THE SKY PILOT
A TALE OF THE FOOTHILLS
By Ralph Connor
The measure of a man's power to help his brother is the measure of the love in the heart of him and of the faith he has that at last the good will win. With this love that seeks not its own and this faith that grips the heart of things, he goes out to meet many fortunes, but not that of defeat.
This story is of the people of the Foothill Country; of those men of adventurous spirit, who left homes of comfort, often of luxury, because of the stirring in them to be and to do some worthy thing; and of those others who, outcast from their kind, sought to find in these valleys, remote and lonely, a spot where they could forget and be forgotten.
The waving skyline of the Foothills was the boundary of their lookout upon life. Here they dwelt safe from the scanning of the world, freed from all restraints of social law, denied the gentler influences of home and the sweet uplift of a good woman's face. What wonder if, with the new freedom beating in their hearts and ears, some rode fierce and hard the wild trail to the cut-bank of destruction!
The story is, too, of how a man with vision beyond the waving skyline came to them with firm purpose to play the brother's part, and by sheer love of them and by faith in them, win them to believe that life is priceless, and that it is good to be a man.
I. The Foothills Country
II. The Company of the Noble Seven
III. The Coming of the Pilot
IV. The Pilot's Measure
V. First Blood
VI. His Second Wind
VII. The Last of the Permit Sundays
VIII. The Pilot's Grip
X. Gwen's First Prayers
XI. Gwen's Challenge
XII. Gwen's Canyon
XIII. The Canyon Flowers
XIV. Bill's Bluff
XV. Bill's Partner
XVI. Bill's Financing
XVII. How the Pinto Sold
XVIII. The Lady Charlotte
XIX. Through Gwen's Window
XX. How Bill Favored "Home-Grown Industries"
XXI. How Bill Hit the Trail
XXII. How the Swan Creek Church was Opened
XXIII. The Pilot's Last Port
THE SKY PILOT
THE FOOTHILLS COUNTRY
Beyond the great prairies and in the shadow of the Rockies lie the Foothills. For nine hundred miles the prairies spread themselves out in vast level reaches, and then begin to climb over softly rounded mounds that ever grow higher and sharper till, here and there, they break into jagged points and at last rest upon the great bases of the mighty mountains. These rounded hills that join the prairies to the mountains form the Foothill Country. They extend for about a hundred miles only, but no other hundred miles of the great West are so full of interest and romance. The natural features of the country combine the beauties of prairie and of mountain scenery. There are valleys so wide that the farther side melts into the horizon, and uplands so vast as to suggest the unbroken prairie. Nearer the mountains the valleys dip deep and ever deeper till they narrow into canyons through which mountain torrents pour their blue-gray waters from glaciers that lie glistening between the white peaks far away. Here are the great ranges on which feed herds of cattle and horses. Here are the homes of the ranchmen, in whose wild, free, lonely existence there mingles much of the tragedy and comedy, the humor and pathos, that go to make up the romance of life. Among them are to be found the most enterprising, the most daring, of the peoples of the old lands. The broken, the outcast, the disappointed, these too have found their way to the ranches among the Foothills. A country it is whose sunlit hills and shaded valleys reflect themselves in the lives of its people; for nowhere are the contrasts of light and shade more vividly seen than in the homes of the ranchmen of the Albertas.
The experiences of my life have confirmed in me the orthodox conviction that Providence sends his rain upon the evil as upon the good; else I should never have set my eyes upon the Foothill country, nor touched its strangely fascinating life, nor come to know and love the most striking man of all that group of striking men of the Foothill country—the dear old Pilot, as we came to call him long afterwards. My first year in college closed in gloom. My guardian was in despair. From this distance of years I pity him. Then I considered him unnecessarily concerned about me—"a fussy old hen," as one of the boys suggested. The invitation from Jack Dale, a distant cousin, to spend a summer with him on his ranch in South Alberta came in the nick of time. I was wild to go. My guardian hesitated long; but no other solution of the problem of my disposal offering, he finally agreed that I could not well get into more trouble by going than by staying. Hence it was that, in the early summer of one of the eighties, I found myself attached to a Hudson's Bay Company freight train, making our way from a little railway town in Montana towards the Canadian boundary. Our train consisted of six wagons and fourteen yoke of oxen, with three cayuses, in charge of a French half-breed and his son, a lad of about sixteen. We made slow enough progress, but every hour of the long day, from the dim, gray, misty light of dawn to the soft glow of shadowy evening, was full of new delights to me. On the evening of the third day we reached the Line Stopping Place, where Jack Dale met us. I remember well how my heart beat with admiration of the easy grace with which he sailed down upon us in the loose-jointed cowboy style, swinging his own bronco and the little cayuse he was leading for me into the circle of the wagons, careless of ropes and freight and other impedimenta. He flung himself off before his bronco had come to a stop, and gave me a grip that made me sure of my welcome. It was years since he had seen a man from home, and the eager joy in his eyes told of long days and nights of lonely yearning for the old days and the old faces. I came to understand this better after my two years' stay among these hills that have a strange power on some days to waken in a man longings that make his heart grow sick. When supper was over we gathered about the little fire, while Jack and the half-breed smoked and talked. I lay on my back looking up at the pale, steady stars in the deep blue of the cloudless sky, and listened in fullness of contented delight to the chat between Jack and the driver. Now and then I asked a question, but not too often. It is a listening silence that draws tales from a western man, not vexing questions. This much I had learned already from my three days' travel. So I lay and listened, and the tales of that night are mingled with the warm evening lights and the pale stars and the thoughts of home that Jack's coming seemed to bring.
Next morning before sun-up we had broken camp and were ready for our fifty-mile ride. There was a slight drizzle of rain and, though rain and shine were alike to him, Jack insisted that I should wear my mackintosh. This garment was quite new and had a loose cape which rustled as I moved toward my cayuse. He was an ugly-looking little animal, with more white in his eye than I cared to see. Altogether, I did not draw toward him. Nor did he to me, apparently. For as I took him by the bridle he snorted and sidled about with great swiftness, and stood facing me with his feet planted firmly in front of him as if prepared to reject overtures of any kind soever. I tried to approach him with soothing words, but he persistently backed away until we stood looking at each other at the utmost distance of his outstretched neck and my outstretched arm. At this point Jack came to my assistance, got the pony by the other side of the bridle, and held him fast till I got into position to mount. Taking a firm grip of the horn of the Mexican saddle, I threw my leg over his back. The next instant I was flying over his head. My only emotion was one of surprise, the thing was so unexpected. I had fancied myself a fair rider, having had experience of farmers' colts of divers kinds, but this was something quite new. The half-breed stood looking on, mildly interested; Jack was smiling, but the boy was grinning with delight.
"I'll take the little beast," said Jack. But the grinning boy braced me up and I replied as carelessly as my shaking voice would allow:
"Oh, I guess I'll manage him," and once more got into position. But no sooner had I got into the saddle than the pony sprang straight up into the air and lit with his back curved into a bow, his four legs gathered together and so absolutely rigid that the shock made my teeth rattle. It was my first experience of "bucking." Then the little brute went seriously to work to get rid of the rustling, flapping thing on his back. He would back steadily for some seconds, then, with two or three forward plunges, he would stop as if shot and spring straight into the upper air, lighting with back curved and legs rigid as iron. Then he would walk on his hind legs for a few steps, then throw himself with amazing rapidity to one side and again proceed to buck with vicious diligence.
"Stick to him!" yelled Jack, through his shouts of laughter. "You'll make him sick before long."
I remember thinking that unless his insides were somewhat more delicately organized than his external appearance would lead one to suppose the chances were that the little brute would be the last to succumb to sickness. To make matters worse, a wilder jump than ordinary threw my cape up over my head, so that I was in complete darkness. And now he had me at his mercy, and he knew no pity. He kicked and plunged and reared and bucked, now on his front legs, now on his hind legs, often on his knees, while I, in the darkness, could only cling to the horn of the saddle. At last, in one of the gleams of light that penetrated the folds of my enveloping cape, I found that the horn had slipped to his side, so the next time he came to his knees I threw myself off. I am anxious to make this point clear, for, from the expression of triumph on the face of the grinning boy, and his encomiums of the pony, I gathered that he scored a win for the cayuse. Without pause that little brute continued for some seconds to buck and plunge even after my dismounting, as if he were some piece of mechanism that must run down before it could stop.
By this time I was sick enough and badly shaken in my nerve, but the triumphant shouts and laughter of the boy and the complacent smiles on the faces of Jack and the half-breed stirred my wrath. I tore off the cape and, having got the saddle put right, seized Jack's riding whip and, disregarding his remonstrances, sprang on my steed once more, and before he could make up his mind as to his line of action plied him so vigorously with the rawhide that he set off over the prairie at full gallop, and in a few minutes came round to the camp quite subdued, to the boy's great disappointment and to my own great surprise. Jack was highly pleased, and even the stolid face of the half-breed showed satisfaction.
"Don't think I put this up on you," Jack said. "It was that cape. He ain't used to such frills. But it was a circus," he added, going off into a fit of laughter, "worth five dollars any day."
"You bet!" said the half-breed. "Dat's make pretty beeg fun, eh?"
It seemed to me that it depended somewhat upon the point of view, but I merely agreed with him, only too glad to be so well out of the fight.
All day we followed the trail that wound along the shoulders of the round-topped hills or down their long slopes into the wide, grassy valleys. Here and there the valleys were cut through by coulees through which ran swift, blue-gray rivers, clear and icy cold, while from the hilltops we caught glimpses of little lakes covered with wild-fowl that shrieked and squawked and splashed, careless of danger. Now and then we saw what made a black spot against the green of the prairie, and Jack told me it was a rancher's shack. How remote from the great world, and how lonely it seemed!—this little black shack among these multitudinous hills.
