Judith Of The Plains By Marie Manning
Harper & Brothers Publishers New York And London
Copyright, 1903. By Harper & Brothers
Printed In The United States Of America
Peter's Hand Sought Hers, And All Her Woman's Fear Of The Vague Terrors Of The Dreadful Night Spoke In Her Answering Pressure—See p. 154.
"Town" The Encounter Leander And His Lady Judith, The Postmistress The Trail Of Sentiment A Daughter Of The Desert Chugg Takes The Ribbons The Rodneys At Home Mrs. Yellett And Her "Gov'ment" On Horse-thief Trail The Cabin In The Valley The Round-up Mary's First Day In Camp Judith Adjusts The Situation The Wolf-hunt In The Land Of The Red Silence Mrs. Yellett Contends With A Cloudburst Foreshadowed "Rocked By A Hempen String" The Ball
JUDITH OF THE PLAINS
It was June, and a little past sunrise, but there was no hint of early summer freshness in the noxious air of the sleeping-car as it toiled like a snail over the infinity of prairie. From behind the green-striped curtains of the berths, now the sound of restless turning and now a long-drawn sigh signified the uneasy slumber due to stifling air and discomfort.
The only passenger stirring was a girl whose youth drooped under the unfavorable influences of foul air, fatigue, and a strained anxiety to come to the end of this fateful journey. She had been up while it was yet dark, and her hand—luggage, locked, strapped, and as pitifully new at the art of travelling as the girl herself, clustered about the hem of her blue serge skirt like chicks about a hen. The engine shrieked, but its voice sounded weak and far off in that still ocean of space; the girl tightened her grasp on the largest of the satchels and looked at the approaching porter tentatively.
"We're late twenty-fi'e minutes," he reassured her, with the hopeless patience of one who has lost heart in curbing travellers' enthusiasms.
She turned towards the window a pair of shoulders plainly significant of the burdensome last straw.
"Four days and nights in this train"—they were slower in those days—"and now this extra twenty-five minutes!"
Miss Carmichael's famous dimple hid itself in disgust. The demure lines of mouth and chin, that could always be relied upon for special pleading when sentence was about to be passed on the dimple by those who disapproved of dimples, drooped with disappointment. But the light-brown hair continued to curl facetiously—it was the sort of hair whose spontaneous rippling conveys to the seeing eye a sense of humor.
The train plodded across the spacious vacancy that unrolled itself farther and farther in quest of the fugitive horizon. The scrap of view that came within a closer range of vision spun past the car windows like a bit of stage mechanism, a gigantic panorama rotating to simulate a race at breakneck speed. But Miss Carmichael looked with unseeing eyes; the whirling prairie with its golden flecks of cactus bloom was but part of the universal strangeness, and the dull ache of homesickness was in it all.
"My dear! my dear!"—a head in crimpers was thrust from between the curtains of the section opposite—"I've been awake half the night. I was so afraid I wouldn't see you before you got off."
The head was followed, almost instinctively, by a hand travelling furtively to the crimpers that gripped the lady's brow like barnacles clinging to a keel.
Mary expressed a grieved appreciation at the loss of rest in behalf of her early departure, and conspicuously forbore to glance in the direction of the barnacles, that being a first principle as between woman and woman.
"And, oh, my dear, it gets worse and worse. I've looked at it this morning, and it's worse in Wyoming than it was in Colorado. What it 'll be before I reach California, I shudder to think."
"It's bound to improve," suggested Mary, with the easy optimism of one who was leaving it. "It couldn't be any worse than this, could it?"
The neuter pronoun, it might be well to state, signified the prairie; its melancholy personality having penetrated the very marrow of their train existence, they had come to refer to it by the monosyllable, as in certain nether circles the head of the house receives his superlative distinction in "He."
Again the locomotive shrieked, again the girl mechanically clutched the suit-case, as presenting the most difficult item in the problem of transportation, and this time the shriek was not an idle formality. The train slowed down; the uneasy sleepers behind the green-striped curtains stirred restlessly with the lessening motion of their uncouth cradle. The porter came to help her, with the chastened mien of one whose hopes of largess are small, the lady with the barnacles called after her redundant farewells, and a moment later Miss Carmichael was standing on the station platform looking helplessly after the train that toiled and puffed, yet seemed, in that crystalline atmosphere, still within arm's-reach. She watched it till its floating pennant of smoke was nothing but a gray feather blowing farther and farther out of sight on the flat prairie.
The town—it would be unkind to mention its name—had made merry the night before at the comprehensive invitation of a sheepman who had just disposed of his wool-clip, and who said, by way of general summons, "What's the use of temptin' the bank?" "Town," therefore, when Mary Carmichael first made its acquaintance, was still sleeping the sleep of the unjust. Those among last night's roisterers who had had to make an early start for their camps were well into the foot-hills by this time, and would remember with exhilaration the cracked tinkle of the dance-hall piano as inspiring music when the lonesomeness of the desert menaced and the young blood again clamored for its own.
"Town"—it contained in all some two dozen buildings—was very unlovely in slumber. It sprawled in the lap of the prairies, a grimy-faced urchin, with the lines of dismal sophistication writ deep. Yet where in all the "health resorts" of the East did air sweep from the clean hill-country with such revivifying power? It seemed a glad world of abiding youth. Surely "Town" was but a dreary illusion, a mirage that hung in the unmapped spaces of this new world that God had made and called good; an omen of the abominations that men would make when they grew blind to the beauty of God's world.
Mary Carmichael, with much the feelings of a cat in a strange garret, wandered about the sluggard town; and presently the blue-and-white sign of a telegraph office, with the mythological figure of a hastening messenger, suggested to her that a reassuring telegram was only Aunt Adelaide's due. Whereupon she began to rap on the door of the office, a scared pianissimo which naturally had little effect on the operator, who was at home and asleep some three blocks distant. But the West is the place for woman if she would be waited upon. No seven-to-one ratio of the sexes has tempered the chivalry of her sons of the saddle. A loitering something in a sombrero saw rather than heard the rapping, and, at the sight, went in quest of the dreaming operator without so much as embarrassing Miss Carmichael with an offer of his services. And presently the operator, whose official day did not begin for some two hours yet, appeared, much dishevelled from running and the cursory nature of his toilet, prepared to receive a message of life and death.
The wire to Aunt Adelaide ran:
"Practically at end of journey. Take stage to Lost Trail this morning. Am well. Don't worry about me.
And the telegraph operator, dimly remembering that he had heard Lost Trail was a "pizen mean country," and that it was tucked some two hundred miles back in the foot-hills, did not find it very hard to forgive the girl, who was "practically at end of journey," particularly as the dimple had come out of hiding, and he had never been called upon to telegraph the word "practically" before. He was a progressive man and liked to extend his experiences.
After sending the telegram, Miss Carmichael, quite herself by reason of the hill air, felt that she was getting along famously as a traveller, but that it was an expensive business, and she was glad to be "practically" at the end of her journey. And, drawing from her pocket a square envelope of heavy Irish linen, a little worn from much reading, but primarily an envelope that bespoke elegance of taste on the part of her correspondent, she read:
"LOST TRAIL, WYOMING.
"My Dear Miss Carmichael,—Pray let me assure you of my gratification that the preliminaries have been so satisfactorily arranged, and that we are to have you with us by the end of June. The children are profiting from the very anticipation of it, and it will be most refreshing to all us isolated ones to be able to welcome an Eastern girl as a member of our family.
"Although the long journey across the continent is trying, particularly to one who has not made it before, I hope you may not find it utterly fatiguing. Please remember that after leaving the train, it will be necessary to take a stage to Lost Trail. If it is possible, I shall meet you with the buckboard at one of the stage stations; otherwise, keep to the stage route, being careful to change at Dax's Ranch.
"Unfortunately, the children vary so in their accomplishments that I fear I can make no suggestions as to what you may need to bring with you in the way of text-books. But I think you will find them fairly well grounded.
"I had a charming letter from Mrs. Kirkland, who said the pleasantest things possible of you. I am glad the wife of our Senator was able conscientiously to commend us.
"With our most cordial good wishes for a safe journey, believe me, dear Miss Carmichael,
In the mean time, "Town" came yawning to breakfast. It was not so prankish as it had been the night before, when it accepted the sheepman's broad-gauge hospitality and made merry till the sun winked from behind the mountains. It made its way to the low, shedlike eating-house with a pre-breakfast solemnity bordering on sulkiness. Not a petticoat was in sight to offset the spurs and sombreros that filed into breakfast from every point in the compass, prepared to eat primitively, joke broadly, and quarrel speedily if that sensitive and often inconsistent something they called honor should be brushed however lightly.
But the eternal feminine was within, and, discovering it, the temper of "Town" was changed; it ate self-consciously, made jokes meet for the ears of ladies, and was more interested in the girl in the sailor-hat than it was in remembering old feuds or laying the foundations of new.
In its interior aspect, the eating-house conveyed no subtle invitation to eat, drink, and be merry. On the contrary, its mission seemed to be that of confounding appetite at every turn. A long, shedlike room it was, with walls of unpainted pine, still sweating from the axe. Festoons of scalloped paper, in conflicting shades, hung from the ceiling, a menace to the taller of the guests. On the rough walls some one, either prompted by a latent spirit of aestheticism or with an idea of abetting the town towards merrymaking—an encouragement it hardly required—had tacked posters of shows, mainly representing the tank-and-sawmill school of drama.
