Being the Narrative of Judson Pitcher's Strange Winter Spent There As Told by Himself and Edited
Including an Accurate Account of His Numerous Adventures, and the Facts Concerning His Several Surprising Escapes from Death Now First Printed in Full
Illustrated by Clifford Carleton
With a Correct Map of Track's End Drawn by the Author
Harper & Brothers New York and London M - C - M - X - I
Copyright, 1911. by Harper & Brothers
Printed in the United States of America
Published September, 1911
E. L. G. C.
I. Something about my Home and Track's End: with how I leave the one and get acquainted with Pike at the other. 1
II. The rest of my second Night at Track's End, and part of another: with some Things which happen between. 12
III. A Fire and a Blizzard: with how a great many People go away from Track's End and how some others come. 22
IV. We prepare to fight the Robbers and I make a little Trip out to Bill Mountain's House: after I come back I show what a great Fool I can be. 32
V. Alone in Track's End I repent of my hasty Action: with what I do at the Headquarters House, and the whole Situation in a Nutshell. 43
VI. Some Account of what I do and think the first Day alone: with a Discovery by Kaiser at the End. 52
VII. I have a Fight and a Fright: after which I make some Plans for the Future and take up my Bed and move. 61
VIII. I begin my Letters to my Mother and start my Fortifications: then I very foolishly go away, meet with an Accident, and see Something which throws me into the utmost Terror. 69
IX. More of a strange Christmas: I make Kaiser useful in an odd Way, together with what I see from under the Depot Platform. 79
X. A Townful of Indians: with how I hide the Cow, and think of Something which I don't believe the Indians will like. 88
XI. I give the savage Indians a great Scare, and then gather up my scattered Family at the end of a queer Christmas Day. 97
XII. One of my Letters to my Mother, in which I tell of many Things and especially of a Mystery which greatly puzzles and alarms me. 105
XIII. Some Talk at Breakfast, and various other Family Affairs: with Notes on the Weather, and a sight of Something to the Northwest. 115
XIV. I have an exciting Hunt and get some Game, which I bring Home with a vast deal of Labor, only to lose Part of it in a startling Manner: together with a Dream and an Awakening. 128
XV. The mysterious Fire, and Something further about my wretched State of Terror: with an Account of my great System of Tunnels and famous Fire Stronghold. 141
XVI. Telling of how Pike and his Gang come and of what Kaiser and I do to get ready for them: together with the Way we meet them. 153
XVII. The Fight, and not much else: except a little Happening at the End which startles me greatly. 162
XVIII. After the Fight: also a true Account of the great Blizzard: with how I go to sleep in the Stronghold and am awakened before Morning. 171
XIX. I find out who my Visitor is: with Something about him, but with more about the Chinook which came out of the Northwest: together with what I do with the Powder, and how I again wake up suddenly. 185
XX. What the Outlaws do on their second Visit: with the awful Hours I pass through, and how I find myself at the End. 203
XXI. After the Explosion: some cheerful Talk with the Thieves, and a strange but welcome Message out of the Storm. 210
XXII. The last Chapter, but a good Deal in it: a free Lodging for the Night, with a little Speech by Mr. Clerkinwell: then, how Kaiser and I take a long Journey, and how we never go that Way again. 220
KAISER AND I FIGHTING THE TIMBER-WOLVES Frontispiece
READING THE OUTLAWS' LETTER, DECEMBER SIXTEENTH 30
MY FAMILY AND I AT A MEAL, TRACK'S END 56
MAP OF TRACK'S END 64
THE BOIS CACHE INDIANS LOOTING THE TOWN ON CHRISTMAS DAY 91
MY MEETING WITH PIKE, TRACK'S END, FEBRUARY FIFTH 158
THE INDIAN GETTING MY RIFLE IN THE STRONGHOLD 183
PIKE HANDCUFFING ME IN THE DRUG STORE, MARCH NINETEENTH 205
MR. CLERKINWELL GIVING ME HIS WATCH AND CHAIN 229
Should any reader of this History of my life at Track's End wish to write to me, to point out an error (if unhappily there shall prove to be errors), or to ask for further facts, or for any other reason, he or she may do so by addressing the letter in the care of my publishers, Messrs. Harper & Brothers, who have kindly agreed promptly to forward all such communications to me wheresoever I may chance to be at the time.
I should add that my hardships during that Winter at Track's End did not cure me of my roving bent, though you might think the contrary should have been the case. Later, on several occasions, I adventured into wild parts, and had experiences no whit less remarkable than those at Track's End, notably when with the late Capt. Nathan Archway, master of the Belle of Prairie du Chien packet, we descended into Frontenac Cave, and, there in the darkness (aided somewhat by Gil Dauphin), disputed possession of that subterranean region with no less a character than the notorious Isaac Liverpool, to the squeaking of a million bats. And I wish hereby to give notice that no one is to put into Print such accounts of that occurrence as I may have been heard to relate from time to time around camp-fires, on shipboard, and so forth, since I mean, with the kind help of Mr. Carruth, to publish forth the facts concerning it in another Book; and that before long.
LITTLE DRUM, FLAMINGO KEY, July, 1911.
Something about my Home and Track's End: with how I leave the one and get acquainted with Pike at the other.
When I left home to shift for myself I was eighteen years old, and, I suppose, no weakling; though it seems to me now that I was a mere boy. I liked school well enough, but rather preferred horses; and a pen seems to me a small thing for a grown man, which I am now, to be fooling around with, but I mean to tell (with a little help) of some experiences I had the first winter after I struck out for myself.
I was brought up in Ohio, where my father was a country blacksmith and had a small farm. His name was William Pitcher, but, being well liked by all and a square man, everybody called him Old Bill Pitcher. I was named Judson, which had been my mother's name before she was married, so I was called Jud Pitcher; and when I was ten years old I knew every horse for a dozen miles around, and most of the dogs.
It was September 16th, in the late eighteen-seventies, that I first clapped eyes on Track's End, in the Territory of Dakota. The name of the place has since been changed. I remember the date well, for on that day the great Sisseton prairie fire burned up the town of Lone Tree. I saw the smoke as our train lay at Siding No. 13 while the conductor and the other railroad men nailed down snake's-heads on the track. One had come up through the floor of the caboose and smashed the stove and half killed a passenger. Poor man, he had a game leg as long as I knew him, which was only natural, since when the rail burst through the floor it struck him fair.
I was traveling free, as the friend of one of the brakemen whom I had got to know in St. Paul. He was a queer fellow, named Burrdock. The railroad company set great store by Burrdock on account of his dealings with some Sioux Indians. They had tried to ride on top of the cars of his train without paying fare, and he had thrown them all off, one by one, while the train was going. The fireman told me about it.
Burrdock was taking me out to Track's End because he said it was a live town, and a good place for a boy to grow up in. He had first wanted me to join him in braking on the railroad, but I judged the work too hard for me. If I had known what I was coming to at Track's End I'd have stuck to the road.
Perhaps I ought to say that I left home in June, not because I wasn't welcome to stay, but because I thought it was time I saw something of the world. Mother was sure I should be killed on the cars, but at last she gave her consent. I went to Galena, from there up the Mississippi on a packet to St. Paul, and then out to Dakota with Burrdock.
The snake's-heads delayed us so that it was eleven o'clock at night before we reached Track's End. Ours was the only train that ran on the road then, and it came up Mondays and Thursdays, and went back Tuesdays and Fridays. It was a freight-train, with a caboose on the end for passengers, "and the snake's-heads," as the fireman said. A snake's-head on the old railroads was where a rail got loose from the fish-plate at one end and came up over the wheel instead of staying down under it.
Track's End was a new town just built at the end of the railroad. The next town back toward the east was Lone Tree; but that day it burned up and was no more. It was about fifty miles from Track's End to Lone Tree, with three sidings between, and a water-tank at No. 14. After the fire the people all went to Lac-qui-Parle, sixty miles farther back; so that at the time of which I write there was nothing between Track's End and Lac-qui-Parle except sidings and the ashes of Lone Tree; but these soon blew away. There were no people living in the country at this time, and the reason the road had been built was to hold a grant of land made to the company by the government, which was a foolish thing for the government to do, since a road would have been built when needed, anyhow; but my experience has been that the government is always putting its foot in it.
