The Watchers

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21. Two Heads In Conspiracy



Seth was badly hit; so badly that it was impossible to say how long he might be confined to a sick-room. His left shoulder-blade had been broken by the bullet, which, striking under the arm, had glanced round his ribs, and made its way dangerously adjacent to the spine. Its path was marked by a shocking furrow of lacerated flesh. Though neither gave expression to the thought, both Ma and Rube marveled at the escape he had had, and even the doctor from Beacon Crossing, accustomed as he was to such matters, found food for grave reflection on the ways of Providence.

When the patient recovered consciousness he maintained an impenetrable silence on the subject of the attack made upon him. Parker and Hargreaves protested. The military authorities demanded explanation in vain. To all but the Agent Seth vouchsafed the curtest of replies, and to him he made only a slight concession.

"Guess this is my racket," he said, with just a touch of invalid peevishness. "Mebbe I'll see it thro' my own way--later."

Ma and Rube refrained from question. It was theirs to help, and they knew that if there was anything which Seth had to tell he would tell it in his own time.

But time passed on, and no explanation was forthcoming. Taking their meals together in the kitchen, or passing quiet evenings in the parlor while their patient slept up-stairs, Ma and Rube frequently discussed the matter, but their speculations led them nowhere. Still, as the sick man slowly progressed toward recovery, they were satisfied. It was all they asked.

Rube accepted the burden of the work thus thrust upon him in cheerful silence. There was something horse-like in his willingness for work. He just put forth a double exertion without one single thought of self.

Every week the English mail brought Ma a letter from Rosebud, and ever since Seth had taken up his abode in the sick-room the opening and reading of these long, girlish epistles had become a function reserved for his entertainment. It was a brief ray of sunshine in the gray monotony of his long imprisonment. On these occasions, generally Tuesdays, the entire evening would be spent with the invalid.

They were happy, single-hearted little gatherings. Ma was seated at the bedside in a great armchair before a table on which the letter was spread out. An additional lamp was requisitioned for the occasion, and her glasses were polished until they shone and gleamed in the yellow light. Seth was propped up, and Rube, large, silent, like a great reflective St. Bernard dog, reclined ponderously at the foot of the wooden bedstead. The reading proceeded with much halting and many corrections and rereadings, but with never an interruption from the attentive audience.

The men listened to the frivolous, inconsequent gossip of the girl, now thousands of miles away from them, with a seriousness, a delighted happiness that nothing else in their lives could have afforded them. Comment came afterward, and usually from Ma, the two men merely punctuating her remarks with affirmative or negative monosyllables.

It was on the receipt of one of these letters that Ma saw her way to a small scheme which had been slowly revolving itself in her brain ever since Seth was wounded. Seth had been in the habit of enclosing occasional short notes under cover of the old woman's more bulky and labored replies to the girl. Since his misadventure these, of course, had been discontinued, with the result that now, at last, Rosebud was asking for an explanation.

In reading the letter aloud Ma avoided that portion of it which referred to the matter. Her reason was obviously to keep her own plans from her boy's knowledge, but so clumsily did she skip to another part of the letter, that, all unconscious of it, she drew from her audience a sharp look of inquiry.

Nothing was said at the time, but the following day, at supper, when Ma and Rube were alone, the man, who had taken the whole day to consider the matter, spoke of it in the blunt fashion habitual to him.

"Guess ther' was suthin' in that letter you didn't read, Ma?" he said without preamble.

Ma looked up. Her bright eyes peered keenly through her spectacles into her husband's massive face.

"An' if ther' was?" she said interrogatively.

The old man shrugged.

"Guess I was wonderin'," he said, plying his knife and fork with some show of indifference.

A silence followed. Ma helped herself to more tea and refilled her husband's mug.

"Guess we'll have to tell the child," she said presently.

"Seems like."

A longer silence followed.

"She was jest askin' why Seth didn't write."

"I kind o' figgered suthin' o' that natur'. You'd best tell her."

Rube rested the ends of his knife and fork on the extremities of his plate and took a noisy draught from his huge mug of tea. A quiet smile lurked in the old woman's eyes.

"Rosebud's mighty impulsive," she observed slowly.

"Ef you mean she kind o' jumps at things, I take it that's how."

The old woman nodded, and a reflection of her smile twinkled in her husband's eyes as he gazed over at the little figure opposite him.

"Wal," said Rube, expansively, "it ain't fer me to tell you, Ma, but we've got our dooty. Guess I ain't a heap at writin' fancy notions, but mebbe I ken help some. Y' see it's you an' me. I 'lows Seth would hate to worrit Rosie wi' things, but as I said we've got our dooty, an' it seems----"

"Dooty?" Ma chuckled. "Say, Rube, we'll write to the girl, you an' me. An' we don't need to ask no by-your-leave of nobody. Not even Seth."

"Not even Seth."

The two conspirators eyed one another slyly, smiled with a quaint knowingness, and resumed their supper in silence.

A common thought, a common hope, held them. Neither would have spoken it openly, even though no one was there to overhear. Each felt that they were somehow taking advantage of Seth and, perhaps, not doing quite the right thing by Rosebud; but after all they were old, simple people who loved these two, and had never quite given up the hope of seeing them ultimately brought together.

