A red sun had begun to set over a red earth, and the men who had been out since noon-scouring the country for water, returned to say that none had been found, and they began to look into each other's faces for the answer that none could give. At sunset they made a dry camp; there was but enough water left to cook with. Each man received, as a thirst-quenching ration, a can of tomatoes. After supper they consulted, and it was agreed to trail the herd till midnight, taking advantage of the coolness to hurry them on as fast as possible to Green River. The grave nature of their plight was indicated by the fact that no one smoked after supper. Silent, sullen, they sat round, waiting for the foreman to give the order to advance. He waited for the moon to come up. Slowly it rose over the Bad Land Hills and hung round and full like a gigantic lantern. The watches were arranged for the night with a double guard. Every man in the outfit was beginning to have a feeling of panic that communicated itself to every other man, and as they looked at the herd, tractable now no longer, but a blind force that they must take chances with through the long watches of the night, while the thirst grew in the beasts' parched throats, they foresaw what would in all probability happen; they thought of their women, of all that most strongly bound them to life, and they sat and waited dumbly.
The moon that night was too brilliant for benisons; the gaunt, red world lay naked and unshriven for the sin that long ago had brought upon it the wrath of God. The picture was still that of the grotesque Chinese screen, with the headless dragon crawling endlessly; but the dream was long, centuries long, it seemed to the men listening to the bellowing of the herd. And while they waited, the red grew dull and the dragon dingy, and its fury made its contortions the more horrible; and that was all the difference between day and night in the land of the red silence. Sometimes the dragon split, and joints of it tried to turn back to the last water it had drunk; for cattle, though blinded with thirst, never forget the last stream at which they have quenched thirst, and will turn back to it, though they drop on the way. But the men pressed them farther and farther, and for yet a little while the cattle yielded.
At midnight the saddle-stock was incapable of moving farther. One horse had fallen and lay too weak to rise. The others, limping and foot-sore, no longer responded to quirt and rowel. The foreman ordered the herd thrown on the bed ground for the night. The herders for the first watch began to circle. The rest of the outfit took to its blankets to snatch a little rest for the double duty that awaited every man that night. Now it is a time-honored belief among cow-men that the herd must be sung to, particularly when it is restless, and to-night they tried all the old favorites, the "Cow-boy's Lament" being chief among them. But the herd refused to be soothed, and round and round it circled; not once would it lie down.
The moon gleamed almost brazen, showing the cruel scars, the trenches torn by cloud-bursts, the lines wrought by the long, patient waiting of the earth for the lifting of the wrath of God. Imperishable grief was writ on the land as on a human face. The night wore on, the watches changed, the herd continued restless; not more than a third of it had bedded down. The third watch was from one o'clock to half-past three in the morning. Simpson and another "XXX" man, with two of the Wetmore outfit, made up a double watch, and rode, singing, about the herd, as the long, dreary watch wore away. The cattle's lowing had taken on a gasping, cracked sound that was more frightful than the maddened bellow of the early evening. Simpson, who was past the age when men live the life of the saddle, felt the hardship keenly. He had ridden since sunrise, but for the respite at noon and the scant time at the dry camp while the evening meal was being eaten. He was more than half asleep now, as he lurched heavily in the saddle, crossing and recrossing his partner in the half-circle they completed about the herd. Suddenly the sharp yelp of a coyote rang out; it seemed to come from no farther than twenty yards away. The cattle heard it, too, and a wave of panic swept through them. Simpson stiffened in his saddle. The sound, which was repeated, was an exact reproduction of a coyote's yelp, yet he knew that it was not a coyote.
The herd rose to its feet as a single steer, and for a second stood undetermined. From a clump of sage-brush not more than two feet high fluttered something long and white like a sheet. It waved in the wind as the cry was repeated. The herd crashed forward in a stampede, Simpson in the lead on a tired horse, but a scant length ahead of a thousand maddened steers bolting in a panic of thirst and fear.
"Hell's loose!" yelled the men in their blankets, making for the temporary rope corral to secure horses. Simpson, tallow-colored with fear, clung like a cat to his horse, and dug the rowels in the beast's flanks till they were bloody and dripping. He had seen Jim Rodney's face above the white cloth as it fluttered in the face of the herd that came pounding behind him with the rumble of nearing thunder. He was too close to them to attempt to fire his revolver in the air in the hope of turning them, but the boys had evidently got into their saddles, to judge by the volley of shots that rang out and were answered. Simpson alone rode ahead of the herd that tore after him, ripping up the earth as it came, bellowing in its blind fury. His horse, a thoroughly seasoned cow-pony, sniffed the bedlam and responded to the goading spur. She had been in cattle stampedes before, and, though every fibre ached with fatigue, she flattened out her lean body and covered ground to the length of her stride at each gallop. The herd was so close that Simpson could smell the stench of their sweating bodies, taste their dust, and feel the scorch of their breath. The sound of their hoofs was like the pounding of a thousand propellers. From above looked the moon, round and serene; she had watched the passing of many peoples in the land of the red silence. The horse seemed to be gaining. A few more lengths ahead and Simpson could turn her to one side and let the maddened cattle race to their own destruction. All he asked of God was to escape their trampling hoofs, and though he gained he dug the rowel and plied the quirt, unmindful of what he did. On they came; the chorus of their fear swelled like the voice of a mighty cataract, the pound, pound, pound of their hoofs ringing like mighty sledge-hammers.
Suddenly he felt himself sinking, horribly, irresistibly. "God! What is it?" as his horse went down with her foreleg in a gopher-hole. "Up, up, you damned brute!" but the mare's leg had cracked like a pipe-stem. In his fury at the beast Simpson began kicking her, then started to run as the cattle swept forward like a black storm-cloud.
The next second the great sea of cattle had broken over horse and rider. When it had passed there was not enough left of either to warrant burial or to furnish a feast for the buzzards. A few shreds of clothes, that had once been a man, lay scattered there; a something that had been a horse.
Mrs. Yellett Contends With A Cloudburst
The matriarch had delayed longer in moving camp than was consistent with her habitual watchfulness where the interests of the sheep were involved. Mary Carmichael, who had already become inured to the experience of moving, was even conscious of a certain impatience at the delay, and could only explain the apathy with which Mrs. Yellett received reports of the dearth of pasturage on the ground that she wished each fresh educational germ to take as deep root as possible before transplantation. So that when Mrs. Yellett, shortly after Leander Dax's arrival at camp in the capacity of herder, announced that she and Leander were to make a trip to the dipping-vat that had kept Ben from his classes for the past ten days, and invited the "gov'ment" to join the expedition, Mary accepted with fervor.
The Yelletts' "bunch" of sheep did not exceed three thousand head, and the matriarch had wisely decreed that it should be restricted to that number, as she wished always to give the flock her personal supervision.
"'The hen that's the surest of her chicks is the one that does her own settin','" was the adage from the Book of Hiram with which Mrs. Yellett succinctly summed up the case.
Each autumn, therefore, the wethers and the dry-bag ewes were sent to the market, and as the result of continual weeding of the stock the matriarch had as promising a herd of its size as could be found in Wyoming. Often she had explained to Mary, who was learning of the wonders of this new world with remarkable aptness, that she had constantly to fight against the inclination to increase her business of sheep-raising, but that as soon as she should begin to hire herders or depend on strangers things would go wrong. With the assistance of her sons, she therefore managed the entire details of the herd, with the exception of those occasions on which Leander lent his semi-professional co-operation.
As a workman Leander was, considering his size and apparent weakness, surprisingly efficient. It was as a dispenser of anti-theological doctrine that Mrs. Dax's husband annoyed his temporary employer. Freed from his wife's masterful presence, Leander dared to be an "agnostic," as he called himself, of an unprecedentedly violent order. His iconoclasm was not of a pattern with paw's gusty protests against life in general, but it was Leander's way of asserting himself, on the rare occasions when he got a chance, to deny clamorously every tenet advanced by every religion. The mere use of certain familiar expletives drove him, ordinarily mild and submissive though he was, to frantic gesticulation and diatribe. Mary Carmichael could not make out, as she watched the comedy with growing amusement, whether poor Leander really believed that he was the first of doubting Thomases, or whether he took an unfair advantage of the lack of general information in his casual audiences to set forth well-known opinions as his own. Whatever its basis may have been, Leander sustained the role of doubter with passionate zeal, wearing himself to tatters of rage and hoarseness over arguments maliciously contrived beforehand by cow-punchers and sheep-herders in need of amusement; and yet he never saw the traps, going out of his way, apparently, to fall into them, tumbling headlong into the identical pits time after time. Jonah and the whale constituted one bait by means of which Leander could be lured from food, sleep, or work of the most pressing nature.
"The poor fool would stop in the middle of shearing a sheep to argue that Jonah never come out of the whale's belly," the matriarch had told Mary Carmichael, in summing up Leander's disadvantages as a herder. And the first remark she had addressed to him on his arrival was: "Leander Dax, you'd have to be made over, and made different, to keep you from bein' a infidel, but there's one p'int on which you are particularly locoed, and that's Jonah and the whale. Now at this particular time in the hist'ry of the United States, nobody in his faculties has got no call to fret hisself over Jonah and his whereabouts—none whatever. There's a lot of business round this here camp that's a heap more pressin'. Now, Leander Dax, if I do hereby undertake to hire, engage, and employ you to herd sheep, do you agree to renounce discussions, arguments, and debates on the late Jonah and his whereabouts durin' them three days? God A'mighty, man, any one would think you was Jonah's wife, the interest you have in his absence!"
