Little Colonel In Arizona, Chapter 2: A Robinson Crusoe Of The Desert

THE LITTLE COLONEL IN ARIZONA
by Annie Fellows Johnston (1863-1931)

Illustrated by Etheldred B. Barry

Published July 1904

 

 

CHAPTER II.

A ROBINSON CRUSOE OF THE DESERT

JOYCE stood in the door of the little adobe house, and looked out across the desert with tears in her eyes. If this was to be their home through all the dreary years that stretched ahead of them, it hardly seemed worth while to go on living.

Jack, in the bare unfurnished room behind her, was noisily wielding a hatchet, opening the boxes and barrels of household goods which had followed them by freight. He did not know which one held his gun, but he was determined to find it before the sun went down.

For nearly three weeks they had been at Lee's Ranch, half a mile farther down the road, waiting for the goods to come, and to find a place where they could set up a home of their own. Boarding for a family of six was far too expensive to be afforded long. Now the boxes had arrived, and they had found a place, the only one for rent anywhere near the ranch. Joyce felt sick at heart as she looked around her.

"Here it is at last," called Jack, triumphantly, dropping the hatchet and throwing pillows and bedding out of the box in reckless haste to reach his most cherished possession, the fine hammerless shotgun which Mr. Link had given him Christmas. He had intended to carry it with him on the journey, in its carved leather case, but in the confusion of the hurried packing, some well-meaning neighbour had nailed it up in one of the boxes while he was absent, and there had been no time to rescue it. He had worried about it ever since.

"Oh, you beauty!" he exclaimed, rubbing his hand along the polished stock as he drew it from the case. Sitting on the floor tailor-fashion, he began whistling cheerfully as he fitted the parts together.

"Joyce," he called, peering down the barrels to see if any speck of rust had gathered in them, "do you suppose we brought any machine-oil with us? I'll uncrate the sewing-machine if you think that the can is likely to be in one of the drawers."

"I don't know," answered Joyce, in such a hopeless tone that Jack lowered his gun-barrels and stared at her in astonishment. Her back was toward him, but her voice certainly sounded choked with tears. It was so unusual for Joyce to cry that he felt that something very serious must be the cause.

"What's the matter, sister?" he inquired. "You aren't sick, are you?"

"Yes!" she exclaimed, with a sob, turning and throwing herself down on the pile of pillows he had just unpacked. "I'm sick of everything in this awful country! I'm sick of the desert, and of seeing nothing but invalids and sand and cactus and jack-rabbits wherever I go. And I'm sick of the prospect of living in this little hole of a mud-house, and working like a squaw, and never doing anything or being anything worth while. If I thought I bad to go on all my life this way, I'd want to die right now!"

Jack viewed her uneasily. "Goodness, Joyce! I never knew you to go all to pieces this way before. You've always been the one to preach to us when things went wrong, that if we'd be inflexible that fortune would at last change in our favour."

"Inflexible fiddlesticks!" stormed Joyce from the depths of a bolster, where she had hidden her face. "I've been holding out against fate so long that I can't do it any more, and I'm going to give up, right here and now!"

"Then I don't know what will become of the rest of us," answered Jack, raising his empty gun to aim at a butcher-bird in the fig-tree outside the door. "It's you that has always kept things cheerful when we were down in the mouth."

Joyce sat up and wiped her eyes. "I think that it must be that old camel-back mountain out there that makes me feel so hopeless. It is so depressing to see it kneeling there in the sand, day after day, like a poor old broken-down beast of burden, unable to move another step. It is just like us. Fate is too much for it."

Jack's glance followed hers through the open door. Straight and level, the desert stretched away toward the horizon, where a circle of mountains seemed to rise abruptly from the sands, and shut them in. There was Squaw's Peak on the left, cold and steely blue, and over on the right the bare buttes, like mounds of red ore, and just in front was the mountain they must face every time they looked from the door. Some strange freak of nature had given it the form of a giant camel, five miles long. There it knelt in the sand, with patient outstretched neck, and such an appearance of hopeless resignation to its lot, that Joyce was not the only one who found it depressing. More than one invalid, sent to the surrounding ranches for the life-giving atmosphere of Arizona, had turned his back on it with a shiver of premonition, saying, "It's just like me! Broken-down, and left to die on the desert. Neither of us will ever get away."

It made no difference to Jack what shape the mountains took. He could not understand Joyce's sensitiveness to her surroundings. But it made him uncomfortable to see her so despondent. He sat hugging his gun in silence a moment, not knowing how to answer her, and then began idly aiming it first in one direction, then another. Presently his glance happened to rest upon a battered book that had fallen from one of the boxes. He drew it toward him with his foot. It was open at a familiar picture, and on the opposite page was a paragraph which he had read so many times, that he could almost repeat it from memory.

