VIRGINIA OF ELK CREEK VALLEY
MARY ELLEN CHASE
Author of "The Girl from the Big Horn Country," etc.
A. L. Burt Company Publishers New York
Published by arrangement with The Page Company
Printed in U. S. A.
Copyright, 1917 by The Page Company All rights reserved
Made in U. S. A.
A REAL ONE
CHAPTER PAGE I. The Joy of Anticipation 1 II. The Arrival 11 III. The Getting-Acquainted Trip 23 IV. The Bear Canyon Bear 33 V. Jean Macdonald—Homesteader 49 VI. Miss Green Again 68 VII. The Vigilantes Homestead 88 VIII. Aunt Deborah Hunter—Pioneer 109 IX. Mr. Crusoe of Cripple Creek 126 X. A Letter from Dorothy 146 XI. "Ever Vigilant" 161 XII. The Roman Emperor 180 XIII. On the Mesa 198 XIV. The New School-teacher in Bear Canyon 202 XV. Mr. Benjamin Jarvis Entertains 216 XVI. The Cinnamon Creek Forest Ranger 237 XVII. The Winthrop Coat-of-Arms 251 XVIII. A Good Sport 262 XIX. Carver Standish III Fits In 277 XX. Comrades 286
VIRGINIA OF ELK CREEK VALLEY
THE JOY OF ANTICIPATION
Elk Creek Valley was a blue and golden place that mid-summer morning in the Big Horn Country. It seemed like a joyous secret tucked away among the mountains, whose hazy, far-away summits were as blue as the sky above them. The lower ranges, too, were blue from purple haze and gray-green sagebrush, while the bare, brown foot-hills tumbling about their feet were golden in the sunlight. Blue lupines and great spikes of mountain larkspur made of the Valley itself a garden which sloped gently to the creek, and lost itself in a maze of quaking-asps and cottonwoods. As for the creek waters, they ceased their tumultuous haste upon nearing the garden, and were content to move slowly so that they might catch and hold the sunlight in their amber depths. Beyond the creek, and through a gap in the foot-hills, the prairie stretched for miles—blue and green with oats and wheat and alfalfa. Now and then a mountain bluebird was lost to sight among the larkspur, and always a cloud of tiny blue butterflies circled above the creek.
Two pair of delighted eyes—one gray and the other blue—gazed upon the loveliness of everything as their owners watered a team of big bay horses at the ford. The gray eyes belonged to a girl of seventeen—a girl with golden-brown hair and cheeks glowing red through the tan of her eager, thoughtful face. She was radiant with happiness. It beamed from her eyes and lurked about the corners of her mouth. She seemed too excited to sit still. Now her gray eyes swept the prairie stretches, now scanned the mountains, now peered up the creek beneath the over-hanging trees. She was talking in short, eager sentences to her companion—the owner of the blue eyes. He was a tall, clean, robust lad—a year older than she.
"Oh, Don," she cried, "isn't it wonderful? Just think! Our dream is really coming true! I used to say at school that even if it didn't come true, we'd have the joy of dreaming it anyway. But it's coming—this very day! And, oh, Don, isn't this morning perfect? When I found in June they were really coming, I said I'd never be selfish enough to expect a perfect day, because it seemed as though I'd had enough already! But now it's come, I just know it's"—her voice softened—"it's a real gift from God. Don't you think so, too?"
"Yes, Virginia," said the boy.
Then he gathered up the reins and drove his horses through the creek, and on toward the Gap and the open prairie.
"Don," cried the girl, suddenly clutching his arm with one hand and pointing with the other, "there's some wild bergamot just opening! I never knew it to be as early as this! And see! There's a sunflower on the edge of the wheat field! There'll be thousands of them soon! They're like Priscilla! She has such big, brown eyes, and is always so merry and sunny. I know you'll like her, Don. And Mary? I think Mary's like the larkspur in the Valley, don't you? So independent, and sort of—of self-resourceful, as Miss Wallace says, and true. I wonder what Vivian's like? Oh, I know! The bluebells back there by the creek. They always must have a shady spot away from the hot sun. That's like Vivian, but she's dear just the same, and some day I really believe she'll be able to stand hard things as well as the rest of us. Tell me, Don, are you just as excited inside as I am?"
Donald Keith laughed.
"Of course, I am," he said, "only, you see, Virginia, I don't get so excited on the outside as you do. Fellows don't, I guess."
"I guess not," returned Virginia thoughtfully. "Father says I need you for a balance-wheel. He says he doesn't know what would happen if we both talked as much and got as excited as I do. You see, I'm seventeen now, and I think he wants me to begin to be a little more—more level-headed, and dignified. But I don't know how to begin. Things just spring up inside of me, and they have to come out!"
"Don't try," said the boy bluntly. "I like you best just as you are, Virginia."
She sighed—a happy, little sigh.
"I'm glad," she said. "I don't know what I'd do if you didn't, Don. Think of all the good times we'd miss!"
They passed a little stream, hurrying on toward Elk Creek. Some quaking-asps made a shady spot where ferns grew.
"Just the spot for gentians in August," cried Virginia. "The girls will love them so! I'm going to try to send some to Miss Wallace. She'll be in Chicago, so maybe they'll go safely that distance. She's always told me so much about that wonderful blue color in the old Italian pictures. She says that no one has been able to make exactly that shade since. I told her I just knew our mountain gentians were that blue, and I'd send her some. My! I wish she were coming, too! She's so lovely! I hope, when I grow to be her age, I'll be at least just a tiny bit like her. You'd like her, Don."
"I'd like her anyway for being such a peach to you," said Donald.
"I'll never forget it," Virginia told him, a little break in her voice. "And especially when—when Jim went—Somewhere Else. Oh, Don, she was so good to me at that time! And she seemed to understand everything! I'll always love her for it!"
Her gray eyes filled with tears. The boy beside her placed his hand on hers in quick sympathy.
"I know," he said. "We don't find a friend like that every day, Virginia. I wish she were coming, too! I'd like to thank her myself."
Virginia swallowed the lump in her throat and smiled again.
"I wish so, too, but she can't, so we must make the best of it. Aunt Nan is next best. She'll love everything! I know she will. She's such a good sport, too! She'll learn to ride and shoot, I'm sure. I hope she'll want to go everywhere with us, and that we won't seem too young for her."
"I think Malcolm may go along some—at least before threshing starts. He said he would. Isn't he about your Aunt Nan's age? He's most thirty."
"Yes," said Virginia. "I never thought of it before, but I guess he is. Aunt Nan's thirty, I know, because I remember she told me she'd always sort of dreaded being thirty, but now she'd reached there she found it the most comfortable age in the world. I hope Malcolm will go along. He's splendid!"
"He's all right," returned Donald loyally.
"Every one's been so dear at home about getting ready," Virginia went on. "William put the finishing touches on the flower garden yesterday. It looks lovely, and Aunt Nan's marigolds are all in bloom. William planted some to make her think of home. And Alec and Joe and Dick insisted on riding three of the horses so they'd be ready for the girls to ride to-morrow. Hannah's baked everything I like best, and Father bought two bran-new tents, because the girls want to sleep out with me. Do Jack and Carver ride, do you suppose?"
"Jack does a little. Of course, I don't know about Carver Standish. You think he'll fit in all right, don't you, Virginia? Eastern fellows don't sometimes, you know."
"Oh, I'm sure he will," Virginia assured him. "I wish you could have seen how pleased he was when Father asked him to come. And his grandfather, the old Colonel, nearly burst with pride! Of course Carver's different. I think his father and mother are very—well, New Englandy! You know what I mean. But I'm sure he'll love it out here. It's lovely of you to have him at your house, Don. He could stay with us as well as not, of course, but he'll be happier over there with you and Jack and the boys."
"That's all right," said Donald carelessly. "There's always room for one more at the Keith ranch. Father says there always will be. Are all the girls Vigilantes, Virginia—Mary and Priscilla and Vivian?"
Virginia explained. Mary wasn't really a member, and yet she really was, being the advisor of the society, and general assistant whenever called upon to help.
"It certainly was a clever scheme," said Donald. "No one but you would ever have thought of such a thing, Virginia."
Virginia discredited his praise.
"Oh, yes," she told him. "Priscilla would have done it every bit as well, only she'd never heard of the Vigilantes. You see, no one in New England knows about them—even Miss Wallace who knows almost everything—and when I told Priscilla the things they stood for years ago, and the work they did against evil-doers out here in the pioneer days, we both thought it would be just the thing to name our society after them. You see, Don, we had to do something! 'Twas necessary with Imogene influencing Dorothy and Vivian the way she did, and I've discovered that when a thing just has to be done, there's always some one to do it. Oh, Don, see the wind blowing over the grain! It looks almost like the real sea from Priscilla's house—all blue-green and wavy—only I love the prairie sea better. Won't they all just love it? It's such a big country! I'm getting excited again. That queer feeling inside has come back, and it's a whole hour before we get there, and before the train comes in."
"What do you suppose they're doing now?" asked Donald, excited in his turn.
"I suppose," began Virginia—"oh, Don, there's another bergamot!—I suppose they're all out on the observation platform, looking at everything they can see. Mary isn't saying much—she's just looking, and Vivian is surprised at all the new sights—I can just see how round and blue her eyes are!—and Aunt Nan is pointing out things, so as to be sure no one will miss one of them. Somehow I can't exactly picture Jack and Carver, but I know what Priscilla is doing. I don't even have to imagine or suppose. I know she's just wild—outside and in! I can just see her jumping from one side of the platform to the other, and exclaiming at everything. Her hair is all blown about her face—she has such unruly hair anyway—and her eyes are almost black, she's so excited over being so near. You see, I know Priscilla. She's a lot like me. She just can't keep still when she's happy! I know she's got the same queer feeling inside that I have. Oh, drive faster, Don! I just don't believe I can wait to see them all!"
Virginia Hunter was right. Priscilla Winthrop, her roommate at St. Helen's, and junior partner in the formation of the Vigilante Order, had not been still for ten minutes since five A. M. At that hour she had risen from bed, dressed hurriedly, and bribed the sleepy porter to allow her a seat on the observation platform. It was contrary to custom and orders at that hour, but he had done it notwithstanding. Apparently this young lady would take no refusal.
