THE equinoctial line itself is not more imaginary than the line which divided the estates of the three Johns. The herds of the three Johns roamed at will, and nibbled the short grass far and near without let or hindrance; and the three Johns themselves were utterly indifferent as to boundary lines. Each of them had filed his application at the office of the government land-agent; each was engaged in the tedious task of "proving up;" and each owned one-third of the L-shaped cabin which stood at the point where the three ranches touched. The hundred and sixty acres which would have completed this quadrangle had not yet been "taken up."
The three Johns were not anxious to have a neighbor. Indeed, they had made up their minds that if one appeared on that adjoining "hun'erd an' sixty," it would go hard with him. For they did not deal in justice very much -- the three Johns. They considered it effete. It belonged in the East along with other outgrown superstitions. And they had given it out widely that it would be healthier for land applicants to give them elbow-room. It took a good many miles of sunburnt prairie to afford elbow-room for the three Johns.
They met by accident in Hamilton at the land-office. John Henderson, fresh from Cincinnati, manifestly unused to the ways of the country, looked at John Gillispie with a lurking smile. Gillispie wore a sombrero, fresh, white, and expansive. His boots had high heels, and were of elegant leather and finely arched at the instep. His corduroys disappeared in them half-way up the thigh. About his waist a sash of blue held a laced shirt of the same color in place. Henderson puffed at his cigarette, and continued to look a trifle quizzical.
Suddenly Gillispie walked up to him and said, in a voice of complete suavity, "Damn yeh, smoke a pipe!"
"Eh?" said Henderson, stupidly.
"Smoke a pipe," said the other. "That thing you have is bad for your complexion."
"I can take care of my complexion," said Henderson, firmly.
The two looked each other straight in the eye.
"You don't go on smoking that thing till you have apologized for that grin you had on your phiz a moment ago."
"I laugh when I please, and I smoke what I please," said Henderson, hotly, his face flaming as he realized that he was in for his first "row."
That was how it began. How it would have ended is not known -- probably there would have been only one John -- if it had not been for the almost miraculous appearance at this moment of the third John. For just then the two belligerents found themselves prostrate, their pistols only half-cocked, and between them stood a man all gnarled and squat, like one of those wind-torn oaks which grow on the arid heights. He was no older than the others, but the lines in his face were deep, and his large mouth twitched as he said: --
"Hold on here, yeh fools! There's too much blood in you to spill. You'll spile th' floor, and waste good stuff. We need blood out here!"
Gillispie bounced to his feet. Henderson arose suspiciously, keeping his eyes on his assailants.
"Oh, get up!" cried the intercessor. "We don't shoot men hereabouts till they git on their feet in fightin' trim."
"What do you know about what we do here?" interrupted Gillispie. "This is the first time I ever saw you around."
"That's so," the other admitted. "I'm just down from Montana. Came to take up a quarter section. Where I come from we give men a show, an' I thought perhaps yeh did th' same here."
"Why, yes," admitted Gillispie, "we do. But I don't want folks to laugh too much -- not when I'm around -- unless they tell me what the joke is. I was just mentioning it to the gentleman," he added, dryly.
"So I saw," said the other; "you're kind a emphatic in yer remarks. Yeh ought to give the gentleman a chance to git used to the ways of th' country. He'll be as tough as th' rest of us if you'll give him a chance. I kin see it in him."
"Thank you," said Henderson. "I'm glad you do me justice. I wish you wouldn't let daylight through me till I've had a chance to get my quarter section. I'm going to be one of you, either as a live man or a corpse. But I prefer a hundred and sixty acres of land to six feet of it."
"There, now!" triumphantly cried the squat man. "Didn't I tell yeh? Give him a show! 'Tain't no fault of his that he's a tenderfoot. He'll get over that."
Gillispie shook hands with first one and then the other of the men. "It's a square deal from this on," he said. "Come and have a drink."
That's how they met -- John Henderson, John Gillispie, and John Waite. And a week later they were putting up a shanty together for common use, which overlapped each of their reservations, and satisfied the law with its sociable subterfuge.
The life wasn't bad, Henderson decided; and he adopted all the ways of the country in an astonishingly short space of time. There was a freedom about it all which was certainly complete. The three alternated in the night watch. Once a week one of them went to town for provisions. They were not good at the making of bread, so they contented themselves with hot cakes. Then there was salt pork for a staple, and prunes. They slept in straw-lined bunks, with warm blankets for a covering. They made a point of bringing reading-matter back from town every week, and there were always cards to fall back on, and Waite sang songs for them with natural dramatic talent.
