The Little Colonel Maid Of Honor, Chapter 2: At Ware's Wigwam

THE LITTLE COLONEL MAID OF HONOR
by Annie Fellows Johnston
(1863-1931)

Published 1906

Illustrated by Etheldred B. Barry

 

 

CHAPTER II.
AT WARE'S WIGWAM

IN order that Lloyd's invitation to her own house-party might reach her on her birthday, it had not been mailed until several days after the others. So it happened that the same morning on which she slipped across the hall in her kimono, to share her first rapturous delight with Kitty, Joyce Ware's letter reached the end of its journey. The postman on the first rural delivery route out of Phoenix jogged along in his cart toward Ware's Wigwam. He had left the highway and was following the wheel-tracks which led across the desert to Camelback Mountain. The horse dropped into a plodding walk as the wheels began pulling heavily through the sand, and the postman yawned. This stretch of road through the cactus and sage-brush was the worst part of his daily trip. He rarely passed anything more interesting than a jack-rabbit, but this morning he spied some thing ahead that aroused his curiosity.

At first it seemed only a flash of something pink beating the air; but, as he jogged nearer, he saw that the flash of pink was a short-skirted gingham dress. A high-peaked Mexican hat hid the face of the wearer, but it needed no second glance to tell him who she was. Every line of the sturdy little figure, from the uplifted arms brandishing a club to the dusty shoes planted widely apart to hold her balance, proclaimed that it was Mary Ware. As the blows fell with relentless energy, the postman chuckled.

"Must be killing a snake," he thought. "Whatever it is, it will be flatter than a pancake when she gets through with it."

Somehow he always felt like chuckling when he met Mary Ware. Whatever she happened to be doing was done with a zeal and a vim that made this fourteen-year-old girl a never-failing source of amusement to the easy-going postman. Now as he came within speaking distance, he saw a surrey drawn up to the side of the road, and recognized the horse as old Bogus from Lee's ranch.

A thin, tall woman, swathed in a blue veil, sat stiffly on the back seat, reaching forward to hold the reins in a grasp that showed both fear and unfamiliarity in the handling of horses --- She was a new boarder at Lee's ranch. Evidently they had been out on some errand for Mrs. Lee, and were returning from one of the neighboring orange-groves, for the back of the surrey was filled with oranges and grapefruit.

The postman's glance turned from the surrey to the object in the road with an exclamation of surprise. One of the largest rattlesnakes he had ever seen lay stretched out there, and Mary, having dropped her club, was proceeding to drag it toward the surrey by a short lasso made of a piece of the hitching-rope. The postman stood up in his cart to look at it.

"Better be sure it's plumb dead before you give it a seat in your carriage," he advised.

Mary gave a glance of disgust toward the blue-veiled figure in the surrey.

"Oh, it's dead," she said, witheringly. "Mr. Craydock shot its head off to begin with, over at the orange-grove this morning, and I've killed it four different times on our way home. He gave it to me to take to Norman for his collection. But Miss Scudder is so scared of it that she makes me get out every half-mile to pound a few more inches off its neck. It was a perfect beauty when we started, --- five feet long and twelve rattles. I'm so afraid I'll break off some of the rattles that I'll be mighty glad when I get it safely home."

"So will I!" ejaculated Miss Scudder, so fervently that the postman laughed as he drove on.

"Any mail for us?" Mary called after him.

"Only some papers and a letter for your sister," he answered over his shoulder.

"Now why didn't I ask him to take me and the snake on home in the cart with him?" exclaimed Mary, as she lifted the rattler into the surrey by means of the lasso, and took the reins from the new boarder's uneasy hands. "Even if you can't drive, Bogus could take you to the ranch all right by himself. Lots of times when Hazel Lee and I are out driving, we wrap the reins around the whip-holder and let him pick his own way. Now I'll have to drag this snake all the way from the ranch to the Wigwam, and it will be a dreadful holdback when I'm in such a hurry to get there and see who Joyce's letter is from.

