The First Traveler
On The Trail of the Wise Men
Time was when Jimmy had been the cook at Welsh’s ranch, and had had it all his own way in the greasy adobe kitchen. But that was before Ben Welsh’s last round-up. Since then his widow had been obliged to turn part of the cattle-ranch into a boarding camp for invalids; the part that lay in a narrow strip along the desert. Health-seekers paid better than cattle or alfalfa she found.
Many things came in with the new administration. Matsu was one of them, in his white chef’s cap and jacket. The spotless linen was a delight to the boarders, but to Jimmy, deposed to the rank of hewer of wood and drawer of water, it was the badge of the usurper. Naturally enough his jealousy took the form of making Matsu live up to his linen, and he watched him like a cat for the slightest lapse from cleanliness.
This constant warfare with Matsu was one of the few diversions the camp afforded, and every man made much of it. Had he been let alone, old Jimmy would have accepted the situation as merely one more ill-turn of Fate, which had left him as usual at the bottom of the wheel. But his futile resentment was too funny a thing for his tormentors to allow to die out.
It was a remark made early that morning which set him to brooding over his wrongs, and finally led to the sup too much which precipitated the fight over the potato-pot. Batty Carson made it, in a hoarse whisper, all the voice left to him since the grippe sent him West in his senior year. (He had been the best tenor in his college glee-club.) Jimmy was moving a table into the shadow of the tents, in order that the daily game of poker might begin. Poker was all there was in that God-forsaken desert to save a man’s reason, Batty declared, so they played it from breakfast till bed-time. As the usual group joined him around the table, he opened a new deck of cards and began shuffling it. Automatically he found the joker and flipped it out of the pack. It fell face up on the dry Bermuda grass and old Jimmy stooped to pick it up.
Batty stopped him with a laugh. “A seasoned old poker player like you stooping to pick up the joker!” he teased. “You know well enough only one game goes on this ranch, and the joker’s no good in that.” Then he winked at the others.
“That’s what you’ll be after awhile, Jimmy, if you don’t stand up for your rights better than you are doing. Matsu will be taking every trick in the game, and you’ll count for nothing more than just the joker of the pack.”
Jimmy flared up with an indignant oath at the laugh which followed, tore the card in two, and would have gone off muttering vengeance on Batty himself, had not the young fellow stopped him and teased him back into good humour. But the remark rankled afterward because there was such a large element of truth in it. Jimmy was no fool even if he was slow-witted. He knew as well as any one else that he had never counted for much in any game Life had ever given him a hand in. He brooded over the fact until some sort of solace was necessary. After that he burned for an occasion to assert himself. It came when Mrs. Welsh called to him to fill the wood-box. Just as he threw down his first armful of mesquite, the accident befell the potatoes, and he waited to see what Matsu would do.
What could Matsu do with sixteen hungry men listening for the dinner bell, but scoop out a big spoonful from the side of the pot where the ashes had fallen, toss it out of the window and heap the rest of the white fluffy mass into the hot dish awaiting it? Jimmy would have done the same in his day but now he thundered, “Throw out the whole potful, you pig of a heathen! Do you want to drive away every boarder on the ranch with your dirty tricks? Throw it out, I say.”
With the good-nature that rarely failed him, Matsu only shrugged his shoulders, giggled his habitual giggle and proceeded, unmoved by threats.
“Go get ‘notha drink,” he advised, as Jimmy continued to glare at him. “Make you have heap much betta feeling. Not so big mad. Go get full.”
Dinner was twenty minutes late that day. The boarders heard the reason from Hillis, who came in in his shirt sleeves to wait on the table, in place of Mrs. Welsh. Hillis was the dish-washer, a tall big-fisted lumberman from Maine, who, stranded at the close of an ill-starred prospecting tour, had taken temporary service in Mrs. Welsh’s kitchen. He talked cheerfully of the disturbance as he clumped around the table, thrusting the dishes at each boarder in turn. They forgave his awkwardness in their interest in the fight.
“Jimmy began it,” he told them. “Swung on to the pot and tried to pull it away from Jappy and throw out the stuff himself. But Jappy wouldn’t have it, and batted him one on the head with the potato masher. Then Jimmy went in for blood, and grabbed the meat-knife, and would have put it into him in a pair of seconds if I hadn’t tripped him up and sat on him. There was a hot time in there for a spell, the air was blue. Old Jimmy cussin’ for all he was worth in the sand-flapper lingo, and Matsu going him one better every time in his pigeon English!”
