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her letters to them there was one which she never read. He knew that this was the letter which meant the most to her. He saw how those letters affected her, and thought he had divined in what way; and one day when Flaxen, after reading her letters, sprang up and ran into her bedroom, her eyes filled with sudden tears, Gearheart crooked his finger at Ans', and they went out to the barn together.
It was nearly one o'clock on an intolerable day peculiar to the Dakota plain. A frightfully hot, withering, and powerful wind was abroad, the thermometer stood nearly a hundred in the shade, and the wind, so far from being a relief, was suffocating because of its heat and the dust it swept along with it.
The heavy-headed grain and russet grass writhed and swirled as if in agony, and dashed high in waves of green and yellow. The cornleaves had rolled up into long cords like the lashes of a whip, and beat themselves into tatters on the dry, smooth spot their blows had made beneath them; they seemed ready to turn to flame in the pitiless, furnace-like blast. Everywhere in the air was a silver-white, impalpable mist, which gave to the cloudless sky a whitish cast. The glittering gulls were the only things that did not move listlessly and did not long for rain. They soared and swooped, exulting in the sounding wind; now throwing themselves upon it, like a swimmer, then darting upward with miraculous ease, to dip again into the shining, hissing, tumultuous waves of the grass.
Along the roads prodigious trains of dust rose hundreds of feet in the air, and drove like a vast caravan with the wind. So powerful was the blast that men hesitated about going out with carriages, and everybody watched feverishly, expecting to see fire break out on the prairie and sweep everything before it. Work in the fields had stopped long before dinner, and the farmers waited, praying or cursing, for the wheat was just at the right point to be blighted.
As the two men went out to the shed side by side, they looked out on the withering wheatstalks and corn-leaves with gloomy eyes.
"Another day like this, an' they won't be wheat enough in this whole county to make a cake," said Anson, with a calm intonation which after all betrayed the anxiety he felt. They sat down in the wagon-shed near the horses' mangers. They listened to the roar of the wind and the pleasant sound of the horses a good while before either of them spoke again. Finally Bert said sullenly:
"We can't put up hay such a day as this. You could n't haul it home under lock an' key while this infernal wind is blowin'. It 's gittin' worse, if anythin'."
Anson said nothing, but waited to hear what Bert had brought him out here for. Bert speared away with his knife at a strip of board. Anson sat on a wagon-tongue, his elbows on his knees, looking intently at the grave face of his companion. The horses ground cheerily at the hay.
"Ans', we 've got to send Flaxen back to St. Peter; she 's so homesick she don't know what to do."
Ans's eyes fell.
"I know it. I've be'n hopin' she'd git over that, but it's purty tough on her, after bein' with the young folks in the city fer a year, to come back here on a farm-" He did not finish for a moment. "But she can't stand it. I'd looked ahead to havin' her here till September, but I can't stand it to see her cryin' like she did to-day. We 've got to give up the idee o' her livin' here. I don't see any other way but to sell out an' go back East somewhere."
Bert saw that Anson was still ignorant of the real state of affairs, but thought he would say nothing for the present.
"Yes; that's the best thing we can do. We'll send her right back, an' take our chances on the crops. We can git enough to live on an' keep her at school, I guess."
They sat silent for a long time, while the wind tore round the shed, Bert spearing at the stick, and Anson watching the hens as they vainly tried to navigate in the wind. Finally Anson spoke:
"The fact is, Bert, this ain't no place fer a woman, anyway—such a woman as Flaxen 's gittin' to be. They ain't nothin' goin' on, nothin' to see er hear. You can't expect a girl to be contented with this country after she's seen any other. No trees; no flowers; jest a lot o' little shanties full o' flies."
"I knew all that, Ans', a year ago. I knew she'd never come back here, but I jest said, it's the thing to do—give her a chance, if we don't have a cent; now let's go back to the house an' tell her she need n't stay here if she don't want to."
"Wha' d' ye s'pose was in that letter?"
"Could n't say. Some girl's description of a picnic er somethin'." Bert was not yet ready to tell what he knew. When they returned to the house the girl was still invisible, in her room. Mrs. Green was busy clearing up the dinner dishes.
"I don't know 's I ever see such a wind back to Michigan. Seems as if it 'u'd blow the hair off yer head."