Priscilla had moved her chair to the extreme rear of the platform that nothing on either side might escape her eager eyes. She had watched the sun rise from behind the first mountain spurs, and gild their barren summits and sagebrush-covered sides. They looked so gaunt and lonely standing there, she thought, like great gods guarding the entrance to an enchanted land. Between her and them stretched the plains—here white with alkali, there barren with sparse sagebrush. Not infrequently the train rumbled across a little creek or irrigation ditch around which cottonwoods grew and grass was green. In these fertile spots there were always rude houses of logs with outlying shacks and corrals. Priscilla had shuddered at the thought of living in such places. These must be other pioneers, she said to herself, whose ancestors Virginia delighted to honor. Well, they most certainly deserved it!
She had hardly kept her seat at all. There was constantly something on one side or the other which attracted her attention, and she darted right and left much to the amusement of the brakeman who sat within the car and watched her. As they hurried through one of the irrigated spots, she heard a bird sing—a clear, jubilant, rollicking song. Could it be the meadow-lark of which Virginia had always spoken? At six they had passed through a prairie-dog town, whose inhabitants had thus far existed for Priscilla only in books and in Virginia's stories. Her fascinated eyes spied the little animals, as for one instant they stood upright to survey this rude and noisy intruder, and then darted into their house doorways. She had knocked over two camp chairs in her excited efforts to reach the brakeman, and assure herself that they were really prairie dogs.
But the climax had occurred shortly afterward when while going through a country of sagebrush stretches and grim, almost naked buttes, she had seen—actually seen a cow boy! He was true to every description Virginia had ever given her—sombrero, bandana, chaps and all! She could not see his face, but she knew he must be fine-looking like the "Virginian" or like Dick at the Hunter ranch. He was galloping through the sagebrush on a mottled, ugly-looking broncho, doubtless bent on some secret errand.
Priscilla was seized with half a dozen impulses as she watched him. Should she hurry through four cars and tell the others that they might see him also? Should she send the porter? How any one could sleep at such a time as this was far beyond her comprehension! But she had remained, rooted at last to one spot, and watched him until he was lost to sight. How would it seem, she wondered, to gallop alone through this country? She hoped the cow boy had noticed the sun rise over the buttes; she hoped that even now he was not blind to the great mountains in the distance, which were reaching their blue summits toward the sky.
She drew a long breath of the thin, clear mountain air! So this was Virginia's country! It was a big land! She understood now what Virginia had meant by talking about the bigness of everything. The plains, stretching on and on, gray-green with sagebrush, the gaunt mountain spurs, the far-away real mountains, blue and snow-furrowed, the great, clear sky over all! It must be wonderful at night with countless stars and a moon looking down upon the loneliness of everything. There was something about it all that, in some strange way, pulled out one's very soul—that made one want to be big in thought, tolerant, kind!
The brakeman, perhaps alarmed at seeing his interesting passenger actually standing still, had joined her at that moment. Priscilla pointed to a speck in the sagebrush—the vanishing cow boy.
"A real cow boy!" she shouted above the rumble of the wheels.
"Humph!" grunted her companion. "Didn't you never see one before?"
"Never!" cried Priscilla fervently.
"It ain't no great sight!" returned the sophisticated brakeman.
"Perhaps not to you," Priscilla shouted in his ear, "but it would be if you had dreamed of seeing one for ten months and three-quarters the way I have."
"Humph!" grunted the brakeman again. "You must be a tenderfoot."
"I am," cried Priscilla, "and I'm glad of it! You can only see bran-new things once. The second time you see them they aren't new any longer, and can't give you thrills like the first time."
The brakeman grinned.
"There's some yucca," he shouted, pointing to a tall, straight plant with white, bell-shaped flowers growing by the track.
"What's that?" screamed the interested Priscilla.
"Sometimes folks call it Indian soap-weed," explained the brakeman in her ear, "because if you break the leaves they'll lather in water. And some folks call it Spanish bayonet. It grows in barren places out here."
"I'll put that in my Thought Book," Priscilla told him. "I guess it's lucky I have a new one with all these new things to write about. Why are all the trees out here those tall cottonwoods?"
"They ain't all," answered the obliging brakeman, "but the cottonwoods don't take so much soil. They grow easy and quick, and make good wind-breaks, so folks plant 'em when they build a house near a creek like that one over there. Quaking-asps—they grow well, too."
"Quaking-asps!" cried Priscilla. "Where are they? Please show me! I'd give worlds to see one! My roommate lives out here—I'm just on my way to visit her—and it's her favorite tree."
"You don't have to give nothin'," shouted her companion dryly. "There's plenty of 'em right along this creek we're passing. They're them little trees with light green trunks and trembly leaves. They grow by creeks and in springy places mostly."
Priscilla leaned over the railing and gazed.
"Oh, aren't they happy? They're the jolliest trees I ever saw!"
"I guess that is a good word for 'em," agreed the brakeman. "They sure do dance around."
"Doesn't anything grow on those hills but little trees and sagebrush?" queried Priscilla. "It is sagebrush, isn't it? I guessed it was from pictures, and from what Virginia said."
"Yes, it's sagebrush, ma'am, and nothin' much grows on them buttes except that and rattlers."
"Oh!" screamed Priscilla. "That's one thing I'd hate to see! You don't think I will, do you?"
"Like's not," encouraged the brakeman. "They ain't so bad. Must come in handy for something, else we wouldn't have 'em."
Just then Carver Standish had opened the door for Aunt Nan, who announced breakfast for the party. Priscilla was obdurate.
"Miss Webster," she remonstrated, "please don't make me eat! I simply couldn't do it! I've had the most wonderful morning of my whole life. I've seen prairie-dogs and yucca and quaking-asps and a cow boy, and I know I heard a meadow-lark. This gentleman has taught me all kinds of things."
The brakeman touched his hat.
"He's been very kind, I'm sure," said Aunt Nan, too used to her own niece's methods of making new friends to be troubled. "But we're going to reach Virginia and Donald in another hour, and you must have some breakfast, Priscilla."
"Carver will bring me some fruit," persisted Priscilla, "and you can't see a thing from the window. Oh, please, Miss Webster! I just can't eat when I have this queer feeling inside of me!"
So Priscilla had been left in peace, much against the better judgment of the chaperone; and now at nine o'clock, the three Vigilantes with Aunt Nan, Jack Williams and Carver Standish III viewed Virginia's country together and all for the first time. The picture which Virginia was at that very moment painting for Donald was very accurate—even to detail. Aunt Nan, eager that no one should miss a thing, kept pointing out this and that feature of interest—the strange, new flowers by the track, the occasional log houses, the irrigation ditches, so new to them all. Vivian sat quietly in one corner—her eyes big, round, almost frightened. The endless stretches of country, the lonely barren places, and the great mountains somehow scared Vivian. It was the loneliest country she had ever seen, she told Aunt Nan. Mary Williams said nothing, but her dark blue eyes roamed delightedly from prairie to foot-hills, and from the foot-hills to the mountains, where they lingered longest. In all her dreams she had never pictured anything so big and wonderful as this. Jack and Carver stood together by the railing, and let nothing escape their eager eyes; while Priscilla, forgetting to eat Carver Standish's banana, hurried from one to another with eager explanations gained from her morning's experience.
In half an hour they would be there. Already the barren stretches had given place to acres and acres of grain, across which were comfortable ranch-houses, set about by cottonwoods. Beyond the grain-fields rose the foot-hills—open ranges where hundreds of cattle were feeding, and far above the foot-hills towered the mountains in all their blue-clad mystery.
"There's the creek bridge!" cried Priscilla, springing to her feet a few minutes later. "Virginia has written me a dozen times that when we crossed that red bridge we should begin to get ready. I suppose I ought to comb my hair. It's a sight! But Virginia'll be so happy she'll never notice in all this world!"
Virginia was assuredly too happy to notice disheveled heads or smoke-stained faces or wrinkled suits when she saw her own dear Aunt Nan and her very best friends step excitedly from the train onto the little station platform. That queer sinking feeling inside vanished, and only joy was left.
"It's come true! It's come true!" she kept crying as she greeted them all. "Just think, Priscilla, it's really happening this minute! You're all in my country at last—Donald's and mine!"
So the world looked very beautiful to them all as they drove homeward. The three boys on the front seat became acquainted and re-acquainted, while the Vigilantes and Aunt Nan behind held one another's hands and asked question after question of the happy Virginia. No, she told them, the days weren't all as perfect, but most of them were. Yes, the sunflowers grew wild all in among the grain. No, there were no snakes very near. Yes, it was truly sixty-five miles away to the farthest mountains. No, she had never been so happy in all her life.
They stopped at the Keith ranch to receive a copyrighted Western welcome, and to leave Jack and Carver. Donald would drive the girls home, and then return. Mr. David, Mother Mary, Malcolm and little Kenneth—all the Keith family—came to greet them. It seemed to Jack Williams as though he had never received a welcome so genuine; and to the hungry and tired Carver Standish III the simple brown ranch-house, surrounded by cottonwoods and set about by wide grain-fields, possessed a charm unsurpassed by the most stately mansions of New England.
The Vigilantes and Aunt Nan received as genuine a welcome a half hour later when they drove down the long avenue of cottonwoods to Virginia's home. It came not only from a tall, bronzed man, who shared his little daughter's joy, but also from a white-aproned, kind-faced woman in the doorway, and a quiet, stooped man by Aunt Nan's marigolds.
"I know it's Hannah," cried Priscilla, running to the doorway. "She looks just as though she knew all about the German measles!"
"And I'm sure this is William," said Mary a little shyly, as she shook hands with the quiet man by the garden. "It just couldn't be—any one else!"
THE GETTING-ACQUAINTED TRIP
"If—if you'll excuse me, Virginia, I'd—I'd really rather stay at home with Hannah and your father."
It was Vivian who spoke. She was clad in a new riding-suit, which had been worn only during a few trembling and never-to-be-forgotten moments of the day before, when Donald had led the oldest and safest horse on the ranch to and fro beneath the cottonwoods. Old Siwash would never have thrown Vivian. Far was it from him to treat a guest of his mistress in that manner. But in spite of stirrups, saddle-horn, and the reassuring presence of Donald, Vivian had, in some mysterious way, slipped from the saddle, and fallen in an ignominious little heap by the wayside.