“I suppose they’ll both throw up their jobs now,” remarked a dyspeptic looking man near the foot of the table. “I thought it was too good to last, and this God-forsaken Arizona desert can’t hold more than one chef like Matsu. He’s the perfection of his kind. I’d feel like hitting the trail myself if he should go.”
“That’s what Mrs. Welsh is afraid of,” replied Hillis. “She’s out there now trying to patch up the peace with him and coax him to stay. She told me not to tell you about the potatoes—thought it might turn some of you against your victuals; but it’s too blamed funny to keep.”
“For my part I hope she’ll patch up the peace with Jimmy, too,” said Batty Carson in his hoarse whisper. “He’s the only amusing thing in all this howling wilderness. His being so far off the track himself makes it all the funnier when he goes to playing human guidepost for everybody else.”
“He’ll get his neck wrung a-doing it sometime,” rejoined Hillis. “I told him so when he came fussing around at first, sticking his fingers in my dish-water to see if it was hot enough to kill germs. I told him I’d scald him instead of the dishes if he didn’t let me alone. But it’s just his way I suppose. He’s been here off and on ever since Welsh bought the ranch.”
“It’s off this time,” came Batty’s croaking whisper. “There he goes now. Whew! He’s hot! Just watch him hump himself along!”
The eight men whose backs were toward the window, turned in their chairs to follow the gaze of the others. They had a glimpse of a tall spare figure, hurrying stiffly past the house as fast as his rheumatic joints would allow. There was anger in every line of it. Even the red bandana around his throat seemed to express it. The fierce curves of his old hat-brim, the bristling hairs of his grizzly mustache, the snap of his lean jaws as the few snags left in his sunken gums opened and shut on a quid of tobacco, all told of an inward rage which would be long in cooling.
“Well, it’s all over now,” announced Hillis a moment later, coming back from the kitchen with a bowl of hot gravy. “Jimmy vowed one of them had to go, so Mrs. Welsh said he’d have to be that one. She could get a Mexican to chop wood and carry water, but she couldn’t get another cook like Matsu. And Jimmy’s that mad and insulted and hurt he can’t get off the place fast enough. He’s gone now to pack his kit, muttering as if he’d swallowed a lot of distant thunder.”
A laugh went around the long table. Usually the meals proceeded in silence except for a few spasmodic outbursts. Sitting all day in the sun, gazing at the monotonous desert landscape while one waits for winter to crawl by, is not a conversational stimulant. But to-day, even Maidlow, the grumpiest invalid in the lot, forgot his temperature and himself in adding his mite to the fund of anecdotes passing around the table about Jimmy. The conversation was less restrained than usual in the absence of the only lady and child which the ranch boasted. The Courtlands were spending the day in Ph[oe]nix, so there were three vacant chairs at the foot of the table. One was a child’s high-chair with a bib hanging over its back. Hillis laid his hand on it in passing.
“Here’s one that will miss the old rain-crow,” he said, as if glad to find some good word about Jimmy. “Little Buddy Courtland comes about as near loving him as anybody could, I guess. He’ll miss him.”
“It’s Dane Ward who’ll really miss him,” declared the dyspeptic, glancing out of the window at the farthest row of tents to the one at the end whose screen door was closed. “Now Jimmy’s gone I don’t see what that poor fellow will do when he needs some one to sit up with him of nights.”
“That’s right,” agreed Batty Carson. “Jimmy’s been his right bower ever since he came. I’ll give the old devil credit for that much.”
While they talked, Jimmy, outside in the shack which he shared with Hillis, was gathering up in a furious rage his small bundle of belongings, cursing darkly as he threw boots, shirts and overalls into a confused heap in the middle of his bunk. Near at hand the tents stood empty in the December sun; five rows of them, four in a row with twenty foot spaces between. Each canvas-covered screen door swung open, and outside sat a camp chair or a big wooden rocker, with blanket or overcoat trailing across it, just as its occupant had left it to go in to dinner. A litter of newspapers and magazines lay all around on the dry Bermuda grass.
