The Desert and The Sown by Mary Hallock Foote
XIX. Pilgrims and Strangers
Aunt Polly Lewis was disappointed in the latest of her beneficiaries. It was nine years since her husband had locked up his savings in the Mud Springs ranch, a neglected little health-plant at the mouth of the Bruneau. If you were troubled with rheumatism, or a crick in the back, or your "pancrees" didn't act or your blood was "out o' fix, why, you'd better go up to Looanders' for a spell and soak yourself in that blue mud and let aunt Polly diet ye and dost ye with yerb tea."
When Leander courted aunt Polly in the interests of his sanitarium, she was reputed the best nurse in Ada County. The widow--by desertion--of a notorious quack doctor of those parts: it was an open question whether his medicine had killed or her nursing had cured the greater number of confiding sick folk. Leander drove fifty miles to catechise this notable woman, and finding her sound on the theory of packs hot and cold, and skilled in the practice of rubbing,--and having made the incidental discovery that she was a person not without magnetism,--he decided on the spot to add her to the other attractions of Mud Springs ranch; and she drove home with him next day, her trunk in the back of his wagon.
The place was no sinecure. Bricks without straw were a child's pastime to the cures aunt Polly and the Springs effected without a pretense to the comforts of life in health, to say nothing of sickness. Modern conveniences are costly, and how are you to get the facilities for "pay patients" when you have no patients that pay! Prosperity had overlooked the Bruneau, or had made false starts there, through detrimental schemes that gave the valley a bad name with investors. The railroad was still fifty miles away, and the invalid public would not seek life itself, in these days of luxurious travel, at the cost of a twelve hours' stage-ride. However, as long as the couple had a roof over their heads and the Springs continued to plop and vomit their strange, chameleon-colored slime, Leander would continue to bring home the sick and the suffering for Polly and the Springs to practice on. Health became his hobby, and in time, with isolation thrown in, it began to invade his common sense. He tried in succession all the diet fads of the day and wound up a convert to the "Ralston" school of eating. Aunt Polly had clung a little longer to the flesh-pots, but the charms of a system that abolished half the labor of cooking prevailed with her at last, and in the end she kept a sharper eye upon Leander at mealtime than ever he had upon her.
The ignorant gorgings of their neighbors were a head-shaking and a warning to them, and more than once Leander's person was in jeopardy through his zealous but unappreciated concern for the brother who eats in darkness.
He had started out one winter morning from Bisuka, a virtuous man. His team had breakfasted, but not he. A Ralstonite does not load up his stomach at dawn after the manner of cattle, and such pious substitutes for a cup of coffee as are permitted the faithful cannot always be had for a price. At Indian Creek he hauled up to water his team, and to make for himself a cinnamon-colored decoction by boiling in hot water a preparation of parched grains which he carried with him. This he accomplished in an angle of the old corral fence out of the wind. There is no comfort nor even virtue in eating cold dust with one's sandwiches. Leander sunk his great white tushes through the thick slices of whole-wheat bread and tasted the paste of peanut meal with which they were spread. He ate standing and slapped his leg to warm his driving hand.
A flutter of something colored, as a garment, caught his eye, directing it to the shape of a man, rolled in an old blue blanket, lying motionless in a corner of the tumble-down wall. "Drunk, drunk as a hog!" pronounced Leander. For no man in command of himself would lie down to sleep in such a place. As if to refute this accusation, the wind turned a corner of the blanket quietly off a white face with closed eyelids,--an old, worn, gentle face, appealing in its homeliness, though stamped now with the dignity of death. Leander knelt and handled the body tenderly. It was long before he satisfied himself that life was still there. Another case for Polly and the Springs. A man worth saving, if Leander knew a man; one of the trustful, trustworthy sort. His heart went out to him on the instant as to a friend from home.
It was closing in for dusk when he reached the Ferry. Jimmy was away, and Han, in high dudgeon, brought the boat over in answer to Leander's hail. He had grouse to dress for supper, inconsiderately flung in upon him at the last moment by the stage, four hours late.
"Huh! Why you no come one hour ago? All time 'Hullo, hullo'! Je' Cli'! me no dam felly-man--me dam cook! Too much man say 'Hullo'!"
The prospect was not good for help at the Ferry inn, so, putting his trust in Polly and the Springs, Leander pushed on up the valley.
When Aunt Polly's patients were of the right sort, they stayed on after their recovery and helped Leander with the ranch work. But for the most part they "hit the trail" again as soon as their ills were healed, not forgetting to advertise the Springs to other patients of their own class. The only limit to this unenviable popularity was the size of the house. Leander saw no present advantage in building.
But in case they ever did build--and the time was surely coming!--here was the very person they had been looking for. Cast your bread upon the waters. The winter's bread and care and shelter so ungrudgingly bestowed had returned to them many-fold in the comfortable sense of dependence and unity they felt in this last beneficiary, the old man of Indian Creek whom they called "Uncle John."
