A Dream and A Blow
THE RATTLESHAKE, the Morgans' Model T Ford, chugged on and on through the white dust of endless, deserted roadway. Nobody talked; everyone was too tired. Charley's square hands steered automatically. Dad, small and spare of person, for once merely passive of mood, sat limply beside his son. As for Sayre, Charley's seventeen-year-old twin sister, so tightly was she wedged in among the camping equipment and supplies of that back seat that she could not have moved even if she had not been afraid of awaking Hitty, weightily asleep in her arms.
All day the 'Shake had been jolting them across Wyoming. Mile after mile of desolation. Great gray stretches of arid plain as far as eye could reach. No hint of people anywhere except an occasional glimpse of a sheepherder's wagon in the distance. No sign of animal life except a snake, probably a rattler, which Charley had pointed out to them sunning itself beside the road.
All day that hot, dry wind, laden with light desert dust, had swept into their faces, parching their skin and torturing their eyes, while overhead a fierce sun had glared down on them out of a sky too brilliantly blue.
Now in the late afternoon it was cooler. Because of the altitude, Dad said. They were coming into inhabited land, too, still flat and treeless, but spotted with large, green-cropped fields, cut with canals and ditches through which slow water flowed. Dad roused occasionally to point out some especially luxuriant stretch. "That," he would say in a triumphant tone, "is what this land will do when Uncle Sam brings water to it. Builds a big dam – maybe miles away – and a whole irrigation system.
Most of the buildings scattered among these fields were little more than low, flat-roofed shacks, relentlessly exposed to that hot sun and dry, beating wind; yet at the same time lost, too, in the wide monotony of the landscape. Only occasionally did a real house appear with gabled roof, and porches, and sheltering trees. Some of them, Sayre reflected, looked homey, and she wondered which kind Sam Parsons' house would prove to be when they got there. It was to be their home, their new home, here in the West, and – Sayre's hope was almost a prayer – their real, permanent home, at last. Her thoughts were busy with speculation as to the future that lay only a few miles ahead of them now. It held uncertainty, and risk, and plenty of hard work for all of them, she realized; discomfort, too, if the Parsons house were just one of these small, tarpapered shacks. Well, whatever the house, the fields themselves were beautiful. Great shimmering masses of tall green, tinged all over their tops with varying shades of purple from delicate, spray-like blooms. This must be alfalfa; Sam Parsons had told them that this was alfalfa country.
Suddenly they were running into a town. "Upham," Dad chirped. "Biggest town on the whole Pawaukee Irrigation Project. Nearly a thousand people.
Sayre scanned the place from over Hitty's tousled head. None of the mellow loveliness of those faraway, tree-shaded villages that she remembered as a child. A charm of its own though. Small, but very trim and confident under that lowering sun. Something almost blatant in the newness of its red brick business blocks and the wide bareness of its one main business street, lined with upstart sticks which were as yet scarcely even promises of trees. Sayre did not know these yet for cottonwoods.
Charley brought the 'Shake to a stop in front of a store before which stretched a wide platform of wooden planks. A tall, angular man was standing there talking assertively to a boy of about Charley's age. The boy was as tall as the man, but darker and much more heavily built.
Dad leaned out of the 'Shake's open side. "I'm looking for a tract of land," he said to the pair. "An unproved-up homestead claim known as Parsons' Eighty. It's seven or eight miles beyond this town, I believe. Do you know the place? Can you tell us, please, which turn to take?"
The man stepped toward them with genial, self-important bearing. "Gladly." He gave them directions with a courtesy almost exaggerated. "Strangers?" he finished.
"A friend of Sam Parsons. Came out here from Chicago to take over this abandoned homestead claim of his. Name's Morgan, sir, Charles Morgan."
"I am Franklin Hoskins. We'll meet again."
"That fellow sure thinks he's somebody," Charley commented as the 'Shake sputtered on.
Dad was excited. "Hoskins," he repeated. "That's the man Sam Parsons said was the community's most prominent citizen, the best and most generous friend the farmers on this part of the Pawaukee Irrigation Project have. Wasn't he pleasant?"
Sayre did not answer. She had noticed the way the man's glance had flitted over Dad's small person with a quick interest that had had something "funny" in it. "Almost as if he owned him," she thought, resentfully.
"It was the young fellow took my eye," Charley was remarking. "Sure built like a football player. Bet he's a good one."
"Looked too sulky to me," was Sayre's indifferent response.
The country through which they were now traveling was less attractive than that on the other side of the town, sprinkled less often with settlers' shacks and showing fewer cultivated fields. Dad and Charley were too absorbed studying Sam Parsons' directions to notice much, and soon they were turning in at a gateway through a wire fence. The 'Shake bumped and leaped over deep ruts in a sage-mottled strip of hard, gray soil, evidently a pretense at a driveway; and lurched at last to a stop behind a queer-looking black building, low, long and narrow.
The 'Shake stopped behind a queer-looking black building
So this was the house. Yes, it was only a shack, built without foundation on the ground, and shaped like an enlarged and elongated freight car. Two doors exactly opposite each other marked the centers of both broad sides. Before each door ran a low step. Windows, fairly large but placed peculiarly high toward the roof, punctured all four black walls symmetrically. The roof, too, was shaped like that of a freight car. At Sayre's first glance this roof was the building's most conspicuous feature. For as a means of protection against the ripping of the winds, its tarpaper covering was studded thick with huge metal discs, which glistened now under the setting sun like enormous thumb-tacks.
"Here we are!" Dad proclaimed. He hopped from the 'Shake with that spryness like a bird's which always marked in him one of his moods of elation. Charley sprung out feet foremost over an unopened door. Hitty was waking up. Sayre sat still for a moment, looking about her.
Weariness dropped from her like a cloak. Her spirit began to glow and soar to new happiness and new hope. Not even the ugly, crude little house could spoil this place, she thought, under a spreading sunset glow that spread its evanescent tints over all this great world of soft silver distances and touched even that encircling, protecting horizon of haze-hung mountains. It was lovely, she told herself as she set about waking Hitty; and wasn't this shack a lot better than that dark, dingy flat on West Van Buren Street in Chicago which had been the latest of the Morgan family's many habitations? And when she remembered some of the others, and how many times they had moved –
Dad was lifting Hitty from her lap to the ground, and Sayre followed. The wind had gone down, and the air was clear now and wonderfully exhilarating. The girl drew a deep breath. It tingled through her like wine, with a peculiar tang in it, a spiciness which she just seemed to catch at the very moment it eluded her. Must be the sage.
Even Hitty felt it. Her hand fumbled into Sayre's, the little girl murmuring sleepily, "Oh, doesn't it breathe nice here?"
Stooping, Sayre swept the frail child to her with an impetuous hug. "Doesn't it, baby?" she exulted.
The embrace startled Hitty far enough awake to confide in a whisper, "What makes it so awful still? I can 'most hear my thinks tick." The child slipped away to break into a sharp, glad cry, "Oh, Sayre, see what a nice far look there is!"
Sayre did see. Then for a moment Charley almost spoiled things. He had been lifting baggage out of the 'Shake, but stopped now to nod at his twin with a wave toward the new shelter. "Guess we can pack the Morgans into the Crate!"
Sayre bristled. Just like Charley, dubbing the place right off with a joke. The house did look like a huge crate – she had to acknowledge that – the way those laths were crisscrossed over the outside to hold the tarpaper on. Laths evidently did on the outside walls the work the discs did on the roof. But what of it? Did he expect to be given a palace? She spun around toward her brother. "Who cares what it looks like? A crate or anything else? If it's a home crate?"
Snapping at Charley wasn't the right way to begin, she reflected, though unrepentantly. To see him show signs of that awful changeableness of his right off, just because the place looked dreary! It wasn't very attractive on the outside, she admitted to herself. The ground around the house was pretty bare; it had queer white patches on it as if it had been sprinkled thick with coarse salt. Alkali, Sayre had already learned. But well behind and to one side of the house reached out great massed stretches of those glorious, green, purple-flowered fields.
Thank goodness, Dad was still confident. He had unlocked the back door with the key Sam Parsons had given him, and was flinging it wide.
Sayre stepped into the opened doorway. Trembling a little, she lifted one arm to brace her hand against the door jamb and let her glance sweep in half-fearful appraisal over that interior. Larger than she had expected from the outside. Partly filled with untidy furniture, covered thick with dust. Dad was cautiously lifting one home-made window shade. Late sunlight fluttered in. It revealed long diagonal lines of shimmering dust motes across unoccupied space; a greasy cookstove; cobwebs, everywhere; old papers in corners, mouse-nibbled.
Dad kept on moving briskly about, opening the whole place up to air and fading daylight. Just three rooms. A bedroom partitioned off at each end from the one main big room, which after all was really two. One half of it was meant for living-room; that was plain. The other half was kitchen. When cleaned up, what a cosy kitchen it would be! Its compact arrangement of shelves and table and benches and stove made of it a sort of country kitchenette, much nicer than any city one, because into it sweet air could flow and sunshine flood. "It's like a great big country dollhouse," Sayre thought happily. She turned and called Hitty to come and see.
All her misgivings were gone now. With everything scrubbed up, and Dad's easy chair in it, and the books, and Mother's picture, and the curtains, freshly laundered, she no longer had any doubt of being able to make a home out of this place.
The Parsons family had left enough in the house for them to get along with temporarily until their own things should come, things Aunt Mehitable's money had paid to bring, just as it had paid to get the family there. As always, thinking of Aunt Mehitable's money made Sayre feel ashamed. She went back to the 'Shake and set to work helping Charley unload.
Sayre slept that night with a profundity born of the enfolding silence. She awakened, wonderfully refreshed, to stand at her bedroom window and watch the dawn. No one, not even the most favored of Chicago's millions, ever saw a sunrise like that. Instinctively the girl sank to her knees on the floor. Elbows propped on the sill, chin cupped in her hands, she watched the scene with reverence and bated breath.
Behind her on the bed, Hitty stirred in her sleep, fair hair spread wide on the pillow, one thin arm outflung. The sound brought to Sayre the swift crystallizing of a resolve so deeply felt that it became a vow.
"The Morgans are through with moving. We're going to stay here. We're going to make a home here. Hitty's little yet. She's going to have a home and live in it, and be one of a family that really belongs somewhere. And that somewhere's going to be right here on this federal irrigation project in Wyoming!"
All her life Sayre herself had longed for a real home – above all, a home in the country. She had never expected actually to have it. But she had liked to escape into the dream of it when realities were hard. When she drew books to read out of the public library, she always sought out farm stories, or else tales of the days before all this great western United States was settled. Then the Government had given away new land in the West to people who would live on it, improve it, and make farm homes out of it – what they called homestead it. Sayre had devoured eagerly every story about this sort of thing she could lay hands on, filled with regret that the time of these stories was always in the past. If only, she had often thought, there were such opportunities now!
Then this summer Sam Parsons had told the Morgans there still was new land in the West on which people could homestead. He had explained to them everything about it. It was land overgrown with sagebrush and dwarf cactus, which nobody had thought worth anything in the old days except for sheep grazing. But all it had really needed to make it produce was water. And now the Government had brought water upon it by means of its big dams and irrigation systems. Mr. Parsons had shown them maps and diagrams that told all about such systems. And, at last, thanks to Sam Parsons himself, who had really brought about their coming, here they actually were, the four Morgans, arrived on eighty acres of this new, reclaimed, irrigated land. Could anything so good be really true?
Gratitude surged through the girl's heart toward fussy Mr. Parsons. She felt very guilty these days that she had never used to like him. He was a floorwalker in Reeves & Beebe's department store basement in Chicago where Dad had clerked for a while in the hardware department.
Mr. Parsons and his wife had started to homestead these eighty acres two years ago but had never proved up on them; that is, lived on them and improved them enough to get full legal ownership of them. Mr. Parsons' wife had hated the loneliness of the life, and Sam himself had found he was never meant for a farmer. So they had come back to Chicago and turned over to Dad, on long, very easy terms, their chance on these eighty acres of homestead land, already partly cropped, and fenced, and provided with temporary house and sheds. Sayre was still lost in the wonder of it. Thankfulness sang in her this morning softly like a prayer.
Suddenly she shivered at her open window. The morning air was chill in this high altitude. She rose and began to dress. She was a sturdy, dark-haired cricket of a girl; every movement was quick and true. She had need to hurry. There was lots to do today. Was she not the Morgan housekeeper? She had been ever since her mother's death three years before.
It was afternoon before she went with Dad to town. He had to see about having the right to homestead these eighty acres transferred from Sam Parsons' name to his own – to "file on the claim," as the phrase was, for himself.
Sayre gave Dad's hand a quick squeeze as they entered the land office of the Pawaukee Irrigation Project. Dad did not seem to fit into the place. It was such a new, shiny room, and Dad, in spite of his cheerfulness, looked old and worn – just like that threadbare suit of his which would sag to shapelessness in spite of all that her iron could do.
The land agent was not the only person in the office. In a back corner three men occupied tilted chairs in a semicircle of friendly intercourse. Undertones from their conversation reached Sayre as she sat and listened to Dad telling the agent how the Morgans' move had come about. And now, hearing the story as it was told to a stranger, Sayre found sweeping over her a deeply dismaying realization of what they had really done. She hadn't thought about it in this way before. What had they actually known, back there in Chicago, about the situation here? Nothing but what Sam Parsons had told them. They hadn't asked, hadn't looked up facts, had just accepted his word for the conditions that they would find, and come out in blind confidence that everything would be all right. Why did Dad have to be making all that so clear to this man? He even told the agent that the money for the move had come from Aunt Mehitable, "the principal of a big New York City public school." Why tell that? What business was it of the land agent's? Dad was so simple and straightforward and honest that sometimes he was too frank.
"You can see, sir," he wound up, "what this venture means to me. I'm a man with a dependent family, sir, a widower. I've been unfortunate in the past. So a chance like this, to secure a comfortable home for my family and an assured future – it is nothing less than a godsend."
The land agent looked grave; he began to ask questions. Sayre shrank from her father's answers. Long before that questioning was over, she wanted to cry to the questioner, "Oh, please don't try to be so kind. Just tell him right out!" For there was that in the agent's manner, sympathetic though it was, which made Sayre feel humiliated. She wanted to rise up and shield her father. Instead she only sat very quiet, consternation mounting in her heart, her intent blue eyes watching the cheerfulness of her father's face fade into that gray dejection which, even as a little girl, she had learned to dread with an astuteness beyond her years. It so often followed a new move. Why? Why, anyway, all her life long, had their family had to move and move and move?
Aunt Mehitable said it was because Dad was visionary. Sayre had come of late years to understand what her aunt meant. Dad was always seeing somewhere at a distance ideal conditions of living which made what the family had unendurable. Yet when his restlessness had found a way to grasp at this distant vision, it was never what it had promised to be; often it was worse than what they had left behind. Then Dad would grow restless again, and begin to reach out toward another dream.
Dad exasperated Aunt Mehitable. Yet she really loved him, Sayre knew. The girl could remember hearing her aunt sigh and say that Dad had never been meant for the practical world, that if only his eyes had not failed so badly during his theological seminary course, life might have been very different for him and for his family.
As it was, the family had lived in so many places that it was hard for Sayre to remember their exact order. The Ohio town where Dad had had a shoe store. The Michigan mining town where Aunt Mehitable had bought Dad a little hardware business – which she had had to sell again because Dad would trust people he never should have trusted. New York City for quite a while after that, with Dad a partner in a second-hand bookstore which had failed, leaving Dad stranded again and hating New York's turmoil. The family had drifted south then, to towns in West Virginia and Florida, then back to a Pennsylvania coal town where Dad had sold insurance and real estate for a man, and the man had absconded.
There had followed that slow sort of gypsy trip back to the Middle West, with Dad selling a line of household mops and brushes to small-town merchants. In this capacity he had at last reached Chicago, having looked forward to it as a big center of opportunity, but finding himself unable to cope there with the competition he met. From then on he had been a grasping at any opportunity to earn some sort of living, Dad always calling what he was doing "temporary," and looking for something better. Clerking in Reeves & Beebe's basement had been the last.
Of all the places they had been Sayre shrank most in memory from the shabby southern Indiana town where, on their way Chicagoward, Mother had died suddenly of pneumonia.
Dad had been discouraged much more often since then. He blamed himself deeply, Sayre knew, for having made their mother's life too hard. Sayre's heart ached for him; yet she knew he was right to blame himself. He had made life too hard for all of them; it had not been good for them. Charley was growing up restless and fickle, and Hitty, frail.
Thus had been planted in Sayre, before she was old enough to be conscious of it, that longing for a permanent home which had grown deep-rooted with the years. Because of it, no member of the Morgan family had welcomed this Wyoming move more eagerly than she.
The agent kept talking on and on about a lot of complicated things: alkali; new soil conditions; drainage; settlers' failures to meet Government construction charges; losses of money; abandoned claims; new rulings; a Government investigation into the situation. Through all this Sayre's clear, candid mind slashed straight to the awful truth.
Dad could not file a homestead claim to the Parsons' eighty!
Worse than that, he could not file a homestead claim to new land anywhere!
Why? Unflinchingly Sayre's mind sifted away all but the hard kernels of the facts.
Dad could not file on Parsons' eighty because farming on some of the federal irrigation or reclamation projects, including this part of the Pawaukee, had proved so disastrous that the Government was not letting settlers file any more until it had studied out the causes of all the trouble. He could not file on new land anywhere because he had no money, no equipment, no supplies. He had never farmed before; he did not know how to farm. He had never, really, been a success at anything. The Government did not want – would not have – men like that as homesteaders. And Sam Parsons must have known all these things when he had let them come.
Sayre sat trying to grasp this, and found she couldn't. She felt stunned, all her joyous hopefulness of the morning submerged in terrible disappointment. Would that agent never stop talking?
"You're welcome, Mr. Morgan, under the circumstances to stay on the Parsons place as long as you find it convenient, but I can give you no legal hold nor prospect of possession. Not all the land out that way is a failure, either. A few farmers, mostly foreigners, are making things go. And that Parsons' eighty has twenty mighty good acres of alfalfa – if it's free."
Only much later was Sayre conscious of having noted that last phrase. Now it seemed there was not a feeling in her. Yet her pride was quick to detect that Dad was meeting the situation with his usual self-effacing dignity. Fiercely she loved him for it.
The two men rose, and Sayre realized that the agent had said something about their need to look in at another office down the street. Her father asked "May my daughter stay here while we are gone? It would be more comfortable for her than out in front in that burning sunshine." She hardly noticed the two going out, so numbed was she. Yet through her numbness there was already rising something stubborn and defiant. What was Dad up to now? Going out to see if he could pick up some kind of temporary job to tide things over? That was what he was always doing. Giving up. Yielding to discouragement. Why couldn't he ever fight harder against circumstances? Against situations like this? Why couldn't he for once be more like Aunt Mehitable? Aunt Mehitable never gave up. She always managed somehow to accomplish the thing she had set out to do.
Sayre leaned against the wall, and shut her eyes tight to squeeze back the threatening tears. Her body was rigid; her will-power centering in one vast determination.
It was Aunt Mehitable whom she, Sayre Morgan, was going to be like. Not for all the land agents in the country, not for all the rules the Government could make about homesteading new land, was she going to give up this beautiful dream of hers which had seemed so near accomplishment, a farm home for the Morgans which one day would be all their own!
Wild schemes raced through her head. If times were so hard on these farms around here as that agent made out, there must be some people who had lived on their land long enough to prove up on it – that is, get full legal ownership of it – who would be willing to sell out for a song. Well, what difference did that make? She almost laughed. Perhaps she was a bit hysterical. The Morgans had not even a song. All they had was a rattletrap Ford, some shabby furniture, a few worn-out clothes, and a ten-dollar bill. And that ten-dollar bill was Aunt Mehitable's.
Suddenly she sat erect, jacking up her thoughts in self-contempt. Here she was, letting her mind run on it the way Dad talked in one of his despondent moods, when she had just decided that she was going to be like Aunt Mehitable! Why, they had a good roof over their heads, a place they could stay on indefinitely even if they could not own it, the right to use the land. They had health and strength. Not by any means did she have to give up her dream. Part of it seemed gone. She would have to find a way to bring that back; she would do it, too. But even now for the present there was a part of that dream to which she could cling. They could all learn to farm. Perhaps Dad and Charley could get work on one of those nice places out the other side of Upham where they would learn a lot, and earn. Then, later on, the day would come.
She opened her hands. She had not realized she had been sitting with them clenched. Body and mind began to relax. Into her consciousness floated scraps of talk from the men at the back of the room. She caught the word "Hoskins." Why, that was the name of the man of whom they had asked directions yesterday. She listened a little.
Evidently this Mr. Hoskins was president of the local school-board. One of these men at the back of the room, too, the big man with the foreign speech, seemed to be on the board. There had been some kind of trouble. Mr. Hoskins had been trying to keep some high-school teacher from being rehired and the big foreigner had kept Mr. Hoskins from getting what he wanted. The teacher in question was a Mr. Kitchell, who was high-school athletic coach and who also – Sayre caught the words distinctly – taught agriculture.
Taught agriculture! Sayre clutched at the phrase. It was more than the proverbial straw to the drowning man; it was a floating spar. She began to listen with all her might.
"What's Hoskins got against Kitchell anyhow, Hansen? Is that big lump of a Frank Hoskins so swelled in the head about his football playing he can't get along with his teachers? Kitchell's always struck me as about as fine a young chap as we've ever had on our teaching force."
"Nuttin' personal. Nuttin' personal at all." Into the monotonous voice with the foreign accent crept a good-humored sarcasm that evoked ripples of amusement from its hearers. "Meester Kitchell is a most esteemable young man." (The words were plainly a quotation.) "But he can't coach so good as – "
"Oh, come on, Hansen. We all know Hoskins' blind talk as well as you do. What's he really got against the teacher?"
"Dat's easy. He hates de teacher for vat he teach about alfalfa, dat ve must not sell it so much, dat ve must plow it into de soil. Hoskins is, I t'ank, afraid a leetle. Ain't he de big hay-buyer of all dis part of de Pawaukee Irrigation Project?"
"De teacher says vy ve farmers is all so hard up is because all de time most of us raise alfalfa hay to sell. He says dat ve must plow under all our alfalfa ve do not need for our own use, and plant udder crops vere de alfalfa vas. Ve must get livestock and feed 'em our hay and our udder crops. Den ve vill not haf such hard times. De Ag teacher, he teach dis all de time to his boys, and Hoskins, he don't like it.
"De teacher says, too, his big yob ain't football. His big yob is to make real farmers out of dis part of de Pawaukee's farm boys. I t'ank, maybe – " and the monotonous voice broke into a sudden chuckle; then added with an expressionless distinctness startling in emphatic effect, "Hoskins ain't ready yet for too many good farmers on dis part of de Pawaukee Project!"
Silence, expressive of understanding, was broken by, "All the other board members vote with you, Hansen?"
"Ven Hoskins, de big man, kick so plenty? Not on your life! Ve have only von more vote dan half, and vat got him vas de teacher's idea for anudder agriculture course, vat he calls a part-time class."
"Ain't ve all poor like Yob's turkey around here? And our big boys, ain't ve got to have 'em home most all de time for vorkin' if ve're going to hang on to our land? And don't dat make us feel mighty bad, not to give our big boys no shance?
"Veil, de Ag teacher say after football he don't vant to be athletics coach no more. He vant to run a short Ag course for our big boys in de dull farm season, four months, November to a little in March, all day at de high school. In de mornings he vill teach 'em agriculture and farm shop; in de afternoons udder teachers vill teach 'em English so dey can speak and write good, and Civics to make 'em good citizens. Even Hoskins can't beat down dat good idea, so ve vote back dat teacher."
"Hoskins'll sure be loving you for that, Hansen."
"Vat vould I vant," again the monotonous voice broke into that irresistible chuckle, "vid Hoskins loving me?"
At this point, with Sayre leaning forward, her mind a sudden whirl of new ideas – in came Dad again. She knew at once that whatever his errand had been, it had not been successful. He came out of his dejection for just one flash of cheerfulness on their way home.
"Sayre, I met that Mr. Hoskins in town. Knew me at once. Was most cordial. I had not the heart to tell him the truth about our situation, even though Sam Parsons said he was always so helpful to everybody around here."
"Oh, Dad, surely you can't believe Mr. Parsons' ideas about people or things out here, any more?"
Her father sighed. "I can't bring myself to believe that Parsons sent us out here under intentionally false pretenses."
"That land agent certainly believes it! The queerest look came into his eyes, kind of sharp, it was, when you said Mr. Parsons thought he might come to visit us next summer."
"But what could Parsons' object have been if he knew the land was too worthless for me to want it? And that they wouldn't let me have it anyway? Sayre!" The sudden tightening in Mr. Morgan's tones implied one of those flashes of insight he sometimes had, always as an aftermath of disillusioning experience. "Parsons must want to hold on to that land! We're out here to work it for him the way the Government requires a homesteader to do. It requires him to live on it, too. That's what he'll tell the Government he's doing when he comes to visit us. To think that a man I had such faith in could be so underhanded!"
So Dad saw it at last, and she didn't know whether to be glad or sorry. But her mind was by now busying itself over something more important. This afternoon's experience had been valuable, in spite of the distress it had brought, for out of it there was slowly emerging a plan; she spelled it Plan in her mind, with a capital. As she turned it from side to side during their journey homeward, trying to see what it involved, and all that it might mean to the Morgans, she made up her mind that she would keep it a secret. No use of talking about it yet, not even to Charley; but tomorrow she must get at the first steps. The thought of Charley made her wonder what effect the news that she and Dad were taking home would have on him. Start him off again on some crazy notion, joining the Navy, like as not! Yet without Charley she could not hope to carry her Plan through, however persistent she herself might be. Hang on to her brother she must.
As they pulled up at the "crate" her father asked her what she was smiling about, but she only shook her head. Really, she was smiling a little ruefully at herself, remembering some of the things that Aunt Mehitable had so often said to her; that however changeable – sometimes even undependable – Charley might be, she could hardly sit in judgment on him as long as she kept her childhood impulsiveness, her impatience with other people that was often actual crossness, her insistence on having her own way, her "bossiness," Aunt Mehitable called it! All right, maybe she was bossy; somebody had to be, in the Morgan family!
Sayre's Plan Is Started
IF SAYRE could keep a secret, so also could Charley. For the result of the evening's dismayed discussion among the three of them was his announced decision to go straight to town next morning, on what errand he would not say. Sayre contented herself with asking to be driven in with him; if she showed herself inquisitive about his reason for going, he might insist on knowing hers. So, while he was parking the 'Shake, she slipped away to the Upham Consolidated School building.
"The Ag teacher's office is at the head of the stairs," the janitor told her when she sought him out to inquire. "Go right up and in. Mr. Kitchell's there; he stays on the job all summer."
Sayre's step slackened as she climbed. Not that she was backing out. Only, even enthusiasm and determination have moments of misgiving. She had expected to find this Mr. Kitchell alone. Those voices upstairs proved he had company.
She recognized one voice, little as she had heard it. It belonged to Mr. Hoskins, smooth and pleasant, yet "awfully cocky." That other voice was nicer, it must be the Ag teacher's.
Sayre mounted four more steps. She could hear every word. Yet those men weren't talking loud! That distinctness must come from their being so awfully polite to each other.
Alfalfa. Was it always alfalfa people were talking about on this Pawaukee Project? The voices rose higher.
Why, this was a scrap! Those polite words were really blows. Ought she to go right in? She'd wait a little first, standing just outside the open doorway so that they would know she was there.
The nice voice was speaking. "I have never discouraged alfalfa projects among my pupils, Mr. Hoskins. Alfalfa is essential to this country as a first crop, to be plowed under to give this light soil the humus it must have to grow other things. But I have used, and I shall continue to use, all my influence against this steady wholesale marketing of alfalfa hay for ready cash. Such a procedure is ruination to our farmers. Our present circumstances prove that."
"Our present circumstances," rejoined Mr. Hoskins a little sharply, "prove that our farmers have to sell for cash anything they can get cash for! Men in such straits can't live on your hazy 'future prospects,' Mr. Kitchell. We will dismiss the subject for the present, however, and get down to the matter that brought me here.
"I'm in the alfalfa business. I want my son Frank to learn that business, all of it, the growing side as well as the marketing. That is why he is enrolled in your regular four-year high school vocational agriculture course. Nowhere, I knew," the voice settled into a purr, "could he learn the growing part better than under your efficient instructorship."
The other man made no attempt to break the ensuing pause.
"Mr. Hoskins can't jolly that teacher," thought Sayre with delight. She was growing uncomfortable. Yet she was not eavesdropping; she was within plain sight of both those men.
"But Frank" – censure slid slyly into the smooth tones – "is not so much interested as he should be. So I propose to stimulate his interest by offering a prize for a contest. All your agriculture pupils will be eligible, Mr. Kitchell, those who will enroll in your part-time class as well as those in the regular high school course. It will cost no pupil anything to enter. I shall provide the seed."
Sayre stepped nearer, her personal interest pricked for the moment to the point of unselfconsciousness.
"I shall offer a prize of one hundred and fifty dollars to that pupil who by the end of the next growing season shall have received the highest market returns from five new acres of alfalfa, either of fall or of spring planting."
Sayre's eyes grew big. A contest open to both groups of high school Ag students. Could anything fit better into her plan? And one hundred and fifty dollars – a magnificent sum!
Then her attention centered again upon those men. The silence within that room was growing uncomfortably long.
"This is, of course, Mr. Hoskins" – my, but that teacher was chilly! – "an attempt on your part to destroy my influence among my pupils – to undermine my teaching."
"Not at all, Mr. Kitchell. Not at all." The teacher's increased aloofness was as nothing compared to the other man's increased pleasantness. "Not for a moment would I have you or anyone else put such an interpretation upon my offer. My sole object is to induce my boy to learn the complete alfalfa business."
Another silence, longer than the previous one. "I do not see how I can refuse your offer," came at last without any thawing in the teacher's tones. "I make one condition. It must be understood this prize contest of yours is a private affair, offered without my personal or professional sanction. Under that condition I shall do all I can to help the alfalfa growers." The emphasis on the last word was unmistakable. The teacher stood up. Was it because he wanted his visitor to leave? He was still talking. "But I shall advise against the selling. For unless this locality's farmers go in before long on a bigger scale for something besides market hay, they're done for. I cannot believe that a man of your intelligence fails to realize that fact as well as I."
Sayre's indecision was over. She was not going to hear any more; but she wasn't going away, either. She stepped forward and knocked, well aware that the hard, dry sounds her knuckles made were puncturing an atmosphere taut with tension and constraint.
Another intrusion was at hand, however, in the approach of a big lad who lumbered up the stairs to brush past Sayre into the office. It was the boy whom she had seen two days earlier talking with Mr. Hoskins, evidently "my son Frank" arriving by appointment to meet his father. He gave a surly nod toward Mr. Kitchell and stood by, indifferent to the point of ungraciousness, while the older man made a stiff farewell to the teacher. Then both were gone.
"So that's the Hoskins boy," Sayre thought. "Why didn't he say something? Not be so rude! He doesn't look like his father, but he's just as horrid."
Yet there had been something impressive about that boy. He was finely built, a little overgrown, but muscular, not fat; and his dark, brooding eyes had caught the girl's attention and held it.
Mr. Hoskins, meanwhile, had given Sayre just one glance. What was in it? Not resentment exactly; she was not important enough for that. Just the same she knew he had not liked her overhearing Mr. Kitchell "get the best of him." Sayre did not care. For no reason at all, she had drifted into the spirit of that overheard scrap entirely on Mr. Kitchell's side.
She moved expectantly forward to the chair Mr. Kitchell had indicated. How big the teacher looked as he turned toward her, so broad, and tall, and a little clumsy in a way that was nice. How pleasant, too, his face was, firm and very decided, yet quiet and kind. Oh, she could trust this young man! She began to pour forth her story.
He listened with an interest that made her feel as if a lot of his thoughts were really reaching back of the Morgans themselves.
"So we're here," she concluded. "And I am determined about one thing. We are going to learn to farm. If you could persuade my brother to go back to high school in the fall and take your regular course in vocational agriculture – "
"He's interested in farming?"
"Not the way he ought to be," replied Sayre with characteristic candor. "But he won't hate studying it the way he did some of the things he used to have to take in school. It's football, though, you'll have to get him with. He's an awfully good player. It's his legs."
"What about his legs?"
"They're football legs, halfback's. Hard to tackle; have to be tackled so low down that the other team's men are afraid of them. They're short, you see, below the knee, and strong. Yet Charley's awfully quick."
"He's played before?"
"Oh, my, yes! He was star halfback last year on West End High School team. In Chicago, you know, where we lived last. But he quit school at Christmas. Dad felt dreadfully, he'd always hoped one of us at least could get an education. But Charley said that even for football he couldn't stick some of the stuff they made him take. Yet he isn't stupid. When he wants to be, Charley's smart. Like building over that old Ford he got for twenty dollars' worth of work so that we all came out here in it without a bit of trouble."
"I'll certainly look the boy up and see what I can do."
Sayre moved to the edge of her chair, alight with gratitude. "If you can just get him interested," she breathed. "When Charley's interested, he can do anything. And how he will work! But" – Sayre's intensity broke – "it isn't easy to keep him staying interested.
"I can try." The teacher's slow smile was "nice."
"And you won't let him know about my coming to you? He'd be furious. He hates my managing him!"
"Never. Trust me for that. As for that Parsons eighty you're on, there are twenty acres of alfalfa on that farm that are better than almost anything else in that locality; and a lot of the alkali on the rest is the result of overwatering. In time, when the Government completes its new drainage system – "
But Sayre was nerving herself to her next question. "That – that part-time agriculture class you're going to start in November. Could a girl join it?"
The teacher stared at her in what was plainly astonishment. "Oh, I shouldn't think so," he said quickly. "At least, it's never been done – never even been asked for."
"But," the girl put in eagerly, "there's no rule against it?"
"Not that I ever heard. You see, the course has never been given here before. But my plan, the one I laid before the school board, didn't take girls into consideration at all, I'm afraid!" And he laughed a little apologetically. "It never occurred to me that any girl would want to join the group. There's too much physical labor involved, in the first place, in what we agricultural people call 'projects.' They are genuine farm enterprises on a big enough scale to be real business undertakings. The pupils will have to do practically all the work themselves: plowing, planting, cultivating, harvesting, and marketing or feeding, in a crops project like, say, five acres of field peas. Or all the care of the stock: breeding, rationing, marketing, raising the feed, and perhaps even providing quarters if necessary, in an animal project, like a dozen beef steers. You see, a lot of that sort of work would be much too hard for a girl!"
But even as she watched and listened, Sayre was conscious of a curious new look coming into Mr. Kitchell's eyes – as if, almost, he were sizing her up, and wondering. . . . She leaned forward as he paused, her eager face with its big eyes, deep Celtic blue in color, radiant with self-confidence. "Please, I could try. Even if I'm not big. I'm strong, and I'm used to hard work. All my life I've wanted so much to live in the country and work out of doors!"
"Oh, I'm sure you would do your best," he returned courteously. "Still, no girl I've ever heard of even thought of tackling such work."
"But nowadays," she broke in, "there isn't anything a boy does that a girl can't do. You know that!"
"We–e–e–ll" – was he giving in? – "personally I should have no objection. And I suppose that I could make it all right with the board. You yourself might put in a word with Mr. Nels Hansen. He's a neighbor of yours, and one of the board members. There's no better natural farmer on the whole Pawaukee."
A little later a buoyant Sayre awaited her brother's coming in the old Rattleshake, one who strove to keep Charley from detecting her mood as they chugged homeward side by side.
"Isn't this country a fade-out, Sayre? Small wonder more'n half the claims out our way from town are abandoned. Turn your goggles towards that specimen."
Reluctantly Sayre's glance followed Charley's gesture toward a miserable, isolated clutter of tarpaper shacks, by no means unique in the outlying landscape. Under the desert sun they seemed visibly shriveling into ruin. Around them swept dead acres, not only bare of any green spear of a cultivated crop, but now so white with encrusted alkali that even the original dwarf sagebrush and scrub cactus had vanished.
"They're not all like that," Sayre protested. "Out the other side of Upham there are some mighty nice-looking farms, with alfalfa fields, and beans, and field peas, and even a little wheat."
Sayre's quickness at having learned the local crops brought no approval from Charley. "And who owns 'em? Men like that Mr. Hoskins, who earn their living in town. And talk about getting them free! When the Government's got to be paid back for all the cost of building the big dam and the canals and the ditches and the headgates and the flumes and all the rest of the whole irrigation system that brings the water here? Sounds easy because the paying has to be done only little by little every year for forty years. But do you know, Sayre, there's hardly a farmer around who's been able yet to pay the Government anything at all? Even that Hoskins can't pay on the land he owns, and he's the biggest man in Upham. Some folks say, though, that he can't pay just because he's so good to the settlers about store credit and lending money."
Sayre tried not to show how hard she was listening. Charley sounded so superiorly informed that she did not want to flatter him with too much interest. He never even noticed her attitude. "But it's none of our worries," he concluded. "I've got something better to think about. I've landed a job. Two of them, if you want to know."
"A job? What kind?" Not on a farm. She knew that by the way he told of it.
Charley ignored the metallic quality in Sayre's tone. "General handy man in a garage at a dollar and a half a day. Washing tourist cars, mostly, for a while, I suppose. But I'll soon work up to being a mechanic. Showed the boss this junk pile. Told him how I'd rebuilt it to bring the Morgan tribe out to this Paradise."
"Of course you told him it brought you out here to be a farmer?"
Charley ignored his sister's sarcasm. "Grubbing out my days on these cactus flats? Not Charley. Now, a garage in a town like Upham – so near to Yellowstone Park, with tourists going through all the time – is a live place. Before long, when I've worked up – "
"So that's the latest, is it? A mechanic? Last fall it was a professional athlete. This spring an engineer. But for six whole weeks now all you've been able to talk about was the farmer you would make. That's what you came out here for, wasn't it? If I were a boy, I'd make up my mind once and for all what I was going to be. Then I'd stick, and I'd work, even if it killed me. Then, maybe, I'd get somewhere, even if I were a Morgan."
Charley lurched away from his sister in a half-crouching, entirely good-natured gesture of mock fear. Then he lapsed into silence, not of anger, but of complete unconcern. That was always the way with Charley. He wouldn't be half so exasperating or so hopeless if he'd only get mad.
Before the 'Shake had covered another mile, Charley was his affable self once more. "Guess maybe I can swing Dad down into my other job."
"What other job?"
"Told you I landed two, didn't I? Got this one first, awfully easy, too, before I went to the garage. Nothing but half-day clerking in Hoskins' general store. Dad could take that job, instead of me. Five dollars a week to be paid from the store's stock. Still it would keep him partly busy while we've got to stick around here. We can't get away without a cent, can we? And asking Aunt Mehitable for money to move with again right away won't go. What's eating you, Sayre? I'm darn lucky to have bagged these jobs!"
Sayre checked the retort that sprang to her lips. Here she was, furious because he had not got a job on a farm as she had intended he should until time for school to begin. Unreasonable? If it were, she was not going to acknowledge it. Bossing things that weren't any of her business was, of course, what he was always accusing her of doing. Oh, but this was her business. Only, he didn't know it!
Sayre did not like to own that she was not always fair to Charley. Getting those jobs, scarce as jobs must be around here, was so like his energetic, cheery, irresistible self. "If only he were as good at sticking as he is at getting," she thought vindictively. She studied her brother a little out of the corner of her eye. The face above that short, compact, sturdy body was decidedly good-looking, and its bright, genial expression made it still more attractive. Yet something about it was a little too loose. She did wish Charley's face had more of that quiet, firm look there had been on the agriculture teacher's.
Mentally she went right on making her own plans. That evening something happened that helped them out. Their neighbor, Mr. Nels Hansen, prompted by kindly curiosity, dropped in for a welcoming chat with Dad.
Big, raw-boned fellow that he was, they all warmed to him at once because of the sympathy with which he listened to their story. His interest reminded Sayre of Mr. Kitchell's; it went deeper somehow, than the mere Morgan part of the story. He and Dad were seated on the railless back step where shy Hitty had consented to be perched upon the visitor's big knees. Sayre was watching and listening from the doorway behind, while Charley lay sprawled on the gray ground beyond.
"You stick!" the monotonous voice of the visitor counseled. "You can make it to live here dis vinter if you can get a leetle yob."
"I've got the job," Charley announced, and told him about the garage.
"Dat, I t'ank, is only a summer yob. Ven Yellowstone Park shuts up for de vinter and no more tourists ride into Upham and out vonce more, de garage has not much business."
Inwardly mean enough to be exultant, Sayre watched the cloud descend over Charley's mobile face.
"And you haf dat good alfalfa," the visitor went on slyly.
"He wants to find out something," Sayre surmised. Aloud she burst impulsively into the conversation. "Oh, that isn't ours this year, except enough for a head or two of stock. Mr. Parsons owes it for a debt. But next year'll be different."
"I haf a cow," the visitor's voice droned on. "I do not need it and nobody vill buy it. It milks easy. I vill rent it to you for feeding it. I vould like my cow" – the monotone broke into a sudden, irresistible chuckle – "to eat dat alfalfa!"
"What a queer speech," Sayre thought. "Why our alfalfa especially? I believe he likes to say things like that just to puzzle people." Aloud she asked, "Why?"
The tow head nodded sagely. "Yust for fun. Ve haf maybe de beginning of a little fight on alfalfa now in dis country. Ven you stay here, maybe you, too, can get into dat fight."
Was he offering them a privilege? Sayre's blue eyes bubbled with laughter. Well, being "in" things was what she had always wanted for the insignificant Morgans.
The bargaining going on between Mr. Hansen and her father was making her light-hearted. If Dad would work for Mr. Hansen in his spare time that fall during harvest, Mr. Hansen would pay him in winter stores. "I haf no money, but I haf plenty chickens and plenty garden; potatoes, cabbage, carrots, onions, squash, navy beans – plenty to eat. And ve ain't shipping it much yet."
