Dummy by Will C. Barnes

"Take him, Bob; take him, boy." The woman pointed to a coyote skulking in the sage brush a hundred yards from the camp wagon beside which she stood. The dog raced toward the animal which turned and stopped, a nasty snarl coming from its lips, teeth bared, every hair of its mane erect. Almost as large as a full grown wolf it outweighed the dog by many pounds.

Surprised at the coyote's hostile attitude the Airedale stopped for a moment, then advanced cautiously, realizing that this coyote differed somewhat from those he had met before.

Instantly the coyote flew at the dog, burying its keen teeth deep in his left leg, leaping quickly back to avoid a clinch, its jaws snapping like castanets. The dog, though taken by surprise, fought with all the fury of his breed, but being only a pup was manifestly overmatched. Realizing the dangerous character of the coyote, the woman seized the camp axe standing at the front wheel of the wagon and ran to the aid of her protector.

The coyote tore loose from the dog's grip and jumped at her as she came nearer. She swung the axe as the animal raised in the air, missed its head by six inches, and, before she could gather herself for another blow, it sank its fangs deep into her bare arm. Encouraged by her presence the dog fastened himself to the animal's hindquarters, but shaking him loose it lunged at her again. She stood her ground, thrusting the axe at the brute in an endeavor to keep it at bay. Meantime the door to the camp wagon opened, a boy about fifteen jumped to the ground, in his hand a heavy automatic pistol. As the coyote sprang at the woman's body he thrust the weapon under her arm almost in the animal's face, and the shot that followed blew half its ugly head away.

As the beast sank to the ground the woman dropped the axe, ran to the wagon, picked up a rope hobble that lay on the tongue, tied it around her arm above the wound and, with a short piece of stick, twisted the improvised tourniquet until it sank deep into the white flesh. The boy, the while uttering those strange inarticulate sounds of the deaf and dumb, wrote a few words upon the slate that hung from his neck by a leather thong and handed it to the woman. "The signal—shoot the signal," she read.

She seized the automatic the boy had used, raised it above her head, fired two quick shots, waited a moment, and fired two more. As she listened there came through the still cold air an answer, sharp and staccato as the spark from a wireless.

Then, and not until then, did the woman relax and sink to the ground as if dead.

The physical disabilities of the boy had given him a keenness and comprehension far beyond his years. He clambered into the wagon, drew from its scabbard a heavy rifle, jumped to the ground and repeated the signal three times. Could his ears have served him he would have heard the answering shots, this time much nearer.

No rider in a Wild West relay race ever quit his pony with greater speed than did Jim Stanley as he reached his camp, where with one quick glance he realized what had happened. As he dropped beside his wife she opened her eyes, grasped his hand and struggled to rise. The boy ran to the wagon returning quickly with a small box, the well known red cross on its black shining side proving it to be a "first aid kit." The woman smiled faintly. Away back in the mountains the forest ranger's wife had once showed her the box the government furnished all its rangers, and when the lambs were shipped in August she coaxed Stanley to bring one back. He rather laughed at the idea, but to please her, bought one and, with a woman's foresight, it had always been kept in the camp wagon.

The prevalence of rabies among the coyotes was the one live topic in every sheep and cattle camp all over the range country and, realizing the serious nature of the wound, the man took the box from the boy, opened it and seized the booklet which told briefly what to do in such an emergency.

The pressure of the tourniquet was lessened, causing the wound to bleed freely, a most valuable aid to its cleansing, and in a few minutes it had been well washed with hot water, flooded with a strong solution of carbolic acid and bound tightly with one of the bandages from the box.

In the meantime, the man had decided on his course. At a sign from him the boy mounted the horse Stanley had ridden into camp and rode rapidly off across the range. While he was gone, Stanley outlined his plans to his wife. With good luck they could intercept the auto stage, that passed down the road every day, at a point some thirty miles distant. From there it was seventy-five miles to town which they would reach that night in time to catch the midnight train to the nearest Pasteur institute.

"But the sheep, Jim?" and the woman looked anxiously out on the range. "We can't leave them all alone, you better let me make the ride by myself and you stay here, for I can get through all right."

Stanley shook his head. "Not for all the sheep in the world would I let you go alone." He kissed her cheeks.