"You see," she continued, clucking cheerfully to Bogus, "the postman's mail-pouch is almost as interesting as a grab-bag, since my two brothers went away. Holland is in the navy," she added, proudly, "and my oldest brother, Jack. has a position in the mines up where mamma and Norman and I are going to spend the summer."

Three years in the desert had not made Mary Ware any the less talkative. At fourteen she was as much of a chatterbox as ever, but so diverting, with her fund of unexpected information and family history and her cheerful outlook on life, that Mrs. Lee often sent for her to amuse some invalid boarder, to the mutual pleasure of the small philosopher and her audience.

The experiment this morning had proved anything but a pleasure drive for either of them, however. Timid Miss Scudder, afraid of horses, afraid of the lonely desert, and with a deathly horror of snakes, gave a sigh of relief when they came in sight of the white tents clustered around the brown adobe ranch house on the edge of the irrigating canal. But with the end of her journey in sight, she relaxed her strained muscles and nerves somewhat, and listened with interest to what Mary was saying.

"This year has brought three of us our heart's desires, anyhow. Holland has been wild to get into the navy ever since he was big enough to know that there is one. Jack has been looking forward to this position in the mines ever since we came out West. It will be the making of him, everybody says. And Joyce's one dream in life has been to save enough money to go East to take lessons in designing. Her bees have done splendidly, but I don't believe she could have quite managed it if Eugenia Forbes hadn't invited her to be one of the bridesmaids at her wedding, and promised to send her a pass to New York."

She broke off abruptly as Bogus came to a stop in front of the tents, and, standing up, she proceeded to dangle the snake carefully over the wheel, till it was lowered in safety to the ground. Ordinarily she would have lingered at the ranch until the occupant of every tent had strolled out to admire her trophy, and afterward might have accepted Hazel Lee's invitation to stay to dinner. It was a common occurrence for them to spend their Saturdays together. But to-day not even the promise of strawberry shortcake and a ride home afterward, when it was cooler, could tempt her to stay.

The yellow road stretched hot and glaring across the treeless desert. The snake was too heavy to carry on a. pole over her shoulder. She would have to drag it through the sun and sand if she went now. But her curiosity was too strong to allow her to wait. She must find out what was in that letter to Joyce. If it were from Jack, there would be something in it about their plans for the summer; maybe a kodak picture of the shack in the pine woods near the mines, where they were to board. If it were from Holland, there would be another interesting chapter of his experiences on board the training-ship.

Once as she trudged along the road, it occurred to her that the letter might be from her cousin Kate, the "witch with a wand," who had so often played fairy godmother to the family. She might be writing to say that she had sent another box. Straightway Mary's active imagination fell to picturing its contents so blissfully that she forgot the heat of the sun-baked road over which she was going. Her face was beaded with perspiration and her eyes squinted nearly shut under the broad brim of the Mexican sombrero, but, revelling in the picture her mind called up of cool white dresses and dainty thin-soled slippers, she walked faster and faster, oblivious to the heat and the glaring light. Her sunburned cheeks were flaming red when she finally reached the Wigwam, and the locks of hair straggling down her forehead hung in limp wet strings.

Lifting the snake carefully across the bridge which spanned the irrigating canal, she trailed it into the yard and toward the umbrella-tree which shaded the rustic front porch. Under this sheltering umbrella-tree, which spread its dense arch like a roof, sat Joyce and her mother. The heap of muslin goods piled up around them showed that they had spent a busy morning sewing. But they were idle now. One glance showed Mary that the letter, whosever it was, had brought unusual news. Joyce sat on the doorstep with it in her lap and her hands clasped over her knees. Mrs. Ware, leaning back in her sewing-chair, was opening and shutting a pair of scissors in an absent-minded manner, as if her thoughts were a thousand miles away.

