"Here we are, Pard," observed Kane Osborne, looking regretfully after the receding train that had just left him at the isolated mountain station.
Pard, a bright-eyed, alert Scotch collie, glanced up intelligently into the troubled face of his companion, a slender lad of fifteen.
Kane shivered in the chill December air which swept down from the snow-clad peaks, and his somewhat pale face expressed disappointment as he looked up and down the seemingly deserted station-platform.
"No one to meet us, Pard," he said to the tail wagging collie. "Maybe he don't want us – he didn't write that he did, but Uncle Hi was sure he'd take us in. It's Christmas eve, and we're all alone, Pard"; and Kane swallowed hard as his hand stroked the dog's head. A sympathetic whine was Pard's response.
"Looking for some one, son?" asked the station-agent, coming forward.
"Yes," answered Kane, rather bashfully; "we're looking for Mr. Jim Moreley."
"Relation of his going up to the ranch to spend Christmas?"
"No-o-o. Is his ranch near here?"
"About ten miles up Rainbow Caņon," informed the agent, eying the boy. "Moreley hasn't been down today. Going up for a vacation?"
"To live there, if he'll keep us," replied Kane.
"Haven't you any other place to go but to Moreley's ranch?" inquired the agent.
"No place. My folks are all dead, and Uncle Hi died, too, about five days ago," explained Kane, trying bravely to keep the tears back. "There’s just Pard and me left. A lady offered me a home, but she wouldn't let Pard stay. Uncle Hi used to know Mr. Moreley over at Green Buttes, before he came here, so he got the doctor to write that he was sending Pard and me up to the ranch."
"If you go to live with old Moreley, he'll work you to death," declared the man. "He's changed since he lived at Green Buttes. He's drinking, these days, and he's hard on his help. He hasn't any use for any one who 's not strong," scanning Kane's thin arms and legs in his worn suit.
"Oh, I'll be all right when I get to knocking about the mountains." Kane hastened to assure the agent, resenting the suggestion of physical weakness. "Uncle Hi," he continued, "was sick nearly four months, and I was shut up taking care of him and missed my exercise. Before he died, he told me to come up to Rainbow Canon. He was sure Mr. Moreley'd be glad to have a boy and a good dog to help with the sheep. I've worked on a sheep ranch before, and Pard knows a lot about the business."
"Well, I'm sorry for you, kid, if you're going up to old Moreley's. Wait a minute." And the agent stepped to the other end of the platform and called to an old man who was unhitching his team from a post in front of a little store near by. "Hello, Thompson! Here's a boy who wants to go up to Moreley's ranch. Can't you give him a lift as far as your place?"
"Guess so, if he's spry," the rancher called back in a crisp tone. "I'm in a hurry!" he explained, climbing into his wagon and gathering up the lines. "There's a storm brewin' in the mountains, and my sheep are scattered in the caņon."
"All right! Here's the boy," said the agent. "Good-by, kid and a Merry Christmas to you!"
"Here, kid!" called the agent, running after Kane with an old overcoat. "Put this on. You'll need it riding up Rainbow. You need n't mind returning it - it's too small for me now."
This unexpected kindness brought a lump in Kane's throat, but he murmured his thanks as he slipped into the overcoat. Then he climbed into the wagon. Somewhat impatiently Thompson moved over in his seat to make room for the unwelcome passenger. He puckered his brows into a frown as his sharp gray eyes ran the boy over critically.
"I'm in a rush," he asserted, starting his ponies off briskly up the mountain road.
"Got a dog, I see," he remarked presently, with something like a sniff, as Pard trotted along by the wagon. "I ain't no use for dogs ever since Bill Stevens's killed some o' my lambs. They're a right smart of a nuisance - same as boys. Boys ask too many questions, and stand around and watch the old man do the work. I had one from Denver, but he was no good, and I shipped him back. Sairy, my wife, is always at me to get a boy to live with us, but after my experience with 'Denver,' no boys for me."
Kane felt very uncomfortable as Thompson delivered himself of this speech. At first he stole only a timid, sidelong glance at the man who had no use for boys and dogs. But presently, gathering courage, he surveyed his companion's care-lined face. He decided that Thompson was not as unkindly as his words might imply.
"Moreley some connection of yours?" he asked Kane, after driving for some time in silence.
"No," answered Kane, snuggling his chin down inside the turned-up collar of his newly acquired overcoat; "Uncle Hi thought Pard and I might find a job there."
"Who's Uncle Hi?"
