I stopped overnight at the sheep-ranch of Rush Kinney, on the Sandy Fork of the Nueces. Mr. Kinney and I had been strangers up to the time when I called “Hallo!” at his hitching-rack; but from that moment until my departure on the next morning we were, according to the Texas code, undeniable friends.
After supper the ranchman and I lugged our chairs outside the two-room house, to its floorless gallery roofed with chaparral and sacuista grass. With the rear legs of our chairs sinking deep into the hardpacked loam, each of us reposed against an elm pillar of the structure and smoked El Toro tobacco, while we wrangled amicably concerning the affairs of the rest of the world.
As for conveying adequate conception of the engaging charm of that prairie evening, despair waits upon it. It is a bold chronicler who will undertake the description of a Texas night in the early spring. An inventory must suffice.
The ranch rested upon the summit of a lenient slope. The ambient prairie, diversified by arroyos and murky patches of brush and pear, lay around us like a darkened bowl at the bottom of which we reposed as dregs. Like a turquoise cover the sky pinned us there. The miraculous air, heady with ozone and made memorably sweet by leagues of wild flowerets, gave tang and savour to the breath. In the sky was a great, round, mellow searchlight which we knew to be no moon, but the dark lantern of summer, who came to hunt northward the cowering spring. In the nearest corral a flock of sheep lay silent until a groundless panic would send a squad of them huddling together with a drumming rush. For other sounds a shrill family of coyotes yapped beyond the shearing-pen, and whippoorwills twittered in the long grass. But even these dissonances hardly rippled the clear torrent of the mocking-birds’ notes that fell from a dozen neighbouring shrubs and trees. It would not have been preposterous for one to tiptoe and essay to touch the stars, they hung so bright and imminent.
Mr. Kinney’s wife, a young and capable woman, we had left in the house. She remained to busy herself with the domestic round of duties, in which I had observed that she seemed to take a buoyant and contented pride. In one room we had supped. Presently, from the other, as Kinney and I sat without, there burst a volume of sudden and brilliant music. If I could justly estimate the art of piano-playing, the construer of that rollicking fantasia had creditably mastered the secrets of the keyboard. A piano, and one so well played, seemed to me to be an unusual thing to find in that small and unpromising ranch-house. I must have looked my surprise at Rush Kinney, for he laughed in his soft, Southern way, and nodded at me through the moonlit haze of our cigarettes.
“You don’t often hear as agreeable a noise as that on a sheep-ranch,” he remarked; “but I never see any reason for not playing up to the arts and graces just because we happen to live out in the brush. It’s a lonesome life for a woman; and if a little music can make it any better, why not have it? That’s the way I look at it.”
“A wise and generous theory,” I assented. “And Mrs. Kinney plays well. I am not learned in the science of music, but I should call her an uncommonly good performer. She has technic and more than ordinary power.”
The moon was very bright, you will understand, and I saw upon Kinney’s face a sort of amused and pregnant expression, as though there were things behind it that might be expounded.
“You came up the trail from the Double-Elm Fork,” he said promisingly. “As you crossed it you must have seen an old deserted jacal to your left under a comma mott.”
“I did,” said I. “There was a drove of javalis rooting around it. I could see by the broken corrals that no one lived there.”
“That’s where this music proposition started,” said Kinney. “I don’t mind telling you about it while we smoke. That’s where old Cal Adams lived. He had about eight hundred graded merinos and a daughter that was solid silk and as handsome as a new stake-rope on a thirty-dollar pony. And I don’t mind telling you that I was guilty in the second degree of hanging around old Cal’s ranch all the time I could spare away from lambing and shearing. Miss Marilla was her name; and I had figured it out by the rule of two that she was destined to become the chatelaine and lady superior of Rancho Lomito, belonging to R. Kinney, Esq., where you are now a welcome and honoured guest.
