The Watchers

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33. The Capitulation



"I'd like to know how it's all going to end."

Mrs. Rickards drew a deep sigh of perplexity and looked helplessly over at Ma, who was placidly knitting at her husband's bedside. The farmwife's bright face had lost nothing of its comeliness in spite of the anxieties through which she had so recently passed. Her twinkling eyes shone cheerily through her glasses, and the ruddy freshness of her complexion was still fair to see. A line or two, perhaps, had deepened about her mouth, and the grayness of her hair may have become a shade whiter. But these things were hardly noticeable.

The change in Rosebud's aunt was far more pronounced. She had taken to herself something of the atmosphere of the plains-folk in the few weeks of her stay at the farm. And the subtle change had improved her.

Rube was mending fast, and the two older women now spent all their spare time in his company.

Ma looked up from her work.

"Rube an' me have been discussin' it," she said. "Guess we've settled to leave the farm, an' buy a new place around some big city. I don't rightly know how the boy 'll take it. Y' see, Seth's mighty hard to change, an' he's kind o' fixed on this place. Y' see, he's young, an' Rube an' me's had a longish spell. We'd be pleased to take it easy now. Eh, old man?"

Ma glanced affectionately at the mighty figure filling up the bed. The man nodded.

"Y' see, things don't seem hard till you see your old man's blood runnin'," she went on. "Then--well, I guess I ain't no more stummick fer fight. I'd be thankful to God A'mighty to end my days peaceful."

Mrs. Rickards nodded sympathetically.

"You're quite wise," she said. "It seems to me you've earned a rest. The courage and devotion of all you dear people out here have been a wonderful education to me. Do you know, Mrs. Sampson, I never knew what life really meant until I came amongst you all. The hope, and love, and sympathy on this prairie are something to marvel at. I can understand a young girl's desire to return to it after once having tasted it. Even for me it has its fascinations. The claims of civilization fall from one out here in a manner that makes me wonder. I don't know yet but that I shall remain for a while and see more of it."

Ma smiled and shook her head at the other's enthusiasm.

"There's a heap worth living for out here, I guess. But----"

"Yes. I know what you would say. A time comes when you want rest for mind and body. I wonder," Mrs. Rickards went on thoughtfully, "if Seth ever wants rest and peace? I don't think it. What a man!"

She relapsed into silent admiration of the man of whom she was speaking. Ma noted her look. She understood the different place Seth now occupied in this woman's thoughts.

"But I was not thinking about the affairs of this farm and the Indians so much as something else," Mrs. Rickards went on presently, smiling from Ma to Rube and back again at Ma.

The farmwife laid her knitting aside. She understood the other's meaning, and this was the first mention of it between them. Even Rube had turned his head and his deep-set eyes were upon the "fine lady."

"Yes, I was thinking of Seth and Rosebud," she went on earnestly. "You know that Rosebud----"

Ma nodded.

"Seth's ter'ble slow," she said slyly.

"Do you think he's----"

"Sure." The two women looked straight into each other's eyes, which smiled as only old women's eyes can smile when they are speaking of that which is the greatest matter of their lives.

"I know how she regards him," Mrs. Rickards went on. "And I tell you frankly, Mrs. Sampson, I was cordially opposed to it--when I came here. Even now I am not altogether sure it's right by the girl's dead father--but----"

"But----?" Ma's face was serious while she waited for the other to go on.

"But--but--well, if I was a girl, and could get such a man as Seth for a husband, I should be the proudest woman in the land."

"An' you'd be honored," put in Rube, speaking for the first time.

Mrs. Rickards laughingly nodded.

Ma sighed.

"Guess Seth has queer notions. Mighty queer. I 'low, knowin' him as I do, I could say right here that that boy 'ud ask her right off, only fer her friends an' her dollars. He's a foolhead, some."

Mrs. Rickards laughed again.

"In England these things are usually an inducement," she said significantly.

"Seth's a man," said Ma with some pride. "Seth's real honest, an'--an', far be it for me to say it, he's consequent a foolhead. What's dollars when folks love? Pshaw! me an' Rube didn't think o' no dollars."

"Guess we hadn't no dollars to think of, Ma," murmured Rube in a ponderous aside.

"Wal? An' if we had?" Ma smiled defiantly at her "old man."

"Wal, mebbe we'd 'a' tho't of 'em."

The farmwife turned away in pretended disgust.

"And you don't think anything will come of it?" suggested Mrs. Rickards, taking the opportunity of returning to the matter under discussion.

