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BACK AT LONE-ROCK
All the rest of the way to Lone-Rock, Mary's waking moments were spent in anticipating her arrival and planning diversions for the days to follow. Now that she was so near, she could hardly wait to see the family. The seven months that she had been away seemed seven years, judging by her changed outlook on life. She felt that she had gone away a mere child, and that she was coming back, years old and wiser. She wondered if they would notice any difference in her.
That Mrs. Ware did, was evident from their moment of greeting. Never before had she broken down and sobbed on Mary's shoulder as she did now. Always she had been the comforter and Mary the one to be consoled, but for a few moments their positions were reversed. Conscious that her coming had lifted a burden from her mother's shoulders, the burden of enduring her anxiety alone, she tiptoed into Jack's room, ready to begin playing the Jester at once with some merry speech which she was sure would bring a smile.
But he was lying asleep, and the jest died on her lips as she stood and gazed at him. She had expected him to look ill, but his face, white and drawn with great dark shadows under his closed eyes, was so much ghastlier than she had pictured, that it was a shock to find him so. She stole out of the room again to the sunny little back porch, as sick at heart as if she had seen him lying in his coffin. He was no more like the strong jolly big brother she had left, than the silent shadow of him. She was thankful that her first sight of him had been while he was asleep. Otherwise she must have betrayed her surprise and distress.
Out on the porch she heard from Norman how it had happened. Jack had seen the danger that threatened two of the workmen, and had sprung forward with a warning cry in time to push them out of the way, but had been caught himself by the falling timbers. The miners had always liked Jack, Norman told her. He could do anything with them. And now they would get down and crawl for him if it would do any good.
From her mother and the nurse Mary heard about the operation that had been made to relieve the pressure on the spinal cord. It seemed successful as far as it went. They could not hope to do more than to make it possible for him to sit up in a wheeled chair. The injury had been of such a peculiar character that they were fortunate to accomplish even that much. It would be several weeks before he could attempt it. Jack did not know yet how seriously he had been injured. They were afraid to tell him until he was stronger. The Company was paying all the expenses of his illness, and there was an accident insurance.
At first Mary insisted on sending away Huldah, the faithful woman who had been the maid of all work in her absence, protesting that "a penny saved was a penny earned," and that she herself was amply able to do the work, and that she could economize even if she couldn't bring in any money to the family treasury. But she was soon persuaded of the wisdom of keeping her. The nurse was to leave as soon as Jack was able to sit up, and Mary would have her hands full then. He would need constant attendance at first, the nurse told her, and since he could never take any exercise, only daily massage would keep up his strength.
"I shall begin teaching you how to give it just as soon as he rallies a little more," the nurse promised, "You will have to be both hands and feet for him for many a week to come, poor boy, and feet always. It is good that you are so strong and untiring yourself."
For awhile Mary went about feeling like a visitor, since there was little for her to do either in kitchen or sick-room. Jack had not yet reached the stage when he needed amusement. He seemed glad that she was home, and his eyes followed her wistfully about the room, but he did not attempt to talk much. Sometimes the emptiness of the hours palled on her till she felt that she could not endure it. She wrote long letters to Joyce and Betty and all the school-girls with whom she wanted to keep up a correspondence. She mended everything she could find that needed mending, and she spent many hours telling her mother all that had happened in her absence. But for once in her life her usual resources failed her.
The little mining camp of Lone-Rock was high up in the hills, so that April there was not like the Aprils she had known at the Wigwam. There were still patches of snow under the pine trees above the camp. But the stir of spring was in the air, and every afternoon, while Mrs. Ware was resting, Mary slipped away for a long walk. Sometimes she would scramble up the hill-side to the great over-hanging rock which gave the place its name, and sit looking down at the tiny village below. It was just a cluster of miners' shacks, most of them inhabited by Mexicans. There were the Company's stores and the post-office, and away at the farther end of the one street were the houses of the few American families who had found their way to Lone-Rock, either on account of the mines or the healthful climate of the pine-covered hills. She could distinguish the roof of their own cottage among them, and the chimney of the little, unpainted school-house.
She wondered what the outcome of all their troubles was to be. She couldn't go on in this aimless way, day after day. She must find something to do that would pay her a salary, and it must be something that she could do at home, where she would be needed sorely as soon as the nurse left. Then she would go over and over the same little round. She might teach. She knew that she could pass the examination for a license, but the school was already supplied with a competent teacher, of many years' experience, whom the trustees would undoubtedly prefer to a seventeen year old girl just fresh from school herself.
