E-text prepared by Al Haines
THE WRONG WOMAN
CHARLES D. STEWART
[Frontispiece: She saw that she would have to continue her journey afoot]
The Copp Clark Company Limited Toronto
Copyright, 1912, by Charles D. Stewart All Rights Reserved
She saw that she would have to continue her journey afoot (page 13) . . . . . Frontispiece
The stars, a vast audience, had all taken their places
"There's number one," Steve remarked casually
In the very midst of that dread ordeal, a test
From drawings by Harold M. Brett
The Wrong Woman
Having made final inspection of the knots of her shoe-laces and the fastenings of her skirt, Janet turned toward her "perfectly horrid" oilcoat, which, as usual, had spent the night on the floor. As it would never come off till she had tortured her fingers on the edges of its big rusty buttons, she always parted from it on unpleasant terms, casting it from her; whereupon this masculine garment fell into the most absurd postures, sprawling about on her bedroom floor, or even sitting up, drunkenly, in the corner,—which latter it could easily do, being as stiff as it was yellow. This time it had caught by one arm on the back of a chair, and it came so near standing alone that it seemed to be on the point of getting along without the chair's assistance. As Janet stood considering its case, she turned her eyes toward the window to see what the weather had decided, and now she saw the farmer leading forth her pony. She went to the window and opened it wider.
"Please, Mr. Wanger, make it tight. He always swells himself out when he sees he is going to be saddled. Then, when he has gone a little distance, he lets himself in, and both the girths are hanging loose. That's one of his tricks."
She leaned farther out and made further observation of the weather. As the air was mild and the sky serenely blue (though you can never tell about a Texas Norther), she took Sir Slicker by the nape of his collar-band and dropped him out of the window to be lashed to the saddle; then she turned to the mirror again, and, having done the best she could with the hat, she went to take leave of the farmer's family, who, as she judged by certain sounds, were assembled at the front of the house awaiting her departure. But scarcely had she stepped into the adjoining room and shut the door behind her, when the buxom, blue-eyed Lena, rushing in from the porch, met her with a hug that was more like a welcome than a leave-taking.
"Oh, goo-o-o-bye, Miss Janey. I am so-o-o sorry. I t'ink you are so-o-o sweet and nice."
And then Lena, whose open Swiss nature was either at the summit of happiness or down in the valley of despair, regarded her ruefully for a space, and after one more hug and the shedding of two large healthy tears, accompanied her out to the porch. There the Wangers were waiting and the children standing in line to be kissed—quite as if she were a dear relative, or at least an acquaintance of more than four days' standing. Janet kissed them all; and having done so she proceeded to the hitching-post, followed by the entire family, down to little Jacob, who stationed himself at the very heels of the broncho, and was so far forgotten by them all, in their concern with Janet's affairs, that they did not think to rescue him from his perilous situation till it was everlastingly too late, the horse having by that time moved away. And then Jacob, who had been studying his elders closely, after the manner of his tribe, guessed the meaning of those farewell words which he had not been able to understand; and as she drew away he opened his mouth and bawled.
Her route, which lay forty miles before her with but one stream to ford, might be described as simply a fenced road on each side of which was open prairie and the sky; for, though this land was all private property, the holdings were so vast that the rest of the fence could not be seen as far as the eye could reach. As this gave the roadside fence the appearance of not inclosing land at all, but rather of inclosing the traveler as he crossed over the vacant waste from town to town, the stretch of wire seemed to belong to the road itself as properly as a hand-rail belongs to a bridge; and this expansive scene, while it was somewhat rolling, was of so uniform and unaccentuated a character in the whole, and so lacking in features to arrest the eye, that the road might be said to pass nothing but its own fence-posts.
For a while Janet's thoughts dwelt upon her experience with the farmer's family, the final scene of which now impressed her more deeply as she realized how promptly these good folk had opened their hearts to receive her, and how genuine was their sorrow at seeing her go; and this reflection imparted so pleasant a flavor to the world that her mind kept reenacting that simple scene of leave-taking. But when she had got well out to sea,—for that is the effect of it except that the stretch of wire puts the mind in a sort of telegraphic touch with the world,—she drifted along contemplating the prairie at large, all putting forth in spring flowers, and for a time she seemed to have ridden quite out of the Past; but finally, recalling her affairs, her mind projected itself forward and she fell to wondering what the Future might have in store.
There was nothing to answer her, and little to interrupt her speculations. About the middle of the forenoon, or later, she encountered a fellow-traveler in the person of a cowboy on a bay pony. At first a mere speck in the distance, he grew steadily on her vision, and then went riding past, life-size and lifting his sombrero; which salute she acknowledged pleasantly, smiling and inclining her head. A very strong fellow, she thought, whoever he might be. A while later, as she was jogging along with her mind on the horse, whose need of a drink was now a matter of growing concern to her, she came to where a wooden gate opened upon the roadside, and here, after a moment of doubtful consideration, she entered; and having closed it and got into the saddle again by means of its bars, she struck out across the prairie with the intention of casting about until she should come upon one of those spring-fed water-holes which are always to be found, here and there, upon the cattle range. For a time it looked as if her horse would have to go thirsty; but just when she was beginning to feel that she must not venture farther, she found herself upon a slight rise or swell from which she made out a group of cattle in the distance, and with this promise of success before her she put her horse to a gallop and set out for it, slapping him with the reins. Presently, the ring of black muck becoming plainly visible, she knew her quest was at an end; and her thirsty animal quickened his pace as if he caught scent of the water.
There now ensued a course of conduct upon the part of the horse which was strange. There was a small mesquite bush near the water-hole which lay directly in the horse's course, and Janet, seeing he was almost upon it, and not wishing him to leap it, as a running cow-pony will often do, gave the reins a jerk to make him dodge it, the which he did, and that with a suddenness which only a cow-pony would be capable of. A cowboy's horse is so used to outdodging wild cattle that such a sudden turn is nothing to him. But now, instead of going to drink, he gave a leap and broke into a mad race, splashing right through one end of the water-hole and continuing onward. It was such a burst of speed as only the wildest rider could have roused him to; and he kept it up despite Janet's efforts to stop him. To her, it seemed as if no horse had ever gone at such a pace before. At every leap forward she felt as if he must shoot straight from under her. She supposed he had taken fright at something; but instead of slackening his pace as he got farther away, he rather added to his speed like a horse in a race. Though there was nothing ahead which he seemed to be going to, and nothing behind which he could now be running from, he did not abate his efforts; he pushed forward—
As one pursued with yell and blow Still treads the shadow of his foe And forward bends his head.
Poor Janet, utterly ignorant of the cause, and knowing not whither she was bound, rode a mad ride to nowhere-in-particular. At times she pulled hard on the bridle, but without effect; he kept right on with her. She clung desperately to her seat. There was nothing for her to do but ride; and so many strange things seemed to have happened at once that she was almost bewildered. Altogether he gave her a ride which, in her own opinion afterwards, threw into insignificance the adventures of Mazeppa or John Gilpin, or even the experiences of the Ancient Mariner "alone on a wide, wide sea."
The reason for the horse's hurry would appear to be a very good one when brought to light and explained; and this we shall probably be expected to do at this point, an historian having no choice but to tell what actually happened. There had been a mishap in the saddle-bow. The bow is that little arch in front which, when the saddle is in place, fits over the bony ridge above the horse's shoulders. This part of Janet's saddle, instead of being made in the good old-fashioned way,—which consists in selecting the fork of a tree and shaping it to the purpose,—had been more cheaply manufactured of cast iron; and that part of the bow which clasps the withers and sits on the shoulders spread out in the form of iron wings or plates. The saddle, at some time in its history, had received a strain which was too much for it, and one of the iron wings broke partly across; and this flaw, hidden by leather and padding, had been lurking in the dark and biding its time. When Janet braced her foot in the stirrup and made the horse dodge, it cracked the rest of the way, whereupon the jagged point of metal pressed into his shoulder with her weight upon it. It was nothing less than this that was spurring him on.
A saddle-bow, into which the horse's shoulders press like a wedge (for it must not rest its weight on top of the withers), needs to be strong, because it is the part which withstands whatever weight is thrown into the stirrups in mounting or making sudden evolutions, besides which it takes whatever strain is put on the horn; in short, it is what holds the saddle in place. With a broken bow and girths that are none too tight, a rider's seat is but temporary at the best; and it is safe to say that Janet's ride was not quite as long as it seemed. With a broken bow a saddle must, sooner or later, start to turn,—and it is a strange sensation to upset while you are sitting properly in the saddle with your feet in the stirrups; it is impossible seeming; and with a woman, who is fastened more tightly to the saddle itself, the sliding of the girth on the horse's barrel is as if she were soon going to be riding upside down.
Janet, sticking valiantly to her seat and riding like a trooper, felt suddenly that peculiar sensation and had a moment's horror of she knew not what. The next she was aware of she had struck ground in some confused and complicated way and quickly got herself right side up. And while she felt that she ought to be dead or at least badly injured, she had done nothing worse than to crush down a lot of spring flowers. And there sat Janet.
