Read CHAPTER V - ONE ARROWHEAD DAY of Ma Pettengill, free online book, by Harry Leon Wilson, on

It began with the wonted incitement to murder.  A wooden staff projects some five feet above the topmost roof peak of the Arrowhead ranch house, and to this staff is affixed a bell of brazen malignity.  At five-thirty each morning the cord controlling this engine of discord is jerked madly and forever by Lew Wee, our Chinese chef.  It is believed by those compelled to obey the horrid summons that this is Lew Wee’s one moment of gladness in a spoiled life.  The sound of the noon bell, the caressing call of the night bell ­these he must know to be welcome.  The morning clangour he must know to be a tragedy of foulest import.  It is undeniably rung with a keener relish.  There will be some effort at rhythm with the other bells, but that morning bell jangles in a broken frenzy of clangs, ruthlessly prolonged, devilish to the last insulting stroke.  Surely one without malice could manage this waking bell more tactfully.

A reckless Chinaman, then, takes his life in his hands each morning at five-thirty.  Something like a dozen men are alarmed from deep sleep to half-awakened incredulity, in which they believe the bell to be a dream bell and try to dream on of something noiseless.  Ten seconds later these startled men have become demons, with their nice warm feet on the icy floor of the bunk-house, and with prayers of simple fervour that the so-and-so Chink may be struck dead while his hand is still on the rope.  This prayer is never answered; so something like a dozen men dress hurriedly and reach the Arrowhead kitchen hurriedly, meaning to perform instantly there a gracious deed which Providence has thus far unaccountably left undone.

That the Arrowhead annals are, as yet, unspiced with a crime of violence is due, I consider, to Lew Wee’s superb control of his facial muscles.  His expression when he maniacally yanks the bell cord is believed by his victims to be one of hellish glee; so they eagerly seek each morning for one little remaining trace of this.  The tiniest hint would suffice.  But they encounter only a rather sad-faced, middle-aged Chinaman, with immovable eyes and a strained devotion to delicate tasks, of whom it is impossible to believe that ever a ray of joy gladdened his life.

There is a secondary reason why the spirit of Lew Wee has not long since been disembodied by able hands:  His static Gorgon face stays the first murderous impulse; then his genial kitchen aroma overpowers their higher natures and the deed of high justice is weakly postponed.  This genial kitchen aroma is warm, and composed cunningly from steaming coffee and frying ham or beef, together with eggs and hot cakes almost as large as the enamelled iron plates from which they are eaten.  It is no contemptible combination on a frosty morning.  No wonder strong men forget the simple act of manslaughter they come there to achieve and sit sullenly down to be pandered to by him who was erst their torturer.

On a morning in late May, when I had been invited to fare abroad with my hostess, Mrs. Lysander John Pettengill ­who would breakfast in her own apartment ­I joined this assemblage of thwarted murderers as they doggedly ate.  It is a grim business, that ranch breakfast.  Two paling lamps struggle with the dawn, now edging in, and the half light is held low in tone by smoke from the cake griddle, so that no man may see another too plainly.  But no man wishes to see another.  He stares dully into his own plate and eats with stern aversion.  We might be so many strangers in a strange place, aloof, suspicious, bitter, not to say truculent.

No quip or jest will lighten the gloom.  Necessary requests for the sugar or the milk or the stewed apples are phrased with a curtly formal civility.  We shall be other men at noon or at night, vastly other, sunnier men, with abundance of quip and jest and playful sally with the acid personal tang.  But from warm beds of repose!  We avoid each other’s eyes, and one’s subdued “please pass that sirup pitcher!” is but tolerated like some boorish profanation of a church service.

The simple truth, of course, is that this is the one hour of the day when we are face to face with the evil visage of life unmasked; our little rosy illusions of yestereve are stale and crumpled.  Not until we are well out in the sun, with the second cigarette going good, shall we again become credulous about life and safe to address.  It is no meal to linger over.  We grimly rise from the wrecked table and clatter out.

Only one of us ­that matchless optimist, Sandy Sawtelle ­sounds a flat note in the symphony of disillusion.  His humanness rebounds more quickly than ours, who will not fawn upon life for twenty minutes yet.  Sandy comes back to the table from the hook whence he had lifted his hat.  He holds aloft a solitary hot cake and addresses Lew Wee in his best Anglo-Chinese, and with humorous intent: 

“I think take-um hot cake, nail over big knot hole in bunk-house ­last damn long time better than sheet iron!”

Swiftly departing pessimists accord no praise or attention to this ill-timed sketch; least of all Lew Wee, who it is meant to insult.  His face retains the sad impassivity of a granite cliff as yet beyond the dawn.

Now I am out by the saddle rack under the poplars, where two horses are tied.  Ma Pettengill’s long-barrelled roan is saddled.  My own flea-bitten gray, Dandy Jim, is clad only in the rope by which he was led up from the caviata.  I approach him with the respectful attention his reputed character merits and try to ascertain his mood of the moment.  He is a middle-aged horse, apparently of sterling character, and in my presence has always conducted himself as a horse should.  But the shadow of scandal has been flung athwart him.  I have been assured that he has a hideous genius for cinch binding.  Listening at first without proper alarm, it has been disclosed to me that a cinch binder ain’t any joke, by a darned sight!  A cinch binder will stand up straight and lean over backward on me.  If I’m there when he hits the ground I’ll wish I wasn’t ­if I am able to wish anything at all and don’t simply have to be shipped off to wherever my family wants it to take place.

I am further enlightened:  Dandy Jim ain’t so likely to start acting if not saddled when too cold.  If I saddle him then he will be expecting to have more fun out of it than I have any right to.  But if the sun is well up, why, sometimes a baby could handle him.  So for three weeks I have saddled Dandy Jim with the utmost circumspection and with the sun well up.  Now the sun is not well up.  Shall I still survive?  I pause to wish that the range of high hills on the east may be instantly levelled.  The land will then be worth something and the sun will be farther up.  But nothing of a topographical nature ensues.  The hills remain to obscure the sun.  And the brute has to be saddled.  The mood of that grim breakfast, voiceless, tense, high with portent, is still upon me.

