Story type: Literature
In most affairs, except those which related to his matrimonial ventures, Marcus Antonius Saterlee was a patient man. On three occasions “an ardent temperament and the heart of a dove,” as he himself had expressed it, had corralled a wife in worship and tenderness within his house. The first had been the love of his childhood; the wooing of the second had lasted but six weeks; that of the third but three. He rejoiced in the fact that he had been a good husband to three good women. He lamented that all were dead. Now and then he squirmed his bull head around on his bull body, and glanced across the aisle at the showy woman who was daintily picking a chicken wing. He himself was not toying with beefsteak, boiled eggs, mashed potatoes, cauliflower, lima, and string beans. He was eating them. Each time he looked at the lady he muttered something to his heart of a dove:
“Flighty. Too slight. Stuck on herself. Pin-head,” etc.
With his food Saterlee was not patient. He dispensed with mastication. Neither was he patient of other people’s matrimonial ventures. And, in particular, that contemplated and threatened by his son and heir was moving him across three hundred miles of inundated country as fast as a train could carry him. His son had written:
“DEAREST DAD–I’ve found Dorothy again. She’s at Carcasonne. They thought her lungs were bad, but they aren’t. We’re going to be married a week from to-day–next Friday–at nine A.M. This marriage is going to take place, Daddy dear. You can’t prevent it. I write this so’s to be on the square. I’m inviting you to the wedding. I’ll be hurt if you don’t show up. What if Dorothy’s mother is an actress and has been divorced twice? You’ve been a marrying man yourself, Dad. Dorothy is all darling from head to foot. But I love you, too, Daddy, and if you can’t see it my way, why, God bless and keep you just the same.”
I can’t deny that Marcus Antonius Saterlee was touched by his son’s epistle. But he was not moved out of reason.
“The girl’s mother,” he said to himself, “is a painted, divorced jade.” And he thought with pleasure of the faith, patience, and rectitude of the three gentle companions whom he had successively married and buried. “There was never any divorce in the Saterlee blood,” he had prided himself. “Man or woman, we stick by our choice till he or she” (he was usually precise) “turns up his or her toes. Not till then do we think of anybody else. But then we do, because it is not good to live alone, especially in a small community in Southern California.”
He glanced once more at the showy lady across the aisle. She had finished her chicken wing, and was dipping her fingers in a finger-bowl, thus displaying to sparkling advantage a number of handsome rings.
“My boy’s girl’s mother a painted actress,” he muttered as he looked. “Not if I know it.” And then he muttered: “You’d look like an actress if you was painted.”
Though the words can not have been distinguished, the sounds were audible.
“Sir?” said the lady, stiffly but courteously.
“Nothing, Ma’am,” muttered Mark Anthony, much abashed. “I’m surprised to see so much water in this arid corner of the world, where I have often suffered for want of it. I must have been talking to myself to that effect. I hope you will excuse me.”
The lady looked out of the window–not hers, but Saterlee’s.
“It does look,” she said, “as if the waters had divorced themselves from the bed of ocean.”
She delivered this in a quick but telling voice. Saterlee was shocked at the comparison.
“I suppose,” she continued, “we may attribute those constant and tedious delays to which we have been subjected all day to the premature melting of snow in the fastnesses of the Sierras?”
This phrase did not shock Saterlee. He was amazed by the power of memory which it proved. For three hours earlier he had read a close paraphrase of it in a copy of the Tomb City Picayune which he had bought at that city.
The train ran slower and slower, and out on to a shallow embankment.
“Do you think we shall ever get anywhere?” queried the lady.
“Not when we expect to, Ma’am,” said Saterlee. He began to scrub his strong mouth with his napkin, lest he should return to the smoker with stains of boiled eggs upon him.
The train gave a jolt. And then, very quietly, the dining-car rolled over on its side down the embankment. There was a subdued smashing of china and glass. A clergyman at one of the rear tables quietly remarked, “Washout,” and Saterlee, who had not forgotten the days when he had learned to fall from a bucking bronco, relaxed his great muscles and swore roundly, sonorously, and at great length. The car came to rest at the bottom of the embankment, less on its side than on its top. For a moment–or so it seemed–all was perfectly quiet. Then (at one and the same moment) a lady in the extreme front of the diner was heard exclaiming faintly: “You’re pinching me,” and out of the tail of his eye Saterlee saw the showy lady across the aisle descending upon him through the air. She was accompanied by the hook and leg table upon which she had made her delicate meal, and all its appurtenances, including ice-water and a wide open jar of very thin mustard.
