"For mercy's sakes, here comes Shandon Waters!" said Jane Dinwoodie, of the post-office, leaving her pigeonholes to peer through the one small window of that unpretentious building. "Mother, here's Shandon Waters driving into town with the baby!" breathed pretty Mary Dickey, putting an awed face into the sitting-room. "I declare that looks terrible like Shandon!" ejaculated Johnnie Larabee, straightening up at her wash-tubs and shading her eyes with her hand. "Well, what on earth brought her up to town!" said all Deaneville, crowding to the windows and doorways and halting the march of the busy Monday morning to watch a mud-spattered cart come bumping up and down over the holes in the little main street.
The woman--or girl, rather, for she was but twenty--who sat in the cart was in no way remarkable to the eye. She had a serious, even sullen face, and a magnificent figure, buttoned just now into a tan ulster that looked curiously out of keeping with her close, heavy widow's bonnet and hanging veil. Sprawled luxuriously in her lap, with one fat, idle little hand playing above her own gauntleted one on the reins, was a splendid child something less than a year old, snugly coated and capped against the cool air of a California February. She watched him closely as she drove, not moving her eyes from his little face even for a glance at the village street.
Poor Dan Waters had been six months in his grave, now, and this was the first glimpse Deaneville had had of his widow. For an unbroken half year she had not once left the solitude of the big ranch down by the marsh, or spoken to any one except her old Indian woman servant and the various "hands" in her employ.
She had been, in the words of Deaneville, "sorta nutty" since her husband's death. Indeed, poor Shandon had been "sorta nutty" all her life. Motherless at six, and allowed by her big, half civilized father to grow up as wild as the pink mallow that fringed the home marshes, she was regarded with mingled horror and pity by the well- ordered Deaneville matrons. Jane Dinwoodie and Mary Dickey could well remember the day she was brought into the district school, her mutinous black eyes gleaming under a shock of rough hair, her clumsy little apron tripping her with its unaccustomed strings. The lonely child had been frantic for companionship, and her direct, even forceful attempts at friendship had repelled and then amused the Deaneville children. As unfortunate chance would have it, it was shy, spoiled, adored little Mary Dickey that Shandon instantly selected for especial worship, and Mary, already bored by admiration, did not like it. But the little people would have adjusted matters in their own simple fashion presently had they been allowed to do so. It was the well-meant interference of the teacher that went amiss. Miss Larks explained to the trembling little newcomer that she mustn't smile at Mary, that she mustn't leave her seat to sit with Mary: it was making poor Mary cry.
Shandon listened to her with rising emotion, a youthful titter or two from different parts of the room pointing the moral. When the teacher had finished, she rose with a sudden scream of rage, flung her new slate violently in one direction, her books in another, and departed, kicking the stove over with a well-directed foot as she left. Thus she became a byword to virtuous infancy, and as the years went by, and her wild beauty and her father's wealth grew apace, Deaneville grew less and less charitable in its judgment of her. Shandon lived in a houseful of men, her father's adored companion and greatly admired by the rough cattle men who came yearly to buy his famous stock.
When her father died, a little wave of pity swept over Deaneville, and more than one kind-hearted woman took the five-mile drive down to the Bell Ranch ready to console and sympathize. But no one saw her. The girl, eighteen now, clung more to her solitude than ever, spending whole days and nights in lonely roaming over the marsh and the low meadows, like some frantic sick animal.
Only Johnnie Larabee, the warm-hearted little wife of the village hotel keeper, persevered and was rewarded by Shandon's bitter confidence, given while they rode up to the ridge to look up some roaming steer, perhaps, or down by the peach-cutting sheds, while Shandon supervised a hundred "hands." Shandon laughed now when she recounted the events of those old unhappy childish days, but Johnnie did not like the laughter. The girl always asked particularly for Mary Dickey, her admirers, her clothes, her good times.
"No wonder she acts as if there wasn't anybody else on earth but her!" would be Shandon's dry comment.
It was Johnnie who "talked straight" to Shandon when big Dan Waters began to haunt the Bell Ranch, and who was the only witness of their little wedding, and the only woman to kiss the unbride-like bride.
After that even, Johnnie lost sight of her for the twelve happy months that Big Dan was spared to her. Little Dan came, welcomed by no more skillful hands than the gentle big ones of his wondering father and the practised ones of the old Indian. And Shandon bought hats that were laughed at by all Deaneville, and was tremulously happy in a clumsy, unused fashion.
