A CHRONICLE OF LIFE ON A CATTLE RANCH
BY HORACE ANNESLEY VACHELL
AUTHOR OF "BROTHERS" "THE HILL" ETC. ETC.
TO MY BROTHER
ARTHUR HONYWOOD VACHELL
The author of Bunch Grass ventures to hope that this book will not be altogether regarded as mere flotsam and jetsam of English and American magazines. The stories, it will be found, have a certain continuity, and may challenge interest as apart from incident because an attempt has been made to reproduce atmosphere, the atmosphere of a country that has changed almost beyond recognition in three decades. The author went to a wild California cow-country just thirty years ago, and remained there seventeen years, during which period the land from such pastoral uses as cattle and sheep-raising became subdivided into innumerable small holdings. He beheld a new country in the making, and the passing of the pioneer who settled vital differences with a pistol. During those years some noted outlaws ranged at large in the county here spoken of as San Lorenzo. The Dalton gang of train robbers lived and died (some with their boots on) not far from the village entitled Paradise. Stage coaches were robbed frequently. Every large rancher suffered much at the hands of cattle and horse thieves. The writer has talked to Frank James, the most famous of Western desperados; he has enjoyed the acquaintance of Judge Lynch, who hanged two men from a bridge within half-a-mile of the ranch-house; he remembers the Chinese Riots; he has witnessed many a fight between the hungry squatter and the old settler with no title to the leagues over which his herds roamed, and so, in a modest way, he may claim to be a historian, not forgetting that the original signification of the word was a narrator of fables founded upon facts.
Apologies are tendered for the dialect to be found in these pages. There is no Californian dialect. At the time of the discovery of gold, the state was flooded with men from all parts of the world, and dialects became inextricably mixed. Not even Bret Harte was able to reproduce the talk of children whose fathers may have come from Kentucky or Massachusetts, and their mothers from Louisiana.
Re-reading these chapters, with a more or less critical detachment, and leaving them—good, bad and indifferent—as they were originally printed, one is forced to the conclusion that sentiment—which would seem to arouse what is most hostile in the cultivated dweller in cities—is an all-pervading essence in primitive communities, colouring and discolouring every phase of life and thought. One instance among a thousand will suffice. Stage coaches, in the writer's county, used to be held up, single-handed, by a highwayman, known as Black Bart. All the foothill folk pleaded in extenuation of the robber that he wrote a copy of verses, embalming his adventure, which he used to pin to the nearest tree. Black Bart would have been shot on sight had he presented his doggerel to any self-respecting Western editor; nevertheless the sentiment that inspired a bandit to set forth his misdeeds in execrable rhyme transformed him from a criminal into a popular hero! The virtues that counted in the foothills during the eighties were generosity, courage, and that amazing power of recuperation which enables a man to begin life again and again, undaunted by the bludgeonings of misfortune. Some of the stories in this volume are obviously the work of an apprentice, but they have been included because, however faulty in technique, they do serve to illustrate a past that can never come back, and men and women who were outwardly crude and illiterate but at core kind and chivalrous, and nearly always humorously unconventional. The bunch grass, so beloved by the patriarchal pioneers, has been ploughed up and destroyed; the unwritten law of Judge Lynch will soon become an oral tradition; but the Land of Yesterday blooms afresh as the Golden State of To-day—and Tomorrow.
* * * * *
II. THE DUMBLES
III. PAP SPOONER
VI. JASPERSON'S BEST GIRL
VII. FIFTEEN FAT STEERS
VIII. AN EXPERIMENT
IX. UNCLE JAP'S LILY
X. WILKINS AND HIS DINAH
XI. A POISONED SPRING
XII. THE BABE
XIII. THE BARON
XIV. JIM'S PUP
XVI. OLD MAN BOBO'S MANDY
XVIII. ONE WHO DIED
XIX. A RAGAMUFFIN OF THE FOOTHILLS
* * * * *
In the early eighties, when my brother Ajax and I were raising cattle in the foothills of Southern California, our ranch-house was used as a stopping-place by the teamsters hauling freight across the Coast Range; and after the boom began, while the village of Paradise was evolving itself out of rough timber, we were obliged to furnish all comers with board and lodging. Hardly a day passed without some "prairie schooner" (the canvas-covered wagon of the squatter) creaking into our corral; and the quiet gulches and canons where Ajax and I had shot quail and deer began to re-echo to the shouts of the children of the rough folk from the mid-West and Missouri. These "Pikers," so called, settled thickly upon the sage-brush hills to the south and east of us, and took up all the land they could claim from the Government. Before spring was over, we were asked to lend an old adobe building to the village fathers, to be used as a schoolhouse, until the schoolhouse proper was built. At that time a New England family of the name of Spafford was working for us. Mrs. Spafford, having two children of her own, tried to enlist our sympathies.
"I'm kinder sick," she told us, "of cookin' an' teachin'; an' the hot weather's comin' on, too. You'd oughter let 'em hev that old adobe."
"But who will teach the children?" we asked.
"We've fixed that," said Mrs. Spafford. "'Tain't everyone as'd want to come into this wilderness, but my auntie's cousin, Alethea-Belle Buchanan, is willin' to take the job."
"Is she able?" we asked doubtfully.
"She's her father's daughter," Mrs. Spafford replied. "Abram Buchanan was as fine an' brave a man as ever preached the Gospel. An' clever, too. My sakes, he never done but one foolish thing, and that was when he merried his wife."
"Tell us about her," said that inveterate gossip, Ajax.
Mrs. Spafford sniffed.
"I seen her once—that was once too much fer me. One o' them lackadaisical, wear-a-wrapper-in-the-mornin', soft, pulpy Southerners. Pretty—yes, in a spindlin', pink an' white soon-washed-out pattern, but without backbone. I've no patience with sech."
"Her daughter won't be able to halter-break these wild colts."
"Didn't I say that Alethea-Belle took after her father? She must hev consid'able snap an' nerve, fer she's put in the last year, sence Abram died, sellin' books in this State."
"A book agent?"
"Yes, sir, a book agent."
If Mrs. Spafford had said road agent, which means highwayman in California, we could not have been more surprised. A successful book agent must have the hide of a rhinoceros, the guile of a serpent, the obstinacy of a mule, and the persuasive notes of a nightingale.
"If Miss Buchanan has been a book agent, she'll do," said Ajax.
* * * * *
She arrived at Paradise on the ramshackle old stage-coach late one Saturday afternoon. Ajax and I carried her small hair-trunk into the ranch-house; Mrs. Spafford received her. We retreated to the corrals.
"She'll never, never do," said Ajax.
"Never," said I.
Alethea-Belle Buchanan looked about eighteen; and her face was white as the dust that lay thick upon her grey linen cloak. Under the cloak we had caught a glimpse of a thin, slab-chested figure. She wore thread gloves, and said "I thank you" in a prim, New England accent.
"Depend upon it, she's had pie for breakfast ever since she was born," said Ajax, "and it's not agreed with her. She'll keep a foothill school in order just about two minutes—and no longer!"
At supper, however, she surprised us. She was very plain-featured, but the men—the rough teamsters, for instance—could not keep their eyes off her. She was the most amazing mixture of boldness and timidity I had ever met. We were about to plump ourselves down at table, for instance, when Miss Buchanan, folding her hands and raising her eyes, said grace; but to our first questions she replied, blushing, in timid monosyllables.
After supper, Mrs. Spafford and she washed up. Later, they brought their sewing into the sitting-room. While we were trying to thaw the little schoolmarm's shyness, a mouse ran across the floor. In an instant Miss Buchanan was on her chair. The mouse ran round the room and vanished; the girl who had been sent to Paradise to keep in order the turbulent children of the foothills stepped down from her chair.
"I'm scared to death of mice," she confessed. My brother Ajax scowled.
"Fancy sending that whey-faced little coward—here!" he whispered to me.
"Have you taught school before?" I asked.
"Oh yes, indeed," she answered; "and I know something of your foothill folks. I've been a book agent. Oh, indeed? You know that. Well, I did first-rate, but that was the book, which sold itself—a beautiful book. Maybe you know it—The Milk of Human Kindness? When we're better acquainted, I'd like to read you," she looked hard at Ajax, "some o' my favourite passages."
"Thanks," said Ajax stiffly.
Next day was Sunday. At breakfast the schoolmarm asked Ajax if there was likely to be a prayer-meeting.
"A prayer-meeting, Miss Buchanan?"
"It's the Sabbath, you know."
"Yes—er—so it is. Well, you see," he smiled feebly, "the cathedral isn't built yet."
"Why, what's the matter with the schoolhouse? I presume you're all church-members?"
Her grey eyes examined each of us in turn, and each made confession. One of the teamsters was a Baptist; another a Latter-Day Adventist; the Spaffords were Presbyterians; we, of course, belonged to the Church of England.
"We ought to have a prayer-meeting," said the little schoolmarm.
"Yes; we did oughter," assented Mrs. Spafford.
"I kin pray first-rate when I git started," said the Baptist teamster.
The prayer-meeting took place. Afterwards Ajax said to me—
"She's very small, is Whey-face, but somehow she seemed to fill the adobe."
In the afternoon we had an adventure which gave us further insight into the character and temperament of the new schoolmarm.
We all walked to Paradise across the home pasture, for Miss Buchanan was anxious to inspect the site—there was nothing else then—of the proposed schoolhouse. Her childlike simplicity and assurance in taking for granted that she would eventually occupy that unbuilt academy struck us as pathetic.
