THE BIOGRAPHY OF A PRAIRIE GIRL
THE BIOGRAPHY OF A PRAIRIE GIRL
BY ELEANOR GATES
PUBLISHED BY THE CENTURY CO. NEW YORK MCMIX
Copyright, 1902, by The Century Co.
Published October, 1902
THE DEVINNE PRESS.
MRS. PHOEBE A. HEARST
I THE COMING OF THE STORK 3
II A FRONTIER CHRISTENING 11
III "LITTLE BOY BLUE" 30
IV A PARIAH OF THE PRAIRIES 48
V THE MISFIT SCHOLAR 64
VI THE STORY OF A PLANTING 87
VII TWICE IN JEOPARDY 103
VIII A HARVEST WEDDING 118
IX THE PRICE OF CONVALESCENCE 134
X "BADGY" 152
XI A TRADE AND A TRICK 170
XII THE PROFESSOR'S "FIND" 187
XIII A RACE AND A RESCUE 206
XIV HARD TIMES 224
XV THE FATE OF A CROWING HEN 242
XVI THE RESERVATION TRIP 257
XVII ANOTHER MOUND ON THE BLUFF 276
XVIII THE LITTLE TEACHER 292
XIX TOWARD THE RISING SUN 311
THE BIOGRAPHY OF A PRAIRIE GIRL
THE BIOGRAPHY OF A PRAIRIE GIRL
THE COMING OF THE STORK
IT was always a puzzle to the little girl how the stork that brought her ever reached the lonely Dakota farm-house on a December afternoon without her being frozen; and it was another mystery, just as deep, how the strange bird, which her mother said was no larger than a blue crane, was able, on leaving, to carry her father away with him to some family, a long, long distance off, that needed a grown-up man as badly as her three big brothers needed a little sister.
She often tried to remember the stork, his broad nest of pussy-willows on the chin of the new moon, and the long trip down through the wind and snow to the open window of the farm-house. But though she never forgot her christening, and could even remember things that happened before that, her wonderful journey, she found, had slipped entirely from her mind. But her mother and the three big brothers, ever reminded by the stone-piled mound on the carnelian bluff, never forgot that day:
An icy blizzard, carrying in its teeth the blinding sleet that neither man nor animal could breast, was driving fiercely across the wide plains; and the red, frame dwelling and its near-lying buildings of sod, which only the previous morning had stood out bravely against the dreary, white waste, were wrapped and almost hidden in great banks that had been caught up from the river heights and hurled with piercing roars against them.
The storm had begun the day before, blowing first in fitful gusts that whistled under the eaves, sent the hay from the stacks flying through the yard, and lifted the ends of the roof shingles threateningly. It had gradually strengthened to a gale toward midday, and the steady downfall of flakes had been turned into a biting scourge that whipped up the soft cloak from the face of the open, treeless prairie and sent it lashing through the frigid air. Long before night had begun to settle down, no eye could penetrate the scudding snow a foot beyond the window ledges, except when a sudden stilling of the tempest disclosed the writhing cottonwood break to the north, and the double row of ash saplings leading south to the blotted, printless highway.
With darkness, the fury of the blizzard had redoubled, and the house had rocked fearfully as each fresh blast struck it, so that the nails in the sheathing had snapped from time to time, and rung in the tense atmosphere like pistol shots. Momentary lulls—ominous breathing-spells—had interrupted the blizzard; but they had served only to intensify it when it broke again. As it rose from threatening silence to rending shrieks, the bellowing of the frightened cattle, tied in their narrow stalls, had mingled with it, and added to its terrors.
But, when another wild, sunless day had come in, the drift-piled home had ceased to shiver and creak or admit any sounds from without. Hour by hour it had settled deeper and deeper into the snow that weighted its roof and shuttered its windows, until, shrouded and almost effaced, it lay, at last, secure from the tempest that swept over it and deaf to the calls from the buried stables.
Down-stairs in the big, dim sitting-room, the neighbor woman was keeping the lonely vigil of the stork. Early the previous day, before the storm began, and when the plains still stretched away on all sides, a foam-covered sea, the huge swells of which had been gripped and frozen into quiet, the anxious husband had mounted and started westward across the prairie. The horse had not carried him far, however, for the drifts would not bear its weight; so, when the three big brothers, hearing his halloo, had taken him a pair of rude skees made of barrel staves, he had helped them free the floundering animal, and had then gone on afoot.
His destination was the army post at the reservation, and he had made swift progress toward it. The ice-bound Vermilion did not check him, and the sealed sloughs shortened his path. Onward he had sped, tirelessly. In half an hour his scarlet nubia had blended into the black of his fur-lined coat; in an hour he was only a speck, now in sight upon the top of a swell, now lost in its trough. And then he had disappeared altogether over the long, unbroken line of the horizon.
That day had passed, and the night; and, when a second day was half gone, he had not yet returned. The farm-house, as hopeful as a sailor's home, felt little worry, believing that he was too good a plainsman to brave such a blizzard foolishly, and pictured him fretting his time away at the post, or in some hospitable shanty nearer by.
But the neighbor woman was full of fear for his safety. And, as she waited alone, she walked to and fro, watching first the canopied bed in the corner, and then the shaking sash that, if Providence were merciful, might at any moment frame an eager face. Every little while she paused at the stove, where, the hay twists having long since given out, she fed the fire from a heaping basket of yellow, husked corn.
The three big brothers were in the attic overhead, huddled close about the warm stovepipe that came up through the floor, with the dogs at their backs. It was dusk there, too, for the western gable window, broken the evening before by the force of the storm, was nailed tight from within and piled high from without; while the window in the opposite end of the house was intact, but veiled with frost and hung with icicles. The week's washing, swinging under the peaked roof on a long, sagging clothes-line, added further to the gloom. Stiff and specter-like, it moved gently in the currents of air that blew down from the bare, slanting rafters, each garment taking on a fantastic shape of its own. Near the pipe hung the stockings of the family, limp and steaming in the twilight.
The biggest brother had been reading aloud to the other two; but, as the light grew less, he threw the paper-bound book aside, and they began to talk in subdued tones. Below them, they could hear the neighbor woman walking back and forth, and the popping of the kernels in the stove; behind them, the dogs slept; and from above came faint sounds of the storm.
Outside, night was coming on fast—the early night of a stormy day. The neighbor woman, noting the increasing darkness in the sitting-room, lighted a tall kerosene lamp and set it on the clock-shelf near a south window. The lower windows to the west were closed and sightless, so no beacon could shine from them; but she hoped that the lamp's feeble rays, piercing the unscreened top panes of the south window, might by chance catch the eye of the husband were he striving to return.
With increasing darkness, the blizzard grew in strength and fury. It loosened a clapboard below the east gable, and shrieked through the partial opening. It rattled the window, and tore at the heavy planks on the roof that supported the stovepipe. It blew the snow from the cracks and whistled through them shrilly. It caught the house in its drifts and shook it.
The dogs, awakened by the screeching and clash of things, crouched in fright against their masters. Shepherd, pointer, and Indian dogs trembled when the wind moaned, and answered every whine from without with another. The St. Bernard, separating himself from the pack, sprang at a bound to the boarded-up window and, raising his head, uttered long, dismal howls. The big brothers hastened to quiet him, and spared neither foot nor fist; but the dog, eluding them, returned again and again to the window, and mourned with his muzzle to the west.
It was while the hurricane was thus raging over the farm-house, and when nothing but a bit of south roof and the tops of the cottonwoods showed that a habitation was there, that the stork alighted.
The big brothers were drowsing in the dark about the pipe, with the pack whimpering beside them, and did not know of his coming until, in a sudden lull, there came up through the open trap-door that led to the sitting-room stairs a small, clear, hailing cry.
It sounded but for an instant. Then the storm broke again, the windows rattled, the dogs whined, the sleet-charged air boomed and thundered and sucked at the quivering house, and darkness, ever blacker and more terrible, settled down.
* * * * *
WHEN the neighbor woman came softly up and put her head above the trap-door, she had to call again and again into the gloom, through which the lines of frozen clothes waved faint and ghost-like, before the big brothers awoke and, rising from their cramped positions, groped their way sleepily to the stairs and followed her down. As they reached the sitting-room and stood in a silent, waiting row by the stove, the dogs about them, the neighbor woman tiptoed to the canopied bed in the corner and took up a tiny bundle, which she brought back and laid in the arms of the biggest brother.
