By ANNA FULLER
A Literary Courtship: Under the Auspices of Pike's Peak. 28th thousand. 16 deg. $1.25
A Venetian June. Illustrated. 15th thousand. 16 deg. $1.25
Peak and Prairie: From a Colorado Sketch-Book. Illustrated. 7th thousand. 16 deg. New Edition. 12 deg. $1.50
Pratt Portraits: Sketched in a New England Suburb. Illustrated, 12th thousand. 12 deg. $1.50
One of the Pilgrims. A Bank Story. 6th thousand. 12 deg. $1.25
Katherine Day. 8th thousand. 12 deg. $1.50
A Bookful of Girls. 4th thousand. Illustrated. 12 deg. $1.50
Later Pratt Portraits. Illustrated $1.50 net
PEAK AND PRAIRIE
From a Colorado Sketch Book
By ANNA FULLER
Author of "A Literary Courtship" "Pratt Portraits," Etc.
Illustrated by Emma G. Moore
New York and London G. P. Putnam's Sons
Copyright, 1894 BY ANNA FULLER
The Knickerbocker Press, New York
TO ONE TO WHOM I OWE COLORADO AND MUCH BESIDES THIS BOOK IS INSCRIBED
The sketches of Colorado life which make up this volume are little more than hints and suggestions caught from time to time by a single observer in a comparatively narrow field of observation. Narrow as the field is, however, it offers a somewhat unusual diversity of scene; for that most charming of health resorts known in these pages as Springtown, is the chance centre of many varying interests. In its immediate vicinity exists the life of the prairie ranch on the one hand and that of the mining-camp on the other; while dominating all as it were—town, prairie, and mountain fastness—rises the great Peak which has now for so many years been the goal of pilgrimage to men and women from the Eastern States in pursuit of health, of fortune, or of the free, open-air life of the prairie. If, from acquaintance with these fictitious characters set in a very real environment, the reader be led to form some slight impression of the stirring little drama which is going forward to-day in that pleasant Land of Promise, he will have incidentally endorsed the claim of these disconnected sketches to be regarded as a single picture.
PREFACE v I.—A PILGRIM IN THE FAR WEST 1 II.—BRIAN BORU 36 III.—JAKE STANWOOD'S GAL 60 IV.—AT THE KEITH RANCH 101 V.—THE RUMPETY CASE 123 VI.—THE LAME GULCH PROFESSOR 151 VII.—THE BOSS OF THE WHEEL 187 VIII.—MR. FETHERBEE'S ADVENTURE 217 IX.—AN AMATEUR GAMBLE 240 X.—A ROCKY MOUNTAIN SHIPWRECK 266 XI.—A STROKE IN THE GAME 301 XII.—THE BLIZZARD PICNIC 335 XIII.—A GOLDEN VISTA 369
Note.—Of the thirteen sketches included in this volume six have previously appeared in periodicals, as follows:
A Pilgrim in the Far West in Harper's Weekly; Brian Boru in Worthington's Magazine; Jake Stanwood's Gal and At the Keith Ranch in The Century Magazine; The Rumpety Case in Lippincott's Magazine; and An Amateur Gamble in Scribner's Magazine. They were, however, all prepared with reference to their final use as a consecutive series.
"The Peak was Superb that Morning, Big and Strong and Glittering with Snow" Frontispiece
"A Handful of Cottonwood Trees Clustered about the House" 24
"The Vast Sea of the Prairie" 46
"Between his Cabin Door and 'The Range' Stretched Twenty Miles of Arid Prairie" 60
The Keith Ranch 104
"A Half-Hearted Stream Known as 'The Creek'" 122
"The Great Dome of Snow Towered in All its Grandeur" 142
"A Town of Rude Frame Huts had Sprung up in the Hollow below" 156
"On the Edge of a Dead Forest" 212
"It's a Kind of Double Back-Action Slant we've Got to Tackle this Time" 228
Pine Bluff 258
"They Looked out at the Peak" 289
"The Brook, Which Came Dashing Down From The Canon, Still Rioting on Its Way" 324
"The Ranch Gate, Which Had Swung Half To On Its Hinges" 360
"The Wild and Beautiful Gorge" 378
A Golden Vista 388
PEAK AND PRAIRIE
A PILGRIM IN THE FAR WEST.
The Peak was superb that morning, big and strong, and glittering with snow. Little Mrs. Nancy Tarbell turned, after shutting and locking the door of her cottage, and looked down the street, at the end of which the friendly giant stood out against a clear blue sky. The cottonwood trees on either side of the road were just coming into leaf, and their extended branches framed in her mighty neighbor in a most becoming manner. The water in the irrigating ditch beneath the trees was running merrily. The sound of it brought a wistful look into the cheerful old face. It made Mrs. Nancy think of the gay little brook in the pasture behind the house at home—at home, in far New England.
Surely it must have been a strange wind of destiny that wafted this unadventurous little woman across half a continent to the very foot of the Rocky Mountains—a long and weary journey for the young and vigorous. Yet it was something no stranger than a mother's love for her only child. For "Willie's" sake the widow Tarbell had turned her back upon the dear New England woods and meadows, upon the tidy village where every man and woman was her friend; for his sake she had come to dwell among strangers in a strange and barren land. The old homestead had been sold, and with the meagre proceeds she had paid their way across the prairies, and had bought a little house and a lot of land on the outskirts of Springtown, while Willie looked about him for something to do. But the enemy before whom they had fled followed them to the high pure altitude it loves not, and before poor Willie had found anything to do, he had been "called up higher." This was the phrase the minister used at Willie's funeral, and it had been peculiarly comforting to the bereaved mother. She had known well that her boy needed higher air, for that she had come to live six thousand feet above the level of the New England pastures. But the Lord saw that she, with her poor human wisdom, could not lead him to the needed height, and He had called him up higher yet, where are blessing and healing forever. With this abiding consolation in her heart, Willie's mother could face the shining Peak day after day and month after month with a countenance as brave and cheerful as his own. It was only when she listened to the sound of running waters, or some other voice of the past, that the wistful look came into her face.
Meanwhile it was good life-giving air that she breathed, and good warm sunshine that rested upon her, as she stepped briskly on her way. Her little cottage was no longer on the outskirts of the town. Stately mansions had risen up about her, and a long procession of houses now stretched far up to the northward. The people idly looking forth from the windows of the stately mansions, did not realize how much a part of the landscape the little black figure had become, passing and repassing their doors. A small meek figure it was, with little indication of the bright spirit within. It was her "best dress" of ten years ago that she now "wore common." The folds of the skirt, cut in the fashion of a by-gone day, offered ample accommodation for bustle and steels, and in the absence of these props the gown had a collapsed, inconsequent air. But little Mrs. Nancy had never seen her own back, and she wore the gown with a pleased consciousness of being well dressed. Then there was the thin cashmere shoulder cape, with the long slimpsy fringe, which Willie, in his pride and fondness, had persuaded her to buy, and which had a curiously jaunty and inapt appearance on the narrow shoulders. The close black felt bonnet was rusty and of antiquated shape. And since few ever thought of looking within these prosaic externals to note the delicacy of the soft old cheek, and the sweet innocence of the faded blue eyes beneath the thin gray locks, it is perhaps no wonder that the dwellers in the stately mansions quite overlooked their modest little neighbor.
Mrs. Nancy was expecting to bring back her marketing in the flat twine bag she carried, and she was also thinking of calling at the milliner's and inquiring the cost of having her old black straw bonnet pressed over and retrimmed. She held her purse tightly between her fingers, encased in loose black cotton gloves, as she tried to estimate the sum of such an unwonted outlay. Her means were very, very slender, yet she could not bear that Willie's mother should look too shabby.
And was that all? Who knows but that the spring instinct of renewal and rejuvenation played a part in her resolve quite independent of the perennial thought of Willie? The drama of life does not cease even in the most unobtrusive consciousness. It was going on in little Mrs. Nancy's brain at every step of her morning walk. As the shriek of a locomotive rent the air, a bright smile suddenly crossed her face. Her thoughts had taken a different and more inspiring turn.
"Who knows," she said to herself. "Maybe that is the very engine that will take me home some day—when Atchison begins to pay again."
The noisy engines had always a reassuring sound to her ears. She would sometimes lie in bed listening with rapture to their discordant cries. They were the willing servants that would one day carry her eastward, miles upon miles, hours upon hours—eastward to the old home, within smell of the salt air, where there were familiar faces to welcome her, familiar voices to speak of Willie.
The people here, the few she knew, were very kind, but they seemed to have forgotten Willie, and she was shy of speaking of him. But all the home folks would flock to meet her, and to hear of his last brave hours. How glad they would be to know that he had lacked nothing! Atchison had given them all they needed while Willie was alive. She blessed Heaven for that.
