"I like Ponto best, I believe. It has a grander sound to it than General. And yet—can I name my half of the dog, too?" as a sudden inspiration came to her mind.
"Why—yes—if it fits in with General," a little doubtfully, for Carrie's ideas of beautiful names differed materially from Tabitha's.
"It will go with it splendidly—Sheridan Sherman Grant McClellan."
"All of them. That ain't too many, is it? I do like all those generals so much, and I should hate to have to drop any of them."
"It's an awfully long name to say when you want to call a dog," said the first little mistress reflectively, yet afraid to suggest the curtailing of it for fear of wounding her playmate.
"But you can shorten it up like—like I did once with—" The unhappy episode was still very fresh in her mind, and her heart still very sore; so she hesitated, unwilling to recall it further.
"I know," interrupted sympathetic Carrie hastily. "We can shorten it to General Sheridan or General—what would you shorten it to?"
"General McClellan is the grandest sounding name, but General Grant is the easiest to say, and I suppose a dog ought to be called the easiest name so he can remember it. We'll call him General Grant."
The dog was named.
That evening Tabitha was sitting on the steps studying her geography when Tom came home late for supper, but every moment or two she would look up from her books toward the Carson house, and stare intently at something he could not see, while she seemed to be listening for something he could not hear. From his seat at the table he could watch her unobserved, and when at last he had satisfied his appetite, he joined her on the steps, asking curiously, "What's the matter, Puss? Geography doesn't seem to be interesting you."
"Oh, Tom, it's the pup! Carrie has the dearest little shaggy dog. She said I might be part owner of it, and we've named him General Sheridan Sherman Grant McClellan. General is her name for him, and the rest is mine. It's most too long to say the whole of it every time we want him to come, so we are going to call him General Grant for short. Isn't that a nice name?"
"Well, I should say so. The General no doubt would be flattered if he could know."
"He's an awfully pretty pup and will make a great big dog when he's grown up. His feet are dreadfully big, but Mr. Carson says he will need them some day, and all big dogs have big feet when they are little. Carrie wanted to name him Ponto, but her father thought General sounded more dignified for such a big dog. Ponto is a pretty name, though, and if I had a pup all of my own I'd call him— Say, Tom, do you suppose Dad would let me have a dog for my very own self? It's nice to own part of one, but think how much better it would be if I had a whole one. Then Carrie wouldn't have to share hers, and I really think she would rather own all of General Grant herself. If I asked Dad, do you suppose he would say yes?"
"I'm sure I don't know, Puss, but I am afraid not. We had a pup once when I was small, and it chewed up everything it could get hold of. I had a little suit of black velvet—I remember it was the first I ever had with pockets in it—and one day the pup got hold of it and tore it all to pieces. Dad gave him away at last because he did so much damage."
"What was its name?"
"Why, isn't that funny—almost the name Carrie wanted! If I had a dog, Tom, I should name him Pinto Ponto Poco Pronto. Wouldn't that be grand? I never heard anything called that, and it has such a pretty jingle about it when you say them all together. It's a—what do you call it?—'literation? It means where a whole string of words begin with the same letter. Don't you think that would make a splendid name for a dog?"
"Capital," answered loyal Tom, and Tabitha again took up the study of her geography lesson, for while she had been talking, Mr. Carson had opened the door of the big house and carried General Grant, box and all, inside.
Tom was not the only one who had heard Tabitha's raptures over the new possession, however. Sitting by the open window behind his newspaper, Mr. Catt had caught every word of the conversation, unknown to his small daughter, who did not realize his close proximity while she was unburdening her heart to the big brother; and he smiled derisively at the narrative; so when the child found courage to ask him for a pet dog he answered curtly, "No, Miss Tabitha, we don't want any pups around here. Dogs and cats fight, you know."
Without another word, the small supplicant went mournfully away to gaze with longing eyes at the joint possession and wish more fervently than ever that it might be hers.
But Mr. Catt was not really heartless. A few days later on his way home from a short trip to his claims, he found a half-starved cat tied to a lonely yucca far up on the mountain trail, where it had been abandoned by its inhuman owners and left to this terrible fate. Indignation burned within the man as he realized the plight of the unhappy animal, and remembering Tabitha's plea for a pet, he carried the scrawny feline home to the child, feeling assured of its welcome there. But unfortunately the cat was as black as a coal, without a white hair on its body; its tail had a very perceptible crook in it which refused to be straightened out; its ears had been closely cropped, and altogether it was so gaunt and hideous that involuntarily one shuddered to look at it.
"A cat!" exclaimed disappointed Tabitha when she had been called to see the gift. "I never asked for a cat; I don't want a cat; I hate cats! There are enough cats in this house already without this horrible skeleton. I suppose you will want me to call it Tabby. Oh, dear, what a time I do have living!"
With a wail of woe Tabitha fled up the trail to her hidden chamber among the boulders and threw herself on the ground to sob out her grief and anger over this unexpected and wholly unwelcome pet. That she would regard the gift as an insult when he had presented it with the best of intentions had never occurred to the father, and not understanding her antipathy for all of the feline tribe, he was naturally somewhat angry at her attitude; so he insisted that the cat had come to stay. And indeed it looked as if she had, for no one wanted the homely, starved creature, and though three times Tabitha surreptitiously pushed her down the shaft of an abandoned mine on the other side of the mountain, the animal always appeared serenely at meal time with a more ravenous appetite than ever, and Tabitha began to think that the "nine lives of a cat" was no joke, but a dreadful reality.
"I wish the owners of that thing had kept her. It was cruel to tie her to the yucca and leave her to starve to death, but I 'most wish she'd been dead when Dad found her. I hate the sight of her." She was sitting on the lower step, elbows on her knees and chin resting in her hands as she somberly surveyed the greedy animal lapping up the milk she had just set before it, and vainly wished she had no pet at all.
The kitchen door opened behind her and the father stepped out on the porch. His quick glance took in the whole situation in an instant, and recalling the conversation concerning the dog a few nights previously, he asked with some curiosity, "What have you named your cat, Tabitha?"
Without lifting her eyes or manifesting any interest in the subject she answered briefly, "Lynne Maximilian."
The man started as if he could not believe his ears, and then with an almost audible chuckle of amusement, he descended the steps and strode rapidly up the path toward the town.
THE NEW BOY
There was a new boy at school.
In this little town with its ever changing population of miners and fortune seekers, the advent of a stranger as a usual thing caused little if any excitement. But with this boy it was different, though the children could not have explained wherein he was unlike themselves. It could not be his clothes, for Jimmy Gates, the hotel-keeper's son, was the best-dressed boy in town; it could not be his appearance, for though he was undoubtedly good-looking, he did not begin to be as handsome as Herman Richards; it could not be the place where he lived, for the Carson house was the largest and most attractive in town. And yet there was something about him that won him a ready welcome wherever he went.
Tabitha was fairly hypnotized. She could not keep her eyes off him whenever the opportunity to look in his direction came to her, which fortunately was not often, as she sat in the front seat of the outside row, while his desk was towards the rear of the room in the same row, and they were both in nearly all the same classes, though he was obviously some two or three years older than she. However, he was further advanced in arithmetic, and recited in a different class, so she could watch him during that lesson while he was working at the blackboard, or sitting on the recitation bench in front of the whole school. He had the loveliest red-brown curls and big, red-brown eyes with long, heavy lashes! To be sure, his face was freckled, but he was always laughing and one forgot the freckles in watching his flashing white teeth or the dimples that came and went in his round cheeks.
Tabitha did not know that he hated these dimples almost as badly as she did her name, and that his beautiful curls were a great trial to him, as such things are to all boys of that tender age; but she did know that he was different from any boy she had ever seen, and so she worshipped him from afar.
Besides, he had the grandest name! Why had she never heard of Jerome when she gave Tom the name of Dionysius Ulysses Humphrey Llewelyn? Maybe it wasn't too late yet. Oh, she had forgotten—how could she ever forget! And the crimson blood mounted her cheeks as she remembered that unhappy day in the long ago when she had marched up one side of the street and down the other and told the people that her name was Tabitha Catt. Tom and the Carsons and Miss Brooks had been very kind to her after that dreadful affair, and when she had gone back to school the children never once referred to the beautiful name that had been so ruthlessly snatched away from her, but they played with her just as if nothing had happened and even spoke the hateful word, Tabitha, with such a gentleness that it lost some of its sting. Carrie adopted Tom's pet name for her, so in time others of the children had taken it up and she was more frequently Puss than Tabitha; for all of which she was deeply grateful. Still, she could not help wishing that Tom's name could have been Jerome. That did sound so splendid! But Tom in her eyes was just as nice as Jerome Vane, even if he was solemn and shy while Jerome was laughing and debonair.