There was one exception. One screen door was closed, that of the farthest tent on the back row in line with Jimmy’s shack. A sound of coughing—choked, convulsive coughing, had been coming from that direction for several minutes, but the sound did not penetrate Jimmy’s consciousness until he heard his name called in an agonized tone. He craned his head out to listen. The call came again in a frantic gasp:
“Jimmy! Jimmy! Oh, somebody come!”
Then he recognized the voice. It was Dane Ward calling him. In his row with Matsu he had forgotten the boy; forgotten that he was to carry him his dinner and give him his medicine. He remembered with a pang of self-reproach that he had promised to come back with fresh wood as soon as he had carried an armful of wood to the kitchen. He started off on a stiff jog-trot towards the tent.
A moment later, maybe not even so long as that, for as he ran he knew that he might be racing against death, he dashed into the kitchen which he had sworn never again to enter, and caught up a handful of salt. Hillis, thinking he had lost his mind, almost dropped the tray of dessert dishes he was holding for Matsu to fill; but Mrs. Welsh recognizing the import of Jimmy’s act, followed without question as he called back over his shoulder, “It’s Dane! The worst hemorrhage the lad’s had yet.”
Hillis carried the news into the dining room with the dessert. Big and strong, never having had a sick day in his life, he could not know the effect it would produce, and Mrs. Welsh had not thought to warn him. The room grew silent. It was what might happen to any one of them; had happened in fact to all. The apprehension of it was the skeleton at their every feast. First one man and then another pushed back his plate and went out into the sunshine. They all liked Dane, the shy, quiet boy from some village in the New York hills. That was all they knew of him, for he always sat apart. Sometimes there was a book in his lap but he rarely read—just sat and gazed off towards the east with a hungry look in his big grey eyes. The homesick longing of them was heart-breaking to see.
They went back to their chairs and their naps and their newspapers, but the usual afternoon monotony was broken by the interest centering in the farthest tent in the last row. They glanced up furtively every time the door opened. It swung many times in the course of the afternoon, for Mrs. Welsh to go in and out, for the doctor to make a hurried visit, for Jimmy to come and go with crushed ice and clean towels, a spoon or a pitcher of fresh water.
For Jimmy, in his anxious ministrations, forgot his fight with Matsu, forgot that he had had no dinner, and that he was in the midst of preparations for leaving the ranch. The ugly facts did not come back to him till several hours had passed. Then he started up from the chair beside Dane’s bed and tip-toed heavily across the floor. He would finish making up his bundle while the boy was asleep. The danger was past now. If he could get down to the Tempe road before dark, probably he could catch a ride the rest of the way into Ph[oe]nix. A board creaked and Dane opened his eyes.
“I wasn’t asleep,” he said weakly. “Hand me that little picture off the bureau, won’t you, Jimmy?” Then as his fingers closed over it—”And roll the canvas to the top of the door please. I can’t see.”
Jimmy sat down again, impelled by the pitifulness of the thin white face. He knew the picture, having examined it privately on several occasions while sweeping the tent. It was a tin-type of two laughing school-girls, with their arms around each other. It was plain to him that one was Dane’s sister. He guessed the relationship of the other when he saw that it was on the face unlike his that Dane’s wistful eyes rested longest. Presently he slipped it under his pillow and lay so still that Jimmy thought he was asleep, until he saw a tear slipping slowly from under the closed eye-lids. Involuntarily the rough hand went out and closed in a sympathetic grasp over the white fingers on the coverlet. Dane bit his lip to hide their twitching and then broke out bitterly, but in a voice so weak that it came in gasps:
“That doctor back home lied to me! He lied! He knew that I was past saving when he sent me out here. He ought to have told me. Do you suppose I’dhave let my mother mortgage her home—all she had in the world—to send me, if he hadn’t led us to believe that the Arizona climate could work a miracle? He made it so certain that I’d get well right away, it seemed suicidal not to take the chance.”
He stopped, almost strangled by a paroxysm of coughing, lay panting for a moment, and then began again, despite Jimmy’s warning that it would make him worse to talk.
“Mother can never pay out without my help, and I’ve got to lie here to the end and think of what’s in store for her and Sis, and then—die and be buried out here in this awful desert! It’ll cost too much to be sent back home. Oh, how could a man lie like that to a person that’s dying?”
“What are you thinking about dying for?” he demanded in his bluff way. “You’ll be better than ever after this spell. It sort of cleaned out your pipes you know. You’ll be busting bronchos with the best of them by spring if you keep up your courage. Look at Mr. Courtland now. He was worse off than you when he came, a heap sight. Had to be brought on a stretcher. He’s getting well.”
