The Claim Jumpers by Stewart Edward White
Chapter X. The World Made Young
The morning fulfilled the promise of the night before. Bennington de Laney awoke to a sun-bright world, fresh with the early breezes. A multitude of birds outside the window bubbled and warbled and carolled away with all their little mights, either in joy at the return of peace, or in sorrow at the loss of their new-built houses. Sorrow and joy sound much alike as nature tells them. The farther ridges and the prairies were once more in view, but now, oh, wonder! the great plain had cast aside its robes of monk brown, and had stepped forth in jolly green-o'Lincoln. The air was full of tingling life. Altogether a morning to cry one to leap eagerly from bed, to rush to the window, to drink in deep draughts of electric balmy ozone, and to thank heaven for the grace of mere existence.
That at least is what Bennington did. And he did more. He despatched a hasty breakfast, and went forth and saddled his steed, and rode away down the gulch, with never a thought of sample tests, and never a care whether the day's work were done or not. For this was springtime, and the air was snapping with it. Near the chickens' shelter the burnished old gobbler spread his tail and dragged his wings and puffed his feathers and swelled himself red in the face, to the great admiration of a demure gray-brown little turkey hen. Overhead wheeled two small hawks screaming. They clashed, and light feathers came floating down from the encounter; yet presently they flew away together to a hole in a dead tree. Three song sparrows dashed almost to his very feet, so busily fighting that they hardly escaped the pony's hoofs. Everywhere love songs trilled from the underbrush; and Bennington de Laney, as young, as full of life, as unmated as they, rode slowly along thinking of his lady love, and----
"Hullo! Where are you going?" cried she.
He looked up with eager joy, to find that they had met in the middle of what used to be the road. The gulch had been swept bare by the flood, not only of every representative of the vegetable world, but also of the very earth in which it had grown. From the remains of the roadbed projected sharp flints and rocks, among which the broncos picked their way.
"Good-morning, Mary," he cried. "I was just coming to see you. Wasn't it a great rain?"
"And isn't the gulch awful? Down near our way the timber began to jam, and it is all choked up; but up here it is desolate."
He turned his horse about, and they paced slowly along together, telling each other their respective experiences in the storm. It seemed that the Lawtons had known nothing of the cloud-burst itself, except from its effects in filling up the ravine. Rumours of the drowning of a miner were about.
It soon became evident that the brightness of the morning was reflected from the girl's mood. She fairly sparkled with gaiety and high spirits. The two got along famously.
"Where are you going?" asked Bennington at last.
"On the picnic, of course," she rejoined promptly. "Weren't you invited? I thought you were."
"I thought it would be too wet," he averred in explanation.
"Not a bit! The rain dries quickly in the hills, and the cloud-burst only came into this gulch. I have here," she went on, twisting around in her saddle to inspect a large bundle and a pair of well-stuffed saddle bags, "I have here a coffee pot, a frying pan, a little kettle, two tin cups, and various sorts of grub. I am fixed for a scout sure. Now when we get near your camp you must run up and get an axe and some matches."
Bennington observed with approval the corpulency of the bundle and the skilful manner with which it was tied on. He noted, with perhaps more approval, her lithe figure in its old-fashioned painter's blouse and rough skirt, and the rosiness of her cheeks under a cloth cap caught on awry. As the ponies sought a path at a snail's pace through the sharp flints, she showed in a thousand ways how high the gaiety of her animal spirits had mounted. She sang airy little pieces of songs. She uttered single clear notes. She mocked, with a ludicrously feminine croak, the hoarse voice of a crow sailing over them. She rallied Bennington mercilessly on his corduroys, his yellow flapped pistol holster, his laced boots. She went over in ridiculous pantomime the scene of the mock lynching, until Bennington rolled in his saddle with light-hearted laughter, and wondered how it was possible he had ever taken the affair seriously. When he returned with the axe she was hugely alarmed lest he harm himself by his awkward way of carrying it, and gave him much wholesome advice in her most maternal manner. After all of which she would catch his eye, and they would both laugh to startle the birds.
Blue Lead proved to be some distance away, for which fact Bennington was not sorry. At length they surmounted a little ridge. Over its summit there started into being a long cool "draw," broad and shallow near the top, but deepening by insensible degrees into a canon filled already with broad-leaved shrubs, and thickly grown with saplings of beech and ash. Through the screen of slender trunks could be seen miniature open parks carpeted with a soft tiny fern, not high enough to conceal the ears of a rabbit, or to quench the flame of the tiger lily that grew there. Soon a little brook sprang from nowhere, and crept timidly through and under thick mosses. After a time it increased in size, and when it had become large enough to bubble over clear gravel, Mary called a halt.
"We'll have our picnic here," she decided.
