Read CHAPTER VII - CHANGE OF VENUS of Ma Pettengill, free online book, by Harry Leon Wilson, on ReadCentral.com.

Ma Pettengill and I rode labouring horses up a steep way between two rocky hillsides that doubled the rays of the high sun back upon us and smothered the little breeze that tried to follow us up from the flat lands of the Arrowhead.  We breathed the pointed smell of the sage and we breathed the thick, hot dust that hung lazily about us; a dust like powdered chocolate, that cloyed and choked.

As recreation it was blighting; and I said almost as much.  Ma Pettengill was deaf to it, her gray head in its broad-brimmed hat sternly bowed in meditation as she wove to her horse’s motion.  Then I became aware that she talked to another; one who was not there.  She said things I was sure he would not have liked to hear.  She hung choice insults upon his name and blistered his fair repute with calumnies.  She was a geyser of invective, quiet perhaps for fifty yards, then grandly in action.

“Call yourself a cowman, hey?  What you ought to be is matron of a foundling asylum.  Yes, sir!”

This was among the least fearful of her dusty scornings.  And I knew she would be addressing one Homer Gale, temporary riding boss of the Arrowhead.  Indeed, Homer’s slightly pleading accents were now very colourably imitated by his embittered employer: 

“Yes’m, Mis’ Pettengill, it’s a matter of life and death; no less.  I got to git off for two days ­a matter of life and death.  Yes’m; I just got to!”

On the completion of this a hoarse hoot of scorn boomed through the haze and Homer was told that men like himself often caused perfectly decent people to be tried for murder.  And again Homer’s rightful job was echoed as “Matron of a foundling asylum!”

I felt the embarrassment of one unwittingly come upon the adjustment of a private grievance.  I dropped delicately a few paces behind, unnoticed, I thought; but Ma Pettengill waited for me to overtake her again.

Then, as we pushed through the dust together, she told me that her days were swifter than a weaver’s shuttle and spent without hope.  If it wasn’t one thing it was another.  What she’d like ­she’d like to wake up in a strange place and find she’d clean forgot her name and address, like these here parties you read about in the papers.  And why wouldn’t she?  A dry year; feed short on the range; water holes dusty that never did go dry before; half a hay crop and winter threatening right spang in the summertime!  Think of having to gather cattle off the range in the middle of August when other times you could let ’em run till the middle of October!  In fact, this was the kind of a year that cattle raisers had a technical term for.  It was known technically as one hell of a year, if I wanted to be told.

And having to do the work with mental defectives and cripples and Bolsheviki, because every able-bodied puncher in the country had gone over to create a disturbance in Europe!  Hadn’t she combed out the county hospital and poor farm to get a haying crew?  Didn’t the best cowboy now on the pay roll wear a derby hat and ride a motorcycle by preference?  And paying seventy-five dollars to these imitation punchers to fight her gentle saddle horses, no colt, it seemed, having been ridden on the place in the memory of man.

She didn’t know; taking one thing with another, sometimes she almost wished that the world was going to stay unsafe for democracy.

Of course this technically described bad year wasn’t so bad one way, because the sheepmen would sure get a tasty wallop, sheep being mighty informal about dying with the weather below zero and scant feed.  When cattle wasn’t hardly feeling annoyed sheep would lie down and quit intruding on honest cattle raisers for all time.  Just a little attention from a party with a skinning knife was all they needed after that.  And so on, back to Homer Gale, who had gone to Red Gap for two days on a matter of life and death ­and of this the less repeated here the better.

Now our narrow way spread to a valley where the sun’s rays were more widely diffused and the dust less pervasive.  We could see a mile ahead to a vaster cloud of dust.  This floated over a band of Arrowhead cattle being driven in from a range no longer sustaining.  They were being driven by Bolsheviki, so my informant disclosed.

We halted above the road and waited for the dusty creatures to plod by us down to the pleasant lea where feed was still to be had and water was sweet.  Then came the Bolshevik rear guard.  It consisted of Silas Atterbury and four immature grandchildren.

Grandpa Atterbury was ninety-three and doing his first labour since he retired, at eighty-five.  The grandchildren, two male and two female, should have been playing childish games.  And they were Bolsheviki, all because they had refused to bring in this bunch of stock except for the wage customarily paid to trained adults.  Even the youngest, known as Sissy Atterbury, aged eight and looking younger, despite her gray coating of powdered alkali, had tenaciously held out for a grown man’s pay, which made her something even worse than a Bolshevik; it made her an I.W.W.