Her horse, relieved of the pressure on the sharp iron, and brought to a halt by her final desperate pull on the reins, was standing stock-still, his saddle askew like a Scotchman's bonnet, and his ears laid back. But scarcely had she located him when he began to pitch and kick, and with the surprising result that the saddle slipped entirely round.
This turn of affairs was hardly calculated to please a Texas horse. What this one thought about it, Janet very soon discovered; for however meekly his stubborn spirit had given in to certain things, he had not consented to wear a saddle on his belly; and this time when he pitched he seldom used earth to stand on. He came down on this hateful globe of ours only to stamp on it and kick it away from beneath him. Up he went and hung in space a moment as if he were being hoisted by his middle and came down with a vengeance that jolted a snort out of him; and up he went again, turning end for end and kicking the atmosphere all the way round. He was no sooner down than he went up again,—and usually with a twist which threw him over to another hateful spot, from which he flung himself as if it were hot. And all the time the hooded stirrup flew about like a boot on a boneless leg and kicked him fore and aft.
Thoroughly insulted, he pitched by a mixture of methods which amazed Janet; she ran farther back. Now she beheld a fine vaulting movement, going up with the hoofs together, opening out in midair and coming down repeatedly in the same place; and here he worked away industriously, stretching his loins with the regularity of a machine and hitting away at the one spot in space with his fine punctuating heels; then he settled down to a short shuttle-like movement, his forelegs out stiff and his head down. It shook the saddle like a hopper; and the stirrup danced a jig. In this movement he fairly scribbled himself on the air, in red and white. Finding that this did not accomplish the purpose, he went back to mixed methods a while and threw a confusion of side jumps and twisting leaps; and then, after a particularly fine flight, he came down with a heavy lunge and paused. He was standing with one of his own feet in the stirrup.
Janet would now hardly have been surprised to see him throw a somersault, as, indeed, he seemed on the point of doing at times when he stood up so high that he almost went over backwards. This time, after a moment of inaction, he reared again, and as he stood up with his hind hoof in the stirrup the girth strap parted and the saddle dropped from him. He jumped suddenly aside as if he were startled at his success, and finding himself rid of it he gave a final flourish to his heels and galloped away. The last Janet saw of him, he was going over a knoll with a cow running on before. He seemed to be chasing it. We are not at liberty to doubt that this was the case, for many a cow-pony takes so much interest in his work that he will even crowd a cow as if to bite her tail, and outdodge her every move. And so it is possible that Billy, finding a cow running before him, took a little turn at his trade.
Janet, hatless, her hair half-down and her chatelaine bag yawning open, had thus far given little thought to her various belongings scattered about in the grass; but now that the accident was all done happening and she saw that she would have to continue her journey afoot, her first concern was to get herself together again. Luckily the comb and the hatpin had fallen in the same small territory with the hat and were easily found—though the hatpin, standing upright amid the flowers, was hard to distinguish for a while; and the contents of her bag, having spilled almost together, were soon accounted for except a small circular mirror. This was very difficult, but presently she caught the flash of it in the grass and gathered it up also. And now, ascertaining the condition of her hair, she went to the place that had been made by her tumble from the horse, and seating herself in it tailor-fashion, she set to work pulling out hairpins and dropping them into her lap beside the rest of her property.
Having her hair in shape, she took up the hat. This part of her apparel, which had been stepped on without detriment but needed brushing, might be described as a man's hat in the sense that its maker had not intended it for a young lady. It was a black hat, of soft felt, with a wide flat rim which had been turned up in front and fastened with a breastpin, a measure which had obviously been taken because the rim caught the wind in such a way as to cause it to blow down over the eyes—a thing which a true sombrero would not do. When she had furbished it and put it on, she glanced at the image of herself in her lap, and then, having held the little mirror at a distance to better view the effect, she took it off and set to work with pins, making it three-cornered. This proved to be quite a change; for whatever it might be said to look like in her hands, it became a hat the moment she put it on; it had an appearance and an air; and now the dark surface lent itself all to contrast with her light, soft-hued hair and clear, delicate skin. It was still further improved, when, having removed it again, she set it on at a rakish artillery angle. Possibly, if hers had been the dark, nut-brown beauty, she would have seen that she looked best lurking beneath its sombre shade, and therefore have turned the rim down some way to even increase the shade; but Janet fitted that which was frank, open, and aboveboard. And so she used the black for contrast rather than obscurity—besides which there was another sort of contrast, for a soldier hat on Janet was a striking foil for her utter femininity. And its romantic pretense (so different from the dark gypsy-like romantic) was such an arrant little piece of make-believe that it had the effect of playful candor, acknowledging how impossible a man she would make; and while it was, strikingly, a pure case of art for art's sake, you could not but remark how much better she looked in it than any soldier could ever have done. To tell the truth, we do not really pretend to know why Janet did this, or what taught her how to do it; anyway, she did it; and now, having so easily accomplished one of the most difficult parts of a self-made woman, she fixed it in position with the hatpin, snapped shut her chatelaine bag, and rose to go.
Looking forward in the direction she had turned to, her mind began to be crossed with doubts as to whether that was the right way. She looked in other directions. Then she turned slowly about. What she saw was simply prairie all the way round. Which part of that horizon had she come from—what point in space? There is nothing so answerless.
She was now in a world where there was no such thing as direction except that one side was opposite the other. There seemed to be nowhere that she could really consider as a Place! The spot where she had been sitting seemed to be a place; but now she realized that she could go far from it in any direction and still be resting in the middle of nature's lap.
How she strained her mind out to the very edge of things and tried to think! What endeavor she made to get out of her mind that which was not in it! She could not but feel that it was all because she was "such a fool"—for she could hardly believe that a whole country could be so lacking in information.
Poor Janet! She even looked up toward the high sun and wondered what kind of sailor science would compel him to divulge his relations with a certain wooden gate. But there was no recognition there, no acknowledgment. The four quarters of heaven were fitted together with a viewless joint. All was silent. Everything was a secret.
Of course she finally thought of the obvious thing to do; but afterwards she was sorry that she did, for that was just how she lost a good part of the afternoon. She found traces of her horse's course—here some flower stems had been broken, and a little farther on, some more; and now that all was made plain she took her slicker, which was tied in a roll behind the saddle, and, putting her mind straight ahead on the course, she set out.
In his high gallop her horse had left no trail that she could follow as a path—nothing but slight records which might be discovered upon close and particular search. As his shoeless feet had made little or no impression on the sward, and there were wide spaces where flowers were sparse, she decided, in order to make progress, to go straight forward in the direction which had been determined, and then, if the fence did not put in an appearance, to refer to the trail again.
After a time, seeing nothing ahead, she began to look about, this side and that, in doubt; and now, being "all turned round" again, she looked for the trail. But she could not find it. Looking about everywhere, round and round and farther and wider, she at last found herself inspecting her own footsteps and following her own wandering path; and here she gave it up utterly. She knew she was lost.
Again she peered out at a point in space and wondered if that was the place she came from. How different the distance looked now from what it did when she saw it down that endless road. That, at least, gave some shape to the future; and though she had been in doubt as to what it might be like, she at least knew it was there. Now the future was all around her. A thousand futures now confronted her—all done up alike in blue and awaiting her chance move, this direction or that; whereby she may be said to have been confronted with the world as it is—a veritable old wheel of fortune. But she had to do something; and the only thing to do was to walk. Making up her mind to the Somewhere in front of her, she simply went ahead; for the afternoon was going and the night was sure to come—a prospect that filled her with dread.
It is no wonder that Lot's wife looked back when she was well out on the plain. Probably she wanted to see where she was going—so Janet thought, as she trudged wearily along. Or possibly the poor woman wanted to make sure that she was going at all; for when you are walking always at the middle of things, and not coming to anything, there is no progress. Janet thought—for she had to think something—that she knew just how stationary Lot's wife felt when she was turned into a pillar of salt. Possibly, if the truth were known, Lot's wife desired to be turned into a pillar of salt—who can tell? Janet, walking along so unrelated and ineffectual, rather fancied that she herself might want to be turned into a salt-lick (she had passed one all worn hollow as the stone of Mecca by the tongues of many Pilgrims); because if she were such a thing she would not be so utterly useless and foolish under the eye of heaven. But still she kept trudging along, feeling the growing weight of the slicker in her arms, for Janet was not much of a hand to carry anything on her shoulder.
Janet walked and walked, but her walking did not seem to have any effect upon that endless land. The fence did not put in its appearance, neither did a house nor a path, nor anything else which would make it different from the sky-covered plain that it was. It persisted in being itself, world without end, amen. To make matters worse, her shoe began to hurt (she had suspected it would and taken the man's promise that it would n't), and the more she persevered the more it clamped her toe and wrung her heel and drew fire to her instep. But there was nothing to do but walk; and she kept on with her footsteps till the operation became monotonous. Still that roadless scene was unmoved. The world was "round like an apple"; that she could plainly see. And as to her feelings, this globe was just a big treadmill under her aching feet.
