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   Chapter 4 THE WATCHERS AT RODERICK’S

Dorothy on a Ranch By Evelyn Raymond Characters: 16440

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


As soon as Molly and Leslie had ridden away, Mattie Roderick disappeared within her own room and became deaf to all the inquiries made outside her door. She was a high-spirited, "wild western" girl, accustomed to obeying little else than her own impulses. She had a fine record as a horsewoman and had been disappointed that she could not go with the searching party. This being the case, it was next better to lend her pony to that other lively girl who was so like herself.

But Mrs. Roderick was certain that the missing Molly and Leslie had followed the first party and could give no comfort to anxious Mrs. Ford beyond the statement:

"Things don't happen often, 'twixt here an' Denver. Been one or two hold-ups, of men known to carry money, but beyond a murder or so, ain't been no excitement this long spell."

"Murder!" cried Helena aghast, and folding her arm a bit more tightly about Gray Lady's trembling body.

"Oh! yes'm. A few has been. But nobody'd touch to harm them children. You needn't worry. They've thought it smart to take a hand in the business, that's all. Mattie won't say 'yes' nor 'no' to my askin', but the 'calico's' out of the corral and Long Jim's Belezebub ain't hitched no longer. Ha, ha, ha! If either them kids tries to ride Beelzy-Hmm. But Chiquita, now, she's little but she's great. Pa and Matt claim she's worth her weight in gold. She's likely, anyway. An' don't fret, lady. They'll all be home to breakfast, an' seein's I've got that to cook, I'll hump myself to bed and advisin' you to do the same. If not, make yourselves comfortable's you can, and good night."

After the landlady's departure the house became strangely quiet. The men who had been talking outside sought their own rest, and the anxious watchers missed the murmur of voices and the sense of protection which the presence of even these strangers gave.

While Mrs. Ford was still restlessly pacing the long piazza, Alfy slipped within. With her keen observation of details, she had seen where the woodpile was and that the fire on the hearth in the main room of the house had about died out. This had been lighted for the guests' enjoyment, the inn folks caring nothing for it and therefore easily forgetting to replenish it. When she had gathered an armful of wood, Alfy carried it to the fireplace and lustily blew upon the embers till a little blaze started. Then she heaped the sticks upon this and presently had a roaring flame. At once the room grew cheerful, its bareness furnished, as it were, by this open fire.

"Now, dear Lady Gray, please come right inside. You'll get your death out here in this night air, with not even your cloak on. Come, Helena, you both come in," said Alfaretta, appearing on the porch.

But her first words had started the mother's tears.

"Lady Gray." That had been her son's pet name for her, its use still more frequent than "Mother," and with a little cry she murmured:

"Ah! my boy! Shall I ever hear you say that again!"

"I don't see why not," said practical Alfaretta, nodding to Helena to help persuade the woman to take a needed rest. "You heard that landlady tellin' how 't they'd all be home to breakfast. Well, then, she knows. She's lived here a power o' time and we've only just come. Say, Helena, let's make a pot of coffee and set the table. I can do it right on them coals, after the fire burns down a mite. If I can't there, 'twon't be the first cook stove I've tackled in my life, and I know one thing if I don't any more: that is, when those searchers and Dolly an' Jim do come they'll be so tearing hungry they could nigh eat ten-penny nails. Come on. Let's get supper for 'em. You boss the job, Mrs. Ford, and then it'll be done right. I saw a lot of chickens in a back room, as I come through, all fixed to fry. Well now, you both know I can fry chicken to the queen's taste, and I'll just lay myself out this time!"

Her energy and cheerfulness were not to be resisted. Mrs. Ford followed the two girls inside and with a little shiver, from her exposure outside, drew a chair to the hearth and bent to its warmth. Then, as if she had been in her own home, Alfaretta whisked about, dragging small tables from the dining room into this larger one, ordering Helena to do this and that, and all with a haste that was almost as cheering as the fire.

"Now, Helena, here's the dish-closet. You set the table. My! Ain't these the heaviest plates and cups you ever saw? Ma Babcock'd admire to get some like 'em; our children break such a lot of things. But Mis' Calvert wouldn't think she could drink tea out of such. She wants her 'n to be thin as thin! and she's got one set, 't belonged to her grandmother-great-grandma, I guess it was-come over from England or somewhere-that she won't let no hands except her own touch to wash. I wish you could see Aunt Betty wash dishes! 'Twould set you laughing, fit to split, first off. It did me till I begun to see the other side of it, seems if. First, she must have a little porcelain tub, like a baby's wash-tub, sort of-then a tiny mop, doll's mop, I called it, and towels-Why, her best table napkins aren't finer than them towels be. And dainty! My heart! 'Tis the prettiest picture in the world when that 'ristocratic old lady washes her heirloom-china! But this-your hands'd get tired enough if you had to do much of this. Hurry up! Don't you know how to set a table yet, great girl like you? Well, do the best you can. I'm going into that kitchen to cook. I can't wait for this fire to get low. I surely can't, because, you see, they might be here any minute-any single minute-and nothing done yet, not even the table set. Mrs. Ford, you better cut the bread. Here's a lot of it in a tin box, and a knife with it, sharp enough to cut a feller's head off. You best not touch it, Helena, you're so sort of clumsy with things. Now I'm off to boil 'tatoes and fry chicken!"