But, as Ma Pettengill said, what could a lady do when Fate had a stranglehold on her.  There was, indeed, nothing to do but tell Sissy to tell one of her incendiary brothers to get up close to grandpa, and yell good and loud at him, and make him understand he was to get a count on that bunch at the first gate, because it didn’t look to us that there was over three hundred head where there ought to be at least five hundred.

And then there was nothing to do but ride ahead of the toiling beasts and again down the narrow way that would bring us to the lowlands of the Arrowhead, where the dust no longer choked and one could see green and smell water.  From the last mesa we looked out over the Arrowhead’s flat fields, six thousand acres under fence, with the ranch house and outbuildings hazy in the distance.

It was a pleasant prospect and warmed Ma Pettengill from her mood of chill negation.  She remarked upon the goodliness of the scene, quite as if the present were not a technical year for cattle raisers.  Then, as we jogged the six miles home by peaceful thoroughfares, the lady, being questioned persistently and suitably, spoke with utter freedom of Homer Gale, who had shamefully deserted his job for two days at the busiest end of the season, when a white man wouldn’t of thought of leaving, even on a matter of life and death.

Had Homer the shadow of an excuse?  We shall see.

Well, then, this here celluloid imitation of a cowman that I been using violent words about come into the valley three years ago and rapidly got a lot of fame by reason of being a confirmed bachelor and hating the young of the human species with bitterness and constancy.  I was the one that brought him in; I admit that.  First time I seen him he was being a roistering blade in the Fashion Waffle Kitchen down at Red Gap.  He was with Sandy Sawtelle and a couple other boys from the ranch here, and Sandy tells me later that he is looking for work, being a good cowhand.  I said he looked like something else, being dressed in an uproarious check suit of clothes that would instantly of collected a crowd in most city streets.  But Sandy says that’s all right; he’s a régler cowman and had to wear these startling garments for a disguise to get him safe out of Idaho.

It seems he’d been crowded out of that thriving state by a yearning and determined milliner that had witnesses a-plenty and intended to do something about it.  Defendant claimed he hadn’t even meant anything of the sort and was just being a good pal; but it looked like the cruel teeth of the law was going to bite right into his savings if this breach-of-promise suit ever come to trial, the lady having letters from him in black and white.  So Homer had made a strategic retreat, avoiding contact with the enemy, and here he was.  And how about taking him on at the Arrowhead, where he could begin a new life?

Needing another hand just then, I fussed none at all about Homer’s scandalous past.  I said he could throw in with us; and he did.  When he got dressed in a legal manner he looked like he couldn’t be anything else but a cowhand.  About forty and reliable, he looked.  So I sent him to a summer camp over on the Madeline plains, where I had a bunch of cattle on government range.  Bert Glasgow lived in a shack with his wife and family there and had general charge, and Homer was to begin his new life by helping Bert.

His new life threatened to be short.  He showed up here late the third night after he went over, looking sad and desperate and hunted.  He did look that way more or less at all times, having one of these long, sad moustaches and a kind of a bit-into face.  This night he looked worse than usual.  I thought the hellhounds of the law from Idaho might of took up his winding trail; but no.  It was the rosy-cheeked tots of Mr. and Mrs. Bert Glasgow that had sent him out into the night.

“Say,” he says, “I wouldn’t have you think I was a quitter, but if you want to suicide me just send me back to that horrible place.  Children!” he says.  “That’s all; just children!  Dozens of ’em!  Running all over the place, into everything, under everything, climbing up on you, sticking their fingers into your eyes ­making life unbearable for man and beast.  You never once let on to me,” he says reproachfully, “that this Bert had children.”

“No,” I says; “and I never let on to you that he’s got a mole on his chin either.  What of that?”

Then the poor lollop tries to tell me what of it.  I saw he really had been under a nervous strain, all right.  Suffering had put its hot iron on him.  First, he just naturally loathed children anyway.  Hadn’t he run away from a good home in Iowa when he was sixteen, account of being the oldest of seven?  He said some things in general about children that would of got him no applause at a mothers’ meeting.  He was simply afraid to look a child in the eye; and, from what he’d like to do to ’em all, it seemed like his real middle name was Molech.  Wasn’t that the party with hostile views about children?  Anyway, you could see that Homer’s idea of a real swell festivity would be to hide out by an orphan asylum some night until the little ones had said their prayers and was tucked all peaceful into their trundle beds and then set fire to the edifice in eight places after disconnecting the fire alarm.  That was Homer, and he was honest; he just couldn’t help it.