The only escape from such tyranny is to rise superior to it, withdrawing the mind from its service; so she decided to think of something else. And now, as she went on with no company but her own thoughts, she had a growing realization, more and more vivid, of her fall from the horse and what the consequences might have been. It was a miraculous escape, due to no management of hers. Suppose she had been disabled!—and in such a place! What a thought! She became frightened at what was past. She had not really thought of it before; and now that she did, her imagination was thrown wide open to the future, and she looked into the possibilities ahead of her. A cow, she recalled, has been known to attack even a horse and rider. And these wild range cattle; how might they take the presence of a woman, never having seen one before? There were thousands of them wandering about this big place, with horns that spread like the reach of a man's arms. Her only recourse was to wish she were a man. This was a favorite wish of hers, indulged in upon those occasions when she discovered that she had been a "silly coward" or a "perfect fool." After all, she considered, a woman is n't much loss.
"And it came to pass, when they had brought them forth abroad, that he said. Escape for thy life; look not behind thee, neither stay thou in all the plain; escape to the mountain, lest thou be consumed. . . . But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt." It was an old Sunday-school lesson. And Janet had to think something.
While Janet was determinedly putting her foot down on pain and keeping up the light of faith on the distant sky-line, another and quite separate horizon was witnessing a little incident of its own. On a spot on the prairie which was no more a particular place than any other part of it, a lamb was born. The two occupants of those parts, a man and a dog (not to mention a flock of sheep), were soon at the spot where it lay, its small body marking down in white the beginning of the Season. Nature had thus dropped her card announcing that lambing-time was now here; and so the little white form in the grass, meaning so much, claimed all the attention due to an important message—albeit the message was delivered with somewhat the carelessness of a handbill. The man stooped over and looked straight down with an expression at once pleased and perplexed. As coming troubles cast their shadows before, this little memento, coming on ahead of a gay and giddy throng, raised visions of troublous and erratic times. The dog, a genteel, white-ruffed collie, sat down and viewed the infant with a fine look of high-browed intelligence, as if he were the physician in the case. The lamb was an old friend of his—just back from nature's laundry. The newcomer, about a minute of age and not yet fully aware of itself, raised its round white poll and looked forthwith a fixed gaze as foolishly irresponsible as if it were a lamb that had just fallen off a Christmas tree.
The man turned and strode away, leaving the dog on watch to mark the place. Just below a water-hole near by was a place thickly covered with dry marsh grass, all combed over by the wind and matted down like a thatched roof, beneath which shelter opossums and rabbits ran about in tunnels of their own making. To this place he went, and having grabbed a handful of hay from the convenient mouth of a burrow, he returned to the lamb, and kneeling down beside it he rubbed it into a comfortable warmth and dryness. Not quite satisfied with the results (there was a touch of chill in the air), he produced a white pocket handkerchief which had not yet been unfolded, and he used this to perfect the work.
This latter touch was more than a Texas lamb can reasonably expect; but there were distant circumstances which prompted the act, and the sentimental effects of these were much augmented by the fact that the first and only lamb was disowned by its mother. She had given it a cold-eyed look and walked away without even the formality of taking its scent. As she was now back at her grazing again, it was plain to be seen that she was going to give herself no further concern in the matter; indeed, it was likely that when the lamb should come forward to make his claims upon her, she would resent and oppose such intimacy, sheep being different from other animals in this regard. The man felt, naturally enough, that the first-born of such a host, and the representative of so many idiots, mothered and motherless, who were soon to arrive, deserved a better reception. The lamb spelled Duty as plain as chalk; and so he rubbed away, with a look of weighty concern which almost obliterated the smile with which he began. When the fleece was perfectly dry and warm he stood up to await developments.
By this time the lamb, which had already tried to stand up, decided to do it. It got part-way up and fell. Again it came up on its stilts, wavered drunkenly and collapsed. It had made a mistake of some kind. But the only way to learn walking is to do it; and a lamb, being more ambitious than either a colt or a calf, rises at once and starts right in, regardless of the fact that it does not understand the machinery. This one was weak but game; and it went down only to rise again. It went in for a course of Experience; and finally, having got the hang of things, it was balancing on all fours with fair prospects of success. Its status was a little uncertain,—like a sailor just landed on a continent which seems to have been drinking,—but still it was up and ready to try a step or two if necessary. But now the dog, who had been keeping a sharp eye on every move, became so personally interested that he gave it a poke with his nose; and over it went. This must have been discouraging. The lamb, dazed for a moment, waited for the spirit to move it, and up it came again, a little groggy but still in the ring. It staggered, got its legs crossed and dug its nose in the dirt, but by using that for an extra support it got its bearings again and was not frustrated. This time it succeeded, its legs widely braced. With the general demeanor of a carpenter jack it continued to stand, for that way was solid and scientific; and now it looked straight ahead for the sheep that was not present. In her place was empty air—nothing. This not being according to the order of nature, the lamb was at its wits' end.
The man in the case, acting upon the philosophy of Mahomet, gathered up the lamb and went to the ewe—which would have been more easily done had the ewe been willing. Having caught her and made her fast by putting her head between his legs, which made very good stanchions, he hung the lamb across his palm and set it down carefully on the proper spot on the prairie; and now, everything being arranged as such things should be arranged, little Me went straightway to the point, his underpinning braced outward like the legs of a milking-stool.
With a well-filled stomach, the lamb stared out at the world in general, and seemed greatly edified. The man was about to let the ewe go, but hesitated, considering that after she got back among the multitude it might be quite a while before the lamb would have another chance. He had better keep her till he had made sure that the lamb could not hold any more. The lamb grew visibly in gumption; and finally, after another swig at the bar of life, he was a made lamb. He actually started to walk. His steps, to be sure, were rather theoretical and absent-minded, and as he had not yet discovered just where earth begins and air leaves off, he seemed to be putting his feet into places that were not there; but considering the dizzy height of his legs, and the unevenness of this wabbly world, he did as well as any lamb can do on one dose of milk. Once he seemed to be struck with the idea of having fun; he gave a frisky twitch to a leg and a sort of little jump-up in the rear. The man, satisfied with this evidence, let the ewe go, first taking the precaution to mark her by tying the handkerchief round her neck.
All of which took but a short while. A lamb, upon arriving, needs a few moments to take notice that this is the Earth; but he has not much more than come to a stop when he realizes that it is the place for refreshments. For this reason, the force of gravity cannot keep a good lamb down; and as nature has provided him with just enough strength to rise and partake, the sooner he is about it the better. After a few draughts from the fount of knowledge his education is complete; and it is not many days till sheep life is too dull for him and he must lead a livelier career. Mary's lamb "followed her to school one day," and the reason he followed her to school was (a fact never before published) that he thought Mary was his mother. It was a lamb whose mother had disowned him, leaving the responsibility to Mary. And if there were any tag-ends or trimmings on Mary's dress, it is safe to say that they bore evidence of having been in the lamb's mouth.
The present lamb, again deserted by its parent, was completely at sea; and not having anything to attach itself to, it simply kept on standing up, which was plenty of exercise for it just now. The man, having released the ewe, who went back to the flock with an inane baa which reminded a scattered score of other ewes to do the same, now turned his attention to the problem of carrying the little stranger. As this visitation was entirely unlooked-for, he had not brought the lamb-bag along, so he had to find some other way. His coat, unbuttoned at the top for the better insertion of his hand, he had been using as a sort of capacious breast-pocket in which he stowed his lunch and other incumbrances. One side of it now bulged out with the carcass of a cotton-tail which he had scared out of the marsh grass, together with various conveniences which he had brought along from the shack. These things out of the way there would be room for the lamb to ride; he therefore spilled everything on the ground and set to work to make an entirely new arrangement, pausing, however, when he had unbuttoned his coat (he had left his vest off) to observe the present state of his white shirt-front, one side of which, in addition to its generally soiled condition and the darker streak which marked the pathway of his hand, had now a crimson spot from the head of the cotton-tail. That side, in comparison with the spotless and polished condition of the other, presented a contrast as striking as did the new white lamb and the weather-stained flock. Having hung the rabbit to the canteen strap, he put the lamb in where it was warm; and now, as he resumed his ramble with the flock, the little grass orphan (or whatever we may call an orphan whose parents are both living) bobbed his head up and down at the powerful chest of his protector, and looked out upon the world with all the advantages, and none of the disadvantages, of having been born. This way with the young had previously been adopted by the aforesaid Mrs. O'Possum, who always carries the children in her pocket; and whom we may imagine noting the fact in terms of the very highest approval.
It had been his intention that morning to get back to the corral at an earlier hour than usual; and as the sun was well past meridian he ordered the dog out to turn the flock, the leaders of which were now about a quarter of a mile away. The collie, eager for work, skirted round and brought them all face-about suddenly, barking his threats along the van, and then closed in some stragglers, according to instructions received from the distance. The man stayed where he was till the flock had drifted past him; then he took his place at the rear again, the dog falling in close behind. He idled along after them, revolving in his mind his plans for the evening—some boards to be nailed tight on the storm-shed, and certain repairs on the south side of the pen.