"Well, it's good news, anyway," was Mary's first thought, as she glanced at her sister's radiant face. "She wouldn't look so pretty if it wasn't. It's a pity she can't be hearing good news all the time. When her eyes shine like that, she's almost beautiful. Now me, all the good news in the world wouldn't make me look beautiful, freckled and fat and sunburned as I am, and my hair so fine and thin and straight---"

She paused in her musings to look up each sleeve for her handkerchief, and not finding it in either, caught up the hem of her short pink skirt to wipe her perspiring face.

"Oh, what did the postman bring?" she demanded, seating herself on the edge of the hammock swung under the umbrella-tree. "I've almost walked myself into a sunstroke, hurrying to get here and find out. Is it from Jack or Holland or Cousin Kate?"

"It is from The Locusts," answered Joyce, leaning forward to see what was tied to the other end of the rope which Mary still held. Seeing that it was only a snake, something which Mary and Holland were always dragging home, to add to their collection of skins and shells, she went on:

"The Little Colonel is to have a second house-party. The same girls that were at the first one are invited for the month of June, and Eugenia is to be married there instead of in New York. Think what a wedding it will be, in that beautiful old Southern home! A thousand times nicer than it would have been in New York."

She stopped to enjoy the effect her news had produced. Mary's face was glowing with unselfish pleasure in her sister's good fortune.

"And we're to wear pale pink chiffon dresses, just the color of wild roses. Eugenia got the material in Paris when she ordered her wedding-gown, and they're to be made in Louisville after we get there."

The light in Mary's face was deepening.

"And Phil Tremont is to be there the entire month of June. He is to be best man, you know, since Eugenia is to marry his brother."

"Oh, Joyce!" gasped Mary. "What a heavenly time you are going to have! Just The Locusts by itself would be good enough, but to be there at a house-party, and have Phil there and to see a wedding! I've always wanted to go to a wedding. I never saw one in my life."

"Tell her the rest, daughter," prompted Mrs.Ware, gently. "Don't keep her in the dark any longer."

"Well, then," said Joyce, smiling broadly. "Let me break it to you by degrees, so the shock won't give you apoplexy or heart-failure. The rest of it is, that you --- Mary Ware, are invited also. You are invited to go with me to the house-party at The Locusts! And you'll see the wedding, for Mr. Sherman is going to send tickets for both of us, and mamma and I have made all the plans. Now that she is so well, she won't need either of us while she's up at the camp with Jack, and the money it would have taken to pay your board will buy the new clothes you need."

All the color faded out of the hot little face as Mary listened, growing pale with excitement.

"Oh, mamma, is it true?" she asked, imploringly. "I don't see how it can be. But Joyce wouldn't fool me about anything as big as this, would she?"

She asked the question in such a quiver of eagerness that the tears sprang to her eyes. Joyce had expected her to spin around on her toes and squeal one delighted little squeal after another, as she usually did when particularly happy. She did not know what to expect next, when all of a sudden Mary threw herself across her mother's lap and began to sob and laugh at the same time.

"Oh, mamma, the old Vicar was right. It's been awfully hard sometimes to k-keep inflexible. Sometimes I thought it would nearly k-kill me! But we did it! We did it! And now fortune has changed in our favor, and everything is all right!" A rattle of wheels made her look up and hastily wipe the hem of her pink skirt across her face again. A wagon was stepping at the gate, and the man who was to stay in one of the tents and take care of the bees in their absence was getting out to discuss the details of the arrangement. Joyce tossed the letter into Mary's lap and rose to follow her mother out to the hives. There were several matters of business to arrange with him, and Mary knew it would be some time before they could resume the exciting conversation he had interrupted. She read the letter through, hardly believing the magnitude of her good fortune. But, as the truth of it began to dawn upon her, she felt that she could not possibly keep such news to herself another instant. It might be an hour before Joyce and her mother had finished discussing business with the man and Norman was away fishing somewhere up the canal.

So, settling her hat on her head, she started back over the hot road, so absorbed in the thought of all she had to tell Hazel that she was wholly unconscious of the fact that she was still holding tightly to the rope tied around the rattler's neck. Five feet of snake twitched along behind her as she started on a run toward the ranch.

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