“Thank you,” she murmured, as her impact drove most of the breath out of Saterlee’s bull body. “How strong you are!”
“When you are rested, Ma’am,” said he, with extreme punctiliousness, “I think we may leave the car by climbing over the sides of the seats on this side. Perhaps you can manage to let me pass you in case the door is jammed. I could open it.”
He preceded her over and over the sides of the seats, opened the car door, which was not jammed, and helped her to the ground. And then, his heart of a parent having wakened to the situation, he forgot her and forsook her. He pulled a time-table from his pocket; he consulted a mile-post, which had had the good sense to stop opposite the end of the car from which he had alighted. It was forty miles to Carcasonne–and only two to Grub City–a lovely city of the plain, consisting of one corrugated-iron saloon. He remembered to have seen it–with its great misleading sign, upon which were emblazoned the noble words: “Life-Saving Station.”
“Grub City–hire buggy–drive Carcasonne,” he muttered, and without a glance at the train which had betrayed him, or at the lady who had fallen upon him, so to speak, out of the skies, he moved forward with great strides, leaped a puddle, regained the embankment, and hastened along the ties, skipping every other one.
Progress is wonderful in the Far West. Since he had last seen it only a year had passed, and yet the lovely city of Grub had doubled its size. It now consisted of two saloons: the old “Life-Saving Station” and the new “Like Father Used to Take.” The proprietor of the new saloon was the old saloon-keeper’s son-in-law, and these, with their flourishing and, no doubt, amiable families, were socially gathered on the shady side of the Life-Saving Station. The shade was much the same sort that is furnished by trees in more favored localities, and the population of Grub City was enjoying itself. The rival wives, mother and daughter, ample, rosy women, were busy stitching baby clothes. Children already arrived were playing with a soap-box and choice pebbles and a tin mug at keeping saloon. A sunburned-haired, flaming maiden of sixteen was at work upon a dress of white muslin, and a young man of eighteen, brother by his looks to the younger saloon-keeper, heartily feasted a pair of honest blue eyes upon her plump hands as they came and went with the needle. It looked as if another year might see a third saloon in Grub City.
Saterlee approached the group, some of whose elders had been watching and discussing his approach.
“Do any of you own a boat?” he asked.
“Train D-railed?” queried the proprietor of the Life-Saving Station, “or was you just out for a walk?”
The family and family-in-law laughed appreciatively.
“The train put to sea in a washout,” said Saterlee, “and all the passengers were drowned.”
“Where you want to git?” asked the proprietor.
“Carcasonne,” said Saterlee. “Not the junction–the resort.”
“Well,” said the proprietor, “there’s just one horse and just one trap in Grub City, and they ain’t for hire.”
Again the united families laughed appreciatively. It was evident that a prophet is not always without honor in his own land.
“We’ve no use for them,” said the great man, with the noble abandoning gesture of a Spanish grandee about to present a horse to a man travelling by canoe. And he added: “So they’re for sale. Now what do you think they’d be worth to you?”
All the honest blue eyes, and there were no other colors, widened upon Saterlee.
“Fifty dollars,” he said, as one accustomed to business.
It was then that a panting, female voice was raised behind him. “Sixty dollars!”
His showy acquaintance of the dining-car had followed him along the ties as fast as she could, and was just come up.
“I thought you two was a trust,” commented the proprietor’s wife, pausing with her needle in the air. “But it seems you ain’t even a community of interests.”
“Seventy dollars,” said Saterlee quietly.
The lady advanced to his side, counting the change in her purse.
“Seventy-six dollars and eighty-five cents,” she said.
“Eighty dollars,” said Saterlee.
“Oh!” cried the lady, “seventy-six eighty-five is every cent I’ve got with me–and you’re no gentleman to bid higher.”
“Eighty,” repeated Saterlee.
“Eighty dollars,” said the son-in-law, “for a horse and buggy that a man’s never seen is too good to be true.”
“They are yours, sir,” said the father-in-law, and he turned to his daughter’s husband. “Is that horse in your cellar or in mine?” he asked. “I ain’t set eyes on her since February.”
The son-in-law, sent to fetch the horse, first paused at the cellar door of the Life-Saving Station, then, with a shake of the head and an “I remember now” expression, he approached and entered the subterrene of his own house and business, and disappeared, saying: “Whoa, there! Steady you!”