"And he's one of the best natural farmers on the Pawaukee," Sayre's memory quoted.
That night after their visitor had gone Sayre wrote a long letter to Aunt Mehitable all about everything. It contained the following paragraphs:
"Things don't look quite so bad tonight as they did yesterday. Perhaps if Charley and I can manage to go back to school again, even Dad may grow to feel that our coming out here was not such a 'crushing mistake.' That's what he calls it now. He's awfully blue, of course. But I'm not. I've got too many interesting things to learn and do.
"I've got my heart set on getting into that part-time class. I'm going to see that Mr. Hansen who called tonight to talk to him about it when Charley isn't around. He's important on the school board. And I think he liked me. Besides, if Mr. Hoskins doesn't want me, and I'm pretty sure he won't, I think Mr. Hansen will work hard to get me in, because Mr. Kitchell's willing.
"I like Mr. Kitchell a lot, Aunt Hitty, and I did not like Mr. Hoskins a bit. So I've about decided that when I go to school I won't try for that alfalfa prize even if it is one hundred and fifty dollars. I hope Charley won't. Probably the Hoskins boy will get it anyway. It was plain that his father meant him to."
And her letter ended with these words:
"Anyhow, it looks as if we were settled out here for a while, at least. It isn't starting exactly the way we expected, you see, and Dad is still terribly disappointed. But I'm doing my best to manage things so that Charley will give up his garage job the first of September, and enter high school in the regular vocational agriculture course. Then, if I can just get myself into the new, extra part-time agriculture class, which begins in November, and is meant for people like me who can't go to school for the full regular school year – Oh, we've just got to stay here, Aunt Mehitable, for two years at least! In that time Charley could graduate from high school, and I could finish the part-time course."
The Plan Begins to Work
THE BUSY, satisfying weeks of late summer and early fall flew by for Sayre with amazing speed. Things seemed to go almost too well. How she worked! But nearly all she did was fun.
Charley had "swung Dad down" into the afternoon job at the Hoskins store with surprising ease, almost as if Mr. Hoskins really wanted a Morgan in his employ, newcomers though the Morgans were in this hard-pressed community where so many people needed work. Dad was happy in that store; he liked the sociability of it. He received his pay every Saturday night in five dollars' worth of store supplies: flour, sugar, coffee, rice, kerosene, gas, articles of any kind of merchandise the family happened most to need. It was fun each week-end for them all with heads close together to figure out just what he had better get.
Mornings, most of the time, Dad worked for Nels Hansen, taking his pay in supplies from the flourishing Hansen fields and vegetable garden. Some of these vegetables Sayre canned; the rest she stored in the root cellar that Dad found time to dig according to Mr. Hansen's directions.
Taking Hitty with her, Sayre, too, worked for the Hansens for ten days when Mrs. Hansen's new baby came, her pay being pullet hens; the Morgans would have eggs that winter.
In the same way, through Mrs. Hansen's recommendation, Sayre did an occasional day's work here and there on neighboring farms during the time when Mr. Hoskins' big baler and its crew were busy baling the Pawaukee Irrigation Project's one big crop, alfalfa hay. She learned lots of things as she worked: how, for instance, in a community like this, without ever having any real money, to live comfortably, in many ways better than they often had lived in the city; how to cook navy beans deliciously at this high altitude; how to bake in the altitude, also, so that muffins and cakes would not fall, and bread would be light. All this was fun.
When the weather grew cool, as it does early in that country, Charley took what he had saved of his garage earnings and bought soft coal from the surface mines not many miles away. The coal was cheap; renting the truck to haul it cost as much as the coal itself. Charley and Dad stored it in one end of an open shed. There the white kitten that Hitty had found to mother cavorted over the pile gayly at all hours until its coat was more black than white. Hitty's loving arms never rejected her pet because of that; she lugged it around and hugged it close until her clothes were often a sight to behold. To Sayre that was not so much fun. It sometimes made her decidedly cross.
She really had almost too much to do for a seventeen-year-old girl these days, for in between times she was sewing: mending, patching and making over until the Morgan wardrobes, if not all they might be, were at least whole and warm. Then Aunt Mehitable's fall box came, full of plain practical things to help out. The prettiest thing it held was a new school dress for Sayre, blue just the shade of her eyes, the most becoming dress she had ever had. She was immensely happy over it.
She often felt thankful that she was so busy through the summer months; it kept her from worrying too much over what September would bring in the way of the need for decisions. Need for decision by Dad. Was he well enough satisfied with his job at the store to be willing to stay on, or would he get to talking about moving again? Need for decision by Charley. When the garage job was over would he want to find another? Or, would Mr. Kitchell be able to fulfill her hope by persuading Charley to give up work and enter high school? She was worried, too, by the silent unconcern with which Charley greeted every mention of her own plan to enrol in the part-time class in November. Indifference was his way of expressing disapproval, of course. Thank goodness, she would not have to rely upon Charley's 'Shake to take her back and forth when part-time class began. The part-time pupils were to be collected and carried home daily by a school bus.
Then came the last Saturday in August, with Charley coming home and announcing, "The garage job's ended." Well, that was hardly news; they had known for a week that the proprietor would not need him much longer. This was not, apparently, his real news. He paused in front of his sister, who was sewing, to add with a carelessness behind which lurked both apology and defiance: "And Monday morning I'm starting into school again at Upham High School. Junior. Specializing in vocational Ag. Got acquainted with the Ag teacher. He's been coming into the garage lately, and I've been working on his car. He's a dandy guy – I sure like him. And he says they need a good half-back pretty bad on the high school football team. A – a fellow's got to put in his time doing something."
For just a second Sayre looked up from the blue work shirt she was patching, while she tried to summon surprise into her face.
"Well," she conceded, "I suppose he has."
But acting a part was too unnatural for her to dare to keep up the attempt. She escaped back into concentration upon her work, stifling her desire to laugh. She knew perfectly well that Charley had expected from her a tirade about his changeableness. Later she had a most enjoyable private giggle over the situation. Charley was going to high school, after all!
Charley took to it too, better than she had dared hope. If at home he was soon talking more about the football team than about his lessons, he was keen about the farm shop work. There was a class project under way there that greatly interested him, the converting of a large, old touring car into a commodious bus to carry the part-time pupils back and forth to school when the part-time agriculture class should begin. Charley worked a good many voluntary hours on the job.
"I'd give my hat," he remarked once to Sayre, "to find out who's going to get to drive that bus."
"Mr. Hansen might know," she suggested slyly.
So the first Monday morning in November rolled around, the date set for the part-time agriculture class to begin. Sayre, up since dawn, wiped and set in the sun the pail that had held the milk from the Hansen-Morgan cow. She had put up the lunches and had got little Hitty ready for her usual morning at the primary school. Now there was nothing left to do but change her own dress. "I'll be ready when you are, Charley."
Her brother lifted the refilled water pail to the bench near the door. "What you going to do with the kid after primary hours?" He did not look at Sayre.
"I'll manage." If Charley could be exasperating, so could she. If he had any sense he would know that Dad would keep Hitty with him afternoons in the store until Sayre's school was out. Charley had been silent all morning with that horrid indifference of his. Sayre understood it, of course. It was not until the last minute that he had accepted the fact that she had meant what she had said about going to school. His attitude made her furious. She had tried hard to take Mother's place as best she could ever since that dreadful day three years ago when Mother had died; but this did not give Charley the right to act as if it were his mother who wanted to go to school with him. Wasn't she his twin, exactly the same age as he was?
Why couldn't he act about her new plan the way dear old Dad did? "If you can find any way, Sayre," he had told her some weeks before, "to make up for my neglect of you in the matter of education, no one will be more pleased than your father." At which Charley had whistled a bar of "Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie." Sayre shut her mouth tight. She would have to watch out to keep that quick tongue of hers from defeating her own ends!
Now Charley was bringing the car up for her and Hitty. But this time it was not the old Rattleshake. What Charley was driving so proudly was the improvised school bus. After all, there was stuff in Charley! The school board would never have appointed him the driver of this bus if some of its members had not believed in him. And they had even entrusted him with the care of it at night, so that it was kept at the Morgans'. This bus work was a pay job, too.
For the next three weeks, however, while the football season lasted, Charley would not be able to drive the bus home in the afternoons. He would have to stay after school for football practice, and come home at supper time with dad in the 'Shake. Young Nels Hansen, although slightly under age, had been given a permit to act for those three weeks as Charley's afternoon supply, and drive the bus home each day after school at four o'clock.
"Glad to take you in, Sayre, of course," Charley was saying. "But your going's simply crazy. You're a girl. They'll never let you register. Not in Ag."
"I can try anyhow." Sayre dropped her eyes in a demure gesture which hid the gleam of triumph behind the long, dark lashes. She had paved the way for what she was doing better than he knew.
The bus began to pick the part-time pupils up in small groups at the cross roads. All but two or three came from the foreign element among the settlers. In this Sayre read Nels Hansen's influence, just as she read it in other things that had to do with school affairs. At one stop two stolid-looking fellows mounted the bus steps with heavy deliberation. Their round, visorless caps and the shapeless cut of their home-made clothes showed that they belonged to that clannish colony of German-Russian sugar-beet growers who the spring before had settled on some of the abandoned claims between Upham and Nels Hansen's.
"Hello, Ivan. So you got Boris to come. Bully for you!" Charley waved his hand cordially at the newcomers.
Light kindled in the wide, patient faces.
"Yess." "Goot morning." The careful gutturals were warm with friendliness. Shy uplifted eyes beamed at the young bus driver.
"He actually knows them," Sayre thought. After all, was there ever anyone like Charley, so friendly to everybody? Or as darling as Hitty? The little girl was smiling coyly at the last comers from out the refuge of Sayre's arms.
But Sayre did not smile at them. A sudden thought had gripped her with a puzzled sense of injustice. Could foreigners like these, if they were naturalized citizens, homestead on new land when her own father could not? Only at some such rare instant did Sayre any longer pause to realize that she and Charley were setting out to learn to farm on land to which they had no legal right; so like a home had Parsons' eighty already begun to seem to her.
Her hardest moment in that first school day came early, at the joint meeting that Mr. Kitchell called of all Ag pupils of both groups, regular and part-time. She was the last to enter the room. Just over the threshold she paused. All around her she sensed hostility. It took the breath from her like a cold plunge; color mounted into her cheeks. Then she thrust her head high, moved sturdily across the room, and seated herself, not next to Charley, but among the foreigners. They might be just as unfavorably disposed as the others toward having a girl in their midst, but they were too submissively impressed by their surroundings to show their feelings so plainly. Of all the glances that came Sayre's way none was more hostile than the dark, brooding stare of the Hoskins boy. She eyed Mr. Kitchell nervously. To her relief he acted as if there were nothing unusual in the situation.
After the meeting was over she approached his desk. "I can stay then? Even if I am a girl? The board's willing?"
She knew nothing of the eager brightness of her own face above the becoming new blue dress. She did know that the teacher's half-playful nod and slow, cordial smile were full consent. She could scarcely wait for the moment when she could triumph over Charley. Before it arrived, however, another incident had overshadowed her sense of triumph.
All that first day at school Sayre had been much impressed by the difference in spirit between the serious part-time pupils and the light-hearted youngsters of the regular four-year courses. She watched the latter darting in and out and everywhere about the school building in an irresponsible casual goodfellowship which she secretly envied. She began to understand how Charley felt about this new school venture of hers. When school was out at four o'clock a thin, red-haired girl opened her eyes more fully.
"You're Charley Morgan's sister, aren't you? I'm Irene Osgood. Rene for short. Wouldn't you like to go and watch football practice for a while?"
Sayre accepted gratefully. She would not go back in the bus of the morning. There were beans and a custard cooked for supper; Dad had Hitty; she would wait for Dad and Charley and they could all go home together in the 'Shake.
Together Sayre and her companion walked toward the big athletic field. It felt good to Sayre to have some girl companionship. There had been so little time for it in her life these last three years.
"I think it's simply horrid," the other girl burst out suddenly, "The way the regular pupils feel about you part-time ones! I don't see what there is about us to make us feel so superior. I think you're perfectly splendid to do what you're doing." (Sayre began to feel uncomfortable. Whatever this girl was, she was a gusher, and she had absolutely no tact!) "I told Charley he ought to be ashamed to mind about your coming in. The fellows'll just razz him all the more if he shows so plain that he's sensitive. What I say is, he's only an Ag himself, if he is a full-time regular. But, of course, he can play football. And with Frank Hoskins in the Ag bunch, it's got social standing."
Sayre tried not to betray her distaste for this silly speech. The two girls were moving in the wake of several boys in football uniform, who were clumping along with that peculiar gait that is imposed by spiked shoes on uncongenial ground. Sayre suspected her companion of deliberately keeping close to these boys. Presently the short boy near the lead swung his head back toward the powerful fellow at his heels. Yes, that short fellow was Charley. Sayre could never be quite sure of his identity in those type-leveling togs. But the face framed by that dingy helmet was not Charley's usual one. This face had a glower. Sayre was suddenly glad that Charley's face could look like that. She saw him eye the big, burly lad behind him in unmistakable contempt. Then he spoke, making each syllable so distinct that even above the sounds of hurrying pupils thronged all around, Sayre caught every word.
"Once and for all, Frank Hoskins, never-you-mind-about-my-sister! Understand?"
Sayre could not hear whether the other fellow answered, but as he lagged back to join the boys at the rear, she had a glimpse of the face that his helmet encircled. It was sullen to vindictiveness, and it belonged to the first boy she had laid eyes on in Upham.
Meanwhile the girl at Sayre's side was prattling on. "Look, that's Frank Hoskins. Isn't he powerful? Not many high school teams can show a fellow as strong as that. He just about makes the team. He's full-back, you know, and by far the best player on it."
Sayre smiled. She was beginning to wonder whether this sharp-featured girl was as artless as she seemed.
The practice that afternoon was a scrimmage between two extemporized teams the coach had made up for a purpose which Sayre learned later. It seemed that the high school to be played the following Saturday had a half-back much like Charley in build, whose famed dodging Frank Hoskins would have to block. So today Charley was to play on one team and Frank Hoskins on the other. One play occurred often: it was Charley, carrying the ball, going through the line on an off-tackle play. Go through it he did again and again, his compact, darting, twisting form evading with swift adaptation and elusiveness Frank's dogged, determined lunging.
The coach kept shouting reprimands to Frank. "Lower! Lower, didn't I tell you? Nothing but a ground tackle'll get a fellow like Morgan!"
At last Frank did "get" Morgan in a play that was farther away from the rest of the teams than it should have been. Charley was downed at the side lines right at the spot behind which the girls were standing. That was how Sayre saw so plainly. It was a quick action for one of Frank's bulk – the way in which his big foot swung up to jam its kick straight into Charley's side as Charley lay screened from the other players' view by Frank's own big body.
Sayre's blue eyes flashed black. She leaned forward. "You – you c-contemptible c-c-coward!"
Instantly there jerked itself up to meet hers a heavy, sullen face; in it she read the leap of fear. The sight steadied her anger and her voice. "You needn't be so scared," she scoffed. "Nobody saw you but two girls. Charley won't tell. He's a game sport!"
But from a vantage point some distance away somebody else had seen. A moment later the coach's hand gripped Frank's shoulder with a power which twirled the big fellow around in the direction facing the school's gymnasium door. "March. Straight back to the dressing room, and take off that suit."
Surprised, cowed, and sullen, the boy stumbled forward in angry obedience out from the silent circle of boys which by this time had gathered thick about the scene.
Sayre heard the girl at her side mutter something about its being "mean to humiliate a boy like that right before everybody." But she did not address Sayre directly; nor did Sayre speak. Soon it appeared that Rene had lost interest in the practice, and she made an excuse to get away. Sayre wandered toward the Hoskins store, got Hitty, settled the child and herself in the 'Shake, and tried to study. Getting down to study was going to be a little hard for her, she realized, even when Hitty's restlessness and chatter were not close at hand.
At home that evening while Dad read Little Black Sambo aloud to Hitty, who was curled in his lap, Charley wiped the supper dishes for Sayre. All trace of the morning's feeling between the twins had vanished. Careful though both were not to speak of the matter, both were conscious that each, that afternoon had had sure proof of the other's loyalty.
"Saw you chumming with Frank Hoskins' girl."
"Frank Hoskins!" Sayre was concentrated scorn. "I hope the coach meant that that brute had to hand in his suit for good. Did he?"
"Aw – not exactly. You see, the fellow's a darn good player, and he's worked hard. And the coach sure gave him one bawling out after practice right before the whole squad about being jealous of me, and working too much for his own glory, and all that kind of stuff. Hoskins is a queer kid, you know. Always has to be 'it' at anything he's in. Usually is, too, I guess, 'cause he's smart. And – "
The reason for Charley's sudden volubility did not escape Sayre. Plunging both arms deep into the soapsuds and resting the palms of her hands on the dishpan's bottom, she faced her brother. "Charley Morgan," she divined, "you begged off for him."
Charley avoided his sister's gaze like a culprit. "Aw, well, we wouldn't have had a chance in the game next Saturday without him. And besides – "
"I knew it!" Sayre vigorously resumed her dishwashing. "All I've got to say is, I hope he appreciates what you've done for him."
Charley laughed. "Hoskins isn't exactly the sort to 'appreciate' favors from a fellow who's crowding him a little. Guess likely he's got it in for me worse'n ever."
Dish-water slopped and dishes clinked and rattled. "You see," Charley's big hands clumsily manipulated a towel around the edge of a cup, "it isn't only football between Hoskins and me. I guess he's sore at my telling the other Ag fellows that they won't catch me in that alfalfa contest of Hoskins' father, not considering the way Mr. Hansen says Mr. Kitchell really feels about it."
"Isn't Mr. Kitchell nice?" Sayre murmured cordially.
"Nice!" Charley scoffed at the ineffective word. "He's a prince, that fellow. Made of the right stuff all over and clear through, every darn inch of him."
Sayre poured the dish-water into a pail; then she swirled the dishcloth around the pan in happy content. If this hero-worship of Charley's only kept up, where might it not lead him?
Charley picked the pail up and carried it outside.
"Sayre." (So Dad had not been completely absorbed in Hitty and Black Sambo.) "Hadn't you and Charley better not be too independent? Remember that the father of this boy that Charley seems to be having trouble with, the man who offers that prize in the alfalfa contest, happens to be my employer."
Did Dad mean he wanted them to enter that contest? Sayre did not ask. "It's that Mr. Hoskins," she said to herself. "He's been hinting to Dad about our going into it." What luck that they had no five acres of land fit for a new alfalfa planting. Even a greenhorn like her knew that.
IN SPITE of the friction between its two best players, Upham High School won the next Saturday's football game, and the two games that followed. Then the season ended. Sayre was glad. Charley would not see so much of Frank Hoskins now, and also, he would have more time for his Ag work.
Nevertheless she sat up for Charley's homecoming on the night of the closing football banquet, at which next season's officials were to be chosen. "They elected you," she cried when he came in. She knew by the glow in his eyes.
"You see before you, Miss Morgan, next year's captain of the Upham High School football team!" How Charley did love making this announcement!
But Sayre's heart skipped a beat. Well, he deserved it, she supposed. Had not his playing brought the school the most successful season of its history? There was another comforting thought in the situation, too: it would take a good deal now to make Charley quit school. Yet it was true, also, that he was a newcomer, whereas Frank Hoskins had given the school three years of hard service. Queer, what a jumble of satisfaction and misgiving a person could get out of exactly the same happening!
Suddenly the misgiving dominated. "And Frank? How did he take it?" Sayre knew only too well after a month of school contacts that the failure of a Hoskins to attain a set desire was no trifling matter in that community.
Charley laughed in the way he always did of late when Sayre spoke of Frank Hoskins. "Well, he didn't congratulate me personally. But he made a speech. Said all the right things, in public, anyway. Some of the fellows say his father wrote it for him. Told him he'd got to make it if he lost the election. It sure sounded fine. Mr. Kitchell used a big word about it. Said it showed magnanimity."
Magnanimity! Sayre was to hear that characterization repeated often during the next few days; and she scoffed inwardly every time she heard it. For as the days went by she caught the reflection of Frank's real feeling from Rene Osgood's remarks. And she also saw Frank and Charley together without other witnesses.
Football interests began to recede into the background, however, and the girl became too absorbed in study and plans for projects to bother her head much about Frank Hoskins. Projects, in the sense in which Mr. Kitchell had explained them to Sayre on that first visit of hers to the school house, were now ever on the tongues of the vocational agriculture pupils of both part-time and full-time groups.
Dad was really the first Morgan to start a project. He was attending, chiefly for sociability, a series of ten evening classes on hog production which Mr. Kitchell was offering to adult farmers in the community. Much to Charley's and Sayre's amusement, he came home one night with a Hampshire sow in the back of the 'Shake.
"Where'd you get it?" Sayre queried.
"Bought it. On credit, of course. Mr. Hoskins very kindly endorsed my note."
The girl's mood hardened. "How much?"
"Well, it's a purebred; they're expensive, you know. Ei-eighty dollars."
"Eighty dollars!" Sayre was stunned.
She trusted to Mr. Hansen to do the chiding, as she knew he would when he heard of it. "I vould not let dat man Hoskins get no more rights on me, Meester Morgan. He likes dat too much."
"He isn't going to keep any rights on us," Sayre resolved. "We'll pay for that sow with its next season's litters, and that's the last we'll ever owe him. Charley and I must finance our projects some other way."
At last Sayre decided what her own projects were to be. The biggest was to be turkeys. This dry tableland was natural turkey country. Mr. Hansen was already beginning to develop substantial turkey markets for this section of the Pawaukee Project, so that now was just the time to go into the turkey business.
She would try chickens too, setting all her available hens and buying a lot of baby chicks. She would have summer and fall fries, with a lot of pullets held over for winter egg-laying, and a few roosters to assure a good continuation project next year.
She would have to enlarge and lighten that dark old chicken house of Sam Parsons' a lot, and build a separate shelter for the turkeys. Separate yards, too. Well, she could manage with a little assistance from Dad. Dear old Dad was such a help these days. He was really housekeeper a lot of the time. Lucky he had his mornings free. Alone, she could never have accomplished as much as she did.
She meant, too, if she could manage the money part, to plant potatoes on two acres of the alfalfa land, with the early spring growth plowed under. Mr. Hansen and one or two of his friends hoped to ship several carloads of potatoes next year. And, of course, she'd have to raise all she could of her poultry feed. Her head fairly buzzed with plans, and soon she was flying around from morning to night.
Charley would have to come in for his share of everything. He had not said much about his projects yet, but Sayre was not worrying, in view of the way he continued to feel about Mr. Kitchell. "He won't fall down on anything he has to do for that man," she assured herself. So the days went by.
Sayre, coming out of the house one Saturday morning in December to throw the breakfast scraps to the chickens, saw Charley with an indefinite-looking object attached to the back of the 'Shake. "What have you got there, Chuck?"
"Project. Farm shop."
"Project? I'd call it a pile of old junk."
"So did the junk dealer. Offered Mr. Hoskins fifty cents for it. I outbid him. Paid a dollar. Mr. Hoskins wasn't any too anxious to let me have it, either. But the junk dealer would have sold it to me if Mr. Hoskins had held out."
"What's Mr. Hoskins got to do with it?"
"Owned it. At least, it was lying on a canal bank of the last poor fellow's proved-up homestead that Mr. Hoskins has taken over on a mortgage."
"What is it, anyhow?"
"Manure spreader. Was once, that is. And is going to be again."
Sayre laughed, "Maybe," she doubted.
"Bet you don't even know what a manure spreader looks like," Charley challenged.
"Don't I? I've watched the very same one work that you have. I went out to Mr. Hoskins' place last fall on purpose, on the day after Mr. Hansen told us that Mr. Hoskins was the only farmer around here who had one now and that he never lent nor rented it; and that he used it, himself, on the quiet as far as he could."
Mr. Hansen had told them, too, that however much Mr. Hoskins might veto plowing under alfalfa as green manure to supply humus to the Pawaukee's light soil, he was shrewd enough to supply his own land with humus by buying up all the barnyard manure he could from every poor farmer who would sell anything for a cash dollar.
It was pretty clever of Charley, Sayre suddenly realized with delight, to think of getting hold of a manure spreader for himself.
"I'd recognize a manure spreader now anywhere by that noise it keeps right on making when it's going, especially when it turns. You know, that funny, long-drawn-out squeak. The ratchet on the wheel makes it when it's keeping its wheel from going around as fast as another one." Sayre was finding highly stimulating the shift from challenge to admiration in Charley's bright eyes. She'd show him a girl wasn't so dumb.
The whole picture of the machine she had seen at work flashed through her memory. Late yellow sunlight over a remote, level field of the Hoskins place, across to which she had plodded. Dust haze hovering over the horizon. Thicker dust in the air about the team. Young Ole Larsen, Mr. Hoskins' "hired man," slowly driving that beautiful work span. The spreader itself moving steadily, first up, then down the big field, ever to its nerve-scraping accompaniment. Its approach near to her observation point where its aroma had been pretty overwhelming, but where she had been able to see into its wagon-box when it was almost empty, and watch for a moment the slow movement of the box's revolving bottom, carrying the manure to the back where discs cut it up into small chunks. Her longer watching of the way those chunks and their surrounding haloes sprayed up into that funny, circular brown cloud at the wagon's end, and then out to spread finely and evenly over the soil it was to enrich.
"Mr. Hoskins' spreader," the girl motioned toward Charley's dilapidated wreck with a giggle, "certainly didn't look much like this. This hasn't any wagon-box bottom at all, revolving or otherwise. Nor much of any sides, not to mention chains, or discs, or – Still," she hastened to add, "if Mr. Kitchell thinks you can rebuild it – "
"He doesn't exactly," her brother's honesty admitted. "But he's said I could try." Charley waxed enthusiastic. "Do you know, Sayre, that thing, new, cost one hundred and ninety dollars. And it's hardly been used. Just fallen to pieces from being neglected and left out in the weather."
"What good'll it do you to rebuild it? You haven't any manure to spread." It was Sayre's turn to challenge.
"As we sure ought to. Never mind that now. You've just been pointing out yourself why I want to rebuild it. Some farmers who haven't any spreader have quite a lot of manure. Nels Hansen, for instance. When I've a piece of machinery to lend, I can borrow something else I need. Or I can hire out with my machine. Or I can rent it. I know what I'm doing. Work like this comes natural to me. When I'm through with this spreader I'm going to attack the 'Shake again. Turn it into a half-ton truck. I'm keeping my eye on the junk dealer's pile right along to get hold of some parts I want. And when – "
"All that takes money. Where're you going to get any?"
Charley's enthusiasm dimmed. "Have to borrow, of course. Like all the vocational Ag fellows. On strict business principles. The way everything's got to be done in our work, even with a fellow's dad. Notes, interest, security."
Sayre waved the empty scrap pan in impatience. "As if I didn't know all that! What I mean is, who've you got to borrow from?"
"Well – " Charley wiggled the toe of his shoe, his eyes intent upon the action. What a plague Sayre always was with her point-blank questions! "Some of the fellows've got it from the bank. And some – " Charley hesitated – "have got it from Mr. Hoskins. Really, Sayre, he's been mighty decent about helping the fellows out. Says that's because his boy's in the work – "
Sayre threw up her dark head. "Borrow from Frank Hoskins' father! After the way Frank's been treating you lately? I'd like to see myself."
"I'd hate it all right, you bet. And Mr. Kitchell doesn't like to have us borrow from Mr. Hoskins. It's easy to see that, even when he doesn't say anything. But what's a fellow to do?"
Sayre was talking on unheeding. "All you'd be doing, anyhow, is to eat humble-pie. Like as not he'd turn you down. You haven't any security to offer him. Your father hasn't even the right to a homestead claim." The need of argument made this almost forgotten fact bob up suddenly in Sayre's consciousness.
"Well," Charley retorted with unusual heat, "what are you going to do yourself? Here you are, planning projects that make Frank Hoskins as jealous of you as he is of me. That fellow can't stand being beaten by anyone. But when it comes to a girl" – Charley lifted his eyebrows to suggest the inadequacy of words. "Frank himself doesn't want to be bothered with any Ag project this year but his five new alfalfa acres. You and I won't give him a chance to beat us at that. And does it make him sulky?"
"A lot I care." Sayre shrugged her shoulders.
"You bet you don't. But I'm not so sure but you'd better care. Do you know what that fellow's got everybody to calling you behind your back lately? Project Sayre. And the way he says it it isn't any bouquet either. He cracks heavy jokes about your being the teacher's pet. Tells our bunch you're doing all this planning to make the part-timers look bigger than the four-year regulars. Then he razzes the part-timers. He knows those foreigners haven't the same ideas we have about girls working with 'em as their equals, about letting a girl stand out as one of their best workers."
Sayre's answering laugh was a trifle shaky. "Well, let him. That won't stop me."
"Don't I know it? You've got enough grit and stick-to-itiveness for a dozen, I'll say that. But what good will that do you if, after all the talk that's going on, too, you blow up higher'n an airplane? And that's just what you will do if you try to take off with all you say you are, without any money to do it with."
"I've got the money."
Charley's face fell into a stare of amazement and incredulity. "You've got the money! Where?"
Sayre hugged her old red sweater about her, and lowered herself gingerly to a seat on the split, rickety rail of the manure spreader before she answered. "In the bank. Down town. It's a dead secret."
"I should say it was. Where did it come from?"
"Aunt Hit? Again? When she told Dad flat when we moved out here that that was the last cent she was going to let him have?"
"She didn't let him have it. She loaned this money to me. Or rather she sent it to the bank with orders that I was to have it strictly under vocational Ag rules."
"Well, wouldn't that knock you flat! Aunt Hit always was queer."
"And smart," added Sayre roguishly. She was enjoying herself hugely, getting the full effects she sought.
"I'm letting you have this money, Sayre" – her aunt had written – "because I think you have the character to carry your school plans through. Be sure you make Charley a help to you. I am more than pleased with what you tell me of the influence of this Mr. Kitchell upon him. Give the boy his chance, too, to hold to something steady."
So now Sayre added, "I'll share with you, Chuck. Aunt Hitty said I should. How much money do you need?"
"About forty dollars. Mr. Kitchell thinks I can do it for that. I've got to have some new lumber. Pine'll do for some of it. But part's got to be oak. And there's got to be some castings for parts that have to be replaced."
Charley had seated himself on the spreader rim beside his sister. He drew from his pocket a pencil and a notebook in which he had been wont to keep football signals, wrenched a piece of loose board from the ramshackle spreader, and laid it across both laps as a desk. Two dark heads bent close together in complete absorption over the figuring below until the twins' father waved at them from the back steps of the house.
Sayre rose with reluctance. "I've got to go. Dad's hauled the water from the ditch to help me wash."
Her father was calling something Sayre did not catch. "What did he say?"
Charley burst into laughter. "Hitty's trying to wash the coal dust off her cat in the water he's just hauled."
"Oh, dear! She's probably all scratched up." Sayre raced toward the house. "She can be the biggest nuisance."
Charley spent one hundred and forty hours on the rebuilding of his spreader, becoming so interested in the job that he put upon it all the out-of-school time he could find. When the building of it was completed, Mr. Kitchell was very proud of the result. He published a full account of the boy's accomplishment in the local weekly paper, and arranged a two-day exhibit of the work of the farm-shop pupils of both vocational agriculture groups.
Practically everybody in the community came. Everybody talked about the affair, too, publishing far and wide the fact that the outstanding point of attention was Charley Morgan's manure spreader.
"It's an excellent piece of machinery. Tell the boy I'll give him a hundred and seventy dollars for it." Mr. Kitchell brought Charley this message from a Mr. Cowan, a quiet man who owned one of the very best eighties on the Pawaukee, out of which he made a sort of experimental farm. But Charley would not part with his treasure.
The big room of the farm shop was packed with a milling crowd
On the evening of Saturday, the last day of the exhibit, the big room of the farm shop was packed to discomfort with a milling crowd. Sayre was in the midst of it, her eager eye watching two strangers, who from the moment of their arrival had seemed peculiarly attracted by Charley's spreader.
"Who are those men?" she sought out Charley's best pal, a freckle-faced, humorous lad named Spenser Trowbridge, to ask.
"Oh, one's the Wyoming state supervisor of high school vocational Ag work. He comes here lots. But the other's a big man from Washington, D. C. Some kind of agent. Federal, I guess they call it. Anyhow, he's the Government man who looks after the vocational high school agriculture work for all this western part of the United States. You'd know he was somebody by watching how Mr. Hoskins takes him around."
Sayre made her way near to the newcomers and the spreader, near enough to hear Mr. Hoskins say in that slightly over-gracious manner he always adopted for any visitor of importance, "Yes, a really remarkable piece of work for a boy. But between you and me, not quite all it's represented to be. I sold the boy the original spreader for a merely nominal price, not one that at all represented its real value or condition. A public-spirited man, you know, must do all he can to encourage these earnest boys."
Sayre was so angry she felt weak. She watched the three men thread their way through the crowd. Mr. Hoskins' high, syrupy voice came back to her as they moved forward. "I want you to see what my boy has done. A harness he's practically remade."
Sayre squeezed in nearer the spreader. Both strangers had followed Mr. Hoskins with such evident reluctance that she felt sure they would return. And return they did, and alone. Summoning all her courage, she addressed the state supervisor. "I – I beg your pardon, sir, but I wish, please, you'd ask Mr. Kitchell about the beginning of this spreader. You see, my brother did it."
The supervisor smiled at her in a way which made her feel he understood.
"What I want," the other man was remarking, "is a photograph of the way the thing looked before the boy began to work. Surely Kitchell had him take one."
It was the impulsive Sayre who answered. "Oh, yes, he did! but only with a Brownie kodak. It's all Charley's got. That's why Mr. Kitchell took the film to have an enlarged print made. The little print's over there. On the wall. As near as we could get it to the spreader. Why, how funny! It was there this afternoon. I saw it. But now it's gone!"
Sayre lost no time in seeking out Mr. Kitchell with the news of the disappearance of the print. She found him, not in the shop, but upstairs in his own office.
"Charley must have taken the picture down to preserve it," was his conclusion. "I'd just told him about the letter I got this afternoon. Let's hunt him up."
Together the teacher and Sayre searched through the lighted building, Mr. Kitchell explaining to the girl meanwhile what he had meant by his reference to a letter.
"It seems that those two films Charley took of the original spreader were the first of a dozen roll. Since Charley has to be economical, he saved the last films for the completed spreader. This meant that he did not have the roll ready to develop until a week or so ago. By that time I had begun to realize that the spreader was more than an ordinary success. So I asked him for those films the very day he'd got permission to develop them in the chemistry laboratory closet at school. That's why he had time to make only one print. The second film was slow to dry and not promising. But I packaged it up with the other one. Then I wrote a letter to the photographer. I am sending them to him for enlarged – "
An effusive woman accosted Mr. Kitchell, demanding his attention. Sayre waited restlessly. How could he be so patient? There, he'd got rid of her. He picked up his story.
"Just as I finished that letter the principal called me out of my office to a hurried faculty meeting. I met Charley in the lower hall. School was just out. The hall was full of pupils. I called out to him to go and get the mail he'd find in my right-hand drawer and post it. He was coming out of shop, where he'd been working overtime. Said he would as soon as he'd taken off his cover-alls and washed up.
"Next day he said he'd – "
Another interruption, this time from a prosy old farmer. That, too, presently ended, and Mr. Kitchell went on right from where he had left off.
" – done what I told him to. That's the last I thought about the matter until I got this afternoon's mail. The photographer wrote that he'd received my letter but never any films. And now Charley says that the letter was all he mailed, all he found to mail. He had supposed that the films were inside of it. They could easily have been. I've just been turning my desk inside out, but not a trace of those films can I find. There's Charley now."
But Charley was as puzzled by the disappearance of the print as the others were.
All the next day the hunt kept up. Search, inquiry, advertising proved of no avail. On Monday morning Mr. Kitchell appealed to the vocational agricultural classes. "I think you all know," he began, "of the loss the vocational department has just suffered, the films and print of Charley Morgan's manure spreader."
Sayre turned part way around in her seat so that she could see Frank Hoskins better. He was seated ahead of her and a little to one side. "Loss!" her mind was repeating ironically. Never from the first had she believed that those disappearances were a matter of loss. She fixed her scrutiny upon Frank. She intended to keep it there.
"Theft," her mind substituted conclusively a few seconds later for the word loss. "I've no way of proving it, of course. But if ever in my life I saw a person acting his best to appear interested and innocent when he wasn't, that somebody is Frank Hoskins at this very moment. He's even trying to let on he doesn't know I'm looking at him."
"Is there anyone among you," Mr. Kitchell was continuing meanwhile, "who can tell us anything at all of Morgan's films, or of the print that was on the shop wall Saturday night? Or is there anyone who by any chance took a picture of Morgan's spreader as it appeared when he first brought it into the shop?"
Response to both questions came from Spenser Trowbridge. "Last I saw of Chuck's print was the Saturday night of the exhibit. It was hanging by one corner as if all but one of the tacks had come out. I tried to get over to fix it, but I couldn't get through the crowd. I meant to go later, but I forgot."
The next morning Spens accosted Sayre in the school hall. "Say, Sayre." He held out toward her an oblong, battered piece of dark celluloid. "Take a squint at this. See if it isn't Chuck's spreader, before treatment."
Sayre held the celluloid up to the light. "It is! It is! Oh, Spens, wherever did you get it? This can't be the one that got lost?"
"No, this is another one, mine. I found it last night when I was rummaging through a box of old films. I took it for a joke the first day Chuck hauled that thing into the shop. Everybody thought he was plumb nuts. I never printed it. The film looked too bum."
Sayre with head uptilted was still intent upon the film. "Background is pretty blurred. But the machine looks clear. Perhaps it will do what Mr. Kitchell wants."
It did. An enlarged print of Spens' film accompanied Charley's spreader when it became an object of display in the vocational agriculture exhibit at the next State Fair.
Long before that event came off, however, illustrated accounts of Charley's achievement appeared in print, thanks to the two visitors at' the exhibit. The state vocational agriculture magazine published a full write-up of Charley's job. So also did a publication issued by the Federal Board for Vocational Education at Washington. An agricultural magazine copied the latter account and enlarged upon it. A monthly magazine interested in the industrial arts followed suit. Copies of all these found their way to Mr. Kitchell's desk, and from there circulated throughout the community until Charley had become a well-known local figure.
Everybody praised him, of course. Better still, everybody liked him. Except Frank Hoskins. The pose of "magnanimity" which ever since the football election Frank had striven hard to keep up toward Charley in public, at least, now grew so strained that it became a common subject for jokes among the high school pupils.
Spens Trowbridge, natural mimic that he was, would swagger heavily up to Charley in the high school hall and remark with pompous affability edged with snap, "Well, Morgan, how is our school's skilled mechanic this morning?" and expectant pupil onlookers of both sexes would guffaw and giggle with full understanding and appreciation. No one's laugh was ever more completely good-natured than Charley's.
To Sayre the best of the entire situation was that Charley, pleased with his triumph and more pleased still with Mr. Kitchell's delight in it, was at last centering his wholehearted interest in his agricultural work at the beginning of the growing season.
"Five acres of seed peas on turned-under alfalfa land. Won't that make a peach of a crops project, Sayre?" he asked, inviting his sister's approval. She gave it heartily, helped him study and plan, wrote to Aunt Mehitable for him. It was a pretty expensive venture, but both Mr. Kitchell and Mr. Hansen approved it.
One Saturday afternoon in early spring Charley went into town with Dad. Sayre heard the 'Shake returning sooner than she had expected. Her ear told her, too, that it was being driven over the corrugated driveway with a caution beyond all precedent under Charley's guidance. She hurried out to investigate and found the 'Shake parked. Charley was lifting out of it passengers which he counted as he lifted, and upon which Hitty was descending from the back yard with whoops of joy. The passengers themselves, ten in number, stood huddled together on wobbly legs, squeaking forth thin, quavery bleats, and shivering with fright. They were very young lambs.
"Beginning of my animal husbandry project," Charley announced airily. "I'm looking ahead to my next year's school Ag work, sheep. There's a lot of good forage on our bad acres."
"Poor babies! Where are their mothers?"
"Haven't any. They're bum lambs. Ones whose ewes either died or refused to own them. The big sheep men in the hills never bother to raise bums. Just get rid of them any way they can. I met a mountain rancher bringing these into town to give to some kids he knew, if he couldn't find anything better to do with them. He sold 'em for thirty-five cents apiece. We'll have to raise them on the bottle. Quite a lot of work, but Dad'll help, and Hitty can learn too. With all that milk now that Mr. Hansen's cow has freshened – "
Charley was again reaching into the 'Shake. This time he drew forth a knobby package which he handed to Sayre with a look of sheepish worry. "I – I – bought some nursing bottles. See if they're all right."
Sayre laughed so hard she could scarcely undo the package, but there was no censure in her mirth. Charley did not need to apologize for his new venture to either of his sisters.
Sayre's heart was light these early spring days. A spreader, field peas, sheep; Charley would make a farmer yet. Was it too much to hope that these new projects of his would turn out as well as the spreader had?
Part-time school was out that week, but the following Monday Sayre and Hitty went to town with the Hansens as they occasionally did. Sayre entered the Hoskins store to speak to her father about some needed supplies. She found him deep in the circle of men that habitually clustered about the stove, handing about from one man to another an open letter.
Sayre knew at once what that letter was. It was the one Mr. Kitchell had given Dad the day before, and had come from a college professor who was writing agricultural college textbooks. He asked permission to make use of Charley's spreader story as an illustration of what vocational agriculture was actually accomplishing among farm boys.
"I'd rather be the father of a boy like that, Morgan, than own – "
"A few more kids like that on this here reclamation irrigation project and – "
As Sayre stepped back so as not to interrupt her father's moment of triumph, her glance fell and rested upon the store's proprietor, busy within earshot of the stove group. His expression made her uneasy.
