The Three Johns
by Elia Wilkinson Peattie
THE equinoctial line itself is not more imaginary than the line
which divided the estates of the three Johns. The herds of the three
Johns roamed at will, and nibbled the short grass far and near without
let or hindrance; and the three Johns themselves were utterly
indifferent as to boundary lines. Each of them had filed his
application at the office of the government land-agent; each was
engaged in the tedious task of "proving up;" and each owned one-third
of the L-shaped cabin which stood at the point where the three ranches
touched. The hundred and sixty acres which would have completed this
quadrangle had not yet been "taken up."
The three Johns were not anxious to have a neighbor. Indeed, they
had made up their minds that if one appeared on that adjoining
"hun'erd an' sixty," it would go hard with him. For they did not deal
in justice very much — the three Johns. They considered it effete. It
belonged in the East along with other outgrown superstitions. And they
had given it out widely that it would be healthier for land applicants
to give them elbow-room. It took a good many miles of sunburnt prairie
to afford elbow-room for the three Johns.
They met by accident in Hamilton at the land-office. John
Henderson, fresh from Cincinnati, manifestly unused to the ways of the
country, looked at John Gillispie with a lurking smile. Gillispie wore
a sombrero, fresh, white, and expansive. His boots had high heels, and
were of elegant leather and finely arched at the instep. His corduroys
disappeared in them half-way up the thigh. About his waist a sash of
blue held a laced shirt of the same color in place. Henderson puffed at
his cigarette, and continued to look a trifle quizzical.
Suddenly Gillispie walked up to him and said, in a voice of
complete suavity, "Damn yeh, smoke a pipe!" "Eh?" said Henderson,
"Smoke a pipe," said the other. "That thing you have is bad for
"I can take care of my complexion," said Henderson, firmly.
The two looked each other straight in the eye.
"You don't go on smoking that thing till you have apologized for
that grin you had on your phiz a moment ago."
"I laugh when I please, and I smoke what I please," said Henderson,
hotly, his face flaming as he realized that he was in for his first
That was how it began. How it would have ended is not known —
probably there would have been only one John — if it had not been for
the almost miraculous appearance at this moment of the third John. For
just then the two belligerents found themselves prostrate, their
pistols only half-cocked, and between them stood a man all gnarled and
squat, like one of those wind-torn oaks which grow on the arid heights.
He was no older than the others, but the lines in his face were deep,
and his large mouth twitched as he said: — "Hold on here, yeh fools!
There's too much blood in you to spill. You'll spile th' floor, and
waste good stuff. We need blood out here!"
Gillispie bounced to his feet. Henderson arose suspiciously,
keeping his eyes on his assailants.
"Oh, get up!" cried the intercessor. "We don't shoot men hereabouts
till they git on their feet in fightin' trim."
"What do you know about what we do here?" interrupted Gillispie.
"This is the first time I ever saw you around."
"That's so," the other admitted. "I'm just down from Montana. Came
to take up a quarter section. Where I come from we give men a show, an'
I thought perhaps yeh did th' same here."
"Why, yes," admitted Gillispie, "we do. But I don't want folks to
laugh too much — not when I'm around — unless they tell me what the
joke is. I was just mentioning it to the gentleman," he added, dryly.
"So I saw," said the other; "you're kind a emphatic in yer remarks.
Yeh ought to give the gentleman a chance to git used to the ways of
th' country. He'll be as tough as th' rest of us if you'll give him a
chance. I kin see it in him."
"Thank you," said Henderson. "I'm glad you do me justice. I wish
you wouldn't let daylight through me till I've had a chance to get my
quarter section. I'm going to be one of you, either as a live man or a
corpse. But I prefer a hundred and sixty acres of land to six feet of
"There, now!" triumphantly cried the squat man. "Didn't I tell yeh?
Give him a show! 'Tain't no fault of his that he's a tenderfoot. He'll
get over that."
Gillispie shook hands with first one and then the other of the men.
"It's a square deal from this on," he said. "Come and have a drink."
That's how they met — John Henderson, John Gillispie, and John
Waite. And a week later they were putting up a shanty together for
common use, which overlapped each of their reservations, and satisfied
the law with its sociable subterfuge.
The life wasn't bad, Henderson decided; and he adopted all the ways
of the country in an astonishingly short space of time. There was a
freedom about it all which was certainly complete. The three alternated
in the night watch. Once a week one of them went to town for
provisions. They were not good at the making of bread, so they
contented themselves with hot cakes. Then there was salt pork for a
staple, and prunes. They slept in straw-lined bunks, with warm blankets
for a covering. They made a point of bringing reading-matter back from
town every week, and there were always cards to fall back on, and Waite
sang songs for them with natural dramatic talent.