Although the lamb had delayed him, the sun was still above the horizon as he drew near home—if a word which means so much may be applied to a herder's shack. A shack is a residence about like a farmer's smokehouse, being taller than it is wide or long; and as it is intended only for sleeping purposes there is just enough floor space to allow for a door, and room to turn yourself in as you shut the door. Its breadth is equal to the length of a Texan when he lies down in the bunk built into it, the headboard and footboard of which are the walls of the building itself. It might be called a bedroom on the inside, but as it is only a two-story bunk boarded in and roofed over, it is more properly a room-bed; or rather it is comparable to a passage at sea with its upper and lower bunk and the surrounding ocean of prairie—a sort of stateroom in the flight of Time. The architect of this one had been short of lumber, or too economical, the result being that the present occupant was a trifle too long for it; and he had considered the advisability of cutting a little window in the side to let his feet out. Its inconveniences bothered him little, however, as he spent his evenings stretched out on the prairie by the fire. It was so far from being Home to him that he never felt so far from home as when he entered it; and as he seldom entered it except in the dark, it was hardly a familiar place to him. Outside it might be home all over; inside was a timber tomb and the far-away country of sleep. This edifice stood on a low knoll from the heart of which issued a small spring-fed stream which had cut itself a deep ditch or gully down to the general level; and on the slope opposite to where the stream went out was a narrow path where the sheep ran up. The little eminence, with its structures, was a shanty acropolis to a universe otherwise unimproved.
It was to this place he was at last coming, his blatant rabble moving gradually together as they neared their familiar destination. Now that he felt relieved of responsibility, his thoughts, which had hurried on before him, as it were, dwelt with much satisfaction upon a certain little prison-pen on the hill ahead. Once arrived here, the lamb, could get a meal from his unwilling mother, who would be confined in such straits in the narrow little pen that she could not move nor help herself. The advantages of this arrangement the lamb would make full use of; and thereafter he would get along very well, interrupting his slumbers at any time and supping to his full satisfaction. There was a row of the separate little stalls or sheep stocks along the outside of the corral, this department being the orphan asylum of the community; and hereabouts there galloped and capered, in springtime, lambs whose mothers had died in "havin'" them, lambs whose own mothers were too poor to support them, and most frequently the child of a ewe like this.
The sheep crowded still closer together as they reached the beginning of the sheep-path; and now the man's face may be said to have taken on two coats of expression—a stern judicial look with a smile underneath. The thought that he was about to execute Justice occupied his mind wholly as the old wether led them into the strait and narrow way. With the object of catching the ewe, he ran on ahead toward the path, beside which he stationed himself, halfway up the hillock, just as the head of the column was coming; and when the misbehaved mother came trotting along he laid hands upon her and pulled her out of the procession. At this, the lamb, which had become a very warm spot on his breast, said something which sounded very much like Ma-a-a; whereupon he decided that it might as well have supper at once, after which it could follow afoot. The lamb, having been carried so far through life, came down rather carelessly on its newly unfolded legs and stumbled; but it soon picked up what it had learned of the laws of mechanics and fell to supper forthwith. The man held the ewe as before, and when he judged the lamb held a sufficiency, he hauled her away toward prison, pulling her unceremoniously out of the lamb's mouth. And then the lamb, instead of following, stood braced on the spot as if unable to comprehend that such a thing was possible. It let out a quavering complaint, a melting infant cry, at which the man stopped and turned his head, and, seeing it standing there and looking ahead in a wooden sort of way, he returned to get it, marching the ewe down the hill again.
"I hope I'll have five hundred like you," he said, scooping it up under his arm. "Yes, I do. You'll have me talking to myself yet. Yes, you will."
For a sheep-man to talk to himself is considered a bad sign; but the present hermit had no chance to go farther in this course. The dog, dashing suddenly ahead, stopped at the corner of the shack and growled. So occupied had the herder been with his distracting duties that he had not taken much notice of the shack as he drew nearer to it; but now that the dog raised the alarm he looked and saw a blue wraith of smoke hovering over the roof. His fire-hole, it seemed, was lit. This was not unwelcome news, as any one may imagine who has lived even a few days so utterly alone. But whether the visitor was a stranger or a friend was made a matter of doubt by the conduct of the dog, who was barking and growling and wagging his tail. And his only change in conduct towards his friend the enemy consisted in doing it all more industriously, making threats with one end of himself and waving a welcome with the other. But no sound came from the other side of the shack. The intruder did not stand forth and show himself. The herder wondered that his approach had not been discovered. In the meantime the ewe, which he had absent-mindedly let go of, had made her escape and was again mingling with the multitude which was now running pell-mell into the corral. It seemed strange that the person behind the shack did not step forth. Being now free of the ewe (who had in no wise thwarted Justice by her act), he proceeded to investigate his home. And when he reached the corner of the shack he saw—a Woman.
A Woman. At a sheep-shack. She had his tin stew-pan on the fire and was bending over it, sampling the contents. On the ground was a strange sight—two pieces of pie, two peaches, half a chicken, sandwiches,—some with ham and some with jam,—pickles and cheese. And the coffee-pot under full steam. The large-hearted and healthy Lena had put all this into the package rolled into the slicker. It was partly this that had made Janet's burden so heavy.
The man's jaw dropped, as almost did the lamb; but catching himself in time he hugged it closer with unconscious strength. The woman replaced the cover on the stew-pan, straightened up, and spoke.
"Good-evening," she said. This in a tone of positive welcome (possibly a little overdone).
"How do you do," he replied.
"I have just been making use of your fire-hole. And your coffee-pot. You see I was—I was—"
"Oh, that's all right. That's all right. Just make yourself right at home. Are the men folks gone somewhere?" He cast his eyes about.
"There are no—no men folks. You see I was just coming along by myself—alone—without anybody—any men folks." These words nearly choked her. But immediately she added, with the most brightening smile, "I was so frightened by your dog. He scared me so."
Having said this, she dropped her eyes to the stew-pan, the contents of which seemed to need attention just at that moment.
"Oh, he won't bite. Anyway, he won't bite you. He knows ladies."
"I am so afraid of them," she said, her eyes still occupied.
She needed a moment to recover her courage, thinking rapidly. And as for the man, he thought nothing whatever; he just looked. She was bright-eyed and fair and wholly perfect. She was dressed in plain black, with deep white cuffs which turned back upon the sleeves, and a white turnover collar, as neat as a nun. Offsetting, somehow, the severity of this, was the boyish side-sweep of her hair, and the watch-chain looped to a crocheted pocket on her breast. And on the ground lay the soldierly three-cornered hat.
To a man who had been expecting to come home to doughy hot bread and fried rabbit and solitude, this was a surprise. It was somewhat as if Providence had taken note of his case and sent out a Sister of Charity; and one who had the charming advantage of being also a dimpled Daughter of the Regiment. Once his eye had taken in the regular contour of her nose and rested on that dimple, his gaze did not wander. He did not even wink—it would have been a complete loss of looking. When she removed the lid from the saucepan a spicy aroma spread itself abroad. Dog and herder sniffed the evening air, sampling the new odor. It was a whiff of Araby the Blest.
"As I was just going to explain," she said, straightening up again, "I had an accident with my horse. I came in here to find a water-hole and he ran away and threw me off. Then I found I was lost"; and she went on to relate the details of her adventure up to the time of her arrival at the shack.
As she spoke, she felt as if she had been thrust out into the middle of a big empty stage to make a speech to that momentous audience of one man—a speech upon which everything depended. However panic-stricken she might be, she must not show it. For that would give him an opening for assurances, for allusions which would have to be recognized, for asseverations which would have to be formally confided in—intimacy. And that must not be. The least betrayal of fear by her would bring it about. There must not be even the suggestion of a situation. It had been a godsend that, upon the first failure of her courage, the dog had offered himself as a reason. The dog had made an excellent cover for her trepidation. And now it was a support to feel that the dog was walking about—an object upon which to saddle her nervous apprehension at any moment when she lost control.
She delivered her speech with a naturalness and ease which surprised her. She even added a little high-handed touch or two, referring to the aggravation of being thrown by one's horse and thus delayed in one's business; not to speak of being made such an intruder.
The man stood and listened to the music of her voice. As she began to speak with so much ease, he was smitten with a consciousness of his personal appearance, with the four awkward legs dangling down in front of him. In hope of making a more manly figure before her, he set the lamb down, feasting his eyes meanwhile upon the dainty repast and the two white napkins spread upon the ground. And when he stood up again, no one knew less than he whether he had set the lamb on its legs or its back or stood it on its head. It now occurred to him that he had not removed his hat. He did so immediately.
"And as I was coming across the range," she continued, "I saw your place. I had been so tired and hungry that I had lost my appetite. A person does, you know. But I was just dying for a cup of hot coffee. So I decided to use your conveniences. And I intended to leave your fire-hole burning for you—"
"Oh, that's all right. I 'm glad you did."
She gave a sudden little scream. This was so unexpected that the man, whose nerves were not easily touched, drew himself up straighter and stared at her in amazement.
"Oo-o-o-o-o!" she exclaimed, clasping her hands together and fixing her gaze upon the supper.