When I dropped off the train at Track's End I saw by the moonlight that the railroad property consisted of a small coal-shed, a turntable, a roundhouse with two locomotive stalls, a water-tank and windmill, and a rather long and narrow passenger and freight depot. The town lay a little apart, and I could not make out its size. There were a hundred or more men waiting for the train, and one of them took the two mail-sacks in a wheelbarrow and went away toward the lights of the houses. There were a lot of mules and wagons and scrapers and other tools of a gang of railroad graders near the station; also some tents in which the men lived; these men were waiting for the train with the others, and talked so loud and made such a disturbance that it drowned out all other noises.
The train was left right on the track, and the engine put in the roundhouse, after which Burrdock took me over town to the hotel. It was called the Headquarters House, and the proprietor's name was Sours. After I got a cold supper he showed me to my room. The second story was divided into about twenty rooms, the partitions being lathed but not yet plastered. It made walls very easy to talk through, and, where the cracks happened to match, as they seemed to mostly, they weren't hard to look through. I thought it was a good deal like sleeping in a squirrel-cage.
The railroad men that I had seen at the station had been working on an extension of the grade to the west, on which the rails were to be laid the next spring. They had pushed on ten miles, but, as the government had stopped making a fuss, the company had decided to do no more that season, and the train I came up on brought the paymaster with the money to pay the graders for their summer's work; so they all got drunk. There were some men from Billings in town, too. They were on their way east with a band of four hundred Montana ponies, which they had rounded up for the night just south of town. Two of them stayed to hold the drove, and the rest came into town, also to get drunk. They had good luck in doing this, and fought with the graders. I heard two or three shots soon after I went to bed, and thought of my mother.
Some time late in the night I was awakened by a great rumpus in the hotel, and made out from what I heard through the laths that some men were looking for somebody. They were going from room to room, and soon came into mine, tearing down the sheet which was hung up for a door. They crowded in and came straight to the bed, and the leader, a big man with a crooked nose, seized me by the ear as if he were taking hold of a bootstrap. I sat up, and another poked a lantern in my face.
"That's him," said one of them.
"No, he was older," said another.
"He looks like he would steal a dog, anyhow," said the man with the lantern. "Bring him along, Pike."
"No," said the man who had hold of my ear, "he ain't much more'n a boy—we're looking for grown men to-night."
Then they went out, and I could feel my ear drawing back into place as if it were made of rubber. But it never got quite back, and has always been a game ear to this day, with a kind of a lop to it.
Sours told me in the morning that they were looking for the man that stole their dog, though he said he didn't think they had ever had a dog. Pike, he said, had come out as a grader, but it had been a long time since he had done any work.
I took a look around town after breakfast and found forty or fifty houses, most of them stores or other places of business, on one street running north and south. There were a few, but not many, houses scattered about beyond the street. Some of the buildings had canvas roofs, and there were a good many tents and covered wagons in which people lived. The whole town had been built since the railroad came through two months before. There was a low hill called Frenchman's Butte a quarter of a mile north of town. I climbed it to get a view of the country, but could see only about a dozen settlers' houses, also just built.
The country was a vast level prairie except to the north, where there were a few small lakes, with a little timber around them, and some coteaux, or low hills, beyond. The grass was dried up and gray. I thought I could make out a low range of hills to the west, where I supposed the Missouri River was. On my way back to town a man told me that a big colony of settlers were expected to arrive soon, and that Track's End had been built partly on the strength of the business these people would bring. I never saw the colony.
When I got back to the hotel Sours said to me:
"Young man, don't you want a job?"
I told him I should be glad of something to do.
"The man that has been taking care of my barn has just gone on the train," continued Sours. "He got homesick for the States, and lit out and never said boo till half an hour before train-time. If you want the job I'll give you twenty-five dollars a month and your board."
"I'll try it a month," I said; "but I'll probably be going back myself before winter."
"That's it," exclaimed Sours. "Everybody's going back before winter. I guess there won't be nothing left here next winter but jack-rabbits and snowbirds."
I had hoped for something better than working in a stable, but my money was so near gone that I did not think it a good time to stand around and act particular. Besides, I liked horses so much that the job rather pleased me, after all.
Toward evening Sours came to me and said he wished I would spend the night in the barn and keep awake most of the time, as he was afraid it might be broken into by some of the graders. They were acting worse than ever. There was no town government, but a man named Allenham had some time before been elected city marshal at a mass-meeting. During the day he appointed some deputies to help him maintain order.
At about ten o'clock I shut up the barn, put out my lantern, and sat down in a little room in one corner which was used for an office. The town was noisy, but nobody came near the barn, which was back of the hotel and out of sight from the street. Some time after midnight I heard low voices outside and crept to a small open window. I could make out the forms of some men under a shed back of a store across a narrow alley. Soon I heard two shots in the street, and then a man came running through the alley with another right after him. As the first passed, a man stepped out from under the shed. The man in pursuit stopped and said:
"Now, I want Jim, and there's no use of you fellows trying to protect him." It was Allenham's voice.
There was a report of a revolver so close that it made me wink. The man who had come from under the shed had fired pointblank at Allenham. By the flash I saw that the man was Pike.
The rest of my second Night at Track's End, and part of another: with some Things which happen between.
I was too frightened at first to move, and stood at the window staring into the darkness like a fool. I heard the men scramble over a fence and run off. Then I ran out to where Allenham lay. He made no answer when I spoke to him. I went on and met two of the deputies coming into the alley. I told them what I had seen.
"Wake up folks in the hotel," said one of the men; then they hurried along. I soon had everybody in the hotel down-stairs with my shouting. In a minute or two they brought in Allenham, and the doctor began to work over him. The whole town was soon on hand, and it was decided to descend on the graders' camp in force. Twenty or thirty men volunteered. One of the deputies named Dawson was selected as leader.
"Are you certain you can pick out the man who fired the shot?" said Dawson to me.
"Yes," I answered. "It was Pike."
"If you just came, how do you happen to know Pike?" he asked.
"He pulled me up last night by the ear and looked at me with a lantern," I said.
"Well," replied the man, "we'll take you down and you can look at him with a lantern."
They formed into a solid body, four abreast, with Dawson ahead holding me by the arm, as if he were afraid I would get away. To tell the truth, I should have been glad enough to have got out of the thing, but there seemed to be no chance of it. I was glad my mother could not know about me.
We soon came up to the camp, and the men lined out and held their guns ready for use. Not a sound was to be heard except the loud snoring of the men in the nearest tent, which seemed to me almost too loud. There was a dying camp-fire, and the stars were bright and twinkling in a deep-blue sky; but I didn't look at them much.
"Come, you fellows, get up!" called Dawson. This brought no answer.
"Come!" he called louder, "roust up there, every one of you. There's fifty of us, and we've got our boots on!"
A man put his head sleepily out of a tent and wanted to know what was the trouble. Dawson repeated his commands. One of our men tossed some wood on the fire, and it blazed up and threw the long shadows of the tents out across the prairie. One by one the men came out, as if they were just roused from sleep. There was a great amount of loud talk and profanity, but at last they were all out. Pike was one of the last. Dawson made them stand up in a row.
"Now, young man," said he to me, "pick out the man you saw fire the shot that killed Allenham."
At the word killed Pike started and shut his jaws tightly together in the middle of an oath. I looked along the line, but saw that I could not be mistaken. Then I took a step forward, pointed to Pike, and said:
"That's the man."
He shot a look at me of the most deadly hatred; then he laughed; but it didn't sound to me like a good, cheerful laugh.
"Come on," said Dawson to him. Then he ordered the others back into their tents, left half the men to guard them, and with the rest of our party went a little ways down the track to where an empty box-car was standing on the siding. "Get in there!" he said to Pike, and the man did it, and the door was locked. Three men were left to guard this queer jail, and the rest of us went back to the Headquarters House. Here we found that the doctor's report was that Allenham would probably pull through.
The next morning a mass-meeting was held in the square beside the railroad station. After some talk, most of it pretty vigorous, it was decided to order all of the graders to leave town without delay, except Pike, who was to be kept in the car until the outcome of Allenham's wound was known. It wasn't necessary even for me to guess twice to hit on what would be the fate of Pike if Allenham should die.
In two hours the graders left. They made a long line of covered wagons and filed away to the east beside the railroad track. They were pretty free with their threats, but that was all it amounted to.
For a week Track's End was very quiet. Allenham kept on getting better, and by that time was out of danger. There was a good deal of talk about what ought to be done with Pike. A few wanted to hang him, notwithstanding that Allenham was alive.
"When you get hold of a fellow like him," said one man, "you can't go far wrong if you hang him up high by the neck and then sort o' go off and forget him."