Saterlee turned quietly to the angry and tearful vision whom he had so callously outbid.
“Ma’am,” he said, “if we come to my stop first or thereabouts, the buggy is yours to go on with. If we reach yours first, it’s mine.”
“Oh!” she exclaimed, her face brightening, “how good you are. But you’ll let me go halves on the purchase money.”
“If I appeared rude just now,” he said, “it was to save a lady’s pocket. Now then, you’ve wet them high-heeled shoes. Wherever you’re going, it’s a long drive. Let’s go inside and dry our feet while they’re hitching up. Which is your house?”
The proprietor of the Life-Saving Station indicated that building with his thumb, and told his daughter of the white muslin dress to kindle a fire in the stove. She slid her future wedding finery into a large paper bag, and entered the saloon by the “Family Entrance,” ardently followed by her future husband.
The proprietor, Saterlee, and the showy lady followed more slowly, discussing roads.
“Now,” said Saterlee, “if you’re going further than Carcasonne Junction, I’ll get off there. And either I’ll walk to the hotel or hire another trap.”
“Why!” exclaimed the lady, “are you bound for Carcasonne House? So am I.”
“In that case,” said Saterlee elegantly, “we’ll go the whole hog together.”
“Quite so,” said the lady primly.
“You’d ought to make Carcasonne House by midnight,” said the proprietor. “Put your feet up on that there stove.”
“Heavens!” exclaimed the lady. “And if we don’t make it by midnight?”
“We will by one or two o’clock.”
The lady became very grave.
“Of course,” she said, “it can’t be helped. But it would be ever so much nicer if we could get in before midnight.”
“I take your point, Ma’am,” said Saterlee. “Before midnight is just a buggy ride–after midnight means being out all night together. I feel for you, Ma’am, but I’m dinged if I see how we can help ourselves. It’s five now.” He counted on his fingers: “six–seven–eight–nine–ten–‘leven–twelve–seven hours–seven into forty–five and five-sevenths…. Ma’am,” he said, “I can promise nothing. It’s all up to the horse.”
“Of course,” said the lady, “it doesn’t really matter. But,” and she spoke a little bitterly, “several times in my life my actions and my motives have been open to misconstruction, and they have been misconstrued. I have suffered, sir, much.”
“Well, Ma’am,” said Saterlee, “my reputation as a married man and a father of many children is mixed up in this, too. If we are in late–or out late rather–and there’s any talk–I guess I can quiet some of it. I rather guess I can.”
He rose to his feet, a vast, round, deep man, glowing with health and energy.
“I once quieted a bull, Ma’am,” said he, “by the horns. I would a held him till help came if one of the horns hadn’t come off, and he ran away.”
The proprietor entered the conversation with an insinuating wedge of a voice.
“I don’t like to mind other folks’ business,” he said, “but if the lady is fretting about bein’ out all night with a total stranger, I feel it my dooty to remark that in Grub City there is a justice of the peace.” He bowed and made a gesture which either indicated his whole person, or that smug and bulging portion of it to which the gesture was more directly applied.
Saterlee and the lady did not look at each other and laugh. They were painfully embarrassed.
“Nothing like a sound splice,” suggested the Justice, still hopeful of being helpful. “Failing that, you’ve a long row to hoe, and I suggest a life saver for the gent and a nip o’ the same for the lady. I’d like you to see the bar,” he added. “Mine is the show place of this here city–mirrors–peacock feathers–Ariadne in the nood–cash register–and everything hunky-dunk.”
“We’ll go you,” said Saterlee. “At any rate, I will.”
“Oh, I must see, too,” said the lady, and both were relieved at the turn which the conversation had taken.
The proprietor removed the cheese-cloth fly protector from the two-by-three mirror over the bar, slipped a white jacket over his blue shirt, and rubbed his hands together invitingly, as if washing them.
“What’s your pleasure, gents?” said he.
As the lady approached the bar she stumbled. Saterlee caught her by the elbow.
“That rail down there,” he said, “ain’t to trip over. It’s to rest your foot on. So.” He showed her. With the first sign of humor that she had shown, the lady suddenly and very capitally mimicked his attitude. And in a tough voice (really an excellent piece of acting): “What’s yours, kid?” she said. And then blushed to the eyes, and was very much ashamed of herself. But Saterlee and the bartender were delighted. They roared with laughter.
