Read CHAPTER V - JEAN MACDONALD HOMESTEADER of Virginia of Elk Creek Valley , free online book, by Mary Ellen Chase, on ReadCentral.com.

South of Elk Creek Valley the foot-hills were less ambitious than those east and north. It was easy to climb their sloping, well-trailed sides on horseback or even afoot, and the view across the wide mesa, blue with sagebrush to the distant mountains blue with August haze, was quite reward enough.

Here was real Western country, almost unhampered by civilization, almost unbroken by that certain sign of progress, the barbed-wire fence. This was in miniature what the pioneers must have gazed upon with weary, dream-filled eyes. Virginia and Donald, who often climbed the hills together for a wild gallop through the unfenced sagebrush, liked always to imagine how those sturdy folk of half a century ago urged their tired oxen up other slopes than these; how they halted on the brow of the foot-hills to rest the patient animals and to fan their hot, dusty faces with their broad-brimmed hats; and how their eager eyes, sweeping over miles of ragged prairie land to the mountains, awful with mystery, saw this great country cleared of sagebrush, intersected with ditches, reclad with homes.

Such had been the history of most of the land above and beyond Elk Creek Valley, and Donald and Virginia were loath to see this one unbroken mesa go. They wanted it as a hunting-ground for prairie chickens and pheasant in the fall, and as a wide, free, unhindered race-course for Pedro and MacDuff. Pedro and MacDuff wanted it, too. They liked to gallop, neck and neck, joyous in the sense of freedom, and in the knowledge that they were giving happiness to their respective riders. For years Donald and Virginia had loved the mesa. They loved it in the spring when the bare patches among the sagebrush grew green and gave birth to hardy spring flowers buttercups and shooting-stars and spring beauties; they loved it in the long blue days of August and in the shorter golden ones of October; and sometimes they thought they loved it best of all in winter when it lay, silent and very, very wise, beneath the snow.

But it was to be just theirs no longer. The slow, steady tide of oncoming progress had refused to let it alone. In the spring while Virginia was still at St. Helen’s, Donald, home for the Easter recess, had written her of two homesteaders’ cabins on the mesa toward the southeast, of fences being built, and of sagebrush rooted up and burned.

It was even less theirs on this August morning, for the cabin of another homesteader had risen as though by magic in the southwest corner; ten acres of freshly-plowed land were being warmed by the sun and made ready for September wheat; and rods of stout barbed-wire tacked to strong, well-made fence-poles were guarding the future wheat against all intruders. The cabin, superior in plan and workmanship to that of the average homesteader, faced the west. It was built of new spruce logs, with well-filled chinks, and boasted two large windows and a porch, in addition to its necessary door. Moreover, an outside stone chimney betokened a fire-place an untold luxury to a homesteader. A second wire fence, set at some three rods from the cabin, inclosed it on all sides, and protected a small vegetable garden and a few fruit trees, which the owner had already planted.

It was a good quarter section upon which this ambitious homesteader had filed. On the south the mesa mounted into the higher hills, and this claim included timber; the land already plowed showed the soil to be black and fertile; and a creek, tumbling from the mountains and hurrying by just back of the cabin, promised plenty of water, even in a thirsty season. With a substantial new cabin, three cows and a horse, some hens and two collie dogs, a crop nearly in, fruit trees thriving and a garden growing like wild-fire what more could one desire? Then add to riches already possessed, the surety of a barn and corral in September, and the probability of twelve pure-bred Shropshire sheep, and what homesteader would not sing for joy?

That was precisely what Jean MacDonald was doing this sunny August morning; for it was a girl a strong, robust girl of twenty-one who had taken up the southwestern claim on Virginia’s and Donald’s mesa. She was bustling about her little cabin, setting things to rights, and singing for joy. Her voice, clear, strong, and sweet, rang out in one good old Scotch song after another “Robin Adair,” “Loch Lomond,” and “Up with the Bonnets of Bonnie Dundee.” Sometimes she paused in her sweeping and dusting and hurried to the porch to look away across the mesa toward the north, and to speak to Robert Bruce, her horse, who, saddled and bridled, awaited her coming outside the gate.

