TWO weeks of instructive contact with the Bar-7 school of gallantry had prepared Mrs. Laithe to be amazed at her first encounter with Ewing’s kid. Riding out from the ranch one afternoon and turning, for coolness, up the wooded mesa that rises from the creek flat, she overwhelmed him at a bend in the trail. Stricken motionless, he glared at the lady with eyes in which she was compelled to believe that she read more horror than admiration. There was a moment of this; then her pony neighed a greeting to the statue—of dusty bronze—as if to say that things were not so bad as they seemed, and the gazing youth broke the spell his vision had laid upon him. He bowed his head doggedly and vanished beyond some low-growing cedars that lined the way.
As he fled the lady laughed softly, yet was silent, with face austerely set as she passed the point of his evanishment. His behavior recalled that of a deer she had terrorized one day in this same green isle of the woods; and she had laughed the same furtive laugh, as if in confidence to herself, when the creature tossed its head in challenge, pawed the earth with a dainty bravado, and then fled in such an ecstasy of panic that she could hear it crashing through the underbrush long after it had vanished. But this human woods-creature had gone silently; and no great way, she suspected—far enough only to screen himself while his eyes still held her through some opening in the green curtain. Wherefore let us comprehend the mien of austerity as she passed.
Elusiveness in the male, be it bluntly said, was confounding to the experience of Mrs. Laithe since she had ventured into the San Juan Mountains under the nominal care of an inattentive brother, and her belief was still firm that the men about her suffered little from shyness. This latest specimen would be a single variation from type and of slight value in determining the ways of his kind.
As her pony picked its way up the trail she mused over the not unpleasant picture of the youth at bay. It was a thing to be caught at the moment, for she would find him otherwise, she believed, at their next meeting. She would come on him some day at Bar-7, or at one of the ranches neighboring it, and find him quite like his fellows, rigidly respectful, but with a self-confidence and a simple directness in his gallantry that had entertained her not a little as practiced by local courtiers. He would be like the others, from Beulah Pierce, owner of Bar-7, down to Shane Riley, humble helper in the cookhouse.
An hour later, refreshed by the balsam-laden air of the upper reaches, she left the woods at the foot of the mesa and rode out on the willow flat, lush with grass for Bar-7’s winter feeding. From the first bench above the creek she descried the figures of two men in front of the ranch house. One she saw to be Beulah Pierce, his incredible length draped lazily over the gate that opened into his wife’s flower garden. Outside this gate, under the flow of his talk (Pierce would surely be talking) stood one whom the lady, riding nearer, identified as the youth who so lately had shirked a meeting with her. At this sight she warmed with a little glow of pride in her powers of prophecy. Truly he had waited no long time. His hat was off and he leaned restfully against the withers of a saddled horse, a horse that drooped, head to the ground, in some far low level of dejection.
She laughed again, comprehending the fellow at last. His variation from type had been but seeming, due to an erratic but not constitutional embarrassment. Brazenly enough now he contrived to await her coming, craftily engaging the not difficult Pierce in idle talk. And Pierce, as she rode up, would perform, with stiff importance, the orthodox ceremony of presentation. Whereupon the youth would bow with visible effort, shake her hand with a rigid cordiality, once up, once down, and remark, after swallowing earnestly, “Pleased to meet you, ma’am!” or perhaps, “Glad to make your acquaintance!” Then, tactfully affecting to ignore her, he would demand if Pierce had seen anything of that buckskin mare and colt that strayed off last Tuesday; or if anyone had brought mail up from Pagosa Springs lately; or if Pierce happened to need two thousand hemlock shakes. This query he would follow with a popular local witticism concerning sheepmen or the Colorado climate—nominally addressed to Pierce but intended for her own refreshment. And, in readjusting the silk kerchief at his throat, he would manage a quick side glance at her to see how she relished the jest. For Mrs. Laithe had learned their ways in two weeks, and this was one of them—to favor one another with witty sallies in her presence, and solely in her behalf. All the men of Bar-7 practiced this amiable strategy. When a group of them assembled within her hearing the swift exchange of repartee, accompanied by the inevitable side glance, was a thing to wonder at.
Indeed, the lady had learned their ways. Even before she neared the gate Alonzo Pierce, son of Beulah, appeared round the corner of the ranch house to take her pony, sauntering with a flagrant ennui, in full knowledge that Sandy Goodhue had started violently on the same gallant mission, but from the farthest corral. Shane Riley, chained by his labors to the doorway of the cookhouse, smirked genially out over a pot that he polished; and Red Phinney, star rider at Bar-7, seated himself on the step before the front door, so that he might have to arise with flourishing apologies—a performance that would move the lady to ask about his sprained wrist, now in bandage.
