Chapter XI. Gwen's Challenge
 

Gwen was undoubtedly wild and, as The Sky Pilot said, wilful and wicked. Even Bronco Bill and Hi Kendal would say so, without, of course, abating one jot of their admiration for her. For fourteen years she had lived chiefly with wild things. The cattle on the range, wild as deer, the coyotes, the jack-rabbits and the timber wolves were her mates and her instructors. From these she learned her wild ways. The rolling prairie of the Foothill country was her home. She loved it and all things that moved upon it with passionate love, the only kind she was capable of. And all summer long she spent her days riding up and down the range alone, or with her father, or with Joe, or, best of all, with The Duke, her hero and her friend. So she grew up strong, wholesome and self-reliant, fearing nothing alive and as untamed as a yearling range colt.

She was not beautiful. The winds and sun had left her no complexion to speak of, but the glory of her red hair, gold-red, with purple sheen, nothing could tarnish. Her eyes, too, deep blue with rims of gray, that flashed with the glint of steel or shone with melting light as of the stars, according to her mood--those Irish, warm, deep eyes of hers were worth a man's looking at.

Of course, all spoiled her. Ponka and her son Joe grovelled in abjectest adoration, while her father and all who came within touch of her simply did her will. Even The Duke, who loved her better than anything else, yielded lazy, admiring homage to his Little Princess, and certainly, when she stood straight up with her proud little gold-crowned head thrown back, flashing forth wrath or issuing imperious commands, she looked a princess, all of her.

It was a great day and a good day for her when she fished The Sky Pilot out of the Swan and brought him home, and the night of Gwen's first "prayers," when she heard for the first time the story of the Man of Nazareth, was the best of all her nights up to that time. All through the winter, under The Pilot's guidance, she, with her father, the Old Timer, listening near, went over and over that story so old now to many, but ever becoming new, till a whole new world of mysterious Powers and Presences lay open to her imagination and became the home of great realities. She was rich in imagination and, when The Pilot read Bunyan's immortal poem, her mother's old "Pilgrim's Progress," she moved and lived beside the hero of that tale, backing him up in his fights and consumed with anxiety over his many impending perils, till she had him safely across the river and delivered into the charge of the shining ones.

The Pilot himself, too, was a new and wholesome experience. He was the first thing she had yet encountered that refused submission, and the first human being that had failed to fall down and worship. There was something in him that would not always yield, and, indeed, her pride and her imperious tempers he met with surprise and sometimes with a pity that verged toward contempt. With this she was not well pleased and not infrequently she broke forth upon him. One of these outbursts is stamped upon my mind, not only because of its unusual violence, but chiefly because of the events which followed. The original cause of her rage was some trifling misdeed of the unfortunate Joe; but when I came upon the scene it was The Pilot who was occupying her attention. The expression of surprise and pity on his face appeared to stir her up.

"How dare you look at me like that?" she cried.

"How very extraordinary that you can't keep hold of yourself better!" he answered.

"I can!" she stamped, "and I shall do as I like!"

"It is a great pity," he said, with provoking calm, "and besides, it is weak and silly." His words were unfortunate.

"Weak!" she gasped, when her breath came back to her. "Weak!"

"Yes," he said, "very weak and childish."

Then she could have cheerfully put him to a slow and cruel death. When she had recovered a little she cried vehemently:

"I'm not weak! I'm strong! I'm stronger than you are! I'm strong as--as--a man!"

I do not suppose she meant the insinuation; at any rate The Pilot ignored it and went on.

"You're not strong enough to keep your temper down." And then, as she had no reply ready, he went on, "And really, Gwen, it is not right. You must not go on in this way."

Again his words were unfortunate.

"Must not!" she cried, adding an inch to her height. "Who says so?"

"God!" was the simple, short answer.

She was greatly taken back, and gave a quick glance over her shoulder as if to see Him, who would dare to say must not to her; but, recovering, she answered sullenly:

"I don't care!"

"Don't care for God?" The Pilot's voice was quiet and solemn, but something in his manner angered her, and she blazed forth again.

