. “Darned grave robbers,” he exclaimed, looking at the skull. “Well, hike, boys; I hear ’em coming. Got the olives all right, Miguel? Come and get on your horse. We’ll meet ’em down the trail a ways if we can. And say,” he called over his shoulder, when he was beside his horse again, “you fellows do some going! If you ain’t in bed when we get there, the stuff’s off.” Even while he looked back, Pink and Weary dodged out and vanished in the gloom of the willows.
The Native Son, bearing in a gunny sack twelve bottles of stuffed olives, and on his swarthy face an unstudied grin of elation, was just making ready to mount when Irish and Big Medicine became recognizable in the moonlight below.
“We thought we’d come back and see if you were alive, anyway,” Irish announced shamefacedly, with a glance toward the cabin and the spectral figure in the doorway. “What did it do to yuh, Mig?”
“Nothing, only caterwaul like the devil all the time I was getting the olives. It’s shut up since I came out of the cabin. Seems like it hates visitors.”
“Er—did it—did the ghost make all that noise, honest?” Big Medicine’s voice had lost some of its blatant assurance. He was bewildered, and he showed it.
“You heard him sawing on that fiddle, didn’t you? The screeching seemed to come from—just all over the room.” Miguel waved his free hand vaguely. “Just all over at once. Kinda got my goat, for a minute or two.”
The group rode slowly away, and when Miguel was through speaking they went in silence. Halfway up the hill, Irish turned in the saddle and stared down at the roof of the little cabin showing black under the moon.
“Well—I’ll—be—darned!” he stated slowly and emphatically, and rode on with the others, who seemed to be thinking deeply.
Their meditations must have been to some purpose, for, after a hasty word or two snatched in private with his fellow conspirators, Irish set the pace.
At the stable he did not wait to unsaddle first of all. Instead he went hurriedly inside, lighted a match, and held it up while he surveyed the wall where the Happy Family were wont to hang their saddles—when they hung them anywhere. Two familiar saddles dangled there, each hanging upon its accustomed peg by its accustomed right stirrup, proclaiming silently and unanswerably. the fact of their owners’ presence upon the ranch. When the match flickered and went out, Irish discovered that Cal, Jack Bates, Big Medicine, and Happy Jack were standing behind him, staring also.
“Well—I’ll—be—darned!” said Irish again softly, and dropped the stub with a gesture of keen disappointment.
“It wasn’t them, then,” muttered Big Medicine at his shoulder. “And the—the thing—it played, by cripes!”