"I give her one week," said Ajax, "not a day more."
Coming back we called a halt under some willows near the creek. The shade invited us to sit down.
"Are there snakes—rattlesnakes?" Miss Buchanan asked nervously.
"In the brush-hills—yes; here—no," replied my brother.
By a singular coincidence, the words were hardly out of his mouth when we heard the familiar warning, the whirring, never-to-be-forgotten sound of the beast known to the Indians as "death in the grass."
"Mercy!" exclaimed the schoolmarm, staring wildly about her. It is not easy to localise the exact position of a coiled rattlesnake by the sound of his rattle.
"Don't move!" said Ajax. "Ah, I see him! There he is! I must find a stick."
The snake was coiled some half-dozen yards from us. Upon the top coil was poised his hideous head; above it vibrated the bony, fleshless vertebrae of the tail. The little schoolmarm stared at the beast, fascinated by fear and horror. Ajax cut a switch from a willow; then he advanced.
"Oh!" entreated Miss Buchanan, "please don't go so near."
"There's no danger," said Ajax. "I've never been able to understand why rattlers inspire such terror. They can't strike except at objects within half their length, and one little tap, as you will see, breaks their backbone. Now watch! I'm going to provoke this chap to strike; and then I shall kill him."
He held the end of the stick about eighteen inches from the glaring, lidless eyes. With incredible speed the poised head shot forth. Ajax laughed. The snake was recoiling, as he struck it on the neck. Instantly it writhed impotently. My brother set the heel of his heavy boot upon the skull, crushing it into the ground.
"Now let's sit down," said he.
"Hark!" said the little schoolmarm.
Another snake was rattling within a yard or two of the first.
"It's the mate," said I. "At this time of year they run in pairs. We ought to have thought of that."
"I'll have him in a jiffy," said my brother.
As he spoke I happened to be watching the schoolmarm. Her face was painfully white, but her eyes were shining, and her lips set above a small, resolute chin.
"Let me kill him," she said, in a low voice.
"You, Miss Buchanan?"
"It's easy enough, but one mustn't—er—miss."
"I shan't miss."
She took the willow stick from my brother's hand. Every movement of his she reproduced exactly, even to the setting of her heel upon the serpent's head. Then she smiled at us apologetically.
"I hated to do it. I was scared to death, but I wanted to conquer that cowardly Belle. It's just as you say, they're killed mighty easy. If we could kill the Old Serpent as easy——" she sighed, not finishing the sentence.
Ajax, who has a trick of saying what others think, blurted out—
"What do you mean by conquering—Belle?"
We sat down.
"My name is Alethea-Belle, a double name. Father wanted to call me Alethea; but mother fancied Belle. Father, you know, was a Massachusetts minister; mother came from way down south. She died when I was a child. She—she was not very strong, poor mother, but father," she spoke proudly, "father was the best man that ever lived."
All her self-consciousness had vanished. Somehow we felt that the daughter of the New England parson was speaking, not the child of the invertebrate Southerner.
"I had to take to selling books," she continued, speaking more to herself than to us, "because of Belle. That miserable girl got into debt. Father left her a little money. Belle squandered it sinfully on clothes and pleasure. She'd a rose silk dress——"
"A rose silk dress?" repeated Ajax.
"It was just too lovely—that dress," said the little schoolmarm, reflectively.
"Even Alethea could not resist it," said I.
She blushed, and her shyness, her awkwardness, returned.
"Alethea had to pay for it," she replied primly. "I ask your pardon for speaking so foolishly and improperly of—myself."
After this, behind her back, Ajax and I invariably called her Alethea- Belle.
* * * * *
School began at nine sharp the next morning. We expected a large attendance, and were not disappointed. Some of the boys grinned broadly when Alethea-Belle appeared carrying books and maps. She looked absurdly small, very nervous, and painfully frail. The fathers present exchanged significant glances; the mothers sniffed. Alethea- Belle entered the names of her scholars in a neat ledger, and shook hands with each. Then she made a short speech.
"Friends," she said, "I'm glad to make your acquaintance. I shall expect my big boys and girls to set an example to the little ones by being punctual, clean, and obedient. We will now begin our exercises with prayer and a hymn. After that the parents will please retire."
That evening Alethea-Belle went early to bed with a raging headache. Next morning she appeared whiter than ever, but her eyelids were red. However, she seemed self-possessed and even cheerful. Riding together across the range, Ajax said to me: "Alethea-Belle is scared out of her life."
"You mean Belle. Alethea is as brave as her father was before her."
"You're right. Poor little Belle! Perhaps we'd better find some job or other round the adobe this afternoon. There'll be ructions."
But the ructions did not take place that day. It seems that Alethea- Belle told her scholars she was suffering severely from headache. She begged them politely to be as quiet as possible. Perhaps amazement constrained obedience.
"These foothill imps will kill her," said Ajax.
Within a week we knew that the big boys were becoming unmanageable, but no such information leaked from Alethea-Belle's lips. Each evening at supper we asked how she had fared during the day. Always she replied primly: "I thank you; I'm getting along nicely, better than I expected."
Mrs. Spafford, a peeper through doors and keyholes, explained the schoolmarm's methods.
"I jest happened to be passin' by," she told me, "and I peeked in through—through the winder. That great big hoodlum of a George Spragg was a-sassin' Miss Buchanan an' makin' faces at her. The crowd was a- whoopin' him up. In the middle o' the uproar she kneels down. 'O Lord,' says she, 'I pray Thee to soften the heart of pore George Spragg, and give me, a weak woman, the strength to prevail against his everlastin' ignorance and foolishness!' George got the colour of a beet, but he quit his foolin'. Yes sir, she prays for 'em, and she coaxes 'em, an' she never knows when she's beat; but they'll be too much for her. She's losin' her appetite, an' she don't sleep good. We won't be boardin' her much longer."
But that night, as usual, when I asked Alethea-Belle how she did, she replied, in her prim, formal accents: "I'm doing real well, I thank you; much, much better than I expected."
Two days later I detected a bruise upon her forehead. With great difficulty I extracted the truth. Tom Eubanks had thrown an apple at the schoolmarm.
"And what did you do?"
Her grey eyes were unruffled, her delicately cut lips never smiled, as she replied austerely: "I told Thomas that I was sure he meant well, but that if a boy wished to give an apple to a lady he'd ought to hand it politely, and not throw it. Then I ate the apple. It was a Newtown pippin, and real good. After recess Thomas apologised."
"What did the brute say?"
"He is not a brute. He said he was sorry he'd thrown the pippin so hard."
Next day I happened to meet Tom Eubanks. He had a basket of Newtown pippins for the schoolmarm. He was very red when he told me that Miss Buchanan liked—apples. Apples at that time did not grow in the brush- hills. Tom had bought them at the village store.
* * * * *
But Alethea-Belle grew thinner and whiter.
Just before the end of the term the climax came. I happened to find the little schoolmarm crying bitterly in a clump of sage-brush near the water-troughs.
"It's like this," she confessed presently: "I can't rid myself of that weak, hateful Belle. She's going to lie down soon, and let the boys trample on her; then she'll have to quit. And Alethea sees the Promised Land. Oh, oh! I do despise the worst half of myself!"
"The sooner you leave these young devils the better."
"What do you say?"
She confronted me with flashing eyes. I swear that she looked beautiful. The angularities, the lack of colour, the thin chest, the stooping back were effaced. I could not see them, because—well, because I was looking through them, far beyond them, at something else.
"I love my boys, my foothill boys; and if they are rough, brutal at times, they're strong." Her emphasis on the word was pathetic. "They're strong, and they're young, and they're poised for flight— now. To me, me, has been given the opportunity to direct that flight— upward, and if I fail them, if I quit——" She trembled violently.
"You won't quit," said I, with conviction.
"To-morrow," said she, "they've fixed things for a real battle."
She refused obstinately to tell me more, and obtained a solemn promise from me that I would not interfere.
* * * * *
Afterwards I got most of the facts out of George Spragg. Three of the biggest boys had planned rank mutiny. Doubtless they resented a compulsory attendance at school, and with short-sighted policy made certain that if they got rid of Alethea-Belle the schoolhouse would be closed for ever. And what chance could she have—one frail girl against three burly young giants?
A full attendance warned her that her scholars expected something interesting to happen. Boys and girls filed into the schoolroom quietly enough, and the proceedings opened with prayer, but not the usual prayer. Alethea-Belle prayed fervently that right might prevail against might, now, and for ever. Amen.
Within a minute the three mutineers had marched into the middle of the room. In loud, ear-piercing notes they began to sing "Pull for the Shore." The girls giggled nervously; the boys grinned; several opened their mouths to sing, but closed them again as Alethea-Belle descended from the rostrum and approached the rebels. The smallest child knew that a fight to a finish had begun.
The schoolmarm raised her thin hand and her thin voice. No attention was paid to either. Then she walked swiftly to the door and locked it. The old adobe had been built at a time when Indian raids were common in Southern California. The door was of oak, very massive; the windows, narrow openings in the thick walls, were heavily barred. The children wondered what was about to happen. The three rebels sang with a louder, more defiant note as Alethea-Belle walked past them and on to the rostrum. Upon her desk stood a covered basket. Taking this in her hand, she came back to the middle of the room. The boys eyed her movements curiously. She carried, besides the basket, a cane. Then she bent down and placed the basket between herself and the boys. They still sang "Pull for the Shore," but faintly, feebly. They stared hard at the basket and the cane. Alethea-Belle stood back, with a curious expression upon her white face; very swiftly she flicked open the lid of the basket. Silence fell on the scholars.
