The Claim Jumpers by Stewart Edward White
Chapter IV. The Sun Fairy
The next afternoon, after the day's writing and prospecting were finished, Bennington resolved to go deer hunting. He had skipped thirteen chapters of his work to describe the heroine, Rhoda. She had wonderful eyes, and was, I believe, dressed in a garment whose colour was pink.
"Keep yore moccasins greased," Old Mizzou advised at parting; by which he meant that the young man was to step softly.
This he found to be difficult. His course lay along the top of the ridge where the obstructions were many. There were outcrops, boulders, ravines, broken twigs, old leaves, and dikes, all of which had to be surmounted or avoided. They were all aggravating, but the dikes possessed some intellectual interest which the others lacked.
A dike, be it understood, is a hole in the earth made visible. That is to say, in old days, when mountains were much loftier than they are now, various agencies brought it to pass that they split and cracked and yawned down to the innermost cores of their being in such hideous fashion that chasms and holes of great depth and perpendicularity were opened in them. Thereupon the interior fires were released, and these, vomiting up a vast supply of molten material, filled said chasms and holes to the very brim. The molten material cooled into fire-hardened rock. The rains descended and the snows melted. Under their erosive influence the original mountains were cut down somewhat, but the erstwhile molten material, being, as we have said, fire-hardened, wasted very little, or not at all, and, as a consequence, stands forth above its present surroundings in exact mould of the ancient cracks or holes.
Now, some dikes are long and narrow, others are short and wide, and still others are nearly round. All, however, are highest points, and, head and shoulders above the trees, look abroad over the land.
When Bennington came to one of these dikes he was forced to pick his way carefully in a detour around its base. Between times he found hobnails much inclined to click against unforeseen stones. The broken twig came to possess other than literary importance. After a little his nerves asserted themselves. Unconsciously he relaxed his attention and began to think.
The subject of his thoughts was the girl he had seen just twenty-four hours before. He caught himself remembering little things he had not consciously noticed at the time, as, for instance, the strange contrast between the mischief in her eyes and the austerity of her brow, or the queer little fashion she had of winking rapidly four or five times, and then opening her eyes wide and looking straight into the depths of his own. He considered it quite a coincidence that he had unconsciously returned to the spot on which they had met the day before--the rich Crazy Horse lode.
As though in answer to his recognition of this fact, her voice suddenly called to him from above.
"Hullo, little boy!" it cried.
He felt at once that he was pleased at the encounter.
"Hullo!" he answered; "where are you?"
He looked up, and then still up, until, at the flat top of the castellated dike that stood over him, he caught a gleam of pink. The contrast between it, the blue of the sky, and the dark green of the trees, was most beautiful and unusual. Nature rarely uses pink, except in sunsets and in flowers. Bennington thought pleasedly how every impression this girl made upon him was one of grace or beauty or bright colour. The gleam of pink disappeared, and a great pine cone, heavy with pitch, came buzzing through the air to fall at his feet.
"That's to show you where I am," came the clear voice. "You ought to feel honoured. I've only three cones left."
The dike before which Bennington had paused was one of the round variety. It rose perhaps twenty feet above the debris at its base, sheer, gray, its surface almost intact except for an insignificant number of frost fissures. From its base the hill fell rapidly, so that, even from his own inferior elevation, he was enabled to look over the tops of trees standing but a few rods away from him. He could see that the summit of this dike was probably nearly flat, and he surmised that, once up there, one would become master of a pretty enough little plateau on which to sit; but his careful circumvallation could discover no possible method of ascent. The walls afforded no chance for a squirrel's foothold even. He began to doubt whether he had guessed aright as to the girl's whereabouts, and began carefully to examine the tops of the trees. Discovering nothing in them, he cast another puzzled glance at the top of the dike. A pair of violet eyes was scrutinizing him gravely over the edge of it.
"How in the world did you get up there?" he cried.
"Flew," she explained, with great succinctness.
"Look out you don't fall," he warned hastily; her attitude was alarming.