"Oh, this ain't nothin'. This is a gentle zephyr. Wait till ye see a wind."
"Wal, I hope to goodness I won't never see a wind. Zephyrs is all I can mortally stand." Anson went through the little sitting-room, and knocked on Flaxen's door.
"Flaxie, we want to talk to ye." There was no answer, and he came back and sat down. Bert pointed to the letter which Flaxen had flung down on the table. The giant took it, folded it up, and called, "Here's yer letter, babe."
The door opened a little, and a faint, tearful voice said:
"Read it, if ye want to, boys." Then the door closed tightly again, and they heard her fling herself on the bed. Anson handed the letter to Bert, who read it in a steady voice.
so, the bedroom door opened, and Flaxen's
DEAR DARLING: I have good news to tell you. ANSON'S opinion of Mr. Kendall was not faMy uncle was out from Wisconsin to see me, and vorable, but he held it to be a sort of treason he was pleased with what I had done, and he bought out Mr. Ford, and gave me the whole to Elga to think so, and he would not admit half interest. I'm to pay him back when I it to himself or to Gearheart. They saw Kenplease. Ain't that glorious? Now we can get dall for the first time on the day of the wedmarried right off, can't we, darling?-so you just ding, which came in September. They made show this letter to your father and tell him how some inquiries of the townspeople, and found things stand. I've got a good business. The that he was a harmless little creature enough, drug-store is worth $1200 a year, my half, but small, a little inclined to bow-legs, and dudish knock off fifty per cent. and we could live nicely, in manner. He combed his hair till it shone like Don't you think so? I want to see you so bad ebony, and wore the latest designs in standing and talk things over. If you can't come back soon, collars high on his slim neck. His hands were beautifully small and white and ringed, and he had the engaging manners of a successful drygoods clerk.
I will come on. Write soon.
Yours till death,
From the first word Anson winced, grew perplexed, then suffered. His head drooped forward on his hands, his elbows rested on his vast, spread knees. He drew his breath with a long, grieving gasp. Bert read on steadily to the end, then glanced at his companion with a deep frown darkling his face; but he was not taken by surprise. He had not had paternal passion change to the passion of a lover only to have it swept down like a half-opened flower. For the first time in his life the giant writhed in mental agony. He saw it all. It meant eternal separation. It meant a long ache in his heart which time could scarcely deaden into a tolerable pain.
Gearheart rose and went out, unwilling to witness the agony of his friend, and desiring himself to be alone. Anson sat motionless, with his hands covering his wet eyes, going over the past and trying to figure the future. He began in that storm: felt again the little form and face of the wailing babe; thought of the frightful struggle against the wind and snow; of the touch of the little hands and feet; of her pretty prattle and gleeful laughter; then of her helpful and oddly womanish ways as she grew older; of the fresh, clear voice calling him "pap," and ordering him about with a roguish air; of her beauty now, when for the first time he had begun to hope that she might be something dearer to him.
How could he live without her? She had grown to be a part of him. He had long ceased to think of the future without her. As he sat
"He can't abuse her, that 's one good thing about the whelp," thought Bert, as he crushed Kendall's slim, lax hand in his just to see him scringe.
As for the bridegroom, he was not a little afraid of these fellows, so big and so sullen, and tried his best to please them, chirping in his bright way of all kinds of things.
"We 're one of the best cities on the river, you see. Could n't be a better place for a business stand, don't you know? And we 're getting to the front in our wholesale department. Of course-ha! ha!-my wife's father ought to know how I am getting on, so you 're welcome to come in and look over my books. Our trade is a cash trade as far as the retail part goes, and we are mighty careful who gets tick from us on the wholesale trade. The wholesale. trade we are developing rapidly, and in less than ten years we will be one of the leading firms in the valley."
Elga had been down to St. Peter with her friends the Holts since that week before harvest when Anson "discovered the lay of the land." It cut him terribly to see how eager was to get away, and he grew a little bitter, a thing quite unusual for him.
"What 's that little whipper-snapper ever done fer her that she should leave us in the shade fer him; ferget all we 've done fer her, an' climb out an' leave us jest at his wink? It beats me; but it's all right. I don't blame her if she feels so; only it does seem queer, don't it?"