I approach and speak harshly to the potential cinch binder, telling him to get over there!  He does not; so I let it pass.  After all, he is only a horse.  Why should I terrorize him?  I bridle him with a manner far from harsh.  He doesn’t like the taste of the bit ­not seasoned right, or something.  But at last he takes it without biting my fingers off; which shows that the horse has no mind to speak of.

I look him calmly in the eye for a moment; then pull his head about, so that I can look him calmly in the other eye for a moment.  This is to show the animal that he has met his master and had better not try any of that cinch-binding stuff if he knows when he’s well off.  Still, I treat him fairly.  I smooth his back of little vegetable bits that cling there, shake out the saddle blanket and tenderly adjust it.  Whistling carelessly I swing up the saddle.  Dandy Jim flinches pitifully when it rests upon him and reaches swiftly round to bite my arm off.  I think this is quite perfunctory on his part.  He must have learned long since that he will never really bite any one’s arm off.  His neck is not enough like a swan’s.

I adjust saddle and blanket carefully from both sides, pulling the blanket well up under the horn of the saddle and making sure that it sets comfortably.  One should be considerate of the feelings of a dumb beast placed at one’s mercy.  Then I reach for the cinch, pass it twice through the rings, and delicately draw it up the merest trifle.  Dandy Jim shudders and moans pathetically.  He wishes to convey the impression that his ribs have been sprung.  This, of course, is nonsense.  I measureably increase the pressure.  Dandy Jim again registers consternation, coughs feebly, and rolls his eyes round appealingly, as if wondering whether the world is to sit, without heart, and watch a poor defenseless horse being slain.  He is about to expire.

I now lead him gently about by the bridle.  It occurs to me that a horse with this curious mania for binding cinches or cinching binders ­or, in other words, a cinch binder ­will be as willing to indulge in his favourite sport with the saddle unoccupied as otherwise.  He may like it even better with no one up there; and I know I will.  Nothing happens, except that Dandy Jim stumbles stiffly and pretends to be lame.  The sun is not yet well up; still, it is a lot better.  Perhaps danger for the day is over.  I again lead the dangerous beast ­

“What you humouring that old skate for?”

Ma Pettengill, arrayed in olive-drab shirt and breeches, leather puttees, and the wide-brimmed hat of her calling with the four careful dents in the top, observed me with friendly curiosity as she ties a corduroy coat to the back of her saddle.

Hereupon I explained my tactful handling of the reputed cinch binder.  It evoked the first cheerful sound I had heard that day: 

Ma Pettengill laughed heartily.

“That old hair trunk never had the jazz to be any cinch binder.  Who told you he was?”

I named names ­all I could remember.  Almost everyone on the ranch had passed me the friendly warning, and never had I saddled the brute without a thrill.

“Sure!  Them chuckleheads always got to tell everybody something.  It’s a wonder they ain’t sent you in to the Chink to borrow his meat auger, or out to the blacksmith shop for a left-handed monkey wrench, or something.  Come on!”

So that was it!  Just another bit of stale ranch humour ­alleged humour ­as if it could be at all funny to have me saddle this wreck with the tenderest solicitude morning after morning!

“Just one moment!” I said briskly.

I think Dandy Jim realized that everything of a tender nature between us was over.  Some curious and quite charming respect I had been wont to show him was now gone out of my manner.  He began to do deep breathing exercises before I touched the cinch.  I pulled with the strength of a fearless man.  Dandy Jim forthwith inflated his chest like a gentleman having his photograph taken in a bathing suit.  I waited, apparently foiled.  I stepped back, spoke to Ma Pettengill of the day’s promise, and seemed carelessly to forget what I was there for.  Slowly Dandy Jim deflated himself; and then, on the fair and just instant, I pulled.  I pulled hard and long.  The game was won.  Dandy Jim had now the waist of that matron wearing the Sveltina corset, over in the part of the magazine where the stories die away.  I fearlessly bestrode him and the day was on.

I opened something less than a hundred gates, so that we could take our way through the lower fields.  Ma Pettengill said she must see this here Tilton and this here Snell, and have that two hundred yards of fence built like they had agreed to, as man to man; and no more of this here nonsense of putting it off from day to day.

She was going to talk straight to them because, come Thursday, she had to turn a herd of beef cattle into that field.

Then I opened a few dozen more gates and we were down on the flats.  Here the lady spied a coyote, furtively skirting some willows on our left.  So, for a few merry miles, we played the game of coyote.  It is a simple game to learn, but requires a trained eye.  When one player sees a coyote the other becomes indebted to him in the sum of one dollar.

This sport dispelled the early morning gloom that had beset me.  I won a dollar almost immediately.  It may have been the same coyote, as my opponent painfully suggested; but it showed at a different breach in the willows, and I was firm.

Then the game went fiercely against me.  Ma Pettengill detected coyotes at the far edges of fields ­so far that I would have ignored them for jack rabbits had I observed them at all.  I claimed an occasional close one; but these were few.  The outlook was again not cheering.  It was an excellent morning for distant coyotes, and presently I owed Mrs. Lysander John Pettengill seven dollars, she having won two doubleheaders in succession.  This ride was costing me too much a mile.  Being so utterly outclassed I was resolving to demand a handicap, but was saved from this ignominy by our imminent arrival at the abode of this here Tilton, who presently sauntered out of a feeding corral and chewed a straw at us idly.

We soon took all that out of him.  The air went something like this: 

Mrs. L. J. P. ­brightly:  Morning, Chester!  Say, look here!  About that gap in the fence across Stony Creek field ­I got to turn a beef herd in there Thursday.

Tilton ­crouching luxuriously on one knee still chewing the straw:  Well, now, about that little job ­I tell you, Mis’ Pett’ngill; I been kind o’ holdin’ off account o’ Snell bein’ rushed with his final plowin’.  He claims ­

Mrs. L. J. P. ­still brightly:  Oh, that’s all right!  Snell will be over there, with his men, to-morrow morning at seven o’clock.  He said you’d have to be there, too.