Then she leaned back, all fat and smiling, as the big brothers bent over the bundle and looked into a wee, puckered, pink face. It was the little girl.
A FRONTIER CHRISTENING
THE christening of the little girl began the very morning after the stork flew down through the blizzard and left her. For the three big brothers, rejoicing that they were still only three, got out the almanac, the world's atlas, and the dictionary, went carefully through the first two, read a long list in the back of the last, and wrote down all the names they liked. Then they set about trying to decide upon one.
It was difficult, for their selections were numerous. The world's atlas had yielded Morena, Lansing, and Virginia; the back of the dictionary, a generous line beginning with Abigail and ending with Zoraida; and the almanac, May and June from the months, Maria and Geraldine from the scattered jokes, and Louisa, Fanny, and Rose from the testimonials of ladies who had been cured of influenza, hay-fever, and chilblains. So not only that day, but a whole week passed away in lively discussion, and they were no nearer a choice than ever.
Their mother gave no thought to the subject Instead, from morning till night, through the lower western windows, now tunneled free, she scanned the snow-sheeted, glistening prairie. It stretched away silent, pathless, and treacherous, smiling up so brightly that it blinded those who crossed it; and hiding, as smilingly, those who lay beneath the drifts that covered it.
But discussion over the naming never flagged among the big brothers, for they did not yet share her anxiety. The chores were their only interruption; still, while they made twists for the stove, melted snow for the thirsty stock, or pitched hay out of the shaft that had been sunk to the half-used stack and piled it into the covered barn through a hole in the roof, they kept up the debate. But with all the time and talk given the matter, no agreement seemed possible, until one day when the biggest brother made a suggestion.
He proposed that each write a name upon a piece of paper and place it in a hat, and that the little girl's hand be put in among the pieces, so that she could take hold of one. The name on the slip she seized should be hers. So the ballots were prepared, the neighbor woman brought the little girl, and one tiny clinging fist was guided into the crown. But though the pink palm would close on a finger, it refused to grasp a ballot; and, to show her disapproval of the scheme, the little girl held her breath until she was purple, screwed up her face, and began to cry lustily.
The big brothers, when they found that she would not choose for herself, repaired in disgust to the attic. But as they gathered gloomily about the stovepipe, a second plan offered itself to them in the shape of the dominoes, and they began to play, with the understanding that whoever came out winner in the end might name the little girl.
The contests were exciting and raged from dinner-time till dusk, the dogs looking on from an outer circle and joining their barks to the shouts of the boys. When the last game came to a close under the swinging, smoky lantern that lighted the room from its nail on a rafter, the eldest brother, victorious, arose and led the way to the sitting-room, the other two following with the pack, and proudly proclaimed the little girl Edith Maud.
But he had not counted on his mother's wishes. For when she heard the result of the dominoes, she overturned the whole project, much to the delight of the vanquished, by declaring that she did not like Edith Maud at all; and added that the selection would be made from the Bible when their father returned. So the big brothers carefully hunted out every feminine name between Genesis and Revelations.
But at the end of a fortnight they too grew anxious, and the christening was forgotten. No news had come from the army post, and so, one morning, they set forth toward it with the St. Bernard, when the warm sun was melting the white caps of the ridges. They did not have to go far. The dog led them unerringly to a near-by bluff, from which they returned a sad procession. And next day a mound rose on the southern slope of the carnelian bluff and was covered high with stones, to keep away the hungry prowlers of the plains. The storm that had ushered in the new life had robbed the farm-house of the old.
* * * * *
SPRING had opened, and the thawing prairie lay in splotches of black and white like the hide of a calico pony, before the family again thought of the naming of the little girl. Then her mother despatched the youngest brother to the post-office, a day's ride to the east, to mail an order to a store in a far-away city. Though there seemed no possibility that it would soon be decided what to call the little girl, preparations had begun for the baptism at the sod church on the reservation, and the order asked for five yards of fine linen and a pair of white kid shoes.
During the busy days of plowing and planting that followed, interest in the christening was almost lost. And when the arrival of the linen and the shoes revived it one afternoon in early summer, it was lost sight of again in a rush of hoeing and herding. So it was not until late fall, when all the crops were harvested and the threshers had come and gone, that the family began once more to consider it.
It was time that the little girl had a name of her own, for she could trot the length of the sitting-room, if she held on to the biggest brother's finger, and walk, all by herself, from the lounge to the table. Besides, she was learning to eat with a spoon, which she pounded crossly on the oil-cloth when she could not find her mouth, and was teething, without any worry to her mother, on an old soft cartridge-belt.
The subject reopened the night the little girl's mother cut out the baptismal robe. And while she tucked it in one succession of narrow rows and began to embroider it in lacy patterns that she had learned to do when she was a little girl in England, the big brothers hunted up the lists from the dictionary, atlas, almanac, and Bible, and reviewed them. But when the autumn days had been stitched and discussed away and winter had come in, the family was still undecided. What pleased one big brother did not please another; and if two agreed, the third opposed them. The little girl's mother was even harder to suit than they.
The afternoon of the first birthday anniversary two important things happened: the baptismal robe was finished and the christening controversy took a new turn. The big brothers, arguing hotly, urged that if a name could be found for every new calf and colt on the place, the only baby in the house ought to have one. Now, the little girl's mother always named the animals, so, when she heard their reproof, she promptly declared that she would christen the little girl at once—and after an English queen.
The big brothers were astounded, recalling how their American father had objected to their having been named after English kings. But their mother, unheeding their exclamations, wrote down a new list, which started at Mary Beatrice and included all the consorts she could remember. But when the queens had been considered from first to last, and the little girl's mother had made up her mind fully and finally, the house was again torn with dissension. The eldest brother favored Elizabeth; the biggest, Mary; and the youngest, Anne. The little girl, happy over a big, blue glass ball with a white sheep in the center, alone was indifferent to the dispute, and crooned to herself contentedly from the top of the pile of hay twists.
But, in spite of the wishes of the big brothers, the christening would have been decided that day and forever if it had not been for one circumstance. The eldest brother, protesting vigorously against every name but Elizabeth, demanded of the little girl's mother what she had selected.
"Caroline Matilda," she said firmly.
The eldest brother sprang to his feet like a flash, knocking over a bench in his excitement.
"Caroline Matilda!" he roared, waving his arms—"Caroline Matilda!"
And the little girl, frightened at his shouting, dropped the blue glass ball, and scurried under the bed.
It was plain, therefore, that she did not like the name her mother had chosen. So the christening continued to disturb the farm-house. By spring the eldest and the youngest brothers were calling the little girl Anne, while the mother and the biggest brother were saluting her as Victoria.
Matters were still in this unsettled condition when the army chaplain rode in from the reservation one night late in the summer. He was on his way to a big Sioux tepee camp, and carried in the saddle-bags flung across his pommel a well-worn Bible and a brace of pistols. As he entered the sitting-room, the little girl eyed him tremblingly, for his spurs jingled loudly as he strode, and the leather fringe on his riding-breeches snapped against his high boot-legs.
He was grieved to find the farm-house in such a state, and counseled the little girl's mother to delay the christening no longer, suggesting a private baptism, such as the big brothers had had. But to no effect. She declared that a private baptism might do very well for boys, but that the only daughter in the family should be named with more ceremony. The chaplain, finding that he could not settle the question, made it the subject of his evening prayer in the home circle.
The fame of the baptismal robe and the white kid shoes had gone far and wide over the prairie, and they were talked of from the valley of the Missouri to Devil's Lake, and from the pipestone country to the reservations. So every week of that summer the family welcomed squatters' wives from the scattered claims round about, and women from the northern forts, whose eyes, strange to dainty things or long starved of them, fed greedily on the smooth skin of the ivory boots and the soft folds of the dress. Shortly after the chaplain's stay, a swarthy Polish woman, shod in buckskin, came on a pilgrimage to the farm-house, and the little girl's mother, eager to show her handiwork, lifted the dress tenderly, but with a flourish, from the pasteboard box where it lay upon wild-rose leaves and a fragrant red apple, and held it against the little girl with one hand, while with the other she displayed the pretty boots. The big brothers, hurrying from the barn-yard, crowded one another to share in the triumph.
But suddenly their delight was changed to dismay. For the little girl's mother, eager to win more praise from the Polish woman, had started to deck the little girl in the dress and shoes, and had discovered that the beautiful robe was too short and too narrow for its plump wearer, while its sleeves left her fat wrists bare to the elbow. And the white kid shoes would not even go on!
