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Title: Judith of the Plains
Author: Manning, Marie
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Judith of the Plains" ***

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Judith Of The Plains
By Marie Manning

Harper & Brothers Publishers
New York And London

Copyright, 1903. By Harper & Brothers

Printed In The United States Of America



                                [Image #1]

Peter’s Hand Sought Hers, And All Her Woman’s Fear Of The Vague Terrors Of
      The Dreadful Night Spoke In Her Answering Pressure—See p. 154.



CONTENTS


"Town"
The Encounter
Leander And His Lady
Judith, The Postmistress
The Trail Of Sentiment
A Daughter Of The Desert
Chugg Takes The Ribbons
The Rodneys At Home
Mrs. Yellett And Her "Gov’ment"
On Horse-thief Trail
The Cabin In The Valley
The Round-up
Mary’s First Day In Camp
Judith Adjusts The Situation
The Wolf-hunt
In The Land Of The Red Silence
Mrs. Yellett Contends With A Cloudburst
Foreshadowed
"Rocked By A Hempen String"
The Ball



JUDITH OF THE PLAINS



I


                                  "Town"


It was June, and a little past sunrise, but there was no hint of early
summer freshness in the noxious air of the sleeping-car as it toiled like
a snail over the infinity of prairie. From behind the green-striped
curtains of the berths, now the sound of restless turning and now a
long-drawn sigh signified the uneasy slumber due to stifling air and
discomfort.

The only passenger stirring was a girl whose youth drooped under the
unfavorable influences of foul air, fatigue, and a strained anxiety to
come to the end of this fateful journey. She had been up while it was yet
dark, and her hand—luggage, locked, strapped, and as pitifully new at the
art of travelling as the girl herself, clustered about the hem of her blue
serge skirt like chicks about a hen. The engine shrieked, but its voice
sounded weak and far off in that still ocean of space; the girl tightened
her grasp on the largest of the satchels and looked at the approaching
porter tentatively.

"We’re late twenty-fi’e minutes," he reassured her, with the hopeless
patience of one who has lost heart in curbing travellers’ enthusiasms.

She turned towards the window a pair of shoulders plainly significant of
the burdensome last straw.

"Four days and nights in this train"—they were slower in those days—"and
now this extra twenty-five minutes!"

Miss Carmichael’s famous dimple hid itself in disgust. The demure lines of
mouth and chin, that could always be relied upon for special pleading when
sentence was about to be passed on the dimple by those who disapproved of
dimples, drooped with disappointment. But the light-brown hair continued
to curl facetiously—it was the sort of hair whose spontaneous rippling
conveys to the seeing eye a sense of humor.

The train plodded across the spacious vacancy that unrolled itself farther
and farther in quest of the fugitive horizon. The scrap of view that came
within a closer range of vision spun past the car windows like a bit of
stage mechanism, a gigantic panorama rotating to simulate a race at
breakneck speed. But Miss Carmichael looked with unseeing eyes; the
whirling prairie with its golden flecks of cactus bloom was but part of
the universal strangeness, and the dull ache of homesickness was in it
all.

"My dear! my dear!"—a head in crimpers was thrust from between the
curtains of the section opposite—"I’ve been awake half the night. I was so
afraid I wouldn’t see you before you got off."

The head was followed, almost instinctively, by a hand travelling
furtively to the crimpers that gripped the lady’s brow like barnacles
clinging to a keel.

Mary expressed a grieved appreciation at the loss of rest in behalf of her
early departure, and conspicuously forbore to glance in the direction of
the barnacles, that being a first principle as between woman and woman.

"And, oh, my dear, it gets worse and worse. I’ve looked at it this
morning, and it’s worse in Wyoming than it was in Colorado. What it ’ll be
before I reach California, I shudder to think."

"It’s bound to improve," suggested Mary, with the easy optimism of one who
was leaving it. "It couldn’t be any worse than this, could it?"

The neuter pronoun, it might be well to state, signified the prairie; its
melancholy personality having penetrated the very marrow of their train
existence, they had come to refer to it by the monosyllable, as in certain
nether circles the head of the house receives his superlative distinction
in "He."

Again the locomotive shrieked, again the girl mechanically clutched the
suit-case, as presenting the most difficult item in the problem of
transportation, and this time the shriek was not an idle formality. The
train slowed down; the uneasy sleepers behind the green-striped curtains
stirred restlessly with the lessening motion of their uncouth cradle. The
porter came to help her, with the chastened mien of one whose hopes of
largess are small, the lady with the barnacles called after her redundant
farewells, and a moment later Miss Carmichael was standing on the station
platform looking helplessly after the train that toiled and puffed, yet
seemed, in that crystalline atmosphere, still within arm’s-reach. She
watched it till its floating pennant of smoke was nothing but a gray
feather blowing farther and farther out of sight on the flat prairie.

The town—it would be unkind to mention its name—had made merry the night
before at the comprehensive invitation of a sheepman who had just disposed
of his wool-clip, and who said, by way of general summons, "What’s the use
of temptin’ the bank?" "Town," therefore, when Mary Carmichael first made
its acquaintance, was still sleeping the sleep of the unjust. Those among
last night’s roisterers who had had to make an early start for their camps
were well into the foot-hills by this time, and would remember with
exhilaration the cracked tinkle of the dance-hall piano as inspiring music
when the lonesomeness of the desert menaced and the young blood again
clamored for its own.

"Town"—it contained in all some two dozen buildings—was very unlovely in
slumber. It sprawled in the lap of the prairies, a grimy-faced urchin,
with the lines of dismal sophistication writ deep. Yet where in all the
"health resorts" of the East did air sweep from the clean hill-country
with such revivifying power? It seemed a glad world of abiding youth.
Surely "Town" was but a dreary illusion, a mirage that hung in the
unmapped spaces of this new world that God had made and called good; an
omen of the abominations that men would make when they grew blind to the
beauty of God’s world.

Mary Carmichael, with much the feelings of a cat in a strange garret,
wandered about the sluggard town; and presently the blue-and-white sign of
a telegraph office, with the mythological figure of a hastening messenger,
suggested to her that a reassuring telegram was only Aunt Adelaide’s due.
Whereupon she began to rap on the door of the office, a scared pianissimo
which naturally had little effect on the operator, who was at home and
asleep some three blocks distant. But the West is the place for woman if
she would be waited upon. No seven-to-one ratio of the sexes has tempered
the chivalry of her sons of the saddle. A loitering something in a
sombrero saw rather than heard the rapping, and, at the sight, went in
quest of the dreaming operator without so much as embarrassing Miss
Carmichael with an offer of his services. And presently the operator,
whose official day did not begin for some two hours yet, appeared, much
dishevelled from running and the cursory nature of his toilet, prepared to
receive a message of life and death.

The wire to Aunt Adelaide ran:


    "Practically at end of journey. Take stage to Lost Trail this
    morning. Am well. Don’t worry about me.

                                                               "MARY."


And the telegraph operator, dimly remembering that he had heard Lost Trail
was a "pizen mean country," and that it was tucked some two hundred miles
back in the foot-hills, did not find it very hard to forgive the girl, who
was "practically at end of journey," particularly as the dimple had come
out of hiding, and he had never been called upon to telegraph the word
"practically" before. He was a progressive man and liked to extend his
experiences.

After sending the telegram, Miss Carmichael, quite herself by reason of
the hill air, felt that she was getting along famously as a traveller, but
that it was an expensive business, and she was glad to be "practically" at
the end of her journey. And, drawing from her pocket a square envelope of
heavy Irish linen, a little worn from much reading, but primarily an
envelope that bespoke elegance of taste on the part of her correspondent,
she read:


                                                 "LOST TRAIL, WYOMING.

    "My Dear Miss Carmichael,—Pray let me assure you of my
    gratification that the preliminaries have been so satisfactorily
    arranged, and that we are to have you with us by the end of June.
    The children are profiting from the very anticipation of it, and
    it will be most refreshing to all us isolated ones to be able to
    welcome an Eastern girl as a member of our family.

    "Although the long journey across the continent is trying,
    particularly to one who has not made it before, I hope you may not
    find it utterly fatiguing. Please remember that after leaving the
    train, it will be necessary to take a stage to Lost Trail. If it
    is possible, I shall meet you with the buckboard at one of the
    stage stations; otherwise, keep to the stage route, being careful
    to change at Dax’s Ranch.

    "Unfortunately, the children vary so in their accomplishments that
    I fear I can make no suggestions as to what you may need to bring
    with you in the way of text-books. But I think you will find them
    fairly well grounded.

    "I had a charming letter from Mrs. Kirkland, who said the
    pleasantest things possible of you. I am glad the wife of our
    Senator was able conscientiously to commend us.

    "With our most cordial good wishes for a safe journey, believe me,
    dear Miss Carmichael,

                                                     "Sincerely yours,

                                                      "SARAH YELLETT."


In the mean time, "Town" came yawning to breakfast. It was not so prankish
as it had been the night before, when it accepted the sheepman’s
broad-gauge hospitality and made merry till the sun winked from behind the
mountains. It made its way to the low, shedlike eating-house with a
pre-breakfast solemnity bordering on sulkiness. Not a petticoat was in
sight to offset the spurs and sombreros that filed into breakfast from
every point in the compass, prepared to eat primitively, joke broadly, and
quarrel speedily if that sensitive and often inconsistent something they
called honor should be brushed however lightly.

But the eternal feminine was within, and, discovering it, the temper of
"Town" was changed; it ate self-consciously, made jokes meet for the ears
of ladies, and was more interested in the girl in the sailor-hat than it
was in remembering old feuds or laying the foundations of new.

In its interior aspect, the eating-house conveyed no subtle invitation to
eat, drink, and be merry. On the contrary, its mission seemed to be that
of confounding appetite at every turn. A long, shedlike room it was, with
walls of unpainted pine, still sweating from the axe. Festoons of
scalloped paper, in conflicting shades, hung from the ceiling, a menace to
the taller of the guests. On the rough walls some one, either prompted by
a latent spirit of æstheticism or with an idea of abetting the town
towards merrymaking—an encouragement it hardly required—had tacked posters
of shows, mainly representing the tank-and-sawmill school of drama.

Miss Carmichael sat at the extreme end of the long, oilcloth-covered
table, on which a straggling army of salt and pepper shakers, catsup
bottles, and divers commercial condiments seemed to pause in a discouraged
march. A plague of flies was on everything, and the food was a threat to
the hardiest appetite. One man summed up the steak with, "You got to work
your jaw so hard to eat it that it ain’t fair to the next meal."

His neighbor heaved a sigh. "This here formation, whatever it be"—and he
turned the meat over for better inspection—"do shore remind me of an
indestructible doll that an old maid aunt of mine giv’ my sister when we
was kids. That doll sort of challenged me, settin’ round oncapable o’
bein’ destroyed, and one day I ups an’ has a chaw at her. She war
ondestructible, all right; ’fore that I concluded my speriments I had left
a couple o’ teeth in her."

"Well, I discyards the steak and draw to a pair of aces," and the first
man helped himself to a couple of biscuits.

Miss Carmichael knew, by the continual scraping of chairs across the
gritty floor, that the places at the table must be nearly all taken; and
while she anticipated, with an utterly unreasonable terror, any further
invasion of her seclusion at the end of the table, still she could not
persuade herself to raise her eyes to detect the progress of the enemy,
even in the interest of the diary she had kept so conscientiously for the
past three days; which was something of a loss to the diary, as those
untamed, manly faces were well worth looking at. Reckless they were in
many instances, and sometimes the lines of hardship were cruelly writ
across young faces that had not yet lost the down of adolescence, but
there were humor and endurance and the courage that knows how to make a
crony of death and get right good sport from the comradeship. Their faults
were the faults of lusty, red-blooded youth, and their virtues the
open-handed generosity, the ready sympathy of those uncertain tilters at
life who ride or fall in the tourney of a new country.

At present, "the yearling," drinking her execrable coffee in an agony of
embarrassment, weighed heavily on their minds. They would have liked to
rise as a man and ask if there was anything they could do for her. But as
a glance towards the end of the table seemed to increase her discomfiture
tenfold, they did the kindest and for them the most difficult thing and
looked in every direction but Miss Carmichael’s. With a delicacy of
perception that the casual observer might not have given them credit for,
they had refrained from taking seats directly opposite her, or those
immediately on her right, which, as she occupied the last seat at the
table, gave her at least a small degree of seclusion.

As one after another of them came filing in, bronzed, rugged, radiating a
beauty of youth and health that no sketchy exigence of apparel could
obscure, some one already seated at the table would put a foot on a chair
opposite him and send it spinning out into the middle of the floor as a
hint to the new-comer that that was his reserved seat. And the
cow-puncher, sheep-herder, prospector, or man about "Town," as the case
might be, would take the hint and the chair, leaving the petticoat
separated from the sombreros by a table-land of oilcloth and a range of
four chairs.

But now entered a man who failed to take the hint of the spinning chair.
In fact, he entered the eating-house with the air of one who has dropped
in casually to look for a friend and, incidentally, to eat his breakfast.
He stopped in the doorway, scanned the table with deliberation, and
started to make his way towards Mary Carmichael with something of a
swagger. Some one kicked a chair towards him at the head of the table.
Some one else nearly upset him with one before he reached the middle, and
the Texan remarked, quite audibly, as he passed:

"The damned razor-back!"

But the man made his way to the end of the table and drew out the chair
opposite Miss Carmichael with a degree of assurance that precipitated the
rest of the table into a pretty pother.

Suppose she should countenance his audacity? The fair have been known to
succumb to the headlong force of a charge, when the persistence of a long
siege has failed signally. What figures they would cut if she did!—and
Simpson, of all men! A growing tension had crept into the atmosphere of
the eating-house; knives and forks played but intermittently, and Mary,
sitting at the end of the oilcloth-covered table, felt intuitively that
she was the centre of the brewing storm. Oh, why hadn’t she been contented
to stay at home and make over her clothes and share the dwindling fortunes
of her aunts, instead of coming to this savage place?

"From the look of the yearling’s chin, I think he’ll get all that’s coming
to him," whispered the man who had nearly upset him with the second chair.

"You’re right, pard. If I’m any good at reading brands, she is as
self-protective as the McKinley bill."

The man Simpson was not a pleasant vis-à-vis. He wore the same picturesque
ruffianliness of apparel as his fellows, but the resemblance stopped
there. He lacked their dusky bloom, their clearness of eye, the suppleness
and easy flow of muscle that is the hall-mark of these frontiersmen. He
was fat and squat and had not the rich bronzing of wind, sun, and rain.
His small, black eyes twinkled from his puffy, white face, like raisins in
a dough-pudding.

He was ogling Mary amiably when the woman who kept the eating-house
brought him his breakfast. Mrs. Clark was a potent antidote for the
prevailing spirit of romance, even in this woman-forsaken country. A good
creature, all limp calico, Roman nose, and sharp elbows, she brought him
his breakfast with an ill grace that she had not shown to the others. The
men about the table gave him scant greeting, but the absence of enthusiasm
didn’t embarrass Simpson.

He lounged expansively on the table, regarding Miss Carmichael attentively
meanwhile; then favored her with the result of his observations, "From the
East, I take it." And the dumpling face screwed into a smile whose mission
was pacific.

Every knife and fork in the room suspended action in anxiety to know how
the "yearling" would take it. Would their chivalry, which strained at a
gnat, be compelled to swallow such a conspicuous camel as the success of
Simpson? With the attitude he had taken towards the girl, there had crept
into the company an imperceptible change; deep-buried impulses sprang to
the surface. If a scoundrel like Simpson was going to try his luck, why
shouldn’t they? They didn’t see a pretty girl once in a blue moon. With
the advent of the green-eyed monster at the board, each man unconsciously
became the rival of his neighbor.

But Miss Carmichael merely continued her breakfast, and if she heard the
amiable deductions of Simpson regarding her, she gave no sign. But a
rebuff to him was in the nature of an appetizer, a fillip to press the
acquaintance. He encroached a bit farther on the narrow limits of the
table and continued, "Nice weather we’re having."

Miss Carmichael gave her undivided attention to her coffee. The spurs and
sombreros, that had not relaxed a muscle in their strained observation of
the little drama, breathed reflectively. Perhaps it was just as well that
they had not emulated Simpson in his brazen charge; the "yearling" was not
to be surprised into talking, that was certain.

"He shore is showing hisself to be a friendly native," commented the man
who had sacrificed milk-teeth investigating the indestructible doll.

"Seems to me that the system he’s playing lacks a heap of science. My
money’s on the yearling." And the man who had "discarded the steak and
drawn to the biscuits" leaned a little forward that he might better watch
developments.

Simpson by this time fully realized his error, but failure before all
these bantering youngsters was a contingency not to be accepted lightly.
As he phrased it to himself, it was worth "another throw." "Seems kind o’
lonesome not having any one to talk to while you’re eatin’, don’t it?"

Miss Carmichael’s air of perfect composure seemed a trifle out of tune
with her surroundings; the nice elevation of eyebrow, the slightly
questioning curl of the lip as she, for the first time apparently, became
aware of the man opposite, seemed to demand a prim drawing-room rather
than the atmosphere of the slouching eating-house.

"Well, really, I’ve hardly had a chance of finding out." And her eyes were
again on her coffee-cup. And there was joy among the men at table that
they had not rushed in after the manner of those who have a greater
courage than the angels.

"No offence meant," deprecated Simpson, with an uneasy glance towards the
other end of the table, where the men sat with necks craned forward in an
attitude uncomfortably suggestive of hounds straining at the leash.
Simpson felt rather than saw that something was afoot among the sombreros.
There was a crowding together in whispered colloquy, and in a flash some
half-dozen of them were on their feet as a man. Descending upon Simpson,
they lifted him, chair and all, to the other end of the table, as far
removed as possible from Miss Carmichael.

The man who thought Simpson’s system lacked science rubbed his hands in
delight. "She took the trick all right; swept his hand clean off the
board!"



II


                              The Encounter


Simpson, from the seat to which he had been so rapidly transplanted,
looked about him with blinking anxiety. It was more than probable that the
boys intended "to have fun with him," though his talking, or rather trying
to talk, to a girl that sat opposite him at an eating-house table was,
according to his ethics, plainly none of their business. He knew he wasn’t
popular since he had done for Jim Rodney’s sheep, though the crime had
never been laid at his door, officially. He had his way to make, the same
as the next one; and, all said and done, the cattle-men were glad to get
Jim Rodney’s sheep off the range, even if they treated him as a felon for
the part he had played in their extermination.

Thus reasoned Simpson, while he marked with an uneasy eye that the temper
of the company had grown decidedly prankish with the exit of the girl,
who, after having caused all the trouble, had, with an irritating quality
peculiar to her sex, vanished through the kitchen door.

Some three or four of the boys now ran to Simpson’s former seat at the
table and rushed towards him with his half-eaten breakfast, as if the
errand had been one of life and death. They showered him with mock
attentions, waiting on him with an exaggerated deference, and the pale,
fat man, remembering the hideousness of some of their manifestations of a
sense of humor, breathed hard and felt a falling-off of appetite.

Costigan, the cattle-man, a strapping Irish giant, was clearing his throat
with ominous sounds that suggested the tuning-up of a bass fiddle.

"Sure, Simpson, me lad, if ye happen to have a matther av fifty dollars,
’tis mesilf that can tell ye av an illegint invistmint."

Simpson looked up warily, but Costigan’s broad countenance did not harbor
the wraith of a smile. "What kin I git for fifty chips? ’Tain’t much,"
mused the pariah, with the prompt inclination to spend that stamps the
comparative stranger to ready money.

"Ye can git a parrut, man—a grane parrut—to kape ye coompany while ye’re
aiting—"

Simpson interrupted with an oath.

"Don’t be hard on old Simmy; remember he’s studied for the ministry! How
did I savey that Simpson aimed to be a sharp on doctrine?" A cow-puncher
with a squint addressed the table in general. "I scents the aroma of dogma
about Simpson in the way he throwed his conversational lariat at the
yearling. He urbanes at her, and then comes his ’firstly,’ it being a
speculation as to her late grazing-ground, which he concludes to be the
East. His ’secondly’ ain’t nothing startling, words familiar to us all
from our mother’s knee—’nice weather’—the congregation ain’t visibly
moved. His ’thirdly’ is insinuating. In it he hints that it ain’t good for
man to be alone at meals—"

"’Twas the congregation that added the ’foinelly,’ though, before hastily
leaving be the back door!" and Costigan slapped his thigh.

"The gentleman in question don’t seem to be makin’ much use of his present
conversational opportunities. I’m feelin’ kinder turned down myself"; and
the Texan began to look over his six-shooter.

The man with the squint looked up and down the board.

"Gentlemen, I believe the foregoing expresses the sentiment of this
company, which, while it incloodes many foreign and frequent-warring
elements, is at present held together by the natchral tie of eating."

Thumping with knife and fork handles, stamping of feet, cries of "Hear!
hear!" with at least three cow-boy yells, argued well for a resumption of
last night’s festivities. Simpson glowered, but said nothing.

"Seems to me you-all goin’ the wrong way ’bout drawin’ Mistu’ Simpson out.
He is shy an’ has to be played fo’ like a trout, an’ heah you-all come at
him like a cattle stampede." The big Texan leaned towards Simpson. "Now
you-all watch my methods. Mistu’ Simpson, seh, what du think of the
prospects of rain?"

There was a general recommendation from Simpson that the entire company go
to a locality below the rain-belt.

A boy, plainly "from the East," and looking as if the ink on his
graduating thesis had scarce had time to dry, was on his feet, swaggering;
he would not have swapped his newly acquired _camaraderie_ with these
bronzed Westerners for the Presidency.

"Gentlemen, you have all heard Simpson say it is lonesome having no one to
talk to during meals. We sympathized with him and offered him a choice of
subjects. He greets our remarks by a conspicuous silence, varied by
profanity. This, gentlemen, reflects on us, and is a matter demanding
public satisfaction. All who feel that their powers as conversationalists
have been impugned by the silence of Simpson, please say ’Ay.’"

"Ay" was howled, sung, and roared in every note of the gamut.

"If me yoong frind here an me roight"—and Costigan jerked a shoulder
towards the boy—"will be afther closin’ that silf-feeding automatic
dictionary av his for a moment, I shud be glad to call the attintion av
the coomp’ny to somethin’ in the nature av an ixtinuatin’ circoomsthance
in the case av Simpson."

"Hear! hear!" they shouted. The broad countenance of Costigan beamed with
joy at what he was about to say. "Gintlemin, the silence av Mr. Simpson is
jew in all probabilitee to a certain ivint recalled by many here prisint,
an’ more that’s absent, an’ amicablee settled out av coort—"

Up to this time the unhappy Simpson had shown an almost superhuman
endurance. Now he bristled—and after looking up and down the board for a
sympathetic face, and not finding one, he declared, loudly and generally,
"’Tain’t so!"

"Ye may have noticed that frind Simpson do be t’reatened wid lockjaw in
the societee av min, but in the prisince av a female ye can’t count on
him. Now, talk wid a female is an agreeable, if not a profitable, way av
passin’ the toime, but sure ye niver know where it will ind—as witness
Simpson. This lady I’m recallin’—’tis a matther av two years ago—followed
the ancient and honorable profission av biscuit shootin’ not far from
Caspar. Siz Simpson to the lady some such passin’ civilitee as,
’Good-marnin’; plisent weather we’re havin’.’ Whereupon the lady filt a
damage to her affictions an’ sued him for breach av promise."

"’Twan’t that way, at all!" screamed Simpson. "’Sall a lie!"

"Yu ought er said ’Good-evenin’’ to the lady, Mistu Simpson; hit make a
diffunce," drawled the man from Texas, pleasantly.

"But ’twas ’Good-marnin’’ Simpson made chyce av," resumed Costigan. "An’
the lady replied, ’You’ve broke my heart.’ Whereupon Simpson, havin’ a
matther av t’ree thousand dollars to pay for his passin’ civilitee,
learned thot silince was goolden."

They all remembered the incident in question, and thundered applause at
the reappearance of an old favorite. Without warning, a shadow fell across
the sunlight-flooded room, and, as one after another of the men glanced up
from the table, they saw standing in the doorway a man of such malignant
aspect that his look fell across the company like a menace. The swing of
their banter slowed suddenly; it was as if the cold of a new-turned grave
had struck across the June sunshine checking their roughshod fun. None of
them had the hardihood to joke with a man that stood in the shadow of
death; and hate and murder looked from the eyes of the man in the doorway
and looked towards Simpson. One by one they perceived the man of the
shadow, all but Simpson, eating steak drowned in Worcestershire.

The man in the doorway was tall and lean, and the prison blench upon his
face was in unpleasant contrast to the ruddy tan of the faces about the
table. His sombrero was tipped back and the hair hung dank about the pale,
sweating forehead, suggestive of sickness. But weak health did not imply
weak purpose; every feature in that hawk-like face was sharp with hatred,
and in the narrowing eye was vengeance that is sweet.

He stood still; there was in his hatred a something hypnotic that grew
imperceptibly and imperceptibly communicated itself to the men at table.
He gloated over the eating fat man as if he had dwelt much in imagination
on the sight and was in no hurry to curtail his joy at the reality. The
men began to get restless, shuffle their feet, moisten their lips; only
the college boy spoke, and then from a wealth of ignorance, knowing
nothing of the rugged, give-and-take justice of the plains—an eye for an
eye, a tooth for a tooth, and the law and the courts go hang while a man’s
got a right arm to pull a trigger. Not one in all that company, even the
cattle-men whose interests were opposed to Rodney’s, but felt the justice
of his errand.

"When did they let him out?" whispered the college boy; and then,
"Oughtn’t we to do something?"

"Yis, me son," whispered Costigan. "We ought to sit still and learn a
thing or two."

The fat man cleaned his plate with a crust of bread stuck on the point of
a knife. There was nothing more to eat in the way of substantials, and he
debated pouring a little more of the sauce on his plate and mopping it
with a bit of bread still uneaten. Considering the pro and con of this
extra tid-bit, he glanced up and saw the gaunt man standing in the
doorway.

Simpson dropped the knife from his shaking hand and started up with a cry
that died away in a gurgle, an inhuman, nightmare croak. He looked about
wildly, like a rat in a trap, then backed towards the wall. The men about
the table got up, then cleared away in a circle, leaving the fat man. It
was all like a dream to the college boy, who had never seen a thing of the
kind before and could not realize now that it was happening. Rodney
advanced, never once relaxing the look in which he seemed to hold his
enemy as in a vise. Simpson was like a man bewitched. Once, twice, he made
a grab for his revolver, but his right hand seemed to have lost power to
heed the bidding of his will. Rodney, now well towards the centre of the
room, waited, with a suggestion of ceremony, for Simpson to get his
six-shooter.

It was one of those moments in which time seems to have become petrified.
The limp-clad proprietress of the eating-house, made curious by the sudden
silence, looked in from the kitchen. Simpson, his eyes wandering like a
trapped rat, saw, and called, through teeth that chattered in an ague of
fear, "Ree—memm—her thth—there’s la—dies p—present! For Gawd’s sake,
remember t—there’s ladies p—present!"

The pale man looked towards the kitchen, and, seeing the woman, he gave
Simpson a look in which there was only contempt. "You’ve hid behind the
law once, and this time it’s petticoats. The open don’t seem to have no
charm for you. But—" He didn’t finish, there was no need to. Every one
knew and understood. He put up his revolver and walked into the street.

The men broke into shouts of laughter, loud and ringing, then doubled up
and had it out all over again. And their noisy merriment was as clear an
indication of the suddenly lifted strain, at the averted shooting, as it
was of their enjoyment of the farce. Simpson, relieved of the fear of
sudden death, now sought to put a better face on his cowardice. Now that
his enemy was well out of sight, Simpson handled his revolver with easy
assurance.

"Put ut up," shouted Costigan, above the general uproar. "’Tis toime to
fear a revolver in the hands av Simpson whin he’s no intinsions av
shootin’."

Simpson still attempted to harangue the crowd, but his voice was lost in
the general thigh-slapping and the shouts and roars that showed no signs
of abating. But when he caught a man by the coat lapel in his efforts to
secure a hearing, that was another matter, and the man shook him off as if
his touch were contagion. Simpson, craving mercy on account of petticoats,
evading a meeting that was "up to him," they were willing to stand as a
laughing-stock, but Simpson as an equal, grasping the lapels of their
coats, they would have none of.

He slunk away from them to a corner of the eating-house, feeling the
stigma of their contempt, yet afraid to go out into the street where his
enemy might be waiting for him. Much of death and blood and recklessness
"Town" had seen and condoned, but cowardice was the unforgivable sin. It
balked the rude justice of these frontiersmen and tampered with their
code, and Simpson knew that the game had gone against him.

"What was it all about? Were they in earnest, or was it only their way of
amusing themselves?" inquired Mary Carmichael, who had slipped into Mrs.
Clark’s kitchen after the men at the table had taken things in hand.

"Jim Rodney was in earnest, an’ he had reason to be. That man Simpson was
paid by a cattle outfit—now, mind, I ain’t sayin’ which—to get Jim
Rodney’s sheep off the range. They had threatened him and cut the throats
of two hundred of his herd as a warning, but Jim went right on grazin’
’em, same as he had always been in the habit of doing. Well, I’m told they
up and makes Simpson an offer to get rid of the sheep. Jim has over five
thousand, an’ it’s just before lambing, and them pore ewes, all heavy, is
being druv’ down to Watson’s shearing-pens, that Jim always shears at. Jim
an’ two herders and a couple of dawgs—least, this is the way I heard it—is
drivin’ ’em easy, ’cause, as I said before, it’s just before lambing. It
does now seem awful cruel to me to shear just before lambing, but that’s
their way out here.

"Well, nothing happens, and Jim ain’t more’n two hours from the pens an’
he comes to that place on the road that branches out over the top of a
cañon, and there some one springs out of a clump of willows an’ dashes
into the herd and drives the wether that’s leading right over the cliff.
The leaders begin to follow that wether, and they go right over the cliff
like the pore fools they are. The herder fired and tried to drive ’em
back, they tell me, an’ he an’ the dawg were shot at from the clump of
willows by some one else who was there. Three hundred sheep had gone over
the cliff before Jim knew what was happening. He rode like mad right
through the herd to try and head ’em off; but you know what sheep is
like—they’re like lost souls headin’ for damnation. Nothing can stop ’em
when they’re once started. And Jim lost every head—started for the
shearing-pens a rich man—rich for Jim—an’ seen everything he had swept
away before his eyes, his wife an’ children made paupers. My son he come
by and found him. He said that Jim was sittin’ huddled up in a heap, his
knees drawed up under his chin, starin’ straight up into the noonday sky,
same as if he was askin’ God how He could be so cruel. His dead dawg, that
they had shot, was by the side of him. The herder that was with Jim had
taken the one that was shot into Watson’s, so when my son found Jim he was
alone, sittin’ on the edge of the cliff with his dead dawg, an’ the sky
about was black with buzzards; an’ Jim he just sat an’ stared up at ’em,
and when my son spoke to him he never answered any more than a dead man.
He shuck him by the arm, but Jim just sat there, watchin’ the sun, the
buzzards, and the dead sheep."

"Was nothing done to this man Simpson?"

"The cattle outfit that he done the dirty work for swore an alibi for him.
Jim has been in hard luck ever since. He’s been rustlin’ cattle right
along; but Lord, who can blame him? He got into some trouble down to
Rawlins—shot a man he thought was with Simpson, but who wasn’t—and he’s
been in jail ever since. Course now that he’s out Simpson’s bound to get
peppered. Glad it didn’t happen here, though. ’Twould be a kind of
unpleasant thing to have connected with a eating-house, don’t you think
so?" she inquired, with the grim philosophy of the country.

The eating-house patrons had gone their several ways, and the quiet of the
dining-room was oppressive by contrast with its late boisterousness. Mrs.
Clark, her hands imprisoned in bread-dough, begged Mary to look over the
screen door and see if anything was happening. "I’m always suspicious when
it’s quiet. I know they’re in deviltry of some sort."

Mary tiptoed to the door and peeped over, but the room was deserted, save
for Simpson, huddled in a corner, biting his finger-nails. "The nasty
thing!" exploded Mrs. Clark, when she had received the bulletin. "I’d turn
him out if it wasn’t for the notoriety he might bring my place in gettin’
killed in front of it."

"I dare say I’d better go and see after my trunk; it’s still on the
station platform." Mary wondered what her prim aunts would think of her
for sitting in Mrs. Clark’s kitchen, but it had seemed so much more of a
refuge than the sordid streets of the hideous little town, with its droves
of men and never a glimpse of a woman that she had been only too glad to
avail herself of the invitation of the proprietress to "make herself at
home till the stage left."

"Well, good luck to you," said Mrs. Clark, wiping her hand only partially
free from dough and presenting it to Miss Carmichael. She had not inquired
where the girl was going, nor even hinted to discover where she came from,
but she gave her the godspeed that the West knows how to give, and the
girl felt better for it.

At the station, where Mary shortly presented herself, in the interest of
that old man of the sea of all travellers, luggage, she learned that the
stage did not leave town for some three-quarters of an hour yet. A young
man, manipulating many sheets of flimsy, yellow paper covered with large,
flourishing handwriting, looked up in answer to her inquiries about Lost
Trail. This young man, whose accent, clothes, and manner proclaimed him
"from the East," whither, in all probability, he would shortly return if
he did not mend his ways, disclaimed all knowledge of the place as if it
were an undesirable acquaintance. But before he could deny it thrice, a
man who had heard the cabalistic name was making his way towards the desk,
the pride of the traveller radiating from every feature.

The cosmopolite who knew Lost Trail was the type of man who is born to be
a Kentucky colonel, and perhaps may have achieved his destiny before
coming to this "No Man’s Land," for reasons into which no one inquired,
and which were obviously no one’s business. They knew him here by the name
of "Lone Tooth Hank," and he wore what had been, in the days of his
colonelcy—or its equivalent—a frock-coat, restrained by the lower button,
and thus establishing a waist-line long after nature had had the last word
to say on the subject. With this he wore the sombrero of the country, and
the combination carried a rakish effect that was positively sinister.

The scornful clerk introduced Mary as a young lady inquiring about some
place in the bad-lands. Off came the sombrero with a sweep, and Lone Tooth
smiled in a way that accented the dental solitaire to which he owed his
name. Miss Carmichael, concealing her terror of this casual cavalier,
inquired if he could tell her the distance to Lost Trail.

"I sho’ly can, and with, consid’able pleasure." The sombrero completed a
semicircular sweep and arrived in the neighborhood of Mr. Hank’s heart in
significance of his vassalage to the fair sex. He proceeded:

"Lost Trail sutney is right lonesome. A friend of mine gets a little too
playful fo’ the evah-increasin’ meetropolitan spirit of this yere camp,
and tries a little tahget practice on the main bullyvard, an’ finds the
atmospheah onhealthful in consequence. Hearin’ that the quiet solitude of
Lost Trail is what he needs, he lit out with the following circumstance
thereof happenin’. One day something in his harness giv’ way—and he
recollects seein’ a boot sunnin’ itself back in the road ’bout a quartah
of a mile. An’ he figgahs he’ll borry a strip of leather off the boot to
mend his harness. Back he goes and finds it has a kind of loaded feelin’.
So my friend investigates—and I be blanked if there wasn’t a foot and leg
inside of it."

Miss Carmichael had always exercised a super-feminine self-restraint in
the case of casual mice, and it served her in the present instance.
Instead of screaming, she said, after the suppression of a gasp or two:

"Thank you so much, but I won’t detain you any longer. Your information
makes Lost Trail even more interesting than I had expected."

Besides, Miss Carmichael had a faint suspicion that this might be a
preconcerted plan to terrify the "lady tenderfoot," and she prided herself
on being equal to the situation. The time at her disposal before the stage
would embark on that unknown sea of prairies she spent in the delectable
pastime of shopping. The financial and social interests of the town seemed
to converge in Hugous & Co.’s "trading store," where Miss Carmichael
invested in an extra package of needles for the mere excitement of being
one of the shoppers, though her aunt Adelaide had stocked the little
plaid-silk work-bag to repletion with every variety of needle known to
woman. She pricked up her ears, meanwhile, at some of the purchases made
by the cow-boys for their camp-larders—devilled ham, sardines, canned
tomatoes heading the list as prime favorites. Did these strapping border
lads live by the fruit of the tin alone? Apparently yes, with the
sophisticated accompaniment of soda biscuit, to judge by the quantity of
baking-powder they invested in—literally pounds of it. Men in any other
condition of life would have died of slow poisoning as the result of it.

There were other customers at Hugous’ that morning besides the spurred and
booted cow-puncher and his despised compeer, the sheep-herder. That
restless emigrant class, whose origin, as a class, lay in the community of
its own uncertain schemes of fortune; the West, with her splendid, lavish
promises, called them from their thriftless farms in the South and their
gray cabins in New England. They began their journeying towards the land
of promise long before the Indians had ever seen the shrieking
"fire-wagon." All day they would toil over the infinitude of prairie, the
sun that hid nightly behind that maddeningly elusive vanishing-point, the
horizon, their only guide. But the makeshifts of the wagon life were not
without charm. They began to wander in quest of they knew not precisely
what, and from these vague beginnings there had sprung into existence that
nomadic population that was once such a feature of the far West, but is
now going the way of the Indians and the cow-boys.

This breathing-space in the long journey had for them the stimulus of a
holiday-making. They bought their sides of bacon and their pounds of
coffee as merrily as if they were playing a game of forfeits, the women
fingering the calico they did not want for the joy of pricing and making
shoppers’ talk.

The scene had a scriptural flavor that not even the blue overalls of the
men nor the calico gowns of the women could altogether eliminate. Their
wagons, bulging with household goods and trailing with kitchen utensils
secured by bits of rope, were drawn up in front of the trading-store. From
a pump, at some little distance, the pilgrims filled their stone
water-bottles, for the wise traveller does not trust to the chance springs
of the desert. Baskets of chickens were strapped to many of the wagons,
but whether the unhappy fowls were designed to supply fresh eggs and an
occasional fricassée, or were taken for the pleasure of their company,
there was no means of determining short of impertinent cross-questioning.
Sometimes a cow, and invariably a dog, formed one of the family party, and
an edifying _esprit de corps_ seemed to dwell among them all.

Lone Tooth Hank, in his capacity of man about town, stood on the steps of
Hugous’ watching the preparations; and, seeing Miss Carmichael, approached
with the air of an old and tried family friend.

"Do I obsehve yu regyarding oweh ’settleahs,’ called settleahs ’cause they
nevah settle?" Hank laughed gently, as one who has made a joke meet for
ladies. "I’ve known whole famblies to bohn an’ raise right in one of them
wagons; and tuhn out a mighty fine, endurin’ lot, too, this hyeh
prospectin’ round afteh somethin’ they wouldn’t reco’nize if they met.
Gits to be a habit same as drink. They couldn’t live in a house same as
humans, not if yu filled their gyarden with nuggets an’ their well with
apple-jack."

Miss Carmichael looked attentive but said nothing. In truth, she was more
afraid of Hank, his obvious gallantry, and his grewsome tales of boots
with legs in them than she was of the unknown terrors of Lost Trail.

"I believe that is my stage," she said, as a red conveyance not unlike a
circus wagon halted at some little distance from the trading-store. And as
she spoke she saw four of her companions of the breakfast-table heading
towards the stage, each with a piece of her precious luggage. Mary
Carmichael was precipitated in a sudden panic; she had heard tales of the
pranks of these playful Western squires—a little gun-play to induce the
terrified tenderfoot to put a little more spirit into his Highland fling,
"by request." She remembered their merrymaking with Simpson at breakfast.
What did they intend to do with her belongings? And as she remembered the
little plaid sewing-bag that Aunt Adelaide had made for
her—surreptitiously drying her tears in the mean time—when she remembered
that bag and the possibility of its being submitted to ignominy, she could
have cried or done murder, she wasn’t sure which.

"Well, ’pon my wohd, heah ah the boys with yo’ baggage. How time du fly!"

"Oh!" she gasped, "what are they going to do with it?"

"Place it on the stage, awaitin’ yo’ ohdahs." And to her expression of
infinite relief—"Yo’ didn’t think any disrepec’ would be shown the baggage
of a lady honorin’ this hyeh metropolis with her presence?"

She thanked the knights of the lariat the more warmly for her unjust
suspicions. They stowed away the luggage with the deft capacity of men who
have returned to the primitive art of using their hands. She climbed
beside the driver on the box of the stage. Lone Tooth Hank and the
cow-punchers chivalrously raised their sombreros with a simultaneous
spontaneity that suggested a flight of rockets. The driver cracked his
whip and turned the horses’ heads towards the billowing sea of foot-hills,
and the last cable that bound Mary Carmichael to civilization was cut.



III


                           Leander And His Lady


The only stage passenger besides Miss Carmichael was a fat lady, whose
entire luggage seemed to consist of luncheon—pasteboard boxes of
sandwiches, baskets of fruit, napkins of cake. These she began to dispose
of, before the stage had fairly started, with an industry almost
automatic, continuing faithful to her post as long as the supplies lasted.
Then she dozed, sleeping the sleep of the just and those who keep their
mouths open. From time to time the stage-driver invoked his team in
cabalistic words, and each time the horses toiled forward with fresh
energy; but progress became a mockery in that ocean of space, their
driving seemed as futile as the sport of children who crack a whip and
play at stage-coach with a couple of chairs; the mountains still mocked in
the distance.

A flat, unbroken sweep of country, a tangle of straggling sage-brush, a
glimpse of foot-hills in the distance, was the outlook mile after mile.
The day grew pitilessly hot. Clouds of alkaline dust swept aimlessly over
the desert or whirled into spirals till lost in space. From horizon to
horizon the sky was one cloudless span of blue that paled as it dipped
earthward. Mary Carmichael dozed and wakened, but the prospect was always
the same—the red stage crawling over the wilderness, making no evident
progress, and always the sun, the sage-brush, and the silence.

It was all so overwhelmingly different from the peaceful atmosphere of
things at home. The mellow Virginia country, with its winding, red roads,
wealth of woodland, and its grave old houses that were the more haughtily
aloof for the poverty that gnawed at their vitals. This wilderness was so
gaunt, so parched; she closed her eyes and thought of a bit of landscape
at home. A young forest of silver beeches growing straight and fine as the
threads on a loom; and through the gray perspective of their satin-smooth
trunks you caught the white gleam of a fairy cascade as it tumbled over
the moss-grown stones to the brook below. It was like a bit from a
Japanese garden in its delicate artificiality.

And harder to leave than these cherished bits of landscape had been the
old house Runnymede, that always seemed dozing in the peaceful comatose of
senility. It was beyond the worry of debt; the succession of mortgages
that sapped its vitality and wrote anxious lines on the faces of Aunt
Adelaide and Aunt Martha was nothing to the old house. Had it not
sheltered Carmichaels for over a century?—it had faith in the name. But
Mary could never remember when the need of money to pay the mortgage had
not invaded the gentle routine of their home-life, robbing the sangaree of
its delicate flavor in the long, sleepy summer afternoons, invading the
very dining-room, an unwelcome guest at the old mahogany table, prompting
Aunt Adelaide to cast anxious glances at the worn silver—would it go to
pay that blood-sucking mortgage next?

But hardest of all to leave had been Archie, best and most promising of
young brothers—Archie, who had come out ahead of his class in the
high-school, all ready to go to The University—the University of Virginia
is always "The University"; but who, it had seemed at a certain dark
season, must give up this long-cherished hope for lack of the wherewithal.
Mary, being four years older than her brother and quite twenty, had long
felt a maternal obligation to administer his affairs. If he did not go to
the university, like his father and grandfather before him, it would be
because she had failed in her duty. At this particular phase of the
domestic problem there had appeared, in a certain churchly periodical, a
carefully worded advertisement for a governess, and the subsequent
business of references, salary, and information to be imparted and
received proving eminently satisfactory, Mary had finally received a
tearful permission from her aunts to depart for some place in Wyoming, the
name of which was not even to be found on the map. She was to consider
herself quite one of the family, and the compensation was to be fifty
dollars a month. Archie would now be able to go to "The University."

As the day wore on the sage-brush became scarcer and grayer, there were
fewer flowering cacti, and the great white patches of alkali grew more and
more frequent. In the distance there was a riot of rainbow tints—violet,
pink, and pale orange. It seemed inconceivable that such barrenness could
produce such wealth of color; nothing could have been more beautiful—not
even the changing colors on a pigeon’s neck—than the coppery iridescence,
shading to cobalt and blue on some of the buttes.

Night had fallen before they made the first break in their journey. The
low, beetle-browed cabin that faced them in the wilderness carried in its
rude completeness a hint of the prestidigitateur’s art—a world of
desolation, and behold a log cabin with smoke issuing from the chimney and
curtains at the windows! The interior was unplastered, but this
shortcoming was surmounted by tacking cheesecloth neatly over the logs, a
device at once simple and strategic, as in the lamplight the effect was
that of plaster. Miss Carmichael, suddenly released from the actual
rumbling of the stage, felt its confused motion the more strongly in
imagination, and hardly knew whether she was eating canned tomatoes,
served uncooked directly from the tin, fried steak, black coffee, and soda
biscuit, in company with the fat lady, the stage-driver, and the woman who
kept the road ranch, or if it was all some Alice in Wonderland delusion.

The fat lady had brought her own bedding—an apoplectic roll of
bedquilts—and these she insisted on making a bed of, despite the protests
of the ranch-woman, who seemed to detect a covert insinuation against her
accommodations in the precedent. Miss Carmichael profited by the
controversy. The landlady, touched no doubt by the simple faith of a
traveller who trusted to the beds of a road-ranch, or because she was
young or a girl, led the way in triumph to her own bedroom, and indicating
an imposing affair with pillow-shams, she defied Miss Carmichael to find a
more comfortable bed "in the East."

In the unaccountable manner of these desert conveyances, that creak and
groan across the arid wastes with an apparently lumbering inconsequence,
the stage that brought the travellers to the Dax ranch left at sunrise to
pursue a seemingly erratic career along the North Platte, while Miss
Carmichael and the fat lady were to continue their journey with one Lemuel
Chugg, who drove a stage northward towards the Red Desert, when he was
sober enough to handle the ribbons.

Breakfast was largely devoted to speculation regarding the approximate
condition of Mr. Chugg—would he be wholly or partially incapacitated for
his job? Mrs. Dax, flirting a feather-duster in the neighborhood of Miss
Carmichael in a futile effort to beguile her into giving a reason for her
solitary journey across the desert, took a gloomy view of the situation.

But Miss Carmichael kept her own counsel. Not so the fat lady. Falling
into the snare ingenuously set for another, she divulged her name, place
of residence, and the object of her travels, which was to visit a son on
Sweetwater. Furthermore, she stated the probable cause of every death in
her family for the past thirty-five years. Miss Carmichael felt an
especial interest in an Uncle Henry who "died of a Friday along of eating
clams." He stood out with such refreshing vividness against a background
of neutralities who succumbed to consumption, bile colic, and other more
familiar ailments of the patent-medicine litany. But loquacity,
apparently, like virtue, is its own reward, for the landlady scarce
vouchsafed a comment on this dismal recitative, while Miss Carmichael
remained the object of her persistent attentions.

But there seemed to be no topic of universal interest but Chugg’s
condition, Mrs. Dax finally asserting, "Before I’d trust my precious neck
to him, I’d get Mr. Dax to shoot me."

Meditating on this Spartan statement, Mary and the fat lady became aware
for the first time of a subtle, silent force in the domestic economy. But
so unobtrusive was this influence that one had to scrutinize very closely,
indeed, to detect the evanescent personality of Mrs. Dax’s husband.
Leander was his name, but it is safe to say that he swam no Hellesponts
for the masterful wife of his bosom. Otherwise he was slender, willowy,
bald; if he ever stood straight enough to get the habitually apologetic
crooks out of his knees, he would be tall; but so in the habit was he of
repressing himself in the marital presence that Leander passed for middle
height. He waited on the table at breakfast with the dumb submissiveness
of a trained dog that has been taught to give pathetic imitations of human
servility. But no sooner had his lady left the room than Leander began
quite brazenly to call attention to himself as a man and an individual,
coughing, rattling his dishes, and clearing his throat. Mary and the fat
lady, out of very pity, responded to these crude signals with overtures
equally frank, and Leander ventured finally to inquire if they aimed to
spend the night at his brother’s ranch, it being the next mess-box between
here and nowhere. They admitted that his brother’s ranch was their next
stopping-place, and Leander went through perfect contortions of apology
and self-effacement before he could bring himself to ask them to do him a
favor. It would have taken a very stern order of womankind to refuse
anything so abject, and they blindly committed themselves to the pledge.

"Tell him I send my compliments," he whispered, and, looking about him
furtively, he repeated the blood-curdling request.

"Is that all?" sniffed the fat lady, at no pains to conceal her
disappointment.

"It’s enough, if it was known, to raise a war-whoop and stampede this yere
family." His glance at the door through which his wife had disappeared was
pregnant with meaning.

"Family troubles?" asked the fat lady, as a gourmet might say "Truffles."

"Looks like it," said Leander, dismally. "Me and Johnnie don’t ask for
nothin’ better than to bask in each other’s company; but our wives insists
on keepin’ up the manoeuvres of a war-dance the whole endoorin’ time."

"So," said the fat lady, as a gourmet might tell of a favorite way of
preparing truffles, "it’s a case of wives?"

"Yes, marm, an’ teeth an’ nails an’ husbands thrown in, when they get a
sight of each other’s petticoats."

"I’ve known sisters-in-law not to agree," helped on the fat lady, by way
of an encouraging parallel.

"While I deplores usin’ such a comparison to the refinin’ and softenin’
inflooance of wimmen, the meetin’ of the Dax ladies by chanst anywheres
has all the elements of danger and excitement that accompanies an Injun
uprisin’."

The travellers looked all manner of encouragement.

"You see, my wife’s a great housekeeper; her talent lies"—and here Leander
winked knowingly—"in managin’ the help."

"Land’s sake!" interrupted the fat lady. "Why don’t you kick?"

Leander sighed softly. "I tried to once. As an experiment it partook of
the trustfulness of a mule kickin’ against the stony walls of Badger
Cañon. But to resoom about the difficulties that split the Dax family.
Before Johnnie got mislaid in that matrimonial landslide o’ his, he herds
with us. Me an’ him does the work of this yere shack, and my wife just
roominates and gives her accomplishments as manager full play. She never
put her hand in dirty water any more than Mrs. Cleveland sittin’ up in the
White House parlor. Johnnie done the fancy cookin’; he could make a pie
like any one’s maw, and while you was lost to the world in the delights of
masticatin’ it, he’d have all his greasy dishes washed up and put away—"

"No wonder she hated to lose a man like that," interrupted the fat lady,
feelingly.

