Buckmaster’s Boy by Gilbert Parker

Story type: Literature

“I bin waitin’ for him, an’ I’ll git him ef it takes all winter. I’ll get him–plumb.”

The speaker smoothed the barrel of his rifle with mittened hand, which had, however, a trigger-finger free. With black eyebrows twitching over sunken gray eyes, he looked doggedly down the frosty valley from the ledge of high rock where he sat. The face was rough and weather-beaten, with the deep tan got in the open life of a land of much sun and little cloud, and he had a beard which, untrimmed and growing wild, made him look ten years older than he was.

“I bin waitin’ a durn while,” the mountain-man added, and got to his feet slowly, drawing himself out to six and a half feet of burly manhood. The shoulders were, however, a little stooped, and the head was thrust forward with an eager, watchful look–a habit become a physical characteristic.

Presently he caught sight of a hawk sailing southward along the peaks of the white icebound mountains above, on which the sun shone with such sharp insistence, making sky and mountain of a piece in deep purity and serene stillness.

“That hawk’s seen him, mebbe,” he said, after a moment. “I bet it went up higher when it got him in its eye. Ef it’d only speak and tell me where he is–ef he’s a day, or two days, or ten days north.”

Suddenly his eyes blazed and his mouth opened in superstitious amazement, for the hawk stopped almost directly overhead at a great height, and swept round in a circle many times, waveringly, uncertainly. At last it resumed its flight southward, sliding down the mountains like a winged star.

The mountaineer watched it with a dazed expression for a moment longer, then both hands clutched the rifle and half swung it to position involuntarily.

“It’s seen him, and it stopped to say so. It’s seen him, I tell you, an’ I’ll git him. Ef it’s an hour, or a day, or a week, it’s all the same. I’m here watchin’, waitin’ dead on to him, the poison skunk!”

The person to whom he had been speaking now rose from the pile of cedar boughs where he had been sitting, stretched his arms up, then shook himself into place, as does a dog after sleep. He stood for a minute looking at the mountaineer with a reflective yet a furtively sardonic look. He was not above five feet nine inches in height, and he was slim and neat; and though his buckskin coat and breeches were worn and even frayed in spots, he had an air of some distinction and of concentrated force. It was a face that men turned to look at twice and shook their heads in doubt afterward–a handsome, worn, secretive face, in as perfect control as the strings of an instrument under the bow of a great artist. It was the face of a man without purpose in life beyond the moment–watchful, careful, remorselessly determined, an adventurer’s asset, the dial-plate of a hidden machinery.

Now he took the handsome meerschaum pipe from his mouth, from which he had been puffing smoke slowly, and said in a cold, yet quiet voice, “How long you been waitin’, Buck?”

“A month. He’s overdue near that. He always comes down to winter at Fort o’ Comfort, with his string of half-breeds, an’ Injuns, an’ the dogs.”

“No chance to get him at the Fort?”

“It ain’t so certain. They’d guess what I was doin’ there. It’s surer here. He’s got to come down the trail, an’ when I spot him by the Juniper clump”–he jerked an arm toward a spot almost a mile farther up the valley–“I kin scoot up the underbrush a bit and git him–plumb. I could do it from here, sure, but I don’t want no mistake. Once only, jest one shot, that’s all I want, Sinnet.”

He bit off a small piece of tobacco from a black plug Sinnet offered him, and chewed it with nervous fierceness, his eyebrows working, as he looked at the other eagerly. Deadly as his purpose was, and grim and unvarying as his vigil had been, the loneliness had told on him, and he had grown hungry for a human face and human companionship. Why Sinnet had come he had not thought to inquire. Why Sinnet should be going north instead of south had not occurred to him. He only realized that Sinnet was not the man he was waiting for with murder in his heart; and all that mattered to him in life was the coming of his victim down the trail. He had welcomed Sinnet with a sullen eagerness, and had told him in short, detached sentences the dark story of a wrong and a waiting revenge, which brought a slight flush to Sinnet’s pale face and awakened a curious light in his eyes.

