The extraordinary spectacle quite balked his comprehension. Having taken in all visible details and circumstances, he very considerately turned his horse and made himself "scarce."
On the following day, while everybody was waiting for the mail to be distributed, Tuck was loitering up and down past the various groups on Thornton's principal thoroughfare. Coming finally to where the subject of horse was being discussed, he joined himself to this multitude of counselors; and finding Hank Bullen among those present, he related his experience of the night before. While the two speculated and conjectured, others became included in the conversation, a process which requires a story to be several times repeated.
"Did you say this was yesterday?" asked Ed Curtis, who had just caught the drift of it.
"Last night," said Tuck.
"You say she wore a white collar and cuffs and a black felt hat?"
"No; I did n't see what sort of a hat she had. She did n't have any hat on. I said she had on a dark dress with white around the wrists and a wide white collar turned down."
"I passed that girl on the road yesterday. She was going out that way. She rode a sorrel with one stocking behind and a star."
"Why!" exclaimed Reedy, "that must 'a' been the horse I seen out on the grass. He was a short-coupled sorrel with a stocking on his near hind leg, and he had a star. I thought to myself that he looked corn-fed."
"That's hers. She wore a man's hat. It was turned up on one side with a big breastpin. I noticed it wasn't any eight-dollar hat; she had to fix it that way to stiffen the brim in front. It was a black hat."
"She must be intending to make a stay to turn him loose like that," remarked Bill Whallen.
Further discussion yielding nothing but these same facts, the talk came round to horse-lore again.
A while later, Whallen, having called for his mail and received none, stepped out of the post-office and ran his eye along the row of horses at the hitching-rack. At the end of the row was an extremely starved-looking animal; and he was being stoutly defended by his owner, Al Todd, against the aspersions of the drug clerk.
"All that horse needs," said Al Todd, "is a little something to eat. What do you expect of a horse that is just out of the poor-house? There's a real horse. Look at his framework. Look at them legs. Look at how he's ribbed up."
Whallen examined the horse's bones and teeth; then he stepped back and took a general all-over view.
"What do you think of it?" asked the drug clerk.
"Is he for sale?" inquired Whallen, before answering.
"No, he ain't for sale," answered Todd. "This fellow thinks he ain't a nice horse."
"Well," said Whallen, "a man can easy enough put meat on a horse. But he can't put the bones in him."
"Nor the git-ap," added Todd.
"Does he know anything?" asked Whallen.
"That's just what he does," answered Todd. "I threw a steer with him yesterday and he held it while I made a tie. A steer can't get any slack rope on him. He surprised me."
"Who had him?" inquired Whallen.
"Don't know. I bought him up at the county-seat. He was one of them uncalled-for kind—like that suit of clothes they sold me up in Chicago. And Steve Brown says to me, 'I should say they were uncalled for, entirely uncalled for.' They can't fool me on horses, though."
"Say!" said Whallen; "Ed Curtis got in from Belleview yesterday. When he was coming along the road he met a girl on a sorrel. And last night Tuck Reedy—"
And Whallen went on to tell about the strange case of Steve Brown and the woman.
"Was he sure that was Steve Brown?" the drug clerk questioned.
"Reedy could n't say it was Brown for certain; he did n't get a right good view of his face. He said it looked like him. But he could see the woman plain."
"Why, sure that was Brown," said the owner of the horse. "I saw Pete Harding when I was up at the county-seat; and he came along with me to see them auction off the bunch of strays. This horse was one of them; that's why he's so thin. I asked Harding who had his job now, and he told me nobody had it because Brown was running the sheep himself."
"How did the woman come to be out there?"
"There was n't any woman out there when Pete left. I know Pete. Brown came out there to see how things were doing, and while he was there Pete remarked that sheep-life was getting pretty monotonous. So Brown told him to go away a while and give his mind a change. Pete did n't say anything about a woman."
"I guess Mr. Reedy did n't see very plain," remarked the drug clerk.
"See plain!" said Todd in disgust. "You don't listen plain."
"Then Harding did n't quit on his own hook?" queried Whallen.
"He did n't quit at all. He's going back in a few days if he gets through being drunk. He told me he had to get through before the lambs was born. He did n't know about any woman."
"Humph! Brown went off by himself and did herding like that before. He acts queer lately. He don't say much."
"That's what Pete said. Me and him trailed round Belleview all morning, and I got him to go along and bid in this horse for me. I saw he was a good horse, but I did n't know he was rope-wise. Look at his backbone. Look at how he's coupled up."
The drug clerk, having affected horse wisdom and miscarried, now stepped forward and began feeling the distance between the horse's rump and floating ribs, a move evidently intended to show his knowledge of this last technical term.
"What's all that for!" inquired Todd, with a touch of surprise. "Ain't them bones plain enough to see? I guess you think he is one of them nice fat horses that you have got to feel."
"That's right, Al," remarked Whallen. "Buy a horse like that and you see what you 're getting. What's the use feeling when the package is open?"
The drug clerk, thus suddenly put out of countenance by the very bones he had been flouting, stepped back and held his peace; and presently, under cover of Whallen's going, he took his own departure.
Al, now that he had vanquished his opponent and made him seek the intrenchment of his counter, cast his eye about and searched the length of Main Street, one side and then the other. He expected to get sight of some one of the crew that had brought the cattle into the loading-pens; but they had totally disappeared. After looking into a few likely places, and finding that he had guessed wrong, he paused on a street corner to give the matter deeper thought.
"Come on, Al," said Toot Wilson, hastening past.
"Up to the saddle-maker's. They 're in there. He is making a fine one. Did you see it?"
"It's for young Chase. It's great work."
In John Diefenbach's workroom was a numerous company of saddle admirers, sitting and lounging about in the seductive odor of new-mown leather. The saddler, happily busied among his patterns and punches and embossing-tools, turned at times and peered over the rims of his spectacles in evident satisfaction. The heavy stock saddle, its quantities of leather all richly beflowered, was mounted on a trestle beside him. It was so near completion that the long saddle-strings now hung down in pairs all round, and these thongs, being of lighter-colored leather, and sprouting out of the hearts of embossed primroses, looked quite as if they were the natural new growth of that spring—in fact the whole flourishing affair might have been expected to put on a few more layers of leather out of its own powers of luxuriance. But there was nothing superfluous about it.
"What do you think of it, Al?" asked one of the company.
Todd looked it over, the broad hair girths fore and aft, the big cinch rings and strong stirrup straps. The stirrups were missing. His eye sought the hooks and pegs over the workbench.
"Do them things go on it?" he asked, pointing an accusing finger.
Hanging on the wall was a pair of Mexican tapaderas—deep hooded stirrups with a great superfluity of leather extending below as if they were wings for the feet.
"Oh! no, no, no," said the saddler, turning hastily and holding up his hand as if to quell this mental disturbance before it had gone too far. "These go on it—these." He held out a pair of plain wooden hoops.
Todd's countenance rearranged itself at once.
"She's a jim-dandy," said Todd.
With this verdict rendered, he seated himself on a chair which had a nail-keg for legs and gave his attention to the principal speaker as he resumed his account of a roping-match. The story was rather long, showing how it was that the best man did n't win.
In the ensuing silence Todd found his opportunity to speak.
"I just heard something," he said. "Steve Brown is herding sheep."
"That's nothing," said the story-teller. "He done that a couple of times before."
"And they say there is a woman out there with him," added Todd.
"A woman! What woman?"
"I don't know. Tuck Reedy rode past and saw them sitting by the fire. Ed Curtis saw her too."
"Whose sheep's he herdin'?" asked big Tom Brodie.
"I don't know anything about the sheep. He's out there tending them. And she's out there with him."
"I know what he's doing with them," said Harry Lee. "He's administrating them."
"What have they got?" inquired big Tom.
"Who's got what?"
"What is it that's ailin' them? I say, what have they got?" repeated Tom assertively, being a little in liquor.
"They have n't got anything. I said he is administrating them. When a man dies, the court chooses somebody that's reliable to settle up what he leaves. And this other fellow sees that everything is tended to and done on the square. They were John Clarkson's sheep, and they belong to his little boy. He is administrating them."
"Huh!" grunted Tom, whose untutored mind now needed a rest.
"But how about this woman?" asked Frank Sloan.
"She's turned her horse out to grass; and she's out there with him. Just him and her. All alone."
"Pshaw!" said Harry Lee. "They ain't alone. How could Tuck Reedy tell she was alone just by the light of the fire? There might have been somebody in the shack. Or behind it."
"And maybe the horse had just pulled up his stake-rope," said another.
"Or maybe the horse had hobbles on," added another.
"Did n't I tell you Ed Curtis saw the same woman?" said Todd, now growing assertive. "And she was going out there alone. And if there was anybody else around would n't they be eating supper with them? And if a horse was dragging a stake-rope would n't Tuck Reedy know it?"
To make the matter unquestionable he now started at the very beginning and told it all, going into details and pointing out how one witness corroborated another.
"You say she wore a felt hat? And was light-haired?"
"Yes. It was black. It was turned up at the side."
"Hell! I know who that is!" exclaimed Sloan.
"Why, that's a woman that was up here at Preston. Said she was an actress. She came along with a fellow and started a saloon over on the other side of the tracks near the loading-pen. After a while the women folks got to talking about the place and making objections; so then the rent was raised. I heard just the other day that she left town on a horse and was looking around the country. She fastened the side of it up with a big pin."