The new scholar had been in school just one week when one rainy day at recess while the children were playing quietly inside the building, as the weather was too forbidding to permit the usual games in the yard, Tabitha's sharp ears caught a snatch of conversation among the boys busy drawing horrible cartoons on the blackboard, and one of the speakers was her idol, Jerome Vane.
"Who's that black-haired kid that signs her name as 'T. C.' in the arithmetic class?" the new boy asked.
"Oh, that's Tabitha Catt."
"Tabitha Catt! What a funny name!" Jerome exclaimed; and Tabitha, darting a swift glance at him from the corner of her eye, saw that he was looking at her with an amused smile on his lips.
"Ain't it, though? She don't like it a bit, and took a different one; but her father made her take it all back. She's teacher's pet, so we daren't tease her."
"Huh!" declared the other with a swagger of bravado, "'twould take more than that to make me stop teasing her if I wanted to."
"Guess you don't know Miss Brooks very well."
"I don't care a hang about Miss Brooks. I'd tease if I wanted to."
"I dare you!"
Tabitha was almost too shocked to move, but at this opportune moment, Carrie came running up to her desk with the news, "Sam Giles has just brought in a bucket of water. Don't you want a drink before recess is over?"
Glad to escape further observation, Tabitha followed blue-eyed Carrie over to the corner of the room where the bucket stood, surrounded by the thirsty boys and girls, all clamoring for a turn.
"Hurry up, Jack Leavitt, it's almost time for the bell and I want a drink!"
"Give me that dipper, you Jim Gates; I want another swig!"
"Wait your turn, stingy!"
At last Tabitha stood beside the pail with the dipper in her hand, but just as she lifted the big cup brimming over, someone behind her tweaked her long braid, and she heard Jerome's laughing voice saying,
"'Tabby Catt, Tabby Catt, where have you been?' 'I've been to London to see the queen.' 'Tabby Catt, Tabby Catt, what saw you there?'—"
"I saw a sneaking boy with a shock of red hair," finished the enraged Tabitha whirling toward him with the dripping dipper, and before he had a chance to divine her intentions or dodge to one side, she let its contents fly straight into his face.
An ominous hush had fallen over the room while this little scene was transpiring, but the angry child had not noticed the unusual silence, nor perceived that Miss Brooks had entered in time to see the deluge.
"Tabitha Catt!" repeated the astonished teacher. "I am surprised at you. Ask Jerome's pardon for being so rude."
Tabitha still stood beside the water bucket, quivering in every limb, eyes blazing, nostrils flaring, and clutching the empty dipper fiercely in her hand.
"I will not!"
The teacher was shocked; no one had ever defied her in this manner before, and the angry blood mounted to her forehead. She would have obedience at whatever cost.
"Tabitha, I insist that you beg Jerome's forgiveness."
"I was to blame some, too, Miss Brooks," interrupted the boy shamefacedly. "I'm sorry."
"I'm not," declared the little rebel, more hurt and grieved at finding her idol shattered than angry at his teasing words.
Plainly Miss Brooks was puzzled. She could not ignore such open defiance; it must be punished in some way. What should she do? A bright thought occurred to her.
"Jerome, take your seat. Tabitha, come here."
The girl walked over to the teacher's desk, still gripping the dipper in one grimy fist, and wondering what was to befall her now. This was the first time Miss Brooks had ever punished her, and in spite of her anger, sorrowful tears gathered in her eyes. She didn't mind being hurt, but to have Miss Brooks punish her seemed more than she could bear. The teacher carefully drew her chair out on the platform in front of the whole school, and sitting down in it, took Tabitha on her knee.
"Now, Tabitha, you must sit in my lap until you will tell Jerome that you are sorry. He has begged your pardon like a man, and it is worse than impolite to refuse to do the same to him; it is wicked."
The scholars giggled. Instantly the tears were dried, the brown face grew white and tense, the whole slender body rigid with passion, and with unseeing eyes Tabitha stared straight ahead of her, refusing to speak.
Thinking the child would see fit to do as she was told after a few moments of meditation, the teacher rapped for order, took up her book and called the next class for geography. But Tabitha's anger had swallowed up every other emotion, and all that afternoon she sat on Miss Brooks' knee, taking satisfaction in making herself as heavy as possible and in stepping on the teacher's toes as often as they came within reach.
It was an uncomfortable session for the whole school; Carrie took the punishment as keenly as if she had been the culprit and grieved herself sick over her friend's unhappiness; and the teacher was almost as sorrowful. The reproachful look in the black eyes haunted her until several times she was on the point of allowing the girl to take her seat, but each time came the thought, "If I let this offense go unpunished, I will soon have the whole school defying me. No, she must obey, even if it is little Tabitha, and Jerome to blame." So she held the furious rebel until the clock pointed to the hour of closing, and then with the cold words, "You may go, now," she dismissed her, half expecting the girl would linger and penitently ask her forgiveness; when she meant to be very firm and make her see the error of her ways, but at last to accept her apology and let the matter drop. To her hurt surprise, however, Tabitha bundled into her wraps and bounced out of the building without waiting even for Carrie, the loyal; and with heavy heart the woman turned back to the little duties which must be attended to before she could go to her home.
The rain had ceased, but little puddles stood in every hollow, and as the schoolhouse was at the foot of the hill, it was almost surrounded by a chain of these miniature lakes. As Tabitha rushed out of the door in her mad flight, she found herself confronted by a huge puddle which she could not cross without wetting her feet, and ever mindful of Aunt Maria's heroic treatments for colds, she paused to choose a better path. This gave Carrie a chance to overtake her, but before the little peacemaker could say a word of comfort to the wounded heart, Jerome's laughing tones rose clearly above the rest of the clamoring voices,
"Oh, Tabitha, wait a minute."
She hesitated, half turned as if to heed his entreaty, and then—then it happened.
"Susie's reader has a new poem in it; one that I never saw before, Tabitha," the teasing voice continued. "It says:
'My little black Tabby is perched on my knee; As fierce as a lion or tiger is she; She wakes—'"
Tabitha's books fell unheeded to the ground, she leaped toward her tormentor with fury in her heart, and dealt him a staggering blow full on the nose, screaming in rage,
"I would rather be a Tabby Catt than a cross-eyed, red-headed chimpanzee."
Pushing him violently from her, she turned and fled through the wide puddle and up the slope toward home, never hearing the loud splash behind her and the mingled screams and laughter, and not aware that the debonair Jerome with the blood spurting from his nose had lost his balance and toppled into the muddy water.
Indignant Carrie faced him as he rose to his feet, and stamping her foot in her extreme vexation, she boldly cried,
"You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Jerome Vane. Teacher said we mustn't tease her, and I'm glad you're hurt. You deserve to be." And she sped tearfully away in pursuit of her fleeing mate before the discomfited boy could find breath to tell her that he was ashamed of himself—thoroughly ashamed.
Miss Brooks had witnessed the fray from the window, but she wasn't the only grown-up spectator. A tall, dark man loaded down with a huge watermelon had come up the road just in time to hear and see the whole performance, and a smile of satisfaction lit his face when the girl came off victorious.
"Poor kid," he said under his breath. "She is a regular Catt all right. How will she come out of it?"
He found himself hoping that life might have much more sweetness in it for her than it had had for him. And he had named her Tabitha!
With wild rebellion in her heart and a keen sense of the injustice done her, Tabitha had rushed heedlessly up the hill and down through the pathless tangle of wet greasewood and sagebrush, splashing through mud and water with reckless abandon, and arriving home in a deplorably bespattered state, with feet wet and dress dripping. Aunt Maria saw her coming and met her at the door with an exclamation of horror: "Tabitha Catt! What do you think you are about? The very idea of running through puddles in that manner! Get off those wet shoes this minute and put your feet in the oven. If I just had some mullein leaves now to make compresses with! Look at your dress, and this is the second this week. Lucky this is Friday or you would have to wear a dirty gown to school tomorrow."
The door opened again and Mr. Catt came in just in time to hear the last words of the scolding. Laying the watermelon on the table, he turned to the child huddled in the corner close to the hot stove, and demanded, "How did you get so muddy?"
"Coming home from school."
"Say 'sir' when you address me. What were you doing to get so wet?"
"What were you running for?" He was trying to make her confess what had happened at the schoolhouse, but she had her own method of answering questions, and that was seldom very satisfactory to the questioner so far as the amount of information was concerned.
"For exercise," she snapped, forgetting her fear of him in her exasperation at these other unhappy events.
"You were fighting," he said sternly, and she started in surprise, but made no answer. "Weren't you?"
