The Sky Pilot by Ralph Connor
Chapter I. The Foothills Country
Beyond the great prairies and in the shadow of the Rockies lie the Foothills. For nine hundred miles the prairies spread themselves out in vast level reaches, and then begin to climb over softly rounded mounds that ever grow higher and sharper till, here and there, they break into jagged points and at last rest upon the great bases of the mighty mountains. These rounded hills that join the prairies to the mountains form the Foothill Country. They extend for about a hundred miles only, but no other hundred miles of the great West are so full of interest and romance. The natural features of the country combine the beauties of prairie and of mountain scenery. There are valleys so wide that the farther side melts into the horizon, and uplands so vast as to suggest the unbroken prairie. Nearer the mountains the valleys dip deep and ever deeper till they narrow into canyons through which mountain torrents pour their blue-gray waters from glaciers that lie glistening between the white peaks far away. Here are the great ranges on which feed herds of cattle and horses. Here are the homes of the ranchmen, in whose wild, free, lonely existence there mingles much of the tragedy and comedy, the humor and pathos, that go to make up the romance of life. Among them are to be found the most enterprising, the most daring, of the peoples of the old lands. The broken, the outcast, the disappointed, these too have found their way to the ranches among the Foothills. A country it is whose sunlit hills and shaded valleys reflect themselves in the lives of its people; for nowhere are the contrasts of light and shade more vividly seen than in the homes of the ranchmen of the Albertas.
The experiences of my life have confirmed in me the orthodox conviction that Providence sends his rain upon the evil as upon the good; else I should never have set my eyes upon the Foothill country, nor touched its strangely fascinating life, nor come to know and love the most striking man of all that group of striking men of the Foothill country--the dear old Pilot, as we came to call him long afterwards. My first year in college closed in gloom. My guardian was in despair. From this distance of years I pity him. Then I considered him unnecessarily concerned about me--"a fussy old hen," as one of the boys suggested. The invitation from Jack Dale, a distant cousin, to spend a summer with him on his ranch in South Alberta came in the nick of time. I was wild to go. My guardian hesitated long; but no other solution of the problem of my disposal offering, he finally agreed that I could not well get into more trouble by going than by staying. Hence it was that, in the early summer of one of the eighties, I found myself attached to a Hudson's Bay Company freight train, making our way from a little railway town in Montana towards the Canadian boundary. Our train consisted of six wagons and fourteen yoke of oxen, with three cayuses, in charge of a French half-breed and his son, a lad of about sixteen. We made slow enough progress, but every hour of the long day, from the dim, gray, misty light of dawn to the soft glow of shadowy evening, was full of new delights to me. On the evening of the third day we reached the Line Stopping Place, where Jack Dale met us. I remember well how my heart beat with admiration of the easy grace with which he sailed down upon us in the loose- jointed cowboy style, swinging his own bronco and the little cayuse he was leading for me into the circle of the wagons, careless of ropes and freight and other impedimenta. He flung himself off before his bronco had come to a stop, and gave me a grip that made me sure of my welcome. It was years since he had seen a man from home, and the eager joy in his eyes told of long days and nights of lonely yearning for the old days and the old faces. I came to understand this better after my two years' stay among these hills that have a strange power on some days to waken in a man longings that make his heart grow sick. When supper was over we gathered about the little fire, while Jack and the half-breed smoked and talked. I lay on my back looking up at the pale, steady stars in the deep blue of the cloudless sky, and listened in fullness of contented delight to the chat between Jack and the driver. Now and then I asked a question, but not too often. It is a listening silence that draws tales from a western man, not vexing questions. This much I had learned already from my three days' travel. So I lay and listened, and the tales of that night are mingled with the warm evening lights and the pale stars and the thoughts of home that Jack's coming seemed to bring.
Next morning before sun-up we had broken camp and were ready for our fifty-mile ride. There was a slight drizzle of rain and, though rain and shine were alike to him, Jack insisted that I should wear my mackintosh. This garment was quite new and had a loose cape which rustled as I moved toward my cayuse. He was an ugly-looking little animal, with more white in his eye than I cared to see. Altogether, I did not draw toward him. Nor did he to me, apparently. For as I took him by the bridle he snorted and sidled about with great swiftness, and stood facing me with his feet planted firmly in front of him as if prepared to reject overtures of any kind soever. I tried to approach him with soothing words, but he persistently backed away until we stood looking at each other at the utmost distance of his outstretched neck and my outstretched arm. At this point Jack came to my assistance, got the pony by the other side of the bridle, and held him fast till I got into position to mount. Taking a firm grip of the horn of the Mexican saddle, I threw my leg over his back. The next instant I was flying over his head. My only emotion was one of surprise, the thing was so unexpected. I had fancied myself a fair rider, having had experience of farmers' colts of divers kinds, but this was something quite new. The half-breed stood looking on, mildly interested; Jack was smiling, but the boy was grinning with delight.
