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30,000 on the Hoof

Country of origin: USA USA
Available texts by the same author here Dokument

Chapter 12

   The first snow had fallen, making ample amends in its white drifts and blanched trees for the tardiness of its arrival.
   Just when the wintry twilight began to steal down from the rims, Grant came stamping into the cabin with brimming pails of milk.
   "Dad and Abe not home yet?" he stopped whistling to ask. "When did they ever come back early from a hunt? And the first this fall!" returned his mother.
   "Doggone it! Let's not wait supper for them. What say, George?"
   The eldest son sat near the wall close to the red fire, which shone ruddily on his thin cheek. He was mending from his wounds.
   "Not very long, anyhow," he said.
   "Where are your ears--you?" interposed Barbara. "I can hear Dad's deep voice."
   Lucinda had often heard this welcome sound with gladness and relief. How many, many times! She could tell that Logan had had good hunting. Heavy footfalls on the porch preceded the opening of the door. Logan entered to set his rifle against the wall and throw off his snow-covered coat. His broad visage wore a bright smile of satisfaction at sight of them all and the cheery fire and steaming pots. Abe followed, burly in his buckskins, soft of step and still-faced, with glad eyes for Barbara and his mother. They brought cold air and the piney breath of the forest with them.
   "What luck, Dad?" asked Grant, eagerly.
   "Four-point buck and two turks for me," replied his father, with immense gratification in the telling. "Ask Abe what he got."
   "I couldn't hit a flock of barns to-day," replied Abe ruefully. "But, Dad, I really didn't have a good shot."
   "Ha! ha! You had the same as I--at the buck, anyway."
   "Take care, father," taunted Barbara. "You know it's happened that you and Abe shot at the same buck at the same time--and you thought you hit when really you missed."
   "By thunder, you're right, Bab. I forgot...It sure was fine up on top to-day. 'Pears I can't walk as I used to. Abe had my tongue hanging out...Luce, it's good to get home. Something smells awful good. My mouth has begun to water. What you got for supper?"
   "Beef and potato stew, for one thing," replied Lucinda. "If you and Abe wash up a bit, supper will be ready."
   "Maw, how about that apple pie you promised if I'd drag Dad home before dark?" queried Abe, gaily.
   "Barbara baked one for you."
   "Bab, you're just an old darling!"
   "Whose darling?" asked the girl, wistfully.
   "Well, the Huetts' yet, thank heaven!"
   Lucinda saw her husband and their sons and Barbara sit down to a lavish supper. They were a happy family. George's dereliction had been forgiven, if not forgotten. And as soon as he frankly confessed his shame and regret, as Lucinda knew he would do, they would forget that one unfortunate episode. The hunters ate like men of the open after long abstinence. George and Grant did not show failing appetites.
   "Abe, are you going to give me a piece of that pie?" asked the latter.
   "Couldn't think of it."
   "Well, you doggone stingy hawg!" asserted Grant, half in jest and half in earnest.
   "Why, Grant, of course he'll give you a piece," expostulated Barbara. "Here, I'll cut it."
   "Make it a small piece, lady," said Abe, grudgingly. Supper over, Abe washed the dishes and utensils, while Lucinda and Barbara wiped them.
   "Grant, fetch in a couple of chunks of oak and some pine cones," spoke up Logan, as he reached for his pipe and pouch. He filled it, lighted it with a red coal, and sat down in his big home-made armchair with a sigh. "Doggone!--Snow at last and winter set in. Holed up till spring! Never before felt so good about that. Reckon the deal with Widow Steadman to feed her herd on half shares has a lot to do with it."
   "Dad, you'll have to brand her calves," said George.
   "Only half of them, son."
   Abe sat down Indian fashion on the hearth and stretched his wet moccasins to the fire. They began to steam. Barbara, from the bench by the table in the background, watched him with eyes unconscious of their worship. George got down the little box with his tame baby chipmunks, scarcely larger than his thumbs, and, like a boy, in great glee let them run over his lap.
   "I reckon that was a good business deal, Dad," went on, George. "It ensures you of two dozen and more calves next spring. Costs nothing. Double the calf count the following year. Sure does mount up when you get going...What can stop us now?"
   "Once I swore nothing could. But the years have made me leery...I reckon only rustlers could."
   "Rustlers!--Say, Dad, you're not long-headed. It'd take a mighty big and bold band of cattle-thieves to cost us much here."
