Read CHAPTER IX - THE PRICE OF CONVALESCENCE of The Biography of a Prairie Girl , free online book, by Eleanor Gates, on ReadCentral.com.

EVERY morning a cloud appeared in the east, rushed westward across the northern sky, and vanished beyond the “Jim.”  Every afternoon it came up in the west again, swept back toward the east, and went out of sight in the Big Sioux.  If a herd chanced to be grazing too near its path as it approached, they were scattered right and left in wild confusion by a shrill toot! toot! that could be heard at the farm-house.  But when the way was clear the cloud traveled swiftly and silently, stringing itself, on sunny days, to a low white ribbon, or, if the air was damp and the heavens were gray, separating itself, from river to river, into many dark coughs of dense, high-sailing smoke.

For three months it had been crossing the plains as regularly as the sun itself.  Before that it had loitered, attended, so the biggest brother said, by a great company of rough men carrying shovels and picks.  It was this company, stray members of which, worn and grimy, had visited the farm-house now and then and talked in broad brogue, that had kept the little girl and the herd south of the reservation road throughout the early spring; and it was not until the men had dispersed and the cloud had begun its daily trips from horizon to horizon that she was permitted to ride northward on the pinto to see it go by.

The youngest brother went with her, mounted upon a skittish, bald-faced pony, and they halted together, near the low embankment that divided the prairie, to wait for the engine.  But when it hurtled past, a screaming thing of iron and flying sparks, both the pinto and the pony, despite their riders’ curbing, retreated so precipitately from the track that neither she nor the youngest brother caught more than a glimpse of the flying train, for their mounts ceased running only when the barn-yard was reached.  Then the old mare came to a stop, blowing and trembling so wildly that she could scarcely keep her legs, while the bald-face kicked and snorted about among the granaries and pens in a perfect paroxysm of terror.

It was not long, however, before the pinto completely lost her fear of the engine, and would eat quietly near the embankment while the little girl lay flat on the ties to listen for a first faint rumble, or waved at the people in the cars.  The flock, too, became so familiar with the track that they soon had a contempt for it, a feeling that they retained even after a dozen of their number had been mangled on its rails; but the cattle always kept it at a respectful distance, and only Napoleon ever showed the train enough hostility to shake his stubby horns angrily at it or charge toward it as it shot away over the plains.  The herd was allowed, therefore, to feed along the railroad in the custody of the little girl.

But now, for nearly three weeks, the Swede boy had kept guard over the grazing stock, and the little girl had not even seen the cloud above the distant train.  For she was ill:  so ill that the neighbor woman, who shared the long night watches beside the canopied bed with the biggest brother and his mother, shook her head in the seclusion of the kitchen, and told herself that the little girl would never be well again.

The family were beginning to have the same awful thought, and had sent a telegraphic summons from the new station, ten miles away, to a physician in Sioux Falls.  To them a cloud far heavier and darker than the engine’s breath was hanging, day and night, over the farm-house, shutting out all sunshine, hope, and happiness.

One warm afternoon, while the little girl was riding the cultivator mare up and down in the Indian corn, she had suddenly been seized with a chill.  That night a fever followed, and for a week she grew steadily worse.  Her mother gave her every home remedy known to be good for malaria, and at the end of the second week moved her to the canopied bed, where an ever waving fan cooled her hot cheeks.  It was here, almost at the end of the third week of her illness, that the Sioux Falls doctor found her.

She was tossing from side to side, murmuring in a delirium that had possessed her for days.  Her face showed a scarlet flush against the white pillow-slip.  The biggest brother, who scarcely left her bedside to rest or eat, was placing cold cloths upon her forehead and wetting her lips.  White through his tan, he hung over her in an agony of fear, only lifting his eyes, now and then, to turn them sorrowfully upon his mother, seated opposite.