Nevertheless, in spite of their contentment, none of them was sorry when the opportunity offered for going to town. There was always a bit of stirring gossip to be picked up, and now and then there was a "show" at the "opera-house," in which, it is almost unnecessary to say, no opera had ever been sung. Then there was the hotel, at which one not only got good fare, but a chat with the three daughters of Jim O'Neal, the proprietor -- girls with the accident of two Irish parents, who were, notwithstanding, as typically American as they well could be. A half-hour's talk with these cheerful young women was all the more to be desired for the reason that within riding distance of the three Johns' ranch there were only two other women. One was Minerva Fitch, who had gone out from Michigan accompanied by an oil-stove and a knowledge of the English grammar, with the intention of teaching school, but who had been unable to carry these good intentions into execution for the reason that there were no children to teach, -- at least, none but Bow-legged Joe. He was a sad little fellow, who looked like a prairie-dog, and who had very much the same sort of an outlook on life. The other woman was the brisk and efficient wife of Mr. Bill Deems, of "Missourah." Mr. Deems had never in his life done anything, not even so much as bring in a basket of buffalo chips to supply the scanty fire. That is to say, he had done nothing strictly utilitarian. Yet he filled his place. He was the most accomplished story-teller in the whole valley, and this accomplishment of his was held in as high esteem as the improvisations of a Welsh minstrel were among his reverencing people. His wife alone deprecated his skill, and interrupted his spirited narratives with sarcastic allusions concerning the empty cupboard, and the "state of her back," to which, as she confided to any who would listen, "there was not a rag fit to wear."
These two ladies had not, as may be surmised, any particular attraction for John Henderson. Truth to tell, Henderson had not come West with the intention of liking women, but rather with a determination to see and think as little of them as possible. Yet even the most confirmed misogynist must admit that it is a good thing to see a woman now and then, and for this reason Henderson found it amusing to converse with the amiable Misses O'Neal. At twenty-five one cannot be unyielding in one's avoidance of the sex.
Henderson, with his pony at a fine lope, was on his way to town one day, in that comfortable frame of mind adduced by an absence of any ideas whatever, when he suddenly became conscious of a shiver that seemed to run from his legs to the pony, and back again. The animal gave a startled leap, and lifted his ears. There was a stirring in the coarse grasses; the sky, which a moment before had been like sapphire, dulled with an indescribable grayness.
Then came a little singing afar off, as if from a distant convocation of cicadæ, and before Henderson could guess what it meant, a cloud of dust was upon him, blinding and bewildering, pricking with sharp particles at eyes and nostrils. The pony was an ugly fellow, and when Henderson felt him put his forefeet together, he knew what that meant, and braced himself for the struggle. But it was useless; he had not yet acquired the knack of staying on the back of a bucking bronco, and the next moment he was on the ground, and around him whirled that saffron chaos of dust. The temperature lowered every moment. Henderson instinctively felt that this was but the beginning of the storm. He picked himself up without useless regrets for his pony, and made his way on.
The saffron hue turned to blackness, and then out of the murk shot a living green ball of fire, and ploughed into the earth. Then sheets of water, that seemed to come simultaneously from earth and sky, swept the prairie, and in the midst of it struggled Henderson, weak as a little child, half bereft of sense by the strange numbness of head and dullness of eye. Another of those green balls fell and burst, as it actually appeared to him, before his horrified eyes, and the bellow and blare of the explosion made him cry out in a madness of fright and physical pain. In the illumination he had seen a cabin only a few feet in front of him, and toward it he made frantically, with an animal's instinctive desire for shelter.
The door did not yield at once to his pressure, and in the panic of his fear he threw his weight against it. There was a cry from within, a fall, and Henderson flung himself in the cabin and closed the door.
In the dusk of the storm he saw a woman half prostrate. It was she whom he had pushed from the door. He caught the hook in its staple, and turned to raise her. She was not trembling as much as he, but, like himself, she was dizzy with the shock of the lightning. In the midst of all the clamor Henderson heard a shrill crying, and looking toward the side of the room, he dimly perceived three tiny forms crouched in one of the bunks. The woman took the smallest of the children in her arms, and kissed and soothed it; and Henderson, after he had thrown a blanket at the bottom of the door to keep out the drifting rain, sat with his back to it, bracing it against the wind, lest the frail staple should give way. He managed some way to reach out and lay hold of the other little ones, and got them in his arms, -- a boy, so tiny he seemed hardly human, and a girl somewhat sturdier. They cuddled in his arms, and clutched his clothes with their frantic little hands, and the three sat so while the earth and the heavens seemed to be meeting in angry combat.
And back and forth, back and forth, in the dimness swayed the body of the woman, hushing her babe.