And Bert’s tikes had drove him mad with their playful antics.  He said he’d be set down for a bite of dinner and one of ’em would climb up his back and feel his hair ­not saying a word, just taking hold of it; then it would jump down and another would climb up and do the same thing, and him not daring to defend himself.  He’d got so worked up he was afraid to stay on the place.

“And you know,” he says ­“what I can’t understand ­danged if Bert don’t seem to kind of like ’em.  You may think I’m a liar, but he waited for one the other morning when it squealed at him and kept a hold of its hand clean down to the hay barn.  What do you think of that?  And besides these that go round infesting the place outside he’s got a short yearling and a long two-year-old that have to be night-herded.  I listened to ’em every night.  One yelled and strangled all last night, till I s’posed, of course, it was going to perish everlastingly; but here this morning it was acting like nothing at all had happened.

“All I can say is, Bert don’t have much luck.  And that littlest yeller always unswallowing its meals with no effort whatever!  It’s horrible!  And the mother, with no strength of character ­feeble-minded, I reckon ­coddles ’em!  She never did cuss ’em out proper or act human toward ’em.  Kids like them, what they need ­upside down and three quick hard ones.  I know!”

I was fool enough to argue with him a bit, trying to see if he didn’t have a lick of sense.  I told him to look how happy Bert was; and how his family had made a man of him, him getting more money and saving more than ever in his past life.  Homer said what good would all that money do him?  He’d only fool it away on his wife and children.

“He regrets it, all right,” says Homer.  “I says to myself the other day:  ‘I bet a cookie he’d like to be carefree and happy like me!’”

Homer was a piker, even when he made bets with himself.  And the short of it was I sent a man that didn’t hate children over to Bert’s and kept Homer on the place here.

He stayed three months and said it was heaven, account of not having them unnecessary evils on the place that would squirm round a man’s legs and feel of his hair and hide round corners and peek at him and whisper about him.  Then I changed foremen and Scott Humphrey, the new one, brought three towheads with him of an age to cause Homer the anguish of the damned, which they done on the first day they got here by playing that he was a horse and other wild animals, and trying to pull the rest of his hair out.

He come in and cut himself out of my life the day after, shaking his head and saying he couldn’t think what the world was coming to.  As near as I could make him, his idea was that the world was going to be swamped with young ones if something wasn’t done about it, like using squirrel poison or gopher traps.

I felt like I wanted to cuff him up to a peak and knock the peak off; but I merely joked and said it was too bad his own folks hadn’t come to think that way while he could still be handled easy.  I also warned him it was going to be hard to find a job without more or less children on the outskirts, because ours was a growing state.  He said there must be a few sane people left in the world.  And, sure enough, he gets a job over to the Mortimers’ ­Uncle Henry and Aunt Mollie being past seventy and having nothing to distress Homer.

Of course the secret of this scoundrel’s get-away from Idaho had got round the valley, making him a marked man.  It was seen that he was a born flirt, but one who retained his native caution even at the most trying moments.  Here and there in the valley was a hard-working widow that the right man could of consoled, and a few singles that would of listened to reason if properly approached; and by them it was said that Homer was a fiend for caution.  He would act like one of them that simply won’t take no for an answer ­up to a certain point.  He would seem to be going fur in merry banter, but never to words that the law could put any expensive construction on.  He would ride round to different ranches and mingle at dances and picnics, and giggle and conduct himself like one doomed from the cradle to be woman’s prey ­but that was all.

Funny how he’d escaped through the years, him having apparently the weak and pliant nature that makes the ideal husband, and having reached the time of life when he was putting sheep dip on his hair where the lining shone through on top.  But so it was.  And his views on children had also become widely known.  Mothers used to grab up their youngest ones when he’d go into the post office down at Kulanch or meet one on the road.  He made no hit at all with such views among them that had learned better.  Still there was hopeful ones that thought he might be made to take a joke sooner or later, and the fact that he was known to save his wages and had a nice little stake laid by didn’t work against him any with such parties as might have a chance to be swept off their feet by him in a mad moment.

Then over at the Mortimers’ place he meets Mrs. Judson Tolliver, a plausible widow lady who come into the valley every once in a while to do sewing round at different ranches.  She was a good-built, impressive person, with a persuading manner; one of these competent ones that can take charge of affairs and conduct them unassisted, and will do so if not stopped.  Uncle Henry Mortimer brought her to the house in his light wagon one morning, with her sewing machine in the back.  And Homer was there to help her out and help out with the machine and see it was placed right in the sitting room; and then help out with her satchel and ask in a gentlemanly manner if everything was all right ­and everything was:  Thank you so much, Mr. Gale!

