Horace Annesley Vachell.

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"Bosh!" he interrupted. "If Laban is an honest man, no harm has been
done. If he stole our steers - and, mind you, I don't say he did - three
slices off the breast of a turkey will hardly offset my interest in
five tons of beef. As for this packing scheme, it sounds promising;
but we lack figures. To-morrow we will drive into San Lorenzo, and
talk to the Children of Israel. If Ikey Rosenbaum says that bacon is
likely to rise or stay where it is, we will accept Laban's
proposition."

The following morning we started early. The short cut to San Lorenzo
lay through the Swiggart claim, and the road passed within a few yards
of the house. We saw Mrs. Swiggart on the verandah, and offered to
execute any commissions that she cared to entrust to two bachelors. In
reply she said that she hated to ask favours, but - if we were going to
town in a two-seater, would we be so very kind as to bring back her
mother, Mrs. Skenk, who was ailing, and in need of a change.
"Gran'ma's hard on the springs," observed Euphemia, Mrs. Swiggart's
youngest girl, "but she'll tell you more stories than you can shake a
stick at; not 'bout fairies, Mr. Ajax, but reel folks." We assured
Mrs. Swiggart that we should esteem it a pleasure to give her mother a
lift. Ajax had met the old lady at a church social some six months
before, and, finding her a bonanza of gossip, had extracted some rich
and curious ore.

In San Lorenzo we duly found Isaac Rosenbaum, who proved an optimist
on the subject of bacon. Indeed, he chattered so glibly of rising
prices and better times that the packing scheme was immediately
referred to his mature judgment; and he not only recommended it
heartily, but offered to handle our "stuff" on commission, or to buy
it outright if it proved marketable. According to Ikey the conjunction
"if" could not be ignored. Packing bacon beneath the sunny skies of
Southern California was a speculation, he said. Swiggart, he added,
ought to know what good hams were, for he bought the very best Eastern
brand.

"What!" we cried simultaneously, "does Mr. Swiggart _buy_ hams?"

Yes; it seemed that only a few days previously Laban had carefully
selected the choicest ham in the store.

Ajax clutched my arm, and we fled.

"We have convicted the wretch," he said presently.

"The _wretches_," I amended.

The use of the plural smote him in the face.

"This is awful," he groaned. "Why, when you were away last summer, and
I broke my leg, she nursed me like a mother."

"Women throw such sops to a barking conscience."

I was positive now that Laban had stolen the steers, and that his wife
was privy to the theft. The lie about the ham had been doubtless
concocted for purposes of plunder. The kindness and hospitality of our
neighbours had been, after all, but a snare for tenderfeet.

* * * * *

We found Mrs. Skenk - whom we had seen on arrival - sitting on her front
porch, satchel in hand, patiently awaiting us. Ajax helped her to
mount - no light task, for she was a very heavy and enfeebled woman. I
drove. As we trotted down the long straggling street our passenger
spoke with feeling of the changes that had taken place in the old
mission town.

"I've lived here thirty years. Twenty mighty hard ones as a married
woman; and ten tol'able easy ones as a widder. Mr. Skenk was a saintly
man, but tryin' to live with on account o' deefness and the azmy. I
never see a chicken took with the gapes but I think o' Abram Skenk.
Yes, Mr. Ajax, my daughters was all born here, 'ceptin' Alviry. She
was born in Massachusetts. It did make a difference to the child. As a
little girl she kep' herself to herself. And though I'd rather cut out
my tongue than say a single word against Laban Swiggart, I do feel
that he'd no business to pick the best in the basket. Favourite? No,
sir; but I've said, many a time, that if Alviry went to her long home,
I could not tarry here. Most women feel that way about the first-born.
I've told Alviry to her face as she'd ought to have said 'No' to Laban
Swiggart. Oh, the suffering that dear child has endured! It did seem
till lately as if horse-tradin', cattle-raisin', and the butcher
business was industries against which the Lord had set his face. Sairy
married an undertaker; Samanthy _couldn't_ refuse Doctor Tapper.
And, rain or shine, folks must have teeth if they want to eat the
steaks they sell in Californy, and likewise they must have caskets
when their time comes. Yes, Alviry does take after me, Mr. Ajax.
You're reel clever to say so. She ain't a talker, but brainy. You've
seen her wax flowers? Yes; and the shell table with 'Bless our Home'
on it, in pink cowries? Mercy sakes! There's a big storm a'comin' up."

The rain began to fall as she spoke; at first lightly, then more
heavily as we began to cross the mountains. Long before we came to the
Salinas River it was pouring down in torrents - an inch of water to the
hour.