Others proposed to let him go and warn him to leave the country. It happened on the day the question was being argued that the wind was blowing from the southwest as hard a gale as I ever saw. It swept up great clouds of dust and blew down all of the tents and endangered many of the buildings. In the afternoon we heard a shout from the direction of the railroad. We all ran out and met the guards. They pointed down the track to the car containing Pike rolling off before the wind.
"How did it get away?" everybody asked.
"Well," said one of the guards, "we don't just exactly know. We reckon the brake got off somehow. Mebby a dog run agin the car with his nose and started it, or something like that," and the man rolled up his eyes. There was a loud laugh at this, as everybody understood that the guards had loosened the brake and given the car a start, and they all saw that it was a good way to get rid of the man inside. Tom Carr, the station agent, said that, if the wind held, the car would not stop short of the grade beyond Siding No. 15.
"My experience with the country," said Sours, "is that the wind always holds and don't do much else. It wouldn't surprise me if it carried him clean through to Chicago."
I went back to the barn and sat down in the office. To tell the truth, I felt easier that Pike was gone. I well knew that he had no love for me. I sat a long time thinking over what had happened since I had come to Track's End. It seemed, as if things had crowded one another so much that I had scarcely had time to think at all. I little guessed all the time for thinking that I was going to have before I got away from the place.
While I was sitting there on the bench an old gentleman came in and asked something about getting a team with which to drive into the country. There was a livery stable in town kept by a man named Munger and a partner whose name I have forgotten; but their horses were all out. The Headquarters barn was mainly for the teams of people who put up at the hotel, but Sours had two horses which we sometimes let folks have. After the old gentleman had finished his business he asked me my name, and then said:
"Well, Judson, you did the right thing in pointing out that desperado the other night. I'm pleased to know you."
My reply was that I couldn't very well have done otherwise than I did after what I saw.
"But there's many that wouldn't have done it, just the same," answered the old gentleman. "Knowing the kind of a man he is, it was very brave of you. My name is Clerkinwell. I run the Bank of Track's End, opposite the Headquarters House. I hope to hear further good reports of you."
He was a very courtly old gentleman, and waved his hand with a flourish as he went out. You may be sure I was tickled at getting such words of praise from no less a man than a banker. I hurried and took the team around to the bank, and had a good look at it. It was a small, square, two-story wooden building, like many of the others, with large glass windows in the front, through which I could see a counter, and behind it a big iron safe.
I had given up sleeping in the house, with its squirrel-cage rooms, preferring the soft prairie hay of the barn. But when bedtime came this night Mr. Clerkinwell had not returned, so I sat up to wait for the team. He had told me that he might be late. It was past midnight when he drove up to the barn.
"Good-evening, Judson," said he. "So you waited for me."
"Yes, sir," I answered.
"Do you know if Allenham or any one is on watch about town to-night?"
"I think not, sir," I said. "I haven't seen nor heard anybody for over an hour."
"Very careless, very careless," muttered the old gentleman. Then he went out, and in a moment I heard his footsteps as he went up the outside stairs to his rooms in the second story of his bank building. I put the horses in their stalls, and fed and watered them, and started up the ladder to the loft. What Mr. Clerkinwell had said was still running in my mind. I stopped and thought a moment, and concluded that I was not sleepy, and decided to take a turn about town.
I left my lantern and went out to the one street. There was not a sound to be heard except the rush of the wind around the houses. The moon was almost down, and the buildings of the town and Frenchman's Butte made long shadows on the prairie. There was a dull spot of light on the sky to the southeast which I knew was the reflection of a prairie fire a long ways off; but there was a good, wide fire-brake a quarter of a mile out around the town, so there was no danger from that, even if it should come up.
I went along down toward the railroad, walking in the middle of the street so as not to make any noise. The big windmill on the water-tank swung a little in the wind and creaked; and the last light from the moon gleamed on its tail and then was gone. I turned out across where the graders had had their camp. Here the wind was hissing through the dry grass sharp enough. I stood gaping at the stars with the wind blowing squarely in my face, and wondering how I ever came so far from home, when all at once I saw straight ahead of me a little blaze of fire.
My first thought was that it was the camp-fire of some mover on the fire-brake. It blazed up higher, and lapped to the right and left. It was the grass that was afire. Through the flames I caught a glimpse of a man. A gust of wind beat down the blaze, and I saw the man, bent over and moving along with a great torch of grass in his hand, leaving a trail of fire. Then I saw that he was inside the fire-brake.
In another moment I was running up the middle of the street yelling "Fire!" so that to this day it is a wonder to me that I did not burst both of my lungs.
A Fire and a Blizzard: with how a great many People go away from Track's End and how some others come.
It was an even two hours' fight between the town of Track's End and the fire; and they came out about even—that is, most of the scattering dwelling-houses were burned, but the business part of the town was saved. There was no water to be had, nor time to plow a furrow, so we fought the fire mainly with brooms, shovels, old blankets, and such-like things with which we could pound it out. But it got up to the dwellings in spite of us. As soon as the danger seemed to be past, I said to Allenham, who had had charge of the fire brigade:
"I saw a man set that fire out there. Don't you suppose we could find him?"
"Pike, I'll bet a dollar!" exclaimed Allenham. "We'll try it, anyhow, whoever it is."
He ordered everybody that could to get a horse, and soon we all rode off into the darkness. But though we were divided into small parties and searched all that night and half the next day, nothing came of it. I kept with Allenham, and as we came in he said:
"There's no use looking for him any longer. If he didn't have a horse and ride away out of the country ahead of all of us, then he's down a badger-hole and intends to stay there till we quit looking. I'll wager he'll know better'n to show himself around Track's End again, anyhow."
Toward night the train came in pushing Pike's box-car ahead of it. Burrdock, who had now been promoted to conductor, said he had bumped against it about six miles down the track. The little end door had been broken open from the inside with a coupling-pin, which Pike must have found in the car and kept concealed. With the window open it was no trick at all to crawl out, set the brake, and stop the car. Nobody doubted any longer that he was the one who had started the fire.
I may as well pass over the next month without making much fuss about it here. Nothing happened except that folks kept going away. After the fire nearly all of those burned out left, and about the same time all of the settlers who had taken up claims in the neighborhood also went back east for the winter, some of them on the train, but most of them in white-topped covered wagons. There was almost no business in town, and if you wanted to get into a store you would generally first have to hunt up the owner and ask him to open it for you. I saw Mr. Clerkinwell occasionally. He always spoke kindly and wished me success. Then the great October blizzard came.
Folks in that country still talk about the October blizzard, and well they may do so, because the like of it has never been known since. It came on the twenty-sixth day of October, and lasted three days. It was as bad as it ought to have been in January, and the people at Track's End, being new to the country, judged that the winter had come to stay, and were discouraged; and so most of the rest of them went away.
It began to snow on the morning of the twenty-fifth, with an east and northeast wind. The snow came down all day in big flakes, and by evening it was a foot deep. It turned colder in the night, and the wind shifted to the northwest. In the morning it was blizzarding. The air was full of fine snow blown before the wind, and before noon you could not see across the street. Some of the smaller houses were almost drifted under. This kept up for three days. Of course the train could not get through, and the one telegraph wire went down and left the town like an island alone in the middle of the ocean.
The next day after the blizzard stopped it grew warmer and the snow began to melt a little, but it was another four days before the train came. By the time it did come it seemed as if everybody in town was disgusted or frightened enough to leave. When the second train after the blizzard had gone back, there were but thirty-two persons, all told, at Track's End. Only one of these was a woman, and she it was that was the cause of making me a hotel-keeper on a small scale.
The woman was Mrs. Sours, wife of my employer. One morning, after every one had left the breakfast-table except her husband and myself, she said to me:
"Jud, couldn't you run the hotel this winter, now that there are only three or four boarders left, and them not important nor particular, only so they get enough to eat?"
"I don't know, ma'am," I said. "I can run the barn, but I'm afraid I don't know much about a hotel."
"Do you hear the boy say he can do it, Henry?" says she, turning to her husband. "Of course he can do it, and do it well, too. He always said his mother taught him how to cook. That means I'm a-going down on the train to-morrow, and not coming back to this wretched country till spring has melted off the snow and made it fit for a decent body to live in."
"Well, all right," said Sours. "You may go; Jud and me are good for it."