The meal was finished, and half an hour later they were further working out their mild conspiracy in the parlor. Ma was the scribe, and was seated at the table surrounded by all the appurtenances of her business. Rube, in a great mental effort, was clouding the atmosphere with the reeking fumes of his pipe. The letter was a delicate matter, and its responsibility sat heavily on this man of the plains. Ma was less embarrassed; her woman's instinct helped her. Besides, since Rosebud had been away she had almost become used to writing letters.

"Say, Rube," she said, looking up after heading her note-paper, "how d' you think it'll fix her when she hears?"

Rube gazed at the twinkling eyes raised to his; he gave a chuckling grunt, and his words came with elephantine meaning.

"She'll be all of a muss-up at it."

Ma's smile broadened.

"What's makin' you laff, Ma?" the old man asked.

"Jest nuthin'. I was figgerin' if the gal could--if we could git her reply before spring opens."

"Seems likely--if the boat don't sink."

Ma put the end of her pen in her mouth and eyed her man. Rube scratched his head and smoked hard. Neither spoke. At last the woman jerked out an impatient inquiry.

"Well?" she exclaimed.

Rube removed his pipe from his lips with great deliberation and eased himself in his chair.

"You've located the name of the farm on top, an' the State, an' the date?" he inquired, by way of gaining time.

"Guess I ain't daft, Rube."

"No." The man spoke as though his answer were the result of deliberate thought. Then he cleared his throat, took a long final pull at his pipe, removed it from his mouth, held it poised in the manner of one who has something of importance to say, and sat bolt upright. "Then I guess we ken git right on." And having thus clearly marked their course he sat back and complacently surveyed his wife.

But the brilliancy of his suggestion was lost on Ma, and she urged him further.

"Well?"

"Wal--I'd jest say, 'Honored Lady,'" he suggested doubtfully.

"Mussy on the man, we're writin' to Rosebud!" exclaimed the old woman.

"Sure." Rube nodded patronizingly, but he seemed a little uncomfortable under his wife's stare of amazement. "But," he added, in a tone meant to clinch the argument, "she ain't 'Rosebud' no longer."

"Rubbish an' stuff! She's 'Rosebud'--jest 'Rosebud.' An' 'dearest Rosebud' at that, an' so I've got it," Ma said, hurriedly writing the words as she spoke. "Now," she went on, looking up, "you can git on wi' the notions to foller."

Again Rube cleared his throat. Ma watched him, chewing the end of her penholder the while. The man knocked his pipe out and slowly began to refill it. He looked out the window into the blackness of the winter night. His vast face was heavy with thought, and his shaggy gray brows were closely knit. As she watched, the old woman's bright eyes smiled. Her thoughts had gone back to their courting days. She thought of the two or three letters Rube had contrived to send her, which were still up-stairs in an old trunk containing her few treasures. She remembered that these letters had, in each case, begun with "Honored Lady." She wondered where he had obtained the notion which still remained with him after all these years.

Feeling the silence becoming irksome Rube moved uneasily.

"Y' see it's kind o' del'cate. Don't need handlin' rough," he said. "Seems you'd best go on like this. Mebbe you ken jest pop it down rough-like an' fix it after. 'Which it's my painful dooty an' pleasure----'"

"La, but you always was neat at fixin' words, Rube," Ma murmured, while she proceeded to write. "How's this?" she went on presently, reading what she had just written. "I'm sorry to have to tell you as Seth's got hurt pretty bad. He's mighty sick, an' liable to be abed come spring. Pore feller, he's patient as he always is, but he's all mussed-up an' broken shocking; shot in the side an' got bones smashed up. Howsum, he's goin' on all right, an' we hope for the best."

"I 'lows that's neat," Rube said, lighting his pipe. "'Tain't jest what I'd fancy. Sounds kind o' familiar. An' I guess it's li'ble to scare her some."

"Well?"

"Wal, I tho't we'd put it easy-like."

Ma looked a little scornful. Rube was certainly lacking in duplicity.

"Say, Rube, you ain't a bit smarter than when you courted me. I jest want that gal to think it's mighty bad."

"Eh?" Rube stared.

Ma was getting impatient.

"I guess you never could see a mile from your own nose, Rube; you're that dull an' slow wher' gals is concerned. I'll write this letter in my own way. You'd best go an' yarn with Seth. An' you needn't say nuthin' o' this to him. We'll git a quick answer from Rosebud, or I'm ter'ble slow 'bout some things, like you."

The cloud of responsibility suddenly lifted from the farmer's heavy features. He smiled his relief at his partner in conspiracy. He knew that in such a matter as the letter he was as much out of place as one of his own steers would be. Ma, he was convinced, was one of the cleverest of her sex, and if Seth and Rosebud were ever to be brought together again she would do it. So he rose, and, moving round to the back of his wife's chair, laid his great hand tenderly on her soft, gray hair.

"You git right to it, Ma," he said. "We ain't got no chick of our own. Ther's jest Seth to foller us, an' if you ken help him out in this thing, same as you once helped me out, you're doin' a real fine thing. The boy ain't happy wi'out Rosebud, an' ain't never like to be. You fix it, an' I'll buy you a noo buggy. Guess I'll go to Seth."

Ma looked up at the gigantic man, and the tender look she gave him belied the practical brusqueness of her words.

"Don't you git talkin' foolish. Ther' was a time when I'd 'a' liked you to talk foolish, but you couldn't do it then, you were that slow. Git right along. I'll fix this letter, an' read it to you when it's done."

Rube passed out of the room, gurgling a deep-throated chuckle, while his wife went steadily on with the all-important matter in hand.