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   Chapter 11 THE SHEEP HERDER’S CABIN

Dorothy on a Ranch By Evelyn Raymond Characters: 19647

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


When, in the delirium of fever, Jim Barlow strayed from his room at San Leon, the one idea in his mind was that the mountains called him. One distant peak, in especial, seemed imbued with life, using human speech and gesture-warning him to come, and come at once, lest some terrible thing befall him. He must obey! He must-he must!

He set off at a run, his bare feet unconsciously seeking the smooth driveway of the home-piece, and following it at breakneck speed till it ended in the road below the mesa. There the rougher going hindered him somewhat, but not greatly, and he kept to the highway till it reached a river and a bridge.

Beyond the bridge the road divided into three forks, the northern one ascending steadily toward the peak to which his fancy still fixed itself and he struck off upon this. How long he travelled he did not know, though his unnatural strength due to his fever must have lasted for hours. Gradually, that fierce, inward excitement that drove him on gave place to a sudden weariness, and he dropped like a stone on the spot where it overcame him.

As the morning rose, clear and bright, a company of horsemen, riding in single file toward a distant pass, came upon a prostrate, nearly naked figure lying in their path. The horsemen were Ute Indians, and like many of their white brothers, were prospecting for gold. All sorts of precious metals were to be found in these Rocky mountains, and were their own rightful inheritance. They were peaceably inclined to share and share alike with the pale faces. For years there had been friendship between them and the red men had learned many things from the white. Not the least had been this craving for gold; and where once they would have toiled only in the chase, to shoot and kill the game with which the mountains abounded, they now longed for the glittering stones hidden within them.

But they were in no haste. The gold was hidden-it would keep, and they had ridden all night long. So, at sight of poor Jim, lying motionless, they dismounted and discussed him.

"He is dead," said the foremost, in his own tongue which, of course, the lad would not have understood, even if he had heard.

Another stooped down and turned the boy's face upward. It was scratched with the underbrush through which he had made his way and the light garments he wore were in shreds. His feet were swollen and bruised and the bandages had been torn from his arm.

"Not dead. Might as well be. Heap bad," said another Indian, gravely shaking his head.

There were four in the party and one of them filled a cup at a nearby spring and dashed the water over the lad's face. His fit of exhaustion was about over, anyway, and the shock of the ice-cold water revived him, so that he opened his eyes and looked into the dark face bent above him.

But there was no intelligence in this look and presently his lids drooped and he was once more oblivious to all about him.

The Indians held a consultation. Three were for going on, after they had breakfasted, and leaving the vagrant to his fate. One was for giving help and, being the leader of the party as well as a red-skinned "Good Samaritan," his counsel prevailed.

When they resumed the trail, Jim Barlow was carried with them, very much like a sack of meal across a saddle bow. But carried-not left to die.

When he again opened his eyes, and this time with consciousness in them, he was in a small shanty, rude in the extreme; and his bed a pile of hemlock boughs spread with a woollen blanket. He lay for some time trying to think where he was and what had happened to him, and idly watching the bent figure of a man sitting just outside the doorway of the hut. The man was smoking and a little boy was playing in the sand at his feet.

Jim couldn't see anything interesting in these two strangers nor in the cabin itself and, with a feeling of great weakness, closed his eyes once more, and for many hours of sound, refreshing sleep. When for the third time he awoke his senses had returned and only the weakness remained. He tried to speak and after several efforts succeeded in asking, audibly:

"Where am I?"

At sound of his voice the man outside rose and came to the boy, nodding his head in satisfaction but in silence.

"Where-am-I?" asked Jim, again.

The man shook his head. By his appearance he was Mexican, but he wore an Indian costume of buckskin, once gaily decorated and fringed but now worn and very dirty. His straight black hair hung low over his forehead and his hands looked as if they had never seen water. His face was not ugly, neither was it kind; and he seemed more stolid than stupid.

"Where-am-I? Who are you?" again demanded Jim, trying to get up, but instantly sinking back from utter weakness.