“Not yet, Bobby,” she called, “not yet! There’s no sign of them at all, so be patient!”

Robert Bruce was quite willing to be patient. There was nourishment in plenty between the sagebrush clumps, and he wandered at will, his dragging reins giving sure proof that he would not stray too far.

Meanwhile, his mistress continued her singing and her work. She proudly dusted her new furniture in the room which served as chamber and parlor, rearranged her few books in their wall bookcase, swept up the ashes of her last evening’s fire, and brought wood to lay another. Then she turned her attention to the room which was kitchen and dining-room in one. From a neat chest of drawers she drew her best and only white table-cloth and spread it on the table. The table was a little rickety in one leg, but several folds of newspaper acted as a splendid prop, and quite removed the difficulty. Her supply of china and silver was scarce, but it would do with washing between courses. Four chairs were all she had, but they were quite enough as her guests numbered four. An empty soap-box concealed beneath the table-cloth, and drawn out only when necessary, would do for her.

In fifteen minutes everything was in readiness, even to five early nasturtiums in a tumbler on the dining-table. They had made a special effort to open that morning, and the homesteader was grateful. She paused on her way to the creek-refrigerator to look in the sitting-room mirror. These guests were her very first, and she wanted to appear at her best. Yes, her khaki blouse and skirt were clean and her hair fairly tidy. Her new red tie, she told herself, was quite decidedly jaunty. She blessed that tie, for had it not been for Donald Keith’s kindness in bringing the package to her from the town post-office four days ago, she would neither have known about the girls, nor have had the opportunity of inviting them to come to see her. Of course, they were from the East all except Virginia Hunter, of whom she had heard so much, and she was a Wyoming homesteader; but, she told herself, that need make no difference. In fact, it made everything much more interesting, for she could learn many things from them, and perhaps perhaps, they might learn a little bit from her.

Still singing, she hurried to the end of the porch, and looked toward the north. Four specks were distinctly visible on the edge of the mesa. Even as she looked they became larger. They were horses coming toward her cabin, and they bore her guests. She whistled loudly to Robert Bruce, who obediently ceased his browsing and came toward her. A quick run to the creek-refrigerator to see that her butter and cream were safe in the clear, cold water, and then back to Robert; a leap into the saddle and she was off to meet her guests.

Introductions are stilted, unlovely things between horseback riders on a sagebrush-covered mesa under a blue August sky. There were none this morning. Jean MacDonald reined in the restive Robert Bruce as she drew near her guests, and unceremoniously greeted them all.

“I know every one of you,” she said brightly, her dark blue eyes searching their faces “Mary Williams and Priscilla Winthrop and Vivian Winters all of you. And I’ve known you even longer, Virginia. Donald Keith told me all about you a month ago when they helped break my land. I’m so glad you’re coming to spend the day with me. You’re the very first guests I’ve ever had on my homestead!”

They were glad, too, they told her, liking her at once, and feeling perfectly at ease. She rode beside Virginia, talking of Donald, the other Keiths who had been so good to her, and her neighbors in the southeast corner of the mesa. Virginia, too, talked freely, asking questions, telling of their recent bear hunt, joining in Jean’s admiration of the Keiths. To the three New Englanders, who rode a little behind them, this new comradeship, though a little startling to their inherent conservatism, was interesting in the extreme. It seemed to be born of a land too big for ceremonies, too frank and open for formalities; and soon they found themselves urging their horses up to Pedro and Robert Bruce, so that they too might enter the widening circle of fellowship.

All four Vigilantes found themselves studying the face of this girl who so often turned toward one and another with a question or a reply. It was a face too tanned and too large-featured to be beautiful or even pretty; but the lines about the nose and mouth were firm and strong, the eyes were wide-open and fearless, and the head was set most independently upon a pair of broad, straight shoulders. There was something about the girl like the mesa fearless, big, wholesome. It showed itself in the way she managed her horse, in her hearty manner of laughing with her head thrown back, and in the calm, sure, straightforward expression of her dark blue eyes.

“She’d make the finest kind of a friend, I’m sure of that,” said Mary to herself, and then to Priscilla and Vivian, as they dropped behind for a moment just before reaching the little cabin.