There was stenography--that was something she could master by herself, and at home, but there was already a stenographer in the Company office, and there was no other place for one in Lone-Rock. Round and round she went like one in a treadmill, always to come back to the starting point, that there was nothing she could do in Lone-Rock to earn money, and she must earn some, and she could not go away from home. Sometimes the hopelessness of the situation gave her a wild caged feeling, as if she must beat herself against the bars of circumstance and make them give way for her pent-up forces to find an outlet.
The only thing that Mrs. Ware could suggest was that they might advertise in the Phoenix papers for summer boarders. She had been told that the year before several camping parties had pitched tents near Lone-Rock, and they had said that if there were a good boarding place in the village it could be filled to overflowing with a desirable class of guests.
So Mary spent an evening, pencil in hand, calculating the probable expenses and income from such a venture. They could not go into it on a large scale, the house was too small. The cost of living was high in Lone-Rock, and the market limited to the canned goods on the shelves of the Company's stores. Her careful figuring proved that there would be so little profit in the undertaking that it would not pay to try. But the evening was not lost. It suggested the vegetable garden, which with Norman's help she proceeded to start the very next morning.
Plain spading in unbroken sod is not exactly what a boy of thirteen would call sport, and Norman started at the task with little enthusiasm. But Mary, following vigorously in his wake with hoe and rake, spurred him on with visions of the good things they should have to eat and the fortune they should make selling fresh garden stuff to the summer campers, till he caught some of her indomitable spirit, and really grew interested in the work. Mary confined her energies to the vegetables which she knew would grow in that locality, and which would be sure to find a ready sale, but Norman gradually enlarged the borders to make experiments of his own, till all the lot back of the house was a well tilled garden.
If it had done nothing but keep her employed out of doors many hours of the day it would have been well worth the effort, for it kept her from brooding over her troubles, and largely took away the caged feeling which had made her so desperate. As the fresh green shoots came up through the soil and she counted the long straight rows, she counted also the dimes each one ought to bring to the family purse, and drew a breath of relief. They would amount to a neat little sum by the end of the season, and by that time maybe some other way would be opened up for her to earn money at home. True, not all the things they planted came up. Fully a third of the garden "failed to answer to roll call," Norman said, but those that did respond to their diligent care amply made up for the failure of the others.
Jack's room in the wing of the cottage had a south door over-looking the garden, and it was a happy day for the entire household when he asked to know what was going on out there. He could not see the garden from the corner where his bed stood, but the nurse propped a large mirror up against a chair in a way to reflect the entire scene. Norman was vigorously hoeing weeds, and Mary, armed with a large magnifying glass, was on a hunt for the worms that were threatening the young plants.
The scene seemed to amuse Jack immensely, and entirely aroused out of his apathy, he began to ask questions, and to suggest various dishes that he would like to sample as soon as the garden could furnish them. Every morning after that he called for the mirror to see how much the garden had grown in the night. It was an event when the first tiny radish was brought in for him to taste, and a matter of family rejoicing, when the first crisp head of lettuce was made into a salad for him, because his enjoyment of it was so evident.
About that time he was able to be propped up in bed a little while each day, and was so much like his old cheerful self that Mary wrote long hopeful letters to Joyce and Betty about his improvement. He joked with the nurse and talked so confidently about going back to work, that Mary began to feel that her worst fears had been unfounded, and that much of her mental anguish on his account had been unnecessary. Sometimes she shared his hopefulness to such an extent that she half regretted leaving school before the end of the year. When the girls wrote about the approaching Commencement and the good times they were having, and of how they missed her, she thought how pleasant it would have been to have had at least the one whole year with them. She was afraid she would be sorry all the rest of her life that she had missed those experiences of Commencement time. The exercises were always so beautiful at Warwick Hall.
She could not wholly regret her return, however, when she saw how much Jack depended on her for entertainment. He was ready to hear all about her escapades at school now, and hours at a time she talked or read to him, choosing with unerring instinct the tales best suited to his mood. Phil kept them supplied with all the current magazines. Phil had been so thoughtful about that, and his occasional letters to Jack had made red-letter days on Mary's calendar. They had been almost as good as visits, they were so charged with his jolly, light-hearted spirit.
But it happened, that the story she intended to read Jack first, The Jester's Sword, still lay unopened on her table. She could not even suggest his likeness to Aldebaran while he talked so hopefully of what he intended to do as soon as he was out of bed. It was evident that he did not realize the utter hopelessness of his condition, or he could not have made such big plans for the future.