"A kind old man I lived with after my father and mother died."
"Why didn't you stay with him ?" Thompson asked, darting a suspicious glance at Kane from under a ledge of bushy brows.
"He died, too, and it took everything to pay the funeral expenses. Dr. Bently paid my way up to Rainbow. When I earn money enough, I'll pay him back and buy a tombstone for Uncle Hi."
"Well, lad, it's a world o' trouble!" and the old man sighed deeply. "I was gittin' along tiptop till our boy died. After that I seemed to run downhill, and had to mortgage my ranch to Jim Moreley to keep goin'. But," pridefully, "I got some fine sheep, and if I've good luck winterin' 'em, I'll pay out next fall, and be independent ag'in."
As they steadily ascended, the wind grew more chilly and moaned ominously among the pines that dotted the mountain slopes. The keen air made Kane's nose and ears tingle, and he drew closer to his companion.
"Goin' to storm," observed Thompson, squinting toward the sky. "It's a sure sign when the pines screech that way. Here we are," he announced, turning off on a side trail. "That's my place," pointing to a homy-looking cottage that stood in a sheltered arm of the wide caņon.
"It's about three miles up the trail yonder to Moreley's," he explained. "You can eat a bite with Sairy and me before goin' on."
As Kane helped unhitch the ponies, a motherly looking woman called from the house that dinner was ready. She made friends with Pard at once, and brought him a plate of scraps from the kitchen.
"Some Christmas fixin's for you, Sairy," said Thompson, as he and Kane deposited on the table several packages brought from Rainbow.
In the neat, warm kitchen, Kane, seated between the old couple, ate his share of the good "boiled dinner" with a gusto caused by a keen appetite. More than once he caught Mrs. Thompson's kindly eyes fixed on his face with an almost yearning eagerness.
The meal over, Pard had another feast in the shed behind the kitchen. Then, thanking the couple for their kindness, Kane slipped into the overcoat and prepared for his climb up to Moreley's ranch.
"He reminds me so much of Harry," Kane overheard Mrs. Thompson say in an undertone to her husband. "Why can't we keep him? Moreley's will be such a rough place for him."
Thompson muttered something about boys and dogs being a great deal of bother.
"It seems as if Providence sent him to us," she persisted, "your bringing him here, and on Christmas eve, too! He's like a Christmas present," with a smile directed at Kane. Then, with a pleading quiver of the pleasant voice, "Do let's keep him - and that fine collie!"
But Thompson shook his head decisively.
"Well, we can at least keep him overnight - Christmas eve," she pleaded. "It's three o'clock now, and these short days it gets dark so early in the mountains. It's going to storm soon," looking out of the window, "and the trail being strange to him, he might miss his way."
"The trail 's all right if he follows it," declared the old rancher, impatiently.
From the foot of the steep trail Kane waved his hand to her, as she stood in the doorway watching him start.
"So much like Harry." she murmured tremulously. "God guard him!"
"Just stick to that trail, and it'll lead you straight to Moreley's," directed Thompson, calling after Kane. "Don't waste any time though. See that cloud rolling over Old Grayback?" indicating a peak, "that means a snow-storm, and my sheep are scattered somewhere in the canon. I've got to hustle."
Kane turned to offer the services of Pard and himself to help round up the sheep, but Thompson had hurried away and disappeared down the canon. So he went on up the trail. To reinforce his courage he began to whistle, but something in his throat choked him, and he became thoughtful.
"Pard," gently squeezing the collie's ear, "if Mr. Moreley don't want us, we'll be in a fix." A rapid movement of the tail and a low whine attested Pard's loyal sympathy.
The cloud over Old Grayback soon obscured the entire sky. Presently Kane felt fine particles of snow strike his face, and the path soon became slippery and difficult to keep.
"This is going back two steps to one forward, Pard!" he laughed.
The wind, accompanied by a steadily falling temperature, increased in power every minute, driving the now rapidly descending snow before it. Kane pulled his cap down to protect his eyes and struggled on.
The snow soon came down in blinding sheets, entirely blotting out the trail. Pard kept close to his master, frequently whining his disapproval of the storm.
Suddenly Kane realized that he had strayed from the trail and was stumbling along half blindly down a canon over rocks and tangled bushes. Here the trees broke the fierce, biting force of the wind. But he had no idea which way to turn to find the path that he had lost. All around and enwrapping him was a mass of roaring, smothering whiteness.