"Hello!" he exclaimed. "Here's an old friend who was in as bad a fix as we are, Joyce, and he lived through it"

Leaning over, without picking up the book from the floor, he began reading from the page, printed in the large type of a child's picture-book:

"'September 30, 1609. I, poor, miserable Robinson Crusoe, being shipwrecked during a dreadful storm in the offing, came on shore this dismal, unfortunate island, which I called the Island of Despair, all the rest of the ship's company being drowned, and myself almost dead. All the rest of the day I spent in afflicting myself at the dismal circumstances I was brought to, viz., I had neither house, clothes, weapons, nor place to fly to, and in despair of any relief saw nothing but death before me, either that I should be devoured by wild beasts, murdered by savages, or starved to death for want of food."'

A long pause followed. Then Joyce sat up, looking teased, and held out her hand for the book. "I don't mind old Crusoe's preaching me a sermon," she said, as she turned the tattered leaves. "Now he's done it, I'll quit 'afflicting myself at the dismal circumstances I was brought to.'  I've wished a thousand times, when I was smaller, that I could have been in his place, and had all his interesting adventures. And to think, here we are at last, in almost as bad a plight as he was. Only we have a weapon," she added, with a mischievous glance at the gun Jack was holding.

"And that means food, too," he answered, proudly, "for I expect to kill many a quail and duck with this."

"Oh, we're better off than Crusoe in a thousand ways, I suppose, if we'd only stop to count our blessings," she answered, now ready to take a more cheerful view of life since she had had her little outburst of rebellion. " He didn't have a Chinaman driving by with fresh vegetables twice a week, as we will have, and we have clothes, and a house, such as it is, and a place to fly to, for Lee's Ranch will always be open to us if we need a refuge."

"So we can start at the place where Crusoe was when he really began to enjoy his Island of Despair," said Jack. "Shall I go on unpacking these things? I stopped when you announced that you were going to give up and die, for I thought there wouldn't be any use trying to do anything, with you in the dumps like that."

Joyce looked around the dingy room. "It's not worth while to unpack till the place has been scrubbed from top to bottom. If we're going to make a home of it, we'll have to begin right. The landlord won't do anything, and we could hardly expect him to, considering the small amount of rent we pay, but I don't see how we can live in it without fresh paper and paint"

"I wish we'd find a ship cast up on the sands of the desert to-morrow," said Jack, "that would have all sorts of supplies and tools in it. The shipwrecks helped old Robinson out amazingly. I'd make a bookcase if we did, and put up shelves and all sorts of things. This would be a fine place to show what I learned in the manual training-school. We need benches and rustic seats out under those umbrella-trees."

"We'll have to buy some tools," said Joyce. "Let's make out a list of things we need, and go to town early in the morning. Mrs. Lee said we could borrow Bogus and the surrey to-morrow."

"All right," assented Jack, ready for anything that promised change.

"And Jack!" she exclaimed, after a long slow survey of the room, "let's paint and paper this place ourselves! I'm sure we can do it. There's a tape measure in one of the machine drawers. Suppose you get it out and measure the room, so we'll know how much paper to buy."

Joyce was her old brave, cheery self again now, giving orders like a major-general, and throwing herself into the work at hand with contagious enthusiasm. With the stub of a pencil Jack found in his pocket, she began making a memorandum on the fly-leaf of Robinson Crusoe. "Paint, turpentine, brushes, screws, nails, saw, mop, broom, scrubbing-brush, soap," she wrote rapidly.

"And a hatchet," added Jack. "This one belongs to the Mexican at the ranch. And, oh, yes, an axe. He says that Holland and I can get all the wood we need right here on the desert, without its costing us a cent, if we're willing to chop it; mesquite roots, you know, and greasewood."

"It's fortunate we can get something without paying for it," commented Joyce, as she added an axe to the list. Then she sat studying the possibilities of the room, while Jack knocked the crate from the machine, found the tape measure, and did a sum in arithmetic to find the amount of paper it would take to cover the walls.

"I can see just how it is going to look when we are all through," she said, presently. "When this old dark woodwork is painted white, and these dismal walls are covered with fresh light paper, and there are clean, airy curtains at the windows, it won't seem like the same place. Mamma mustn't see it till it is all in order."

Exhausted by the journey, Mrs. Ware had been too weak to worry over their future, or even to wonder what would become of them, and had handed over the little bank-book to Joyce.