Ma's eyes twinkled.

"Ther' ain't no sayin'," she said. "Mebbe it's best left to Rosie." She glanced again at her sick husband. "Y' see, men mostly has notions, an' some are ter'ble slow. But they're all li'ble to act jest so, ef the woman's the right sort. Guess it ain't no use in old folks figgerin' out fer young folks. The only figgerin' that counts is what they do fer themselves."

"I believe you're right," responded Mrs. Rickards, wondering where the farmwife had acquired her fund of worldly wisdom. Ma's gentle shrewdness overshadowed any knowledge she had acquired living the ordinary social life that had been hers in England. Ma's worldly wisdom, however, was all on the surface. She knew Seth, and she knew Rosebud. She had watched their lives with loving eyes, prompted by a great depth of sympathy. And all she had seen had taught her that both were capable of managing their own affairs, and, for the rest, her optimism induced the belief that all would come right in the end. And it was out of this belief she reassured her new-made friend.

Meanwhile the little blind god was carrying on his campaign with all the cunning and crushing strategy for which he is justly renowned. There is no power such as his in all the world. What he sets out to do he accomplishes with a blissful disregard for circumstances. Where obstacles refuse to melt at his advance, he adopts the less comfortable, but none the less effective, manner of breaking through them. And perhaps he saw the necessity of some such course in the case of Seth and Rosebud. Anyway, he was not beaten yet.

The last of the refugees had left the farm. Seth had been assisting in the departure of the various families. It was a sad day's work, and no one realized the pathos of it more than the silent plainsman. He had given his little all to the general welfare, but he had been incapable of saving the homes that had been built up with so much self-denial, so much thrift. All he could do was to wish the departing folk Godspeed with an accompaniment of cheery words, which, perhaps, may have helped to lighten the burden of some of them. The burden he knew was a heavy one in all cases, but heavier in some than others, for Death had claimed his toll, and at such a time the tax fell doubly heavy.

It was over. He had just seen the last wagon drop below the horizon. Now he turned away with a sigh and surveyed the ruin around him. He walked from place to place, inspecting each outbuilding with a measuring eye. There were weeks of labor before him, and all labor that would return no profit. It was a fitting conclusion to a sad day's work.

But he was not given to morbid sentiment, and as he inspected each result of the siege he settled in his mind the order of the work as it must be done. A setback like this had only a stimulating effect on his spirit. The summer lay before him, and he knew that by winter he could have everything restored to order.

At the barn he made the horses snug for the night, and then, taking up his favorite position on the oat-bin at the open doorway, lit his pipe for a quiet think. He was wholly responsible while Rube was ill.

Sitting there in the golden light of the setting sun, he was presently disturbed by the approach of light footsteps. It was an unusually gay voice that greeted him when he looked up, and eyes that were brighter, and more deeply violet than ever.

Had he given thought to these things he might have realized that there was something artificial in Rosebud's manner, something that told of unusual excitement going on in her bosom. But then Seth, with all his keenness in other things, was not the cleverest of men where women were concerned. Ma's opinion of him was wonderfully accurate.

"Oh, Seth, I just came to tell you! Fancy, no sooner is one excitement over than another begins. I've just learned that Pa and Ma are going to give up this farm. We are going further west, out of the Indian territory, and Rube's going to buy a new farm near some city. Just fancy. What do you think of it?"

For once Seth seemed taken aback. His usual imperturbable manner forsook him, and he stared at the girl in unfeigned astonishment. This was the last thing he had expected.

"We're quittin' the farm?" he cried incredulously.

"That's precisely it," Rosebud nodded, thoroughly enjoying the other's blank manner.

"Gee! I hadn't tho't of it."

The girl broke into a laugh, and Seth, after smiling faintly in response, relapsed into serious thought. Rosebud eyed him doubtfully for some moments.

"You're not glad," she said presently, with a wise little nod. "You're not glad. You don't want to go. You love this place and what you've helped to make it. I know. So do I."

The man nodded, and his dark face grew graver.

"This is our home, isn't it?" the girl continued, after a pause. "Just look round. There's the new barn. I remember when you and Pa built it. I used to hold the wood while you sawed, and made you angry because I always tried to make you cut it crooked--and never succeeded. I was very small then. There's the old barn. We use it for cows now. And do you remember when you pulled down the old granary, and built the new one in the shape of an elevator? And do you remember, Ma wouldn't speak to us for a whole day because we pulled the old hen-roost to pieces and established the hogs there? She said it was flying in the face of Providence having the smelly old things so near the house. And now we're going to leave it all. We're farmers, aren't we, Seth? But Pa is going in for cattle."