“No, it’s different—everyway,” answered Dane wearily. “He’s got his family with him, and money and—everything. I haven’t even my mother’s picture. She never had any taken. If I had even that when the end comes it wouldn’t seem quite so lonesome. But to think of all strange faces, and afterwards—to lie among strangers hundreds of miles away from home—oh, it nearly makes me crazy to think of the miles and miles of cactus and sand between us! I hate the sight of this awful country.”
Jimmy looked out through the open door of the tent, across the dreary waste of desert, separated from the camp by only the irrigating ditch, and the unfrequented highroad, as if he were seeing it in a new light.
“‘Spect it might strike a fellow as sort of the end of nowhere the first time he sees it,” he admitted. “I’ve lived here so long I kind of like it myself. But I know what you’re craving to see. I lived back in the hills myself when I was a kid. I was brought up in York state.”
Dane raised himself on his elbow, an excited flush on his face. “You, from home,” he began. “New York—”
Jimmy pushed him back. “You’re getting too frisky,” he admonished. “You’ll be took again if you ain’t careful. Yes, I know just what you’re pining for. You want to see the hills all red with squaw berries or pink in arbutus time; and the mountain brooks—nothing like these muddy old irrigating ditches—so clear you can see the pebbles in the bottom, and the trout flipping back and forth so fast you can hardly see their speckles. But Lord! boy—you don’t want to go back there now in mid-winter. The roads are piled up with drifts to the top of the stone fences and the boughs of the sugar-bush are weighed down with snow till you’d think you was walking through a grove of Christmas trees.”
“Oh, go on!” pleaded Dane, as he paused. His eyes were closed, but a smile rested on his face as if the scenes Jimmy described were his for the moment. “Jimmy, it’s—it’s like heaven to hear you talk about it! Don’t stop.”
To keep the smile on the white face, that rapt, ineffable smile of content, Jimmy talked on. Over forty years lay between him and the scenes he was recalling. He had wandered far afield from his straight-going, path-keeping Puritan family. He had been glad at times that they had lost track of him, and that wherever he went he was known only as “Jimmy.” Gradually the reminiscences like the touch of a familiar hand on a troubled brow, soothed Dane into forgetfulness of his surroundings, and he fell asleep from sheer exhaustion.
Just at dusk that evening, when Batty Carson went around to the kitchen for his usual glass of new milk, he was surprised to see Jimmy down by the wood-pile. He was vigorously at work, helping unload a wagon of mesquite, and quite as vigorously scolding the Indian who had brought it for coming so late.
“Thought he was going to leave,” croaked Batty, nodding towards the wood-pile as he took the glass extended towards him.
Hillis chuckled. “Says he’s staying on Dane’s account; that it would have touched the heart of a coyote the way he begged not to be left to die among strangers. It seems they’re both from the same state, so they’re almost claiming kin. I rather guess though, that when he’d cooled down he was glad of any old excuse to stay, and when the boy begged him and Mrs. Welsh seconded the motion, he felt he could give in without any let-down to his dignity.”
The Indian, gathering up his reins, rattled away in the empty wagon, and Jimmy began to fill his chip-basket, singing in a high, tremulous falsetto as he worked. His voice had been his pride in his youth. It was still sweet, although it cracked at times on the higher notes—
“Wa-ait for me at heav-un’s gate,
Swe-et Belle Mahone!”
Hillis laughed. “Sings as if he fairly feels his wings sprouting. It’s a sure sign he’s at peace with the world when he trots out those sentimental old tunes. He doesn’t sound now much like the man who was in here this noon, cussin’ and slashing around with a butcher knife.”
But Jimmy had not forgotten. He cooked his own supper that night, first ostentatiously wiping the skillet and everything else that Matsu had touched, with such an expression of disgust on his face that the little Jap’s fine sense of humour was tickled. He shrugged his shoulders, giggled his usual jolly giggle, and afterwards mimicked the whole scene until Mrs. Welsh and Hillis nearly choked with laughter.
Dane was up in a few days, able to go to the dining room and to drive short distances. Young Mrs. Courtland spoke of his improvement to Jimmy one morning as they watched him drive away with Hillis in the ranch surrey. They were going to a neighbouring orange grove to replenish the stock in the storeroom. Jimmy, kneeling in the path, mending Buddy’s wooden goat, drove a final tack before he straightened himself to answer.
