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   Chapter 5 No.5

They of the High Trails By Hamlin Garland Characters: 18864

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


The post-office at Eagle River was so small that McCoy and his herders always spoke of the official within as "the Badger," saying that he must surely back into his den for lack of room to turn round. His presentment at the arched loophole in his stockade was formidable. His head was large, his brow high and seamed, his beard long and tangled, and the look of his hazel-gray eyes remote with cold abstraction.

"He's not a man to monkey with," said McCoy when the boys complained that the old seed had put up a sign, "NO SPITTING IN THIS OFFICE." "I'd advise you to act accordingly. I reckon he's boss of that thing while he's in there. He's a Populist, but he's regularly appointed by the President, and I don't see that we're in any position to presume to spit if he objects. No, there ain't a thing to do but get up a petition and have him removed-and I won't agree to sign it when you do."

Eagle River was only a cattle-yard station, a shipping-point for the mighty spread of rolling hills which make up the Bear Valley range to the north and the Grampa to the south. Aside from the post-office, it possessed two saloons, a store, a boarding-house or two, and a low, brown station-house. That was all, except during the autumn, when there was nearly always an outfit of cowboys camped about the corrals, loading cattle or waiting for cars.

On the day when this story opens, McCoy had packed away his last steer, and, being about to take the train for Kansas City, called his foreman aside.

"See here, Roy, seems to me the boys are extra boozed already. It's up to you to pull right out for the ranch."

"That's what I'm going to try to do," answered Roy. "We'll camp at the head of Jack Rabbit to-night."

"Good idea. Get 'em out of town before dark-every mother's son of 'em. I'll be back on Saturday."

Roy Pierce was a dependable young fellow, and honestly meant to carry out the orders of his boss; but there was so little by way of diversion in Eagle, the boys had to get drunk in order to punctuate a paragraph in their life. There was not a disengaged woman in the burg, and bad whisky was merely a sad substitute for romance. Therefore the settlers who chanced to meet this bunch of herders in the outskirts of Eagle River that night walked wide of them, for they gave out the sounds of battle.

They could all ride like Cossacks, notwithstanding their dizzy heads, and though they waved about in their saddles like men of rubber, their faithful feet clung to their stirrups like those of a bat to its perch. In camp they scuffled, argued, ran foot-races, and howled derisive epithets at the cook, who was getting supper with drunken gravity, using pepper and salt with lavish hand.

Into the midst of this hullabaloo Roy, the cow-boss, rode, white with rage and quite sober.

"I'll kill that old son of a gun one of these days," said he to Henry Ring.

"Kill who?"

"That postmaster. If he wasn't a United States officer, I'd do it now."

"What's the matter? Wouldn't he shuffle the mail fer you?"

"Never lifted a finger. 'Nothing,' he barked out at me. Didn't even look up till I let loose on him."

"What did he do then?"

"Poked an old Civil War pistol out of the window and told me to hike."

"Which you did?"

"Which I did, after passing him a few compliments. 'Lay down your badge,' I says, 'come out o' your den, and I'll pepper you so full of holes that your hide won't hold blue-joint hay.' And I'll do it, too, the old hound!"

"But you got out," persisted Ring, maliciously.

"I got out, but I tell you right now he's got something coming to him. No mail-sifter of a little two-for-a-cent town like Eagle is goin' to put it all over me that way and not repent of it. I've figured out a scheme to get even with him, and you have got to help."

This staggered Henry, who began to side-step and limp. "Count me out on that," said he. "The old skunk treated me just about the same way. I don't blame you; a feller sure has a right to have his postmaster make a bluff at shuffling the deck. But, after all-"

However, in the end the boss won his most trusted fellows to his plan, for he was a youth of power, and besides they had all been roiled by the grizzled, crusty old official, and were quite ready to take a hand in his punishment.

Roy developed his plot. "We'll pull out of camp about midnight, and ride round to the east, sneak in, and surround the old man's shack, shouting and yelling and raising Cain. He'll come out of his hole to order us off, and I'll rope him before he knows where he's at; then we'll toy with him for a few minutes-long enough to learn him a lesson in politeness-and let him go."

