A Cloud on the Mountain by Mary Hallock Foote
Ruth Mary stood on the high river bank, looking along the beach below to
see if her small brother Tommy was lurking anywhere under the willows with
his fishing-pole. He had been sent half an hour before to the earth cellar
for potatoes, and Ruth Mary's father, Mr. Tully, was waiting for his
She did not see Tommy; but while she lingered, looking at the river
hurrying down the shoot between the hills and curling up over the pebbles
of the bar, she saw a team of bay horses and a red-wheeled wagon come
rattling down the stony slope of the opposite shore. In the wagon she
counted four men. Three of them wore white, helmet-shaped hats that made
brilliant spots of light against the bank. The horses were driven half
their length into the stream and allowed to drink, as well as they could
for the swiftness of the current, while the men seemed to consult
together, the two on the front seat turning back to speak with the two
behind, and pointing across the river.
Ruth Mary watched them with much interest, for travelers such as these
seemed to be seldom came as far up Bear River valley as the Tullys' cattle
range. The visitors who came to them were mostly cow-boys looking up stray
cattle, or miners on their way to the "Banner district," or packers with
mule trains going over the mountains, to return in three weeks, or three
months, as their journey prospered. Fishermen and hunters came up into the
hills in the season of trout and deer, but they came as a rule on
horseback, and at a distance were hardly to be distinguished from the
cow-boys and the miners.
The men in the wagon were evidently strangers to that locality. They had
seen Ruth Mary watching them from the hill, and now one of them rose up in
the wagon and shouted across to her, pointing to the river.
She could not hear his words for the noise of the ripple and of the wind
which blew freshly down-stream, but she understood that he was inquiring
about the ford. She motioned up the river and called to him, though she
knew her words could not reach him, to keep on the edge of the ripple. Her
gestures, however, aided by the driver's knowledge of fords, were
sufficient; he turned his horses up-stream and they took water at the
place she had tried to indicate. The wagon sank to the wheel-hubs; the
horses kept their feet well, though the current was strong; the sun shone
brightly on the white hats and laughing faces of the men, on the guns in
their hands, on the red paint of the wagon and the warm backs of the
horses breasting the stream. When they were halfway across, one of the men
tossed a small, reluctant black dog over the wheel into the river, and all
the company, with the exception of the driver, who was giving his
attention to his horses, broke into hilarious shouts of encouragement to
the swimmer in his struggle with the current. It was carrying him down and
would have landed him, without effort of his own, on a strip of white sand
beach under the willows above the bend; but now the unhappy little object,
merely a black nose and two blinking anxious eyes above the water, had
drifted into an eddy, from which he cast forlorn glances toward his
faithless friends in the wagon. The dog was in no real peril, but Ruth
Mary did not know this, and her heart swelled with indignant pity. Only
shyness kept her from wading to his rescue. Now one of the laughing young
men, thinking the joke had gone far enough perhaps, and reckless of a
wetting, leaped out into the water, and, plunging along in his high boots,
soon had the terrier by the scruff of his neck, and waded ashore with his
sleek, quivering little body nestled in the bosom of his flannel hunting
A deep cut in the bank, through which the wagon was dragged, was screened
by willows. When the fording party had arrived at the top, Ruth Mary was
nowhere to be seen. "Where's that girl got to all of a sudden?" one of the
men demanded. They had intended to ask her several questions; but she was
gone, and the road before them plainly led to the low-roofed cabin, and
loosely built barn with straw and daylight showing through its cracks, the
newly planted poplar-trees above the thatched earth cellar, and all the
signs of a tentative home in this solitude of the hills.
They drove on slowly, the young man who had waded ashore, whom his
comrades addressed as Kirkwood or Kirk, walking behind the wagon with the
dog in his arms, responding to his whimpering claims for attention with
teasing caresses. The dog, it seemed, was the butt as well as the pet of
the party. As they approached the house he scrambled out of Kirkwood's
arms and lingered to take a roll in the sandy path, coming up a moment
afterward to be received with blighting sarcasms upon his appearance.
After his ignominious wetting he was quite unable to bear up under them,
and slunk to the rear with deprecatory blinks and waggings of his tail
whenever one of the men looked back.
Ruth Mary had run home quickly to tell her father, who was sitting in the
sun by the wood-pile, of the arrival of strangers from across the river.
Mr. Tully rose up deliberately and went to meet his guests, keeping
between his teeth the sliver of pine he had been chewing while waiting for
his dinner. It helped to bear him out in that appearance of indifference
he thought it well to assume, as if such arrivals were an every-day
"Hasn't Tommy got back yet, mother?" Ruth Mary asked as she entered the
house. Mrs. Tully was a stout, low-browed woman, with grayish yellow hair
of that dry and lifeless texture which shows declining health or want of
care. Her blue eyes looked faded in the setting of her tanned complexion.
She sat in a low chair, her knees wide apart, defined by her limp calico
draperies, rocking a child of two years, a fat little girl with flushed
cheeks and flaxen hair braided into tight knots on her forehead, who was
asleep in the large cushioned rocking-chair in the middle of the room. The
room was somewhat bare, for the shed-room outside was evidently the more
used part of the house. The cook stove was there in the inclosed corner,
and beside it a table and shelf with a tin hand-basin hanging beneath,
while the crannies of the logs on each side of the doorway were utilized
as shelves for all the household articles in frequent requisition that
were not hanging from nails driven into the logs, or from the projecting
roof-poles against the light.
Tommy had not returned, and Mrs. Tully suggested as a reason for his delay
that he had stopped somewhere to catch grasshoppers for bait.
"I should think he had enough of 'em in that bottle of his," Ruth Mary
said, "to last him till the 'hoppers come again. Some strange men forded
the river just now. Father's gone to speak to them. I guess he'll ask 'em
to stop to dinner."
Mrs. Tully got up heavily and went to the door. "Here, Angy,"—she
addressed a girl of eight or ten years who sat on the flat boulder that
was the cabin doorstep;—"you go get them taters; that's a good
girl," she added coaxingly, as Angy did not stir. "If your foot hurts you,
you can walk on your heel."
