Chapter IX. Gwen
 

It was not many days after my arrival in the Foothill country that I began to hear of Gwen. They all had stories of her. The details were not many, but the impression was vivid. She lived remote from that centre of civilization known as Swan Creek in the postal guide, but locally as Old Latour's, far up among the hills near the Devil's Lake, and from her father's ranch she never ventured. But some of the men had had glimpses of her and had come to definite opinions regarding her.

"What is she like?" I asked Bill one day, trying to pin him down to something like a descriptive account of her.

"Like! She's a terrer," he said, with slow emphasis, "a holy terrer."

"But what is she like? What does she look like?" I asked impatiently.

"Look like?" He considered a moment, looked slowly round as if searching for a simile, then answered: "I dunno."

"Don't know? What do you mean? Haven't you seen her?"

"Yeh! But she ain't like nothin'."

Bill was quite decided upon this point.

I tried again.

"Well, what sort of hair has she got? She's got hair, I suppose?"

"Hayer! Well, a few!" said Bill, with some choice combinations of profanity in repudiation of my suggestion. "Yards of it! Red!"

"Git out!" contradicted Hi. "Red! Tain't no more red than mine!"

Bill regarded Hi's hair critically.

"What color do you put onto your old brush?" he asked cautiously.

"'Tain't no difference. 'Tain't red, anyhow."

"Red! Well, not quite exactly," and Bill went off into a low, long, choking chuckle, ejaculating now and then, "Red! Jee-mi-ny Ann! Red!"

"No, Hi," he went on, recovering himself with the same abruptness as he used with his bronco, and looking at his friend with a face even more than usually solemn, "your hayer ain't red, Hi; don't let any of your relatives persuade you to that. 'Tain't red!" and he threatened to go off again, but pulled himself up with dangerous suddenness. "It may be blue, cerulyum blue or even purple, but red--!" He paused violently, looking at his friend as if he found him a new and interesting object of study upon which he could not trust himself to speak. Nor could he be induced to proceed with the description he had begun.

But Hi, paying no attention to Bill's oration, took up the subject with enthusiasm.

"She kin ride--she's a reg'lar buster to ride, ain't she, Bill?" Bill nodded. "She kin bunch cattle an' cut out an' yank a steer up to any cowboy on the range."

"Why, how big is she?"

"Big? Why, she's just a kid! 'Tain't the bigness of her, it's the nerve. She's got the coldest kind of nerve you ever seen. Hain't she, Bill?" And again Bill nodded.

"'Member the day she dropped that steer, Bill?" went on Hi.

"What was that?" I asked, eager for a yarn.

"Oh, nuthin'," said Bill.

"Nuthin'!" retorted Hi. "Pretty big nuthin'!"

"What was it?" I urged.

"Oh, Bill here did some funny work at old Meredith's round-up, but he don't speak of it. He's shy, you see," and Hi grinned.

"Well, there ain't no occasion for your proceedin' onto that tact," said Bill disgustedly, and Hi loyally refrained, so I have never yet got the rights of the story. But from what I did hear I gathered that Bill, at the risk of his life, had pulled The Duke from under the hoofs of a mad steer, and that little Gwen had, in the coolest possible manner, "sailed in on her bronco" and, by putting two bullets into the steer's head, had saved them both from great danger, perhaps from death, for the rest of the cattle were crowding near. Of course Bill could never be persuaded to speak of the incident. A true western man will never hesitate to tell you what he can do, but of what he has done he does not readily speak.

The only other item that Hi contributed to the sketch of Gwen was that her temper could blaze if the occasion demanded.

"'Member young Hill, Bill?"

Bill "'membered."

"Didn't she cut into him sudden? Sarved him right, too."

"What did she do?"

"Cut him across the face with her quirt in good style."

"What for?"

"Knockin' about her Indian Joe."

Joe was, as I came to learn, Ponka's son and Gwen's most devoted slave.

"Oh, she ain't no refrigerator."

"Yes," assented Bill. "She's a leetle swift." Then, as if fearing he had been apologizing for her, he added, with the air of one settling the question: "But she's good stock! She suits me!"

The Duke helped me to another side of her character.