Tilton ­alarmed, he rises, takes straw from his mouth, examines the chewed end with dismay and casts it from him; removes his hat, looks at this dubiously, burnishes it with a sleeve, and sighs:  To-morrow morning!  You don’t mean to-morrow ­

Mrs. L. J. P. ­carefully yet rapidly:  To-morrow morning at seven o’clock.  You don’t want to throw Snell down on this; and he’s going to be there.  How many men can you take?

Tilton ­dazed:  Now ­now lemme see!

Mrs. L. J. P. ­quickly:  You can take Chris and Shorty and Jake and yourself.  Any one else?

Tilton ­swept over the falls:  Why, no’m; I don’t guess there’s any other I could spare, account of ­

Mrs. L. J. P. ­almost sweetly:  All right, then.  To-morrow; seven sharp.

Tilton ­from the whirlpool, helplessly:  Yes’m!  Yes’m!

Mrs. L. J. P.:  Morning!

We ride on.  Tilton fades back toward the corral; he has forgotten to replace his hat.

I now decided to make a little conversation rather than have the stupid and ruinous game of coyote for a pastime.

“I thought you hadn’t seen Snell yet.”

“I haven’t; not since he promised his half of the job two weeks ago.”

“But you just told Tilton ­”

“Well, Snell is going to be there, ain’t he?”

“How do you know?”

“I’m going to tell him now.”

And the woman did even so.  If you wish the scene with Snell go back and read the scene with Tilton, changing the names.  Nothing else need you change.  Snell was hitching two mules to a wood wagon; but he heard the same speeches and made approximately the same replies.  And the deed was done.

“There now!” boomed Mrs. Talleyrand as we rode beyond earshot of the dazed and lingering Snell.  “Them two men been trying for two weeks to agree on a day to do this trifling job.  They wasn’t able; so I agreed on a day myself.  Anything wrong with it?”

“You said you were going to talk straight to them.”

“Ain’t I just talked straight to Snell?  Tilton will be there, won’t he?”

“How about the way you talked to Tilton before you saw Snell?”

“Well, my lands!  How you talk!  You got to have a foundation to build on, haven’t you?”

I saw it as a feat beyond my prowess to convict this woman in her own eyes of a dubious and considering veracity.  So I merely wondered, in tones that would easily reach her, how the gentlemen might relish her diplomacy when they discovered it on the morrow.  I preceded the word diplomacy with a slight and very affected cough.

The lady replied that they would never discover her diplomacy, not coughing in the least before the word.  She said each of them would be so mad at the other for setting a day that they would talk little.  They would simply build fence.  She added that a woman in this business had to be looking for the worst of it all the time.  She was bound to get the elbow if she didn’t use her common sense.

I ignored her casuistry, for she was now rolling a cigarette with an air of insufferable probity.  I gave her up and played a new game of smashing horseflies as they settled on my mount.  Dandy Jim plays the game ably.  When a big fly settles on his nose he holds his head round so I can reach it.  He does not flinch at the terrific smash of my hat across his face.  If a fly alights on his neck or shoulder, and I do not remark it, he turns his head slightly toward me and winks, so I can stalk and pot it.  He is very crafty here.  If the fly is on his right side he turns and winks his left eye at me so the insect will not observe him.  And yet there are people who say horses don’t reason.

I now opened fifty more gates and we left the cool green of the fields for a dusty side road that skirts the base of the mesa.  We jogged along in silence, which I presently heard stir with the faint, sweet strain of a violin; an air that rose and wailed and fell again, on a violin played with a certain back-country expertness.  The road bent to show us its source.  We were abreast of the forlorn little shack of a dry-farmer, weathered and patched, set a dozen yards from the road and surrounded by hard-packed earth.  Before the open door basked children and pigs and a few spiritless chickens.

All the children ran to the door when we halted and called to someone within.  The fiddle played on with no faltering, but a woman came out ­a gaunt and tattered woman who was yet curiously cheerful.  The children lurked in her wake as she came to us and peered from beyond her while we did our business.

Our business was that the redskin, Laura, official laundress of the Arrowhead, had lately attended an evening affair in the valley at which the hitherto smart tipple of Jamaica ginger had been supplanted by a novel and potent beverage, Nature’s own remedy for chills, dyspepsia, deafness, rheumatism, despair, carbuncles, jaundice, and ennui.  Laura had partaken freely and yet again of this delectable brew, and now suffered not only from a sprained wrist but from detention, having suffered arrest on complaint of the tribal sister who had been nearest to her when she sprained her wrist.  Therefore, if Mrs. Dave Pickens wanted to come over to-morrow and wash for us, all right; she could bring her oldest girl to help.

Mrs. Dave thereupon turned her head languidly toward the ignoble dwelling and called:  “Dave!” Then again, for the fiddle stayed not:  “Dave!  Oh, Dave!”

The fiddle ceased to moan ­complainingly it seemed to me ­and Dave framed his graceful figure in the doorway.  He was one appealing droop, from his moustache to his moccasin-clad feet.  He wore an air of elegant leisure, but was otherwise not fussily arrayed.

“Dave, Mis’ Pett’ngill says there’s now a day’s washin’ to do over to her place to-morrow.  What think?”

Dave deliberated, then pondered, then thought, then spoke: 

“Well, I d’no’, Addie; I d’no’ as I got any objections if you ain’t.  I d’no’ but it’s all the same to me.”

Hereupon we meanly put something in Dave’s unsuspecting way, too.

“You must want a day’s work yourself,” called out Ma Pettengill.  “You go up to Snell’s about six in the morning and he’ll need you to help do some fencing on that gap in Stony Creek field.  If he don’t need you Tilton will.  One of ’em is bound to be short a man.”

“Fencin’?” said Dave with noticeable disrelish.

“You reckon we better both leave the place at once?” suggested Mrs. Dave.

“That’s so,” said Dave brightly.  “Mebbe I ­”

“Nonsense!” boomed Ma Pettengill, dispelling his brightness.  “Addie can drop you at Snell’s when she comes over to Arrowhead.  Now that’s settled!”

And we rode off as unvoiced expostulations were gathering.  I began to wonder whether it must, throughout a beautiful day, be the stern mission of this woman to put tribulation upon her neighbours.  She was becoming a fell destroyer.  The sun was well up.  I thirsted.  Also, breakfast seemed to have been a thing in the remote past.

