As she got out nearer to the centre of her field of operations,—twelve hundred sheep cut a pretty wide swath,—she thought she heard the cry of a lamb. She stopped and listened. All was silence. It might have been imagination, assisted, possibly, by some rumor of the distant flock; but yet the still small voice had seemed to come from somewhere near at hand. She went forward, listening intently. Presently she heard it again; then she saw him. He was so close that she could see his little red tongue as he opened his mouth and called to her.
Poor little lamb! There was not a sheep in sight. There was just him and the prairie. He was barely managing to stand up; she could easily see that he was on his last legs as well as his first ones. As she went to him he took a step or two as if to meet her, but his legs lacked stiffening and he fell on his nose. She ran and picked him up. As she took him in her arms he opened his mouth again and called upon his mother.
Which way to take him in search of milk became now a pressing problem. She thought she felt him shiver. If he was to be saved, it would not do for him to starve much longer; nature demands that if a lamb is to live he must have his first meal without delay. She paused to decide the matter, holding his passive little hoofs in her hand. To keep right on after the flock might prove the quickest way; but again it might not; it would be taking a chance. Back at the corral, far though it was, the services of a mother were certain. The surest way seemed the best to her, and having decided so, she turned about at once, walking rapidly.
The return trip seemed very long, and the forced pace told upon her strength. She kept it up, however, till the goal had been reached. Having her orphan inside the bars she deposited him in a corner while she turned her attention to the row of little stalls or prison-pens which were built along the outside of the fence. This institution she had observed with great interest. Each pen was just large enough to crowd a ewe in, being calculated to allow her no liberty in any way; they were all built so that sheep could be put into them from the inside of the corral. She opened one of them, seized upon the first lamb at hand and put it in, and when the fond mother put her nose in after it Janet gave her a good push from behind and sent her in also; then she abstracted the rightful lamb and put the other in its place. Having closed the opening she climbed over the fence and sat down on the prairie beside the pen where she could look in between the rails and watch developments.
The lamb, probably because it had gone too long without that first drink which is the making of a lamb, did not seem able to rise. Janet put her hand in between the rails and gave it a lift. Once it had its legs under it, it managed for itself. To Janet's great satisfaction it filled up visibly. When it was done, she let out the ewe, who hastened to find her own again, knocking down the orphan in the process of getting out. As he made no effort to rise, Janet again took him in her arms.
The lamb seemed dispirited and chilled. This is a condition which is quite likely to overtake a "wet-lamb" if it is neglected from the outset, in which case its little stock of vitality is not easily regained. Despite the brightness of the weather there was a touch of chill in the air. Janet sat down in the doorway of the shack and held the lamb in her lap, doubling her skirt up over it in order to get it warm. Like any other lamb it submitted to whatever was done to it. Now it lay so quietly in her lap, and looked so innocent and helpless, that she felt permanently responsible for it. Especially as she did not know what else to do with it. Presently she felt it growing warmer and warmer; then it went to sleep.
Janet was tired. She sat there watching the prairie. In the sky the same dark birds were soaring. The suspended effigy of Mr. Pete Harding, swayed by the slightest breeze, moved its loose-hung arms and legs as if it were being visited by the drunken spirit of its owner. At intervals the solitude found expression in a sheep's automatic baa. The birds, which were buzzards, wheeled round and round as the time passed and brought them nothing. One of them, tired of wheeling round and round, sat on one of the posts of the corral and waited for something to happen. These were the dusky angels that carried away the lamb's body of the day before; she had seen its little white bones down at the foot of the knoll. The present watcher, a stoop-shouldered, big, rusty-black bird, was quite indifferent to human presence; he sat on his post like a usurer on his high stool, calculating and immovable. Janet knew what was in his mind. She drew the lamb a little closer and tucked her skirt in around it. Again she fell to contemplating the prairie—and the sky. The birds above seemed connected with the machinery of Time. At unexpected moments a sheep gave voice to it all "in syllable of dolour."
No, she would not really want to be a sheepherder; at least not alone. Last night, or whenever Steve Brown was about, everything looked quite different. Even now, she reflected, it was not so bad as it might be, and she did not really mind it much; it was his place; he was just over the horizon somewhere; and as long as it was his place she did not feel so lonesome. He had long ago turned the flock about; she could picture him as he followed them along, nearer and nearer. After a while he would be home.
She sat holding the lamb till the sun began to redden; then it occurred to her that, under the circumstances, it was her duty to get supper. It was a welcome thought; she would see what she could do. She put the orphan at the foot of the bunk, drew the quilt over it and set to work.
It had now become apparent that she was destined to spend another night at the shack; this, however, gave her no serious concern. It entered her mind only in the form of the pleasant reflection that nobody would be worried by her absence; the farmer's family would think she had gone to the county-seat and then reached her destination at Merrill; the folks at Merrill would think she was still at the school, all of which was very fortunate, and so she thought no more about it. She was mainly concerned with the lambs, and particularly, at the present moment, with supper. She spread down her two white napkins, which had not seen service the night before, placing them corner to corner or diamondwise on the ground; then she set the table and examined further into the resources of the provision box. While the fire was getting itself under way, she completed the effect by arranging some flowers in a cup and placing a nosegay upon the bosom of nature. Before long there was a good bed of coals in the fire-hole.
Supper was just ready when the flock reached the knoll and began streaming up the slope into the corral; then followed Steve Brown escorted by three sheep. He carried four lambs, one on each arm, and two others whose heads protruded from the breast of his coat.
"Four more!" she exclaimed, stepping forward to meet them. "Did you get all there were, Mr. Brown?"
"I got all I saw, Miss Janet," he answered, casting a bright and intelligent look at the fire-hole. "And I was afraid I had lost you. You got supper, did n't you? That looks nice."
Steve Brown's conversation was largely illumined by the light of his eye; likewise his silences, which were many. They were direct eyes which paid close attention and shot their beams straight as along the barrel of a rifle. The live interest of his look, and the slight but expressive play of his features, made up quite well for the occasional scarcity of words.
"Yes, everything is all ready," she said.
"Well, I won't keep you waiting long."
When he had rid himself of the lambs he strode down the slope to the spring, and presently she heard him "washing up" with more than his usual vigor. Pretty soon he came up and bore a beaming countenance to supper.
Janet, as she poured the coffee and passed the hot bread, gave an account of her day's work, telling first about the orphan and how she managed with him; then she took up the other lambs, consecutively.
"I got four altogether," she ended.
"Oh, you should not have done that."
There was mingled surprise and disappointment in her look; but mainly disappointment.
"You could never have handled them that way—if they had been really coming fast. It would take a wagon. There is no use of your working like that."
"But," she insisted, after a pause, "you could n't have carried more than those four, could you?"
"No—that was just about a load."
"And we got them all in, did n't we?"
"Oh, yes—yes. What I meant was that you ought n't to work like that. But we certainly did get them all in. And it's the only way we could have done it. As it turned out, it was just the right thing to do—all that was necessary." After a moment's silence he felt he had not said quite enough. "You did first-class," he added. "The fact is, nobody could have done better."
Janet recovered her cheerfulness at once. She resumed her story of the day, and then, as she got around to the subject of the lamb again, she went into the shack and brought him out. Having been assured that he was looking well and was likely to recover, she sat down at her place again with the lamb in her lap. He lay there contentedly while she finished her supper.
"Yes," said Steve in answer to another of her questions, "lambs are kind of cute. Sometimes I feel bad for a lamb myself when his mother won't have anything to do with him. You ought to be out here later on, Miss Janet, when the lambs have all been born and are starting to get frisky. That's when the fun begins."
"I have heard that lambs play together like children," she said.
"Oh, they do. You see they've got to learn jumping, too. And climbing—like a goat. That first lamb will soon be so lively that plain running won't be good enough for him. He 'll want to do fancy tricks."
"Nature teaches them to play," observed Janet. "That's to give them practice and make them strong."
"I should say she did," said Steve, referring thus familiarly to Nature. "She puts all sorts of notions into their heads."
"What do they do, for instance, Mr. Brown?"
"Well, for one thing, a lamb likes to practice jumping. You see, sheep don't belong on prairies, like cattle. Cattle belong on prairies the same as buffalo, but sheep don't; they belong on mountains; that's the reason the young ones are so handy with their hoofs. They like to climb and jump, but on a prairie there is n't any place to jump off of. Well, maybe some day a lamb will be galloping and cavorting around, and he 'll come across a hunk of rock salt that has been all licked off smooth on top and hollowed out. He 'll take a running jump at that and land on it with all four hoofs in one spot and then he'll take a leap off the top. Then, when he sees what a good circus actor he is, he will gallop right around and do it over again; and the rest of his gang will start in and follow him, because what one sheep does the rest have got to do. That way they get to running in a circle round and round and taking turns at jumping."
"How perfectly funny!" exclaimed Janet.
