"If it were to clear up I wouldn't know how to behave, it would seem so unnatural," said Kate. "Do you, by any chance, remember what the sun looks like, Phil?"
"Does the sun ever shine in Saskatchewan anyhow?" I asked with assumed sarcasm, just to make Kate's big, bonny black eyes flash.
They did flash; but Kate laughed immediately after, as she sat down on a chair in front of me and cradled her long, thin, spirited dark face in her palms.
"We have more sunny weather in Saskatchewan than in all the rest of Canada put together, in an average year," she said, clicking her strong, white teeth and snapping her eyes at me. "But I can't blame you for feeling sceptical about it, Phil. If I went to a new country and it rained every day—all day—all night—after I got there for three whole weeks I'd think things not lawful to be uttered about the climate too. So, little cousin, I forgive you. Remember that 'into each life some rain must fall, some days must be dark and dreary.' Oh, if you'd only come to visit me last fall. We had such a bee-yew-tiful September last year. We were drowned in sunshine. This fall we're drowned in water. Old settlers tell of a similar visitation in '72, though they claim even that wasn't quite as bad as this."
I was sitting rather disconsolately by an upper window of Uncle Kenneth Morrison's log house at Arrow Creek. Below was what in dry weather—so, at least, I was told—was merely a pretty, grassy little valley, but which was now a considerable creek of muddy yellow water, rising daily. Beyond was a cheerless prospect of sodden prairie and dripping "bluff."
"It would be a golden, mellow land, with purple hazes over the bluffs, in a normal fall," assured Kate. "Even now if the sun were just to shine out for a day and a good 'chinook' blow you'd see a surprising change. I feel like chanting continually that old rhyme I learned in the first primer,
'Rain, rain, go away, Come again some other day: —some other day next summer— Phil and Katie want to play.'
Philippa, dear girl, don't look so dismal. It's bound to clear up sometime."
"I wish the 'sometime' would come soon, then," I said, rather grumpily.
"You know it hasn't really rained for three days," protested Kate. "It's been damp and horrid and threatening, but it hasn't rained. I defy you to say that it has actually rained."
"When it's so wet underfoot that you can't stir out without rubber boots it might as well be wet overhead too," I said, still grumpily.
"I believe you're homesick, girl," said Kate anxiously.
"No, I'm not," I answered, laughing, and feeling ashamed of my ungraciousness. "Nobody could be homesick with such a jolly good fellow as you around, Kate. It's only that this weather is getting on my nerves a bit. I'm fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils. If your chinook doesn't come soon, Kitty, I'll do something quite desperate."
"I feel that way myself," admitted Kate. "Real reckless, Phil. Anyhow, let's put on our despised rubber boots and sally out for a wade."
"Here's Jim Nash coming on horseback down the trail," I said. "Let's wait and see if he's got the mail."
We hurried down, Kate humming, "Somewhere the sun is shining," solely, I believe, because she knew it aggravated me. At any other time I should probably have thrown a pillow at her, but just now I was too eager to see if Jim Nash had brought any mail.
I had come from Ontario, the first of September, to visit Uncle Kenneth Morrison's family. I had been looking forward to the trip for several years. My cousin Kate and I had always corresponded since they had "gone west" ten years before; and Kate, who revelled in the western life, had sung the praises of her adopted land rapturously and constantly. It was quite a joke on her that, when I did finally come to visit her, I should have struck the wettest autumn ever recorded in the history of the west. A wet September in Saskatchewan is no joke, however. The country was almost "flooded out." The trails soon became nearly impassable. All our plans for drives and picnics and inter-neighbour visiting—at that time a neighbour meant a man who lived at least six miles away—had to be given up. Yet I was not lonesome, and I enjoyed my visit in spite of everything. Kate was a host in herself. She was twenty-eight years old—eight years my senior—but the difference in our ages had never been any barrier to our friendship. She was a jolly, companionable, philosophical soul, with a jest for every situation, and a merry solution for every perplexity. The only fault I had to find with her was her tendency to make parodies. Kate's parodies were perfectly awful and always got on my nerves.
She was dreadfully ashamed of the way the Saskatchewan weather was behaving after all her boasting. She was thin at the best of times, but now she grew positively scraggy with the worry of it. I am afraid I took an unholy delight in teasing her, and abused the western weather even more than was necessary.
Jim Nash—the lank youth who was hired to look after the place during Uncle Kenneth's absence on a prolonged threshing expedition—had brought some mail. Kate's share was a letter, postmarked Bothwell, a rising little town about one hundred and twenty miles from Arrow Creek. Kate had several friends there, and one of our plans had been to visit Bothwell and spend a week with them. We had meant to drive, of course, since there was no other way of getting there, and equally of course the plan had been abandoned because of the wet weather.
"Mother," exclaimed Kate, "Mary Taylor is going to be married in a fortnight's time! She wants Phil and me to go up to Bothwell for the wedding."
"What a pity you can't go," remarked Aunt Jennie placidly. Aunt Jennie was always a placid little soul, with a most enviable knack of taking everything easy. Nothing ever worried her greatly, and when she had decided that a thing was inevitable it did not worry her at all.
"But I am going," cried Kate. "I will go—I must go. I positively cannot let Mary Taylor—my own beloved Molly—go and perpetrate matrimony without my being on hand to see it. Yes, I'm going—and if Phil has a spark of the old Blair pioneer spirit in her, she'll go too."
"Of course I'll go if you go," I said.
Aunt Jennie did not think we were in earnest, so she merely laughed at first, and said, "How do you propose to go? Fly—or swim?"
"We'll drive, as usual," said Kate calmly. "I'd feel more at home in that way of locomotion. We'll borrow Jim Nash's father's democrat, and take the ponies. We'll put on old clothes, raincoats, rubber caps and boots, and we'll start tomorrow. In an ordinary time we could easily do it in six days or less, but this fall we'll probably need ten or twelve."