"A big breastpin," said Al Todd.
Here was a sufficient subject. Recollection failed to bring up a parallel. It was something new in sheep-herding.
"Well," said Sloan, finally, "a man's liable to end almost anywhere if he takes it into his head to herd sheep. They can raise all of them they want, but I 'll stick to cattle; 'specially in spring. One thing about a cow or a mare is that you don't ever have to teach her the mamma business."
"Some sheep," remarked Todd, "ain't got natural human affections. When one of that kind has a lamb you've got to mix in and get her to adopt it. And half the time it's twins. And maybe she's willin' to take one and won't have the other. I would n't have the patience."
"Nor me, either," said Harry Lee. "I have a brother that tried it one time. And after he got through with that band of sheep, it would have taken Solomon to straighten out the family troubles. One thousand of them. Some had twins and some did n't have any, and the bunch was full of robber lambs."
"What's robber lambs?" asked Diefenbach, who had now turned his back on the workbench.
"That's a lamb that has n't got any mother in particular. Maybe his own mother died or disowned him. And the other sheep all know their own lambs and won't have anything to do with him. You see, a sheep is mighty particular; no admittance unless he 's the right one, according to smell. And maybe she won't take one anyway. Then the lamb is up against trouble; he keeps going round trying to get dinner everywhere. If he 's a robber lamb, he finds out that if he comes up and takes his dinner from behind she can't smell him and don't know the difference. What a sheep don't know don't hurt her. That's where a lot of trouble comes in."
"What hurt does that do?" inquired the philosophic Diefenbach. "Has n't a lamb got to have some milk?"
"Sure. But that sheep has got a lamb of her own; and pretty likely she has twins, and it's all she can do to keep them. So this lamb that's onto the game comes and robs them."
"You see, it's like this," put in Sloan. "Suppose you have a thousand sheep; and over here is a lot of lambs playing around. You see, a sheep and a lamb don't always go together like a cow and a calf. Sheep are awful monotonous, and I guess the lambs know it. So they go off in a bunch and have a good time. And when one of them gets hungry he lets a bleat out of him and starts for the bunch of sheep. They are all tuned up to a different sound; so are the sheep. And the lamb and the sheep know each other by sound. Well, the sheep will hear that and she'll let out her sound and get an answer back, and that way he 'll find her in the bunch. Maybe they meet halfway; then she smells him and it is all right. Well, we have a thousand sheep all grazing together; and off here is a bunch of lambs with a lot of robbers among them, all playing and skipping around and having a hell of a time. Well, a robber lamb gets hungry all of a sudden, so he skips off and takes the first sheep that comes handy. He takes what ain't his. And maybe it's twins. After a while little Johnny and Mary come home and then they 're up against it."
"And if you let things go like that," added Lee, "one sheep won't have any lamb or any milk and another will be feeding two twins and a robber. You can't raise sheep that way."
"But what is a man going to do about that? How can he help it?" pursued Diefenbach.
"Why," said Lee, "he 's got to keep track of them when they 're being born and see that every sheep takes her lamb and gets to liking it. Whenever there's one that don't want a lamb he's got to tend to her."
"Donnerwetter!" exclaimed Diefenbach, reverting momentarily to his native tongue. He picked up a beading-punch and turned to his own line of industry.
From sheep they got back to horses again,—conversation usually travels in a circle,—and being now in their native element they continued in one stay, discussing ways and means
"To wind and turn a fiery Pegasus, And witch the world with noble horsemanship."
The story of the woman had reached this state, circumstantial and complete, when, by divers methods, it got out to the more aristocratic circles of Claxton Road.
There was not a stone, it is safe to say, within half a day's walk of Claxton Road. Prairie country of the black-waxy variety is noticeably bereft of this usual feature of life, the lazy Southern ocean which formerly brooded over these parts having deposited black, rich muck till it covered everything post-hole deep. And so if a man had wanted a stone to throw he would have had to walk several miles to find one, by which time, of course, his anger would have cooled off. Originally there had been one here and there, but these solitary specimens, being such a novelty, and standing out so plainly on the flat scene, had been picked up by farmer or cowboy and taken home. Thus each of the several stones in those parts was engaged in holding open the barn door or the ranch gate, or was established in the back yard to crack pecan nuts on, much to the improvement of flatirons. If a man had stolen one and used it openly, he would sooner or later have been found out. But why do we speak of stones?
Shortly after supper, Mrs. Arthur Wright—Kitty they still called her—came out of the front gate whistling, and going to the middle of the road, there being no sidewalk that far out from town, she turned to the left and set out for the Chautauqua meeting at Captain Chase's. Claxton road, coming in from the county-seat, changed its name a mile or so out of Thornton and became Claxton Road. The Wright residence may be said to have been located just where the capital R began. At this point the barb wire of the prairie thoroughfare gave way, on the left-hand side, to the white fences of suburban estates with big front yards and windmills and stables; and on the right there came, at the same time, an unfenced vacancy, or "free grass," which, though it had a private owner somewhere, might be called a common. The estates along Claxton Road faced this big common, looking across it toward the cottages which marked the edge of town on the other side, and there was nothing to obstruct the view except a time-blackened frame house which, for some reason, had posted itself right in the middle of this spacious prospect. These places along Claxton Road were the homes of cattle and sheep-men who owned vast ranches in adjacent counties. They had thus herded themselves together, largely, if not entirely, on account of Woman and her institutions.
As the Wright place was the farthest out in this row of suburban estates, Mrs. Wright was frequently the first to start to a Chautauqua or other social affair; indeed, had it not been that she made a practice of hurrying up the others as she went along, she would usually have been the first to arrive. A short walk brought her to Harmon's, and here bringing to a hurried conclusion the Wedding March from "Lohengrin,"—an excellent tune to march by,—she changed her flutelike notes for a well-known piercing trill. At the second shrill summons Mrs. Harmon came to the door.
"Just a minute, Kitty—I 'm coming."
"Don't forget your specimen," called Mrs. Wright.
Mrs. Harmon, after a somewhat protracted minute, came out with nothing on her arm but a book.
"I 've just been too busy for anything," she explained. "You know I had the dressmaker two days—I thought I 'd take the opportunity while George was away at the ranch. And, besides," she added, after a short pause, "I did n't think of it."
"That's right, Statia. Always tell the truth, even as an afterthought."
"My! but you 're coming out bright this evening," responded Mrs. Harmon.
"I hope we can depend upon the others," mused Kitty.
Mrs. Dix and Mrs. Norton came out of their respective homes empty-handed except for books. So also Mrs. Plympton and her mother.
"Well, I just don't care," said Mrs. Norton. "How in the world could I get a stone? I have been having the awfulest time with our windmill. The thingumajig that is supposed to turn it off has got broken or something and it keeps pumping water all over where I don't want it to. If I had an artificial pond like the Harmons I would know what to do with so much water. I wonder when Jonas Hicks will get back?"
"I wonder!" echoed Mrs. Dix. "I was depending upon him. Mr. Dix said he expected him back in a day or two. If it had n't been for that he would n't have taken Fred along; for you know I can't put a saddle on Major myself. Jonas will probably be back to-day or to-morrow he said."
"I am su-u-u-ure," said little Grandma Plympton, in her sweet and feeble tremolo,—"I am su-u-u-ure that if we had all asked Mr. Hicks to get us a stone he would most willingly have done so. Mr. Hicks would do anything for a lady."
Grandma Plympton—what there was left of her after seventy-four years of time's attrition—had a way of speaking which made it easy enough to believe that she had, in her day, been a beautiful singer. As her message to the world was usually one of promise and reassurance, she had the gift of dwelling with songlike sweetness on those words in which the music lay. She was altogether lovable and quaint. On fine days she would still go forth alone, bearing her mother-of-pearl card-case, and she would leave her card here or there as naturally as a flower drops a petal; for despite her years she had by no means turned traitor to Society. Nor had Society so much as thought of leaving her out. In her, indeed, the fine flower of aristocracy was still in bloom, and delicately fragrant.
The party, suiting their pace to hers, went more slowly after passing Plymptons', whereupon Grandma, finding herself thus accommodated, gave over what efforts she had been making and went more slowly still; and so, when they came to the Brown place, which faced the middle of the common, they were moving at a most deliberate rate. As they arrived opposite the small gate, they all, as if by simultaneous thought, stopped at once.
The object of their sudden interest was a rockery in the front yard. This work, a pile of smooth boulders about three feet in height, and as yet only partially covered with young vines, was the only scenic rival to the artificial pond in the Harmons' front yard. Steve Brown built it to please his mother, picking up a boulder here and there in the course of his travels and getting it home by balancing it on the horn of his saddle. During the last weeks of her illness, when her wandering mind went back to the hills of her girlhood, her imagination played continually around this mimic mountain of Steve's, and as it seemed to be the one joy of her prairie-spent life, he would carry her out on the porch in good weather and prop her up so that she could sit and look at it. Jonas Hicks, becoming interested, took a hand in the work; he kept on making contributions as long as the resources of the country held out. Here was one reason that there was not a sole stone remaining to be discovered.
"If we only had a few of them!" suggested Mrs. Norton.
"Yes—but he might not like it," said the younger Mrs. Plympton.