"I come here to herd sheep," Leander had brazenly retaliated. "I 'ain't come to try to make you think."
Nevertheless, he appeared docile enough as the time came for the journey to the dipping-vat, and did his part in making ready. The wagon was the rudest of structures; it consisted merely of one long, stout pole. Though she saw the horses being harnessed to this pole, Mary Carmichael, discreetly exercising her newly acquired wisdom, forbore to ask where she was going to sit, and listened with interest to a discussion between Mrs. Yellett and Leander as to the number of horses it would take to get the dip up the mountain. Leander, who loved pomp and splendor, was for taking six, but Mrs. Yellett, who carried simplicity to a fault, was in favor of only two. They finally compromised on four, and Leander went to fetch the extra two.
Mrs. Yellett, ever economical of the flitting moment, took advantage of the delay to give Mr. Yellett a dose of "Brainard's Beneficial Blackthorn."
"Paw's as hard to manage as a bent pin," she remarked, in an aside to Mary, while he protested and fought her off with his stick. But she, with the agility of an acrobat, got directly back of him, took his head under her arm, pried open his mouth, and poured down the unwelcome, if beneficial, dose.
"There, there, paw," she said, wiping his mouth as if he had been a baby, "don't take on so! It's all gone, and I can't have you sick on my hands."
But Mr. Yellett continued to splutter and flare and use violent language, whereupon the matriarch went into the tent and returned with a drink of condensed-milk and water, "to wash down the nasty taste," she told him, soothingly.
A moment afterwards she and Leander were engaged in rolling the barrels of sheep-dip to the wagon, Mary Carmichael helplessly looking on while Mrs. Yellett looked doubtfully at a "gov'ment" who could not handle barrels. Finally, under the skilful manipulation of Mrs. Yellett and Leander, the long pole took on the aspect of a colossal vertebral column, from which huge barrel-ribs projected horizontally, leaving at the rear a foot or so of bare pole as a smart caudal appendage, bearing about the same proportion to the wagon as the neatly bitten tail of a fox-terrier does to the dog.
Mrs. Yellett kissed "paw" good-bye, explaining to Mary, in extenuation of her weakness, that she would never forgive herself if she neglected it and anything happened to him during her absence. She then climbed to the front barrel and secured the ribbons. Leander had brought out three rolls of bedding of the inevitable bed-quilt variety, but Mrs. Yellett scorned such luxury while driving, and accordingly gave hers to the "gov'ment" for a back-rest. Mary sat on the lower row of barrels, with her feet dangling, using one roll of bedding for a seat and the other comfortably arranged at her back as a cushion.
Madam called sharply to the horses, "Hi-hi-hi-kerat! hi-kerat-kerat!" and they started off at a rattling pace, the barrels of dip creaking and squeaking as they swayed under their rope lashings. Mary bounced about like a bean in a bag, working loose from between the bed-quilt rolls at each gulley, clinging frantically to barrel ends, shaken back and forth like a shuttle. Indeed, the drive seemed to combine every known form of physical exercise. Mrs. Yellett herself was in fine fettle; she drove sitting for a while, then rose, standing on a narrow ledge while she held the four ribbons lightly in one hand and tickled the leaders with a long whip carried in the other. She drove her four horses over the rough road with the skill of a circus equestrienne, balancing easily on the crazy ledge, shifting her weight from side to side as the wagon rattled down gullies and up ridges, the horses responding gallantly to the shrill "Hi-hi-kerat! hi-kerat! hi-kerat!" Her costume on this occasion represented joint concessions to her sex and the work that was before her, as the head of a family at the dipping-vat. She still wore the drum-shaped rabbit-skin cap pulled well down over her forehead for driving. The great, cable-like braids of hair stood out well below the cap, giving her head an appearance of denseness and solidity, but the rambling curls were still blowing about her face, perhaps adding to the sum total of grotesqueness. She wore a man's shirt of gray flannel, well open at the neck, from which the bronzed column of the throat rose in austere dignity. A pair of Mr. Yellett's trousers, stuffed into high, cow-puncher's boots, that met the hem of a skirt coming barely to the knees, contributed to the originality of her dress.
The wagon had been pitching like a ship at sea through the desert dreariness for about an hour, when Mary Carmichael suddenly became conscious that the prods she had been receiving from time to time in her back were not due either to their manner of locomotion or to the freight carried. Clinging to two barrels, she waited for the next lurch of the wagon to shake her free from the rolls of bedding, and, at the peril of life and limb, looked round. Leander hung over the top row of barrels, gesticulating wildly. The change in the man, since leaving camp some two hours previous, was appalling. He seemed to have shrivelled away to a wraith of his former self. His cheeks, his chin, had waned to the vanishing point. He opened his lips and mouthed horribly, yet his frightful grimacings conveyed no meaning. Mary called to Mrs. Yellett, but her voice was drowned in the rattle of the wagon, the clatter of four horses' hoofs, and the continual "Hi-hi-hi-kerat! hi-kerat!" of the driver. In the mean time Leander pointed to his mouth and back to the road in indescribably pathetic pantomime. "Perhaps the poor creature wants to turn back and die in his bed, like a Christian, even if he isn't one," thought Mary, as she called and called, Leander still emitting the most inhuman of cries, like the sounds made by deaf mutes in distress. Presently Mrs. Yellett drew up, and asked in the name of many profane things what was the matter with her companions.
Leander resumed his mouthings and his dumb show, but Mrs. Yellett proved a better interpreter than Mary Carmichael.
"God A'mighty!" she said, "he's lost his false teeth!" And without another word she turned the four horses and the wagon with a skill that fell little short of sleight-of-hand.
The dialogue that followed between Mrs. Yellett and Leander as to how far back he had dropped his teeth, cannot be given, owing to the inadequacy of the English language to reproduce his toothless enunciation. Catching, as Mary did, the meaning of Mrs. Yellett's remarks only, she received something of the one-sided impression given by overhearing a telephone conversation:
"What did you have 'em out for?... You didn't have 'em out?... I just shook 'em out? Then what made you have your mouth open? Ef your mouth had been shut, you couldn't have lost 'em.... You was a-yawnin', eh? Well, you are a plumb fool to yawn on this kind of a waggin, with your mouth full o' china teeth. Your yawnin' 'll put us back a good hour an' we won't reach camp before sundown."
At this point of the diatribe the Infidel left the wagon and began to search along the road. He said he had noticed a buffalo skull near the place where he had dropped the teeth, and thought he could trace them by this landmark. Mrs. Yellett held the ribbons and suggested that Mary get down "and help to prospect for them teeth." As Mary clambered down she heard a fragment of the matriarch's monologue, which, being duly expurgated for polite ears, was to the effect that she would rather take ten babies anywhere than one grown man, and that as for getting in the way, hindering, obstructing, and being a nuisance, generally speaking, man had not his counterpart in the scheme of creation.
"Talk about a woman bein' at the bottom of everything!" sniffed Mrs. Yellett; "I be so sick of always hearin' about 'the woman in the case!' Half the time the case would be a blame sight worse if it was left exclusive to the men. The Book of Hiram says: 'A skunk may have his good p'ints, but few folks is takin' the risk of waitin' round to get acquainted with 'em.'"
While Mary was still "prospecting," a glad cry roused her attention, and Leander came up smiling, with his dental treasures nicely adjusted.
"Quit smilin' like a rattlesnake, you plumb fool!" called out Mrs. Yellett. "Do you want to lose 'em again?"
So, curtailing the muscular contraction indicative of his pleasure, the Infidel again took his place among the bed-quilts and the journey was resumed.
It was now about five in the afternoon. The heat, which had been oppressive all day, suddenly relaxed its blistering grip, and a keenly penetrating dampness, not unlike that of a sea-fog, came from some unknown quarter of the arid wastes and chilled the three travellers to the marrow. The horses flung up their heads and sniffed it, rearing and plunging as if they had scent of something menacing. Across the horizon a dark cloud scudded, no bigger than your hand.
"Cloud-burst!" announced Mrs. Yellett.
"Cloud-burst, all right enough," agreed Leander, and he turned up his coat-collar in simple preparation for the deluge.
There flashed into Mary Carmichael's mind a sentence from her physical geography that she had been obliged to commit to heart in her school-days: "A cloud-burst is a sudden, capricious rainfall, as if the whole cloud had been precipitated at once." She wanted to question her companions as to the accuracy of this definition, but before she had time to frame a sentence the real cloud-burst came, with a splitting crack of thunder; then the lightning flashed out its message in the short-hand of the storm, across the inky blackness, and the water fell as if the ocean had been inverted. In the fraction of a second all three were drenched to the skin, the water pouring from them in sheets, as if they had been some slight obstruction in the path of a waterfall. The wagon was soon in a deep gully, with frothing, foaming, yellow water up to the hubs of the wheels. Mrs. Yellett, like some goddess of the storm, lashed her horses forward to keep them from foundering in the mud, and the wagon creaked and groaned in all its timbers as it lurched and jolted through the angry torrents.
