"He's just yon, as warm and safe as a bird in a nest," further expounded Whinstane Sandy.
"Where?" demanded Lady Alicia. But Whinnie ignored her.
"It was Bobs, ma'am," were the blessed words I heard the old lips saying to me, "who kept whimper-in' and grievin' about the upper stable door, which had been swung shut. It was Bobs who led me back yon, fair against my will. And there I found our laddie, asleep in the manger of Slip-Along, nested deep in the hay, as safe and warm as if in his own bed."
I didn't speak or move for what must have been a full minute. I couldn't. I felt as though my soul had been inverted and emptied of all feeling, like a wine-glass that's turned over. For a full minute I sat looking straight ahead of me. Then I got up, and went to where I remembered Dinky-Dunk kept his revolver. I took it up and started to cross to the open door. But Lady Alicia caught me sharply by the arm.
"What are you doing?" she gasped, imagining, I suppose, that I'd gone mad and was about to blow my brains out. She even took the firearm from my hand.
"It's the men," I tried to explain. "They should be told. Give them three signal-shots to bring them in." Then I turned to Whinnie. He nodded and took me by the hand.
"Now take me to my boy," I said very quietly.
I was still quite calm, I think. But deep down inside of me I could feel a faint glow. It wasn't altogether joy, and it wasn't altogether relief. It was something which left me just a little bewildered, a good deal like a school-girl after her first glass of champagne at Christmas dinner. It left me oddly self-immured, miles and miles from the figures so close to me, remote even from the kindly old man who hobbled a little and went with a decided list to starboard as he led me out toward what he always spoke of as the upper stable.
Yet at the back of my brain, all the while, was some shadow of doubt, of skepticism, of reiterated self-warning that it was all too good to be true. It wasn't until I looked over the well-gnawed top rail of Slip-Along's broken manger and saw that blessed boy there, by the light of Whinnie's lantern, saw that blessed boy of mine half buried in that soft and cushioning prairie-grass, saw that he was warm and breathing, and safe and sound, that I fully realized how he had been saved for me.
"The laddie'd been after a clutch of eggs, I'm thinkin'," whispered Whinnie to me, pointing to a yellow stain on his waist, which was clearly caused by the yolk of a broken egg. And Whinnie stooped over to take Dinkie up in his arms, but I pushed him aside.
"No, I'll take him," I announced.
He'd be the hungry boy when he awakened, I remembered as I gathered him up in my arms. My knees were a bit shaky, as I carried him back to the shack, but I did my best to disguise that fact. I could have carried him, I believe, right on to Buckhorn, he seemed such a precious burden. And I was glad of that demand for physical expenditure. It seemed to bring me down to earth again, to get things back into perspective. But for the life of me I couldn't find a word to say to Lady Allie as I walked into my home with Dinky-Dink in my arms. She stood watching me for a moment or two as I started to undress him, still heavy with slumber. Then she seemed to realize that she was, after all, an outsider, and slipped out through the door. I was glad she did, for a minute later Dinkie began to whimper and cry, as any child would with an empty stomach and an over-draft of sleep. It developed into a good lusty bawl, which would surely have spoilt the picture to an outsider. But it did a good turn in keeping me too busy to pump any more brine on my own part.
When Dinky-Dunk came in I was feeding little Dinkie a bowl of hot tapioca well drowned in cream and sugar. My lord and master took off his hat—which struck me as funny—and stood regarding us from just inside the door. He stood there by the door for quite a long while.
"Hadn't I better stay here with you to-night?" he finally asked, in a voice that didn't sound a bit like his own.
I looked up at him. But he stood well back from the range of the lamplight and I found it hard to decipher his expression. The one feeling I was certain of was a vague feeling of disappointment. What caused it, I could not say. But it was there.
"After what's happened," I told him as quietly as I could, "I think I'd rather be alone!"
He stood for another moment or two, apparently letting this sink in. It wasn't until he'd turned and walked out of the door that I realized the ambiguity of that retort of mine. I was almost prompted to go after him. But I checked myself by saying: "Well, if the shoe fits, put it on!" But in my heart of hearts I didn't mean it. I wanted him to come back, I wanted him to share my happiness with me, to sit and talk the thing over, to exploit it to the full in a sweet retrospect of relief, as people seem to want to do after they've safely passed through great peril.
It wasn't until half an hour later, when Dinkie was sound asleep again and tucked away in his crib, that I remembered my frantic promises to God to forgive Dinky-Dunk everything, if He'd only bring my boy back to me. And there'd been other promises, equally foolish and frantic. I've been thinking them over, in fact, and I am going to make an effort to keep them. I'm so happy that it hurts. And when you're happy, you want other people to be that way, too.
Wednesday the Third
Humor is the salt of life. The older I grow the more I realize that truth. And I'm going to keep more of it, if I can, in the work-room of my soul. Last night, when Dinky-Dunk and I were so uppish with each other, one single clap of humor might have shaken the solemnity out of the situation and shown us up for the poseurs we really were. But Pride is the mother of all contention. If Dinky-Dunk, when I was so imperially dismissing him from his own home, had only up and said: "Look here, Lady-bird, this is as much my house as it is yours, you feather-headed little idiot, and I'll put a June-bug down your neck if you don't let me stay here!" If he'd only said that, and sat down and been the safety-valve to my emotions which all husbands ought to be to all wives, the igloo would have melted about my heart and left me nothing to do but crawl over to him and tell him that I missed him more than tongue could tell, and that getting Dinkie's daddy back was almost as good as getting Dinkie himself back to me.
But we missed our chance. And I suppose Lady Allie sat up until all hours of the night, over at Casa Grande, consoling my Diddums and talking things over. It gives me a sort of bruised feeling, for I've nobody but Whinstane Sandy to unbosom my soul to....
Iroquois Annie has flown the coop. She has gone for good. I must have struck terror deeper into the heart of that Redskin than I imagined, for rather than face death and torture at my hands she left Slip-Along and the buckboard at the Teetzel Ranch and vamoosed off into the great unknown. I have done up her valuables in an old sugar-sack, and if they're not sent for in a week's time I'll make a bonfire of the truck. Whinnie, by the way, is to help me with the house-work. He is much better at washing dishes than I ever thought he could be. And he announces he can make a fair brand of bannock, if we run out of bread.
Tuesday the Ninth
I've got a hired man. He dropped like manna, out of the skies, or, rather, he emerged like a tadpole out of the mud. But there's something odd about him and I've a floaty idea he's a refugee from justice and that some day one of the Mounties will come riding up to my shack-door and lead my farm-help away in handcuffs.
Whatever he is, I can't quite make him out. But I have my suspicions, and I'm leaving everything in abeyance until they're confirmed.
I was on Paddy the other morning, in my old shooting-jacket and Stetson, going like the wind for the Dixon Ranch, after hearing they had a Barnado boy they wanted to unload on anybody who'd undertake to keep him under control. The trail was heavy from the night rain that had swept the prairie like a new broom, but the sun was shining again and the air was like champagne. The ozone and the exercise and Paddy's legato stride all tended to key up my spirits, and I went along humming:
"Bake me a bannock, And cut me a callop, For I've stole me a grey mare And I'm off at a gallop!"
It wasn't until I saw Paddy's ear prick up like a rabbit's that I noticed the gun-boat on the trail ahead. At least I thought it was a gun-boat, for a minute or two, until I cantered closer and saw that it was a huge gray touring-car half foundered in the prairie-mud. Beside it sat a long lean man in very muddy clothes and a rather disreputable-looking hat. He sat with a ridiculously contented look on his face, smoking a small briar pipe, and he laughed outright as I circled his mud-hole and came to a stop opposite the car with its nose poked deep down in the mire, for all the world like a rooting shote.
"Good morning, Diana," he said, quite coolly, as he removed his battered-looking cap.
His salutation struck me as impertinent, so I returned it in the curtest of nods.
"Are you in trouble?" I asked.
"None whatever," he airily replied, still eying me. "But my car seems to be, doesn't it?"
"What's wrong?" I demanded, determined that he shouldn't elbow me out of my matter-of-factness.
He turned to his automobile and inspected it with an indifferent eye.
"I turned this old tub into a steam-engine, racing her until the water boiled, and she got even with me by blowing up an intake hose. But I'm perfectly satisfied."
"With what?" I coldly inquired.
"With being stuck here," he replied; He had rather a bright gray eye with greenish lights in it, and he looked rational enough. But there was something fundamentally wrong with him.
"What makes you feel that way?" I asked, though for a moment I'd been prompted to inquire if they hadn't let him out a little too soon.
"Because I wouldn't have seen you, who should be wearing a crescent moon on your brow, if my good friend Hyacinthe hadn't mired herself in this mud-hole," he had the effrontery to tell me.