"But he took to pinin’ and proclaimin’ that he shore was a lone maverick,
and he just stampeded round lookin’ for trouble and bleatin’ a song that
went:

  "’No one to love,
  None to caress.’

"Well, the lady that answers his signal of distress don’t bear none of the
brands of this yere range. She lives back East, and him and her took up
their claims in each other’s affections through a matrimonial paper known
as _The Heart and Hand_. So they takes their pens in hand and gets through
a hard spell of courtin’ on paper. Love plumb locoes Johnnie. His spellin’
don’t suit him, his handwritin’ don’t suit him, his natchral letters don’t
suit him. So off he sends to Denver for all the letter-writin’ books he
can buy—_Handbook of Correspondence, The Epistolary Guide, The Ready
Letter-Writer_, and a stack more. There’s no denyin’ it, Johnnie certainly
did sweat hisself over them letters."

"Land’s sakes!" said the fat lady.

"Yes, marm; he used to read ’em to me, beginnin’ how he had just seized
five minutes to write to her, when he’d worked the whole day like a mule
over it. She seemed to like the brand, an’ when he sent her the money to
come out here an’ get married, she come as straight as if she had been
mailed with a postage-stamp."

"The brazen thing!" said the fat lady.

"They stopped here, goin’ home to their place. My Lord! warn’t she a
high-flyer! She done her hair like a tied-up horse-tail—my wife called it
a Sikey knot—and it stood out a foot from her head. Some of the boys,
kinder playful, wanted to throw a hat at it and see if it wouldn’t hang,
but they refrained, out of respect to the feelin’s of the groom.

"From the start," continued Leander, "the two Mrs. Daxes just hankered to
get at each other; an’ while I, as a slave to the fair sex"—here he bowed
to the fat lady and to Miss Carmichael—"hesitates to use such langwidge in
their presence, the attitood of them two female wimmin shorely reminds me
of a couple of unfriendly dawgs just hankerin’ to chaw each other.

"At first, Johnnie waited on her hand an’ foot, and she just read novels
and played stylish all the time and danced. She was the hardest dancer
that ever struck this yere trail, and she could give lessons to any old
war-dancin’ chief up to the reservation. No dance she ever heard of was
too far for her to go to. She just went and danced till broad daylight.
Many a man would have took to dissipation, in his circumstances, but
Johnnie just lost heart and grew slatterly. Why, he’d leave his dishes go
from one day till the next—"

"There’s more as would leave their dishes from one day till the next if
they wasn’t looked after." And the wife of his bosom stood in the door
like a vengeful household goddess. Mr. Dax made a grab for the nearest
plates.



IV


                         Judith, The Postmistress


The arrival of Chugg’s stage with the mail should have been coincident
with the departure of the stage that brought the travellers from "Town,"
but Chugg was late—a tardiness ascribed to indulgence in local lethe
waters, for Lemuel Chugg had survived a romance and drank to forget that
woman is a variable and a changeable thing. In consequence of which the
sober stage-driver departed without the mails, leaving Mary Carmichael and
the fat lady to scan the horizon for the delinquent Chugg, and
incidentally to hear a chapter of prairie romance.

Some sort of revolution seemed to be in progress in the room in which the
travellers had breakfasted. Mrs. Dax had assumed the office of dictator,
with absolute sway. Leander, as aide-de-camp, courier, and staff, executed
marvellous feats of domestic engineering. The late breakfast-table, swept
and garnished with pigeon-holes, became a United States post-office,
prepared to transact postal business, and for the time being to become the
social centre of the surrounding country.

Down the yellow road that climbed and dipped and climbed and dipped again
over foot-hills and sprawling space till it was lost in a world without
end, Mary Carmichael, standing in the doorway, watched an atom, so small
that it might have been a leaf blowing along in the wind, turn into a
horseman.

There was inspiration for a hundred pictures in the way that horse was
ridden. No flashes of daylight between saddle and rider in the jolting,
Eastern fashion, but the long, easy sweep that covers ground imperceptibly
and is a delight to the eye. It needed but the solitary figure to signify
the infinitude of space in the background. In all that great, wide world
the only hint of life was the galloping horseman, the only sound the
rhythmical ring of the nearing hoofs. The rider, now close enough for Miss
Carmichael to distinguish the features, was a thorough dandy of the
saddle. No slouching garb of exigence and comfort this, but a pretty
display of doeskin gaiter, varnished boot, and smart riding-breeches. The
lad—he could not have been, Miss Carmichael thought, more than twenty—was
tanned a splendid color not unlike the bloomy shading on a nasturtium. And
when the doughty horseman made out the girl standing in the doorway, he
smiled with a lack of formality not suggested by the town-cut of his
trappings. Throwing the reins over the neck of the horse with the real
Western fling, he slid from the saddle in a trice, and—Mary Carmichael
experienced something of the gasping horror of a shocked old lady as she
made out two splendid braids of thick, black hair. Her doughty cavalier
was no cavalier at all, but a surprisingly handsome young woman.

Miss Carmichael gasped a little even as she extended her hand, for the
masquerader had pulled off her gauntlet and held out hers as if she was
conferring the freedom of the wilderness. It was impossible for a homesick
girl not to respond to such heartiness, though it was with difficulty at
first that Mary kept her eyes on the girl’s face. Curiosity, agreeably
piqued, urged her to take another glimpse of the riding clothes that this
young woman wore with such supreme unconcern.

Now, "in the East" Mary Carmichael had not been in the habit of meeting
black-haired goddesses who rode astride and whose assurance of the
pleasure of meeting her made her as self-conscious as on her first day at
dancing-school; and though she tried to prove her cosmopolitanism by not
betraying this, the attempt was rather a failure.

"Are you surprised that I did not wait for an introduction?" the girl in
the riding clothes asked, noticing Mary’s evident uneasiness; "but you
don’t know how good it is to see a girl. I’m so tired of spurs and
sombreros and cattle and dust and distance, and there’s nothing else
here."

"Where I come from it’s just the other way—too many petticoats and
hat-pins."

The horseman who was no horseman dropped Miss Carmichael’s hand and went
into the house. Mary wondered if she ought to have been more cordial.

From the back door came Leander, with dishcloths, which he began to hang
on the line in a dumb, driven sort of way.

"Who is she?" asked Mary.

"Her?" he interrogated, jerking his head in the direction of the house.
"The postmistress, Judith Rodney; yes, that’s her name." He dropped his
voice in the manner of one imparting momentous things. "She never wears a
skirt ridin’, any more than a man."

Mary felt that she was tempting Leander into the paths of gossip,
undoubtedly his besetting sin, but she could not resist the temptation to
linger. He had disposed of his last dish-cloth, and he withdrew the
remaining clothes-pin from his mouth in a way that was pathetically
feminine.

"She keeps the post-office here, since Mrs. Dax lost the job, and boards
with us; p’r’aps it’s because she is my wife’s successor in office, or
p’a’ps it’s jest the natural grudge that wimmin seem to harbor agin each
other, I dunno, but they don’t sandwich none."

Leander having disposed of his last dish-towel, squinted at it through his
half-closed eyes, like an artist "sighting" a landscape, saw apparently
that it was in drawing, and next brought his vision to bear on the back
premises of his own dwelling, where he saw there was no wifely figure in
evidence.

"Sh-sh-h!" he said, creeping towards Mary, his dull face transfigured with
the consciousness that he had news to tell. "Sh-sh—her brother’s a
rustler. If ’twan’t for her"—Leander went through the grewsome pantomime
of tying an imaginary rope round his neck and throwing it over the limb of
an imaginary tree. "They’re goin’ to get him for shore this time, soon as
he comes out of jail; but would you guess it from her bluff?"

There was no mistaking the fate of a rustler after Mr. Dax’s grisly
demonstration, but of the quality of his calling Mary was as ignorant as
before.

"And why should they do that?" she inquired, with tenderfoot simplicity.

"Stealin’ cattle ain’t good for the health hereabouts," said Leander, as
one who spoke with authority. "It’s apt to bring on throat trouble."

But Mary did not find Leander’s joke amusing. She had suddenly remembered
the pale, gaunt man who had walked into the eating-house the previous
morning and walked out again, his errand turned into farce-comedy by the
cowardice of an unworthy antagonist. The pale man’s grievance had had to
do with sheep and cattle. His name had been Rodney, too. She understood
now. He was Judith Rodney’s brother, and he was in danger of being hanged.
Mary Carmichael felt first the admiration of a girl, then the pity of a
woman, for the brave young creature who so stoutly carried so unspeakable
a burden. But she could not speak of her new knowledge to Leander.

She glanced towards this childlike person and saw from his stealthy manner
that he had more to impart. He walked towards the kitchen door, saw no
one, and came back to Mary.

"There ain’t a man in this Gawd-forsaken country wouldn’t lope at the
chance to die for her—but the women!" Leander’s pantomimic indication of
absolute feminine antagonism was conclusive.

"The wimmin treats her scabby—just scabby. Don’t you go to thinkin’ she
ain’t a good girl on that account"; and something like an attitude of
chivalrous protection straightened the apologetic crook in his craven
outline.

"She’s good, just good, and when a woman’s that there’s no use in sayin’
it any more fanciful. As I says to my wife, every time she give me a
chance, ’If Judy wasn’t a good girl these boys about here would just
natchrally become extinct shootin’ each other upon account of her.’ But
she don’t favor none enough to cause trouble."

"Are the women jealous of her?"

"It’s her independence that riles ’em. They take on awful about her ridin’
in pants, an’ it certainly is a heap more modest than ridin’ straddle in a
hitched up caliker skirt, same as some of them do."

"And do all the women out here ride astride?" Mary gasped.

"A good many does, when you ain’t watchin’; horses in these parts ain’t
broke for no such lopsided foolishness as side-saddles. But you see she
does it becomin’, and that’s where the grudge comes in. You can’t stir
about these foot-hills without coming across a woman, like as not, holdin’
on to a posse of kids, and ridin’ clothes-pin fashion in a looped-up
skirt; when she sees you comin’ she’ll p’r’aps upset a kid or two
assoomin’ a decorous attitood. That’s feemi_nine_, and as such is approved
by the ladies, but"—and here Leander put his head on one side and gave a
grotesque impression of outraged decorum—"pants is considered unwomanly."

"Leander! Leander!" came in accusing accents from the kitchen.

"Run!" gasped Mrs. Dax’s handmaiden; "don’t let her catch us chinnin’."

Mary Carmichael ran round one side of the house as she was bidden, but,
like Lot’s wife, could not resist the temptation of looking back. Leander,
with incredible rapidity, grabbed two clothes-pins off the line, clutched
a dish-towel, shook it. "Comin’! comin’!" he called, as he went through
the farce of rehanging it.

The lonesomeness of plain and foot-hill, the utter lack of the human
element that gives to this country its character of penetrating
desolation, had been changed while Mary Carmichael forgathered with
Leander by the clothes-line. From the four quarters of the compass, men in
sombreros, flannel shirts, and all manner of strange habiliments came
galloping over the roads as if their horses were as keen on reaching Dax’s
as their riders. They came towards the house at full tilt, their horses
stretching flat with ears laid back viciously, and Mary, who was unused to
the tricks of cow-ponies, expected to see them ride through the front
door, merely by way of demonstrating their sense of humor. Not so; the
little pintos, buckskins, bays, and chestnuts dashed to the door and
stopped short in a full gallop; as a bit of staccato equestrianism it was
superb.

And then the wherefore of all this dashing horsemanship, this curveting,
prancing, galloping revival of knightly tourney effects was
apparent—Judith Rodney had opened post-office. She had changed her riding
clothes; or, rather, that portion of them to which the ladies took
exception was now concealed by a long, black skirt. Her wonderful braids
of black hair had been twisted high on her head. She was well worth a trip
across the alkali wastes to see. The room was packed with men. One
unconsciously got the impression that a fire, a fight, or some
crowd-collecting casualty had happened. Above the continual clinking of
spurs there arose every idiom and peculiarity of speech of which these
United States are capable. There is no Western dialect, properly speaking.
Men bring their modes of expression with them from Maine or Minnesota, as
the case may be, but their figures of speech, which give an essential
picturesqueness to their language, are almost entirely local—the cattle
and sheep industries, prospecting, the Indians, poker, faro, the
dance-halls, all contribute their printable or unprintable embellishment.

Judith managed them all—cow-punchers, sheep-herders, prospectors,
freighters—with an impersonal skill that suggested a little solitary
exercise in the bowling-alley. The ten-pins took their tumbles in good
part—no one could congratulate himself on escaping the levelling ball—and
where there’s a universal lack of luck, doubtless also there will be found
a sort of grim fellowship.

That they were all more or less in love with her there could be no doubt.
As a matter of fact, Judith Rodney did not depend on the scarcity of women
in the desert for her pre-eminence in the interests of this hot-headed
group. Her personality—and through no conscious effort of hers—would have
been pre-eminent anywhere. As it was, in this woman-forsaken wilderness
she might have stirred up a modern edition of the Trojan war at any
moment. That she did not, despite the lurking suggestion of temptation
written all over her, brought back the words of Leander: "If Judy wasn’t a
good girl, these boys would just nacherally become extinct shooting each
other upon account of her."

And yet what a woman she was! It struck Miss Carmichael, as she watched
Judith hold these warring elements in the hollow of her hand, that her
interest might be due to a certain temperamental fusion; that there might
lie, at the essence of her being, a subtle combination of saint and devil.
One could fancy her leading an army on a crusade or provoking a bar-room
brawl. The challenging quality of her beauty, the vividness of color, the
suggestion of endurance and radiating health in every line, were
comparable to the great primeval forces about her. She was cast to be the
mother of men of brawn and muscle, who would make this vast, unclaimed
wilderness subject to them.

At present neither pole of her character, as it had been hastily
estimated, was even remotely suggested. The atmosphere in the post-office
was, considering the potential violence of its visitors, singularly calm.
And Judith, feeding these wild border lads on scraps of chaff and banter,
and retaining their absolute loyalty, was a sight worth seeing. She had
the alertness of a lion-tamer locked in a cage with the lords of the
jungle; the rashly confident she humbled, the meek she exalted, and all
with such genuine good-fellowship, such an absence of coquetry in the
genial game of give and take, that one ceased to wonder at even the
devotion of Leander. And since they were to her, on her own confession,
but "spurs and sombreros," one wondered at the elaboration of the comedy,
the endless wire-pulling in the manipulation of these most picturesque
marionettes—until one remembered the outlaw brother and felt that what she
did she did for him.

"You right shore there ain’t a letter for me, Miss Judith. My creditors
are pretty faithful ’bout bearing me in mind." It was the third time that
the big, shambling Texan who had been one of the company at Mrs. Clark’s
eating-house had inquired for mail, and seemed so embarrassed by his own
bulk that he moved cautiously, as if he might step on a fellow-creature
and maim him. Each time he had asked for a letter he took his place at the
end of the waiting-line and patiently bided his time for the chance of an
extra word with the postmistress.

"They’ve begun to lose hope, Texas."

She shuffled the letters impartially, as a goddess dispensing fate, and
barely glanced at the man who had ridden a hundred and fifty miles across
sand and cactus to see her.

"That’s the difference between them and me." There was a grim finality in
his tone.

"What, you’re going to take your place at the end of that line again! I’ll
try and find you a circular."

He tried to look at her angrily, but she smiled at him with such
good-fellowship that he went off singing significantly that universal
anthem of the cow-puncher the West over:

  "Oh, bury me not on the lone prairie,
    In a narrow grave just six by three,
    Where the wild coyotes will howl o’er me.
  Oh, bury me not on the lone prairie."

"Ain’t there a love letter for me?" The young man who inquired seemed to
belong to a different race from these bronzed squires of the saddle. He
suggested over-crowded excursion boats on Sunday afternoons in swarming
Eastern cities. He buttonholed every one and explained his presence in the
West on the score of his health, as though leaving his native asphalt were
a thing that demanded apology.

"Yes," answered the postmistress, with a real motherly note, "here is one
from Hugous & Co."

A roar went up at this, and the blushing tenderfoot pocketed his third
bill for the most theatrical style of Mexican sombrero; it had a brass
snake coiled round the crown for a hat-band, and a cow-puncher in good and
regular standing would have preferred going bareheaded to wearing it.

"She seems to be pressing her suit, son; you better name the day," one of
the loungers suggested.

"The blamed thing ain’t worth twenty-five dollars," the young man from the
East declared. A conspicuous silence followed. It seemed to irritate the
owner of the hat that no one would defend it. "It ain’t worth it," he
repeated.

"I think you allowed you was out here for your health?" the big Texan, who
had returned from the corral, inquired.

"Betcher life," swaggered the man with the hat, "N’York’s good enough for
me."

"But"—and the Texan smiled sweetly—"the man who sold you the hat ain’t out
here for his."

Judith hid her head and stamped letters. The boys were suspiciously quiet,
then some one began to chant:

  "The devil examined the desert well,
  And made up his mind ’twas too dry for hell;
  He put up the prices his pockets to swell,
  And called it a—heal-th resort."

The postmistress waited for the last note of the chorus to die away, and
read from a package she held in her hand—"’Mrs. Henry Lee, Deer Lodge,
Wyoming.’ Well, Henry, here’s a wedding-present, I guess. And my
congratulations, though you’ve hardly treated us well in never saying a
word."

The unfortunate Henry, who hadn’t even a sweetheart, and who was noted as
the shyest man in the "Goose Creek Outfit," had to submit to the mock
congratulations of every man in the room and promise to set up the drinks
later.

"I never felt we’d keep you long, son; them golden curls seldom gets a
chance to ripen singly."

"Shoshone squaw, did you say she was, Henry? They ain’t much for looks,
but there’s a heep of wear to ’em."

"Oh, go on, now; you fellows know I ain’t married." And the boy handled
the package with a sort of dumb wonder, as if the superscription were
indisputable evidence of a wife’s existence.

"Open it, Henry; you shore don’t harbor sentiments of curiosity regarding
the post-office dealings of your lady."

"Now, old man, this here may be grounds for divorce."

"See what the other fellow’s sending your wife."

Henry, badgered, jostled, the target of many a homely witticism, finally
opened the package, which proved to be a sample bottle of baby food. At
sight of it they howled like Apaches, and Henry was again forced to
receive their congratulations. Judith, who had been an interested
on-looker without joining in the merriment, now detected in the tenor of
their humor a tendency towards breadth. In an instant her manner was
official; rapping the table with her mailing-stamp, she announced:

"Boys, this post-office closes in ten minutes, if you want to buy any
stamps."

The silence following this statement on the part of the postmistress was
instantaneous. Henry took his mirth-provoking package and went his way;
some of the more hilariously inclined followed him. The remainder confined
themselves absolutely to business, scrawling postal-cards or reading their
mail. The pounce of the official stamp on the letters, as the postmistress
checked them off for the mail-bag, was the only sound in the hot
stillness.

A heavily built man, older than those who had been keeping the post-office
lively, now took advantage of the lull to approach Judith. He had a
twinkling face, all circles and pouches, but it grew graver as he spoke to
the postmistress. He was Major Atkins, formerly a famous cavalry officer,
but since his retirement a cattle-man whose herds grazed to the pan-handle
of Texas. As he took his mail, talking meantime of politics, of the heat,
of the lack of water, in the loud voice for which he was famous, he
managed, with clumsy diplomacy, to interject a word or two for her own ear
alone.

"Jim’s out," he conveyed to her, in a successfully muffled tone. "He’s
out, and they’re after him, hot. Get him out of the State, Judy—get him
out, _quick_. He tried to kill Simpson at Mrs. Clark’s, in town,
yesterday. The little Eastern girl that’s here will tell you." Then the
major was gone before Judith could perfectly realize the significance of
what he had told her.

She threw back her head and the pulse in her throat beat. Like a wild
forest thing, at the first warning sound, she considered: Was it time for
flight?—or was the warning but the crackling of a twig? Major Atkins was a
cattle-man: her brother hated all cattle-men. How disinterested had been
the major’s warning! He had always been her friend. Mrs. Atkins had been
one of the ladies at the post who had helped to send her to school to the
nuns at Santa Fé. She despised herself for doubting; yet these were
troublous times, and all was fair between sheep and cattle-men. Major
Atkins had spoken of the Eastern girl; then that pretty, little,
curly-haired creature, whom Judith had found standing in the sunshine, had
seen Jim—had heard him threaten to kill. Should she ask her about
it—consult her? Judith’s training was not one to impel her to give her
confidence to strangers, still she had liked the little Eastern girl.

These were the perplexities that beset her, sweeping her thoughts hither
and thither, as sea-weed is swept by the wash of the waves. She strove to
collect her faculties. How should she rid the house of her cavaliers? She
had regularly to refuse some half-dozen of them each day that she kept
post-office.

In a few minutes more the group in the post-office began to disperse under
the skilful manipulation of the postmistress. To some she sold stamps with
an air of "God speed you," and they were soon but dwindling specks on the
horizon. To others she implied such friendly farewells that there was
nothing to do but betake themselves to their saddles. Others had
compromised with the saloon opposite, and their roaring mirth came in
snatches of song and shouts of laughter. She fastened up the little pile
of letters that had remained uncalled for with what seemed a deliberate
slowness. Each time any one entered the room she looked up—then the hope
died hard in her face. Leander came in with catlike tread and removed the
pigeon-holes from the table. The post-office was closed. Family life had
been resumed at the Daxes’.

Judith left the room and stood in the blinding sunlight, basking in it as
if she were cold. The mercury must have stood close to a hundred, and she
was hatless. There was no trace of her ebullient spirits of the morning.
Her head was sunk on her breast and she held her hands with locked fingers
behind her. It was hot, hot as the breaths of a thousand belching
furnaces. A white, burning glare had spread itself from horizon to
horizon, and the earth wrinkled and cracked beneath it. From every corner
of this parched wilderness came an ominous whirring, like the last
wheezing gasp of an alarm-clock before striking the hour. This menacing
orchestration was nothing more or less than millions of grasshoppers
rasping legs and wings together in hoarse appreciation of the heat and
glare; but it had a sound that boded evil. Again and again she turned
towards the yellow road as it dipped over the hills; but there was never a
glimpse of a horseman from that direction.



V


                          The Trail Of Sentiment


Within the house the travellers had disposed themselves in a repressed and
melancholy circle that suggested the suspended animation of a funeral
gathering. The fat lady had turned back her skirt to save her travelling
dress. The stage was late, and there was no good and sufficient reason for
wearing it out. A similar consideration of economy led her to flirt off
flies with her second best pocket-handkerchief. Mrs. Dax presided over the
gathering with awful severity. Every one truckled to her shamefully,
receiving her lightest remarks as if they were to be inscribed on tablets
of bronze. Leander, his eyes bright with excitement at being received in
the family circle on an equal footing, balanced perilously on the edge of
his chair, anticipating dismissal.

"Chugg’s never ben so late as this," said Mrs. Dax, rocking herself
furiously. She strongly resembled one of those mottled chargers of the
nursery whose flaunting nostrils seem forever on the point of sending
forth flame. Leander, the fat lady, and Miss Carmichael meekly murmured
assent and condemnation.

"And there ain’t a sign of him," said Mrs. Dax, returning to the house
after straining the landscape through her all-observant eye, and not
detecting him in any of the remote pin-pricks on the horizon, in which
these plainsfolk invariably decipher a herd of antelope, an elk or two, or
a horseman.

"Bet he had a woman in the stage and upset it with her," said Leander, in
the animated manner of a poor relation currying favor with a bit of news.

Mrs. Dax regarded him severely for a moment, then conspicuously addressed
her next remark to the ladies. "Bet he had a woman in the stage, the old
scoundrel!"

"Wonder who she was?" said Leander, with the sparkling triumph of a poor
relation whose surmise had been accepted. But Mrs. Dax had evidently
decided that Leander had gone far enough.

"Was you expectin’ any of your lady friends by Chugg’s stage that you are
so frettin’ anxious?" she inquired, and the poor relation collapsed
miserably.

"You’ve heard about Chugg’s goin’ on since ’Mountain Pink’ jilted him?"
inquired Mrs. Dax of the fat lady, as the only one of the party who might
have kept abreast with the social chronicles of the neighborhood.

"My land, yes," responded the fat lady, proud to be regarded as socially
cognizant. "M’ son says he’s plumb locoed about it—didn’t want me to
travel by his stage. But I said he dassent upset a woman of my age—he just
nacherally dassent!"

Miss Carmichael, by dint of patient inquiry, finally got the story which
was popularly supposed to account for the misdemeanors of the
stage-driver, including his present delinquency that was delaying them on
their journey.

It appeared that Lemuel Chugg, then writhing in the coils of perverse
romance, was among the last of those famous old stage-drivers whose
talents combined skill at handling the ribbons with the diplomacy
necessary to treat with a masked envoy on the road. His luck in these
encounters was proverbial, and many were the hair-breadth escapes due to
Chugg’s ready wit and quick aim; and, to quote Leander, "while he had been
shot as full of holes as a salt-shaker, there was a lot of fight in the
old man yet."

Chugg had had no loves, no hates, no virtues, no genial vices after the
manner of these frontiersmen. Avarice had warmed the cockles of his heart,
and the fetish he prayed to was an old gray woollen stocking, stuffed so
full of twenty-dollar gold pieces that it presented the bulbous appearance
of the "before treatment" view of a chiropodist’s sign. This darling of
his old age had been waxing fat since Chugg’s earliest manhood. It had
been his only love—till he met Mountain Pink.

Mountain Pink’s husband kept a road-ranch somewhere on Chugg’s
stage-route. She was of a buxom type whose red-and-white complexion had
not yet surrendered to the winds, the biting dust, and the alkali water.
Furthermore, she could "bring about a dried-apple pie" to make a man
forget the cooking of his mother. Great was the havoc wrought by Mountain
Pink’s pies and complexion, but she followed the decorous precedent of
Cæsar’s wife, and, like her pastry, remained above suspicion.

Her husband, whose name was Jim Bosky, seemed, to the self-impanelled jury
that spent its time sitting on the case, singularly insensible to his own
advantages. Not only did he fail to take a proper pride in her beauty, but
there were dark hints abroad that he had never tasted one of her pies.
When delicately questioned on this point, at that stage of liquid
refreshment that makes these little personalities not impossible, Bosky
had grimly quoted the dearth of shoes among shoe-makers’ children.

Whatever were the facts of the case, Mountain Pink got the sympathy that
might have been expected in a section of the country where the ratio of
the sexes is fifty to one. Chugg, eating her pies regularly once a week on
his stage-route, said nothing, but he presented her with a red plush
photograph album with oxidized silver clasps, and by this first reckless
expenditure of money in the life of Chugg, Natrona, Johnson, Converse, and
Sweetwater counties knew that Cupid had at last found a vulnerable spot in
the tough and weather-tanned hide of the old stage-driver.

Nor did Cupid stop here with his pranks. Having inoculated the
stage-driver with the virus of romance, madness began to work in the veins
of Chugg. He presented Mountain Pink with the gray woollen stocking—not
extracting a single coin—and urged her to get a divorce from the clodlike
man who had never appreciated her and marry him.

Mountain Pink coyly took the stocking so generously given for the divorce
and subsequent trousseau, and Chugg continued to drive his stage with an
Apollo-like abandon, whistling love-songs the while.

Coincident with Mountain Pink’s disappearance Dakotaward, in the interests
of freedom, went also one Bob Catlin, a mule-wrangler. Bosky, with
conspicuous pessimism, hoped for the worst from the beginning, and as time
went on and nothing was heard of either of the wanderers, some of Mountain
Pink’s most loyal adherents confessed it looked "romancy." But crusty old
Chugg remained true to his ideal. "She’ll write when she gets good and
ready," and then concluded, loyally, "Maybe she can’t write, nohow," and
nothing could shake his faith.

When Mountain Pink and the mule-wrangler returned as bride and groom and
set up housekeeping on the remainder of Chugg’s stocking, and on his
stage-route, too, so that he had to drive right past the honeymoon cottage
every time he completed the circuit, they lost caste in Carbon County.
Chugg never spoke of the faithlessness of Mountain Pink. His bitterness
found vent in tipping over the stage when his passengers were confined to
members of the former Mrs. Bosky’s sex, and, as Leander said, "the flask
in his innerds held more." And these were the only traces of tragedy in
the life of Lemuel Chugg, stage-driver.

Judith had continued her unquiet pacing in the blinding glare while the
group within doors, somnolent from the heat and the incessant shrilling of
the locusts, droningly discussed the faithlessness of Mountain Pink,
dozed, and took up the thread of the romance. Each time she turned Judith
would stop and scan the yellow road, shading her eyes with her hand, and
each time she had turned away and resumed her walk. Mary, who gave the
postmistress no unstinted share of admiration for the courage with which
she faced her difficulties, and who had been seeking an opportunity to
signify her friendship, and now that she saw the last of the gallants
depart, inquired of Judith if she might join her.

They walked without speaking for several minutes, enjoying a sense of
comradeship hardly in keeping with the brevity of their acquaintance; a
freedom from restraint spared them the necessity of exchanging small-talk,
that frequently irritating toll exacted as tribute to possible friendship.

The desert lay white and palpitating beneath the noonday glare, and from
the outermost rim of desolation came dancing "dust-devils" whirling and
gliding through the mazes of their eerie dance. "I think sometimes," said
Judith, "that they are the ghosts of those who have died of thirst in the
desert."

Mary shuddered imperceptibly. "How do you stand it with never a glimpse of
the sea?"

"You’ll love it, or hate it; the desert is too jealous for half measures.
As for the sea"—Judith shrugged her fine shoulders—"from all I’ve heard of
it, it must be very wet."

Each felt a reticence about broaching the subject uppermost in her
thoughts—Judith from the instinctive tendency towards secretiveness that
was part of the heritage of her Indian blood; Mary because the subject so
closely concerned this girl for whom she felt such genuine admiration.

Judith finally brought up the matter with an abruptness that scarce
concealed her anxiety.

"You saw my brother yesterday at Mrs. Clark’s eating-house; will you be
good enough to tell me just what happened?"

Mary related the incident in detail, Judith cross-examining her minutely
as to the temper of the men at table towards Jim. Did she know if any
cattle-men were present? Did she hear where her brother had gone?

Mary had heard nothing further after he had left the eating-house; the
only one she had talked to had been Mrs. Clark, whose sympathy had been
entirely with Jim. Judith thanked her, but in reality she knew no more now
than she had heard from Major Atkins.

Judith now stopped in their walk and stood facing the road as it rolled
over the foot-hills—a skein of yellow silk glimmering in the sun. Then
Mary saw that the object spinning across it in the distance, hardly bigger
than a doll’s carriage, was the long-delayed stage. She spoke to the
postmistress, but apparently she did not hear—Judith was watching the
nearing stage as if it might bring some message of life and death. She
stood still, and the drooping lines of her figure straightened, every
fibre of her beauty kindled. She was like a flame, paling the sunlight.

And presently was heard the uncouth music of sixteen iron-shod hoofs
beating hard from the earth rhythmic notes which presently grew hollow and
sonorous as they came rattling over the wooden bridge that spanned the
creek.

"Chugg!" exclaimed Leander, rushing to the door in a tumult. There was
something crucial in the arrival of the delayed stage-driver. His
delinquencies had deflected the course of the travellers, left them
stranded in a remote corner of the wilderness; but now they should again
resume the thread of things; Chugg’s coming was an event.

"’Tain’t Chugg, by God!" said Leander, impelled to violent language by the
unexpected.

"It’s Peter Hamilton!" exclaimed Mrs. Dax.

"Land’s sakes, the New-Yorker!" said the fat lady. Only Judith said
nothing.

Mr. Hamilton held the ribbons of that battered prairie-stage as if he had
been driving past the judges’ bench at the Horse Show. Furthermore, he
wore blue overalls, a flannel shirt, and a sombrero, which sartorial
inventory, while it highly became the slim young giant, added an extra
comedy touch to his rôle of whip. He was as dusty as a miller;
close-cropped, curly head, features, and clothes were covered with a fine
alkali powdering; but he carried his youth as a banner streaming in the
blue. And he swung from the stage with the easy flow of muscle that is the
reward of those who live in the saddle and make a fine art of throwing the
lariat.

They greeted him heartily, all but Judith, who did not trust herself to
speak to him before the prying eyes of Mrs. Dax, and escaped to the house.
Chugg’s latest excursion into oblivion had resulted in a fall from the
box. He was not badly hurt, and recuperation was largely a matter of
"sleeping it off," concluded Peter Hamilton’s bulletin of the condition of
the stage-driver. So the travellers were still marooned at Dax’s, and the
prospect of continuing their journey was as vague as ever.

"Last I heard of you," said Mrs. Dax to Hamilton, with a sort of stone-age
playfulness, "you was punching cows over to the Bitter Root."

"That’s true, Mrs. Dax"—he gave her his most winning smile—"but I could
not stay away from you long."

Leander grimaced and rubbed his hands in an ecstasy of delight at finding
a man who had the temerity to bandy words with Mrs. Dax.

"Hum-m-m-ph!" she whinnied, with equine coquetry. "Guess it was rustlers
brought you back as much as me."

Judith, who had entered the room in time to hear Mrs. Dax’s last remark,
greeted him casually, but her eyes, as they met his, were full of
questioning fear. Had he come from the Bitter Root range to hunt down her
brother? The thought was intolerable. Yet, when he had bade her good-bye
some three weeks ago, he had told her that he did not expect to return
much before the fall "round-up." She had heard, a day or two before, that
he was again in the Wind River country, and her morning vigil beneath the
glare of the desert sun had been for him.

Mrs. Dax regarded them with the mercilessness of a death-watch; she
remembered the time when Hamilton’s excuses for his frequent presence at
the post-office had been more voluble than logical. But now he no longer
came, and Judith, for all her deliberate flow of spirits, did not quite
convince the watchful eyes of Leander’s lady—the postmistress was a trifle
too cheerful.

"Mrs. Dax," pleaded Peter, boyishly, "I’m perishing for a cup of coffee,
and I’ve got to get back to my outfit before dark."

"Oh, go on with you," whinnied the gorgon; but she left the room to make
the coffee.

Judith’s eyes sought his. "Why don’t you and Leander form a coalition for
the overthrow of the enemy?" His voice had dropped a tone lower than in
his parley with Mrs. Dax; it might have implied special devotion, or it
might have implied but the passing tribute to a beautiful woman in a
country where women were few—the generic admiration of all men for all
women, ephemerally specialized by place and circumstance.

But Judith, harassed at every turn, heart-sick with anxiety, had
anticipated in Peter’s coming, if not a solution of her troubles, at least
some evidence of sustaining sympathy, and was in no mood for resuscitating
the perennial pleasantries anent Leander and his masterful lady.

The shrilling of the locusts emphasized their silence. She spoke to him
casually of his change of plan, but he turned the subject, and Judith let
the matter drop. She was too simple a woman to stoop to oblique measures
for the gaining of her own ends. If he was here to hunt down her brother,
if he was here to see the Eastern woman at the Wetmore ranch—well, "life
was life," to be taken or left. Thus spoke the fatalism that was the
heritage of her Indian blood.

The thought of Miss Colebrooke at Wetmore’s reminded her of a letter for
Peter that had been brought that morning by one of the Wetmore cow-boys.

"I forgot—there’s a letter for you." She went to the pigeon-holes on the
wall that held the flotsam and jetsam of unclaimed mail, and brought him a
square, blue linen envelope—distinctly a lady’s letter.

Peter took it with rather a forced air of magnanimity, as if in neglecting
to present it to him sooner she drew heavily on his reserve of patience.
Tearing open the envelope, he read it voraciously, read it to the
exclusion of his surroundings, the world at large, and—Judith. He strode
up and down the floor two or three times, and called to Leander, who was
passing:

"Dax, I must have that gray mare of yours right away." He went in the
direction of the stable, without a second glance at the postmistress, and
presently they saw him galloping off in the opposite direction from which
he had come. Mrs. Dax came in with a tray on which were a pot of coffee
and sundry substantial delicacies.

"Where’s he gone?" she demanded, putting the tray down so hard that the
coffee slopped.

"I dunno," said Leander. "He said he’d got to have the gray mare, saddled
her hisself, and rode off like hell."

Mrs. Dax looked at them all savagely for the explanation that they could
not give. In sending her out to make coffee she felt that Peter, whom she
regarded in the light of a weakness, had taken advantage of her affections
to dupe her in regard to his plans.

"Take them things back to the kitchen," she commanded Leander.

Mary Carmichael involuntarily glanced at Judith; the fall of the leaf was
in her cheek.

Peter Hamilton, bowed in his saddle and flogging forward inhumanely, bred
rife speculation as to his destination among the group that watched him
from the Daxes’ front door. Mrs. Dax, who entertained so profound a
respect for her own omniscience that she disdained to arrive at a
conclusion by a logical process of deduction, was "plumb certain that he
had gone after ’rustlers!’" Leander, who had held no opinions since his
marriage except that first and all-comprehensive tenet of his creed—that
his wife was a person to be loved, honored, and obeyed instantly—agreed
with his lady by a process of reflex action. The fat lady, who had a
commonplace for every occasion, didn’t "know what we were all coming to."
Miss Carmichael, who was beginning to find her capacity for amazement
overstrained, alone accepted this last incident with apathy. Mr. Hamilton
might have gone in swift pursuit of cattle thieves or he might be riding
the mare to death for pure whimsy. Only Judith Rodney, who said nothing,
felt that he was spurring across the wilderness at breakneck speed to see
a girl at Wetmore’s. But her lack of comment caused no ripple of surprise
in the flow of loose-lipped speculation that served, for the time being,
to inject a casual interest into the talk of these folk, bored to the
verge of demoralization by long waiting for Chugg.

Judith preferred to confirm her apprehensions regarding Hamilton’s ride,
alone. She knew—had not all her woman’s intuitions risen in clamorous
warning—and yet she hoped, hoped despairingly, even though the dread
alternative to the girl at the Wetmore ranch threatened lynch law for her
brother. Her very gait changed as she withdrew from the group about the
door, covertly gaining her vantage-ground inch by inch. The heels of her
riding-boots made no sound as she stole across the kitchen floor, toeing
in like an Indian tracking an enemy through the forest. The small window
at the back of the kitchen commanded a view of the road in all its
sprawling circumlocution. Seen from this prospect, it had no more design
than the idle scrawlings of a child on a bit of paper; but the choice of
roads to Good and Evil was not fraught with more momentous consequences
than was each prong of that fork towards which Hamilton was galloping.

The right arm swung towards the Wetmore ranch, where at certain times
during the course of the year a hundred cow-punchers reported on the stock
that grazed in four States. At certain seasons, likewise, despite the fact
that the ranch was well into the foot-hill country, there might be found a
New York family playing at life primeval with the co-operation of
porcelain bath-tubs, a French _chef_, and electric light.

The left fork of the road had a meaner destiny. It dipped straight into
desolation, penetrating a naked wilderness where bad men skulked till the
evil they had done was forgotten in deeds that called afresh to Heaven for
vengeance. It was well away on this west fork of the road that they
lynched Kate Watson—"Cattle Kate"—for the crime of loyalty. It was she,
intrepid and reckless, who threatened the horde of masked scoundrels when
they came to lynch her man for the iniquity of raising a few vegetables on
a strip of ground that cut into their grazing country. And when she,
recognizing them, masked though they were, threatened them with the
vengeance of the law, they hanged her with her man high as Haman.

Judith watched Hamilton with narrowing eyes. And now she was all Indian,
the white woman in her dead. Only the Sioux watched, and, in the patient,
Indian style, bided its time. "Cattle thieves," "the girl at
Wetmore’s"—the words sang themselves in her head like an incantation.
"Cattle thieves" meant her brother, their recognized leader—her brother,
who was dearer to her than the heart in her breast, the eye in her head,
the right hand that held together the shambling, uncertain destiny of her
people. Would he turn to the left, Justice, on a pale horse, hunting her
brother gallowsward? Would he turn towards the right, the impetuous lover
spurring his steed that he might come swiftly to the woman. A pulse in her
bosom rose slowly until her breath was suspended, then fell again; she was
still watching, without an outward quiver, long after he had turned to the
right—and the woman.



VI


                         A Daughter Of The Desert


Judith knew that the name of the girl whose letter sent Peter Hamilton
vaulting to the saddle was Katherine Colebrooke. There had been a deal of
letter-writing between her and the young cow-puncher of late, of which
perforce, by a singular irony of fate, the postmistress had been the
involuntary instrument. The correspondence had followed a recent hasty
journey to New York, undertaken somewhat unwillingly by Hamilton in the
interest of certain affairs connected with the settlement of an estate.

The precipitancy of this latest turn of events bewildered Judith; but yet
a little while—a matter of weeks and days—and her friendship with Hamilton
had been of that pleasantly indefinite estate situated somewhere on the
borderland of romance, a kingdom where there is no law but the mutual
interest of the wayfarers. Judith and Peter had been pitifully new at the
game of life when the gods vouchsafed them the equivocal blessing of
propinquity. Judith was but lately come from the convent at Santa Fé, and
Hamilton from the university whose honors availed him little in the
trailing of cattle over the range or in the sweat and tumult of the
branding-pen. It was a strange election of opportunity for a man who had
been class poet and had rather conspicuously avoided athletics during his
entire college course. In pursuing fortune westward Hamilton did not lack
for chroniclers who would not have missed a good story for the want of an
authentic dramatic interpretation of his plans. His uncle, said they, who
had put him through college, was disposed to let him sink or swim by his
own efforts; or, again, he had quarrelled with this same omnipotent uncle
and walked from his presence with no prospects but those within grasp of
his own hand. Again, he had taken the negative of a fair lady more to
heart than two-and-twenty is in the habit of taking negatives. Peter made
no confidences. He went West to punch cows for the Wetmore outfit; he was
a distant connection of the Wetmores through his mother’s side of the
family.

In those days Peter wore his rue—whether for lady fair or for towering
prospects stricken down—with a tinge of wan melancholy not unbecoming to a
gentle aquilinity of profile, softened by the grace of adolescence. His
instinctive aristocracy of manners and taste would have availed him little
with his new associates had he been a whit less manly. But as he shirked
no part of the universal hardship, they left him his reticence. He even
came to enjoy a sort of remote popularity as one who was conversant with
the best—a nonchalant social connoisseur—yet who realized the stern
primitive beauties of the range life.

Judith’s convent upbringing had conferred on her the doubtful advantage of
a gentlewoman’s tastes and bearing, making of her, therefore, an alien in
her father’s house. When Mrs. Atkins, who was responsible for her
education, realized the equivocal good of these things, and saw moreover
that the girl had grown to be a beauty, she offered to adopt her; but
Judith, with the pitiful heroism of youth that understands little of what
it is renouncing, thought herself strong enough to hold together a family,
uncertain of purpose as quicksilver.

In those tragic days of readjustment came Peter Hamilton, as strange to
the bald conditions of frontier life as the girl herself. From the
beginning there had been between them the barrier of circumstance.
Hamilton was poor, Judith the mainstay of a household whose thriftlessness
had become a proverb. He came of a family that numbered a signer of the
Declaration of Independence, a famous chief-justice, and the dean of a
great university; Judith was uncertain of her right to the very name she
bore. And yet they were young, he a man, she a woman—eternal fountain of
interest. A precocious sense of the fitness of things was the compass that
enabled Peter to steer through the deep waters in the years that followed.
But the girl paid the penalty of her great heart; in that troublous sea of
friendship, she was soon adrift without rudder, sail, or compass.

Judith was now eight-and-twenty, and a sculptor would have found a hundred
statues in her. Long of limb, deep-bosomed, youth and health radiated from
her as sparks fly upward. In sunlight, her black hair had the bluish
iridescence of a ripe plum. The eyes were deep and questioning—the eyes of
a young seraph whose wings had not yet brushed the far distant heights of
paradise. Again, in her pagan gladness of living, she might have been a
Valkyr come down from Valhalla on a shooting-star. And yet, in this
wilderness that was famishing for woman’s love and tears and laughter, by
a very perversity of fate she walked alone.

She was a true daughter of the desert, the child of stark, unlovely
circumstance. No well-bred romance of book and bells and churchly
benediction had ushered her into being. Her maternal grandfather had been
the famous Sioux chief, Flying Hawk; her grandmother, a white woman, who
knew no word of her people’s tongue, nor yet her name or race. The Indians
found the white baby sleeping by her dead mother after the massacre of an
emigrant train. They took her with them and she grew up, in the Black Hill
country, a white-skinned Sioux, marrying a chief of the people that had
slain her people. She accepted her squaw’s portion uncomplainingly; slaved
cheerfully at squaw’s work while her brave made war on the whites, hunted,
and smoked. She reared her half-breed children in the legends of their
father’s people, and died, a withered crone, cursing the pale-faces who
had robbed the Sioux of the buffalo and their hunting-ground.

Her daughter, Singing Stream, who knew no word of English, but who could
do better bead-work than any squaw in the tribe, went to live with Warren
Rodney when he finished his cabin on Elder Creek. That was before the gold
fever reached the Black Hills, and Rodney built the cabin that he might
fish and hunt and forget the East and why he left it. There were reasons
why he wanted to forget his identity as a white man in his play at being
an Indian. In the first flare of youth and the joy of having come into her
woman’s kingdom, the half-breed squaw was pretty; she was proud, too, of
her white man, the house he had built her, and the girl pappoose with blue
eyes. Furthermore, she had been taught to serve man meekly, for he was the
lord of creation.

Rodney talked Sioux to her. He had all but forgotten he was a white man.
The girl pappoose ran about the cabin, brown and bare, but for the bead
jacket Singing Stream had made for her in the pride of her maternity.
Rodney called the little girl "Judith." Her Indian mother never guessed
the significance of the strange name that she could not say, but made at
least ten soft singing syllables of, in the Indian way. The little Judith
greeted her father in strange lispings; Warren Rodney was far from unhappy
in playing at primitive man. This recessional into conditions primeval
endured for "seven snows," as the Indian tongue hath it. Then the squaw
began to break, after the manner of the women of her father’s people. She
had begun her race with time a decade after Warren Rodney, and she had
outdistanced him by a decade.

And then the Tumlins came from Tennessee to the Black Hills. They came in
an ox-cart, and the days of their journey were more than two years. They
had stopped in Ohio, and again in Illinois; and, behold! neither was the
promised land, the land that their excited imaginations had painted from
the large talk of returning travellers, and that was further glorified
through their own thriftless discontent with conditions at home. They had
travelled on and on across half a continent in the wake of a vanishing
sky-line. The vague westward impulse was luring them to California, but
they waited in Dakota that their starved stock might fatten, and while
they rested themselves from the long journey, Warren Rodney made the
acquaintance of Sally Tumlin, who rallied him on being a "squaw man."

Warren Rodney had almost forgotten the sorceries of the women of his
people; he had lived so long with a brown woman, who spread no silken
snares. Sally’s blushes stirred a multitude of dead things—the wiles of
pale women, all strength in weakness, fragile flowers for tender
handling—the squaw had grown as withered as a raisin.

Now, Sally Tumlin had no convictions about life but that the world owed
her "a home of her own." Her mother had forged the bolt of this particular
maxim at an early date. And Sally saw from precocious observation that the
business of women was home-getting, to which end they must be neat and
sweet and sparing of speech. After the home was forthcoming, then, indeed,
might a woman take ease in slippers and wrapper, and it is surely a wife’s
privilege to speak her mind. Sally knew that she hated travelling westward
after the crawling oxen; each day the sun pursued them, caught up with
them, outdistanced them, and at night left them stranded in the
wilderness, and rose again and mocked them on the morrow. Her father and
oafish brother loved the makeshifts of the wagon life, with its chance
shots at fleeing antelope, scurrying sage-hens, and bounding cotton-tails;
a chance parley with a stray Indian but added zest to the game of chance.
But Sally hated it all. The cabin on Elder Creek had a tight roof; Warren
Rodney had money in the bank. He had had uncommon luck at trapping. His
talk to Sally was largely of his prospects.

Sally knew that the world owed her "a home of her own"; and why should she
let a squaw keep her from it? Sally’s mother giggled when consulted. She
plainly regarded the squaw as a rival of her daughter. The ethics of the
case, as far as Mrs. Tumlin was concerned, was merely a question of white
skin against brown, and which should carry the day. Singing Stream knew
not one word of the talk, much of which occurred in her very presence,
that threatened to pull her home about her ears, but she knew that Sally
was taking her man from her. The white-skinned woman wore white ruffles
about her neck and calico dresses that were the color of the wild roses
that grew among the willows at the creek. Sally Tumlin’s pink calico gowns
sowed a crop of nettles in the mind of the squaw. It was the rainbow
things, she felt, that were robbing her of her man. All her barbaric
craving for glowing colors asserted itself as a means towards the one
great end of keeping him. Singing Stream began to scheme schemes. One day
Rodney was splitting wood at the Tumlin camp—though why he should split
wood where there were two women puzzled the squaw. But the ways of the
pale-faces were beyond her ken. She only knew that she must make herself
beautiful in the eyes of Warren Rodney, like this devil woman, and then
perhaps the pappoose that she expected with the first snowfall would be a
man-child; and she hoped great things of this happening.

With such primitive reasoning did Singing Stream put the horses to the
light wagon, and, taking the little Judith with her, drove to Deadwood, a
matter of two hundred miles, to buy the bright calicoes that were to make
her like a white woman. It never occurred to the half-breed woman to make
known her plans to Warren Rodney. In circumventing Sally Tumlin the man
became the spoils of war, and it is not the Indian way to tell plans on
the war-trail. So the squaw left her kingdom in the hands of the enemy,
without a word.

Sally Tumlin and Warren Rodney looked upon the disappearance of the squaw
in the light of a providential solution of the difficulties attending
their romance. They admitted it was square of her to "hit the trail," and
they decided to lose no time in going to the army post, where a chaplain,
an Indian missionary, happened to be staying at the time, and have a real
wedding, with a ring and a fee to the parson. The wedding party started
for the post, old mother Tumlin fluttering about the bride as complacently
as if the ceremony had been the culmination of the most decorous
courtship. The oafish brother drove the bridal party, making crude jests
by-the-way, to the frank delight of the prospective groom and the giggling
protestations of the bride. The chaplain at the post was disposed to ask
few questions. Parsons made queer marriages in those tumultuous days, and
it was regarded as a patent of worthy motives that the pair should call in
the man of the gospel at all. To the question whether or not he had been
married before, Rodney answered:

"Well, parson, this is the first time I have ever stood up for a life
sentence." And the ceremony proceeded.

Some of the ladies at the post, hearing that there was to be a wedding,
dropped in and added their smiles and flutterings to the rather grim
party; among them, Mrs. Atkins, who had just come to the post as a bride.
They even added a trifle or two from their own store of pretty things, as
presents to Sally. And Miss Tumlin left the post Mrs. Warren Rodney, with
"a home of her own" to go to.

