As recreation it was blighting; and I said almost as much. Ma Pettengill was deaf to it, her gray head in its broad-brimmed hat sternly bowed in meditation as she wove to her horse’s motion. Then I became aware that she talked to another; one who was not there. She said things I was sure he would not have liked to hear. She hung choice insults upon his name and blistered his fair repute with calumnies. She was a geyser of invective, quiet perhaps for fifty yards, then grandly in action.
“Call yourself a cowman, hey? What you ought to be is matron of a foundling asylum. Yes, sir!”
This was among the least fearful of her dusty scornings. And I knew she would be addressing one Homer Gale, temporary riding boss of the Arrowhead. Indeed, Homer’s slightly pleading accents were now very colourably imitated by his embittered employer:
“Yes’m, Mis’ Pettengill, it’s a matter of life and death; no less. I got to git off for two days—a matter of life and death. Yes’m; I just got to!”
On the completion of this a hoarse hoot of scorn boomed through the haze and Homer was told that men like himself often caused perfectly decent people to be tried for murder. And again Homer’s rightful job was echoed as “Matron of a foundling asylum!”
I felt the embarrassment of one unwittingly come upon the adjustment of a private grievance. I dropped delicately a few paces behind, unnoticed, I thought; but Ma Pettengill waited for me to overtake her again.
Then, as we pushed through the dust together, she told me that her days were swifter than a weaver’s shuttle and spent without hope. If it wasn’t one thing it was another. What she’d like—she’d like to wake up in a strange place and find she’d clean forgot her name and address, like these here parties you read about in the papers. And why wouldn’t she? A dry year; feed short on the range; water holes dusty that never did go dry before; half a hay crop and winter threatening right spang in the summertime! Think of having to gather cattle off the range in the middle of August when other times you could let ’em run till the middle of October! In fact, this was the kind of a year that cattle raisers had a technical term for. It was known technically as one hell of a year, if I wanted to be told.
And having to do the work with mental defectives and cripples and Bolsheviki, because every able-bodied puncher in the country had gone over to create a disturbance in Europe! Hadn’t she combed out the county hospital and poor farm to get a haying crew? Didn’t the best cowboy now on the pay roll wear a derby hat and ride a motorcycle by preference? And paying seventy-five dollars to these imitation punchers to fight her gentle saddle horses, no colt, it seemed, having been ridden on the place in the memory of man.
She didn’t know; taking one thing with another, sometimes she almost wished that the world was going to stay unsafe for democracy.