October 8, 1913
My dear Friend,—
I have had such a happy little peep into another’s romance that I think I should be cheating you if I didn’t tell you. Help in this country is extremely hard to get; so when I received a letter from one Aurelia Timmons, saying she wanted a job,—three dollars a week and not to be called “Relie,”—my joy could hardly be described. I could hardly wait until morning to start for Bridger Bench, where Aurelia held forth. I was up before the lark next morning. It is more miles to the Bridger Bench country than the “gude mon” wants his horses driven in a day; so permission was only given after I promised to curb my impatience and stay overnight with Mrs. Louderer. Under ordinary circumstances that would have been a pleasure, but I knew at least a dozen women who would any of them seize on to Aurelia and wrest her from me, so it was only after it seemed I would not get to go at all that I promised.
At length the wagon was greased, some oats put in, a substantial lunch and the kiddies loaded in, and I started on my way. Perhaps it was the prospect of getting help that gilded everything with a new beauty. The great mountains were so majestic, and the day so young that I knew the night wind was still murmuring among the pines far up on the mountain-sides. The larks were trying to outdo each other and the robins were so saucy that I could almost have flicked them with the willow I was using as a whip. The rabbit-bush made golden patches everywhere, while purple asters and great pink thistles lent their charm. Going in that direction, our way lay between a mountain stream and the foothills. There are many ranches along the stream, and as we were out so early, we could see the blue smoke curling from each house we passed. We knew that venison steak, hot biscuit, and odorous coffee would soon grace their tables. We had not had the venison, for the “gude mon” holds to the letter of the law which protects deer here, but we begrudged no one anything; we were having exactly what we wanted. We jogged along happily, if slowly, for I must explain to you that Chub is quite the laziest horse in the State, and Bill, his partner, is so old he stands like a bulldog. He is splay-footed and sway-backed, but he is a beloved member of our family, so I vented my spite on Chub, and the willow descended periodically across his black back, I guess as much from force of habit as anything else. But his hide is thick and his memory short, so we broke no record that day.
We drove on through the fresh beauty of the morning, and when the sun was straight overhead we came to the last good water we could expect before we reached Mrs. Louderer’s; so we stopped for lunch. In Wyoming quantity has a great deal more to do with satisfaction than does quality; after half a day’s drive you won’t care so much what it is you’re going to eat as you will that there is enough of it. That is a lesson I learned long ago; so our picnic was real. There were no ants in the pie, but that is accounted for by there being no pie. Our road had crossed the creek, and we were resting in the shade of a quaking-asp grove, high up on the sides of the Bad Land hills. For miles far below lay the valley through which we had come.
Farther on, the mountains with their dense forests were all wrapped in the blue haze of the melancholy days. Soon we quitted our enchanted grove whose quivering, golden leaves kept whispering secrets to us.
About three o’clock we came down out of the hills on to the bench on which the Louderer ranch is situated. Perhaps I should explain that this country is a series of huge terraces, each terrace called a bench. I had just turned into the lane that leads to the house when a horseman came cantering toward me. “Hello!” he saluted, as he drew up beside the wagon. “Goin’ up to the house? Better not. Mrs. Louderer is not at home, and there’s no one there but Greasy Pete. He’s on a tear; been drunk two days, I’m tellin’ you. He’s full of mischief. ‘T ain’t safe around old Greasy. I advise you to go some’eres else.” “Well,” I asked, “where can I go?” “Danged if I know,” he replied, “‘lessen it ‘s to Kate Higbee’s. She lives about six or seven miles west. She ain’t been here long, but I guess you can’t miss her place. Just jog along due west till you get to Red Gulch ravine, then turn north for a couple of miles. You’ll see her cabin up against a cedar ridge. Well, so ‘long!” He dug his spurs into his cayuse’s side and rode on.