The youngest brother started for the post-office that afternoon to mail the shoes back to the store in the far-away city, together with a drawing on paper of the little girl's left foot, showing just how large the new pair should be. The very same day the little girl's mother began to rip out tucks.
When the chaplain stopped on his return trip, he found that the christening was still agitating the farm-house, the big brothers having formed a triple alliance in favor of Elizabeth, while the little girl's mother was adhering more warmly than ever to Victoria. So he spent the evening in renewed argument and prayer, and offered Catherine as a compromise. But the little girl's mother attached no importance to his suggestion, knowing that Catherine was the name of his wife.
Before starting for the reservation in the morning, as he sat upon his pony with the family in a circle about him, he communicated a notable piece of news. Some time during June of the coming year the good bishop, who was greatly beloved by the Indians, would visit the post to marry the general's daughter to the major. The wedding would take place in the sod church, and would be followed by a sermon.
"And then," added the chaplain, "could come the baptism."
The little girl's mother was delighted with the idea, and decided on the spot to delay the baptism until June. The administering of the rite by the good bishop would give it a certain pomp, while his presence would insure the attendance of every woman on the plains, and the robe and the shoes would receive due parade and admiration.
The chaplain, satisfied at having accomplished even so little for peace, cantered off, the family looking after him. But when he reached the reservation road he came to a sudden halt, wheeled sharply, and raised his hands to his face to make a funnel of them. All fell into silence and listened for his parting admonition.
"Make it Catherine!" he shouted, and cantered on.
When the little girl's mother thought of the months that must pass before the baptism, she felt sorry that she had been so hasty about sending for the second pair of kid shoes; for by June of the coming year the little girl's feet would be too big for them. So the youngest brother was again sent to the post-office, this time with a letter that asked the store in a far-away city to send two sizes larger than the drawing.
While summer was fading into autumn, and autumn was merging into winter again, the naming of the little girl was not forgotten. The subject came up every time her mother brought out the new pair of sleeves which she was embroidering. But it was talked over amicably, the big brothers having relinquished all right to a share in the selection because their mother had at last taken an irrevocable stand in favor of her own choice, and had intrenched her position by a promise that they could have that year's muskrat money. So when Christmas morning dawned and the little girl temporarily received her long, dignified name, together with a beaver pelt for a cap, the big brothers, whittling shingles into shape for the stretching of their winter's catch, silently accepted the decision.
The long, dignified name suited the little girl. She had grown so tall that she could look over the St. Bernard's back, and so agile that she had walked out six pairs of moccasins in as many months. And when the new shoes arrived and the sleeves were finished, she grew so proud that she wanted to wear her gobelin blue apron every day.
As spring opened, and the last tuck was taken out of the robe, the big brothers put their guns and traps away in the attic, and once more turned to the plowing and planting of the fields. But, in spite of the farm work, they found time to make preparations for the approaching baptism. They painted the light wagon, giving the box a glossy black surface and the wheels a coat of green, while the little girl's mother began three suits for them, and a brand-new dress for herself out of one she had brought with her when the family came to the plains. The evenings were no less busy. The mother sewed steadily, the big brothers fixed up the light harness, and the little girl, scorning sleep, alternately hindered and helped them, and held on to the ends of tugs and reins with her pudgy hands while the big brothers greased and rubbed and polished.
When the trip to the reservation was less than a week off, the preparations for it were redoubled, and the farm was for a time neglected. The little girl's mother put the last stitches on the new clothes; the big brothers, each having firmly refused to let either of the others try a hand at clipping him, made a journey to the post-office to get their hair cut by the hardware man; and the little girl wore a despised sunbonnet, had her yellow locks put up on rags, and went to bed every night with clabbered milk on her face.
At last the great day arrived. Early in the morning, before the rising sun flamed against the eastern windows, an ambitious young rooster, perched on the cultivator outside, gave such a loud, croupy call to the farm-yard that he awakened the little girl. She, in turn, awakened her mother. So it was in good time that the family, after eating a quick breakfast and hitching the gray colts to the newly painted wagon, climbed in and started off.
The little girl, sitting on the front seat between her mother and the eldest brother, her christening robe and the kid shoes wrapped up carefully and clasped in her arms, swelled with importance as the colts, resplendent in their new harness, trotted briskly down the rows of ash saplings in front of the house and turned the corner into the main road. Speechless and happy, she sat with her lips pressed tightly together beneath the big sunbonnet that hid the rag-wound corkscrews on her sore little head; and when the team crossed the Vermilion and passed the sod shanty on the bluffs, she did not even turn her eyes from the long, straight road that stretched westward to glance at the Swede boy who had come out to see her go by.
But before the ride was half over she grew very tired. So, after she had sleepily dropped the shoes and the robe into the hay in the wagon-box several times, she munched a cooky, drank some buttermilk, and was lifted to the hind seat, where the biggest brother held her in his arms. When she next opened her eyes, the team was standing in front of Officers' Row, and the colonel and his wife were beside the wagon helping her mother down.
As soon as dinner was over, the little girl was carried off to be dressed, though she wanted to stay in the parlor and play with the colonel's son; and when she was ready for the baptism, the big brothers came in to see her as she stood proudly upon the snowy counterpane of the wide feather-bed, the embroidered robe sticking out saucily over her stiff petticoats and upheld by two sturdy, white-stockinged legs. On her shining curls perched a big white satin bow, while incasing each foot, and completing the whole, was a dainty, soft kid shoe.
"My, you're a blossom!" gasped the biggest brother, walking around and around her; "an' not any of your skimpy flowers, neither; just a whacking big white rose with a yellow center!"
The white rose made no reply, for she had upset on the fat feathers in trying to walk, had broken the string that held the pillow-shams, and had mussed her stiff petals. So the colonel's wife put her on a paper spread over a leather trunk.
When the two families started for the sod church, she was carried by the admiring biggest brother, and on each side of her walked her mother and the colonel's wife, the others following. She kept turning around to look at the colonel's son as they went along, and so did not see the church until she was close to it.
It made a quaint picture in the warm June sunlight as the little procession neared it. The rude cross surmounting the gable above its entrance was twined with morning-glory vines that had found their way to it after hiding the low, thick, black walls beneath; and surrounding the building was a fence of scantlings—built every spring by the chaplain to keep the troop horses and the commissary's cows from grazing off its sides, and stolen every fall by the half-breeds when the first frosts came—that served as a hitching-post for raw-boned army mounts and scraggy Indian ponies. Beyond this circle were wagons and big, clumsy, box-topped carts from far-lying farms, with oxen tied to their wheels and swaying their weary necks under heavy yokes.
The church still wore its wedding decorations of cat-tails and willow-boughs when the door swung open to admit the christening party, and over the step that led up to the altar hung a golden bell of heart-leaved buttercups. As the little girl crossed the threshold, she looked on the crowded, waiting congregation with eager, half-frightened eyes. On each side of the aisle, filling the rear benches, were Indians and half-breeds, the gay government blankets of the men and the bright calico dresses, striped shawls, and gayer blankets of the women setting off their wide, stolid faces; here and there among them, in greasy breeches and flannel shirts, were rough cattlemen and trappers; and the troop's famous scout, the half-breed Eagle Eye, sat in the midst of them, craning his neck to catch a glimpse of her. Instead of the red handkerchief that he wore about his forehead to keep his black hair out of his eyes, he had tied, in honor of the occasion, a strip of bleached muslin, and under it his eyes sparkled and his teeth gleamed as he smiled at the white papoose.
When the biggest brother started toward the altar, the little girl hurriedly smoothed the christening robe and put out the white kid shoes so that everybody might see them. And when they passed the frontier families and came in line with the aristocratic army benches, her cheeks were flushed a vivid pink, and she was sitting proudly erect.
Then she beheld the chaplain standing at the step in a long, white dress. Scarcely had she gotten over her surprise at his strange appearance, when she saw a man join him who was garbed even more wonderfully. His dark hair was combed back and rested, like Eagle Eye's, on his shoulders, and the sleeves of his robe were wide and ruffled at the wrist. It was the good bishop.
The next moment they were standing before him, the little girl and the biggest brother at the middle of the line and the others on each side.
The chaplain raised his hand, and the white people stood up. And after he had waved both arms commandingly and scowled, the Indians and the half-breeds got up, too, and slouched against the benches while the good bishop said a long prayer and followed it with a longer reading. The biggest brother waited very quietly through it all, but he shifted the little girl from one arm to the other two or three times.
