It was one of the first warm-like days of early spring, and the farmers from the surrounding country had come into town upon various errands touching the near approach of seed-time. They were a hardy, contented looking lot, hurrying up and down the single street of business houses in the village, each carrying his own particular purchase - one a plowshare, another a pair of rubber boots, while still others carried bundles and packages of goods for use in the household.
Among this crowd of jolly, jostling men, was John Harbour, the youngest farmer in the county - a tall, broad-shouldered fellow - strolling aimlessly about with his hands thrust deep into the pockets of his light, sadly-faded over coat. He had not come to town for the purpose of trading, but had been summoned to appear in court. His farm, one of the most remote in the settlement, adjoined a quarter section of hayland belonging to a certain Mr. Hardcastle, a wealthy landowner having the reputation of being an exceedingly hard man, and unpleasant neighbor.
A short time before the opening of this story, John had been burning off his hay-land. He lost control of the fire and it had gotten onto Hardcastle's land and burned up one of his hay ricks. John had offered to pay for the hay, but Hardcastle recalled a certain thrashing the young farmer had given him at a heated political meeting, and seized upon this violation of the prairie fire law, as a means of evening up with him. This meant ruin, for the court, in its zeal to punish carelessness in handling such fires, would undoubtedly impose a heavy fine, and Hardcastle knew that in order to pay it, John would have to sell his seed wheat. That would render impossible a crop next year, and hence no money with which to meet the fall payments on his machinery; and following this would be the sheriff and the ultimate loss of his farm.
These thoughts, and the thought of a pretty, patient little woman, for whom he was struggling hard to make a home, were what occupied the young man's mind, as he walked here and there, aimlessly, about the town.
"Twelve ten,"; he muttered, as he paused in front of the Bascomb House, and looked at his watch, "very nearly two hours to wait yet." Everybody was at dinner and the streets were almost deserted, except that the bench in front of the hotel bore its usual unkempt-looking line of town loafers. They smoked, gossiped, and expectorated great quantities of tobacco juice on the sidewalk. Nothing seemed to escape their notice, and no subject was too trifling for discussion.
"I see Chambers has been getting a new set of harness," said one.
"Yes," answered another lounger, "and less than a week ago he bought that cart. Seems to me the old man is going it pretty steep on the strength of next fall's crop."
Harbour listened in an abstracted way to their chattering, and watched a dog that came trotting down the middle of the road. The animal was a beautiful Scotch collie, and bore himself with a grace and dignity peculiar to that breed. Several small curs ran out, barking and snapping at him, but he paid no attention to them, other than to raise his ears, as a token of surprise or disdain. He was evidently a stranger to the town. Every little while he would pause, raise one forefoot and point his shapely nose upward, as if trying to catch a scent. There was something pathetic in his intelligent eyes, as he drew near to sniff at each of the loafers in turn.
"Mighty fine looking dog that." Remarked one of them.
"Yes; kind of conceited like, though," ventured another. "Wouldn't wonder if he'd put up quite a scrap."
"We'll soon see," said the red-faced keeper of the hotel, and, without rising from his seat at the end of the bench, he reached around and shoved open the bar-room door. "Here, Bill," he called, "here's something good to eat. Come out and try a leg!"
"Are you going to let your bull at him, Jim?" gasped one of the gang.
"Why not? What right has a tramp dog got sniffing around these premises?" growled the landlord.
Something in the loneliness of the poor dog had touched a dozen sympathetic chords in Harbour's nature, and he stepped out from the tree, against which he had been leaning, in a very suggestive manner. Just at that moment a voice seemed to say to him: "You're a fool, John; it was just such a whim as this that got you into trouble with Hardcastle - keep out of it," and the farmer resumed his place by the tree.
But his heart was full of pity, as he saw the innocent animal about to be sacrificed to amuse a mob of heartless loafers, who could be heard chuckling with joyous anticipation, as a big, surly, evil-eyed beast walked slowly out of the door. The dog's well-kept body was of a brindle color, and the brass collar about his neck was almost hidden by folds of fat. Flaps of skin hung from his square jaws, and his black lips, parted in a perpetual grin, revealed his terrible teeth.