Miss Carmichael sat at the extreme end of the long, oilcloth-covered table, on which a straggling army of salt and pepper shakers, catsup bottles, and divers commercial condiments seemed to pause in a discouraged march. A plague of flies was on everything, and the food was a threat to the hardiest appetite. One man summed up the steak with, "You got to work your jaw so hard to eat it that it ain't fair to the next meal."
His neighbor heaved a sigh. "This here formation, whatever it be"—and he turned the meat over for better inspection—"do shore remind me of an indestructible doll that an old maid aunt of mine giv' my sister when we was kids. That doll sort of challenged me, settin' round oncapable o' bein' destroyed, and one day I ups an' has a chaw at her. She war ondestructible, all right; 'fore that I concluded my speriments I had left a couple o' teeth in her."
"Well, I discyards the steak and draw to a pair of aces," and the first man helped himself to a couple of biscuits.
Miss Carmichael knew, by the continual scraping of chairs across the gritty floor, that the places at the table must be nearly all taken; and while she anticipated, with an utterly unreasonable terror, any further invasion of her seclusion at the end of the table, still she could not persuade herself to raise her eyes to detect the progress of the enemy, even in the interest of the diary she had kept so conscientiously for the past three days; which was something of a loss to the diary, as those untamed, manly faces were well worth looking at. Reckless they were in many instances, and sometimes the lines of hardship were cruelly writ across young faces that had not yet lost the down of adolescence, but there were humor and endurance and the courage that knows how to make a crony of death and get right good sport from the comradeship. Their faults were the faults of lusty, red-blooded youth, and their virtues the open-handed generosity, the ready sympathy of those uncertain tilters at life who ride or fall in the tourney of a new country.
At present, "the yearling," drinking her execrable coffee in an agony of embarrassment, weighed heavily on their minds. They would have liked to rise as a man and ask if there was anything they could do for her. But as a glance towards the end of the table seemed to increase her discomfiture tenfold, they did the kindest and for them the most difficult thing and looked in every direction but Miss Carmichael's. With a delicacy of perception that the casual observer might not have given them credit for, they had refrained from taking seats directly opposite her, or those immediately on her right, which, as she occupied the last seat at the table, gave her at least a small degree of seclusion.
As one after another of them came filing in, bronzed, rugged, radiating a beauty of youth and health that no sketchy exigence of apparel could obscure, some one already seated at the table would put a foot on a chair opposite him and send it spinning out into the middle of the floor as a hint to the new-comer that that was his reserved seat. And the cow-puncher, sheep-herder, prospector, or man about "Town," as the case might be, would take the hint and the chair, leaving the petticoat separated from the sombreros by a table-land of oilcloth and a range of four chairs.
But now entered a man who failed to take the hint of the spinning chair. In fact, he entered the eating-house with the air of one who has dropped in casually to look for a friend and, incidentally, to eat his breakfast. He stopped in the doorway, scanned the table with deliberation, and started to make his way towards Mary Carmichael with something of a swagger. Some one kicked a chair towards him at the head of the table. Some one else nearly upset him with one before he reached the middle, and the Texan remarked, quite audibly, as he passed:
"The damned razor-back!"
But the man made his way to the end of the table and drew out the chair opposite Miss Carmichael with a degree of assurance that precipitated the rest of the table into a pretty pother.
Suppose she should countenance his audacity? The fair have been known to succumb to the headlong force of a charge, when the persistence of a long siege has failed signally. What figures they would cut if she did!—and Simpson, of all men! A growing tension had crept into the atmosphere of the eating-house; knives and forks played but intermittently, and Mary, sitting at the end of the oilcloth-covered table, felt intuitively that she was the centre of the brewing storm. Oh, why hadn't she been contented to stay at home and make over her clothes and share the dwindling fortunes of her aunts, instead of coming to this savage place?
"From the look of the yearling's chin, I think he'll get all that's coming to him," whispered the man who had nearly upset him with the second chair.
"You're right, pard. If I'm any good at reading brands, she is as self-protective as the McKinley bill."
The man Simpson was not a pleasant vis-a-vis. He wore the same picturesque ruffianliness of apparel as his fellows, but the resemblance stopped there. He lacked their dusky bloom, their clearness of eye, the suppleness and easy flow of muscle that is the hall-mark of these frontiersmen. He was fat and squat and had not the rich bronzing of wind, sun, and rain. His small, black eyes twinkled from his puffy, white face, like raisins in a dough-pudding.
He was ogling Mary amiably when the woman who kept the eating-house brought him his breakfast. Mrs. Clark was a potent antidote for the prevailing spirit of romance, even in this woman-forsaken country. A good creature, all limp calico, Roman nose, and sharp elbows, she brought him his breakfast with an ill grace that she had not shown to the others. The men about the table gave him scant greeting, but the absence of enthusiasm didn't embarrass Simpson.
He lounged expansively on the table, regarding Miss Carmichael attentively meanwhile; then favored her with the result of his observations, "From the East, I take it." And the dumpling face screwed into a smile whose mission was pacific.
Every knife and fork in the room suspended action in anxiety to know how the "yearling" would take it. Would their chivalry, which strained at a gnat, be compelled to swallow such a conspicuous camel as the success of Simpson? With the attitude he had taken towards the girl, there had crept into the company an imperceptible change; deep-buried impulses sprang to the surface. If a scoundrel like Simpson was going to try his luck, why shouldn't they? They didn't see a pretty girl once in a blue moon. With the advent of the green-eyed monster at the board, each man unconsciously became the rival of his neighbor.
But Miss Carmichael merely continued her breakfast, and if she heard the amiable deductions of Simpson regarding her, she gave no sign. But a rebuff to him was in the nature of an appetizer, a fillip to press the acquaintance. He encroached a bit farther on the narrow limits of the table and continued, "Nice weather we're having."
Miss Carmichael gave her undivided attention to her coffee. The spurs and sombreros, that had not relaxed a muscle in their strained observation of the little drama, breathed reflectively. Perhaps it was just as well that they had not emulated Simpson in his brazen charge; the "yearling" was not to be surprised into talking, that was certain.
"He shore is showing hisself to be a friendly native," commented the man who had sacrificed milk-teeth investigating the indestructible doll.
"Seems to me that the system he's playing lacks a heap of science. My money's on the yearling." And the man who had "discarded the steak and drawn to the biscuits" leaned a little forward that he might better watch developments.
Simpson by this time fully realized his error, but failure before all these bantering youngsters was a contingency not to be accepted lightly. As he phrased it to himself, it was worth "another throw." "Seems kind o' lonesome not having any one to talk to while you're eatin', don't it?"
Miss Carmichael's air of perfect composure seemed a trifle out of tune with her surroundings; the nice elevation of eyebrow, the slightly questioning curl of the lip as she, for the first time apparently, became aware of the man opposite, seemed to demand a prim drawing-room rather than the atmosphere of the slouching eating-house.
"Well, really, I've hardly had a chance of finding out." And her eyes were again on her coffee-cup. And there was joy among the men at table that they had not rushed in after the manner of those who have a greater courage than the angels.
"No offence meant," deprecated Simpson, with an uneasy glance towards the other end of the table, where the men sat with necks craned forward in an attitude uncomfortably suggestive of hounds straining at the leash. Simpson felt rather than saw that something was afoot among the sombreros. There was a crowding together in whispered colloquy, and in a flash some half-dozen of them were on their feet as a man. Descending upon Simpson, they lifted him, chair and all, to the other end of the table, as far removed as possible from Miss Carmichael.
The man who thought Simpson's system lacked science rubbed his hands in delight. "She took the trick all right; swept his hand clean off the board!"
Simpson, from the seat to which he had been so rapidly transplanted, looked about him with blinking anxiety. It was more than probable that the boys intended "to have fun with him," though his talking, or rather trying to talk, to a girl that sat opposite him at an eating-house table was, according to his ethics, plainly none of their business. He knew he wasn't popular since he had done for Jim Rodney's sheep, though the crime had never been laid at his door, officially. He had his way to make, the same as the next one; and, all said and done, the cattle-men were glad to get Jim Rodney's sheep off the range, even if they treated him as a felon for the part he had played in their extermination.
Thus reasoned Simpson, while he marked with an uneasy eye that the temper of the company had grown decidedly prankish with the exit of the girl, who, after having caused all the trouble, had, with an irritating quality peculiar to her sex, vanished through the kitchen door.
Some three or four of the boys now ran to Simpson's former seat at the table and rushed towards him with his half-eaten breakfast, as if the errand had been one of life and death. They showered him with mock attentions, waiting on him with an exaggerated deference, and the pale, fat man, remembering the hideousness of some of their manifestations of a sense of humor, breathed hard and felt a falling-off of appetite.
Costigan, the cattle-man, a strapping Irish giant, was clearing his throat with ominous sounds that suggested the tuning-up of a bass fiddle.
"Sure, Simpson, me lad, if ye happen to have a matther av fifty dollars, 'tis mesilf that can tell ye av an illegint invistmint."
Simpson looked up warily, but Costigan's broad countenance did not harbor the wraith of a smile. "What kin I git for fifty chips? 'Tain't much," mused the pariah, with the prompt inclination to spend that stamps the comparative stranger to ready money.