"That's the way they do. They run races and play 'stump-the-leader' and 'hi-spy' and 'ring-around-the-rosy.' Why, Miss Janet, if you were out here a little later on, you would think it was recess all the time."
"I wish I might be," said Janet.
"A lamb likes to be on the go," he continued. "Sheep really ain't lively enough for a lamb, so he has to go off and have his own fun. He 'll gallop around with a troop of other lambs and won't stop except long enough to go home for dinner."
"I don't see," said Janet, "how a lamb can go away like that and ever find his mother again, in such a crowd. They all look alike."
"That's easy enough. Every sheep's voice is keyed up to a different pitch; they all sound different some way or another. And every lamb has a little voice of his own."
"Yes, I've noticed that. But I did n't know there was any object in it. Or that they knew each other's voices."
"Oh, certainly they do. When a lamb gets hungry he whisks right around and runs into the flock and starts up his tune. She'll hear it and she'll start up too; and that way they'll keep signaling to each other. A lamb will run into a crowd of a thousand sheep and go right to his mother. When he has arrived, maybe she will smell him to make sure; and if he is all right, why—then it is all right."
"Then they don't ever go by looks, even when they're acquainted."
"Oh, no. They are different from people. They are not like you that know all the children by sight and don't have to call the roll. When a lamb wants to find a sheep, he just calls and she answers 'Present.'"
Steve Brown did not seem to lose sight of the fact that he was addressing his remarks to a school-teacher. While something of humor passed over his countenance at times, his attitude toward her was mainly sober and earnest. Janet, all absorbed in the subject of lambs, was in quite as serious a mood. She waited for him to continue; but he was not one to keep on indefinitely without questioning, not presuming, evidently, to know how much further she might be interested.
"She answers 'Present,'" repeated Janet. "Well, then; while they are answering each other, does she go to the lamb or does the lamb go to her?"
"Most likely they'll go to each other, and meet halfway. You see, that's the quickest way, When a lamb is hungry he wants his dinner right off."
"Then they are not any trouble in that way at all, are they!"
"Well—it's all easy enough after they have learned each other's voices. But at first they don't know that, and it takes them a little time to get it into their minds. That's when a herder has got trouble to keep things from getting mixed up. And if she has twins she has got to learn them both by heart."
"That's so—she would, would n't she!"
"Oh, yes. And twins learn to know each other, too. That's so they can go home to dinner together. For of course if she let one of them come alone it would n't be fair."
"Then sheep know that much!"
"I don't know that they do. I guess it's nature that tends to that, too. But there's a lot that nature is too busy to tend to. Then it's all up to the herder."
"Lambs are really quite dependent upon human care, then, are n't they?"
"Oh, yes. That is, if you want to try and save them all—like that one." He pointed to the occupant of her lap. "A lamb has got to get a meal right away, and a little sleep, and not get too chilled, or wet. Then if his mother and him stick together till they know each other by voice and smell, his chances are all right. After that you could n't lose him."
"How long will it be, Mr. Brown, before everything is running that way?"
"It will start in just a few days. Just as soon as we get the lamb band going."
"The lamb band?" she queried.
"We have some lambs there in the corral now. Well, all that come to-morrow will go in with them, and in a day or two all that are strong and active will go out with their mothers and be the lamb band. All the others that have n't dropped lambs yet are called the drop band; they travel too much for lambs. Sheep with lambs ought to go out together and be handled separate. Well, whenever a lamb is born in the drop band, he is brought home to the corral; then when he knows things and is a little stronger he goes out with the lamb band; that way we keep advancing them right along, same as in school. First in the First Reader, then in the Second Reader, and so on."
"Oh, I see," said Janet, growing more deeply interested.
"And it is n't very long, of course, till they have all gone through and are in one band again. The lambs are all having a high old time and managing for themselves; and then one man can handle them again. The worst of the trouble is over, and there are not so many things to do all at once."
This seemed to exhaust the subject.
"What are you going to do to-morrow?" she inquired.
"Well, if I was sure that the herder was coming, I would just take them out and let the lambs drop behind, the same as to-day. Then if he brings the wagon along, as I told him to, he could get them in—that is, if there are a great many of them. There might not be many lambs come; but the trouble is that you can't tell. If I thought there were going to be a great many lambs, and he was n't coming right away, I would keep the whole bunch here and not take them out at all—that is, I would if I had feed. But I could hardly feed twelve hundred sheep on a mere chance if I had it to spare. But then, I don't think he will stay away any longer. I 'll just take them out."
"Really, it is quite a problem, is n't it?"
"That's just what I was beginning to think," he replied.
"How many lambs might there be in the next day or two, if they really started coming?"
"Maybe two or three hundred."
The words died out as Janet looked down in her lap and considered the one. He was resting comfortably.
"Two—or—three—hundred," she repeated vacantly.
G'lang there, yeoo-oo-oo, Rip. Yeoo-oo-oo, Squat. Yeoo-oo-oo —— —— —— Buff.
As it is difficult to make a noise in print, it might be well to explain that, of the above words, the last is supposed to sound like a revolver-shot. It is as near as we can come to the disturbance made by a Texas "prairie buster" as he came down Claxton road.
Ahead of him were ten oxen—five yoke. His far-reaching bull-whip exploded just beside Rip's left ear. The next shot took Squat exactly as aimed. There was a momentary scuffling of hoofs, an awful threat in the ox-driving language; then everything went on peacefully as before. The ox-driver caught the returning cracker deftly in two fingers of his right hand and settled down on his iron seat with his elbow on his knee while he took a chew of tobacco. The big tongue of his "busting" plow knocked in the ring of the wheelers' yoke; the chain clanked idly against it; a little cloud of debris—hair and dust which the cracker had bit out of the tuft between Squat's horns—floated away on the breeze.
All this was not done with any expectation of making them go faster. For an ox to alter his gait, except slightly to run away, would be unnatural. It was merely to convey to certain ones that they were not out to enjoy the roadside grass. And to remind the string in general that the seat of authority was still being occupied.
For several days his voracious plowshare had been turning over the prairie in long ribbons of swath like the pages of a book. Texas in those days was turning over a new leaf; and such outfits as this did the turning. His last job had been to put an addition on a farm for an Ohio man about six miles out of town; he had turned forty more acres of tough prairie sod black side upwards and left behind him a dry dusky square in the horizon-girt green of the range. Being now homeward bound, he bent his sharp gray eyes upon the road ahead. The Claxton Road community, a moneyed streak in the population, was only half a mile away.
In the distance appeared a black man riding a broncho mule. It was Colonel Chase's man, Uncle Israel; he was coming along at an unsatisfactory pace, using his quirt regularly and remonstrating with the mule. As he drew near the head of the ox procession, the driver roared out a Wo-o-o-o in a tone which was intended to be understood as a general command; the powerful wheelers held back obediently and drew the chain tight in their efforts to stop; the rest of the string, after pulling them a short distance, also obeyed.
"Good-mawnin', Mistah Hicks."
"How's things doing down home? Anything new?"
"Well—no, sah. Ev'ything jes' 'bout de same."
"Is the Colonel home?"
"No, sah. He's done gone to San Antone."
"Has he shipped yet?"
"Who went up to Chicago with them?"
"Mistah Sattlee an' John Dick an' some mo'."
"Is Steve Brown at home?"
"No, sah. He 's gone somewha's. An' he ain' come back. Mos' all de men folks is gone away."
"Has Miss Alice got back yet?"
"No, sah. She's off to de school-house in Boston yet. An' it ain't leff out. She 's gwine be back dis spring."
"What's cattle bringing now?"
"Dunno, sah. I heah dey 's done riz."
"Has little Johnnie Martin got his curls cut yet?"
"No, sah. Ah seed 'em on him."
"What's doing in town? Anything new there?"
"No, sah. Jes' 'bout de same as usual."
Uncle Israel, feeling that his information had not been very abundant, scratched his head and stirred his mind up thoroughly for news. He met the demand with two pieces of information.
"De railroad's done built a new loadin'-pen. An' dat high-tone bull took sick wif acclimatin'. But we 's got him restin' easy now."
"The railroad's getting real extravagant, ain't it?" commented Jonas, turning his attention to the oxen again.
Having said a few words appropriate to the occasion of starting up, he flung out his bullwhip in a flourish of aerial penmanship and drove home the aforesaid remarks with a startling report. Again the bovine procession got under way.
In the course of time he came to where Claxton road ends and Claxton Road begins. It will be recalled that Claxton road, hemmed in by barb wire, leads interminably past vacant stretches of prairie with occasionally a farm and farmhouse. Nearing town its scene and atmosphere suddenly change. On the left are the ranchmen's home estates, with the stables and windmills and short avenues of china-berry trees leading up to comfortable porches; to the right, or facing these, is a large square of green with no roadside houses and no longer any confining fence. To any one who had come a long distance between the barb wires, this emergence upon the free, open common was very much as if he had been following a stream which, after long confinement to its course, opens out suddenly into a lake. This piece of land was not different from the prairie it had always been, except that the houses which faced it on all sides, as if it were a lake of the summer-resort variety, gave it an importance which was not its own. It was no more nor less than a square of primeval prairie whose owner, being satisfied with it, let it be as it was. Surrounded on all sides by real estate and other improvements, it held its own as immovably as if Texas had here taken her last stand, in hollow square, against the encroachments of civilization. It belonged to Jonas Hicks. In the exact middle of it was the paintless frame house which we have already mentioned.