I shall never forget the summer evening when Jack and I rode into Swan Creek. I say into—but the village was almost entirely one of imagination, in that it consisted of the Stopping Place, a long log building, a story and a half high, with stables behind, and the store in which the post-office was kept and over which the owner dwelt. But the situation was one of great beauty. On one side the prairie rambled down from the hills and then stretched away in tawny levels into the misty purple at the horizon; on the other it clambered over the round, sunny tops to the dim blue of the mountains beyond.
In this world, where it is impossible to reach absolute values, we are forced to hold things relatively, and in contrast with the long, lonely miles of our ride during the day these two houses, with their outbuildings, seemed a center of life. Some horses were tied to the rail that ran along in front of the Stopping Place.
"Hello!" said Jack, "I guess the Noble Seven are in town."
"And who are they?" I asked.
"Oh," he replied, with a shrug, "they are the elite Of Swan Creek; and by Jove," he added, "this must be a Permit Night."
"What does that mean?" I asked, as we rode up towards the tie rail.
"Well," said Jack, in a low tone, for some men were standing about the door, "you see, this is a prohibition country, but when one of the boys feels as if he were going to have a spell of sickness he gets a permit to bring in a few gallons for medicinal purposes; and of course, the other boys being similarly exposed, he invites them to assist him in taking preventive measures. And," added Jack, with a solemn wink, "it is remarkable, in a healthy country like this, how many epidemics come near ketching us."
And with this mystifying explanation we joined the mysterious company of the Noble Seven.
THE COMPANY OF THE NOBLE SEVEN
As we were dismounting, the cries, "Hello, Jack!" "How do, Dale?" "Hello, old Smoke!" in the heartiest of tones, made me see that my cousin was a favorite with the men grouped about the door. Jack simply nodded in reply and then presented me in due form. "My tenderfoot cousin from the effete," he said, with a flourish. I was surprised at the grace of the bows made me by these roughly-dressed, wild-looking fellows. I might have been in a London drawing-room. I was put at my ease at once by the kindliness of their greeting, for, upon Jack's introduction, I was admitted at once into their circle, which, to a tenderfoot, was usually closed.
What a hardy-looking lot they were! Brown, spare, sinewy and hard as nails, they appeared like soldiers back from a hard campaign. They moved and spoke with an easy, careless air of almost lazy indifference, but their eyes had a trick of looking straight out at you, cool and fearless, and you felt they were fit and ready.
That night I was initiated into the Company of the Noble Seven—but of the ceremony I regret to say I retain but an indistinct memory; for they drank as they rode, hard and long, and it was only Jack's care that got me safely home that night.
The Company of the Noble Seven was the dominant social force in the Swan Creek country. Indeed, it was the only social force Swan Creek knew. Originally consisting of seven young fellows of the best blood of Britain, "banded together for purposes of mutual improvement and social enjoyment," it had changed its character during the years, but not its name. First, its membership was extended to include "approved colonials," such as Jack Dale and "others of kindred spirit," under which head, I suppose, the two cowboys from the Ashley Ranch, Hi Keadal and "Bronco" Bill—no one knew and no one asked his other name—were admitted. Then its purposes gradually limited themselves to those of a social nature, chiefly in the line of poker-playing and whisky-drinking. Well born and delicately bred in that atmosphere of culture mingled with a sturdy common sense and a certain high chivalry which surrounds the stately homes of Britain, these young lads, freed from the restraints of custom and surrounding, soon shed all that was superficial in their make-up and stood forth in the naked simplicity of their native manhood. The West discovered and revealed the man in them, sometimes to their honor, often to their shame. The Chief of the Company was the Hon. Fred Ashley, of the Ashley Ranch, sometime of Ashley Court, England—a big, good-natured man with a magnificent physique, a good income from home, and a beautiful wife, the Lady Charlotte, daughter of a noble English family. At the Ashley Ranch the traditions of Ashley Court were preserved as far as possible. The Hon. Fred appeared at the wolf-hunts in riding-breeches and top boots, with hunting crop and English saddle, while in all the appointments of the house the customs of the English home were observed. It was characteristic, however, of western life that his two cowboys, Hi Kendal and Bronco Bill, felt themselves quite his social equals, though in the presence of his beautiful, stately wife they confessed that they "rather weakened." Ashley was a thoroughly good fellow, well up to his work as a cattle-man, and too much of a gentleman to feel, much less assert, any superiority of station. He had the largest ranch in the country and was one of the few men making money.
Ashley's chief friend, or, at least, most frequent companion, was a man whom they called "The Duke." No one knew his name, but every one said he was "the son of a lord," and certainly from his style and bearing he might be the son of almost anything that was high enough in rank. He drew "a remittance," but, as that was paid through Ashley, no one knew whence it came nor how much it was. He was a perfect picture of a man, and in all western virtues was easily first. He could rope a steer, bunch cattle, play poker or drink whisky to the admiration of his friends and the confusion of his foes, of whom he had a few; while as to "bronco busting," the virtue par excellence of western cattle-men, even Bronco Bill was heard to acknowledge that "he wasn't in it with the Dook, for it was his opinion that he could ride anythin' that had legs in under it, even if it was a blanked centipede." And this, coming from one who made a profession of "bronco busting," was unquestionably high praise. The Duke lived alone, except when he deigned to pay a visit to some lonely rancher who, for the marvellous charm of his talk, was delighted to have him as guest, even at the expense of the loss of a few games at poker. He made a friend of no one, though some men could tell of times when he stood between them and their last dollar, exacting only the promise that no mention should be made of his deed. He had an easy, lazy manner and a slow cynical smile that rarely left his face, and the only sign of deepening passion in him was a little broadening of his smile. Old Latour, who kept the Stopping Place, told me how once The Duke had broken into a gentle laugh. A French half-breed freighter on his way north had entered into a game of poker with The Duke, with the result that his six months' pay stood in a little heap at his enemy's left hand. The enraged freighter accused his smiling opponent of being a cheat, and was proceeding to demolish him with one mighty blow. But The Duke, still smiling, and without moving from his chair, caught the descending fist, slowly crushed the fingers open, and steadily drew the Frenchman to his knees, gripping him so cruelly in the meantime that he was forced to cry aloud in agony for mercy. Then it was that The Duke broke into a light laugh and, touching the kneeling Frenchman on his cheek with his finger-tips, said: "Look here, my man, you shouldn't play the game till you know how to do it and with whom you play." Then, handing him back the money, he added: "I want money, but not yours." Then, as he sat looking at the unfortunate wretch dividing his attention between his money and his bleeding fingers, he once more broke into a gentle laugh that was not good to hear.
The Duke was by all odds the most striking figure in the Company of the Noble Seven, and his word went farther than that of any other. His shadow was Bruce, an Edinburgh University man, metaphysical, argumentative, persistent, devoted to The Duke. Indeed, his chief ambition was to attain to The Duke's high and lordly manner; but, inasmuch as he was rather squat in figure and had an open, good-natured face and a Scotch voice of the hard and rasping kind, his attempts at imitation were not conspicuously successful. Every mail that reached Swan Creek brought him a letter from home. At first, after I had got to know him, he would give me now and then a letter to read, but as the tone became more and more anxious he ceased to let me read them, and I was glad enough of this. How he could read those letters and go the pace of the Noble Seven I could not see. Poor Bruce! He had good impulses, a generous heart, but the "Permit" nights and the hunts and the "roundups" and the poker and all the wild excesses of the Company were more than he could stand.
Then there were the two Hill brothers, the younger, Bertie, a fair-haired, bright-faced youngster, none too able to look after himself, but much inclined to follies of all degrees and sorts. But he was warm-hearted and devoted to his big brother, Humphrey, called "Hump," who had taken to ranching mainly with the idea of looking after his younger brother. And no easy matter that was, for every one liked the lad and in consequence helped him down.
In addition to these there were two others of the original seven, but by force of circumstances they were prevented from any more than a nominal connection with the Company. Blake, a typical wild Irishman, had joined the police at the Fort, and Gifford had got married and, as Bill said, "was roped tighter'n a steer."
The Noble Company, with the cowboys that helped on the range and two or three farmers that lived nearer the Fort, composed the settlers of the Swan Creek country. A strange medley of people of all ranks and nations, but while among them there were the evil-hearted and evil-living, still, for the Noble Company I will say that never have I fallen in with men braver, truer, or of warmer heart. Vices they had, all too apparent and deadly, but they were due rather to the circumstances of their lives than to the native tendencies of their hearts. Throughout that summer and the winter following I lived among them, camping on the range with them and sleeping in their shacks, bunching cattle in summer and hunting wolves in winter, nor did I, for I was no wiser than they, refuse my part on "Permit" nights; but through all not a man of them ever failed to be true to his standard of honor in the duties of comradeship and brotherhood.
THE COMING OF THE PILOT
He was the first missionary ever seen in the country, and it was the Old Timer who named him. The Old Timer's advent to the Foothill country was prehistoric, and his influence was, in consequence, immense. No one ventured to disagree with him, for to disagree with the Old Timer was to write yourself down a tenderfoot, which no one, of course, cared to do. It was a misfortune which only time could repair to be a new-comer, and it was every new-comer's aim to assume with all possible speed the style and customs of the aristocratic Old Timers, and to forget as soon as possible the date of his own arrival. So it was as "The Sky Pilot," familiarly "The Pilot," that the missionary went for many a day in the Swan Creek country.
I had become schoolmaster of Swan Creek. For in the spring a kind Providence sent in the Muirs and the Bremans with housefuls of children, to the ranchers' disgust, for they foresaw ploughed fields and barbed-wire fences cramping their unlimited ranges. A school became necessary. A little log building was erected and I was appointed schoolmaster. It was as schoolmaster that I first came to touch The Pilot, for the letter which the Hudson Bay freighters brought me early one summer evening bore the inscription:
The Schoolmaster, Public School, Swan Creek, Alberta.