She had arrived in the business part of the town, where wagons and foot-passengers thronged at this hour of the morning. She willingly let them divert her thoughts. She liked the bustle and hurry of the scene. The well-dressed men and women in their trim turnouts little guessed what pleasure their high-stepping horses and silver-mounted harnesses gave to the modest little woman threading her way among the people on the sidewalk.
Suddenly Mrs. Nancy's pleased survey of the scene was interrupted. Glancing down a side street, she beheld a sight which made her heart beat hard. A big, rough-looking man was striding along the sidewalk, dragging at the end of a long pole a frightened white dog. The dog was pulling back with might and main, scarcely using its unwilling legs in its enforced progress over the ground. What could it mean? Was the dog mad? He looked harmless enough. They were only a few rods off, and Mrs. Nancy soon overtook them. The dog proved to be a small white collie, and as she came up with him he gave her an appealing look out of his great brown eyes, which filled her with compassion and indignation.
"What are you doing with that dog?" she demanded, in a peremptory tone of voice quite out of keeping with the rusty black bonnet.
"Doin'?" repeated the man, somewhat surprised. "I'm takin' him to the City Hall."
"He ain't got no license on."
"And what are you going to do with him when you get him there?"
"I ain't goin' to do nothin' more with him."
"Will they put a license on him?"
"Not much! He won't need no license after to-morrow morning." The man's grin seemed perfectly diabolical.
"You don't mean they'll kill him?"
"I reckon that's about the size of it."
"But suppose the owner would rather pay the license?" she urged.
"Then he'd better step round lively and pay it. There ain't no time to lose. The law was on the 1st of May, and the owner'd ought to have attended to it before now."
The unutterable tragedy of the situation was heightened by the needless humiliation and terror of the victim, and once again Mrs. Nancy protested.
"What makes you drag him at the end of that pole?"
"I ain't goin' to give him a chance at my breeches, not if I knows myself," replied the man, defiantly.
"He wouldn't hurt your pantaloons. See how gentle he is!" and the little woman pulled off her glove to pat the pretty white head. As the grateful creature licked her hand she felt a thrill of new pity and tenderness. By this time they were at the City Hall. "What do you have to pay for a license?" she asked.
"Two good solid dollars," said the man. "I never seen a dog yet that was worth that money, did you?" And dog and persecutor disappeared together within a sinister-looking basement door.
Mrs. Nancy Tarbell stood for a moment irresolute, and then she slowly wended her way along the sidewalk, pondering the thing she had seen. Two dollars! That was a large sum of money in these hard times. Could she possibly spare it? She did not know yet what her tax bill would be, but for some unexplained reason it turned out to be larger every year. She supposed it was owing to the improvements they were making in the town, and she had too much self-respect to protest. But it was really getting to be a serious matter.
In her perplexity and absorption the little lady had turned eastward, and presently she found herself close upon a railroad track over which a freight train was slowly passing. It was the Atchison road, and she watched with interest the long, slow train.
"They appear to be doing a good business," she said to herself. "Seems as though they might make out to pay something or other."
When the train had passed she stepped across the track, looking with interest at the well-laid rails and the solid ties. "Queer, isn't it?" she thought. "Now I own six thousand dollars worth of that track, and yet I can't squeeze out of it enough to pay a poor little dog's license."
She never could think without a feeling of awe of the magnitude of the sum left her by her thrifty husband, the bulk of which sum was represented by those unfruitful certificates. She stooped and felt the rails, looking cautiously up and down the road to be sure no train was coming. After all, it was consoling to think that that good honest steel and timber was partly her property. It was not her first visit to the spot.
"Queer, isn't it," she reflected, as she had often done before, "that there isn't any way that I can think of to make my own road take me home? Anyhow I'll buy that license just to spite 'em," she exclaimed, with sudden decision; and shaking the dust of Atchison from her feet, and the far more bewildering dust of financial perplexities from her mind, she walked quickly back to the town.
It took a certain amount of resolution to turn the handle of the sinister-looking door, and the group of men lounging in the smoking-room, and turning upon her inquisitive glances as she entered, might even then have daunted her, had not her eye fallen upon a dejected bunch of whitish hair in one corner.
As she stepped into the room, a white tail disengaged itself from the round hairy bundle, and began pathetically to beat the floor, while two very beautiful and beseeching eyes were fixed upon her face. Had she still been irresolute this mute appeal would have been irresistible, and suddenly feeling as bold as a lion she stepped up to the desk where the city marshal was throned, and demanded a license for the white dog. The two great silver dollars which she drew from her purse looked very large to the widow Tarbell, yet it was with a feeling of exultation that she paid them as ransom for the white dog. In return for the money she received a small, round piece of metal with a hole bored through it, bearing a certain mystic legend which was to act as a talisman to the wearer. Her name and address were duly entered on the books. Then her agitated little beneficiary was untied from the chair leg, the rope which bound him was put into her hands, and with a polite courtesy Mrs. Tarbell turned to go.
By a sudden impulse one of the rough-looking men got up from his chair, and, taking his hat off, opened the door. A light flush crossed the little woman's cheek as she accepted the attention, and then the two small figures, the black and the white, passed out into the delicious Colorado sunshine.
"She looked 'most too small to handle that big door," said the tall fellow, apologetically, as he re-established his wide sombrero on the back of his head, and, resuming his seat, tilted his chair once more against the wall. The other men smoked on in silence. No one felt inclined to chaff this shamefaced Bayard. Mrs. Tarbell, meanwhile, led her willing captive along, delighting in his cheerful aspect and expressive tail. He was dirty, to be sure, and he was presumably hungry. Who could tell what hardships he had suffered before falling into the brutal hands of the law? She stopped to buy her dinner, to which she added five cents' worth of dog's-meat, but the milliner's door was passed coldly by. The old straw would have to serve her another season.
Before they had gone two blocks, Mrs. Nancy had named the collie David. She had no question whatever about the name, for had he not been delivered out of the hands of the Philistines? She was patient with him when he paused to make the acquaintance of other dogs, and even once when he succeeded in winding the cord tightly about her ankles. Nevertheless it was a relief to get him home, and to tie him to the post of her front porch, where he established himself with entire willingness, and promptly dropping asleep, forgot alike his perils and his great escape.
The first care of his new friend on arriving home was to secure the license upon him. He was collarless, and she was a good deal "put to it" to supply the lack. At last she resolved to sacrifice her shawl-strap in the emergency. She might miss it, to be sure, when she came to go home, but then, she reflected, if she were once on her way home, she would not care about any little inconvenience. So as soon as she and David had had a good dinner, she got down the old strap, which had hung on a certain nail for five long years, and taking a kitchen knife, ruthlessly chopped it off to the right length. Then she bored a new hole with her scissors for the tongue of the buckle to pass through, and, going to Willie's tool box, found a short piece of wire with which—it seemed but the other day—he had been tinkering something about the house. With the wire she fastened the license securely to the collar. But before David could be found worthy of such decoration, he was subjected to a pretty severe bath in an old tub out in the back yard.
Poor David! This was a novel and painful dispensation, and he submitted only under protest. But his new mistress was firm, and arrayed in her oldest calico gown, with spectacles on her nose, she applied herself, with the energy and determination of all her New England grandmothers, to the task of scrubbing and soaping and squeezing and combing the dirt out of the long, thick hair. Three tubs of water were barely sufficient for the process, but finally David emerged, subdued but clean, looking very limp and draggled, and so much smaller because of his wet, close-clinging coat, that for a moment Mrs. Nancy thought, with a pang, that she might have washed away a part of the original dog. Later, however, when the sun had dried the fluffy hair, and when she fastened the new collar about the neck of the spotless animal, she let him lick her very face, so delighted were they both with the result of her labors. The rest of the afternoon they passed amicably together on the sunny porch. She would look up occasionally from her sewing, and say, "Good doggy!" and David would immediately wag his tail in delighted response. He was extremely mannerly and appreciative of the slightest attention—always excepting his enforced ablutions—and he seemed to approve of the kind eyes of his little protectress as warmly as she approved of his cool leather nose and speaking ears. As often as he moved, his license, hitting against the collar buckle, made a safe, cheerful sound, and Mrs. Nancy felt quite overcome with joy and gratitude at having been the chosen instrument of his preservation. When she lighted the lamp in the evening and began her regular game of backgammon, David curled himself up at her feet in a most companionable manner, and pricked his ears with interest at the fall of the dice.