"Dad," she ventured at home that evening, "I'm sure Mr. Hoskins doesn't like your talking so much to the men in the store about Charley's spreader."
"You're mistaken, Sayre. No one's spoken to me more cordially about it than Mr. Hoskins. He says the little notice that spreader's got from the outside has had a fine influence upon his own boy. He's always wanted Frank to be more interested in agriculture, he owns so much land, himself. But Frank's been rather indifferent. Now he's taking hold. Planning other things besides his five new alfalfa acres. Going to plant five acres of field peas like Charley. And raise turkeys and chickens like you. Mr. Hoskins is real grateful to Charley for the way his spreader had got Frank stirred up."
Sayre was not convinced. Neither was Charley. They were all at the supper table. "What's Mr. Hoskins after, Dad, handing me all that?" The boy laughed good-naturedly. "Mr. Hoskins isn't over keen about Dad's puffing, Sayre; but it's Mr. Hansen's championing me around the community as Mr. Kitchell's pupil that really rubs him all raw under his slick skin."
Sayre did not give the matter thought for long. Something else more upsetting happened too soon after. Sam Parsons arrived, three months earlier than he had ever mentioned coming, to pay the Morgans his promised visit. At once he made it plain that he intended to stay during the entire growing season.
Sayre, for the first time in months, fully recalled words her father had uttered on their ride home from the land office on the day after their arrival on the Pawaukee. "We're out here to work it for him the way the Government requires a homesteader to do. It requires him to live on it, too. That's what he'll tell the Government he's doing when he comes to visit us."
NOW THAT part-time school was over Charley often hiked part way into town in the morning, picking up rides as best he could. He left home reluctantly the day after Sam Parsons' arrival. "Don't you give in about anything, Sayre." His sister was waiting outside for their guest to take him on a tour of the place and outline her own and Charley's plans. "If he starts to kick – "
Was this really Charley? Sayre hugged the thought. "He didn't at breakfast when we told him all about school."
"I know. But I'm not sure that all that about plowing under the alfalfa soaked in. His skull's pretty thick."
"I'll make it soak."
Mr. Parsons appeared arrayed in his neat, shiny floorwalker clothes. How had this lady-like man ever come to think he could make a farmer, Sayre wondered as, bubbling with amusement, she noted his beautifully polished shoes.
Hitty, who had stopped going to school for the year when Sayre had, was skipping close at Mr. Parsons' heels. That hatless, sunburned, plump youngster was certainly no longer the frail, quiet child of the time when the Morgans had come to the homestead. She danced along, prattling in a chirrupy stream as the three crossed the back yard to the alfalfa fields beyond, now fresh with the young green of early spring growth.
Mr. Parsons bestowed most of his attention upon Hitty. Still, whenever Sayre demanded it he bent toward her with his best floorwalker manner, listening so sympathetically that she did not realize at the time how little he really said.
She began pointing out fields. "Those two plowed fields are for my potatoes. Mr. Hansen's doing our plowing whenever he can get it into his time. We're to pay him with a percentage of the crop. We're allowed that at school.
"Over there we'll raise what grain we can. We'll keep those two acres in alfalfa for our own use. On the two beyond, Charley will raise rutabagas for his sheep, since we haven't any silage. We'll have to enlarge the root cellar a lot."
Hitty's sweet, piping call broke into this recital, then Sayre went on:
"Hitty can't wait to have you see the orphan lambs. She's crazy about them. Funny you never raised sheep on those waste acres that aren't good for anything but forage. These lambs are all Corriedales, that cross between Rambouillets and Leicesters and Lincolns that is so popular among the big sheep men in the mountains. If Charley's pea project turns out well he's going to buy some purebred ewes in the fall, and maybe a Rambouillet ram.
"Another year, with good sow litters and a full lamb crop, and perhaps a heifer or two if we can manage to buy them, we'll really have quite a few head of stock. Livestock's what these farms have got to have if they are ever – "
Sayre's glib quoting of Mr. Kitchell was again interrupted by Hitty, this time with a wail. "Oh, it's hurt."
Two lambs had been jumping along so close at Hitty's heels that in trying to avoid one she had stumbled over the other. Seated flat on the ground she was now gathering the upset lamb into her arms, and bending over it to mingle her motherly crooning with its squeaky little bleats. The other lamb promptly braced two stiff front legs on Hitty's knee and looked down upon the proceeding with sober-faced curiosity. "Oh, Mr. Parsons, feel it, please. Its hind leg – "
With stiff incompetence the little man bent to comply just as the supposedly injured lamb jumped nimbly out of Hitty's arms straight in the direction of his face. His startled leap brought Sayre a desperate struggle to control her laughter. She had to answer the question Mr. Parsons was asking to cover up the eclipse of his dignity.
"Put in new alfalfa?" Sayre managed to repeat. "I should say not, not the way we feel about Mr. Kitchell." She outlined the story of the school alfalfa contest.
"That contest is nothing less than spite work on Mr. Hoskins' part against Mr. Kitchell for teaching his pupils that they'll never be anything but broke if they keep on selling all their alfalfa.
"Besides, where would we grow any new alfalfa? The only possible place is along that awfully weedy south ditch. Imagine," the girl laughed, "a prize crop on that field."
Mr. Parsons' answering smile was very satisfactory. In fact so receptive did he appear throughout the entire trip that Sayre felt very triumphant as she awaited Charley's homecoming.
That afternoon Mr. Parsons went to town with Dad. Something was different between the two men when they came home, and as they sat down to supper Mr. Parsons announced, "I'll talk with you further, Morgan, after the young people have gone to bed."
Sayre lay awake late that night, listening to the hum of the two men's voices through her closed bedroom door. She could catch no word. At her first glance at her father the next morning she saw that he was back in one of his old defeated moods.
It was Saturday. Everybody was full of plans for work. Breakfast was a hurried meal and, except for Hitty's chatter, a silent one. Mr. Parsons asked for the 'Shake to go to town, and with relief Sayre saw him drive away before the others had finished eating.
"Well, Dad?" Charley remarked then. So he, too, realized that something was coming.
For the next few minutes brother and sister listened in numbed silence to their father's report of the previous evening's conversation. The substance of it was that Sam Parsons positively forbade the twins to carry out their plans. "Argument is useless, children, I'm afraid," Dad concluded. "This is his land. At least, it isn't ours. He'll allow us five of the cultivated acres, he says, to use as we please. Two are already plowed under for Sayre's potatoes. The other three we can use as we like, harvest the alfalfa, or turn it into garden, or add to Sayre's poultry yards. But fifteen of the alfalfa acres are his, to be irrigated, harvested, and sold as hay. And those five acres along that weedy south ditch bank, which have a little natural drainage, must be put into alfalfa again. He's sure another planting will bring something of a crop in spite – "
"So that's the way he keeps his agreements!" Sayre exploded. "I hope you told him straight out what we think of him. Not only about this, but about the lies he told us to get us out here. And about – "
"Sayre! Sayre! How could I? Situated as we are. On his land. Living in his house. With nowhere else to go. Besides – "
"I don't think he can help things. He was decided. But he was apologetic, too. Said he wasn't free. Had debts. A note."
"More debts? I thought he paid Mr. Hoskins what he owed him with last year's alfalfa?"
"Not entirely, it seems," Mr. Morgan faltered, "although he certainly gave me to understand – "
"Was he in the store yesterday?"
"Talking to Mr. Hoskins?"
"That explains it. It's just as Mr. Nels Hansen says. Mr. Hoskins has got to have any money owed him in unbaled hay when it's cheap, so he can bale it and store it and ship it when the market's high. Or else – " Sayre gave her dark head a defiant toss – "or else," she repeated fiercely, "Mr. Frank Hoskins, Senior, is trying to keep the Morgan twins from having any chance of getting ahead of Frank Hoskins, Junior, again at this vocational agriculture game that the locality's got so interested in lately, thanks to Charley's spreader. He's found his way to take his spite out on us for not biting at his alfalfa contest bait."
"Sayre, I'm ashamed of you. Will you never learn self-control?"
"I'd rather learn how to fight." Shoving back her chair, the girl hurried to the window and stood there, her back to the room, fearful lest her father and Charley detect how near to the surface were the tears.
Charley, meanwhile, had been listening to his father's report and Sayre's outbursts in a sort of stony silence. Now he, too, rose, walked across the room with an air that was almost unconcern, paused, and spoke in a firm voice that held none of the quivering anger of Sayre's. "Right here's where I quit." Then he flung himself out of the kitchen door.
Sayre followed him to see him turn down the driveway which led to the outer gate. "Charley," she demanded, "where you going?"
"To the garage. Try to get my last summer's job back."
"So you're quitting? Again? Even after football, and the spreader, and everything?"
"How can I help quitting when I haven't any land?" the boy shouted back before he stalked out of hearing.
Sayre's quick resentment flared up at her brother. "Isn't that just like a boy?" she muttered to herself. "All he has to do is to clear out. But I'll have to stay here and cook good meals for that man all summer after he's knocked the bottom all out of everything."
She was too miserable to hold resentment against Charley long. There was work to be done and she was glad of it. She was going to venture a half-acre of early potatoes – a foolish gamble, Mr. Kitchell thought, in this land of late frosts. But these early spring days were so promisingly warm, and the prices for early potatoes so alluring.
Going out to a shed she managed with much tugging and heaving to raise one well-filled gunny-sack into a borrowed wheelbarrow. She trundled the sack out to the waiting field. At one corner of the field she dumped the gunny-sack's contents out on the ground. They were potato seedlings already cut into pieces with two eyes at least to a piece, and already limed. How she had enjoyed the labor of preparing them! And now – would they be her crop or Sam Parsons'? Anyway, they'd have to be planted or they'd spoil. She couldn't waste Aunt Mehitable's money that had gone into them.
Charley had laid out the rows for her before breakfast with a marker he'd made out of a log. Now with her hoe she began cutting into the loose ground prepared for the seedlings. Opening holes a foot and a half apart, she dropped into each hole by hand two potato seedlings, eyes uppermost. Then she covered them, heaving the loose dirt into hills with her hoe. She firmed the dirt with the same implement. Occasionally, too, she even dropped on her knees to perform the task to her better satisfaction with her hands. And every little while she went back to trundle more seedlings to the spot where she happened to be working.
"But what's the use?" she thought. "What's the use of anything? You have a dream" – not quite a plan; too vague for that, just a dream; she could see that clearly now – "Just the same, you worked for it; and you schemed for it; and you got Charley steered where he was working for it without knowing it. And you built all your hope on it, and got things really going, and then – " The thought was too torturing to finish. Was this the sort of thing that had been happening to Dad all these years? If it was, small wonder he got disheartened.
Even with such thoughts brooding in her mind, Sayre's hands were working competently at high speed. It was amazing how fast she could do such back-breaking work under that hot, mounting sun, nerved to high tension as she was with anger. She began milling over the things she wished she had said to Charley, plus a lot of vindictive thoughts against the man who had so upset their plans.
"And Mr. Parsons seems actually to have made Dad believe we misunderstood his agreement about our coming out here! And that after living in his house all winter we're honor bound to work the old place for him. Irrigate and harvest all that alfalfa. Charley and I won't do it – that's a cinch. He'd make Dad pay for the water and ditch maintenance, too, if he could. For once it's lucky that Dad hasn't any money, and that the Government makes the water be paid for in advance this year before it's turned into the ditches. None of Aunt Hitty's money's going to pay for water for Parsons and Hoskins alfalfa.
"I'd like to move right off his old homestead. There're plenty of abandoned ones we could move on to. But not one that's any good. For this year, anyway.
"And there's all Aunt Mehitable's money we've spent, and signed notes for at the bank. For my two hundred and fifty baby chicks. And my ten nice Bronze turkey hens and those expensive eggs for their settings. And there's all the time I spent building over, out of any old lumber I could get hold of, that dirty box that Mr. Parsons had into a light, airy chicken house. Thank goodness, my new compartment turkey house is portable. And so is the hog house Charley made for Dad's sow and her spring litter. And there're those seed peas of Charley's that cost so much that I had to ask Aunt Hitty for another sixty dollars."
Sayre wiped away a tear with the back of her hand, leaving a big streak of dirt across her face. Then she crept ahead on her knees under the glaring sun. As the work grew more wearisome she used her hands less. Still she toiled doggedly on, firming the ground over her seedlings first with her hoe and then with her feet.
"I'm going straight to Mr. Kitchell about it this very afternoon, so that these potatoes and the chickens and the turkeys can be fixed some way as surely mine. I've got my vocational agriculture agreement papers that he and Dad and I all signed. I'll get Mr. Kitchell to tell me about how to have Sam Parsons sign them, too. He can't refuse when not a cent of his went into anything that's mine."
Comforted a little by the last idea she plodded on, though the thought of Charley still worried her. Dinner time came and went, and her brother had not come home.
Just as Sayre was putting the remains of the dinner into the oven to keep warm, she heard outside the familiar chugging of the 'Shake. Her father stood waiting for it on the back step. A glance through the door told Sayre that the car's lone occupant was not Sam Parsons but Charley.
A moment later the boy burst into the kitchen. "Smile, Sayre," he cried. "Smile hard." He caught his sister around the waist and swung her joyfully the full length of the room.
She dropped, panting, on a chair. "What now? A new job?" Her tone was bitter.
But Charley laughed. "Yes, sir," he triumphed. "A new job. Remember that Mr. Cowan who wanted to buy my manure spreader? Owns that peach of an eighty out the other side of Upham near the Hoskins home place? You know, where Nels Hansen got your seed potatoes?"
"You're looking at his new hired man."
"Charley!" Sayre sprang, quivering, to her feet.
"Chores and part-time work until school's out. Then a pretty steady job for the summer, mostly irrigating. For pay I'm to get my board and twenty cents an hour for the irrigating, and besides, the use of ten of the best acres on the eighty to farm on my own in any way I please!"
"Charley! It's too good to be true."
"All Mr. Kitchell's doing and the spreader's. Nothing like being famous. You get my rations ready; I'll tell you about it."
Ladling a dipperful of water from the pail into the tin basin on the wash bench, Charley proceeded vigorously to wash, his bright eyes all the while following his sister as she alternately moved about her work and paused to listen to the eager flow of his story.
"On the way to town I had to walk quite a while before I picked up a ride. And I got to thinking. Quitting began to seem like letting Mr. Kitchell and vocational Ag work down. And I just couldn't do it, go back on a man like Mr. Kitchell."
"Of course you couldn't. Not after the spreader."
"Then, too, there was that speech of yours about Frank Hoskins, Senior, and Frank Hoskins, Junior, and the Morgan twins, and about old Hoskins getting in his spite work because of our stand on his alfalfa contest. That got to sticking in my crop. And the longer it stuck, the bigger it got. My feathers began to get considerably ruffled, too, when I remembered that I'd be flapping so conveniently out of Lumpy Hoskins' way after all this nice little rivalry we've been working at so hard ever since school started last fall. So I went straight to Mr. Kitchell and told him our whole mess."
"That's where you showed sense. And he sent – "
"Don't travel so fast. You've always got to jump at things, Sayre. He didn't say much, of course. You know how he is, does things, doesn't talk about them. Took me right out to that Cowan place and had some conversation with that Mr. Cowan before I did. Seems they got acquainted at the exhibit and found they had some of the same friends – at the Colorado Agricultural College where Mr. Kitchell went to school.
"Well, anyway, Mr. Cowan came out here for his health. Has to live pretty quiet. Isn't dependent on his place for a living. Just interested to see what he can do with it because he's an engineer who used to work on these irrigation projects for the Government. Nobody knows him much. He's an awful quiet kind. But not sissy quiet, you bet."
"He's a perfect dear. He must be."
Charley laughed indulgently. "If he is, he's a pretty fussy one. Would only give me the job with strings tied to it. Seems he's had a man working for him a long time that he's promised to give the job back to whenever the fellow wants it. The man's wife's sick. He's had to take her out of the altitude. Maybe he'll be back, though, and there's no telling when. And maybe he won't. But the boss said if I worked as well for him as I did on the spreader, he'd see I got some kind of a job somewhere else any time he had to lay me off. Anyway, those ten acres are mine for the season, and he's willing to get along with me on part-time till school's out. So I'm darn lucky."
"I should say you are." Sayre, who had poised her expectant, excited self on the edge of a chair across the table from Charley as he ate, now drew a long, relaxing sigh.
"I've been planning all the way home," Charley was talking between bites. "How does this layout strike you?" He pulled an old envelope from his pocket and drew two diagrams on it, carrying it around to his sister's side. "Here's my ten. I'll put that five in peas. It's a peach of a field, too. And these two in rutabagas. On these three I'll raise all the small grain I can. I'll sell you some, but we'll both have to buy other places, too, I guess."
He flipped the dingy envelope over. "As for our five acres here, these two are your potatoes, of course. Those back two, off the big field, we'd better keep for our own alfalfa, don't you think? Then there's our other acre. Doesn't it strike you Dad had better put it all into garden? To stock us next winter, you know. I'll try to get home once in a while if the work here, especially the irrigating, gets too heavy for Dad. But if Sam Parsons is going to live off us, he can just work his own – "
"Sam Parsons won't work," Sayre retorted. "He'll be just as much a floorwalker on this good-for-nothing homestead as he is in the hardware aisle in Reeves & Beebe's basement. He'll treat us as if he were bowing politely to customers asking where to buy pie tins, and as if we were the clerks he was calling to wait on them!"
Sayre's prediction, however, did not prove true. After he had gained his one point, Mr. Parsons interfered not at all that summer with the twins' affairs.
Although his favorite pastime was loafing in the rear of the Hoskins store, he managed to do much of the work with his own alfalfa in a dispirited, half-competent way which by degrees made him become almost pitiful in the eyes of energetic, executive Sayre. For in some respects, she soon saw, he was not unlike her own father. He lacked Dad's unselfishness, and fine, disinterested sense of fair dealing, of course. Still he was really only an inoffensive, unfortunate little man, who had put everything he owned into this still largely arid homestead, and had reaped nothing but mounting debts.
He had never, so the Morgans soon learned, paid any of the yearly Government payments assessed against his eighty. These assessments were his land's share of the cost of the whole big irrigation works which had brought water to the thirsty country now known as the Pawaukee Reclamation Project.
Only once again that summer did Sayre know Sam Parsons to rise to any real assertiveness.
The Dream Takes Shape
"OH, IF Charley were only here!" Sayre wished this a good many times a day during the second summer on the Parsons eighty. It wasn't so much that his being away threw more responsibility on her, it was just that she missed him, missed his easy raillery, his high spirits, even the occasional spur of his indifference. With Sam Parsons continually on hand to remind her of the Morgans' real situation, her hopeful dream of a year ago seemed by now "just another crazy Morgan scheme." She was glad she hadn't spoken of it to anybody for sometimes she felt pretty hopeless.
Still, she was no quitter. She had school to cling to. Cling she did with steady, hardworking determination. She would finish the course she had started with the part-time class. Then, when that was over this spring, she would go on with the projects that she had started in it and continue them for another year, at least, with full credit to herself and to Mr. Kitchell. That was what Charley was doing, all that he had ever believed himself to be doing, since he did not suspect Sayre's hope of what it might lead to.
Troubles seemed to follow Charley's leaving home. A hard freeze ended her early potato venture. All that work and money wasted. Well, she had no one to blame but herself. She was a humbler person now.
Her chicks and her poults hatched beautifully. Cleanliness and careful attention made them thrive almost untouched by pests and disease. Yet once in the early evening, and twice later during late moonlight nights, she lost considerable numbers of birds from her young flocks.
Sam Parsons reported what proved to be her first loss as a matter of amusement. He had stayed home one Sunday evening, agreeing to do the chores so that the Morgans could go to the Hansens' for supper. On the family's return he greeted the girl with that formal joviality of his which she hated. He was seated as usual in Dad's easy chair. "Sayre, are you including an intoxicant in your careful feeding of your young chicks?"
"An intoxicant?" Sayre tossed her hat through her open bedroom door onto the bed within. "What on earth do you mean?"
"Well," the man continued his pleasantry, "just before roosting time this evening I saw some of your young birds behaving as if you had. I saw half a dozen chicks line up and march like tipsy soldiers straight across their yard to the opposite fence and disappear under it. Their legs balked like a drunken man's at every step, and their unhappy cheeps were pretty thick-sounding utterances."
Sayre seized and lighted a lantern and hurried out to her poultry quarters. Nothing apparently was wrong. The birds were all roosting or else secure in their hovers. But the next morning she discovered that a number of her young chicks were missing, and that a stretch along the bottom of the yard's wiremesh fence showed traces of having been bent. She set promptly to work stapling the fence down. "And that lazy Sam Parsons," she fumed to herself, meanwhile, in helpless exasperation, "would not even make the effort to investigate what was causing the trouble."
From now on she would count her birds regularly every morning. No more losses showed up, however, until the birds were fairly well grown and Sayre had ceased to worry. Then one morning after a night of late moonlight ten chickens were gone. A month later eight more chickens and five turkey poults. Sayre discussed the matter with Dad and Sam Parsons and Nels Hansen. No one had any solution to offer. Coyotes and badgers and occasional skunks were the big menace to poultry raisers in this country, but Sayre's losses left none of the telltale traces of such robbers. Their very mysteriousness made these losses even more discouraging. But for the time being, that is, until another month again brought late moonlight, there was nothing she could do about them.
It was easy to grow discouraged that summer on that part of the Pawaukee Irrigation Project. Gloom was everywhere among its alfalfa farmers. Hailstones in May and June ruined the first alfalfa cutting over a wide strip of country which fortunately for Mr. Parsons did not include his fields. These flourished as never before in a way which seemed to Sayre little less than mockery. But on most of the old alfalfa fields of the Pawaukee not only was the first cutting ruined, but the second cutting looked thin and unpromising. The Pawaukee was too far north to count on much of a third cutting. Those poor farmers who under Mr. Hoskins' leadership had been depending on their hay as their one marketable crop were facing a situation little less than desperate. They called a water users' meeting in August to see if anything could be done to relieve matters.
Sayre and her father had little personal concern in the meeting, but Sam Parsons insisted they should attend. They went willingly enough. After all, the Morgans were water renters, even if for only five acres of Sam Parsons' land. All the Pawaukee settlers of this region still bought water each year from the Government. Not until the settlers on a federal irrigation project have practically completed paying for the whole irrigation system which has brought water to the lands they occupy, do they themselves take over full legal rights and control of the water through an organization of their own.
When the Morgan party arrived at the meeting, the high school auditorium was already so nearly filled they had to separate to find seats. Mr. Parsons promptly wedged his way through the crowd to an unoccupied place directly in front of Mr. Hoskins. Mr. Morgan slipped unobtrusively into a rear seat and squeezed Hitty into his lap. Sayre found a place on the farther side of the room just in front of Frank Hoskins and Rene Osgood, who were sitting together. From this vantage point she began watching the late arrivals.
She was really looking for Charley. It was ten days since she had seen him and there were things she wanted to tell him about. There he was, entering the room through the main door. But who was that big, impressive-looking man he had with him? A total stranger in this community, that Sayre knew. What were they waiting just inside the door for? And scanning the crowd so carefully? To locate Mr. Kitchell, of course. He had seen them now and, handing those chairs he was carrying into the aisle to another man, he was hurrying toward them. He must know that man and like him awfully well, he was shaking hands with him so cordially. Now he was finding the strange man a seat. He seemed determined to get him a good one. But he wasn't sitting down, himself. He had gone back to Charley and was talking to him. What were they so in earnest about? He was returning to the stranger again, though, and that nice part-time boy was giving Mr. Kitchell his seat right next to the visitor.
Charley, meanwhile, must have edged his way through the crowd to where Mr. Hansen was sitting. For now those two were talking, just as earnestly as Charley and Mr. Kitchell had done. There, the meeting was being called to order. That funny German-Russian Boris was offering Charley half his seat. Charley was slipping into it, his arm across the fellow's broad back.
Behind her, Sayre heard Rene Osgood give a contemptuous sniff. It awoke her to the realization that every move Charley had made had been as plain to Rene and Frank, and to everyone else in the audience for that matter, as it had been to her. Well, what if it were?
It was time, anyway, that she bent her powers to listening. Wasn't that first speaker Rene Osgood's father? What was all this he was saying about the settlers' troubles and the settlers' wrongs? Everybody knew he held some of the best land on the Pawaukee.
As Sayre continued to listen her astonishment grew. For the second speaker and the third talked in exactly the same strain as Mr. Osgood. Yet she knew their children in school as the best dressed among the pupils, the ones with the most spending money. The third speaker ceased. Sayre thought she saw Mr. Hoskins give Sam Parsons a nudge from behind. Anyway the little man in his shiny floorwalker's cutaway coat bobbed importantly to his feet. Well, he, at least, represented a truly poor farm.
Mr. Parsons, too, began to talk much as had the others. His farm, burdened with debt, gave no promise of returns sufficient to pay for its upkeep, not to mention its obligations, even after all the money, the weary toil, and the time he had expended upon it.
Here Sayre, catching a gleam from Charley's eye across the room, stifled a giggle.
Conditions were worse this season than ever, Mr. Parsons was going on. Yet the Government was reminding them that another of the forty annual installment payments for the irrigation works was due. More than that, the Government was rubbing in the fact that most of the farmers were already heavily in debt for past unpaid installments.
"That very Government enticed us here, falsely, declaring that the desert would blossom like the rose. Instead, in many places irrigation has made it more worthless than ever with alkali. Now it coolly says that these lands must be drained. It proposes to inflict its drainage systems upon us, and add their cost to our already overburdened, unproductive acres.
"I tell you, the hand that lured us hither has turned against us in our dire adversity. The Government that has coaxed us here must be made to see our plight. It must not only lift the hard hand of oppression from us. It must right our wrongs!" The flowery little orator wiped his perspiring brow with a lavender-tinted handkerchief and plopped himself down.
Sayre had been listening, spellbound. Could this excitable public haranguer really be the shabby basement floorwalker whom she had so often seen in Chicago, shifting his weary feet as he swayed and swung homeward at night, hanging to a strap in a jammed and jolting West Van Buren street car? The mere pleasure of the change must nearly make up for his eighty!
Mr. Hoskins' erect, angular figure arose and stood waiting in gracious impressiveness. The relaxing buzz of the room settled once more into obedient silence. The man began to talk, suavely, sympathetically, in his high nervous voice. In his opinion the Government could not fairly be censured. That it meant to be considerate and just, it had shown often in the past. Here the speaker enumerated in detail the times when Government payments for water and construction of the irrigation works had either been remitted or postponed.
Each time, Mr. Hoskins went on, the Government's action had been taken after the settlers themselves had laid before the Department of the Interior at Washington the actual facts of the situation. Consequently he recommended that all the water users of that part of the Pawaukee Irrigation Project of which Upham was the center, acting together as a unit, once more petition the Government for consideration of postponement, in the hope that another growing season would bring some brighter promise to the discouraged, disillusioned, hard-working dwellers on a federal reclamation project from which so many of their fellow settlers had already departed, leaving behind them disconsolate marks of wasted capital and wasted years.
"I might add another suggestion," the speaker concluded, "which I hope the meeting will understand in the spirit in which it is offered. If it seems to you that such a request would meet more favorable response if carried to Washington by a personal commissioner, I should be glad to act as your commissioner at my own expense."
Mr. Hoskins had warmed to his task in a way that had brought an emotional quality into his voice. Sayre found herself responding to the man in spite of herself.
"Yess, Meester Speaker, and den vat?" The interrupting voice, level to dullness in intonation, nevertheless electrified the room. "Us fellows vat pay all de time vant to know dat. More debts, huh? And den more debts? Vere do de cry babies come out in de end? Dis year dey don't pay. And last year dey don't pay. Next year, too, maybe dey don't pay if dey howl loud enough. By and by de Gover'ment get pretty tired vid all dis howling. Den he pay all de bills yust like a good, tired, kind papa. Den ve all own our farms. De man dat don't pay nutting own his farm yust like us who pay all de time. Square, ain't it? Easy den to collect mortgages," the monotonous voice broke suddenly into a clearly audible chuckle, "or to foreclose 'em on land vat ain't got no udder debts."
"Speech, Hansen! Speech," broke from a half dozen places.
While Mr. Hoskins, flushed and glaring continued to stand as if seeking with dignity an opening to regain the room's attention, the big, stoop-shouldered form of Nels Hansen pulled itself slowly to its feet. His long arms hung forward, one huge hand resting on a neighboring school desk. Under his sun-faded tow hair his bright blue eyes twinkled out of the expanse of weather-worn stolidity which was his face.
"Naw, I ain't no speaker. I'm yust a farmer on a darn poor farm. But by vorking early and vorking late and vorking hard all de time, I ain't got no back debts on dat farm.
"In de old country I vork hard on a darn poor farm vat belongs to anudder man. In America de darn poor farm I vork on belongs to me. And ven I'm dead and my kids get to vorking it, it ain't going to be such a darn poor farm. And if it ain't, and if I don't owe de Gover'ment nutting, it's some because dere's a young man ve've got here dat us old folks don't know vell enough. He don't talk much. He yust teach. First, his high school kids. Den dis year a part-time agriculture class for big farm kids, and von girl." (Here for an uncomfortable instant Sayre found herself the swift target of many eyes.) "And a class, too, for some old hayseed farmers like me in de evening. I ask de Ag teacher to make my speech for me."
"Yah. Yah!" The sound was a prolonged guttural murmur proceeding from the group of foreigners close around Nels Hansen. Among them Sayre had recognized not only several of her winter classmates, but even a number of the men from the clannish German-Russian settlement whom she had never before known to appear at a public community affair.
Sayre saw Mr. Hoskins waver. For all his self-importance he was a good politician. Nodding toward the presiding officer he seated himself with gracious condescension as if to hide his vexation.
The Ag teacher rose not quite to erectness against his folding seat. "I'm not eligible to speak," he said with a smile of boyish modesty. "I'm neither a water renter nor a landholder. But I'd like to pass the buck, as the style seems to have become at this meeting.
"There's a man here whom I know you all want to hear. He's Mr. Wallace S. Hexall, an irrigation engineer, who used to be a professor in the Engineering Department of the Colorado Agricultural College. He has just returned from Washington, D. C. The Department of the Interior called him there to take part in a conference held to discuss the many serious problems of the Federal irrigation reclamation projects, and to suggest action on the report of the Committee that has been investigating these problems. He must have many things to tell us which are of vital interest to us all."
The response of the audience was an immediate and obvious eagerness. The chairman called upon the stranger who had entered the room with Charley Morgan.
He was a large man of that comfortable heaviness of advancing years which implies a vigorous maturity. Uncompromisingly straightforward in manner, he spoke with the simple, unassuming directness of one who is used to the command and respect of men. His words created from the beginning an unquestioning conviction.
He began by showing how thoroughly and sympathetically he understood many of the unfortunate settlers' troubles and problems. He went on to say that in spite of much discouragement and genuine distress there was also much successful farming being done on all but a few sections of the Government's reclamation ventures. He spoke of their own Pawaukee, amazing his hearers with his accurate statistical knowledge of yields, products, expenditures, and all other economic details.
He told of the meeting from which he had just come. Its results had been new Government rulings which would be made public without delay.
"All of these new rulings are aimed directly at the three main causes of failures on Government irrigation, or reclamation, projects.
"One of these causes is that some of the land is not fit for cultivation under any circumstances. Some of the rest of it needs to be drained before it can be made fit. Not all of the good land is equally good; yet all has equal charges against it. The new rulings change all this. Some of the settlers will be transferred to other claims with full credit for what they have tried to accomplish. Some of the land will be drained. It will all be revalued. It is only just that the man who acquires possession of the superior land should pay a larger share of construction costs than the man who gets the poor land."
("What'll they do with Mr. Parsons' land?" Sayre wondered.)
"But land cannot be blamed for everything," the speaker was continuing. "A lot of the fault lies with the settlers themselves, the kind of men whom the Government has, until recently, allowed to take up claims. Farming," the man spoke emphatically, "is a profession. Imagine a lawyer or a physician attempting to practise without aptitude or training. What kind of job would he do? A mighty poor one, so poor that it's dangerous to the community. Yet that is just what has been happening in the farming profession on these irrigation projects.
"The great majority of the original homesteaders have been inexperienced, untrained men without capital, who have been so unsuccessful in other fields they have turned to farming only as a last hope. To let them settle is not fair to them or to the whole enterprise. As during the last few months, so in the future, men of that stamp will not – "
Sayre's gaze had fastened upon her lap; color rushed under the tan of her skin. "Sam Parsons – and – and," her thought added, miserably, "Dad."
"From now on would-be settlers – "
Again Sayre sat bolt upright, gaze intent. She must not miss one word of this. Her lips parted; she listened so hard that each word of the speaker's two succeeding sentences stamped itself on her brain with indelible accuracy.
"Any person to homestead a claim on a federal irrigation project must have had at least two years of successful farm experience, preferably in an irrigated section; and –
"He must possess a minimum capital of twenty-five hundred dollars in money, equipment, or stock."
Sayre longed for time to think. She could not take it. The speaker was going on to his third point.
"The third cause," he spoke deliberately, "is – dishonest men."
Sayre heard and could not believe her ears.
The stranger had paused. "The third cause," he repeated, speaking with even greater distinctness and emphasis than before, "is – dishonest men.
"These dishonest men are working to get into their clutches big areas of the best of these new lands. Their method is largely that of mortgages, loans, and easy credit. They play their heartless game under the guise of sympathy and friendliness for the poverty-stricken settlers, showing pretended leniency over interest and renewal of notes. Often, too, they go further, fostering action which a little intelligent investigation of the right sources of information would show to be utterly inadvisable. Such men, I scarcely need to say, are frequently to be found in the front ranks of those settlers most loud-voiced in their protestations of inability to meet Government payments."
Sayre gasped. Was this man talking merely from general knowledge? Was he, or was he not, looking directly at Mr. Hoskins? Sayre tried so hard to see that she nearly fell out of her seat. In regaining it she half-turned to meet behind her Frank Hoskins' angry, brooding glance, studying not the speaker but her own obvious excitement. For a moment she was so confused that she lost track of what the speaker was saying. Then once more she was all attention.
"The Government will no longer consider the postponement of repayment of construction costs where such a request comes from a project or any portion of a project as a whole. All investigators of project troubles feel that the men who can pay must pay. For you settlers on this part of the Pawaukee Project to send to Washington a wholesale request for renewed postponement, or to dispatch a commissioner on any such errand, would, I assure you, be a waste of time, energy and money.
"At the same time, Uncle Sam is just, even fatherly. He knows only too well that many earnest, hard-working, honest men among you really need extension. If you do, put in your individual claim to him, stating your own personal case and no other. Individual requests he will be glad to consider, weigh, and, where right, grant. Collective requests he will no longer receive."
In a room stunned to temporary silence the man sat down. The meeting came to an abrupt adjournment, followed by a buzzing, lingering dispersal.
Sayre sought out Charley as quickly as she could, and together they were caught in the crowd near the door in company with a number of their school friends. "I lost seven more birds, Chuck," Sayre was saying. "All from the two-pound fries I was going to send with Mr. Hansen's lot to Cody, to get the good prices from the camping tourists going into Yellowstone Park. They disappeared just the way those baby chicks and poults did last month."
"Moonlight again? Any tracks this time?"
Sayre shook her head. "Not a track. Nor a blood mark. Nor a feather. Mr. Hansen thinks it couldn't have been a coyote or a badger. I do wish my yards weren't so far from the house."
"Next late full moon – "
The sudden appearance of Frank Hoskins close at Sayre's side checked Charley's words. The press of the outgoing throng, separating Frank from Rene, had thrust him deep into the group. There it held him, plainly a most rebellious and uncomfortable prisoner. So closely packed were they all for a moment that no one could move.
"Just discussing Sayre's poultry, Frank." Good-natured Charley sought to ease the situation. "How're your birds coming?"
Frank flushed a deep red. "None o' your darn business," he muttered. Thrusting his heavy face down close to Charley's he added through his teeth in a voice so low that only Sayre could fully overhear, "I'll get even with you yet, Charles Morgan, you immigrants' and school-teacher's star pupil and right-hand man! More'n even. I'll finish you. If ever you banked on anything in your whole snaky life, you can bank on that!"
"What for?" The retort came from Sayre, wedged close to Frank's elbow.
Frank's menacing eyes traveled straight to hers. "And with you, too, Sayre Morgan! Anyone who knows you knows you couldn't keep your finger out of any Charley Morgan mess." Then by sheer force of his strength he pushed his way rudely through the crowd.
"Charley," Sayre murmured in astonishment, "he actually thinks you brought that man here tonight on purpose."
"He's too upset to know what he does think. You'd be too, if your dad had just got in public what his has."
"But," Sayre persisted, "you didn't, did you? Only, where did you get him? That man, I mean."
"At our house, Mr. Cowan's, where he's visiting. I brought him here because my sick boss couldn't."
Charley laughed. "Don't people usually make visits on purpose?" he evaded.
Sayre was too light-hearted to worry. That meeting had given her back her dream. More than that, it had brought to the dream some definiteness of shape. The whole background of her mind was filled with the consciousness of this as a little later she climbed into the empty 'Shake.
That definiteness of shape would make her dream easy now to hold to firmly. Before, it had been so discouragingly vague. Visions of what that dream's fulfilment would mean began floating all about her:
Dad, free from worry as she had never known him to be, contented at last in conditions that promised a future for his children;
Hitty, growing up a popular, educated young woman, a member of an established, respected family in a good home community;
Charley, holding steadily to a really definite chance, and learning how to exercise in that chance the leadership that was so natural to him;
She, Sayre, happy in work she loved;
All the Morgans somebody at last, with a real home of their own!
Could anyone live and work for a better dream? She was glad she had never told it. She could not bear that anyone should ridicule it, or try to shake her faith in it. Not until she had proved it to be something more than a mere dream would she breathe a hint of it to a living soul.
Suddenly she realized that Sam Parsons and Dad and Hitty were settling themselves in the 'Shake's back seat. She shook herself out of her visions to concentrate on guiding the car skillfully out from among the other cars buzzing thick about the high school grounds.
THE SAM PARSONS whom Sayre drove home from the water users' meeting on the back seat of the 'Shake was no longer the flowery orator of the early evening. He was a dejected little man who babbled querulous confidences to Mr. Morgan.
"Most of my land will be in the temporarily withdrawn, I suppose; it'll have to be drained. And hay alone'll never pay for the good acres. Besides, I've other debts. Getting full title's a long way off. Years. And I'm no natural farmer.
"After I've trusted so in Mr. Hoskins, too! He's assured me again and again – in strict confidence, you understand; but you're my friend, Morgan – that if we held out long enough, presenting our case year after year, in the end the Government would never make us pay the construction charges. Just give us title to the water and the works if we had proved up on the land itself. But now – "
"There are individual petitions, as that man said."
The discouraged little floorwalker heaved a prodigious sigh. "Not for me. I don't dare, Morgan. They'd investigate me, my living up to the homestead laws, I mean. Didn't that land agent stop me on the street down town the other day to warn me on the sly? I saw what he was driving at. Asking me where my wife was this summer. (She hates the place.) And what my children were doing. You've got to make a place the home of your family to homestead it. That agent was letting me know he was on to me."
Mr. Morgan made no reply; there really was nothing to say.
"It was all Hoskins' idea, Morgan, the way I treated you, got you out here. I never really told you you could get possession of my land. But I knew you understood things that way. I meant you to. I hadn't a cent. I had to do something to tide over. And my wife just would not stay here any more. So Hoskins suggested.... I see it all now. He was only trying to keep a sure hold on what I owed him – maybe meant in the end to get possession of my alfalfa land if I could succeed first in proving up. The mills of the gods, you know. It wasn't all accident that your boy brought that man to the meeting tonight.
"After all Hoskins' careful plans, too. The way he sent word to me to get out here early this spring. And working up that speech for me tonight – "
"All that man told us tonight would have come out soon anyway," Mr. Morgan interrupted.
"But not by showing Hoskins up like that right before the people he's had dealings with." The querulous voice was as plaintive with self-pity as before, but more decisive. "Morgan, I'm through. I'm going back to my Chicago job tomorrow. My substitute's not giving satisfaction. I can't afford to stay away.
"Now, that alfalfa of mine that Hoskins has got a hold of, if you'll turn it over to him till he's paid, you can stay on my place, do anything you want with it, as long as the law will let you. That'll probably be quite a while. Till the new drainage system's done, anyway.
"I never want to see the place again. As a homesteader on a federal reclamation project I'm through. I've sunk every cent I could scrape together in that wretched place. I've never really got one cent back. I'm not a young man any more. Just the same I'm through, good and through."
This time Sam Parsons was as good as his word. After a day spent on winding up his affairs, as he put it, he traveled out of Upham on the evening train.
Sayre saw him go with relief. One fewer to feed. More time now to put on her projects, especially on her turkeys, her "just source of pride," as Mr. Kitchell was publicly pronouncing them to be.
Such was the effect of the water users' meeting on the Morgans' "visitor." Its effect on Mr. Hoskins himself was an even greater surprise to Sayre.
She had expected to find her father's employer a subdued and guilty man when next she saw him. Instead, he was moving among the groups of farmers in his store more obligingly gracious and important than ever. His eager, animated manner implied how magnanimously he was ignoring the gossip buzzing all over the community, of whose stings he surely could not be unaware.
"Who ever would have thought that after all its years of empty talk the Government would suddenly become so particular? I'd be very glad to help any hard-pressed farmer get his individual petition for postponement of payment into proper shape. It's certainly what I am having to do for myself," Sayre overheard him say more than once, the last time adding:
"Pardon me just a moment. There's my boy, Frank, bringing some of his school project poultry into our meat department." The tall man's nervous step loped toward the back of the store.
Sayre followed. She was interested in market poultry.