“Is that your shack–that where you shake down?” Sinnet said, pointing toward a lean-to in the fir-trees to trees to the right.

“That’s it. I sleep there. It’s straight on to the Juniper clump, the front door is.” He laughed viciously, grimly. “Outside or inside, I’m on to the Juniper clump. Walk into the parlor?” he added, and drew open a rough-made door, so covered with green cedar boughs that it seemed of a piece with the surrounding underbrush and trees. Indeed, the little hut was so constructed that it could not be distinguished from the woods even a short distance away.

“Can’t have a fire, I suppose?” Sinnet asked.

“Not daytimes. Smoke ‘d give me away if he suspicioned me,” answered the mountaineer. “I don’t take no chances. Never can tell.”

“Water?” asked Sinnet, as though interested in the surroundings, while all the time he was eying the mountaineer furtively–as it were, prying to the inner man, or measuring the strength of the outer man. He lighted a fresh pipe and seated himself on a rough bench beside the table in the middle of the room, and leaned on his elbows, watching.

The mountaineer laughed. It was not a pleasant laugh to hear. “Listen,” he said. “You bin a long time out West. You bin in the mountains a good while. Listen.”

There was silence. Sinnet listened intently. He heard the faint drip, drip, drip of water, and looked steadily at the back wall of the room.

“There–rock?” he said, and jerked his head toward the sound.

“You got good ears,” answered the other, and drew aside a blanket which hung on the back wall of the room. A wooden trough was disclosed hanging under a ledge of rock, and water dripped into it softly, slowly.

“Almost providential, that rock,” remarked Sinnet. “You’ve got your well at your back door. Food–but you can’t go far, and keep your eye on the Bend too,” he nodded toward the door, beyond which lay the frost-touched valley in the early morning light of autumn.

“Plenty of black squirrels and pigeons come here on account of the springs like this one, and I get ’em with a bow and arrow. I didn’t call myself Robin Hood and Daniel Boone not for nothin’ when I was knee-high to a grasshopper.” He drew from a rough cupboard some cold game, and put it on the table, with some scones and a pannikin of water. Then he brought out a small jug of whiskey and placed it beside his visitor. They began to eat.

“How d’ye cook without fire?” asked Sinnet.

“Fire’s all right at nights. He’d never camp ‘twixt here an’ Juniper Bend at night. The next camp’s six miles north from here. He’d only come down the valley daytimes. I studied it all out, and it’s a dead sure thing. From daylight till dusk I’m on to him–I got the trail in my eye.”

He showed his teeth like a wild dog, as his look swept the valley. There was something almost revolting in his concentrated ferocity.

Sinnet’s eyes half closed as he watched the mountaineer, and the long, scraggy hands and whipcord neck seemed to interest him greatly. He looked at his own slim, brown hands with a half smile, and it was almost as cruel as the laugh of the other. Yet it had, too, a knowledge and an understanding which gave it humanity.

“You’re sure he did it?” Sinnet asked, presently, after drinking a very small portion of liquor, and tossing some water from the pannikin after it. “You’re sure Greevy killed your boy, Buck?”

“My name’s Buckmaster, ain’t it–Jim Buckmaster? Don’t I know my own name? It’s as sure as that. My boy said it was Greevy when he was dying. He told Bill Ricketts so, and Bill told me afore he went East. Bill didn’t want to tell, but he said it was fair I should know, for my boy never did nobody any harm–an’ Greevy’s livin’ on! But I’ll git him. Right’s right.”

“Wouldn’t it be better for the law to hang him if you’ve got the proof, Buck? A year or so in jail, an’ a long time to think over what’s going round his neck on the scaffold–wouldn’t that suit you, if you’ve got the proof?”

A rigid, savage look came into Buckmaster’s face.