This party was no simpering schoolgirl.  She was thirty-five or so and square-jawed, and did her hair plain, and had a managing voice that would go good at club meetings.  She read library books and was a good conversationalist.  And what did she do the first evening, when Homer was mending one of his shirts by the kitchen lamp, but wrench it away from him roguishly and do the job herself, while she entertained him with conversation.  It was bound to be entertaining, for she started in about what trials children was to their tormented parents and how the world would be brighter and better if it consisted entirely of adults.

Any one might of thought she’d been hearing gossip about Homer’s likes and dislikes.  I know that’s what I thought afterward, when he opened his soul to me.  She said what a mercy it was that half a dozen yelling demons wasn’t in this house at that moment to make life an evil thing for all.  And Homer sunned right up and took the talk away from her.  While she done his mending he spoke heatedly of little children in his well-known happy vein, relating many incidents in his blasted career that had brought him to these views.  The lady listened with deep attention, saying “Ah, yes, Mr. Gale!” from time to time, and letting on there must be a strong bond of sympathy between them because he expressed in choice words what she had so often felt.

Homer must of been kind of swept off his feet at that very moment, and the rapids just below him.  I guess he’d already been made mushy sentimental by seeing the ideal romantic marriage between Uncle Henry and his wife ­forty years or so together and still able to set down in peace and quiet without having something squirm over you to see what you had in your pockets or ask what made your hair come out that funny way, till you wished a couple she-bears would rush out and devour forty-two of ’em.

It was the first of quite many evenings when Homer and the lady would set with a dish of apples and fried cakes between ’em and denounce the world’s posterity.  The lady was even suffering grave doubts about marriage.  She said having to make her own way after she lost her husband had made her relish her independence too much to think of ever giving it up again lightly.  Of course she wouldn’t say that possibly at some time in the dim future a congenial mate that thought as she did on vital topics ­and so forth ­just enough to give Homer a feeling of security that was wholly unwarranted.  Wasn’t he the heedless Hugo?

He was quite wordy about the lady to me when he come over on an errand one day.  He told me all about these delightful talks of theirs, and what an attractive person she was, sound as a nut, and companionable and good-looking without being one of these painted dolls.  He said, to see her above her sewing, she was a lovely view that he never tired of gazing at, and to hear her loathe children was music to the ear.  He said she was a rare woman.  I said she must be and asked him if he had committed himself.

“Well, I don’t say I have and I don’t say I haven’t,” he says; “but here I be, standing with reluctant feet at the parting of the ways.  And who knows what might happen?  I know I’ve had some darned close shaves from doing a whole lot worse in my time.”

So I wished him the best of luck with this lady child hater; not that I thought he’d really get what was coming to him.  He was so crafty.  He was one of them that love not well but too wisely, as the saying is.  Still, there was a chance.  He was scared to death of fire and yet he would keep on playing with it.  Some day the merry old flames might lick him up.  I hoped for the best.

A few days after that I went down to the foreman’s house late in the afternoon to see him about a shipment we had to make.  Scott was off somewhere, but his sister was in; so I set talking with her, and waiting.  This here Minna Humphrey was a hectic, blighted girl of thirty, sandy-haired, green-eyed, and little ­no bigger than a bar of soap after a day’s washing.  What had blighted the poor thing was having to teach public school for a dozen years.  She’d been teaching down to Kulanche that year and had just closed up.  We set out in front of the house and Minna told me she was all in; and how she’d ever got through the season she didn’t know.

She went on to speak of little children.  Fire in her voice?  Murder!  According to Minna, children had ought to be put in cages soon as they can walk and kept there till they are grown; fed through the bars and shot down if they break out.  That’s what twelve years’ enforced contact with ’em had done to Minna’s finer instincts.  She said absolutely nothing in the world could be so repugnant to her as a roomful of the little animals writing on slates with squeaky pencils.  She said other things about ’em that done her no credit.

And while I listened painfully who should be riding up but Homer Gale!

“Here,” I says to Minna; “here’s a man you’ll be a joyous treat to; just let him come in and listen to your song a while.  Begin at the beginning and say it all slow, and let Homer have some happy moments.”

So I introduced the two, and after a few formalities was got over I had Minna telling in a heartfelt manner what teaching a public school was like, and what a tortured life she led among creatures that should never be treated as human.  Homer listened with glistening eyes that got quite moist at the last.  Minna went on to say that children’s mothers was almost as bad, raging in to pick a fuss with her every time a child had been disciplined for some piece of deviltry.  She said mothers give her pretty near as much trouble as the kids themselves.