"You don't really mean to go, Kate!" said Aunt Jennie, beginning to perceive that Kate did mean it.
"I do," said Kate, in a convincing tone.
Aunt Jennie felt a little worried—as much as she could feel worried over anything—and she tried her best to dissuade Kate, although she plainly did not have much hope of doing so, having had enough experience with her determined daughter to realize that when Kate said she was going to do a thing she did it. It was rather funny to listen to the ensuing dialogue.
"Kate, you can't do it. It's a crazy idea! The road is one hundred and twenty miles long."
"I've driven it twice, Mother."
"Yes, but not in such a wet year. The trail is impassable in places."
"Oh, there are always plenty of dry spots to be found if you only look hard for them."
"But you don't know where to look for them, and goodness knows what you'll get into while you are looking."
"We'll call at the M.P. barracks and get an Indian to guide us. Indians always know the dry spots."
"The stage driver has decided not to make another trip till the October frosts set in."
"But he always has such a heavy load. It will be quite different with us, you must remember. We'll travel light—just our provisions and a valise containing our wedding garments."
"What will you do if you get mired twenty miles from a human being?"
"But we won't. I'm a good driver and I haven't nerves—but I have nerve. Besides, you forget that we'll have an Indian guide with us."
"There was a company of Hudson Bay freighters ambushed and killed along that very trail by Blackfoot Indians in 1839," said Aunt Jennie dolefully.
"Fifty years ago! Their ghosts must have ceased to haunt it by this time," said Kate flippantly.
"Well, you'll get wet through and catch your deaths of cold," protested Aunt Jennie.
"No fear of it. We'll be cased in rubber. And we'll borrow a good tight tent from the M.P.s. Besides, I'm sure it's not going to rain much more. I know the signs."
"At least wait for a day or two until you're sure that it has cleared up," implored Aunt Jennie.
"Which being interpreted means, 'Wait for a day or two, because then your father may be home and he'll squelch your mad expedition,'" said Kate, with a sly glance at me. "No, no, my mother, your wiles are in vain. We'll hit the trail tomorrow at sunrise. So just be good, darling, and help us pack up some provisions. I'll send Jim for his father's democrat."
Aunt Jennie resigned herself to the inevitable and betook herself to the pantry with the air of a woman who washes her hands of the consequences. I flew upstairs to pack some finery. I was wild with delight over the proposed outing. I did not realize what it actually meant, and I had perfect confidence in Kate, who was an expert driver, an experienced camper out, and an excellent manager. If I could have seen what was ahead of us I would certainly not have been quite so jubilant and reckless, but I would have gone all the same. I would not miss the laughter-provoking memories of that trip out of my life for anything. I have always been glad I went.
We left at sunrise the next morning; there was a sunrise that morning, for a wonder. The sun came up in a pinky-saffron sky and promised us a fine day. Aunt Jennie bade us goodbye and, estimable woman that she was, did not trouble us with advice or forebodings.
Mr. Nash had sent over his "democrat," a light wagon with springs; and Kate's "shaganappies," Tom and Jerry—native ponies, the toughest horse flesh to be found in the world—were hitched to it. Kate and I were properly accoutred for our trip and looked—but I try to forget how we looked! The memory is not flattering.
We drove off in the gayest of spirits. Our difficulties began at the start, for we had to drive a mile before we could find a place to ford the creek. Beyond that, however, we had a passable trail for three miles to the little outpost of the Mounted Police, where five or six men were stationed on detachment duty.
"Sergeant Baker is a friend of mine," said Kate. "He'll be only too glad to lend me all we require."
The sergeant was a friend of Kate's, but he looked at her as if he thought she was crazy when she told him where we were going.
"You'd better take a canoe instead of a team," he said sarcastically. "I've a good notion to arrest you both as horse thieves and prevent you from going on such a mad expedition."
"You know nothing short of arrest would stop me," said Kate, nodding at him with laughing eyes, "and you really won't go to such an extreme, I know. So please be nice, even if it comes hard, and lend us some things. I've come a-borrying."
"I won't lend you a thing," declared the sergeant. "I won't aid and abet you in any such freak as this. Go home now, like a good girl."
"I'm not going home," said Kate. "I'm not a 'good girl'—I'm a wicked old maid, and I'm going to Bothwell. If you won't lend us a tent we'll go without—and sleep in the open—and our deaths will lie forever at your door. I'll come back and haunt you, if you don't lend me a tent. I'll camp on your very threshold and you won't be able to go out of your door without falling over my spook."
"I've more fear of being accountable for your death if I do let you go," said Sergeant Baker dubiously. "However, I see that nothing but physical force will prevent you. What do you want?"
"I want," said Kate, "a cavalry tent, a sheet-iron camp stove, and a good Indian guide—old Peter Crow for choice. He's such a respectable-looking old fellow, and his wife often works for us."
The sergeant gave us the tent and stove, and sent a man down to the Reserve for Peter Crow. Moreover, he vindicated his title of friend by making us take a dozen prairie chickens and a large ham—besides any quantity of advice. We didn't want the advice but we hugely welcomed the ham. Presently our guide appeared—quite a spruce old Indian, as Indians go. I had never been able to shake off my childhood conviction that an Indian was a fearsome creature, hopelessly addicted to scalping knives and tomahawks, and I secretly felt quite horrified at the idea of two defenceless females starting out on a lonely prairie trail with an Indian for guide. Even old Peter Crow's meek appearance did not quite reassure me; but I kept my qualms to myself, for I knew Kate would only laugh at me.