"I am lying flat," said she, "and I can't fall."
"You haven't told me how you got up. I want to come up, too."
"How do you know I want you?"
"I have such a lot of things to say!" cried Bennington, rather at a loss for a valid reason, but feeling the necessity keenly.
"Well, sit down and say them. There's a big flat rock just behind you."
This did not suit him in the least. "I wish you'd let me up," he begged petulantly. "I can't say what I want from here."
"I can hear you quite well. You'll have to talk from there, or else keep still."
"That isn't fair!" persisted the young man, adopting a tone of argument. "You're a girl----"
"Stop there! You are wrong to start with. Did you think that a creature who could fly to the tops of the rocks was a mere girl? Not at all."
"What do you mean?" asked the easily bewildered Bennington.
"What I say. I'm not a girl."
"What are you then?"
"A sun fairy."
"A sun fairy?"
"Yes; a real live one. See that cloud over toward the sun? The nice downy one, I mean. That's my couch. I sleep on it all night. I've got it near the sun so that it will warm up, you see."
"I see," cried Bennington. He could recognise foolery--provided it were ticketed plainly enough. He sat down on the flat rock before indicated, and clasped his knee with his hands, prepared to enjoy more. "Is that your throne up there, Sun Fairy?" he asked. She had withdrawn her head from sight.
"It is," her voice came down to him in grave tones.
"It must be a very nice one."
"The nicest throne you ever saw."
"I never saw one, but I've often heard that thrones were unpleasant things."
"I am sitting, foolish mortal," said she, in tones of deep commiseration, "on a soft, thick cushion of moss--much more comfortable, I imagine, than hard, flat rocks. And the nice warm sun is shining on me--it must be rather chilly in the woods to-day. And there is a breeze blowing from the Big Horn--old rocks are always damp and stuffy in the shade. And I am looking away out over the Hills--I hope some people enjoy the sight of piles of quartzite."
"Cruel sun fairy!" cried Bennington. "Why do you tantalize me so with the delights from which you debar me? What have I done?"
There was a short silence.
"Can't you think of anything you've done?" asked the voice, insinuatingly.
Bennington's conscience-stricken memory stirred. It did not seem so ridiculous, under the direct charm of the fresh young voice that came down through the summer air from above, like a dove's note from a treetop, to apologize to Lawton's girl. The incongruity now was in forcing into this Arcadian incident anything savouring of conventionality at all. It had been so idyllic, this talk of the sun fairy and the cloud; so like a passage from an old book of legends, this dainty episode in the great, strong, Western breezes, under the great, strong, Western sky. Everything should be perfect, not to be blamed.
"Do sun fairies accept apologies?" he asked presently, in a subdued voice.
"This particular sun fairy is offered one by a man who is sorry."
"Is it a good big one?"
The head appeared over the edge of the rock, inspected him gravely for a moment, and was withdrawn.
"Then it is accepted," said the voice.
"Thank you!" he replied sincerely. "And now are you going to let down your rope ladder, or whatever it is? I really want to talk to you."
"You are so persistent!" cried the petulant voice, "and so foolish! It is like a man to spoil things by questionings!"
He suddenly felt the truth of this. One can not talk every day to a sun fairy, and the experience can never be repeated. He settled back on the rock.
"Pardon me, Sun Fairy!" he cried again. "Rope ladders, indeed, to one who has but to close her eyes and she finds herself on a downy cloud near the sun. My mortality blinded me!"
"Now you are a nice boy," she approved more contentedly, "and as a reward you may ask me one question."
"All right," he agreed; and then, with instinctive tact, "What do you see up there?"
He could hear her clap her hands with delight, and he felt glad that he had followed his impulse to ask just this question instead of one more personal and more in line with his curiosity.
"Listen!" she began. "I see pines, many pines, just the tops of them, and they are all waving in the breeze. Did you ever see trees from on top? They are quite different. And out from the pines come great round hills made all of stone. I think they look like skulls. Then there are breathless descents where the pines fall away. Once in a while a little white road flashes out."