"Ye can git a parrut, man—a grane parrut—to kape ye coompany while ye're aiting—"
Simpson interrupted with an oath.
"Don't be hard on old Simmy; remember he's studied for the ministry! How did I savey that Simpson aimed to be a sharp on doctrine?" A cow-puncher with a squint addressed the table in general. "I scents the aroma of dogma about Simpson in the way he throwed his conversational lariat at the yearling. He urbanes at her, and then comes his 'firstly,' it being a speculation as to her late grazing-ground, which he concludes to be the East. His 'secondly' ain't nothing startling, words familiar to us all from our mother's knee—'nice weather'—the congregation ain't visibly moved. His 'thirdly' is insinuating. In it he hints that it ain't good for man to be alone at meals—"
"'Twas the congregation that added the 'foinelly,' though, before hastily leaving be the back door!" and Costigan slapped his thigh.
"The gentleman in question don't seem to be makin' much use of his present conversational opportunities. I'm feelin' kinder turned down myself"; and the Texan began to look over his six-shooter.
The man with the squint looked up and down the board.
"Gentlemen, I believe the foregoing expresses the sentiment of this company, which, while it incloodes many foreign and frequent-warring elements, is at present held together by the natchral tie of eating."
Thumping with knife and fork handles, stamping of feet, cries of "Hear! hear!" with at least three cow-boy yells, argued well for a resumption of last night's festivities. Simpson glowered, but said nothing.
"Seems to me you-all goin' the wrong way 'bout drawin' Mistu' Simpson out. He is shy an' has to be played fo' like a trout, an' heah you-all come at him like a cattle stampede." The big Texan leaned towards Simpson. "Now you-all watch my methods. Mistu' Simpson, seh, what du think of the prospects of rain?"
There was a general recommendation from Simpson that the entire company go to a locality below the rain-belt.
A boy, plainly "from the East," and looking as if the ink on his graduating thesis had scarce had time to dry, was on his feet, swaggering; he would not have swapped his newly acquired camaraderie with these bronzed Westerners for the Presidency.
"Gentlemen, you have all heard Simpson say it is lonesome having no one to talk to during meals. We sympathized with him and offered him a choice of subjects. He greets our remarks by a conspicuous silence, varied by profanity. This, gentlemen, reflects on us, and is a matter demanding public satisfaction. All who feel that their powers as conversationalists have been impugned by the silence of Simpson, please say 'Ay.'"
"Ay" was howled, sung, and roared in every note of the gamut.
"If me yoong frind here an me roight"—and Costigan jerked a shoulder towards the boy—"will be afther closin' that silf-feeding automatic dictionary av his for a moment, I shud be glad to call the attintion av the coomp'ny to somethin' in the nature av an ixtinuatin' circoomsthance in the case av Simpson."
"Hear! hear!" they shouted. The broad countenance of Costigan beamed with joy at what he was about to say. "Gintlemin, the silence av Mr. Simpson is jew in all probabilitee to a certain ivint recalled by many here prisint, an' more that's absent, an' amicablee settled out av coort—"
Up to this time the unhappy Simpson had shown an almost superhuman endurance. Now he bristled—and after looking up and down the board for a sympathetic face, and not finding one, he declared, loudly and generally, "'Tain't so!"
"Ye may have noticed that frind Simpson do be t'reatened wid lockjaw in the societee av min, but in the prisince av a female ye can't count on him. Now, talk wid a female is an agreeable, if not a profitable, way av passin' the toime, but sure ye niver know where it will ind—as witness Simpson. This lady I'm recallin'—'tis a matther av two years ago—followed the ancient and honorable profission av biscuit shootin' not far from Caspar. Siz Simpson to the lady some such passin' civilitee as, 'Good-marnin'; plisent weather we're havin'.' Whereupon the lady filt a damage to her affictions an' sued him for breach av promise."
"'Twan't that way, at all!" screamed Simpson. "'Sall a lie!"
"Yu ought er said 'Good-evenin'' to the lady, Mistu Simpson; hit make a diffunce," drawled the man from Texas, pleasantly.
"But 'twas 'Good-marnin'' Simpson made chyce av," resumed Costigan. "An' the lady replied, 'You've broke my heart.' Whereupon Simpson, havin' a matther av t'ree thousand dollars to pay for his passin' civilitee, learned thot silince was goolden."
They all remembered the incident in question, and thundered applause at the reappearance of an old favorite. Without warning, a shadow fell across the sunlight-flooded room, and, as one after another of the men glanced up from the table, they saw standing in the doorway a man of such malignant aspect that his look fell across the company like a menace. The swing of their banter slowed suddenly; it was as if the cold of a new-turned grave had struck across the June sunshine checking their roughshod fun. None of them had the hardihood to joke with a man that stood in the shadow of death; and hate and murder looked from the eyes of the man in the doorway and looked towards Simpson. One by one they perceived the man of the shadow, all but Simpson, eating steak drowned in Worcestershire.
The man in the doorway was tall and lean, and the prison blench upon his face was in unpleasant contrast to the ruddy tan of the faces about the table. His sombrero was tipped back and the hair hung dank about the pale, sweating forehead, suggestive of sickness. But weak health did not imply weak purpose; every feature in that hawk-like face was sharp with hatred, and in the narrowing eye was vengeance that is sweet.
He stood still; there was in his hatred a something hypnotic that grew imperceptibly and imperceptibly communicated itself to the men at table. He gloated over the eating fat man as if he had dwelt much in imagination on the sight and was in no hurry to curtail his joy at the reality. The men began to get restless, shuffle their feet, moisten their lips; only the college boy spoke, and then from a wealth of ignorance, knowing nothing of the rugged, give-and-take justice of the plains—an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and the law and the courts go hang while a man's got a right arm to pull a trigger. Not one in all that company, even the cattle-men whose interests were opposed to Rodney's, but felt the justice of his errand.
"When did they let him out?" whispered the college boy; and then, "Oughtn't we to do something?"
"Yis, me son," whispered Costigan. "We ought to sit still and learn a thing or two."
The fat man cleaned his plate with a crust of bread stuck on the point of a knife. There was nothing more to eat in the way of substantials, and he debated pouring a little more of the sauce on his plate and mopping it with a bit of bread still uneaten. Considering the pro and con of this extra tid-bit, he glanced up and saw the gaunt man standing in the doorway.
Simpson dropped the knife from his shaking hand and started up with a cry that died away in a gurgle, an inhuman, nightmare croak. He looked about wildly, like a rat in a trap, then backed towards the wall. The men about the table got up, then cleared away in a circle, leaving the fat man. It was all like a dream to the college boy, who had never seen a thing of the kind before and could not realize now that it was happening. Rodney advanced, never once relaxing the look in which he seemed to hold his enemy as in a vise. Simpson was like a man bewitched. Once, twice, he made a grab for his revolver, but his right hand seemed to have lost power to heed the bidding of his will. Rodney, now well towards the centre of the room, waited, with a suggestion of ceremony, for Simpson to get his six-shooter.
It was one of those moments in which time seems to have become petrified. The limp-clad proprietress of the eating-house, made curious by the sudden silence, looked in from the kitchen. Simpson, his eyes wandering like a trapped rat, saw, and called, through teeth that chattered in an ague of fear, "Ree—memm—her thth—there's la—dies p—present! For Gawd's sake, remember t—there's ladies p—present!"
The pale man looked towards the kitchen, and, seeing the woman, he gave Simpson a look in which there was only contempt. "You've hid behind the law once, and this time it's petticoats. The open don't seem to have no charm for you. But—" He didn't finish, there was no need to. Every one knew and understood. He put up his revolver and walked into the street.
The men broke into shouts of laughter, loud and ringing, then doubled up and had it out all over again. And their noisy merriment was as clear an indication of the suddenly lifted strain, at the averted shooting, as it was of their enjoyment of the farce. Simpson, relieved of the fear of sudden death, now sought to put a better face on his cowardice. Now that his enemy was well out of sight, Simpson handled his revolver with easy assurance.
"Put ut up," shouted Costigan, above the general uproar. "'Tis toime to fear a revolver in the hands av Simpson whin he's no intinsions av shootin'."
Simpson still attempted to harangue the crowd, but his voice was lost in the general thigh-slapping and the shouts and roars that showed no signs of abating. But when he caught a man by the coat lapel in his efforts to secure a hearing, that was another matter, and the man shook him off as if his touch were contagion. Simpson, craving mercy on account of petticoats, evading a meeting that was "up to him," they were willing to stand as a laughing-stock, but Simpson as an equal, grasping the lapels of their coats, they would have none of.
He slunk away from them to a corner of the eating-house, feeling the stigma of their contempt, yet afraid to go out into the street where his enemy might be waiting for him. Much of death and blood and recklessness "Town" had seen and condoned, but cowardice was the unforgivable sin. It balked the rude justice of these frontiersmen and tampered with their code, and Simpson knew that the game had gone against him.
"What was it all about? Were they in earnest, or was it only their way of amusing themselves?" inquired Mary Carmichael, who had slipped into Mrs. Clark's kitchen after the men at the table had taken things in hand.
