Pol of Peigan River
The love story of a tender Amazon
J. PAUL LOOMIS
Illustrated by J. F. CLYMER
HOLD on a minute, young feller. That’s Peigan Polly you’re referrin’ to? Then just close your lip till you can say somethin’ good about her, or you’ll find that ol’ Pete McQuegg ain’t so stove-up as he looks.
I know, you’ve “heard folks say—” Folks have said a lot too much, which is their custom, but Peigan Pol’s solid silver. How do I know? Well, I’ve knowed her long enuf—since she was born—and well enuf to tell you.
Me and Nelse Tuttle, her dad, punched cattle for the Fiddle Five outfit down in the Cypress Hills when we was young sprouts like you are. I helped shivaree him when he married Stella Boyce, the school-teacher at Clansman that all the cowpunchers was crazy over. I seen him try hard to straighten up and quit the cards, which was his poison, and I seen the fever get the best of him till he’d gamble his wages afore he’d earned ’em— and his wife and baby girl in rags.
Nelse was a good cowman; none better; and for a while he could always get a job as foreman of some firstclass outfit, but he couldn’t hold his job long. Not when three-four nights hand-runnin’ of stud poker on the round-up would leave him so hollow-eyed in the daytime he couldn’t read brands on the critters—not if they’d been painted on. So he hauled Stell and little Polly around the country a whole lot. Stell never seemed to lose faith in him altogether, and she never nagged nor whined, but the misery of the life he led her wore her down to a whisper. Sudden she took pneumonia and died. After that Nelse let all holts go. He took to drinkin’ as well as gamblin’, and he got a job where he didn’t have any trouble to stick; foreman of a shifty outfit down on the edge of the Badlands that was mighty careless whose calves they branded. An’ spite of his last promise to his wife to take care of little Pol, the kid was left pretty much to the nurture of sun and wind and wide pastures, like a range filly.
Two things she seemed to carry bred in her from her mother. One was a passion to keep clean and the other was a loyalty to her worthless dad. She rode range for him like a man when she was fifteen, and she fought for him—fist or tongue—the minute a word was said against him.
SHE was about like a three-year-old colt, tall and awkward and nervous in a crowd, when I met her and Nelse in Medicine Hat one stampede-time after not seein’ ’em for some years. Her brown hair was roached like a man’s under her beaded Stetson, and she had a man’s chin and shoulders, but her eyes was a woman’s well enough; big and grey, and they looked into you like they had a right to know what manner of man you was.
She was ridin’ in that rodeo, and gentlemen, hush, she did ride, too! The hoss she drew uncorked a whole jug of tricks you’d never ’spected from the look of him, but Pol rode him to a frazzle. Not
pullin’ leather neither, like most of the lady riders, but hand above her head and spurs scratchin’ him ev’ry jump.
Right near me in the gran’stand was a bunch of folks that had the earmarks of tourists from the East. A tall young feller just in front pretty near climbed on the back of his seat while Polly rode, but the little black-eyed girl next him just sat quiet and curled her lip.
“Coarse;” I heard her say, “unladylike—see!” as Pol came back to the chute ridin’ behind one of the pick-up men, her face white and hard from the pounding she’d just endured. The tall
chap seems to read proof of what the girl said, and he shuts up, foolish-like.
Pol was given a third or somethin’, for they was some well-known girls contestin’ who just couldn’t be left out. She tossed her head as she took the money, for she knew she’d ridden circles around ’em. Men too, I thought, ’cept of course a few like Jim Mooseheart and that
young Charlie Cordell from Tête Jaune Cache. But she’d drawn blood, and I could see right there where Polly Tuttle was breastin’ the tape for a career as a contest rider.
I still hoped Nelse could buck up for her sake, and I talked to him about cornin’ up here to the Peigan River and homesteadin’ a ranch-site while the pickin’ was good. The idee seemed to strike Polly, too. Afore freeze-up they come trailin’ along with a little bunch of scrub heifers, and located over there by Jumping-pound Lake.