It was impossible to retain gloomy forebodings while Alfy's cheerful tongue was running on at this rate, and as she left the living-room for the kitchen at the rear both Lady Gray and Helena were laughing, partly at their own awkwardness at the tasks assigned them as well as at her glib remarks.

"I never set a table in my life!" cried Helena, in glee.

"And I never sliced a loaf of bread!" said Gray Lady; "though I'll admit it is time I learned. Indeed, I've never had a home, you know, and I'm looking forward to my housekeeping as eagerly as a child to her playhouse."

"I'm wondering what the landlady will say, when she finds how we've invaded her pantry," continued Helena, carefully arranging the coarse stone-china upon the oilcloth covered tables. She had begun very reluctantly but found that the labor was a delightful relief from worry, and, with the good sense she possessed, now went on with it as painstakingly as if she expected a fashionable and critical company. Indeed, her first table-setting, copied, as near as she could remember, from the careful appointments of her own mother's board, was to be an object lesson to others besides herself.

For presently there was the sound of voices in the kitchen; Alfaretta's, of course, with another equally gay and girlish.

Mattie Roderick had slept lightly. She had been excited over the arrival of the Ford party in the first place, and doubly so from the later events of the night. So as she lay sleepless and listening, she heard the rattle of cooking things in the kitchen below and soon the odor of frying. With a little grumble she got up and put on the few garments she had discarded.

"It can't be near morning yet. I don't see what's set Ma to cooking, 'less they're on the road back and nigh starved. One thing I know! I shan't marry no tavern-keeper! It's nothin' but fry, roast, bake, an' bile, the hull endurin' time. I'm goin' to quit and go east fur as Denver, anyhow, soon's I get my age. I'd like to look same's them girls do, and they ain't no prettier 'n me. It's only their clothes makes 'em look it, and as for that Molly, they call her, that's rid off on Chiquita, she's just as plain and folksy as get out! So's the red-headed one with the high-falutin' name, out of that song Pa sings about the 'blue Ju

niata' and 'bright Alfaretta,' or some such trash. Them boys-Well, they hain't took no notice o' me yet-but I can show 'em a thing or two. I bet I can shoot better than any of 'em. I bet, if they don't hurry off too early to-morrow, I'll get up a match and teach 'em how a Colorado girl can hit the bull's-eye every time!"

With these ambitious reflections the inn-keeper's daughter arrived at the kitchen and the presence of the red-headed girl in it, instead of the portly form of her mother.

"What on earth does it mean?" demanded Mattie, scarcely believing her own eyes.

It didn't take Alfy long to explain, and she added the warning:

"You keep it up! Don't you let on to Mrs. Ford that there's the least misdoubt in your mind but what them searchers will be back, right to once, same's I'm pretending! Oh! I hope they do! I hope they do! I hope it so much I dassent hardly think and just have to keep talking to stop it. If I had hold that Molly Breckenridge I'd shake her well! The dear flighty little thing! To go addin' another scare to a big enough one before, and now about that Leslie. He's a real nice boy-Leslie is-if you let him do exactly what he wants and don't try to make him different. His ma just sets all her store by him. I never got the rights of it, exactly, Aunt Betty Calvert-she 't I've been hired out to-she never approved of gossip. She said that folks quarrellin' was just plain makin' fools of themselves, or words to that effect. The Fords had done it and now, course, they was thicker 'n blueberries again and didn't want to hear nothing about the time they wasn't. Don't leave them 'tatoes in that water so long! Why, child o' grace, don't you know yet, and you keepin' tavern, that soon's a potato is cooked it ought to be snatched out the pot and set to steamin', to get dry? Soggy potatoes gives you the dyspepsy and that's a disease I ain't sufferin' to catch. It makes folks so cross."

By this time Mattie had entered into the spirit of the thing and had never been happier in her life. This Alfaretta was so jolly, so friendly, so full of talk. So wholly satisfied in her conscience, too, now that "one of the family" was beside her to share the risk she had assumed of using other people's provisions so recklessly.

But in that she had misjudged her genial hosts. Nothing was too good for their guests, these or any others, and if the chickens meant for breakfast were pre-empted for this midnight meal, why there were plenty more in the hennery.

So, secure in her better knowledge of the elder Rodericks, Miss Mattie sped about, flew in and out of the sitting-room, to tend the fire or add some delicacy to Helena's daintily set table; the same that made her stare at its difference from ordinary. Didn't seem possible that the mere arrangement of cups and saucers, of knives and forks, could give such an "air" to the whole place.