“I ain’t lettin’ no judge and jury do my business. I’m for certain sure, not for p’r’aps! An’ I want to do it myself. Clint was only twenty. Like boys we was together. I was eighteen when I married, an’ he come when she went–jest a year–jest a year. An’ ever since then we lived together, him an’ me, an’ shot together, an’ trapped together, an’ went gold-washin’ together on the Cariboo, an’ eat out of the same dish, an’ slept under the same blanket, and jawed together nights–ever since he was five, when old Mother Lablache had got him into pants, an’ he was fit to take the trail.”

The old man stopped a minute, his whipcord neck swelling, his lips twitching. He brought a fist down on the table with a bang. “The biggest little rip he was, as full of fun as a squirrel, an’ never a smile–jest his eyes dancin’, an’ more sense than a judge. He laid hold o’ me, that cub did–it was like his mother and himself together; an’ the years flowin’ in an’ peterin’ out, an’ him gettin’ older, an’ always jest the same. Always on rock-bottom, always bright as a dollar, an’ we livin’ at Black Nose Lake, layin’ up cash agin’ the time we was to go South, an’ set up a house along the railway, an’ him to git married. I was for his gittin’ married same as me, when we had enough cash. I use to think of that when he was ten, and when he was eighteen I spoke to him about it; but he wouldn’t listen–jest laughed at me. You remember how Clint used to laugh, sort of low and teasin’ like–you remember that laugh o’ Clint’s, don’t you?”

Sinnet’s face was toward the valley and Juniper Bend, but he slowly turned his head and looked at Buckmaster strangely out of his half-shut eyes. He took the pipe from his mouth slowly.

“I can hear it now,” he answered, slowly. “I hear it often, Buck.”

The old man gripped his arm so suddenly that Sinnet was startled–in so far as anything could startle any one who had lived a life of chance and danger and accident–and his face grew a shade paler; but he did not move, and Buckmaster’s hand tightened convulsively.

“You liked him, an’ he liked you; he first learnt poker off you, Sinnet. He thought you was a tough, but he didn’t mind that no more than I did. It ain’t for us to say what we’re goin’ to be, not always. Things in life git stronger than we are. You was a tough, but who’s goin’ to judge you? I ain’t; for Clint took to you, Sinnet, an’ he never went wrong in his thinkin’. God! he was wife an’ child to me–an’ he’s dead–dead–dead!”

The man’s grief was a painful thing to see. His hands gripped the table, while his body shook with sobs, though his eyes gave forth no tears. It was an inward convulsion, which gave his face the look of unrelieved tragedy and suffering–Laocoon struggling with the serpents of sorrow and hatred which were strangling him.

“Dead an’ gone,” he repeated, as he swayed to and fro, and the table quivered in his grasp. Presently, however, as though arrested by a thought, he peered out of the doorway toward Juniper Bend. “That hawk seen him–it seen him. He’s comin’, I know it, an’ I’ll git him–plumb.” He had the mystery and imagination of the mountain-dweller.

The rifle lay against the wall behind him, and he turned and touched it almost caressingly. “I ain’t let go like this since he was killed, Sinnet. It don’t do. I got to keep myself stiddy to do the trick when the minute comes. At first I usen’t to sleep at nights, thinkin’ of Clint, an’ missin’ him, an’ I got shaky and no good. So I put a cinch on myself, an’ got to sleepin’ again–from the full dusk to dawn, for Greevy wouldn’t take the trail at night. I’ve kept stiddy.” He held out his hand as though to show that it was firm and steady, but it trembled with the emotion which had conquered him. He saw it, and shook his head angrily.

“It was seein’ you, Sinnet. It burst me. I ain’t seen no one to speak to in a month, an’ with you sittin’ there, it was like Clint an’ me cuttin’ and comin’ again off the loaf an’ the knuckle-bone of ven’son.”