Nevertheless, in spite of their contentment, none of them was sorry
when the opportunity offered for going to town. There was always a bit
of stirring gossip to be picked up, and now and then there was a "show"
at the "opera-house," in which, it is almost unnecessary to say, no
opera had ever been sung. Then there was the hotel, at which one not
only got good fare, but a chat with the three daughters of Jim O'Neal,
the proprietor — girls with the accident of two Irish parents, who
were, notwithstanding, as typically American as they well could be. A
half-hour's talk with these cheerful young women was all the more to be
desired for the reason that within riding distance of the three Johns'
ranch there were only two other women. One was Minerva Fitch, who had
gone out from Michigan accompanied by an oil-stove and a knowledge of
the English grammar, with the intention of teaching school, but who had
been unable to carry these good intentions into execution for the
reason that there were no children to teach, — at least, none but
Bow-legged Joe. He was a sad little fellow, who looked like a
prairie-dog, and who had very much the same sort of an outlook on life.
The other woman was the brisk and efficient wife of Mr. Bill Deems, of
"Missourah." Mr. Deems had never in his life done anything, not even so
much as bring in a basket of buffalo chips to supply the scanty fire.
That is to say, he had done nothing strictly utilitarian. Yet he filled
his place. He was the most accomplished story-teller in the whole
valley, and this accomplishment of his was held in as high esteem as
the improvisations of a Welsh minstrel were among his reverencing
people. His wife alone deprecated his skill, and interrupted his
spirited narratives with sarcastic allusions concerning the empty
cupboard, and the "state of her back," to which, as she confided to any
who would listen, "there was not a rag fit to wear."
These two ladies had not, as may be surmised, any particular
attraction for John Henderson. Truth to tell, Henderson had not come
West with the intention of liking women, but rather with a
determination to see and think as little of them as possible. Yet even
the most confirmed misogynist must admit that it is a good thing to see
a woman now and then, and for this reason Henderson found it amusing to
converse with the amiable Misses O'Neal. At twenty-five one cannot be
unyielding in one's avoidance of the sex.
Henderson, with his pony at a fine lope, was on his way to town one
day, in that comfortable frame of mind adduced by an absence of any
ideas whatever, when he suddenly became conscious of a shiver that
seemed to run from his legs to the pony, and back again. The animal
gave a startled leap, and lifted his ears. There was a stirring in the
coarse grasses; the sky, which a moment before had been like sapphire,
dulled with an indescribable grayness.
Then came a little singing afar off, as if from a distant
convocation of cicad¾, and before Henderson could guess what it meant,
a cloud of dust was upon him, blinding and bewildering, pricking with
sharp particles at eyes and nostrils. The pony was an ugly fellow, and
when Henderson felt him put his forefeet together, he knew what that
meant, and braced himself for the struggle. But it was useless; he had
not yet acquired the knack of staying on the back of a bucking bronco,
and the next moment he was on the ground, and around him whirled that
saffron chaos of dust. The temperature lowered every moment. Henderson
instinctively felt that this was but the beginning of the storm. He
picked himself up without useless regrets for his pony, and made his
The saffron hue turned to blackness, and then out of the murk shot
a living green ball of fire, and ploughed into the earth. Then sheets
of water, that seemed to come simultaneously from earth and sky, swept
the prairie, and in the midst of it struggled Henderson, weak as a
little child, half bereft of sense by the strange numbness of head and
dullness of eye. Another of those green balls fell and burst, as it
actually appeared to him, before his horrified eyes, and the bellow and
blare of the explosion made him cry out in a madness of fright and
physical pain. In the illumination he had seen a cabin only a few feet
in front of him, and toward it he made frantically, with an animal's
instinctive desire for shelter.
The door did not yield at once to his pressure, and in the panic of
his fear he threw his weight against it. There was a cry from within, a
fall, and Henderson flung himself in the cabin and closed the door.
In the dusk of the storm he saw a woman half prostrate. It was she
whom he had pushed from the door. He caught the hook in its staple, and
turned to raise her. She was not trembling as much as he, but, like
himself, she was dizzy with the shock of the lightning. In the midst
of all the clamor Henderson heard a shrill crying, and looking toward
the side of the room, he dimly perceived three tiny forms crouched in
one of the bunks. The woman took the smallest of the children in her
arms, and kissed and soothed it; and Henderson, after he had thrown a
blanket at the bottom of the door to keep out the drifting rain, sat
with his back to it, bracing it against the wind, lest the frail staple
should give way. He managed some way to reach out and lay hold of the
other little ones, and got them in his arms, — a boy, so tiny he
seemed hardly human, and a girl somewhat sturdier. They cuddled in his
arms, and clutched his clothes with their frantic little hands, and the
three sat so while the earth and the heavens seemed to be meeting in
And back and forth, back and forth, in the dimness swayed the body
of the woman, hushing her babe.