"It's a cloud-burst," said Mrs. Skenk, from beneath a prehistoric
umbrella. "This'll flush the creeks good."

I whipped up the horses, thinking of the Salinas and its treacherous
waters. In California, when the ground is well sodden, a very small
storm will create a very big freshet. At such times most rivers are
dangerous to ford on account of quicksands.

"I'll guess we'll make it," observed the old lady. "I've crossed when
it was bilin' from bank to bank. I mind me when Jim Tarburt was
drowned: No 'count, Jim. He'd no more sense than a yaller dog. 'Twas a
big streak o' luck for his wife and babies, for Susannah Tarburt
married old man Hopping, and when he died the very next year she was
left rich. Then there was that pore thin school-marm, Ireen Bunker.
She - "

And Mrs. Skenk continued with a catalogue, long as that of the ships
in the _Iliad_, of travellers who, in fording the Salinas, had
crossed that other grim river which flows for ever between time and
eternity. We had reached the banks before she had drained her memory
of those who had perished.

"'Tis bilin'," she muttered, as she peered up and down the yellow,
foam-speckled torrent that roared defiance at us; "but, good Land! we
can't go around now. Keep the horses' noses upstream, young man, and
use your whip."

We plunged in.

What followed took place quickly. In mid-stream the near horse
floundered into a quicksand and fell, swinging round the pole, and
with it the off horse. I lashed the poor struggling beasts
unmercifully, but the wagon settled slowly down - inch by inch. Death
grinned us in the teeth. Then I heard Mrs. Skenk say, quite
collectedly: "'Tis my fault, and my weight." Then Ajax roared out:
"For God's sake, sit down, ma'am, sit down. SIT DOWN!" he screamed,
his voice shrill above the bellowing, booming waters. A crash behind
told me that he had flung her back into her seat. At the same moment
the near horse found a footing; there was a mighty pull from both the
terrified animals, the harness held, and the danger was over. When we
reached the bank I looked round. Mrs. Skenk was smiling; Ajax was
white as chalk.

"She w-w-would have s-s-sacrificed her l-l-life," he stammered. "If I
hadn't grabbed her, she would be dead this minute."

"I reckon that's so," assented our passenger. "I took a notion to
jump. My weight and fool advice was like to cost three lives. Better
one, thinks I, than three. You saved my life, Mr. Ajax. Yes, you did.
Alviry, I reckon, will thank you."

The rest of the journey was accomplished in silence. We drove up to
the Swiggarts' house, and both Laban and his wife expressed great
surprise at seeing us.

"You're wet through, mother," said Mrs. Swiggart, "and all of a
tremble."

"Yes, Alviry, I've had a close call. This young man saved my life."

"Nonsense," said Ajax gruffly. "I did nothing of the sort, Mrs.
Skenk."

"Yes, you did," she insisted, grimly obstinate.

"Any ways," said Mrs. Swiggart, "you'll lose what has been saved,
mother, if you stand there in the rain."

For five days it rained steadily. Our creek, which for eleven months
in the year bleated sweetly at the foot of the garden, bellowed loudly
as any bull of Bashan, and kept us prisoners in the house, where we
had leisure to talk and reflect. We had been robbed and humbugged,
injured in pride and pocket, but the lagging hours anointed our
wounds. Philosophy touched us with healing finger.

"If we prosecute we advertise our own greenness," said Ajax. "After
all, if Laban did fleece us, he kept at bay other ravening wolves. And
there is Mrs. Skenk. That plucky old soul must never hear the story.
It would kill her."

So we decided to charge profit and loss with five hundred dollars, and
to keep our eyes peeled for the future. By this time the skies had
cleared, and the cataract was a creek again. The next day Mrs.
Swiggart drove up to the barn, tied her horse to the hitching-post,
and walked with impressive dignity up the garden path. We had time to
note that something was amiss. Her dark eyes, beneath darker brows,
intensified a curious pallor - that sickly hue which is seen upon the
faces of those who have suffered grievously in mind or body. Ajax
opened the door, and offered her a chair, but not his hand. She did
not seem to notice the discourtesy. We asked if her mother had
suffered from the effects of her wetting.

"Mother has been very sick," she replied, in a lifeless voice. "She's
been at death's door. For five days I've prayed to Almighty God, and I
swore that if He'd see fit to spare mother, I'd come down here, and on
my bended knees" - she sank on the floor - "ask for your forgiveness as
well as His. Don't come near me," she entreated; "let me say what must
be said in my own way. When I married Laban Swiggart I was an honest
woman, though full o' pride and conceit. And he was an honest man. To-
day we're thieves and liars."