We now rode three torrid miles up a narrow green slit in the hills for a scant ten minutes of talk with a most uninteresting person, whose sole claim to notice seemed to be that he had gone and fenced the wrong water hole over back of Horsefly Mountain, where we have a summer range.  The talk was quick and pointed and buttressed with a blue-print map, and the too-hasty fencer was left helpless after a pitiful essay at quibbling.  We rode off saying that he could do just as he liked about sending someone over right away to take that fence down, because we had already took it down the minute we set eyes on it.  We was just letting him know so he needn’t waste any more wire and posts and time in committing felonious depredations that would get him nothing but high trouble if he was so minded.  Another scalp to our belt!

I now briefly recalled to the woman that we had stopped at no peaceful home that morning save to wreck its peace.  I said I was getting into the spirit of the ride myself.  I suggested that at the next ranch we passed we should stop and set fire to the haystacks, just to crown the day’s brutalities with something really splendid.  I also said I was starving to death in a land of plenty.

Ma Pettengill gazed aloft at the sun and said it was half-past twelve.  I looked at my watch and said the sun was over ten minutes slow, which was probably due to the heavy continuous gunfire on the Western Front.  This neat bit went for just nothing.  As we rode on I fondly recalled that last cold hot cake which Sandy Sawtelle had sacrificed to his gift for debased whimsy.  I also recalled other items of that gloomy repast, wondering how I could so weakly have quit when I did.

We rode now under a sun that retained its old fervour if not its velocity.  We traversed an endless lane between fields, in one of which grazed a herd of the Arrowhead cattle.  These I was made to contemplate for many valuable moments.  I had to be told that I was regarding the swallow-fork herd, pure-breds that for one reason or another ­the chief being careless help ­had not been registered.  The omission was denoted by the swallow fork in the left ear.

The owner looked upon them with fond calculation.  She was fondly calculating that they would have been worth about fifty per cent. more to her with ears unmutilated.  She grew resentful that their true worth should not be acclaimed by the world.  In the sight of heaven they were pure-breds; so why should they suffer through the oversight of a herd boss that hadn’t anywhere near such distinguished ancestry?  And so on, as the lady says.

We left the lane at last and were on the county road, but headed away from the Arrowhead and food.  No doubt there remained other homes for us to wreck.  We mounted a rise and the road fell from us in a long, gentle slope.  And then a mile beyond, where the slope ended, I beheld a most inviting tiny pleasance in this overwhelming welter of ranch land, with its more or less grim business of cattle.

It was a little homestead fit to adorn an art calendar to be entitled Peace and Plenty ­a veritable small farm from some softer little country far to the east.  It looked strangely lost amid these bleaker holdings.  There was a white little house and it sported nothing less than green blinds.  There was a red barn, with toy outbuildings.  There was a vegetable garden, an orchard of blossoming fruit trees, and, in front of the glistening little house, a gay garden of flowers.  Even now I could detect the yellow of daffodils and the martial ­at least it used to be martial ­scarlet of tulips.  The little place seemed to drowse here in the noontide, dreaming of its lost home and other little farms that once companioned it.

To my pleased surprise this unbelievable little farm proved to be our next stopping place.  At its gate Ma Pettengill dismounted, eased the cinch of her saddle and tied her horse to the hitching rack.  I did likewise by the one-time cinch binder.

“Now,” I wondered, “what devastating bomb shall we hurl into this flower-spiced Arcady?  What woe will she put upon its unsuspecting dwellers, even as she has ruined four other homes this day?  This should be something really choice.”  But I said no word and followed where the avenger stalked.

We unlatched the white gate and went up a gravelled walk between the rows of daffodils and tulips and hyacinths.  We did not ascend the spotless front porch to assault its innocent white door, but turned aside on a narrow-gauge branch of the gravelled pathway and came to a side porch, shaded by maples.  And here, in strict conformity to the soundest behests of tradition, sat two entirely genuine Arcadians in wooden rocking-chairs.  The male was a smiling old thing with winter-apple cheeks and white hair, and the female was a smiling old thing with winter-apple cheeks and white hair; both had bright eyes of doll blue, and both wore, among other neat things, loose and lovely carpet slippers and white stockings.

And, of course, the male was named Uncle Henry and the other one was named Aunt Mollie, for I was now presented to them.  They shyly greeted me as one returned to them after many years in which they had given me up.  And again I wondered what particular iniquity we had come here to do.

Then Ma Pettengill eased my worry.  She said in a few simple but affecting words, that we had stopped in for a bite to eat.  No self-torturing stylist could have put the thing better.  And results were sudden.  Uncle Henry, the male one, went to take our horses round to the barn, and the other one said they had et an hour ago; but give her ten minutes and she’d have a couple of them young pullets skinned and on the fire.

Ma Pettengill said, with very questionable taste, I thought:  “Oh, no; nothing like that!” ­because we didn’t want to make the least bit of trouble.  The woman is dense at times.  What else had we come there for?  But Aunt Mollie said, then, how about some prime young pork tenderline?  And Ma Pettengill said she guessed that would do, and I said I guessed that would do.  And there we were!  The ladies went to the kitchen, where they made quick and grateful noises.

Pretty soon Uncle Henry came round a lovely corner and said try a tumbler of this here grape wine, which he poured from a pressed-glass pitcher; so I tried it and gave him a town cigarette, which he tucked between his beautiful white moustache and his beautiful white whiskers.  And I hoped he didn’t use gasoline to get them so clean, because if he did something might happen when he lighted the cigarette; but nothing did, so probably he didn’t.  I tried the grape wine again; and dear old Uncle Henry said he was turning out quite a bit of it since the Gov’ment had shet down on regular dram-shops, quite considerable of parties happening along from time to time to barter with him, getting it for dances or colds, or something.

A yellow cat, with blue eyes like Uncle Henry’s, came and slept on his lap.  A large fussy hen with a litter of chickens ­or however a hen designates her assemblage of little ones ­clucked her way to our feet.  I could see three hives of bees, a grape arbour, and a row of milk pans drying in the sun, each leaning on its neighbour along a white bench.  Uncle Henry said drink it up while it was cold.  All Nature seemed to smile.  The hen found a large and charming bug, and chuckled humorously while her cunning little ones tore it limb from limb.  It was idyllic.

