A Man and His Dog
A MAN AND HIS DOG
By Stewart Edward White
THE Man was in town buying an outfit, and incidentally, indulging in a last carouse. Like a good general, he made sure of his supplies first. As an incident to the carouse he got into an argument with a little unarmed man, and being magnanimous, merely knocked him down with a pistol barrel, whereby the little fellow had brain fever instead of no brains at all. Then the Man came to the end of his money, and sobered up. The following morning he gathered together his traps and left town. He had a heavy covered wagon, drawn by four mules, and in the wagon were provisions, blankets and prospecting tools. Under the axle dangled two empty pails, and still below them slouched a lank hound, with upturned eyes and blood-red lower lids. The Man sat on the seat smoking a pipe. He wore his broad hat a little more sideways than usual in honor of the occasion, had on a brand-new set of jeans, and a glittering belt full of brass cartridges to fit the ivory-handled Colt's .45 that stuck out of the open holster. A Winchester was slung inside.
Once clear of the straggling town the Man turned out across the open prairies. At each little hollow he would check the wagon with the brake, and flick the leaders sharply with the long-lashed whip. The jump would carry them across the dip. At noon he came to a stream deep in a broad precipitous valley, hollowed out by some earlier and mightier river, to which the wagon slid with a prodigious clatter and bang, raising a cloud of dust. The dog followed steadily in it underneath the axle. The course of the stream was marked by a fringe of stunted cottonwoods growing out of a soil half-sandy, half-grassy, and the stream itself, flowing flush with a scarcely perceptible bank, was opaque with yellow mud. Into this the wagon plumped half-way to the hubs. The swift yellow waters divided about the spokes and the mules' legs with a strange gurgling tumult, the wagon lurched heavily from side to side, and the wheels brought up inside the rim triangles of yellow mud which melted back into the water. The mules stooped their noses thirstily and paused. The Man stood upright and lashed with scientific accuracy and swore. The mules floundered forward over the broad stream, and at last stood, mud-streaked and panting, in the middle of a grass plot on the farther side. The driver got down from the seat slowly, unhitched them from the wagon, took off their harness, hobbled them, and turned them loose. The beasts went awkwardly, jumping toward the river, into which they plunged their noses, and after drinking began to forage. The dog sat gravely on his haunches near the harness.
As soon as he had seen the mules begin to graze, the Man started a little fire between two stones. Across these he placed a frying-pan with sliced bacon, and a riveted tin cup with water and green tea. From the wagon he fished a loaf of bread done up in brown paper. Then he ate, tossing the remnants to the dog, who snapped them up noisily, eyeing his master with gravity. Finally, seeing no more was in prospect, he again took his position by the piled-up harness.
The Man lit his pipe with a live coal held between two sticks, and smoked for some time, leaning back against a tree. Suddenly the dog closed his mouth with a snap and pricked up his ears. At this the Man softly arose, went to the wagon and took from it the Winchester. Then he stood listening intently. For a while all was silent, but finally, far over the hills, a faint jingling became audible, at the sound of which he threw down the rifle with a sigh of relief.
"Sojers!" he muttered.
A moment later the cavalrymen trooped over the bluff down the narrow buffalo path to the water. They went straight on, two by two, into the river and beyond; but an officer turned aside and rode up to the little camp.
"Where ye bound, my man?" he inquired, reining in his horse.
"Belle Fourche," responded the Man briefly.
"You're not going alone, are you?" asked the officer.
The Man smiled grimly.
" 'Slong as I've got these guns an' thet dawg, I'm all right," he replied.
The officer cast a keen eye at the hound. The other saw it, and went on with increasing warmth:
"I tell ye what, I'd trust thet pup sooner 'n I would the best pardner man ever had! He'll let me know trouble, won't you old boy?"
The dog thumped the ground with his tail.
"Well, look out for yourself, that's all. The Brulé Sioux are on the warpath up a little north of your way, and they may be down any day. We found one poor fellow buried to the shoulders, without any eyelids. They'd tied his hands, too, and the flies were all over him. Look out you don't get caught!"
"Not much scared of that," the Man muttered as the officer cantered away. "These devils'll never get me. I always got one shot left for myself."
All that afternoon the dog slept, his nose between his paws, in a corner of the wagon body. The Man no longer slouched drowsily against the uprights of the canvas cover, but sat erect and looked out over the prairie with restless eye. As the afternoon waned, the country became more broken. The round curve of the hills was more decided, and here and there in their sides was a ragged and precipitous gash filled with loose half-rounded stones. The summits curved gracefully upward and over, and then dropped abruptly in a tip-tilted layer of strata. Stunted bushes appeared. Far in the distance a blue-black line marked the pine-covered mountains.
The Man became restless. He stood up on the top of each hill and looked searchingly abroad. Finally he turned and poked the dog in the side.
"Git out of thar!" he said. "Go off an' ketch yore supper, ye good-fer-nothin' pup!"
The dog leaped slowly over the tailboard, shook himself all over, beginning at his head and ending ecstatically at the end of his tail, and cantered slowly over the brow of a hill. The wagon rumbled down a decline. The dog yawned prodigiously, still half-asleep. Then he opened his eyes wide, and the hair between his shoulders rose stiffly. A rawhide suddenly shot over his head and drew tight. He gave a frightened yelp, and started to run, but was suddenly jerked down, and three naked warriors seized him. One held his muzzle closed with one hand, the other two bound him rapidly.
"Don't kill him," said one in the language of the Brulé Sioux, "he is a good dog for hunting the deer, and for watching. I knew him in the town."
