Free Air/Chapter 14

CHAPTER XIV

THE BEAST OF THE CORRAL

THEY met in the frost-shimmering mountain morning, on their way to the corral, to get their cars ready before breakfast. They were shy, hence they were boisterous, and tremendously unreferential to campfire confidences, and informative about distilled water for batteries, and the price of gas in the Park. On Milt's shoulder rode Vere de Vere who, in her original way, relieved one pause by observing "Mrwr."

They came in through the corral gate before any of the other motor tourists had appeared--and they stupidly halted to watch a bear, a large, black, adipose and extremely unchained bear, stalk along the line of cars, sniff, cock an ear at the Gomez, lumber up on its running-board, and bundle into the seat. His stern filled the space between side and top, and he was to be heard snuffing.

"Oh! Look! Milt! Left box of candy on seat---- Oh, please drive him away!"

"Me? Drive--that?"

"Frighten him away. Aren't animals afraid human eye----"

"Not in this park. Guns forbidden. Animals protected by U. S. Army, President, Congress, Supreme Court, Department of Interior, Monroe Doctrine, W. C. T. U. But I'll try--cautiously."

"Don't you want me think you're hero?"

"Ye-es, providin' I don't have to go and be one."

They edged toward the car. The bear flapped his hind legs, looked out at the intruders, said "Oofflll!" and returned to the candy.

"Shoo!" Milt answered politely.

"Llooffll!"

From his own bug, beside the Gomez, Milt got a tool kit, and with considerable brilliance as a pitcher he sent a series of wrenches at the agitated stern of the bear. They offended the dignity of the ward of the Government. He finished the cover and ribbons of the candy box, and started for Milt ... who proceeded with haste toward Claire ... who was already at the gate.

Lady Vere de Vere, cat of a thousand battles, gave one frightful squawl, shot from Milt's shoulder and at the bear, claws out, fur electric. The bear carelessly batted once with its paw, and the cat sailed into the air. The satisfied bear strolled to the fence, shinned up it and over.

"Good old Vere! That wallop must of darn near stunned her, though!" Milt laughed to Claire, as they trotted back into the corral. The cat did not move, as they came up; did not give the gallant "Mrwr" with which she had saluted Milt on lonely morning after morning of forlorn driving behind the Gomez. He picked Vere up.

"She's--she's dead," he said. He was crying.

"Oh, Milt---- Last night you said Vere was all the family you had. You have the Boltwoods, now!"

She did not touch his hand, nor did they speak as they walked soberly to the far side of the corral, and buried Lady Vere de Vere. At breakfast they talked of the coming day's run, from the canyon out of the Park, and northward. But they had the queer, quick casualness of intimates.

It was at breakfast that her father heard one Milt Daggett address the daughter of the Boltwoods as "Claire." The father was surprised into clearing his throat, and attacking his oatmeal with a zealousness unnatural in a man who regarded breakfast-foods as moral rather than interesting.

While he was lighting a cigar, and Claire was paying the bill, Mr. Boltwood stalked Milt, cleared his throat all over again, and said, "Nice morning."

It was the first time the two men had talked unchaperoned by Claire.

"Yes. We ought to have a good run, sir." The "sir" came hard. The historian puts forth a theory that Milt had got it out of fiction. "We might go up over Mount Washburn. Take us up to ten thousand feet."

"Uh, you said--didn't Miss Boltwood tell me that you are going to Seattle, too?"

"Yes."

"Friends there, no doubt?"

Milt grinned irresistibly. "Not a friend. But I'm going to make 'em. I'm going to take up engineering, and some French, I guess, at the university there."

"Ah. Really?"

"Yes. Been too limited in my ambition. Don't see why I shouldn't get out and build railroads and power plants and roads--Siberia, Africa, all sorts of interesting places."

"Quite right. Quite right. Uh, ah, I, oh, I---- Have you seen Miss Boltwood?"

"I saw Miss Boltwood in the office."

"Oh yes. Quite so. Uh--ah, here she is."

When the Gomez had started, Mr. Boltwood skirmished, "This young man---- Do you think you better let him call you by your Christian name?"

"Why not? I call him 'Milt.' 'Mr. Daggett' is too long a handle to use when a man is constantly rescuing you from the perils of the deep or hoboes or bears or something. Oh, I haven't told you. Poor old Milt, his cat was killed----"

"Yes, yes, dolly, you may tell me about that in due time, but let's stick to this social problem for a moment. Do you think you ought to be too intimate with him?"

"He's only too self-respecting. He wouldn't take advantage----"

"I'm quite aware of that. I'm not speaking on your behalf, but on his. I'm sure he's a very amiable chap, and ambitious. In fact---- Did you know that he has saved up money to attend a university?"

"When did he tell you that? How long has he been planning---- I thought that I----"

"Just this morning; just now."

"Oh! I'm relieved."

"I don't quite follow you, dolly, but---- Where was I? Do you realize what a demure tyrant you are? If you can drag me from New York to the aboriginal wilds, and I did not like that oatmeal, what will you do to this innocent? I want to protect him!"

"You better! Because I'm going to carve him, and paint him, and possibly spoil him. The creating of a man--of one who knows how to handle life--is so much more wonderful than creating absurd pictures or statues or stories. I'll nag him into completing college. He'll learn dignity--or perhaps lose his simplicity and be ruined; and then I'll marry him off to some nice well-bred pink-face, like Jeff Saxton's pretty cousin--who may turn him into a beastly money-grubber; and I'm monkeying with destiny, and I ought to be slapped, and I realize it, and I can't help it, and all my latent instinct as a feminine meddler is aroused, and--golly, I almost went off that curve!"