In the early eighties, when my brother Ajax and I were raising cattle in the foothills of Southern California, our ranch-house was used as a stopping-place by the teamsters hauling freight across the Coast Range; and after the boom began, while the village of Paradise was evolving itself out of rough timber, we were obliged to furnish all comers with board and lodging. Hardly a day passed without some “prairie schooner” (the canvas-covered wagon of the squatter) creaking into our corral; and the quiet gulches and canons where Ajax and I had shot quail and deer began to re-echo to the shouts of the children of the rough folk from the mid-West and Missouri. These “Pikers,” so called, settled thickly upon the sage-brush hills to the south and east of us, and took up all the land they could claim from the Government. Before spring was over, we were asked to lend an old adobe building to the village fathers, to be used as a schoolhouse, until the schoolhouse proper was built. At that time a New England family of the name of Spafford was working for us. Mrs. Spafford, having two children of her own, tried to enlist our sympathies.
“I’m kinder sick,” she told us, “of cookin’ an’ teachin’; an’ the hot weather’s comin’ on, too. You’d oughter let ’em hev that old adobe.”
“But who will teach the children?” we asked.
“We’ve fixed that,” said Mrs. Spafford. “’Tain’t everyone as’d want to come into this wilderness, but my auntie’s cousin, Alethea-Belle Buchanan, is willin’ to take the job.”
“Is she able?” we asked doubtfully.
“She’s her father’s daughter,” Mrs. Spafford replied. “Abram Buchanan was as fine an’ brave a man as ever preached the Gospel. An’ clever, too. My sakes, he never done but one foolish thing, and that was when he merried his wife.”
“Tell us about her,” said that inveterate gossip, Ajax.
Mrs. Spafford sniffed.
“I seen her once—that was once too much fer me. One o’ them lackadaisical, wear-a-wrapper-in-the-mornin’, soft, pulpy Southerners. Pretty—yes, in a spindlin’, pink an’ white soon-washed-out pattern, but without backbone. I’ve no patience with sech.”
“Her daughter won’t be able to halter-break these wild colts.”
“Didn’t I say that Alethea-Belle took after her father? She must hev consid’able snap an’ nerve, fer she’s put in the last year, sence Abram died, sellin’ books in this State.”
“A book agent?”
“Yes, sir, a book agent.”
If Mrs. Spafford had said road agent, which means highwayman in California, we could not have been more surprised. A successful book agent must have the hide of a rhinoceros, the guile of a serpent, the obstinacy of a mule, and the persuasive notes of a nightingale.
“If Miss Buchanan has been a book agent, she’ll do,” said Ajax.
* * * * *