"Of course I appreciate your leaving school in the middle of the term," he told her. "It's good for mamma to have you here, and it's fine for me, too, to have you look after me. But I'm sorry you were so badly frightened that you thought it necessary. You'll have to pay up for this holiday, Missy. I shall expect you to study all summer to make up lost time, so that you can catch up with your class and enter Sophomore with them next fall."
To please him she brought out her books and studied awhile every day, reciting her French and Latin to her mother, and wrestling along with the others as best she could. Then, too, it was impossible not to be affected to some extent by his spirit of hopefulness, and several times she gave herself up to the bliss of dreaming of the joyful thing it would be, if he should prove to be right and she could go back to Warwick Hall in the fall. Then, one day the surgeons came up from Phoenix again and made their examination and experiments, and after that the lessons and the day-dreams stopped. Everything stopped, it seemed.
They told him the truth because he would have nothing else, although they shrank from doing it until the last moment of their stay. They knew it would be like giving him his death-blow. Mary, standing in the door, saw the look of unspeakable horror that stole slowly over his face, then his helpless sinking back among the pillows, and the twitching of his hands as he clenched them convulsively. Not a word or a groan escaped him, but the wild despair of his set face and staring eyes was more than she could endure. She rushed out of the room and out of the house to the little loft above the woodshed, where no one could hear her frantic sobbing. It was hours before she ventured back into the house. It would only add to his misery to see her distress, she knew, so she left him to the little mother's ministrations.
Anticipating such a result, the surgeons had brought several appliances to make his confinement less irksome. There was a hammock arrangement with pulleys, by which he might be swung into different positions, and out into a wheeled chair. They fastened the screws into walls and ceiling, put the apparatus in place and carefully tested it before leaving. Then they were at the end of their skill. They could do nothing more. There was nothing that could be done.
Several times in the days that followed, the nurse spoke of the brave way in which Jack seemed to be meeting his fate. But Mrs. Ware shook her head sadly. She knew why no complaint escaped him. She had seen him act the Spartan before to spare her. Mary, too, knew what his persistent silence meant. He was not always so careful to veil the suffering which showed through his eyes when he was alone with her. She knew that half the time when he appeared to be listening to what she was reading, he was so absorbed in his bitter thoughts that he did not hear a word. "An eagle, broken-winged and drooping in a cage, he gloomed upon his lot and cursed the vital force within that would not let him die."
One morning, when he had been settled in his wheeled chair, she brought out the story of the Jester's Sword, saying, tremulously, "Will you do something for me? Jack? Read this little book yourself. I know you don't halfway listen to what I read any more, and I don't blame you, but this seems to have been written just on purpose for you."
He took the book from her listlessly, and opened it because she wished it. Watching him from the doorway, she waited until she saw him glance up from the opening paragraph to the watch-fob lying on the stand at his elbow. Then he looked back at the page, with a slight show of interest, and she knew that the reference to Mars' month and the bloodstone had caught his attention as it had hers. Then she left him alone with it, hoping fervently it would arouse in him at least a tithe of the interest it had awakened in her.
When she came back after awhile he merely handed her the book, saying in an indifferent way, "A very pretty little tale, Mary," and leaned back in his chair with closed eyes, as if dismissing it from his thoughts. She was disappointed, but later she saw him sitting with it in his hand again, closed over one finger as if to keep the place, while he looked out of the window with a faraway expression in his eyes. Later the nurse asked her what book it was he kept under his pillow. He drew it out occasionally, she said, and glanced at one of the pages as if he were trying to memorize it.
That he had at last read it as she read it, putting himself in the place of Aldebaran, Mary knew one day from an unconscious reference he made to it. A sudden wind had blown up, scattering papers and magazines across the room, and fluttering his curtains like flags. She ran in to pick up the wind-blown articles and close the shutters. When everything was in order, as she thought, she turned to go out, but he stopped her, saying almost fretfully, "You haven't picked up that picture that blew down." When she glanced all around the room, unable to discover it, he pointed to the hearth. A photograph had fallen from the mantel, face downward.
"There! Vesta's picture!"
Mary picked it up and turned it over, exclaiming, "Why, no, it is Betty's!"
"That's what I said," he answered, wholly unconscious of his slip of the tongue that had betrayed his secret. Her back was turned towards him, so that he could not see the tears which sprang to her eyes. If already it had come to this, that Betty was the Vesta of his dreams, then his renunciation must be an hundredfold harder than she had imagined.
