The Shiny Black Box
The thing was like a scene in a play, almost. Maudie stood, half abashed, half eager, and wholly frightened. Ruth came forward with a confident, buoyant step that reassured her mother. A girl who was going to do something impudently wrong would never act that way.
"There," said the plump, smiling Spooner girl, dropping into Maudie's outstretched palm a little lump of adobe clay that looked considerably like a rough pebble. "I picked that out of my pony's hoof, right in the path where I'd lost your ring."
"Wha--what is it?" faltered Maudie, afraid to look.
"Turn it over," prompted Elizabeth impatiently.
"O, Maudie's almost a paynim, or a caitiff," breathed the Babe, hiding a too sympathetic countenance against her mother's knee.
The Pratt girl turned the little lump of clay in trembling fingers. Something glittered on one side of it; the clay parted and a circlet with a wee, shining setting lay in her palm.
"My diamond ring!" she gasped.
Then before them all she flung it from her, so that it tinkled and skipped on the porch floor. This done she sat down on the step and burst into a tempest of wrathful tears.
"I always hated it," she sobbed. "It's such a miserable little diamond. I wanted that hundred dollars to go to Chicago and study music. How in the world am I going to go if you don't--"
"Hush, Maudie," Mrs. Pratt cautioned, and her father seconded the admonition rather more sternly.
The Spooner young folks had closed in around Mrs. Spooner's vehicle and were helping her out and explaining all about the earning of that hundred dollars. While they did so the Pratts managed to get Maudie straightened up with the assurance that she should be permitted somehow to go to Chicago; and by the time the two groups came together they were ready to drop the subject, Maudie looking self-conscious if not hang-dog, whenever anything remotely concerning a ring was mentioned.
They went on harmoniously enough to the Thanksgiving dinner at the McGregor ranch. Coming home after they had passed Emerald and the Pratt house, the matter was again brought up by the Spooners. The sky was all a delightful lavender, with the big, white stars of the plains country beginning to blossom in it, and there was still light enough to travel very comfortably over the winding, level road.
"I'm proud of the enterprise and persistance you all showed in earning that hundred dollars," said Mrs. Spooner fondly. "But it hurts me to think you could keep a secret from mother as long as that; and such a hard secret, too. I'd have been so glad to help you, dears."
"It was my fault," Elizabeth said, "that part of it. I wouldn't let Ruth bother you because I felt that you had worries enough. Of course if I'd dreamed for a minute that Maudie Pratt would tell a story about the value of her ring, and that twenty-five dollars was the real price of it, I should have let Ruth tell you; but a hundred dollars--why, Mother, until we tried, I wouldn't have believed it was possible for us to come anywhere near earning a hundred dollars. Would you?"
"No," said Mrs. Spooner. "That's why I say I'm proud of you. It's an achievement any three young persons of your age may well be proud of--and none of you neglected your other duties for it."
"It was lovely," sighed Elizabeth, reminiscently. "I think making money is almost more fun than spending it. Ruth can always earn with her cooking. I wish I had a special gift. What do you think I can do best, mother?"
"You do almost anything you do a little better than other people," declared Mrs. Spooner. "But there's one thing you can excel at, and that nobody else around here attempts, and that's photography. Why not try to make a profession of it."
Elizabeth thought it over.
"I suppose I'd have to go to some big town and study," she ruminated.
"Ruth didn't go to a big town to take cooking lessons," prompted Mrs. Spooner, smilingly. "And you were just admiring the fact that it was her good cooking that made the earning of the hundred dollars possible."
"Wise little mother," said Elizabeth, touching her heel to her pony and riding ahead, blowing back a kiss as she passed, and cantering on for some distance.
"I think that's a splendid idea," said Roy eagerly. "I knew a boy who worked his way through college almost entirely by camera work. And he was just an amateur photographer, too."
"I'd help her all I could," put in Ruth, loyally. "She helped me--you all did. I didn't near earn that hundred dollars alone."
Here Elizabeth came dashing back to announce to the family that there was an insuperable obstacle. If she went into the simplest kind of photography she would have a new camera--and oh, quite a lot of things.
