A Brkak in thh Lhvhe.
Clang! claiit; I clang I mug the big plantation bell, and Jeff'starttMl np, springing (Hit of IkhI bofore he was quite awake.
Lights Hitted baek and forth in the yard below, lanterns waved and Hieki-red high up on tlie embankment at the river's cdgv, an(l beneatli the elang of the bell eame the eonfused shouts <d" many voices, and in all and through all the ominous roar of rushing water.
^'O, God, the levee I " cried the boy, staring out into the night.
Suddenly the lights all eame together, one voice shouted high above the rest, then the sound of fleeing hoof-beats, the clank of the mule's chains, the rattle of scrapes, and darkness! Darkness and silence, and then the sickening splash of caving banks and the inrush of maddened waters !
As Jeff slipped into his clothes he heard the lap of the water when it reached the house, and bv and
by saw the light stream through the window below, gleaming far out across the flooded fields.
" Are you awake, Jeff?^' asked his mother, coming in softly, shading the candle with her hand. "Ah ! You know, then. The break was just in front there, by the big cottonwood tree.'^
"By the big cottonwood?'^ Jeff repeated, breathlessly. " My God, mother, not there, not there ! ^'
" What is it, lad?'' she asked, gently, putting the candle on the table and taking his hand in hers. "What is it, Jeff, dear?" she repeated when he did not answer.
" O, mother," he cried, tearing his hand from hers and covering his face. " How can I tell you, even you ? Do you remember last Wednesday ?—my birthday, you know," he went on, speaking rapidly and clutching his mother's hand again, helplessly. " As I started off to go hunting that morning, riding down the river road there just below the cut-off I met Colonel Cheatham. He stopped and came back with me to show me a weak place in the levee just there by the old cottonwood in front, and he said I must be sure and tell father, and O, mother, what shall I do ? I forgot, I forgot! "
" O, my poor, thoughtless lad ! " said his mother, soothingly.
" You'll tell father for me, Avon't you, mother ? " the boy cried.
" I think I'd better not, dear," answered his mother, but there were tears in her eyes. " This is your first great trial and you must face it like a
There were tears in the boy^s eyes, too, but " 1^11 do it mother, so help me," he said, firmly, and turned at once to leave the room.
'^Mother!" he cried, suddenly, coming back and flinging his arms about lier.
*'God lielj)you, my child," she said, kissing liim, and he was gone."
Jefl* scarce recognized his father in the bowed and broken man lie found in the chamber below. Every lap of the water without was like a sword-thrust into the boy's heart, but he made his confession (juite bravely. Plis father listened, seeming scarce to understand, but when it was over he said, in a voice Jeff never had heard before :
"You forgot, and I may be a ruined man. You had better go now, I think, until I, too, forget."
The words, the tone, smote the boy like a blow, stunning him. He set his lips firmly together ;ind left the room.
'' Go, until J. too, forget." He heard his father's words over and over again in the sound of his own foot-fall on the bare floor. The hall door stood open and the swinging lam]) within sent its gleam far over the waste of water. Above the submerged steps a little row of boats rose and fell on the lapping waves, tethered to the posts of the veranda. Jefl'soon found his own little green skifl" moored among the rest, and it needed but a moment to reach his hat and coat from the spreading antlers behind the door.
He heard the sound of his mother's foot-fall in the hall as the oars cut the water, but above that, above the beating of his heart and the rush of the
waves, he heard his father's words, and a moment later his skiff skimmed out of the lantern's gleam and the darkness swallowed him up.
At Saunders' big Texas ranch in the early morn of that scorching October day, all was bustle and stir and commotion. On all the parching prairies not a blade of grass was left for the hungry herd ; tanks were empty, streams were dry and the men were making ready to drive the cattle out of the land of drought*to the flush waters and green pastures of the Indian Territory.
In the dusty yard around the cabin, spurs rattled, saddles creaked, ponies neighed, men shouted and hallooed, and beyond in the great corrals, the cattle bleated and bellowed with their thousands of thirsty throats.