"Make it go just as far as it will, dear," she said. "You are too young to have such a load laid on your shoulders, but I see no other way now." Joyce had taken up the burden of responsibility so bravely that no one but Jack knew of her moments of discouragement, and he was forgetting her recent tears in her present enthusiasm.

"Oh, I wish it was to-morrow," she exclaimed, "and we had all our supplies bought so that we could begin."

"So do I," answered Jack. "But it's nearly sundown now, and the supper-bell will be ringing before we get back to the ranch, if we don't start soon."

"Well, lock the doors, and we'll go," said Joyce, beginning to pin on her hat.

"Oh, what's the use of being so particular! Mrs. Lee says everybody is honest out in this country. They never turn a key on the ranch, and they've never had anything taken either by Mexicans or Indians in all the years they've lived here. It isn't half as wild as I hoped it would be. I wish I could have been a pioneer, and had some of the exciting times they had."

Nevertheless, Jack barred the back door and locked the front-one, before following Joyce across the yard, and over the little bridge spanning the irrigating canal, into the public road. They stood there a moment, looking back at the house, just one big square adobe room, with a shed-kitchen in the rear. Around three sides of it ran a rough sort of porch or shack, built of cottonwood posts, supporting a thatch of bamboo-stalks and palm-leaves. While it would afford a fine shelter from the sun in the tropical summer awaiting them, it was a homely, primitive-looking affair, almost as rough in its appearance as if Robinson Crusoe himself had built it.

"It's hopeless, isn't it!" said Joyce, with a despairing shake of the head. "No matter how homelike we may make it inside, it will always be the picture of desolation outside."

"Not when the leaves come out on that row of umbrella-trees," answered Jack. "Mrs. Lee says they will be so green and bushy that they will almost hide the house, and the blossoms on them in the spring are as purple and sweet as lilacs. Then this row of fig-trees along the road, and the clump of cottonwoods back of the house, and those two big pepper-trees by the gate will make it cool and shady here, no matter how scorching hot the desert may be. We'll have to give them lots of water. Oh, that reminds me, I'll have to have a pair of rubber boots, if I am to do the irrigating. The water will be in again day after tomorrow."

Joyce groaned as she opened the book she was carrying, and added boots to the long list on the fly-leaf. "What a lot it's going to take to get us started. Crusoe certainly had reason to be thankful for the shipwrecked stores he found."

"But it'll cost less to get the boots than to hire a Mexican every eight days to do the irrigating," said Jack.

Following the road beside the canal, they walked along in the last rays of the sunset, toward the ranch. Birds twittered now and then in the fig-trees on their right, or a string of cows went lowing homeward through the green alfalfa pastures, to the milking. The road and canal seemed to run between two worlds, for on the left it was all a dreary desert, the barren sands stretching away toward the red buttes and old Camelback Mountain, as wild and cheerless as when the Indians held possession. Some day it too would "rejoice and blossom like the rose," but not until a network of waterways dug across it brought it new life.

Once as they walked along, a jack-rabbit crossed their path and went bounding away in a fright. A covey of quail rose with a loud whirr of wings from a clump of bushes beside the road, but they met no human being until Holland and Mary, just from school, came racing out from the ranch to meet them with eager questions about the new home.

Chris, the Mexican, had made the round of the tents, building a little fire of mesquite wood in each tiny drum stove, for in February the air of the desert grows icy as soon as the sun disappears. Mrs. Ware was sitting in a rocking-chair between the stove and table, on which stood a lamp with a yellow shade, sending a cheerful glow all over the tent. Joyce took the remaining chair, Jack sat on the wood-box, and Mary, Norman and Holland piled upon the bed, to take part in the family conclave. The canvas curtain had been dropped over the screen-door, and the bright Indian rugs on the floor gave a touch of warmth and cosiness to the tent that made it seem wonderfully bright and homelike.

I don't see," said Mary, when she had listened to a description of the place, "how we are all going to eat and sleep and live in one room and a kitchen. It takes three tents to hold us all here, besides having the ranch dining-room to eat in. What if EugeniaForbes should come from the Waldorf-Astoria to visit us, or the Little Colonel, or some of the other girls from Kentucky, that you knew at the house-party, Joyce? Where would they sleep?"'

"Yes," chimed in Holland, teasingly, "or the Queen of Sheba? Suppose she should come with all her train. It's about as likely. We would have to play 'Pussy wants a corner' all night, Mary, and whoever happened to be 'it' would have to sit up until he happened to find somebody out of his corner."

"Goosey!" exclaimed Mary, sticking out her tongue at him and making the worst face she could screw up. "Honestly, what would we do, Joyce?"

