The Line of Least Resistance/Chapter 5

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V

IT was Mrs. Vane of the fixed, benevolent smile, a fellow-guest of good intent. With a hasty nod to the veranda she hurried by to intercept an unwary person at the gate: Mr. Uncle Jimmy Collins, a somewhat reconstructed Confederate. At her greeting he swept off his hat with an air.

Casting an apprehensive glance at the unconscious Jimmy Junior, working across the way, Mrs. Vane lowered her voice to an agitated whisper, with tragic and rhythmic underscoring of words: "Oh, Mr. Collins! I hate to mention it—but do you know your Jimmy gambles?"

The veranda listened shamelessly; even the pinochle was suspended. The query visibly staggered the old soldier. He mopped his forehead and disconsolately studied the lining of his hat. "Gambles? Dear me, dear me! Jimmy! I've tried to teach him better'n that, ma'am. Are you sure?"

"Oh, yes! Why, I saw him myself! He was playing with a Mexican boy on the freight depot platform in broad daylight! They had the money in front of them!"

"Dear me, dear me!" said the old gentleman again, in great distress. A puzzled look came to his eyes. "I am surprised. Whose—whose money was it?" he faltered.

"Whose money?" echoed the beaming lady. "Why—his, I suppose."

The veteran gave a sigh of relief. "Oh-h! I thought maybe it was yours! Good-mawnin', madam!" He clapped on his hat with bow and flourish and went stumping on his wooden-legged way with a new and jaunty erectness of bearing, leaving good Mrs. Vane to retreat, red with mortification, and the veranda redder still with smothered merriment.

"Splendid, splendid!" gasped Lena. "I wouldn't have missed that!" She turned to the Professor. "Now don't disapprove and spoil it, you rigid moralist. It's too good."

"Do you expect me to approve?" The Professor was struggling, with indifferent results, to repress a refractory grin to austere, steel-trap lines.

"You do!" she defied him. "Else, why do you laugh? Gossip makes more trouble than gambling."

"There'll be more to this!" prophesied Hiram, dolefully wagging his head. "The old man'll lead Jimmy behind the barn, pullin' a strap between his fingers. 'Jimmy,' he'll say, 'this hurts you worse than it does me'!"

"Oh, I like it here!" declared Lena. "The men are so direct and straightforward. Even in their open wrong-doing there is a childlike simplicity, a lack of all intent to conceal, that goes far to condone their offenses. Yesterday I went over to the store. They were playing that extraordinary game—I can't remember the name of it—where they all throw up coins and the one that falls nearest a crack in the floor takes all the rest——"

"Crack-Loo," said Don reminiscently. "Crack-Loo can be made singularly unremunerative at times."

"There! You see!" said Lena with the triumphant feminine faculty of conveying a meaning entirely foreign to the words. "They were just like that. They moved back, but kept quietly on at their game, evidently unconscious of any impropriety. I'll tell you what it's like," she cried, with that eagerness we all use to hunt down a luckless simile. "It's like the tents they live in, with the doors wide open, revealing their domestic economy with unshrinking candor to the passer-by. No skeleton in the closet there."

"Would it not be more accurate to say there is no closet for the skeleton?" asked Kennedy. "I will cheerfully admit, however, that any of them possessing a skeleton are quite capable of providing a cozy bunk and an easy chair for it."

"I must not have understood you correctly, Miss Mallory," said the Professor. "Not to be ashamed of what you do is surely not quite the same thing as not to do that of which you should be ashamed."

"That's not a fair statement at all," said Don. "I appeal to Miss Mallory if she meant any such thing. If a man scorns to conceal his acts he may do naughty-naughty things—yes, indeedy. But when he comes to something——"

"'Here we go round the mulberry bush'!" said Miss Mallory rudely, describing swift circles with a shapely hand. "Miss Mallory is quite capable of knowing what she means without having two great clumsy men explain it to her. As a matter of fact, I mean exactly what the old lady in the story did: 'My son, never do anything you need be ashamed of and then you need never be ashamed of anything you do!'"

"Oh, well," said Hiram, "we've got one big advantage over your closed-and-double-locked-door system. We're not afraid of being exposed and so we never commit one crime to conceal another."

"In other words, our sins and crimes are chosen, not forced upon us," supplemented Kennedy.

The Professor shook his head. "It works both ways. The fear of exposure would deter a timid soul like mine from many a delightful sin which a—a——"

"Hardened ruffian?"

"Thank you—which a hardened ruffian like you or Mr. Kennedy would enjoy without hesitation."