There was altogether a fine air about the letter; the writing was in fine, small hand, the tone was fine, and there was something fine in the signature—"Arthur Wellington Moore." He was glad to know that there was a school and a teacher in Swan Creek, for a school meant children, in whom his soul delighted; and in the teacher he would find a friend, and without a friend he could not live. He took me into his confidence, telling me that though he had volunteered for this far-away mission field he was not much of a preacher and he was not at all sure that he would succeed. But he meant to try, and he was charmed at the prospect of having one sympathizer at least. Would I be kind enough to put up in some conspicuous place the enclosed notice, filling in the blanks as I thought best?
"Divine service will be held at Swan creek in —— ——- at —— o'clock. All are cordially invited. Arthur Wellington Moore."
On the whole I liked his letter. I liked its modest self-depreciation and I liked its cool assumption of my sympathy and co-operation. But I was perplexed. I remembered that Sunday was the day fixed for the great baseball match, when those from "Home," as they fondly called the land across the sea from which they had come, were to "wipe the earth" with all comers. Besides, "Divine service" was an innovation in Swan Creek and I felt sure that, like all innovations that suggested the approach of the East, it would be by no means welcome.
However, immediately under the notice of the "Grand Baseball Match for 'The Pain Killer' a week from Sunday, at 2:30, Home vs. the World," I pinned on the door of the Stopping Place the announcement:
"Divine service will be held at Swan Creek, in the Stopping Place Parlor, a week from Sunday, immediately upon the conclusion of the baseball match.
"Arthur Wellington Moore."
There was a strange incongruity in the two, and an unconscious challenge as well.
All next day, which was Saturday, and, indeed, during the following week, I stood guard over my notice, enjoying the excitement it produced and the comments it called forth. It was the advance wave of the great ocean of civilization which many of them had been glad to leave behind—some could have wished forever.
To Robert Muir, one of the farmers newly arrived, the notice was a harbinger of good. It stood for progress, markets and a higher price for land; albeit he wondered "hoo he wad be keepit up." But his hard-wrought, quick-spoken little wife at his elbow "hooted" his scruples and, thinking of her growing lads, welcomed with unmixed satisfaction the coming of "the meenister." Her satisfaction was shared by all the mothers and most of the fathers in the settlement; but by the others, and especially by that rollicking, roistering crew, the Company of the Noble Seven, the missionary's coming was viewed with varying degrees of animosity. It meant a limitation of freedom in their wildly reckless living. The "Permit" nights would now, to say the least, be subject to criticism; the Sunday wolf-hunts and horse-races, with their attendant delights, would now be pursued under the eye of the Church, and this would not add to the enjoyment of them. One great charm of the country, which Bruce, himself the son of an Edinburgh minister, and now Secretary of the Noble Seven, described as "letting a fellow do as he blanked pleased," would be gone. None resented more bitterly than he the missionary's intrusion, which he declared to be an attempt "to reimpose upon their freedom the trammels of an antiquated and bigoted conventionality." But the rest of the Company, while not taking so decided a stand, were agreed that the establishment of a church institution was an objectionable and impertinent as well as unnecessary proceeding.
Of course, Hi Kendal and his friend Bronco Bill had no opinion one way or the other. The Church could hardly affect them even remotely. A dozen years' stay in Montana had proved with sufficient clearness to them that a church was a luxury of civilization the West might well do without.
Outside the Company of the Noble Seven there was only one whose opinion had value in Swan Creek, and that was the Old Timer. The Company had sought to bring him in by making him an honorary member, but he refused to be drawn from his home far up among the hills, where he lived with his little girl Gwen and her old half-breed nurse, Ponka. The approach of the church he seemed to resent as a personal injury. It represented to him that civilization from which he had fled fifteen years ago with his wife and baby girl, and when five years later he laid his wife in the lonely grave that could be seen on the shaded knoll just fronting his cabin door, the last link to his past was broken. From all that suggested the great world beyond the run of the Prairie he shrank as one shrinks from a sudden touch upon an old wound.
"I guess I'll have to move back," he said to me gloomily.
"Why?" I said in surprise, thinking of his grazing range, which was ample for his herd.
"This blank Sky Pilot." He never swore except when unusually moved.
"Sky Pilot?" I inquired.
He nodded and silently pointed to the notice.
"Oh, well, he won't hurt you, will he?"
"Can't stand it," he answered savagely, "must get away."
"What about Gwen?" I ventured, for she was the light of his eyes. "Pity to stop her studies." I was giving her weekly lessons at the old man's ranch.
"Dunno. Ain't figgered out yet about that baby." She was still his baby. "Guess she's all she wants for the Foothills, anyway. What's the use?" he added, bitterly, talking to himself after the manner of men who live much alone.
I waited for a moment, then said: "Well, I wouldn't hurry about doing anything," knowing well that the one thing an old-timer hates to do is to make any change in his mode of life. "Maybe he won't stay."
He caught at this eagerly. "That's so! There ain't much to keep him, anyway," and he rode off to his lonely ranch far up in the hills.
I looked after the swaying figure and tried to picture his past with its tragedy; then I found myself wondering how he would end and what would come to his little girl. And I made up my mind that if the missionary were the right sort his coming might not be a bad thing for the Old Timer and perhaps for more than him.
THE PILOT'S MEASURE
It was Hi Kendal that announced the arrival of the missionary. I was standing at the door of my school, watching the children ride off home on their ponies, when Hi came loping along on his bronco in the loose-jointed cowboy style.
"Well," he drawled out, bringing his bronco to a dead stop in a single bound, "he's lit."
"Lit? Where? What?" said I, looking round for an eagle or some other flying thing.
"Your blanked Sky Pilot, and he's a beauty, a pretty kid—looks too tender for this climate. Better not let him out on the range." Hi was quite disgusted, evidently.
"What's the matter with him, Hi?"
"Why, HE ain't no parson! I don't go much on parsons, but when I calls for one I don't want no bantam chicken. No, sirree, horse! I don't want no blankety-blank, pink-and-white complected nursery kid foolin' round my graveyard. If you're goin' to bring along a parson, why bring him with his eye-teeth cut and his tail feathers on."
That Hi was deeply disappointed was quite clear from the selection of the profanity with which he adorned this lengthy address. It was never the extent of his profanity, but the choice, that indicated Hi's interest in any subject.
Altogether, the outlook for the missionary was not encouraging. With the single exception of the Muirs, who really counted for little, nobody wanted him. To most of the reckless young bloods of the Company of the Noble Seven his presence was an offence; to others simply a nuisance, while the Old Timer regarded his advent with something like dismay; and now Hi's impression of his personal appearance was not cheering.
My first sight of him did not reassure me. He was very slight, very young, very innocent, with a face that might do for an angel, except for the touch of humor in it, but which seemed strangely out of place among the rough, hard faces that were to be seen in the Swan Creek Country. It was not a weak face, however. The forehead was high and square, the mouth firm, and the eyes were luminous, of some dark color—violet, if there is such a color in eyes—dreamy or sparkling, according to his mood; eyes for which a woman might find use, but which, in a missionary's head, appeared to me one of those extraordinary wastes of which Nature is sometimes guilty.
He was gazing far away into space infinitely beyond the Foothills and the blue line of the mountains behind them. He turned to me as I drew near, with eyes alight and face glowing.
"It is glorious," he almost panted. "You see this everyday!" Then, recalling himself, he came eagerly toward me, stretching out his hand. "You are the schoolmaster, I know. Do you know, it's a great thing? I wanted to be one, but I never could get the boys on. They always got me telling them tales. I was awfully disappointed. I am trying the next best thing. You see, I won't have to keep order, but I don't think I can preach very well. I am going to visit your school. Have you many scholars? Do you know, I think it's splendid? I wish I could do it."
I had intended to be somewhat stiff with him, but his evident admiration of me made me quite forget this laudable intention, and, as he talked on without waiting for an answer, his enthusiasm, his deference to my opinion, his charm of manner, his beautiful face, his luminous eyes, made him perfectly irresistible; and before I was aware I was listening to his plans for working his mission with eager interest. So eager was my interest, indeed, that before I was aware I found myself asking him to tea with me in my shack. But he declined, saying:
"I'd like to, awfully; but do you know, I think Latour expects me."
This consideration of Latour's feelings almost upset me.
"You come with me," he added, and I went.
Latour welcomed us with his grim old face wreathed in unusual smiles. The pilot had been talking to him, too.
"I've got it, Latour!" he cried out as he entered; "here you are," and he broke into the beautiful French-Canadian chanson, "A la Claire Fontaine," to the old half-breed's almost tearful delight.
"Do you know," he went on, "I heard that first down the Mattawa," and away he went into a story of an experience with French-Canadian raftsmen, mixing up his French and English in so charming a manner that Latour; who in his younger days long ago had been a shantyman himself, hardly knew whether he was standing on his head or on his heels.
After tea I proposed a ride out to see the sunset from the nearest rising ground. Latour, with unexampled generosity, offered his own cayuse, "Louis."
"I can't ride well," protested The Pilot.
"Ah! dat's good ponee, Louis," urged Latour. "He's quiet lak wan leetle mouse; he's ride lak—what you call?—wan horse-on-de-rock." Under which persuasion the pony was accepted.
That evening I saw the Swan Creek country with new eyes—through the luminous eyes of The Pilot. We rode up the trail by the side of the Swan till we came to the coulee mouth, dark and full of mystery.
"Come on," I said, "we must get to the top for the sunset."
He looked lingeringly into the deep shadows and asked: "Anything live down there?"
"Coyotes and wolves and ghosts."
"Ghosts?" he asked, delightedly. "Do you know, I was sure there were, and I'm quite sure I shall see them."