"I don't care for anyone, and I shall do as I like."

The Pilot looked at her sadly for a moment, and then said slowly:

"Some day, Gwen, you will not be able to do as you like."

I remember well the settled defiance in her tone and manner as she took a step nearer him and answered in a voice trembling with passion:

"Listen! I have always done as I like, and I shall do as I like till I die!" And she rushed forth from the house and down toward the canyon, her refuge from all disturbing things, and chiefly from herself.

I could not shake off the impression her words made upon me. "Pretty direct, that," I said to The Pilot, as we rode away. "The declaration may be philosophically correct, but it rings uncommonly like a challenge to the Almighty. Throws down the gauntlet, so to speak."

But The Pilot only said, "Don't! How can you?"

Within a week her challenge was accepted, and how fiercely and how gallantly did she struggle to make it good!

It was The Duke that brought me the news, and as he told me the story his gay, careless self-command for once was gone. For in the gloom of the canyon where he overtook me I could see his face gleaming out ghastly white, and even his iron nerve could not keep the tremor from his voice.

"I've just sent up the doctor," was his answer to my greeting. "I looked for you last night, couldn't find you, and so rode off to the Fort."

"What's up?" I said, with fear in my heart, for no light thing moved The Duke.

"Haven't you heard? It's Gwen," he said, and the next minute or two he gave to Jingo, who was indulging in a series of unexpected plunges. When Jingo was brought down, The Duke was master of himself and told his tale with careful self-control.

Gwen, on her father's buckskin bronco, had gone with The Duke to the big plain above the cut-bank where Joe was herding the cattle. The day was hot and a storm was in the air. They found Joe riding up and down, singing to keep the cattle quiet, but having a hard time to hold the bunch from breaking. While The Duke was riding around the far side of the bunch, a cry from Gwen arrested his attention. Joe was in trouble. His horse, a half-broken cayuse, had stumbled into a badger-hole and had bolted, leaving Joe to the mercy of the cattle. At once they began to sniff suspiciously at this phenomenon, a man on foot, and to follow cautiously on his track. Joe kept his head and walked slowly out, till all at once a young cow began to bawl and to paw the ground. In another minute one, and then another of the cattle began to toss their heads and bunch and bellow till the whole herd of two hundred were after Joe. Then Joe lost his head and ran. Immediately the whole herd broke into a thundering gallop with heads and tails aloft and horns rattling like the loading of a regiment of rifles.

"Two more minutes," said The Duke, "would have done for Joe, for I could never have reached him; but, in spite of my most frantic warnings and signalings, right into the face of that mad, bellowing, thundering mass of steers rode that little girl. Nerve! I have some myself, but I couldn't have done it. She swung her horse round Joe and sailed out with him, with the herd bellowing at the tail of her bronco. I've seen some cavalry things in my day, but for sheer cool bravery nothing touches that."

"How did it end? Did they run them down?" I asked, with terror at such a result.

"No, they crowded her toward the cut-bank, and she was edging them off and was almost past, when they came to a place where the bank bit in, and her iron-mouthed brute wouldn't swerve, but went pounding on, broke through, plunged; she couldn't spring free because of Joe, and pitched headlong over the bank, while the cattle went thundering past. I flung myself off Jingo and slid down somehow into the sand, thirty feet below. Here was Joe safe enough, but the bronco lay with a broken leg, and half under him was Gwen. She hardly knew she was hurt, but waved her hand to me and cried out, 'Wasn't that a race? I couldn't swing this hard- headed brute. Get me out.' But even as she spoke the light faded from her eyes, she stretched out her hands to me, saying faintly, 'Oh, Duke,' and lay back white and still. We put a bullet into the buckskin's head, and carried her home in our jackets, and there she lies without a sound from her poor, white lips."

The Duke was badly cut up. I had never seen him show any sign of grief before, but as he finished the story he stood ghastly and shaking. He read my surprise in my face and said:

"Look here, old chap, don't think me quite a fool. You can't know what that little girl has done for me these years. Her trust in me--it is extraordinary how utterly she trusts me--somehow held me up to my best and back from perdition. It is the one bright spot in my life in this blessed country. Everyone else thinks me a pleasant or unpleasant kind of fiend."