And then came the accident that cost Big Dan his life. It was all a hideous blur to Shandon--a blur that enclosed the terrible, swift trip to Sacramento, with the blinking little baby in the hollow of her arm, and the long wait at the strange hospital. It was young Doctor Lowell, of Deaneville, who decided that only an operation could save Dan, and Doctor Lowell who performed it. And it was through him that Shandon learned, in the chill dawn, that the gallant fight was lost. She did not speak again, but, moving like a sleepwalker, reached blindly for the baby, pushed aside the hands that would have detained her, and went stumbling out into the street. And since that day no one in Deaneville had been able to get close enough to speak to her. She did not go to Dan's funeral, and such sympathizers as tried to find her were rewarded by only desolate glimpses of the tall figure flitting along the edge of the marshes like a hunted bird. A month old, little Danny accompanied his mother on these restless wanderings, and many a time his little mottled hand was strong enough to bring her safely home when no other would have availed.
Her old Chinese "boy" came into the village once a week, and paid certain bills punctiliously from a little canvas bag that was stuffed full of gold pieces; but Fong was not a communicative person, and Deaneville languished for direct news. Johnnie, discouraged by fruitless attempts to have a talk with the forlorn young creature, had to content herself with sending occasional delicacies from her own kitchen and garden to Shandon, and only a week before this bright February morning had ventured a note, pinned to the napkin that wrapped a bowl of cream cheese. The note read:
Don't shorten Danny too early, Shandy. Awful easy for babies to ketch cold this weather.
Of all the loitering curious men and women at doors and windows and in the street, Johnnie was the only one who dared speak to her to- day. Mrs. Larabee was dressed in the overalls and jersey that simplified both the dressing and the labor of busy Monday mornings; her sleek black hair arranged fashionably in a "turban swirl." She ran out to the cart with a little cry of welcome, a smile on her thin, brown face that well concealed the trepidation this unheard-of circumstance caused her. "Lord, make me say the right thing!" prayed Johnnie, fervently. Mrs. Waters saw her coming, stopped the big horse, and sat waiting. Her eyes were wild with a sort of savage terror, and she was trembling violently.
"Well, how do, Shandon?" said Mrs. Larabee, cheerfully. Then her eyes fell on the child, and she gave a dramatic start. "Never you tell me this is Danny!" said she, sure of her ground now. "Well, you--old--buster--you! He's immense, ain't he, Shandon?"
"Isn't he?" stammered Shandon, nervously.
"He's about the biggest feller for nine months I ever saw," said Mrs. Larabee, generously. "He could eat Thelma for breakfast!"
"Johnnie--and he ain't quite seven yet!" protested Shandon, eagerly.
Mrs. Larabee gave her an astonished look, puckered up her forehead, nodded profoundly.
"That's right," she said. Then she dragged the wriggling small body from Shandon's lap and held the wondering, soft little face against her own.
"You come to Aunt Johnnie a minute," said she, "you fat old muggins! Look at him, Shandon. He knows I'm strange. Yes, 'course you do! He wants to go back to you, Shandy. Well, what do you know about that? Say, dearie," continued Mrs. Larabee, in a lower tone, "you've got a terrible handsome boy, and what's more, he's Dan's image."
Mrs. Waters gathered the child close to her heart. "He's awful like Dan when he smiles," said she, simply. And for the first time their eyes met. "Say, thank you, for the redishes and the custard pie and that cheese, Johnnie," said Shandon, awkwardly, but her eyes thanked this one friend for much more.
"Aw, shucks!" said Johnnie, gently, as she dislodged a drying clod of mud from the buggy robe. There was a moment's constrained silence, then Shandon said suddenly:
"Johnnie, what d'you mean by 'shortening' him?"
"Puttin' him in short clothes, dearie. Thelma's been short since Gran'ma Larabee come down at Christmas," explained the other, briskly.
"I never knew about that," said Mrs. Waters, humbly. "Danny's the first little kid I ever touched. Lizzie Tom tells me what the Indians do, and for the rest I just watch him. I toast his feet good at the fire every night, becuz Dan said his mother useter toast his; and whenever the sun comes out, I take his clothes off and leave him sprawl in it, but I guess I miss a good deal." She finished with a wistful, half-questioning inflection, and Mrs. Larabee did not fail her.