Angy, who was complaining of a stone-bruise, got up and limped away,
upsetting from her lap as she rose two kittens of tender years, who
tumbled over each other before getting their legs under them, and
staggered off, steering themselves jerkily with their tails.
"Oh, Angy!" Ruth Mary remonstrated, but she could not stay to comfort the
kittens. She ran up the short, crooked stairs leading to the garret
bedroom which she shared with Angy, hastily to put on her shoes and
stockings and brace her pretty figure, under the blue calico waist she
wore, with her first pair of stays, an important purchase made on her last
visit to the town in the valley, and to be worn now, if ever. It was hot
at noon in the bedroom under the roof, and by the time Ruth Mary had
fortified herself to meet the eyes of strangers she was uncomfortably
flushed, and short of breath besides from the pressure of the new stays.
She went slowly down the uneven stairs, wishing that she could walk as
softly in her shoes as she could barefoot.
Her father was talking to the strangers in the shed-room. They seemed tall
and formidable, under the low roof, against the flat glare of the sun on
the hard-swept ground in front of the shed. She waited inside until her
mother reminded her of the dinner half cooked on the stove; then she went
out shyly, the light falling on her downcast face and full white eyelids,
on her yellow hair, sun-faded and meekly parted over her forehead, which
was low like her mother's, but smooth as one of the white stones of the
river beach. Her fair skin was burned to a clear, light red tint, and her
blonde eyebrows and lashes showed silvery against it, but her chin was
very white underneath, and there was a white space behind each of her
little ears where her hair was knotted tightly away from her neck.
"This is my daughter," Mr. Tully said briefly; and then he gave some
hospitable orders about dinner which the strangers interrupted, saying
that they had brought a lunch with them and would not trouble the family
They gathered up their hunting gear, and lifting their hats to Ruth Mary,
followed Mr. Tully, who had offered to show them the best fishing on that
part of the river.
Mr. Tully explained to his wife and daughter, as the latter placed the
dinner on the table, that three of the strangers were the engineers from
the railroad camp at Moor's Bridge, and the fourth was a packer and
teamster from the same camp; that they were all going up the river to look
at timber, and wanted a little sport by the way. They had expected to keep
on the other side of the river, but seeing the ranch on the opposite
shore, with wheel-tracks going down to the water, they had concluded to
try the ford and the fishing and ask for a night's accommodation.
"They don't want we should put ourselves out any. They're used to roughin'
it, they say. If you can git together somethin' to feed 'em on, mother,
they say they'd as soon sleep on the straw in the barn as anywheres else."
"There's plenty to eat, such as it is, but Ruth Mary'll have it all to do.
I can't be on my feet." Mrs. Tully spoke in a depressed tone, but to her
no less than to her husband was this little break welcome in the monotony
of their life in the hills, even though it brought with it a more vivid
consciousness of the family circumstances, and a review of them in the
light of former standards of comfort and gentility: for Mrs. Tully had
been a woman of some social pretensions, in the small Eastern village
where she was born. To all that to her guests made the unique charm of her
present home she had grown callous, if she had ever felt it at all, while
dwelling with an incurable regret upon the neatly painted houses and
fenced door-yards, the gatherings of women in their best clothes in primly
furnished parlors on summer afternoons, the church-going, the passing in
the street, and, more than all, the housekeeping conveniences she had been
used to, accumulated through many years' occupancy of the same house.
"Seems as though I hadn't any ambition left," she often complained to her
daughter. "There's nothin' here to do with, and nobody to do for. The most
of the folks we ever see wouldn't know sour-dough bread from salt-risin',
and as for dressin' up, I might keep the same clothes on from Fourth July
till Christmas—your father'd never know."
But Ruth Mary was haunted by no fleshpots of the past. As she dressed the
chickens and mixed the biscuit for supper, she paused often in her work
and looked towards the high pastures with the pale brown lights and purple
shadows on them, rolling away and rising towards the great timbered
ridges, and these lifting here and there along their profiles a treeless
peak or bare divide into the regions above vegetation. She had no
misgivings about her home. Fences would not have improved her father's
vast lawn, to her mind, or white paint the low-browed front of his
dwelling; nor did she feel the want of a stair-carpet and a parlor-organ.
She was sure that they, the strangers, had never seen anything more lovely
than her beloved river dancing down between the hills, tripping over
rapids, wrinkling over sand-bars of its own spreading, and letting out its
speed down the long reaches where the channel was deep.
About four o'clock she found leisure to stroll along the shore with Tommy,
whose competitive energies as a fisherman had been stimulated by the
advent of strange craftsmen with scientific-looking tackle. Tommy must
forthwith show what native skill could do with a willow pole and
grasshoppers for bait. But Ruth Mary's sense of propriety would by no
means tolerate Tommy's intruding his company upon the strangers, and to
frustrate any rash, gregarious impulses on his part she judged it best to
keep him in sight.
Tommy knew of a deep pool under the willows which he could whip, unseen,
in the shady hours of the afternoon. Thither he led Ruth Mary, leaving her
seated upon the bank above him lest she should be tempted to talk, and so
interfere with his sport. The moments went by in silence, broken only by
the river; Ruth Mary happy on the high bank in the sun, Tommy happy by the
shady pool below, and now and then slapping a lively trout upon the
stones. Across the river two Chinamen were washing gravel in a rude
miner's cradle, paddling about on the river's brink, and anon staggering
down from the gravel bank above, with large square kerosene cans filled
with pay dirt balanced on either end of a pole across their meagre
shoulders. Bare-headed, in their loose garments, with their pottering
movements and wrinkled faces shining with heat, they looked like two
weird, unrevered old women working out some dismal penance. High up in the
sky the great black buzzards sailed and sailed on slanting wing; the wood
doves coo-oo-ed from the willow thickets that gathered the sunlight close
to the water's edge. A few horses and cattle moved like specks upon the
sides of the hills, cropping the bunchgrass, but the greater herds had
been driven up into the high pastures where the snow falls early; and all
these lower hills were bare of life, unless one might fancy that the
far-off processions of pines against the sky, marching up the northern
sides of the divides, had a solemn personality, going up like priests to a
sacrifice, or that the restless river, flowing through the midst of all
and bearing the light of the white noonday sky deep into the bosom of the
darkest hills, had a soul as well as a voice. In its sparkle and
ever-changing motion it was like a child among its elders at play. The
hills seemed to watch it, and the great cloud-heads as they looked down
between the parting summits, and the three tall pines, standing about a
young bird's flight from each other by the shore and mingling their fitful
crooning with the river's babble.
