22. Rosebud's Answer
It was a dazzling morning nearly five weeks after the dispatching of Ma Sampson's letter to Rosebud. The heralds of spring, the warm, southern breezes, which brought trailing flights of geese and wild duck winging northward, and turned the pallor of the snow to a dirty drab hue, like a soiled white dress, had already swept across the plains. The sunlight was fiercely blinding. Even the plainsman is wary at this time of the year, for the perils of snow-blindness are as real to him as to the "tenderfoot."
There had been no reply from Rosebud. Two more letters from her reached the farm, but they had been written before the letter, which Rube helped to compose, had been received. Since then no word had come from the girl. Ma was satisfied, and accepted her silence with equanimity, but for appearances' sake assumed an attitude of complaint. Rube said nothing; he had no subtlety in these matters. Seth was quite in the dark. He never complained, but he was distressed at this sudden and unaccountable desertion.
Seth's wound and broken shoulder had healed. He had been up a week, but this was his first day out of the house. Now he stood staring out with shaded eyes in the direction of the Reservations. During the past week he had received visits from many of the neighboring settlers. Parker, particularly, had been his frequent companion. He had learned all that it was possible for him to learn by hearsay of the things which most interested him; but, even so, he felt that he had much time to make up, much to learn that could come only from his own observation.
Now, on this his first day out in the open, he found himself feeling very weak, a thin, pale shadow of his former self. Curiously enough he had little inclination for anything. He simply stood gazing upon the scene before him, drinking in deep draughts of the pure, bracing, spring air. Though his thoughts should have been with those matters which concerned the welfare of the homestead, they were thousands of miles away, somewhere in a London of his own imagination, among people he had never seen, looking on at a life and pleasures of which he had no knowledge of, and through it all he was struggling to understand how it was Rosebud had come to forget them all so utterly, and so suddenly.
He tried to make allowances, to point out to himself the obligations of the girl's new life. He excused her at every point; yet, when it was all done, when he had proved to himself the utter impossibility of her keeping up a weekly correspondence, he was dissatisfied, disappointed. There was something behind it all, some reason which he could not fathom.
In the midst of these reflections he was joined by Rube. The old man was smoking his after-breakfast pipe.
"She's openin'," he said, indicating the brown patches of earth already showing through the snow. Seth nodded.
They were standing just outside the great stockade which had been completed during Seth's long illness. There were only the gates waiting to be hung upon their vast iron hinges.
After the old man's opening remark a long silence fell. Seth's thoughts ran on unchecked in spite of the other's presence. Rube smoked and watched the lean figure beside him out of the corners of his eyes. He was speculating, too, but his thought was of their own immediate surroundings. Now that Seth was about again he felt that it would be good to talk with him. He knew there was much to consider. Though perhaps he lacked something of the younger man's keen Indian knowledge he lacked nothing in experience, and experience told him that the winter, after what had gone before, had been, but for the one significant incident of Seth's wound, very, very quiet--too quiet.
"Say, boy," the old man went on, some minutes later, "guess you ain't yarned a heap 'bout your shootin' racket?"
Seth was suddenly brought back to his surroundings. His eyes thoughtfully settled on the distant line of woodland that marked the river and the Reservation. He answered readily enough.
"That shootin' don't affect nothin'--nothin' but me," he said with meaning.
"I thought Little----"
Seth shook his head. He took Rube's meaning at once.
"That's to come, I guess," he said gravely.
Rube suddenly looked away down the trail in the direction of Beacon Crossing. His quick ears had caught an unusual sound. It was a "Coo-ee," but so thin and faint that it came to him like the cry of some small bird. Seth heard it, too, and he turned and gazed over the rotting sleigh track which spring was fast rendering impassable. There was nothing in sight. Just the gray expanse of melting snow, dismal, uninteresting even in the flooding sunlight.
Rube turned back to the gateway of the stockade. His pipe was finished and he had work to do. Seth was evidently in no mood for talk.
"I'd git around and breathe good air fer awhiles," he said kindly, "y' ain't goin' to git strong of a sudden, Seth."
"Guess I'll ride this afternoon. Hello!"
The cry reached them again, louder, still high-pitched and shrill, but nearer. Away down the trail a figure in black furs was moving toward them.
