Chapter VI. A New Friend
 

The night race with the wolves began a new phase of life for Ranald, for in that hour he gained a friend such as it falls to few lads to have. Mrs. Murray's high courage in the bush, her skill in the sick-room, and that fine spiritual air she carried with her made for her a place in his imagination where men set their divinities. The hero and the saint in her stirred his poetic and fervent soul and set it aglow with a feeling near to adoration. To Mrs. Murray also the events of that night set forth Ranald in a new light. In the shy, awkward, almost sullen lad there had suddenly been revealed in those moments of peril the cool, daring man, full of resource and capable of self-sacrifice. Her heart went out toward him, and she set herself to win his confidence and to establish a firm friendship with him; but this was no easy matter.

Macdonald Dubh and his son, living a half-savage life in their lonely back clearing, were regarded by their neighbors with a certain degree of distrust and fear. They were not like other people. They seldom mingled in the social festivities of the community, and consequently were more or less excluded from friendship and free intercourse with their neighbors. Ranald, shy, proud, and sensitive, felt this exclusion, and in return kept himself aloof even from the boys, and especially from the girls, of his own age. His attendance at school was of a fragmentary and spasmodic nature, and he never really came to be on friendly terms with his fellow-pupils. His one friend was Don Cameron, whom the boys called "Wobbles," from his gait in running, whose father's farm backed that of Macdonald Dubh. And though Don was a year older, he gave to Ranald a homage almost amounting to worship, for in all those qualities that go to establish leadership among boys, Ranald was easily first. In the sport that called for speed, courage, and endurance Ranald was chief of all. Fleet of foot, there was no runner from the Twelfth to the Twentieth that could keep him in sight, and when he stood up to fight, the mere blaze of his eyes often won him victory before a blow was struck. To Don, Ranald opened his heart more than to any one else; all others he kept at a distance.

It was in vain that Mrs. Murray, in her daily visits to Macdonald Dubh, sought to find out Ranald and to come to speech with him. Aunt Kirsty never knew where he was, and to her calls, long and loud, from the back door and from the front, no response ever came. It was Hughie Murray who finally brought Ranald once more into touch with the minister's wife.

They had come one early morning, Hughie with Fido "hitched" in a sled driving over the "crust" on the snow banks by the roadside, and his mother on the pony, to make their call upon the sick man. As they drew near the house they heard a sound of hammering.

"That's Ranald, mother!" exclaimed Hughie. "Let me go and find him. I don't want to go in."

"Be sure you don't go far away, then, Hughie; you know we must hurry home to-day"; and Hughie faithfully promised. But alas for Hughie's promises! when his mother came out of the house with Kirsty, he was within neither sight nor hearing.

"They will just be at the camp," said Kirsty.

"The camp?"

"Aye, the sugaring camp down yonder in the sugar bush. It is not far off from the wood road. I will be going with you."

"Not at all, Kirsty," said the minister's wife. "I think I know where it is, and I can go home that way quite well. Besides, I want to see Ranald." She did not say she would rather see him alone.

"Indeed, he is the quare lad, and he is worse since coming back from the shanties." Kirsty was evidently much worried about Ranald.

"Never mind," said the minister's wife, kindly; "we must just be patient. Ranald is going on fast toward manhood, and he can be held only by the heart."

"Aye," said Kirsty, with a sigh, "I doubt his father will never be able any more to take a strap to him."

"Yes," said Mrs. Murray, smiling, "I'm afraid he is far beyond that."

"Beyond it!" exclaimed Kirsty, astonished at such a doctrine. "Indeed, and his father and his uncle would be getting it then, when they were as beeg as they will ever be, and much the better were they for it."

"I don't think it would do for Ranald," said the minister's wife, smiling again as she said good by to Kirsty. Then she took her way down the wood road into the bush. She found the camp road easily, and after a quarter of an hour's ride, she heard the sound of an ax, and soon came upon the sugar camp. Ranald was putting the finishing touches to a little shanty of cedar poles and interwoven balsam brush, and Hughie was looking on in admiration and blissful delight.

"Why, that's beautiful," said Mrs. Murray; "I should like to live in a house like that myself."

"Oh, mother!" shouted Hughie, "isn't it splendid? Ranald and Don are going to live in it all the sugaring time, and Ranald wants me to come, too. Mayn't I, mother? Aw, do let me."