Then Aunt Mollie pushed open the screen door and said come in and set up; so I came in and set up quickly, having fried pork tenderloin and fried potatoes, and hot biscuit and pork gravy, and cucumber pickles, and cocoanut cake and pear preserves, peach preserves, apricot preserves, loganberry jelly, crab-apple jelly, and another kind of preserves I was unable to identify, though trying again and again.

Ma Pettengill ate somewhat, but talked also, keeping Uncle Henry and Aunt Mollie shiny with smiles.  They both have polished white teeth of the most amazing regularity.  I ate almost exclusively, affecting to be preoccupied about something.  The time was urgent.  I formed an entangling alliance with the pork tenderloin, which endured to a point where but one small fragment was left on the platter.  I coolly left it there, so that Aunt Mollie might believe she had cooked more than enough.

I have never ceased to regret that hollow bit of chivalry.  Was it honest, genuine, open?  No!  Why will men at critical junctures stoop to such trickery?  Aunt Mollie said I might think that tenderline was fresh-killed; but not so ­she has fried it last December and put it down in its own juice in a four-gallon crock, and now look how fresh it come out!  She seemed as proud as if she had invented something.  She had a right to be.  It was a charming notion and I could have eaten the rest of the crock ­but, no matter.  Half a dozen biscuits copiously gummed up with preserves of one kind or another would do as well ­almost.

So Aunt Mollie showed me objects of interest in the room, including her new carpet sweeper, a stuffed road runner, a ship built in a bottle, and the coloured crayon portraits of herself and Uncle Henry, wearing blue clothes and gold jewellery and white collars and ecru neckties.  Also, the marriage certificate.  This was no mere official certificate.  It was the kind that costs three dollars flat, over and above what you give to the party that does it for you, being genuine steel-engraved, with a beautiful bridal couple under a floral bell, the groom in severe evening dress, and liberally spotted with cupids and pigeons.  It is worth the money and an ornament to any wall, especially in the gilt frame.

Aunt Mollie seemed as proud of this document as she had been with the tenderloin.  I scanned it word by word for her pleasure.  I noticed especially the date.  Aunt Mollie said that her and Henry were now in the fortieth year on this place, and it had changed in looks a whole lot since they came here.  I again looked at the date of the certificate.

Ma Pettengill said, well, we must be getting on, and they must both come over to the Arrowhead for a day right soon.  And Uncle Henry said here was a quart bottle of his peach brandy, going on eight year old, and would I take it along back with me and try it?  Parties had told him it was good; but he didn’t know ­mebbe so, mebbe not.  He’d like to know what I thought.  It seemed little enough to do to bring a bit of gladness into this old gentleman’s life, and I was not the man to wound him by refusal.  It was as if Michelangelo had said “Come on round to the Sistine Chapel this afternoon and look over a little thing I’ve dashed off.”  If he had brought two bottles instead of one my answer would have been the same.

So we were out on our refreshed horses and heading home; and I said, without loss of time, that Aunt Mollie might have a good heart and a cunning way with pork interiors, and it was none of my business, anyway; but, nevertheless, she had mentioned forty long years with this amateur saloon keeper, whereas her marriage certificate was dated but one year previous, in figures all too shamefully legible.  So what about it?  I said I mind observing the underworld from time to time; but I like to be warned in advance, even when its denizens were such a charming, bright-eyed winter-apple-cheeked old couple as the two we were now leaving.

The sun was on our backs, a light breeze fanned us, the horses knew which way they were going, and work for the day was over; so Ma Pettengill spoke, in part, as follows: 

“Oh, well, of course everyone knows about that.  Simple enough!  Aunt Mollie and her first husband trekked in here forty years ago.  He was a consumptive and the first winter put him out.  They had a hard time; no neighbours to speak of, harsh weather, hard work, poor shelter, and a dying man.  Henry Mortimer happened by and stayed to help ­nursed the invalid, kept the few head of stock together, nailed up holes in the shack, rustled grub and acted like a friend in need.  At the last he nailed a coffin together; did the rest of that job; then stayed on to nurse Aunt Mollie, who was all in herself.  After he got her to stepping again he put in a crop for her.  Then he stayed to build a barn and do some fencing.  Then he harvested the crop.  And getting no wages!  They was both living off the land.  Pretty soon they got fond of each other and decided to marry.  It’s one of Aunt Mollie’s jokes that she owed him two years’ wages and had to marry him.

“Marriage was easier said than done.  No preacher, or even a justice of the peace, was within ninety miles, which meant a four days’ trip over the roads of that day, and four days back, providing high water or some other calamity didn’t make it a month; and no one to leave on the place, which meant there wouldn’t be a head of stock left when they got back, what with Indians and rustlers.  Uncle Henry will tell you how it seemed too bad that just one of ’em wouldn’t make the trip down and have the ceremony done, leaving the other to protect the place.

“Then along comes a horse trader, who stops over to rest his stock, and learns their trouble.  He tells ’em to quit their worry; that he’s a notary public and can perform a marriage as good as any Baptist preacher they ever saw.  I never been able to make out whether he was crazy or just a witty, practical joker.  Anyway, he married the pair with something like suitable words, wouldn’t take a cent for it, and gave ’em a paper saying he had performed the deed.  It had a seal on it showing he was a genuine notary public, though from back in Iowa somewhere.  That made no difference to the new bride and groom.  A notary public was a notary public to them, highly important and official.

“They had enough other things to worry about, anyway.  They had to buckle down to the hard life that waits for any young couple without capital in a new country.  They had years of hard sledding; but they must of had a good time somehow, because they never have any but pleasant things to tell of it.  Whatever that notary public was, he seemed to of pulled off a marriage that took as well or better than a great many that may be more legal.  So that’s all there is to it ­only, here about a year ago they was persuaded to have it done proper at last by a real preacher who makes Kulanche two Sundays a month.  That’s why the late date’s on that certificate.  The old lady is right kittenish about that; shows it to everyone, in spite of the fact that it makes her out of been leading an obliquitous life, or something, for about thirty-eight years.