Almost as suddenly as the darkness had fallen, it lifted. The
lightning ceased to threaten, and almost frolicked, — little wayward
flashes of white and yellow dancing in mid-air. The wind wailed less
frequently, like a child who sobs in its sleep. And at last Henderson
could make his voice heard.
"Is there anything to build a fire with?" he shouted. "The children
are shivering so."
The woman pointed to a basket of buffalo chips in the corner, and
he wrapped his little companions up in a blanket while he made a fire
in the cooking-stove. The baby was sleeping by this time, and the woman
began tidying the cabin, and when the fire was burning brightly, she
put some coffee on.
"I wish I had some clothes to offer you," she said, when the wind
had subsided sufficiently to make talking possible. "I'm afraid you'll
have to let them get dry on you."
"Oh, that's of no consequence at all! We're lucky to get off with
our lives. I never saw anything so terrible. Fancy! half an hour ago it
was summer; now it is winter!"
"It seems rather sudden when you're not used to it," the woman
admitted. "I've lived in the West six years now; you can't frighten me
any more. We never die out here before our time comes."
"You seem to know that I haven't been here long," said Henderson,
with some chagrin.
"Yes," admitted the woman; "you have the ear-marks of a man from
She was a tall woman, with large blue eyes, and a remarkable
quantity of yellow hair braided on top of her head. Her gown was of
calico, of such a pattern as a widow might wear.
"I haven't been out of town a week yet," she said. "We're not half
settled. Not having any one to help makes it harder; and the baby is
"But you're not alone with all these little codgers?" cried
Henderson, in dismay.
The woman turned toward him with a sort of defiance. "Yes, I am,"
she said; "and I'm as strong as a horse, and I mean to get through all
right. Here were the three children in my arms, you may say, and no way
to get in a cent. I wasn't going to stand it just to please other folk.
I said, let them talk if they want to, but I'm going to hold down a
claim, and be accumulating something while the children are getting up
a bit. Oh, I'm not afraid!"
In spite of this bold assertion of bravery, there was a sort of
break in her voice. She was putting dishes on the table as she talked,
and turned some ham in the skillet, and got the children up before the
fire, and dropped some eggs in water, — all with a rapidity that
"How long have you been alone?" he asked, softly.
"Three months before baby was born, and he's five months old now. I
— I — you think I can get on here, don't you? There was nothing else
She was folding another blanket over the sleeping baby now, and the
action brought to her guest the recollection of a thousand tender
moments of his dimly remembered youth.
"You'll get on if we have anything to do with it," he cried,
suppressing an oath with difficulty, just from pure emotion.
And he told her about the three Johns' ranch, and found it was
only three miles distant, and that both were on the same road; only her
cabin, having been put up during the past week, had of course been
unknown to him. So it ended in a sort of compact that they were to help
each other in such ways as they could. Meanwhile the fire got genial,
and the coffee filled the cabin with its comfortable scent, and all of
them ate together quite merrily, Henderson cutting up the ham for the
youngsters; and he told how he chanced to come out; and she entertained
him with stories of what she thought at first when she was brought a
bride to Hamilton, the adjacent village, and convulsed him with stories
of the people, whom she saw with humorous eyes.
Henderson marvelled how she could in those few minutes have rescued
the cabin from the desolation in which the storm had plunged it. Out of
the window he could see the stricken grasses dripping cold moisture,
and the sky still angrily plunging forward like a disturbed sea. Not a
tree or a house broke the view. The desolation of it swept over him as
it never had before. But within the little ones were chattering to
themselves in odd baby dialect, and the mother was laughing with them.
"Women aren't always useless," she said, at parting; "and you tell
your chums that when they get hungry for a slice of homemade bread they
can get it here. And the next time they go by, I want them to stop in
and look at the children. It'll do them good. They may think they won't
enjoy themselves, but they will."
"Oh, I'll answer for that!" cried he, shaking hands with her. "I'll
tell them we have just the right sort of a neighbor."
"Thank you," said she, heartily. "And you may tell them that her
name is Catherine Ford."
Once at home, he told his story.
"H'm!" said Gillispie, "I guess I'll have to go to town myself
Henderson looked at him blackly. "She's a woman alone, Gillispie,"
said he, severely, "trying to make her way with handicaps — "
"Shet up, can't ye, ye darned fool?" roared Gillispie. "What do yeh
take me fur?" Waite was putting on his rubber coat preparatory to
going out for his night with the cattle. "Guess you're makin' a
mistake, my boy," he said, gently. "There ain't no danger of any woman
bein' treated rude in these parts."
"I know it, by Jove!" cried Henderson, in quick contriteness.
"All right," grunted Gillispie, in tacit acceptance of this
apology. "I guess you thought you was in civilized parts."
Two days after this Waite came in late to his supper. "Well, I seen
her," he announced.
"Oh! did you?" cried Henderson, knowing perfectly well whom he
meant. "What was she doing?"
