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On Monday Rathburn took the dog far up the trail. Stub was no blue-ribbon, petted dog of records and pedigree; he was a vicious-looking little yellow cur of mixed ancestry and bad habits--that is, he had been all this when Rathburn found him six months before and championed his cause in a quarrel with a crowd of roughs in Mike Swaney's saloon. Since then he had developed into a well-behaved little beast with a pair of wistful eyes that looked unutterable love, and a tail that beat the ground, the floor, or the air in joyous welcome whenever Rathburn came in sight. He was part collie, sharp-nosed and prick-eared, and his undersized little body still bore the marks of the precarious existence that had been his before Rathburn had befriended him.
Rathburn had rescued the dog that day in the saloon more to thwart the designs of Pete Mulligan, the head of the gang and an old enemy, than for any compassion for the dog itself; but after he had taken the little animal home he rather enjoyed the slavish devotion which--in the dog's mind--seemed evidently to be the only fit return for so great a service as had been done him. For some months, therefore, Rathburn petted the dog, fed him, taught him to "speak" and to "beg," and made of him an almost constant companion. At the end of that time, the novelty having worn thin, he was ready--as he expressed it to himself--to "call the whole thing off," and great was his disgust that the dog failed to see the affair in the same light.
For some time, Rathburn endured the plaintive whines, the questioning eyes, the frequent thrusts of a cold little nose against his hand; then he determined to end it all.
"Stub, come here!" he called sharply, his right hand seeking his pocket.
With a yelp of joy the dog leaped forward--not for days had his master voluntarily noticed him.
Rathburn raised his pistol and took careful aim. His eye was steady and his hand did not shake. Two feet away the dog had come to a sudden halt. Something in the eye or in the leveled weapon had stayed his feet. He whined, then barked, his eyes all the while wistfully demanding an explanation. Suddenly, his gaze still fixed on his master's face, he rose upright on his haunches and held before him two little dangling paws.
There was a silence, followed by a muttered oath, as the pistol dropped to the ground.
"Confound my babyishness!" snarled Rathburn, stooping and pocketing his weapon. "One would think I'd never seen a gun before!"
This was on Sunday. On Monday Rathburn took the dog far up the trail.
"Want a dog?" he said to the low-browed, unkempt man sitting at the door of a squat cabin.
"Well, I don't. I ain't buyin' dogs these days."
"Yer don't have ter buy this one," observed Rathburn meaningly.
The other glanced up with sharp eyes.
"Humph! Bite?" he snapped.
Rathburn shook his head.
"Sick of him," he returned laconically. "Like his room better'n his company."
"Humph!" grunted the other. Then to the dog: "Come here, sir, an' let's have a look at ye!"
Five minutes later Rathburn strode down the trail alone, while behind him, on the other side of the fast-shut cabin door, barked and scratched a frantic little yellow dog.
Tuesday night, when Rathburn came home, the first sound that greeted him was a joyous bark, as a quivering, eager little creature leaped upon him from out of the dark.
On Wednesday Stub trotted into town at Rathburn's heels, and all the way down the straggling street he looked neither to the right nor to the left, so fearful did he seem that the two great boots he was following should in some way slip from his sight. And yet, vigilant as he was, the door of Swaney's saloon got somehow between and left him on one side barking and whining and running like mad about the room, while on the other his master stood jingling the two pieces of silver in his pocket--the price Mike Swaney had paid for his new dog.
Halfway up the mountain-side Rathburn was still chuckling, still jingling his coins.
"When a man pays money," he was saying aloud, as he squared his shoulders and looked across the valley at the setting sun, "when a man pays money he watches out. I reckon Stub has gone fer good, sure thing, this time!" And yet--long before dawn there came a whine and a gentle scratch at his cabin door; and although four times the dog was returned to his new owner, four times he escaped and nosed the long trail that led to the cabin on the mountain-side.
After Stub's fourth desertion the saloon-keeper refused to take him again, and for a week the dog lay unmolested in his old place in the sun outside the cabin door, or dozed before the fireplace at night. Then Rathburn bestirred himself and made one last effort, taking the dog quite over the mountain and leaving him tied to a tree.
At the end of thirty-six hours, Rathburn was congratulating himself; at the end of thirty-seven he was crying, "Down, sir--down!" to a joy-crazed little dog which had come leaping down the mountain-side with eighteen inches of rope dangling at his heels--a rope whose frayed and tattered end showed the marks of sharp little teeth.
Rathburn gave it up after that, and Stub stayed on. There was no petting, no trick-teaching; there were only sharp words and sometimes a kick or a cuff. Gradually the whines and barks gave way to the more silent appeal of wistful eyes, and Stub learned that life now was a thing of little food and less joy, and that existence was a thing of long motionless watchings of a master who would not understand.