It was ten when we finally got away from the M.P. outpost. Sergeant Baker bade us goodbye in a tone which seemed to intimate that he never expected to see either of us again. What with his dismal predictions and my secret horror of Indians, I was beginning to feel anything but jubilant over our expedition. Kate, however, was as blithe and buoyant as usual. She knew no fear, being one of those enviable folk who can because they think they can. One hundred and twenty miles of half-flooded prairie trail—camping out at night in the solitude of the Great Lone Land—rain—muskegs—Indian guides—nothing had any terror for my dauntless cousin.
For the next three hours, however, we got on beautifully. The trail was fair, though somewhat greasy; the sun shone, though with a somewhat watery gleam, through the mists; and Peter Crow, coiled up on the folded tent behind the seat, slept soundly and snored mellifluously. That snore reassured me greatly. I had never thought of Indians as snoring. Surely one who did couldn't be dreaded greatly.
We stopped at one o'clock and had a cold lunch, sitting in our wagon, while Peter Crow wakened up and watered the ponies. We did not get on so well in the afternoon. The trail descended into low-lying ground where travelling was very difficult. I had to admit old Peter Crow was quite invaluable. He knew, as Kate had foretold, "all the dry spots"—that is to say, spots less wet than others. But, even so, we had to make so many detours that by sunset we were little more than six miles distant from our noon halting place.
"We'd better set camp now, before it gets any darker," said Kate. "There's a capital spot over there, by that bluff of dead poplar. The ground seems pretty dry too. Peter, cut us a set of tent poles and kindle a fire."
"Want my dollar first," said old Peter stolidly.
We had agreed to pay him a dollar a day for the trip, but none of the money was to be paid until we got to Bothwell. Kate told him this. But all the reply she got was a stolid, "Want dollar. No make fire without dollar."
We were getting cold and it was getting dark, so finally Kate, under the law of necessity, paid him his dollar. Then he carried out our orders at his own sweet leisure. In course of time he got a fire lighted, and while we cooked supper he set up the tent and prepared our beds, by cutting piles of brush and covering them with rugs.
Kate and I had a hilarious time cooking that supper. It was my first experience of camping out and, as I had become pretty well convinced that Peter Crow was not the typical Indian of old romance, I enjoyed it all hugely. But we were both very tired, and as soon as we had finished eating we betook ourselves to our tent and found our brush beds much more comfortable than I had expected. Old Peter coiled up on his blanket outside by the fire, and the great silence of a windless prairie enwrapped us. In a few minutes we were sound asleep and never wakened until seven o'clock.
When we arose and lifted the flap of the tent we saw a peculiar sight. The little elevation on which we had pitched our camp seemed to be an island in a vast sea of white mist, dotted here and there with other islands. On every hand to the far horizon stretched that strange, phantasmal ocean, and a hazy sun looked over the shifting billows. I had never seen a western mist before and I thought it extremely beautiful; but Kate, to whom it was no novelty, was more cumbered with breakfast cares.
"I'm ravenous," she said, as she bustled about among our stores. "Camping out always does give one such an appetite. Aren't you hungry, Phil?"
"Comfortably so," I admitted. "But where are our ponies? And where is Peter Crow?"
"Probably the ponies have strayed away looking for pea vines. They love and adore pea vines," said Kate, stirring up the fire from under its blanket of grey ashes. "And Peter Crow has gone to look for them, good old fellow. When you do get a conscientious Indian there is no better guide in the world, but they are rare. Now, Philippa-girl, just pry out the sergeant's ham and shave a few slices off it for our breakfast. Some savoury fried ham always goes well on the prairie."
I went for the ham but could not find it. A thorough search among our effects revealed it not.
"Kate, I can't find the ham," I called out. "It must have fallen out somewhere on the trail."
Kate ceased wrestling with the fire and came to help in the search for the missing delicacy.
"It couldn't have fallen out," she said incredulously. "That is impossible. The tent was fastened securely over everything. Nothing could have jolted out."
"Well, then, where is the ham?" I said.
That question was unanswerable, as Kate discovered after another thorough search. The ham was gone—that much was certain.
"I believe Peter Crow has levanted with the ham," I said decidedly.
"I don't believe Peter Crow could be so dishonest," said Kate rather shortly. "His wife has worked for us for years, and she's as honest as the sunlight."
"Honesty isn't catching," I remarked, but I said nothing more just then, for Kate's black eyes were snapping.
"Anyway, we can't have ham for breakfast," she said, twitching out the frying pan rather viciously. "We'll have to put up with canned chicken—if the cans haven't disappeared too."
They hadn't, and we soon produced a very tolerable breakfast. But neither of us had much appetite.
"Do you suppose Peter Crow has taken the horses as well as the ham?" I asked.
"No," gloomily responded Kate, who had evidently been compelled by the logic of hard facts to believe in Peter's guilt, "he would hardly dare to do that, because he couldn't dispose of them without being found out. They've probably strayed away on their own account when Peter decamped. As soon as this mist lifts I'll have a look for them. They can't have gone far."
We were spared this trouble, however, for when we were washing up the dishes the ponies returned of their own accord. Kate caught them and harnessed them.
"Are we going on?" I asked mildly.
"Of course we're going on," said Kate, her good humour entirely restored. "Do you suppose I'm going to be turned from my purpose by the defection of a miserable old Indian? Oh, wait till he comes round in the winter, begging."
"Will he come?" I asked.
"Will he? Yes, my dear, he will—with a smooth, plausible story to account for his desertion and a bland denial of ever having seen our ham. I shall know how to deal with him then, the old scamp."
"When you do get a conscientious Indian there's no better guide in the world, but they are rare," I remarked with a far-away look.
"Don't rub it in, Phil. Come, help me to break camp. We'll have to work harder and hustle for ourselves, that's all."
"But is it safe to go on without a guide?" I inquired dubiously. I hadn't felt very safe with Peter Crow, but I felt still more unsafe without him.