No one in the gang seemed to see anything specially humorous in this method of inculcating urbanity of manner, and at last five of them agreed to stand their share of the riot, although Henry Ring muttered something about the man's being old and not looking very strong.

"He's strong enough to wave a two-foot gun," retorted Roy, and so silenced all objection.

One night as soon as the camp was quiet Pierce rose and, touching his marauders into activity, saddled and rode away as stealthily as the leader of a band of Indian scouts. He made straightway over the divide to the east, then turned, and, crossing the river, entered the town from the south, in order to deceive any chance observer.

Just below the station, in a little gully, he halted his war-party and issued final orders. "Now I'll ride ahead and locate myself right near the back door; then when I strike a light you fellows come in and swirl round the shack like a gust o' hell. The old devil will come out the back door to see what's doin', and I'll jerk him end-wise before he can touch trigger. I won't hurt him any more than he needs. Now don't stir till I'm in position."

Silently, swiftly, his pony shuffled along the sandy road and over the railway-crossing. The town was soundless and unlighted, save for a dim glow in the telegraph office, and the air was keen and crisp with frost. As he approached the Badger's shack Pierce detected a gleam of light beneath the curtain of the side windows. "If he's awake, so much the better," he thought, but his nerves thrilled as he softly entered the shadow.

Suddenly the pony trod upon something which made a prodigious crash. The door opened, a tall young girl appeared in a wide flare of yellow light which ran out upon the grass like a golden carpet. With eager, anxious voice she called out:

"Is that you, Doctor?"

The raider stiffened in his saddle with surprise. His first impulse was to set spurs to his horse and vanish. His next was to tear off his disguise and wait, for the voice was sweeter than any he had ever heard, and the girl's form a vision of beauty.

Alarmed at his silence, she again called out: "Who are you? What do you want?"

"A neighbor, miss," he answered, dismounting and stepping into the light. "Is there anything I can do for you?"

At this moment hell seemed to have let loose the wildest of its warriors. With shrill whoopings, with flare of popping guns, Roy's faithful herders came swirling round the cabin, intent to do their duty, frenzied with delight of it.

Horrified, furious at this breach of discipline, Pierce ran to meet them, waving his hat and raising the wild yell, "Whoo-ee!" with which he was wont to head off and turn a bunch of steers. "Stop it! Get out!" he shouted as he succeeded in reaching the ears of one or two of the raiders. "It's all off-there's a girl here. Somebody sick! Skeedoo!"

The shooting and the tumult died away. The horsemen vanished as swiftly, as abruptly, as they came, leaving their leader in panting, breathless possession of the field. He was sober enough now, and repentant, too.

Slowly he returned to the door of the shack with vague intent to apologize. Something very sudden and very terrible must have fallen upon the postmaster.

After some hesitation he knocked timidly on the door.

"Have they gone?" the girl asked.

"Yes; I've scared 'em away. They didn't mean no harm, I reckon. I want to know can't I be of some kind of use?"

The door opened cautiously and the girl again appeared. She was very pale and held a pistol in her hand, but her voice was calm. "You're very good," she said, "and I'm much obliged. Who are you?"

"I am Roy Pierce, foreman for McCoy, a cattleman north of here."

"Was it really a band of Indians?"

"Naw. Only a bunch of cow-punchers on a bat."

"You mean cowboys?"

"That's what. It's their little way of havin' fun. I reckon they didn't know you was here. I didn't. Who's sick?"

"My uncle."

"You mean the postmaster?"

"Yes."

"When was he took?"

"Last night. They telegraphed me about six o'clock. I didn't get here till this morning-I mean yesterday morning."

"What's the ail of him?"

"A stroke, I'm afraid. He can't talk, and he's stiff as a stake. Oh, I wish the doctor would come!"

Her anxiety was moving. "I'll try to find him for you."

"I wish you would."

"You aren't all alone?"

"Yes; Mrs. Gilfoyle had to go home to her baby. She said she'd come back, but she hasn't."

Roy's heart swept a wide arc as he stood looking into the pale, awed, lovely face of the girl.