"Tabitha Catt!" he exclaimed in astonishment. "Go to your room. No melon tonight for a girl who will tell such a deliberate lie."
Tabitha rose instantly, seized her draggled belongings and started for her door, but paused on the threshold to say, "I hit him only once. That ain't fighting, is it? I wanted to trounce him good; he deserved it."
Her door shut with an emphatic bang, and the weary, perplexed, belligerent little girl crept into bed to sob herself to sleep.
Breakfast was over, the dishes all cleared away and the kitchen deserted when she awoke the next morning; but on the table stood a tray on which her lunch was set forth, and beside it lay a note from Aunt Maria saying that a sick neighbor had sent for her and she would be gone for some time.
Tabitha took a survey of the premises. Tom was at the office, the father nowhere in sight. Where was the watermelon? Surely three people couldn't have eaten all of it in one meal! Oh, there it was in the cooler and not even cut. She stood contemplating it for a moment, then with a deft motion rolled it out on the floor. It was so heavy she could scarcely lift it. She looked around for something to assist her, and her eye fell upon an empty flour-sack which Aunt Maria had left on top of the barrel, evidently intending to wash it out. Seizing this, she spread it open beside the melon, rolled the great green ball inside, and dragged the trophy out of doors up the rocky path to the road and out of sight among the boulders. There she stood and surveyed the bag while she wrestled with herself.
"He said I lied, and I didn't. It wasn't a fight, for Jerome never hit me at all. It takes two to make a fight. Miss Brooks says so. He's always telling me I lie. He never said I couldn't have some melon today. Maybe if I had left it alone he would have given me some. Perhaps I'd better take it back."
She stooped over, grabbed the end of the bag and started back down the trail again, but at the first step she stopped. It was the wrong end of the sack she had clutched, and the melon had rolled out into the sand.
"Oh, gracious! However did that happen?" she exclaimed aloud in horror, gazing with fascinated eyes at the battered, hopelessly scarred ball which had once been so smooth and round and green. Scarcely a bit of the skin remained on its sides, and a great, jagged crack almost split the thing in halves.
"Now, I've done it! What will Dad say? Guess I'll get a licking this time sure. Well, he needn't have said I lied. Serves him right that his old melon is spoiled. It's a pity to waste it, though. Guess I better eat it. If I am going to get licked, I may as well have the melon first; maybe it won't hurt so bad. It looks perfectly beautiful inside."
Down beside the shattered fruit she sat and began munching the red, sweet, juicy pulp which smelled oh, so good! But somehow the taste was bitter in her mouth, and the tempting morsels choked her when she tried to swallow them. She reviewed the previous day's happenings and began to wonder if she were entirely blameless. She had promised Mr. Carson not to get mad when folks teased her, and here she had not only got mad but had hurt Jerome, defied the teacher and stepped on her toes, wounded faithful Carrie by running away from her, angered her father and stolen his melon.
There was the sound of horse's hoofs and the rumbling of wheels on the hard roadbed, and around the rocky hillside appeared a light carriage driven by a portly, middle-aged man of professional appearance, who drew rein at sight of the child sitting there so disconsolately with the broken watermelon between her knees.
"Hello, sis," he said pleasantly, "can—"
"If you will follow the road you will reach Silver Bow in just a few seconds. It's right around that next curve," recited Tabitha rapidly, as if well accustomed to directing travelers.
The man smiled in amusement, and Tabitha wondered vaguely where she had seen him before, for he certainly looked familiar. "I happen to be staying at Silver Bow just at present, so I know where to go," he answered genially, removing his hat to fan himself, and exposing to view a head of wavy red-brown hair streaked liberally with gray. "I was going to ask you if you could tell me what you were doing up there and where you got that watermelon."
He waited expectantly, but no further explanation was forthcoming, and he gently reminded her, "I am listening."
"Well, I don't intend to tell you," she burst forth hotly, "for it is none of your business!"
Instantly the kindly face became grave and he bowed politely as he gathered up the reins, saying, "Oh, I beg your pardon, little girl; it was rude of me to ask such a question. I forgot my manners."
She felt his unspoken reproof keenly and her face flushed with shame, but before he could drive on she cried impetuously, "It wasn't your manners that were forgot, it was mine. I have to be so polite to Dad and Miss Brooks that I don't have any manners left, I reckon. I am sorry I was rude. I stole this melon and drug it up here to plague Dad 'cause he said I couldn't have any, but it got smashed all into bits coming up, so I thought I better eat it so's to save it. Aunt Maria doesn't like anything to go to waste. But the melon is sour, I reckon, and I'm sorry I took it. I'd have lugged it back again but it was a sight to be seen and wouldn't have held together till I could have got it there. Now I s'pose I'd better go home and get ready to be licked. It will surely come this time."
As this torrent of words tumbled from her lips she rose from her seat and slid down the rocky incline to the road where the stranger sat staring at her in absolute amazement.
"Are you Tabitha Catt?" he asked at last.
"Yes, sir. How did you know me?" and a look of intense bitterness crept into her eyes as the hateful name sounded in her ears.
"My boy is in school here, and he told me—"
"Is your boy Jerome Vane?" she interrupted, suddenly recognizing the great similarity between man and boy.
"Yes, I am Dr. Vane—"
"Well, I must say you've got the impolitest boy I ever saw! I threw 'most a bucket of water in his face yesterday and punched his nose good. Dad saw me and that's why he said I couldn't have any watermelon."
The doctor's face was a study, his lips twitched and his eyes grew suspiciously bright. Leaning over the side of the carriage, he held out his hand to the barefooted girl among the rocks and said tenderly,
"Come home with me, Tabitha. The little mother wants to see you. Jerome is sorry and he will never torment you again. He didn't understand."
Tabitha eyed the doctor doubtfully. Maybe he wanted to lick her for the blow she had given Jerome; but one look at the sympathetic face dispelled her fear, and she started as if to accept his invitation, then drew back.
"Thank you, Dr. Vane. I should be pleased to accompany you," she said with all the politeness and formality she could muster, "but I reckon I'd better be going home now. Dad is probably looking for me by this time. He'll want his melon."
The doctor surveyed the shattered fruit on the mountainside, and then looked down into the small brown face with its pathetically drooping mouth.
"We'll drive around by the store and get another melon, Tabitha, and everything will be all right. Won't that do?"
"Why didn't I think of that before?" she exclaimed in visible relief. "How much will it cost? Four bits?"
"Yes, maybe a little more. Such things cost more here on the desert than they do where they use raised."
Her face fell. "I've got only forty-two cents in my bank. I reckon I'll have to take the licking after all."
"I'll give you the rest—" he began.
"No, I mustn't take money from people unless I've done something to earn it. But—if you will lend me eight cents, I'll pay it back as soon as I can earn it,—that is, if you can wait for it. Maybe it will be quite a while before I get any more. There ain't many things a girl can do on the desert to earn money fast. In Ferndale I used to pick berries. Do you think you can wait?"
"Yes, indeed, Tabitha. Climb in and we'll hurry that melon home before anyone knows it is gone."
Up into the carriage she scrambled and away they drove towards town.
TABITHA BEGS PARDON
With the melon resting securely in the cooler at home, Tabitha felt better, but the weight of her sins was not wholly lifted yet, and she dreaded to meet the doctor's wife after the encounter she had had with Jerome the previous day; so the ride through town to the little brown cottage high on the mountainside overlooking the "flat" was very silent, and when the doctor lifted her from the carriage at his door, her eyes wore their frightened look, so pathetic in one so young. He noted the unchildlike expression on the thin face and felt her trembling in his arms, but before he could think of anything cheerful to say, Jerome bounded out of the house and met her half way up the steps with the impulsive words,
"I was very rude to you yesterday, Tabitha, and I am truly sorry. I was all to blame and I should have told Miss Brooks so. Won't you be friends with me now?"
Sincerity rang in his voice and his face was full of contrition. Tabitha's resentment was wholly conquered and her last fear vanished. She gravely extended her hand to meet his and the hatchet was buried in that handclasp.
"Come now and see Mamma. She's lying down because she has been awfully sick. That's what we came here for, and she is anxious to see you."
The next instant Tabitha stood in the presence of a tiny, white-faced woman with the most wonderful eyes she had ever seen. They shone like stars but held the warmth of the sun in their glance, and instinctively the child recognized in this frail invalid a friend. Without waiting for the formality of an introduction, without stopping to think of consequences, Tabitha flew to the couch and dropped down beside it, crying remorsefully,
"I hit him an awful whack right on the nose, and I meant to. I just itched to thrash him good. If I'd been a boy I reckon I would have pitched into him. I nearly drowned him in the water-bucket and wouldn't say I was sorry. I wasn't then, but I am now. Will—will—will you be friends with me after all that?"