"Don't ask me, when he's as big and husky as any two of mine!" said she, reassuringly. "I guess you do jest about right. But, Shandy, you've got to shorten him."
"Well, what'll I get?" asked Shandon.
Mrs. Larabee, in her element, considered.
"You'll want about eight good, strong calico rompers," she began authoritatively. Then suddenly she interrupted herself. "Say, why don't you come over to the hotel with me now," she suggested enthusiastically. "I'm just finishing my wash, and while I wrench out the last few things you can feed the baby; than I'll show you Thelma's things, and we can have lunch. Then him and Thel can take their naps, and you 'n' me'll go over to Miss Bates's and see what we can git. You'll want shoes for him, an' a good, strong hat--"
"Oh, honest, Johnnie--" Shandon began to protest hurriedly, in her hunted manner, and with a miserable glance toward the home road. "Maybe I'll come up next week, now I know what you meant--"
"Shucks! Next week nobody can talk anything but wedding," said Johnnie, off guard.
"Whose wedding?" Shandon asked, and Johnnie, who would have preferred to bite her tongue out, had to answer, "Mary Dickey's."
"Who to?" said Shandon, her face darkening. Johnnie's voice was very low.
"To the doc', Shandy; to Arnold Lowell."
"Oh!" said Shandon, quietly. "Big wedding, I suppose, and white dresses, and all the rest?"
"Sure," said Johnnie, relieved at her pleasant interest, and warming to the subject. "There'll be five generations there. Parker's making the cake in Sacramento. Five of the girls'll be bridesmaids--Mary Bell and Carrie and Jane and the two Powell girls. Poor Mrs. Dickey, she feels real bad. She--"
"She don't want to give Mary up?" said Shandon, in a hard voice. She began to twist the whip about in its socket. "Well, some people have everything, it seems. They're pretty, and their folks are crazy about 'em, and they can stand up and make a fuss over marrying a man who as good as killed some other woman's husband,--a woman who didn't have any one else either."
"Shandy," said Johnnie, sharply, "ain't you got Danny?"
Something like shame softened the girl's stern eyes. She dropped her face until her lips rested upon the little fluffy fringe that marked the dividing line between Danny's cap and Danny's forehead.
"Sure I have," she said huskily. "But I've--I've always sort of had it in for Mary Dickey, Johnnie, I suppose becuz she is so perfect, and so cool, and treats me like I was dirt--jest barely sees me, that's all!"
Johnnie answered at random, for she was suddenly horrified to see Dr. Lowell and Mary Dickey themselves come out of the post-office. Before she could send them a frantic signal of warning, the doctor came toward the cart.
"How do you do, Mrs. Waters?" said he, holding out his hand.
Shandon brought her startled eyes from little Danny's face. The child, with little eager grunts and frowning concentration, was busy with the clasp of her pocketbook, and her big, gentle hand had been guarding it from his little, wild ones. The sight of the doctor's face brought back her bitterest memories with a sick rush, at a moment when her endurance was strained to the utmost. He had decreed that Dan should be operated on, he had decided that she should not be with him, he had come to tell her that the big, protecting arm and heart were gone forever--and now he had an early buttercup in his buttonhole, and on his lips the last of the laughter that he had just been sharing with Mary Dickey! And Mary, the picture of complacent daintiness, was sauntering on, waiting for him.
Shandon was not a reasonable creature. With a sound between a snarl and a sob she caught the light driving whip from its socket and brought the lash fairly across the doctor's smiling face. As he started back, stung with intolerable pain, she lashed in turn the nervous horse, and in another moment the cart and its occupants were racketing down the home road again.
"And now we never will git no closer to Shandon Waters!" said Johnnie Larabee, regretfully, for the hundredth time. It was ten days later, and Mrs. Larabee and Mrs. Cass Dinwoodie were high up on the wet hills, gathering cream-colored wild iris for the Dickey wedding that night.
"And serve her right, too!" said Mrs. Dinwoodie, severely. "A great girl like that lettin' fly like a child."
"She's--she's jest the kind to go crazy, brooding as she does," Mrs. Larabee submitted, almost timidly. She had been subtly pleading Shandon's cause for the past week, but it was no use. The last outrage had apparently sealed her fate so far as Deaneville was concerned. Now, straightening her cramped back and looking off toward the valleys below them, Mrs. Larabee said suddenly:
"That looks like Shandon down there now."