Kane had lived most of his years among the Rockies, but he had never before been lost in one of their wild winter storms. He knew, however, that his situation was one of great danger. Unless he could find shelter, he might become buried under the snow, or stumble over a ledge into an unseen gorge. Then there might be a terrible snow-slide from the overladen heights above. He could see scarcely ten yards in any direction, and in spite of the overcoat, he began to feel chilled. He was presently so leg-weary that he felt inclined to crawl under the shelving rocks and lie down.
Realizing how fatal such a step might prove, Kane fought his way across the snow-clad canon, followed by Pard.
All at once the collie gave a sharp bark and darted away through the trees, reappearing almost immediately and barking up at Kane as if insisting on his following.
"All right, Pard. Lead on!" directed Kane.
Only a short distance farther, a long shed loomed vague and specter-like in the wild whiteness of the evening. Pushing forward, Kane discovered that it was a rude but comfortable building for stock. It stood in an arm of the canon with no house in sight.
Thankful for anything that promised refuge from the storm, he advanced hurriedly. At the corner of the building, he halted quickly: a herd of sheep huddled against the closed door.
Kane's appearance was greeted by a plaintive chorus of bleats. In their dumb, beseeching way they accepted him as their belated shepherd.
"All right" he said soothingly as they crowded about him. "I'll see how things are."
Sliding back the big door, Kane revealed a warm, comfortable shed for sheep and cattle. In one of the stalls a cow stood munching hay.
"Some one doesn't look after his sheep very well, Pard," said Kane. "Bring them in."
The well-trained collie needed no second bidding. With an assenting bark, he ran around the shivering flock, which quickly scattered among the bushes. It proved no easy task to house these sheep, for, being unused to a dog, the younger ones were frightened, and at first fled in every direction. But Kane hurried out to direct matters, and Pard, wise and careful in his part of the business, after considerable effort brought them, an obedient bunch, into their fold. Then their self-appointed shepherd filled the low racks with hay, which they began to eat gratefully.
"Well, Bossy," addressing the cow, "we've invited ourselves to spend Christmas eve with you and the sheepsie-baas. Here, Pard! Where are you?" he called, noticing that the collie had not entered the shed. Off somewhere in the bushes Pard began a spirited barking.
"Some stubborn runaways," thought Kane. "Bring 'em in, Pard," he commanded over the din of the storm.
Pard sent back a quick, answering bark. Kane repeated his order, and again the collie responded with a sharp, imperative bark. Sure that something was wrong, the boy left the shelter of the shed, and again faced the fury of the elements.
"Where are you, Pard?"
Kane bent his head to listen for the dog's bark to guide him. It came, and was instantly followed by the sound of a groan - a human groan!
Quickly Kane groped his way through the underbrush of the canon. Guided by Pard's persistent barking, he at last reached an object lying among the rocks almost buried in snow. A nearer survey revealed to the lad a man lying prostrate and helpless in a little clump of bushes.
"I've had a fall and hurt my ankle so I can't walk in the snow!" said the unfortunate man, groaning with pain, as Kane bent solicitously over him.
"Why, it's Mr. Thompson!" cried Kane, in surprise. "How did it happen?"
"In trying to bunch my sheep, I slipped on a rock and took a bad tumble," explained Mr. Thompson. "I dragged myself through the snow as far as these bushes, then my strength give out. The pain and cold together made me kind of lose my senses, I guess, till the dog roused me."
Half-leading, half-dragging the rancher, Kane managed to get him to the shed. Here, on an improvised couch of hay and empty sacks, the disabled man watched his safely sheltered flock taking their supper in calm content.
"Well, Providence works funny sometimes!" he ejaculated. "There I was, flounderin' in the snow, disablin' myself, and worryin' for fear my sheep 'd all perish; and at last I thought I was a goner myself. And there you was, losin' the trail all for a purpose, to do my work, and save my life."
"It was mostly Pard," asserted Kane, stroking the collie's head. "He drove the sheep in and found you."
"It was the two of you," corrected Thompson, looking gratefully at the boy and his dog. "I'm not harborin’ any more prejudices ag'in' boys and dogs - you two in particular. The storm‘s knocked them prejudices all out o' me. The house is jest round the bend of the canon. The wind 's fallin' now, and purty soon you can go and tell Sairy what 's happened. I ain't goin' to let Jim Moreley have you! You and Pard are Christmas presents for Sairy and me!"
In silent thankfulness, Kane, too happy for words, pressed the rancher's hand. Pard only wagged his tail.