The mother looked down upon the eager face, smiled, and shook her head. "What about the night, Hughie?" she said. "It will be very dark in the woods here, and very cold, too. Ranald and Don are big boys and strong, but I'm afraid my little boy would not be very comfortable sleeping outside."

"Oh, mother, we'll be inside, and it'll be awful warm--and oh, you might let me!" Hughie's tears were restrained only by the shame of weeping before his hero, Ranald.

"Well, we will see what your father says when he comes home."

"Oh, mother, he will just say 'no' right off, and--"

A shadow crossed his mother's face, but she only answered quietly, "Never mind just now, Hughie; we will think of it. Besides," she added, "I don't know how much Ranald wants to be bothered with a wee boy like you."

Ranald gave her a quick, shy glance and answered:

"He will be no trouble, Mrs. Murray"; and then, noticing Hughie's imploring face, he ventured to add, "and indeed, I hope you will let him come. I will take good care of him."

Mrs. Murray hesitated.

"Oh, mother!" cried Hughie, seeing her hesitation, "just one night; I won't be a bit afraid."

"No, I don't believe you would," looking down into the brave young face. "But what about your mother, Hughie?"

"Oh, pshaw! you wouldn't be afraid." Hughie's confidence in his mother's courage was unbounded.

"I don't know about that," she replied; and then turning to Ranald, "How about our friends of the other night?" she said. "Will they not be about?" Hughie had not heard about the wolves.

"Oh, there is no fear of them. We will keep a big fire all night, and besides, we will have our guns and the dogs."

"Guns!" cried Mrs. Murray. This was a new terror for her boy. "I'm afraid I cannot trust Hughie where there are guns. He might--"

"Indeed, let me catch him touching a gun!" said Ranald, quickly, and from his tone and the look in his face, Mrs. Murray felt sure that Hughie would be safe from self-destruction by the guns.

"Well, well, come away, Hughie, and we will see," said Mrs. Murray; but Hughie hung back sulking, unwilling to move till he had got his mother's promise.

"Come, Hughie. Get Fido ready. We must hurry," said his mother again.

Still Hughie hesitated. Then Ranald turned swiftly on him. "Did ye hear your mother? Come, get out of this." His manner was so fierce that Hughie started immediately for his dog, and without another word of entreaty made ready to go. The mother noted his quick obedience, and smiling at Ranald, said: "I think I might trust him with you for a night or two, Ranald. When do you think you could come for him?"

"We will finish the tapping to-morrow, and I could come the day after with the jumper," said Ranald, pointing to the stout, home- made sleigh used for gathering the sap and the wood for the fire.

"Oh, I see you have begun tapping," said Mrs. Murray; "and do you do it yourself?"

"Why, yes, mother; don't you see all those trees?" cried Hughie, pointing to a number of maples that stood behind the shanty. "Ranald and Don did all those, and made the spiles, too. See!" He caught up a spile from a heap lying near the door. "Ranald made all these."

"Why, that's fine, Ranald. How do you make them? I have never seen one made."

"Oh, mother!" Hughie's voice was full of pity for her ignorance. He had seen his first that afternoon.

"And I have never seen the tapping of a tree. I believe I shall learn just now, if Ranald will only show me, from the very beginning."

Her eager interest in his work won Ranald from his reserve. "There is not much to see," he said, apologetically. "You just cut a natch in the tree, and drive in the spile, and--"

"Oh, but wait," she cried. "That's just what I wanted to see. How do you make the spile?"

"Oh, that is easy," said Ranald. He took up a slightly concave chisel or gouge, and slit a slim slab from off a block of cedar about a foot long.

"This is a spile," he exclaimed. "We drive it into the tree, and the sap runs down into the trough, you see."

"No, I don't see," said the minister's wife. She was too thoroughgoing to do things by halves. "How do you drive this into the tree, and how do you get the sap to run down it?"

"I will show you," he said, and taking with him a gouge and ax, he approached a maple still untapped. "You first make a gash like this." So saying, with two or three blows of his ax, he made a slanting notch in the tree. "And then you make a place for the spile this way." With the back of his ax he drove his gouge into the corner of the notch, and then fitted his spile into the incision so made.

"Ah, now I see. And you put the trough under the drip from the spile. But how do you make the troughs?"

