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and parting with them mostly one at a time, always by way of curt instruction—“Easy,” “Right,” “Left,” “Duck,” “Watch out,” “Come on.”
In between these puffs of speech taciturnity reigned. He led the way on his mule, giving Christianity nothing to do but to smell the mule's tail and follow.
Her only task being to hold the useless reins, Laurie had plenty of time in which to ruminate upon her dumb cavalier, and sincerely to admire his mule, which was not the dun-colored, moth-eaten, tubercular bag-ofbones that Balaam was, but a clean, white beast with good lines, worth possibly as much as two horses. In sandy, panting Florida, a man with no ambitions and a good mule can go considerably further than a man with good ambitions and no mule.
She tried to keep her mind on the mule, but her thoughts persisted in wandering to its rider, who read the roads and forests better than a scholar reads his books, and who successfully followed trails that in many instances were not much more than hog-tracks, half the time under swamp water, too. She began to see how a girl like Osceola could love him and be happy married to him, for she now had proof that he could “boss” himself as well as others, that he scored the blows of Fate against Fate herself, and did not try to get even with that inscrutable lady’s agents. His recent hot mention of Roycroft had been tinged with the bitterness of sorrow, not of hate. Osceola’s meek tactics, expressed in her remark that she only wanted to caress his lock of black hair out of his eyes and kiss him, would be the right ones to tame him and to hold him. Had he not himself said that he would never hurt a li'l cat that had come to him to fall asleep?
On they went, past bogs of cypress upon whose protruding “knees” were generally perched long-legged birds or short-legged turtles, these last always hurtling back into the scummy water with a splash; past dryer thickets red with a berry that the natives called “holly,” though it was not holly in the least; through arid stretches of dead sand white as salt, whose breath was hot as the breath from a blast furnace, and where nothing grew but the easily satisfied palmetto-scrub whose leaves were frayed as hotel fans at the end of the summer season; through spring-fed spots of green where wild honeysuckle matted and bloomed, throttling disgusted-looking pin oaks half to death, but forming fragrant coverts for the bluebirds and cardinals. Laurie feared that she herself did not make a picture to meet the romantic requirements of the floral surroundings and pregnant silence. One cannot rattle around on the high, hard seat of a lurching farmwagon and feel properly dignified. And to have three dirty barrels of turpentine waste stacked up behind one does not improve matters. On the whole, she was rather relieved when the trail eventually angled them out upon the main road at a point hearteningly familiar to her, where her own lake was pleasantly and beckoningly visible. And yet with that relief was mixed a premonition of final parting that closely resembled regret. Calhoun checked his mule, letting Christianity pass him till he and Laurie were side by side. Having no tail to point the way, Christianity naturally stopped. “Yonder's you-all’s home, Miss McAllister,” said Tandy, briefly. Never before had he addressed her with the formality of “Miss,” having always drawlingly Laurie-d her
from the beginning. The improvement came so late as to be almost unwelcome.
Miss McAllister slid to the edge of the seat that brought her nearest to him and extended her hand.
“Good-by and thank you,” she said.
The hand that she had expected to clasp hers, even gladly, remained motionless on the neck of the mule.
“Why, I thought you'd forgiven me," she faltered, slowly withdrawing her offered member and letting it drop limply in her lap.
“For what?” he asked, his dark eyes gleaming coldly from under the darker lock of hair.
“That's so,” she said hardily, “you haven't anything to forgive me, have you? Well, then, why didn't you shake hands?”
“When I'm through I'm through,” he explained somberly.
“So'm I,” she promptly adduced in denial of some vague blame that he seemed to be fastening upon her.
“With a man, the on'y way to be through is all through,” he said, “not holdin' a hand that he knows ain't his to keep.”
“Still, we may be friends, mayn't we?”
“Them sort of friends don't work out to no good. Not but what I've seen it tried-up to Georgy. An', seein', I learned what I told you once—that woman's pity is brutaler even than man's kindness."
He jerked his mule around and left her.
tucked away in the center of the hundred or more funeral pyres in the grove, ready for the
match at any time, to be sure, but representing a shadow of a calamity whichever way the harassed girl owner happened to look at it. For if it proved unnecessary then had nine colossal dollars been expended needlessly, and if it came to be used, a freeze would come at the same time. A freeze would mean swift ruin, not a ruin merely of the present, out of which one might hope to extricate oneself in time and build anew, but a ruin as complete as that made by fire and flood—a sweeping away of everything, a complete annihilation of resources and resourcefulness.
Laurie found herself daily watching the grove with the apprehension of a mother hanging over the cradle of a baby threatened by death. Each orange that fell to the ground in its apparent prime, bruised and bumped her anxious heart in its descent. And, creeping nearer and nearer, there approached the day upon which she would have to pay her paltry debt to Selig. Its paltriness was what made it so horrible, but the debt might as well be a million dollars as a hundred. Under the circumstances one was as impossible to raise as the other.
“And where are the profits of an industry into which I have to put a hundred dollars before I can take a hundred out?” she constantly asked herself.
A FEW days and the inflammable waste was The fact that the season was Christmas added a touch of poignancy to the situation. To go around with a smile on the lips while real fear is gnawing at the heart is like being obliged to sing blithely while pumping out the hold of a vessel doomed soon to sink. To make matters livelier, old Andrew acquired the Christmas-card habit—a loathsome mania when in the acute form—and she had to address them for him by the score, inventing a properly joyous and properly differentiating sentiment for each. To prove herself a gentleman and a friend to fifty people she did not know, and do it briefly enough to go by mail for a cent, was a wearing task. And The McAllister hated to have big issues treated hastily, often keeping her debating half an hour on the serious question of whether to send a certain man a picture of a cat in a mistletoe wreath, or of a plum pudding with steam coming out of the top. To risk a mistake would be terrible. But the dear old man’s childlike Christmas spirit was the right one, and she finally caught it, buckling down to the delightfully sticky occupation of making candied kumquats for her icicled friends in the cold belt. In grating the skin from these tiny citrus dainties she grated her own knuckles raw, to be sure, but also grated her soul free of its rough edges, being able to greet Christmas morning with the absolutely carefree sensation of knowing that she had not forgotten anybody. And no morning could have dawned more lovely, or sent more sun to earth to lighten shadowed places. “Merry Christmas indeed!” said Andrew, baring his courtly white head to the radiance and warmth, as he stepped upon the porch to greet it. He rubbed his thin old hands gratefully. “It has been many years,