This structure is easily described. It consisted of a house with one room downstairs and one room upstairs. Its boarding was of the kind that runs up and down with battening strips at the cracks. Any one familiar with prairie architecture would see at once that the owner, having a house to build, had gone straightway to work and erected a herder's shack on a residential scale and put some windows in it. Because of its porchlessness it seemed rather tall, as if it had grown after it was built or had stretched itself up to get a better view; and the single window in the end of the upper story gave it a watchful appearance. This watchful window, which might be said to mark its front, looked toward the residences along Williston Road.
The cottages which faced this place on the side toward town were confined to "lots" along an unpaved street. Across on Claxton Road town lots grew to the size of country estates and looked more commanding. But the shack house, with its twenty acres of elbow room, rather commanded them all, especially as its central position marked the common as its own grounds. Being tall and upright and spare, like a Texan, it had an attitude toward them like that of a pioneer drill-master; it seemed to be standing out on the drill-grounds with the other houses all marshaled up before it and toeing the social line.
The place was given shape and form entirely by the other property, all of which was fenced on its own side of the highway, the owner of the twenty acres never having shut it off from the roads which passed along two sides of it. This hospitable openness was a fortunate thing for the traveling public, affording as it did a short cut to town. Quite a little of the traffic that came down Williston Road turned out and followed the trail which led diagonally across it past the door of the house. And usually the traveler, whether horseman or driver, would speak in passing; or, more likely, stop to have a talk with Jonas Hicks, who, if he were at home, might be engaged in plaiting a whip or mixing batter for pancakes or taking a stitch in his clothes, the iron seat of a "prairie-busting" plow being particularly hard on the seat of a man's trousers. It was to this place that the plowman was bending his homeward way.
Eventually, as oxen always do, they arrived. Having navigated them up to the kitchen door and brought them to a stop with a stentorian Wo, he unhooked the wheelers, dropped the chain from each yoke, and turned them loose to graze or lie down as each pair might decide; then he went around the corner of the house and set to work making a fire in the stove. It was an outdoor stove of the locomotive variety, having two large iron wheels upon which it had traveled thousands of miles in the service of the J. W. Cattle Company. Mr. Hicks had fastened its tongue or handle to a staple in the chimney of the house, for which chimney it had no use, having a smoke-stack of its own.
When the stove was belching forth smoke he turned his attention to the inside of the house. Presently he came out with a pan of flour and various kitchen utensils which he placed on a bench beside the door; then he drew a bucket of water and proceeded to mix pancake batter. He had not accomplished much when he was interrupted. Just when the batter was mixed to the right consistency, and the first spoonful was ready to go on, a little girl appeared. She had a pie which she bore before her with a look of great responsibility.
"Ma says maybe you would like to have a pie."
"Why, how do, Susie. How 's Susie getting along these days?"
"Real well," replied Susan, holding the pie up higher.
Mr. Hicks bent his tall Texas form in the middle and took it from her. The pie had the outlines of a star in its centre by way of a vent-hole; the edges were nicely crimped.
"It's a mighty good-looking pie. What does that stand for, Susie?" he asked, holding the pie up so that she could view its face and placing his finger upon its centre.
"That stands for Texas," answered Susan promptly.
Mr. Hicks put the pie on the bench and sat down beside it with his elbows on his knees.
Something like a smile betrayed itself in the lean muscles of his jaw and showed somehow around his large aggressive chin.
"How does it come that you did n't go to school to-day, Susie?" He pointed to the white frame school-house which occupied a corner of his place.
"'Cause," answered Susan, by way of complete explanation.
"That's a mighty good reason. If I had an excuse like that I would n't go to school myself. How's your ma? Is she well?"
"Yes, sir. Only she had a kinda headache this morning, and I wiped the dishes."
"You did? How did you know so quick that I was back? Were you watching for me so that you could bring over the pie?"
"Oh!" exclaimed Susan, "we heard you coming. We could hear you saying bad words when you was 'way up the road."
A change suddenly came over the spirit of Mr. Hicks's physiognomy. He sat stroking his wide-spreading moustache. Jonas Hicks had a self-made moustache which seemed to have borrowed its style from the horns of a Texas steer. It might be said that, for the moment, he looked serious; but you could never tell from his face exactly what his emotions were. It was against his principles to be caught laughing, and yet his solemnity was somewhat radiant despite him.
Suddenly he rose and went into the house. In a little while he reappeared carrying a milk-pan filled with comb-honey. It was white honey which the bees had deposited in his useless chimney; the sirup filled the pan almost to its edge, while the middle was piled high with oozing chunks of comb. He placed it on the bench beside him. The eyes of Susan opened wide as she saw this sight. He talked about one thing and another and asked her many inconsequential questions. After much tantalizing talk on Mr. Hicks's part, she learned that the honey was for her and that she was to take it all home with her.
Susan was for starting home at once.
"What' s your hurry, Susie? Won't you stay a while and have a piece of pie?"
"I 'd rather I 'd have a pancake," said Susan, looking furtively at the smoking griddle.
He rose at once and put on a large spoonful of batter. When the cake was ready to turn, he caused it to turn a somersault with a quick toss of the griddle; then he spread it evenly with honey and rolled it into the form of a cylinder with the honey inside.
"There, now, Susie. That's what I call a joof-lickum tamale. It's pancake de la verandah. Watch out that you don't burn your fingers."
He set the griddle temporarily aside and sat down again. While Susan ate, she leaned across his tall knee and looked up at him admiringly.
"I like your pancakes," she volunteered. "Your pancakes has got fringe on them."
Mr. Hicks's countenance took on more of an expression around the eyes; he regarded her with deep interest.
"All the boys at school like your pancakes, too," she continued. "They are coming over some other recess when you are home, and you can make them all a pancake again. Will you put honey on their pancakes?"
"For boys!" exclaimed Susan's heroine in great surprise. "No honey for boys. Honey is only for girls."
"And mas too," added Susan. "Ain't honey for mas too?"
"Does n't your ma make them with fringe on?" inquired Jonas, in hope of making a new start.
Susan vouchsafed no reply. The subject stood in abeyance while she feasted and took thought. Presently her attention rested upon the griddle. On it there was a diminutive pancake which had made itself from the drippings of an overgenerous spoonful.
"I like little pancakes too," she hinted.
Jonas took it off and presented it to her.
"There, Susie. When you go home you can give that to your dollie."
Susan's eyes seemed to expand as she turned them up to Mr. Hicks, the source of supernal illumination. If the pancake had seemed desirable, this wonderful idea was ten times as much of a present. Her bliss grew visibly deeper as she looked first at the pancake and then at the resourceful Mr. Hicks. She was so completely won that she consented to sit on his knee. There she resumed her tamale in the intervals of conversation.
"Mr. Hicks. How did the bees come to go down your chimbly?"
"'Cause," replied Mr. Hicks.
"Oh, Mister Hicks—tell me why the bees went down your chimbly. I want to know why."
"I guess they thought it was an old hollow tree."
"Do you think maybe they would think our chimbly was an old hollow tree? Oh, I wish they would come down our chimbly."
"Oh, they would n't come down your chimney. That would n't do at all."
"Why would n't they, Mr. Hicks?"
"'Cause," answered Jonas, still pretending to be taciturn and mysterious.
"Oh, Mister Hicks. Please don't talk that way. Tell me why."
"Because," explained Mr. Hicks, "bees would know better than that. If they came and stopped your chimney all up with honey, how would Santa Claus ever get down? Who gave you the dolly?"
"Well, don't you see if the chimney was all full of honey he would get it all over his clothes? And all over her clothes? And besides, he would get his whiskers all chock-full of honey. How would you like to have your curls all full of molasses?"
As he made this remark he lifted a curl and contemplated it, the truth being that he was not nearly so much interested in the honey as in her hair. He made these remarks simply by way of sticking to the subject. Susan, conscious of her curls, gave her head a toss which sent them flying about her face, one side and then the other; then she took another bite and returned to her speculations.
"Did the bees know that you haven't got any little girl?"
Mr. Hicks was inclined to sanction the idea that the bees had this view of the uselessness of his chimney. The subject of his girllessness leading on to another case of "why," he fell back promptly upon the hollow tree theory pure and simple; the which he took pains to establish by stories of trees filled with honey and of terrible big bears that lived in the trees and ate the honey. He was going on to consider the advantages of living in a hollow tree—with a good strong door to it—when a new game offered itself.