It was a joyous and painful narrative to Homer.  He said why didn’t Minna take up something else?  And Minna said she was going to.  She’d been working two summers in Judge Ballard’s office, down to Red Gap, and was going to again this summer, soon as she regained a little vitality; and she hoped now she’d have a steady job there and never have to go back to the old life of degradation.  Homer sympathized warmly; his heart had really been touched.  He hoped she’d rise out of the depths to something tolerable; and then he told her about Bert’s five horrible children that drove him out into the brush ­and so forth.

I listened in a while; and then I says to Homer ain’t it nice for him to meet someone else that thinks as he does on this great vital topic, Minna seeming to find young ones as repulsive as Mrs. Judson Tolliver?  And how about that lady anyway?  And how is his affair coming on?  I never dreamed of starting anything.  I was being friendly.

Homer gets vivacious and smirks something horrible, and says, well, he don’t see why people make a secret of such things; and the fact is that that lady and him have about decided that Fate has flung ’em together for a lofty purpose.  Of course nothing was settled definite yet ­no dates nor anything; but probably before long there’d be a nice little home adorning a certain place he’d kept his eye on, and someone there keeping a light in the window for him ­and so on.  It sounded almost too good to be true that this old shellback had been harpooned at last.

Then Minna spoke up, when Homer had babbled to a finish, and smirked and looked highly offensive.  She says brightly: 

“Oh, yes; Mrs. Judson Tolliver.  I know her well; and I’m sure, Mr. Gale, I wish you all the happiness in the world with the woman of your choice.  She’s a very sterling character indeed ­and such a good mother!”

“How’s that?” says Homer.  “I didn’t hear you just right.  Such a good what?”

“I said she’s such a good mother,” Minna answers him.

Homer’s smirk kind of froze on his face.

“Mother to what?” he says in a low, passionate tone, like an actor.

“Mother to her three little ones,” says Minna.  Then she says again quick:  “Why, what’s the matter, Mr. Gale?” For Homer seemed to have been took bad.

“Great Godfrey!” he says, hardly able to get his voice.

“And, of course, you won’t mind my saying it,” Minna goes on, “because you seem so broad-minded about children, but when I taught primary in Red Gap last year those three little boys of hers gave me more trouble than any other two dozen of the pests in the whole room.”

Homer couldn’t say anything this time.  He looked like a doctor was knifing him without anesthetics.

“And to make it worse,” says Minna, “the mother is so crazy about them, and so sensitive about any little thing done to them in the way of discipline ­really, she has very little control of her language where those children are concerned.  Still, of course, that’s how any good mother will act, to be sure; and especially when they have no father.

“I’m glad indeed the poor woman is to have someone like you that will take the responsibility off her shoulders, because those boys are now at an age where discipline counts.  Of course she’ll expect you to be gentle with them, even though firm.  Oswald ­he’s eleven now, I believe ­will soon be old enough to send to reform school; but the younger ones, seven and nine ­My! such spirits as they have!  They’ll really need someone with strength.”

Homer was looking as if this bright chatter would add twenty years to his age.  He’d slumped down on the stoop, where he’d been setting, like he’d had a stroke.

“So she’s that kind, is she?” he kind of mutters.  “A good thing I found it out on her!”

“The children live with their grandmother in Red Gap while their mother is away,” says Minna.  “They really need a strong hand.”

“Not mine!” says Homer.  Then he got slowly up and staggered down a few steps toward the gate.  “It’s a good thing I found out this scandal on her in time,” says he.  “Talk about underhandedness!  Talk about a woman hiding her guilty secret!  Talk about infamy!  I’ll expose her, all right.  I’m going straight to her and tell her I know all.  I’ll make her cower in shame!” He’s out on his horse with his reckless threat.

“Now you’ve sunk the ship,” I says to Minna.  “I knew the woman was leading a double life as fur as Homer was concerned, but I wasn’t going to let on to the poor zany.  It’s time he was speared, and this would of been a judgment on him that his best friends would of relished keenly.  Lots of us was looking forward to the tragedy with great pleasure.  You spoiled a lot of fun for the valley.”

“But it would not have been right,” says Minna.  “It would truly have been the blackest of tragedies to a man of Mr. Gale’s sensitive fibres.  You can’t enter into his feelings because you never taught primary.  Also, I think he is very far from being a poor zany, as you have chosen to call him.”  The poor thing was warm and valiant when she finished this, looking like Joan of Arc or someone just before the battle.