Each moment Mary expected to be flung from the barrels, and clung till her finger-tips were white and aching. From the drenched red bedquilts a sticky crimson trail ran over the barrel heads, as well as over Mary's hands, face, and dress. Still they forged on through the deluge, Mrs. Yellett shouting and lashing the horses, holding them erect and safe with the skill she never lost. The fur on her rabbit-skin cap was beaten flat. The great, wet braids had fallen from the force of the water and hung straight and black, like huge snakes uncoiled. She was far from losing her grip on either the horses or the situation, and from the inspiring ring of her voice as she urged them forward it was plain that she took a fierce joy in this conflict of the elements.
It was bitterly cold, and Mary reflected that if Leander's teeth chattered half as hard as hers did, without breaking, they must, indeed, be of excellent quality. The storm began to abate, and the sky became lighter, though the water still poured in torrents. As soon as her responsibility as driver left her time to speak, Mrs. Yellett lost no time in fastening the cloud-burst to Leander.
"This here is what comes of settin' up your back against God A'mighty and encouragin' the heathen and the infidel in his idolatry. I might 'a' knowed somethin' would happen, takin' you along! 'And the heathen and the infidel went out, and the Lord God sent a cloud-burst to wet him,'" quoted Mrs. Yellett from the apocryphal Scriptures that never yet failed to furnish her with verse and text.
The infidel, from his side of the wagon, began to display agitation. His jaws worked, but he said nothing.
"You 'ain't lost them teeth again, have you?"
He nodded his head wretchedly.
"'And the Lord took away the teeth of his enemy, so that he could neither bite nor talk,'" quoted Mrs. Yellett to the miserable man, who could make no reply.
"Wonder you wouldn't see the foolishness o' being a heathen and a infidel, and turn to the Lord! You 'ain't got no teeth, and it takes your wife to herd you. 'And the Lord multiplied the tribulations of his enemy.' You got no more show standin' up agin the Lord than an insect would have standin' up agin me."
She had Leander, at last, just where she wanted him. He was forced to listen, and he could make no reply. She alternately abused him for his lack of faith and urged him to repentance. Leander raged, gesticulated, turned his back on her, mouthed, and finally put his fingers in his ears. But nothing stemmed the tide of Mrs. Yellett's eloquence; it was as inexhaustible and as remorseless as the cloud-burst.
It continued bitterly cold, even after the rain had stopped falling, and the heap of sodden bedclothes furnished no protection against the chilling dampness. It was growing dark; there was no red in the sunset, only a streak of vivid orange along the horizon, chill and clear as the empty, soulless flame of burning paper. There were no deep, glowing coals, no amethystine opalescence, fading into gold and violet. All was cold and subdued, and the scrub pines on the mountain-tops stood out sharply against this cold background like an etching on yellow paper.
Mrs. Yellett's self-inspired scriptural maxims were discontinued after a while, either because she could think of no more, or because the rain-soaked, shivering, chattering object towards which they were directed was too abject to inspire further efforts. Leander huddled on the barrel that was farthest from Mrs. Yellett, and wrapped himself in the soaked red bedquilt. The dye smeared his face till he looked like an Indian brave ready for battle, but there was no further suggestion of the fighting red man in the utter desolation of his attitude. Mary Carmichael, on her barrel, shivered with grim patience and longed for a cup of tea. Only Mrs. Yellett gave no sign of anxiety or discomfort; she drove along, sometimes whistling, sometimes swearing, erect as an Indian, and to all appearances as oblivious of cold and wet as if she were in her own home.
The gathering darkness into which the horses were plunging was mysterious and appalling. Objects stood out enormously magnified, or distorted grotesquely, in the uncertain light. It was like penetrating into the real Inferno, like stumbling across the inspiration of Dante in all its sinister splendor. It was the Inferno of his dream rather than the Inferno of his poem; it had the ghastly reality of the unreal.
"It wouldn't surprise me if we had a smash-up in Clear Creek," said Mrs. Yellett, just by way of adding her quota of cheerful speculation. She ducked her head and whispered in Mary's ear:
"It's all along of me hirin' him! I wouldn't be surprised if paw died. I'm thinkin' of shakin' him out after his teeth. 'Take not up with the enemy of the Lord, lest he make of you also an enemy.'"
But there was no accent of apprehension in Mrs. Yellett's dismal prognostications of the evil that might befall her for employing Leander. She spoke more with the air of one who produces incidents to prove an argument than of one who anticipates a calamity.
Leander, toothless and wretched, sitting on the side of the wagon, began to show symptoms of joy comparable to that of the vanguard of the Israelites, catching their first glimpse of the Promised Land. Touching Mary Carmichael on the shoulder, he pointed to a white tent and the remains of a camp-fire. Already Mrs. Yellett had begun to "Hallo, Ben!" But Ben was at work at the vat, which was still a quarter of a mile further up the mountain; so Mrs. Yellett, throwing the reins to Leander and bidding him turn out the horses, lost no time in building a fire, putting on coffee, and making her little party comfortable. So various was her efficiency that she seemed no less at home in these simple domestic tasks than when guiding her horses, goddess-like, through the cloud-burst. And Mary Carmichael, succumbing gradually to the revivifying influence of the fire and the hot coffee, acknowledged honestly to herself a warmth of affection for her hostess and for the atmosphere Mrs. Yellett created about her that made even Virginia and her aunts seem less the only pivot of rational existence. She felt that she had come West with but one eye, as it were, and countless prejudices, whereas her powers of vision were fast becoming increased a hundredfold. How very tame life must be, she reflected, as she sat smiling to herself, to those who did not know Mrs. Yellett, how over-serious to those who did not know Leander! Yet, after all, she knew that the real basis of her readjusted vision was her brief but illuminating acquaintance with Judith Rodney. To Mary, freed for the first time in her life from the most elegantly provincial of surroundings, Judith seemed the incarnation of all the splendor and heroism of the West. And in the glow of her enthusiasm she decided then and there not to abandon the Yellett educational problem till she should have solved it successfully. She might not be born to valiant achievement, like these sturdy folk about her, but she might as well prove to them that an Eastern tenderfoot was not all feebleness and inefficiency.
"Leander!" called Mrs. Yellett. "Just act as if you was to home and wash up these dishes."
Alida awoke, knowing what was to happen. She had dreamed of it, just before daylight, and lay in bed stupefied by the horror of it, living, again and again, through each frightful detail. It had happened—there, in the very room, and before the children; the noise of it had startled them; and then she woke and knew she had been dreaming. In the dream the noise had wakened the children—when it really happened they must never know. It wouldn't be fair to them; they needed a "clean start."
What had she done to keep them quiet? There had been a thunderous knocking at the door. She had expected it and was prepared; because the lock was feeble, she had shoved the old brown bureau against the door.
Nothing had happened. What a fool she was to lie there and think of it! There was the brown bureau against the wall; she could hear the deep breathing of Jim in the room beyond. Jim had been unequal to the task of conventionally going to bed the night before, and she had put a pillow under his head and a quilt over him. She was the last woman in the world to worry about Jim, drunk, or to nag him for it when sober. But she didn't like the children to see him that way.
What was it that she had done to quiet the children when "they" rode up? She had done something and they had gone to sleep again, and she—and she—oh no, it hadn't happened. What a fool she was to lie there thinking! There were the children to rouse and dress, and breakfast to cook, and Jim—Jim would be feeling pretty mean this morning; he'd like a good cup of coffee. She was glad he was alive to make coffee for.
She got up and, in the uncertainty bred of the dream, felt the brown bureau, felt it hungrily, almost incredulously. The brown bureau had been pushed against the door when they had come, and knocked and knocked. Then they had thundered with the butts of their six-shooters, and the children had wakened, and she had called out to them:
"Sh-sh! It's only a bad dream. Mammy will give you some dough to bake to-morrow."
And she had gone to press her face flat to the thin wall, and call, "For God's sake, don't wake the children!"
And they had called out, "Let him come out quiet, then."
And then she could feel that they put their shoulders to the door—the weather-beaten door—with its crazy lock that didn't half catch. The brown bureau had spun across the floor like a top, and they had crowded in. Then she had done something to quiet the children—it was queer that she could not remember what it was, when everything else in the dream still lived within her, horribly distinct and real.
What a fool she was, with Jim asleep in the next room; she would not think about it another minute. She began to dress, but her fingers were heavy, and the vague oppression of nightmare blocked her efficiency. Repeatedly she would detect herself subconsciously brooding over some one of the links in that pitiless memory—what they had said to Jim; his undaunted replies; how she had left him and gone into the next room because Jim had told her to.
She called the children, but the sight of them, happy and flushed with sleep, did not reassure her.
"Mammy," said Topeka, eldest of the family, and lately on the invalid list, the victim of a cactus thorn, "my toe's all well; can I go barefoot?"
"Topeka Rodney, what kind of feet do you expect to have when you are a young lady, if you run barefoot now?"
Topeka, sitting on the side of the bed, with tousled hair, put her small feet together and contemplated them. The toe was still suspiciously inflamed for perfect convalescence, although Topeka, with a Spartan courage that won her a place in the annals of household valor, had the day before allowed her mother to pick out with a needle the torturing cactus thorn, scorning to shed a tear during the operation, though afterwards she had taken the piece of dried apple that was offered her and devoured it to the last bite, as only just compensation for her sufferings.