"I'll bring help," he said, and vanished into the darkness, shivering with a sense of guilt. "The poor old cuss! Probably he was sick the very

minute I was bullyragging him."

The local doctor had gone down the valley on a serious case, and would not be back till morning, his wife said, thereupon Roy wired to Claywall, the county-seat, for another physician. He also secured the aid of Mrs. James, the landlady of the Palace Hotel, and hastened back to the relief of the girl, whom he found walking the floor of the little kitchen, tremulous with dread.

"I'm afraid he's dying," she said. "His teeth are set and he's unconscious."

Without knowing what to say in way of comfort, the herder passed on into the little office, where the postmaster lay on a low couch with face upturned, in rigid, inflexible pose, his hands clenched, his mouth foam-lined. Roy, unused to sickness and death, experienced both pity and awe as he looked down upon the prostrate form of the man he had expected to punish. And yet these emotions were rendered vague and slight by the burning admiration which the niece had excited in his susceptible and chivalrous heart.

She was tall and very fair, with a face that seemed plain in repose, but which bewitched him when she smiled. Her erect and powerful body was glowing with health, and her lips and eyes were deliciously young and sweet. Her anxious expression passed away as Roy confidently assured her that these seizures were seldom fatal. He didn't know a thing about it, but his tone was convincing.

"I knew a man once who had these fits four or five times a year. Didn't seem to hurt him a bit. One funny thing-he never had 'em while in the saddle. They 'most always come on just after a heavy meal. I reckon the old man must of over-et."

Mrs. James came in soon-all too soon to please him-but he reported to her his message to Claywall. "A doctor will be down on 'the Cannonball' about five o'clock," he added.

"That's very kind and thoughtful of you," said the girl. Then she explained to Mrs. James that Mr. Pierce had just driven off a horrid band of cowboys who were attacking the town.

The landlady snorted with contempt. "I'm so used to boozy cowboys howlin' round, I don't bat an eye when they shoot up the street. They're all a lot of cheap skates, anyway. You want to swat 'em with the mop if they come round; that's the way I do."

Roy was nettled by her tone, for he was now very anxious to pose as a valorous defender of the innocent; but agreed with her that "the boys were just having a little 'whiz' as they started home; they didn't mean no harm."

"Ought I to sit in there?" the girl asked the woman, with a glance toward the inner room.

"No; I don't think you can do any good. I'll just keep an eye on him and let you know if they's any change."

The girl apologized for the looks of the kitchen. "Poor uncle has been so feeble lately he couldn't keep things in order, and I haven't had any chance since I came. If you don't mind, I'll rid things up now; it'll keep my mind occupied."

"YOU'RE PRETTY SWIFT, AREN'T YOU?" SHE SAID, CUTTINGLYToList

"Good idea!" exclaimed Roy. "I'll help."

He had been in a good many exciting mix-ups with steers, bears, cayuses, sheriffs' posses, and Indians, but this was easily the most stirring and amazing hour of his life. While his pony slowly slid away up the hill to feed, he, with flapping gun and rattling spurs, swept, polished, and lifted things for Lida-that was her name-Lida Converse.

"My folks live in Colorado Springs," she explained in answer to his questions. "My mother is not very well, and father is East, so I had to come. Uncle Dan was pretty bad when I got here, only not like he is now. This fit came on after the doctor went away at nine."

"I'm glad your father was East," declared the raider, who was unable to hold to a serious view of the matter, now that he was in the midst of a charming and intimate conversation. "Just think-if he had 'a' come, I'd never have seen you!"

She faced him in surprise and disapproval of his boldness. "You're pretty swift, aren't you?" she said, cuttingly.

"A feller's got to be in this country," he replied, jauntily.

She was prepared to be angry with him, but his candid, humorous, admiring gaze disarmed her. "You've been very nice," she said, "and I feel very grateful; but I guess you better not say any more such things to me-to-night."

"You mustn't forget I chased off them redskins."

"You said they were cowboys."

"Of course I did; I wanted to calm your mind."

She was a little puzzled by his bluffing. "I don't believe there are any Indians over here."

"Well, if they were cowboys, they were a fierce lot."

