A Cloud on the Mountain by Mary Hallock Foote
Ruth Mary stood on the high river bank, looking along the beach below to see if her small brother Tommy was lurking anywhere under the willows with his fishing-pole. He had been sent half an hour before to the earth cellar for potatoes, and Ruth Mary's father, Mr. Tully, was waiting for his dinner.
She did not see Tommy; but while she lingered, looking at the river hurrying down the shoot between the hills and curling up over the pebbles of the bar, she saw a team of bay horses and a red-wheeled wagon come rattling down the stony slope of the opposite shore. In the wagon she counted four men. Three of them wore white, helmet-shaped hats that made brilliant spots of light against the bank. The horses were driven half their length into the stream and allowed to drink, as well as they could for the swiftness of the current, while the men seemed to consult together, the two on the front seat turning back to speak with the two behind, and pointing across the river.
Ruth Mary watched them with much interest, for travelers such as these seemed to be seldom came as far up Bear River valley as the Tullys' cattle range. The visitors who came to them were mostly cow-boys looking up stray cattle, or miners on their way to the "Banner district," or packers with mule trains going over the mountains, to return in three weeks, or three months, as their journey prospered. Fishermen and hunters came up into the hills in the season of trout and deer, but they came as a rule on horseback, and at a distance were hardly to be distinguished from the cow-boys and the miners.
The men in the wagon were evidently strangers to that locality. They had seen Ruth Mary watching them from the hill, and now one of them rose up in the wagon and shouted across to her, pointing to the river.
She could not hear his words for the noise of the ripple and of the wind which blew freshly down-stream, but she understood that he was inquiring about the ford. She motioned up the river and called to him, though she knew her words could not reach him, to keep on the edge of the ripple. Her gestures, however, aided by the driver's knowledge of fords, were sufficient; he turned his horses up-stream and they took water at the place she had tried to indicate. The wagon sank to the wheel-hubs; the horses kept their feet well, though the current was strong; the sun shone brightly on the white hats and laughing faces of the men, on the guns in their hands, on the red paint of the wagon and the warm backs of the horses breasting the stream. When they were halfway across, one of the men tossed a small, reluctant black dog over the wheel into the river, and all the company, with the exception of the driver, who was giving his attention to his horses, broke into hilarious shouts of encouragement to the swimmer in his struggle with the current. It was carrying him down and would have landed him, without effort of his own, on a strip of white sand beach under the willows above the bend; but now the unhappy little object, merely a black nose and two blinking anxious eyes above the water, had drifted into an eddy, from which he cast forlorn glances toward his faithless friends in the wagon. The dog was in no real peril, but Ruth Mary did not know this, and her heart swelled with indignant pity. Only shyness kept her from wading to his rescue. Now one of the laughing young men, thinking the joke had gone far enough perhaps, and reckless of a wetting, leaped out into the water, and, plunging along in his high boots, soon had the terrier by the scruff of his neck, and waded ashore with his sleek, quivering little body nestled in the bosom of his flannel hunting shirt.
A deep cut in the bank, through which the wagon was dragged, was screened by willows. When the fording party had arrived at the top, Ruth Mary was nowhere to be seen. "Where's that girl got to all of a sudden?" one of the men demanded. They had intended to ask her several questions; but she was gone, and the road before them plainly led to the low-roofed cabin, and loosely built barn with straw and daylight showing through its cracks, the newly planted poplar-trees above the thatched earth cellar, and all the signs of a tentative home in this solitude of the hills.
They drove on slowly, the young man who had waded ashore, whom his comrades addressed as Kirkwood or Kirk, walking behind the wagon with the dog in his arms, responding to his whimpering claims for attention with teasing caresses. The dog, it seemed, was the butt as well as the pet of the party. As they approached the house he scrambled out of Kirkwood's arms and lingered to take a roll in the sandy path, coming up a moment afterward to be received with blighting sarcasms upon his appearance. After his ignominious wetting he was quite unable to bear up under them, and slunk to the rear with deprecatory blinks and waggings of his tail whenever one of the men looked back.
Ruth Mary had run home quickly to tell her father, who was sitting in the sun by the wood-pile, of the arrival of strangers from across the river. Mr. Tully rose up deliberately and went to meet his guests, keeping between his teeth the sliver of pine he had been chewing while waiting for his dinner. It helped to bear him out in that appearance of indifference he thought it well to assume, as if such arrivals were an every-day occurrence.
"Hasn't Tommy got back yet, mother?" Ruth Mary asked as she entered the house. Mrs. Tully was a stout, low-browed woman, with grayish yellow hair of that dry and lifeless texture which shows declining health or want of care. Her blue eyes looked faded in the setting of her tanned complexion. She sat in a low chair, her knees wide apart, defined by her limp calico draperies, rocking a child of two years, a fat little girl with flushed cheeks and flaxen hair braided into tight knots on her forehead, who was asleep in the large cushioned rocking-chair in the middle of the room. The room was somewhat bare, for the shed-room outside was evidently the more used part of the house. The cook stove was there in the inclosed corner, and beside it a table and shelf with a tin hand-basin hanging beneath, while the crannies of the logs on each side of the doorway were utilized as shelves for all the household articles in frequent requisition that were not hanging from nails driven into the logs, or from the projecting roof-poles against the light.
Tommy had not returned, and Mrs. Tully suggested as a reason for his delay that he had stopped somewhere to catch grasshoppers for bait.
"I should think he had enough of 'em in that bottle of his," Ruth Mary said, "to last him till the 'hoppers come again. Some strange men forded the river just now. Father's gone to speak to them. I guess he'll ask 'em to stop to dinner."
Mrs. Tully got up heavily and went to the door. "Here, Angy,"--she addressed a girl of eight or ten years who sat on the flat boulder that was the cabin doorstep;--"you go get them taters; that's a good girl," she added coaxingly, as Angy did not stir. "If your foot hurts you, you can walk on your heel."
