The Wire Clipper
The conclusion of that matter at Cousin Hannah Pratt's, left a very warm feeling between the two families, for when Mr. Rouse moved aside from the black box it was discovered to be an old-fashioned square piano, now set proudly on its legs, and seated at the stool in front of it, her lips parted ready to burst into song--was Maudie Pratt.
Her mother's astonishment and rapture pretty nearly scared the donors of the piano to death, for they had cherished no intentions of giving Cousin Hannah a fright with their mysterious preparations. Maudie had simply been ill, homesick, and afraid to come back until she got the telegram the girls sent. Putting her at the piano was an afterthought, and one which some of them regretted, since she sang all afternoon, and had to be dragged away for the birthday dinner. However, that being an example of Ruth's very best skill, helped out by Elizabeth, they had an extremely jolly time, and went home with promises of friendship that were astonishing.
"If you ever need anything from me, remember my heart and my home are open to you," Cousin Hannah kept repeating as she waved to them from the steps.
They had little idea how soon they should be in bitter trouble when they needed assistance from anybody that would offer it. Of course it was a dry year--Jonah Bean declared that it was, taking it by and large, the worst all-round year he had ever witnessed in the state of Texas--and he had seen a main of 'em!
Mrs. Spooner and the Babe after spending a month in Oklahoma were back again, and all that was left of the Spooner family at home once more. The Babe had greatly enjoyed this, her first railroad trip, and she was kept busy for weeks relating her experiences. Mary was well again, and had promised to come in the winter and make a long visit when, they all hoped and prayed, their father would be at home with them.
It was a thing they hardly dared own, even to themselves, but everybody was beginning to feel worried about Mr. Spooner's safety, for there had come news of a battle fought in Cuba, and though all the papers were filled with the details, no letter had been received from him. Day after day some one rode to the village to bring back the mail, and day after day the poor little mother, watching and waiting at home, was doomed to be disappointed when no letter came.
For the children's sakes she bore up bravely, always saying with forced cheerfulness that probably Father had been sent into the interior, where there was no means of mailing a letter--it would be sure to come after awhile. But in her own heart she entertained a great fear which she never breathed to the others--a fear that he might be among the "missing" after the battle! The nameless missing.
Then there came the day when Harvey Grannis, riding over from his distant ranch, let his sister know pretty plainly that the public shared her fear.
"No use mincing matters, Jennie," he said, speaking kindly--though he could not keep an eager note out of his voice. "We're mighty afraid that poor John won't come back! He never would take my advice, or he'd not have been crazy enough to volunteer."
Mrs. Spooner sank down on the lounge and covered her face, moaning softly.
"Now don't take on, Jennie," her brother said, patting her awkwardly on the shoulder. "Just you listen to this proposition I've come to make to you: I've got a big ranch, and a big house, and you are all welcome to come and live with me. Your girls are growing up wild, anyway, without a man to overlook 'em. Of course you know, good and well, that I hold a mortgage on this ranch of yours, and the interest money ain't been paid for some time, either. But that's neither here nor there. The question is, now that John's gone, will you all come over and let me take care of you?"
A shiver went over the little woman on the lounge, but she dropped her hands from before her eyes, and faced the situation bravely.
"You're good to offer us a home, Harvey," she said, when she could command her voice; "but I can't bear to think of moving till--till I feel sure John's not coming back! I'm hoping every day to have news from him; I'm certain that the children wouldn't want to leave the home. Thank you, Harvey, but we'll stay right where we are, for the present, anyhow."
Then the storm burst--so angrily loud that Elizabeth and Ruth sitting in the back room heard every word.
"Don't you think for one minute," blustered Harvey, "that you can depend on me to support you on this ranch: You needn't keep an old fool like Jonah Bean and a young horse-thief like Roy Lambert hanging round, and expect a man who knows his business to spend one cent for you. Such fellows as that are good for nothing but to run you and your ranch to rack and ruin. No, ma'am! You've got to come to my house, or you needn't expect me to take care of you."
"I never asked you to take care of us, Harvey," returned Mrs. Spooner with spirit, "I never thought of such a thing!"
Elizabeth, in the back room, looked at Ruth. "I just can't stand it any longer!" she whispered indignantly, "let's go to mother." And they marched into the room, hand in hand.
"Well, I hope you've come to persuade your mother to listen to reason," grunted their uncle, as the two girls entered the little parlor.
"We've come to tell her that we'll take care of her, Uncle Harvey. And you've no right to suppose that father won't come back!" burst out Ruth impetuously.
Elizabeth added in a milder tone: "We don't need any help, really, Uncle Harvey--we're quite able to take care of mother. We thank you for offering us a home, but we don't need it. We've got one--and we mean to keep it, and support ourselves."