Tears of vexation so blinded me that I could scarcely see to turn the team, but ominous sounds and wild yells kept coming from the house, so I made what haste I could to get away from such an unpleasant neighborhood. Soon my spirits began to rise. Kate Higbee, I reflected, was likely to prove to be an interesting person. All Westerners are likable, with the possible exception of Greasy Pete. I rather looked forward to my visit. But my guide had failed to mention the buttes; so, although I jogged as west as I knew how, I found I had to wind around a butte about ever so often. I crossed a ravine with equal frequency, and all looked alike. It is not surprising that soon I could not guess where I was. We could turn back and retrace our tracks, but actual danger lay there; so it seemed wiser to push on, as there was, perhaps, no greater danger than discomfort ahead. The sun hung like a big red ball ready to drop into the hazy distance when we came clear of the buttes and down on to a broad plateau, on which grass grew plentifully. That encouraged me because the horses need not suffer, and if I could make the scanty remnant of our lunch do for the children’s supper and breakfast, we could camp in comfort, for we had blankets. But we must find water. I stood up in the wagon and, shading my eyes against the sun’s level light, was looking out in the most promising directions when I noticed that the plateau’s farther side was bounded by a cedar ridge, and, better yet, a smoke was slowly rising, column-like, against the dun prospect. That, I reasoned, must be my destination. Even the horses livened their paces, and in a little while we were there.
But no house greeted our eyes,—just a big camp-fire. A lean old man sat on a log-end and surveyed us indifferently. On the ground lay a large canvas-covered pack, apparently unopened. An old saddle lay up against a cedar-trunk. Two old horses grazed near. I was powerfully disappointed. You know misery loves company; so I ventured to say, “Good-evening.” He didn’t stir, but he grunted, “Hello.” I knew then that he was not a fossil, and hope began to stir in my heart. Soon he asked, “Are you goin’ somewheres or jist travelin’?” I told him I had started somewhere, but reckoned I must be traveling, as I had not gotten there. Then he said, “My name is Hiram K. Hull. Whose woman are you?” I confessed to belonging to the house of Stewart. “Which Stewart?” he persisted,—”C.R., S.W., or H.C.?” Again I owned up truthfully. “Well,” he continued, “what does he mean by letting you gad about in such onconsequential style?”
Sometimes a woman gets too angry to talk. Don’t you believe that? No? Well, they do, I assure you, for I was then. He seemed grown to the log. As he had made no move to help me, without answering him I clambered out of the wagon and began to take the horses loose. “Ho!” he said; “are you goin’ to camp here?” “Yes, I am,” I snapped. “Have you any objections?” “Oh, no, none that won’t keep,” he assured me. It has always been a theory of mine that when we become sorry for ourselves we make our misfortunes harder to bear, because we lose courage and can’t think without bias; so I cast about me for something to be glad about, and the comfort that at least we were safer with a simpleton than near a drunken Mexican came to me; so I began to view the situation with a little more tolerance.
After attending to the horses I began to make the children comfortable. My unwilling host sat silently on his log, drawing long and hard at his stubby old pipe. How very little there was left of our lunch! Just for meanness I asked him to share with us, and, if you’ll believe me, he did. He gravely ate bread-rims and scraps of meat until there was not one bit left for even the baby’s breakfast. Then he drew the back of his hand across his mouth and remarked, “I should think when you go off on a ja’nt like this you’d have a well-filled mess-box.” Again speech failed me.
Among some dwarf willows not far away a spring bubbled. I took the kiddies there to prepare them for rest. When I returned to the fire, what a transformation! The pack was unrolled and blankets were spread, the fire had been drawn aside, disclosing a bean-hole, out of which Hiram K. was lifting an oven. He took off the lid. Two of the plumpest, brownest ducks that ever tempted any one were fairly swimming in gravy. Two loaves of what he called punk, with a box of crackers, lay on a newspaper. He mimicked me exactly when he asked me to take supper with him, and I tried hard to imitate him in promptitude when I accepted. The babies had some of the crackers wet with hot water and a little of the gravy. We soon had the rest looking scarce. The big white stars were beginning to twinkle before we were through, but the camp-fire was bright, and we all felt better-natured. Men are not alone in having a way to their heart through their stomach.