And Homer never went back and made the lady cower like he said he meant to.  Mebbe it occurred to him on the way that she was not one of them that cower easy.  Mebbe he felt he was dealing with a desperate adventuress, as cunning as she was false-hearted.  Anyway, he weakened like so many folks that start off brave to tell someone so-and-so right to their faces.  He didn’t go back at all till the middle of the night, when he pussyfooted in and got his things out, and disappeared like he had stumbled down a well.

Uncle Henry had to feed his own stock next morning, while Mrs. Tolliver took on in great alarm and wanted a posse formed to rescue Homer from wherever he was.  Her first idea was that he had been kidnapped and was being held for ransom; but someway she couldn’t get any one else very hearty about this notion.  So then she said he had been murdered, or was lying off in the brush somewhere with a broken leg.

It was pointed out to her that Homer wouldn’t be likely to come and collect all his things in the night in order to keep a date with an assassin, or even to have his leg broke.  About the third day she guessed pretty close to the awful truth and spoke a few calm words about putting her case in the hands of some good lawyer.

The valley was interested.  It looked like a chance for the laugh of the year.  It looked like the lightnings of a just heaven had struck where they was long overdue.  Then it was discovered that Homer was hiding out over in the hills with a man after coyotes with traps and poison.  His job must of appealed to Homer’s cynical nature at that moment ­anything with traps and poison in it.

Dave Pickens was the man that found him, he not having much else to do.  And he let Homer know the worst he could think of without mincing words.  He said the deserted fiancee was going to bring suit against Homer for one hundred thousand dollars ­that being the biggest sum Dave could think of ­for breach of promise, and Homer might as well come out and face the music.

Homer did come out, bold as brass.  He’d been afraid the lady might gun him or act violent with something; but if she wasn’t threatening anything but legal violence he didn’t care.  He just couldn’t conceive that a lady with three children could make a suit like that stick against any man ­especially three children that was known to be hellions.  He didn’t even believe the lady would start a suit ­not with the facts of her shame known far and wide.  He was jaunty and defiant about this, and come right out of hiding and agreed to work for me again, Scott Humphrey having sent his wife and children on a visit to Grandma Humphrey.

But, lands.  He didn’t earn his salt.  Friends and well-wishers took the jauntiness all out of him in no time.  Parties rode from far and near to put him wise.  Ranchers from ten miles up and down the creek would drop important work just to ride over and tell him harsh facts about the law, and how, as man to man, it looked dark indeed for him.  These parties told him that the possession of three children by a lawful widow was not regarded as criminal by our best courts.  It wasn’t even considered shameful.  And it was further pointed out by many of the same comforters that the children would really be a help to the lady in her suit, cinching the sympathy of a jury.

Also, they didn’t neglect to tell him that probably half the jury would be women ­wives and mothers.  And what chance would he have with women when they was told how he regarded children?  He spent a good half of the time I paid him for in listening to these friendly words.  They give Homer an entirely new slant on our boasted civilization and lowered it a whole lot in his esteem.

About the only person in the whole valley that wasn’t laughing at him and giving him false sympathy with a sting in its tail was Minna Humphrey.  Homer told her all about the foul conspiracy against his fortune, and how his life would be blasted by marrying into a family with three outcasts like he’d been told these was.  And what was our courts coming to if their records could be stained by blackmailers.

And Minna give him the honest sympathy of a woman who had taught school twelve years, loathed the sight of any human under twenty, and even considered that the institution of marriage had been greatly overpraised.  Certainly she felt it was not for her; and she could understand Homer’s wanting to escape.  She and him would set out and discuss his chances long after he had ought to of been in bed if he was going to earn his pay.

Minna admitted that things looked dark for him on account of the insane prejudice that would be against him for his views on children.  She said he couldn’t expect anything like a fair trial where these was known even with a jury of his peers; and it was quite true that probably only five or six of the jury would be his peers, the rest being women.

Homer told me about these talks ­out of working hours, you can bet!  How Minna was the only person round that would stand by anyone in trouble; how she loathed kids, and even loathed the thought of human marriage.

“Minna is a nice girl,” I told him; “but I should think you’d learn not to pay attention to a woman that talks about children that way.  Remember this other lady talked the same way about ’em before the scandal come out.”

But he was indignant that any one could suspect Minna’s child hating wasn’t honest.

“That little girl is pure as a prism!” he says.  “When she says she hates ’em, she hates ’em.  The other depraved creature was only working on my better nature.”