“But then, she’s a sentimental old mush-head, anyhow.  Guess what she told me out in the kitchen!  She’s been reading what the Germans did to women and children in Belgium, and she says:  ’Of course I hate Germans; and yet it don’t seem as if I could ever hate ’em enough to want to kill a lot of German babies!’ Wasn’t that the confession of a weakling?  I guess that’s all you’d want to know about that woman.  My sakes!  Will you look at that mess of clouds?  I bet it’s falling weather over in Surprise Valley.  A good moisting wouldn’t hurt us any either.”

That seemed to be about all.  Yet I was loath to leave the topic.  I still had a warm glow in my heart for the aged couple, and I could hear Uncle Henry’s bottle of adolescent peach brandy laughing to itself from where it was lashed to the back of my saddle.  I struck in the only weak spot in the wall.

“You say they were persuaded into this marriage.  Well, who persuaded them?  Isn’t there something interesting about that?”

It had, indeed, been a shrewd stroke.  Ma Pettengill’s eyes lighted.

“Say, didn’t I ever tell you about Mrs. Julia Wood Atkins, the well-known lady reformer?”

“You did not.  We have eight miles yet.”

“Oh, very well!”

So for eight miles of a road that led between green fields on our right and a rolling expanse of sagebrush on our left, I heard something like this: 

“Well, this prominent club lady had been out on the Coast for some time heading movements and telling people how to do things, and she had got run down.  She’s a friend of Mrs. W.B.  Hemingway, the well-known social leader and club president of Yonkers, who is an old friend of mine; and Mrs. W.B. writes that dear Julia is giving her life to the cause ­I forget what cause it was right then ­and how would it be for me to have her up here on the ranch for a vacation, where she could recover her spirits and be once more fitted to enter the arena.  I say I’m only too glad to oblige, and the lady comes along.

“She seemed right human at first ­kind of haggard and overtrained, but with plenty of fights left in her; a lady from forty-eight to fifty-four, with a fine hearty manner that must go well on a platform, and a kind of accusing face.  That’s the only word I can think of for it.  She’d be pretty busy a good part of the day with pamphlets and papers that she or someone else had wrote, but I finally managed to get her out on a gentle old horse ­that one you’re riding ­so she could liven up some; and we got along quite well together.

“The only thing that kind of went against me was, she’s one of them that thinks a kind word and a pleasant smile will get ’em anywhere, and she worked both on me a little too much like it was something professional.

“Still, I put it by and listened to her tell about the awful state the world is in, and how a few earnest women could set it right in a week if it wasn’t for the police.

“Prison reform, for instance.  That was the first topic on which she delivered addresses to me.  I couldn’t make much out of it, except that we don’t rely enough on our convicts’ rugged honour.  It was only a side line with her; still, she didn’t slight it.  She could talk at length about the innate sterling goodness of the misunderstood burglar.  I got tired of it.  I told her one day that, if you come right down to it, I’d bet the men inside penitentiaries didn’t average up one bit higher morally than the men outside.  She said, with her pleasantest smile, that I didn’t understand; so I never tried to after that.

“The lady had a prowling mind.  Mebbe that ain’t the right word, but it come to me soon after she got here.  I think it was the day she begun about our drinking water.  She wanted to know what the analysis showed it to contain.  She was scared out of her pleasant smile for a minute when she found I’d never had the water analyzed.  I thought, first, the poor thing had been reading these beer advertisements; you know ­the kind they print asking if you are certain about the purity of your drinking water, telling of the fatal germs that will probably be swimming there, and intimating that probably the only dead-safe bet when you are thirsty is a pint of their pure, wholesome beer, which never yet gave typhoid fever to any one.  But, no; Julia just thought all water ought to be analyzed on general principles, and wouldn’t I have a sample of ours sent off at once?  She’d filled a bottle with some and suggested it with her pleasantest platform smile.

“‘Yes,’ I says; ’and suppose the report comes back that this water is fatal to man and beast?  And it’s the only water round here.  What then?  I’d be in a hell of a fix ­wouldn’t I?’

“I don’t deny I used to fall back on words now and then when her smile got to me.  And we went right on using water that might or might not make spicy reading in a chemist’s report; I only been here thirty years and it’s too soon to tell.  Anyway, it was then I see she was gifted with a prowling mind, which is all I can think of to call it.  It went with her accusing face.  She didn’t think anything in this world was as near right as it could be made by some good woman.

“Of course she had other things besides the water to worry about.  She was a writer, too.  She would write about how friction in the home life may be avoided by one of the parties giving in to the other and letting the wife say how the money shall be spent, and pieces about what the young girl should do next, and what the young wife should do if necessary, and so on.  For some reason she was paid money for these pieces.

“However, she was taking longer rides and getting her pep back, which was what she had come here for.  And having failed to reform anything on the Arrowhead, she looked abroad for more plastic corruption as you might say.  She rode in one night and said she was amazed that this here community didn’t do something about Dave Pickens.  That’s the place we stopped this morning.  She said his children were neglected and starving, his wife worked to the bone, and Dave doing nothing but play on a cheap fiddle!  How did they get their bread from day to day?

“I told her no one in the wide world had ever been able to answer this puzzle.  There was Dave and his wife and five children, all healthy, and eating somehow, and Dave never doing a stroke of work he could side-step.  I told her it was such a familiar puzzle we’d quit being puzzled by it.

“She said someone ought to smash his fiddle and make him work.  She said she would do something about it.  I applauded.  I said we needed new blood up here and she seemed to of fetched it.

“She come back the next day with a flush of triumph on her severely simple face.  And guess the first thing she asked me to do!  She asked me to take chances in a raffle for Dave’s fiddle.  Yes, sir; with her kind words and pleasant smile she had got Dave to consent to raffle off his fiddle, and she was going to sell twenty-four chances at fifty cents a chance, which would bring twelve dollars cash to the squalid home.  I had to respect the woman at that moment.

“‘There they are, penniless,’ says she, ’and in want for the barest necessities; and this man fiddling his time away!  I had a struggle persuading him to give up his wretched toy; but I’ve handled harder cases.  You should of seen the light in the mother’s wan face when he consented!  The twelve dollars won’t be much, though it will do something for her and those starving children; and then he will no longer have the instrument to tempt him.’