Both men watched the object with the keenest interest. It was a mere speck on the gray horizon, but it was plainly human, and evidently wishful to draw their attention.
"Some'un wantin' us?" said Rube in a puzzled tone.
"Seems." Seth was intent upon the figure.
Another "Coo-ee" rang out, and Rube responded with his deep guttural voice. And, in answer, the bundle of furs raised two arms and waved them beckoningly.
Rube moved along the trail. Without knowing quite why, but roused to a certain curiosity, he was going to meet the newcomer. Seth followed him.
Seth's gait was slower than the older man's, and he soon dropped behind. Suddenly he saw Rube stop and turn, beckoning him on. When he came up the old man pointed down the road.
"It's a woman," he said, and there was a curious look in his eyes.
The muffled figure was more than a hundred and fifty yards away, but still laboriously stumbling along the snow-bound trail toward them.
Before Seth could find a reply another "Coo-ee" reached them, followed quickly by some words that were blurred by the distance. Seth started. The voice had a curiously familiar sound. He glanced at Rube, and the old man's face wore a look of grinning incredulity.
"Sounds like----" Seth began to speak but broke off.
"Gee! Come on!" cried Rube, in a boisterous tone. "It's Rosebud!"
The two men hastened forward. Rube's announcement seemed incredible. How could it be Rosebud--and on foot? The surface of the trail gave way under their feet at almost every step. But they were undeterred. Slush or ice, deep snow or floundering in water holes, it made no difference. It was a race for that muffled figure, and Rube was an easy winner. When Seth came up he found the bundle of furs in the bear-like embrace of the older man. It was Rosebud!
Questions raced through Seth's brain as he looked on, panting with the exertion his enfeebled frame had been put to. How? Why? What was the meaning of it all? But his questions remained unspoken. Nor was he left in doubt long. Rosebud laughing, her wonderful eyes dancing with an inexpressible delight, released herself and turned to Seth. Immediately her face fell as she looked on the shadow of a man standing before her.
"Why, Seth," she cried, in a tone of great pity and alarm that deceived even Rube, "what's the matter that you look so ill?" She turned swiftly and flashed a meaning look into Rube's eyes. "What is it? Quick! Oh, you two sillies, tell me! Seth, you've been ill, and you never told me!"
Slow of wit, utterly devoid of subterfuge as Rube was, for once he grasped the situation.
"Why, gal, it's jest nothin'. Seth's been mighty sick, but he's right enough now, ain't you, Seth, boy?"
Seth had nothing to add, but he held out his hand, and the girl seized it in both of hers, while her eyes darkened to an expression which these men failed to interpret, but which Ma Sampson could have read aright. Seth cleared his throat, and his dark eyes gazed beyond the girl and down the trail.
"How'd you come, Rosie?" he asked practically. "You ain't traipsed from Beacon?"
Suddenly the girl's laugh rang out. It was the old irresponsible laugh that had always been the joy of these men's hearts, and it brought a responsive smile to their faces now.
"Oh, I forgot," she cried. "The delight of seeing you two dears put it out of my silly head. Why, we drove out from Beacon, and the wagon's stuck in a hollow away back, and my cousin, I call her 'aunt,' and her maid, and all the luggage are mired on the road, calling down I don't know what terrible curses upon the country and its people, and our teamster in particular. So I just left them to it and came right on to get help. Auntie was horrified at my going, you know. Said I'd get rheumatic fever and pneumonia, and threatened to take me back home if I went, and I told her she couldn't unless I got help to move the wagon, and so here I am."
Rube's great face had never ceased to beam, and now, as the girl paused for breath, he turned for home.
"Guess I'll jest get the team out. Gee!" And he went off at a great gait.
Seth looked gravely at the girl's laughing face.
"Guess you'd best come on home. Mebbe your feet are wet."
Thus, after months of parting, despite the changed conditions of the girl's life, the old order was resumed. Rosebud accepted Seth's domination as though it was his perfect right. Without one word or thought of protest she walked at his side. In silence he helped her over the broken trail to the home she had so long known and still claimed. Once only was that silence broken. It was when the girl beheld the fortified appearance of the farm. She put her question in a low, slightly awed tone.
"What's all this for, Seth?" she asked. She knew, but she felt that she must ask.
"Them logs?" The man responded indifferently.