"Is there anything so remarkably consolatory in that vision?" I asked, deciding that I might as well convince him he wasn't confronting an untutored she-coolie of the prairie. Whereupon he studied me more pointedly and more impersonally than ever.
"It's more than consolatory," he said with an accentuating flourish of the little briar pipe. "It's quite compensatory."
It was rather ponderously clever, I suppose; but I was tired of both verbal quibbling and roadside gallantry.
"Do you want to get out of that hole?" I demanded. For it's a law of the prairie-land, of course, never to side-step a stranger in distress.
"Not if it means an ending to this interview," he told me.
It was my turn to eye him. But there wasn't much warmth in the inspection.
"What are you trying to do?" I calmly inquired, for prairie life hadn't exactly left me a shy and timorous gazelle in the haunts of that stalker known as Man.
"I'm trying to figure out," he just as calmly retorted, apparently quite unimpressed by my uppity tone, "how anything as radiant and lovely as you ever got landed up here in this heaven of chilblains and coyotes."
The hare-brained idiot was actually trying to make love to me. And I then and there decided to put a brake on his wheel of eloquence.
"And I'm still trying to figure out," I told him, "how what impresses me as rather a third-class type of man is able to ride around in what looks like a first-class car! Unless," and the thought came to me out of a clear sky, and when they come that way they're inspirations and are usually true, "unless you stole it!"
He turned a solemn eye on the dejected-looking vehicle and studied it from end to end.
"If I'm that far behind Hyacinthe," he indifferently acknowledged, "I begin to fathom the secret of my life failure. So my morning hasn't been altogether wasted."
"But you did steal the car?" I persisted.
"That must be a secret between us," he said, with a distinctly guilty look about the sky-line, as though to make sure there were no sheriffs and bloodhounds on his track.
"What are you doing here?" I demanded, determined to thrash the thing out, now that it had been thrust upon me.
"Talking to the most charming woman I've encountered west of the Great Lakes," he said with an ironic and yet a singularly engaging smile. But I didn't intend him to draw a herring across the trail.
"I'd be obliged if you'd be sincere," I told him, sitting up a little straighter on Paddy.
"I am sincere," he protested, putting away his pipe.
"But the things you're saying are the things the right sort of person refrains from expressing, even when he happens to be the victim of their operation."
"Yes, that's quite true, in drawing-rooms," he airily amended. "But this is God's open and untrammeled prairie."
"Where crudeness is king," I added.
"Where candor is worth more than convention," he corrected, with rather a wistful look in his eye. "And where we mortals ought to be at least as urbane as that really wonderful robin-egg sky up there with the chinook arch across it."
He wasn't flippant any more, and I had a sense of triumph in forcing his return to sobriety. I wanted to ask him what his name was, once we were back to earth again. But as that seemed a little too direct, I merely inquired where his home happened to be.
"I've just come from up North!" he said. And that, I promptly realized, was an evasive way of answering an honest question, especially as there was a California license-number on the front of his car.
"And what's your business?" I inquired, deciding to try him out with still one more honest question.
"I'm a windmill man," he told me, as he waded in toward his dejected-looking automobile and lifted up its hood. I took him literally, for there wasn't anything, at the time, to make me think of Cervantes. But I'd already noticed his hands, and I felt sure they weren't the hands of a laboring man. They were long and lean and finicky-fingered hands, the sort that could span an octave much better than they could hold a hayfork. And I decided to see him hoisted by his own petard.
"Then you're just the man I'm looking for," I told him. He stopped for a moment to look up from the bit of heavy rubber-hose he was winding with a stretch of rubber that looked as though it had been cut from an inner tube.
"Words such as those are honey to my ears," he said as he went on with his work. And I saw it was necessary to yank him down to earth again.
"I've a broken-down windmill over on my ranch," I told him. "And if you're what you say you are, you ought to be able to put it in running order for me."
"Then you've a ranch?" he observed, stopping in his work.
"A ranch and a husband and three children," I told him with the well-paraded air of a tabby-cat who's dragged her last mouse into the drawing-room. But my announcement didn't produce the effect I'd counted on. All I could see on the face of the windmill man was a sort of mild perplexity.
"That only deepens the mystery," he observed, apparently as much to himself as to me.
"What mystery?" I asked.
"You!" he retorted.
"What's wrong with me?" I demanded.
"You're so absurdly alive and audacious and sensitive and youthful-hearted, dear madam! For the life of me I can't quite fit you into the narrow little frame you mention."
"Is it so narrow?" I inquired, wondering why I wasn't much more indignant at him. But instead of answering that question, he asked me another.
"Why hasn't this husband of yours fixed the windmill?" he casually asked over his shoulder, as he resumed his tinkering on the car-engine.
"My husband's work keeps him away from home," I explained, promptly on the defensive.
"I thought so," he announced, with the expression of a man who's had a pet hypothesis unexpectedly confirmed.
"Then what made you think so?" I demanded, with a feeling that he was in some way being subtler than I could quite comprehend.
"Instinct—if you care to call it that," he said as he stooped low over his engine. He seemed offensively busy there for a considerable length of time. I could see that he was not what in the old days I'd have called a window-dresser. And I rather liked that pretense of candor in his make-up, just as I cottoned to that melodious drawl of his, not altogether unlike Lady Alicia's, with its untoward suggestion of power and privilege. He was a man with a mind of his own; there was no denying that. I was even compelled to remind myself that with all his coolness and suavity he was still a car-thief, or perhaps something worse. And I had no intention of sitting there and watching him pitch shut-out ball.
"What are you going to do about it?" I asked, after he'd finished his job of bailing ditch-water into his car-radiator with a little collapsible canvas bucket.
He climbed into his driving-seat, mud to the knees, before he answered me.
"I'm going to get Hyacinthe out of this hole," was what he said. "And then I'm going to fix that windmill!"
"On what terms?" I inquired.
"What's the matter with a month's board and keep?" he suggested.
It rather took my breath away, but I tried not to betray the fact. He was a refugee, after all, and only too anxious to go into hiding for a few weeks.
"Can you milk?" I demanded, deciding to keep him in his place, from the start. And he sadly acknowledged that he wasn't able to milk. Windmill men seldom were, he casually asserted.
"Then you'll have to make yourself handy, in other ways," I proclaimed as he sat appraising me from his deep-padded car-seat.
"All right," he said, as though the whole thing were settled, on the spot. But it wasn't so simple as it seemed.
"How about this car?" I demanded. His eye met mine; and I made note of the fact that he was compelled to look away.
"I suppose we'll have to hide it somewhere," he finally acknowledged.
"And how'll you hide a car of that size on the open prairie?" I inquired.
"Couldn't we bury it?" he asked with child-like simplicity.
"It's pretty well that way now, isn't it? But I saw it three miles off," I reminded him.
"Couldn't we pile a load of prairie-hay over it?" he suggested next, with the natural cunning of the criminal. "Then they'd never suspect."
"Suspect what?" I asked.
"Suspect where we got it," he explained.
"Kindly do not include me in any of your activities of this nature," I said with all the dignity that Paddy would permit of, for he was getting restless by this time.
"But you've included yourself in the secret," he tried to argue, with a show of injured feelings. "And surely, after you've wormed that out of me, you're not going to deliver a poor devil over to—"
"You can have perfect confidence in me," I interrupted, trying to be stately but only succeeding, I'm afraid, in being stiff. And he nodded and laughed in a companionable and laisser-faire sort of way as he started his engine and took command of the wheel.
Then began a battle which I had to watch from a distance because Paddy evinced no love for that purring and whining thing of steel as it rumbled and roared and thrashed and churned up the mud at its flying heels. It made the muskeg look like a gargantuan cake-batter, in which it seemed to float as dignified and imperturbable as a schooner in a canal-lock. But the man at the wheel kept his temper, and reversed, and writhed forward, and reversed again. He even waved at me, in a grim sort of gaiety, as he rested his engine and then went back to the struggle. He kept engaging and releasing his clutch until he was able to impart a slight rocking movement to the car. And again the big motor roared and churned up the mud and again Paddy took to prancing and pirouetting like a two-year-old. But this time the spinning rear wheels appeared to get a trace of traction, flimsy as it was, for the throbbing gray mass moved forward a little, subsided again, and once more nosed a few inches ahead. Then the engine whined in a still higher key, and slowly but surely that mud-covered mass emerged from the swale that had sought to engulf and possess it, emerged slowly and awkwardly, like a dinosauros emerging from its primeval ooze.
The man in the car stepped down from his driving-seat, once he was sure of firm ground under his wheels again, and walked slowly and wistfully about his resurrected devil-wagon.
"The wages of sin is mud," he said as I trotted up to him. "And how much better it would have been, O Singing Pine-Tree, if I'd never taken that car!"
The poor chap was undoubtedly a little wrong in the head, but likable withal, and not ill-favored in appearance, and a man that one should try to make allowances for.