But for her backgammon it would be difficult to imagine what Mrs. Tarbell would have done with her evenings, for her eyes were not strong enough for reading or sewing. She had got the habit of playing backgammon with Willie, after he became too weak for more active occupations, and they had kept the score in a little green blank-book. After he died she had missed the game, and she had found it pleasant to take it up again, and to play for both herself and Willie. The score, too, had been continued in the old book. At the top of each new page she wrote in her precise old-fashioned hand, "Mother," "Willie," and under her name all the victories of the "whites" were scored, while those of the "blacks" were still recorded to Willie's credit. After a while her eyesight began to fail still more, and it became necessary to lift the dice and examine them "near to." Then gradually she found that the black checkers occasionally eluded her, and that she was straining her eyes in her efforts to see them in the shadowy corners of the board. When at last she found that by an oversight she had committed a flagrant injustice to Willie's interests, she felt that something must be done. Being fertile in resource, she presently bethought herself of the bright colored wafers she had played with in her childhood, and to her joy she found they were still to be bought. Having possessed herself of a box of them, she proceeded to stick a glittering gilt star upon each side of each checker, both black and white, after which the checkerboard took on a showy theatrical appearance.
Mrs. Nancy rarely felt lonely when playing backgammon. The click of the dice sounded cheerful and sociable; the checkers, with their shining eyes, seemed to take a real interest in the game; and when she scored the result to "Willie" or to "Mother," the old familiar every-day relation seemed restored between them.
To-night Willie was having all the luck, and that was sure to put his mother in the best of spirits. She played on and on, much later than her custom was, till at last the luck turned, and looking at her flat, gold-faced watch, she found, with a shock, that it was ten minutes after ten o'clock.
"My sakes!" she cried. "I ought to be ashamed of myself! Come, David, come right along to bed. You're going to sleep on the mat at the back door."
David, who was nothing if not amenable, cheerfully acceded to this arrangement. Even before his new mistress had finished tying him to the railing, he had curled himself up on the mat and was fast asleep. When she patted him on the head, however, by way of good-night, his tail gave a responsive wag, and little Mrs. Nancy left him with the friendliest feelings.
The next morning the dog was gone. Yes, incredible as it seems, that graceless dog was gone—gone without a word of farewell.
Mrs. Nancy was standing gazing in dejected mood at the fragment of string he had left behind him, when the milkman, one of her special cronies, arrived. The good-natured Sam was full of sympathy.
"I reckon he came in with some ranchman yesterday, and got lost in the town. Like as not he's gone home. Good Lord! I'd just like to see that 'ere ranchman when his dog gits back with a locket round his neck!"
"I washed him too, Sam," Mrs. Nancy lamented, as she accompanied her visitor to the gate. She was too conscientious to detain the man from the performance of his duty.
"You washed him!" he cried, as he got into his cart. "Jerusalem! I guess that's the first time a ranch dog ever got a taste of a bath."
And the cart rattled off, leaving David's little friend standing at the gate. It was just after sunrise, and she looked down the street to the mountains, which were bathed in a flood of translucent crimson reflected from the east.
"I wonder if the walls of the heavenly Jerusalem look very different from that!" she mused, as she gazed into the deepening color. When she turned back to the house, she had almost forgotten the ungrateful runaway in thoughts of her boy and his heavenly abiding place.
The next afternoon Mrs. Tarbell was sitting on her front porch endeavoring to readjust the bows upon the old straw bonnet. She had taken them off, and sponged both ribbon and straw, and she was now trying her best to make the bows hold up their heads with the spirit and grace which distinguish a milliner's trimming. She looked up from time to time to enjoy the reflection of the trees in the lake surrounding the house. For her grass was being flooded to-day, and that was always a pretty sight. "It looks almost as pretty as Watkins' pond out on the Goodham turnpike," she reflected, as the water glistened in a broad expanse. She owned a good piece of land, a hundred feet front. Willie had meant to have a vegetable garden when he had got strong enough to work in it.
A horseman had turned into the street, and came cantering toward the house. But horsemen were part of the landscape in Colorado, and she scarcely noticed his approach till a joyful bark caused her to look up, just in time to see David take a flying leap over the gate and come dashing up to her.
"Why, David!" she cried; and then she stopped, abashed, for the horseman was already tying his pony to the post.
"Mrs. Tarbell?" he questioned, as he opened the gate; and without waiting for an answer, he went on: "I've come to thank you for getting my dog away from those scoundrels at the City Hall. They had the decency to tell me where to look for you."
"Oh, pray don't mention it!" said little Mrs. Nancy, with old-fashioned courtesy.
"Not mention it!" cried her visitor. "It was the kindest thing I ever heard of. I don't see what made you do it."
"Oh, I couldn't help it. David looked so miserable being dragged along at the end of a pole."
"The cowards!" he cried. "Don't get a chair, ma'am. I like the steps better. Did you call him David?" he asked, with a twinkle of amusement in his kind gray eyes, as he seated himself on the low step, with his long legs trailing off over the walk.
"Well, yes. I didn't know what else to call him, and as he'd been delivered out of the hands of the Philistines——"
"That's a good one!" cried the ranchman. "Come here, David. You've got a name now as well as a locket. Do you hear that?"
David had established himself between his master and his rescuer, and looked from one to the other with evident satisfaction. They were soon engaged in an amicable conversation, quite unconscious of the picture they were forming. The tall ranchman, clad in full cowboy paraphernalia, his extended legs encased in leathern "shaps" decorated with long fringes, his belt of rattlesnake-skin, his loose shirt showing a triangle of bronzed throat, in his hand the broad sombrero clasped about with a silver band.
Little Mrs. Nancy sitting upright in her chair, in her neat old black gown, holding the forgotten bonnet in her lap, watched her picturesque visitor with the greatest interest. And looking up into the delicate little old face, he noted all the sweetness and brightness which had so long been lost upon the world. To make a clean breast of it, the two fell frankly in love with each other upon the spot, and before the stranger had departed, he had persuaded her to visit his ranch with him the very next Sunday.
"But I don't know what to call you," she said, after having agreed upon this wild escapade.
"That's so," said he. "I go by the name of Wat Warren out here, but they used to call me Walter at home. I wish you would call me Walter."
"It's a pretty name," she said. "I thought some of calling my boy Walter at first."
Warren was on the point of departure, and a sudden embarrassment seemed to seize him. He had his hand in his trousers' pocket. "I 'most forgot the money for the license," he stammered, as he pulled out a couple of silver dollars.
Nobody knows what came over Mrs. Nancy, but she suddenly found she could not take the money.
"Oh, that's of no consequence," she said, quite as though she had had at her command the whole treasury surplus of a few years ago. "I should like to make David a present of the license;" and as her two visitors departed at full gallop, she sat down in a flutter of pleasurable excitement.
How surprising it all was! She looked back upon the last hour quite incredulous. She felt as though she had known this strange young man all her life. Not that he had told her much about his own concerns. On the contrary, after complimenting her on the subject of David's collar and David's bath, he had got her talking about herself; and she had told him about Willie, and about Atchison, and about her desire to go home to New England.
"My sakes!" said she to herself; "what a chatterbox I'm getting to be in my old age! What must he have thought of me?" But in her heart she knew he had not thought any harm of her confidence. There had been no mistaking the sympathy in that sunburnt face, and if there had been any doubt remaining, the hearty grip of the rough hand, which she still felt upon her palm, would have set her mind quite at rest.
But if Mrs. Nancy wondered at herself on Tuesday, she had fairly lost all track of her own identity when, on Sunday, she found herself seated beside her broad-shouldered friend in a light wagon, bowling over the prairies behind a pair of frisky four-year-olds, while David bounded beside them or scampered about in the vain pursuit of prairie-dogs.
"Do you feel afraid?" asked her host, looking protectingly down upon the tiny figure at his side.
"Not a mite," she declared. "I never was one of the scary kind."
They had left the mountains behind them and were speeding to the eastward. It seemed to her that a few hours of this rapid progress would bring them to the very shores of the Atlantic. On and on they went over the undulating yellow plains. As they neared the top of each rise of ground Mrs. Nancy's heart stood still in a strange fantastic suspense. Would there be trees over beyond, or lakes, or rivers, or perhaps a green New England meadow?
"Isn't it like sailing?" said her companion as they bowled along.
"I never went sailing," Mrs. Nancy replied. "I've only been out in a boat on the pond, and I think this is pleasanter."
They did little talking on that drive. Mrs. Nancy was too entirely absorbed in her new experience to have much to say. But when at last they reached the ranch, lying like an oasis in the vast barren, with young corn sprouting in the wide fields, and a handful of cottonwood trees clustered about the house, the tears fairly started to the little woman's eyes, so much did this bit of rural landscape remind her of her own far-away New England. And when the master of the house led the way into a neat little room, with a south window looking across the plains, it came his turn for confidences.
"This room was built on for my mother," he said.
"Did she live here with you?"
"No; she died before she could get here."
"Oh dear!" said his little visitor.
The two small words were eloquent with sympathy.
That was a red-letter day for Mrs. Nancy Tarbell. She felt as though she were getting a glimpse of the great West for the first time in all these years. When her host casually informed her that he owned about seven square miles of land and two hundred head of cattle, she gave a little gasp of amazement.