"Mercy sakes!" cried Mrs. Sours, "do you suppose I'm going to leave you here to be frozen to death, and starved to death, and killed by the wolves that we already hear howling every night, and murdered by Indians, and shot by Pike and that wretched band of horse-thieves that the Billings sheriffs who stopped here the other night was looking for? No, Henry; when I go I am going to take you with me."
Sours tried to argue with her a little, but it did no sort of good, and the next day they both went off and I was left in charge of the hotel for the winter with three boarders—Tom Carr, the station agent and telegraph operator; Frank Valentine, the postmaster; and a Norwegian named Andrew, who was to take my place in the barn. Allenham had gone before the blizzard. Some others went on the same train with Mr. Sours and his wife. We were twenty-six, all told, that night.
The weather remained bad, and the train was often late or did not come at all. On the last day of November there were an even fourteen of us left. On the morning of that day week Tom Carr came over from the station and brought word that he had just got a telegram from headquarters saying that for the rest of the winter the train would run to Track's End but once a week, coming up Wednesday and going back Thursday.
"Well, that settles it with me," said Harvey Tucker. "I shall go back with it the first Thursday it goes."
"Same with me," said a man named West. "I know when I've got enough, and I've got enough of Track's End."
Mr. Clerkinwell, who happened to be present, laughed cheerfully. He was by far the oldest man left, but he always seemed the least discouraged.
"Oh," he said to the others, "that's nothing. The train does us no good except to bring the mail, and it can bring it just as well once a week as twice. We were really pampered with that train coming to us twice a week," and he laughed again and went out.
It was just another week and a day that poor Mr. Clerkinwell was taken sick. He had begun boarding at the hotel, and that night did not come to supper. I went over to his rooms to see what the trouble was. I found him on the bed in a high fever. His talk was rambling and flighty. It was a good deal about his daughter Florence, whom he had told me of before. Then he wandered to other matters.
"It's locked, Judson, it's locked, and nobody knows the combination; and there aren't any burglars here," he said. I knew he was talking about the safe in the room below.
We all did what we could for him, which was little enough. The doctor had gone away weeks before. He grew worse during the night. The train had come in that day, and I asked Burrdock if he did not think it would be best to send him away on it in the morning to his friends at St. Paul, where he could get proper care. Burrdock agreed to this plan. Toward morning the old gentleman fell asleep, and we covered him very carefully and carried him over to the train on his bed. He roused up a little in the car and seemed to realize where he was.
"Take care of the bank, Judson, take good care of it," he said in a sort of a feeble way. "You must be banker as well as hotel-keeper now."
I told him I would do the best I could, and he closed his eyes again.
It was cold and blizzardy when the train left at nine o'clock. Tucker and West were not the only ones of our little colony who took the train; there were five others, making, with Mr. Clerkinwell, eight, and leaving us six, to wit: Tom Carr, the agent; Frank Valentine, the postmaster; Jim Stackhouse; Cy Baker; Andrew, the Norwegian, and myself, Judson Pitcher.
After the train had gone away down the track in a cloud of white smoke, we held a mock mass-meeting around the depot stove, and elected Tom Carr mayor, Jim Stackhouse treasurer, and Andrew street commissioner, with instructions to "clear the streets of snow without delay so that the city's system of horse-cars may be operated to the advantage of our large and growing population." The Norwegian grinned and said:
"Aye tank he be a pretty big yob to put all that snow away."
In a little while the new street commissioner and I left the others at a game of cards and started out to go to the hotel. There was a strong northwest wind, and the fine snow was sifting along close to the ground. I noticed that the rails were already covered in front of the depot. The telegraph wire hummed dismally. We were plowing along against the wind when we heard a shout and looked up. Over by the old graders' camp there were three men on horseback, all bundled up in fur coats. One of them had a letter in his hand which he waved at us.
"Let's see what's up," I said to Andrew, and we started over. At that the man stuck the letter in the box of a broken dump-cart, and then they all rode away to the west.
When we came up to the cart I unfolded the letter and read:
TO PROP. BANK OF TRACK'S END AND OTHER CITIZENS AND FOLKS:
The Undersined being in need of a little Reddy Munny regrets that they have to ask you for $5,000. Leave it behind the bord nailed to the door of Bill Mountain's shack too mile northwest and there wunt be no trubble. If we don't get munny to buy fuel with we shall have to burn your town to keep warm. Maybe it will burn better now than it did last fall. So being peecibel ourselves, and knowing how very peecibel you all are, it will be more plesent all around if you come down with the cash. No objextions to small bills. We know how few there are of you but we don't think we have asked for too much.
Yours Respecfully, D. PIKE, and numrous Frends.
P.X. Thow somewhat short on reddy funs, We still no how to use our guns.
This is poetry but we mean bizness.
We prepare to fight the Robbers and I make a little Trip out to Bill Mountain's House: after I come back I show what a great Fool I can be.
The next minute I was back in the depot reading this letter to the others. When I had finished they all looked pretty blank. At last Jim Stackhouse said:
"Well, I'd like to know what we're going to do about it?"
Tom Carr laughed. "If they come it will be the duty of the street commissioner to remove 'em for obstructing the car lines," he said.
I don't think Andrew understood this joke, though the rest of us laughed, partly, I guess, to keep up our courage.
"Well," went on Carr, "there's one thing sure—we can't send them five thousand dollars even if we wanted to; and we don't want to very much. I don't believe there is a hundred dollars in the whole town outside of Clerkinwell's safe."
"What do you suppose there is in that?" asked Baker.
"There might be a good deal and there might not be so much," said Carr. "I heard that he saved $20,000 out of the failure of his business back east and brought it out here to start new with. He certainly didn't take any of it away with him, nor use much of it here. He might have sent it back some time ago, but it hasn't gone through the express office if he did."
"Nor it hasn't gone through the post-office," said Frank Valentine. "I guess it's in the safe yet, most of it."
"Very likely," answered Carr. "But even if it is I don't believe Pike and those fellows would know enough to get it out unless they had all day to work at it; and what would we be doing all that time?"
"Shooting," said Jim Stackhouse; but I thought he said it as if he would rather be doing anything else. I didn't know so much about men then as I do now, but I could see that Tom Carr was the only man in the lot that could be depended on in case of trouble.
"Well, how are we fixed for things to shoot with?" went on Carr.
"I've got a repeating rifle," answered Valentine. "So have you, and so has Cy. I guess Sours left some shooting-irons behind, too, didn't he, Jud?"
"Yes; a Winchester and a shot-gun," I replied.
"There are some other shot-guns in town, too," continued Valentine. "But I guess the best show for us is in Taggart's hardware store. When he went away he left the key with me, and there's a lot of stuff boxed up there."
"Go and see about it and let's pull ourselves together and find out what we're doing," said Carr. "I think we can stand off those fellows all right if we keep our eyes open. I suppose they are up at the headquarters of the old Middleton gang on Cattail Creek, the other side of the Missouri. The men that went through here with that pony herd last fall were some of them, and the ponies were all stolen, so that Billings sheriff said. I guess Pike has joined them, and I should think they would suit each other pretty well."
In a little while Valentine came back and said he had found a dozen repeating rifles, and that he thought there were more in some of the other boxes. There was also plenty of cartridges and some revolvers and shot-guns.
"That fixes us all right for arms," said Carr. "Before night we must organize and get ready to defend the town against an attack if it should come; but I think the next thing is to send a letter out to Mountain's house and put it where they will look for the money, warning them to keep away if they don't want to be shot."
"Yes," answered Valentine, "that will be best. Write 'em a letter and make it good and stiff."
Tom went into the back room and soon came out with a letter which read as follows:
TRACK'S END, December 16.
TO D. PIKE AND FELLOW-THIEVES,—You will never get one cent out of this town. If any of you come within range you will be shot on sight. We are well armed, and can carry out our share of this offer.
COMMITTEE OF SAFETY.
"I guess that will do," said Tom. "There isn't any poetry in it, but I reckon they'll understand it. Now, Jud, what do you say to taking it out and leaving it on Mountain's door?"
"All right," I answered; "I'll do it."
"Probably Jim had better go along with you," said Carr. "I don't think any of them are there, but you can take my field-glass and have a look at the place when you get out to Johnson's."
We all went to dinner, and by the time Jim and I were ready to start the sky had clouded over and threatened snow. I said nothing, but slipped back into the hotel and filled my pockets with bread and cold meat. I thought it might come handy. It was so cold and the snow was so deep that we had decided to go on foot instead of horseback, but we found it slow work getting along. Where the crust held us we made good time, but most of the way we had to flounder along through soft drifts.