Weeks passed and a cold wind swept down from the mountains. The line of snow crept nearer and nearer the clearing about the cabin, and the sun grew less warm. Rathburn came home each night with a deeper frown on his face, and a fiercer oath as he caught sight of the dog. Down at Swaney's the men knew that Bill Rathburn was having a "streak o' poor luck"; the golden treasure he sought was proving elusive. Stub knew only that he must hide each night now when his master appeared.
As the days passed food became scarce in the cabin. It had been some time since Rathburn had gone to town for supplies. Then came the day when a great joy came into Stub's life--his master spoke to him. It was not the old fond greeting, to be sure. It was a command, and a sharp one; but in Stub's opinion it was a vast improvement on the snarling oaths or wordless glowerings which had been his portion for the past weeks, and he responded to it with every sense and muscle quiveringly alert.
And so it came about that Stub, in obedience to that sharp command, frequently scampered off with his master to spend long days in the foothills, or following the mountain streams. Sometimes it was a partridge, sometimes it was a squirrel, or a rabbit--whatever it was that fell a victim to Rathburn's gun, Stub learned very soon that it must be brought at once to the master and laid at his feet; and so proud was he to be thus of use and consequence that he was well content if at the end of the day his master tossed him a discarded bone after the spoils had been cooked and the man's own appetite satisfied.
It was on one of the days when work, not hunting, filled the time, that Rathburn came home after a long day's labor to find Stub waiting for him with a dead rabbit. After that it came to be a common thing for the dog to trot off by himself in the morning; and the man fell more and more in the way of letting him go alone, as it left his own time the more free for the pursuit of that golden sprite who was ever promising success just ahead.
As for Stub--Stub was happy. He spent the long days in the foothills or on the mountain-side, and soon became expert in his hunting. He would trail for hours without giving tongue, and would patiently lie and wait for a glimpse of a venturesome woodchuck or squirrel. So devoted was he, so well trained, and so keenly alive was he to his responsibilities that, whether the day had been one of great or small success, he was always to be found at night crouching before the cabin door on guard of something limp and motionless--something that a dozen hours before had been a throbbing, scurrying bit of life in the forest. To be sure, that "something" did not always have a food value commensurate with the labor and time Stub had spent to procure it; but to Stub evidently the unforgivable sin was to return with nothing, which fact may explain why Rathburn came home one night to find Stub on guard beside a small dead snake. Both man and dog went supperless that night--the man inside the cabin before a roaring fire; the dog outside in the cheerless dark before a fast-closed door whither his master had promptly consigned him.
Gradually as the days passed there came still another change in the life at the cabin. Rathburn's step became slow, and his cheeks sunken. Sometimes he did not leave home all day, but lay tossing from side to side on his bunk in the corner. At such times, if the result of Stub's hunt were eatable, the man would rouse himself enough to stir the fire and get supper; and always, after such a day at home, Rathburn was astir the next morning at dawn and off in feverish haste for a long day's work to make up for the long day of idleness.
But there came a time when he could not do this--when each day found him stretched prone on his bunk or moving feebly about the room. Then came a night when Stub's bark at the door was unanswered. Again and again Stub demanded admittance only to be met with silence. The door, though unlatched, was swollen from recent rains, and it took five good minutes and all the strength of one small dog to push it open a narrow foot, and then there were only silence and a dying fire by way of greeting.
Stub dropped his burden on the floor and whined. He was particularly proud to-night; he had brought home a partridge--the first he had ever caught without the aid of his master's gun.
The figure on the bed did not move.
The dog picked up the bird he had dropped and walked toward his master. This time he laid his offering close to the bunk and barked.
The man stirred and groaned. For long minutes the dog stood motionless, watching; then he crept to the fire and almost into the hot ashes in his efforts to warm the blood in his shivering little legs.
In the morning the fire was quite out. Stub stretched his stiffened body and gazed about the room. Over on the bed the man did not stir nor speak. The dead bird lay untouched at his side. There was a whine, a bark, and a long minute of apparent indecision; then the dog pattered across the floor, wormed himself through the partly open door, and took the trail that led to the foothills.
Three times Stub brought to the fireless, silent cabin the result of his day's hunt and laid it at his master's side, and always there was only silence or a low groan to greet him.
On the third night it snowed--the first storm of the season. A keen wind swept down the mountain and played hide-and-seek with the cabin door, so that in the morning a long bar of high-piled snow lay across the cabin floor.
When the men from the village had ploughed their way through the snow and pushed open the door, they stopped amazed upon the threshold, looking at one another with mingled alarm and pity; then one of them, conquering his reluctance, strode forward. He stooped for a moment over the prostrate form of the man before he turned and faced his companions.
"Boys, he's--gone," he said huskily; and in the silence that followed, four men bared their heads.
It was a dog's low whine that first stirred into action the man by the bunk. He looked down and his eyes grew luminous. He saw the fireless hearth, the drifted snow, and the half-dead dog keeping watchful guard over a pile of inert fur and feathers on the floor--a pile frozen stiff and mutely witnessing to a daily duty well performed.
"I reckon I'm needin' a dog," he said, as he stooped and patted Stub's head.
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