"It would have been much better," I agreed, wondering how long it would be before the Mounted Police would be tracking him down and turning him to making brooms in the prison-factory at Welrina.
"Now, if you'll kindly trot ahead," he announced as he relighted his little briar pipe, "and show me the trail to the ranch of the blighted windmill, I'll idle along behind you."
I resented the placidity with which he was accepting a situation that should have called for considerable meekness on his part. And I sat there for a silent moment or two on Paddy, to make that resentment quite obvious to him.
"What's your name?" I asked, the same as I'd ask the name of any new help that arrived at Alabama Ranch.
"Peter Ketley," he said, for once both direct and sober-eyed.
"All right, Peter," I said, as condescendingly as I was able. "Just follow along, and I'll show you where the bunk-house is."
It was his grin, I suppose, that irritated me. So I started off on Paddy and went like the wind. I don't know whether he called it idling or not, but once or twice when I glanced back at him that touring-car was bounding like a reindeer over some of the rougher places in the trail, and I rather fancy it got some of the mud shaken off its running-gear before it pulled up behind the upper stable at Alabama Ranch.
"You ride like a ritt-meister," he said, with an approvingly good-natured wag of the head, as he came up as close as Paddy would permit.
"Danke-schoen!" I rather listlessly retorted, "And if you leave the car here, close beside this hay-stack, it'll probably not be seen until after dinner. Then some time this afternoon, if the coast is clear, you can get it covered up."
I was a little sorry, the next moment, that I'd harped still again on an act which must have become painful for him to remember, since I could see his face work and his eye betray a tendency to evade mine. But he thanked me, and explained that he was entirely in my hands.
Such being the case, I was more excited than I'd have been willing to admit when I led him into the shack. Frontier life had long since taught me not to depend too much on appearances, but the right sort of people, the people who out here are called "good leather," would remain the right sort of people in even the roughest wickiup. We may have been merely ranchers, but I didn't want Peter, whatever his morals, to think that we ate our food raw off the bone and made fire by rubbing sticks together.
Yet he must have come pretty close to believing that, unimpeachable as his manners remained, for Whinnie had burned the roast of veal to a charry mass, the Twins were crying like mad, and Dinkie had painted himself and most of the dining-room table with Worcestershire sauce. I showed Peter where he could wash up and where he could find a whisk to remove the dried mud from his person. Then I hurriedly appeased my complaining bairns, opened a can of beans to take the place of Whinnie's boiled potatoes, which most unmistakably tasted of yellow soap, and supplemented what looked dishearteningly like a Dixon dinner with my last carefully treasured jar of raspberry preserve.
Whinstane Sandy, it is true, remained as glum and silent as a glacier through all that meal. But my new man, Peter, talked easily and uninterruptedly. And he talked amazingly well. He talked about mountain goats, and the Morgan rose-jars in the Metropolitan, and why he disliked George Moore, and the difference between English and American slang, and why English women always wear the wrong sort of hats, and the poetry in Indian names if we only had the brains to understand 'em, and how the wheat I'd manufactured my home-made bread out of was made up of cellulose and germ and endosperm, and how the alcohol and carbonic acid gas of the fermented yeast affected the gluten, and how the woman who could make bread like that ought to have a specially designed decoration pinned on her apron-front. Then he played "Paddy-cake, paddy-cake, Baker's man," with Dinkie, who took to him at once, and when I came back from getting the extra cot ready in the bunk-house, my infant prodigy was on the new hired man's back, circling the dinner-table and shouting "Gid-dap, 'ossie, gid-dap!" as he went, a proceeding which left the seamed old face of Whinstane Sandy about as blithe as a coffin-lid. So I coldly informed the newcomer that I'd show him where he could put his things, if he had any, before we went out to look over the windmill. And Peter rather astonished me by lugging back from the motor-car so discreetly left in the rear a huge suit-case of pliable pigskin that looked like a steamer-trunk with carrying-handles attached to it, a laprobe lined with beaver, a llama-wool sweater made like a Norfolk-jacket, a chamois-lined ulster, a couple of plaid woolen rugs, and a lunch-kit in a neatly embossed leather case.
"Quite a bit of loot, isn't it?" he said, a little red in the face from the effort of portaging so pretentious a load.
That word "loot" stuck in my craw. It was a painful reminder of something that I'd been trying very hard to forget.
"Did it come with the car?" I demanded.
"Yes, it came with the car," he was compelled to acknowledge. "But it would be exhausting, don't you see, to have to tunnel through a hay-stack every time I wanted a hair-brush!"
I icily agreed that it would, scenting tacit reproof in that mildly-put observation of his. But I didn't propose to be trifled with. I calmly led Mr. Peter Ketley out to where the overturned windmill tower lay like a museum skeleton along its bed of weeds and asked him just what tools he'd need. It was a simple question, predicating a simple answer. Yet he didn't seem able to reply to it. He scratched his close-clipped pate and said he'd have to look things over and study it out. Windmills were tricky things, one kind demanding this sort of treatment and another kind demanding that.
"You'll have no trouble, of course, in raising the tower?" I asked, looking him square in the eye. More than once I'd seen these windmill towers of galvanized steel girders put up on the prairie, and I had a very good idea of how the thing was done. They were assembled lying on the ground, and then a heavy plank was bolted to the bottom side of the tower base. This plank was held in place by two big stakes. Then a block and tackle was attached to the upper part of the tower, with the running-rope looped over a tripod of poles, to act as a fulcrum, so that when a team of horses was attached to the tackle the tower pivoted on its base and slowly rose in the air, steadied by a couple of guy-ropes held out at right angles to it.
"Oh, no trouble at all," replied the expert quite airily. But I noticed that his eye held an especially abstracted and preoccupied expression.
"Just how is it done?" I innocently inquired.
"Well, that all depends," he sapiently observed. Then, apparently nettled by my obviously superior smile, he straightened up and said: "I want you to leave this entirely to me. It's my problem, and you've no right to be worried over it. It'll take study, of course, and it'll take time. Rome wasn't built in a day. But before I leave you, madam, your tower will be up."
"I hope you're not giving yourself a life sentence," I remarked as I turned and left him.
I knew that he was looking after me as I went, but I gave no outer sign of that inner knowledge. I was equally conscious of his movements, through the shack window, when he possessed himself of a hay-fork and with more than one backward look over his shoulder circled out to where his car still stood. He tooled it still closer up beside the hay-stack, which he mounted, and then calmly and cold-bloodedly buried under a huge mound of sun-cured prairie-grass that relic of a past crime which he seemed only too willing to obliterate.
But he was callous, I could see, for once that telltale car was out of sight, he appeared much more interested in the water-blisters on his hands than the stain on his character. I could even see him inspect his fingers, from time to time, as he tried to round off the top of his very badly made stack, and test the joints by opening and closing them, as though not quite sure they were still in working order. And when the stack-making was finished and he returned to the windmill, circling about the fallen tower and examining its mechanism and stepping off its dimensions, I noticed that he kept feeling the small of his back and glancing toward the stack in what seemed an attitude of resentment.
When Whinnie came in with one of the teams, after his day a-field, I noticed that Peter approached him blithely and attempted to draw him into secret consultation. But Whinnie, as far as I could see, had no palate for converse with suspicious-looking strangers. He walked several times, in fact, about that mysterious new hay-stack, and moved shackward more dour and silent than ever. So that evening the worthy Peter was a bit silent and self-contained, retiring early, though I strongly suspected, and still suspect, that he'd locked himself in the bunk-house to remove unobserved all the labels from his underwear.
In the morning his appearance was not that of a man at peace with his own soul. He even asked me if he might have a horse and rig to go in to the nearest town for some new parts which he'd need for the windmill. And he further inquired if I'd mind him bringing back a tent to sleep in.
"Did you find the bunk-house uncomfortable?" I asked, noticing again the heavy look about his eyes.
"It's not the bunk-house," he admitted. "It's that old Caledonian saw-mill with the rock-ribbed face."
"What's the matter with Whinnie?" I demanded, with a quick touch of resentment. And Peter looked up in astonishment.
"Do you mean you've never heard him—and your shack not sixty paces away?"
"Heard him what?" I asked.
"Heard him snore," explained Peter, with a sigh.
"Are you sure?" I inquired, remembering the mornings when I'd had occasion to waken Whinnie, always to find him sleeping as silent and placid as one of my own babies.
"I had eight hours of it in which to dissipate any doubts," he pointedly explained.
This mystified me, but to object to the tent, of course, would have been picayune. I had just the faintest of suspicions, however, that the fair Peter might never return from Buckhorn, though I tried to solace myself with the thought that the motor-car and the beaver-lined lap-robe would at least remain with me. But my fears were groundless. Before supper-time Peter was back in high spirits, with the needed new parts for the windmill, and an outfit of blue denim apparel for himself, and a little red sweater for Dinkie, and an armful of magazines for myself.