At Johnson's we took a long look at Mountain's with the glass, but could see no signs of life. It began to snow soon after leaving here, and several times we lost sight of the place we were trying to reach, but we kept on and got there at last. The snow was coming down faster, and it seemed as if it were already growing dark.
"It isn't going to be very safe trying to find our way back to-night," said Jim. "Let's see what the prospect for staying here is."
We pushed open the door. It was a board shanty with only one room, and that half full of snow. But there was a sheet-iron hay stove in one end and a stack of hay outside. I told Jim of the food which I had brought.
"Then we'll stay right here," he said. "It's ten to one that we miss the town if we try to go back to-night. Our tracks are filled in before this."
We set to work with an old shovel and a piece of board and cleaned out the snow, and then we built a fire in the stove. We soon had the room fairly comfortable. The stove took twisted hay so fast that the work did more to keep us warm than the fire.
We divided the food for supper, leaving half of it for breakfast. It made a pretty light meal, but we didn't complain. I wondered what we should do if the storm kept up the next day, and I suppose Jim thought of the same thing; but neither of us said anything about that. I sat up the first half of the night and fed the fire, while Jim slept on a big dry-goods box behind the stove, and he did as much for me during the last half.
It was still snowing in the morning. We divided the food again, leaving half of it for dinner, which left a breakfast lighter than the supper had been. We were a good deal discouraged. But soon after noon it stopped snowing and began to lighten up. It was still blowing and drifting, but we thought we might as well be lost as to starve; so we left the letter behind the board on the door and started out.
We got along better than we expected. The wind had shifted to the northwest, so it was at our backs. We passed Johnson's deserted house and finally came within sight of the town through the flying snow. We were not twenty rods from the station when suddenly Jim exclaimed:
"Why, there's a train!"
Sure enough, just beyond the station was an engine with a big snow-plow on it, with one freight-car and a passenger-car. A dozen men with shovels stood beside it stamping their feet and swinging their arms to keep from freezing. There were faces at the car-windows, and Burrdock and Tom Carr were walking up and down the depot platform. We came up to them looking pretty well astonished, I guess.
"When I got to the Junction yesterday I got orders to take another train and come back here and get you folks," said Burrdock in answer to our looks. "Just got here after shoveling all night, and want to leave as soon as we can, before it gets to drifting any worse. This branch is to be abandoned for the winter and the station closed. Hurry up and get aboard!"
Jim and I were both too astonished to speak.
"Yes," said Tom Carr, "we were just starting after you when we saw you coming. We're going to take Sours's horses and the cow in the box-car. I just sent Andrew over after them—and the chickens, too, if he can catch them."
I don't know how it was, but my face flushed up as hot as if it had been on fire. I felt the tears coming into my eyes, I was in that state of passion.
"Tom," I said, "who was left in charge of Sours's things?"
"Why—why, you were," answered Tom, almost as much astonished as I had been a moment before.
"Who gave you authority to meddle with them?" I said.
"Nobody. But I knew you wouldn't want to leave them here to starve, and I did it to save time."
"They're not going to starve here," I said, getting better control of my voice. "Call Andrew back this minute. You've neither of you the right to touch a thing that's there."
"But surely you're going with the rest of us?" said Tom.
"No, I'm not," I answered.
Tom turned and started toward the town.
"Now, don't make a fool of yourself, young man," said Burrdock. "This here town is closed up for the winter. You won't see the train here again before next March."
"The train won't see me, then, before next March," I said. "Jim, are you going with the rest of them?"
"Well, I'm not the fellow to do much staying," he answered.
I turned and started for the hotel; Burrdock muttered something which I didn't catch. I saw Andrew going toward the train, but without any of the animals. Tom came down the street and met me. He held out his hand and said:
"Jud, I admire you. I'd stay with you if I could, but the company has ordered me to come, and I've got to go. But it's a crazy thing for you to do, and you'd better come along with us, after all."
"No," I said, "I'm going to stay." (It was a foolish pride and stubbornness that made me say it; I wanted to go already.)
"Well, good-by, Jud."
"Good-by, Tom," I said.
He walked away, then turned and said:
"Now, Jud, for the last time: Will you come?"
"No, I won't!"
In another minute the train rolled away, with Tom standing on the back platform with his hand on the bell-rope ready to pull it if I signaled him to stop.
But I didn't. I went on over to the Headquarters House. It was beginning to get dark; and the snow was falling again. The door was stuck fast, but I set my shoulder against it and pushed it open. The snow had blown in the crack and made a drift halfway across the floor. I put my hand on the stove. It was cold, and the fire was out.
Alone in Track's End I repent of my hasty Action: with what I do at the Headquarters House, and the whole Situation in a Nutshell.
When I came to think of it afterward I thought it was odd, but the first thing that popped into my mind when I saw that the fire had gone out was that perhaps there were no matches left in the town. I ran to the match-safe so fast that I bumped my head against the wall. The safe was almost full, and then it struck me that there were probably matches in half the houses in town, and that I even had some in my pocket.
I went over and peeped out of one corner of a window-pane where the wind had come in and kept back the frost. The snow was driving down the street like a whirling cloud of fog. I could hardly see the bank building opposite. An awful feeling like sinking came over me as I realized how matters stood; and the worst of it was that I had brought it upon myself. I rushed into the dining-room and looked out of a side window to see if the train might not be coming back; but there was only the whirlwind of snow. I went back in the office and threw myself on a lounge in one corner.
If any one says that I lay there with my face in a corn-husk pillow and cried as if I were a girl, I'm not going to dispute him. If any girl thinks that she can cry harder than I did, I'd like to see her try it. But it, or something, made me feel better, and after a while I could think a little. But I could not get over knowing that it was all my own fault, and that I might be riding away on the train with friends, and with people to see and talk to. I realized that it was all my quick temper and stubbornness which was to blame, and remembered how my mother had told me that it would get me into trouble some day. "If Tom hadn't come at me so suddenly," I said out loud, with my face still in the husk pillow, "I'd have agreed to it. Dear old Tom, he meant all right, and I was a fool!"
When at last I sat up I found it was so dark that I could hardly see. The wind was roaring outside, and I could feel fine snow against my face from some crack. I was stiff and cold, and just remembered that I had not had above a quarter of a meal all day. I thought I heard a scratching at the door, and opened it. Something rushed in and almost upset me; then I knew it was Kaiser, Sours's dog. I was never so glad to see anything before. I dropped down on my knees and put my arms around his neck and hugged him, and for all I know I may have kissed him. I guess I again acted worse than a girl. I remember now that I did kiss the dog.
I got up at last and felt around till I found the match-safe, and lit the wall lamp over the desk. I thought it made it so I could actually see the cold. Kaiser seemed warm in his thick coat of black hair, and wagged his tail like a good fellow. I don't know why it was, but I thought I had never wanted to talk so badly before. "We're glad they're gone, aren't we, Kaiser?" I said to him; then I thought that sounded foolish, so I didn't say anything more, but set to work to build the fire.
When I went to the shed at the back door for the kindling-wood I found another friend, this time our cat, a big black-and-white one. I don't think I was quite so foolish about her as I had been about the dog, but I was glad to see her. After the fire was started I got a shovel and cleared the snow out of the office. Outside it was already banked halfway up the door, and the storm was still raging.
As I turned from putting some coal on the fire I happened to see the hotel register lying on the desk. Another foolish notion seized me, and I took up the pen and as well as I could with my stiff fingers headed a page "December 17th," and below registered myself, "Judson Pitcher, Track's End, Dakota Territory." I think the excitement must have turned my brain, because I seemed to be doing silly things all the time.
But I managed to stop my foolishness long enough to get myself some supper; which I guess was what I needed, because I acted more sensibly afterward. Everything in the house was frozen, but I thawed out some meat, and ate some bread without its being thawed, and boiled a couple of eggs, and had a meal which tasted as good as any I ever ate, and with enough left for Kaiser and the cat, who was named Pawsy, though I can't imagine where such a name came from.
The office was by this time quite comfortable. I had brought a small table in from the kitchen and eaten my supper close to the stove. Though it was pitch-dark outside, it was not yet six o'clock, and as I felt calmer than I had before, I sat down in front of the fire to consider how matters stood. I think I realized what I was in for better than before, but I no longer felt like crying. If I remember aright, it was now that I gave the first thought to Pike and his gang.