It had been more ignominious to have Priscilla and Mary, who had themselves been riding but an hour, come cantering—actually cantering—up with Virginia to see if she were hurt. She almost wished she had been hurt. If her leg had been broken, or old Siwash had kicked, or even her face been cut just a little, she might have been regarded not exactly as a heroine, perhaps, but as a martyr at least. However, nothing was broken except her spirit; old Siwash had stood stock-still; and her face had shown no sign of anything save fright and dirt. The whole situation was quite too much to be borne, and did not need the disdainful glance which the critical blue eyes of Carver Standish had cast upon her.
The Vigilantes had been lovely as they led their horses and walked to the house with her; Aunt Nan, who had had her first lesson with Malcolm Keith that morning, was comforting; Mr. Hunter encouraging; and Donald the finest boy she had ever known in her life. It had really seemed as though, with them all to stand by her, she could mount again the next morning and go on the much-dreamed of getting-acquainted trip to Lone Mountain. But now the time to go had come, and her courage had fled. She had beckoned Virginia from the corral where the men were saddling the horses, and drawn her away to a secluded spot. Virginia did not need Vivian's confession. Her frightened face was quite enough.
"I—I just can't do it, Virginia!" she finished.
Virginia considered for a long moment. Then her clear gray eyes met Vivian's frightened blue ones.
"Vivian," she said, "perhaps you'll be angry with me for speaking so plainly to you, but I've just got to do it. If you don't want the Vigilantes to be dead ashamed of you, here's your chance this minute! I believe way down in my heart that things come to us so that we can show what's really in us—how—how far down we've been putting our roots into good soil, you know. Now this has come to you! There isn't a thing to be afraid of except just Fear, which I admit is a monster; but if you let that control you, you'll spoil your whole life. Jim used to teach me that. Siwash wouldn't hurt a baby! I rode him when I was four years old. We're just going to trail up the mountain as slowly as can be, and Don will ride with you every minute. When there are really things to be afraid of, people excuse a coward; but when there isn't a thing in this world, they don't! So if you don't come, Vivian, and show us what you are made of, you're a coward inside, that's all!"
It was hard, blunt doctrine, built on seventeen years of wholesome life in a land where cowardice has found no room; but at that moment it was just what Vivian Winters needed. From her frightened heart the fear of Siwash fled only to give place to a more dreadful fear, the contempt and scorn of the Vigilantes. Better be thrown by Siwash than despised by Virginia and Priscilla, Mary and the far-away Dorothy. She had no time to tell Virginia that she would go after all, and to ask her to try to forget her cowardice, for the boys called just then that all was ready. But Virginia understood, for as they hurried toward the corral she held Vivian's hand closely in her own, and gave it a final, encouraging squeeze, as Vivian edged a cautious way toward Siwash and the faithful Donald.
After all, it was not so hard. Donald allowed the others to go ahead—the two pack-horses first with tents and provisions, for they were to camp for the night, then Malcolm, Aunt Nan and the others. He and Vivian, riding slowly, brought up the rear. Vivian, determination rising in her soul, was firmly seated and clutching the saddle-horn. She might be thrown, but she would never, never fall again! But old Siwash was faithful to his trust, and Donald was close at hand. Vivian vowed inwardly that she would always bless Donald. Under his calm assurance, her fear gradually went away, and in fifteen minutes she was willing to let go her hold upon the saddle-horn, and to try to follow his instructions. He taught her how to place her feet in the stirrups, how to clutch with her knees, how to rise in the saddle for a trot, how to sit back for a canter; until at length—wonder of wonders!—Vivian, her hair flying in the wind, her eyes filled with triumph, actually cantered with Donald at her side toward the others, who to a rider turned in their saddles and cheered her approach. And pride filled every one's eyes—even the critical ones of Carver Standish III.
So now that the worst was over, no one enjoyed the trip more than Vivian. She kept wondering what her timid mother would say could she see her daughter in the suit which hours of pleading had with difficulty procured, and on a real Western horse, riding past the grain-fields, up the canyon, and on into the trail that led up the mountain-side.
Only three of the nine had ever ridden through a canyon or followed a mountain trail, and those three experienced the keenest delight in pointing out every object of interest to the others—the blue lupines and pink cranesbill, which made the occasional open spaces riotous with color, the forget-me-nots growing in shady places, and the rare orchids, which they discovered after they had penetrated to the heart of the mountain forest.
It was beautiful in among the timber. Great spruces and pines towered above them like masts to the journeying earth. The sunlight fell in shimmering, golden patches upon the moss-grown and leaf-covered ground. In the more open places grew buck-brush and the service-berry, Oregon grape with its holly-shaped leaves, blue lupines, Indian paint-brush and great mountain ferns. It was very still when they stopped their horses to rest. Only the wind in the great trees above them, the chatter of a squirrel remonstrating against this intrusion into his solitude, a strange sad bird-note farther up the mountain, and the occasional fall of a leaf or creak of a limb as it rubbed shoulders with its neighbor, broke the silence. Once in a clearing a deer and her fawn gazed at them with wondering eyes before leaping through the ferns into the safe shelter of the timber.
Up—up—up they went. The trail wound in and out around the mountain-side, and their sure-footed horses followed it, never daunted by fallen trees or by rocky and precipitous places. More than once every Vigilante save one held her breath as she was carried up a dangerous, almost obliterated path to heights beyond. But Virginia's Pedro, who was far-famed as a trailer, led the way, and his rider called back reassuring words to those behind.
By noon the air was cold. They were near snow, Malcolm said. A few minutes more and they had reached it—a veritable snow-bank in late July. The Vigilantes, reenforced by Aunt Nan, challenged the boys to a snow-ball fight, and they all dismounted for the fray. Then came dinner of Hannah's sandwiches, and bacon and eggs cooked over a little friendship fire beyond the snow.
An hour later they reached the mountain-top, and lo! it was spring again. The ground was covered with early spring flowers—shooting-stars and spring beauties and bearded-tongues. In the sheltered nooks they found dog-toothed violets, and more forget-me-nots—both pink and blue.
It was here that the inexperienced New Englanders longed to camp. They wanted to wake in the morning, they said, and look far across the blue distances, over the tops of the highest trees, to the mountains beyond, like Moses gazing into the Promised Land. But they willingly consented to ride down on the other side to a more sheltered spot and camp by a tiny mountain lake, when Malcolm, aided by Donald and Virginia, explained that a snow-storm was not an unlikely occurrence away up there—even in July!
It was strange to sit around the big camp-fire that night after supper—all alone in a mountain wilderness; strange to rehearse school incidents and to listen to Malcolm's stories of hunting for elk and antelope in that very spot; strangest of all to go to sleep on pine boughs and blankets which the boys had spread in their tents. The weird, lonesome cry of the coyotes startled more than one sleeping Vigilante that night, and Vivian nestled closer beneath Aunt Nan's protecting arm. It was not until the next morning when they started for home that they knew of the bear, who, smelling the ham and bacon, had wandered into camp, only to be repulsed by Malcolm and an extra log on the fire.
In that strange, just-before-dawn stillness Virginia awoke to miss Priscilla from her side. She moved the tent flap, and looked out. Priscilla stood by the entrance, her eyes raised to the distant mountains—great shadows beneath a star-strewn sky. She was learning the old, old secrets of those mountains at night.
"I couldn't help it, Virginia," she whispered, as she crept back a few moments later. "I've wanted so to see what it was like at night, and now I know. It's bigger than ever! I don't believe that any one could look at the mountains and the stars and ever be doubtful about—God and—and—things like that, do you?"
* * * * *
The next day, perfect as the one before, they went down, down, down the trail, through the canyon, across the prairie, and home once more.
"Mr. Hunter named it just right," Priscilla said to Dick, who came to take the horses. "I've never felt so well-acquainted in my life!"
THE BEAR CANYON BEAR
"Gee!" cried Alden Winthrop. "I wish I was out there!"
"So do I!" echoed his brother John.
"I wish I were, dear," corrected his mother.
"Well, were, then, Mother. There isn't much difference in the way you say it. I wish I was there anyway!"
His mother sighed, but Alden's thoughts were far from English grammar. Instead, they were centering upon the contents of a fat letter from his sister Priscilla, which his father had just read.
"I've got more respect for Priscilla than I ever had in all my life," he continued. "I never supposed she'd have sand enough to go on a bear hunt. Now, if she'd just shot the bear herself, it would be——"
"Why, Alden!" interrupted his mother. "Imagine Priscilla doing a thing like that! You don't suppose, do you, dear," she continued, turning to Mr. Winthrop, who was reading his daughter's letter for a second time while he finished his breakfast, "you don't suppose Priscilla is really handling a gun herself?"
"Sounds like it to me," said Priscilla's father as he turned the pages. "She says, 'I can knock a bottle all to pieces at thirty yards. Don't you call that pretty good?'"
"I'd like to know the size of the bottle before replying," commented John.
"Dear me!" said Mrs. Winthrop anxiously. "I'm willing she should ride horseback and climb mountains and camp in a perfect wilderness if that's what Western people term pleasure, but I do wish she wouldn't shoot a gun! I'm afraid I shan't have a minute's real peace till she gets home. Of course I know she's in the best of hands, but accidents are so common. Just yesterday I was reading where——"
"Now, Mother!" remonstrated the boys.
"Don't worry for a moment, Mother," reassured Mr. Winthrop. "She'll come home safe and sound. I'll trust those good people out there to look after her." He turned the pages again. "She's certainly having the time of her life! Makes me wish I were young again myself!"
"That skin will look splendid in the library," said Alden. "Read again what she says about sending it, Dad."
"Read it all, Dad!" suggested John. "There's plenty of time."
Priscilla's father willingly complied. He evidently shared his sons' pride in his daughter's achievement.
"'HUNTER RANCH, WYOMING, "'July 26, 19—.
"'Dear Folks at Home:
"'I am covered with dust and dirt and just dead tired, but I can't wash or dress, or even rest until I tell you the most thrilling experience of my whole life! I, Priscilla Winthrop of Boston, Massachusetts, have helped to trap and kill a bear! I know shivers are running down your back as you read this. Imagine then what it must have been to live through the real thing! To ride up the trail all eagerness and excitement; to visit the empty traps and turn away disappointed; to see your horse as you neared the third suddenly prick up his ears and rear——'"
"Dear me!" cried Mrs. Winthrop. "I'm sure, John, those horses out there aren't well-broken!"