" You'll have to go an' he'p Mason git up a bunch of cattle in the north pasture. Little Partner," said Saunders to a boy who stood near the cabin door fastening his spur-strap, with his arm through his pony's bridle.
'' All right, sir," said the boy, springing into the saddle.
" Tell Mason to fetch a thousan' an' fifty-two head, an' meet us at the river to-morrow night, or—bust. We wanter start fur the Nation in the mornin'. A
tliousan' an' iit'tv-twu licail, don't i'lir^rit now, an' ride like liell."
'' 1 shall not forget," said the boy iirnily, but a shadow crossed over his f'aee as he spoke, a sliadow that did not Iciive it as he galloped otl" over the prairie.
The sun streamed down, l)listeriiig his back through his tiannel shirt, and the Hery alkali dust burned into every pore of his body. The dry grass crinkled and crisped under his horse's hoofs, and as tar as the eye could rt-ach was only the scorching waste of brown prairie land. Kveu the empty sky above glowed with a white heat, and through the telesco})ic atmosphere the mountains far to the northward cut against it keen as a knife blade. Heat and dust were everywhere, with now and then the gleam of a white shaly river-bed, dry and glistening like a silver thread winding across the brown prairies, which the dead and dying cattle had turned into vast charnel houses, where the buzzards hehl full sway.
By daybreak the next morning the cattle in the north ]>as'ture were bunched and ready for driving.
'' You'd better lead with me, little 'un," Mason said kindly, when the boy galloped up for orders before the march began. '* There'll be less ridin' in front," the man added to himself, as the boy swung tiirough tlie gate, ''an' the chap is sore to the touch now, 1 can tell by the way he sets his saddle.''
Mason had watched the boy narrowly, with his kind womanly br(>wn eyes, ever since the day of his coming to the ranch, and he knew, no one better, how the lad's bones ached from the constant fatigue which
the short snatches of rest were not long enough to remove; he knew how his temples throblaed when the hot dry air almost boiled the blood in his veins, and stifled his nostrils.
'^ The young 'un's got grit/' he told Saunders in his lazy way after the boy's first round-up, and he kept his eye upon him.
^' We must make the river to-night or bust/' Mason yelled, as the herd swept out of the pen.
The men answered with a shout, and the boy galloping along at the head of the mighty procession felt like a warrior going into battle, and heard Mason's musical halloo as a clarion cry. Behind came the heavy tramp of hoof-beats, the bellow of thirsty throats, the crack of whips and the shouts of the men.
The sun was almost down when the distant smirch of trees against the horizon showed where the river lay. Mason's horse had gone lame toward the middle of the afternoon, and now jogged along stiff and painful but a short distance ahead of the herd.
" Poor nag, maybe I can spell you a bit," he said, preparing to dismount.
As he slipped his foot from the stirrup a noise in the rear startled him ; and he cast a quick eye over his shoulder for a moment.
" My God, the cows have smelt water ! " he said breathlessly. ^' Fly fur your life, little 'un/' he went on, almost gently, as he rose in his saddle and leaned forward. " Bear to the northward," he cried. " Now ride like the devil, and God he'p you." 13
The boy's Imiul tugged at th»^ bridU' aud he telt the pony bound forward, .stun«j^ by a blow from Mason's (|iiii-t. Another niomcnt and he wonhl Ix' safe.
But Mason'.' In one quick backward h»ok the bov saw his spent p(jny ivar (Ui his lame legs, and give one wild leap forward : he heard a heavy thud as they went down, and man and horse were lying in a hea]) together on the dry grass in the path of the stampeding herd.
"O God! () mother!" cried the boy, and his voice was a prayer. The pony wheeled in his tracks, atid bore hiiu back in the face of the oncoiuing deatli.
There was one moment of breathless, eager energy while he slipped the loose end of his riata under Mason's helples> arms, and wound it nmnd the lim}> body; another, and he was in the stirruj) again, witli the lariat's loop held hard and fast on the saddle's horn. He felt his spurs cut deep in the j)ony's hij>s as the ])oor beast sprang forward, he felt the tugging of Mason's imj)otent body as it dragged behind ; he heard the swell and surge of mad voices as the infuriated beasts swej)t on in the dust cloud, he felt their hot breath in his face, and heard the wild neigh of his pony when the hoofs struck him ; then a fierce, sharp pain, and all was over.
