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The Prairie Child
by Arthur Stringer
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"I don't want this to get in the papers," explained my husband. "It's—it's all so ridiculous. I've put Kearney and two of his men on the job. He's a private detective, and he'll keep busy until he gets the boy back."

Duncan got up from the table, rather heavily. He stood hesitating a moment and then stepped closer to my chair.

"I know it's hard," he said as he put a hand on my shoulder. "But it'll be all right. We'll get your boy back for you."

I didn't speak, because I knew that if I spoke I'd break down and make an idiot of myself. My husband waited, apparently expecting me to say something. Then he took his hand away.

"I'll get busy with the car," he said with a forced matter-of-factness, "and let you know when there's any news. I've wired Buckhorn and sent word to Casa Grande—and we ought to get some news from there."

But there was no news. The afternoon dragged away and the house seemed like a tomb. And at five o'clock I did what I had wanted to do for six long hours. I sent off a forty-seven word telegram to Peter Ketley, telling him what had happened....

Duncan came back, at seven o'clock, to get one of the new photographs of Dinkie and Lossie for identification purposes. They had rounded up a small boy at Morley and Kearney was motoring out to investigate. We'd know by midnight....

It is well after midnight, and Duncan has just had a phone-message from Morley. The little chap they had rounded up was a Barnado boy fired with a sudden ambition to join his uncle in the gold-fields of Australia. Somewhere, in the blackness of this big night, my homeless Dinkie is wandering unguarded and alone.



Friday the Twenty-Ninth

I have had no word from Peter.... I've had no news to end the ache that pins me like a spear-head to the wall of hopelessness. Duncan, I know, is doing all he can. But there is so little to do. And this world of ours, after all, is such a terrifyingly big one.



Saturday the Thirtieth

I was called to the phone before breakfast this morning and it was the blessed voice of Peter I heard from the other end of the wire. My telegram had got out to him from Buckhorn a day late. But he had no definite news for me. He was quite fixed in his belief, however, that Dinkie would be bobbing up at his old home in a day or two.

"The boy will travel this way," he assured me. "He's bound to do that. It's as natural as water running down-hill!"

Duncan asked me whom I'd been talking to, and I had to tell him. His face clouded and the familiar quick look of resentment came into his eyes.

"I can't see what that Quaker's got to do with this question," he barked out. But I held my peace.



Sunday the First

I have found a message from my Dinkie. I came across it this morning, by accident. It was in my sewing-basket, the basket made of birch-bark and stained porcupine quills and lined with doe-skin, which I'd once bought from a Reservation squaw in Buckhorn with a tiny papoose on her back. Duncan had upbraided me for passing out my last five-dollar bill to that hungry Nitchie, but the poor woman needed it.

My fingers were shaking as I unfolded the note. And written there in the script I knew so well I read:

"Darligest Mummsey:

I am going away. But dont worry about me for I will be alright. I couldn't stay Mummsey after what hapened. Some day I will come back to you. But I'm not as bad as all that. I'll love you always as much as ever. I can take care for myself so don't worry, please. And please feed my two rabits reglar and tell Benny I'll save his jacknife and rember every day I'm rembering you. X X X X X X X

Your aff'cte son,

DINKIE."

It seemed like a voice from the dead, it was bittersweet consolation, and, in a way, it stood redemption of Dinkie himself. I'd been upbraiding him, in my secret heart of hearts, for his silence to his mother. That's a streak of his father in him, had been my first thought, that unthinking cruelty which didn't take count of the anguish of others. But he hadn't forgotten me. Whatever happens, I have at least this assuaging secret message from my son. And some day he'll come back to me. "Ye winna leave me for a', laddie?" I keep saying, in the language of old Whinstane Sandy. And my mind goes back, almost six years at a bound, to the time he was lost on the prairie. That time, I tell myself, God was good to me. And surely He will be good to me again!



Tuesday the Third

We still have no single word of our laddie.... They all tell me not to worry. But how can a mother keep from worrying? I had rather an awful nightmare last night, dreaming that Dinkie was trying to climb the stone wall about our place. He kept falling back with bleeding fingers, and he kept calling and calling for his mother. Without being quite awake I went down to the door in my night-gown, and opened it, and called out into the darkness: "Is anybody there? Is it you, Dinkie?"

My husband came down and led me back to bed, with rather a frightened look on his face.

They tell me not to worry, but I've been up in Dinkie's room turning over his things and wondering if he's dead, or if he's fallen into the hands of cruel people who would ill-use a child. Or perhaps he has been stolen by Indians, and will come back to me with a morose and sullen mind, and with scars on his body....