“Next thing,” said the bartender, “she’ll pull a gun and shoot up the place.”
Saterlee said: “Rye.”
“I want to be in it,” said the lady. “Can you make me something that looks like a drink, and isn’t?”
“Scotch,” said the proprietor without hesitation.
“No–no,” she said, “Water and coloring matter.”
She was fitted finally with a pony of water containing a few drops of Spanish Red and an olive.
The three touched glasses and wished each other luck all around. Saterlee paid eighty dollars and some change across the bar. But the proprietor pushed back the change.
“The drinks,” he said grandly, “was on the house.”
The united families bade them farewell, and Saterlee brought down the whip sharply upon the bony flank of the old horse which he had bought. But not for a whole minute did the sensation caused by the whip appear to travel to the ancient mare’s brain. Not till reaching a deep puddle did she seem suddenly aware of the fact that she had been whipped. Then, however, she rushed through the puddle, covering Saterlee and the lady with mud, and having reached the other side, fell once more into a halting walk.
The lady was tightly wedged between Saterlee and the side of the buggy. Every now and then Saterlee made a tremendous effort to make himself narrower, but it was no use.
“If you begin to get numb,” he said, “tell me, and I’ll get out and walk a spell…. How clear the air is! Seems as if you could stretch out your hand and touch the mountains. Do you see that shadow half way up–on the left–about three feet off? Carcasonne House is somewhere in that shadow. And it’s forty miles away.”
Once more the road ran under a shallow of water. And once more the old mare remembered that she had been whipped, and made a rush for it. Fresh mud was added to that which had already dried upon them by the dry miracle of the air.
“She’d ought to have been a motor-boat,” said Saterlee, the mud which had entered his mouth gritting unpleasantly between his teeth. “Last year there was one spring hole somewhere in these parts–this year it’s all lakes and rivers–never was such rains before in the memory of man. Wonder what Gila River’s doing?”
“What is Gila River?” she asked.
“It’s a sand gully,” he said, “that winds down from the mountains, and out across the plain, like a sure enough river. Only there’s no water in it, only a damp spot here and there. But I was thinking that maybe it’ll be going some now. We ought to strike it before dark.”
The mare rushed through another puddle.
The lady laughed. “Please don’t bother to hold her,” she said; “I don’t mind–now.”
“I guess your dress ain’t really hurt,” commented Saterlee. “I remember my old woman–Anna–had a brown silk that got a mud bath, and came through all right.”
“This is an old rag, anyway,” said the showy lady, who was still showy in spite of a wart-like knot of dried mud on the end of her nose. And she glanced at her spattered but graceful and expensive white linen and hand-embroidered dress.
“Well, I can see one thing,” said Saterlee, “that you’ve made up your mind to go through this experience like a good sport. I wish I didn’t have to take up so much room.”
“Never mind,” she said, “I like to think that I could go to sleep without danger of falling out.”
“That’s so–that’s so,” said Saterlee. “Maybe it’s just as well we’re something of a tight fit.”
“I have always mistrusted thin men,” said the lady, and she hastily added: “Not that you’re fat”
“My bones are covered,” said Saterlee; “I admit it.”
“Yes,” she said, “but with big muscles and sinews.”
“I am not weak,” said Saterlee; “I admit it.”
“What air this is,” exclaimed the lady; “what delicious air. No wonder it cures people with lung trouble. Still, I’m glad mine are sound.”
“I’m glad to hear you say that, Ma’am,” said Saterlee. “When you said you were bound for Carcasonne House, I thought to myself, ‘Mebbe she’s got it,’ and I felt mighty sorry.”
“Do I look like a consumptive?” she asked.
“Bless me–no,” said he. “But you’re not stout, and, considering where you said you was going, you mustn’t blame me for putting two and two together and getting the wrong answer.”
“I don’t blame you at all,” she said, but a little stiffly. “It was perfectly natural. No,” she said, “my daughter is at Carcasonne House. She had a very heavy cold–and other troubles–and two doctors agreed that her lungs were threatened. Well, perhaps they were. I sent her to Carcasonne House on the doctors’ recommendation. And it seems that she’s just as sound as I am.”
“What a relief to you, Ma’am,” said Saterlee hastily.
“Yes,” she said, but without enthusiasm, “a great relief.”
He screwed his massive head around on his massive neck, not without difficulty, and looked at her. His voice sounded hurt.