I made our bed beneath the wagon, and Hiram K. fixed his canvas around, so we should be sheltered. I felt so much better and thought so much better of him that I could laugh and chat gayly. “Now, tell me,” he asked, as he fastened the canvas to a wheel, “didn’t you think I was an old devil at first?” “Yes, I did,” I answered. “Well,” he said, “I am; so you guessed right.” After I put the children to bed, we sat by the fire and talked awhile. I told him how I happened to be gadding about in “such onconsequential” style, and he told me stories of when the country was new and fit to live in. “Why,” he said, in a burst of enthusiasm, “time was once when you went to bed you were not sure whether you’d get up alive and with your scalp on or not, the Injins were that thick. And then there was white men a durned sight worse; they were likely to plug you full of lead just to see you kick. But now,” he continued mournfully, “a bear or an antelope, maybe an elk, is about all the excitement we can expect. Them good old days are gone.” I am mighty glad of it; a drunken Pete is bad enough for me.
I was tired, so soon I went to bed. I could hear him as he cut cedar boughs for his own fireside bed, and as he rattled around among his pots and pans. Did you ever eat pork and beans heated in a frying-pan on a camp-fire for breakfast? Then if you have not, there is one delight left you. But you must be away out in Wyoming, with the morning sun just gilding the distant peaks, and your pork and beans must be out of a can, heated in a disreputable old frying-pan, served with coffee boiled in a battered old pail and drunk from a tomato-can. You’ll never want iced melons, powdered sugar, and fruit, or sixty-nine varieties of breakfast food, if once you sit Trilby-wise on Wyoming sand and eat the kind of breakfast we had that day.
After breakfast Hiram K. Hull hitched our horses to the wagon, got his own horses ready, and then said, “‘T ain’t more ‘n half a mile straight out between them two hills to the stage-road, but I guess I had better go and show you exactly, or you will be millin’ around here all day, tryin’ to find it.” In a very few minutes we were on the road, and our odd host turned to go. “S’long!” he called. “Tell Stewart you seen old Hikum. Him and me’s shared tarps many’s the nights. We used to be punchers together,—old Clyde and me. Tell him old Hikum ain’t forgot him.” So saying, he rode away into the golden morning, and we drove onward, too.
We stopped for lunch only a few minutes that day, and we reached the Bridger community about two that afternoon. The much sought Aurelia had accepted the position of lifetime housekeeper for a sheep-herder who had no house to keep, so I had to cast about for whatever comfort I could. The roadhouse is presided over by a very able body of the clan of Ferguson. I had never met her, but formalities count for very little in the West. She was in her kitchen, having more trouble, she said, than a hen whose ducklings were in swimming. I asked her if she could accommodate the children and myself. “Yes,” she said, “I can give you a bed and grub, but I ain’t got no time to ask you nothing. I ain’t got no time to inquire who you are nor where you come from. There’s one room left. You can have that, but you’ll have to look out for yourself and young ‘uns.” I felt equal to that; so I went out to have the horses cared for and to unload the kiddies.
Leaning against the wagon was a man who made annual rounds of all the homes in our community each summer; his sole object was to see what kind of flowers we succeeded with. Every woman in our neighborhood knows Bishey Bennet, but I don’t think many would have recognized him that afternoon. I had never seen him dressed in anything but blue denim overalls and overshirt to match, but to-day he proudly displayed what he said was his dove-colored suit. The style must have been one of years ago, for I cannot remember seeing trousers quite so skimpy. He wore top-boots, but as a concession to fashion he wore the boot-tops under the trouser-legs, and as the trousers were about as narrow as a sheath skirt, they kept slipping up and gave the appearance of being at least six inches too short. Although Bishey is tall and thin, his coat was two sizes too small, his shirt was of soft tan material, and he wore a blue tie. But whatever may have been amiss with his costume was easily forgotten when one saw his radiant face. He grasped my hand and wrung it as if it was a chicken’s neck.
“What in the world is the matter with you?” I asked, as I rubbed my abused paw. “Just you come here and I’ll tell you,” he answered. There was no one to hear but the kiddies, but I went around the corner of the house with him. He put his hand up to his mouth and whispered that “Miss Em’ly” was coming, would be there on the afternoon stage. I had never heard of “Miss Em’ly,” and said so. “Well, just you go in and set on the sofy and soon’s I see your horses took care of I’ll come in and tell you.” I went into my own room, and after I rustled some water I made myself and the kiddies a little more presentable. Then we went into the sitting-room and sat on the “sofy.” Presently Bishey sauntered in, trying to look unconcerned and at ease, but he was so fidgety he couldn’t sit down. But he told his story, and a dear one it is.