"I always wanted to see a cattle ranch," she said.
"Oh, this is no cattle ranch. It's only a dairy." And he took her about through the many sheds and barns, which were hidden in a hollow a few rods away. Here he showed her his ice-houses, his huge churns, and his mammoth "separator" that went whirling around, dividing the cream from hundreds of gallons of milk in the time it would have taken her to skim a couple of three-pint pans.
"Sakes alive!" she exclaimed again and again, as these wonders were explained to her—"sakes alive! what would our folks say to that?"
"You'll have a great deal to tell them when you go back," said Warren, studying her animated face.
"If I ever go," she said, with a little sigh.
This was after dinner, which had been a savory meal served by a man cook.
"Do you want very much to go?"
"Oh yes! I shall go just as soon as ever Atchison begins to pay again. I hope I haven't any false pride," she added, deprecatingly, "but I can live cheaper here than I should be willing to there, where I've seen better days."
Brave little Mrs. Nancy! It was not indeed false pride that deterred her, but the fear of being a burden to others.
They were sitting in the big living-room, which on this great occasion had been made as neat as her own little parlor. Antlers and other strange trophies ornamented the walls, where also guns and spurs and lassos hung. The little woman did not seem in the least out of place among these warlike objects. She sat in an old leathern chair, her feet on a coyote-skin, looking about her with quick bright motions that made the big fellow think of the shy field creatures that sometimes strayed over his threshold—ground squirrels, rabbits, and the like. David lay curled up close beside her, and half a dozen less-favored dogs looked wistfully in from time to time. Warren was wondering whether she could possibly fit in naturally to the stiff, scant New England life which he had fled away from when a boy. Presently he said:
"Have you any idea how much your house and land are worth?"
"Oh yes! We paid ten hundred and fifty dollars for it when the house was new, but it's a good deal out of repair now."
"But you know real estate is pretty high here just now."
Struck by the peculiar emphasis with which he spoke, Mrs. Nancy gave him a startled look. "Why—why—what do you mean?"
"Well, I was talking with a real-estate man about the value of land the other day, and he said you could realize six thousand dollars on your place any day."
"Yes, six thousand dollars."
"Why, that's just what we had in Atchison!"
"Well, I guess there's no question but that you could get that for your land to-morrow."
It had indeed been an eventful day, and it was followed by a sleepless night. For years little Mrs. Nancy had had one great wish, and suddenly it was to be fulfilled. She could go home—home to New England, to the village where she was born, to the village where everybody knew her, where they would talk of Willie. Through the hours of the night, which sped fast, she thought and thought of the home-coming. She passed in review all her old neighbors, forgetting for the moment how many would be found missing; she wandered in spirit through the familiar pastures, beneath the green trees, beside the pond at the foot of the hill. Suddenly a strange suggestion intruded itself upon her thoughts. Must it not be "kind o' damp" with all that swamp land so near by, and the great elm-trees so close about the house? Her house no longer, however. It had passed into the hands of strangers—city people, whom she did not know. She wondered where she should live. She should want to be independent, and she should hate to "board out."
But with the alloy of perplexity her radiant visions faded, and she fell asleep. For the first time in all these years the milkman found locked doors. He would not disturb the "little widdy," but when he had left the can upon the back steps he turned away, feeling somewhat aggrieved.
The next morning, after her house was set in order and her marketing done, Mrs. Nancy sat herself down in her porch to darn her stockings. She had formed the habit, for Willie's sake, of doing all the work possible out in the air and sunshine, and she still clung to all the habits that were associated with him. Her weekly darning was a trifling piece of work, for every hole which ventured to make its appearance in those little gray stockings was promptly nipped in the bud.
The water was merrily flowing in the irrigating ditch, a light breeze was rustling in the cotton woods before the door, while the passing seemed particularly brisk. Two small boys went cantering by on one bareback horse; a drove of cattle passed the end of the street two or three rods away, driven by mounted cow-boys; a collection of small children in a donkey cart halted just before her door, not of their own free will, but in obedience to a caprice of the donkey's. They did not hurt Mrs. Nancy's feelings by cudgelling the fat little beast, but sat laughing and whistling and coaxing him until, of his own accord, he put his big flapping ears forward as though they had been sails, and ambled on. There were pretty turnouts to watch, and spirited horses, and Mrs. Nancy found her mind constantly wandering from what she meant should be the subject of her thoughts.
When the postman appeared around the corner he came to her gate and lifted the latch. It was not time for her small bank dividend. The letter must be from her husband's sister-in-law, who wrote to her about twice a year. As Mrs. Nancy sat down to read the letter her eyes rested for a moment upon the mountains.
"If Almira could have come with the letter she'd have thought those snowy peaks well worth the journey," she said to herself. And then she read the letter.
Here it is:
"DEAR NANCY,—Excuse my long silence, but I've been suffering from rheumatism dreadfully, and haven't had the spirit to write to anybody but my Almira. It's been so kind of lonesome since she went away that I guess that's why the rheumatism got such a hold of me. When you ain't got anybody belonging to you, you get kind of low-spirited. Then the weather—it's been about as bad as I ever seen it. Not a good hard rain, but a steady drizzle-drozzle day after day. You can't put your foot out of doors without getting your petticoats draggled. But you'll want to hear the news. Cousin Joshua he died last month, and the place was sold to auction. Deacon Stebbins bought it low. He's getting harder-fisted every year. Eliza Stebbins she's pretty far gone with lung trouble, living in that damp old place; but he won't hear to making any change, and she ain't got life enough left to ask for it. Both her boys is off to Boston. Does seem as though you couldn't hold the young folks here with ropes, and I don't know who's going to run the farms and the corner store when we're gone. Going pretty fast we be too. They've been eight deaths in the parish since last Thanksgiving—Mary Jane Evans and me was counting them up last sewing circle. Mr. Williams, the new minister, made out as we'd better find a more cheerful subject; but we told him old Parson Edwards before him had given us to understand that it was profitable and edifying to the spiritual man to dwell on thoughts of death and eternity. They do say that Parson Williams would be glad to get another parish. He's a stirring kind of man, and there ain't overmuch to stir, round here. I sometimes wish I could get away myself. I'd like to go down to Boston and board for a spell, jest to see somebody passing by; but they say board's high down there and living's poor; and, after all, it's about as easy to stick it out here. I don't know though's I wonder that you feel 's you do about coming home. 'T ain't what you're used to out West, and I don't suppose you ever feel real easy in your mind from cow-boys and Indians and wild animals. I was reading only yesterday about a grizzly-bear that killed a man right there in the Rocky Mountains, and I'm glad you feel 's you do about coming home. I should like to think that you'd be here to close my eyes at the last.
"But no more at present. This is quite a letter for me. Your true friend, "ALMIRA TARBELL.
"P.S.—You remember my old tabby that I set such store by? She died along in March, and I buried her under the sugar-maple side of the barn. The maples didn't do as well this year."
"Poor Almira," said the little widow, folding the letter with a sigh; "she's having a real hard time. I do feel for her, I declare."
An hour after, when her new friends Warren and David came to inquire how she had borne the fatigues of her yesterday's drive, they found her sitting with the letter in her hands. There was a bright flush on her cheeks, and a look of perplexity in her blue eyes.
"Fine day, isn't it?" said Warren, while David wagged his tail till it almost touched his ears.
"Yes, it's a very fine day. 'Pears to me Colorado never did look so nice as it does to-day."
"That is because you are thinking of leaving us," Warren rejoined, thoughtfully pulling the ears of David, who could scarcely contain himself for joy at being the object of such a flattering attention.
"I don't know 's I should be in such a hurry to go right straight away, even if I could sell my land," said the widow, slipping the letter into her pocket with a guilty air.
They chatted awhile in the bright sunshine, and Warren soon had an inkling of the little woman's state of mind.
"I don't suppose, now, you'd be willing to take a ground-rent on the other half of your land if a desirable party should apply? A rent, say, for five years, with the privilege of purchase at the expiration of the term?"
The long words sounded very technical and business-like, yet rather agreeable too.
"You mean somebody might like to build on my land?"
"That's the idea," said Warren. "Fact is," he went on, after a pause, "I happen to know a nice, steady young fellow who is thinking of getting married. He told me he would be willing to pay $300 and taxes."
"Three hundred dollars!" cried the wondering little land-owner. "Why, I should feel like a rich woman!"
"Well, the land's worth it, and the young man's able to pay."
The air was growing warmer and sweeter every minute, and the water in the irrigating ditch sounded quite jubilant as it raced past the house. Yes, Colorado was a pleasant place to live in, especially with Walter Warren for a neighbor only ten miles away. The ranch did not seem at all far off since that rapid drive across the prairies.