It was the lamb again. It was standing right in the middle of the feast, its legs spread as usual and one foot deep in the sugar-bowl. The lamb was waiting. It was waiting till the spirit should move it to the next idiotic thing to do; and it would no doubt have achieved it had not the man taken quick action. He seized upon the lamb precipitately and snatched it away; then he stood with one hand around its middle and its long legs hanging down, with the four hoofs together.
"Oh, is n't that a sw-e-e-et little lamb!" she exclaimed, delightedly. "Oh, is n't he a darling!"
"Well—yes," said the man, holding it out and regarding it critically. "It was certainly trying to be a sweet little lamb."
She blushed. She had not seen the lamb all by himself, before; and these were the first free and natural words she had spoken. After this spontaneous outburst she proceeded more guardedly.
"And after the coffee was on," she continued, "I thought it would be such a shame for a man to have to get his own supper after I had left, with so much to eat. So I intended to leave your supper for you. That is in case you did n't come along when I—I—You see I did n't expect you home so early." To which she quickly added, "You know, when I first came along, I thought the place might possibly be vacant. Of course, I had to go in and see; and then, as long as I had already made so free, I thought I might as well use your coffee-pot and things. And your coffee, too."
"Oh, that's all right—perfectly all right. This place does n't all belong to me. There's plenty of room for everybody."
He delivered this with a sweep of his arm that seemed to give her everything inside the horizon, and possibly lap over the edges.
"So I did take your coffee—and sugar. And I hope you 'll like what I have."
"Judging by the looks, it's mighty good. Perfectly grand. But I 'll go now and put this lamb where he won't be scaring us again Miss—— Excuse me, but I haven't asked your name."
"My name is Smith. Janet Smith."
"My name is Brown. Stephen Brown. Glad to meet you, Miss Smith."
He put his hat to his head in order to take it off. She acknowledged the formality with a slight bow.
"I 'll go and fix this lamb," he resumed. "I intended to do some repairing before sundown; that's why I came home a little early. But it's rather late now to do much. There's other work I have to 'tend to, though. I hope it won't take very long."
So saying, he started away. When he had gone a little distance, and observed that the dog was remaining behind, an interested spectator, he called back: "Don't mind him if he watches you. His name is Shep. He likes ladies."
Janet finished setting Mr. Brown's table, which consisted of a place where the grass was worn short. When he was working among the sheep with his back turned, she patted the dog on the head with the greatest familiarity. Janet "loved" dogs. When next she looked up to see what had become of her guest, or host, he was disappearing in the deep little gully.
When the shack rose upon her vision, Janet's spirits gave a leap. A mere box it was, in the image of a house; but yet, from the moment its countenance appeared on the scene, that lost and lorn prairie seemed to have found a place for itself. The whole interminable region attached itself to the shack and became a front and backyard; the landscape was situated and set right, knowing its right hand from its left. Four walls, a roof, and a door—all the things necessary to make a threshold, that magic line across which woman faces the world with the courage of divine right. At the end of a lonesome, laborious day she saw it; and she hurried to it with a sort of homing instinct. Opening the door, she gave a start and stepped back. Another's "things" were in it. Now what should she do? It was a question with half a dozen answers; and they all said, Go.
Just outside the door was a box with a hinged lid. It contained kitchenware and supplies. There was the coffee-pot—and coffee. As there was no one in sight (rolling ground is very deceptive), she decided that, tired as she was and with the journey still before her, this opportunity of rest and a comfortable supper, with plenty of strong hot coffee, ought to be taken advantage of. Then, as soon as supper was over, she would retire from the scene and consider what was best to do. She would sit down and try her courage in the dark. Possibly, under cover of night, she would come in closer to his camp-fire and sit there on her slicker. Or maybe there would be two men! But at present it was all undecidable, almost unthinkable; she must take this little respite from being lost and try to make the most of things.
The twigs of half-dried mesquite did not kindle readily. With fanning and blowing the fire consumed a great deal of time and matches; but at last it got itself into the spirit of burning. In the midst of these preparations she heard the bark of a dog and a medley of baas, and looking round the corner of the shack she saw that it was too late.
When Mr. Brown had recovered from his surprise and excused himself, she became very industrious indeed, flitting about on the little space of ground like a bird in a cage. Despite her confusion, her mother wit was still with her, prompting her to cover her agitation with the appearance of housewifely activity; so every time that she beat against the bars of her situation she carried a fork or a spoon or the lid of something. She set his place, fed the fire, put on more coffee. He continued to work about the corral. Though the sight of him was not quieting, she glanced up often enough to keep track of him. He seemed to take his time.
Janet, partially blinded by too much attention to the fire, looked up through the dusk as he went to the edge of the little gully and descended. He was a "full fathom of a man," and as he sank from sight his length seemed to go right down through the surface of things, like Hamlet's father retiring to the lower regions. When, finally, his head had disappeared, she dropped her pretense of being cheerfully occupied and turned her attention in another direction. She looked hard at the shack—its door half open and the two bunks showing. Her brows drew closer together, with the enigma between them. That little Home, to which she had hurried with such a feeling of relief, had taken on a different guise. It was now the place she must get away from. At the same time black night was coming on as if to drive her into it. The sun was sinking. In the east the vanguard of darkness was already advancing. She gripped her chin tensely and tried to think, her forefinger pressed deep into the dimple. On the upper bunk was a faded blue blanket; the lower one was red.
Which way should she turn, or how conduct herself? Dreading to go and afraid to stay, she was confronted with a problem the terms of which seemed only able to repeat themselves. With the terrors of the night before her, she dared not venture away from this man; her very nature courted his presence. His strength and fearlessness she found herself clinging to as if he belonged to her—and yet he was a menace! Of course there might be nothing to fear if—— But If was the dove that found no rest for the sole of its foot.
The problem presented difficulty on every hand, as if things were on his side. The darkness and the shack worked together to prevent escape; they seemed to have her completely surrounded.
What sort of man was he?
Repeatedly she had taken note of his features, but only to feel more deeply how little can be told in that way. Her inability to decide what impression he should have made on her was tantalizing—the aching question still remained. The face is but a likeness; you should know the original. And yet his countenance, so strongly painted on her mind, seemed always on the point of answering her profoundest query. It was as if she knew him. She now contemplated her mental image more deeply, feeling that she could get behind that countenance and have absolute knowledge. But it was a delusion. The soul is invisible.
In utter homelessness she gazed down at that little space of ground allotted to him and her. And the supper which united them. In nature there seemed to be no barrier between man and woman; their paths led toward each other. The flat ground seemed paved with gradual ingratiating approach; and no defense but outcry—too terrible and too late. Surely too late, for he was in the position of her protector, and she would have to assume that he was a gentleman; and how is a girl by that prairie camp-fire going to say just how much room her person shall occupy? Then how shall she set safe bounds? With the darkness closing in around her she felt trapped.
Her wits hard-pressed by this paradoxical plight, she looked with new longing at the shack. She felt that if she were on the other side of that threshold, and it were hers by right, she could stand behind it with some assurance of power against him, some dependence in forces not her own. For a door-sill is definite, and on it rises a formal spectre; but the way to a woman's heart is not so. Out here there were no set bounds; nothing to give pause at a distance showing the first and fatal step: no line in nature which becomes evident before it has been passed. Without it the moral dead-line was too close. Oh! if that shack were only hers—the rights of its lockless door.
But it was not hers. Thus Janet's imagination battered at the doors of Home, scarcely knowing what she thought, but taking mental action, nevertheless, in the face of circumstance and the quick speech of things. It seemed to her—afterwards—that never till that moment had she seen the full nature of Home. That she could see any of its features, even for a moment, in a shack so frail that a boot could break it, did not seem reasonable, even to her; but the strength of a house is not all in locks and bars. She had caught the depth of the man's first charmed look at her. Even a shack can excuse one from the scene, extinguish the light of beauty, and then say with the voice of Society—keep out. Thus things do not so easily and gradually come to an issue. But before her was only the prospect of her open presence, without screen or barrier or warning sign. And she, on her part, had not failed to note that, besides his straightness and look of strength, there was something of virile charm. What a terrible thing to be a woman! So, having turned instinctively to the shack, and recoiled from it, and then, with nothing else in sight, returned to it with the imagination of despair, there was nothing left but to turn about and stand with equal bafflement before the closed secrets of his soul.
As if by a deeper instinct, rewarding her efforts, she saw in him certain abilities for evil—deep, deliberate, and daring. He had quite deliberately left her; then he had, as deliberately, and without saying a word, gone down into that place. The little gully was as steep, almost, as a grave, deep, long, and narrow. Her eyes turned toward its gloomy shape. What could he be doing down there? What thinking? She could hear her watch tick. A meaningless baa broke out in the corral and went round in changing tones among the sheep. While she is so standing, let us take a look at affairs in the gully.