It seems that back in New York State he and Miss Em’ly were “young uns” together. When they were older they planned to marry, but neither wanted to settle down to the humdrumness that they had always known. Both dreamed of the golden West; so Bishey had gone to blaze the trail, and “Miss Em’ly” was to follow. First one duty and then another had held her, until twenty-five years had slipped by and they had not seen each other, but now she was coming, that very day. They would be married that evening, and I at once appointed myself matron of honor and was plumb glad there was no other candidate.
I at once took the decorations in hand. Bishey, Jerrine, and myself went out and gathered armfuls of asters and goldenrod-like rabbit-brush. From the dump-pile we sorted cans and pails that would hold water, and we made the sitting-room a perfect bower of purple and gold beauty. I put on my last clean shirt-waist and the children’s last clean dresses. Then, as there seemed nothing more to do, Bishey suggested that we walk up the road and meet the stage; but the day had been warm, and I remembered my own appearance when I had come over that same road the first time. I knew that journey was trying on any one’s appearance at any time of the year, and after twenty-five years to be thrust into view covered with alkali dust and with one’s hat on awry would be too much for feminine patience; so I pointed out to Bishey that he’d better clear out and let Miss Em’ly rest a bit before he showed up. At last he reluctantly agreed.
I went out to the kitchen to find what could be expected in the way of hot water for Miss Em’ly when she should come. I found I could have all I wanted if I heated it myself. Mrs. Ferguson could not be bothered about it, because a water company had met there to vote on new canals, the sheep-men were holding a convention, there was a more than usual run of transients besides the regular boarders, and supper was ordered for the whole push. All the help she had was a girl she just knew didn’t have sense enough to pound sand into a rat-hole. Under those circumstances I was mighty glad to help. I put water on to heat and then forgot Miss Em’ly, I was enjoying helping so much, until I heard a door slam and saw the stage drive away toward the barn.
I hastened to the room I knew was reserved for Miss Em’ly. I rapped on the door, but it was only opened a tiny crack. I whispered through that I was a neighbor-friend of Mr. Bennet’s, that I had lots of hot water for her and had come to help her if I might. Then she opened the door, and I entered. I found a very travel-stained little woman, down whose dust-covered cheeks tears had left their sign. Her prettiness was the kind that wins at once and keeps you ever after. She was a strange mixture of stiff reticence and childish trust. She was in such a flutter, and she said she was ashamed to own it, but she was so hungry she could hardly wait.
After helping her all I could, I ran out to see about the wedding supper that was to be served before the wedding. I found that no special supper had been prepared. It seemed to me a shame to thrust them down among the water company, the convention, the regulars, and the transients, and I mentally invited myself to the wedding supper and began to plan how we could have a little privacy. The carpenters were at work on a long room off the kitchen that was to be used as storeroom and pantry. They had gone for the day, and their saw-horses and benches were still in the room. It was only the work of a moment to sweep the sawdust away. There was only one window, but it was large and in the west. It took a little time to wash that, but it paid to do it. When a few asters and sprays of rabbit-brush were placed in a broken jar on the window-sill, there was a picture worth seeing. Some planks were laid on the saw-horses, some papers over them, and a clean white cloth over all. I sorted the dishes myself; the prettiest the house afforded graced our table. I rubbed the glassware until it shone almost as bright as Bishey’s smile.
Bishey had come when he could stay away no longer; he and Miss Em’ly had had their first little talk, so they came out to where I was laying the table. They were both beaming. Miss Em’ly took hold at once to help. “Bishey,” she commanded, “do you go at once to where my boxes are open, the one marked 7; bring me a blue jar you’ll find in one corner.” He went to do her bidding, and I to see about the kiddies. When I came back with them, there was a small willow basket in the center of our improvised table, heaped high with pears, apples, and grapes all a little the worse for their long journey from New York State to Wyoming, but still things of beauty and a joy as long as they lasted to Wyoming eyes and appetites. We had a perfectly roasted leg of lamb; we had mint sauce, a pyramid of flaky mashed potatoes, a big dish of new peas, a plate of sponge-cake I will be long in forgetting; and the blue jar was full of grape marmalade. Our iced tea was exactly right; the pieces of ice clinked pleasantly against our glasses. We took our time, and we were all happy. We could all see the beautiful sunset, its last rays lingering on Miss Em’ly’s abundant auburn hair to make happy the bride the sun shines on. We saw the wonderful colors—orange, rose, and violet—creep up and fade into darker shades, until at last mellow dusk filled the room. Then I took the kiddies to my room to be put to bed while I should wait until time for the ceremony.