When the reading was over, the little girl's mother answered a few questions in a low voice. As the good bishop began to pray again, the chaplain lifted a silver vessel in his hands and held it up solemnly. The little girl saw that it was the colonel's fruit-dish, and that it was full of water.
She looked about inquiringly, but all who were near her had their heads bent; and at the close of the prayer, before she had time to question, the good bishop took her into his arms.
She was frightened and wriggled to get down, not seeing the warning in her mother's eyes. The good bishop paid no attention to her, however, but leaned forward and spoke to the colonel and his wife.
"Name this child," he said.
The little girl did not hear their answer, for she was watching his hand. It was poised just above the fruit-dish, as if he meant to plunge it into the water.
She caught her breath and raised herself suddenly in his arms. The whole church was bending and stretching to see her, but she forgot the staring people, and was thinking only of her beautiful robe, the kid shoes, and the threatening water.
A brief, solemn silence pervaded the waiting church. It was broken by the good bishop's voice; and, at the same time, his ruffled hand sank into the fruit-dish, held lightly between the chaplain's finger-tips, and came to the surface wet and brimming. As she saw this, the little girl's face turned from pink to white, and she caught her breath again.
Then, just as he bent his eyes upon her and lifted his slender fingers toward her head, the little girl, giving a sudden scared, angry squirm, struck the silver dish a resentful, upward blow with one vigorous, white kid shoe.
The vessel bounded out of the hands of the horrified army chaplain, overturned upon his immaculate robe, and, empty, fell clattering to the step at his feet. And while it spun there, top-like, for one terrible moment, the baptismal party, standing in front of the good bishop, gazed in agonized, reproachful silence at the little girl, who was looking back at them defiantly from the shelter of the pulpit.
* * * * *
LATER when the good bishop laid damp fingers upon her hair, she was christened. But the family at the farm-house always declared that she did not deserve the long, dignified name chosen for her; and the biggest brother as often added that, because the amount of water has everything to do with a baptism, the honor rightfully belonged to the dripping army chaplain.
"LITTLE BOY BLUE"
UP and down the oxen toiled before the plow, licking out their tongues, as they went along, for wisps of the sweet, new grass which the mold-board was turning under. After them came the biggest brother, striving with all his might to keep the beam level and the handles from dancing as the steel share cut the sod into wide, thick ribbons, damp and black on one side, on the other green and decked with flowers. And, following the biggest brother, trotted the little girl, who from time to time left the cool furrow to run ahead and give the steers a lash of the gad she carried, or hopped to one side to keep from stepping with her bare feet upon the fat earthworms that were rolled out into the sunlight, where they were pounced upon by rivaling blackbirds circling in the rear.
It was a cloudy morning near the end of May. The spring work on the farm was long past, and already the fields rippled with corn and wheat, barley and oats, and blue-flowered flax. But it was not yet time to begin the yearly onslaught against intruding weeds, so the big brothers were busying themselves with the erection of a sod smoke-house, which, at hog-killing time, would receive fresh hams and sides for the winter's curing.
A strip of prairie land bordering the northern edge of the grain had been chosen to furnish the building material because its fertile top layer was tenaciously root-bound and free from boulders. And while the biggest brother plowed it up, the other two came slowly along with the Studebaker, chopped the sods into pieces twice as long as they were wide, and laid them carefully on the bed of the wagon.
The little girl let the biggest brother hang the gad about his neck and helped for a while with the sod-carrying. But every time she put her chubby arms around a slab, it broke in two; so her brothers told her to stop. Then she climbed to the wagon-seat and drove the horses beside the furrows, and, later, went to the farm-yard with a load.
The smoke-house was being built beside the corn-cribs. Before any sod had been laid, the eldest brother had marked out on the ground with a stick a nine-foot square, and in one side of it had left a narrow door-space where two scantlings were driven in upright to serve as sides of the casing. Then, with the dirt lines as a guide, he had begun the walls, giving them the thickness of two sods. When the little girl rode up they were already above her head. But she did not wait to see the load she had accompanied bring them up to the eldest brother's waist, for it was close upon noon and it occurred to her that there would soon be a table to set in the kitchen, so she hurried out of call up the weedy path between the wheat and the corn, to where the oxen were still lazily drawing the plow.
She picked up the gad again and sent it whisking about the black flanks of the steers. But when she had gone up and down till three long sods lay lapping each other like heavy ruffles, she grew tired of following the biggest brother and went up the carnelian bluff to the stone pile and sat down.
Her mother, standing at the kitchen door, shading her eyes with her hand, saw the fluttering blue calico on the hillside and smiled at it through tears. Nearly four years and a half had passed since the rock-covered mound had risen among the snow-drifts, yet during all this time the little girl had never been told its sad secret, for the family wished her to go about the farm without fear.
She had often wondered, however, why, when her mother wanted to have a good cry, she always sat at the kitchen window that looked out across the row of stunted apple-trees, the sorghum patch, and finally the corn, to where the carnelian bluff lifted its pebbly head; and why, whenever the big brothers saw their mother weeping there, if it were winter, they always coaxed her into the sitting-room, where a pile of magazines and books, bought to divert her, lay beside the lounge; or, if it were summer, out into the front garden, where a low bench stood against the house, under the lilac-bush, facing the round and diamond-shaped beds of scarlet verbenas, yellow marguerites, bachelor's-buttons and pansies.
But, though the little girl was ignorant of what the stone pile hid, she was, nevertheless, thinking of mournful things as she sat there. The Christmas before, Santa Claus had stingily dropped but one present down the long stovepipe that carried up the smoke from the sitting-room stove—one present to serve as both a holiday and a birthday remembrance; and that had been a big, ugly crockery doll's head with bumpy brown hair, staring blue eyes, fat, pink cheeks, and flinty shoulders. The gift, aided by the confidences of the Swede boy, had almost shaken her belief in Santa Claus, whom she had asked in a letter to give her a bought riding-whip and a book that told more about Robinson Crusoe. Instead, the homely head had been left, and she felt sure (and the Swede boy assured her) that it could only have been picked out for her by the eldest brother. And when, after gazing down upon her stupidly for two or three months from the clock-shelf, it was finally fastened, by thread run through the holes in its shoulders, to a clumsy, jointless, sawdust body, it had only served to remind her more bitterly than ever of the ill fortune that could make two great events in one small life fall upon the selfsame day.
The little girl had often complained of the stork's bringing her at Christmas-time, and had been promised by the biggest brother that, when they should all agree that she was very good and deserving—because she had cheerfully done everything she had been told—she should have her birthday changed to June! But so far the promise had never been fulfilled, for the little girl did not hold, as they did, that the compact included the washing of potatoes or the scraping of the mush-kettle. Now, June was almost at hand again, and, as she waited on the bluff for the cow-horn to sound the call for dinner, she wondered if the treasured change in dates would ever be made.
While she was still perched upon the topmost rock, she heard a faint shout from the farm-yard, and looking that way, saw the eldest brother standing on the seat of the Studebaker, frantically waving his arms. She got down, ran around to the western side of the hill, and called to the biggest brother on the level prairie below her. He stopped the ox-team and tried to understand what the eldest was saying. But it was not made clear until the youngest unhitched a horse from the wagon and mounting it, still harnessed, started across the wheat-field with the dogs in full cry before him.
The herd, which before breakfast had been driven north to the river meadows, was returning to feed upon the young crops, and was dangerously near the river edge of the wheat. The cattle were grazing as they advanced, the cows leading and the beef cattle bringing up the rear. And when the foremost animals saw the youngest brother cantering toward them with the pack, they only hurried forward the faster so as to get a taste of the forbidden grain before they were compelled to turn tail.
Snapping and yelping, the dogs came down upon them, and the herd, two hundred strong, fled before them, with futile reaches after mouthfuls of the wheat as they ran. But, scarcely an hour later, when the little girl was sauntering home behind the biggest brother and the oxen, the cattle faced about and started slowly back again; and, when the family was just gathering about the dinner-table, they swarmed across the prairie and into the fields. This time the youngest brother not only rode out and drove them back to the meadows, but remained between them and the farm till the biggest finished his meal and relieved him.
It was plain that some one would have to stay with the cattle throughout the rest of the day; for, having gotten a taste of the grain, they would return as often as they were driven away and trample down what they did not steal. But not one of the big brothers felt that he could be spared from the work on the smoke-house.