It is pleasant to think of Ruth Mary, sitting high above the river, in the
peaceful afternoon, surrounded by the inanimate life that to her brought
the fullness of companionship and left no room for vain cravings; the
shadow creeping upward over her hands folded in her lap, the light resting
on her girlish face and meek, smooth hair. For this was during that
unquestioning time of content which may not always last, even in a life as
safe and as easily predicted as hers. But even now this silent communion
was interrupted by the appearance of one of Tommy's rivals. It was the
young man whose comrades called him Kirk, who came along the shore,
stooping under the willow boughs and scattering all their shadows lightly
traced on the stones below. He held his fishing-rod, couched like a lance,
in one hand, and a string of gleaming fish in the other.
Tommy, with practiced eye, rapidly counted them and saw with chagrin that
he was outnumbered, but another look satisfied him that the stranger's
catch was nearly all "white-fish" instead of trout. He caressed his own
dappled beauties complacently.
Kirkwood stopped and looked at them; he was evidently impressed by Tommy's
"Those are big fellows," he said; "did you catch them?"
"You don't suppose she did?" said Tommy, with a jerk of his head
towards Ruth Mary.
Kirkwood looked up and smiled, seeing the young girl on her sunny perch.
The smile lingered pleasantly in his eyes as he seated himself on the
stones,—deliberately, as if he meant to stay.
Tommy watched him while he made himself comfortable, taking from his
pocket a short briar-wood pipe and a bag of tobacco, leisurely filling the
pipe and lighting it with a wax match held in the hollow of his hands—apparently
from habit, for there was no wind. He did not seem to mind in the least
that his legs were wet and that his trout were nearly all white-fish. He
was evidently a person of happy resources, and a joy-compelling
temperament that could find virtue in white-fish if it couldn't get trout.
He began to talk to Tommy, not without an amused consciousness of Tommy's
silent partner on the bank above, nor without an occasional glance up at
the maidenly head serenely exalted in the sunlight. Nor did Ruth Mary fail
to respond, with her down-bent looks, as simply and unawares as the clouds
turning their bright side to the sun.
Tommy, on his part, was stoutly withholding, in words, the admiration his
eyes could not help showing, of the strange fisherman's tools. He
cautiously felt the weight of the ringed and polished rod, and snapped it
lightly over the water; he was permitted to examine the book of flies and
to handle the reel, things in themselves fascinating, but to Tommy's mind
merely a hindrance and a snare to the understanding in the real business
of catching fish. Still, he admitted, where a man could take a whole day
all to himself like that, without fear of being called off at any moment
by the women on some frivolous household errand, he might afford to potter
with such things. Tommy kept the conservative attitude of native
experience and skill towards foreign innovation.
"If Joe Enselman was here," he said, "I bet he could ketch more fish in
half 'n hour, with a pole like this o' mine and a han'ful o' 'hoppers,
than any of you can in a whole week o' fishing with them fancy things."
"Oh, Tommy!" Ruth Mary expostulated, looking distressed.
"Who is this famous fisherman?" Kirkwood asked, smiling at Tommy's boast.
"Oh, he's a feller I know. He's a packer, and he owns ha'f o' father's
stock. He's goin' to marry our Sis soon's he gits back from Sheep
Mountain, and then he'll be my brother." Tommy had been a little reckless
in his desire for the distinction of a personal claim on the hero of his
boyish heart. He was even conscious of this himself, as he glanced up at
Kirkwood's eyes involuntarily followed Tommy's. He withdrew them at once,
but not before he saw the troubled blush that reddened the girl's averted
face. It struck him, though he was not deeply versed in blushes, that it
was not quite the expression of happy, maidenly consciousness, when the
name of a lover is unexpectedly spoken.
It was the first time in her life that Ruth Mary had ever blushed at the
name of Joe Enselman. She could not understand why it should pain her to
have this young stranger hear of him in his relation to herself.
Before her blush had faded, Kirkwood had dismissed the subject of Ruth
Mary's engagement, with the careless reflection that Enselman was probably
not the right man, but that the primitive laws which decide such haphazard
unions doubtless provided the necessary hardihood of temperament wherewith
to meet their exigencies. She was a nice little girl, but possibly she was
not so sensitive as she looked.
His pipe had gone out, and after relighting it, he showed Tommy the gayly
pictured paper match-box from Havana, which opened with a spring, and
disclosed the matches lying in a little drawer within. Tommy's wistful
eyes, as he returned the box, prompted Kirkwood to make prudent search in
his pockets for a second box of matches before presenting Tommy with the
one his eyes coveted. Finding himself secure against want in the immediate
future, he gave himself up to the mild amusement of watching Tommy with
his new acquisition.
Tommy could not resist lighting one of the little tapers, which burned in
the sunlight with a still, clear flame like a fairy candle. Then a second
one was sacrificed. By this time the attraction had proved strong enough
to bring Ruth Mary down from her high seat in the sun. She looked scarcely
less a child than Tommy, as, with her face close to his, she watched the
pale flame flower wasting its waxen stem. Then she must needs light one
herself and hold it, with a little fixed smile on her face, till the flame
crept down and warmed her finger-tips.
"There," she said, putting it out with a breath, "don't let us burn any
more. It's too bad to waste 'em in the daylight."