Out of the basket, quite slowly and stealthily, came the head of a snake, a snake well known to the smallest child—known and dreaded. The flat head, the lidless, baleful eyes, the grey-green, diamond- barred skin of the neck were unmistakable.
"It's a rattler!" shrieked one of the rebels.
They sprang back; the other children rose, panic-stricken. The schoolmarm spoke very quietly—
"Don't move! The snake will not hurt any of you."
As she spoke she flicked again the lid of the basket. It fell on the head of the serpent. Alethea-Belle touched the horror, which withdrew. Then she picked up the basket, secured the lid, and spoke to the huddled-up, terrified crowd—
"You tried to scare me, didn't you, and I have scared you." She laughed pleasantly, but with a faint inflection of derision, as if she knew, as she did, that the uncivilised children of the foothills, like their fathers, fear nothing on earth so much as rattlers and— ridicule. After a moment she continued: "I brought this here to-day as an object-lesson. You loathe and fear the serpent in this basket, as I loathe and fear the serpent which is in you." She caught the eyes of the mutineers and held them. "And," her eyes shone, "I believe that I have been sent to kill the evil in you, as I am going to kill this venomous beast. Stand back!"
They shrank back against the walls, open-eyed, open-mouthed, trembling. Alethea-Belle unfastened for the second time the lid of the basket; once more the flat head protruded, hissing. Alethea-Belle struck sharply.
"It is harmless now," she said quietly; "its back is broken."
But the snake still writhed. Alethea-Belle shuddered; then she set her heel firmly upon the head.
"And now"—her voice was weak and quavering, but a note of triumph, of mastery, informed it—"and now I am going to cane you three boys; I am going to try to break your stubborn wills; but you are big and strong, and you must let me do it. If you don't let me do it, you will break my heart, for if I am too weak to command here, I must resign. Oh, I wish that I were strong!"
The mutineers stared at each other, at the small white face confronting them, at the boys and girls about them. It was a great moment in their lives, an imperishable experience. The biggest spoke first, sheepishly, roughly, almost defiantly—
"Come on up, boys; we'll hev to take a lickin' this time."
Alethea-Belle went back to the rostrum, trembling. She had never caned a boy before, and she loathed violence. And yet she gave those three lads a sound thrashing. When the last stroke was given, she tottered and fell back upon her chair—senseless.
* * * * *
Later, I asked her how she had caught the snake.
"After you left me," she said, "I sat down to think. I knew that the boys wanted to scare me, and it struck me what a splendid thing 'twould be to scare them. Just then I saw the snake asleep on the rocks; and I remembered what one o' the cowboys had said about their being stupid and sluggish at this time o' year. But my! when it came to catching it alive—I—nearly had a fit, I'd chills and fever before I was able to brace up. Well, sir, I got me a long stick, and I fixed a noose at the end of it; and somehow—with the Lord's help—I got the creature into my work-basket; and I carried it home, and put it under my bed, with a big stone atop o' the lid. But I never slept a wink. I'm teetotal, but I know now what it is to have the—the—"
"Jim-jams," said I.
"I believe that's what they call it in California. Yes, I saw snakes, rattlers, everywhere!"
"You're the pluckiest little woman in the world," said I.
"Oh no! I'm a miserable coward, and always will be. Now it's over I kind of wish I hadn't scared the little children quite so bad."
About a month later, when Alethea-Belle was leaving us and about to take up new quarters in Paradise, near the just finished village schoolhouse, Mrs. Spafford came to me. The schoolmarm, it seemed, had stepped off our scales. She had gained nearly ten pounds since the day of the great victory.
"Your good cooking, Mrs. Spafford—" Mrs. Spafford smiled scornfully.
"Did my good cooking help her any afore she whacked them boys? Not much. No, sir, her scholars hev put the flesh on to her pore bones; and I give them the credit. They air tryin' to pay for what their schoolmarm's put into their heads and hearts."
"Miss Buchanan has taught us a thing or two," I suggested.
"Yes," Mrs. Spafford replied solemnly, "she hev."
Looking back, I am quite sure that John Jacob Dumble's chief claim to the confidence of our community—a confidence invariably abused—was the fact that the rascal's family were such "nice folks," "so well- raised," so clean, so respectable, such constant and punctual "church- members." After the Presbyterian Church was built in Paradise, no more edifying spectacle could be seen than the arrival on Sunday mornings of the Dumble family in their roomy spring wagon. The old man—he was not more than fifty-five—had two pretty daughters and a handsome son. Mrs. Dumble, a comely woman, always wore grey clothes and grey thread gloves. She had a pale, too impassive face, and her dark hair, tightly drawn back from her brows, had curious white streaks in it. Ajax said a thousand times that he should not sleep soundly until he had determined whether or not Mrs. Dumble was a party to her husband's misdemeanours. My brother's imagination, as I have said before, runs riot at times. He was of opinion that the wearing of grey indicated a character originally white, but discoloured by her husband's dirty little tricks. Certainly Mrs. Dumble was a woman of silence, secretive, with lips tightly compressed, as if—as Ajax remarked—she feared that some of John Jacob's peccadilloes might escape from them.
The father was inordinately proud of his son, Quincey, who in many respects took after the mother. He, too, was quiet, self-possessed, and somewhat pale. He worked for us and other cattlemen, not for his father, and after the lad left school Ajax fell to speculating about him, as he speculated about the mother.
"Is Quincey on to the old man's games?" he would ask.
It must be recorded that John Jacob was very careful to keep within the limits of the law, but he ploughed close to the line, where the soil, as we all know, is richest and, comparatively speaking, virgin. But no man in the county was louder than he in denouncing such crimes as horse-stealing or cattle-lifting, crimes in those days disgracefully common. He might ear-mark a wandering piglet, for instance, or clap his iron upon an unbranded yearling; but who could swear that these estrays were not the lawful property of him upon whose land they were found?
At that time Ajax and I were breeding Cleveland Bays, and amongst our colts we had two very promising animals likely to make a match team, and already prize-winners at the annual county fair. One day in October, Uncle Jake, our head vaquero, reported the colts to be missing out of our back pasture. Careful examination revealed the cutting of the fence. Obviously the colts had been stolen.
Ajax suggested that we should employ old man Dumble to help us to recover the stolen property. He was shrewd and persevering, and he knew every man, woman, and child within a radius of fifty miles.
"Why, boys," said he, when we asked him to undertake the job, "I'd do more than this to help friends and neighbours. It's a dooty to hunt down these scallywags, a dooty, yas—and a pleasure."
We took the trail that night. The thief, so far as we could conjecture, had about twenty hours start, but then he would be obliged to travel by night and by devious mountain-paths. According to old Dumble, his objective would be Bakersfield, and to reach Bakersfield some dry plains must be traversed. At the watering-places upon these plains we might expect to hear from sheep-herders and vaqueros some information respecting animals so handsome and so peculiarly marked as our colts.
And so it proved. At a dismal saloon, where water was nearly as expensive and quite as bad as the whisky, we learned that a bright bay colt with a white star and stocking, and another with a white nose, had been seen early that morning. Old man Dumble gleaned more.
"We're dealing with a tenderfoot and a stranger to the saloon-keeper," he said, as we struck into the sage-brush wilderness. "The fool didn't know enough to spend a few dollars at the bar. He called for one lemonade."
"Well," said Ajax, "you are teetotal yourself; you ought to respect a man who calls for lemonade."
"I ain't a thief," said our neighbour. "If I was," he added, "I reckon I'd cover my tracks around saloons with a leetle whisky. Boys, there's another thing. This feller we're after is ridin' too fast. Them colts won't stand it. Young things must feed an' rest. The saloon-keeper allowed they were footsore a'ready, and kinder petered out. We must keep our eyes skinned."
"You're a wonder," said Ajax. "How you divined that the thief would travel this trail beats me."
"Wal," said old man Dumble, "it's this way. There's a big dealer comes three times a year to Bakersfield; he pays good money for good stuff— an' he asks no questions. I happened to hear he was a-comin' down only las' Sunday."
Something in his voice, some sly gleam in his eye, aroused my suspicions. As soon as we happened to be alone, I whispered to my brother: "I say, what if the old man is playing hare and hound with us?"
"Pooh!" said Ajax. "He's keen as mustard to collar this thief—the keener, possibly, since he discovered that the fellow is a tenderfoot. I've sized him up about right. He wants to establish a record. It's like this teetotal business of his. The people here refuse to believe evil of a man who drinks water, goes to church, and catches horse- thieves. I'll add one word more. To give the old fraud his due, he really holds in abhorrence any crime that might land him in the State penitentiary. Hullo! There's a faint reek out yonder. I'll take a squint through my glasses."
We called a halt. We were now on the alkaline plains beyond the San Emigdio mountains. Riding all through the night, we had changed horses at a ranch where we were known. Ajax stared through his binoculars.
"What we're after," said he quietly, "is in sight."
He handed his glasses to me. I could barely make out a horseman, herding along two animals. The plains were blazing with heat. In the distance a soft blue haze obscured the horizon; faintly outlined against this were three spirals of what seemed to be white smoke: three moving pillars of alkaline dust.
"He can't git away from us," said old man Dumble.