She sat so long silent that her visitor felt he must offer greater inducements. He began pulling David's ears so vigorously that a dog of a less refined perception might have howled remonstrance, and then, while the color deepened in the sunburnt face and an engaging shyness possessed him, Warren said, "Perhaps you'd take more kindly to the arrangement if you knew who the young man was?"
"My dear, are you going to get married?" cried Mrs. Nancy, forgetting alike her perplexities and her dreams of opulence.
"Well, yes, I am; some time next fall. She lives back East; and I thought it would be nice to have a little place in town where we could stay through the off seasons. You'll let us come, won't you?" he cried, with a look of boyish beseeching. "I know you would if you could see Jenny. She's so sweet!"
The momentous visit was over; Warren had had his turn at confidences, and was now striding down the street, with David at his heels.
The little widow stood at the gate, her heart feeling bigger and warmer than for many a long day. Once more she looked down under the row of cotton woods, which had come into full leaf during the past week, looked to where her giant mountain neighbor stood, strong and constant as an old friend. The air seemed clearer, the sunshine brighter, than ever before. The running stream was singing its own gay song, and for once it waked no longing in her breast. As Mrs. Nancy turned to walk up the path, she drew forth Almira's letter, not without a momentary pang of remorse. With the letter in her hand she paused again, and looked and listened as though she would drink in the whole of Colorado at one draught. Suddenly a gleam of roguish wilfulness came into the sweet old face, and speaking half aloud, she murmured,
"I don't know but I'm getting to be a heartless old woman, but—I'm afraid I'd full as lief somebody else closed Almira's eyes for her!"
And with this revolutionary sentiment the faithless little New Englander passed into the house that had at last taken on the dignity and the preciousness of a home.
Sir Bryan Parkhurst, a young Irish sportsman just over from the old country, was rather disappointed in Colorado; and that was a pity, considering that he had crossed an ocean and half a continent to get there. The climate, to be sure, was beyond praise, and climate is what Colorado is for, as any resident of Springtown will tell you. Nature, too, was very satisfactory. He liked the way the great mass of Rocky Mountains thrust itself up, a mighty barrier against the west, perfectly regardless of scenic conventionalities. There was something refreshingly democratic about the long procession of peaks, seeming to be all of about the same height. In that third week of September not a single one of them all wore the ermine, though their claim to that distinction, measured by their altitude, equalled that of their snow-clad cousins of another hemisphere. On the other hand, Sir Bryan pleased himself with fancying that the splashes of golden aspen and crimson sumac on the mountain sides, contrasting with the brilliant, unalterable blue of the sky, had a Star-Spangled-Banner effect—a thing which the British tourist is always delighted to discover.
Truth to tell, it was the people that bothered Sir Bryan. In dress, in manners,—he sometimes feared in morals, they lacked the strong flavor which he had confidently looked for. They did not wear flannel shirts in general society; they did not ask impertinent questions; a whiskey cocktail did not seem to play a necessary part in the ceremony of introduction; the almighty dollar itself did not stalk through every conversation, putting the refinements of life to the blush. In short, Sir Bryan found himself forced to base his regard for his new acquaintances upon such qualities as good breeding, intelligence, and a cordial yet discriminating hospitality,—qualities which he was perfectly familiar with at home.
He sometimes wondered whether the taint of civilization might not already have attached itself to the grizzly bear and the mountain lion, for whose inspiring acquaintance he had ardently pined since boyhood. He was on the eve of going to pay his respects to these worthies in their own mountain fastnesses, and, meanwhile, was getting himself in training by walking great distances with a rifle over his shoulder.
In the course of the last of his extended tramps—for he was due to join that inveterate sportsman, Lord Longshot, at Denver, on the following day,—he found himself passing through a wilderness of loveliness. He had entered what he would have termed, with the genial inaccuracy of his race, a "boundless enclosure," and having crossed a vast, yellowish field, populous with scrawny cattle and self-important prairie-dogs, he was following a well-marked road, which led alluringly up hill. Thousands of scrub-oaks, in every shade of bronze and russet, massed themselves on either hand, and in among them tufts of yellow asters shone, and here and there a belated gilia tossed its feathery plume. Scattered groups of pine trees that scorn the arid plains were lording it over the bolder slopes of the mountain side. The steep road went on its winding way, after the manner of its kind, dipping occasionally to meet a bridge of planks, beneath which flowed a stream of autumn colors. After a while Sir Bryan found the ascent too gradual for his ambition, and, leaving the road to make its way as it would, he pushed upwards through the bushes. Every step brought him nearer the gigantic crags which formed the buttresses of the mountain, and looked wild and impregnable enough to be the haunt of the grizzly himself.
The young man's thoughts were dwelling fondly upon the grizzly of his dreams, when he beheld a sight that sent the blood back to his heart with a rush. Not fifty yards away, in a sunny opening, lay a mass of brownish fur which could belong to nobody but a bear in propria persona. Great Caesar! Could it be possible? Almost too agitated to breathe, Sir Bryan moved cautiously toward the creature, covering it with his rifle. The bear, with the politeness which appeared to cling to all classes of society in this effetely civilized West, rose up and sat on his haunches, facing his visitor. Sir Bryan fired and the bear tumbled over like a ninepin.
Sir Bryan Parkhurst, as became a young Irish baronet, had enjoyed his share of sensations in life. A year previous he had almost broken his neck riding across country, and had won the brush into the bargain. He had once saved a man from drowning on the coast of Cornwall. He had come into his title unexpectedly, and made his new tenantry adore him. To crown all, he had, at a still poignantly recent date, practically refused the hand of an English heiress. But he had never before shot a bear, nor indeed had he ever seen one outside the Zoo. As he steadfastly regarded the heap of brown fur, a sinister doubt invaded his mind. Might it be a cow, after all? Forgetful of the well-established fact in natural history that cows never sit on their haunches, even with a view to serving as target to an ambitious sportsman, he cautiously approached his victim.
It was unquestionably a bear, though not of a terrific aspect. Sir Bryan examined the lifeless body with the keenest interest. He had seen a domestic pig which would have weighed more; he had encountered more than one dog of a more dangerous appearance; yet, when all was said, a bear was a bear.
Sir Bryan seated himself upon a rock to reflect upon his next step. It was close upon midday. He thought he must be some eight miles from town. When he had enjoyed his bear for a few minutes, he would return there and get some men to come and cart the carcass to town. He would have the skin removed and cured, and the meat—
"Brian! Brian Boru!"
The words came ringing up the mountain slope in a bell-like soprano. Why should a bell-like soprano call the name of the old Irish king in this remote wilderness? Was there witchery at work? Was the bear merely a part of the phantasmagoria of an enchanted region?
Sir Bryan, undeterred by these suggestions of his fancy, lifted up his voice and shouted "Hulloo!" and behold! a few minutes later, a horse came pushing through the scrub-oaks, bearing upon his back an enchanted princess. As was to be expected of a Colorado princess, enchanted or otherwise, she had not quite the traditional appearance. In lieu of a flowing robe of spotless white, she was clad in a plain black skirt and a shirt waist of striped cambric, while the golden fillet, if such she wore, was quite concealed by a very jaunty sailor-hat, than which no fillet could have been more becoming. In short, the pleasing vision which Sir Bryan beheld was far more to his taste than any princess of fairy lore could have been. As he sprang to his feet and lifted his hat he wondered whether the expression "nut-brown maid" was poetry. If so, he had performed an unprecedented feat in recalling it so aptly.
There is a difference in the way men lift their hats, and Sir Bryan's way was a charming one.
"Did you call?" asked the nut-brown maid.
"No; I only answered when I heard you call my name."
"Is your name Brian Boru?" she inquired, with animation.
"I am an Irishman, and my name is Bryan, so they used to call me Brian Boru."
"How very curious! That is the name of my bear!"
"Of your bear?" he repeated in blank amazement.
"Yes. Have you seen anything of him? I'm a little near-sighted and——"
Sir Bryan Parkhurst never shirked a dilemma.
"I've just shot a bear," he blurted out, "but I hope, with all my heart, it wasn't yours!"
"Shot a bear?" cried the girl, in consternation. "Oh! how could you?"
Before Sir Bryan could reach out a helping hand, her feet were on the ground.
"Where is he? Oh! where is he?" she cried in tragic accents.
Sir Bryan pointed to the prostrate form of the murdered bear. Alas! It must have been her bear, for she knelt down beside him, and gazed upon him long and mournfully.
And truly there was something pathetic about the victim, viewed from this new standpoint. He lay on his side, exposing the wound, which was clotted with blood. His small eyes were open, and a red tongue just visible between his parted teeth. One short, rigid, foreleg was stretched out as though in remonstrance, and just within its embrace a fading spray of gilia lifted its fragile blossoms.
