Western Short Story
Weary rode stealthily around the corner of the little, frame school-house and was not disappointed. The schoolma'am was sitting unconventionally upon the doorstep, her shoulder turned to him and her face turned to the trail by which a man naturally would be supposed to approach the place. Her hair was shining darkly in the sun and the shorter locks were blowing about her face in a downright tantalizing fashion; they made a man want to brush them back and kiss the spot they were caressing so wantonly. She was humming a tune softly to herself. Weary caught the words, sung absently, under her breath:
make no blunder—yuh couldn't confuse him.
A perfect wonder, yuh had to choose him!"
The schoolma'am was addicted to coon songs of the period.
She seemed to be very busy about something and Weary, craning his neck to see over her shoulder, wondered what. Also, he wished he knew what she was thinking about, and he hoped her thoughts were not remote from himself. Just then Glory showed unmistakable and malicious intentions of sneezing, and Weary, catching a glimpse of something in Miss Satterly's hand, hastened to make his presence known.
"I hope yuh aren't limbering up that weapon of destruction on my account, Schoolma'am," he observed mildly.
The schoolma'am jumped and slid something out of sight under her ruffled, white apron. "Weary Davidson, how long have you been standing there? I believe you'd come straight down from the sky or straight up from the ground, if you could manage it. You seem capable of doing everything except coming by the trail like a sensible man." This with severity.
Weary swung a long leg over Glory's back and came lightly to earth, immediately taking possession of the vacant half of doorstep. The schoolma'am obligingly drew skirts aside to make room for him—an inconsistent movement not at all in harmony with her eyebrows, which were disapproving.
"Yuh don't like ordinary men. Yuh said so, once when I said I was just a plain, ordinary man. I've sworn off being ordinary since yuh gave me that tip," he said cheerfully. "Let's have a look at that cannon you're hiding under your apron. Where did yuh resurrect it? Out of some old Indian grave?
"Mamma! It won't go off sudden and unexpected, will it? What kind uh shells—oh, mamma!" He pushed his hat back off his forehead with a gesture not left behind with his boyhood, held the object the length of his long arm away and regarded it gravely.
It was an old, old "bull-dog" revolver, freckled with rust until it bore a strong resemblance to certain noses which Miss Satterly looked down upon daily. The cylinder was plugged with rolls of drab cotton cloth, supposedly in imitation of real bullets. It was obviously during the plugging process that Miss Satterly had been interrupted, for a drab string hung limply from one hole. On the whole, the thing did not look particularly formidable, and Weary's lips twitched.
"A tramp stopped here the other day, and—I was frightened a little," she was explaining, pink-cheeked. "So aunt Meeker found this up in the loft and she thought it would do to—to bluff with."
Weary aimed carefully at a venturesome and highly inquisitive gopher and pulled, with some effort, the rusted trigger. The gopher stood upon his hind feet and chipped derisively.
"You see, it just insults him. Yuh could'nt scare a blind man with it— Look here! If yuh go pouting up your lips like that again, something's going to happen 'em. There's a limit to what a man can stand."
Miss Satterly hastily drew her mouth into a thin, untempting, red streak, for she had not seen Weary Davidson, on an average, twice a week for the last four months for nothing. He was not the man to bluff.
"Of course," she said resentfully, "you can make fun of it—but all the same, it's better than nothing. It answers the purpose."
Weary turned his head till he could look straight into her eyes—a thing he seemed rather fond of doing, lately. "What purpose? It sure isn't ornamental; it's a little the hardest looker I ever saw in the shape of a gun. And it won't scare anything. If you want a gun, why, take one that can make good. You can have mine; just watch what a different effect it has."
He reached backward and drew a shining thing from his pocket, flipped it downward—and the effect was unmistakably different. The gopher leaped and rolled backward and then lay still, and Miss Satterly gave a little, startled scream and jumped quite off the doorstep.
"Don't yuh see? You couldn't raise any such a dust with yours. If yuh pack a gun, you always want to pack one that's ready and willing to do business on short notice. I'll let yuh have this, if you're sure it's safe with yuh. I'd hate to have you shooting yourself accidental."