“Yes,” agreed Priscilla, “she surely would. I wonder what there is about her that makes a person feel small. I’ve been feeling positively microscopic ever since she rode up to us.”

“I’m glad you have,” sighed Vivian, thankful that another shared her sensation. “So have I. I feel about as big as a field-mouse, and I think I know why. You just know a girl like her would never fall off a horse, or run away from a gun, or do anything babyish like that. And just imagine daring to live all alone in a little cabin like this! I’d die! I know I should!”

But the small feeling was forgotten in the good time which followed. Robert Bruce, unspeakably glad of company, escorted his four guests to choice bits of grass in among the sagebrush; the two collies barked in welcome; and the girls, loaded with saddles and bridles, went in through the gate toward the cabin. Jean MacDonald, proud and happy, led the way into the house and the interested Vigilantes followed. They had never supposed a log house could be so attractive within; but the neat dark furniture, the couch with its brown cover, the stone fire-place, and the books and pictures made the little cabin one of the most homelike places they had ever seen. A mountain sheep looked down upon them from above the fire-place. Jean had shot him the winter before in Montana, she told them. In the corner by the cot stood her guns one large, double-barreled Winchester, a shot-gun, and a small rifle. Above them on the logs rested her fishing-rods.

It was all so new and interesting to three pair of fascinated eyes. They asked question after question and explored every nook and corner of the cabin and its surroundings the kitchen with its shining stove, singing tea-kettle, and white-covered table, the pantry, the root-cellar and chicken-house, and last of all the creek-refrigerator.

“It’s all right in the daytime,” announced Vivian, as they sat on the porch before beginning to get dinner, “but I don’t see how you stand it all alone at night.” She paused. “I’d die!” she finished simply.

Jean MacDonald did not laugh, though she felt like it at first, for she saw that Vivian was very much in earnest.

“I think I know how you feel, Vivian,” she said kindly. “I know you would be very lonely, because, you see, you’ve always lived in a city or at school where there have been folks all about you. But, you see, it’s different with me. I was born on a homestead in Montana, and I’m used to endless tracts of land without neighbors. I guess I’ve made better friends with the mountains than you’ve been able to yet, and with the silence which I know some people fear. You see, I’ve never been afraid in all my life, so I don’t mind the loneliness.”

Vivian was staring at her, incredulous.

“Never been afraid of anything?” she repeated questioningly. “Honestly, haven’t you all your life?”

Jean MacDonald considered for a moment.

“No,” she said, “honestly, I don’t believe I ever have. I was brought up never to fear the dark or the silence or being alone or anything like that. Those are the most awful things, I guess, to persons who are afraid. And as for wild animals or people who would do harm (and there aren’t many of those in the world) why, you see” she raised her head and her eyes flashed “you see, I can take care of myself! I’m thankful,” she added, “that I’m not afraid of things. I think fear must be a terrible thing!”

Vivian’s blue eyes filled with sudden tears.

“It is,” she said. “It’s the most dreadful monster in the whole wide world!”

Jean MacDonald placed a firm, brown hand on Vivian’s shoulder as they all went in together to prepare dinner, and Vivian felt comradeship and understanding in that friendly hand. Perhaps, some day, she said to herself, she would be brave also; even before she went East, she might become a more worthy Vigilante. At all events she would begin once more. Perhaps, after all, she concluded, as she ran to the creek-refrigerator after the butter and cream perhaps after all, life was just a series of beginnings again each one a wee bit farther on!

Dinner was the jolliest meal imaginable. They ate and laughed laughed and ate. Everything was delicious the trout caught in the creek and fried to a rich brown, the baked potatoes, the fresh biscuits, the lettuce and radishes from the garden, and the custard pudding. Jean MacDonald with all her other accomplishments was a famous cook. That was self-evident.

After dinner they went out upon the porch, gazed across the mesa bluer than ever in the afternoon haze, and talked. Jean longed to know about school, and they told her of St. Helen’s, of Miss King, and Miss Wallace, of the dear funny Blackmores, and of poor tactless Miss Green. Tears ran down Jean’s face as Virginia told of Katrina Van Rensaelar and the deluge she never received, and of how Priscilla had given the German measles to the boys at the Gordon School.