"Poor little girl, poor little girl," said the weak voice, as the thin arms clasped her gently around. "Of course I'll be your friend. I am sorry Jerome teased you. I am afraid he likes to plague folks whenever he can, but he doesn't mean to be bad. You mustn't pay any attention to what he says and he will soon get tired of tormenting."
"That's just what Mr. Carson said, and I promised I would try not to get mad, but I forgot. I've got a perfectly terrible temper, and when it boils up inside of me it just sizzles all over everything before I can stop it. Why, I even sassed Dad! I thought sure he'd lick me, but he didn't."
"Tell me all about it," urged the tender-hearted woman, and Tabitha poured out her pent-up griefs and longings into those sympathetic ears with a passion that astonished her listeners.
"I don't know what I'd do without Tom. He's my 'Guardian Angel.' Did you ever read the book called The Guardian Angel? The surveyor let me take it. It's about a girl who had almost as ugly a temper as mine. She didn't have any mother or father. I've got Dad, but he hates us. I reckon it must be a job to move us everywhere he wants to go, and it is particularly bad now, 'cause Aunt Maria doesn't like it and she keeps saying she won't stay. Tom's most grown up now though, and when he gets through college and has a surveying office of his own, I'm going to keep house for him. In two more years now he'll be ready to go to Reno to college. Mr. Carson and the surveyor are helping him with his lessons, so he doesn't have very much time to teach me any more; but I am way ahead of Carrie and Nettie and the other girls of my age and I'm going to learn all I can so's I can help Tom. If I only had a pretty name, I think I could stand Dad, but it's awfully trying to have two such things to bother you all the time. There, now, I didn't mean to say that! Miss Brooks says it is wicked to talk so, and I made up my mind to forever quit saying mean things. I guess I am pretty bad, for I do forget so awfully often—so very often. 'Awfully' isn't a nice word to use, Miss Brooks says. Do you know, her first name is Stella and it means 'star.' Isn't that a pretty name? My first name is Tabitha and it means cat; so I am a double cat, for you see my last name is Catt, too."
"But, my dear," interrupted the woman gently, "nobody is going to care what your name is if you are sweet and happy and sunny. They will like you without ever thinking what the name means."
"Now isn't it funny that two people should think the same way? Mr. Carson told me all that, but I was afraid he didn't know for certain, because he isn't a Catt. But then, you aren't a Catt, either."
"Other people can have bad tempers, dear. I used to get just terribly angry when I was a little girl—"
"You don't look like it now. How did you get over it?" The black eyes glistened with eagerness and the little face was full of wistfulness.
"My mother used to talk to me and—"
"I might be better if I had a mother. Aunt Maria doesn't know how to mother anything."
"I didn't have my mother always, dear, but long after she was gone, I remembered the things she used to tell me, and they helped me so much to control my temper."
"What did she say?" she asked curiously.
"Many, many things, Tabitha; too many to think of now. But she gave me a rule to help me from getting mad, which I have never forgotten. She told me to count ten when I was angry before I spoke a word to anyone; and by the time I had counted ten I had hold of my temper, so it couldn't get away. Sometimes, of course, I made mistakes and said things I regretted afterwards, and then my mother taught me to go to the people I had hurt and ask their forgiveness. It was often very hard to do, but I felt so much happier afterward, and I have never been sorry for begging a person's pardon."
"Even if they weren't nice to you?"
"Yes, dear, even if they were horrid. I knew I had done my part and could forget all about the trouble; but if I hadn't told them I was sorry, then I was unhappy all the time."
Tabitha looked thoughtfully out of the window far across the desert to the mountains beyond, and finally answered slowly, "Well, that's worth trying, though being a Catt seems to make everything different for me. Maybe—" The noon whistle blew, and the child leaped to her feet with a startled exclamation. "I must be going now. Aunt Maria wasn't at home when we took the melon down, and no one knows where I've gone. Good-by!"
Away she rushed down the mountain path and up the main street of the town toward home. As she neared the schoolhouse, she saw through the open window the teacher correcting papers at her desk, her head bowed low over her work and one hand shading her eyes.
"I was real wicked to her," said Tabitha to herself. "I ought to tell her how sorry I am—for I am sorry now."
Impulsively she ran across the yard, threw open the door and burst into the room.
"Teacher—Miss Brooks, I was real ugly and wicked yesterday. He did make me awfully mad when he said such horrid things about my name, but I oughtn't to have thrown water in his face nor dumped him in that puddle. He said I did—but I never saw that part of it. He says he's sorry and I'll believe him now. Will—will you be friends with me again? I forgot my manners when I sassed you. I didn't mean to. It was real hateful of me to tromp on your toes and bear down hard on your knee, and I'm ever so sorry. Can you—forgive me?"
Oh, but it was hard to say that, and the culprit stood shifting from one foot to the other in embarrassment and shame with eyes down-cast and cheeks aflame. There was a quick step on the rough floor, a strong arm encircled her gently, and for a brief moment she was held in a close embrace while Miss Brooks whispered tenderly in her ear. Then they had a long talk—Tabitha had forgotten all about the dinner hour—and when they parted it was with a better understanding of each other.
"She kissed me," breathed the child in ecstasy as she hurried up the hill. "That's the first time a lady ever kissed me, except Mrs. Carson. It is so nice to have friends! And Mrs. Vane is right, it does feel good when you've told folks you are sorry. I wonder—there's Dad—I sassed him and stole his watermelon. But he's hated me ever since I was born. I wonder if it would be worth while to tell him I'm sorry. I wonder if I would be lying if I said that to him. I wish he was like Carrie's father or Dr. Vane; I could tell them I was sorry and really feel sorry. Perhaps if I told him I knew how wicked I was, the sorriness would come later. I'll try it this time, and if it doesn't work—well, I needn't do it again."
With fluttering heart and breathing quickly, she boldly entered the small kitchen where the rest of the family were just rising from dinner. The father scowled disapprovingly at her tardiness, but before he could utter a word of reproof, Tabitha marched up to him and rapidly began,
"I was real mad at your saying I had been fighting when I hadn't hit Jerome but once and he had never hit me at all, and I was madder still when you said I couldn't have any watermelon; so I stole the whole thing out of the cooler and hid it up among the rocks, but it got smashed when I dragged it over the stones, so it wasn't fit to bring back when I began to think it was a licking this time sure.
"The doctor came along just then and told me maybe if I bought another melon it would be all right, so I did, borrowing eight cents of him, for which I must work until I get it paid back. I think this melon is better than the one you got anyhow, but if you still think it's got to be a licking, why, I'm ready."
She paused for breath, while he, speechless with astonishment at this lengthy confession, stared at her with uncomprehending eyes. Was this Tabitha? What could have happened to bring about this state of affairs?
"Teacher and Mrs. Vane say it is wicked to get mad and we always ought to beg folks'—" she could not say 'forgiveness' to him—"folks' pardon when we say or do things we ought not to. I ought not to have toted that melon off. What are you going to do about it?"
She was trembling from head to foot with excitement and nervous dread, and it seemed to her that he had never looked so formidable before; but though her heart quaked, she courageously stood her ground, and waited for him to name her sentence.
"You better eat your dinner and help your aunt clear away the dishes and do up the other work instead of gadding all over the neighborhood," he said gruffly to hide his feelings, and taking his hat, he passed out of the door, leaving a surprised but much relieved little girl to enjoy a huge slice of watermelon which she found on her plate.
A BRAVE LITTLE CATT
Miss Brooks was going away. This was her last week of school and next September when the children gathered again in the familiar old building, there would be a new teacher in her stead. The children were disconsolate, for in the three years that she had instructed them in the mysterious ways of knowledge, they had come to love her very dearly and to consider her one of their possessions. So it was a great shock to learn of her intentions, and particularly was this true with Tabitha whose grief at the impending loss was too deep for words. She could only stare and stare at the beloved face as the days slipped by lessening the teacher's stay with them, until Miss Brooks was so haunted by those pathetically appealing black eyes that she could scarcely sleep and began to wonder why it was that she should feel so much like a criminal every time she looked at the child.
At last a happy thought occurred to her. She interviewed Mr. Carson, Dr. Vane and other prominent men of the town, with the result that the last Monday of the term she faced the scholars with a happy smile on her lips and hope in her heart, as she announced, "Children, I have some good news to tell you—"
"You're not going away after all!" breathed Tabitha ecstatically, but the next instant her face fell, for the teacher gently shook her head to signify that this guess was wrong.