“Well,” I says, “the case does look black; but mebbe you could settle for a mere five thousand dollars.”

“It wouldn’t be a mere five thousand dollars,” says Homer; “it would be the savings of a lifetime of honest toil and watching the pennies.  That’s all I got.”

“Serves you right, then,” I says, “for not having got married years ago and having little ones of your own about your knee!”

Homer shuddered painfully when I said this.  He started to answer something back, but just choked up and couldn’t.

The adventuress had, of course, sent letters and messages to Homer.  The early ones had been pleading, but the last one wasn’t.  It was more in the nature of a base threat if closely analyzed.  Then she finished up her sewing at the Mortimers’ and departed for Red Gap, leaving a final announcement to anybody it concerned that she would now find out if there was any law in the land to protect a defenseless woman in her sacred right to motherhood.

Homer shivered when he heard it and begun to think of making another get-away, like he had done from Idaho.  He thought more about it when someone come back from town and said she was really consulting a lawyer.

He’d of gone, I guess, if Minna hadn’t kept cheering him up with sympathy and hating children with him.  Homer was one desperate man, but still he couldn’t tear himself away from Minna.

Then one morning he gets a letter from the Red Gap lawyer.  It says his client, Mrs. Judson Tolliver, has directed him to bring suit against Homer for five thousand dollars; and would Homer mebbe like to save the additional cost ­which would be heavy, of course ­by settling the matter out of court and avoiding pain for all?

Homer was in a state where he almost fell for this offer.  It was that or facing a jury that would have it in for him, anyway, or disappearing like he had done in Idaho; only this lady was highly determined, and reports had already come to him that he would be watched and nailed if he tried to leave.  It would mean being hounded from pillar to post, even if he did get away.  He went down and put it up to Minna, as I heard later.

“I’m a desperate man,” he says, “being hounded by this here catamount; and mebbe it’s best to give in.”

“It’s outrageous!” says Minna.  “Of course you don’t care about the money; but it’s the principle of the thing.”

“Well, yes and no,” says Homer.  “You might say I care some about the money.  That’s plain nature, and I never denied I was human.”

So they went on to discuss it back and forth warmly, when a misunderstanding arose that I was very careful to get the rights of a couple of weeks later.

Minna went over the old ground that Homer could never get a fair trial; then she brightened up all at once and says: 

“Don’t you pay it.  Don’t you do it; because you won’t have to if you do what I say.”

Homer gets excited and says: 

“Yes, yes; go on!”

And Minna goes on.

“When people can’t get fair trials in a place,” she says, “they always take change of venues.”

“Change of venues?” says Homer, kind of uneasy, it seemed.

“Certainly,” says Minna:  “they take change of venues.  I’ve worked in Judge Ballard’s office long enough to know that much.  Why didn’t I think of it before?  It’s your one chance to escape this creature’s snare.”

“Change of venues?” says Homer again, kind of aghast.

“It’s your only way out,” says Minna; “and I’ll do everything I can ­”

“You will?” says Homer.

“Why, of course!” says Minna.  “Any thing ­”

“All right, then,” says Homer.  “You get your things on, and I’ll saddle your horse and bring him round.”

“What for?” demands Minna.

“I’m a desperate man!” says Homer.  “You say it’s the only way out, and you know the law; so come along to Kulanche with me.”  And he beat if off to the barn.

Well, Minna had said she’d do anything she could, thinking she’d write herself to Judge Ballard and find out all the details; but if Homer wanted her to go to Kulanche with him and try to start the thing there ­why, all right.  She was ready when Homer come with her horse and off they rode on the twelve-mile trip.

I gather that not much was said on the way by Homer who only muttered like a fever patient from time to time, with Minna saying once in a while how glad she was she had thought up this one sure way out of his trouble.

At Kulanche they rode up in front of Old Man Geiger’s office, who is justice of the peace.

“Wait here a minute,” says Homer, and went inside.  Pretty soon he come out and got her.  “Come on, now,” he says, “I got it all fixed.”

And Minna goes in, thinking mebbe she’s got to swear to an affidavit or something that Homer couldn’t get a fair trial among people knowing he regarded little ones as so many cockroaches or something to step on.

She got some shock when Homer took her inside and held her tight by the wrist while Old Man Geiger married ’em.  That’s about the way it was.  She says she was so weak she could hardly stand up, and she hadn’t hardly any voice at all left.  But she kept on saying “Why, Homer!” and “Oh, Homer!” and “No, no, Homer!” as soon as she discovered that she had been dragged off to a fate she had always regarded as worse than death; but a lot of good it done her to say them things in a voice not much better than a whisper.