High-pitched words reached her from behind the swinging door through which Mr. Hoskins disappeared. "Take them? I've got to take them. Who else would – scrawny, yellow things? Think Hansen would let those measure up to required standards for his holiday carloads he's talking up around here so hard lately? He'd like nothing better than to turn down my son. Yet he'll call that Morgan girl's 'fancies.' Kitchell's even got the nerve to say some of her birds aren't market stuff at all, but show and breeding stock. How do you think that makes me feel? My boy being beaten by a chit of a nobody of a GIRL!"
Sayre caught no spoken answer; she could picture the sulkiness of Frank's silence and for the first time sympathized with it. She voiced her indignation to Dad that night.
"Mr. Hoskins loses his self-control frequently lately," her father responded. "The man's under more strain than he acknowledges, I'm afraid. Frank irritates him most. It used to be the boy's five new acres of alfalfa. Now it's everything, his peas and his poultry. Nothing's right. His father snaps at the boy right before everybody, too. Throws you and Charley up to him continually. I feel sorry for the lad. Such treatment's humiliating. It whets the boy's jealousy, too. It's really dangerous."
"It isn't fair, either," Sayre retorted. "Frank has neglected his five new alfalfa acres. But not his peas nor his poultry. His birds are good. And he doesn't lose some of them on a moonlight night out of every month the way I do."
Charley and Sayre had made plans for a closer watching of Sayre's flocks at the time when the moon would again be full during late, sleeping hours. Thus it happened that one night in early September Sayre, warmly dressed and aglow with the spirit of adventure, awaited her brother's coming at the foot of the back step. When Charley appeared, it was cautiously, on foot, as she had known he would come. No noise of a car must approach near enough to rouse Dad and Hitty, or to serve as warning to possibly lurking thieves. Sayre handed the boy the old-fashioned shotgun she carried, and together, hugging the dark spots as best they could, they tip-toed out through bare, outlying yards to that part of the alfalfa field nearest Sayre's poultry quarters. There in the shadow of the new alfalfa stack they took up their vigil.
The silver lure of the moonlight lay over the land, its mounting, seductive brilliance reducing to ever more and more meager proportions the dark, sharply outlined shadows of settlers' fences, sheds and habitations. Closer and closer into the densest strip cast by the alfalfa stack, Sayre and Charley half squatted, half leaned, until their cramped bodies ached with prolonged inactivity.
All about them brooded the listening silence of the night. Brother and sister could hear every rise and fall of each other's breathing. Every crackle of dry leaf or stem as their bodies pressed against the stack. Every ripple of water in the nearest irrigating ditch. Every movement of sleeping birds in Sayre's adjacent turkey and chicken houses and yards.
Fall nights are cold on that high, dry tableland. Charley heard Sayre's teeth chatter. He lowered his mouth cautiously to her ear. "You'd better go in, Sayre."
"Whatever's been doing the stealing, it's evidently on to our watching to – "
Sayre's quick hand against Charley's mouth smothered his words. There had come a new sound, a slow, stealthy movement of the water, entirely without the rhythmic melody of a natural ripple. It continued for a while, though, just as persistently. Suddenly it stopped. A faint crackling followed, like the cautious parting of brush and the snapping of small twigs. Then, a hovering sensation of forward motion which, though unmistakable, was scarcely sound at all.
Charley raised the shotgun. Sayre clutched his arm. "Wait," she breathed. "Seems to be the turkeys this time. Let's be sure."
Charley shook off his sister's hold, but obeyed.
Both watching pairs of eyes fixed themselves upon the further side of the turkey yard where it bordered the weedgrown ditch. There the one lone cottonwood tree of the whole locality, a small one and young, stood sharply outlined in the far corner. Sayre had purposely laid out her turkey yard to include that tree. One low, gray-black limb stretched out far enough above the top line of the wire-meshed fence to mingle the foliage of its farther end with the top growth of the ditch's scrub willow, tumbleweed, and tangled wild sweet clover.
Every here and there the bare portion of that limb's length was blotched now by dark, huddled, inert forms: some clearly revealed in the moonlight; others, partially hidden by the shadows of the tree's thickly leaved upper branches. Under the tree and surrounding it, ran the square, two-railed rack which Sayre had built as an additional outdoor roost for young turkeys. These rails were even more thickly populated with huddled forms than were the tree's bare limbs.
In the silence of the night the whole scene was peaceful to complete tranquillity. Even the noises in the brush had ceased.
Suddenly they came again, more distinct, less guarded than before. Up from the brush toward the leafy end of the cottonwood limb that reached over the fence top shot a long, swift, pole-like line. For seconds it wavered in the air as if there were some management trouble at its hidden end. Once a new sound broke through that of the brush's agitation, lasting just long enough to be distinguishable as the muffled ejaculation of a human voice, more suggestive of terror than of impatience.
Sayre hugged her arms to her sides to control her trembling. "Hear that voice, Chuck? Was it Frank's? Can you see what he's doing?"
"Keep quiet," admonished Charley's whisper, "till we're sure of his game."
There was a noticeable shaking now toward the leafy end of the cottonwood limb. Presently, more swiftly than it had traveled upward, the long, pole-like line shot down and disappeared. The crushing sounds in the brush increased.
To the excited Sayre inactivity was becoming almost unendurable. But Charley did not move, still centering his gaze on the turkey yard's far corner.
There that long, pole-like line was coming into view again, more slowly this time as if more carefully aimed, and lower down. It reached the upper line of the fence, crossed it, lowered its inner end until that end had inserted itself deliberately among the shapeless, inert forms that blocked the lower rail of the turkey rack.
Charley had now seen all he wanted. Steadying the old shotgun against his shoulder, he let it bang forth into the night.
"Don't hit him." Terror quavered in Sayre's voice.
"I'm not going to hit him." Wasn't that just like a girl, not to notice that he had not even aimed the gun in the direction of the turkey yard? "But I'm letting him know I'm on to him. Look there."
The long, pole-like line had lost its guidance. For an instant it wavered in uncertain balance on the fence top, then dropped into a stiff, slanting line, whose farther end had evidently found a resting place on the ditch bank. Its nearer end was thrust obliquely up above the turkey-yard fence with one of the previously inert forms of the rack's rail now dangling from it, in a frenzied activity of flapping wings and gesticulating legs and feet.
Charley rushed out from his hiding place. His attention was not on the ensnared turkey. "Look, Sayre. There he goes. That streak in the shrubbery where it's crushing down on the other side of the ditch bank. He can't keep that pace up long, stooping over, too. Some of those tangled weeds'll be sure to trip him. Come on. Let's see the fun."
"Maybe he's not alone."
"Yes, he is. On this errand. There's not another fellow 'round here who'd play such a trick – on a girl."
Charley had reached the turkey yard by this time, Sayre close at his heels. He headed straight for the cottonwood tree, laid his gun on the ground, swept and pushed a line of sleepy young turkeys off the upper rail of the rack, stepped up on it, shinned up the tree trunk to that first outstretching limb, wiped and dragged that, too, clean of its interfering occupants, and perched himself, astraddle, well out along the limb's length. From this vantage point his eye followed the crushing line of movement in the ditch bank shrubbery. Some person was evidently plowing rapidly through it on all fours.
All about was noise in plenty now. The birds whom Charley had so ruthlessly routed from their roosts were coming alive with the stirring of heavy bodies, the stretching of wings, the alighting thuds of quickly spread feet. Some of the birds reached the ground heavily; others, in short easy flights. They swayed there groggily on legs not yet ready to run. But aroused at last, they began one after another to squawk and shrill their protests.
Presently into a lull in this clamor came a succession of other distant sounds. The slosh of a slipping footstep. A heavy, crackling fall. A splash. A quickly smothered exclamation.
Charley's laugh rang out clear and wide. "Get wet, Lumpy? Too bad. 'Tisn't good for dough."
"Charley!" cautioned Sayre perfunctorily in a big whisper from below.
There was no muting in Charley's answering tones. "Oh, he can't fire up over my calling him Lumpy tonight, Sayre. He'd give himself away. Want me to fish you out, Hoskins?"
"You might use this fish pole and grappling hook he's left behind," came unexpectedly and full-voiced from Sayre.
Her first thought had been not for the thief, but for the bronze turkey poult, dangling in frenzy at the propped pole's upthrust end. Placing her toes carefully in the open meshes of the fence she had climbed far enough to grasp the pole at the fence line. Then stepping down again, by a series of hand-over-hand pulls she had lowered the pole into the yard, released its victim, examined that victim in grave concern, and begun a hasty inventory of her other birds.
Her words brought her brother swinging down to her side to bend his attention, not upon the turkeys, but upon the pole.
"It's a beauty. A steel one, awful strong. But the end joints aren't here. Instead he's bound a grappling hook to it. To get those birds around the neck while they were roosting. Of all the slick, lousy tricks! Did it kill that last one, Sayre? He got the first one all right, off the far end of that limb, from under the overhanging leaves."
"No, the poor thing isn't dead. But I had such a fright. I thought it was my prize turkey cockerel. It looks like it. I thought I could always tell that bird. And I can't see it anywhere."
Charley was still absorbed in the pole. "If we keep this, Sayre, it may pay for the poult he got."
"Not if it was my prize cockerel," Sayre wailed. "Surely he couldn't have been smart enough to get that bird right off! Only – where is it?" Sayre rambled on as she continued her distressed search, "Mr. Kitchell said it was as perfect a young bird as he'd ever seen. Had us point out all its points to him just a few days ago when he took all us turkey raisers on a visiting tour of each other's projects. Frank Hoskins did it the best of anybody. I thought he was showing off before Rene. He'd brought her along with him.
"Mr. Kitchell said he knew that bird would make a prize cockerel that I could exhibit. I meant it to make my flock famous, so I could get top prices for breeders and eggs on my continuation project with my turkeys next year. And I can't – "
"Don't worry, Sayre. It'll probably turn up in the morning. Maybe it's roosting inside. Let's get back to the house where we can get a good look at this pole. There won't be another thief around here tonight."
Their father's wizened figure in his patched pajamas met them at the house door. "Is that you, Sayre? And Charley? At home? What does all this mean?"
They told him in a breath. Soon all three were bending together under the kitchen lamp in an examination of the pole.
"There're initials on it – F. M. H. What's Frank Hoskins' middle name, Sayre?"
"Foster. But his father's isn't. It's Martin. Franklin Martin Hoskins."
"Give the pole to me."
"What are you going to do with it?"
"Cinch an end to this stealing. Now I've got to go. Precious few winks I'll get in before milking time as it is. Just the same I didn't come home tonight for nothing."
Late as she went to bed Sayre was up at dawn to visit her turkey yard. There her worst fear was confirmed: the prize turkey cockerel poult was nowhere to be found. Dad, of course, knew that fact when he went to the store that day, and he had not been there long before many other people also knew it.
At home again he announced to his daughter over the supper table, "Charley was in the store this afternoon. Brought the pole. Gave it back to Mr. Hoskins."
Sayre tied Hitty's bib, and handed the child a piece of bread spread thick with cottage cheese, "Here, darling. Now please don't talk." Then Sayre swayed upright once more on her own chair, leaned forward toward Dad, her face alert. "Yes?" she murmured eagerly. It was plain that Dad had a story.
"It was just before closing time. I never saw more people in the store. Even Nels Hansen was there. It's the first time since the water users' meeting. And Charley gave that pole back right before everybody."
"Yes?" Sayre's impatience breathed again.
"They'd all heard about the fishing for your turkeys, Sayre. Everybody had been talking about it. How it was your very best bird that was got, the one you had expected so much from."
"Did they say Frank Hoskins got it?"
"Nobody said a word about who they thought got it. They were just discussing how mean it was to steal from a girl as plucky and hard-working as you. A lot of them had seen you working on the roofs of your poultry houses last spring in overalls with hammer and nails just like a boy.
"They said Mr. Kitchell's letting you enroll in that vocational Ag class had been a fine thing for the whole school. A good joke on the agricultural boys, too, making them work like beavers to keep from getting too far behind a girl at a kind of work it had always been supposed was meant for boys. Nobody was forgetting, either, that young Hoskins happens to be one of those agricultural boys.
"Then Charley came in. He took that pole right up to Mr. Hoskins. Told him how he'd got it. Said that none of us thought for a moment that Mr. Hoskins himself knew anything about its use, but that it ought to be returned. He spoke kind of loud. But he was as nice and polite as could be. Didn't even hint a thing that Mr. Hoskins could really take offense at."
"Oh, why didn't I go into town this afternoon!"
"Everybody in the store wanted to see that rod and hear Charley's story. Mr. Hoskins couldn't explain a thing. Said he hadn't used that pole for a long time. It wasn't the trout pole he takes fishing in the mountain streams near here. It's a stouter one. Uses it when he goes to the Park to fish in Yellowstone Lake.
"I felt sorry for the man. He knew well enough what people were thinking even if they didn't say it. He couldn't stand up before those people proud all over about his boy, the way I can about my children. His boy was a shame to him.
"It wasn't real kind of Charley, though," Dad reflected sagely after a moment, "to give the rod back that way. Nor real tactful, either, when Mr. Hoskins is my employer."
THE NEXT afternoon Sayre went to town. Mr. Hansen had promised to drive her home. That was why, her errands done, she was loitering near the waiting Hansen truck when young Nels suddenly appeared from behind her. Appear was all that this sturdy sixteen-year-old did do except to call out as he spun around again, "Tell my father I'll be back soon. There's a fight on." The boy waved indefinitely in the direction back of the high school building. "Charley and Fra – "
Before young Nels had finished speaking, he was outdistanced. The streak which was Sayre Morgan was shooting at a speed many a quarter-miler might have envied across the intervening space toward the rapidly gathering crowd in Ole Larsen's big pasture. She was acting without thought, guided only by that protective maternal instinct which ever since her mother's death had been the ruling passion of her life.
When she reached the pasture she did not look at that crowded, intense circle she found there carefully enough to identify any of its members. Intuition told her it was composed largely of high school boys without the presence of teachers, plus a generous sprinkling of town stragglers, all male. She scarcely looked at it even when she herself had sped into its outer fringe and was squeezing her way into its thicker portion with the aid of her hard, brown hands on interfering backs and arms.
She did not look definitely at the two forms struggling and swaying in bitter embrace in the center of that inner cleared space. She only darted toward them as they sprang apart. Her first clear impression was one of powerlessness as her hard, brown little hand closed over the big muscles of Charley's arm in a blind attempt to pull him away. It was the sound of her own voice that awakened her to acute consciousness. "Charley Morgan," it was saying, "you quit that fighting right away!"
That awful impulsiveness of hers, what a fool it had made of her! She knew instantly, too, that there was nothing she could have done which would displease Charley more. Then something confused her. A weight had fallen against her head. Yet her next emotion was one of such surprise and pride that once more she lost realization of herself.
Charley must have stopped for an instant. For she felt the grip of his hands on her shoulders pushing her back into the crowd. That grip was strong and firm, but it was neither rough nor angry. It was like his voice when he spoke, steeled and steady. "You're to keep entirely out of this, Sayre. Understand?"
She did not need to answer.
They were at one another again, swinging blows this way and that
Was this Charley? Good-natured, likable, easy-going Charley whom, because of his changeableness of purpose, she had always thought she had to manage?
A mingled feeling of remorse and pride helped to support her through the whole dazed dizziness of the next quarter-hour. For if Charley had ceased fighting momentarily at her interference, Frank Hoskins had not. In the one confused instant when she had been in that ring, Frank's huge hand had fallen sidewise on her head in a blow which had left her blurred of vision, a little sick, and feeling somehow very far away. She was glad of Mr. Hansen's supporting hand as it led her to a place in the front row of the spectator circle. There she took up her stand, dimly yet firmly resolved to atone to Charley for what she had just done to disgrace him, by standing unmoved through whatever was to come.
There was a feeling of unreality concerning everything about her. With utter indifference she heard someone hiss as she staggered under Mr. Hansen's guiding hand. Then some one called out, "Stop that. Sayre Morgan had no business there."
Another voice added, "No place for a girl."
And still another, "She's always butting into boys' affairs where girls don't belong. Like in the part-time Ag class!"
At first, too, she was even in a way indifferent to those two partially stripped figures which once more had become the center of everyone's strained attention. They were at one another again, side-stepping, advancing, retreating, rushing forward. Swinging blows this way and that. Locking each other in powerful grips that somehow broke apart again, only to be renewed after fierce onslaughts.
To Sayre none of it meant anything very distinct. She could not see clearly; her head swam so. Sometimes Frank, sometimes Charley, appeared to her to have two heads, four arms, four shadowy, never-still legs. She could not always tell which was Charley. Both were just a blurred, swirling mass. There were moments, too, when she could see neither of them. Mr. Hansen's big form, jumping heavily in and out around the boys, interfered. The shouts and comments of the crowd came to her as if from far away. They seemed silly. Awoke no response in her.
Nevertheless she knew through it all an agony of apprehension which was very real. The spectacle was dreadful to her, like the action of dogs or of wild beasts. There was blood flowing. She could not tell whose. She wanted it to stop. She wanted the whole fight to stop. She hated the crowd for standing there looking on. She hated Charley for taking part in it. But above everything else she hated that great brute, Frank Hoskins.
Little by little her vision cleared. She began to see both boys distinctly. They were apart now, at either end of the ring. Charley was swaying a little, staggering. Oh, was he going to fall? No, he was recovering. It was Frank Hoskins who was staggering. Coming at Charley groggily as if he were not quite able to manage his big feet. But his big arm was still powerful. Sayre held her breath as she saw it shoot out at Charley. Felt infinite relief when it hit nothing. For Charley was not there. He was at Frank's other side, aiming a blow of his own.
Suddenly Sayre was exultant. She found herself shouting with the crowd. "I'm as much a beast as any of them," she thought. "And I don't care!"
Did she want the fight to stop? No, she didn't. Not until Charley had won. The whole thing was disgusting. She was ashamed of Charley. She was ashamed of herself. Just the same, "Charley's simply got to whip Frank Hoskins."
Then almost before she knew it, she saw Frank's big body crumple heavily to the ground. Charley was standing over it. "Had enough?" she heard Charley pant.
Frank's bloody face looked dazed. "He feels," Sayre thought, "just the way I felt a little while ago, only a whole lot more so." Still she distinctly saw his head wobble an assent to Charley's question.
Charley turned away stiffly and wearily to where his coat lay.
Mr. Hansen began to count. "Von. Two. T'ree. Four – " When he reached ten, he called the numeral out in a loud voice, adding, "All right. You lick, Sharley. In fair fight."
Sayre drew a long breath and looked away.
The next thing she knew all was confusion again. Charley was lying flat on the ground, face downward. Frank's big bulk was on top of him, kicking and pounding. For only an instant, though. The crowd was surging into the cleared space, carrying Sayre with it. She saw numerous hands grab Frank's shoulders and waist, and literally tear him, struggling, kicking, and biting back at them, off Charley's body. They shook him roughly, passing him from one eager hand to another. Suddenly the struggling Frank collapsed in his captors' hands. He broke into noisy, helpless sobbing.
The sight was distressing to Sayre. She felt ashamed for Frank, embarrassed that she saw him. At the same time, to her own immense surprise, he aroused in her a sort of scornful pity.
Did he in Charley, too? Was it that which made Charley turn to the crowd, almost angrily, and cry out, "Oh, lay off him, fellows!"
The effect was prompt, and Mr. Hansen took advantage of it. Stepping into the center of the ring, he beckoned to both contestants. "Here, you two boys. Shake hands now like good sports, and be done vid dis dirty business."
Charley's expression changed and set. "No." He spoke with that same controlled steadiness he had at Sayre's arrival. "Not with a fellow who's been stealing from a girl because she threatens to beat him at his latest game."
Mr. Hansen did not abandon his efforts. "All right. Look here, Frank Hoskins. Be a man and speak out de trut' vedder it dam you or not. Be you or ain't you de fellow vat's been fishing two nights ago for Sayre Morgan's poults?"
Frank's answer was an immediate roar. "No, I'm not! What's more – except on that inspection trip with Mr. Kitchell, I haven't been within a mile of the Parsons place for more'n two weeks."
Somebody in the crowd laughed; then another. But on the whole the effect was a bated silence, marked with uncertainty. The crowd was watching Charley. He had his eyes on Frank, studying his swollen face. What Charley saw evidently satisfied him, for he stepped up to his late antagonist and thrust out his hand. "All right, Hoskins. Guess I'll take your word for it."
But Frank was blubbering again. Lurching away from Charley he thrust both big hands behind him and locked them, swallowed hard two or three times (Sayre could see his Adam's apple working up and down his throat) and gave voice to a long, sobbing bellow, "Not – on – your d— life."
"Boys, what does all this mean?"
The crowd parted like the River Jordan before the Israelites and Mr. Kitchell stood in the ring. Nobody answered his question. Looking only at the two culprits, he asked another, "Who started this fight?"
Charley, head high, looked straight at the teacher. Then he glanced toward Frank, plainly offering the latter the first chance to speak.
"Well, Frank?" the teacher repeated.
Frank half lifted his sullen face. "Charley Morgan," he muttered.
"Dat's a lie! I have seen de whole t'ang."
Frank swung himself around toward Nels Hansen. "It's no lie. This fight didn't start today."
"I'd like to speak to you, Mr. Hansen." The teacher turned, looked out over the throng, and raised his voice authoritatively. "It's time this crowd broke up. A number of you fellows are overdue on the football field. That includes you, Hoskins. And you, Morgan."
Sayre, starting to move away with the obedient crowd, was stopped by Mr. Hansen. "Sayre, you vait a minute. I have somet'ang I vant to show you."
So she stood and watched. How she did want to mother Charley. And how well she knew she must not! Only he did look so bruised and so battered. Surely he wasn't fit for football practice tonight, above all on a squad with that detestable Frank Hoskins on it. Men were such queer creatures – so hard and unfeeling. Even the best of them, like Mr. Kitchell. For a moment she nursed her resentment of the teacher's seeming heartlessness. Then Charley was lost to her sight, so completely was he surrounded as he moved away by devoted boys.
The situation of Frank Hoskins was entirely different. Sayre's eye could follow Frank the whole distance of the field, for except for a half-dozen rather straggling followers he limped away alone. Once again to her own surprise Sayre felt for him a pang of scornful pity. Not because he looked even more bruised and battered than Charley. She was mean enough to be glad of that. It was his loneliness that touched her. Although his one-time ascendancy had never been a matter of real popularity, and had been steadily declining ever since Charley's arrival in the school's groups, never before had Sayre known him to suffer so complete and so public a desertion.
"Please come vid me, Mr. Keetchell. And you, too, Sayre." Mr. Hansen was moving in the opposite direction from the crowd toward Ole Larsen's home acres. "I vas right down here," the man indicated the spot, "in Ole Larsen's ditch vid de vater run out, because Ole, he said to me, I vish you'd look and see, Nels, vat ails my intake. It ain't vorking right.
"I'd got Sharley Morgan to help me look von minute because he's good at dat. But he don't stay. He's got to go practice football. So he yumps out of de ditch and starts valking across dis pasture. And I stays in, low down vere nobody can't see me from up. In a minute I hears some feet besides Sharley's, and dey stop, and somebody say, 'Look here, Sharles Morgan. I've been vatchin' for a shance to speak to you alone all day. I've got somet'ang to say to you. You're to stop telling your dirty lies about me all over dis here community!'
"I know right avay it vas Lumpy Hoskins. Maybe he ain't sounding mad! But Sharley Morgan ain't sounding so much mad as if Frank ain't fit to speak to, ven he says back, 'You're dead wrong. I ain't told a single lie, or trut' eider about you. For two days I ain't so much as spoke your name.'
"'Maybe not,' Frank says. 'You tell your lies coward style, by insinuation, you dirty skunk.'
"Den Sharley get vite. I vas peeking out from dat ditch. He says low down, kerplunk like a bullet, 'I ain't mentioned your name. I don't say t'angs I don't absolutely know. But von day I'm going to know a lot. And ven I do – '
"Den dat Frank out vid his fist and lands Sharley von right in de mouth. Sharley turns around so quick de udder fellow don't hardly know it. He slings off his hat, and he slings off his coat, and he slings off his shirt, and he says, cool and mad – not hot and mad like de udder fellow – 'All right. If fight's vot you vant, ve'll fight.'
"And dat's de vay, Mr. Keetchell, dis fight come on. Dere vas a crowd in a minute, but dose two boys don't know it. Dey vas too hard at it. For two kids, dat vas von pretty fight. Frank is bigger and stronger dan Sharley. But he ain't so quick. And he's too mad. He don't use his head good like dat cool Sharley. Never would I t'ank dat Sharley vould be so cool."
"And you didn't try to stop the business?"
Mr. Hansen's slow voice took on its dull monotone. "Ole Larsen's pasture ain't school property, Mr. Keetchell. I t'ank maybe all de boys know dat. I ain't believing in fights. I don't like 'em for boys. But stopping dat fight vouldn't have done no good. It's been coming too long a time. Dey better have it out, I t'ank, vid me here to see fair play; maybe it vill clear de air. So ven de big boys clear a space around 'em, and make de udders keep avay from it, I yumps right in, and I says, 'I know a fair fight, and I'm de referee.' And de big boys say, 'You bet you are, Mr. Hansen, and ve're back of you.' And so, dey fight, and Sharley Morgan lick."
"And nothing's settled. And the feeling between the two boys, not to mention the effect on the whole school, is worse than ever."
"Maybe yess. Maybe no. Anyvay, here is vat I vould show you." They had reached Ole Larsen's back yard. "I got it from Ole Larsen's biggest boy, de von vat's in part-time Ag class vid you, Sayre, and vorks sometimes for Mr. Hoskins. He vas fall plowing. Today Mr. Hoskins tells him to manure first before he plows. And he digs dis up from vere it vas deep down in de manure pile. He gives it to me. But I don't say nutting about vat I t'ank even to Ole Larsen's boy. Anyvay, he's de kind vat talks a plenty. I vait to show it first to you and Sayre."
The teacher took the dirty, stiff, bedraggled, brown-feathered form that Mr. Hansen held out to him, and inspected it closely under Sayre's following, dilated eyes.
"There's no doubt about it, I'm afraid. Is there, Sayre?" Mr. Kitchell spoke with solemn inflection.
"Oh, no, Mr. Kitchell. I'm sure there isn't."
The teacher handed the object back to Mr. Hansen. "It's Sayre's would-be prize cockerel poult, all right, two days dead."
A New Job
CERTAINLY somebody "talked a plenty." By night the whole story of the fight had spread over town and was sending runners out in all directions into the community. In close pursuit sped the news of the unearthing and identification of the dead poult, plus all its accompanying insinuations. And during the next few days other details were added, some true, others entirely imaginary. On one point, however, the gossipers were of one mind: that it was a shame that Sayre's turkeys should have been interfered with.
That school circles should buzz busily about the friction and affairs of two prominent pupils was natural enough. But that town and countryside should show so much partisan interest in the quarrel of two mere high school boys was a surprise to Sayre. "It's all because one's a Hoskins," she told herself, "and he isn't on top."
Frank was plainly not on top at school according to Charley's accounts. "All the feelings the fellows have had of not liking him even when they knuckled under to him seem to be coming out. Everybody calls him Lumpy right to his face. Of course the nickname's not so much; it's that everybody knows how he hates it. And it's the way, too, the fellows hand it out. Frank doesn't dare hand anything back, either. If he did he'd be all messed up with fights, and he knows it.
"Rene Osgood's one person, though, who sure sticks up for him. I can't help liking her for the way she does it, sort of the-rest-of-you-may-go-to-the-devil way. Rene's catty, all right, when she wants to be, but she's no fair-weather friend."
Whether or not the boys received school reprimand and penalty for that fight Sayre never learned. What she did know was that with the general public Charley's was the popularity of the victor. People praised him for the championship of his sister's rights, for his skill as a fighter, and for the generosity of his treatment of Frank. There was no doubt, too, that the gossip concerning Mr. Hoskins, which ever since the water users' meeting had burned more or less under cover like an inextinguishable fire in a ship's hold, was giving to the story of his son's treachery toward the young Morgans a local importance which it would not otherwise have had.
Besides that, the fight between Charley and Frank had happened to occur at just about the time Charley's second vocational agriculture project was becoming a matter of general public knowledge. That second school project was, of course, the boy's five acres of field peas.
It proved a creditable success for an inexperienced boy. Still it was not so outstanding that it would of itself have been a matter of general comment. Frank Hoskins' pea crop, for instance, nearly equaled Charley's. Only, Frank was as sulkily mum about the methods by which he had raised it as Charley was pleasantly talkative.
It was Nels Hansen, really, who gave Charley's peas their publicity. He reported the yield everywhere – it was one hundred and seventy-eight bushels; declared it of just the right seed-pea variety and quality, and began sending farmers to Charley to bargain for the peas as seed before they were out of the pod.
The way Mr. Hansen was pushing Charley troubled Sayre a little. Not that the kindly Norwegian misrepresented anything. Only, publicity came too easily to Charley, anyway; it was not altogether good for him.
It soon began to seem to the girl as if almost every day somebody were reporting to her having seen Charley in town answering farmers' questions about those peas. How could Charley, with all he had to do, have time to be in town so frequently? He must be talking too much about himself. Nobody was gladder than she over what he had done. Still, he had had an unusual chance. Mr. Cowan's farm was an exceptionally good one; besides, its soil had been treated from the beginning just as it should be.
It did not occur to the girl for some time that Mr. Hansen's purpose might be publicity not so much for Charley as for the treatment of his field; and that Charley, the boy of earlier spreader fame, was an easy one to center such publicity about.
Naturally Charley was proud of his crop. But Sayre did hope people were not making him cocky over just one pretty successful farming experience.
Then one day in town she herself saw and overheard Charley, and her fears vanished. He was in front of the post-office among a group of men whose bearing showed plainly their liking for the genial, unselfconscious boy who was so obligingly answering their questions.
Sayre at the time had stopped a little distance away to speak to Rene and Frank, who, walking together, had been about to pass her. Queer how differently she felt toward that pair now that Charley had "licked" Frank. Not exactly friendly, to be sure, but willing enough to be on outwardly pleasant terms with them, and trying to show them so. She didn't even mind Frank's pompous, half-sullen aloofness any more; it rather amused her. And the valiant way Rene's cryptic chatter was trying to cover up Frank's sulky unresponsiveness and the whole awkward situation was arousing her sympathy. For all that, she was not so much listening to Rene as straining to catch the whiffs of Charley's talk which the persistent swirling of the Wyoming wind brought to her ears.
"Oh, yes, they're good seed peas," she heard him say once. "But then I had a swell field on a swell farm. Belonging to a man who's raised seed peas before. Had him right handy, too, to consult when I needed. That field? Sure, Mr. Cowan's treated it right."
And again with a laughing negation in his voice. "No, I don't deserve even that credit. Oh, yes, I did all the work on my own responsibility, of course. Have to in vocational Ag. But where would I have been if Mr. Kitchell hadn't showed me where to turn to study out all I needed to know, where to get on to the right kind of seed and the best methods of planting and irrigating and all that, the way they're recommended by the State Experiment Station for our kind of land?"
Charley's words died down in a lull of the wind. Suddenly a big gust swept a dust cloud up the street, flapped Sayre's skirts out into a sail in front of her, and forced her onward away from Frank and Rene. It also brought distinctly to her hearing, as it must have also to Frank's and Rene's, Charley's emphatic tones.
"You bet I did. Or rather, Mr. Cowan had it done last fall. The season's last alfalfa crop plowed under, well down into the soil where it could decay – green manure, you know. And it sure did the business. When this whole community wakes up and learns – "
So that was the way Charley was talking around town. Sayre went home not only relieved, but highly pleased, and all unprepared for what was to come on the next afternoon.
At five o'clock she had just come up out of the root cellar, humming a tune, and carrying a pan of potatoes to be fried for supper. She paused, as she so often did, to draw a full breath of the nipping autumn air. How stimulating it was! Breathing it made a sort of queen out of a person. She giggled a little happily at the absurdity of the thought. A queer kind of queen she was, one who felt keyed up all the time with eagerness for the very homeliest kind of work.
Then the exultant breath fell. The giggle died, smothered by an old, old dread. Who was that coming up the driveway? Dad? She could catch but a glimpse of the figure. But she knew only too well that kind of step – that droop of the head. "What's gone wrong, now?" she thought desperately, and stepped farther to one side to get a better view.
Instantly the old dread became a new one. For that figure wasn't Dad at all. It was Charley. And not in all her life before had she believed Charley could ever look so much like Dad as that.
"What's he coming home for now? He ought to be practicing football. Maybe he's sick. Of course he's bummed a ride." She uttered none of these thoughts. Just stood, clutching the pan of potatoes, and waiting until Charley had come within speaking distance.
He saw her. "Lost my job," he muttered with a sort of defiant despondency, and passed her to enter the house.
She followed him. She had herself in hand now.
The kitchen was warmly fragrant with newly baked bread. Five crisp brown loaves lay cooling on the table where Sayre had turned them from their pans only a few minutes before. Beside them stood a bowl of dried-apple sauce, flecked with raisins and flavored with spice. The food meant a supper Charley loved, but he failed to recognize its presence even by a sniff.
"How'd it happen, Chuck?" Sayre was trying to be cheerful and sympathetic. She noted, too, with relief that Charley did not look the least bit like Dad now. That resemblance must have been an imaginary notion. Still, its recollection clung.
Charley's answer was mechanically uttered. "Mr. Cowan's old man's back."
Sayre hesitated. "And the job Mr. Cowan said he'd get you if he had to lay you off?"
"Never mentioned it. Me, either, you bet. Too darn proud to when he didn't."
"Was – was he displeased with you, Chuck?" Sayre ventured again.
"Not to show. Acted mighty decent. Only – well I know darn well I haven't been giving him the time I'd ought since school started. What with football and – and – everything."
"And with too much hanging around town being pleasant," Sayre's thought supplemented. A weight tumbled from her heart nevertheless. If Charley had got where he realized things like that for himself she was no longer afraid for him.
She did hope, though, Dad would not act too depressed over the situation. To her surprise her father received Charley's news quite philosophically. "Well, you knew it might happen. You should have been prepared for it. Though that doesn't mean I am not truly sorry about it, my boy. By the way, Mr. Hoskins told me tonight to get word to you, Charley, to come into the store tomorrow. He has something he wants to say to you."
"What, I wonder?" Charley shrugged his shoulders. "It sure can't be anything agreeable."
Both curiosity and misgiving fretted Sayre a good part of the next day. "What did Mr. Hoskins want you for?" she asked as soon after her brother's homecoming as she tactfully could.
Charley was as little his genial self tonight as he had been last night. For all that, he was different. There was something hard, almost stubborn, in tonight's depression. Although plainly not in a talkative mood, he answered Sayre's question readily enough, "To give me a job."
"Mr. Hoskins – gave you – a job!" Sayre paused in the act of taking the potatoes from the stove, and stood stock-still, frying-pan high in the air.
Was Charley joking? He didn't look like it. Still, there wasn't in his manner any of the elation that usually accompanied one of his announcements of new work.
The boy nodded. "On the hay baler. Working Saturdays and a day or two each week when some of his regular men have to lay off to tend to home crops. I'll lose some school, but not so much that I can't make it up."
"But – full days? And Saturdays? You can't. There's football."
"Football's got to go."
"It can't. You're captain."
"Not any more. I resigned this afternoon."
"Charley Morgan! You didn't!" Sayre set the frying-pan of potatoes back on the stove. The grease began to sputter again violently, its bacony odor wafting more strongly through the room. Presently spirals of black smoke began to arise and thicken; the cook paid no attention to them. "Why, the whole school will have it in for you. They'll say you quit to spite Frank Hoskins. Or rather, because you won't play on a team with him. Goodness only knows what they will say."
"They'll have to say it then." Charley picked up the empty water pail, pulled open the door, and left the room.
Sayre, catching a glimpse of his vanishing back, knew by the way he moved that she had failed him. "Charley," she called in contrition.
The boy pretended not to hear. Could Sayre have known all that Charley had been through earlier that afternoon, her contrition would have been greater. His nerves were still raw from the resentment of the coach (Mr. Kitchell was full-time agriculture teacher now and no longer had anything to do with the athletics), and from the amazed and outraged indignation of the boys of the team. The worst of it was that Charley had no blame for any of them. Instead he sympathized with them so much that he had offered little in excuse for himself.
To Mr. Kitchell alone the boy had poured forth his heart. "All summer I kept kidding myself into believing I was coming back to school this fall to please Dad and Sayre. They're set, of course, on my graduating in June. But I didn't. I came back to play football. And all the while I knew I hadn't any business to play. That I ought to work more outside and earn more. Now, if I'm going to work at all, I've got to quit playing. I hate quitting like thunder, you bet. And yet – Well, in a way, I'm sort o' glad, too.
"You see, Mr. Kitchell, it's like this. You haven't any idea how hard Sayre works. She's wonderful, Sayre is, the way she manages and looks after all us. And it's hard with so little money to do with, and her so crazy to get back to school this fall with the part-time bunch. I never used to think much about things like that, but here – lately – " Charley had paused in embarrassment. "Aw – well," he had concluded sheepishly, "Somehow I can't feel right any more letting a girl pack more of the family load than I do."
"I can't argue against that, Charley." Mr. Kitchell's tone had warmed the boy through and through.
How that man did understand all about the ways a fellow felt. He hadn't even added that in fairness to the school, the coach, and the whole football squad Charley should have come to his present conclusion some time before.
"Personally, though, I'm sorry," the teacher had gone on. "I'd hoped football would rub down edges between you and Frank. Make you real team mates again. For there'll be other team work for you two boys this school year, you know."
Over Charley's troubled, mobile face had flashed the light of a new interest. "You mean the stock-judging team? You really think I can make it?"
"From what I know of you two boys, I'm expecting both you and Hoskins to make it."
Charley had laughed to hide his sudden boyish gratification. Here was comfort of a kind for which he had not dared hope: that an inexperienced young farmer like him should make the stock-judging team, that picked group of five boys, chosen on merit and promise from among the animal husbandry pupils. Mr. Kitchell would give that picked bunch hard, intensive out-of-school training to fit them to enter grueling contests with other teams. Practically every high school that taught agriculture had such a team nowadays, and yearly the contests among schools were becoming keener and of more widespread public interest. To win a place on the stock-judging team meant another chance for Charley to win honor for his school, and community prestige for himself. How Frank Hoskins would hate the opportunity's coming to Charley! There was new triumph in that thought. Still, was he never to escape anywhere from Frank Hoskins' rivalry? Shadows fell once more over the boy's face.
"It's fate, I guess, Hoskins and me, I mean. We seem bound to get into each other's way at everything we do. He's even putting in a few hours a week, when he can get them, on the baler. Learning the whole alfalfa business, so folks say, the way his dad's so determined he'll do."
When at supper that night the family was discussing Charley's new job, Mr. Morgan showed at once that his attitude toward it was very different from Sayre's. "That's what I call generous. Right after a big rumpus with his son that's held the boy up to shame in the community, Mr. Hoskins gives you work. With times what they are, too, with the poor hay crop, and the Government rulings, and all. Every day here lately there's been man after man in the store asking for any kind of a job at any pay. I hope you showed your appreciation, son."
"I tried to, Dad. At first I felt kind o' like you about it. But that was before I went out to Mr. Cowan's to get a little work in on my crops. Mr. Hansen was there. He brought me home."
"What has Mr. Hansen to do with it?"
Charley bit into a slice of bread spread with wild chokecherry butter. "Says 'twas Mr. Cowan got me that job, without even asking for it, too. Just by letting it be known he was trying to find me one, he made Mr. Hoskins give it to me."
"That's a queer statement. Mr. Hoskins is far too important and independent a man to be swayed like that by anybody."
"You're wrong there, Dad. Everybody knows Mr. Hoskins, o' course. And Mr. Cowan's so awful reserved nobody really knows him. I don't, even after living in his house all summer. Just the same, he's a power. Mr. Hansen says Mr. Hoskins is afraid of him."
"Nonsense. Why should he be?"
"I asked Nels that, myself. He wouldn't answer straight out. Just kept chuckling in that way he has. And dropping hints about what a good politician Mr. Hoskins is. And about how he sure needs just now to do favors for people with good stand-ins with the federal government and the reclamation service. Then he told me I'd better make a thorough job of reading today's Clarion. He said he'd told you to be sure to bring a paper home."
While her father went to search his coat pocket for eyeglasses and newspaper, Sayre cleared a space on the table and pushed the lighted kerosene lamp near the clearing. Then she hovered close to her father's side as, reseated, he combed the four very black-typed pages of Upham's weekly news sheet.
"Here it is, children." Mr. Morgan pivoted his forefinger triumphantly on an obscure spot. "This must be what Mr. Hansen meant."
A dark young head bent over the father's shoulder on each side. Four dark blue eyes scanned simultaneously the indicated lines. They were only a few insignificant-looking rows of formal statement among the court notices. But as Charley and Sayre, having read them, began to realize their meaning, they loomed so large that the twins' eyes bulged and their voices sharpened with excitement.
"Does it mean he's got to pay up to the Government for all the back construction charges and everything else that isn't paid, on all three of these land holdings?" questioned Sayre.
"Not exactly," Charley said. "It means the Government's suing him in the federal courts for payment of the money. Checking him up for trying to dead-beat out of it, I guess. Isn't that it, Dad?"
"It says – " scarcely less excited but much more troubled than his children, Mr. Morgan began judicially to half-quote – "that three federal suits have been filed against Franklin M. Hoskins for unpaid construction charges and other Government indebtedness on three different holdings of land in the Pawaukee Reclamation Project. One is for seven thousand dollars. One is for six thousand dollars. One is for four thousand two hundred dollars. And all three accounts must be settled entirely before eight months from date or the land relinquished. It's queer," the perplexed man pondered in conclusion. "The Government couldn't have had time yet to consider Mr. Hoskins' requests for delay."
"It's a funny place, seems to me, to put anything as important as all that," came Sayre's comment.
Charley shook his black head with sagacity. "Not when it's that kind of news about the community's leading citizen. The Clarion knows well enough what would happen to it if it once got Mr. Hoskins jumping on its neck."