"Well," I said, speaking out loud, just as if there was somebody to hear me besides a cat and a dog, "I guess Pike won't do much as long as this storm lasts. But after that, I don't know. Maybe I can hide if they come." I thought a minute more and then said: "No, I won't do that—I'll fight, if I have a chance. They won't have any way of knowing that I am here alone, and if I can see them first I'll be all right." That is what I said; but I remember that I felt pretty doubtful about it all. I think I must have been trying not to let Kaiser know that I was afraid.
After a while I fell to thinking of home and of my mother. When I thought of how she would worry when she didn't hear from me, it gave me an idea of leaving Track's End and trying to make my way east to civilization. It seemed to me that with a few days of good weather I ought to be able to get through if no more snow came; though I had no idea how far I might have to go, since for all I knew Lac-qui-Parle might also be abandoned; and, even if it were not, I knew that it had no trains and that I would probably have to travel overland to the other side of the Minnesota line before I could reach a settlement with any connection with the outside world. I was before long very gloomy thinking about my troubles; then I happened to remember the horses and cow about which I had tried to quarrel with poor Tom Carr, and I put on my overcoat and went out to look after them.
I thought the wind would carry me away, and I had to shovel ten minutes by the light of a lantern half blown out before I could get the door open. But when I did get in I found them glad to see me; and I was glad to see them. And while shoveling away the snow I had shoveled away my fit of the blues; and from that day to this I've taken notice that the best way to get rid of trouble and feelings you don't want is to go to work lively; which is a first-class thing to remember, and I throw it in here for good measure.
The cow mooed at me, and even the horses whinnied a little, though they were not what you might call children's pets, being broncos, and more apt to take a kick at you than to try to throw you a kiss. The chickens had gone to roost and didn't have much to say. They refused to come down for their supper, but the horses and the cow were very glad to get theirs. Then I milked the cow, told them all good-night, made everything about the barn as snug as I could, and shouldered my way through the storm to the house. I found both Kaiser and Pawsy wide awake and waiting for me. I don't think they liked the house being so deserted and lonesome. I gave them both some of the warm milk, and took a share of it myself.
I was beginning to realize that I was tired by this time, and sat down in a big chair before the fire. The stove was a round, cast-iron one, shaped a good deal like a decanter. It burned soft coal, and, as it was going well, and was warm enough in the room, I threw the door open, making it seem very like a fireplace. I was over the excitement of the day, and fell to looking at the situation again. This is the way I made it out, to wit:
First, that I was alone, except for the animals, and in charge of a whole town; that it was very improbable (as the blizzard still held) that any train would or could get through very soon—perhaps not before spring.
Second, that the animals consisted of one large, shaggy, black dog (breed uncertain) named Kaiser; one large black-and-white cat named Pawsy; one cow named Blossom; two bronco horses, one named Dick, the other Ned; twenty-two hens and one rooster, without any particular names except that I called one of the hens Crazy Jane.
Third, that there was enough hay in the barn for the horses and cow, though other feed would be short unless I could find more about town somewhere; that I ought to be able to scare up enough food for myself by going through the stores, though some kinds might be short; that there was plenty of coal.
Fourth, that there were guns of all kinds, and probably a good supply of ammunition.
Fifth, that there might be $20,000 in a safe across the street.
Sixth, that there was a gang of cutthroats somewhere about who wanted the money, and would come after it the minute they knew I was alone; and might come sooner.
By this time I was sleepy; so I covered up Kaiser on one end of the lounge, the cat on the other, put out the lamp, and went up-stairs and popped into bed.
Some Account of what I do and think the first Day alone: with a Discovery by Kaiser at the End.
I woke up with a start in the morning, thinking that it was all a bad dream; then I knew it wasn't, and wished it were; and next I was very glad to hear the blizzard still roaring as hard as ever, which may seem odd to you. But the fact is that I had thought a long time after I went to bed and had decided on two things—first, that I was safe from the robbers as long as the storm lasted, and, second and more important, that I had a plan which might serve to keep them away for a while at least after the storm stopped. I got up and looked out of the window, but I might as well have looked into a haystack for all I saw. I could not even see the houses on the other side of the street.
I went down, said good-morning to the cat and dog, and started the fire. It was colder; I peeped at the thermometer through the window, and saw it was a dozen degrees below zero. I found the stock at the barn all right and cheerful; the chickens were down making breakfast of what I had given them for supper, all except Crazy Jane, who had finished eating and was trying to get out of the barn, maybe thinking that she could make a nest in a snowbank, or could scratch for angleworms.
After I had finished the barn-work I went in and got breakfast. I started a fire in the kitchen and got a better meal than I had the night before. I went down cellar after some potatoes, and noticed that there were a plenty of them; with squashes, pumpkins, and other vegetables; all of which I knew before, but I observed that such things looked different to me now. I couldn't count much on the pumpkins because I didn't know how to make pumpkin pie, but I knew that the cow would be very glad to get them without their being made into pie. "It would be funny," I said, out loud, as if there were somebody to hear, "if cows should find out some day that pumpkins are better in pies and farmers should have to fix them that way before they would eat them."
I found that I felt much better about the situation than I had the night before, though, of course, I still wished with all my heart that I was out of it all, and thought every minute what a fool I was to have acted the way I did. But there were so many things to do that I did not have time to worry very much, which I believe was all that kept me from going crazy.
After breakfast I decided that the first thing I had best do was to look up the gun question. I found Sours's rifle in a closet. It was not loaded, but there was a box of cartridges on a shelf, and I wiped out the barrel and filled the magazine. It was fifteen-shot and forty-five caliber, and seemed like a good gun. I stood it under the counter in the office and out of sight behind an old coat. In the drawer of the desk was a revolver. It was a thirty-eight caliber, and pretty big to carry, but I thought it might be handy to have, so I stuffed it in my pocket.
Taggart's hardware store was two doors toward the railroad from the hotel, but the sidewalk was so covered with snow, and the wind swept down the street with such fury, that it seemed next to impossible to get there. But I was anxious to see about the weapons, so I went out the back door and crept along close to the rear of the buildings till I reached it.
The door was locked, but I could see through a window that a box had been recently broken open; but, as there were no guns in sight, I concluded that the men had probably carried them over to the depot. I tried to see this through the driving snow, but could not, so I did not dare to start out to find it, knowing how easy it is to become confused and lost in such a storm.
As I stood back of the store I thought once that I heard the whistle of a locomotive; then I knew of course it was only the wind. "It'll be a long time before you hear any such music as that," I said to myself. There was nothing which would have sounded quite so good to me.
I was glad to get back to the house, where I could draw a breath of air not full of powdered snow. I spent some time calking up cracks around the windows, where the snow blew in. While I was doing this it suddenly flashed into my mind, what if I should lose track of the days of the month and week? I thought I would write down every day, and got a piece of paper to begin on, when I noticed a calendar behind the desk. I took the pen and scratched off "December 17," which was gone, and which was the beginning of my life alone in Track's End; and the first thing every morning after that while I stayed I marked off the day before; and so I never lost my reckoning. Though, indeed, I was soon to wake up in another and worse place than Track's End; but of this I will tell later. I had very foolishly forgotten to wind the clock the night before, and it had stopped, and I had no watch by which to set it; but I started it, and trusted to find the clock at the depot still going, as it was an eight-day one.
I soon found myself hungry, and took it for granted that it was dinner-time. The meals seemed pretty lonesome, because I had been used to having a great deal of fun with Tom Carr and the others at such times, much of it about my poor cooking. Kaiser and Pawsy appeared willing to do what they could to make it pleasant; and this time I put a chair at one end of the little table, and the cat jumped up in it and began to purr like a young tiger, while the dog sat on the floor at the other end and pounded the floor with his tail like any drummer might beat his drum. I also began to get them into the bad practice of eating at the same time I did; but I had to have some company.
It must have been two hours after dinner, and I was moving my bed down into a little room between the office and kitchen, when I first saw that the fury of the wind was beginning to lessen. The sky began to lighten up, and from the front door I could soon catch glimpses of the railroad windmill. I saw that I must start the plan I had thought of the night before for keeping off the Pike gang without any delay. My idea was that I must not let them know that I was alone, and if possible make them think that there were still a good many people in town. I doubted if they had known the morning they left the letter that we were then reduced to six. I could not see how they should know it, and I felt sure that if they had known it they would have made an attack upon the bank.