Then we took the Porcupine trail and climbed for about two miles the gentle slope to the top of the first rising ground. There we stayed and watched the sun take his nightly plunge into the sea of mountains, now dimly visible. Behind us stretched the prairie, sweeping out level to the sky and cut by the winding coulee of the Swan. Great long shadows from the hills were lying upon its yellow face, and far at the distant edge the gray haze was deepening into purple. Before us lay the hills, softly curving like the shoulders of great sleeping monsters, their tops still bright, but the separating valleys full of shadow. And there, far beyond them, up against the sky, was the line of the mountains—blue, purple, and gold, according as the light fell upon them. The sun had taken his plunge, but he had left behind him his robes of saffron and gold. We stood long without a word or movement, filling our hearts with the silence and the beauty, till the gold in the west began to grow dim. High above all the night was stretching her star-pierced, blue canopy, and drawing slowly up from the east over the prairie and over the sleeping hills the soft folds of a purple haze. The great silence of the dying day had fallen upon the world and held us fast.
"Listen," he said, in a low tone, pointing to the hills. "Can't you hear them breathe?" And, looking at their curving shoulders, I fancied I could see them slowly heaving as if in heavy sleep, and I was quite sure I could hear them breathe. I was under the spell of his voice and his eyes, and nature was all living to me then.
We rode back to the Stopping Place in silence, except for a word of mine now and then which he heeded not; and, with hardly a good night, he left me at the door. I turned away feeling as if I had been in a strange country and among strange people.
How would he do with the Swan Creek folk? Could he make them see the hills breathe? Would they feel as I felt under his voice and eyes? What a curious mixture he was! I was doubtful about his first Sunday, and was surprised to find all my indifference as to his success or failure gone. It was a pity about the baseball match. I would speak to some of the men about it to-morrow.
Hi might be disappointed in his appearance, but, as I turned into my shack and thought over my last two hours with The Pilot and how he had "got" old Latour and myself, I began to think that Hi might be mistaken in his measure of The Pilot.
One is never so enthusiastic in the early morning, when the emotions are calmest and the nerves at their steadiest. But I was determined to try to have the baseball match postponed. There could be no difficulty. One day was as much of a holiday as another to these easy-going fellows. But The Duke, when I suggested a change in the day, simply raised his eyebrows an eighth of an inch and said:
"Can't see why the day should be changed." Bruce stormed and swore all sorts of destruction upon himself if he was going to change his style of life for any man. The others followed The Duke's lead.
That Sunday was a day of incongruities. The Old and the New, the East and the West, the reverential Past and iconoclastic Present were jumbling themselves together in bewildering confusion. The baseball match was played with much vigor and profanity. The expression on The Pilot's face, as he stood watching for a while, was a curious mixture of interest, surprise, doubt and pain. He was readjusting himself. He was so made as to be extremely sensitive to his surroundings. He took on color quickly. The utter indifference to the audacious disregard of all he had hitherto considered sacred and essential was disconcerting. They were all so dead sure. How did he know they were wrong? It was his first near view of practical, living skepticism. Skepticism in a book did not disturb him; he could put down words against it. But here it was alive, cheerful, attractive, indeed fascinating; for these men in their western garb and with their western swing had captured his imagination. He was in a fierce struggle, and in a few minutes I saw him disappear into the coulee.
Meantime the match went uproariously on to a finish, with the result that the champions of "Home" had "to stand The Painkiller," their defeat being due chiefly to the work of Hi and Bronco Bill as pitcher and catcher.
The celebration was in full swing; or as Hi put it, "the boys were takin' their pizen good an' calm," when in walked The Pilot. His face was still troubled and his lips were drawn and blue, as if he were in pain. A silence fell on the men as he walked in through the crowd and up to the bar. He stood a moment hesitating, looking round upon the faces flushed and hot that were now turned toward him in curious defiance. He noticed the look, and it pulled him together. He faced about toward old Latour and asked in a high, clear voice:
"Is this the room you said we might have?"
The Frenchman shrugged his shoulders and said:
"There is not any more."
The lad paused for an instant, but only for an instant. Then, lifting a pile of hymn books he had near him on the counter, he said in a grave, sweet voice, and with the quiver of a smile about his lips:
"Gentlemen, Mr. Latour has allowed me this room for a religious service. It will give me great pleasure if you will all join," and immediately he handed a book to Bronco Bill, who, surprised, took it as if he did not know what to do with it. The others followed Bronco's lead till he came to Bruce, who refused, saying roughly:
"No! I don't want it; I've no use for it."
The missionary flushed and drew back as if he had been struck, but immediately, as if unconsciously, The Duke, who was standing near, stretched out his hand and said, with a courteous bow, "I thank you; I should be glad of one."
"Thank you," replied The Pilot, simply, as he handed him a book. The men seated themselves upon the bench that ran round the room, or leaned up against the counter, and most of them took off their hats. Just then in came Muir, and behind him his little wife.
In an instant The Duke was on his feet, and every hat came off.
The missionary stood up at the bar, and announced the hymn, "Jesus, Lover of My Soul." The silence that followed was broken by the sound of a horse galloping. A buckskin bronco shot past the window, and in a few moments there appeared at the door the Old Timer. He was about to stride in when the unusual sight of a row of men sitting solemnly with hymn books in their hands held him fast at the door. He gazed in an amazed, helpless way upon the men, then at the missionary, then back at the men, and stood speechless. Suddenly there was a high, shrill, boyish laugh, and the men turned to see the missionary in a fit of laughter. It certainly was a shock to any lingering ideas of religious propriety they might have about them; but the contrast between his frank, laughing face and the amazed and disgusted face of the shaggy old man in the doorway was too much for them, and one by one they gave way to roars of laughter. The Old Timer, however, kept his face unmoved, strode up to the bar and nodded to old Latour, who served him his drink, which he took at a gulp.
"Here, old man!" called out Bill, "get into the game; here's your deck," offering him his book. But the missionary was before him, and, with very beautiful grace, he handed the Old Timer a book and pointed him to a seat.
I shall never forget that service. As a religious affair it was a dead failure, but somehow I think The Pilot, as Hi approvingly said, "got in his funny work," and it was not wholly a defeat. The first hymn was sung chiefly by the missionary and Mrs. Muir, whose voice was very high, with one or two of the men softly whistling an accompaniment. The second hymn was better, and then came the Lesson, the story of the feeding of the five thousand. As the missionary finished the story, Bill, who had been listening with great interest, said:
"I say, pard, I think I'll call you just now."
"I beg your pardon!" said the startled missionary.
"You're givin' us quite a song and dance now, ain't you?"
"I don't understand," was the puzzled reply.
"How many men was there in the crowd?" asked Bill, with a judicial air.
"And how much grub?"
"Five loaves and two fishes," answered Bruce for the missionary.
"Well," drawled Bill, with the air of a man who has reached a conclusion, "that's a little too unusual for me. Why," looking pityingly at the missionary, "it ain't natarel."
"Right you are, my boy," said Bruce, with a laugh. "It's deucedly unnatural."
"Not for Him," said the missionary, quietly. Then Bruce joyfully took him up and led him on into a discussion of evidences, and from evidences into metaphysics, the origin of evil and the freedom of the will, till the missionary, as Bill said, "was rattled worse nor a rooster in the dark." Poor little Mrs. Muir was much scandalized and looked anxiously at her husband, wishing him to take her out. But help came from an unexpected quarter, and Hi suddenly called out:
"Here you, Bill, shut your blanked jaw, and you, Bruce, give the man a chance to work off his music."
"That's so! Fair play! Go on!" were the cries that came in response to Hi's appeal.
The missionary, who was all trembling and much troubled, gave Hi a grateful look, and said:
"I'm afraid there are a great many things I don't understand, and I am not good at argument." There were shouts of "Go on! fire ahead, play the game!" but he said, "I think we will close the service with a hymn." His frankness and modesty, and his respectful, courteous manner gained the sympathy of the men, so that all joined heartily in singing, "Sun of My Soul." In the prayer that followed his voice grew steady and his nerve came back to him. The words were very simple, and the petitions were mostly for light and for strength. With a few words of remembrance of "those in our homes far away who think of us and pray for us and never forget," this strange service was brought to a close.
After the missionary had stepped out, the whole affair was discussed with great warmth. Hi Kendal thought "The Pilot didn't have no fair show," maintaining that when he was "ropin' a steer he didn't want no blanked tenderfoot to be shovin' in his rope like Bill there." But Bill steadily maintained his position that "the story of that there picnic was a little too unusual" for him. Bruce was trying meanwhile to beguile The Duke into a discussion of the physics and metaphysics of the case. But The Duke refused with quiet contempt to be drawn into a region where he felt himself a stranger. He preferred poker himself, if Bruce cared to take a hand; and so the evening went on, with the theological discussion by Hi and Bill in a judicial, friendly spirit in one corner, while the others for the most part played poker.
When the missionary returned late there were only a few left in the room, among them The Duke and Bruce, who was drinking steadily and losing money. The missionary's presence seemed to irritate him, and he played even more recklessly than usual, swearing deeply at every loss. At the door the missionary stood looking up into the night sky and humming softly "Sun of My Soul," and after a few minutes The Duke joined in humming a bass to the air till Bruce could contain himself no longer.
"I say," he called out, "this isn't any blanked prayer-meeting, is it?"
The Duke ceased humming, and, looking at Bruce, said quietly: "Well, what is it? What's the trouble?"
"Trouble!" shouted Bruce. "I don't see what hymn-singing has to do with a poker game."
"Oh, I see! I beg pardon! Was I singing?" said The Duke. Then after a pause he added, "You're quite right. I say, Bruce, let's quit. Something has got on to your nerves." And coolly sweeping his pile into his pocket, he gave up the game. With an oath Bruce left the table, took another drink, and went unsteadily out to his horse, and soon we heard him ride away into the darkness, singing snatches of the hymn and swearing the most awful oaths.
The missionary's face was white with horror. It was all new and horrible to him.
"Will he get safely home?" he asked of The Duke.
"Don't you worry, youngster," said The Duke, in his loftiest manner, "he'll get along."
The luminous, dreamy eyes grew hard and bright as they looked The Duke in the face.