"Safe! Of course, it's safe—perfectly safe. I know the trail, and we'll just have to drive around the wet places. It would have been easier with Peter, and we'd have had less work to do, but we'll get along well enough without him. I don't think I'd have bothered with him at all, only I wanted to set Mother's mind at rest. She'll never know he isn't with us till the trip is over, so that is all right. We're going to have a glorious day. But, oh, for our lost ham! 'The Ham That Was Never Eaten.' There's a subject for a poem, Phil. You write one when we get back to civilization. Methinks I can sniff the savoury odour of that lost ham on all the prairie breezes."
"Of all sad words of tongue or pen, The saddest are these—it might have been,"
I quoted, beginning to wash the dishes.
"Saw ye my wee ham, saw ye my ain ham, Saw ye my pork ham down on yon lea? Crossed it the prairie last night in the darkness Borne by an old and unprincipled Cree?"
sang Kate, loosening the tent ropes. Altogether, we got a great deal more fun out of that ham than if we had eaten it.
As Kate had predicted, the day was glorious. The mists rolled away and the sun shone brightly. We drove all day without stopping, save for dinner—when the lost ham figured largely in our conversation—of course. We said so many witty things about it—at least, we thought them witty—that we laughed continuously through the whole meal, which we ate with prodigious appetite.
But with all our driving we were not getting on very fast. The country was exceedingly swampy and we had to make innumerable detours.
"'The longest way round is the shortest way to Bothwell,'" said Kate, when we drove five miles out of our way to avoid a muskeg. By evening we had driven fully twenty-five miles, but we were only ten miles nearer Bothwell than when we had broken camp in the morning.
"We'll have to camp soon," sighed Kate. "I believe around this bluff will be a good place. Oh, Phil, I'm tired—dead tired! My very thoughts are tired. I can't even think anything funny about the ham. And yet we've got to set up the tent ourselves, and attend to the horses; and we'll have to scrape some of the mud off this beautiful vehicle."
"We can leave that till the morning," I suggested.
"No, it will be too hard and dry then. Here we are—and here are two tepees of Indians also!"
There they were, right around the bluff. The inmates were standing in a group before them, looking at us as composedly as if we were not at all an unusual sight.
"I'm going to stay here anyhow," said Kate doggedly.
"Oh, don't," I said in alarm. "They're such a villainous-looking lot—so dirty—and they've got so little clothing on. I wouldn't sleep a wink near them. Look at that awful old squaw with only one eye. They'd steal everything we've got left, Kate. Remember the ham—oh, pray remember the fate of our beautiful ham."
"I shall never forget that ham," said Kate wearily, "but, Phil, we can't drive far enough to be out of their reach if they really want to steal our provisions. But I don't believe they will. I believe they have plenty of food—Indians in tepees mostly have. The men hunt, you know. Their looks are probably the worst of them. Anyhow, you can't judge Indians by appearances. Peter Crow looked respectable—and he was a whited sepulchre. Now, these Indians look as bad as Indians can look—so they may turn out to be angels in disguise."
"Very much disguised, certainly," I acquiesced satirically. "They seem to me to belong to the class of a neighbour of ours down east. Her family is always in rags, because she says, 'a hole is an accident, a patch is a disgrace,' Set camp here if you like, Kate. But I'll not sleep a wink with such neighbours."
I cheerfully ate my words later on. Never were appearances more deceptive than in the case of those Stoneys. There is an old saying that many a kind heart beats behind a ragged coat. The Indians had no coats for their hearts to beat behind—nothing but shirts—some of them hadn't even shirts! But the shirts were certainly ragged enough, and their hearts were kind.
Those Indians were gentlemen. They came forward and unhitched our horses, fed, and watered them; they pitched our tent, and built us a fire, and cut brush for our beds. Kate and I had simply nothing to do except sit on our rugs and tell them what we wanted done. They would have cooked our supper for us if we had allowed it. But, tired as we were, we drew the line at that. Their hearts were pure gold, but their hands! No, Kate and I dragged ourselves up and cooked our own suppers. And while we ate it, those Indians fell to and cleaned all the mud off our democrat for us. To crown all—it is almost unbelievable but it is true, I solemnly avow—they wouldn't take a cent of payment for it all, urge them as we might and did.
"Well," said Kate, as we curled up on our brush beds that night, "there certainly is a special Providence for unprotected females. I'd forgive Peter Crow for deserting us for the sake of those Indians, if he hadn't stolen our lovely ham into the bargain. That was altogether unpardonable."
In the morning the Indians broke camp for us and harnessed our shaganappies. We drove off, waving our hands to them, the delightful creatures. We never saw any of them again. I fear their kind is scarce, but as long as I live I shall remember those Stoneys with gratitude.
We got on fairly well that third day, and made about fifteen miles before dinner time. We ate three of the sergeant's prairie chickens for dinner, and enjoyed them.
"But only think how delicious the ham would have been," said Kate.
Our real troubles began that afternoon. We had not been driving long when the trail swooped down suddenly into a broad depression—a swamp, so full of mud-holes that there didn't seem to be anything but mud-holes. We pulled through six of them—but in the seventh we stuck, hard and fast. Pull as our ponies could and did, they could not pull us out.
"What are we to do?" I said, becoming horribly frightened all at once. It seemed to me that our predicament was a dreadful one.
"Keep cool," said Kate. She calmly took off her shoes and stockings, tucked up her skirt, and waded to the horses' heads.
"Can't I do anything?" I implored.
"Yes, take the whip and spare it not," said Kate. "I'll encourage them here with sundry tugs and inspiriting words. You urge them behind with a good lambasting."
Accordingly we encouraged and urged, tugged and lambasted, with a right good will, but all to no effect. Our ponies did their best, but they could not pull the democrat out of that slough.