Almost as suddenly as the darkness had fallen, it lifted. The lightning ceased to threaten, and almost frolicked, -- little wayward flashes of white and yellow dancing in mid-air. The wind wailed less frequently, like a child who sobs in its sleep. And at last Henderson could make his voice heard.
"Is there anything to build a fire with?" he shouted. "The children are shivering so."
The woman pointed to a basket of buffalo chips in the corner, and he wrapped his little companions up in a blanket while he made a fire in the cooking-stove. The baby was sleeping by this time, and the woman began tidying the cabin, and when the fire was burning brightly, she put some coffee on.
"I wish I had some clothes to offer you," she said, when the wind had subsided sufficiently to make talking possible. "I'm afraid you'll have to let them get dry on you."
"Oh, that's of no consequence at all! We're lucky to get off with our lives. I never saw anything so terrible. Fancy! half an hour ago it was summer; now it is winter!"
"It seems rather sudden when you're not used to it," the woman admitted. "I've lived in the West six years now; you can't frighten me any more. We never die out here before our time comes."
"You seem to know that I haven't been here long," said Henderson, with some chagrin.
"Yes," admitted the woman; "you have the ear-marks of a man from the East."
She was a tall woman, with large blue eyes, and a remarkable quantity of yellow hair braided on top of her head. Her gown was of calico, of such a pattern as a widow might wear.
"I haven't been out of town a week yet," she said. "We're not half settled. Not having any one to help makes it harder; and the baby is rather fretful."
"But you're not alone with all these little codgers?" cried Henderson, in dismay.
The woman turned toward him with a sort of defiance. "Yes, I am," she said; "and I'm as strong as a horse, and I mean to get through all right. Here were the three children in my arms, you may say, and no way to get in a cent. I wasn't going to stand it just to please other folk. I said, let them talk if they want to, but I'm going to hold down a claim, and be accumulating something while the children are getting up a bit. Oh, I'm not afraid!"
In spite of this bold assertion of bravery, there was a sort of break in her voice. She was putting dishes on the table as she talked, and turned some ham in the skillet, and got the children up before the fire, and dropped some eggs in water, -- all with a rapidity that bewildered Henderson.
"How long have you been alone?" he asked, softly.
"Three months before baby was born, and he's five months old now. I -- I -- you think I can get on here, don't you? There was nothing else to do."
She was folding another blanket over the sleeping baby now, and the action brought to her guest the recollection of a thousand tender moments of his dimly remembered youth.
"You'll get on if we have anything to do with it," he cried, suppressing an oath with difficulty, just from pure emotion.
And he told her about the three Johns' ranch, and found it was only three miles distant, and that both were on the same road; only her cabin, having been put up during the past week, had of course been unknown to him. So it ended in a sort of compact that they were to help each other in such ways as they could. Meanwhile the fire got genial, and the coffee filled the cabin with its comfortable scent, and all of them ate together quite merrily, Henderson cutting up the ham for the youngsters; and he told how he chanced to come out; and she entertained him with stories of what she thought at first when she was brought a bride to Hamilton, the adjacent village, and convulsed him with stories of the people, whom she saw with humorous eyes.
Henderson marvelled how she could in those few minutes have rescued the cabin from the desolation in which the storm had plunged it. Out of the window he could see the stricken grasses dripping cold moisture, and the sky still angrily plunging forward like a disturbed sea. Not a tree or a house broke the view. The desolation of it swept over him as it never had before. But within the little ones were chattering to themselves in odd baby dialect, and the mother was laughing with them.
"Women aren't always useless," she said, at parting; "and you tell your chums that when they get hungry for a slice of homemade bread they can get it here. And the next time they go by, I want them to stop in and look at the children. It'll do them good. They may think they won't enjoy themselves, but they will."
"Oh, I'll answer for that!" cried he, shaking hands with her. "I'll tell them we have just the right sort of a neighbor."
"Thank you," said she, heartily. "And you may tell them that her name is Catherine Ford."
Once at home, he told his story.
"H'm!" said Gillispie, "I guess I'll have to go to town myself to-morrow."
Henderson looked at him blackly. "She's a woman alone, Gillispie," said he, severely, "trying to make her way with handicaps -- "
"Shet up, can't ye, ye darned fool?" roared Gillispie. "What do yeh take me fur?"
Waite was putting on his rubber coat preparatory to going out for his night with the cattle. "Guess you're makin' a mistake, my boy," he said, gently. "There ain't no danger of any woman bein' treated rude in these parts."
"I know it, by Jove!" cried Henderson, in quick contriteness.
"All right," grunted Gillispie, in tacit acceptance of this apology. "I guess you thought you was in civilized parts."
Two days after this Waite came in late to his supper. "Well, I seen her," he announced.
"Oh! did you?" cried Henderson, knowing perfectly well whom he meant. "What was she doing?"