There was no answer; but, after a long contemplation of his guest, the Mexican crossed to a little stove, wherein a few sticks were burning. From a rusty coffee pot which stood upon it, he poured some liquid into a tin cup and brought it to the lad.

Jim tried to sit up and take the cup into his own hand but he could not; so, with unexpected gentleness, the man slipped his arm under his patient's shoulders and raised him to a half-sitting posture. Then he held the cup to Jim's lips, who drank eagerly, the muddy coffee seeming like nectar to his dry, parched throat.

The drink refreshed him but he was still too weak to rise, or even care to do so. Dozing and waking, wondering a little over his situation yet mostly indifferent to everything, the hours passed.

Jim's interest was next aroused by the man's dressing of his arm. He did this with real skill, removing the big leaves of some healing plant, with which it had been bound, and replacing these with fresh ones, confining them in place by long strips of split reeds.

The soft, cool leaves were wonderfully comforting and with the easing of the pain serious thoughts came. To the injured lad everything now seemed a blank from the evening meal at San Leon, after his arrival there, until now. Why he had left that ranch and why he had come to this queer place he could not imagine; but the picture of the beautiful, mission-like house was distinct, and of Dorothy walking across its lawn beside him.

Dorothy! It seemed a long time since he had seen her or heard her sweet voice chide him for his misdoings. Why-now he remembered-he hadn't said good-night to Dorothy, his first faithful friend. But it is needless to follow the gropings of Jim's mind back to the realization of his present situation. Yet the first and strongest feeling which possessed him was that he must tell Dorothy where he was. Dolly was such a hand to worry, silly Dolly! And she was his best, earliest friend.

The Mexican brought him his breakfast of bacon and corn bread, with another cup of that coffee which always stood upon the stove. A child came with the man and gazed at Jim with solemn, wondering eyes.

Jim returned the stare with interest. This was the first small Indian he had ever seen and to judge by the little fellow's face he might have been an old, old man-he was so grave and dignified.

"How are you, sonny?" said Jim.

The midget simply blinked.

"Can't you talk, kid?" again questioned the stranger, holding out his hand.

The little boy did not answer, save by placing his own chubby, extremely dirty hand on Jim's extended palm.

"Good. You're friendly, if you are dumb. Sort of needs washin', don't it? Water. Can you bring me some water? I'm thirsty."

The child walked to a big tank, or half-barrel, outside the door and dipped the tin coffee cup within it. But he was too short to reach the low supply and giving himself an extra hitch upwards, over the edge, the better to obtain the draught, he lost his balance and fell in head first.

Jim's low bed commanded a view of this and he started to rescue the youngster, but the man was before him. He treated the accident as if it were an ordinary occurrence, pulling the child out by the seat of his leather breeches, shaking him as one might a wet puppy, and setting him on his feet without a word. Indeed, words seemed the most precious commodity in that queer shanty, so rarely were they used. But the father, if such he were, himself filled the cup with the stale water and gave it to the child, who carried it to Jim as calmly as if no trouble had attended his getting it.

"Thank you, boy. What's your name?"

"Name-José," said the man answering for him. He pronounced it "Ho-say," and Jim was pleased. Knowing that he might meet people who spoke Spanish, in this trip west, the studious lad had brought a Spanish grammar along with him on the train and had glanced into it whenever he had a chance. Of course, he could not speak it himself, nor understand it well, nor was the dialect here in use very much like the correct language of the grammar.

"José, where is this place?"

The child stared. Then suddenly went out of doors and returned with a baby lamb in his arms. He plumped this down upon Jim's breast and smiled for the first time. The lamb was his latest, greatest treasure and, in his childish sympathy, he offered it to the "hurted man." With his good arm, Jim made the little animal more comfortable, while José vanished without again. This time he returned with a fine basket of Indian workmanship, and this was filled in part by glittering stones and in part by flowers. All these he deposited on the bed beside the lamb, and folded his arms behind him in profound satisfaction. He had done his very best. He had given the sick one all his things. If that didn't cure him it would be no further business of José's.