"We're not going to try to live in just one room," explained Joyce. "The doctor said mamma ought to sleep in a tent, so we'll get a big double one like this, wainscoted up high, with floor and screen-door, just like this. Mamma and you and I can use that, and the boys will have just an ordinary camping-tent, without door or floor. They have been so wild to be pioneers that they will be glad to come as near to it as possible, and that means living without extra comforts and conveniences. In the house one corner of the room will be the library, where we'll put papa's desk, and one corner will be the sewing-room, where we'll have the machine, and one will be a cosy corner, with the big lounge and lots of pillows. If the Queen of Sheba or the Little Colonel should do such an improbable thing as to stray out here, we'll have a place for them."

"There goes the supper-bell," cried Norman, scrambling down from the bed in hot haste to beat Mary to the table. Joyce waited to turn down the lamp, close the stove draughts, and bring her mother's shawl, before following them.

"How bright the camp looks with a light in every tent;" she said, as they stepped out under the stars. "They look like the transparencies in the torchlight processions, that we used to have back in Plainsville."

Mrs. Ware's tent was in the front row, so it was only a step to the door of the dining-room in the ranch house. The long table was nearly filled when they took their seats. Gathered around it were people who hall drifted there from all parts of the world in search of lost health. A Boston law-student, a Wyoming cowboy, a Canadian minister, a Scotchman from Inverness, and a jolly Irish lad from Belfast were among the number.

The most interesting one to Joyce was an old Norwegian who sat opposite her, by the name of Jan Ellestad. Not old in years, for his hair was still untouched by gray, and his dark eyes flashed at times with the spirit of the old vikings, when he told the folk-lore of his fatherland. But he was old in sad experiences, and broken health, and broken hopes. The faint trace of a foreign accent that clung to his speech made everything he said seem interesting to Joyce, and after Mrs. Lee had told her something of his history, she looked upon him as a hero. This was the third winter he had come back to the ranch. He knew he could not live through another year, and he had stopped making plans for himself, but he listened with unfailing cheerfulness to other people's. Now he looked up expectantly as Joyce took her seat.

"I can see by your face, Miss Joyce," he said, in his slow, hesitating way, as if groping for the right words, "that you are about to plunge this ranch into another wild excitement. What is it now, please?"

"Guess!" said Joyce, glancing around the table. "Everybody can have one guess."

During the three weeks that the Wares had been on the ranch they had made many friends among the boarders. Most of them could do little but sit in the sun and wait for the winter to creep by, so they welcomed anything that relieved the monotony of the long idle days. Mary's unexpected remarks gave fresh zest to the conversation. The boys, bubbling over with energy and high spirits, were a constant source of entertainment, and Joyce's enthusiasms were contagious. She was constantly coming in from the desert with some strange discovery to arouse the interest of the listless little company.

Now, as her challenge passed around the table, any one hearing her laugh at the amusing replies would not have dreamed that only a few hours before she was sobbing to Jack that she was sick of seeing nothing but invalids and sand and cactus.

"We haven't any name for our new home," she announced, "and I'm thinking of having a name contest. Any one can offer an unlimited number, and the best shall receive a prize."

"Then I'll win," responded the Scotchman, promptly. "There's nae mair appropriate name for a wee bit lodging-place like that, than Bide-a-wee."

"That is pretty," said Joyce, repeating it thoughtfully. "I love the old song by that name, but I'm afraid that it isn't exactly appropriate. You see, we may have to bide there for years and years instead of just a wee."

"Give it a Spanish name," said the minister. "Alamo means cottonwood, and you have a group of cottonwoods there. That would be just as good as naming it The Pines, or The Oaks, or The Beeches."

"No, call it something Indian," said the cowboy. "Something that means little-mud-house-in-the-desert, yet has a high-sounding swing to the syllables."

"Wait till we get through fixing it," interrupted .Jack. "It'll look so fine that you won't dare call it little-mud-house-in-the-desert. We're going to paint and paper it ourselves."

"Not you two children," exclaimed the Norwegian, in surprise.

"With our own lily fingers," answered Joyce.

"Then you'll have an interested audience," he answered. "You'll find all of us who are able to walk perching in the fig-trees outside your door every morning, waiting for the performance to begin."

"Whoever perches there will have to descend and help, won't they, Jack?" said Joyce, saucily.

"Oh, mamma," whispered Mary, "is Mr. Ellestad really going to climb up in the fig-tree and watch them? Please let me stay home from school and help. I know I can't study if I go, for I'll be thinking of all the fun I'm missing."

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