My plan, then, was to build and keep up fires in several other houses, so that if they came in sight they would see the smoke and think that there was still a good-sized population. I went first across the street to the bank building. The lower part of it was locked, but I went up the outside stairs and found everything in Mr. Clerkinwell's rooms as we had left it. There were also inside stairs, and I went down and soon had a good fire going in the lower room, and as I came out I was pleased to see that it made a large smoke.
I next went to the north end of the street, where stood a building which had been a harness shop. It was locked, but I could see a stove inside; so I broke a back window, reached in with a stick, and shot back the bolt of the rear door, and soon had a good smoky fire here, too. I decided that one more would do for that day, and thought the best place for that would be in the depot. The wind had now pretty well abated, and the snow was only streaming along close to the ground.
The depot was locked, but again I got in by breaking a window. There were the guns as I expected—five new Winchesters like Sours's.
There were also a lot of cartridges, and three large six-shooters, with belts and holsters. It was half-past three by the clock, which was still going. I clicked at the telegraph instrument, but it was silent. I remembered that Tom had told me that the line had gone down beyond Siding No. 15, which was the first one east from Track's End. Everything made me think of Tom, and I looked away along the line of telegraph-poles where I knew the track was, down under the snow; but I could see no train coming to take me out of the horrible place.
I soon had another fire going. After that I hid two of the rifles in the back room and carried the others over to the hotel. I climbed to the top of the windmill tower and took a look at Mountain's house with the field-glass, but could see nothing. I walked around town and looked in each of the houses with an odd sort of feeling, as if I half owned them. Kaiser went with me, and was very glad to get out.
It was just after sundown when I got back to the door of the hotel. Up the street in front of the harness shop I saw a jack-rabbit sitting up and looking at me. Kaiser saw him, too, and started after him, though the dog ought to have known that it was like chasing a streak of lightning. I stood with my hand on the door-knob watching the rabbit leave the dog behind, when suddenly I saw Kaiser stop as another dog came around Frenchman's Butte. They met, there was a little tussle, which made the snow fly; then I saw Kaiser coming back on a faster run than he had gone out on, with the other dog close behind.
"That's a brave dog I've got!" I exclaimed. I saw some other dogs come around the Butte, but I didn't look at them much, I was so disgusted at seeing Kaiser making such a cowardly run. On he came like a whirlwind. I opened the door and stepped in. He bolted in between my legs and half knocked me over. I slammed the door shut against the other dog's nose. The other dog, I saw, was a wolf.
I have a Fight and a Fright: after which I make some Plans for the Future and take up my Bed and move.
I don't know if the door really struck the wolf's nose or not, when I slammed it shut, but it could not have lacked much of it. Poor Kaiser rushed around the stove, faced the window, and began to bark so excitedly that his voice trembled and sounded differently than I had ever heard it before. I must have been a little excited myself, as I stopped to bolt the door, just as if the wolf could turn the knob and walk in. When I stepped back I met the wolf face to face gazing in the window, with his eyes flaming and mouth a little open. He was gaunt and hungry-looking. The rest of the pack were just coming up, howling as loud as they could.
I ran to the desk and got the rifle; then I dropped on one knee and fired across the room straight at the wolf's throat. He fell back in the snow dead; and, of course, there was only a little round hole in the window-pane. Everything would have been all right if it had not been for a mean spirit of revenge in Kaiser, for no sooner did he see his enemy fall back lifeless than with one jump he smashed through the window and fell upon him savagely. He had not seen the rest of the pack, but the next second half a dozen of them pounced on him. I dared not fire again for fear of hitting him, so I dropped my gun, seized an axe which I had used to split kindling-wood, and ran forward. There was a cloud of snow outside, and then the dog tumbled back through the window with one of the wolves, and they rolled over and over together on the floor.
I got to the window just as a second wolf started to come through the broken pane. I struck him full on the head with the axe, and he sank down dead, half outside and half inside. The others that pressed behind stopped as they saw his fate and stood watching the struggle on the floor through the window.
Kaiser was making a good fight, but the wolf was too much for him, and soon the dog was on his back with the wolf's jaws at his throat. This was more than I could stand, and I turned and struck at the animal with my axe. I missed him, but he let go his hold, snapped at the axe, and when I started to strike again he turned and jumped through the window over his dead companion and joined the howling pack on the snow-drift in front of the house.
I seized the gun again and rested it across the dead wolf, firing full at the impudent rascal who had come in and made Kaiser so much trouble. It was a good shot, and the wolf went down in the snow. I pumped up another cartridge, but the wolves saw that they were beaten, and the whole pack turned tail and ran off as fast as their legs could carry them. I took two more shots, but missed both. The wolves went around Frenchman's Butte, never once stopping their howling.
As soon as they were out of sight I had a look at Kaiser. I found him all blood from a wound in his neck, and one of his fore legs was so badly crippled that the poor beast could not bear his weight on it. I got some warm water and washed him off and bound up his throat. When I was done I heard a strange yowl, and, looking about, spied Pawsy clinging on top of the casing of the door which led into the dining-room, with her tail as big as a bed-bolster. I suppose she had gone up early in the wolf-fight, not liking such proceedings. She was still in the greatest state of fright, and spat and scratched at me as I took her down.
I next swept up the dog and wolf fur and cleaned the floor, and after I had got the place set to rights nailed a board over the broken window and carried the three dead wolves into the kitchen, where, after supper, I skinned them, hoping that some day their hides would go into the making of a fur overcoat for me; something which I needed.
I don't know if it was the excitement of the fight, or the awful stillness of the night, or what it was, but after I had finished my work and sat down in the office to rest I fell into the utmost terror. The awful lonesomeness pressed down upon me like a weight. I started at the least sound; dangers I had never thought of before, such as sickness and the like, popped into my mind clear as day, and, in short, I was half dead from sheer fright. There was not a breath of wind outside, or a sound, except once in a while a sharp crack of some building as the frost warped a clapboard or sprung out a nail; and at each crack I started as if I had been struck. The moon was shining brightly, but it was much colder; the thermometer already marked twenty degrees below zero.
Suddenly there came, clear and sharp, the savage howling of a pack of wolves; it seemed at the very door. I jumped out of my chair, I was so startled, and stood, I think, a most disgraceful picture of a coward. Kaiser rose up on his three sound legs and began to growl. At last I got courage to go to the window and peep out, with my teeth fairly chattering. I could see them up the street, all in a bunch, and offering a fine shot; but I was too frightened to shoot. After a while they went off, and it was still again. I wondered which was worse, their savage wailing or the awful stillness which made the ticking of the clock seem like the blows of a hammer. I wished that there might come another blizzard.
But at last I got so I could walk the floor; and as I went back and forth I managed to look at things a little more calmly. The first thing I decided on was that I must no longer, in good weather at least, sleep in the hotel. It was easy to see, if the robbers came in the night and found nobody in the other houses, that they would come straight to the hotel. I made up my mind to take my bed to some empty house where they would be little likely to look for any one, or where they would not be apt to look until after I had had warning of their coming.
Another thing which I decided on was that I must keep up two or three more fires, and get up early every morning to start them. I saw, too, that I ought to distribute the Winchesters more, and board up the windows of the bank, and perhaps some of the other buildings, leaving loopholes out of which to shoot. Still another point which I thought of was this: Suppose the whole town should be burned? I wondered if I could not find or make some place where I would be safe and would not have to expose myself to the robbers if they stayed while the fire burned, as they probably would. I thought of the cellars, but it did not seem that I could make one of them do in any way.
My fright was, after all, a good thing, because it made me think of all possible dangers, and consequently, as it seemed, ways to meet them. It was at this time that the idea of a tunnel under the snow across the street from the hotel to the bank occurred to me; but I was not sure about this. Still, some way to cross the street without being seen kept running in my mind. In short, I walked and thought myself into a much better state of mind, and, though I still started at every sound, I was no longer too frightened to control myself.
When it came bedtime I decided to follow out my plan for sleeping away from the hotel without delay. There was an empty store building to the north of the hotel. It was new, and had never been occupied. I had often noticed that one of the second-story windows on the side was directly opposite one in the hotel, and not over four feet away. I carried up the ironing-board from the kitchen, opened the hotel window, put the board over for a bridge, stepped across and entered the vacant building.
