Priscilla, armed with Virginia's directions, and a total lack of experience, took the rod and went her way. Never in her life had she caught a fish, but the zest of a possible catch seized her. If she could only get one, it would be something more to tell Alden, and might elicit praise as high as the bear-trapping experience had done. She saw the quaking-asps some rods above the cabin, crawled under the wire fence, and went toward them. Something hopped out of her way. A grasshopper! She jumped, but missed him! Personally she did not care for the feel of grasshoppers, and their kindred of crawly things, but if she would accomplish her purpose, she must procure one. She dropped on her knees, and began her search. There were grasshoppers in plenty, but they were of a very swift variety. Priscilla darted and dove on this side and that before she finally caught her prey. With loathing and disgust she proceeded to pinch his nose and render him helpless. She placed him awkwardly and none too securely on the hook beneath the little black fly, strode to the quaking-asps, disentangled her rod and line a dozen times, and at length managed to drop the baited hook into the creek. Then she straightened her weary form, grasped her rod firmly in her right hand and waited. The question was—should she do anything more than wait? Were one's chances of success greater if she wiggled the rod? Should one just stand still or walk back and forth, dragging the line after her?
If the trout in the dark pool under the shadow of the quaking-asps had seen the performance that preceded the appearance of that fly and grasshopper, he never would have deigned to approach them. But his late afternoon nap had fortunately prevented, and now supper was before his very eyes. He darted for the grasshopper and securely seized it. Priscilla, standing motionless upon the bank, felt a tremor go through the rod in her hand, saw the tip bend, felt a frightful tug as the fish darted downstream. Something told her that her dream was realized—that she had at least hooked a fish!
Had the fish in question been less greedy, he would have assuredly made his escape. Priscilla knew nothing of the rules of angling. She only knew that she should never recover from chagrin and shame if that fish eluded her. She dropped the rod, grasped the line tightly in both hands, slid down the bank, stood in the creek to her boot-tops, and pulled with all her might. The trout, hindered by surprise as well as greediness, surrendered, and Priscilla with trembling hands and glowing eyes drew him to shore.
It never occurred to her to take him from the hook. Her one thought was to notify the Vigilantes of her success. Holding the line in one hand, just above the flapping, defeated trout, and grasping the rod in the other, she ran with all her might to the cabin, burst in the door, and exhibited her fish and her dripping, triumphant self to the Vigilantes. Fears of unlocked doors had fled! It was still light, and she was a conqueror!
Supper that night, in spite of Hannah's fears, was an unqualified success. Memory and the cook-book had sufficed to make very creditable biscuits, the trout, rather demolished by vigorous cleaning, lay, brown and sizzling, in a nest of fresh lettuce leaves, and the potatoes were perfect.
"Isn't it fun?" cried Virginia, as they ate the last crumb. "It's better even than I thought."
"It's lovely," said Vivian, "only I feel just the same way that I did about staying all alone as Jean does. Look outside, Virginia. It's getting dark already!"
"Yes," answered Virginia, going to the window, "it does in August, though the twilights stay like this a long time. See, there's a star! Doesn't it twinkle? You can actually see the points! Let's wish on it. I wish—let me see—I wish for the loveliest year at St. Helen's we could possibly have—a year we'll remember all our lives!"
"I wish," said Mary, "that college may be just as lovely, and that I'll make as good new friends as you all are."
"I wish," said Priscilla thoughtfully, "I wish I may be just as good a Senior Monitor as you were, Mary."
"I'm not going to tell my wish," said Vivian softly. "It's—it's too much about me."
Dishes were washed and dogs and chickens fed. Then they came out-of-doors in the ever-deepening stillness to watch the moon rise over the blue shadowy mountains, and look down upon the mesa, upon the horses feeding some rods away among the sagebrush, and upon them as they stood together a little distance from the cabin.
"Isn't it still?" whispered Vivian, holding Virginia's hand. "You can just hear the silence in your ears. I believe it's louder than the creek!"
"I love it!" said Mary, unlocked doors all forgotten in a blessed, all-together feeling. "See the stars come out one by one. You can almost see them opening the doors of Heaven before they look through. I never saw so many in all my life. And isn't the sky blue? It's never that way at home!"
"I can understand better than ever, Virginia," said Priscilla, "how you used to feel at school when we would open the French doors and go out on the porch. You said it wasn't satisfying someway. I thought I understood on the getting-acquainted trip, but now I know better than ever."
"It makes you feel like whispering, doesn't it?" Vivian whispered again. "It's all so big and we're so little. But it doesn't scare me so much now."
"I've been thinking," said Virginia softly, "of Matthew Arnold's poem—the one on Self-Dependence, you know, Vivian, which we had in class, and which Miss Wallace likes so much. Of course, he was on the sea when he thought of it, but so are we—on a prairie sea—and I'm sure the stars were never brighter, even there. I learned it because I think it expresses the way one feels out here. I used to feel little, too, Vivian, but I don't any more. I feel just as though some strange thing inside of me were trying to reach the stars. It's just as though all the little things that have bothered you were gone away—just as though you were ready to learn real things from the stars and the silence and the mountains—learn how to be like them, I mean. You know what he said in the poem, Vivian—the stanza about the stars—the one Miss Wallace loves the best:
'Unaffrighted by the silence round them, Undistracted by the sights they see, These demand not that the things without them Yield them love, amusement, sympathy.'"
Vivian sighed—a long, deep sigh that somehow drew them closer together.
"I don't believe I'll ever be like that," she said. "I'm afraid I'll always want sympathy and—love!"
"But it doesn't mean that, Vivian," explained Virginia. "I'm sure it doesn't. Of course, we all want those things—more than anything else in the world. But I think it means just as Miss Wallace said, that instead of demanding them we're to live so—so nobly that they will come to us—unsought, you know. Doesn't that make it a little easier, don't you think?"
The August night grew cold, and soon they went indoors to a friendship fire in the stone fire-place. They watched the flames roar up the chimney, then crackle cheerily, and at last flicker away to little blue tongues, which died almost as soon as they were born. There was no other light in the cabin. Virginia had said that none was needed, and she did not notice the apprehensive glances which the other Vigilantes cast around the shadowy, half-lit room. At last Vivian yawned.
"Nine o'clock," said Virginia. "Bed-time! I guess we can see to undress by moonlight, can't we?"
"What shall we do about the door?" asked Mary hesitatingly. "It won't lock, you know."
"That won't matter," said Virginia carelessly, while she covered the fire-brands with ashes. "There's no one in the world around. Besides, Watch and King will take care of things. You don't feel afraid, do you?"
"Oh, no!" announced Priscilla, trying her best to ape Virginia's careless manner, and determined to act like a good sport at least.
"Oh, no!" echoed Mary faintly.
Vivian was unspeakably glad that her lot had fallen with Virginia, and that their bed was in the farther corner of the living-room.
"I wish Dorothy were here!" Virginia called fifteen minutes later to the brave souls on the kitchen cot. "Then 'twould be perfectly perfect. Good-night, everybody. Sweet dreams!"
"Sweet dreams!" whispered Priscilla to Mary, while she clutched Mary's hand. "I don't expect to have a dream to-night! Mary, don't go to sleep before I do! We'll have to manage it somehow! I'll die if you do!"
"I won't," promised Mary.
But they were tired from excitement, and sleep came in spite of unlocked doors. A half hour passed and every homesteader was sleeping soundly. The night wore on, midnight passed, and the still, stiller hours of the early morning came. It was yet dark when Mary was rudely awakened by her roommate kicking her with all her might. She sat up in bed, dazed, frightened. Priscilla was clinging to her.
"Oh, Mary!" she breathed. "Listen! There are footsteps outside our window! There are, I tell you! Listen!"
Mary listened. Her heart was in her mouth and choking her. Yes, there were unmistakably footsteps outside. As they listened, the sound of breathing became apparent.
"It isn't our breathing, Mary," Priscilla whispered. "I tell you it isn't! It's—oh, the steps are coming nearer! They're on the path! Oh, Virginia! V-i-r-g-i-n-i-a! V-I-R-G-I-N-I-A!!"
The last word ended in a mighty shout, which awoke Virginia and the terrified Vivian. Before the shout was fairly completed, the cot in the living-room was groaning beneath an added weight, and Virginia, striving to rise, was encumbered by three pair of arms.
"Let me go, girls!" she cried. "Let me go, I tell you! No one's coming into this cabin unless I say so! Remember that!"
By this time the steps were on the porch. Virginia, finally free from embraces and on her feet, reached for Jean MacDonald's gun, and started for the door, which she was just too late to open. Instead, the visitor from without pushed it open, and the terrified Vigilantes on the bed, hearing Virginia laugh, raised their frightened heads from the pillows to meet the astonished gaze of poor old Siwash!
"Don't ever let the boys know," warned Virginia, as she returned from escorting Siwash to the gate and out upon the mesa. "We'll never hear the last of it if you do. 'Twas our own fault. We didn't close the gate, that's all, and Siwash has always loved company!"
So the boys never knew, though they wondered not a little at the significant and secret glances which the Vigilantes exchanged upon their arrival home the next morning, and at intervals during the days that followed whenever homesteading became the topic of conversation. Once Aunt Nan, to whom also the secret was denied, attempted to probe the mystery, choosing Vivian as the most likely source of information.
"Did you really have a splendid time, Vivian?" she asked.
"We certainly did, Aunt Nan," answered the loyal Vivian. "I never had a better time in all my life. Only one night of homesteading is enough for me. There are lots of things I envy Jean MacDonald, but homesteading isn't one of them!"
AUNT DEBORAH HUNTER—PIONEER
Aunt Deborah Hunter was driving from her ranch on Snake Creek to spend the day with her nephew, her grand-niece, and her grand-niece's guests. Clad in her best black silk dress, her black bonnet with the red cherries on the front, and her well-darned black cotton gloves, she was sitting up, very straight and stiff, beside Alec on the front seat. One would have said that her dignity forbade her to rest her shoulders, doubtless tired from the fifteen mile drive. Still, it was not altogether dignity which made Aunt Deborah scorn the support of the cushions which Alec had placed behind her. A great part of it was eagerness.