"No, it isn't that, for I really cannot come back here next fall, children, or I would. But as long as I am going away, I thought we would celebrate it by having a farewell picnic. In the city where I live if any of our friends go away to live somewhere else, we always give them a little party as a sort of good-by to them, and we have a jolly time which they can remember always. Instead of having a party here, I thought it would be nice if we could go down to the river for a picnic, so I asked some of the gentlemen here in town about it and they told me that we can get wagons enough to take us all down there a week from tomorrow. It is such a long, long way we couldn't walk. It is a pretty place, too, and many of you haven't been there before. We will take our lunch and stay all day, coming home before it gets dark. Some of the parents are willing to accompany us, and we will have a fine time. How many of you would like to go?"
Up went every hand in the room and the faces of the children beamed in happy anticipation, for picnics were almost unknown here on the barren desert, and any novelty was gladly welcomed. So the scholars began happy plans for this unusual gala day, and all that long week little else was thought of. This was just what Miss Brooks had hoped for, because in their looking forward to this extraordinary pleasure in their humdrum lives, they ceased to harass their teacher with mournful laments and direful prophecies, and even Tabitha's face lost some of its reproachful look.
The picnic day dawned at last, clear, cloudless and warm but not too hot, for the desert summer was not fairly upon them yet; and with lunch-baskets and buckets on their arms, and faces wreathed with expectant smiles, the thirty children gathered around the low schoolhouse impatiently waiting for the teams.
Both of Carrie's parents, Susie's mother, Dr. Vane and Herman's aunt were to help Miss Brooks take care of her restless charges and make the day a success; so no wonder everyone was happy in their anticipation of a good time. Then, too, some of the miners who had heard the great event talked up, got together in the dead of night and decorated the several rigs with gay bunting, fastening two small flags to the front of each wagon and even trimming up the horses' harnesses until the results were quite dazzling to childish eyes. What did it matter to them that some of the bunting had been watersoaked and that the flags were faded almost white? The effect was gay and festive and the whole town's population turned out to see the procession start up the mountain road lustily singing My Country, while they waved their handkerchiefs and caps in the early morning sunshine in proud acknowledgment of the cheers which greeted them on every side. Oh, it was a happy day for Tabitha, and under cover of the music she confidingly whispered to Carrie that this was the first picnic she had ever been allowed to attend, which fact surprised that little miss exceedingly.
It was a long drive to the river, up hill and down, over rocky roads, through sandy soil, among the ugly Spanish bayonets and cacti resplendent with scarlet blossoms, and over the desert, now a mass of gorgeous colors, for the summer suns had not yet burned out the little life which the winter rains had coaxed into blooming. How beautiful the gold and crimson flowers looked dotted over the hills and the flat like a brilliant carpet with its sage-green background and occasional dash of deeper green where patches of "filaree" covered the sandy soil!
How glorious it was to watch the gayly plumed birds as they swung from bush to bush among the yuccas and greasewood, pouring out their very souls in their joyous morning lay, seemingly with no fear of the noisy, happy picnickers rumbling along the roadway! Cottontails and jackrabbits darted across the path and into hiding, an occasional harmless snake lifted its head to survey them and then glided away among the rocks, and twice a startled covey of quail rose from the underbrush and vanished in the blue mountain air. Oh, it was grand! How could she ever have thought the desert lonely and barren and hideous!
Then the river came into view and she held her breath in delight, for the purple haze of the mountains beyond hung low in the valley, and lent an indescribable charm to the whole surrounding country, as if it were not a reality, but some great, grand picture hung before them which they could gaze upon but never reach, for, as they approached the enchanted spot, the beautiful mountains as slowly receded, still clad in their purple veil and still mysteriously alluring.
Under a clump of low, glistening cottonwoods among the tall, rank swale-grass and rough-leaved yellow-weed, the picnic party came to a halt and the merry children swarmed down over the wagon wheels, eager to begin their day's frolic beside the sluggish river.
"Now, if someone will just take care of the baby," suggested Susie's mother as they unloaded the lunch baskets, "I'll help the other ladies get dinner ready and you can have lunch just that much sooner."
"Oh, let me, Mrs. McKittrick," cried Tabitha, who had wished all the morning that she had been in the rig with the McKittrick family so she might hold the little dimpled, laughing mite, who made friends with everyone and was worshipped by all the children, but remained unspoiled in spite of the attentions showered upon him by this admiring court.
"Well, all right, Tabitha. Watch him and see that he doesn't roll down the bank or put anything in his mouth. He's into everything."
"What's his name?"
"He hasn't any yet. We can't find one pretty enough for him."
"And he is 'most a year old!"
"Yes, he will be a year next month, but he is the first boy in a family of four girls, and we can't decide what to call him, so he has no name yet. You might think up some pretty ones to suggest. We've exhausted everyone else's lists."
She laughed as she spoke, but Tabitha thought she was thoroughly in earnest, and seizing the baby, she ran away to ponder over the vital question of pretty names, confident of finding one that would suit the over-particular parents.
"I'd like to call him Dionysius if he was mine," she confided to Carrie, who soon joined her in her self-appointed task of nursemaid, for the two girls were seldom apart; "but—after—that time—well, he might not like it when he grew up. I am afraid it might be unlucky."
"Frederick is a pretty name," ventured Carrie. "That's papa's."
"Yes, that's not bad, but I reckon Mrs. McKittrick has heard of it already, for I know lots of people called that. She wants something real pretty. I know how it is, for my name is so perfectly horrid that sometimes it seems as if I can't endure it. I wouldn't want to pick out a name that this darling baby would hate when he grew up. It must be something awfully nice. How do you think she would like Rosslyn? I have liked that name ever since I heard it and was always sorry I could not stay in Ferndale and get acquainted with the boy it belonged to, and his cousin Rosalie."
"If you had stayed there I never would have known you, Pussy," suggested Carrie, for Tabitha was her idol and she shuddered when she thought how lonely it would be if Tabitha should move away now and leave her there.
"That's so; I forgot it just for a minute. I'm sure Rosalie could never have been any nicer than you are, and I don't believe Rosslyn was nicer than Jerome, though Jerome does tease me dreadfully sometimes. He doesn't mean to, and he always tells me he is sorry. I like the name Jerome, but Mrs. McKittrick says she hates it, so it would never do to suggest that."
"Don't they use last names sometimes for first names? Mrs. McKittrick thinks Dr. Vane is splendid. I heard her tell mamma so. He saved the baby when it was so terribly sick and the other doctor said it could not get well."
"Maybe it would do for part of the name, though I wouldn't want to call him Vane every day. That would sound as if he was a peacock. See him pull that flower to pieces just as if he was trying to study how it is put together. Maybe he will grow up to be a big botany man. I would like to be one myself if I didn't intend to keep house for Tom. Oh, the baby has started for the river!"
Both girls sprang up and gave chase and Carrie straightway forgot all about the name problem, but Tabitha's busy brain puzzled over it all that happy day, even while she romped and played with her mates in lively games of "Farmer in the Dell," "Old Mother Witch," "Drop the Handkerchief," and all the other childhood favorites. Once she almost forgot it. They were playing "Blind Man's Buff," when Jerome, who was "it," succeeded in catching her by her hair after an animated scrimmage. Her braid promptly gave away her identity, for no other girl in school possessed such long tresses; and Jerome was elated at having so readily discovered who his prisoner was, all the more so because this was the first time Tabitha had been caught; so he teasingly cried, "Aha, this is Miss Me-a-ow!"
How the children shouted, and for a moment Tabitha's face was crimson with passion and she lifted a doubled-up fist threateningly; but before the expected blow fell, Tabitha's lips curved suddenly into a smile, her arm dropped to her side, and she gayly answered, "Yes, Mr. Ki-yip-ki-yi-yi, put on my blinders."
Only Miss Brooks of the grown people had witnessed the child's struggle, and as they were sitting down to the generous lunch spread under the cottonwoods, she drew the flushed face down beside her and said very softly, "That was well done, dear. I am proud of you."
"You needn't be," was the candid reply. "I was all ready to scratch for all I was worth when I saw the baby and I knew I wasn't a fit person to name such a little darling if I couldn't stand a little teasing. Jerome didn't mean anything by it and was sorry as soon as he had said it. He came to me afterwards and told me so, and then I was doubly glad I had kept still. But it was really the baby who made me. I even forgot Mrs. Vane's rule of counting ten."
"It will be easier to remember the next time," Miss Brooks told her, feeling devoutly thankful that the day had not been marred by a display of that fierce, uncontrollable temper, and in her gratitude she heaped Tabitha's plate with sandwiches and all the other good things.