“I will say that old Cal wasn’t distinguished as a sheepman. He was a little, old stoop-shouldered hombre about as big as a gun scabbard, with scraggy white whiskers, and condemned to the continuous use of language. Old Cal was so obscure in his chosen profession that he wasn’t even hated by the cowmen. And when a sheepman don’t get eminent enough to acquire the hostility of the cattlemen, he is mighty apt to die unwept and considerably unsung.
“But that Marilla girl was a benefit to the eye. And she was the most elegant kind of a housekeeper. I was the nearest neighbour, and I used to ride over to the Double-Elm anywhere from nine to sixteen times a week with fresh butter or a quarter of venison or a sample of new sheep-dip just as a frivolous excuse to see Marilla. Marilla and me got to be extensively inveigled with each other, and I was pretty sure I was going to get my rope around her neck and lead her over to the Lomito. Only she was so everlastingly permeated with filial sentiments toward old Cal that I never could get her to talk about serious matters.
“You never saw anybody in your life that was as full of knowledge and had less sense than old Cal. He was advised about all the branches of information contained in learning, and he was up to all the rudiments of doctrines and enlightenment. You couldn’t advance him any ideas on any of the parts of speech or lines of thought. You would have thought he was a professor of the weather and politics and chemistry and natural history and the origin of derivations. Any subject you brought up old Cal could give you an abundant synopsis of it from the Greek root up to the time it was sacked and on the market.
“One day just after the fall shearing I rides over to the Double-Elm with a lady’s magazine about fashions for Marilla and a scientific paper for old Cal.
“While I was tying my pony to a mesquite, out runs Marilla, ‘tickled to death’ with some news that couldn’t wait.
“‘Oh, Rush,’ she says, all flushed up with esteem and gratification, ‘what do you think! Dad’s going to buy me a piano. Ain’t it grand? I never dreamed I’d ever have one.”
“‘It’s sure joyful,’ says I. ‘I always admired the agreeable uproar of a piano. It’ll be lots of company for you. That’s mighty good of Uncle Cal to do that.’
“‘I’m all undecided,’ says Marilla, ‘between a piano and an organ. A parlour organ is nice.’
“‘Either of ’em,’ says I, ‘is first-class for mitigating the lack of noise around a sheep-ranch. For my part,’ I says, ‘I shouldn’t like anything better than to ride home of an evening and listen to a few waltzes and jigs, with somebody about your size sitting on the piano-stool and rounding up the notes.’
“‘Oh, hush about that,’ says Marilla, ‘and go on in the house. Dad hasn’t rode out to-day. He’s not feeling well.’
“Old Cal was inside, lying on a cot. He had a pretty bad cold and cough. I stayed to supper.
“‘Going to get Marilla a piano, I hear,’ says I to him.
“‘Why, yes, something of the kind, Rush,’ says he. ‘She’s been hankering for music for a long spell; and I allow to fix her up with something in that line right away. The sheep sheared six pounds all round this fall; and I’m going to get Marilla an instrument if it takes the price of the whole clip to do it.’
“‘Star wayno ,’ says I. ‘The little girl deserves it.’
“‘I’m going to San Antone on the last load of wool,’ says Uncle Cal, ‘and select an instrument for her myself.’
“‘Wouldn’t it be better,’ I suggests, ‘to take Marilla along and let her pick out one that she likes?’
“I might have known that would set Uncle Cal going. Of course, a man like him, that knew everything about everything, would look at that as a reflection on his attainments.
“‘No, sir, it wouldn’t,’ says he, pulling at his white whiskers. ‘There ain’t a better judge of musical instruments in the whole world than what I am. I had an uncle,’ says he, ‘that was a partner in a piano-factory, and I’ve seen thousands of ’em put together. I know all about musical instruments from a pipe-organ to a corn-stalk fiddle. There ain’t a man lives, sir, that can tell me any news about any instrument that has to be pounded, blowed, scraped, grinded, picked, or wound with a key.’