“No, ma’am!” he said emphatically. “That boy’ll never be what is to say really better. When he tears the last leaf off that calendar in his tent he ain’t going to need next year’s.”
“Sure,” answered Jimmy. “But he isn’t dying of homesickness and worry along with his lung trouble. He’s got you and Buddy and the cash. He doesn’t have to drive himself nearly crazy thinking that the time is bound to come when those he loves best will be left without a roof over their heads on account of him. It was worse than cruel—it was a downright crime for that doctor to build their hopes up so. If he’d had sense enough to doctor a June-bug he’d have seen that nothing can cure the lad. To send him on such a wild goose chase is bad enough, but to send him alone and as poor as he is—Good Lord—”
Jimmy paused, remembering his audience, just in time to stop the malediction on his tongue.
“But,” urged Mrs. Courtland, unconsciously moved to the championship of the unknown doctor by the fact that her father was a physician, “other men have come alone and they seem to be getting on all right.”
“Yes, but if you take notice they’re all the kind that had bucked up against the world before they got sick, and were used to shifting for themselves. Now there’s Batty Carson. He’s going to get well. He goes about it as if he was training to get on a foot-ball team. So much deep breathing every so often, hot beef juice at nine, raw eggs at ten, fifty licks at the wood-pile at eleven—What with his sun baths and water baths and rubdowns, looking at his thermometer and weighing himself and feeling his pulse and counting his breaths and watching the clock, he ain’t got time to miss his folks. Most of the boarders this year happen to be that sort, or else they’ve got money to go in for all kinds of amusements that make them forget their troubles. But there was a pitiful lot of cases here last winter. They was too far gone when they come to have any fight in ’em. And that’s what I say—it’s heartless of the doctors to ship them off here when they’ve only one chance in a thousand. The West is full of ’em and it ain’t right.”
Batty Carson, shuffling cards at the little table set in the shade behind the next tent, looked up with a wink when he heard his name mentioned. The others in the game smiled with him as Jimmy went on, and a voice from one of the farther tents called, “Go it, Jimmy! You ought to hire a hall and not waste all that eloquence on a lot of lungers who already vote your ticket. Wish you’d bring me a box of matches when you get around to it.”
Taking the tents in order, as was his custom, emptying slops and filling pitchers, Jimmy gradually worked his way along the row until he came to the one outside of which the card-game was going on in silence. As he moved around inside setting things to rights, Batty Carson held up a finger and winked.
“Listen!” he whispered. There was a clinking of bottles on the wash-stand, then a soft plash into the slop-jar, and Jimmy cleared his throat with a muffled “kha-a-a” as if he had just swallowed something good.
“The old buzzard’s been at my alcohol bottle again,” whispered Batty. “Last time he went against it he didn’t leave me enough for one good rub-down, and then he had the face to reel off a long temperance lecture on what a pity it was that so many of us fellows kept spirits in our tents.”
A loud laugh followed Jimmy as he walked out innocently clinking his pails. There was a smell of alcohol in his wake. He had spilled some on his clothes. Ignorant of the cause of their mirth he looked back at them over his shoulder with a friendly smile. As he dropped the bucket into the cistern out by the bamboo thicket, his voice floated back in a high cracked falsetto:
Swe-et Belle Mahone!”
Batty laughed again. “What kind of a bet will you fellows put up on Jimmy’s prospect of even getting within gun-shot of heaven’s gate?” he asked.
“I never bet on a dead certainty,” answered the man whose turn it was to play. “He knows he’s sampled about everything that goes on in a mining camp or anywhere else in a new territory, and he’s nothing to show for himself that St. Peter could take as a passport. But he isn’t worrying, as long as he’s provided for in this world. His pension keeps him in clothes and tobacco and when he’s too old to work the Soldiers’ Home will take him in.”
“He’s not worrying over the next world either,” some one else added. “Mrs. Welsh says he has sixty dollars salted down in bank that he’s saved to have masses said for the repose of his soul. Not that he’s tied his belief to anything in particular, but he once had a wife back in his young days, who was one of the faithful.”
“Let us hope that particular bank won’t suspend payment,” laughed Batty, “for it’s his only hope of ever joining his Belle Mahone.”