"Yes, I shall worry; but you ought to worry more."
"Ah!" said The Duke, raising his brows and smiling gently upon the bright, stern young face lifted up to his. "I didn't notice that I had asked your opinion."
"If anything should happen to him," replied the missionary, quickly, "I should consider you largely responsible."
"That would be kind," said The Duke, still smiling with his lips. But after a moment's steady look into the missionary's eyes he nodded his head twice or thrice, and, without further word, turned away.
The missionary turned eagerly to me:
"They beat me this afternoon," he cried, "but thank God, I know now they are wrong and I am right! I don't understand! I can't see my way through! But I am right! It's true! I feel it's true! Men can't live without Him, and be men!"
And long after I went to my shack that night I saw before me the eager face with the luminous eyes and heard the triumphant cry: "I feel it's true! Men can't live without Him, and be men!" and I knew that though his first Sunday ended in defeat there was victory yet awaiting him.
HIS SECOND WIND
The first weeks were not pleasant for The Pilot. He had been beaten, and the sense of failure damped his fine enthusiasm, which was one of his chief charms. The Noble Seven despised, ignored, or laughed at him, according to their mood and disposition. Bruce patronized him; and, worst of all, the Muirs pitied him. This last it was that brought him low, and I was glad of it. I find it hard to put up with a man that enjoys pity.
It was Hi Kendal that restored him, though Hi had no thought of doing so good a deed. It was in this way: A baseball match was on with The Porcupines from near the Fort. To Hi's disgust and the team's dismay Bill failed to appear. It was Hi's delight to stand up for Bill's pitching, and their battery was the glory of the Home team.
"Try The Pilot, Hi," said some one, chaffing him.
Hi looked glumly across at The Pilot standing some distance, away; then called out, holding up the ball:
"Can you play the game?"
For answer Moore held up his hands for a catch. Hi tossed him the ball easily. The ball came back so quickly that Hi was hardly ready, and the jar seemed to amaze him exceedingly.
"I'll take him," he said, doubtfully, and the game began. Hi fitted on his mask, a new importation and his peculiar pride, and waited.
"How do you like them?" asked The Pilot.
"Hot!" said Hi. "I hain't got no gloves to burn."
The Pilot turned his back, swung off one foot on to the other and discharged his ball.
"Strike!" called the umpire.
"You bet!" said Hi, with emphasis, but his face was a picture of amazement and dawning delight.
Again The Pilot went through the manoeuvre in his box and again the umpire called:
Hi stopped the ball without holding it and set himself for the third. Once more that disconcerting swing and the whip-like action of the arm, and for the third time the umpire called:
"Strike! Striker out!"
"That's the hole," yelled Hi.
The Porcupines were amazed. Hi looked at the ball in his hand, then at the slight figure of The Pilot.
"I say! where do you get it?"
"What?" asked Moore innocently.
"The gait! the speed, you know!"
"Oh! I used to play in Princeton a little."
"Did, eh? What the blank blank did you quit for?"
He evidently regarded the exchange of the profession of baseball for the study of theology as a serious error in judgment, and in this opinion every inning of the game confirmed him. At the bat The Pilot did not shine, but he made up for light hitting by his base-running. He was fleet as a deer, and he knew the game thoroughly. He was keen, eager, intense in play, and before the innings were half over he was recognized as the best all-round man on the field. In the pitcher's box he puzzled the Porcupines till they grew desperate and hit wildly and blindly, amid the jeers of the spectators. The bewilderment of the Porcupines was equaled only by the enthusiasm of Hi and his nine, and when the game was over the score stood 37 to 7 in favor of the Home team. They carried The Pilot off the field.
From that day Moore was another man. He had won the unqualified respect of Hi Kendal and most of the others, for he could beat them at their own game and still be modest about it. Once more his enthusiasm came back and his brightness and his courage. The Duke was not present to witness his triumph, and, besides, he rather despised the game. Bruce was there, however, but took no part in the general acclaim; indeed, he seemed rather disgusted with Moore's sudden leap into favor. Certainly his hostility to The Pilot and to all that he stood for was none the less open and bitter.
The hostility was more than usually marked at the service held on the Sunday following. It was, perhaps, thrown into stronger relief by the open and delighted approval of Hi, who was prepared to back up anything The Pilot would venture to say. Bill, who had not witnessed The Pilot's performance in the pitcher's box, but had only Hi's enthusiastic report to go upon, still preserved his judicial air. It is fair to say, however, that there was no mean-spirited jealousy in Bill's heart even though Hi had frankly assured him that The Pilot was "a demon," and could "give him points." Bill had great confidence in Hi's opinion upon baseball, but he was not prepared to surrender his right of private judgment in matters theological, so he waited for the sermon before committing himself to any enthusiastic approval. This service was an undoubted success. The singing was hearty, and insensibly the men fell into a reverent attitude during prayer. The theme, too, was one that gave little room for skepticism. It was the story of Zaccheus, and story-telling was Moore's strong point. The thing was well done. Vivid portraitures of the outcast, shrewd, converted publican and the supercilious, self-complacent, critical Pharisee were drawn with a few deft touches. A single sentence transferred them to the Foothills and arrayed them in cowboy garb. Bill was none too sure of himself, but Hi, with delightful winks, was indicating Bruce as the Pharisee, to the latter's scornful disgust. The preacher must have noticed, for with a very clever turn the Pharisee was shown to be the kind of man who likes to fit faults upon others. Then Bill, digging his elbows into Hi's ribs, said in an audible whisper:
"Say, pardner, how does it fit now?"
"You git out!" answered Hi, indignantly, but his confidence in his interpretation of the application was shaken. When Moore came to describe the Master and His place in that ancient group, we in the Stopping Place parlor fell under the spell of his eyes and voice, and our hearts were moved within us. That great Personality was made very real and very winning. Hi was quite subdued by the story and the picture. Bill was perplexed; it was all new to him; but Bruce was mainly irritated. To him it was all old and filled with memories he hated to face. At any rate he was unusually savage that evening, drank heavily and went home late, raging and cursing at things in general and The Pilot in particular—for Moore, in a timid sort of way, had tried to quiet him and help him to his horse.
"Ornery sort o' beast now, ain't he?" said Hi, with the idea of comforting The Pilot, who stood sadly looking after Bruce disappearing in the gloom.
"No! no!" he answered, quickly, "not a beast, but a brother."
"Brother! Not much, if I know my relations!" answered Hi, disgustedly.
"The Master thinks a good deal of him," was the earnest reply.
"Git out!" said Hi, "you don't mean it! Why," he added, decidedly, "he's more stuck on himself than that mean old cuss you was tellin' about this afternoon, and without half the reason."
But Moore only said, kindly, "Don't be hard on him, Hi," and turned away, leaving Hi and Bill gravely discussing the question, with the aid of several drinks of whisky. They were still discussing when, an hour later, they, too, disappeared into the darkness that swallowed up the trail to Ashley Ranch. That was the first of many such services. The preaching was always of the simplest kind, abstract questions being avoided and the concrete in those wonderful Bible tales, dressed in modern and in western garb, set forth. Bill and Hi were more than ever his friends and champions, and the latter was heard exultantly to exclaim to Bruce:
"He ain't much to look at as a parson, but he's a-ketchin' his second wind, and 'fore long you won't see him for dust."
THE LAST OF THE PERMIT SUNDAYS
The spring "round-ups" were all over and Bruce had nothing to do but to loaf about the Stopping Place, drinking old Latour's bad whisky and making himself a nuisance. In vain The Pilot tried to win him with loans of books and magazines and other kindly courtesies. He would be decent for a day and then would break forth in violent argumentation against religion and all who held to it. He sorely missed The Duke, who was away south on one of his periodic journeys, of which no one knew anything or cared to ask. The Duke's presence always steadied Bruce and took the rasp out of his manners. It was rather a relief to all that he was absent from the next fortnightly service, though Moore declared he was ashamed to confess this relief.
"I can't touch him," he said to me, after the service; "he is far too clever, but," and his voice was full of pain, "I'd give something to help him."
"If he doesn't quit his nonsense," I replied, "he'll soon be past helping. He doesn't go out on his range, his few cattle wander everywhere, his shack is in a beastly state, and he himself is going to pieces, miserable fool that he is." For it did seem a shame that a fellow should so throw himself away for nothing.
"You are hard," said Moore, with his eyes upon me.
"Hard? Isn't it true?" I answered, hotly. "Then, there's his mother at home."
"Yes, but can he help it? Is it all his fault?" he replied, with his steady eyes still looking into me.
"His fault? Whose fault, then?"
"What of the Noble Seven? Have they anything to do with this?" His voice was quiet, but there was an arresting intensity in it.
"Well," I said, rather weakly, "a man ought to look after himself."
"Yes!—and his brother a little." Then, he added: "What have any of you done to help him? The Duke could have pulled him up a year ago if he had been willing to deny himself a little, and so with all of you. You all do just what pleases you regardless of any other, and so you help one another down."
I could not find anything just then to say, though afterwards many things came to me; for, though his voice was quiet and low, his eyes were glowing and his face was alight with the fire that burned within, and I felt like one convicted of a crime. This was certainly a new doctrine for the West; an uncomfortable doctrine to practice, interfering seriously with personal liberty, but in The Pilot's way of viewing things difficult to escape. There would be no end to one's responsibility. I refused to think it out.
Within a fortnight we were thinking it out with some intentness. The Noble Seven were to have a great "blow-out" at the Hill brothers' ranch. The Duke had got home from his southern trip a little more weary-looking and a little more cynical in his smile. The "blow-out" was to be held on Permit Sunday, the alternate to the Preaching Sunday, which was a concession to The Pilot, secured chiefly through the influence of Hi and his baseball nine. It was something to have created the situation involved in the distinction between Preaching and Permit Sundays. Hi put it rather graphically. "The devil takes his innin's one Sunday and The Pilot the next," adding emphatically, "He hain't done much scorin' yit, but my money's on The Pilot, you bet!" Bill was more cautious and preferred to wait developments. And developments were rapid.