Angy, who was complaining of a stone-bruise, got up and limped away, upsetting from her lap as she rose two kittens of tender years, who tumbled over each other before getting their legs under them, and staggered off, steering themselves jerkily with their tails.
"Oh, Angy!" Ruth Mary remonstrated, but she could not stay to comfort the kittens. She ran up the short, crooked stairs leading to the garret bedroom which she shared with Angy, hastily to put on her shoes and stockings and brace her pretty figure, under the blue calico waist she wore, with her first pair of stays, an important purchase made on her last visit to the town in the valley, and to be worn now, if ever. It was hot at noon in the bedroom under the roof, and by the time Ruth Mary had fortified herself to meet the eyes of strangers she was uncomfortably flushed, and short of breath besides from the pressure of the new stays. She went slowly down the uneven stairs, wishing that she could walk as softly in her shoes as she could barefoot.
Her father was talking to the strangers in the shed-room. They seemed tall and formidable, under the low roof, against the flat glare of the sun on the hard-swept ground in front of the shed. She waited inside until her mother reminded her of the dinner half cooked on the stove; then she went out shyly, the light falling on her downcast face and full white eyelids, on her yellow hair, sun-faded and meekly parted over her forehead, which was low like her mother's, but smooth as one of the white stones of the river beach. Her fair skin was burned to a clear, light red tint, and her blonde eyebrows and lashes showed silvery against it, but her chin was very white underneath, and there was a white space behind each of her little ears where her hair was knotted tightly away from her neck.
"This is my daughter," Mr. Tully said briefly; and then he gave some hospitable orders about dinner which the strangers interrupted, saying that they had brought a lunch with them and would not trouble the family until supper-time.
They gathered up their hunting gear, and lifting their hats to Ruth Mary, followed Mr. Tully, who had offered to show them the best fishing on that part of the river.
Mr. Tully explained to his wife and daughter, as the latter placed the dinner on the table, that three of the strangers were the engineers from the railroad camp at Moor's Bridge, and the fourth was a packer and teamster from the same camp; that they were all going up the river to look at timber, and wanted a little sport by the way. They had expected to keep on the other side of the river, but seeing the ranch on the opposite shore, with wheel-tracks going down to the water, they had concluded to try the ford and the fishing and ask for a night's accommodation.
"They don't want we should put ourselves out any. They're used to roughin' it, they say. If you can git together somethin' to feed 'em on, mother, they say they'd as soon sleep on the straw in the barn as anywheres else."
"There's plenty to eat, such as it is, but Ruth Mary'll have it all to do. I can't be on my feet." Mrs. Tully spoke in a depressed tone, but to her no less than to her husband was this little break welcome in the monotony of their life in the hills, even though it brought with it a more vivid consciousness of the family circumstances, and a review of them in the light of former standards of comfort and gentility: for Mrs. Tully had been a woman of some social pretensions, in the small Eastern village where she was born. To all that to her guests made the unique charm of her present home she had grown callous, if she had ever felt it at all, while dwelling with an incurable regret upon the neatly painted houses and fenced door-yards, the gatherings of women in their best clothes in primly furnished parlors on summer afternoons, the church-going, the passing in the street, and, more than all, the housekeeping conveniences she had been used to, accumulated through many years' occupancy of the same house.
"Seems as though I hadn't any ambition left," she often complained to her daughter. "There's nothin' here to do with, and nobody to do for. The most of the folks we ever see wouldn't know sour-dough bread from salt-risin', and as for dressin' up, I might keep the same clothes on from Fourth July till Christmas--your father'd never know."
But Ruth Mary was haunted by no fleshpots of the past. As she dressed the chickens and mixed the biscuit for supper, she paused often in her work and looked towards the high pastures with the pale brown lights and purple shadows on them, rolling away and rising towards the great timbered ridges, and these lifting here and there along their profiles a treeless peak or bare divide into the regions above vegetation. She had no misgivings about her home. Fences would not have improved her father's vast lawn, to her mind, or white paint the low-browed front of his dwelling; nor did she feel the want of a stair-carpet and a parlor-organ. She was sure that they, the strangers, had never seen anything more lovely than her beloved river dancing down between the hills, tripping over rapids, wrinkling over sand-bars of its own spreading, and letting out its speed down the long reaches where the channel was deep.
About four o'clock she found leisure to stroll along the shore with Tommy, whose competitive energies as a fisherman had been stimulated by the advent of strange craftsmen with scientific-looking tackle. Tommy must forthwith show what native skill could do with a willow pole and grasshoppers for bait. But Ruth Mary's sense of propriety would by no means tolerate Tommy's intruding his company upon the strangers, and to frustrate any rash, gregarious impulses on his part she judged it best to keep him in sight.
Tommy knew of a deep pool under the willows which he could whip, unseen, in the shady hours of the afternoon. Thither he led Ruth Mary, leaving her seated upon the bank above him lest she should be tempted to talk, and so interfere with his sport. The moments went by in silence, broken only by the river; Ruth Mary happy on the high bank in the sun, Tommy happy by the shady pool below, and now and then slapping a lively trout upon the stones. Across the river two Chinamen were washing gravel in a rude miner's cradle, paddling about on the river's brink, and anon staggering down from the gravel bank above, with large square kerosene cans filled with pay dirt balanced on either end of a pole across their meagre shoulders. Bare-headed, in their loose garments, with their pottering movements and wrinkled faces shining with heat, they looked like two weird, unrevered old women working out some dismal penance. High up in the sky the great black buzzards sailed and sailed on slanting wing; the wood doves coo-oo-ed from the willow thickets that gathered the sunlight close to the water's edge. A few horses and cattle moved like specks upon the sides of the hills, cropping the bunchgrass, but the greater herds had been driven up into the high pastures where the snow falls early; and all these lower hills were bare of life, unless one might fancy that the far-off processions of pines against the sky, marching up the northern sides of the divides, had a solemn personality, going up like priests to a sacrifice, or that the restless river, flowing through the midst of all and bearing the light of the white noonday sky deep into the bosom of the darkest hills, had a soul as well as a voice. In its sparkle and ever-changing motion it was like a child among its elders at play. The hills seemed to watch it, and the great cloud-heads as they looked down between the parting summits, and the three tall pines, standing about a young bird's flight from each other by the shore and mingling their fitful crooning with the river's babble.