“I handed over a dollar for two chances right quick, and Julia went out to the bunk-house and wormed two dollars out of the boys there.  And next day she was out selling off the other chances.  She didn’t dislike the work.  It give her a chance to enter our homes and see if they needed reforming, and if the children was subjected to refining influences, and so on.  The first day she scared parties into taking fifteen tickets, and the second day she got rid of the rest; and the next Sunday she held the drawing over at Dave’s house.  The fiddle was won by a nester from over in Surprise Valley, who had always believed he could play one if he only had a fair chance.

“So this good deed was now completed, there being no music, and twelve dollars in the Pickens home that night.  And Mrs. Julia now felt that she was ready for the next big feat of uplift, which was a lot more important because it involved the very sanctity of the marriage tie.  Yes, sir; she’d come back from her prowling one night and told me in a hushed voice, behind a closed door, about a couple that had been for years living in a state of open immorality.

“I didn’t get her, at first, not thinking of Uncle Henry and Aunt Mollie.  But she meant just them two.  I give her a good hearty laugh, at first; but it pained her so much I let her talk.  It seems she’d gone there to sell raffle tickets, and they’d taken four, and cooked food for her, and give her some cherry cordial, which she took on account of being far from a strong woman; and then Aunt Mollie had told all her past life, with this horrid scandal about the notary public sticking innocently out of it.

“Mrs. Julia hadn’t been able to see anything but the scandal, she being an expert in that line.  So she had started in to persuade Aunt Mollie that it was her sacred duty to be married decently to her companion in crime for forty years.  And Aunt Mollie had been right taken with the idea; in fact, she had entered into it with a social enthusiasm that didn’t seem to Mrs. Julia to have quite enough womanly shame for her dark past in it.  Still, anything to get the guilty couple lawful wedded; and before she left it was all fixed.  Uncle Henry was to make an honest woman of Aunt Mollie as soon as she could get her trousseau ready.

“Me?  I didn’t know whether to laugh or get mad.  I said the original marriage had satisfied the peace and dignity of the state of Washington; and it had done more ­it had even satisfied the neighbours.  So why not let it rest?  But, no, indeedy!  It had never been a marriage in the sight of God and couldn’t be one now.  Facts was facts!  And she talked some more about Aunt Mollie not taking her false position in the proper way.

“It had been Mrs. Julia’s idea to have the preacher come up and commit this ceremony quite furtively, with mebbe a couple of legal witnesses, keeping everything quiet, so as not to have a public scandal.  But nothing like that for the guilty woman!  She was going to have a trousseau and a wedding, with guests and gayety.  She wasn’t taking it the right way at all.  It seemed like she wanted all the scandal there was going.

“‘Really, I can’t understand the creature,’ says Mrs. Julia.  ’She even speaks of a wedding breakfast!  Can you imagine her wishing to flaunt such a thing?’

“It was then I decided to laugh instead of telling this lady a few things she couldn’t of put in an article.  I said Aunt Mollie’s taking it this way showed how depraved people could get after forty years of it; and we must try to humour the old trollop, the main thing being to get her and her debased old Don Juan into a legal married state, even if they did insist on going in with a brass band.  Julia said she was glad I took it this way.

“She came back to my room again that night, after her hair was down.  The only really human thing this lady ever did, so far as I could discover, was to put some of this magic remedy on her hair that restores the natural colour if the natural colour happened to be what this remedy restores it to.  Any way, she now wanted to know if I thought it was right for Aunt Mollie to continue to reside there in that house between now and the time when they would be lawful man and wife.  I said no; I didn’t think it was right.  I thought it was a monstrous infamy and an affront to public morals; but mebbe we better resolve to ignore it and plow a straight furrow, without stopping to pull weeds.  She sadly said she supposed I was right.

“So Uncle Henry hitched up his fat white horse to the buggy, and him and Aunt Mollie drove round the country for three days, inviting folks to their wedding.  Aunt Mollie had the time of her life.  It seemed as if there wasn’t no way whatever to get a sense of shame into that brazen old hussy.  And when this job was done she got busy with her trousseau, which consisted of a bridge gown in blue organdie, and a pair of high white shoes.  She didn’t know what a bridge gown was for, but she liked the looks of one in a pattern book and sent down to Red Gap for Miss Gunslaugh to bring up the stuff and make it.  And she’d always had this secret yearning for a pair of high white shoes; so they come up, too.

“Furthermore, Aunt Mollie had read the city paper for years and knew about wedding breakfasts; so she was bound to have one of those.  It looked like a good time was going to be had by all present except the lady who started it.  Mrs. Julia was more malignantly scandalized by these festal preparations than she had been by the original crime; but she had to go through with it now.

“The date had been set and we was within three days of it when Aunt Mollie postponed it three days more because Dave Pickens couldn’t be there until this later day.  Mrs. Julia made a violent protest, because she had made her plans to leave for larger fields of crime; but Aunt Mollie was stubborn.  She said Dave Pickens was one of the oldest neighbours and she wouldn’t have a wedding he couldn’t attend; and besides, marriage was a serious step and she wasn’t going to be hurried into it.

“So Mrs. Julia went to a lot of trouble about her ticket and reservations, and stayed over.  She was game enough not to run out before Uncle Henry had made Aunt Mollie a lady.  I was a good deal puzzled about this postponement.  Dave Pickens was nothing to postpone anything for.  There never was any date that he couldn’t be anywhere ­at least, unless he had gone to work after losing his fiddle, which was highly ridiculous.

“The date held this time.  We get word the wedding is to be held in the evening and that everyone must stay there overnight.  This was surprising, but simple after Aunt Mollie explained it.  The guests, of course, had to stay over for the wedding breakfast.  Aunt Mollie had figured it all out.  A breakfast is something you eat in the morning, about six-thirty or seven; so a wedding breakfast must be held the morning after the wedding.  You couldn’t fool Aunt Mollie on social niceties.