Weary raised innocent eyes to her face and polished the gun caressingly with his handkerchief. "Try it once," he urged.
The schoolma'am was fond of boasting that she never screamed at anything. She had screamed just now, over a foolish little thing, and it goes without saying she was angry with the cause. She did not sit down again beside him, and she did not take the gun he was holding up invitingly to her. She put her hands behind her and stood accusingly before him with the look upon her face which never failed to make sundry small Beckmans and Pilgreens squirm on their benches when she assumed it in school.
"Mr. Davidson"—not Weary Davidson, as she was wont to call him—"you have killed my pet gopher. All summer I have fed him, and he would eat out of my hand."
Weary cast a jealous eye upon the limp, little animal, searched his heart for remorse and found none. Ornery little brute, to get familiar with his schoolma'am!
"I did not think you could be so wantonly cruel, and I am astonished and—and deeply pained to discover that fatal flaw in your character."
Weary began to squirm, after the manner of delinquent Beckmans and Pilgreens. One thing he had learned: When the schoolma'am rose to irreproachable English, there was trouble a-brew. It was a sign he had never known to fail.
"I cannot understand the depraved instinct which prompts a man brutally to destroy a life he cannot restore, and which in no way menaces his own—or even interferes with his comfort. You may apologize to me; you may even be sincerely repentant"—the schoolma'am's tone at this point implied considerable doubt—"but you are powerless to return the life you have so heedlessly taken. You have revealed a low, brutal trait which I had hoped your nature could not harbor, and I am—am deeply shocked and—and grieved."
Just here a tiny, dry-weather whirlwind swept around the corner, caught ruffled, white apron and blue skirt in its gyrations and, pushing them wickedly aside, gave Weary a brief, delicious glimpse of two small, slippered feet and two distracting ankles. The schoolma'am blushed and retreated to the doorstep, but she did not sit down. She still stood straight and displeased beside him. Evidently she was still shocked and grieved.
Weary tipped his head to one side so that be might look up at her from under his hat-brim. "I'll get yuh another gopher; six, if yuh say so," he soothed, "The woods is full of 'em."
The angry, brown eyes of Miss Satterly swept the barren hills contemptuously. She would not even look at him. "Pray do not inconvenience yourself, Mr. Davidson. It is not the gopher that I care for so much—it is the principle."
Weary sighed and slid the gun back into his pocket. It seemed to him that Miss Satterly, adorable as she always was, was also rather unreasonable at times. "All right, I'll get yuh another principle, then."
"Mr. Davidson," she said sternly, "you are perfectly odious!"
"Is that something nice, Girlie?" Weary smiled trustfully up at her.
"Odious," explained the schoolma'am haughtily, "is not something nice. I'm sorry your education has been so neglected. Odious, Mr. Davidson, is a synonym for hateful, obnoxious, repulsive, disagreeable, despicable—"
"I never did like cinnamon, anyhow," put in Weary, cheerfully.
"I did not mention cinnamon. I said—"
"Say, yuh look out uh sight with your hair fixed that way. I wish you'd wear it like that all the time," he observed irrelevantly, looking up at her with his sunniest smile.
"I wish to goodness I were really out of sight," snapped the schoolma'am. "You make me exceedingly weary."
"Mrs. Weary," corrected he, complacently. "That's what I'm sure aiming at."
"You aim wide of the mark, then," she retorted valiantly, though confusion waved a red flag in either cheek.
"Oh, I don't know. A minute ago you were roasting me because my aim was too good," he contended mildly, glancing involuntarily toward the gopher stretched upon its little, yellow back, its four small feet turned pitifully up to the blue.
"If you had an atom of decency you'd be ashamed to mention that tribute to your diabolical marksmanship."
"Oh, mamma!" ejaculated Weary under his breath, and began to make himself a smoke. His guardian angel was exhorting him to silence, but it preached, as usual, to unsentient ears.
