English Literature

Cowmen and Rustlers by Edward S. Ellis

Cowmen and Rustlers by Edward S. Ellis.jpg

CHAPTER I.

A MERRY GROUP.

The Whitney household, in the western part of Maine, was filled with sunshine, merriment and delight, on a certain winter evening a few years ago.

There was the quiet, thoughtful mother, now past her prime, but with many traces of the beauty and refinement that made her the belle of the little country town until Hugh Whitney, the strong-bearded soldier, who had entered the war as private and emerged therefrom with several wounds and with the eagles of a colonel on his shoulder, carried her away from all admirers and made her his bride.

Hugh had been absent a couple of weeks in Montana and Wyoming, whither he was drawn by a yearning of many years’ standing to engage in the cattle business. He had received some tuition as a cowboy on the Llano Estacada, and the taste there acquired of the free, wild life, supplemented, doubtless, by his experience during the war, was held in restraint for a time only by his marriage.

The absence of the father was the only element lacking to make the household one of the happiest in that section of Maine; but the letter just received from him was so cheerful and affectionate that it added to the enjoyment of the family.

The two principal factors in this jollity were the twins and only children, Fred and Jennie, seventeen on their last birthday, each the picture of health, bounding spirits, love and devotion to their parents and to one another. They had been the life of the sleighing-parties and social gatherings, where the beauty of the budding Jennie attracted as much admiration as did that of her mother a score of years before, but the girl was too young to care for any of the ardent swains who were ready to wrangle for the privilege of a smile or encouraging word. Like a good and true daughter she had no secrets from her mother, and when that excellent parent said, with a meaning smile, “Wait a few years, Jennie,” the girl willingly promised to do as she wished in that as in every other respect.

Fred was home for the Christmas holidays, and brought with him Monteith Sterry, one year his senior. Sterry lived in Boston, where he and Fred Whitney were classmates and warm friends. Young Whitney had spent several Sundays with Sterry, and the latter finally accepted the invitation to visit him at his home down in Maine.

These two young men, materially aided by Jennie, speedily turned the house topsy-turvy. There was no resisting their overrunning spirits, though now and then the mother ventured on a mild protest, but the smile which always accompanied the gentle reproof betrayed the truth, that she was as happy as they in their merriment, with which she would not have interfered for the world.

That night the full, round moon shone from an unclouded sky, and the air was crisp and clear. There was not much snow on the ground, and the ice on the little river at the rear of the house was as smooth as a polished window-pane. For nearly two score miles this current, which eventually found its way into the Penobscot, wound through the leafless woods, past an occasional opening, where, perhaps, the humble cabin of some backwoodsman stood.

It was an ideal skating rink, and the particular overflow of spirits on that evening was due to the agreement that it was to be devoted to the exhilarating amusement.

“We will leave the house at 8 o’clock,” said Fred at the supper table, “and skate to the mouth of Wild Man’s Creek and back.”

“How far is that?” inquired Monteith Sterry.

“About ten miles.”

Pretty Jennie’s face took on a contemptuous expression.

“Not a bit more; we shall be only fairly started when we must turn back.”

“Well, where do you want to go, sister?”

“We shouldn’t think of stopping until we reach Wolf Glen.”

“And may I inquire the distance to that spot?” asked Sterry again.

“Barely five miles beyond Wild Man’s Creek,” said she.

Those were not the young men to take a “dare” from a girl like her. It will be admitted that thirty miles is a pretty good spurt for a skater, but the conditions could not have been more favourable.

“It’s agreed, then,” remarked Sterry, “that we will go to Wolf Glen, and then, and then—”

“And then what?” demanded Jennie, turning toward him.

“Why not keep on to Boston and call on my folks?”

“If you will furnish the ice we will do so.”

“I couldn’t guarantee ice all the way, but we can travel by other means between the points, using our skates as the chance offers.”

“Or do as that explorer who is to set out in search of the north pole—have a combination skate and boat, so when fairly going we can keep straight on.”

“I will consent to that arrangement on one condition,” interposed the mother, so seriously that all eyes were turned wonderingly upon her.

“What is that?”

“That you return before the morrow.”