This familiar assembling of her court, professedly casual, was swiftly detected by Mrs. Laithe. But she saw now, being near the gate, a quick turning toward her of the strange youth. It was a brief, impersonal survey that seemed not to disengage her from the background of gray road and yellowish-green willows; but clearly it sufficed. With a curt nod to Pierce he was mounted; in another breath his amazed and indignant horse, spurred viciously from its trance, raged with protesting snorts over the road to the east. As Mrs. Laithe reined up at the gate she beheld, through a nimbus of dust, the rider’s boots groping pathetically for their stirrups.
She repressed a little gasp of astonishment in which the natural woman might have betrayed her view of so headlong a retreat, although, had Beulah Pierce been alone at the gate, she might have descended to speech with him about this strangely retiring youth. But as ‘Lon Pierce waited for her pony, with a masterly taunt for Sandy Goodhue, who came up breathless but late, and as Red Phinney had already risen from his obstructive seat in the doorway, his wrist held cunningly forward to provoke solicitous inquiry, the lady passed in with only such easy words as the moment demanded. She was reflecting, with agreeable interest, that the young man’s avoidance of her would presently begin to seem pointed.
This conjecture was to be abundantly confirmed. Returning from her ride the following afternoon, she saw that the youth must pass her on the public highway. They were out on the flat, with no arboreal sanctuary for the timid one. The lady looked forward with genial malice to a meeting which, it appeared, he was now powerless to avoid. But the youth, perceiving his plight, instantly had trouble with a saddle girth. Turning well out of the road, he dismounted on the farther side of his horse and busied himself with the mechanics of proper cinching. As Mrs. Laithe rode by she saw only the top of a wide-brimmed gray hat above the saddle.
The day following, when, in an orderly sequence of events, they should have met at the ford, he turned with admirable promptness down the stream, where no trail was, sharply scanning the thinned edge of a wood in the perfect manner of one absorbed in a search for lost stock. Clearly, his was a mind fertile, if not subtle, in resource.
Not until a day later did he come truly to face her, and then only by the circumstance of his being penned by her within the high-walled corral where Red Phinney broke green horses to ride, work or carry. Returning this day earlier than was her wont, and finding no one at the front of the house to take her pony, she had ridden back to the corrals. Here she delivered the animal to Phinney, but not before the timid one had been compelled to pass her. He did this, she thought, only after swiftly calculating the height of the walls that pent him. And though his hat was doffed as he hurtled by, his eyes were on the ground. Mrs. Laithe, feeling thus at liberty to stare brutally at him, felt a prodigious heightening of that tower of amazement he had been rearing within her mind, for she saw him blush most furiously; beheld it under the brown of his beardless face.
Yet there was more in the young face than this flaunted banner of embarrassment; and scanning it intently, she resolved forthwith to know him.
Late that day she was pleased to come upon Beulah Pierce alone in the big living room of the ranch house. Smoking a last pipe before the call to supper, Beulah relaxed on the “lounge” after a toilsome season of ditch-making.
“Oh, him?” he answered, luxuriously extending legs that seemed much too long for any reasonable need of man, and pulling at his ragged red mustache. “Why, that’s Ewing’s kid.”
“Ewing?” retorted Mrs. Laithe, provocatively, winningly.
“Ewing’s kid,” murmured the lady, as if in careless musing.
“Sure, Ewing’s kid—Hi Mighty! I struck one o’ them willow roots to-day, on that piece o’ ditch over on the west forty, an’ say! it yanked me clean over the plow handles. It did, fur a fact—straightened me out like a whiplash. It scraped all the wall paper off’n this left shoulder o’ mine when I landed, too, say nothin’ o’ the jounce it give me. Ma, whur’s that embrycation fur man and beast?” And Beulah laid a gentle hand on the abraded member.
“After you’ve et a bite,” called his wife from the next room. “Shane has the things all on, so come along an’ set up.”
Beulah erected himself with an unctuous groan and spoke his favorite jest: “Wa’al, le’s go out an’ see what the neighbors has brought in.”
The meal over, Mrs. Laithe again found herself with Pierce in the living room. She sat on the bearskin before the open fire, her hands clasped about her knees. Through the dancing jets of flame she observed the kid of Ewing with his downward, troubled face. Pierce, tucking shreds of tobacco into the bowl of his pipe, glanced toward her, the light of coming talk in his eyes.
“How’d you like that there little red roan you’re ridin’, Mis’ Laithe?” he began.
“Cooney? Oh, Cooney’s a dear, generally. Sometimes he’s stubborn and pretends to know the way better than I do.”
“Sound and kind, though, I bet you.”
“Wa’al, you see I bought him off’n Ewing’s kid an’ he wants to git back home. Sure’s ever we dast let him loose with the saddle band, he’s over to Ewing’s place, come sun-up. You give him his head any time—he’ll carry you straight there.”
“Surest thing you know! When that kid breaks a pony he gits it all gentled up so’s it hones to git back to him.”
“Naw—makes lashin’s o’ trouble fur them that buys off’n him. Say, Mis’ Laithe, you was askin’ about Ewing’s kid.”