The Hill brothers' meet was unusually successful from a social point of view. Several Permits had been requisitioned, and whisky and beer abounded. Races all day and poker all night and drinks of various brews both day and night, with varying impromptu diversions—such as shooting the horns off wandering steers—were the social amenities indulged in by the noble company. On Monday evening I rode out to the ranch, urged by Moore, who was anxious that someone should look after Bruce.
"I don't belong to them," he said, "you do. They won't resent your coming."
Nor did they. They were sitting at tea, and welcomed me with a shout.
"Hello, old domine!" yelled Bruce, "where's your preacher friend?"
"Where you ought to be, if you could get there—at home," I replied, nettled at his insolent tone.
"Strike one!" called out Hi, enthusiastically, not approving Bruce's attitude toward his friend, The Pilot.
"Don't be so acute," said Bruce, after the laugh had passed, "but have a drink."
He was flushed and very shaky and very noisy. The Duke, at the head of the table, looked a little harder than usual, but, though pale, was quite steady. The others were all more or less nerve-broken, and about the room were the signs of a wild night. A bench was upset, while broken bottles and crockery lay strewn about over a floor reeking with filth. The disgust on my face called forth an apology from the younger Hill, who was serving up ham and eggs as best he could to the men lounging about the table.
"It's my housemaid's afternoon out," he explained gravely.
"Gone for a walk in the park," added an other.
"Hope MISTER Connor will pardon the absence," sneered Bruce, in his most offensive manner.
"Don't mind him," said Hi, under his breath, "the blue devils are runnin' him down."
This became more evident as the evening went on. From hilarity Bruce passed to sullen ferocity, with spasms of nervous terror. Hi's attempts to soothe him finally drove him mad, and he drew his revolver, declaring he could look after himself, in proof of which he began to shoot out the lights.
The men scrambled into safe corners, all but The Duke, who stood quietly by watching Bruce shoot. Then saying:
"Let me have a try, Bruce," he reached across and caught his hand.
"No! you don't," said Bruce, struggling. "No man gets my gun."
He tore madly at the gripping hand with both of his, but in vain, calling out with frightful oaths:
"Let go! let go! I'll kill you! I'll kill you!"
With a furious effort he hurled himself back from the table, dragging The Duke partly across. There was a flash and a report and Bruce collapsed, The Duke still gripping him. When they lifted him up he was found to have an ugly wound in his arm, the bullet having passed through the fleshy part. I bound it up as best I could and tried to persuade him to go to bed. But he would go home. Nothing could stop him. Finally The Duke agreed to go with him, and off they set, Bruce loudly protesting that he could get home alone and did not want anyone.
It was a dismal break-up to the meet, and we all went home feeling rather sick, so that it gave me no pleasure to find Moore waiting in my shack for my report of Bruce. It was quite vain for me to make light of the accident to him. His eyes were wide open with anxious fear when I had done.
"You needn't tell me not to be anxious," he said, "you are anxious yourself. I see it, I feel it."
"Well, there's no use trying to keep things from you," I replied, "but I am only a little anxious. Don't you go beyond me and work yourself up into a fever over it."
"No," he answered quietly, "but I wish his mother were nearer."
"Oh, bosh, it isn't coming to that; but I wish he were in better shape. He is broken up badly without this hole in him."
He would not leave till I had promised to take him up the next day, though I was doubtful enough of his reception. But next day The Duke came down, his black bronco, Jingo, wet with hard riding.
"Better come up, Connor," he said, gravely, "and bring your bromides along. He has had a bad night and morning and fell asleep only before I came away. I expect he'll wake in delirium. It's the whisky more than the bullet. Snakes, you know."
In ten minutes we three were on the trail, for Moore, though not invited, quietly announced his intention to go with us.
"Oh, all right," said The Duke, indifferently, "he probably won't recognize you any way."
We rode hard for half an hour till we came within sight of Bruce's shack, which was set back into a little poplar bluff.
"Hold up!" said The Duke. "Was that a shot?" We stood listening. A rifle-shot rang out, and we rode hard. Again The Duke halted us, and there came from the shack the sound of singing. It was an old Scotch tune.
"The twenty-third Psalm," said Moore, in a low voice.
We rode into the bluff, tied up our horses and crept to the back of the shack. Looking through a crack between the logs, I saw a gruesome thing. Bruce was sitting up in bed with a Winchester rifle across his knees and a belt of cartridges hanging over the post. His bandages were torn off, the blood from his wound was smeared over his bare arms and his pale, ghastly face; his eyes were wild with mad terror, and he was shouting at the top of his voice the words:
"The Lord's my shepherd, I'll not want, He makes me down to lie In pastures green, He leadeth me The quiet waters by."
Now and then he would stop to say in an awesome whisper, "Come out here, you little devils!" and bang would go his rifle at the stovepipe, which was riddled with holes. Then once more in a loud voice he would hurry to begin the Psalm,
"The Lord's my Shepherd."
Nothing that my memory brings to me makes me chill like that picture—the low log shack, now in cheerless disorder; the ghastly object upon the bed in the corner, with blood-smeared face and arms and mad terror in the eyes; the awful cursings and more awful psalm-singing, punctuated by the quick report of the deadly rifle.
For some moments we stood gazing at one another; then The Duke said, in a low, fierce tone, more to himself than to us:
"This is the last. There'll be no more of this cursed folly among the boys."
And I thought it a wise thing in The Pilot that he answered not a word.
THE PILOT'S GRIP
The situation was one of extreme danger—a madman with a Winchester rifle. Something must be done and quickly. But what? It would be death to anyone appearing at the door.
"I'll speak; you keep your eyes on him," said The Duke.
"Hello, Bruce! What's the row?" shouted The Duke.
Instantly the singing stopped. A look of cunning delight came over his face as, without a word, he got his rifle ready pointed at the door.
"Come in!" he yelled, after waiting for some moments. "Come in! You're the biggest of all the devils. Come on, I'll send you down where you belong. Come, what's keeping you?"
Over the rifle-barrel his eyes gleamed with frenzied delight. We consulted as to a plan.
"I don't relish a bullet much," I said.
"There are pleasanter things," responded The Duke, "and he is a fairly good shot."
Meantime the singing had started again, and, looking through the chink, I saw that Bruce had got his eye on the stovepipe again. While I was looking The Pilot slipped away from us toward the door.
"Come back!" said the Duke, "don't be a fool! Come back, he'll shoot you dead!"
Moore paid no heed to him, but stood waiting at the door. In a few moments Bruce blazed away again at the stovepipe. Immediately the Pilot burst in, calling out eagerly:
"Did you get him?"
"No!" said Bruce, disappointedly, "he dodged like the devil, as of course he ought, you know."
"I'll get him," said Moore. "Smoke him out," proceeding to open the stove door.
"Stop!" screamed Bruce, "don't open that door! It's full, I tell you." Moore paused. "Besides," went on Bruce, "smoke won't touch 'em."
"Oh, that's all right," said Moore, coolly and with admirable quickness, "wood smoke, you know—they can't stand that."
This was apparently a new idea in demonology for Bruce, for he sank back, while Moore lighted the fire and put on the tea-kettle. He looked round for the tea-caddy.
"Up there," said Bruce, forgetting for the moment his devils, and pointing to a quaint, old-fashioned tea-caddy upon the shelf.
Moore took it down, turned it in his hands and looked at Bruce.
"Old country, eh?"
"My mother's," said Bruce, soberly.
"I could have sworn it was my aunt's in Balleymena," said Moore. "My aunt lived in a little stone cottage with roses all over the front of it." And on he went into an enthusiastic description of his early home. His voice was full of music, soft and soothing, and poor Bruce sank back and listened, the glitter fading from his eyes.
The Duke and I looked at each other.
"Not too bad, eh?" said The Duke, after a few moments' silence.
"Let's put up the horses," I suggested. "They won't want us for half an hour."
When we came in, the room had been set in order, the tea-kettle was singing, the bedclothes straightened out, and Moore had just finished washing the blood stains from Bruce's arms and neck.
"Just in time," he said. "I didn't like to tackle these," pointing to the bandages.
All night long Moore soothed and tended the sick man, now singing softly to him, and again beguiling him with tales that meant nothing, but that had a strange power to quiet the nervous restlessness, due partly to the pain of the wounded arm and partly to the nerve-wrecking from his months of dissipation. The Duke seemed uncomfortable enough. He spoke to Bruce once or twice, but the only answer was a groan or curse with an increase of restlessness.
"He'll have a close squeak," said The Duke. The carelessness of the tone was a little overdone, but The Pilot was stirred up by it.
"He has not been fortunate in his friends," he said, looking straight into his eyes.
"A man ought to know himself when the pace is too swift," said The Duke, a little more quickly than was his wont.
"You might have done anything with him. Why didn't you help him?" Moore's tones were stern and very steady, and he never moved his eyes from the other man's face, but the only reply he got was a shrug of the shoulders.
When the gray of the morning was coming in at the window The Duke rose up, gave himself, a little shake, and said:
"I am not of any service here. I shall come back in the evening."
He went and stood for a few moments looking down upon the hot, fevered face; then, turning to me, he asked:
"What do you think?"
"Can't say! The bromide is holding him down just now. His blood is bad for that wound."
"Can I get anything?" I knew him well enough to recognize the anxiety under his indifferent manner.
"The Fort doctor ought to be got."
He nodded and went out.
"Have breakfast?" called out Moore from the door.
"I shall get some at the Fort, thanks. They won't take any hurt from me there," he said, smiling his cynical smile.
Moore opened his eyes in surprise.
"What's that for?" he asked me.
"Well, he is rather cut up, and you rather rubbed it into him, you know," I said, for I thought Moore a little hard.
"Did I say anything untrue?"