"We will burn one more," said Kirkwood, "not for amusement, but for
information." And while he whittled a piece of driftwood into the shape of
a boat, he told Ruth Mary how the Hindoo maidens set their lighted lamps
afloat at night on the Ganges, and watch them perilously voyaging, to
learn, by the fate of the traveling flame, the safety of their absent
He told it simply and gravely, as he might have described some fact in
natural history, for he rightly guessed that this little seed of sentiment
fell on virgin soil. According to Tommy, Ruth Mary was betrothed and soon
to be a wife, but Kirkwood was curiously sure that as yet she knew not
love, nor even fancy. Nor had he any deliberate intention of tampering
with her inexperience. He spoke of the lamps on the Ganges because they
came into his mind while Ruth Mary was bending over the wasting match
flame; any hesitation he might have had about introducing so delicate a
topic was conquered by an idle fancy that he would like to observe its
effect upon her almost pathetic innocence.
While he talked, interrupting himself as his whittling absorbed him, but
always conscious of her eyes upon his face, the boat took shape in his
hands. Tommy had failed to catch the connection between Hindoo girls and
boat-making, but was satisfied with watching Kirkwood's skillful fingers,
without paying much heed to his words. The stranger had, too, a wonderful
knife, with tools concealed in its handle, with one of which he bored a
hole for the mast. In the top of the mast he fixed a wax taper upright and
steady for the voyage.
Ruth Mary's cheeks grew red, as she suddenly perceived the intention of
"Now," he said, steadying the boat on the shallow ripple, "before we light
our beacon you must think of some one you care for, who is away. Perhaps
Tommy's friend, on Sheep Mountain?" he ventured softly, glancing at Ruth
The color in her cheeks deepened, and again Kirkwood fancied it was not a
happy confusion that covered her downcast face.
"No?" he questioned, as Ruth Mary did not speak; "that is too serious,
perhaps. Well, then, make a little wish, and if the light is still alive
when the boat passes that rock—the flat one with two stones on top—the
wish will come true. But you must have faith, you know."
Ruth Mary looked at Kirkwood, the picture of faith in her sweet
seriousness. His heart smote him a little, but he met her wide-eyed gaze
with a gravity equal to her own.
"I would rather not wish for myself," she said, "but I will wish something
for you, if you want me to."
"That is very kind of you. Am I to know what it is to be?"
"Oh yes. You must tell me what to wish."
"That is easily done," said Kirkwood gayly. "Wish that I may come back
some other day, and sit here with you and Tommy by the river."
It was impossible not to see that Ruth Mary was blushing again. But she
answered him with a gentle courtesy that rebuked the foolish blush: "That
will be wishing for us all."
"Shall we light up then, and set her afloat?"
"I've made a wish," shouted Tommy; "I've wished Joe Enselman would bring
me an Injun pony: a good one that won't buck!"
"You must keep your wish for the next trip. This ship is freighted deep
enough already. Off she goes then, and good luck to the wish," said
Kirkwood, as the current took the boat, with the light at its peak burning
clearly, and swept it away. The pretty plaything dipped and danced a
moment, while the light wavered but still lived. Then a breath of wind
shook the willows, and the light was gone.
"Now it's my turn," Tommy exclaimed, wasting no sentiment on another's
failure. He rushed down the bank and into the shallow water to catch the
wishing-boat before it drifted away.
"All the same I'm coming back again," said Kirkwood, looking at Ruth Mary.
Tommy's wish fared no better than his sister's, but he bore up briskly,
declaring it was "all foolishness anyway," and accused Kirkwood of having
"just made it up for fun."
Kirkwood only laughed, and, ignoring Tommy, said to Ruth Mary, "The game
was hardly worth the candle, was it?"
"Was it a game?" she asked. "I thought you meant it for true."
"Oh no," he said; "when we try it in earnest we must find a smoother river
and a stronger light. Besides, you know, I'm coming back."
Ruth Mary kept her eyes upon his face, still questioning his seriousness,
but its quick changes of expression baffled while fascinating her. She
could not have told whether she thought him handsome or not, but she had a
desire to look at him all the time.
Suddenly her household duties recurred to her, and, refusing the help of
Kirkwood's hand, she sprang up the bank and hurried back to the house.
Kirkwood could see her head above the wild-rose thickets as she went along
the high path by the shore. He was more sure than ever that Enselman was
not the right man.
At supper Ruth Mary waited on the strangers in silence, while Angy kept
the cats and dogs "corraled," as her father called it, in the shed, that
their impetuous appetites might not disturb the feast.
Mr. Tully stood in the doorway and talked with his guests while they ate,
and Mrs. Tully, with the little two-year-old in her lap, rocked in the
large rocking-chair and sighed apologetically between her promptings of
Ruth Mary's attendance on the table.
Tommy hung about in a state of complete infatuation with the person and
conversation of his former rival. He was even beginning to waver in his
allegiance to his absent hero, especially as the wish about the Indian
pony had not come true.
During the family meal the young men sat outside in the shed-room, and
smoked and lazily talked together. Their words reached the silent group at
the table. Kirkwood's companions were deriding him as a recreant
sportsman. He puffed his short-stemmed pipe and looked at them tranquilly.
He was not dissatisfied with his share of the day's pleasure.
When Mr. Tully had finished his supper, he took the young men down to the
beach to look at his boat. Kirkwood had pointed it out to his comrades,
where it lay moored under the bank, and ventured the opinion of a boating
man that it had not been built in the mountains. But there he had
generalized too rashly.
"I built her myself," said Mr. Tully; "rip-sawed the lumber up here. My
young ones are as handy with her!" he boasted cheerfully, warmed by the
admiration his work called forth. "You'd never believe, to see 'em
knocking about in her, they hadn't the first one of 'em ever smelt salt
water. Ruth Mary now, the oldest of 'em, is as much to home in that boat
as she is on a hoss—and that's sayin' enough. She looks quiet, but
she's got as firm a seat and as light a hand as any cow-boy that ever put
leg over a cayuse."