Whinnie, as he stood watching Peter's return, clearly betrayed the disappointment which that return involved. He said nothing, but when he saw my eye upon him he gazed dourly toward his approaching rival and tapped a weather-beaten brow with one stubby finger. He meant, of course, that Peter was a little locoed.
But Peter is not. He is remarkably clear-headed and quick-thoughted, and if there's any madness about him it's a madness with a deep-laid method. The one thing that annoys me is that he keeps me so continuously and yet so obliquely under observation. He pretends to be studying out my windmill, but he is really trying to study out its owner. Whinnie, I know, won't help him much. And I refuse to rise to his gaudiest flies. So he's still puzzling over what he regards as an anomaly, a farmerette who knows the difference between De Bussey and a side-delivery horse-rake, a mother of three children who can ride a pinto and play a banjo, a clodhopper in petticoats who can talk about Ragusa and Toarmina and the summer races at Piping Rock. But it's a relief to converse about something besides summer-fallowing and breaking and seed-wheat and tractor-oil and cows' teats. And it's a stroke of luck to capture a farm-hand who can freshen you up on foreign opera at the same time that he campaigns against the domestic weed!
Thursday the Eleventh
We are a peaceful and humdrum family, very different from the westerners of the romantic movies. If we were the cinema kind of ranchers Pee-Wee would be cutting his teeth on a six-shooter, little Dinkie would be off rustling cattle, Poppsy would be away holding up the Transcontinental Limited, and Mummsie would be wearing chaps, toting a gun, and pretending to the sheriff that her jail-breaking brother was not hidden in the cellar!
Whereas, we are a good deal like the easterners who till the soil and try to make a home for themselves and their children, only we are without a great many of their conveniences, even though we do beat them out in the matter of soil. But breaking sod isn't so picturesque as breaking laws, and a plow-handle isn't so thrilling to the eye as a shooting-iron, so it's mostly the blood-and-thunder type of westerners, from the ranch with the cow-brand name, who goes ki-yi-ing through picture and story, advertising us as an aggregation of train-robbers and road-agents and sheriff-rabbits. And it's a type that makes me tired.
The open range, let it be remembered, is gone, and the cowboy is going after it. Even the broncho, they tell me, is destined to disappear. It seems hard to think that the mustang will be no more, the mustang which Dinky-Dunk once told me was the descendant of the three hundred Arab and Spanish horses which Cortez first carried across the Atlantic to Mexico. For we, the newcomers, mesh the open range with our barb-wire, and bring in what Mrs. Eagle-Moccasin called our "stink-wagon" to turn the grass upside down and grow wheat-berries where the buffalo once wallowed. But sometimes, even in this newfangled work-a-day world, I find a fresh spirit of romance, quite as glamorous, if one has only the eye to see it, as the romance of the past. In one generation, almost, we are making a home-land out of a wilderness, we are conjuring up cities and threading the continent with steel, we are feeding the world on the best and cleanest wheat known to hungry man. And on these clear and opaline mornings when I see the prairie-floor waving with its harvest to be, and hear the clack and stutter of the tractor breaking sod on the outer quarter and leaving behind it the serried furrows of umber, I feel there is something primal and poetic in the picture, something mysteriously moving and epic....
The weather has turned quite warm again, with glorious spring days of winy and heart-tugging sunlight and cool and starry nights. In my spare time I've been helping Whinnie get in my "truck" garden, and Peter, who has reluctantly forsaken the windmill and learned to run the tractor, is breaking sod and summer-fallowing for me. For there is always another season to think of, and I don't want the tin-can of failure tied to my spirit's tail. As I say, the days slip by. Morning comes, fresh as a new-minted nickel, we mount the treadmill, and somebody rolls the big red ball off the table and it's night again. But open-air work leaves me healthy, my children grow a-pace, and I should be most happy.
But I'm not.
I'm so homesick for something which I can't quite define that it gives me a misty sort of ache just under the fifth rib. It's just three weeks now since Dinky-Dunk has ventured over from Casa Grande. If this aloofness continues, he'll soon need to be formally introduced to his own offspring when he sees them.
Now that I have Peter out working on the land, I can safely give a little more time to my household. But meals are still more or less a scramble. Peter has ventured the opinion that he might get a Chinaman for me, if he could have a week off to root out the right sort of Chink. But I prefer that Peter sticks to his tractor, much as I need help in the house.
My new hired man is still a good deal of a mystery to me, just as I seem to remain a good deal of a mystery to him. I've been asking myself just why it is that Peter is so easy to get along with, and why, in some indescribable way, he has added to the color of life since coming to Alabama Ranch. It's mostly, I think, because he's supplied me with the one thing I had sorely missed, without being quite conscious of it. He has been able to give me mental companionship, at a time when my mind was starving for an idea or two beyond the daily drudgery of farm-work. He has given a fillip to existence, loath as I am to acknowledge it. He's served to knock the moss off my soul by more or less indirectly reminding me that all work and no play could make Chaddie McKail a very dull girl indeed.
I was rather afraid, at one time, that he was going to spoil it all by making love to me, after the manner of young Bud Dyruff, from the Cowen Ranch, who, because I waded bare-kneed into a warm little slough-end when the horses were having their noonday meal, assumed that I could be persuaded to wade with equal celerity into indiscriminate affection. That rudimentary and ingenuous youth, in fact, became more and more offensive in his approaches, until finally I turned on him. "Are you trying to make love to me?" I demanded. "The surest thing you know," he said with a rather moonish smile. "Then let me tell you something," I hissed out at him, with my nose within six inches of his, "I'm a high-strung hell-cat, I am. I'm a bob-cat, and I'm not aching to be pawed by you or any other hare-brained he-mutt. So now, right from this minute, keep your distance! Is that clear? Keep your distance, or I'll break your head in with this neck-yoke!"
Poor Bud! That rather blighted the flower of Bud's tender young romance, and to this day he effects a wide detour when he happens to meet me on the trail or in the byways of Buckhorn.
But Peter Ketley is not of the Bud Dyruff type. He is more complex, and, accordingly, more disturbing. For I can see admiration in his eye, even though he no longer expresses it by word of mouth. And there is something tonic to any woman in knowing that a man admires her. In my case, in fact, it's so tonic that I've ordered some benzoin and cucumber-cream, and think a little more about how I'm doing my hair, and argue with myself that it's a woman's own fault if she runs to seed before she's seen thirty. I may be the mother of three children, but I still have a hankering after personal power—and that comes to women through personal attractiveness, disquieting as it may be to have to admit it. We can't be big strong men and conquer through force, but our frivolous little bodies can house the triumphant weaknesses which make men forget their strength.
Sunday the Fourteenth
I've had a talk with Peter. It simply had to come, for we couldn't continue to play-act and evade realities. The time arrived for getting down to brass tacks. And even now the brass tacks aren't as clear-cut as I'd like them to be.
But Peter is not and never was a car-thief. That beetle-headed suspicion has passed slowly but surely away, like a snow-man confronted by a too affectionate sun. It slipped away from me little by little, and began losing its lines, not so much when I found that Peter carried a bill-fold and a well-thumbed copy of Marius The Epicurean and walked about in undergarments that were expensive enough for a prima donna, but more because I found myself face to face with a Peter-Panish sort of honorableness that was not to be dissembled. So I cornered Peter and put him through his paces.
I began by telling him that I didn't seem to know a great deal about him.
"The closed makimono," he cryptically retorted, "is the symbol of wisdom."
I was ashamed to ask just what that meant, so I tried another tack.
"Folks are thrown pretty intimately together, in this frontier life, like worms in a bait-tin. So they naturally need to know what they're tangled up with."
Peter, at that, began to look unhappy.
"Would you mind telling me what brought you to this part of the country?" I asked.
"Would you mind telling me what brought you to this part of the country?" countered Peter.
"My husband," I curtly retorted. And that chilled him perceptibly. But he saw that I was not to be shuttled aside.
"I was interested," he explained with a shrug of finality, "in the nesting-ground of the Canada goose!"
"Then you came to the right point," I promptly retorted. "For I am it!"
But he didn't smile, as I'd expected him to do. He seemed to feel that something approaching seriousness was expected of that talk.
"I really came because I was more interested in one of your earliest settlers," he went on. "This settler, I might add, came to your province some three million years ago and is now being exhumed from one of the cut-banks of the Red Deer River. He belongs to the Mesozoic order of archisaurian gentlemen known as Dinosauria, and there's about a car-load of him. This interest in one of your cretaceous dinosaur skeletons would imply, of course, that I'm wedded to science. And I am, though to nothing else. I'm as free as the wind, dear lady, or I wouldn't be holidaying here with a tractor-plow that makes my legs ache and a prairie Penelope, who, for some reason or other, has the power of making my heart ache."
"Verboten!" I promptly interjected.
Peter saluted and then sighed.