"Jim Rodney was in earnest, an' he had reason to be. That man Simpson was paid by a cattle outfit—now, mind, I ain't sayin' which—to get Jim Rodney's sheep off the range. They had threatened him and cut the throats of two hundred of his herd as a warning, but Jim went right on grazin' 'em, same as he had always been in the habit of doing. Well, I'm told they up and makes Simpson an offer to get rid of the sheep. Jim has over five thousand, an' it's just before lambing, and them pore ewes, all heavy, is being druv' down to Watson's shearing-pens, that Jim always shears at. Jim an' two herders and a couple of dawgs—least, this is the way I heard it—is drivin' 'em easy, 'cause, as I said before, it's just before lambing. It does now seem awful cruel to me to shear just before lambing, but that's their way out here.
"Well, nothing happens, and Jim ain't more'n two hours from the pens an' he comes to that place on the road that branches out over the top of a canon, and there some one springs out of a clump of willows an' dashes into the herd and drives the wether that's leading right over the cliff. The leaders begin to follow that wether, and they go right over the cliff like the pore fools they are. The herder fired and tried to drive 'em back, they tell me, an' he an' the dawg were shot at from the clump of willows by some one else who was there. Three hundred sheep had gone over the cliff before Jim knew what was happening. He rode like mad right through the herd to try and head 'em off; but you know what sheep is like—they're like lost souls headin' for damnation. Nothing can stop 'em when they're once started. And Jim lost every head—started for the shearing-pens a rich man—rich for Jim—an' seen everything he had swept away before his eyes, his wife an' children made paupers. My son he come by and found him. He said that Jim was sittin' huddled up in a heap, his knees drawed up under his chin, starin' straight up into the noonday sky, same as if he was askin' God how He could be so cruel. His dead dawg, that they had shot, was by the side of him. The herder that was with Jim had taken the one that was shot into Watson's, so when my son found Jim he was alone, sittin' on the edge of the cliff with his dead dawg, an' the sky about was black with buzzards; an' Jim he just sat an' stared up at 'em, and when my son spoke to him he never answered any more than a dead man. He shuck him by the arm, but Jim just sat there, watchin' the sun, the buzzards, and the dead sheep."
"Was nothing done to this man Simpson?"
"The cattle outfit that he done the dirty work for swore an alibi for him. Jim has been in hard luck ever since. He's been rustlin' cattle right along; but Lord, who can blame him? He got into some trouble down to Rawlins—shot a man he thought was with Simpson, but who wasn't—and he's been in jail ever since. Course now that he's out Simpson's bound to get peppered. Glad it didn't happen here, though. 'Twould be a kind of unpleasant thing to have connected with a eating-house, don't you think so?" she inquired, with the grim philosophy of the country.
The eating-house patrons had gone their several ways, and the quiet of the dining-room was oppressive by contrast with its late boisterousness. Mrs. Clark, her hands imprisoned in bread-dough, begged Mary to look over the screen door and see if anything was happening. "I'm always suspicious when it's quiet. I know they're in deviltry of some sort."
Mary tiptoed to the door and peeped over, but the room was deserted, save for Simpson, huddled in a corner, biting his finger-nails. "The nasty thing!" exploded Mrs. Clark, when she had received the bulletin. "I'd turn him out if it wasn't for the notoriety he might bring my place in gettin' killed in front of it."
"I dare say I'd better go and see after my trunk; it's still on the station platform." Mary wondered what her prim aunts would think of her for sitting in Mrs. Clark's kitchen, but it had seemed so much more of a refuge than the sordid streets of the hideous little town, with its droves of men and never a glimpse of a woman that she had been only too glad to avail herself of the invitation of the proprietress to "make herself at home till the stage left."
"Well, good luck to you," said Mrs. Clark, wiping her hand only partially free from dough and presenting it to Miss Carmichael. She had not inquired where the girl was going, nor even hinted to discover where she came from, but she gave her the godspeed that the West knows how to give, and the girl felt better for it.
At the station, where Mary shortly presented herself, in the interest of that old man of the sea of all travellers, luggage, she learned that the stage did not leave town for some three-quarters of an hour yet. A young man, manipulating many sheets of flimsy, yellow paper covered with large, flourishing handwriting, looked up in answer to her inquiries about Lost Trail. This young man, whose accent, clothes, and manner proclaimed him "from the East," whither, in all probability, he would shortly return if he did not mend his ways, disclaimed all knowledge of the place as if it were an undesirable acquaintance. But before he could deny it thrice, a man who had heard the cabalistic name was making his way towards the desk, the pride of the traveller radiating from every feature.
The cosmopolite who knew Lost Trail was the type of man who is born to be a Kentucky colonel, and perhaps may have achieved his destiny before coming to this "No Man's Land," for reasons into which no one inquired, and which were obviously no one's business. They knew him here by the name of "Lone Tooth Hank," and he wore what had been, in the days of his colonelcy—or its equivalent—a frock-coat, restrained by the lower button, and thus establishing a waist-line long after nature had had the last word to say on the subject. With this he wore the sombrero of the country, and the combination carried a rakish effect that was positively sinister.
The scornful clerk introduced Mary as a young lady inquiring about some place in the bad-lands. Off came the sombrero with a sweep, and Lone Tooth smiled in a way that accented the dental solitaire to which he owed his name. Miss Carmichael, concealing her terror of this casual cavalier, inquired if he could tell her the distance to Lost Trail.
"I sho'ly can, and with, consid'able pleasure." The sombrero completed a semicircular sweep and arrived in the neighborhood of Mr. Hank's heart in significance of his vassalage to the fair sex. He proceeded:
"Lost Trail sutney is right lonesome. A friend of mine gets a little too playful fo' the evah-increasin' meetropolitan spirit of this yere camp, and tries a little tahget practice on the main bullyvard, an' finds the atmospheah onhealthful in consequence. Hearin' that the quiet solitude of Lost Trail is what he needs, he lit out with the following circumstance thereof happenin'. One day something in his harness giv' way—and he recollects seein' a boot sunnin' itself back in the road 'bout a quartah of a mile. An' he figgahs he'll borry a strip of leather off the boot to mend his harness. Back he goes and finds it has a kind of loaded feelin'. So my friend investigates—and I be blanked if there wasn't a foot and leg inside of it."
Miss Carmichael had always exercised a super-feminine self-restraint in the case of casual mice, and it served her in the present instance. Instead of screaming, she said, after the suppression of a gasp or two:
"Thank you so much, but I won't detain you any longer. Your information makes Lost Trail even more interesting than I had expected."
Besides, Miss Carmichael had a faint suspicion that this might be a preconcerted plan to terrify the "lady tenderfoot," and she prided herself on being equal to the situation. The time at her disposal before the stage would embark on that unknown sea of prairies she spent in the delectable pastime of shopping. The financial and social interests of the town seemed to converge in Hugous & Co.'s "trading store," where Miss Carmichael invested in an extra package of needles for the mere excitement of being one of the shoppers, though her aunt Adelaide had stocked the little plaid-silk work-bag to repletion with every variety of needle known to woman. She pricked up her ears, meanwhile, at some of the purchases made by the cow-boys for their camp-larders—devilled ham, sardines, canned tomatoes heading the list as prime favorites. Did these strapping border lads live by the fruit of the tin alone? Apparently yes, with the sophisticated accompaniment of soda biscuit, to judge by the quantity of baking-powder they invested in—literally pounds of it. Men in any other condition of life would have died of slow poisoning as the result of it.
There were other customers at Hugous' that morning besides the spurred and booted cow-puncher and his despised compeer, the sheep-herder. That restless emigrant class, whose origin, as a class, lay in the community of its own uncertain schemes of fortune; the West, with her splendid, lavish promises, called them from their thriftless farms in the South and their gray cabins in New England. They began their journeying towards the land of promise long before the Indians had ever seen the shrieking "fire-wagon." All day they would toil over the infinitude of prairie, the sun that hid nightly behind that maddeningly elusive vanishing-point, the horizon, their only guide. But the makeshifts of the wagon life were not without charm. They began to wander in quest of they knew not precisely what, and from these vague beginnings there had sprung into existence that nomadic population that was once such a feature of the far West, but is now going the way of the Indians and the cow-boys.
This breathing-space in the long journey had for them the stimulus of a holiday-making. They bought their sides of bacon and their pounds of coffee as merrily as if they were playing a game of forfeits, the women fingering the calico they did not want for the joy of pricing and making shoppers' talk.
The scene had a scriptural flavor that not even the blue overalls of the men nor the calico gowns of the women could altogether eliminate. Their wagons, bulging with household goods and trailing with kitchen utensils secured by bits of rope, were drawn up in front of the trading-store. From a pump, at some little distance, the pilgrims filled their stone water-bottles, for the wise traveller does not trust to the chance springs of the desert. Baskets of chickens were strapped to many of the wagons, but whether the unhappy fowls were designed to supply fresh eggs and an occasional fricassee, or were taken for the pleasure of their company, there was no means of determining short of impertinent cross-questioning. Sometimes a cow, and invariably a dog, formed one of the family party, and an edifying esprit de corps seemed to dwell among them all.
Lone Tooth Hank, in his capacity of man about town, stood on the steps of Hugous' watching the preparations; and, seeing Miss Carmichael, approached with the air of an old and tried family friend.