"But we would just borrow them, you know," explained Mrs. Norton. "And anyway, how are we going to get along without them? Here we have arranged for the Professor to come and tell us about them; and we all promised to bring a specimen. It will seem strange for not one of us to have a rock."
"Oh, I don't think it would do any harm for us to borrow a few stones," said Kitty Wright. "I don't see anything so awful about it."
There came a pause of indecision. Mrs. Harmon—she was the dignified Daniel Webster of the circle, and just the opposite of the small and sprightly Mrs. Wright—was yet to be heard from.
"Really," she said, "we ought not to agree to do things and then not do them. We should have done it or else found somebody like Jonas Hicks to do it for us. What's everybody's business is nobody's business."
"And what's nobody's business is everybody's business," added Mrs. Wright.
"Good!" exclaimed Mrs. Norton. "Where did you hear that, Kitty?"
"I just heard myself say it. I did it with my little hatchet."
"Sort of a double-edged axiom," observed Mrs. Harmon.
"I am su-u-u-ure," chimed Grandma Plympton, "that if Mr. Brown were here, and knew the circumstances, he would most wi-i-i-llingly offer to assist us. Of course, we should never take—what does not belong to us, without the owner's permission, but I am qui-i-i-i-ite sure that if we were to take them and put them back just where we got them, Mr. Brown would quite approve of it."
"Mother has a very high opinion of Stephen Brown," said Mrs. Plympton.
"Mr. Brown is quite a gentleman, indeed," said Grandma.
This advice, coming from so white a priestess, and in words that lent so musical and sweet a sanction, removed the last mote of conjecture from the air. Mrs. Wright, as usual, was the first to take action. Every set of women, probably, has its recognized clown, she who is just too cute and killing. And those who do not like her say she is tiresome and "silly." Mrs. Wright, in keeping with the character, went through the gate with exaggerated show of dissolute abandon.
"Come on, girls," she said, breaking into the rockery. "I do hope I 'll get one with feldspar in it, or something nice and interesting."
Mrs. Norton, having been the one to make the suggestion, now followed her own advice; Mrs. Dix, taking example from Mrs. Norton, came next; thus the motion was carried. And pretty soon the caravan moved forward, heavily laden with food for thought.
The next two houses in the line of march were those of Mrs. Jephson, and Mrs. Osgood and her sister Hannah—she was quite usually spoken of as Mrs. Osgood's sister; but the two latter had already gone.
"What do you think?" said Mrs. Jephson. "I just got word that Oliver would n't be home to-night, and he is probably gone for several days. And Captain Chase, too. The Captain had to go to San Antonio on business, and Oliver went along."
"The Captain, too! Not a man left in the neighborhood!" said Mrs. Harmon.
"Except Uncle Israel," added Mrs. Wright.
Uncle Israel was the Captain's aged darky.
A shortage of men was nothing new to the ladies of this community. Rather, being a cattle-raising country, it was a thing to be expected at any time in spring or fall; and when Claxton Road did enumerate its full quota of husbands, fathers, and brothers, many of them were liable to be absent from Chautauqua. Always with good excuse, however. One would be getting ready for a trip to the ranch; another would have to stay at home to instruct his foreman; another would have to sit up with a costly bull that was going through the rigors of acclimation; and on more than one occasion it was the very man who was being depended upon to tell them all about civil war or civil government who would have to be excused by his wife for some such reason, upon which there would be a chatter of regret and the meeting would fall into a conference upon matters in general. While the gentlemen would "expatiate and confer" with one another as to what breeding would produce the most wrinkles on a sheep's back (thus giving the greatest wool-bearing surface), the ladies would devise new wrinkles to make use of it. And usually the ones who produced the raw material would be entirely through with their plans while yet the consumers were settling fine points with regard to the finished product. In this matter of higher culture, the true bent of masculine nature was likely to betray itself in absence. But the present scarcity of man may be said to have been somewhat above the average.
For some distance the ladies went forward without saying a word. A spell of utter silence had fallen upon the party. Then Mrs. Wright spoke.
"Do you remember what we studied about gravity?"
"Why, certainly. Every certain number of feet a thing falls it goes twice as fast."
"Well, I have made a discovery just as good as Sir Isaac Newton's. Every foot you carry a rock it gets twice as heavy."
Some one among them dropped her burden; instantly they all let go. The boulders struck the road with almost as simultaneous a thump as when the drill-sergeant calls out "Ground arms."
"Oh! I 'm nearly dead," said Mrs. Norton.
"So 'm I," gasped Mrs. Dix, sinking down on the roadside grass.
"O-h-h-h!" gasped Mrs. Plympton.
The next minute or two was devoted to breathing.
"Why did n't you say you were nearly dead?" demanded Mrs. Harmon, when she had somewhat recovered.
"Why did n't you say something?" replied Mrs. Dix.
"Why did n't we all say something?" inquired Mrs. Norton. "I did n't know the rest of you were as tired as me."
Mrs. Wright, despite she was the smallest of the number, was evidently the hardiest; she had calmly turned her stone over and sat down upon it.
"It's a wonder you don't all blame it on me," she said philosophically.
"Well, whatever I learn about this stone I 'll never forget," remarked Mrs. Dix. "Never as long as I live. Let's take them back."
"Yes; but it's farther to go back than it is to keep on," said Mrs. Harmon. "And we certainly can't leave them here. We are responsible for them."
A very evident state of affairs. Being begun it had to be done.
"Come on, stone, we're going," said Mrs. Wright, taking hers up again.
The others followed. Again the rock-laden ladies went manfully onward.
When next they reached the limit of endurance, Chase's big red gate was so near that they hung on with final determination, and when they were almost to it they rushed forward to get inside the goal before the rocks fell. They all succeeded except Mrs. Plympton, who lost hers in the middle of the road and then finished its journey by rolling it.
"I was never so glad in my life before that I am not a horse," she said.
Virginia Chase had come down the path to shut the gate, which some one among the earlier arrivals had not properly fastened, and she was the bearer of bad news. The Professor, after all, would not be able to be present. He had one of his sick headaches again.
"And who else do you think is sick?" added Virginia. "Aberdeen Boy. I wish Jonas Hicks was back, because Uncle Israel does not know very much, really, about stock. I am so worried. He held his head out so funny, I thought maybe it was something the matter with the ring in his nose. But it wasn't. He is just sick."
"I am su-u-u-ure," said Grandma Plympton, "that if Jonas Hicks were back he could give him something that would relieve him."
When the specimen-hunters had recovered from their labors they accompanied Virginia up the driveway, explaining, as they went, the whole case of the abducted rockery. In the Chase's big sitting-room the earlier contingent was drawn together in conversation as close as chairs would permit, and as the belated ones entered they were greeted with exclamations in which there was an extra touch of the joy of life, it being in the very nature of gossip to seek new openings and exploit itself in mystery and surprise.
"Hurry up, Statia; get your things off and come here—— Wait, Mrs. Osgood; don't tell anymore till Kitty is here—— Sh-h-h-h; be careful what you say before Grandma Plympton."
The newcomers, returning from the bedroom divested of their wraps, began at once to relate their own experiences in geology, but they had no more than stated the bare facts when they became aware that there was a more absorbing topic in the air. Somebody had told Mrs. Osgood's hired man, who had told his wife, who told Mrs. Osgood—but for that matter there was no great secret about it.
"Have n't you heard a thing about it, Mrs. Plympton—re-e-eally?"
This was asked by one who had herself heard of it only a few minutes before.
"Why, no; what is it?"
"You tell it, Mrs. Osgood. You can tell it best."
Then followed the story. In the course of its travels it had not suffered any loss of detail; it had rather prospered. Each person to whom it had been intrusted had sent it on its way richer and better; it became longer and truer. And so Mrs. Osgood told it, ably assisted by those who had just heard it and kept seeing new phases of it. Finally the case was rested.
"What do you think of it, Mrs. Plympton? You live nearest to him."
"I must say that I am surprised. But then, I don't know whether a person ought to be surprised at anything like that."
"And to think of it!" said Mrs. Dix. "Away out there where nobody is likely to come along once in two weeks. What an idea!"
"Well," remarked Mrs. Harmon, who had been taking time, and might therefore be supposed to have given the matter her weightier consideration, "it is, in fact, just what one might expect. He has always been so steady and sober-minded. It is n't as if he had had a greater variety of interests and more social inclination and—wilder, you know. He was entirely devoted to his mother; and he has n't the resources and flexibility to make so complete a change easily, and naturally."
"He has been acting quite strangely since his mother died," interpolated Mrs. Dix. "He cooks and eats and sleeps out on that kitchen porch, and does n't seem to take any pleasure in being invited out, or spending an evening at other people's houses."
"That's it," said Mrs. Harmon. "In his position, and especially his disposition, a man is just ripe for the first adventuress that comes along. In considering such things we ought to make allowances."
"I suppose so," remarked Mrs. Norton. "But to think of it being her. The low calculating thing!"
Grandma Plympton was out in the dining-room with Virginia sipping a glass of wine, and having admired an embroidered sideboard scarf, a recent work of Virginia's, she was now engaged in examining other things as they came forth from a lower drawer, which creations interested her so much that Virginia went still deeper into the family treasury and finally brought forth a sampler and counterpane which her own grandmother had wrought. The examination of these things, together with reminiscence of her own early achievements, kept Grandma Plympton so long that by the time she reached the sitting-room the absorbing topic had subsided from its first exclamatory stage and was being treated in a more allusive and general way. Grandma soon gathered from the allusions that Stephen Brown had at last met the lady of his choice.