It is pleasant to think of Ruth Mary, sitting high above the river, in the peaceful afternoon, surrounded by the inanimate life that to her brought the fullness of companionship and left no room for vain cravings; the shadow creeping upward over her hands folded in her lap, the light resting on her girlish face and meek, smooth hair. For this was during that unquestioning time of content which may not always last, even in a life as safe and as easily predicted as hers. But even now this silent communion was interrupted by the appearance of one of Tommy's rivals. It was the young man whose comrades called him Kirk, who came along the shore, stooping under the willow boughs and scattering all their shadows lightly traced on the stones below. He held his fishing-rod, couched like a lance, in one hand, and a string of gleaming fish in the other.
Tommy, with practiced eye, rapidly counted them and saw with chagrin that he was outnumbered, but another look satisfied him that the stranger's catch was nearly all "white-fish" instead of trout. He caressed his own dappled beauties complacently.
Kirkwood stopped and looked at them; he was evidently impressed by Tommy's superior luck.
"Those are big fellows," he said; "did you catch them?"
"You don't suppose she did?" said Tommy, with a jerk of his head towards Ruth Mary.
Kirkwood looked up and smiled, seeing the young girl on her sunny perch. The smile lingered pleasantly in his eyes as he seated himself on the stones,--deliberately, as if he meant to stay.
Tommy watched him while he made himself comfortable, taking from his pocket a short briar-wood pipe and a bag of tobacco, leisurely filling the pipe and lighting it with a wax match held in the hollow of his hands--apparently from habit, for there was no wind. He did not seem to mind in the least that his legs were wet and that his trout were nearly all white-fish. He was evidently a person of happy resources, and a joy-compelling temperament that could find virtue in white-fish if it couldn't get trout. He began to talk to Tommy, not without an amused consciousness of Tommy's silent partner on the bank above, nor without an occasional glance up at the maidenly head serenely exalted in the sunlight. Nor did Ruth Mary fail to respond, with her down-bent looks, as simply and unawares as the clouds turning their bright side to the sun.
Tommy, on his part, was stoutly withholding, in words, the admiration his eyes could not help showing, of the strange fisherman's tools. He cautiously felt the weight of the ringed and polished rod, and snapped it lightly over the water; he was permitted to examine the book of flies and to handle the reel, things in themselves fascinating, but to Tommy's mind merely a hindrance and a snare to the understanding in the real business of catching fish. Still, he admitted, where a man could take a whole day all to himself like that, without fear of being called off at any moment by the women on some frivolous household errand, he might afford to potter with such things. Tommy kept the conservative attitude of native experience and skill towards foreign innovation.
"If Joe Enselman was here," he said, "I bet he could ketch more fish in half 'n hour, with a pole like this o' mine and a han'ful o' 'hoppers, than any of you can in a whole week o' fishing with them fancy things."
"Oh, Tommy!" Ruth Mary expostulated, looking distressed.
"Who is this famous fisherman?" Kirkwood asked, smiling at Tommy's boast.
"Oh, he's a feller I know. He's a packer, and he owns ha'f o' father's stock. He's goin' to marry our Sis soon's he gits back from Sheep Mountain, and then he'll be my brother." Tommy had been a little reckless in his desire for the distinction of a personal claim on the hero of his boyish heart. He was even conscious of this himself, as he glanced up at his sister.
Kirkwood's eyes involuntarily followed Tommy's. He withdrew them at once, but not before he saw the troubled blush that reddened the girl's averted face. It struck him, though he was not deeply versed in blushes, that it was not quite the expression of happy, maidenly consciousness, when the name of a lover is unexpectedly spoken.
It was the first time in her life that Ruth Mary had ever blushed at the name of Joe Enselman. She could not understand why it should pain her to have this young stranger hear of him in his relation to herself.
Before her blush had faded, Kirkwood had dismissed the subject of Ruth Mary's engagement, with the careless reflection that Enselman was probably not the right man, but that the primitive laws which decide such haphazard unions doubtless provided the necessary hardihood of temperament wherewith to meet their exigencies. She was a nice little girl, but possibly she was not so sensitive as she looked.
His pipe had gone out, and after relighting it, he showed Tommy the gayly pictured paper match-box from Havana, which opened with a spring, and disclosed the matches lying in a little drawer within. Tommy's wistful eyes, as he returned the box, prompted Kirkwood to make prudent search in his pockets for a second box of matches before presenting Tommy with the one his eyes coveted. Finding himself secure against want in the immediate future, he gave himself up to the mild amusement of watching Tommy with his new acquisition.
Tommy could not resist lighting one of the little tapers, which burned in the sunlight with a still, clear flame like a fairy candle. Then a second one was sacrificed. By this time the attraction had proved strong enough to bring Ruth Mary down from her high seat in the sun. She looked scarcely less a child than Tommy, as, with her face close to his, she watched the pale flame flower wasting its waxen stem. Then she must needs light one herself and hold it, with a little fixed smile on her face, till the flame crept down and warmed her finger-tips.
"There," she said, putting it out with a breath, "don't let us burn any more. It's too bad to waste 'em in the daylight."
"We will burn one more," said Kirkwood, "not for amusement, but for information." And while he whittled a piece of driftwood into the shape of a boat, he told Ruth Mary how the Hindoo maidens set their lighted lamps afloat at night on the Ganges, and watch them perilously voyaging, to learn, by the fate of the traveling flame, the safety of their absent lovers.