"Oh, what—" I began, and then I stopped. I resolved that I would not ask that question again in that tone in that scrape. I would be cheerful and courageous like Kate—splendid Kate!
"I shall have to unhitch them, tie one of them to that stump, and ride off on the other for help," said Kate.
"Where to?" I asked.
"Till I find it," grinned Kate, who seemed to think the whole disaster a capital joke. "I may have to go clean back to the tepees—and further. For that matter, I don't believe there were any tepees. Those Indians were too good to be true—they were phantoms of delight—such stuff as dreams are made of. But even if they were real they won't be there now—they'll have folded their tents like the Arabs and as silently stolen away. But I'll find help somewhere."
"I can't stay here alone. You may be gone for hours," I cried, forgetting all my resolutions of courage and cheerfulness in an access of panic.
"Then ride the other pony and come with me," suggested Kate.
"I can't ride bareback," I moaned.
"Then you'll have to stay here," said Kate decidedly. "There's nothing to hurt you, Phil. Sit in the wagon and keep dry. Eat something if you get hungry. I may not be very long."
I realized that there was nothing else to do; and, rather ashamed of my panic, I resigned myself to the inevitable and saw Kate off with a smile of encouragement. Then I waited. I was tired and frightened—horribly frightened. I sat there and imagined scores of gruesome possibilities. It was no use telling myself to be brave. I couldn't be brave. I never was in such a blue funk before or since. Suppose Kate got lost—suppose she couldn't find me again—suppose something happened to her—suppose she couldn't get help—suppose it came on night and I there all alone—suppose Indians—not gentlemanly Stoneys or even Peter Crows, but genuine, old-fashioned Indians—should come along—suppose it began to pour rain!
It did begin to rain, the only one of my suppositions which came true. I hoisted an umbrella and sat there grimly, in that horseless wagon in the mud-hole.
Many a time since have I laughed over the memory of the appearance I must have presented sitting in that mud-hole, but there was nothing in the least funny about it at the time. The worst feature of it all was the uncertainty. I could have waited patiently enough and conquered my fears if I had known that Kate would find help and return within a reasonable time—at least before dark. But everything was doubtful. I was not composed of the stuff out of which heroines are fashioned and I devoutly wished we had never left Arrow Creek.
Shouts—calls—laughter—Kate's dear voice in an encouraging cry from the hill behind me!
"Halloo, honey! Hold the fort a few minutes longer. Here we are. Bless her, hasn't she been a brick to stay here all alone like this—and a tenderfoot at that?"
I could have cried with joy. But I saw that there were men with Kate—two men—white men—and I laughed instead. I had not been brave—I had been an arrant little coward, but I vowed that nobody, not even Kate, should suspect it. Later on Kate told me how she had fared in her search for assistance.
"When I left you, Phil, I felt much more anxious than I wanted to let you see. I had no idea where to go. I knew there were no houses along our trail and I might have to go clean back to the tepees—fifteen miles bareback. I didn't dare try any other trail, for I knew nothing of them and wasn't sure that there were even tepees on them. But when I had gone about six miles I saw a welcome sight—nothing less than a spiral of blue, homely-looking smoke curling up from the prairie far off to my right. I decided to turn off and investigate. I rode two miles and finally I came to a little log shack. There was a bee-yew-tiful big horse in a corral close by. My heart jumped with joy. But suppose the inmates of the shack were half-breeds! You can't realize how relieved I felt when the door opened and two white men came out. In a few minutes everything was explained. They knew who I was and what I wanted, and I knew that they were Mr. Lonsdale and Mr. Hopkins, owners of a big ranch over by Deer Run. They were 'shacking out' to put up some hay and Mrs. Hopkins was keeping house for them. She wanted me to stop and have a cup of tea right off, but I thought of you, Phil, and declined. As soon as they heard of our predicament those lovely men got their two biggest horses and came right with me."
It was not long before our democrat was on solid ground once more, and then our rescuers insisted that we go back to the shack with them for the night. Accordingly we drove back to the shack, attended by our two gallant deliverers on white horses. Mrs. Hopkins was waiting for us, a trim, dark-haired little lady in a very pretty gown, which she had donned in our honour. Kate and I felt like perfect tramps beside her in our muddy old raiment, with our hair dressed by dead reckoning—for we had not included a mirror in our baggage. There was a mirror in the shack, however—small but good—and we quickly made ourselves tidy at least, and Kate even went to the length of curling her bangs—bangs were in style then and Kate had long, thick ones—using the stem of a broken pipe of Mr. Hopkins's for a curler. I was so tired that my vanity was completely crushed out—for the time being—and I simply pinned my bangs back. Later on, when I discovered that Mr. Lonsdale was really the younger son of an English earl, I wished I had curled them, but it was too late then.
He didn't look in the least like a scion of aristocracy. He wore a cowboy rig and had a scrubby beard of a week's growth. But he was very jolly and played the violin beautifully. After tea—and a lovely tea it was, although, as Kate remarked to me later, there was no ham—we had an impromptu concert. Mr. Lonsdale played the violin; Mrs. Hopkins, who sang, was a graduate of a musical conservatory; Mr. Hopkins gave a comic recitation and did a Cree war-dance; Kate gave a spirited account of our adventures since leaving home and mother; and I described—with trimmings—how I felt sitting alone in the democrat in a mud-hole, in a pouring rain on a vast prairie.
Mrs. Hopkins, Kate, and I slept in the one bed the shack boasted, screened off from public view by a calico curtain. Mr. Lonsdale reposed in his accustomed bunk by the stove, but poor Mr. Hopkins had to sleep on the floor. He must have been glad Kate and I stayed only one night.