She considered. "I've told you I feel grateful. What more can I do?"

"A good deal; but, as you say, that can go over till to-morrow. Did I tell you that I had a bunch of cattle of my own?"

"I don't remember of it."

"Well, I have. I'm not one of these crazy cowboys who blows in all his wad on faro and drink-not on your life! I've got some ready chink stacked away in a Claywall bank. Want to see my bank-book?"

She answered, curtly: "Please take that kettle of slop out and empty it. And what time did you say the express was due?"

Roy was absorbed, ecstatic. He virtually forgot all the rest of the world. His herders could ride to the north pole, his pony might starve, the Cannonball Express go over the cliff, the postmaster die, so long as he was left in service to this princess.

"Lord A'mighty! wasn't I in luck?" he repeated to himself. "Suppose I'd 'a' roped her instead of the old man!"

When he returned from listening for the train he found her washing her hands at the end of her task, and the room in such order as it had never known before. The sight of her standing there, flushed and very womanly, rolling down her sleeves, was more than the young fellow could silently observe.

"I hope the old man'll be a long time getting well," he said, abruptly.

"That's a nice thing to say! What do you mean by such a cruel wish?"

"I see my finish when you go away. No more lonely ranch-life for me."

"If you start in on that talk again I will not speak to you," she declared, and she meant it.

"All right, I'll shut up; but I want to tell you I'm a trailer for keeps, and you can't lose me, no matter where you go. From this time on I forget everything in the world but you."

With a look of resolute reproof she rose and joined Mrs. James in the inner room, leaving Roy cowed and a good deal alarmed.

"I reckon I'm a little too swift," he admitted; "but, oh, my soul! she's a peach!"

When the train whistled, Lida came out again. "Will you please go to meet the doctor?" she asked, with no trace of resentment in her manner.

"Sure thing; I was just about starting," he replied, instantly.

While he was gone she asked Mrs. James if she knew the young man, and was much pleased to find that the sharp-tongued landlady had only good words to say of Roy Pierce.

"He's no ordinary cowboy," she explained. "If he makes up to you you needn't shy."

"Who said he was making up to me? I never saw him before."

"I want to know! Well, anybody could see with half an eye that he was naturally rustlin' round you. I thought you'd known each other for years."

This brought tears of mortification to the girl's eyes. "I didn't mean to be taken that way. Of course I couldn't help being grateful, after all he'd done; but I think it's a shame to be so misunderstood. It's mean and low down of him-and poor uncle so sick."

"Now don't make a hill out of an ant-heap," said the old woman, vigorously. "No harm's done. You're a mighty slick girl, and these boys don't see many like you out here in the sage-brush and pi?ons. Facts are, you're kind o' upsettin' to a feller like Roy. You make him kind o' drunk-like. He don't mean to be sassy."

"Well, I wish you'd tell him not to do anything more for me. I don't want to get any deeper in debt to him."

The Claywall physician came into the little room as silently as a Piute. He was a plump, dark little man of impassive mien, but seemed to know his business. He drove the girl out of the room, but drafted Mrs. James and Roy into service.

"It's merely a case of indigestion," said he; "but it's plenty serious enough. You see, the distended stomach pressing against the heart-"

The girl, sitting in the kitchen and hearing the swift and vigorous movement within, experienced a revulsion to the awe and terror of the midnight. For the second time in her life death had come very close to her, but in this case her terror was shot through with the ruddy sympathy of a handsome, picturesque young cavalier. She could not be really angry with him, though she was genuinely shocked by his reckless disregard of the proprieties; for he came at such a dark and lonely and helpless hour, and his prompt and fearless action in silencing those dreadful cowboys was heroic. Therefore, when the doctor sent Roy out to say that her uncle would live, a part of her relief and joy shone upon the young rancher, who was correspondingly exalted.

"Now you must let me hang round till he gets well," he said, forgetful of all other duties.

"That reminds me. You'll need some breakfast," she said, hurriedly; "for here comes the sun." And as she spoke the light of the morning streamed like a golden river into the little room.

"It's me to the wood-pile, then," cried Roy, and his smile was of a piece with the sunshine on the wall.

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