Mr. Winthrop nodded reassuringly, and continued:
"'To hear Dick call back that there must surely be a bear; and, at last, to come upon the infuriated monster, dragging his trap about, gnashing his teeth, and trying to reach you!'"
"Oh, dear!" moaned poor Mrs. Winthrop.
"Go ahead!" cried the boys.
"'I trust you are now in the atmosphere to appreciate my story.
"'I wrote you this morning about the lovely getting-acquainted trip to Lone Mountain. Well, I had just come back from walking down to the main road and giving my letter to the carrier, who drives in a funny little canvas house on wheels, when Dick and William rode up to the door and asked if we girls didn't want to ride up into the mountains back of Bear Canyon and visit the bear-traps. Mr. Hunter and the three boys had gone to Willow Creek, but it's a fifty mile ride over there and back, and he thought it was too much for Mary and Vivian and me—much as we wanted to go.'"
"Fifty miles on horseback!" murmured Mrs. Winthrop. "I should hope so!"
"'Virginia had insisted on staying with us, and Aunt Nan (we all call her that now) had gone to Mystic Lake with Donald's brother, so we four girls were all alone. Virginia said "Yes" on the spot, and Mary and I were wild at the prospect. Vivian's eyes got big when Dick said "bear-traps," but she wouldn't let us know she was afraid. Really, you'd be surprised at what a good sport Vivian's getting to be.
"'We said we'd be ready in a minute and hurried into our riding clothes while Dick and William went to saddle our horses. All the time we kept fairly pelting Virginia with questions. Where were the traps? What did they look like? Did she really think we'd get a bear? She wouldn't tell us much of anything, except that bears were not uncommon at all, and that the men liked to get them, because they were a nuisance to the cattle. I think we were all seized with different feelings as we got ready. Vivian's came out and sat upon her face. You just knew she was hoping every bear in the Rockies had been safe at home for a week; Mary kept saying the trip up the trail would be so beautiful, but something told you she was secretly hoping for a greater adventure; and I—well, I couldn't decide between the triumph of bringing a real bear home, and the awfulness of seeing one caught and killed.
"'In half an hour we were off. Hannah had given us each some sandwiches in a bundle, which we rolled in our slickers and tied on our saddles. Dick carried the big gun in a holster, and William a coil of rope. Instead of turning off on the Lone Mountain trail we went farther up the canyon, past the little school-house where Virginia used to go, and on toward where the canyon walls were great cliffs instead of foot-hills. It certainly was the beariest-looking place I have ever seen. You could just imagine hundreds of them taking sun-baths on the rocks, surrounded by their devoted families.
"'By and by we turned into a rocky, precipitous trail, and went higher and higher. It was much steeper than on the getting-acquainted trip. Sometimes it just seemed as though the horses couldn't make it, but they did. My horse is a perfect wonder! He never hesitates at anything. His name is Cyclone!'"
"I trust it has nothing to do with his disposition," interrupted Mrs. Winthrop.
"'At noon we were in a perfect wilderness of huge trees, great jagged rocks, and thickets almost as bad as the one Theseus went through to reach Ariadne. William insisted on building a tiny fire to cook bacon, so we rustled some dry sticks and made a little one on a flat rock. I never in all my life tasted anything so good as that bacon and Hannah's sandwiches and some ice-cold water from a little creek that was tearing down the mountain-side.
"'Dick said as we rested for a moment that it would take us fifteen minutes to reach the first trap from that spot. It was the most likely place of the three to find a bear, he added, and at that Mary, Vivian, and I tried our best to look as unconcerned as though catching a bear were the most usual thing in all the world. But when we had reached the place, after a hard ride through a narrow trail bordered by all kinds of prickly things, we found no bear in the queer little log-house that held the trap. Neither was there one in the trap a mile distant.
"'When we turned away from the second, bearless and tired, every one of us, except perhaps Vivian, felt a sense of defeat. My fears of seeing one caught had vanished. I had borne sunburn and scratches and lameness and I wanted a bear. So did Mary. She was not content with just scenery. Virginia had caught bears before, but she wanted one because we did, and William wanted one because Virginia did. William never seems to want much for himself some way, but he loves Virginia, and I think Virginia loves him next best to Jim. As for Dick—there was no mistaking Dick's feeling. He felt as though he had not done his duty by us since there had been no bear in the two most likely traps.
"'The question before the assembly now was—Should we or should we not visit the third trap? It might be dark, William said, before we got out of the canyon, and there wasn't one chance in a hundred of a bear anyway. Virginia—really, she is the biggest peach I ever knew!—proposed that she ride home with Vivian, and the others of us go on with Dick and William, but Vivian would not listen to her. There having been no bears in the first two traps was proof enough for Vivian that there would be none in the last, and her bravery returned. Mary wanted to go on, and I wouldn't have gone home for a thousand dollars or a trip abroad! As for Dick, he was already half-way up the trail.
"'This trail was far steeper than either of the others. It led almost straight up the mountain-side beneath over-hanging trees, under fallen timber, and through every kind of bramble imaginable. But there was something exhilarating about even the brambles—something that made you glad to hear the saddle crunch and whine and creak, and to feel yourself being carried higher and higher. It wasn't all the hope of a bear either!
"'At last we came to a little creek, which was hurling itself down over the rocks.
"'"Moose Creek!" Dick called back. "The trap's one-half a mile farther on."
"'On we went, growing more and more excited every moment. Something strange seemed to be in the air. I don't know what it was, but the horses must have felt it, too, for just as we had cleared an especially thick thicket, my Cyclone began to prick up his ears and to sniff the air, and Dick's horse reared. Then, in a moment, the others began to be restive. Even old Siwash, who is lame and halt and maimed and blind like the parable people at the feast, actually jumped, much to Vivian's horror.
"'I just wish you could have felt the shivers and thrills and quivers that ran down our backs when Dick halted the procession and cried,
"'"There's a bear around all right! The horses smell him! We'll turn back and tie, and then go on foot!"
"'Five minutes more and we were stumbling up the trail—Dick and William ahead, Virginia and I next, and Mary and Vivian in the rear. I don't know where my heart was, but I know it was unfastened, for I distinctly felt it in a dozen different places! Vivian had actually forgotten to be frightened, and Mary kept saying over and over again, "Just think of it! Just think of it! A bear! Just think of it!" As for Virginia, she strode along with her head high, just as she always does, and looked as though she were able to cope with any grizzly on earth.
"'We gained the clearing almost as soon as Dick and William, and—now, listen, all of you!—there was our bear!!! I'll never forget that moment! I don't believe I'll ever in my life experience so many different feelings—triumph and pity and fear and admiration, all struggling together. The poor thing lay in the hot sun by the creek, rods from the little log house which had concealed the trap, and one of his forelegs was securely held in that cruel, iron grip. A long, strong chain attached to some logs held the trap secure, though bark was torn in layers and strips from the trees near by, whose trunks the poor, mad, suffering animal had climbed—trap, chain, and all. But now—nearly worn out—he lay in the creek, sick at heart and ready to die.
"'As Dick drew the big gun from the holster, and went nearer, the bear rose to his feet and growled—a fierce, awful growl that sent Vivian trembling to the thicket. All I could think of just then was Roland keeping at bay the Saracens at Roncesvalles, or Leonidas withstanding the Persians at Thermopylae. There was something grand in the way that big bear faced Dick. I shall always admire him for it as long as I live. I rather believe he was glad to die as Leonidas and Roland were—secure in the thought that his spirit could never be overcome.
"'William turned his back as Dick raised the big gun, and made ready to shoot. Then he said something about seeing to the horses, and hurried down the trail. Mary joined Vivian in the thicket, and so did I. I couldn't help it. We turned our backs, too, and stopped our ears with our fingers. Virginia was the only one who stayed. She stood by Dick as he aimed and shot. Afterward she told me she would have felt mean to desert a hero whose spirit was just about to be taken away from him. She wanted to pay her last respects. But I know it wasn't easy, for when we all came tremblingly back a few minutes after Dick had shot, her eyes were brimful of tears.
"'Then William, too, returned, leading Siwash, and together he and Dick hoisted the big bear across Siwash's saddle, binding him securely with the rope. After the horses had become satisfied that there was no occasion for alarm, William led Siwash at the head of a triumphal procession, and the rest of us followed, Vivian on William's Ginger. Down the trail we went, unconscious of scratches and aches and sunburn, now that our aim had been accomplished, and our goal realized. The awful feeling of pity which we had felt by the creek went away somewhere, and we were but victors holding a triumph.
"'Virginia and I wondered as we rode along together why it is that you can feel so full of pity one moment at the thought of killing something, and yet so full of triumph the next after you've conquered and killed it. We've decided that the triumphant feeling is something bequeathed to us by the cave-men like those in The Story of Ab you know—an instinct that makes you want to prove yourself master; and that the pity is a sign we're all growing better instead of worse. Don't you think that's a fairly good explanation? Of course it is needless to say that Virginia thought it out!
"'Hannah's calling me to supper, and I must hurry. Mr. Hunter and the boys had just reached home from Willow Creek as we rode down the lane. I wish you could have seen Jack and Carver when they saw the bear. They were wild, and hailed us as though we were Augustus entering Rome! Best of all, Mr. Hunter says he is going to send the skin to you, Dad—it's all black and curly—for the library floor. Isn't it splendid of him?
"'I simply must run and wash, and rustle a clean middy somewhere.
"'Loads of love,
"'P. S.—Mother, dear, I guess I'll have to have still another Thought Book. I never in my life had so many thoughts. They come crowding in—one on top of the other—but many of them are the kind you can't very well express.
"'P. A. W.
"'P. P. S.—I can shoot a bottle all to pieces at thirty yards. Don't you call that pretty good?
"'P. A. W.'"
"Rustle?" soliloquized Mrs. Winthrop, as Priscilla's father folded the letter. "I've never heard that word before in such a connection, and she's used it twice!"