It had been a long time since she had left her ranch even for a day. No one there could attend to things quite so well as she herself, she always insisted. But now, between shearing and threshing, she had chosen a day upon which to accept Virginia's and her father's oft-repeated invitation, and it was a festive occasion for her. Truth to tell, she needed one day a year, she said, "to meet folks." For the remaining three hundred and sixty-four, the hired man, her two dogs, an occasional visitor, her thoughts, and the mountains were quite enough.
If the infrequent passer-by had paused long enough to look into Aunt Deborah's gray eyes beneath the cherry-trimmed bonnet, he would have seen therein the eagerness that made their owner scorn the sofa-pillows. It sparkled and beamed, now on this side, now on that, as she spied blue gentians blossoming in a hollow, and the gold which was already creeping over the wheat; it glowed as she looked at the mountains, and shone as she drew long breaths of the clear, bracing air; it was the self-same eagerness which lay deep in the gray eyes of her grand-niece Virginia.
As they drew near their journey's end, and came in sight of the white ranch-house behind the cottonwoods, Aunt Deborah made her final preparations. With her handkerchief she brushed every speck of dust from her black dress, settled the old-fashioned brooch at her neck, gave a final straightening to her bonnet, and pulled her cotton gloves on more smoothly before again folding her hands on her lap. She sat up straighter than ever as Alec turned the horse down the lane.
She seemed a little troubled about something when she saw the group of young people gathered at the porch and waiting for her.
"Alec," she whispered, "the cherries on my bonnet? They worry me. I want to be young, but being long toward eighty I mustn't be childish. What do you think, Alec? I wouldn't displease Virginia for anything!"
"Couldn't be nicer, ma'am," reassured Alec. "You need 'em for a touch o' life to your black."
Thus assured, the little old lady sat in state, her eyes glowing and her folded hands trembling with excitement.
"No, John," she said a few moments later, as she declined Mr. Hunter's outstretched arms. "No, thank you. When I get so I have to be lifted out, I'm not coming any more. Turn just a little more, Alec. There! Here I am!"
It was her grand-niece whom she greeted first.
"My dear!" she cried, holding the tall, gray-eyed girl at arms' length. "How you grow! John, she's grown an inch since she rode over a month ago. I believe upon my soul she has. And looks more like you every day! Kiss your old aunt, dear! She's plum proud of you!"
Then she turned to the others, whom Virginia proudly introduced one by one.
"It's a blessed sight—all these young folks together," she said, shaking hands with them all. "Except for Pioneer Reunions, I haven't seen so many all to once for fifty years. And so you all come from away back East—the place we used to call home? It ain't that any longer to us old folks—but the memories are dear all the same!"
She stepped briskly upon the porch and toward the chair Virginia had placed for her. The Vigilantes and Aunt Nan watched her, fascinated. Virginia had told them of her wedding journey across the plains in '64; of the hardships and dangers she had withstood; of lonely winter days in a sod hut, and of frightful perils from Indians. She seemed so little someway sitting there, so frail and wrinkled in the big chair. It was almost incredible that she had lived through such terrible things. They longed to hear the story of it all from her own lips. Virginia's recital was thrilling enough! What then must Aunt Deborah's be?
But Aunt Deborah was in no haste to talk about herself! She was far more interested in Virginia's friends—their respective homes and families—their school life and their plans and dreams for the future. Somehow the Vigilantes found it the easiest thing in the world to tell Aunt Deborah their ambitions. Aunt Nan found it easy, too, to speak of Virginia's mother to this dear old lady who had known and loved her. Virginia held Aunt Nan's hand close in her own as they heard Aunt Deborah tell of Mary Webster's coming to Wyoming; then a far rougher land than now; of her brave fight against homesickness; of her transformation of the Buffalo Horn School; and, finally, of the fierce struggle within herself over whether she should return to Vermont or stay to marry a Wyoming ranchman.
"My nephew John," finished Aunt Deborah proudly. "A good man. None other than a good man could have won Mary Webster."
"Oh, I'm so glad she stayed!" cried Aunt Nan, a big lump in her throat and her eyes brimming with tears. "I'm so glad—Aunt Deborah!" She took one of the little old lady's hands in hers. "We're all together now," she said, "New England and the West. There's no difference any longer, is there, Virginia?"
"No, Aunt Nan," said Virginia, choking down the lump in her own throat. "There's not a bit of difference. And somehow I'm sure Mother knows. Aren't you, Aunt Deborah?"
"Something inside of me says that she does," said Aunt Deborah softly. "You see, dears, even Heaven can't blot out the lovely things of earth! At least, that's how it seems to me!"
A moment later, and Mr. Hunter came around the corner of the porch.
"John," cried Aunt Deborah gayly, "don't let's worry one bit about this old world! With these young folks to write the books, and teach the schools, and take care of the homeless babies, we're safe for years to come! Come and tell me all about the wheat."
So the morning passed, and at noon Malcolm and Donald, Jack and Carver rode over for dinner, and for Aunt Deborah's stories, which Virginia had promised them. Aunt Deborah's talent for listening won them also, and they told her their ambitions quite as eagerly as the Vigilantes had done. All but Malcolm—he was strangely silent! Dinner was served on the lawn beneath the cottonwoods. Joe and Dick brought out the large table, which was soon set by Hannah and her four eager assistants. It was a jolly meal, quite the merriest person being Aunt Deborah.
"It wouldn't be so bad to grow old if you could be sure of being like that, would it?" whispered Carver Standish III to Malcolm.
"No," said Malcolm absent-mindedly, looking at Aunt Nan. "No, it wouldn't!"
"Now, Aunt Deborah," began Virginia, when the things were cleared away, "you know you promised you'd tell stories. You will, won't you?"
Aunt Deborah's gray eyes swept the circle of interested faces raised to her own.
"Why, of course I will, Virginia," she said. "Where shall I begin?"
"At the very beginning," suggested Carver and Jack together. "We want it all, please."
"I'm glad William put marigolds on the table," Aunt Deborah began. "They make it easy for me to get started. They take me back fifty years ago to the day before I was married back in Iowa. Robert came up that evening, and saw me with a brown dress on and marigolds at my waist. 'Wear them to-morrow, Deborah,' says he. 'They're so bright and sunny and a good omen. You see, we're going to need sunshine on our wedding journey.' So the next day, when I was married, I wore some marigolds against my white dress. Some folks thought 'twas an awful queer thing to do. They said roses would have been much more weddingy, but Robert and I knew—and it didn't matter about other folks.
"The very next day we started for our new home across the plains. That was to be our wedding journey. 'Twas in July, 1864. We went to Council Bluffs to meet the others of our train. That was just a small town then. In about three days they'd all collected together, ready to start. We didn't have so large a party as some. There were about seventy-five wagons in all, and two hundred persons, counting the children.
"I'll never forget how I felt when I saw the last house go out of sight. I was sitting in the back of our wagon—we were near the end of the train that day—and Robert was ahead driving the oxen. But I guess he knew how I was feeling, for he came back and comforted me. There was comfort, too, in the way other folks besides me were feeling. There wasn't many dry eyes on the day we swung into the plains, and yet we wouldn't have turned back—no, not for worlds!"
Aunt Deborah paused now and then for the eager questions which her interested listeners asked. Yes, she told them, the wagons were great, white-covered prairie schooners—real houses on wheels. Yes, the oxen were powerfully slow, but good, kind beasts. No, they were not all. There were mules in the train and a few horses. Most of those were ridden by scouts—men who received their food and bed for giving protection against the Indians. Yes, there were small children and tiny babies—whole families seeking new homes in this great land. Two babies were born on the journey. One lived to reach Montana and to grow into a strong, stout man; the other, a little girl, died on the way, and was buried somewhere in Nebraska.
"Yes, there were many hard things like that," she said, "but we expected sadness and trouble and sorrow when we started out. We were not the first who had crossed the plains. There were pleasures, too. Nights when we stopped to camp there was a whole village of us. The men placed the wagons in a great circle, and within the circle was our fire and supper. We forgot to be lonely when the stars came out and looked down upon us—the only human things for miles around. We told stories and visited one another's wagons, and were thankful to be together. Friends were made then—real friends that always stuck!"
"Indians?" she asked in response to Jack's interested questions. "Oh, yes, we found plenty of those to our sorrow! The first real hostile ones we met in Nebraska, six weeks after we started. Two days before they came I'd somehow felt as though we were having too smooth sailing for pioneers. One morning four of our men took horses and rode out searching for water. We never saw three of them again. At noon the only one left came riding up, half-dead from exhaustion and from wounds which the Indians had given him. He gave the alarm and soon we were ready for them, our wagons in a circle, and every man armed. Some women, too." Aunt Deborah's head rose proudly. "I shot my first shot that day, and I killed an Indian. Robert was proud of me that night!"
So the journey went on, she told them. The long, hot days of mid-summer on the plains shortened into the cooler ones of September and October. All were wearying, of course, but few actually dangerous. The attacks from Indians were rare. They seemed to have learned that more could be gained by friendly bartering. By October the train had left the plains and was going higher into the mountains. The air grew more exhilarating. There was less sickness in the village on wheels. One October morning they found a light covering of snow.
"I can't tell you how that snow made me feel," said Aunt Deborah. "It made me afraid somehow. I thought of the days I must stay alone that coming winter while Robert was away. But my fears went later in the day when the sun once more made the land like summer.
"It was early November when we reached our journey's end in a Montana valley. A few sod huts were there to welcome us, and the day after our arrival other pioneers drifted in from the south. The spot was chosen because it was near water, and because there seemed to be plenty of wild game. Some of our train pushed on to the gold mines, another day's journey and more, but it was the gravel beds of the creek where we were promised gold, and we decided to stay in the valley.