"Well, not untrue, perhaps; but truth is like medicine—not always good to take." At which Moore was silent till his patient needed him again.
It was a weary day. The intense pain from the wound, and the high fever from the poison in his blood kept the poor fellow in delirium till evening, when The Duke rode up with the Fort doctor. Jingo appeared as nearly played out as a horse of his spirit ever allowed himself to become.
"Seventy miles," said The Duke, swinging himself off the saddle. "The doctor was ten miles out. How is he?"
I shook my head, and he led away his horse to give him a rub and a feed.
Meantime the doctor, who was of the army and had seen service, was examining his patient. He grew more and more puzzled as he noted the various symptoms. Finally he broke out:
"What have you been doing to him? Why is he in this condition? This fleabite doesn't account for all," pointing to the wound.
We stood like children reproved. Then The Duke said, hesitatingly:
"I fear, doctor, the life has been a little too hard for him. He had a severe nervous attack—seeing things, you know."
"Yes, I know," stormed the old doctor. "I know you well enough, with your head of cast-iron and no nerves to speak of. I know the crowd and how you lead them. Infernal fools! You'll get your turn some day. I've warned you before."
The Duke was standing up before the doctor during this storm, smiling slightly. All at once the smile faded out and he pointed to the bed. Bruce was sitting up quiet and steady. He stretched out his hand to The Duke.
"Don't mind the old fool," he said, holding The Duke's hand and looking up at him as fondly as if he were a girl. "It's my own funeral—funeral?" he paused—"Perhaps it may be—who knows?—feel queer enough—but remember, Duke—it's my own fault—don't listen to those bally fools," looking towards Moore and the doctor. "My own fault"—his voice died down—"my own fault."
The Duke bent over him and laid him back on the pillow, saying, "Thanks, old chap, you're good stuff. I'll not forget. Just keep quiet and you'll be all right." He passed his cool, firm hand over the hot brow of the man looking up at him with love in his eyes, and in a few moments Bruce fell asleep. Then The Duke lifted himself up, and facing the doctor, said in his coolest tone:
"Your words are more true than opportune, doctor. Your patient will need all your attention. As for my morals, Mr. Moore kindly entrusts himself with the care of them." This with a bow toward The Pilot.
"I wish him joy of his charge," snorted the doctor, turning again to the bed, where Bruce had already passed into delirium.
The memory of that vigil was like a horrible nightmare for months. Moore lay on the floor and slept. The Duke rode off somewhither. The old doctor and I kept watch. All night poor Bruce raved in the wildest delirium, singing, now psalms, now songs, swearing at the cattle or his poker partners, and now and then, in quieter moments, he was back in his old home, a boy, with a boy's friends and sports. Nothing could check the fever. It baffled the doctor, who often, during the night, declared that there was "no sense in a wound like that working up such a fever," adding curses upon the folly of The Duke and his Company.
"You don't think he will not get better, doctor?" I asked, in answer to one of his outbreaks.
"He ought to get over this," he answered, impatiently, "but I believe," he added, deliberately, "he'll have to go."
Everything stood still for a moment. It seemed impossible. Two days ago full of life, now on the way out. There crowded in upon me thoughts of his home; his mother, whose letters he used to show me full of anxious love; his wild life here, with all its generous impulses, its mistakes, its folly.
"How long will he last?" I asked, and my lips were dry and numb.
"Perhaps twenty-four hours, perhaps longer. He can't throw off the poison."
The old doctor proved a true prophet. After another day of agonized delirium he sank into a stupor which lasted through the night.
Then the change came. As the light began to grow at the eastern rim of the prairie and up the far mountains in the west, Bruce opened his eyes and looked about upon us. The doctor had gone; The Duke had not come back; Moore and I were alone. He gazed at us steadily for some moments; read our faces; a look of wonder came into his eyes.
"Is it coming?" he asked in a faint, awed voice. "Do you really think I must go?"
The eager appeal in his voice and the wistful longing in the wide-open, startled eyes were too much for Moore. He backed behind me and I could hear him weeping like a baby. Bruce heard him, too.
"Is that The Pilot?" he asked. Instantly Moore pulled himself up, wiped his eyes and came round to the other side of the bed and looked down, smiling.
"Do YOU say I am dying?" The voice was strained in its earnestness. I felt a thrill of admiration go through me as the Pilot answered in a sweet, clear voice: "They say so, Bruce. But you are not afraid?"
Bruce kept his eyes on his face and answered with grave hesitation:
"No—not—afraid—but I'd like to live a little longer. I've made such a mess of it, I'd like to try again." Then he paused, and his lips quivered a little. "There's my mother, you know," he added, apologetically, "and Jim." Jim was his younger brother and sworn chum.
"Yes, I know, Bruce, but it won't be very long for them, too, and it's a good place."
"Yes, I believe it all—always did—talked rot—you'll forgive me that?"
"Don't; don't," said Moore quickly, with sharp pain in his voice, and Bruce smiled a little and closed his eyes, saying: "I'm tired." But he immediately opened them again and looked up.
"What is it?" asked Moore, smiling down into his eyes.
"The Duke," the poor lips whispered.
"He is coming," said Moore, confidently, though how he knew I could not tell. But even as he spoke, looking out of the window, I saw Jingo come swinging round the bluff. Bruce heard the beat of his hoofs, smiled, opened his eyes and waited. The leap of joy in his eyes as The Duke came in, clean, cool and fresh as the morning, went to my heart.
Neither man said a word, but Bruce took hold of The Duke's hand in both of his. He was fast growing weaker. I gave him brandy, and he recovered a little strength.
"I am dying, Duke," he said, quietly. "Promise you won't blame yourself."
"I can't, old man," said The Duke, with a shudder. "Would to heaven I could."
"You were too strong for me, and you didn't think, did you?" and the weak voice had a caress in it.
"No, no! God knows," said The Duke, hurriedly.
There was a long silence, and again Bruce opened his eyes and whispered:
Moore came to him.
"Read 'The Prodigal,'" he said faintly, and in Moore's clear, sweet voice the music of that matchless story fell upon our ears.
Again Bruce's eyes summoned me. I bent over him.
"My letter," he said, faintly, "in my coat—"
I brought to him the last letter from his mother. He held the envelope before his eyes, then handed it to me, whispering:
I opened the letter and looked at the words, "My darling Davie." My tongue stuck and not a sound could I make. Moore put out his hand and took it from me. The Duke rose to go out, calling me with his eyes, but Bruce motioned him to stay, and he sat down and bowed his head, while Moore read the letter.
His tones were clear and steady till he came to the last words, when his voice broke and ended in a sob:
"And oh, Davie, laddie, if ever your heart turns home again, remember the door is aye open, and it's joy you'll bring with you to us all."
Bruce lay quite still, and, from his closed eyes, big tears ran down his cheeks. It was his last farewell to her whose love had been to him the anchor to all things pure here and to heaven beyond.
He took the letter from Moore's hand, put it with difficulty to his lips, and then, touching the open Bible, he said, between his breaths:
"It's—very like—there's really—no fear, is there?"
"No, no!" said Moore, with cheerful, confident voice, though his, tears were flowing. "No fear of your welcome."
His eyes met mine. I bent over him. "Tell her—" and his voice faded away.
"What shall I tell her?" I asked, trying to recall him. But the message was never given. He moved one hand slowly toward The Duke till it touched his head. The Duke lifted his face and looked down at him, and then he did a beautiful thing for which I forgave him much. He stooped over and kissed the lips grown so white, and then the brow. The light came back into the eyes of the dying man, he smiled once more, and smilingly faced toward the Great Beyond. And the morning air, fresh from the sun-tipped mountains and sweet with the scent of the June roses, came blowing soft and cool through the open window upon the dead, smiling face. And it seemed fitting so. It came from the land of the Morning.
Again The Duke did a beautiful thing; for, reaching across his dead friend, he offered his hand to The Pilot. "Mr. Moore," he said, with fine courtesy, "you are a brave man and a good man; I ask your forgiveness for much rudeness."
But Moore only shook his head while he took the outstretched hand, and said, brokenly:
"Don't! I can't stand it."
"The Company of the Noble Seven will meet no more," said The Duke, with a faint smile.
They did meet, however; but when they did, The Pilot was in the chair, and it was not for poker.
The Pilot had "got his grip," as Bill said.
It was not many days after my arrival in the Foothill country that I began to hear of Gwen. They all had stories of her. The details were not many, but the impression was vivid. She lived remote from that centre of civilization known as Swan Creek in the postal guide, but locally as Old Latour's, far up among the hills near the Devil's Lake, and from her father's ranch she never ventured. But some of the men had had glimpses of her and had come to definite opinions regarding her.
"What is she like?" I asked Bill one day, trying to pin him down to something like a descriptive account of her.
"Like! She's a terrer," he said, with slow emphasis, "a holy terrer."
"But what is she like? What does she look like?" I asked impatiently.
"Look like?" He considered a moment, looked slowly round as if searching for a simile, then answered: "I dunno."
"Don't know? What do you mean? Haven't you seen her?"
"Yeh! But she ain't like nothin'."
Bill was quite decided upon this point.
I tried again.
"Well, what sort of hair has she got? She's got hair, I suppose?"
"Hayer! Well, a few!" said Bill, with some choice combinations of profanity in repudiation of my suggestion. "Yards of it! Red!"
"Git out!" contradicted Hi. "Red! Tain't no more red than mine!"
Bill regarded Hi's hair critically.
"What color do you put onto your old brush?" he asked cautiously.
"'Tain't no difference. 'Tain't red, anyhow."
"Red! Well, not quite exactly," and Bill went off into a low, long, choking chuckle, ejaculating now and then, "Red! Jee-mi-ny Ann! Red!"