“Anyway, there we all was at the wedding; Uncle Henry in his black suit and his shiny new teeth, and Aunt Mollie in her bridge gown and white shoes, and this young minister that wore a puzzled look from start to finish.  I guess he never did know what kind of a game he was helping out in.  But he got through with the ceremony.  There proved to be not a soul present knowing any reason why this pair shouldn’t be joined together in holy wedlock, though Mrs. Julia looked more severe than usual at this part of the ceremony.  Uncle Henry and Aunt Mollie was firm in their responses and promised to cling to each other till death did them part.  They really sounded as if they meant it.

“Mrs. Julia looked highly noble and sweet when all was over, like she had rescued an erring sister from the depths.  You could see she felt that the world would indeed be a better place if she could only give a little more time to it.

“We stood round and talked some after the ceremony; but not for long.  Aunt Mollie wound the clock and set the mouse-trap, and hustled us all off to bed so we could be up bright and early for the wedding breakfast.  You’d think she’d been handling these affairs in metropolitan society for years.  The women slept on beds and sofas, and different places, and the men slept out in the barn and in a tent Uncle Henry had put up or took their blanket rolls and bunked under a tree.

“Then ho! for the merry wedding breakfast at six-thirty A.M.!  The wedding breakfast consisted of ham and eggs and champagne.  Yes, sir; don’t think Aunt Mollie had overlooked the fashionable drink.  Hadn’t she been reading all her life about champagne being served at wedding breakfasts?  So there it was in a new wash boiler, buried in cracked ice.  And while the women was serving the ham and eggs and hot biscuits at the long table built out in the side yard, Uncle Henry exploded several bottles of this wine and passed it to one and all, and a toast was drunk to the legal bride and groom; after which eating was indulged in heartily.

“It was a merry feast, even without the lobster salad, which Aunt Mollie apologized for not having.  She said she knew lobster salad went with a wedding breakfast, the same as champagne; but the canned lobster she had ordered hadn’t come, so we’d have to make out with the home-cured ham and some pork sausage that now come along.  Nobody seemed downhearted about the missing lobster salad.  Uncle Henry passed up and down the table filling cups and glasses, and Aunt Mollie, in her wedding finery, kept the food coming with some buckwheat cakes at the finish.

“It was a very satisfactory wedding breakfast, if any one should ever make inquiries of you.  By the time Uncle Henry had the ends out of half the champagne bottles I guess everyone there was glad he had decided to drag Aunt Mollie back from the primrose path.

“It all passed off beautifully, except for one tragedy.  Oh, yes; there’s always something to mar these affairs.  But this hellish incident didn’t come till the very last.  After the guests had pretty well et themselves to a standstill, Dave Pickens got up and come back with a fiddle, and stood at the end of the grape arbour and played a piece.

“‘Someone must have supplied that wretch with another fiddle!’ says Mrs. Julia, who was kind of cross, anyway, having been bedded down on a short sofa and not liking champagne for breakfast ­and, therefore, not liking to see others drink it.

“‘Oh, he’s probably borrowed one for your celebration,’ I says.

“Dave played a couple more lively pieces; and pretty soon, when we got up from the table, he come over to Mrs. Julia and me.

“‘It’s a peach of a fiddle,’ says Dave.  ’It says in the catalogue it’s a genuine Cremonika ­looks like a Cremona and plays just as good.  I bet it’s the best fiddle in the world to be had for twelve dollars!’

“‘What’s that?’ says Mrs. Julia, erecting herself like an alarmed rattlesnake.

“‘Sure!  It’s a genuine twelve-dollar one,’ says Dave proudly.  ’My old one, that you so kindly raffled off, cost only five.  I always wanted a better one, but I never had the money to spare till you come along.  It’s awful hard to save up money round here.’

“‘Do you mean to tell me ­’ says Mrs. Julia.  She was so mad she couldn’t get any farther.  Dave thought she was merely enthusiastic about his new fiddle.

“‘Sure!  Only twelve dollars for this beauty,’ he says, fondling the instrument.  ’We got down the mail-order catalogue the minute you left that money with us, and had a postal order on the way to Chicago that very night.  I must say, lady, you brought a great pleasure into our life.’

“‘What about your poor wife?’ snaps Mrs. Julia.

“His poor wife comes up just then and looks affectionately at Dave and the new fiddle.

“‘He spent that money for another fiddle!’ says Mrs. Julia to her in low tones of horror.

“‘Sure!  What did you think he was going to do with it?’ says Mrs. Dave.  ’I must say we had two mighty dull weeks while Dave was waiting for this new one.  He just mopes round the house when he ain’t got anything to play on.  But this is a lot better than the old fiddle; it was worth waiting for.  Did you thank the lady, Dave?’

“Mrs. Julia was now plumb speechless and kind of weak.  And on top of these blows up comes Aunt Mollie the new-wed, and beams fondly on her.

“‘There!’ says she.  ’Ain’t that a fine new fiddle that Dave bought with his twelve dollars?  And wasn’t it worth postponing my wedding for, so we could have some music?’

“‘What’s that?’ says Mrs. Julia again.  ‘Why did you postpone it?’

“‘Because the fiddle didn’t get here till last night,’ says Aunt Mollie, ’and I wasn’t going to have a wedding without music.  It wouldn’t seem right.  And don’t you think, yourself, it’s a lot better fiddle than Dave’s old one?’

“So this poor Mrs. Julia woman was now stricken for fair, thinking of all the trouble she’d been to about her tickets, and all to see this new fiddle.

“She went weakly into the house and lay down, with a headache, till I was ready to leave the gay throng.  And the next day she left us to our fate.  Still, she’d done us good.  Dave has a new fiddle and Aunt Mollie has her high white shoes.  So now you know all about it.”

We neared the Arrowhead gate.  Presently its bell would peal a sweet message to those who laboured.  Ma Pettengill turned in her saddle to scan the western horizon.

“A red sun has water in his eye,” said she.  “Well, a good soak won’t hurt us.”

And a moment later: 

“Curious thing about reformers:  They don’t seem to get a lot of pleasure out of their labours unless the ones they reform resist and suffer, and show a proper sense of their degradation.  I bet a lot of reformers would quit to-morrow if they knew their work wasn’t going to bother people any.”