“When the drought and the hot winds come in the summer and burn the buffalo grass to a tinder and the monotony of the plains weighs on you as it does now, there’s a common, low-growing cactus scattered over the prairie that blooms into the gayest red flower you ever saw.
“It wouldn’t count for much anywhere else, but the pluck of it, without rain for months, dew even. It’s the ‘colours of courage.’”
He turned the torn parcel, showing the bright red within, and looked at the cupboard and window with shining, tired eyes.
“Up and down the frontier in these shacks, homes, you’ll find things made of turkey-red calico, cheap, common elsewhere—” He fingered the three-cornered flap. “Its our ‘colours.’” He put the parcel back in his pocket. “I bought two yards yesterday after—I got a letter at Haney.”
Smith sat looking at the gay curtains before him. The fury of the storm was dying down into fitful gusts. Dan stirred, looked quickly toward the bed, then the window, and got up quietly.
“I’ll hitch up. We’ll stop at Peterson’s and tell her to come over.” He closed the door noiselessly.
The traveller was frowning intently. Finally he turned toward the boy who sat with his head leaning back against the wall, eyes closed.
“Hillas,” his very tones were awkward, “they call me a shrewd business man. I am, it’s a selfish job and I’m not reforming now. But twice to-night you—children have risked your lives, without thought for a stranger. I’ve been thinking about that railroad. Haven’t you raised any grain or cattle that could be used for freight?”
The low answer was toneless. “Drought killed the crops, prairie fires burned the hay, of course the cattle starved.”
“There’s no timber, ore, nothing that could be used for east-bound shipment?”
The plainsman looked searchingly into the face of the older man. “There’s no timber this side the Missouri. Across the river it’s reservation—Sioux. We—” He frowned and stopped.
Smith stood up, his hands thrust deep in his pockets. “I admitted I was shrewd, Hillas, but I’m not yellow clear through, not enough to betray this part of the frontier anyhow. I had a man along here last fall spying for minerals. That’s why I’m out here now. If you know the location, and we both think you do, I’ll put capital in your way to develop the mines and use what pull I have to get the road in.”
He looked down at the boy and thrust out a masterful jaw. There was a ring of sincerity no one could mistake when he spoke again.
“This country’s a desert now, but I’d back the Sahara peopled with your kind. This is on the square, Hillas, don’t tell me you won’t believe I’m—American enough to trust?”
The boy tried to speak. With stiffened body and clenched hands he struggled for self-control. Finally in a ragged whisper, “If I try to tell you what—it means—I can’t talk! Dan and I know of outcropping coal over in the Buttes.” He nodded in the direction of the Missouri, “but we haven’t had enough money to file mining claims.”