But Nelse had slid pretty far down hill. He quit puttin’ his branding iron, the Bridle-bit, on enough to start suspicion—but he went to makin’ moonshine when the dry law come in, and the hardeyed, bottle-mouthed specimens who hung around the Bridle-bit was mighty poor company for Pol.
’Specially now that womanhood was smoothin’ over the corners and fillin’ out the hollows in her tall form, and richenin’ the glow of her cheeks, and puttin’ a glossly little wave in her short hair. She held her own amongst ’em, though, and there was black eyes an’ split lips among Nelse’s customers to prove
it. Only, a fist can’t shut the mouths of such gentry long enough. What with her broncho-bustin—she was a favorite next season at Medicine Hat and Calgary and even down at Cheyenne—and her doin’ all th’ ranch work on the Bridle-bit, and her fightin’ like a man on occasion, coupled with what some of those polecats seen fit to peddle, Peigan River Polly was the most talked-of
person in the whole Prairie countryout of politics or jail.
Come a new rancher to the Peigan River valley and settled right near the Bridle-bit. Young chap from the East, all fixed up with pure-bred cattle, and a college diploma an’ a headful of big idees. Tom Mendenhall was his name, and I’ll be cow-kicked if he wasn’t the feller I’d noticed in the gran’stand that day at The Hat! First time Pol seen him, one of his fancy eastern horses was down in a bog hole, and he was tryin’ to pull it out sideways, the critter bein’ headed straight into the slough. He’d a-pulled its head clean off if Pol hadn’t splashed in and worked the rope down around its shoulders, and then showed Tom how to bring him out by pullin’ him straight over back. The hoss was none the worse and Tom was all thanks. Then he stopped and looked at Pol kindo queer. He remembered where he’d seen her before.
He soon saw and heard a-plenty to be scandalized over, but he didn’t seem to steer clear of Polly on that account. He come to the Bridle-bit quite frequent to ask had she seen his strayed work-hosses, and what to do for a cow with lice, and what made his hosses go so crazy when certain little flies buzzed around their noses? He was such a clean-lookin’ chap with a ready smile and such a frank way about him Pol never made fun of his tenderfoot questions. Instead, he bein’ the first likeable and decent young man she’d had much to do with, she fell heels over head in love with him. I don’t suppose he even guessed it. His head was full of somethin’ else. An’ Pol would have endured drowndin’ afore she’d have hinted it to him. But when I heard her tryin’ to correct the slang in her talk, and seen her lettin’ her hair grow and wearin’ skirts sometimes ’stead of overalls, and ’specially when I noticed the far-away look that was often in her eyes I didn’t need to have the reason shot into me with a cannon.
And so that season went by an’ Peigan River Polly wasn’t seen in th’ rodeo arenas. Instead she was at home fightin’ in her fierce defiant way to keep decent in the pigsty Nelse had made for her, and to clear herself and the Bridle-bit of the hard name ev’rybody had for it. Which you know is like washin’ off tar.
Polly fed Tom Mendenhall’s stock while he went east for Christmas. He come back with a pretty little blackeyed bride. Sure; the girl that had called Polly “coarse.” Pol didn’t do favors, nor wasn’t asked for advice any more that winter.
ONE day after the snow was gone and the sunny banks of the coulees was purple with crocuses, Pol was ridin’ range to keep an eye on the Bridle-bit cows durin’ calvin’ time. She met Tom and his wife. Tom reined in, and his smile spread all over his face; but it sorta withered there, frosted and singed at the same time. Vita Mendenhall’s stare was colder than ice; Polly Tuttle’s like ash-cloaked fire. Tom’s, “How are you, Polly?” seemed to fall to the ground before it got to her at all. He rode on after Vita kinda bewildered, but if he’d turned to look he’d seen Pol set her spurs in the buckskin colt she was ridin’ in a way to make the cayuse buck like a fool right down into a brushy coulee. Funny, ain’t it, how much women can say and read in a look?