Leaning forward and turning his head to see how the stove was doing, the end of his long moustache stroked Susan under the chin and drew a fine trail of titillation across her throat. To the surprise of the owner of the "whiskers," she clapped her chin to her shoulder and shrank from the excruciating touch. Before long Mr. Hicks had occasion to turn his head to the other side. This time it tickled even more and Susan had to giggle. After that a surprising number of things, of all imaginable sorts, demanded his attention on one side or the other, and every time the moustache acted in the same manner, much to the surprise of the innocent Mr. Hicks. As soon as that beard developed its full powers of tickling, it took effect wherever it touched, and Susan had to protect herself by grabbing the moustache and pushing Mr. Hicks's face, which face seemed able to stand any amount of rough usage. When finally his every move produced such paroxysms of laughter that she could stand it no longer, Susan squirmed out of his arms. Then, with sudden seriousness, she picked up the doll's pancake which had fallen from her hand. Their visit thus brought to an end, Jonas did not try to renew it; he was growing hungry. He gave her the pan of honey and placed her hands so that she would hold it level.
"There, now, Susan. Be careful that you don't fall down and get any of it in your mouth."
Susan, who was nobody's fool, knew that Mr. Hicks sometimes made remarks which were purposely foolish. This one engaged her mind for a moment as if she hoped to make head and tail of it, but as it seemed to be unanswerable she gave him an amused look and started for home.
As Susan neared her front gate another visitor was approaching—this time from the direction of Claxton Road. It was Mrs. Norton; she had in mind to get the rockery returned. Jonas, watching Susan to see whether she got home with the honey unspilt, was oblivious to the half of the world that was behind his back; but when he turned about and took up the dish of batter, intending to pour out a griddleful of pancakes, he saw her coming. Immediately he seized the pie and hurried it into the house. By the time he came out she had arrived.
"Good-morning, Mrs. Norton."
"Good-morning, Mr. Hicks. Have you got all through with your work?"
"All except sewing on a few buttons. Ploughing is all done for the present, I guess."
"Mr. Hicks, we have been wondering whether you could do us a little favor. The ladies of the Chautauqua Circle have been studying geology,—the earth, you know,—and we needed some stones for specimens—samples. And of course stones are not very plentiful around here—"
"Why don't you go and take some out of Steve Brown's rockery? Help yourself, as God says."
"Why, that's just what we did do. We were passing there, and we each took one—without particularly thinking. They are lying behind Colonel Chase's big gate. We got them up there, but found they were rather heavy. Could we get you to haul them back for us?"
"I bet you could, Mrs. Norton. The next time I pass there with the wagon I 'll put them on. I don't suppose those stones are in any particular hurry, are they?"
"Well," said Mrs. Norton, taking thought, "I have been thinking that perhaps it would be just as well to get them back before he comes home. He is out at the Thompson ranch tending to those sheep again, you know."
"Did you hear whether any one went with him?"
"Well, no—er—yes. That is, I don't really know whether there is or not. I heard there was somebody out there."
Her answer, or the manner of it, struck Jonas as peculiar.
"Extra herder or two?" he suggested.
"One of the boys who was out at the ranch told somebody in town that there was somebody out there. The regular herder was up at the county-seat and had n't got back."
Mrs. Norton, now that she had boggled, by surprise, into the acknowledgment that she knew anything whatever about the matter, felt herself in a problematical position. She did not know whether his question had been accidental or not; it sounded as if he knew; possibly he had put it as a feeler to discover whether she knew. In which case the subject became rather difficult; she did not know whether to dissemble, nor how much to dissemble, nor how to do it.
Jonas, his curiosity aroused, persevered with more inquiries. Mrs. Norton, after answering with a few vague references to Tuck Reedy's report, suddenly made a bald evasion of the subject; she went back without ceremony to the subject of rocks. Jonas had a new feeling that there was something peculiar about the matter.
"And so I was thinking," continued Mrs. Norton, "that we had better return them pretty soon. It was really an improper thing for us to do—though we did not particularly think of it at the time. If he came home and found the rockery gone he might not like it."
"Steve is rather peculiar, some ways," remarked Jonas.
"Is he? In what way?"
This remark of his had seemed to bear upon the hidden subject. She had hope of receiving moral enlightenment from the masculine standpoint.
"Mostly about rocks. Did you ever hear about the time I hauled that tombstone for him?"
"I knew you did, of course. What did he do?"
"Well, he did n't do anything much. He expected me to drive oxen without using any strong language. Just took a sudden notion he did n't want it. I had got that stone loaded onto a strong truck that I had rigged up apurpose; then I started up and got the cattle headed up Main Street in fine shape. Steve was coming along on the sidewalk. All of a sudden he stepped out into the road and spoke to me. He said he did n't like the sound of it and he wished I 'd leave out the swearing. He said it rather cool and solemn, like Pastor Gates does when he says to omit the second stanza. For a minute I did n't know what to think. I was doing a plain job of ox-driving and I told him so. 'That's all right; I understand that,' he says. 'But you don't expect to go cussing into that cemetery, do you?' 'Well—no,' I says. 'Not since you mention it.' For a minute he had me where I could n't go ahead nor back up. A man has got to use language to oxen, and what is he going to say? I am so used to it that I don't even hear myself, unless I stop to listen; and so it does n't mean any more than the oxen understand by it. And that is n't much. 'No,' I says, 'not since you mention it.' 'Well, then,' he says, 'you might as well quit now. Afterwards you can drive them any way you please and say anything you want. But it does n't sound right to me now, and I don't want any swearing on this job.' He said it in such a way that I could see just about how he felt about it. I saw that any more of it would n't do. I guess I ought to 'a' thought of it myself."
"And did you succeed in doing as he wished?" asked Mrs. Norton.
"Well, I managed to get them there somehow—considering I hadn't had any time to practice. It made me wonder, though, what a deaf and dumb man would think if he got a job driving oxen."
"And that is what you mean by his being peculiar?"
"That's sort of it. But maybe that one does n't quite cover the point. What I mean is that he 's got all sorts of notions of what's right and wrong; and he tells it to you all of a sudden. He 's quicker 'n pig-tail lightning."
"Do you suppose he might think it wrong for us to meddle with his property?"
"Oh, no. He is n't that way. You know how he is about such things. And besides he would n't be likely to say anything. I only mentioned that tombstone business because his mother set so much store by the rockery. He looks at that as a sort of a monument."
A look of deep seriousness came over Mrs. Norton's countenance. It deepened as she thought.
"Of course, Mr. Hicks, we intended to tell him about it—and thank him for the use of the stones. But possibly it would be more considerate not to say anything about it."
"Not tell him at all," repeated Jonas reflectively.
"But I suppose that no matter how we put them back he would notice that it had been changed."
"Yes. I guess he knows it by heart. He had those blue-flower vines started on it."
"It was really very thoughtless of us," mused Mrs. Norton.
"Oh, well; it is n't anything serious," remarked Jonas. "If he seems serious about it you can blame me. Tell him I told you to. I 'm really part owner anyway; I discovered a lot of those stones and put them there. He 'll understand how it was. And if he says anything to me I 'll tell him I did n't think. If you want me to I 'll make it all right when I go out there this afternoon."
"Are you going out there?" she asked, looking up with sudden interest.
"I 've been thinking I would. I want to drop out those three middle yoke and let them run on grass a while. While I 'm out there, I guess I 'll make Steve a call and stop overnight. It 'll be late when I get there."
She saw a very lively and interesting picture of Mr. Hicks's arrival at the shack. He would not be a very welcome visitor, she thought. Having the misconceptions she did of affairs at the ranch, she saw all sorts of possibilities; she said nothing, however, which would keep this interesting three-cornered meeting from taking place. She turned the conversation at once into other channels. Having answered his inquiries regarding neighborhood affairs, and having been finally assured that he would return the rockery and make everything "all right," she took her leave.
Jonas had had no very definite intention of undertaking the journey at once; but now that his mind was turned in that direction, he saw that to-day was as good as to-morrow, or even the day after; he fired up the stove and again took the batter in hand. This time the pancakes went ahead without interruption. When he had stacked up the requisite number, and eaten them with honey and bacon, he hooked the wheelers to the wagon, and then added the rest of the cattle, yoke after yoke. The plough was to remain where it was. Ensconced upon the more altitudinous seat of authority he swung his lash out with a report like a starting-gun and made his way, with the necessary language, across the open and up Claxton Road.
Jonas's trip to the ranch took longer than it takes to tell it. But there is not, in truth, anything about the trip itself to tell—and yet there ought to be some way of describing time. Under the circumstances, and especially as oxen cannot be hurried, it might be well to pass the time by talking about Jonas Hicks's past; it will be better than to take up the scenery again. In those parts the scenery, if the weather remains settled, is rather uneventful; it is the same when you arrive as when you started. On a prairie the human mind carries its own scenery.