"But Jim," she pleaded, "it's too much to risk and I'll make it without a bit of trouble."

The boy was just turning the point of a little hill near camp driving before him the two horses hobbled out the night before. Stanley pointed to him. "Dummy can turn the trick all right enough, he's the best herder in this whole range for his age, and he'll get 'em through if any one can. He's only a boy, but he has a lot of good horse-sense and if the weather holds out he'll work the herd from here to the winter range and not lose a sheep."

"But we'll take the team with us; how can he move camp?" and she glanced at the big roomy camp wagon.

"That saddle pony of mine will carry all the grub and bedding he'll need and the wagon can stand right here till some of us can get back and haul it away."

The man hung a nose bag full of oats on each horse, saddling them as they ate, and while he was getting out the pack outfit, food, and other supplies for the boy, she was writing his instructions on the slate, supplemented by many signs and motions which he read as easily as the written words. He was to stay in this camp two or three days longer, then pack the pony with his camp outfit and drift the sheep slowly toward the winter range seventy-five miles below.

"Take plenty of food," she wrote, "for it may be ten days before some one gets out to relieve you. You know the way, don't you?"

Dummy nodded eagerly. He had come up with the sheep in the spring and knew every camp and bed-ground on the trail.

"Don't you worry about him," Stanley told his wife, when she again spoke of the danger of leaving the boy all alone. "He's short two good ears, that's sure, but he more than makes up for them in gumption and common-sense. If it don't come on to storm, he'll make it through all right and by the time he gets there I'll have a man ready to relieve him, if I'm not there myself."

"And if it does storm," he continued, "he'll probably do just about as well as any one else, for out here, if it comes on a blizzard, all the best man in the world could do would be to let the sheep drift before it till they strike shelter."

Fifteen minutes later, the boy watched them ride out of sight, over a ridge near camp. As the two figures were lost to view he turned toward the wagon and took a short survey of his surroundings. Out on the range twelve hundred ewes were peacefully grazing with no hand but his to guide and protect them; what a chance to show the stuff in him! Deep down in his heart he hoped that the man who was to come out from the railroad to relieve him would be delayed for many days. It would give him a chance to make good and show his worth.

(image)

 "Out on the range 1200 ewes were grazing"

For three days Dummy led an uneventful life. The dog was recovering from his wounds, the sheep were doing well, and he had shot another rascally coyote that came skulking about the camp one evening.

On the fourth day the sky was overcast with heavy clouds that seemed threatening and, as the feed near camp was about gone, he decided it was time to be moving. In two hours he was off, the dog limping along by his side, the herd slowly grazing their way across the range.

As a precautionary measure he led the pack horse lest old "Slippers" take it into his head to desert him. That night Dummy made camp under the lee of some small hills where a few scattered cedars offered fire-wood and shelter. The sun had set in an angry sky, there was a strange feeling in the air, and the sheep seemed to sense an approaching storm.

He bedded them down in the most sheltered spot he could find, set up his little miner's tent close to a cedar and, after cooking his supper, took the dog into the tent, tied the flaps and slept as only a tired boy of his age can sleep.

The tent was lit with the dim gray of early dawn, when the dog's cold nose on his face awoke him, and he was soon outside, opening up the fire hole he had carefully covered the night before. The wind was blowing a gale while overhead the sky was that dull leaden color that in the range country means snow.

Late that afternoon he worked the sheep toward a line of low cliffs that cut across the prairie and bedded them down in their lee, finding for himself a snug overhanging shelf of rock, under which he placed his camp outfit, and cooked his first meal since daylight.

Dummy dared not hobble out his horse in such a night, but after giving him a small feed of grain he had brought from the wagon, staked the animal in a little grassy wash near camp.

By dark the snow began to fall heavily and he knew that for him and his woolly companions the morrow would be full of new troubles.

Lost to all sounds of the storm, the lad sat before the little campfire under the overhanging rock and watched the snow drive before the wind. With the confidence of one born and raised amid such conditions, Dummy rather enjoyed the prospect of a struggle against the elements. His parents were Basques from the Spanish Pyrenees, a sturdy dependable race that for centuries have been sheepherders in their own land. Every winter, from the open ranges of the West, come tales of "basco" sheepherders facing death in the storms, rather than desert their herds. Their devotion to their woolly charges, good judgment in handling them and loyalty to their employers' interests, even unto death, is recognized all over the western range country, until the name "basco" stands for the best in sheepherders.