"Indeed!" she exclaimed. "Now I am sure he will settle down and make an excellent husband. Not that there was anything bad about him, not at all; but he was rather wild when he was a boy, and gave his mother a great deal of worriment—especially, I mean, when he took his cattle up into the Territory. And in those days she could hardly keep him from joining the Rangers. But now he is older and more sensible and has had responsibilities; and I am su-u-u-ure it will be a fine match for any young lady."
It is hardly in human nature to shatter such illusions. Thereafter, the subject of the evening was more guardedly treated, pending her departure. Grandma Plympton, valiant as she was in the social cause, could seldom stay up for more than the first few numbers of a dance, and she could never, of late, remain to the end of an evening party. Before a great while she signified her readiness to go, and after her usual courtly leave-taking she went away on the arm of her daughter-in-law.
"Do you know," said Mrs. Dix, "I hardly felt like saying anything before her. She is so old and innocent."
"Is n't she!" said Mrs. Osgood.
Virginia, much exercised over the health of Aberdeen Boy, had gone out to the barn to have a talk with Uncle Israel, who, with a peacock fly-fan moving majestically back and forth, was sitting up with eighteen hundred pounds of sick bull. Aberdeen Boy, a recent importation, and one of the noblest of those who were to refine the wild-eyed longhorns of Texas, was having no more trouble with acclimation than his predecessors; he manifested his illness simply by lying down and looking more innocent than usual, and heaving big sighs which wrung Virginia's heart.
In the sitting-room the study of Steve Brown went forward prosperously again, but especially now in regard to the woman in the case. If the one they named was anywhere within range of psychic influence, it is safe to say her left ear burned that evening. And when, finally, it was all over, the guests, departing, paused at the gate and turned their thoughts to the rocks there assembled.
"What will we do? I would n't carry mine for anything," said Mrs. Norton.
"Why, leave them here. We 'll have Jonas Hicks come and get them," said Mrs. Harmon.
Janet caught her breath and looked about her. It was the same shack on a hillock, the same gully and sheep-pen and dog, likewise the same Mr. Brown. Under the circumstances, it was natural for her to try to say something, and she did the best she could. When he had gathered, from her rather unexplanatory remarks, just what had happened, the first thought that crossed his mind was that he had eaten the last piece of fruit-cake which she left behind. If there is anything embarrassing to a man, it is to have company come unexpectedly when there is not a thing fit to eat in the house. He had finished up the cake a short while before, together with the remainder of crackers and a dill pickle.
"I have eaten up all the good stuff," he explained. "Do you like beans?"
"Yes, indeed," answered Janet, who was truly hungry.
He lifted the lid of the box and produced a small iron pot of boiled beans. They were beans of the Mexican variety, a kind which look nice and brown because they are that color before you cook them. When he had put some bacon into the frying-pan and given it time to heat, he scraped the beans in and stirred them up. He had made bread for supper by the usual method of baking soft dough in a skillet with the lid on; there was left of this a wedge big enough to split the stoutest appetite; and when he had placed this where it would warm up, he turned his attention to the coffee-pot.
"Oh, you do not need to do that. I can make my own coffee," offered Janet.
"You had better let me get supper," he answered. "You 're tired."
Several times during the day she had pondered upon his high-handed way of taking charge of her affairs. Submitting to this further dictation, she spread her slicker before her place at table, as indicated by the bare spot of ground, and sat down. Mr. Brown took a bucket and disappeared in the gully. Evidently he had gone to get fresh water. Janet now put her feet out farther toward the fire.
When he returned, he made some remarks upon the weather and put on the coffee; then he turned about and went into the shack. As on the previous evening, everything came tumbling pell-mell out of the door. Janet, having nothing else to do, looked up and gave her attention to a big sixteen-carat star.
Shep, the dog, came and planted himself at the very edge of the bare spot. Without giving her so much as a glance, he sat there primly and looked straight off the end of his nose at the sugar bowl in the middle. Not till this moment had Janet realized what a beautiful, intelligent-looking collie dog Mr. Brown had. His brown-buff coat, of just the right shade, seemed slightly veiled with black; his full out-arching front was pure white.
"Shep," said Janet.
His fine eyebrow rose as he gave her a look—a very short one, however. When she addressed him again she could see his interest rising a degree; finally he came and sat down beside her. Encouraged by this show of friendship, Janet put her hand on him.
When her host had got through with the more violent exercises of practical courtesy,—which sounded somewhat like trouble in a barroom,—he came out bearing a jug marked MOLASSES; this he set down before her, and then, finding the coffee done, he proceeded to serve up the viands.
"That is n't much of a supper," he remarked, sitting down opposite.
"It tastes very good," said Janet.
It hardly did seem the right thing to set before such a guest. But Janet, as good as her word, steadily made way with the frijole beans and did full justice to the hot bread; and soon, inspirited by his powerful coffee, she continued the story of how she was frightened by the steer and baffled by the brook, and how she was foolish enough to think she was going straight forward all the time.
He had a way, whenever she came to a pause, of enticing her to go on. Sometimes he primed the conversation by repeating the last thing she had said; again, an apt word or two summed up the whole spirit of the matter encouragingly; or there would be just a composed waiting for her to resume.
Not that he had any difficulty in finding something to say. He evidently liked to hear her talk, and so he rather deferred to her. Whether it was that she now had a feeling of this, or that there was something in the influence of his presence, his voice and manner, which removed all constraint, Janet had not the least difficulty in talking. She told him how the teacher at the school "boarded round," what an unnecessary number of classes Miss Porter had for so small a number of pupils,—although it was difficult to remedy the matter by "setting back" certain children, because their proud mothers would object to such a leveling,—and how the Blodgett children, four of them, all came to school on the back of one buckskin pony, the youngest having to hold on tight to keep from slipping off at the tail. "Buckskin,"; it seemed, had won quite a place in Janet's affections, although he was the worst behaved horse that came to school. He used to graze in the yard till school was out,—the other horses being staked out on the prairie,—and he had become so familiar that he would sometimes go so far as to put his head in at the window in hope of being fed. And Janet could not see, considering that Texas horses were used to being staked out, what reason there had been for building a fence around a school that stood out on open prairie, unless it was, perchance, that the Texans thought they ought to have a corral to herd the children in.
While she was thus going on, there came from the corral a bleat in the awe-inspiring tone of Fa, and this was followed by a succession of bleats which reminded her of nothing so much as a child getting its hands on the keyboard of an organ. Steve, as if suddenly admonished of something, rose to his feet, excused himself, and disappeared in the direction of the corral.
With the place before her temporarily vacant, and unable to see out of her circle of light except by looking upward, Janet instinctively lifted her eyes to the scene above. Thousands and thousands of stars made the night big and beautiful. They were so clear and so lively, as if they took joy in their shining. A mild southern breeze gave the night motion and perfume. Janet took a deep breath which was hardly a sigh; it was rather a big drink of air and the final suspiration of all her worries. As she took in more deeply the constellated heavens and the free fresh spirit of the roaming air, she began to feel that she would rather like to be a sheep-herder herself. From looking at so many, her mind turned back to her selected star, the "captain jewel" of them all, and her eye sought its whereabouts again. In others she could see tremulous tinges of red and blue; but this seemed to be the pure spirit of light. Unconsciously she had put her arm around the dog, as if to hold on to this earth, and Shep, whose affection had been steadily growing, nudged up closer and gave her a sense of warm companionship.
When Steve returned from his mysterious errand, he looked at her a moment and then fetched an armful of wood. The fire, to serve better the purposes of cooking, had been allowed to burn down to coals, and the smouldering embers now gave so little light that the face and figure of his guest were losing themselves in obscurity. As this state of affairs hardly suited him, he piled on the dry mesquite brush and fanned it with his hat into leaping flames. When Janet was lit up to his satisfaction, he put down the hat and resumed his earthen lounge.
As he stretched himself out before her, lithe-limbed and big-chested, the atmosphere of that firelit place seemed filled with a sense of safety. His deliberate manner of speech, quite different from the slowness of a drawl, was the natural voice of that big starry world so generous of time. Occasionally he made a remark which ought to have been flattery, but which, coming from him, was so quiet and true that one might float on it to topics of unknown depth. He was so evidently interested in everything she said, and his attention was so single-minded and sincere, that Janet was soon chatting again upon the subject of her recent circumnavigation of the prairie, which, as she now saw it in the light of the present, seemed more and more a sea of flowers—as the Past always does. Indeed, the whole recent course of her experience was such a novelty—the trip to Texas was her first real adventure in the world—that she saw things with the new vision of a traveler; and the present situation, turning out so happily, put the cap-sheaf on that dream which is truly Life. Janet, recently delivered from all danger, and yet sitting right in the middle of her adventures, had a double advantage; she was living in the present as well as the past, breathing the sweetness of the air, looking up at the big flock of stars and seeing in them all nothing less than the divine shepherding.
"But, of all the wonderful things I ever saw," she exclaimed. "Why, it was worth walking all day to see it."
"What was it?" he asked.