"Purty tough, sure 's yer born. Specially for the lonely man toiling away on his bleak the idee that after bein' raised with a couple o' men she 'd go off with a thing like that." Arriving at this understanding, they said no more about it, but set to work to make it all as pleasant for Flaxen as possible.
Anson stood bravely through the ceremony as the father of the bride, and bore himself with his usual massive rude dignity. But he inwardly winced as he saw Elga, looking very stately and beautiful in her bride's veil, towering half a head above the sleek-haired little clerk. Not a few of the company smiled at the contrast, but she had no other feeling than perfect love and happiness.
When the ceremony was over, and Anson looked around for Bert, he was gone. He could n't stand the pressure of the crowd and the whispered comments, and had slipped away early in the evening.
Among the presents which were laid on the table in the dining-room was a long envelop addressed to Mrs. Will Kendall. It contained a deed for a house and lot in one of the most desirable parts of the suburbs. It was from Gearheart, but there was no written word else. This gift meant the sale of his claim in Dakota. When Anson got back to the hotel that night, wondering and alarmed at his partner's absence, he found a letter from him. It was full of his well-known bitterness.
This climate is getting too frigid for my lungs. I'm going to emigrate to California. I made a mistake; I ought to have gone in for stand-up collars, shiny hair, and bow-legs. You'd better skip back to Dakota and sell your claim. Keep my share of the stock and tools; it ain't worth bothering about. Don't try to live there alone, old man. If you can't sell, marry. Don't let that girl break you all up too. We are all fools, but some can get over it quicker than others.
If that little bow-legged thing gets under your feet or abuses her, just get your toe under him and hoist him over into the alley.
Good-by and good luck, old man. BERT.
And the next day the doubly bereaved man started on his lonely journey back to the Dakota claim, back to an empty house, with a gnawing pain in his heart and a constriction like an iron band about his throat; back to his broad fields to plod to and fro alone.
As he began to realize it all, and to think how terrible was this loss, he laid his head down on the car-seat before him, and cried. His first great trial had come to him, and, meeting it like a man, he must now weep like a woman.
FLAXEN wrote occasionally during the next year, letters all too short and too far between
farm. These letters were very much alike, telling mainly of how happy she was, and of what she was going to do by and by, on Christmas or Thanksgiving. Once she sent a photograph of herself and husband, and Anson, after studying it for a long time, took a pair of shears and cut the husband off, and threw him into the fire. "That fellow gives me the ague," he muttered.
Bert did not write, and there was hardly a night that Ans' lay down on his bed that he did not wonder where his chum was, especially as the winter came on unusually severe, reminding him of that first winter in the Territory. Day after day he spent alone in his little house, going out only to feed the cattle or to get the mail. But with the passage of time the pain in his heart lost its intensity.
One day he got a letter from Flaxen that startled and puzzled him. It was like a cry for help, somehow.
"Dear old pap, I wish you was here," and then in another place came the piteous cry, "Oh, I wish I had some folks!"
All night long that cry rang in the man's head with a wailing, falling cadence like the note of a lost little prairie-chicken.
"I wonder what that whelp has been doin' now. If he 's begun to abuse her I 'll wring his neck. She wants me an' da's n't ask me to both," he said at last, with sudden resolution. come. Poor chick, I 'll be pap an' mam to ye,
The day after the receipt of this letter a telegram was handed to him at the post-office, which he opened with trembling hands.
ANSON WOOD: Your daughter is ill. Wants you. Come at once. DOCTOR DIETRICH.
A glorious winter sun was beginning to light up the frost foliage of the maples lining St. Peter's streets when Anson, stiff with cold and haggard with a night of sleepless riding, sprang off the train and looked about him. The beauty of the morning made itself felt even through his care. These rows of resplendent maples, heavy with iridescent frost, were like fairy-land to him, fresh from the treeless prairie. As he walked on under them, showers of powdered rubies and diamonds fell down upon him; the colonnades seemed like those leading to some enchanted palace such as he had read of in boyhood. Every shrub in the yards was similarly decked, and the snug cottages were like the little house which he had once seen at the foot of the Christmas tree in a German church years before.
Feet crunched along cheerily on the sidewalks, bells of dray-teams were beginning to sound, and workmen to whistle.
Anson was met at the door by a hard-faced, middle-aged woman.
"How 's my girl?" he asked.