"Yes, that stockade."
"Oh, jest nothin'. Y' see we need a bit o' fence-like."
Rosebud looked at him from out of the corners of her eyes as she trudged at his side.
"I'm glad I came, Seth. I'm just in time. Poor auntie!"
The next moment her arms were around Ma Sampson's neck, hugging the old woman, who had heard of the girl's arrival from Rube and had come out to meet her.
"La sakes, come right in at once, Rosie, gal!" she exclaimed, when she was permitted a chance of speech. And laughing and chattering in the very wildest delight, Rosebud led the way and romped into the house.
In the dear familiar kitchen, after the girl had gazed at the various simple furnishings she had so long known and loved, she poured out her tale, the reason of her coming, with a blissful disregard for truth. Ma took her cue and listened to the wonderful fabrication the girl piled up for her astonished ears, and more particularly Seth's. Apparently the one thing that had not entered into her madcap considerations was Seth's illness.
Just as her story came to an end, and the sound of wheels outside warned them of the arrival of the wagon, Rosebud turned upon Seth with something of her old wilful impetuosity.
"And now, Seth," she said, her eyes dancing with audacity and mischief, "you're a sick man and all that, so there's every excuse for you, but you haven't said you're glad to see me."
Seth smiled thoughtfully as he gazed on the fair, trim-figured woman challenging him. He noted with a man's pleasure the perfectly fitting tailor-made traveling costume, the beautifully arranged hair, the delightful Parisian hat. He looked into the animated face, the only thing about her that seemed to be as of old. Though he saw that her outward appearance was changed, even improved, he knew that that was all. It was the same Rosebud, the same old spirit, honest, fearless, warm-hearted, loving, that looked out of her wondrous eyes, and he felt his pulses stir and something like a lump rose in his throat as he answered her.
"Wal, little gal, I guess you don't need me to tell you. Pleased! that don't cut no meanin'. Yet I'm kind o' sorry too. Y' see ther's things----"
Ma interrupted him.
"He's right, Rosebud dear, it's a bad time."
The girl's reply came with a laugh full of careless mischief and confidence.
"Poor auntie!" Then she became suddenly serious. "They're outside," she went on. "Let us go and bring her in."
A moment later Ma found herself greeting Rosebud's second cousin and chaperone. Mrs. Rickards was an elderly lady, stout, florid, and fashionably dressed, who had never been further afield in her life than the Europe of society.
Her greeting was an effort. She was struggling to conceal a natural anger and resentment against the inconvenience of their journey from Beacon Crossing, and the final undignified catastrophe of the wagon sticking fast in the slush and mud on the trail, and against Rosebud in particular, under a polite attempt at cordiality. She would probably have succeeded in recovering her natural good-humored composure but for the girl herself, who, in the midst of the good creature's expostulations, put the final touch to her mischief. Mrs. Rickards had turned solicitously upon her charge with an admonitory finger raised in her direction.
"And as for Rosie,--she insists on being called Rosebud still, Mrs. Sampson--after her tramp through all that dreadful snow and slush she must be utterly done up," she said kindly.
"Done up, auntie? Tired?" the girl said, with a little scornful laugh. "Don't you believe it. Why the fun's only just beginning, isn't it, Seth? Do you know, auntie dear, the Indians are getting troublesome; they're going out on the war-path. Aren't they, Seth? And we're just in time to get scalped."
But Seth had no responsive smile for the girl's sally. His face was grave enough as he turned to the horrified woman.
"Ma'am," he said, in that slow drawling fashion which gave so much gravity and dignity to his speech, "I'll take it kindly if you won't gamble a heap on this little gal's nonsense. I've known her some few years, an' I guess she's nigh the worst savage in these parts--which, I guess, says a deal."
Seth's rebuke lost nothing of its sharpness by reason of the gentle manner in which it was spoken. Rosebud felt its full force keenly. She flushed to the roots of her hair and her eyes were bright with resentment. She pouted her displeasure and, without a word, abruptly left the room.
Ma and Mrs. Rickards--the latter's composure quite restored by Seth's reassurance--looked after her. Both smiled.
Seth remained grave. The girl's mischief had brought home to him the full responsibility which devolved upon Rube and himself.
Truly it was the old Rosebud who had returned to White River Farm.