"Cattle?" exclaimed Seth.

"Yes. But I'd rather that than another grain farm after this one. I don't think I could ever like another grain farm so well as this."

Rosebud had seated herself at Seth's feet, with her back to him so that he could not see her face. She was dressed in a simple dark gown that made her look very frail. Her golden hair was arranged in a great loose knot at the nape of her neck from which several unruly strands had escaped. Seth noted these things even though his eyes wandered from point to point as she indicated the various objects to which she was drawing his attention.

"Yes, it is home, sure, Rosie," he said at last, as she waited for his answer. "Yes, it's home, sure. Yours an' mine."

There was a long pause. Rosebud leant against Seth's knees; and presently she raised one arm till her elbow rested upon them. Then she supported her head upon her hand.

"But I think it's right to go; Ma and Rube are getting old. They want rest. Rube's got a goodish bit of capital, too," she went on, with an almost childish assumption of business knowledge. "And so have you. Now how much will buy a nice ranch?"

The girl had faced round and was gazing up into Seth's face with all the bland innocence of childhood in her wide open eyes. The gravity she beheld there was profound.

"Wal, I'd say around twenty thousand dollars. Y' see, stockin' it's heavy. But Rube wouldn't think o' that much. Mebbe he'd buy a goodish place an' raise the stock himself. I 'lows it's a money-makin' game--is stock. It's a good business."

Seth had gained some enthusiasm while he spoke, and the girl was quick to notice the change.

"I believe you're beginning to fancy the notion," she said, with a bright flash of her eyes.

"Mebbe."

Seth's reply was half shamefaced. Rosebud removed her arm from his knees and turned away, idly drawing vague outlines upon the dusty ground with her forefinger. She was smiling too. It was partly a mischievous smile, and yet there was something very nervous about it. She was thinking, thinking, and found it very hard to say what she wanted to.

"I wonder if you'd help me to do something I want to do very much?" she asked at last. "Something very, very particular?"

"Why, sure," was the ready answer. "That's how it's allus bin."

"Yes, I know. It's always been like that. But this is something much harder." Rosebud smiled a little wistfully into the strong face above her.

"You ken gamble on me."

"Of course I can. I know that."

Another silence fell. The girl continued to draw outrageous parallelograms in the dust. Seth smoked on, waiting for her. The last rays of the setting sun were shining athwart the golden head which his dark eyes were contemplating.

"You see, I want to buy Pa and Ma the finest ranch in Montana," she said at last. "You see, I've got lots of money," she went on, laughing nervously. "At least I shall have. I'm rather selfish, too, because I'm going to live with them, always, you know. And I'd like to live on a ranch. Pa could own it, and you could be foreman and partner. And--and I could be partner too. Quite a business arrangement. Pa and you would work. That's your share of the capital. I should only find the money, and do nothing. You see? I talked it over with--er--some one, and they said that was quite a business arrangement, and thought I was rather clever."

Seth removed his pipe and cleared his throat. Rosebud had not dared to look at him while putting forward her scheme. Her heart was beating so loudly, that it seemed to her he must hear it.

"Wal," he said slowly, "it's not a bad notion in some ways, Rosie. Ther's jest the matter o' myself wrong. I 'lows you'd make a han'some return to Rube an' Ma. Guess you needn't to figger on me though. I'll stand by this old farm. I ken work it single-handed. An' I kind o' notion the Injuns around here someways." "But we couldn't do without you."

Seth shook his head. As she beheld the movement, Rosebud's lips quivered, and a little impatient frown drew her brows together. She felt like shaking him for his stupidity.

"Well, I'm just going to do it, Seth. And--and I'm sorry I said anything to you about it. I shall buy it for Rube without telling him. And you'll help me?"

"Sure."

"Quite sure?"

"Nothin' more certain."

The girl's impatience had passed. A demure smile had replaced the frown, as she stared out at the flaming western sky. Presently she went on with a great assumption of calmness.

"I'm in a bit of a difficulty, though. You see, I want to do the thing at once, and I can't because I haven't got the money yet. I want to know if there isn't some means of arranging it. You see I only have a certain income at present. Later on, I shall get the whole fortune. It's that silly business about getting it when I'm married. And, of course, I'm not married yet, am I?"

"No."

