She tendered us a paper. Ajax stuck his hands into his pockets, and I did the same.
She misinterpreted the action. “You ain’t going to prosecute?” she faltered.
Ajax nodded to me. Upon formal occasions he expects me, being the elder, to speak. If I say more or less than he approves I am severely taken to task.
“Mrs. Swiggart,” I began, lamely enough, “I am sure that your husband can cure hams——”
Ajax looked at me indignantly. With the best of motives I had given a sore heart a grievous twist.
“We bought that ham,” she said sadly, “a-purpose.”
“No matter. We have decided to go into this packing business with your husband. When—er—experience goes into partnership with ignorance, ignorance expects to pay a premium. We have paid our premium.”
She rose, and we held out our hands.
“No, gentlemen; I won’t take your hands till that debt is cancelled. The piano and the team will go some ways towards it. Good-bye, and— thank you.”
My brother and I had just ridden off the range, when Uncle Jake told us that a tramp was hanging about the corrals and wished to speak with us.
“He looks like hell,” concluded Uncle Jake.
We found him, a minute later, curled up on a heap of straw on the shady side of our big barn. He got up as we approached, and stared at us with a curious derisive intentness of glance, slightly disconcerting.
“You are Englishmen,” he said quietly.
The man’s voice was charming, with that unmistakable quality which challenges attention even in Mayfair, and enthrals it in the wilderness. We nodded, and he continued easily: “It is late, and some twenty-six miles, so I hear, to the nearest town. May I spend the night in your barn. I don’t smoke—in barns.”
While he was speaking, we had time to examine him. His appearance was inexpressibly shocking. Dirty, with a ragged six weeks’ growth of dark hair upon his face, out at heel and elbows, shirtless and shiftless, he seemed to have reached the nadir of misery and poverty. Obviously one of the “broken brigade,” he had seemingly lost everything except his manners. His amazing absence of self-consciousness made a clown of me. I blurted out a gruff “All right,” and turned on my heel, unable to face the derisive smile upon the thin, pale lips. As I walked towards the house, I heard Ajax following me, but he did not speak till we had reached our comfortable sitting-room. Then, as gruffly as I, he said, “Humpty Dumpty—after the fall!”