Thursday the Fifth

What a terrible thing is loneliness. The floors of Hell, I'm sure, are paved with lonesome hearts. Day by day I wait and long for my laddie. Always, at the back of my brain, is that big want. Day by day I brood about him and night by night I dream of him. I turn over his old playthings and his books, and my throat gets tight. I stare at the faded old snap-shots of him, and my heart turns to lead. I imagine I hear his voice, just outside the door, or just beyond a bend in the road, and a two-bladed sword of pain pushes slowly through my breast-bone. Dear old Lossie comes twice a day, and does her best to cheer me up. And Gershom has offered to give up his school and join in the search. Peter Ketley, he tells me, has been on the road for a week, in a car covered with mud and clothes that have never come off.



Friday the Sixth

There is no news of my Dinkie. And that, I remind myself, is the only matter that counts.

Lois Murchison drove up to-day in her hateful big car. She did not find me a very agreeable hostess, I'm afraid, but curled up like a nonchalant green snake in one of my armchairs and started to smoke and talk. She asked where Duncan was and I had to explain that he'd been called out to the mines on imperative business. And that started her going on the mines. Duncan, she said, should clean up half a million before he was through with that deal. He had been very successful.

"But don't you feel, my dear," she went on with quiet venom in her voice, "that a great deal of his success has depended on that bandy-legged little she-secretary of his?"

"Is she that wonderful?" I asked, trying to seem less at sea than I was.

"She's certainly wonderful to him!" announced the woman known as Slinkie. And having driven that poisoned dart well into the flesh, she was content to drop her cigarette-end into the ash-receiver, reach for her blue-fox furs, and announce that she'd have to be toddling on to the hair-dresser's.

Lois Murchison's implication, at that moment, didn't bother me much, for I had bigger troubles to occupy my thoughts. But the more I dwell on it, the more I find myself disturbed in spirit. I resent the idea of being upset by a wicked-tongued woman. She has, however, raised a ghost which will have to be laid. To-morrow I intend to go down to my husband's office and see his secretary, "to inspect the whaup," as Whinnie would express it, for I find myself becoming more and more interested in her wonderfulness.... Peter sent me a hurried line or two to-day, telling me to sit tight as he thought he'd have news for me before the week was out.

I suspect him of trying to trick me into some forlorn new lease of hope. But I have pinned my faith to Peter—and I know he would not trifle with anything so sacred as mother-love.



Saturday the Seventh

There is no news of my Dinkie.... But there is news of another nature.

Between ten and eleven this morning I had Hilton motor me down to Duncan's office in Eighth Avenue. It struck me as odd, at first, that I had never been there before. But Duncan, I remembered, had never asked me, the domestic fly, to step into his spider's parlor of commerce. And I found a ridiculous timidity creeping over me as I went up in the elevator, and found the door-number, and saw myself confronted by a cadaverous urchin in horn-rimmed specs, who thrust a paper-covered novel behind his chair-back and asked me what I wanted. So I asked him if this was Mr. McKail's office.

"Sure," he said in the established vernacular of the West.

"What is your name, little boy?" I inquired, with the sternest brand of condescension I could command.

The young monkey drew himself up at that and flushed angrily. "Oh, I don't know as I'm so little," he observed, regarding me with a narrowing eye as I stepped unbidden beyond the sacred portals.

"Where will I find Mr. McKail's secretary?" I asked, noticing the door in the stained-wood partition with "Private" on its frosted glass. The youth nodded his head toward the door in question and crossed to a desk where he proceeded languidly to affix postage-stamps to a small pile of envelopes.

I hesitated for a moment, as though there was something epochal in the air, as though I was making a step which might mean a great deal to me. And then I stepped over to the door and opened it.

I saw a young woman seated at a flat-topped desk, with a gold-banded fountain-pen in her fingers, checking over a column of figures. She checked carefully on to the end of her column, and then she raised her head and looked at me.

Her face stood out with singular distinctness, in the strong side-light from the office-window. And the woman seated at the flat-topped desk was Alsina Teeswater.

I don't know how long I stood there without speaking. But I could see the color slowly mount and recede on Alsina Teeswater's face. She put down her fountain-pen, with much deliberation, and sat upright in her chair, with her barricaded eyes every moment of the time on my face.

"So this has started again?" I finally said, in little more than a whisper.

I could see the girl's lips harden. I could see her fortifying herself behind an entrenchment of quietly marshaled belligerency.