Jonas Hicks's past had been somewhat variegated and thus all of a piece. Some years before the present moment, when the railroad was younger and the "garden spot of the world" was just beginning to attract attention to its future, Jonas carelessly acquired a patch of forty acres near the new town of Thornton. At that time he was still "on the drive," a vocation which took him with the big herds anywhere from Texas to Fort Benton in Montana. In the calling of cowboy he had, by a process of natural selection, risen and gradually settled into the character of cook. Risen, we say, because, in a cattle outfit, there is not a more important and unquestioned personage; his word is law and they call him pet names. However, from the day he got down out of the saddle, in an emergency, and consented to act in the capacity of "Ma,"—which was a joke,—he was in continual demand as cook, with increasing popularity. Though he still claimed the ability to ride and rope and hog-tie with the best of them, he was thenceforth a cook with all the cook's perquisites and autocratic say-so. There is nowhere, we might observe, so deep an indication of the true power of Woman as this respect that is paid to her position, even when it is being occupied by a red-faced being who wears whiskers and who has no real right, of his own, to be anything more than an equal of his brother man. But the cook's laws must not be disobeyed; they allow him to make laws because he is cook; masculine sentiment is on his side; human welfare demands it. As Jonas was popular in the position, and did not mind the work when it was appreciated, he continued to fry bacon and fringy flapjacks and, in general, to furnish "the grease of life," as he called it, to the outfit. And while he was doing it his fellows conducted the beef, on ten thousand legs, from the South to the North. They took them North so that they would put on fat under the stimulus of a Northern winter.
In those days he engineered the peculiar cookstove which we have already noticed. It was a big, square, sheet-iron stove with an iron axle and wheels like those of a sulky plow. This piece of machinery was hooked on behind the chuckwagon, which it followed from clime to clime. Jonas, being a live man and a "hustler," seldom waited for the outfit to reach the camping-place and come to a halt before starting to get a meal. As he explained, he had to get about a two-mile start on their appetites, with pancakes; and so, while the stove was yet far off from its destination, he would fire up and get things going. Then he would trot along behind and cook. While "she" (the stove) lurched into buffalo wallows and rode the swells and unrolled the smoke other stack far out across the billowy prairie, Jonas would hurry along behind and keep house. Entirely occupied with his kitchen duties he would move busily here and there or remain steadily behind or beside the stove while it pursued its onward way, and with the bucket of batter in his hand and the griddle smoking and sizzling, he would seldom miss a flap. From the standpoint of a weary cowboy it was a beautiful sight. It is, indeed, a pleasant thing, when you are tired and hungry, to see your supper thus coming along as conqueror over space and time.
No one but a man like Jonas, who had the combined talents of a sea-cook and a cowboy, could have managed it. To make coffee under such circumstances took considerable ability, of course. And even the flapjacks, which stayed on the stove better, might seem difficult. Jonas, however, was a man of quick hand and eye; things seldom got the drop on him, and he handled the pancakes with a revolver wrist. As the foreman said, he was "a first-class culinary engineer." In doing this, his longtime experience on bucking bronchos stood him in good stead; then, too, his practice was confined almost entirely to pancakes and coffee, for they were but few and simple dishes that he knew by heart. But even with this special expertness it took a quick man and a philosopher, especially when the stove cut a caper and the footing was uneven. As Jonas once remarked when he stepped amiss on his high boot-heel and spilled all the batter into a buffalo wallow, "This is certainly a corrugated country." He was not always and necessarily a profane man, whatever one might think who heard him driving oxen. In times of real trouble he expressed himself coolly and then stuck to the facts.
For a long time Jonas thought little of the small patch of prairie which belonged to him; he only began to take it seriously when he sold twenty acres—a deal which was consummated through the agency of Stephen Brown, senior, who paid the taxes in his absence and thus knew, generally, where Jonas was. Coming back a year or two later he was surprised to see how that place had built up; and when, after repeated visits, he had made himself known to all the neighbors and discovered what nice people they were,—it was a new sensation for Jonas to have neighbors,—he got it more and more into his head that they were his neighbors, and that he belonged there. He decided to settle down in those parts. Things in general seemed to be shifting into a new mode of life and impelling him to go along. In the early eighties, central Texas was becoming tightly fenced; the barb wire was spreading out generally; railroads were hauling herds where formerly they went afoot; shorthorn bulls were changing the face of nature; it was plain to be seen that before a great while the long drives would be a thing of the past. While there was still use for the cowboy, there was less call for Jonas's peculiar abilities.
Having land which seemed to call for a house, he built one on it; but at first he did not occupy it himself. During his absences it was occupied by "white" families of the sort that move often by wagon and work cotton on shares; meantime his fancy was playing about the place and taking root. Coming back in the fall the house was vacant. As Jonas was himself an excellent wife and a kind husband, he moved in. Having in mind to stop a while, he of course stopped at his own house.
The problem of living on one spot solved itself in the most natural manner. Instead of driving cattle in the old way, he conquered a few and drove them from the seat of a plow. Thus while everything was going forward, he mounted the wheel of Progress and put his hand to the throttle; and now every time he got back from one of his occasional absences a new farm had been opened up forever and ever. But it must not be thought that he had himself become an agriculturist. He had not even dreamed of it. There is not necessarily any more relation between a "prairie buster" and the land he "busts" than there is between a farmer and a locomotive engineer; the spirit of it is different. Jonas bossed cattle.
If there would seem to be anything of incongruity or humorous contrast between Jonas and his married neighbors, it must be remembered that, under the circumstances of a growing country, there was not. In a land where many men live alone in shacks and do their own work, and where any woman's husband must be able to go forth with a frying-pan and shift for himself at times, it was no marvel to see Jonas Hicks doing the same; though, to be sure, he was doing it a little nearer town than is customary, and this proximity made his single-blessedness shine out a little plainer. But if there was any humor in that, or in fact anything else, it was Jonas's prerogative to see it first and to stretch the joke as far as it would go. Then, too, he lived there only at intervals—which were getting to cover the greater part of the time—in the style of a man who camps out. And after a few days' absence in "busting," he would suddenly reappear and turn loose his oxen and start up housekeeping with all the new pleasure of a man who is glad to get back among the folks again.
From all of which it will be seen that Jonas's house needed to make no apology for its presence; he had owned land there among the first; it was the others who were the innovators and the newcomers; and as to his way of housekeeping it simply clung a little closer to nature. It was, in fact, the most natural thing in the neighborhood.
As he continued to live there he liked it more and more. He was glad that things turned out just as they did. His very location in "the middle of the puddle," as Steve Brown put it, made it look, to him, as if all these beautiful women and interesting little children had gathered round to ornament his position in life; and there is a great deal in looks. He felt also, having owned some of the land upon which the townspeople were settled, that he was in some manner responsible for it all; and so he had a corresponding pride in the community at large and was personally interested in everybody's welfare.
His own property he could have sold or cultivated; but he was well enough satisfied with things as they were. He could have put up a sign, "keep off the grass"; he could have built a fence or forbidden any one to use his place as a short cut to town; he could have done anything that goes with private ownership; but with him ownership was not necessarily private. To a man with such large Texas views and lifelong experience of "free grass," such carefulness of a mere twenty acres would seem rather small, especially small as directed against such neighbors. He was pleased to be numbered among them, and he acted accordingly. If the minister's wife needed temporary pasturage for her real shorthorn cow, just arrived from the North, he invited her to use his place permanently; he rather liked to see cows around. If an incoming herd of cattle wished to halt there they were welcome; it reminded him of old times. If the whole surrounding country went "cross-lots" over his land, there was no objection; what difference did it make? And besides, it was the farmers and ranchmen who gave him employment.
He would not sell any land, though. Right here was where he exercised his private right. He liked things well enough as they were. But when the proposition came up to purchase a small site for a school-house, he presented them with a small piece off the corner, only asking that they refrain from putting a fence around it. As this restriction was no drawback to the community, they readily acceded to it; consequently the children played ball or did whatever they pleased all over the place, much to his entertainment. At recess the youngsters spent much of their time around him, if he were at home, and though this interfered considerably with his housework he did not mind the delay.
However difficult it might be to name his particular function in the social organism, he had certainly made a place for himself; and it was wonderful, as time went on, how large that place grew to be. Any woman, when her husband is away from home, is likely to face situations which make sudden call for a Man. In a neighborhood where husbands and hired men were frequently away at the ranch, this state of affairs was always breaking out somewhere, and Jonas, occupying his prominent position as next door neighbor to everybody, and being naturally adapted to act in that capacity, was always the Man. His very geographical situation was sufficient to turn the mind towards him, but the particular reason for that heliotropism on the part of his feminine neighbors was that he was an easy man for a woman to ask. Being asked, he always served her in a spirit of masculine banter and then went away as if he had enjoyed the joke. Thus she could be grateful for his neighborly turn without feeling herself under any painful state of obligation. Naturally his custom grew. One moment he would be mending a yoke or plaiting a lash, the next moment he would be clapping himself on a broncho to outdodge an escaped bull, or dashing up the road to put out a prairie fire before it reached the stable; he could lift a stove or drive a nail or spade up a little place for flower seed; he could do any one of these things in about a minute and then have time to sit down and have a good neighborly visit. Possibly his familiarity with cookstove affairs had brought him nearer to woman's point of view. He looked like a Texas Ranger, and was just as generally useful, but in a more domestic way. And yet he had been good with a six-shooter. So times change; and men with them.