Looking at him, my suspicions took flight. He was, as Ajax said, keener than we to arrest the thief. His small eyes sparkled with excitement; his right index-finger was crooked, as if itching for the trigger; his lips moved. In fancy he was rehearsing the "Stand and deliver" of an officer of the law!
"We kin ride him down," he muttered.
"Yes," said Ajax.
We looked to our girths and our pistols. It was unlikely that the thief would show fight, but—he might. Then we mounted, and galloped ahead.
"Forrard—for-r-rard!" shouted Ajax.
Within a few minutes, a quarter of an hour at most, the man we were hunting would see us; then the chase would really begin. He would abandon the footsore colts, and make for the hills. And so it came to pass. Presently, we saw the horseman turn off at right angles; the jaded colts hesitated, trotted a few yards, and stood still. A faint neigh floated down wind.
"Doggone it!" exclaimed old man Dumble, "his horse is fresh. He's got friends in the hills."
We had left the trail, and were pounding over the sage-brush desert. I could smell the sage, strongly pungent, and the alkaline dust began to irritate my throat; the sun, if one stood still, was strong enough to blister the skin of the hands.
For three-quarters of an hour it seemed to me that the distance between us and our quarry remained constant; but Dumble said we were falling behind. The thief was lighter than any of us, and his horse was evidently a stayer. The hills rose out of the haze, bleak and bare, seamed with gulches, a safe sanctuary for all wild things.
"If the cuss was within range, I'd try a shot," said the old man.
"I'd like to make out who he is," said Ajax.
Suddenly the horse of the thief fell. We discovered later that the beast had plunged into a piece of ground honeycombed with squirrel- holes. The man staggered to his feet; the horse struggled where he fell, but did not rise. His shoulder was broken.
"We have him!" yelled Dumble.
"Yes; we have him," repeated my brother. "Suppose we take a look at him?"
The thief had abandoned all idea of escape. He stood beside his horse, waiting for us; but at the distance we could not determine whether he intended to surrender quietly or to fight. Ajax adjusted his glasses, and glanced through them. Then, with an exclamation, he handed them to me.
"Kin ye make him out, boys?" asked our neighbour.
"Yes," said I, giving back the glasses to Ajax. He handed them in silence to old man Dumble. Then, instinctively, both our right hands went to our belts. We were not quite sure what a father might do.
He did what should have been expected—and avoided. He dropped the binoculars. Then he turned to us, trembling, livid—a scarecrow of the man we knew;
"It's my boy," he said hoarsely. "And I thought he was the best boy in the county. Oh God!"
A minute may have passed, not more. One guesses that in that brief time the unhappy father saw clearly the inevitable consequences of his own roguery and sharp practice. He had sowed, broadcast, innumerable, nameless little frauds; he reaped a big crime. I looked across those dreary alkaline plains and out of the lovely blue haze beyond I seemed to see the Dumbles' spring wagon rolling to church. Mrs. Dumble's pale, impassive face was turned to the bleak plains. At last I read her aright, that quiet woman of silence. She knew the father of her children from the outer rind to the inmost core. I thought of the pretty daughters, who did not know. And out yonder stood the son.
Ajax beckoned me aside. We whispered together for a moment or two. Then my brother spoke—
"We're going to lead home our colts," he said curtly; "and you can lead home yours. We shall take better care of ours after this experience. They won't be allowed to run wild in the back pasture."
"Boys—Quincey an' me——"
"Shush-h-h!" said Ajax. "That fellow out there is a long way off. I could not swear in a court of law that he is the person we take him to be. Whom he looks like we know, who he is we don't know, and we don't wish to know. So long."
We rode back to our colts.
Pap Spooner was about sixty-five years old, and the greatest miser in San Lorenzo County. He lived on less than a dollar a day, and allowed the rest of his income to accumulate at the rate of one per cent, a month, compound interest.
When Ajax and I first made his acquaintance he was digging post-holes. The day, a day in September, was uncommonly hot. I said, indiscreetly: "Mr. Spooner, why do you dig post-holes?"
With a queer glint in his small, dull grey eyes he replied, curtly: "Why are you boys a-shootin' quail—hey? 'Cause ye like to, I reckon. Fer the same reason I like ter dig post-holes. It's jest recreation— to me."
When we were out of earshot Ajax laughed.
"Recreation!" said my brother. "Nothing will ever recreate him. Of all the pinchers——"
"Shush-h-h!" said I. "It's too hot."
Our neighbours told many stories of Pap Spooner. Even that bland old fraud, John Jacob Dumble, admitted sorrowfully that he was no match for Pap in a horse, cattle, or pig deal; and George Leadham, the blacksmith, swore that Pap would steal milk from a blind kitten. The humorists of the village were of opinion that Heaven had helped Pap because he had helped himself so freely out of other folks' piles.
In appearance Andrew Spooner was small, thin, and wiry, with the beak of a turkey-buzzard, the complexion of an Indian, and a set of large, white, very ill-fitting false teeth, which clicked like castanets whenever the old man was excited.
Now, in California, "Pap" is a nom de caresse for father. But, so far as we knew, Pap had no children; accordingly we jumped to the conclusion that Andrew Spooner got his nickname from a community who had rechristened the tallest man in our village "Shorty" and the ugliest "Beaut." The humorists knew that Pap might have been the father of the foothills, the George Washington of Paradise, but he wasn't.
Later we learned that Pap had buried a wife and child. And the child, it seems, had called him "Pap." We made the inevitable deduction that such paternal instincts as may have bloomed long ago in the miser's heart were laid in a small grave in the San Lorenzo Cemetery. Our little school-marm, Alethea-Belle Buchanan, said (without any reason): "I reckon Mr. Spooner must have thought the world of his little one." Whereupon Ajax replied gruffly that as much could be said, doubtless, of a—vulture.
The word "vulture" happened to be pat, apart from the shape of Andrew Spooner's nose, because we were in the middle of the terrible spring which succeeded the dry year. Even now one does not care to talk about that time of drought. During the previous twelve months the relentless sun had destroyed nearly every living thing, vegetable and animal, in our county. Then, in the late fall and early winter, we had sufficient rain to start the feed on our ranges and hope in our hearts. But throughout February and March not a drop of water fell! Hills and plains lay beneath bright blue skies, into which we gazed day after day, week after week, looking for the cloud that never came. The thin blades of wheat and barley were already frizzling; the tender leaves of the orchards and vineyards turned a sickly yellow; the few cattle and horses which had survived began to fall down and die by the empty creeks and springs. And two dry years in succession meant black ruin for all of us.
For all of us in the foothills except Pap Spooner. By some mysterious instinct he had divined and made preparations for a long drought. Being rich, with land in other counties, he was able to move his stock to green pastures. We knew that he was storing up the money sucked by the sun out of us. He was foreclosing mortgages, buying half-starved horses and steers for a song, selling hay and straw at fabulous prices. And we were reeling upon the ragged edge of bankruptcy! He, the beast of prey, the vulture, was gorging on our carrion.
Men—gaunt, hollow-eyed men—looked at him as if he were an obscene bird, looked at him with ever-increasing hate, with their fingers itching for the trigger of a gun. Pap had his weakness. He liked to babble of his own cuteness; he liked to sit upon a sugar barrel in the village store and talk of savoury viands, so to speak, and sparkling wines in the presence of fellow-citizens who lacked bread and water, particularly water.
One day, in late March, he came into the store as the sun was setting. In such a village as ours, at such a time, the store becomes the club of the community. Misery, who loves company, spent many hours at the store. There was nothing to do on the range.
Upon this particular afternoon we had listened to a new tale of disaster. Till now, although most of us had lost stock, and many had lost land as well, we had regarded health, the rude health of man living the primal life, as an inalienable possession. Our cattle and horses were dying, but we lived. We learned that diphtheria had entered Paradise.
In those early days, before the antitoxin treatment of the disease, diphtheria in Southern California was the deadliest of plagues. It attacked children for the most part, and swept them away in battalions. I have seen whole families exterminated.
And nothing, then as now, prevails against this scourge save prompt and sustained medical treatment. In Paradise we had neither doctor, nor nurse, nor drugs. San Lorenzo, the nearest town, lay twenty-six miles away.
Pap shambled in, clicking his teeth and grinning.
"Nice evenin'," he observed, taking his seat on his sugar barrel.
"Puffec'ly lovely," replied the man who had brought the evil news. "Everything," he stretched out his lean hand,—"everything smilin' an' gay—an' merry as a marriage bell."
Pap rubbed his talon-like hands together.
"Boys," said he, "I done first-rate this afternoon—I done first- rate. I've made money, a wad of it—and don't you forget it."
"You never allow us to forget it," said Ajax. "We all wish you would," he added pointedly.
He stared at my brother. The other men in the store showed their teeth in a sort of pitiful, snarling grin. Each was sensible of a secret pleasure that somebody else had dared to bell the cat.
My brother continued, curtly: "This is not the time nor the place for you to buck about what you've done and whom you've done. Under the present circumstances—you're an old man—what you've left undone ought to be engrossing your attention."
Pap had glanced furtively from face to face, reading in each rough countenance derision and contempt. The masks which the poor wear in the presence of the rich were off.
"I mean," Ajax replied, savagely—so savagely that the old man recoiled and nearly fell off the barrel—"I mean, Mr. Spooner, that the diphtheria has come to Paradise, and is likely to stay here so long as there is flesh for it to feed on."
"The diptheery?" exclaimed Pap.
Into his eyes—those dull grey eyes—flitted terror and horror. But Ajax saw nothing but what had festered so long in his own mind.