The countenances became grave, and turning to Sterry, on her right,
Jennie asked, in a low voice:

“Is it safe to promise that?”

“Hardly. Let us leave the scheme until we have time in which fully to consider it.”

“You will start, as I understand, at eight,” remarked the mother, speaking now in earnest. “You can readily reach Wolf Glen within a couple of hours. There you will rest a while and return as you choose. So I will expect you at midnight.”

“Unless something happens to prevent.”

The words of Monteith Sterry were uttered jestingly, but they caused a pang to the affectionate parent as she asked:

“What could happen, Monteith?”

Fred took it upon himself to reply promptly:

“Nothing at all.”

“Is the ice firm and strong?”

“It will bear a locomotive; I never saw it finer; the winter has not been so severe as some we have known, but it has got there all the same; Maine can furnish the Union with all the ice she will want next summer.”

“There may be air-holes.”

“None that we cannot see; they are few and do not amount to anything.”

Here Sterry spoke with mock gravity.

“The name, Wolf Glen, is ominous.”

“We have wolves and bears and other big game in this part of the State, but not nearly as many as formerly. It hardly pays to hunt them.”

“I hope we shall meet a few bears or wolves,” said Jennie, with her light laugh.

“And why?” demanded the shocked mother.

“I would like a race with them; wouldn’t it be fun!”

“Yes,” replied Sterry, “provided we could outskate them.”

“I never knew that wild animals skate.”

“They can travel fast when they take it into their heads to turn hunter. I suppose many of the bears are hibernating, but the wolves—if there are any waiting for us—will be wide awake and may give us the roughest kind of sport.”

Fred Whitney knew his mother better than did his friend and understood the expression on her face. So did Jennie, and the couple had such sport of their Boston visitor that the cloud quickly vanished and Monteith felt a trifle humiliated at his exhibition of what might be considered timidity. Nevertheless he quietly slipped his loaded revolver in the outer pocket of his heavy coat just before starting and when no one was watching him.

Precisely at eight o’clock the three friends, warmly and conveniently clad, with their keen-edged skates securely fastened, glided gracefully up-stream, the mother standing on the porch of her home and watching the figures as they vanished in the moonlight.

She was smiling, but in her heart was a misgiving such as she had not felt before, when her children were starting off for an evening’s enjoyment. The minute they were beyond sight she sighed, and, turning about, resumed her seat by the table in the centre of the sitting-room, where, as the lamplight fell upon her pale face, she strove to drive away the disquieting thoughts that would not leave her.

It was a pleasing sight as the three young people, the picture of life, health and joyous spirits, side by side, laughing, jesting, and with never a thought of danger, moved out to the middle of the river and then sped toward its source, with the easy, beautiful movement which in the accomplished skater is the ideal of grace. The motion seemingly was attended with no effort, and could be maintained for hours with little fatigue.

The small river, to which allusion has been made, was one hundred yards in width at the point where they passed out upon its surface. This width naturally decreased as they ascended, but the decrease was so gradual that at Wolf Glen, fifteen miles away, the breadth was fully three-fourths of the width opposite the Whitney home. Occasionally, too, the channel widened to double or triple its usual extent, but those places were few in number, and did not continue long. They marked a shallowing of the current and suggested in appearance a lake.

There were other spots where this tributary itself received others. Sometimes the open space would show on the right, and further on another on the left indicated where a creek debouched into the stream, in its search for the ocean, the great depository of most of the rivers of the globe.

The trees, denuded of vegetation, projected their bare limbs into the crystalline air, and here and there, where they leaned over the banks, were thrown in relief against the moonlit sky beyond. The moon itself was nearly in the zenith, and the reflected gleam from the glassy surface made the light almost like that of day. Along the shore, however, the shadows were so gloomy and threatening that Monteith Sterry more than once gave a slight shudder and reached his mittened hand down to his side to make sure his weapon was in place.

The course was sinuous from the beginning, winding in and out so continuously that the length of the stream must have been double that of the straight line extending over the same course. Some of these turnings were abrupt, and there were long, sweeping curves with a view extending several hundred yards.

They were spinning around one of these, when Sterry uttered an exclamation:

“I’m disappointed!”

“Why?” inquired Jennie, at his elbow.