"Mrs. Swiggart," said Ajax, springing forward and raising her to her
feet. "You must not kneel to us. There - sit down and say no more. We
know all about it, and it's blotted out so far as we're concerned."

Her sobs - the vehement, heart-breaking sobs of a man rather than of a
woman - gradually ceased. She continued in a softer voice: "It began
'way back, when I was a little girl. Mother set me on a pedestal;
p'r'aps I'd ought to say I set myself there. It's like me to be
blaming mother. Anyways, I just thought myself a little mite cleverer
and handsomer and better than the rest o' the family. I aimed to beat
Sarah and Samanthy at whatever they undertook, and Satan let me do it.
Well, I did one good thing. I married a poor man because I loved him.
I said to myself, 'He has brains, and so have I. The dollars will
come.' But they didn't come. The children came.

"Then Sarah and Samanthy married. They married men o' means, and the
gall and wormwood entered into my soul, and ate it away. Laban was
awful good. He laughed and worked, but we couldn't make it. Times was
too hard. I'd see Samanthy trailin' silks and satins in the dust, and
- and my underskirts was made o' flour sacks. Yes - flour sacks! And me a
Skenk!"

She paused. Neither Ajax nor I spoke. Comedy lies lightly upon all
things, like foam upon the dark waters. Beneath are tragedy and the
tears of time.

"Then you gentlemen came and bought land. They said you was lords,
with money to burn. I told Laban to help you in the buyin' o' horses,
and cattle, and barb-wire, and groceries. He got big commissions, but
he kept off the other blood-suckers. We paid some of our debts, and
Laban bought me a black silk gown. I couldn't rest till Samanthy had
felt of it. She'd none better. If we'd only been satisfied with that!

"Well, that black silk made everything else look dreadful mean. 'Twas
then you spoke to Laban about choosin' a brand. Satan put it into my
head to say - S. It scart Laban. He was butcherin' then, and he
surmised what I was after; I persuaded him 'twas for the children's
sake. The first steer paid for Emanuel's baby clothes and cradle. They
was finer than what Sarah bought for her child. Then we killed the
others - one by one. Laban let 'em through the fence and then clapped
our brand a-top o' yours. They paid for the tank and windmill. After
that we robbed you when and where we could. We put up that bacon
scheme meanin' to ship the stuff to the city and to tell you that it
had spoiled on us. We robbed none else, only you. And we actually
justified ourselves. We surmised 'twas fittin' that Britishers should
pay for the support o' good Americans."

"I've read some of your histories," said Ajax drily, "and can
understand that point of view."

"Satan fools them as fool themselves, Mr. Ajax. But the truth struck
me and Laban when we watched by mother. She was not scared o' death.
And she praised me to Laban, and said that I'd chosen the better part
in marryin' a poor man for love, and that money hadn't made Christian
women of Sarah and Samanthy. She blamed herself, dear soul, for
settin' store overly much on dollars and cents. And she said she could
die easier thinking that what was good in her had passed to me, and
not what was evil. And, Mr. Ajax, that talk just drove me and Laban
crazy. Well, mother ain't going to die, and we ain't neither - till
we've paid back the last cent, we stole from you. Laban has figgered
it out, principal and interest, and he's drawn a note for fifteen
hundred dollars, which we've both signed. Here it is."

She tendered us a paper. Ajax stuck his hands into his pockets, and I
did the same.

She misinterpreted the action. "You ain't going to prosecute?" she
faltered.

Ajax nodded to me. Upon formal occasions he expects me, being the
elder, to speak. If I say more or less than he approves I am severely
taken to task.

"Mrs. Swiggart," I began, lamely enough, "I am sure that your husband
can cure hams - - "

Ajax looked at me indignantly. With the best of motives I had given a
sore heart a grievous twist.

"We bought that ham," she said sadly, "a-purpose."

"No matter. We have decided to go into this packing business with your
husband. When - er - experience goes into partnership with ignorance,
ignorance expects to pay a premium. We have paid our premium."

She rose, and we held out our hands.

"No, gentlemen; I won't take your hands till that debt is cancelled.
The piano and the team will go some ways towards it. Good-bye, and -
thank you."


VIII

AN EXPERIMENT


My brother and I had just ridden off the range, when Uncle Jake told
us that a tramp was hanging about the corrals and wished to speak with
us.

"He looks like hell," concluded Uncle Jake.