Sir Bryan stood lost in contemplation of this singular scene; the graceful figure of the kneeling girl, bending over the mass of coarse brown fur; the flower, standing unscathed close beside the long, destructive claws. A few yards away, the horse lazily whisked his tail, while to the right the frowning crags rose, so near and steep that they seemed about to topple over and make an end of the improbable situation.
At last the girl lifted her head, murmuring, "Straight through the heart!"
The sportsman's vanity gave a little throb. It was a pretty shot, by Jove! He moved nearer.
"I'm no end sorry about it," he declared.
Alas, for that throb of vanity! His contrition did not have the true ring.
The girl turned upon him with quick distrust. No, he was more glad than sorry.
"If we were in England," she cried, with withering scorn, "you would have to be more than sorry."
"Yes, in England, or in Ireland, or anywhere round there. If I'd shot so much as a miserable pheasant on your land you'd have—you'd have had me up before the bailey!"
Clearly the girl's reading of English fiction had confused her ideas of British magistracy. But Sir Bryan was generous, and overlooked side issues.
"Is this your land?" he asked, gazing at the wild mountain side, and then at the flaming cheeks of the girl. She stood there like an animated bit of autumn coloring.
"Of course it's my land," she declared.
"But I didn't know it was your land."
"You knew it wasn't yours!" she cried vehemently.
Poor Sir Bryan was hopelessly bewildered. The great West was, after all, not quite like the rest of the world, if charming young ladies owned the mountain sides, danced attendance upon by bears of dangerous aspect and polished manners. He blushed violently, but he did not look in the least awkward.
"I wish you would tell me your name," he said, feeling that if this remarkable young lady possessed anything so commonplace as a name, the knowledge of it might place him on a more equal footing with her.
"Certainly, Mr. Bryan," she replied. "My name is Merriman; Kathleen Merriman," and she looked at him with great dignity but with no relenting.
"Well, Miss Merriman, I don't suppose there's any good in talking about it. My being awfully sorry doesn't help matters any. I don't see that there's anything to be done about it, but to have the carcass carted off your land as soon as may be."
"Carted off my land!" the girl cried, with kindling indignation. "You need not trouble yourself to do anything of the kind." Then, with a sudden change to the elegiac, she fixed her mournful gaze upon her departed friend and said, "I shall bury him where he lies!"
In this softened mood she seemed less formidable, and Sir Bryan so far plucked up his spirit as to make a suggestion.
"Perhaps I could help you," he said. "If I had a shovel, or something, I think I could dig a first-rate grave."
The fair mourner looked at him doubtfully, and then she looked at his namesake, and apparently the poetic justice of the thing appealed to her.
"There's a spade over at the house," she said, "and I don't know that it's any more than fair that you should bury him."
Sir Bryan's spirits rose still higher at the hope of partial expiation of his crime; but with his rising spirits came a premonition of a good healthy appetite which would soon be due, and he asked meekly: "Would you mind, then, if I were to go back to town first, to get something to eat? A person doesn't dig so well, I suppose, on an empty stomach."
"No, you'd better stay and get your dinner with me. It will take you pretty much all day to bury Brian. You probably never buried a bear before," she added, as patronizingly as if she herself had been a professional grave-digger, "and you don't know what a piece of work it's going to be."
They started to push their way through the scrub-oaks.
"Shall I lead your horse for you?" Sir Bryan asked.
"No, thank you. Comrag will follow, all right;" and Comrag did follow, so close upon their heels, that Sir Bryan was in momentary expectation of being trampled upon.
Comrag was an unbeautiful beast, and he permitted himself startling liberties; crowding himself in between his mistress and her companion, helping himself without ceremony to a bunch of asters which Sir Bryan had in his hand, and neighing straight into the young baronet's ear as they came in sight of the house.
The "house" was a mere hut, painted red, entirely dwarfed by an ungainly chimney of rough stone. The little hut was built against a huge boulder, which towered above the chimney itself, and looked as though it had stood there since the foundation of the earth. There was a rustic veranda along the front of this diminutive dwelling, which stood on a slight eminence; and, as Sir Bryan stepped upon the veranda, he drew a long breath of amazement and delight. Looking down over the broad, oak-clad slope of the mountain, he beheld the vast sea of the prairie, stretching for leagues upon leagues away to the low horizon. From that height the view seemed limitless, and the illusion of the sea, which always hovers over the prairies, was complete.
As his hostess came out with a long-handled spade in her hand, he cried, "That is the most magnificent thing I ever saw!"
She did not answer immediately, but stood leaning upon the spade, and gazing forth as intently as if it had been to her too a revelation.
Then she drew a long breath and said, in a rapt tone, as though the words came to her one by one: "Yes, it makes you feel sometimes as if your soul would get away from you."
They stood there for a while, watching the cloud-shadows swimming upon that mystic sea. The smoke of an express train on the horizon seemed fairly to crawl, so great was the distance.
"That looks like the smoke of a steamer," Sir Bryan observed.
"Then you think it seems like the sea, as everybody else does," she answered. "I never saw the sea, myself, but I don't believe it can be finer than this."
There was another pause, and then, with a sudden change of mood, to which she seemed subject, the rapt worshipper turned her thoughts to practical things, saying briskly: "Here's your spade, Mr. Bryan. You had better go and begin, while I get the dinner. I'll fire a shot when it's ready."
Sir Bryan obediently took the spade.
"How am I to find my way to the bear?" he asked.
All about the little clearing was an unbroken wilderness of scrub-oaks, gorgeous but bewildering.
"Why, you can just follow Comrag's tracks," she said, pointing toward the spot where the hoof-prints emerged from the brush. "You'd better leave your rifle here," she added with some asperity, "You might take a fancy to shoot Comrag if he strayed your way."
It was Sir Bryan Parkhurst's first attempt at digging, and he devoutly hoped it might be his last. He thought at first that he should never get his spade inserted into the earth at all, so numerous and exasperating were the hindrances it met with. The hardest and grittiest of stones, tangled roots, and solid cakes of earth, which seemed to cohere by means of some subterranean cement, offered a complicated resistance, which was not what he had expected of Mother Earth. He began to fear that that much bepraised dame was something of a vixen after all.
The other Brian lay, meanwhile, in all the dignity and solemnity of funeral state, awaiting burial. As Sir Bryan toiled at his thankless task he found himself becoming strangely impressed. There seemed to be a weird and awesome significance in the scene. He did not know why it was, but the beetling crags above him, the consciousness of the marvellous plains below, the rhythmic murmur of the wind in the pine trees near at hand, the curious impenetrableness of the old earth, the kingship of death asserting itself in the motionless brute which he had killed, but which he was powerless to make alive again—all these weird and unaccustomed influences seemed to be clutching at his imagination, taking liberties with his sense of identity. He had just about reached the conclusion that it was all a mistake about his being anybody in particular, when a shot rang out and reminded him that he was, at any rate, ravenously hungry.
Five minutes later he had washed his hands at the toy sink of a toy kitchen and was seated at a snowy table on the little veranda, partaking of a mutton stew which seemed a dish fit for the gods.
It had been something of a shock to Sir Bryan to find places laid for only two. He had never before enjoyed a tete-a-tete meal with a young lady, and it was some minutes before he could rid his mind of the impression that an irate chaperon was about to appear from behind the boulder, or, for the matter of that, from the depths of the earth itself. His recent experience of the difficulty of penetrating the surface of the earth might have given him a sense of security in that direction, had he not cherished an exaggerated opinion of the prowess of the traditional chaperon in thwarting the pleasures of the young. The comeliness, too, of his hostess led him, by inference, to suppose that the chaperon in question would prove to be of a peculiarly vicious and aggressive type. No such apparition came, however, to disturb his satisfaction, and he gradually came to believe in the lawfulness of the situation. His face may have betrayed something of the questionings which were racking his mind, for the self-possessed Kathleen, after heaping his plate with stew for the second time, gave him an elder-sisterly look, and said: "Mr. Bryan, you are such a very discreet young man, that I believe I will answer all the questions you are dying to ask."
Sir Bryan blushed, as he always hated himself for doing, and the nut-brown maid continued:
"Yes, I live here all alone. I am taking up a claim. No. Nobody molests me, and I get on beautifully. Sometimes my friends come up and spend a few days with me, but not often. Comrag and I do the marketing once or twice a week. I've got a lovely cool cellar up against the boulder under the house."
All this she said like a child repeating a lesson she has learned by rote, which the teacher wants to hear, but which the child finds rather uninteresting. But Sir Bryan listened as if it had been the most exciting tale he had ever heard. Thus encouraged she proceeded with the dry statement of facts.
"I've only got to stay here a month longer to secure the claim. I've got three hundred acres, and it has cost me just three hundred dollars to take it up and to build my house and Comrag's stall. I could sell out to-morrow for five hundred dollars, but I don't know that I would sell for five thousand. Because I have such a beautiful time here. I feel somehow as if I had struck root."