"It has never stopped, Mrs. McKail," she said in an equally low voice, but with the courage of utter desperation.

It took some time, apparently, for that declaration to filter through to my brain. Everything seemed suddenly out of focus; and it was hard to readjust vision to the newer order of things. But I was calmer, under the circumstances, than I expected to be.

"I'm glad I understand," I finally admitted.

The woman at the desk seemed puzzled. Then she looked from me to her column of figures and from her column of figures to the huddled roofs and walls of the city and the greening foot-hills and the solemn white crowns of the Rockies behind them.

"Are you quite sure, Mrs. McKail, that you do understand?" she asked at last, with just a touch of challenge in the question.

"Isn't it quite simple now?" I demanded.

She found the courage to face me again.

"I don't think this sort of thing is ever simple," she replied, with much more emotion than I had expected of her.

"But it's at least clear how it must end," I found the courage to point out to her.

"Is that clear to you?" demanded the woman who was stepping into my shoes. It seemed odd, at the moment, that I should feel vaguely sorry for her.

"Perhaps you might make it clearer," I prompted.

"I'd rather Duncan did that," she replied, using my husband's first name, obviously, without knowing she had done so.

"Wouldn't it be fairer—for the two of us—now? Wouldn't it be cleaner?" I rather tremulously asked of her.

She nodded and stared down at the sheet covered with small columns of figures.

"I don't know whether you know it or not," she said with a studied sort of quietness, "but last week Mr. McKail began making arrangements to establish a residence in Nevada. He will have to live there, of course, for at least six months, perhaps even longer."

I could feel this sinking in, like water going through blotting-paper. The woman at the desk must have misinterpreted my silence, for she was moved to say, in a heavier effort at self-defense, "He knew, of course, that you cared for some one else."

I looked at her, as though she were a thousand miles away. I stood there impressed by the utter inadequacy of speech. And the thing that puzzled me was that there was an air of honesty about the woman. She still so desperately clung to her self-respect that she wanted me to understand both her predicament and her motives. I could hear her explaining that my husband had no intention of going to Reno, but would live in Virginia City, where he was taking up some actual mining interests. Such things were not pleasant, of course. But this one could be put through without difficulty. Mr. McKail had been assured of that.

I tried to pull myself together, wondering why I should so suddenly feel like a marked woman, a pariah of the prairies, as friendless and alone as a leper. Then I thought of my children. And that cleared my head, like a wind sweeping clean a smoky room.

"But a case has to be made out," I began. "It would have to be proved that I——"

"There will be no difficulty on that point, Mrs. McKail," went on the other woman as I came to a stop. "Provided the suit is not opposed."

The significance of that quietly uttered phrase did not escape me. Our glances met and locked.

"There are the children," I reminded her. And she looked a very commercialized young lady as she sat confronting me across her many columns of figures.

"There should be no difficulty there—provided the suit is not opposed," she repeated with the air of a physician confronted by a hypochondriacal patient.

"The children are mine," I rather foolishly proclaimed, with my first touch of passion.

"The children are yours," she admitted. And about her hung an air of authority, of cool reserve, which I couldn't help resenting.

"That is very generous of you," I admitted, not without ironic intent.

She smiled rather sadly as she sat looking at me.

"It's something that doesn't rest with either of us," she said with the suspicion of a quaver in her voice. And she, I suddenly remembered, might some day sit eating her pot of honey on a grave. I realized, too, that very little was to be gained by prolonging that strangest of interviews. I wanted quietude in which to think things over. I wanted to go back to my cell like a prisoner and brood over my sentence....

And I have thought things over. I at last see the light. From this day forward there shall be no vacillating. I am going back to Casa Grande.

I have always hated this house; I have always hated everything about the place, without having the courage to admit it. I have done my part, I have made my effort, and it was a wasted effort. I wasn't even given a chance. And now I shall gather my things together and go back to my home, to the only home that remains to me. I shall still have my kiddies. I shall have my Poppsy and—But sharp as an arrow-head the memory of my lost boy strikes into my heart. My Dinkie is gone. I no longer have him to make what is left of my life endurable....

It is raining to-night, I notice, steadily and dismally. It is a dark night, outside, for lost children....

Duncan has just come home, wet and muddy, and gone up to his room. The gray-faced solemnity with which he strode past me makes me feel sure that he has been conversing with his lady-love. But what difference does it make? What difference does anything make? In the matter of women, I have just remembered, what may be one man's meat is another man's poison. But I can't understand these reversible people, like house-rugs, who can pretend to love two ways at once.... I only know one man, in all the wide world, who has not shattered my faith in his kind. He is one of those neck-or-nothing men who never change.