Sinnet ran a long finger slowly across his lips, and seemed meditating what he should say to the mountaineer. At length he spoke, looking into Buckmaster’s face: “What was the story Ricketts told you? What did your boy tell Ricketts? I’ve heard, too, about it, and that’s why I asked you if you had proofs that Greevy killed Clint. Of course, Clint should know, and if he told Ricketts, that’s pretty straight; but I’d like to know if what I heard tallies with what Ricketts heard from Clint. P’r’aps it’d ease your mind a bit to tell it. I’ll watch the Bend–don’t you trouble about that. You can’t do these two things at one time. I’ll watch for Greevy; you give me Clint’s story to Ricketts. I guess you know I’m feelin’ for you, an’ if I was in your place I’d shoot the man that killed Clint, if it took ten years. I’d have his heart’s blood–all of it. Whether Greevy was in the right or in the wrong, I’d have him–plumb.”

Buckmaster was moved. He gave a fierce exclamation and made a gesture of cruelty. “Clint right or wrong? There ain’t no question of that. My boy wasn’t the kind to be in the wrong. What did he ever do but what was right? If Clint was in the wrong I’d kill Greevy jest the same, for Greevy robbed him of all the years that was before him–only a sapling he was, an’ all his growin’ to do, all his branches to widen an’ his roots to spread. But that don’t enter in it, his bein’ in the wrong. It was a quarrel, and Clint never did Greevy any harm. It was a quarrel over cards, an’ Greevy was drunk, an’ followed Clint out into the prairie in the night and shot him like a coyote. Clint hadn’t no chance, an’ he jest lay there on the ground till morning, when Ricketts and Steve Joicey found him. An’ Clint told Ricketts who it was.”

“Why didn’t Ricketts tell it right out at once?” asked Sinnet.

“Greevy was his own cousin–it was in the family, an’ he kept thinkin’ of Greevy’s gal, Em’ly. Her–what’ll it matter to her? She’ll get married, an she’ll forgit. I know her, a gal that’s got no deep feelin’ like Clint had for me. But because of her Ricketts didn’t speak for a year. Then he couldn’t stand it any longer, an’ he told me–seein’ how I suffered, an’ everybody hidin’ their suspicions from me, an’ me up here out o’ the way, an’ no account. That was the feelin’ among ’em: What was the good of making things worse? They wasn’t thinkin’ of the boy or of Jim Buckmaster, his father. They was thinkin’ of Greevy’s gal–to save her trouble.”

Sinnet’s face was turned toward Juniper Bend, and the eyes were fixed, as it were, on a still more distant object–a dark, brooding, inscrutable look.

“Was that all Ricketts told you, Buck?” The voice was very quiet, but it had a suggestive note.

“That’s all Clint told Bill before he died. That was enough.”

There was a moment’s pause, and then, puffing out long clouds of smoke, and in a tone of curious detachment, as though he were telling something that he saw now in the far distance, or as a spectator of a battle from a far vantage-point might report to a blind man standing near, Sinnet said:

“P’r’aps Ricketts didn’t know the whole story; p’r’aps Clint didn’t know it all to tell him; p’r’aps Clint didn’t remember it all. P’r’aps he didn’t remember anything except that he and Greevy quarrelled, and that Greevy and he shot at each other in the prairie. He’d only be thinking of the thing that mattered most to him–that his life was over, an’ that a man had put a bullet in him, an’–“

Buckmaster tried to interrupt him, but he waved a hand impatiently, and continued: “As I say, maybe he didn’t remember everything; he had been drinkin’ a bit himself, Clint had. He wasn’t used to liquor, and couldn’t stand much. Greevy was drunk, too, and gone off his head with rage. He always gets drunk when he first comes south to spend the winter with his girl Em’ly.” He paused a moment, then went on a little more quickly. “Greevy was proud of her–couldn’t even bear her being crossed in any way; and she has a quick temper, and if she quarrelled with anybody Greevy quarrelled too.”

“I don’t want to know anything about her,” broke in Buckmaster, roughly. “She isn’t in this thing. I’m goin’ to get Greevy. I bin waitin’ for him, an’ I’ll git him.”

“You’re going to kill the man that killed your boy, if you can, Buck; but I’m telling my story in my own way. You told Rickett’s story; I’ll tell what I’ve heard. And before you kill Greevy you ought to know all there is that anybody else knows–or suspicions about it.”

“I know enough. Greevy done it, an’ I’m here.”