"There are things up here even more interesting than your Edmonton formation," he remarked. "But I was born a Quaker, you see, and I can't get rid of my self-control!"
"I like you for that," I rather depressed him by saying. "For I find that one accepts you, Peter, as one accepts a climate. You're intimate in your very remoteness."
Peter looked at me out of a rueful yet ruminative eye. But Whinnie came forth and grimly announced that the Twins were going it. So I had to turn shackward.
"You really ought to get that car out," I called over my shoulder to him, with a head-nod toward the hay-stack. And he nodded absently back at me.
Thursday the—I Can't Remember
Dinky-Dunk rode over to-day when Peter was bolting some new wire stuts on the windmill tower and I was busy dry-picking two polygamous old roosters which Whinnie had beheaded for me. My husband attempted an offhand and happy-go-lucky air which, I very soon saw, was merely a mask to hide his embarrassment. He even flushed up to the ears when little Dinkie drew back for a moment or two, as any child might who didn't recognize his own father, though he later solicitously tiptoed to the sleeping-porch where the Twins were having their nap, and remarked that they were growing prodigiously.
It was all rather absurd. But when one member of this life-partnership business is stiff with constraint, you can't expect the other member to fall on his neck and weep. And Dinky-Dunk, for all his nonchalance, looked worried and hollow-eyed. He was in the saddle again, and headed back for Casa Grande, when he caught sight of Peter at work on the windmill. So he loped over to my hired man and had a talk with him. What they talked about I couldn't tell, of course, but it seemed a casual and friendly enough conversation. Peter, in his blue-jeans, dirt-marked and oil-stained, and with a wrench in his hand, looked like an I. W. W. agitator who'd fallen on evil days.
I felt tempted to sally forth and reprove Dinky-Dunk for wasting the time of my hired help. But that, I remembered in time, might be treading on rather thin ice, or, what would be even worse, might seem like snooping. And speaking of snooping, reminds me that a few nights ago I listened carefully at the open window of the bunk-house where Whinstane Sandy was deep in repose. Not a sound, not a trace of a snore, arose from Whinnie's cot.
So my suspicions were confirmed. That old sourdough had deliberately lain awake and tried to trumpet my second man from the precincts which Whinnie felt he'd already preempted. He had attempted to snore poor Peter off the map and away from Alabama Ranch!
Saturday the Thirtieth
The sedatest lives, I suppose, have their occasional Big Surprises. Life, at any rate, has just treated me to one. Lady Alicia Newland's English maid, known as Struthers, arrived at Alabama Ranch yesterday afternoon and asked if I'd take her in. She'd had some words, she said, with her mistress, and didn't propose to be treated like the scum of the earth by anybody.
So the inevitable has come about. America, the liberalizer, has touched the worthy Struthers with her wand of democracy and transformed her from a silent machine of service into a Vesuvian female with a mind and a voice of her own.
I told Struthers, who was still a bit quavery and excited, to sit down and we'd talk the matter over, for rustling maids, in a land where they're as scarce as hen's teeth, is a much graver crime than rustling cattle. Yet if Lady Allie had taken my husband away from me, I didn't see why, in the name of poetic justice, I shouldn't appropriate her hand-maid.
And Struthers, I found, was quite definite as to her intentions. She is an expert needle-woman, can do plain cooking, and having been a nurse-maid in her younger days, is quite capable of looking after children, even American children. I winced at that, naturally, and winced still harder when she stipulated that she must have four o'clock tea every afternoon, and every alternate Sunday morning off for the purpose of "saging" her hair, which was a new one on me. But I weighed the pros and cons, very deliberately, and discussed her predicament very candidly, and the result is that Struthers is now duly installed at Alabama Ranch. Already, in fact, that efficient hand of hers has left its mark on the shack. Her muffins this morning were above reproach and to-morrow we're to have Spotted Dog pudding. But already, I notice, she is casting sidelong glances in the direction of poor Peter, to whom, this evening at supper, she deliberately and unquestionably donated the fairest and fluffiest quarter of the lemon pie. I have no intention of pumping the lady, but I can see that there are certain matters pertaining to Casa Grande which she is not averse to easing her mind of. I am not quite sure, in fact, that I could find it possible to lend an ear to the gossipings of a servant. And yet—and yet, there are a few things I'd like to find out. And dignity may still be slaughtered on the altar of curiosity.
Sunday the Sixth
Now that I've had a breathing-spell, I've been sitting back and mentally taking stock. The showers of last week have brought the needed moisture for our wheat, which is looking splendid. Our oats are not quite so promising, but everything will depend upon the season. The season, in fact, holds our fate and our fortune in its lap. Those ninety days that include June and July and August are the days when the northwest farmer is forever on tiptoe watching the weather. It's his time of trial, his period of crisis, when our triple foes of Drought and Hail and Fire may at any moment creep upon him. It keeps one on the qui vive, making life a gamble, giving the zest of the uncertain to existence, and leaving no room for boredom. It's the big drama which even dwarfs the once momentous emotions of love and hate and jealousy. For when the Big Rush is on, I've noticed, husbands are apt to neglect their wives, and lovers forget their sweethearts, and neighbors their enmities. Let the world go hang, but before and above everything else, save your crop!
Yet, as I was saying, I've been taking stock. It's clear that I should have more cattle. And if all goes well, I want a bank-barn, the same as they have in the East, with cement flooring and modern stalling. And I've got to comb over my herd, and get rid of the boarders and hatracks, and acquire a blooded bull for Alabama Ranch, to improve the strain. Two of my milkers must go for beef, as well as several scrub springers which it would be false economy to hold. I've also got to do something about my hogs. They are neither "easy feeders" nor good bacon types. With them, too, I want a good sire, a pure-bred Yorkshire or Berkshire. And I must have cement troughs and some movable fencing, so that my young shoats may have pasture-crop. For there is money in pigs, and no undue labor, provided you have them properly fenced.
My chickens, which have been pretty well caring for themselves, have done as well as could be expected. I've tried to get early hatchings from my brooders, for pullets help out with winter eggs when prices are high, laying double what a yearling does during the cold months. My yellow-beaks and two-year-olds I shall kill off as we're able to eat them, for an old hen is a useless and profitless possession and I begin to understand why lordly man has appropriated that phrase as a term of contempt for certain of my sex. I'm trading in my eggs—and likewise my butter—at Buckhorn, selling the Number One grade and holding back the Number Twos for home consumption. There is an amazing quantity of Number Twos, because of "stolen nests" and the lack of proper coops and runs. But we seem to get away with them all. Dinkie now loves them and would eat more than one at a time if I'd let him.
The gluttony of the normal healthy three-year-old child, by the way, is something incredible. Dinkie reminds me more and more of a robin in cherry-time. He stuffs sometimes, until his little tummy is as tight as a drum, and I verily believe he could eat his own weight in chocolate blanc-mange, if I'd let him. Eating, with him, is now a serious business, demanding no interruptions or distractions. Once he's decently filled, however, his greediness takes the form of exterior application. He then rejoices to plaster as much as he can in his hair and ears and on his face, until he looks like a cross between a hod-carrier and a Fiji-Islander. And grown men, I've concluded, are very much the same with their appetite of love. They come to you with a brave showing of hunger, but when you've given until no more remains to be given, they become finicky and capricious, and lose their interest in the homely old porridge-bowl which looked all loveliness to them before they had made it theirs....
This afternoon, tired of scheming and conceiting for the future, I had a longing to be frivolous and care-free. So I got out the old rusty-rimmed banjo, tuned her up, and sat on an overturned milk-bucket, with Dinkie and Bobs and Poppsy and Pee-Wee for an audience.
I was leaning back with my knees crossed, strumming out Turkey in the Straw when Peter walked up and sat down between Bobs and Dinkie. So I gave him The Whistling Coon, while the Twins lay there positively pop-eyed with delight, and he joined in with me on Dixie, singing in a light and somewhat throaty baritone. Then we swung on to There's a Hole in the Bottom of the Sea, which must always be sung to a church-tune, and still later to that dolorous ballad, Oh, Bury Me Not on the Lone Prair-hee! Then we tried a whistling duet with banjo accompaniment, pretty well murdering the Tinker's Song from Robin Hood until Whinstane Sandy, who was taking his Sabbath bath in the bunk-house, loudly opened the window and stared out with a dourly reproving countenance, which said as plain as words: "This is nae the day for whustlin', folks!"
But little Dinkie, obviously excited by the music, shouted "A-more! A-more!" so we went on, disregarding Whinnie and the bunk-house window and Struthers' acrid stare from the shack-door. I was in the middle of Fay Templeton's lovely old Rosie, You Are My Posey, when Lady Alicia rode up, as spick and span as though she'd just pranced off Rotten Row. And as I'd no intention of showing the white feather to her ladyship, I kept right on to the end. Then I looked up and waved the banjo at her where she sat stock-still on her mount. There was an enigmatic look on her face, but she laughed and waved back, whereupon Peter got up, and helped her dismount as she threw her reins over the pony's head.