"Aye—the diphtheria! You are rich, Mr. Spooner; you can follow your cattle into a healthier country than this. My advice to you is—Get!"
The old man stared; then he slid off the barrel and shambled out of the store as little Sissy Leadham entered it. The child looked curiously at Andrew Spooner.
"What's the matter with Pap?" she asked, shrilly.
She was a pretty, tow-headed, rosy-cheeked creature, the daughter of George Leadham, a widower, who adored her. He was looking at her now with a strange light in his eyes. Not a man in the store but interpreted aright the father's glance.
"What's the matter with pore old Pap?" she demanded.
The blacksmith caught her up, kissing her face, smoothing her curls.
"Just that, my pet," said he. "He's old, and he's poor—the poorest man, ain't he, boys?—the very poorest man in Paradise."
The child looked puzzled. It would have taken a wiser head than hers to understand the minds of the men about her.
"I thought old Pap was rich," she faltered.
"He ain't," said the blacksmith, hugging her tight. "He's poorer than all of us poor folks put together."
"Oh, my!" said Sissy, opening her blue eyes. "No wonder he looks as if someone'd hit him with a fence rail. Pore old Pap!" Then she whispered some message, and father and child went out of the store.
We looked at each other. The storekeeper, who had children, blew his nose with unnecessary violence. Ajax said, abruptly: "Boys, I've been a fool. I've driven away the one man who might help us."
"That's all right," the storekeeper growled. "You done first-rate, young man. You tole the ole cuss in plain words what we've bin a- thinkin' fer a coon's age. Help us? Not he!"
Outside, our saddle-horses were hitched to the rail. We had managed to save our horses. Ajax and I rode down the valley, golden with the glory of the setting sun. Beyond, the bleak, brown hills were clothed in an imperial livery of purple. The sky was amber and rose. But Ajax, like Gallio, cared for none of these things. He was cursing his unruly tongue. As we neared the big, empty barn, he turned in his saddle.
"Look here," said he, "we'll nip up to Pap's after supper. I shall ask him to help us. I shall ask for a cheque."
"You expect me to go with you on this tomfool's errand?"
"Certainly. We must use a little tact. I'll beg his pardon—the doing of it will make me sick—you shall ask for the cheque. Yes, we're fools; otherwise we shouldn't be here in this forsaken wilderness."
* * * * *
Pap lived just outside the village in an adobe built upon a small hill to the north-west of our ranch. No garden surrounded it, no pleasant live oaks spread their shade between the porch and the big barns. Pap could sit on his porch and survey his domain stretching for leagues in front of him, but he never did sit down in the daytime— except on a saddle—and at night he went to bed early to save the expense of oil. Knowing his habits, we rode up to the adobe about eight. All was dark, and we could see, just below us, the twinkling lights of Paradise. After thundering at the door twice, Pap appeared, carrying a lantern. In answer to his first question, we told him that we had business to discuss. Muttering to himself, he led us into the house and lighted two candles in the parlour. We had never entered the parlour before, and accordingly looked about with interest and curiosity. The furniture, which had belonged to Pap's father-in- law, a Spanish-Californian, was of mahogany and horsehair, very good and substantial. In a bookcase were some ancient tomes bound in musty leather. A strange-looking piano, with a high back, covered with faded rose-coloured silk, stood in a corner. Some half a dozen daguerreotypes, a case of stuffed humming-birds, and a wreath of flowers embellished the walls. Upon everything lay the fine white dust of the dry year, which lay also thick upon many hearts.
"Sit ye down," said Pap. "I reckon ye've come up to ask for a loan?"
"Yes," said Ajax. "But first I wish to beg your pardon. I had no right to speak as I did in the store this evening. I'm sorry."
Pap nodded indifferently.
"'Twas good advice," he muttered. "I ain't skeered o' much, but diptheery gives me cold feet. I calc'late to skin out o' this and into the mountains to-morrer. How about this yere loan?"
"It's not for us," said I.
"I don't lend no good dollars on squatters' claims," said Pap. "Let's git to business."
We explained what we wanted. Upon the top of Pap's head the sparse grey hairs bristled ominously. His teeth clicked; his eyes snapped. He was furiously angry—as I had expected him to be.
"You've a nerve," he jerked out. "You boys come up here askin' me fer a thousand dollars. What air you goin' to do?"
"We've no money," said Ajax, "but we've leisure. I dare say we may dig graves."
"You're two crazy fools."
"We know that, Mr. Spooner."
"I'm a-goin' to tell ye something. Diptheery in this yere country is worse'n small-pox—and I've seen both." The look of horror came again into his face. "My wife an' my child died o' diptheery nearly thirty- five year ago." He shuddered. Then he pointed a trembling finger at one of the daguerreotypes. "There she is—a beauty! And before she died—oh, Heaven!" I thought I saw something in his eyes, something human. Ajax burst out——
"Mr. Spooner, because of that, won't you help these poor people?"
"No! When she died, when the child died, something died in me. D'ye think I don't know what ye all think? Don't I know that I'm the ornariest, meanest old skinflint atween Point Sal and San Diego? That's me, and I'm proud of it. I aim to let the hull world stew in its own juice. The folks in these yere foothills need thinnin' anyway. Halloa! What in thunder's this?" Through the door, which we had left ajar, very timidly, all blushes and dimples, and sucking one small thumb, came Sissy Leadham. She stood staring at us, standing on one leg and scratching herself nervously with the other.
"Why, Sissy?" said Ajax.
She removed her thumb, reluctantly.
"Yas—it's me," she confessed. "Popsy don't know as I've comed up here." Then, suddenly remembering the conventions, she said, politely, "Good-evening, Mr. Spooner."
"Good-evening," said the astonished Pap.
"You wasn't expectin' me?"
"I didn't think it was very likely as you'd call in," said Pap, "seein', Missy, as you'd never called in afore."
"My name's Sissy, not Missy. Well, I'll call again, Mr. Spooner, when you've no comp'ny."
"Jee-roosalem! Call again—will ye? An' s'pose I ain't to home—hey? No, Missy—wal, Sissy, then—no, Sissy, you speak out an' tell me what brought you a-visitin'—me?"
She shuffled very uneasily.
"I felt so awful sorry for you, Mr. Spooner. I jest hed to come, but I'll call again, early to-morrer."
"No, ye won't. Because I aim ter leave this yere ranch afore sun-up. Jest you speak up an' out. If yer folks has sent you here"—his eyes hardened and flashed—"to borrer money, why, you kin tell 'em I ain't got none to loan."
Sissy laughed gaily.
"Why, I know that, Mr. Spooner. It's jest because, be-cause yer so pore—so very, very pore, that I comed up."
"Is that so? Because I'm so very poor?"
"I heard that in the store this evenin'. I was a-comin' in as you was a-comin' out. I heard Popsy say you was the porest man in the county, porer than all of us pore folks put together."
She had lost her nervousness. She stood squarely before the old man, lifting her tender blue eyes to his.
"Wal—an' what are you a-goin' to do about it?"
"I can't do overly much, Mr. Spooner, but fer a little girl I'm rich. The dry year ain't hurt me any—yet. I've three dollars and sixty cents of my own."
One hand had remained tightly clenched. Sissy opened it. In the moist pink palm lay three dollars, a fifty-cent piece, and a dime. Never had Pap's voice sounded so harsh in my ears as when he said: "Do I understan' that ye offer this to—me?"
His tone frightened her.
"Yas, sir. Won't you p-p-please t-take it?"
"Did yer folks tell ye to give me this money?"
"Why, no. I'd oughter hev asked 'em, I s'pose, but I never thought o' that. Honest Injun, Mr. Spooner, I didn't—and—and it's my own money," she concluded, half defiantly, "an' Popsy said as how I could do what I liked with it. Please take it."
"No," said Pap.
He stared at us, clicking his teeth and frowning. Then he said, curtly, "Wal, I'll take the dime, Sissy—I kin make a dime go farther than a dollar, can't I, boys?"
"You bet," said Ajax.
"And now, Sissy, you run along home," said Pap.
"We'll take her," I said, for Sissy was a sworn friend of ours. At once she put her left hand into mine. We bade the old man good-night, and took leave of him. On the threshold Ajax turned and asked a question——
"Won't you reconsider your decision, Mr. Spooner?"
"No," he snapped, "I won't. I dunno as all this ain't a reg'lar plant. Looks like it. And, as I say, the scallywags in these yere foothills need thinnin'—they need thinnin'."
Ajax said something in a low voice which Sissy and I could not hear. Later I asked him what it was, because Pap had clicked his teeth.
"I told him," said my brother, "that he needn't think his call was coming, because I was quite certain that they did not want him either in Heaven—or in the other place."
"Oh," said I, "I thought that you were going to use a little tact with Pap Spooner."
* * * * *
Next morning, early, we had a meeting in the store. A young doctor, a capital fellow, had come out from San Lorenzo with the intention of camping with us till the disease was wiped out; but he shook his head very solemnly when someone suggested that the first case, carefully isolated, might prove the last.
There were two fresh cases that night!
I shall not attempt to describe the horrors that filled the next three weeks. But, not for the first time, I was struck by the heroism and self-sacrifice of these rude foothill folk, whose great qualities shine brightest in the dark hours of adversity. My brother and I had passed through the big boom, when our part of California had become of a sudden a Tom Tiddler's ground, where the youngest and simplest could pick up gold and silver. We had seen our county drunk with prosperity —drunk and disorderly. And we had seen also these same revellers chastened by low prices, dry seasons, and commercial stagnation. But we had yet to witness the crowning sobering effect of a raging pestilence.