“‘You get me what you like, dad,’ says Marilla, who couldn’t keep her feet on the floor from joy. ‘Of course you know what to select. I’d just as lief it was a piano or a organ or what.’
“‘I see in St. Louis once what they call a orchestrion ,’ says Uncle Cal, ‘that I judged was about the finest thing in the way of music ever invented. But there ain’t room in this house for one. Anyway, I imagine they’d cost a thousand dollars. I reckon something in the piano line would suit Marilla the best. She took lessons in that respect for two years over at Birdstail. I wouldn’t trust the buying of an instrument to anybody else but myself. I reckon if I hadn’t took up sheep-raising I’d have been one of the finest composers or piano-and-organ manufacturers in the world.’
“That was Uncle Cal’s style. But I never lost any patience with him, on account of his thinking so much of Marilla. And she thought just as much of him. He sent her to the academy over at Birdstail for two years when it took nearly every pound of wool to pay the expenses.
“Along about Tuesday Uncle Cal put out for San Antone on the last wagonload of wool. Marilla’s uncle Ben, who lived in Birdstail, come over and stayed at the ranch while Uncle Cal was gone.
“It was ninety miles to San Antone, and forty to the nearest railroad-station, so Uncle Cal was gone about four days. I was over at the Double-Elm when he came rolling back one evening about sundown. And up there in the wagon, sure enough, was a piano or a organ—we couldn’t tell which—all wrapped up in woolsacks, with a wagon-sheet tied over it in case of rain. And out skips Marilla, hollering, ‘Oh, oh!’ with her eyes shining and her hair a-flying. ‘Dad—dad,’ she sings out, ‘have you brought it—have you brought it?’—and it right there before her eyes, as women will do.
“‘Finest piano in San Antone,’ says Uncle Cal, waving his hand, proud. ‘Genuine rosewood, and the finest, loudest tone you ever listened to. I heard the storekeeper play it, and I took it on the spot and paid cash down.’
“Me and Ben and Uncle Cal and a Mexican lifted it out of the wagon and carried it in the house and set it in a corner. It was one of them upright instruments, and not very heavy or very big.
“And then all of a sudden Uncle Cal flops over and says he’s mighty sick. He’s got a high fever, and he complains of his lungs. He gets into bed, while me and Ben goes out to unhitch and put the horses in the pasture, and Marilla flies around to get Uncle Cal something hot to drink. But first she puts both arms on that piano and hugs it with a soft kind of a smile, like you see kids doing with their Christmas toys.
“When I came in from the pasture, Marilla was in the room where the piano was. I could see by the strings and woolsacks on the floor that she had had it unwrapped. But now she was tying the wagon-sheet over it again, and there was a kind of solemn, whitish look on her face.
“‘Ain’t wrapping up the music again, are you, Marilla?’ I asks. ‘What’s the matter with just a couple of tunes for to see how she goes under the saddle?’
“‘Not to-night, Rush,’ says she. ‘I don’t want to play any to-night. Dad’s too sick. Just think, Rush, he paid three hundred dollars for it—nearly a third of what the wool-clip brought!’
“‘Well, it ain’t anyways in the neighbourhood of a third of what you are worth,’ I told her. ‘And I don’t think Uncle Cal is too sick to hear a little agitation of the piano-keys just to christen the machine.
“‘Not to-night, Rush,’ says Marilla, in a way that she had when she wanted to settle things.
“But it seems that Uncle Cal was plenty sick, after all. He got so bad that Ben saddled up and rode over to Birdstail for Doc Simpson. I stayed around to see if I’d be needed for anything.
“When Uncle Cal’s pain let up on him a little he called Marilla and says to her: ‘Did you look at your instrument, honey? And do you like it?’
“‘It’s lovely, dad,’ says she, leaning down by his pillow; ‘I never saw one so pretty. How dear and good it was of you to buy it for me!’
“‘I haven’t heard you play on it any yet,’ says Uncle Cal; ‘and I’ve been listening. My side don’t hurt quite so bad now—won’t you play a piece, Marilla?’