"Sensitive plants. And when I came they all lowered their branches to their sides like—well, slowly, like this—"
She held her right arm out straight and lowered it slowly and steadily to her side. And a most graceful and shapely arm it was.
"I would n't have been so much surprised," she continued, "to just see leaves fold together, like clover. You know clover leaves all shut up at night and go to sleep. But these plants were quite large and they actually moved. And of course the leaves shut together, too; they were long like little tender locust leaves, and each one folded itself right in the middle."
She placed her hands edge to edge and closed them together to show him.
"But, you know, while they were doing that, they were folding back against their long stems, and the stems were folding back against the branches, and the straight branches were all folding downwards against the main stalk. What I mean is that everything worked together, like this—"
Janet extended both arms with her fingers widely spread; then, as her arms gradually lowered, her fingers closed together.
"It was something like that," she added, "but not exactly; it was ten times as much—something like the ribs of an umbrella going down all around, with stems and rows of locust leaves all along them closing together. And every little leaf was like a rabbit laying back its ears."
"Yes; I know what you mean," said Steve. "They are a kind of mimosa. Some people call them that."
"Well," said Janet, "I sat and watched one. I just touched it with a hatpin and it did that. A person would almost think it had intelligence. And after a while—when it thought I was gone, I suppose—it began to open its leaves and stems and put its arms out again."
She raised her arms slowly, spreading her fingers. Steve was a most attentive listener and spectator. He rather wished there were other plants to imitate.
"But that wasn't really what I started to tell about," she went on. "As I was walking along I came to a—well, you might say a whole crowd of them. There was quite a growth like a patch of ferns. I had n't got to them yet, or even taken particular notice of them,—I must have been ten or twelve feet away,—when they all began to close up. I stopped perfectly still; and pretty soon the green leaves were gone and the place was all changed. Now, how do you suppose those plants ever knew I was coming? I would give anything to know how such things can be."
"How much would you give?" inquired Steve.
For a moment, the spirit of this question hung in the balance. He felt the spell of her inquiring eyes as her hand dropped idly on Shep's back.
"Why—do you know?" she asked doubtfully.
"I think I do," he answered. "You see, that kind of plants have very long roots; they run away out. You stepped on their toes."
"Well, I declare," said Janet, enthusiastic again. "And what a way of saying it."
"It looks simple enough, does n't it?" he remarked.
"And I never thought of it. Why, it was enough to make a person superstitious. Isn't nature wonderful!"
As she took up the coffee, too long neglected, Steve got an imaginary taste of it, and finding it neither hot nor cold, he arose and took her cup. Having refilled it and offered her more of the beans, which to his surprise and gratification she accepted, he made another trip to the corral. In a little while he returned and promptly took his place.
"You were saying this morning," he began, "that you were going to the county-seat. Were you sure that you could find your way all alone?"
"Oh, yes," answered Janet. "I was there before. You see, I took an examination a couple of months ago, when I first came."
"Oh; that's it. What sort of a certificate did that little—examiner—give you?"
There was something in the sound of this question which conveyed to her that he regarded her standing in an examination largely as a matter of luck. Janet felt an instant approval of this philosophy of the matter.
"Third-class," she answered.
"Well, that's better than fourth-class," he remarked.
"Oh—but there is no fourth-class," exclaimed Janet.
Her eyes widened as she waited to hear what his reply to this might be.
He entirely ignored the matter.
"That examiner is a kind of a cocky little rooster, is n't he?" he commented.
"Did you ever have any trouble with him?" inquired Janet.
"Me!" He was evidently surprised that she should think so. "Why, no. I don't know him. I just saw him a few times. He is a sort of a dried-up little party. You know I get up to the court-house once in a while to have a brand registered or something like that."
"He is rather important—for his size," mused Janet. "And very particular about his looks."
"They have a man teacher at a school near my house," remarked Steve, in no seeming connection.
"I suppose he has a first-class certificate," said Janet. "Until lately it was easy to get a school in Texas. But the country school boards rate you by your certificate more and more. This time I am going to get first-class, or at least second. If I don't I 'll have to go back North."
"What kind of questions does that fellow ask when he examines people?" Steve inquired.
"Well—for instance—'Give the source and course of the Orizaba.'"
"Huh!" remarked Steve.
"To tell the truth," said Janet, "I would n't have got even third-class if it had n't been for the way I pulled through in geography."
"Are you good in geography?"
"Hardly. I just passed. He asked a great many questions about climate, and every time he asked that I wrote that it was salubrious. You see," she explained, with a sly little air, "in the children's geographies the climate of a country is nearly always salubrious. So I took a chance on every country. That brought my average up."
"Good for you," exclaimed Steve. "Nothing like beating them at their own game. Won't you have some more coffee?"
"No, thank you," said Janet. "Two cups is really more than I ought to drink at night."
Having risen in expectation of getting the coffee, he gave the fire another armful of mesquite.
"You take a good deal of notice of flowers, don't you!" he said, sitting down again.
"A person could hardly help it in Texas. Lilies and trumpet-flowers and lobelias and asters and dahlias and wax-plants—they all grow wild here. And in spring it is just wonderful. There is scarcely room for grass."
"Texas won't be like that long, if it keeps on."
"These plants all grow from seed. And when the land is heavily grazed they don't have a chance to plant themselves. They become—what do you call it—extinguished?"
"Extinct," prompted Janet.
"On my ranch, about twelve miles from here, it is n't what it used to be in springtime. We've got it pretty heavily stocked; we 're working it over into shorthorn. This place that we're on now has a fence all around it; the country is becoming crowded. And they are breaking farms all the time, too. It won't last long."
"Won't that be a shame!" said Janet. "People spoil everything, don't they? I am glad I came down here just to see the Texas prairie in spring. Even if I do have to go back again. Just look at that!"
She reached out, and, grasping a handful, she bent the still rooted bouquet so that the light shone full upon its countenance.
"How did you come to know the names of them all?" he asked.
"Why, we grow them in gardens up North. I know their names in that way. They are old acquaintances."
"Oh, that's it. Well, it is n't hard to grow them here. Us fellows out on the prairie make all our flower-beds round."
"Oh!" she exclaimed. "You mean the horizon. Is n't that an idea! I am going to tell that to Ruth Ferguson the first time I write."
Steve made no reply. Janet gave her attention for a space to the beans. Then, suddenly reminded, she put down her fork.
"Mr. Brown! If you were teaching just ten or twelve children, would n't it strike you as rather foolish to call the roll every morning? You know there were only fourteen pupils in the school where I was substituting; so of course I got acquainted with them all right away. Well, one morning when the weather was bad there were only six present; so when the hour came I just began to teach. But a little boy who is in the first reader held up his hand and told me I had to call the roll first. I could hardly keep from smiling. As if I could n't see the six that were there. Then I made inquiry and I found that Miss Porter called the roll when there were only four there. Does n't it seem funny for a person to go through a formality like that just because—well, just because?"
"That's because you 've got sense," said Steve.
She dropped her eyes and ate. When this remark had had time to pass over, Janet's sociable spirit, never self-conscious for long, began to unfold its leaves and raise its stems and lift up its branches again.
In this juncture, the dog profited. Shep had been giving her such unremitting attention, his wistful brown eyes following each forkful as it went from plate to mouth, that Janet's consciousness of her selfish situation kept bearing in upon her till now every bean carried reproach with it. Thinking to convince him that it was only beans, and not desirable, she put him down a forkful from her own too generous allowance. She was surprised at the suddenness with which it disappeared. Beans were his staff of life also, a discovery which made her smile. And as one good turn deserves another—at least Shep seemed to think so—she was expected to do it again; thus supper, with his assistance, was soon over. And now Janet, with nothing whatever to do, sat face to face with her situation.
"Have you got a dishpan?" she inquired.
"Oh, you don't need to mind that. I have n't got anything you are used to. I just take them down to the stream and swab them off with a bunch of dry grass."
"Oh!" remarked Janet.
She felt, however, that it would be easier to be doing something. She gathered things together and made general unrest among the dishes. Mr. Brown, instead of being stirred by this operation of cleaning up, stretched himself out more contentedly, moved up a little closer, and took still fuller possession of her presence; and as he did so he poked up the fire and struck her a light on a new topic. But this time the train of conversation did not catch. Janet was thinking. And like most of us she could not talk well while thinking.
Mr. Brown seemed quite contented, then, with silence and peace. Evidently he too was thinking. After a little time he sat up and reached into an inside pocket. He drew forth a large leather wallet which, upon being opened, disclosed two compartments well filled with bank-notes and documentary-looking papers. There was another compartment with a flap on it and a separate fastening, opening which he took out an object wrapped in tissue paper. Having carefully unwrapped it, he folded the paper again and placed it where it would not blow away.
"That's my mother's picture," he said, handing it over formally to his guest.
Janet received it rather vaguely and sat looking at it, saying nothing.
"She died just last winter," he added, in his usual deliberate way.
"Oh, did she?"
What else to say, she hardly knew. Turning it to the light she studied it more closely and noted each resemblance to his own features, looking up at him in an impersonal sort of way and with a soberness of countenance which was a reflection of his own entirely serious mood.
"She had a very kind-looking face," she said.
To this there was no reply. Janet, about to hand it back, was momentarily in doubt as to how long a proper respect should prompt her to retain it; this, however, settled itself when she observed that he had ready to offer her a long newspaper clipping.