The little girl did not know of the doctor’s arrival.  As he hurried into the sitting-room, she was thinking of the floating cloud.  Now it was pursuing her as she fled from it on a fleet pony; now it was stooping groundward, a huge, airy monster, to offer her a cake of ice; again it was sweeping over her, quenching the deadly fire that consumed her, and leaving her on the damp, green bank above the mooring-place of the bull-boat.  She lay very still with her cool thoughts, her eyes, wide and lustrous, fixed upon the blue canopy overhead.  But when, a moment later, the fever burned more hotly again, and the cloud changed to a blinding, blistering steam that enveloped her, she sat up and fought with her hands, and cried aloud for the biggest brother.

The doctor caught her wrists and gently put her back.  One glance at her parched lips and brown tongue had told him what was the matter, and as he opened a valise and took out some medicines he answered the inquiring looks of the family.  “Typhoid,” he said.  “She’s a very sick child.  But I think we may be able to pull her through.”

With her mother and the big brothers looking on mournfully, the first step was taken toward aiding her.  One by one her curls, so long her mother’s pride and care, were snipped off close to her head; and when at last they lay on the bed in a newspaper, a little heap of soft, yellow tangles, there was sobbing all about in the sitting-room, and even the doctor, accustomed to sad sights, could not keep the tears from chasing down his cheeks and into his brown beard.

She looked pitifully thin and altered, shorn of her bright halo; yet at once she grew quieter, and when she was gently lowered into the brimming wash-tub and then laid between sheets wrung from cold water, she closed her eyes gratefully and ceased her outcries.

The doctor, collarless and with his shirt-sleeves rolled up, worked over her all day.  The little girl’s mother and the neighbor woman assisted him, and the big brothers sat on the bench in front of the house, so as to be within easy call.  But when twilight came, and everything possible had been done for his patient’s comfort, the doctor, who was tired with his long ride and the day’s strain, went into the little girl’s room and took a much-needed sleep.

“Keep up your courage,” he said cheerily to the biggest brother, as he left him at his post by the little girl; “her years of outdoor life will help her rally.  I have hope; but wake me at once if you note any decided change.”

The evening hours passed slowly.  In the sick-room the little girl’s mother was resting on the lounge, which had been pulled close to the canopied bed.  The neighbor woman dozed in the kitchen, beside the table where was spread the untasted supper.  The eldest and the youngest brothers were stretched, still dressed, on their beds in the attic.  The house was noiseless, and dark everywhere except in the sitting-room.  There, on the high clock-shelf, the same tall lamp that, nearly seven and a half years before, had burned like a beacon and lighted the coming of the stork, now, turned low, shone upon the faithful biggest brother and the suffering little girl.

Shortly after ten o’clock an interruption came to the silence.  A gentle knocking was heard at the hall door, and, on going out, the neighbor woman found a cattleman who had recently moved into the Territory from northern Texas standing on the stone step.  Having heard that morning from the Swede boy that the little girl was dangerously ill, he had ridden down to proffer the services of himself and his swift horse Sultan.  And when the neighbor woman told him that there was small hope of the little girl’s recovery, he stabled his animal, and prepared to remain all night.

As he came out of the barn, after having tied Sultan in a vacant stall, he found that, unknown to the family, another anxious watcher was lingering about.  A tow head was suddenly thrust from behind the partly open door, and a hand halted him by catching appealingly at his sleeve.  “She bane bater?” asked a low, timid voice.

The cattleman turned, half startled, and shook his head as he replied, “I reckon she’s a lot worse,” he said.  He walked on, but paused again at the smoke-house.  The tow-head was just behind, and the cattleman could hear the sound of chattering teeth; so he whipped off his overcoat and tossed it back.  When he entered the hall the chattering had stopped, and the coat had disappeared into the shadow of a granary.

After the cattleman settled himself upon the bench in the kitchen, the house fell into quiet once more; and it was not until midnight that the hush was broken.  Then the biggest brother, having moved the curtains of the canopied bed and turned up the lamp, discovered what he felt to be the dreaded change in the little girl, and uttered a frightened exclamation.