Rosebud felt a desperate desire to run away. But she had never realized how difficult Seth was before. His uncompromising directness was enough to upset any one, she told herself.

"Well, I must raise the money now. You see, now."

"Can't be done. You see, the dollars ain't yours till you marry. Mebbe they'll never be yours. Mebbe you won't never marry. I guess every female don't allus marry. No, can't be done, I guess."

"No--o. I never looked at it like that before. No. The money isn't mine, is it? So, of course, I can't do it. Oh, Seth, I am disappointed!"

The girl's face had dropped, and there was something almost tragic in her tone. Seth heard the tone and it smote his heart, and made him long to take her in his arms and comfort her. He hated himself for what he had said.

"Why, little Rosie," he said gently, "I was only jest lookin' straight at it. Guess them dollars is yours. It's jest a question o' gettin' married."

The girl had turned away again. The sky was fast darkening, and a deep grayness was spreading from the east. And now, without turning, she said quietly--

"Yes, I must get married. But there's no one wants to marry me."

Seth drew a deep breath and stirred uneasily.

There was another long pause while Rosebud sat silently and unconsciously listening to the thumping of her own heart, and Seth tried hopelessly to relight a pipe in which all the tobacco had burnt out.

Suddenly Rosebud faced round. The growing darkness concealed the deep flush which had now taken possession of her cheeks, and spread even to brow and throat.

"But I do want that money, Seth," she said in a low tone. "And--and--you said--you promised you would help me."

There was a sharp sound of an empty pipe falling to the ground. Two strong rough hands were suddenly thrust out and rested in a steady grasp upon the girl's rounded shoulders. They slid their way upward until her soft cheeks were resting in their palms.

Rosebud felt her face lifted until she found herself gazing into the man's dark eyes which, in the darkness, were shining with a great love light. Her lids drooped before such passionate intensity. And her heart thrilled with rapture as she listened to his rough, honest words.

"Little Rosie, gal, you don't jest know what you're sayin'. I hadn't meant to, sure, but now I can't jest help it. My wits seem somehow gone, an' I don't guess as you'll ever forgive me. Ther's only one way I ken help you, little gal. 'Tain't right. 'Tain't honest, I know, but I guess I'm weak-kneed 'bout things now. I love you that bad I jest want to marry you. Guess I've loved you right along. I loved you when I picked you up in these arms nigh seven years ago. I loved you when I bandaged up that golden head o' yours. An' I've loved you--ever since. Rosie, gal, I jest don't know what I'm sayin'. How ken I? I'm daft--jest daft wi' love of you. I've tried to be honest by you. I've tried to do my duty by you--but I jest can't no longer, 'cos I love you----"

But he abruptly released her, and blindly groped on the ground for his pipe. He had suddenly realized that his actions, his words were past all forgiveness.

He did not find his pipe. Rosebud was kneeling now, and, as he stooped, his head came into contact with hers. In an instant his arms were about her slight figure, and he was crushing her to his breast in a passionate embrace.

"Oh, God! I love you, Rosie!" he cried, with all the pent-up passion of years finding vent in the exclamation.

Her face was raised to his; his lips sought hers, soft and warm. He kissed her again and again. He had no words. His whole soul was crying out for her. She was his, and he was holding her in his arms. Cost what it might afterward she was his for this one delirious moment.

But the moment passed all too swiftly. Reason returned to him, and his arms dropped from about her as he realized the enormity of his offence.

"Child--little Rosie," he cried brokenly, "I'm crazy! What--what have I done?"

But Rosebud did not go from him as he had expected she would. She did not stir. Her face was hidden from him, and he could not see the anger he expected to read there. She answered him. And her answer was meek--very, very humble.

"You've let go of me," she said in a low voice. "And--and I was so comfortable--so--so--happy!"

"Happy?" reëchoed Seth.

She was in his arms again. Night had fallen and all was still. No words were spoken between them for many minutes. Those rapturous moments were theirs alone, none could see, none could know. At length it was Rosebud who looked up from the pillow of his breast. Her lovely eyes were shining even in the darkness.

"Seth--dear--you will help me? You will be my--partner in the ranch?"

And the man's answer came with a ring of deep happiness in his voice.

"Yes, Rosie, gal--if you'll make it partners for--life."

Somehow when he came to look back on these moments Seth never quite realized how it all came about--this wondrous happiness that was his. But then--yes, perhaps, he was "ter'ble slow," as Ma Sampson had said. (End)