Singing Stream did not hasten in her quest for bright fabrics with which
to stay the hand of fate. To the half-breed woman the journey to town was
not without a certain revivifying pleasure. The Indian in her stirred to
the call of the open country. The tight roof to the cabin on Elder Creek
had not the attractions for her that it had for Sally Tumlin. She had
chafed sometimes at a house with four walls. But now the dead and gone
braves rose in her as she followed the old trail where they had so often
crept to battle against their old enemies, the Crows, before the white
man’s army had scattered them. And as she drove through the foot-hill
country, she told the solemn-eyed little Judith the story of the Sioux,
and what a great fighting people they had been before Rodney’s people
drove them from their land. Judith was holding a doll dressed exactly like
herself, in soft buckskin shirt, little trousers, and moccasins, all
beautifully beaded. In her turn she told the story to the doll.

Singing Stream told her daughter of the making of the world, as the Sioux
believe the story of creation; of the "Four who Never Die"—Sharper, or
Bladder, Rabbit, Turtle, and Monster; likewise of the coming of a mighty
flood on which swam the Turtle and a water-fowl in whose bill was the
earth atom, from which presently the world began to grow, Turtle
supporting the bird on his great back, which was hard like rock. The rest
of the myth, that deals with the rising and setting of the sun, Singing
Stream could not tell her daughter, as the old Sioux chiefs did not think
it wise to let their women folk know too much about matters of theology.
Nor did they relate to squaws the sun myth, with its account of much
cutting-off of heads—thinking, perhaps, with wisdom, that these good
ladies saw enough of carnage in their every-day life without introducing
it into their catechism.

But Singing Stream knew the story of "Sharper," or "Bladder," as he is
called by some of the people, because he is round and his grotesquely fat
figure resembles a bladder blown to bursting. Bladder’s province it is to
make a fool of himself, diving into water after plums he sees reflected
there from the branches of the trees. He dives again and again in his
pursuit of folly, even tying stones to his wrists and ankles to keep
himself down while he gathers the reflected fruit. After his rescue, which
he fights against valiantly, as he lies gasping on the bank of the stream,
he sees the fruit on the branches above his head. It is this same Bladder
who is one of the _dramatis personæ_ in the moon myth, and that is told to
women as safely without the limits of that little learning that is a
dangerous thing. Bladder met Rabbit hunting; and Bladder kept throwing his
eye up into the tree-tops to look for game. The Rabbit watched him
enviously, thinking what a saving of effort it would be if he could do the
same thing. Wherefore Bladder promised to instruct him, telling him to
change eyes after using one four times, but Rabbit did not think that the
first time counted, as that was but a trial. So he lost his eye after
throwing it up the fifth time. And the eye of the rabbit is the moon, and
the face seen in the full moon is the reflection of the rabbit seen in his
own eye as we see ourselves reflected in the eye of a friend if we look
closely. The little girl was wonderfully impressed. She put her hand to
her own eyes, but they were in tight, too tight to throw up to the
tree-tops.

Singing Stream also told little Judith that the Great Mystery had shown
truths, hid to man, to the trees, the streams, the hills; and the clouds
that shaped themselves, drifting hither and yon, were the Great Mystery’s
passing thoughts. But he had deprived all these things of speech, as he
did not trust them fully, and they could only speak to man in dreams, or
in some passing mood, when they could communicate to him the feeling of
one of the Great Spirits, and warn man of what was about to befall him.
Judith was not quite four when she took this memorable drive with her
mother, but the impression of these things abided through all her years.
It was to the measureless spaces of desert loneliness that she learned to
bring her sorrows in the days of her arid youth, and to feel a kinship
with all its moods and to hear in the voice of its silence a never-failing
consolation.

And when they had come within a mile of Warren Rodney’s cabin on Elder
Creek, Singing Stream halted and prepared for the great event of
reinstatement. First she made a splendid toilet of purple calico torn into
strips and tied about the waist to simulate the skirts of the devil woman.
Over these she wore a shirt of buckskin, broidered with beads of many
colors, and a necklace of elk teeth, wound twice about the throat. On her
feet she wore new moccasins of tanned elk-hide, and these, too, were
beaded in many colors. Her hair, now braided with strips of scarlet
flannel, hung below the waist. And she walked to Rodney’s cabin, not as an
outgrown mistress, but as the daughter of a chief. The little Judith held
up her head and clung tight to the doll. She knew that something of moment
was about to happen.

The gala trio, Singing Stream, Judith, and Judith’s doll, presented
themselves at Rodney’s house, before which the bride was washing clothes,
the day being fine. Sally, as usual, wore one of the rose-colored calicoes
with the collar turned well in and the sleeves rolled above the elbows.
She washed vigorously, with a steady splashing of suds. Sally enjoyed this
home of her own and all the household duties appertaining to it. She was
singing, and a strand of pale-brown hair, crinkly as sea-weed, had blown
across the rose of her cheek, when she felt rather than saw a shadow fall
across her path, and, glancing up, she saw facing her the woman whom she
had supplanted, and the solemn-eyed little girl holding tight to her doll.
Now, neither woman knew a word of the other’s speech, but Sally was
proficient in the language of femininity, and she was not at a loss to
grasp the significance of the purple calico, the beaded buckskin shirt,
and the necklace of elk teeth. The half-breed walked as a chief’s daughter
to the woman at the tub, and Sally grew sick and chill despite her white
skin and the gold ring that made Warren Rodney her man in the face of the
law. The dark woman held Judith proudly by the hand, as a sovereign might
carry a sceptre. Judith was her staff of office, her emblem of authority
in the house of Warren Rodney.

Singing Stream held out her hands to Sally in a gesture of appeal—and
blundered. Of the chief’s daughter, walking proudly, Sally was afraid; but
a supplicating half-breed in strips of purple calico, not even hemmed, was
a matter for merriment. Sally put her hands on her hips, arms akimbo, and
laughed a dry cackle. The light in the brown woman’s eyes, as she looked
at the white, was like prairie-fires rolling forward through darkness.
There was no need of a common speech between them. The whole destiny of
woman was in the laugh and the look that answered it.

And the man they could have murdered for came from the house, an unheroic
figure with suspenders dangling and a corncob pipe in his mouth, sullen,
angry, and withal abjectly frightened, as mere man inevitably is when he
sniffs a woman’s battle in the air. The bride, at sight of her husband,
took to hysterics. She wept, she laughed, and down tumbled her hair. She
felt the situation demanded a scene. Rodney, with a marital brevity hardly
to be expected so soon, commanded Sally to go into the house and to "shut
up."

Then he faced Singing Stream and said to her in her own language: "You
must go away from here. The pale-faced woman is my wife by the white man’s
law—ring and Bible. No Indian marriage about this."

But the brown woman only pointed to Judith. She asked Rodney had she not
been a good squaw to him.

And Rodney, who at best was but a poltroon, could only repeat: "You got to
keep away from here. It’s the white man’s law—one squaw for one man."

From within came the sound of Sally’s lamentation as she called for her
father and brother to take her from the squaw and contamination. Warren
Rodney was a man of few words. It had become his unpleasant duty to act,
and to act quickly. He snatched Judith from her mother and took her into
the house, and he returned with his Winchester, which was not loaded, to
Singing Stream.

"You got to go," he said, and levelling the Winchester, he repeated the
command. Singing Stream looked at him with the dumb wonder of a forest
thing. "I was a good squaw to you," she said; and did not even curse him.
And turning, she ran towards the foot-hills, with all the length of purple
calico trailing.

Now Mrs. Rodney, _née_ Tumlin, was but human, and her cup of happiness as
the wife of a "squaw man" was not the brimming beaker she had anticipated.
The expulsion of her predecessor, at such a time, to make room for her own
home-coming, was, it seemed, open to criticism. "The neighborhood"—it
included perhaps five families living in a radius of as many hundred
miles—felt that the Tumlins had established a bad precedent. A "squaw man"
driving out a brown wife to make room for a white is not a heroic figure.
It had been done before, but it would not hand down well in the traditions
of the settling of this great country. Trespass of law and order, with
their swift, red-handed reckoning, were but moves of the great game of
colonization. But to shove out a brown woman for a white was a mean move.
Few stopped at the Rodneys’ ranch, though it marked the first break in the
journey from town to the gold-mining country. Rodney had fallen from his
estate as a pioneer; his political opinions were unsought in the conclaves
that sat and spat at the stove, when business brought them to the joint
saloon and post-office. The women dealt with the question more openly,
scorning feminine subtlety at this pass as inadequate ammunition. When
they met Mrs. Rodney they pulled aside their skirts and glared. This
outrage against woman it was woman’s work to settle.

Mrs. Rodney, who had no more moral sense than a rabbit, felt that she was
the victim of persecution. She knew she was a good woman. Hadn’t she a
husband? Had there ever been a word against her character? What was the
use of making all that fuss over a squaw? It was not as if she was a white
woman. The injustice of it preyed on the former Miss Tumlin. She took to
the consolations of snuff-dipping and fell from her pink-and-white estate.

The Tumlin family did not remain long enough in the Black Hill country to
witness Sally’s failure as the wife of a pioneer. The restlessness of the
"settler," if the paradox be permissible, was in the marrow of their
bones. The makeshifts of the wagon, the adventures of the road, were the
only home they craved. The spring after Sally’s marriage they set forth
for California, the year following for New Mexico, and still sighed for
new worlds to visit. They were happier now that Sally, the one element of
discontent, had been removed from their perennial journeying by the
merciful dispensation of marriage. Old Tumlin, his wife, and the son gave
themselves up more than ever to the day-dreams of the road, the freedom of
the open country, and the spirit of adventure.

Rodney’s squaw wife was taken in by some neighbors, good folk who were
conversant with all phases of the romance. They stood by her in her hour
of trial, and afterwards continued to keep her as a servant. Her son Jim
grew up with their own children. When he was four years of age his mother,
Singing Stream, died, and Sally persuaded her husband to take young Jim
into their own home, partly as a sop to neighborly criticism, partly as a
salve to her own conscience. Sally had children of her own, and looked at
things differently now from the time when she fought the squaw for
Rodney’s favor.

Jim’s foster-parents were, in truth, glad to part with him. From his
earliest babyhood he had been known as a "limb of Satan." He was an
Ishmael by every instinct of his being. And Mrs. Warren Rodney, _née_
Tumlin, felt that in dealing with him, in her capacity of step-mother, she
daily expiated any offence that she might have done to his mother.

Sally grew slatternly with increasing maternity. She spent her time in a
rocking-chair, dipping snuff—a consolation imported from her former
home—and lamenting the bad marriage she had made. Rodney ascribed his
ill-fortune to unjust neighborly criticism. He farmed a little, he raised
a little stock, and he drank a great deal of whiskey. Sally hated the
Black Hill country. She felt that it knew too much about her. The
neighborly inquisition had fallen like a blight on the family fortunes. A
vague migratory impulse was on her. She wanted to go somewhere and begin
all over again. By dint of persistent nagging she persuaded her husband to
move to Wyoming, then in the golden age of the cattle industry. Those were
days when steers, to speak in the cow language, had "jumped to
seventy-five." The wilderness grew light-headed with prosperity. Wonderful
are the tales still told about those fat years in cattle-land. It was in
those halcyon days of the Cheyenne Club that the members rode from the
range, white with the dust of the desert, to enjoy greater luxuries than
those procurable at their clubs in New York.

Nor was it all feasting and merrymaking. A heroic band it was that battled
with the wilderness, riding the range with heat and cold, starvation and
death, and making small pin-pricks in that empty blotch of the United
States map that is marked "Great Alkali Desert" blossom into settlements.
When the last word has been said about the pioneers of these United
States, let the cow-boy be remembered in the universal toast, that bronzed
son of the saddle who lived his little day bravely and merrily, and whose
real heroism is too often forgotten in the glamour of his own
picturesqueness.

Judith was ten years old when her father, his wife, and their children
moved from Dakota—they were not so particular about North and South
Dakota, in those days—to take up a claim on Sweetwater, Wyoming. Judith
gave scant promise of the beauty that in later life became at once her
dower and her misfortune, that which was as likely to bring wretchedness
as happiness. In Wyoming she was destined to find an old friend, Mrs.
Atkins, who, as the bride of the young lieutenant, had been present at the
marriage of Sally Tumlin and Warren Rodney, and who had always felt a
wholly unreasonable sense of guilt at witnessing the ceremony and
contributing a lace handkerchief to the bride. Her husband, now Major
Atkins, was stationed at Fort Washakie, Wyoming. Mrs. Atkins happening
again on the Rodney family, and her husband having increased and
multiplied his army pay many times over by a successful venture in cattle,
the scheme of Judith’s convent education was put through by the major’s
wife, who had kept her New England conscience, the discomforts of frontier
posts notwithstanding.

So Judith went to the nuns to school, and stayed with them till she was
eighteen. Mrs. Atkins would have adopted her then; but Judith by this time
knew her family history in all its sordid ramifications, and felt that
duty called her to her brother, who had not improved his unfortunate start
in life, though his step-mother did not spoil him for the staying of the
rod.



VII


                         Chugg Takes The Ribbons


Chugg, comforted with liquids and stayed with a head-plaster, presented
himself at the Dax ranch just twenty-four hours after he was due. His mien
combined vagueness with hostility, and he harnessed up the stage that
Peter Hamilton had driven over the day before, when his prospective
passengers were looking, with a graphic pantomimic representation of "take
it or leave it." Under the circumstances, Miss Carmichael and the fat lady
consented to be passengers with much the same feeling of finality that one
might have on embarking for the planet Mars in an air-ship.

There was, furthermore, a suggestion of last rites in the farewells of the
Daxes, each according to their respective personalities, that was far from
reassuring.

"Here’s some bread and meat and a bottle of cold coffee, if you live to
need it," was Mrs. Dax’s grim prognostication of accident. Leander, being
of an emotional nature, could scarce restrain his tears—the advent of the
travellers had created a welcome variation in the monotony of his dutiful
routine—he felt all the agitation of parting with life-long friends. Mary
Carmichael and Judith promised to write—they had found a great deal to say
to each other the preceding evening.

Chugg cracked his whip ominously, the travellers got inside, not daring to
trust themselves to the box.

The journey with the misanthrope was but a repetition of that first day’s
staging—the sage-brush was scarcer, the mountains seemed as far off as
ever, and the outlook was, if possible, more desolate. The entry in Miss
Carmichael’s diary, inscribed in malformed characters as the stage jolted
over ruts and gullies, reads: "I do not mind telling you, in strictest
confidence, ’Dere Diary’—as the little boy called you—that when I so
lightly severed my connection with civilization, I had no idea to what an
extent I was going in for the prairie primeval. How on earth does a woman
who can write a letter like Mrs. Yellett stand it? And where on the map of
North America is Lost Trail?"

"Land sakes!" regretted the fat lady, "but I do wish I had a piece of that
’boy’s favorite’ cake that I had for my lunch the day we left town. I just
ate and ate it ’cause I hadn’t another thing to do. If I hadn’t been so
greedy I could offer him a piece, just to show him that some women folk
have kind hearts, and that the whole sect ain’t like that Pink."

"Boy’s favorite," as adequate compensation for shattered ideals, a broken
heart, and the savings of a lifetime, seemed to Mary Carmichael inadequate
compensation, but she forbore to express her sentiments.

The fat lady had never relaxed her gaze from Chugg’s back since the stage
had started. She peered at that broad expanse of flannel shirt through the
tiny round window, like a careful sailing-master sweeping the horizon for
possible storm-clouds. At every portion of the road presenting a steep
decline she would prod Chugg in the back with the handle of her ample
umbrella, and demand that he let her out, as she preferred walking. The
stage-driver at first complied with these requests, but when he saw they
threatened to become chronic, he would send his team galloping down grade
at a rate to justify her liveliest fears.

"Do you think you are a-picnicking, that you crave roominating round these
yere solitoodes?" And the misanthrope cracked his whip and adjured his
team with cabalistic imprecations.

"Did you notice if Mrs. Dax giv’ him any cold coffee, same as she did us?"
anxiously inquired the fat lady from her lookout.

Mary hadn’t noticed.

"He’s drinking something out of a brown bottle—seems to relish it a heep
more’n he would cold coffee," reported the watch. "Hi there! Hi! Mr.
Chugg!" The stage-driver, thinking it was merely a request to be allowed
to walk, continued to drive with one hand and hold the brown bottle with
the other. But even his too solid flesh was not proof against the
continued bombardment of the umbrella handle.

"Um-m-m," he grunted savagely, applying a watery eye to the round window.

"Nothing," answered the fat lady, quite satisfied at having her worst
fears confirmed.

Chugg returned to his driving, as one not above the weakness of seeing and
hearing things.

"’Tain’t coffee."

"Could you smell it?" questioned Mary, anxiously.

"You never can tell that way, when they are plumb pickled in it, like
him."

"Then how did you know it wasn’t coffee?"

"His eyes had fresh watered."

Mary collapsed under this expert testimony. "What are we going to do about
it?"

"Appeal to him as a gentleman," said the fat lady, not without dramatic
intonation.

"You appeal," counselled Mary; "I saw him look at you admiringly when you
were walking down that steep grade."

"Is that so?" said the fat lady, with a conspicuous lack of incredulity;
and she put her hand involuntarily to her frizzes.

This time she did not trust to the umbrella-handle as a medium of
communication between the stage-driver and herself. Putting her hand
through the port-hole she grasped Chugg’s arm—the bottle arm—with no
uncertain grip.

"Why, Mr. Chugg, this yere place is getting to be a regular summer resort;
think of two ladies trusting themselves to your protection and travelling
out over this great lonesome desert."

Chugg’s mind, still submerged in local Lethe waters, grappled in silence
with the problem of the feminine invasion, and then he muttered to himself
rather than to the fat lady, "Nowhere’s safe from ’em; women and
house-flies is universally prevailing."

The fat lady dropped his arm as if it had been a brand. "He’s no
gentleman. As for Mountain Pink, she was drove to it."

All that day they toiled over sand and sage-brush; the sun hung like a
molten disk, paling the blue of the sky; the grasshoppers kept up their
shrill chirping—and the loneliness of that sun-scorched waste became a
tangible thing.

Chugg sipped and sipped, and sometimes swore and sometimes muttered, and
as the day wore on his driving not only became a challenge to the
endurance of the horses, but to the laws of gravitation. He lashed them up
and down grade, he drove perilously close to shelving declivities, and
sometimes he sang, with maudlin mournfulness:

  "’Oh, bury me not on the lone prairie.’
  The words came low and mournfully
  From the cold, pale lips of a youth who lay
  On his dying couch at the close of day."

The fat lady reminded him that he was a gentleman and that he was driving
ladies; she threatened him with her son on Sweetwater, who began, in the
maternal chronicles, by being six feet in his stockings, and who steadily
grew, as the scale of threats increased, till he reached the altitude of
six feet four, growing hourly in height and fierceness.

But Chugg gave no heed, and once he sang the "Ballad of the Mule-Skinner,"
with what seemed to both terrified passengers an awful warning of their
overthrow:

  "As I was going down the road,
  With a tired team and a heavy load,
  I cracked my whip and the leaders sprung—
  The fifth chain broke, and the wheelers hung,
  The off-horse stepped on the wagon tongue—"

This harrowing ballad was repeated with accompanying Delsarte at intervals
during the afternoon, but as Mary and the fat lady managed to escape
without accident, they began to feel that they bore charmed lives.

At sundown they came to the road-ranch of Johnnie Dax, bearing Leander’s
compliments as a secret despatch. The outward aspect of the place was
certainly an awful warning to trustful bachelors who make acquaintances
through the columns of _The Heart and Hand_. The house stood solitary in
that scourge of desolation. The windows and doors gaped wide like the
unclosed eyes of a dead man on a battle-field. Chugg halloed, and an old
white horse put his head out of the door, shook it upward as if in assent,
then trotted off.

"That’s Jerry, and he’s the intelligentest animal I ever see," remarked
the stage-driver, sobering up to Jerry’s good qualities, and presently
Johnnie Dax and the white horse appeared together from around the corner
of the house.

This Mr. Dax was almost an exact replica of the other, even to the
apologetic crook in the knees and a certain furtive way of glancing over
the shoulder as if anticipating missiles.

"Pshaw now, ladies! why didn’t you let me know that you was coming? and
I’d have tidied up the place and organized a few dried-apple pies."

"Good house-keepers don’t wait for company to come before they get to
their work," rebukefully commented the fat lady.

Mr. Dax, recognizing the voice of authority, seized a towel and began to
beat out flies, chickens, and dogs, who left the premises with the ill
grace of old residents. Two hogs, dormant, guarded either side of the
door-step and refused so absolutely to be disturbed by the flicking of the
towel that one was tempted to look twice to assure himself that they were
not the fruits of the sculptor’s chisel.

"Where’s your wife?" sternly demanded the fat lady.

"Oh, my Lord! I presume she’s dancin’ a whole lot over to Ervay. She
packed her ball-gown in a gripsack and lit out of here two days ago,
p’inting that way. A locomotive couldn’t stop her none if she got a chance
to go cycloning round a dance."

In the mean time, the two hogs having failed to grasp the fact that they
were _de trop_, continued to doze.

"Come, girls, get up," coaxed Johnnie, persuasively. "Maude, I don’t know
when I see you so lazy. Run on, honey—run on with Ethel." For Ethel, the
piebald hog, finally did as she was bid.

Mary Carmichael could not resist the temptation of asking how the hogs
happened to have such unusual names.

"To tell the truth, I done it to aggravate my wife. When I finds myself a
discard in the matrimonial shuffle, I figgers on a new deal that’s going
to inclood one or two anxieties for my lady partner—to which end—viz.,
namely, I calls one hawg Ethel and the other hawg Maude, allowing to my
wife that they’re named after lady friends in the East. Them lady friends
might be the daughters of Ananias and Sapphira, for all they ever
happened, but they answers the purpose of riling her same as if they were
eating their three squares daily. I have hopes, everything else failing,
that she may yet quit dancing and settle down to the sanctity of the home
out of pure jealousy of them two proxy hawgs."

"I can just tell you this," interrupted the fat lady: "I don’t enjoy
occupying premises after hawgs, no matter how fashionable you name ’em. A
hawg’s a hawg, with manners according, if it’s named after the President
of the United States or the King of England."

"That’s just what I used to think, marm, of all critters before I enjoyed
that degree of friendliness that I’m now proud to own. Take Jerry now,
that old white horse—why, me and him is just like brothers. When I have to
leave the kid to his lonesome infant reflections and go off to chop wood,
I just call Jerry in, and he assoomes the responsibility of nurse like he
was going to draw wages for it."

"I reckon there’s faults on both sides," said the fat lady, impartially.
"No natural woman would leave her baby to a horse to mind while she went
off dancing. And no natural man would fill his house full of critters, and
them with highfalutin names. Take my advice, turn ’em out."

Mary did not wait to hear the continuation of the fat lady’s advice. She
went out on the desert to have one last look at the west. The sun had
taken his plunge for the night, leaving his royal raiment of crimson and
gold strewn above the mountain-tops.

Her sunset reflections were presently interrupted by the fat lady, who
proposed that they should walk till Mr. Dax had tidied up his house,
observing, with logic, that it did not devolve on them to clean the place,
since they were paying for supper and lodging. They had gone but a little
way when sudden apprehension caused the fat lady to grasp Mary’s arm. Miss
Carmichael turned, expecting mountain-lions, rattlesnakes, or
stage-robbers, but none of these casualties had come to pass.

"Land sakes! Here we be parading round the prairie, and I never found out
how that man cooked his coffee."

"What difference does it make, if we can drink it?"

"The ways of men cooks is a sealed book to you, I reckon, or you wouldn’t
be so unconcerned—’specially in the matter of coffee. All men has got the
notion that coffee must be b’iled in a bag, and if they ’ain’t got a
regular bag real handy, they take what they can get. Oh, I’ve caught ’em,"
went on the fat lady, darkly, "b’iling coffee in improvisations that’d
turn your stomach."

"Yes, yes," Mary hastily agreed, hoping against hope that she wasn’t going
to be more explicit.

"And they are so cute about it, too; it’s next to impossible to catch ’em.
You ask a man if he b’iles his coffee loose or tight, and he’ll declare he
b’iles it loose, knowing well how suspicious and prone to investigate is
the female mind. But you watch your chance and take a look in the
coffee-pot, and maybe you’ll find—"

"Yes, yes, I’ve heard—"

"I’ve seen—"

"Let’s hurry," implored Mary.

"Have you made your coffee yet?" inquired the fat lady.

"Yes, marm," promptly responded Johnnie.

"I hope you b’iled it in a bag—it clears it beautiful, a bag does."

Johnnie shifted uneasily. "No, marm, I b’iles it loose. You see, bags
ain’t always handy."

The fat lady plied her eye as a weapon. No Dax could stand up before an
accusing feminine eye. He quailed, made a grab for the coffee-pot, and
rushed with it out into the night.

"What did I tell you?" she asked, with an air of triumph.

Johnnie returned with the empty coffee-pot. "To tell the truth, marm, I
made a mistake. I ’ain’t made the coffee. I plumb forgot it. P’raps you
could be prevailed on to assist this yere outfit to coffee while I
organizes a few sody-biscuits."

After supper, when the fat lady was so busy talking "goo-goo" language to
the baby as to be oblivious of everything else, Mary Carmichael took the
opportunity to ask Johnnie if he knew anything about Lost Trail. The name
of her destination had come to sound unpleasantly ominous in the ears of
the tired young traveller, and she feared that her inquiry did not sound
as casual as she tried to have it. Nor was Johnnie’s candid reply
reassuring.

"It’s a pizen-mean country, from all I ever heard tell. The citizens
tharof consists mainly of coyotes and mountain-lions, with a few rattlers
thrown in just to make things neighborly. This yere place"—waving his hand
towards the arid wastes which night was making more desolate—"is a summer
resort, with modern improvements, compared to it."

Mary screwed her courage to a still more desperate point, and inquired if
Mr. Dax knew a family named Yellett living in Lost Trail.

"Never heard of no family living there, excepting the bluff at family life
maintained by the wild beasts before referred to. See here, miss, I ain’t
makin’ no play to inquire into your affairs, but you ain’t thinkin’ o’
visitin’ Lost Trail, be you?"

"Perhaps," said Mary, faintly; and then she, too, talked "goo-goo" to the
baby.



VIII


                           The Rodneys At Home


All that long and never-to-be-forgotten night the stage lurched through
the darkness with Mary Carmichael the solitary passenger. The fat lady had
warned Johnnie Dax that he was on no account to replenish Chugg’s flask,
if he had the wherewithal for replenishment on the premises. Moreover, she
threatened Dax with the fury of her son should he fail in this particular;
and Johnnie, hurt to the quick by the unjust suspicion that he could fail
so signally in his duty to a lady, not only refused to replenish the
flask, but threatened Chugg with a conditional vengeance in the event of
accident befalling the stage. It was with a partially sobered and
much-threatened stage-driver, therefore, that Mary continued her journey
after the supper at Johnnie Dax’s, but the knowledge of it brought scant
reassurance, and it is doubtful if the red stage ever harbored any one
more wakeful than the pale, tired girl who watched all the changes from
dark to dawn at the stage window.

Once or twice she caught a glimpse of distant camp-fires burning and knew
that some cattle outfit was camped there for the night; and once they
drove so close that she could hear the cow-boys’ voices, enriched and
mellowed by distance, borne to them on the cool, evening wind. It gave a
sense of security to know that these big-hearted, manly lads were within
call, and she watched the dwindling spark of their camp-fires and strained
her ears to catch the last note of their singing, with something of the
feeling of severed comradeship. Range cattle, startled from sleep by the
stage, scrambled to their feet and bolted headlong in the blind impulse of
panic, their horns and the confused massing of their bodies showing in
sharp silhouette against the horizon for a moment, then all would settle
into quiet again. There was no moon that night, but the stars were sown
broadcast—softly yellow stars, lighting the darkness with a shaded luster,
like lamps veiled in pale-yellow gauze. The chill electric glitter of the
stars, as we know it from between the roofs of high houses, this world of
far-flung distance knows not. There the stars are big and still, like the
eyes of a contented woman.

The hoofs of the horses beat the night away as regularly as the ticking of
a clock. It grew darker as the night wore on, and sometimes a coyote would
yelp from the fringe of willows that bordered a creek in a way that made
Mary recall tales of banshees. And once, when the first pale streak of
dawn trembled in the east and the mountains looked like jagged rocks
heaved against the sky and in danger of toppling, the whole dread picture
brought before her one of Vedder’s pictures that hung in the shabby old
library at home.

They breakfasted somewhere, and Chugg put fresh horses to the stage. She
knew this from their difference of color; the horses that they had left
the second Dax ranch with had been white, and these that now toiled over
the sand and desolation were apparently brown. She could not be certain
that they were brown, or that they were toiling over the sand and
desolation, or that her name was Mary Carmichael, or indeed of anything.
Four days in the train, and what seemed like four centuries in the stage,
eliminated any certainty as to anything. She could only sit huddled into a
heap and wait for things to become adjusted by time.

Chugg was behaving in a most exemplary manner. He drove rigidly as an
automaton, and apparently he looked no longer on the "lightning" when it
was bottled. Once or twice he had applied his eye to the pane that
separated him from his passenger, and asked questions relative to her
comfort, but Mary was too utterly dejected to reply in more than
monosyllables. As they crept along, the sun-dried timbers of the stage
creaked and groaned in seeming protest at wearing its life away in endless
journeyings over this desert waste, then settled down into one of those
maddeningly monotonous reiterations to which certain inanimate things are
given in seasons of nervous tension. This time it was: "All the world’s—a
stage—creak—screech—all—the world’s a stage—creak—screech!" over and over
till Mary found herself fast succumbing to the hypnotic effect of the
constant repetition, listening for it, even, with the tyrannous eagerness
of overwrought nerves, when the stage-driver broke the spell with, "This
here stage gets to naggin’ me along about here. She’s hungry for her
axle-grease—that’s what ails her."

"I suppose," Mary roused herself to say, "you have quite a feeling of
comradeship for the stage."

"Me and Clara"—the stage had this name painted on the side—"have been
travelling together nigh onto four year. And while there’s times that I
would prefer a greater degree of reciprocity, these yere silent companions
has their advantages. Why, compare Clara to them female blizzards—the two
Mrs. Daxes—and you see Clara’s good p’ints immejit. Yes, miss, the
thirst-quenchers are on me if either one of the Dax boys wouldn’t be glad
to swap, but I’d have to be a heap more locoed than I am now to consent to
the transaction."

At sunset the interminable monotony of the wilderness was broken by a
house of curious architecture, the like of which the tired young traveller
had never seen before, and whose singular candor of design made her doubt
the evidence of her own thoroughly exhausted faculties. The house seemed
to consist of a series of rooms thrown, or rather blown, together by some
force of nature rather than by formal design of builder or carpenter. The
original log-cabin of this composite dwelling looked better built, more
finished, neater of aspect than those they had previously stopped at in
crossing the Desert. Springing from the main building, like claws from a
crustacean, were a series of rooms minus either side walls or flooring.
Indeed, they might easily have passed for porches of more than usually
commodious size had it not been for the beds, bureaus, chairs, stove with
attendant pots, kettles, and supper in the course of preparation. Seen
from any vantage-point in the surrounding country, the effect was that of
an interior on the stage—the background of some homely drama where pioneer
life was being realistically depicted. The _dramatis persona_ who occupied
the centre of the stage when Mary Carmichael drove up was an elderly woman
in a rocking-chair. She was dressed in a faded pink calico gown, limp and
bedraggled, whose color brought out the parchment-like hue and texture of
her skin in merciless contrast. Perhaps because she still harbored
illusions about the perishable quality of her complexion, which gave every
evidence of having borne the brunt of merciless desert suns, snows,
blizzards, and the ubiquitous alkali dust of all seasons, she wore a pink
sun-bonnet, though the hour was one past sundown, and though she sat
beneath her own roof-tree, even if lacking the protection of four walls.
From the corner of her mouth protruded a snuff-brush, so constantly in
this accustomed place that it had come to be regarded by members of her
family as part and parcel of her attire—the first thing assumed in the
morning, the last thing laid aside at night. Mary Carmichael had little
difficulty in recognizing Judith Rodney’s step-mother, _née_ Tumlin—she
who had been the heroine of the romance lately recorded.

Mrs. Rodney’s interest in the girl alighting from the stage was evinced in
the palsied motion of the chair as it quivered slightly back and forth in
place of the swinging seesaw with which she was wont to wear the hours
away. The snuff-brush was brought into more fiercely active commission,
but she said nothing till Mary Carmichael was within a few inches of her.
Then, shifting the snuff-brush to a position more favorable to
enunciation, she said: "Howdy? Ye be Miz Yellett’s gov’ment, ain’t ye?"
There was something threatening in her aspect, as if the office of
governess to the Yelletts carried some challenging quality.

"Government?" repeated Mary, vaguely, her head still rumbling with the
noise and motion of the stage; "I’m afraid I hardly understand."

"Ain’t you-uns goin’ to teach the Yellett outfit ther spellin’, writin’,
and about George Washington, an’ how the Yankees kem along arter he was in
his grave an’ fit us and broke up the kentry so we had ter leave our home
in Tennessee an’ kem to this yere outdacious place, where nobody knows the
diffunce between aig-bread an’ corn-dodger? I war a Miss Tumlin from
Tennessee."

The rocking-chair now began to recover its accustomed momentum. This
much-heralded educational expert was far from terrifying. Indeed, to Mrs.
Rodney’s hawklike gaze, that devoured every visible item of Mary’s
extremely modest travelling-dress, there was nothing so very wonderful
about "the gov’ment from the East." With a deftness compatible only with
long practice, Mrs. Rodney now put a foot on the round of an adjoining
chair and shoved it towards Mary Carmichael in hospitable pantomime, never
once relaxing her continual rocking the meantime. Mary took the chair, and
Mrs. Rodney, after freshening up the snuff-brush from a small, tin box in
her lap, put spurs to her rocking-chair, so to speak, and started off at a
brisk canter.

"I ’low it’s mighty queer you-uns don’t recognize the job you-uns kem out
yere to take, when I call it by name." From the sheltering flap of the
pink sun-bonnet she turned a pair of black eyes full of ill-concealed
suspicion. "Miz Yellett givin’ herself as many airs ’bout hirin’ a
gov’ment ’s if she wuz goin’ to Congress. Queer you don’t know whether you
be one or not!" She withdrew into the sun-bonnet, muttering to herself.
She could not be more than fifty, Mary thought, but her habit of muttering
and exhibiting her depopulated gums while she was in the act of
revivifying the snuff-brush gave her a cronish aspect.

A babel of voices came from the open-faced room on the opposite side of
the house corresponding to the one in which Mary and Mrs. Rodney were
sitting. Apparently supper was being prepared by some half-dozen young
people, each of whom thought he or she was being imposed upon by the
others. "Hand me that knife." "Git it yourself." "I’ll tell maw how you
air wolfing down the potatoes as fast as I can fry ’em." "Go on,
tattle-tale." This was the repartee, mingled with the hiss of frying meat,
the grinding of coffee, the thumping sound made by bread being hastily
mixed in a wooden bowl standing on a wooden table. The babel grew in
volume. Dogs added to it by yelping emotionally when the smell of the
newly fried meat tempted them too near the platter and some one with a
disengaged foot at his disposal would kick them out of doors.
Personalities were exchanged more freely by members of the family, and the
meat hissed harder as it was newly turned. "Laws-a-massy!" muttered Mrs.
Rodney; and then, shoving back the sun-bonnet, she lifted her voice in a
shrill, feminine shriek:

"Eudory! Eu-dory! You-do-ry!"

A Hebe-like creature, blond and pink-cheeked, in a blue-checked apron
besmeared with grease and flour, came sulkily into her mother’s presence.
Seeing Mary Carmichael, she grasped the skirt of the greasy apron with the
sleight of hand of a prestidigitateur and pleated it into a single
handful. Her manner, too, was no slower of transformation. The family
sulks were instantly replaced by a company bridle, aided and abetted by a
company simper. "I didn’t know the stage was in yet, maw. I been talking
to Iry."

"This here be Miz Yellett’s gov’ment. Maybe she’d like to pearten up some
before she eats." She started the rocking-chair at a gallop, to signify to
her daughter that she washed her hands of further responsibility. Being
proficient in the sign language of Mrs. Rodney’s second self, as indeed
was every member of the family, Eudora led Mary to a bench placed in one
of the rooms enjoying the distinction of a side wall, and indicated a
family toilet service, which displayed every indication of having lately
seen active service. A roll-towel, more frankly significant of the
multitude of the Rodneys than had been the babel of voices, a discouraged
fragment of comb, a tin basin, a slippery atom of soap, these Eudora
proffered with an unction worthy of better things. "I declare Mist’ Chugg
have scarce left any soap, an’ I don’t believe thar’s ’nother bit in the
house." Eudora’s accent was but faintly reminiscent of her mother’s strong
Smoky Mountain dialect, as a crude feature is sometimes softened in the
second generation. It was not unpleasing on her full, rosy mouth. The girl
had the seductiveness of her half-sister, Judith, without a hint of
Judith’s spiritual quality.

Mary told her not to mind about the soap, and went to fetch her hand-bag,
which, consistent with the democratic spirit of its surroundings, was
resting against a clump of sage-brush, whither it had been lifted by
Chugg. Miss Carmichael’s individual toilet service, which was neither
handsome nor elaborate, impressed Eudora far more potently in ranking Mary
as a personage than did her dignity of office as "gov’ment."

"I reckon you-uns must have seen Sist’ Judy up to Miz Dax’s. I hope she
war lookin’ right well." There was in the inquiry an unmistakable note of
pride. The connection was plainly one to be flaunted. Judith, with her
gentle bearing and her simple, convent accomplishments, was plainly the
_grande dame_ of the family. Eudora had now divested herself of the
greasy, flour-smeared apron, flinging it under the wash-bench with a
single all-sufficient movement, while Mary’s look was directed towards her
dressing-bag. In glancing up to make some remark about Judith, Mary was
confronted by a radiant apparition whose lilac calico skirts looked fresh
from the iron.

At the side of the house languished a wretched, abortive garden, running
over with weeds and sage-brush, and here a man pottered with the
purposeless energy of old age, working with an ear cocked in the direction
of the house, as he turned a spade of earth again and again in hopeless,
pusillanimous industry. But when his strained attention was presently
rewarded by a shouted summons to supper, and he stood erect but for the
slouching droop of shoulders that was more a matter of temperament than of
age, one saw a tall man of massive build, whose keen glance and slightly
grizzled hair belied his groping, ineffectual labor. The head, and face
were finely modelled. Unless nature had fashioned them in some vagrant,
prankish mood, such elegance of line betokened prior generations in which
gentlemen and scholars had played some part—the vagabond scion of a good
family, perhaps. A multitude of such had grafted on the pioneer stock of
the West, under names that carried no significance in the places whence
they came.

Weakness and self-indulgence there were, and those writ large and deep, on
the face of Warren Rodney; and, in default of an expression of deeper
significance, the wavering lines of instability produced a curiously
ambiguous effect of a fine head modelled by a ’prentice hand; a lady’s
copy of the Belvidere, attempted in the ardors of the first lessons, might
approximate it.

A smoking kerosene lamp revealed a supper-table of almost institutional
proportions. There were four sons and two daughters of the Tumlin union,
strapping lads and lasses all of them, with more than a common dower of
lusty health and a beauty that was something deeper than the perishable
iridescence of youth. There was Fremont, named for the explorer-soldier;
there was Orlando, named from his mother’s vague, idle musings over
paper-backed literature at certain "unchancy" seasons; there was Richards,
named from pure policy, for a local great man of whom Warren Rodney had
anticipated a helping hand at the time; there was Eudora, whose nominal
origin was uncertain, unless it bore affiliation to that of Orlando; there
was Sadie, thus termed to avoid the painful distinctions of "old Sally"
and "young Sally"; and, lastly, like a postscript, came Dan—with him,
fancy, in the matter of names, seemed to have failed. Dan was now six, a
plump little caricature of a man in blue overalls, which, as they had
descended to him from Richards in the nature of an heirloom, reached high
under his armpits and shortened the function of his suspenders to the
vanishing point.

Eudora was now sixteen, and the woman-famine in all the land had gifted
her with a surprising precocity. Eudora knew her value and meant to make
the most of it. Unlike her mother in the old Black Hill days, she expected
more than a "home of her own." To-night four suitors sat at table with
Eudora, and she might have had forty had she desired it. Any one of the
four would have cheerfully murdered the remaining three had opportunity
presented itself. Supper was a mockery to them, a Barmecide feast. Each
watched his rivals—and Eudora. This was a matter of life and death. There
was no time for food. The girl revelled in the situation to the full of
her untaught, unthinking, primitive nature. She gave the incident a
tighter twist by languishing at them in turns. She smiled, she sighed, she
drove them mad by taking crescent bites out of a slice of bread and
exhibiting the havoc of her little, white teeth with a delectably dainty
gluttony.

Her mother, mumbling her supper with toothless impotency, renewed her
youth vicariously, and, while she quarrelled with her daughter from the
rising of the sun to the setting of the same, she added the last straw to
the burden of the distracted suitors by announcing what a comfort Eudora
was to her and how handy she was about the house.

Warren Rodney supported the air of an exile at his own table. Beyond a
preliminary greeting to his daughter’s guests, he said nothing. His
family, in their dealings with him, seemed to accord him the exemptions of
extreme age. He ate with the enthusiasm of a man to whom meals have become
the main business in life.

"How’s your mine up to Bad Water comin’ along, Iry?" Orlando inquired, not
from any hospitable interest in Ira’s claim, but because he had sundry
romantic interests in that neighborhood and hoped to make use of the young
prospector’s interest in his sister by securing an invitation to return
with him. Ira regarded the inquiry in the light of a special providence.
Here was his chance to impress Eudora with the splendor of his prospects
and at the same time smite the claims of his rivals, and behold! a brother
of his lady had led the way.

Ira cleared his throat. "They tell me she air like to yield a million any
day." At this Eudora gave him the wealth of her eyes, and her mother
reached across two of the glowering suitors and dropped a hot flapjack on
his plate.

"Who sez that she air likely to yield a million any day?" inquired Ben
Swift, openly flouting such prophecy. "Yes, who sez it?" inquired Hawks
and Taylor, joining forces for the overthrow of the common enemy.

"’They sez’ is easy talkin’, shore ’nuff," mumbled Mrs. Rodney, as she
helped herself to butter with her own knife.

"A sharp from the Smithsonian Institute at Washington, he said it, and he
has taken back speciments with him."

"Ye can’t keep lackings from freightin’ round speciments—naw, sir, ye
can’t, not till the fool-killer has finished his job." Ben Swift charged
the table with the statement as the prosecution subtly appeals to the high
grade of intelligence on the part of the jury. The point told. Eudora,
wavering in her donation of hot flapjacks, gave them to Ben Swift.

Hawks now leaned across the table with a sinuous, beguiling motion, and,
extending his long neck towards the prospector, with the air of a
turkey-gobbler about to peck, he crooned, softly: "Ira, it’s a heap risky
puttin’ your faith in maverick sharps that trail around the country,
God-a’mightying it, renaming little, old rocks into precious stones,
seein’ gold mines in every gopher-hole they come to. They names your
backyard and the rocks appertainin’ thereunto a heap fashionable, and like
as not some sucker gives him good money to float the trash back East."

Mrs. Rodney, whose partisanship in any discussion was analogous to the
position of a hen perching on a fence unable to decide on which side to
flutter, was visibly impressed by Hawks’s presentation of the case.
Looking towards her daughter from under the eaves of her sun-bonnet, she
"’lowed she had hearn that Bad Water was hard on the skin, an’ that it
warn’t much of a place arter all. Folks over thar war mostly half-livers."

Ira, now losing all semblance of policy at being thus grievously put down
by his possible mother-in-law, "reckoned that herdin’ sheep over to the
Basin was a heap easier on the skin than livin’ in a comf’table house over
to Bad Water"—this as a fling at Hawks, who herded a small bunch of sheep
"over in the Basin."

"Ai-yi," openly scoffed the former Miss Tumlin; "talk’s cheap before—" She
would have considered it indelicate to supply the word "marriage," but by
breaking off her sentence before she came to the pith of it she continued
to maintain the proprieties, and at the same time conveyed to her audience
that she was too old and experienced to permit any fledgling from her nest
to be caught, for want of a warning, by such obvious ante-matrimonial
chaff as fair promises.

"Laws a massy!" she continued, reminiscently, working her toothless jaw to
free it from an escaped splinter from the snuff-brush. "When me an’ paw
war keepin’ comp’ny, satin warn’t good enough for me. He lowed I wuz to
have half creation. Sence we wuz married he ’ain’t never found time,
endurin’ all these years, to build me a bird-house."

The unbuilt bird-house was the Banquo’s ghost at the Rodney board, Mrs.
Rodney hearkening back to it in and out of season. If the family made
merry over a chance windfall of game or fresh vegetables, a prospect of
possible employment for one of the boys, a donation of money from Judith,
Mrs. Rodney remembered the unbuilt bird-house and indulged herself to the
full of melancholy. It is not improbable that, if she had been asked to
name the chiefest disappointment of her wretched married life, she would
have mentioned the bird-house that was never built.

At mention of it Warren Rodney murmured broken, deprecatory excuses. His
dull eyes nervously travelled about the table for some one to make excuses
for him. The family broke into hearty peals of laughter; the tragedy of
the first generation had grown to be the unfailing source of merriment for
the second.

"Maw," began Orlando, "the reason you don’t get no bird-house built out
hyear is that they ain’t no birds. We have offered time and time again to
build you a house fo’ buzzuds, they bein’ the only birds hyearabouts, but
you ’low that you ain’t fav’ble to tamin’ ’em."

"I wuz raised in Tennessee, an’ we-uns had a house for martins made out’n
gourds, an’ it was pearty." The pride with which she repeated this
particular claim to honor in an alien land never diminished with
repetition. As she advanced further through the dim perspective of years,
the little mountain town in Tennessee became more and more the centre of
cultivation and civic importance. The desolate cabin that she had left for
the interminable journey westward was recalled flatteringly through the
hallowing mists of time. The children, by reason of these chronicles, had
grown to regard their mother as a sort of princess in exile.

"Mrs. Rodney"—Swift leaned towards her and whispered something in her ear.
She regarded him tentatively, then grinned. At her time of life, why
should she put faith in the promises of men? "You fix it up, an’ you get
your bird-house," was the conclusion of his sentence.

While this discussion had been in progress the viands had not been
neglected except by such members of the company as had been bereft of
appetite by loftier emotions—in consequence of which the table appeared to
have sustained a visitation of seventeen-year locusts. Eudora, ever
economic in the value she placed not only upon herself but her
environment, proposed to her guests that they should wash the dishes, an
art in which they were by no means deficient, being no exception to the
majority of range bachelors in their skill in homely pursuits. And thus it
came to pass that Eudora’s suitors, swathed in aprons, meekly washed
dishes shoulder to shoulder, while their souls craved the performance of
valorous deeds.

As this was the last stage station on the way to Lost Trail, Mary
Carmichael was perforce obliged to content herself till Mrs. Yellett
should call or send for her. After supper, Chugg, with fresh horses to the
stage, left Rodney’s, apparently for some port in that seemingly pathless
sea of foot-hills. That there should be trails and defined routes over
this vast, unvaried stretch of space seemed more wonderful to Mary than
the charted high-roads of the Atlantic. The foot-hills seemed to have
grown during the long journey till they were foot-hills no longer; they
had come to be the smaller peaks of the towering range that had formed the
spine of the desert. The air, that seemed to have lost some of its
crystalline quality on the flat stretches of the plains, was again
sparkling and heady in the clean hill country. It stirred the pulses like
some rare vintage, some subtle distillation of sun-warmed fruit that had
been mellowing for centuries.

Very lonely seemed the Rodney home among the great company of mountains. A
brooding desolation had settled on it at close of day, and all the
laughter and light footsteps and gayly ringing voices of the young folk
could not dispel the feeling of being adrift in a tiny shell on the black
waters of some unknown sea; or thus it seemed to the stranger within their
gate.

Mrs. Rodney retired within the flap of her sun-bonnet after the evening
meal, settling herself in the rocking-chair as if it were some sort of
conveyance. Her family, who might have told the hour of day or her passing
mood by the action of the chair, knew by her pacific gait that she would
lament the unbuilt bird-house no more that night. The snuff-brush, newly
replenished from the tin box, kept perfect time to the motion of the
chair. With the lady of the house it was one of the brief seasons of
passing content vouchsafed by an ample meal and a good digestion.

Warren Rodney took down a gun from the wall and began to clean it. His
hands had the fumbling, indefinite movements, the obscure action, directed
by a brain already begun to crumble. His industry with the gun was of a
part with the impotent dawdling in the garden. His eyes would seek for the
rag or the bottle of oil in a dull, glazed way, and, having found them, he
would forget the reason of his quest. Not once that evening had they
rested on his wife or any member of his family. He had shown no interest
in any of the small happenings of home, the frank rivalry of Eudora’s
suitors, the bickerings of the girls and boys over the division of
household labor. The one thing that had momentarily aroused his somnolent
intelligence was a revival of his wife’s plaint anent the unbuilt
bird-house. That, and a certain furtive anxiety during supper lest his
daughter Eudora should forget to keep his plate piled high, were the only
signs of a participation in the life about him.

From one of the rooms that opened to the world like a stage to the
audience, Mrs. Rodney kept her evening vigil. The last faint amethystine
haze on the mountains was deepening. They towered about the valley where
the house lay, with a challenging immensity, mocking the pitiful grasp of
these pygmies on the thousand hills. The snow on the taller of the peaks
still held the high lights. But all the valleys and the spaces between the
mountains were wrapped in sombre shadows; the crazy house invading the
great company of mountains, penetrating brazenly to the very threshold of
their silent councils, seemed but a pitiful ant-hill at the mercy of some
possible giant tread. The ill-adjusted family, disputing every inch of
ground with the wilderness, became invested with a dignity quite out of
keeping with its achievements. Their very weaknesses and vanities, old
Sally still clinging to her sun-bonnet and her limp rose-colored skirts,
an eternal requiem for the dead and gone complexion, lost the
picturesqueness of the pioneer and ranked as universal qualities,
admissible in the austerest setting. Perhaps in some far distant council
of the Daughters of the Pioneers a prospective member of the house of
Rodney would unctuously announce: "My great-great-grandmother was a Miss
Tumlin of Tennessee; great-great-grandfather’s first wife had been a Sioux
squaw. Isn’t it interesting and romantic?"