From then on Pol give Vita somethin’ to be horrified
about. Among other things she went the whole rodeo circuit with Tête Jaune Charlie. I seen her at Wetaskiwin and Calgary—an’ ride? Holy smokehouse! No kickin’, pawin’, white-eyed devil in a horse’s skin that they could haze into the saddlin’ chute could bluff Peigan Pol, and I never saw a man that could endure more joint-crackin’. At Spokane she fought a maneatin’ outlaw with her quirt for five minutes after he’d put her on the ground, afore the pickups could get their ropes on him. That fire-eatin’ spirit won her many a prize and the undyin’ admiration of Tête Jaune Charlie. She come home with the biggest Stetson and fanciest ridin’ togs and hand-carved saddle her money could buy, and you was a long ways from here, young feller, if you didn’t see the name of Peigan River Polly in ev’ry paper.
With Tom, things hadn’t been goin’ so good. He missed Pol’s advice on all sorts of matters. His purebred cattle and eastern hosses wasn’t suited to conditions on a hard northern range, and there was little sale for the fancy stock he was tryin’ to raise. Polly had told him often he ought to be raisin’ a good grade of ordinary cattle, but he wouldn’t listen. Tom, by the way, for a young man with lots to learn was mighty set in his ideas.
But the worst trouble was that the edge was wearin’ off his enthusiasm. Easy to explain; Vita wasn’t satisfied. She didn’t care for the West, and she wasn’t used to work, and she dreaded the lonesomeness. She kep’ tellin’ Tom how much better he could have done “back home.” All of which didn’t help when part of Tom’s horses died of swamp fever, and blackleg took his
calves, and his first crop of oats was frosted. It didn’t help when he run short of feed the next winter and had to listen to his cattle’s empty-bellied bawlin’, and even skin some of ’em and be glad for the few dollars he got for their hides. For his stake was gone by now.
My shanty on Badger Crick wasn’t far away and I sorta fell into Polly’s job of givin’ Tom advice, but they was one thing on which I couldn’t help him none. That was what to do about sendin’ Vita back to her home for what was to happen that summer. His folks had gone on the rocks, like plenty did in the hard times right after the war, and he couldn’t make himself ask her people for help when he’d lately got off to such a brave start.
Then one day he come ridin’ hell-for-leather, his hat gone and his eyes pain-shot and wild, to ask me to go for a doctor. “I’ll go,” I says, “but it’s a long hard trail and I’ll be ’way in the night gettin’ back. You ride straight for Polly Tuttle.”
He stares at me. “Get her,” I says, and he gallops off.
He found Polly brandin’ calves—sweaty and dusty and smellin’ of scorched hair. She didn’t take no notice of him till he gulped out what the matter was. She didn’t answer him then, but she burned herself on a hot iron while she looked at him—which made her swear; then she kicked out the brandin’ fire and was a long ways ahead of him arrivin’ at his house.
IT AIN’T for me to tell you what happened. I was shovin’ my cayuse through the horizon toward Stony Lake. And Tom didn’t know much to tell me, ’cept that he learned there was two Peigan Pollys, one inside the other; a firm, quiet, oh so gentle one, that seemed to know just what to do. For Polly knew mighty well the bed-rock things about life—the things that haven’t changed since Eve, and are the same in a log shack as in a mansion.
But no amount of skill or understanding can beat the impossible. When I did get there with Doc Bronson, Polly was fightin’ to keep a spark of life in a very tiny human body, and Tom was sobbin’ the name of his wife to ears that couldn’t hear him any more. And Doc said it couldn’t likely have been otherwise—that it was wonderful that Pol had saved the baby.
What’s more, she took her. There was no one else. Night and day she cared for that little thing, and at last it got off on the right foot, so to speak, and quit its pitiful little cryin’ all the time and started to grow. And at last Tom come out of the daze he’d been in for weeks and realized he had somethin’ still to love and to live for, thanks to Polly. Only he didn’t thank her much. Didn’t seem to know how to, and she wouldn’t listen to him when he tried.
