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At Cousin Harriet's by Mary E. Bamford

 

The "filaree," or pinclover; had borne its seeds with curious long ends--those seeds that California children call "clocks"--and among THE filaree there stood, on slender, bare stems, small flowers of the lily family which are known as "bluebells." A boy was walking through the filaria. He was carrying a hatchet and an ax, and he looked tired, though it was early in the day.

"I guess Cousin Harriet doesn't know how hard working on the alkali patch is," he murmured softly. "She isn't like mother:"

The boy's head dropped, and a sob escaped him.

"I wish mother hadn't died;" he said chokingly. "Most every boy has a mother."

He tried to stop crying, but it was hard, for he was overworked, and he was only twelve years old.

Six months before this, his mother had died. Several weeks alter her death, Claude's father had been called East on business; and had left the boy and his younger sisters Rose and Daisy on a ranch owned by Cousin Harriet, several miles from the children's former home. It had been very hard for the children to part from their father so soon after their mother's death, but he told them that while the business that called him East would take a number of months, yet there was some prospect that their mother's own sister, Aunt Jennie, with her husband and little boy, would come with Claude's father on his return. Then they could all live together at the dear home place. So the stay at Cousin Harriet's would not probably be perpetual.

Cousin Harriet was a widow. She looked after her ranch with great diligence. She had several hired men and women, and the ranch was a very busy place. Cousin Harriet was not much used to children, having none of her own, but she tried to do her duty by the three left in her charge. Rose and Daisy did not find the household tasks that were assigned them very difficult. Cousin Harriet secretly did not like boys, however. She tried to treat Claude justly, but the boy sadly missed the mother-love to which he had been accustomed all his life. He was expected to help the hired men on the ranch, and they made him work rather hard, especially since they had been fixing the "alkali patch."

The alkali patch was in the southwest corner of Cousin Harriet's ranch. On several acres, nothing would grow, on account of the alkali in the soil. The alkali stood on the ground in white patches here and there, and Claude hated the sight of it. Cousin Harriet, however, was very enthusiastic about trying to reclaim this "alkali sink," so that it might bear crops.

Alkali extended over the fields of adjoining neighbors, and Cousin Harriet thought that if only her hired men could conquer her alkali patch, then the discouraged neighbors might think it possible to do something with such parts of their land, also. So, one of the first things that was done with Cousin Harriet's "alkali sink" was to make some redwood drains, shaped like the letter V, and place these about three feet below the surface. A "sump," or drainage pit, was dug, too, into which the drains might discharge the alkali water. The hired men expected Claude to help dig the "sump," and it proved quite hard work. So did the pounding of the "hard pan" on the alkali tract, itself. The tough, hard clods of earth were so difficult to pulverize that they had to be pounded with crowbars and axes.

"I used to think that helping pick lemons, at home, was work," Claude thought to-day, as he went toward the part of the ranch where he was expected to work, "but I didn't know about alkali patches, then. And--I had mother."

The tears would come into his eyes.

The hired men were scattered over the extensive alkali tract, and were pounding the clods. Claude chose to work near a man called Neil. The boy liked Neil better than the other men, because he did not speak crossly.

Claude sorrowfully lipunded the alkali clods. How tiresome the work was, and how uncomfortably warm the sun! The boy worked dejectedly. After a while, pausing to take breath, he looked up and found Neil also pausing.

"We are tired," said Neil, with a friendly smile.

"Don't you hate this work?" exclaimed Claude vehemently. "I wouldn't touch it, if Cousin Harriet didn't make me."

The hired man looked kindly at the small, tired boy.

"It is not most pleasant," he returned, "but what I think of makes me glad while I work."

"What do you think of?" asked Claude, giving an alkali clod a push.

"I was thinking," answered Neil gently, "how once I had a hard heart--very hard. It was like these clods, where nothing good can grow. People who looked at me could see that my heart was hard. Men would have said, 'Neil's heart can never be different' But Jesus took away my hard heart and gave me a new one. That is what makes me glad all the time, though I work on these hard alkali clods. Some day this patch we work on will be different. There will be beautiful, green, growing crops on it. But that is not so great a change as it is to change a hard heart and get a new heart from our Savior."

Claude did not say anything. He bent over the hard clods and worked silently, but he was not thinking of his work. He was remembering his mother's voice as it had sounded nights when she had knelt beside his bed and prayed that her boy might become a Christian. There had been one night that Claude would always remember, when his mother had come for the last time to his bedside, and prayed feebly for her boy. The next week she had died.

Claude looked up at Neil, now. The man evidently found the work hard, but his face showed that he had spoken truly when he said that he was glad, even though he did work on the hard, alkali clods.

"I wish I were like Neil," thought Claude.

The wish grew. It changed into an earnest prayer, not that he might be like Neil, but a prayer for the same blessing that Neil had--a new heart. No earnest prayer for that gift is ever met by a refusal. Neil watched Claude anxiously, as they worked day by day.