"Say, ma," said the eldest brother, looking at the little girl as he got up from the dinner-table and took his hat from the elk antlers in the hall, "I've thought the whole thing out, and I don't see why this youngster can't herd. She learned to ride; now she can keep them cattle in the meadows as well as not."
"Oh, you know she's too little," answered her mother; "she'd fall off her pony if the cattle crowded, and get stepped on."
"Ah, too little," he said superciliously. "All she'd have to do is stay behind the cattle and sick the dogs every little while."
The little girl's mother shook her head.
"Well, we could put her on the pinto and fasten her feet so's she couldn't fall off," he persisted.
The mother looked down at the little girl, still busy over her plate of bacon and eggs.
"Well, maybe she could do that," she said thoughtfully.
"Oh, I'm too little," expostulated the little girl, between two bites.
"Little! You great big thing!" scolded the eldest brother as he went out. "What are you good for, anyway? Not worth your salt."
When he was gone around the corner of the kitchen, the little girl left her high bench and sat down crossly upon the door-step. "He's always 'busing me," she complained. "When I want to do anyfing, he says I'm too little; but when he wants me to do anyfing he finks I'm big enough."
"Now, pet lamb," said her mother, "you don't have to herd if you don't want to. But I think you'd be safe on the pinto, and, perhaps, if you went the boys would all remember their promise about your birthday."
The little girl, understanding what was meant, looked up at her mother for a moment. Then she whipped through the sitting-room to her bed, pulled on a pair of beaded moccasins, took her sailor hat off a nail, and started for the smoke-house.
* * * * *
THE eldest brother went across the reservation road to where the pinto was picketed in the grassy swale, and brought her in, with her blind black colt trotting at her heels. And when he had bridled her and girthed on the soft, woolly pelt of a sheep, he lifted the little girl to her back and fastened both bare ankles to the cinch with hame-straps. Then he put the short reins into the little girl's hands, gave the mare a good slap on the flanks, and watched horse, rider, and colt depart northward toward the cattle. For it had been settled, when the biggest brother came in, that if she would try her best to keep the cattle in the meadows so that the smoke-house could be finished, that very day her birthday would be changed from December to June.
As soon as the little girl reached the open prairie, the big brothers returned to their work on the smoke-house. And by the time that the herd, with the pinto and the dogs behind it, was but a collection of white and brown specks against the green of the plains, they were so busy that they had forgotten her. The youngest brother lifted the sods from the wagon and handed them to the biggest, who helped the eldest lay them, one layer lengthwise, the next crosswise, and always in such a way that the middle of a slab came directly above the ends of the ones beneath.
In the early afternoon, as they worked steadily, the clouds began to mass darker across the gray sky; and the air, warm throughout the morning, became chill. A rain-storm seemed on the way, and the big brothers hurried so as to get the house covered before a shower came to wash the walls. Two were left to lay the sods, and the other set about sawing scantlings into lengths for the framework of the hip-roof, while their mother came out and bound straw into flat bunches for the thatch.
Up in the river meadows, the little girl, secure in her seat on the pinto, rode to and fro along the southern edge of the herd, in front of the lowered foreheads and tossing horns of the cattle. Behind her came the blind black colt, switching his tail and whinnying fretfully; but, despite his pleading, the little girl, eager to win the reward she had been promised, never paused in her sentry duty. The pinto fretted, too, for she also was hungry. But the little girl held the short bridle-reins tight and did not let the mare get her nose to the ground lest they slip over her head and out of reach.
The dogs were stretched lazily on some soft badger mounds not far away. The St. Bernard was not with them, for the big brothers were afraid that Napoleon, the white bull, would gore him, and had chained him up at home; and the collie was watching the sheep around the sloughs to the south. So only the wolf-dogs, with Luffree at their head, helped the little girl turn an animal back when it broke from the rest and started toward the grain.
The little girl rode faithfully before the herd, not even stopping to join the dogs in their chase after a kit-fox that was boldly passing among the cattle. And when the hunt was over and the cows went down the runway to the river, she followed in their train, with the pinto still tugging hard at the reins. But at the bank she forgot how tired her arms were, for the pack had returned and were amusing themselves by barking and biting at the snakes that were lying along the strip of sand, and by pursuing them as they scattered to the water or to the shelter of the willows at its edge. When the herd had drunk their fill, she slowly rode eastward, watching them carefully as they spread out across the meadow.
It was then that the clouds came up and the air turned cool. And it was then that, accidentally, and in one unhappy moment, the little girl brought all her faithful work to naught, imperiled her birthday hopes, and cast herself adrift upon the prairie like a voyager in a rudderless boat. For, in stooping to pull the sheepskin saddle-blanket over her bare legs, she unthinkingly let go of the bridle, and, the pinto putting her head down to graze, the short reins slipped along her mane until they rested just behind her ears—far out of reach.
The little girl slapped her as hard as she could with her hands; but, even when the mare raised her head and walked about, the little girl could not get at the reins because she was tightly fastened to the girth. So the pinto went where she pleased, paying no attention to angry commands, or to the pounding inflicted upon her flanks by the fists of the irate little girl.
All this time the herd, too, fed where it chose and had moved out of the meadows toward the farm. The little girl was powerless to turn it, and when she set the pack at the cattle they only ran faster than ever toward the fields. So she called the dogs off. Slowly, but surely, the cows led the forbidden way, and as the little girl moved about on the pinto, powerless to go where she wished or to turn them back, she watched them, swelling with very rage in her helplessness, and wept bitterly.
When the herd was out of sight over the rise south of the meadow, the pinto, with her reluctant rider, again went riverward. This time the mare took a good drink, wading in so far that the little girl's anger turned to fear and she cried harder than ever. As the horse came out of the stream, the loud yur, yur, of a frightened crow, whose nest was in the willow fringe, startled the blind black colt, and he started on a run up the river. His mother, whinnying loudly, followed him and broke into such a hard gallop that the little girl was bounced rudely about and would have fallen to the ground had not the hame-straps firmly held her.
Away they went, the colt in the lead and the pinto after, until they reached the bunch of cottonwoods far up the stream where the yanging wild geese had their nests. Then the colt came to a halt and waited tremblingly for his anxious mother.
The black colt had a wild fear of crows, for it was due to them that he had been blind ever since, a few days after his birth, he had accompanied his mother across the reservation road to the sloughs beyond. He had trotted happily at her side as they went, but late in the evening had run one knobby leg into a hole in the prairie-dog village and taken a bad tumble. He had not been able to rise again, and, in struggling had got wedged upon his back between two mounds, so that he had to lie, feet up, all night. His mother had fed near him till dark came on, and had stood over him through the night; and not till the sun was well up did she leave him to go for water. It was then that he had been blinded, for some crows, flying by to the stubble-fields around the farm-house, had thought him dead and had alighted beside him with inquiring cries.
Now, as he stood in the cottonwoods beside his mother, he shook his head uneasily as if unpleasant memories were stirring in his baby brain, and stamped crossly as the dogs came up, their tongues out with their hot pursuit.
Time dragged slowly. Late in the afternoon a dash of rain found its way down through the cottonwood leaves, splashed against the little girl's face, and mingled with the tear-drops. The pinto moved farther into the shelter of the grove and the light sprinkle did not wet her. As the light slowly faded the peepers along the river began to send up their lonesome chant, and a crow went whirring past to his home down the river, with no cry to the blind black colt underneath, for his bill was thrust through a redhead's egg. Near by, from the open prairie, the brown pippets flew skyward against the rain-drops, greeting the coming night with a last song, and then dropped silently to their nests in the lush grass.
The framework of the smoke-house roof was in its place, and the laying of the straw bundles, in long, overlapping rows, well started before the shower began; and so rapidly did the big brothers work, that when the collie came in with the sheep, the thatching was nearly finished, and the squatty, straw-crowned building, with grass and flower tops sticking, still fresh, from between its sods, looked like one of the chocolate layer-cakes that the little girl's mother made for Thanksgiving, only the filling was green instead of brown, and the top coating was gold.
They were on top of the house, laying the last two rows of straw along the ridge-pole, when their mother, who was in the kitchen getting supper, noticed that it was sprinkling, looked northward through the gloom to try to catch a glimpse of the little girl returning with the herd, and then called to the big brothers to ask if they could not see cattle moving about in the corn. They looked and, from their vantage-point, made out a big herd. Their shout brought their mother hurrying into the yard.