"We built a sod hut like those around us, and began to get settled. Our poor cows and horses were glad enough to rest and crop the grass in among the sagebrush. It was a forlorn-looking village enough when all our huts were done. I wish you could have seen it! There we spent our first winter—the happiest one of my whole life. Yes, my dears," she said, looking into their doubtful, surprised faces, "it was the happiest. There were dangers, of course, and all kinds of hardships, but those made no difference. Of course there were lonely days when I longed for home. When Robert was there, I didn't mind the smoky, crowded hut, but on the days when he had to be away I felt as though I couldn't stand it much longer. We lived on meat and milk that winter. The flour gave out and there was no way to get more, so we had no bread. All the provisions had been used before February came, and we could get no more before spring. Buffalo meat and elk, we ate mostly. Yes, Virginia, what is it?"
"The story, Aunt Deborah, about the Indian coming into the hut?"
"Oh, yes," said Aunt Deborah, "Virginia always must have that. It happened on one day that Robert was away. He had ridden to the mining camp to try to get flour. I was all alone in the hut. There had been no news of Indians around, so imagine my surprise when the door was pushed open and an Indian walked in. I knew by his signs that he wanted food, so I gave him all I had. He drank all the milk in the hut, and some oat cakes which I had made from our last bit of oat-meal. I remember how angry I was, for I had been saving them especially for Robert, but I dared not refuse. Then he began admiring a rug which we had brought from home. It was on the bed in the corner. He asked me for it, and I refused. Then he insisted, and I still refused. But he wanted that rug, and was going to have it. At last he just grabbed it, and made for the door. That was too much for me. My grandmother had given Robert and me that rug for a wedding gift, and no Indian was going to take it away. I snatched Robert's gun from the corner and raised it.
"'Drop it, or I shoot you!" I screamed.
"I guess he knew I meant what I said, for he dropped the rug and hurried out of the cabin. I don't know how long I sat there facing the door. I was afraid he would bring others back, but he never came again. When Robert came that night, I was still facing the door with the gun. When I saw him, I burst out crying, and cried and cried. The strain had been too much for me."
So Aunt Deborah's stories went on—of the village attacked by night, and her fearful ride to the little fort for protection; of the Vigilantes and their determined hunting-down of robbers and road-agents; of a sickness which broke out in the town toward spring; of hunger and privations—the varied, fascinating, almost incredible tales of pioneer life. Then, like oases, would come stories of Christmas festivities, and of merry, laughing times all together. The minutes, half-hours, and hours flew by as they listened.
"My Thought Book will never hold them all," Priscilla whispered to Virginia.
"But in the spring," Aunt Deborah finished, casting an anxious glance at the sun, "all was different. A trail to Salt Lake had been opened and provisions came through by stage. I'll never forget the morning the first stage train came. Men had use for their money then, though many of them used gold weighed out in little scales. Flour was a dollar and a half a pound, calico fifty cents a yard, and eggs five dollars a dozen. Shoes were priceless. One man bought a pair for thirty dollars. I remember that Robert and I wanted to give our neighbor's little girl a birthday present. After much thought we decided on an apple, and paid a dollar for it."
"I don't see how you did it," said Vivian, who had not spoken a word since Aunt Deborah began. "I don't believe girls of to-day could live through such terrible things!"
"Yes, they could, dear," affirmed Aunt Deborah, "only the need hasn't come. When it does, you'll all be ready. Of course, the Pioneer Days are over, but there is always need of pioneers—for Vigilantes, like yourselves."
A half hour later and Aunt Deborah was again in the wagon beside Alec—again very straight and very stiff. She had had a beautiful day, she said, smiling upon them all. She had gathered thoughts and memories enough for another year.
William came up to the carriage just as Alec lifted the reins. His hands were filled with marigolds—brown and orange and yellow.
"I thought you might like 'em, ma'am," he said shyly.
A light came into Aunt Deborah's gray eyes.
"Like them, William!" she cried. "Like them! They'll give me even more memories—the very sweetest of my life."
MR. CRUSOE OF CRIPPLE CREEK
Mr. Crusoe was washing an extra shirt in the ford between Elk Creek Valley and the Gap. The absence of soap was a distinct disadvantage, but water, a corrugated stone, and Mr. Crusoe's diligence were working wonders. A short distance away among the quaking-asps smoldered the embers of a small fire; a blackened and empty bean-can on the hearth-stone, together with a two-tined fork, bore evidence of a recent breakfast.
His washing completed, Mr. Crusoe turned his attention to his personal appearance. Deep in the waters of Elk Creek he plunged his arms, bare to the elbow, and washed his neck and face. From one pocket he drew a soiled and folded towel, which upon being unrolled disclosed a diminutive brush and an almost toothless comb. With these he proceeded to arrange his somewhat long and dripping black hair. His two weeks' old whiskers apparently worried him, for he pulled them meditatively; but since he was far from a barber and carried no shaving appliances, the brush and comb must suffice for them also. Finally he took his battered old hat from a nearby branch, brushed it carefully, arranged the crown so that fewer holes appeared, and put it upon his head. His clean shirt, spread upon a quaking-asp but by no means dry, afforded the best of reasons why he should not hurry; so, drawing a stained and stubby pipe and sack of tobacco from another pocket, Mr. Crusoe lay beneath a friendly cottonwood at the water's edge and gave himself to quiet contemplation.
The morning was perfect, and no one could appreciate it more keenly than Mr. Crusoe, wanderer that he was. He blew a great mouthful of blue smoke into the still air, watched it circle lazily upward, and blew another to hasten the progress of the first. His black eyes, peering from a forest of eyebrows and whiskers, looked long upon the blossoms that clothed Elk Creek Valley—sunflowers, early golden-rod and purple thistles—swept the friendly, tumbling foot-hills and sought beneath the over-hanging trees for the secrets of the creek. It was a morning to love things, Mr. Crusoe thought to himself. He was glad that he had left his comrades of the railroad tracks; more glad that he had abandoned freight-jumping for a season; most glad that he had decided to work during the early fall months. Then with money in his pockets and a new suit of clothes upon his back, he might go back to Cripple Creek whence he had come.
A few minutes later his contemplations were broken by the sound of horses' feet coming through the Gap. He sat up, interested, and removed his pipe. In another moment as he met the wide-open eyes of two very much startled young ladies, his hat followed. Mr. Crusoe was used to speaking to persons whom he met in his journeyings. It was one of the many joys of the road.
"Good-mornin', comrades," said he.
The hearts of Mary and Vivian leaped into their throats. Their eyes, leaving Mr. Crusoe's, saw in one terrifying instant the shirt drying on the quaking-asp, the smoldering fire, the empty bean-can. This man was a tramp! He belonged to that disgusting clan of vagabonds who asked for food at back-doors, and whom one, if frightened into doing it, fed on back stoops as one fed the cat! He, like his fellows, would inspire one to lock all the doors at noonday, and to tell one's neighbors there was a tramp abroad!
"Good-mornin'," said Mr. Crusoe again. "It's a fine day."
This time Mary answered. She did not dare keep silent. The tramp might become angry.
"Good-morning," she faltered.
Vivian said nothing. She was waiting for Mary to plan a means of escape. Meanwhile Siwash and his companion, feeling their reins tighten, had stopped and were nibbling at the quaking-asps, quite undisturbed.
Mr. Crusoe rose, hat in hand.
"Was you plannin' to ford, young ladies?" he asked politely.
The vanishing flanks of two horses, unceremoniously yanked away from their luncheon and turned toward the prairie, were his only answer. Mr. Crusoe gazed wonderingly into a cloud of dust. Then he felt of his washing on the quaking-asp. It was dry enough. Laying his pipe and hat on the ground, he proceeded to get into the clean shirt.
"Poor little things!" he said from its somewhat damp depths. "They was plum scared of me!"
The shirt on, he did its mate into a bundle, cut a forked stick upon which to sling it, stamped out the last ember of his dying fire, took his hat and pipe, and started north up the creek trail.
Vivian and Mary did not stop their wild gallop until they were well in sight of the nearest house on the prairie. Blue gentians for Miss Wallace, which had been their errand, were quite forgotten. So also was the glory of the morning. Instead, there ever rose before their still startled eyes a black-whiskered, coatless man, smoking the stub of a dirty pipe beneath a cottonwood.
"Mary," said Vivian, gathering courage as the Keith house came into view, and breaking a long, frightened silence, "Mary, did you ever see any one so villainous-looking in your life—outside of the movies, I mean? I guess my heart will never stop thumping! I wish Virginia had been with us! She's always saying there's no one around here to harm any one. I just wish she had!"
"I sort of wish we hadn't run so," returned Mary, pulling her horse down to a walk. "Maybe he wasn't any one harmful at all, only he scared me so I never stopped to think. I'd hate to be a snob, even to a tramp!"
"I wouldn't! I glory in it! And, besides, you needn't worry. It takes time to be a snob, and we didn't waste a moment. Here's the Keith house. Hadn't we best go in for a moment? There's Carver now playing with Kenneth."
The Keiths, upon hearing the story, quieted Vivian's fears, and confirmed Mary's increasing regret. The man was only a hobo, Donald said, doubtless seeking work. They looked unmistakably rough, but were often good fellows inside. Probably he wouldn't have frightened them for the world.
"I wish this fellow would stray our way," he added. "We're going to be in need of extra hands when threshing comes, and it won't be long now. Dad would welcome him all right."
Vivian stared at Donald, incredulous and speechless. There was no need of asking him if he meant what he had just said. Apparently that horrible creature back there by the creek, the very remembrance of whom caused cold shivers to run over Vivian, would be given a welcome by the Keith family. Vivian's nose, already a trifle high, rose higher. Democracy was unquestionably a splendid attribute. Since knowing Virginia and coming West, she was more inclined to believe in it than ever. But this was too much!