From such as these sprang this boy, deaf and dumb from his birth. His father and his uncle were among the best herders in the state, and from a child he had been used to the rough life of a sheep camp. Deficient as he was in two vital senses, the remaining ones had been developed until his ability to grasp and understand things about him seemed almost uncanny. It was this knowledge of the boy's breeding and peculiarities that made Stanley feel he would take the best possible care of the sheep left in his charge.

When Dummy opened his eyes the next morning, the air was so full of snow driving before a fifty-mile gale that he could not see a hundred feet from camp. He cooked his breakfast, fed Slippers the last of the grain, and waited for the storm to break, realizing that until it did it would be folly to leave the shelter of the cliffs.

The sheep were getting restless and hungry and occasionally small bunches drifted out into the storm in search of feed, but after buffeting with the wind for a few moments were glad to come back. About noon there came a lull in the gale and the snow came straight down almost in clouds. The sheep were uneasy over the change, and even Slippers seemed to sense some new danger.

Suddenly with a roar the wind swept upon them from a new direction so that they were now exposed to its full fury, whereas, before, they had been sheltered by the cliffs.

The sheep tried to face it, but the fierce wind was too much for them, and they slowly drifted before the gale across the snow-covered range.

All that day Dummy struggled along behind the herd tired, cold, hungry, and almost blinded by the frozen tears, leading the pack horse lest he lose him. As for controlling the movements of the sheep, he did nothing for they could travel in but one direction, and that was away from the arctic blast which grew in strength as the day wore on. Wherever there was a sign of anything eatable upon which the hungry animals could feed, they ate even the woody stems of the sage or the dry yellow fibre-like leaves of the Yuccas that here and there showed above the snow.

The short winter day began to wane, and darkness was slowly creeping across the white cover that lay over the land. All sense of direction and time had long since left the lad, but he struggled on, the dog limping along at his side.

Just as the last signs of daylight faded away the sheep stopped moving, and he was unable to start them again. He wrapped the lead rope of his horse about a sage bush as best he could, then worked his way through the herd looking for the cause of their stopping. Stumbling and falling over snow-hidden rocks and bushes, he found himself almost stepping off into empty space over a cliff, where the snow had built out from its edge in such a manner as to conceal its presence, and, even as he threw himself back from the step he was about to take, he saw several sheep walk blindly out into the semi-darkness and disappear into the depth below.

The loss of these roused into action every drop of his basco blood. In the dim light he could just make out where the edge of the cliff lay and, carefully working his way along it, beat the stolid mass of animals back from the danger. By this time it was almost dark and he turned back to find his horse, but after half an hour's search gave it up and returned to the herd, hoping the animal might be with them somewhere. He stumbled around in the snow for some time before he came up with the tail enders of the herd slowly working their way through a break in the cliff down which the leaders had evidently gone. He found the herd huddled up in the shelter of the cliff and eagerly looked through them for the pack horse with its precious burden of food and bedding, but without success.

Once he stumbled over several soft objects in the dark which he made out to be some of the sheep that had fallen over the cliff. When he finally realized that the pack horse was gone, he knew where he could at least get his supper and breakfast, and after starting a fire skinned out a hind quarter of one of the fallen sheep and soon had some of it roasting. Fortunately for the boy, he found piled against the cliff a lot of poles that had evidently been part of an old corral, which made it possible for him to keep the fire going all night and over which he huddled dropping off to sleep only to be awakened by his numbed limbs and body.

Eagerly Dummy peered through the falling snow the next day as the gray dawn came slowly into the east. The snow sweeping over the cliff from above had formed a drift that almost completely shut the sheep in as if with a fence and he knew there was no possibility of leaving the shelter where he was until the sky cleared off enough for him to get his bearings. Even then he doubted if it would be possible for the sheep to travel, so deep was the snow.

About noon the snow stopped falling, and Dummy worked his way up to the top of the cliff from which as far as he could see there was but a broad expanse of snow-covered range.