There are many ranchers, out in this country, who keep what they call a blizzard-line. It's a rope that stretches in winter from their house-door to their shed or their stable, a rope that keeps them from getting lost when a blizzard is raging. Peter, I know, has been my blizzard-line. And in some way, please God, he will yet lead me back to warmth. He is himself out there in the cold, accepting it, all the time, with the same quiet fortitude that a Polar bear might. But he will thole through, in the end. For with all his roughness he can be unexpectedly adroit. Whinstane Sandy once told me something he had learned about Polar bears in his old Yukon days: with all their heaviness, they can go where a dog daren't venture. If need be, they can flatten out and slide over a sheet of ice too thin to support a running dog. And the drift-ice may be widening, but I refuse to give up my hope of hope. "Let the mother go," as the Good Book says, "that it may be well with thee!" ...

I have just remembered that I tried to shoot my husband once. He may make use of that, when he gets down to Virginia City. It might, in fact, help things along very materially. And Susie's eyes will probably pop out, when she reads it in a San Francisco paper....

I've thought of so many clever things I should have said to Alsina Teeswater. As I look back, I find it was the other lady who did about all the talking. There were old ulcerations to be cleared away, of course, and I let her talk about the same as you let a dentist work with his fingers in your mouth.... But now I must go up and make sure my Poppsy is safely tucked in. I have just opened the door and looked out. It is storming wretchedly. God pity any little boys who are abroad on such a night!



Two Hours Later

It is well past midnight. But there is no sleep this night for Chaddie McKail. I am too happy to sleep. I am too happy to act sane. For my boy is safe. Peter has found my Dinkie!

I was called to the telephone, a little after eleven, but couldn't hear well on the up-stairs extension, so I went to the instrument down-stairs, where the operator told me it was long-distance, from Buckhorn. So I listened, with my heart in my mouth. But all I could get was a buzz and crackle and an occasional ghostly word. It was the storm, I suppose. Then I heard Peter's voice, thin and faint and far away, but most unmistakably Peter's voice.

"Can you hear me now?" he said, like a man speaking from the bottom of the sea.

"Yes," I called back. "What is it?"

"Get ready for good news," said that thin but valorous voice that seemed to be speaking from the tip-top mountains of Mars. But the crackling and burring cut us off again. Then something must have happened to the line, or we must have been switched to a better circuit. For, the next moment, Peter's voice seemed almost in the next room. It seemed to come closer at a bound, like a shore-line when you look at it through a telescope.

"Is that any better?" he asked through his miles and miles of rain-swept blackness.

"Yes, I can hear you plainly now," I told him.

"Ah, yes, that is better," he acknowledged. "And everything else is, too, my dear. For I've found your Dinkie and——"

"You've found Dinkie?" I gasped.

"I have, thank God. And he's safe and sound!"

"Where?" I demanded.

"Fast asleep at Alabama Ranch."

"Is he all right?"

"As fit as a fiddle—all he wants is sleep."

"Oh, Peter!" It was foolish. But it was all I could say for a full minute. For my boy was alive, and safe. My laddie had been found by Peter—by good old Peter, who never, in the time of need, was known to fail me.

"Where are you now?" I asked, when reason was once more on her throne.

"At Buckhorn," answered Peter.

"And you went all that way through the mud and rain, just to tell me?" I said.

"I had to, or I'd blow up!" acknowledged Peter. "And now I'd like to know what you want me to do."

"I want you to come and get me, Peter," I said slowly and distinctly over the wire.

There was a silence of several seconds.

"Do you understand what that means?" he finally demanded. His voice, I noticed, had become suddenly solemn.

"Yes, Peter, I understand," I told him. "Please come and get me!" And again the silence was so prolonged that I had to cut in and ask: "Are you there?"

And Peter's voice answered "Yes."

"Then you'll come?" I exacted, determined to burn all my bridges behind me.

"I'll be there on Monday," said Peter, with quiet decision. "I'll be there with Tithonus and Tumble-Weed and the old prairie-schooner. And we'll all trek home together!"

"Skookum!" I said with altogether unbecoming levity.

I patted the telephone instrument as I hung up the receiver. Then I sat staring at it in a brown study.