"'How he would take his pleasure once'," quoted Kennedy, sotto voce.

Otis eyed him sharply. "A cowman who quotes Browning—and quotes so very much to the point—is properly the object of suspicion."

"Bless your soul," said the object of suspicion, evading the more serious charge, "I'm not a cowman. I'm only a cattleman."

"I plainly see," said Lena, "that you won't be happy till some one asks you to explain. Very well, Mr. Johnson; will you kindly tell us the difference between a cowman and a cattleman?"

"A cattleman owns cattle. A cowman is one who understands the business and yet learns something new about it every day. A cowman may work for wages or he may own cattle. But he'll never do anything else and he'll never know anything else. To be just, he knows that one thing so much better than other men know any one thing that he is easily equal to any superiors. And he is scrupulously, almost absurdly, honest about inanimate things—a specialist, you see. Now I own cattle, but I have been some time farmer, lumber man, telegraph operator and railroader. Hiram was a cowman at seven and will be that at seventy."

"How may the uninitiated tell them apart?" asked Otis.

"It's hard to do. The only sure way is to keep tally of their herds. If the rate of increase is over one hundred per cent per annum the owner is a cowman. But there are indications that help. The cowman names a brand where the other gives the owner's name. I speak of Bowman and Hutchinson, The California Company, Hardcastle and Mitford; Hiram says the K Y outfit, the John Cross, the H A M."

"The John Cross?" echoed Dolly. "What's that?"

"The California Company's brand. The Las Palomas people. I used to have my frugal earnings invested in John Cross stock. But I sold out because they're to get in trouble about taking up homesteads."

"Why do they call it John Cross?" Dolly wanted to know.

"Well, you see, some of the original big stockholders were Canadians and they always called the outfit after the old Hudson Bay Company."

"But why did you call the Hudson Bay Company that?" persisted Dolly. Don shrugged his shoulders and spread out his hands, palms down.

"Now you've got me. I'm from the South."

"Kind Heaven be thanked, you are out of your depth for once. I was beginning to fear you were omniscient." Miss Mallory settled back in her chair with cozy feline satisfaction, cuddled her chin in her rosy palm, dimpled with deliberate, cold-blooded insolence and eyed Mr. Kennedy with a broad and speculative smile. "Ah! I see at last why it is always the Western man and the Eastern girl who fall in love—in the novels. It's so they can have something to talk about. It's hardly fair for the girl either. He tells her hundreds of things she doesn't know, though they are everyday commonplaces to him. So the poor girl naturally thinks he's wonderful."

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"I See at Last Why It is Always the Western Man and the Eastern Girl Who Fall in Love—in the Novels"

"If that is the tradition, Miss Mallory," Don hinted, "you will find me——"

Miss Mallory disrespectfully wrinkled her saucy nose at him. "I was speaking of novels, not of real people. But I don't hold with novels at all. Their victims expect more than the workaday world can give."

Here an opportune interruption arose across the way. The blacksmith shop and the stage stables were built, for reasons unknown and unimaginable, directly fronting the hotel. Here the K I M hay outfit, destined now for the wide reaches of grama below Fra Christobal, was busily making ready for the road; filling water-barrels and loading supplies. Bishop was tying the rake to "trail" the hay-rigging. Young Jimmy Collins lay on his back under an old mowing machine, industriously tightening nuts; and Pappy Sickles, Canadian, was hitching his team to the other mower, fire-new and gaudy with blue and red.

Now came hastily Kim Ki Rogers, his employer, the great man of Dundee—postmaster, owner of store, hotel, Kim stage-line and the K I M brand—a beefy, bull-necked, red-faced man, now irate, blustering and loud.

"What you hitchin' up to that machine for, you dodderin' old idiot?" he bawled. "Bishop's goin' to have that."

Pappy threw a fleeting, cursory glance over his shoulder as he bent over to hook a trace. "You promised it to me," he observed mildly. "I'd as lief be an idjit as a natchel-born liar."

Kim Ki grew redder than ever; without more ado he made a vicious pass at Pappy's grizzled head. But Pappy ducked nimbly. Thud—thud! His fists landed solidly on Kim Ki's portly sides. Rogers rushed, swinging furiously; Pappy ducked, lunged, clasped him in a fond embrace, threw him heavily. His left forearm was pressed squarely on the postmagisterial throat, backed by Pappy's gray head, thus snugly protected by the bend of the arm; and Pappy's free hand hammered lustily at his employer's ear.