"Well," announced Alden Winthrop decidedly, "I've never had much use for Thought Books, but I believe I could write down a thought or two myself if I'd trapped a Rocky Mountain bear!"
South of Elk Creek Valley the foot-hills were less ambitious than those east and north. It was easy to climb their sloping, well-trailed sides on horseback or even afoot, and the view across the wide mesa, blue with sagebrush to the distant mountains blue with August haze, was quite reward enough.
Here was real Western country, almost unhampered by civilization, almost unbroken by that certain sign of progress, the barbed-wire fence. This was in miniature what the pioneers must have gazed upon with weary, dream-filled eyes. Virginia and Donald, who often climbed the hills together for a wild gallop through the unfenced sagebrush, liked always to imagine how those sturdy folk of half a century ago urged their tired oxen up other slopes than these; how they halted on the brow of the foot-hills to rest the patient animals and to fan their hot, dusty faces with their broad-brimmed hats; and how their eager eyes, sweeping over miles of ragged prairie land to the mountains, awful with mystery, saw this great country cleared of sagebrush, intersected with ditches, reclad with homes.
Such had been the history of most of the land above and beyond Elk Creek Valley, and Donald and Virginia were loath to see this one unbroken mesa go. They wanted it as a hunting-ground for prairie chickens and pheasant in the fall, and as a wide, free, unhindered race-course for Pedro and MacDuff. Pedro and MacDuff wanted it, too. They liked to gallop, neck and neck, joyous in the sense of freedom, and in the knowledge that they were giving happiness to their respective riders. For years Donald and Virginia had loved the mesa. They loved it in the spring when the bare patches among the sagebrush grew green and gave birth to hardy spring flowers—buttercups and shooting-stars and spring beauties; they loved it in the long blue days of August and in the shorter golden ones of October; and sometimes they thought they loved it best of all in winter when it lay, silent and very, very wise, beneath the snow.
But it was to be just theirs no longer. The slow, steady tide of oncoming progress had refused to let it alone. In the spring while Virginia was still at St. Helen's, Donald, home for the Easter recess, had written her of two homesteaders' cabins on the mesa toward the southeast, of fences being built, and of sagebrush rooted up and burned.
It was even less theirs on this August morning, for the cabin of another homesteader had risen as though by magic in the southwest corner; ten acres of freshly-plowed land were being warmed by the sun and made ready for September wheat; and rods of stout barbed-wire tacked to strong, well-made fence-poles were guarding the future wheat against all intruders. The cabin, superior in plan and workmanship to that of the average homesteader, faced the west. It was built of new spruce logs, with well-filled chinks, and boasted two large windows and a porch, in addition to its necessary door. Moreover, an outside stone chimney betokened a fire-place—an untold luxury to a homesteader. A second wire fence, set at some three rods from the cabin, inclosed it on all sides, and protected a small vegetable garden and a few fruit trees, which the owner had already planted.
It was a good quarter section upon which this ambitious homesteader had filed. On the south the mesa mounted into the higher hills, and this claim included timber; the land already plowed showed the soil to be black and fertile; and a creek, tumbling from the mountains and hurrying by just back of the cabin, promised plenty of water, even in a thirsty season. With a substantial new cabin, three cows and a horse, some hens and two collie dogs, a crop nearly in, fruit trees thriving and a garden growing like wild-fire—what more could one desire? Then add to riches already possessed, the surety of a barn and corral in September, and the probability of twelve pure-bred Shropshire sheep, and what homesteader would not sing for joy?
That was precisely what Jean MacDonald was doing this sunny August morning; for it was a girl—a strong, robust girl of twenty-one—who had taken up the southwestern claim on Virginia's and Donald's mesa. She was bustling about her little cabin, setting things to rights, and singing for joy. Her voice, clear, strong, and sweet, rang out in one good old Scotch song after another—"Robin Adair," "Loch Lomond," and "Up with the Bonnets of Bonnie Dundee." Sometimes she paused in her sweeping and dusting and hurried to the porch to look away across the mesa toward the north, and to speak to Robert Bruce, her horse, who, saddled and bridled, awaited her coming outside the gate.
"Not yet, Bobby," she called, "not yet! There's no sign of them at all, so be patient!"
Robert Bruce was quite willing to be patient. There was nourishment in plenty between the sagebrush clumps, and he wandered at will, his dragging reins giving sure proof that he would not stray too far.
Meanwhile, his mistress continued her singing and her work. She proudly dusted her new furniture in the room which served as chamber and parlor, rearranged her few books in their wall bookcase, swept up the ashes of her last evening's fire, and brought wood to lay another. Then she turned her attention to the room which was kitchen and dining-room in one. From a neat chest of drawers she drew her best and only white table-cloth and spread it on the table. The table was a little rickety in one leg, but several folds of newspaper acted as a splendid prop, and quite removed the difficulty. Her supply of china and silver was scarce, but it would do with washing between courses. Four chairs were all she had, but they were quite enough as her guests numbered four. An empty soap-box concealed beneath the table-cloth, and drawn out only when necessary, would do for her.
In fifteen minutes everything was in readiness, even to five early nasturtiums in a tumbler on the dining-table. They had made a special effort to open that morning, and the homesteader was grateful. She paused on her way to the creek-refrigerator to look in the sitting-room mirror. These guests were her very first, and she wanted to appear at her best. Yes, her khaki blouse and skirt were clean and her hair fairly tidy. Her new red tie, she told herself, was quite decidedly jaunty. She blessed that tie, for had it not been for Donald Keith's kindness in bringing the package to her from the town post-office four days ago, she would neither have known about the girls, nor have had the opportunity of inviting them to come to see her. Of course, they were from the East—all except Virginia Hunter, of whom she had heard so much, and she was a Wyoming homesteader; but, she told herself, that need make no difference. In fact, it made everything much more interesting, for she could learn many things from them, and perhaps—perhaps, they might learn a little bit from her.
Still singing, she hurried to the end of the porch, and looked toward the north. Four specks were distinctly visible on the edge of the mesa. Even as she looked they became larger. They were horses coming toward her cabin, and they bore her guests. She whistled loudly to Robert Bruce, who obediently ceased his browsing and came toward her. A quick run to the creek-refrigerator to see that her butter and cream were safe in the clear, cold water, and then back to Robert; a leap into the saddle and she was off to meet her guests.
Introductions are stilted, unlovely things between horseback riders on a sagebrush-covered mesa under a blue August sky. There were none this morning. Jean MacDonald reined in the restive Robert Bruce as she drew near her guests, and unceremoniously greeted them all.
"I know every one of you," she said brightly, her dark blue eyes searching their faces—"Mary Williams and Priscilla Winthrop and Vivian Winters—all of you. And I've known you even longer, Virginia. Donald Keith told me all about you a month ago when they helped break my land. I'm so glad you're coming to spend the day with me. You're the very first guests I've ever had on my homestead!"
They were glad, too, they told her, liking her at once, and feeling perfectly at ease. She rode beside Virginia, talking of Donald, the other Keiths who had been so good to her, and her neighbors in the southeast corner of the mesa. Virginia, too, talked freely, asking questions, telling of their recent bear hunt, joining in Jean's admiration of the Keiths. To the three New Englanders, who rode a little behind them, this new comradeship, though a little startling to their inherent conservatism, was interesting in the extreme. It seemed to be born of a land too big for ceremonies, too frank and open for formalities; and soon they found themselves urging their horses up to Pedro and Robert Bruce, so that they too might enter the widening circle of fellowship.
All four Vigilantes found themselves studying the face of this girl who so often turned toward one and another with a question or a reply. It was a face too tanned and too large-featured to be beautiful or even pretty; but the lines about the nose and mouth were firm and strong, the eyes were wide-open and fearless, and the head was set most independently upon a pair of broad, straight shoulders. There was something about the girl like the mesa—fearless, big, wholesome. It showed itself in the way she managed her horse, in her hearty manner of laughing with her head thrown back, and in the calm, sure, straightforward expression of her dark blue eyes.
"She'd make the finest kind of a friend, I'm sure of that," said Mary to herself, and then to Priscilla and Vivian, as they dropped behind for a moment just before reaching the little cabin.
"Yes," agreed Priscilla, "she surely would. I wonder what there is about her that makes a person feel small. I've been feeling positively microscopic ever since she rode up to us."
"I'm glad you have," sighed Vivian, thankful that another shared her sensation. "So have I. I feel about as big as a field-mouse, and I think I know why. You just know a girl like her would never fall off a horse, or run away from a gun, or—do anything babyish like that. And just imagine daring to live all alone in a little cabin like this! I'd die! I know I should!"
But the small feeling was forgotten in the good time which followed. Robert Bruce, unspeakably glad of company, escorted his four guests to choice bits of grass in among the sagebrush; the two collies barked in welcome; and the girls, loaded with saddles and bridles, went in through the gate toward the cabin. Jean MacDonald, proud and happy, led the way into the house and the interested Vigilantes followed. They had never supposed a log house could be so attractive within; but the neat dark furniture, the couch with its brown cover, the stone fire-place, and the books and pictures made the little cabin one of the most homelike places they had ever seen. A mountain sheep looked down upon them from above the fire-place. Jean had shot him the winter before in Montana, she told them. In the corner by the cot stood her guns—one large, double-barreled Winchester, a shot-gun, and a small rifle. Above them on the logs rested her fishing-rods.
It was all so new and interesting to three pair of fascinated eyes. They asked question after question and explored every nook and corner of the cabin and its surroundings—the kitchen with its shining stove, singing tea-kettle, and white-covered table, the pantry, the root-cellar and chicken-house, and last of all the creek-refrigerator.
"It's all right in the daytime," announced Vivian, as they sat on the porch before beginning to get dinner, "but I don't see how you stand it all alone at night." She paused. "I'd die!" she finished simply.
Jean MacDonald did not laugh, though she felt like it at first, for she saw that Vivian was very much in earnest.
"I think I know how you feel, Vivian," she said kindly. "I know you would be very lonely, because, you see, you've always lived in a city or at school where there have been folks all about you. But, you see, it's different with me. I was born on a homestead in Montana, and I'm used to endless tracts of land without neighbors. I guess I've made better friends with the mountains than you've been able to yet, and with the silence which I know some people fear. You see, I've never been afraid in all my life, so I don't mind the loneliness."