He told it simply and gravely, as he might have described some fact in natural history, for he rightly guessed that this little seed of sentiment fell on virgin soil. According to Tommy, Ruth Mary was betrothed and soon to be a wife, but Kirkwood was curiously sure that as yet she knew not love, nor even fancy. Nor had he any deliberate intention of tampering with her inexperience. He spoke of the lamps on the Ganges because they came into his mind while Ruth Mary was bending over the wasting match flame; any hesitation he might have had about introducing so delicate a topic was conquered by an idle fancy that he would like to observe its effect upon her almost pathetic innocence.
While he talked, interrupting himself as his whittling absorbed him, but always conscious of her eyes upon his face, the boat took shape in his hands. Tommy had failed to catch the connection between Hindoo girls and boat-making, but was satisfied with watching Kirkwood's skillful fingers, without paying much heed to his words. The stranger had, too, a wonderful knife, with tools concealed in its handle, with one of which he bored a hole for the mast. In the top of the mast he fixed a wax taper upright and steady for the voyage.
Ruth Mary's cheeks grew red, as she suddenly perceived the intention of Kirkwood's whittling.
"Now," he said, steadying the boat on the shallow ripple, "before we light our beacon you must think of some one you care for, who is away. Perhaps Tommy's friend, on Sheep Mountain?" he ventured softly, glancing at Ruth Mary.
The color in her cheeks deepened, and again Kirkwood fancied it was not a happy confusion that covered her downcast face.
"No?" he questioned, as Ruth Mary did not speak; "that is too serious, perhaps. Well, then, make a little wish, and if the light is still alive when the boat passes that rock--the flat one with two stones on top--the wish will come true. But you must have faith, you know."
Ruth Mary looked at Kirkwood, the picture of faith in her sweet seriousness. His heart smote him a little, but he met her wide-eyed gaze with a gravity equal to her own.
"I would rather not wish for myself," she said, "but I will wish something for you, if you want me to."
"That is very kind of you. Am I to know what it is to be?"
"Oh yes. You must tell me what to wish."
"That is easily done," said Kirkwood gayly. "Wish that I may come back some other day, and sit here with you and Tommy by the river."
It was impossible not to see that Ruth Mary was blushing again. But she answered him with a gentle courtesy that rebuked the foolish blush: "That will be wishing for us all."
"Shall we light up then, and set her afloat?"
"I've made a wish," shouted Tommy; "I've wished Joe Enselman would bring me an Injun pony: a good one that won't buck!"
"You must keep your wish for the next trip. This ship is freighted deep enough already. Off she goes then, and good luck to the wish," said Kirkwood, as the current took the boat, with the light at its peak burning clearly, and swept it away. The pretty plaything dipped and danced a moment, while the light wavered but still lived. Then a breath of wind shook the willows, and the light was gone.
"Now it's my turn," Tommy exclaimed, wasting no sentiment on another's failure. He rushed down the bank and into the shallow water to catch the wishing-boat before it drifted away.
"All the same I'm coming back again," said Kirkwood, looking at Ruth Mary.
Tommy's wish fared no better than his sister's, but he bore up briskly, declaring it was "all foolishness anyway," and accused Kirkwood of having "just made it up for fun."
Kirkwood only laughed, and, ignoring Tommy, said to Ruth Mary, "The game was hardly worth the candle, was it?"
"Was it a game?" she asked. "I thought you meant it for true."
"Oh no," he said; "when we try it in earnest we must find a smoother river and a stronger light. Besides, you know, I'm coming back."
Ruth Mary kept her eyes upon his face, still questioning his seriousness, but its quick changes of expression baffled while fascinating her. She could not have told whether she thought him handsome or not, but she had a desire to look at him all the time.
Suddenly her household duties recurred to her, and, refusing the help of Kirkwood's hand, she sprang up the bank and hurried back to the house. Kirkwood could see her head above the wild-rose thickets as she went along the high path by the shore. He was more sure than ever that Enselman was not the right man.
At supper Ruth Mary waited on the strangers in silence, while Angy kept the cats and dogs "corraled," as her father called it, in the shed, that their impetuous appetites might not disturb the feast.
Mr. Tully stood in the doorway and talked with his guests while they ate, and Mrs. Tully, with the little two-year-old in her lap, rocked in the large rocking-chair and sighed apologetically between her promptings of Ruth Mary's attendance on the table.
Tommy hung about in a state of complete infatuation with the person and conversation of his former rival. He was even beginning to waver in his allegiance to his absent hero, especially as the wish about the Indian pony had not come true.
During the family meal the young men sat outside in the shed-room, and smoked and lazily talked together. Their words reached the silent group at the table. Kirkwood's companions were deriding him as a recreant sportsman. He puffed his short-stemmed pipe and looked at them tranquilly. He was not dissatisfied with his share of the day's pleasure.
When Mr. Tully had finished his supper, he took the young men down to the beach to look at his boat. Kirkwood had pointed it out to his comrades, where it lay moored under the bank, and ventured the opinion of a boating man that it had not been built in the mountains. But there he had generalized too rashly.
"I built her myself," said Mr. Tully; "rip-sawed the lumber up here. My young ones are as handy with her!" he boasted cheerfully, warmed by the admiration his work called forth. "You'd never believe, to see 'em knocking about in her, they hadn't the first one of 'em ever smelt salt water. Ruth Mary now, the oldest of 'em, is as much to home in that boat as she is on a hoss--and that's sayin' enough. She looks quiet, but she's got as firm a seat and as light a hand as any cow-boy that ever put leg over a cayuse."