Mr. Brown, upon arriving at the bottom, proceeded to cast a burden from his breast—first, a stone which he had been saving for an opossum, a rawhide thong, a newspaper which had done duty over and over, and which he kept in hope that it might yield up some further bit of news, and finally, the rabbit, all of which he dropped on the ground beside his hat; and then, getting down on his knees, he washed his face. Having spluttered vigorously into double-handfuls of water from the little stream and put the towel back on its bush, he turned his attention to his twelve-dollar boots—for in the country of boots and saddles the leatherwork is the soul of appearances. He removed the mud with his knife and brushed off the dust with the rabbit. Finding that this latter operation promised finer results, he damped the boots with the tips of his fingers, and taking hold of the long ears and hind legs he worked the rabbit back and forth so industriously that a fair polish came forth. With a careless twirl he threw the rabbit away. It was probably as well for Janet that she had no knowledge of what he was doing down there; she would have been terrified by these too evident indications of his intentions. Having combed his hair and brushed his clothes with the palms of his hands, he felt generally renovated and pulled together; he took his hat in hand and straightened up in readiness to make his appearance. Then he sat down.
Before him was the spring with night already in its depths. The little stream murmured of its flowing in the overhanging grass, and caught the color of the sunset as it ran out into the open. A little farther on it emptied its reflections into a pool of gold. Steve Brown, having in his mind's eye a vision lovelier than this, and much more interesting, rested his gaze on a dark spot which was the spring. At first, her presence at his firehole had seemed unreal; and yet perfectly natural. It was very much as if she had just stepped down out of the sky and said, "Your wish has come true." At least, he had been wishing that he had something fit to eat, having become dissatisfied with himself as a cook. His period of due consideration did not take long; he again picked up his hat, and after a momentary pause in this vestry or anteroom of the scene he made his entrance.
Janet, having done the last possible thing to the supper, stood her ground bravely as he issued from the trench and marched upon her camp; for so it seemed to her, so conscious she was of swinging thighs and formidable front as he advanced. He hung his sombrero on a nail at the corner of the shack, apologized for his delay, and stood with his arms folded, awaiting her orders.
"Sit right down, Mr. Brown," she said, indicating his place and smiling as best she could. She seated herself on the grass opposite.
"It is very fine weather we are having, Mr. Brown," she remarked.
"Yes; it was a fine day. Nice and bright; but a little chilly."
"It looks as if it might stay this way," she added.
"Yes—I think it will. Hope it will anyway. But you can't tell."
The last remark had the effect of bringing their beginning to an end—as if this pliable subject had broken off in too strong hands.
While she poured the coffee, he served the meat, which she had put at his place; and when he saw her take up his well-filled cup he lifted her plate at the same moment and passed it to her, giving and receiving together. In the midst of this exchange, Janet (probably owing to the ceremonious way in which he did it) suddenly saw into the little formality as if a strange new light had been shed upon it; and instantly she felt that if she had it to do again she would not set the table in this husband-and-wife way. She was smitten with self-consciousness; and thinking it over it seemed strange that she, who was so anxious to avoid all suggestion of intimacy, could have arranged such a token between them and not have been aware of it. In that all-silent place the act was like words—as if mere Things had spoken out loud.
"That is a pretty bouquet you have," he remarked.
The reference was to some spring flowers which she had plucked upon arriving and used to fill up her cup of joy, the said cup being one of Mr. Brown's.
"Yes; I thought they were very sweet. In looks, I mean. Especially that blue kind." Then suddenly, as the thought struck her, "But you see so many of them!"
For a moment he looked disconcerted, like a man accused of something. Inquiringly he looked at the flowers, first at the ones which belonged to her, then at the thousands just like them all around.
"But so did you see a great many of them." This was his defense.
"Oh, yes—— Well—but what I meant"—the fact being that she did not know what she meant any more than he knew what he meant—"was—— Of course you would n't pick them for a bouquet, though, would you?"
Instantly she felt that matters had been made worse. It was like offering final proof that he had not admired her flowers, really; and what was his defense?
"Oh, no—I suppose I would n't. That is, not for myself."
It was the first step of his approach!
"Some people do not care for flowers so much as others do," she answered hurriedly. "I have even heard of persons to whom the perfume was offensive; especially in damp, warm weather. Odors are always strongest in damp weather, you know."
It was a relief to feel that she had been able to lead away from it.
This put them on the weather again; then ensued a conversation perfectly inconsequential, and yet remarkable, to Janet at least, for the amount of guidance it needed. She felt, as if her fate depended on it, that there must be nothing of intimacy, not even suggestion. So much might come from the drift of the conversation. She kept it as inconsequential as she could—a sort of chat hardly worth setting down except great art had been shown in it. Had Janet been a more experienced woman, and one with the firm sure touch of the conversational pilot, there might be some interest in charting out her secret course, showing all the quick invisible moves that were made, and how she steered through swift hidden dangers and grazed imminent perils unscathed, chatting inconsequentially all the while. But Janet was not that. She was little more than a girl.
She did the best she could. Meanwhile the flowers flaunted their colors in the firelight, seeming now a danger signal to remind her of her bungling start. The flowers! She wished she had not plucked them or put them there. Those preferred posies, standing there apart from the crowd just like them, looked perfectly foolish. She did not understand what she had done it for. The moment she had made that remark she saw the only reason why he admired them: it was simply because they were hers. And she had almost pushed the matter to this admission, so thoughtless she was.
While they talked, she took fuller observation of him, hoping to find an answer to her great question. He wore a white shirt—this had flashed upon her first of all. Further scrutiny told her that he had better clothes than his calling would seem to allow, and in better condition. His suit was gray, and though somewhat worn and unfurbished, was evidently of fine quality. There was little about his attire which would have attracted attention in a Northern city except, possibly, the wide-brimmed hat and the boots with high heels. He was about thirty years of age. In the shack shone a polished spur—there seemed to be nothing else of cowboy accoutrement. She could not make him out. He seemed taciturn at times and eyed her strangely.
Conversation can take such quick turns. Words, even mere things, can pop up with such unlooked-for allusions. They had drifted into some remarks upon sheep-herding, a trying occupation. Mr. Brown attested its monotonous and wearing nature.
"Yes," she said, "it must be so. No doubt you are always glad enough, Mr. Brown, when the time comes to get back home again."
"Yes—I prefer town to this. But I can't exactly say that it is like going home nowadays. I have a house just outside of town on the county-seat road. But a house is n't home."
"Oh, no, indeed. But a house is a very good thing to have—even in this mild climate." She paused a moment. "But Texans," she added, "keep the windows open so much, night and day, that one might just as well sleep out of doors. There is no difference really."
Considered in all its bearings, this answer seemed an improvement; it encouraged her for the moment. But it seemed impossible for them to sit out there and talk in a man-to-man relation; they were Society. The very phrases of society,—even the flowers, the supper, the yawning shack,—everything, it seemed to her, was against it. It is in the nature of things; and the Devil is on the man's side. They were Man and Woman, sitting out there in that little circle of fire. It seemed to her at times as if some terrible light were being thrown upon them with a burning focus.
One precaution she tried to keep constantly before her. She must not tell him her affairs—nothing of her situation in the world. It did not seem advisable even to tell him the nature of her errand to the county-seat; too much might be reasoned from it, of her helplessness. Her great danger lay in being questioned: this must be avoided.
But strangely—and its strangeness grew upon her—he did not ask such questions. He did not seem to have the least interest in her family, her history, or the object of her journey. He asked where she was going, a conventional question, perfunctorily put. His remarks all seemed somewhat conventional. Even these she had sometimes to evade and direct into other channels; and naturally a conversation, conducted solely with the idea of concealing her affairs, did not prosper. He began to say less. Finally he did not talk at all. He simply listened. His quiet way of waiting for her to continue bore in upon her as if it were some new quality of silence.
To meet the situation she returned to the subject of her adventure; she recounted that day's travels with endless inconsequential comment and explanation. If she paused, he made some obvious observation and waited. Janet, rather than face awkward pauses, silences which she could hardly support, would take up her travels again. She talked on because there seemed no way to stop. His way of waiting for her to continue seemed quite in keeping with that deliberateness which she had already noted. What to make of it she did not know. It might be that he was simply satisfied with the sound of her voice. Or possibly he had not the least care as to her past or future. Simply disinterest! This latter feeling—despite the state of affairs was so desirable—touched her in some deep part of her being.
She told herself he was full of studious design; but whenever he looked straight at her and repeated her words in his quiet, well-modulated tones, she found her better judgment softly set aside, and all put in obeyance [Transcriber's note: abeyance?]. At such times a pleasant feeling passed over her; all her speculations and apprehensions were sunk in the atmosphere of his presence. It was a soothing effect, a personal influence which extended about him and pervaded her part of the air. As she talked on and on, and he gave her attention, she felt it more and more, as if she were sitting, not merely in his presence but within the circle of his being. It was as if, with her eyes shut, she could have entered his company and felt its atmosphere like entering a room.
She had not been able to see any way of getting the immediate future into her own hands. Whenever she thought of bringing the story to an end, her mind confronted her with the question, What next? Something certainly would be next. With all her talking, she confined herself to the details of that one day's experience. It seemed capable of indefinite expansion; there would never be any end unless she made it. Having supported herself in conversational flight so long, she began to feel that anything was better than suspense. She must do something. With this in mind she ceased and looked out into the night. The stars, a vast audience, had all taken their places. She leaned forward and began removing the dishes from her napkins.