"I'll take the little beast," said Jack. But the grinning boy braced me up and I replied as carelessly as my shaking voice would allow:
"Oh, I guess I'll manage him," and once more got into position. But no sooner had I got into the saddle than the pony sprang straight up into the air and lit with his back curved into a bow, his four legs gathered together and so absolutely rigid that the shock made my teeth rattle. It was my first experience of "bucking." Then the little brute went seriously to work to get rid of the rustling, flapping thing on his back. He would back steadily for some seconds, then, with two or three forward plunges, he would stop as if shot and spring straight into the upper air, lighting with back curved and legs rigid as iron. Then he would walk on his hind legs for a few steps, then throw himself with amazing rapidity to one side and again proceed to buck with vicious diligence.
"Stick to him!" yelled Jack, through his shouts of laughter. "You'll make him sick before long."
I remember thinking that unless his insides were somewhat more delicately organized than his external appearance would lead one to suppose the chances were that the little brute would be the last to succumb to sickness. To make matters worse, a wilder jump than ordinary threw my cape up over my head, so that I was in complete darkness. And now he had me at his mercy, and he knew no pity. He kicked and plunged and reared and bucked, now on his front legs, now on his hind legs, often on his knees, while I, in the darkness, could only cling to the horn of the saddle. At last, in one of the gleams of light that penetrated the folds of my enveloping cape, I found that the horn had slipped to his side, so the next time he came to his knees I threw myself off. I am anxious to make this point clear, for, from the expression of triumph on the face of the grinning boy, and his encomiums of the pony, I gathered that he scored a win for the cayuse. Without pause that little brute continued for some seconds to buck and plunge even after my dismounting, as if he were some piece of mechanism that must run down before it could stop.
By this time I was sick enough and badly shaken in my nerve, but the triumphant shouts and laughter of the boy and the complacent smiles on the faces of Jack and the half-breed stirred my wrath. I tore off the cape and, having got the saddle put right, seized Jack's riding whip and, disregarding his remonstrances, sprang on my steed once more, and before he could make up his mind as to his line of action plied him so vigorously with the rawhide that he set off over the prairie at full gallop, and in a few minutes came round to the camp quite subdued, to the boy's great disappointment and to my own great surprise. Jack was highly pleased, and even the stolid face of the half-breed showed satisfaction.
"Don't think I put this up on you," Jack said. "It was that cape. He ain't used to such frills. But it was a circus," he added, going off into a fit of laughter, "worth five dollars any day."
"You bet!" said the half-breed. "Dat's make pretty beeg fun, eh?"
It seemed to me that it depended somewhat upon the point of view, but I merely agreed with him, only too glad to be so well out of the fight.
All day we followed the trail that wound along the shoulders of the round-topped hills or down their long slopes into the wide, grassy valleys. Here and there the valleys were cut through by coulees through which ran swift, blue-gray rivers, clear and icy cold, while from the hilltops we caught glimpses of little lakes covered with wild-fowl that shrieked and squawked and splashed, careless of danger. Now and then we saw what made a black spot against the green of the prairie, and Jack told me it was a rancher's shack. How remote from the great world, and how lonely it seemed!--this little black shack among these multitudinous hills.
I shall never forget the summer evening when Jack and I rode into Swan Creek. I say into--but the village was almost entirely one of imagination, in that it consisted of the Stopping Place, a long log building, a story and a half high, with stables behind, and the store in which the post-office was kept and over which the owner dwelt. But the situation was one of great beauty. On one side the prairie rambled down from the hills and then stretched away in tawny levels into the misty purple at the horizon; on the other it clambered over the round, sunny tops to the dim blue of the mountains beyond.
In this world, where it is impossible to reach absolute values, we are forced to hold things relatively, and in contrast with the long, lonely miles of our ride during the day these two houses, with their outbuildings, seemed a center of life. Some horses were tied to the rail that ran along in front of the Stopping Place.
"Hello!" said Jack, "I guess the Noble Seven are in town."
"And who are they?" I asked.
"Oh," he replied, with a shrug, "they are the elite Of Swan Creek; and by Jove," he added, "this must be a Permit Night."
"What does that mean?" I asked, as we rode up towards the tie rail.
"Well," said Jack, in a low tone, for some men were standing about the door, "you see, this is a prohibition country, but when one of the boys feels as if he were going to have a spell of sickness he gets a permit to bring in a few gallons for medicinal purposes; and of course, the other boys being similarly exposed, he invites them to assist him in taking preventive measures. And," added Jack, with a solemn wink, "it is remarkable, in a healthy country like this, how many epidemics come near ketching us."
And with this mystifying explanation we joined the mysterious company of the Noble Seven.