An hour later they were riding homeward, their hands filled with gentians. Donald and Jack had ridden back with them to the ford to act as protectors, and, Vivian secretly believed, to interview the hobo, were he still there, upon the subject of threshing. But only an empty bean-can and the charred remnants of a fire bore evidence of the wayfarer. He had gone! Reassured, they had gathered gentians to their hearts' content, left the boys upon the prairie, and ridden homeward.
Mr. Hunter came to meet them as they rode beneath the cottonwoods.
"Crusoe," he called to some one on the other side of the porch, "here's your first job! Take these horses to the corral."
An attempt to describe the sensations which swept over Mary and Vivian when they recognized their acquaintance of the morning would be impossible. Unable for a moment to dismount, they sat in their saddles and stared. Mr. Crusoe, undoubtedly sensible of their surprise, patted Siwash, who responded gladly in spite of black whiskers and a battered hat. Mr. Hunter, thinking that the flowers might be the reason of their delay, relieved them of the gentians. Mary and Vivian, thus assisted, finally fell from the saddles, and followed Mr. Hunter to the porch.
"Mr. Hunter," gasped Vivian when the new man had taken the horses, "do you know who he is? He's a hobo! Donald said so! We met him this morning down at the ford—Mary and I. He scared us almost to death! He had washed a shirt and it was drying on the bushes, and he ate canned beans for breakfast right out of the can with a dirty, bent, old fork. He was lying under a tree and smoking a hideous pipe as we rode up! I never was so horrified in all my life! And, Mr. Hunter, he took off his hat and spoke to us! I thought we'd die! Siwash would eat the bushes, and I thought we'd never escape! He's not going to stay here after he has something to eat, is he, Mr. Hunter? You don't know how awful he is!"
Vivian stopped—merely for breath. Mr. Hunter with a mighty effort repressed a smile. Mary was torn between a desire to play fair and the awful remembrance of her fright. She said nothing.
"Vivian," said Mr. Hunter, "out here we've learned not to judge persons by whether or not they wash in the creek and eat canned beans. I'm sorry Crusoe frightened you. He isn't exactly captivating in appearance, I'll admit, but, from what I can gather, he seems to be a pretty good sort. Any man's worth a try-out, you know. He's looking for work, and now that threshing is coming on I'm looking for an extra man, so he's going to stay here a spell. These fellows who take to the road, you see, fill a great need out here in this country. We depend on one or more of them showing up about this time of year."
Vivian was still staring, unable to speak. Mary, desirous that Mr. Crusoe should not misunderstand their flight, explained the affair to Mr. Hunter, a little more rationally than Vivian had done.
"You see," she finished, "it's just that we aren't used to seeing persons like that, and he did look fierce, Mr. Hunter. I wish you'd explain to him how it was. I shouldn't want to be rude even to a hobo."
Mr. Hunter smiled.
"He'll understand, Mary," he said. "In fact, he does already, for when he saw you riding home he told me about how frightened you were at the ford. Don't be at all alarmed, Vivian," he called, for Vivian was hurrying into the house, her head high. "He's a gentleman—underneath the whiskers and the shirt."
So Mr. Crusoe stayed on at the Hunter ranch. The men liked him—that was plain to be seen. Every evening their laughter echoed from the bunk-house where Mr. Crusoe was entertaining them with his songs and stories. Even the silent William was loud in his praise, and Mr. Weeks, the foreman, in speaking of his ability and readiness to work, suggested a permanent position. Mary allowed but a day to go by before apologizing for her flight from the ford, and after Mr. Crusoe's courteous acceptance became his firm adherent, much to Vivian's disgust. Even Aunt Nan found him interesting, while Virginia and Priscilla listened eagerly to his tales of Cripple Creek. They were collecting theme material, they told the disdainful Vivian.
Apparently Mr. Crusoe had stormed and taken the Hunter ranch. Only one member of the family remained his enemy. Vivian was still unconvinced. To her every one else on the ranch had taken his place among the number of those condemned by the apostle, "who, having eyes, see not." In her suspicious eyes Mr. Crusoe was a "ravening wolf" of whom she should beware. When she had an infrequent occasion to address him she used an offended dignity, tinged with scorn; when his name was brought into the conversation she remained silent, secure in the knowledge that some day they would all see this tramp in his true light!
In three days Vivian had worked herself into a state from the eminence of which she looked down with protecting pity upon Aunt Nan, the other Vigilantes, and Mr. Hunter. They were being hoodwinked, and she alone was left to guard their interests. Harrowing memories of tales she had read, terrifying visions of escaped criminals whom she had witnessed in the "movies," and who exactly resembled Mr. Crusoe, came to disturb her rest and haunt her dreams. She was a quaking detective, watching Mr. Crusoe's every act, and discovering treachery and evil design in the most innocent of them.
On the fourth day following Mr. Crusoe's advent matters approached a climax. In the early afternoon Mr. Hunter, driving to town on business, had taken the other Vigilantes with him. Vivian, with letters to write, had remained at home, feeling safe with Aunt Nan. In her stimulated imagination Mr. Crusoe had been behaving peculiarly all the morning, and not for worlds would she have stayed alone.
Hannah left soon after the others, going for raspberries up the canyon; Aunt Nan, thoughtful and strangely silent, was in the living-room, where within an hour she was joined by Malcolm Keith; Vivian sat beneath the vines in the corner of the porch, and tried to center her attention upon a letter she was writing to Dorothy. She was not eminently successful. Grave apprehensions, strange forebodings, filled her heart. Once Mr. Crusoe passed empty-handed before the porch. He did not see Vivian, although he might easily have detected the beating of her heart. She watched him pause, study for a brief moment the house, its doors and windows, and then pass on. He was seizing the opportunity while they were all away, Vivian told herself, to become better acquainted with his surroundings. Then some day, not far distant, or some night, he——!
She jumped from her seat and ran indoors. At that moment she wanted company more than anything else in the world. Sunny as it was outside, the silence worried her. There was something portentous even in the singing of the August insects. Aunt Nan's genuine interest in Mr. Crusoe and his welfare would probably prevent Vivian from giving expression to her new-born fears; but at least nearness to some one might quiet the misgivings which were tormenting her.
She reached the living-room door, and stood still, unable to make her presence known, and, for a moment, unable to run away. Aunt Nan and Malcolm Keith were standing by the big western window which faced the prairie and the distant mountains. Malcolm's arm was around Aunt Nan, and her head was on his shoulder. As Vivian stood transfixed to the spot by a strange Something, Malcolm bent his head, and—Vivian fled, unperceived!
That same strange Something, stronger than her fear of the silence or even of Mr. Crusoe, was making her breath come in gasps as she sank into her chair and tried to collect her scattered senses. Truly Life was being too generous to her that day! So Malcolm and Aunt Nan loved each other! That was clearly unmistakable. She was sorry she had intruded, though she knew they had not heard her. In that last moment before she had found strength to run away she felt as though she had come unbidden into a sacred place. Her cheeks burned at the thought. How surprised the girls would be when she told them! No, she would not tell! It was Aunt Nan's secret—hers and Malcolm's!
Fifteen minutes later, still unperceived and to all appearances quite forgotten, she sat in her chair and watched Aunt Nan and Malcolm go down the lane beneath the cottonwoods, and on toward the foot-hills. They had forgotten her very existence. She was all alone—alone with Mr. Crusoe and the silence. At that very instant Mr. Crusoe again passed before the porch—again paused to study the house. This time he held a key in his hand—a large key on a string which he twisted and untwisted as it swung from his big, brown finger. Vivian knew that key. It belonged to the root-cellar just beyond the kitchen, and it hung in Mr. Hunter's office above his desk. She had seen Hannah take it a dozen times, and once Mr. Hunter had given it to Virginia, asking her to get some papers from a desk he kept down there. Why should Mr. Crusoe want to go to the root-cellar?
Something told Vivian that the time for her to act had come; that only she could save the Hunter fortunes from oncoming disaster. As Mr. Crusoe rounded the farther corner of the porch, and started in the direction of the root-cellar, Vivian ran through the house and into Hannah's spotless kitchen. A new sense of responsibility gave birth to a bran-new sense of courage. Vivian, watching from the kitchen window, saw Mr. Crusoe go into the cellar. That was enough.
Running to Virginia's room, she grasped the little rifle which stood in the corner. It was the only gun in the house which Vivian had ever used, and her one experience with it had not given her a far-reaching knowledge of fire-arms. Still, it was a gun, and guns concealed cowardice, and lent power and dignity to one's bearing. Vivian knew that it was loaded. Virginia always kept it ready in case a gopher poked his inquisitive little nose above the ground. She knew, too, that a quick push of her thumb would drive back the safety and leave the gun ready to shoot.
She ran down the hall and out the back door toward the root cellar. Her heart was in her mouth, her breath came in gasps, her wide-open blue eyes were filled with terror. When she reached the stone steps leading down to the cellar she looked far less a heroine than a much frightened little girl. Still, there was the gun! Vivian's nervous fingers kept pushing the safety on and off—a rather terrifying sound to the ears of a much surprised man, who, papers in hand, was coming up the steps.
Vivian saw the papers. She was right! Mr. Crusoe had been rifling Mr. Hunter's private possessions. She raised the gun with a trembling hand.
"Mr. Crusoe," she faltered, "this gun is loaded, and if you try to pass me, I—I'm very sure I shall shoot you. You sit down there in the cellar and wait for Mr. Hunter."
Mr. Crusoe sat down. He was too surprised to do anything else. He had faced guns many times before in his varied existence, but never had he been confronted by a shaking .22 in the trembling hands of a very nervous young lady. Moreover, the sound of a safety clicking nervously back and forth is not conducive to peace. Mr. Crusoe did not expect Vivian to shoot him, but he did entertain a fear that the gun might go off in his direction and in spite of her. Considering silence the better part of valor, he accordingly sought the farthest corner of the cellar and hoped for the best.