"Yes," urged Bennington, as the voice paused. "And what else do you see?"
"I see the prairie, too," she went on half dreamily. "It is brown now, but the green is beginning to shine through it just a very little. And out beyond there is a sparkle. That is the Cheyenne. And beyond that there is something white, and that is the Bad Lands."
The voice broke off with a happy little laugh.
Bennington saw the scene as though it lay actually spread out before him. There was something in the choice of the words, clearcut, decisive, and descriptive; but more in the exquisite modulations of the voice, adding here a tint, there a shade to the picture, and casting over the whole that poetic glamour which, rarely, is imitated in grosser materials by Nature herself, when, just following sunset, she suffuses the landscape with a mellow afterglow.
The head, sunbonneted, reappeared perked inquiringly sideways.
"Hello, stranger!" it called with a nasal inflection, "how air ye? Do y' think minin' is goin' t' pan out well this yar spring?" Then she caught sight of his weapon. "What are you going to shoot?" she asked with sudden interest.
"I thought I might see a deer."
"Deer! hoh!" she cried in lofty scorn, reassuming her nasal tone. "You is shore a tenderfoot! Don' you-all know that blastin' scares all th' deer away from a minin' camp?"
Bennington looked confused. "No, I hadn't thought of that," he confessed stoutly enough.
"I kind of like to shoot!" said she, a little wistfully. "What sort of a gun is it?"
"A Savage smokeless," answered Bennington perfunctorily.
"One of the thirty-calibres?" inquired the sunbonnet with new interest.
"Yes," gasped Bennington, astonished at so much feminine knowledge of firearms.
"Oh! I'd like to see it. I never saw any of those. May I shoot it, just once?"
"Of course you may. More than once. Shall I come up?"
"No. I'll come down. You sit right still on that rock."
The sunbonnet disappeared, and there ensued a momentary commotion on the other side of the dike. In an instant the girl came around the corner, picking her way over the loose blocks of stone. With the finger-tips of either hand she held the pink starched skirt up, displaying a neat little foot in a heavy little shoe. Diagonally across the skirt ran two irregular brown stains. She caught him looking at them.
"Naughty, naughty!" said she, glancing down at them with a grimace.
She dropped her skirt, and stood up beside him with a pretty shake of the shoulders.
"Now let's see it," she begged.
She examined the weapon with much interest, throwing down and back the lever in a manner that showed she was accustomed at least to the old-style arm.
"How light it is!" she commented, squinting through the sights. "Doesn't it kick awfully?"
"Not a bit. Smokeless powder, you know."
"Of course. What'll we shoot at?"
Bennington fumbled in his pockets and produced an envelope.
"How's this?" he asked.
She seized it and ran like an antelope--with the same gliding motion--to a tree about thirty paces distant, on which she pinned the bit of paper. They shot. Bennington hit the paper every time. The girl missed it once. At this she looked a little vexed.
"You are either very rude or very sincere," was her comment.
"You're the best shot I ever saw----"
"Now don't dare say 'for a girl!'" she interrupted quickly. "What's the prize?"
"Was this a match?"
"Of course it was, and I insist on paying up."
"I think I would like to go to the top of the rock there, and see the pines, and the skull-stones, and the prairies."
She glanced toward him, knitting her brows. "It is my very own," she said doubtfully. "I've never let anybody go up there before."
One of the diminutive chipmunks of the hills scampered out from a cleft in the rocks and perched on a moss-covered log, chattering eagerly and jerking his tail in the well-known manner of chipmunks.
"Oh, see! see!" she cried, all excitement in a moment. She seized the rifle, and taking careful aim, fired. The chattering ceased; the chipmunk disappeared.
Bennington ran to the log. Behind it lay the little animal. The long steel-jacketed bullet had just grazed the base of its brain. He picked it up gently in the palm of his hand and contemplated it.