Harvey Grannis gave the newcomers a long look. Elizabeth said he tried to "stare them down."
"Support yourselves, hey?" he grunted. "Well--I wash my hands of the whole bunch!"
He got as far as the door, marching very slowly, and expecting to be called back, when Mrs. Spooner hurried after him, her hands held out. The girls were wrathful and disappointed, but their mother's first words brought them comfort.
"Good-bye then, Harvey," said Mrs. Spooner kindly. "But we won't part in anger. The girls didn't mean to offend you. I'm sure we'll get along all right."
"Didn't mean to offend?" snorted the now enraged ranchman. "Well they done so, mighty easy! If they get along half as well making a living as they do at being impudent to their elders they'll have no need of help."
"Now, now," soothed Mrs. Spooner, as she took her brother's hand and raised her small, tired face for his good-bye kiss. "My girls are just high-spirited, Harvey--and you ought to be the last to complain of that!"
Harvey Grannis kissed his sister grudgingly--and then was angrier than ever because he had done this apparently gracious act. The girls, nodded to them as a gentle hint, made no effort towards bidding him farewell.
"Let them alone," complained Harvey, "they're fixing it up that I'm an old brute and they're persecuted angels. Let 'em have their way. We'll see what comes of it--you needn't expect me to care what happens after this!"
The very explosiveness of his protest showed how much he did care. In point of fact his sister and her family were all he had, and at heart he was very fond of them--not the least of Elizabeth. Mrs. Spooner always looked to hear him make some allusion to her alien birth, but he never did. He had longed to have these bright, brave young creatures and his only sister in his home, to feel that they belonged to him, that they were dependent on him. It might not have been a very pleasant life for them, but it was what he longed for, and what he gave up with anger and reluctance.
Down at the road gate he met the Babe, riding on her pony, Queen Berengaria.
"O, Uncle Harvey, I'm so glad you've come!" chirped the child, joyously. "Ain't you going to spend the day? It's been the longest time since you've come, and we all want to see you so bad."
Harvey Grannis's eyes softened; in his own rough way he loved the child very much; she was named for him, and, unlike the other girls, she was not the least bit afraid of him. How he would have loved to have his little namesake niece to ride about with him over his own ranch!
"Glad to see your old uncle, are you Harvie? Well, I can't say the rest of 'em felt that way about it! You're a fine little girl, and I'd like to have you where I could keep an eye on you." He sighed regretfully. "No, I ain't going to spend the day this time--maybe some other day. And say, Harvie, don't you let 'em talk you into hating your old uncle," earnestly.
"Why, no Uncle Harvey, 'course not," agreed the Babe, wonderingly. "But there don't anybody at our house hate you. Please come on back, and Ruth'll make a cake for dinner."
Harvey Grannis declined to accept this hospitable invitation, knowing better than the child that he had made himself unwelcome.
"I've got to go now, honey," he said. "You can give a message to your mother for me." He looked at his namesake a long time. "Harvie," he wheedled, and nobody would have guessed that his voice could be so soft and pleading, "wouldn't you like to come over to the Circle G and live?"
Little Harvie looked doubtful.
"Do mother and the girls want to go? What'll father think of it when he gets home?"
Grannis had not the heart say to her, as he had said freely to the others, that they must give up hope of John Spooner's return. Instead he offered a bait which he thought would take her mind from the two questions she had asked.
"I'd give you the prettiest little cutting-pony you ever looked at, a pinto with blue eyes. That old skate you're on isn't fit for you to ride."
The Babe's own blue eyes filled with tears.
"Queen Berengaria isn't very beautiful," she admitted, "but she's awful good!"
Grannis, with that lack of sympathy which his type of man shows for the tender sensibilities of a child, burst out laughing.
"You just say that because she's the best you can get," he surmised, smilingly. "If I had you over at the Circle G to be my little girl, we'd shoot this old bag of bones and give you something that could go."
Old bag of bones! Shoot Queen Berengaria! Harvey Grannis never knew that then and there he settled the question as to his namesake's ever agreeing, so long as she could fight the question, to set foot on the Circle G as a home.
"Did you say you wanted me to take a message to mother?" she asked quietly, after a somewhat lengthy pause.
"Yes," said the ranchman. "You just tell 'em I said that the big spring's liable to give out--and then she'll maybe think different about some things."
Small Harvie repeated the message, her clear eyes fixed on her uncle's face.
"Now I can say it just like you did," and solemnly she parroted the big man's words, giving quite unconsciously his intonation, and the threat that was in his voice. It appeared that he did not relish this, for he put in hastily:
"Don't say it cross--just say it."