"We can't change ourselves, any more than this alkali plot can change itself," said Neil, "but we can yield ourselves and our life to the blessed Jesus and love him, for he is love."

One day, Claude said softly, "I've done it, Neil. I've given myself to Jesus."

The face of the hired man glowed with added happiness through the toiling days that followed. When the alkali clods were broken and plowed, gypsum was scattered on the land and harrowed in. Then water was turned on and allowed to stand several inches deep over the alkali plot. The water stood for several weeks. Gradually it soaked through the soil and passed out into the drainage pit. After several soakings, alternating with breaking of clods and treatment with gypsum, the former alkali patch was given some seed. How the men watched the land day after day, and how the first green sprouts of corn were hailed! The alkali patch was changed. Cousin Harriet was rejoiced.

"There's so much land saved," she said. "It's a great change."

Neil listened to the words as in a parable. He was thinking of a greater change. He was rejoicing over the boy of the household.

Months had gone by. One day there was a joyful outcry at the farm- house. The little girls rushed out to meet their father. With him was their mother's sister, Aunt Jennie, with her husband and little boy.

Claude was on the ranch at work, and did not hear the joyful outcry at first.

He was not aware of the new-comers, till his father and the two little girls rushed where Claude was working, and the boy's father caught him in a close embrace.

"Come and see Aunt Jennie," his father said to Claude.

"She-she looks like, mamma," whispered Rose tremulously, and Claude came somewhat bashfully into the house.

There he saw a woman whose face did indeed look, like his mother's, and he felt mother-arms put around him. He heard a voice like his mother's say, "Is this my boy?" He felt a warm teardrop on his cheek, and he knew that Aunt Jennie understood and cared for boys, and that he would be indeed "her boy."

That afternoon they all drove away from the ranch, leaving Cousin Harriet smitten with a sudden sense of loneliness, for she had even. grown attached to Claude as well as to his sisters. The boy looked back at the ranch. It was rapidly being left behind, but he could still see the green patch of corn that covered the place where the alkali used to be. Rut the boy was, not thinking of the alkali patch alone. A look of reverent thankfulness came into his face. "Mother will be glad I ever met Neil," he thought.

TWO small brown hands were held outstretched in the air. Cautiously they moved forward, lower and lower. Then they darted and grasped with speed what seemed to be some sand. Something in the sand objected, but the boy held on and gathered sand and all into his tin. He looked with much satisfaction at his presumably indignant prisoner, a spiny gray "horned toad" that had been peaceably sunning himself, nearly buried in sand, on the hill.

The owner of the two nimble hands, Arturo, smiled.

"Get four bit, maybe!" he anticipated.

"Get four bit for tia Marta!"

In California "four bits" means a half dollar. Occasionally somebody on the overland train that stopped at the station in town would be attracted toward a spiny "horned toad" as a curiosity, and would buy one. Arturo meant to try to sell this specimen in that way. If he got the money, he would give it to tia Marta.

Tia Mama was Arturo's aunt. "Tia" means "aunt" in Spanish. Presumably for the reason that nephews are sometimes troublesome to their aunts, there is a Spanish proverb that warns a nephew against making his aunt too frequent visits:

En casa de tia, Mas no cads dia:' ("In the house of thy aunt, But not every day.") Notwithstanding this adage, however, the boy Arturo lived with his Aunt Marta. This was not always pleasant, for neither Arturo nor tia Marta was perfect. Yet they really thought a good deal of each other. The third member of the household was Tia Marta's husband, do (uncle) Diego, but he was very old and lame, and could not work. Tia Marta earned the living, and Arturo usually thought of himself as dwelling with tia Marta rather than do Diego. Arturo never quarreled with his uncle.

When the overland train stopped at the station for water, and Arturo rushed breathlessly to sell his horned toad, the eager boy found no passenger who was desirous of being a customer save an old gentleman who doubtfully offered twenty-five cents for the creature. 'Arturo stuck bravely to his intended price of "four bits," but the train creaked for starting, and, alarmed, the boy hastily handed over the toad, took the quarter of a dollar, and rushed off the train.

The old gentleman shouted from the platform for instructions as to feeding his pet, 'axed Arturo shouted back advice in broken English to let it catch "muchos, muchos" (many) flies, and have "mucho, mucho" air. The toad was in a pasta-board box at present. Arturo was anxious that it should be well treated, for the boy felt it would not be fair to make the creature a prisoner, and then sell it to somebody who would starve it.

The old gentleman seemed satisfied with the shouted directions. But when the train had puffed away, Arturo sat down and wrathfully looked at his quarter of a dollar.

"He had altos pesos!" Arturo muttered; "ought give four bit."

According to Arturo's belief, every American had in his possession "altos pesos," which is Spanish for "high" or "enormous" "dollars," or, as Americans say, "a pile of money." Therefore Arturo felt sure that the old gentleman ought to have given half a dollar for the horned toad.

Arturo was now not at all inclined to give tia Marta the twenty-five cents. He wanted the money himself. Tia Marta was going to wash for somebody to-day, and would get her pay.