"I never mentioned all those things," he denied meekly. "It's you that keeps on mentioning. I wish yuh wouldn't. I like to hear you talk, all right, and flop all those big words easy as roping a calf; but I wish you'd let me choose your subject for yuh. I could easy name one where you could use words just as high and wide and handsome, and a heap more pleasant than the brand you've got corralled. Try admiration and felicitation and exhilarating, ecstatic osculation—" He stopped to run the edge of paper along his tongue, and perhaps it was as well he did; there was no need of making her any angrier. Miss Satterly hated to feel that she was worsted, and it was quite clear that Weary had all along been "guying" her.
"If you came here to make me hate you, you have accomplished your errand admirably; it would be advisable now for you to hike."
Weary, struck by that incongruous last word, did an unforgivable thing. He laughed and laughed, while the match he had just lighted flared, sent up a blue thread of brimstone smoke, licked along the white wood and scorched his fingers painfully before he remembered his cigarette.
Miss Satterly turned abruptly and went into the house, put on her hat and took up the little, tin lard-pail in which her aunt Meeker always packed her lunch. She was back, had the key turned in the lock and was slowly pulling on her gloves by the time Weary recovered from his mirth.
"Since you will not leave the place, I shall do so. I want to say first, however, that I not only think you odious, but all the synonyms I mentioned besides. You need not come for me to go to the Labor Day dance, because I will not go with you. I shall go with Joe."
Weary gave her a startled glance and almost dropped his cigarette. This seemed going rather far, he thought—but of course she didn't really mean it; the schoolma'am, he heartened himself with thinking, was an awful, little bluffer.
"Don't go off mad, Girlie. I'm sorry I killed your gopher—on the dead, I am. I just didn't think, That's a habit I've got—not thinking.
"Say! You stay, and we'll have a funeral. It isn't every common, scrub gopher that can have a real funeral with mourners and music when he goes over the Big Divide. He—he'll appreciate the honor; I would, I know, if it was me."
The schoolma'am took a few steps and stopped, evidently in some difficulty with her glove. From the look of her, no human being was within a mile of her; she certainly did not seem to hear anything Weary was saying.
"Say! I'll sing a song over him, if you'll wait a minute. I know two whole verses of 'Bill Bailey,' and the chorus to 'Good Old Summertime.' I can shuffle the two together and make a full deck. I believe they'd go fine together.
"Say, you never heard me sing, did yuh? It's worth waiting for—only yuh want to hang tight to something when I start. Come on—I'll let you be the mourner."
Since Miss Satterly had been taking steps quite regularly while Weary was speaking, she was now several rods away—and she had, more than ever, the appearance of not hearing him and of not wanting to hear.
The schoolma'am refused to stop, or to turn her head a fraction of an inch, and Weary's face sobered a little. It was the first time that inimitable "Tee-e-cher" of his had failed to bring the smile back into the eyes of Miss Satterly. He looked after her dubiously. Her shoulders were thrown well back and her feet pressed their imprint firmly into the yellow dust of the trail. In a minute she would be quite out of hearing.
Weary got up, took a step and grasped Glory's trailing bridle-rein and hurried after her much faster than Glory liked and which he reproved with stiffened knees and a general pulling back on the reins.
"Say! You wouldn't get mad at a little thing like that, would yuh?" expostulated Weary, when he overtook her. "You know I didn't mean anything, Girlie."
"I do not consider it a little thing," said the schoolma'am, icily.
Thus rebuffed, Weary walked silently beside her up the hill—silently, that is, save for the subdued jingling of his spurs. He was beginning to realize that there was an uncomfortable, heavy feeling in his chest, on the side where his heart was. Still, he was of a hopeful nature and presently tried again.
"How many times must I say I'm sorry, Schoolma'am? You don't look so pretty when you're mad; you've got dimples, remember, and yuh ought to give 'em a chance. Let's sit down on this rock while I square myself. Come on." His tone was wheedling in the extreme.
Satterly, not replying a word, kept straight on up the hill;
Weary, sighing heavily, followed.