"Killin' snakes, b'gosh! She says th' baby's crazy fur um, an' so she takes aroun' a hoe on her shoulder wherever she goes, an' when she sees a snake, she has it out with 'im then an' there. I says to 'er, 'Yer don't expec' t' git all th' snakes outen this here country, d' yeh?' 'Well,' she says, 'I'm as good a man as St. Patrick any day.' She is a jolly one, Henderson. She tuk me in an' showed me th' kids, and give me a loaf of gingerbread to bring home. Here it is; see?"
"Hu!" said Gillispie. "I'm not in it." But for all of his scorn he was not above eating the gingerbread.
It was gardening time, and the three Johns were putting in every spare moment in the little paling made of willow twigs behind the house. It was little enough time they had, though, for the cattle were new to each other and to the country, and they were hard to manage. It was generally conceded that Waite had a genius for herding, and he could take the "mad" out of a fractious animal in a way that the others looked on as little less than superhuman. Thus it was that one day, when the clay had been well turned, and the seeds arranged on the kitchen table, and all things prepared for an afternoon of busy planting, that Waite and Henderson, who were needed out with the cattle, felt no little irritation at the inexplicable absence of Gillispie, who was to look after the garden. It was quite nightfall when he at last returned. Supper was ready, although it had been Gillispie's turn to prepare it.
Henderson was sore from his saddle, and cross at having to do more than his share of the work. "Damn yeh!" he cried, as Gillispie appeared. "Where yeh been?"
"Making garden," responded Gillispie, slowly.
"Making garden!" Henderson indulged in some more harmless oaths.
Just then Gillispie drew from under his coat a large and friendly looking apple-pie. "Yes," he said, with emphasis; "I've bin a-makin' garden fur Mis' Ford."
And so it came about that the three Johns knew her and served her, and that she never had a need that they were not ready to supply if they could. Not one of them would have thought of going to town without stopping to inquire what was needed at the village. As for Catherine Ford, she was fighting her way with native pluck and maternal unselfishness. If she had feared solitude she did not suffer from it. The activity of her life stifled her fresh sorrow. She was pleasantly excited by the rumors that a railroad was soon to be built near the place, which would raise the value of the claim she was "holding down" many thousand dollars.
It is marvellous how sorrow shrinks when one is very healthy and very much occupied. Although poverty was her close companion, Catherine had no thought of it in this primitive manner of living. She had come out there, with the independence and determination of a Western woman, for the purpose of living at the least possible expense, and making the most she could while the baby was "getting out of her arms." That process has its pleasures, which every mother feels in spite of burdens, and the mind is happily dulled by nature's merciful provision. With a little child tugging at the breast, care and fret vanish, not because of the happiness so much as because of a certain mammal complacency, which is not at all intellectual, but serves its purpose better than the profoundest method of reasoning.
So without any very unbearable misery at her recent widowhood, this healthy young woman worked in field and house, cared for her little ones, milked the two cows out in the corral, sewed, sang, rode, baked, and was happy for very wholesomeness. Sometimes she reproached herself that she was not more miserable, remembering that long grave back in the unkempt little prairie cemetery, and she sat down to coax her sorrow into proper prominence. But the baby cooing at her from its bunk, the low of the cattle from the corral begging her to relieve their heavy bags, the familiar call of one of her neighbors from without, even the burning sky of the summer dawns, broke the spell of this conjured sorrow, and in spite of herself she was again a very hearty and happy young woman. Besides, if one has a liking for comedy, it is impossible to be dull on a Nebraska prairie. The people are a merrier divertissement than the theatre with its hackneyed stories. Catherine Ford laughed a good deal, and she took the three Johns into her confidence, and they laughed with her. There was Minerva Fitch, who insisted on coming over to tell Catherine how to raise her children, and who was almost offended that the children wouldn't die of sunstroke when she predicted. And there was Bob Ackerman, who had inflammatory rheumatism and a Past, and who confided the latter to Mrs. Ford while she doctored the former with homoeopathic medicines. And there were all the strange visionaries who came out prospecting, and quite naturally drifted to Mrs. Ford's cabin for a meal, and paid her in compliments of a peculiarly Western type. And there were the three Johns themselves. Catherine considered it no treason to laugh at them a little.
Yet at Waite she did not laugh much. There had come to be something pathetic in the constant service he rendered her. The beginning of his more particular devotion had started in a particular way. Malaria was very bad in the country. It had carried off some of the most vigorous on the prairie, and twice that summer Catherine herself had laid out the cold forms of her neighbors on ironing-boards, and, with the assistance of Bill Deems of Missourah, had read the burial service over them. She had averted several other fatal runs of fever by the contents of her little medicine-case. These remedies she dealt out with an intelligence that astonished her patients, until it was learned that she was studying medicine at the time that she met her late husband, and was persuaded to assume the responsibilities of matrimony instead of those of the medical profession.