Vivian was staring at her, incredulous.
"Never—been—afraid—of—anything?" she repeated questioningly. "Honestly, haven't you—all your life?"
Jean MacDonald considered for a moment.
"No," she said, "honestly, I don't believe I ever have. I was brought up never to fear the dark or the silence or being alone or—anything like that. Those are the most awful things, I guess, to persons who are afraid. And as for wild animals or people who would do harm (and there aren't many of those in the world) why, you see"—she raised her head and her eyes flashed—"you see, I can take care of myself! I'm thankful," she added, "that I'm not afraid of things. I think fear must be a terrible thing!"
Vivian's blue eyes filled with sudden tears.
"It is," she said. "It's the most dreadful monster in the whole wide world!"
Jean MacDonald placed a firm, brown hand on Vivian's shoulder as they all went in together to prepare dinner, and Vivian felt comradeship and understanding in that friendly hand. Perhaps, some day, she said to herself, she would be brave also; even before she went East, she might become a more worthy Vigilante. At all events she would begin once more. Perhaps, after all, she concluded, as she ran to the creek-refrigerator after the butter and cream—perhaps after all, life was just a series of beginnings—again—each one a wee bit farther on!
Dinner was the jolliest meal imaginable. They ate and laughed—laughed and ate. Everything was delicious—the trout caught in the creek and fried to a rich brown, the baked potatoes, the fresh biscuits, the lettuce and radishes from the garden, and the custard pudding. Jean MacDonald with all her other accomplishments was a famous cook. That was self-evident.
After dinner they went out upon the porch, gazed across the mesa bluer than ever in the afternoon haze, and talked. Jean longed to know about school, and they told her of St. Helen's, of Miss King, and Miss Wallace, of the dear funny Blackmores, and of poor tactless Miss Green. Tears ran down Jean's face as Virginia told of Katrina Van Rensaelar and the deluge she never received, and of how Priscilla had given the German measles to the boys at the Gordon School.
Then Mary begged to know something about homesteading, and Jean told of how she had come to Wyoming. Her far-off neighbors in the other corner of the mesa had been friends in Montana, she said, and it was they who had encouraged her to come and take up an opposite claim. She explained how the land would become her own after she had lived upon it seven months each year for three years; how each year she must plow and fence so many acres; and how at the end of that time she could sell the land at a good price, or else stay and improve it further.
"And which will you do?" asked the interested Mary while the others listened. "Will you stay or go away after it is yours?"
She would go away for a while, she told them, and rent her land. Her neighbors yonder would be glad to hire it. She was going to college. Her eyes glowed with enthusiasm as she dreamed her dream for them. Since her graduation from High School she had taught in country schools until she had saved money enough to pay for her improvements on the homestead. Everything was paid for—the cabin (she had made most of the furniture herself), the fencing, the plowing, her stock—everything; and there was money enough left for fall planting, a new barn, and some sheep, and the autumn expenses. In December, perhaps, she would leave and earn some more money until it was time to come back again. Then in another August she would have a crop from her winter wheat, and another in September from the spring planting. She could hardly wait for the time to come when she should really have money from a crop of her own raising.
After the three years were over, and the land was hers, if she could afford it, she was going to college. If she did not have the money then, why she would work until she did. She would study agriculture at college, learn the best methods of improving the land, and then come back to carry them out. She would build a new house in place of the cabin, buy some more land, and make her ranch one of the best in all Wyoming!
The Vigilantes were in a new world as they listened—a world where the only capital necessary was ambition, enthusiasm, vigor! Something told them that this homesteading girl was richer in many things than they themselves; that the treasures of hard work were quite as precious as those of wealth; and that Jean MacDonald was finding for herself through her own untiring labor the things most worth-while.
They were silent an hour later as they left their new friend on the edge of the mesa, and rode down the hills toward Elk Creek Valley.
"I think it's been about the happiest day I've ever had in my life," she told them, as she shook hands all around and said good-by. "I've loads of things to think about and laugh about—until you come again. Give Siwash a looser rein, Vivian. He won't stumble. Good-by!"
They looked back as they reached the Valley level to see Jean MacDonald and Robert Bruce silhouetted against the sky-line, and to wave them a last good-by.
"It's like your 'Power of the West' picture in our room at school, Virginia," Priscilla almost whispered—"the man on horseback with the sunset and the mountains behind him. Just look! There! Now she's turned Robert, and now they're out of sight!"
That night they all sat on the porch together and watched the sunset. A flaming pageant of color traced and retraced its course across the sky.
"I never saw such color," cried Aunt Nan. "Sometimes you think it's saffron, and then you know it's amber, and then you're sure it's real gold, and—it's changed again! See, Virginia!"
"I think I know what it's like," said Virginia. "Mother and I discovered it years ago when I was a little girl. Jim took us camping once when Father was away, and at night we had a big fire and sat and watched it. The sunset was gorgeous like this, I remember, and just as we were watching it and the fire, Mother discovered what the clouds were like. They're like the smoke as the flames underneath push it through the green boughs! It's just that wonderful color in the sky now. The next time we camp you'll see, Aunt Nan. It always makes me think of the flame-colored veils which the Roman girls used to wear on their wedding-days. Mother told me about them that very night."
"Just think how beautiful it must be from Jean's cabin," said Priscilla. "And she can see a larger sweep of sky and mountains because she's up higher than we. I know she's watching it all alone, and maybe dreaming about college."
"I'll never forget her to-day," Mary said earnestly. "I think she's wonderful! And, Aunt Nan, you just know from her eyes that she's gazed on big stretches of country all her life. You must go with us next time to see her."
"It's more than that, Mary." The voice came from the corner of the porch where Vivian sat apart from the others. "It's more than that. You don't just know she's always looked at big things. You know she's had them inside of her all her life long!"
MISS GREEN AGAIN
"I know I shouldn't worry," said Mary to Aunt Nan, "but I just can't help thinking of Anne and the Twins. Of course, as far as Jean and Jess are concerned, they won't mind—they'll think it the greatest adventure imaginable; but Anne will be terrified, and so will Mrs. Hill. I'm so glad Mother and I went last summer."
"What does the paper say?" asked Aunt Nan.
They were sitting on the porch awaiting the arrival of Priscilla, Virginia, and Vivian, who had walked to the road for the mail. Dick, coming on horseback, had brought the heavier papers and packages, and Mary was absorbed in the latest reports of the newly declared war.
"Oh, it's mostly about mobilizing and the German advance, but there are scores of incidents about Americans unable to get money or return passages, or anything; and here is something about their being made to walk across the border into Switzerland. Dear me! I wonder just where Anne is! In Germany somewhere, I know."
"Don't worry, dear," reassured Aunt Nan. "There may be disagreeable things, but I'm sure our people won't be in any real trouble or danger. Where are those girls anyway? They must have sat down to read their own letters, and forgotten all about us."
"Here they come," said Mary, looking down the cottonwood-bordered lane. "They're reading something all together, and laughing. Maybe it's a letter from the Twins or Anne."
It proved to be a veritable volume from the Blackmore twins, Jean being the real author, but Jess having lent her personality without stint to the incident related.
"It's a perfect scream," cried Priscilla, half-choked with laughter as she came up the steps. "Mary, what do you think? They've seen—no, I won't tell, Virginia, but read it quick!"
"When is it dated?" asked Mary.
"July 20th," Virginia told her. "The very day you people came. You see, 'twas too early then for any trouble. Would you rather wait to hear it, Aunt Nan, until you've read your mail?"
Aunt Nan's mail was unimportant, she said, compared to a letter from the interesting Blackmore twins.
"It's a regular book," announced Virginia, as she settled herself against a post, and turned the pages. "Jean probably didn't do much sight-seeing on the afternoon she wrote this.
"'Safe at last in Berlin, Germany, "'July 20, 19—.
"'DEAR VIRGINIA AND EVERYBODY ELSE:
"'It is only through Anne's economy and Jess' impudence and my genius at conducting a party that we are here and writing to you. Had each of us lacked the quality named above, we should to-day doubtless be languishing within the walls of a German poor-house. But instead we are in a lovely pension—all together and unspeakably happy.
"'The story in itself is so thrilling that I hate to give you the necessary setting, as Miss Wallace would say, but I must. The first step is to explain how we all happen to be together. It was this way: Father and Jess and I did stay in England for a week after all. You see, Jess had faithfully promised every girl in English History that she would see Lady Jane Grey's name where she had cut it herself in the Tower; and I had given my oath to record the impressions made upon me by the sight of Kenilworth by moonlight. Whether Dad would have considered those vows worthy or not, we do not know, had it not been that he wanted to go to the Bodleian Library at Oxford to see some musty old manuscript or other. So on our way from Liverpool to Oxford we stopped at Kenilworth, and I did see it at moonlight. I shall give my impressions at a later date. The search for another old manuscript gave Jess her chance at the Tower and "JANE," and it was there in the little chapel that we met Anne and Mrs. Hill.
"'They had planned the most wonderful week down in Surrey in a tiny English village called Shere, which Anne said was, according to the guide-books, "the perfect realization of an artist's dream." She begged us to go along with them, and poor Mrs. Hill, I suppose, felt obliged to invite us also, though what she may have said to Anne in private I do not yet know. We became imbued with desire to see the artist's dream realized and to be with Anne, so with Jess to hurry Mrs. Hill and me to drag Anne, we tore through Billingsgate fish-market and up King William Street to the Bank, where we were to meet Father.
"'After the poor man had recovered from his astonishment, he gave his consent—namely, that we should go to Surrey with Anne and Mrs. Hill (if they really wanted us) then across the channel to Rotterdam, up the Rhine and on to Berlin, where he would meet us. Mrs. Hill really seemed glad to have us go with them and, to be very frank, I think the Rev. Dr. Blackmore was glad to get rid of us. You see, Jess and I simply can't get enthusiastic over the Middle Ages and old manuscripts, and I think it worries Dad.
"'Well, our learned father went on to Berlin, and his imbecile offspring to Surrey. Shere was lovely! My dream was realized at least. I'll never forget the little gardens filled with roses and Canterbury bells, and the grain-fields dotted with poppies, and the woods filled with holly and tall pink foxgloves, and the beeches all silvery and green. We rode bicycles all over Surrey, and ate roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and drank ginger beer at quaint little English inns. You'll hear all about it next year in English class, for I've themes enough for everybody—at least material for them.