   "I hear you, son. Powerful sweet talk. But how do you figure?"
   "No rustlers would have the nerve to drive up the road here, right tinder our very noses. They'd have to make a hole in one of the fenced gaps. No fun driving steers out that way. It just almost couldn't be done. But if they did--well, Abe could track them. That'd be a bad deal for them, Dad."
   "I reckon," returned Logan, soberly. "Mebbe bad for us, too."
   "Can't see it that way. We'd track them to a camp or a cabin, make sure they had our cattle--then shoot before we talked...Dad, I've heard some dark hints about the Campbells. You know where there's smoke in these woods there's bound to be fire...I'd told you before--only I--well, I was loco about Mil Campbell. I'd have been fool enough to go the whole way with her, if Jack hadn't squealed on her."
   "Son, you got out of that lucky. The Campbells are on the wrong trail. We'll hear from them some day."
   Abe looked up to speak: "Did I tell you I met a cowboy on the road last Wednesday--no, it was day before yesterday, Tuesday? He's one of Collier's riders. Told me Jack was burned bad, but lost nothing 'cept hair and hide. He was up and around."
   "I'm glad to hear that," said George, with a ring in his voice. "When I meet Jack next I want him to have both eyes."
   "George, you'll have to look pretty hard to see him before I do," rejoined Abe.
   "Sons, we'll never look for trouble," interposed Huett. "But that outfit had better steer clear of us. Come to think of it, though, we've worse outfits to watch."
   Lucinda sat across the hearth from Logan in the other armchair, her neglected knitting in her lap, her gaze on the glowing red coals of the fire. For once such conversation from her militant husband and sons failed to rouse her. The rising wind outside in the pines, the soft seeping of snow against the cabin, the crackle and sparkle of embers--these seemed to take more hold upon her imagination than the hard words she heard. These familiar sounds took her back through the long years to the time of which she was thinking.
   "Barbara, come here. Sit by me," she said, sweetly.
   The girl rose obediently from the shadow to recline on the bearskin rug at Lucinda's feet.
   "Aw, now--Luce," protested Logan, in a strangled voice.
   "I have something to tell Barbara and the boys," rejoined Lucinda, stroking the glossy flaxen head resting on her knee.
   "But what's your hurry?" expostulated Logan.
   "It should have been told long ago," answered Lucinda, sadly.
   Logan sank back sighing, and puffed moodily at a pipe which had gone out.
   "Barbara, what I have to confess will amaze and grieve you," began Lucinda, with grave tenderness. "But it is best for your happiness, for the future that I see can be yours. And surely best for all of us Huetts. It has taken me years--years to come to this decision--to break one aspect of our happy home life here for a possible fuller and better one."
   "Why, Mother!" exclaimed the girl in astonishment. She rose to her knees before Lucinda.
   "That is just--the--the secret," Lucinda faltered. "Barbara, I am not your mother. You are not a sister to Abe and George and Grant. You are no relation to us at all."
   For a moment Barbara was stunned.
   "Ah! dreadful! Oh, mercy--what am I--who am I?" cried Barbara, in anguish.
   "The first is easy to answer," replied Lucinda, gaining strength to go on. "You are the sweetest and best girl I ever knew. You are as good as you are beautiful. But who you are is a mystery. You came of gentlefolk, surely. But what they were and where they came from we never found out."
   "Oh--dear God! Then I'm a waif--a nameless--"
   "Listen, Barbara. It is a tragedy, yes, but nothing to be heartbroken about."
   "Then why did y-you ever--tell me?" sobbed the girl.
   "Because it is the only way we can ever keep you with us always."
   "I don't understand."
   "Let me talk, dear...My eyes were opened at the dance last month. You were the belle of that dance. Many of these Arizonians are in love with you. And despite the fact that you don't care for any particular one of them--and that you've been happy with my sons--you will be forced to marry some day. Someone will pack you off and make you his wife whether you like it or not. That is western."
   "But I wouldn't--I wouldn't!" burst out Barbara, incredulously.
   "Well, darling, I don't know exactly how it would happen. But a pretty and healthy girl can't stay unmarried out here. She just can't."
   "Then--how are you going to keep me--with you?" queried Barbara, in wistful misery.
   "Let that rest for a moment. I want to tell you how you came to us."
   "Oh do--do--even though it'll hurt so terribly."