"Do I obsehve yu regyarding oweh 'settleahs,' called settleahs 'cause they nevah settle?" Hank laughed gently, as one who has made a joke meet for ladies. "I've known whole famblies to bohn an' raise right in one of them wagons; and tuhn out a mighty fine, endurin' lot, too, this hyeh prospectin' round afteh somethin' they wouldn't reco'nize if they met. Gits to be a habit same as drink. They couldn't live in a house same as humans, not if yu filled their gyarden with nuggets an' their well with apple-jack."
Miss Carmichael looked attentive but said nothing. In truth, she was more afraid of Hank, his obvious gallantry, and his grewsome tales of boots with legs in them than she was of the unknown terrors of Lost Trail.
"I believe that is my stage," she said, as a red conveyance not unlike a circus wagon halted at some little distance from the trading-store. And as she spoke she saw four of her companions of the breakfast-table heading towards the stage, each with a piece of her precious luggage. Mary Carmichael was precipitated in a sudden panic; she had heard tales of the pranks of these playful Western squires—a little gun-play to induce the terrified tenderfoot to put a little more spirit into his Highland fling, "by request." She remembered their merrymaking with Simpson at breakfast. What did they intend to do with her belongings? And as she remembered the little plaid sewing-bag that Aunt Adelaide had made for her—surreptitiously drying her tears in the mean time—when she remembered that bag and the possibility of its being submitted to ignominy, she could have cried or done murder, she wasn't sure which.
"Well, 'pon my wohd, heah ah the boys with yo' baggage. How time du fly!"
"Oh!" she gasped, "what are they going to do with it?"
"Place it on the stage, awaitin' yo' ohdahs." And to her expression of infinite relief—"Yo' didn't think any disrepec' would be shown the baggage of a lady honorin' this hyeh metropolis with her presence?"
She thanked the knights of the lariat the more warmly for her unjust suspicions. They stowed away the luggage with the deft capacity of men who have returned to the primitive art of using their hands. She climbed beside the driver on the box of the stage. Lone Tooth Hank and the cow-punchers chivalrously raised their sombreros with a simultaneous spontaneity that suggested a flight of rockets. The driver cracked his whip and turned the horses' heads towards the billowing sea of foot-hills, and the last cable that bound Mary Carmichael to civilization was cut.
Leander And His Lady
The only stage passenger besides Miss Carmichael was a fat lady, whose entire luggage seemed to consist of luncheon—pasteboard boxes of sandwiches, baskets of fruit, napkins of cake. These she began to dispose of, before the stage had fairly started, with an industry almost automatic, continuing faithful to her post as long as the supplies lasted. Then she dozed, sleeping the sleep of the just and those who keep their mouths open. From time to time the stage-driver invoked his team in cabalistic words, and each time the horses toiled forward with fresh energy; but progress became a mockery in that ocean of space, their driving seemed as futile as the sport of children who crack a whip and play at stage-coach with a couple of chairs; the mountains still mocked in the distance.
A flat, unbroken sweep of country, a tangle of straggling sage-brush, a glimpse of foot-hills in the distance, was the outlook mile after mile. The day grew pitilessly hot. Clouds of alkaline dust swept aimlessly over the desert or whirled into spirals till lost in space. From horizon to horizon the sky was one cloudless span of blue that paled as it dipped earthward. Mary Carmichael dozed and wakened, but the prospect was always the same—the red stage crawling over the wilderness, making no evident progress, and always the sun, the sage-brush, and the silence.
It was all so overwhelmingly different from the peaceful atmosphere of things at home. The mellow Virginia country, with its winding, red roads, wealth of woodland, and its grave old houses that were the more haughtily aloof for the poverty that gnawed at their vitals. This wilderness was so gaunt, so parched; she closed her eyes and thought of a bit of landscape at home. A young forest of silver beeches growing straight and fine as the threads on a loom; and through the gray perspective of their satin-smooth trunks you caught the white gleam of a fairy cascade as it tumbled over the moss-grown stones to the brook below. It was like a bit from a Japanese garden in its delicate artificiality.
And harder to leave than these cherished bits of landscape had been the old house Runnymede, that always seemed dozing in the peaceful comatose of senility. It was beyond the worry of debt; the succession of mortgages that sapped its vitality and wrote anxious lines on the faces of Aunt Adelaide and Aunt Martha was nothing to the old house. Had it not sheltered Carmichaels for over a century?—it had faith in the name. But Mary could never remember when the need of money to pay the mortgage had not invaded the gentle routine of their home-life, robbing the sangaree of its delicate flavor in the long, sleepy summer afternoons, invading the very dining-room, an unwelcome guest at the old mahogany table, prompting Aunt Adelaide to cast anxious glances at the worn silver—would it go to pay that blood-sucking mortgage next?
But hardest of all to leave had been Archie, best and most promising of young brothers—Archie, who had come out ahead of his class in the high-school, all ready to go to The University—the University of Virginia is always "The University"; but who, it had seemed at a certain dark season, must give up this long-cherished hope for lack of the wherewithal. Mary, being four years older than her brother and quite twenty, had long felt a maternal obligation to administer his affairs. If he did not go to the university, like his father and grandfather before him, it would be because she had failed in her duty. At this particular phase of the domestic problem there had appeared, in a certain churchly periodical, a carefully worded advertisement for a governess, and the subsequent business of references, salary, and information to be imparted and received proving eminently satisfactory, Mary had finally received a tearful permission from her aunts to depart for some place in Wyoming, the name of which was not even to be found on the map. She was to consider herself quite one of the family, and the compensation was to be fifty dollars a month. Archie would now be able to go to "The University."
As the day wore on the sage-brush became scarcer and grayer, there were fewer flowering cacti, and the great white patches of alkali grew more and more frequent. In the distance there was a riot of rainbow tints—violet, pink, and pale orange. It seemed inconceivable that such barrenness could produce such wealth of color; nothing could have been more beautiful—not even the changing colors on a pigeon's neck—than the coppery iridescence, shading to cobalt and blue on some of the buttes.
Night had fallen before they made the first break in their journey. The low, beetle-browed cabin that faced them in the wilderness carried in its rude completeness a hint of the prestidigitateur's art—a world of desolation, and behold a log cabin with smoke issuing from the chimney and curtains at the windows! The interior was unplastered, but this shortcoming was surmounted by tacking cheesecloth neatly over the logs, a device at once simple and strategic, as in the lamplight the effect was that of plaster. Miss Carmichael, suddenly released from the actual rumbling of the stage, felt its confused motion the more strongly in imagination, and hardly knew whether she was eating canned tomatoes, served uncooked directly from the tin, fried steak, black coffee, and soda biscuit, in company with the fat lady, the stage-driver, and the woman who kept the road ranch, or if it was all some Alice in Wonderland delusion.
The fat lady had brought her own bedding—an apoplectic roll of bedquilts—and these she insisted on making a bed of, despite the protests of the ranch-woman, who seemed to detect a covert insinuation against her accommodations in the precedent. Miss Carmichael profited by the controversy. The landlady, touched no doubt by the simple faith of a traveller who trusted to the beds of a road-ranch, or because she was young or a girl, led the way in triumph to her own bedroom, and indicating an imposing affair with pillow-shams, she defied Miss Carmichael to find a more comfortable bed "in the East."
In the unaccountable manner of these desert conveyances, that creak and groan across the arid wastes with an apparently lumbering inconsequence, the stage that brought the travellers to the Dax ranch left at sunrise to pursue a seemingly erratic career along the North Platte, while Miss Carmichael and the fat lady were to continue their journey with one Lemuel Chugg, who drove a stage northward towards the Red Desert, when he was sober enough to handle the ribbons.
Breakfast was largely devoted to speculation regarding the approximate condition of Mr. Chugg—would he be wholly or partially incapacitated for his job? Mrs. Dax, flirting a feather-duster in the neighborhood of Miss Carmichael in a futile effort to beguile her into giving a reason for her solitary journey across the desert, took a gloomy view of the situation.
But Miss Carmichael kept her own counsel. Not so the fat lady. Falling into the snare ingenuously set for another, she divulged her name, place of residence, and the object of her travels, which was to visit a son on Sweetwater. Furthermore, she stated the probable cause of every death in her family for the past thirty-five years. Miss Carmichael felt an especial interest in an Uncle Henry who "died of a Friday along of eating clams." He stood out with such refreshing vividness against a background of neutralities who succumbed to consumption, bile colic, and other more familiar ailments of the patent-medicine litany. But loquacity, apparently, like virtue, is its own reward, for the landlady scarce vouchsafed a comment on this dismal recitative, while Miss Carmichael remained the object of her persistent attentions.
But there seemed to be no topic of universal interest but Chugg's condition, Mrs. Dax finally asserting, "Before I'd trust my precious neck to him, I'd get Mr. Dax to shoot me."
Meditating on this Spartan statement, Mary and the fat lady became aware for the first time of a subtle, silent force in the domestic economy. But so unobtrusive was this influence that one had to scrutinize very closely, indeed, to detect the evanescent personality of Mrs. Dax's husband. Leander was his name, but it is safe to say that he swam no Hellesponts for the masterful wife of his bosom. Otherwise he was slender, willowy, bald; if he ever stood straight enough to get the habitually apologetic crooks out of his knees, he would be tall; but so in the habit was he of repressing himself in the marital presence that Leander passed for middle height. He waited on the table at breakfast with the dumb submissiveness of a trained dog that has been taught to give pathetic imitations of human servility. But no sooner had his lady left the room than Leander began quite brazenly to call attention to himself as a man and an individual, coughing, rattling his dishes, and clearing his throat. Mary and the fat lady, out of very pity, responded to these crude signals with overtures equally frank, and Leander ventured finally to inquire if they aimed to spend the night at his brother's ranch, it being the next mess-box between here and nowhere. They admitted that his brother's ranch was their next stopping-place, and Leander went through perfect contortions of apology and self-effacement before he could bring himself to ask them to do him a favor. It would have taken a very stern order of womankind to refuse anything so abject, and they blindly committed themselves to the pledge.