Mr. Tully, on being questioned, admitted willingly that he was an Eastern
man,—a Down-East lumberman and boat-builder. He couldn't say just
why he'd come West. Got restless, and his wife's health was always poor
back there. He had mined it some and had had considerable luck,—cleaned
up several thousands, the summer of '63, at Junction Bar. Put it in a
sawmill and got burned out. Then he took up this cattle range and went
into stock, in partnership with a young fellow from Montana, named
Enselman. They expected to make a good thing of it, but it was a long ways
from anywheres; and for months of the year they couldn't do any teaming.
Had no way out except by the horseback trail. The women found it lonesome.
In winter no team could get up that grade in the caņon they call the
"freeze-out," even if they could cross the river, on account of the ice;
and from April to August the river was up so you couldn't ford.
All this in the intervals of business, for Mr. Tully, in his circuitous
way, was agreeing to build a boat for the engineers, after the model of
his own. He would have to go down to the camp at Moor's Bridge to build
it, he said, for suitable lumber could not be procured so far up the
river, except at great expense. It would take him better'n a month,
anyhow, and he didn't know what his women-folks would say to having him so
long away. He would see about it.
The four men sauntered up the path from the shore, Tommy bringing up the
rear with the little black-and-tan terrier. In default of a word from his
master, Tommy tried to make friends with the dog, but the latter, wide
awake and suspicious after dozing under the wagon all the afternoon, would
none of him. Possibly he divined that Tommy's attentions were not wholly
The family assembled for the evening in the shed-room. The women were
silent, for the talk was confined to masculine topics, such as the quality
of the placer claims up the river, the timber, the hunting, the progress
and prospects of the new railroad. Tommy, keeping himself forcibly awake,
was seeing two Kirkwoods where there was but one. The terrier had taken
shelter between Kirkwood's knees, after trying conclusions with the mother
of the kittens,—a cat of large experience and a reserved
disposition, with only one ear, but in full possession of her faculties.
Betimes the young men arose and said good-night. Mr. Tully was loath to
have the evening, with its rare opportunity for conversation, brought to a
close, but he was too modest a host to press his company upon his guests.
He went with them to their bed, on the clean straw in the barn, and if
good wishes could soften pillows the travelers would have slept
sumptuously. They did not know, in fact, how they slept, but woke, strong
and joyous over the beauty of the morning on the hills, and the prospect
of continuing their journey.
They parted from the family at the ranch with a light-hearted promise to
stop again on their way down the river. When they would return they were
gayly uncertain,—it might be ten days, it might be two weeks. It was
a promise that nestled with delusive sweetness in Ruth Mary's thoughts, as
she went silently about her work. She was helpful in all ways, and very
gentle with the children, but she lingered more hours dreaming by the
river, and often at twilight she climbed the hill back of the cabin and
sat there alone, her cheek in the hollow of her hand, until the great
planes of distance were lost, and all the hills drew together in one dark
profile against the sky.
Mrs. Tully had been intending to spare Ruth Mary for a journey to town, on
some errands of a feminine nature which could not be intrusted to Mr.
Tully's larger but less discriminating judgment. Ruth Mary had never
before been known to trifle with an opportunity of this kind. Her rides to
town had been the one excitement of her life; looked forward to with
eagerness and discussed with tireless interest for many days afterwards.
But now she hung back with an unaccountable apathy, and made excuses for
postponing the ride from day to day, until the business became too
pressing to be longer neglected. She set off one morning at daybreak,
following the horseback trail, around the steep and sliding bluffs high
above the river, or across beds of broken lava rock,—arrested
avalanches from the slowly crumbling cliffs which crowned the bluff,—or
picking her way at a soft-footed pace through the thickets of the river
bottoms. In such a low and sheltered spot, scarcely four feet above the
river, she found the engineers' camp, a group of white tents shining among
the willows. She keenly noted its location and surroundings. The broken
timbers of the old bridge projected from the bank a short distance above
the camp; a piece of weather-stained canvas stretched over them formed a
kind of awning shading the rocks below, where the Chinese cook of the camp
sat impassively fishing. The camp had a deserted appearance, for the men
were all at work, tunneling the hill half a mile lower down. Her errands
kept her so late that she was obliged to stay over night at the house of a
friend of her father's, who owned a fruit ranch near the town. They were
prosperous, talkative people, who loudly pitied the isolation of the
family in the upper valley.
Ruth Mary reached home about noon the next day, tired and several shades
more deeply sunburned, to find that she had passed the engineers, without
knowing it, on their way down the river by the wagon road on the other
side. They had stopped over night at the ranch and made an early start
that morning. Ruth Mary was obliged to listen to enthusiastic
reminiscences, from each member of the family, of the visit she had
This was the last social event of the year. The willow copses turned
yellow and leaf-bare; the scarlet hips of the rosebushes looked as if tiny
finger-tips had left their prints upon them. The wreaths of wild clematis
faded ashen gray, and were scattered by the winds. The wood dove's cooing
no longer sounded at twilight in the leafless thickets. They had gone down
the river and the wild duck with them.
But the voice of the river, rising with the autumn rains, was loud on the
bar; the sky was hung with clouds that hid the hilltops or trailed their
ragged pennants below the summits. The mist lay cold on the river; it rose
with the sun, dissolving in soft haze that dulled the sunshine, and at
night, descending, shrouded the dark, hoarse water without stilling its
lament. Then the first snow fell, and ghostly companies of deer came out
upon the hills, or filed silently down the draws of the caņons at morning
and evening. The cattle had come down from the mountain pastures, and at
night congregated about the buildings with deep breathings and sighings;
the river murmured in its fretted channel; now and then the yelp of a
hungry coyote sounded from the hills.
The young men had said, among their light and pleasant sayings, that they
would like to come up again to the hills when the snow fell, and get a
shot at the deer; but they did not come, though often Ruth Mary stood on
the bank and looked across the swollen ford, and listened for the echo of
wheels among the hills.
About the 1st of November Mr. Tully went down to the camp at Moor's Bridge
to build the engineers' boat. The women were now alone at the ranch, but
Joe Enselman's return was daily expected. Mr. Tully, always cheerful, had
been confident that he would be home by the 5th.
