The Sky Pilot in No Man's Land by Ralph Connor
Chapter II. On the Red Pine Trail
On the Red Pine trail two men were driving in a buckboard drawn by a pair of half-broken pinto bronchos. The outfit was a rather ramshackle affair, and the driver was like his outfit. Stewart Duff was a rancher, once a "remittance man," but since his marriage three years ago he had learned self-reliance and was disciplining himself in self-restraint. A big, lean man he was, his thick shoulders and large, hairy muscular hands suggesting great physical strength, his swarthy face, heavy features, coarse black hair, keen dark eyes, deepset under shaggy brows, suggesting force of character with a possibility of brutality in passion. Yet when he smiled his heavy face was not unkindly, indeed the smile gave it a kind of rugged attractiveness. He was past his first youth, and on his face were the marks of the stormy way by which he had come.
He drove his jibing bronchos with steady hands. No light touch was his upon the reins, and the bronchos' wild plunging met with a check from those muscular hands of such iron rigidity as to fling them back helpless and amazed upon their hocks.
His companion was his opposite in physical appearance, and in those features and lines that so unmistakably reveal the nature and character within. Short and stout, inclined indeed to fat, to his great distress, his thick-set figure indicated strength without agility, solidity without resilience. He had a pleasant, open face, with a kindly, twinkling blue eye that goes with a merry heart, with a genial, sunny soul. But there was in the blue eye and in the open face, for all the twinkles and the smiles, a certain alert shrewdness that proclaimed the keen man of business, and in the clean cut lips lay the suggestion of resolute strength. A likable man he was, with an infinite capacity for humour, but with a bedrock of unyielding determination in him that always surprised those who judged him lightly.
The men were friends, and had been comrades more or less during those pioneer days that followed their arrival in the country from Scotland some dozen years ago. Often they had fallen out with each other, for Duff was stormy of temper and had a habit of letting himself swing out upon its gusts of passion, reckless of consequences; but he was ever the one to offer amends and to seek renewal of good relations. He had few friends, and so he clung the more closely to those he had. At such times the other would wait in cool, good-tempered but determined aloofness for his friend's return.
"You can chew your cud till you're cool again," he would say when the outbreak would arise. But invariably their differences were composed and their friendship remained unbroken.
The men sat in the buckboard, leaning forward with hunched shoulders, swaying easily to the pitching of the vehicle as it rattled along the trail which, especially where it passed over the round topped ridges, was thickly strewn with stones. Before them, now on the trail and now ranging wide over the prairie, ran a beautiful black and white English setter.
"Great dog that, Sandy," said Duff. "I could have had a dozen birds this afternoon. A wonderful nose, and steady as a rock."
"A good dog, Stewart," assented Sandy, but with slight interest.
"There ain't another like him in this western country," said the owner of the dog with emphasis.
"Oh, I don't know about that. There are some very good dogs around here, Stewart," replied Sandy lightly.
"But I know. And that's why I'm saying there ain't his like in this western country, and that's as true as your name is Sandy Bayne."
"Well, my name is Sandy Bayne, all right, but how did he come out at the Calgary trials?"
"Aw, those damned gawks! They don't know a good dog from a he- goat! They don't know what a dog is for, or how to use him."
"Oh, now, Stewart," said Sandy, "I guess Willocks knows a dog when he sees one."
"Willocks!" said his friend with scorn. "There's where you're wrong. Do you know why he cut Slipper out of the Blue Ribbon? Because he wouldn't range a mile away. Darned old fool! What's the good of a point a mile away! Keeps you running over the whole creation, makes you lose time, tires yourself and tires your dog; and more than that, in nine cases out of ten you lose your bird. Give me a close ranger. He cleans up as he goes, keeps your game right at your hand, and gets you all the sport there is."
"Who beat you, Stewart, in the trials?"
"That bitch of Snider's."
"Man! Stewart, that's a beautiful bitch! I know her well. She's a beautiful bitch!" Sandy began to show enthusiasm.