The man of the house had now seated himself beside the stove. He placed an earthen pan beside him on the clay floor and laid a bundle of rushes be

side it. Also, he took down from a peg in the wall an unfinished basket, and reseating himself, proceeded to weave upon it. He used only the finest of splits, torn from the reeds, almost like thread in their delicacy and he worked very slowly. From time to time he held the basket from him, studying its appearance with half-closed eyes, as an artist studies a picture. Frequently, he lifted the coffee pot to his lips and drank from its spout.

Jim watched him in silent admiration of his deftness with the weaving and in disgust at his use of the coffee pot-thinking he would want no more draughts from it himself. All the time his mind grew clearer and he began to form plans for telling Dorothy where he was-though he didn't know that, himself; but, at least, of letting her know he was alive. She would have to guess at the rest and she would surely trust him to come back when he could.

When the weaver looked up again Jim beckoned him to approach. Rather reluctantly, he did so. For his own part he was getting tired of this helpless lad, left in his hut by White Feather, his Ute brother-in-law. If Moon Face were living, the Ute maiden who had been his wife and little José's mother, it wouldn't have mattered. To her would have fallen the care. Nothing had gone right with him, Alaric, the sheep herder, since Moon Face fell ill and died, though he went often to that far place in the forest where her body had been secretly buried in the crevice of a great rock. Moon Face had left him for a few days' visit to a camp of her relatives and there had taken the small-pox and died, despite the fact that she had been treated by the wisest medicine men and immersed in the sweat-box, the Indian cure for all ills. If he had been near enough to such a thing, or had had energy enough to prepare it up here at his home, Alaric would promptly have subjected poor Jim to similar treatment.

As it was, the isolation of Alaric's hut and his laziness saved the wanderer from this. Now, as he obeyed the boy's summons, he was brooding over his misfortunes and was more grim even than usual.

"Well, young man?"

Jim was surprised. The man had been so silent, hitherto, that he imagined they two had no language in common.

"So you speak English! That makes it easy. I want to send a message to the place I-I left. Will you take it?"

Alaric shook his head, firmly declining.

"Don't get ugly. If you won't go, will you send somebody?"

The Mexican pretended that his English did not go so far as this. He obstinately would not understand.

Then followed a long argument which greatly wearied Jim and simply failed of its object. At last, he named "San Leon" and Alaric's expression brightened. That was the place where there was plenty of money and the sheep herder loved money. He had been there. It was not far away, by a road he knew, yet he did not care to go there again, himself. There had been a transaction of horses that wasn't pleasant to remember. Old Lem Hunt had accused him of being a thief, once on a time, when some thoroughbreds had been missing from the San Leon corrals, and Alaric had had hard work to prove his innocence. He had been obliged to prove it because, in Colorado, men were still sometimes inclined to take justice in their own hands and not wait for the law to do it for them.

The truth was that the sheep herder had not, personally, taken a single steed from San Leon. He had merely "assisted" some of his Indian friends to do so. He had even carefully kept all knowledge of the affair from the ears of his brother-in-law, White Feather; a man who indeed loved fine horseflesh, as all the Utes did, but preferred to increase his herds by legitimate trading.

The other Indians, whom Alaric had "assisted," had paid their assistant in honest gold-he wouldn't take any other sort of payment-and there had been more gold changing hands in order to secure the real thieves. And because he loved the gold Alaric had thus assisted both sides and received double pay. Also, he had left an unsavory memory of himself at San Leon as well as offended his Ute relatives; and White Feather not only prevented harm being done to his Mexican brother-in-law, but also used the occasion to make Alaric subject to himself. Thus it was that he had made the sheep herder take in the sick lad he had found on the trail and swear to be kind to him.

"San Lean? Si.... En verdad. Well, se?or?"

If this injured, half-naked youth had hailed from that rich man's ranch it might be worth while to hearken to what he wished.

"I want to tell a girl there that I am not dead. I want to send just that message, till I can go there myself. Do this for me and I will-will pay you-when I can."

Alaric considered. From present appearances there seemed small chance of Jim's ever paying anybody for any service. Yet-there was White Feather to please and there was possible payment at San Leon. He nodded acquiescence.