One day in midsummer, when the sun was focussing itself on the raw pine boards of her shanty, and Catherine had the shades drawn for coolness and the water-pitcher swathed in wet rags, East Indian fashion, she heard the familiar halloo of Waite down the road. This greeting, which was usually sent to her from the point where the dipping road lifted itself into the first view of the house, did not contain its usual note of cheerfulness. Catherine, wiping her hands on her checked apron, ran out to wave a welcome; and Waite, his squat body looking more distorted than ever, his huge shoulders lurching as he walked, came fairly plunging down the hill.
"It's all up with Henderson!" he cried, as Catherine approached. "He's got the malery, an' he says he's dyin'."
"That's no sign he's dying, because he says so," retorted Catherine.
"He wants to see yeh," panted Waite, mopping his big ugly head. "I think he's got somethin' particular to say."
"How long has he been down?"
"Three days; an' yeh wouldn't know 'im."
The children were playing on the floor at that side of the house where it was least hot. Catherine poured out three bowls of milk, and cut some bread, meanwhile telling Kitty how to feed the baby.
"She's a sensible thing, is the little daughter," said Catherine, as she tied on her sunbonnet and packed a little basket with things from the cupboard. She kissed the babies tenderly, flung her hoe -- her only weapon of defence -- over her shoulder, and the two started off.
They did not speak, for their throats were soon too parched. The prairie was burned brown with the sun; the grasses curled as if they had been on a gridiron. A strong wind was blowing; but it brought no comfort, for it was heavy with a scorching heat. The skin smarted and blistered under it, and the eyes felt as if they were filled with sand. The sun seemed to swing but a little way above the earth, and though the sky was intensest blue, around about this burning ball there was a halo of copper, as if the very ether were being consumed in yellow fire.
Waite put some big burdock-leaves on Catherine's head under her bonnet, and now and then he took a bottle of water from his pocket and made her swallow a mouthful. She staggered often as she walked, and the road was black before her. Still, it was not very long before the oddly shaped shack of the three Johns came in sight; and as he caught a glimpse of it, Waite quickened his footsteps.
"What if he should be gone?" he said, under his breath.
"Oh, come off!" said Catherine, angrily. "He's not gone. You make me tired!"
But she was trembling when she stopped just before the door to compose herself for a moment. Indeed, she trembled so very much that Waite put out his sprawling hand to steady her. She gently felt the pressure tightening, and Waite whispered in her ear:
"I guess I'd stand by him as well as anybody, excep' you, Mis' Ford. He's been my bes' friend. But I guess you like him better, eh?"
Catherine raised her finger. She could hear Henderson's voice within; it was pitiably querulous. He was half sitting up in his bunk, and Gillispie had just handed him a plate on which two cakes were swimming in black molasses and pork gravy. Henderson looked at it a moment; then over his face came a look of utter despair. He dropped his head in his arms and broke into uncontrolled crying.
"Oh, my God, Gillispie," he sobbed, "I shall die out here in this wretched hole! I want my mother. Great God, Gillispie, am I going to die without ever seeing my mother?"
Gillispie, maddened at this anguish, which he could in no way alleviate, sought comfort by first lighting his pipe and then taking his revolver out of his hip-pocket and playing with it. Henderson continued to shake with sobs, and Catherine, who had never before in her life heard a man cry, leaned against the door for a moment to gather courage. Then she ran into the house quickly, laughing as she came. She took Henderson's arms away from his face and laid him back on the pillow, and she stooped over him and kissed his forehead in the most matter- of-fact way.
"That's what your mother would do if she were here," she cried, merrily. "Where's the water?"
She washed his face and hands a long time, till they were cool and his convulsive sobs had ceased. Then she took a slice of thin bread from her basket and a spoonful of amber jelly. She beat an egg into some milk and dropped a little liquor within it, and served them together on the first clean napkin that had been in the cabin of the three Johns since it was built
At this the great fool on the bed cried again, only quietly, tears of weak happiness running from his feverish eyes. And Catherine straightened the disorderly cabin. She came every day for two weeks, and by that time Henderson, very uncertain as to the strength of his legs, but once more accoutred in his native pluck, sat up in a chair, for which she had made clean soft cushions, writing a letter to his mother. The floor was scrubbed; the cabin had taken to itself cupboards made of packing-boxes; it had clothes-presses and shelves; curtains at the windows; boxes for all sort of necessaries, from flour to tobacco; and a cook-book on the wall, with an inscription within which was more appropriate than respectful.