Mr. Tully, on being questioned, admitted willingly that he was an Eastern man,--a Down-East lumberman and boat-builder. He couldn't say just why he'd come West. Got restless, and his wife's health was always poor back there. He had mined it some and had had considerable luck,--cleaned up several thousands, the summer of '63, at Junction Bar. Put it in a sawmill and got burned out. Then he took up this cattle range and went into stock, in partnership with a young fellow from Montana, named Enselman. They expected to make a good thing of it, but it was a long ways from anywheres; and for months of the year they couldn't do any teaming. Had no way out except by the horseback trail. The women found it lonesome. In winter no team could get up that grade in the canon they call the "freeze-out," even if they could cross the river, on account of the ice; and from April to August the river was up so you couldn't ford.
All this in the intervals of business, for Mr. Tully, in his circuitous way, was agreeing to build a boat for the engineers, after the model of his own. He would have to go down to the camp at Moor's Bridge to build it, he said, for suitable lumber could not be procured so far up the river, except at great expense. It would take him better'n a month, anyhow, and he didn't know what his women-folks would say to having him so long away. He would see about it.
The four men sauntered up the path from the shore, Tommy bringing up the rear with the little black-and-tan terrier. In default of a word from his master, Tommy tried to make friends with the dog, but the latter, wide awake and suspicious after dozing under the wagon all the afternoon, would none of him. Possibly he divined that Tommy's attentions were not wholly disinterested.
The family assembled for the evening in the shed-room. The women were silent, for the talk was confined to masculine topics, such as the quality of the placer claims up the river, the timber, the hunting, the progress and prospects of the new railroad. Tommy, keeping himself forcibly awake, was seeing two Kirkwoods where there was but one. The terrier had taken shelter between Kirkwood's knees, after trying conclusions with the mother of the kittens,--a cat of large experience and a reserved disposition, with only one ear, but in full possession of her faculties.
Betimes the young men arose and said good-night. Mr. Tully was loath to have the evening, with its rare opportunity for conversation, brought to a close, but he was too modest a host to press his company upon his guests. He went with them to their bed, on the clean straw in the barn, and if good wishes could soften pillows the travelers would have slept sumptuously. They did not know, in fact, how they slept, but woke, strong and joyous over the beauty of the morning on the hills, and the prospect of continuing their journey.
They parted from the family at the ranch with a light-hearted promise to stop again on their way down the river. When they would return they were gayly uncertain,--it might be ten days, it might be two weeks. It was a promise that nestled with delusive sweetness in Ruth Mary's thoughts, as she went silently about her work. She was helpful in all ways, and very gentle with the children, but she lingered more hours dreaming by the river, and often at twilight she climbed the hill back of the cabin and sat there alone, her cheek in the hollow of her hand, until the great planes of distance were lost, and all the hills drew together in one dark profile against the sky.
* * * * *
Mrs. Tully had been intending to spare Ruth Mary for a journey to town, on some errands of a feminine nature which could not be intrusted to Mr. Tully's larger but less discriminating judgment. Ruth Mary had never before been known to trifle with an opportunity of this kind. Her rides to town had been the one excitement of her life; looked forward to with eagerness and discussed with tireless interest for many days afterwards. But now she hung back with an unaccountable apathy, and made excuses for postponing the ride from day to day, until the business became too pressing to be longer neglected. She set off one morning at daybreak, following the horseback trail, around the steep and sliding bluffs high above the river, or across beds of broken lava rock,--arrested avalanches from the slowly crumbling cliffs which crowned the bluff,--or picking her way at a soft-footed pace through the thickets of the river bottoms. In such a low and sheltered spot, scarcely four feet above the river, she found the engineers' camp, a group of white tents shining among the willows. She keenly noted its location and surroundings. The broken timbers of the old bridge projected from the bank a short distance above the camp; a piece of weather-stained canvas stretched over them formed a kind of awning shading the rocks below, where the Chinese cook of the camp sat impassively fishing. The camp had a deserted appearance, for the men were all at work, tunneling the hill half a mile lower down. Her errands kept her so late that she was obliged to stay over night at the house of a friend of her father's, who owned a fruit ranch near the town. They were prosperous, talkative people, who loudly pitied the isolation of the family in the upper valley.
Ruth Mary reached home about noon the next day, tired and several shades more deeply sunburned, to find that she had passed the engineers, without knowing it, on their way down the river by the wagon road on the other side. They had stopped over night at the ranch and made an early start that morning. Ruth Mary was obliged to listen to enthusiastic reminiscences, from each member of the family, of the visit she had missed.
This was the last social event of the year. The willow copses turned yellow and leaf-bare; the scarlet hips of the rosebushes looked as if tiny finger-tips had left their prints upon them. The wreaths of wild clematis faded ashen gray, and were scattered by the winds. The wood dove's cooing no longer sounded at twilight in the leafless thickets. They had gone down the river and the wild duck with them.
But the voice of the river, rising with the autumn rains, was loud on the bar; the sky was hung with clouds that hid the hilltops or trailed their ragged pennants below the summits. The mist lay cold on the river; it rose with the sun, dissolving in soft haze that dulled the sunshine, and at night, descending, shrouded the dark, hoarse water without stilling its lament. Then the first snow fell, and ghostly companies of deer came out upon the hills, or filed silently down the draws of the canons at morning and evening. The cattle had come down from the mountain pastures, and at night congregated about the buildings with deep breathings and sighings; the river murmured in its fretted channel; now and then the yelp of a hungry coyote sounded from the hills.
The young men had said, among their light and pleasant sayings, that they would like to come up again to the hills when the snow fell, and get a shot at the deer; but they did not come, though often Ruth Mary stood on the bank and looked across the swollen ford, and listened for the echo of wheels among the hills.
About the 1st of November Mr. Tully went down to the camp at Moor's Bridge to build the engineers' boat. The women were now alone at the ranch, but Joe Enselman's return was daily expected. Mr. Tully, always cheerful, had been confident that he would be home by the 5th.