"Killin' snakes, b'gosh! She says th' baby's crazy fur um, an' so
she takes aroun' a hoe on her shoulder wherever she goes, an' when she
sees a snake, she has it out with 'im then an' there. I says to 'er,
'Yer don't expec' t' git all th' snakes outen this here country, d'
yeh?' 'Well,' she says, 'I'm as good a man as St. Patrick any day.' She
is a jolly one, Henderson. She tuk me in an' showed me th' kids, and
give me a loaf of gingerbread to bring home. Here it is; see?"
"Hu!" said Gillispie. "I'm not in it." But for all of his scorn he
was not above eating the gingerbread.
It was gardening time, and the three Johns were putting in every
spare moment in the little paling made of willow twigs behind the
house. It was little enough time they had, though, for the cattle were
new to each other and to the country, and they were hard to manage. It
was generally conceded that Waite had a genius for herding, and he
could take the "mad" out of a fractious animal in a way that the others
looked on as little less than superhuman. Thus it was that one day,
when the clay had been well turned, and the seeds arranged on the
kitchen table, and all things prepared for an afternoon of busy
planting, that Waite and Henderson, who were needed out with the
cattle, felt no little irritation at the inexplicable absence of
Gillispie, who was to look after the garden. It was quite nightfall
when he at last returned. Supper was ready, although it had been
Gillispie's turn to prepare it.
Henderson was sore from his saddle, and cross at having to do more
than his share of the work. "Damn yeh!" he cried, as Gillispie
appeared. "Where yeh been?"
"Making garden," responded Gillispie, slowly.
"Making garden!" Henderson indulged in some more harmless oaths.
Just then Gillispie drew from under his coat a large and friendly
looking apple-pie. "Yes," he said, with emphasis; "I've bin a-makin'
garden fur Mis' Ford."
And so it came about that the three Johns knew her and served her,
and that she never had a need that they were not ready to supply if
they could. Not one of them would have thought of going to town without
stopping to inquire what was needed at the village. As for Catherine
Ford, she was fighting her way with native pluck and maternal
unselfishness. If she had feared solitude she did not suffer from it.
The activity of her life stifled her fresh sorrow. She was pleasantly
excited by the rumors that a railroad was soon to be built near the
place, which would raise the value of the claim she was "holding down"
many thousand dollars.
It is marvellous how sorrow shrinks when one is very healthy and
very much occupied. Although poverty was her close companion, Catherine
had no thought of it in this primitive manner of living. She had come
out there, with the independence and determination of a Western woman,
for the purpose of living at the least possible expense, and making the
most she could while the baby was "getting out of her arms." That
process has its pleasures, which every mother feels in spite of
burdens, and the mind is happily dulled by nature's merciful provision.
With a little child tugging at the breast, care and fret vanish, not
because of the happiness so much as because of a certain mammal
complacency, which is not at all intellectual, but serves its purpose
better than the profoundest method of reasoning.
So without any very unbearable misery at her recent widowhood, this
healthy young woman worked in field and house, cared for her little
ones, milked the two cows out in the corral, sewed, sang, rode, baked,
and was happy for very wholesomeness. Sometimes she reproached herself
that she was not more miserable, remembering that long grave back in
the unkempt little prairie cemetery, and she sat down to coax her
sorrow into proper prominence. But the baby cooing at her from its
bunk, the low of the cattle from the corral begging her to relieve
their heavy bags, the familiar call of one of her neighbors from
without, even the burning sky of the summer dawns, broke the spell of
this conjured sorrow, and in spite of herself she was again a very
hearty and happy young woman. Besides, if one has a liking for comedy,
it is impossible to be dull on a Nebraska prairie. The people are a
merrier divertissement than the theatre with its hackneyed stories.
Catherine Ford laughed a good deal, and she took the three Johns into
her confidence, and they laughed with her. There was Minerva Fitch, who
insisted on coming over to tell Catherine how to raise her children,
and who was almost offended that the children wouldn't die of
sunstroke when she predicted. And there was Bob Ackerman, who had
inflammatory rheumatism and a Past, and who confided the latter to Mrs.
Ford while she doctored the former with homoeopathic medicines. And
there were all the strange visionaries who came out prospecting, and
quite naturally drifted to Mrs. Ford's cabin for a meal, and paid her
in compliments of a peculiarly Western type. And there were the three
Johns themselves. Catherine considered it no treason to laugh at them a
Yet at Waite she did not laugh much. There had come to be something
pathetic in the constant service he rendered her. The beginning of his
more particular devotion had started in a particular way. Malaria was
very bad in the country. It had carried off some of the most vigorous
on the prairie, and twice that summer Catherine herself had laid out
the cold forms of her neighbors on ironing-boards, and, with the
assistance of Bill Deems of Missourah, had read the burial service over
them. She had averted several other fatal runs of fever by the contents
of her little medicine-case. These remedies she dealt out with an
intelligence that astonished her patients, until it was learned that
she was studying medicine at the time that she met her late husband,
and was persuaded to assume the responsibilities of matrimony instead
of those of the medical profession.