"Don't you want to ride Glory a ways? He's real good, to-day. He put in the whole of yesterday working out all the cussedness that's been accumulating in his system for a week, so he's dead gentle. I'll lead him, for yuh."
"Thank you," said Miss Satterly. "I prefer to walk."
Weary sighed again, but clung to his general hopefulness, as was his nature. It took a great deal to rouse Weary; perhaps the schoolma'am was trying to find just how much.
"Say, you'd a died laughing if you'd seen old Glory yesterday; he liked to scared Slim plumb to death. We were working in the big corral and Slim got down on one knee to fix his spur. Glory saw him kneel down, and gave a running jump and went clear over Slim's head. Slim hit for the closest fence, and he never looked back till he was clean over on the other side. Mamma! I was sure amused. I thought Glory had done about everything there was to do—but I tell yuh, that horse has got an imagination that will make him famous some day."
For the first time since the day of his spectacular introduction to her, Miss Satterly displayed absolutely no interest in the eccentricities of Glory. Slowly it began to dawn upon Weary that she did not intend to thaw that evening. He glanced at her sidelong, and his eyes had a certain gleam that was not there five minutes before. He swung along beside her till they reached the top of the hill, fell behind without a word and mounted Glory.
When he overtook Miss Satterly, he lifted his hat to her nonchalantly, touched up Glory with his spurs, and clattered away down the coulee, leaving the schoolma'am in a haze of yellow dust and bewilderment far in the rear.
The next morning Miss Satterly went very early to the school-house—for what purpose she did not say. A meadow-lark on the doorstep greeted her with his short, sweet ripple of sound and then flew to a nearby sage bush and watched her curiously. She looked about her half expectant, half disappointed.
A little, fresh mound marked the spot where the dead gopher had been, and a narrow strip of shingle stood upright at the end. Someone had scratched the words with a knife:
GONE BUT NOT FORGOT.
Probably the last word would have been given its full complement of syllables, had the shingle been wider; as it was, the "forgot" was cramped until it was barely intelligible.
Miss Satterly, observing the mark of high-heeled boots in the immediate vicinity of the grave, caught herself wondering if the remains had been laid away to the tune of "Bill Bailey," with the chorus of "Good Old Summertime" shuffled in to make a full deck. She started to laugh and found that laughter was quite impossible.
Suddenly the schoolma'am did a strange thing. She glanced about to make sure no one was in sight, knelt and patted the tiny mound very tenderly; then, stooping quickly, she pressed her lips impulsively upon the rude lettering of the shingle. When she sprang up her cheeks were very red, her eyes dewy and lovely, and the little laugh she gave at herself was all atremble. If lovers could be summoned as opportunely in real life as they are in stories, hearts would not ache so often and life would be quite monotonously serene.
Weary was at that moment twenty miles away, busily engaged in chastising Glory, that had refused point-blank to cross a certain washout. His mind being wholly absorbed in the argument, he was not susceptible to telepathic messages from the Meeker school-house—which was a pity.
Also, it was a pity he could not know that Miss Satterly lingered late at the school-house that night, doing nothing but watch the trail where it lay, brown and distinct and utterly deserted, on the top of the bill a quarter of a mile away. It is true she had artfully scattered a profusion of papers over her desk and would undoubtedly have been discovered hard at work upon them and very much astonished at beholding him—if he had come. It is probable that Weary would have found her quite unapproachable, intrenched behind a bulwark of dignity and correct English.
When the shadow of the schoolhouse stretched somberly away to the very edge of the coulee. Miss Satterly gathered up the studied confusion on her desk, bundled the papers inside, and turned the key with a snap, jabbed three hatpins viciously through her hat and her hair and went home—and perhaps it were well that Weary was not there at that time.
The next night, papers strewed the desk as before, and the schoolma'am stood by the window, her elbows planted on the unpainted sill, and watched the trail listlessly. Her eyes were big and wistful, like a hurt child's, and her cheeks were not red as usual, nor even pink. But the trail lay again brown, and silent, and lonesome, with no quick hoof-beats to send the dust swirling up in a cloud.