The 5th of November and the 10th passed, but Enselman had not returned. On
the 12th, in the midst of a heavy fall of snow, his pack animals were
driven in by another man, a stranger to the women at the ranch, who said
that Enselman had changed his mind suddenly about coming home that fall,
and decided to go to Montana and "prove up" on his ranch there.
Mr. Tully's work was finished before the second week of December. On his
return to the ranch he brought with him a great brown paper bundle, which
the children opened by the cabin fire on the joyous evening of his
arrival. There were back numbers of the illustrated magazines and papers,
stray copies of which now and then had drifted into the hands of the
voracious young readers in the cabin. There were a few novels, selected by
Kirkwood from the camp library with especial reference to Ruth Mary. For
Tommy there was a duplicate of the wonderful pocket-knife that he had
envied Kirkwood. Angy was remembered with a little music-box, which played
"Willie, we have missed you" with a plaintive iteration that brought the
sensitive tears to Ruth Mary's eyes; and for Ruth Mary herself there was a
lace pin of hammered gold.
"He said it must be your wedding present from him, as you'd be married
likely before he saw you again," Mr. Tully said, with innocent pride in
the gift with which his daughter had been honored.
"Who said that?" Ruth Mary asked.
"Why, Mr. Kirkwood said it. He's the boss one of the whole lot to my
thinkin'. He's got that way with him some folks has! We had some real good
talks, evenings, down on the rocks under the old bridge,—I told him
about you and Enselman"—
"Father, I wish you hadn't done that." The protest in Ruth Mary's voice
was stronger than her words.
She had become slightly pale when Kirkwood's name was mentioned, but now,
as she held out the box with the trinket in it, a deep blush covered her
"I cannot take it, father. Not with that message. He can wait till I am
married before he sends me his wedding present."
To her father's amazement, she burst into tears and went out into the
shed-room, leaving Kirkwood's ill-timed gift in his hands.
"What in all conscience' sake's got into her?" he demanded of his wife,
"to take offense at a little thing like that! She didn't use to be so
Mrs. Tully nodded her head at him sagely and glanced at the children, a
hint that she understood Ruth Mary's state of mind, but could not explain
At bedtime, the father and mother being alone together, Mrs. Tully
revealed the cause of her daughter's sensitiveness, according to her
theory of it. "She's put out because Joe Enselman chose to wait till
spring before marryin', and went off to Montany instead of comin' home as
he said he would."
"Sho, sho!" said Mr. Tully. "That don't seem like Ruth Mary. She ain't in
any such a hurry as all that comes to. I've had it on my mind lately that
she took it a little too easy."
"You'll see," said the mother. "She ain't in any hurry, but she
likes him to be. She feels's if he thought more of money-makin'
than he does of her. She's like all girls. She won't use her reason and
see it's all for her in the end he's doin' it."
"Why didn't you tell her 'twas my plan, his goin' to Montany this fall? He
wouldn't listen to it nohow then. He'd rather lose his ranch than wait any
longer for Sis, so he said; but I guess he's seen the sense of what I told
him. 'Ruth Mary ain't a-goin' to run away,' I says, 'even if ye don't
prove up on her this fall.' You ought to 'a' told her, mother, 'twas my
"I told her that and more too. I told her it showed he'd make a good
provider. She looked at me solemn as a graven image all the time I was
talkin' and not a word out of her. But that's Ruth Mary. I never said the
child was sullen, but she is just like your sister Ruth—the more she
feels, the less she talks."
"Well," said Mr. Tully, "that's all right, if that's it. That'll all
straighten out with time. It was natural perhaps she should fire up at the
talk about marryin' if she felt the bridegroom was hangin' back. Why, Joe,—he'd
eat the dirt she treads on, if he couldn't make her like him no other way!
He's most too foolish about her, to my thinkin'. That's what took me so by
surprise when word come back he'd gone to Montany after all; I didn't
expect anything so sensible of him."
"'Twas a reg'lar man's piece o' work anyhow," said Mrs. Tully
"And you'll be sorry for it, I'm afraid. I never knew any good come of
puttin' off a marriage, where everything was suitable, just for a few
hundred acres of wild land, more or less."
"No use your worryin'," said Mr. Tully. "Young folks always has their
little troubles before they settle down—besides, what sort of a
marriage would it be if you or I could make it or break it?" But he bore
himself with a deprecating tenderness towards his daughter, in whose
affairs he had meddled, perhaps disastrously, as his better half feared.
The winters of Idaho are not long, even in the higher valleys. Close upon
the cold footsteps of the retreating snows trooped the first wild flowers.
The sun seemed to laugh in the cloudless sky. The children were let loose
on the hills; their voices echoed the river's chime. Its waters, rising
with the melting snows, no longer babbled childishly on their way; they
shouted, and brawled, and tumbled over the bar, rolling huge pine trunks
along as if they were sticks of kindling wood.
One cool May evening, Ruth Mary, climbing the path from the beach, saw
there was a strange horse and two pack animals in the corral. She did not
stop to look at them, but, quickly guessing who their owner must be, she
went on to the house, her knees weak and trembling, her heart beating
heavily. Her father met her at the door and detained her outside. She was
prepared for his announcement. She knew that Joe Enselman had returned,
and that the time was come for her to prove her new resolve, born of the
winter's silent struggle.
"I thought I'd better have a few words with you, Ruthie, before you see
him—to prepare your mind. Set down here." Mr. Tully took his
daughter's hands in his own and held them while he talked.
