“Yes,” he returned moodily. “It looks as if it couldn’t rain. We ought to go in more for stock-raising; it’s safer.”
“Costs quite a pile to start with, and the ranchers farther west certainly have their troubles. We had a good many calves missing, and now and then prime steers driven off, when I was range-riding.”
“I haven’t heard of any cattle-stealing about here.”
“No,” said the teamster. “Still, I guess we may come to it; there are more toughs about the settlement than there used to be. Indians have been pretty good, but I’ve known them make lots of trouble in other districts by killing beasts for meat and picking up stray horses. But that was where they had mean whites willing to trade with them.”
George considered this. It had struck him that the morality of the country had not improved since he had last visited it; though this was not surprising in view of the swarm of immigrants that were pouring in. Grant had pithily said that once upon a time the boys had come there to work; but it now looked as if a certain proportion had arrived on the prairie because nobody could tolerate them at home. Flett and the Methodist preacher seemed convinced that there were a number of these undesirables hanging about Sage Butte, ready for mischief.
“Well,” he said, “I suppose the first thing to be done is to stop this liquor-running.”
They had no further conversation for another hour. The poplars rustled behind them and the grass rippled and clashed, but now and then the breeze died away for a few moments, and there was a curious and almost disconcerting stillness. At last, in one of these intervals, the Canadian, partly rising, lifted his hand.
“Listen!” he said. “Guess I hear a team.”
A low rhythmic drumming that suggested the beat of hoofs rose from the waste, but it was lost as the branches rattled and the long grass swayed noisily before a rush of breeze. George thought the sound had come from somewhere half a mile away.
“If they’re Indians, would they bring a wagon?” he asked.
“It’s quite likely. Some of the bucks keep smart teams; they do a little rough farming on the reservation. It would look as if they were going for sloo hay, if anybody saw them.”
George waited in silence, wishing he could hear the thud of hoofs again. It was slightly daunting to lie still and wonder where the men were. It is never very dark in summer on the western prairie, and George could see across the sloo, but there was no movement that the wind would not account for among the black trees that shut it in. Several minutes passed, and George looked around again with strained attention.
Suddenly a dim figure emerged from the gloom. Another followed it, but they made no sound that could be heard through the rustle of the leaves, and George felt his heart beat and his nerves tingle as he watched them flit, half seen, through the grass. Then one of the shadowy objects stooped, lifting something, and they went back as noiselessly as they had come. In a few more moments they had vanished, and the branches about them clashed in a rush of wind. It died away, and there was no sound or sign of human presence in all the silent wood. George, glad that the strain was over, was about to rise, but his companion laid a hand on his arm.