"A camera is easy," said Mrs. Spooner, "since you've all agreed to give me the keeping of the hundred dollars, I intend to put it in the bank as a reserve fund to draw on in case of an emergency. I'll consider this case of yours as one, and buy you a camera with some of it."
"And I'll fix up a dark-room all right, Elizabeth," promised Roy, who was always intensely interested in all the Spooners' affairs. "I can do it easily; just board up an end of the back porch, fix a red lantern in it for a light, with some shelves and a sink, same as the kitchen. I can make it. It won't cost much, and you can do your own developing. Say, Elizabeth, that's easy!"
So it came about that, after some persuasion, Elizabeth finally accepted the camera--a small one, with chemicals, films and everything necessary for a start, all of them to be paid for out of the hundred dollars in the bank. Roy fixed up the darkroom with all the needed apparatus, and, thus equipped, Elizabeth declared herself ready for business, and let the public know it by adding to the sign down at the road gate another line, in smaller letters, which read:
"Photographs made to order.
Horseback pictures and views of places a
Ruth still kept up her baking in a small way. She no longer undertook such strenuous jobs as baking for ranches or festivals, but people passing by usually dropped in for a bag of doughnuts or a pie, knowing that they were always kept on hand. Some of these customers patronized Elizabeth's "studio," as she named the little boarded-up corner of the porch, and had their pictures taken. More often she was asked to go and make a card-picture of somebody's home, or she tried snap-shots of cattle handling which sold well to the boys who could identify themselves or their friends in a chance group.
Elizabeth made her charges in accordance with her work, which, being an amateur, could not command professional rates. She studied hard her manual of photography, and finally after considerable debate, took a correspondence course in the art. Still, living on a ranch, she could barely make enough to pay for her materials, and indeed was doing well to accomplish this much.
"When I get so I can earn, and have enough money to buy a bigger camera, I might try a place in town, or maybe I'll put up my prices," she said. But she resisted all suggestions that a finer camera be purchased from the reserve fund. "If anything happens we'll need that to live on," was her wise conclusion.
Let nobody think that there were not days of discouragement, when Elizabeth spoiled her films or the simple drudgery of the work weighed on her. Nothing worth having is got without effort. Whatever this girl's ancestry, she had inherited pluck and persistance, and after a failure she always went back to work with renewed energy.
"I will do it!" she would say to Ruth and Roy. "I am going to try to make myself the very best photographer I can,--and then maybe the next higher profession will come along and invite me in."
The Babe, being the only idle inmate of the Silver Spur, continued to devour unchecked her books of romance, until an incident occurred that made Mrs. Spooner decide that the time had come for her reading to be a little more varied. It happened one day in the following summer, when old Jonah, with a worried look on his face, sought her for a little private conversation.
"It's about the Babe, ma'am. Have you noticed anything pertickler wrong with her lately?" he asked anxiously.
"Why no, Jonah; what makes you think there's anything wrong? What has she been doing?" asked Mrs. Spooner in alarm. She arose from her seat hastily. "I must go and find her--where is she?"
"Jest down at the corral, unsaddlin' of her pony," soothed Jonah. "No need to be skeered--at the present. You set down, Mis' Spooner, and I'll tell ye. A while ago I come acrost her out on the range, a-gallopin' along on that little rat-tailed cayuse o' her'n, and I'm blest if she didn't have a broom-handle over her shoulder, and a old fire-shovel helt out right straight in front! She looked out'n her eyes like--well, like she was seein' things. I calls to her: 'Babe, whar ye gwine?' But law, she looks at me pine-black like I was a stranger, hits Queen Beren-jerry, as she calls that reedic'lous cayuse, and hollers back over her shoulder: 'Avaunt thee, villain!' and a heap o' other lingo I couldn't make sense outer."
Mrs. Spooner's face relaxed, she dropped back in her rocking-chair and began to laugh. The old man seemed to resent her mirth.
"Now Mis' Spooner, you may take it that-a-way, but 'tain't like the Babe to be miscallin' nobody, let alone me what's raised her. My opinion is the child's comin' down with fever, or got a tetch o' the sun, and you better go to dosin' her mighty quick!"
