A Shepherd of the Sierras
THE two ends of this story belong, one to Pierre Jullien, and the other to the lame coyote in the pack of the Ceriso. Pierre will have it that the Virgin is at the bottom of the whole affair. However that may be, it is known that Pierre Jullien has not lost so much as a lamb of the flocks since the burning of Black Mountain.
Black Mountain stands up eastward against the Ceriso, its broken ridges spiked with clumps of pine, and its cañons dark with tamarack reaches and forests of silver fir. And in the meadows of Black Mountain Pierre Jullien feeds his flocks from year’s end to year’s end ; a little excursion down to the Ceriso when the snows are heavy and the rains tearing at its foundations, and another to the east slope for the shearing, but never out of sight or shadow of it.
Certainly the Virgin had something to do with Pierre’s having a flock in the first place ; a hired shepherd he, who between good will and the wine cup could never get away from a shearing with more than enough to clothe him for the year to come. And finally, by misadventure and unwise counsel, it fell out that Pierre was not hired to go with the sheep for all of one year.
It is said that when Pierre heard of this, and heard it in no friendly manner from Lebecque who had got the place for himself, that he called for another bottle. He pledged his friends and his luck, he whistled merrily to his dogs; he was for the hills. For what has a man bred to the hills to do with the town? The airs of it made him sick. The sights and sounds of it, good enough to gape at once in a year’s wanderings, were a vexation and a confusion. So he made back to Black Mountain with his dogs, to live by the knowledge of it that had taken so many years to the gathering. He built him a hut, he cut him firewood, he tracked the wild bee to the hiving rocks and the bear to the thickets of thimbleberries. He set him traps and snares, for such of the wild creatures as are not fit for food have pelts that may be sold. Once in a month or so he fared forth to town across the Ceriso for a cup of wine and a taste of gossip, a bit of sugar and a morsel of flour. Altogether Pierre Jullien was well content.
There blows a great wind in the west before the rains; a nerve-racking, eddying wind that gathers small dust and sand and goes roaring with it across the open places. It was about the time of high wind when Pierre went down to the town, and he fought up across the Ceriso in the teeth of it. By all counts he should have stayed safe with his dogs until the wind was done, but withal Pierre had a tender heart. He thought of his traps. Doubtless it would have been better if wild creatures could do without being trapped, but since it was not so, it is best to trap them as gently as possible. So because he had not visited his traps for two days Pierre must needs be fighting the high wind across the Ceriso.
He made better work of it than the dogs who whimpered and slunk, knowing verywell it was no sort of a day for an honest beast to be abroad in. The wind bit them, it beat and battered them, and scoured them with fine sand. There was no looking in such a wind ; only feeling the ground underfoot and knowing the way by the rise of it. And in the midst of their labor a plaintive cry broke and scattered against the dead wall of the wind. The dogs whined to hear it; clearly, to travel such a day was rank folly, but lost sheep — that was another matter.
“Nay, nay, ’t is none of your minding,” said Pierre. “Well, then, if you must, be off ! ” Not one of the three but knew what had happened. A flock caught in the open must be well shepherded to hold in such a wind ; once scattered it may take days to bring them together again. The dogs found the ewe and brought it to Pierre, and were off again as he gave the word, wriggling, yelping, and panting with delight. This was old times indeed ! They had great work of it, the man and the dogs, wrestling in the smother of the wind rocking up and down the hollow of the crater. But they brought the stragglers together, a score or more of them, and held them under the lee of a hill until the wind was laid. About mid-afternoon its spent wings trailed the dust, its breath shook the tops of the sage, and no more. The air was warm ; it was clear and smelt of the earth. Pierre and his sheep went forth to look for the master of the flock. They worked up the south slope whence all the Ceriso lay open as the hollow of a hand, and saw the hill-folk beginning to stir about their business, but no sheep. Pierre was an honest man, and a shepherd who knew how serious a thing it might be to lose twenty sheep of the flock in a single wind. He stayed that night in the Ceriso and until the middle of the morning, holding the sheep well toward the middle of the valley. By that time a good shepherd should have picked them up again, but none came. The brand was strange. Many flocks passed the Ceriso at that season, going hastily, because of scant pasturage, to winter in the South. Pierre drove the sheep to Black Mountain, and no question was ever raised. As for the sheep they were very well content, and the dogs were happy to be at their work again.