Vivian sat upon the top step, the gun upon her knees. She had not looked for such non-resistance on the part of Mr. Crusoe. Indeed, he looked less fierce than she had ever seen him. Could she have observed the amused smile which was quivering beneath Mr. Crusoe's black whiskers as he began more fully to understand this peculiar situation, she would have been much puzzled. To her, he was a cringing suppliant, and she a distinct conqueror.
Still the minutes dragged themselves very slowly away. It seemed two hours, though it was in reality but ten minutes before conqueror and conquered heard the roll of returning wheels, the sound of voices calling for Vivian, the approach of hurrying footsteps. Mr. Crusoe stirred uneasily. He would have willingly saved Vivian from the embarrassment which he knew was bound to follow, but it had been impossible. Vivian's heart beat wildly. Now, at least, they would understand that she had been right all along; now, perhaps, they would no longer think her such a coward!
Embarrassment did follow! Embarrassment and tears and explanations and not a little ill-concealed amusement. For one long hour Vivian, in spite of sympathy and understanding and genuine admiration, wished she had never been born. In that hour she discovered that a finer courage is necessary to admit a mistake and to begin anew than to besiege a hobo in a root-cellar. But she proved equal to the task, and Mr. Crusoe in the part he played showed himself the gentleman he really was. For when Vivian was convinced that Mr. Crusoe had been given the key by Mr. Hunter, that he had been told to fetch the papers, and that he really was trustworthy after all, she dried her tears, donned a fresh middy, and went quite alone to offer her apologies.
She found Mr. Crusoe by the bunk-house. He had shaved in the meantime, and when Vivian saw his clean firm chin, she knew it was partly the whiskers which had made her level the gun at him.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Crusoe," she stammered. "You see, I thought you were just a tramp, and at home we are always afraid of them. But I know now you aren't. I know I've been wrong all the time, and—oh, I'm awfully glad the gun didn't go off!"
Mr. Crusoe removed his battered old hat and offered his freshly-washed hand.
"I'm glad, too, Miss Vivian," he said. "If it had, perhaps I couldn't have told you how much pluck I think you've got stored away inside of you. And as for your being suspicious of the likes o' me, I don't wonder a mite. Only, you see, there are tramps and tramps. To the best of us, I guess trampin' just means followin' roads that lead to shelters—to homes, you see! And now you know I'm not the kind you thought I was, this here ranch looks like a mighty good home to me."
"Then you won't go back to Cripple Creek?" asked Vivian. "If I were you I'd stay right here."
"That's what I'm plannin' on," said Mr. Crusoe.
A LETTER FROM DOROTHY
"It seems an age, doesn't it, since we've had a real meeting," said the founder of the Vigilantes, "and yet it's only nine weeks ago this very identical day. I guess it's because the places are so far apart and so different. The last time 'twas on the big rock back of the Retreat, and now it's away out here in the Land of our Dreams. Oh, you'll never, never know what it's meaning to me to have you all out here, because it's one of the things you feel inside but can never, never tell!"
"I guess we know," cried Priscilla, "because we're feeling it, too! Every day I think I'll die if I get any happier, but I guess happiness is one of the things you can keep pouring into your heart like love—without its overflowing."
"It's the very same way about pouring it out, too," said Mary. "There's always plenty left like the oil in the Bible story."
"Aren't the mountains way off there blue?" cried Vivian. "I think blue's the happiest color in the world. I'll never say that I feel blue again now that I've seen the mountains."
They had climbed to the summit of Spruce Ridge for their Vigilante meeting—the first formal one they had held since their arrival in Virginia's country. A letter from Dorothy, coming an hour ago, bore the inscription, "To be read at a Vigilante meeting," and in order to be honest to the letter, as well as in spirit, they had decided upon a place apart and assembled.
"After all, it's better to come away like this, isn't it?" asked Virginia. "There's a queer, common feeling that doesn't come when we just sit on the porch and talk. And I love this sweep of country from the Ridge. It's real Vigilante land. Now let's have the letter, Priscilla. I'm wild to hear it. It's the very first we've had in a month."
The secretary of the order broke a large amount of sealing-wax, unfolded sheets of blue stationery, and began:
"'A PIECE OF HEAVEN IN CALIFORNIA, "'Aug. 11,19—.
"'DEAR FELLOW VIGILANTES:
"'I've been trying desperately to write you for weeks and weeks, but you've no idea what the cares of a household are, especially when you have a child around.'"
"A child!" cried all the Vigilantes at once. "What child?"
"'But before I tell you about Virginia Winthrop Richards, I must say that the summer is being even more wonderful than Dad and I ever dreamed. I never got so well-acquainted with my own father in all my life, and he's been a perfect darling to devote days and days to me. The bungalow is more heavenly than ever. It's positively buried in roses and heliotrope, and you'd never know it had a chimney. You'd think that a huge geranium was growing right out of the roof. The front porch looks out upon the sea. Oh, it's such a dark, deep, sparkly blue! And when the sky is blue, too, and the sand is golden, and the white gulls skim next the water—nothing could be more beautiful in all the world! I think of you a hundred times a day, and wish that you were here. So does Dad. I've told him all about the Vigilantes, and he's so interested. He says he's thankful every day that I have such fine friends at St. Helen's. In fact, I just know he's more pleased with me than ever before. I think he sees there's hope ahead, and it's a very comforting assurance.
"'Now I must tell you about Virginia Winthrop Richards. I know you're consumed with curiosity. If you could see her, you'd be consumed with envy. She is seven years old and all pink and white and blue and gold. Her cheeks are just the color of wild roses, and her eyes deep blue—almost like the water—and her hair golden brown with lights in it. I dress her in pink or blue or white all the time. One day two weeks ago Dad and I went to Los Angeles to buy clothes for her. I don't believe I ever had quite such a good time in all my life. 'Twas just like shopping for one's very own child. I put my hair up high for the occasion, and endeavored to look matronly, but I guess I failed, for when I saw a ravishing pink dress and said, "I guess it's too small for my little girl," the stupid clerk laughed in my face.
"'We bought the sweetest things you ever saw! Hair-ribbons and adorable shoes and socks striped like sticks of candy and little fairy night-dresses all trimmed in lace. Then Dad bought some toys. I let him do that. He bought a doll and books and a cart and horses, for we want Virginia to be a trifle boyish, too, you see. While he was doing it, his eyes just beamed and beamed. He said he felt just as he did when I was little and he bought toys for me. When we reached home and showed the things to Virginia Winthrop Richards, I thought she'd die of happiness. Really, I didn't know but that we'd lose her after all!
"'But here I am dressing my child for you, and you don't even know who she is! She wasn't anybody but Minnie and No. 31 until three weeks ago. I've always thought it would be a heavy cross enough to be named Minnie anyway, even though you had a respectable surname, but to be Minnie without any surname at all, and No. 31 in addition, seem to me the depths of misery. We found her in the Home for Friendless Children, and I'll always believe that an angel led us there! Dad and I went to the city three weeks ago this very Sunday and walked by the Home. We didn't even know 'twas there—just stumbled upon it while we were roaming around in search of adventure. Poor little 31 was sitting under a tree on the lawn holding a shingle and singing to it. I'll never forget how she looked. Her curls were braided up tight, and tied with a shoe-string, and she was dressed in a hideous blue-checked thing, but even those drawbacks couldn't spoil her. Dad and I just stopped and stared, and then we walked up the steps and in at the door.
"'"Whose child is that out there on the lawn?" Dad asked the matron who greeted us at the office entrance.
"'She was a tall, stern-looking person in a shirtwaist and a high, starched collar. You just couldn't imagine her holding a baby, or one cuddling up against her neck. She said No. 31 was nobody's child. She had been left in an old basket on the steps six years ago. You see, she isn't one of those children you read about with beautifully embroidered clothes and gold lockets and one thousand dollars in bills under her pillow. She didn't have any name or notes or requests for whoever took her to call at the bank for a fortune when she was twenty-one. She was just wrapped in an old blanket and left there. But Dad and I don't care!
"'When the matron saw that we were interested, she asked if we didn't want to borrow No. 31 for a few days. She said they sometimes lent children for two weeks or so. When she said it, she sounded just as though a child were a typewriter or a vacuum cleaner, sent on ten days' free trial. I looked at Dad and Dad looked at me, and then he said, "We'll take her!" It didn't take long for the matron to do up her few clothes and to get her ready. She was so glad to make the loan that she hurried. Little No. 31 was so surprised that she didn't know whether to be happy or not. Perhaps she didn't understand what it was to be really happy, but she knows now! She's positively radiant!
"'I can't explain how it seemed when we brought her home. Somehow 'twas as though we'd just begun to be a real family. She snuggled between Dad and me on the front seat of the car, and kept looking from one to the other of us. I think it was her name that first gave us the idea of keeping her. We couldn't call that adorable child No. 31, and we wouldn't call her Minnie. Of course we couldn't name a borrowed child, and so after I'd given her a bath, and we'd seen how truly sweet and adorable she was, we decided that at all events she should never, never go back to that Home, which is a satire on the word. At first Dad thought he knew of a fine home for her with some friends of his who haven't any children, but after the ten days' free trial were over we knew we just couldn't give her up. Best of all, Mrs. Shute, the housekeeper, who's been with us all summer, loves her to death, and she's promised to stay right on with Dad, and keep house for him next winter in Los Angeles. So you see Dad has a home and another child, and he's the happiest man in California.
"'He let me do the naming, and, of course, I consulted my child. I couldn't think of anything lovelier than to name her for the two founders of the Vigilantes, and after I'd told her all about you she was pleased as pleased could be. I let her choose between Priscilla Hunter Richards and Virginia Winthrop Richards, and she took Virginia and named her new doll Priscilla. I wish I could have named her for you and Mary, Vivian, dear, but Dad thought two names were enough.