Dane came back from his drive with new interest in life. The sight of the olive groves and almond orchards, the alfalfa fields and acres of lemon and orange trees lying green and gold between the irrigating canals, had lured him away from thoughts of his condition. He was not so shy and speechless that day at dinner. He even walked out on the desert a little way that afternoon, with Buddy clinging to his hand to pilot him to the wonderful nest of a trap-door spider. For a day or two he made feeble efforts to follow Batty Carson’s example. Instead of watching the eastern horizon he watched Mrs. Courtland ply her embroidery needle or bead-work loom, preparing for the Christmas now so near at hand.
But it was only a few days till he was back in the depths again. The slightest exertion exhausted him. Burning with fever he clung to Jimmy, talking of the white hillsides at home, the icicles on the eaves, the snow-laden cedars. Then when the chill came again he shivered under the blankets Jimmy tucked around him, and buried his face in the pillow to hide the tears that shamed him.
“I can’t help it,” he gasped at last. “I hate myself for being so babyish. But, Jimmy, it’s like living in a nightmare to have that one thought haunt me day and night. I don’t mind the dying—I’ll be glad to go. It racks me so to cough. But it’s the dying so far away from home—alone! I can’t go without seeing mother once more! Just once, Jimmy, one little minute.”
The old man’s mouth twitched. There was no answer to that kind of an appeal.
“Mail!” called a voice outside. The ranch wagon had come back from Ph[oe]nix, and Hillis was going from tent to tent with the letter-bag. “Mr. Dane Ward,” he called. “One letter and one package. Christmas is beginning a week ahead of time,” he added as Jimmy came to the door.
Dane sat up and opened the letter first, with fingers that trembled in their eagerness. He read snatches of it aloud, his face brightening with each new item of interest.
“They’re going to have an oyster supper and a Christmas tree for the Sunday-school. And Charlie Morrow broke into the mill-pond last Saturday, and the whole skating party nearly drowned trying to fish him out. Mr. Miller’s barn burned last week, and Ed Morris and May Dawson ran away and were married at Beaver Dam Station. It’s like opening a window into the village and looking down every street to get mother’s letters. I can see everybody that passes by, and pretty near smell what people are cooking for dinner. She’s sending my Christmas present a week ahead of time, because from what I wrote about the cold nights she was sure I’d need it right away. Cut the string, please, Jimmy.”
Two soft outing flannel shirts rolled out of the paper wrapping. Dane spread them on the bed beside him with fond touches.
“She made every stitch of them herself,” he said proudly, smiling as he turned the page for the last sentence.
“Christmas will not be Christmas to us with you so far away, dear boy, but we are going to be brave and make as merry as we can, looking forward to the time when that blessed land of sunshine will send you back to us, strong and well.”
The letter dropped from his hands and Jimmy heard him say with a shivering, indrawn breath, “But that time will never come! Never!” Then catching up the mass of soft flannel as if it brought to him in some way the touch of the dear hands that had shaped it, he flung himself back on the pillow, burying his face in it to stifle the sobs that would slip out between his clenched teeth.
“Never go home again!” he moaned once. “God! How can I stand it!” Then in a pitiful whisper, “Oh, mother, I want you so.”
Jimmy got up and tip-toed softly out of the tent.
That night, Batty Carson, taking his after-supper constitutional, strode up and down outside the camp, his hands in his overcoat pockets. The little tents, each with a lamp inside, throwing grotesque shadows on the white canvas walls, made him think of a cluster of Chinese lanterns. Only the last one in the last row was dark, and moved by a friendly impulse to ask after Dane’s welfare, he strolled over towards it. Had it not been for the odour of a rank pipe, he might have stumbled over Jimmy, in the camp chair outside Dane’s door.
“Playing sentinel?” he asked.
“No, just keeping the lad company a spell. He can’t bear to hear them kiotes howl.”
“You’re lively company, I must say,” bantered Batty. “I didn’t hear much animated conversation as I came up.”
Jimmy glanced over his shoulder. “No,” he said in a lower tone. “He’s asleep now.”
Lighting a cigar, Batty unfolded a camp stool which was leaning against one of the guy ropes, and seated himself. Jimmy seemed in a confidential mood.