"'Then we went back to London, and had all sorts of adventures there, from our cab-horse falling flat in Piccadilly Circus to Jess being arrested at the House of Commons gate; but if Mrs. Hill ever repented of her invitation she didn't let us know, and we were never happier in our lives.
"'We started for Rotterdam the 14th of July, crossed the Channel with flying colors since we went to bed immediately upon going aboard, and started up the Rhine the next day on a boat appropriately named the Siegfried. The first day we went through flat Holland country, but on the next we had reached the hills, all walled-up and covered with vineyards. That evening we arrived at Cologne, where we were to stay a day to see the Cathedral, and went to our hotel. And here the great adventure begins!
"'No sooner had we arrived at the hotel and asked for mail, than the clerk handed Mrs. Hill a telegram. It was from her music-teacher in Berlin, and asked her to be in Berlin the next day without fail for a lesson. What was she to do? She said she just couldn't miss the lesson, and yet she just couldn't bear to take us girls before we had seen the Cathedral or the castles on the Rhine.
"'It didn't take Jess and Anne and me long to decide. She must go on, of course, we told her, and we would see the Cathedral, go up the rest of the Rhine quite by ourselves, and on by train from Mayence to Berlin. We could see she was hesitating, probably feeling that Anne might be trusted, but not being exactly sure of those Blackmore twins.
"'"The language?" she said. "Your German? You may not find English spoken everywhere, you know."
"'Anne hastened to remark that I had studied German for three years, and carried off honors. Her imagination gave birth to the honors, whereupon I, wishing above all else to play my part, cleared my throat, thought a moment, and requested the clerk to bring me a glass of water, which he did with a grin.
"'Whether my visible success reassured Mrs. Hill or not, I do not know, but anyhow she departed that night for Berlin, leaving us loaded with endless instructions, extra money, and a tiny red German dictionary. I never felt so officious in my life as when I called a cab and ushered Jess and Anne into it after the train had pulled out. I can see now why it is that Thomas Cook and Son have been so eminently successful.
"'The next day we spent browsing around in the Cathedral. To describe it would be out of place in this letter, which deals primarily with adventure. I might say, however, that Jess bought all of you silver pendants of the Three Wise Men of Cologne, when she ought to have saved her money. That evening we took the Rhine-boat—the Parsifal this time—and when we awoke in the morning we were well among the castles. It was a marvelous day, and I'll have loads to tell you about it in the fall.
"'We reached Mayence in the evening in a pouring rain, and took a cab, driven by a funny, red-faced driver, to a hotel where English was spoken, for however Mrs. Hill may have been impressed by my honors in German she had taken care to recommend English hotels. Our train for Berlin was to leave at nine A.M., so we went to bed early, feeling too self-resourceful for words.
"'Do you remember how, with cheers for St. Helen's and groans for Athens, we bequeathed Greenie to the Ancient World last winter? Who at that joyous moment would have thought that she would again and so soon enter our lives? Imagine then, if you can, the chill of horror which shook us all when upon alighting at the Mayence station the next morning, ready to take our train for Berlin, we beheld—unmistakably beheld—our beloved Greenie by the drinking-fountain!!! Her back was toward us, and all the proofs we had at that moment were the hang of her familiar gray suit, and our old friend, that absurd chicken feather, awry upon her little, black, St. Helen's hat. We stood breathless and surveyed her.
"'"It is!" said Jess. "Let's run!"
"'"It's not!" said Anne. "She's in Athens. Besides, she's too antiseptic to drink at a fountain!"
"'"I believe it is," said I. "It's just as well to look for shelter!"
"'"Of course, it is," said Jess. "That chicken-feather——"
"'And just then she looked up! There was no longer any question as to identity. In spite of drinking-fountains and Athens, it was Greenie! She looked quite the same as ever, except for the absence of the gray shawl, and no visible effects of curl-papers.
"'Whether it was Providence, Greenie's near-sightedness or our own speed that saved us, I don't know; but I do know we took her bearings and all ran in opposite directions. She was going through the door marked South. Anne accordingly ran north, Jess east, and I west.
"'"Meet in five minutes at the fountain," I commanded hoarsely as we separated.
"'That was the last we saw of Greenie's visible form. How she happened to be in Mayence we knew not. Jess insisted she never reached Athens at all, but was discovered en route at Mayence, placed in the Museum there, and was simply out on parole for exercise! Be that as it may, the excitement of seeing her, and the flight which followed, proved most disastrous to us all, for when we met five minutes later at the fountain, the Blackmore purse, carried by Jess, was gone!
"'Anne and I stood and glared at my poor twin just as though dropping a purse were a disgrace which could never come to us even when escaping from Miss Green. I informed her of a fact which she has known for eighteen years—namely, that twenty dollars, the amount in the purse, might be a trifle to some, but was colossal in the eyes of a minister's family. Anne was less scathing, but by no means charitable. Poor Jess, on the verge of tears, suggested that instead of scolding her we'd better look for the purse, which we proceeded to do without success.
"'Thereupon Anne counted her money, my honors in German of course being a constant help. A twenty mark piece—five dollars; a ten mark piece—two dollars and a half; and some change amounting to four marks or another dollar. Eight dollars and fifty cents in all, and three persons, who had had no breakfast, must be transported to Berlin!
"'"It's impossible!" said Anne.
"'"It's got to be done!" said I.
"'"If I have to beg on the streets, it shall be done!" cried Jess, so loudly that every one in the station looked in our direction.
"'"How much are the tickets?" asked Anne. "Mother said to go second-class in Germany."
"'"I'll see," said I officiously, and started toward a blue-capped official in a cage.
"'"You'd best hurry," cried Anne. "The train goes in twenty minutes."
"'I smiled upon the somber man in the cage and asked in my best and clearest English how much the tickets were. A blank stare was his only answer. He understood no English, and to save my life I could think of no German. I stammered and stammered but with no success, and in a few seconds a fat German lady with six children and a dog had unceremoniously pushed me out of the way. I tried another official and another with the same result. A helpless feeling seized me. I looked at the clock. Five minutes out of the twenty gone! I ran back frantically to Jess and Anne, snatched the little red dictionary, and was off again in search of still another official. This time I was understood, bad as was my German, but I couldn't understand, so things were as hopeless as ever.
"'Ten minutes before train time I returned desperate to my twin and Anne, and confessed that honors in German were of no assistance whatsoever. We gazed at one another blankly Money gone—hope gone—what should we do? At that moment Jess darted away. Our first thought was that she had spied Miss Green, and was leaving us to our fate for revenge; but a moment later we saw that she had seized upon a tall man, who had been quietly crossing the platform. Her impudence was appalling! She grabbed the man by the arm without a word of explanation, and literally dragged him toward us. I don't think she had spoken to him at all until she reached Anne and me.
"'"Here," she said, pointing a finger of scorn at me, "here is my sister who is supposed to know German and doesn't. She'll tell you how you can help us out."
"'The man, who wore a Thomas Cook and Son hat, was very polite after he had recovered from his surprise. I explained the difficulty we were in as quickly as possible, and he, in turn, said that second-class tickets to Berlin cost in the neighborhood of four dollars, that the train left in seven minutes, and that if we would give him the money he would gladly make the purchase.
"'"Four dollars!" gasped Anne. "Apiece, you mean, or together?"
"'"Apiece," said the man.
"'"Then we can't go," said Anne. "I knew it all the time." And she dropped in a limp little heap on the bench near by just as though she never could get up.
"'"Why, what's the matter?" asked the man. "Out of money?"
"'Then Jess, who was really to blame, felt called upon to explain.
"'"Yes, sir, we are," she said, "all but eight dollars and fifty cents. You see, we experienced a severe shock in seeing G—— Miss Green, an old teacher of ours, by the drinking-fountain, when we thought she was in Athens. We didn't feel as though we could speak to her until—until we had washed and brushed up a little, and so we—well, we ran, and somehow I lost our family purse."
"'"I see," said the man.
"'He seemed very interested all of a sudden, and said we needn't worry at all if we had eight dollars and a half. There was another train leaving an hour later, he said—a train which carried third-class carriages. We would be quite safe in traveling that way, and he would personally see us on board, if we wished. At that Anne and her spirits arose.
"'"Miss Green," he repeated. "You say she was your teacher?"
"'"Yes," said I wonderingly. "She most certainly was."
"'"Harriet, her given name?" asked the man.
"'"Yes!" cried Jess and Anne and I all together. "You don't know her, do you?"
"'"An angular person in a gray suit?" he continued. "Wears spectacles and——"
"'"Crimps," interrupted Jess. "Yes, she's the one, though she hasn't any this morning. You see, at school she always was a little—well, formidable, and we——"
"'"I see," said the man again. "Well, since I know she's around here, I may as well wait. I told her to be at our office just outside the station at ten o'clock, and it's nearly that now. You see," he explained, "she's been in Athens for six months, and she's very anxious to conduct a small party back there—lecture on the ancient civilization and all that sort of thing, you know. Perhaps, since she was your teacher, you'll be able to tell me how she'd do. She hasn't had time to get recommendations for just this sort of work, you see."
"'"How—how long would she be gone?" ventured Jess.
"'"Well," explained the Thomas Cook man, "if she did well, we'd probably keep her on the force. We're always looking for folks like that—to take parties—especially to Athens or Egypt. They're rare! This might be a life job."
"'"I'd be willing to recommend her!" said Jess, a little too promptly, I thought.
"'"I think," said Anne, "it depends a good deal on the party she's going to take."
"'"It certainly does," I agreed.
"'"Well," said the man again, "it's an easy party. There's a professor who's nearly eighty, and who's wanted all his life to go to Athens; and a minister who's trying to discover the exact spot where Paul preached to the Athenians; and a couple of teachers who are something like Miss Green, I think—about that type, you know. They're terribly interested in the temples on the Acropolis."
"'"Miss Green then is certainly the woman for you, sir," I announced, feeling like an Employment Bureau. "She's steeped in the Ancient World! She dotes on Rameses and the Pharaohs and the Tarquins and Solon; and she knows more about every one of them than she knows about—us, for instance."
"'"I see," said the man.