   "Barbara, it's almost unbelievable. But it was seventeen years ago. You are a young woman of twenty, yet the years have gone so swiftly, so brightly, so happily that to us you are still a child...George was four years old, Abe was three, and Grant two. At that immature age, Barbara, these youngsters were as bad as little boys can be. Abe was the naughtiest. I've always been glad since that he was, because if he hadn't been disobedient, a little savage who liked to run off and hunt in the woods--we might never have known an' loved you. For it was Abe who found you, Barbara, a little lost babe in the woods...Let me tell you. Seventeen years, ago last October--the fourteenth--I shall never forget it--the boys ran away from the cabin. I was busy and upset. I forgot about the boys until I went outside for something and they were gone. I called. No answer.--I left off work and ran to find them. At the corrals I came upon their tracks. Abe's barefoot prints led up the road, where I had expressly fort bidden the boys to go. George and Grant followed him. It was nearing sunset. I ran, calling and panting--up the road, through the gate, on through the woods. By this time I was distracted. When I came upon them playing by some logs that have rotted away long ago, instead of three children there were four. The little stranger was a girl--flaxen-haired, with eyes of violet. She was shy and sweet. When I asked her who she was she said: 'Barb'ra'...And to this day we have never known more. Her dress was of fine material. She wore pretty little shoes, but no stockings. I have saved those things all these years, and I shall give them to you...Abe had found you crying along the road. Wagons had passed there that day, and in some strange way you had become lost from one of them. I looked for a camp and listened for voices. But darkness was close, and as there appeared to be no camp near, I brought you back here with the boys. Logan said there must be a camp out on the road. He went to look, but in vain. Next day he trailed the wagons down to Payson, making sure you had become lost from one of them, and that you would be hunted. But here is the most astounding and inexplicable part of the story. These wagons did not stop at Payson. They went through at night. No one ever heard of a little girl being lost. No one ever came back to hunt for you!...That's all, Barbara. And it's all we'll ever know. Logan and I adopted you as our own. The boys from that day to this have loved you more than any sister anyone could have had."
   When Lucinda ceased, the girl's flaxen head drooped and she wept unrestrainedly. Logan laid aside his pipe with a cough, and gazed at Barbara with wet eyes. Abe sat transfixed and rapt. Grant's tanned face was one ruddy beam in the firelight. George looked a stricken man. Lucinda saw amaze, incredulity, sudden joy, and then a shame of realization flash across his pale, mobile face. He realized that in losing a sister he had not gained a sweetheart.
   Barbara raised her head. "I'll always call you mother...You've been so--so good to me...Oh, I must have been a--a child nobody wanted."
   Logan spoke up huskily: "My dear, don't think that again. It's only torture. Maybe such a thought is all wrong. My idea from the first night was that your parents were dead...But we wanted you. I remember that night, when you lay in the corner there, asleep, your curly head close to Abe's, how I had a feeling you had come to us--to bless us with the daughter we wanted. I told Lucinda so...We wanted you, Barbara. And we've always wanted you...What you've missed we can never tell. Perhaps riches, fine parents--all that go with them. But never love, Barbara. You have not missed that."
   "Oh, Dad, I'd gladly have missed all them to have what you've given me. It's not that--that...I'm shocked...Never to know who I am!"
   "But you are Barbara Huett," added Logan, with loving finality.
   Then Grant came out of his spell. "Bab, I think it's just great...Suppose you'd been found by that Jack Campbell, or some hombre like him! Think how much worse off you'd been. You sure had luck to fall in with Maw. Where'd you or any kid have found as grand a mother?...It was swell to have you for a sister, Barbara. But this--this is just wonderful...For now you can marry us!"
   That naive remark broke the tragic strain, at least, and brought a faint blush to Barbara's cheek.
   "My son, wonderful as that might be, it's impossible for Barbara to marry you all," interposed Lucinda, with a smile that rivalled Logan's. What a burden seemed lifted from her conscience! After all, now that the secret was out, it was not so terrible, so devastating. The absolute certainty of her place in that family had sustained Barbara. In time the grief would pass, and perhaps even the memory of it.
   "That'd be Mormonism on the woman's side," declared Grant, gaily. "I'd stand for that, Bab. Sure you can take your pick. But I'm beating Abe and George to it."
   "Grant, you're a very wonderful boy, not yet grown up--and I'll always be a sister to you," replied Barbara, in a demure voice not quite compatible with her wet eyes.