“I’ve been setting here,” he began, “studying about a Christmas present that had ought to be made this year. I ain’t got no call to make it, but there’s plenty of others that could do it and never miss it. I’ve got an old uncle that sets ’em up now and then, but he isn’t liable to send me another check before February, so I can’t do it.”
“Oh, your Uncle Sam,” laughed Batty, remembering Jimmy’s pension and the object of his savings. “Well,” speaking slowly between puffs, “I’m not counting on making any Christmas presents this year except to myself. Being sick makes a man selfish, I suppose. But if I have to be exiled out here in the cactus and greasewood, I intend to make it as pleasant for myself as possible. So I know what’s going into my Christmas stocking: the dandiest little saddle horse this side of the Mississippi, and a rifle that can knock the spots off anything in Salt River valley.”
When Jimmy answered his voice was still lower, for a cough had sounded in the tent behind them.
“Well, Sandy Claws and I ain’t never been acquainted, so to speak. I neither give or get, but if I had the price of a saddle horse in my breeches it wouldn’t go into my stocking. It ‘ud take that boy in there back home to die, as fast as steam cars can travel. A man would almost be justified in giving up his hope of heaven to give a poor soul the comfort that would be to him.”
The distant barking of coyotes sounded through the starlight. Jimmy pulled at his pipe in silence and Batty sat blowing wreaths of cigar smoke around his head until a woman’s voice struck musically across the stillness.
“Come, little son, hug father Ted good night.”
As Batty watched the shadow pantomime on the white canvas walls of the tent in front of him, the baby arms clasped around the young father’s neck, and the beautiful girl bending over them, laughing, he understood the miracle that was bringing Courtland back from the very grave. The screen door slammed and she came out with the child in her arms, a golf-cape wrapped over his nightgown. Then the shadows changed to the next tent. Buddy, with his bare pink toes stretched out toward the little drum stove, sat in his mother’s lap and listened to the good night story.
It was a Christmas story as well, and the three Wise Men in quest of the starlit manger came out of the shadows of a far-gone past, to live again before the glowing wonder of a little child’s eyes. Once he glanced over his shoulder when she told of the silver bells jingling on the trappings of the camels, and he clasped his dimpled hands with a long, satisfied sigh when the gifts were opened at last before the Christ-child’s cradle.
“An’ nen the little king was so glad,” he added, lying back happily against his mother’s shoulder.
“Yes, dear heart.”
“An’ the little king’s mothah was glad, too,” he persisted. “She liked people to give fings to her little boy.”
“Oh yes, she was the happiest of all. Now shut your eyes, little son, and we’ll rock-a-bye-baby-in-the-tree-top.”
The two shadows were merged into one as the rocking chair swayed back and forth a moment in time to a low, sweet crooning. Then Buddy sat up straight and laid an imperative hand on the cheek pressed against his curly hair.
She tried to explain, but he would not be appeased. The little mouth quivered with disappointment. “If they’re all gone away up to heaven how can I find the king, Mothah Ma’wy?”
“Oh, little son, we still have the star!” she cried, clasping him close and kissing him.
“Show it to me!” he demanded, slipping from her lap and pattering towards the door in his bare feet. She caught him up again with more kisses, and holding him close began to grope for words simple enough to make it plain—that the Star which wise men follow now, when they go with gifts for the Christ-child’s gladdening, is the Star of love and good-will to men, and the Way lies near at hand through the hearts of his poor and needy.
When she finished at last, Batty’s cigar had gone out, and Jimmy, stirred by some old memory or by some new vision, was staring fixedly ahead of him with unseeing eyes. Neither man moved until the last note of the lullaby, “Oh little town of Bethlehem,” faltered into silence. Then without a word, each rose abruptly and went his separate way.
It was reported in camp next day at dinner that Dane was going home, and that the doctor on his morning rounds had consented to engage a sleeper for him and help him aboard the first Eastern-bound train. While the doctor gave it as his opinion that it was suicidal for any one in his condition to go back to such a climate in mid-winter, he offered no remonstrance. Nor could any one else in the face of such pathetic joy as Dane’s, over his unexpected release.
It was with a sigh of relief that Mrs. Welsh turned from the departing carriage to begin her preparations for Christmas. It would have been depressing for all the camp to have had any one in their midst during the holidays as ill as Dane; besides she had work for Jimmy other than nursing. There were trips to be made down the canal after palm leaves and the coral berries of the feathery pepper trees. There were the dining-room walls to be covered with those same Christmas greens, and since Mrs. Courtland wished it, a little cedar to be brought out from the town market, and decked for the centre of the table.