Eudora now came to her mother with great news. Hawks had taken the first
opportunity of being alone with her to tell her of Jim’s release from jail
and of his abortive encounter with Simpson in the eating-house. He had not
deferred the telling from any feeling of reticence regarding the
disclosure of family affairs before strangers. News travels in the desert
by some unknown agency. Twenty-four hours after a thing happened it would
be safe to assume that every cow and sheep outfit in a radius of three
hundred miles would be discussing it over their camp-fires; and this long
before there was an inch of telegraph wire or a railroad tire in the
country. Hawks had merely reserved the news for Eudora’s private ear
because he hoped thus to gain an advantage over his three rivals.

"Ai-yi!" said old Sally, sharply, and the chair came to an abrupt
stand-still. "In the name o’ Heaven, how kem they to let him out?" Mrs.
Rodney’s knowledge of the law was of the vaguest; and if incarceration
would keep a prisoner out of more grievous trouble, she could not
understand giving him his freedom. To her the case was analogous to
releasing a child from the duress of a corner and turning him loose to
play with matches. "How kem they to let him out?" she repeated, the still
rocking-chair conveying the impersonal dignity of the pulpit or the
justice-seat. "I ’ain’t hearn tell of so pearty a couple as the jail an’
Jim in years."

The meaning that she put into her words belied their harsh face-value.
With Jim in jail, her mind was comparatively at rest about him. She knew
he had been branding other men’s cattle since the destruction of his
sheep, and she knew the fate of cattle-thieves, and that Jim would be no
exception to the rule. With her purely instinctive maternity, she had been
fond of Jim. He had been one more boy to mother. She harbored no
ill-feeling towards him that he was not her own. Moreover, she wanted no
gallows-tree intermingled with the annals of her family. It suited her
convenience at this particular time that Jim should stay in jail. That he
had been given his freedom loosed the phials of her condemnation on the
incompetents that released him.

"I ’low they wuz grudgin’ him the mouthful they fed to him, that they ack
so outdaciously plumb locoed as to tu’n a man out to get hisself hanged.
An’ Jim never wuz a hearty eater. He never seemed to relish his food, even
when he wuz a growin’ kid."

A pale, twinkling point of light, faintly glimmering in the vast solitudes
above the billowing peaks, suddenly burst into a dazzling constellation
before the girl and her mother. "It’s a warning!" shivered the old woman.
"Some’um’s bound to happen." She began to rock herself slowly. The thing
she dreaded had already come to pass in her imagination. Jim a free man
was Jim a dead man. He was so dead that already his step-mother was going
on with a full acceptance of the idea. She reviewed her relationship to
him. No, she had nothing to blame herself for. He had been more
troublesome than any of her own children and for that reason she had been
more liberal with the rod. And yet—the face of the squaw rose before her,
wraithlike, accusing! "Ai-yi!" she said; but this time her favorite
expletive was hardly more than a sigh.

"I mind Jim when he first kem to us," she said, more to herself than to
Eudora, who sat at her feet. The impending tragedy in the family had
robbed her of all the joy in her suitors. They sat on a bench on the
opposite side of the house, divided by the very nature of their interests
yet companions in misery.

"He wuz scarce four, an’ yet he had never been broke of the habit of
sucking his thumb. Ef he’d ben my child, I’d a lammed it out’n him before
he’d a seen two, but seem’ he was aged for an infant havin’ such
practices, I tried to shame him out’n it. But, Lord a massy, men folks is
hard to shame even at four. I hissed at him like a gyander every time I
seen him do it. Now I’d a knowed better—I’d a sewed it up in a pepper
rag."

"What’s suckin’ his thumb as an infant got to do with his gettin’ lynched
now?" demanded Eudora, with the scepticism of the second generation.

"Wait till you-uns has children of your own," sniffed her mother, from the
assured position of maternal experience, "an’ see the infant that’s
allowed to suck its thumb has the makin’s in him of a felon or a
unfortunit." She rocked a slow accompaniment to her dismal, prophecy.

Eudora’s eyes, big with wonder, were fixed on the crouching flank of a
distant mountain. Her mother broke the silence. Not often did they speak
thus intimately. Old Sally belonged to that class of mothers who feel a
pride in their reticent dealings with their daughters, and who consider
the management of all affairs of the heart peculiarly the province of
youth and inexperience.

But to-night she was prompted by a force beyond her ken to speak to the
girl. "Eudory, in pickin’ out one of them men," she jerked her thumb
towards the opposite side of the house, "git one tha’s clar o’ the trick
o’ stampedin’ round other wimming. It’s bound to kem back to ye, same as
counterfeit money."

Eudora giggled. She was of an age when the fascinations of curiosity as to
the unknown male animal prompt lavish conjecture. "I ’lowed they all
stampeded."

"Yes," leered the old woman—and she grinned the whole horrid length of her
empty gums—"the most of ’em does. But you must shet your eyes to it. The
moment they know you swallow it, they’s wuthless, like horses that has run
away once."

"Hark!" said Eudora. "Ain’t that wheels?"

"It be," answered her mother. "It be that old Ma’am Yellett after her
gov’ment."



IX


                     Mrs. Yellett And Her "Gov’ment"


The buckboard drew up to the back or open-faced entrance of the Rodney
house with a splendid sweep, terminating in a brilliantly staccato halt,
as if to convey to the residents the flattering implication that their
house was reached via a gravelled driveway, rather than across lumpish
inequalities of prairie overgrown with cactus stumps and clumps of
sage-brush. From the buckboard stepped a figure whose agility was
compatible with her driving.

No sketchy outline can do justice to Mrs. Yellett or her costume. Like the
bee, the ant, and other wonders of the economy of nature, she was not to
be disposed of with a glance. And yet there was no attempt at subtlety on
her part; on the contrary, no one could have an appearance of greater
candor than the lady whose children Mary Carmichael had come West to
teach. Her costume was a thing apart, suggesting neither sex, epoch, nor
personal vanity, but what it lacked of these more usual sartorial
characteristics, it more than made up in a passionate individualism; an
excessively short skirt, so innocent of "fit" or "hang" in its wavering,
indeterminate outline as to suggest the possible workmanship of teeth
rather than of scissors; and riding-boots coming well to the knee,
displaying a well-shaped, ample foot, perched aloft on the usual high heel
that cow-punchers affect as the expression of their chiefest vanity. But
Mrs. Yellett was not wholly mannish in her tastes, and to offset the boots
she wore a bodice of the type that a generation ago used to be known as a
"basque." It fitted her ample form as a cover fits a pin-cushion, the row
of jet buttons down the front looking as if a deep breath might cause them
to shoot into space at any moment with the force of Mauser bullets.

Such a garb was not, after all, incongruous with this original lady’s
weather-beaten face. Her skin was tanned to a fine russet, showing tiny,
radiating lines about the eyes when they twinkled with laughter, which was
often. No individual feature was especially striking, but the general
impression of her countenance was of animation and activity, mingled with
geniality and with native shrewdness.

"Howdy, Miz Yellett," called out old Sally, hitching her rocker forward,
in an excitement she could ill conceal. "You-uns’ gov’ment come, an’ she
ain’t much bigger’n a lettle green gourd. Don’t seem to have drawed all
the growth comin’ to her yit."

"In roundin’ up the p’ints of my gov’ment, Mis’ Rodney, you don’t want to
forget that green gourds and green grapes is mighty apt to belong to the
sour fambly, when they hangs beyant your reach."

"Ai-yi!" grimaced old Sally. "It’s tol’able far to send East for green
fruit. We can take our own pep’mint."

The prospective advent of a governess in the Yellett family, moreover, one
from that mysterious centre of culture, the East, had not only rent the
neighborhood with bitter factions, but had submitted the Yelletts to the
reproach of ostentation. In those days there were no schools in that
portion of the Wind River country where the Yelletts grazed their flocks
and herds. Parents anxious to obtain "educational advantages"—that was the
term, irrespective of the age of the student or the school he
attended—sent them, often, with parental blindness as to the equivocal
nature of the blessing thus conferred, to visit friends in the neighboring
towns while they "got their education." Or they went uneducated, or they
picked up such crumbs of knowledge as fell from the scant parental board.
But never, up to the present moment, had any one flown into the face of
neighborly precedent except sturdy Sarah Yellett.

Old Sally, in her eagerness to convey that she was in no degree impressed
with the pedagogical importation, like many another belligerent lost the
first round of the battle through an excess of personal feeling. But
though down, Sally was by no means out, and after a brief session with the
snuff-brush she returned to the field prepared to maintain that the
Yellett children, for all their pampering in the matter of having a
governess imported for their benefit, were no better off than her own
brood, who had taken the learning the gods provided.

"Too bad, Miz Yellett, that you-uns had to hire that gov’ment without
lookin’ over her p’ints. I’ve ben takin’ her in durin’ supper, and she’ll
never be able to thrash ’em past Clem. She mought be able to thrash Clem
if she got plumb mad, these yere slim wimmin is tarrible wiry ’n’ active
at such times, but she’ll never be able to thrash beyant her." And having
injected the vitriolic drop in her neighbor’s cup of happiness, Old Sally
struck a gait on her chair which was the equivalent of a gallop.

But Mrs. Yellett was not the sort of antagonist to be left gaping on the
road, awed to silence by the action of a rocking-chair, no matter how
brilliant.

"I reckon I can thrash my own children when it’s needed, without gettin’
in help from the East, or hereabouts either, for that matter. If other
folks would only take out their public-spirited reformin’ tendencies on
their own famblies, there’d be a heap less lynchin’ likely to happen round
the country in the course of the next ten years."

Old Sally let the home-thrust pass. "Who ever hearn tell of a good teacher
that wasn’t a fine thrasher in the bargain?" She swung the chair about
with a pivotal motion, as if she were addressing an assemblage instead of
a single listener, and then, bethinking herself of a clinching
illustration, she called aloud to her daughter to bear witness. "Eudory!
Eu-do-ry! You-do-ry!"

"Ye-’s ma’am," drawled the daughter, coming most unwillingly from the
open-faced room opposite, where she had been inciting all four of the
suitors to battle.

"What was it they called that teacher down to Caspar that larruped the
hide off’n the boys?"

"A fine dis-a-_ply_-narian, maw."

"Yes, that’s it—a dis-a-_ply_-narian. What kin a lettle green gourd like
her know ’bout dis-apply-in?"

"Your remarks shore remind me of a sayin’ that ’the discomfort of havin’
to swallow other folks’ dust causes a heap of anxiety over their reckless
driving.’"

Mrs. Yellett flicked her riding-boot with her whip. Her voice dropped a
couple of tones, her accent became one of honeyed sweetness.

"Your consumin’ anxiety regardin’ my gov’ment and my children shore
reminds me of a narrative appertainin’ to two dawgs. Them dawgs was
neighbors, livin’ in adj’inin’ yards separated by a fence, and one day one
of them got a good meaty bone and settled hisself down to the enj’yment
thereof. And his intimate friend and neighbor on the other side of the
fence, who had no bone to engage his faculties, he began to fret hisself
’bout the business of his friend. S’pose he was to choke hisself over that
bone. S’pose the meat disagreed with him. And he begins to bark warnin’s,
but the dawg with the bone he keeps right on. But the other dawg he dashes
hisself again the fence and he scratches with his claws. He whines
pitiful, he’s that anxious about his friend. But the dawg with the bone he
went right on till he gnawed it down to the last morsel, and, goin’ to the
hole in the fence whar his friend had kep’ that anxious vigil, he says:
’Friend, the only thing that consoled me while having to endure the
anguish of eatin’ that bone was the thought of your watchful sympathy!’
Which bein’ the case, I’d thank you to tell me whar I can find my
gov’ment."

"Ai-yi!" said old Sally. "I ain’t seein’ no bone this deal. Just a lettle
green gourd ’s all I see with my strongest specs."

Mary Carmichael, in one of the inner rooms, was writing a home letter,
which was chiefly remarkable for what it failed to relate. It gave long
accounts of the scenery, it waxed didactic over the future of the country;
but the adventures of the trip, with her incidental acquaintance with the
Daxes and Chugg, were not recorded. Eudora announced the arrival of Mrs.
Yellett, and Mary, at the news, dropped the contents of her portfolio and
started up with much the feeling a marooned sailor might have on hearing a
sail has been sighted. At this particular stage of her career Miss
Carmichael had not developed the philosophy that later in life was
destined to become her most valuable asset. Her sense of humor no longer
responded to the vagaries of pioneer life. The comedy element was coming a
little too thick and fast. She was getting a bit heart-sick for a glimpse
of her own kind, a word with some one who spoke her language. And here, at
last, was the woman who had written such a charming letter, who had so
graciously intimated that there was room for her at the hearth-stone. Mary
was, indeed, eager to make the acquaintance of Mrs. Yellett.

To the end of her life she never forgot that first meeting—the perfect
confidence with which she followed Eudora to the open room, the ensuing
blank amazement, the utter inability to reconcile the Mrs. Yellett of the
letter with the Mrs. Yellett of fact. The lamp on the table, burning
feebly, seemed to burst into a thousand shooting-stars as the girl
struggled with her tears. Home was so far, and Mrs. Yellett was so
different from what she had expected! And yet, as she felt her fingers
crush in the grip of that hard but not unkindly hand, there was in the
woman’s rugged personality a sustaining quality; and, thinking again of
Archie’s prospects, Mary was not altogether sorry that she had come.

"You be a right smart young maverick not to get lost none on this long
trail, and no one to p’int you right if you strayed," commented Mary’s
patroness, affably. "But we won’t roominate here no longer than we can
help. It’s too hard on old Ma’am Rodney. She’s just ’bout the color of
withered cabbage now, ’long of me havin’ you."

While she talked, Mrs. Yellett picked up Mary’s trunk and bags and stowed
them in the back of the buckboard with the ease with which another woman
might handle pasteboard boxes. One or two of the male Rodneys offered to
help, but she waved them aside and lashed the luggage to the buckboard,
handling the ropes with the skill of an old sailor. The entire Rodney
family and the suitors of Eudora assembled to witness the departure. "It’s
a heap friendly of you to fret so," was the parting stab of Sarah Yellett
to Sally Rodney; and she swung the backboard about, cleared the cactus
stumps in the Rodney door-yard, and gained the mountain-road.

"Ai-yi!" said old Sally. "What’s this country comin’ to?"

"A few more women, thank God!" remarked Ira. Eudora had just snubbed him,
and he put a wealth of meaning into his look after the vanishing
buckboard.

The night was magnificent. From horizon to horizon the sky was sown with
quivering points of light. Each straggling clump of sage-brush, rocky
ledge, and bowlder borrowed a beauty not its own from the yellow radiance
of the stars.

They had gone a good two miles before Mary’s patroness broke the silence
with, "Nothing plumb stampedes my temper like that Rodney outfit—old Sally
buckin’ an’ pitchin’ in her rockin’-chair same as if she was breakin’ a
bronco, an’ that Eudory always corallin’, deceivin’, and jiltin’ one
outfit of men after another. If she was a daughter of mine, I’d medjure
her length across my knee, full growed and courted though she is. The only
one of the outfit that’s wuth while is Judith, an’ she ain’t old woman
Rodney’s girl, neither. You hyeard that already, did you? Well, this yere
country may be lackin’ in population, but it’s handy as a sewin’-circle in
distributin’ news."

Mary mentioned Leander. "Yes," answered Mrs. Yellett, reflectively,
"Leander’s mouth do run about eight and a half octaves. Sometimes I don’t
blame his wife for bangin’ down the lid."

They talked of Jim Rodney’s troubles, and the growing hatred between sheep
and cattle men, because of range rights.

"Now that pore Jim had a heap of good citizen in him, before that
pestiferous cattle outfit druv’ his sheep over the cliff. Relations ’twixt
sheep and cattle men in this yere country is strained beyant the
goin’-back place, I can tell you. My pistol-eye ’ain’t had a wink of sleep
for nigh on eighteen months, an’ is broke to wakefulness same as a
teethin’ babe.

"Jim was wild as a coyote ’fore he marries that girl. She come all the way
from Topeka, Kansas, thinking she was goin’ to find a respectable home,
and when she come out hyear and found the place was a dance-hall, she
cried all the time. She didn’t add none to the hilarity of the place. An’
one day Jim he strolled in, an’ seem’ the girl a-cryin’ like a freshet and
wishin’ she was dead, he inquired the cause. She told him how that old
harpy wrote her, an’, bein’ an orphant, she come out thinkin’ she was
goin’ to a respectable place as waitress, an’ Jim he ’lowed it was a case
for the law. He was a little shy of twenty at the time, just a young
cockerel ’bout br’ilin’ size. Some of the old hangers-on ’bout the place
they see a heap of fun in Jim’s takin’ on ’bout the girl, he bein’ that
young that he had scarce growed a pair of spurs yet. An’ one of ’em says
to him,’ Sonny, if you’re afeerd that this yere corral is onjurious to the
young lady’s morals, we’ll call in the gospel sharp, if you’ll stand for
the brand.’ Now Jim hadn’t a cent, nor no callin’, nor a prospect to his
back, but he struts up to the man that was doin’ the talkin’, game as a
bantam, an’ he says, ’The lady ain’t rakin’ in anythin’ but a lettle white
chip, in takin’ me, but if she’s willin’, here’s my hand.’

"At which that pore young thing cried harder than ever. Well, Jim he up
an’ marries the girl an’ it turns out fine. He gets a job herdin’ sheep on
shares, an’ she stays with the Rodney outfit till he saves enough to build
a cabin. Things is goin’ with Jim like a prairie afire. In a few years he
acquires a herd of his own, a fine herd, not a scabby sheep in the bunch.
Alida she makes him the best kind of a wife, them kids is the pride of his
life, and then, them cursed cattle-men do for him. Of course, he takes to
rustlin’; I’d do more’n rustle if they’d touch mine."

The pair of broncos that Mrs. Yellett was driving humped their backs like
cats as they climbed the steep mountain-road. With her, driving was an
exact science. It was a treat to see her handle the ribbons. Mary asked
some trifling question about the children and it elicited the information
that one of the girls was named Cacta. "Yes," she said, "I like new names
for children, not old ones that is all frazzled out and folks has suffered
an’ died to. It seems to start ’em fair, like playin’ cards with a new
deck. Cacta’s my oldest daughter, and I named her after the flowers that
blooms all over the desert spite of everything, heat, cold, an’ rain an’
alkali dust—the cactus blooms right through it all. Even its own thorns
don’t seem to fret it none. I called her plain Cactus till she was three,
and along came a sharp studyin’ the flowers an’ weeds out here, and he
’lowed that Cactus was a boy’s name an’ Cacta was for girls—called it a
_fee_minin tarnation, or somethin’ like that, so we changed it. My second
daughter ’ain’t got quite so much of a name. She’s called Clematis. That
holds its own out here pretty well, ’long by the willows on the creek. Paw
’lowed he was terrible afraid that I’d name the youngest girl Sage-brush,
so he spoke to call her Lessie Viola, an’ I giv’ in. The boys is all plain
named, Ben, Jack, and Ned. Paw wouldn’t hear of a fancy brand bein’ run
onto ’em."

The temperature fell perceptibly as they climbed the heights, and the air
had the heady quality of wine. It was awesome, this entering into the
great company of the mountains. Presently Mary caught the glimmer of
something white against the dark background of the hills. It gleamed like
a snow-bank, though they were far below the snow-line on the mountain-side
they were climbing.

"Well, here be camp," announced Mrs. Yellett. What Mary had taken for a
bank of snow was a huge, canvas-covered wagon. Several dogs ran down to
greet the buckboard, barking a welcome. In the background was a shadowy
group, huge of stature, making its way down the mountain-path. "And here’s
all the children come to meet teacher." Mrs. Yellett’s tone was tenderly
maternal, as if it was something of a feat for the children to walk down
the mountain-path to meet their teacher. But Mary, straining her eyes to
catch a glimpse of her little pupils, could discover nothing but a group
of persons that seemed to be the sole survivors of some titanic race. Not
one among them but seemed to have reached the high-water mark of six feet.
Was it an optical illusion, a hallucination born of the wonderful
starlight? Or were they as huge as they seemed? The young men looked
giants, the girls as if they had wandered out of the first chapters of
Genesis. Their mother introduced them. They all had huge, warm, perspiring
hands, with grips like bears. Mary looked about for a house into which she
could escape to gather her scattered faculties, but the starlight, yellow
and luminous, revealed none. There was the huge covered wagon that she had
taken for a snow-bank, there was a small tent, there were two light
wagons, there were dogs innumerable, but there was no sign of a house.

"What do you think of it?" inquired Mrs. Yellett, smilingly, anticipating
a favorable answer.

"It’s almost too beautiful to leave." Mary innocently supposed that Mrs.
Yellett referred to the starlit landscape. "But I’m so tired, Mrs.
Yellett, and so glad to get to a real home at last, that I’m going to ask
if you will not show me the way to the house so that I may go to bed right
away."

This apparently reasonable request was greeted by a fine chorus of titanic
laughter from Mary’s pupils. Mrs. Yellett waved her hand over the
surrounding landscape in comprehensive gesture.

"Ain’t all this large enough for you?" she asked, gayly.

"You mean the mountains? They’re wonderful. But—I really think I’d like to
go in the house."

"I shore hope you ain’t figgerin’ on goin’ into no house, ’cause there
ain’t no house to go into." She laughed merrily, as if the idea of such an
effete luxury as a house were amusing. "This yere family ’ain’t ever had a
house—it camps."

Mary gasped. The real meaning of words no longer had the power of making
an impression on her. If Mrs. Yellett had announced that they were in the
habit of sleeping in the moon, it would not have surprised her.

"If you are tired, an’ want to go to bed, you can shuck off and lie down
any time. Ben, Jack, Ned, go an’ set with paw in the tent while the
gov’ment gets ready for bed. Cacta and Clem, you help me with them
quilts."

Mary stood helpless in the wilderness while quilts and pillows were
fetched somewhere from the adjacent scenery, and Mrs. Yellett asked her,
with the gravity of a Pullman porter interrogating a passenger as to the
location of head and foot, if she liked to sleep "light or dark." She
chose "dark" at random, hating to display her ignorance of the
alternatives, with the happy result that her bed was made up to leeward of
the great sheep-wagon, in a nice little corner of the State of Wyoming.
Mary was grateful that she had chosen dark.

As she dozed off, she was reminded of a certain magazine illustration that
Archie had pinned over his bed after the aunts had given a grudging
consent to this westward journey. There was a line beneath the pictorial
decoy which read: "Ranch Life in the New West." And there were piazzas
with fringed Mexican hammocks, wild-grass cushions, a tea-table with a
samovar, and, last, a lady in white muslin pouring tea. The stern reality
apparently consisted in scorching alkali plains, with houses of the
packing-box school of architecture at a distance of seventy or eighty
miles apart. No ladies in white muslin poured tea; they garbed themselves
in simple gunny-sacking, and their repartee had an acrid, personal note.
But Mary was glad to know that Archie had that picture, and that he
thought of her in such ideal surroundings.



X


                           On Horse-thief Trail


Judith, on her black mare, Dolly, left the Dax ranch after the mid-day
meal to go in quest of her brother. He had left his comfortable cabin on
the Bear Creek, when he had turned rustler, and moved into the "bad man’s
country," one of those remote mountain fastnesses that abound in Wyoming
and furnish a natural protection to the fugitive from justice. Judith took
the left fork of the road even as Peter Hamilton had chosen the right, the
day she had watched him gallop towards Kitty Colebrooke with never a
glance backward. Judith strove now to put him and the memory of that day
from her mind by turning towards the open country without a glance in the
direction he had taken. But her thoughts were weary of journeying over
that trail that she would not look towards; in imagination she had
travelled it with Peter a hundred times, saw each dip and turn of the
yellow road, each feature of the landscape as he rode exultant to Kitty,
to be turned, tried, taken or left as her mood should prompt. But Judith
was more woman than saint, and in her heart there was a blending of joy
and pain. For she knew—such skill has love in inference from detail—that
the mysterious far-away girl, who was so powerful that she could have
whatever she wanted, even to Peter, loved her own ambitions better than
she did Peter or Peter’s happiness, and that she would not marry him
except as a makeshift. For Miss Colebrooke wrote verses; Peter had a
white-and-gold volume of them that Judith fancied he said his prayers to.

As for Peter himself, he had never been able to explain the magic Kitty
had brewed for him. There was a heady quality in the very ring of her
name. His first glimpse of her, on Class Day, in a white gown and a hat
that to his manly indiscrimination looked as guileless as a sheaf of
poppies nodding above the pale-yellow hair that had the sheen of
corn-silk, had been a vision that stirred in him heroic promptings. He had
no difficulty in securing an introduction. She was a connection of the
Wetmores, as was he, though through opposite sides of the house. In the
few minutes’ talk that followed, he had the disconcerting sensation of
being "talked down to." There was the indulgent tolerance of the woman of
the world to the "nice boy" about this amazing young woman, who might have
been eighteen. Hamilton had repudiated the very suggestion of being a
"nice boy." But he felt himself blushing, groping for words, saying stupid
things, supplying every requisite of the "nice boy" as if he were acting
the part. Her chaperon bore her away presently, and he was left with a
radiant impression of corn-silk hair and a complexion that justified
Bouguereau’s mother-of-pearl flesh tints. And when she had tilted the
ruffled lace parasol over her shoulder, so that it framed her head like a
fleecy halo, he had seen that her eyes were green as jade. Withal he had a
sense of having acquitted himself stupidly.

Later, when he ran the gamut of some friends, they had chaffed him on his
hardihood. By Jove! He had nerve to look at her! Didn’t he know she was
"the" Miss Colebrooke? Now Hamilton was absolutely ignorant of Miss
Colebrooke’s right of way to the definite article, but it was
characteristic of him to make no inquiries. On the whole, he found the
situation meeting with a greater number of the artistic requirements than
such situations usually presented. He was still dallying with this
pleasant vagueness of sensation when he picked up a copy of a magazine,
and the name Katherine Colebrooke caught his eye and held it like the
flight of a comet. Her contribution was a sonnet entitled "The Miracle."
As a naïve emotional confession, "The Miracle" interested him; as a
sonnet, he rent it unmercifully.

Peter was to learn, however, that this sonnet was but a solitary flake in
a poetic fall of more or less magnitude. He rather conspicuously avoided a
reference to her poetry when they met again. To him it was the very least
of her gifts. Her hair, that had the tender yellow of ripening corn, was
worthy a cycle of sonnets, but pray leave the making of them to some one
else! By daylight the jade-colored eyes seemed to shut out the world. The
pupils shrank to pin-points. The green looked deep—as many fathoms as the
sea. She was all Diana by daylight, a huntress, if you will, of the
elusive epithet, but essentially a maiden goddess, who would add no
sprightly romance to the chronicles of Olympus. By lamp-light she
suggested quite another divinity. The pin-points expanded; they burned
black, like coals newly breaking into flame.

When Hamilton knew her better, he did not like to think that he had
thought her eighteen at their first meeting. It impugned his judgment as a
man of the world. Young ladies of eighteen could not possibly be
contributors of several years’ standing to the various magazines.
Disconcerting scraps of gossip floated to him. He heard of her as
bridesmaid at a famous wedding of six years back, when she had deflected
the admiration from the bride and remained the central figure of the
picture. Her portrait by Sargent had been the sensation of the Salon when
he had been a grubby-faced boy with his nose in a Latin grammar. An
unusual situation was abhorrent to him. That he should marry an older
woman, one, moreover, who had gained her public in a field to which he had
not gained admission, was doubly distasteful by reason of his deference to
the conventional. If she had flirted with him, his midsummer madness would
have evaporated into thin air; but she kept him at arm’s-length,
ostensibly took him seriously, and the boy proposed.

Her rejection of him was a matter of such consummate skill that Hamilton
did not realize the keenness of his disappointment till he was swinging
westward over the prairies. She had confided to him that her work claimed
her and that she must renounce those sweet responsibilities that made the
happiness of other women. It was with the protective mien of one who
sought to shield him from an adverse destiny that she declined his suit.

This had all happened seven years ago. In the mean time he had adjusted
his disappointment to the new life of the West. To say that he had fallen
in love with the situation would be to misrepresent him. But the rôle of
lonely cow-puncher loyally wedded to the thought of his first love was not
without charm to Peter. How long his constancy would have survived the
test of propinquity to a woman of Judith Rodney’s compelling personality,
other things being equal, it would be difficult to hazard a guess. The
coming of Judith from the convent increased the perspective into which
Kitty was retreating. With the vivid plainswoman in the foreground, the
pale-haired writer of verse dwindled almost to reminiscence. But the
reverence for the usual, that made up the underlying motive for so much of
Hamilton’s conduct, presented barriers alongside of which his previous
quandary regarding Miss Colebrooke’s seniority shrank to insignificance.
He might marry a woman older than himself and swallow the grimace of it,
but by no conceivable system of argument could he persuade himself to
marry into a family like that of the Rodneys—the girl herself, for all her
beauty and rare womanliness, a quarter Indian, her father the synonyme for
obloquy, her brother a cattle thief. Hamilton preferred that other men
should make the heroic marriages of a new country. He was prepared to
applaud their hardihood of temperament, but in his own case such a thing
was inconceivable. Similar arguments have ensnared multitudes in the web
of caution and provided a rich feast for the arch-spider, convention, the
shrivelled flies dangling in the web conveying no significance,
apparently, beyond that of advertising the system.

When Peter went East, he had expected to find Kitty worn by the pursuit of
epithets, haunted by the phantom of a career, resigned to the slings and
arrows of remorseful spinsterhood. An obvious regret, or, at least,
resignation tempered with remembrance, was the unguent he anticipated at
the hands of Kitty. But alas for sanctuaries built to refuge wounded
pride! He found Kitty the pivot of an adoring coterie, the magazines
flowing with the milk and honey of her verse and she looking younger, if
possible, than when he had first known her. Time, experience, even the
pangs of literary parturition had not writ a single character on that
alabaster brow. The very atrophy of the forces of time which she had
accomplished by unknown necromancy seemed to endow her with an elfin
youth, making her seem smaller, more childlike, more radiantly elusive
than when she had worn the poppy hat at Cambridge.

The tan and hardship of the prairie had adjusted the blunder of their
ages. Stark conditions had overdrawn his account perhaps a decade; she
retained a surplus it would be rude to estimate. Her greeting of him was
radiant, her welcome panoplied in words that verged close to inspiration.
A woman would have scented warning instantly, deep feeling and the curled
and perfumed phrase being suspicious cronies and sure to rouse those
lightly slumbering watch-dogs, the feminine wits. But Peter only turned
the other cheek. More than once, in the days that followed, he devoutly
thanked his patron saint, caution, that his relations with Judith had been
governed by characteristic prudence. Kitty admitted him to her coterie,
but he had lost nothing of his attitude of grand Turk towards her verses.
The sin be upon the heads of whomever took such things seriously! The
irony of fate that compelled a class poet to punch cows may have tinctured
his judgment.

A telegram recalled him to the ranch and prevented a final leave-taking
with Miss Colebrooke. He made his adieux by letter, and they were frankly
regretful. Miss Colebrooke’s reply mingled sorrow in parting from her old
friend with joy in having found him. Her letter, a masterpiece of
phrase-spinning, presented to Peter the one significant fact that she
would not be averse to the renewal of his suit. In reading her letter he
made no allowance for the fact that the lady had made a fine art of saying
things, and that her joy and regret at their meeting and parting might
have been reminiscent of the printed passion that was so prominent a
feature of magazinedom. Her letters—the like of them he had never seen
outside printed volumes of letters that had achieved the distinction of
classics—culminated in the one that Judith had given him that morning,
announcing that unexpectedly she had decided to join the Wetmore girls and
would be glad to see him at the ranch.

That he had flown at her bidding, Judith knew. What she would least have
suspected was that Miss Colebrooke had received her visitor as if his
breakneck ride across the desert had been in the nature of an afternoon
call. If Judith, knowing what she did of this long-drawn-out romance,
could have known likewise of her knight’s chagrin, would she have pitied
him?

Ignorant of the recent anticlimax, and with a burden of many heavy
thoughts, Judith was penetrating a world of unleavened desolation. Beneath
the scourge of the noon-day sun the desert lay, stripped of every
illusion. Vegetation had almost ceased, nothing but sun-scorched,
dust-choked sage-brush could spring from such sterility. The fruit of
desolation, it gave back to desolation a quality more melancholy than
utter barrenness. Glittering in the sunlight, the beds of alkali gleamed
leper white; above them the agitated air was like the hot waves that dance
and quiver about iron at white heat. From horizon to horizon the curse of
God seemed to have fallen on the land; it was as if, cursing it, He had
forgotten it, and left it as the abomination of desolation. Judith scarce
heeded, her thoughts straying after first one then another of the group
that made up her little world—Peter Hamilton, Kitty Colebrooke, Jim, his
family—thoughts inconsequent as the dancing dust-devils that whirled over
that infinity of space, and, whirling, disappeared and reappeared at some
new corner of the compass.

The trail that she must take to Jim’s camp in the mountain was known to
but few honest men. Fugitives from justice—the grave, impersonal justice
of the law, or the swift justice of the plains—found there an asylum. And
while they sometimes suffered, in death by thirst or hunger, a sentence
more dreadful than the law of the land or the law of the rope would have
given them, the desert, like the sea, seldom gave up her own. It was more
than probable that no woman except Alida Rodney had ever taken that trail
before, and reasonably certain that no woman had ever taken it alone.
Dolly, when she saw the beds of alkali grow more frequent, and that the
trails of the range cattle turned back, sniffed the lack of water in the
air, slackened her pace, and turned an interrogatory ear towards her
mistress.

"It’s all right, old girl"; the gauntleted hand patted the satin neck.
"We’re in for"—Judith flung her head up and confronted the infinite
desolation yawning to the sky-line—"God knows what."

Dolly broke into a light canter; this evidently was not an occasion for
dawdling. There was a touch of business about the way the reins were held
that made the mare settle down to work. But her flying hoofs made little
apparent progress against the space and silence of the desert. Five, ten,
fifteen miles and the curving shoulder of the mountain, that she must
cross, still mocked in the distance. Only the sun moved in that vast world
of seemingly immutable forces.

There was no stoic Sioux in Judith now. The girl that breasted the crests
of the foot-hills shrank in terror from the loneliness and the suggestion
of foes lurking in ambush. The sun dropped behind the mountain, leaving a
blood-red pool in his wake, like fugitive Cain. Already night was sweeping
over the earth from mountain shadows that flowed imperceptibly together
like blackened pools. To the girl following the trail the silence was more
dreadful than a chorus of threatening voices. She listened till the
stillness beat at her ears like the stamping of ten thousand hoofs, then
pulled up her horse, and the desert was as still as the chamber of death.

"Ah, Dolly, my dear, a house is the place for women folk when the night
comes—a house, the fire burning clear, the kettle singing, and—" Dolly
whinnied an affirmative without waiting for the picture to be completed.
The wilderness was being gradually swallowed by the shadows, as
deliberately as a snake swallows its victim. They were nearing the
mountains. The hot blasts of air from the desert blew more and more
intermittently. The breeze swept keen from the hills, towering higher and
higher, and Judith breathed deep of the piny fragrance and felt the
tension of things loosen a little.

Whitening cattle bones gleamed from the darkness, tragic reminders of hard
winters and scant pasturage, and Judith, with the Indian superstition that
was in the marrow of her bones, read ghostly warnings in the empty
eye-sockets of the grinning skulls that stared up at her. She dared not
think of the dangers that the looming darkness might conceal, or of what
she might find at her journey’s end, or—"Whoa, Dolly! softly, girl. Is it
my foolish, white-blood nerves, or is some one following?"

The mare had been trained to respond to the slightest touch on her mouth,
and stopped instantly. Judith swayed slightly in the saddle with the
heaving of the sweating horse. The blood beat at her temples, confusing
what she actually heard with what her imagination pictured. She was
half-way up a towering spur of the Wind River when she slid from the
saddle, and putting her ear to the ground listened, Indian fashion. Above
the throbbing stillness of the desert night, that came to her murmurously,
like the imprisoned roar of the sea from a shell, she could hear the
regular beat of horse’s hoofs following up the steep mountain grade. She
scrambled up with the desperate nimbleness of a hunted thing, but when she
attempted to vault to the saddle her limbs failed and she sank clinging to
the pommel. Twice she tried and twice the trembling of her limbs held her
captive. With the loss of each moment the beat of the hoofs on the trail
below became more distinct. The very desperation of her plight kept her
clinging to the pommel, incapable of thought, so that when she finally
flung herself to the saddle she was surprised to find herself there. To
the left the trail dropped sharply to a precipice, choked by the close
crowding of many scrub pines. To the right the snow-clad spires of the
Wind River kept their eternal vigil. If she should call aloud for help,
these white, still mountains would echo the anguish of her woman’s cry and
give no further heed to her plight.

The trail had begun to widen. The horse behind her again stumbled,
loosening a stone that rolled with crashes and echoings down to the
precipice below. She took advantage of the widening of the trail to urge
Dolly forward. Her impulse was to put spurs to the mare and run, to take
chances with loose stones, a narrowing trail, and the possibility of
Dolly’s stumbling and breaking a leg; but discretion prompted the showing
of a brave front, the pleasantries of the road, with flight as the last
resource of desperation.

Suddenly gaining what seemed to be a plateau, she wheeled and waited the
coming of this possible friend or foe. The thudding of hoofs through the
inferno of darkness stopped, as the rider below considered the latest move
of the horseman above. They were so near that Judith could hear the
labored breathing of the sweating horse. The blackness of the night had
become a tangible thing. The towering mountains were one piece with the
gaping precipice, the trail, the scrub pines, the gauntlet on her hand.
The horse below resumed its stumbling gait. Judith crowded Dolly close to
the rocky wall. If the chance comrade of the wilderness should pass her by
in the darkness—God speed him!

"What the devil are you blocking the trail for?" sung out a voice from the
darkness. At sound of it Judith’s heart stopped beating. The voice was
Peter Hamilton’s.



XI


                         The Cabin In The Valley


And Judith, taken unawares by the unexpected turn of things, comforted as
a lost child that is found, told all her feeling for him in the way she
called his name. The easy tenderness of the man awoke; his senses swayed
to the magic of her voice, the mystery of the night, the shadow world in
which they two, ’twixt earth and sky, were alone. They rode without
speaking. Peter’s hand sought hers, and all her woman’s terror of the
desolation, her fear of the vague terrors of the dreadful night, spoke in
her answering pressure. It was as if the desert had given them to each
other as they groped through the silent darkness. In the great company of
earth, sky, silence, and this great-hearted woman, Peter grew conscious of
a real thrill. There were depths to life—vast, still depths; this woman’s
unselfish love for him made him realize them. He felt his soul sweeping
out on the great tide of things. Farther and farther it swept; his patron
saint, caution, beckoning frantically from the receding shore, was miles
behind. "Judith!" he said, and he scarce recognized his own voice.
"Judith!" he struggled as a swimmer in a drowning clutch. Then his patron
saint threw him a life-line and he saved the situation.

"Judith!" he said, a third time, and now he knew his voice. It was the
voice of the man who tilted at life picturesquely in a broad-brimmed hat,
who loved his darling griefs and fitted them as a Rembrandt fits its
background. And still, in the same voice, the voice he knew, he said: "I
feel as if we had died and our souls were meeting. You know Aldrich’s
exquisite lines:

  "Somewhere in desolate, wind-swept space,
    In twilight land—no man’s land—
  Two hurrying shapes met face to face
    And bade each other stand.

  "’And who are you?’ cried one, agape,
    Shuddering in the gloaming light.
  I know not,’ said the other shape,
  ’I only died last night.’"

"’I only died last night!’" she repeated the line, slowly, significantly.
In her questioning she forgot the night, the desolation, the presence of
the man. Had she died last night? Had youth, the joy of living, her
infinite capacity for love, had they died when Peter, with the ugly haste
of the man without a nice sense of the time that should elapse between the
old and the new love, had spurred away cheerfully at the beck of another
woman? And now the desert, this earth-mother as she called it, in the
Indian way, had given him back to her, thrown them together as driftwood
in the still ocean of space. She drew a long breath, the breath of one
waking from an anguished dream. A wild, unreasoning gladness woke in her
heart, the joy of living swept her back again to life. She had not died
last night, she was riding through the wilderness with Peter.

"Look!" she whispered. The sky had lost its forbidding blackness. The
sharp notches of the mountains, faintly outlined in white, undulated
through an eternity of space. Venus hung in the west, burning softly as a
shaded lamp. The trail they climbed seemed to end in her pale yellow
light.

Peter had saved the situation, but the wild beauty of the night stirred in
him that gift of silvery speech that was ever his tribute to the sex,
rather than the woman. He bent towards Judith. A loosened strand of her
hair blew across his cheek. The breakneck ride to Kitty was already the
madness of a dead and gone incarnation. He pointed to the pale star, and
told her it was the omen of their destiny; the formless blackness through
which they had groped was the way of life, but for such as were not
condemned to eternal darkness Venus held high her lamp and they scaled the
heights.

And Judith, listening, found her heart a battle-field of love and hate.
"Were women dogs, that men should play with them in idle moods, caress
them, and fling them out for other toys?" she demanded of herself, even
while the tones of his voice melted her innermost being to thankfulness
for this hour that he was wholly hers.

Gayly, with ready turns of speech and snatches of song, trolled in his
musical barytone, Peter rode through the night, even as he rode through
life, a Sir Knight of the Joyous Heart, unbrushed by the wing of sorrow,
loving his pale griefs for the values they gave the picture. And Judith
understood by reason of that exquisite perception that was hers in all
matters pertaining to him, and, knowing, only loved the more.

Down the valley came the sharp yelp of a coyote, and in a moment the
towering crags had taken it up, the echo repeating it and giving it back
to the valley, where the coyote barked again at the shadow of his voice.
The night was full of the eerie laughter. Peter put a restraining hand on
Dolly’s bridle, and, waiting for the coyote to stop, called Judith’s name,
and all the mountains made music of it. The echo sang the old Hebrew name
as if it had been a psalm. Peter’s voice gave it to the mountains
joyously, but the mountains gave it back in the minor. And Judith was
reminded of the soft, singing syllables that her mother, in the Indian
way, had made of her daughter’s Indian name. The remembrance tugged at her
heart. In her joy at seeing Peter she had forgotten that the errand that
had brought her was an errand of life and death—life and death for her
brother!

But Peter’s ready enthusiasms pressed him hard. Surely love-making was the
business of such a night. "Ah, Judith, goddess of the heights, if I could
sing your name like the mountains, would you love me a little?"

For his pains he had a flash of white teeth in a smile that recalled his
first acquaintance with Kitty, the sort of smile one would give to a "nice
boy" when his manoeuvres were a trifle obvious. "Not if you sang my name
as the chorus of all the Himalayas and the Rockies and Andes, and with the
fire of all their volcanoes and the beauty of their snows and the strength
of all their hills, for it’s not my way to love a little!"

He bent towards her; to brush her cheek lightly as they rode was but to
imply his appreciation of the scene as a bit of chiaroscuro, the panorama
of the desert night, eternal romance typified by the man and woman scaling
the heights, the goddess of love lighting them on their way by her flaming
torch. But Judith, who said little because she felt much, was in no mood
to brook such dalliance, and, urging the mare sharply, she cantered down
the divide at peril of life and limb. Peter, cursing the heavy-footed
beast he rode, came stumbling after.

Judith rode wildly through the night, leaving Peter laps behind, to
beseech, to prophesy dire happening if she should slip, and to scramble
after, as best he might, on the heavy-footed beast he repudiated, with all
his ancestors, as oxen, to the fourth generation. But the woman kept her
pace. She had stern questions to put to herself, and they were likely to
have truer answers if Peter were elsewhere than riding beside her. Whither
was he going? They had met casually on a trail known to few honest men. It
led over a spur of the Wind River to a sort of no man’s land, the
hiding-place of horse and cattle thieves. She had gone to warn her
brother. Could he be going there—She could not bring herself to finish.

Her heart was divided against itself. Within it were fought again the red
and the white man’s battles, bitterly, and to the finish. And now the
white man, with his open warfare, won, and all her love rose up and
scourged her little faith. She would wait on the trail for Peter, penitent
and ashamed. And while she waited suspicions bred of her Indian blood
stirred distrustfully, and she told herself that her mother’s daughter
made a worthy champion of the ways of white men. Did Hamilton hunt her
brother gallowsward, making merry with her the meantime? He had not even
been courteously concerned as to where she was going when they met on the
divide. They had met and ridden together as casually as if it had been the
most natural thing for them both to be taking the horse-thief trail as a
summer evening’s ride. And she had not thought to wonder at his possible
destination, when the man from whom she rode in terror through the night
proved to be Peter, because the lesser question of his errand had been
swallowed up in the greater miracle of his presence.

She was by this time well down the divide. The temperature had risen
perceptibly on the down grade. The heat of the plains had already mingled
with the cool hill air; the heights, where Venus kept her love vigil, were
already past. Judith gave Dolly a breathing spell, herself lounging easily
meanwhile. She knew how to take her ease in the saddle as well as any
cow-puncher on the range.

"The Hayoka has dominion over me," she mused, with Indian fatalism. "As
well resign myself to sorrow with dignity. Hayoka, Hayo—ka!" and she began
to croon softly a hymn of propitiation to the Hayoka, the Sioux god of
contrariety. According to the legends, he sat naked and fanned himself in
a Dakota blizzard and huddled, shivering, over a fire in the heat of
summer. Likewise the Hayoka cried for joy and laughed for sorrow.

She remembered how the nuns at Santa Fé had been shocked at her for
praying to Indian gods, and how once she had built a little mound of
stones, which was the Sioux way of making petition, in the shadow of the
statue of the Virgin Mary, and how Sister Angela had scattered the stones
and told her to pray instead to the Blessed Lady. She still prayed to the
Blessed Lady every day; but sometimes, too, she reared little mounds of
stones in the desert when she was very sad and the kinship between her and
the dead gods of her mother’s people seemed the closer for their common
sorrow.

Peter, coming up with a much-blown horse, found her still chanting the
Indian song.

"Sing him a verse for me, Judith. Heaven knows I need something to
straighten out my infernal luck. Tell the Hayoka that I’m a good fellow
and need only half a chance. Tell him to prosper my present venture."

She had begun to chant the invocation, then stopped suddenly. "I must not;
you know I am a Catholic." Suspicion that had been scotched, not killed,
raised its head. "What was his present venture?" Her eye had not changed
in expression, nor a tone of her voice, but in her heart was a sickening
distrust for all things.

A belated moon had come up. The level plain, on which their horses threw
grotesque, elongated shadows, was flooded with honey-colored light. Each
straggling clump of sage-brush, whitening bone and bowlder, gleamed
mysterious, ghostly in the radiant flood-tide. They seemed to be riding
through a world that had no kinship with that black, formless void through
which they had groped but yet a little while. Then darkness had been upon
the face of the deep. Now there was a miracle of light such as only the
desert, in its desolation, knows. To Judith, with a soul attuned to every
passing expression of nature, there was significance in this transition
from darkness to light. The sudden radiance was emblematic of her belated
perception, coming as it did after a blindness so dense as to appear
almost wilful. Her mind was busy with a multitude of schemes. Fool though
she had been, she would not be the instrument of her brother’s undoing.

"I’ve come too far," she cried, in sudden dismay. "I should have stopped
at the foot of the divide. I’ve never been over the trail before."

"You foolish child, why should you stop in the middle of the wilderness?"

She wheeled the mare about and faced him, a figure of graven resolution.

"I promised to meet Tom Lorimer there—now you know."

With which she cracked Dolly sharply with her heel and began to retrace
her way over the trail. Peter turned his horse and followed, with the
feeling of utter helplessness that a man has when confronted with the
granite obstinacy of women. Judith had meanwhile expected that the
announcement of her mythical appointment with Tom Lorimer would be
received differently. Tom Lorimer’s reputation was of the worst. An
Eastern man formerly, an absconder from justice, rumor was busy with tales
of ungodly merrymaking that went on at his ranch, where no woman went
except painted wisps from the dance-halls. But Peter was too loyal a
friend, despite his shortcomings as a lover, to see in Judith’s statement
anything more than a sisterly devotion so deeply unselfish that it failed
to take into account the danger to which she subjected herself.

However, it was plainly his duty to prevent an unprotected rendezvous with
Lorimer, to reason, to plead, and, if he should fail to bring her to a
reasonable frame of mind, to go with her, come what would of the result.
There were reasons innumerable why he, a cattle-man, should avoid the
appearance of dealing with the sheep faction, he reflected, grimly.
Lorimer owned sheep, many thousand head. His herds had been allowed to
graze unmolested, while smaller owners, like Jim Rodney, had been crowded
out because his influence, politically, was a thing to be reckoned with.
So Peter followed Judith, pleading Judith’s cause; she did not understand,
he told her, what she was doing; and while perhaps there was not another
man in the country who would not honor her unselfishness in coming to him,
Lorimer’s chivalry was not a thing to be reckoned with, drunken beast that
he was. And Judith, worn with the struggle, tried beyond measure, made
reckless by the daily infusion of ill-fortune, pulled up the mare and
laughed unpleasantly.

"You think I’m going to see Lorimer about Jim? I’m going with him to a
merrymaking. We’re old pals, Lorimer and I."

"Judith, dear, has it come to this, that you not only distrust an old
friend, but that you try to degrade yourself to hide from him the fact
that you are going to your brother’s? You’ve never spoken to Lorimer. I
heard him say, not a week ago, that he had never succeeded in making you
recognize him. You deceived me at first when you spoke of meeting him—I
thought you had a message from Jim—but this talk of merrymaking is beneath
you." He shrugged his shoulders in disgust. He felt the torrent of grief
that rent her. No sob escaped her lips; there was no convulsive movement
of shoulder. She rode beside him, still as the desert before the
sand-storm breaks, her soul seared with white-hot iron that knows no
saving grace of sob or tear. She rode as Boadicea might have ridden to
battle; there was not a yielding line in her body. But over and over in
her woman’s heart there rang the cry: "I am so tired! If the long night
would but come!"

Peter drew out his watch. "It’s a quarter to eleven. We’ll have a hard bit
of riding to reach Blind Creek before midnight."

Then he knew as well as she, perhaps better, the route to Jim’s
hiding-place; she had never been there as yet. And if Peter knew,
doubtless every cattle-man in the country knew. What a fool she had been
with her talk of meeting Tom Lorimer! A sense of utter defeat seemed to
paralyze her energies. She felt like a trapped thing that after eluding
its pursuers again and again finds that it has been but running about a
corral. Physical weariness was telling on her. She had been in the saddle
since a little past noon and it was now not far from midnight. And still
there was the unanswered question of Peter’s errand. It was long since
either had broken the silence. A delicious coolness had crept into the air
with the approach of midnight. Judith, breathing deep draughts of it,
reminded herself of the stoicism that was hers by birthright.