Her face, so long flushed with fever, was blanched and wan.  Her eyes were entirely closed, and their long lashes lay on her cheeks.  Her arms were outspread and relaxed, her palms open.  Her breathing was so faint that he had to bend his ear to her lips to hear it.  He was certain that the end was near, and hastened to call his mother and summon his brothers and the doctor.  They were joined in the sitting-room by the neighbor woman and the cattleman.

It was apparent to all that a change for the worse had taken place in the little girl.  Yet the doctor, who hurried to her side, watch in hand, betrayed neither satisfaction nor alarm as he bent above her; and the group about him could only wait in suspense.

Suddenly there came a sigh from the pillow, and the little girl opened her eyes.  For a week she had recognized no one.  Now she looked about at the faces turned upon her, and a faint smile curved her lips.  It brought a cry of joy from her mother.  “Oh, pet lamb,” she said, “the doctor’s here, and he’s going to make my baby well.”

A shade passed over the little girl’s face, and she glanced from her mother to the doctor.  “I’m really not a baby,” she said in a weak voice, but with something of the old spirit; “my mother jus’ says that.  I’ll be seven in June.”

The doctor nodded, and smiled back at her.  His fingers were still at her wrist, and his face wore a worried expression.  The cattleman leaned and whispered a question in his ear, and he replied out loud.  “I can’t tell,” he said.  “She may and she may not.”

The little girl’s eyes closed.  The doctor poured out a stimulant, and put the glass to her mouth.  When he lifted her head, she drank it, and her breath came in longer and heavier respirations.  No one spoke.

All at once a sound of scratching at the front door, followed by whining, startled her so that she looked up once more, and her lips moved.  “That’s Luffree,” she said.  Her mother began to smooth her head tenderly, and it brought a new thought to the little girl. “’Monia’ll give me curly hair,” she added, and closed her eyes again.

The family watched her hopelessly, for to them the doctor’s silence had only one meaning; but the cattleman, standing behind the eldest brother, could not bear the wordless waiting.  He felt that if she would rouse and continue to speak, death would be delayed.  So he called to her pleadingly.

“Little gal!” he said huskily; “little gal!” She stirred wearily, and her lids fluttered as if she were striving to lift them.  “Little gal,” he went on; “I want ye t’ fight this out.  Don’t ye let no ol’ typhoid git you.  An’ when ye git well, ye jus’ come to see me, an’ ye kin hev anything on th’ whole ranch.”  She turned her face toward him.  “Anything on th’ whole ranch,” he repeated, his voice breaking.  She moved one hand till it found one of her mother’s, then she lay very still.

The biggest brother dropped to his knees beside the bed and crouched there.  The youngest brother began to weep, leaning against the eldest.  The neighbor woman crept away toward the kitchen, her face buried in her apron.  The cattleman turned his back.  The mother clung prayerfully to the transparent hand.  And so passed a long and despairing five minutes.

But at its end the doctor uttered an ejaculation of surprise and pleasure, and sprang to his feet.  At the same time he raised a warning finger and motioned all toward the kitchen.  They obeyed him and retreated, remaining together in troubled impatience until he came among them.

“I can’t be absolutely certain,” he said, his face alight with happiness, “but I believe you can all go to bed with safety.  Things seem to have turned our way:  her skin is soft and moist, her temperature is down, and, better than anything else, she’s asleep.”

As a full realization of the good news broke upon them, all save the biggest brother sat down to talk it gratefully over.  But he dashed out of doors to voice his joy, and, as he bounded up and down the yard, half laughing and half crying, he caught up a muffled figure that was lurking in the rear of the kitchen and swung it high into the air.

DURING the weeks that followed, while the little girl was slowly fighting her way back to a sure hold on life, there often came into her mind, vaguely at first and then more clearly, the promise that the cattleman had made her the night they thought she was dying.  “Ye kin hev anything on th’ whole ranch,” had been his exact words; and in the intervals when, having gratified an appetite that was alarming in its heartiness, she sat in the sun with the dogs about her, or drove with her mother in the new buckboard, she pondered them exultantly and with a confidence that was absolute.