One day in midsummer, when the sun was focussing itself on the raw
pine boards of her shanty, and Catherine had the shades drawn for
coolness and the water-pitcher swathed in wet rags, East Indian
fashion, she heard the familiar halloo of Waite down the road. This
greeting, which was usually sent to her from the point where the
dipping road lifted itself into the first view of the house, did not
contain its usual note of cheerfulness. Catherine, wiping her hands on
her checked apron, ran out to wave a welcome; and Waite, his squat body
looking more distorted than ever, his huge shoulders lurching as he
walked, came fairly plung-ing down the hill.
"It's all up with Henderson!" he cried, as Catherine approached.
"He's got the malery, an' he says he's dyin'." "That's no sign he's
dying, because he says so," retorted Catherine.
"He wants to see yeh," panted Waite, mopping his big ugly head. "I
think he's got somethin' particular to say."
"How long has he been down?"
"Three days; an' yeh wouldn't know 'im."
The children were playing on the floor at that side of the house
where it was least hot. Catherine poured out three bowls of milk, and
cut some bread, meanwhile telling Kitty how to feed the baby.
"She's a sensible thing, is the little daughter," said Catherine,
as she tied on her sunbonnet and packed a little basket with things
from the cupboard. She kissed the babies tenderly, flung her hoe — her
only weapon of defence — over her shoulder, and the two started off.
They did not speak, for their throats were soon too parched. The
prairie was burned brown with the sun; the grasses curled as if they
had been on a gridiron. A strong wind was blowing; but it brought no
comfort, for it was heavy with a scorching heat. The skin smarted and
blistered under it, and the eyes felt as if they were filled with sand.
The sun seemed to swing but a little way above the earth, and though
the sky was intensest blue, around about this burning ball there was a
halo of copper, as if the very ether were being consumed in yellow
Waite put some big burdock-leaves on Catherine's head under her
bonnet, and now and then he took a bottle of water from his pocket and
made her swallow a mouthful. She staggered often as she walked, and the
road was black before her. Still, it was not very long before the oddly
shaped shack of the three Johns came in sight; and as he caught a
glimpse of it, Waite quickened his footsteps.
"What if he should be gone?" he said, under his breath.
"Oh, come off!" said Catherine, angrily. "He's not gone. You make
But she was trembling when she stopped just before the door to
compose herself for a moment. Indeed, she trembled so very much that
Waite put out his sprawling hand to steady her. She gently felt the
pressure tightening, and Waite whispered in her ear:
"I guess I'd stand by him as well as anybody, excep' you, Mis'
Ford. He's been my bes' friend. But I guess you like him better, eh?"
Catherine raised her finger. She could hear Henderson's voice
within; it was pitiably querulous. He was half sitting up in his bunk,
and Gillispie had just handed him a plate on which two cakes were
swimming in black molasses and pork gravy. Henderson looked at it a
moment; then over his face came a look of utter despair. He dropped his
head in his arms and broke into uncontrolled crying.
"Oh, my God, Gillispie," he sobbed, "I shall die out here in this
wretched hole! I want my mother. Great God, Gillispie, am I going to
die without ever seeing my mother?"
Gillispie, maddened at this anguish, which he could in no way
alleviate, sought comfort by first lighting his pipe and then taking
his revolver out of his hip-pocket and playing with it. Henderson
continued to shake with sobs, and Catherine, who had never before in
her life heard a man cry, leaned against the door for a moment to
gather courage. Then she ran into the house quickly, laughing as she
came. She took Henderson's arms away from his face and laid him back on
the pillow, and she stooped over him and kissed his forehead in the
most matter-of-fact way.
"That's what your mother would do if she were here," she cried,
merrily. "Where's the water?"
She washed his face and hands a long time, till they were cool and
his convulsive sobs had ceased. Then she took a slice of thin bread
from her basket and a spoonful of amber jelly. She beat an egg into
some milk and dropped a little liquor within it, and served them
together on the first clean napkin that had been in the cabin of the
three Johns since it was built
At this the great fool on the bed cried again, only quietly, tears
of weak happiness running from his feverish eyes. And Catherine
straightened the disorderly cabin. She came every day for two weeks,
and by that time Henderson, very uncertain as to the strength of his
legs, but once more accoutred in his native pluck, sat up in a chair,
for which she had made clean soft cushions, writing a letter to his
mother. The floor was scrubbed; the cabin had taken to itself cupboards
made of packing-boxes; it had clothes-presses and shelves; curtains at
the windows; boxes for all sort of necessaries, from flour to tobacco;
and a cook-book on the wall, with an inscription within which was more
appropriate than respectful.