"Dimmy dot a tore toe, too." But Jimmy showed a strange reticence about offering proofs of his affliction. At the peril of his equilibrium, he clasped the allegedly injured member in his chubby hand and rolled over on the bed in apparent anguish.
"Less see, Jimmy," asked his mother, anxiously.
"Don't bleeve him, mammy. He 'ain't ever cried. He'd a cried, for sure, if his toe was sore." At the age of five, little Judith, namesake of her aunt, was something of a doubting Thomas.
"Let mammy see, Jimmy," and Alida bent over her son and heir.
"Doth Dimmy det any apple?" The wee man sometimes succeeded in making terms with his mother, when the other children were not present. Though feeling himself a trifle over-confident, he held the disputed toe with the air of one keeping back a trump card, and looked his mother squarely in the eyes.
She struggled with the temptation to give him the apple. He had lifted the horrors of her dream as nothing else could have done, but she answered him with quiet firmness.
"Jimmy must not tell stories."
"Less see," insisted Topeka.
"He dassent," affirmed Judith, junior, of little faith.
"It hurths me," and Jimmy tried to squeeze out a tear. "It hurths me, my tore toe!"
His mother tipped him over on his fat little back and opened the chubby hand that held the trump toe. It was white from the pressure applied by the infant dissembler, but there was no trace of the treacherous cactus thorn. She gave him an affectionate spank and went into the kitchen to make coffee.
"I with I had a tore toe," he crooned, quite unabashed at the discovery of his deception. "I with I toud det a tore toe 'thout the hurt."
But the horror of the dream gripped her when she found herself alone in the kitchen; and she remembered she had not told the children not to go into the room where their father was sleeping. She went back and found that Jimmy had not left his post on the side of the bed, where he still regretted that his perfectly well toe did not entitle him to gastronomic consideration. Topeka, who had arrived at an age where little girls, in the first subconscious attempt at adornment, know no keener delight than plastering their heads with a wet hairbrush, till they present an appearance of slippery rotundity equalled only by a peeled onion, put down the brush with guilty haste at sight of her mother.
"I'm goin' to dress him soon as I've done my hair."
"Any one think you was goin' to be married, the time you've took to it."
"It's gettin' so long," urged Topeka.
"I wouldn't give it a chance to grow no longer while Jimmy was waitin' to get dressed. And don't go into the front room. Your father's gettin' his sleep out."
Topeka opened her round eyes. There was always something suspicious about that sleep her father had to get out, but she felt it was something she must not ask questions about. Her mother lingered; she dreaded to be alone in the kitchen. The little, familiar intimacies between herself and her children scattered the horrors of the dream which would come back to her when she was again at the mercy of her thoughts.
"Judy, s'pose you dress Jimmy this morning! I want Topeka to help me get breakfast."
"Yessum," said Judith, dutifully. "Is he to have his face washed?"
"He certainly is, Judy. I's ashamed to have you ask such a question. 'Ain't you all been brought up to have your faces washed?"
But young Judith seemed disinclined to take up this phase of family superiority. She merely inquired further:
"Is he to have it washed with soap, maw?"
"He shore is. Any one would think you had been born and raised in Arizony or Nebrasky, to hear you talk. I'm plumb ashamed of you, Judy."
"But, 'deed, maw, I ain't big enough to wash his face with soap. It takes Topeka to hold his head."
The subject of the discussion still sat on the edge of the bed, a small lord of creation, letting his women folk arrange among themselves who should minister to his wants. As an instrument of torture the washcloth, in the hands of his sister Judy, was no ignoble rival of the cactus thorn. The question of making terms for his sufferings again appealed to him in the light of a feasible business proposition.
"Muvvy, tan't I have the apple? Judy hurts me a lot when she wathes my face wis soap."
"Yes, you can have the apple, honey; and, Judy, you be gentle with him. Don't rub his features up, and be careful and don't get soap in his eyes."
"No'm." And Judy heroically stifled the longing to slick her hair, like Topeka's, with the wet hairbrush. There were easier tasks than washing the face of her younger brother.
When Topeka and her mother were alone in the kitchen, Topeka grinding the coffee and all unconsciously working her jaw in an accompaniment to the coffee-mill, her mother bent over her and said:
"Did you dream of anything last night?"
Topeka simultaneously stopped working the coffee-mill and her jaw, and regarded her mother solemnly. She did not remember having been thus questioned about her dreams before.
"No'm," she answered, after laborious consideration. But something in her mother's face held her.
"You're sure you didn't dream nothing?"
"Did Judy or Jim say that they dreamed anything?"
"Jim said he dreamed he had a pup."
"Was that all? Think hard, Topeka!"
Topeka held the handle of the coffee-mill in her hand; her jaw continued to work with the labor of her mental process. "I've thought hard, maw, and all he told was about the pup."
Alida went back to her bedroom and again felt the brown bureau. "What's the matter with me, anyhow? It's the lonesomeness, and they bein' agin Jim the way they are. God, this country's hard on women and horses!"
When breakfast was over, and young Jim had received the reward of his valor in presenting a brave face to his ablution, and Judith the reward of her skill, the evidence of which almost prevented the young martyr from smiling while he enjoyed his treat, their mother sent them all to play in the canon. She told them not to come home till she should come for them, and if any one should ask about their father, to say that he was away from home. And this, as well as the mystery of her father's "getting his sleep out," roused some slight apprehension in Topeka, who was old for her age. They were seldom sent to the canon to play. Topeka looked at her mother as she had when questioned about the dream, but there was no further confidence between them.
"You do as your sister Topeka tells you, and remember what I said about your papa," Alida said to the younger children. Jim and Judy clasped each other's hands in mute compact at the edict. Their sister Topeka had a real genius for authority; they were minded all too well when she swayed the maternal sceptre vicariously.
Alida made fresh coffee for Jim when the children had gone. She made it carefully; there was this morning, unconsciously, about each little thing that she did for him, the solemnity of a funeral rite. Struggle as she would, she could not divest her mind of the conviction that what she did this day she did for the dead. She would go to the door and listen to his breathing, and tell herself that she was a fool, then wring her hands at the remembrance of the dream.
As he tossed, half waking, she heard him groan and curse the cattle-men with oaths that made her glad she had sent the children from home. Then she bent over him and woke him from his uneasy slumber.
"Jim, don't you want me to bathe your head? And here's some nice, hot coffee all ready for you."
Jim woke slowly to a realization of his troubles and his blessings. His wife was bathing his head with hands that trembled. Not always had she greeted his indiscretions with such loving forbearance. He noticed, though his waking faculties were not over-keen, that her face was pale and frightened, and that her eyes, meeting his, held a dumb, measureless affection.
"What th' hell are you babying me for?" But his roughness did not deceive her woman's wits. He was not getting the lecture he anticipated, and this was his way of showing that he was not embarrassed by her kindness. The morning sunlight was pitilessly frank in its exposure of the grim pinch of poverty in the mean little room, but the woman was unconscious of these things; what she saw was that Jim, the reckless, Jim, the dare-devil terror of the country, Jim, who had married and settled with her into home-keeping respectability, Jim, who had struggled with misfortune and fallen, had, young as he was, lost every look of youth; that hope had gone from his dull eyes, and that his face had become drawn until the death's-head grinned beneath the scant padding of flesh. But he was to-day, as always, the one man in the world for her. In making a world of their own and reducing their parents to supplementary consideration, their children, whom she had sent away that she might be alone with him, had given a different quality to the love of this pair that had known so many curious vicissitudes. The responsibilities of parenthood had placed them on a tenderer, as well as a securer footing; and as she saw his age and weariness, he recognized hers, and both felt a self-accusing twinge.
"That's a blamed good cup of coffee," he said, by way of relieving the tension that had crept into the situation. "Any one would think you was settin' your cap for me 'stead of us being married for years."
Alida sighed. "It's better to end than to begin like this," she said, in the far-away voice of one who thinks aloud. The word "end" had slipped out before she realized what she was saying, and the knowledge haunted her as an omen. She glanced at him quickly, to see if he had noticed it.
"Why did you say end?" He saw that her eyes were full of tears and chafed her. "You ain't thinking of divorcing me, like Mountain Pink done Bosky?"
"Oh, Jim," she said, and her face was all aquiver, "I never could divorce you, no matter what you done." And then the grim philosophy of the plains-woman asserted itself. "I never can understand why women feed their pride on their heart's blood; it never was my way."
He did not like to remember that he had given her cause for a way. "There's a lot of women as wouldn't exactly regard me as a Merino, or a Southdown, either;" he gulped the coffee to ease the tightness in his throat.
"They'd be women of no judgment, then," she said, with conviction.
Jim's head was tilted back, resting in the palm of his hand. His profile, sharpened by anxiety, more than suggested his quarter-strain of Sioux blood. He might almost have been old Chief Flying Hawk himself, as he looked steadily at the woman who had been a young girl and reckless, when he had been a boy and reckless; who had paid her woman's penalty and come into her woman's kingdom; who had made a man of him by the mystery of her motherhood, and who had uncomplainingly gone with him into the wilderness and become an alien and an outcast.
These things unmanned him as the sight of the gallows and the rope for his hanging could not have done. Shielding himself with an affected roughness, he asked:
"What the hell's the matter with you? I've been drinking like a beast of an Indian, and you give me coffee instead of a tongue-lashing."