I protested rather faintly.

"Oh, don't worry your conscience," he answered, with a slight return of his old smile, "a fuller knowledge would only justify the opinion." Then, after a pause, he added: "But if Gwen goes, I must pull out, I could not stand it."

As we rode up, the doctor came out.

"Well, what do you think?" asked The Duke.

"Can't say yet," replied the old doctor, gruff with long army practice, "bad enough. Good night."

But The Duke's hand fell upon his shoulder with a grip that must have got to the bone, and in a husky voice he asked:

"Will she live?"

The doctor squirmed, but could not shake off that crushing grip.

"Here, you young tiger, let go! What do you think I am made of?" he cried, angrily. "I didn't suppose I was coming to a bear's den, or I should have brought a gun."

It was only by the most complete apology that The Duke could mollify the old doctor sufficiently to get his opinion.

"No, she will not die! Great bit of stuff! Better she should die, perhaps! But can't say yet for two weeks. Now remember," he added sharply, looking into The Duke's woe-stricken face, "her spirits must be kept up. I have lied most fully and cheerfully to them inside; you must do the same," and the doctor strode away, calling out:

"Joe! Here, Joe! Where is he gone? Joe, I say! Extraordinary selection Providence makes at times; we could have spared that lazy half-breed with pleasure! Joe! Oh, here you are! Where in thunder--" But here the doctor stopped abruptly. The agony in the dark face before him was too much even for the bluff doctor. Straight and stiff Joe stood by the horse's head till the doctor had mounted, then with a great effort he said:

"Little miss, she go dead?"

"Dead!" called out the doctor, glancing at the open window. "Why, bless your old copper carcass, no! Gwen will show you yet how to rope a steer."

Joe took a step nearer, and lowering his tone said:

"You speak me true? Me man, Me no papoose." The piercing black eyes searched the doctor's face. The doctor hesitated a moment, and then, with an air of great candor, said cheerily:

"That's all right, Joe. Miss Gwen will cut circles round your old cayuse yet. But remember," and the doctor was very impressive, "you must make her laugh every day."

Joe folded his arms across his breast and stood like a statue till the doctor rode away; then turning to us he grunted out:

"Him good man, eh?"

"Good man," answered The Duke, adding, "but remember, Joe, what he told you to do. Must make her laugh every day."

Poor Joe! Humor was not his forte, and his attempt in this direction in the weeks that followed would have been humorous were they not so pathetic. How I did my part I cannot tell. Those weeks are to me now like the memory of an ugly nightmare. The ghostly old man moving out and in of his little daughter's room in useless, dumb agony; Ponka's woe-stricken Indian face; Joe's extraordinary and unusual but loyal attempts at fun-making grotesquely sad, and The Duke's unvarying and invincible cheeriness; these furnish light and shade for the picture my memory brings me of Gwen in those days.

For the first two weeks she was simply heroic. She bore her pain without a groan, submitted to the imprisonment which was harder than pain with angelic patience. Joe, The Duke and I carried out our instructions with careful exactness to the letter. She never doubted, and we never let her doubt but that in a few weeks she would be on the pinto's back again and after the cattle. She made us pass our word for this till it seemed as if she must have read the falsehoods on our brows.

"To lie cheerfully with her eyes upon one's face calls for more than I possess," said The Duke one day. "The doctor should supply us tonics. It is an arduous task."

And she believed us absolutely, and made plans for the fall "round- up," and for hunts and rides till one's heart grew sick. As to the ethical problem involved, I decline to express an opinion, but we had no need to wait for our punishment. Her trust in us, her eager and confident expectation of the return of her happy, free, outdoor life; these brought to us, who knew how vain they were, their own adequate punishment for every false assurance we gave. And how bright and brave she was those first days! How resolute to get back to the world of air and light outside!

But she had need of all her brightness and courage and resolution before she was done with her long fight.