"It is time for me to be going," she said.
He sat up straight—as suddenly erect as if he had been caught sleeping in the saddle.
"Going! Going where?"
"I'm going—on my way."
"Why, town is seventeen miles from here!"
"Oh, I can walk if—if I only knew the way."
"And hear the coyotes? And no light!"
Getting his small heels directly under him, he rose to six feet and looked directly down on her. It was as if he had ascended to the top of his stature to get a full view of such a proposition. "Pshaw!" he said. "Stay right here. I 'll fix you up all right."
Without pausing for further parley, or even looking to her for assent, he turned and went into the shack. From the inside of this sleeping-place there came sounds of energetic house-cleaning: pieces of property came tumbling out of the door—an old saddle-blanket, a yellow slicker, a pair of boots, a tin bucket. Finally a branding-iron bounded back from the heap and fell rattling on the door-sill; then there was a sound of wiping and dusting out. Janet sat silent, her hands in her lap. In a little while he came crawling backwards out of the door and brushed the accumulated dirt off the door-sill with a light blue shirt. He went in again, and after a moment appeared with the red blanket, which he shook so that it made loud reports on the air and then carried to the fire for inspection, and to find the long and short of it.
"I guess there is n't any head or foot to this, is there?" He smiled dryly as if this comment pleased him; and without expecting an answer he went into the shack with it and busied himself again.
"There, now!" he remarked as he came out. "You can fix up the little things to suit yourself. And if there's anything else, just let me know and I 'll do it for you."
"I am very much obliged to you," she said, rising.
"Oh, that's all right—no trouble at all. And now, if you will just excuse me, I 'll go and finish up around the place. If you want to go to bed before I get through, you will find a candle in the top bunk. I have n't got an extra lantern."
So saying he took his leave. He put three of the coyote lanterns on their poles at the corners of the pen, unwrapped the red cloth from the fourth and used it to light his way over to the shed. He came back, wrapped the red around it again, and hoisted it to its place at the top of the pole. A watchful ram baaed awesomely as it rose.
Janet's shoe had been hurting her unmercifully. She had not been able to compose herself in any way without in some degree sitting on her foot; and it had kept up a throbbing pain. As she stood up, it seemed to reach new heights of aching and burning. She decided that she had better take possession of the shack at once; so she got the candle and lit it at the fire. The first thing she did upon entering was to remove her shoes. The relief was a luxury. The door had no means of locking; the wooden latch lifted from the outside. Having latched it, she sat down on the edge of the bunk.
Her shack! But after a little this inward exclamation began to take the form of a question. Suddenly she rose and looked at the top bunk. The blue blanket was still there. She was very tired. After sitting a while in thought, she put the corner of the red blanket over her feet and lay down, letting the candle burn. She was sleepy as well as tired; but she kept her eyes upon the door. It was really his place, not hers. And that made it all so different—after all.
Of all our protectors, there is none whose rumorous presence is more potent than the Spirit of the Threshold. His speech is a whisper, and before his airy finger even the desperado quails. Thus doors are stronger than they seem, and a house, if there is no other need of it, is an excellent formality. The accusing Spirit stands aside only for the owner.
Janet kept her eyes half open, watching that ancient mark between Mine and Thine.
Janet, opening her eyes upon daylight, sat up drowsily and looked about. How long she had been sleeping she had not the least idea. Her windowless chamber, all shot through with sunlight, presented a surprising array of cracks, and the slanting beams told her that the sun was well up. Her watch had stopped.
In the absence of toilet conveniences she arranged her hair as best she could; and having adjusted her skirt-band and smoothed out the wrinkles, she put her hand to the latch. Her attention was caught by certain sunlit inscriptions on the pine siding—verses signed by the pencil of Pete Harding, Paducah, Kentucky. Mr. Harding showed that he had a large repertoire of ribald rhyme. And he had chosen this bright spot whereon to immortalize his name. She opened the door and went out.
Mr. Brown was nowhere to be seen. The flock, all eyes, turned in a body and stared at her. Presently she went to look for him. He was not in the storm-shed, nor anywhere down the slope, nor in the gully. She walked slowly round the shack and scanned the prairie in all directions. The face of nature was quite innocent of his presence. The dog, too, was gone.
As she came back to her starting place, the sheep again regarded her in pale-eyed expectation. A ewe emitted her one doleful note; another gave hers, sadly. The fire had been burning quite a while; it had made a good bed of coals on which the kettle was steaming briskly. She put on the coffee and prepared breakfast; and as he still continued to be absent, she sat down and ate alone. Then she put up a lunch and stowed it in the pocket of her slicker. Its weight had diminished considerably from what it was the day before, and as it did not now have to be done up in the form of a bundle it could be carried in a more convenient way. She folded the slicker lengthwise and threw it across her shoulder.
He had pointed out to her the direction in which the road lay at its nearest point. She walked up and down restlessly. After much indecision and aimless casting about, she turned suddenly toward her own quarter of the horizon and set forth on her journey. But having proceeded a fair distance she slackened her pace and came to a stop; and again she strolled up and down, looking occasionally in the direction of the knoll. Finally, she returned to it and resumed her meditations, less impatient.
After a long time, or so it seemed to her, she looked up and saw him coming. He carried a rope, the long noose of which he was making smaller to fit the coil on his arm. As he reached the shack he threw down the coil and lifted his hat.
"Good-morning, Miss Janet"—he used the Southern form of address—"are you all ready to leave us?"
"Yes; I thought I ought to get as early a start as possible. I made the coffee right away. I did not know but you might be back in a little while."
"Oh, I had breakfast long ago. I went out to see if I could get your horse for you. But I did n't catch sight of him. I hunted for him longer than I realized. It is quite a distance for you to walk, and I thought we might fix up some way for you to ride."
"That was very kind of you, Mr. Brown. I shall be quite able to walk. It was only necessary for me to be shown the direction."
"The road is over that way," he said, indicating its position with his arm. "Keep in that direction a while and you will strike a wagon-trail. Then follow that and it will bring you right out on the road. After you get to the road, you will find a house about a mile to the right. That is, if you intend to go that way."
"I am from Merrill, Mr. Brown. I am on my way to the county-seat. For the past week I have been teaching school a few miles from Merrill. It is the little white schoolhouse near Crystal Spring."
"A teacher!" he exclaimed.
"I can hardly claim to be a teacher," she answered. "The girl who has that school was called home by the death of her brother. I have only been substituting. I am on my way to Belleview to take a teacher's examination."
As Janet offered this conscientious information, Steve Brown looked in vain for any allusion to her secretiveness of the night before. In her bearing there was not the least vestige of arts and airs, nor any little intimation of mutual understanding; she simply looked up with wide-open eyes and told it to him. This honesty, quite as if she owed it, gave Steve a new experience in life; and he gazed into eyes that charmed him by the clarity of their look.
"You are going to the court-house to get a certificate!" he remarked.
"I do not belong here in Texas," she said, continuing her story. "I am from Ohio. I am stopping with the Dwights, down at Merrill. But for the past week I have been stopping at a farmer's in order to be nearer the school."
"Will you be going back to Ohio, possibly?"
"It might be that I shall go back. But it all depends. I may get a school if I pass."
She stepped forward to take leave of him. But just at that moment he thrust both hands deep into his pockets and bent his gaze intently upon the ground, his brows knit together. She waited.
"Miss Janet," he said, looking up suddenly, "I would be interested in knowing whether you pass."
"Well," she said, "I suppose I might easily let you know."
"My address is Thornton, Box 20. I get my mail every day—excepting the last few days, of course;—but I will get it again promptly as soon as I am out of this fix I am in. I don't suppose—"
"Why, are you in some sort of trouble?" she asked, interrupting him.
"Not very serious. I need a herder. I really ought to have two or three for a while now. I don't suppose, Miss Janet, there is any doubt that you will pass?"
"I think," she said, a playful light now touching her features, "it is quite possible for me not to pass. I suppose I could have passed easily enough four years ago. But after I got out of the Academy, I went to live with my aunt; and women, you know, don't keep up their interest in algebra and things. This winter when Aunt Mary died, in Toledo, I came down here."
She stepped forward again and extended her hand.
He had been seeing more and more of beauty as he gazed into her eyes. The Truth was in them deeper than words. They were large gray eyes, gentle and quiet and soft as dawn; and they had that fulfilling influence which spread peace upon the waters of his soul.
"Good-bye, Mr. Brown. I am very much obliged to you."
"Well—good-bye, Miss Janet. Be sure and let me know."
She turned at once and proceeded on her way.
With her attention straight ahead, but without any landmark to go by, she went resolutely forward, and when finally she turned to look back she saw him standing just as she had left him. He did not seem to have moved. Again she put forward, widening the distance in imagination; and the next time she turned to view her work, the shack was sinking behind a billow of land. She stood now and gazed back at the flat, flowered expanse; then she turned her back upon it for the last time. One does not look long upon the gay curtain after it has closed upon the scene.