"Tell him I send my compliments," he whispered, and, looking about him furtively, he repeated the blood-curdling request.
"Is that all?" sniffed the fat lady, at no pains to conceal her disappointment.
"It's enough, if it was known, to raise a war-whoop and stampede this yere family." His glance at the door through which his wife had disappeared was pregnant with meaning.
"Family troubles?" asked the fat lady, as a gourmet might say "Truffles."
"Looks like it," said Leander, dismally. "Me and Johnnie don't ask for nothin' better than to bask in each other's company; but our wives insists on keepin' up the manoeuvres of a war-dance the whole endoorin' time."
"So," said the fat lady, as a gourmet might tell of a favorite way of preparing truffles, "it's a case of wives?"
"Yes, marm, an' teeth an' nails an' husbands thrown in, when they get a sight of each other's petticoats."
"I've known sisters-in-law not to agree," helped on the fat lady, by way of an encouraging parallel.
"While I deplores usin' such a comparison to the refinin' and softenin' inflooance of wimmen, the meetin' of the Dax ladies by chanst anywheres has all the elements of danger and excitement that accompanies an Injun uprisin'."
The travellers looked all manner of encouragement.
"You see, my wife's a great housekeeper; her talent lies"—and here Leander winked knowingly—"in managin' the help."
"Land's sake!" interrupted the fat lady. "Why don't you kick?"
Leander sighed softly. "I tried to once. As an experiment it partook of the trustfulness of a mule kickin' against the stony walls of Badger Canon. But to resoom about the difficulties that split the Dax family. Before Johnnie got mislaid in that matrimonial landslide o' his, he herds with us. Me an' him does the work of this yere shack, and my wife just roominates and gives her accomplishments as manager full play. She never put her hand in dirty water any more than Mrs. Cleveland sittin' up in the White House parlor. Johnnie done the fancy cookin'; he could make a pie like any one's maw, and while you was lost to the world in the delights of masticatin' it, he'd have all his greasy dishes washed up and put away—"
"No wonder she hated to lose a man like that," interrupted the fat lady, feelingly.
"But he took to pinin' and proclaimin' that he shore was a lone maverick, and he just stampeded round lookin' for trouble and bleatin' a song that went:
"'No one to love, None to caress.'
"Well, the lady that answers his signal of distress don't bear none of the brands of this yere range. She lives back East, and him and her took up their claims in each other's affections through a matrimonial paper known as The Heart and Hand. So they takes their pens in hand and gets through a hard spell of courtin' on paper. Love plumb locoes Johnnie. His spellin' don't suit him, his handwritin' don't suit him, his natchral letters don't suit him. So off he sends to Denver for all the letter-writin' books he can buy—Handbook of Correspondence, The Epistolary Guide, The Ready Letter-Writer, and a stack more. There's no denyin' it, Johnnie certainly did sweat hisself over them letters."
"Land's sakes!" said the fat lady.
"Yes, marm; he used to read 'em to me, beginnin' how he had just seized five minutes to write to her, when he'd worked the whole day like a mule over it. She seemed to like the brand, an' when he sent her the money to come out here an' get married, she come as straight as if she had been mailed with a postage-stamp."
"The brazen thing!" said the fat lady.
"They stopped here, goin' home to their place. My Lord! warn't she a high-flyer! She done her hair like a tied-up horse-tail—my wife called it a Sikey knot—and it stood out a foot from her head. Some of the boys, kinder playful, wanted to throw a hat at it and see if it wouldn't hang, but they refrained, out of respect to the feelin's of the groom.
"From the start," continued Leander, "the two Mrs. Daxes just hankered to get at each other; an' while I, as a slave to the fair sex"—here he bowed to the fat lady and to Miss Carmichael—"hesitates to use such langwidge in their presence, the attitood of them two female wimmin shorely reminds me of a couple of unfriendly dawgs just hankerin' to chaw each other.
"At first, Johnnie waited on her hand an' foot, and she just read novels and played stylish all the time and danced. She was the hardest dancer that ever struck this yere trail, and she could give lessons to any old war-dancin' chief up to the reservation. No dance she ever heard of was too far for her to go to. She just went and danced till broad daylight. Many a man would have took to dissipation, in his circumstances, but Johnnie just lost heart and grew slatterly. Why, he'd leave his dishes go from one day till the next—"
"There's more as would leave their dishes from one day till the next if they wasn't looked after." And the wife of his bosom stood in the door like a vengeful household goddess. Mr. Dax made a grab for the nearest plates.
Judith, The Postmistress
The arrival of Chugg's stage with the mail should have been coincident with the departure of the stage that brought the travellers from "Town," but Chugg was late—a tardiness ascribed to indulgence in local lethe waters, for Lemuel Chugg had survived a romance and drank to forget that woman is a variable and a changeable thing. In consequence of which the sober stage-driver departed without the mails, leaving Mary Carmichael and the fat lady to scan the horizon for the delinquent Chugg, and incidentally to hear a chapter of prairie romance.
Some sort of revolution seemed to be in progress in the room in which the travellers had breakfasted. Mrs. Dax had assumed the office of dictator, with absolute sway. Leander, as aide-de-camp, courier, and staff, executed marvellous feats of domestic engineering. The late breakfast-table, swept and garnished with pigeon-holes, became a United States post-office, prepared to transact postal business, and for the time being to become the social centre of the surrounding country.
Down the yellow road that climbed and dipped and climbed and dipped again over foot-hills and sprawling space till it was lost in a world without end, Mary Carmichael, standing in the doorway, watched an atom, so small that it might have been a leaf blowing along in the wind, turn into a horseman.
There was inspiration for a hundred pictures in the way that horse was ridden. No flashes of daylight between saddle and rider in the jolting, Eastern fashion, but the long, easy sweep that covers ground imperceptibly and is a delight to the eye. It needed but the solitary figure to signify the infinitude of space in the background. In all that great, wide world the only hint of life was the galloping horseman, the only sound the rhythmical ring of the nearing hoofs. The rider, now close enough for Miss Carmichael to distinguish the features, was a thorough dandy of the saddle. No slouching garb of exigence and comfort this, but a pretty display of doeskin gaiter, varnished boot, and smart riding-breeches. The lad—he could not have been, Miss Carmichael thought, more than twenty—was tanned a splendid color not unlike the bloomy shading on a nasturtium. And when the doughty horseman made out the girl standing in the doorway, he smiled with a lack of formality not suggested by the town-cut of his trappings. Throwing the reins over the neck of the horse with the real Western fling, he slid from the saddle in a trice, and—Mary Carmichael experienced something of the gasping horror of a shocked old lady as she made out two splendid braids of thick, black hair. Her doughty cavalier was no cavalier at all, but a surprisingly handsome young woman.
Miss Carmichael gasped a little even as she extended her hand, for the masquerader had pulled off her gauntlet and held out hers as if she was conferring the freedom of the wilderness. It was impossible for a homesick girl not to respond to such heartiness, though it was with difficulty at first that Mary kept her eyes on the girl's face. Curiosity, agreeably piqued, urged her to take another glimpse of the riding clothes that this young woman wore with such supreme unconcern.
Now, "in the East" Mary Carmichael had not been in the habit of meeting black-haired goddesses who rode astride and whose assurance of the pleasure of meeting her made her as self-conscious as on her first day at dancing-school; and though she tried to prove her cosmopolitanism by not betraying this, the attempt was rather a failure.
"Are you surprised that I did not wait for an introduction?" the girl in the riding clothes asked, noticing Mary's evident uneasiness; "but you don't know how good it is to see a girl. I'm so tired of spurs and sombreros and cattle and dust and distance, and there's nothing else here."
"Where I come from it's just the other way—too many petticoats and hat-pins."
The horseman who was no horseman dropped Miss Carmichael's hand and went into the house. Mary wondered if she ought to have been more cordial.
From the back door came Leander, with dishcloths, which he began to hang on the line in a dumb, driven sort of way.
"Who is she?" asked Mary.
"Her?" he interrogated, jerking his head in the direction of the house. "The postmistress, Judith Rodney; yes, that's her name." He dropped his voice in the manner of one imparting momentous things. "She never wears a skirt ridin', any more than a man."
Mary felt that she was tempting Leander into the paths of gossip, undoubtedly his besetting sin, but she could not resist the temptation to linger. He had disposed of his last dish-cloth, and he withdrew the remaining clothes-pin from his mouth in a way that was pathetically feminine.
"She keeps the post-office here, since Mrs. Dax lost the job, and boards with us; p'r'aps it's because she is my wife's successor in office, or p'a'ps it's jest the natural grudge that wimmin seem to harbor agin each other, I dunno, but they don't sandwich none."
Leander having disposed of his last dish-towel, squinted at it through his half-closed eyes, like an artist "sighting" a landscape, saw apparently that it was in drawing, and next brought his vision to bear on the back premises of his own dwelling, where he saw there was no wifely figure in evidence.