“You don’t seem very glad, Ma’am,” he said.
Her answer, on a totally different topic, surprised him.
“Do you believe in blood?” she said. “Do you believe that blood will–must tell?”
“Ma’am,” he said, “if I can draw my check for twenty-five thousand dollars it’s because I was born believing that blood will tell. It’s because I’ve acted on it all my life. And it’s the truth, and I’ve made a fortune out of it…. Cattle,” he added in explanation.
“I don’t know what you think of women,” she said, “who talk of their affairs to strangers. But my heart is so full of mine. I did so hope to reach Carcasonne early this evening. It don’t seem to me as if I could stand hours and hours behind that horse without talking to some one. Do you mind if I talk to you?” she appealed. “Somehow you’re so big and steady-minded–you don’t seem like a stranger.”
“Ma’am,” said Saterlee, the most chivalrous courtesy in his voice, for hers had sounded truly distressed, “fire away!”
“It’s about my daughter,” she said. “She has made up her mind to marry a young man whom I scarcely know. But about him and his antecedents I know this: that his father has buried three wives.”
The blood rushed into Saterlee’s face and nearly strangled him. But the lady, who was leaning forward, elbows on knees and face between hands, did not perceive this convulsion of nature.
“If blood counts for anything,” said she, “the son has perhaps the same brutish instincts. A nice prospect for my girl–to suffer–to die–and to be superseded. The man’s second wife was in her grave but three weeks when he had taken a third. I am told he is a great, rough, bullying man. No wonder the poor souls died. The son is a tremendous great fellow, too. Oh! blood will tell every time,” she exclaimed. “M. A. Saterlee, the cattle man–do you know him?”
“Yep!” Saterlee managed, with an effort that would have moved a ton.
“I am going to appeal to her,” said the lady. “I have been a good mother to her. I have suffered for her. And she must–she shall–listen to me.”
“If I can help in any way,” said Saterlee, somewhat grimly, “you can count on me…. Not,” he said a little later, “that I’m in entire sympathy with your views, Ma’am…. Now, if you’d said this man Saterlee had divorced three wives….”
The lady started. And in her turn suffered from a torrential rush of blood to the face. Saterlee perceived it through her spread fingers, and was pleased.
“If you had said that this man,” he went on, “had tired of his first wife and had divorced her, or been divorced by her, because his desire was to another woman, then I would go your antipathy for him, Ma’am. But I understand he buried a wife, and took another, and so on. There is a difference. Because God Almighty Himself says in one of His books that man was not meant to live alone. Mebbe, Ma’am, the agony of losing a faithful and tender companion is what sets a man–some men–to looking for a successor. Mebbe the more a man loved his dead wife the quicker is he driven to find a living woman that he can love. But for people who can’t cling together until death–and death alone part ’em–for such people, Ma’am, I don’t give a ding.”
“And you are wrong,” said the lady, who, although nettled by the applicability of his remarks to her own case, had recovered her composure. “Let us say that a good woman marries a man, and that he dies–not the death–but dies to her. Tires of her, carries his love to another, and all that. Isn’t he as dead, even if she loved him, as if he had really died? He is dead to her–buried–men don’t come back. Well, maybe the more she loved that man the quicker she is to get the service read over him–that’s divorce–and find another whom she can trust and love. Suppose that happens to her twice. The cases would seem identical, sir, I think. Except that I could understand divorcing a man who had become intolerable to me; but I could never, never fancy myself marrying again–if my husband, in the course of nature, had died still loving me, still faithful to me. So you see the cases are not identical. And that only remarriage after divorce is defensible.”
“I take your point,” said Saterlee. She had spoken warmly and vehemently, with an honest ring in her voice. “I have never thought of it along those lines. See that furrow across the road–that’s where a snake has crossed. But I may as well tell you, Ma’am, that I myself have buried more than one wife. And yet when I size myself up to myself I don’t seem a regular hell-hound.”
“If we are to be on an honest footing,” said the lady, “I must tell you that I have divorced more than one husband, and yet when I size myself up, as you call it, I do not seem to myself a lost woman. It’s true that I act for my living–“
“I know,” he interrupted, “you are Mrs. Kimbal. But I thought I knew more about you than I seem to. I’m Saterlee. And my business at Carcasonne House is the same as yours.”