"I would be interested in knowing whether you pass." The morning had shed new light upon her situation; and this shed a light upon morning. And now that she could view her adventure in the light of its outcome, she went back to the moment of their meeting, and did so, recalling what next he said or did. She lived it all over again; this time more understandingly. Meantime the prairie accommodated her with its silence. It was the same sameness as on the day before; but not to her.
With her eyes fixed upon infinity she went buoyantly forward; for this time she was not lost. The sun, already high when she arose, was blazing somewhere in the regions above, and the strong light, flaring in her face and shining on the broad reaches ahead, was very trying to her eyes. After peering against it ineffectually for a while she took off the three-cornered hat and proceeded to undo her work of the day before, removing the pins and letting down the rim.
The wearing of a man's hat was one of those things which she herself would "never have thought of." But just at a time when she had been having experience with the tribulations of a big leghorn on horseback, she saw a woman with a man's hat turned up at the side; and the next day she had procured one like it, which she turned up in the same manner with a breastpin. And the leghorn, unsuited to trials of wind and weather, was left at home.
The woman—Raymond her name was—was passing the school on horseback, and she stopped in to get a drink. Janet noticed the hat more particularly because of its contrast with the woman's hair, which was light like her own; although, as she observed to herself, of quite a different shade. As it was almost noon she stopped for lunch, and Janet found her very good company if not quite to her fancy. She smelled horribly of perfume.
With the brim shading her eyes, Janet could now look forward with a degree of comfort. Presently she was brought to a stop by a small stream. It was a mere brook—probably the water from a single spring such as the one which issued from the knoll; but at this point it spread out and took the form of a wide patch of marsh grass. Farther down it gathered its laggard waters together and became a brook again. Janet, keeping clear of the bog, went down here intending to jump across. Finding it too wide for her, she followed it along, its varying width promising to let her pass. She skirted round other patches of marsh grass and black boggy places only to find it too wide again. At last she removed her shoes and stockings and waded it.
For some time she had been ignoring the troubles of her left foot, the instep of which felt as if some one had been heaping coals of fire on it. It was such a relief to step out of the hot grip of leather into the well-fitting water that she loitered a while in the current; then it occurred to her that here was the place to stop for dinner. With her slicker spread out on the bank she sat down and had lunch, holding her feet in the water while she ate. Being done she sat a while longer, and when the sun had dried her feet she put on the shoes again, lacing them carefully with particular regard to the ailing instep. Then she folded the slicker.
As she straightened up and turned to go, she beheld a Texas steer of the longhorn variety only a short distance away. He had been grazing toward her, and as she arose he threw up his head. At sight of him—he seemed to be all horns—she turned and made straightway for the other side of the stream. She splashed through it as fast as she could go; and being back where she came from, she turned upstream and ran. She kept on till she came to a particularly wide piece of marsh grass. Here, with a good bog between herself and the appalling pair of horns, she came to a stop. Her shoes were now heavy with mud and water.
Janet can hardly be called a coward for acting as she did. A Texas longhorn of the old school was enough to move anybody,—better calculated to do so than either the elk or deer.
Consider the stag raising his antlers in the forest aisle. Held to the spot by this display of headgear you contemplate it in all its branches,—main-beam, brow-tine, bes-tine, royal and surroyal,—they are all beautifully named. To run is only second thought. No particular horn seems aimed at you. Between so many there may be room for escape.
But think of the Texas steer! To right and left of him is one long tapering tine. Each of them, naked as a tusk, has a peculiar twist which suggests that it is perfectly scientific. Immediately you are impressed with the idea of running.
He is a pitchfork on four legs. And so is his wife. With other beasts of horn and antler, it is only the male who is thus favored; he has them to fight out his differences over the ladies; and also, no doubt, to make a grand impression. But Mrs. Longhorn has them as well as he and is quite able to take care of herself. And so, meeting either of them in their native state, you are inclined to regard the horizon as one vast bull-ring. Janet was not at all cowardly when she arose and went.
Having reached a safer place, she turned her attention to the stream again; and as she was now confronted by the bog, she had to find a crossing somewhere else. Naturally she did not turn her steps downstream again.
The steer had grown small in the distance by the time she came to a place where the black bottom looked safe. She stepped in and got to the other side without difficulty.
For quite a while now, Janet's journey might best be described by saying that she walked. The scenery was grass. Evidently she had missed the road. Still, though the fence was not yet in sight, she did not give up hope; a wire fence does not become visible at a very great distance. Her wet shoes were very annoying. The imprisoned water inwardly sucked and squirted at every step, and made queer sounds. Unable to endure it longer she sat down and took them off, and while they were draining, upside down, she removed the stockings and wrung them out. Although she did not get them thoroughly dry, the walking was somewhat natural again at least.
Her shadow became long and stretched out indefinitely beside her. The sun came down from above and appeared in its own form; then quickly it sank. She kept steadily on. She knew it could not be far now to the fence; and once she was on the road she would feel safer. But while she walked the gray of evening came on; then somewhere in the distance a coyote barked. Her courage began to depart, as the dusk deepened; it seemed to her as if all the loneliness in the world had come home to roost. It was no use to watch for the fence now; it would apprise her of its presence when she came to it. Regardless of the possibility of running into its iron barbs, she walked faster; at times she ran. A star came out faintly. It was night.
The swish-swish of her feet in the grass, the rustle of her skirts, became prominent sounds. She missed the company of her watch; she wound it up and got it to ticking; anything to ward off the solitude. The thought of camping out she did not like to entertain; but thoughts are unavoidable. Once she stood quite still to make a little trial of it, but her pause was not long; she soon got her feet to going again. She missed the sound of trees, the breezes playing upon them. If there had only been something,—she knew not what,—it would have seemed more world-like. There was an absence of everything familiar.
To stop and rest was now out of the question. It were better to walk and keep thinking of the road. That would be human ground. So she thought of the road and tried to keep her mind flowing in its channel. How far might it be now? How long?
In the midst of this suspense she sighted a light ahead—a camp-fire. It was somewhat to the left of her present course. Steadily it drew nearer, straight ahead—her footsteps had bent toward it. When she was beginning to distinguish the play of the flames, it sank from sight; but presently it appeared again, more plainly. Now a lantern was moving about behind a pair of legs. She could see just the legs, scissors-like, cutting off the light at each step. The lantern stopped and burned steadily; then another appeared. Then another.
The open side of a shed became visible, a block of deeper darkness which made the night seem lighter. Janet, scarce knowing her intentions, kept going towards it. The lantern which first stopped now turned red and began ascending. It was a coyote lantern. It was going up to the top of its pole. A sheep baaed with the suddenness of a bagpipe.
Janet halted. She had now gone dangerously near. The fire invited her to come; but many things warned her away. What to do she did not know.
To her dismay, the problem very quickly took itself out of her hands. The dog, alive to his duty, came out at her with alarming threats. A short distance from her he circled around her to make his attack from the rear, as Scotch dogs wisely do. Janet screamed and ran forward, though not so willingly as a sheep. As the dog desisted, in obedience to a sharp command from his master, she halted again. One of the lanterns was suddenly lifted, and being held up to give a wider light it shone full on the face of the man. It was the countenance of Mr. Stephen Brown.
"Goodness gracious!" said Janet.
Rumor worketh in a thousand ways her wonders to perform.
On the day of Janet's runaway, Tuck Reedy, of Thornton, rode in at the southeast gate and struck out in the direction of certain water-holes, his mission being to look over some B.U.J. cattle which had recently been branded, and see whether their burns had "peeled" properly.
In a good many cases he found that the blow-flies had worked havoc, so that, working single-handed, he had a great deal to do; and by the time he had thrown a number of lusty calves and treated their sides with his bottle of maggot medicine, he had pretty well worn-out the day. Being done, he turned his attention to a cow which had become deeply involved in a boggy water-hole. He threw the rope over her horns and pulled with his pony this way and that, but without success. Finally, when the sun was going down on failure, he resolved to kill or cure. He gave the rope another turn round the horn of his saddle and started up at imminent risk to her neck. Her legs were rooted in the tough muck as if they were the fangs of a colossal tooth, but Tuck pulled it; and having now rounded out an honest day's work, his fancy turned toward the fire of the sheep-herding Pete Harding. Pete was a congenial spirit, even if he was not much of a horseman, and he had a pack of cards with which he passed much time, trying to beat himself at solitaire.
Tuck did not know that Pete Harding was not at present in charge of the sheep. He eventually made the discovery by the light of Steve's fire; and he made it at remarkably long range. Like others whose vision has been trained on far-off cattle, he was very long-sighted; his eye could reach out and read the half-obliterated brand on a distant cow—a faculty which saves a horse many steps, especially on a ranch where the cattle do not all belong to one owner. Tuck, being one of this kind, was as yet afar off when he saw that there were two persons at the fire. Closer approach making the fact vividly plain, he pulled rein and came to a stop. Sure enough, it was a woman! She was sitting there eating supper!