"They're not ours, are they?" she asked. But the big brothers were bringing the wagon team and a cultivator horse out of the barn, unsaddled and unbridled, and did not hear. Before she could reach them, they had dashed off.
She stood looking after them, her apron over her head. She knew that if the cattle in the field belonged to the farm, something had gone wrong with the little girl; and she strained her eyes anxiously to where loud bellows, shouts, and the cracking of cattle-gads told that the herd was being routed.
Suddenly, from across the intervening corn and sorghum and into the cottonwood break, crashed a great white bull, whose curly head was swaying angrily and whose eyes shone with the lust of fight, while behind, laying about him with a whip at every jump, came the biggest brother. It was Napoleon.
"Oh, my poor pet lamb!" cried the little girl's mother, and retreated into the smoke-house for safety as the bull and his pursuer came by.
It took hard riding to rid the grain of the cattle, for, under cover of the dusk, they slipped back into the wheat again and again after having been driven out. So it was long after supper-time before the herd was bunched and driven around the farm to the reservation road and into the wire pen by way of the ash lane in front of the house. Then the big brothers came tramping into the kitchen, tired and hungry.
But what was their surprise to find it empty. And, on looking about, they discovered a note from their mother. It had been put in plain sight against the syrup-jug and read:
"The dogs, all except Luffree, came home. If she has returned when you read this, fire a musket."
They stood in a circle and looked blankly at one another. For it had not crossed their minds that the little girl was not home, but somewhere out on the prairie, tied to a pinto, and all alone in the dark.
Without waiting to snatch a bite from the table, they started off to search, leaving their jaded horses in the barn. The eldest brother went straight for the river, which he meant to follow, and took a musket with him; the youngest ran off up the path between the corn and the wheat, and carried the cow-horn; while the biggest made for the carnelian bluff, taking neither gun nor horn, but relying on his lungs to carry any good news to the others. And behind them, as they hurried, sounded the baying of the St. Bernard, ignominiously chained to a stake by the kitchen door.
The evening wore on. Overhead the low-hanging clouds covered the moonless sky like a hood, and not a star shone through the fleecy thickness to aid in the search for the little girl. At a late hour it began to sprinkle again, and, though no sound of shot or blast had broken the silence of the prairie, one by one the anxious hunters came straggling home, dumbly ate, and waited for the morning.
The little girl's mother, sitting behind the stove, cried heartbrokenly. "If my poor baby ever comes back alive," she sobbed, "she shall have her birthday in June and the best present I can get her." And all the big brothers silently assented.
But while they were gathered thus, drying their damp clothes, the biggest brother suddenly sprang up with a joyful cry.
"Why didn't we think of it before?" he said—"the St. Bernard!"
A moment later he was freeing the big dog, and his mother, lantern in hand, was holding a little gingham dress against his muzzle.
"Find her! Find her!" she commanded. "Go, go! Find her!"
The St. Bernard shook himself free of the chain that had bound him, looked into the faces that peered at him through the dim lantern-light, and then, giving a long sniff, proud, human, and contemptuous, walked slowly and majestically toward the sod barn. The family followed wonderingly.
When the corn-cribs were reached, the dog quickened his pace to a trot and began to wave his big, bushy tail in friendly greeting to something that, farther on in the dark, could not be seen by the little girl's mother and the big brothers. And when he came near the wide, closed door of the barn, in front of which showed indistinctly the forms of a large and a small animal, he leaped forward with a welcoming bark that was answered by another from a dog lying in the deep shadow against the door.
For there stood the blind black colt and the pinto with the bridle-reins still swinging across her neck. And on her back lay the little girl, her arms hanging down on either side of the sheepskin saddle-blanket, her head pillowed in sleep against her horse's mane.
A PARIAH OF THE PRAIRIES
THE young cowbird, perched tail to windward on a stone beside the road, raised his head, and uttered a hoarse cry of hunger and lonesomeness as a great black flock of his own kind, sweeping by on its way to the grazing herd in the gully, shadowed the ground about him for an instant.
"Look-see! look-see!" he called plaintively, rolling his eyes and ruffling his throat; "look-see! look-see!"
But the flock, dipping and rising in swift flight, sped on unheeding. The long summer day was drawing to a close over the prairie, and with early evening myriads of gnats and mosquitos swarmed up from the sloughs to drink their fill on the flanks of the stamping cows. The insects offered a fat supper to the birds as they clung to the twitching hides of the cattle. So the flock was hastening to reach the gully before milking-time.
The young cowbird called disconsolately again and again after the shadow of the flock was far away, making a moving blot across the darkening plains. Then, discouraged, he tucked his head under his wing, clutched the stone more tightly with his claws, and rocked gently back and forth as the soft south breeze spread his tail, lifted his growing pinions, and blew his new feathers on end.
He was a tramp and the descendant of a long line of tramps, all as black and hoarse and homeless as himself. A vagabond of the blackbird world, he had, like many an unfeathered exile, only sleep to make him forget his empty craw, and only a wayside rock for his resting-place.
He had been an outcast from the beginning. One day in the spring his tramp mother, too shiftless to build a home for herself, had come peeping and spying about the fuzzy nest of some yellow warblers that had built in an elder-bush by the river; and finding the birds away, had laid a big white egg speckled with brown in the midst of four dainty pale-blue ones that were wreathed with tiny dots. Then she had slipped away as quickly as possible, abandoning her own to the more tender mercies of the little canary pair.
It was the warblers' first nesting, or they would have known, the moment they saw the large egg among their small ones, that they had been imposed upon, and would either have pushed the interloper out or built a second story to their home and left the cowbird's egg in the basement. But they were young and inexperienced, so they had only wondered a little at the size and color of their last lay, and let it remain.
The weeks had passed. Then, one day, there had been a great chattering about the warm cup of milkweed fiber and thistle-down in the elder-bush, husky cheeping from the nest mingling with the joyous chirps of the mother-bird as she tilted and danced on its edge or fluttered ecstatically above it; and from the end of a swaying twig close by had swelled the proud song of the male.
The big egg had hatched.
When the first nestling had freed himself from his shell and tried his long, wabbly legs, he opened a wide-gaping, clamorous red mouth above his naked little body; and this set the yellowbirds on such persistent and successful searches after worms, that by the time the young cowbird's foster brothers and sisters were out, he had grown big and strong. So the newer babies had been squeezed from the cozy center of their warm home to a place on its chilly rim.
Affairs in the nest had soon come to a sad pass. The little warblers' weak voices and short necks were not able to win the reward of tidbits claimed by the young cowbird, who ruthlessly stood upon them as he snatched his food from the bills of the yellowbirds. One by one they sickened and died, and were then pushed out into the wet grass below. After that the young cowbird had been fed faster and more fondly than ever.
One afternoon, when the warblers were away foraging for the nest, the cowbird, now well feathered, had tried his wings a little, and had flown to a clump of tall weeds not far off. Alighting safely, and emboldened by success, he had eluded a hungry snake that hunted him across the gopher knolls, and finally gone on to the top of the hill. When twilight came he had found a perch in a pile of tumbleweed, far from the sheltering bushes by the river. So the warblers, coming home late with two long wrigglers for him, had found the nest empty. They had darted anxiously about it for a while, then the male had settled upon a swinging elder-branch to sing a mournful song to his mute, grief-stricken mate.
Their last baby was gone.
* * * * *
WHEN the little girl came trudging along the road that evening on her way to the farm-house, she sat down for a moment opposite the stone on which the cowbird was perched. And after examining a sand cut that was giving her some trouble under her little toe, she suddenly caught sight of the dumpy black ball that was moving back and forth with every gust. She leaned forward on her knees to see what it was, and crept slowly toward him until she was within reach. Then, before he had time to take his head from under his wing, she put out one hand and seized him.
He was terribly frightened and struggled to get free, pushing vigorously against her fingers with wings and claws. But she only tightened her grasp as he fought, and he was soon so closely held that he could not move. She forgot her sore toe in her happiness over catching him, and started homeward on the run. As she bounded along, he watched her with his small, scared eyes.
On reaching the farm-house the little girl put him into a rough slat cage that hung in her room; and while he stretched his cramped legs, and opened his crumpled wings, she hurried to the window, where she captured a handful of house-flies. She placed them in front of him, and he retreated to the farthest corner of the cage, to beat the bars in terror. But after she had hidden herself behind the headboard of the bed, he came forward and ate up the flies without stopping to take a breath between gulps. Then he snuggled down on a piece of her worn-out woolen dress, and went to sleep again.