I thought I had never seen a place quite so cold before; but I carried over the mattress from my bed, together with several blankets, and placed them in a small back room in the second story. The doors and windows of the first story were all nailed and boarded up, and it seemed about the last place that you would expect to find any one sleeping. I left the dog and cat in the hotel, took one of the rifles with me, and pulled in my drawbridge. I almost dropped it as I did so, for at that instant the wolves set up another unearthly howling. I got into bed as quick as I could. They went the length of the street with their horrible noise; and then I heard them scratching at the doors and windows of the barn. I could have shot them easily in the bright moonlight; but I remember that I didn't do so.
I begin my Letters to my Mother and start my Fortifications: then I very foolishly go away, meet with an Accident, and see Something which throws me into the utmost Terror.
The next day, the nineteenth of December, was Sunday. I had been left alone (or, rather, let me say the truth, I had like a fool refused to go) on Friday, which seems in this case to have been unlucky for me, however it may ordinarily be. I woke up early, half cramped with the weight of the bed-clothes, I had piled on so many; but I was none too warm, either. I put out my drawbridge and got back to the hotel and started the fire. Outside the thermometer stood close to thirty-five degrees below zero, but the sun was rising bright and dazzling into a clear, blue sky.
Kaiser's leg was no better, and Pawsy was still nervous and kept looking at the windows as if she expected wolves to bolt in head-first; and I did not blame her much. It seemed to me that the wolves had howled most of the night. I only wished that the timber beyond Frenchman's Butte and the coteaux and the Chain of Lakes were a hundred miles away, for without them there would have been no wolves, or nothing but little prairie wolves or coyotes, which, of course, don't amount to much.
As soon as my own fire was started I went about town and got the others going; this I called "bringing the town to life." As I stood at the depot and watched the long columns of smoke from the chimneys it scarcely seemed that I was the only inhabitant of the town. After I had had breakfast and done up the work at the barn, I sat down in the office and was glad enough that it was Sunday. I suddenly thought of a way to spend the day, and in ten minutes I was at something which I did every Sunday while I stayed at Track's End.
This was to write a letter to my mother, stamp and direct it, and drop it in the slot of the post-office door. Of course it would not go very soon, but if nothing happened it would go some time; and, I thought, if I am killed or die in this dreadful place, the letters may be the only record she will ever have of my life here.
I accordingly set to work and wrote her a long letter, telling her fully everything that had happened so far, but without much of my fears for the future. I told her I was sorry that I had got myself into such a scrape, but that, now being in, I meant to go through it the best I could.
The next morning, Monday, I began work on my fortifications, by which name I included everything that would help to keep off invaders. I started two more fires, one in Townsend's store, at the south end of the street, and the other in Joyce's store, at the north end of town and nearly opposite the harness shop. I made another visit to Taggart's, and found some barrels of kerosene, which I needed, and more ammunition. Still another thing was a number of door-keys, so that I made up a string of them with which I could unlock almost every door in town. In Joyce's, besides groceries and such things, I found a buffalo overcoat, which I took the liberty of borrowing for the winter. It was so large for me that it almost touched the ground, but it was precisely what I needed, and, I think, once saved my life; and that before long.
I kept at the fortification-work for four days pretty steadily, though I did not use the best judgment in picking out what to do first. I was fascinated, boy-like, with the tunnel idea, when, I think, with the knowledge I then had, it would have been wiser to have paid more attention to some other things; but, as luck would have it, it all came out right in the end. I boarded up a few of the windows, but not many, and did nothing whatever at providing a secret retreat in case of fire, though I had a plan in mind which I thought was good. Worst of all, I left the Winchesters about here and there without any particular attempt at hiding them. But I kept at the tunnel hammer and tongs.
There were two front windows in the hotel office. At one of these the snow came only a little above the sill, which was the one where the wolf had come in; but the other was piled nearly to the top. It was even higher against the bank front opposite, and at no place in the street between was it less than four feet deep. Both buildings stood almost flat on the ground. I took out the lower sash of the window in the hotel and began work. I made the tunnel something over two feet wide and about four high, except where the drift was no more than this, where I did not think it safe to have the tunnel over three feet high. The snow was packed remarkably hard, and, as it all had to be carried out through the office in a basket and emptied in the street, it was slow work. But at last, on Thursday evening, it was done, and Kaiser and I passed through it; but nothing could induce the cat to come nearer than the window. I was very proud of my work, and went through the tunnel twenty times with no object whatever.
The next morning I ought to have gone at other fortification-work, but instead I thought up the foolish notion that I ought to go out to Bill Mountain's to see if Pike had got our letter and had left any in reply. It was Friday, the day before Christmas, and I thought that the holiday would be more satisfactory if I knew about this; though, to tell the truth, I had not worried much about the gang's coming since I had been so taken up with the tunnel. I had been so careless that I might have been surprised twenty times a day.
It was a pleasant morning, and not very cold. Andrew had left behind a pair of skees, or Norwegian snow-shoes—light, thin strips of wood, four inches wide and eight or ten feet long—and, though I had never been on them but once or twice, I determined to use them in going. I fixed the fires well, made everything snug about town, gave the stock in the barn some extra feed, put on my big overcoat, with a luncheon in one pocket and Sours's revolver in the other, and started. Kaiser's leg was still a little stiff, but I let him go along.
I think I fell down three times before I got out of town; it was as many as this at least; and outside of town, there being more room, I fell oftener. But I soon began to improve and get along better. I decided to follow the railroad grade west, as it was most of the way higher than the prairie, and the snow on it was smoother.
When I got opposite Mountain's I found the grade some ten or twelve feet above the prairie, but it looked a very easy matter to slide down on the skees. I had seen Andrew go down the steep side of Frenchman's Butte. I accordingly slid, went wrong, fell, turned my ankle, and found myself on the hard snow at the bottom unable to stand on my feet.
I lay still some time thinking that perhaps my ankle might get better; but it got worse. It was still almost half a mile to Mountain's, but it was over two miles back to town. I felt that I might be able to crawl the half-mile, so I started, with the skees on my back. I hope I may never again have to do anything so slow and painful. Kaiser was prodigiously excited, and jumped around me and barked and said as plainly as words that he would like to help if he could. But, though I thought a hundred times that I should never reach there, I kept burrowing and floundering along and did accomplish it at last. It was far past noon. The sky had clouded over. I saw a new letter behind the board, but could not rise up to get it. I pushed open the door, crawled to the heap of hay by the stove, and lay on it, more miserable, it seemed, than ever before.
I scarcely stirred till I noticed that it was beginning to get dark. Then I crept to the door and looked out; the snow was falling fast and in big flakes. I shut the door and crawled back to the hay. There seemed to be nothing to do. I knew I could not keep up a hay fire, even if I could start one. Besides, I had a sudden fear that some of the Pike gang might visit the shanty to look for an answer to their letter, and I thought if I simply lay still I might escape, even if they did come. I ate part of my luncheon, and gave Kaiser part. Then I drew my big overcoat around me as best I could, made the dog lie close up to me on the hay, and tried to sleep.
My ankle pained me a good deal, and the bed was not comfortable. I thought as I lay there that my mother and father and all the folks at home must then be at the church for the Christmas-tree; and I could see the lights, and the bright toys on the tree, and all the boys and girls I knew getting their presents and laughing and talking; and the singing and the music of the organ came to me almost as if I had been there. Then I thought of how, if I were home, later I should hang up my stocking and find other gifts in it in the morning, and of what a pleasant time Christmas was at home.
Every few minutes a sharp twinge of pain in my ankle would bring me back to my deplorable condition there in that deserted shack sunk in the frozen snow, and I would be half ready to cry; but, with all my thinking of both good and bad, I did at last get to sleep. Once, some time in the night, I woke up with a jump at a strange, unearthly, whooping noise which seemed to be in the room itself, but at last I made it out to be an owl to-whooing on the roof. Again I heard wolves, very distant, and twenty times in imagination there sounded in my ears the tramp of Pike's horses.
When morning came I crawled to the door again. There were six inches of soft, new snow, but the sun was rising clear, and there were no signs of a blizzard. I got back to the hay and for a long time rubbed my ankle. I thought it was a little better. I ate the rest of the food and called myself names for ever having left the town. The fires, I knew, were out, and everything invited an attack of the robbers, while I lay crippled in a cold shack two miles away, on the road along which they would come and go. I had been in no greater terror at any time since my troubles began than I was now on this Christmas morning.
Perhaps it was nine o'clock when I noticed that Kaiser was acting very peculiarly. He stood in the middle of the room with his head lowered and a scowl on his face. Then I saw the hair on his back slowly begin to rise; next he growled. I told him to hush, and waited. I could hear nothing, but I knew there must be good cause for his actions.