"You thought it was queer Joe stayed away so long, didn't you?" Ruth Mary
opened her lips to speak, but no words came. "Well, I did," said the
father. "Though it was my plan first off. I might 'a' know'd it was
something more 'n business that kep' him. Joe's had an accident. It
happened to him just about the time he meant to 'a' started for home last
fall. It broke him all up,—made him feel like he didn't want to see
any of us just then. He was goin' along a trail through the woods one dark
night; he never knew what stunned him; must have been a twig or something
struck him in the eye; he was giddy and crazy-like for a spell; his horse
took him home. Well, he ain't got but one eye left, Joe ain't. There, Sis,
I knew you'd feel bad. But he's well. It's hurt his looks some, but what's
looks! We ain't any of us got any to brag on. Joe had some hopes at first
he'd git to seein' again out of the eye that was hurt, and so he sent home
his animals and put out for Salt Lake to show it to a doctor there; but it
wan't any use. The eye's gone; and it doos seem as if for the time bein'
some of Joe's grit had gone with it. He went up to Montany and tended to
his business, but it was all like a dumb show and no heart in it. It's cut
him pretty deep, through his bein' alone so long, perhaps, and thinkin'
about how you'd feel. And then he's pestered in his mind about marryin'.
He feels he's got no claim to you now. Says it ain't fair to ask a young
girl that's likely to have plenty good chances to tie up to what's left of
him. I wanted you should know about this before you go inside. It might
hurt him some to see a change in your face when you look at him first. As
to his givin' you your word back, that you'll settle between yourselves;
but, however you fix it, I guess you'll make it as easy as you can for
Joe. I don' know as ever I see a big strappin' fellow so put down."
Mr. Tully had waited, between his short and troubled sentences, for some
response from Ruth Mary, but she was still silent. Her hands felt cold in
his. As he released them she leaned suddenly forward and hid her face
against his shoulder. She shivered and her breast heaved, but she was not
"There, there!" said Mr. Tully, stroking her head clumsily with his large
hand. "I've made a botch of it. I'd ought to 'a' let your mother told ye."
She pressed closer to him, and wrapped her arms around him without
"I expect I better go in now," he said gently, putting her away from him.
"Will you come along o' me, or do you want to git a little quieter first?"
"You go in," Ruth Mary whispered. "I'll come soon."
It was not long before she followed her father into the house. No one was
surprised to see her white and tremulous. She seemed to know where
Enselman sat without raising her eyes; neither did he venture to look at
her, as she came to him, and stooping forward, laid her little cold hands
"I'm glad you've come back," she said. Then sinking down suddenly on the
floor at his feet, she threw her apron over her head and sobbed aloud.
The father and mother wept too. Joe sat still, with a great and bitter
longing in his smitten countenance, but did not dare to comfort her.
"Pick her up, Joe," said Mr. Tully.
"Take hold of her, man, and show her you've got a whole heart if you ain't
got but one eye."
It was understood, as Ruth Mary meant that it should be, without more
words, that Enselman's misfortune would make no difference in their old
relation. The difference it had made in that new resolve born of the
winter's struggle she told to no one; for to no one had she confided her
Joe stayed two weeks at the ranch, and was comforted into a semblance of
his former hardy cheerfulness. But Ruth Mary knew that he was not happy.
One evening he asked her to go with him down the high shore path. He told
her that he was going to town the next day on business that might keep him
absent about a fortnight, and entreated her to think well of her promise
to him, for that on his return he should expect its fulfillment. For God's
sake he begged her to let no pity for his misfortune blind her to the true
nature of her feeling for him. He held her close to his heart and kissed
her many times. Did she love him so—and so?—he asked. Ruth
Mary, trembling, said she did not know. How could she help knowing? he
demanded passionately. Had her thoughts been with him all winter, as his
had been with her? Had she looked up the river towards the hills where he
was staying so long and wished for him, as he had gazed southward into the
valleys many and many a day, longing for the sweet blue eyes of his little
girl so far away?
Alas, Ruth Mary! She gazed almost wildly into his stricken face, distorted
by the anguish of his great love and his great dread. She wished that she
were dead. There seemed no other way out of her trouble.
The next morning, before she was dressed, Enselman rode away, and her
father went with him.
She was alone, now, in the midst of the hills she loved—alone as she
would never be again. She foresaw that she would not have the strength to
lay that last blow upon her faithful old friend,—the crushing blow
that perfect truth demanded. Her tenderness was greater than her truth.
The river was now swollen to its greatest volume. Its voice, that had been
the babble of a child and the tumult of a boy, was now deep and heavy like
the chest notes of a strong man. Instead of the sparkling ripple on the
bar, there was a continuous roar of yellow, turbid water that could be
heard a mile away. There had been no fording for six weeks, nor would
there be again until late summer. The useless boat lay in the shallow wash
that filled the deep cut among the willows. The white sand beach was gone;
heavy waves swirled past the banks and sent their eddies up into the
channels of the hills to meet the streams of melted snow. Thunder clouds
chased each other about the mountains, or met in sudden downfalls of rain.
One sultry noon, when the sun had come out hot on the hills after a wet
morning, Ruth Mary, at work in the shed-room, heard a sound that drove the
color from her cheek. She ran out and looked up the river, listening to a
distant but ever increasing roar which could be heard above the incessant
laboring of the waters over the bar. Above the summit of Sheep Mountain,
as it seemed, a huge turban-shaped cloud had rolled itself up, and from
its central folds was discharging gray sheets of water that veered and
slanted with the wind, but were always distinct in their density against
the rain-charged atmosphere. How far away the floods were descending she
did not know; but that they were coming in a huge wall of water,
overtaking and swallowing up the river's current, she was as sure as that
she had been bred in the mountains.
Bare-headed, bare-armed as she was, without a backward look, she ran down
the hill to the place where the boat was moored. Tommy was there, sitting
in the boat and making the shallow water splash as he rocked from side to
"Get out, Tommy, and let me have her, quick!" Ruth Mary called to him.
Tommy looked at her stolidly and kept on rocking. "What you want with
her?" he asked.
"Come out, for mercy's sake! Don't you hear it? There's a
cloud-burst on the mountain."
Tommy listened. He did hear it, but he did not stir. "It'll be a bully
thing to see when it comes. What you doin'? You act like you was crazy,"
he exclaimed, as Ruth Mary waded through the water and got into the boat.
"Tommy, you will kill me if you stop to talk! Don't you know the camp at
Moor's Bridge? Go home and tell mother I've gone to give 'em warning."
Tommy was instantly sobered. "I'm going with you," he said. "You can't
handle her alone in that current."