With no apparent coherence and relevancy Sinnet continued, but his voice was not so even as before. “Em’ly was a girl that wasn’t twice alike. She was changeable. First it was one, then it was another, and she didn’t seem to be able to fix her mind. But that didn’t prevent her leadin’ men on. She wasn’t changeable, though, about her father. She was to him what your boy was to you. There she was like you, ready to give everything up for her father.”

“I tell y’ I don’t want to hear about her,” said Buckmaster, getting to his feet and setting his jaws. “You needn’t talk to me about her. She’ll git over it. I’ll never git over what Greevy done to me or to Clint–jest twenty, jest twenty! I got my work to do.”

He took his gun from the wall, slung it into the hollow of his arm, and turned to look up the valley through the open doorway.

The morning was sparkling with life–the life and vigor which a touch of frost gives to the autumn world in a country where the blood tingles to the dry, sweet sting of the air. Beautiful, and spacious, and buoyant, and lonely, the valley and the mountains seemed waiting, like a new-born world, to be peopled by man. It was as though all had been made ready for him–the birds whistling and singing in the trees, the whisk of the squirrels leaping from bough to bough, the peremptory sound of the woodpecker’s beak against the bole of a tree, the rustle of the leaves as a wood-hen ran past–a waiting, virgin world.

Its beauty and its wonderful dignity had no appeal to Buckmaster. His eyes and mind were fixed on a deed which would stain the virgin wild with the ancient crime that sent the first marauder on human life into the wilderness.

As Buckmaster’s figure darkened the doorway Sinnet seemed to waken as from a dream, and he got swiftly to his feet. “Wait–you wait, Buck. You’ve got to hear all. You haven’t heard my story yet. Wait, I tell you.”

His voice was so sharp and insistent, so changed, that Buckmaster turned from the doorway and came back into the room.

“What’s the use of my hearin’? You want me not to kill Greevy, because of that gal. What’s she to me?”

“Nothing to you, Buck, but Clint was everything to her.”

The mountaineer stood like one petrified.

“What’s that–what’s that you say? It’s a damn lie!”

“It wasn’t cards–the quarrel, not the real quarrel. Greevy found Clint kissing her. Greevy wanted her to marry Gatineau, the lumber-king. That was the quarrel.”

A snarl was on the face of Buckmaster. “Then she’ll not be sorry when I git him. It took Clint from her as well as from me.” He turned to the door again.

“But, wait, Buck, wait one minute and hear–“

He was interrupted by a low, exultant growl, and he saw Buckmaster’s rifle clutched as a hunter, stooping, clutches his gun to fire on his prey.

“Quick, the spy-glass!” he flung back at Sinnet. “It’s him, but I’ll make sure.”

Sinnet caught the telescope from the nails where it hung, and looked out toward Juniper Bend. “It’s Greevy–and his girl, and the half-breeds,” he said, with a note in his voice that almost seemed agitation, and yet few had ever seen Sinnet agitated. “Em’ly must have gone up the trail in the night.”

“It’s my turn now,” the mountaineer said, hoarsely, and, stooping, slid away quickly into the undergrowth.

Sinnet followed, keeping near him, neither speaking. For a half mile they hastened on, and now and then Buckmaster drew aside the bushes, and looked up the valley, to keep Greevy and his bois brulees in his eye. Just so had he and his son and Sinnet stalked the wapiti and the red deer along these mountains; but this was a man that Buckmaster was stalking now, with none of the joy of the sport which had been his since a lad; only the malice of the avenger. The lust of a mountain feud was on him; he was pursuing the price of blood.

At last Buckmaster stopped at a ledge of rock just above the trail. Greevy would pass below, within three hundred yards of his rifle. He turned to Sinnet with cold and savage eyes. “You go back,” he said. “It’s my business. I don’t want you to see. You don’t want to see, then you won’t know, and you won’t need to lie. You said that the man that killed Clint ought to die. He’s going to die, but it’s none o’ your business. I want to be alone. In a minute he’ll be where I kin git him–plumb. You go, Sinnet–right off. It’s my business.”