"The kindest old creetur' ever lived! Some forgitful, but everybody's liable to forgit. Only tell him one thing at once, and don't confuse him, and he'll git through an amazin' sight of chores in a day."
"Just the very one we'll want to wait on the men patients," Aunt Polly chimed in. "He can carry up meals and keep the bathrooms clean, and wash out the towels, and he's the best hand with poultry. He takes such good care of the old hens they're re'lly ashamed not to lay!"
It was spring again; old hopes were putting forth new leaves. Leander had heard of a capitalist in the valley; a young one, too, more prone to enthusiasm if shown the right thing.
"I'm going down to Jimmy's to fetch them up here!" Leander announced.
"Are there two of them?"
"He has brought his wife out with him. They are a young couple. He's the only son of a rich widow in New York, and Jimmy says they've got money to burn. Jimmy don't take much stock in this 'ere 'wounded guide' story--thinks it's more or less of a blind. He's feeling around for a good investment--desert land or mining claims. Jimmy thinks he represents big interests back East."
Aunt Polly considered, and the corners of her mouth moistened as she thought of the dinner she would snatch from the jaws of the system on the day these young strangers should visit the ranch.
"By Gum!" Leander shouted. "I wonder if Uncle John wouldn't know something about the party they're advertising for. That'd be the way to find out if they're really on the scent. I'll take him down with me--that's what I'll do--and let him have a talk with the young man himself. It'll make a good opening. Are you listening, Polly?" She was not. "I wish you'd git him to fix himself up a little. Layout one o' my clean shirts for him, and I'll take him down with me day after to-morrow."
"I'll have a fresh churning to-morrow," Aunt Polly mused. "You can take a little pat of it with you. I won't put no salt in it, and I'll send along a glass or two of my wild strawberry jam. It takes an awful time to pick the berries, but I guess it'll be appreciated after the table Jimmy sets. I don't believe Jimmy'll be offended?"
"Bogardus is their name," continued Leander. "Mr. and Mrs. Bogardus, from New York. Jimmy's got it down in his hotel book and he's showing it to everybody. Jimmy's reel childish about it. I tell him one swallow don't make a summer."
Uncle John had come into the room and sat listening, while a yellow pallor crept over his forehead and cheeks. He moved to get up once, and then sat down again weakly.
"What's the matter, Uncle?" Aunt Polly eyed him sharply. "You been out there chopping wood too long in this hot sun. What did I tell you?"
She cleared the decks for action. Paler and paler the old man grew. He was not able to withstand her vigorous sympathies. She had him tucked up on the calico lounge and his shoes off and a hot iron at his feet; but while she was hurrying up the kettle to make him a drink of something hot, he rose and slipped up the outside stairs to his bedroom in the attic. There he seated himself on the side of his neat bed which he always made himself camp fashion,--the blankets folded lengthwise with just room for one quiet sleeper to crawl inside; and there he sat, opening and clinching his hands, a deep perplexity upon his features.
Aunt Polly called to him and began to read the riot act, but Leander said: "Let him be! He gits tired o' being fussed over. You're at him about something or other the whole blessed time."
"Well, I have to! My gracious! He'd forgit to come in to his meals if I didn't keep him on my mind."
"It just strikes me--what am I going to call him when I introduce him to those folks? Did he ever tell you what his last name is?"
"I wouldn't be surprised," Aunt Polly lowered her voice, "if he couldn't remember it himself! I've heard of such cases. Whenever I try to draw him out to talk about himself and what happened to him before you found him, it breaks him all up; seemingly gives him a back-set every time. He sort of slinks into himself in that queer, lost way--just like he was when he first come to."
"He's had a powerful jar to his constitution, and his mind is taking a rest." Leander was fond of a diagnosis. "There wasn't enough life left in him to keep his faculties and his bod'ly organs all a-going at once. The upper story's to let."
"I wish you'd go upstairs, and see what he is doing up there."
"Aw, no! Let him be. He likes to go off by himself and do his thinking. I notice it rattles him to be talked to much. He sets out there on the choppin'-block, looking at the bluffs--ever notice? He looks and don't see nothin', and his lips keep moving like he was learning a spellin'-lesson. If I speak to him sharp, he hauls himself together and smiles uneasy, but he don't know what I said. I tell you he's waking up; coming to his memories, and trying to sort 'em out."
"That's just what I say," Aunt Polly retorted, "but he's got to eat his meals. He can't live on memories."
Uncle John was restless that evening, and appeared to be excited. He waited upon Aunt Polly after supper with a feverish eagerness to be of use. When all was in order for bedtime, and Leander rose to wind the clock, he spoke. It was getting about time to roll up his blankets and pull out, he said. Leander felt for the ledge where the clock-key belonged, and made no answer.