"Oh, there you go! That's just what those fool judges said. 'Beautiful dog! Beautiful dog!' Suppose she is! Looks ain't everything. They're something, but the question is, does she get the birds? Now, Slipper there got three birds to her one. Got 'em within range, too."
"Ah, but Stewart, yon's a good bitch," said Sandy.
"Look here!" cried his friend, "I have bred more dogs in the old country than those men ever saw in their lives."
"That may be, Stewart, but yon's a good bitch," persisted Sandy.
For a mile more they discussed the merits of Slipper and of his rivals, Sandy with his semi-humorous chaff extracting quiet amusement from his friend's wrath, and the latter, though suspecting that he was being drawn, unable to restrain his passionate championship of his dog.
At length Sandy, wearying of the discussion, caught sight of a figure far before them on the trail.
"Who is that walking along there?" he enquired.
Together they ran over the names of all who in this horse country were unfortunate enough to be doomed to a pedestrian form of locomotion.
"Guess it's the preacher," said Duff finally, whose eyes were like a hawk's.
"He's been out at my place Sunday afternoon," said Sandy, "but I haven't met him myself. What sort is he?"
"Don't ask me. I sometimes go with the madame to church, but generally I fall asleep. He's no alarm clock."
"Then you can't tell what sort of a preacher he is," said Sandy with a twinkle in his eye. "You can't hear much when you are asleep."
"I hear enough to know that he's no good as a preacher. I hear they're going to fire him."
"I tell you what it is, Stewart," said Sandy, "I don't believe you would know a good sermon if you heard one."
"What's that you say? I've heard the best preachers in the country that breeds preachers, in the country where preachers grow like the berries on the bramble bushes. I know preaching, and I like good preaching, too."
"Oh, come off, Stewart! You may be a good judge of dogs, but I'm blowed if I am going to take you as a judge of preachers."
"The same qualities in all of them, dogs, horses, preachers," insisted Duff.
"How do you make that out?"
"Well, take a horse. He must be a good-looker. This preacher is a good-looker, all right, but looks ain't everything. Must be quick at the start, must have good action, good style, staying power, and good at the finish. Most preachers never know when to finish, and that's the way with this man."
"Are you going to take him up?" inquired Sandy, for they were now close upon the man walking before them.
"Oh, I guess not," replied Duff. "I haven't much use for him."
"Say, what's the matter with him? He looks rather puffed out," said Sandy. "Better take him up."
"All right," replied Duff, pulling up his bronchos. "Good day. Will you have a ride? Mr. Barry Dunbar, my friend Mr. Bayne."
"Glad to meet you, Mr. Bayne," said Barry, who was pale and panting hard. "Thanks for the lift. The truth--is--I'm rather--done up. A touch of asthma--the first--in five years. An old trouble of mine."
"Get up here," said Sandy. "There's room for three in the seat."
"No--thank you,--I should--crowd you,--all right behind here. Beastly business--this asthma. Worse when--the pollen--from the plants--is floating--about--so they say. I don't know--nobody does--I fancy." They drove on, bumping over the stones, Barry gradually getting back his wind. The talk of the men in the front seat had fallen again on dogs, Stewart maintaining with ever increasing vehemence his expert knowledge of dogs, of hunting dogs, and very especially of setter hunting dogs; his friend, while granting his knowledge of dogs in general, questioning the unprejudiced nature of his judgment as far as Slipper was concerned.
As Duff's declarations grew in violence they became more and more elaborately decorated with profanity. In the full tide of their conversation a quiet voice broke in:
"Too many 'damns.'"
"What!" exclaimed Duff.
"I beg your pardon!" said Sandy.
"Too many 'damns,'" said Barry, looking quietly at Duff.
"Dams? Where?" said Duff, looking about.
"Beaver dams, do you mean?" enquired Sandy. "I don't see any."
"Too many 'damns,'" reiterated Barry. "You don't need them. You really don't need them, you know, and besides, they are not right. Profanity is quite useless, and it's wicked."
"Well, I'll be damned!" said Stewart in a low voice to his friend. "He means us."