The 5th of November and the 10th passed, but Enselman had not returned. On the 12th, in the midst of a heavy fall of snow, his pack animals were driven in by another man, a stranger to the women at the ranch, who said that Enselman had changed his mind suddenly about coming home that fall, and decided to go to Montana and "prove up" on his ranch there.
Mr. Tully's work was finished before the second week of December. On his return to the ranch he brought with him a great brown paper bundle, which the children opened by the cabin fire on the joyous evening of his arrival. There were back numbers of the illustrated magazines and papers, stray copies of which now and then had drifted into the hands of the voracious young readers in the cabin. There were a few novels, selected by Kirkwood from the camp library with especial reference to Ruth Mary. For Tommy there was a duplicate of the wonderful pocket-knife that he had envied Kirkwood. Angy was remembered with a little music-box, which played "Willie, we have missed you" with a plaintive iteration that brought the sensitive tears to Ruth Mary's eyes; and for Ruth Mary herself there was a lace pin of hammered gold.
"He said it must be your wedding present from him, as you'd be married likely before he saw you again," Mr. Tully said, with innocent pride in the gift with which his daughter had been honored.
"Who said that?" Ruth Mary asked.
"Why, Mr. Kirkwood said it. He's the boss one of the whole lot to my thinkin'. He's got that way with him some folks has! We had some real good talks, evenings, down on the rocks under the old bridge,--I told him about you and Enselman"--
"Father, I wish you hadn't done that." The protest in Ruth Mary's voice was stronger than her words.
She had become slightly pale when Kirkwood's name was mentioned, but now, as she held out the box with the trinket in it, a deep blush covered her face.
"I cannot take it, father. Not with that message. He can wait till I am married before he sends me his wedding present."
To her father's amazement, she burst into tears and went out into the shed-room, leaving Kirkwood's ill-timed gift in his hands.
"What in all conscience' sake's got into her?" he demanded of his wife, "to take offense at a little thing like that! She didn't use to be so techy."
Mrs. Tully nodded her head at him sagely and glanced at the children, a hint that she understood Ruth Mary's state of mind, but could not explain before them.
At bedtime, the father and mother being alone together, Mrs. Tully revealed the cause of her daughter's sensitiveness, according to her theory of it. "She's put out because Joe Enselman chose to wait till spring before marryin', and went off to Montany instead of comin' home as he said he would."
"Sho, sho!" said Mr. Tully. "That don't seem like Ruth Mary. She ain't in any such a hurry as all that comes to. I've had it on my mind lately that she took it a little too easy."
"You'll see," said the mother. "She ain't in any hurry, but she likes him to be. She feels's if he thought more of money-makin' than he does of her. She's like all girls. She won't use her reason and see it's all for her in the end he's doin' it."
"Why didn't you tell her 'twas my plan, his goin' to Montany this fall? He wouldn't listen to it nohow then. He'd rather lose his ranch than wait any longer for Sis, so he said; but I guess he's seen the sense of what I told him. 'Ruth Mary ain't a-goin' to run away,' I says, 'even if ye don't prove up on her this fall.' You ought to 'a' told her, mother, 'twas my proposition."
"I told her that and more too. I told her it showed he'd make a good provider. She looked at me solemn as a graven image all the time I was talkin' and not a word out of her. But that's Ruth Mary. I never said the child was sullen, but she is just like your sister Ruth--the more she feels, the less she talks."
"Well," said Mr. Tully, "that's all right, if that's it. That'll all straighten out with time. It was natural perhaps she should fire up at the talk about marryin' if she felt the bridegroom was hangin' back. Why, Joe,--he'd eat the dirt she treads on, if he couldn't make her like him no other way! He's most too foolish about her, to my thinkin'. That's what took me so by surprise when word come back he'd gone to Montany after all; I didn't expect anything so sensible of him."
"'Twas a reg'lar man's piece o' work anyhow," said Mrs. Tully disconsolately.
"And you'll be sorry for it, I'm afraid. I never knew any good come of puttin' off a marriage, where everything was suitable, just for a few hundred acres of wild land, more or less."
"No use your worryin'," said Mr. Tully. "Young folks always has their little troubles before they settle down--besides, what sort of a marriage would it be if you or I could make it or break it?" But he bore himself with a deprecating tenderness towards his daughter, in whose affairs he had meddled, perhaps disastrously, as his better half feared.
* * * * *
The winters of Idaho are not long, even in the higher valleys. Close upon the cold footsteps of the retreating snows trooped the first wild flowers. The sun seemed to laugh in the cloudless sky. The children were let loose on the hills; their voices echoed the river's chime. Its waters, rising with the melting snows, no longer babbled childishly on their way; they shouted, and brawled, and tumbled over the bar, rolling huge pine trunks along as if they were sticks of kindling wood.
One cool May evening, Ruth Mary, climbing the path from the beach, saw there was a strange horse and two pack animals in the corral. She did not stop to look at them, but, quickly guessing who their owner must be, she went on to the house, her knees weak and trembling, her heart beating heavily. Her father met her at the door and detained her outside. She was prepared for his announcement. She knew that Joe Enselman had returned, and that the time was come for her to prove her new resolve, born of the winter's silent struggle.
"I thought I'd better have a few words with you, Ruthie, before you see him--to prepare your mind. Set down here." Mr. Tully took his daughter's hands in his own and held them while he talked.