To his left the view was cut off by a small hill that stood close to the cliff. He went over to it and from its top saw below him in the open plain a small board shack with a rough shed stable near it.

Instantly he remembered that, as they passed up with the sheep in the spring, a man and his wife were busy building the shack preparatory to taking up the land about it for dry farming purposes. Eagerly he watched the house for signs of occupancy, but as there was no smoke coming from the chimney, he decided it was empty. Two things interested him, however. One, the fact that the plowed field near the house, being on a slight elevation, was blown almost clear of snow, and the other, there was something half hidden by the house which looked mightily like a stack of hay, although it scarcely seemed that this could be true.

In the field, which covered perhaps forty acres, he saw the possibility of finding a little feed for the sheep until the snow should settle enough to allow them to travel and, if the stack really was hay or any rough feed, his troubles were over for the present at least.

As the lad turned back to camp he realized only too well the difficulty of moving the herd until the snow settled, it being fully eighteen inches deep on the level, and everywhere there were drifts many feet high through which the sheep in their weakened condition could not make their way.

But it was less than half a mile at the most from the camp to the shack, and he was sure he could work the sheep to the field where there would be some pickings that would keep them from starving.

As he suspected, he found the place deserted, and the stack proved to be fodder of some description surrounded by a strong fence. The shed, which had a small door hanging on one hinge and about half open, was as dark as a cellar and, as he stepped inside, the nose of his lost horse was fairly pushed into his face, and but for his infirmity he could have heard the most gladsome nickering and whinnying to which a lone hungry horse ever gave tongue. A few threads of canvas on the door post told the story of the trap the animal had walked into. Looking for food and shelter, he had squeezed through the half open door, but, once inside, the wide pack striking it on one side and the door post on the other, held him a prisoner.

Quickly the boy removed the pack, then, armed with the camp shovel and axe, went to investigate the stack. It looked more like weeds than anything else and when he grabbed a handful it was rough and harsh and pricked his hands. It was green, however, and the horse ate it greedily.

With the finding of his horse the lad's spirit rose and he set to work to move the sheep over. Between the camp and the house there was a deep wash which the drifting snow had almost filled, while elsewhere there was fully eighteen inches. With the pack-saddle on the horse, the lash rope for traces, and an old sled, evidently used by the farmer to haul water, he started to break a trail through which the sheep could make their way, the shovel being used on the drifts. With a little coaxing he got them started through this narrow lane, and eventually the whole bunch was inside the field eagerly gnawing every eatable thing in sight.

About half an hour before dark that evening a long string of pack horses, with a rider in the lead and another following, came ploughing through the snow up to the cliff above where the sheep had been bedded. Two of the horses carried ordinary camp packs, the rest were loaded with hay, three bales to the horse. At the edge of the cliff the leader pulled up while every animal stopped in its tracks.

"If we can't see anything of the sheep from here we might just as well give it up for the night," he called back to his companion. "Come on up and have a look."

For a few minutes they both sat gazing out into the plain below, across which the evening shadows were slowly trailing. As far as they could see there was but a white unbroken sheet of snow, the only living thing visible being half a dozen ravens cawing hoarsely as they drifted into the distance.

The second man pulled out his pipe, loaded, and lit it.

"Jim," he queried, "do you know what night this is?"

"I reckon I do," and Stanley's voice choked. "It's Christmas eve, an' I been a-thinkin' an' a-thinkin' all afternoon of that poor little chap out here a-fightin' his way through a storm, the like of which this range ain't seen in twenty years. Don't seem possible he's pulled through, although I'd back Dummy to make it and save his herd if any kid could."

Suddenly he turned his head and sniffed.

"Seems like I smell smoke, and cedar smoke at that," he said eagerly. "Don't you git it, Bob?"

"Which way's the wind?" and Bob blew a cloud of smoke into the frosty air.

"What there is comes from the direction of that there little hill," pointing to the very hill on which Dummy had stood.

The instant they topped it, each caught sight of the dry farmer's place, the haystack, the sheep in the field and knew they had found that for which they sought.

"You know the place?" asked Bob, as they hurried down.