The day that she announced that she would have no further call to
come back, Waite, who was looking after the house while Gillispie was
afield, made a little speech.
"After this here," he said, "we four stands er falls together. Now
look here, there's lots of things can happen to a person on this cussed
praira, and no one be none th' wiser. So see here, Mis' Ford, every
night one of us is a-goin' to th' roof of this shack. From there we can
see your place. If anything is th' matter — it don't signify how
little er how big — you hang a lantern on th' stick that I'll put
alongside th' house to-morrow. Yeh can h'ist th' light up with a
string, and every mornin' before we go out we'll look too, and a white
rag'll bring us quick as we can git there. We don't say nothin' about
what we owe yeh, fur that ain't our way, but we sticks to each other
from this on."
Catherine's eyes were moist. She looked at Henderson. His face had
no expression in it at all. He did not even say good-by to her, and she
turned, with the tears suddenly dried under her lids, and walked down
the road in the twilight.
Weeks went by, and though Gillispie and Waite were often at
Catherine's, Henderson never came. Gillispie gave it out as his opinion
that Henderson was an ungrateful puppy; but Waite said nothing. This
strange man, who seemed like a mere untoward accident of nature, had
changed during the summer. His big ill-shaped body had grown more
gaunt; his deep-set gray eyes had sunk deeper; the gentleness which had
distinguished him even on the wild ranges of Montana became more
marked. Late in August he volunteered to take on himself the entire
charge of the night watch.
"It's nicer to be out at night," he said to Catherine. "Then you
don't keep looking off at things; you can look inside;" and he struck
his breast with his splay hand.
Cattle are timorous under the stars. The vastness of the plains,
the sweep of the wind under the unbroken arch, frighten them; they are
made for the close comforts of the barn-yard; and the apprehension is
contagious, as every ranchman knows. Waite realized the need of
becoming good friends with his animals. Night after night, riding up
and down in the twilight of the stars, or dozing, rolled in his
blanket, in the shelter of a knoll, he would hear a low roar; it was
the cry of the alarmist. Then from every direction the cattle would
rise with trembling awkwardness on their knees, and answer, giving out
sullen bellowings. Some of them would begin to move from place to
place, spreading the baseless alarm, and then came the time for action,
else over the plain in mere fruitless frenzy would go the whole
frantic band, lashed to madness by their own fears, trampling each
other, heedless of any obstacle, in pitiable, deadly rout. Waite knew
the premonitory signs well, and at the first warning bellow he was on
his feet, alert and determined, his energy nerved for a struggle in
which he always conquered.
Waite had a secret which he told to none, knowing, in his
unanalytical fashion, that it would not be believed in. But soon as
ever the dark heads of the cattle began to lift themselves, he sent a
resonant voice out into the stillness. The songs he sang were hymns,
and he made them into a sort of imperative lullaby. Waite let his lungs
and soul fill with the breath of the night; he gave himself up to the
exaltation of mastering those trembling brutes. Mounting, melodious,
with even and powerful swing he let his full notes fall on the air in
the confidence of power, and one by one the reassured cattle would lie
down again, lowing in soft contentment, and so fall asleep with noses
stretched out in mute attention, till their presence could hardly be
guessed except for the sweet aroma of their cuds.
One night in the early dusk, he saw Catherine Ford hastening across
the prairie with Bill Deems. He sent a halloo out to them, which they
both answered as they ran on. Waite knew on what errand of mercy
Catherine was bent, and he thought of the children over at the cabin
alone. The cattle were quiet, the night beautiful, and he concluded
that it was safe enough, since he was on his pony, to ride down there
about midnight and see that the little ones were safe.
The dark sky, pricked with points of intensest light, hung over him
so beneficently that in his heart there leaped a joy which even his
ever-present sorrow could not disturb. This sorrow Waite openly
admitted not only to himself, but to others. He had said to Catherine:
"You see, I'll always hev to love yeh. An' yeh'll not git cross with
me; I'm not goin' to be in th' way." And Catherine had told him, with
tears in her eyes, that his love could never be but a comfort to any
woman. And these words, which the poor fellow had in no sense mistaken,
comforted him always, became part of his joy as he rode there, under
those piercing stars, to look after her little ones. He found them
sleeping in their bunks, the baby tight in Kitty's arms, the little boy
above them in the upper bunk, with his hand in the long hair of his
brown spaniel. Waite softly kissed each of them, so Kitty, who was half
waking, told her mother afterwards, and then, bethinking him that
Catherine might not be able to return in time for their breakfast,
found the milk and bread, and set it for them on the table. Catherine
had been writing, and her unfinished letter lay open beside the ink. He
took up the pen and wrote,
"The childdren was all asleep at twelv. "J.W."