Altogether, he might be best described simply as Jonas Hicks; his position being one that he naturally fell into. And he filled the position of Jonas Hicks the same as if he were a policeman or a priest or a fire department. In time of trouble it was only necessary for a woman to ask. Indeed, his trade with woman grew to such proportions that he had been obliged, on more than one occasion, to cancel an engagement with a man in order that he might do something for his wife. And he stated the case in just about that way.
Chivalry is not entirely a thing of the past. It is a virtue which grows wild in Texas. When it is domesticated with the ox, and pursues the even tenor of everyday life, it is a most useful institution.
With all this talk of ours, it is doubtful if we have brought the oxen a mile on their way. At this point we shall go on ahead.
It will be easy enough to reach the next chapter before he does.
Repeatedly, Janet had misjudged her fellow man's motives and had to correct her theory of him. It was, however, his own fault. He had a way of going ahead without making explanations. He seemed deficient in that sort of guile which would prompt a man to forefend suspicion of his motives, or else he did not think it necessary, or, worse still, did not care; and so his "high-handedness," as it had at first appeared to her, took sinister color from her unusual situation and his too easy advantage. Now she had about arrived at the comfortable conclusion that Steve Brown was simply one who saw what ought to be done and did it.
His acts had a way of doing their own explaining, uninterpreted by him, so that, as they sorted together in that prairieful of time, he became a less difficult study; and by the time she had thus learned him she found herself in a most comfortable case. He was really a very simple sort of man to understand, after all. While he had been very alarming at first she had come to see into his mental state, and she liked, or at least had grown accustomed to, his faults.
His lack of talkativeness had made the process seem rather slow at first, and she had felt that more talk would have helped; but now she had begun to think differently. She had thought him wanting in tact, but the fact of the matter was that he did not need it. He did better without it. She reflected, however, that his qualities were of the kind that would easily remain undiscovered by other women. One had to know him. He had been quite a revelation to her, perfectly simple. It was no longer he that seemed strange to her, but rather the adventure itself,—especially when she reflected that it happened such a little while ago. He seemed to date back farther than that; indeed, her knowing of him did not seem to be a thing of any date at all. And yet he owed his existence, so far as she was concerned, to that mere chance and her sudden dash out into the distance. It is strange how things happen.
What had been his history up to the time that had happened? This question had passed across her mind and brought with it a shade of doubt; but it soon lost itself in his real presence; he was simply Steve Brown.
She felt that she knew him. And now, on this evening, when he had entertained her with his explanation of the ways of sheep, there came a pause. After a while he rose to tend the fire, which had burnt low. He scraped the embers together and put on the wood, and then, having sat down again, he told her, rather deliberately, that on that day he had caught her horse.
He had not broached this subject during all this time. And at supper, before they became so interested in talking, there had been plenty of opportunity. He went on to explain that he had not caught the horse exactly; he had rather got it without the trouble of catching. The animal had been so willing to form his acquaintance that it had only been necessary to lay hold of him.
"And where is he now?" She was puzzled.
"I put him in an old sheep corral near the place I got him. I 've been thinking I ought to go and get him to-night. That is, if you are not afraid to stay alone."
Why had he not informed her of this before? Would not any one naturally have done so? Here she was in this place all on account of the escape of her horse; and yet he had not told her about this. There was something strange here. Could it be that he would stoop to deceit!
Janet immediately—what she would not have believed she would do—brought him to an accounting.
"Mr. Brown," she said sternly, "why did you not tell me of this before?"
"Well, Miss Janet, the point-blank truth is that I thought I would rather spend the evening here."
He blenched perceptibly as he said it. Janet, seeing him now in a state of mild propitiation, became suddenly aware of the schoolmistress tone in which she had made him own up; and as he considered what way to answer, she was more at a loss than he was.
"And besides," he added, with more assurance, "I intended to go for him after you had gone to bed and say nothing about it. You might be afraid if you knew I was not around—though there is n't any danger of anything. But just now I got to thinking it over and when it came to the point, I did not like to go away without your knowing it. I thought I ought to tell you."
"Oh—that was it!"
"You see I did n't have any rope or bridle along when I caught him; so I just put him in the corral. And I could n't bring him home by the forelock when I had my arms full of lambs. I caught him just before noon. If he waited till I got around to him again in the regular course of herding, he would be pretty bad off for a drink."
This statement of the case decided her at once. As far as her own needs were concerned, she could not ride the horse without a saddle even if she dared mount him again, which she would not; but when she considered the animal's thirst she decided to set her night fears aside.
"No; of course you could not bring him home that way. If you wish to go for him I can stay here. I am not at all afraid."
"There is n't really anything to be afraid of," he said, rising. He paused a moment, regarding her seriously. "I could go for him in the morning before I take the sheep out. But you see I would have to start so early that it would still be night anyway."
"Oh, I shall not be afraid at all, Mr. Brown. There is nothing to be afraid of."
This was how it happened that Janet, a while later, was sitting alone gazing at the North Star. She was looking at that star in particular because Steve Brown had called her attention to it by way of proving that he would be able to find his way back to her. At intervals her eye let go of the star and came back to the fire.
"I thought I ought to tell you."
Why ought? If there was no danger at all, and he felt that she would be afraid, why did he change his mind? This interested her. For a time the darkness was neglected. Evidently he had planned this and had no doubts. If a woman is afraid to be alone in the dark, and there is no danger at all, the most considerate course is to go away when she is sleeping. He had his ideas of dealing with women. Why then had he found any difficulty in doing it with her? "I thought I ought to tell you."
She had said she would not be the least bit afraid. And so she was not—at first. Before long, however, the Night insisted upon being seen and heard. Space and darkness began to demand human attention. Unable to do otherwise, she looked up and contemplated the big blackboard of night, and especially the North Star, to which the front stars of the Dipper served as a pointer. And very soon she was wholly engaged upon the silence.
It is no small thing, if you are not used to it, to occupy a lone prairie at night. You face the absence of the whole human race. The ominous stillness centres upon you with all the weight of Past, Present, and Future. You are sitting up with the universe. And while you sit there, and keep watch, you feel like the last survivor. Night burns her solemn tapers over the living and the dead; there is now room for anything to happen.
Suddenly and without warning, an awful outburst of language sprang from the very throat of Night and claimed the starry silence for its own. It was a clap of language which, coming so unexpectedly, seemed to make the stars all blink at once. Then fell a hush much deeper than the silence of before. There was a moment of suspense; then a sharp gunlike report which seemed to crack the silence but not to break it. Again the threatening voice sounded—this time nearer and more violent.
Janet sprang to her feet and made for the shack—not forgetting, fortunately, the lamb. Being inside, she dropped the lamb on the bunk and shut the door.
She had noticed in the corner that morning a narrow roof-board which might have been used to hold the door shut; she felt for it at once. When she had it in her hands, at last, she put one end against the door and braced the other end against the wall opposite where it met the floor. The board was so long that it would not go low enough to catch securely against the door. She managed, however, by pressing down hard on its middle, to spring it tightly into place. There being nothing further to be done, except to keep as still as possible and hope for the best, she proceeded to do so.
The lamb being less discreet, lifted its voice and called out for its mother. There was an answering cry from the corral, after which there seemed to be promise of quiet. Janet held her breath and got what reassurance she could out of the fact that she was surrounded by walls, between the shrunk boards of which the glare of the fire showed in vertical streaks. As it was pitch dark inside, she could see nothing of her protecting structure except in so far as it had the appearance of being a cage of fire.
The threatening voice advanced by stages, coming surely on. Presently she could hear the tramp of many feet, accompanied by the clanking of chains. There was a dull knocking of heavy wheels. There was the sharp crack of the whip-lash again, a quicker trampling of hoofs, a louder sound of wheels and chains and a still louder vociferation of commands. Janet could hardly have felt less confidence in that shack if it had been the heavy artillery that was coming into position—which it sounded very much like. There some sort of evolution performed and a command to stop; then all was silent again. For a space, Janet heard nothing.
Then a sound of footfalls told her that he was coming nearer. The door was tried. When it did not open he pushed it harder. It gave a little at the top, but, to her great relief, the brace held. After a little she heard his measured tramp again. And again there was silence.
Janet, unable to endure the suspense, put her eye to the knot-hole. The intruder, a tall piratical-looking figure, was standing between her and the fire; she could see his general build in black. From the side of his face there protruded a terrible moustache.