"'We're the very happiest family you ever saw. Virginia fits in better every day. She's learning such sweet manners—I tell Dad it just shows she must be sweet inside! She's learning to read and to write, too. We have a lesson every morning after breakfast. The other day I bought the pattern of a little dress, and Mrs. Shute helped me cut it out and make it. I never felt so proud in all my life. I'm obliged to be more vigilant than ever, because Virginia does and says everything that I do. The other day I said I should certainly die if I didn't get a letter from some of you, and she was quite frightened. So I guess I'll have to be more moderate in speech after this.
"'There's one thing more I must tell you before I stop. I saw Imogene the other day. Dad and Virginia and I were walking by one of the big hotels here, when an automobile came up to the curbing. You can just imagine how surprised I was when Imogene and Mrs. Meredith stepped out. There was a young man with them whom I didn't like very well. He had a queer way of looking at you, and was over-dressed, I thought. Imogene looked very handsome, and, oh, loads older! I felt a perfect baby beside her! Mrs. Meredith was just the same, only even more elaborately gowned than she used to be when she visited Imogene. Imogene was as surprised as I was, I think, though she didn't show it. She and her mother shook hands with me, and she introduced her friend. I was so excited I didn't hear his name at all. She told me she was going to be married at Christmas time, and so wouldn't be back at St. Helen's, and Mr. Whoever-he-was laughed and said Imogene had been to school long enough. Dad and I asked them to tea with us, but they said they were just hurrying through and couldn't come.
"'When they left us and went into the hotel I had the queerest feeling. 'Twas just as though I had said good-by to Imogene forever—just as though she'd gone away into a different world. And the queerest part of it all was that I didn't care very much. It seemed years since I had cared for her—years since we had done things together at St. Helen's. That night after I had put Virginia to bed, and come out on the porch with Dad, a big machine flew by our house. I heard some one laugh, and knew it was Imogene. She hadn't been hurrying through; she just hadn't cared to come. I suppose it ought to have hurt me, but it didn't. I was glad she'd stopped caring, too, the way I had. Then, at least, neither of us would be hurt. The only thing I'm sorry about is that Imogene has gone into that kind of a world. I don't believe it can give the best kind of happiness, do you?
"'It's nearly church time, and I must hurry. We're all going together. It's Virginia's very first service, except for those at the Home, and I do hope she'll be good. I've been instructing her for days—telling her just what to do and what not to do. I'm afraid I'll send out many thoughts in your direction, but Miss Wallace says they're prayers anyway—that is, the kind I'd send to you, so I guess it will be all right. There's Virginia calling now.
"'Dearest love, "'DOROTHY.
"'P.S. After service. She was angelic! When she knelt and closed her eyes, she looked like one of Raphael's cherubs. Dad wiped his eyes—I saw him—and I could have cried for happiness. The sermon was on "Vigilance"—wasn't that strange? The minister spoke about watching for opportunities to serve, for in so doing, he said, we served ourselves most of all. Dad looked at me then and smiled, and we both looked at Virginia, our opportunity. She was finding A's in the prayer-book.
"'This is a selfish letter—all about me—but I knew you'd want to know about your namesake. Write me right away. We'll be watching every mail.
They looked at one another with shining eyes as Priscilla folded the letter. Mary was the first to speak.
"Isn't it the loveliest thing in all the world for Dorothy to do?" she said.
"Wonderful!" cried the two who possessed a namesake.
"I think we ought to make Virginia Winthrop Richards a present," proposed Priscilla. "I never felt so important in all my life, did you, Virginia?"
"Never!" said Virginia. "Why so quiet, Vivian?"
"I was thinking about Imogene," said Vivian. "I'm wondering why I don't care much either. It's strange when I cared so much for her—only four months ago."
In their excitement over Dorothy's child, the others had for the moment forgotten Imogene.
"I guess it's because we went as far as the crossroads together," explained Virginia, "and then chose different paths. I feel the same way Dorothy does. I'm sorry for Imogene, but I don't feel any great loss myself."
"I propose we adjourn," said the excited Priscilla, "and go down and tell the news to Aunt Nan and Mr. Hunter. That is, if there's no more business," she added, looking toward the president.
The president declared the meeting adjourned, and they started homeward. By a large spruce they stopped for a moment. The ground beneath the tree was a garden, glad with blossoming flowers. Virginia's gray eyes looked at them, then sought the distant mountains.
"I never thought," she said softly, "that I'd love to come up here the way I do. Of course I know Jim isn't here. He's gone on to make others happy Somewhere Else. But I like to remember how we used to climb up here and look off at the country. He always loved it so. I used to be so lonely without him, but now I'm glad—glad he's having all the wonderful things that just must happen after we—go on! That's why I like William's flowers so! They're so glad, too!"
"I like William for taking such good care of them," said Mary. "I saw him coming up here yesterday with his garden tools."
"William!" cried Virginia gladly. "Why, William's always been next best to Jim!"
"There's no reason in the world why more than three of us should go back," said Virginia. "I know just exactly where she left it. It's on the table just back of the jars of raspberries. All right, Vivian, if you insist and are sure you're not too tired. It's all of six miles there and back, you know. It's not a bit necessary, Carver, but we'd love to have you come if you want to. Sagebrush Point, Don—at the open place? All right, we'll be there."
"Be sure to make the Canyon Path before dusk," warned Donald. "It's bad there, you know. Signals all right? Better take my revolver. Malcolm has his."
Virginia examined the revolver before securing the holster to her saddle.
"Two, if we need you; three, if everything's all right. You probably won't hear either. We'll see you by six o'clock. Good luck!"
She turned Pedro, and, followed by Carver and Vivian, rode back up the trail, while the others kept on down the mountain side toward Sagebrush Point where they were to meet Malcolm and Aunt Nan.
They had ridden far up Bear Canyon, miles beyond the farthest bear-trap, to the Forest Ranger's cabin. The trail was wilder than six of them had ever imagined a trail could be. Sometimes it was almost obliterated, but the blaze of the rangers with its U.S. brand told them that human beings had traversed it, and that they might safely follow. At noon they had reached the cabin—a lonely eyrie looking down into the gorge of the river. Behind it unbroken forests stretched for miles.
The ranger was away upon his beat, but his door stood hospitably open, and they had gladly entered, sure that a welcome was intended. In his little kitchen they had eaten dinner, leaving some of their bacon as a gift. Then an idea had seized Aunt Nan. Why not pick some of the raspberries which grew in profusion near by, and cook a quart of them as winter preserves for the ranger? It did not take very long for nine pair of hands to pick three quarts instead of one, and within an hour, sugar having been found in the pantry, the berries were cooking on the little stove. Jars, too, were discovered, and at three o'clock when the boys had brought the horses, five cooks in khaki surveyed their gift with proud eyes. They had ridden hurriedly away, realizing that they were already late if they wanted Sagebrush Point for a camping-place; and three miles below the cabin Vivian had discovered the loss of her wrist-watch, a birthday gift from her father.
"Don't you worry a bit, Vivian," Virginia said, reassuringly, as she urged Pedro up the steep trail. "We'd just as soon ride back as not, and I wouldn't have you lose the watch for the world. Of course the ranger would keep it safe for us, but there's no knowing when we could get away up here again. It's best to go now when we're only three miles away."
"I'm dead sure it's right on the table," said Carver. "I saw you put it there, Vivian, when you got ready to wash the dishes."
Carver Standish was right. The watch was on the table where she had left it. The cabin seemed more lonely than ever as they hurried away. The rush of the river hundreds of feet below, the drowsy hum of the August insects, and the sound of their horses' feet upon the stones alone broke the silence. Vivian shivered.
"I hate it here, now," she said. "Let's hurry back to the others."
But it was impossible to hurry down the steep, rocky trail. The horses were tired, and a misstep or a stumble would be dangerous. Pedro, sure of himself on any trail, led the way, and Vivian and Carver followed, weaving right and left down the mountain side. More than once Carver glanced apprehensively at his watch. It was growing late—nearly five already!—and Virginia had told Donald they would be at Sagebrush Point at six! It was impossible. They could never make it!
Vivian was worried, too. She hated the shadows that began to creep in among the trees, the lonely call of a bird in the timber, the coolness that came as the afternoon waned. She shivered again, when at the first ford, where they had separated more than an hour before, the rawhide thongs in one of her stirrups broke, and caused a second delay.
Carver's none too agile fingers laced and re-tied the thong. Virginia allowed Pedro to nibble at the quaking-asps and tried to be patient while she watched the repairing. More than once she was tempted to jump from her saddle and do the work herself, but she knew that Carver would resent the intrusion. Carver Standish III heartily disliked any intimation that he was a tenderfoot. Safe and satisfied in the citadel of New England birth and ancestry, he still was averse to any suggestion of inferiority in Wyoming. Virginia liked Carver, though she knew him far better now than she had ever dreamed she should. She liked him in spite of the tinge of snobbishness which would creep in now and then, try as he did to conceal it. She even liked him during the ten minutes he took to lace the thong when she could have done it in three.
It was growing dark when they at last swung into the easier, grass-grown trail of the lower mountains—dark and cold. The realization that they were already two miles from supper and the others, together with the knowledge that there was still the Canyon Path to cross, made them all silent and very grave. They hurried their horses through the last of the tallest timber and out upon the bare summit of a mountain, which looked down across the valley and the river to a point beyond. As they gazed, flames shot up from the point where a newly-kindled fire was welcoming the first star. Dark specks were visible about the fire—persons moving here and there. Sagebrush Point—a mile across the valley, two by the trail!
Carver looked questioningly at Virginia, and found his answer in the smile she gravely gave him. They would go no farther. Carver knew it before Virginia discovered the paper. Vivian suspected, but would not know. They sat quietly in their saddles while she rode Pedro close to a great pine which bore a ranger's sign, burned in a piece of wood.
"Two miles to Sagebrush Point," read the sign.
"A good camping-place. Dangerous trailing!"