We found him, a minute later, curled up on a heap of straw on the
shady side of our big barn. He got up as we approached, and stared at
us with a curious derisive intentness of glance, slightly
disconcerting.

"You are Englishmen," he said quietly.

The man's voice was charming, with that unmistakable quality which
challenges attention even in Mayfair, and enthrals it in the
wilderness. We nodded, and he continued easily: "It is late, and some
twenty-six miles, so I hear, to the nearest town. May I spend the
night in your barn. I don't smoke - in barns."

While he was speaking, we had time to examine him. His appearance was
inexpressibly shocking. Dirty, with a ragged six weeks' growth of dark
hair upon his face, out at heel and elbows, shirtless and shiftless,
he seemed to have reached the nadir of misery and poverty. Obviously
one of the "broken brigade," he had seemingly lost everything except
his manners. His amazing absence of self-consciousness made a clown of
me. I blurted out a gruff "All right," and turned on my heel, unable
to face the derisive smile upon the thin, pale lips. As I walked
towards the house, I heard Ajax following me, but he did not speak
till we had reached our comfortable sitting-room. Then, as gruffly as
I, he said, "Humpty Dumpty - after the fall!"

We lit our pipes in silence, sensible of an extraordinary depression
in the moral atmosphere. Five minutes before we had been much elated.
The spring round-up of cattle was over; we had sold our bunch of
steers at the top price; the money lay in our small safe; we had been
talking of a modest celebration as we rode home over the foothills.
Now, to use the metaphor of a cow county, we had been brought up with
a sharp turn! Our prosperity, measured by the ill-fortune of a fellow-
countryman, dwindled. Ajax summed up the situation: "He made me feel
cheap."

"Why?" I asked, conscious of a similar feeling. Ajax smoked and
reflected.

"It's like this," he answered presently. "That chap has been to the
bottom of the pit, but he bobs up with a smile. Did you notice his
smile?"

I rang the bell for Quong, our Chinese servant. When he came in I told
him to prepare a hot bath. Ajax whistled; but as Quong went away,
looking rather cross, my brother added, "Our clothes will fit him."

The bath-house was outside. Quong carried in a couple of pails full of
boiling water; we laid out shaving tackle, an old suit of grey
flannel, a pair of brown shoes, and the necessary under-linen. A blue
bird's-eye tie, I remember, was the last touch. Then Ajax shrugged his
shoulders and said significantly, "You know what this means?"

"Rehabilitation."

"Exactly. It may be fun for us to rig out this poor devil, but we must
do more than feed and clothe him. Have you thought of that?"

I had not, and said so.

"This is an experiment. First and last, we're going to try to raise a
man from the dead. If we get him on to his pins, we'll have to supply
some crutches. Are you prepared to do that?"

"If you are."

"Right! Of course, he may refuse our help. It wouldn't surprise me a
little bit if he did refuse."

When our preparations were complete, we returned to the barn. In a few
words Ajax told the stranger of what had been done.

"After supper," he concluded, "we'll talk things over. Times are
rather good just now, and something can be arranged."

"You're very kind," replied the tramp; "but I think you had better
leave me in the barn."

"We can't," said my brother. "It's too beastly to think of you like
this."

Nevertheless, we had to argue the matter, and I ought to add that
although we prevailed in the end, both Ajax and I were aware that the
man's acceptance of what we offered imposed an obligation upon us
rather than upon him. As he was about to enter the bath-house, he
turned with the derisive smile on his lips -

"If it amuses you," he murmured, "I shall have earned my bath and
supper."

When he reappeared, nobody would have recognised him. So far, the
experiment had succeeded beyond expectation. A new man walked into our
sitting-room and glanced with intelligent interest at our household
gods. Over the mantel-piece hung an etching of the Grand Canal at
Venice. He surveyed it critically, putting up a pair of thin hands, as
so to shut off an excess of light.

"Jimmie Whistler taught that fellow a trick or two," he remarked.

"You knew Whistler?"

"Oh yes."

We left him with _Punch_ and a copy of an art journal. Ajax said
to me, as we went back to the barn -

"I'll bet he's an artist of sorts."

It happened that we had in our cellar some fine claret; a few magnums
of Léoville, '74, a present from a millionaire friend. We never drank
it except upon great occasions. Ajax suggested a bottle of this
elixir, not entirely out of charity. Such tipple would warm a graven
image into speech, and my brother is inordinately curious. Our guest
had nothing to give to us except his confidence, and that he had
withheld.

We decanted the claret very carefully. As soon as our guest tasted it,
he sighed and said quietly -

"I never expected to taste that again. It's Léoville, isn't it? And in
exquisite condition."

