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 role 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.
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 Fe, 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 personae 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, nee 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, nee 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.
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.
"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—"
"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.
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, nee 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.