“But no; she puts Uncle Cal off and soothes him down like you’ve seen women do with a kid. It seems she’s made up her mind not to touch that piano at present.
“When Doc Simpson comes over he tells us that Uncle Cal has pneumonia the worst kind; and as the old man was past sixty and nearly on the lift anyhow, the odds was against his walking on grass any more.
“On the fourth day of his sickness he calls for Marilla again and wants to talk piano. Doc Simpson was there, and so was Ben and Mrs. Ben, trying to do all they could.
“‘I’d have made a wonderful success in anything connected with music,’ says Uncle Cal. ‘I got the finest instrument for the money in San Antone. Ain’t that piano all right in every respect, Marilla?’
“‘It’s just perfect, dad,’ says she. ‘It’s got the finest tone I ever heard. But don’t you think you could sleep a little while now, dad?’
“‘No, I don’t,’ says Uncle Cal. ‘I want to hear that piano. I don’t believe you’ve even tried it yet. I went all the way to San Antone and picked it out for you myself. It took a third of the fall clip to buy it; but I don’t mind that if it makes my good girl happier. Won’t you play a little bit for dad, Marilla?’
“Doc Simpson beckoned Marilla to one side and recommended her to do what Uncle Cal wanted, so it would get him quieted. And her uncle Ben and his wife asked her, too.
“‘Why not hit out a tune or two with the soft pedal on?’ I asks Marilla. ‘Uncle Cal has begged you so often. It would please him a good deal to hear you touch up the piano he’s bought for you. Don’t you think you might?’
“But Marilla stands there with big tears rolling down from her eyes and says nothing. And then she runs over and slips her arm under Uncle Cal’s neck and hugs him tight.
“‘Why, last night, dad,’ we heard her say, ‘I played it ever so much. Honest—I have been playing it. And it’s such a splendid instrument, you don’t know how I love it. Last night I played “Bonnie Dundee” and the “Anvil Polka” and the “Blue Danube”—and lots of pieces. You must surely have heard me playing a little, didn’t you, dad? I didn’t like to play loud when you was so sick.’
“‘Well, well,’ says Uncle Cal, ‘maybe I did. Maybe I did and forgot about it. My head is a little cranky at times. I heard the man in the store play it fine. I’m mighty glad you like it, Marilla. Yes, I believe I could go to sleep a while if you’ll stay right beside me till I do.’
“There was where Marilla had me guessing. Much as she thought of that old man, she wouldn’t strike a note on that piano that he’d bought her. I couldn’t imagine why she told him she’d been playing it, for the wagon-sheet hadn’t ever been off of it since she put it back on the same day it come. I knew she could play a little anyhow, for I’d once heard her snatch some pretty fair dance-music out of an old piano at the Charco Largo Ranch.
“Well, in about a week the pneumonia got the best of Uncle Cal. They had the funeral over at Birdstail, and all of us went over. I brought Marilla back home in my buckboard. Her uncle Ben and his wife were going to stay there a few days with her.
“That night Marilla takes me in the room where the piano was, while the others were out on the gallery.
“‘Come here, Rush,’ says she; ‘I want you to see this now.’
“She unties the rope, and drags off the wagon-sheet.
“If you ever rode a saddle without a horse, or fired off a gun that wasn’t loaded, or took a drink out of an empty bottle, why, then you might have been able to scare an opera or two out of the instrument Uncle Cal had bought.
“Instead of a piano, it was one of the machines they’ve invented to play the piano with. By itself it was about as musical as the holes of a flute without the flute.
“And that was the piano that Uncle Cal had selected; and standing by it was the good, fine, all-wool girl that never let him know it.
“And what you heard playing a while ago,” concluded Mr. Kinney, “was that same deputy-piano machine; only just at present it’s shoved up against a six-hundred-dollar piano that I bought for Marilla as soon as we was married.”