Needless to say that newspaper item furnished a topic for talk for many days.
"Is Mr. Hoskins much crushed?" was one of Sayre's early inquiries of her father the next evening.
"Not at all. On the contrary, he's quite cheerful. He's explained the matter again and again in the store today. Says he's not at all worried. That those suits are just test cases against three holdings of his in different parts of this section of the Pawaukee. One is his home farm right at the edge of Upham. What the Government wants is to bring to light in the courts all the actual data in these irrigation project situations. Getting conditions thoroughly sifted and aired that way ought really to strengthen the landholders' position, Mr. Hoskins thinks.
"It'll cost him something, though, for lawyers' fees and such. Means he'll have to sell most of his hay this year in the early market, where prices are always much lower than they are later. After he's just gone to the expense of building that new warehouse for storing hay, too."
With the Balers
THE BIG Hoskins baler with its crew, going its annual fall round of Pawaukee hay farms, came of course to Parsons' eighty. To feed all those men at noon was no light task. Sayre was tired when the third morning came. Just the same it was nice having Charley at home again.
She shivered as, softly closing her bedroom door, she tiptoed into the kitchen. It wasn't easy to get up so early after a hard day's work. The balers did put in such long hours. Still she wouldn't have to feed them again. By ten o'clock they would be through baling that part of the Parsons hay that belonged to Mr. Hoskins.
She opened the drafts of the stove and shook down the banking ashes as cautiously as she could. There was no sense in waking Dad and Hitty. Charley she'd probably have to call. She hovered a moment within the feeble warmth. Then as the fire began to glow into new life, she turned to the table and began stealthily to beat up pancake batter.
The first shafts of sunshine broke through the window
Suddenly the first shafts of sunshine broke through the window nearest her. She felt them gleam over her bent head. Oh, it was wonderful to live where the very first sunshine of the day could get in at you; in a place, too, where the sun really did shine almost every day. She did love it, even though the work was heavy.
She loved, too, this dear, funny room. Her eye flitted appraisingly first over the half that was compactly arranged kitchen with Hitty's and her tiny bedroom partitioned off it at one end. Then over the half that was cheery living-room, white-curtained, bright with the scarlet bloom of thriving geranium plants, homey with filled bookshelves and Dad's old easy chair near the table with the lamp.
The door into Dad and Charley's bedroom, partitioned off the living-room, creaked open cautiously. Charley emerged in stocking feet, shoes in his hand. Sayre threw him a greeting smile. It was the third morning straight she had not had to call him.
At the stove she let spoonfuls of batter splash onto the hot griddle. Then she broke eggs into the sizzling grease in the frying-pan, and turned to set a pitcher of milk on the table at Charley's place.
What was that sound outside, punching so sharply through the crisp air? The heavily rattling approach of an empty motor-truck. No, not quite empty; at least it didn't sound that way. It was clattering up the driveway now. There, it had passed the house and was speeding beyond.
Sayre shoved a plate heaped with hot cakes toward Charley, and hurried to peer through the kitchen window. "What's Frank Hoskins doing here this morning? Isn't this the Saturday of the Hubble-Upham game? Arriving before any of the rest of the crew, too?"
"Frank?" Over Charley's sleepily cheerful face a cloud gathered. He knew how heartily the crew boss had come to dislike the days when he and Frank Hoskins appeared together. "Probably work a few hours, and quit. He's privileged. Football team doesn't leave till the twelve-thirty."
"What's he bringing the truck for?"
"Haul hay to the baler, I suppose. No, we moved that baler last night out where the rest of the hay is. He must have the scales. They sent for 'em from the warehouse yesterday. He likes to cart 'em about, set 'em up, and snoop around a little while he's doing it. Makes him important – proprietor's son, you know."
"Then why's he driving way out in the back of the field behind the second cutting? There aren't any bales out there to weigh. All the undelivered ones are up front."
"There'll be plenty in the back field before long. What d'you s'pose we moved the baler for?"
Near the front of the seventeen-acre alfalfa field of the Parsons eighty, where three days before had stood the big stack of the first cutting, now lay sprawled, or neatly piled, clutters and rows of bales. They were those of the Parsons-Hoskins hay crop, which still remained to be delivered to the Hoskins warehouse. The baler itself had been hauled close to what was left of the stack of the second cutting, a mere seven or eight tons. It should not take long this morning to complete the Parsons-Hoskins job.
When that should be done there would remain of the fifty-odd tons of alfalfa hay that the Parsons eighty had produced, according to Morgan reckoning, only what belonged to the Morgans themselves. This was the two small stacks that Dad, with such help as Charley and the neighbors could give him, had managed to put up for their own use from those two semi-detached corner acres off the big field.
These two acres had produced beautiful crops, more hay than the Morgans were likely to need. Dad had suggested it might be well to have a little of it baled, if the crew boss would stop to do it while the balers were on the place.
"He won't," Charley had announced with confidence, and Sayre had felt relieved.
Of course there was, too, the scrub hay which those five half-alkali acres along the weedy south ditch had struggled to produce. But that crop was so meager and inferior that no one, at least so the Morgans believed, had given any thought as to what was to be done with it. It would make good bedding for the stock.
The Saturday housework went fast that morning. Outside from across the empty distances Sayre heard the first coughs and sputters of the gasoline engine. Then came its steady chug as the baler went into action. For a long time it kept up unbroken its rhythmic, explosive chatter, and Sayre found herself timing her tasks to its measures. Too busy herself to stop to take in details, she was still pleasantly aware of the bustling activity without, some of which occasionally approached and passed the house. She saw none of the outside workers to speak to, though, until she had got as far as giving Hitty her bath in the wash-tub in the middle of the kitchen floor. It was then that Charley thrust open the kitchen door, stuck in his head, and announced to Sayre's back in a voice so curt it made her jump. "The men will be here to dinner."
"Again? Today? I can't have 'em. I've nothing to feed 'em. There isn't a thing to eat in – "
She had twirled around on her knees. Charley was pulling the door to as abruptly as he had thrust it open. But she caught one glimpse of his departing face. That glimpse made her gasp. "Why, he's angry! He's awfully angry! I never saw him look like that before in all my life. I never thought he could. It isn't baling part of our own hay that's made him as mad as that."
She began rubbing the bath towel so hard over Hitty's rosy flesh that the child cried out, "Your wipe's hurting me."
Repentant, Sayre hurried the little girl into her clothes, her own mind planning all the while. "I've got to kill some of my precious chickens, I suppose. There are beans enough. And I can manage some custard pies. But there's only a little bread. It'll have to be biscuits, and those men can eat such an awful lot."
Sayre tidied up the kitchen, with ears anxiously alert. Through the window she had just opened to rid the kitchen of the hot bath vapors came the sound of angry, high-pitched voices. Those booming tones were Frank Hoskins', she knew. And those clear, ringing ones were Charley's. She stood, listening, but except that one voice grew more deeply strident, and the other more determined, she could distinguish nothing. Just as their duet reached a crescendo, into it fell a few sharp accents of command. They did not at once bring silence.
"That's the crew boss," Sayre recognized. By this time she was looking through the window. Up from the rear end of the field two or three men were hurrying to join a close-knit, gesticulating group near the piled bales at the front.
"Something's wrong," Sayre thought. Suddenly the vague outside sounds she had been hearing assumed new meaning. "Something's been wrong since early this morning. I'm going to find out what."
Grabbing up several cups, she sped out of the back door and down into the root cellar after the pitcher of cooling drink which she had mixed from a syrup of wild strawberry juice Mrs. Hansen had given her. (The wild fruit came from the green, park-like little valleys tucked away among those horizon-encircling mountains.) The girl had not meant to bestow her treat until after the baling was over. But now she hurried with it in the direction of the hay field.
All the while her mind was busy recalling the earlier seemingly insignificant incidents she had caught glimpses of. She remembered now an apparently heated conversation between Frank and Charley. She had given it little thought because she knew that many of Charley's unavoidable conversations with Frank these days were more or less heated. Charley had driven away immediately afterward in the 'Shake, and had come back just before his appearance in the kitchen door. She remembered now, too, how sharp Charley's voice had sounded when at his return she had heard him summon Dad out from the shed they called the barn. After that had come the repeated passing of trucks in both directions down the corrugated, sage-tufted driveway at the side of the house.
Sayre neared the field to see the gnarly figure of the crew boss step between Charley and Frank. He looked sternly at each boy out of snapping black eyes, and said authoritatively: "All right. That settles it. Now you two get to the job I gave you, and work at it. Not one more yap out of either of you. It ain't nine o'clock. Yet already this morning you two kids have had two rows, both of them big enough to hold up the whole works and change all our plans. I'm telling Mr. Hoskins it's got to quit."
Sayre began pouring out and passing around her beverage. Frank refused the extended cup rudely. Charley, too, waved his aside with a curt "No thanks." The other men lounged against the piled bales and enjoyed the treat. To Sayre's surprise she found Nels Hansen among them. The drink consumed, one after another of the balers turned back toward the work from which he had come. Only one big blond fellow lingered to approach Charley, who stood aloof from everybody not far from Sayre.
"He's a mean cuss," Sayre heard this loiterer murmur. "Hope you get even with him, Morgan."
"Give me time." Charley's laugh was not at all his natural one. "Might happen sooner than you think."
Sayre felt annoyed. How many such speeches was Charley making these days to that crew? When he didn't really mean anything by them, either. She turned a little, her eye following the big man as he moved to join his co-workers at the other end of the field. Why, what were those men beginning to do down there? "Look," she exclaimed. "Where are they taking the baler now?"
"Over to the two-acre corner." Charley's words ran together into a mutter.
In the hum of renewed activity all about her Sayre received no answer. Or was it that nobody wanted to answer her? Charley's tone had already told her that he considered this no time for questions. Yet her mind was teeming with them.
What was Mr. Hansen doing there with the boys? He'd never had anything to do with the balers. His truck was here, too. That, though, she understood. He'd been letting Charley use it lately in payment for the work Charley had done in getting the old third-hand thing into running order. But why were Mr. Hansen and Frank Hoskins and Charley loading the little half-ton 'Shake, a truck now for some time past, almost beyond capacity? And why was Dad turning into the driveway from the road to town in the big Hoskins truck at a speed Sayre would never have believed him capable of attempting?
There was not time to search out answers to her questions. She had not a minute to waste if she were to have a meal ready for those men at their regular eleven-thirty dinner hour. She set to work with the concentration of a high-tensioned speed that accomplished tasks rapidly. Yet all the while, as she worked, the background of her mind was conscious of other things. That Dad kept passing up and down the driveway every half-hour or so with a loaded or an unloaded truck, always at the same unusual speed. That Mr. Hansen and Charley out in the hay field were performing like veritable jugglers, keeping the air full of tossing bales which Frank Hoskins, mounted on one returning truck after another, was catching or steadying, and putting into place.
Dad, of course, was due at the Hoskins store at noon for the Saturday afternoon and evening trade. He entered the house to eat ahead of the others, just as Sayre was engrossed in those last few moments of preparation of the meal whose multiple demands every housekeeper knows. Still she managed to glean a little information.
"It's been a hectic morning," Mr. Morgan commented as he ate. "Charley would have it so after Mr. Hoskins' message."
"The one Frank brought. His father never sent that message the way Frank delivered it, I'm sure of that. Not after saying Charley and I could have the chance to earn extra by delivering the Parsons hay as we found time to do it. It must be just that Mr. Hoskins found out he has to have that hay delivered sooner than he thought. I don't believe he ever accused Charley of deliberately trying to hold up his business. As if Charley could know about Mr. Hoskins' expecting those freight cars in any day, or about his having this rush-delivery Kansas City order. Give me another cup of coffee, Sayre."
As Sayre complied, her father continued: "It's that Frank. He hasn't a bit of his father's tact. Then, too, it's as Mr. Hansen says, Frank deliberately twists every situation he can into a chance to nettle Charley. And Charley isn't as good-natured as he used to be, not, anyway, where Frank Hoskins is concerned." Mr. Morgan drained his coffee-cup and set it down, shaking his head dubiously. "Still, there's this other matter."
"What other matter?"
The peremptory squawk of an automobile horn in the adjacent driveway drowned out Sayre's question. Mr. Morgan bobbed to his feet. "I've got to go."
Outside, the men were appearing in response to Sayre's dinner call. They were jumping off a load of baled hay which Charley had brought to a stop. The squawk, however, had come from another load, on the driver's seat of which sat a most impatient Frank Hoskins. He paused barely long enough to permit spry little Dad Morgan hop up beside him.
"Dinners for the crew are bargained for with the hay, Hoskins," Sayre heard Charley call to Frank from the wash-bench at the back of the house. The speech excited suppressed amusement from Charley's immediate companions.
But there was no answer from Frank except the diminishing rumble of a heavily laden truck. Its disappearance seemed to serve as lubricant for the tongues of the men.
"He's afraid of Morgan grub. Might poison him."
"Why didn't he quit at ten? Always has before."
"Wouldn't. Not in the face of Nels' and Charley's gaff after the boss, here, had the nerve not only to put him and young Morgan on the same job, but to keep them there."
"I'll bet he's wore out."
"You're a pretty hurler any time, Charley. And pairing with Nels sure makes a fellow a steady one. But this morning!"
"Look at them bales that ain't there no more. How many loads took in? Ain't that a morning's work for you, even at starting early?"
"I snickered right out when I come up to speak to you that time, Charley, and heard you advising 'im to lay off and save 'imself for football, not let his muscles get stiffened up."
Several guffaws greeted this remark. "I wisht I'd heard ya. I'll bet the way ya did it was some comeback fer the way he's been lordin' it over you."
"Well, he wasn't no quitter. Ye've got to give 'im that. He even fixed it to get several squints in at our job. He's learning one thing from his old man: he likes to see just a little of the poorest hay sneaked into all the top-notch bales."
Such was the conversation at the dinner table. Charley joined in it but little. He ate hurriedly, and waited with obvious impatience until the men had risen and all but Mr. Hansen had filed out of doors. Then he turned to his sister.
"Guess we'll have to have you haul for us this afternoon, Sayre. You're a better driver than Dad is anyhow."
Sayre stiffened in shut-mouth rebellion. She was standing at the stove, one hand on the tea-kettle handle. The coolness of that suggestion! Wasn't it just like a man? Was Charley even aware that she had work of her own to do? Look at this kitchen. The clean-up dinner work all undone after this crowded morning of hasty and unexpected preparation. Dirty dishes piled high. The extra things she had borrowed from Mrs. Hansen in order to be able to feed the balers to be sorted out and returned. The floor filthy from the tramp of men's boots. Nothing prepared to eat in the house for Sunday.
"You won't have to help unload," Charley continued, ignoring his sister's manner. "Mr. Hoskins has got men at the warehouse to make quick work of that. You can send the kid up the road to Mrs. Hansen's. She'll keep her. All night, if you say so."
"I vill take her ven I go get young Nels to take Lumpy Hoskins' place." Mr. Hansen nodded his faded towhead solemnly at Sayre, whom he stood watching with keen attention. "Yess, Sayre. It iss too bad. But you vill haul for us today?" Simple as the words were, there was something about the way they were uttered and about the expression of the shrewd, kindly eyes in the man's emotionless face which spoke things that the words themselves did not say.
Whatever it was, Sayre's quick intelligence caught its purpose. "He thinks I ought to go," she said to herself. "And he's trying to tell me not to bother Charley with questions just now." The girl's rigidity softened. She began to slip out of her apron, yielding to she knew not what, the sense of urge and strain in the air. "All right," she assented curtly. "I'll haul."
Shippers of Hay
SAYRE'S first trip to the warehouse was with the 'Shake. Charley, Mr. Hansen, and Hitty rode away on the loaded Hansen truck. The two men returned separately after a time, Mr. Hansen in his own truck bringing young Nels; and Charley, driving the empty Hoskins truck. Straight toward the bales in the big hay field all the returning trucks traveled, where once again the frenzied loading began.
For a while from a distance farther away than during most of the morning still came the steady, explosive chug of the engine that ran the baler.
"Wonder how much of our own hay they're having baled," Sayre thought once or twice. "Surely not very much."
When the chugging finally ceased and the baler, the engine, and all the crew but Charley made their lumbering exit from the Parsons acres, Sayre was in town awaiting the unloading of a truck.
All that afternoon Sayre, unquestioning, rumbled or rattled in a loaded or an empty truck over the seven miles of roadway between the Parsons eighty and the Hoskins warehouse. By six o'clock that warehouse held all but the last load of the hay grown on the main fifteen acres of the Parsons seventeen-acre field. And that last load was approaching town with Sayre on the driver's seat.
"All right," Sayre had said when she had mounted to the seat before leaving home. "I'll take this last load in if you'll do the chores while I'm gone, Charley. When I get back, we'll eat some kind of snack, and then maybe you'll help me get at that kitchen."
Charley had made no answer at all. He certainly was in a queer humor today. Whatever this latest grudge of his was against Frank Hoskins, it wasn't a bit like Charley to let its effects last like this.
At the warehouse door Sayre climbed wearily down from her perch. The men who had been doing the unloading were nowhere to be seen. Mr. Hoskins' automobile was parked near by, and Mr. Hoskins himself was snapping the padlock on the warehouse's big double doors.
"Just leave that load where it is, Miss Sayre," he called. "And get into my car. I'll drive you home."
Sayre enjoyed the luxury of that ride. Tired from her hard day, she relaxed in the car's smooth-traveling comfort, and listened to the pleasant flow of Mr. Hoskins' talk. She was sick of that hay, and relieved that her companion did not even mention it. Instead he talked of other things in which she was deeply interested: the part-time course in the high school; and the projects of the vocational agriculture pupils. "I see now," she thought, "why Dad feels as he does about Mr. Hoskins. Sometimes he can be almost nice."
He let her out in front of the Parsons place, scanning the front yard hastily as he stopped. "I don't see your brother anywhere about."
"Probably doing chores. I'll call him if you want."
"No. Just give him my message. Tell him, please, that one lone freight car came in for me late this afternoon. I must get it off attached to the early morning train. By seven o'clock this evening it'll be switched onto the side track under the big arc-light, he knows where. He's to get another crew man to help him load that car. I'll pay them, of course, for overtime. They're to begin the loading with what's left of the Parsons hay, and I'll be on hand in time to open the warehouse for enough hay to finish the car.
"But there isn't any more of the Parsons hay. It's all been delivered."
"There's the three tons on my truck that you left in front of the warehouse." Mr. Hoskins was turning the car around as he called. "And I'm sure at least as much more undelivered."
Before Sayre could answer, the man was out of hearing.
The vague misgivings that Sayre had shed during the afternoon descended upon her anew. She went at once toward the back of the house in search of Charley. He was not there. The house itself was empty. And there was not a trace of him around the sheds. Not a single chore had been attended to, either. What did it all mean? She hurried out across the big hay field, now entirely empty of hay in any shape. Through the still evening air she could catch the sound of men's voices coming from those two semi-detached acres beyond.
Yes, there Charley and Mr. Hansen and young Nels were, still loading hay. The sight angered Sayre. But her wrath was mixed with amazement at what she saw. For every bit of the hay on these, their own two acres, had been baled! She began to run.
"Charley Morgan." She could not wait to get near enough for her words to carry. "I want an explanation of all this right away. It's time you stepped down from your high horse and told me – "
But Charley had spied her from a distance, and was calling out a question of his own. "Warehouse still open, Sayre?"
Sayre stopped running, her knees suddenly weak. Something about that question smothered the flame of her anger until there were left of it only the glowing coals of consternation. "No. Mr. Hoskins locked it not a half-hour ago."
Charley let drop to the ground the end he was lifting of a seventy-pound bale. Then he dropped himself into a sitting position upon it, weariness and defeat in every line of his body. "We can't make it, Nels. I've got to sit up all night and watch this hay."
"Oh, I t'ank not, Sharley. He don't mean dat. He was yust mad."
"Maybe," Charley responded without animation. "Just the same I'm taking no chances. He hates me bad enough to burn up his own hay if he was sure the blame would land on me."
"What are you two talking about?"
Mr. Hansen turned to the indignant, mystified Sayre. "Dat Frank Hoskins say for a yoke, ven he knows Sharley is hearing, dat if ve see a fire spit up tonight out here, it is Sharley, burning dese two acres of hay for spite."
"What on earth would Charley burn his own hay for?" Sayre seated herself on a neighboring bale and went on: "It seems to me, Charles Morgan, it's high time you took a few minutes off to tell me what you've had this hay baled for, anyway. And what are you loading it for? And where are you going to haul it? It's all our hay. We're not going to sell any of it, before spring, anyway; and then only a little if we happen to have any left. And one thing's dead certain: we haven't any place to put any such quantity of baled hay in."
"Neither have we any hay." Charley's tone was curt.
"Haven't any hay!"
"Not according to Hoskins."
"You know better. We have, too. Sam Parsons agreed – "
"What Sam Parsons agreed doesn't seem to have anything to do with it. Frank let me know that the first thing this morning. All the hay produced on this place belongs legally to Franklin Hoskins, Senior." Charley paused a moment, and his bitter tone had taken on a sneering irony when he proceeded: "But, because of what Parsons told us, it seems that Frank's father was willing to let us have the south ditch field crop."
"The south ditch field!"
Charley nodded. It was plain that he was getting a sort of satisfaction out of Sayre's reception of his news. "Said his dad was giving it to us out of charity because he felt sorry for two kids like you and me. There was only one possible answer to an offer like that. I told Frank straight out that we wanted neither Hoskins pity nor Hoskins charity. If his dad owned that crop, he'd take that crop. That was after I found out for sure."
"Found out?" Sayre seemed unable to do anything but repeat phrases.
But Charley's tongue had loosened at last. "I went straight to Nels, here. He took me to a place that had a 'phone. I called Mr. Hoskins up. He's gone to Cody for the day. Then Nels called up that young lawyer he's got chummy with lately. That settled it. The lawyer'd drawn the papers between Sam Parsons and Mr. Hoskins just before Sam went east."
"So that's what we get for trusting Sam Parsons a second time."
Charley shrugged his shoulders with weary impatience. What was news to Sayre was old to him, the cause of a long day's conflict. "Oh, I'm not blaming Sam much. He's just a weakling and Hoskins' dupe. He probably meant that agreement when he made it. Only he couldn't work it against Mr. Hoskins' shrewdness. And he didn't have the face to stay here after those papers were drawn. I'll bet that's more'n half why he cleared out."
"So, that was what Mr. Hoskins meant by 'the rest of the Parsons hay'!" Thoroughly aroused now, Sayre plunged into the message that had brought her to the spot.
To her amazement it acted upon Charley like a charge of revivifying electricity. Fishing through his pockets for a pencil stub and a scrap of paper, he figured rapidly for a moment in the fading light; then jumped to his feet.
"We can do it yet," he exulted, lifting one end of the bale on which he had been sitting. "Get every darn stem of Hoskins hay off this eighty tonight. Come on, Nels. You can stay, can't you, if you send young Nels home to do the chores after we finish this truck?" He tossed up the bale to young Nels, who moved into life again from where he had been lounging on the load. Charley stooped to another of the 70-80-pound bales, into which practically all the alfalfa hay of that region was sent to market, planning aloud all the while. "Sayre'll do our chores. Then she'll make us some sandwiches we can eat on our way into town. I'll take her in with us when we go, on the 'Shake, so she can drive that back while I bring the Hoskins truck. We'll make town with your truck and the 'Shake by the time that freight car's switched up, or soon after. We'll pick up a third man around the station to help hurry up the loading it. But," Charley hesitated, "there's reloading here when we get back. We'll have to make that snappy. And with only two of us – "
"There's me." All Sayre's fatigue was submerged in eagerness. She wanted action now to quell the consternation tingling through her, unvoiced, "No hay. No hay of our own. No hay at all. We've stock to feed. No money to buy hay with. What are we going to do?" Work that demanded the postponing of thinking out an answer was welcome. She was too tired tonight for her mind to face squarely the shock of this new blow.
Charley, meanwhile, was shaking his head. "Too hard. Still – " His decision wavered. "Could we manage it, Nels, do you think, with a little help from her?"
"I t'ank so."
Charley lifted another bale.
The early evening air around them was full of the dried alfalfa odor, dusty sweet. Grasshoppers chirped in the near distance. Here and there light-winged creatures flitted about. But nobody noticed any of this.
"Three tons on that load down town. Seven or so still on this farm. Two of that seven go in now on this truck and the 'Shake. One more reloading of all three buses'll just about fill that car, ten tons. We'll do it, Nels, yet," Charley rejoiced. "We'll wipe this claim clean of Hoskins hay tonight, south ditch field crop and all."
"South ditch crop!" Sayre broke out. "You don't mean you baled that stuff?"
Charley laughed for the first time Sayre had heard him that afternoon. "We sure did. A lot of it, too."
"But that hay's got the Yellows from too much alkali?"
"The Yellows, and goodness only knows what else! Haven't you been saying what a good place it'd make to run your poultry in because of the bugs in it?"
"I t'ank mebbe, Sharley, Papa Hoskins don't know yet you have give him back dat field. Young Frank ain't had no shance to tell him." Then conversation ceased to thrive; there was too much work to do.
Considerably later that evening Sayre stood at one end of the railroad station platform. Near by, Mr. Hansen and Charley were crowding last bales into the dingy-looking freight car, while some distance away, at the platform's other end, a stubby combination train, made up of one coach, one freight, and a caboose, was puffing, jerking and swaying to a stop in front of the prairie station of Upham, Wyoming.
"Guess I'll go find out the score, Chuck." Sayre knew that the passenger coach of the train held the boys of the high school football team, returning from the Hubble-Upham game.
Charley did not even turn his head. Instead he appeared completely engrossed in conversation with Mr. Hoskins, who had arrived on the spot in time to select the trimmest bales to be put near the door where the car would be plugged at Kansas City for market grading.
Sayre felt a surge of sympathy for her brother. Seeing the team of which he had once been captain return from a game in which he had had no share could hardly be a happy experience.
To greet it tonight would certainly have brought him no pleasure. A more dejected-looking outfit than those boys as they made their silent way, one by one, down the car steps to the station platform could scarcely be imagined. Not only were they stiff, bruised, and covered with patches of plaster; they were plainly ever sorer in spirit than body.
"How'd the game go?" Sayre asked Spencer Trowbridge, the first boy who came within earshot.
"Forty-four to nothing," he muttered. "What'd you expect after Charley quit on us the way he did? Frank Hoskins is finished for the season, too. Threw his shoulder out." Spens limped by without really stopping.
Linnie Petersen, a few feet behind Spens, took up the comment. "Frank takes it cool enough. Says it'll give him more time for stock judging. He's had it in for us anyway, 'cause we made Spens captain 'stead o' him after Morgan quit. It's all Morgan's fault. His quitting busted us all right, all the way 'round."
Small wonder Charley did not want to greet that returning team! Sayre was glad for him when everybody had left the scene.
As Sayre, Dad and Charley rode homeward late that night, squeezed close together on the seat of the 'Shake, the girl asked, "What did Mr. Hoskins have to say about the hay, Charley, when you were talking to him?"
"Tickled jolly there was so much. Didn't say a thing, either, about my having Nels working with me instead of one of his regular men. He looked considerable, though, at first sight of Nels. But he was mad then at the railroad company for sending him such a dirty old car. He was in such a big hurry that he had to take anything, I guess. It came in so late, too, that there wasn't time nor light enough to give it much of a cleaning.
"But when he found out we'd filled it up with what was left of the Parsons hay, and had six bales besides that we couldn't get in, he lighted up. Said he hadn't expected to get so much – that the crop had gone big – beyond anybody's reckoning. Then he began handing out a lot of sugary talk about you, Sayre. (I'd told him you helped with the last loading.) How gritty you are. And what a farmer you're getting to be! Not afraid to tackle any kind o' work."
"Did you explain about the south ditch field? How it made the extra hay?"
"Explained nothing. I left all that to his dear son, Frank, to report."
"SOMETHING'S wrong with this town."
It was Saturday evening, two worried weeks after the shipping of the Parsons hay. The problem of the Morgans' own hay was not yet solved. The twins had come to only one definite conclusion; not one pound of hay would they buy for either work or cash from Mr. Hoskins.
Now, Sayre with Hitty at her side had just turned the 'Shake from the country road into Upham's main business street, and nodded to young Ole Larsen, the first acquaintance she had met.
Dad, of course, was at the store. He had ridden into town at noon with a neighbor. Sayre was to bring him home later, along with Charley, who had gone on an all-day jaunt with the high school stock-judging team into the neighboring mountains to practice judging on some of the big stock ranches there.
"Something's decidedly wrong with this town." By this time the 'Shake had reached the end of the second business block, and Sayre had received constrained greetings from a half-dozen people, all local farmers and their wives.
"Whatever's wrong with this town, it is something connected with me." Sayre was now parking the 'Shake in front of the post-office. She had detected Rene Osgood there in a group of five or six town women gathered into a knot, chatting sociably. One could be pretty sure to learn from Rene the latest community news merely from the way the girl's edged talk would rattle on.
But as Sayre stepped down from the 'Shake to cross the sidewalk, the buzz of the knot-like group sank into a sudden silence which brought the girl sharp discomfort. She felt pricked all over by six or seven pairs of eyes, which seemed to be attempting to bore into her inner consciousness with hostile curiosity. Rene, however, moved forward to greet her much more naturally than had been her wont ever since the fight.
"Hello, Sayre. Bringing in some of your chickens and eggs to customers? Well, you're one pupil that's bringing our high school some success. And we sure need it. Isn't the season's football record awful? What with Charley's quitting, and Frank's shoulder? They say, though, that Frank's shoulder's really been weak ever since that fight he had with Charley."
"Oh, Rene, that's not – "
"And now! This latest! Right when everybody was beginning to count on the stock-judging team, and thinking our school had a chance at last at a team of some kind that'd amount to something. With such good chances for practice, too, what with Mr. Hoskins' holding up the baling till he gets what hay he has out of the warehouse, and both Charley and Frank having more time to spend on judging, and Mr. Kitchell making plans to give those boys a lot of training."
"Well, what's going to prevent – "
"But now! People are pretty excited, I can tell you, waiting to see what Charley has to say for himself. How do you suppose those two boys are getting along together today at those mountain ranches? Here's Mr. Kitchell, planning to take that team into the hills every possible week-end till the snow gets too heavy, to visit all the stock ranches around where there are cattle and sheep to judge, and make camping trips and outings out of it, so there'll be fun for the boys as well as work.
"Fun! Imagine any fun, can you, with a small bunch of boys that has both Frank and Charley in it? Well, what I say is, and right to you, too, Sayre, even if Charley is your twin brother, nobody human could expect Frank Hoskins, after this latest performance of Charley's, to pull hard and smooth on any team that still has Charley Morgan on it. They say, too – "
"They!" It was the first word Sayre had been able to wedge in so as to make itself noticed. "Who is this 'they' anyway that's responsible for all the false and catty things that you, Rene Osgood, always manage to hear and repeat over this whole community?"
Grasping the hippity-hopping Hitty by one hand Sayre walked away, head held high. She'd just take her time doing her errands, without stopping to speak to another person. She wouldn't go to Hosiers' store, though; it was too much the center of things, too full of people talking among themselves. She'd buy the heavy black thread and the chicken grit she needed at that insignificant little store farther down. If inside of her she was full of curious dismay at whatever this latest development was that she had failed to learn from Rene, nobody on that busy street was going to suspect it!
Saturday evening, the one evening when the stores kept open, was always the busiest time of the week in the raw, wind-swept town of Upham. Shopping was a slow process, intermingled with a sociability among waiting customers which Sayre had come to enjoy. Tonight, however, although she saw many people she knew, the sociability failed to include her. And it certainly was not all her own fault; talk died down in any vicinity the minute she approached it. Yet she managed to overhear rather fully one half-enlightening conversation, uttered by high, unguarded women's voices in the little store where she bought the grit.
"It's altogether too much for anybody to stand when one high school kid's spite against another high school kid goes as far as that. Wreckin' a whole locality o' folks that ain't ever done either of 'em no harm."
"I got my notion o' what's at the bottom of it. There's been a lot o' this talk here lately about its bein' a mistake for this irrigation project to stick so much to selling hay. 'Twas the teacher started that talk."
"If he did, he ain't had nothing to do with this thing. It'd be too hard on his own business. Nearly all that part-time class o' his was furriners, you know. They've all been growing alfalfa for Hoskins' contest. Now, that's busted, and like as not they'll take it out on the teacher. They're that kind, dumb and stubborn-like, you know, when they get a grouch about a thing that don't go right."
"Well, I dunno about that. Most of 'em eat out of Nels Hansen's hand, and he swears strong by the teacher. There's some say Nels is in on this thing, too – more'n what the teacher is."
"Nels 'n the teacher ain't in on it, neither of 'em. They're both too square. Look at the teacher. Hasn't he helped every boy in that contest all he could with his alfalfa growing, whether he believed in what he was growing it for or not. Besides, he's got sense. He hasn't been forcing people to swallow pills they don't want to."
"Well, he ain't had sense in not shutting that boy up, with all his talk about vocational agriculture high school work being able to teach every farmer on this whole reclamation project, kids and old men, alike. Charley Morgan'll find out quick enough now who're his betters. Trouble with that kid is, he's spoilt, and spoilt bad. Got his head so turned with praise about that dinky little manure spreader, and then them peas, that he sets himself up as fit to run all the farmin' on the whole Pawaukee Irrigation Project, and Hoskins' hay business, thrown in. The gall of him!"
"He's always seemed such a nice boy, too, so pleasant and friendly. I'd never have – "
"I'm sorry for Mr. Hoskins, with those suits coming on, and all."
"I'm a heap more sorry for the rest of us. Hoskins won't have to take our hay now, I suppose,
even in payment of debts. And it's a sure thing we
can't sell it ourselves, not when Missouri – "
"Sayre, when are we going to the movies?"
"Right away." The tug of Hitty's impatient hand on hers had roused Sayre to the realization of how intently she had been eavesdropping.
She was glad to lose herself in the darkness of the movie house. Because tonight the 'Shake would have to wait for Charley, who had gone to the hills in Mr. Kitchell's car, Sayre had promised herself and Hitty this rare indulgence. But her own anticipated pleasure failed. Her enjoyment was more than blunted by troubled foreboding. And that foreboding was growing as, after the movie, she sat beside the now very drowsy Hitty in the 'Shake, which was parked in front of Hoskins' store. There she awaited her father's coming with an assumed unselfconsciousness. Although the hour was growing late for Upham, two or three groups of men were still standing on the neighboring walk, deep in somber converse.
Dad's appearance, when it came, brought Sayre anything but reassurance. Never, so it seemed to her, through all the disasters of their family's shifting fortunes, had she seen her father look so worn, so apologetically dejected, as when his springless step carried him across that distance between the store and the waiting 'Shake. Friendly and kindly by nature, with a friendliness and kindliness that had flourished and bloomed beyond all precedent during that last year's experience in that store, he walked through those knots of men, every one of whom he knew, with lowered head and without greetings. They on their part merely stepped aside to let him pass, watching him move forward, and stopping all conversation as long as he was within earshot.
Defensive resentment against a fate she did not understand mounted in Sayre. She greeted her father with casual pleasantness, entirely ignoring his obvious mood. She waited until he was completely seated, then turned on the ignition, pushed in the clutch, threw the car into gear, and started the 'Shake on its chugging journey with unusual deliberation. And she refused to give it anything approaching speed until it had sputtered its way down the entire length of Upham's business street to the first residential corner.
"Well, Dad?" At last she had turned to her silent father. Her words were inquiry, sympathy and protest, all in one.
His answer was simple, disheartening fact. "I've lost my position."
Sayre did not dare to reply until she had control of her impulsiveness. "Why?" she managed at last.
"He says because he can't afford to keep so much help any longer. That he's got to manage with a clerk or two less."
"Is that the truth?"
"True enough, I guess, considering the situation. But turning off Charley's dad was easy, even rather pleasant. I've always been afraid that the trouble between those two boys would affect my position. And now I can't blame Mr. Hoskins. I certainly can't blame him."
Her father's acquiescent dejection suddenly angered Sayre. She threw overboard all attempt to control her impulsiveness. "Well, I certainly can. I call it downright petty spitefulness. After you've done more than twice the work he's paid you for all these months. And held him trade that he would certainly have lost after the water users' meeting, if you hadn't been his clerk. I hope he loses it good and plenty from now on."
Her father shook his head. "I would never have thought it of Charley. It's that that's taken the heart out of me more than anything else."
"Thought what of Charley?" was on the tip of Sayre's tongue. Instead of saying it, she pressed out a raucous honk and brought the 'Shake to an abrupt stop. For there on the corner, walking along with a brisk, set determination, was Charley, whom they had expected to meet in front of the house where Mr. Kitchell boarded.
"Mr. Hoskins still at the store?" the boy demanded at once of his father.
"Yes, he's alone there. Going over the ledger before he locks up."
"Take me there, Sayre. Fast as you can."
Sayre obeyed, as grimly quiet now as her brother was. She knew this Charley. She had seen him twice before; first, at the fight; and then again, two weeks ago today, when the last of the baling was going on.
He jumped off the 'Shake in front of the store before Sayre had stopped. "Wait here. I won't be long." With one bound he reached the closed door, opened it and disappeared.
Sayre sat tense behind the wheel, grateful for her father's preoccupation with Hitty, who had been startled out of sleep by the 'Shake's jerking movements. The men who had been in front of the store had disappeared. The empty street was wrapped in the perfect quiet of a country-town night. To Sayre it seemed as if every inch of her were listening; only, there was nothing to hear. Oh, yes, there was. Voices. From within the store, uttering indistinguishable sounds. Or was it only one voice, that high, nervous voice, growing more and more shrill, more and more uncontrolled with anger? It sounded, too, as if it were approaching nearer and nearer the door.
Sayre jumped over the wheel. "I'm going in, Dad."
Before she reached the door that high-pitched jumble of sound, rising to a crescendo of fury, became distinguishable words. "Believe you, you snake in the grass? Y-you immigrants' and school-teacher's tool! You experienced community adviser! How about my boy? Did you let anybody believe him when he said he knew nothing about that turkey-stealing – you slick, smooth-faced crook, with your good looks and your winning ways? The public's on to you at last. They're finding out now a thing or two. As for me, get out of here and stay out! But don't think I'm done with you. I'll find a way to settle this matter between us!"
The door swung open dramatically from the inside, and out of it Charley walked. His movements appeared dazed. At the same time they were not without a certain boyish dignity. Sayre threw one glance toward the angry man who still held his hand on the inner door-knob. It was a frightened look from the eyes of a frightened girl. Just the same, there was a flare in those eyes which, without consciousness of the words, said just as eloquently, "So this is what the important, gracious Mr. Hoskins is like when he really lets himself go!"
Charley flung himself into the empty wagon box of the 'Shake. "Head for home, Sayre," he muttered and lapsed into silence.
"Charley," his father began.
But Sayre in her quivering sensitiveness laid a restraining hand on her father's knee. "Oh, please, Dad," she begged. "Not now." Much though she herself longed to be enlightened, she knew that this was not the time. And Dad understood.
Both the tension and the silence had lessened but little when they reached home. Mr. Morgan got out at the back door to carry Hitty into the house, but Charley did not move until Sayre had driven the 'Shake into the makeshift shed which served them as garage. Then he leaped out and stood waiting for his sister to turn off the car lights.
"You, too, Sayre?" The bitterness of the words cut into the quiet.
"Believe it? Mr. Hoskins said my own family believed it of me. Even my own father. Said Dad had been trying to apologize to him, for my boyish thoughtlessness."
Sayre's eyes blazed. "Believe it?" she cried. "Me? Of you? I should say not. Not now or ever. Not for one instant! No matter what!"
Charley leaned back against the wall of the shed, eyes suddenly downcast. A quiver passed over the lower part of his face.
Sayre, seeing it, wanted to cry. Was this Charley, the brother whose decision, whose self-control, whose courage in going straight to Mr. Hoskins, she had been admiring every minute since they had met him on that corner down town? Had he really been like this all the while underneath? Just a deeply hurt and very lonely boy? She stepped lightly out of the 'Shake and moved close to him.
"Chuck," she said, "before we go in, tell me, please, won't you, exactly what this thing is Mr. Hoskins thinks you've done?"
"You mean that you don't know?"
"I don't have to know, Charley, to be sure you haven't done one single thing that's crooked."
Charley's somber face lighted with gratitude, but his answering voice was grim. "Mr. Hoskins got a telegram today. A hot one. The State of Missouri has placed an embargo on all hay from the whole Pawaukee Irrigation Project. And if Missouri won't admit our hay – " There was no need to finish his sentence. Charley merely added, "That carload we shipped two weeks ago today had alfalfa weevil in it."
Sayre sank to a sitting position on the running board of the car. Weevil! The pest that every grower was so afraid of! That was so much more deadly than any other. So fearfully hard to check. That parts of Utah were fighting so desperately. That Wyoming had always been so proud, publishing the fact far and wide, never to have had within her borders. The girl's mind reached out frantically, trying to grasp the full meaning of her brother's statement.
"And Mr. Hoskins thinks you knew it?" she gasped.
"Worse than that: says it was all a put-up job. Says I made Frank take that south ditch field hay and let him bale it because I knew it had weevil in it. That they'd probably bred in those tangled weeds along the ditch bank; it's just the place for them. Says I hustled that particular hay into that particular car on purpose. First, to queer his vocational agriculture alfalfa contest. And then to stop this Pawaukee Project's sale of hay. Says it's all spite work of mine because he happens to be Frank's father, and because he does not agree with Mr. Kitchell about alfalfa selling on the Pawaukee!"
Sayre Tells Her Dream
"HOW CAN ANYBODY really believe a thing like that about Charley?" Sayre, lying awake in the blackness of the night, repeated the thought for the fiftieth time. "Yet Mr. Hoskins said that even Charley's own father believed it, and he's probably told that to goodness only knows how many people."