"Peter"—her voice lost some of its old ring, but it had a deeper
note—"Peter, we make strange comrades, you and I, in a stranger world. We
meet on Horse-Thief Trail, and there is reason to suppose that our errands
are inimical. You’ve pierced all my little pretences; you know that I am
going to my brother, who is an outlaw—my brother, the rope for whose
hanging is already cut. And yet we have been friends these many years, and
we meet in this world of desolation and weigh each other’s words, and
there is no trust in our hearts. Our little faith is more pitiful than the
cruel errands that bring us. I take it you, too, are going to my
brother’s?"

"I’m going there to see that you arrive safe and sound, but I had no
intention of going when I left camp. You’ve brought me a good twenty miles
out of my way, not to mention accusing me of ulterior motives. Now, aren’t
you penitent?" He smiled at her, boyish and irresistible. To Judith it was
more reassuring than an oath. "It’s like dogs fighting over a picked bone;
the meat’s all gone. The range is overworked; it needs a good, long rest."
He turned towards Judith, speaking slowly. "What you have said is true.
We’re friends before we’re partisans of either faction. I’m on my way to a
round-up. There’s been an unexpected order to fill a beef contract—a
thousand steers. We’re going to furnish five hundred, the XXX two hundred
and fifty, and the "Circle-Star" two hundred and fifty. Men have been
scouring the enemy’s country for days rounding up stragglers. It will go
hard with the rustlers after this round-up, Judith."

She felt a great wave of penitence and shame sweep over her. She had not
trusted him; in her heart she had nourished hideous suspicions of him, and
he was telling her, quite simply, of the plans of his own faction,
trusting her, as, indeed, he might, but as she never expected to be
trusted.

"Peter, do you know that sometimes I think Jim has gone quite mad with
these range troubles. He’s acted strangely ever since his sheep were
driven over the cliff. He’s not been home to Alida and the children since
he has been out of jail, and you know how devoted to them he has always
been! He spends all his time tracking Simpson. Alida wrote me that she
expects him to-night, and I’m going there on the chance."

"It’s the devil’s own hole for desolation that he’s come to." Peter looked
about the cup-shaped valley that was but a _cul-de-sac_ in the mountains.
Its approach was between the high rock walls of a cañon. Passing between
them, the rise of temperature was almost incredible. The great barrier of
mountain-range, that cut it off from the rest of the world, seemed also to
cut it off from light and air. The atmosphere hung lifeless, the
occasional bellow of range-cattle sounded far-off and muffled. Vegetation
was scant, the sage-brush grew close and scrubby, even the brilliant
cactus flowers seemed to have abandoned the valley to its fate. A lone
group of dead cotton-woods grew like sentinels close to the rocky walls.
Their twisted branches, gaunt and bare, writhed upward as if in dumb
supplication. There was about them a something that made Judith come
closer to Peter as they passed them by. The night wind sang in their
leafless branches with a long-drawn, shuddering sigh. The despair of a
barren, deserted thing seemed to have settled on them.

"Those frightful trees, how can Alida stand them?" She looked back. "Oh, I
wish they were cut down!"

Before them was the cabin, its ruined condition pitifully apparent even by
night. It had been deserted ten years before Jim brought his family to it.
Rumor said it was haunted. Grim stories were told of the death of a woman
who had come there with a man, and had not lived to go away with him. The
roof of the adjoining stable had fallen in, the bars of the corral were
missing. The house was dark but for a feeble light that glimmered in one
window, the beacon that had been lighted, night after night, against Jim’s
coming. It added a further note of apprehension, peering through the dark,
still valley like a wakeful, anxious eye, keeping a long and unrewarded
vigil. Judith felt the consummation of the threatening tragedy after her
first glimpse of the sentinel trees. She could not explain, but her heart
cried, even as the wind in them had sung of death. Perhaps her mother’s
spirit spoke to her, just as she had said, on that memorable drive, that
the Great Mystery spoke to his people in the earth, the sky, and the
frowning mountains.

"Peter"—she had slid from her horse and was clinging to his arm—"when it
happens, Peter, you will have no part in it?"

"It won’t happen, Judith, if I can help it."

She kissed his hand as it held the loose reins.

"Lord, I am not worthy!" was the thought in his heart. He sat graven in
the saddle. Sir Knight of the Joyous Heart though he was, the unsought
kiss of trust gifted him with a self-reverence that would not soon forsake
him.

Judith was rapping on the door and calling to Alida not to be frightened.
And presently it was opened. Peter wanted to leave Judith, now that she
was safely at the end of her journey, but she would not hear of it till he
had eaten.

"You would have had your comfortable supper five hours ago had you not
been playing cavalier to me all over the wilderness." And Peter yielded.

Judith busied herself about the kitchen. Her mood of racking apprehension
had disappeared. Indian stoicism had again the guiding hand. She waved
Peter from the fire that she was kindling, as if he were a blundering
incompetent. But she let him slice the bacon and grind the coffee as one
lets a child help. Alida came in, white-faced and anxious over the long
absence of her husband, but conscientiously hospitable nevertheless. Peter
noticed that Judith made a gallant pretence of eating, crumbling her bread
and talking the meanwhile. The pale wife, who had little to say at the
best of times, was put to the test to say anything at all. But, withal,
their intent was so genuinely hospitable that Peter himself could not
speak with the pity of it. Accustomed as he was to the roughness of these
frontier cabins, never had he seen a human habitation so desolate as this.
The mud plaster had fallen away from between the logs, showing cross
sections of the melancholy prospect. An atmosphere of tragedy brooded over
the place. Whether from its long period of emptiness, or from the vaguely
hinted murder of the woman who had died there, or whether it took its
character from the prevailing desolation, the cabin in the valley was an
unlovely thing. Nor did the cleanliness, the conscientious making the best
of things, soften the woful aspect of the place. Rather was the appeal the
more poignant to the seeing eye, as the brave makeshift of the
self-respecting poor strikes deeper than the beggar’s whine. The house was
bare but for the few things that Alida could take in the wagon in which
they made their flight. And all through the pinch of poverty and grinning
emptiness there was visible the woman-touch, the brave making the best of
nothing, the pitiful preparation for the coming of the man. Wild roses
from the creek bloomed against the gnarled and weather-warped logs of the
walls. Sprays of clematis trailed their white bridal beauty from cans
rescued from the ashes of a camp-fire. But Alida was a strategist when it
came to adorning her home, and the rusty receptacle was hid beneath
trailing green leaves. There was at the window a muslin curtain that in
its starched and ruffled estate was strongly suggestive of a child’s frock
hastily converted into a window drapery. The curtain was drawn aside that
the lamp might shed its beam farther on the way of the traveller who came
not. There was but one other light in the place, a bit of candle. Alida
apologized for the poor light by which they must eat, but she did not
offer to take the lamp from the window.

Peter was no longer Sir Knight of the Joyous Heart as he watched the
little, white-faced woman, who went so often to the door to look towards
the road that entered the valley that she was no longer aware of what she
did. He saw her wide eyes full of fear, the bow of the mouth strained taut
with anxiety, her unconscious fear of him as one of the alien faction, and
withal her concern for his comfort. Judith’s control was far greater, but
though she hid it skilfully, he knew the sorrow that consumed her.

There was a cry from the room beyond, and Judith, snatching up the candle,
went in to the children. All three of them were sleeping cross-ways in one
bed, their small, round arms and legs striking out through the land of
dreams as swimmers breasting the waves. She gave a little cry of delight
and appreciation, and called Peter to look. Little Jim, who had cried in
some passing fear, sat up sleepily. He stretched out his small arms to
Peter, whom he had never seen before. Peter took him, and again he settled
to sleep, apparently assured that he was in friendly hands.

The warm, small body, giving itself with perfect confidence, strongly
affected Peter’s heightened susceptibilities. In the very nature of the
situation he could be no friend to Jim Rodney, yet here in his arms lay
Jim Rodney’s son, loving, trusting him instinctively. Judith noticed that
his face paled beneath its many coats of tan. He was afraid of the little
sleeping boy, afraid that his unaccustomed touch might hurt him, and yet
loath to part with the small burden. Judith took the boy from Peter and
placed him between the two little girls on the bed.

Through the window they could see Alida’s dress glimmering, like a phantom
in the darkness, as she strained her eyes towards the path. Peter hated to
leave the women and children in this desolate place. The night was far
spent. To reach the round-up in season, he could at best snatch a couple
of hours’ sleep and be again in the saddle while the stars still shone.
His saddle and saddle blanket were enough for him. The broad canopy of
heaven, the bosom of mother earth, had given him sound, dreamless sleep
these many years. He bade the women good-night, and made his bed where the
cañon gave entrance to the valley. But sleep was slow to come. Now, in
that vague, uncertain world where we fall through oceans of space, and the
waking is the dream, the dream the waking, Peter caught pale flashes of
Kitty’s gold head as she ran and ran, ever in the pursuit of something,
she knew not what. And as she ran hither and thither, she would turn her
head and beckon to Peter, and as he followed he felt the burden of years
come upon him. And then he saw Judith’s eyes, still and grave. He turned
and wakened. No, it was not Judith’s eyes, but the stars above the
mountain-tops.



XII


                               The Round-up


The stars were still shining when Peter Hamilton looked at his watch next
morning, but he sternly fought the temptation to lie another two minutes
by remembering the day’s work before him, and went in search of the horse
that he had not picketed overnight, as the beast required a full belly
after the hard night’s ride he had given him. Peter had rolled out of his
blankets with a keen anticipatory relish for the day ahead. It was well,
he knew, that there was ample work of a definite nature for Peter the
cow-puncher; as for Peter the man, he was singularly at sea. Had Judith
Rodney been his desert comrade all these cheerful years for him to get his
first belated insight into the real Judith only a few little hours back?
Or was it, he wondered, her seeming unconsciousness of him, as she rode
brave and sorrowful through the night, to avert, if might be, her
brother’s death—at all events, to comfort and inspirit the frightened
woman and her little children—that had freshly tinged the friendship he
had so long felt for her? Many were the questions that Peter vaguely put
to himself as he started out for his long day in the saddle; and none of
them he answered. Indeed, he could not satisfactorily explain to himself
why he should think of Judith at all in this way—Judith, whom he had known
so long, and upon whom he counted so securely—Judith, who understood
things, and was as good a comrade as a man. Surely it was a strange thing
that he should discover himself in a sentimental dream of Judith!

For it was in such dreams that Katherine Colebrooke had figured ever since
Peter could remember. For years, indeed—and Judith knew it!—he had stood,
tame and tractable, waiting for Chloe to throw her dainty lariat. But
Chloe had intimated that her graceful fingers were engaged with the inkpot
and her head with schemes for further sonneting. Chloe was becoming
famous. To Peter, who was unmodern, there was little to be gained in
arguing against a state of affairs so crassly absurd as career-getting for
women. At such seasons it behooved sane men to pray for patience rather
than the gift of tongues. When the disheartened fair should weary of the
phantom pursuit, then might the man of patience have his little day. Peter
winced at the picture. To the world he knew that his long waiting on the
brink of the bog, while his ambitious lady floundered after false lights,
was, in truth, no more impressive a spectacle than the anguished squawking
of a hen who watches a brood of ducklings, of her own hatching, try their
luck in the pond.

And there was Judith the great-hearted, Judith who was as inspiring as a
breath of hill air, Judith with no thought of careers beyond the loyal
doing of her woman’s part, Judith, trusty and loyal—and Judith with that
accursed family connection!

Peter tightened his cinch and turned his horse westward. The stars had
grown dim in the sky. The world that the night before had seemed to float
in a silvery effulgence looked gray and old. The cabin in the valley
flaunted its wretched squalor, like a beggar seeking alms on the highway.
Riding by, Peter lifted his sombrero. "Sweet dreams, gentle lady!" He dug
the rowel into his horse’s side and began his day at no laggard pace. Nor
did he spare his horse in the miles that lay between him and breakfast.
The beast would have no more work to do that day, when once he reached
camp, and Peter was not in his tenderest mood as he spurred through the
gray of the morning. The pale, chastened world was all his own at this
hour. Not a creature was stirring. The mountains, the valleys, the softly
huddled hills slept in the deep hush that is just before the dawn. He
looked about with questioning eyes. Last night this very road had been a
pale silver thread winding from the mountain crests into a world of
dreams. To-day it was but a trail across the range. "Where are the snows
of yester year?" he quoted, with a certain early-morning grimness. At
heart he was half inclined to believe Judith responsible for the vanished
world; Judith, Judith—he was riding away from her as fast as his horse
could gallop, and yet his thoughts perversely lingered about the cabin in
the valley.

After a couple of hours’ hard riding he could dimly make out specks moving
on that huge background of space, and presently his horse neighed and put
fresh spirit into his gait, recognizing his fellows in moving dots on the
vast perspective. And being a beast of some intelligence, for all his
heavy-footed failings, he reasoned that food and rest would soon be his
portion. Peter had no further use for the rowel.

Breakfast was already well under way when he reached camp. The outfit,
seated on saddles in a semicircle about the chuck wagon, ate with that
peculiar combination of haste and skill that doubtless the life of the
saddle counteracts, as digestive troubles are apparently unknown among
plainsmen. The cook, in handing Peter his tin plate, cup, spoon, and
black-handled fork, asked him if "he would take overland trout or
Cincinnati chicken, this morning?" The cook never omitted these jocular
inquiries regarding the various camp names for bacon. He seemed to think
that a choice of alias was as good as a change of menu. There was little
talk at breakfast, and that bearing chiefly on the day’s work. Every one
was impatient for an early start. The horse wrangler had his string
waiting, the cook was scouring his iron pots, saddles were thrown over
horses fresh from a long night’s good grazing, cinches were tightened,
slickers and blankets were adjusted, and camp melted away in a troup of
horsemen winding away through the gray of early morning.

The scene of the beef round-up was a mighty plain, affording limitless
scope for handling the cattle of a thousand hills. In the distance rose
the first undulations of the mountains, that might be likened to the
surplusage of space that rolled the length of the sweeping levels, then
heaped high to the blue. The specks in the far distance began to grow as
if the screw of a field-glass were bringing them nearer, turning them into
horsemen, bunches of cattle, "chuck-wagons" of the different outfits,
reserves of horses restrained by temporary rope-corrals, all the equipment
of a great round-up. Dozens of men, multitudes of horses, hordes of
cattle—the mighty plain swallowed all the little, prancing, galloping,
bellowing things, and still looked mighty in its loneliness. Fling a
handful of toys from a Noah’s Ark—if they make such simple toys now—in an
ordinary field, and the little, wooden men, horses and cows, will suggest
the round-up in relation to its background. Men darted hither and thither,
yelling shrilly; cows—born apparently to be leaders—broke from the bunches
to which they had been assigned and started at a clumsy run, followed by
kindred susceptible to example. Cow-punchers, waiting for just such
manifestations of individuality, whirled after them like comets, and soon
they were again in the pawing, heaving, sweltering bunch to which they
belonged.

Peter Hamilton, whose particular skill as a cow-puncher lay in that branch
of the profession known as "cutting out," found that the work of the
rustlers had been carried on with no unsparing hand since the early spring
round-up. Calves bearing the "H L" brand—that claimed by a company known
to be made up of cattle-thieves—followed mothers bearing almost every
brand that grazed herds in that part of the State. The Wetmore outfit,
that used a "W" enclosed in a square, were apparently the heaviest losers.
The cows and calves were herded at the right of the plain, convenient to
the branding-pen, the steers well away to the opposite side. As Peter
drove a "W-square" cow, followed by a little, white-faced calf, whose
brand had plainly been tampered with, he heard one of his associates say:

"There’s nothing small about the ’H L’ except their methods."

"What’s ’H L’ stand for, anyway?" the other cow-puncher asked.

"Why, Hell, or, How Long; depends whether you’re with ’em or again ’em."

Peter wheeled from the men and headed for the bunch he was cutting out. He
fancied that the man had looked at him strangely as he offered a choice of
meanings for the "H L"—and yet he could not have known that Peter had gone
to Rodney’s cabin last night. He flung himself heart and soul into his
work, dashing full tilt at the snorting, stamping bedlam, enveloped in
clouds of dust that dimmed the very daylight. Calves bleated piteously as
they were jammed in the thickening pack. Peter shouted, swung the rope
right and left, thinning the bunch about him, and a second later emerged,
driving before him a cow, followed by a calf. These were turned over to
cow-boys waiting for them. Time after time Hamilton returned to that mass
of unconscious power, that with a single rush could have annihilated the
little band of horsemen that handled them with the skill of a dealer
shuffling, cutting, dealing a pack of cards.

To the left were the steers, pawing and tearing up the earth in a very
ecstasy of impotent fury. Picture the giant propeller of an ocean liner
thrashing about in the sands of the desert and you will have an
approximate knowledge of the dust raised by a thousand steers. Their
long-drawn, shrieking bellow had a sinister note. Horns, hoofs, tails beat
the air, their bloodshot eyes looked menacingly in every direction; but a
handful of cow-boys kept them in check, circling round and round them on
ponies who did their work without waiting for quirt or rowel.

The noonday sun looked down upon a scene that to the eye unskilled in
these things was as confusion worse confounded. Cow-boys dashed from
nowhere in particular and did amazing things with a bit of rope, sending
it through the air with snaky undulations after flying cattle. The rope,
taking on lifelike coils, would pursue the flying beast like an aerial
reptile, then the noose would fall true, and the thing was done. A second
later a couple of cow-boys would be examining the disputed brand on the
prone animal.

The smell of burning flesh and hair rose from the branding-pen and mingled
with the stench of the herds in one noisome compound. The yells of the
cow-punchers, each having its different bearing on the work in hand, were
all but lost in the dull, steady roar of the cattle, bellowing in a chorus
of fear, rage, and pain. And still the work of sorting, branding,
cutting-out, went steadily on. Though an outsider would not have perceived
it, the work was as crisp-cut and exact in its methods as the work in a
counting-house. One of the cow-boys, in hot pursuit of a fractious heifer,
encountered a gopher-hole, and horse and rider were down in a heap. In a
second a dozen helping hands were dragging him from under the horse. He
limped painfully, but stooped to examine his horse. The beast had broken a
leg, and turned on the man eyes almost human in their pain.

"Bob, Bob!" The cow-puncher went down on his knees and put his arms about
the neck of his pet. "My God!" he said, "me and Bob was just like
brothers. Everybody knowed that." He uncinched the saddle with clumsy
tenderness; not a man thought a whit less of him because he could not see
well at the moment. He turned his head away, that he might not see the
well-aimed shot that would release his pet from pain. Then he limped away
after another horse—it was all in the day’s work.

The beef contract called for a thousand steers, four and five years old,
and these having been well and duly counted, and some dozen extra head
added in case of accident, they were immediately started on the trail, as
they could accomplish some seven or eight miles before being bedded down
for the night. Hamilton, who had crossed to the beef side of the round-up
to have a necessary word with the "Circle-Star" foreman, was amazed to
find Simpson making ready to start with the trail herd. Peter inquired,
with a few expletives, "how long he had been a cow-man, in good and
regular standing?"

"As far as the regularity is concerned, that would be a pretty hard thing
to answer, but he’s had an interest in the ’XXX’ since—since—"

"He drove Rodney’s sheep over the cliff?"

"Ain’t you a little hard on the beginning of his cattle career? It usually
goes by a more business-like name, but—" he shrugged his shoulders—"it’s
up to the ’XXX.’ We wouldn’t have him help to pull bogged cattle out of a
creek."

The beeves, hidden in a simoom of their own stamping, were gradually being
pressed forward on the trail, a huge pawn, ignorant of its own strength,
manipulated by a handful of men and horses. Its bellowing, like the tuning
of a thousand bass-fiddles, shook the stillness like the long, sullen roar
of the sea, as out of the plain they thundered, to feed the multitude.

"Well, there goes as pretty a bunch of porterhouses as I’d want to put
tooth to. If I get away from here within the next two months, as I’m
expecting, doubtless I’ll meet some of you again with your personality
somewhat obscured by reason of fried onions."

The foreman of the "Circle-Star" waved his hand after the slowly moving
herd that gradually pressed forward like an army in loose marching order.
Outriders galloped ahead, like darting insects, and pointing the lumbering
mass that trailed its half-mile length at a snail’s-pace. The great column
steadily advanced, checked, turned, led as easily as a child trails his
little steam-cars after him on the nursery floor, and always by the little
force of a handful of men and a few horses.

After supper came general relaxation around the camp-fire. The men, who
had all day been strung to a keen pitch of nervous energy, lounged in
loose, picturesque uncouthness, while each began to unravel his own lively
miscellany of information or invention. There was jest, laughter, spinning
of yarns, singing of songs. As Peter lay in the fire-light, smoking his
brier-wood, he noticed that the man next him spent a great deal of time
poring over a letter, holding it close to the blaze, now at arm’s-length,
which was hardly surprising, considering the penmanship of the more common
variety of _billet-doux_. The man was plainly disappointed that Peter
would not notice or comment. Finally he folded it up, and with sentimental
significance returned it to the left side pocket of his flannel shirt, and
remarked to Peter, "It’s from her."

"Indeed," said Peter, who had not the faintest notion who "her" could be.
"Let me congratulate you."

"Yes, sir," and there was conviction in the cow-puncher’s tone; "it’s from
old man Kinson’s girl, up to the Basin, and the parson’s goin’ to give us
the life sentence soon. A man gets sick o’ helling it all over creation."
He rolled a cigarette, lit it, took a puff or two, then turned to Peter,
as one whose acquaintance with the broader side of life entitled him to
speak with a certain authority. "Is it that, or is it that we’re getting
on, a little long in the tooth, logy in our movements?"

"I think we’re just sick of helling it." Peter looked towards the star
that last night had been the beacon towards which he and Judith had scaled
the heights. "Yes, we get sick of helling it after we’ve turned thirty."

"Then I can’t be making a mistake. If I thought it was because I was
getting on, I’d stampede this here range. It don’t seem fair to a girl to
allow that you’re broke, tamed, and know the way to the corral, when it’s
just that you’re needin’ to go to an old man’s home."

"Now this is really love," said Peter to himself, with interest. "This is
humility." A sympathetic liking for the self-distrustful lover surged hot
and generous into Peter’s heart, and he continued to himself: "Now that’s
what Judith would appreciate in a man, some directness, some humility!"
Poor Judith! Poor burden-bearer! Who was to love her as she deserved to be
loved, even as old man Kinson’s girl, of the Basin, was loved? Yet suppose
some one did love her in such fashion and she returned it? It was a
picture Peter had never conjured up before. Nonsense! he was accustomed to
think of Judith a great deal, and that was not the way to think of her.
"Dear Judith!" said Peter, half unconsciously to himself, and looked again
at the fellow, who had gone back to his dingy letter and continued to
reread it in the fire-light as if he hoped to extract some further meaning
from the now familiar words. Nature had fitted him out with a rag-bag
assortment of features—the nose of a clown, the eyes of a ferret, the
mouth that hangs agape like a badly hinged door, the mouth of the
incessant talker. And withal, as he lounged in the fire-light, dreamily
turning his love-letter, he had a sort of superphysical beauty, reflected
of the glow that many waters cannot quench.

Costigan, who had led the merriment against Simpson at Mrs. Clark’s
eating-house, was playing "mumbly-peg" with Texas Tyler. They had been
working like Trojans all day at the round-up, but they pitched their
pocket-knives with as keen a zest as school-boys, bickering over points in
the game, accusing each other of cheating, calling on the rest of the
company to umpire some disputed point.

But presently, from the opposite side of the fire, some one began to sing,
in a rich barytone, a dirgelike thing that caught the attention of first
one then another of the men, making them stop their yarning and
knife-throwing to listen. The tune, in its homely power to evoke the image
of the ceremonial of death, was more or less familiar to most of them.
There was a conscious funeral pageantry in the ring of its measured
phrases that recalled to many burials of the dead that had taken place in
their widely scattered homes. Mrs. Barbauld’s hymn, "Flee as a Bird to the
Mountain," are the words usually sung to the air.

Costigan presently cut across the dirgelike refrain with: "Phwat th’ divil
is ut about that chune that Oi’m thinkin’ of?"

"This," said the man with the barytone voice, "is the tune that Nick
Steele saved his neck to."

"Begorra, that’s ut. I wasn’t there mesilf, but Oi’ve heard th’ story told
more times than Oi’ve years to me credit."

"My father was in that necktie party," spoke up a young cow-puncher, "and
I’ve heard him tell the story scores of times, and he always wondered why
the devil they let Steele off. Never could understand it after the thing
was done. He was talking of it once to a man who was a sharp on things
like mesmerism, and the man called it hypnotic suggestion. Said that
Steele got control of the whole outfit and mesmerized ’em so they couldn’t
do a thing to him."

Several of the men asked for the story, echoes of which had come down
through all the forty years since its happening. And the cow-puncher,
lighting a cigarette, began:

"It was in the good old forty-nine days in California, when gold was
sometimes more plentiful than bread, and women were so scarce that one day
when they found a girl’s shoe on the trail they fitted a gold heel to it
and put it up in camp to worship. But sentiment wasn’t exactly their long
suit, and any little difficulties that cropped up were straightened out by
the vigilance committee—and a rope. One day a saddle, or maybe it was a
gun, that didn’t belong to him, was found among this man Steele’s traps,
and though he swore that some one had put it there for a grudge, the
committee thought that a hemp necktie was the easiest way out of the
argument. And this here Steele party finds himself, at the age of
twenty-four, with something like thirty minutes of life to his credit. He
don’t take on none, nor make a play for mercy, nor try any fancy
speech-making. He just waits round, kinder pale, but seemin’ indifferent,
considerin’ it was his funeral that was impendin’. I’ve heard my father
say that he was a tall, slim boy, with a kind of girlish prettiness, and
the committee looked some for hysterics and they didn’t get none. The
noose was made ready and they told Steele he could have five minutes to
pray, if he wanted to, or he could take it out in cursing, just as he
chose. The boy said he felt that he hadn’t quite all that was coming to
him in the way of enjoyment, and that while he was far from criticising
the vigilance committee, he was not altogether partial to the nature of
his demise, and if it was just the same to them, instead of praying or
cursing, he’d take that five minutes for a song.

"They was agreeable, and he up and steps on the scaffold, what they was
mighty proud of, it bein’ about the only substantial structure the town
could boast. He began to sing that thing you’ve all been listening to, and
he had a voice like water falling light and fine in a pool below. They
crowded up close about the scaffold and listened. The words he put to it
were his own story, just like those old minstrels that you read about, and
at the end of each verse came the chorus, slow and solemn as the moment
after something great has happened. There wasn’t a hangin’-face in the
crowd after he was started. At some time or other every man had heard
somebody he thought a heap of, buried to that tune, and his voice got to
workin’ on their imaginations and turned their hearts to water. I don’t
remember anything but the chorus—that went like this:

  "’Who’ll weep for me, on the gallows tree,
    As I sway in the wind and swing?
  Is there never a tear to be shed for me,
    As I swing by a hempen string?
  Who’ll weep, who’ll keep
  Watch, as I’m rocked to sleep,
    Rocked by a hempen string?’"

There was a long silence, broken only by the crackle of the logs in the
camp-fire and the night sounds of the lonely plain. The leaping flames
showed a group of thoughtful faces. Finally, Costigan broke the silence
with:

"Begorra, ’tis some av thim ’ud be doin’ well to be lukin’ to their
music-lessons about here, Oi’m thinkin’, afther th’ day’s wurruk."

The Irishman, with his instinctive loquacity, had expressed what none of
the rest would have considered politic to hint. It was like the giving way
of the pebble that starts the avalanche. Soon they were deep in tales of
lynchings. Peter knew only too well the trend of their talk, the "XXX" men
were feeling the public pulse, as it were. Now, according to the unwritten
code of the plains, lynching was "meet, right, just, and available" for
the cattle-thief. And Peter felt himself false to his creed, false to his
employer, false to himself, in seeking to evade the question. And yet that
pitiful cabin, the white-faced woman running to the door so often that she
knew not what she did, and the little rosy boy, who had put out his arms
so trustfully! Peter broke into their grewsome yarning. "Lord, but you’re
like a lot of old women just come from a funeral!"

"Whin the carpse died hard, and th’ wake was a success." Costigan turned
over. "Werra, werra, but we’ll be seein’ fairies the night!"

A "XXX" man turned his head with a deliberate slowness and regarded Peter
with narrowing eyes: "If the subject of cattle-thieves and their
punishment is unpleasant to the gentleman from New York, perhaps he will
favor us with something more cheerful." It was the same man who had given
the two definitions of the "H L" brand that morning at the round-up.

"Delighted," said Peter, affecting not to notice the significance of the
man’s remark. "Did you ever hear of the time that Tony Neville was burned
with snow?"

The "XXX" man yawned long and audibly. No one seemed especially interested
in Tony Neville’s having been burned with snow, but Peter struck out
manfully, just in time to head off a man who said that he had seen Jim
Rodney or some one who looked like him, following the trail-herd.

"Once on a time, when it paid to be a cattle-man," began Peter, "there was
an outfit near Laramie that hailed from the United Kingdom, every mother’s
son of them. A fine, manly lot of fellows, but wedded to calamity along of
their cooks—not the revered range article," and Peter waved his hand
towards the "W-square" cook, who was one of the party, "but the pampered
ranch article that boasts a real stove, planted in a real kitchen, the
spoiled darling that never has to light a fire out of wet wood in the
rain.

"These unhappy Britons had every species of ill luck that could befall an
outfit, in the way of cooks; they were of every nationality, age, and sex,
and they stole, drank, quarrelled, till the outfit determined to sweep the
house clear of them and do its own cooking. Every man was to have a turn
at it for a week. There was a Scotchman, who gave them something called
’pease bannocks,’ three times a day; followed by an Irishman, who
breakfasted them on potatoes and whiskey. There was an Englishman, who had
a beef slaughtered every time he fancied a tenderloin. There was a
Welshman, who sang as he cooked. There were as many different kinds of
indigestion as there were men in the outfit. They would beg to do
night-herding, anything to get them away from that ranch. Finally, when
their little tummies got so bad that their overcoats thickened, or wore
through, or whatever happens to stomachs’ overcoats that are treated
unkindly, some one’s maiden aunt sent him a tract saying that rice was the
salvation of the human race, as witness the Chinese. Whosever turn it was
to cook that week determined to try the old lady’s prescription. Rice was
procured, about a peck, I think; and the man who was cooking, pro tem, put
the entire quantity on to boil in a huge ham-boiler, over a slow fire, as
per the directions of the maiden aunt. The rice seemed to be doing nicely,
when some one came in and said that a bunch of antelope was over on the
hills and there was a good chance to get a couple. Every man got his gun,
all but the cook, and he looked at the rice, that hadn’t done a thing over
the slow fire, in a way that would melt your heart. ’Just my luck that it
should be my week to pot-wrestle when there’s good hunting right at one’s
front door.’

"’Oh, come on,’ some one said. ’Didn’t Kellett’s aunt say the rice ought
to be cooked over a slow fire? Kellett, get your aunt’s letter and read
the directions for cooking that rice again.’

"The cook didn’t need a second invitation, and they got into their
saddles, cook and all, and went for the antelope.

"Now antelope are not like stationary wash-tubs; they move about. And when
that particular outfit arrived at the spot where those antelope were last
seen, they had moved, but the boys found traces of them, and continued on
their trail. They went in the foot-hills and they searched for those
antelope all day. They caught up with old man Hall’s outfit at dinner-time
and were invited to take a bite. Coming home by way of the ’Circle-Star’
ranch, Colonel Semmes asked them in to have a mint-julep; the colonel was
a South Carolinian, and he had just succeeded in raising some mint. They
had several—I fear more than several—drinks before leaving for home, with
never a trace of antelope nor a thought of the rice cooking over the slow
fire. The colonel remembered some hard cider that he had, and topping off
on that, they set out. The weather was pretty warm, and on their way home
they experienced some remorse over the hard cider. Now hard cider is an
accumulative drink; it piles up interest like debt or unpaid taxes. And by
the time those Englishmen had turned the little lane leading into their
home corral, they saw a sight that made their sombreros rise. As I have
said before, it was hot, being somewhere in the month of August.
Gentlemen, I hardly expect you to believe me when I say it was snowing on
their house, and not on another God blessed thing in the landscape.

"The blame thing about it was, that every man took the phenomenon to be
his own private view of snakes, or their bibulous equivalent, manifested
in another and more terrifying form. Here was the August sun pouring down
on the plain where their ranch-house was situated; everything in sight hot
and dry as a lime-kiln, grasshoppers chirping in a hot-wave prophecy, and
snow covering the house and the ground, about to what seemed a depth of
four inches. Every one of them felt sensitive about mentioning what he saw
to the others. You see, gentlemen, being unfamiliar with American drinks,
and especially old Massachusetts cider, they merely looked to keep their
saddles and no questions asked.

"But when they got a bit closer the horror increased. Flying right out of
their windows were perfect drifts of snow, banks of it, gentlemen, and the
thermometer up past a hundred. One of the men looked about him and noticed
the pallor on the faces of the rest:

"’Do you notice anything strange, old chap? These cursed American drinks!’

"’Strange!’—the boy he had spoken to was about eighteen, a nice,
red-cheeked English lad out with his uncle learning the cattle business.
’Good God!’ the boy said. ’I’ve always tried to lead a good life, and here
I am a paretic before I’ve come of age.’

"They halted their horses and held a consultation. The boss came to the
conclusion that since they had all seen it, there was nothing to do but
continue the investigation and send the details to the ’Society for
Psychical Research,’ when he got down from his horse and walked towards
the door of the house. At his approach, as if to rebuke his wanton
curiosity, a great blast of snow blew out of the window and got him full
in the face. He howled—the snow was scalding hot.

"Then they remembered the rice."

"Is that all?" demanded the man who had wanted to talk about rustling.

"Isn’t it enough?" said Peter, who could afford to be magnanimous, now
that he had accomplished his point.

"When I first heard that story, ’bout ten years ago, it ended with the
Britishers riding like hell over to the Wolcott ranch to borrow umbrellas
to keep off the hot rice while they got into the house," said the man,
still sulky.

"That’s the way they tell it to tenderfeet," and Peter turned on his heel.
The story-telling for the evening was over, the boys got their blankets
and set about making their beds for the night.



XIII


                         Mary’s First Day In Camp


The first day spent as governess to the family of Yellett reminded Mary
Carmichael of those days mentioned in the opening chapter of Genesis, days
wherein whole geological ages developed and decayed. Any era, geological
or otherwise, she felt might have had its rise, decline, and fall during
that first day spent in a sheep camp.

She awoke to the sound of faint tinklings, and accepted the towering peaks
of the Wind River mountains, with their snowy mantles all shadowy in the
whitening dawn, and the warmer grays of huddling foot-hills, as one
receives, without question, the fantastic visions of sleep. The faint
tinkling grew nearer, mingled with a light pitter patter and a far off
baa-ing and bleating; then, as shadowy as the sheep in dreams, a great
flock came winding round the hill; in and out through the sage-brush they
went and came, elusive as the early morning shadows they moved among. The
air was crystalline and sparkling; creation’s first morning could not have
promised more. It would have been inconsistent in such a place to waken in
a house; the desert, that seemed a lifeless sea, the sheep moving like
gray shadows, were all parts of a big, new world that had no need of
houses built by hands.

Ben, oldest of the Brobdingnag tribe, who had greeted Mary’s request to be
directed to "the house" as a bit of dry Eastern humor, led the herd to
pasture. Ben’s right-hand man was "Stump," the collie, so named because he
had no tail worth mentioning, but otherwise in full possession of his
faculties. Stump was newly broken to his official duties and authority sat
heavily on him. Keenly alert, he flew hither and thither, first after one
straying member of the herd, then another, barking an early morning
roll-call as he went. Two other male Brobdingnags came from some
sequestered spot in the landscape and joined Ben—Mary recognized two more
pupils.

Mrs. Yellett then unrolled the pillow constructed the night previous of
such garments as she had been willing to dispense with, and put them on.
The vastness of her surroundings did not prevent her from locating the
minutest article, and Mary gave her the respectful admiration of a woman
who has spent a great deal of time searching for things in an infinitely
smaller space. The matriarch then called the remaining members of her
household officially—the Misses Yellett accomplished their early morning
toilets with the simplicity of young robins. Only the new governess hung
back, but finally mustered up enough courage to say that if such a thing
was possible she would like to have a bath.

Mrs. Yellett greeted her request with the amused tolerance of one who has
never given such a trifle a thought.

"The habit of bathing," she commented, "is shore like religion: them that
observes it wonders how them that neglects it gets along." She beckoned
Mary to follow, and led the way to a bunch of willows that grew about a
stone’s-throw from the camp. "Here be a whole creek full of water, if you
don’t lack the fortitood. It’s cold enough to sell for ten cents a glass
down to Texas."

Somewhat dismayed, Mary stepped gingerly into the creek. Its intense cold
numbed her at first, but a second later awoke all her young lustiness, and
she returned to camp in a fine glow of courage to encounter whatever else
there might be of novelty. Mrs. Yellett was preparing breakfast at a
sheet-iron stove, assisted by Cacta and Clematis.

"Your hankering after a bath like this"—she added another handful of flour
to the biscuit dough—"do shore remind me of an Englishman who come to
visit near Laramie in the days of plenty, when steers had jumped to
forty-five. This yere Britisher was exhibit stock, shore enough, being
what’s called a peer of the realm, which means, in his own country, that
he is just nacherally entitled from the start to h’ist his nose high.

"The outfit he was goin’ to visit wasn’t in the habit of havin’ peers drop
in on them casual, but they aimed to make him feel that he wasn’t the
first of the herd that headed that way by a quart"—she cut four biscuits
with a tin cup, and resumed—"to which end they rounded up every specimen
of canned food that’s ever come across the Rockies.

"’Let him ask for "salmon esplinade," let him ask for "chicken marine-go,"
let him ask for plum-pudding, let him ask for hair-oil or throat
lozengers, this yere outfit calls his bluff,’ says Billy Ames, who owns
the ’twin star’ outfit and is anticipatin’ this peer as a guest.

"Well, just as everything is ready, the can-opener, sharp as a razor,
waitin’ to open up such effete luxuries as the peer may demand, Bill Ames
gets called to California by the sickness of his wife. He feels mean about
abandonin’ the peer, but he don’t seem to have no choice, his wife bein’
one of them women who shares her bad health pretty impartially round the
family. So Billy he departs. But before he goes he expounds to Joplin Joe,
his foreman, the nature of a peer and how his wants is apt to be a heap
fashionable, and that when he asks for anything to grasp the can-opener
and run to the store-house—Cacta, you put on the coffee!

"That peer arrives in the afternoon, and he never makes a request any more
than a corpse. Beyond a marked disposition to herd by himself and to
maintain the greatest possible distance between his own person and a
six-shooter, he don’t vary none from the bulk of tenderfeet. At night,
when all parties retires, and Joplin Joe ponders on them untouched, effete
luxuries in the store-room, and how the can-opener ’ain’t once been dimmed
in the cause of hospitality, it frets him considerable, and he feels he
ain’t doin’ his duty to the absent Billy Ames.

"At sunrise he can stand it no longer. He thunders on the Britisher’s door
with the butt of his six-shooter, calling out:

"’Peer, peer, be you awake?’

"The peer allowed he was, though his teeth was rattling like broken
crockery.

"’Peer, would you relish some "salmon esplinade"?’

"The peer allowed he wouldn’t.

"’Peer, would you relish some "chicken marine-go"?’

"The peer allowed he shore wouldn’t, and the crockery rattled harder than
ever. Joplin Joe then tried him on the hair-oil and the throat lozengers,
the peer declining each with thanks.

"’Peer,’ said Joplin Joe, fair busting with hospitality, ’is there
anything in this Gawd’s world that you do want?’

"The crockery rattled an interlood, then Joplin Joe made out:

"’Thanks, very much. I should like a ba-ath’—Clematis, you see if them
biscuits is brownin’.

"Joe he ran to the store-room, and his eye encountered a barrel of
corned-beef. He calls to a couple of cow-punchers, and the first thing you
know that late corned steer is piled onto the prairie and them
cow-punchers is hustling the empty barrel in to the peer. Next they
detaches the steps from the kitchen door, ropes ’em to the barrel and
introduces the peer to his bath. He’s good people all right, and when he
sees they calls his bluff he steps in all right and lets ’em soak him a
couple of buckets. This here move restores all parties to a mutual
understanding, and the peer he bathes in the corned-beef barrel regular
durin’ his stay—you see the habit had cinched him."

Ned had shot an antelope a day or two previous, and antelope steak,
broiled over a glowing bed of wood coals, with black coffee, stewed dried
apples, and soda biscuit made up what Mary found to be an unexpectedly
palatable breakfast. As camp did not include a cow, no milk or butter was
served with meals. Nevertheless, the hungry tenderfoot was quite content,
and missed none of the appurtenances she had been brought up to believe
essential to a civilized meal, not even the little silver jug that Aunt
Martha always insisted came over with William the Conqueror—Aunt Martha
scorned the _May-flower_ contingent as parvenus.

The family sat on the grass, tailor fashion, and every one helped himself
to what appetite prompted, in a fashion that suggested brilliant gymnastic
powers. To pass a dish to any one, the governess discovered, was construed
as an evidence of mental weakness and eccentricity. The family satisfied
its appetite without assistance or amenities, but with the skill of a
troupe of jugglers.

Breakfast was half over when Mrs. Yellett laid down her knife, which she
had handled throughout the meal with masterly efficiency. Mary watched her
in hopeless embarrassment, and wondered if her own timid use of a tin fork
could be construed as an unfriendly comment upon the Yelletts’ more simple
and direct code of table etiquette.

"Land’s sakes! I just felt, all the time we’ve been eating, we was
forgettin’ something. You children ought to remember, I got so much on my
mind."

All eyes turned anxiously to the cooking-stove, while an expression of
frank regret began to settle over the different faces. The backbone of
their appetites had been broken, and there was something else, perhaps
something even more appetizing, to come.

Interpreting the trend of their glance and expression, up flared Mrs.
Yellett, with as great a show of indignation as if some one had set a
match to her petticoats.

"I declare, I never see such children; no more nacheral feelin’s than a
herd of coyotes; never thinks of a plumb thing but grub. No, make no
mistake about the character of the objec’ we’ve forgot. ’Tain’t sweet
pertaters, ’tain’t molasses, ’tain’t corn-bread—it’s paw! It’s your pore
old paw—him settin’ in the tent, forsook and neglected by his own
children."

All started up to remedy their filial neglect without loss of time, but
Mrs. Yellett waved them back to their places.

"Don’t the whole posse of you go after him, like he’d done something and
was to be apprehended. Ben, you go after your father."

Ben strode over to the little white tent that Mary had noticed glimmering
in the moonlight the preceding evening, and presently emerged, supporting
on his arm a partially paralyzed old man, who might have been Rip Van
Winkle in the worst of tempers. His white hair and beard encircled a
shrivelled, hawklike face, the mouth was sucked back in a toothless eddy
that brought tip of nose and tip of chin into whispering distance, the
eyes glittered from behind the overhanging, ragged brows like those of a
hungry animal searching through the brush for its prey.

"If you’ve done eatin’," whispered Mrs. Yellett to Miss Carmichael, "you’d
better run on. Paw’s langwidge is simply awful when we forget to bring him
to meals." Mary ran on.

When, after the lapse of some thirty minutes or so, the stentorian voice
of Mrs. Yellett recalled Mary to camp, she found that the tin breakfast
service had been washed and returned to the mess-box, the beds had been
neatly folded and piled in one of the wagons—in fact, the extremely simple
tent-hold, to coin a word, was in absolute order. It was just 6 A.M., and
Mrs. Yellett thought it high time to begin school. Mary tried to convey to
her that the hour was somewhat unusual, but she seemed to think that for
pupils who were beginning their tasks comparatively late in life it would
be impossible to start sufficiently early in the morning. So at this young
and tender hour, with many misgivings, Mary set about preparing her _al
fresco_ class-room.

She chose a nice, flat little piece of the United States, situated in the
shade of the clump of willows that bordered a trickling creek not far from
her sylvan bath-room of the early morning. How she was to sit on the
ground all day and yet preserve a properly pedagogical demeanor was the
first question to be settled. That there was nothing even remotely
resembling a chair in camp she felt reasonably assured, as "paw" was
sitting on an inverted soap-box under a pine-tree, and "paw," by reason of
age and infirmity, appropriated all luxuries. Mrs. Yellett, with her usual
acumen, grasped the situation.

"I’m figgerin’," she commented, "that there must be easier ways of
governin’ than sittin’ up like a prairie-dog while you’re at it."

Mrs. Yellett took a hurried survey of the camp, lessening the distance
between herself and one of the light wagons with a gait in which grace was
entirely subservient to speed; then, with one capacious wrench of the
arms, she loosened the spring seat from the wagon and bore it to the
governess with an artless air of triumph. It was difficult, under these
circumstances, to explain to Mrs. Yellett that without that symbol of
scholastic authority, a desk, the wagon seat was useless. Nevertheless,
Mary set forth, with all her eloquence, the mission of a desk. Mrs.
Yellett was genuinely depressed. Had she imported the magician without his
wand—Aladdin without his lamp? She proposed a bewildering choice—an
inverted wash-tub, two buckets sustaining the relation of caryatides to a
board, the sheet-iron cooking-stove. In an excess of solicitude she even
suggested robbing "paw" of his soap-box.

Mary chose the wash-tub on condition that Mrs. Yellett consented to
sacrifice the handles in the cause of lower education. She felt that an
inverted tub that was likely to see-saw during class hours would tend
rather to develop a sense of humor in her pupils than to contribute to her
pedagogical dignity.

The camp, as may already have been inferred, enjoyed a matriarchal form of
government. Its feminine dictator was no exception to the race of
autocrats in that she was not an absolute stranger to the rosy byways of
self-indulgence. There was a strenuous quality in her pleasuring perhaps
not inconsistent in one whose daily tasks included sheep-herding,
ditch-digging, varied by irrigating and shearing in their proper seasons.
Under the circumstances, it was not surprising that her wash-tub bore
about the same relationship to her real duties as does the crochet needle
or embroidery hoop to the lives of less arduously engaged women. It was at
once her fad and her relaxation, the dainty feminine accomplishment with
which she whiled away the hours after a busy day spent with pick and
shovel. Of all this Mary was ignorant when she proposed that Mrs. Yellett
saw off the tub-handles in the cause of culture. However, Mrs. Yellett
procured a saw, yet the hand that held it lingered in its descent on the
handles. She contemplated the tub as affectionately as Hamlet regarding
the skull of "Alas, poor Yorick!"

"This," she observed, "is the only thing about camp that reminds me I’m a
woman. I’d plumb forget it many a time if it warn’t for this little tub.
The identity of a woman is mighty apt to get mislaid when dooty compels
her to assoome the pants cast aside by the nacheral head of the house in
sickness or death. It’s ben six years now since paw’s done a thing but set
’round and wait for meals." Mrs. Yellett sighed laboriously. "Not that I’m
holdin’ it agin him none. When a man sees eighty, it’s time he bedded
himself down comfortable and waited for the nacheral course of events to
weed him out. But when the boys get old enough to tend to herdin’,
irrigatin’, and the work that God A’mighty provided that man might get the
chance to sweat hisself for bread, accordin’ to the Scriptures, I aim to
indulge myself by doin’ a wash of clothes every day, even if I have to
take clean clothes and do ’em over again."

The poor "gov’ment’s" tender heart could not resist this presentation of
the case.

"We won’t touch the handles, Mrs. Yellett," she laughed. "I’m glad you
told me you had a personal sentiment for the tub. There are some things I
should feel the same way about—my hoe and rake, for instance, that I care
for my garden with, at home. And that suggests to me, why not dig two
little trenches for the handles and plant the tub? Then I shall have an
even firmer foundation on which to arrange the—the—the educational
miscellany."

The suggestion of this harmless expedient was gratefully received, and the
"desk" duly implanted, whereupon Mary pathetically sought to embellish her
"class-room" from such scanty materials as happened to be at hand. A
hemstitched bureau scarf that she had tucked in her trunk, in
unquestioning faith in the bureau that was to be part of the ranch
equipment, took the "raw edge," as it were, off the desk. A bunch of
prairie flowers, flaming cactus blossoms in scarlet and yellow, ox-eyed
daisies, white clematis from the creek, seemed none the less decorative
for the tin cup that held them. Mary grimly told herself that her school
was to have refining influences, even if it had no furniture.

The books, pencils, and paper arranged in decorous little piles, Miss
Carmichael announced to her patroness that school was ready to open. Mrs.
Yellett, who had never heard that "a soft voice is an excellent thing in
woman," and whose chest-notes were not unlike those of a Durham in
sustained volume of sound, made the valley of the Wind River echo with the
summons of the pupils to school, upon which the teacher herself was
overcome by the absurdity of the situation and had barely time to escape
back of the willows, where she laughed till she cried.

As the pupils trooped obediently to school, Mary noted that they carried
no flowers to their dear teacher, but that Ben, the oldest pupil,
twenty-one years old, six feet four inches in height and deeply saturnine
in manner, carried a six-shooter in his cartridge-belt. The teacher felt
that she was the last to deny a pupil any reasonable palliative of the
tedium of class-hours—the nearness of her own school-days inclined her to
leniency in this particular—but she was hardly prepared to condone a
six-shooter, and confided her fears to Mrs. Yellett, who received them
with the indulgent tolerance a strong-minded woman might extend to the
feminine flutter aroused by a mouse. She explained that Ben did not shoot
for "glory," but to defend the herd from the casual calls of
mountain-lions, bears, and coyotes. Jack and Ned, who were very nearly as
tall as their older brother, carried similar weapons. Mary prayed that a
fraternal spirit might dwell among her pupils.

The Misses Yellett were hardly less terrifying than their brothers. They
had their father’s fierce, hawklike profile, softened by youth, and the
appalling height and robustness due to the freedom and fresh air of a
nomadic existence. Their costumes might, Mary thought, have been fashioned
out of gunny-sacks by the simple expedient of cutting holes for the head
and arms. The description of the dress worn by the charcoal-burner’s
daughter in any mediaeval novel of modern construction would approximate
fairly well the school toilets of these young lady pupils. The boys wore
overalls and flannel shirts, which, in contrast to the sketchy effects of
their sisters’ costumes, seemed almost modish. Mrs. Yellett then left the
"class-room," saying she must take Ben’s place with the sheep.

The Brobdingnags, huge of stature, sinister of aspect, deeply distrustful
of the rites in which they were about to participate, closed in about
their teacher. From the pigeon-holes of memory Mary drew forth the
academic smile with which a certain teacher of hers had invariably opened
school. The pupils greeted the academic smile with obvious suspicion. No
one smiled in camp. When anything according with their conception of the
humorous happened, they laughed uproariously. Thus, early in the morning,
on his way to breakfast, Ned had stumbled over an ax and severely cut his
head. Every one but Ned saw the point of this joke immediately, and hearty
guffaws testified to their appreciation.

