Part I: Friends of Childhood - XVI
The pleasantest experience Thea had that summer was a trip that she and her mother made to Denver in Ray Kennedy's caboose. Mrs. Kronborg had been looking forward to this excursion for a long while, but as Ray never knew at what hour his freight would leave Moonstone, it was difficult to arrange. The call-boy was as likely to summon him to start on his run at twelve o'clock midnight as at twelve o'clock noon. The first week in June started out with all the scheduled trains running on time, and a light freight business. Tuesday evening Ray, after consulting with the dispatcher, stopped at the Kronborgs' front gate to tell Mrs. Kronborg—who was helping Tillie water the flowers—that if she and Thea could be at the depot at eight o'clock the next morning, he thought he could promise them a pleasant ride and get them into Denver before nine o'clock in the evening. Mrs. Kronborg told him cheerfully, across the fence, that she would "take him up on it," and Ray hurried back to the yards to scrub out his car.
The one complaint Ray's brakemen had to make of him was that he was too fussy about his caboose. His former brakeman had asked to be transferred because, he said, "Kennedy was as fussy about his car as an old maid about her bird-cage." Joe Giddy, who was braking with Ray now, called him "the bride," because he kept the caboose and bunks so clean.
It was properly the brakeman's business to keep the car clean, but when Ray got back to the depot, Giddy was nowhere to be found. Muttering that all his brakemen seemed to consider him "easy," Ray went down to his car alone. He built a fire in the stove and put water on to heat while he got into his overalls and jumper. Then he set to work with a scrubbing-brush and plenty of soap and "cleaner." He scrubbed the floor and seats, blacked the stove, put clean sheets on the bunks, and then began to demolish Giddy's picture gallery. Ray found that his brakemen were likely to have what he termed "a taste for the nude in art," and Giddy was no exception. Ray took down half a dozen girls in tights and ballet skirts,—premiums for cigarette coupons,—and some racy calendars advertising saloons and sporting clubs, which had cost Giddy both time and trouble; he even removed Giddy's particular pet, a naked girl lying on a couch with her knee carelessly poised in the air. Underneath the picture was printed the title, "The Odalisque." Giddy was under the happy delusion that this title meant something wicked,—there was a wicked look about the consonants,—but Ray, of course, had looked it up, and Giddy was indebted to the dictionary for the privilege of keeping his lady. If "odalisque" had been what Ray called an objectionable word, he would have thrown the picture out in the first place. Ray even took down a picture of Mrs. Langtry in evening dress, because it was entitled the "Jersey Lily," and because there was a small head of Edward VII, then Prince of Wales, in one corner. Albert Edward's conduct was a popular subject of discussion among railroad men in those days, and as Ray pulled the tacks out of this lithograph he felt more indignant with the English than ever. He deposited all these pictures under the mattress of Giddy's bunk, and stood admiring his clean car in the lamplight; the walls now exhibited only a wheatfield, advertising agricultural implements, a map of Colorado, and some pictures of race-horses and hunting-dogs. At this moment Giddy, freshly shaved and shampooed, his shirt shining with the highest polish known to Chinese laundrymen, his straw hat tipped over his right eye, thrust his head in at the door.
"What in hell—" he brought out furiously. His good humored, sunburned face seemed fairly to swell with amazement and anger.
"That's all right, Giddy," Ray called in a conciliatory tone. "Nothing injured. I'll put 'em all up again as I found 'em. Going to take some ladies down in the car to-morrow."
Giddy scowled. He did not dispute the propriety of Ray's measures, if there were to be ladies on board, but he felt injured. "I suppose you'll expect me to behave like a Y.M.C.A. secretary," he growled. "I can't do my work and serve tea at the same time."
"No need to have a tea-party," said Ray with determined cheerfulness. "Mrs. Kronborg will bring the lunch, and it will be a darned good one."
Giddy lounged against the car, holding his cigar between two thick fingers. "Then I guess she'll get it," he observed knowingly. "I don't think your musical friend is much on the grub-box. Has to keep her hands white to tickle the ivories." Giddy had nothing against Thea, but he felt cantankerous and wanted to get a rise out of Kennedy.