Sayre, of course, understood Dad. He was always too easily crushed by the first blow from bad tidings. But he was just as incapable of believing any ill of anyone for long. He would free Charley from all blame, she knew, the very first time he heard Charley say he was not guilty. "Only it'll be hard for Charley to forget very soon that right in front of Mr. Hoskins, Dad believed what that man thought about him even for a moment. And Dad'll feel bad about it, too. Poor Dad, out of a job again after he's grown contented in that store as I never can remember his being.
"But it's Charley and this mess he's in that I've got to think a way out of first." How far would Charley's popularity help him now? Not very far, the girl's clear-headedness realized. What she had seen and heard on the street of Upham that very evening had already shown her that.
"It'll be the same way at school. The father of just about everybody there sells hay. And there's the alfalfa contest. That's ruined.
"School's bad enough. But the baling crew's worse. Every one of those men has raised all the alfalfa he could as his one money crop. How much will they talk? They've certainly seen plenty these last few weeks of how things are between Frank Hoskins and Charley."
The girl recalled in detail how disgusted the crew boss had been by Frank's and Charley's warfare in their midst. There was no telling, either, how many foolish speeches, such as those that she herself had overheard, Charley had made before that bunch. And such speeches, repeated and exaggerated far and wide throughout the community as Sayre knew only too well they would be, were enough to destroy anybody's confidence. Even people too generous to believe all Mr. Hoskins accused Charley of would think he'd done the wrong in a spirit of thoughtless, boyish spite.
Besides school and the baling crew, there was Charley's pea project, the thing that had given the boy the chance to talk and champion everywhere Mr. Kitchell's ideas about the community's mistake of wholesale alfalfa marketing.
One by one Sayre's mind milled over every happening of Charley's connection with that fateful hay. The way in which the details piled up circumstantial evidence left the girl appalled.
"As for Frank and his father," the torturing candor of her mind went on, "there're those lawsuits of Mr. Hoskins coming on, and all those expenses to meet when he can't sell any hay. Mr. Hoskins will know how to make the most of that. He'll have people feeling sorry for him and for Frank, in a way they never have been before. And being real sorry for a person's just about the same as being his friend.
"Another thing. What did Mr. Hoskins mean by not being 'done with Charley'? What can he do to him?" Here Sayre's thinking only groped. She was far too inexperienced to have any understanding of the legal situation. "Surely there isn't any way to make a boy pay when neither he nor his father has anything to pay with, not even a job. But there's jail!" Sayre shied away from that idea with a long quiver of her body.
For relief she turned deliberately to that side of the situation which she had not yet dared to face, their chance for school. School for herself? Yes. But even more, school for Charley. "How is it ever to be managed with all of us out of paying work? There's no use pretending Charley can get a part-time job now as easily as he used to. There hasn't been any kind of job easy for anybody to get anywhere on this irrigation project this whole miserable season. And now, after all this, when nobody can sell his hay, when the demand for work'll be worse than it's ever been – " Sayre stared, wide-eyed, at the future in the spirit of middle-of-the-night hopelessness.
"Just the same," she vowed fiercely to herself, "I will not give up school for either of us. How can I, when every hope and plan I've lived for this whole last year through depends on our going to school?" The girl clenched her hands hard and lay rigid under the bedclothes.
After a while she sat up in bed to relieve her sense of strain. Then she covered the sleeping Hitty with the blankets her own restlessness had swept away, lay down again herself, turned over on her side and dropped at last into a troubled sleep. In her dream she was talking to Charley, not the Charley of last night, but the old, good-natured, irresponsible Charley, who was laughing at her for worrying, and announcing with off-hand confidence, "Oh, I'll get a job all right. Of course, I've got to quit school."
"Quit school!" she blazed at him. "Quit! Even Frank Hoskins didn't quit. Everybody's had it in for him all fall, and what's he done? Taken a real hold of things, worked better than he's ever done before. He's sure, now, to make the stock-judging team. Is he the fellow you're going to let prove himself more of a man than you are? Not if you're my brother, you're not. I'll tell you one thing. We Morgans always used to be quitters; but when we landed on this good-for-nothing Wyoming claim, we quit being quitters, and we're going to stay quit!"
Then she opened her eyes to see, outside her window, day breaking over the wide Wyoming plains.
A little later Charley arose from the constraint of the breakfast table. "I'm going into town, Sayre. Don't know when I'll be back."
"He's going to Mr. Kitchell," Sayre's swift intuition told her. "And it's just the thing to do." Aloud she said, "Does Mr. Kitchell know?"
"Must, by now. Didn't last night. I got it from a fellow I bumped into on leaving his place."
Sayre's heart lightened a little as she set about clearing the breakfast table. Why hadn't she thought more last night about the way Mr. Kitchell understood and befriended boys? Surely the man who had won Charley's respect and confidence as no other person ever had would guide her brother skilfully.
Charley came home in mid-afternoon. Silent and serious though he still was, Sayre realized at once, not without a pang, that he did not need her now as he had needed her last night.
"You've been with Mr. Kitchell?" she ventured.
"You bet I have," came with a flash of Charley's old spontaneity, which vanished as he added: "There's an assistant janitor needed at the school. He hopes that with Nels Hansen's pull I may have a chance at the job. I didn't mean to tell you, though, till it was something more'n a chance."
"It's part-time work? You aren't quitting school?"
"Of course I'm not quitting school." The resentment in Charley's tone was not against Sayre. "What good would quitting do? I couldn't get a full-time job around here now for love or money, could I? And I've got a fine new reputation to live down in this community before I shake its dust off my clodhoppers. You didn't expect me to clear out, did you, and leave the whole load of defending me on the shoulders of a girl? I'm not exactly that brand of fellow."
After all, there were little bubbling springs of happiness even in the most barren stretches of life.
Charley's appointment to the assistant janitorship did not materialize. "Didn't get it," was the boy's curt statement to his sister after the school-board meeting. "Mr. Hoskins's still president, you know!"
The Morgans soon learned that Mr. Hoskins' influence was enough to keep Charley from getting any work his friends tried to seek out for him. A boy with such a cloud of dishonor over his name, all that circumstantial evidence that the community had become so glib about, could not, of course, be trusted with a job anywhere.
Beyond the exerting of damaging influence, however, Mr. Hoskins' prosecution of Charley did not go. Why? Sayre often wondered. She did not put one bit of faith in those speeches of Mr. Hoskins which some member or other of the Hansen family reported to her from time to time. Sayre could imagine just how the man looked when he said them. "I can't bring myself to push my just claims against a mere boy, however guilty," or "I pity the father too much to demand punishment. I can't bring myself to add to the burdens of a man who has such a boy for a son."
Sayre writhed at these speeches when she first heard of them. Later she came to a comforting conclusion: "The real reason he doesn't do anything to Charley is the influence of Mr. Kitchell and Mr. Hansen and Mr. Cowan." Those three men remained Charley's staunch friends.
It did not take Sayre long to become aware that Mr. Kitchell's quiet, firmly outspoken confidence in Charley never wavered in spite of all the appearances that the teacher could not explain away; it did not waver even before the discredit that the teacher's support of the boy soon began to cast upon his own reputation.
Sayre was too keen not to realize, too, that the air had grown thick with such insinuating hints and rumors. "The teacher ain't never indorsed that alfalfa contest, ye know." "Don't believe he's weepin' any 'cause it ain't come to nothing." "Not so very surprising that Kitchell stands up for the Morgan kid. How much do you reckon he suspected, or, um-m-m, knew, mebbe, huh? – about that boy's performances beforehand?" Hearing such speeches made Sayre sick with helpless resentment. What a return, she often thought, for all Mr. Kitchell had done for them!
What effect was the realization of such talk having upon Charley? The girl believed that her brother was taking it to heart even more deeply than she, for he never spoke about it. There were to be so many things, later that winter, about which the grim, different, doggedly-working Charley never talked.
Mr. Hansen, of course, was as outspoken in his defense of Charley as Mr. Kitchell was, and he was even more widely gossiped about because of the part he had played in the shipping of the luckless hay. But that fact did not worry Sayre at all. Why should it when the big Norwegian himself was so indifferent? Not for a moment did any of the talk affect his independence of attitude. All that winter, wherever he was, he alternately chuckled and droned with characteristic humor and insinuation about both his own and Mr. Hoskins' parts in the whole alfalfa affair.
Part of the time, during the weeks that followed the alfalfa embargo, Sayre did not sleep very well, not nearly so well as a girl should. Instead she spent many a wakeful night hour milling over in her mind both her own and Charley's plans in the face of the financial situation and the pressing family needs.
"How can I be so selfish as to refuse to spend my project money for things we've simply got to have? Yet I really haven't much money. If only I hadn't lost those early potatoes! I've learned Mr. Hansen thinks that my late ones will net about two hundred and fifty dollars. And I've got a hundred and seventy-five dollars clear from my fries and early eggs, and that forty dollars I made selling garden truck to Yellowstone tourists. The turkey market's only just beginning, too. I ought to get a good deal in from that. But I've got to keep all my best birds – both pullets and cockerels, for my continuation project next year.
"I've done pretty well, I guess. But there are all those notes of Aunt Hitty's I've got to meet at the bank. If I'm not going to borrow again next year, and I'm determined I'm not, even from Aunt Hitty, it's time we stopped doing that; I've got to hang on to every cent I can take in. There are my old projects and my new ones to finance, and all my other plans. I'm not going to give up one of them. That would be – quitting.
"So would it be for Charley, too. He can't spend what he gets on the family any more than I can, because he's got to pay for that purebred Rambouillet ram he's bargained for, and for those purebred Rambouillet ewes. There's Dad's pigs he took over, of course. But it took all seven farrows out of the spring litter to pay for the old Hampshire sow; her being registered made her so expensive.
"Thank goodness we don't owe Mr. Hoskins one cent. That's one comfort. He'd like to have us, I believe. That's why he acted so funny – it was two days before the embargo, too – when Charley cancelled Dad's note for the sow. Seems to hurt him to see a Morgan make good at anything.
"There's the gilts. But there were only three of them. And those we've got to hang onto till they farrow in the spring. That's the only way to get livestock.
"Of course, there're Charley's peas. A good crop like that, at three and a half cents a pound, will net him 'most three hundred dollars. I'm not worried any more about his selling them, the way I was right after the embargo, when people were so mad at Charley that they began taking away their orders. Now his buyers are coming back, all right; that's Mr. Hansen's doing, I suppose. Still, they really want those peas even though they do make horrid jokes about the pests they're afraid are hidden in the crop, and things like that.
"No, Charley isn't going to have any trouble selling. Only, most of his buyers can't pay cash. And Charley's glad, of course, to take hay now it's so cheap and we haven't any of our own. Our hay problem's settled; that's another comfort. Charley's glad to take grain, too, when he can get it. Of course his three acres didn't raise nearly enough for us both. He's getting in some money, though. And I've promised to pay him cash for the grain I use. Then there's that wagon-box he's been making lately in farm shop at school. Mr. Cowan's offered him thirty-nine dollars for that."
Thus Sayre's thoughts would travel on and on and on. "I'd hoped so to buy a cow of our own, a really good one, tested at least, if not pedigreed, and maybe a heifer or two besides. I couldn't make a real school project out of them, of course, because Charley'd have to help me providing part of the feed. But we could do it together, like a project, keeping exact records and everything, and learn so much. It would mean more milk for us, for the young pigs and for my chickens. But that's not the main thing; it would be the beginning of a herd.
"And there'll have to be cash on hand in the spring for seed and water rental. And we need a plow and a drag so. I'd even thought we could get a horse next spring; they're pretty cheap and it's so hard to rent or borrow at just the right time."
Plans like these would form and soar, often only to crash to earth again when consciousness of reality insisted upon intruding itself. "There's no help for it, though. We'll have to spend money for things we must have. Like coal. Getting it from those near-by surface mines doesn't cost so much now that we've a truck of our own to haul it in. But it takes cash. And there's school books. And gas. And oil. And we simply can't get along any longer without a few things to wear. We've all got to have shoes, at least, and underwear. But most of those are sort of special buys.
"It's living expenses I mind most. How can I give up my money just to live on?" she would wail to herself in the darkness, concluding stubbornly, "I can't do it, and I won't let Charley, no matter what Dad thinks of us. I just can't spend my money or trade-in more than a few of my eggs for flour and sugar and coffee and kerosene and all the things Dad used to get from the Hoskins store. I not only can't do it; I won't!"
It was not selfishness that prompted this resolve; it was loyalty to her dream. That dream's fulfillment was to mean so much that the thought of even postponing it was not to be endured.
Such was Sayre's spirit at times. There were other nights when she was torn by misgiving. "After all," she would reason then, "I'm a Morgan, too. What if, after my seeming so selfish to my family, this dream that I care so much about that I'm willing, for a while anyway, to sacrifice everybody and everything for it, what if it should turn out to be just another crazy Morgan scheme?"
Her conflict took her in the end to Mr. Kitchell. She sought him out in the very same office where she had first met him just a little more than a year ago. How much older and wiser and more at home she felt now. Yet she and Mr. Kitchell were sitting on the very same stiff chairs. His blond bigness was turning away from his desk toward her with that same interested look on his steady, kind face. She began pouring out her story with the same precipitate impulsiveness, such a stifling sort of beating in her heart that she could scarcely control her voice.
Sayre began pouring out her story
If Mr. Kitchell discouraged her, how could she bear it? Why, that dream of hers had become almost her very life. Her eye studied every shade of expression on the teacher's listening face. So great was the relief that study brought that it almost unnerved her.
"I had my heart set on it in a kind of way that very first day I came to see you, Mr. Kitchell. And I've had it set on it ever since. But it was only after the water users' meeting that I really knew what we'd have to do to make my dream come true."
Behind its firm, quiet look Mr. Kitchell's face was all aglow. It was more than approval he was giving her: it was the very heartiest encouragement! Before it the last of her reserves went down. She even told him how secret she had meant to keep this dream, until she could prove it something more than a dream.
For an hour Sayre and the teacher worked together, making out tentative plans. Those plans had in them a whole lot about Charley.
At last the girl arose to go, her tanned cheeks dark-flushed, her deep blue eyes alight with eager visions.
"I'd love to tell Charley," she said. "It doesn't seem exactly fair not to when he counts so much. Now, too, when he's feeling so awfully down, it might do him a lot of good. But I simply don't dare, Mr. Kitchell. I'm too afraid he'd think I was trying to manage him again. If he did, that would completely spoil everything."
It was two days after this consultation that Mr. Cowan sent for Charley, telling him to bring his sister with him out to the Cowan place. The young people complied at once, to find the man they sought in his front yard. He greeted Charley with his usual terse directness. "I understand the situation you're in. It's tough, of course. But struggle it through, boy. I'm back of you. I can't give you your old job back. But I've enough odd work about my place to use all your available time. Mrs. Cowan, too, has work for your sister. If you'll go up to the house," the speaker had turned toward Sayre, "she'll tell you about it."
Mr. Cowan, as usual, proved even better than his brief word. Later, when spring had come on, he even used Dad Morgan, too, often for days at a time.
"Yet everything any one of us does is 'made work,'" Sayre often thought bitterly during that hard winter, when even school had become a stern affair. "Things about his place he might never have done at all if he didn't want to give us Morgans a chance to earn. We're really just objects of charity."
The experience was a hard one for the girl to endure. But she never wavered in enduring it. How else could she have hung on to her dream?
And hanging on to that dream had become more important than ever. Why, in the end, although in a roundabout way, it might help to right everything, even the wrong to Mr. Kitchell.
In the Dark
TO SAYRE'S surprise, as time went on Charley seemed to have no need of a sustaining power such as she drew from her dream. Nothing could have made him work with a grimmer, more determined intensity than he did all that winter. Sayre even came before long to feel a little awed before the new, silent Charley of these cruel, troubled days.
"He always could hammer like a nailer at anything he really got interested in. And making himself as perfect as he can at stock-judging is the one thing he's got left now to care much about," she tried often to explain to herself, knowing full well that her explanation was not completely satisfactory.
By spring both the arid and the fertile acres of Parsons' eighty would be well dotted with livestock. The Corriedale "bums" would be ewes then and have lambs of their own. The purebred ewes Charley had bought would also lamb in April. The Hampshire sow would have another litter. Each of last year's three gilts would litter. Charley had traded seed peas for two heifers, one of them old enough to freshen in the spring. It was surprising how fast livestock could increase.
And the Morgan livestock throve. How could it help thriving, cared for as Charley cared for it all through that school year, toiling early and late, with a painstaking, methodical, studious, intelligent fidelity that never wavered? Work seemed to have become the passion of the boy's life. And yet all the while underneath his new, grim quiet, Sayre knew well, the boy was dreadfully, dreadfully unhappy.
"It isn't natural for anyone his age to work like that," Sayre's groping, inexperienced mind often pondered. "Something special's making him do it. He's getting a kind of comfort out of doing it, of course. But it isn't the right kind of comfort, or it wouldn't have made him so different – so silent – so sort of set."
There were times when Sayre bitterly resented that silence. "He knows how lonely I am. Even if the part-time group is bigger this year, it's more foreign than ever. I can't really chum with them. And a poor kind of sister I'd be, if I went with any of the other high school folks when they're feeling and believing about my brother the way they are."
What she wanted to know about most was how things really were these days between Charley and Frank Hoskins. Not for worlds would she question an outsider about the situation. That the unwholesome rivalry between the two boys was more intense than ever, she felt sure. What terrified her was the fear that it was becoming a matter of truly alarming bitterness. Charley's behavior increased this fear. For no allusion whatever to Frank Hoskins ever fell from Charley's lips. Only once or twice did Sayre become daring enough to try to force it.
"Frank Hoskins is raising both sheep and Hampshire pigs for projects this year, isn't he?" she remarked one evening. "And doing awfully well?"
Apparently the question penetrated not at all the absorption with which Charley was bending over the bulletins spread out before him on the kitchen table. Charley was "up to something new" lately. That wasn't surprising; Charley always had been up to something new. Now it seemed to be entomology stuff he was getting excited about. He'd been poking about, too, in the south ditch shrubbery and in the alfalfa fields.
Sayre, perched opposite her brother, did not at once return her attention to her own studying. Instead she sat trying to summon courage to renew her attack. Before she had succeeded Charley's voice precipitated itself out of his abstraction.
"Sayre, that south ditch alfalfa field – you remember you said last summer it had bugs in it?"
Remember? She should say she did. Had Charley really no idea how she'd suffered at the recollection of those speeches?
"What were they like – those bugs? Were there any little beetles, about as big as a grain of wheat, brown, with gray and black hairs in sort o' spots and stripes on their backs, or even pretty black in color, with long, slender snouts?"
"No, I never saw a beetle, big or little, that I can remember."
"Did you ever see," Charley persisted, "late last spring or early last summer any little alfalfa-green worms with black heads? About a quarter-inch long. Crawling around up the outside of the alfalfa stems to the leaf buds, or clinging around the leaf buds?"
"Or in the summer, tiny white spots of fuzzy, cobweb-like stuff on top of the alfalfa plants?"
"But you said you turned your turkeys in there because – "
"I turned them in there to eat the caterpillars and the grasshoppers. But they didn't last long. The turkeys cleaned 'em out so fast I wished there were more of 'em so my birds could get as fat on bugs as some other people's did. Frank Hoskins', for instance."
The look that leaped into Charley's face startled Sayre. And lugging in Frank Hoskins' name hadn't done a thing toward satisfying her curiosity, either.
How were Charley and Frank managing the situation, together as they were in practically all their school work? At school apparently they were ignoring each other pretty well. Sayre had several times seen them pass one another in the hall and been proud of Charley's bearing. Not a bit self-conscious, exactly as if he were not aware that such a person as Frank Hoskins was anywhere around.
And Frank's manner was almost equally successful. At least so Sayre had thought until that day she had caught a look from those dark, brooding eyes. Ever since, that look had haunted her. "How he does hate Charley," she thought. She would shudder at the recollection. Yet that gleam had not been all hatred. There had been something else in it. Something horrid, to be sure, but something new. Could it have been fear?
What Sayre really wanted to know about, however, was how those two boys managed on the stock-judging trips when the team, both regulars and alternates, were often away together at week-ends for two or three days at a time. Charley simply would not talk. And Sayre believed Frank to be equally silent; he was always such a sullen thing, anyway. But the other boys of the team, apparently, had nothing to say, either. And that certainly was queer. Well, if they didn't, it was probably because of Mr. Kitchell. Everybody knew how he hated gossip, and how the loyalty and respect he won from his boys made them observe his wishes.
The most surprising bit of evidence which came Sayre's way was that Rene Osgood seemed to be as ignorant as she. Late one afternoon she saw Rene resolutely pursue a reluctant Spens Trowbridge half the length of a nearly empty school hall. Rene cornered Spens at last, the boy looking so uncomfortable that Sayre wanted to laugh. Sayre had always liked Spens. She would almost have been willing to question him, herself, if only his chumminess with Charley hadn't fallen off so that winter. Sayre did not believe, though, that this was altogether Spens' fault.
"What do we do on our stock-judging trips?"
She could tell by Spens' voice that he was parrying for time. Her own approaching step loitered defiantly within eavesdropping radius.
"We work. Morgan and Hoskins set the pace, trying to nose out each other. And the rest of us run along behind with our tongues hanging out, trying to keep in the race with 'em at all. There's something a little too nasty about it all for any real fun. But it's good for us, I guess. For let me tell you one thing, we're getting to be some team. And when we go to the state high schools' judging contest at Laramie next spring!"
The overtall boy shrugged his stooped shoulders to indicate that expression was beyond him, "Unless," he added as if throwing off the strain of a silence which had become too much for him, "the smoking volcano we're all playing 'round blows up first. If it does, it'll sure wipe out everything within reach."
THE VOLCANO did not erupt. Spring vacation was the time set for the agricultural judging contests of Wyoming's high schools at the agricultural college of the state university. When that time finally arrived, both Frank Hoskins and Charley Morgan were still members of Upham High School's stock-judging team, narrowed down now to three picked boys.
Mr. Hansen took Charley into town for the young judgers' early morning departure. A long day of hard driving lay before them; then three days of competitive judging and being entertained by the state university at Laramie.
"Only seex boys can go. T'ree for stock-judging. Two for crops judging. (Dey von't do nuttin'.) Von for poultry judge. De alternate can't go. He's got de flu like you and your papa yust had, Hitty. Four boys and Meester Keetchell go in de teacher's car, and Frank Hoskins and von udder boy – not Sharley, you bet – go in Frank Hoskins' roadster."
Two of the Morgans were leaning over the gate to listen, and the third was peeking through, lower down, while Mr. Hansen's big form drooped loquaciously over the steering wheel of his truck, halted directly in front of the Morgan place.
"Dey vas sure von tickled bunch o' kids. Only Frank Hoskins has been to Laramie. He vas dere yust lately vid his pa, ven Hoskins, he vent dere on business. Vat business?" The monotonous voice broke into the characteristic chuckle with the questioning inflection. "Dose lawsuits, mebbe?"
"Papa Hoskins vas de big man in dat send-off crowd, you bet. He strut 'round like your turkey cock, Sayre. But he's nice like a pussy, too. And vat do you t'ank? He vill have his arm 'round de Ag teacher's shoulder. Dat Hoskins, ven he vants, he can forget so good he forgets he's forgot. Vat to me vas so funny – " the chuckle grew – "de Ag teacher didn't vant him."
Mr. Hansen slowly straightened his big body and threw his truck into gear. "Next Friday, late, Sayre, you vill go into town vid me and my Nels?"
The question was characteristic of the man's thoughtful neighborliness. Trust Mr. Hansen, too-relentless worker though he was, to manage to have business in town at a time of an interesting occurrence.
Sayre accepted eagerly. For in Laramie at six-thirty o'clock on the coming Friday, so the program of activities had stated, in the big dining-room of the university cafeteria, the high school judgers and their hosts would be gathered at a banquet at which the results of the competitive contests of the previous days would be officially announced.
"Right avay Meester Ketchell vill send vord how de judging comes out, by telephone. And Mr. Hoskins vill put how it all is on his store vindow."
When Sayre and the two Hansens reached town on the following Friday evening there was nothing as yet written on the plate-glass windows. But already the walk and the street in front of the Hoskins store were packed with a restless milling crowd that had practically stopped traffic. Mr. Hansen managed to manipulate his truck into a narrow parking place directly across the street. Before it reached the curb, young Nels had clambered out from the box over a back wheel and disappeared.
"Vid your good young eyes," the older Hansen was remarking meanwhile to Sayre, "ve can see better standing up in dis truck dan down low in dat crowd. Dis town must t'ank our stock-judging boys vill vin, else it vould not buzz so much."
"Oh, look. There comes Mr. Hoskins." Sayre swirled around on the truck's front seat as on a pivot, and over the seat's low back dropped, feet foremost and standing, on to the empty floor of the truck's wagon box; then hurried to its rear end.
With the deliberate ungainliness of muscles long stiffened by heavy physical labor Mr. Hansen followed her. "He vill speak."
Sayre nodded, eyes intent on the scene just beyond and below. The crowd was still milling, each individual striving for a better place, but its babel was dying down into an expectant hush. Mr. Hoskins had completely emerged from the store door. He disappeared, raised above the crowd as if he had mounted some chair, barrel or table placed there for him. He was high enough for Sayre to see that he held a paper in his hand.
But it was the bearing of the man on which the girl's interest was centered. Important, and more than a little pompous? But then he was always that. Very gracious? Very suave? But that, too, he so often was. Eager to persuade, to conciliate? No, no, not this time. Triumphant? That was it, exultingly, overwhelmingly triumphant! Triumph fairly oozed from him. It was in the erectness of his body; in the pose of his head; in the dramatic gesture with which he raised his long right arm, and held out commandingly over the crowd the open palm of his hand; in the expectant, dramatic dignity with which he awaited the silence he was demanding; above all, in the accents of that high, nervous voice which cut so penetratingly into that silence, its words coming clearly distinguishable at first over the bobbing heads of the crowd.
At once Sayre's attention and thought leaped away from the man himself to what he was uttering.
"I have in my hand – " the speaker held high a fluttering bit of white – "a copy of the message just received from Mr. Kitchell by Mr. Swain, our high school principal. Mr. Swain has forwarded that message at once to me. For the benefit of you people who have shown your eager interest in what is going on at Laramie by gathering here to-night, I shall first read that message aloud. Then, I shall letter the chief statistics of its contents with white paint on the inner glass of my store's big front window, where I am sure they will be sufficiently illuminated from the lights within to be visible in the semi-darkness of the street."
The crowd seemed to creep in closer to the speaker like a big, slow-moving wave.
"As you all know, this is the first year the Upham High School has sent a stock-judging team to the state's high schools' judging contests at Laramie. The Upham stock-judging team, therefore, was the dark horse of the recent state meet."
Sayre was straining a little now to hear. Had the crowd grown noisier, or had Mr. Hoskins lowered his voice? Suddenly that voice rang out high over the massed street in clear, dramatic increase of volume. "That team is a dark horse no longer. It has won almost a sweepstakes."
One second of silence, so impressive it almost hurt. Then, thundering applause. Surprisingly short-lived, though. The crowd was too eager for more news.
"That team as a whole has placed first, and well first, in the judging of every kind of livestock except dairy cattle. That last could not be expected; this is not a dairy country. Our boys did not need that victory. They have won without it. The beautiful, large, engraved silver cup, which annually becomes the possession of the state's leading stock-judging team, will all next year be the outstanding adornment of the main hall of our own Upham High School."
Sayre heard clearly now, even though the crowd was growing noisier. Mr. Hoskins seemed to know how to pause at just the right times to keep their noise from drowning out his words.
"Is not that honor enough for a new team?"
Obedient responses of "Yes" from here and there, interspersed by an occasional, expectant "No."
"No it is!" came from the speaker triumphantly. "It is not enough for such a team as ours.
"One of our boys is high point man of the whole contest.
"One of our boys is the individual high point man for the judging of beef cattle.
"One of our boys is the individual high point man for the judging of sheep.
"One of our boys is the individual high point man for the judging of horses.
"One of our boys is the individual high point man for the judging of hogs.
"For each of these honors the state's award is a personal permanent gift of a silver cup But even winning five of these personal cups is not enough for Upham High School. As you all know, the award for the second man in each of the just-mentioned contests is an engraved medal. Four of these medals, also, have been won by pupils of Upham High School. The boys of the Upham stock-judging team will return to their home laden with trophies of achievement."
"Who are they? We want their names!"
Mr. Hoskins leaned forward genially, listening as if in obedience to the demands of the crowd. Then Sayre caught his voice again, but far less distinctly. "Who are these individual winners?" he was repeating rhetorically.
"That high-point man is – "
Sayre could no longer distinguish Mr. Hoskins' words. He had lost control of the crowd's reactions. Each announcement he had made had been greeted with more deafening cheers. Now the full significance of what he had been saying had penetrated his listeners' consciousness to the point where they were giving way to their feelings with shouts, hat-tossings, back-slappings and the general uproar of delight. Through it, Sayre could catch nothing of what the speaker was still trying to say.
She turned to her companion. "Let's get down and go over there." Without waiting she suited her action to her words. She lost all track of Mr. Hansen's slow-moving form as she wormed her own wiry, persistent way through the press. By the time she had gained the farther side of the street and sidled well across the walk, Mr. Hoskins was inside the store, fulfilling his promise of recording statistics on his front window.
She stood very close, at one outer corner of the big pane, watching intently each stroke of the man's brush within as it left its mark of white upon the glass. For the moment she had completely forgotten Mr. Hansen. In the same abstracted way she knew, without having stopped to realize it, that every here and there during her penetration through the crowd she had been spoken to by somebody – received a hand-shake, or a word of congratulation. She had a grateful feeling that the crowd was friendly to her, but until she knew more details she could not bother to feel anything more. She watched the white writing grow in extent letter by letter until its first announcements were on the big pane.
Results of Wyoming High School Stock-judging Contest
|Teams (Possible total perfect score – 1950)||Score|
|1. Upham High School, Winner of State Cup.||1778|
|2. Stewart High School.||1638|
|3. Oatland High School.||1625|
|Individual First Award (Possible perfect score – 650)|
|High Point Man – F. Hoskins, U.H.S., Winner of State Cup.||617|
So it was Frank, not Charley, who had won the greatest honor. Well, she might have known it; she had known it from the triumphant radiance of Mr. Hoskins' behavior. But Charley must have played an important part. Or the team would never –
She kept her gaze fixed upon the growing letters.
|Separate Contests (Possible perfect score – 150)|
|Beef Cattle: F. Hoskins, U.H.S., Winner of State Cup.||145|
|Dairy Cattle: G. Evans, S.H.S., Winner of State Cup.||140|
Would Charley's name never come? Oh, there it was! Mr. Hoskins was following that C initial by a capital M.
|Hogs: C. Morgan, U.H.S., Winner of State Cup.||144|
But only once. Wasn't it coming again? No, not in the next two items.
|(Possible perfect score – 100)|
|Horses: F. Hoskins, U.H.S., Winner of State Cup.||98|
|Sheep: F. Hoskins, U.H.S., Winner of State Cup.||99|
All the window space easily visible to the street throng was filled now. There remained nothing but the lower strip. Only those people on the same level and directly in front of it could see what was being put there. Mr. Hoskins was still working zealously, however, his long, angular figure squatting in what must be an awfully uncomfortable position. He continued to dip his brush every minute or so into the tiny brown crockery pot he held in his left hand, and to crowd into the fast diminishing space letter after letter in ever smaller and none too straight lines, which Sayre's troubled eyes swept swiftly ahead to read.
|Individual Second Awards||Score|
|Second High Point Man – C. Morgan, U.H.S. (Winner of State Medal)||616|
|Dairy Cattle: R. Atkinson, O.H.S.||138|
|Beef Cattle: C. Morgan, U.H.S.||143|
|Hogs: G. Evans, S.H.S.||140|
|Horses: C. Morgan, U.H.S.||95|
|Sheep: C. Morgan, U.H.S.||97|
Well, that was all, she guessed. She drew a long sigh. What was it she felt, now that she knew everything? Triumph or disappointment? She did not have time to find out, so rapidly was she caught up by the crowd in a spirit of friendliness such as she had not known for months. It lasted until Mr. Hansen came in search of her. On the way home, too, she could not really think; her companions kept up such a run of comment.
"Ain't dat Sharley a smart boy?" Mr. Hansen droned. "He ain't yet a farm boy two years, and look at him!"
"Frank Hoskins hasn't been a farm boy much longer than Charley. The Hoskinses only moved out on their home farm about three years ago."
"Yess, but he ain't been a city von. He grew up out here. His pa and his pa's pa vas range stockmen before de Gover'ment made dis country irrigated. Frank, he ain't no fool, but he ain't so smart as dat Sharley. Look at it vonce ven it's hogs, vat's new to 'em bot'."
A little later the man drifted into another strain. "Sayre, I t'ank, mebbe, t'angs could not have turned out better. Frank lick Sharley a leetle, but not lick him very much. Really bot' lick, you see, 'cause dey two make deir team lick. Mebbe, now, dey two vill not fight togedder so much."
A few days later Sayre recalled Mr. Hansen's words with new bitterness. Certainly the community did not look upon the situation then as the Morgans' neighbor had done that night.
FROM THE time when the boys left until the night of the contest returns the weather had been perfect – sunny days with just the right tang in the air, and with none of the winds that sweep so much of the time over Wyoming's half-desert plains.
But late on the morning after the contest returns, the sky grew swiftly overcast, and a few flakes began to fall. By afternoon their number had increased with a sudden, pelting fury, which in a quarter of an hour had smothered all the country about Upham in the howling desolation of a wild, blind, raging Wyoming blizzard.
Snow Sayre had seen in plenty, but never in her life before anything like this. She was aghast at the marvel of it, such a winter furor of the elements coming the middle of April after days of spring's balmy promise! Surely the calendar must have taken a long leap backward.
To Sayre and her father the rest of that day was one continuous struggle to do what must be done in the face of the mounting storm. Inside the house there was the fire to be kept up. The way that fire ate fuel with the gale roaring down the chimney was amazing. Every fifteen minutes or so it demanded attention. Yet every minute one gave to it was a precious minute taken from the work outside, where somehow the stock must be sheltered and fed.
Fearful lest eating the snow would retard their laying, Sayre shooed and shut her poultry into their respective houses early in the afternoon. But the steady increase in the fall of snow brought new problems: first, that of ventilation; second, that of access. The lower hatchways of the houses Sayre closed at the beginning of the storm. Shortly after, every inch of them was lost to sight by the piling snow, which in places, as if the obstruction of buildings invited its lodging, was forming into huge drifts that climbed with almost perceptible speed up the front panes of the houses and even across the main doorways. The roofs, too, though swept clean by the wind in spots, in other places began to assume great loads. How long could they stand up under such weight?
Worried by that thought Sayre, shovel in hand, mounted to a precarious footing on top of the chicken house, and for a few foolish moments tried at desperate speed to cope with the snow's cumulative power. Even could she have endured the strain of bracing her body against the force of the wind, the undertaking was hopeless. A day or two of weather like this, and the very houses themselves would be completely submerged! Some way of ventilation she'd have to figure out and dig to later. Now she'd better help Dad. For the risk of being buried was even greater with Charley's stock, housed as it was out in those open pastures and alfalfa fields where there was nothing to interfere with the wind's freakish sweep.
It wasn't as if they had a real barn to drive the stock into for shelter. There was nothing but that old tarpaper shack which served them as best it could in a barn's capacity. The heifer and the young Holstein cow with her little bull calf were housed in it in makeshift stalls at one end. But every bit of the rest of the shack's crowded space was stored with feed. Well, that would have to come out. She and Dad had already agreed to that and he had gone to work at the task. Two could make a quicker job of it than one. Sayre joined him.
Among the stored feed father and daughter worked frantically, as if against time, dragging and lifting bags and boxes of wheat, bran and barley out of the barn into the back part of the shed which housed the 'Shake, and even hoisting what they could into the 'Shake's wagon box. They must save the best of what was left of Charley's good pea-straw. Much of it would be needed now for warm bedding. What was left of Charley's rutabagas, the Morgans' only succulent winter feed, so essential to the ewes after lambing time, was fortunately crowded safely into one side of the root cellar.
The 'Shake's shed, open in front as it was, was no place in which to house stock. But by squeezing into that shed what feed they could from the feed house (and covering it as best they could, too, for protection), space in the feed house was obtained in which to shelter the youngest stock: the latest-born lambs and their mothers; and those two last beautiful litters of eighteen Hampshire pigs, both of which had been born only two days before Charley had left.
Making a place to receive them, Sayre found, was not nearly so hard, after all, as getting the young animals into it. The rosy little pigs she managed by carrying them in three loads in a basket, snuggled warm in old rags and quilts, while Dad, behind her on the last trip, drove through the stinging snow and sleet the nervous, distressed young sows.
The lambs were even harder to stow in safety. It was amazing, Sayre thought, how heavy a few weeks' old lamb could grow when one was carrying it across uneven fields, with pitfalls hidden by snow, plowing through drifts, when need be, above one's knees, in the face of cutting wind which drove continuously into one's face blinding sheets of flying snowflakes edged with ice!
A wild, blind, raging Wyoming blizzard
It was the way her heart warmed to the poor, little shivering creatures that carried her through the ordeal. Each time she picked up a lamb she took pains to lift it as Mr. Kitchell had taught her, so as to prevent, on its part, any struggle which might do it harm. Stooping nearly at its rear and slightly to the right, she slipped her right hand back of the lamb's right front leg to place it on the brisket between the two front legs. Then she lifted the lamb slightly from the ground to prevent its attempting to go forward, while with her left hand she took hold of the left hind leg just above the hock, and lifted the soft woolly little creature up snugly against her own breast. Somehow the quiet security with which it lay there, while all the rest of the world was howling and raving about her, made her feel that as long as an ounce of strength remained in her body she could not fail in her trust to these little creatures.
As for the older stock, both pigs and sheep, they would have to fare as best they could in the shelters Charley had provided for them in the fields where they were pastured. Fortunately the openings to the low hog houses, as they were now placed, and the entrance to the flimsy sheep shed were all away from the general drift of the wind. If the wind piled the snow high against the backs of the structures, well and good. Those drifts would furnish warmth to the shivering creatures within. And perhaps if she and Dad could keep those creatures well fed, they might not shiver so much after all. How long, Sayre found herself speculating while her active efforts never ceased, could a blizzard and the bitter cold that inevitably followed it last in northwestern Wyoming in April?
To keep the animals fed enough to insure them warmth while such weather did last, though, there had to be paths of some sort between dwelling house, store house and the animals themselves. Upon these paths Sayre and her father spent their almost ceaseless efforts not only during the rest of that day, but also by lantern light well on into the evening. Wherever they could, in choosing their lines of path, they took advantage of the sweeping power of the wind. But there were spots where persistent drifting added all its force to the falling depth of the snow to make their most strenuous exertions seem useless against any real accomplishment.
Early in the afternoon father and daughter, working outside, lost all glimpse of Hitty's little, watching face inside the house behind the now frosted kitchen window-pane. They had been forced to entrust to the child, with careful warnings, the keeping up of the inside fire; making, themselves, only infrequent swift visits of inspection. Early in the afternoon, too, father and daughter had realized that, outside, they must keep and work close together not only to be able to hear one another's shouts of necessary talk, but even to keep sight of each other at all. To both of them came several experiences of panic when it seemed momentarily as if all sense of location and direction had been lost. Yet on the whole they managed well.
At ten o'clock, as together they dug doggedly at the persistent drift that kept forming just below the back step, the blade of Mr. Morgan's homemade snow shovel, long since split, fell into two pieces. He leaned on the long handle and shouted into Sayre's ear, "We'll have to give up for tonight, Sayre, and rest, so we can renew the fight tomorrow, if we must."
All Sayre's aching, exhausted muscles cried out in consent. For all that, the great unspoken worry of the day kept her mind still keen. Was Dad worried, too? He had been as silent as she, had given no evidence that on his mental vision, also, was stamped a picture that refused to fade, that of the vast sweeps of uninhabited half-desert land that lay between Laramie and their own corner of Wyoming. There was no sign of civilization anywhere on those huge arid plains except the smooth, wide ribbons of cross section state and federal roads, over which an automobile could travel for hours at a good rate of speed without meeting any touch or evidence of humanity.
She knew, when as they sat at the kitchen table eating great bowls of bread and milk, Mr. Morgan broke the weary silence by remarking, "Of course, this storm may be only local – or not so sudden in its coming in other sections."
And Sayre with complete understanding responded, "They may have been near a good town."
Certainly there was no way for Sayre or her father to get any news of the judging team boys that night. The Parsons eighty was shut into an isolation complete and impenetrable. It was a lonely place at any time, lying as it did on a little-used back road of a desolate, largely abandoned part of the Pawaukee. Tonight that road was impassable with snow drifts. The nearest neighbors, the Hansens, were a mile away. There was no telephone at the Hansens or within several miles of them. The Hansens, too, beyond all question, were completely snowbound. There was nothing to do but go to bed and await the coming of another day, while the storm howled on outside.
ALL NIGHT the snow fell with a density that no eye could far penetrate. All night and all the next day the wind eddied and rushed in long, billowing waves which carried hither and yon and everywhere in thick, heavy swirls both the falling and the fallen snow. But by the following morning the fierceness of the wind had begun to subside into more and more gentle gusts and the snow to fall more lightly. Overhead the clouds began to thin, until from behind them the sun sent out a diffused luminosity over a wide, silent, beautiful white world. By night the air had become still to complete serenity; the sky, cloudless; the temperature, bitterly cold. The blizzard was over.
The world around Upham awoke and began to dig itself out. It could not wait for the warm Chinook wind which would appear before long to complete the work of disposing of the snow. In Western America of the twentieth century even settlers dwelling in remote, lonely sections do not stay isolated long when they are near overland roads such as the Yellowstone Highway. In such localities tractors and snowplows find time to do their work even on the back and cross-section roads when enterprising settlers demand it.