Below the sign was a folded piece of paper, fastened by Donald's scarf-pin to the tree, and bearing Virginia's name. She read it silently and with difficulty in the fast-fading light.
"It's just as I thought," she explained. "When Donald reached here and saw what a long time it had taken, he knew we couldn't make the Point. He says not to attempt it if it's after six, and it's a quarter of seven now. I wouldn't try the Canyon Path for anything in this light, and there's no other way to go. We'll just have to camp here, that's all! We've our blankets and matches and plenty of bacon and bread, and there's a spring near by. It won't be so bad. Quite an adventure!"
Her last words were spoken in an attempt to reassure Vivian, who was staring at her—the epitome of horror.
"Camp—here—Virginia! Alone! Here! In—this—wilderness!" Vivian was monosyllabic from terror.
Carver did not share Vivian's fear, but he was a trifle overbearing in his judgment of those about the fire at Sagebrush Point.
"If Donald thought we weren't going to make it, why didn't he camp here himself?" he asked. "Of course it's all right for me, but it's rather tough on you and Vivian. I should think he'd have thought of that."
Virginia was quick to champion Donald. Indeed Carver Standish III would have given much for the place Donald held in Virginia's estimation.
"Why, Carver," she said, frank in her displeasure, "Donald's one of the most thoughtful persons in the world. Malcolm and Aunt Nan were over at Sagebrush, and he couldn't get word to them before dark. Besides, he knows I'm not afraid to camp by ourselves. They're right across on Sagebrush, and there's nothing in this world to harm us. Of course he wouldn't have gone on for anything if you hadn't been here, but he knew he could depend on you."
The knowledge of New England ancestry could not keep Carver Standish from feeling small as he unsaddled the horses, and tied them in among the trees. Then, considering work a good antidote, he cut brush and brought dry sticks for a fire. A dead cedar promised logs enough for the night, and these Carver cut, trimmed, and piled. Vivian, unable as yet to comprehend the situation, stood looking off toward the fire on the point, and wished with all her heart that she had wings. Virginia unstrapped the blankets and laid them upon a fallen log. Then, the big revolver in her hand, she waited only for the fire to give those watching on Sagebrush the signals agreed upon. At last the flame-colored smoke burst into tongues of fire, leaping, crackling tongues which told the anxious watchers on Sagebrush that the note had been found and that all was well. A moment later three shots from the mountain opposite tore away the stillness. Donald sent back an answering three. Then five in quick succession came from Virginia's revolver.
"It's the old signal we've always used in hunting," Donald explained to Mary, Priscilla, and Jack who were standing beside him. "It means, 'We're going to camp here.' I knew Virginia would decide on that. She always does the sensible thing anyway," he added proudly.
Malcolm and Aunt Nan, standing near the water's edge, watched the flames of Virginia's fire as they blazed skyward.
"I've never quite realized before what Virginia's made of," said Aunt Nan thoughtfully. "If her Grandmother Webster were here this minute, I think perhaps she'd realize that there are qualities which balance being born in New England."
"Perhaps," returned Malcolm, a little doubtfully. "Perhaps she would. I've known New Englanders to realize several things. The trouble is they're very much averse to admitting it."
Meanwhile the three on the summit across the valley had dined, frugally to be sure, and somewhat silently on bread and bacon. Now sweater-clad they sat before the fire, and munched at some sweet chocolate which Carver had discovered in his coat pocket. With every nibble Vivian peered among the trees behind her, glanced fearfully right and left, and ended by gazing with longing eyes at the fire on Sagebrush Point. Carver hugged his knees, and rocked idly to and fro. Virginia gazed thoughtfully into the flames. To her a night in a mountain forest was a privilege, whether three or nine shared its glories. To be sure, a tent would be a distinct addition, but since they had none they must do without it. Its absence was but an incident, and gave her little anxiety—far less, in fact, than the fear which she detected in the blue eyes of Vivian. For to Vivian the approaching night was a terrible ordeal through which she must go. Her reason fled away to parts unknown, and only imagination remained to create a mountain lion in every thicket, and mysterious, unearthly, disembodied presences in the air, behind her back, at her very elbow. She was grateful when Carver came to sit beside her. With Virginia on the other side, two less avenues of approach were opened. At all events she would not talk about her fear; and, acting upon her resolve, she did her best to join in the conversation on school and books and athletics.
Ten o'clock came, and Carver brought wood for the fire. Then he unrolled their blankets, spreading them over pine boughs already cut and placed upon the ground. The ground itself was a good enough mattress for him, he said, as he rolled in his blanket Indian-fashion, and lay down under a great pine. They need have no anxiety as to the fire. He probably should sleep but little, and would replenish it whenever wood was needed. If they wanted a thing or became frightened in the night, they should speak to him.
Vivian, sleepy in spite of her fears, lay down upon the boughs, her head in Virginia's lap. She knew she should not close her eyes, but she might as well rest. If a bear or a mountain lion came, it would make little difference whether she were sitting or reclining. Virginia was not sleepy. She preferred to sit up.
In half an hour a long, resigned snore from the neighborhood of the great pine proved that Carver Standish had forgotten all about fires and protection. Virginia smiled to herself as she reached for more wood. There was bacon in camp and undoubtedly bears on the mountain. The combination made a big fire desirable. Moreover, she was determined that the Sagebrush Point fire, replenished from time to time by a black dot, should not eclipse her own.
"Sit up a minute, Vivian," she whispered, trying to rise. "I want to get one of those big logs which I can't reach from here. I'll be back in a moment."
But when she returned with the log, Vivian's head had dropped upon the blankets, and the flames which leaped up a moment later showed her, to Virginia's joy, to be fast asleep.
So the founder of the Vigilantes was the only one left to guard the fortunes of the camp. She took her station near the edge of the slope, a little distance from the fire, drew her blanket close around her, and began her vigil. There was so much to see and to think about! She was glad she felt wide-awake.
Deep in the gorge below her, the river called with a thousand voices. Down in the valley the pine trees reared their heads—little spear points pricking the purple blackness of the night. The fire on Sagebrush sparkled like a single jewel in a vast setting. Far above and beyond the valley rose the opposite height, dark and indistinct—a bridge between two worlds. To Virginia she was like an eagle, secure in his nest on the topmost pinnacle of a cliff, and looking forth upon his domain.
Now she turned her face upward toward the deep, almost transparent blue of the midnight sky. It was set with myriads of stars—great arc-lights, beacons at sea, flickering candle-flames. A star fell—it was one of the beacons—and came earthward, trailing glory in its wake. Then, the path blazed, another followed, and a third. The last was a little candle-flame, almost too tiny to find its way alone. The Milky Way was a great, golden trail across the sky. If souls traversed it on their way to the Great Throne, as she had believed when she was a little girl, they would have no difficulty to-night in finding their way. She traced its triumphant course across the heavens. It seemed to begin on earth, she thought to herself, and come back to earth again after its journey skyward. That might break in pieces her childhood dream. But perhaps there were Great Thrones on earth, too, if one only searched far enough. Who knew that there were not?
After all, Life was a search. She was beginning to realize that more every day. It meant a seeking after the best things. What were those best things, she wondered? Had she discovered the trail which, like the Milky Way, led to them? Friendship was one, she concluded—the real friendship which never demanded more than it was willing to give. And Service was another—the desire to help people over the hard, rocky places—to be a comrade, not just a spectator. Dorothy had discovered that. Then the Love of Beautiful Things must surely be a third—the love of books and pictures and of all the wonderful treasures of the out-of-doors. These were not all. There were others to be found far ahead, Virginia knew—treasures more wonderful than any yet discovered—if one searched and were worthy of finding them.
At least she knew she had discovered the key which would open the gate to the trail. She felt of it upon her waist. To be "Ever Vigilant" would open the door. To be watchful of one's opportunities; never to scorn a chance to serve; to guard against the cheap and the unlovely in books and thoughts; to keep the windows of one's soul shining and clean, so that the light of all things beautiful might shine in. She held the little pin close in her hand. She and Priscilla and Dorothy and Mary and Vivian would keep to the trail together.
Life was such a great, big thing she said to herself. Her breath sobbed in her throat at the thought. It was like a day in April—cloudy and sunny and wind-blown and rainy. She wanted her own life to be like that. Then she could understand the storms and clouds in other lives, and prove she was a comrade and not just an onlooker!
The fire died down and she went for more wood. As she placed a big log on the glowing embers and turned away from the heat as it burst into flame, she saw that the fire on Sagebrush was rekindled also. She could discern a shadowy shape in the light of it. Donald, perhaps. He loved the night, too. She had forgotten Donald for the moment when she chose her comrades for the Long Trail, but he must go. She had followed trails with Donald all her life, and on this great journey she needed his comradeship more than ever.
It was one o'clock, her little watch said—time to sleep. The great log with another added would last till morning. She rolled the second against the first, and lay down beside Vivian. The heat from the fire made her drowsy, and she soon slept. The flames leaped against the darkness; Pedro awakened and neighed questioningly; another star fell from the sky. Carver, Virginia, and Vivian were all in lands of their own. All at once a hideous yell shattered the night silence. It shrieked and quavered and moaned, and at last died away in an echo that encircled the valley. Virginia, mounting a rocky hill with Donald, sat up suddenly. A figure enshrouded in blankets stood beside her. Vivian mercifully slept on.
"Gee!" screamed the half-asleep and wholly frightened Carver Standish III. "What was that?"
"A mountain lion," said Virginia, shaking in spite of herself. "But he's miles away across the valley. I'm glad Vivian didn't wake up. She'd have been scared to death."
"I shouldn't blame her!" replied Carver in a stentorian whisper. "I never heard anything like it in my life. My! I'm sleepy! It's most eleven, isn't it?"
Virginia smiled into the darkness. Not for worlds would she have told Carver of his unsuccessful vigil.
"Yes, Carver," she said. "It's—it's past eleven!"