’Peared like Tom didn’t have any folks who could come out here and look after the baby for him, and he couldn’t bear to send her away to an orphanage or somethin’, and he wouldn’t go away with her. Mainly because he wouldn’t leave that grave under the pines above his cabin. So Polly kept on takin’ care of her. She grew to love the little mite of mischief in the same fierce way she loved Tom and it would amaze you, the change that come over her. No, it wouldn’t neither, if you’d come by as often as I did and stopped to let little Vita pat my ol’ leather cheeks with her pudgy hands and pull the ends of my soup-strainer mustache and chuckle at me. Seemed to me like them soft little fists could be more powerful than Jack Dempsey’s at makin’ a person over.
Anyway Polly’s sober eyes began to have little smiles and changin’ lights in ’em, and her voice that had been hard and burry from yellin’ at cattle grew softer. One day as I rode by the new cabin she’d built off a ways from Nelse’s godown I heard her singin’ to Vita, a cowboy song to be sure, but in a rich throaty tone that sounded like runnin’ water in a deep ravine.
Tom come to see his little girl often. That way he saw a lot of Polly and was glad of it, for God knows he was lonely. He used to stay for supper and talk over his affairs and ask her advice like he used to do. He grew to worship little Vita just as he worshipped the memory of her mother—a memory that blinded him to most things else. He didn’t see the change in Polly. He didn t realize the time and strength and love it takes to raise a baby, and keep her well and sweet like Vita always was. Or mebbe he did know somethin’ about it, without knowin’ he knew.
Well, there come a time when Pol was relieved of one anxiety, though it brought her genuine grief. Ol’ Nelse died. Of that ailment, I reckon, a man gets from squintin’ too often at the sun along the neck of a bottle. But in goin’ he didn’t take with him the bad name he’d give the Bridle-bit, and one day some ugly story Tom heard at the Peigan Butte store jarred him awake to a sober fact. His little Vita was growin’ up at that ranch. She was near three years old now, and a wise little chatterer. He remembered how quick she picked up a “darn” he let fall one day. How soon would Polly’s roughness and the name she had smirch Vita? He felt guilty when he thought hard things of Pol, but he couldn’t forget that summer she knocked around with Tête Jaune Charlie.
Tom’s mind was single-track, as I been tryin’ to tell you. Now it occurred to him that there was a new fam’ly in the district—a thoroughly respectable outfit —Lybarger by name. Mrs. Lybarger had only two children. Perhaps she’d take Vita. He’d see about it right away.
Mrs. Lybarger agreed to take the kiddie. She was a respectable person all right. Uncomfortably respectable it almost seemed to Tom. What sort of a father was he, she seemed to say without exactly sayin’ it, to leave his daughter to the care of such a shocking person as this Peigan Polly for so long?
Tom didn’t feel right easy as he started for the Bridle-bit, and less so when he got there. You couldn’t just tell how Pol would feel about things. But he said what he had to say without a pause, for Polly didn’t interrupt him. In a voice that wasn’t hers she just said, “Why?” He gave her the answer like a blow from the shoulder:
“Because you’re not the sort, Pol, I want should raise my little girl.”
Except for the whitenin’ of her cheeks and the darkenin’ of her eyes Pol didn’t change nor move a hair. Tom was surprised. It was Polly’s way to do somethin’! Finally she began to gather up Vita’s clothes and toys and put ’em in a valise for him to take. Once he heard a queer sound in her throat as she packed some little beaded moccasins. “Little Moccasins” was what she called Vita. Then she went out like she was after somethin’ more and didn’t come
back. Tom waited feelin’ sorry and mean, but finally he drove away
Polly only knew she had to ride— somewhere; anywhere—only ride—fast. So she came back to her corral at daylight without knowin’ where she’d been, and saddled a fresh horse and rode away again. She came again late in the afternoon, and tied to the fence was a pack-horse and a big glass-eyed pinto with a silver mounted saddle. A man in worn leather chaps and with crow’s feet round his careless dark eyes came to meet her.
“This year, Pol?” asks Tête Jaune Charlie.