"Now the baby must have his nap," said Mrs. McKittrick when the last crumb of cake had disappeared and the last drop of lemonade vanished. "I'm going to lay him under the wagons where it is coolest, and you children play down there by that other clump of trees, or else he won't sleep a wink."
"We're going to tell stories and listen to Mr. Carson's talking machine for awhile," volunteered Susie, "so we won't make much noise. Come on, ma, baby will be all right there."
The mother made the tiny boy comfortable in a shady nook and then joined the group of children gathered under the cottonwoods a little further down the river, laughing over the queer songs the machine was grinding out; and in this exciting sport all thought of the baby was swallowed up, except by Tabitha, who was still busily engaged in fitting together all the possible and impossible names she had ever heard, in the hope of finding some combination which would suit the beautiful boy and please his adoring family.
"Rosslyn Lyle—no, that won't do; it is too hard to pronounce. Rosslyn Leander—that is almost as bad. Rosslyn simply won't go with any name beginning with 'L.' Rosslyn Thomas so he will be named after Tom; but then probably Mrs. McKittrick doesn't like Thomas for a name. Few people do, though I think it is rather pretty when it belongs to someone else but a Catt. Rosslyn Brooks after teacher. Why didn't I think of that before! Mrs. McKittrick thinks Miss Brooks is the loveliest teacher she ever knew; I'm sure she would like the Brooks part of it, and I don't see how anyone can help liking the name of Rosslyn. It isn't as grand sounding as Dionysius, but it is prettier for a baby. Two names are so short, though; and anyway Carrie thinks Mrs. McKittrick would like part of it to be Vane after the doctor. Mr. McKittrick works in the Silver Legion Mines, so I suppose he wouldn't mind if part of the name was Mr. Carson's. I don't like Frederick very well, so it would have to be Carson. Well, Rosslyn Brooks Carson Vane sounds quite pretty—very pretty—I like it ever so much. I wonder what Mrs. McKittrick will think of it."
She looked around to see what had become of the mother, and beheld a sight that froze the blood in her veins. Close beside the wagon under which the sleeping baby lay was a huge snake coiled as if ready to spring, and her heart stood still with terror as she realized that one move of those little unconscious hands might mean death for the precious darling. She tried to scream, but her voice stuck in her throat. She looked wildly about her for help, but the children were wandering on the river bank gathering flowers and Mr. Carson was busy with the talking machine which was evidently out of order. Dr. Vane was nowhere in sight nor were any of the women within call.
She must rescue the baby herself. She had often seen Tom kill snakes since they had come to live on the desert, and once he had dispatched a large rattler not far from their cottage, though poisonous reptiles were not often found so close to town. Oh, if Tom were only there!
Then her glance fell upon a smooth rock at her feet. She was a good shot, but could she risk it with that little life hanging in the balance? There was another stone, and another. She clutched them with trembling hands, crept cautiously forward and, taking careful aim, hurled the rock at the head of the coiled serpent. She missed, the snake coiled, more tightly, sounded its warning and sprung straight towards her. This was what she had hoped for; and leaping nimbly aside, before he could coil for another spring, she struck him squarely on the head, following that blow up with a perfect rain of rocks, carefully keeping out of range lest he should coil again, and hurling each missile with all her fierce strength, losing her fear of her opponent as her anger grew.
Suddenly a shot rang sharply through the air, there was a sound of excited voices, the children came running toward her with the baby's white-faced mother in advance; and Tabitha, dropping weakly to the ground, burst into wild, hysterical sobs. With his smoking pistol still covering the shattered reptile, Dr. Vane, almost as white as the frantic mother, gathered the trembling girl in his arms and tried to soothe her fright, saying, "There, there, my little Puss; it is all over! The snake is dead and the baby isn't harmed at all. Don't cry like that! You did a very brave thing. Look up and see the old fellow."
Mr. Carson and the boys had clustered around the snake, examining it curiously, and now the man lifted his head and looked down at the doctor, still bending over the girl.
"I believe she had killed it, Vane, without your bullet. What splendid nerve! The fellow's got eight rattles. Do you want them for a souvenir, Tabitha?" But she shook her head and clung to the doctor, quivering with nervous dread.
After a long time the children were quieted, and as the day drew to a close, they clambered back into the wagons, and set out on their homeward drive, rather subdued, but happy that everyone was safe, and proud of their mate whose prompt action had perhaps saved a life so dear to them all. Tabitha was a heroine! Poor Tabitha, such an unexpected honor was almost as hard to bear as the teasing she so bitterly resented, and she hid her head in embarrassment and confusion, refusing at first to look up or say a word, except to the baby, who cooed and crowed in delight in her arms.
"Do you know," said the mother, whose face was still white and drawn from her fright, "I am going to let you name the baby. It is a very little thing to do for a girl who has saved his life, but I'm not rich and can't pay a big reward like rich folks do."
"Oh, Mrs. McKittrick, can I really name him? I don't want any reward for trying to save him. Even if you had lots of money I wouldn't take it. He is worth more than money and the happiest thing you could do for me is to let me name him. I've got a splendid one already picked out for him. I was just going to ask you what you thought of it when I saw the snake. It is Rosslyn Brooks Carson Vane. Isn't that splendid?"
So the McKittrick baby was named at last.
CARRIE GOES AWAY TO SCHOOL
Tabitha stood at the open window of Carrie's pretty room and looked out over the scorched landscape burning under the pitiless sun of late summer. But she did not see the scanty, shrivelled vegetation of the parched mountains, nor was she aware of the terrible heat of the day that seemed to have burned away the ambition of every living creature. On the floor beside the little white bed with its pink draperies sat Carrie, panting in the sultry atmosphere, and anxiously watching the figure beside the window, as she fanned herself with all the energy she could command.
"You aren't a bit glad, Puss," she said at last, trying to keep the disappointment out of her voice. But if Tabitha heard she gave no sign and the tears rose in the gentle blue eyes of the speaker. "I thought you would think it was nice." Still Tabitha made no reply, but kept her gaze fixed on the hot sands of the sizzling desert. "We have planned it out so often, and now when w—I can go, you don't like it."
Gulping back the lump that rose in her throat, the black-eyed girl by the window wheeled toward her playmate, now lying prostrate on the floor, and dropping on her knees beside her she exclaimed penitently,
"I am mean, Carrie! I am glad because you are going away to school, but—it is so hard to have you leave here—when I can't go, too. Ain't I selfish? It isn't as if it would be only for a week or even a month, but for whole years with only a few days here in the winter! And you're the only friend I ever had so near my own age!"
Tabitha was crying now and Carrie forgot her own disappointment in soothing the greater sorrow of her mate.
"Don't feel so bad, Puss; maybe you can go, too."
"No, I can't! There isn't any use of thinking that, Carrie Carson! It takes money to go to boarding school and Dad never has any any more. His claims take all he gets. I wish he would let the Cat Group go to Guinea and work for the Silver Legion like Mr. McKittrick does. Mercedes McKittrick is going next year. I want to go so much. I'm almost as far as I can get in this little mite of a school and I can't bear to think of growing up a know-nothing."
"You won't be a know-nothing, Puss, even if you never went to school another day. Papa says it is ambition that wins, and you're the most ambitious girl I ever knew. I'd like to go to boarding school for the fun of it, but I do hate to study. Papa thinks maybe—"
She hesitated, remembering that she had been cautioned not to tell his plans, for fear they might not be successful, but it was hard for Carrie to keep such a beautiful secret, when she felt so confident that this kind, big-hearted father would succeed in overcoming even Mr. Catt's prejudices in regard to a boarding-school education for his one small daughter.
"Maybe—just maybe—he can get your father to let you go."
Tabitha was silent for a moment and the black eyes shone wistfully; then she answered with a heavy sigh, "There isn't the least chance of Dad's letting me go, Carrie. I know Dad. Didn't he tell Tom that if Tom wanted to go to college he would have to earn his own money, for he had no sympathy for 'higher education'? No, he won't let me go, I know; and besides, he hasn't the money."
"Papa will p—" began Carrie, and then stopped. She had intended to say, "pay all expenses," but before the words were spoken that might raise Tabitha's hopes again, she remembered that she must not tell this part of her father's plans, and was silent. But apparently Tabitha had not heard, for she was saying,
"Tom has worked hard and earned his money for the first year and now he is to go to Reno and live at Lincoln Hall maybe, while he studies. Perhaps he can go clear through college without stopping. He says he means to finish his course if it takes eight years to get through—but it means a heap of money for him to earn, and it will be a long time before he could help me any, and I can't draw maps for the surveyor or weigh those little gold buttons like Tom does to earn money. There aren't any berries around here to pick, and Dad won't let me hunt centipedes and scorpions to sell for specimens, like the boys do. Jack Leavitt has earned more than ten dollars that way. Jimmy Gates kills rattlesnakes for pay, but I'm afraid to do that, and I suppose Dad would object to that, too. There is really nothing on the desert that a girl can do to earn money."
