"Find yo' shirt all right, Sam?" asked Mrs. Webber, from her chair
under the live-oak, where she was comfortably seated with a paper-
back volume for company.
"It balances perfeckly, Marthy," answered Sam, with a suspicious
pleasantness in his tone. "At first I was about ter be a little
reckless and kick 'cause ther buttons was all off, but since I
diskiver that the button holes is all busted out, why, I wouldn't
go so fur as to say the buttons is any loss to speak of."
"Oh, well," said his wife, carelessly, "put on your necktie--that'll
keep it together."
Sam Webber's sheep ranch was situated in the loneliest part of the
country between the Nueces and the Frio. The ranch house--a two-room
box structure--was on the rise of a gently swelling hill in the midst
of a wilderness of high chaparral. In front of it was a small
clearing where stood the sheep pens, shearing shed, and wool house.
Only a few feet back of it began the thorny jungle.
Sam was going to ride over to the Chapman ranch to see about buying
some more improved merino rams. At length he came out, ready for his
ride. This being a business trip of some importance, and the Chapman
ranch being almost a small town in population and size, Sam had
decided to "dress up" accordingly. The result was that he had
transformed himself from a graceful, picturesque frontiersman into
something much less pleasing to the sight. The tight white collar
awkwardly constricted his muscular, mahogany-colored neck. The
buttonless shirt bulged in stiff waves beneath his unbuttoned vest.
The suit of "ready-made" effectually concealed the fine lines of
his straight, athletic figure. His berry-brown face was set to the
melancholy dignity befitting a prisoner of state. He gave Randy,
his three-year-old son, a pat on the head, and hurried out to where
Mexico, his favorite saddle horse, was standing.
Marthy, leisurely rocking in her chair, fixed her place in the book
with her finger, and turned her head, smiling mischievously as she
noted the havoc Sam had wrought with his appearance in trying to
~Well, ef I must say it, Sam," she drawled, "you look jest like one
of them hayseeds in the picture papers, 'stead of a free and
independent sheepman of the State o' Texas."
Sam climbed awkwardly into the saddle.
"You're the one ought to be 'shamed to say so," he replied hotly.
"'Stead of 'tendin' to a man's clothes you're al'ays setting around
a-readin' them billy-by-dam yaller-back novils."
"Oh, shet up and ride along," said Mrs. Webber, with a little jerk at
the handles of her chair; "you always fussin' 'bout my readin'. I do
a-plenty; and I'll read when I wanter. I live in the bresh here like
a varmint, never seein' nor hearin' nothin', and what other 'musement
kin I have? Not in listenin' to you talk, for it's complain,
complain, one day after another. Oh, go on, Sam, and leave me in
Sam gave his pony a squeeze with his knees and "shoved" down the
wagon trail that connected his ranch with the old, open Government
road. It was eight o'clock, and already beginning to be very warm.
He should have started three hours earlier. Chapman ranch was only
eighteen miles away, but there was a road for only three miles of the
distance. He had ridden over there once with one of the Half-Moon
cowpunchers, and he had the direction well-defined in his mind.
Sam turned off the old Government road at the split mesquite, and
struck down the arroyo of the Quintanilla. Here was a narrow stretch
of smiling valley, upholstered with a rich mat of green, curly
mesquite grass; and Mexico consumed those few miles quickly with his
long, easy lope. Again, upon reaching Wild Duck Waterhole, must he
abandon well-defined ways. He turned now to his right up a little
hill, pebble-covered, upon which grew only the tenacious and thorny
prickly pear and chaparral. At the summit of this he paused to take
his last general view of the landscape for, from now on, he must wind
through brakes and thickets of chaparral, pear, and mesquite, for the
most part seeing scarcely farther than twenty yards in any direction,
choosing his way by the prairie-dweller's instinct, guided only by an
occasional glimpse of a far distant hilltop, a peculiarly shaped knot
of trees, or the position of the sun.
Sam rode down the sloping hill and plunged into the great pear flat
that lies between the Quintanilla and the Piedra.
In about two hours he discovered that he was lost. Then came the
usual confusion of mind and the hurry to get somewhere. Mexico was
anxious to redeem the situation, twisting with alacrity along the
tortuous labyrinths of the jungle. At the moment his master's
sureness of the route had failed his horse had divined the fact.
There were no hills now that they could climb to obtain a view of
the country. They came upon a few, but so dense and interlaced was
the brush that scarcely could a rabbit penetrate the mass. They
were in the great, lonely thicket of the Frio bottoms.