"Sh-sh-h!" he said, creeping towards Mary, his dull face transfigured with the consciousness that he had news to tell. "Sh-sh—her brother's a rustler. If 'twan't for her"—Leander went through the grewsome pantomime of tying an imaginary rope round his neck and throwing it over the limb of an imaginary tree. "They're goin' to get him for shore this time, soon as he comes out of jail; but would you guess it from her bluff?"
There was no mistaking the fate of a rustler after Mr. Dax's grisly demonstration, but of the quality of his calling Mary was as ignorant as before.
"And why should they do that?" she inquired, with tenderfoot simplicity.
"Stealin' cattle ain't good for the health hereabouts," said Leander, as one who spoke with authority. "It's apt to bring on throat trouble."
But Mary did not find Leander's joke amusing. She had suddenly remembered the pale, gaunt man who had walked into the eating-house the previous morning and walked out again, his errand turned into farce-comedy by the cowardice of an unworthy antagonist. The pale man's grievance had had to do with sheep and cattle. His name had been Rodney, too. She understood now. He was Judith Rodney's brother, and he was in danger of being hanged. Mary Carmichael felt first the admiration of a girl, then the pity of a woman, for the brave young creature who so stoutly carried so unspeakable a burden. But she could not speak of her new knowledge to Leander.
She glanced towards this childlike person and saw from his stealthy manner that he had more to impart. He walked towards the kitchen door, saw no one, and came back to Mary.
"There ain't a man in this Gawd-forsaken country wouldn't lope at the chance to die for her—but the women!" Leander's pantomimic indication of absolute feminine antagonism was conclusive.
"The wimmin treats her scabby—just scabby. Don't you go to thinkin' she ain't a good girl on that account"; and something like an attitude of chivalrous protection straightened the apologetic crook in his craven outline.
"She's good, just good, and when a woman's that there's no use in sayin' it any more fanciful. As I says to my wife, every time she give me a chance, 'If Judy wasn't a good girl these boys about here would just natchrally become extinct shootin' each other upon account of her.' But she don't favor none enough to cause trouble."
"Are the women jealous of her?"
"It's her independence that riles 'em. They take on awful about her ridin' in pants, an' it certainly is a heap more modest than ridin' straddle in a hitched up caliker skirt, same as some of them do."
"And do all the women out here ride astride?" Mary gasped.
"A good many does, when you ain't watchin'; horses in these parts ain't broke for no such lopsided foolishness as side-saddles. But you see she does it becomin', and that's where the grudge comes in. You can't stir about these foot-hills without coming across a woman, like as not, holdin' on to a posse of kids, and ridin' clothes-pin fashion in a looped-up skirt; when she sees you comin' she'll p'r'aps upset a kid or two assoomin' a decorous attitood. That's feeminine, and as such is approved by the ladies, but"—and here Leander put his head on one side and gave a grotesque impression of outraged decorum—"pants is considered unwomanly."
"Leander! Leander!" came in accusing accents from the kitchen.
"Run!" gasped Mrs. Dax's handmaiden; "don't let her catch us chinnin'."
Mary Carmichael ran round one side of the house as she was bidden, but, like Lot's wife, could not resist the temptation of looking back. Leander, with incredible rapidity, grabbed two clothes-pins off the line, clutched a dish-towel, shook it. "Comin'! comin'!" he called, as he went through the farce of rehanging it.
The lonesomeness of plain and foot-hill, the utter lack of the human element that gives to this country its character of penetrating desolation, had been changed while Mary Carmichael forgathered with Leander by the clothes-line. From the four quarters of the compass, men in sombreros, flannel shirts, and all manner of strange habiliments came galloping over the roads as if their horses were as keen on reaching Dax's as their riders. They came towards the house at full tilt, their horses stretching flat with ears laid back viciously, and Mary, who was unused to the tricks of cow-ponies, expected to see them ride through the front door, merely by way of demonstrating their sense of humor. Not so; the little pintos, buckskins, bays, and chestnuts dashed to the door and stopped short in a full gallop; as a bit of staccato equestrianism it was superb.
And then the wherefore of all this dashing horsemanship, this curveting, prancing, galloping revival of knightly tourney effects was apparent—Judith Rodney had opened post-office. She had changed her riding clothes; or, rather, that portion of them to which the ladies took exception was now concealed by a long, black skirt. Her wonderful braids of black hair had been twisted high on her head. She was well worth a trip across the alkali wastes to see. The room was packed with men. One unconsciously got the impression that a fire, a fight, or some crowd-collecting casualty had happened. Above the continual clinking of spurs there arose every idiom and peculiarity of speech of which these United States are capable. There is no Western dialect, properly speaking. Men bring their modes of expression with them from Maine or Minnesota, as the case may be, but their figures of speech, which give an essential picturesqueness to their language, are almost entirely local—the cattle and sheep industries, prospecting, the Indians, poker, faro, the dance-halls, all contribute their printable or unprintable embellishment.
Judith managed them all—cow-punchers, sheep-herders, prospectors, freighters—with an impersonal skill that suggested a little solitary exercise in the bowling-alley. The ten-pins took their tumbles in good part—no one could congratulate himself on escaping the levelling ball—and where there's a universal lack of luck, doubtless also there will be found a sort of grim fellowship.
That they were all more or less in love with her there could be no doubt. As a matter of fact, Judith Rodney did not depend on the scarcity of women in the desert for her pre-eminence in the interests of this hot-headed group. Her personality—and through no conscious effort of hers—would have been pre-eminent anywhere. As it was, in this woman-forsaken wilderness she might have stirred up a modern edition of the Trojan war at any moment. That she did not, despite the lurking suggestion of temptation written all over her, brought back the words of Leander: "If Judy wasn't a good girl, these boys would just nacherally become extinct shooting each other upon account of her."
And yet what a woman she was! It struck Miss Carmichael, as she watched Judith hold these warring elements in the hollow of her hand, that her interest might be due to a certain temperamental fusion; that there might lie, at the essence of her being, a subtle combination of saint and devil. One could fancy her leading an army on a crusade or provoking a bar-room brawl. The challenging quality of her beauty, the vividness of color, the suggestion of endurance and radiating health in every line, were comparable to the great primeval forces about her. She was cast to be the mother of men of brawn and muscle, who would make this vast, unclaimed wilderness subject to them.
At present neither pole of her character, as it had been hastily estimated, was even remotely suggested. The atmosphere in the post-office was, considering the potential violence of its visitors, singularly calm. And Judith, feeding these wild border lads on scraps of chaff and banter, and retaining their absolute loyalty, was a sight worth seeing. She had the alertness of a lion-tamer locked in a cage with the lords of the jungle; the rashly confident she humbled, the meek she exalted, and all with such genuine good-fellowship, such an absence of coquetry in the genial game of give and take, that one ceased to wonder at even the devotion of Leander. And since they were to her, on her own confession, but "spurs and sombreros," one wondered at the elaboration of the comedy, the endless wire-pulling in the manipulation of these most picturesque marionettes—until one remembered the outlaw brother and felt that what she did she did for him.
"You right shore there ain't a letter for me, Miss Judith. My creditors are pretty faithful 'bout bearing me in mind." It was the third time that the big, shambling Texan who had been one of the company at Mrs. Clark's eating-house had inquired for mail, and seemed so embarrassed by his own bulk that he moved cautiously, as if he might step on a fellow-creature and maim him. Each time he had asked for a letter he took his place at the end of the waiting-line and patiently bided his time for the chance of an extra word with the postmistress.
"They've begun to lose hope, Texas."
She shuffled the letters impartially, as a goddess dispensing fate, and barely glanced at the man who had ridden a hundred and fifty miles across sand and cactus to see her.
"That's the difference between them and me." There was a grim finality in his tone.
"What, you're going to take your place at the end of that line again! I'll try and find you a circular."
He tried to look at her angrily, but she smiled at him with such good-fellowship that he went off singing significantly that universal anthem of the cow-puncher the West over:
"Oh, bury me not on the lone prairie, In a narrow grave just six by three, Where the wild coyotes will howl o'er me. Oh, bury me not on the lone prairie."
"Ain't there a love letter for me?" The young man who inquired seemed to belong to a different race from these bronzed squires of the saddle. He suggested over-crowded excursion boats on Sunday afternoons in swarming Eastern cities. He buttonholed every one and explained his presence in the West on the score of his health, as though leaving his native asphalt were a thing that demanded apology.
"Yes," answered the postmistress, with a real motherly note, "here is one from Hugous & Co."
A roar went up at this, and the blushing tenderfoot pocketed his third bill for the most theatrical style of Mexican sombrero; it had a brass snake coiled round the crown for a hat-band, and a cow-puncher in good and regular standing would have preferred going bareheaded to wearing it.
"She seems to be pressing her suit, son; you better name the day," one of the loungers suggested.
"The blamed thing ain't worth twenty-five dollars," the young man from the East declared. A conspicuous silence followed. It seemed to irritate the owner of the hat that no one would defend it. "It ain't worth it," he repeated.
"I think you allowed you was out here for your health?" the big Texan, who had returned from the corral, inquired.
"Betcher life," swaggered the man with the hat, "N'York's good enough for me."
"But"—and the Texan smiled sweetly—"the man who sold you the hat ain't out here for his."