Sir Bryan knew exactly what she meant. In spite of the sailor hat and shirt waist, she had the air of having grown up among the rocks and glowing oak leaves. He said nothing, but his attentive attitude asked for more.
"Oh, yes! and about Brian Boru," she proceeded. "I found him last June, lying up against a tree with his leg broken. I fed him until his leg was mended, and—and"—with a little catch in her breath—"he adored me! See how green it looks off to the south," she hastened to add, brushing her hand across her eyes.
An hour after dinner, as Sir Bryan still labored at that contumacious grave, his hostess came and seated herself upon the rock, whence he, in the first flush of triumph, had surveyed the dead bear. Sir Bryan could not but feel flattered by this kind attention, and, being particularly anxious to acquit himself creditably before so distinguished a spectator, he naturally became more and more awkward at his work.
The young lady considerately divided her attention between the futile efforts of the amateur grave-digger and the flippant behavior of a black and white magpie, which was perched on the branch of a dead pine near by, derisively jerking its long tail. She wondered whether the magpie perhaps shared her astonishment, that an able-bodied son of Erin should not take more naturally to a spade. She had supposed that, if there was one weapon that an Irishman thoroughly understood, it was that which her new acquaintance was struggling with. She cocked her head on one side, with something of a magpie air, while a little crease appeared between her eyebrows.
"Why don't you coax it a little more?" she suggested.
Sir Bryan straightened himself up and stood there, very red in the face, trying to make out whether she was laughing at him. Then he laughed at himself and said, "I believe you are right. I was getting vindictive."
After that he seemed to get on better.
They buried the bear just as the heavy shadow of the mountain fell across their feet. By the time the last clod of earth had fallen upon the grave, the mountain shadow had found its way a hundred miles across the plains, and a narrow golden rim, like a magic circlet, glimmered on the horizon.
"Do you never feel afraid?" he asked, as they walked back to the house.
"No. I suppose I ought to, but I don't. I was a little disappointed the first summer I was here, because nothing happened. It seemed such a chance. But somehow things don't happen very often. Do you think they do? And now I'm a good deal older and more experienced, and I don't expect adventures. I'm almost twenty-five," she declared, with the pardonable pride of advancing years.
There was that in Sir Bryan's face as well as in his character which had always invited confidence. Consequently it did not seem to him in the least degree unnatural that this charming girl should tell him about herself, as they walked side by side along the lonely mountain slope, in the fading light.
"I forgot to tell you," she was saying, "that I am a trained nurse. I came out West from Iowa with a sick lady who died very soon, and I liked the mountains, and so I stayed."
"And you've given up nursing?"
"Oh, no. In the winter season I am always busy. I couldn't afford to give up nursing, and I don't believe I should want to. It's lovely to help people when they are suffering. You get almost to feel as though they belonged to you, and I haven't anybody belonging to me."
All this was said in a tone of soliloquy, without a trace of self-consciousness. Miss Kathleen Merriman seemed to find it quite natural that she should stand alone and unprotected in the world. But somehow it conflicted with all Sir Bryan's articles of faith. Women were intended to be taken care of, especially young and pretty women. A feeling of genuine tenderness came over him and a longing to protect this brave young creature. There was, to be sure, something about the way her head was set upon her shoulders, that made him doubt whether it would be easy to acquire the right to take care of her. But that made the task all the more tempting. The old song that every Irishman loves was in his thoughts. He felt an impulse, such as others had felt in this young lady's presence, to whisper: "Kathleen Mavourneen." He tried to fancy the consequences of such a bold step, but he did not venture to face them. He therefore contented himself with observing that the air had grown very chilly.
They had reached the little veranda once more, and Sir Bryan was not invited to tarry. The girl stood there in the deepening twilight, a step above him, leaning upon the spade he had delivered up, and looking out across the shadowy plains, and Sir Bryan could think of no possible excuse for staying any longer. As he flung his rifle over his shoulder and made a motion to go, she held out her hand, with a sudden friendly impulse, and said: "I was very unjust this morning. You couldn't possibly have known, and it was very kind of you to bury him."
Sir Bryan murmured a remorseful word or two, and then he started down the mountain side.
"Good-bye," he cried, across the scrub-oaks that were growing dark and indistinct.
"Good-bye, Mr. Bryan," came the answer, sounding shrill and near through the intervening distance.
As he looked back, a huge, ungainly form thrust itself before the slender figure. A great dark head stood out against the light shirtwaist the girl wore, and he perceived that Comrag had strolled from his stall for a friendly good-night.
"The only friend she has left now," Sir Bryan reflected in sorrowful compunction.
He strode down the mountain at a good pace. Now and then a startled rabbit crossed his path, and once his imagination turned a scrub-oak into the semblance of a bear. But he gave no heed to these apparitions. His sportsman's instinct had suffered a check.
By the time Sir Bryan had reached the outskirts of the town, the stars were out. He looked up at the great mountain giant that closed the range at the south. Wrapped in darkness and in silence it stood against the starry sky. He tried to imagine that he could perceive a twinkling light from the little cabin, but none was visible. The enchantment of the mountain-side had already withdrawn itself into impregnable shadow.
"Jove!" he said to himself, as he turned into the prosaic town. "If I were an American, or something of that sort, I'd go up there again."
Being, however, a young Irish baronet, as shy of entanglements with his own kind as he was eager for encounters with wild beasts, he very wisely went his way the next morning, and up to this time has never beheld mountain or maiden again.
Over the grave which Sir Bryan dug, there stands to-day a stout pine board, upon which may be read the following legend:
"Here lies the body of Brian Boru, shot through the heart and subsequently buried by an agreeable Paddy of the same name."
Every year, however, the inscription becomes somewhat less legible and it is to be feared that all record of the poor bear will soon be lost.
JAKE STANWOOD'S GAL.
Jacob Stanwood was not the only college-bred man, stranded more or less like a disabled hull, upon the prairie sea of Colorado. Within the radius of a hundred miles—no great distance as prairie miles are reckoned,—there were known to be some half dozen of the fraternity, putting their superior equipment to the test, opposing trained minds and muscles to the stubborn resistance of an ungenial nature. The varying result of the struggle in different cases would seem to indicate that it is moral fibre which nature respects and submits to, rather than any acquired advantages.
In Jacob Stanwood's case there was no such test applied, for there was absolutely no struggle. He would have found it much easier to send a bullet through his brain than to put that organ to any violent exertion. Up to him, but he sometimes fancied that he saw it coming. At such times he would philosophize over himself and fate, until he had exhausted those two great subjects, and then, in a quiet and gentlemanly way, he would drown speculation in the traditional dram. He never drank anything but "Old Rye," and he flattered himself that he did so only when he pleased. If he somewhat misapprehended his relation with old rye, it was perhaps no wonder; for in his semi-occasional encounters with this gentlemanly intoxicant, his only witnesses and commentators were his collie dogs, and they never ventured upon an opinion in the matter.
When he was in a good mood Stanwood would sit in his doorway of a summer evening, with the collies at his feet, and commune with nature as amicably as if she had been his best friend. Between his cabin door and "the range" stretched twenty miles of arid prairie; but when the sun was in the west, the wide expanse took on all the mystic hues that the Orientals love and seek to imitate, and he gazed across it to the towering peaks with a sense of ownership which no paternal acres, no velvet lawns, nor stately trees, could have awakened in him. A row of telegraph-poles, which had doubtless once been trees, straggled along the line of the railroad, a few miles to the north, and his own windmill indicated the presence of water underground. But as far as the eye could reach not a living tree could be seen, not a glimmer of a lake or rivulet; only the palpitating plain and the soaring peaks, and at his feet the cluster of faithful friends, gazing, from time to time, with rapt devotion into his face.
On these meditative evenings Stanwood found a leisurely companionship in reminiscences of better days; reminiscences more varied and brilliant than most men have for solace. But it was part of his philosophy never to dwell on painful contrasts. Even in the memory of his wife, whom he had adored and lost, even into that memory he allowed no poignant element to enter. He thought of her strong and gay and happy, making a joy of life. He never permitted the recollection of her illness and death, nor of his own grief, to intrude itself. Indeed he had succeeded in reality, as well as in retrospect, in evading his grief. There had been a little daughter of six, who had formed part of the painful association which his temperament rebelled against. Foregoing, in her favor, the life-interest in her mother's estate to which he was entitled, he had placed the child under the guardianship of an uncle whom he equally disliked and trusted, and, having thus disposed of his last responsibility, he had gone forth into what proved to be the very diverting world of Europe. The havoc which some ten years' sojourn wrought in his very considerable fortune would force one to the conclusion that he had amused himself with gambling; but whether in stocks, or at faro tables, or in some more subtle wise, was known only to himself.