"Every man to his own job," Ray replied agreeably, pulling his white shirt on over his head.
Giddy emitted smoke disdainfully. "I suppose so. The man that gets her will have to wear an apron and bake the pancakes. Well, some men like to mess about the kitchen." He paused, but Ray was intent on getting into his clothes as quickly as possible. Giddy thought he could go a little further. "Of course, I don't dispute your right to haul women in this car if you want to; but personally, so far as I'm concerned, I'd a good deal rather drink a can of tomatoes and do without the women AND their lunch. I was never much enslaved to hard-boiled eggs, anyhow."
"You'll eat 'em to-morrow, all the same." Ray's tone had a steely glitter as he jumped out of the car, and Giddy stood aside to let him pass. He knew that Kennedy's next reply would be delivered by hand. He had once seen Ray beat up a nasty fellow for insulting a Mexican woman who helped about the grub-car in the work train, and his fists had worked like two steel hammers. Giddy wasn't looking for trouble.
At eight o'clock the next morning Ray greeted his ladies and helped them into the car. Giddy had put on a clean shirt and yellow pig-skin gloves and was whistling his best. He considered Kennedy a fluke as a ladies' man, and if there was to be a party, the honors had to be done by some one who wasn't a blacksmith at small-talk. Giddy had, as Ray sarcastically admitted, "a local reputation as a jollier," and he was fluent in gallant speeches of a not too-veiled nature. He insisted that Thea should take his seat in the cupola, opposite Ray's, where she could look out over the country. Thea told him, as she clambered up, that she cared a good deal more about riding in that seat than about going to Denver. Ray was never so companionable and easy as when he sat chatting in the lookout of his little house on wheels. Good stories came to him, and interesting recollections. Thea had a great respect for the reports he had to write out, and for the telegrams that were handed to him at stations; for all the knowledge and experience it must take to run a freight train.
Giddy, down in the car, in the pauses of his work, made himself agreeable to Mrs. Kronborg.
"It's a great rest to be where my family can't get at me, Mr. Giddy," she told him. "I thought you and Ray might have some housework here for me to look after, but I couldn't improve any on this car."
"Oh, we like to keep her neat," returned Giddy glibly, winking up at Ray's expressive back. "If you want to see a clean ice-box, look at this one. Yes, Kennedy always carries fresh cream to eat on his oatmeal. I'm not particular. The tin cow's good enough for me."
"Most of you boys smoke so much that all victuals taste alike to you," said Mrs. Kronborg. "I've got no religious scruples against smoking, but I couldn't take as much interest cooking for a man that used tobacco. I guess it's all right for bachelors who have to eat round."
Mrs. Kronborg took off her hat and veil and made herself comfortable. She seldom had an opportunity to be idle, and she enjoyed it. She could sit for hours and watch the sage-hens fly up and the jack-rabbits dart away from the track, without being bored. She wore a tan bombazine dress, made very plainly, and carried a roomy, worn, mother-of-the-family handbag.
Ray Kennedy always insisted that Mrs. Kronborg was "a fine-looking lady," but this was not the common opinion in Moonstone. Ray had lived long enough among the Mexicans to dislike fussiness, to feel that there was something more attractive in ease of manner than in absentminded concern about hairpins and dabs of lace. He had learned to think that the way a woman stood, moved, sat in her chair, looked at you, was more important than the absence of wrinkles from her skirt. Ray had, indeed, such unusual perceptions in some directions, that one could not help wondering what he would have been if he had ever, as he said, had "half a chance."
He was right; Mrs. Kronborg was a fine-looking woman. She was short and square, but her head was a real head, not a mere jerky termination of the body. It had some individuality apart from hats and hairpins. Her hair, Moonstone women admitted, would have been very pretty "on anybody else." Frizzy bangs were worn then, but Mrs. Kronborg always dressed her hair in the same way, parted in the middle, brushed smoothly back from her low, white forehead, pinned loosely on the back of her head in two thick braids. It was growing gray about the temples, but after the manner of yellow hair it seemed only to have grown paler there, and had taken on a color like that of English primroses. Her eyes were clear and untroubled; her face smooth and calm, and, as Ray said, "strong."