Ruth Mary, wild with the delay, every second of which might be the price
of precious lives, seized Tommy in her arms, hugged him close and kissed
him, and by main strength rolled him out into the water. He grasped the
gunwale with both hands. "You're going to be drowned," he shrieked, as if
already she were far away. She pushed off his hands and shot out into the
"Don't cry, Tommy, I'll get there somehow," she called back to him. She
could see nothing for the first few minutes of her journey but his little
wet, dismal figure toiling, sobbing, up the hill. It hurt her to have had
to be rough with him. But all the while she sat upright with her eyes on
the current, plying her paddle right and left, as rocks and driftwood and
eddies were passed. She heard it coming, that distant roar from the hills,
and prayed with beating heart that the wild current might carry her faster—faster—past
the draggled willow copses—past the beds of black lava rock, and the
bluffs with their patches of green moss livid in the sunshine—hurling
along, past glimpses of the well-known trail she had followed dreamily on
those peaceful rides she might never take again. The thought did not
trouble her, only the fear that she might be overtaken before she reached
the camp. For the waters were coming—or was it the wind that brought
that dread sound so near! She dared not look round lest she should see,
through the gates of the caņon, the black lifted head of the great wave,
devouring the river behind her. How it would come swooping down, between
those high narrow walls of rock, her heart stood still to think of. If the
hills would but open and let it loose, over the empty pastures—if
the river would only hurry, hurry, hurry! She whispered the word to
herself with frantic repetition, and the oncoming roar behind her answered
her whisper of fear with its awful intoning.
She trembled with joy as the caņon walls lowered and fell apart, and she
saw the blessed plains, the low green flats and the willows, and the white
tents of the camp, safe in the sunshine. Now if she be given but one
moment's grace to swing into the bank! The roar behind her made her faint
as she listened. For the first time she turned and looked back, and the
cry of her despair went up and was lost, as boat and message and messenger
were lost,—gone utterly, gorged at one leap by the senseless flood.
At half past five o'clock that afternoon the men of the camp filed out of
the tunnel, along the new road-bed, with the low sunlight in their faces.
It was "Saturday night," and the whole force was in good humor. As they
tramped gayly along, tools and instruments glinting in the sun, word went
down the line that something unusual had been going on by the river. There
seemed to have been a wild uprising of its waters since they saw it last.
Then a shout from those ahead proclaimed the disaster at the bridge. The
Chinese cook, crouched among the rocks high up under the bluff, where he
had fled for safety when he heard the waters coming, rushed down to them
with wild wavings and gabblings, to tell them of a catastrophe that was
best described by its results. A few provisions were left them, stored in
a magazine under a rock on the hillside. They cooked their supper with the
splinters of the ruined blacksmith's hut. After supper, in the clear, pink
evening light, they wandered about on the slippery rocks, seeking whatever
fragments of their camp equipage the flood might have left them.
Everything had been swept away, and tons of mud and gravel covered the
little green meadow where their tents had stood. Kirkwood, straying on
ahead of his comrades, came to the rocks below the bridge timbers, from
which the awning had been torn away. The wet rocks glistened in the light,
but there was a whiter gleam which caught his eye. He stooped and crawled
under the timbers anchored in the bank, until he came to the spot of
whiteness. Was this that fair young girl from the hills, dragged here by
the waters in their cruel orgy, and then hidden by them as if in shame of
their work? Kirkwood recognized the simple features, the meek eyes, wide
open in the searching light. The mud that filled her garments had spared
the pure young face. Kirkwood gazed into it reverently, but the passionate
sacrifice, the useless warning, were sealed from him. She could not tell
him why she was there.
The three young men watched in turn, that night, by the little motionless
heap covered with Kirkwood's coat. Kirkwood was very sad about Ruth Mary,
yet he slept when his watch was over.
In the morning they nailed together some boards into the shape of a long
box. There was not a boat left on the river; fording was impossible. They
could only take her home by the trail. So once more Ruth Mary traveled
that winding path, high in the sunlight or low in the shade of the shore.
A log of driftwood, left by the great wave, slung on one side of a mule's
pack saddle, balanced the rude coffin on the other. No one meeting the
three engineers and their pack-mule filing down the trail would have known
that they were a funeral procession; but they were heavy-hearted as they
rode along, and Kirkwood would fain it had not been his part to ride ahead
and prepare the family at the ranch for their child's coming.
The mother, with Tommy and Angy hiding their faces against her, stood on
the hill and watched for it, and broke into cries as the mule with its
burden came in sight.
Kirkwood walked with them down the hill to meet it. His comrades
dismounted, and the three young men, with heads uncovered, carried the
coffin over the hill and set it down in the shed-room. Then Tommy, in a
burst of childish grief, made them know that this piteous sacrifice had
been for them.
The tunnel made its way through the hill, the sinuous road-bed wound up
the valley, new camps were built along its course; but when the young men
sat together of an evening and looked at the hills in the strange pink
light, a spell of quietness rested upon them which no one tried to
The railroad has been built these two years. Every summer brings tourists
up into the Bear River valley. They look with delight upon the mountain
stream, bounding down between the hills with the brightness of the morning
on its breast.
"There should be an idyl or a legend belonging to it," a pretty, dark-eyed
girl with a Boston accent said to Kirkwood, one moonlight evening late in
summer when the river was low, as they drifted softly down between its dim
shores. "Poor little Bear River! did nothing human ever happen near you to
give you a right to a prettier name?"
The river did not answer as it rippled over the bar, nor did Kirkwood
speak for it; but the wood dove's melancholy tremolo came from the misty
willows by the shore, and in some suddenly illumined place in his memory
he saw Ruth Mary, sitting on the high bank in the peaceful afternoon, the
sunshine resting on her smooth, fair hair, the shadow lending its softness
to her shy, down-bent face.
The pity of it, when he thinks of it sometimes, seems to him more than he
can bear. Yet if Ruth Mary had still been there at the ranch on the hills,
she would have been, to him, only "that nice little girl of Tully's who
married the one-eyed packer."