“Was I?” She looked politely blank.
“Sure you was—jest ‘fore supper. Wa’al, Ewing’s kid is the son of a man named—now hear me talk! Course he’s his father’s son. Wa’al, anyway, this man Ewing comes in here with this kid about fifteen, sixteen year ago, an’ takes that place over there by the lake to git cured up o’ the consumption. He was a painter, painted pitchers an’ all sech, understand?—puts up a big stoodio with a winder in it six feet high to paint by. But he was puny. He couldn’t fat up none. You never seen a critter so gaunted as he was. Some said he never got over losin’ his wife. Anyway, ‘t wa’n’t no surprise when he was took off, seven, eight year ago. An’ since he died that there kid has sort o’ half run the place along with a feller named Ben Crider that the old man had got fur help. O’ course we all kind o’ looked in on the boy at first to make sure he wa’n’t in need, an’ done a day’s work now an’ then, an’ they raised a few horses an’ a few cattle an’ one thing an’ another. Trouble with that boy, though, he’s always putterin’ round with his dad’s paint brushes, an’ talkin’ about portrayin’ art an’ all like that, understand? I’ve told that kid time an’ time again, ‘Kid,’ I says, ‘never you mind about portrayin’ art an’ depictin’ the linnerments an’ the varied aspecks o’ nature,’ I says; ‘you jes’ burn up them foolish little long-shanked paint brushes in your Charter Oak cookstove,’ I says, ‘an’ ten’ to portrayin’ a good little bunch of cattle an’ depictin’ Ben Crider to work also, an’ you’ll git I says. But him—why, he jes’ moons along. An’ Ben Crider ain’t much better. Ben ain’t no stimulant to him. Ben had ort to been the only son of a tenderhearted widow lady of means. That’s what he’d ort to been. You give him a new coon song out of a Sunday supplement an’ his guitar, an’ Ben’s fixed fur half a day at least. He ain’t goin’ to worry none about a strayed yearlin’ or two. Why, one time, I rec’lect——”
“Then young Mr. Ewing is a painter, too?” she interrupted.
“Wa’al”—Pierce became judicial—”yes an’ no. He ain’t a reg’ler one, like you might say—not like his pa was. Still, he can do hand paintin’—if you want to call it that. Made a pitcher o’ me this summer, bein’ buckjumped by old Tobe. Tobe was cert’n’y actin’ high, wide an’ handsome, comin’ down with his four hoofs in a bunch, an’ me lookin’ like my works was comin’ all apart the next minute. A lively pitcher—yes; but, my Lord! it wa’n’t a thing you could show! It made me out that reediculous. Course, I ain’t Mrs. Langtry, but you got to draw the line somewhurs, hain’t you? Now there”—Beulah pushed an informing thumb toward crayon portraits of himself and Mrs. Pierce that graced the opposite wall in frames of massive gilt, one on either side of the organ—”that’s what you can call art—drawn by a reg’ler one down to Durango—everything showin’ like it ort to, expressions an’ all, even down to Ma Pierce’s breastpin an’ my watch chain, made out o’ my own mother’s hair. They’re decent pitchers. That other one was plumb indecent, I can tell you. Ma she up an’ hid it away, quick as she seen it.”
“And has he done other things?”
“Painted other pictures?”
“Slathers—horses an’ animals an’ Ben Crider with his gun an’ all sech, an’ deer. Say now, I seen another artist down to the Durango fair last fall that was a genuine wonder an’ no mistake. He was writin’ callin’ cards at a little table, an’ he could draw a runnin’ deer all in flourishes an’ curlycurves, without liftin’ his pen from the card, all slick an’ natural as you’d want to——”
“Did you know his mother?”
“No-o-o—didn’t even know him. I jest stopped to look an’ he drawed a fine big bird right while I watched, havin’ a ribbon in its bill with my name on it in red ink; about as tasty a thing as you’d care to see, fur a quarter of a dollar. It’s round the house somewhur now, I reckon, if you——”
“Ewing’s kid’s mother?”
“Hey? Oh, no, I never knew that lady. She passed away sommers off up the state before these other parties moved in.”
“Ewing? Wa’al, not to say resemble. In fact he didn’t favor him, not at all, that I can rec’lect. He must of been most like his ma.”
The lady had been speaking as from a distance, staring fixedly into the fire, with the distraction of one engaged in some hopeless feat of memory. So intently aloof was she that Pierce had to repeat his next remark.
“I say, you don’t never want to let Cooney git you started up that trail you was speakin’ about. First place, it’s steeper’n the side of a house. Next place, ever let him git you to the top, he’d land you slambang over to Ewing’s, spite of all you could do.”
“Thank you! I’ll be sure to remember that. Good night!”
She left him, still with the far-centered, puzzled look on her face—the shadow of some resemblance, indefinite, nameless, but insistent.
Categories: English Literature