Thea and Ray, up in the sunny cupola, were laughing and talking. Ray got great pleasure out of seeing her face there in the little box where he so often imagined it. They were crossing a plateau where great red sandstone boulders lay about, most of them much wider at the top than at the base, so that they looked like great toadstools.
"The sand has been blowing against them for a good many hundred years," Ray explained, directing Thea's eyes with his gloved hand. "You see the sand blows low, being so heavy, and cuts them out underneath. Wind and sand are pretty high-class architects. That's the principle of most of the Cliff-Dweller remains down at Canyon de Chelly. The sandstorms had dug out big depressions in the face of a cliff, and the Indians built their houses back in that depression."
"You told me that before, Ray, and of course you know. But the geography says their houses were cut out of the face of the living rock, and I like that better."
Ray sniffed. "What nonsense does get printed! It's enough to give a man disrespect for learning. How could them Indians cut houses out of the living rock, when they knew nothing about the art of forging metals?" Ray leaned back in his chair, swung his foot, and looked thoughtful and happy. He was in one of his favorite fields of speculation, and nothing gave him more pleasure than talking these things over with Thea Kronborg. "I'll tell you, Thee, if those old fellows had learned to work metals once, your ancient Egyptians and Assyrians wouldn't have beat them very much. Whatever they did do, they did well. Their masonry's standing there to-day, the corners as true as the Denver Capitol. They were clever at most everything but metals; and that one failure kept them from getting across. It was the quicksand that swallowed 'em up, as a race. I guess civilization proper began when men mastered metals."
Ray was not vain about his bookish phrases. He did not use them to show off, but because they seemed to him more adequate than colloquial speech. He felt strongly about these things, and groped for words, as he said, "to express himself." He had the lamentable American belief that "expression" is obligatory. He still carried in his trunk, among the unrelated possessions of a railroad man, a notebook on the title-page of which was written "Impressions on First Viewing the Grand Canyon, Ray H. Kennedy." The pages of that book were like a battlefield; the laboring author had fallen back from metaphor after metaphor, abandoned position after position. He would have admitted that the art of forging metals was nothing to this treacherous business of recording impressions, in which the material you were so full of vanished mysteriously under your striving hand. "Escaping steam!" he had said to himself, the last time he tried to read that notebook.
Thea didn't mind Ray's travel-lecture expressions. She dodged them, unconsciously, as she did her father's professional palaver. The light in Ray's pale-blue eyes and the feeling in his voice more than made up for the stiffness of his language.
"Were the Cliff-Dwellers really clever with their hands, Ray, or do you always have to make allowance and say, 'That was pretty good for an Indian'?" she asked.
Ray went down into the car to give some instructions to Giddy. "Well," he said when he returned, "about the aborigines: once or twice I've been with some fellows who were cracking burial mounds. Always felt a little ashamed of it, but we did pull out some remarkable things. We got some pottery out whole; seemed pretty fine to me. I guess their women were their artists. We found lots of old shoes and sandals made out of yucca fiber, neat and strong; and feather blankets, too."
"Feather blankets? You never told me about them."
"Didn't I? The old fellows—or the squaws—wove a close netting of yucca fiber, and then tied on little bunches of down feathers, overlapping, just the way feathers grow on a bird. Some of them were feathered on both sides. You can't get anything warmer than that, now, can you?—or prettier. What I like about those old aborigines is, that they got all their ideas from nature."
Thea laughed. "That means you're going to say something about girls' wearing corsets. But some of your Indians flattened their babies' heads, and that's worse than wearing corsets."