“I had just wrought myself up to the fancy that we were pioneers, the first people of our race to enter this primeval wilderness, when lo!”

He extended his arm up-stream and to the right, where a star-like twinkle showed that a dwelling stood, or some parties had kindled a camp-fire.

“Quance, an old fisherman and hunter, lives, there,” explained Fred, “as I believe he has done for fifty years.”

“Would you like to make a call on him?” asked Jennie.

“I have no desire to do so; I enjoy this sport better than to sit by the fire and listen to the most entertaining hunter. Isn’t that he?”

The cabin was several rods from the shore, the space in front being clear of trees and affording an unobstructed view of the little log structure, with its single door and window in front, and the stone chimney from which the smoke was ascending. Half-way between the cabin and the stream, and in the path connecting the two, stood a man with folded arms looking at them. He was so motionless that he suggested a stump, but the bright moonlight left no doubt of his identity.

“Holloa, Quance!” shouted Fred, slightly slackening his speed and curving in toward shore.

The old man made no reply. Then Jennie’s musical voice rang out on the frosty air, but still the hunter gave no sign that he knew he had been addressed. He did not move an arm nor stir.

“I wonder whether he hasn’t frozen stiff in that position,” remarked Sterry. “He may have been caught in the first snap several weeks ago and has been acting ever since as his own monument.”

At the moment of shooting out of sight around the curve the three glanced back. The old fellow was there, just as they saw him at first. They even fancied he had not so much as turned his head while they were passing, but was still gazing at the bank opposite him, or, what was more likely, peering sideways without shifting his head to any extent.

The occurrence, however, was too slight to cause a second thought.

They were now fairly under way, as may be said, being more than a mile from their starting-point. They were proceeding swiftly but easily, ready to decrease or increase their speed at a moment’s notice. Sometimes they were nigh enough to touch each other’s hands, and again they separated, one going far to the right, the other to the left, while the third kept near the middle of the stream. Then two would swerve toward shore, or perhaps it was all three, and again it was Jennie who kept the farthest from land, or perhaps a fancy led her to skim so close that some of the overhanging limbs brushed her face.

“Look out; there’s an air-hole!” called the brother, at the moment the three reunited after one of these excursions.

“What of it!” was her demand, and instead of shooting to the right or left, she kept straight on toward the open space.

“Don’t try to jump it!” cautioned Sterry, suspecting her purpose; “it’s too wide.”

“No doubt it is for you.”

The daring words were on her lips, when she rose slightly in the air and skimmed as gracefully as a bird across the space of clear water. She came down seemingly without jar, with the bright blades of steel ringing over the crystal surface, and without having fallen a foot to the rear of her companions.

“That was foolish,” said her brother, reprovingly; “suppose the ice had given away when you struck it again?”

“What’s the use of supposing what could not take place?”

“The air-hole might have been wider than you suppose.”

“How could that be when it was in plain sight? If it had been wider, why I would have jumped further, or turned aside like my two gallant escorts. Stick to me and I’ll take care of you.”

There was no dashing the spirits of the girl, and Sterry broke into laughter, wondering how it would be with her if actual danger did present itself.

Occasionally the happy ones indulged in snatches of song and fancy skating, gliding around each other in bewildering and graceful curves. The three were experts, as are nearly all people in that section of the Union. Any one watching their exhibitions of skill and knowing the anxiety of the mother at home would have wondered why she should feel any misgiving concerning them.

True, there were wild animals in the forests, and at this season of the year, when pressed by hunger, they would attack persons if opportunity presented; but could the fleetest outspeed any one of those three, if he or she chose to put forth the utmost strength and skill possessed?

“Look!”

It was Jennie who uttered the exclamation, and there was good cause for it. She was slightly in advance, and was rounding another of the turns of the stream, when she caught sight of a huge black bear, who, instead of staying in some hollow tree or cave, sucking his paw the winter through, was lumbering over the ice in the same direction with themselves.

He was near the middle of the frozen current, so that it was prudent for them to turn to the right or left, and was proceeding at an easy pace, as if he was out for a midnight stroll, while he thought over matters. Though one of the stupidest of animals, he was quick to hear the noise behind him and looked back to learn what it meant.

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