He had not more than got on his pony again before he heard an
ominous sound that made his heart leap. It was a frantic dull pounding
of hoofs. He knew in a second what it meant. There was a stampede among
the cattle. If the animals had all been his, he would not have lost
his sense of judgment. But the realization that he had voluntarily
undertaken the care of them, and that the larger part of them belonged
to his friends, put him in a passion of apprehension that, as a
ranchman, was almost inexplicable. He did the very thing of all others
that no cattle-man in his right senses would think of doing. Gillispie
and Henderson, talking it over afterward, were never able to understand
it. It is possible — just barely possible — that Waite, still drunk
on his solitary dreams, knew what he was doing, and chose to bring his
little chapter to an end while the lines were pleasant. At any rate, he
rode straight forward, shouting and waving his arms in an insane
endeavor to head off that frantic mob. The noise woke the children, and
they peered from the window as the pawing and bellowing herd plunged
by, trampling the young steers under their feet.
In the early morning, Catherine Ford, spent both in mind and body,
came walking slowly home. In her heart was a prayer of thanksgiving.
Mary Deems lay sleeping back in her comfortless shack, with her little
son by her side.
"The wonder of God is in it," said Catherine to herself as she
walked home. "All the ministers of all the world could not have
preached me such a sermon as I've had to-night."
So dim had been the light and so perturbed her mind that she had
not noticed how torn and trampled was the road. But suddenly a bulk in
her pathway startled her. It was the dead and mangled body of a steer.
She stooped over it to read the brand on its flank. "It's one of the
three Johns'," she cried out, looking anxiously about her. "How could
that have happened?"
The direction which the cattle had taken was toward her house, and
she hastened homeward. And not a quarter of a mile from her door she
found the body of Waite beside that of his pony, crushed out of its
familiar form into something unspeakably shapeless. In her excitement
she half dragged, half carried that mutilated body home, and then ran
up her signal of alarm on the stick that Waite himself had erected for
her convenience. She thought it would be a long time before any one
reached her, but she had hardly had time to bathe the disfigured face
and straighten the disfigured body before Henderson was pounding at her
door. Outside stood his pony panting from its terrific exertions.
Henderson had not seen her before for six weeks. Now he stared at her
with frightened eyes.
"What is it? What is it?" he cried. "What has happened to you, my
— my love?"
At least afterward, thinking it over as she worked by day or tossed
in her narrow bunk at night, it seemed to Catherine that those were the
words he spoke. Yet she could never feel sure; nothing in his manner
after that justified the impassioned anxiety of his manner in those
first few uncertain moments; for a second later he saw the body of his
friend and learned the little that Catherine knew. They buried him the
next day in a little hollow where there was a spring and some wild
"He never liked the prairie," Catherine said, when she selected the
spot. "And I want him to lie as sheltered as possible." After he had
been laid at rest, and she was back, busy with tidying her neglected
shack, she fell to crying so that the children were scared.
"There's no one left to care what becomes of us," she told them,
bitterly. "We might starve out here for all that any one cares."
And all through the night her tears fell, and she told herself that
they were all for the man whose last thought was for her and her
babies; she told herself over and over again that her tears were all
for him. After this the autumn began to hurry on, and the snow fell
capriciously, days of biting cold giving place to retrospective glances
at summer. The last of the vegetables were taken out of the garden and
buried in the cellar; and a few tons of coal — dear almost as diamonds
— were brought out to provide against the severest weather. Ordinarily
buffalo chips were the fuel. Catherine was alarmed at the way her
wretched little store of money began to vanish. The baby was fretful
with its teething, and was really more care than when she nursed it.
The days shortened, and it seemed to her that she was forever working
by lamp-light The prairies were brown and forbidding, the sky often a
mere gray pall. The monotony of the life began to seem terrible.
Sometimes her ears ached for a sound. For a time in the summer so many
had seemed to need her that she had been happy in spite of her poverty
and her loneliness. Now, suddenly, no one wanted her. She could find no
source of inspiration. She wondered how she was going to live through
the winter, and keep her patience and her good-nature.
"You'll love me," she said, almost fiercely, one night to the
children — "you'll love mamma, no matter how cross and homely she
gets, won't you?"
The cold grew day by day. A strong winter was setting in. Catherine
took up her study of medicine again, and sat over her books till
midnight. It occurred to her that she might fit herself for nursing by
spring, and that the children could be put with some one — she did not
dare to think with whom. But this was the only solution she could find
to her problem of existence.
November settled down drearily. Few passed the shack. Catherine,
who had no one to speak with excepting the children, continually
devised amusements for them. They got to living in a world of fantasy,
and were never themselves, but always wild Indians, or arctic
explorers, or Robinson Crusoes. Kitty and Roderick, young as they were,
found a never-ending source of amusement in these little grotesque
dreams and dramas. The fund of money was getting so low that Catherine
was obliged to economize even in the necessities. If it had not been
for her two cows, she would hardly have known how to find food for her
little ones. But she had a wonderful way of making things with eggs and
milk, and she kept her little table always inviting. The day before
Thanksgiving she determined that they should all have a frolic.