Oh, she 's nicely. Walk in." "Can I see her now?"
"She's sleepin'; I guess you better wait a little while till after breakfast."
'Where 's Kendall ?" was his next question. “I d'n' know. Hain't seen 'im sence yesterday. He don't amount to much, anyway, and in these cases there ain't no dependin' on a boy like that. It's nachel fer girls to call on their mothers an' fathers in such cases."
Anson was about to ask her what the trouble was with his girl, when she turned away. She could not be dangerously ill; anyway, there was comfort in that.
After he had eaten a slight breakfast of bad coffee and yellow biscuits, Mrs. Stickney came back.
"She 's awake an' wants to see ye. Now don't get excited. She ain't dangerous." Anson was alarmed and puzzled at her
"What is the matter?" he demanded. Her reply was common enough, but it stopped him with his foot on the threshold. He understood at last. The majesty and mystery of birth was like a light in his face, and dazzled him. He was awed and exalted at the same time.
"Open the door; I want to see her," he said in a new tone.
As they entered the darkened chamber he heard his girl's eager cry.
Perhaps if I found my aunt she 'd look like mama, an' I 'd know then how mama looked, would n't I? Perhaps if the wheat is good this year we can go back an' find her, can't we?" Then her words melted into a moan of physical pain, and the nurse said:
"Now I guess you'd better go an' see if you can't hurry the doctor up. Yes; now he 's got to go," she went on to Flaxen, drowning out her voice and putting her imploring hands back upon the bed.
Anson saw it all now. In her fear and pain she had turned to him,-poor motherless little bird,-forgetting her boy husband, or feeling the need of a broader breast and stronger hand. It was a beautiful trust, and as the great shaggy man went out into the morning he was exalted by the thought. "My little babe-my Flaxen!" he said with unutterable love and pity.
Again his mind ran over the line of his lifethe cabin, the dead woman, the baby face nestling at his throat, the girl coming to him with her trials and triumphs. His heart swelled so that he could not have spoken, but deep in his throat he muttered a dumb prayer. And how he suffered that day, hearing her babble mixed with moanings every time the door opened. Once the doctor said:
"It's no use for you to stand here, Wood. It only makes you suffer, and don't help her a particle."
"It seems 's if it helped her, an' so- I guess I'll stay. She may call fer me, an' if she does I'm goin' in, doctor. How is she now?"
"She's slightly delirious now, but still she
“Is that you, pap?" wailed her faint, sweet knows you 're here. She now and then speaks voice. of you, but does n't call for you."
"Yes; it's me, Flaxie." He crossed the room, and knelt by the bed. She flung her arms around his neck.
"O pappy, pappy! I wanted you. Oh, my poor mama! O pap, I don't like her," she whispered, indicating the nurse with her eyes. "O pap, I hate to think of mother lying there in the snow-an' Bert-where is Bert, pap? Perhaps he 's in the blizzard too—"
"She's a little flighty," said the nurse in her matter-of-fact tone.
Anson groaned as he patted the pale cheek of the sufferer.
"Don't worry, Flaxie; Bert's all right. He'll come home soon. Why don't you send for the doctor?" he said to the nurse.
"He'll be here soon. Don't worry over that," indicating Flaxen, who was whispering to herself.
"Do you s'pose I can find my folks if I go back to Norway?" she said to Anson a little after.
"Yes; I guess so, little one. When you get well, we 'll try an' see."
But she did call for him, and he went in, and, kneeling by her side, he talked to her and held her hands, stroked her hair and soothed her as he used to when a little child unable to speak save in her pretty Norseland tongue, and at last when opiates were given, and he rose and staggered from the room, it seemed as though he had lived years.
So weary was he that when the doctor came out and said, “You may go to sleep now," he dropped heavily on a lounge and fell asleep almost with the motion. Even the preparations for breakfast made by the hoarse-voiced servant-girl did not wake him, but the drawling, nasal tone of Kendall did. He sat up and looked at the oily little clerk. It was after seven o'clock.
"Hello!" said Kendall, "when d' you get
"Shortly after you went out," said Anson in reply.
Kendall felt the rebuke, and, as he twisted his cuffs into place, said, "Well, ye see I couldn't do no good-a man ain't any good in such
cases, anyway-so I just thought I'd run down to St. Paul an' do a little buying."