The color had all gone out of her face. She gasped the words:
"Jim, I dreamed it last night—they came for you!"
She cowered at the recollection.
"Did they get me?" he asked. There was no surprise in his tone. He spoke as one who knew the answer.
"Yes, the children saw. The noise woke them."
"You mustn't let 'em see, when—they come. They've a right to a fair start; we didn't get it, old girl."
"The children gave it to us," and she faced him.
"Yes, yes, but we want them to have it from the start, like good folks."
They looked into each other's eyes. The memory of dead and gone madness twinkled there a moment, then each remembered:
"You must hurry, Jim. You haven't a moment to lose. I dreamed it was to be to-night—they'll come to-night!"
"The game's all up, old girl! If I had a month I couldn't get away. Morrison's been looking for me over to the Owl Creek Range; he's back—Stevens told me yesterday. He'll be heading here soon. The price on my head is a strain on friendship."
"Have the sheep-men gone back on you?"
"Yes, damn them! A thousand dollars is big money, and they've had hard luck!"
"They deserve it; I hope every herd in the State dies of scab."
"There wasn't a scabby sheep in our bunch. What a sight they were, loaded with tallow! There wasn't one of them that couldn't have weathered a blizzard; they could have lived on their own tallow for a month."
She tried to divert his attention from his lost flock. When he began to talk about them the despair of his loss drove him to drink. She was ground between the millstones of his going or staying. If he stayed they would come for him; if he went, they would apprehend him before he was ten miles from the house.
"Jim, we got to think. If there's a chance in a thousand that you can get away, you got to take it; if there ain't, the children mustn't know. We got to think it out!"
"There ain't a chance in a thousand, old girl. There ain't one in a million. They're circling round in the hills out here now, waitin' for me, like buzzards waitin' for the eyes of a dyin' horse."
She rocked herself, and the clutching fingers left white marks on her face, but the eyes that met his glittered tearless:
"Then there ain't nothing left but to face it like a man?"
"That's all there be." He might have been giving an opinion on a matter in which he had no interest.
"Then there ain't no use in our having any more talk about it?"
"'Tain't just what you'd call an agreeable subject," he answered, with the sinister humor of the frontiersman who has learned to make a crony of death.
She was tempted to kiss him—they were not given to demonstrations, this pair—then decided it were kinder to him, less suggestive of what they anticipated, not to deviate from their undemonstrative marital routine.
"Do you want your breakfast now?"
"I guess you might bring it along."
And for the same reason that she refrained from kissing him, she repressed a desire to wring the neck of a young broiler and cook it for his breakfast, remembering that she had heard they gave folks pretty much what they wanted when they wouldn't want it long. So Jim got his usual breakfast of bacon, uncooked canned tomatoes, soda-biscuit, and coffee. She sat with him while he ate, but they spoke no more of "them" or of how soon "they" might be expected. She told him that young Jim had pretended that morning that he had a cactus thorn in his foot, so that he might have a piece of dried apple. And old Jim, in an excess of parental fondness and pride, said: "The damned little liar, he'll get to Congress yet!"
But the children were a dangerous topic for overstrained nerves at this particular time, so Alida told Jim that she had put the black hen to set and she thought they'd have some chickens at last. Jim smoked while Alida washed the dishes, and when Jim's back was turned she examined the lock on the door—a good push would open it. Then she looked at the brown bureau, and the recklessness of despair came into her eyes. In the room beyond, Jim was reading a two weeks' old newspaper and smoking. He looked like a lazy ranchman taking his ease.
As she went about her household tasks that morning, Alida noticed things as she had never noticed them before. A sunbeam came through the shutterless window of the house and writhed and quivered on the wall as if it were a live thing. She read a warning in this, and in the color of the sun, that was red, like blood, and in the whirr of the grasshoppers, that was sinister and threatening. The creeks had dried, and their slimy beds crept along the willows like sluggish snakes. Gaunt range-cattle bellowed in their thirst, and the parched earth crackled beneath the sun that hung above the house like a flaming disk. Sometimes she sank beneath the burden of it; then she would wring her hands and call on God to help them; they were beyond human power. She and Jim were alone all the morning; they did not again refer to what they knew would happen. He read his old paper and she put her house in order. She did it with especial care. It was meet to have things seemly in the house of the dead. And every time she glanced at Jim she repressed the desire to fling herself on his breast and cry out the anguish that consumed her.
At noon she brought the children home to dinner, and afterwards Jim taught them to throw the lasso and played buffalo with them. Alida did not trust herself to watch them; she stayed in the kitchen and saw the sunbeam grow pale with the waning of the day, the day whose minutes dragged like lead, yet had rushed from her, leaving her the night to face. At sundown she cooked supper, but she no longer knew what she did. A crazy agility had taken possession of her and she spun about the kitchen, doing the same errand many times, finding herself doing always something different from that she had set about doing. The molten day was burning itself out like a fever; hot gusts of air beat up from the earth, but the woman who waited felt chilled to the marrow, and took a cloak down from a peg and wrapped it about her while she waited for the biscuit to bake. At supper they sat down together, the man and his wife and their three children. The children were in fine spirits from the fun they had had that afternoon. Never had daddy been so nice to them. He had taught Topeka to throw the lasso so well that she had caught the cat once and little Jim twice; and daddy had played he was a buffalo and had charged them all with his head down, till they screamed in terror. But daddy seemed more quiet through the meal, and once mother started up and cried:
She ran to the door with her hand pressed to her side, but daddy called after her:
"Don't you know the cowards better than that? They'll wait for nightfall."
But these things had not worried the children, with their heads full of playing buffalo and throwing the lariat.
"Jim," said his father, before they went to bed, "remember you are the man of the family." But young Jim was already nodding with sleep. Topeka and Judith were sleepy, too; they kissed their father and were glad to go to bed.
The night began menacingly to close over the wilderness. Where the sun had hung above the mountain a moment before there glowed a great pool of red that dripped across the blackness in faint tricklings. The outlines of the foot-hills loomed huge, formless, uncouth. In the half-light it seemed a world struggling in the birth-throes. All day the dry, burning heat had quivered over the desert, like hot-air waves flickering over a bed of live coals, and now the very earth seemed to palpitate with the intensity of its fever. The bellowing of the thirst-maddened cattle had not stopped with the twilight that brought no dew to slake their parched throats. In the hills the coyotes wailed like lost souls. It was night bereft of benisons, day made frightful by darkness. All the heat of a cycle of desert summers seemed concentrated in that house in the valley where the man and his wife waited. Each sound of the desert night Alida translated into the trampling of horses' feet; then, as the sound would die away, or prove to be but some night noise of the wilderness, the pallor would lose its pinch on her features, and she would stare into her husband's face with eyes that did not see. Jim smoked his pipe and refilled it, smoked and filled again, but gave no sign of the object of his waiting.
"Jim," she said, when the clock had struck ten, then eleven, "I am going to fasten up the house."
"Do you hear them?" he asked, without emotion, but as one who deferred to the finer senses of women.
She shook her head, not trusting herself to speak.
He looked at the door that was shrunken and warped from the heat till it barely held together, and there was no measure to the tenderness he put into:
"Oh, you poor little fool, do you think you could keep them out by fastening that?"
"Jim, I must," and her voice broke. "They may think you are not here, that it's only me and the children, and that's why the house is fastened." She got up and began to move about as though her thoughts scourged her to action, even if futile. He shook the ashes from his pipe.
"Do anything you blame please," he said, more by way of humoring her than from faith in her stratagem. He felt strong enough to face his destiny, to meet it in a way worthy of his mother's people.
Alida seemed under a spell in her preparations for the night. Each thing she did as she had done it in her dream the night before; it was as if she were constrained by a power greater than her will to fulfil a sinister prophecy. Yet now and then she would stop and wonder if she might not break the spell by doing things differently from the way she had dreamed them. Her hand grasped the knob of the door uncertainly, and she swung it to and fro on its creaking hinges, while her mind seemed likewise to sway hither and thither. Should she fasten the door and push the bureau against it, as it had been in the dream, or should she leave door and windows gaping wide for them? And then, as one who walks and does familiar things in sleep, she shut the door and turned the key. Jim smiled at her, but she could no longer look at him. One of the children wailed fretfully from the room beyond. Sleep had become a scourge in the stifling heat. One by one she lowered the windows and nailed them down; then she dragged the brown bureau against the door, took the brace of six-shooters from the wall, and sat down with Jim to wait.
"What are you going to do with them toys?" he asked, as he saw her examine the chambers of one of the six-shooters.
"You ain't going to let yourself be caught like a rat in a hole, are you?" she reproached him.
"'Ain't we agreed that it's best to keep onpleasant family matters from the kids?" He smiled at her bravely. "The remembrance of what we're anticipatin' ain't going to help young Jim to get to Congress when his time comes, nor it ain't going to help the girls get good husbands, either. This here country ain't what it was in the way of liberality since it's got to be a State."