Soon the babies were sleeping, and Jerrine and I went into the sitting-room. They were sitting on the “sofy.” She was telling him that the apples had come from the tree they had played under, the pears from the tree they had set out, the grapes from the vine over the well. She told him of things packed in her boxes, everything a part of the past they both knew. He in turn told her of his struggles, his successes, and some of what he called his failures. She was a most encouraging little person, and she’d say to him, “You did well, Bishey. I’ll say that for you: you did well!” Then he told her about the flowers he had planted for her. I understood then why he acted so queerly about my flowers. It happens that I am partial to old-time favorites, and I grow as many of them as I can get to succeed in this altitude; so I have zinnias, marigolds, hollyhocks, and many other dear old flowers that my mother loved. Many of them had been the favorites of Miss Em’ly’s childhood, but Bishey hadn’t remembered the names; so he had visited us all, and when he found a flower he remembered, he asked the name and how we grew it, then he tried it, until at last he had about all. Miss Em’ly wiped the tears from her eyes as she remarked, “Bishey, you did well; yes, you did real well.” I thought to myself how well we could all do if we were so encouraged.
At last the white-haired old justice of the peace came, and said the words that made Emily Wheeler the wife of Abisha Bennet. A powerfully noisy but truly friendly crowd wished them well. One polite fellow asked her where she was from. She told him from New York State. “Why,” he asked, “do New Yorkers always say State?” “Why, because,” she answered,—and her eyes were big with surprise,—”no one would want to say they were from New York City.”
It had been a trying day for us, so soon Jerrine and I slipped out to our room. Ours was the first room off the sitting-room, and a long hallway led past our door; a bench sat against the wall, and it seemed a favorite roosting-place for people with long discussions. First some fellows were discussing the wedding. One thought Bishey “cracked” because he had shipped out an old cooking-stove, one of the first manufactured, all the way from where he came from, instead of buying a new one nearer home. They recalled instance after instance in which he had acted queerly, but to me his behavior was no longer a mystery. I know the stove belonged somewhere in the past and that his every act connected past and future. After they had talked themselves tired, two old fellows took possession of the bench and added a long discussion on how to grow corn to the general din. Even sweet corn cannot be successfully grown at this altitude, yet those old men argued pro and con till I know their throats must have ached. In the sitting-room they all talked at once of ditches, water-contracts, and sheep. I was so sleepy. I heard a tired clock away off somewhere strike two. Some sheep-men had the bench and were discussing the relative values of different dips. I reckon my ego must have gotten tangled with some one’s else about then, for I found myself sitting up in bed foolishly saying,—
“Two old herders, unshaved and hairy, Whose old tongues are never weary, Just outside my chamber-door Prate of sheep dips for ever more.”
Next morning it was Bishey’s cheerful voice that started my day. I had hoped to be up in time to see them off, but I wasn’t. I heard him call out to Mrs. Bishey, “Miss Em’ly, I’ve got the boxes all loaded. We can start home in ten minutes.” I heard her clear voice reply, “You’ve done well, Bishey. I’ll be ready by then.” I was hurriedly dressing, hoping yet to see her, when I heard Bishey call out to bluff old Colonel Winters, who had arrived in the night and had not known of the wedding, “Hello! Winters, have you met Miss Em’ly? Come over here and meet her. I’m a married man now. I married Miss Em’ly last night.” The colonel couldn’t have known how apt was his reply when he said, “I’m glad for you, Bishey. You’ve done well.” I peeked between the curtains, and saw Bishey’s wagon piled high with boxes, with Miss Em’ly, self-possessed and happy, greeting the colonel. Soon I heard the rattle of wheels, and the dear old happy pair were on their way to the cabin home they had waited twenty-five years for. Bless the kind old hearts of them! I’m sure they’ve both “done well.”