The boy opened his eyes for a moment, but the whitewashed hospital walls, the narrow cot and Saunders bending over confused him. The eyelids quivered and chjsed.
Slowly it came all back to him; the long ride, the hot sun, the dust and the stampeding cattle.
'^ Where is Mason ? " he asked by and by, looking up again into Saunders^ kind blue eyes.
" He's all right ngw, poor old chap," said Saunders gently, and there was more in the tone than in the words, but the boy understood.
He lay quietly for a long while, with the bedclothes pulled over his eyes, and the sheet was wet when he looked out from under it again.
^^ Mason was kinder to me than anybody in the world had ever been—except my mother,'' he said by and by. " I wish I had been the one to go," he added, wearily.
" Don't you say that, lad, don't you now," Saunders said, stroking the boy's hand with his own brown palm. " It'll all come right."
" But you don't know, Saunders, you don't know," and the boy turned his head over on the pillow wearily.
^' Maybe I do, mo'n you think fur," Saunders went on soothingly. ^' You've been lyin' here prit nigh two months now, you know, and durin' that time I've been here off an' on sorter constant, an'
you've said things as maybe you wouldn't 'a' said to me confidentially like ef you'd been at yourse'f, but I reckon there ain't no harm done. I was only waitin' tell you got strong enough to travel to ast you ef you wanted to go home."
^' O, no ; I can't, Saunders, I can't," the boy cried.
" You mean 'bout the levee, don't you ? " Saunders asked gently. " You see, you've 'tol mos' ever'-thing, and I jest pieced out the rest, little chap, 'an blamed ef I ain't felt mighty sorry fur you. That's straiglit now, an' no mistake, but the mo' I study erbout it the mo' it seem to me there was a kind of a hitch somewhur. Don't you misonderstan' me now, little 'un. I ain't never had no call to preach ; I ain't even been a good man, but somehow, when a feller's spent the best part er his life a-ridin' over these here ol' puraras where there don't seem to be notin' but jest God an' the universe, he natclielly has time to do a deal er thinkin'. An' anyhow seenjs the Lord puts diiFunt thoughts in a head after it begins to turn grey to what He did when it was young. Now, little chap, maybe so I'm wrong, but it seems to me that the bigges' forgettin' you done warn't erbout that break in tiie levee. I know it looked mighty big to you that niglit when the overflow come, and you knowed a word f'um you 'an a few san' bags maybe could 'a' 'kep it out, but what I aim to say is your furgettin' didn't stop there. I own there ain't many a boy as wouldn't 'a' done jest erbout what you did that night when you lef' home. I 'spect I would 'a' done the same thing myse'f twenty years ago, and maybe so I'd 'a' felt jest as proud an' jest as hurt an'
jest as brave as you did. You thought erbout all them that night, didn't you, little partner, an' how you'd do somethin' great to make up fur furgettin,' didn't you ? I bet you did, an' you thought erbout yourse'f an' you thought erbout your father, too, some, maybe, not jest as you would ef you'd 'a' waited tell nex' day or nex' week, but wasn't there somebody you furgot ? Somebody, too, as was wuth the whole worl' to you, somebody as would 'a' gone down into her grave to 'a' saved you, somebody as waited an' watched after the waters went down, an' is waitin' an' watchin' yet, please God, when ever'body else has given you up. Ain't I right erbout it, little man ? "
^^ O, Saunders, O, Saunders," said the boy, taking his friend's hand while the tears streamed down and wet the pillow, '' what shall I do ? "
'^ There ain't no trouble 'bout answerin' that question now," Saunders said, " hard as it is to go back of our wrong-doing an' make things straight, but mothers is mothers wherever you put 'em, an' maybe so I'd a been diffunt ef mine had been left to me longer. But your way is clear enough, an' it ain't sech a powerful long jouruey f'um Texas to Louisiana"
'' Do you mean it, Saunders?" said the boy, with a smile on his wan lips; "and can I go to-day?"