"Sh-sh-sh!" she said. "Is that the range-cattle stampedin' after water, or is it—" They listened. The furniture in the room crackled; there was not a fibre of it to which the resistless heat had not penetrated. On the range the cattle bellowed in their thirst-torture; in the intervals of their cries sounded something far off, but regular as the thumping of a ship's screw. The woman did not need an answer to her question. The steady trampling of hoofs came muffled through the dead air, but the sound was unmistakable. She put her arms about the man's neck and crushed him to her with all her woman strength. "Oh, Jim, you've been a good man to me!"
"Steady—steady." He strained her close to him. "They'd be, by the sound of them, on the straight bit of road now, before the turn. Soon we'll hear their hoofs ring hollow as they cross the plank bridge."
His plainsman's faculty was as keen as ever; his calculation of the horsemen's distance was made as though he were the least concerned. All Alida's courage had gone, with the dread thing at hand. She clung to him, dazed.
"They're sober, all right enough."
"How do you know?"
"They'd be cursing and bellowing if they were drunk."
The hoofs rang hollow on the little plank bridge that crossed the ditch about a stone's-throw from the door. Not a word was said either within or without. The lynchers seemed to have drilled for their part; there was no whispering, no deferring to a leader. On they came, so close that Jim and Alida could hear the creaking of their saddles. There was the clank of spurs and the straining of leather as they dismounted, then some one knocked at the door till the warped boards rattled.
Jim could feel the thudding of Alida's heart as she clung to him, but when the knock was repeated a new courage came to her, and she left Jim and went on her knees close to the outer wall.
"Jim, is that you?" she called, and now every sense was trained to battle; her voice had even a sleepy cadence, as if she had been suddenly roused.
"That won't do at all, Miz Rodney. We know you got Jim in there, just as certain as we're out here, and we want him to come out and we'll do the thing square, otherwise he can take the consequences."
Jim opened his mouth to speak, but she, still on her knees beside the wall, gained his silence by one supplicating gesture. There was a sleepy, fretful cry from the room beyond—the noise had roused one of the children.
"Sh-sh, dear," she called. "It's only a bad dream. Go to sleep again; mother is here."
Through the warped door came sounds of the whispering voices without, drowned by the shrieking bellow of the cattle. There was not a breath of air in the suffocating room. Jim bent towards Alida:
"I'm goin out to 'em. They'll do it square, over on the cotton-woods; this rumpus'll only wake the kids."
But she shook her head imploringly, putting her finger to her lips as a sign that he was not to speak, and he had not the heart to refuse, though knowing that she made a desperate situation worse.
"Gentlemen"—she spoke in a low, distinct voice—"Jim ain't here. He's been away from home five days. There's no one here but me and the children; you've woke them up and frightened them by pounding on the door. I ask you to go away."
"If he ain't in there, will you let us search the house?" It was Henderson that spoke, Henderson, foreman of the "XXX" outfit.
"I can't have them frightened; please take my word and go away."
"Whas er matter, muvvy?" called Judith, sleepily. Young Jim was by this time crying lustily. Only Topeka said nothing. With the precocity of a frontier child, she half realized the truth. She tried to comfort little Jim, though her teeth chattered in fear and she felt cold in the hot, still room. Then Judith called out, "Make papa send them away."
"Your papa ain't here, Judith." But the fight had all gone out of Alida's voice; it was the groan of an animal in a trap.
"Where's papa gone to?"
"Sh-sh, Judith! Topeka, keep your sister quiet."
It was absolutely still, within and without, for a full minute. Then Alida heard the shoving of shoulders against the door. Once, twice, thrice the lock resisted them. The brown bureau spun across the room like a child's toy. The lynchers, bursting in, saw Alida with her arms around Jim. When the last hope had gone it was instinct with her to protect him with her own body.
"Go into the kids, old girl, this is no place for you." And there was that in his voice that made her obey.
Something of the glory of old Chief Flying Hawk, riding to battle, was in the face of his grandson.
"Remember, the children ain't to know," he said to his wife; and to the lynchers, "Gentlemen, I'm ready."
"Rocked By A Hempen String"
Alida heard the mingled sounds of footsteps and hoofs grow fainter on the trail. The children looked at her to tell them why this night was different from all others—what was happening. But she could only cower among them, more terrified than they. She seemed to be shrunken from the happenings of that day. They hardly knew the little, shrivelled, gray woman who looked at them with unfamiliar eyes. Alida gazed at the little Judith, and there was something in her mother's glance that made the little one hide her face in her sister's shoulder. Young Judith it was who all unwittingly had told the lynchers that her father was at home, and in Alida's heart there was towards this child a blind, unreasoning hate. Better had she never been born than live to do this thing!
It was the wee man, Jim, who first began to reflect resentfully on this intrusion on his slumbers. He had been sleeping well and comfortably when some grown-ups came with a lot of noise, and his father had gone away with them. It had frightened him, but his mother was here, and why should she not put him to sleep again?
"Muvvy, sing 'Dway Wolf.'" And as she paid no heed, but looked at him, white-faced and strange, he again repeated, with his most insinuating and beguiling tricks of eye and smile:
"Muvvy, sing 'Dway Wolf' for Dimmy."
The child put his head in his mother's lap, and Alida began, scarce knowing what she did:
"'The gray wolves are coming fast over the hill, Run fast, little lamb, do not baa, do not bleat, For the gray wolves are hungry, they come here to kill, And the lambs shall be scattered—'
"No, no, Jimmy, muvvy cannot sing. Oh, can't you feel, child? Judith, Judith, why were you ever born?"
It was still in the valley. Had they come to the dead cotton-woods yet? Had they begun it? The children shrank from this gray-faced woman whom they did not know and but yet a little while had been their mother. An awful silence had fallen on the night. The range-cattle no longer bellowed in their thirst; the hot wind no longer blew from the desert. A hush not of earth nor air nor the things that were of her ken seemed to have fallen about them, muffing the dark loneliness as by invisible flakes. The children had crouched close together for comfort. They feared the little, gray-faced woman who seemed to have stolen into their mother's place and looked at them with strange eyes.
Jimmy looked at the woman who held him, hoping his mother would come, and he could see them both. And while he waited he dropped off to sleep; and little Judith, hiding her head on Topeka's shoulder, that she might not see the look in those accusing eyes, presently dreamed that all was well with her again; and Topeka reflected that if her mother should ask her in the morning whether she had dreamed last night, she would have a fine tale to tell of men riding up, and loud voices, and trying of the door, and father going away with them. Her mother had questioned her this morning when nothing had happened to warrant it. Surely she would ask again to-morrow, and Topeka could tell—she could tell—all.
Alida looked at her three sleeping children—his children, and yet they could sleep. Into her mind came that cry of utter desolation, "Could ye not watch with me one hour?" And God had been deaf to Him, His son, even as He was deaf to her.
The children were sleeping easily. The hush that had hung like a pall over the valley had not lifted. Had they done it? Was it over yet? She went to the door and listened. Surely the silence that wrapped the valley was a thing apart. It was as no other silence that she could remember. It was still, still, and yet there was vibration to it, like the muffled roar within a shell. She strained her ears—was that the sound of horsemen going down the trail? No, no, it was only the beating of her foolish heart that would not be still, but beat and fluttered and would not let her hear. Yes, surely, that was the sound of hoofs. It was over then—they were going.
She would go and look for him. Perhaps it would not be too late—she had heard of such things. A dynamic force consumed her. She had no consciousness of her body. Her feet and hands did things with incredible swiftness—lighted a lantern, selected a knife, ran to the corral for an old ladder that had been there when they took possession of the deserted house; and through all her frantic haste she could feel this new force, as it were, lick up the red blood in her veins, burn her body to ashes as it gave her new power. She felt that never again would she have need of meat and drink and sleep. This force would abide with her till all was over, then leave her, like the whitened bones of the desert.
It was dark in the valley, but the menacing stillness seemed to be lifting. The range-cattle had again taken up their plaint, the sounds of the desert night swept across the stony walls of the canon. Alida knew that it must have happened at the dead cotton-woods. There were no other high trees about for miles. Again she listened before advancing. There was no sound of hoof or champing bit or men moving quickly. They had gone their way into the valley. She ran swiftly, her lantern throwing its beam across the scrubby inequalities of ground, but for her there was no need of its beacon. To-night she was beyond the halting, stumbling uncertainties of tread to which man is subject. There was magic in her feet and in her hands and brain. Like the wind she ran, the wind on the great plain where there are no foot-hills to hinder its course. The black, dead trees stood out distinctly against the starry sky, and from a cross-limb of one of them dangled something with head awry, like a broken jumping-jack, something that had once been a man—and her husband. She could touch the feet of this frightful thing and feel its human warmth. A wind came up from the desert and blew across the canon's rocky walls into the valley, and the parody of a man swayed to it.
She had been expecting this thing. For weeks the image of it had been graven on her heart. Sleeping or waking, she had seen nothing but his dangling body from the cross-limb. Yet with the actual consummation before her, she felt its hideous novelty as though it were unexpected. At sight of it the force that had borne her up through the happenings of that day went out of her, and as she stood with the knife and the rope, that she had brought in the hope of cheating the lynchers, dangling from her nerveless hand her helplessness overcame her. Again and again she called to the dead man for help, called to him as she had been accustomed to call when her woman's strength had been unequal to some heavy household task.