Then I went careening up-stairs and woke Poppsy out of a sound sleep and hugged her until her bones were ready to crack and told her that our Dinkie had been found again. And Poppsy, not being quite able to get it through her sleepy little head, promptly began to bawl. But there was little to bawl over, once she was thoroughly awake. And then I went careening down to the telephone again, and called up Lossie's boarding-house, and had her landlady root the poor girl out of bed, and heard her break down and have a little cry when I told her our Dinkie had been found. And the first thing she asked me, when she was able to talk again, was if Gershom Binks had been told of the good news. And I had to acknowledge that I hadn't even thought of poor old Gershom, but that Peter Ketley would surely have passed the good word on to Casa Grande, for Peter always seemed to think of the right thing.

And then I remembered about Duncan. For Duncan, whatever he may have been, was still the boy's father. And he must be told. It was my duty to tell him. So once more I climbed the stairs, but this time more slowly. I had to wait a full minute before I found the courage, I don't know why, to knock on Duncan's bedroom door.

I knocked twice before any answer came.

"What is it?" asked the familiar sleepy bass—and I realized what gulfs yawned between us when my husband on one side of that closed door could be lying lost in slumber and I on the other side of it could find life doing such unparalleled things to me. I felt for him as a girl home, tired from her first dance, feels for a young brother asleep beside a Noah's Ark.

"What is it?" I heard Duncan's voice repeating from the bed.

"It's me," I rather weakly proclaimed.

"What has happened?" was the question that came after a moment's silence.

I leaned with my face against the painted door-panel. It was smooth and cool and pleasant to press one's skin against.

"They've found Dinkie," I said. I could hear the squeak of springs as my husband sat up in bed.

"Is he all right?"

"Yes, he's all right," I said with a great sigh. And I listened for an answering sigh from the other side of the door.

But instead of that Duncan's voice asked: "Where is he?"

"At Alabama Ranch," I said, without realizing what that acknowledgment meant. And again a brief period of silence intervened.

"Who found him?" asked my husband, in a hardened voice.

"Peter Ketley," I said, in as collected a voice as I could manage. And this time the significance of the silence did not escape me.

"Then your cup of happiness ought to be full," I heard the voice on the other side of the door remark with heavy deliberateness. I stood there with my face leaning against the cool panel.

"It is," I said with a quiet audacity which surprised me almost as much as it must have surprised the man on the bed a million miles away from me.



Sunday the Eighth

How different is life from what the fictioneers would paint it! How hopelessly mixed-up and macaronic, how undignified in what ought to be its big moments and how pompous in so many of its pettinesses!

I told my husband to-day that Poppsy and I were going back to Casa Grande. And that, surely, ought to have been the Big Moment in the career of an unloved invertebrate. But the situation declined to take off, as the airmen say.

"I guess that means it's about time we got unscrambled," the man I had once married and lived with quietly remarked.

"Wasn't that your intention?" I just as quietly inquired.

"It's what I've had forced on me," he retorted, with a protective hardening of the Holbein-Astronomer jaw-line.

"I'm sorry," was all I could find to say.

He turned to the window and stared out at his big white iron fountain set in his terraced lawn behind his endless cobble-stone walls. I couldn't tell, of course, what he was thinking about. But I myself was thinking of the past, the irrecoverable past, the irredeemable past, the singing years of my womanly youth that seemed to be sealed in a lowered coffin on which the sheltering earth would soon be heaped, on which the first clods were already dropping with hollow sounds. We each seemed afraid to look the other full in the eyes. So we armored ourselves, as poor mortals must do, in the helmets of pretended diffidence and the breast-plates of impersonality.

"How are you going back?" my husband finally inquired. Whatever ghosts it had been necessary to lay, I could see, he had by this time laid. He no longer needed to stare out at the white iron fountain of which he was so proud.

"I've sent for the prairie-schooner," I told him.

His flush of anger rather startled me.

"Doesn't that impress you as rather cheaply theatrical?" he demanded.

"I fancy it will be very comfortable," I told him, without looking up. I'd apparently been attributing to him feelings which, after all, were not so desolating as I might have wished.

"Every one to his own taste," he observed as he called rather sharply to Tokudo to bring him his humidor. Then he took out a cigar and lighted it and ordered the car. And that was the lee and the long of it. That was the way we faced our Great Divide, our forked trail that veered off East and West into infinity!



Thursday the Eleventh

The trek is over. And it was not one of triumph. For we find ourselves, sometimes, in deeper water than we imagine. Then we have to choke and gasp for a while before we can get our breath back.