So Pierre Jullien became a shepherd in his own right, and in the glacier meadows of Black Mountain the flock increased beyond expectation. Who shall say that the Virgin did not have a hand in it ? Not Pierre Jullien, at any rate ; he was careful to return thanks as often as he went to church, which was at least once in the year. But Pierre kept his traps going. Sheep, according to the law of the beasts, were to be eaten, and beasts, according to Pierre Jullien, to be caught. He trapped a bear cub, wildcats, a fox now and then, and a wolverine, but not often a coyote. A coyote is a thief and the son of a thief. He will spring a trap and eat the bait. He will gnaw a rope and let a staked horse go free ; steal the jerke drying on the trees, and the bacon hanging against the wall; nose into a still camp and steal anything he can lay jaws upon. Ettienne Picquard will have it that he will steal the frying pan off the fire if there is a smell of meat about it. These are the things that Pierre Jullien believed about the coyotes ; and first and last they stole a good many of Pierre’s lambs. Nevertheless, his flock increased until it had become two bands, and Pierre, going down to the shearing, brought Ettienne Picquard to help him tend them.
Ettienne had gone afar with his portion, foraging into the pastures claimed by the flocks of the brand. For Ettienne dearly loved a wrangle, and would as lieve fight for the pasture of Pierre Jullien’s sheep as anything else. And one morning Pierre woke with the smell of smoke in his nostrils. It was a smell of green wood, not the thin blue ghost of a smoke that quavered up from his own well-banked fire, but the rank, acrid smell of a forest burning. Pierre should know that smell. From what dropped coal of a hunter’s pipe, from what slothful shepherd’s camp, the fire broke, or what woodman’s stupid greed lit the close-locked ranks of living pines only the wood creatures knew, and could not tell. Pierre thought of Ettienne and the sheep and wished them well. The wind set well away from him ; the fire would drive out many pests, and the burnt districts made better feed in a year or so. Without doubt everything fell out for the best.
The fire began in a tamarack canon and spread upward all one week slowly. The smoke rose from it a white, heaven-pointing spire, a wraith, a warning ; and fanned out at last a wan, fluttering beacon. It tiptoed, it swayed, and genuflected, and shook itself in an agony of entreatment. But no one came to put out the fire. Quenching a forest fire is a difficult matter ; and then it is always some one else’s business. Only the mountain knew how long it had been growing, those pines that went out in a flare and a little crackling, and nobody cared. At the end of a week a wind rose and drove the fire straight across the mountain toward Pierre Jullien’s meadow. Pierre’s hut stood in a little island of pines on a knoll swept about by a strip of meadow and a running stream. Thence he fed out with the home flock as far as he might to the gentian hollows deep set among the rifted hills.
When the pillar of smoke cast up by the burning forest grew red by night Pierre went cautiously, keeping the flocks close and watching every turn of the wind. It dropped a little and the fire with it. Then Pierre, to save the home pasture, moved the flock across the ridge away from the fire. He made all safe in his house, and trusted to his luck and the chances of the wind. If the fire would come, it would come; it was not to be stayed for all Pierre’s stopping at home. The new meadow was deep set and fenced about with barrenness, so that Pierre and his dogs could lie in the sun and watch the portentous smoke above the mountains. That the fire was heavy and coming his way he had known by the wild wood creatures that pushed by his meadow with an incessant panting and padding of feet. Seven deer drank at his brook in the gray of the morning, wings whirred steadily, and at all hours hoofed creatures broke through the thickets of ceanotlius, all with incredible haste, but dumbly, heralded by the noise of their going. And in the night the wind whipped the fire along the steep, and about the meadow where Pierre was lying with his sheep. It rioted in the resin-dripping pines, sung as it wrestled with them, and grew merry as it raged.
The sound of its singing woke Pierre and the sheep in the middle hours. But the dogs, mindful of the blethering flocks, held them faithfully, huddling toward Pierre, who wept with his face upon his hands. “ Oh, my house,” he whimpered, " my dear house ! ” He had built it of the soil and what grew therein ; it was part of the mountain, and part of him ; and it was all his home.
