“And where,” said I, “is Jasperson?”
“Jasperson,” replied Ajax soberly, “is being removed in a spring-wagon to his own ranch. To-morrow he will be a very sick man, but I think I’ve got him out of his scrape.”
FIFTEEN FAT STEERS
“Uncle Jake says,” murmured Ajax, “that Laban Swiggart has been ‘milking’ us ever since we bought this ranch.”
Laban was our neighbour. A barbed-wire fence divided his sterile hills from our fertile valleys, and emphasised sharply the difference between a Government claim and a Spanish grant. The County Assessor valued the Swiggart ranch at the rate of one, and our domain at six dollars per acre. We owned two leagues of land, our neighbours but half a section. Yet, in consequence of dry seasons and low prices, we were hardly able to pay our bills, whereas the Swiggarts confounded all laws of cause and effect by living in comparative splendour and luxury.
“Uncle Jake believes that he stole our steers,” continued Ajax, puffing slowly at his pipe.
Some two years before we had lost fifteen fat steers. We had employed Laban to look for them, and he had charged us thirty dollars for labours that were in vain.
“Ajax,” said I, “we have eaten the Swiggarts’ salt, not to mention their fatted chicks, their pickled peaches, their jams and jellies. It’s an outrage to insinuate, as you do, that these kind neighbours are common thieves.”
My brother looked quite distressed. “Of course Mrs. Swiggart can know nothing about it. She is a real good sort; the best wife and mother in the county. And I’m only quoting Uncle Jake. He says that fifteen steers at $30 a head make $450. Laban built a barn that spring, and put up a tank and windmill.”
With this Parthian shot my brother left me to some sorry reflections. I cordially liked and respected Laban Swiggart and his family. He had married a Skenk. No name in our county smelled sweeter than Skenk: a synonym, indeed, for piety, deportment, shell-work, and the preserving of fruits. The Widow Skenk lived in San Lorenzo, hard by the Congregational Church; and it was generally conceded that the hand of one of her daughters in marriage was a certificate of character to the groom. No Skenk had been known to wed a drunkard, a blasphemer, or an evil liver. Moreover, Laban had been the first to welcome us—two raw Englishmen—to a country where inexperience is a sin. He had helped us over many a stile; he had saved us many dollars. And he had an honest face. Broad, benignant brows surmounted a pair of keen and kindly eyes; his nose proclaimed a sense of humour; his mouth and chin were concealed by a beard almost apostolic in its silky beauty. Could such a man be a thief?
The very next day Laban rode down his steep slopes and asked us to help him and his to eat a Christmas turkey. He said something, too, about a fine ham, and a “proposition,” a money-making scheme, to be submitted to us after the banquet.