" No, but it won't be very long befo'e you start ef you keep on like this," Saunders answered, " an' somehow, ol' chap, you've made it mighty easy fur me to tell you somethin' I've jest been bustin' to tell you ever sence you've been lyin' here," and Saunders cleared his throat while the boy looked up at him eagerly.
*' You s<'c," he went on slowly, " Mason warn't quite gono when the boys picked him up, tho' he was clone fur bef'o'e you got to him, lad ; the pony had fell aerost him, an' he'd jest breath enou«ih left to tell me all erbout it. Po' oF Mason I They was a smile in them big dyin' woman eyes < r his whrn he looked up at me an' said : ' Didn't 1 tell you the little ehap had gritV An' then he tol' me somethin' else, ])oor oT partnci-. Hv tol' me he didn't have nobody in the worl' but jest hissf^'f, but you could 'a' knowed that by the lonefulness in his eyes, an' he said to let his sheer ei- the cattle go to you. Seem's ef he kinder 'specioned things was pretty bad with you one way or 'nuther, an' in- tol' me to let the cows go the fust chance I got, nn turn the proceeds over to you. What do you say now to a little wad er ten thou^an' dollars to start home witii?"
'* Poor old Mason," the b<»y >ai<l. :md his eyes were brimming with ti'ars as In* sat up in bed. "I can make it up lo father wnv, Saunders, can't I?"
Two weeks later, when the Valley (|ueen steamed through the drawbridge at Shreveport, Jeff stood on her upper deck, glad with the prosp(H't of home near at hantl. How dear and familiar everything looked ! Behind were the bndvcn red hill-slopes dotted with cottages, the slender church spires, the crouching, cavernous warehouses of the little city ; beyond were the black })lantation lowlands, the great sprawling, grass-grown levees, and tlie dark, treacherous river winding between, shrunken now within its muddy banks, waiting calm and cjuiescent for the swell of the spring rainv to send it sweeping on in its work of
destruction. Men stood about in little squads on deck talking of hard times, the low price of cotton, and the calamitous levee system just in the old way, but the boy leaning against the railing looking out over the water heard their voices but dimly.
When the whistle blew and the boat rounded the curve Jeft saw with a little pang of bitterness the old Cottonwood which marked his own home landing, but he sprang ashore joyously before the wavering stage-plank had touched the bank. He was not the only passenger for Steel Dust Plahtation, he found, as the men who crowded after him pushed by, hurrying up to the house. JefP followed eagerly. Was this the home-coming he had pictured so often as he rode over the dusty prairies, or lay on his hospital cot in those sweet days of convalescence?
Surely something was wrong. About the yard and the stable men were hurrying to and fro, while others were sampling cotton from the bursting bales under the big gin-house shed. Teamless wagons blockaded the broad avenue which led to the house, and, under the spreading oaks, mules were bunched or stood in long lines tethered to the lot fence. Barn doors were wide open, and plows and hoes and scrapes, in desolate heaps, littered the lawn.
Jeif saw it all in the brief interval which it took to reach the house, and the noisy chattering of the crowd in the hallway suddenly ceased, even the blatant yell of the auctioneer broke confusedly and his hammer fell to the floor with a bang as a bright
young voice from the doorway shouted clear above the eager bobbing heads:
'' I forbid this sale ! '^
Jeif elbowed his way to the crier's desk, unbuckling the leather belt from beneath his coat as he went.
*^ What is the amount of your attachment, sir?'' he asked.
^' Eight thousand seven hundred and fifty dollars, with costs," replied the astonished auctioneer.
'' Then dismiss the crowd and count your money," Jeff said, pulling a roll of bills from his belt pocket.
And was that the end of tlie triumph? Is there no more to be told ?
Some one was calling his name from the stairway, the crowd fell back for him to pass, and the boy bounded up the steps with a glad light in his eyes.
^' Father, mother," he cried, and they folded him in their hearts. The victory was won, the breach was healed.
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