"I had the editor put some of that in myself," he said, reaching the long ribbon of paper over to her.
It was an obituary of Mrs. Stephen P. Brown, who passed to "the realms beyond" on the eighteenth of November. With this Janet found no difficulty.
"But," he added suddenly as it occurred to him, "I did n't have him print that part at the bottom. He just put that in himself. I mean that stuff about me."
Janet at once turned her attention to the bottom. He sat silently with the wallet in hand, his countenance a shade more solemn than usual. In the midst of this waiting there came a wail from the corral and he left suddenly upon one of his unexplained errands, this time without excusing himself. He got back while Janet was still engaged upon the article. When she looked up he was standing beside the fire looking down at her. There was something new in his face, a look half lugubrious, semi-humorous, apologetic.
"We've got another lamb," he announced.
"Oh!—another little lamb?" she exclaimed.
"There are only three so far. Three lambs and two mothers. It has n't really got started yet, but I 'm afraid it will. My herder ought to have got back yesterday and brought help along."
"Then you have a great deal to do?" queried Janet.
"Yes; after it once gets really started. Then it never rains but it pours. I have been hoping it would hold off a day or two longer; but you can't tell exactly."
He put more wood on the fire and took his place again.
"You mustn't let me interfere with your work," she suggested.
"Oh, that is n't it at all. I was just explaining. I'll get through somehow; it won't amount to anything."
With a characteristic sweep of his arm he waved the whole subject aside as if he did not want to have it interfere with her reading of the newspaper clipping. Janet had dropped it absent-mindedly in her lap; she now took it up again. Besides the tribute to Mrs. Brown's character, who was not a native of Texas but had come to the state in her girlhood from West Virginia, there was a considerable memoir of Stephen Brown, senior, relating his activities and adventures as a Texas patriot. He had "crossed the Great Divide" six years before. Finally, there was a paragraph of sympathy with the only son, "one of our most valued citizens."
"Your father knew Houston, did n't he?" remarked Janet.
"Oh, yes; he knew a lot about him."
"How interesting that must have been. Your father was a pioneer, was n't he?"
"Oh, no. You 've got to go back pretty far in history to be a Texas pioneer. He was just a Texan."
She gave another perusal to certain parts and offered it back.
"There is another piece on the other side," he said.
She turned it over and found a shorter clipping carefully pasted to the back. This also she read.
AN ARTISTIC MONUMENT
Mr. Stephen Brown yesterday received from Austin the monument which he had made for the grave of his mother, Mrs. Stephen P. Brown, who died last November. It is a most beautiful work of art and was much admired by those who saw it. It is a massive block of imported gray granite skillfully carved with clusters of grapes in high relief. Mr. Brown ordered it from the leading marble-cutters in Austin. The reverse side of the stone was cut after his own design, and consists simply of a Lone Star. On the base is the word Mother. Many of our citizens were enabled to inspect it as it went up Main Street, Mr. Jonas Hicks stopping his three yoke of oxen to accommodate those who wished to look it over. It will be by far the most beautiful work of art in our local cemetery.
Janet folded up the clipping carefully, according to the creases in it, and passed it back. When he had returned it to its compartment in the wallet,—an operation which was somewhat delayed by his difficulties with the tissue paper around the picture,—she questioned him further about the Comanche Indians and his father's adventures in the war with Mexico. Now the conversational situation was turned about, Janet becoming the interlocutor; and as she had the advantage of so copious a source of information, there was no end to her questioning. And as the stream of talk broadened, it began to include his own experiences and adventures, most interesting of which, to Janet, was a short account of the fight of a sheriff's posse with the train-robbers intrenched near the Post Oaks, a most determined encounter in which the sheriff was among those killed while Steve Brown received only a blunted thumb, for the clumsy appearance of which his story was rather an apology.
"That's all I got," he said. "And it works as good as ever."
To demonstrate which fact, he held it up and made it work.
Now that she had material by which to lead the conversation, she found him not nearly so taciturn as she had at first thought him. Indeed, he talked on without remembering to fix the fire. And when it had nearly faded out he continued on, unconscious of the fact that the real Janet was no longer in sight except as she was partially lit by the moon which now hove upon the scene.
"But I am keeping you up too late," she said, suddenly rising.
Steve gathered himself together and stood up, hat in hand.
"Oh, I am used to all hours," he said. "Anyway, I 've got to keep an eye on things."
"And I am sorry to put you out," she added.
"Don't mention it. I put myself out. I could let you have a lantern if you need it. There 's a piece of candle and some matches on the top bunk. It's down near the foot."
"Oh, that will be all the light I need. Good-night."
"Good-night, Miss Janet,"—saluting her by raising his hat to the side of his head and then bringing it down with a large sweep.
When the door had closed upon her and the shack showed light at all its cracks, he turned and went to the corral, closely followed by Shep. He took a look at the two sheep, each confined in one of the narrow little prison-pens along with the lamb whose property it was. The lambs were evidently full of milk; they were sleeping. Seeing that all was well, he got an old discarded saddle out of the shed, threw it on his shoulder, and descended to the general level to find himself a buffalo-wallow. Having picked one out he kicked a longhorn skull away from its vicinity, threw the saddle down at its edge, and lined the grassy interior with his slicker. Then he sat down in the middle, crushing the slicker deep into the spring bloom. Here he sat a while.
It is not easy for the human mind, constituted as it is, to pick out a bed on a prairie. It offers such a large field of choice, and no grounds for preference. Steve had long ago formed the habit of sleeping in a wallow, always to be found within a short distance, and, when found, possessing the advantage of being a "place." Such a place—a bowl-like depression—was made by the bison who pawed away the tough sward to get at mother earth, and then wore it deep and circular as he tried to roll on his unwieldy hump. Steve Brown, anywhere between Texas and Montana, had often slept in the "same old place," though in a different locality, and for some reason he was never so content—either because it was really a "place," or because he liked a bed that sagged in the middle, or because (which is more likely) he found a certain atmosphere of sleep in one of these places so long ago dedicated to rest and comfort. Which hollow is all that is now left of the buffalo—a vacancy.
He sat down in the middle, his attention fixed upon the shack, which now existed as a sort of picture of itself drawn in lines of light. When suddenly it was erased from the night, he pressed the slicker down and lay back with his head in the saddle. He folded his hands and waited, looking straight up. In a little while the world receded and he was only conscious of sundry stars. Thus, looking heaven in the eye, his hands clasped across his chest, Steve Brown sunk to sleep, his head and feet sticking up at the ends. Again Eternity held sway; and only Shep was left.
Shep turned round and round till he had trampled a place among the flowers, his usual way of winding up the day. He lay down in it with his chin on his paws. But soon he got up and went at it again. He milled round and round, with several pauses as if he were not quite satisfied; then he dropped down with a decisiveness that settled the matter for good. With his chin on the brink of the wallow he went to sleep; or rather he went as near asleep as a dog with such great responsibilities allows himself to do.
The sheep, having several times broken the silence of the dawn, were growing impatient to be let out. Now that the sun had appeared and the bars were not let down, there was unanimous expression of opinion in the corral, an old wether stamping his foot sternly and leading the chorus with a doleful note. It was very much as if he had put the question and they had all voted "aye." What was the matter with the man who was running this part of the world?
Steve Brown was otherwise engaged. He was sitting on the ground behind the storm-shed with a lamb in his lap. He was trying to remove from its back the pelt of another lamb which had been neatly fitted on over its own. This was a trick on the mother of the dead lamb intended to get her to care for the present lamb, who was an orphan; which is to say, the extra pelt was the lamb's meal-ticket, and she had given him several meals on the evidence of smell. The deception had worked all the more readily because she had not had time to become familiar with her own lamb's voice; and now that a sort of vocal relationship had been established between the two, things promised to go along naturally, with probably a little insistence upon the lamb's part.
In accordance with the usual practice in such cases, the pelt, with head and legs removed, had been fastened on by means of holes cut at the corners, through which the live one's legs were inserted, care being taken to leave on the tail, which part, when a lamb is nursing, is most convenient to smell.
As Steve Brown was not used to this sort of tailoring, he had made rather too close a fit of it, and now that it was dried up at the edges and slightly shrunk, he found difficulty in removing it. Seeing, upon further effort, that he could not get it off without risk of straining the lamb's anatomy, he laid the problem across his knees again and searched his pockets for his knife. He had felt for it, not very thoroughly, before. The knife seemed to be lost.
Janet, awakened by the clamor in the pen, arose from the bunk and set to work arranging her hair. Rather drowsily she moved about through the rifts of sunshine which beamed from the cracks; then, as she realized what a golden day the sun was weaving, she put her eye to a crack and looked out. In her elongated picture of things there were several miles of prairie, the sun just edge-to-edge with the horizon, and any amount of blue sky above. In the sky were some birds soaring at a great height. Smaller birds went skimming over the prairie,—now a golden meadowlark, then a darker scissortail snipping the air off behind it in swift flight. Suddenly, and rather precipitately, there came from around the corner of the storm-shed a lamb in full action. Its gait was as effective as it was erratic; it looked very much as if the legs were running away with it.