Peter, in the first place, didn't appear with the prairie-schooner. He left that to come later in the day, with Whinnie and Struthers. He appeared quite early Monday morning, with fire in his eye, and with a demand to see the master of the house. Heaven knows what he had heard, or how he had heard it. But the two men were having it hot and heavy when I felt it was about time for me to step into the room. To be quite frank, I had not expected any such outburst from Duncan. I knew his feelings were not involved, and where you have a vacuum it is impossible, of course, to have an explosion. I interpreted his resentment as a show of opposition to save his face. But I was wrong. And I was wrong about Peter. That mild-eyed man is no plaster saint. He can fight, if he's goaded into it, and fight like a bulldog. He was saying a few plain truths to Duncan, when I stepped into the room, a few plain truths which took the color out of the Dour Man's face and made him shake with anger.

"For two cents," Duncan was rather childishly shouting at him, "I'd fill you full of lead!"

"Try it!" said Peter, who wasn't any too steady himself. "Try it, and you'd at least end up with doing something in the open!"

Duncan studied him, like a prize-fighter studying his waiting opponent.

"You're a cheap actor," he finally announced. "This sort of thing isn't settled that way, and you know it."

"And it's not going to be settled the way you intended," announced Peter Ketley.

"What do you know about my intentions?" demanded Duncan.

"Much more than you imagine," retorted Peter. "I've got your record, McKail, and I've had it for three years. I've stood by, until now; but the time has come when I'm going to have a hand in this thing. And you're not going to get your freedom by dragging this woman's name through a divorce-court. If there's any dragging to be done, it's your carcass that's going to be tied to the tail-board!"

Duncan stood studying him with a face cheese-colored with hate.

"Aren't you rather double-crossing yourself?" he mocked.

"I'm not thinking about myself," said Peter.

"Then what's prompting all the heroics?" demanded Duncan.

"For two years and more, McKail," Peter cried out as he stepped closer to the other man, "you've given this woman a pretty good working idea of hell. And I've seen enough of it. It's going to end. It's got to end. But it's not going to end the way you've so neatly figured out!"

"Then how do you propose to end it?" Duncan demanded, with a sort of second-wind of composure. But his face was still colorless.

"You'll see when the time comes," retorted Peter.

"You may have rather a long wait," taunted Duncan.

"I have waited a number of years," answered the other man, with a dignity which sent a small thrill up and down my spine. "And I can wait a number of years more if I have to."

"We all knew, of course, that you were waiting," sneered my husband.

Peter turned to fling back an answer to that, but I stepped between them. I was tired of being haggled over, like marked-down goods on a bargain-counter. I was tired of being a passive agent before forces that seemed stripping me of my last shred of dignity. I was tired of the shoddiness of the entire shoddy situation.

And I told them so. I told them I'd no intention of being bargained over, and that I'd had rather enough of men for the rest of my natural life, and if Duncan wanted his freedom he was at liberty to take it without the slightest opposition from me. And I said a number of other things, which I have no wish either to remember or record. But it resulted in Duncan staring at me in a resurrection-plant sort of way, and in Peter rather dolorously taking his departure. I wanted to call him back, but I couldn't carpenter together any satisfactory excuse for his coming back, and I couldn't see any use in it.

So instead of journeying happily homeward in the cavernous old prairie-schooner, I felt a bit ridiculous as Tokudo impassively carried our belongings out to the canvas-covered wagon and Poppsy and I climbed aboard. The good citizens of American Hill stared after us as we rumbled down through the neatly boulevarded streets, and I felt suspiciously like a gypsy-queen who'd been politely requested by the local constabulary to move on.

It wasn't until we reached the open country that my spirits revived. Then the prairie seemed to reach out its hand to me and give me peace. We camped, that first night, in the sheltering arm of a little coulee threaded by a tiny stream. We cooked bacon and eggs and coffee while Whinnie out-spanned his team and put up his tent.

I sat on an oat-sack, after supper, with Poppsy between my knees, watching the evening stars come out. They were worlds, I remembered, some of them worlds perhaps with sorrowing men and women on them. And they seemed very lonely and far-away worlds, until I heard the drowsy voice of my Poppsy say up through the dusk: "In two days more, Mummy, we'll be back to Dinkie, won't we?"

And there was much, I remembered, for which a mother should be thankful.