She was silent for a moment. And then:
“Well,” she said, “here we are. And that’s lucky in a way. We both seem to want the same thing–that is, to keep our children from marrying each other. We can talk the matter over and decide how to do it.”
“We can talk it over anyway, as you say,” said Saterlee. “But–” and he fished in his pocket and brought out his son’s letter and gave it to her. She read it in the waning light.
“But,” he repeated gently, “that don’t read like a letter that a brute of a son would write to a brute of a father; now, does it?”
She did not answer. But she opened her purse and took out a carefully and minutely folded sheet of note-paper.
“That’s my Dolly’s letter to me,” she said, “and it doesn’t sound like–” her voice broke. He took the letter from her and read it.
“No, it doesn’t,” he said. And he said it roughly, because nothing brought rough speech out of the man so surely as tears–when they were in his own eyes.
“Well,” said Mrs. Kimbal with a sigh, “let’s talk.”
“No,” said Saterlee, “let’s think.”
They could hear from far ahead a sound as of roaring waters.
“That,” said Saterlee dryly, “will be Gila River. Mebbe we’ll have to think about getting across that first. It’s a river now, by the sound of it, if it never was before.”
“Fortunately it’s not dark yet,” said Mrs. Kimbal.
“The last time I had trouble with a river,” said Saterlee, “was when my first wife died. That was the American River in flood. I had to cross it to get a doctor. We’d gone prospectin’–just the old woman and me–more for a lark than profit.”
“Yes?” said Mrs. Kimbal sympathetically.
“She took sick in an hour,” he went on. “From what I’ve heard since, I guess it was appendicitis. Anyway, I rode off for help, hell for leather, and when I come to the river the whole thing was roaring and foaming like a waterfall. My horse, and he was a good one, couldn’t make it. But I did. And when I come to it on the return trip with the doctor, he gave one look and folded his arms. ‘Mark,’ he said, ‘I’m no boaster, but my life is not without value. I think it’s my duty not to attempt this crossing.’ ‘Jim,’ I said, ‘if you don’t your soul will be scotched. Don’t you know it? Folks’ll point at you as the doctor that didn’t dare.’ ‘It’s not the daring, Mark,’ he says, ‘it’s wanting to be sure that I make the right choice.’ I says: ‘She was in terrible pain, Jim. Many a time she’s done you a good turn; some you know of, some you don’t.’ That fetched him. He caught up his bridle and drove his spurs into his horse, and was swept down-stream like a leaf. I rode along the bank to help if I could. But he got across on a long diagonal–horse and all. I waved to him to go on and not mind about me. And he rode off at the gallop. But I was too heavy, I guess. I lost my second horse in that flood, and had to foot it into camp. I was too late. Pain had made her unconscious, and she was dead. But before givin’ in she’d wrote me a letter.” He broke off short. “And there’s Gila River,” he said.
“I hoped you were going to tell me what your poor wife said in her letter,” said Mrs. Kimbal.
“Oh, Ma’am,” he said, hesitated, cleared his throat, and became routed and confused.
“If you’d rather not–” said Mrs. Kimbal.
“It isn’t that,” he said. “It would seem like bragging.”
“Surely not,” she said.
Saterlee, with his eyes on the broad, brown flood which they were approaching, repeated like a lesson:
“‘Mark–I’m dying. I want it to do good, not harm. Jenny always thought the world of you. You’ll be lonely when I’m gone. I don’t want you to be lonely. You gave me peace on earth. And you can’t be happy unless you’ve got a woman to pet and pamper. That’s your nature–‘”
“That was all,” he said, and wiped his forehead with the palm of his hand. “It just stopped there.”
“I’m glad you told me,” said Mrs. Kimbal gently. “It will be a lesson to me not to spring to conclusions, and not to make up my mind about things I’m not familiar with.”
When they came to where the road disappeared under the swift unbroken brown of Gila River, the old horse paused of her own accord, and, turning her bony and scarred head a half revolution, stared almost rudely at the occupants of the buggy.
“It all depends,” said Saterlee, “how deep the water runs over the road, and whether we can keep to the road. You see, it comes out higher up than it goes in. Can you swim, Ma’am?”
Mrs. Kimbal admitted that, in clothes made to the purpose, and in very shallow water, she was not without proficiency.
“Would you rather we turned back?” he asked.
“I feel sure you’ll get me over,” said she.
“Then,” said Saterlee, “let’s put the hood down. In case we do capsize, we don’t want to get caught under it.”