One of the others grunted, and slung the dog across his bare shoulders. Then in a moment a half-grown boy came up with a pony, and the dog was taken away across several ravines to a war camp between two turreted clay bluffs. There his legs were unbound, and he was hitched to a picket stake. He pulled for a moment on his rope, and then sat gravely on his haunches.
"Good dog!" said the boy. The dog eyed him for a moment, and slowly wagged his tail.
As evening approached the warriors came in one by one. They turned their ponies into a bunch, and the boy guarded them. On distant hills other warriors lay hidden in the grass. There were about two hundred in all, nearly naked, their bodies painted and chalked in various colors, their long hair bound close, and an eagle's feather or two stuck slantwise across the backs of their heads. One had a war bonnet of eagle's feathers that encircled his head and hung down his back. All had guns, mostly of the old Springfield pattern; but some few, and he of the feathers was among them, were armed with Winchesters of the old .44 type. They laughed and chatted, and munched dried meat, which they carried in little buckskin bags, and smoked mixed tobacco and willow bark in clay pipes. About sunset a rider came in. He spoke a few words to the group, and pointed to the west. The others laughed and arose, throwing aside the blue blankets and clay whitened robes which they had thrown around their shoulders while sitting. The chief waved his robe twice, and the boy headed the bunch of ponies toward camp. From the hills came the scouts and sentinels.
The warriors bridled each pony with a rough bit of rawhide twisted about the lower jaw. Some few stuck feathers in the manes or forelocks. The blankets were piled together behind a bush, and the warriors silently rode away, leaving the boy and the dog alone.
The boy sat on the pile of blankets for a time watching toward the west. Then he began to wander about restlessly. Finally he looked idly toward the dog and picked up a stick. The dog, who had been watching him intently, wagged an experimental tail and gave a short, quick bark. The boy dropped the stick and advanced. At that the dog got up and wagged his tail still more, ducking his head, and showing his teeth in a doggy grin. The boy sat on the ground and began to play with him, sometimes pulling his ears, and again his tail or his legs. Pretty soon, struck with a new idea, he pulled up the picket pin and started to lead him over to the pile of blankets, whereupon the dog suddenly jerked back and ran, dangling the rawhide loosely behind him. The boy shot an impotent arrow after him.
At the top of the hill the dog ran back and forth, snuffing eagerly at the ground. When finally he came to the wagon trail, he uttered a joyful yelp, and shot away down the gulch. In the meantime the Man and his mules and his wagon were crawling slowly over the face of the country. As time went on and the dog did not reappear he became plainly uneasy.
"Consarn that beast!" he muttered to himself. "Yere's he gone a-chasin' jacks, an' lef' me yere jest when I need him," and he cut the off leader viciously with his lash, causing that patient animal to start suddenly. Toward evening he became still more anxious. He began to look for a camping place. At last he reached the broad, stony bottom of an old river, to which the sides sloped in long, sparsely covered hills. The bed was broad and perfectly dry. In the middle was a little island of 200 feet in length by about quarter as many broad. Its surface was covered knee high with those stunted bushes that abound at the edge of the wooded hills. The Man espied this and nodded his head. He lashed his weary team across the stones and boulders, and up the slope of the island. He stopped at the top of the little rise of land, picketed his mules securely near by, and squatted behind a dense bush, eating bread and ham.
"No fire t' night," he muttered, "an' no sleep, neither! Wisht the white top of thet schooner of mine was in kingdom come. Damn thet dawg! 'F he was only here to watch, I c'd sleep sound enough!"
After his meal he sat behind the bush with the Winchester across his knees, watching the stony creek bottom. He did not smoke. The twilight faded, and the moon came up, throwing the hill into shadow, but showing like a broad white ribbon the divided bed of the stream. A coyote howled from one bank, and was answered from the other. Then a dark figure glided across the river bed. The Man started convulsively and threw his gun forward, but smiled grimly to himself at being frightened by a prairie wolf. The moon rose still farther, and the mules slept heavily near their picket stakes. The Man still stared at the ribbon of white with wide open eyes, but his gaze gradually became more and more fixed. His head nodded forward, and he, too, slept.
A few light clouds drifted down from the distant mountains, remnants of the daily thunderstorm, and occasionally obscured the moon. At one of these rare intervals a half-dozen dark figures glided from the left bank and hurried, stooping, toward the island. When they were within a few feet of cover, the moon came out and the Man awoke and saw them.
He sprang forward and cocked his rifle, but before he could fire the Indians had melted silently into the shadows of the island bushes. From the other side of the river bed came one shrill triumphant yell. Then all was still. The Man sat down again, breathing heavily. Every sense was strained now in the effort to penetrate the surrounding darkness. When a mule stirred or a coyote barked, the Man started; his forehead was beaded, and he gripped his rifle fast. The ivory-handled Colt's .45 lay by his hip. Twice he raised his arm to shoot, and twice lowered it again. The trailing black clouds from the mountain came thicker, and the moonlight flickered across the landscape like a candle in a wind. Over the bed of the river the wolves ran back and forth. The Man swallowed rapidly, and wiped his brow. He looked again and again toward the east, and nervously rearranged the cartridges ready to his hand.
Suddenly the brush rustled and shook near by. With a half-scream the Man whirled, raising his pistol, his teeth shining between his lips.
Before him crouched the dog.
The sudden relief unbalanced him
"You devil!" he said; "you damned devil!"
He raised the pistol again with a sudden fury and pulled the trigger. Like an echo a rifle directed toward the flash answered the report from the bushes. The Man fell gently backward, shot through the heart. The dog, bleeding from a mortal wound, slowly dragged himself forward and licked the dead man's face.