There were three men in the sled; Dan, the mail-carrier, crusty, belligerently Western, the self-elected guardian of every one on his route; Hillas, a younger man, hardly more than a boy, living on his pre-emption claim near the upper reaches of the stage line; the third a stranger from that part of the country vaguely defined as “the East.” He was travelling, had given him name as Smith, and was as inquisitive about the country as he was reticent about his business there. Dan plainly disapproved of him.
They had driven the last cold miles in silence when the stage-driver turned to his neighbour. “Letter didn’t say anything about coming out in the spring to look over the country, did it?”
Hillas shook his head. “It was like all the rest, Dan. Don’t want to build a railroad at all until the country’s settled.”
“God! Can’t they see the other side of it? What it means to the folks already here to wait for it?”
The stranger thrust a suddenly interested profile above the handsome collar of his fur coat. He looked out over the waste of snow.
“You say there’s no timber here?”
Dan maintained unfriendly silence and Hillas answered: “Nothing but scrub on the banks of the creeks. Years of prairie fires have burned out the trees, we think.”
The boy shook his head as he slid farther down in his worn buffalo coat of the plains.
“We’re too busy rustling for something to eat first. And you can’t develop mines without tools.”
“Yes, a railroad first of all.”
Dan shifted the lines from one fur-mittened hand to the other, swinging the freed numbed arm in rhythmic beating against his body as he looked along the horizon a bit anxiously. The stranger shivered visibly.
“It’s a god-forsaken country. Why don’t you get out?”
Hillas, following Dan’s glance around the blurred sky line, answered absently, “Usual answer is ‘Leave? It’s all I can do to stay here.’”
Smith regarded him irritably. “Why should any sane man ever have chosen this frozen wilderness?”
Hillas closed his eyes wearily. “We came in the spring.”
“I see!” The edged voice snapped, “Visionaries!”
Hillas’s eyes opened again, wide, and then the boy was looking beyond the man with the far-seeing eyes of the plainsman. He spoke under his breath as if he were alone.
“Visionary, pioneer, American. That was the evolution in the beginning. Perhaps that is what we are.” Suddenly the endurance in his voice went down before a wave of bitterness. “The first pioneers had to wait, too. How could they stand it so long!”
The young shoulders drooped as he thrust stiff fingers deep within the shapeless coat pockets. He slowly withdrew his right hand holding a parcel wrapped in brown paper. He tore a three-cornered flap in the cover, looked at the brightly coloured contents, replaced the flap and returned the parcel, his chin a little higher.