"No, Jonah," laughed Mrs. Spooner, much relieved, "it's just Ivanhoe gone to her head--not the sun. She reads too much, and is too much alone, I'm afraid. She was only playing she was a knight--a person out of that book she's always reading. But thank you for telling me, all the same."
"I'd be glad to think it was no wuss; but--" Jonah shook his head doubtfully, "a-misscallin' me a villian don't seem natchul. I'll go send her in to you, so's you can look at her tongue. My notion is she needs doctor's truck."
As he hobbled out in quest of the Babe, Mrs. Spooner sighed a little, feeling that she had a problem to cope with. The lonely child was living too much in a world of dreams. "I'll speak to Elizabeth," the mother mused, thankful that she had Elizabeth's wise young head and Ruth's willing hands to rely upon. The older pair must take little Harvie more into their hearts. "What on earth would I do without my girls to help me!"
Both girls were spending the day in Emerald, with Cousin Hannah Pratt, who--now that Maudie was away in Chicago, studying music, and Mr. Pratt up in Wyoming with a herd of fattening cattle--was very lonely, and begged earnestly for some of the Spooners to come in whenever it was possible, and keep her company.
When the affair of the ring occurred, Mrs. Pratt for once found it in her heart to give her adored daughter some much needed plain speech, declaring that she was thoroughly ashamed of the way Maudie had treated her cousin, and insisting upon taking the girl out to the Silver Spur, to apologize to Ruth--a deed that was very ungraciously done.
Mr. Pratt went even farther, for he took the ring into his own keeping, depositing it in the bank with his papers, and declaring that it should stay there until Maudie learned to value the truth more than diamonds.
Still, from that very day Cousin Hannah began to put by a little money every week, with the view in end of gratifying Maudie's wish to study music. Grandma Pratt added to this fund till at last there was enough, and with high hopes Maudie had gone to Chicago, quite sure of becoming a world-famous musician.
Elizabeth and Ruth returned rather late, as they had waited for the last mail, which came in the afternoon. Mrs. Spooner heard their merry young voices down at the corral as she moved about the kitchen, getting the early supper ready. Soon they came hurrying in at the back door, their arms laden with bundles, followed by the Babe, now wide-eyed and alert; knights and paynims had faded away before the present-day delights of a box of candy the girls had brought her--an extravagance for which their mother could not find it in her heart to scold them, knowing that, next to her books, the Babe loved sweets.
"I declare you've gone and got supper ready--you bad mammy!" scolded Ruth, "didn't you know your big daughters would be back in time to save you from such extra work?"
"Yes, and you must stop right now and go out on the porch, where there's still light from the afterglow, and read your letters--two of 'em, and from the folks you love best--father and Mary." Elizabeth fished the letters from the mail-pouch at her side. "And we've got a heap of mail-magazines, and a letter from home for Roy, that pamphlet on photography that I sent for, and the new films and developer. Ruth had a letter from father, too. He's all right, but make haste and let us hear from Mary."
"And here's a candied fig for you to eat while you're readin' your letters, mother," added the Babe, generously, as she held out the particular dainty her heart loved best. "Now I'll go find Jonah and Roy--I want to give them some of my candy, too."
Mrs. Spooner looked rather grave when she returned from reading her letters in the afterglow of the summer twilight. "Father's well, and sends love, and wants letters more than anything in the world, he says he hopes we'll all remember. But Mary--the letter's from John--is not so well--." Mrs. Spooner's voice trembled a little--"he sends me a check, and begs that I'll go out and spend a few weeks with her. But how in the world can I leave you all?"
"Mary not well?" Elizabeth's tones were filled with anxiety--"O, Mother, you must go; we'll get on somehow. If Mr. Bellamy sent a check for you to pay your way, there's nothing at all to prevent."
"We can go in and stay with Cousin Hannah," put in Ruth, "she needs us, really--she hasn't got a cook, and there are so many boarders that we'd be a great help, I know.
"Yes, you would--and I think it would do you both good, being in the village a little while. But what about the Babe?" asked Mrs. Spooner. "You and Elizabeth could help, but she would only be in the way. Jonah was just telling me about seeing her out on the range, galloping along pretending she was Ivanhoe, or somebody else out of her books. I'm afraid the poor little thing needs company."