"I did not make them," said Ranald. "Some of them father made, and some of them belong to the Camerons. But it is easy enough. You just take a thick slab of basswood and hollow it out with the adze."

Mrs. Murray was greatly pleased. "I'm very much obliged to you, Ranald," she said, "and I am glad I came down to see your camp. Now, if you will ask me, I should like to see you make the sugar." Had her request been made before the night of their famous ride, Ranald would have found some polite reason for refusal, but now he was rather surprised to find himself urging her to come to a sugaring-off at the close of the season.

"I shall be delighted to come," cried Mrs. Murray, "and it is very good of you to ask me, and I shall bring my niece, who is coming with Mr. Murray from town to spend some weeks with me."

Ranald's face fell, but his Highland courtesy forbade retreat. "If she would care," he said, doubtfully.

"Oh, I am sure she would be very glad! She has never been outside of the city, and I want her to learn all she can of the country and the woods. It is positively painful to see the ignorance of these city children in regard to all living things--beasts and birds and plants. Why, many of them couldn't tell a beech from a basswood."

"Oh, mother!" protested Hughie, aghast at such ignorance.

"Yes, indeed, it is dreadful, I assure you," said his mother, smiling. "Why, I know a grown-up woman who didn't know till after she was married the difference between a spruce and a pine."

"But you know them all now," said Hughie, a little anxious for his mother's reputation.

"Yes, indeed," said his mother, proudly; "every one, I think, at least when the leaves are out. So I want Maimie to learn all she can."

Ranald did not like the idea any too well, but after they had gone his thoughts kept turning to the proposed visit of Mrs. Murray and her niece.

"Maimie," said Ranald to himself. "So that is her name." It had a musical sound, and was different from the names of the girls he knew--Betsy and Kirsty and Jessie and Marget and Jinny. It was finer somehow than these, and seemed to suit better a city girl. He wondered if she would be nice, but he decided that doubtless she would be "proud." To be "proud" was the unpardonable sin with the Glengarry boy. The boy or girl convicted of this crime earned the contempt of all self-respecting people. On the whole, Ranald was sorry she was coming. Even in school he was shy with the girls, and kept away from them. They were always giggling and blushing and making one feel queer, and they never meant what they said. He had no doubt Maimie would be like the rest, and perhaps a little worse. Of course, being Mrs. Murray's niece, she might be something like her. Still, that could hardly be. No girl could ever be like the minister's wife. He resolved he would turn Maimie over to Don. He remembered, with great relief, that Don did not mind girls; indeed, he suspected Don rather enjoyed playing the "forfeit" games at school with them, in which the penalties were paid in kisses. How often had he shuddered and admired from a distance, while Don and the others played those daring games! Yes, Don would do the honors for Maimie. Perhaps Don would even venture to play "forfeits" with her. Ranald felt his face grow hot at this thought. Then, with sudden self-detection, he cried, angrily, aloud: "I don't care; let him; he may for all I care."

"Who may what?" cried a voice behind him. It was Don himself.

"Nothing," said Ranald, blushing shamefacedly.

"Why, what are you mad about?" asked Don, noticing his flushed face.

"Who is mad?" said Ranald. "I am not mad whatever."

"Well, you look mighty like it," said Don. "You look mad enough to fight."

But Ranald, ignoring him, simply said, "We will need to be gathering the sap this evening, for the troughs will be full."

"Huh-huh," said Don. "I guess we can carry all there is to-day, but we will have to get the colt to-morrow. Got the spiles ready?"

"Enough for to-day," said Ranald, wondering how he could tell Don of the proposed visit of Mrs. Murray and her niece. Taking each a bundle of spiles and an ax, the boys set out for the part of the sugar bush as yet untapped, and began their work.

"The minister's wife and Hughie were here just now," began Ranald.

"Huh-huh, I met them down the road. Hughie said he was coming day after to-morrow."

"Did Mrs. Murray tell you--"

"Tell me what?"

"Did she tell you she would like to see a sugaring-off?"

"No; they didn't stop long enough to tell me anything. Hughie shouted at me as they passed."

"Well," said Ranald, speaking slowly and with difficulty, "she wanted bad to see the sugar-making, and I asked her to come."

"You did, eh? I wonder at you."

"And she wanted to bring her niece, and--and--I let her," said Ranald.