Sunday the Fourteenth

Dark, and true, and tender is the North. Heaven bless the rhymster who first penned those words. Spring is stealing hack to the prairie, and our world is a world of beauty. The sky to-day is windrowed with flat-bottomed cumulus-clouds, tier beyond tier above a level plane of light, marking off the infinite distance like receding mile-stones on a world turned over on its back. Occasionally the outstretched head of a wild duck, pumping north with a black throb of wings, melts away to a speck in the opaline air. Back among the muskeg reeds the waders are courting and chattering, and early this morning I heard the plaintive winnowing call-note of the Wilson snipe, and later the punk-e-lunk love-cry of a bittern to his mate. There's an eagle planing in lazy circles high in the air, even now, putting a soft-pedal on the noise of the coots and grebes as he circles over their rush-lined cabarets. And somewhere out on the range a bull is lowing. It is the season of love and the season of happiness. Dinkie and Poppsy and I are going out to gather prairie-crocuses. They are thick now in the prairie-sod, soft blue and lavender and sometimes mauve. We must dance to the vernal saraband while we can: Spring is so short in this norland country of ours. It comes late. But as Peter says, A late spring never deceives....

I thought I had offended Peter for life. But when he appeared late this afternoon and I asked him why he had kept away from me, he said these first few days naturally belonged to Dinkie and he'd been busy studying marsh-birds. He looked rather rumpled and muddy, and impressed me as a man sadly in need of a woman to look after his things.

"Let's ride," said Peter. "I want to talk to you."

I was afraid of that talk, but I was more afraid something might happen to interfere with it. So I changed into my old riding-duds and put on my weather-stained old sombrero and we saddled Buntie and Laughing-Gas and went loping off over the sun-washed prairie with our shadows behind us.

We rode a long way before Peter said anything. I wanted to be happy, but I wasn't quite able to be. I tried to think of neither the past nor the future, but there were too many ghosts of other days loping along the trail beside us.

"What are you going to do?" Peter finally inquired.

"About what?" I temporized as he pulled up beside me.

"About everything," he ungenerously responded.

"I don't know what to do, Peter," I had to acknowledge. "I'm like a barrel without hoops. I want to stick together, but one more thump will surely send me to pieces!"

"Then why not get the hoops around?" suggested Peter.

"But where will I get the hoops?" I asked.

"Here," he said. He was, I noticed, holding out his arms. And I laughed, even though my heart was heavy.

"Men have been a great disappointment to me, Peter," I said with a shake of my sombrero.

"Try me," suggested Peter.

But still again I had to shake my head.

"That wouldn't be fair, Peter," I told him. "I can't spoil your life to see what's left of my own patched up."

"Then you're going to spoil two of 'em!" he promptly asserted.

"But I don't believe in that sort of thing," I did my best to explain to him. "I've had my innings, and I'm out. I've a one-way heart, the same as a one-way street. I don't think there's anything in the world more odious than promiscuity. That's a big word, but it stands for an even bigger offense against God. I've always said I intended to be a single-track woman."

"But your track's blown up," contended Peter.

"Then I'll have to lay me a new one," I said with a fine show of assurance.

"And do you know where it will lead?" he demanded,

"Where?" I asked.

"Straight to me," he said as he studied me with eyes that were so quiet and kind I could feel a flutter of my heart-wings.

But still again I shook my head.

"That would be bringing you nothing but a withered up old has-been," I said with a mock-wail of misery.

And Peter actually laughed at that.

"It'll be a good ten years before you've even grown up," he retorted. "And another twenty years before you've really settled down!"

"You're saying I'll never have sense," I objected. "And I know you're right."

"That's what I love about you," averred Peter.

"What you love about me?" I demanded.

"Yes," he said with his patient old smile, "your imperishable youthfulness, your eternal never-ending eternity-defying golden-tinted girlishness!"

A flute began to play in my heart. And I knew that like Ulysses's men I would have to close my ears to it. But it's easier to row past an island than to run away from your own heart.

"I know it's a lie, Peter, but I love you for saying it. It makes me want to hug you, and it makes me want to pirouette, if I wasn't on horseback. It makes my heart sing. But it's only the singing of one lonely little chickadee in the middle of a terribly big pile of ruins. For that's all my life can be now, just a hopeless smash-up. And you're cut out for something better than a wrecking-car for the rest of your days."

"No, no," protested Peter. "It's you who've got to save me."

"Save you?" I echoed.

"You've got to give me something to live for, or I'll just rust away in the ditch and never get back to the rails again."

"Peter!" I cried.

"What?" he asked.

"You're not playing fair. You're trying to make me pity you."

"Well, don't you?" demanded Peter.

"I would if I saw you sacrificing your life for a woman with a crazy-quilt past."

"I'm not thinking of the past," asserted Peter, "I'm thinking of the future."