The little schoolmarm, Alethea-Belle Buchanan, organised the women into a staff of nurses. Mrs. Dumble enrolled herself amongst the band. Did she take comfort in the thought that she was wiping out John Jacob Dumble's innumerable rogueries? Let us hope so.
Within a week yellow bunting waved from half a score of cottages in and about Paradise. And then, one heavenly morning, as we were riding into the village, we saw the hideous warning fluttering outside George Leadham's door.
Sissy was down with it!
Poor George, his brown, weather-beaten face seamed with misery, met us at the garden gate.
"She's awful bad," he muttered, "an' the doc. says she'll be worse afore she's better."
Next door a man was digging two graves in his garden.
Meantime, Pap Spooner had disappeared. We heard that he had gone to a mountain ranch of his about fifteen miles away. Nobody missed him; nobody cared whether he went or stayed. In the village store it was conceded that Pap's room, rain or shine, was better than his company. His name was never mentioned till it began to fall from Sissy Leadham's delirious lips.
The schoolmarm first told me that the child was asking for Andrew Spooner, moaning, wailing, shrieking for "pore old Pap." George Leadham was distracted.
"What in thunder she wants that ole cuss fer I can't find out. She's drivin' me plum crazy." I explained.
"That's it," said George. "It's bin Pap an' her money night an' day fer forty-eight hours. She wanted ter give him—him, by Jing!—her money."
The doctor heard the story half an hour later. He had not the honour of Andrew Spooner's acquaintance, and he had reason to believe that all men in the foothills were devoid of fear.
"Fetch Pap," said he, in the same tone as he might have said, "Fetch milk and water!" We made no remark.
"I think," said the doctor, gravely, "that if this man comes at once the child may pull through."
"By Heaven! he shall come," said George Leadham to me. The doctor had hurried away.
"He won't come," said Ajax.
"If he don't," said the father, fiercely, "the turkey-buzzards'll hev a meal, for I'll shoot him in his tracks."
Ajax looked at me reflectively.
"George," said he, "shooting Pap wouldn't help little Sissy, would it? You and I can't handle this job. My brother will go. But—but, my poor old George, don't make ropes out of sand."
So I went.
When I started, the south-east wind, the rain-wind, had begun to blow, and it sounds incredible, but I was not aware of it. The pestilence had paralysed one's normal faculties. But riding due south-east I became, sooner or later, sensible of the change in the atmosphere. And then I remembered a chance remark of the doctor's. "We shall have this diphtheria with us till the rain washes it away," and one of the squatters had replied, bitterly, "Paradise'll be a cemetery an' nothin' else before the rain comes."
Passing through some pine woods I heard the soughing of the tree-tops. They were entreating the rain to come—to come quickly. How well I knew that soft, sibilant invocation! Higher up the few tufts of bunch grass that remained rustled in anticipation. On the top of the mountain, in ordinary years a sure sign of a coming storm, floated a veil of opaline sea mist ...
I found Pap and a greaser skinning a dead heifer. Pap nodded sulkily, thinking of his hay and his beans and bacon.
"What's up?" he growled.
"It's going to rain," said I.
"Ye ain't ridden from Paradise to tell me that. An' rain's not a- comin', either. 'Twould be a miracle if it did. How's folks? I heard as things couldn't be worse."
"They are bad," said I. "Eubank's sister-in-law and two children are dead. Judge Spragg has lost four. In all about sixteen children have gone and five adults. That's Paradise alone; in the foothills——"
"What brings you here?"
It seemed hopeless to soften this hardened old man. I had thought of a dozen phrases wherewith to soap the ways, so to speak, down which might be launched my petition. I forgot them all, confronted by those malicious, sneering eyes, by the derisive, snarling grin.
"Little Sissy Leadham is dying."
"What d'you say?"
"Little Sissy Leadham is dying."
For my life I could not determine whether the news moved him or not.
"And she's asking for you."
At last I had gripped his attention and interest.
"She wants to give you her money."
"Then it wa'n't a plant? 'Twa'n't fixed up atween you boys an' her?"
"It was her own idea—an idea so strong that it has taken possession of her poor wandering wits altogether."
"Is that so?" He moistened his lips. "And you—ye've come up here to ask me to go down there, into that p'isonous Paradise, because a little girl who ain't nothin' to me wants to give me three dollars and a half?"
"If you get there in time it may save her life."
"An' s'pose I lose mine—hey?"
I shrugged my shoulders. He stared at me as if I were a strange animal, clicking his teeth and twisting his fingers.
"Look ye here," he burst out, angrily, with a curious note of surprise and petulance in his voice, "you an' that brother o' yours know me, old Pap Spooner, purty doggoned well. Hev ye heard anyone ever speak a good word fer me?"
"No one except—the schoolmarm."
"An' what did she say?"
"She reckoned you must have thought the world of your own little girl."
He paid no attention. Suddenly he said, irrelevantly—
"That dime little Sissy give me is the first gift I've had made me in thirty-five year. Wal, young man, ye must ha' known—didn't ye now?— that you was takin' big chances in comin' after ole Pap Spooner. I'll bet the hull crowd down in Paradise laughed at the idee o' fetchin' me—hey?"
"Nobody laughs in Paradise now, and nobody except my brother, the doctor, and Sissy's father knows that I've come after you."
"Ye'll ride back and say the old man was skeered—hey?"
"Well, you are, aren't you?"
"Yes; I've enough sense to know when I am skeered. I'm skeered plum to death, but all the same I'm a-goin' back with you, because Sissy give me that dime. There's a sack o' crushed barley behind that shed. Give yer plug a half feed, an' by then I'll be ready."
We rode into Paradise as night was closing in. The south-east wind was still blowing, and the thin veil of mist upon the mountain had grown into a cloud. In front of George Leadham's house were a couple of eucalyptus trees. Their long, lanceolate leaves were shaking as Pap and I passed through the gate. A man's shadow darkened the small porch. To the right was the room where Sissy lay. A light still shone in the window. The shadow moved; it was the doctor. He hurried forward.
"Glad to make your acquaintance," said he to Pap, whom he had never seen before.
"Air ye? You wa'n't expectin' me, surely?"
"Certainly," replied the doctor, impatiently. "What man wouldn't come under such circumstances?"
"Is there much danger?" said Pap, anxiously.
"The child is as ill as she can be."
"I meant fer—me."
"Great Scot! If you feel like that you'd better not go in." His tone was dully contemptuous.
"Wal—I do feel like that, on'y more so; an' I'm goin' in all the same. Reckon I'm braver'n you, 'cause you ain't skeered."
We entered the room. George Leadham was sitting by the bed. When he saw us he bent over the flushed face on the pillow, and said, slowly and distinctly: "Here's Mr. Spooner, my pretty; he's come. Do you hear?"
She heard perfectly. In a thick, choked voice she said: "Is that you, Pap?"
"It's me," he replied; "it's me, sure enough."
"Why, so'tis. Popsy, where's my money?"
"Here, Sissy, right here."
She extended a thin, wasted hand.
"I want you to have it, Pap," she said, speaking very slowly, but in a clearer tone. "You see, it's like this. I've got the diptheery, an' I'm a-goin' to die. I don't need the money—see! And you do, you pore old Pap, so you must take it."
Pap took the money in silence. George Leadham had turned aside, unable to speak. I stood behind the door, out of sight. Sissy stared anxiously at Pap.
"Popsy said you wouldn't come, but I knew you would," she sighed. "Good-bye, you pore old Pap." She closed her eyes, but she held Pap's hand. The young doctor came forward with his finger upon his lips. Quietly, he signed to Pap to leave the room; the old man shook his head. The doctor beckoned the father and me out on to the porch.
"Miracles sometimes happen," said he, gravely. "The child has fallen into a natural sleep."
But not for three hours did her grip relax of Pap's hand, and he sat beside her patiently, refusing to budge. Who shall say what was passing in his mind, so long absorbed in itself, and now, if one could judge by his face, absorbed at last in this child?
When he came out of the room he spoke to the doctor in a new voice.
"If she wants anything—anything, you understan'—you get it—see?"
"And look ye here; I shall be stayin' at my old adobe, but if the others want fer anything, you understan', get it—see?"
"Certainly, Mr. Spooner. I shall not fail to call on you, sir, because we want many things."
"That's all right; but," his tone grew hard and sharp, "if—if she— dies, this contrack is broke. The rest kin die too; the sooner the better."
"But she won't die, Mr. Spooner," said the young doctor, cheerfully. "I feel in my bones, sir, that Sissy Leadham won't die."
And it may be added here that she didn't.
* * * * *
At the ranch-house that night Ajax and I sat up, watching, waiting, praying for the rain that would wash the diphtheria from Paradise and despair from our hearts. The south-east wind sang louder and louder in the cotton woods by the creek; the parched live oaks crackled with fear that the gathering clouds should roll by, the willows shivered and bowed themselves low in supplication. From the parched earth and every living thing thereon went up the passionate cry for water.
One by one we saw the stars fade out of the sky. The Dipper disappeared; then the Pole Star was extinguished. Orion veiled his triple splendours. The Milky Way ceased to be....
"It's coming," whispered Ajax.