   "Ow--ow!" wailed Grant. "All right, Bab. You're a poor picker. But I'll always love you just the same."
   "Barbara, we will never let you get away from us." spoke up George, gallantly, but his pale, tense face betrayed emotion he tried to hide. A fugitive hope was fading before realization. "If I'd only known you were not my sister--then all that fool gallivanting of mine would never have been. But I always----"
   "Let her be, you sudden hombres," interrupted Abe, his voice strong and vibrant. "Here she's just learned a sad fact about her life--and you hound her to bestow herself upon one of you. Let her be...Some day, sure, she'll take the one of us she loves best. But give her a long time. She's been a sister too many years to become a sweetheart pronto...Barbara, it'll all come right. Don't let Grant or George rile you. We've all got a long hard job to raise that thirty thousand head of cattle Dad's heart is set on. I know I can work harder, and become a better man, in the hope I may win you sometime...I found you that day so far back. But I remember, Barbara, honest I remember your skinned knees, your dusty dress, your tear-wet cheeks, and, sorrowful eyes. And I was only three...Dear, don't feel unhappy. This must have been meant to be. Maybe you came to save the Huetts."
   Lucinda's heart welled painfully in her breast. How she thrilled as the silent Abe, for once so eloquent, expressed his manliness, his fairness, his deep loyalty to Barbara and to all of them! He made it so easy for Lucinda to bless her intuition. Always she had known that Abe was the one for Barbara; always that had been her most secret cherished dream. And she read in Barbara's fascinated eyes, in the quickening and dilating changes in a marvellously soft and lovely glow, that the girl realized now how and why she had worshipped Abe all her life.
   The only difference in Barbara that was manifest to Lucinda seemed to be a brooding pathos at times and a conscious realization that her status with the boys had vastly changed and heightened. The former gradually wore away and a deeper, less girlish happiness prevailed.
   Abe changed the least under this new order of life at Sycamore Canyon. It was evident that Barbara's possible attainment simply added bewilderingly to his affection. He showed no sign of having an advantage over his brothers with Barbara because he had found her and no doubt had saved her from wild animals or starvation. Lucinda particularly noted that if Abe was more kind, he was less demonstrative. He never teased nor playfully fought with her, as had been his wont. He had realized her sex, her desirability, and they were sacred. This seemed the more complete to Lucinda because Barbara was the only girl Abe had ever really known. What little leisure he had enjoyed he spent in the woods.
   But this new relation of Barbara's changed the lives of the other brothers.
   All at once, it seemed to Lucinda, Grant developed into a man. He had, fortunately, no serious faults nor weaknesses nor vices to correct. He lost nothing of his sunny temperament, his love of banter, his propensity to tease, his habit of sharing whatever he had with Barbara. But he openly and persistently courted her.
   George exhibited more serious and profound evidence of a dividing line in his life. That winter he was confined to the cabin a good deal owing to danger of pneumonia that the wound in his breast occasioned. He read and studied, and discussed the cattle problem for hours 'with Huett. When spring came again and he regained his old strength he plunged into work as never before. He did not ride to Pine or Payson. He gave up drinking. A dance at Holbert's, failed to tempt him, though Barbara went with Grant. Even a rodeo at Flagg on the Fourth of July failed to drag him back to the competitions and thrills of cowboy life.
   Once George said to his mother: "I reckon I've no chance to win Bab now. Not with this handsome Indian Abe around and that lovable guy Grant! But I love her, and I'll never stop trying to prove she's made a man of me...And it won't make any difference if she picks Abe or Grant."
   Early in the fall George prevailed upon his father to round up another bunch of cattle and drive them to the railroad.
   "But, Dad, it's the thing to do now," he persuaded patiently. "If we cut out and sell the old stock, buy young stock with the money, or part of it, our herd will grow faster. You hang on too long. Besides, we need repairs, new tools, supplies. And, Dad, we must get a car. Some of these other ranchers are getting the jump on us. A few of them have cars, and some of them have trucks. Times are changing. We've gone to seed down here in our lonely canyon. We're old-fashioned. If we had a truck this fall we could haul five hundred sacks of potatoes to Flagg in a couple of trips."
   The idea did not appeal to Huett. He hated the stinking, dangerous, horseless vehicles that had begun to make unbelievable changes in the country. George argued that their use made the territory provide better roads and that the time saved more than the expense. Huett agreed to a limited sale of cattle, but vetoed the car idea.