"Like brook trout, Mis' Ford?" asked the girl, upon one entrance. "You men-folks like 'em, too?"

Assured that they were considered a great treat, Mattie advised:

"Well, you just wait! I know where there's a lot, in a basket in the pool. Pa catched 'em to have 'em ready and I'll hike after 'em to onct. You like to go along, Helena?"

Stately Helena smiled at the free masonry of the westerner and glanced at Mrs. Ford, in inquiry:

"Yes, dear, go with her. I shan't be lonely, with Alfaretta left, flying in and out busily. I declare, those kitchen odors are savory! I hope the wanderers will soon be here, that this new meal won't be kept till spoiled, as Mrs. Roderick complained of the other."

Helena noticed that the lady expressed no further doubt about the safety of the absentees and thus encouraged she gladly accepted Mattie's invitation. Indeed, this whole trip was full of delightful novelty and all the affectations which had once made Helena Montaigne disagreeable to sensible people had been discarded, or outgrown.

Mattie's first preparation was to take off her shoes and stockings and she advised the other girl to do the same. "Else you'll get 'em all dirt going through the swamp to the pool. We don't have none too much water hereabouts but what we have got is wet!"

"I couldn't go barefooted. My feet would hurt so. I'll have to risk the shoes. I have others in my suit-case, wherever it is."

"Well, come on then. You can step light through the ma'sh and 'twon't be so bad. Wait till I fetch a lantern."

"A lantern, in this moonlight?"

"Sure. 'Twon't shine into the woods. The trees are awful thick and though I could go straight there and back, without stumbling once, you're new to the way an' the light's for you. I don't want you to get hurt just goin' for a mess o' fish!"

"Thank you, Mattie. That is very considerate of you. Shall I carry it?"

Mattie was pleased by the other girl's "thank you." Such small courtesies were almost unknown to her, but she determined to remember how "good" it had made her feel and to experiment with it upon somebody else, sometime. Even as Helena's table-setting had also been a lesson in neatness; and with her eagerness to learn she felt that she had been amply repaid for giving up her sleep. Chattering as if she had always known the stranger she led the way safely to the pool, deep in the woods; and Helena never forgot that scene. Except for the slight illumination of the lantern the blackness of the forest was intense, and the rustling of wild things among the tree-tops startled her.

Mattie looked up and saw her fear, then laughed hilariously:

"Two 'fraid-cats together, you an' the birds! Likely, they never saw a lantern before and hate to be disturbed even more 'n I did, listenin' to Alfaretta in the kitchen. But don't you like it? Ain't it awful solemn in such woods in the night-time? Makes a body think of all the hateful things she's done and sort of wish she hadn't done 'em. But there ain't no livin' thing in these woods'll hurt you, nowadays, though onct they was chock full o' grizzlies an' such. Now I guess that's enough. Don't suppose your folks'd eat a bigger mess 'n that, do you? 'Cause I could take a few more if you say so."

Helena looked at the big basket of trout and laughed, then shivered at the echo of her own laughter in that place, which seemed full as "solemn" to her as it did to the more accustomed Mattie.

They were soon back at the inn, Mattie at once proceeding to show Alfaretta that she could do some fine cooking herself; and between them they made Mrs. Roderick's larder suffer, so eager was each to outdo the other and to suggest some further delicacy for that wonderful meal.

Mrs. Ford paced in and out of the living-room, watchful and still anxious, though greatly amused at the doings of the three girls, and wondering, as well, how the landlady could sleep through all that din and chatter. For Helena, too, had gone into the kitchen and seizing a pitcher of cream Mattie was carrying to the table, demanded a chance to "whip" it.

"It's such an improvement, or will be for that good coffee you've made, and Herbert likes it so much."

Mattie put her arms akimbo and stared; then demanded, in turn:

"Can't you do anything sensibler than 'whip' cream? As if it was bad. You make me laugh, though I don't know what you mean."

Helena soon showed her, even with a two-tined steel fork beating the rich cream into a heaped-up, foamy mass, which Mattie declared was the "wonderfulest thing" she had ever seen. They were still discussing the matter, and each sampling the delicacy with relish, when Mrs. Ford's excited voice was heard, calling:

"They're coming! Oh! they're coming at last! Away down the road! I can hear them-beyond the turn of the road. Only it seems that they come slowly. Is it so? Or is it my own impatience?"

Only Alfaretta stopped to push the pans and pots to the cool, safe end of the great stove, now glowing red in front from the hot fire they had made. The other girls rushed outward to see for themselves, and Alfy reached the piazza just in time to hear Mattie remark:

"Yes, they do travel powerful slow. They ain't in no hurry to get here. Somethin's happened. You can just believe me-somethin's happened!"

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