"I was saying--I guess it's about time for me to be moving on. The grass is starting"--
"Are you cal'latin' to live on grass?" Leander drawled with cutting irony. "Gettin' tired of the old woman's cooking? Well, she ain't much of a cook!"
Uncle John remained silent, working at his hands. His mouth, trembled under his thin straggling beard. "I never was better treated in my life, and you know it. It ain't handsome of you, Lewis, to talk that way!"
"He don't mean nothing, Uncle John! What makes you so foolish, Looander! He just wants you to know there's no begrudgers around here. You're welcome, and more than welcome, to settle down and camp right along with us."
"Winter and summer!" Leander put in, "if you're satisfied. There's nobody in a hurry to see the last of ye."
Uncle John's mild but determined resistance was a keen disappointment to his friends. Leander thought himself offended. "What fly's stung you, anyhow! Heard from any of your folks lately?"
The old man smiled.
"Got any money salted down that needs turning?"
"Looander! Quit teasing of him!"
"Let him have his fun, ma'am. It's all he's likely to get out of me. I have got a little money," he pursued. "'T would be an insult to name it in the same breath with what you've done for me. I'd like to leave it here, though. You could pass it on. You'll have chances enough. 'T ain't likely I'll be the last one you'll take in and do for, and never git nothing out of it in return."
There was a mild sensation, as the speaker, fumbling in his loose trousers, appeared to be seeking for that money. Aunt Polly's eyes flamed indignation behind her tears. She was a foolish, warm-hearted creature, and her eyes watered on the least excuse.
"Looander, you shouldn't have taunted him," she admonished her husband, who felt he had been a little rough.
"Look here, Uncle John, d'you ever know anybody who wasn't by way of needing help some time in their lives? We don't ask any one who comes here"--
"He didn't come!" Aunt Polly corrected.
"Well, who was brought, then! We don't ask for their character, nor their private history, nor their bank account. I don't know but you're the first one for years I've ever took a real personal shine to, and we've h'isted a good many up them stairs that wasn't able to walk much further. I'd like you to stay as a favor to us, dang it!"
Leander delivered this invitation as if it were a threat. His straight-cut mustache stiffened and projected itself by the pressure of his big lips; his dark red throat showed as many obstinate creases as an old snapping-turtle's.
"I'm much obliged to you both. I want you to remember that. We--I--I'll talk with ye in the morning."
"That means he's going all the same," said Leander, after Uncle John had closed the outside door.
Sure enough, next morning he had made up his little pack, oiled his boots, and by breakfast-time was ready for the road. They argued the point long and fiercely with him whether he should set out on foot or wait a day and ride with Leander to the Ferry. It was not supposed he could be thinking of any other road. By to-morrow, if he would but wait, Aunt Polly would have comfortably outfitted him after the custom of the house; given his clothes a final "going over" to see everything taut for the journey, shoved a week's rations into a corn-sack, choosing such condensed forms of nourishment as the system allowed--nay, straining a point and smuggling in a nefarious pound or two of real miner's coffee.
Aunt Polly's distress so weighed with her patient that he consented to remain overnight and ride with Leander as far as the dam across the Bruneau, at its junction with the Snake. There he would cross and take the trail down the river, cutting off several miles of the road to the Ferry. As for going on to see Jimmy or Jimmy's "folks," the nervous resistance which this plan excited warned the good couple not to press the old man too far, or he might give them the slip altogether.
A strangeness in his manner which this last discussion had brought out, lay heavy on aunt Polly's mind all day after the departure of the team for the Ferry. She watched the two men drive off in silence, Leander's bush beard reddening in the sun, his big body filling more than his half of the seat.
"Well, by Gum! If he ain't the blamedest, most per-sistent old fool!" he complained to his wife that night. Their first words were of the old man, already missed like one of the family from the humble place he had made for himself. Leander was still irritable over his loss. "I set him down with his grub and blankets, and I watched him footing it acrost the dam. He done it real handsome, steady on his pins. Then he set down and waited, kind o' dreaming, like he used to, settin' on the choppin'-block. I hailed him. 'What's the matter?' I says. 'Left anything?' No: every time I hailed he took off his hat and waved to me real pleasant. Nothing the matter. There he set. Well, thinks I, I can't stay here all day watching ye take root. So I drove on a piece. And, by Gum! when I looked back going around the bend, there he went a-pikin' off up the bluffs--just a-humping himself for all he was worth. I wouldn't like to think he was cunning, but it looked that way for sure,--turning me off the scent and then taking to the bluffs like he was sent for! Where in thunder is he making for? He knows just as well as I do--you have heard me tell him a dozen times--the stages were hauled off that Wood River road five year and more ago. He won't git nowhere! And he won't meet up with a team in a week's walking."
"His food will last him a week if he's careful; he's no great eater. I ain't afraid his feet will get lost; he's to home out of doors almost anywhere;--it's his head I'm afraid of. He's got some sort of a skew on him. I used to notice if he went out for a little walk anywhere, he'd always slope for the East."