The fourth morning found us blithely hitting the trail in renewed confidence and spirits. We parted from our kind friends in the shack with mutual regret. Mr. Hopkins gave us a haunch of jumping deer and Mrs. Hopkins gave us a box of home-made cookies. Mr. Lonsdale at first thought he couldn't give us anything, for he said all he had with him was his pipe and his fiddle; but later on he said he felt so badly to see us go without any token of his good will that he felt constrained to ask us to accept a piece of rope that he had tied his outfit together with.
The fourth day we got on so nicely that it was quite monotonous. The sun shone, the chinook blew, our ponies trotted over the trail gallantly. Kate and I sang, told stories, and laughed immoderately over everything. Even a poor joke seems to have a subtle flavour on the prairie. For the first time I began to think Saskatchewan beautiful, with those far-reaching parklike meadows dotted with the white-stemmed poplars, the distant bluffs bannered with the airiest of purple hazes, and the little blue lakes that sparkled and shimmered in the sunlight on every hand.
The only thing approaching an adventure that day happened in the afternoon when we reached a creek which had to be crossed.
"We must investigate," said Kate decidedly. "It would never do to risk getting mired here, for this country is unsettled and we must be twenty miles from another human being."
Kate again removed her shoes and stockings and puddled about that creek until she found a safe fording place. I am afraid I must admit that I laughed most heartlessly at the spectacle she presented while so employed.
"Oh, for a camera, Kate!" I said, between spasms.
Kate grinned. "I don't care what I look like," she said, "but I feel wretchedly unpleasant. This water is simply swarming with wigglers."
"Goodness, what are they?" I exclaimed.
"Oh, they're tiny little things like leeches," responded Kate. "I believe they develop into mosquitoes later on, bad 'cess to them. What Mr. Nash would call my pedal extremities are simply being devoured by the brutes. Ugh! I believe the bottom of this creek is all soft mud. We may have to drive—no, as I'm a living, wiggler-haunted human being, here's firm bottom. Hurrah, Phil, we're all right!"
In a few minutes we were past the creek and bowling merrily on our way. We had a beautiful camping ground that night—a fairylike little slope of white poplars with a blue lake at its foot. When the sun went down a milk-white mist hung over the prairie, with a young moon kissing it. We boiled some slices of our jumping deer and ate them in the open around a cheery camp-fire. Then we sought our humble couches, where we slept the sleep of just people who had been driving over the prairie all day. Once in the night I wakened. It was very dark. The unearthly stillness of a great prairie was all around me. In that vast silence Kate's soft breathing at my side seemed an intrusion of sound where no sound should be.
"Philippa Blair, can you believe it's yourself?" I said mentally. "Here you are, lying on a brush bed on a western prairie in the middle of the night, at least twenty miles from any human being except another frail creature of your own sex. Yet you're not even frightened. You are very comfy and composed, and you're going right to sleep again."
And right to sleep again I went.
Our fifth day began ominously. We had made an early start and had driven about six miles when the calamity occurred. Kate turned a corner too sharply, to avoid a big boulder; there was a heart-breaking sound.
"The tongue of the wagon is broken," cried Kate in dismay. All too surely it was. We looked at each other blankly.
"What can we do?" I said.
"I'm sure I don't know," said Kate helplessly. When Kate felt helpless I thought things must be desperate indeed. We got out and investigated the damage.
"It's not a clean break," said Kate. "It's a long, slanting break. If we had a piece of rope I believe I could fix it."
"Mr. Lonsdale's piece of rope!" I cried.
"The very thing," said Kate, brightening up.
The rope was found and we set to work. With the aid of some willow withes and that providential rope we contrived to splice the tongue together in some shape.
Although the trail was good we made only twelve miles the rest of the day, so slowly did we have to drive. Besides, we were continually expecting that tongue to give way again, and the strain was bad for our nerves. When we came at sunset to the junction of the Black River trail with ours, Kate resolutely turned the shaganappies down it.
"We'll go and spend the night with the Brewsters," she said. "They live only ten miles down this trail. I went to school in Regina with Hannah Brewster, and though I haven't seen her for ten years I know she'll be glad to see us. She's a lovely person, and her husband is a very nice man. I visited them once after they were married."
We soon arrived at the Brewster place. It was a trim, white-washed little log house in a grove of poplars. But all the blinds were down and we discovered the door was locked. Evidently the Brewsters were not at home.
"Never mind," said Kate cheerfully, "we'll light a fire outside and cook our supper and then we'll spend the night in the barn. A bed of prairie hay will be just the thing."
But the barn was locked too. It was now dark and our plight was rather desperate.
"I'm going to get into the house if I have to break a window," said Kate resolutely. "Hannah would want us to do that. She'd never get over it, if she heard we came to her house and couldn't get in."
Fortunately we did not have to go to the length of breaking into Hannah's house. The kitchen window went up quite easily. We turned the shaganappies loose to forage for themselves, grass and water being abundant. Then we climbed in at the window, lighted our lantern, and found ourselves in a very snug little kitchen. Opening off it on one side was a trim, nicely furnished parlour and on the other a well-stocked pantry.
"We'll light the fire in the stove in a jiffy and have a real good supper," said Kate exultantly. "Here's cold roast beef—and preserves and cookies and cheese and butter."
Before long we had supper ready and we did full justice to the absent Hannah's excellent cheer. After all, it was quite nice to sit down once more to a well-appointed table and eat in civilized fashion.
Then we washed up all the dishes and made everything snug and tidy. I shall never be sufficiently thankful that we did so.
Kate piloted me upstairs to the spare room.
"This is fixed up much nicer than it was when I was here before," she said, looking around. "Of course, Hannah and Ted were just starting out then and they had to be economical. They must have prospered, to be able to afford such furniture as this. Well, turn in, Phil. Won't it be rather jolly to sleep between sheets once more?"