Though the little girl was yet only five and a half years old, she had tried many times in her life, without success, to make the slat cage the home of some feathery pet. Snipes and plover, orioles and ovenbirds, bobolinks and meadow-larks, all had lived in it by turns for a few days. But the snipes and plover had gone into a decline, the orioles and ovenbirds had grown thin and unkempt, and the bobolinks and meadow-larks had eaten themselves to death. Sorrowful over so much misfortune, she had longed to secure a hardy bird that would not only live in captivity, but would repay her loving care with songs.
The young cowbird proved to be just what she had wanted. Every day he grew larger, plumper, and hungrier; and though he was not a song-bird, his attempts at melody, made with much choking and wheezing and many wry faces,—as if the countless flies he had swallowed were sticking in his throat,—pleased her more than carols. Within a week after his capture he was so tame that he would sit on her shoulder as she walked about her room and peck at her teeth. She was certain that he was giving her so many loving kisses; but her big brothers unsympathetically explained that he thought she had some kernels of corn between her lips.
It was not long before he was allowed the freedom of the sitting-room a little while every afternoon, and the little girl always sat and watched him as he walked solemnly about it, taking long steps, calling happily in his husky voice, and pecking curiously at the bright rags in the crocheted rug.
This freedom worked wonders with his plumage. His dark brown head fairly shone, his sable breast and back grew glossy, and his wings took on faint, changing tints of purple and blue. His jet rudder, daily dressed to its iridescent tip by his ebony beak, was flicked jauntily as he strode around on his long black legs. And all this alert, engaging beauty won the friendship of the farm-house, including even that of the little girl's big brothers, who advised her to clip his wings if she wanted to keep him; for when he had once reached full size, they said, he would fly away to join the cowbird colonies up the river. But the little girl would never consent to any use of the scissors.
Throughout the remainder of the summer he went everywhere with her, perching on her shoulder when she drove the cattle to the meadows, riding with her on the pinto if she were sent on an errand, or walking beside her in the farm-yard. He never flew far from her, and could always be coaxed back if she whistled and showed her teeth. They spent many an afternoon together on the prairie while the little girl herded. And when the cows were headed away from the wheat and were grazing quietly, he would leave her and fly to the back of Liney, the muley, where he would walk up and down the broad, white mark that ran from her horns to her tail, and catch insects. Liney, who liked the sharp thrust of his bill where a mosquito had been stinging, was careful not to wiggle her hide and scare him away. At dinner-time he joined the little girl and shared her gingerbread.
One night, just before the cows started for the milking-pen, a big flock of cowbirds flew down and alighted in the midst of them, some of the birds perching upon the backs of the cattle to catch their supper. When the little girl saw the black company, she looked around for her bird, but could not tell him from the others. There were three perched upon Liney's back, and, hoping that one of them was he, she ran toward the cow, calling softly and showing her teeth. But as she came close, the three flew away to the roan heifer. Half weeping, she ran after them, calling still, and smiling to entice him. The birds rose into the air again, this time alighting around the farthest cow in the herd.
Overwhelmed with sorrow, the little girl turned back to where the cattle-gad lay, holding her apron up to her wet eyes as she stumbled miserably along. But just as she flung herself down beside the whip, there came a harsh call from behind her, where the lunch-pail stood. It was the cowbird.
"Look-see! look-see!" he cried, pecking at the brown paper that held the gingerbread. Jumping up, the little girl ran to him and caught him tenderly to her breast.
He was so inquisitive that he soon became unpopular at the farm-house, and on several occasions all but had his neck wrung for wrongdoing. One day he picked the eldest brother's fiddle-strings in two; another time he was discovered digging holes in the newly baked loaves of bread that had been set in a window to cool; and, again, he stole hot potatoes out of a kettle on the kitchen stove. But whenever danger threatened, the little girl championed him valiantly. So time after time he escaped merited punishment, which was to have been not less than death or exile; for he was too small to whip.
But one morning in the early fall he was confronted with a very grave charge—one that was, if proved true, to cost him his life or his home: the little girl's mother, on going into the kitchen at sunrise to prepare breakfast, discovered all her crocks of milk disturbed and the shelf behind the stove, on which they stood in a long, yellow row, spattered with milk from end to end. As she turned, very puzzled, from the shelf to the table, she saw the cowbird gravely walking about on the white oil-cloth.
"Look-see! look-see!" he cried to her, flirting his tail and blinking his eyes. "Look-see! look-see!"
She ran to the table and seized him angrily in her hands, certain that he had forsaken his own little pan of water to bathe in the milk. But when she had looked him over carefully, and found him dry and tidy from top to toe, she let him go again, forgetting to feel of the white oil-cloth upon which he had been promenading, and which was spattered with milk like the shelf.
Before the contents of the crocks were thrown out that morning, the little girl's mother called all of the big brothers in to view the mess; and by the time breakfast was over, the cowbird had been passed around, for every one wanted to see if any milk could be found on him. None was discovered, however, so the little girl was allowed to carry him away in triumph on her shoulder.
For two or three mornings after that the milk was not visited by the marauder. Then for several days in succession it was splashed about on shelf, stove, and floor, and the little girl's mother was more puzzled than ever. The cowbird was no longer under suspicion, for the big brothers had not been able to fasten the guilt upon him, since his feathers were always as sleek and shining as the coat of a curried horse.
It was decided to poison a part of the milk for several nights and put the rest carefully in the cupboard. This was done; but though morning after morning the shelf was sprinkled as badly as ever, no dead body of cat, bird, or wild animal was ever found in the kitchen to solve the mystery. So a new plan was adopted, and tin pans were put upside down over the crocks to keep the nightly visitor out.
This arrangement worked well for a week or more; then one morning there was a terrific rattling and banging in the kitchen, followed by deathly stillness. Certain that the disturber of the milk was at hand, the entire family rushed pell-mell through the sitting-room and down the entry to the kitchen door, which they flung wide open, and excitedly peered in. On the floor lay a tin pan that had been knocked from its place, and in one side of it was a large dent where it had struck the stove in falling. The milk in the uncovered vessel was not disturbed, and there was no sign of any living thing in the room.
Baffled and wondering, they returned to their beds. But the little girl, before going back to hers, remained behind a moment to look for the cowbird. At last she spied him, perched high up on the elbow of the stovepipe. He was trembling violently, and his glossy, black feathers were standing out—straight on end.
The neighbor woman, who dropped in that noon, made a suggestion that the big brothers decided to act upon. She declared that the kitchen visitor was a milk-snake, and that one night spent on the watch without a light would prove her correct. So that very evening, the eldest brother, wrapped in a buffalo robe and a pair of blankets, sat on a bench behind the kitchen door, resolved to keep awake till morning in wait for the mysterious disturber. The rest of the family prepared for bed, after providing him with the musket, powder and buck-shot, and the clothes-stick; and on looking in upon him before retiring, found him sitting grimly in his corner, the musket leaning against one shoulder, while upon the other perched the cowbird.
The sun was just rising next day when the little girl's mother awoke. She was surprised at not having been aroused earlier by the noise of an encounter, and, accompanied by the little girl and the other big brothers, tiptoed quickly but softly down the entry to listen. All was quiet. She pushed the kitchen door open a little to look at the crocks. They had not been molested. Then she put her head in. As she did so, the husky cry of the cowbird came from the bench behind the door.
"Look-see! look-see!" he called, as he walked up and down the eldest brother from head to foot; "look-see! look-see!"
And the family, entering, beheld the eldest brother stretched upon the bench—fast asleep.
He was so provoked at having been found napping that, when he heard their laughter and awoke, he grabbed the cowbird and threw him across the kitchen. The cowbird lighted upon his feet unhurt, and started boldly back again. But the little girl was frightened over his bad treatment, and running to him, took him up tenderly, and carried him to her room. He was put into the slat cage for the rest of the day, and for several weeks after that slept in it every night.
It was now autumn. The husked corn filled the cribs to bursting, the wheat lay in yellow heaps on the granary floor, and the hay, stacked high, stood along the north side of the low, sod barn in a sheltering crescent. There was little left to do on the farm before the winter set in, and the cold mornings found the family astir very late. So one raw day, when the fields and prairie without lay white in a covering of thick frost, it was after sun-up before the little girl's mother entered the kitchen.