"But, Uncle Harvey, even if the spring does give out we always water at the big water-hole. Nobody ever did know it to give out, did they?"
"No," said Harvey Grannis, "that's why I bought the land it's on."
"And you'd always let us water at the big tank," concluded the Babe, comfortably.
"I would if 'twas only you, honey," he told her, and his eyes glittered.
He had said that he bought the land for that water-tank, and he might have added: "That's why I wouldn't sell it to your father when he wanted to buy it with Silver Spur." He might have said this, for the Silver Spur joined his big pastures, had once, in fact, been part of his holding, and when John Spooner bought from his brother-in-law, Grannis retained the pasture containing the tank, saying that he wanted to use it for convenience in watering herds when he drove them down to the railroad for shipping, and that the Spooners could always use it anyhow. This was a mere verbal arrangement, it did not stand in the deed, and when the Babe arrived with her little speech and repeated it at the dinner-table there was consternation.
"What on earth can Uncle Harvey mean?" asked Ruth indignantly. "Do you suppose he thinks the use of that tank could be taken away from us?"
"I don't think he could really be as mean as that, Ruth," reassured Elizabeth. "He's just trying to worry us because of the way we spoke. The tank is on his own land, you know."
But that the threat was real was proven later, when Roy announced that Grannis had come with a wagon and men from his ranch, and was busy running a wire-fence around the water-hole. They were putting up a locked gate, so that only by permission could anybody have access to it.
"And the big spring's just mud," said Roy, gloomily. "I think Harvey Grannis is the meanest man in Texas!"
Mrs. Spooner, pale and worn from anxiety about her husband, received the news calmly. "I don't think there's anything to worry over," she soothed the girls; "Harvey maybe has some good reason. Remember it's a dry year, and other people may have been annoying him. Anyway, I'm sure he'll not forbid us to water our cattle there. Please put Shasta to the phaeton, Roy, the Babe and I'll drive down and see about it."
The fence was indeed going rapidly up when Mrs. Spooner arrived; Grannis himself was busily directing his men, urging haste in his usual stormy manner.
"Well," he greeted his sister, "have you come to your senses yet--you and those unbroken colts you've got for daughters? You see there's no more water-hole for you to depend on. Cattle'll die, of course. Only thing you can do is to drive 'em over to my ranch and pack up and come along yourselves. If ever a set of young ones need discipline, those two girls do!"
His eyes snapped fiercely--discipline with Harvey Grannis meant punishment.
"Harvey," asked his sister, quietly ignoring his attack on her girls, "aren't you going to give us a key to that gate?"
"Give you a key to the gate? Yes, when you send me word that you're packing to move over to my ranch. I'm doing this for your good. I think you know it, and those stiff-necked young'uns could see it for themselves if you'd brought 'em up right. That's my last word, and I mean it."
Turning on his heel he walked rapidly away, leaving Mrs. Spooner to return to her waiting children.
"Never mind, mother," soothed the Babe, as they drove slowly homeward. "Uncle Harvey's not a bad man--he didn't mean sure-enough that our cattle couldn't drink at the water-hole."
But her mother knew otherwise. Harvey Grannis intended to force them to live with him, for, as has been said, he was really fond of his sister and her children. Since he had come to believe John Spooner dead, the thought that now he would have them all to himself, in his big, comfortable house, grew very pleasant, so that he had determined, in his usual violent fashion, to use force if necessary to accomplish his purpose.
"I'm sure, children, I don't know what we're to do," Mrs. Spooner sighed, as she related the ill success of her errand to the family. "I didn't dream that Harvey could be so hard."
They soothed her with words of cheer, and Elizabeth sat beside her as she lay upon the lounge, and bathed her mother's aching temples with cool water.
"Never mind, mother," she whispered, "I promise to take care of you--always!"
Soothed by the magnetic touch of the firm young hands, Mrs. Spooner soon dropped asleep, and Elizabeth looking on the pitifully frail little form, beheld through tear-blurred eyes a picture of the past--a vision of the young mother, delicate and burdened with many cares, unselfishly adopting into her home and heart the abandoned offspring of strangers--the child of sordid birth and ignoble poverty! A wave of passionate gratitude swept over the girl as she looked, and again she breathed a vow to always take care of her foster-mother.
Next day Jonah Bean came galloping up to tell them that the wire of the dividing fence had been cut in the night, and the Spooner cattle had, as usual, satisfied their thirst at the water-hole! Grannis's cowboys had rounded them up and driven them out at dawn, and Grannis himself had ordered Jonah to come and mend the break, declaring he had made it.