Saterlee on his side, and Mrs. Kimbal, not without exclamations of annoyance, on hers, broke the toggle-joints that held the dilapidated hood in place, and thrust it backward and down. At once the air seemed to circulate with greater freshness.
For some moments Saterlee considered the river, up-stream, down-stream, and across, knitting his brows to see better, for the light was failing by leaps and bounds. Then, in an embarrassed voice:
“I’ve got to do it,” he said. “It’s only right.”
“What?” said Mrs. Kimbal.
“I feel sure,” he said, “that under the circumstances you’ll make every allowance, Ma’am.”
Without further hesitation–in fact, with almost desperate haste, as if wishing to dispose of a disagreeable duty–he ripped open the buttons of his waistcoat and removed it at the same time with his coat, as if the two had been but one garment. He tossed them into the bottom of the buggy in a disorderly heap. But Mrs. Kimbal rescued them, separated them, folded them neatly, and stowed them under the seat.
Saterlee made no comment. He was thinking of the state of a shirt that he had had on since early morning, and was wondering how, with his elbows pressed very tightly to his sides, he could possibly manage to unlace his boots. He made one or two tentative efforts. But Mrs. Kimbal seemed to divine the cause of his embarrassment.
“Please,” she said, “don’t mind anything–on my account.”
He reached desperately, and regardlessly, for his boots, unlaced them, and took them off.
“Why,” exclaimed Mrs. Kimbal, “both your heels need darning!”
Saterlee had tied his boots together, and was fastening them around his neck by the remainder of the laces.
“I haven’t anybody to do my darning now,” he said. “My girls are all at school, except two that’s married. So–” He finished his knot, took the reins in his left hand and the whip in his right.
At first the old mare would not budge. Switching was of no avail. Saterlee brought down the whip upon her with a sound like that of small cannon. She sighed and walked gingerly into the river.
The water rose slowly (or the river bottom shelved very gradually), and they were half-way across before it had reached the hubs of the wheels. But the mare appeared to be in deeper. She refused to advance, and once more turned and stared with a kind of wistful rudeness. Then she saw the whip, before it fell, made a desperate plunge, and floundered forward into deep water–but without the buggy.
One rotten shaft had broken clean off, both rotten traces, and the reins, upon which hitherto there had been no warning pull, were jerked from Saterlee’s loose fingers. The old mare reached the further shore presently, swimming and scrambling upon a descending diagonal, stalked sedately up the bank, and then stood still, only turning her head to look at the buggy stranded in mid-stream. The sight appeared to arouse whatever of youthful mischief remained in the feeble old heart. She seemed to gather herself for a tremendous effort, then snorted once, and kicked thrice–three feeble kicks of perhaps six inches in the perpendicular.
Mrs. Kimbal exploded into laughter.
“Wouldn’t you know she was a woman?” she said.
But Saterlee was climbing out of the buggy.
“Now,” said he, “if you’ll just tie my coat round your neck by the sleeves–let the vest go hang–and then you’ll have to let me carry you.”
Mrs. Kimbal did as she was told. But the buggy, relieved at last of all weight, slid off sidewise with the current, turned turtle, and was carried swiftly down-stream. Saterlee staggering, for the footing was uncertain, and holding Mrs. Kimbal high in his arms, started for shore. The water rose above his waist, and kept rising. He halted, bracing himself against the current.
“Ma’am,” he said in a discouraged voice, “it’s no use. I’ve just got to let you get wet. We’ve got to swim to make it.”
“All right,” she said cheerfully.
“Some folks,” he said, “likes to go overboard sudden; some likes to go in by degrees.”
“Between the two for me,” said Mrs. Kimbal. “Not suddenly, but firmly and without hesitation.”
She gave a little shivery gasp.
“It’s not really cold,” she said. “How strong the current pulls. Will you have to swim and tow me?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Then wait,” she said. “Don’t let me be carried away.”
He steadied her while she drew the hat-pins from her hat and dropped it as carelessly on the water as if that had been her dressing-table. Then she took down her hair. It was in two great brown, shining braids. The ends disappeared in the water, listing down-stream.
Shorn of her hat and her elaborate hair-dressing, the lady was no longer showy, and Saterlee, out of the tail of an admiring eye, began to see real beauties about her that had hitherto eluded him. Whatever other good qualities and virtues she may have tossed overboard during a stormy and unhappy life, she had still her nerve with her. So Saterlee told himself.