It had been so long since the milk had been disturbed that she had neglected for a week or more to cover the crocks, and did not even give the shelf a glance as she hurriedly lighted a twist of hay; but as she stooped to poke it into the stove, a quavering, plaintive, raspy voice above her made her start back and stare upward.
There on the edge stood the cowbird, his head drooping and his wings half spread. But he was no longer black. From his crown to his legs he was covered with a coating of frozen milk that, hiding his glossy plumage, turned him into a woefully bedraggled white bird; while from the ends of his once glistening tail feathers hung little icicles that formed an icy fringe.
"Look-see! look-see!" he mourned, closing his eyes and lifting one stiff leg from his perch. "Look-see! look-see!"
A moment later, hearing the sound of loud laughter in the kitchen, the little girl got out of bed and ran to find out what was the matter. But when she caught sight of the cowbird on the shelf before the row of big brothers, she did not join in the merriment. Instead, she turned very white and crept back to bed again without a word, taking the cowbird with her, cuddled under her arm.
* * * * *
WHEN the sun stood over the farm-house and the frost was gone from the plains, the little girl climbed upon her pony's back and, with the cowbird perched on her shoulder, started northward up the river. Her face was whiter than it had been that morning, and she had no happy chatter with which to answer him as he chirruped to her gaily and leaned forward from time to time to peck at her teeth. Her ears were still ringing with her big brothers' laughter, and with the pitiless command that had driven the cowbird forth to the prairies again—a wing-clipped tramp and an outcast! Straight on she rode to the river meadows where the cowbird colonies lived.
Once there, she got down carefully from her horse and, after placing her pet gently upon a stone, took from her pockets a crust, part of a shriveled apple, a chunk of gingerbread, and a cold boiled potato. These she placed in front of him on the ground. Then she took him up, parted her lips to let him peck her teeth once more, held him against her breast for a long, bitterly sad moment, and mounting, rode away.
When she was only a rod or so from him, the cowbird tried to follow. But his maimed wings would not obey, and he fell back to the ground again and again. Then he walked a few steps after the retreating pony, and, finding that the little girl was getting farther and farther away every moment, hopped upon a big rock beside the road, and called after her pleadingly.
"Look-see! look-see!" he cried, rolling his eyes and swelling his shining throat; "look-see! look-see!"
But the little girl rode straight on, and never looked back to see.
THE MISFIT SCHOLAR
IT was only a little way to the school-house in the winter-time because the big brothers could cross the chain of sloughs to it on their skates; but, in the autumn, before the ice was thick, the path led snake-like beside the eastern border of the water, just skirting the frill of green bulrushes and tall marsh-grass, and it was a long distance.
The school-house stood in a wide glade that was the favorite grazing-spot of a band of antelope. It was narrow and unpainted, with two windows on each side and a door in one end. And from its roof, which was not too high for a game of "anti-I-over," protruded a joint of rusty stovepipe. During spring and summer the building stood empty, with the whole sloping green place to itself and the pronghorns, and in every high wind it toppled over, with its pipe pointing to the east, until it was pried into place again. But, after school "took up" in the fall, the glade rang with the laughter and shouts of the scholars, and the antelope crossed the Vermillion and traveled to the rugged country farther west, where, when the snow fell and hid the dried grass, they could browse off the bushes; and the school-house did not topple any more, for its deep coal-bins, which were built against the wall by the door, were full to the brim.
Often on warm summer afternoons, the little girl rode down to the glade beyond the sloughs and, sitting her horse quietly, induced a tawny doe and her twin kids to approach by exciting their curiosity with her bright red flannel petticoat. But if she took the herd along, she did not dare display her skirt, for Napoleon did not like it and had, on one occasion, viciously gored the Indian pony in the ribs when the little girl was busy coaxing the deer. After a wind-storm she liked to climb from her pony to the overturned school-house and walk about on it. Once, she slipped on a window-pane, when she was peering in, and fell through; and would have had to remain there a long time (for the door was locked), if she had not thought to pull the joint of stovepipe out of the roof and crawl through the hole to freedom.
But she had never been near the building when the teacher was in charge. She did not want to go to school, because she meant to learn her lessons at home the way her mother had,—and her mother had been taught by her mother, and, after that, by a governess. The little girl had never talked the matter over at the farm-house, however, for she never doubted that the governess, whatever that was, would come all in good time.
So her surprise and grief were great when she heard one day that she was to learn her lessons from the lanky Yankton man who presided over the school, and along with the other little girls who lived near enough to attend. She held one tearful argument after another with the eldest brother, declaring that she could read and study at home. But he said that a young one nearly six years old ought to know something more than stories—something about the world and arithmetic.
Secretly the little girl did not think it was of any use going to school, for she believed the teacher did not know much. She had even heard the biggest brother say so. And she knew that she knew a great deal. As soon as she could eat with a spoon, she had begun to hold the almanac up in front of her; and she had spoken her first word at fourteen months. It was "Man," and her mother often related how it happened.
She was rocking the little girl to sleep, she said, and singing,
"There was a little man, And he had a little gun,"
when there sounded a small voice from the cradle. "Man," it said, and the little girl's mother, peeking over the side, saw two wide-open blue eyes. After that, when she was being rocked to sleep, the little girl always said, "Man." Three months later, she had begun to talk in whole sentences. At three years she had been able to make all her letters and read several words, having been taught secretly by the biggest brother. At four, she knew the youngest brother's reading lessons by heart, and could spell every word in the First Reader. At this stage of her education, she put aside such baby things as the "Mother Goose Rhymes," and was deeply interested in the doings of the "Swiss Family Robinson." Winter nights, she had listened to an ever increasing number of stories that were read aloud by her mother. And now she was occupied with "Gulliver." But she did not know one of her multiplication tables, and the neighbor woman, for one, was greatly disgusted with her, and declared that she did not know whatever would become of the child.
The morning the little girl started to school, with her Second Reader under one arm, it was so cold that her breath looked like puffs of white steam. Her mother thought she had better walk instead of ride, and bundled her up warmly in a big plaid shawl, her beaver cap, and her thick mittens. When she set off, she was accompanied by the youngest brother, who was going to be a visitor during the morning session. The dogs, with the exception of Luffree (who could not be found), had been chained up along the sunny side of the house to keep them from following her. And as they saw her disappearing across the reservation road, they jumped back and forth, pulling at their collars and howling dismally.
The little girl did not look around at them. Her heart was heavy. All the unhappiness that had been visited upon her that autumn weighed it down. Every day, before sunrise, she had had to get up and eat a raw carrot, because the neighbor woman had prescribed it as a cure for a certain livid spot that had made its appearance on the little girl's cheek, and was thought to be a cancer. The little girl knew that the carrot-eating was useless, since the spot was only the mark of an unsuccessful attempt at tattooing; but she did not care to explain. Then, the cowbird had been sent away; and, as a last blow, she had been told to go to school.
There was no doubt in her mind that her misfortunes were due wholly to the fact that she had precisely thirteen freckles on her pink nose. She had never been able to count them because, when she had covered ten of the tiny brown spots with as many fingers, so much of her nose was hidden that she could count no further. But the biggest brother had assured her that she had them, and that was enough.
She was very tired when they came in sight of the school-house, and the youngest brother had to tug her along by the hand. Luffree, who had come in sight over a hillock ahead of them when they were part way, trotted at her heels and looked up wistfully at her as she half walked, half ran, complaining at every step. Now and then he jumped up and tried to lick her face sympathetically. But she would not let him, for she knew he had warts on his muzzle that he had caught the summer before while teasing a toad.
The school-room was full of smoke and noise when they entered. The scholars were laughing and talking as they crowded about the tall, round stove; and it was sending black, sooty breath into their faces from every crevice of its loosely hung doors. But shortly afterward the noise was silenced by the teacher, who brought his hands together with a resounding clap.
All the pupils in the room, except the little girl, had been to school to him the year before and knew what the signal meant. So she suddenly found herself the only one left standing in the middle of the floor, the girls having preempted the row of benches on the right, and the boys that on the left. But she was not abashed, and her corkscrew curls danced on her shoulders as she looked about.
"Sit down, sit down!" came in whispers from both sides. She took no notice of them, and the teacher, busily preparing the roll-call at his table, did not hear. But soon a ripple of laughter from the school, and a voice from the stove, interrupted his work, and brought him scowling to his feet.