"Give me an Indian girl's figure for beauty," Ray insisted. "And a girl with a voice like yours ought to have plenty of lung-action. But you know my sentiments on that subject. I was going to tell you about the handsomest thing we ever looted out of those burial mounds. It was on a woman, too, I regret to say. She was preserved as perfect as any mummy that ever came out of the pyramids. She had a big string of turquoises around her neck, and she was wrapped in a fox-fur cloak, lined with little yellow feathers that must have come off wild canaries. Can you beat that, now? The fellow that claimed it sold it to a Boston man for a hundred and fifty dollars."
Thea looked at him admiringly. "Oh, Ray, and didn't you get anything off her, to remember her by, even? She must have been a princess."
Ray took a wallet from the pocket of the coat that was hanging beside him, and drew from it a little lump wrapped in worn tissue paper. In a moment a stone, soft and blue as a robin's egg, lay in the hard palm of his hand. It was a turquoise, rubbed smooth in the Indian finish, which is so much more beautiful than the incongruous high polish the white man gives that tender stone. "I got this from her necklace. See the hole where the string went through? You know how the Indians drill them? Work the drill with their teeth. You like it, don't you? They're just right for you. Blue and yellow are the Swedish colors." Ray looked intently at her head, bent over his hand, and then gave his whole attention to the track.
"I'll tell you, Thee," he began after a pause, "I'm going to form a camping party one of these days and persuade your PADRE to take you and your mother down to that country, and we'll live in the rock houses—they're as comfortable as can be—and start the cook fires up in 'em once again. I'll go into the burial mounds and get you more keepsakes than any girl ever had before." Ray had planned such an expedition for his wedding journey, and it made his heart thump to see how Thea's eyes kindled when he talked about it. "I've learned more down there about what makes history," he went on, "than in all the books I've ever read. When you sit in the sun and let your heels hang out of a doorway that drops a thousand feet, ideas come to you. You begin to feel what the human race has been up against from the beginning. There's something mighty elevating about those old habitations. You feel like it's up to you to do your best, on account of those fellows having it so hard. You feel like you owed them something."
At Wassiwappa, Ray got instructions to sidetrack until Thirty-six went by. After reading the message, he turned to his guests. "I'm afraid this will hold us up about two hours, Mrs. Kronborg, and we won't get into Denver till near midnight."
"That won't trouble me," said Mrs. Kronborg contentedly. "They know me at the Y.W.C.A., and they'll let me in any time of night. I came to see the country, not to make time. I've always wanted to get out at this white place and look around, and now I'll have a chance. What makes it so white?"
"Some kind of chalky rock." Ray sprang to the ground and gave Mrs. Kronborg his hand. "You can get soil of any color in Colorado; match most any ribbon."
While Ray was getting his train on to a side track, Mrs. Kronborg strolled off to examine the post-office and station house; these, with the water tank, made up the town. The station agent "batched" and raised chickens. He ran out to meet Mrs. Kronborg, clutched at her feverishly, and began telling her at once how lonely he was and what bad luck he was having with his poultry. She went to his chicken yard with him, and prescribed for gapes.
Wassiwappa seemed a dreary place enough to people who looked for verdure, a brilliant place to people who liked color. Beside the station house there was a blue-grass plot, protected by a red plank fence, and six fly-bitten box-elder trees, not much larger than bushes, were kept alive by frequent hosings from the water plug. Over the windows some dusty morning-glory vines were trained on strings. All the country about was broken up into low chalky hills, which were so intensely white, and spotted so evenly with sage, that they looked like white leopards crouching. White dust powdered everything, and the light was so intense that the station agent usually wore blue glasses. Behind the station there was a water course, which roared in flood time, and a basin in the soft white rock where a pool of alkali water flashed in the sun like a mirror. The agent looked almost as sick as his chickens, and Mrs. Kronborg at once invited him to lunch with her party. He had, he confessed, a distaste for his own cooking, and lived mainly on soda crackers and canned beef. He laughed apologetically when Mrs. Kronborg said she guessed she'd look about for a shady place to eat lunch.