The veranda, save Don and Hiram, rose in some excitement but, noting such agitation to be unshared, sat down again. The loading went on undisturbed; the cook stowed dishes in the chuckbox; young Jimmy plied his wrench assiduously. English Jerry, chambermaid to the Kim stables, sat tranquil on the wagon-tongue and smoked a peaceful cob pipe; Pres Lewis, blacksmith, leaned in the shop door, cast a loitering glance at the proceedings, stroked his silky-brown Jovian beard and turned a grave, weather-wise eye to contemplation of a stray cloud over Cuchillo Negro. Jerry rose, tapped his pipe, yawned, stretched himself and shambled back to the stables.

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Matters Were Going Ill With Red-faced Kim Ki

Meantime, matters were going ill with red-faced Kim Ki. Vainly he heaved and strained to dislodge his wiry and wily adversary; Pappy clung like a leach. During the struggle his arm had got under Kim Ki's neck, and for a little they were nose to nose, eye to eye, in ludicrous likeness to a pair of game cocks. But Pappy now had his head again, tucked safely away in the bent arm, and his good right, when it could free itself from desperately clutching fingers, thumped vigorously away in deliberate little short-arm jabs.

The luckless magnate rolled his eye at the blacksmith, only to find that worthy engrossed with meteorological observation. He creditably grasped the humor of the situation. "Pres," he gasped, "take this old man off'n me: I don't want to hurt him.

Thus appealed to, Pres thrust his hands in his pockets and leisurely sauntered out. "Pappy," he said dispassionately, "Kim's afraid you'll bruise up your hand. Reckon you hadn't better stop? Dinner'l1 be ready presently, anyhow."

"Do I git the machine?" Pappy's gray beard was doubled over his own mouth and the demand came in muffled tones.

"Sure you do!"

"Leggo my shirt, then—you're tearin' it plumb off'n me." Rogers rose and felt his damaged face with tentative finger tip. Then he waved his hand in airy, comprehensive gesture. "All you boys go over and have one on me," he said briskly. "Pappy, I'm goin' to make you foreman of this here outfit. You satisfied to work under him, Bish?"

"Sure I am. It's a bore to be boss, anyhow."

"Don't forget the grindstone," admonished Kim Ki. "Well, I got to go. Come on, Pappy, let's us wash up."

Pappy tucked in his shirt and they toddled amiably away. The veranda manifested a lively disposition to demand an encore. However, it was refused. With airy salute of waved hand and bow and smile Rogers and his coadjutor passed on and left them laughing.

"And such is life in the Far West!" said the Professor, and wiped away a tear. "Homeward the well-regulated militia plods its weary way. 'Tis time for—ah—dinner."

"Music this evenin'," said Hiram gloatingly.

The Professor arched his brows. "Meaning—tonight? Or this afternoon?"

"Meaning this evening," said Don. "'And the evening and the morning were the first day!' Evening is any time after the sun begins to decline."

Miss Mallory rapped her chair arm sharply. "Children! Tut—fie-for-shame! Upon my word, I believe this perpetual wrangle is entirely over names and not about facts at all."

Don rose and bowed congratulation. "Miss Mallory, you have made the one profound and philosophical remark of the day. We have no quarrel. It is, as you say, a mere difference in names."

But Dolly's thoughts lingered in Eden. "I wonder how long Adam and Eve lived in the garden before their eviction? It doesn't say. Oh, I do hope there was a full moon."

"Oh, well," said Hiram disparagingly, "what if there was? Grandma didn't have no mandolin, anyhow!" He spoke with deep conviction, mindful of what late time he, himself, home-going heedless, had stumbled on the stars.

Knowing that Miss Mallory's hands were beautiful, you will not now be surprised to hear of her mandolin. She played it more than well; she had a flexible voice of exquisite tint and timbre, soft, tender, caressing, meaningful. Hiram could tell you every word of every half-sad, haunting song, just as Hiram remembers every hour of those hours, so many, so few. But he will not tell you. … What songs? You remember, successful sir—and you—and you, madam—some certain songs—or, perhaps, but one—that stir your listless blood to a lilting tide, that set all your quivering nerves a-tingle with ghostly messages? The faintest bar or phrase of it, the lightest echo of its wandering notes, thrills you to the finger-tips. Then you raise your heavy chin; your furtive, watchful face changes for the moment to the uplifted, dauntless face that was yours ere we became—wise. … Heigh ho! No more on Ajalon the moon stands still and trembles at our will. … Your wife, sir—or your husband, madam—does not care for these songs. It may even be—so strange we are—that you do not yourself know why a strain so simple moves you as no mightiest lord of song can ever do. Think a little. You remember now? That is what Lena Mallory sang.