The day that she announced that she would have no further call to come back, Waite, who was looking after the house while Gillispie was afield, made a little speech.
"After this here," he said, "we four stands er falls together. Now look here, there's lots of things can happen to a person on this cussed praira, and no one be none th' wiser. So see here, Mis' Ford, every night one of us is a-goin' to th' roof of this shack. From there we can see your place. If anything is th' matter -- it don't signify how little er how big -- you hang a lantern on th' stick that I'll put alongside th' house to-morrow. Yeh can h'ist th' light up with a string, and every mornin' before we go out we'll look too, and a white rag'll bring us quick as we can git there. We don't say nothin' about what we owe yeh, fur that ain't our way, but we sticks to each other from this on."
Catherine's eyes were moist. She looked at Henderson. His face had no expression in it at all. He did not even say good-by to her, and she turned, with the tears suddenly dried under her lids, and walked down the road in the twilight.
Weeks went by, and though Gillispie and Waite were often at Catherine's, Henderson never came. Gillispie gave it out as his opinion that Henderson was an ungrateful puppy; but Waite said nothing. This strange man, who seemed like a mere untoward accident of nature, had changed during the summer. His big ill-shaped body had grown more gaunt; his deep-set gray eyes had sunk deeper; the gentleness which had distinguished him even on the wild ranges of Montana became more marked. Late in August he volunteered to take on himself the entire charge of the night watch.
"It's nicer to be out at night," he said to Catherine. "Then you don't keep looking off at things; you can look inside;" and he struck his breast with his splay hand.
Cattle are timorous under the stars. The vastness of the plains, the sweep of the wind under the unbroken arch, frighten them; they are made for the close comforts of the barn-yard; and the apprehension is contagious, as every ranchman knows. Waite realized the need of becoming good friends with his animals. Night after night, riding up and down in the twilight of the stars, or dozing, rolled in his blanket, in the shelter of a knoll, he would hear a low roar; it was the cry of the alarmist. Then from every direction the cattle would rise with trembling awkwardness on their knees, and answer, giving out sullen bellowings. Some of them would begin to move from place to place, spreading the baseless alarm, and then came the time for action, else over the plain in mere fruitless frenzy would go the whole frantic band, lashed to madness by their own fears, trampling each other, heedless of any obstacle, in pitiable, deadly rout. Waite knew the premonitory signs well, and at the first warning bellow he was on his feet, alert and determined, his energy nerved for a struggle in which he always conquered.
Waite had a secret which he told to none, knowing, in his unanalytical fashion, that it would not be believed in. But soon as ever the dark heads of the cattle began to lift themselves, he sent a resonant voice out into the stillness. The songs he sang were hymns, and he made them into a sort of imperative lullaby. Waite let his lungs and soul fill with the breath of the night; he gave himself up to the exaltation of mastering those trembling brutes. Mounting, melodious, with even and powerful swing he let his full notes fall on the air in the confidence of power, and one by one the reassured cattle would lie down again, lowing in soft contentment, and so fall asleep with noses stretched out in mute attention, till their presence could hardly be guessed except for the sweet aroma of their cuds.
One night in the early dusk, he saw Catherine Ford hastening across the prairie with Bill Deems. He sent a halloo out to them, which they both answered as they ran on. Waite knew on what errand of mercy Catherine was bent, and he thought of the children over at the cabin alone. The cattle were quiet, the night beautiful, and he concluded that it was safe enough, since he was on his pony, to ride down there about midnight and see that the little ones were safe.
The dark sky, pricked with points of intensest light, hung over him so beneficently that in his heart there leaped a joy which even his ever-present sorrow could not disturb. This sorrow Waite openly admitted not only to himself, but to others. He had said to Catherine: "You see, I'll always hev to love yeh. An' yeh'll not git cross with me; I'm not goin' to be in th' way." And Catherine had told him, with tears in her eyes, that his love could never be but a comfort to any woman. And these words, which the poor fellow had in no sense mistaken, comforted him always, became part of his joy as he rode there, under those piercing stars, to look after her little ones. He found them sleeping in their bunks, the baby tight in Kitty's arms, the little boy above them in the upper bunk, with his hand in the long hair of his brown spaniel. Waite softly kissed each of them, so Kitty, who was half waking, told her mother afterwards, and then, bethinking him that Catherine might not be able to return in time for their breakfast, found the milk and bread, and set it for them on the table. Catherine had been writing, and her unfinished letter lay open beside the ink. He took up the pen and wrote,
"The childdren was all asleep at twelv.