"Then get me somethin' to write on!" begged Jim, vastly excited by this chance to set himself right with his friends.

He might as well have asked for the moon. Writing was not an accomplishment of Alaric's and he had never owned a scrap of paper fit for such use. Yet the longer he pondered the matter the more willing the man became. Finally, he took José upon his knee, and, emphasizing each word of instruction by a stern forefinger and a threat of fearful punishment for disobedience, he instilled into the little fellow's mind the fact that he was to go to San Leon ranch; to find there a pretty girl in a white dress; a girl with big brown eyes and dark curly hair. A girl who was always laughing and who always wore a red bow on her head. He, Alaric, would go with his son as far as the cypress hedge, bordering the west side of the lake. There he would wait for the child to do his errand and return, and would himself be out of sight of that old sharpshooter, whom he feared.

He had another inspiration-of generosity and greed commingled. That lamb of José's. He could afford to give that away because it wasn't his own, nor even really the little one's. It belonged to the rich ranch owner whose sheep he herded, up here on the lonely mountain. The girl for whom this sick boy wished a message might like the lamb and give the papoose money for it. Money would be far better for José than any pet.

After this course of silent reasoning, Alaric bestirred himself to action. He had often had to make his "mark" upon some paper of agreement, the nearest to writing that he could come. He understood that Jim wished to make his own now. So, selecting a bit of glittering stone that was fairly smooth, he handed it to the lad, and afterward crushed the stem of a plant which exuded a red juice. With this other sharp pointed bit of stone dipped in this juice, anybody might make as many "marks" as he chose upon the flat stone.

Jim was quick to understand the suggestion but real writing was out of the question. The best he could accomplish was that D which was in his peculiar hand. By signs, more than words, Alaric expressed the whole matter; and Jim eagerly caught at the suggestion. The lamb would be a pretty gift for Dorothy and would tell her better than words that he remembered her and was safe. Only-the little animal was like everything else seen in this cabin-so dirty! He couldn't send it to dainty Dorothy in such condition. In a few words he explained to the shepherd his ideas about it and was amused by the infinite contempt shown on Alaric's face.

However, he made short work of that matter. He was now impatient to be off, the sooner to get that possible payment of gold; and remembered that White Feather had commanded him to serve the sick stranger to the best of his ability. With a flippant gesture he seized the lamb and carried it to the tank outside the door; and sousing it up and down till its dusty fleece was white and itself nearly drowned, he threw it on Jim's bed to dry.

José found his voice and jabbered in a mixture of Spanish and Indian, expressing his pity for his pet; then brought handfuls of grass and leaves to rub it with. This vigorous attention, in which Jim used his own sound arm, soon restored the lambkin to a beauty that surprised them all. More grass and flowers were put in the bottom of the basket with the marked stone, the lamb upon this cushion, and the cover fastened on.

Alaric informed Jim that such a basket was worth a great deal of money. He had learned the art of making such from Moon Face, who had travelled sometimes to the distant railway line and sold them to tourists. It was so tightly woven it would hold water; and in his pride over his handiwork the weaver would have poured a dipper of it into the basket to prove his statement.

"No, no! The poor little thing has had more than its share of water! Best save the rest for yourself!" protested Jim, with a feeble attempt at a joke.

Alaric desisted then, hung the dipper back on the tank, seized the basket in one hand and José in the other and strode away. The last glimpse Jim had of them showed poor little José's fat legs being swung along, touching the ground only now and then, as they utterly failed to keep up with his father's pace.

Left alone, Jim lay still a long time, idly fingering some bits of rock which the child had scattered upon his blanket. He felt very cold; and again, in another moment, he seemed to be burning up. He thought of the water in the tank. He was desperately thirsty, his throat growing dry, his lips swelling; and alternately he longed to dip his head in that barrel and drink-drink-drink! then shivered with disgust remembering the various uses the stale fluid had been put to. Finally, sleep, or unconsciousness, overcame him and for many days he knew no more.

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