“It will be easier, won’t it,” she said, “if you have my hair to hold by? I think I can manage to keep on my back.”
“May I, Ma’am?” said Saterlee.
She laughed at his embarrassment. And half-thrust the two great braids into the keeping of his strong left hand.
A moment later Saterlee could no longer keep his footing.
“Now, Ma’am,” he said, “just let yourself go.”
And he swam to shallow water, not without great labor, towing Mrs. Kimbal by the hair. But here he picked her up in his arms, this time with no word spoken, and carried her ashore. Some moments passed.
“Well,” she said, laughing, “aren’t you going to put me down?”
“Oh!” said he, terribly confused, “I forgot. I was just casting an eye around for that horse. She’s gone.”
“Never mind–we’ll walk.”
“It’ll be heavy going, wet as you are,” said he.
“I’ll soon be dry in this air,” she said.
Saterlee managed to pull his boots on over his wet socks, and Mrs. Kimbal, having given him his wet coat from her neck, stooped and wrung as much water as she could from her clothes.
It was now nearly dark, but they found the road and went on.
“What time is it?” she asked.
“My watch was in my vest,” said Saterlee.
“How far to Carcasonne House?”
“‘Bout thirty miles.”
She did not speak again for some time.
“Well,” she said, a little hardness in her voice, “you’ll hardly be in time to steer your boy away from my girl.”
“No,” said he, “I won’t. An’ you’ll hardly be in time to steer your girl away from my boy.”
“Oh,” she said, “you misconceive me entirely, Mr. Saterlee. As far as I’m concerned, my only regret now is that I shan’t be in time to dance at the wedding.”
“Ma’am?” he said, and there was something husky in his voice.
About midnight they saw a light, and, forsaking what they believed in hopeful moments to be the road, they made for it across country. Across open spaces of sand, into gullies and out of gullies, through stinging patches of yucca and prickly pear, through breast-high chaparral, meshed, knotted, and matted, like a clumsy weaving together of very tough ropes, some with thorns, and all with sharp points and elbows.
They had long since dispensed with all conversation except what bore on their situation. Earlier in the night the darkness and the stars had wormed a story of divorce out of Mrs. Kimbal, and Saterlee had found himself longing to have the man at hand and by the throat.
And she had prattled of her many failures on the stage and, latterly, of her more successful ventures, and of a baby boy that she had had, and how that while she was off playing “on the road” her husband had come in drunk and had given the baby the wrong medicine. And it was about then that she had left off conversing.
For in joy it is hard enough to find the way in the dark, while for those in sorrow it is not often that it can be found at all.
The light proved to be a lantern upon the little porch of a ramshackle shanty. An old man with immense horn-rimmed spectacles was reading by it out of a tattered magazine. When the couple came close, the old man looked up from his reading, and blessed his soul several times.
“It do beat the Dutch!” he exclaimed in whining nasal tones, “if here ain’t two more.”
“Two more what?” said Saterlee.
“It’s the floods, I reckon,” whined the old man. “There’s three on the kitchen floor and there’s two ladies in my bed. That’s why I’m sittin’ up. There wa’n’t no bed for a man in his own house. But I found this here old copy of the Medical Revoo, ‘n’ I’m puttin’ in the time with erysipelis.”
“But,” said Saterlee, “you must find some place for this lady to rest. She is worn out with walking and hunger.”
“Stop!” whined the old man, smiting his thigh, “if there ain’t that there mattress in the loft! And I clean forgot, and told the boys that I hadn’t nothin’ better than a rug or two ‘n the kitchen floor.”
“A mattress!” exclaimed Saterlee. “Splendid! I guess you can sleep some on anything near as good as a mattress. Can’t you, ma’am?”
“Indeed I could!” she said. “But you have been through as much as I have–more. I won’t take it.”
The old man’s whine interrupted.
“Ain’t you two married?” he said.
“Nop,” said Saterlee shortly.
“Now ain’t that ridiculous?” meditated the old man; “I thought you was all along.” His eyes brightened behind the spectacles. “It ain’t for me to interfere in course,” he said, “but hereabouts I’m a Justice of the Peace.” Neither spoke.
“I could rouse up the boys in the kitchen for witnesses,” he insinuated.
Saterlee turned suddenly to Mrs. Kimbal, but his voice was very humble.
“Ma’am?” he suggested.