From the corner of the shed it made a joyous gambol in the direction of the fire and the steaming kettle, from which point it made for the down-slope of the knoll. Steve Brown, whose legs were none too long for the race, came running after. A moment later the dog arrived on the scene; he made a sudden dash and performed his part in a most creditable manner, overtaking the lamb and upsetting it with a poke of his nose. The lamb, not at all disconcerted by the tumble, which was only a variation of its method of progress, came over on its knees and rose at once to go ahead; but the delay had been sufficient. Steve caught up; and the next instant, the truant, feeling the ground removed from under it, hung helpless across the hand of its captor.
"Je-e-emima!" Steve remarked. "You 're feeling awful glad this morning."
Janet, who could not see the end of this performance, but only that part of it which came within range of the crack, stepped back in surprise. As who would not be surprised to see a black lamb with a white head and white legs, and two tails. Such being the result of her prying upon the world, she turned her attention to her toilet again and made haste to go out and see whether her eyes had deceived her.
In the mean time Steve, not being able to find the knife, stood with the lamb in his arms and bent the whole force of his mind upon the problem of its whereabouts. Suddenly he remembered that he had last used it in front of the shack to put the pelt on the lamb. Naturally, it was still there. Having it again, he sat down near the fire-hole, where he could keep an eye on the kettle, placed the lamb on his lap and opened the blade. He had just got to work on one of the legs when the door opened and his guest made her appearance. He rose at once to pay his respects, the lamb in one hand and his hat in the other.
"Good-morning, Miss Janet."
"Good-morning, Mr. Brown. It is a very beautiful day, is n't it?"
"First-class," he replied. "I 'm just doing a little work on this lamb. I guess you know him; he 's the one you saw when you first came."
"What! The one that stepped in the sugar bowl?"
"Yes, that's him. He doesn't look exactly natural, does he? I had to make some changes in him. You see his mother did n't think she wanted any lamb. But another sheep had one that died and I could see she wanted a lamb, so that was an opening for this fellow. And I had to fix him up so that she 'd take him."
"What a funny thing to do," said Janet.
"Is n't it! Do you wonder that sheep-herders go crazy? Just wait a minute, Miss Janet, and I 'll have this off of him."
He sat down again with the lamb in his lap. Turning it over on its back he set to work on the hind legs. Janet, becoming interested, stooped down beside him. She patted the infant on its high forehead.
"And did n't the other sheep want to adopt him?" she asked.
"Oh, no. Sheep don't believe in charity."
"And won't even have their own sometimes! Is n't that strange!"
"Some of them seem to be built that way, especially if it is their first one. But that sheep did n't have much milk anyway, and maybe she thought he might as well die. If it had n't been for that I would have tried to make her take him. But I saw the other sheep could do better by him."
"There is really a great deal to think of, is n't there?" said Janet, lending a hand to the operation by catching hold of a too active hind leg. "But I don't see how you could fool her that way. Could n't she see that this lamb had a white head? And white legs? And an extra tail?"
"Oh, they don't go by looks," he explained. "They go by smell. And later on by voice, too. Appearances don't count."
"The idea! You seem to know all about them."
"Not much," he said. "I 'm no sheep-man."
"But anyway, you do get along with them."
"If they were my sheep," he answered, "and I was n't responsible for them, I would n't be so particular. Especially with this one; he has been a lot of trouble. As far as money goes—he is n't worth over fifty cents—I would have let him die."
"Oh, no-o-o-o!" protested Janet, lending further assistance with the pelt.
"But after I had carried him around with me all day I got to feeling responsible for him."
"A person naturally would," said Janet.
"And besides," he added, holding the lamb upright while she, with her more skillful fingers, removed the fore legs from the armholes of the pelt, "a fellow sort of hates to lose the first one, you know."
Janet, finding the lambskin left on her hands, examined it curiously, running her fingers over the soft black wool.
"What shall I do with this, Mr. Brown?"
"Oh, just throw it away. But no," he added, upon second thought, "I guess you had better keep that. It would be good for you to sit on."
Following this suggestion she took it to her "place" on the prairie and spread it down. Then, as he seemed to be waiting for her, she returned.
"Miss Janet, I guess you 'll want to wash up. The best I can offer you is the place down below the spring. You 'll find some soap down there in a cigar-box. The bank is a little steep for you to climb down, so I guess you had better go round and get in the front way. On your way around you 'll find a towel on a bush; it is pretty clean,—I washed it last night. And you 'd better take the lambskin along to kneel on."
Steve carried the lamb away to its breakfast. Janet took the pelt and followed his instructions, going down the slope and skirting round the base of the knoll till she came to where the stream issued forth.
The little gully was hardly more than a deep grass-grown ditch made by the spring as it won its way out of the heart of the knoll; or rather it was a green hallway, overtopped with a frieze of mesquite, leading in privately to the source of the stream. Janet, as she entered the house-like cosiness of this diminutive valley, felt very much as if she had just stepped in out of the universe. On a prairie there is such an insistent stare of space, so great a lack of stopping-place for the mind, that this little piece of outdoors, with the sun shining in at its eastern end, was a veritable snug-harbor in an ocean of land. As she turned and looked out of its sunny portal, she told herself that if she had to live in the shack this place would be her front yard.
Just below the spring was a grassy bank against which the water ran invitingly; she spread the lambskin here, rolled up her sleeves, took off her collar, and conformed to the customs of the place. The cool water was so invigorating, and there was something so intimate in the live push of the current against her hand, that she lathered her arms an unnecessary number of times and kept rinsing them off. It was a brisk little stream and so bent upon its business that she could almost feel its impatience when she obstructed it,—for which reason, probably, she interfered with it the more; and finally, being done, she made a little heap of foam in her palm and reached it down just to see the water run away with it.
As she came round to the sheep-path again, she met Steve, who had been standing on the side of the knoll and started down the moment he saw her. Evidently he had been waiting his turn.
"Breakfast is all ready," he announced as he passed. "I 'll be up in a minute."
By the time she reached the shack there was a great spluttering and splashing and blowing of water down below. It was Mr. Brown "washing up." In little more than the minute he was back again. Finding her seated upon the lambskin, he took his place opposite her and passed the hot bread.
"I saw you chasing that lamb this morning," she said, quite directly. "I was looking out of a crack to find what the weather was like."
"Did you? Did you see the dog throw him?"
"No; I couldn't see it all. But I saw how he had learned to use his legs. Why, it does n't seem possible."
"Oh, that's nothing. He's an old hand now—this is his third day on earth."
"Yes; but is n't he unusually smart?"
"Oh, no. They 've got to catch on pretty quick, you know, or they could n't keep up with the procession. He's just about like the rest of them. They all learn fast."
"But it hardly seems possible that such a helpless little thing as he was could learn so much. Why, when I first saw him he was just able to stand up."
"They're animals," replied Steve, spreading a thick coat of molasses on a large piece of hot bread. "It only takes them a few minutes to learn standing up?"
"But they do have to learn, don't they?"
"Oh, yes. They don't always get it right the first time. Lambs make mistakes the same as anybody else. But if they get started out right, with a good meal the first thing, and a warm sleep, they go ahead surprisingly. The trouble with them at first is that they are a little weak."
"I don't suppose, then, that a lamb can get right up and follow the flock?" she queried.
"Oh, no. That would be expecting too much. They can toddle around pretty well in a few hours; but they could n't really travel till they've had time to grow strong."
Janet paused in her questioning. She spent a few moments reflecting upon the information gained thus far.
"Then I can't understand, Mr. Brown, how you can herd those sheep and take care of the lambs too. You surely can't carry them all?"
"That 's just what the trouble is," he answered. "I guess that Harding must be drunk. If he doesn't get back soon and bring help it's likely to get serious."
"And what will you do?"
"You see, Miss Janet," he said, laying down knife and fork for a formal statement of the difficulty, "when you 're grazing a bunch of sheep and one of them drops a lamb she stays right there with it. That is, she does if she is one of the natural kind. Pretty soon the flock has gone on and she is left behind. After a while another has a lamb and she drops out and is left behind. And so on. So there ought to be somebody to take them back to the corral. But of course the lambs can't travel. They 've got to be carried."
"How long do you suppose that man will take—at the farthest?"
"He ought to be back now. He may come any time. If I only knew he was coming before night I would know how to manage. I would go right along and leave the wet-lambs and their mothers stringing along behind; then when he came with help he could get them in for the night. They would be all right to stay out on the prairie for a while—all except those whose mothers did n't care for them. But I would do that; and those whose mothers did n't stick to them would have to die."
"Oh, that would be such a shame!" Janet's eyes opened wide as she contemplated this state of affairs. "And how about the ones who had mothers? Would it be all right if they had to stay out on the prairie till the next day?"
"No-o-o-o—it would hardly do to leave lambs scattered around on the prairie all night even if their mothers were with them. Coyotes would get them."
"Oh, dear! Don't you think, Mr. Brown, that that man is quite certain to get back sometime to-day?"
"I don't see how he can stay away much longer. He knows mighty well he has my horse, too. He might come along any time."
For a while they ate in silence.
"Miss Janet," he said suddenly, "I don't think you had better start out alone again. When he gets back with my horse and I am free of this place, I can show you the road and see that you are all right. I would feel more satisfied that way."
"Well, then, couldn't I be of some assistance—if I stay?"