"I ain't cut that fence, neither a-mendin' it," announced Jonah oracularly. "Stands to reason the cattle got to drink. Providence done it, 'cordin' to my way o' thinkin'."
"Grannis yelled something over at me, but I'm not worrying over it," declared Roy, "it's the meanest thing I ever knew of. I'm certainly not going to prevent the cattle drinking when somebody else cut the wires."
The cutting of a wire-fence is in all cattle-countries a grave misdemeanor, punishable by law. Harvey Grannis, when his "spite-fence" had been cut, was of course in a towering rage, threatening to prosecute the clipper, when caught, and vowing no less punishment than the penitentiary if the offence was repeated.
But the next night they were again clipped, and the Spooner herd once more rejoiced in abundance of water. Harvey Grannis had trusted to the wire-cutter being frightened away by his loud threats, and had not set a guard over the fence. Now indeed did he swear vengeance against the offender--"male or female," he declared fiercely and to further protect the fence drove a bunch of his own cattle down and camped in the pasture--he would see that no more water was furnished the Spooner cattle, or jail the clipper!
It cannot be said that this move increased his popularity with his neighbors when they came to know its meaning. Indeed his own cowboys muttered indignantly as they moved about, pitching their tents and making ready for camp, that it was a sin and shame, and the boss too pizen mean to live! At the same time they could not help admitting that it would be much wiser for the Spooner family to move over into his comfortable house and be taken care of by the wealthy ranchman, than to try and struggle along combatting poverty and drouth. This knowledge served to keep them from open revolt, though the means he had taken to accomplish his purpose moved them to scornful wrath. Brow-beating women and children didn't agree with the cowboy sense of honor.
With the coming of Grannis's camp to the water-hole pasture the Spooner's case became desperate. The well at the house had a small basin which filled slowly, and the little water it furnished must be saved for drinking and household purposes. Jonah and Roy reluctantly watered their ponies from it, but the big spring their cattle had depended on was now only a dry mud-hole. Roy went privately to Grannis and asked the privilege of hauling water from the big tank. He received for his pains an accusation of having cut the fence-wires. This in addition of Grannis's usual name for him of horse thief proved so unpleasant that he was sorry he went.
"Looks to me like we was at our row's end," remarked Jonah Bean with gloomy philosophy. "If they's a turnin' p'int I hain't seed it. Might's well sell out, Mis' Spooner, if you kin find a buyer for the bunch."
"No, no, Jonah," objected Elizabeth eagerly. "We'll find a way. Can't you think of something, Roy?" she asked.
Roy's face was sober; he and Jonah had discussed the question, and neither one could see any other way than to sell the herd before they perished of drouth.
"Nothing except sell," he said, shaking his head soberly.
"Then I'll find a way!" declared Elizabeth, passionately. "They shan't be sold--and they shan't starve, either. You and Jonah round up the bunch and Ruth and I will haul water from Munson's pond--it never dries up, and I know Mr. Munson won't care."
"O, that will be the very thing! Mother, please let us," begged Ruth, eager to help.
Really there seemed nothing else to do. Elizabeth's plan though it meant hard work, was at least feasible--for a time, at least; in the meantime something unforseen might turn up.
So, with a big hogshead in the ranch wagon they drove five miles to get water, which their neighbor Mr. Munson kindly let them have.
"I always knew Harvey was a cross-grained old sinner," frankly declared Mr. Munson. "Wants to starve you out, I hear, so's he c'n make you all live with him. Well, I don't think much of his plan. But you're plumb welcome to water--long's you hold out to haul it."
For three days they hauled water, staying but not satisfying the famishing cattle's thirst; and on one pretext or another Grannis kept his men in the water-hole pasture. The morning of the third day Ruth came upon Elizabeth with the wire clippers in her hand and a very queer look upon her face--a look that caused an awful thought to flash into the younger sister's mind. Could she--could Elizabeth be the wire-clipper that Harvey Grannis was waiting to catch--and jail? The thing was impossible, she argued fiercely; Elizabeth simply couldn't do such a thing!
Yet somehow all day she felt an uneasy sense that more trouble was brewing, and that night after their early supper when she could not find Elizabeth anywhere, terror seized her, and without letting anybody know, she ran wildly across the pastures by the short cut, to search for her.
It was a wonderful velvet-black summer night, the skies star-sprinkled and the enemy's camp lighted by a great central cook-fire that could be seen far in that flat, plains-country. Flickering lanterns moved about it. Ruth ran on, seeking Elizabeth where the former cuttings had been, and praying that she would not find her there.
Halfway across she met Roy coming back from a secret survey of Grannis's camp. With panting breath she gasped out her story. Somebody must find Elizabeth!