   "All right. I'll buy one with my own money," declared George stubbornly. "And I'll bet you see."
   Wherefore George did not return home from Flagg with his father and Grant. When he did come back, however, his advent was proclaimed by rattling, cracking noises long before he got down the hill. Lucinda heard Logan guffaw loudly, and Grant yell a wild "Whoopee!" Then Barbara screamed in glee, which brought Lucinda out with an exclamation: "For the land's sake!"
   She stared, first in wonder, then in fright. George was driving down the hill in a black automobile that sounded rickety, if it did not look so.
   The Huetts were nothing if not spellbound. But George made the grade without running off the road, and came whirling across the flat, to come to a halt before the cabin with a bang.
   "Howdy, folks," he drawled, as he surveyed them all, with fire in his eyes and a smile on his lips.
   "George Huett!--Where'd you get that contraption?" demanded his father.
   "Bought it. Second-hand. Never mind how much...And have I had a hell of a time getting here? Well, I guess!"
   "When'd you leave Flagg?"
   "Before noon."
   "Not to-day?"
   "Sure to-day. Say, this car of mine isn't Buck--though by gosh! it bucked on me some...Hop in, Dad. Let me give you a little spin."
   "Not much," declared Huett.
   "Take me, George," begged Barbara, her face eager and daring.
   "Well, I guess. Pile in here."
   George drove her around the bench and down across the brook, sending up great sheets of muddy water, out on the flat, and back again, in a cloud of dust. Barbara leaped out radiant and breathless.
   "Oh--grand!" she cried. "You go so fast...But I was--scared."
   "Doggone these young people nowadays," complained Huett to Lucinda. "Our old way--too slow, too slow!...Reckon I'll come to it if these cars ever get safe."
   George did not succeed in convincing his father that automobiles were to be trusted, but before winter came he proved they were marvellous to cover distance, to save time, to add wonderfully to the comfort and efficiency of a housewife, to bring mail and supplies quickly to the ranches. "You've been a pioneer for twenty-five years. From now on you're a rancher."
   The driving of this new stock, the repairing of fences, the toil early and late in the fields, and the other manifold tasks of the growing ranch made days and seasons fly by on wings. The boys stacked a hundred tons of alfalfa and sold as many bushels of potatoes before the frosts hurried them to the game trails with their guns. Lucinda and Barbara were rushed with their labours--putting up endless jars of pears and peaches, of pickles and tomatoes, of apple-butter and mincemeat. Logan stored away in the cellar a load of the finest cabbages he had ever seen.
   "Ha, Luce!" he exclaimed, heartily. "Remember when I used to say we'll not starve, anyhow?...Things are pretty good...Well, well, it's been long coming."
   While the seasons sped by, Huett's bead of cattle had doubled, trebled, quadrupled. How amazingly they multiplied now! The calves came as if by magic. Widow Steadman died without any kin to whom to leave her cattle and her several thousand head gravitated to Huett.
   George hit upon a plan to cut a track beyond Three Springs Wash to the canyon below and enclose that. It resembled Sycamore somewhat, but was larger and revealed more gaps to fence. George demonstrated, against his father's remonstrances, how two canyons rich in acorns and oak browse would raise a larger herd of stock more quickly than one; and Huett finally succumbed to facts and figures.
   "But rustlers can steal from us down there very much easier than they have been able to in Sycamore," replied Huett, still the over-cautious and long-suffering cattleman.
   "We'll risk that. Besides, we'll let what's left of our wild horses drift down there. Those broom-tails eat a lot, Dad."
   Lucinda divined anew how Logan had so inspired them all with his great idea, his driving passion, that long habit of work, of sacrifice had left them unable to slow down, to begin to see the prosperity that had really come. But what were ten thousand head of stock to Huett? He limited the sale to less than a thousand a year. He kept out of debt and bought more cattle.
   But Lucinda did not fail to see their happiness. They were as busy as honey-storing bees. They were sufficient unto themselves. Several times a year Lucinda and Barbara went to town, finding more pleasure in these trips for their infrequency.
   Seldom did Lucinda broach the subject of marriage to Barbara, and she finally stopped altogether after Barbara said:
   "Oh, Mother, I am afraid Abe will ask me some day, and if he does I--I can't beg him to wait longer--I love him so...But George loves me too--and Grant. I think Abe hates to hurt them...We're all so happy. Why can't we go on this way longer?"

Chapter 13 >