I noticed that her eye rested very intently on Peter's face as I introduced him, and he in turn seemed to size the stately newcomer up in one of those lightning-flash appraisals of his. Then Lady Allie joined our circle, and confessed that she'd been homesick for a sight of the kiddies, especially Dinkie, whom she took on her knee and regarded with an oddly wistful and abstracted manner.
My hired man, I noticed, was in no way intimidated by a title in our midst, but wagered that Lady Allie's voice would be a contralto and suggested that we all try On the Road to Mandalay together. But Lady Allie acknowledged that she had neither a voice nor an ear, and would prefer listening. We couldn't remember the words, however, and the song wasn't much of a success. I think the damper came when Struthers stepped out into full view, encased in my big bungalow-apron of butcher's linen. Lady Alicia, after the manner of the English, saw her without seeing her. There wasn't the flicker of an eyelash, or a moment's loss of poise. But it seemed too much like a Banquo at the feast to go on with our banjo-strumming, and I attempted to bridge the hiatus by none too gracefully inquiring how things were getting along over at Casa Grande. Lady Allie's contemplative eye, I noticed, searched my face to see if there were any secondary significances to that bland inquiry.
"Everything seems to be going nicely," she acknowledged. Then she rather took the wind out of my sails by adding: "But I really came over to see if you wouldn't dine with me to-morrow at seven. Bring the children, of course. And if Mr.—er—Ketley can come along, it will be even more delightful."
Still again I didn't intend to be stumped by her ladyship, so I said that I'd be charmed, without one second of hesitation, and Peter, with an assumption of vast gravity, agreed to come along if he didn't have to wear a stiff collar and a boiled shirt. And he continued to rag Lady Allie in a manner which seemed to leave her a little bewildered. But she didn't altogether dislike it, I could see, for Peter has the power of getting away with that sort of thing.
Tuesday the Eighth
Lady Alicia's dinner is over and done with. I can't say that it was a howling success. And I'm still very much in doubt as to its raison d'etre, as the youthful society reporters express it. At first I thought it might possibly be to flaunt my lost grandeur in my face. And then I argued with myself that it might possibly be to exhibit Sing Lo, the new Chink man-servant disinterred from one of the Buckhorn laundries. And still later I suspected that it might be a sort of demonstration of preparedness, like those carefully timed naval parades on the part of one of the great powers disquieted by the activities of a restive neighbor. And then came still another suspicion that it might possibly be a move to precipitate the impalpable, as it were, to put certain family relationships to the touch, and make finally certain as to how things stood.
But that, audacious as I felt Lady Alicia to be, didn't quite hold water. It didn't seem any more reasonable than my earlier theories. And all I'm really certain of is that the dinner was badly cooked and badly served, rather reminding me of a chow-house meal on the occasion of a Celestial New Year. We all wore our every-day clothes (with Peter's most carefully pressed and sponged by the intriguing Struthers) and the Twins were put asleep up-stairs in their old nursery and Dinkie was given a place at the table with two sofa-cushions to prop him up in his armchair (and acted like a little barbarian) and Peter nearly broke his neck to make himself as pleasant as possible, chattering like a magpie and reminding me of a circus-band trying to make the crowd forget the bareback rider who's just been carried out on a stretcher. But Constraint was there, all the while, first in the form of Dinky-Dunk's unoccupied chair, which remained that way until dinner was two-thirds through, and then in the form of Dinky-Dunk himself, whose explanation about some tractor-work keeping him late didn't quite ring true. His harried look, I must acknowledge, wore away with the evening, but to me at least it was only too plain that he was there under protest.
I did my utmost to stick to the hale-fellow-well-met role, but it struck me as uncommonly like dancing on a coffin. And for all his garrulity, I know, Peter was really watching us with the eye of a hawk.
"I'm too old a dog," I overheard him telling Lady Alicia, "ever to be surprised at the crumbling of an ideal or the disclosure of a skeleton."
I don't know what prompted that statement, but it had the effect of making Lady Allie go off into one of her purl-two knit-two trances.
"I think you English people," I heard him telling her a little later, "have a tendency to carry moderation to excess."
"I don't quite understand that," she said, lighting what must have been about her seventeenth cigarette.
"I mean you're all so abnormally normal," retorted Peter—which impressed me as being both clever and true. And when Lady Allie, worrying over that epigram, became as self-immured as a Belgian milk-dog, Peter cocked an eye at me as a robin cocks an eye at a fish-worm, and I had the audacity to murmur across the table at him, "Lady Barbarina." Whereupon he said back, without batting an eye: "Yes, I happen to have read a bit of Henry James."
But dinner came to an end and we had coffee in what Lady Alicia had rechristened the Lounge, and then made doleful efforts to be light and airy over a game of bridge, whereat Dinky-Dunk lost fourteen dollars of his hard-earned salary and twice I had to borrow six bits from Peter to even up with Lady Allie, who was inhospitable enough to remain the winner of the evening. And I wasn't sorry when those devastating Twins of mine made their voices heard and thrust before me an undebatable excuse for trekking homeward. And another theatricality presented itself when Dinky-Dunk announced that he'd take us back in the car. But we had White-Face and Tumble-Weed and our sea-going spring-wagon, with plenty of rugs, and there was no way, of course, of putting a team and rig in the tonneau. So I made my adieux and planted Peter meekly in the back seat with little Dinkie to hold and took the reins myself.
I started home with a lump in my throat and a weight in my heart, feeling it really wasn't a home that I was driving toward. But it was one of those crystal-clear prairie nights when the stars were like electric-lights shining through cut-glass and the air was like a razor-blade wrapped in panne-velvet. It took you out of yourself. It reminded you that you were only an infinitely small atom in the immensity of a crowded big world, and that even your big world was merely a microscopic little mote lost amid its uncounted millions of sister-motes in the infinitudes of time and space.
"Nitchevo!" I said out loud, as I stopped on the trail to readjust and wrap the Twins in their rug-lined laundry-basket.
"In that case," Peter unexpectedly remarked, "I'd like to climb into that front seat with you."
"Why?" I asked, not greatly interested.
"Because I want to talk to you," was Peter's answer.
"But I think I'd rather not talk," I told him.
"Why?" it was his turn to inquire.
"Isn't it a rum enough situation as it is?" I demanded. For Peter, naturally, had not used his eyes for nothing that night.
But Peter didn't wait for my permission to climb into the front seat. He plumped himself down beside me and sat there with my first-born in his arms and one-half of the mangy old buffalo-robe pulled up over his knees.
"I think I'm beginning to see light," he said, after a rather long silence, as we went spanking along the prairie-trail with the cold air fanning our faces.
"I wish I did," I acknowledged.
"You're not very happy, are you?" he ventured, in a voice with just the slightest trace of vibrato in it.
But I didn't see that anything was to be gained by parading my troubles before others. And life, of late, had been teaching me to consume my own smoke. So I kept silent.
"Do you like me, Peter?" I suddenly asked. For I felt absurdly safe with Peter. He has a heart, I know, as clean as an Alpine village, and the very sense of his remoteness, as I'd already told him, gives birth to a sort of intimacy, like the factory girl who throws a kiss to the brakeman on the through freight and remains Artemis-on-ice to the delicatessen-youth from whom she buys her supper "weenies."
"What do you suppose I've been hanging around for?" demanded Peter, with what impressed me as an absence of finesse.
"To fix the windmill, of course," I told him. "Unless you have improper designs on Struthers!"
He laughed a little and looked up at the Great Bear.
"If it's true, as they say, that Fate weaves in the dark, I suppose that's why she weaves so badly," he observed, after a short silence.
"She undoubtedly drops a stitch now and then," I agreed, wondering if he was thinking of me or Struthers when he spoke. "But you do like me, don't you?"
"I adore you," admitted Peter quite simply.
"In the face of all these?" I said with a contented little laugh, nodding toward my three children.
"In the face of everything," asserted Peter.
"Then I wish you'd do something for me," I told him.
"Break that woman's heart," I announced, with a backward nod of my head toward Casa Grande.
"I'd much rather break yours," he coolly contended. "Or I'd prefer knowing I had the power of doing it."
I shook my head. "It can't be done, Peter. And it can't even be pretended. Imagine the mother of twins trying to flirt with a man even as nice as you are! It would be as bad as an elephant trying to be kittenish and about as absurd as one of your dinosauria getting up and trying to do a two-step. And I'm getting old and prosy, Peter, and if I pretend to be skittish now and then it's only to mask the fact that I'm on the shelf, that I've eaten my pie and that before long I'll be dyeing my hair every other Sunday, the same as Struthers, and——"
"Rot!" interrupted Peter. "All rot!"
"Why rot?" I demanded.