Far down the trail she could hear the gallop of a horse coming closer, and mingled with the sounds of its flying feet was a voice urging the horse to greater speed in the shrill cabalistic "Hi-hi-hi-ki!" of the plains-man. What was it—one of them returning to see that she did not cheat the rope of its due?—to hang her beside him, as an after-thought, as they hanged Kate Watson beside her man? Let them. She was standing near the swaying thing when horse and rider gained the ground beside her, and what was left to her of consciousness made out that the rider was Judith. She pointed to it, and stood helpless with the dangling rope in her hand.
"Are we too late?" Judith almost whispered, as she caught Alida's cold, inert hands. "I dreamed it all and came. If I could have dreamed it sooner!"
Alida did not seem to hear, neither could she speak. She only pointed again to the thing beside her.
Judith understood. The women had a task to share, and in silence they began it. The lynchers had done their work all too well. Again and again the women strove with all their strength to take down the dangling parody of a man, which in its dead-weight resistance seemed in league with the forces against them. At last the thing was done. Down to a pale world, that in the haggard gray of morning seemed to bear in its countenance something of the pinch of death, Judith lowered the thing that had so lately been a man. She cut the rope away from the neck, she straightened the wry neck that seemed to wag in pantomimic representation of the last word to the lynchers. They'd have to reckon with him on dark nights, and when the wind wailed like a famished wolf and when things not to be explained lurked in the shadows of the desert.
The morning stillness came flooding into the cup-shaped valley like a soft, resistless wave. Something had come to the gray, old earth—another day, with all its human gift of joy and woe, and the earth welcomed it though it had known so many. The sun burst through the gold-tipped aureole of cloud, scattering far and wide lavish promises of a perfect day. The earth seemed to respond with a thrill. No longer was the pinch of death in her countenance. The valley, the mountains, the invisible wind, even the dead cotton-woods, seemed endowed with throbbing life that contrasted fearsomely with the terrible nullity of this thing that once had been Jim Rodney.
Alida had ceased to take any part in the hideous drama. She sat on the ground, a crouching thing with glittering eyes. It was past comprehension that the sun could shine and the world go on with her man dead before her. Judith had become the force that planned and did to save the family pride. While her hands were busy with preparations for the dead, she rehearsed what she would say to this and that one to account for Jim's absence. The silence of the men who had done this thing would be as steadfast as their own.
And there were the children. Through all her frantic search for things in the house, Judith remembered that she must step softly and not waken the children. With each turn of the screw, as her numbed consciousness rallied and responded afresh to the hideous realization of this thing, there came no release from the tyrannous hold of petty detail. She remembered that she must be back at noon to hold post-office, and there would be the endless comedy to be played once more with her cavaliers. They must never suspect from word or look of hers. And there was the dance to-night at the Benton ranch—she hid her face in her hands. Ah, no, she could not do this thing! And yet they must not suspect. She must contrive to give the impression that Jim had cheated the rope. Yes, she must go and dance, and, if need be, dance with his very murderers. Jim's children were to have the "clean start" that he intended, and they would have to get it here. There was no money for an exodus and a beginning elsewhere.
Alida still crouched beside the long, even tarpaulin roll that Judith had prepared with hands that knew not what they did. But now Judith gently roused her and put in her hand a spade; already she herself had begun. But Alida stared at it dully, as if she did not understand. Then Judith pointed to something black that had begun to wheel in the sky, wheel, and with each circular swoop come closer to the roll of tarpaulin. Then Alida knew, and, taking the spade, she and Judith began to dig the grave.
The dance in the Benton ranch was the great social event of the midsummer season. The Bentons had begun to give dances in the days of plenty, when the cattle industry had been at its dizziest height; and they had continued to give dances through all the depressing fluctuations of the trade, perhaps in much the same spirit as one whistles in the dark to keep up his courage. Thus, though cattle fell and continued to fall in the scale of prices till the end no man dared surmise, the Benton "boys"—they were two brothers, aged respectively forty-five and fifty years—continued to hold out facilities to dance and be merry.
All day strange wagons—ludicrous, makeshift things—had been discharging loads of women and children at the Benton ranch, tired mothers and their insistent offspring. To the women this strenuous relaxation came as manna in the wilderness. What was the dreary round of washing, ironing, baking, and the chain of household tasks that must be done as primitively as in Genesis, if only they might dance and forget? So the mothers came early and stayed late, and the primary sessions of the dances fulfilled all the functions of the latter-day mothers' congresses—there were infant ailments to be discussed, there were the questions of food and of teething, of paregoric and of flannel bands, which, strange heresy, seemed to be "going out," according to the latest advices from those compendiums of all domestic information, the "Woman's Pages" of the daily papers.
Inasmuch as these more than punctual debaters must be cooked for, there was, to speak plainly, "feeling" on the part of the housekeeper at the Bentons'. Wasn't it enough for folks to come to a dance and get a good supper, and go away like Christians when the thing was over, instead of coming a day before it began and lingering on as if they had no home to go to? This, at least, was the housekeeper's point of view, a crochety one, be it said, not shared by the brothers Benton, whose hospitality was as genuine as it was primitive. To this same difficult lady the infants, who were too tender in years to be separated from their mothers, were as productive of anxiety as their elders. A room had been set apart for their especial accommodation, the floor of which, carefully spread with bed-quilts and pillows, prevented any great damage from happening to the more tender of the guests; and they rolled and crooned and dug their small fists into each other's faces while their mothers danced in the room beyond.
By nightfall the Benton ranch gleamed on the dark prairie like a constellation. Lights burned at every window; a broad beam issued from the door and threw a welcoming beacon across the darkness and silence of the night. The scraping of fiddles mingled with the rhythmic scuffle of feet and the singsong of the words that the dancers sung as they whirled through the figures of the quadrille and lancers. About the walls of the room where the dancing was in progress stood a fringe of gallants, their heads newly oiled, and proclaiming the fact in a bewildering variety of strong perfumes. Red silk neckerchiefs knotted with elaborate carelessness displayed to advantage bronzed throats; new overalls, and of the shaggiest species, amply testified to the social importance of the Benton dance.
As yet the dancing was but intermittent and was engaged in chiefly by the mothers with large progeny, who felt that after the arrival of a greater number of guests, and among them the unmarried girls, their opportunities might not be as plentiful as at present. One or two cow-punchers, in an excess of civility at the presence of the fair, had insisted on giving up their six-shooters, mumbling something about "there being ladies present and a man being hasty at times." In the "bunk-room," which did duty as a gentleman's cloak-room, things were really warming up. There was much drinking of healths, as the brothers Benton had thoughtfully provided the wherewithal, and that in excellent quality.
Costigan was there, and Texas Tyler, who had ridden sixty miles to "swing a petticoat," or, if there were not enough to go round, to dance with a handkerchief tied to some fellow's sleeve. By "swinging a petticoat" it was perfectly understood among all his friends that he meant a chance to dance with Judith Rodney. Year in and year out Texas never failed to present himself at the post-office on mail-days, if his work took him within a radius of fifty miles of the Daxes. No dance where the possibility of seeing Judith was even remote was too long a ride for him to undertake, even when it took him across the dreariest wastes of the desert. Texas had been devoted to Judith since she had left the convent, and sometimes, perhaps twice a year, she told him that she valued his friendship. On all other occasions she rejected his suit as if his continual pressing of it were something in the nature of an affront. Yet Texas persevered.
"Well, here's lukin' at you, since in the way of a frind there's nothing better to look at!" and Costigan drained a tin cup at Texas Tyler.
"Your very good health," said Texas, who was somewhat embarrassed by what was regarded as Costigan's "floweriness."
"Begorra, is that Hinderson or the ghost av the b'y?" Costigan's roving eye was arrested by the foreman of the "XXX," who stood drinking with two or three men of his outfit. He was pale and ill-looking. He drank several times in succession, as if he needed the stimulant, and without the formality of drinking to any one. The two or three "XXX" men who were with him seemed to be equally in need of restoratives.
They talked of the cattle stampede in which several of the outfits had been heavy losers. Some nine hundred head of cattle had been recovered, and members of the different outfits were still scouring the Red Desert for strays.
Something in the nature of a sensation was created by the arrival of the Wetmore party. The women were frankly interested in the clothes, bearing, and general deportment of the New-Yorkers. Rumors of Miss Colebrooke's beauty were rife, and there was a general inclination to compare her with local belles. Such exotic types—they had seen these city beauties before—were as a rule too colorless for their appreciation. They liked faces that had "more go to them," was the verdict passed upon one famous beauty who had visited the Wetmores the year before. In arrangement of the hair, perhaps, in matters of dress, the judges were willing to concede the laurels to city damsels, but there concession stopped. But evidently Kitty, to judge from the elaboration of her toilet, did not intend to be dismissed thus cursorily. She herself was delicately, palely pretty, as always, but her hair was tortured to a fashionable fluffiness, and the simplicity of her green muslin gown was only in the name. It was muslin disguised, elaborated, beribboned, lace-trimmed till its identity was all but lost in the multitude of pretty complications.
"Did you know that old Ma'am Yellett had a school-marm up to her place?" asked one of the men, apropos of Eastern prettiness.
"Well, well," Costigan reminisced, "'tis some av thim Yillitt lambs thot's six fut in their shtockings, if Oi be rimimbering right. Sure, the tacher ought to be something av a pugilist, Oi'm thinkin'."