"By Christmas," she said to Kitty, "the snow may be so bad that I
cannot get to town. We'll have our high old time now."
There is no denying that Catherine used slang even in talking to
the children. The little pony had been sold long ago, and going to
town meant a walk of twelve miles. But Catherine started out early in
the morning, and was back by nightfall, not so very much the worse, and
carrying in her arms bundles which might have fatigued a bronco.
The next morning she was up early, and was as happy and
ridiculously excited over the prospect of the day's merrymaking as if
she had been Kitty. Busy as she was, she noticed a peculiar oppression
in the air, which intensified as the day went on. The sky seemed to
hang but a little way above the rolling stretch of frost-bitten grass.
But Kitty laughing over her new doll, Roderick startling the sullen
silence with his drum, the smell of the chicken, slaughtered to make a
prairie holiday, browning in the oven, drove all apprehensions from
Catherine's mind. She was a common creature. Such very little things
could make her happy. She sang as she worked; and what with the
drumming of her boy, and the little exulting shrieks of her baby, the
shack was filled with a deafening and exhilarating din.
It was a little past noon, when she became conscious that there
was sweeping down on her a gray sheet of snow and ice, and not till
then did she realize what those lowering clouds had signified. For one
moment she stood half paralyzed. She thought of everything, — of the
cattle, of the chance for being buried in this drift, of the stock of
provisions, of the power of endurance of the children. While she was
still thinking, the first ice-needles of the blizzard came peppering
the windows. The cattle ran bellowing to the lee side of the house and
crouched there, and the chickens scurried for the coop. Catherine
seized such blankets and bits of carpet as she could find, and crammed
them at windows and doors. Then she piled coal on the fire, and clothed
the children in all they had that was warmest, their out-door garments
included; and with them close about her, she sat and waited. The wind
seemed to push steadily at the walls of the house. The howling became
horrible. She could see that the children were crying with fright, but
she could not hear them. The air was dusky; the cold, in spite of the
fire, intolerable. In every crevice of the wretched structure the ice
and snow made their way. It came through the roof, and began piling up
in little pointed strips under the crevices. Catherine put the children
all together in one bunk, covered them with all the bedclothes she had,
and then stood before them defiantly, facing the west, from whence the
wind was driving. Not suddenly, but by steady pressure, at length the
window-sash yielded, and the next moment that whirlwind was in the
house, — a maddening tumult of ice and wind, leaving no room for
resistance; a killing cold, against which it was futile to fight.
Catherine threw the bedclothes over the heads of the children, and then
threw herself across the bunk, gasping and choking for breath. Her body
would not have yielded to the suffering yet, so strongly made and
sustained was it; but her dismay stifled her. She saw in one horrified
moment the frozen forms of her babies, now so pink and pleasant to the
sense; and oblivion came to save her from further misery.
She was alive — just barely alive — when Gillispie and Henderson
got there, three hours later, the very balls of their eyes almost
frozen into blindness. But for an instinct stronger than reason they
would never have been able to have found their way across that
trackless stretch. The children lying unconscious under their coverings
were neither dead nor actually frozen, although the men putting their
hands on their little hearts could not at first discover the beating.
Stiff and suffering as these young fellows were, it was no easy matter
to get the window back into place and re-light the fire. They had tied
flasks of liquor about their waists; and this beneficent fluid they
used with that sense of appreciation which only a pioneer can feel
toward whiskey. It was hours before Catherine rewarded them with a
gleam of consciousness. Her body had been frozen in many places. Her
arms, outstretched over her children and holding the clothes down about
them, were rigid. But consciousness came at length, dimly struggling up
through her brain; and over her she saw her friends rubbing and rubbing
those strong firm arms of hers with snow.
She half raised her head, with a horror of comprehension in her
eyes, and listened. A cry answered her, — a cry of dull pain from the
baby. Henderson dropped on his knees beside her.
"They are all safe," he said. "And we will never leave you again. I
have been afraid to tell you how I love you. I thought I might offend
you. I thought I ought to wait — you know why. But I will never let
you run the risks of this awful life alone again. You must rename the
baby. From this day his name is John. And we will have the three Johns
again back at the old ranch. It doesn't matter whether you love me or
not, Catherine, I am going to take care of you just the same. Gillispie
agrees with me."
"Damme, yes," muttered Gillispie, feeling of his hip-pocket for
consolation in his old manner.
Catherine struggled to find her voice, but it would not come.
"Do not speak," whispered John. "Tell me with your eyes whether you
will come as my wife or only as our sister."
Catherine told him.
"This is Thanksgiving day," said he. "And we don't know much about
praying, but I guess we all have something in our hearts that does just
"Damme, yes," said Gillispie, again, as he pensively cocked and
uncocked his revolver.