"Because to me you're the embodiment of undying youth," asserted the troubadour beside me. It was untrue, and it was improper, but for a moment or two at least my hungry heart closed about that speech the same as a child's hand closes about a chocolate-drop. Women are made that way. But I had to keep to the trail.
"Supposing we get back to earth," I suggested.
"What's the matter with the way we were heading?" countered the quiet-eyed Peter.
"It doesn't seem quite right," I argued. And he laughed a little wistfully.
"What difference does it make, so long as we're happy?" he inquired. And I tried to reprove him with a look, but I don't think it quite carried in the misty starlight.
"I can't say," I told him, "that I approve of your reasoning."
"That's just the point," he said with a slightly more reckless note in his laughter. "It doesn't pretend to be reasoning. It's more like that abandoning of all reasoning which brings us our few earthly glories."
"Cogito, ergo sum," I announced, remembering my Descartes.
"Well, I'm going to keep on just the same," protested Peter.
"Keep on at what?" I asked.
"At thinking you're adorable," was his reply.
"Well, the caterpillars have been known to stop the train, but you must remember that it's rather hard on the caterpillars," I proclaimed as we swung off the trail and headed in for Alabama Ranch.
Sunday the Thirteenth
On Friday night there were heavy showers again, and now Whinnie reports that our Marquis wheat couldn't look better and ought to run well over forty bushels to the acre. We are assured of sufficient moisture, but our two enemies yclept Fire and Hail remain. I should like to have taken out hail insurance, but I haven't the money on hand.
I can at least make sure of my fire-guards. Turning those essential furrows will be good training for Peter. That individual, by the way, has been quieter and more ruminative of late, and, if I'm not mistaken, a little gentler in his attitude toward me. Yet there's not a trace of pose about him, and I feel sure he wouldn't harm the morals of a lady-bug. He's kind and considerate, and doing his best to be a good pal. Whinnie, by the way, regards me with a mildly reproving eye, and having apparently concluded that I am a renegade, is concentrating his affection on Dinkie, for whom he is whittling out a new Noah's Ark in his spare time. He is also teaching Dinkie to ride horseback, lifting him up to the back of either Nip or Tuck when they come for water and letting him ride as far as the stable. He looks very small up on that big animal.
At night, now that the evenings are so long, Whinnie takes my laddie on his knee and tells him stories, stories which he can't possibly understand, I'm sure, but Dinkie likes the drone of Whinnie's voice and the feel of those rough old arms about his little body. We all hunger for affection. The idiot who said that love was the bitters in the cocktail of life wasn't either a good liver or a good philosopher. For love is really the whole cocktail. Take that away, and nothing is left....
I seem to be getting moodier, as summer advances. Alternating waves of sourness and tenderness sweep through me, and if I wasn't a busy woman I'd possibly make a fine patient for one of those fashionable nerve-specialists who don't flourish on the prairie.
But I can't quite succeed in making myself as miserable as I feel I ought to be. There seems to be a great deal happening all about us, and yet nothing ever happens. My children are hale and hearty, my ranch is fat with its promise of harvest, and I am surrounded by people who love and respect me. But it doesn't seem enough. Coiled in my heart is one small disturbing viper which I can neither scotch nor kill. Yet I decline to be the victim of anything as ugly as jealousy. For jealousy is both poisonous and pathetic. But I'd like to choke that woman!
Yesterday Lady Alicia, who is now driving her own car, picked up Peter from his fire-guard work and carried him off on an experimental ride to see what was wrong with her carbureter—the same old carbureter! She let him out at the shack, on her way home, and Struthers witnessed the tail end of that enlevement. It spoilt her day for her. She fumed and fretted and made things fly—for Struthers always works hardest, I've noticed, when in a temper—and surrendering to the corroding tides which were turning her gentle nature into gall and wormwood, obliquely and tremulously warned the somewhat startled Peter against ungodly and frivolous females who 'ave no right to be corrupting simple-minded colonials and who 'ave no scruples against playing with men the same as a cat would play with a mouse.
"So be warned in time," I sternly exclaimed to Peter, when I accidentally overheard the latter end of Struthers' exhortation.
"And there are others as ought to be warned in time!" was Struthers' Parthian arrow as she flounced off to turn the omelette which she'd left to scorch on the cook-stove.
Peter's eye met mine, but neither of us said anything. It reminded me of cowboy honor, which prompts a rider never to "touch leather," no matter how his bronco may be bucking. And omelette, I was later reminded, comes from the French alumelle, which means ship's plating, a bit of etymology well authenticated by Struthers' skillet.
Wednesday the Twenty-third
Summer is here, here in earnest, and already we've had a few scorching days. Haying will soon be upon us, and there is no slackening in the wheels of industry about Alabama Ranch. My Little Alarm-Clocks have me up bright and early, and the morning prairie is a joy that never grows old to the eye. Life is good, and I intend to be happy, for
I'm going alone, Though Hell forefend, By a way of my own To the bitter end!
And our miseries, after all, are mostly in our own minds. Yesterday I came across little Dinkie lamenting audibly over a scratch on his hand at least seven days old. He insisted that I should kiss it, and, after witnessing that healing touch, was perfectly satisfied. And there's no reason why grown-ups should be more childish than children themselves.
One thing that I've been missing this year, more than ever before, is fresh fruit. During the last few days I've nursed a craving for a tart Northern-Spy apple, or a Golden Pippin with a water-core, or a juicy and buttery Bartlett pear fresh from the tree. Those longings come over me occasionally, like my periodic hunger for the Great Lakes and the Atlantic, a vague ache for just one vision of tumbling beryl water, for the plunge of cool green waves and the race of foam. And Peter overheard me lamenting our lack of fruit and proclaiming I could eat my way right across the Niagara Peninsula in peach time. So when he came back from Buckhorn this afternoon with the farm supplies, he brought on his own hook two small boxes of California plums and a whole crate of oranges.
It was very kind of him, and also very foolish, for the oranges will never keep in this hot weather, and the only way that I can see to save them is to make them up into marmalade. It was pathetic to see little Dinkie with his first orange. It was hard to persuade him that it wasn't a new kind of ball. But once the flavor of its interior juices was made known to him, he took to it like a cat to cream.
It brought home to me how many things there are my kiddies have had to do without, how much that is a commonplace to the city child must remain beyond the reach of the prairie tot. But I'm not complaining. I am resolved to be happy, and in my prophetic bones is a feeling that things are about to take a turn for the better, something better than the humble stewed prune for Dinkie's little tummy and something better than the companionship of the hired help for his mother. Not that both Peter and Whinnie haven't a warm place in my heart! They couldn't be better to me. But I'm one of those neck-or-nothing women, I suppose, who are silly enough to bank all on a single throw, who have to put all their eggs of affection in one basket. I can't be indiscriminate, like Dinkie, for instance, whom I found the other day kissing every picture of a man in the Mail-Order Catalogue and murmuring "Da-da!" and doing the same to every woman-picture and saying "Mummy." To be lavish with love is, I suppose, the prerogative of youth. Age teaches us to treasure it and sustain it, to guard it as we'd guard a lonely flame against the winds of the world. But the flame goes out, and we grope on through the darkness wondering why there can never be another....
I wonder if Lady Alicia is as cold as she seems? For she has the appearance of keeping her emotions in an ice-box of indifferency, the same as city florists keep their flowers chilled for commercial purposes. Lady Allie, I'm sure, is fond of my little Dinkie. Yet there's a note of condescension in her affection, for even in what seems like an impulse of adoration her exclamation nearly always is "Oh, you lovable little rabbit!" or, if not that, it's likely to be "You adorable little donkey you!" She says it very prettily, of course, setting it to music almost with that melodious English drawl of hers. She is, she must be, a very fascinating woman. But at the first tee, friendship ends, as the golf-nuts say.
...I asked Peter the other day what he regarded as my besetting sin and the brute replied: "Topping the box." I told him I didn't quite get the idea. "A passion to produce a good impression," he explained, "by putting all your biggest mental strawberries on the top!"
"That sounds suspiciously like trying to be a Smart Aleck," I retorted.
"It may sound that way, but it isn't. You're so mentally alive, I mean, that you've simply got to be slightly acrobatic. And it's as natural, of course, as a child's dancing."
But Peter is wrong. I've been out of the world so long that I've a dread of impressing people as stupid, as being a clodhopper. And if trying hard not to be thought that is "topping the box," I suppose I'm guilty.
"You are also not without vanity," Peter judicially continued. "But every naturally beautiful woman has a right to that." And I proved Peter's contention by turning shell-pink even under my sunburn and feeling a warm little runway of pleasure creep up through my carcass, for the homeliest old prairie-hen that ever made a pinto shy, I suppose, loves to be told that she's beautiful.
Peter, of course, is a conscienceless liar, but I can't help liking him, and he'll always nest warm in the ashes of my heart....