"You thought it was queer Joe stayed away so long, didn't you?" Ruth Mary opened her lips to speak, but no words came. "Well, I did," said the father. "Though it was my plan first off. I might 'a' know'd it was something more 'n business that kep' him. Joe's had an accident. It happened to him just about the time he meant to 'a' started for home last fall. It broke him all up,--made him feel like he didn't want to see any of us just then. He was goin' along a trail through the woods one dark night; he never knew what stunned him; must have been a twig or something struck him in the eye; he was giddy and crazy-like for a spell; his horse took him home. Well, he ain't got but one eye left, Joe ain't. There, Sis, I knew you'd feel bad. But he's well. It's hurt his looks some, but what's looks! We ain't any of us got any to brag on. Joe had some hopes at first he'd git to seein' again out of the eye that was hurt, and so he sent home his animals and put out for Salt Lake to show it to a doctor there; but it wan't any use. The eye's gone; and it doos seem as if for the time bein' some of Joe's grit had gone with it. He went up to Montany and tended to his business, but it was all like a dumb show and no heart in it. It's cut him pretty deep, through his bein' alone so long, perhaps, and thinkin' about how you'd feel. And then he's pestered in his mind about marryin'. He feels he's got no claim to you now. Says it ain't fair to ask a young girl that's likely to have plenty good chances to tie up to what's left of him. I wanted you should know about this before you go inside. It might hurt him some to see a change in your face when you look at him first. As to his givin' you your word back, that you'll settle between yourselves; but, however you fix it, I guess you'll make it as easy as you can for Joe. I don' know as ever I see a big strappin' fellow so put down."
Mr. Tully had waited, between his short and troubled sentences, for some response from Ruth Mary, but she was still silent. Her hands felt cold in his. As he released them she leaned suddenly forward and hid her face against his shoulder. She shivered and her breast heaved, but she was not weeping.
"There, there!" said Mr. Tully, stroking her head clumsily with his large hand. "I've made a botch of it. I'd ought to 'a' let your mother told ye."
She pressed closer to him, and wrapped her arms around him without speaking.
"I expect I better go in now," he said gently, putting her away from him. "Will you come along o' me, or do you want to git a little quieter first?"
"You go in," Ruth Mary whispered. "I'll come soon."
It was not long before she followed her father into the house. No one was surprised to see her white and tremulous. She seemed to know where Enselman sat without raising her eyes; neither did he venture to look at her, as she came to him, and stooping forward, laid her little cold hands on his.
"I'm glad you've come back," she said. Then sinking down suddenly on the floor at his feet, she threw her apron over her head and sobbed aloud.
The father and mother wept too. Joe sat still, with a great and bitter longing in his smitten countenance, but did not dare to comfort her.
"Pick her up, Joe," said Mr. Tully.
"Take hold of her, man, and show her you've got a whole heart if you ain't got but one eye."
It was understood, as Ruth Mary meant that it should be, without more words, that Enselman's misfortune would make no difference in their old relation. The difference it had made in that new resolve born of the winter's struggle she told to no one; for to no one had she confided her resolve.
* * * * *
Joe stayed two weeks at the ranch, and was comforted into a semblance of his former hardy cheerfulness. But Ruth Mary knew that he was not happy. One evening he asked her to go with him down the high shore path. He told her that he was going to town the next day on business that might keep him absent about a fortnight, and entreated her to think well of her promise to him, for that on his return he should expect its fulfillment. For God's sake he begged her to let no pity for his misfortune blind her to the true nature of her feeling for him. He held her close to his heart and kissed her many times. Did she love him so--and so?--he asked. Ruth Mary, trembling, said she did not know. How could she help knowing? he demanded passionately. Had her thoughts been with him all winter, as his had been with her? Had she looked up the river towards the hills where he was staying so long and wished for him, as he had gazed southward into the valleys many and many a day, longing for the sweet blue eyes of his little girl so far away?
Alas, Ruth Mary! She gazed almost wildly into his stricken face, distorted by the anguish of his great love and his great dread. She wished that she were dead. There seemed no other way out of her trouble.
The next morning, before she was dressed, Enselman rode away, and her father went with him.
She was alone, now, in the midst of the hills she loved--alone as she would never be again. She foresaw that she would not have the strength to lay that last blow upon her faithful old friend,--the crushing blow that perfect truth demanded. Her tenderness was greater than her truth.
* * * * *
The river was now swollen to its greatest volume. Its voice, that had been the babble of a child and the tumult of a boy, was now deep and heavy like the chest notes of a strong man. Instead of the sparkling ripple on the bar, there was a continuous roar of yellow, turbid water that could be heard a mile away. There had been no fording for six weeks, nor would there be again until late summer. The useless boat lay in the shallow wash that filled the deep cut among the willows. The white sand beach was gone; heavy waves swirled past the banks and sent their eddies up into the channels of the hills to meet the streams of melted snow. Thunder clouds chased each other about the mountains, or met in sudden downfalls of rain.
One sultry noon, when the sun had come out hot on the hills after a wet morning, Ruth Mary, at work in the shed-room, heard a sound that drove the color from her cheek. She ran out and looked up the river, listening to a distant but ever increasing roar which could be heard above the incessant laboring of the waters over the bar. Above the summit of Sheep Mountain, as it seemed, a huge turban-shaped cloud had rolled itself up, and from its central folds was discharging gray sheets of water that veered and slanted with the wind, but were always distinct in their density against the rain-charged atmosphere. How far away the floods were descending she did not know; but that they were coming in a huge wall of water, overtaking and swallowing up the river's current, she was as sure as that she had been bred in the mountains.
Bare-headed, bare-armed as she was, without a backward look, she ran down the hill to the place where the boat was moored. Tommy was there, sitting in the boat and making the shallow water splash as he rocked from side to side.
"Get out, Tommy, and let me have her, quick!" Ruth Mary called to him.
Tommy looked at her stolidly and kept on rocking. "What you want with her?" he asked.
"Come out, for mercy's sake! Don't you hear it? There's a cloud-burst on the mountain."
Tommy listened. He did hear it, but he did not stir. "It'll be a bully thing to see when it comes. What you doin'? You act like you was crazy," he exclaimed, as Ruth Mary waded through the water and got into the boat.
"Tommy, you will kill me if you stop to talk! Don't you know the camp at Moor's Bridge? Go home and tell mother I've gone to give 'em warning."
Tommy was instantly sobered. "I'm going with you," he said. "You can't handle her alone in that current."