With a pity so deep that she could not trust herself to speak, she busied herself in blowing some specks of dust from the mantel, as an excuse to keep her back turned. She was relieved when the nurse came in with a glass of lemonade and she could slip out without his seeing her face. She sat down on the back steps, her arms around her knees to think about the discovery she had just made. It made her heart-sick because it added so immeasurably to the weight of Jack's misfortune.
"Oh, why did it have to be?" she demanded again of fate. "It is too cruel that everything the dear boy wanted most should be denied him."
With her thoughts centred gloomily on his injuries, it seemed almost an insult for the sun to shine or for any one to be happy, and she was in no mood to meet any one in a different humour from her own. Added to her dull misery on Jack's account, was a baffled, disappointed feeling that she had not been the comfort to him she had hoped to be. True, she was learning to give him the massage he needed with almost as skilful a touch as the nurse, but she could not see that she had eased his burden mentally, in the least, although she had tried faithfully to carry out the good friar's suggestion. It seemed so hard, when she was ready to make any sacrifice for him, no matter how great, even to exchanging her strength for his helplessness, that the means should be denied her.
While she sat there, longing for some great Angel of Opportunity to open the way for her to help him, a little one was coming in at the back gate, so disguised that she did not recognize it as such. She was even impatient at the interruption. Norman, followed by a half grown Mexican boy trundling a wheel-barrow, came up from the barn, with a whole train of smaller boys running along-side, to support the chicken coop he was wheeling. Norman's face shone with importance, and he called excitedly as he fumbled at the gate latch, "Look, Mary! You can't guess what we've got in this box! A young wild-cat! Lúpe wants to sell him."
"For mercy's sake, Norman Ware," she answered, impatiently, "haven't we enough trouble now without your bringing home a wild-cat to add to them? And now, of all times!"
The tone carried even more disapproval than her words. It seemed to insinuate that if he had the proper sympathy for Jack he would not be thinking of anything else but his affliction. Instantly the bright face clouded, and in an injured tone he began to explain:
"I thought brother would like to see it, and he could make the trade for me. He talks Mexican, and I only know a few words, I couldn't make the boys understand more than that they were to bring it along. I don't see why Jack's being sick should keep me from having a nice pet like a wild-cat. He isn't a bit mean, and I haven't had a single thing since the puppy was poisoned."
The procession had paused, and the piercingly bright eyes of each one of the little Mexicans seemed also to be asking why. Mary suddenly had to acknowledge to herself that there wasn't any good reason to prevent. Because one brother was desperately unhappy was no reason why she should cloud the enjoyment of the other one by refusing him something on which he had set his heart.
Norman could not understand the lightning change in her, but he followed joyfully when she answered with a brief, "Well, come on," and led the way around to the south door of Jack's room, and called his attention to the embryo menagerie outside.
To her surprise, for the first time since the surgeons' last visit, Jack laughed. It was an amusing group, the wild-cat in the chicken-coop with its body-guard of dirty, grinning little Mexicans, and Norman circling excitedly around them, explaining that Lúpe asked a dollar for it, but that he could only give fifty cents, and for Jack to make him understand.
Jack did make him understand, and conducted the trade to Norman's entire satisfaction. Then recognizing Lúpe as one of the boys he had seen around the office, he began to question him in Mexican about the mines and the men. Then it developed that Lúpe was the son of one of the men who had been saved by Jack's quick warning, and when the boy repeated what some of the miners had said about him, Jack grew red and did not translate it all. The part he did translate was to the effect that the men wanted him back at the mine. They were having trouble with the "fat boss," their name for the new manager.
The little transaction and talk with the boys seemed to cheer Jack up so much that Mary mentally apologized to the wild-cat for her inhospitable reception, and electrified Norman by an offer to help him build a more suitable cage for it than the coop in which it was confined. Norman, who had unbounded faith in Mary's ability as a carpenter, accepted her offer joyfully. She wasn't like some girls he had known. When she drove a nail it held things together, and whatever she built would be strong enough to hold any beast he might choose to put in it.
"Now, if I could get a couple of coyotes and a badger and a fox or two," he remarked, "I'd be fixed."
Mary, who was sorting over a pile of old boards back of the woodshed, paused in alarm.
"It strikes me, young man," she said, a trifle sarcastically, "that the more some people get the more they want. Your wishes seem to be on the Jack's Bean-stalk scale. They grow to reach the sky in a single night. Suppose you did have those things, you wouldn't be satisfied. It would be a zebra and a giraffe and a jungle tiger next."