"Oh, that is n't necessary. I 'll get along somehow. I don't suppose, though, that you 'd care to sit here alone at the shack; so maybe you 'd better come along with me. And if you want to drop behind once in a while and help a lamb out, why, of course you can. You seem to be pretty handy with them."
This plan was adopted. When breakfast was over he let down the bars; the sheep poured forth; Shep sprang to life and barked orders right and left. The crowding multitude spread out on the prairie in grazing order, and when Shep had executed certain commands necessary to get them headed in the right direction, the trio of caretakers began their slow progress through the day. Shep, subject to orders, followed at Steve's heels; Janet walked at his right hand; thus they wandered along in the desultory manner of the sheep-herder, standing a while, sitting down a while, advancing now and then as the flock grazed farther away.
"There's number one," Steve remarked casually.
They had ascended, almost imperceptibly, one of those slow rises or folds in the prairie from which more distant objects, if there are any, come into view. Janet had just been taking her bearings; ahead of them there had now come to sight the long file of trees which marked the course of Comanche Creek; looking back she could still see the shack, quite plainly, on its knoll. As he spoke, and pointed, her eyes followed the new direction, off to the left. A sheep had fallen out of the flock; she was now standing some distance behind. From the way she nosed in the grass without advancing, it was evident what had taken place.
"Well, good-bye," said Janet. Then, feeling suddenly that these words had too serious a sound, she added, "But I suppose I will catch up with you before long."
"Shall I go over with you?"
"Oh, no," she answered, and hurried away.
"Don't forget what I said about the creek," he called out after her.
As she looked back he pointed first at the shack and then at the creek, bringing his arm around in a semicircle as if it were a sort of dial-hand to the prairie. "Don't get lost," he added.
When she nodded to show that she understood, he strode on after the sheep. They had been gaining ground steadily and had got far ahead.
Janet, reaching the scene of the nativity, became very much interested. The lamb was just beginning to look up and take notice; she stooped over him in rapt contemplation. His little merino back was wrinkled as fine as a frown. His little hoofs were already beginning to feel the ground under them; he was going to rise! Then ensued a lamb's usual drunken contest with the laws of gravity. While he stepped on air and tried to get the hang of things, Janet followed his fortunes with bated breath. When he had got his four legs firmly planted, the first thing he did was to shake himself; and he did it with such vigor that he upset himself. This was a surprise to Janet if not to the lamb; he had shaken himself off his feet; everything had to be done over again. He seemed a little stultified by this turn of affairs; but though he was down the fall had not knocked any of the ambition out of him; he immediately went at it again. This time he conquered and stood right up to the bar of life, much to Janet's relief.
Having filled himself and spent a moment looking at nothing in particular, he decided that the best thing to do was to veer around and have some more; in taking this step, however, there was some sort of error in the proceedings and he went down forward on his knees. A moment later the hind legs stumbled and fell, and he was all down; now he decided to take a rest. As the mother nosed him over and showed every sign of affection, Janet began to see that her services were not needed; her presence was of no consequence whatever. There was nothing for her to do but to stroke his back and pat him on the head; having done which she rose and again went forward upon her charitable mission.
The flock by this time had eaten its way into the distance. It was not so far away, however, but that she could soon have overtaken it. She walked along at a moderate pace, looking alternately to right and left for such as might fall under her care.
She had not gone far when she sighted another. As this one had dropped out of the right wing of the army ahead, he was off to one side of her present course. By the time she arrived he had already succeeded in standing up; he even took a distinct step; then he shook himself like a dog just out of water. Like the other lamb, he shook himself down; he hit the ground with rather more decisive a drop. When he had again mastered the difficulties, and achieved his reward, Janet sat down near by and waited to see whether the two would become acquainted. This again proved to be a happy union.
Janet felt a little disappointed. She had expected to be of some use. Now that she had proved to be a mere looker-on she began to take thought about the lamb's future. There came to her again those words—"The coyotes would get them." She rose at once. A man would carry them back to the corral; why not she? She took the lamb in her arms intending to go off a distance and see whether the mother would follow. The experiment proved unnecessary, however; the ewe not only followed but kept close at her side. Accompanied thus by the mother she went back to the first halting-place where the other ewe joined them; thence she set a course straight for the shack, a lamb on each arm and a sheep at each side of her. Things went much easier than she had expected.
In this turn of affairs, she felt quite satisfied. Although it was the first time she had ever touched a lamb or had any experience with a sheep, the work seemed perfectly natural. Indeed, as she marched along between the two watchful ewes, and hugged to her breast the warm objects of their attention, it seemed to her—a very puzzling delusion—that she had done this same thing before; it was like a half-faded memory. Nor did it seem natural to think of Mr. Brown as a stranger; it seemed that she had known him a long time ago—always. Possibly this was because she felt so much at home in this sort of work. Then, too, we dream dreams, and they have a way of bringing themselves to pass in some shape or other.
Having reached the corral she managed to let down the bars without getting the infants mixed up—a matter which had given her much concern; and now that she had them safely inside she thought it advisable to wait a while and make sure that family relations were going to be permanent, after her interference. She rested herself by sitting on the top rail of the corral; meantime she took an interested survey of the stuffed clothes of Mr. Pete Harding under whose manly presentment the lambs enjoyed protection. Mr. Brown had made a very good imitation of a man by filling the herder's working-clothes with marsh grass; the figure had been made to stand up by means of a pole thrust through the fence, to the end of which Mr. Harding was suspended by the neck as if he had been hung in effigy. The man himself had not yet put in his appearance. Janet, as she thought of him, scanned the horizon for signs of his approach. There was no indication of his coming. But still the day was not half over; possibly, she told herself, he would arrive early in the afternoon. Having become satisfied that all was well, so far as the lambs were concerned, she put up the top bar and went forth again to her work.
By looking back occasionally and sighting her route by means of the shack and the storm-shed, the relative positions of which she had been careful to observe when she first went out, she held her course so well that when she next came in sight of the line of trees she was at the same point as before. Here she set straight out for the bend in the creek, which landmark was to guide her on the next stage of her quest. As before, she kept a sharp lookout for stranded sheep.
She had not gone a great distance when another case presented itself. This time it was twins. The pair were sleeping. The mother, having licked them nicely into shape, had lain down beside them; when Janet arrived she got up suddenly and stared at her in alarm. The twins had evidently been successful, so far, in all their undertakings, not the least of which is to take a rest. They were in very good condition to be carried. She took them up and arranged them comfortably, one on each arm, and soon they were on their way to safety, the anxious mother trotting first to one side of Janet and then to the other. These also were added to the ones in the corral.
Janet did not feel so tired but that she could have turned about at once; she would have done so had it not been that it was dinner-time and she was hungry. Mr. Brown had taken along with him an extra large lunch which he expected her to share with him somewhere along the shaded banks of the Comanche; the little plan passed momentarily through her mind as she raised the lid of the box and took out a pan of beans. There was also a piece of bread left; it tasted better than she would have expected cold hot-bread to do.
Luckily for the work she had taken upon herself, Steve Brown had planned a route for the day which any one could easily follow. He was going to graze the sheep along Comanche Creek, downstream, on the right-hand side; he would bring them back not very wide of the same course. This arrangement he had made entirely with a view to being quickly found in case help arrived; he had left a note behind giving instructions. As this was all very plain sailing, Janet saw that she would be quite free to come and go, and she had been quick to turn this arrangement to the lambs' advantage. When she had satisfied the worst of her hunger she started out again. The consciousness that she could find him whenever she wished, and was, virtually, in touch with him all the time, made her task entirely enjoyable.
This time she reached the creek and gave herself over to its guidance. Comanche Creek, like other prairie streams, had its line of trees which very plainly belonged to it and not to the prairie. This impression of foreignness to the region was emphasized by their extending in unbroken procession from horizon to horizon, as if they were merely crossing the plains. While the stream hurried on to its congregation of waters, the trees seemed bound for some distant forest. Quite strictly they kept to the course; none of them, beech, hickory, live-oak, nor pecan, encroached beyond the right of way nor seemed ever to have been forgetful that these were the Plains. It was very much as if they recognized that trees ought not to grow here. As, indeed, they ought not. The prairie is itself as much as is the ocean or forest, and it has no room to spare. Space, like wood and water, must have its own exclusive regions wherein to exercise its larger and deeper spell. These were the earthly fastnesses of space; and so preempted. Many grapevines looped along the route, some of them of ancient growth, hanging like big ropes from tree to tree; these had the appearance of keeping a still closer regard to the direction of the stream itself, their more sinuous wood flowing along in a like spirit and keeping the waters company. Nowhere so artfully, perhaps, as in a prairie stream, are eye and ear addressed by the manifold activities of wood and water. To come across it in the course of a long monotonous journey is as sudden as falling in love—and very much like it.
Comanche Creek, having such advantages of contrast and sharp comparison, was well calculated to strike the mind with the whole charm of stream and forest; and so it worked upon Janet. To her right was the prairie as monotonous as duty; to her left the creek with its mirrored vistas, its rippling bends, its comfortable resting-places where sun and shade played together. Inviting as it all was, however, she kept well out on the open where her business lay; only occasionally did she let her gaze wander from its set task to loiter in this more restful scene. She kept on looking for lambs. But after a while she awoke to the fact that she had been walking closer and closer when she ought to be keeping out on the prairie; instead of using it as a guide in her work she was making a companion of it. She turned at once and marched out to the scene of duty.