One night at supper Pa spoke hardly at all. He only answered questions. At last Ma asked, “Aren’t you feeling well, Charles?”
“I’m all right, Caroline,” Pa answered. “Then what is the matter?” Ma demanded.
“Nothing,” Pa said. “Nothing to worry you about. Well, the fact is, the boys have got word to look out for horse thieves tonight.”
“That’s Hi’s affair,” Ma said. “I hope you’ll let him tend to it.”
“Don’t worry, Caroline,” Pa said.
Laura and Carrie looked at each other and then at Ma. After a moment Ma said gently, “I wish you’d out with it, Charles.”
“Big Jerry’s been in camp,” Pa said. “He’s been here a week, and now he’s gone. The boys say he’s in with the gang of horse thieves. They say every time Big Jerry visits a camp the best horses are stolen after he leaves. They think he stays just long enough to pick out the best teams and find out what stalls they’re in, and then he comes back with his gang in the night and gets away with them in the dark.”
“I always heard you can’t trust a half-breed,” Ma said. Ma did not like Indians; she did not like even half-Indians.
“We’d all have been scalped down on the Verdigris River, if it hadn’t been for a full-blood,” said Pa.
“We wouldn’t have been in any danger of scalping if it hadn’t been for those howling sav- ages,” said Ma, “with fresh skunk skins around their middles.” And she made a sound that came from remembering how those skunk skins smelled.
“I don’t think Jerry steals horses,” Pa said. But Laura thought he said it as if he hoped that saying it would make it so. “The real trouble is, he comes to camp after payday and wins all the boys’ money playing poker. That’s why some of them would be glad to shoot him.”
“I wonder Hi allows it,” said Ma. “If there’s anything as bad as drink, it’s gambling.”
“They don’t have to gamble if they don’t want to, Caroline,” Pa said. “If Jerry wins their money, it’s their own fault. There never was a kinder- hearted man than Big Jerry. He’d give the shirt off his back. Look how he takes care of Old Johnny.”
“That’s so,” Ma admitted. Old Johnny was the water boss. He was a little, wizened, bent-backed old Irishman. He had worked on railroads all his life, and now he was too old to work. So, the company had given him the job of carrying water to the men.
Every morning and again after dinner, little old Johnny came to the well to fill his two large, wooden water pails. When they were full he set his wooden yoke across his shoulders and stooping, he hooked into the pails the two hooks that hung from short chains at each end of the yoke. Then with a grunt and groan, he straightened up. The chains lifted the heavy pails from the ground and Johnny steadied them with his hands while he bore their weight on his shoulders. He trotted under the weight with short, stiff steps.
There was a tin dipper in each water pail. When he got to the men working on the grade, Johnny would trot along the line of work, so that any thirsty man could help himself to a drink of water without stopping work.
Johnny was so old that he was little, stooped and shrunken. His face was a mass of wrinkles, but his blue eyes twinkled cheerily, and he always trotted as quickly as he could so that no thirsty man need wait for a drink.
One morning before breakfast, Big Jerry had come to the door and told Ma that Old Johnny had been sick all night.
“He’s so little and old, ma’am,” Big Jerry said. “The meals at the boarding shanty don’t agree with him. Would you give him a cup of hot tea and a bit of breakfast?”
Ma put several of her hot, light biscuits on a plate and beside them she put a fried mashed- potato cake and a slice of crisply fried salt pork. Then she filled a little tin pail with hot tea and gave it all to Big Jerry.
After breakfast Pa went to the bunkhouse to see Old Johnny, and later he told Ma that Jerry had taken care of the poor old man all night. Johnny said that Jerry had even spread his own blanket over him to keep him warm and gone without any covering himself in the cold.
“He couldn’t take better care of his own father than he did of Old Johnny,” Pa said. “For that matter, Caroline, I don’t know but what we’re be- holden to him ourselves.”
They all remembered how Big Jerry had come out of the prairie on his white horse when the strange man was following them and the sun was setting.
“Well,” Pa said, getting up slowly, “I’ve got to go sell the boys the ammunition for their guns. I hope Jerry doesn’t come back to camp tonight. If he just rode up to see how Old Johnny is, rode up to the stable to put his horse in, they’d shoot him.”
“Oh, no, Charles! Surely they wouldn’t do that!” Ma exclaimed.
Pa pulled on his hat. “The one that’s doing most of the talking’s already killed one man,” he said. “He got off easy on a plea of self-defense, but he’s served a term in State’s prison. And Big Jerry cleaned him out, last payday. He hasn’t got the nerve to face Big Jerry, but he’ll bushwhack him if he gets the chance.”