He had not more than got on his pony again before he heard an ominous sound that made his heart leap. It was a frantic dull pounding of hoofs. He knew in a second what it meant. There was a stampede among the cattle. If the animals had all been his, he would not have lost his sense of judgment. But the realization that he had voluntarily undertaken the care of them, and that the larger part of them belonged to his friends, put him in a passion of apprehension that, as a ranchman, was almost inexplicable. He did the very thing of all others that no cattle-man in his right senses would think of doing. Gillispie and Henderson, talking it over afterward, were never able to understand it. It is possible -- just barely possible -- that Waite, still drunk on his solitary dreams, knew what he was doing, and chose to bring his little chapter to an end while the lines were pleasant. At any rate, he rode straight forward, shouting and waving his arms in an insane endeavor to head off that frantic mob. The noise woke the children, and they peered from the window as the pawing and bellowing herd plunged by, trampling the young steers under their feet.
In the early morning, Catherine Ford, spent both in mind and body, came walking slowly home. In her heart was a prayer of thanksgiving. Mary Deems lay sleeping back in her comfortless shack, with her little son by her side.
"The wonder of God is in it," said Catherine to herself as she walked home. "All the ministers of all the world could not have preached me such a sermon as I've had to-night."
So dim had been the light and so perturbed her mind that she had not noticed how torn and trampled was the road. But suddenly a bulk in her pathway startled her. It was the dead and mangled body of a steer. She stooped over it to read the brand on its flank. "It's one of the three Johns'," she cried out, looking anxiously about her. "How could that have happened?"
The direction which the cattle had taken was toward her house, and she hastened homeward. And not a quarter of a mile from her door she found the body of Waite beside that of his pony, crushed out of its familiar form into something unspeakably shapeless. In her excitement she half dragged, half carried that mutilated body home, and then ran up her signal of alarm on the stick that Waite himself had erected for her convenience. She thought it would be a long time before any one reached her, but she had hardly had time to bathe the disfigured face and straighten the disfigured body before Henderson was pounding at her door. Outside stood his pony panting from its terrific exertions. Henderson had not seen her before for six weeks. Now he stared at her with frightened eyes.
"What is it? What is it?" he cried. "What has happened to you, my -- my love?"
At least afterward, thinking it over as she worked by day or tossed in her narrow bunk at night, it seemed to Catherine that those were the words he spoke. Yet she could never feel sure; nothing in his manner after that justified the impassioned anxiety of his manner in those first few uncertain moments; for a second later he saw the body of his friend and learned the little that Catherine knew. They buried him the next day in a little hollow where there was a spring and some wild aspens.
"He never liked the prairie," Catherine said, when she selected the spot. "And I want him to lie as sheltered as possible."
After he had been laid at rest, and she was back, busy with tidying her neglected shack, she fell to crying so that the children were scared.
"There's no one left to care what becomes of us," she told them, bitterly. "We might starve out here for all that any one cares."
And all through the night her tears fell, and she told herself that they were all for the man whose last thought was for her and her babies; she told herself over and over again that her tears were all for him. After this the autumn began to hurry on, and the snow fell capriciously, days of biting cold giving place to retrospective glances at summer. The last of the vegetables were taken out of the garden and buried in the cellar; and a few tons of coal -- dear almost as diamonds -- were brought out to provide against the severest weather. Ordinarily buffalo chips were the fuel. Catherine was alarmed at the way her wretched little store of money began to vanish. The baby was fretful with its teething, and was really more care than when she nursed it. The days shortened, and it seemed to her that she was forever working by lamp-light The prairies were brown and forbidding, the sky often a mere gray pall. The monotony of the life began to seem terrible. Sometimes her ears ached for a sound. For a time in the summer so many had seemed to need her that she had been happy in spite of her poverty and her loneliness. Now, suddenly, no one wanted her. She could find no source of inspiration. She wondered how she was going to live through the winter, and keep her patience and her good-nature.
"You'll love me," she said, almost fiercely, one night to the children -- "you'll love mamma, no matter how cross and homely she gets, won't you?"
The cold grew day by day. A strong winter was setting in. Catherine took up her study of medicine again, and sat over her books till midnight. It occurred to her that she might fit herself for nursing by spring, and that the children could be put with some one -- she did not dare to think with whom. But this was the only solution she could find to her problem of existence.
November settled down drearily. Few passed the shack. Catherine, who had no one to speak with excepting the children, continually devised amusements for them. They got to living in a world of fantasy, and were never themselves, but always wild Indians, or arctic explorers, or Robinson Crusoes. Kitty and Roderick, young as they were, found a never-ending source of amusement in these little grotesque dreams and dramas. The fund of money was getting so low that Catherine was obliged to economize even in the necessities. If it had not been for her two cows, she would hardly have known how to find food for her little ones. But she had a wonderful way of making things with eggs and milk, and she kept her little table always inviting. The day before Thanksgiving she determined that they should all have a frolic.