Alone she watched the day come as she had watched it go. She saw the last stars fade away, and the half-light of early morning greet the eastern mountains. She felt in a strange silence the mystery and majesty of dawn. A mourning dove in a far-away thicket said farewell to the night; an early morning wind stirred the quaking-asps; an orange and yellow bird left his nest and mate to fly across the valley toward a sky-line of his own hue. The trees stood expectant. Then the light came in long, golden rays. It was day.
By six they were on their way to breakfast with their fellow-campers at Sagebrush—Vivian, incredulous that the night was really over and that she had slept; Carver, secretly much disturbed over his protecting powers; Virginia, eager, radiant, buoyant. Donald waited for them on the other side of the Canyon Path, and watched their safe transit. Aunt Nan and the others were ready at the camp with welcomes and words of genuine admiration.
"I'd have been worried to death about you," said Priscilla with her arm around Virginia, "if it hadn't been for Carver's being there. Yes, I would, Virginia. I don't care how much you know about camping. A man's being around makes a heap of difference. You know it does!"
"Of course," agreed the loyal Virginia.
But Carver Standish III drank his coffee in silence, glad for once that the cup was large enough to hide his face.
THE ROMAN EMPEROR
The late August days came relentlessly on, each in turn being seized by the Vigilantes and placed in a treasure-house of never-to-be-forgotten joys. The month which they had planned in June was lengthening into six weeks. Mr. Hunter and Virginia had insisted and Aunt Nan seemed very loath to go. Already they were quite Westernized. They "rustled" and "cached" and "packed" things without even stopping to think, and r's were unmistakably creeping into Priscilla's strictly Bostonian speech. What would the Winthrop family say?
Every day the country grew lovelier. A veil of bronze and purple was being laid softly over the foot-hills, and the waiting wheat stood golden. Day after day the sun rose in glory, and after a cloudless journey set in a golden sea. In the woods the berries of the kinnikinnick grew red, and on the lawn the mountain ash trees stood clothed in holiday attire. The air was clear and bracing; the nights were cold. One morning the highest mountain was white with snow, which, when the sun rose higher, hurried away, as though it had told a secret. September was on the way, and these were her forerunners.
"I never supposed," announced Priscilla one morning at breakfast, "that weeks could go so fast. It makes old age seem awfully close. And still I know how slowly they go sometimes, like January at St. Helen's, for instance. Just sixteen more days, and we'll be going back East, Virginia. Dad says if I'm not back by the tenth, they'll motor to the White Mountains without me. I'm afraid I can't help feeling superior when I view the White Mountains after seeing these!"
Virginia was busily counting on her fingers.
"I'm trying to remember just what we've done and what we haven't done," she said. "Then we can see what's left. We've ridden hundreds of miles, and we've climbed mountains, and trapped a bear, and shot gophers, and fished, and homesteaded, and camped, and visited Aunt Deborah and Jean MacDonald. I'm so glad Jean went to Aunt Deborah's with us. It was such fun having her along. Then we've been up to Mystic Lake, and out on the range with Joe and William, and——"
"But you haven't visited the Roman Emperor," interrupted her father. "I stopped at his place yesterday on my way home from Willow Creek, and found him at home, flag out and all. He promised me some water-cress, but I couldn't wait for it. You see," he added, smiling at the puzzled faces around him, "it isn't every one who can see the Emperor. It takes a special errand. In this case, it's water-cress."
"We'll go this very day!" cried Virginia. "Cottonwood Canyon can wait! Don and I've been planning it all along, but he said Mr.—the Emperor, I mean—was away up in the mountains. I'll telephone over for the boys this minute."
Not to question had become a Vigilante principle; and not to appear too curious, another. Still the mystery which filled their minds concerning the Emperor was ill-concealed. They knew Patrick Sheehan, the old Vigilante, who lived on the Lone Mountain trail, and queer Aunt Susan Nevitt, who was reputed to have a bag of gold nuggets in the cellar of her tumble-down cabin. But of this personage, the Roman Emperor, they had surely never heard! Curiosity lent haste to their fingers, and in half an hour they were ready to start.
"His ca—estate is off the road to Willow Creek," Virginia explained as they went out to greet the boys. "We've ridden by the driveway loads of times, but I knew he wasn't at home by his flag not being out. That's the sign. It's that way in England, you know, at the king's and dukes' palaces. When they're at home, the flag is flying."
"I see," said Priscilla, as she mounted Cyclone. "Is the Emperor old?"
"Rather. He's nearly eighty. You see, he's been reigning twenty-five years, hasn't he, Don?"
"Yes, he commenced when Malcolm was of no account—twenty-five years or so ago. He's met with lots of reverses, too. He was telling me just before you got home how the Senate wouldn't vote him any money to fix up the estate. He'll probably apologize. Everybody ready? Come on!" commanded Don.
They rode for a mile across the open prairie, then turned south into the Willow Creek road, which followed the foot-hills. Conversation regarding the Emperor was tantalizing, and questioning was forbidden. Accordingly, they pocketed their curiosity, and devoted their time to one another, and to the signs of approaching autumn upon the brown hillsides. Pedro and MacDuff, eager for a gallop, left the other horses, and dashed along a three-path, grass-grown trail which encircled the hill and met the road again a mile beyond.
"It's just the chance I wanted," said Donald, reining in MacDuff to ride beside Virginia. "I want to ask you about Carver. I can't make him out lately. I don't know what's the matter. He's been queer ever since that night on the mountain—last Tuesday, wasn't it? Of course he's all right to the folks, and all that, but he's stuck by himself more or less, and seemed stirred up over something. Dave, the man we got last winter, complained to Dad yesterday about Carver's being rather officious with the men. Dad smoothed it over, of course, and explained how Carver didn't understand that that sort of thing doesn't go out here. But it kind of worries me. Everything went all right up there, didn't it, Virginia—on the mountain, I mean?"
Not even Donald could detect hesitation in Virginia's reply. If Carver still chose to keep the ill-gotten role of protector, it was not up to her to take it from him.
"Why, of course, Don," she said promptly. "Everything was perfectly all right. I guess Carver wasn't awfully pleased at first when he found we had to stay. You see, he—he hasn't much patience with Vivian when she's nervous. But she did splendidly, and tried her best not to show how she felt inside. And I couldn't see why Carver didn't enjoy himself. He certainly seemed to!"
Donald was plainly puzzled.
"Well," he said, "it gets me! He's not a fellow you can reach very easily either. If it were Jack, I'd ask him just what the matter was, but somehow it's different with Carver. There's always something in the way. I believe it's—too much New England!"
"Too much of it's a dreadful barrier," she observed. "Grandmother Webster had too much when I first went to Vermont, but I found a little path that led around it after I'd searched a long time. I think part of the trouble with Carver is that he's just one of us out here. He isn't looked up to the way he is at home. Priscilla knew him last summer, you know, and she's told me about him. We were talking about it just last night, because we've noticed he's queer lately. Priscilla says he's always been looked up to by boys and girls of his age because his family's so old, and his father so wealthy, and his grandfather a colonel. In New England, you know, those things count, especially the family and the colonel. Then, besides, Carver's bright and fine-looking and an only son. Out here, you see, Don, we don't care so much about colonels and old families and money. They're all right, of course, if you have them, but you've an equal chance if you don't."
"Maybe Carver's learning that we're right after all," said Donald thoughtfully. "Maybe he's seeing that ancestry won't make a man. It's hard to admit those things, I know that. I hated to admit that the Eastern fellows at school had better manners than we cow-punchers from this part of the country. But 'twas so all the same."
Virginia allowed Pedro to nibble at the quaking-asps before she spoke.
"He'll come out all right, Don," she said. "Don't let's worry! Sometimes I think he's like Captain Myles in the poem. Priscilla does, too. He gets angry all at once, and then hates himself for it. By and by he'll be all right again, and as nice as ever the Captain was at John Alden's wedding. Come on, let's round the hill! We're nearly at Mr. Livy's, and they'll think we're too exclusive for worlds!"
The Emperor's flag was out—a diminutive and tattered Old Glory, whose shreds fluttered in the wind. It was tacked to a wooden box, which, mounted on a log at the entrance to a narrow, winding path, served as the Emperor's mail-box. The name
A. C. Levinsky
was painted upon the side facing the road. As they turned into the path, Priscilla halted Cyclone. There was a decided tinge of stubbornness in her voice as she spoke.
"I'm not going another step," she announced, "until I know about this Emperor business. I'm not going to embarrass any poor old thing who may live in this wilderness by not knowing anything about him. Come, Donald! You've got to tell!"
"I intended to all along just as soon as we reached the bridge," said Donald. "I know the Emperor, and I wouldn't have him hurt for anything. His real name is Augustus Caesar Levinsky—at least, his last name is Levinsky, and I guess he hitched on the first. He's a poor old prospector who's been in this valley fifty years. He claims he was the very first to come, and perhaps he was. He's dug holes all over these mountains looking for gold, and you're always coming on him panning out gravel in some creek. Some one grub-stakes him up here to get his land. By that, I mean," he added, noting the puzzled faces of his listeners, "that some one gives him food and clothes and a promise to bury him for the sake of the land he's homesteaded. That's the way with old Pat Sheehan, and a lot of fellows around here."
"And now he thinks he's the Emperor of Rome," said Virginia, continuing the Emperor's story. "He's been thinking that for twenty-five years, Father says. Some one gave him an old Roman History years ago, and he knows it all by heart. We all call him Mr. Livy around here. He says he doesn't feel like asking his friends to title him. He sounds pathetic, but he isn't at all. He's the happiest man you ever saw. He's like the verse at the beginning of Emerson's Essay on History. He believes he's Caesar, and so he is. You'll be surprised at the way he speaks, and the fine manners he has. It's believing he's the Emperor that's done those things, I'm sure."
Less curious but more interested, they followed the cool, shady path that led toward the imperial estates. They crossed a bridge over a creek, green with fresh water-cress, their open sesame. Upon the railing was tacked a second flag—this one new and untorn.