Pa went to the store, and Ma soberly began to clear the table. While Laura washed the dishes, she thought of Big Jerry and his white horse. She had seen them many times, galloping over the brown prairie. Big Jerry always wore a bright red shirt, he was always bareheaded, and his white horse never wore a strap.
The night was dark when Pa came from the store. He said that half a dozen men with loaded guns were lying in wait around the stable.
It was bedtime. There was not a light in the camp. The dark shanties, low against the land, could hardly be seen; only if you knew where to look, you could see them darker in the dark. There was a little starshine on Silver Lake, and all around it stretched the black prairie, flat under the velvet-dark sky sparkling with stars. The wind whispered cold in the dark, and the grass rustled as if it were afraid. Laura looked and listened and hurried shivering into the shanty again.
Behind the curtain Grace was sleeping and Ma was helping Mary and Carrie to bed. Pa had hung up his hat and sat down on the bench, but he was not taking off his boots. He looked up when Laura came in, and then he got up and put on his coat. He buttoned it all the way up and turned up its collar so that his gray shirt did not show. Laura did not say a word. Pa put on his hat.
“Don’t sit up for me, Caroline,” he said cheer- fully.
Ma came from behind the curtain, but Pa was gone. She went to the doorway and looked out. Pa had disappeared in the darkness. After a minute Ma turned around and said, “Bedtime, Laura.”
“Please, Ma, let me stay up too,” Laura begged.
“I believe I won’t go to bed,” said Ma. “Not for a while, anyway. I’m not sleepy. It’s no use to go to bed when you’re not sleepy.”
“I’m not sleepy, Ma,” Laura said.
Ma turned down the lamp and blew it out. She sat down in the hickory rocker that Pa had made for her in Indian Territory. Laura went softly on her bare feet across the ground and sat close be- side Ma.
They sat in the dark, listening. Laura could hear a thin, faint humming in her ears; it seemed to be the sound of her listening. She could hear Ma’s breathing and the slow breathing of Grace, asleep, and the faster breathing of Mary and Carrie lying awake behind the curtain. The curtain made a faint sound, moving a little in the air from the open doorway. Outside the doorway there was an oblong of sky and stars above the faraway edge of dark land.
Out there the wind sighed, the grass rustled, and there was the tiny, ceaseless sound of little waves lapping on the lake shore.
A sharp cry in the dark jerked all through Laura; she almost screamed. It was only the call of a wild goose, lost from its flock. Wild geese answered it from the slough, and a quacking of sleepy ducks rose.
“Ma, let me go out and find Pa,” Laura whispered.
“Be quiet,” Ma answered. “You couldn’t find Pa. And he doesn’t want you to. Be quiet and let Pa take care of himself.”
“I want to do something. I’d rather do something,” Laura said.
“So would I,” said Ma. In the dark her hand began softly to stroke Laura’s head. “The sun and the wind are drying your hair, Laura,” Ma said. “You must brush it more. You must brush your hair a hundred strokes every night before you go to bed.”
“Yes, Ma,” Laura whispered.
“I had lovely long hair when your Pa and I were married,” Ma said. “I could sit on the braids.”
She did not say any more. She went on stroking Laura’s rough hair while they listened for the sound of shooting.
There was one shining large star by the black edge of the doorway. As time went on, it moved. Slowly, it moved from east to west, and more slowly still the smaller stars wheeled about it.
Suddenly Laura and Ma heard footsteps, and in an instant the stars were blotted out. Pa was in the doorway. Laura jumped up, but Ma only went limp in the chair.
“Sitting up, Caroline?” Pa said. “Pshaw, you didn’t need to do that. Everything’s all right.”
“How do you know that, Pa?” Laura asked. “How do you know Big Jerry—?”
“Never mind, Flutter budget!” Pa stopped her cheerfully. “Big Jerry’s all right. He won’t be coming into camp tonight. I wouldn’t be surprised though, if he rode in this morning on his white horse. Now go to bed. Let’s get what sleep we can before sunrise.” Then Pa’s great laugh rang out like bells. “There’ll be a sleepy bunch of men working on the grade today!”
While Laura was undressing behind the curtain and Pa was taking off his boots on the other side of it, she heard him say in a low voice to Ma, “The best of it is, Caroline, there’ll never be a horse stolen from Silver Lake camp.”
Sure enough, early that morning Laura saw Big Jerry riding by the shanty on his white horse. He hailed Pa at the store and Pa waved to him; then Big Jerry and the white horse galloped on and away toward where the men were working.
There never was a horse stolen from Silver Lake camp.