Mrs. Dinwoodie's eyes followed the pointing finger. She could distinguish a woman's moving figure, a mere speck on the road far below.
"Sure it is," said she. "Carryin' Dan, too."
"My goo'ness," said Johnnie, uneasily, "I wish she wouldn't take them crazy walks. I don't suppose she's walking up to town?"
"I don't know why she should," said Mrs. Dinwoodie, dryly, "with the horses she's got. I don't suppose even Shandon would attempt to carry that great child that far, cracked as she seems to be!"
"I don't suppose we could drive home down by the marsh road?" Johnnie asked. Mrs. Dinwoodie looked horrified.
"Johnnie, are you crazy yourself?" she demanded. "Why, child, Mary's going to be married at half-past seven, and there's the five-o'clock train now."
The older matron made all haste to "hitch up," sending not even another look into the already shadowy valley. But Johnnie's thoughts were there all through the drive home, and even when she started with her beaming husband and her four young children to the wedding she was still thinking of Shandon Waters.
The Dickey home was all warmth, merriment, and joyous confusion. Three or four young matrons, their best silk gowns stretched to bursting over their swelling bosoms, went busily in and out of the dining-room. In the double parlors guests were gathering with the laughter and kissing that marked any coming together of these hard- working folk. Starched and awed little children sat on the laps of mothers and aunts, blinking at the lamps; the very small babies were upstairs, some drowsily enjoying a late supper in their mothers' arms, others already deep in sleep in Mrs. Dickey's bed. The downstairs rooms and the stairway were decorated with wilting smilax and early fruit-blossoms.
To Deaneville it seemed quite natural that Dr. Lowell, across whose face the scar of Shandon Waters' whip still showed a dull crimson, should wait for his bride at the foot of the hall stairway, and that Mary's attendants should keep up a continual coming and going between the room where she was dressing and the top of the stairs, and should have a great many remarks to make to the young men below. Presently a little stir announced the clergyman, and a moment later every one could hear Mary Dickey's thrilling young voice from the upper hallway:
"Arnold, mother says was that Dr. Lacey?"
And every one could hear Dr. Lowell's honest, "Yes, dear, it was," and Mary's fluttered, diminishing, "All right!"
Rain began to beat noisily on the roof and the porches. Johnnie Larabee came downstairs with Grandpa and Grandma Arnold, and Rosamund Dinwoodie at the piano said audibly, "Now, Johnnie?"
There was expectant silence in the parlors. The whole house was so silent in that waiting moment that the sound of sudden feet on the porch and the rough opening of the hall door were a startlingly loud interruption.
It was Shandon Waters, who came in with a bitter rush of storm and wet air. She had little Dan in her arms. Drops of rain glittered on her hanging braids and on the shawl with which the child was wrapped, and beyond her the wind snarled and screamed like a disappointed animal. She went straight through the frightened, parting group to Mrs. Larabee, and held out the child.
"Johnnie," she said in a voice of agony, utterly oblivious of her surroundings, "Johnnie, you've always been my friend! Danny's sick!"
"Shandon,--for pity's sake!" ejaculated little Mrs. Larabee, reaching out her arms for Danny, her face shocked and protesting and pitying all at once, "Why, Shandy, you should have waited for me over at the hotel," she said, in a lower tone, with a glance at the incongruous scene. Then pity for the anguished face gained mastery, and she added tenderly, "Well, you poor child, you, was this where you was walking this afternoon? My stars, if I'd only known! Why on earth didn't you drive?"
"I couldn't wait!" said Shandon, hoarsely. "We were out in the woods, and Lizzie she gave Danny some mushrooms. And when I looked he--his little mouth--" she choked. "And then he began to have sorta cramps, and kinda doubled up, Johnnie, and he cried so queer, and I jest started up here on a run. He--Johnnie!" terror shook her voice when she saw the other's face, "Johnnie, is he going to die?" she said.
"Mushrooms!" echoed Mrs. Larabee, gravely, shaking her head. And a score of other women looking over her shoulder at the child, who lay breathing heavily with his eyes shut, shook their heads, too.
"You'd better take him right home with me, dearie," Mrs. Larabee said gently, with a significant glance at the watching circle. "We oughtn't to lose any time."
Dr. Lowell stepped out beside her and gently took Danny in his arms.
"I hope you'll let me carry him over there for you, Mrs. Waters," said he. "There's no question that he's pretty sick. We've got a hard fight ahead."