"Her niece! Jee-roo-sa-lem!" cried Don. "Do you know who her niece is?"

"Not I," said Ranald, looking rather alarmed.

"Well, she is the daughter of the big lumberman, St. Clair, and she is a great swell."

Ranald stood speechless.

"That does beat all," pursued Don; "and you asked her to our camp?"

Then Ranald grew angry. "And why not?" he said, defiantly. "What is wrong about that?"

"O, nothing much," laughed Don, "if I had done it, but for you, Ranald! Why, what will you do with that swell young lady from the city?"

"I will just do nothing," said Ranald. "There will be you and Mrs. Murray, and--"

"Oh, I say," burst in Don, "that's bully! Let's ask some of the boys, and--your aunt, and--my mother, and--some of the girls."

"Oh, shucks!" said Ranald, angrily. "You just want Marget Aird."

"You get out!" cried Don, indignantly; "Marget Aird!" Then, after a pause, he added, "All right, I don't want anybody else. I'll look after Mrs. Murray, and you and Maimie can do what you like."

This combination sounded so terrible to Ranald that he surrendered at once; and it was arranged that there should be a grand sugaring- off, and that others besides the minister's wife and her niece should be invited.

But Mrs. Murray had noticed the falling of Ranald's face at the mention of Maimie's visit to the camp, and feeling that she had taken him at a disadvantage, she determined that she would the very next day put herself right with him. She was eager to follow up the advantage she had gained the day before in establishing terms of friendship with Ranald, for her heart went out to the boy, in whose deep, passionate nature she saw vast possibilities for good or ill. On her return from her daily visit to Macdonald Dubh, she took the camp road, and had the good fortune to find Ranald alone, "rigging up" his kettles preparatory to the boiling. But she had no time for kettles to-day, and she went straight to her business.

"I came to see you, Ranald," she said, after she had shaken hands with him, "about our sugaring-off. I've been thinking that it would perhaps be better to have no strangers, but just old friends, you and Don and Hughie and me."

Ranald at once caught her meaning, but found himself strangely unwilling to be extricated from his predicament.

"I mean," said Mrs. Murray, frankly, "we might enjoy it better without my niece; and so, perhaps, we could have the sugaring when I come to bring Hughie home on Friday. Maimie does not come till Saturday."

Her frankness disarmed Ranald of his reserve. "I know well what you mean," he said, without his usual awkwardness, "but I do not mind now at all having your niece come; and Don is going to have a party." The quiet, grave tone was that of a man, and Mrs. Murray looked at the boy with new eyes. She did not know that it was her own frank confidence that had won like confidence from him.

"How old are you, Ranald?" she said, in her wonder.

"I will be going on eighteen."

"You will soon be a man, Ranald." Ranald remained silent, and she went on earnestly: "A strong, good, brave man, Ranald."

The blood rushed to the boy's face with a sudden flood, but still he stood silent.

"I'm going to give you Hughie for two days," she continued, in the same earnest voice; and leaning down over her pony's neck toward him: "I want him to know strong and manly boys. He is very fond of you, Ranald. He thinks you are better than any man in the world." She paused, her lips parting in a smile that made Ranald's heart beat quick. Then she went on with a shy hesitancy: "Ranald, I know the boys sometimes drop words they should not and tell stories unfit to hear"; the blood was beginning to show in her cheek; "and I would not like my little boy--" Her voice broke suddenly, but recovering quickly she went on in grave, sweet tones: "I trust him to you, Ranald, for this time and afterward. He looks up to you. I want him to be a good, brave man, and to keep his heart pure." Ranald could not speak, but he looked steadily into Mrs. Murray's eyes as he took the hand she offered, and she knew he was pledging himself to her.

"You'll come for him to-morrow," she said, as she turned away. By this time Ranald had found his voice.

"Yes, ma'am," he replied. "And I will take good care of him."

Once more Mrs. Murray found herself looking at Ranald as if seeing him for the first time. He had the solemn voice and manner of a man making oath of allegiance, and she rode away with her heart at rest concerning her little boy. With Ranald, at least, he would be safe.