Thus it happened that late Tuesday afternoon Nels Hansen's big form filled the Morgan doorway. "Vell, neighbors – you make it all right?"
"Oh, Mr. Hansen! Have you heard anything?" came Sayre's irrelevant reply. "Are you going to town?"
"Yess. Vant to come? You or your pa?"
Dad was just going out to milk. He paused, pail in hand; but read the eagerness in Sayre's big eyes. "You go, daughter," he said with characteristic unselfishness.
Sayre flashed out of the room to get her wraps while Mr. Morgan bent searching question upon his visitor, the empty milk pail vibrating visibly. "Any news?"
There was no easing of the father's anxiety in the way Mr. Hansen's instantaneous understanding brought solemn reply, "Ven I hear anyt'ang, I vill let you know right avay."
By the time she had reached town Sayre, too, had become well aware that not only in Mr. Hansen's eyes but in those of the most optimistic people, her and her father's fears were not so foolish as they both had hoped they were. The outside world was thinking and talking now of nothing but the news of the storm. Belated newspapers had reached the town at last, containing early reports. Mr. Hansen bought one for the girl. While he went about his errands, she sat on the seat of the truck, devouring the paper's contents with spellbound, yet reluctant eagerness.
Not for fifteen years had Wyoming, land of snows and spring blizzards as it was in many sections, known a widespread storm of such magnitude. Not for thirty years had it known one so late in the season, coming so swiftly, so unheralded, and with such force. Throughout the state it had worked havoc and destruction. Trains were blocked. Telegraph lines were down. Telephones were out of commission. What the effects would be on stock, especially on the open ranges, could only be guessed at. Travelers everywhere on the highway were stranded, lost, unheard from, marooned without food, without proper protection from the cold, and nobody as yet knew where most of them were. In spite of that last statement stories of individual experiences of hardship, exposure, effort and tragedy filled to overflowing the sheets that Sayre held. She read two or three of these stories.
Not far from Laramie rescuers had found two young boys inside a closed car, wrapped in all the blankets the car contained, yet near to unconsciousness. When revived they told a story of having been left there by their father, when their car had stalled two days before, with instructions not to move until he returned with help. As for the father, not even a trace of his struggling footsteps had as yet been found.
Still nearer Laramie an open car had been discovered whose back seat contained the body of a young woman frozen to death, with a baby, still alive, wrapped snugly in her arms.
The driver of a high-powered car, making Laramie during the early part of the storm, told of twenty or more tourists taking refuge in an unoccupied, flimsy summer hotel building near the summit of a hill on the Yellowstone Highway. He told of others forcing their way as best they could toward the nearest ranch houses, filling stations, and such other places of refuge as the sparsely settled country afforded. And of cars stalled and abandoned along the highways; of cars skidding into ditches or being driven there deliberately by drivers who could see absolutely nothing around them through the impenetrable blanket of falling, whirling snow.
Sayre thrust the paper away from her to the floor of the truck under her feet. No, Mr. Hansen might want it. She picked it up again, folded it with trembling fingers in hasty unevenness, and thrust it under the cushion of the seat. Then she climbed out over the wheel. She wasn't going to sit in that truck any longer and think.
But think she did, in spite of herself, even while walking along the street. If what that paper told was the condition of things comparatively near to towns, what was the condition in the wide, desolate regions of the state, where the federal highways were the only marks of civilization?
She began stopping and greeting people for the sake of escape, even those she knew only slightly. But that did no good. Nobody had anything to talk about except the storm. Yet later she wondered what had made her feel that way; everyone really said so little. People seemed queerly reluctant to talk to her at all. They were sympathetic and yet aloof in a way which aroused her anxiety even more than the tales she had read. She felt herself once more the target of all eyes as she had been that Saturday night of the news of the alfalfa embargo. Only tonight she was a very different kind of target. And of the boys of the judging teams everyone avoided all mention except for the statement that Mr. Hoskins would leave no stone unturned in his search.
Then, just as she was turning the post-office corner, she came suddenly face to face with Mr. Kitchell. Her relief found voice in one glad, spontaneous cry: "You're back!"
But Mr. Kitchell was speaking, too, as spontaneously as she, but with none of her joy. "Sayre! Your road's open? Why wasn't I told as I gave instructions to be? Your father's in town?"
Sayre shook her head.
"I must get out to your place at once then. To see him."
His voice startled her. And his face – that awful gray, hollow look it had. He was hurrying on to answer her first exclamation. "Only part of us are back. Got in yesterday. In my car. You hadn't heard?"
"No. Nor Frank Hoskins."
"Not Charley – nor Frank Hoskins," she repeated. "You mean they're together? Out there? Alone?"
"Just that, Sayre. Left behind."
Oh, why did he say it so solemnly?
"It was this way." The teacher launched into his story. "We were on a cross-section road miles from a town. We'd taken it to save time. A bearing in Frank's roadster burned out on a long, steep hill. Of course we had a new one with us, and plenty of tools. We're too experienced Wyomingites to attempt any 'cross-state travel without equipment for emergencies.
"We all stopped (Charley, and Linne Peterson, and Bill Evans and Tom Carter were riding with me) and went back to Frank's car to lend a hand. I'd asked Charley, especially, as the best mechanic in the crowd, to see what he could do.
"Spens Trowbridge was riding with Frank. You see, Sayre – well, there had been feeling, quite a good deal of it, before we'd left Laramie. And none of the boys had wanted to ride with Frank. So Spens, you know how Spens is. Like so many humorous people, he hates friction and is always willing to be the peacemaker. So he'd climbed in with Frank – as if to cover up, if he could, the other boys' attitudes.
"Well, when we went back to Frank's car, I found that Spens was sick, had a high fever. It was flu, of course. A number of cases had broken out among the stock-judging teams at Laramie. Spens should have complained sooner. Should never have been riding, sick as he was, in that open car at all.
"There was only one thing for me to do, get Spens home as soon as I could. So I put him in Charley's place in my car and hurried on, leaving Frank and Charley behind to get Frank's car into shape. Charley assured me it was all right – that he'd have Frank's car in shape to travel within an hour or two, and that he and Frank could then easily overtake us. They would have, too, if it hadn't been for the storm.
"I'm western born and bred, but only once or twice in my life have I seen a storm that came up as quickly as that one last so long at such an intensity. We, the boys in my car, had a pretty hard time. Spens was growing sicker all the time. As for the rest of us, well, there was nothing for us to do but fight. And fight we did; we simply battled every inch of our way toward town. None of the boys except Spens seem much the worse for the exposure. But Spens is a mighty sick boy. Has a fever of a hundred and four right now."
Sayre's answering impulse was partial relief. Evidently the way that Mr. Kitchell looked was not entirely because of Charley and Frank.
"How far back did you leave them? Charley and Frank, I mean."
"About two hundred miles."
"On one of those off-roads, where tourists hardly ever travel?"
"Where it's all more cactus than sagebrush? Desert?"
"Yes, nothing else there but the road and a few fences."
"No sheep herders anywhere around?"
"No. It's too early for them in that country, too many poison weeds in the early vegetation, too far from water and shelter for the lambing ewes." Mr. Kitchell seemed to find relief in the irrelevant information. At each succeeding answer his manner was becoming more courageously frank, more marked with respect. Where had this daughter of Charles Morgan, Senior, derived the instinct to shoot so unflinchingly straight to the bull's eye of a situation?
The girl's questioning went on. "You've heard nothing at all about them since you got back?"
"What's being done about it?"
"Everything that can be. As fast as communication opens up we're getting in touch with county or local authorities – sheriffs, commissioners, all such men – telling them about the boys. Asking them to search. Getting reports on the rescue work that's being done. Mr. Hoskins left on the first train out for the county seat to keep the search speeded up, above all, on that back cross road. I'm expecting a report from him any minute. On my way to the telegraph office now. Telephone connections aren't through from there yet. I scarcely leave the telegraph office. I'll send word to you the minute I get it. Tell your father so."
At Mr. Kitchell's first move to walk on, Sayre turned around. "I'll go to the telegraph office with you," she said quietly.
Somewhere very far off in the back of her mind, she was conscious of wondering how she could walk so straight on legs that were so full of that queer quivering. They were, like her voice (which outwardly sounded composed beyond all wont), making themselves behave in stubborn defiance of the dread that trembled all through her. In reality every bit of her felt weak and dazed except her power to think. That seemed to be a process which was going on swiftly and clearly, entirely outside of her real self. Mr. Kitchell's words, as they walked along, came to her as through a haze.
"Try not to worry, Sayre. There are no sturdier, more physically fit specimens of humanity around than those two boys. And they know how to fight against odds to the finish. Football's taught them that. Besides, they've got good heads. Charley, especially, is not only an intelligent but a very resourceful boy. They're taking care of themselves somewhere. I'm confident of that."
"So am I," replied Sayre firmly, hardly knowing what she said.
The teacher hesitated before he added, "And I wouldn't listen to any of this gossip that's going around, if I were you. There are some people – "
Sayre did not notice how abruptly the teacher paused, nor how he closed his mouth into a tight line as if he felt too intensely about something to trust himself to speak of it.
"I don't want to listen to anybody. I'll just wait. That's all there is to do, isn't it?"
"I'm afraid it is."
By the time Sayre was traveling homeward with Mr. Hansen she had begun to realize how very hard "just waiting" was. She was dreading, too, the moment when she must meet Dad at their own back door. Although she tried to draw all the comfort she could from her neighbor's homely, kindly, self-reliant presence, it was only with effort she could keep her mind centered on what he was saying.
"Dere is in dis country, Sayre, some old cats vat ain't got no more human feelings dan dey has got sense. All dey got is tongues, vat vaggle all de time in de middle and at bot' ends. Vell, let 'em vaggle, I say. Only – don't leesten to 'em. Leestenin' is as sure a sign of no sense as vaggling is."
So unresponsive was the girl that the droning voice lapsed into a silence broken only by the sliding, revolving, softened crunch of deflated tires over snow-packed roads. Now they traveled between high-piled snowbanks. Now, between intervening dark patches of land swept clean by wind. All through a starlit winter night in spring, made unusually light by the reflection from wide expanses of snow.
"De teacher say dat Mr. Hoskins vill go hunt from Casper?"
The question startled Sayre back to awareness of her surroundings. "Yes."
"Vell, he vill hunt good. Von is his own boy. Vill he do udder t'angs, too, I vonder? Casper is vere de federal court is held, and it is most de date."
Sayre could have hugged Mr. Hansen for his answering chuckle. It was so reassuring, so comforting. Or was he only trying to distract her?
"Can you forget so good, Sayre, ven it is dat de Hoskins lawsuits come?"
SAYRE SLEPT only fitfully that night, and her father, she suspected, slept scarcely at all. She heard him several times moving about the house, and he was in the kitchen before daybreak, replenishing the kitchen fire. Sayre joined him to find him already preparing breakfast.
"We'll have to go to town today, daughter."
The half-apologetic way Dad uttered that statement touched Sayre with remorse. She had become alive this last day or two to little things she had not noticed before. "I've been too stingy this winter, and too bossy," she thought, "saying that nobody must spend an extra penny for unnecessary trips to town, and things like that. Dad's let me boss, and I've been too selfish and unfeeling to see why, that hidden way down inside of him he feels dreadfully about not being the one who's really supporting this family any more."
Aloud she answered: "Yes, Dad dear. After we've done the chores, can't we spend the rest of the day in town – that is, until we hear? Of course, we'll hear from him today."
"Of course," responded her father over his futile attempt to eat.
Waiting in town proved even more of a strain than waiting at home, because there was no work to do. Hitty's unrealizing chatter was the one distraction, and there were moments when that jangled taut nerves.
There was no actual news, either. To be sure, more detailed and widespread accounts of the storm, harrowing tales of personal incident, reports of loss of stock and other damage packed the incoming newspapers. To Mr. Morgan these made reading as irresistible as it was disquieting. But Sayre refused to do more than glance at the headlines. "I don't want to know anything else until I hear about Charley," she kept repeating.
The Morgan trio roved about from one news center to another: the telegraph office; the post-office; the telephone exchange; the town hall; the newspaper's bulletined window. They paused at last in front of the Hoskins store.
Not since that night when Mr. Hoskins had turned Charley out of it had a Morgan gone into the place. Pride forbade, Sayre had asserted. Not until every charge and suspicion that the store's proprietor had laid upon Charley's name and honor was cleared beyond shadow of a doubt would a Morgan again put a foot across that threshold. What buying the family had to do, they would do elsewhere.
Now Sayre felt her father's footsteps linger. His eyes were turned inside the open doorway. No place of business in the whole countryside was so much the center of things as that store. Today its counters were crowded, and back around the stove, Sayre knew, would be the full circle of self-appointed neighborhood reporters. Her father had once been popular among them. Before them he had lived some of the proudest moments of his life.
Suddenly it became clear to the girl's new sensitiveness that Dad had missed that circle in a way young people like her and Charley could not understand.
"Why don't you go in, Dad? Mr. Hoskins isn't there. And the store's sure to be getting all the latest reports now that the telephones are working."
Mr. Morgan's kind eyes rested on his daughter in questioning. "Hitty's little feet are very tired with all this walking about," he half apologized.
"Dear old Dad," Sayre mused as the oldest and the youngest Morgan, always such close chums, disappeared within that doorway. "Has he stayed out of that store most of all because of how I felt about any of us going in there? Even now he didn't ask me to go in. In some ways, he's so understanding."
Left alone in the street Sayre turned back toward the consolidated school building. It was the place in town which meant most to her. The hour was noon and the pupils were swarming out. Sayre hung back a little and watched them, keenly conscious that Frank Hoskins and Charley should be among them and were not.
The foremost soon reached Sayre. Some merely nodded to her, too self-conscious for speech. Some asked her for news without the least expectation of getting any. Others accosted her reassuringly with comments. " 'Twon't be long now till you hear, Sayre." "Trust those two boys to fight their way out!" The tactless author of this latter speech reddened with confusion; plainly the pun had been unintentional.
But Sayre felt grateful. She was easily touched today, and it was only too evident that restless excitement and distress were in control of the whole high school group.
Presently she felt a thin, trembling arm slip itself through hers from behind. A cold hand closed on hers with a nervous grip, and she found herself being drawn petulantly toward a side street. "Sayre!" Rene Osgood's voice was murmuring in her ear. "Oh, I'm so glad to see you. Let's get out of all this. It's driving me crazy!"
Sayre kept in step with the other girl until they had turned a corner. "I'm not going back into that school building today. I don't care what anybody does to me about it. I simply can't sit through another class. Come home to lunch with me, won't you? There won't be anybody else there. Dad's gone with Mr. Hoskins, and Mother's at some luncheon club or other." To Sayre's surprise Rene's speech ended in a sort of laugh, such a queer laugh that it aroused in Sayre only pity.
"Are you really so dreadfully worried, Rene?" she added with undisguised searching.
Rene's greenish gray eyes, which Sayre had always thought unfeeling in expression, filled suddenly with tears. Her answering voice trembled with the warmth and depth of complete sincerity. "Yes, I am, Sayre. Perhaps – I – I – shouldn't say so to you – but – it's – the truth. And I couldn't lie to you now – not – if – if – " The words ended in a sob.
Sayre felt the clutch on her hand tighten, felt herself drawn very close to the other girl, and without a word the two moved on together until they had reached the Osgood house, the most pretentious one in town, and entered it.
Sayre, herself, did not feel in the least like crying. Instead, eyes and mouth and throat were as dry as dust. It seemed to her as if she would never cry again. Nothing she had heard so far affected her quite so much as this behavior of Rene's.
A few moments later the two girls were sitting together at the kitchen table over a hastily assembled lunch. Sayre excused her lack of appetite by saying she had eaten with Dad and Hitty, they had brought some sandwiches to town with them. But Rene forced food upon her and tried to eat, herself.
"It's such a comfort having you here, Sayre, because Charley means as much to you as Frank Hoskins does to me. And I can talk out to you as I can't to anybody else. Frank and I grew up together, you know. We're almost like brother and sister. Our people were in this country early, even our grandparents were range stockmen before anybody thought of big irrigation. And Frank was the only child in his family, and I in ours. You can see how it's been all our lives with Frank and me.
"Other boys and girls have never liked me much. I suppose there's something horrid in me that prevents them. But Frank's always been my friend – the only real, true, stand-by-you-through-thick-and-thin kind of friend I've ever had in all my life. And now – " Rene's nervous, rapid words were brought to an abrupt stop by the catch in her throat.
Sayre felt both moved and a little indignant. "You don't mean you've given up hope, Rene? You talk as if – it couldn't be anything but a tragedy."
"I'm losing my nerve, I guess. It's this awful uncertainty. Not knowing anything – just waiting and waiting. That's why I wanted you so much. You've got so much grit, Sayre. Nothing downs you.
"But you don't know this country the way I do. It's so heartless, with its awful winds, and without any shelter or anything else in so many, many places. Every year of my life I've heard stories of awful tragedies about people lost in storms. Travelers and sheepherders and whole flocks of sheep, hundreds, even thousands of 'em, at a time. You've heard how Mr. Kitchell and the other boys had to fight, haven't you? And that was at the first of the storm."
Sayre shook her head at Rene in questioning, dread expectancy. "Not very much," she murmured.
'"You haven't heard how Mr. Kitchell at the wheel couldn't see one inch in front of him, much less anything of the road? And how the boys had to take turns standing on the running board, shouting in at him every turn and move he had to make so they could keep going at all? How it was so cold out there that no one could stand it long, with his face being pelted almost raw by the ice of the snowflakes? And with the gusts of wind so strong they threatened all the time to tear away his hold and whirl him from the running board? And how the snow kept piling up in drifts in front of them every little way? And how they had to keep shoveling like mad to get ahead of what the wind was doing, at all? And with only one real shovel to work with? And how Mr. Kitchell didn't dare stop the engine once, no matter how long they were stalled, because if he had, it would have been sure to freeze solid? It even froze a little as it was, so that it kept getting stuck.
"And there wasn't a bit of shelter anywhere until they got to that ramshackle Howells ranch fifty miles out on the south road. They had an awful time digging their way into that – and out of it later, to let people here in town know about them. They left Spens Trowbridge there, dreadfully sick – pneumonia. Mr. Kitchell said, no matter what, he had to get in touch with Spens' parents, and with Mr. Hoskins, and your father, and the sheriff's headquarters. And there were five of them, and Mr. Kitchell's car is a sedan. But Frank and Charley were only two, with a broken-down roadster at that.
"I tell you, Sayre, I've gone over and over it all in my mind so much that all my thoughts are just a whirl of such things that I can't seem to stop."
"Well, that won't do Frank and Charley any good." Sayre's words surprised herself. They seemed so matter-of-fact, so heartless. Yet she had listened almost motionless to Rene's long outpouring, and her workworn hands, clutched tight in her lap, were as cold as Rene's own. "Let's get back to the 'phone, Rene," she added in a different tone.
"You call Central and ask for news, Sayre. I've done it so often, I just can't any more."
But Central had nothing to offer. And the voice of the telephone girl was so charged with sympathetic understanding that for a moment it was almost too much for Sayre's self-control. The incessant flow of Rene's nerve-wrought speech saved her.
"I can't sit around here, doing nothing. We'll get back to a 'phone every ten minutes or so. In between, let's you and me keep walking around town together, Sayre. If folks see that you and I are good friends, it may do something to stop the hateful tongues of those detestable people who haven't heart enough to keep from raking up all the nasty talk they can, even at a time like this. Our being together will show them, at least, how both of us feel about all their dirty suggestions."
"Rene Osgood – what are you talking about?"
The other girl stared at Sayre in amazement. "You don't mean you haven't heard!" She sank into a sitting position on a nearby davenport, more relaxed than she had been since meeting Sayre. "It's part, of course, because there isn't one bit of the snoop in you. But it's part, too, I suppose, because nobody dared tell you. Well – I dare."
Rene's voice had lost its nervous stridency. Motioning Sayre to a place beside her, she added in a way that aroused Sayre's confidence as no speech of Rene Osgood's had ever done before, "Not because I'm horrid, though. They're things you ought to know. It's your right."
In spite of that right, Rene plainly did not find explanation easy. She drew Sayre's hand into her lap and held it there, half fondling it. Then words burst out suddenly with a flash of the old jealous flippancy. "If those stock-judging boys did keep their mouths shut all winter, they've talked enough the last few days to make up for it!"
"Frank." Rene's expression softened. "Sayre, I've got to tell you something, and I can't bear to. But it's what the boys are saying, and it's true. Frank went to Laramie twice this spring with his father and studied the college farm stock – got pointers about it from the herdsmen. Some of the stock that he saw then, not all by any means, was part of what the boys had to judge later. They say that's why he beat Charley, and they're all mad about it.
"No, don't say anything; it wasn't crooked. We couldn't have kept the cup if it had been. There wasn't any rule against it. As for the schools near Laramie making it a point of honor not to do it, that doesn't mean a thing 'cause not one of 'em had any show anyhow.
"Just the same, Sayre, I want you to know that Frank had to do it. His father made him. You can't imagine how determined he was to have Frank beat. Not," Rene added with sudden honesty, "that Frank himself wasn't just dead set to beat Charley. Only he'd never have thought of doing that if his father hadn't put him up to it."
Sayre sat very still for a while. "So that," she thought, "may be the last thing that Charley is going to have against Frank Hoskins. The end of everything, perhaps, for both of them." The indignation in her was somehow a deeper emotion than anger. She did not withdraw her hand from Rene's. She merely let it lie unresponsive between the other girl's until she grew conscious of Rene's long gaze upon her.
As plainly as words that gaze was saying, "You're not going to fail me now, are you, Sayre?"
All Sayre's answer was, "So that's the gossip you meant?"
Rene nodded. "Part. There's more though. Lots worse. And Sayre, the thing that's driving me nearly wild is – that – I'm afraid – it all started from me."
"And I don't really know a thing. I just guessed 'twas so, maybe – long ago. And I never, never hinted at it to a single soul – until the other day, w-when Mr. Hoskins got it out of me. I don't know how he did it, either. He's so slick, somehow. He just works you when you don't know it. And I hate him for it – worse'n ever. Though I've hated him lots of times before for how he is with Frank.
"But you wouldn't think he'd ever tell it, about his own boy. Yet I don't see how it could have got out any other way. Of course, once it did, there'd be plenty of cats to spit it around and add a lot. But it's Mr. Hoskins' ever letting it get out in the first place that I can't understand. Must have been he was so crazy with worrying and imagining what might have happened that he didn't know what he was saying. That's why Dad went with him. He said the man was in no fit condition to go alone. He'd about gone to pieces, I guess. Dad said he'd been under an awful strain, anyway, before all this."
"Rene, I do wish – " Sayre interrupted the other's incoherence.
"Oh, I'm coming to it. It – it's about alfalfa, of course. Alfalfa always seems to get mixed up in every mess on this Pawaukee Project."
"Whose alfalfa?" Plainly, without help, Rene never would bring herself to tell what she had to tell. "Frank's?"
Rene gave a little jump, "Then you do know?"
"No. I'm just trying to guess."
"That's all I ever did, either – except – well, I did know (I was the only one who did) that Frank had bugs in his alfalfa field, a sort o' little beetle, in his third cutting (it was an awful small cutting) and that he was simply scared green about it. For fear his father'd find out, I mean, after the way it had been between them about that field.
"You know all that, about how Mr. Hoskins did everything he could to boost that contest of his. And about his having his heart set on Frank's being a big man in it. And about how Frank just wouldn't really work at it no matter how his father kept at him. Of course all our old community said that it was because you and Charley weren't in on the alfalfa contest, and that all Frank cared about was getting ahead of you. You'll never make me believe that was the real reason. Sayre – " Rene tightened her hold on her companion's hand, bent her head closer, and lowered her voice to a whisper as if in guilt. "It's only another guess of mine. I never got a hint of it from Frank. He's too loyal, and, in spite of everything, too proud of his father. But I'm a good guesser when it's anything about Frank. And – the reason he wouldn't work for that alfalfa contest was that deep down in his heart he knew his father was all wrong about the alfalfa business around here, and Mr. Kitchell was right."
Sayre's eyes opened wide as she took in this new idea. Then she asked, "What about the bugs?"
Rene's body shrank back into the corner of the davenport. "Oh, Sayre, don't you see?" The girl was pleading to be spared speech. "Those bugs – little beetles – they must have been w-w-weevil. Maybe – the weevil. Charley's weevil."
Sayre pulled her hand away from Rene's. "Charley's weevil? Charley never had any weevil. He never knew any more about the weevil in that hay than – than – "
"I – I think maybe he didn't. That's what I'm trying to say. Oh, Sayre – you're not going to make me tell it all – right out – in words? You couldn't be so mean."
Moving farther away on the davenport, Sayre turned around and let her eyes rest on the shrinking figure in the corner. In reality she did not see that figure at all. Her vision was resting on scenes in her memory:
A close-packed knot of high school boys waiting in a corner of a crowded high school auditorium. Frank Hoskins' low, angry tones cutting into Charley's ear: "I'll get even with you yet, Charles Morgan. More'n even – I'll finish you."
And a little later, a crisp Saturday morning during the baling season. Charley eating his breakfast very early. The Hoskins truck moving rapidly, with a sound not hollow enough for complete emptiness, down the Parsons driveway, and straight out to the far end of the big hay field to a place behind the second cutting stack, where loosened hay lay tumbled about soon to be baled.
"No, you needn't tell." Sayre did not shift her unseeing gaze. "I'll tell. I've got to get this thing exactly straight, Rene. You mean," her tone was peculiarly dispassionate, "that Frank had weevil in his alfalfa field, especially in his third cutting. And, so that his father wouldn't find out about it, and for other reasons too, he carted his third cutting crop out to our place while our baling was going on, and mixed his weevilly hay in with ours?" She paused, but seemed to expect no answer. "That explains everything, doesn't it? And Mr. Hoskins made you tell him about its being Frank, really, who was responsible for that weevil? And then Mr. Hoskins, himself, actually told other people? That last's pretty hard to believe."
"Oh, no, Sayre. No. Not all that. You haven't any right either, to be sure any of it was the way you say." Rene leaned forward, nearly doubled, her hands jerking spasmodically in her lap. "It was only that Frank had some w-w- some little beetles in his hay. And that his third crop – kind of – disappeared. His father knew about its disappearing, and he was pumping me to find out why – or rather how. But I don't know how. Frank may have burned it. Or he may – "
Sayre's fixed gaze was not really attentive. She had begun to shiver with a queer kind of cold that wasn't really cold at all. "I'll finish you" – the phrase was repeating itself in her brain with fearful significance. "It's just because I'm so dreadfully worked up," she tried to tell herself.
Aloud she asked huskily, "And the rest of the gossip?"
Rene's gaze had become as steadied upon Sayre as Sayre's upon her, but much more discerningly. "You know – " she began after a moment; then went on with changed tone, "Oh, Sayre, isn't it awful? How can they even think such things? There're lots, though, who still believe Charley did the weevil stunt. But some folks say he suspects so strongly that Frank did it that he as good as knows Frank did, and is just waiting his chance to – to – And some say Frank's so afraid Charley'll find out and tell, he's desperate. They say the boy who did that to the hay is a criminal. And one criminal act always leads to another, that's worse, that's the very worst there is! Oh, Sayre, I can't even hint at some of the awful things they – "
"Don't hint at them then." Across Sayre's mind had flashed another recollection: "Leestening to 'em is yust as much no sense as vaggling is!" With a shake of self-scorn, she had sprung to her feet. "Come on, Rene. Let's get out right away into this town, together."
THE LONG afternoon of intermittent wandering through slush-covered streets wore away at last, bringing to an empty close another day of waiting. Rene clung more and more desperately to Sayre. "You've simply got to stay with me tonight," she repeated.
"I can't. There's Dad and Hitty and the chores. You know what Dad said when we met him – that we'd stay in town till the last minute in hope of news."
"That's just it. My dad'll 'phone our house the minute there's any news, even if it's the middle of the night. You can get word to your father right away, in our car."
In the end Rene's argument won Sayre's and her father's consent.
The two girls, worn out with the strain of the day, went to bed in Rene's pretty bedroom. Sayre felt shy in it. She had never slept in so lovely a room as this. At any other time she would have enjoyed the experience and felt not a little envy of the girl who possessed such dainty, luxurious quarters for her very own. But tonight she was too heavy-hearted and too utterly weary. Rene, too, was at last too spent to talk.
They lay down in silence in that wide, soft bed, drew up over them that thick, silky, blue comforter with its rose design, which harmonized so well with the tint of the walls and the gray-blue paint of the bedstead. Somehow, after a while, the thin, angular figure of the girl Sayre had always thought of as the "spiteful Rene Osgood" was lying, half-relaxed, in Sayre's firm, work-strengthened arms. There was something restful to them both in the silence, and in each other's understanding nearness. Perhaps, after all, each one thought she could sleep a little, and knew no more.
But both were alert in an instant at the sound of the long, metallic peal from the telephone downstairs. Sayre felt Rene tremble. Then with a bound the red-haired girl was out of bed, turning on the light, slipping into mules and bath robe, and throwing toward Sayre another long, loose garment of silk in soft shades of green and blue. "Put this on. There's no one home but Mother."
Both girls saw Mrs. Osgood start alert with attention
A moment later they were tumbling pell-mell down the stairs. In the hall below, Rene's tall mother stood at the 'phone. She half turned, the receiver at her ear. "It's long distance. Your father."
Rene sank down on the bottom step, a little, huddled figure, taut and quivering. Sayre, on the step above, leaned over the banister, looking down. After an eternity the connection came. Both girls saw Mrs. Osgood start alert with attention. With silent concentration their eyes fastened on her listening face. There was no kindling of joy in it. That they both detected at once. Rene sprang to her feet, hovered a moment behind her mother almost as if she would snatch the receiver away. "What does he say, Mother? What makes you keep us waiting so long?" The tone was querulous with petulance; the implication of delay, absurdly unjust.
But Mrs. Osgood seemed to understand. Without taking mouth or ear from the telephone, she managed to repeat in rapid asides the words that were coming to her over the wire.
"They've found the car – Frank's – turned over in a ditch, completely covered – buried under snow, a part of a big snowdrift, blankets all gone, and coats, no trace of the boys. The stock-judging cups and other awards – Frank's and Charley's and the team's – all safe in the back part of the roadster, just where they were packed for the home-coming. Your father – back on the morning train – bringing the trophies with him, for display, to the town, in the Hoskins store window. Mr. Hoskins wants it. He'll stay himself – to carry on – the search." Mrs. Osgood's voice trailed into silence. But she was listening more intently than ever.
Rene still hovered close to her. Suddenly the girl reached up to throw an arm around the tall woman's shoulders, pushed her a little to one side, and herself bent an ear so close to her mother's that the girl could not fail to catch most of the incoming words. She in turn began to repeat them aloud, so mechanically at first that the repetition seemed an unconscious act rather than one intended for Sayre's benefit. "About a hundred and eighty miles from here, about fifty from Metropolis, the loneliest section in this whole part of Wyoming, hit hardest by the storm, most snow, fiercest wind, evidently – biggest drifts. If – " Rene's voice grew slower. It seemed difficult for her to utter the words. Twice she moistened her lips. But when sound came she spoke mechanically. "If – the boys' bodies – are under some big drifts – there'll be – no finding them – until – the snow – has disappeared."
Rene broke away from her mother, turned back a step or two toward the other waiting girl, and looked up full at her. "Sayre," she cried in one long, stunned wail of finality, "he hasn't one bit of hope!"
Somehow that night passed. Rene's mother insisted that the girls go back to bed. There they lay, hour after hour, each absorbed at first in her own grief and her own thoughts.
If only she were home, Sayre kept thinking over and over. But she could not ask for the Osgood car to go alone over that back-country road this time of night, not after Mr. Kitchell's landlady had 'phoned soon after Mr. Osgood had rung off, that Mr. Kitchell had asked her to let Sayre know that he too had received the news and had already set out to tell her father. There was nothing to do but to lie there and think, to try to realize what everybody believed had happened.
Charley and Frank Hoskins, those two, lost together, dying together! What had there been between them at the last? How little, little, little all their friction, their rivalry, their bitterness toward each other must have seemed in the face of eternity!
Life did things like that – queer, cruel, dreadful things – things that meant the wreck of hopes and hearts and dreams and all that other people had to live for, just as Charley's death would mean – she checked her thought and changed its phrasing: just as, if Charley were really gone, it would mean to Dad and –
Dad! If only she were home with him now. If only she were home in that cramped, shabby, unplastered little bedroom she called her own instead of in this dainty, spacious place. If only she could feel the comfort of gathering Hitty's precious self close into her arms, of feeling the little sister snuggle into them in that sweet, confiding way she had. If only she could hold the child there, forever, safe, so that nothing like this that had come to Charley could ever happen to the only one left!
It was not Hitty who was creeping into her arms. It was Rene Osgood's nervously shaking, sob-racked form. "Oh, Sayre, you frighten me, you're so still. How can you be so quiet? You haven't even cried."
Sayre's answer surprised herself. It seemed to come from a part of her so fundamental that she wasn't even really conscious of it. "No, and I shan't. Not until I absolutely know. I haven't given up hope yet, not by any means. And what's more, I'm not going to."
Rene's thin arms tightened around her convulsively. "Sayre Morgan, you're the bravest girl I know, and the most true blue. And because you are, there are things I am going to tell you this very night. It'll be a comfort to tell them because they are about me and Frank and Charley and you. And if you despise me when I'm through, it'll break my heart, if I've got any heart left to break, because I need you now as I never needed anybody in all my life. Just the same, even if it does make you despise me, I – I've got to tell you. I – I've simply got to get straight with you. I – I admire you so much."
It took Rene a long time to begin what she had to say. Sayre waited patiently, her mind remote. When the words did come, they startled Sayre. She had already forgotten to expect them.
"First, I want to explain some things about Frank. If you and Charley could only have known these things always, the way I have, everything might have been different. You'd have understood better.
"It's his father, Sayre – the kind of man he is. He's just got to be the big person, the important one, in everything he's in. As long as he's that, he's nice. But whenever it looks as if somebody else were going to be bigger than he, he can't stand it. He gets so jealous that he just has to 'cut the other fellow's head off.' That's what my father calls it. I've heard him talk to my mother about it lots of times. I've heard him tell her that's why this new country was the place for a man like Mr. Hoskins to find his chance, of being the big man, I mean. You see, my father understands him. They do lots of business together, but Father never makes any noise about his part. He doesn't care. He's willing to let it all look as if Mr. Hoskins were really the important one. I don't know when I first began to understand this, but it's a good while ago now. I think knowing it has made me kind of horrid. I don't mean on Father's account, but on Frank's, because of the way his father's being like that has made Frank be."
"I see," Sayre encouraged softly. She was listening now, not because what Rene was saying seemed important, but because her listening comforted Rene a little.
"Frank's been my best friend ever since we were babies. We never talk about his father, but Frank knows I understand when nobody else does and it makes him tell me things he never tells anybody else. As for me – well, th-there isn't anything I – w-wouldn't do for Frank."
Rene pressed the sodden ball of her handkerchief against her lips to control their trembling. "Mr. Hoskins really thinks a lot of Frank, you know. Is so crazy about him that he wants for Frank just what he wants for himself, to be the big person, always on the top, in his crowd. Sayre, you can't imagine how Mr. Hoskins drives Frank, nags him, pushes him on about everything. Frank never complains even to me, but there've been times when his father just makes his life miserable. It's been worse ever since that first football season after Charley came, and lots worse, ever since the spreader. I don't believe Mr. Hoskins realizes, himself, how he's been. He gets nervous and worried about other things, and takes it out in nagging Frank.
"And his father's being that way hasn't been good for Frank, either. I can't help knowing that. Thinking a lot of a person doesn't mean you can't see his faults. It's made Frank have that sort of important and yet grouchy way he has. How could he help it? And yet it's that that's kept people from really liking him, isn't it? It was all right though, till Charley came. Everybody looked up to Frank before that. He was bright and a fine football player, and his father was important around here, and there wasn't any other one boy who could really get ahead of Frank at anything for long enough to count.
"And then Charley came, with that way he has, so friendly and good-natured and unselfconscious, though he hasn't been like that this winter. Magnetic, my mother called it. You know all the rest. Frank, I suppose, was a good deal like his father. Mother's always said he had the same nature, and it's made me mad every time she's said it. Yet I guess it's true. But he could have made himself different if his father'd ever let him try for one minute. Oh, I know he could. As it is – oh, Sayre," Rene's voice dropped to a frightened whisper, "it – it's made him do some dreadful things and – and – it's made me do them, too. It's that that I've got to tell you, and I d-don't see how I ever can." The whisper faded out into silence as Rene buried her face under Sayre's arm.
Sayre, not knowing what response to make, made none at all.
Presently Rene's disheveled head bobbed up again. "But I've got to," she affirmed with a defiance directed against herself, "because n-now, with things as they are, you're not going to believe a minute longer one thing that isn't true against Frank Hoskins." The girl sat half up in bed. "Sayre Morgan. I – I – I'm a criminal. I never hear one of those nasty gossips use that word – you know what I mean: about the hay and the two boys, and those awful insinuations – that I don't think right away that I'm just as much a criminal as the guiltiest of them, perhaps even worse. And there's no more terrible feeling in this whole world. A girl like you simply can't know how terrible it is."
"Rene! What on earth do you mean?"
"Just what I say. I – I'm a thief. I stole your prize turkey cockerel."
"YOU!" SAYRE'S tone held only wonder. She, the quick to anger and speech in situations like this, now felt only detached surprise. For what did it matter, what did anything matter, if what that man had said to-night over the telephone were true?
Rene interpreted Sayre's apathy wrongly. She lay down again. "Don't take your arms away from me, Sayre. Please don't take your arms from me. I only did it because I had to, or because I thought I had to. And I've been punished enough. Don't ever think doing a thing that's wrong is being anybody's friend, Sayre. It never is. I've learned that, all right. I've learned it hard.
"Look at all what's happened because of what I did. There'd never have been that fight between Charley and Frank if it hadn't been for my stealing. And if there hadn't been that fight, people wouldn't have got quite so down on Frank as they did, everybody thinking he didn't fight fair and that he deliberately lied. Charley was the only one who didn't feel sure Frank lied. I've always remembered that about Charley. And if people hadn't got so down on Frank, he and his father wouldn't have been so keen to get back at Charley. About the weevilly hay, you know. Never believing or letting anybody else believe that Charley hadn't done it on purpose.
"Of course, though, there were other things besides the turkey stealing. There was that man Charley brought to the water users' meeting to try to show Frank's father up in public as a crook, when he was just a mistaken man who really meant right. That was an awful nasty mean thing to do, Sayre. You've got to admit that."
Sayre's lips parted; then met again. She was glad Rene's rapid speech did not give her time to answer.
"And that was what Frank cared about most. He never could forgive Charley a thing like that. It was Charley's doing that most of all made Frank want to get even. And I couldn't manage him. Oh, Sayre, if you only knew how miserable I've been all winter!"
Out of Rene's incoherence two or three facts were becoming clear to Sayre. "I can't imagine you coming way out to our place alone at that time of night to snare that cockerel, Rene. Weren't you afraid?"
"I was never so scared in all my life. I could only do it because I thought I had to. I left the car (Father and Mother were away that night) on the back road and waded down the ditch to your place. You know the rest. When Charley fired that gun, and called out to me from that tree – oh, Sayre!" Rene's body trembled into an uncontrollable shaking.
Instinctively Sayre sought to soothe her. "And you gave the cockerel to Frank?"
"I had to. I – I didn't know how to get rid of it. But after the fight I wanted to tell. It would have been better, if only Frank had let me. But he w-w-wouldn't. He simply wouldn't. He said that if I did h-he'd tell a lot of other things that I couldn't bear to have him tell. But maybe it would have been better all 'round if I'd told, anyway, and let him tell. Maybe, too, he wouldn't have, after all. Only he said if I told he'd say everywhere that I lied, that he'd been the one who did it, and I was lying to shield him."
"And weren't you? Not lying, I mean. But shielding him. You're doing it now."
Rene's shaking ceased with startling suddenness. "I shouldn't have tried to tell you to-night. I'm not fit. I can't tell things straight." The words were a cry of distress.
"Then just answer my questions." Sayre's voice was soft with pity. "Tell me the truth, Rene, please – please. You can trust me. Truly you can. You say you had to do it. Was it because you knew Frank would do it if you didn't? Because he had done it before?"
"Oh, Sayre, I didn't know what he'd do. He was so furious at Charley after that meeting, so set on getting even. I knew he was trying to think out a way. And some things he'd said kind of gave me a hint. About how doing things to you made Charley maddest. (Charley was so proud of you and always got on his dignity so at anybody's even criticizing you, for being in the Ag class or anything like that.) And about how he could spoil your turkey business for you. Yes, Sayre, he had done the stealing before. And I knew it.
"He'd got the idea from some little fellows who did it to his flock when his birds were tiny. He caught them at it. Only they were doing real fishing with a line that had five hooks on it, baited with worms. The boys waited until every hook had caught a chick. Then they pulled the five chicks slowly across the yard under the fence. Frank told those youngsters he'd let them off if they'd never tell about it. He thought it an awful cute trick, and wanted to try it himself.
"He did, too, on your chicks early one evening when he had learned you wouldn't be home. When he told me about it, I let him know I didn't see anything funny in it. He laughed at me. Said stealing chicks was like stealing apples, not really stealing at all. Everybody thought it a joke.
"That first time his doing it was mostly just a prank. Later, those other times, I couldn't feel it was. They didn't come until after his father had told him he simply wouldn't have a girl beating Frank at the poultry business, that Frank would have to beat you, honestly if he could, and if not, beat you anyway. Not that Mr. Hoskins really said that in words, but that's what he meant, just the same. That's how things were when Mr. Kitchell discovered your prize turkey cockerel, said what a perfect bird it was. It didn't seem as if Frank had any chance then at beating you. Frank was kind of brooding about it, and I knew it – and – and – I was afraid.