We slept long and soundly until half-past eight the next morning; and dear knows if we would have wakened then of our own accord. But I heard somebody saying in a very harsh, gruff voice, "Here, you two, wake up! I want to know what this means."
We two did wake up, promptly and effectually. I never wakened up so thoroughly in my life before. Standing in our room were three people, one of them a man. He was a big, grey-haired man with a bushy black beard and an angry scowl. Beside him was a woman—a tall, thin, angular personage with red hair and an indescribable bonnet. She looked even crosser and more amazed than the man, if that were possible. In the background was another woman—a tiny old lady who must have been at least eighty. She was, in spite of her tininess, a very striking-looking personage; she was dressed all in black, and had snow-white hair, a dead-white face, and snapping, vivid, coal-black eyes. She looked as amazed as the other two, but she didn't look cross.
I knew something must be wrong—fearfully wrong—but I didn't know what. Even in my confusion, I found time to think that if that disagreeable-looking red-haired woman was Hannah Brewster, Kate must have had a queer taste in school friends. Then the man said, more gruffly than ever, "Come now. Who are you and what business have you here?"
Kate raised herself on one elbow. She looked very wild. I heard the old black-and-white lady in the background chuckle to herself.
"Isn't this Theodore Brewster's place?" gasped Kate.
"No," said the big woman, speaking for the first time. "This place belongs to us. We bought it from the Brewsters in the spring. They moved over to Black River Forks. Our name is Chapman."
Poor Kate fell back on the pillow, quite overcome. "I—I beg your pardon," she said. "I—I thought the Brewsters lived here. Mrs. Brewster is a friend of mine. My cousin and I are on our way to Bothwell and we called here to spend the night with Hannah. When we found everyone away we just came in and made ourselves at home."
"A likely story," said the red woman.
"We weren't born yesterday," said the man.
Madam Black-and-White didn't say anything, but when the other two had made their pretty speeches she doubled up in a silent convulsion of mirth, shaking her head from side to side and beating the air with her hands.
If they had been nice to us, Kate would probably have gone on feeling confused and ashamed. But when they were so disagreeable she quickly regained her self-possession. She sat up again and said in her haughtiest voice, "I do not know when you were born, or where, but it must have been somewhere where very peculiar manners were taught. If you will have the decency to leave our room—this room—until we can get up and dress we will not transgress upon your hospitality" (Kate put a most satirical emphasis on that word) "any longer. And we shall pay you amply for the food we have eaten and the night's lodging we have taken."
The black-and-white apparition went through the motion of clapping her hands, but not a sound did she make. Whether he was cowed by Kate's tone, or appeased by the prospect of payment, I know not, but Mr. Chapman spoke more civilly. "Well, that's fair. If you pay up it's all right."
"They shall do no such thing as pay you," said Madam Black-and-White in a surprisingly clear, resolute, authoritative voice. "If you haven't any shame for yourself, Robert Chapman, you've got a mother-in-law who can be ashamed for you. No strangers shall be charged for food or lodging in any house where Mrs. Matilda Pitman lives. Remember that I've come down in the world, but I haven't forgot all decency for all that. I knew you was a skinflint when Amelia married you and you've made her as bad as yourself. But I'm boss here yet. Here, you, Robert Chapman, take yourself out of here and let those girls get dressed. And you, Amelia, go downstairs and cook a breakfast for them."
I never, in all my life, saw anything like the abject meekness with which those two big people obeyed that mite. They went, and stood not upon the order of their going. As the door closed behind them, Mrs. Matilda Pitman laughed silently, and rocked from side to side in her merriment.
"Ain't it funny?" she said. "I mostly lets them run the length of their tether but sometimes I has to pull them up, and then I does it with a jerk. Now, you can take your time about dressing, my dears, and I'll go down and keep them in order, the mean scalawags."
When we descended the stairs we found a smoking-hot breakfast on the table. Mr. Chapman was nowhere to be seen, and Mrs. Chapman was cutting bread with a sulky air. Mrs. Matilda Pitman was sitting in an armchair, knitting. She still wore her bonnet and her triumphant expression. "Set right in, dears, and make a good breakfast," she said.
"We are not hungry," said Kate, almost pleadingly. "I don't think we can eat anything. And it's time we were on the trail. Please excuse us and let us go on."
Mrs. Matilda Pitman shook a knitting needle playfully at Kate. "Sit down and take your breakfast," she commanded. "Mrs. Matilda Pitman commands you. Everybody obeys Mrs. Matilda Pitman—even Robert and Amelia. You must obey her too."
We did obey her. We sat down and, such was the influence of her mesmeric eyes, we ate a tolerable breakfast. The obedient Amelia never spoke; Mrs. Matilda Pitman did not speak either, but she knitted furiously and chuckled. When we had finished Mrs. Matilda Pitman rolled up her knitting. "Now, you can go if you want to," she said, "but you don't have to go. You can stay here as long as you like, and I'll make them cook your meals for you."
I never saw Kate so thoroughly cowed.
"Thank you," she said faintly. "You are very kind, but we must go."
"Well, then," said Mrs. Matilda Pitman, throwing open the door, "your team is ready for you. I made Robert catch your ponies and harness them. And I made him fix that broken tongue properly. I enjoy making Robert do things. It's almost the only sport I have left. I'm eighty and most things have lost their flavour, except bossing Robert."
Our democrat and ponies were outside the door, but Robert was nowhere to be seen; in fact, we never saw him again.
"I do wish," said Kate, plucking up what little spirit she had left, "that you would let us—ah—uh"—Kate quailed before Mrs. Matilda Pitman's eye—"recompense you for our entertainment."
"Mrs. Matilda Pitman said before—and meant it—that she doesn't take pay for entertaining strangers, nor let other people where she lives do it, much as their meanness would like to do it."
We got away. The sulky Amelia had vanished, and there was nobody to see us off except Mrs. Matilda Pitman.