However, it was not until she was so well that she was again saying pert things to the eldest brother, and so strong that she was once more tending the herd, that she determined to pay the cattleman a visit and remind him of his agreement.  Aware that the family would oppose her acceptance of a gift from a neighbor, she made her preparations for the trip in secret, and quietly left the farm-house one Sunday afternoon, taking with her a bridle and a gunny feed-bag half filled with oats.

She had chosen a Sunday for several reasons:  she was always relieved on that day of the task of herding, the youngest brother taking her place; her mother invariably spent it in writing long letters that traveled across land and sea to far-away England; and the eldest and biggest brothers puttered it away in the blacksmith-shop, where there were farm implements to mend, hoes to sharpen, and picket-ropes and tugs to splice.  Usually it was the lonesomest day of the week to the little girl; but this Sunday proved to be an exception.

She was careful not to disturb the household as she set off, and when she passed the cattle, which were feeding in the river meadows, she crept round them as slyly as an Indian, so that the youngest brother, who was fashioning willow whistles, should not see her.  Once having gained the straight road that led across the railroad track toward the cattleman’s, she took off her hat and made faster progress.

But the way was long, and, still weak from her recent sickness, she was easily tired.  When only two thirds of the distance was traveled it was so late that the night-blooming flowers were unfolding their chalices, as white and glimmering as the little girl’s Sunday apron, to let the crape-winged moths drink their sweetness.  Migrant birds were already speeding above her, to fly till dawn, and they veered from their course as they saw her hurrying along beneath them.  Wild creatures that had been sleeping during the day came from their holes to seek food and timidly watched her hasten past.  And all along, out of the tall, brittle grass, the busy lightning-bugs sprang up with their lanterns to help the dim stars light the way.

It was dusk on the plains before she looked in, through a tangle of corn and young cottonwoods, upon the low shanty, in front of which sat the cattleman in his shirt-sleeves, thoughtfully chewing a quid.  The growl of a dog at his feet discovered her to him at the same moment, and, as he squinted in the half-light at her thin little form and cropped head, she seemed like some strange prairie fay coming, light-footed, out of the gloom to meet him.

“Hi thar!” he called, rising up as the little girl threaded the corn and cottonwoods.  She was breathless with walking, and did not answer as she crossed the yard, shielding herself with the bridle and the feed-bag from the dog, bounding boisterously against her.  “Wal, what on airth!” exclaimed the cattleman when she halted before him.

As she glanced up, he took on the forbidding height and glowering aspect of her first school-teacher.  But she summoned heart.  “How d’ ye do?” she said, nodding at him cordially.

“What’re ye doin’ up here?” he demanded.  “Ye lost?  Come in! come in!”

“Oh, no,” answered the little girl, following him into the shanty.

He lighted a lantern, and, turning it upon her, eyed her anxiously.  She looked even thinner, paler, and more eerie than she had in the yard.  “Sit down,” he said, motioning her to a bench.  But he remained standing, his hands shoved far into the top of his wide, yellow, goatskin “chaps,” his quid rolling from side to side.  “W’y, I thought you ’s a spook,” he laughed, “er a will-o’-th’-wisp-one.  Want a drink er somethin’ to eat?  Got lots o’ nice coffee.  Guess y’ ’re petered.”

“No, I’m not,” she declared.  And as he turned from the stove, where he had put the coffee on to boil, she got up and stepped toward him.  “I-I-called to get somefing,” she faltered, resuming, in her trepidation, a babyish pronunciation long since discarded for one more dignified.

“Ye did?” queried the cattleman.

“Yes,” she continued.  “You ’member the night I ’most died?” He acquiesced silently.  “Well, you told me then that if I’d get well you’d give me anyfing on your ranch.”

The cattleman started as if he had been stung, and, wheeling about, took out his quid and threw it on the flames, so that he might be better able to cope with the matter before him.