Suddenly the wind died down; the trees became mute; only the frogs croaked a final Hallelujah Chorus, because they alone knew. And then, out of the heaven which had seemed to have forsaken us, coming slowly at first, as if with the timid, halting step of a stranger; coming quickly and gladly afterwards, as an old friend comes back to the place where he is sure of a welcome; and lastly, with a sound of ten thousand pattering feet, with a whirring of innumerable wings, with a roar of triumph and ecstasy, Prosperity poured down upon Paradise.
For three weeks we had advertised for a cook—in vain! And ranch life, in consequence, began to lose colour and coherence. Even the animals suffered: the dogs, the chickens, and in particular the tame piglet, who hung disconsolate about the kitchen door watching, and perchance praying, for the hired girl that was not.
"This," said Ajax, "spells demoralisation."
He alluded to the plates which lay face downward upon the dining-room table. We had agreed to wash up every other meal, saving time at the expense of decency. One plate did double duty, for we used the top for breakfast and the bottom for dinner. Before supper we scrubbed it thoroughly and began again.
"And this bread of yours," I retorted warmly—the plate labour-saving scheme was a happy thought of my own—"spells dyspepsia."
"True," he admitted forlornly. "I can make, but not bake bread. In a domestic crisis like this many things must be left underdone. We must find a cook. I propose that we ride to the village, and rope some aged virgin."
We discussed the propriety of such a raid with spirit. I contended that we might have reason to regret, at the end of another rope, so high-handed a proceeding.
"You are right," said Ajax. "That is the worst of this confounded ranch. Here, we enjoy neither the amenities of civilisation nor the freedom of the desert. However, it's always darkest before dawn, and I've a feeling in my bones that the present state of affairs cannot last. Something will turn up."
That afternoon Gloriana turned up.
We were sitting upon the verandah oppressed with the weight of beans, bacon, and soggy biscuit. As we smoked in silence our eyes rested gloomily upon the landscape—our domain. Before us lay an amber- coloured, sun-scorched plain; beyond were the foot-hills, bristling with chaparral, scrub-oaks, pines and cedars; beyond these again rose the grey peaks of the Santa Lucia range, pricking the eastern horizon. Over all hung the palpitating skies, eternally and exasperatingly blue, a-quiver with light and heat.
"Somebody's coming," said Ajax.
The country road, white with alkaline dust, crossed the ranch at right angles. Far away, to the left, was a faint blur upon the pink hills.
"It's no wagon," said Ajax idly, "and a vaquero would never ride in the dust. It must be a buggy."
Five minutes later we could distinguish a quaint figure sitting upright in an ancient buckboard whose wheels wobbled and creaked with almost human infirmity. A mule furnished the motive power.
"Is it a man or a woman?" said Ajax.
"Possibly," I replied, "a cook."
"She is about to pay us a visit. Yes, it's a woman, a bundle of bones, dust and alpaca crowned with a sombrero. A book-agent, I swear. Go and tell her we have never learned to read."
I demurred. Finally we spun a dollar to decide upon which of us lay the brutal duty of turning away the stranger within our gates. Fortune frowned on me, and I rose reluctantly from my chair.
"Air you the hired man?" said the woman in the buggy, as I looked askance into her face.
"I work here," I replied, "for my board—which is not of the best."
"Ye seem kinder thin. Say—air the lords to home?"
"Yes, the lords. They tole me back ther," she jerked her head in the direction of the village, "that two English lords owned a big cattle- ranch right here; an' I thought, mebbee, that they'd like ter see— me."
A pathetic accent of doubt quavered upon the personal pronoun.
"Ye kin tell 'em," she continued, "that I'm here. Yes, sir, I'm a book-agent, an' my book will interest them—sure."
Her eyes, soft blue eyes, bespoke hope; her lips quivered with tell- tale anxiety. Something inharmonious about the little woman, a queer lack of adjustment between voice and mouth, struck me as singular, but not unpleasing.
"It's called," she pleaded, in the tenderest tones, "A Golden Word from Mother. I sell it bound in cloth, sheep, or moroccy. It's perfectly lovely—in moroccy."
"One of the—er—lords," said I gravely, "is here. I'll call him. I think he can read."
This, according to our fraternal code, was rank treachery, yet I felt no traitor. Ajax obeyed my summons, and, sauntering across the sun- baked yard, lifted his hat to the visitor. She bowed politely, and blinked, with short-sighted eyes, at my brother's overalls and tattered canvas shirt. I have seen Ajax, in Piccadilly, glorious in a frock-coat and varnished boots. I have seen him, as Gloriana saw him for the first time, in rags that might provoke the scorn of Lazarus. With the thermometer at a hundred in the shade, custom curtseys to convenience. Ajax boasted with reason that the loosening of a single safety-pin left him in condition for a plunge into the pool at the foot of the corral.
"I hope you're well, lord," said the little woman; "an' if ye ain't, why—what I've got here'll do ye more good than a doctor. I reckon ye hev a mother, an' naterally she thinks the world of ye. Well, sir, I bring ye a golden word from her very lips. Jest listen to this. I ain't much on the elocute, but I'm goin' ter do my best."
We listened patiently as she declaimed half a page of wretched prose. Her voice rose and fell in a sing-song cadence, but certain modulations of tone lent charm to the absurd words. When she finished her eyes were full of tears.
"That is very nice indeed," said Ajax softly. "I should like to buy your book."
Her hands trembled.
"I sell it in cloth at—one dollar; in sheep at—one, six bits; in reel moroccy, with gold toolin' at—two an' a half."
"We must certainly secure a copy in gold and morocco."
Her eyes sparkled with pleasure.
"Two copies," I suggested rashly: "one for you, Ajax; one for me."
"Ye kin take yer copy in cloth," said the little woman, compassionately, "sein' as ye're only workin' for yer board."
"In gold and morocco," I replied firmly. "The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world. A golden word from mother cannot be fittingly bound in fustian."
"Ye must hev had awful nice mothers, both of ye," she said simply. "Do I sell many books? No, sir. Farmer-folks in Californy ain't got the money ter spend in readin' matter. They're in big luck these times if they kin pay the interest on their mortgages. With wheat at eighty cents a cental, an' barley not wuth the haulin', it seems most an impertinence to ask grangers ter buy books."
"Do you make twenty dollars a month at the business?"
She shook her head sorrowfully.
"This is September," said Ajax, "and within six weeks the rains will begin. What will you do then?"
She regarded him wistfully, but made no reply.
"Your mule," continued Ajax, "is about played out—poor beast. Will you stay here this winter, and keep house for us? I daresay you cook very nicely; and next spring, if you feel like it, you can start out bookselling again."
"My cookin' is sech as white folks kin eat, but——"
"We will pay you twenty dollars a month."
"The wages air more'n enough, but——"
"And the work will be light."
"I ain't scar't o' work," she retorted valiantly, "but——"
"It's settled, then," said Ajax, in his masterful way. "If you'll get down, I'll unhitch the mule and put him in the barn. My brother will show you the house."
She descended, protesting, but we could not catch the words that fell from her lips.
"You must tell us your name," said Ajax
"It's Gloriana," she faltered.
* * * * *
"She is a type," said Ajax, a few days later.
"A type of what?"
"Of the women who suffer and are not strong There are many such in this Western country. I'd like to hear her story. Is she married or single? old or young? crazy or sane?"
"Gloriana," I answered, "satisfies our appetites but not our curiosity."
As time passed, her reticence upon all personal matters became exasperating. At the end of the first month she demanded and received her salary. Moreover, refusing our escort, she tramped three dusty miles to the village post-office, and returned penniless but jubilant. At supper Ajax said—"It's more blessed to give than to receive—eh, Gloriana?"
She compressed her lips, but her eyes were sparkling. After supper Ajax commented upon her improved appearance in her presence. He confessed himself at a loss to account for this singular rejuvenescence.
Expecting company, Gloriana?"
"Mebbee-an' mebbee not."
"You brought home a large parcel," said Ajax. "A precious parcel. Why, you held it as a woman holds her first baby."
She smiled, and bade us good-night.
"I've no call ter stan' aroun' gassin'," she assured us. "I've work ter do—a plenty of it, too."
During the month of October she spent all her leisure hours locked up in her own room; and, waiting upon us at meals, quoted freely that famous book—A Golden Word from Mother. We often heard her singing softly to herself, keeping time to the click of her needle. When pay-day came she demanded leave of absence. The village, she told us, was sadly behind the times, and with our permission she proposed to drive her mule and buckboard to the county seat—San Lorenzo.
"I've business of importance," she said proudly, "ter transack."
She returned the following evening with a larger parcel than the first.
"I've bought a bonnet," she confessed shyly, "an' trimmins."
We prevailed upon her to show us these purchases: white satin ribbon, jet, and a feather that might have graced the hat of the Master of Ravenswood. The "locating" of this splendid plume was no easy task.
"Maxims," sighed Gloriana, "is mostly rubbish. Now, fine feathers—an' ther ain't a finer feather than this in San Lorenzy county—don't make fine birds. A sparrer is always a sparrer, an' can't look like an ostridge noway. But, good land! feathers is my weakness."
She burned much oil that night, and on the morrow the phoenix that sprang from the flames was proudly displayed.
"I bought more'n a bonnet yesterday," she said, with her head on one side, and a slyly complacent smile upon her lips. "Yes, sir, stuff ter make a dress—a party dress, the finest kind o' goods."
Ajax stared helplessly at me. The mystery that encompassed this woman was positively indecent.
"An' shoes," she concluded. "I bought me a pair, hand sewn, with French tips—very dressy."
