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- Elder Conklin and Other Stories - 4/33 -
All this while Jake looked at her curiously; at length he said, "Say, Loo, s'pose he'd had his eye plugged out."
"Go away--do!" she exclaimed angrily. "I believe you boys jest love fightin' like dogs."
Jake disappeared to tell and retell the tale to any one who cared to listen.
Half an hour later Loo, who had climbed the bluff to command the view, heard the sound of Jack's feet on the wooden bridge. A moment or two more and the buggy drew up beside her; the schoolmaster bent forward and spoke, without a trace of emotion in his voice:
"Won't you get in and let me drive you home, Miss Loo?" His victory had put him in a good humour, without, however, altering his critical estimate of the girl. The quiet, controlled tone of his voice chilled and pained her, but her emotions were too recent and too acute to be restrained.
"Oh, George!" she said, leaning forward against the buggy, and scanning his face intently. "How can you speak so? You ain't hurt, are you?"
"No!" he answered lightly. "You didn't expect I should be, did you?" The tone was cold, a little sarcastic even.
Again she felt hurt; she scarcely knew why; the sneer was too far- fetched for her to understand it.
"Go and put the horse up, and then come back. I'll wait right here for you."
He did as he was told, and in ten minutes was by her side again. After a long pause, she began, with quivering lips:
"George, I'm sorry--so sorry. 'Twas all my fault! But I didn't know"-- and she choked down a sob--"I didn't think.
"I want you to tell me how your sisters act and--an' what they wear and do. I'll try to act like them. Then I'd be good, shouldn't I?
"They play the pianner, don't they?" He was forced to confess that one of them did.
"An' they talk like you?"
"An' they're good always? Oh, George, I'm jest too sorry for anythin', an' now--now I'm too glad!" and she burst into tears. He kissed and consoled her as in duty bound. He understood this mood as little as he had understood her challenge to love. He was not in sympathy with her; she had no ideal of conduct, no notion of dignity. Some suspicion of this estrangement must have dawned upon the girl, or else she was irritated by his acquiescence in her various phases of self-humiliation. All at once she dashed the tears from her eyes, and winding herself out of his arms, exclaimed:
"See here, George Bancroft! I'll jest learn all they know--pianner and all. I ken, and I will. I'll begin right now. You'll see!" And her blue eyes flashed with the glitter of steel, while her chin was thrown up in defiant vanity and self-assertion.
He watched her with indifferent curiosity; the abrupt changes of mood repelled him. His depreciatory thoughts of her, his resolution not to be led away again by her beauty influencing him, he noticed the keen hardness of the look, and felt, perhaps out of a spirit of antagonism, that he disliked it.
After a few quieting phrases, which, though they sprang rather from the head than the heart, seemed to achieve their aim, he changed the subject, by pointing across the creek and asking:
"Whose corn is that?"
"Father's, I guess!"
"I thought that was the Indian territory?"
"Is one allowed to sow corn there and to fence off the ground? Don't the Indians object?"
"'Tain't healthy for Indians about here," she answered carelessly, "I hain't ever seen one. I guess it's allowed; anyhow, the corn's there an' father'll have it cut right soon."
It seemed to Bancroft that they had not a thought in common. Wrong done by her own folk did not even interest her. At once he moved towards the house, and the girl followed him, feeling acutely disappointed and humiliated, which state of mind quickly became one of rebellious self- esteem. She guessed that other men thought big shucks of her anyway. And with this reflection she tried to comfort herself.
* * * * *
A week or ten days later, Bancroft came downstairs one morning early and found the ground covered with hoar-frost, though the sun had already warmed the air. Elder Conklin, in his shirt-sleeves, was cleaning his boots by the wood pile. When he had finished with the brush, but not a moment sooner, he put it down near his boarder. His greeting, a mere nod, had not prepared the schoolmaster for the question:
"Kin you drive kyows?"
"I think so; I've done it as a boy."
"Wall, to-day's Saturday. There ain't no school, and I've some cattle to drive to the scales in Eureka. They're in the brush yonder, ef you'd help. That is, supposin' you've nothin' to do."
"No. I've nothing else to do, and shall be glad to help you if I can."
Miss Loo pouted when she heard that her lover would be away the greater part of the day, but it pleased her to think that her father had asked him for his help, and she resigned herself, stipulating only that he should come right back from Eureka.
After breakfast the two started. Their way lay along the roll of ground which looked down upon the creek. They rode together in silence, until the Elder asked:
"You ain't a Member, air you?"
"That's bad. I kinder misdoubted it las' Sunday; but I wasn't sartin. Ef your callin' and election ain't sure, I guess Mr. Crew oughter talk to you."
These phrases were jerked out with long pauses separating them, and then the Elder was ominously silent.
In various ways Bancroft attempted to draw him into conversation--in vain. The Elder answered in monosyllables, or not at all. Presently he entered the woods on the left, and soon halted before the shoot-entrance to a roughly-built corral.
"The kyows is yonder," he remarked; "ef you'll drive them hyar, I'll count them as they come in."
The schoolmaster turned his horse's head in the direction pointed out. He rode for some minutes through the wood without seeing a single animal. Under ordinary circumstances this would have surprised him; but now he was absorbed in thinking of Conklin and his peculiarities, wondering at his habit of silence and its cause:
"Has he nothing to say? Or does he think a great deal without being able to find words to express his thoughts?"
A prolonged moan, a lowing of cattle in pain, came to his ears. He made directly for the sound, and soon saw the herd huddled together by the snake-fence which zigzagged along the bank of the creek. He went on till he came to the boundary fence which ran at right angles to the water, and then turning tried to drive the animals towards the corral. He met, however, with unexpected difficulties. He had brought a stock-whip with him, and used it with some skill, though without result. The bullocks and cows swerved from the lash, but before they had gone ten yards they wheeled and bolted back. At first this manoeuvre amused him. The Elder, he thought, has brought me to do what he couldn't do himself; I'll show him I can drive. But no! in spite of all his efforts, the cattle would not be driven. He grew warm, and set himself to the work. In a quarter of an hour his horse was in a lather, and his whip had flayed one or two of the bullocks, but there they stood again with necks outstretched towards the creek, lowing piteously. He could not understand it. Reluctantly he made up his mind to acquaint the Elder with the inexplicable fact. He had gone some two hundred yards when his tired horse stumbled. Holding him up, Bancroft saw he had tripped over a mound of white dust. A thought struck him. He threw himself off the horse, and tasted the stuff; he was right; it was salt! No wonder he could not drive the cattle; no wonder they lowed as if in pain--the ground had been salted.
He remounted and hastened to the corral. He found the Elder sitting on his horse by the shoot, the bars of which were down.
"I can't move those cattle!"
"You said you knew how to drive."
"I do, but they are mad with thirst; no one can do anything with them. Besides, in this sun they might die on the road."
"Let them drink; they'll go on afterwards."
"Hum." And the Elder remained for some moments silent. Then he said, as if thinking aloud: "It's eight miles to Eureka; they'll be thirsty again before they get to the town."
Bancroft, too, had had his wits at work, and now answered the other's thought. "I guess so; if they're allowed just a mouthful or two they can be driven, and long before they reach Eureka they'll be as thirsty as ever."
Without a word in reply the Elder turned his horse and started off at a lope. In ten minutes the two men had taken down the snake fence for a distance of some fifty yards, and the cattle had rushed through the gap
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