"She is a remarkable child," he said, one day. "Wild and shy as a coyote, but fearless, quite; and with a heart full of passions. Meredith, the Old Timer, you know, has kept her up there among the hills. She sees no one but himself and Ponka's Blackfeet relations, who treat her like a goddess and help to spoil her utterly. She knows their lingo and their ways--goes off with them for a week at a time."

"What! With the Blackfeet?"

"Ponka and Joe, of course, go along; but even without them she is as safe as if surrounded by the Coldstream Guards, but she has given them up for some time now."

"And at home?" I asked. "Has she any education? Can she read or write?"

"Not she. She can make her own dresses, moccasins and leggings. She can cook and wash--that is, when she feels in the mood. And she knows all about the birds and beasts and flowers and that sort of thing, but--education! Why, she is hardly civilized!"

"What a shame!" I said. "How old is she?"

"Oh, a mere child; fourteen or fifteen, I imagine; but a woman in many things."

"And what does her father say to all this? Can he control her?"

"Control!" said The Duke, in utter astonishment. "Why, bless your soul, nothing in heaven or earth could control her. Wait till you see her stand with her proud little head thrown back, giving orders to Joe, and you will never again connect the idea of control with Gwen. She might be a princess for the pride of her. I've seen some, too, in my day, but none to touch her for sheer, imperial pride, little Lucifer that she is."

"And how does her father stand her nonsense?" I asked, for I confess I was not much taken with the picture The Duke had drawn.

"Her father simply follows behind her and adores, as do all things that come near her, down, or up, perhaps, to her two dogs--Wolf and Loo--for either of which she would readily die if need be. Still," he added, after a pause, "it is a shame, as you say. She ought to know something of the refinements of civilization, to which, after all, she belongs, and from which none of us can hope to escape." The Duke was silent for a few moments, and then added, with some hesitation: "Then, too, she is quite a pagan; never saw a prayer- book, you know."

And so it came about, chiefly through The Duke's influence, I imagine, that I was engaged by the Old Timer to go up to his ranch every week and teach his daughter something of the elementaries of a lady's education.

My introduction was ominous of the many things I was to suffer of that same young maiden before I had finished my course with her. The Old Timer had given careful directions as to the trail that would lead me to the canyon where he was to meet me. Up the Swan went the trail, winding ever downward into deeper and narrower coulees and up to higher open sunlit slopes, till suddenly it settled into a valley which began with great width and narrowed to a canyon whose rocky sides were dressed out with shrubs and trailing vines and wet with trickling rivulets from the numerous springs that oozed and gushed from the black, glistening rocks. This canyon was an eerie place of which ghostly tales were told from the old Blackfeet times. And to this day no Blackfoot will dare to pass through this black-walled, oozy, glistening canyon after the moon has passed the western lip. But in the warm light of broad day the canyon was a good enough place; cool and sweet, and I lingered through, waiting for the Old Timer, who failed to appear till the shadows began to darken its western black sides.

Out of the mouth of the canyon the trail climbed to a wide stretch of prairie that swept up over soft hills to the left and down to the bright gleaming waters of the Devil's Lake on the right. In the sunlight the lake lay like a gem radiant with many colors, the far side black in the shadow of the crowding pines, then in the middle deep, blue and purple, and nearer, many shades of emerald that ran quite to the white, sandy beach. Right in front stood the ranch buildings, upon a slight rising ground and surrounded by a sturdy palisade of upright pointed poles. This was the castle of the princess. I rode up to the open gate, then turned and stood to look down upon the marvellous lake shining and shimmering with its many radiant colors. Suddenly there was an awful roar, my pony shot round upon his hind legs after his beastly cayuse manner, deposited me sitting upon the ground and fled down the trail, pursued by two huge dogs that brushed past me as I fell. I was aroused from my amazement by a peal of laughter, shrill but full of music. Turning, I saw my pupil, as I guessed, standing at the head of a most beautiful pinto (spotted) pony with a heavy cattle quirt in her hand. I scrambled to my feet and said, somewhat angrily, I fear:

"What are you laughing at? Why don't you call back your dogs? They will chase my pony beyond all reach."

She lifted her little head, shook back her masses of brown-red hair, looked at me as if I were quite beneath contempt and said: "No, they will kill him."

"Then," said I, for I was very angry, "I will kill them," pulling at the revolver in my belt.