Pol looked at Tête Jaune, and she looked off to the smoky hills beyond the Peigan valley. But her eyes was seein’ again the silk-shirted riders and her ears hearin’ the roar of the crowded stands. Through her surged the old hot tingle of fight. Fight with ev’ry ounce of nerve and endurance that was in her against the wild will of the whippin’ cyclone underneath. How she needed it—the one thing that would ease this terrible weight inside her before it crushed her heart!
She looked again at Tête Jaune and give a thin-lipped smile. He nodded. He’d always seemed to understand. Why wasn’t Tom like that?
“I’ll go with you tomorrow,” Polly says. “Now run along over to ol’ Pete’s for the night.”
TOM MENDENHALL got a jolt that afternoon when he went to see Vita. Her face was dirty. Powerfully so. Mrs. Lybarger put the corner of her apron in her mouth and went after her like a cat does a kitten—only not so effective. There was a scratch on her cheek which the ol’ lady hurried to say Vita had done on a stick, but one of her own kids looked guilty when she said it. An’ Vita cried and snuggled against her dad, and kep’ a-holt of him so that Tom was all upset. He remembered what a happy little thing she’d always been at Polly’s.
The sun was still an hour high with mare’s-tails of thin cloud turnin’ red and gold above it and dark bars underneath, and I was bakin’ a special batch of doughgods in honor of Tête Jaune when Tom come tearin’ up on a frothy horse.
“You fellows come help me quick,” he shouts. “Vita’s gone from Lybarger’s. Polly Tuttle’s stole her!”
“Stole her,” I echoes.
“How do you know she did?” demands Tête Jaune “Lybarger just come to tell me. Pol was there a while ago. Pretty soon they missed the baby.” Tom was so excited his words tumbled out on top of each other.
“Been to Polly’s?” Tête Jaune asks.
“Yes. Nobody there. I tell you—”
“That don’t prove Polly stole your baby.”
“Why not? She’s that kind.”
“What d’y’mean—that kind?” demands Tête Jaune and he walks up very close to Tom as he sat his horse, all quivery.
“Why—why, the kind that would do most anything,” stammers Tom, mad as well as rattled. “For instance, she lived with you all one summer.”
Tête Jaune caught Tom by the belt and yanked him out of the saddle. His fist cracked on Tom’s mouth. Then he held him, though Tom struggled hard, his fingers diggin’ into Tom’s arms.
“You ungrateful yellow coyote!” he says. “You don’t deserve to have a baby. But I’ll tell you this about Peigan River Polly. She did take in the contests with me one summer. I’m no saint. I might have played any game she’d let me. But the only game Pol will play is a straight game. She don’t give a hoot about conventions, but she’s as clean as you could want your own sister.”
Tom’s face was a puzzle. All the feelings there is chased over it, but whether or not he believed Tête Jaune just then I don’t know, for there was a clatter of hoofs and Polly herself dashed up. Proof anyhow she hadn’t run off with Vita. Her face was like chalk, an’ her voice thin an raspy.
“Vita’s lost!” she cries. “Lost—and you three fellows standing there like sticks! Get your horses, quick!”
We followed her, breakneck, to Lybarger’s and there lined out for a hunt. “You’re the last one that seen her.” says Lybarger, still suspicious. “Where was she then?”
Polly pointed to a tree in their back yard. “Over there. I—I came to say good-by.” She glanced at Tom, and his eyes, though starey with anxiety, couldn’t but drop before the pain in hers. “Vita cried so when I left her,” she went on, “that after a while I just had to come back to try to comfort her. She was gone. She must have tried to follow me. I hunted for an hour, then went for you men.”
We swung ’round Lybarger’s a few times, callin’ as we rode. “We’ll work back and forth toward the river,” Polly says. “Something tells me she went that way. And that’s the way she mustn’t go. Oh God, it’s an awful night for a baby to be lost in the brush !”