Ruth Mary, wild with the delay, every second of which might be the price of precious lives, seized Tommy in her arms, hugged him close and kissed him, and by main strength rolled him out into the water. He grasped the gunwale with both hands. "You're going to be drowned," he shrieked, as if already she were far away. She pushed off his hands and shot out into the current.
"Don't cry, Tommy, I'll get there somehow," she called back to him. She could see nothing for the first few minutes of her journey but his little wet, dismal figure toiling, sobbing, up the hill. It hurt her to have had to be rough with him. But all the while she sat upright with her eyes on the current, plying her paddle right and left, as rocks and driftwood and eddies were passed. She heard it coming, that distant roar from the hills, and prayed with beating heart that the wild current might carry her faster--faster--past the draggled willow copses--past the beds of black lava rock, and the bluffs with their patches of green moss livid in the sunshine--hurling along, past glimpses of the well-known trail she had followed dreamily on those peaceful rides she might never take again. The thought did not trouble her, only the fear that she might be overtaken before she reached the camp. For the waters were coming--or was it the wind that brought that dread sound so near! She dared not look round lest she should see, through the gates of the canon, the black lifted head of the great wave, devouring the river behind her. How it would come swooping down, between those high narrow walls of rock, her heart stood still to think of. If the hills would but open and let it loose, over the empty pastures--if the river would only hurry, hurry, hurry! She whispered the word to herself with frantic repetition, and the oncoming roar behind her answered her whisper of fear with its awful intoning.
She trembled with joy as the canon walls lowered and fell apart, and she saw the blessed plains, the low green flats and the willows, and the white tents of the camp, safe in the sunshine. Now if she be given but one moment's grace to swing into the bank! The roar behind her made her faint as she listened. For the first time she turned and looked back, and the cry of her despair went up and was lost, as boat and message and messenger were lost,--gone utterly, gorged at one leap by the senseless flood.
* * * * *
At half past five o'clock that afternoon the men of the camp filed out of the tunnel, along the new road-bed, with the low sunlight in their faces. It was "Saturday night," and the whole force was in good humor. As they tramped gayly along, tools and instruments glinting in the sun, word went down the line that something unusual had been going on by the river. There seemed to have been a wild uprising of its waters since they saw it last. Then a shout from those ahead proclaimed the disaster at the bridge. The Chinese cook, crouched among the rocks high up under the bluff, where he had fled for safety when he heard the waters coming, rushed down to them with wild wavings and gabblings, to tell them of a catastrophe that was best described by its results. A few provisions were left them, stored in a magazine under a rock on the hillside. They cooked their supper with the splinters of the ruined blacksmith's hut. After supper, in the clear, pink evening light, they wandered about on the slippery rocks, seeking whatever fragments of their camp equipage the flood might have left them. Everything had been swept away, and tons of mud and gravel covered the little green meadow where their tents had stood. Kirkwood, straying on ahead of his comrades, came to the rocks below the bridge timbers, from which the awning had been torn away. The wet rocks glistened in the light, but there was a whiter gleam which caught his eye. He stooped and crawled under the timbers anchored in the bank, until he came to the spot of whiteness. Was this that fair young girl from the hills, dragged here by the waters in their cruel orgy, and then hidden by them as if in shame of their work? Kirkwood recognized the simple features, the meek eyes, wide open in the searching light. The mud that filled her garments had spared the pure young face. Kirkwood gazed into it reverently, but the passionate sacrifice, the useless warning, were sealed from him. She could not tell him why she was there.
The three young men watched in turn, that night, by the little motionless heap covered with Kirkwood's coat. Kirkwood was very sad about Ruth Mary, yet he slept when his watch was over.
In the morning they nailed together some boards into the shape of a long box. There was not a boat left on the river; fording was impossible. They could only take her home by the trail. So once more Ruth Mary traveled that winding path, high in the sunlight or low in the shade of the shore. A log of driftwood, left by the great wave, slung on one side of a mule's pack saddle, balanced the rude coffin on the other. No one meeting the three engineers and their pack-mule filing down the trail would have known that they were a funeral procession; but they were heavy-hearted as they rode along, and Kirkwood would fain it had not been his part to ride ahead and prepare the family at the ranch for their child's coming.
The mother, with Tommy and Angy hiding their faces against her, stood on the hill and watched for it, and broke into cries as the mule with its burden came in sight.
Kirkwood walked with them down the hill to meet it. His comrades dismounted, and the three young men, with heads uncovered, carried the coffin over the hill and set it down in the shed-room. Then Tommy, in a burst of childish grief, made them know that this piteous sacrifice had been for them.
The tunnel made its way through the hill, the sinuous road-bed wound up the valley, new camps were built along its course; but when the young men sat together of an evening and looked at the hills in the strange pink light, a spell of quietness rested upon them which no one tried to explain.
* * * * *
The railroad has been built these two years. Every summer brings tourists up into the Bear River valley. They look with delight upon the mountain stream, bounding down between the hills with the brightness of the morning on its breast.
"There should be an idyl or a legend belonging to it," a pretty, dark-eyed girl with a Boston accent said to Kirkwood, one moonlight evening late in summer when the river was low, as they drifted softly down between its dim shores. "Poor little Bear River! did nothing human ever happen near you to give you a right to a prettier name?"
The river did not answer as it rippled over the bar, nor did Kirkwood speak for it; but the wood dove's melancholy tremolo came from the misty willows by the shore, and in some suddenly illumined place in his memory he saw Ruth Mary, sitting on the high bank in the peaceful afternoon, the sunshine resting on her smooth, fair hair, the shadow lending its softness to her shy, down-bent face.
The pity of it, when he thinks of it sometimes, seems to him more than he can bear. Yet if Ruth Mary had still been there at the ranch on the hills, she would have been, to him, only "that nice little girl of Tully's who married the one-eyed packer."