The man, after a period of silent thought, went and fetched some wood. He was going to take possession of the fire. Janet kept her eye to the knot-hole. When he had the fire burning better, he straightened up and wandered round to the other side of it. At this, the sinister silhouette, acting as a sort of dissolving view, came out in favor of the old maxim that "there is a bright side to everything." It was no less a person than Jonas Hicks. Little Jimmie Wanger's "Misser Donas!"
"Misser Donas dimme pop,"—Janet's mind took a jump to this. Morning and night she had heard the sentence reiterated by the diminutive Jimmie, the interpretation of which was, according to Rosie, that Mr. Hicks had at one time presented Jimmie with a ball of pop-corn. It was the only sentence Jimmie's mind cared to communicate. As it was the only thing in life worth mentioning, he brought it out upon every occasion; thus it had become recorded on her mind with phonographic unforgettableness, and when she saw Mr. Hicks through the knot-hole his act of benevolence repeated itself in the same words. The sight of this benefactor in the guise of a cursing desperado made a clash among the ideas in her mind; but Jimmie's sentence came out on top.
Besides hearing about him in this way, she had once had the honor of meeting Mr. Hicks himself—this time also in connection with his leaning toward children. He stopped at her schoolyard pump for a drink, and having taken it he put his head in at the door and smiled—a thing he never did upon compulsion. Being invited to enter, he did so, taking the visitors' chair near the rostrum; and when she asked him, according to the time-honored custom, whether he would not like to address a few words to the school, he did that also, standing his whip up in the corner and giving some very engaging advice upon the subject of education, part of which, being of a hidden nature, was evidently intended for the entertainment of the teacher. In this way he had been her one and only visitor; and then, having had his jocose presence so repeatedly called to mind at the Wangers', she had become disabled to think of him as anything but the ministering angel of pop-corn.
Now her sole concern was to put in her appearance in as graceful a manner as possible. Whatever sort of man he might really be, she knew he was a person of quick intelligence who would certainly see any indications of her taking fright at him. She wished to emerge at once, smoothly and naturally. But when she put her hands to the tight roofing-board she discovered that there was going to be difficulty in the operation.
At first she tried to lift it by taking hold near the middle. As the board had been bent down by her pressing it into place, her lifting only made it grip tighter. It resisted her best efforts. Once and again she tried, but without success; it was beyond her strength. She could not get out!
"Oh, dear," breathed Janet in dismay.
She tried to force it out sideways. But this was even less practicable if anything. Perceiving finally the nature of her mechanical difficulty, she turned with new hopes to the end that was against the door. As she expected, this proved to be the proper place to take hold; but now the board moved only to make a noise that was amazing. The method of its surprising operation was like the stuttering of a stick when it is rubbed endwise on a box; but as this was a board and as it operated against a rumbly shack, it reverberated like a giant drum; it was an excellent apparatus for making artificial thunder. At her very first effort it gave a little jump and made a noise sufficient to put all the silence on the prairie to flight. She let go at once. More deliberate efforts brought forth results still more tremendous; it was something between a volley and a groan.
Now that she had done what she had, she felt that, embarrassing as it was, she might as well get through with it and show herself promptly. She might as well make the noise all at once as to make it piecemeal.
It was like operating a gatling gun. The board, being sprung down, had a considerable distance to move before it would come free, but Janet, having put her hands to it, stuck to it without flinching. It set the whole shack a-going; those boards made such a noise as they had not made since the day they went through the sawmill in long-drawn agony. But she got it free. Being through with it, she set the board softly in the corner; then she calmed herself and stepped forth.
So far as Janet could see, he considered it the most natural meeting in the world. Jonas Hicks, fortunately, was not easily confused. She lost no time, however, in beginning her explanation.
"You see, Mr. Hicks, I was going on horse-back from Wanger's farm up to the county-seat to take the examination, and just as I was passing here—"
Poor Janet; she had to tell that whole story over again. She told it with particular attention to plausible detail; she wanted him to have a perfect understanding of just how it was.
"Oh, yes—just so—I see," he would say promptly. "You just got lost on the prairie. And you 've been stopping a few days with Steve."
As if it were nothing! Such ready belief and general inconsequentiality bothered Janet. She did not know, of course, that Jonas was hardly the sort of a Texan to feel comfortable in having a woman stand before him in the defensive, stating her case. Upon her first appearance he had concealed his surprise and rallied nobly to the courtesies of the occasion; it was sufficient that he was in the presence of the fair. Having heard enough to get the facts of her adventure and grasp her present situation, it was hardly in him to play the part of the unconvinced and give her a hearing through the corroborating details—it was too inquisitorial for him. Suspicion? He would have felt vitally impeached. He could not stand judicially; he would have knocked down the man that did it. For this reason, while he manifested sufficient interest, he escaped from his position by finding casual employment; he examined the skillet, looked into the provision box, and presently set about getting his supper, which, he insisted, he was perfectly capable of doing. Janet persevered with her story. He kept up his interest, making a mere anecdote out of her tale and mitigating the atmosphere with the sound of pots and kettles.
"Well, now; if that don't beat all—— Naturally—— Just what would happen—" Such was the tenor of his remarks. As if nothing more need really be said.
To Janet, his too ready acceptance was peculiarly unsatisfying.
"And then," he remarked, just as she was coming to it, "I bet you walked right round in a circle."
She wished most heartily that she could have replied, "Oh, no," and explained that that was n't the way of it at all. She felt that her whole story must seem to him an easily concocted, and a merely necessary fiction. But as that was exactly what did happen she had to accept this part of it from him and do her best with other details. She wished he would pay more strict attention.
"And so," she finally ended, "as Mr. Brown went away just a while ago to get my horse, I was rather frightened when I heard somebody coming. I suppose I surprised you too."
"Well, yes; I must say you did, sort of. But of course when I heard that noise I knew something was bound to come of it. But I managed to save my appetite."
"There is n't very much left to eat," she said seriously.
"Oh, I 've got a plenty to eat right there in my wagon. Pie is good enough for anybody. I 've got a real Northern pie."
He made a trip to the wagon and came back with the pie. He placed the pie in the middle of the repast and arranged knife and fork on their respective sides of it. Having it properly disposed and everything in readiness he invited her to join him. Janet, because she had had supper, was inclined to refuse. But there is something cordial about a pie's countenance, especially if it be a pie of one's own country, and still more especially if one has been living regularly on frijole beans. She cut her regrets short and accepted. It seemed to her, though, that all human companionship was being rather strictly confined to the process of eating.
Plainly he considered her the guest; he took her cup and poured the coffee himself.
"It is a beautiful evening, is n't it," remarked Janet.
"I was just going to say it was a nice night. Quite a flock of stars out."
"A flock, did you say?"
"Well, sort of. I don't usually speak of them that way. Only on special occasions. Hasn't Steve got any sweetenin'?"
He had just rattled the spoon in the sugar bowl and found it empty. Janet was sorry to say that she had poured out the last grain of it that very evening. She explained to him how the lamb had stepped into a bowlful and thus contributed to the present shortage.
"Ain't Steve got a jug of molasses? He ought to have some sweetenin' somewheres."
"Why, I did see a jug of something under the bed. I don't know what is in it, though."
He went to investigate, getting down on the door-sill and entering the shack on his knees. Presently he reappeared, smelling the cork.
"It ain't anything more or less than molasses," he reported.
As he sat down, the off wheeler of the team, which had been drawn up a short distance from the fire, dropped on his paunch with a great rattling of chain and began placidly chewing his cud. Following his example, an ox in the middle of the string got down on his knees and began chewing. At the same moment the lamb, which had fallen out of bed and found his way out of the shack, announced himself with a bleat and went toddling off toward the darkness. Janet jumped up at once and went after him. Having captured him, she brought him back and stowed him comfortably in her lap, drawing the edge of her skirt up over him.
"I suppose you've noticed, Miss Janet," he remarked, as he again turned his attention to the jug, "that the animals out in these parts don't know very much. They make people lots of trouble."
"Oh, I don't mind the trouble at all. You see, I saved this one's life myself; that's why I am so interested in caring for him. He 's an orphan."
"So I see. There's liable to be plenty of them. Are you partial to orphans?"
"I could hardly help caring for him. Of course one naturally is."
Jonas again turned his attention to the jug, removing the cork and placing it upside down on the ground. Janet held a saucer to receive her share. The molasses was slow about making its appearance.
"This Golden Drip is a little late about coming. It's as stubborn as old Doc Wharton used to be."
"Was he stubborn?" Janet asked, keeping the saucer level.
"He wasn't much of anything else. He was so stubborn that when he drowned in the Comanche he floated upstream."
"Wasn't any doubt about it. Some people said that his foot must 'a' been caught in the stirrup and the horse dragged him up that far from where he went in. But I always claimed it was just natural."
As the molasses had not yet responded, he up-ended the jug still farther and waited for results.
"I suppose," he queried, "that Steve has told you about things down home. And all about his mother?"
"He told me that he lost his mother last winter."
"Ye-e-e-es," he said reflectively, drawing the word out as a thick sluggish stream began to pile up in the saucer.