She walked up the track to the water tank, and there, in the narrow shadows cast by the uprights on which the tank stood, she found two tramps. They sat up and stared at her, heavy with sleep. When she asked them where they were going, they told her "to the coast." They rested by day and traveled by night; walked the ties unless they could steal a ride, they said; adding that "these Western roads were getting strict." Their faces were blistered, their eyes blood-shot, and their shoes looked fit only for the trash pile.
"I suppose you're hungry?" Mrs. Kronborg asked. "I suppose you both drink?" she went on thoughtfully, not censoriously.
The huskier of the two hoboes, a bushy, bearded fellow, rolled his eyes and said, "I wonder?" But the other, who was old and spare, with a sharp nose and watery eyes, sighed. "Some has one affliction, some another," he said.
Mrs. Kronborg reflected. "Well," she said at last, "you can't get liquor here, anyway. I am going to ask you to vacate, because I want to have a little picnic under this tank for the freight crew that brought me along. I wish I had lunch enough to provide you, but I ain't. The station agent says he gets his provisions over there at the post office store, and if you are hungry you can get some canned stuff there." She opened her handbag and gave each of the tramps a half-dollar.
The old man wiped his eyes with his forefinger. "Thank 'ee, ma'am. A can of tomatters will taste pretty good to me. I wasn't always walkin' ties; I had a good job in Cleveland before—"
The hairy tramp turned on him fiercely. "Aw, shut up on that, grandpaw! Ain't you got no gratitude? What do you want to hand the lady that fur?"
The old man hung his head and turned away. As he went off, his comrade looked after him and said to Mrs. Kronborg: "It's true, what he says. He had a job in the car shops; but he had bad luck." They both limped away toward the store, and Mrs. Kronborg sighed. She was not afraid of tramps. She always talked to them, and never turned one away. She hated to think how many of them there were, crawling along the tracks over that vast country.
Her reflections were cut short by Ray and Giddy and Thea, who came bringing the lunch box and water bottles. Although there was not shadow enough to accommodate all the party at once, the air under the tank was distinctly cooler than the surrounding air, and the drip made a pleasant sound in that breathless noon. The station agent ate as if he had never been fed before, apologizing every time he took another piece of fried chicken. Giddy was unabashed before the devilled eggs of which he had spoken so scornfully last night. After lunch the men lit their pipes and lay back against the uprights that supported the tank.
"This is the sunny side of railroading, all right," Giddy drawled luxuriously.
"You fellows grumble too much," said Mrs. Kronborg as she corked the pickle jar. "Your job has its drawbacks, but it don't tie you down. Of course there's the risk; but I believe a man's watched over, and he can't be hurt on the railroad or anywhere else if it's intended he shouldn't be."
Giddy laughed. "Then the trains must be operated by fellows the Lord has it in for, Mrs. Kronborg. They figure it out that a railroad man's only due to last eleven years; then it's his turn to be smashed."
"That's a dark Providence, I don't deny," Mrs. Kronborg admitted. "But there's lots of things in life that's hard to understand."
"I guess!" murmured Giddy, looking off at the spotted white hills.
Ray smoked in silence, watching Thea and her mother clear away the lunch. He was thinking that Mrs. Kronborg had in her face the same serious look that Thea had; only hers was calm and satisfied, and Thea's was intense and questioning. But in both it was a large kind of look, that was not all the time being broken up and convulsed by trivial things. They both carried their heads like Indian women, with a kind of noble unconsciousness. He got so tired of women who were always nodding and jerking; apologizing, deprecating, coaxing, insinuating with their heads.
When Ray's party set off again that afternoon the sun beat fiercely into the cupola, and Thea curled up in one of the seats at the back of the car and had a nap.