He had returned to his own country by way of Japan and San Francisco, and then he had set his face to the East, with an idea that he must repair his shattered fortunes. When once the Rocky Mountains were crossed, however, and no longer stood as a bulwark between him and unpleasant realities, he suddenly concluded to go no farther. It struck him that he was hardly prepared for the hand-to-hand struggle with fortune which he had supposed himself destined to; it would be more in his line to take up a claim and live there as master, though it were only master of a desert.
The little daughter, with whom he kept up a desultory correspondence, had expressed her regret in a letter written in the stiff, carefully worded style of "sweet sixteen," and he had never guessed the passion of disappointment which the prim little letter concealed.
This had happened five years ago. He had taken up his claim successfully, but there success ended. After four years or more of rather futile "ranching," he sold most of his stock to his men, who promptly departed with it, and proceeded to locate a claim a few miles distant. The incident amused him as illustrating the dignity of labor, and kindred philosophical theories which the present age seems invented to establish.
One horse, a couple of cows, and his six collie dogs of assorted ages and sizes, he still retained, and with their assistance he was rapidly making away with the few hundreds accruing from the sale of his stock and farming implements. He had placed the money in the bank at Cameron City, a small railroad-station in a hollow five miles north of him, and it was when his eyes fell upon the rapidly diminishing monthly balance that he thought he saw coming that unpleasant alternative of which mention has been made.
He found no little entertainment, after the departure of his men, in converting their late sleeping-apartment into what he was pleased to call a "museum." To this end nothing further was necessary, after removing all traces of their late occupancy, than that two old sole-leather trunks should render up their contents, consisting of half-forgotten souvenirs of travel. The change was magic. Unmounted photographs appeared upon the wall, an ivory Faust and Gretchen from Nuremberg stood, self-centred and unobservant, upon the chimney-shelf among trophies from Turkey, and Japan, Spain, and Norway. A gorgeous kimono served as curtain at the south window, a Persian altar-cloth at the west; and through the west window, the great Peak gazed with stolid indifference upon all that splendor, while the generous Colorado sunshine poured itself in at the south in unstinted measure, just as lavishly as if its one mission had been to illuminate the already gorgeous display.
And then, when all was done, Stanwood found to his surprise, that he still liked best to sit at his cabin-door, and watch the play of light on peak and prairie.
Late one afternoon, as he sat in the doorway, at peace with himself, and in agreeable harmony with the world as he beheld it, his eye was caught by an indistinguishable object moving across the plain from the direction of Cameron City. He regarded it as he might have regarded the progress of a coyote or prairie-dog, till it stopped at his own gate, half a mile to the northward. A vague feeling of dissatisfaction came over him at the sight, but he did not disturb himself, nor make any remarks to the dogs on the subject. They however soon pricked up their ears, and sprang to their feet, excited and pleased. They were hospitable souls and welcomed the diversion of a visitor. As the wagon drew nearer, Stanwood observed that there was a woman sitting beside the driver; whereupon he repaired to his own room to give himself a hasty polish. The dogs began to bark in a friendly manner, and, under cover of their noise, the wagon came up and stopped before the door. Suddenly a rap resounded, and in acknowledgment of this unusual ceremony, the master of the house went so far as to pull on his best coat before stepping out into the main room. There in the doorway, cutting off the view of the Peak, stood a tall, well-dressed young woman, patting one of the dogs, while the others leaped, barking, about her.
Somewhat mystified by this apparition, Stanwood approached, and said; "Good-evening, madam."
"Good-evening," came the reply, in a rather agitated voice. "I'm Elizabeth."
"The deuce you are!"
Struck, not by the unfatherly, but by the ungentlemanly nature of his response, Stanwood promptly gathered himself together, to meet the situation.
"Pray come in and take a seat," he said; and then, falling into the prairie speech: "Where are you stopping?"
The tall young lady, who had entered, but who had not taken the proffered seat, looked at him a moment, and then she came toward him with a swift, impulsive movement, and said: "Why, papa, I don't believe you know me! I'm Elizabeth!"
"Yes, yes, oh, yes! I understand. But I thought perhaps you were paying a visit somewhere—some school friend, you know, or—or—yes—some school friend."
The girl was looking at him half bewildered, half solicitous. It was not the reception she had anticipated at the end of her two-thousand-mile journey. But then, this was not the man she had expected to see—this gaunt, ill-clad figure, with the worn, hollow-eyed face, and the gray hair. Why, her father was only fifty years old, yet the lines she saw were lines of age and suffering. Suddenly all her feeling of perplexity and chagrin and wounded pride was merged in a profound tenderness. She drew nearer, extending both her hands, placed them gently upon his shoulders and said: "Will you please to give me a kiss?"
Stanwood, much abashed, bent his head toward the blooming young face, and imprinted a perfunctory kiss upon the waiting lips. This unaccustomed exercise completed his discomfiture. For the first time in his life he felt himself unequal to a social emergency.
A curious sensation went over Elizabeth. Somehow she felt as if she had been kissed by a total stranger. She drew back and picked up her small belongings. For a moment Stanwood thought she was going.
"Don't you get your mail out here any more?" she asked.
"Not very regularly," he replied, guiltily conscious of possessing two or three illegible letters from his daughter which he had not yet had the enterprise to decipher.
"Then you did not expect me?"
"Well, no, I can't say I did. But"—with a praiseworthy if not altogether successful effort—"I am very glad to see you, my dear."
The first half of this speech was so much more convincing than the last, that the girl felt an unpleasant stricture about her throat, and knew herself to be on the verge of tears.
"I could go back," she said, with a pathetic little air of dignity. "Perhaps you would not have any place to put me if I should stay."
"Oh, yes; I can put you in the museum"—and he looked at her with the first glimmer of appreciation, feeling that she would be a creditable addition to his collection of curiosities.
Elizabeth met his look with one of quick comprehension, and then she broke into a laugh which saved the day. It was a pleasant laugh in itself, and furthermore, if she had not laughed just at that juncture she would surely have disgraced herself forever by a burst of tears.
Cy Willows, meanwhile, believing that "the gal and her pa" would rather not be observed at their first meeting, had discreetly busied himself with the two neat trunks which his passenger had brought.
"Hullo, Jake!" he remarked, as the ranchman appeared at the door; "this is a great day for you, ain't it?"
The two men took hold of one of the trunks together, and carried it into the museum. When the door opened, Willows almost dropped his end from sheer amazement. He stood in the middle of the room, staring from Venus to altar-cloth, from altar-cloth to censer.
"Gosh!" he remarked at last. "Your gal's struck it rich!"
The "gal" took it more quietly. To her, the master of this fine apartment was not Jake Stanwood, the needy ranchman, but Jacob Stanwood, Esq., gentleman and scholar, to the manor born. She stepped to the window, and looked out across the shimmering plain to the rugged peaks and the warm blue slopes of "the range," and a sigh of admiration escaped her.
"Oh, papa!" she cried, "how beautiful it is!"
"And I'll be durned if 't wa' n't the mountings the gal was looking at all the time!" Cy Willows declared, when reporting upon the astonishing situation at the ranch.
Stanwood himself was somewhat impressed by the girl's attitude. The museum had come to seem to his long unaccustomed mind a very splendid apartment indeed. When, a few minutes later, Elizabeth joined him in the rudely furnished living-room of the cabin, he felt something very like chagrin at her first observation.
"Oh, papa!" she cried. "I'm so glad the rest of it is a real ranch house! I've always wanted to see just how a real ranchman lives!"
He thought ruefully that she would soon learn, to her cost, how a very poverty-stricken ranchman lived. His examination of the larder had not been encouraging.
"I am afraid we shall have rather poor pickings for supper, my dear," he said apologetically. He called her "my dear" from the first; it seemed more non-committal and impersonal than the use of her name. He had not called a young lady by her first name for fifteen years.
"I have my dinner in the middle of the day," he went on, "and I seem to have run short of provisions this evening."
"I suppose you have a man-cook," she remarked, quite ignoring his apology.
"Yes," he replied grimly. "I have the honor to fill that office myself."
"Why; isn't there anybody else about the place?"
"No. I'm 'out of help' just now, as old Madam Gallup used to say. I don't suppose you remember old Madam Gallup."
"Oh, yes, I do! Mama used to have her to dinner every Sunday. She looked like a duchess, but when she died people said she died of starvation. That was the year after you went away," she added thoughtfully.
It seemed very odd to hear this tall young woman say "mama," and to realize that it was that other Elizabeth that she was laying claim to. Why, the girl seemed almost as much of a woman as her mother. Fifteen years! A long time to be sure. He ought to have known better than to have slipped into reminiscences at the very outset. Uncomfortable things, always—uncomfortable things!
He would not let her help him get the supper, and with a subtle perception of the irritation which he was at such pains to conceal, she forbore to press the point, and went, instead, and sat in the doorway, looking dreamily across the prairie.