"No, Hi," he went on, recovering himself with the same abruptness as he used with his bronco, and looking at his friend with a face even more than usually solemn, "your hayer ain't red, Hi; don't let any of your relatives persuade you to that. 'Tain't red!" and he threatened to go off again, but pulled himself up with dangerous suddenness. "It may be blue, cerulyum blue or even purple, but red—!" He paused violently, looking at his friend as if he found him a new and interesting object of study upon which he could not trust himself to speak. Nor could he be induced to proceed with the description he had begun.
But Hi, paying no attention to Bill's oration, took up the subject with enthusiasm.
"She kin ride—she's a reg'lar buster to ride, ain't she, Bill?" Bill nodded. "She kin bunch cattle an' cut out an' yank a steer up to any cowboy on the range."
"Why, how big is she?"
"Big? Why, she's just a kid! 'Tain't the bigness of her, it's the nerve. She's got the coldest kind of nerve you ever seen. Hain't she, Bill?" And again Bill nodded.
"'Member the day she dropped that steer, Bill?" went on Hi.
"What was that?" I asked, eager for a yarn.
"Oh, nuthin'," said Bill.
"Nuthin'!" retorted Hi. "Pretty big nuthin'!"
"What was it?" I urged.
"Oh, Bill here did some funny work at old Meredith's round-up, but he don't speak of it. He's shy, you see," and Hi grinned.
"Well, there ain't no occasion for your proceedin' onto that tact," said Bill disgustedly, and Hi loyally refrained, so I have never yet got the rights of the story. But from what I did hear I gathered that Bill, at the risk of his life, had pulled The Duke from under the hoofs of a mad steer, and that little Gwen had, in the coolest possible manner, "sailed in on her bronco" and, by putting two bullets into the steer's head, had saved them both from great danger, perhaps from death, for the rest of the cattle were crowding near. Of course Bill could never be persuaded to speak of the incident. A true western man will never hesitate to tell you what he can do, but of what he has done he does not readily speak.
The only other item that Hi contributed to the sketch of Gwen was that her temper could blaze if the occasion demanded.
"'Member young Hill, Bill?"
"Didn't she cut into him sudden? Sarved him right, too."
"What did she do?"
"Cut him across the face with her quirt in good style."
"Knockin' about her Indian Joe."
Joe was, as I came to learn, Ponka's son and Gwen's most devoted slave.
"Oh, she ain't no refrigerator."
"Yes," assented Bill. "She's a leetle swift." Then, as if fearing he had been apologizing for her, he added, with the air of one settling the question: "But she's good stock! She suits me!"
The Duke helped me to another side of her character.
"She is a remarkable child," he said, one day. "Wild and shy as a coyote, but fearless, quite; and with a heart full of passions. Meredith, the Old Timer, you know, has kept her up there among the hills. She sees no one but himself and Ponka's Blackfeet relations, who treat her like a goddess and help to spoil her utterly. She knows their lingo and their ways—goes off with them for a week at a time."
"What! With the Blackfeet?"
"Ponka and Joe, of course, go along; but even without them she is as safe as if surrounded by the Coldstream Guards, but she has given them up for some time now."
"And at home?" I asked. "Has she any education? Can she read or write?"
"Not she. She can make her own dresses, moccasins and leggings. She can cook and wash—that is, when she feels in the mood. And she knows all about the birds and beasts and flowers and that sort of thing, but—education! Why, she is hardly civilized!"
"What a shame!" I said. "How old is she?"
"Oh, a mere child; fourteen or fifteen, I imagine; but a woman in many things."
"And what does her father say to all this? Can he control her?"
"Control!" said The Duke, in utter astonishment. "Why, bless your soul, nothing in heaven or earth could control HER. Wait till you see her stand with her proud little head thrown back, giving orders to Joe, and you will never again connect the idea of control with Gwen. She might be a princess for the pride of her. I've seen some, too, in my day, but none to touch her for sheer, imperial pride, little Lucifer that she is."
"And how does her father stand her nonsense?" I asked, for I confess I was not much taken with the picture The Duke had drawn.
"Her father simply follows behind her and adores, as do all things that come near her, down, or up, perhaps, to her two dogs—Wolf and Loo—for either of which she would readily die if need be. Still," he added, after a pause, "it IS a shame, as you say. She ought to know something of the refinements of civilization, to which, after all, she belongs, and from which none of us can hope to escape." The Duke was silent for a few moments, and then added, with some hesitation: "Then, too, she is quite a pagan; never saw a prayer-book, you know."
And so it came about, chiefly through The Duke's influence, I imagine, that I was engaged by the Old Timer to go up to his ranch every week and teach his daughter something of the elementaries of a lady's education.
My introduction was ominous of the many things I was to suffer of that same young maiden before I had finished my course with her. The Old Timer had given careful directions as to the trail that would lead me to the canyon where he was to meet me. Up the Swan went the trail, winding ever downward into deeper and narrower coulees and up to higher open sunlit slopes, till suddenly it settled into a valley which began with great width and narrowed to a canyon whose rocky sides were dressed out with shrubs and trailing vines and wet with trickling rivulets from the numerous springs that oozed and gushed from the black, glistening rocks. This canyon was an eerie place of which ghostly tales were told from the old Blackfeet times. And to this day no Blackfoot will dare to pass through this black-walled, oozy, glistening canyon after the moon has passed the western lip. But in the warm light of broad day the canyon was a good enough place; cool and sweet, and I lingered through, waiting for the Old Timer, who failed to appear till the shadows began to darken its western black sides.
Out of the mouth of the canyon the trail climbed to a wide stretch of prairie that swept up over soft hills to the left and down to the bright gleaming waters of the Devil's Lake on the right. In the sunlight the lake lay like a gem radiant with many colors, the far side black in the shadow of the crowding pines, then in the middle deep, blue and purple, and nearer, many shades of emerald that ran quite to the white, sandy beach. Right in front stood the ranch buildings, upon a slight rising ground and surrounded by a sturdy palisade of upright pointed poles. This was the castle of the princess. I rode up to the open gate, then turned and stood to look down upon the marvellous lake shining and shimmering with its many radiant colors. Suddenly there was an awful roar, my pony shot round upon his hind legs after his beastly cayuse manner, deposited me sitting upon the ground and fled down the trail, pursued by two huge dogs that brushed past me as I fell. I was aroused from my amazement by a peal of laughter, shrill but full of music. Turning, I saw my pupil, as I guessed, standing at the head of a most beautiful pinto (spotted) pony with a heavy cattle quirt in her hand. I scrambled to my feet and said, somewhat angrily, I fear:
"What are you laughing at? Why don't you call back your dogs? They will chase my pony beyond all reach."
She lifted her little head, shook back her masses of brown-red hair, looked at me as if I were quite beneath contempt and said: "No, they will kill him."
"Then," said I, for I was very angry, "I will kill them," pulling at the revolver in my belt.
"Then," she said, and for the first time I noticed her eyes blue-black, with gray rims, "I will kill you," and she whipped out an ugly-looking revolver. From her face I had no doubt that she would not hesitate to do as she had said. I changed my tactics, for I was anxious about my pony, and said, with my best smile:
"Can't you call them back? Won't they obey you?"
Her face changed in a moment.
"Is it your pony? Do you love him very much?"
"Dearly!" I said, persuading myself of a sudden affection for the cranky little brute.
She sprang upon her pinto and set off down the trail. The pony was now coursing up and down the slopes, doubling like a hare, instinctively avoiding the canyon where he would be cornered. He was mad with terror at the huge brutes that were silently but with awful and sure swiftness running him down.
The girl on the pinto whistled shrilly, and called to her dogs: "Down, Wolf! Back, Loo!" but, running low, with long, stretched bodies, they heeded not, but sped on, ever gaining upon the pony that now circled toward the pinto. As they drew near in their circling, the girl urged her pinto to meet them, loosening her lariat as she went. As the pony neared the pinto he slackened his speed; immediately the nearer dog gathered herself in two short jumps and sprang for the pony's throat. But, even as she sprang, the lariat whirled round the girl's head and fell swift and sure about the dog's neck, and next moment she lay choking upon the prairie. Her mate paused, looked back, and gave up the chase. But dire vengeance overtook them, for, like one possessed, the girl fell upon them with her quirt and beat them one after the other till, in pity for the brutes, I interposed.
"They shall do as I say or I shall kill them! I shall kill them!" she cried, raging and stamping.
"Better shoot them," I suggested, pulling out my pistol.
Immediately she flung herself upon the one that moaned and whined at her feet, crying:
"If you dare! If you dare!" Then she burst into passionate sobbing. "You bad Loo! You bad, dear old Loo! But you WERE bad—you KNOW you were bad!" and so she went on with her arms about Loo's neck till Loo, whining and quivering with love and delight, threatened to go quite mad, and Wolf, standing majestically near, broke into short howls of impatience for his turn of caressing. They made a strange group, those three wild things, equally fierce and passionate in hate and in love.
Suddenly the girl remembered me, and standing up she said, half ashamed:
"They always obey ME. They are MINE, but they kill any strange thing that comes in through the gate. They are allowed to."
"It is a pleasant whim."
"I mean, isn't that dangerous to strangers?"
"Oh, no one ever comes alone, except The Duke. And they keep off the wolves."
"The Duke comes, does he?"
"Yes!" and her eyes lit up. "He is my friend. He calls me his 'princess,' and he teaches me to talk and tells me stories—oh, wonderful stories!"
I looked in wonder at her face, so gentle, so girlish, and tried to think back to the picture of the girl who a few moments before had so coolly threatened to shoot me and had so furiously beaten her dogs.
I kept her talking of The Duke as we walked back to the gate, watching her face the while. It was not beautiful; it was too thin, and the mouth was too large. But the teeth were good, and the eyes, blue-black with gray rims, looked straight at you; true eyes and brave, whether in love or in war. Her hair was her glory. Red it was, in spite of Hi's denial, but of such marvellous, indescribable shade that in certain lights, as she rode over the prairie, it streamed behind her like a purple banner. A most confusing and bewildering color, but quite in keeping with the nature of the owner.