"Take her with you," suggested Elizabeth promptly. "A change would do you both a lot of good. Just take enough money from that reserve fund in the bank to pay her fare, and both of you hustle off just as quick as possible. We can get you ready by day after to-morrow, easily."
This plan, after a little consultation with Roy and Jonah, was adopted, and Mrs. Spooner and the delighted Babe set off for Oklahoma, while Elizabeth and Ruth, much to Cousin Hannah's delight, went in to stay with her. Jonah and Roy--who declared that he was just pining to get a taste of Jonah's boasted cookery, were left alone on the ranch.
Cousin Hannah, who was naturally a very loquacious person, had become decidedly reticent on the subject of Maudie and her musical studies, though in the beginning the boarders had found the repeated and detailed information about the matter rather wearisome. Even to Elizabeth and Ruth she said little, though more than once, they surprised her wiping away tears as she went about her work.
"I don't believe that ungrateful Maudie Pratt writes to her mother!" said Ruth, indignantly. "I found Cousin Hannah crying in the parlor just now; she said it was toothache--when I know she has a full set of 'uppers and unders,' as she calls them. You see, she'd forgotten. I believe she was crying about Maudie."
"Ruth," said Elizabeth in reply--they had been at the Pratts three days, "do you remember that a week from to-morrow is Cousin Hannah's birthday?"
"Why, so it is," said Ruth, "and she hasn't said a word about it. She always used to have a big dinner, didn't she? I know what the trouble is--it's Maudie. She can't bear to have a big birthday dinner because Maudie won't be here. Maybe that's what made her cry."
"Yes, because Maudie isn't here, and because she hasn't heard from her in two weeks and is frightened to death about her--I just chanced to find that out. Let's make Cousin Hannah get up a big dinner, and telegraph an invitation to Maudie. The telegraph operator'll send it for nothing. He always gives as much as ten dollars for a birthday present for Cousin Hannah."
"A birthday present," repeated Ruth. "I know what she'd like--she told me yesterday. Say, Elizabeth, I believe we could get one for her, too. The Revingtons are going away, and they'd sell theirs cheap, rather than ship it east."
"What on earth are you talking about?" demanded Elizabeth.
"Big secrets!" exclaimed the younger sister exultantly. "Come on and let's run down town to Meeker's store and see if Roy's in from the ranch, I want to talk to him about it. Pretty nearly everybody in town'll join us. Hurry up!"
The two girls ran down the street, stopping in at the insurance office to speak to little Miss Thorpe, a new boarder of Cousin Hannah's, a stenographer who had recently come to Emerald. They went on, cheered by this interview, and consulted the station agent, who agreed that Mrs. Pratt, who had made him comfortable for many years, must be given a birthday which would raise her drooping spirits.
"I'd sure do anything that would bring Maudie home, and keep her home," he said, rather grimly, "because I know that's what her ma wants--though I'm not so certain that it'll make her or any of the rest of us any happier. If we're all to throw in together, for one present you can count on me to double the ten dollars if it has to come."
Roy had joined them by this time, and was taking down what he called "subscriptions" with pencil and paper. As the three young folks went out the door Mr. Rouse called after them:
"But you must give us a mighty good dinner, Miss Elizabeth. A good dinner always goes with a celebration of any kind, and to my notion it's the best part of one. So you and Ruth put on your studyin' caps, and get out your cook-books."
"We'll promise to give you a good dinner, Mr. Rouse," agreed Ruth, heartily, and Elizabeth added: "If you'll all tell us what particular dishes you like best, we'll try to have them, just as a little token of our appreciation."
This was a happy thought, and it pleased the boarders immensely to have such consideration shown them. Ruth got her own pencil and note-book, and gravely made entries of each boarder's favorite dish. It was a funny bill-of-fare that she made out: Chicken-pie and turnip-greens, potato-pone and apple-dumplings, cold-slaw and Waldorf salad, and other equally incongruous dishes, all of which were faithfully and painstakingly prepared by the conscientious little cooks, with certain additions of their own, making a very palatable "company dinner."