"Then," she said, and for the first time I noticed her eyes blue- black, with gray rims, "I will kill you," and she whipped out an ugly-looking revolver. From her face I had no doubt that she would not hesitate to do as she had said. I changed my tactics, for I was anxious about my pony, and said, with my best smile:

"Can't you call them back? Won't they obey you?"

Her face changed in a moment.

"Is it your pony? Do you love him very much?"

"Dearly!" I said, persuading myself of a sudden affection for the cranky little brute.

She sprang upon her pinto and set off down the trail. The pony was now coursing up and down the slopes, doubling like a hare, instinctively avoiding the canyon where he would be cornered. He was mad with terror at the huge brutes that were silently but with awful and sure swiftness running him down.

The girl on the pinto whistled shrilly, and called to her dogs: "Down, Wolf! Back, Loo!" but, running low, with long, stretched bodies, they heeded not, but sped on, ever gaining upon the pony that now circled toward the pinto. As they drew near in their circling, the girl urged her pinto to meet them, loosening her lariat as she went. As the pony neared the pinto he slackened his speed; immediately the nearer dog gathered herself in two short jumps and sprang for the pony's throat. But, even as she sprang, the lariat whirled round the girl's head and fell swift and sure about the dog's neck, and next moment she lay choking upon the prairie. Her mate paused, looked back, and gave up the chase. But dire vengeance overtook them, for, like one possessed, the girl fell upon them with her quirt and beat them one after the other till, in pity for the brutes, I interposed.

"They shall do as I say or I shall kill them! I shall kill them!" she cried, raging and stamping.

"Better shoot them," I suggested, pulling out my pistol.

Immediately she flung herself upon the one that moaned and whined at her feet, crying:

"If you dare! If you dare!" Then she burst into passionate sobbing. "You bad Loo! You bad, dear old Loo! But you were bad-- you know you were bad!" and so she went on with her arms about Loo's neck till Loo, whining and quivering with love and delight, threatened to go quite mad, and Wolf, standing majestically near, broke into short howls of impatience for his turn of caressing. They made a strange group, those three wild things, equally fierce and passionate in hate and in love.

Suddenly the girl remembered me, and standing up she said, half ashamed:

"They always obey me. They are mine, but they kill any strange thing that comes in through the gate. They are allowed to."

"It is a pleasant whim."

"What?"

"I mean, isn't that dangerous to strangers?"

"Oh, no one ever comes alone, except The Duke. And they keep off the wolves."

"The Duke comes, does he?"

"Yes!" and her eyes lit up. "He is my friend. He calls me his 'princess,' and he teaches me to talk and tells me stories--oh, wonderful stories!"

I looked in wonder at her face, so gentle, so girlish, and tried to think back to the picture of the girl who a few moments before had so coolly threatened to shoot me and had so furiously beaten her dogs.

I kept her talking of The Duke as we walked back to the gate, watching her face the while. It was not beautiful; it was too thin, and the mouth was too large. But the teeth were good, and the eyes, blue-black with gray rims, looked straight at you; true eyes and brave, whether in love or in war. Her hair was her glory. Red it was, in spite of Hi's denial, but of such marvellous, indescribable shade that in certain lights, as she rode over the prairie, it streamed behind her like a purple banner. A most confusing and bewildering color, but quite in keeping with the nature of the owner.

She gave her pinto to Joe and, standing at the door, welcomed me with a dignity and graciousness that made me think that The Duke was not far wrong when he named her "Princess."

The door opened upon the main or living room. It was a long, apartment, with low ceiling and walls of hewn logs chinked and plastered and all beautifully whitewashed and clean. The tables, chairs and benches were all home-made. On the floor were magnificent skins of wolf, bear, musk ox and mountain goat. The walls were decorated with heads and horns of deer and mountain sheep, eagles' wings and a beautiful breast of a loon, which Gwen had shot and of which she was very proud. At one end of the room a huge stone fireplace stood radiant in its summer decorations of ferns and grasses and wild-flowers. At the other end a door opened into another room, smaller and richly furnished with relics of former grandeur.

Everything was clean and well kept. Every nook, shelf and corner was decked with flowers and ferns from the canyon.

A strange house it was, full of curious contrasts, but it fitted this quaint child that welcomed me with such gracious courtesy.