Miss Carmichael took her place behind the upturned tub.

"Will you please be seated?" she said.

The class complied with the instantaneous precision of automata newly
greased and in excellent working order. Their abrupt obedience was
disconcerting. Some one must have been drilling them, thought their
anxious teacher, in the art of simultaneous squatting. The temper of the
class respecting scholastic deportment leaned towards rigidity bordering
on self-torture.

Mary made out a roll-call, and by unanimous consent it was agreed to
arrange the class as it then stood, or rather squatted, with the Herculean
Ben at the top, and gradually diminishing in size till it reached the
vanishing point with Cacta, who was ten and the least terrifying of all.

"And now," ventured the teacher, with the courage of a white rabbit, "what
have you been in the habit of studying?"

Absolute silence on the part of the class, which confronted its questioner
straight as a row of bottles, presenting faces imperturbable as so many
sphinxes.

Other questions met with an equally disheartening response. Miss
Carmichael sat up straight, pushed back the persistent curls from her
face, and bent every energy towards the achievement of a "firm" demeanor.

"Clematis," said she, wisely selecting perhaps the least formidable of the
class, "I want you to give me some idea of the kind of work you have been
doing, so that we may all be able to understand each other. Now, in your
mathematics, for instance, which of you have finished with your
arithmetic, and which—"

"What do you mean?" begged Clematis, somewhat tearful.

"Where are you in your arithmetic?

"Nowhere, ma’am."

"Do you mean you have never learned any?" Mary Carmichael shuddered as she
icily put the question.

"Yes, ma’am."

"Is that the case with all of you?"

Emphatic nods left no room for doubt.

"Then we’ll leave that for the present. If you will tell me, Clematis,
what kind of work you have been doing in your history and English, we will
get to work on those to-day. What books have you been using?"

Not unnaturally, Clematis, who was emotional and easily impressed, began
to feel as though she were a criminal. She sobbed in a helpless, feminine
way. Ben spoke up, fearsomely, from the top of the class.

"We ’ain’t got no books," said he, in grim rebuke, as though to put an end
to a profitless discussion.

"Do you wish me to understand," quavered Mary, "that you have had no
studies—that you—can’t read?—that you—don’t know—anything?"

"That’s it," said Ben, with the nearest approach to cheerfulness he had
yet manifested.

Meanwhile there lay on the teacher’s "desk" copies of Clodd’s _Childhood
of the World_, two of that excellent series of _History Primers_, and _The
Young Geologist_, all carefully selected, in the fulness of Mary’s
ignorance, for the little pupils of her imagination. She had brought no
primer, as Mrs. Yellett’s letter had distinctly said that the youngest
child was ten and that all were comparatively advanced in their studies.
More than ever Mary longed to penetrate the mystery of that Irish linen
decoy, for without doubt it was to be her melancholy fate to conduct this
giant band through the alphabet!

Accordingly she wrote out the letters of the alphabet with large
simplicity and a sublime renunciation of flourish. The class received it
tepidly. Mary grew eloquent over its unswerving verities. The class
remained lukewarm. The difference between a and b was a matter of
indifference to the house of Yellett. They regarded their teacher’s
strenuous efforts to furnish a key to the acquirement of the alphabet with
the amused superiority of "grown-ups" watching infant antics with pencil
and paper. Meanwhile her fear of the class increased in proportion as her
ability to hold its attention diminished. The backbone of the school was
plainly wilting. The little scholars, armed to the teeth, no longer sat up
straight as tenpins. After twenty-five minutes of educational experience,
satiety bowled them over.

A single glance had convinced Ben that the alphabet was beneath contempt.
He yawned automatically at regular intervals—long, dismal yawns that
threatened to terminate in a howl, the unchecked, primitive type of yawn
that one hears in the cages of the zoological gardens on a dull day. Miss
Carmichael raised interrogatory eyebrows, but she might as well have
looked reproof at a Bengal tiger.

The class was rapidly promoted to c-a-t, cat; but these dizzy intellectual
heights left them cold and dull. Ben began to clean his revolver, and on
being asked why he did not pay attention to his lessons, answered,
briefly:

"It’s all d——d foolishness."

Cacta and Clem were pulling each other’s hair. Mary affected not to see
this sisterly exchange of torture. Ned whittled a stick; and, in chorus,
when their teacher told them that d-o-g spelled dog, they shouted
derision, and affirmed that they had no difficulty in compelling the
obedience of Stump even without this particular bit of erudition. Though
Mary had always abhorred corporal punishment, she began to see arguments
in its favor.

With the handleless tub as an elbow-rest the teacher took counsel with
herself. Strategy must be employed with the intellectual conquest of the
Brobdingnags. Summoning all the pedagogical dignity of which she was
capable, she asked:

"Boys, don’t you want to know how to read?"

"Noap," responded the head of the class.

"Don’t you want to know how to write?"

"Noap."

"But, my dear boy, what would you do if you left here and went out into
the world, where every one knows these things and your ignorance would be
evident at every turn. What would you do?"

"Slug the whole blamed outfit!"

Mary looked at her watch. School had lasted just forty-five minutes. Had
time become petrified?



XIV


                       Judith Adjusts The Situation


Mary had been a member of the Yellett household for something over a week,
and the intellectual conquest of her Brobdingnag pupils seemed as hopeless
as on that first day. School seemed to be regarded by them as a sort of
neutral territory, admirably adapted for the settlement of long-standing
grudges, the pleasant exchange of practical jokes, peace and war
conferences; also as a mart of trade, where fire-arms, knives, bear and
elk teeth might be swapped with a greater expenditure of time and
conversation than under the maternal eye. "Teacher," as she was understood
and accepted by the house of Yellett, undoubtedly filled a long-felt want.
Presiding over a school of six-imp power for a week, however, had humbled
Mary to the point of seriously considering a letter to the home
government, meekly asking for return transportation. But this was before
feminine wile had struggled with feminine vanity, and feminine wile won
the day. School still continued to open at six, from which early and
unusual hour it continued, without recess or interruption, till noon, when
dinner pleasantly invaded the scholastic monotony, to the infinite relief
of all parties concerned.

Mary had dismissed her pupils a few minutes before the usual hour, on a
particularly bad day, that she might rally her scattered faculties and
present something of a countenance to the watchful eye of Mrs. Yellett.
Every element of humor had vanished from the situation. The inverted tub
was no longer a theme for merriment in her diary; home-life without a
house was no longer a diverting epigram; she had closed her eyes that she
might not see the mountains in all their grandeur. In her present mood of
abject homesickness the white-capped peaks were part and parcel of the
affront. With head sunk in the palms of her hands, and elbows resting on
the inverted tub, Mary presented a picture of woe, in which the wicked
element of comedy was not wholly lacking. Looking up suddenly, she saw
Judith Rodney advancing. The first glimpse of her put Mary in a more
rational mood.

"I’m so glad to see you! Behold my class-room appointments! They may seem
a trifle novel, but, for that matter, so are my pupils," began Mary,
determining to present the same front to Judith that she had to Mrs.
Yellett. But Judith was not to be put off. She looked into Mary’s eyes and
did not relax her gaze until she was rewarded with an answering twinkle.
Then Mary laughed long and merrily, the first good, hearty laugh since the
beginning of her teaching.

"Tell me," Mary broke out, suddenly, "or the suspense will kill me, who
wrote that lovely letter—on such good quality Irish linen, too? Snob that
I was, it was the letter that did it."

"So you have your suspicions that it was not a home product?"

"You didn’t do it, did you?"

"Oh no; though I was asked, and so was Miss Wetmore, I believe. Of course
poor Mrs. Yellett had no other recourse, as I suppose you know. I chose to
be disobliging that time, and was sorry for it afterwards—sorry when I
heard about the letter that really went! Do you find the sheep-wagon so
very dreadful?"

"I thought," laughed Mary, "that it was going to be like a picture I saw
in a magazine, Mexican hammocks, grass cushions, and a lady pouring tea
from a samovar; instead it was the sheep-wagon and ’Do you sleep light or
dark?’ There is Mrs. Yellett calling us to dinner. Shall I have a chance
to talk to you alone afterwards?"

"I’ve come all the way from Dax’s to see you," explained Judith, with
characteristic directness. "We have all the afternoon."

"Really!" Mary displayed a flash of school-girl enthusiasm. "I feel as if
I could almost bear the scenery."

Presumably Judith was a favorite guest of the Yellett household, and not
without reason. She took her place in the circle about the homely,
steaming fare, with an ease and grace that suggested that dining off the
ground was an every-day affair with her, and chairs and tables
undreamed-of luxuries. Mary envied her ready tact. Why could she not meet
these people with Judith’s poise—bring out the best of them, as she did?
The boys talked readily and naturally—there was even a flavor to what they
said. As for herself, try never so conscientiously and she would be
confronted by frank amusement or shy distrust. Even "paw" beamed at Judith
appreciatively as he consumed his meal with infinite, toothless labor. The
Spartan family became almost sprightly under the pleasantly stimulating
influence of its guest.

"What kind of basques are they wearing this summer, Judy?" inquired Mrs.
Yellett, regarding her guest’s trim shirt-waist judicially. "I reckon them
loose, meal-sack things must be all the go since you and Miss Mary both
have ’em; but give me a good, tight-fittin’ basque, every time. How’s any
one to know whether you got a figure or not, in a thing that never hits
you anywhere?" questioned the matriarch, not without a touch of pride
anent her own fine proportions.

"You really ought to have a shirt-waist, Mrs. Yellett. You’ve no idea of
the comfort of them, till you’ve worn them."

"I don’t see but I’ll have to come to it." Her tone was frankly regretful,
as one who feels obliged to follow the behests of fashion, yet, in so
doing, sacrifices a cherished ideal. Mary Carmichael choked over her
coffee in an abortive attempt to restrain her audible hilarity. Judith,
without a trace of amusement, was discussing materials, cut, and buttons;
the plainswoman had proved herself the better gentlewoman of the two.

"Get me a spotty calico, white, with a red dot, will you, the next time
you’re over to Ervay? Buttons accordin’ to your judgment; but if you could
get some white chiny with a red ring, I think they’d match it handsome."
She frowned reflectively. "You’re sure one of them loose, hangy things ’d
become me? Then you can bring it over Tuesday, when you come to the hunt."

"What hunt?" asked Judith, in all simplicity.

"Why, the wolf-hunt. Peter Hamilton come here three days ago and made
arrangements for ’em all to have supper here after it was done. ’Lowed
there was a young Eastern lady in the party, Miss Colebrooke, who couldn’t
wait to meet me. Course you’re goin’, Judy? You’ve plumb forgot it, or
somethin’ happened to the messenger. Who ever hyeard tell of anythin’
happenin’ in this yere county ’thout you bein’ the very axle of it?"

Judith had not betrayed her chagrin by the least change of countenance. To
the most searching glance every faculty was intent on the shirt-waist with
the ringed buttons. Yet both women felt—by a species of telepathy wholly
feminine—that Judith was deeply wounded. Loyal Sarah Yellett decided that
Hamilton’s guests would get but a scant supper from her if her friend
Judith was to be unfavored with an invitation, while Judith, in her own
warm heart, resented as deeply as Peter’s slight of herself, his tale of
Miss Colebrooke’s impatience to meet Mrs. Yellett. The matriarch’s
dominant personality evoked many a smile even from those most deeply
conscious of her worth; but it wasn’t like Peter to make a spectacle of
his ruggedly honest neighbor. Nevertheless she remarked, coolly:

"I sha’n’t be able to bring your shirt-waist things up Tuesday, I’m
afraid, Mrs. Yellett, but I’ll try to bring them towards the end of the
week." Then, with a swift change of subject, "How are the boys getting on
with their education, Miss Carmichael?"

The boys looked at Mary out of the corners of their eyes. Their prowess in
the field of letters had not been publicly discussed before. Mary
Carmichael, emboldened by Judith’s presence, looked at her tormentors with
a judicious glance.

"The girls are doing fairly well," she replied, suppressing the mischief
in her eyes, "but the boys, poor fellows, I think something must be the
matter with them. Did they ever fall on their heads when they were babies,
Mrs. Yellett?"

"Not more than common. All babies fall on their heads; it’s as common as
colic."

"Poor boys!" said Mary, with a manner that suggested they were miles away,
rather than within a few feet of her. "Poor boys! I’ve never seen anything
like it. They try so hard, too, yet they can make nothing of work that
would be play for a child of three. They must have fallen on their heads
harder than you supposed, Mrs. Yellett."

"Perhaps their skulls were a heap frailer than I allowed for at the time,"
said Mrs. Yellett, with similar remoteness, yet with a twinkle that showed
Mary she understood the situation.

"An infant’s skull doesn’t stand much knocking about, I suppose, Mrs.
Yellett?"

"Not a great deal, if there ain’t plenty of vinegar and brown paper handy,
and I seldom had such fancy fixings in camp. It’s too bad my boys should
be dumb ’n account of a little thing like vinegar and brown paper."

"Maw, they be dumb as Injuns," declared Cacta, preening herself, while the
Messrs. Yellett reapplied themselves to their dinner with ostentatious
interest.

"Well, well!" said Mrs. Yellett; "it be a hard blow to me to know that my
sons are lackings; there’s mothers I know as would give vent to their
disapp’inted ambition in ways I’d consider crool to the absent-minded. Now
hearken, the whole outfit of you! Any offspring of mine now present and
forever after holding his peace, who proves feebleminded by the end of the
coming week, takes over all the work, labor, and chores of such offspring
as demonstrates himself in full possession of his faculties, the matter to
be reported on by the gov’ment."

No sovereign, issuing a proclamation of war, could have assumed a more
formidable mien than Mrs. Yellett, squatting erect on the prairie, crowned
by her rabbit-skin cap. Mary and Judith, with bland, impassive
expressions, noted the effect of the mandate. There was not the faintest
symptom of rebellion; each Brobdingnag accepted the matriarch’s edict
without a murmur.

With an air of further meditation on the efficacy of brown paper and
vinegar at the crucial moment, Mrs. Yellett suddenly observed:

"The lacking, like the dog, may be taught to fetch and carry a book; but
to learn it he is unable."

"Maw, does it say that in the Book of Hiram?" asked Clematis.

"It says that, an’ more, too. It says, ’The words of the wise are an
expense, but the lovin’ parent don’t grudge ’em.’"

Mary Carmichael had noticed, as her alien presence came to be less of a
check on Mrs. Yellett’s natural medium of expression, that she was much
addicted to a species of quotation with which she impartially adorned her
conversation, pointed family morals, or administered an occasional
reproof. These family aphorisms were sometimes semi-legal, sometimes
semi-scriptural in turn of phrase, and built on a foundation of homely
philosophy. They were ascribed to the "Book of Hiram" and never failed of
salutary effect in the family circle. But the apt quotations that she had
just heard piqued Mary’s curiosity more than before.

"Do you happen to have a copy of the Book of Hiram, Mrs. Yellett?" she
asked, in all innocence, supposing that the ’homely apothegms were to be
found at the back of some patent-medicine almanac. Judith Rodney listened
in wonder. The question had never before been asked in her hearing.

"I lost mine." Mrs. Yellett folded her arms and looked at her questioner
with something of a challenging mien.

"What a pity! I’ve been so interested in the quotations I’ve heard you
make from it."

"What’s the matter with ’em?" she demanded, pride and apprehension equally
commingled.

Judith Rodney rushed to the rescue:

"Nothing is the matter with them, Mrs. Yellett," she said, with her
disarming smile, "except that there is not quite enough to go around."

The matriarch had the air of gathering herself together for something
really worth while. Then she tossed off:

"’’Tain’t always the quality of the grub that confers the flavor, but
sometimes the scarcity thereof.’"

Perhaps it has been the good-fortune of some of us to say a word of praise
to an author, while unconscious of his relationship to the book praised.
Mark the genial glow radiating from every feature of our auditor! How we
feel ourselves anointed with his approval, our good taste and critical
faculty how commended! It is a luxury that goes a long way towards
mitigating the discomfitures caused by the reverse of this unctuous
blunder.

"The Book of Hiram," said Mrs. Yellett, angling for time, "is a book—it do
surprise me that it escapes your notice back East. You ever heard tell of
the Book of Mormon?"

Mary assented.

"Well, the Book of Hiram is like the Book of Mormon, only a heap more
undefiled. The youngest child can read it without asking a single
embarrassing question of its elder, and the oldest sinner can read it
without having any fleshly meditations intrudin’ on his piety."

The Yellett family had by this time dispersed itself for the afternoon,
and the matriarch and the two girls started in to clear away the meal and
wash the dishes.

"That’s the kind of book for me," continued Mrs. Yellett, vigorously
swishing about in the soapy water. "Story-books don’t count none with me
these days. It’s my opinion that things are snarled up a whole lot too
much in real life without pestering over the anguish of print folks. Flesh
and blood suffering goes without a groan of sympathy from the on-lookers,
while novel characters wade to the neck in compassion. I’ve pondered on
that a whole lot, seem’ a heap of indifference to every-day calamity, and
the way I assay it is like this: print folks has terrible fanciful layouts
given to their griefs and worriments by the authors of their being. The
trimmings to their troubles is mighty attractive. Don’t you reckon I’d be
willin’ to have a spell of trouble if I had a sweeping black velvet dress
to do it in? Yes, indeed, I’d be willin’ to turn a few of them shades of
anguish, ’gray’s ashes,’ ’pale as death,’ and so on, if they’d give me the
dress novel ladies seems to have for them special occasions."

"But you used to like novels, you know you did, Mrs. Yellett," observed
Judith Rodney.

"Yes, I didn’t always entertain these views concernin’ romance. You
wouldn’t believe it, but there was a time when I just nacherally went
careerin’ round enveloped in fantasies. I was young then—just about the
time I married paw. Every novel that was read to me, I mean that I
read"—Mrs. Yellett blushed a deep copper color through her many coats of
tan—"convinced me that I was the heroine thereof. And, nacherally, I
turned over to paw the feachers and characteristics of the hero in said
book I happened to be enjoyin’ at the time. Paw never knew it, but
sometimes he was a dook, and it was plumb hard work. Just about as hard as
ropin’ a mountain-lion an’ sayin’, ’remember, you are a sheep from this
time henceforth, and trim your action accordin’.’ I’d say to paw, ’Let’s
walk together in the gloaming, here in this deserted garden’; and paw
would say, ’Name o’ Gawd, woman, have you lost your mind? It’s plumb three
hundred and fifty miles to the Tivoli beer-garden in Cheyenne, and it
ain’t deserted, either!’

"Then I’d wring my hands in anguish, same as the Lady Mary, an’ paw would
declare I was locoed. He seemed a heap more nacheral when I pretended he
was ’Black Ranger, the Pirate King.’ His language came in handy, and his
cartridge-belt and pistol all came in Black Ranger’s outfit. Yes, it was a
heap easier playing he was a pirate than a dook. All this happened back to
Salt Lake, where me an’ paw was married."

Mrs. Yellett looked towards the mountain-range that separated her from the
Mormon country, and her listeners realized that she was verging perilously
close to confidences. Mary Carmichael, who dreaded missing any detail of
the chronicle that dealt with paw in the rôle of apocryphal duke, hastened
to say:

"And you lost your taste for romance, finally?"

"In Salt Lake I was left to myself a whole lot-there was reasons why I
didn’t mingle with the Mormon herd. Paw was mighty attentive to me, but
them was troublous times for paw. I pastures myself with the fleetin’
figures of romance the endoorin’ time and enjoys myself a heap. When paw
wasn’t a dook or a pirate king, unbeknownst to himself, like as not he was
Sir Marmaduke Trevelyun, or somebody entitled to the same amount of dog.

"’Bout this time a little stranger was due in our midst, and the woman who
came to take care of me was plumb locoed over novels, same as me, only
worse. She just hungered for ’em, same as if she had a longin’ for
something out of season. She brought a batch of them with her in her
trunk, we borrowed her a lot more, some I don’t know how she come by. But
they didn’t have no effect; it was like feedin’ an’ Injun—you couldn’t
strike bottom. She read out of ’em to me with disastrous results
happenin’, an’ that cured me. The brand on this here book that effected my
change of heart was _The Bride of the Tomb_. I forget the name of the girl
in that romance, but she was in hard luck from the start. She couldn’t
head off the man pursooin’ her, any way she turned. She’d wheel out of his
way cl’ar across country, but he’d land thar fust an’ wait for her, a
smile on his satanine feachers.

"I got so wrought up along o’ that book, an’ worried as to the outcome,
’most as bad as the girl. Think of it! An’ me with only three baby-shirts
an’ a flannel petticoat made at the time! Seemed ’s if I couldn’t hustle
my meals fast enough, I just hankered so to know what was goin’ to happen
next! I plumb detested the man with the handsome feachers, same as the
girl. Me an’ her felt precisely alike about him. And when he shut her up
in the family vault I just giv’ up an’ was took then an’ there, an’ me
without so much as finishin’ the flannel petticoat! I never could endure
the sight of a novel since. Perhaps that’s why Ben is so dumb about his
books—just holds a nacheral grudge against ’em along of my havin’ to
borrow slips for him."

"Has the Book of Hiram anything to say against the habit of novel reading,
Mrs. Yellett?" inquired Judith, demurely.

She paused for a moment. "It’s mighty inconvenient that I should have
mislaid that book, but rounding up my recollections of it, I recall
something like this: ’Romance is the loco-weed of humanity.’"

"So you don’t approve of the Mormon Bible?" ventured Mary.

"I jest nacherally execrates Mormonism, spoken, printed, or in action,"
she said, with an emphasis that suggested the subject had a strong
personal bearing. "I recall a text from the Book of Hiram touching on
Mormon deportment in particklar an’ human nature at large. It says, ’Where
several women and one man are gathered together for the purpose of serving
the Lord, the man gets the bulk of the service."

She broke off suddenly, as if she feared she had said too much. "Judy,"
she demanded, "is Mis’ Dax busy with Leander now?"

"Not more than usual," smiled Judith.

"Jest tell her for me, will you, that I want to hire her husband to do
some herdin’; Leander’s handy, ’n’ can work good an’ sharp, if he is an
infidel. An’ I like to have him over now an’ then, as you know, Judy. As
the Book of Hiram says, ’It’s neighborly to ease the check-rein of a
gentled husband.’ But you tell him I don’t want to hear any of his
ever-lastin’ fool argufyin’ ’bout religion. Leander ’d stop in the middle
of shearin’ a sheep to argue that Jonah never came out o’ the whale’s
belly. I ain’t no use for infidels, ’less they’re muzzled, which Leander
mos’ generally is."

With the feeling that there was an excellent though unspoken understanding
between them, the two girls walked together to the top of the path that
wandered away from camp towards a bluff overlooking wave after wave of
foot-hills, lying blue and still like a petrified sea.

"I’m still dying to know who wrote that letter," begged Mary.

"It was written by a lady who is very anxious to return to Washington, and
she took that means of getting one more vote. Her husband is going to run
for the Senate next term. We hear a good deal of that side of politics,
you know."

"It was certainly convincing," remarked the victim of the letter. "My
aunts detected many virtues in the handwriting."

"But now that you are really here, isn’t it splendid? Mountains are such
good neighbors. They give you their great company and yet leave you your
own little reservations."

"But I fear I can never feel at home out-of-doors," Mary announced, with
such a rueful expression that they both smiled.

"Perhaps, then, it depends on the frame of mind. I’ve had longer than you
to cultivate it."

Mary looked towards the mountains, serene in their strength. "Awesome as
they are," she laughed, "they don’t frighten me nearly as much as Ben and
Ned. They are really very difficile, my pupils, and I feel so ridiculous
sitting up back of that tub, teaching them letters and the spelling of
foolish words, when they know things I’ve never dreamed of. The other day,
out of a few scratches in the dust that I should never have given a second
glance, one of them made out that some one’s horses had broken the corral
and one was trailing a rope. Whereupon my pupil got on a horse, went in
search of the strays, and returned them to men going to a round-up. After
that, the spelling of cat didn’t seem quite so much of an achievement as
it had before."

"But they need the spelling of cat so much more than you need to
understand trail-marks. Why don’t you try a little strategy with them?
Perhaps a bribe, even? It seems to me I remember something in history
about the part played in colonization by the bright-colored bead."

Sundry wood-cuts from a long-forgotten primer history of the United States
came back to Mary. In that tear-stained, dog-eared volume, all explorers,
from Columbus down to Lewis and Clarke, were unfailingly depicted in the
attitude of salesmen displaying squares of cloth to savages apparently in
urgent need of them.

"How stupid of me not to remember Father Marquette concluding negotiations
with a necklace!"

"Frankly plagiarize the terms of your treaty from Père Marquette, and
there you are!"

"You are so splendid!" said Mary, impulsively, remembering Judith’s own
sorrows and the smiling fortitude with which she kept them hidden. "You
make me feel like a horrid little girl that has been whining."

Judith looked towards the mountains a long time without speaking.

"When you know them well, they whisper great things that little folk can’t
take away."

She turned back towards camp, walking lightly, with head thrown back. Mary
watched her. Yes, the mountains might have admitted her to their company.



XV


                              The Wolf-hunt


Judith awakened with all the starry infinitude of sky for a canopy. In the
distance loomed the foot-hills, watchful sentinels of her slumbers; and,
sloping gently away from them, rolled the plain, like some smooth, dark
sea flowing deep and silently. Judith, a solitary figure adrift in that
still ocean of space, sat up and watched the stars fade and saw the young
day peer timorously at the world that lay before it. Her mind, refreshed
by long hours of dreamless sleep, turned to the problem of impending
things, serenely contemplative. The passing of many mornings and many
peoples had the mountains seen as the wreathed mists came and went about
their brows, and to all who knew the value of the gift they gave their
great company, and to such as could hear, they told their great secrets.
Judith’s prayer was an outflowing of soul to the great forces about her, a
wish to be in harmony with them, to remember her kinship, to keep some
measure of their serenity in the press of burdens. The way of the Indian
was ever her way when circumstance raised no barriers; the four walls of a
house were a prison to her after the days lengthened and the summer nights
grew warm. To the infinite disapproval of that custodian of propriety,
Mrs. Dax, she would make her bed beneath the stars, night after night, and
bathe in the cold, clear waters of the stream that purled from the
white-capped crest of the mountains.

"Nasty Injun ways!" scoffed Leander’s masterful lady, consciously superior
from the intrenchment of her stuffy bedroom, that boasted crochet-work on
the backs of the chairs and a scant lace curtain at its solitary window.

Judith, going to her favorite pool to bathe, saw that it had shrunk till
it seemed but a fairy well hid among the willows. A quarter of a mile
above was another pool, hidden like a jewel in its case of green,
broidered with scarlet roseberries and white clematis; and towards this
she bent her steps, as time was a-plenty that morning. She kept to the
stones of the creek for a pathway, jumping lightly from those that were
moss-grown to those that hid their nakedness in the dark, velvet shadows
of early morning, her white feet touching the shallow stream like pale
gulls that dipped and skimmed. "Diana’s Pool," as she called it, was
always clear. It lay half hid beneath a shelving rock, a fount for the
tiny, white fall that crooned and sang as it fell. And here she bathed, as
the east flamed where the mountains blackened against it. Gold halos
tipped the clouds, that melted presently into fiery waves, then burst into
one great aureole through which the sun rode triumphant, and it was day.

She had kept post-office the day before, and it would not be till day
after to-morrow that the squires of the lariat would come again to offer
their hearts, their worldly goods, their complete reformation, if she
would only change her mind. It was all such an old story that she had
grown to regard them with a tenderness almost maternal. But to-day was all
her own, and the spirit of adventure swelled high in her bosom as she
thought of what she had planned. It was warm and close and still in the
Dax house as Judith made her way softly to her own room and began her
preparations for the long journey she was to take afoot. To walk in the
abominations devised by the white man for the purpose of cramping his feet
would have been a serious handicap to Judith. The twenty miles that she
would walk before nightfall was no very great undertaking to her, but it
was part of her primitive directness to accomplish it with as little
expenditure of fatigue and comfort as possible. Moreover, who could steal
through the forest in those heeled things without announcing his coming
and frightening the forest folk, and sending them skurrying? And Judith
loved to surprise them and see them busy with their affairs—to creep along
in her soft, elk-hide moccasins and catch their watchful eyes and see the
things that were not for the heavy-booted white man.

She might have inspired Kitty Colebrooke to a sonnet as she stepped out
into the glad morning light, in short skirt and jacket, green-clad as the
pines that girdled the mountains, with a knapsack with rations of bread
and meat and the wherewithal to build a fire should she wander belated.
She softly closed the door, not to awaken Leander and his slumbering lady,
and broke into the running gait that the Indians use on their all-day
journeys, the elk-hide moccasins falling soft as snow-flakes on the trail.
Dolly she missed chiefly for her companionship, for Judith had not the
white man’s utter helplessness without a horse in this country of high
altitudes. When she walked she breathed, carried herself, covered ground
like her mother’s people, and loved the inspiration of it.

The eerie shadows of the desert drew back and hid themselves in the
mountains. The day began with splendid promise—the day of the wolf-hunt,
of which no word had been spoken to her by Peter. She, too, was going
hunting, but silently and unbidden she would steal through the forest and
see this mysterious woman who played fast and loose with Peter, who loved
her apparently all the better for the game she played. What manner of
woman could do these things? What manner of woman could be indifferent to
Peter? Judith was consumingly curious to see. And, apart from this naked
and unashamed curiosity, there was the possibility that at sight of Miss
Colebrooke there might come a relaxation of Peter’s tyrannous hold upon
her thoughts, her life, her very heart’s blood. Would her loyalty bear the
test of seeing Peter made a fool of by a woman she could dismiss with a
shrug—a softly speaking shrew, perhaps, who played a waiting game with her
finger on the pulse of Peter’s prospects? For there was talk of a
partnership with the Wetmores. Or a fool, perhaps, for all her sonneting,
for there are men who relish a weak headpiece as the chiefest ornament of
women, especially when its indeterminate vagaries boast an escape-valve
remotely connected with the fine arts. Or a devil-woman, perhaps—an
upright wanton who could think no wrong from very poverty of temperament,
yet kept him dangling. The possibility of Kitty’s honesty, Judith in her
jealousy would not admit. Had she gone to the devil for him, stood and
faced the drift of opinion for his sake, that Judith could have
understood. But what was the spinning of verses to a woman’s portion of
loving and being loved? Even Alida, through all her distracting anxieties,
had in her heart the thrice-blessed leaven, reasoned the woman of the
plains, who might, according to modern standards, be reckoned a trifle
primitive in her psychological deductions. And, withal, Judith was forced
to admit that there was something simple and true about a man who would
let a woman make a fool of him, whoever the woman was.

Perhaps with this hunting would end the long reign of Peter as a divinity.
Judith was tired, not in her vigorous young body, because that was strong
and healthful as the hill wind, but tired in heart and mind and life. Her
destiny had not been beautiful or happy before he invaded it, but it had
been calm, and now serenity seemed the worthiest gift of the gods. It was
not that she loved him less, but that she had so long reflected upon him
that her imagination was numb; her thoughts, arid, unfruitful as the
desert, turned from him to the problems that beset her, and from them back
to him again, in dull, subconscious yearning. She could no longer project
an anguished consciousness to those scenes wherein he walked and talked
with Kitty. Her Indian fatalism had intervened. "Life was life," to be
lived or left. And yet she felt herself a poor creature, one who had lived
long on illusion, who had bent her neck to the yoke of arid unrealities.
The pale-haired woman who kept him with her miserliness of self, who
intruded no sombre tragedy of loving, was well worth a trip across the
foot-hills to see. And yet, Judith reflected, it was the portion of her
mother’s daughter to make of loving the whole business of life, even if
she rebelled and fought against it as an accursed destiny. It was in her
inheritance to know and live for the wild thrill of ecstasy in her pulses,
to feel trembling joy and despair and frantic hope, that exacted its
tribute hardly less poignant; as it was, also, to feel a shivering
sensitiveness in regard to the loneliness and bitterness of her life, to
have the same measureless capacity for sorrow that she had for loving, to
have a soul attuned to the tragedy of things, to love the mighty forces
about her, to feel the reflection of all their moods in her heart, and,
lastly, it was her destiny to be the daughter of a half-Sioux and a border
adventurer, and to feel the counter influences of the two races make
forever of her heart a battleground.

Her light feet scarcely touched the ground as she sped swiftly through all
the network of the hills; and more than once her woman’s heart asked the
question, "And, prithee, Judith, if from henceforth you are only to hold
fellowship with the stars and have no part in the ways of men, why do you
walk a day’s journey to catch a glimpse of a pale-haired woman?"

She knew the probable course of the wolf-hunt. She had been on scores of
them, galloped with Peter after the fleeing gray thing that swept along
the ground like the nucleus of a whirling dust-devil. At least she was
sure of the place of their nooning—a limpid stream that ran close to many
young pine-trees. Here was a pause in the rugged ascent, a level space of
open green, thick with buffalo grass. Many times had she been here with
Peter, sometimes with many other people on the chase—sometimes, and these
occasions were enshrined in her memory, each with its own particular halo,
with Peter alone; and they had fished for trout and cooked their supper on
the grassy levels. It was in Judith’s planning to arrive before the
hunting-party, to hide among the thickets of scrub pine that grew along
the steep cliffs and overlooked the grassy level, to take her fill of
looking at the pale-haired girl and the hunters at their merrymaking, and,
when she had seen, to steal back across the trail to the Daxes’. They
would not penetrate the thickets where she meant to hide, and, should
they, she was prepared for that contingency, too. She had brought with her
a bright-colored shawl that she would throw over her head, and with the
start of them she could outrun them all, even Peter. Had she not
outdistanced him easily, many times, in fun? Through the tangle of
tree-trunks that grew not far from the thicket, they would think she was
but a poor Shoshone squaw lying in wait for the broken meat of the
revellers.

By crossing and recrossing the tiny creeks that trickled slow and
obstructed through the gaunt levels of plain and foot-hill, she had come
by a direct route to the fringes of the pine country. And here she found a
world dim, green, and mysterious. It was wellnigh inconceivable that the
land of sage-brush and silence could, within walking distance of
desolation, show such wealth of young timber, such shade and beauty. Her
noiseless footfalls scarce startled a sage-hen that, realizing too late
her presence, froze to the dead stump—a ruffled gray excrescence with
glittering bead eyes that stared at her furtively, the one live thing in
the tense body.

The sun wanted an hour of noon when Judith rested by the stream, bathed
her face and hands, flushed from the long walk, ate the bread and meat,
then lay on the bed of pine-needles, brown and soft from the weathering of
many suns and snows. She had been all day in the company she loved
best—the earth, the sky, the sun and wind—and in her heart at last was a
deep tranquillity. Thus she could face life and ask nothing but to watch
the cloud fleeces as they are spun and heaped high in the long days of
summer; in soberer moods to watch the thoughts of the Great Mystery as He
reveals them in the shifting cloud shapes; to penetrate further and
further into the councils of the great forces. Thus did she dream the
moments away till the sun was high in the blue and threw long, yellow
splashes of light on her still body, on the soft pine-needles, beneath the
boughs. But there was no time for further day-dreams if she intended to
forestall the hunters at the place of nooning. She followed a game trail
that lay along the stream, ascending through the dense growths till she
reached the top of the jutting rocks. Her hair was loosened, her skirt
awry, and the pine-needles stood out from it as from a cushion. Much of
the way she gained by creeping beneath the low branches on her hands and
knees. No white woman would be likely to follow her reasoned the daughter
of the plains. It would be a little too hard on her appearance. And here,
by lying flat and hanging over the jutting knob of rock, with a pine
branch in her hand, she could see this mysterious woman and Peter and the
hunters.

She broke a branch to shade her face, she looked down on the grassy level.
She waited, but there was no sound of hoofs falling muffled on the soft
ground. The shadows of the pines contended with the splashes of sunlight
for the little world beneath the trees. They trembled in mimic battle,
then the shadows stole the sunlight, bit by bit, till all was pale-green
twilight, and there was no sound of the hunters.



The hunters, meanwhile, had not been altogether successful in the chase.
The necessary wolf had been coy, and they, perforce, had to compromise
with his poor relation, the coyote—a poor relation, indeed, whose shabby
coat, thinned by the process of summer shedding, made it an unworthy
souvenir to Miss Colebrooke. But it was not the lack of a wolf that robbed
the hunting-party of its zest for Kitty. She could not tell what it was,
but something seemed to have gone wrong with the day from the beginning.
She rode beside her cavalier in a habit the like of which the country had
never before seen, and Peter, usually the most observant of men, had no
word for its multitude of perfections. In the first realization of
disappointment with the day, the hunt, the hardships of the long ride, her
perturbed consciousness took up the problem of this missing element and
tried to adjust itself to the irritating absence. Kitty wondered if it
were something she had forgotten. No, there were her two little cambric
pocket-handkerchiefs, remotely suggestive of orris, and bearing her
monogram delicately wrought and characteristic. It was not her watch, the
ribbon fob of which fluttered now and then in the breeze. It was not veil
nor scarf-pin nor any of the paraphernalia of the properly garbed
horsewoman. And yet there was something missing, something she should have
had with her, something the absence of which was taking the savor from the
day’s hunting.

It must be the very bigness of this great, splendid world that gave her
the sense of being alone at sea. Intuitively she turned and looked at
Peter riding beside her. There was something in his face that made her
look again before accepting the realization at first incredulously, then
with frank amusement. Peter had scarcely spoken since they left the ranch.
She had come down to breakfast so sure of her new riding-habit. The
Wetmore girls had been moved to hyperboles about its cut and fit and the
trim shortness of the skirt—short riding-skirts were something of a
novelty then. The fine gold hair, twisted tight at the back of the shapely
head, was like a coiled mass of burnished metal, some safe-keeping device
of mint or gold-worker till the season of coining or fashioning should
come round. The translucent flesh-tints, pearl-white flushing into
pink—"Bouguereau realized at last," as Nannie Wetmore was in the habit of
summing up her cousin’s complexion—was as marvellous as ever. The delicate
firmness of profile gave to the face the artificial perfection of an old
miniature, rather than of a flesh-and-blood countenance, and all these
were there as of yore, but the marvel of them failed of the customary
tribute. Kitty, on scanty reflection, was at no loss to translate Peter’s
reserve into a language at once flattering and retributive. In her scheme
of life he was always to be her devoted cavalier, as indeed he had been
from the beginning. She loved her own small eminence too well to imperil
her tenure of it by sharing its pretty view of men and things with any
one. In country house parties she loved the mild wonder that the
successful _littérateuse_ could fight and play and win her social triumphs
so well. She loved the star part, and next to playing it she enjoyed
wresting it from other women or eclipsing them completely in some
conspicuously minor rôle, while, in the matter of dress, Miss Colebrooke
went beyond the point decreed by the most exigent mandates of fashion.
When hats were worn over the face, her admirers had to content themselves
with a glimpse of her charming mouth and chin. When they flared, hers
fairly challenged the laws of equilibrium. She danced with the same
facility with which she rode, swam, and played tennis. In doing these
things supremely well she felt that she vindicated the position of the
woman of letters. Why should one be a frump because one wrote?

Her friendship with Peter was to endure to greenest old age, more
platonic, perhaps, than that of Madame Récamier and Chateaubriand. It was
to be fruitful in letters that would compare favorably with the best of
the seventeenth century series. Even now her own letters to Peter were no
sprightly scrawl of passing events, but efforts whose seriousness
suggested, at least in their carefully elaborated stages of structure, the
letters of the ladies of Cranford.

But in the course of these Western wanderings, undertaken not wholly
without consideration of Peter, there had appeared in the maplike
exactness of her plans an indefinite territory that threatened
undreamed-of proportions. It menaced the scheme of the letters, it shook
the foundations of the Chateaubriand-Récamier friendship. The unknown
quantity was none other than the frequent and irritating mention of one
Judith Rodney, who, from all accounts, appeared a half-breed. Her name,
her beauty, some intrinsic charm of personality made her an all too
frequent topic, except in the case of Peter. He had been singularly keen
in scenting any interrogatory venue that led to the mysterious half-breed;
when questioned he persistently refused to exhibit her as a type.

Kitty knew that she had treated her long-suffering cavalier with scant
consideration the day he had spurred across the desert to see her. True,
she had written him on her arrival, but, with feminine perversity of
logic, thought it a trifle inconsiderate of him to come so soon after that
trying railroad journey. An ardent resumption of his suit—and Peter could
be depended on for renewing it early and often—was farthest from her
inclination at that particular time. She intended to salve her conscience
at the wolf-hunt for her casual reception of his impetuous visit. But
apparently Peter did not intend to be prodigal of opportunity.

"How garrulous you people are this morning!" Nannie Wetmore challenged
them. Peter came out of his brown study with the look of one who has again
returned to earth.

"You don’t find it like the drop-curtain of a theatre, now that you’ve
seen it?" he questioned Kitty. For she had doubted her pleasure in the
mountains, in the conviction that they would be too dramatic for her
simple taste.

Kitty closed her eyes and sighted the peaks as if she were getting the
color scheme for an afternoon toilet.

"Mass, bulk, rather than line—no, it’s not like a drop-curtain, but it’s
distinctly ’hand-painted.’ All it needs is a stag surveying the prospect
from that great cliff. It’s the kind of thing that would sound well in a
description. Oh, I assure you I intend to make lavish use of it, but it
leaves nothing to one’s poor imagination!"

Peter had a distinct feeling of being annoyed. No, she could not
appreciate the mountains any more than they could appreciate her. They
were incongruous, antipathetic, antipodal. Kitty, in her pink and white
and flaxen prettiness and her trim habit, was in harmony with the
bridle-path of a city park; in this great, lonely country she was an
alien. He thought of Judith and the night they had climbed Horse-Thief
Trail, of her quiet endurance, her keen pleasure in the wild beauty of the
night, her quality of companionship, her loyalty, her silent bearing of
many burdens. Yet until he had seen them both against the same relentless
background, he had never been conscious of comparing the two women.

Nannie Wetmore had fallen behind. She was riding with a bronzed young
lieutenant from Fort Washakie. The two ahead rode long without speaking.
Then Peter broke the silence impatiently:

"You did not really mean that, did you?" He was boyishly hurt at her
flippant summing up of his beloved blue country. And Kitty, tired with the
long, hard ride, and missing that something in Peter that had always been
hers, turned on him a pair of blue eyes in which the tears were brimming
suspiciously. They were well out of sight of the others, and had come to
the heavy fringes of a pine wood. Was it the psychological moment at last?
Then suddenly their horses, that had been sniffing the air suspiciously,
stopped. Kitty’s horse, which was in advance of Peter’s, rushed towards
the thicker growth of pines as if all Bedlam were in pursuit. Peter’s
horse, swerving from the cause of alarm, bolted back across the trail over
which they had just made their way. A large brown bear, feeding with her
cub, and hidden by the trees till they were directly in front of her, had
caused the alarm.

And presently the hush of the shadowy green world in which Judith lay was
broken by a light, sobbing sound. It had been so still that, lying on her
bed of pine-needles, she had likened it to great waves of silence, rolling
up from the valley, breaking over her and sweeping back again, noiseless,
green from the billowing ocean of pine branches, and sunlit. Judith bent
over the rocky ledge and saw a girl making her way down the game trail,
dishevelled and tearful. Her hat was gone, her pale-yellow hair, that in
shadow had the greenish tinge of corn-silk, blew about her shoulders, her
trim skirt was torn and dusty, and she looked about, bewildered, hardly
realizing that through the unexpected course of things she had been
stranded in this great world of sunlit splendor and loneliness. She closed
her eyes. The awful vastness and solitude oppressed her with a deepening
sense of calamity. Suppose they never found her? How could she find her
way in this endless wilderness, afoot? She sank to the turf and began to
cry hysterically.

Judith knew in a flash of instant cognition that this was Miss Colebrooke.
Amazement seemed to have dulled her powers of action—amazement that she,
who had stolen to this place and crouched close to earth that she might
see the triumph of this preferred woman, and, having seen and paid her
grievous dole, steal away and take up the thread of endless little things
that spun for her the web of life, was forced instead to be an unwilling
witness of the other’s distress. Judith had risen with her first impulse,
which had been to go to Kitty, but half-way through the thicket she
hesitated and reconsidered. Undoubtedly Peter would come soon, and Peter’s
consolation would be more potent than any she could offer. She shrank in
shuddering self-consciousness at the thought of her presence at their
meeting, the uninvited guest, the outgrown friend and confidante,
blundering in at such a time, pitifully full of good intentions. She
recoiled from the picture as from a precipice that all unwittingly she had
escaped. What madness had induced her to come on this expedition? A sudden
panic at the possibility of discovery possessed her; suppose Peter should
find her skulking like a beggar, waiting for broken meats? She looked at
the image of herself that she carried in her heart. It was that of a proud
woman who made no moan at the scourge of the inevitable. Many burdens had
she carried in her proud, lonely heart, but of them her lips gave no sign.
In her contemplative stoicism she felt with pride that she was no unworthy
daughter of her mother’s people, and catching a glimpse through the trees
of the abjectly waiting woman who, though safe and sound, could but wait,
wretched and dispirited, for some one to come and adjust her to the
situation, Judith felt for her a wondering pity at her helplessness. She
waited, expectant, for the sound of Peter’s horse. Surely he must come at
any moment, overcome with apologies, and she—Judith hid her face in her
hands at the thought—she would steal away through the thicket at the first
sound of hoofs. But as the minutes slipped by and still no sign of Peter,
a sickening anxiety began to gnaw at her heart. Had something happened to
him?

She did not wait to ask herself the question twice. She crawled the length
of the thicket with incredible rapidity, gained the pine forest, and made
her way beneath the low-hanging boughs; without stopping to protect
herself from them she gained the open space and ran quickly to Kitty.

"Are you hurt? What has happened?"

Kitty looked up, startled at the voice. She had not heard the sound of the
moccasined feet. Her wandering, forlorn thoughts crystallized at sight of
the woman before her. A new lightning leaped into her eyes as she
recognized Judith. There was between them a thrilling consciousness that
gave to their mutual perception a something sharp and fine, that grasped
the drama of the moment with the precision and fidelity of a camera. And
through all the wonder of the meeting there was in the heart of each an
outflowing that met and mingled and understood the potential tragedy
element of the situation.

"You are Miss Rodney, I believe?"

Kitty was conscious of something strange in her voice as she looked into
the dark eyes, wide with questioning fear. Ah, but she had amazing beauty,
and a something that seemed of the very essence of deep-souled
womanliness! The two women presented a fine bit of antithesis, Kitty,
flower-like, small, delicately wrought, the finished product of the town,
exotic as some rare transplanted orchid growth. And in Judith there was a
gemlike quality: it was in the bloom of her skin, the iridescent radiance
of her hair, that was bluish, like a plum in sunlight; it was in the warm,
red life in her lips, in the pulsing vitality of the slim, brown throat;
in every line was sensuous force restrained by spiritual passion.

Kitty told of the accident in which her horse had thrown her and
disappeared in the pine fringes, leaving her stunned for a moment or two;
and how she had finally pulled herself together and followed what appeared
to be a trail, in the hope of finding some one. She dwelt long on the
details of the accident.

"Yes, but Peter, what has happened him?" Judith chose her words
impatiently. She was racked with anxiety at his long delay, and now she
hung over Kitty, waiting for her answer, without the semblance of a cloak
for her alarm.

There was reproof in Kitty’s amendment. "I don’t know which way Mr.
Hamilton’s horse went. It started back over the trail, I think."

Judith clasped her hands. "Let us go and look for him. Why do we waste
time?" But Kitty hung back. She was shaken from her fall, and upset by the
events of the morning. Besides, her faith in Peter’s ability to cope with
all the exigencies of this country was supreme. And chiefest reason of all
for her not going was a something within her that winced at the thought of
this fellowship that had for its object the quest of Peter.

"Oh, don’t you see," pleaded Judith, "that if something had not happened
to him he would have been here long ago?"

Judith’s anxiety awoke in Kitty a new consciousness. What was she to him,
that at the possibility of harm, a fear not shared by Kitty, she should
throw off a reserve that every line of her face pronounced habitual? In
her very energy of attitude, an energy that all unconsciously communicated
itself to Kitty, there was the power that belongs to all elemental human
emotion—the power that compels. Kitty rose to follow Judith, then
hesitated.

"I’m sure nothing has happened him. No, I’m really too unstrung by my fall
to walk." She sank again to the bowlder on which she had been sitting.

To the woman of the world, Judith’s ingenuous display of feeling had in
its very sincerity a something pitiable. How could she strip from her soul
every fold of reserve and stand unloved and unashamed, sanctified, as it
were, by the very hopelessness of her passion? How could women make of
their whole existence a thing to be rejected, reflected Kitty, who, giving
nothing, could not understand. She looked again at the bronzed face beside
her, so bold in outline, so expressive in detail. Yes, she was beautiful,
and yet, what had her beauty availed her? The thought that she herself was
the preferred woman throbbed through her for a moment with a sense of
exaltation. The next moment a haunting doubt laid hold of her heart, held
up mockingly the little that she and Peter had lived through together, the
lofty plane of friendship along which she had tried to lead his unwilling
feet sedately, his protests, his frank amusement at her serious
pretensions to a career. How much fuller might not have been the
intercourse between him and this woman, who, in all probability, had been
his comrade for years? And she had been idealizing him, and his love for
her, and his loneliness! Kitty stood with eyes cast down, while images
crowded upon her, leaving her cold and smiling.

"But think," pleaded Judith; "if you don’t come it will take me longer to
search the trail-marks. You could show me just where the horses ran—"

Kitty’s eyes were still on the ground. She did not lift them, and Judith,
realizing that further appeal was but a waste of time, turned and ran
swiftly down the trail.

"He is her lover," said Kitty; and all the wilderness before her was no
lonelier than her heart.

Swift, intent, Judith traced Kitty’s footprints. They followed the game
trail, the one she herself had taken earlier in the day. She traced them
back through the pine wood about a hundred rods, and then the trail-marks
grew confused. This was unquestionably the place where the horses had
taken fright, circled, reared, then dashed in different directions. She
traced the other horse, whose tracks led under low-hanging boughs. It
would have been a difficult matter for a horse with a rider to clear; and
now the impression of the horse’s shoes grew fainter, from the lighter
footfalls of a horse at full gallop.

"Ah!" A cry broke from her as she saw the marks had become almost
eliminated by something that had dragged, something heavy. Those
long-drawn lines were finger-prints, where a hand had dragged in its vain
endeavor to grasp at something. A sickening image came persistently before
her eyes—Peter’s upturned face, blood-smeared and disfigured.