As the short twilight came on, Giddy took a turn in the cupola, and Ray came down and sat with Thea on the rear platform of the caboose and watched the darkness come in soft waves over the plain. They were now about thirty miles from Denver, and the mountains looked very near. The great toothed wall behind which the sun had gone down now separated into four distinct ranges, one behind the other. They were a very pale blue, a color scarcely stronger than wood smoke, and the sunset had left bright streaks in the snow-filled gorges. In the clear, yellow-streaked sky the stars were coming out, flickering like newly lighted lamps, growing steadier and more golden as the sky darkened and the land beneath them fell into complete shadow. It was a cool, restful darkness that was not black or forbidding, but somehow open and free; the night of high plains where there is no moistness or mistiness in the atmosphere.
Ray lit his pipe. "I never get tired of them old stars, Thee. I miss 'em up in Washington and Oregon where it's misty. Like 'em best down in Mother Mexico, where they have everything their own way. I'm not for any country where the stars are dim." Ray paused and drew on his pipe. "I don't know as I ever really noticed 'em much till that first year I herded sheep up in Wyoming. That was the year the blizzard caught me."
"And you lost all your sheep, didn't you, Ray?" Thea spoke sympathetically. "Was the man who owned them nice about it?"
"Yes, he was a good loser. But I didn't get over it for a long while. Sheep are so damned resigned. Sometimes, to this day, when I'm dog-tired, I try to save them sheep all night long. It comes kind of hard on a boy when he first finds out how little he is, and how big everything else is."
Thea moved restlessly toward him and dropped her chin on her hand, looking at a low star that seemed to rest just on the rim of the earth. "I don't see how you stood it. I don't believe I could. I don't see how people can stand it to get knocked out, anyhow!" She spoke with such fierceness that Ray glanced at her in surprise. She was sitting on the floor of the car, crouching like a little animal about to spring.
"No occasion for you to see," he said warmly. "There'll always be plenty of other people to take the knocks for you."
"That's nonsense, Ray." Thea spoke impatiently and leaned lower still, frowning at the red star. "Everybody's up against it for himself, succeeds or fails—himself."
"In one way, yes," Ray admitted, knocking the sparks from his pipe out into the soft darkness that seemed to flow like a river beside the car. "But when you look at it another way, there are a lot of halfway people in this world who help the winners win, and the failers fail. If a man stumbles, there's plenty of people to push him down. But if he's like 'the youth who bore,' those same people are foreordained to help him along. They may hate to, worse than blazes, and they may do a lot of cussin' about it, but they have to help the winners and they can't dodge it. It's a natural law, like what keeps the big clock up there going, little wheels and big, and no mix-up." Ray's hand and his pipe were suddenly outlined against the sky. "Ever occur to you, Thee, that they have to be on time close enough to MAKE TIME? The Dispatcher up there must have a long head." Pleased with his similitude, Ray went back to the lookout. Going into Denver, he had to keep a sharp watch.
Giddy came down, cheerful at the prospect of getting into port, and singing a new topical ditty that had come up from the Santa Fe by way of La Junta. Nobody knows who makes these songs; they seem to follow events automatically. Mrs. Kronborg made Giddy sing the whole twelve verses of this one, and laughed until she wiped her eyes. The story was that of Katie Casey, head diningroom girl at Winslow, Arizona, who was unjustly discharged by the Harvey House manager. Her suitor, the yardmaster, took the switchmen out on a strike until she was reinstated. Freight trains from the east and the west piled up at Winslow until the yards looked like a log-jam. The division superintendent, who was in California, had to wire instructions for Katie Casey's restoration before he could get his trains running. Giddy's song told all this with much detail, both tender and technical, and after each of the dozen verses came the refrain:—
"Oh, who would think that Katie Casey owned the Santa Fe?
But it really looks that way,
The dispatcher's turnin' gray,
All the crews is off their pay;
She can hold the freight from Albuquerq' to Needles any day;
The division superintendent, he come home from Monterey,
Just to see if things was pleasin' Katie Ca—a—a—sey."
Thea laughed with her mother and applauded Giddy. Everything was so kindly and comfortable; Giddy and Ray, and their hospitable little house, and the easy-going country, and the stars. She curled up on the seat again with that warm, sleepy feeling of the friendliness of the world—which nobody keeps very long, and which she was to lose early and irrevocably.