He sipped the wine in silence, while I thought of the bundle of foul
rags upon our rubbish heap. Ajax was talking shop, describing with
some humour our latest deal, and the present high price of fat steers.
Our guest listened politely, and when Ajax paused, he said
ironically -

"Yours is a gospel of hard work. I dare say you have ridden two horses
to a standstill to-day? Just so. I can't ride, or plough, or dig."

Ajax opened his lips to reply, and closed them. Our guest smiled.

"You are wondering what brought me to California. As a matter of fact,
a private car. No, thanks, no more claret."

Later, we hoped he might melt into confidence over tobacco and toddy.
He smoked one cigar slowly, and with evident appreciation; and, as he
smoked, he stroked the head of Conan, our Irish setter, an ultra-
particular person, who abominated tramps and strangers.

"Conan likes you," said Ajax abruptly.

"Is that his name? 'Conan,' eh? Good Conan, good dog!" Presently, he
threw away the stub of his cigar and crossed to a small mirror. With a
self-possession rather surprising, he began to examine himself.

"I am renewing acquaintance," he explained gravely, "with a man I have
not seen for some months."

"By what name shall we call that man?" said Ajax boldly.

There was a slight pause, and then our guest said quietly -

"Would 'Sponge' do? 'Soapy Sponge'!"

"No," said my brother.

"My father's Christian name was John. Call me 'Johnson.'"

Accordingly, we called him Johnson for the rest of the evening. While
the toddies were being consumed, Johnson observed the safe, a purchase
of my brother's, in which we kept our papers and accounts and any
money we might have. We had bought it, second-hand, and the vendor
assured us it was quite burglar-proof. Ajax mentioned this to our
guest. He laughed presently.

"No safe is burglar-proof," he said; "and most certainly not that
one." He continued in a slightly different tone: "I suppose you are
not imprudent enough to keep money in it. I mean gold. On a big,
lonely ranch like this all your money affairs should be transacted
with cheques."

"We are in the wilds," said Ajax, "and it may surprise you to learn
that not so very long ago the Spanish-Californians who owned most of
the land kept thousands of pounds in gold slugs. In the attic over
this old 'adobe,' Don Juan Soberanes, from whom we bought this ranch,
kept his cash in gold dust and slugs in a clothes-basket. His nephew
used to take a tile off the roof, drop a big lump of tallow attached
to a cord into the basket, and scoop up what he could. The man who
bought our steers yesterday has no dealings with banks. He paid us in
Uncle Sam's notes."

"Did he?"

Shortly afterwards we went to bed. As our guest turned into the spare
room, he said whimsically -

"Have I entertained you? You have entertained me."

Ajax held out his hand. Johnson hesitated a moment - I recalled his
hesitation afterwards - and then extended his hand, a singularly
slender, well-formed member.

"You have the hand of an artist," said the ever-curious Ajax.

"The most beautiful hand I ever saw," replied Johnson imperturbably,
"belonged to a - thief. Good-night."

Ajax frowned, turning down the corners of his lips in exasperation.

"I am eaten up with curiosity," he growled.

* * * * *

Next morning we routed out an old kit-bag, into which we packed a few
necessaries. When we insisted upon Johnson accepting this, he shrugged
his shoulders and turned the palms of his hands upwards, as if to show
their emptiness.

"Why do you do this?" he asked, with a certain indescribable
peremptoriness.

Ajax answered simply -

"A man must have clean linen. In the town you are going to, a boiled
shirt is a credential. I should like to give you a letter to the
cashier of the bank. He is a Britisher, and a good fellow. You are not
strong enough for such work as we might offer you, but he will find
you a billet."

"You positively overwhelm me," said Johnson. "You must be lineally
descended from the Good Samaritan."

Ajax wrote the letter. A neighbour was driving in to town, as we knew,
and I had arranged early that morning for our guest's transportation.

"And what am I to do in return for these favours?" Johnson demanded.

"Let us hear from you," said my brother.

"You shall," he replied.

Within half an hour Johnson had vanished in a buckboard and a cloud of
fine white dust.

Upon the following afternoon I made an alarming discovery. Our
burglar-proof safe had been opened, and the roll of notes was missing.
I sought Ajax and told him. He allowed one word only to escape his
lips -

"Johnson!"

"What tenderfeet we are!" I groaned.

"Lineal descendants of the Good Samaritan. Well, he has had a long
start, but we must catch him."

"If it should not be - Johnson?"

"Conan would have nailed anybody else."


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