"Sh-sh-sh!" She put her hand to her breast to still the beating of her
heart. She could hear the sound of hoofs falling muffled on the soft
ground, and a man’s voice speaking in a soothing sing-song. She listened.
It was Peter’s voice, reassuring the horse, asking him what kind of a bag
of nerves he was for a cow pony, to get frightened at a bear? Judith stood
tall and straight among the pines. Surely he could not blindly pass her
by. He must feel the joy in her heart that all was well with him. The
hoofs came nearer, the man’s voice sounded but intermittently, as he got
his horse under better control. She felt as if he must come to her, as if
some overpowering consciousness of her presence would speak from her heart
to his; but his eyes scanned the distant trail for a glimpse of Kitty or
Kitty’s horse. Judith saw that his head was bound in something white and
that it bore a red stain, but he held himself well in the saddle. He was
not the man to heed a tumble. He urged the horse forward, never looking
towards the tree-trunks, his face white and strained with anxiety as he
scoured the trail for evidences of Kitty. The horse, with a keener sense
than his master, shied slightly as he passed the group of pines where
Judith stood; but Peter’s glance was for the open trail, and as she heard
him canter by, so close that she could have touched his stirrup with her
hand, it seemed as if he must hear the beating of her heart.

"Oh, blind eyes, and ears that will not hear, and heart that has forgotten
how to beat! Yes, go to that pale, cold girl! You speak one language, and
life for you is the way of little things!"

She waited till the last sound of the horse’s hoofs had died away and all
was still in the tremulous green of the forest. Judith’s mind was busy
with the image of their meeting, the man bringing the joy of his youth to
the calm divinity who could feel no thrill of fear in his absence. She
broke into the running gait and hurried through the forest to the Daxes’.



XVI


                      In The Land Of The Red Silence


The beef-herd, that had been the pivotal point of the round-up and had
made the mighty plain echo to its stampings and bellowings, beating up
simooms that choked it with thirst, blinded it with dust, confounding
itself on every side by the very fury of its blind force, had trailed for
a week, tractable as toys in the hands of children. Little had happened to
vary the monotony for the cow-punchers that handled the herd—they grazed,
guarded, watered, night-herded the cattle day after day, night after
night. Pasturage had been sufficient, if not abundant. The creeks were
running low and slimy with the advance of summer, but there had been
sufficient water to let the herd drink its fill at least once a day.

The outfit ate its "sow-belly," soda-biscuit, and coffee three times a
day, and smoked its pipes, but was a little shy on yarns round the
camp-fire.

"This yere outfit don’t lather none," commented the cook to the
horse-wrangler, over the smoke of an early morning fire.

"Don’t lather no more than a chunk of wood," agreed the horse-wrangler.
"That’s the trouble with a picked-up outfit like this. Catch ’W-square’
men kowtowing to a ’XXX’ boss, even if he is only acting foreman."

Simpson, the origin of whose connection with the "XXX" was rather a
sensitive subject with that outfit, had begun to take his duties as a
cattle-man with grim seriousness; he was untiring in his labors; he spent
long hours in the saddle, he took his turn at night herding, though he was
old for this kind of work. He condemned the sheep-men with foul-mouthed
denunciations, scoffed at their range-rights, said the sheep question
should be dealt with in the business-like manner in which the Indian
question had been settled. He was an advocate of violence—in short, a
swaggering, bombastic wind-bag. He talked much of "his outfit" and "his
men." "What was good enough for them was good enough for him," he would
announce at meal-time, in a snivelling tone, when the food happened to be
particularly bad. He split the temporary outfit, brought together for the
purpose of handling the beef-herd, into factions. He put the "XXX" in
worse repute than it already enjoyed—he was, in fact, the discordant
spirit of the expedition. The men attended to their work sullenly. Discord
was rife. The one thought they shared in common was that of the wages that
would come to them at the end of the drive; of the feverish joy of
"blowing in," in a single night; perchance, of forgetting, in one long,
riotous evening, the monotony, the hardship, the lack of comradery that
made this particular drive one long to be remembered in the mind of every
man who had taken part in it.

Meanwhile the herd trailed its half-mile length to the slaughtering pens
day after day, all unconscious of its power. When the steers had trailed
for about a fortnight, the question of finding sufficient water for them
began to be a serious one. The preceding winter had been unusually mild,
the snow-fall on the mountains averaging less than in the recollection of
the oldest plains-man. Summer had begun early and waxed hot and dry. The
earth began to wrinkle, and cracked into trenches, like gaping mouths,
thirsty for the water that came not. Such streams as had not dried shrank
and crawled among the willows like slimy things, that the herd, thirsty
though it was from the long drives, had to be coaxed to drink from.

Discontent grew. The acting foreman, who was a "XXX" man, and a
comparative stranger to that part of the country, refused to consult with
the "W-square" men in the outfit, who knew every inch of the ground. The
acting foreman thought the Wetmore men looked down on him, "put on dog";
and, to flaunt his authority, he ordered the herd driven due west instead
of skirting to the north by the longer route, where they would have had
the advantage of drinking at several creeks before crossing Green River.
Moreover, the acting foreman was drinking hard, and he insisted upon his
order in spite of the Wetmore men’s protestations.

The character of the country began to change, the soil took on the color
of blood, even the omnipresent sage-brush began to fail the landscape;
sun-bleached bones glistened on the red soil, white as ulcers. All the
animal trails led back from the country into which they were proceeding.
The sky, a vivid, cloudless blue, paled as it dipped earthward. The sun
looked down, a flaming copper shield. There was no sign of life in all the
land. Even the grasshoppers had left it to the sun, the silence, and the
desolation. To ears accustomed to the incessant shrilling of the insects,
the cessation was ominous, like the sudden stopping of a clock in a
chamber of death. Above the angry bellow of the thirsty herd the men
strained their ears again and again for this familiar sound of life, but
there was nothing but the bellowing of the cattle, the trampling of their
hoofs, and sometimes the long, squealing whinny of a horse as he threw
back his head in seeming demand to know the justice of this thing.

Across the red plain snailed the herd, like a many-jointed, prehistoric
reptile wandering over the limitless spaces of some primeval world. A
cloud of red dust hung over them in a dense haze, trailed after them a
weary length, then all was featureless monotony as before. What were a
thousand steers, a handful of men and horses, in the land of the red
silence? It had seen the comings and goings of many peoples, and once it
had flowed with streams; but that was before the curse of God came upon
it, and in its harsh, dry barrenness it grew to be a menace to living
things.

The saddle-stock had been watered at some fetid alkali holes that had
scarce given enough to slake their thirst. The effect of the water had
weakened them, and the steers that had been without water for thirty-six
hours were being pushed on a course slightly northwest as rapidly as the
enfeebled condition of the saddle-horses would permit. Creek after creek
that they had made for proved to be but a dry bed.

The glare of the red earth, under the scourge of the flaming sun,
tormented the eyes of the men into strange illusions. The naked red plain
stretched flat like the colossal background of a screen, over which
writhed a huge dragon, spined with many horns, headless, trailing its
tortuous way over the red world. Sometimes it was as unreal as a
fever-haunted dream, a drug-inspired nightmare, when a Chinese screen,
perchance, has stood at the foot of the sleeper’s bed. Sometimes the
dragon curled itself into a ball, and the foreman sung out that they were
milling, and the men turned and rode away from it, then dashed back at it,
after getting the necessary momentum, entered like a flying wedge, fought
their way into the rocking sea of surging bodies, shouted from their
thirst-parched throats imprecations that were lost in the dull, sullen
roar. Then the dragon would uncoil and again trail its way over the red
waste-lands.

A red sun had begun to set over a red earth, and the men who had been out
since noon-scouring the country for water, returned to say that none had
been found, and they began to look into each other’s faces for the answer
that none could give. At sunset they made a dry camp; there was but enough
water left to cook with. Each man received, as a thirst-quenching ration,
a can of tomatoes. After supper they consulted, and it was agreed to trail
the herd till midnight, taking advantage of the coolness to hurry them on
as fast as possible to Green River. The grave nature of their plight was
indicated by the fact that no one smoked after supper. Silent, sullen,
they sat round, waiting for the foreman to give the order to advance. He
waited for the moon to come up. Slowly it rose over the Bad Land Hills and
hung round and full like a gigantic lantern. The watches were arranged for
the night with a double guard. Every man in the outfit was beginning to
have a feeling of panic that communicated itself to every other man, and
as they looked at the herd, tractable now no longer, but a blind force
that they must take chances with through the long watches of the night,
while the thirst grew in the beasts’ parched throats, they foresaw what
would in all probability happen; they thought of their women, of all that
most strongly bound them to life, and they sat and waited dumbly.

The moon that night was too brilliant for benisons; the gaunt, red world
lay naked and unshriven for the sin that long ago had brought upon it the
wrath of God. The picture was still that of the grotesque Chinese screen,
with the headless dragon crawling endlessly; but the dream was long,
centuries long, it seemed to the men listening to the bellowing of the
herd. And while they waited, the red grew dull and the dragon dingy, and
its fury made its contortions the more horrible; and that was all the
difference between day and night in the land of the red silence. Sometimes
the dragon split, and joints of it tried to turn back to the last water it
had drunk; for cattle, though blinded with thirst, never forget the last
stream at which they have quenched thirst, and will turn back to it,
though they drop on the way. But the men pressed them farther and farther,
and for yet a little while the cattle yielded.

At midnight the saddle-stock was incapable of moving farther. One horse
had fallen and lay too weak to rise. The others, limping and foot-sore, no
longer responded to quirt and rowel. The foreman ordered the herd thrown
on the bed ground for the night. The herders for the first watch began to
circle. The rest of the outfit took to its blankets to snatch a little
rest for the double duty that awaited every man that night. Now it is a
time-honored belief among cow-men that the herd must be sung to,
particularly when it is restless, and to-night they tried all the old
favorites, the "Cow-boy’s Lament" being chief among them. But the herd
refused to be soothed, and round and round it circled; not once would it
lie down.

The moon gleamed almost brazen, showing the cruel scars, the trenches torn
by cloud-bursts, the lines wrought by the long, patient waiting of the
earth for the lifting of the wrath of God. Imperishable grief was writ on
the land as on a human face. The night wore on, the watches changed, the
herd continued restless; not more than a third of it had bedded down. The
third watch was from one o’clock to half-past three in the morning.
Simpson and another "XXX" man, with two of the Wetmore outfit, made up a
double watch, and rode, singing, about the herd, as the long, dreary watch
wore away. The cattle’s lowing had taken on a gasping, cracked sound that
was more frightful than the maddened bellow of the early evening. Simpson,
who was past the age when men live the life of the saddle, felt the
hardship keenly. He had ridden since sunrise, but for the respite at noon
and the scant time at the dry camp while the evening meal was being eaten.
He was more than half asleep now, as he lurched heavily in the saddle,
crossing and recrossing his partner in the half-circle they completed
about the herd. Suddenly the sharp yelp of a coyote rang out; it seemed to
come from no farther than twenty yards away. The cattle heard it, too, and
a wave of panic swept through them. Simpson stiffened in his saddle. The
sound, which was repeated, was an exact reproduction of a coyote’s yelp,
yet he knew that it was not a coyote.

The herd rose to its feet as a single steer, and for a second stood
undetermined. From a clump of sage-brush not more than two feet high
fluttered something long and white like a sheet. It waved in the wind as
the cry was repeated. The herd crashed forward in a stampede, Simpson in
the lead on a tired horse, but a scant length ahead of a thousand maddened
steers bolting in a panic of thirst and fear.

"Hell’s loose!" yelled the men in their blankets, making for the temporary
rope corral to secure horses. Simpson, tallow-colored with fear, clung
like a cat to his horse, and dug the rowels in the beast’s flanks till
they were bloody and dripping. He had seen Jim Rodney’s face above the
white cloth as it fluttered in the face of the herd that came pounding
behind him with the rumble of nearing thunder. He was too close to them to
attempt to fire his revolver in the air in the hope of turning them, but
the boys had evidently got into their saddles, to judge by the volley of
shots that rang out and were answered. Simpson alone rode ahead of the
herd that tore after him, ripping up the earth as it came, bellowing in
its blind fury. His horse, a thoroughly seasoned cow-pony, sniffed the
bedlam and responded to the goading spur. She had been in cattle stampedes
before, and, though every fibre ached with fatigue, she flattened out her
lean body and covered ground to the length of her stride at each gallop.
The herd was so close that Simpson could smell the stench of their
sweating bodies, taste their dust, and feel the scorch of their breath.
The sound of their hoofs was like the pounding of a thousand propellers.
From above looked the moon, round and serene; she had watched the passing
of many peoples in the land of the red silence. The horse seemed to be
gaining. A few more lengths ahead and Simpson could turn her to one side
and let the maddened cattle race to their own destruction. All he asked of
God was to escape their trampling hoofs, and though he gained he dug the
rowel and plied the quirt, unmindful of what he did. On they came; the
chorus of their fear swelled like the voice of a mighty cataract, the
pound, pound, pound of their hoofs ringing like mighty sledge-hammers.

Suddenly he felt himself sinking, horribly, irresistibly. "God! What is
it?" as his horse went down with her foreleg in a gopher-hole. "Up, up,
you damned brute!" but the mare’s leg had cracked like a pipe-stem. In his
fury at the beast Simpson began kicking her, then started to run as the
cattle swept forward like a black storm-cloud.

The next second the great sea of cattle had broken over horse and rider.
When it had passed there was not enough left of either to warrant burial
or to furnish a feast for the buzzards. A few shreds of clothes, that had
once been a man, lay scattered there; a something that had been a horse.



XVII


                 Mrs. Yellett Contends With A Cloudburst


The matriarch had delayed longer in moving camp than was consistent with
her habitual watchfulness where the interests of the sheep were involved.
Mary Carmichael, who had already become inured to the experience of
moving, was even conscious of a certain impatience at the delay, and could
only explain the apathy with which Mrs. Yellett received reports of the
dearth of pasturage on the ground that she wished each fresh educational
germ to take as deep root as possible before transplantation. So that when
Mrs. Yellett, shortly after Leander Dax’s arrival at camp in the capacity
of herder, announced that she and Leander were to make a trip to the
dipping-vat that had kept Ben from his classes for the past ten days, and
invited the "gov’ment" to join the expedition, Mary accepted with fervor.

The Yelletts’ "bunch" of sheep did not exceed three thousand head, and the
matriarch had wisely decreed that it should be restricted to that number,
as she wished always to give the flock her personal supervision.

"’The hen that’s the surest of her chicks is the one that does her own
settin’,’" was the adage from the Book of Hiram with which Mrs. Yellett
succinctly summed up the case.

Each autumn, therefore, the wethers and the dry-bag ewes were sent to the
market, and as the result of continual weeding of the stock the matriarch
had as promising a herd of its size as could be found in Wyoming. Often
she had explained to Mary, who was learning of the wonders of this new
world with remarkable aptness, that she had constantly to fight against
the inclination to increase her business of sheep-raising, but that as
soon as she should begin to hire herders or depend on strangers things
would go wrong. With the assistance of her sons, she therefore managed the
entire details of the herd, with the exception of those occasions on which
Leander lent his semi-professional co-operation.

As a workman Leander was, considering his size and apparent weakness,
surprisingly efficient. It was as a dispenser of anti-theological doctrine
that Mrs. Dax’s husband annoyed his temporary employer. Freed from his
wife’s masterful presence, Leander dared to be an "agnostic," as he called
himself, of an unprecedentedly violent order. His iconoclasm was not of a
pattern with paw’s gusty protests against life in general, but it was
Leander’s way of asserting himself, on the rare occasions when he got a
chance, to deny clamorously every tenet advanced by every religion. The
mere use of certain familiar expletives drove him, ordinarily mild and
submissive though he was, to frantic gesticulation and diatribe. Mary
Carmichael could not make out, as she watched the comedy with growing
amusement, whether poor Leander really believed that he was the first of
doubting Thomases, or whether he took an unfair advantage of the lack of
general information in his casual audiences to set forth well-known
opinions as his own. Whatever its basis may have been, Leander sustained
the rôle of doubter with passionate zeal, wearing himself to tatters of
rage and hoarseness over arguments maliciously contrived beforehand by
cow-punchers and sheep-herders in need of amusement; and yet he never saw
the traps, going out of his way, apparently, to fall into them, tumbling
headlong into the identical pits time after time. Jonah and the whale
constituted one bait by means of which Leander could be lured from food,
sleep, or work of the most pressing nature.

"The poor fool would stop in the middle of shearing a sheep to argue that
Jonah never come out of the whale’s belly," the matriarch had told Mary
Carmichael, in summing up Leander’s disadvantages as a herder. And the
first remark she had addressed to him on his arrival was: "Leander Dax,
you’d have to be made over, and made different, to keep you from bein’ a
infidel, but there’s one p’int on which you are particularly locoed, and
that’s Jonah and the whale. Now at this particular time in the hist’ry of
the United States, nobody in his faculties has got no call to fret hisself
over Jonah and his whereabouts—none whatever. There’s a lot of business
round this here camp that’s a heap more pressin’. Now, Leander Dax, if I
do hereby undertake to hire, engage, and employ you to herd sheep, do you
agree to renounce discussions, arguments, and debates on the late Jonah
and his whereabouts durin’ them three days? God A’mighty, man, any one
would think you was Jonah’s wife, the interest you have in his absence!"

"I come here to herd sheep," Leander had brazenly retaliated. "I ’ain’t
come to try to make you think."

Nevertheless, he appeared docile enough as the time came for the journey
to the dipping-vat, and did his part in making ready. The wagon was the
rudest of structures; it consisted merely of one long, stout pole. Though
she saw the horses being harnessed to this pole, Mary Carmichael,
discreetly exercising her newly acquired wisdom, forbore to ask where she
was going to sit, and listened with interest to a discussion between Mrs.
Yellett and Leander as to the number of horses it would take to get the
dip up the mountain. Leander, who loved pomp and splendor, was for taking
six, but Mrs. Yellett, who carried simplicity to a fault, was in favor of
only two. They finally compromised on four, and Leander went to fetch the
extra two.

Mrs. Yellett, ever economical of the flitting moment, took advantage of
the delay to give Mr. Yellett a dose of "Brainard’s Beneficial
Blackthorn."

"Paw’s as hard to manage as a bent pin," she remarked, in an aside to
Mary, while he protested and fought her off with his stick. But she, with
the agility of an acrobat, got directly back of him, took his head under
her arm, pried open his mouth, and poured down the unwelcome, if
beneficial, dose.

"There, there, paw," she said, wiping his mouth as if he had been a baby,
"don’t take on so! It’s all gone, and I can’t have you sick on my hands."

But Mr. Yellett continued to splutter and flare and use violent language,
whereupon the matriarch went into the tent and returned with a drink of
condensed-milk and water, "to wash down the nasty taste," she told him,
soothingly.

A moment afterwards she and Leander were engaged in rolling the barrels of
sheep-dip to the wagon, Mary Carmichael helplessly looking on while Mrs.
Yellett looked doubtfully at a "gov’ment" who could not handle barrels.
Finally, under the skilful manipulation of Mrs. Yellett and Leander, the
long pole took on the aspect of a colossal vertebral column, from which
huge barrel-ribs projected horizontally, leaving at the rear a foot or so
of bare pole as a smart caudal appendage, bearing about the same
proportion to the wagon as the neatly bitten tail of a fox-terrier does to
the dog.

Mrs. Yellett kissed "paw" good-bye, explaining to Mary, in extenuation of
her weakness, that she would never forgive herself if she neglected it and
anything happened to him during her absence. She then climbed to the front
barrel and secured the ribbons. Leander had brought out three rolls of
bedding of the inevitable bed-quilt variety, but Mrs. Yellett scorned such
luxury while driving, and accordingly gave hers to the "gov’ment" for a
back-rest. Mary sat on the lower row of barrels, with her feet dangling,
using one roll of bedding for a seat and the other comfortably arranged at
her back as a cushion.

Madam called sharply to the horses, "Hi-hi-hi-kerat! hi-kerat-kerat!" and
they started off at a rattling pace, the barrels of dip creaking and
squeaking as they swayed under their rope lashings. Mary bounced about
like a bean in a bag, working loose from between the bed-quilt rolls at
each gulley, clinging frantically to barrel ends, shaken back and forth
like a shuttle. Indeed, the drive seemed to combine every known form of
physical exercise. Mrs. Yellett herself was in fine fettle; she drove
sitting for a while, then rose, standing on a narrow ledge while she held
the four ribbons lightly in one hand and tickled the leaders with a long
whip carried in the other. She drove her four horses over the rough road
with the skill of a circus equestrienne, balancing easily on the crazy
ledge, shifting her weight from side to side as the wagon rattled down
gullies and up ridges, the horses responding gallantly to the shrill
"Hi-hi-kerat! hi-kerat! hi-kerat!" Her costume on this occasion
represented joint concessions to her sex and the work that was before her,
as the head of a family at the dipping-vat. She still wore the drum-shaped
rabbit-skin cap pulled well down over her forehead for driving. The great,
cable-like braids of hair stood out well below the cap, giving her head an
appearance of denseness and solidity, but the rambling curls were still
blowing about her face, perhaps adding to the sum total of grotesqueness.
She wore a man’s shirt of gray flannel, well open at the neck, from which
the bronzed column of the throat rose in austere dignity. A pair of Mr.
Yellett’s trousers, stuffed into high, cow-puncher’s boots, that met the
hem of a skirt coming barely to the knees, contributed to the originality
of her dress.

The wagon had been pitching like a ship at sea through the desert
dreariness for about an hour, when Mary Carmichael suddenly became
conscious that the prods she had been receiving from time to time in her
back were not due either to their manner of locomotion or to the freight
carried. Clinging to two barrels, she waited for the next lurch of the
wagon to shake her free from the rolls of bedding, and, at the peril of
life and limb, looked round. Leander hung over the top row of barrels,
gesticulating wildly. The change in the man, since leaving camp some two
hours previous, was appalling. He seemed to have shrivelled away to a
wraith of his former self. His cheeks, his chin, had waned to the
vanishing point. He opened his lips and mouthed horribly, yet his
frightful grimacings conveyed no meaning. Mary called to Mrs. Yellett, but
her voice was drowned in the rattle of the wagon, the clatter of four
horses’ hoofs, and the continual "Hi-hi-hi-kerat! hi-kerat!" of the
driver. In the mean time Leander pointed to his mouth and back to the road
in indescribably pathetic pantomime. "Perhaps the poor creature wants to
turn back and die in his bed, like a Christian, even if he isn’t one,"
thought Mary, as she called and called, Leander still emitting the most
inhuman of cries, like the sounds made by deaf mutes in distress.
Presently Mrs. Yellett drew up, and asked in the name of many profane
things what was the matter with her companions.

Leander resumed his mouthings and his dumb show, but Mrs. Yellett proved a
better interpreter than Mary Carmichael.

"God A’mighty!" she said, "he’s lost his false teeth!" And without another
word she turned the four horses and the wagon with a skill that fell
little short of sleight-of-hand.

The dialogue that followed between Mrs. Yellett and Leander as to how far
back he had dropped his teeth, cannot be given, owing to the inadequacy of
the English language to reproduce his toothless enunciation. Catching, as
Mary did, the meaning of Mrs. Yellett’s remarks only, she received
something of the one-sided impression given by overhearing a telephone
conversation:

"What did you have ’em out for?... You didn’t have ’em out?... I just
shook ’em out? Then what made you have your mouth open? Ef your mouth had
been shut, you couldn’t have lost ’em.... You was a-yawnin’, eh? Well, you
are a plumb fool to yawn on this kind of a waggin, with your mouth full o’
china teeth. Your yawnin’ ’ll put us back a good hour an’ we won’t reach
camp before sundown."

At this point of the diatribe the Infidel left the wagon and began to
search along the road. He said he had noticed a buffalo skull near the
place where he had dropped the teeth, and thought he could trace them by
this landmark. Mrs. Yellett held the ribbons and suggested that Mary get
down "and help to prospect for them teeth." As Mary clambered down she
heard a fragment of the matriarch’s monologue, which, being duly
expurgated for polite ears, was to the effect that she would rather take
ten babies anywhere than one grown man, and that as for getting in the
way, hindering, obstructing, and being a nuisance, generally speaking, man
had not his counterpart in the scheme of creation.

"Talk about a woman bein’ at the bottom of everything!" sniffed Mrs.
Yellett; "I be so sick of always hearin’ about ’the woman in the case!’
Half the time the case would be a blame sight worse if it was left
exclusive to the men. The Book of Hiram says: ’A skunk may have his good
p’ints, but few folks is takin’ the risk of waitin’ round to get
acquainted with ’em.’"

While Mary was still "prospecting," a glad cry roused her attention, and
Leander came up smiling, with his dental treasures nicely adjusted.

"Quit smilin’ like a rattlesnake, you plumb fool!" called out Mrs.
Yellett. "Do you want to lose ’em again?"

So, curtailing the muscular contraction indicative of his pleasure, the
Infidel again took his place among the bed-quilts and the journey was
resumed.

It was now about five in the afternoon. The heat, which had been
oppressive all day, suddenly relaxed its blistering grip, and a keenly
penetrating dampness, not unlike that of a sea-fog, came from some unknown
quarter of the arid wastes and chilled the three travellers to the marrow.
The horses flung up their heads and sniffed it, rearing and plunging as if
they had scent of something menacing. Across the horizon a dark cloud
scudded, no bigger than your hand.

"Cloud-burst!" announced Mrs. Yellett.

"Cloud-burst, all right enough," agreed Leander, and he turned up his
coat-collar in simple preparation for the deluge.

There flashed into Mary Carmichael’s mind a sentence from her physical
geography that she had been obliged to commit to heart in her school-days:
"A cloud-burst is a sudden, capricious rainfall, as if the whole cloud had
been precipitated at once." She wanted to question her companions as to
the accuracy of this definition, but before she had time to frame a
sentence the real cloud-burst came, with a splitting crack of thunder;
then the lightning flashed out its message in the short-hand of the storm,
across the inky blackness, and the water fell as if the ocean had been
inverted. In the fraction of a second all three were drenched to the skin,
the water pouring from them in sheets, as if they had been some slight
obstruction in the path of a waterfall. The wagon was soon in a deep
gully, with frothing, foaming, yellow water up to the hubs of the wheels.
Mrs. Yellett, like some goddess of the storm, lashed her horses forward to
keep them from foundering in the mud, and the wagon creaked and groaned in
all its timbers as it lurched and jolted through the angry torrents.

Each moment Mary expected to be flung from the barrels, and clung till her
finger-tips were white and aching. From the drenched red bedquilts a
sticky crimson trail ran over the barrel heads, as well as over Mary’s
hands, face, and dress. Still they forged on through the deluge, Mrs.
Yellett shouting and lashing the horses, holding them erect and safe with
the skill she never lost. The fur on her rabbit-skin cap was beaten flat.
The great, wet braids had fallen from the force of the water and hung
straight and black, like huge snakes uncoiled. She was far from losing her
grip on either the horses or the situation, and from the inspiring ring of
her voice as she urged them forward it was plain that she took a fierce
joy in this conflict of the elements.

It was bitterly cold, and Mary reflected that if Leander’s teeth chattered
half as hard as hers did, without breaking, they must, indeed, be of
excellent quality. The storm began to abate, and the sky became lighter,
though the water still poured in torrents. As soon as her responsibility
as driver left her time to speak, Mrs. Yellett lost no time in fastening
the cloud-burst to Leander.

"This here is what comes of settin’ up your back against God A’mighty and
encouragin’ the heathen and the infidel in his idolatry. I might ’a’
knowed somethin’ would happen, takin’ you along! ’And the heathen and the
infidel went out, and the Lord God sent a cloud-burst to wet him,’" quoted
Mrs. Yellett from the apocryphal Scriptures that never yet failed to
furnish her with verse and text.

The infidel, from his side of the wagon, began to display agitation. His
jaws worked, but he said nothing.

"You ’ain’t lost them teeth again, have you?"

He nodded his head wretchedly.

"’And the Lord took away the teeth of his enemy, so that he could neither
bite nor talk,’" quoted Mrs. Yellett to the miserable man, who could make
no reply.

"Wonder you wouldn’t see the foolishness o’ being a heathen and a infidel,
and turn to the Lord! You ’ain’t got no teeth, and it takes your wife to
herd you. ’And the Lord multiplied the tribulations of his enemy.’ You got
no more show standin’ up agin the Lord than an insect would have standin’
up agin me."

She had Leander, at last, just where she wanted him. He was forced to
listen, and he could make no reply. She alternately abused him for his
lack of faith and urged him to repentance. Leander raged, gesticulated,
turned his back on her, mouthed, and finally put his fingers in his ears.
But nothing stemmed the tide of Mrs. Yellett’s eloquence; it was as
inexhaustible and as remorseless as the cloud-burst.

It continued bitterly cold, even after the rain had stopped falling, and
the heap of sodden bedclothes furnished no protection against the chilling
dampness. It was growing dark; there was no red in the sunset, only a
streak of vivid orange along the horizon, chill and clear as the empty,
soulless flame of burning paper. There were no deep, glowing coals, no
amethystine opalescence, fading into gold and violet. All was cold and
subdued, and the scrub pines on the mountain-tops stood out sharply
against this cold background like an etching on yellow paper.

Mrs. Yellett’s self-inspired scriptural maxims were discontinued after a
while, either because she could think of no more, or because the
rain-soaked, shivering, chattering object towards which they were directed
was too abject to inspire further efforts. Leander huddled on the barrel
that was farthest from Mrs. Yellett, and wrapped himself in the soaked red
bedquilt. The dye smeared his face till he looked like an Indian brave
ready for battle, but there was no further suggestion of the fighting red
man in the utter desolation of his attitude. Mary Carmichael, on her
barrel, shivered with grim patience and longed for a cup of tea. Only Mrs.
Yellett gave no sign of anxiety or discomfort; she drove along, sometimes
whistling, sometimes swearing, erect as an Indian, and to all appearances
as oblivious of cold and wet as if she were in her own home.

The gathering darkness into which the horses were plunging was mysterious
and appalling. Objects stood out enormously magnified, or distorted
grotesquely, in the uncertain light. It was like penetrating into the real
Inferno, like stumbling across the inspiration of Dante in all its
sinister splendor. It was the Inferno of his dream rather than the Inferno
of his poem; it had the ghastly reality of the unreal.

"It wouldn’t surprise me if we had a smash-up in Clear Creek," said Mrs.
Yellett, just by way of adding her quota of cheerful speculation. She
ducked her head and whispered in Mary’s ear:

"It’s all along of me hirin’ _him_! I wouldn’t be surprised if paw died.
I’m thinkin’ of shakin’ him out after his teeth. ’Take not up with the
enemy of the Lord, lest he make of you also an enemy.’"

But there was no accent of apprehension in Mrs. Yellett’s dismal
prognostications of the evil that might befall her for employing Leander.
She spoke more with the air of one who produces incidents to prove an
argument than of one who anticipates a calamity.

Leander, toothless and wretched, sitting on the side of the wagon, began
to show symptoms of joy comparable to that of the vanguard of the
Israelites, catching their first glimpse of the Promised Land. Touching
Mary Carmichael on the shoulder, he pointed to a white tent and the
remains of a camp-fire. Already Mrs. Yellett had begun to "Hallo, Ben!"
But Ben was at work at the vat, which was still a quarter of a mile
further up the mountain; so Mrs. Yellett, throwing the reins to Leander
and bidding him turn out the horses, lost no time in building a fire,
putting on coffee, and making her little party comfortable. So various was
her efficiency that she seemed no less at home in these simple domestic
tasks than when guiding her horses, goddess-like, through the cloud-burst.
And Mary Carmichael, succumbing gradually to the revivifying influence of
the fire and the hot coffee, acknowledged honestly to herself a warmth of
affection for her hostess and for the atmosphere Mrs. Yellett created
about her that made even Virginia and her aunts seem less the only pivot
of rational existence. She felt that she had come West with but one eye,
as it were, and countless prejudices, whereas her powers of vision were
fast becoming increased a hundredfold. How very tame life must be, she
reflected, as she sat smiling to herself, to those who did not know Mrs.
Yellett, how over-serious to those who did not know Leander! Yet, after
all, she knew that the real basis of her readjusted vision was her brief
but illuminating acquaintance with Judith Rodney. To Mary, freed for the
first time in her life from the most elegantly provincial of surroundings,
Judith seemed the incarnation of all the splendor and heroism of the West.
And in the glow of her enthusiasm she decided then and there not to
abandon the Yellett educational problem till she should have solved it
successfully. She might not be born to valiant achievement, like these
sturdy folk about her, but she might as well prove to them that an Eastern
tenderfoot was not all feebleness and inefficiency.

"Leander!" called Mrs. Yellett. "Just act as if you was to home and wash
up these dishes."



XVIII


                               Foreshadowed


Alida awoke, knowing what was to happen. She had dreamed of it, just
before daylight, and lay in bed stupefied by the horror of it, living,
again and again, through each frightful detail. It had happened—there, in
the very room, and before the children; the noise of it had startled them;
and then she woke and knew she had been dreaming. In the dream the noise
had wakened the children—when it really happened they must never know. It
wouldn’t be fair to them; they needed a "clean start."

What had she done to keep them quiet? There had been a thunderous knocking
at the door. She had expected it and was prepared; because the lock was
feeble, she had shoved the old brown bureau against the door.

Nothing had happened. What a fool she was to lie there and think of it!
There was the brown bureau against the wall; she could hear the deep
breathing of Jim in the room beyond. Jim had been unequal to the task of
conventionally going to bed the night before, and she had put a pillow
under his head and a quilt over him. She was the last woman in the world
to worry about Jim, drunk, or to nag him for it when sober. But she didn’t
like the children to see him that way.

What was it that she had done to quiet the children when "they" rode up?
She had done something and they had gone to sleep again, and she—and
she—oh no, it hadn’t happened. What a fool she was to lie there thinking!
There were the children to rouse and dress, and breakfast to cook, and
Jim—Jim would be feeling pretty mean this morning; he’d like a good cup of
coffee. She was glad he was alive to make coffee for.

She got up and, in the uncertainty bred of the dream, felt the brown
bureau, felt it hungrily, almost incredulously. The brown bureau had been
pushed against the door when they had come, and knocked and knocked. Then
they had thundered with the butts of their six-shooters, and the children
had wakened, and she had called out to them:

"Sh-sh! It’s only a bad dream. Mammy will give you some dough to bake
to-morrow."

And she had gone to press her face flat to the thin wall, and call, "For
God’s sake, don’t wake the children!"

And they had called out, "Let him come out quiet, then."

And then she could feel that they put their shoulders to the door—the
weather-beaten door—with its crazy lock that didn’t half catch. The brown
bureau had spun across the floor like a top, and they had crowded in. Then
she had done something to quiet the children—it was queer that she could
not remember what it was, when everything else in the dream still lived
within her, horribly distinct and real.

What a fool she was, with Jim asleep in the next room; she would not think
about it another minute. She began to dress, but her fingers were heavy,
and the vague oppression of nightmare blocked her efficiency. Repeatedly
she would detect herself subconsciously brooding over some one of the
links in that pitiless memory—what they had said to Jim; his undaunted
replies; how she had left him and gone into the next room because Jim had
told her to.

She called the children, but the sight of them, happy and flushed with
sleep, did not reassure her.

"Mammy," said Topeka, eldest of the family, and lately on the invalid
list, the victim of a cactus thorn, "my toe’s all well; can I go
barefoot?"

"Topeka Rodney, what kind of feet do you expect to have when you are a
young lady, if you run barefoot now?"

Topeka, sitting on the side of the bed, with tousled hair, put her small
feet together and contemplated them. The toe was still suspiciously
inflamed for perfect convalescence, although Topeka, with a Spartan
courage that won her a place in the annals of household valor, had the day
before allowed her mother to pick out with a needle the torturing cactus
thorn, scorning to shed a tear during the operation, though afterwards she
had taken the piece of dried apple that was offered her and devoured it to
the last bite, as only just compensation for her sufferings.

"Dimmy dot a tore toe, too." But Jimmy showed a strange reticence about
offering proofs of his affliction. At the peril of his equilibrium, he
clasped the allegedly injured member in his chubby hand and rolled over on
the bed in apparent anguish.

"Less see, Jimmy," asked his mother, anxiously.

"Don’t bleeve him, mammy. He ’ain’t ever cried. He’d a cried, for sure, if
his toe was sore." At the age of five, little Judith, namesake of her
aunt, was something of a doubting Thomas.

"Let mammy see, Jimmy," and Alida bent over her son and heir.

"Doth Dimmy det any apple?" The wee man sometimes succeeded in making
terms with his mother, when the other children were not present. Though
feeling himself a trifle over-confident, he held the disputed toe with the
air of one keeping back a trump card, and looked his mother squarely in
the eyes.

She struggled with the temptation to give him the apple. He had lifted the
horrors of her dream as nothing else could have done, but she answered him
with quiet firmness.

"Jimmy must not tell stories."

"Less see," insisted Topeka.

"He dassent," affirmed Judith, junior, of little faith.

"It hurths me," and Jimmy tried to squeeze out a tear. "It hurths me, my
tore toe!"

His mother tipped him over on his fat little back and opened the chubby
hand that held the trump toe. It was white from the pressure applied by
the infant dissembler, but there was no trace of the treacherous cactus
thorn. She gave him an affectionate spank and went into the kitchen to
make coffee.

"I with I had a tore toe," he crooned, quite unabashed at the discovery of
his deception. "I with I toud det a tore toe ’thout the hurt."

But the horror of the dream gripped her when she found herself alone in
the kitchen; and she remembered she had not told the children not to go
into the room where their father was sleeping. She went back and found
that Jimmy had not left his post on the side of the bed, where he still
regretted that his perfectly well toe did not entitle him to gastronomic
consideration. Topeka, who had arrived at an age where little girls, in
the first subconscious attempt at adornment, know no keener delight than
plastering their heads with a wet hairbrush, till they present an
appearance of slippery rotundity equalled only by a peeled onion, put down
the brush with guilty haste at sight of her mother.

"I’m goin’ to dress him soon as I’ve done my hair."

"Any one think you was goin’ to be married, the time you’ve took to it."

"It’s gettin’ so long," urged Topeka.

"I wouldn’t give it a chance to grow no longer while Jimmy was waitin’ to
get dressed. And don’t go into the front room. Your father’s gettin’ his
sleep out."

Topeka opened her round eyes. There was always something suspicious about
that sleep her father had to get out, but she felt it was something she
must not ask questions about. Her mother lingered; she dreaded to be alone
in the kitchen. The little, familiar intimacies between herself and her
children scattered the horrors of the dream which would come back to her
when she was again at the mercy of her thoughts.

"Judy, s’pose you dress Jimmy this morning! I want Topeka to help me get
breakfast."

"Yessum," said Judith, dutifully. "Is he to have his face washed?"

"He certainly is, Judy. I’s ashamed to have you ask such a question.
’Ain’t you all been brought up to have your faces washed?"

But young Judith seemed disinclined to take up this phase of family
superiority. She merely inquired further:

"Is he to have it washed with soap, maw?"

"He shore is. Any one would think you had been born and raised in Arizony
or Nebrasky, to hear you talk. I’m plumb ashamed of you, Judy."

"But, ’deed, maw, I ain’t big enough to wash his face with soap. It takes
Topeka to hold his head."

The subject of the discussion still sat on the edge of the bed, a small
lord of creation, letting his women folk arrange among themselves who
should minister to his wants. As an instrument of torture the washcloth,
in the hands of his sister Judy, was no ignoble rival of the cactus thorn.
The question of making terms for his sufferings again appealed to him in
the light of a feasible business proposition.

"Muvvy, tan’t I have the apple? Judy hurts me a lot when she wathes my
face wis soap."

"Yes, you can have the apple, honey; and, Judy, you be gentle with him.
Don’t rub his features up, and be careful and don’t get soap in his eyes."

"No’m." And Judy heroically stifled the longing to slick her hair, like
Topeka’s, with the wet hairbrush. There were easier tasks than washing the
face of her younger brother.

When Topeka and her mother were alone in the kitchen, Topeka grinding the
coffee and all unconsciously working her jaw in an accompaniment to the
coffee-mill, her mother bent over her and said:

"Did you dream of anything last night?"

Topeka simultaneously stopped working the coffee-mill and her jaw, and
regarded her mother solemnly. She did not remember having been thus
questioned about her dreams before.

"No’m," she answered, after laborious consideration. But something in her
mother’s face held her.

"You’re sure you didn’t dream nothing?"

"Yes, maw."

"Did Judy or Jim say that they dreamed anything?"

"Jim said he dreamed he had a pup."

"Was that all? Think hard, Topeka!"

Topeka held the handle of the coffee-mill in her hand; her jaw continued
to work with the labor of her mental process. "I’ve thought hard, maw, and
all he told was about the pup."

Alida went back to her bedroom and again felt the brown bureau. "What’s
the matter with me, anyhow? It’s the lonesomeness, and they bein’ agin Jim
the way they are. God, this country’s hard on women and horses!"

When breakfast was over, and young Jim had received the reward of his
valor in presenting a brave face to his ablution, and Judith the reward of
her skill, the evidence of which almost prevented the young martyr from
smiling while he enjoyed his treat, their mother sent them all to play in
the cañon. She told them not to come home till she should come for them,
and if any one should ask about their father, to say that he was away from
home. And this, as well as the mystery of her father’s "getting his sleep
out," roused some slight apprehension in Topeka, who was old for her age.
They were seldom sent to the cañon to play. Topeka looked at her mother as
she had when questioned about the dream, but there was no further
confidence between them.

"You do as your sister Topeka tells you, and remember what I said about
your papa," Alida said to the younger children. Jim and Judy clasped each
other’s hands in mute compact at the edict. Their sister Topeka had a real
genius for authority; they were minded all too well when she swayed the
maternal sceptre vicariously.

Alida made fresh coffee for Jim when the children had gone. She made it
carefully; there was this morning, unconsciously, about each little thing
that she did for him, the solemnity of a funeral rite. Struggle as she
would, she could not divest her mind of the conviction that what she did
this day she did for the dead. She would go to the door and listen to his
breathing, and tell herself that she was a fool, then wring her hands at
the remembrance of the dream.

As he tossed, half waking, she heard him groan and curse the cattle-men
with oaths that made her glad she had sent the children from home. Then
she bent over him and woke him from his uneasy slumber.

"Jim, don’t you want me to bathe your head? And here’s some nice, hot
coffee all ready for you."

Jim woke slowly to a realization of his troubles and his blessings. His
wife was bathing his head with hands that trembled. Not always had she
greeted his indiscretions with such loving forbearance. He noticed, though
his waking faculties were not over-keen, that her face was pale and
frightened, and that her eyes, meeting his, held a dumb, measureless
affection.

"What th’ hell are you babying me for?" But his roughness did not deceive
her woman’s wits. He was not getting the lecture he anticipated, and this
was his way of showing that he was not embarrassed by her kindness. The
morning sunlight was pitilessly frank in its exposure of the grim pinch of
poverty in the mean little room, but the woman was unconscious of these
things; what she saw was that Jim, the reckless, Jim, the dare-devil
terror of the country, Jim, who had married and settled with her into
home-keeping respectability, Jim, who had struggled with misfortune and
fallen, had, young as he was, lost every look of youth; that hope had gone
from his dull eyes, and that his face had become drawn until the
death’s-head grinned beneath the scant padding of flesh. But he was
to-day, as always, the one man in the world for her. In making a world of
their own and reducing their parents to supplementary consideration, their
children, whom she had sent away that she might be alone with him, had
given a different quality to the love of this pair that had known so many
curious vicissitudes. The responsibilities of parenthood had placed them
on a tenderer, as well as a securer footing; and as she saw his age and
weariness, he recognized hers, and both felt a self-accusing twinge.

"That’s a blamed good cup of coffee," he said, by way of relieving the
tension that had crept into the situation. "Any one would think you was
settin’ your cap for me ’stead of us being married for years."

Alida sighed. "It’s better to end than to begin like this," she said, in
the far-away voice of one who thinks aloud. The word "end" had slipped out
before she realized what she was saying, and the knowledge haunted her as
an omen. She glanced at him quickly, to see if he had noticed it.

"Why did you say end?" He saw that her eyes were full of tears and chafed
her. "You ain’t thinking of divorcing me, like Mountain Pink done Bosky?"

"Oh, Jim," she said, and her face was all aquiver, "I never could divorce
you, no matter what you done." And then the grim philosophy of the
plains-woman asserted itself. "I never can understand why women feed their
pride on their heart’s blood; it never was my way."

He did not like to remember that he had given her cause for a way.
"There’s a lot of women as wouldn’t exactly regard me as a Merino, or a
Southdown, either;" he gulped the coffee to ease the tightness in his
throat.

"They’d be women of no judgment, then," she said, with conviction.

Jim’s head was tilted back, resting in the palm of his hand. His profile,
sharpened by anxiety, more than suggested his quarter-strain of Sioux
blood. He might almost have been old Chief Flying Hawk himself, as he
looked steadily at the woman who had been a young girl and reckless, when
he had been a boy and reckless; who had paid her woman’s penalty and come
into her woman’s kingdom; who had made a man of him by the mystery of her
motherhood, and who had uncomplainingly gone with him into the wilderness
and become an alien and an outcast.

These things unmanned him as the sight of the gallows and the rope for his
hanging could not have done. Shielding himself with an affected roughness,
he asked:

"What the hell’s the matter with you? I’ve been drinking like a beast of
an Indian, and you give me coffee instead of a tongue-lashing."

The color had all gone out of her face. She gasped the words:

"Jim, I dreamed it last night—they came for you!"

She cowered at the recollection.

"Did they get me?" he asked. There was no surprise in his tone. He spoke
as one who knew the answer.

"Yes, the children saw. The noise woke them."

"You mustn’t let ’em see, when—they come. They’ve a right to a fair start;
we didn’t get it, old girl."

"The children gave it to us," and she faced him.

"Yes, yes, but we want them to have it from the start, like good folks."

They looked into each other’s eyes. The memory of dead and gone madness
twinkled there a moment, then each remembered:

"You must hurry, Jim. You haven’t a moment to lose. I dreamed it was to be
to-night—they’ll come to-night!"

"The game’s all up, old girl! If I had a month I couldn’t get away.
Morrison’s been looking for me over to the Owl Creek Range; he’s
back—Stevens told me yesterday. He’ll be heading here soon. The price on
my head is a strain on friendship."

"Have the sheep-men gone back on you?"

"Yes, damn them! A thousand dollars is big money, and they’ve had hard
luck!"

"They deserve it; I hope every herd in the State dies of scab."

"There wasn’t a scabby sheep in our bunch. What a sight they were, loaded
with tallow! There wasn’t one of them that couldn’t have weathered a
blizzard; they could have lived on their own tallow for a month."

She tried to divert his attention from his lost flock. When he began to
talk about them the despair of his loss drove him to drink. She was ground
between the millstones of his going or staying. If he stayed they would
come for him; if he went, they would apprehend him before he was ten miles
from the house.

"Jim, we got to think. If there’s a chance in a thousand that you can get
away, you got to take it; if there ain’t, the children mustn’t know. We
got to think it out!"

"There ain’t a chance in a thousand, old girl. There ain’t one in a
million. They’re circling round in the hills out here now, waitin’ for me,
like buzzards waitin’ for the eyes of a dyin’ horse."

She rocked herself, and the clutching fingers left white marks on her
face, but the eyes that met his glittered tearless:

"Then there ain’t nothing left but to face it like a man?"

"That’s all there be." He might have been giving an opinion on a matter in
which he had no interest.

"Then there ain’t no use in our having any more talk about it?"

"’Tain’t just what you’d call an agreeable subject," he answered, with the
sinister humor of the frontiersman who has learned to make a crony of
death.

She was tempted to kiss him—they were not given to demonstrations, this
pair—then decided it were kinder to him, less suggestive of what they
anticipated, not to deviate from their undemonstrative marital routine.

"Do you want your breakfast now?"

"I guess you might bring it along."

And for the same reason that she refrained from kissing him, she repressed
a desire to wring the neck of a young broiler and cook it for his
breakfast, remembering that she had heard they gave folks pretty much what
they wanted when they wouldn’t want it long. So Jim got his usual
breakfast of bacon, uncooked canned tomatoes, soda-biscuit, and coffee.
She sat with him while he ate, but they spoke no more of "them" or of how
soon "they" might be expected. She told him that young Jim had pretended
that morning that he had a cactus thorn in his foot, so that he might have
a piece of dried apple. And old Jim, in an excess of parental fondness and
pride, said: "The damned little liar, he’ll get to Congress yet!"

But the children were a dangerous topic for overstrained nerves at this
particular time, so Alida told Jim that she had put the black hen to set
and she thought they’d have some chickens at last. Jim smoked while Alida
washed the dishes, and when Jim’s back was turned she examined the lock on
the door—a good push would open it. Then she looked at the brown bureau,
and the recklessness of despair came into her eyes. In the room beyond,
Jim was reading a two weeks’ old newspaper and smoking. He looked like a
lazy ranchman taking his ease.

As she went about her household tasks that morning, Alida noticed things
as she had never noticed them before. A sunbeam came through the
shutterless window of the house and writhed and quivered on the wall as if
it were a live thing. She read a warning in this, and in the color of the
sun, that was red, like blood, and in the whirr of the grasshoppers, that
was sinister and threatening. The creeks had dried, and their slimy beds
crept along the willows like sluggish snakes. Gaunt range-cattle bellowed
in their thirst, and the parched earth crackled beneath the sun that hung
above the house like a flaming disk. Sometimes she sank beneath the burden
of it; then she would wring her hands and call on God to help them; they
were beyond human power. She and Jim were alone all the morning; they did
not again refer to what they knew would happen. He read his old paper and
she put her house in order. She did it with especial care. It was meet to
have things seemly in the house of the dead. And every time she glanced at
Jim she repressed the desire to fling herself on his breast and cry out
the anguish that consumed her.

At noon she brought the children home to dinner, and afterwards Jim taught
them to throw the lasso and played buffalo with them. Alida did not trust
herself to watch them; she stayed in the kitchen and saw the sunbeam grow
pale with the waning of the day, the day whose minutes dragged like lead,
yet had rushed from her, leaving her the night to face. At sundown she
cooked supper, but she no longer knew what she did. A crazy agility had
taken possession of her and she spun about the kitchen, doing the same
errand many times, finding herself doing always something different from
that she had set about doing. The molten day was burning itself out like a
fever; hot gusts of air beat up from the earth, but the woman who waited
felt chilled to the marrow, and took a cloak down from a peg and wrapped
it about her while she waited for the biscuit to bake. At supper they sat
down together, the man and his wife and their three children. The children
were in fine spirits from the fun they had had that afternoon. Never had
daddy been so nice to them. He had taught Topeka to throw the lasso so
well that she had caught the cat once and little Jim twice; and daddy had
played he was a buffalo and had charged them all with his head down, till
they screamed in terror. But daddy seemed more quiet through the meal, and
once mother started up and cried:

"What’s that?"