            *         *         *         *         *

Those two days had been for Hughie long and weary, but at last the great day came for him, as all great days will come for those who can wait. Ranald appeared at the manse before the breakfast was well begun, and Hughie, with the unconscious egoism of childhood, was for rushing off without thought of preparation for himself or of farewell for those left behind. Indeed, he was for leaving his porridge untasted, declaring he "wasn't a bit hungry," but his mother brought him to his senses.

"No breakfast, no sugar bush to-day, Hughie," she said; "we cannot send men out to the woods that cannot eat breakfast, can we, Ranald?"

Hughie at once fell upon his porridge with vigor, while Ranald, who was much too shy to eat at the minister's table, sat and waited.

After breakfast was over, Jessie was called in for the morning worship, without which no day was ever begun in the manse. At worship in the minister's house every one present took part. It was Hughie's special joy to lead the singing of the psalm. His voice rose high and clear, even above his mother's, for he loved to sing, and Ranald's presence inspired him to do his best. Ranald had often heard the psalm sung in the church--

      I to the hills will lift mine eyes,
      From whence doth come mine aid;

and the tune was the old, familiar "French," but somehow it was all new to him that day. The fresh voices and the crisp, prompt movement of the tune made Ranald feel as if he had never heard the psalm sung before. In the reading he took his verse with the others, stumbling a little, not because the words were too big for him, but because they seemed to run into one another. The chapter for the day contained Paul's injunction to Timothy, urging him to fidelity and courage as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.

When the reading was done, Mrs. Murray told them a story of a young man who had shed his blood upon a Scottish moor because he was too brave to be untrue to his lord, and then, in a few words, made them all see that still some conflict was being waged, and that there was still opportunity for each to display loyal courage and fidelity.

In the prayer that followed, the first thing that surprised Ranald was the absence of the set forms and tones of prayer, with which he was familiar. It was all so simple and real. The mother was telling the great Father in heaven her cares and anxieties, and the day's needs for them all, sure that he would understand and answer. Every one was remembered--the absent head of the family and those present; the young man worshiping with them, that he might be a true man and a good soldier of Jesus Christ; and at the close, the little lad going away this morning, that he might be kept from all harm and from all evil thoughts and deeds. The simple beauty of the words, the music in the voice, and the tender, trustful feeling that breathed through the prayer awakened in Ranald's heart emotions and longings he had never known before, and he rose from his knees feeling how wicked and how cruel a thing it would be to cause one of these little ones to stumble.

After the worship was over, Hughie seized his Scotch bonnet and rushed for the jumper, and in a few minutes his mother had all the space not taken up by him and Ranald packed with blankets and baskets.

"Jessie thinks that even great shanty-men like you and Don and Hughie will not object to something better than bread and pork."

"Indeed, we will not," said Ranald, heartily.

Then Hughie suddenly remembered that he was actually leaving home, and climbing out of the jumper, he rushed at his mother.

"Oh, mother, good by!" he cried.

His mother stooped and put her arms about him. "Good by, my darling," she said, in a low voice; "I trust you to be a good boy, and, Hughie, don't forget your prayers."

Then came to Hughie, for the first time, the thought that had been in the mother's heart all the morning, that when night came he would lie down to sleep, for the first time in his life, without the nightly story and her good-night kiss.

"Mother," whispered the little lad, holding her tight about the neck, "won't you come, too? I don't think I like to go away."

He could have said no more comforting word, and the mother, whose heart had been sore enough with her first parting from her boy, was more than glad to find that the pain was not all on her side; so she kissed him again, and said, in a cheery voice: "Now have a good time. Don't trouble Ranald too much, and bring me back some sugar." Her last word braced the lad as nothing else could.

"Oh, mother, I'll bring you heaps!" he cried, and with the vision of what he would bring home again shining vividly before his eyes, he got through the parting without tears, and was soon speeding down the lane beside Ranald, in the jumper.

The mother stood and watched the little figure holding tight to Ranald with one hand, and with the other waving frantically his bonnet by the tails, till at last the bush hid him from her sight. Then she turned back again to the house that seemed so empty, with her hand pressed hard against her side and her lip quivering as with sharp pain.

"How foolish!" she said, impatiently to herself; "he will be home in two days." But in spite of herself she went again to the door, and looked long at the spot where the bush swallowed up the road. Then she went upstairs and shut her door, and when she came down again there was that in her face that told that her heart had had its first touch of the sword that, sooner or later, must pierce all mothers' hearts.