The shadows flowed into the coulee until it was full to the brim and threatening the golden hilltop with a brown veil of shade before Miss Satterly locked her door and went home. When she reached her aunt Meeker's she did not want any supper and she said her head ached. But that was not quite true; it was not her head that ached so much; it was her heart.
The third day, the schoolma'am fussed a long time with her hair, which she did in four different styles. The last style was the one which Weary had pronounced "out uh sight"—only she added a white chiffon bow which she had before kept sacred to dances and which Weary always admired. At noon she encouraged the children to gather wild flowers from the coulee, and she filled several tin cans with water from the spring and arranged the bouquets with much care. Weary loved flowers. Nearly every time he came he had a little bunch stuck under his hat-band. A few she put in her hair, along with the chiffon bow. She urged the children through their work and dismissed them at eleven minutes to four and told them to go straight home.
After she had swept the floor and dusted everything that could be dusted so that the school-room had the peculiar, immaculate emptiness and forlornness, like a church on a week day, and had taken a few of the brightest flowers and pinned them upon her white shirt-waist. Miss Satterly tuned her guitar in minor and went out and sat upon the shady doorstep and waited frankly, strumming plaintive little airs while she watched the trail. To-morrow was Labor Day, and so he would certainly ride over to-night to see if she had really meant it (Miss Satterly did not explain to herself what "it" was; surely, there was no need).
At half-past five—Miss Satterly had looked at her watch seventeen times during the interval—a tiny cloud of dust rose over the brow of the hill, and her heart danced in her chest until she could scarce breathe.
The cloud grew and grew and began drifting down the trail, and behind it a black something rose over the hilltop and followed it, so proclaiming itself a horseman galloping swiftly towards her. The color spread from the schoolma'am's cheeks to her brow and throat. Her fingers forgot their cunning and plucked harrowing discords from the strings, but her lips were parted and smiling tremulously. It was late—she had almost given up looking—but he was coming! She knew be would come. Coming at a breakneck pace—he must be pretty anxious, too. The schoolma'am recovered a bit of control and revolved in her mind several pert forms of greeting. She would not be too ready to forgive him—it would do him good to keep him anxious and uncertain for a while before she gave in.
Now he was near the place where he would turn off the main road and gallop straight to her. Glory always made that turn of his own accord, lately. Weary had told her, last Sunday, how he could never get Glory past that turn, any more, without a fight, no matter what might be the day or the hour.
Now he would swing into the school-house trail. Miss Satterly raised both hands with a very feminine gesture and patted her hair tentatively, tucking in a stray lock here and there.
Her hands dropped heavily to her lap, just as the blood dropped away from her cheeks and the happy glow dulled in her eyes. It was not Weary. It was the Swede who worked for Jim Adams and who rode a sorrel horse which, at a distance, resembled Glory.
Mechanically she watched him go on down the trail and out of sight; picked up her guitar which had grown suddenly heavy, crept inside and closed the door and locked it She looked around the clean, eerily silent schoolroom, walked with echoing steps to the desk and laid her head down among the cans of sweet-smelling, prairie flowers and cried softly, in a tired, heartbreaking fashion that made her throat ache, and her head.
The shadows had flowed over the coulee-rim and the hilltops were smothered in gloom when Miss Satterly went home that night, and her aunt Meeker sent her straight to bed and dosed her with horrible home remedies.
By morning she had recovered her spirit—her revengeful spirit, which she kept as the hours wore on and Weary did not come. She would teach him a lesson, she told herself often. By evening, however, her mood softened. There were many things that could have kept him away against his will; he was not his own master, and it was shipping time. Probably he had been out with the roundup, or something. She decided that petty revenge is unwomanly besides giving evidence of a narrow mind and shallow, and if Weary could show a good and sufficient reason for staying away like that when there were matters to be settled between them, she would not be petty and mean about it; she would be divine—and forgive.