Anson turned away and went into the kitchen to wash his face and to comb his hair, glad to get rid of the sight of Kendall for a moment. Mrs. Stickney was toasting some bread.
She's awake an' wants to see you when you woke up. It's a girl-thought I'd tell ye-yes; she's comfortable. Say, 'tween you an' me, a man 'at 'u'd run off-waal-" she ended expressively.
Once more Anson caught his breath as he entered the darkened chamber. But the figure on the bed was tranquil now, and the voice, though weak and low, was Flaxen's own.
He stopped as his eyes fell on her. She was no longer a girl. The majesty of maternity was on her pale face and in her great eyes. A faint, expectant smile was on her lips, her eyes were fixed on his face as she drew the cover from the little red, weirdly wrinkled face at her throat. Before he could speak, and while he was looking down at the mite of humanity, Kendall stepped into the room.
"Hello, Ellie! How are-"
A singular revulsion came out on her face. "Make him go 'way; I don't want him." "All right," said Kendall, cheerfully, glad to
“Isn't she beautiful?" the mother whispered. “Does she look like me?" she asked artlessly. "She's beautiful to me because she's yours, Flaxie," replied Anson, with a delivery all the more striking because of the contrast with his great frame and hard, rough hands. "But there, my girl, go to sleep like baby, an' don't -worry any more."
"You ain't goin' away while I'm sick?" she asked, following him with her eyes unnaturally large.
"I won't never go 'way again if you don't want me to," he replied.
"Oh, I'm so glad!" she sighed restfully. He was turning to go when she wailed reproachfully, "Pap, you did n't kiss baby!"
Anson turned and came back. "She's sleepin', an' I thought it was n't right to kiss a girl without she said so."
This made Flaxen smile, and Anson went out with a lighter heart than he had had for two years. Kendall met him outside, and said confidentially:
"I don't s'pose it was just the thing for me to do; but confound it! I never could stand a sick-room, anyway. I could n't do any good, anyway-just been in the way. She'll get over her mad in a few days. Think so?"
But she did not. Her singular and sudden dislike of him continued, and though she passively submitted to his being in the room, she would not speak a word to him nor look at
him as long as she could avoid it; and when he approached the baby or took it in his arms a jealous frown came on her face.
As for Anson, he grew to hate the sound of that little chuckle of Kendall's; the part in the man's hair and the hang of his cutaway coat made him angry. The trim legs, a little bowed, the big cuffs hiding the small, cold hands, and the peculiar set of his faultless collar, grew daily more insupportable.
"Say, looky here, Kendall," said he in desperation one day, "I wish you did n't like me quite so well. We don't hitch fust-rate — at least I don't. Seems to me you 're neglectin' your business too much."
He was going to tell him to keep away, but he relented as he looked down at the harmless little man, with his thin, boyish face.
"Oh, my business is all right. Gregory looks after it mostly, anyhow. But, I say, if you wanted to go into the dray business, there's a first-class opening now. Clark wants to sell."
It ended in Anson seeing Clark and buying out his line of drays, turning in his claim toward the payment, a transaction which made Flaxen laugh for joy, for she had not felt certain before that he would remain in St. Peter. She was getting about the house now, looking very wifely in her long, warm wraps, her slow motions contrasting strongly with the old restless, springing steps Anson remembered so well.
Night after night, as he sat beside the fire and held baby, listening to the changed voice of his girl, and watching the grave new expressions of her face, the tooth of time took hold upon him powerfully, and he would feel his shaggy beard and think, "I'll soon be gray, soon be gray!" while the little one cooed, and sprang, and pulled at his beard, which had grown long again and had white hairs in it.
Kendall spent most of his time at the store, or down-town somewhere, and so all of those long, delicious winter evenings were Flaxen's and Anson's. And his enjoyment of them was pathetic. The cheerful little sitting-room, the open grate, the gracious, ever-growing womanliness of Elga, the pressure of soft little limbs, and the babble of a liquid baby-language, were like the charm of an unexpected Indiansummer day between two gray November
One night Kendall did not come home, and early the next morning an officer came to the door to inquire if he were in. On being told that he was not at home, and that they did not know where he was, the sheriff said to his companion:
"Skipped between two days."
And so it came out that Kendall had purchased goods on credit, gambled his money