Later, inspired by tobacco, we agreed that the problem was solved. Our head vaquero, Uncle Jake, gaunt as a coyote at Christmas, and quite as hungry, had fallen a victim to Gloriana's flesh-pots. He lived in an old adobe near the big corral, boarded himself and a couple of Mexicans upon tortillas, frijoles and bacon, and was famous throughout the countryside as a confirmed bachelor and woman hater. We entertained a high regard for this veteran, because he seldom got drunk, and always drove cattle slowly. To him the sly Gloriana served Anglo-Saxon viands: pies, "jell'" (compounded according to a famous Wisconsin recipe), and hot biscuit, light as the laughter of children! What misogynist can withstand such arts? I remembered that at the fall calf-branding Uncle Jake had expressed his approval of our cordon bleu in no measured terms.
"You've noted," he said, "that a greaser jest naterally hates ter handle mares. He rides a horse, an' he's right. The best o' mares will kick. Now, Glory Anne can't help bein' a woman, but I swear she's bin mighty well broke. She works right up into the collar—quiet an' steady, an' keeps her tongue, whar it belongs, shet up in her mouth. I've seen a sight o' wimmen I thot less of than Glory Anne."
I repeated these words to Ajax. He admitted their significance, in connection with bonnets and furbelows, and we both went to bed with a sound of marriage-bells in our ears. We slept soundly, convinced that neither Gloriana nor Uncle Jake would leave our service, and at breakfast the next morning discoursed at length upon the subject of wedding presents.
"What would you suggest, Gloriana," said Ajax, "as suitable for a middle-aged bridegroom?"
She considered the question thoughtfully, a delightful smile upon her lips.
"Ther's nothin' more interestin' than marryin', excep' mebbee the courtin'," she replied softly, "an' a gift is, so ter speak, a message o' love an' tenderness from one human heart t' another. With poor folks, who ain't experts in the use o' words, a gift means more 'n tongue kin tell. I'm sot myself on makin' things. Every stitch I put into a piece o' fancy work fer—a friend makes me feel the happier. Sech sewin' is a reel labour o' love, an' I kinder hate ter hurry over it, because, as I was sayin', it means so much that I'd like ter say, but bein' ignorant don't know how. A present fer a middle-aged bridegroom? Well, now, if 'twas me, I'd make him a nice comfortable bed-spread, with the best an' prettiest o' stitchin."
We both laughed. Uncle Jake under a gorgeous counterpane would make a graven image smile. Gloriana laughed with us.
"It'd be most too dainty fer some," she said, with a surprising sense of humour, "but I was thinkin' ye wanted a gift fer one o' yer high- toned relations in the old country. No? Well, take yer time: a gift ain't lightly chosen."
"I shall tackle Uncle Jake," said Ajax, as he rode over the ranch. "Gloriana is too discreet, but she bought that bonnet for her own wedding."
Uncle Jake, however, was cunning of fence.
"I don't feel lonesome," he declared. "Ye see I'm a cattle man, an' I like the travelled trails. I ain't huntin' no quicksands. Many a feller has mired down tryin' a new crossin'. No, sir, I calkilate ter remain single."
"He's very foxy," commented Ajax, "but he means business. It really bothers me that they won't confide in us."
The November rains were unusually heavy that year, and confined us to the house. Gloriana had borrowed a sewing-machine from a neighbour, and worked harder than ever, inflaming her eyes and our curiosity. We speculated daily upon her past, present and future, having little else to distract us in a life that was duller than a Chinese comedy. We waxed fat in idleness, but the cook grew lean.
"You're are losing flesh, Gloriana," said I, noting her sunken cheeks and glittering eyes.
"In a good cause," she replied fervently. "Anyways, ther ain't a happier woman than me in the state of Californy! Well, I'm most thro' with my sewing, an' I'd like ter show ye both what I've done, but——"
"We've have been waiting for this, Gloriana," said Ajax, tartly. "As a member of the family you have not treated my brother and myself fairly. This mysterious work of yours is not only wearing you to skin and bone, it is consuming us with curiosity."
"Ye're jokin', Mr. Ajax."
"This is no joking matter, Gloriana."
She blushed, and glanced indecisively at two solemn faces.
"Ye've bin more 'n good ter me," she said slowly, "but a secret is a secret till it's told. I hate ter tell my secret, an'—an' yer both young unmarried men. It's really embarrassin'."
"Your secret is no secret," said my brutal brother. "Somebody, Gloriana, is about to get married—eh?"
"Good land! How did ye come ter guess that?"
"Uncle Jake has not said a word."
"Well—why should he?"
"He's as close as a clam—the old sinner. So we can congratulate you, Gloriana?"
"Ye kin indeed."
We shook hands, and she led the way to her own room. There, spread upon her bed, lay some dainty garments, exquisitely fashioned,—a regular trousseau! Even to our inexperienced eyes the beauty of the workmanship was amazing.
"A woman," she murmured, "likes ter look at sech things. An' I do think these air good enough."
"Good enough!" we repeated. "They're fit for a queen."
"An' a queen is goin' ter wear 'em," said Gloriana proudly—"a queen o' beauty."
We stared blankly at each other. Had Cupid robbed his victim of her wits?
"They air fer Miss Miriam Standish, who was queen o' beauty at the San Lorenzy carnival. Miss Standish is the granddaughter of Doctor Standish. Ye've heard o' him—of course?"
She glanced keenly at Ajax, who rose to the occasion with an alacrity that I trust the recording angel appreciated.
"Of course," he said hastily. "Doctor Standish is a man of mark; as a physician, he——"
"He ain't a physician," said Gloriana. "He's a doctor o' divinity—a learned, godly man."
"And his granddaughter is about to marry——"
"Mr. Hubert Leadbetter. I should say Professor Leadbetter, who keeps the biggest drug-store in town."
We had bought drugs from the Professor, and were happily able to testify to his personal charms. Gloriana beamed.
"Ther ain't a finer young man in the land, Mr. Ajax: he's jest as good as his own sarsaparilla."
"You are going to attend the wedding?" said I, thinking of the wonderful bonnet.
"If you please," said Gloriana. "I jest couldn't stay away. Why, I've made things fer Miriam Standish ever since she was born. That is how I learned ter sew as few women kin sew."
Ajax touched one of the garments lightly, as became a bachelor.
"This work will bring you many shekels, Gloriana. I had no idea you were such a needlewoman."
"What!" she cried, her face crimson. "Do you think I'd take money from Miriam Standish? Why——"
She stopped short in confusion, and covered her poor face with trembling hands.
"I beg your pardon," said Ajax gravely, "I wouldn't hurt your feelings, Gloriana, for the world."
She looked up, irresolutely.
"I reckon I've said too much or too little," she said slowly. "Ye're both gen'lemen, an' ye've bin awful kind ter me. I kin trust ye with my secret, an' I'm goin' ter do it. The Standishes, are New England folk—high-toned an' mighty particler. It's as easy fer them ter be virtuous as ter eat punkin pie fer breakfast. I come from Wisconsin, where we think more of our bodies than our souls; an' 'twas in Wisconsin that I first met Dr. Standish. He had a call to the town, wher I lived with—with my sister. She, my sister, was a real pretty girl then, but of a prettiness that soon fades. An' she hired out as cook ter the Doctor. He was a good man, an' a kind one, but she paid back his kindness by runnin' off with his only son."
"Surely," said Ajax gently, "the son was also to blame?"
"No, sir, my sister was ter blame, an' she knew it. We was common folk, Mr. Ajax, what they would call in the South—white trash, an' the Standishes was real quality. My sister knew that, an' refused to marry the young man, tho' he asked her on his bended knees. Then he died, an'—an' my sister died, an' nothin' was left but the sorrow an' the shame, an'—Miriam."
The name fell softly on a silence that we respected. Presently she continued—
"Doctor Standish offered to take the child, an' I dared not keep her. His terms were awful hard, but just: the scandal'd broke up his home, an' his heart. He tole me he'd take Miriam ter Californy, an' that she must never know the story of her mother's sin. That was right, Mr. Ajax—eh?"
"I don't know, Gloriana. Go on."
"I promised him never ter speak to the child, an' I've kept my word; but he let me make her things. That was kind of him—very kind."
"Very kind, indeed," said Ajax.
"I followed 'em ter Californy, an' worked out, an' sold books an' peddled fruit, but I've kep' track o' little Miriam."
"You have never spoken to her, you say?"
"Never. Doctor Standish kin trust me. He's posted me, too. He tole me o' the wedding. I got word the night I first went ter the village, an' that's why—" she smiled through her tears—"that's why I wore my teeth. They cost me twenty dollars, an' I keep 'em fer high days an' holidays."
Ajax began to pace up and down the room. I heard him swearing to himself, and his fists were clenched. I felt certain that he was about to interfere in matters that did not concern us.
"Miss Standish should be told the truth," said he at last.
"No, no," she exclaimed. "I'm a wicked woman to wish ter kiss her. I done wrong in telling the secret, but yer sympathy jest twisted it outer me. Promise me, Mr. Ajax, that ye'll never give me away."
We pledged our word, and left her.
* * * * *
"Gloriana's dun days must soon come to an end," said Ajax to me upon the eve of the wedding.
"Why shouldn't she marry Uncle Jake? The old chap wants her. He informed me this afternoon that a double team travelled farther than a single horse. And he hangs about the kitchen door all the time, and divides Gloriana's favours with the pig."