He made the preparation for supper with such easy speed that everything seemed to be done by magic hands. When Joan's mother cooked supper there was always much rattling of the stove, then the building of the fire, a long preparation of food, and another interval when things steamed and sizzled on the fire. There followed the setting of the table, and then a long, aching time of hunger when the food was in sight, but one could not eat until Daddy Dan had done this, and Munner had done that. Also, when one did eat, half the taste was taken from things by the necessity of various complicated evolutions of knife and fork. Instance the absurdity of taking the fork under the thumb with the forefinger pressing along the back of the wobbly instrument, when any one could see that the proper, natural way of using a fork was to grasp it daggerwise and drive it firmly through that skidding piece of meat. Not only this, but a cup must be held in one hand, and bread must be broken into little pieces before putting butter on it. Above all, no matter how terribly hard one tried, there was sure to be a mistake, and then: "Now, Joan, don't do that. This is the way—"
But how different everything was in this delightful house of Daddy Dan!
In an incredibly short time three torches flared about them and filled the air with scents of freshness and the outdoors-scents that went tingling up the nose and filled one with immense possibilities of eating. At the very same time, a few motions caused a heap of wood to catch fire and blaze among the stones while a steady stream of blue-white smoke wavered up toward the top of the cave and disappeared in the shadows. After this her father showed her a little stream of water which must come from a spring far back in the cave, and the current slipped noiselessly along one wall, and dipped of sight again before it reached the entrance to the place. Here she discovered a little bowl, made out of small stones nicely fitted together, and allowing the water to pour over one edge and out at another with a delicious purling—such crystal clear water that one actually wanted to wash in it even if it was cold, and even if one had the many sore places on fingers and nose and behind the ears.
Behold! no sooner did one turn from the washing of hands and face than the table was miraculously spread upon the surface of a flat rock, with other stones nearby to serve as chairs; and on the table steamed "pone," warmed over; coffee with milk in it—coffee, which was so strictly banned at home!—potatoes sliced to transparent thinness and fried to crisp brown at the edges, and a great slab of meat that fairly shouted to the appetite.
So far so good, but the realization was a thousand fold better than anticipation. No cutting of one's own meat at this enchanted board! The shining knife of Daddy Dan divided it into delectable bits with the speed of light, and it needed only the slightest amount of experimenting and cautious glances to discover that one could use a fork daggerwise, and when in doubt even seize upon a morsel with one's fingers and wipe the fingers afterwards on a bit of the dry grass. One could grasp the cup by both sides, scorning the silly handle, and if occasionally one sipped the coffee with a little noise—which added astonishingly to the taste—there was no sharp warning, no frowning eye to overlook. Besides, at Munner's table, there was never time to pay attention to Joan, for there was talk about vague, abstract things—the price of skins, the melting of the snows, the condition of the passes, the long and troubling argument about the wicker chairs, with some remarkably foolish asides, now and then, concerning happiness and love—when all the time any one with half an eye could see that the thing to do was to eat and eat and eat until that hollow place ceased to be. Talking came afterwards.
In the house of Daddy Dan all these things were ordered as they should be. Not a word was said; not a glance of criticism rested upon her; when her tin plate was cleared she heard no reproofs for eating too greedily, but she was furnished anew from the store of good things on the rock.
In place of conversation, there were other matters to occupy the mind during the meal. For presently she observed the beautiful head of Satan just behind his master—Satan, who could pass over noisy gravel with the softness of a cat, and now loomed out of the deeper night down the cavern. Inch by inch, with infinite caution and keenly pricked ears, the head lowered beside Dan, and the quivering, delicate muzzle stole towards a fragment of the "pone." Joan watched breathlessly and then she saw that in spite of the caution of that movement her father knew all about it—just a glint of amusement in the corner of his eyes, just a slight twitch at the corners of his mouth to tell Joan that he was as delighted as a boy playing a trick. Barely in time to save the morsel of pone, he spoke and the head was dashed up. Yet Satan was not entirely discouraged. If he could not steal the bread he would beg for it. It made Joan pause in her destruction of the edibles, not to watch openly, for an instinct told her that the thing to do was to note these by-plays from the corner of one's eye, as Daddy Dan did, and swallow the ripples of mirth that came tickling in the throat. She knew perfectly well that Satan would have it in the end, for of all living things not even Munner had such power over Dan as the black stallion. He maneuvered adroitly. First he circled the table and stood opposite the master, begging with his eyes, but Dan looked fixedly down at the rock until an impatient whinny called up his eyes. Then he pretended the most absolute surprise.
"Why, Satan, you old scoundrel, what are you doin' over there? Get back where you belong?"
He gestured with a thumb over his shoulder and Satan glided around the rock and stood once more behind Dan.
"Manners?" continued Dan. "You ain't got 'em. You'll be tryin' to sit down at the table with me, pretty soon." He concluded: "But I'll teach you one of these days, and you'll smart for a week."
