"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.
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?
"Do you mean you have never learned any?" Mary Carmichael shuddered as she icily put the question.
"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?"
"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?
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?"
"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 role 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 Pere 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.
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 litterateuse 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 role, 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 Recamier 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-Recamier 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'.
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.