"I will," said Roy quietly, "I think I know where she is. You go back to the house, Ruth--I'll find her."
He turned back in the direction of the camp and Ruth walked slowly to the house, meeting her mother and Jonah, who were driving down the avenue in the phaeton.
"O, mother!" whispered Ruth anxiously. "Where are you going in the dark? Who are you looking for?"
"Hush!" warned her mother. "I'm not looking for any one. Why do you ask? I'm going to your Uncle Harvey's camp. I thought you were all in your rooms--I didn't want Elizabeth to know, and I just can't stand this any longer. I think, if he's made to see things right, that he'll give us a key to that gate, as he ought to, and leave us in peace. You run in the house and go to bed--and don't let Elizabeth know."
"O, goodness gracious! Whatever shall I do?" moaned poor Ruth, as she watched her mother and Jonah drive away. "Maybe Roy won't be in time, and while Mother's right there, begging Uncle Harvey to go home they'll catch Elizabeth and bring her before them all! It would just about kill mother. I can't stay here--I just can't!"
Forgetful of the Babe left alone in the dark, Ruth darted away on the trail of Roy and Elizabeth.
Supper was over at the camp when Mrs. Spooner and Jonah reached it. The cowboys scattered about on the grass, smoked, or played cards or read old newspapers by the light of the cook-fire. Harvey Grannis sat on a camp stool before his tent and smoked a pipe which was anything but a pipe of peace. He was angry with his cowboys who took no pains to conceal their disapproval of his high-handed proceedings with the Spooners because they would not yield, but most important of all, he was angry with himself, because he knew in his heart he was behaving in a most contemptible way.
The gate towards the road was not locked, nor even shut. Jonah drove through it and was in the middle of the camp before Grannis noticed his arrival.
"Can I speak to you privately, Harvey?" asked his sister, as he arose and came forward to greet her.
"No, ma'am," he answered with emphatic loudness. "Say your say--Everybody's welcome to hear it. I've done nothing I'm ashamed of."
The indignant blood rushed to Mrs. Spooner's pale face. She had no wish to make a scene. She pushed aside the rug and stepped quietly from her phaeton. Jonah held the lines over Shasta, looking straight ahead of him. The circle of cowboys drew closer, listening curiously, eagerly, most of them with angry distaste, yet hopeful that the little woman would speak up to their boss.
And she did. She told him pretty plainly what she thought of his behavior. She began with the sale of the ranch to John Spooner and the verbal agreement concerning the use of this tank or water-hole which had never in the memory of man gone dry. Her voice faltered when she spoke of her husband's absence and danger, the doubt which Harvey had expressed of his brother-in-law's ever returning to his family. She mentioned the conduct of her daughters as highly creditable to them.
At this point Harvey, enraged by being reproved when he fully expected entreaties, broke in.
"Well, those same high-spirited girls of yours have been cutting wires, ma'am--and wire-cutting is a penitentiary offense. Jake over there, saw a girl snooping along the fence and bending over working at it, and when he got down there three wires were clipped in two, and swinging. That's the way your girls show their high-spirit!"
"I don't believe it!" exclaimed Mrs. Spooner indignantly. "Neither Ruth nor Elizabeth would do such a thing. They fully understand that it's a crime before the law--though surely what you are doing, Harvey, is a crime before Heaven. Maybe you think I cut the wires?"
"No, no, Jennie," began Harvey, somewhat abashed, yet still thoroughly angry. "You hold on and I'll catch the minx in the act--we've got three men hidden down by the fence now--Here they come!"
There was a stir off in the darkness where the fence cutting had been. Mrs. Spooner put her hand to her heart and gasped, praying silently that neither of her girls had been driven into reckless reprisals. She had talked to them about it, again and again as she did to Roy, begging them to remember that two wrongs never made a right. Then she turned away and hid her eyes against the phaeton edge.
"Sufferin' Moses!" groaned Jonah Bean.
For Elizabeth Spooner, Ruth Spooner and Roy Lambert were being hustled into the circle of light by two eager cowboys.
"We caught your wire-clipper, boss," they sniggered jeeringly. "Caught 'er in the act! We'll all stand by you when you fix to send her off to jail!"
"Elizabeth--my child! How could you?" wailed Mrs. Spooner.
"You see--I told you!" broke in Grannis, speaking loud to cover his dismay.
"O, I didn't cut the wires," said Elizabeth composedly, adding in her clear tones, "I didn't--neither did Ruth or Roy. But we got there just as they caught the wire-clipper, and we came along to see how Uncle Harvey likes his work. Look, Uncle Harvey!"
And she drew aside to reveal the clipper.