When she exclaimed "enough," he lowered the bottom of the jug and kept the mouth over the saucer as the molasses continued to run from it.
"You can't stop that stuff by saying Wo," he remarked, whirling the jug in his hands to stop the flow from the lip. "It is n't as thick, though, as some that I 've seen."
"I don't suppose Steve told you about the molasses I had with the 'J. K.' outfit one winter."
"No, he did n't tell me anything about it."
"Well, that molasses was so thick that when you got too much on a flapjack, all you had to do was to give the jug a few turns and wind the molasses right up into it again. You could wrap it around the neck of the jug till next time if you wanted to. If you 'll just excuse me a moment, Miss Janet, I 'll put this jug back in home, sweet home, again."
When he had put it where he found it, under the foot of the bed, he returned to his place and passed the flapjacks. He insisted that she try one at least.
"So he told you about his mother. And maybe about his house?"
"He did n't tell me much about his house—just about his mother. He showed me the clipping about her. He did n't tell me anything in particular about her."
"Well, that's all the same. Just the same as if he told you."
Janet sampled the pancake and complimented him upon his cooking, in return for which he told her his recipe, which could be varied with water "according to taste." There came a pause in which Mr. Hicks seemed to be thinking.
"Can you play the piano?" he asked.
"I can play some," answered Janet. "But I am a little out of practice lately."
"You 'd soon enough pick that up, as long as you know how."
The first lot of pancakes having dwindled, he got up and put on the remainder of the batter.
As Janet declined his offer of more, he insisted that she start on the pie.
"Are you fond of piano music?" she inquired as he sat down.
"Most any kind suits me. I suppose you can play most any kind of a tune."
"Yes, mostly. As I say, I am a little out of practice lately. But my music always comes back to me suddenly after a day or two."
"Steve has a piano," he said.
There came a hiatus in the conversation. Janet applied herself to the pie.
"Mr. Hicks," she said suddenly, "I should think Mr. Brown would hardly choose to come out here and do a sheep-herder's work. Especially as I understand he does n't really have to."
"Well, it would seem that way, looking at it from this end. It's a little lonesome out here when there is n't anybody around. But down home there is n't anybody around his house, and that's lonesomer still. There a person would notice it; but you don't expect anything else of a shack. I don't suppose he has been on the inside of that house more than once in two or three weeks."
"And yet he lives there?"
"Oh, yes. Gets along good, too, as far as that goes. He washes the dishes on the porch and hangs the pan up outside. I guess he borrowed some of his style from me. Steve would make a pretty good Ranger yet; he hasn't got spoiled. But his ma told him he must n't ever join them."
"Why," exclaimed Janet, "does he think of joining the Rangers?"
"Oh, no—not now. I don't suppose he ever thinks of such an idea. He 's got too many other things to tend to, anyway."
"Then, why should she tell him that?"
"That was just an idea she had. When he was a young fellow about eighteen or nineteen he had an idea of being a Ranger, and he gave her considerable worry, I guess. Steve was like his father was, and she was always watching over him to see that he did n't get into danger. Steve's ma was hardly more than up to his elbow. She looked like a little girl alongside of him. She had real white hair."
"He must have been very fond of his mother."
"Thought as much of her as if he had picked her out himself. But as I was going to tell—— Towards the last when she was down sick and pretty near faded out, she seemed to think he was n't any more than a little boy that had just grown up big. She always did seem to have pretty much that idea anyway; and he never let on but what he was. As long as he fetched and carried for her, and never got into any danger except when he kept it secret, I don't suppose she ever exactly noticed when he did grow up. And when she died you could see that she was worried about what would become of him. I went for the doctor when she died. Steve got out a fast horse and I made some pretty quick time. When I got the doctor to the house I went into the room with him; and you could see she was n 't going to hold out much longer. She seemed to know it too. The last thing she said that night was, 'Good-bye, Stevie; don't go and join the Rangers.'"
"And what did he say?"
"He told her he would n't—just as honest as if it was all so. That satisfied her and she shut her eyes again, and that was the way she went. 'Good-bye, Stevie, don't go and join the Rangers.'"
"He did n't usually tell her everything?" said Janet reflectively.
"Not till he saw fit. Old Steve was pretty much the same way. If it was anything she 'd worry about, he 'd do it first. Then sometime when it was all over, he 'd let the cat out of the bag. The old man sort of spoiled her; and Steve just naturally took hold the same way."
"They always did tell her, then?"
"Sooner or later."
"He struck me as a man that was—rather fond of his mother."
"He thought she could n't be beat. She pretty near run him and old Steve; they were two of a kind. They would n't 'a' dared to do anything if she was against it. I guess that was the reason they went ahead on their own hook on anything she might worry about. They were afraid she 'd say no, I guess."
"Then she really did have something to say, after all," suggested Janet.
"She twisted them around her finger pretty much as it was. And that's where Steve misses her. He's used to being run. He's lost. About a week after she was buried he took her picture down out of the parlor and hung it up nearer the kitchen where he could see it every day."
"But," exclaimed Janet, "I thought you said he hardly ever went into the house!"
Jonas took a moment for consideration. Then he put his hand to his hip pocket and felt around in it. Not finding what he was looking for, and being evidently at a loss, he cast his eyes about on the vacant ground. Presently his eye lit on Janet's yellow oil-coat. He reached out and took it, and having folded it somewhat like a cushion, so that its back presented a smooth surface, he again made search of his various pockets. When he had hunted down the elusive lead-pencil he moistened it on his tongue and set to work deliberately to draw on the slicker. The result of his work was simply a square.
"That," he said, "is Steve's house."
Moistening the pencil again, he drew another square, somewhat smaller, so that it just touched the other square corner to corner.
"That's the kitchen," he explained.
Again he drew a square; this one touching corners with the kitchen so that it faced the side of the house.
"That's the milk-house," he said.
The three squares, one large and two smaller ones, being thus joined at the corners, made a space between them. This space, surrounded on but three sides, seemed to be open towards the road.
"Now, this place in between here," began Jonas, "is out of doors. But it ain't really out of doors at all, because it has got a roof on it and has a floor. It ain't a room exactly nor it ain't a porch. It's a sort of an inside porch or an outside room. Now, the open side of this place faces the road; but it is n't open to the road at all, because there is a lattice-work there covered with vines. This lattice"—he wet the pencil and set it to work again—"this lattice that closes this place runs out from the side of the house, but it does n't join to the corner of the milk-house, because you see that would close this place all up so that you could n't come in from outside. It comes a distance away from the corner of the milk-house; and that makes a door so that you can go out into the yard without going through the kitchen. So you see, you can go into this inside place without going through the house at all."
Janet drew closer, the better to study the plan.
"Yes; I see how that is," she said.
"Well, now," he continued, "these three parts of the house have each got a door opening into this inside place—the dining-room door, and the kitchen door, and the milk-house door. And right here beside the dining-room door is a bench where Steve washes up, and a looking-glass. And right on the other side of this door is where he hung her picture. That's how it is that he hardly ever goes into the house at all and he 's got her picture right in there where he does his work. He cooks some in Aunt Lucy's kitchen, and eats and sets here. Aunt Lucy has got a new place to work."
"I understand perfectly well now what you meant, Mr. Hicks. It is perfectly plain."
She had rather awkwardly accused him of getting his tale tangled; and now that he suddenly brought the whole weight of this explanation to bear upon the point at issue, she felt a new striking-in of her shame. She hoped that if there was to be any further explanation it would not be in this particular connection.
"Now," said Jonas, wetting his pencil and setting to work on the interior of the house, "right here in the main house is a long dining-room. And a hall runs from this dining-room right straight through onto the front porch. You can set right here at the head of the table and eat and see everything that is passing on the road. And there is a cool draught right through. Off to the right of this hall is the parlor."
Jonas wetted the pencil unusually and worked it busily in the corner of the parlor till he had made a very black and shiny little square. Janet leaned farther over to watch him.
"And this here," he announced, "is the piano."
Janet resumed her erect position.
"It is a very convenient house in some ways," she said. "It has certain advantages for a warm climate."
"It 's all figured out," said Jonas.
He made a dot by holding the pencil straight down and twirling it round. This was about the middle of the "inside place." Janet leaned over and became interested again.
"Now," he continued, "suppose it is a rainy day. Right here in the middle of this inside place is a chain pump. You don't have to go outside for anything. Or suppose it is a hot day. And maybe there is a big company dinner to get. You can set here by the lattice where it is cool and breezy,—the Gulf breeze comes right in that place by the milk-house,—and keep track of what's going on in the kitchen. You don't have to go right into the kitchen once in a week if you don't want to. But it's a good thing to keep an eye on Aunt Lucy or the best of them. They 're likely to hand out half of the provisions to the rest of the niggers. You see it's fixed so that it don't make any difference whether it's rainy or hot, or whether you 've got company clothes on or not. You can set right here with your knitting and see into the kitchen or out to the road—but people going past on the road can't see you."