What should he buy? Twenty-five cents must not be spent lightly. It was not so often that a horned toad was found or sold.

Arturo did not muse long alone. Another boy had heard Arturo's shouted advice to the old gentleman, and had told two or three comrades. They came about Arturo to proffer advice. "Bollos," or cakes, were joyfully suggested, but Arturo refused.

An older Spanish boy, Manuel, joined the company. He was a lazy fellow, whom a good many of the younger boys admired because he could play a guitar and because he wore cheap jewelry that seemed gorgeous to inexperienced eyes.

Manuel approved of Arturo's rejection of the cake proposition. What good was cake? It would be soon eaten and gone!

Manuel, who was ever bent on securing any money that he could obtain without work, proposed to Arturo that he should buy a certain watch- chain owned by himself. Manuel, who knew that the showy thing was worthless, tried to picture how a fine-looking boy like Arturo would appear with so gorgeous an ornament. The younger boys listened enviously, and Arturo's Spanish love of display began to glow. Yet he was cautious enough to put off Manuel till the next day. Arturo went away, leaving the younger boys gazing enviously after him. His pride was flattered.

As Arturo came into the little yard that was about his humble home, he heard tia Marta singing. Arturo always dreaded to hear her sing, because then he was sure that some calamity had occurred. Tia Marta fully believed in the Spanish saying, "He who sings frightens away his ills."

It was as Arturo thought. Tia Marta had failed to get the day's washing she had expected to have. This seemed very unfortunate, for there was but little in the house to eat. Beans, one of the main staples of food among the Mexicans, were almost gone from the household supplies, and there was no money to buy more. Tia Marta had cooked the last of the beans for supper. The uncle and aunt gave fully half the beans to Arturo, and, being hungry, he ate them. Tia Marta ate little, and urged the rest of the beans on tio Diego.

After supper, the aunt repeated with devout cheerfulness those Spanish sayings, "God sends the sore, and knows the medicine," and "God sends the cold according to our rags." She believed that God would help.

Arturo thought of the twenty-five cents in his pocket. He looked at old tio Diego. Arturo wondered if his uncle were really hungry. Beans! Twenty-five cents would buy beans enough for a number of days. But it would be such a downfall to buy only beans with that twenty-five cents! Tia Marta would probably find some washing soon, and would buy beans herself. Arturo had had enough supper to-night.

Next day Arturo bought the watch-chain. The little boys at school were overawed by his showy ornament, but the teacher thought laughingly, "How these Spanish do like to dress up!"

At night, when Arturo went home with his watch-chain hidden in his pocket, tia Marta was singing again. There was only a little bread and some dried figs for supper, and Arturo's healthy boyish appetite already began to make him sorry for his bargain.

The next day tia Marta sang, and there were only dried figs to eat all day. The next day there were figs for breakfast and figs at noon. Even dried figs were almost gone.

At night, however, tia Marta said joyfully, "I got wash to-morrow!"

Arturo felt relieved.

The next morning there were only two or three figs apiece. When Arturo came home at noon, he found frightened tio Diego crying feebly and leaning over tia Marta, who had sunk in the door-way. Scantily fed tia Marta's strength had given out in the midst of the washing. She said she was only dizzy, but Arturo was frightened by her looks. Suddenly it came to him that he loved her.

Arturo ran out of the house. He ran to a little grocery, and begged the grocer to take the watch-chain for some beans. The grocer only laughed, telling the boy the chain was worthless. But Arturo was desperate. He knew better than to go to Manuel. Manuel would have spent the twenty-five cents long ago, and Arturo pleaded with the grocer. The grocer's wife was in and out, looking after her romping children. She held the worthless, gaudy chain before her black-eyed baby, who clutched it and laughed. The mother laughed, too. Her husband laughed. The baby kept the chain, and crowed.

The grocer's wife filled a big paper bag with beans, and gave it, with a loaf of bread, to Arturo. The boy clasped the packages, and ran.

At home he found tia Marta sitting still with shut eyes.

"Eat!" cried Arturo, thrusting the loaf into her hands.

Tio Diego laughed with joy and put the beans to cooking. Arturo stayed home from school that afternoon, and helped wash. To-morrow the pay would come. Tio Diego tried lamely to help Arturo wash.

Tia Marta was feeling better, and had just declared her intention of washing, when Arturo suddenly forsook the tub and dropped beside her.

"Me malo, malo!" (bad) he sobbed.

He cried bitterly, and told tia Marta about the watch-chain.

Old tia Marta looked pityingly at her shamefaced nephew.

"Poor child!" she said, "thou art young."

But when next day the school teacher asked Arturo the reason of his absence from school the previous afternoon, and he had confessed the whole story, the teacher said, "Arturo, it is more beautiful to have a heart of love toward others than it is to wear a watch-chain even of real gold. Will you remember that?"

Arturo promised, and the teacher said to herself:

"I will see that tia Marta does not come to such straits again."