Judith hid her head and stamped letters. The boys were suspiciously quiet, then some one began to chant:
"The devil examined the desert well, And made up his mind 'twas too dry for hell; He put up the prices his pockets to swell, And called it a—heal-th resort."
The postmistress waited for the last note of the chorus to die away, and read from a package she held in her hand—"'Mrs. Henry Lee, Deer Lodge, Wyoming.' Well, Henry, here's a wedding-present, I guess. And my congratulations, though you've hardly treated us well in never saying a word."
The unfortunate Henry, who hadn't even a sweetheart, and who was noted as the shyest man in the "Goose Creek Outfit," had to submit to the mock congratulations of every man in the room and promise to set up the drinks later.
"I never felt we'd keep you long, son; them golden curls seldom gets a chance to ripen singly."
"Shoshone squaw, did you say she was, Henry? They ain't much for looks, but there's a heep of wear to 'em."
"Oh, go on, now; you fellows know I ain't married." And the boy handled the package with a sort of dumb wonder, as if the superscription were indisputable evidence of a wife's existence.
"Open it, Henry; you shore don't harbor sentiments of curiosity regarding the post-office dealings of your lady."
"Now, old man, this here may be grounds for divorce."
"See what the other fellow's sending your wife."
Henry, badgered, jostled, the target of many a homely witticism, finally opened the package, which proved to be a sample bottle of baby food. At sight of it they howled like Apaches, and Henry was again forced to receive their congratulations. Judith, who had been an interested on-looker without joining in the merriment, now detected in the tenor of their humor a tendency towards breadth. In an instant her manner was official; rapping the table with her mailing-stamp, she announced:
"Boys, this post-office closes in ten minutes, if you want to buy any stamps."
The silence following this statement on the part of the postmistress was instantaneous. Henry took his mirth-provoking package and went his way; some of the more hilariously inclined followed him. The remainder confined themselves absolutely to business, scrawling postal-cards or reading their mail. The pounce of the official stamp on the letters, as the postmistress checked them off for the mail-bag, was the only sound in the hot stillness.
A heavily built man, older than those who had been keeping the post-office lively, now took advantage of the lull to approach Judith. He had a twinkling face, all circles and pouches, but it grew graver as he spoke to the postmistress. He was Major Atkins, formerly a famous cavalry officer, but since his retirement a cattle-man whose herds grazed to the pan-handle of Texas. As he took his mail, talking meantime of politics, of the heat, of the lack of water, in the loud voice for which he was famous, he managed, with clumsy diplomacy, to interject a word or two for her own ear alone.
"Jim's out," he conveyed to her, in a successfully muffled tone. "He's out, and they're after him, hot. Get him out of the State, Judy—get him out, quick. He tried to kill Simpson at Mrs. Clark's, in town, yesterday. The little Eastern girl that's here will tell you." Then the major was gone before Judith could perfectly realize the significance of what he had told her.
She threw back her head and the pulse in her throat beat. Like a wild forest thing, at the first warning sound, she considered: Was it time for flight?—or was the warning but the crackling of a twig? Major Atkins was a cattle-man: her brother hated all cattle-men. How disinterested had been the major's warning! He had always been her friend. Mrs. Atkins had been one of the ladies at the post who had helped to send her to school to the nuns at Santa Fe. She despised herself for doubting; yet these were troublous times, and all was fair between sheep and cattle-men. Major Atkins had spoken of the Eastern girl; then that pretty, little, curly-haired creature, whom Judith had found standing in the sunshine, had seen Jim—had heard him threaten to kill. Should she ask her about it—consult her? Judith's training was not one to impel her to give her confidence to strangers, still she had liked the little Eastern girl.
These were the perplexities that beset her, sweeping her thoughts hither and thither, as sea-weed is swept by the wash of the waves. She strove to collect her faculties. How should she rid the house of her cavaliers? She had regularly to refuse some half-dozen of them each day that she kept post-office.
In a few minutes more the group in the post-office began to disperse under the skilful manipulation of the postmistress. To some she sold stamps with an air of "God speed you," and they were soon but dwindling specks on the horizon. To others she implied such friendly farewells that there was nothing to do but betake themselves to their saddles. Others had compromised with the saloon opposite, and their roaring mirth came in snatches of song and shouts of laughter. She fastened up the little pile of letters that had remained uncalled for with what seemed a deliberate slowness. Each time any one entered the room she looked up—then the hope died hard in her face. Leander came in with catlike tread and removed the pigeon-holes from the table. The post-office was closed. Family life had been resumed at the Daxes'.
Judith left the room and stood in the blinding sunlight, basking in it as if she were cold. The mercury must have stood close to a hundred, and she was hatless. There was no trace of her ebullient spirits of the morning. Her head was sunk on her breast and she held her hands with locked fingers behind her. It was hot, hot as the breaths of a thousand belching furnaces. A white, burning glare had spread itself from horizon to horizon, and the earth wrinkled and cracked beneath it. From every corner of this parched wilderness came an ominous whirring, like the last wheezing gasp of an alarm-clock before striking the hour. This menacing orchestration was nothing more or less than millions of grasshoppers rasping legs and wings together in hoarse appreciation of the heat and glare; but it had a sound that boded evil. Again and again she turned towards the yellow road as it dipped over the hills; but there was never a glimpse of a horseman from that direction.
The Trail Of Sentiment
Within the house the travellers had disposed themselves in a repressed and melancholy circle that suggested the suspended animation of a funeral gathering. The fat lady had turned back her skirt to save her travelling dress. The stage was late, and there was no good and sufficient reason for wearing it out. A similar consideration of economy led her to flirt off flies with her second best pocket-handkerchief. Mrs. Dax presided over the gathering with awful severity. Every one truckled to her shamefully, receiving her lightest remarks as if they were to be inscribed on tablets of bronze. Leander, his eyes bright with excitement at being received in the family circle on an equal footing, balanced perilously on the edge of his chair, anticipating dismissal.
"Chugg's never ben so late as this," said Mrs. Dax, rocking herself furiously. She strongly resembled one of those mottled chargers of the nursery whose flaunting nostrils seem forever on the point of sending forth flame. Leander, the fat lady, and Miss Carmichael meekly murmured assent and condemnation.
"And there ain't a sign of him," said Mrs. Dax, returning to the house after straining the landscape through her all-observant eye, and not detecting him in any of the remote pin-pricks on the horizon, in which these plainsfolk invariably decipher a herd of antelope, an elk or two, or a horseman.
"Bet he had a woman in the stage and upset it with her," said Leander, in the animated manner of a poor relation currying favor with a bit of news.
Mrs. Dax regarded him severely for a moment, then conspicuously addressed her next remark to the ladies. "Bet he had a woman in the stage, the old scoundrel!"
"Wonder who she was?" said Leander, with the sparkling triumph of a poor relation whose surmise had been accepted. But Mrs. Dax had evidently decided that Leander had gone far enough.
"Was you expectin' any of your lady friends by Chugg's stage that you are so frettin' anxious?" she inquired, and the poor relation collapsed miserably.
"You've heard about Chugg's goin' on since 'Mountain Pink' jilted him?" inquired Mrs. Dax of the fat lady, as the only one of the party who might have kept abreast with the social chronicles of the neighborhood.
"My land, yes," responded the fat lady, proud to be regarded as socially cognizant. "M' son says he's plumb locoed about it—didn't want me to travel by his stage. But I said he dassent upset a woman of my age—he just nacherally dassent!"
Miss Carmichael, by dint of patient inquiry, finally got the story which was popularly supposed to account for the misdemeanors of the stage-driver, including his present delinquency that was delaying them on their journey.
It appeared that Lemuel Chugg, then writhing in the coils of perverse romance, was among the last of those famous old stage-drivers whose talents combined skill at handling the ribbons with the diplomacy necessary to treat with a masked envoy on the road. His luck in these encounters was proverbial, and many were the hair-breadth escapes due to Chugg's ready wit and quick aim; and, to quote Leander, "while he had been shot as full of holes as a salt-shaker, there was a lot of fight in the old man yet."
Chugg had had no loves, no hates, no virtues, no genial vices after the manner of these frontiersmen. Avarice had warmed the cockles of his heart, and the fetish he prayed to was an old gray woollen stocking, stuffed so full of twenty-dollar gold pieces that it presented the bulbous appearance of the "before treatment" view of a chiropodist's sign. This darling of his old age had been waxing fat since Chugg's earliest manhood. It had been his only love—till he met Mountain Pink.
Mountain Pink's husband kept a road-ranch somewhere on Chugg's stage-route. She was of a buxom type whose red-and-white complexion had not yet surrendered to the winds, the biting dust, and the alkali water. Furthermore, she could "bring about a dried-apple pie" to make a man forget the cooking of his mother. Great was the havoc wrought by Mountain Pink's pies and complexion, but she followed the decorous precedent of Caesar's wife, and, like her pastry, remained above suspicion.
Her husband, whose name was Jim Bosky, seemed, to the self-impanelled jury that spent its time sitting on the case, singularly insensible to his own advantages. Not only did he fail to take a proper pride in her beauty, but there were dark hints abroad that he had never tasted one of her pies. When delicately questioned on this point, at that stage of liquid refreshment that makes these little personalities not impossible, Bosky had grimly quoted the dearth of shoes among shoe-makers' children.