Even at the mock menace Joan trembled a little, but to her astonishment Satan paid not the slightest heed. Dan sat with his hat on his head—which was a new and delightful event at the table—and now the stallion took the hat by the crown, dexterously, and raised it just an inch and put it back in place. Black Bart, having crept out of the shadows sat down near Joan with his long red tongue lolling out. This procedure called a growl from him, but the master continued eating without the slightest interest, apparently, in Satan's insolence.
A velvety muzzle appeared, with the chin resting on the shoulder of Dan and the great, luminous eyes above. He whinnied so softly that it was not more than a human whisper, and meant almost as much.
"Oh," said Dan, in all seeming just roused to attention, "hungry, old boy?"
He raised the morsel of "pone" between thumb and forefinger, holding it tightly. Then it was a joy to watch Satan. He tried to tug it all away at once, but only a fragment broke off. He stamped in impatience, and then went to work to nibble the bread away on all sides of Dan's fingers, very fine work for such broad, keen chisels as Satan's teeth, but he went about it with the skill of long practice, turning his head this way and that and always watching the face of the master with sidewise eyes, one ear forward and one ear back. Finally the tight fingers opened out, and Satan gathered the last crumbs from the smooth palm.
Two or three times during this performance Black Bart had half risen from his haunches and a growl swelled almost inaudibly in his throat, but now he stalked around the table and pushed his narrow head between Dan's shoulder and the stallion. A snarl of incredible ferocity made Satan turn, but without the slightest dread, apparently. For an instant the two stood nose to nose, Black Bart a picture of snarling danger and Satan with curiously pricking ears and bright eyes. The growling rose towards a crescendo, a terrible sound; then a lean hand shot out with that speed which Joan could never comprehend—and which always made her think, rather breathlessly, of the strike of a snake. The fingers settled around the muzzle of Bart.
"Of all the no-good houn'-dogs," declared Dan, "you're the worst, and the most jealousest. Lie down!"
Bart obeyed, slowly, but his evil eyes were fixed upwards upon the head of Satan.
"If you got any manners," remarked Dan, "you'll be sayin' that you're sorry."
The ears flattened along the snaky head; otherwise no answer.
"Sorry!" repeated the master.
Out of the deep throat of Black Bart, infinitely, ludicrously small, came a whine which was more doglike than anything Joan had ever heard, before, from the wolf.
"Now," continued the implacable master, "you go over in that corner, and lie down."
Black Bart arose with a finally ugly look for Satan and sneaked with hanging head and tail to the outer edge of the circle of light.
"Farther! Clear over there in the dark," came the order, and Bart had to uncoil himself again in the very act of lying down and retreat with another ominous growl clear into the darkness. Satan held his head high and watched triumphantly.
But Joan felt that this was a little hard on Bart; she wanted to run over and comfort him, but she knew from of old that it was dangerous to interfere where Daddy Dan was disciplining either horse or wolf; besides, she was not quite free from her new awe for Bart.
"All right," said the master presently, and without raising his voice.
It brought a dark thunder bolt rushing into the circle of the light and stopping at Dan's side with such suddenness that his paws slid in the gravel. There he stood, actually wagging his bushy tail—an unprecedented outburst of joy for Bart!—and staring hungrily into the face of Dan. She saw a wonderful softening in the eyes of her father as he looked at the great, dangerous beast.
"You ain't a bad sort," he said, "but you need puttin' in place continual."
Black Bart whined agreement.
After that, when the dishes were being cleared away and cleaned with a speed fully as marvelous as the preparation of the supper, Joan remembered with a guilty start the message which she should have given to Daddy Dan, and she brought out the paper, much rumpled.
He stood by the fire to read the letter.
"Dan come back to us. The house is empty and there's no sign of you except your clothes and the skins you left drying in the vacant room. Joan sits all day, mourning for you, and my heart is breaking. Oh, Dan, I don't grieve so much for what has been done, but I tremble for what you may do in the future."
With the letter still in his hand Dan walked thoughtfully to Satan and took the fine head between his fingers.
"S'pose some gent was to drop you, Satan," he murmured. "S'pose he was to plug you while you was doin' your best to take me where I want to go. S'pose he shot you not for anything you'd done but because of something agin me. And s'pose after killin' you he was to sneak up on me with a lot of other gents and try to murder me before I had a chance to fight back. Satan, wouldn't I be right to trail 'em all—and kill 'em one by one? Wouldn't it?"
Joan heard very little of the words—only a soft murmur of anxiety, and she saw that Daddy Dan was very thoughtful indeed. The stallion reached for the brim of Dan's hat—it was withdrawn from his reach—his head bowed, like a nod of assent.
"Why, even Satan can see I'm right," murmured Dan, and moving back to the fire, he tore the letter into many pieces which fluttered down in a white stream and made the blaze leap up.