The collie seemed to regard the new arrival with lively curiosity. He had evidently never seen a bulldog before, and was ignorant of his dangerous character. He arched his neck, raised his ears, wagged his tail and advanced to touch noses and get acquainted.
Without making a sound, or betraying the slightest sign of anger, the bulldog darted straight at the throat of the unoffending stranger. Snap! Went his powerful jaws, not an inch from the graceful throat of the collie. That foolish dog — to the great astonishment of the spectators, after such an unmistakable demonstration on the part of his enemy - made no attempt to escape. Instead, he made another friendly overture; but this was received in no more kindly fashion than the first. Then there was a change. The peaceful, inquiring creature of a moment before, was suddenly transformed into an animal lithe as a panther, bristling with rage, and alert for battle.
The landlord laughed loudly and clapped his hands on his knees. "Sic him, Bill!" He roared, "sic him! Eat him up!"
A crowd soon began to gather to see what was going on. Once more Harbour walked out from the tree; wise, or otherwise, he was determined to champion the masterless dog in his unequal combat, and moved about as if his long legs were set on springs.
The dog whose ancestors had roamed the heather-clad hills of old Scotland, soon proved that he possessed the keen brain of his kind. He evaded every charge of his heavier adversary, and, leaping lightly to the rear, bit him mercilessly on hip and leg. The bulldog became furious; the foam dripped from his savage jaws. Time and again he rushed upon his seemingly helpless foe, only to be misled and badly bitten before he could recover himself. His strenuous exertions, however, were beginning to tell upon the supple collie; his leap became less agile, while the tenacious bulldog, though lame and panting for breath, appeared to grow more savage each moment.
"Grab that cowardly whelp! Just let Bill have one grip on him," bawled the puffing landlord.
One of his louts made a move to obey his order, but returned to his place with considerable haste and Harbour's No. 9 shoe in close proximity to his coat tails. Presently the bulldog made a rush and almost caught the collie in a deadly grip. His glistening teeth grazed the muzzle of his evasive enemy. The latter, by the stinging scratch, seized his heavy antagonist by the hind leg, and, with a quick side pull, rolled him on his broad back. For a few moments there was a confused mass of struggling, snarling animals; then the collie leaped to his feet, and the bulldog rose slowly, with a long red gash in his side, and one hind leg hanging limp and broken. Seeing this, the landlord caught up a heavy piece of scantling and rushed toward the victorious collie. But he came to a sudden stop.
"Oh, no you don't, my friend!" said Harbour. "You and your dog started this trouble. Now you and your dog will take what's coming to you. The man who lays a finger on that dog, to hurt him, will feel the weight of these" — brandishing a pair of gigantic fists.
No one moved or spoke, and the collie, who at that moment must have caught some trace of his master, trotted off, with the same innocent, undaunted air that had characterized his coming. The hotel keeper seized his beaten, whimpering dog by the collar and pulled him inside; the crowd of people standing about, jeering him as he did so.
Harbour once more found himself alone, and his heart sank as he turned toward the old implement-shed that served as a town hall. His trouble, after the brief excitement through which he had just passed, seemed weightier than ever, and his spirit sank lower, and lower, as he strolled along.
A light pressure on his arm caused him to turn quickly about, and there stood the thin, keen-featured man, Hardcastle.
"Well?" questioned the young farmer, gruffly.
"I - I - guess, John," began Mr. Hardcastle, with a slight nervous halt, "I guess we'll call that fire business off. I've just been down and withdrawn the charge. You needn't bother about the matter of the hay, either - hay is cheap this spring; and, anyhow, I've lots left. More than that, my teams will be through with the seeding early, and if you are needing any help, come to me. I want to bury the hatchet, and here's my hand on it."
John stared in speechless astonishment, reaching out his hand mechanically, as he did so. "I - I - I -. Why? What for?" he managed to stammer at last.
Mr. Hardcastle halted astride the side of his wagon box into which he was climbing. "Look," he said, and there were unmistakable signs of moisture in his little, hard gray eyes, as he pointed to the spring seat, where, coiled comfortably upon his master's overcoat, holding in his teeth the reins of the restless team, lay the intelligent collie of the recent fight with the bulldog.
"He was my son Coleman's dog, and was with him when we found him dead in the snow last December, out on the open prairie."