Still Carrie was hopeful and tried to impart her optimism to her heavy-hearted companion.
"I believe something will happen yet, Puss, so you can go. I don't care about boarding school at all if you can't go too. Why, Puss, what would I do with no one to help me with my lessons? Papa and mamma won't be there to tell me how the horrid examples must be worked, and I might just as well stay at home if you don't go. I will never be able to see any sense in the lessons. You always make everything so clear."
Tabitha smiled in appreciation of the compliment, but was not comforted, for to her the hopelessness of the situation was very evident, and she changed the conversation by observing, "I think you have the sweetest dresses to wear there. Six new ones! Just think of it! I never in all my life had so many at one time, and I never had any so pretty. Two white ones, a pink, two blues and a brown—aren't they dear? And three real hats! You ought to be the happiest girl on earth, Carrie."
She bent over the bed where the new wardrobe was displayed, pretending to examine the dainty apparel, but in reality to hide the tears which would persist in gathering in her eyes at thought of separation from this playmate who had helped make life so happy for her since she had come to Silver Bow.
How welcome that voice from across the road sounded just then when she wanted to get away and be alone for a time with her thoughts, and with a hasty hug of the rosy-cheeked girl still on the floor by the bed, she rushed out of the house to answer her aunt's call.
In the cool of the evening Tom found her sitting among the rocks high up on the mountainside, gazing with somber eyes into the golden west, for the ocean lay in that direction, and it was close to the seashore that Carrie was going away to school.
"What's the matter, Puss?" he asked gently, reading tragedy in her mournful attitude, and secretly wondering who would champion the little sister's cause when he had gone away to college.
"Nothing much, Tom," she answered, and then amended her statement; "that is, nothing that can be helped."
He sat down on the rock beside her and waited for her confession, but she was silent, and for a long time they sat staring off across the flat to the mountains beyond, where the afterglow of the brilliant sunset still hung and radiated from each peak. Then he spoke, "Puss, in two weeks I leave for the University. Did you know it?"
She nodded her head.
"Mr. Carson has just come home from Reno and he brought me all sorts of booklets and views of the place and particularly of the college buildings. Do you want to see them?"
"Yes!" She was all eagerness, for Tom's joys were hers, and his achievements the pride of her heart. So he laid a bundle of papers and pictures in her lap and drew nearer that he might make explanations and answer the questions she was sure to ask.
"There is a High School there, too, Puss, and if I have success in earning more than enough money to put me through college, I will send for you and you will keep house for me and go to High School there. Then when you graduate from that department, you will be ready to go to college, and I will be earning a salary, or maybe have an office all my own, so I can help you through the University."
"That would be nice, Tom, ever so nice, but I am afraid you will never earn the money. It will take a heap. Carrie is going away to boarding school now, and I want to go with her, but Dad won't let me."
"So you know?" The relief in Tom's voice made Tabitha look up.
"Have you seen Dad yet?"
"No, but then I know he never would let me go and there is no use in asking."
"Tom, has he said anything to you about it?" asked Tabitha, for she could read this brother's face like a book, and understood now that there was more behind his words than he had told her.
"No, Puss, not a word," he declared.
But she wasn't deceived, and after a moment of silence said, "Then Mr. Carson has."
"No, Mr. Carson hasn't mentioned it—to me."
The pause was hardly perceptible, but Tabitha's quick ears discerned it, and she triumphantly confronted Tom with the declaration, "You heard him ask Dad!"
"What a mind-reader you are!" he laughed.
"Now, didn't you?"
"And Dad said I couldn't go?"
"I told Carrie that was what would happen." Her voice was very quiet, her face very calm, and the fierce outbreak he had expected did not come. He was amazed but he understood the struggle going on within that tempestuous heart, and was touched by her silent despair.
"Puss," he ventured after another long pause, "would you rather have me stay here with you instead of going to Reno?"
He held his breath for her answer and his heart beat wildly. How could he renounce his ambitions or even postpone their fulfilment when they meant so much to him? But his mother had left the little sister in his care, and he was all she had to love and help her over the rough path her feet had been treading all her short life. What would she do without him, particularly if Carrie was to go away, too? Miss Brooks had already gone and the Vanes might at any time return to their city home from their long sojourn in this little desert town. Tabitha would be bereft indeed if he went to college. These thoughts flashed through his mind as he asked that vital question and waited for her reply.
"Why, Tom!" she cried in utter surprise, "do you suppose I'd want you to stay here with me when you've got the chance to get a 'higher education'?" (Those words seemed to fascinate her.) "That's better than if I could go. You're a boy—a man, I mean—and you have to know lots to be a mining engineer like the surveyor. I'm just a little girl, and it doesn't matter whether I know anything or not. You must go to the University while you have the chance, Tom. I wish I could help you earn the money so you would be sure of the whole course—"
"You precious little Puss!" he cried with a voice that would tremble in spite of his efforts to hold it steady, and slipping his arm around her he gave her a big, boyish hug. "Some day everything will come out all right and I am sure it won't be too late for boarding school and college either."
Unaccustomed to such demonstration even from the gentle-hearted boy who loved her so dearly, Tabitha sat looking shyly up at the tender brown eyes above her, thinking how nice it felt to have his protecting arm holding her close, when without warning, he stooped and kissed her full on the lips.
"Oh, Tom, you are the dearest brother! I am so glad you are going to college. Then you will grow up to be like Mr. Carson instead of like a—Catt."
"Dad went to college."
Tabitha was startled. "Why, Tom!"
"Yes, he did; but he was expelled for something another boy did, and then after he started to earn his own living, his partner cheated him out of his share in a valuable mine and—that's what makes him what he is now."
"How do you know this?"
"Oh, I've remembered things I heard him or Aunt Maria say, and then today he told Mr. Carson some of the events of his life. He has been rather unfortunate right straight along. Only last New Year's someone 'jumped' one of his claims that he had somehow neglected to prove up on."
"I don't see why that should make him so—so—I'm glad you are different, Tom. Do you suppose he will keep on until he is like the hermit of the hills?"
"Who is the hermit of the hills? I never heard of him before."
"Why, yes, you have! He lives in that little shack over there;" pointing to a rough, dilapidated hut far down on the mountain side, built of odds and ends of lumber and pieced out with empty oil cans, rusted red with the rains of many winters. Made without windows or openings of any sort, except a narrow door on one side, it must have presented a very dreary, uninviting appearance to its one occupant, who was the only person who had ever seen its interior, for owing to his peculiar habits, people regarded him as crazy and left him severely alone. He had never been known to molest anyone, but sought rather to avoid meeting human beings, so he was suffered to remain there in his lonely hut on the mountain with no one but a stray cur for company.
"Oh, Surly Sim! I never heard him called such a fancy name before, Puss. How did you suppose I would recognize him?"
"'The hermit of the hills' is a much grander sounding name than 'Surly Sim,' and he does look so lonely off there by himself. I should hate to think of Dad shutting himself up like that and having folks say he was crazy. He is kind to animals."
"How do you know, Puss?" asked the boy, quickly, surveying his sister with apprehensive eyes. "You don't go over there, do you?"
"No, indeed. I'm scared of him. Besides, he runs if he sees anyone coming. Carrie and I were picking flowers the first time I ever knew he lived there, or that there was even a house over there. He saw us just as he climbed out of a hole—a prospect hole, I suppose—and he ran as tight as he could for the house and shut the door. We were scared and we ran the other way and never stopped until we got home. Mr. Carson told us about him then and said he had never hurt anyone, but he would rather we didn't go over there, for he thought the man was really crazy. Since then I have often sat up here and watched him when it wasn't too hot. He just thinks lots of the little dog he has, and it is awfully homely; hasn't any tail or ears and is the worst-looking color I ever saw."
Tom laughed at her earnestness. "Poor dog!"
"Well, you needn't laugh; it is homely, and so is the cat. He has my cat. I couldn't bear to keep it, Tom. Please don't look at me like that. I was awfully hateful to it, I know, but Dad would call it 'Pussy' and I couldn't bear the sight of it. When I made sure the man was kind to the dog, I chased the cat down there. I was afraid it would come back, like it always did when I shoved it into the prospect holes; but it must have liked him right away, for it stayed. Now he has an earless cat to go with the dog. That was long ago, Tom, before the Vanes ever came here to live. I wouldn't be so mean again, but I did hate that cat terribly then. I've never tried to coax it back because it was happier there, but I am truly sorry that I was ugly to it. I don't want people to hate me because I have such a horrid temper and name. I can't change the name, but I can hold on to my temper sometimes, though it is hard work and I don't get along very well."