Elizabeth sent word to Jonah by Roy; he was to come over bright and early on the morning of the birthday, bringing along the wagon to fetch home the gift for Cousin Hannah.
Many hands, we know, make work easy. The week went by swift-footed. If Cousin Hannah had heard from Maudie she did not mention it, and if the girls had any reply to their telegram they were equally reticent. The difference was that Mrs. Pratt, in spite of the birthday preparations became more and more doleful, while the girls went out on errands that involved that subscription paper of Roy's, and beamed with joyous anticipation.
The great day came. Ruth and Elizabeth helped till the dinner was all on and cooking beautifully, the table set, ready to dish up the dinner when the time came, then they both disappeared in a very mysterious manner, leaving Cousin Hannah bustling about her kitchen all alone.
Everything went smoothly till the kettle became dry, and she found there was no water in the pipes. Calling Elizabeth and Ruth repeatedly and finding that they were both out, Cousin Hannah decided that she would go herself and see what was the matter with the wind-mill, as there was nobody else at hand.
"I know in my mind it's caught," she muttered, "and only needs a tap with a hammer to start it a-goin' again. Well, I just got to have water, so I reckon I might's well go try to skin up that ladder."
Taking a hammer to loosen the refractory sails, she climbed slowly and cautiously up the creaking ladder, and soon had the water flowing again, as the sails began to work; they had needed only a slight jar to loosen them.
On top of the ladder she paused, and looked wonderingly over the vast plains that surrounded Emerald.
"My me! I ain't had such a good look at the country since I used to live in the foothills," she exclaimed. "I feel like I was standin' on top of one of 'em now, viewin' the scenery. O, pity on me--what is that!"
With a gasp of horror she clung to the ladder, her eyes fixed on the object that had attracted her startled attention. It was a wagon driven by a man whom she recognized as Jonah Bean, and containing something long, and black and shiny--a box-like object that made her heart grow cold to look upon. She got a mere glimpse since a horse-blanket had been thrown over it, evidently for the purpose of concealment--as if anything could hide that awful shiny black box:
The wagon was coming slowly--very slowly, up the road toward her house, and walking beside and around it was a group of young people whom she knew for her own household--Elizabeth and Ruth, and some of the younger of her boarders, with Roy and one or two other boys from the neighborhood. They seemed excited, and had apparently one stranger with them, since she could see an unfamiliar dress of vivid plaid on the other side of the wagon.
"O me! O my!" moaned the poor woman, as she started hurriedly to descend from her high perch. "I ain't heard one blessed word from her in a month! And I thought she was just too careless to write to me: My poor, poor girl!"
Near the bottom, one of the rungs broke under the weight of her foot, and she barely saved herself from a dangerous fall by clinging with both hands and drawing up her foot to the rung above.
Sitting thus she waited for them to come; her eyes shut because she did not want to see, drawing her breath in heavy, muffled sobs, praying for strength to bear the blow that was coming, trying to find courage to look upon that grewsome, shiny black box when the time arrived.
The wagon drew up in front of the house, but Roy and Elizabeth came creeping softly round to the kitchen. Cousin Hannah could hear them whispering:
"Let's find out exactly where she is, so's we can get it in without her knowing--it might frighten her." How heartless the best of young people were!
"Children," quavered poor Cousin Hannah from the ladder, "come and help me down--I know what you're bringing--I saw it away off--and I knew right away--how could I help knowing!"
"O, did you!" exclaimed Roy and Elizabeth, dejectedly. They stopped below and stared up. "That's too bad. We're so sorry, Cousin Hannah. We tried our best to get it in before you saw what it was."
"What difference does that make?" moaned Cousin Hannah--Roy and Elizabeth thought she must have sprained her foot, and the pain made her groan--"take me to her--my poor, poor child! You shan't call her it!"
Roy and Elizabeth laughed rather sheepishly, and Mrs. Pratt glared at them. Had they no feelings!
"How on earth did you find out?" asked the mystified young people, as they helped her down and supported her between them into the house.
They steered her straight for the parlor, where a crowd stood around the black box.
"Am I to break the news?" asked Mr. Rouse. But instead of the serious mien proper to such an occasion he was smiling broadly.