"And quite right, too," said Sandy solemnly. "You know your English is rotten bad. Yes, sir," he continued, turning round to Barry, "I quite agree with you. My friend is quite unnecessarily free in his speech."
"Yes, but you are just the same, you know," said Barry. "Not quite so many, but then you are not quite so excited."
"Got you there, old sport," grunted Duff, highly amused at Sandy's discomfiture. But to Barry he said, "I guess it's our own business how we express ourselves."
"Yes, it is, but, pardon me, not entirely so. There are others in the world, you know, and you must consider others. The habit is a bad habit, a rotten habit, and quite useless--silly, indeed."
Duff turned his back upon him. Sandy, giving his friend a nudge, burst into a loud laugh.
"You are right, sir," he said, turning to Barry. "You are quite right."
At this point Slipper created a diversion.
"Hello!" said Duff. "Say! Look at him!" He pointed to the dog. "Ain't he a picture!"
A hundred yards away stood Slipper, rigid, every muscle, every hair taut, one foot arrested in air.
"I'll just get those," said Duff, slipping out of the buckboard and drawing the gun from beneath the seat. "Steady, old boy, steady! Hold the lines, Sandy."
He moved quickly toward the dog who, quivering with that mysterious instinct found in the hunting dog, still held the point with taut muscles, nose and tail in line.
"Hello!" Barry called out. "It isn't the season yet for chicken. I say, Mr. Duff," he shouted, "it isn't the chicken season, you know."
"Better leave him alone," said Sandy.
"But it isn't the season yet! It is against the law!" protested Barry indignantly.
Meantime Stewart Duff was closing up cautiously behind Slipper.
"Forward, old boy! Ste-e-e-ady! Forward!" The dog refused to move. "Forward, Slipper!"
Still the dog remained rigid, as if nailed to the ground.
Slowly the dog turned his head with infinite caution half round toward his master, as if in protest.
"Hello, there!" shouted Barry, "you know--"
Just as he called there was on all sides a great whirring of wings. A dozen chicken flew up from under Duff's feet. Bang! Bang! went his gun.
"Missed, as I'm a sinner!" exclaimed Sandy. "I thought he was a better shot than that."
Back came Duff striding wide toward the buckboard. Fifty yards away he shouted:
"Say! what the devil do you mean calling like that at a man when he's on the point of shooting!" His face was black with anger. He looked ready to strike. Barry looked at him steadily.
"But, I was just reminding you that it was not the season for chicken yet," he said in the tone of a man prepared to reason the matter.
"What's that got to do with it! And anyway, whose business is it what I do but my own?"
"But it's against the law!"
"Oh, blank the law! Besides--"
"Besides it isn't--well, you know, it isn't quite sporting to shoot out of season." Barry's manner was as if dealing with a fractious child.
Duff, speechless with his passion, looked at him as if not quite sure what form his vengeance should take.
"He's quite right, Stewart," said his friend Sandy, who was hugely enjoying himself. "You know well enough you are down on the farmer chaps who go pot hunting before season. It's rotten sport, you know."
"Oh, hell! Will you shut up! Can't I shoot over my dog when he points? I'm not out shooting. If I want to give my dog a little experience an odd bird or two don't matter. Besides, what the--"
"Oh, come on, Stewart! Get in, and get a move on! You know you are in the wrong. But I thought you were a better shot than that," added Sandy.
His remark diverted Duff's rage.
"Better shot!" he stormed. "Who could shoot with a--a--a--" he was feeling round helplessly for a properly effective word,--"with a fellow yelling at you?" he concluded lamely. "I'd have had a brace of them if it hadn't been for him."
"In that case," said Barry coolly, "I saved you from the law."
"Saved me from the law! What the devil do you mean, anyway?" said Stewart. "If I want to pick up a bird who's to hinder me? And what's the law got to do with it?"
"Well, you know, I'm not sure but it might have been my duty to report you. I feel that all who break the game laws should be reported. It is the only way to stop the lawless destruction of the game."
Barry spoke in a voice of quiet deliberation, as if pondering the proper action in the premises.