It was a mere nothing for a cattleman or a sheepman to be lost for a
day or a night. The thing often happened. It was merely a matter
of missing a meal or two and sleeping comfortably on your saddle
blankets on a soft mattress of mesquite grass. But in Sam's case
it was different. He had never been away from his ranch at night.
Marthy was afraid of the country--afraid of Mexicans, of snakes, of
panthers, even of sheep. So he had never left her alone.
It must have been about four in the afternoon when Sam's conscience
awoke. He was limp and drenched, rather from anxiety than the heat
or fatigue. Until now he had been hoping to strike the trail that
led to the Frio crossing and the Chapman ranch. He must have
crossed it at some dim part of it and ridden beyond. If so he was
now something like fifty miles from home. If he could strike a
ranch-- a camp--any place where he could get a fresh horse and
inquire the road, he would ride all night to get back to Marthy and
So, I have hinted, Sam was seized bv remorse. There was a big lump
in his throat as he thought of the cross words he had spoken to his
wife. Surely it was hard enough for her to live in that horrible
country witnout having to bear the burden of his abuse. He cursed
himself grimly, and felt a sudden flush of shame that over-glowed the
summer heat as he remembered the many times he had flouted and railed
at her because she had a liking for reading fiction.
"Ther only so'ce ov amusement ther po' gal's got," said Sam aloud,
with a sob, which unaccustomed sound caused Mexico to shy a bit.
A-livin with a sore-headed kiote like me--a low-down skunk that ought
to be licked to death with a saddle cinch--a-cookin' and a-washin'
and a-livin' on mutton and beans and me abusin' her fur takin' a
squint or two in a little book!"
He thought of Marthy as she had been when he first met her in
Dogtown--smart, pretty, and saucy--before the sun had turned the
roses in her cheeks brown and the silence of the chaparral had
tamed her ambitions.
"Ef I ever speaks another hard word to ther little gal," muttered
Sam, "or fails in the love and affection that's coming to her in
the deal, I hopes a wildcat'll t'ar me to pieces."
He knew what he would do. He would write to Garcia & Jones, his San
Antonio merchants where he bought his supplies and sold his wool, and
have them send down a big box of novels and reading matter for Marthy.
Things were going to be different. He wondered whether a little
piano could be placed in one of the rooms of the ranch house without
the family having to move out of doors.
In nowise calculated to allay his self-reproach was the thought that
Marthy and Randy would have to pass the night alone. In spite of
their bickerings, when night came Marthy was wont to dismiss her fears
of the country, and rest her head upon Sam's strong arm with a sigh
of peaceful content and dependence. And were her fears so groundless?
Sam thought of roving, marauding Mexicans, of stealthy cougars that
sometimes invaded the ranches, of rattlesnakes, centipedes, and a
dozen possible dangers. Marthy would be frantic with fear. Randy
would cry, and call for dada to come.
Still the interminable succession of stretches of brush, cactus, and
mesquite. Hollow after hollow, slope after slope--all exactly alike
--all familiar by constant repetition, and yet all strange and new.
If he could only arrive ~somewhere.~
The straight line is Art. Nature moves in circles. A
straightforward man is more an artificial product than a diplomatist
is. Men lost in the snow travel in exact circles until they sink,
exhausted, as their footprints have attested. Also, travellers in
philosophy and other mental processes frequently wind up at their
It was when Sam Webber was fullest of contrition and good resolves
that Mexico, with a heavy sigh, subsided from his regular, brisk trot
into a slow complacent walk. They were winding up an easy slope
covered with brush ten or twelve feet high.
"I say now, Mex," demurred Sam, "this here won't do. I know you're
plumb tired out, but we got ter git along. Oh, Lordy, ain't there
no mo' houses in the world!" He gave Mexico a smart kick with his
Mexico gave a protesting grunt as if to say: "What's the use of
that, now we're so near?" He quickened his gait into a languid trot.
Rounding a great clump of black chaparral he stopped short. Sam
dropped the bridle reins and sat, looking into the back door of his
own house, not ten yards away.
Marthy, serene and comfortable, sat in her rocking-chair before the
door in the shade of the house, with her feet resting luxuriously
upon the steps. Randy, who was playing with a pair of spurs on the
ground, looked up for a moment at his father and went on spinning the
rowels and singing a little song. Marthy turned her head lazily
against the back of the chair and considered the arrivals with
emotionless eyes. She held a book in her lap with her finger holding
Sam shook himself queerly, like a man coming out of a dream, and
slowly dismounted. He moistened his dry lips.
"I see you are still a-settin'," he said, "a-readin' of them billy-
by-dam yaller-back novils."
Sam had traveled round the circle and was himself again.