"Don't forget to call the next time you come this way," she said cheerfully, waving her knitting at us. "I hope you'll get safe to Bothwell. If I was ten years younger I vow I'd pack a grip and go along with you. I like your spunk. Most of the girls nowadays is such timid, skeery critters. When I was a girl I wasn't afraid of nothing or nobody."
We said and did nothing until we had driven out of sight and earshot. Then Kate laid down the reins and laughed until the tears came.
"Oh, Phil, Phil, will you ever forget this adventure?" she gasped.
"I shall never forget Mrs. Matilda Pitman," I said emphatically.
We had no further adventures that day. Robert Chapman had fixed the tongue so well—probably under Mrs. Matilda Pitman's watchful eyes—that we could drive as fast as we liked; and we made good progress. But when we pitched camp that night Kate scanned the sky with an anxious expression. "I don't like the look of it," she said. "I'm afraid we're going to have a bad day tomorrow."
We had. When we awakened in the morning rain was pouring down. This in itself might not have prevented us from travelling, but the state of the trail did. It had been raining the greater part of the night and the trail was little more than a ditch of slimy, greasy, sticky mud.
If we could have stayed in the tent the whole time it would not have been quite so bad. But we had to go out twice to take the ponies to the nearest pond and water them; moreover, we had to collect pea vines for them, which was not an agreeable occupation in a pouring rain. The day was very cold too, but fortunately there was plenty of dead poplar right by our camp. We kept a good fire on in the camp stove and were quite dry and comfortable as long as we stayed inside. Even when we had to go out we did not get very wet, as we were well protected. But it was a long dreary day. Finally when the dark came down and supper was over Kate grew quite desperate. "Let's have a game of checkers," she suggested.
"Where is your checkerboard?" I asked.
"Oh, I'll soon furnish that," said Kate.
She cut out a square of brown paper, in which a biscuit box had been wrapped, and marked squares off on it with a pencil. Then she produced some red and white high-bush cranberries for men. A cranberry split in two was a king.
We played nine games of checkers by the light of our smoky lantern. Our enjoyment of the game was heightened by the fact that it had ceased raining. Nevertheless, when morning came the trail was so drenched that it was impossible to travel on it.
"We must wait till noon," said Kate.
"That trail won't be dry enough to travel on for a week," I said disconsolately.
"My dear; the chinook is blowing up," said Kate. "You don't know how quickly a trail dries in a chinook. It's like magic."
I did not believe a chinook or anything else could dry up that trail by noon sufficiently for us to travel on. But it did. As Kate said, it seemed like magic. By one o'clock we were on our way again, the chinook blowing merrily against our faces. It was a wind that blew straight from the heart of the wilderness and had in it all the potent lure of the wild. The yellow prairie laughed and glistened in the sun.
We made twenty-five miles that afternoon and, as we were again fortunate enough to find a bluff of dead poplar near which to camp, we built a royal camp-fire which sent its flaming light far and wide over the dark prairie.
We were in jubilant spirits. If the next day were fine and nothing dreadful happened to us, we would reach Bothwell before night.
But our ill luck was not yet at an end. The next morning was beautiful. The sun shone warm and bright; the chinook blew balmily and alluringly; the trail stretched before us dry and level. But we sat moodily before our tent, not even having sufficient heart to play checkers. Tom had gone lame—so lame that there was no use in thinking of trying to travel with him. Kate could not tell what was the matter.
"There is no injury that I can see," she said. "He must have sprained his foot somehow."
Wait we did, with all the patience we could command. But the day was long and wearisome, and at night Tom's foot did not seem a bit better.
We went to bed gloomily, but joy came with the morning. Tom's foot was so much improved that Kate decided we could go on, though we would have to drive slowly.
"There's no chance of making Bothwell today," she said, "but at least we shall be getting a little nearer to it."
"I don't believe there is such a place as Bothwell, or any other town," I said pessimistically. "There's nothing in the world but prairie, and we'll go on driving over it forever, like a couple of female Wandering Jews. It seems years since we left Arrow Creek."
"Well, we've had lots of fun out of it all, you know," said Kate. "Mrs. Matilda Pitman alone was worth it. She will be an amusing memory all our lives. Are you sorry you came?"
"No, I'm not," I concluded, after honest, soul-searching reflection. "No, I'm glad, Kate. But I think we were crazy to attempt it, as Sergeant Baker said. Think of all the might-have-beens."
"Nothing else will happen," said Kate. "I feel in my bones that our troubles are over."
Kate's bones proved true prophets. Nevertheless, that day was a weary one. There was no scenery. We had got into a barren, lakeless, treeless district where the world was one monotonous expanse of grey-brown prairie. We just crawled along. Kate had her hands full driving those ponies. Jerry was in capital fettle and couldn't understand why he mightn't tear ahead at full speed. He was so much disgusted over being compelled to walk that he was very fractious. Poor Tom limped patiently along. But by night his lameness had quite disappeared, and although we were still a good twenty-five miles from Bothwell we could see it quite distinctly far ahead on the level prairie.
"'Tis a sight for sore eyes, isn't it?" said Kate, as we pitched camp.
There is little more to be told. Next day at noon we rattled through the main and only street of Bothwell. Curious sights are frequent in prairie towns, so we did not attract much attention. When we drew up before Mr. Taylor's house Mary Taylor flew out and embraced Kate publicly.
"You darling! I knew you'd get here if anyone could. They telegraphed us you were on the way. You're a brick—two bricks."
"No, I'm not a brick at all, Miss Taylor," I confessed frankly. "I've been an arrant coward and a doubting Thomas and a wet blanket all through the expedition. But Kate is a brick and a genius and an all-round, jolly good fellow."
"Mary," said Kate in a tragic whisper, "have—you—any—ham—in—the—house?"