"That's just it," I tried to explain. "I'll have to face that future with a clouded name. I'll be a divorced woman. Ugh! I always thought of divorced women as something you wouldn't quite care to sit next to at table. I hate divorce."

"I'm a Quaker myself," acknowledged Peter. "But I occasionally think of what Cobbett once said: 'I don't much like weasels. Yet I hate rats. Therefore I say success to the weasels!'"

"I don't see what weasels have to do with it," I complained.

"Putting one's house in order again may sometimes be as beneficent as surgery," contended Peter.

"And sometimes as painful," I added.

"Yet there's no mistake like not cleaning up old mistakes."

"But I hate it," I told him. "It all seems so—so cheap."

"On the contrary," corrected Peter, "it's rather costly." He pulled up across my path and made me come to a stop. "My dear," he said, very solemn again, "I know the stuff you're made of. I know you've got to climb to the light by a path of your own choosing. And you have to see the light with your own eyes. But I'm willing to wait. I have waited, a very long time. But there's one fact you've got to face: I love you too much ever to dream of giving you up."

I don't think either of us moved for a full moment. The flute was singing so loud in my heart that I was afraid of myself. And, woman-like, I backed away from the thing I wanted.

"It's not me, Peter, I must remember now. It's my bairns. I've two bairns to bring up."

"I've got the three of you to bring up," maintained Peter. And that made us both sit silent for another moment or two.

"It's not that simple," I finally said, though Peter smiled guardedly at my ghost of a smile.

"It would be if you cared for me as much as Dinkie does," he said with quite unnecessary solemnity.

"Oh, Peter, I do, I do," I cried out as the memory of all I owed him surged mistily through my mind. "But a gray hair is something you can't joke away. And I've got five of them, right here over my left ear. I found them, months ago. And they're there to stay!"

"How about my bald spot?" demanded my oppressor and my deliverer rolled into one.

"What's a bald spot compared to a bob-cat of a temper like mine?" I challenged, remembering how I'd once heard a revolver-hammer snap in my husband's face.

"But it's your spirit I like," maintained the unruffled Peter.

"You wouldn't always," I reminded him.

Yet he merely looked at me with his trust-me-and-test-me expression.

"I'll chance it!" he said, after a quite contented moment or two of meditative silence.

"But don't you see," I went forlornly arguing on, "it mustn't be a chance. That's something people of our age can never afford to take."

And Peter, at that, for some reason I couldn't fathom, began to wag his head. He did it slowly and lugubriously, like a man who inspects a road he has no liking for. But at the same time, apparently, he was finding it hard to tuck away a small smile of triumph.

"Then we must never see each other again," he solemnly asserted.

"Peter!" I cried.

"I must go away, at once," he meditatively observed.

"Peter!" I said again, with the flute turning into a pair of ice-tongs that clamped into the corners of my heart.

"Far, far away," he continued as he studiously avoided my eye. "For there will be safety now only in flight."

"Safety from what?" I demanded.

"From you," retorted Peter.

"But what will happen to me, if you do that?" I heard my own voice asking as Buntie started to paw the prairie-floor and I did my level best to fight down the black waves of desolation that were half-drowning me. "What'll there be to hold me up, when you're the only man in all this world who can keep my barrel of happiness from going slap-bang to pieces? What——?"

"Verboten!" interrupted Peter. But that solemn-soft smile of his gathered me in and covered me, very much as the rumpled feathers of a mother-bird cover her young, her crazily twittering and crazily wandering young who never know their own mind.

"What'll happen to me," I went desperately on, "when you're the only man alive who understands this crazy old heart of mine, when you've taught me to hitch the last of my hope on the one unselfish man I've ever known?"

This seemed to trouble Peter. But only remotely, as the lack of grammar in the Lord's Prayer might affect a Holy Roller. He insisted, above all things, on being judicial.

"Then I'll have to come back, I suppose," he finally admitted, "for Dinkie's sake."

"Why for Dinkie's sake?" I asked.

"Because some day, my dear, our Dinkie is going to be a great man. And I want to have a hand in fashioning that greatness."

I sat looking at the red ball of the sun slipping down behind the shoulder of the world. A wind came out of the North, cool and sweet and balsamic with hope. I heard a loon cry. And then the earth was still again.

"We'll be waiting," I said, with a tear of happiness tickling the bridge of my nose. And then, so that Peter might not see still another loon crying, I swung Buntie sharply about on the trail. And we rode home, side by side, through the twilight.

THE END

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