"So I thought, maybe, if I could just get that prize cockerel for him, things would be all right. He'd feel better and wouldn't keep thinking so much about getting even with Charley. Perhaps getting that cockerel would be enough to satisfy him. S-so I got it."
"I never could see how you managed, right off, to get that particular bird."
"I didn't manage really. It was just the purest luck. He happened to be the farthest bird out on that limb. I was only practising on him. Learning how to manage that rod and grappling hook. I thought the second bird I was after might be the prize cockerel, not the first. But anyhow, as I told Frank, I did get him.
"And, Sayre, Frank didn't like it. He was mad about it. Oh, he didn't say so right out. Frank's always been good to me. But I could tell how he felt. He did say I ought to have known I never could manage a performance like that without being caught, the birds being the size they were. When I tried to explain how I'd planned it all, just like a premeditated crime in the mystery stories, he simply wouldn't listen.
"I knew, of course, those turkeys were too big and heavy to be fished for like trout with line and hook even in the daytime the way the little chicks had been. I knew, too, that those other times Frank himself had used some sort of grappling hook. I couldn't ask him for his, of course. I had to fix one of my own. And I knew the rod I attached the hook onto must be an awful strong one to lift those big poults. That's why I took that pole of Mr. Hoskins'. It was stronger than any Dad or I had. It's one Mr. Hoskins doesn't use often, but he takes it with him when he goes to the Park to fish in Yellowstone Lake. And it happened to be in our car. He'd left it there after the last time he and Dad had gone on a trip together.
"Then that night I got scared and excited and made that awful mess of things, leaving the pole behind and all. No wonder Frank was mad. Who wouldn't be?
"Still, what really made him maddest was that he knew I'd done it to try to stop his doing anything else. It did for a while, too. But it kept him from telling me things after that the way he always had before. And my stealing made things worse than if Frank had done something himself. And too, it made him more set than ever to get even with Charley. He kept thinking and thinking about it in that black way of his. And that black thinking had been what I'd so wanted to stop. But perhaps after all, Sayre, all he did do was think. He may really never have actually done a thing."
Sayre uttered a queer gasp. How could Rene make such a statement, try so hard to deceive herself, after only that very afternoon telling about the weevil in Frank's hay? As if that hadn't made clear as print the way Frank had found of getting even! Only too successfully, Sayre acknowledged. She started to blurt out her thought.
But the unconscious Rene was talking on with unmistakable sincerity. "Can't you see, Sayre, how miserable I've been? And right from the very beginning, deep down in my heart, I've always liked you awfully, and wanted you to like me."
"What was that other thing Frank threatened to tell if you told about the cockerel? Was it about his stealing Charley's spreader print and films?"
Sayre felt Rene start in her arms. Then the sobbing utterance began again. "He never stole them, Sayre, really. That is, he never meant it for stealing. Frank found the print on the floor. You know, at the exhibit. You remember how crowded that room was. People brushing against the wall all the time. And he couldn't find a tack just then to put the print back. It had been stepped on, anyhow. So he stuck it in his pocket. Then he forgot all about it, and put some other heavy things in on top of it so that the print got all crumpled and torn. There wasn't any sense in giving it back then when it wasn't good for anything. Besides, things found on the floor are always looked upon as rubbish.
"As for the films, he just took them to mail the way he heard Mr. Kitchell tell Charley to do. Truly he meant to mail them – after a while, that is. He only meant to hold them back first until the public fuss about Charley's spreader had died down. Frank never dreamed the spreader would get to be so important. But when it did, Frank was pretty scared. So he told me about it. And I told him he'd simply got to give those films back. I'd have persuaded him to, too, before he lost them, if Spens hadn't found his film. After that, it didn't matter."
Could this really be Rene, the naturally suspicious and sharp-witted? The heart of the clear-headed Sayre ached with pity at these childish attempts of the other girl's loyalty to justify Frank. "It's not really me. It's herself she's trying to convince," Sayre divined. For a moment she was lifted out of her own troubles by sympathy for Rene. For even if the very worst were true, there could never be in one's grief for such a boy as Charley any such engulfing misery as this of Rene's about a boy like Frank.
"And you won't think of Frank as really dishonest, will you, Sayre?" Rene pleaded on. "I'll never forgive myself for telling you all this if you do. I – I – told you, so you'd understand. You've always seemed such an understanding sort of person."
"You haven't told me very much I didn't practically know before. As for Frank," replied Sayre's candor, "I could never think of what he's done as the least bit honorable, Rene; but I'll try for your sake to believe he didn't mean to be as much of a croo – as dishonest as he's seemed. I know how loyal you meant to be to him in telling me. Charley's always admired you for being so loyal – the way you've stayed Frank's friend no matter what."
"Oh, has he? How good you are to tell me!" Rene drank in eagerly the comfort which to Sayre, in spite of her efforts, seemed mechanical and cold.
She did not draw her arms away from Rene, but let the unhappy girl sob on, more and more quietly now until by degrees she sank into the sleep of exhaustion. Meanwhile all the feeling part of Sayre was busy with her own thoughts. So it was with a fellow like this Frank, whom Rene had so unintentionally pictured – so selfish, so revengeful, so lacking in honor, who could share his guilt with a girl and repay her loyalty and devotion by making her as miserable as Rene had unquestionably been, it was alone with a fellow like this that Charley had had to face the awful experiences of the last few days, perhaps even the entrance into Eternity itself. Into Sayre's consciousness there persisted in creeping suggestions of the gossip she had heard that day. There wasn't a glimmer of truth in any of it, of course. But, still, with a fellow like Frank – She shut off the thought resolutely.
Oh, if only day would ever come! What was that gray light just spreading through the window? Why, it was dawn. And then she knew no more. In her, too, youth had asserted itself and brought to her the comfort of sleep.
In the Hoskins Store
WHEN RENE'S mother tiptoed into the room to tell Sayre that her father had come into town, she awakened neither Rene nor Sayre. Mr. Morgan had agreed it was best to let the girls sleep as long as they could. But at Mrs. Osgood's next visit Sayre's eyes opened. Laying her fingers on her lips, the mother beckoned to Sayre to get up, whispering, "Be as quick as you can, Sayre. Mr. Kitchell is downstairs and wants to speak to you."
Sayre's trembling hindered the speed of her dressing. "He's got news. He's got news." It was more a sensation that tingled through her than a thought. Did not the very brightness of the morning sun seem to assert that things could not possibly be as they had appeared last night? But one glance at Mr. Kitchell's gray face extinguished her optimism. "He, too, has lost all hope," she knew.
"Sayre – " Mr. Kitchell was speaking. "Mr. Osgood came in on the morning train with the trophies. He took them straight to the Hoskins store. The window's been emptied of everything else. They're being arranged there on purple velvet. I thought perhaps you'd like to see them before the window curtain's raised to let the public look. Your father's there."
"Oh, I couldn't." Look at those cups? Those medals? Now? When the boys who had won them – when Frank hadn't won his fairly? The very suggestion shook her self-control. She struggled with herself for a moment. "I'd love to," she managed to say quietly at last.
Mrs. Osgood was at her side with a cup of coffee. "Drink this, Sayre."
Mechanically the girl obeyed. Mechanically she seated herself in Mr. Kitchell's sedan. He laid a newspaper on her lap. "Another thing, I want you to see this. It's just out."
Sayre recoiled from the sheet, fearful of what it might contain. Then her eye caught the headline of the article to which Mr. Kitchell was pointing. Eagerly she began to read. When she looked up, her lips were quivering. "Oh, why couldn't this have come before?"
"The public statement couldn't. Not until the embargo was actually lifted. That, you see, happened only yesterday. But Charley knew it was coming."
"I – I don't understand."
The teacher hesitated, as if searching to know just how much to say, while Sayre's glance flitted again here and there over the newspaper paragraphs she had just been reading.
"The embargo by the State of Missouri upon alfalfa hay from northwestern Wyoming has been lifted through the action of the state legislature on recommendation of – "
Sayre skipped to the next paragraph.
"Entomologists of the Wyoming State Agricultural Experiment Station cooperating with similar authorities in the State of Missouri have convinced the Missouri State Board of Agriculture that there is no alfalfa weevil on the Pawaukee Irrigation Project.
"The embargo was placed – "
Again Sayre skipped. Her glance dropped to the lower part of the column:
"The scientists on whose reports the new state action rests declare it to be highly doubtful whether the insect's appearance in the car in question was that of the dreaded weevil at all. If so, the insidious insect had taken up only a very brief residence there, and its presence may be accounted for by the extreme age of the freight car in which the condemned hay was originally shipped to the Missouri market.
"Some time ago, there had been transported by the railroad, in that decrepit, fateful car, furniture of Italian immigrants, which had been packed in Italy in alfalfa hay. It is possible that in the remaining fragments of that Italian hay there were lodged some traces of the dreaded weevil pest. It is common knowledge among alfalfa growers that the insidious insect has already entered in the above-mentioned manner certain other alfalfa-growing sections of the western United States, whose names we refrain from mentioning here."
Sayre looked up. The paper slid slowly down over her knees to the floor. Mr. Kitchell was talking.
"We've been working at it for quite a while, Sayre, Mr. Cowan and Mr. Hansen and I. We got the state experiment station entomologists on the job at the start. Later we made our appeal to state officials and authorities. I needn't go into the details of the story – the delays we met, and all that. I'll only say that as far as we possibly could, we kept our investigations completely in the dark. It seemed the only wise thing to do. You see – "
Sayre was not following very closely. Her mind was too jumbled up with recollections – too busy puzzling out their meaning in the light of this new information. Those entomology bulletins that Charley had pored over last winter. His funny questions about the bugs in the Parsons south ditch alfalfa field. Rene's confession yesterday about the insects in Frank's field. The way Charley had poked about in all the Parsons fields. Why, other people must have been doing that same kind of poking about in other people's fields.
With quick understanding and sympathy her mind leaped to Rene, to the girl's confession and distress of the afternoon before. "How glad Rene'll be! I must tell her as soon as I possibly can. It wasn't her telling Mr. Hoskins that made the news of Frank's weevil leak out. Other people, too, must have found out about Frank's field having weevil."
"You see – " Mr. Kitchell repeated. Again he was hesitating. "We are afraid of frustration, of having our efforts – successfully balked."
Sayre gave a brisk nod. She was listening acutely now. "I see what you mean: Mr. Hoskins."
The teacher chose to ignore the girl's sharp comment. He turned to questioning. "Sayre, on that last day of the baling on your place, Frank did add some of his crop to yours?"
"I'm sure he did." Briefly Sayre explained reasons for her opinion without hint of having received Rene's confidence. "That's why our crop went bigger than anybody counted on. And there were bugs in it, Mr. Kitchell. That's why I don't understand about this." She motioned toward the newspaper at her feet.
"Yes. But not weevil. Just another small snout beetle which harms alfalfa little."
"Oh!" broke forth Sayre's relief. "And Charley and Frank knew it?"
"No, Sayre. They didn't." The teacher's troubled solemnity did not lighten. "None of us knew for certain when we went to the contest. The final report had not come then. And Frank knew nothing at all about any of our efforts in the matter. He, I'm sure of it, was still confident that those beetles of his had been weevil."
Sayre sat silent a moment, "And Frank knew," she pondered aloud, "or was afraid, that Charley had suspicions about his having put his buggy hay with ours?"
"That's about it, I'm afraid. You see we'd discovered the matter of those few beetles in Frank's field. And Charley, like you, had put two and two together, just the way you have, about that extra hay. I'm confident he did, that is; he never actually said so, as far as I know. His honesty always made him want all the certainty he could get in a matter before he spoke or acted. But what he knew was enough, of course, to give him the whip hand in the situation that existed between him and Frank. Whether Charley had let Frank know he knew – or whether only a guilty conscience made Frank realize – "
"And you let things go on like that when you were pretty sure those bugs weren't weevil?"
"It isn't exactly scientific to publish mere suppositions in a situation like ours, Sayre. Not all our reasons, though, for keeping our doubts to ourselves were scientific ones. Some of us argued that it was a good thing to keep a boy like Frank thoroughly scared as long as we could. And, too, there was the matter of securing his father's cooperation. We thought we might need a lot of that at the end to win the railroad's influence. Mr. Hoskins has been a pretty big shipper, you know. And with the shoe he'd made Charley wear because of what had happened to the Pawaukee's hay coming to fit so tightly on his own boy's foot, you can see our advantage. Under the circumstances he could scarcely refuse us full cooperation when we wanted it."
Again Sayre's mind leaped momentarily back to Rene's distress. "Why, her telling Mr. Hoskins probably really helped to make things come out right. Because what Rene knew must have made him surer that Frank had really done what Mr. Kitchell and the others thought he had. I'll tell Rene that."
"Probably, though," Mr. Kitchell's voice was going on, "we'd have got that cooperation, anyhow, when the right time for Mr. Hoskins, like the present, came. Hay's scarce and high, now, you know. The market's booming. Omaha and Kansas City are clamoring for all the Pawaukee's got before other cities snatch it up."
"Oh, I'm so glad. For all the poor people around here, I mean."
The girl sat a while after that, solemnly gazing out of the car window through the mist in her eyes. Finally she murmured, "It seems as if Charley must know his name is cleared at last."
"Perhaps he does," the teacher chimed in softly. "Who knows?"
The car slid to a stop in front of the Hoskins store. Sayre's glance fell and stayed on the big, wide show window, darkened by its low-drawn shade. For a long moment she made no movement at all toward leaving the car. It was as if at sight of that shade she had become too numbed to arouse her spirit to beat any further against the surrounding atmosphere of hopelessness. She hardly knew when Mr. Kitchell's guiding hand helped her to alight. Almost like a hypnotized person she preceded him across the sidewalk and through the store door.
Yet all the while, inwardly, she was reliving the last time she had approached so close to that doorway! Charley was coming out of it then, and Mr. Hoskins' infuriated face was behind it.
As she entered the store she saw at once that her father was there, facing the darkened window. She moved close to him and stood quietly, but she did not speak to him or know what he said to her. Only dimly was she conscious that Mr. Kitchell had paused and was standing behind her, and that the room contained other people, equally still and equally silent. Of what lay before her, however, she was vividly conscious in a queer kind of detached way.
How beautiful, how beautiful those silver trophies were, shining out clear and exquisite amidst all that surrounding gloom! On its pedestal in the center stood the big loving cup won by the team. Artistically beautiful beyond words, Sayre thought it, in the graceful dignity of its long contours and its curves. Around it, set here and there in the soft folds of the purple velvet, were the medals and the smaller individual cups won by Frank and Charley for their very own.
Sayre gazed and gazed. She had no feeling of resentment now, even after what Rene had told her, that so many of the cups bore Frank Hoskins' name. Nor had she any sense of the long effort and struggle on the part of the boys which had gone into the winning of the honors for which those cups and medals stood. She was at last not even conscious of the air of futility and tragedy that brooded over their display. The feeling part of her had become so tired that for a little while, at least, it could feel no more.
Suddenly she awoke. All the silence about her had been shattered to bits by the reverberating clangor of the telephone bell. Mr. Kitchell was springing out of immobility to answer it. Swiftly the other people in the room formed themselves into a circle just behind him, respectfully leaving room at its front for Sayre and her father. The room's mood of taut attention snatched at Mr. Kitchell's brief responses. "Thank God! He's here. At once. In my car."
A short, interminable, breathless, listening wait. Then the receiver clicked back into place. Mr. Kitchell swung around, his eyes a glow of light in that darkened room. "They're found," he sang out. "The boys! And they're alive!"
For an instant Sayre stood absolutely still. Then she groped toward a stool in front of a nearby counter. Her knees had completely failed her. Sinking down upon the stool, she began to cry.
But nobody noticed her breakdown. Everyone was too intent upon Mr. Kitchell's words. "It was Mr. Hoskins himself. They'd just reached the hospital at Metropolis. Physicians were examining the boys as he talked. They don't know yet just what their condition is. It's undoubtedly grave, but they're alive. He wanted Mr. Morgan informed at once. We'll leave immediately, Mr. Morgan, you and I, in my car. We'll get there, whatever the roads, before the train leaves this town. Mr. Hoskins says to tell you that in the meantime everything possible will be done for your boy. Are you ready, Mr. Morgan? Have you warm clothes for the drive?"
Eager, kindly hands were pressing overcoat, sweater, and overshoes on the trembling, bewildered father.
Mr. Kitchell, too, was making himself ready as he talked. "They were found in an abandoned tarpaper hut, located in a hollow, nearly a half-mile from the road, so low that it had been completely hidden by snow. Looked like a drift no larger than many another. Somebody who knew the locality mentioned its existence to Mr. Hoskins, after Frank's car had been found. He never rested until they had gained access to it. Found it hard to locate, followed false clews, had big crews of diggers working all night. Reached it, at last, this morning, just, he feels, in the very nick of time – " Mr. Kitchell hesitated, "if that."
"Charley was conscious. He could talk, and he insisted over and over again that Mr. Hoskins report just one thing: that Frank Hoskins had saved his, Charley Morgan's, life."
The End of the Dream
"COME IN," Sayre called, hands deep in bread dough. She knew that ponderous knock.
The figure that entered was as ponderous as the knock. Out from upturned collar of faded overcoat and from engulfing cap emerged tow hair, a stolid face, alert, very blue eyes, and expressionless voice. "You got a letter from your papa today?"
"Find yourself a chair, Mr. Hansen. Yes, I did. But I sent it down to Rene Osgood. I knew she'd want to read it, no matter how many other letters she'd seen. I can remember everything in it, though.
"It all happened a lot as everybody guessed," Sayre launched forth a moment later, relieved to find that explaining was going to help a little to lift her out of that heaviness of mood into which part of the letter had been plunging her more and more deeply ever since it had come. "The storm coming up just as the boys had got the car working. Their not being able to see anything. The engine freezing if they stopped a moment. Getting a glimpse of that shack and trying to drive toward it. Losing sight of it altogether soon after. Going into the ditch already nearly full of snow, that's what saved them there. Trying to beat their way through the storm to where they thought the hut had been. Trying to keep together and to hang on to the blankets. Oh, they had an awful time, struggling for what seemed like hours against that freezing wind and that blinding snow. They had to rest, and then to fight themselves so as not to give up. That's the last Charley remembers."
With a deft thrust of the knife, Sayre slashed off a loaf-sized chunk of dough and began to knead it in rhythm with her narrative.
"The next thing Charley knew they were in that hut. Somehow Frank had found it. Somehow he'd dragged Charley into it. Neither of 'em will ever really know how it happened. Charley says that when he thinks back it doesn't seem possible Frank could have done it. But he did. He got Charley into that hut, alive.
"There wasn't a thing in it but dirt and the wreck of an old stove and a few handfuls of wormy cornmeal Frank found in a bag on a shelf. The place must have been built by somebody who'd tried to prove upon a desert claim. There was a sort of tumbledown lean-to shed back of the shack. That's what kept the boys from freezing until the snow packed them in. It was warmer then, though the air got awful. Somehow Frank managed a fire in that old stove – managed to break up for fuel the wood of that lean-to with only his hands and an old rusty hatchet head he found. The stove smoked awfully and snow kept coming down into it. There was hardly any chimney outside, and the roof got piled high with snow. It leaked dreadfully, too, especially around where the stove was, below. The wind had torn off most of the tar-paper roofing before the snow began to pile up. And the one window was broken out and the snow kept coming in."
Sayre patted the kneaded loaf of dough into a pan, and sliced another lump off the main supply.
"But Charley can remember only the first day. He was sick after that; flu, he supposes. Anyway he had a high fever, delirious one day, and in a stupor the next. When he came to, Frank had him in a bed of their blankets in the driest corner and was taking care of him. He'd melted snow in an old tin can for water, and had managed to make mush of the wormy cornmeal. Both of them had their hands and feet frosted. When Charley tried to get up, he fainted dead away, and Frank made him lie on those blankets another day and he lay there with him. He'd done it before, too, while Charley was sick, so as to keep from freezing. By that time all the cornmeal was gone and nearly all the loose pieces of wood. Then Frank got sick, as sick as Charley had been, or sicker.
When Charley came to, Frank had him in a bed of their blankets
"Charley knew he'd have to do something or give up. He made the best shovel he could with his pocket-knife from the widest piece of board he could find (it was part of what had once been the door), and weak as he was he was trying to shovel a way out with it when he heard some of Mr. Hoskins' men trying to drive a snow-plow somewhere near him. He put all the strength he had into one big yell, and that's how they found them." Sayre paused, floury hands braced against the table edge, eyes and voice grown bright with feeling.
"You see what that story means, don't you, Mr. Hansen?" There was almost reverence in the earnestness of the girl's words. "Frank Hoskins saved my brother Charley's life. Charley told Dad to tell me to tell that to everybody. You'll tell it, too, won't you?"
"Vell. Vell. Vell. Don't it make you feel funny, Sayre? And de gossips!" Mr. Hansen chuckled with delight. "Sure I vill help put dat good stop-cock on 'em. Ain't I already?"
"And Mr. Hoskins, so kind." Sayre sprinkled flour on the board for the final loaf. "He's told my father not to worry one minute about the expense – that's all his, hospital bills, doctors, a specialist if Charley needs one. Mr. Hoskins says he claims the privilege of doing everything he can for Charley to make up for his injustice all last winter about the alfalfa. And he himself's going to stay right on the spot to see that the boys have every care.
"Frank's got pneumonia, you know, though he has passed the crisis. Just as Spens has. We'd all ought to be awfully thankful. As for Charley, he's got some trouble in his muscles because of the exposure. When the two boys can leave the hospital Mr. Hoskins is going to take them to one of those Metropolis sanitariums where they can take hot sulphur baths till they're completely well. He himself may take a little business trip then. But he'll be back to bring the boys home. And he won't leave them at all if – "
"And dis, too, you tell?" The interruption came with the usual lifeless intonation, but the twinkle that had leaped into the blue Norwegian eyes of the stolid face was one of quick, sly perception. "Yess, he vill stay. And ven de boys is vell, by dat time folks will be used to dis udder news."
"What other news? I'd forgotten there could be any except about Frank and Charley."
"On de twenty-eight' dere vas to be de lawsuit, ain't? Vell, dere ain't no lawsuit. Mr. Hoskins, he pays in full vid cash all vat he owes to de United States of America. He pays seven t'ousand dollars on von Pawaukee farm. He pays seex t'ousand dollars on anudder Pawaukee farm. And he pays four t'ousand two hundert dollars on yet anudder Pawaukee farm. Now he owns all dat land." Mock commiseration edged slyly into the monotonous voice. "De poor man vat can't sell his hay last vinter to pay his lawyer ven he has a lawsuit yust for experiment-like."
Sayre leaned across the table, arms resting heedlessly upon its floury surface. Over her face spread an expression of such astonishment that Mr. Hansen broke into another chuckle. "Don't you feel so bad, Sayre," he chided playfully.
Sayre's eyes, however, were growing troubled. "Oh, I don't want to feel that way any longer now, if I can possibly help it, against Frank Hoskins' father. But," she hesitated, "you mean there won't be any debt any more against any of Mr. Hoskins' land?"
"Vat he can't pay on, dat he can't have – and for a rich man like him dat iss right."
But Sayre was not thinking of justice. All the depressing misgivings she had been feeling at the moment of Mr. Hansen's arrival were descending upon her again with increased force. "That explains it, I suppose. About the dairy farm, I mean – making it a place that'll really pay. Not having it all hay any more. The one he wants to put Charley on."
"Vat?" It was Mr. Hansen's turn to feel astonishment.
"Oh, Mr. Hoskins can't do enough to make up to us." Sayre's tone had begun to change. It was taking on an edge not unlike the edge she had so often disliked in Rene Osgoods'. "When Dad and Mr. Kitchell get home tomorrow, Dad's to go right back to his old job in the store, full time now, and at a really fair salary. I'm truly glad about that. And Charley, as soon as he graduates – They'll graduate him and Frank and Spens Trowbridge, of course, even though they do have to miss the last of school –
"What Mr. Hoskins wants to do is to be told, I suppose. Dad'll be glad to tell; he's so pleased and grateful. For, of course, Charley's only a boy."
How silly of her to find it so hard to come to the point – to hate so even to mention Mr. Hoskins' offer. She made a determined plunge. "Mr. Hoskins is going to put Charley, working on shares, on one of his best small holdings to develop it into a dairy farm to show what can be done in that line on this irrigation project."
A long moment of silence followed, which the girl made no attempt to fill.
"Vell, if dat ain't dat!" Her visitor pondered aloud at last. "Papa Hoskins! A dairy farm! Mebbe, too, somev'eres else he vill raise pigs. And sheep. And sugar beets. And udder t'angs dis irrigation project needs bad. Sayre" – the slow voice grew slower – "for eberybody 'round here dat iss good. Dat iss very, very good. For Papa Hoskins, you see, iss yet dis neighborhood's beeg man."
"I suppose so," the girl answered listlessly. Spirit had ebbed out of her. Mr. Hansen's reception of her news was even worse than her moment of greatest misgiving had feared.
The man arose to leave. "Sayre, dis is de end of eberyt'ang, I t'ank, all at vonce, yust like in a story-book." The shapeless cap once again descended low upon the towhead. Over the huge hands light-weight, home-made mittens were being pulled. "De end of Sharley and Frank being all de time in a fight. De end of eberybody being crazy poor 'cause dey can't sell no hay. De end o' your pa not having no yob. De end o' Papa Hoskins kickin' all de time in de dark at de Ag teacher. De end o' Papa Hoskins grabbin' and grabbin' so slick for eberybody's good land."
Sayre was relieved when the door closed behind her visitor. For a moment she just stood, her mind repeating his words in a spirit of dismay of which there had not been the least trace in the man's gratified utterance. The end of which Sayre was thinking did not seem to her one bit like that of a story-book.
With her foot she pulled a stiff chair to the table edge and sank upon it. Once more she leaned her elbows on the flour-strewn board, propping her face upon her dough-stuck hands. "It's the end," her thought added with engulfing bitterness, "of everything I've lived and worked for for nearly two long years." She stared unseeing into the corner of the room. "I'm beaten, completely beaten, by the Hoskins, as I might have known I would be," her crucifying candor went on. "And my defeat's all the worse because it's a kind I never once even dreamed of."
The Happy Ending
ON A MID-AFTERNOON three weeks later Sayre was working inside the house, while Hitty was engrossed in mudpies in the empty flower garden at one side of the front step. A joyous whoop from the little girl drove Sayre to the window. Mr. Hansen's truck was stopping in the road. A short, well-knit figure was springing down over the front wheel. Mr. Hansen was handing this figure a suitcase. Just as he received it, the flying Hitty, who had reached the front gate and swung through it precipitated herself upon the figure, suitcase and all.
"Charley!" Sayre, too, was out the front door and speeding over wide, bare front yard. Halfway, her steps slackened almost to a stop. Her legs were trembling so she could no longer trust them. She was struggling, too, with a contraction in her throat. To greet Charley with tears, how it would disgust him and herself! What ever was the matter with her?
He was approaching now, holding Hitty pickaback around his shoulders with one hand, the other hand half-tugging, half-dragging the suitcase. Cock-headed because of Hitty's position, he threw Sayre a grin. It was the old grin, happy, and care-free and infectious. She wanted to cry worse than ever.
"Hello," she managed instead, appalled at the indifferent sound of her greeting.
"Hello, yourself. How's crops?"
"Fine." Of course there weren't any, really, this early. "Here, give me that." She reached for the suitcase. Charley jerked a refusal to relinquish it. They walked on, carrying it together.
"Have a good time at the Tigers' Club?"
Charley had just come from that business men's club luncheon, Sayre knew. Mr. Hoskins had planned to arrive in town with Frank and Charley that morning just in time to take in the affair as honor guests because the luncheon's particular purpose was to celebrate the late triumphs of the Upham High School's stock-judging team.
"Dad won't be home, till late. Mr. Hoskins wanted him to stay in town tonight to talk over store business."
"So you got Mr. Hansen to bring you home?"
How commonplace it all was, this home-coming. But, oh, how enormously nice!
Charley stopped after a moment, set the suitcase on the ground and swung Hitty down from his shoulders. She was getting too big, these days, for rides like that. Although she was chattering hard all the time, the boy paid no attention. His eyes were on the queer, oblong house with its tar-paper covering slatted on to its sides by laths. There was affection, not amusement, now, in that gaze. "Gosh!" he breathed. "It looks good – the old Crate."
"The home crate," came Sayre's assenting murmur.
Charley bent to the suitcase again, lowering his face away from his sister. "You bet," he repeated sotto voce.
Something back of the casualness in that tone brought Sayre a kind of comfort. "He loves it, anyway," she thought, "almost as much as I do."
It was easier, after that, to bide Charley's time and not to hurry their discussion of the future. Hadn't she already been waiting for three weeks? She could hold on a little longer to her resolve not to mention the new plan until he had spoken of it first. Not once had she referred to it in her letters to him, nor he in his to her. She knew why, she had told herself repeatedly. "He suspects how I feel about it all. He won't tell me his plans because he thinks I'll try to boss him out of them."
"Seems as if I'd been gone ages," Charley was saying. "Can't wait to take everything in. Where're my work clothes, Sayre?"
"All clean. On the hooks on your bedroom wall. I'll go the rounds with you."
And still, on all those rounds, and through chore-time and supper and dishes, no mention between them of the new opportunity. There was at least the pretext of Hitty's presence to prevent; the way she tried to cling, however inconveniently, to Charley's hand; the persistent demand her prattle made upon his attention.
"And Sayre named one of those lambs Snub, because it had such a cunning little white nose. And she named the other one Button, because it had such a cunning little white nose. They're twins, just like you and Sayre. And now they've grown so much alike that we can't tell any more which one's Snub and which one's Button. Do you think you can? Tell any difference between 'em, I mean?"
But Hitty was in bed at last. Sayre came out of the front door and seated herself beside her brother on the low step. The late twilight spread out before them over this part of the Pawaukee's checkerboard landscape of dark alfalfa fields and big white blocks of abandoned semi-desert. But Sayre did not look at it. Instead, she began slyly to study her brother's face in the half-light.
Yes, the grim, dogged expression of the winter was gone. The old, bright, friendly cheeriness had come back. Only there was a difference. "I've got it," flashed through her with sudden insight. "Charley's face has come to have some of that same quiet, firm look I've always liked so much on Mr. Kitchell's."
"It just about bowls me over, Sayre, if you want to know," Charley was breaking the silence meanwhile, "a one hundred per cent lamb crop and only one runt lost from the sows' litters through all that storm. Mr. Hoskins hit it right in his speech today when he said what you'd done was worth more, really, than any stock-judging."
"Mr. Hoskins said that? About me?"
"You bet he did. He read all your project statistics down to date. He'd got 'em from Mr. Kitchell. He's backing Kit strong now, you know. Everything Mr. Kitchell's ever done or wants to do."
"Queer he didn't do his talking about a Hoskins." Sayre did not mean to be spiteful. She was really just trying to cover up her embarrassed gratification.
"Oh, he did plenty of that, all right. Told all the new plans he's got for developing this Pawaukee Irrigation Project. Financing a creamery. Getting the Big Western Sugar Company to build a sugar factory in a Pawaukee town now that those German-Russians have shown how this land'll raise sugar beets. (As if the sugar company hadn't put 'em here for just that reason, though nobody knew it.) Working out a credit system so that his bank'll help the farmers get a real start with stock.
"But he said it was what the high school's vocational agriculture pupils had done that had changed his views about agriculture on this Pawaukee project more than – "
"It's nothing of the sort. It's the Government's putting a stop to his trying to steal – " Sayre checked her impulsiveness. There wasn't any sense, now, in keeping up that old bad feeling.
Charley ignored the interruption. "And it was what you, the star vocational agriculture pupil, had done more than any – "
"As if you hadn't done just as much as I have, really a lot more." Sayre's swift intuition shot to the mark. "And he said so, too."
Charley laughed in his turn. "Oh, he was pretty puffy, throwing out bouquets all the way 'round, of course. 'Twas darn decent of him, too, the way he treated me, after what I'd just told him. He didn't care about that as much as I'd expected, though. He'd already got all he really wanted out of that offer, I guess."
Sayre's attention tightened. "You mean –"
But Charley didn't notice. "That's a mighty nasty speech for me to make after all he's done for me. I'm making it just once. And only to you, Sayre. Because – because – well, I've got to tell you something that you're not going to like."
Sayre trembled. "No, I'm not. You're right, there," she thought clearly. But aloud she did not make a sound.
"I haven't been in a hurry. I've thought and thought about it until I'm dead sure I've decided the only way I could. I'm sorriest for your sake. Dad'll get over it quick enough."
Sayre clasped her arms tight around her knees, rocking a little.
Charley felt her tension, but misinterpreted her silence. "You aren't going to make it easy for a fellow, are you? You made up your mind to that from the start. As if you didn't know perfectly well what I'm talking about, Mr. Hoskins' dairy farm offer. Well, I've turned it down – flat."
Sayre's rocking ceased. She sat perfectly still for a full moment, breathless with astonishment. "Why?" she just managed to pipe.
"Because – " Charley began.
How firmly he spoke. Sayre came alive enough to notice that. "I'd rather you and I – It's all right about Dad, of course. But you and I, Sayre, well, I'd just rather you and I kept ourselves entirely clear of any business tie-up with a Hoskins."
"Even after you and Frank have become such friends?" Full-voiced at last Sayre blurted out the expression of the idea that had been her torment all of these last three weeks. For was it not this idea that had made the whole situation seem to her so completely hopeless?
Charley did not answer for a time. "Are Frank and I friends?" he parried at last thoughtfully with emphasis on the final word. "In a way we sure are. How could he help being after all that has happened? Even seems funny now to think we two could ever have been at such fool outs as we were. What was it all about, anyway? There's none of that left, you bet. And there's feeling of another kind, too. A whole lot of it. Always will be.
"But friends? I wouldn't hint a word of it now to anybody in the world but you. Only, Frank's still a lot his father's son, you know. And friendship, oh, I'm no good at putting things, but to me a friend's, well, what you are, Sayre: a person that's absolutely true blue. That a fellow can trust, always, at any time, with anything, right down to the ground, better even than he can trust himself."
Tears of happiness sprang into Sayre's eyes. She swallowed hard to keep Charley from detecting the choke in her throat.
"I'm glad Frank's going off to college this fall," Charley mused on. "He and I couldn't ever really be thick. I'd always be getting in the way of that cross-eyed squint he has when he looks at things. Like those early trips of his to Laramie, you know."
"Did Mr. Kitchell do anything about that?" There was emotional relief for Sayre in the speech.
"Couldn't – without being what he called quixotic. Our score was so far ahead we'd have beaten anyway. But he had it out with Frank in private, I guess, before we started back."
"Rene Osgood says it's Frank's father that makes him do such things – that Frank's always believed in Mr. Kitchell."
"He has, I guess, in a way, and Kit knows it. That's Kit for you – how he gets a fellow. First he just understands you, somehow, without saying a thing. And then he gets a fellow to feeling there's nothing he'd hate so much as to lose Kit's respect. That keeps him straight and fighting."
Sayre's pose relaxed into one of eager listening. How nice it was to have Charley really talking again!
"It kept me going all last winter, that and this other notion he popped into my head. Sticking on that team with Frank, I mean, working right along with him without once striking a spark to blow up the show, which was what everybody was primed for. Neither Frank nor I cared a puff what we did to the other fellow. We were that badly at outs. Yet that was Mr. Kitchell's team. I just kept my teeth shut tight together all the time. The first move to bust up that team with a row wasn't coming from me. Frank's told me since that that was what was holding him in, too.
"Kit, I suppose, understood us. Ever since Mr. Kitchell's been here Frank's father had been trying to knife his work in the back. Yet he was absolutely square with Frank, giving him all the time he asked for, coaching him just as hard as he coached anybody else, if not harder. I own up, it used to make me pretty darn sore sometimes.
"But I got my eyes opened in the hut, that last day." That hesitancy had crept into Charley's speech which had already told Sayre how difficult even a brief reference to his recent experiences was for the boy. "We'd about given up, you know. And what do you think Frank said to me? No good-bye messages to his folks or anything like that. Just, if I happened to get out alive and he didn't, would I be willing to tell Mr. Kitchell that at the end, at least, he'd played a clean game?"
Sayre brushed the back of her hand across her eyes. "I'm glad you told me that, Chuck. I pity Frank, sort of. Must be awful hard to see straight when you've always had a dad like his."
"You and I don't know anything about it, Sayre. Our dad's always been poor. Call him visionary, as Aunt Hit does, too, if you want to. Just the same, he's always been dead square and above-board honest."
Sayre slipped her arm through her brother's and pressed his to her in happy assent.
"Perhaps, at college," Charley ruminated on, "if Frank falls in with other profs like Mr. Kitchell – "
"I know," Sayre nodded understandingly. She was smiling a little, conscious that Charley was thinking how well she had taken his news. "So that's why you turned Mr. Hoskins down," she added with irrelevance more seeming than real.
"Mostly. But there's another reason. Folks'll think me nutty, I suppose. Well, let 'em, I say.
"I know well enough, of course, that we're only kids, not yet twenty. Just the same, I've got my heart set on settling and proving up on a claim. You and me, I mean, Sayre, forming a regular business partnership to develop a place that's all our independent own. Perhaps this very one, when the land's revalued and drained. Of course, we'll have a lot better house on it some day. But I'd hate awfully, after all it's sheltered us through, to go back altogether on the old home Crate."
"Charley!" Sayre was fairly jumping up and down in her elation. Had she gone another inch she would have fallen off the railless step, a risk that neither of them noticed.
"We can do it," Charley was going on. "File for ourselves, I mean. We'll be of age to file by the time the land's revalued. And by this fall we'll have had our two years of successful farming experience. And we'll have, I know we're going to have it, for look at the start we've got already, more than our twenty-five hundred dollars' capital. I've got the figures all worked out in a notebook. I'll show 'em to you when we go – "
Sayre, who was still bouncing back and forth on the step, trying to hold in check her bubbling joy until Charley had finished, could contain herself no longer. "Chuck," she cried, "how long have you been planning things like that?"
"Ever since right after the alfalfa mess. Mr. Kitchell planted the notion in my noodle to give me something to hang on to, I guess, after my stock had taken such an awful slump around here."
"Sure. Who else would it be? Made me feel, too, as if I were doing something that would square him again. Said if two vocational agriculture high school kids, green at farming at that (of course we counted you in, Sayre) could in two years through their project work earn the twenty-five hundred dollars' capital the Government requires now for filing on this land, it would be the very biggest boost vocational agriculture high school work could have anywhere. And around here was right where it needed that boost most, where everything it tries to do has had to fight so awfully hard to get its chance. He got me clamped down on to the job, I can tell you. 'Twas darn good for me, too. Kept me going, head on."
"And you never said a word to me?"
Charley shuffled his feet uncomfortably, watching the process. "Maybe 'twasn't quite on the square. But you see, Sayre," he looked up, "you couldn't possibly have tried any harder'n you were doing. And if you had once let the idea leak out, so that Frank Hoskins had got wind of it and lit out, usual style, to beat me at it, well, it would have wrecked the whole works for me. Besides, you know well enough you'd have called it just another crazy Morgan scheme!"
Sayre broke into infectious laughter. "No, I wouldn't, Chuck," she protested. "I was too afraid, myself, that somebody would call it that. That's why I never told, either!"
Charley shot his legs straight out in front of him and jerked his face toward his sister in an open-mouthed stare.
Sayre's merriment grew. His expression was so funny.
"Y-y-you mean – " he was stammering.
Sayre nodded vigorously. "Of course I do. I've worked for it longer than you have. It's been my dream ever since that day after we landed on this Pawaukee Irrigation Project."
Charley's comprehension dawned slowly. "And you never peeped once? To anybody?"
"Oh, yes, I did. To – " Just in time Sayre clapped her mouth shut. She was beginning to learn that there were times when candor was a mistake, when silence on a woman's part was wiser and more tactful. "Aunt Hitty, a little," she finished without any outward show of evasion. "That's why she lent me that first two hundred and fifty dollars."
The girl sprang to her feet, listening. Through the clear, dry, silent air penetrated the chug and rattle of a distantly approaching Ford. "Must be the 'Shake and Dad. Let's go and meet him, Chuck, and tell him everything."
Charley picked himself up and followed her. She was skipping down the long, worn thread of path, talking all the while. "We'll go in later and light the kitchen lamp. I want to see that notebook of yours and compare your figures with mine. I've got a notebook, too. But I don't have to look in it to know what's there."
She began to quote: "Morgan capital: One manure spreader, $175.00; one half-ton Ford truck, $125; one high-grade Holstein milk cow, $75; one purebred Rambouillet ram, $50; seven purebred Rambouillet ewes, $140; ten Corriedale ewes, $120; one purebred two-year-old Hampshire sow, registered, $80; three yearling Hampshire sows, $120; thirty-two Bronze turkey hens, $60; sixty White Wyandotte hens and roosters, $40."
She was making a low chant of her statistics as she danced on, Charley close at her heels. Occasionally he chimed in, changing her figures a little. Occasionally, too, they both stopped to laugh for no reason at all.
"And then there're all the young things. Five hundred baby chicks. Two hundred and eighty turkey poults. Twenty-one lambs. Thirty-five young pigs. And we haven't counted the heifer and the bull calf. Let's say we've sixteen hundred dollars, Chuck. It's really more than that, with my turkey house and your sheds and the plow and other little things. And that's for now. By the end of the season – "
At the front gate they paused. The sound of the Ford had vanished. Its driver must have been, not Dad, but one of the German-Russians who would have turned at the crossroads. The twins stood a moment, suddenly solemn in the wide, silent beauty of the half-desert night. Sayre forgot her statistics. She was conscious of only one thing: Charley, her own twin brother, was here beside her again, safe and well. She squeezed up close to him. "Chuck," she whispered reverently, "isn't life wonderful? For people like you and me, I mean, who have real, worth-while work to do? And can do it out of doors in a big, new country like this?"