With the fire, cattle broke into the meadow from the roaring wood, and an antlered stag, snorting with fear, thrust into the midst of them. Quail and small fourfooted things fled, mad and blind with terror, past the haven into the wood and fire again, and when the morning cut the smoke that overhung, Pierre was aware of a wild-cat that licked a dead kitten between him and the flame.
Lastly out of the blaze limped a coyote, dragging a crushed foot, and deeply burned across the flank. Eight hours the fire panted about the meadow, tugged and strained toward them from the pines, and Pierre, trampling blazing brands, smothering sparks, heartening and helping, knew himself a brother to beasts, and yet more a man. For, ever as he moved, the dumb shouldering cattle shifted their place a little, not to lose the sense of his presence, the sheep pressed to his knees, the dogs came whimpering and went back to their stations comforted. The coyote, dressing his burn with his tongue, laid nose to the ground as Pierre went by, and cried with the pain of his hurt as a child might.
The fire ripped and tore at the heart of the wood and poured the bitter smoke above them thick and hot, and through all Pierre could hear the water hissing among burning logs, and the breathy whine of the cat above her dead. Pierre thought how she must have come from hunting to her lair and found the fire before her. It was written in her singed and cinder-blackened coat how she had won her way far and slowly, heat driven, carrying her dead by turns, her mother’s grief having way even in the dreadful hollow of the singing flames. “ Mother of God,” said the simple heart of Pierre Jullien, “ but I set me no more traps for the mothers of wild things.”
The danger passed with the day, and the stream, cut off in mid-morning by the falling timbers, came back to the meadow. Pierre divided his jerke with the cat and the coyote, and woke in the night, at the crash of falling trees, to catch the glow of their unwinking, regardful eyes.
The stag left at the dawn, going down the cañon with wide fearful leaps amid the burning, and after him the cattle picked out a way along the water courses. From where the wood had been rose up the ghost of a forest; for every tree an uptrailing, wavering smoke-spirit, topped by umbrageous clouds, and flame-flowers broke and blossomed in dissolving embers. The wild-cat, putting as much space as possible between her and the dogs, grown fearful with the passing of the fire, essayed the smoke forest by one and another of the trails she had known, breaking away at last by well-considered bounds, and looking back to the trampled meadow and the sheep huddling between Pierre and the lame coyote.
The coyote, made unhappy by the broadening day, drew up to the meadow’s edge, but having put foot among the hot ashes, set up his drawling whine looking back toward Pierre. “ Stay where thou art, friend,” said the shepherd. “ It will be long before you can abide the smell of fire.” Pierre fed him that day with the offal of a sheep he had killed for his own eating, and ever as he busied himself about the flock the coyote came and smelled of all the places where he had been. “ Thou wilt know me again by that token,” said Pierre, and I you by that burnt flank, should you fall into any trap of mine.” And being in a merry mood Pierre upbraided him with the evil ways of his kind, until the coyote slunk abashed from the sound of his voice to the edge of the clearing.
It was the third day, and a blessed rain was falling, before Pierre could make way with his flock across the burned district, looking back from the top of the ridge to see the lame coyote getting himself clumsily down to the lower levels, looking back also at Pierre. Now, by good fortune which fell little short of a miracle, Pierre found his house unhurt, only the outer ring of pines heat shriveled past any spring’s redeeming. And as for Ettienne, the fire had not been neat him.
The burned coyote eschewed a forest country thereafter, and going down to the sagebrush levels joined the pack on the east side of the Ceriso. Pierre saw him there the first time he came thither feeding with his flocks, and knew him by his rocking, three-legged gait, and the long scar, newly healed, upon his flank. That the coyote knew him Pierre affirms, for, seeing him, the howler dropped upon his haunches dog fashion and waited until the flock had gone by. And this is true, that Pierre has given up his traps and yet has not lost by beasts so much as a weanling. And the shepherds of Black Mountain and the Ceriso, and as far north as the hills of Augustora, are divided between the opinion of Pierre, who will protest that it is the work of the Virgin, and the opinion of Ettienne Picquard, who says that Pierre has lived like a wild creature so long that the beasts mistake him for one of themselves. But for myself, I think, as I said at the beginning, this end of the story belongs to the lame coyote.