In the days which followed Dane’s departure, Jimmy was so rushed with extra work that gradually he began to ignore his grudge against Matsu. One night, having absent-mindedly followed Hillis in filling his plate from the pots and pans on the stove, instead of cooking for himself, he thereafter ate whatever Matsu prepared without comment.
Maybe the mere handling of the Christmas symbols induced a mellower mood, for when the last taper was in place on the tinsel decked evergreen he felt so at peace with all mankind that he included the little heathen in his invitation, when he called Hillis in to admire his handiwork. He was whistling softly when he stepped out doors from the dining-room, and turned the latch behind him. The shaggy old dog rose up from the door-mat and followed him as he strolled down towards the highroad. He was in his shirt-sleeves, for the dusk was warm and springlike. A great star hung over the horizon.
“It’s Christmas eve, Banjo,” he said in a confidential tone to the dog. “I guess Dane is home by this time. By rights he ought to have got there this morning.”
“Nary a crumb,” he muttered, “and not a cent left to get one. Banjo, I’d give both ears for a good chaw right now. I’m not grudging it, but I sure would ‘a’ held back a dime or two if I hadn’t thought there was another plug in the shack.”
Banjo bristled up and growled.
“Hush, you beast!” scolded Jimmy. “You ought to be so full of peace and good-will this here Christmas eve that there wouldn’t be room for a single growl in your ugly old hide. I’d be if I could lay teeth on the chaw I’m hankering for. What’s the matter with you anyhow?”
“Is this Welsh’s ranch?” he called. “Then I’ve got a telegram for somebody. It’s addressed mighty queer—just says ‘Jimmy, care of Mrs. Clara Welsh.'”
“Well, I’m a—greaser!” was all that Jimmy could ejaculate as he reached for the yellow envelope. He turned it over with growing curiosity. “First telegram I ever got in my life, and me sixty odd years,” he muttered.
“There’s a dollar charges for delivering it out so far,” said the boy. Jimmy’s hand went down into his pocket again.
“I’ll have to go to the house for it,” he said. “You wait.”
“Has the old uncle died and left you a fortune?” laughed Batty, as he handed over the dollar.
“Blamed if I can make out,” answered Jimmy, holding the scrap of paper at arms length and squinting at it. “I ain’t got my specs. Here! you read it.”
Batty, taking the telegram, read in his hoarse whisper:
Then he looked up for an explanation. Jimmy was staring at him open-mouthed. “Well, if that ain’t the blamedest message ever was,” he exclaimed. “I don’t know any sucker named Matthew. Is the woman plumb crazy?”
Batty looked up from the second reading, enlightened.
“No, I take it she wanted to send you some sort of a Christmas greeting, but probably she’s as poor as she is pious and had to count her words. Come on, we’ll look up Matthew twenty-five and forty. I guess I haven’t forgotten how to do such stunts, even if it has been such a precious while since the last one.”
He led the way to his tent, and while Jimmy lighted the lamp he began burrowing through his trunk. Down at the very bottom he found it, the Book he was looking for, then the chapter and the verse. When he cleared his throat and read the entire telegram it sounded strangely impressive in his hoarse whisper:
“Dane arrived safely. God bless you. ‘And the king shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.'”
There was an awkward pause as they faced each other a moment, pondering the queer message. Then as a conscious red began to burn up through the tan of Jimmy’s weather-beaten face, Batty understood.
“You sent that boy home to his mother,” he began, but Jimmy, bolting out of the tent, shambled off, shamefaced, through the dusk.
For a long time Batty stood in the door looking out over the darkening desert. The one star swinging above the horizon seemed to point the way to a little home among snow-clad hills, where Christmas gladness had reached its high-tide. Presently as the supper-bell rang, a voice came floating up from the bamboo thicket. Cracked and thin it was, but high and jubilant, as if the old man had forgotten that he had no tobacco for the refreshment of his soul in this world, and no prospect of a mass for its repose in the next.
Sweet Belle Mahone!”
“All right for you, old Jimmy,” whispered Batty to himself. “In the game St. Peter keeps the score for, you’ll be counted the highest card that thiscamp holds.”
Categories: English Literature