"I seen her the other day, and a neater little heifer never turned out to pasture. Lord, I'd like to be gnawing the corners of the primer right now, if she was there to whale the ruler."
"Arrah," bayed Costigan, "but the women question is gittin' complicated ontoirely, wid Miss Rodney—an' herself lukin' loike a saint in a church window—dalin' the mails an' th' other wan tachin' in the mountains. Sure, this place is gittin' to be but a sorry shpot for bachelors loike mesilf."
"I ain't mentionin' no names, but there's a man here ain't treatin' a mighty fine woman square and accordin' to the way she ought to be treated."
The information ran through the circle like an electric shock. Men stopped in the act of pledging each other's healths to listen. Loungers straightened up; every topic was dropped. The man who had made the statement was the loose-lipped busybody who had suggested to his host that he give up his six-shooter since there were "ladies present."
"What the hell are you waiting for?" queried Texas Tyler, savagely. "You've cracked your whip, made your bow, and got our attention; why the hell don't you go on?"
The man looked about nervously. He was rather alarmed at the interest he had excited. The next moment Peter Hamilton had walked into the room. There was something crucial in his entrance at this particular time; it crystallized suspicion. The gossip took advantage of the greetings to Hamilton to make his escape. Texas Tyler left the bunk-room immediately and looked for him in the room with the dancers. The fiddles, in the hands of a couple of Mexicans, had set the whole room whirling as if by magic. As they danced they sang, joining with the "caller-out," who held his vociferous post between the rooms, till the room was full of singing, dancing men and women, who spun and pirouetted as if they had not a care in the world. But Texas Tyler was not of these, as he looked through the dancers for his man. There was a red flash in the pupils of his eyes, and he told himself that he was going to do things the way they did them in Texas, for, of course, he knew that the loose-lipped idiot had meant Judith Rodney and Peter Hamilton. Never before had such an idea occurred to him, and now that it had been presented to his mind's eye, he wondered why he had been such a blind fool. Never had the singing to these dances seemed so absurd.
"Hawk hop out and the crow hop in, Three hands round and go it ag'in. Allemane left, back to the missus, Grande right and left and sneak a few kisses."
He rushed from the room and down to the stable. At sight of him some one leaped on a horse and rode out into the darkness.
"Who was that?" asked Texas of a man lounging by the corral.
"That was—" and he gave the name of the loose-lipped man.
Texas cursed long and picturesquely. Then he went back to the bunk-room and tried to pick a quarrel with Peter Hamilton, who good-naturedly assumed that his old friend had been drinking and refused to take offence.
Peter went in to ask Kitty to dance with him. All that evening he had been waiting anxiously for Judith. Meanwhile he had used all his influence as a newly appointed member of the Wetmore outfit to soothe the ruffled feelings of the cattle-men. Of the tragedy in the valley he had heard no rumor.
Kitty had come to the point where she was willing to waive the Recamier-Chateaubriand friendship in favor of one more personal and ordinary. In fact, as Peter showed a disposition to regard as final her answer to him on the day he had spurred across the desert, Kitty, with true feminine perversity, inclined to permit him to resume his suit. His acquiescence in her refusal she had at first regarded as the turning of the worm; after the wolf-hunt, however, her meditations were more disturbing. She had never told Peter of that strange woodland meeting with Judith, yet Judith's beauty, her probable hold over Peter, the degree of his affection for her were rankling questions in Kitty's consciousness. In the stress of these considerations Kitty lost her head completely for so old a campaigner. She drew the apron-string tight—attempted force instead of strategy.
Kitty and Peter finished their waltz, one of the few round dances of the evening.
"How perfectly you dance, Kitty! It's a long time since we've had a waltz together."
The cow-punchers looked at Kitty as if she were not quite flesh and blood. Such flaxen daintiness, femininty etherealized to angelic perfection, was new to them, but their admiration was like that given to a delicate exotic which, wonderful as it is, one is well pleased to view through the glass of the florist's window.
Peter was deferentially attentive and zealous to make the Wetmore party have a thoroughly good time, yet he did all these things, as it were, with his eye on the door. He was not obviously distrait; he was the man of the world, talking, making himself agreeable, "doing his duty," while his subconsciousness was busy with other matters. It was rather through telepathy than through any lack of attention paid to her that Kitty realized the state of things, and in proportion to her realization came a feeling of helplessness; it was so new, so unexpected, so cruel. He seemed drifting away from her on some tide of affairs of the very existence of which she had been unconscious. Further and further he had drifted, till intelligible speech no longer seemed possible between them. They said the foolish, empty things that people call out as the boat glides away from the shore, the things that all the world may hear, and in his eyes there was only that smiling kindness. How had it come about after all these years? What was it that had first cut the cable that sent him drifting? What was it? She must think. Oh, who could think with that noise! How silly was their singing as they danced, how uncouth!
"All dance as pretty as you can, Turn your toes and left alleman; First gent sashay to the right, Now swing the girl you last swung about, And now the one that's cut her out, And now the one that's dressed in white, And now the belle of the ball."
The dancers seemed bitten to the quick with the tarantula of an ecstatic hilarity; their bodies swayed in perfect harmony to the swing of the fiddles and the swell of the chorus. The most uncouth of them came under the spell of that mad magic. Their movements, that in the beginning of the dance had been shy and awkward, became almost beautiful; they forgot arms, hands, feet; their bodies had become like the strings of some skilfully played instrument, obediently responsive to rhythm, and in that composite blending of races each in his dancing brought some of the poetry of his own far land. The scene was amazing in its beauty and simplicity, like the strong, inspirational power and rugged rhythm of some old border minstrel. One by one the dancers glowed with better understanding; discordant elements, alien nations were fused to harmony in this vivid picture.
Peter turned to Kitty, expecting to see her face aglow with the warmth of it. She stood beside him, the one unresponsive soul in the room, on her lips a pale, tolerant smile.
"Aren't they splendid, Kitty, these women? More than half of them work like beavers all day, and they have young children and dozens of worries, but would you suspect it? They're just the women for this country."
Now in the present state of affairs almost any other subject would have been better calculated to promote good feeling than the one on which Peter had alighted. Kitty's thoughts had perversely lingered about one who, though not one with these women, had yet their sturdy self-reliance, their acquiescence in grim conditions, their pleasure in simple things. Kitty's apprehension, slow to kindle, had taken fire like a forest, and by its blaze she saw things in a distorted light; her present vision magnified the relations of Peter and Judith to a degree that a month ago she would have regarded as impossible. "He is her lover!" was the accusation that suddenly flashed through her mind, and with the thought an overwhelming desire to say something unkind, something that should hurt him, supplanted all judgment and reason.
"Oh, it's a decidedly remarkable scene, pictorially, I agree with you. And an artist, of course—but isn't it a trifle quixotic, Peter, to idealize them because they are having a good time? There's no virtue in it. It is conceivable that they might have to work just as hard and have just as many little children to look after, and yet not have these dances you praise them for coming to."
"I'm afraid you find us and our amusements a little crude. Evidently the spirit of our dances does not appeal to you; but I did not suppose it necessary to remind you that they should not be judged by the standard of conventional evening parties," said Peter, hurt and angry in his turn.
"Us, our amusements, our dances? So you are quite identified with these people, my dear Peter, and I had thought you an ornament of cotillions and country clubs. I can only infer that it is somebody in particular who has brought about your change of heart."
Peter flushed a little, and Kitty kept on: "Some of the native belles are quite wonderful, I believe. Nannie Wetmore tells of a half-breed who is very handsome."
Peter set his lips. "At the expense of spoiling Nannie's pretty romance, I must tell you that the lady she refers to is not only the most beautiful of women, but she would be at ease in any drawing-room. It would be as ridiculous to apply the petty standards of ladyhood to her as it would to—well, imagine some foolish girl bringing up the question at a woman's club—'Was Joan of Arc a lady?'" Peter spoke without calculating the conviction that his words carried. He was angry, and his manner, voice, intonation showed it.
Kitty, now that her most unworthy suspicions had been confirmed by Peter's ardent championing of Judith, lost her discretion in the pang that gnawed her little soul: "I beg your pardon, Peter. When I spoke I did not, of course, know that this young woman was anything to you."
"Anything to me? My dear Kitty, I've never had a better friend than Judith Rodney."
The dance was at its flood-tide. The exhilaration had grown with each sweep of the fiddle-bow, with the sorcery of sinuous, swaying bodies, with the song of the dancers as they joined in the calling out of the figures, with the rhythmic shuffle of feet, with the hum of the pulses, with the leaping of blood to cheek and heart till the dancers whirled as leaves circling towards the eddies of a whirlpool. The dancing Mrs. Dax split her favors into infinitesimal fragments, for each measure of which her long list of waiting gallants stood ready to pick a quarrel if need be. Her dancing, in the splendor of its spontaneity, had something of the surge of the west wind sweeping over a field of grain. Sometimes she waved back her partner and alone danced a figure, putting to the music her own interpretation—barbaric, passionate, rude, but magnificently vivid. And the dancers would stop and crowd about her, clapping hands and stamping feet to the rhyming movement of her body, while against the wall her hostile sister-in-law, Mrs. Leander, stood and glared in a fury of disapproval, Leander himself smiling broadly meanwhile and exercising the utmost restraint to keep from joining Mrs. Johnnie's train.