There was a strange, desperate look in Sinnet’s face; it was as hard as stone, but his eyes had a light of battle in them.

“It’s my business right enough, Buck,” he said, “and you’re not going to kill Greevy. That girl of his has lost her lover, your boy. It’s broke her heart almost, and there’s no use making her an orphan too. She can’t stand it. She’s had enough. You leave her father alone–you hear me, let up!” He stepped between Buckmaster and the ledge of rock from which the mountaineer was to take aim.

There was a terrible look in Buckmaster’s face. He raised his single-barrelled rifle, as though he would shoot Sinnet; but, at the moment, he remembered that a shot would warn Greevy, and that he might not have time to reload. He laid his rifle against a tree swiftly.

“Git away from here,” he said, with a strange rattle in his throat. “Git away quick; he’ll be down past here in a minute.”

Sinnet pulled himself together as he saw Buckmaster snatch at a great clasp-knife in his belt. He jumped and caught Buckmaster’s wrist in a grip like a vise.

“Greevy didn’t kill him, Buck,” he said. But the mountaineer was gone mad, and did not grasp the meaning of the words. He twined his left arm round the neck of Sinnet, and the struggle began, he fighting to free Sinnet’s hand from his wrist, to break Sinnet’s neck. He did not realize what he was doing. He only knew that this man stood between him and the murderer of his boy, and all the ancient forces of barbarism were alive in him. Little by little they drew to the edge of the rock, from which there was a sheer drop of two hundred feet. Sinnet fought like a panther for safety, but no sane man’s strength could withstand the demoniacal energy that bent and crushed him. Sinnet felt his strength giving. Then he said, in a hoarse whisper: “Greevy didn’t kill him. I killed him, and–“

At that moment he was borne to the ground with a hand on his throat, and an instant after the knife went home.

Buckmaster got to his feet and looked at his victim for an instant, dazed and wild; then he sprang for his gun. As he did so the words that Sinnet had said as they struggled rang in his ears, “Greevy didn’t kill him; I killed him!”

He gave a low cry and turned back toward Sinnet, who lay in a pool of blood.

Sinnet was speaking. He went and stooped over him.

“Em’ly threw me over for Clint,” the voice said, huskily, “and I followed to have it out with Clint. So did Greevy, but Greevy was drunk. I saw them meet. I was hid. I saw that Clint would kill Greevy, and I fired. I was off my head–I’d never cared for any woman before, and Greevy was her father. Clint was off his head too. He had called me names that day–a cardsharp, and a liar, and a thief, and a skunk, he called me, and I hated him just then. Greevy fired twice–wide. He didn’t know but what he killed Clint, but he didn’t. I did. So I tried to stop you, Buck–“

Life was going fast, and speech failed him; but he opened his eyes again and whispered: “I didn’t want to die, Buck. I am only thirty-five, and it’s too soon; but it had to be. Don’t look that way, Buck. You got the man that killed him–plumb. But Em’ly didn’t play fair with me–made a fool of me, the only time in my life I ever cared for a woman. You leave Greevy alone, Buck, and tell Em’ly for me I wouldn’t let you kill her father.”

“You–Sinnet–you, you done it! Why, he’d have fought for you. You–done it–to him–to Clint!”

Now that the blood-feud had been satisfied, a great change came over the mountaineer. He had done his work, and the thirst for vengeance was gone. Greevy he had hated, but this man had been with him in many a winter’s hunt. His brain could hardly grasp the tragedy–it had all been too sudden.

Suddenly he stooped down. “Sinnet,” he said, “ef there was a woman in it, that makes all the difference. Sinnet, ef–“

But Sinnet was gone upon a long trail that led into an illimitable wilderness. With a moan the old man ran to the ledge of rock. Greevy and his girl were below.

“When there’s a woman in it–!” he said, in a voice of helplessness and misery, and watched her till she disappeared from view. Then he turned, and, lifting up in his arms the man he had killed, carried him into the deeper woods.