"No, it wouldn't," he declared. "I wouldn't know how to take care of them, but I do know how to feed the things that live around here."
"What do you want them for?"
"Well, you know what Huldah said about summer campers. There's always a lot of boys along, and if I had a sort of menagerie they'd want to come over and play circus, and then they'd let me in on their ball-games and things. It's awful lonesome with school out and Billy Downs gone back East. There's so few fellows here my age, and Jack won't let me play much with the little Mexicans. They aren't much fun anyhow when I can't talk their lingo."
Mary straightened up, hammer in hand, and squinted her eyes thoughtfully, a way she had when something puzzled her. It had not occurred to her that Norman had social longings like her own which Lone-Rock failed to satisfy. He watched her anxiously. That preoccupied squint always meant that interesting developments would follow.
"Norman Ware," she said, slowly, "I didn't give you credit for being a genius, but you are as great in one way as Emerson. You've hit on one of his ideas all by yourself. He said, 'If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon or make a better mouse-trap than his neighbours, though he build his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten track to his door,' If you want company as bad as all that, you shall have a beaten track to your door. We'll build something better than the neighbours ever dreamed of, and it won't be a mouse-trap, either. There's enough old lumber here to build half a dozen cages, and if you'll pay for the wire netting out of your share of the garden profits, I'll help you put up a menagerie that P.T. Barnum himself wouldn't have been ashamed of."
Norman's answer was a whoop and a double somersault, and he came up on his feet again remarking that she was worth all the fellows in Lone-Rock put together.
"According to what you've just said that isn't very much of a compliment," laughed Mary. Still it gratified her so much that presently she was planning a side-show for the menagerie. There were all her mounted specimens of trap-door spiders and butterflies and desert insects. She would loan the collection occasionally, and her stuffed Gila monster and the arrow-heads and rattle-snake skins that she and Holland had collected.
As she hammered and sawed she told Norman the story of The Jester's Sword. "That is one reason I am taking so much interest in this," she explained. "I've been thinking for days about what the old friar said, that men need laughter sometimes more than food, and if we haven't any cheer to spare ourselves, we may go a-gathering it from door to door as he did crusts and carry it to those who need. That is why I have gone on long walks and made so many calls on the few people that are here, so that I'd have something amusing to tell Jack when I came home. But he has seemed to find my 'crusts of cheer' mighty dry food, and he didn't take half the interest in them that he did in talking to Lúpe to-day."
"Lúpe will make a beaten track to his door fast enough," prophesied Norman, "when he finds we want to buy more animals. I'll send word to-night to him to set his traps for those coyotes and foxes."
That evening after supper, Jack wheeled himself out on to the porch. It was the first time he had attempted it, and when he had made the trip successfully, he sat a few minutes watching the stars. They seemed unusually brilliant, and he amused himself in tracing the constellations with which he was familiar. It had been a family study at the Wigwam, and they had learned many things from the little Atlas of the Heavens which Mrs. Ware kept among her other old school books. Presently he called Mary.
"I've located Taurus. See, just over that tree top. And there is its red eye, Aldebaran. I wanted you to see what a jolly twinkle he has to-night."
It was the first direct reference he had made to the story, and Mary waited expectantly for him to go on.
"Don't you worry, little pard," he said, after a pause. "I've known all along how you felt about me. But I'm not knocked quite out of the game, even if I am such a wreck. I felt so until I had that talk with Lúpe, as if there was no use of my cumbering the ground any longer. But I found out a lot from him. The men want me back. They don't understand the new boss at all. They will do anything for me. So even if I can't walk I can be worth at least half a man to the Company, in just being on the spot to interpret and to keep things running smoothly. I could attend to the correspondence, too, for my head and hands are all right. I know I am as helpless as a baby yet, but if you'll just stand by me, and keep up that treatment, and help me get my strength back, I'll make good, some way or another, just as well as Aldebaran did. By the bloodstone on my watch-fob!" he added, laughingly. "How is that for a fine swear?"
The old hopeful note in his voice made his helplessness more pathetic than ever to Mary, but she answered gaily, "You know I'll stand by you till 'the last cock crows and the last trump blows!' You didn't have to be born in Mars month to make undaunted courage the jewel of your soul."
Perched on the arm of his chair she sat watching the red star for a moment, thinking of the events which had led to his resolution. "It's queer, isn't it," she said aloud. "I almost drove Norman away this afternoon with his beast and his train of little Mexicans. I was so out of patience with him for bringing them here. But how is one to know an Opportunity when it comes in a chicken-coop disguised as a Wild-cat?"
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