The ravine at this point received another little gulch into itself, and where the two came together the bottom widened out into almost parklike proportions. On one side was a grass-plot encroached upon by numerous raspberry vines. On the other was the brook, flowing noisily in the shade of saplings and of ferns.
Bennington unsaddled the horses and led them over to the grass-plot, where he picketed them securely in such a manner that they could not become entangled. When he returned to the brookside he found that Mary had undone her bundle and spread out its contents. There were various utensils, some corn meal, coffee, two slices of ham, raw potatoes, a small bottle of milk, some eggs wonderfully preserved by moss inside the pail, and some bread and cake. Bennington eyed all this in dismay. She caught his look and laughed.
"Can't you cook? Well, I can; you just obey orders."
"We won't get anything to eat before night," objected Bennington dolefully as he looked over the decidedly raw material.
"And he's so hungry!" she teased. "Never mind, you build a fire."
Bennington brightened. He had one outdoor knack--that of lighting matches in a wind and inducing refractory wood to burn. His skill had often been called into requisition in the igniting of beach fires, and the so-called "camp fires" of girls. He collected dry twigs from the sunny places, cut slivers with his knife, built over the whole a wigwam-shaped pyramid of heavier twigs, against which he leaned his firewood. Then he touched off the combination. The slivers ignited the twigs, the twigs set fire to the wigwam, the wigwam started the firewood. Bennington's honour was vindicated. He felt proud.
Mary, who had been filling the coffee pot at the creek, approached and viewed the triumph. She cast upon it the glance of scorn.
"That's no cooking fire," said she.
So Bennington, under her directions, placed together the two parallel logs with the hewn sides and built the small bright fire between them.
"Now you see," she explained, "I can put my frying pan, and coffee pot, and kettle across the two logs. I can get at them easy, and don't burn my fingers. Now you may peel the potatoes."
The Easterner peeled potatoes under constant laughing amendment as to method. Then the small cook collected her materials about her, in grand preparation for the final rites. She turned back the loose sleeves of her blouse to the elbow.
This drew an exclamation from Bennington.
"Why, Mary, how white your arms are!" he cried, astonished.
She surveyed her forearm with a little blush, turning it back and forth.
"I am pretty tanned," she agreed.
The coffee pot was filled and placed across the logs at one end, and left to its own devices a little removed from the hottest of the fire. The kettle stood next, half filled with salted water, in which nestled the potatoes like so many nested eggs. Mary mixed a mysterious concoction of corn meal, eggs, butter, and some white powder, mushing the whole up with milk and water. The mixture she spread evenly in the bottom of the frying pan, which she set in a warm place.
"It isn't much of a baking tin," she commented, eyeing it critically, "but it'll do."
Under her direction Bennington impaled the two slices of ham on long green switches, and stuck these upright in the ground in such a position that the warmth from the flames could just reach them.
"They'll never cook there," he objected.
"Didn't expect they would," she retorted briefly. Then relenting, "They finish better if they're warmed through first," she explained.
By this time the potatoes were bubbling energetically and the coffee was sending out a fragrant steam. Mary stabbed experimentally at the vegetables with a sharpened sliver. Apparently satisfied, she drew back with a happy sigh. She shook her hair from her eyes and smiled across at Bennington.
"Ready! Go!" cried she.
The frying pan was covered with a tin plate on which were heaped live coals. More coals were poked from between the logs on to a flat place, were spread out thin, and were crowned by the frying pan and its glowing freight. Bennington held over the fire a switch of ham in each hand, taking care, according to directions, not to approach the actual blaze. Mary borrowed his hunting knife and disappeared into the thicket. In a moment she returned with a kettle-lifter, improvised very simply from a forked branch of a sapling. One of the forks was left long for the hand, the other was cut short. The result was like an Esquimaux fishhook. She then relieved Bennington of his task, while that young man lifted the kettle from the fire and carefully drained away the water.
"Dinner!" she called gaily.
Bennington looked up surprised. He had been so absorbed in the spells wrought by this dainty woods fairy that he had forgotten the flight of time. It was enough for him to watch the turn of her wrist, the swift certainty of her movements, to catch the glow lit in her face by the fire over which she bent. Then he suddenly remembered that her movements had all along tended toward dinner, and were not got up simply and merely that he might discover new charms in the small housekeeper.
He found himself seated on a rock with a tin plate in his lap, a tin cup at his side, and an eager little lady in front of him, anxious that he should taste all her dishes and deliver an opinion forthwith.
The coffee he pronounced nectar; the ham and mealy potatoes, delicious; the "johnny-cake" of a yellow golden crispness which the originator of johnny-cake might envy; and the bread and cake and butter and sugar only the less meritorious that they had not been prepared by her own hands and on the spot.
"And see!" she cried, clapping her hands, "the sun is still directly over us. It is not night yet, silly boy!"