“And so,” the little girl went on, “I fought I’d come to-day.”

The cattleman rubbed his chin.  “I see; I see,” he said.

“I couldn’t get here sooner,” she explained, “’cause I didn’t ride.”

“Oh, ye didn’t?” he said.  Then, noting the bridle and bag, “What ye got them fer?” he asked.

“I didn’t want to use yours,” she replied.

“Mine?” The cattleman was puzzled.

“Yes:  I brought this,” she went on, holding up the bag, “to catch him wiv; and this,” holding up the bridle, “to take him home wiv.”

“Him?” questioned the cattleman, more puzzled than ever.

The little girl saw that she would have to make herself more clear.  “Why, yes,” she said.  “You promised me anyfing I wanted if I’d get well; now I’m well, so I’ve come to-to-get Sultan.”

The cattleman sat down, amazement and consternation succeeding each other on his face.  Until now he had forgotten the compact made with her, and which he was in honor bound to keep.  Recalling it, he realized that it meant the loss of his best horse.

He was silent for a while, thinking hard for a means of escape from his dilemma.  When he spoke at last he was smiling good-naturedly.  “Ye’re right,” he said, rubbing his hands briskly over the long hair of the breeches; “I did say that very thing.  An’ I’m a man o’ my word.  But it seems to me,” and he leaned forward confidently, “thet ye ain’t made exac’ly the best pick thet ye could.”  The little girl sat up with a new interest.  “Now I’ve got sunthin’ here,” continued the cattleman, “thet’ll jes make yer eyes pop.”  He got up, went to a box that, nailed against the wall above the stove, served him for a cupboard, and took out a long, slender package.  “Ye’ve got more horses than ye can shake a stick at,” he began again; “ponies an’ plow teams an’ buggy nags, but ye ain’t got nuthin’ like what I’m ’bout to show ye.”

Slowly and impressively he began to undo the package, keeping one eye covertly on the little girl all the while.  She was beside him, rigid with expectancy.  When many thicknesses of thin brown paper had been unrolled, he stepped back, unwrapped a last cover, and, with a proud wave of his hand, revealed to her delighted gaze a big, thick, red-and-white candy cane.

“Now, what do ye think o’ that?” he demanded.

An exclamation of wonder came from her parted lips.  She moved nearer without answering.

“As I said,” he went on, “y’ ’ve got all kinds of horses; but when in yer life hev ye hed anything like this?” He laid it gently on the table, and folded his arms solemnly.  “Thet came all the way from Yankton,” he said, as if recounting the history of some famous work of art.  “I bought it down thar of a feller, an’ paid some little money fer it.”  He did not add that she was in his thoughts when he bought it.  “Now I’m going out to hitch up an’ take ye home,” he continued.  “While I’m gone, ye make up yer mind which ye want-” He started for the door, but paused half-way. “-which ye want,” he repeated, lowering his voice, “Sultan-er thet beautiful cane?”

When he was gone the little girl stole closer to the table and gazed rapturously down.  Never in her life, as the cattleman truly said, had she seen anything like it.  No horse, on a prairie overrunning with horses, could compare with it.  She put out her hand and touched its crooked head, almost reverently, with one small finger.

The cattleman harnessed a span of fat mules at the barn, and led them into their places on each side of a wagon tongue.  All the while he talked out loud to himself, with occasional guffaws of hearty laughter and sharp commands to the team.  Despite his merriment, however, he peered back at the shanty uneasily from time to time; so that it was a full quarter of an hour before the mules were hitched to the whiffletrees and ready for their journey.  Then he climbed to the seat and circled toward the door.

She was not in sight when he brought up with a loud whoa, and getting down, the lines in one hand and a black-snake in the other, he advanced to the sill and looked in.  “Any passengers goin’ south?” he cried cheerily, cracking the whip.

“Me,” answered a voice from behind the table, and the little girl, fagged but blissful, came forward smilingly, a long, brown-paper package clasped tightly to her breast.