"Quite right, too," said Sandy gravely, but with a twinkle in his blue eye. "They ought to be reported. I have no use for those poachers."
Duff made no reply. His rage and disgust, mingled with the sense of his being in the wrong, held him silent. No man in the whole country was harder upon the game poachers than he, but to be held up in his action and to be threatened with the law by this young preacher, whom he rather despised anyway, seemed to paralyse his mental activities. It did not help his self-control that he was aware that his friend was having his fun of him.
At this moment, fortunately for the harmony of the party, their attention was arrested by the appearance of a motor car driven at a furious rate along the trail, and which almost before they were aware came honking upon them. With a wild lurch the bronchos hurled themselves from the trail, upsetting the buckboard and spilling its load.
Duff, cumbered with his gun, which he had reloaded, allowed one of the reins to drop from his hands and the team went plunging about in a circle, but Barry, the first to get to his feet, rushed to the rescue, snatched the reins and held on till he had dragged the plunging bronchos to a halt.
The rage which had been boiling in Duff, and which with difficulty had been held within bounds, suddenly burst all bonds of control. With a fierce oath he picked up the gun which he had thrown aside in his struggle with the horses, and levelled it at the speeding motor car.
"For God's sake, Stewart, stop!" shouted Bayne, springing toward his friend.
Barry was nearer and quicker. The shot went off, but his hand had knocked up the gun.
"My God, Stewart! Are you clean crazy!" said Bayne, gripping him by the arm. "Do you know what you are doing? You are not fit to carry a gun!"
"I'd have bust his blanked tires for him, anyway!" blustered Duff, though his face and voice showed that he had received a shock.
"Yes, and you might have been a murderer by this time, and heading for the pen, but for Dunbar here. You owe him more than you can ever pay, you blanked fool!"
Duff made no reply, but busied himself with his horses. Nor did he speak again till everything was in readiness for the road.
"Get in," he then said gruffly, and that was his last word until they drove into the village.
At the store he drew up.
"Thank you for the lift," said Barry. "I should have had a tough job to get back in time."
Duff grunted at him, and passed on into the store.
"I am very glad to have met you," said Bayne, shaking hands warmly with him. "You have done us both a great service. He is my friend, you know."
"I am afraid I have offended him, all the same. But you see I couldn't help it, could I?"
Bayne looked at his young, earnest face for a moment or two as if studying him, then said with a curious smile, "No, I don't believe you could have helped it." And with that he passed into the store.
"What sort of a chap is that preacher of yours?" he asked of the storekeeper.
"I don't know; he ain't my church. Ask Innes there. He's a pillar."
Bayne turned to a long, lean, hard-faced man leaning against the counter.
"My name is Bayne, from Red Pine, Mr. Innes. I am interested in knowing what sort of a chap your preacher is. He comes out to our section, but I never met him till to-day."
"Oh, he's no that bad," said Innes cautiously.
"Not worth a cent," said a little, red headed man standing near. "He can't preach for sour apples."
"I wadna just say that, Mr. Hayes," said Innes.
"How do you know, Innes?" retorted Hayes. "You know you fall asleep before he gets rightly started."
"I aye listen better with ma eyes shut."
"Yes, and snore better, too, Mac," said Hayes. "But I don't blame you. Most of them go to sleep anyway. That's the kind of preacher he is."
"What sort of a chap is he? I mean what sort of man?"
"Well, for one thing, he's always buttin' in," volunteered a square-built military looking man standing near. "If he'd stick to his gospel it wouldn't be so bad, but he's always pokin' his nose into everything."
"But he's no that bad," said Innes again, "and as for buttin' in, McFettridge, and preachin' the gospel, I doubt the country is a good deal the better for the buttin' in that him and his likes have done this past year. And besides, the bairns all like him."
"Well, that's not a bad sign, Mr. Innes," said Sandy Bayne, "and I'm not sure that I don't like him myself. But I guess he butts in, all right."
"Oh, ay! he butts in," agreed Innes, "but I'm no so sure that that's no a part of his job, too."