And the dreadful thing was over before she could get strength to say anything more powerful.  There she was, married to a man she thought highly of, it’s true, and had a great sympathy for in the foul wrong one of her sex had tried to slip over on him; but a man she had never thought of marrying.  I’m telling you what she told me.  And after sentence had been pronounced she kept on saying “Why, Homer!” and “Oh, Homer!” and “No, no, Homer!” till there was nothing to do but get some clothes out of her trunk that she’d left down there in time to take the narrow gauge for their wedding tour to Spokane.

The news spread over the valley next day like a brush fire in August.  It was startling!  Like the newspapers say of a suicide, “No cause could be assigned for the rash act.”  They was away ten days and come back to find the whole country was again giving Homer the laugh because Mrs. Tolliver had up and married a prosperous widower from over in Surprise Valley, and had never brought any suit against him.  It was said that even the late Mrs. Tolliver was laughing heartily at him.

Homer didn’t seem to care, and Minna certainly didn’t.  She was the old-fashioned kind of wife, a kind you don’t hear much of nowadays; the kind that regards her husband as perfect, and looks up to him.  She told me about the tumultuous wedding.  Neither of ’em had had time for any talk till they got on the train.  Then it come out.  She says why ever did Homer do such a monstrous thing?  And Homer says: 

“Well, you told me a change of Venus was the only way out for me ­”

“I said a change of venue,” says Minna.

“It sounded like change of Venus,” says Homer, “and I knew Venus was the god of love.  And you said you was willing and I knew we was congenial, and I was a desperate man; and so here we are!”

So she cried on his shoulder for twenty miles while he ate a box of figs.

Homer is now a solid citizen, with his money put into a place down at the lower end of the valley, instead of lying in the bank at the mercy of some unscrupulous woman with little ones.  And here this summer, with his own work light, he’s been helping me out as riding boss; or, at least I been lavishing money on him for that.

A fine, dependable hand, too!  Here was this bunch of stock to be got in from Madeline ­them Bolshevik ain’t gathered more’n two thirds of ’em; and there’s more to come in from over Horse Fly Mountain way, and still another bunch from out of the Sheep Creek country ­the busiest month in a bad year, when I needed every man, woman, and child to be had, and here comes Homer, the mush-head, taking two days off!

“Yes’m, Mis’ Pettengill; I just got to take time off to go down to Red Gap.  It’s a matter of life and death.  Yes’m; it is.  No’m; I wouldn’t dast send any one, and Minna agrees I’m the only one to go ­” Shucks!

The lady built a cigarette and, after lighting it, turned back to scan the mesa we had descended.  The cattle now crowded down the narrow way into the valley, their dust mounting in a high, slow cloud.

“Call yourself a cowman, do you?” she demanded of the absent Homer.  “Huh!” Then we rode on.

“What was the matter of life and death?” I asked.

Ma Pettengill expelled cigarette smoke venomously from inflated nostrils like a tired dragon.

“The matter of life and death was that he had to get two teething rings for the twins.”

“Twins!”

“Oh, the valley got it’s final laugh at Homer!  Twins, sure!  Most of us laughed heartily, though there was mothers that said it was God’s judgment on the couple.  Of course Homer and Minna ain’t took it that way.  They took it more like they had been selected out of the whole world as a couple worthy to have a blessed miracle happen to ’em.  There might of been single babies born now and then to common folks, but never a case of twins ­and twins like these!  Marvels of strength and beauty, having to be guarded day and night against colic and kidnappers.

“They had ’em down to the post office at Kulanche the other day showing ’em off, each one in a red shawl; and sneering at people with only one.  And this imbecile Homer says to me: 

“‘Of course it can’t be hoped,’ he says, ’that this great world war will last that long; but if it could last till these boys was in shape to fight I bet it wouldn’t last much after that.  Yes, sir; little Roosevelt and Pershing would soon put an end to that scrap!’

“And now they’re teething and got to have rubber rings.  And no, he couldn’t send any one down for ’em; and he couldn’t order ’em by mail either, because they got to be just the right kind.

“‘Poor little Pershing is right feverish with his gums,’ says Homer, ’but little Roosevelt has got a front one through already.  He bit my thumb yesterday with it ­darned near to the bone.  He did so!’

“Calls himself a cowman, does he?  He might of been ­once.  Now he ain’t no more than a woman’s home companion!”