It was such a diminutive beast, not as large as a good-sized rat, quite smaller than our own fence-corner chipmunks of the East. It's little sides were daintily striped, its little whiskers were as perfect as those of the great squirrels in the timber bottom. In its pouches were the roots of pine cones. Bennington was not a sentimentalist, but the incident, against the background of the light-hearted day, seemed to him just a little pathetic. Something of the feeling showed in his eyes.
The girl, who had drawn near, looked from him to the dead chipmunk, and back again. Then she burst suddenly into tears.
"Oh, cruel, cruel!" she sobbed. "What did I do it for? What did you let me do it for?"
Her distress was so keen that the young man hastened to relieve it.
"There," he reassured her lightly, "don't do that! Why, you are a great hunter. You got your game. And it was a splendid shot. We'll have him skinned when we get back home, and we'll cure the skin, and you can make something out of it--a spectacle case," he suggested at random. "I know how you feel," he went on, to give her time to recover, "but all hunters feel that way occasionally. See, I'll put him just here until we get ready to go home, where nothing can get him."
He deposited the squirrel in the cleft of a rock, quite out of sight, and stood back as though pleased. "There, that's fine!" he concluded.
With one of those instantaneous transitions, which seemed so natural to her, and yet which appeared to reach not at all to her real nature, she had changed from an aspect of passionate grief to one of solemn inquiry. Bennington found her looking at him with the soul brimming to the very surface of her great eyes.
"I think you may come up on my rock," she said simply after a moment.
They skirted the base of the dike together until they had reached the westernmost side. There Bennington was shown the means of ascent, which he had overlooked before because of his too close examination of the cliff itself. At a distance of about twenty feet from the dike grew a large pine tree, the lowest branch of which extended directly over the little plateau and about a foot above it. Next to the large pine stood two smaller saplings side by side and a few inches apart. These had been converted into a ladder by the nailing across of rustic rounds.
"That's how I get up," explained the girl. "Now you go back around the corner again, and when I'm ready I'll call."
Bennington obeyed. In a few moments he heard again the voice in the air summoning him to approach and climb.
He ascended the natural ladder easily, but when within six or eight feet of the large branch that reached across to the dike, the smaller of the two saplings ceased, and so, naturally, the ladder terminated.
"Hi!" he called, "how did you get up this?"
He looked across the intervening space expectantly, and then, to his surprise, he observed that the girl was blushing furiously.
"I--I," stammered a small voice after a moment's hesitation, "I guess I--shinned!"
A light broke across Bennington's mind as to the origin of the two dark streaks on the gown, and he laughed. The girl eyed him reproachfully for a moment or so; then she too began to laugh in an embarrassed manner. Whereupon Bennington laughed the harder. He shinned up the tree, to find that an ingenious hand rope had been fitted above the bridge limb, so that the crossing of the short interval to the rock was a matter of no great difficulty. In another instant he stood upon the top of the dike.
It was, as he had anticipated, nearly flat. Under the pine branch, which might make a very good chair back, grew a thick cushion of moss. The one tree broke the freedom of the eye's sweep toward the west, but in all other directions it was uninterrupted. As the girl had said, the tops of pines alone met the view, miles on miles of them, undulating, rising, swelling, breaking against the barrier of a dike, or lapping the foot of a great round boulder-mountain. Here and there a darker spot suggested a break for a mountain peak; rarely a fleck of white marked a mountain road. Back of them all--ridge, mountain, cavernous valley--towered old Harney, sun-browned, rock-diademed, a few wisps of cloud streaming down the wind from his brow, locks heavy with the age of the great Manitou whom he was supposed to represent. Eastward, the prairie like a peaceful sea. Above, the alert sky of the west. And through all the air a humming--vast, murmurous, swelling--as the mountain breeze touched simultaneously with strong hand the chords, not of one, but a thousand pine harps.
Bennington drew in a deep breath, and looked about in all directions. The girl watched him.
"Ah! it is beautiful!" he murmured at last with a half sigh, and looked again.
She seized his hand eagerly.
"Oh, I'm so glad you said that--and no more than that!" she cried. "I feel the sun fairy can make you welcome now."