"You are getting along a great deal better than you think, Puss, and people don't hate you. They like you more every day, which is better than going to boarding school, isn't it?"
"Y-e-s," hesitatingly, "but I would like mighty well to go with Carrie."
"Well, I think some day maybe you can. Come home now, it is getting dark and pretty soon we won't be able to see our way down through the mesquite."
A FIRE IN THE NIGHT
"Aunt Maria, will you let me make some molasses taffy? Monday is Carrie's birthday and I haven't anything else to send her. She always gives me something on my birthday. I will be real careful and clean up everything when I am through."
"Well, I suppose you can try it, though I hate to have you messing around while I am getting your father's things ready for his trip."
"I won't mess, truly, Aunt Maria," and thankful at receiving even this grudging permission, she flew out into the tiny kitchen to the pleasant task of candy-making, reciting, as she rattled among the pots and pans:
"Lars Porsena of Clusium, By the Nine Gods he swore That the great house of Tarquin Should suffer wrong no more.
One cup of molasses, one cup of sugar—that molasses looks awfully black; I wonder if the taffy will be dark. I like the light-colored best.
'Hew down the bridge, Sir Consul, With all the speed ye may; I, with two more to help me, Will hold the foe in play.'
A lump of butter and a tablespoon of vinegar. How pretty the stuff looks boiling up higher and higher every minute. Hm, but it's hot work bending over this stove.
Four hundred trumpets sounded A peal of warlike glee, As that great host, with measured tread, And spears advanced, and ensigns spread, Rolled slowly toward the bridge's head, Where stood the dauntless Three.
My! I would like to have been there and watched them. Isn't Horatius a splendid name! And Herminius—isn't it grand! But they are like Dionysius, no one ever uses them nowadays. I believe that candy is almost done. It is brittle when I put it into water.
Round turned he, as not deigning Those craven ranks to see; Naught spake he to Lars Porsena, To Sextus naught spake he."
She seized the kettle of boiling syrup and lifted it off the stove, still speaking the impassioned lines of that stirring poem, and gesticulating wildly, heedless of the utensils in her hands.
"So he spake, and speaking sheathed The good sword by his side, And with his harness on his back, Plunged headlong in the tide."
Bang! went the kettle against a chair-back, and the seething, bubbling mess of sticky brown syrup poured in a flood over furniture, girl and floor, and trickled in a rivulet around the brim of her father's hat carelessly laid on the table while he wrestled with a refractory buckle on his grip, packed ready for his departure. A gasp of dismay escaped her lips, and Tabitha stood aghast in the midst of the ruin.
"Tabitha Catt!" exclaimed the aunt, appearing that moment in the doorway.
"Tabitha Catt!" echoed the father, looking up at the sound of the crash. "I never saw such carelessness in my life. Look at that hat! My best, too!"
"You needn't have left it on the table; that's no place for your wardrobe," burst out the indignant Tabitha, sucking one blistered finger, and frantically shaking her foot where the hot drops of syrup had clung and burned.
Her unfortunate words were like oil to a flame.
"I'll have none of your impertinence, young lady," cried the irate father, seizing her by the shoulder none too gently and giving her a shake. "You deserve to be trounced."
Tabitha's heart stood still. The day of the licking had come at last! He looked around for a stick, but the woodbox contained nothing but heavy billets, and her sentence might have been suspended had his eyes not rested upon his house slippers still lying in the middle of the floor where he had thrown them upon discovering that fussy Aunt Maria had packed them among his belongings for his journey to the east. Grabbing one of these, he struck the trembling girl half a dozen light blows across the shoulders, and then dropped it, ashamed of himself and startled at the frightened, pleading look in the black eyes raised to his in mute appeal. As the first blow descended, the terror in the thin face gave way to anger, intense, unreasoning; but she stood like a statue, silent and dry-eyed, until the slipper fell from her father's hands and he pushed her from him, saying sternly,
"What have you to say for yourself?"
She wheeled and looked at him with scornful eyes; then without a word of reply, gathered up both slippers from the floor, walked deliberately to the stove and threw them into the bed of live coals before either father or aunt could prevent.
"There, Lynne Maximilian Catt!" she exclaimed in a voice tense with passion, "you will never use that pair to larrup me with again."
He looked at her in silent amazement, and the rage died in his heart. She was the image of him. How could he blame her for displaying the passions that he himself had not learned to control? He turned back to his satchel on the floor and she, surprised that no further punishment followed her open rebellion, rushed away to her room, dribbling taffy as she ran.
"Oh, dear, Mrs. Vane's rule doesn't work at all," she moaned, nursing her blistered fingers and smarting foot, heedless of the molasses trickling down the front of her dress. "I never remember to count ten, and I suppose if I did get that far, I would let the hateful words fly after them. It is just like me. That is what comes of being a Catt! If I only had a different name maybe it would be easier; but with a whole cat name, how is anyone going to keep from scratching?"
The hot tears came, and for a long time she lay sobbing into the fat pillow which had seen so many floods of this kind that it had grown very much accustomed to it.
She heard the door open and shut and her father's footsteps died away in the distance. He had gone without another word to her; but then this was nothing unusual. He never said good-by to anyone when he left home—that is, he had never done so but once. When he had started on his last trip, he had waved his hand to her, and called, "Good-by, Tabitha. Be a good girl." She had been startled at the unexpected words, and little thrills of joy had crept through her heart every time she thought of them. They were one of the hoarded treasures in her memory book, and she had hoped he would always remember to wave a farewell when he went away again. Now she had made him angry. Well, he had made her angry, too. She didn't intend to spill the candy; he ought to know that; but he had struck her. She was twelve years old now and this was the first licking. She had dreaded it all her life; and was just beginning to think she had grown beyond the age of whippings when the dreadful punishment had befallen her. No, it didn't hurt much, the blows were not heavy enough for that, but the ignominy of it!
Why couldn't her father be like Carrie's? When he had waved his hand at her, she had thought maybe in time he might become like Mr. Carson, and now he had punished her with the licking that had threatened her ever since she could remember. She hated him!
"But I was impudent," she told herself as her fierce anger abated somewhat. "I needn't have said anything about his hat. Maybe then he wouldn't have struck me at all. Perhaps if I had said I was sorry and had cleaned up his hat again, he would have waved good-by to me. Perhaps—just perhaps he might have kissed me as Carrie's father does. But I suppose it would be too soon to expect kisses."
"Tabitha, have you gone to bed?" It was Aunt Maria's voice nervous and shaking.
"Not yet. What's the matter?" she asked.
"I thought maybe you would just as soon sleep in Tom's room tonight. There's a band of gypsies camping a little way up the road, and I don't like the idea of us two women folks being left alone all night. I tried to get Max to stay until morning, but he said he couldn't make connections if he did. I don't suppose there is anything to be afraid of, but this is our first night without a man in the house, and I am as nervous as a witch." This was a long speech for Aunt Maria, but she had a bad attack of the fidgets, and found relief in words.
Tabitha had forgotten that her father's departure would mean she and Aunt Maria must stay alone on the desert, for Tom had gone away to college ten days before; and now at her aunt's words she felt a little tremor of fear pass over her. She had never quite outgrown the feeling of oppression these black nights on the desert gave her, for the hills shut out the lights of town, and Carson's house was the only tenanted one near them. Somewhere she had heard that a man had died in the other little cottage in their neighborhood which had stood vacant ever since their arrival at Silver Bow, and it was even hinted that his ghost had come back to haunt it. True, she had never seen anything to warrant her believing these stories, but she stood in awful dread of that house beyond them; so she was only too glad for her aunt's suggestion that she sleep in Tom's bed.
Trying to put these things out of her mind and to think of more cheerful subjects, she gathered up her belongings, and crept into the little box-like room, hardly big enough to turn around in, saying in reassuring tones to Aunt Maria,
"Of course there is nothing to be afraid of. Those campers aren't gypsies, but a lot of prospectors, and I think they moved on after they had cooked supper. At least, I saw them going towards town, horses and all. I reckon they had to lay in some more supplies and so camped near the stores to get an early start in the morning."
"Well, I wish there was a man in the house. I never did like to stay alone at night, and this desert is the blackest place I ever got into. I don't believe I shall ever get used to it."
"You aren't alone. I'm here, and I'm past twelve. There isn't anything to hurt us, and we haven't anything that robbers would want if they should come along. Thieves would know better than to visit a desert town, Aunt Maria."