There's one thing I must do, as soon as I have the chance, and that is get in to a dentist and have my teeth attended to. And now that I'm so much thinner I want a new and respectable pair of corsets. I've been studying my face in the glass, and I can see, now, what an awful Ananias Peter really is. Struthers, by the way, observed me in the midst of that inspection, and, if I'm not greatly mistaken, indulged in a sniff. To her, I suppose, I'm one of those vain creatures who fall in love with themselves as a child and perpetuate, thereby, a life romance!
Saturday the Twenty-sixth
Coming events do not cast their shadows before them. I was busy in the kitchen this morning, making marmalade out of what was left of Peter's oranges and contentedly humming Oh, Dry Those Tears when the earthquake that shook the world from under my feet occurred.
The Twins had been bathed and powdered and fed and put out in their sleeping-box, and Dinkie was having his morning nap, and Struthers was busy at the sewing-machine, finishing up the little summer shirts for Poppsy and Pee-Wee which I'd begun to make out of their daddy's discarded B. V. D.'s. It was a glorious morning with a high-arching pale blue sky and little baby-lamb cloudlets along the sky-line and the milk of life running warm and rich in the bosom of the sleeping earth. And I was bustling about in my apron of butcher's linen, after slicing oranges on my little maple-wood carving-slab until the house was aromatic with them, when the sound of a racing car-engine smote on my ear. I went to the door with fire in my eye and the long-handled preserving spoon in my hand, ready to call down destruction on the pinhead who'd dare to wake my kiddies.
My visitor, I saw, was Lady Alicia; and I beheld my broken wash-tub under the front axle of her motor-car.
I went out to her, with indignation still in my eye, but she paid no attention to either that or the tub itself. She was quite pale, in fact, as she stepped down from her driving-seat, glanced at her buckskin gauntlets, and then looked up at me.
"There's something we may as well face, and face at once," she said, with less of a drawl than usual.
I waited, without speaking, wondering if she was referring to the tub. But I could feel my heart contract, like a leg-muscle with a cramp in it. And we stood there, face to face, under the flat prairie sunlight, ridiculously like two cockerels silently estimating each other's intentions.
"I'm in love with your husband," Lady Alicia suddenly announced, with a bell-like note of challenge in her voice. "And I'd rather like to know what you're going to do about it."
I was able to laugh a little, though the sound of it seemed foolish in my own startled ears.
"That's rather a coincidence, isn't it?" I blithely admitted. "For so am I."
I could see the Scotch-granite look that came into the thick-lashed tourmaline eyes. And they'd be lovely eyes, I had to admit, if they were only a little softer.
"That's unfortunate," was her ladyship's curt retort.
"It's more than unfortunate," I agreed, "it's extremely awkward."
"Why?" she snapped, plainly annoyed at my lightness of tone.
"Because he can't possibly have both of us, you know—unless he's willing to migrate over to that Mormon colony at Red-Deer. And even there, I understand, they're not doing it now."
"I'm afraid this is something much too serious to joke about," Lady Alicia informed me.
"But it strikes me as essentially humorous," I told her.
"I'm afraid," she countered, "that it's apt to prove essentially tragic."
"But he happens to be my husband," I observed.
"Only in form, I fancy, if he cares for some one else," was her ladyship's deliberate reply.
"Then he has acknowledged that—that you've captured him?" I inquired, slowly but surely awakening to the sheer audacity of the lady in the buckskin gauntlets.
"Isn't that rather—er—primitive?" inquired Lady Allie, paler than ever.
"If you mean coming and squabbling over another woman's husband, I'd call it distinctly prehistoric," I said with a dangerous little red light dancing before my eyes. "It's so original that it's aboriginal. But I'm still at a loss to know just what your motive is, or what you want."
"I want an end to this intolerable situation," my visitor averred.
"Intolerable to whom?" I inquired.
"To me, to Duncan, and to you, if you are the right sort of woman," was Lady Alicia's retort. And still again I was impressed by the colossal egoism of the woman confronting me, the woman ready to ride rough-shod over the world, for all her sparkling veneer of civilization, as long, as she might reach her own selfish ends.
"Since you mention Duncan, I'd like to ask if you're speaking now as his cousin, or as his mistress?"
Lady Alicia's stare locked with mine. She was making a sacrificial effort, I could see, to remain calm.
"I'm speaking as some one who is slightly interested in his happiness, and his future," was her coldly intoned reply.
"And has my husband acknowledged that his happiness and his future remain in your hands?" I asked.
"I should hate to see him waste his life in a hole like this," said Lady Alicia, not quite answering my question.
"Have you brought any great improvement to it?" I parried. Yet even as I spoke I stood impressed by the thought that it was, after all, more than primitive. It was paleolithic, two prehistoric she-things in combat for their cave-man.
"That is not what I came here to discuss," she replied, with a tug at one of her gauntlets.
"I suppose it would be nearer the mark to say, since you began by being so plain-spoken, that you came here to ask me to give you my husband," I retorted as quietly as I could, not because I preferred the soft pedal, but because I nursed a strong suspicion that Struthers' attentive ear was just below the nearest window-sill.
Lady Alicia smiled forbearingly, almost pityingly.
"Any such donation, I'm afraid, is no longer your prerogative," she languidly remarked, once more mistress of herself. "What I'm more interested in is your giving your husband his liberty."
I felt like saying that this was precisely what I had been giving him. But it left too wide an opening. So I ventured, instead: "I've never heard my husband express a desire for his liberty."
"He's too honorable for that," remarked my enemy.
"Then it's an odd kind of honor," I icily remarked, "that allows you to come here and bicker over a situation that is so distinctly personal."
"Pardon me, but I'm not bickering. And I'm not rising to any heights of courage which would be impossible to your husband. It's consoling, however, to know how matters stand. And Duncan will probably act according to his own inclinations."
That declaration would have been more inflammatory, I think, if one small truth hadn't gradually come home to me. In some way, and for some reason, Lady Alicia Elizabeth Newland was not so sure of herself as she was pretending to be. She was not so sure of her position, I began to see, or she would never have thrown restraint to the winds and come to me on any such mission.
"Then that counts me out!" I remarked, with a forlorn attempt at being facetious. "If he's going to do as he likes, I don't see that you or I have much to say in the matter. But before he does finally place his happiness in your hands, I rather think I'd like to have a talk with him."
"That remains with Duncan, of course," she admitted, in a strictly qualified tone of triumph, as though she were secretly worrying over a conquest too incredibly facile.
"He knows, of course, that you came to talk this over with me?" I suggested, as though it were an after-thought.
"He had nothing to do with my coming," asserted Lady Alicia.
"Then it was your own idea?" I asked.
"Entirely," she admitted.
"Then what did you hope to gain?" I demanded.
"I wasn't considering my own feelings," imperially acknowledged her ladyship.
"That was very noble of you," I admitted, "especially when you bear in mind that you weren't considering mine, either! And what's more, Lady Newland, I may as well tell you right here, and right now, that you can't get anything out of it. I gave up my home to you, the home I'd helped make by the work of my own hands. And I gave up the hope of bringing up my children as they ought to be brought up. I even gave up my dignity and my happiness, in the hope that things could be made to come out straight. But I'm not going to give up my husband. Remember that, I'm not going to give him up. I don't care what he says or feels, at this particular moment; I'm not going to give him up to make a mess of what's left of the rest of his life. He may not know what's ahead of him, but I do! And now that you're shown me just what you are, and just what you're ready to do, I intend to take a hand in this. I intend to fight you to the last ditch, and to the last drop of the hat! And if that sounds primitive, as you've already suggested, it'll pay you to remember that you're out here in a primitive country where we're apt to do our fighting in a mighty primitive way!"
It was a very grand speech, but it would have been more impressive, I think, if I hadn't been suddenly startled by a glimpse of Whinstane Sandy's rock-ribbed face peering from the bunk-house window at almost the same moment that I distinctly saw the tip of Struthers' sage-green coiffure above the nearest sill of the shack. And it would have been a grander speech if I'd stood quite sure as to precisely what it meant and what I intended to do. Yet it seemed sufficiently climactic for my visitor, who, after a queenly and combative stare into what must have looked like an ecstatically excited Fourth-of-July face, turned imperially about and swung open the door of her motor-car. Then she stepped up to the car-seat, as slowly and deliberately as a sovereign stepping up to her throne.
"It may not be so simple as it seems," she announced with great dignity, as she proceeded to start her car. And the same dignity might have attended her entire departure, but in the excitement she apparently flooded her carbureter, and the starter refused to work, and she pushed and spun and re-throttled and pushed until she was quite red in the face. And when the car finally did get under way, the running-gear became slightly involved with my broken wash-tub and it was not until the latter was completely and ruthlessly demolished that the automobile found its right-of-way undisputed and anything like dignity returned to the situation.