It was too. One of those still muggy evenin’s when the mosquitoes are terrible. They rose around us in swarms. We pawed them off our faces, and didn’t dare to think of what they must be doin’ to that poor baby. We couldn’t spread very far apart for the ground was brushy, it was gettin’ real dark too, for a bull’s head of black cloud had blotted the twilight in the north-west. All the little voices of the summer night had shut up, ’cept the saw-mill whine of the mosquitoes. Gosh, it was awful—the queer tight feelin’ of that night!
We reached the rim of Peigan River Valley and Pol told us to start beatin’ the brushy slope. Lightnin’ had been playin’ around the skirts of the cloud that by now covered most of the sky. Thunder growled. The lightnin’ grew brighter and the darkness between flashes twice as deep. Even the mosquitoes were still. Suddenly the storm broke. A splatter of big drops; a pause like it was drawin’ a deep breath; a big lightnin’ flash and bang of thunder; then—hail!
Desperate as we were to keep on
huntin’ it drove us together behind a little bluff. It was all we could do to hold our horses, for the hail was like a rain of lead. It cut us too, but hardest in the heart. “Oh, Little Moccasins, Little Moccasins!” I heard Polly sob.
A great flash of lightnin’ made ev’rything bright as day and I saw more in those few seconds than I’ve seen sometimes in years. Tom an’ Pol were close together, he tryin’ to shield her from the hail, and in their faces was stamped all that was in their souls. The love of each for the baby; their awful fear for her now; and in Tom’s eyes at last a realization of his love and need for Polly. And I think their hearts were welded in the pain and sudden understanding of that white-hot blaze of fire.
Then all was bluey-blackness and the air shook with the thunder crash. Thunder which didn’t die away. No, from the prairie above us came a rumble that at least Pol and Tête Jaune and I knew. Runnin’cattle ! A range herd stampeded by the hail. Another flash of lightnin’, and we saw the surge of heads come over the rim and down toward us. Polly screamed and we men gasped. But not at the sight of the cattle. At somethin’ else the lightnin’ showed—a little white thing that scooted out of a clump of brush and fell and rolled down the hill toward us in front of the coming herd.
I guess we thought it was a spook— those of us that could think at all. But Polly didn’t need to think. She knew! She set her spurs an’ was off while the flash still showed it. We followed, Tête Jaune and me yellin’ and shootin’ our guns to turn the herd. A snow-slide would have been easier to scare.
What all happened, even with the lightnin’ I couldn’t well see. But spur hooked on cantle, Pol leaned over and picked up the baby. Then her horse lost his footin’ on the icy slope. I saw her go down—and Tom behind her. I thought I heard a shot. Then came darkness and the tide of fear-maddened cattle.
Lybarger got carried half a mile with the stampede. Tête Jaune and I got out of the way. When the herd had passed we groped out across its trail, prayin’ for—and yet dreadin’—another flash of lightnin’ ! It came, and we found Tom’s horse which he had shot. Stampedin’ cattle will jump anything lyin’ on the ground, and where the leaders jump the rest will try to do the same. So we found Tom, muddy and stunned, on the downhill side of his horse, and safe enough where he’d packed ’em between himself and its body was Polly and little Vita.
The hail passed but there was seas of rain. Tom come to and helped us get Polly to her cabin. She had took a heavy fall from her horse and some poundin’ besides, but she was made of whale-bone. Her only complaint was a twisted ankle.
Poor little Vita’s face was swollen from the mosquito bites and she was black and blue all over from the hail. But when they tucked her in her bed she was able to smile at her dad and Polly, and she even | give me a hoarse little “Dood night, Une’ | Pete,” that brought a lump to my throat, and also give me my tip what to do next.
I hooked a finger in Charlie’s belt and I sidled toward the door.
Outside, the rain-washed stars was showin’ again and the yellow band of midnight twilight stretched across the north. We took one peek in the cabin window. Tom was on his knees beside the little bed, and his arm was around Peigan Polly, who knelt beside him.
“Tête Jaune,” I says, “we’ve outlived our usefulness around here—if we ever had any. And them dough-gods are done.
I come off and left ’em in the oven.”
There was no answer, but as we slid into our saddles I caught a low sigh from Tête Jaune Charlie.