Then Mary begged to know something about homesteading, and Jean told of how she had come to Wyoming. Her far-off neighbors in the other corner of the mesa had been friends in Montana, she said, and it was they who had encouraged her to come and take up an opposite claim. She explained how the land would become her own after she had lived upon it seven months each year for three years; how each year she must plow and fence so many acres; and how at the end of that time she could sell the land at a good price, or else stay and improve it further.

“And which will you do?” asked the interested Mary while the others listened. “Will you stay or go away after it is yours?”

She would go away for a while, she told them, and rent her land. Her neighbors yonder would be glad to hire it. She was going to college. Her eyes glowed with enthusiasm as she dreamed her dream for them. Since her graduation from High School she had taught in country schools until she had saved money enough to pay for her improvements on the homestead. Everything was paid for the cabin (she had made most of the furniture herself), the fencing, the plowing, her stock everything; and there was money enough left for fall planting, a new barn, and some sheep, and the autumn expenses. In December, perhaps, she would leave and earn some more money until it was time to come back again. Then in another August she would have a crop from her winter wheat, and another in September from the spring planting. She could hardly wait for the time to come when she should really have money from a crop of her own raising.

After the three years were over, and the land was hers, if she could afford it, she was going to college. If she did not have the money then, why she would work until she did. She would study agriculture at college, learn the best methods of improving the land, and then come back to carry them out. She would build a new house in place of the cabin, buy some more land, and make her ranch one of the best in all Wyoming!

The Vigilantes were in a new world as they listened a world where the only capital necessary was ambition, enthusiasm, vigor! Something told them that this homesteading girl was richer in many things than they themselves; that the treasures of hard work were quite as precious as those of wealth; and that Jean MacDonald was finding for herself through her own untiring labor the things most worth-while.

They were silent an hour later as they left their new friend on the edge of the mesa, and rode down the hills toward Elk Creek Valley.

“I think it’s been about the happiest day I’ve ever had in my life,” she told them, as she shook hands all around and said good-by. “I’ve loads of things to think about and laugh about until you come again. Give Siwash a looser rein, Vivian. He won’t stumble. Good-by!”

They looked back as they reached the Valley level to see Jean MacDonald and Robert Bruce silhouetted against the sky-line, and to wave them a last good-by.

“It’s like your ‘Power of the West’ picture in our room at school, Virginia,” Priscilla almost whispered “the man on horseback with the sunset and the mountains behind him. Just look! There! Now she’s turned Robert, and now they’re out of sight!”

That night they all sat on the porch together and watched the sunset. A flaming pageant of color traced and retraced its course across the sky.

“I never saw such color,” cried Aunt Nan. “Sometimes you think it’s saffron, and then you know it’s amber, and then you’re sure it’s real gold, and it’s changed again! See, Virginia!”

“I think I know what it’s like,” said Virginia. “Mother and I discovered it years ago when I was a little girl. Jim took us camping once when Father was away, and at night we had a big fire and sat and watched it. The sunset was gorgeous like this, I remember, and just as we were watching it and the fire, Mother discovered what the clouds were like. They’re like the smoke as the flames underneath push it through the green boughs! It’s just that wonderful color in the sky now. The next time we camp you’ll see, Aunt Nan. It always makes me think of the flame-colored veils which the Roman girls used to wear on their wedding-days. Mother told me about them that very night.”

“Just think how beautiful it must be from Jean’s cabin,” said Priscilla. “And she can see a larger sweep of sky and mountains because she’s up higher than we. I know she’s watching it all alone, and maybe dreaming about college.”

“I’ll never forget her to-day,” Mary said earnestly. “I think she’s wonderful! And, Aunt Nan, you just know from her eyes that she’s gazed on big stretches of country all her life. You must go with us next time to see her.”

“It’s more than that, Mary.” The voice came from the corner of the porch where Vivian sat apart from the others. “It’s more than that. You don’t just know she’s always looked at big things. You know she’s had them inside of her all her life long!”