She ran to the door with her hand pressed to her side, but daddy called
after her:

"Don’t you know the cowards better than that? They’ll wait for nightfall."

But these things had not worried the children, with their heads full of
playing buffalo and throwing the lariat.

"Jim," said his father, before they went to bed, "remember you are the man
of the family." But young Jim was already nodding with sleep. Topeka and
Judith were sleepy, too; they kissed their father and were glad to go to
bed.

The night began menacingly to close over the wilderness. Where the sun had
hung above the mountain a moment before there glowed a great pool of red
that dripped across the blackness in faint tricklings. The outlines of the
foot-hills loomed huge, formless, uncouth. In the half-light it seemed a
world struggling in the birth-throes. All day the dry, burning heat had
quivered over the desert, like hot-air waves flickering over a bed of live
coals, and now the very earth seemed to palpitate with the intensity of
its fever. The bellowing of the thirst-maddened cattle had not stopped
with the twilight that brought no dew to slake their parched throats. In
the hills the coyotes wailed like lost souls. It was night bereft of
benisons, day made frightful by darkness. All the heat of a cycle of
desert summers seemed concentrated in that house in the valley where the
man and his wife waited. Each sound of the desert night Alida translated
into the trampling of horses’ feet; then, as the sound would die away, or
prove to be but some night noise of the wilderness, the pallor would lose
its pinch on her features, and she would stare into her husband’s face
with eyes that did not see. Jim smoked his pipe and refilled it, smoked
and filled again, but gave no sign of the object of his waiting.

"Jim," she said, when the clock had struck ten, then eleven, "I am going
to fasten up the house."

"Do you hear them?" he asked, without emotion, but as one who deferred to
the finer senses of women.

She shook her head, not trusting herself to speak.

He looked at the door that was shrunken and warped from the heat till it
barely held together, and there was no measure to the tenderness he put
into:

"Oh, you poor little fool, do you think you could keep them out by
fastening that?"

"Jim, I must," and her voice broke. "They may think you are not here, that
it’s only me and the children, and that’s why the house is fastened." She
got up and began to move about as though her thoughts scourged her to
action, even if futile. He shook the ashes from his pipe.

"Do anything you blame please," he said, more by way of humoring her than
from faith in her stratagem. He felt strong enough to face his destiny, to
meet it in a way worthy of his mother’s people.

Alida seemed under a spell in her preparations for the night. Each thing
she did as she had done it in her dream the night before; it was as if she
were constrained by a power greater than her will to fulfil a sinister
prophecy. Yet now and then she would stop and wonder if she might not
break the spell by doing things differently from the way she had dreamed
them. Her hand grasped the knob of the door uncertainly, and she swung it
to and fro on its creaking hinges, while her mind seemed likewise to sway
hither and thither. Should she fasten the door and push the bureau against
it, as it had been in the dream, or should she leave door and windows
gaping wide for them? And then, as one who walks and does familiar things
in sleep, she shut the door and turned the key. Jim smiled at her, but she
could no longer look at him. One of the children wailed fretfully from the
room beyond. Sleep had become a scourge in the stifling heat. One by one
she lowered the windows and nailed them down; then she dragged the brown
bureau against the door, took the brace of six-shooters from the wall, and
sat down with Jim to wait.

"What are you going to do with them toys?" he asked, as he saw her examine
the chambers of one of the six-shooters.

"You ain’t going to let yourself be caught like a rat in a hole, are you?"
she reproached him.

"’Ain’t we agreed that it’s best to keep onpleasant family matters from
the kids?" He smiled at her bravely. "The remembrance of what we’re
anticipatin’ ain’t going to help young Jim to get to Congress when his
time comes, nor it ain’t going to help the girls get good husbands,
either. This here country ain’t what it was in the way of liberality since
it’s got to be a State."

"Sh-sh-sh!" she said. "Is that the range-cattle stampedin’ after water, or
is it—" They listened. The furniture in the room crackled; there was not a
fibre of it to which the resistless heat had not penetrated. On the range
the cattle bellowed in their thirst-torture; in the intervals of their
cries sounded something far off, but regular as the thumping of a ship’s
screw. The woman did not need an answer to her question. The steady
trampling of hoofs came muffled through the dead air, but the sound was
unmistakable. She put her arms about the man’s neck and crushed him to her
with all her woman strength. "Oh, Jim, you’ve been a good man to me!"

"Steady—steady." He strained her close to him. "They’d be, by the sound of
them, on the straight bit of road now, before the turn. Soon we’ll hear
their hoofs ring hollow as they cross the plank bridge."

His plainsman’s faculty was as keen as ever; his calculation of the
horsemen’s distance was made as though he were the least concerned. All
Alida’s courage had gone, with the dread thing at hand. She clung to him,
dazed.

"They’re sober, all right enough."

"How do you know?"

"They’d be cursing and bellowing if they were drunk."

The hoofs rang hollow on the little plank bridge that crossed the ditch
about a stone’s-throw from the door. Not a word was said either within or
without. The lynchers seemed to have drilled for their part; there was no
whispering, no deferring to a leader. On they came, so close that Jim and
Alida could hear the creaking of their saddles. There was the clank of
spurs and the straining of leather as they dismounted, then some one
knocked at the door till the warped boards rattled.

Jim could feel the thudding of Alida’s heart as she clung to him, but when
the knock was repeated a new courage came to her, and she left Jim and
went on her knees close to the outer wall.

"Jim, is that you?" she called, and now every sense was trained to battle;
her voice had even a sleepy cadence, as if she had been suddenly roused.

"That won’t do at all, Miz Rodney. We know you got Jim in there, just as
certain as we’re out here, and we want him to come out and we’ll do the
thing square, otherwise he can take the consequences."

Jim opened his mouth to speak, but she, still on her knees beside the
wall, gained his silence by one supplicating gesture. There was a sleepy,
fretful cry from the room beyond—the noise had roused one of the children.

"Sh-sh, dear," she called. "It’s only a bad dream. Go to sleep again;
mother is here."

Through the warped door came sounds of the whispering voices without,
drowned by the shrieking bellow of the cattle. There was not a breath of
air in the suffocating room. Jim bent towards Alida:

"I’m goin out to ’em. They’ll do it square, over on the cotton-woods; this
rumpus’ll only wake the kids."

But she shook her head imploringly, putting her finger to her lips as a
sign that he was not to speak, and he had not the heart to refuse, though
knowing that she made a desperate situation worse.

"Gentlemen"—she spoke in a low, distinct voice—"Jim ain’t here. He’s been
away from home five days. There’s no one here but me and the children;
you’ve woke them up and frightened them by pounding on the door. I ask you
to go away."

"If he ain’t in there, will you let us search the house?" It was Henderson
that spoke, Henderson, foreman of the "XXX" outfit.

"I can’t have them frightened; please take my word and go away."

"Whas er matter, muvvy?" called Judith, sleepily. Young Jim was by this
time crying lustily. Only Topeka said nothing. With the precocity of a
frontier child, she half realized the truth. She tried to comfort little
Jim, though her teeth chattered in fear and she felt cold in the hot,
still room. Then Judith called out, "Make papa send them away."

"Your papa ain’t here, Judith." But the fight had all gone out of Alida’s
voice; it was the groan of an animal in a trap.

"Where’s papa gone to?"

"Sh-sh, Judith! Topeka, keep your sister quiet."

It was absolutely still, within and without, for a full minute. Then Alida
heard the shoving of shoulders against the door. Once, twice, thrice the
lock resisted them. The brown bureau spun across the room like a child’s
toy. The lynchers, bursting in, saw Alida with her arms around Jim. When
the last hope had gone it was instinct with her to protect him with her
own body.

"Go into the kids, old girl, this is no place for you." And there was that
in his voice that made her obey.

Something of the glory of old Chief Flying Hawk, riding to battle, was in
the face of his grandson.

"Remember, the children ain’t to know," he said to his wife; and to the
lynchers, "Gentlemen, I’m ready."



XIX


                       "Rocked By A Hempen String"


Alida heard the mingled sounds of footsteps and hoofs grow fainter on the
trail. The children looked at her to tell them why this night was
different from all others—what was happening. But she could only cower
among them, more terrified than they. She seemed to be shrunken from the
happenings of that day. They hardly knew the little, shrivelled, gray
woman who looked at them with unfamiliar eyes. Alida gazed at the little
Judith, and there was something in her mother’s glance that made the
little one hide her face in her sister’s shoulder. Young Judith it was who
all unwittingly had told the lynchers that her father was at home, and in
Alida’s heart there was towards this child a blind, unreasoning hate.
Better had she never been born than live to do this thing!

It was the wee man, Jim, who first began to reflect resentfully on this
intrusion on his slumbers. He had been sleeping well and comfortably when
some grown-ups came with a lot of noise, and his father had gone away with
them. It had frightened him, but his mother was here, and why should she
not put him to sleep again?

"Muvvy, sing ’Dway Wolf.’" And as she paid no heed, but looked at him,
white-faced and strange, he again repeated, with his most insinuating and
beguiling tricks of eye and smile:

"Muvvy, sing ’Dway Wolf’ for Dimmy."

The child put his head in his mother’s lap, and Alida began, scarce
knowing what she did:

  "’The gray wolves are coming fast over the hill,
    Run fast, little lamb, do not baa, do not bleat,
  For the gray wolves are hungry, they come here to kill,
    And the lambs shall be scattered—’

"No, no, Jimmy, muvvy cannot sing. Oh, can’t you feel, child? Judith,
Judith, why were you ever born?"

It was still in the valley. Had they come to the dead cotton-woods yet?
Had they begun it? The children shrank from this gray-faced woman whom
they did not know and but yet a little while had been their mother. An
awful silence had fallen on the night. The range-cattle no longer bellowed
in their thirst; the hot wind no longer blew from the desert. A hush not
of earth nor air nor the things that were of her ken seemed to have fallen
about them, muffing the dark loneliness as by invisible flakes. The
children had crouched close together for comfort. They feared the little,
gray-faced woman who seemed to have stolen into their mother’s place and
looked at them with strange eyes.

Jimmy looked at the woman who held him, hoping his mother would come, and
he could see them both. And while he waited he dropped off to sleep; and
little Judith, hiding her head on Topeka’s shoulder, that she might not
see the look in those accusing eyes, presently dreamed that all was well
with her again; and Topeka reflected that if her mother should ask her in
the morning whether she had dreamed last night, she would have a fine tale
to tell of men riding up, and loud voices, and trying of the door, and
father going away with them. Her mother had questioned her this morning
when nothing had happened to warrant it. Surely she would ask again
to-morrow, and Topeka could tell—she could tell—all.

Alida looked at her three sleeping children—his children, and yet they
could sleep. Into her mind came that cry of utter desolation, "Could ye
not watch with me one hour?" And God had been deaf to Him, His son, even
as He was deaf to her.

The children were sleeping easily. The hush that had hung like a pall over
the valley had not lifted. Had they done it? Was it over yet? She went to
the door and listened. Surely the silence that wrapped the valley was a
thing apart. It was as no other silence that she could remember. It was
still, still, and yet there was vibration to it, like the muffled roar
within a shell. She strained her ears—was that the sound of horsemen going
down the trail? No, no, it was only the beating of her foolish heart that
would not be still, but beat and fluttered and would not let her hear.
Yes, surely, that was the sound of hoofs. It was over then—they were
going.

She would go and look for him. Perhaps it would not be too late—she had
heard of such things. A dynamic force consumed her. She had no
consciousness of her body. Her feet and hands did things with incredible
swiftness—lighted a lantern, selected a knife, ran to the corral for an
old ladder that had been there when they took possession of the deserted
house; and through all her frantic haste she could feel this new force, as
it were, lick up the red blood in her veins, burn her body to ashes as it
gave her new power. She felt that never again would she have need of meat
and drink and sleep. This force would abide with her till all was over,
then leave her, like the whitened bones of the desert.

It was dark in the valley, but the menacing stillness seemed to be
lifting. The range-cattle had again taken up their plaint, the sounds of
the desert night swept across the stony walls of the cañon. Alida knew
that it must have happened at the dead cotton-woods. There were no other
high trees about for miles. Again she listened before advancing. There was
no sound of hoof or champing bit or men moving quickly. They had gone
their way into the valley. She ran swiftly, her lantern throwing its beam
across the scrubby inequalities of ground, but for her there was no need
of its beacon. To-night she was beyond the halting, stumbling
uncertainties of tread to which man is subject. There was magic in her
feet and in her hands and brain. Like the wind she ran, the wind on the
great plain where there are no foot-hills to hinder its course. The black,
dead trees stood out distinctly against the starry sky, and from a
cross-limb of one of them dangled something with head awry, like a broken
jumping-jack, something that had once been a man—and her husband. She
could touch the feet of this frightful thing and feel its human warmth. A
wind came up from the desert and blew across the cañon’s rocky walls into
the valley, and the parody of a man swayed to it.

She had been expecting this thing. For weeks the image of it had been
graven on her heart. Sleeping or waking, she had seen nothing but his
dangling body from the cross-limb. Yet with the actual consummation before
her, she felt its hideous novelty as though it were unexpected. At sight
of it the force that had borne her up through the happenings of that day
went out of her, and as she stood with the knife and the rope, that she
had brought in the hope of cheating the lynchers, dangling from her
nerveless hand her helplessness overcame her. Again and again she called
to the dead man for help, called to him as she had been accustomed to call
when her woman’s strength had been unequal to some heavy household task.

Far down the trail she could hear the gallop of a horse coming closer, and
mingled with the sounds of its flying feet was a voice urging the horse to
greater speed in the shrill cabalistic "Hi-hi-hi-ki!" of the plains-man.
What was it—one of them returning to see that she did not cheat the rope
of its due?—to hang her beside him, as an after-thought, as they hanged
Kate Watson beside her man? Let them. She was standing near the swaying
thing when horse and rider gained the ground beside her, and what was left
to her of consciousness made out that the rider was Judith. She pointed to
it, and stood helpless with the dangling rope in her hand.

"Are we too late?" Judith almost whispered, as she caught Alida’s cold,
inert hands. "I dreamed it all and came. If I could have dreamed it
sooner!"

Alida did not seem to hear, neither could she speak. She only pointed
again to the thing beside her.

Judith understood. The women had a task to share, and in silence they
began it. The lynchers had done their work all too well. Again and again
the women strove with all their strength to take down the dangling parody
of a man, which in its dead-weight resistance seemed in league with the
forces against them. At last the thing was done. Down to a pale world,
that in the haggard gray of morning seemed to bear in its countenance
something of the pinch of death, Judith lowered the thing that had so
lately been a man. She cut the rope away from the neck, she straightened
the wry neck that seemed to wag in pantomimic representation of the last
word to the lynchers. They’d have to reckon with him on dark nights, and
when the wind wailed like a famished wolf and when things not to be
explained lurked in the shadows of the desert.

The morning stillness came flooding into the cup-shaped valley like a
soft, resistless wave. Something had come to the gray, old earth—another
day, with all its human gift of joy and woe, and the earth welcomed it
though it had known so many. The sun burst through the gold-tipped aureole
of cloud, scattering far and wide lavish promises of a perfect day. The
earth seemed to respond with a thrill. No longer was the pinch of death in
her countenance. The valley, the mountains, the invisible wind, even the
dead cotton-woods, seemed endowed with throbbing life that contrasted
fearsomely with the terrible nullity of this thing that once had been Jim
Rodney.

Alida had ceased to take any part in the hideous drama. She sat on the
ground, a crouching thing with glittering eyes. It was past comprehension
that the sun could shine and the world go on with her man dead before her.
Judith had become the force that planned and did to save the family pride.
While her hands were busy with preparations for the dead, she rehearsed
what she would say to this and that one to account for Jim’s absence. The
silence of the men who had done this thing would be as steadfast as their
own.

And there were the children. Through all her frantic search for things in
the house, Judith remembered that she must step softly and not waken the
children. With each turn of the screw, as her numbed consciousness rallied
and responded afresh to the hideous realization of this thing, there came
no release from the tyrannous hold of petty detail. She remembered that
she must be back at noon to hold post-office, and there would be the
endless comedy to be played once more with her cavaliers. They must never
suspect from word or look of hers. And there was the dance to-night at the
Benton ranch—she hid her face in her hands. Ah, no, she could not do this
thing! And yet they must not suspect. She must contrive to give the
impression that Jim had cheated the rope. Yes, she must go and dance, and,
if need be, dance with his very murderers. Jim’s children were to have the
"clean start" that he intended, and they would have to get it here. There
was no money for an exodus and a beginning elsewhere.

Alida still crouched beside the long, even tarpaulin roll that Judith had
prepared with hands that knew not what they did. But now Judith gently
roused her and put in her hand a spade; already she herself had begun. But
Alida stared at it dully, as if she did not understand. Then Judith
pointed to something black that had begun to wheel in the sky, wheel, and
with each circular swoop come closer to the roll of tarpaulin. Then Alida
knew, and, taking the spade, she and Judith began to dig the grave.



XX


                                 The Ball


The dance in the Benton ranch was the great social event of the midsummer
season. The Bentons had begun to give dances in the days of plenty, when
the cattle industry had been at its dizziest height; and they had
continued to give dances through all the depressing fluctuations of the
trade, perhaps in much the same spirit as one whistles in the dark to keep
up his courage. Thus, though cattle fell and continued to fall in the
scale of prices till the end no man dared surmise, the Benton "boys"—they
were two brothers, aged respectively forty-five and fifty years—continued
to hold out facilities to dance and be merry.

All day strange wagons—ludicrous, makeshift things—had been discharging
loads of women and children at the Benton ranch, tired mothers and their
insistent offspring. To the women this strenuous relaxation came as manna
in the wilderness. What was the dreary round of washing, ironing, baking,
and the chain of household tasks that must be done as primitively as in
Genesis, if only they might dance and forget? So the mothers came early
and stayed late, and the primary sessions of the dances fulfilled all the
functions of the latter-day mothers’ congresses—there were infant ailments
to be discussed, there were the questions of food and of teething, of
paregoric and of flannel bands, which, strange heresy, seemed to be "going
out," according to the latest advices from those compendiums of all
domestic information, the "Woman’s Pages" of the daily papers.

Inasmuch as these more than punctual debaters must be cooked for, there
was, to speak plainly, "feeling" on the part of the housekeeper at the
Bentons’. Wasn’t it enough for folks to come to a dance and get a good
supper, and go away like Christians when the thing was over, instead of
coming a day before it began and lingering on as if they had no home to go
to? This, at least, was the housekeeper’s point of view, a crochety one,
be it said, not shared by the brothers Benton, whose hospitality was as
genuine as it was primitive. To this same difficult lady the infants, who
were too tender in years to be separated from their mothers, were as
productive of anxiety as their elders. A room had been set apart for their
especial accommodation, the floor of which, carefully spread with
bed-quilts and pillows, prevented any great damage from happening to the
more tender of the guests; and they rolled and crooned and dug their small
fists into each other’s faces while their mothers danced in the room
beyond.

By nightfall the Benton ranch gleamed on the dark prairie like a
constellation. Lights burned at every window; a broad beam issued from the
door and threw a welcoming beacon across the darkness and silence of the
night. The scraping of fiddles mingled with the rhythmic scuffle of feet
and the singsong of the words that the dancers sung as they whirled
through the figures of the quadrille and lancers. About the walls of the
room where the dancing was in progress stood a fringe of gallants, their
heads newly oiled, and proclaiming the fact in a bewildering variety of
strong perfumes. Red silk neckerchiefs knotted with elaborate carelessness
displayed to advantage bronzed throats; new overalls, and of the shaggiest
species, amply testified to the social importance of the Benton dance.

As yet the dancing was but intermittent and was engaged in chiefly by the
mothers with large progeny, who felt that after the arrival of a greater
number of guests, and among them the unmarried girls, their opportunities
might not be as plentiful as at present. One or two cow-punchers, in an
excess of civility at the presence of the fair, had insisted on giving up
their six-shooters, mumbling something about "there being ladies present
and a man being hasty at times." In the "bunk-room," which did duty as a
gentleman’s cloak-room, things were really warming up. There was much
drinking of healths, as the brothers Benton had thoughtfully provided the
wherewithal, and that in excellent quality.

Costigan was there, and Texas Tyler, who had ridden sixty miles to "swing
a petticoat," or, if there were not enough to go round, to dance with a
handkerchief tied to some fellow’s sleeve. By "swinging a petticoat" it
was perfectly understood among all his friends that he meant a chance to
dance with Judith Rodney. Year in and year out Texas never failed to
present himself at the post-office on mail-days, if his work took him
within a radius of fifty miles of the Daxes. No dance where the
possibility of seeing Judith was even remote was too long a ride for him
to undertake, even when it took him across the dreariest wastes of the
desert. Texas had been devoted to Judith since she had left the convent,
and sometimes, perhaps twice a year, she told him that she valued his
friendship. On all other occasions she rejected his suit as if his
continual pressing of it were something in the nature of an affront. Yet
Texas persevered.

"Well, here’s lukin’ at you, since in the way of a frind there’s nothing
better to look at!" and Costigan drained a tin cup at Texas Tyler.

"Your very good health," said Texas, who was somewhat embarrassed by what
was regarded as Costigan’s "floweriness."

"Begorra, is that Hinderson or the ghost av the b’y?" Costigan’s roving
eye was arrested by the foreman of the "XXX," who stood drinking with two
or three men of his outfit. He was pale and ill-looking. He drank several
times in succession, as if he needed the stimulant, and without the
formality of drinking to any one. The two or three "XXX" men who were with
him seemed to be equally in need of restoratives.

They talked of the cattle stampede in which several of the outfits had
been heavy losers. Some nine hundred head of cattle had been recovered,
and members of the different outfits were still scouring the Red Desert
for strays.

Something in the nature of a sensation was created by the arrival of the
Wetmore party. The women were frankly interested in the clothes, bearing,
and general deportment of the New-Yorkers. Rumors of Miss Colebrooke’s
beauty were rife, and there was a general inclination to compare her with
local belles. Such exotic types—they had seen these city beauties
before—were as a rule too colorless for their appreciation. They liked
faces that had "more go to them," was the verdict passed upon one famous
beauty who had visited the Wetmores the year before. In arrangement of the
hair, perhaps, in matters of dress, the judges were willing to concede the
laurels to city damsels, but there concession stopped. But evidently
Kitty, to judge from the elaboration of her toilet, did not intend to be
dismissed thus cursorily. She herself was delicately, palely pretty, as
always, but her hair was tortured to a fashionable fluffiness, and the
simplicity of her green muslin gown was only in the name. It was muslin
disguised, elaborated, beribboned, lace-trimmed till its identity was all
but lost in the multitude of pretty complications.

"Did you know that old Ma’am Yellett had a school-marm up to her place?"
asked one of the men, apropos of Eastern prettiness.

"Well, well," Costigan reminisced, "’tis some av thim Yillitt lambs thot’s
six fut in their shtockings, if Oi be rimimbering right. Sure, the tacher
ought to be something av a pugilist, Oi’m thinkin’."

"I seen her the other day, and a neater little heifer never turned out to
pasture. Lord, I’d like to be gnawing the corners of the primer right now,
if she was there to whale the ruler."

"Arrah," bayed Costigan, "but the women question is gittin’ complicated
ontoirely, wid Miss Rodney—an’ herself lukin’ loike a saint in a church
window—dalin’ the mails an’ th’ other wan tachin’ in the mountains. Sure,
this place is gittin’ to be but a sorry shpot for bachelors loike mesilf."

"I ain’t mentionin’ no names, but there’s a man here ain’t treatin’ a
mighty fine woman square and accordin’ to the way she ought to be
treated."

The information ran through the circle like an electric shock. Men stopped
in the act of pledging each other’s healths to listen. Loungers
straightened up; every topic was dropped. The man who had made the
statement was the loose-lipped busybody who had suggested to his host that
he give up his six-shooter since there were "ladies present."

"What the hell are you waiting for?" queried Texas Tyler, savagely.
"You’ve cracked your whip, made your bow, and got our attention; why the
hell don’t you go on?"

The man looked about nervously. He was rather alarmed at the interest he
had excited. The next moment Peter Hamilton had walked into the room.
There was something crucial in his entrance at this particular time; it
crystallized suspicion. The gossip took advantage of the greetings to
Hamilton to make his escape. Texas Tyler left the bunk-room immediately
and looked for him in the room with the dancers. The fiddles, in the hands
of a couple of Mexicans, had set the whole room whirling as if by magic.
As they danced they sang, joining with the "caller-out," who held his
vociferous post between the rooms, till the room was full of singing,
dancing men and women, who spun and pirouetted as if they had not a care
in the world. But Texas Tyler was not of these, as he looked through the
dancers for his man. There was a red flash in the pupils of his eyes, and
he told himself that he was going to do things the way they did them in
Texas, for, of course, he knew that the loose-lipped idiot had meant
Judith Rodney and Peter Hamilton. Never before had such an idea occurred
to him, and now that it had been presented to his mind’s eye, he wondered
why he had been such a blind fool. Never had the singing to these dances
seemed so absurd.

  "Hawk hop out and the crow hop in,
  Three hands round and go it ag’in.
  Allemane left, back to the missus,
  Grande right and left and sneak a few kisses."

He rushed from the room and down to the stable. At sight of him some one
leaped on a horse and rode out into the darkness.

"Who was that?" asked Texas of a man lounging by the corral.

"That was—" and he gave the name of the loose-lipped man.

Texas cursed long and picturesquely. Then he went back to the bunk-room
and tried to pick a quarrel with Peter Hamilton, who good-naturedly
assumed that his old friend had been drinking and refused to take offence.

Peter went in to ask Kitty to dance with him. All that evening he had been
waiting anxiously for Judith. Meanwhile he had used all his influence as a
newly appointed member of the Wetmore outfit to soothe the ruffled
feelings of the cattle-men. Of the tragedy in the valley he had heard no
rumor.

Kitty had come to the point where she was willing to waive the
Récamier-Chateaubriand friendship in favor of one more personal and
ordinary. In fact, as Peter showed a disposition to regard as final her
answer to him on the day he had spurred across the desert, Kitty, with
true feminine perversity, inclined to permit him to resume his suit. His
acquiescence in her refusal she had at first regarded as the turning of
the worm; after the wolf-hunt, however, her meditations were more
disturbing. She had never told Peter of that strange woodland meeting with
Judith, yet Judith’s beauty, her probable hold over Peter, the degree of
his affection for her were rankling questions in Kitty’s consciousness. In
the stress of these considerations Kitty lost her head completely for so
old a campaigner. She drew the apron-string tight—attempted force instead
of strategy.

Kitty and Peter finished their waltz, one of the few round dances of the
evening.

"How perfectly you dance, Kitty! It’s a long time since we’ve had a waltz
together."

The cow-punchers looked at Kitty as if she were not quite flesh and blood.
Such flaxen daintiness, femininty etherealized to angelic perfection, was
new to them, but their admiration was like that given to a delicate exotic
which, wonderful as it is, one is well pleased to view through the glass
of the florist’s window.

Peter was deferentially attentive and zealous to make the Wetmore party
have a thoroughly good time, yet he did all these things, as it were, with
his eye on the door. He was not obviously distrait; he was the man of the
world, talking, making himself agreeable, "doing his duty," while his
subconsciousness was busy with other matters. It was rather through
telepathy than through any lack of attention paid to her that Kitty
realized the state of things, and in proportion to her realization came a
feeling of helplessness; it was so new, so unexpected, so cruel. He seemed
drifting away from her on some tide of affairs of the very existence of
which she had been unconscious. Further and further he had drifted, till
intelligible speech no longer seemed possible between them. They said the
foolish, empty things that people call out as the boat glides away from
the shore, the things that all the world may hear, and in his eyes there
was only that smiling kindness. How had it come about after all these
years? What was it that had first cut the cable that sent him drifting?
What was it? She must think. Oh, who could think with that noise! How
silly was their singing as they danced, how uncouth!

  "All dance as pretty as you can,
  Turn your toes and left alleman;
    First gent sashay to the right,
  Now swing the girl you last swung about,
  And now the one that’s cut her out,
    And now the one that’s dressed in white,
  And now the belle of the ball."

The dancers seemed bitten to the quick with the tarantula of an ecstatic
hilarity; their bodies swayed in perfect harmony to the swing of the
fiddles and the swell of the chorus. The most uncouth of them came under
the spell of that mad magic. Their movements, that in the beginning of the
dance had been shy and awkward, became almost beautiful; they forgot arms,
hands, feet; their bodies had become like the strings of some skilfully
played instrument, obediently responsive to rhythm, and in that composite
blending of races each in his dancing brought some of the poetry of his
own far land. The scene was amazing in its beauty and simplicity, like the
strong, inspirational power and rugged rhythm of some old border minstrel.
One by one the dancers glowed with better understanding; discordant
elements, alien nations were fused to harmony in this vivid picture.

Peter turned to Kitty, expecting to see her face aglow with the warmth of
it. She stood beside him, the one unresponsive soul in the room, on her
lips a pale, tolerant smile.

"Aren’t they splendid, Kitty, these women? More than half of them work
like beavers all day, and they have young children and dozens of worries,
but would you suspect it? They’re just the women for this country."

Now in the present state of affairs almost any other subject would have
been better calculated to promote good feeling than the one on which Peter
had alighted. Kitty’s thoughts had perversely lingered about one who,
though not one with these women, had yet their sturdy self-reliance, their
acquiescence in grim conditions, their pleasure in simple things. Kitty’s
apprehension, slow to kindle, had taken fire like a forest, and by its
blaze she saw things in a distorted light; her present vision magnified
the relations of Peter and Judith to a degree that a month ago she would
have regarded as impossible. "He is her lover!" was the accusation that
suddenly flashed through her mind, and with the thought an overwhelming
desire to say something unkind, something that should hurt him, supplanted
all judgment and reason.

"Oh, it’s a decidedly remarkable scene, pictorially, I agree with you. And
an artist, of course—but isn’t it a trifle quixotic, Peter, to idealize
them because they are having a good time? There’s no virtue in it. It is
conceivable that they might have to work just as hard and have just as
many little children to look after, and yet not have these dances you
praise them for coming to."

"I’m afraid you find us and our amusements a little crude. Evidently the
spirit of our dances does not appeal to you; but I did not suppose it
necessary to remind you that they should not be judged by the standard of
conventional evening parties," said Peter, hurt and angry in his turn.

"Us, our amusements, our dances? So you are quite identified with these
people, my dear Peter, and I had thought you an ornament of cotillions and
country clubs. I can only infer that it is somebody in particular who has
brought about your change of heart."

Peter flushed a little, and Kitty kept on: "Some of the native belles are
quite wonderful, I believe. Nannie Wetmore tells of a half-breed who is
very handsome."

Peter set his lips. "At the expense of spoiling Nannie’s pretty romance, I
must tell you that the lady she refers to is not only the most beautiful
of women, but she would be at ease in any drawing-room. It would be as
ridiculous to apply the petty standards of ladyhood to her as it would
to—well, imagine some foolish girl bringing up the question at a woman’s
club—’Was Joan of Arc a lady?’" Peter spoke without calculating the
conviction that his words carried. He was angry, and his manner, voice,
intonation showed it.

Kitty, now that her most unworthy suspicions had been confirmed by Peter’s
ardent championing of Judith, lost her discretion in the pang that gnawed
her little soul: "I beg your pardon, Peter. When I spoke I did not, of
course, know that this young woman was anything to you."

"Anything to me? My dear Kitty, I’ve never had a better friend than Judith
Rodney."

The dance was at its flood-tide. The exhilaration had grown with each
sweep of the fiddle-bow, with the sorcery of sinuous, swaying bodies, with
the song of the dancers as they joined in the calling out of the figures,
with the rhythmic shuffle of feet, with the hum of the pulses, with the
leaping of blood to cheek and heart till the dancers whirled as leaves
circling towards the eddies of a whirlpool. The dancing Mrs. Dax split her
favors into infinitesimal fragments, for each measure of which her long
list of waiting gallants stood ready to pick a quarrel if need be. Her
dancing, in the splendor of its spontaneity, had something of the surge of
the west wind sweeping over a field of grain. Sometimes she waved back her
partner and alone danced a figure, putting to the music her own
interpretation—barbaric, passionate, rude, but magnificently vivid. And
the dancers would stop and crowd about her, clapping hands and stamping
feet to the rhyming movement of her body, while against the wall her
hostile sister-in-law, Mrs. Leander, stood and glared in a fury of
disapproval, Leander himself smiling broadly meanwhile and exercising the
utmost restraint to keep from joining Mrs. Johnnie’s train.

The "XXX" men, who had remained aloof from the dancers and the merriment,
keeping a faithful vigil in the bunk-room, where the hospitable bottles
were to be found, seemed to awaken from the spell that had bound them all
day. Henderson, the foreman, whose face had not lost its tallow paleness
despite the number of his potations, put his head through the door to have
a look at the dancing Mrs. Dax, was caught in the outermost eddy of the
whirling throng, and was soon dancing as madly as the others. The rest of
the "XXX" party still hugged the bunk-room, where the bottles gleamed
hospitable. They were still dusty from their long ride of the early
morning, and more than once their fear-quickened imaginations had been
haunted by the spectre of the dead cotton-woods, from which something
heavy and limp and warm had been swaying when they left it. Henderson had
secured the dancing Mrs. Dax for a partner. The "caller-out," stationed
between the two rooms, warmed to his genial task. He improvised, he put a
wealth of imagination and personality into his work, he showered
compliments on the nimbleness of Mrs. Dax’s feet, he joked Henderson on
his pallor, he attempted a florid venture at Kitty. Miguel put fresh magic
into his bowing, José’s fiddle rioted with the madness of it.

Judith stood for a moment in the kindly enveloping darkness, and her heart
cried out in protest at the thing she must do. It was the utmost cruelty
of fate that forced her here to dance on the evening of the day that they
had killed him. But she must do it, that his children might evade the
stigma of "cattle-thief," that the shadow of the gallows-tree might not
fall across their young lives, that the neighbors might give credence to
the tale of Jim’s escape from his enemies, that Alida and she might earn
the pittance that would give the children the "clean start" that Jim had
set his heart on so confidently. And she must dance and be the merriest of
them all that these things might happen, but again and again she deferred
the dread moment. The light, the music, the voices, the shuffle of the
feet came to her as she stood forlorn in the grateful darkness. On the
wall the shadows of the dancers, magnified and grotesque, parodied their
movements, as they contended there, monstrous, uncouth shapes, like
prehistoric monsters gripping, clinching in some mighty struggle; and
above it all sang out the wild rhythm of Miguel’s fiddle, and young José’s
bow capered madly.

Judith drew close to the window, and the merriment struck chill at her
heart like the tolling of a knell. She saw the pale face of Henderson
gleam yellow-white among the dancers, and, watching him, the blood-lust of
the Indian woke in her heart. The rest of the room was but a blur; the
dancers faded into swaying shadows; she saw nothing but Henderson as he
danced that he might forget the gray of morning, the black, dead trees,
and the grotesque thing with head awry that swayed in the breeze like a
pendulum. He dreaded the long, black ride that would bring him to his
camp, for he alone of the lynchers remained. Something was drawing his
gaze out into the blackness of the night. He struggled against the
temptation to look towards the window. He whirled the Dax woman till her
twinkling feet cleared the floor. He sang to the accompaniment of Miguel’s
fiddle. He was outwitting the thing that dangled before his eyes, having
the incontrovertible last word with a vengeance. And as he danced and
swayed, all unwittingly his glance fell on the window opposite, and Jim
Rodney’s face looked in at him, beautiful in its ecstasy of hate—Rodney’s
face, refined, sharpened, tried in some bitter crucible, but Rodney’s
face! Henderson could not withdraw his fascinated gaze. He stood in the
midst of the dancers like a man turned to stone. He put up his hand to his
eyes as if to brush away a cloud of swarming gnats, then threw up his arms
and rushed from the room. The dancers paused in their mad whirl. Miguel’s
bow stopped with a wailing shriek. Every eye turned towards the window for
an explanation of Henderson’s sudden panic, but all was dark without on
the prairie. The magic had gone from the dance, the whirlwind of drapery
that had swung like flags in a breeze dropped in dead air. "What was it?"
the dancers asked one another in whispers.

And for answer Judith entered, but a Judith that was strange to them.
There was about her a white radiance that kept the dancers back, and in
her eyes something of Mary’s look, as she turned from Calvary. The dancers
still kept the position of the figures, the men with their arms about
their partners’ waists, the women stepping forward; they were like the
painted figures of dancers in a fresco. And among them stood Judith,
waiting to play her part, waiting to show her world that she could dance
and be merry because all was well with her and hers. But the bronzed sons
of the saddle hung back, they who a day before would have quarrelled for
the honor of a dance. They were afraid of her; it would be like dancing
with the death angel. She looked from face to face. Surely some one would
ask her to dance, and her eyes fell on Henderson, returning from the
bottled courage in the bunk-room. Some word was due from him to explain
his terror of a moment ago.

"Oh, Miss Judith, I thought you was a ghost when I seen you at the
window."

"A ghost that’s ready to dance." She held out her hand to him. In her
gesture there was something of royal command, and Henderson, reading the
meaning in her eyes, stepped forward. Her face, almost a perfect replica
of the dead man’s, looked at him.

"I bring you greeting from my brother," she said. "He has gone on a long
journey."

Henderson started. Through the still room ran the murmur, "Rodney’s
outwitted them; he’s played a joke on the rope!" And Judith, his
dare-devil sister, had come with his greetings to Henderson, leader of the
faction against him! The tide had turned. The applause that is ever the
meed of the winner was hers to command. The cattle faction were ready to
sing the praises of her splendid audacity. In their hearts they were glad
in the thought that Jim had outwitted them.

Miguel’s bow dashed across the strings, and he drew from the little brown
fiddle music that again made them merry and glowing. The magic came back
to the dance, the blood leaped again with the merry madness, and they
swept to the bowing like leaves when the first faint wail of winter cries
in the trees.

Hamilton, standing apart with Kitty Colebrooke, had been a dazed witness
of the scene. With the rest he had watched the entrance of Judith, had
been stunned by the change in her appearance, had seen her triumph and
heard the rumor of Jim’s escape, and his heart had warmed with the good
word. She had probably managed the plan, and had come to-night, in the joy
of her triumph, to hurl in their faces that she had outwitted them. And
she had paid the penalty of her courage—her face told that. What a woman
she was! Her heart would pay the penalty to the last throb, and yet she
could dance with the merriest of them. And as she danced she seemed to
Peter Hamilton, in her white draperies, like a cloud of whirling
snow-flakes drifting across the silence of the desert night. She was the
one woman in all the world for him, though his blind eyes had faced the
light for years and had not known it. He had squandered the strength of
his youth in the pursuit of a little wax light, and had not marked the
serene shining of the moon.

"And a man there was and he made his prayer—" he quoted to himself. Well,
thank God that it had not been answered. He would take her away from here.
She could take her place in his family and reflect credit on his choice.
His family, his friends—he winced at the thought of their possible
reception of the news. But Judith’s presence would adjust these
difficulties. He would present her to Kitty now, that his old friend might
see what manner of woman she was. Kitty, he felt, would be kind in memory
of the old days. She would give to them both in friendship what she had
denied him in love. And as he warmed to the thought he turned to the woman
of his youth. And she read a look in his face that had not been there in a
long time. Had he, then, come back to her? Was the distance from bark to
shore lessening as the sea of misunderstanding diminished?

"Kitty, we were speaking a moment ago of Miss Rodney. You would like to
know her, I’m sure. We’ve been such good friends all these years while you
were deciding that what I wanted was not good for us—and deciding wisely,
as I know now. Look at her! You’ll understand how she has helped me keep
the balance of things. When she’s finished dancing you’ll let me bring her
to you, won’t you?"

And Kitty, who had expected much different words, struggled with the
meaning of these unexpected ones. The strangeness of the pain bewildered
her. Her dazed consciousness refused to accept that Peter was asking
permission to present to her a woman whom she thought should not have been
permitted to enter her presence. There was about her a white flame of
anger that seemed to lick up the red blood in her veins as she turned to
answer:

"She is undeniably handsome, Peter, but I do not care to meet your
mistress."

He bowed low to her as Lieutenant Swift, of Fort Washakie, who was of the
Wetmore party, came to claim Kitty’s hand for the next dance. Judith and
Henderson were leading the last figure, their hands clasped high in an
arch through which the dancers trooped in couples. Again and again he
tried to catch Judith’s eye, but her glance never once met his. Her great,
wide eyes had a far-away look as if they saw some tragedy, the shadow of
which would never fall from her. She was, indeed, the tragic muse in her
floating white drapery, the tragic muse whose grief is too deep for tears.
He watched her as she swept towards him in the figure of the dance, the
head thrown back, slightly foreshortened, the mouth smiling with the smile
that knows all things, the eyes holy wells of truth. He saw in her
something of the tenderness of Eve, for all the blending of the calm
modern woman, capable in affairs, equal to emergency. It was like her to
contrive her brother’s escape and then to dance with the very men who had
knotted the noose for his hanging. Henderson was bowing to her, the dance
was over, and the next moment she was alone.

"Is it you, Peter?" She thrust a strand of hair back from her temple. Her
eyes rested on him for a moment, then wandered, till in their absent look
was the rapt expression of the sleep-walker. The dark-rimmed eyes had in
their depths the quiet of a conflagration, and Peter, seeing these things,
and knowing the gamut of all her moods, saw that he had been mistaken. She
had not come, to dance in triumph, in the face of her brother’s enemies.
There was no triumph in her face, but white, consuming despair.

"Did you ask me to dance?" Again she put back the strand of hair. "Forgive
me for being so stupid, but I’ve kept post-office to-day, and had a long
ride, and I danced with Henderson."

He drew her arm within his and led the way out through the crowd of
dancers to the star-strewn night. She did not speak again, nor did she
seem to notice that they had left the room with the dancers. She turned
her face towards the lonely valley, where the drama of her brother’s
passing had been consummated, and something there was in her look as it
turned towards the hills that told Peter.

"Tell me, Judith, ’what has happened?"

For answer she pointed towards the valley. "They did it last night at the
dead cotton-woods. Henderson led them. I could not stay with Alida. I had
to come here to dance that no one might suspect."

Her voice was steady, but low and thrilling. In its deep resonance was the
echo of all human sorrow. There was no hint of accusation, yet Peter felt
accused. He felt, now when it was too late, that his position had been one
of almost pusillanimous negligence. From the beginning he had taken a firm
stand against violent measures. He had talked, argued, reasoned, inveighed
against violence; no later than a week ago he had ridden across the desert
to tell Henderson that the Wetmore outfit would take no part in violence
of any sort, and that the cattle outfit that did resort to extreme
measures would miss the support of the "W-Square" in any future range
business. But it had not been enough. He should have made plain his
position in regard to Judith. With her as his future wife the tragedy of
the valley would not have been possible.

From the ranch-house came the swell of the fiddles, the rhythmic shuffle
of feet, the song of the dancers, dulled by distance. Beside him was
Judith, a white spirit, the woman in her dead of grief. And yet, through
all the grim horror of the tragedy she remembered the part that had been
allotted to her, threw all the weight of her personality on the side of
the game she was playing.

"You must be on our side, Peter, and when there is talk of Jim’s absence
you must imply that he is East somewhere. You will know how to meet such
inquiries better than we women. Henderson will be only too glad. You
should have seen the wretch when I held out my hand to him and told him to
dance with me. He came, white and shambling; we have nothing to fear from
Henderson. Alida has no money to go away with. She and I must stay here
and make a beginning for the children, and, Peter, we want you to help
us."

He had no voice to answer her brave words for a minute, and then his
sentences came uncertain and halting.

"You must think me a poor sort of friend, Judith, one who has been blind
till the eleventh hour and is then found wanting. I feel so guilty to you,
to your brother’s wife, to that little child who put out his arms so
trustfully to me that night, but I never imagined that things would come
to such a pass as this. The smaller cattle outfits have been doing a good
deal of blustering, but the more conservative element supposed that they
had them in check, and did not for a moment think that they would take the
law into their own hands. Believe me, this lawlessness has been in the
face of every influence that could be brought to bear, and it shall not go
unpunished."

She spoke to him from the darkness, as the spirit of grief might speak.
"An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, that is the justice of the
plains. But, Peter, it is but poor justice. What’s done is done, and fresh
violence will not give back Alida her husband nor the little ones their
father. What we need is friends, one or two loyal souls who, though
knowing the hideous truth of this thing, will stand by us in our pitiful
falsehood. I have told no one, nor shall I, but you and—Peter, you must
not laugh at your fellow-conspirator—Leander."

He took her hands in his and pressed them; big hands they were, and
hardened by many a homely task, but withal tender and with the healing
quality of womanliness in the touch of their warm, supple fingers. But
to-night she did not seem to know that he held them, nor to be conscious
of his presence. The woman in her was dead of grief. The white spirit in
her place, that plotted and planned that Jim’s children and Jim’s wife
might not from henceforth walk in the shadow of the gallows, was beyond
the prompting of the flesh. And again she spoke to him in the same
far-away voice, with the same far-away look in her eyes.

"You must know, Peter, that Leander is at heart of the salt of the earth.
I told him about it all, and he asked to be given the commission to deal
with the men. He has risen to his post magnificently. I heard him swear
the wretches to secrecy, hint to them that he had a great story to tell
them. They were frightened, and listened. And the poor little man that we
have so despised told them convincingly how Jim had made good his
escape—even Henderson half believes we saved him."

Peter hoped that she would accuse him of his half-heartedness indirectly,
if not openly. It would have made his conscience more comfortable, and his
conscience troubled him sorely to-night. It was that fatal habit of
procrastination that had brought this thing about. He had hesitated all
these weeks about Judith, and while he had threshed out the pro and con of
her disadvantageous family connection, this hideous tragedy had happened.

"Peter"—and now her eyes seemed to come back to earth again, to lose
something of the far-away look of the sleep-walker—"Peter, I’m cruel to
speak to you of these things now. When your heart is full of your own
happiness, I come to you like a dark shadow with this tragedy. But I am
glad for the good that has come to you, Peter. Perhaps Miss Colebrooke
told you of the day I met her in the wood, the day of the wolf-hunt. She
was so beautiful, I understood—"

"Judith, I hardly know how to say what I am going to, I feel that I have
been such a bad friend to you, but you must hear me patiently. Together,
if you are willing, after knowing all of me that you do, we must look
after your brother’s children. That night in the little house in the
valley, when the little chap came to me, don’t you remember, there was
something fine and fearless in the way he did it. ’You may belong to the
cattle side of the argument,’ he seemed to say, ’but I trust you.’ Now,
Judith dear, that boy’s faith in me is not going to be shaken. We must
look after them together. It is a very little thing you have asked of me,
my dearest, but a very big one that I am asking of you. Do you understand,
my Judith, it is _you_ that I want? Don’t think of me as I have been,
Judith, but as you are going to make me. I want you to give me the right
now, this evening, to share all this trouble with you. Do we understand
each other, Judith? Is it to be? And will you come back with me now, into
the room where they are dancing, and let me present you to them, to the
Wetmores, as _my_ Judith, my betrothed?"

"But, Peter, I don’t understand. I—I thought you and Miss Colebrooke
were—"

"That’s all over, Judith. I did love her once. Oh, you dear, brave woman,
I’m not a hero from any point of view, and you know it. It’s but a sorry
lover that’s making his prayer to you, my dearest; but you won’t judge, I
know, beloved, you will love me instead?"

Judith turned towards the valley. Her whole being throbbed with a
passionate response to the man who stood so humbly before her, but there
were duties that came first. Her mind was full of Alida and her children,
and her eyes still sought Peter’s imploringly.

"You will be a good friend to them, Peter—to Jim’s people? I cannot talk
to you of anything else to-night. Your heart is big, Peter, but you cannot
feel, perhaps—"

"Listen, Judith. Whatever friendship and protection I can give your family
you may count upon from now till the end of time. I will be theirs as I am
yours. I feel your grief, but I want to soothe it, too. And if you love
me, and I feel, Judith, that you do, you must let them all see to-night,
these people who know us both, that we stand together before all the world
for better or worse. Think, Judith, and you will see that you owe it to
yourself, to me, to all these men, who reverence you as the one woman, the
one ideal in their lonely lives."

She could not speak. The moment was too full, the strain had been too
great; but she smiled surrender, and Peter caught her tenderly in his arms
and kissed her once—his Judith she was now, his heroine. Then, without
another word, he drew her arm through his and led her back to the lights,
where the dancers still held high carnival.

Judith’s half-sister, Eudora, was making a pretty quarrel by perversely
forgetting the order in which she had given her dances. The girl was so
undeniably happy that Judith dreaded the grim news she must tell her.
Eudora blushed as she encountered Judith’s eye. Her half-sister ever
offered a check on Eudora’s exuberant coquetry, with its precipitation of
discussions that often ended in bullets. Leander stood on the outermost
fringe of Eudora’s potential partners. He would not have dared to maintain
it openly, yet he was sure the pretty minx had promised that dance to him.

"Dance with Leander, dear, and don’t let those men begin quarrelling. I’ve
something to tell you, presently," said Judith.

Texas Tyler stood glowering at them from the doorway. He would not catch
Judith’s eye as she tried to speak to him. Kitty sat alone for the moment.
She had sent the young lieutenant to fetch her a cup of coffee, but as
Peter approached with Judith she averted her eyes.

"Kitty, may I present to you my fiancée, Miss Rodney?"

Kitty rose superbly to the situation. She might, indeed, have made the
match she was so overjoyed in the good-fortune of her old friend Peter.
She made no reference to the woodland meeting—she hoped for the happiness
of seeing them in town. And she bade Peter tell the good news to Nannie
Wetmore, they would be so glad. Nannie swallowed a grimace and proffered a
cousinly hand. She had suspected some such news as this when she saw that
things were not going well with Kitty and Peter.

"Better one dance with a good partner that can swing ye than several with
a feeble partner that leaves ye to swing your own corners!"

Judith looked up, smiling. She recognized the characteristic utterance of
her old friend Mrs. Yellett. The matriarch had sustained a breakdown, and
arrived, in consequence, when the dance was half over, but she was
philosophical, as always, in the face of misfortune, and loudly attested
her pleasure in the renowned pedal feats of her partner, Costigan.

Behind came Mary Carmichael, looking brown and happy. From the attitude of
the group around Judith and Peter Mary divined what had happened, and came
to add her congratulations. Even Mrs. Yellett forgot to choose an axiom as
her medium of expression, and kissed Judith publicly, with affectionate
unction. Henderson had effaced himself, and Leander, proud of his triumph
and Judith’s commendation, sat in a corner and smiled contentedly.
Ignorant of the drama to which they had played chorus, the dancers still
riotously swung one another up and down the length of the room, and from
the little brown fiddles came the gay music of Judith’s betrothal.

                                *THE END*





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