There was a little sensation in the room, but Shandon only looked at him uncomprehendingly. In her eyes there was the dumb thankfulness of the dog who knows himself safe with friends. She wet her lips and tried to speak. But before she could do so, the doctor's mother touched his arm half timidly and said:
"Arnold, you can't very well--surely, it's hardly fair to Mary--"
"Mary--?" he answered her quickly. He raised his eyes to where his wife-to-be, in a startled group of white-clad attendants, was standing halfway down the stairway.
She looked straight at Shandon, and perhaps at no moment in their lives did the two women show a more marked contrast; Shandon muddy, exhausted, haggard, her sombre eyes sick with dread, Mary's always fragile beauty more ethereal than ever under the veil her mother had just caught back with orange blossoms. Shandon involuntarily flung out her hand toward her in desperate appeal.
"Couldn't you--could you jest wait till he sees Danny?" she faltered.
Mary ran down the remaining steps and laid her white hand on Shandon's.
"If it was ten weddings, we'd wait, Shandon!" said she, her voice thrilling with the fellowship of wifehood and motherhood to come. "Don't worry, Shandon. Arnold will fix him. Poor little Danny!" said Mary, bending over him. "He's not awful sick, is he, Arnold? Mother," she said, turning, royally flushed, to her stupefied mother, "every one'll have to wait. Johnnie and Arnold are going to fix up Shandon's baby."
"I don't see the slightest need of traipsing over to the hotel," said Mrs. Dickey, almost offended, as at a slight upon her hospitality. "Take him right up to the spare room, Arnold. There ain't no noise there, it's in the wing. And one of you chil'ren run and tell Aggie we want hot water, and--what else? Well, go ahead and tell her that, anyway."
"Leave me carry him up," said one big, gentle father, who had tucked his own baby up only an hour ago. "I've got a kimmoner in my bag," old Mrs. Lowell said to Shandon. "It's a-plenty big enough for you. You git dry and comfortable before you hold him." "Shucks! Lloydy ate a green cherry when he wasn't but four months old," said one consoling voice to Shandon. "He's got a lot of fight in him," said another. "My Olive got an inch screw in her throat," contributed a third. Mrs. Larabee said in a low tone, with her hand tight upon Shandon's shaking one, "He'll be jest about fagged out when the doctor's done with him, dearie, and as hungry as a hunter. Don't you git excited, or he'll be sick all over again."
Crowding solicitously about her, the women got her upstairs and into dry clothing. This was barely accomplished when Mary Dickey came into the room, in a little blue cotton gown, to take her to Danny.
"Arnold says he's got him crying, and that's a good sign, Shandon," said Mary. "And he says that rough walk pro'bly saved him."
Shandon tried to speak again, but failed again, and the two girls went out together. Mary presently came back alone, and the lessened but not uncheerful group downstairs settled down to a vigil. Various reports drifted from the sick-room, but it was almost midnight before Mrs. Larabee came down with definite news.
"How is he?" echoed Johnnie, sinking into a chair. "Give me a cup of that coffee, Mary. That's a good girl. Well, say, it looks like you can't kill no Deaneville child with mushrooms. He's asleep now. But say, he was a pretty sick kid! Doc' looks like something the cat brought home, and I'm about dead, but Danny seems to feel real chipper. And eat! And of course that poor girl looks like she'd inherited the earth, as the Scriptures say. The ice is what you might call broken between the whole crowd of us and Shandon Waters. She's sitting there holding Danny and smiling softly at any one who peeks in!" And, her voice thickening suddenly with tears on the last words, Mrs. Larabee burst out crying and fumbled in her unaccustomed grandeur for a handkerchief.
Mary Dickey and Arnold Lowell were married just twenty-four hours later than they had planned, the guests laughing joyously at the wilted decorations and stale sandwiches. After the ceremony the bride and bridegroom went softly up stairs, and the doctor had a last approving look at the convalescent Danny.
Mary, almost oppressed by the sense of her own blessedness on this day of good wishes and affectionate demonstration, would have gently detached her husband's arm from her waist as they went to the door, that Shandon might not be reminded of her own loss and aloneness.
But the doctor, glancing back, knew that in Shandon's thoughts to- day there was no room for sorrow. Her whole body was curved about the child as he lay in her lap, and her adoring look was intent upon him. Danny was smiling up at his mother in a blissful interval, his soft little hand lying upon her contented heart.