"By Christmas," she said to Kitty, "the snow may be so bad that I cannot get to town. We'll have our high old time now."
There is no denying that Catherine used slang even in talking to the children. The little pony had been sold long ago, and going to town meant a walk of twelve miles. But Catherine started out early in the morning, and was back by nightfall, not so very much the worse, and carrying in her arms bundles which might have fatigued a bronco.
The next morning she was up early, and was as happy and ridiculously excited over the prospect of the day's merrymaking as if she had been Kitty. Busy as she was, she noticed a peculiar oppression in the air, which intensified as the day went on. The sky seemed to hang but a little way above the rolling stretch of frost-bitten grass. But Kitty laughing over her new doll, Roderick startling the sullen silence with his drum, the smell of the chicken, slaughtered to make a prairie holiday, browning in the oven, drove all apprehensions from Catherine's mind. She was a common creature. Such very little things could make her happy. She sang as she worked; and what with the drumming of her boy, and the little exulting shrieks of her baby, the shack was filled with a deafening and exhilarating din.
It was a little past noon, when she became conscious that there was sweeping down on her a gray sheet of snow and ice, and not till then did she realize what those lowering clouds had signified. For one moment she stood half paralyzed. She thought of everything, -- of the cattle, of the chance for being buried in this drift, of the stock of provisions, of the power of endurance of the children. While she was still thinking, the first ice-needles of the blizzard came peppering the windows. The cattle ran bellowing to the lee side of the house and crouched there, and the chickens scurried for the coop. Catherine seized such blankets and bits of carpet as she could find, and crammed them at windows and doors. Then she piled coal on the fire, and clothed the children in all they had that was warmest, their out-door garments included; and with them close about her, she sat and waited. The wind seemed to push steadily at the walls of the house. The howling became horrible. She could see that the children were crying with fright, but she could not hear them. The air was dusky; the cold, in spite of the fire, intolerable. In every crevice of the wretched structure the ice and snow made their way. It came through the roof, and began piling up in little pointed strips under the crevices. Catherine put the children all together in one bunk, covered them with all the bedclothes she had, and then stood before them defiantly, facing the west, from whence the wind was driving. Not suddenly, but by steady pressure, at length the window-sash yielded, and the next moment that whirlwind was in the house, -- a maddening tumult of ice and wind, leaving no room for resistance; a killing cold, against which it was futile to fight. Catherine threw the bedclothes over the heads of the children, and then threw herself across the bunk, gasping and choking for breath. Her body would not have yielded to the suffering yet, so strongly made and sustained was it; but her dismay stifled her. She saw in one horrified moment the frozen forms of her babies, now so pink and pleasant to the sense; and oblivion came to save her from further misery.
She was alive -- just barely alive -- when Gillispie and Henderson got there, three hours later, the very balls of their eyes almost frozen into blindness. But for an instinct stronger than reason they would never have been able to have found their way across that trackless stretch. The children lying unconscious under their coverings were neither dead nor actually frozen, although the men putting their hands on their little hearts could not at first discover the beating. Stiff and suffering as these young fellows were, it was no easy matter to get the window back into place and re-light the fire. They had tied flasks of liquor about their waists; and this beneficent fluid they used with that sense of appreciation which only a pioneer can feel toward whiskey. It was hours before Catherine rewarded them with a gleam of consciousness. Her body had been frozen in many places. Her arms, outstretched over her children and holding the clothes down about them, were rigid. But consciousness came at length, dimly struggling up through her brain; and over her she saw her friends rubbing and rubbing those strong firm arms of hers with snow.
She half raised her head, with a horror of comprehension in her eyes, and listened. A cry answered her, -- a cry of dull pain from the baby. Henderson dropped on his knees beside her.
"They are all safe," he said. "And we will never leave you again. I have been afraid to tell you how I love you. I thought I might offend you. I thought I ought to wait -- you know why. But I will never let you run the risks of this awful life alone again. You must rename the baby. From this day his name is John. And we will have the three Johns again back at the old ranch. It doesn't matter whether you love me or not, Catherine, I am going to take care of you just the same. Gillispie agrees with me."
"Damme, yes," muttered Gillispie, feeling of his hip-pocket for consolation in his old manner.
Catherine struggled to find her voice, but it would not come.
"Do not speak," whispered John. "Tell me with your eyes whether you will come as my wife or only as our sister."
Catherine told him.
"This is Thanksgiving day," said he. "And we don't know much about praying, but I guess we all have something in our hearts that does just as well."
"Damme, yes," said Gillispie, again, as he pensively cocked and uncocked his revolver.