"I do for a fact," Stanley grinned, "last time I passed this-a-way the old digger what built that shack an' taken up the dry farm was cuttin' an' stackin' Russian thistles. When I laughed at him for a fool he said he ain't raised nothing' else, an' up North Dakota way they used to put 'em up for roughness when the crops failed, an' he's seen many an old Nellie pulled through a hard winter on 'em."

Ten minutes later the two rode up to the shack. A line of scattered fodder from the stack to the shed showed what the boy had been doing. Bob picked up a handful of the stuff: "Roosian thistles by all that's holy," was his comment, "an' whoever before heerd tell of them tumble weeds a-bein' good for anything to eat."

As he spoke the lad came round the corner of the shed in which "Slippers" had been comfortably stabled and fed.

What with smoke from campfires, and the charcoal he had smeared over it to save his eyes, his face was as black as Toby's hat, but to Stanley it was the face of a hero. Uttering those strange guttural sounds, waving his arms towards the sheep, his dark eyes shining with pride and joy the boy ran to Stanley as a child to its father.

The man, too overwhelmed and happy to speak, grabbed the lad close to his heart, stroking the tousled head and patting tenderly the dirty cheeks down which the child's tears were now cutting deep trails in their extra covering while, as he realized the boy could hear not a word of the praise and thanks he was showering on him for his pluck and fidelity the tears came to his own eyes nor did he try to stop them.

In the shack that night the boy, worn out by his exposure and the reaction, dropped into his bed the instant supper had been eaten and was fast asleep in ten seconds.

The two men smoked in silence before the little fireplace in the corner.

"Do you reckon we could make a stab at some sort of a Christmas tree an' kinda s'prise the kid in the morning?" Stanley glanced toward the figure asleep on the floor.

"Jest what I was a studyin' over," was Bob's reply. "These here bascos make a heap of such holidays an' Dummy he'd be the tickledest kid ever, if he was to find something like Christmas time a settin' by his bed when he wakes up in the morning."

Bob knocked the ashes from his pipe and put it away.

"There's a bunch of piņons and cedars down along the wash," he said, "sposin' I take the axe an' git a little branch, or the tip of a piņon an' we set her up here by his bed? What kin we dig up to put onto it that's fittin' for such a thing?"

"For a starter I got them nine silver cart wheels the store keeper give me in change," was Stanley's quick response. Bob was already going through his pockets.

"Here's a handful of chicken feed, that'll help some," handing the change to Stanley, "yep, an' a paper dollar the postmaster gimme. Reckon the kid'll know what it is? I been skeert I'd use it fer a cigarette paper."

Stanley started for the two kyacks lying in the corner.

"You hustle out an' git the tree," said he, "an' I'll see what else I can scare up in the packs. I know there's a couple of apples an' a orange I throwed in with the grub when we was packin'."

An hour later the two men stood by the boy's bed, their faces fairly shining with the true Christmas spirit over their efforts to make an acceptable Christmas tree out of such scanty material. On the floor at his head stood a small piņon tree top held erect by several stones. Both men had exhausted their ingenuity to find things with which to decorate it and on its branches hung the oddest lot of plunder that ever old "Santy" left on his rounds.

"I'll never miss them spurs," said Bob pointing to an almost new pair he had recently bought, "an' Dummy, he's been just daffy about 'em."

"Same with that new knife," said Stanley. "I jist bought it to be a doin' somethin' an' I know Dummy ain't got one that'll cut cold butter."

In nine separate little packages wrapped in newspaper the silver dollars were swinging at the end of pieces of thread from a spool in Bob's "war bag," the loose silver had been placed in two empty tobacco sacks each hanging pendant from the tip of a limb, while three unbroken packages of chewing gum, two apples and one rather dilapidated orange swung from other branches.

Stanley picked up the boy's slate. "Less' see," he asked, "what's Dummy's real name?"

"Pedro," answered Bob, busy making down their bed on the floor.

Painstaking and slowly, he wrote:

TO PEDRO
A MERRY CHRISTMAS.
YOU ARE SURE SOME SHEEP MAN.

Then he propped the slate against the tree in plain sight of the lad's eyes when he woke.

"Beats hell how a man's eyes gits to waterin' this cold weather." Stanley wiped his eyes rather furtively as he turned toward their bed.

"Same here," replied Bob, blowing his nose with more than usual vigor. "Somethin' sure does act onto 'em."