"'"The only reason we hesitated for a moment," added Anne, "was because we thought the party might be composed of young people, and, you see, Miss Green has never specialized to any great extent in—in—young life!"
"'"I understand perfectly," said our benefactor. "I guess I'll run along, young ladies. She might be in my office. Get your tickets from the man in the red cap at the largest window over there. He speaks English. Your train will reach Berlin at seven. It's on track four. Don't thank me at all. I'm indebted to you. Won't you walk to the office and see Miss Green? She'd be delighted, I'm sure!"
"'Anne answered for us. "No, thank you," she said. "I'm afraid we can't. We haven't had breakfast yet, and we must telegraph my mother. She'll expect us earlier. Yes, thank you, I'm sure we can manage quite well alone. Give Miss Green our best regards. I'm sure we hope she'll be successful."
"'He shook hands all around.
"'"You really think," asked Jess, a little worried in tone, I thought, "you really think it's likely to be a job for life?"
"'"Yes," said the man, "I do. I think she's the very woman I've been looking for."
"'Then he went. We stood looking at one another, not knowing what to say. It had all been too unexpected."
"'"Well," said Jess at last, "I don't know but that a job for life is cheap at twenty dollars. And, you know, she really expected to return to St. Helen's year after next."
"'We had just time to eat our belated breakfast, telegraph, buy our tickets, and catch the ten o'clock train, which carried us to Berlin without incident, other than embarrassments arising from my total lack of German. We didn't mind third class at all. It's a lot more human. Mrs. Hill and Dad met us, and Dad forgot all about the twenty dollars when we told him about Greenie.
"'I've given up seeing the Emperor's stables to tell you all of this, and I hope you appreciate it. Jess and Anne send loads of love to all of you, and so do I. I can't believe Wyoming is any better than Germany!
"I can't help wondering, Virginia," said Priscilla, after they had all laughed again over Jean's letter, "I can't help wondering whether Greenie will consider this vocation thrust upon her!"
"That's just what I was wondering, too," returned Virginia.
THE VIGILANTES HOMESTEAD
"John, do you really think it's safe?"
It was Aunt Nan who asked the question. Mr. Hunter laughed.
"Safe, Nan? They couldn't be safer. There's nothing in the wide world to hurt them out there on the mesa. They're safer there, in my opinion, than any place I know, and if they want to know what homesteading is like, why let them homestead for a night! It won't hurt them a bit. If they go back to school with a few of Jean MacDonald's ideas, they'll be very fortunate."
"It seems as though I ought to go," said Aunt Nan, "and still I don't know that my being there would do any good."
"Not a bit," returned Virginia's father. "Roughing it at seventeen and thirty are two entirely different experiences. Stay at home and be civilized, but let them go and don't worry for a moment. They'll show up to-morrow safe and sound with another bran-new experience for their Thought Books. See if they don't!"
So it happened that Aunt Nan was convinced and gave her consent to Virginia's just-born and dearly-beloved plan—namely, that the four Vigilantes should homestead for Jean MacDonald during her absence of one night from her cabin on the mesa. Jean had ridden over that morning on her way to town to spend the night with a friend, and Virginia's plan had sprung full-born like Athena from the head of Zeus.
"Don't you want us to homestead for you, Jean, while you're away?" she had asked.
Jean had gladly accepted the offer. "It would be just the thing," she said. Then they could really see why she loved the mesa as she did, and especially her very own corner of it. The dogs would be glad of company, for she had driven the three cows that very morning to the neighboring homestead, and except for the chickens, Watch and King were all alone. The cabin door had no lock, and they might go right in and make themselves at home. There was an extra cot in the kitchen, bedding in plenty, and loads of food supplies. She would simply love to have them do it!
Virginia had turned questioningly to the listening Vigilantes.
"Let's!" said Mary.
"Oh, do let's!" cried Priscilla.
"Of course," faltered Vivian, insuperably buoyed up by company.
"All right," said Jean MacDonald as she turned Robert Bruce toward the road. "It's settled then! There's plenty of butter and milk in the creek-refrigerator—I left them there—and lots of fish in the creek. You'll have to rustle your own wood, I guess. Help yourselves to everything! Good-by!"
William, who was working among his flowers, had waited only for Aunt Nan's approval. Now that it had come, he was off to saddle the horses, while the excited Vigilantes flew to get into their riding-clothes.
"I'm so glad you dared to suggest it, Virginia," said Priscilla, struggling with her boot lacings. "I thought of it, too—that's what I meant by nudging you—but, of course, I wouldn't have liked to propose it. In the two weeks I've been here, I've had the best time I ever had in my life, and I really believe this is going to be the best of all."
"I suppose," observed Virginia, "that the boys will be more or less disappointed because we won't be here to go on the gopher hunt, but we can shoot dozens of gophers any day."
"Of course," returned Vivian, who had never shot one in her life.
"Of course," echoed Mary, who was in the same class with Vivian.
"Besides," continued Priscilla, "the experience of shooting a gopher, while doubtless thrilling in the extreme, doesn't compare for one moment with homesteading. Do you know, girls, I believe I'll take along my Thought Book. Something might come to me!"
"I would, if I were you," acquiesced Virginia. "No, Hannah, dear," she added, turning to the faithful retainer in the doorway, "we don't want a thing to eat. Thank you just as much. It wouldn't be homesteading at all if we carried food. Jean says there are plenty of supplies out there. We're just going to take our night-dresses and combs and tooth-brushes and Priscilla's Thought Book."
Hannah smiled dubiously.
"Supplies is all right, deary," said she, "but who's going to cook them?"
"I can make biscuits, I think," offered Mary. "At least, I did once."
Virginia thought for a moment, uncertain of her contribution.
"I'm sure I can fry fish," she said. "I've seen you do it a hundred times, Hannah."
Priscilla and Vivian, not being culinary experts, made no promises; but Virginia, even in the face of discouragement, still insisted that they take nothing.
"Then don't go till after dinner," called Aunt Nan from her room. "It will be ready in an hour."
"Better wait," reiterated Mr. Hunter. "William's had to go on the range a piece for the horses, anyway."
So it was after dinner that the four homesteaders started for their borrowed claim, leaving behind three disgusted boys armed for a gopher hunt, an amused father, an interested William, a still doubtful Aunt Nan, and a much-worried Hannah.
"Can't we even come to call?" asked Carver, holding Vivian's horse for her to mount.
"No, Carver," said Virginia sweetly, "you can't. We want to see how it will really seem to be homesteading all alone. We'll be back by noon to-morrow, and will go after gophers in the afternoon, if you want to wait. If you don't, it's all right."
"Why not invite us to supper?" suggested Donald. "We'll go directly afterward, and won't come too early."
"I should say not," cried Priscilla, much to Hannah's amusement as they galloped away. "Supper is to be an experiment for us, and we don't want any guests."
They rode south through the hills to Elk Creek Valley, where the pink and blue of the blossoms were fading a little in the August sun. It would be a golden Valley soon, Virginia said—yellow with sunflowers and golden-rod. Then they climbed the foot-hills to the mesa, and rode eagerly toward their newly-acquired cabin in the southwest corner.
"I feel exactly like the owner," confided Virginia, urging Pedro forward toward their goal. "I'm wondering if anything has happened since my trip to town."
Apparently nothing had happened. The cabin was slumbering peacefully in the August sunshine. Watch and King, however, were wide awake. They came bounding around the corner of the house, ready to guard their mistress' property from all intruders. But in their superior dog wisdom they soon remembered that these young ladies were the friends who a few days before had made their mistress happy, and they gave the Vigilantes a royal welcome—both for Jean and for themselves.
Virginia considered matters for a moment before dismounting.
"I think I'll leave Pedro's bridle on," she said. "Then he won't stray far, and the others will keep near him. We'll unsaddle and put the things on the porch. Then that will be done. It's three o'clock now," she continued, consulting her watch, "and I don't think it would be a bad plan to get settled and consider supper, do you?"
No, they did not, they told her, as they dismounted. Virginia, with Pedro unsaddled and eager to feed, proudly watched Vivian as she tugged at Siwash's saddle-straps, and took off his bridle. It was some time since Vivian had asked assistance. Her heart might be beating fearfully inside—it probably was—when Siwash shook his head impatiently and stamped a foot; but only an instinctive backward movement proved that the fear was still there.
"Vivian's making new roots every day," Virginia said to herself, "and deep ones, too." And she smiled encouragingly into Vivian's blue eyes, as, the horses freed, they carried the saddles, blankets, and bridles to the porch.
Jean MacDonald was right. The cabin door would not lock. Three Vigilantes looked somewhat askance at one another when this fact was made known, though the fourth seemed not to consider it at all. The cot in the kitchen was examined and pronounced comfortable.
"At least as comfortable as one would wish, homesteading for one night," said Priscilla.
Lots were drawn for beds and companions. Vivian and Virginia, it was thus decided, should sleep in the living-room, and Priscilla and Mary in the kitchen.
"Of course, we could move the kitchen cot into the living-room," said Virginia, "but it really isn't worth the trouble where the door is so small. Besides, you girls don't feel the least bit frightened about sleeping out there, anyway."
Mary looked at Priscilla and Priscilla looked at Mary. Not for veritable worlds would they have confided to Virginia the joy which would fill their hearts if that refractory kitchen cot could be moved into the living-room; not for untold riches would they have confessed the sinking feeling which attacked them upon the thought of sleeping in the kitchen nearest that unlocked door. A bear might push open that door, or a mountain lion roar outside their window—they would be game to the end!
"Now," announced Virginia, quite unconscious of the sensations which were agitating her friends, "I think we'd best begin to get supper. It may take some time. Mary, I see there's a cook book in the kitchen. If you've made biscuits only once, it might be well for you to study up a little. Vivian can set the table, and get some lettuce from the garden. I'll rustle the wood for the fire, and get the potatoes ready. Hannah told me to bake them about an hour. Priscilla, why don't you take one of Jean's rods and follow up the creek? There are some quaking-asps in a shady place up a little way, and it wouldn't surprise me at all if you got a trout there. Use some of those little dark flies—they're good this kind of a day. Come to think of it, Jean has some already on. You might add a grasshopper or two. There'll be plenty of them hopping around. Pinch their noses and they'll keep still."