The “filaree,” or pinclover; had borne its seeds with curious long ends–those seeds that California children call “clocks”–and among THE filaree there stood, on slender, bare stems, small flowers of the lily family which are known as “bluebells.” A boy was walking through the filaria. He was carrying a hatchet and an ax, and he looked tired, though it was early in the day.
“I guess Cousin Harriet doesn’t know how hard working on the alkali patch is,” he murmured softly. “She isn’t like mother:”
The boy’s head dropped, and a sob escaped him.
“I wish mother hadn’t died;” he said chokingly. “Most every boy has a mother.”
He tried to stop crying, but it was hard, for he was overworked, and he was only twelve years old.
Six months before this, his mother had died. Several weeks alter her death, Claude’s father had been called East on business; and had left the boy and his younger sisters Rose and Daisy on a ranch owned by Cousin Harriet, several miles from the children’s former home. It had been very hard for the children to part from their father so soon after their mother’s death, but he told them that while the business that called him East would take a number of months, yet there was some prospect that their mother’s own sister, Aunt Jennie, with her husband and little boy, would come with Claude’s father on his return. Then they could all live together at the dear home place. So the stay at Cousin Harriet’s would not probably be perpetual.
Cousin Harriet was a widow. She looked after her ranch with great diligence. She had several hired men and women, and the ranch was a very busy place. Cousin Harriet was not much used to children, having none of her own, but she tried to do her duty by the three left in her charge. Rose and Daisy did not find the household tasks that were assigned them very difficult. Cousin Harriet secretly did not like boys, however. She tried to treat Claude justly, but the boy sadly missed the mother-love to which he had been accustomed all his life. He was expected to help the hired men on the ranch, and they made him work rather hard, especially since they had been fixing the “alkali patch.”
The alkali patch was in the southwest corner of Cousin Harriet’s ranch. On several acres, nothing would grow, on account of the alkali in the soil. The alkali stood on the ground in white patches here and there, and Claude hated the sight of it. Cousin Harriet, however, was very enthusiastic about trying to reclaim this “alkali sink,” so that it might bear crops.
Alkali extended over the fields of adjoining neighbors, and Cousin Harriet thought that if only her hired men could conquer her alkali patch, then the discouraged neighbors might think it possible to do something with such parts of their land, also. So, one of the first things that was done with Cousin Harriet’s “alkali sink” was to make some redwood drains, shaped like the letter V, and place these about three feet below the surface. A “sump,” or drainage pit, was dug, too, into which the drains might discharge the alkali water. The hired men expected Claude to help dig the “sump,” and it proved quite hard work. So did the pounding of the “hard pan” on the alkali tract, itself. The tough, hard clods of earth were so difficult to pulverize that they had to be pounded with crowbars and axes.
“I used to think that helping pick lemons, at home, was work,” Claude thought to-day, as he went toward the part of the ranch where he was expected to work, “but I didn’t know about alkali patches, then. And–I had mother.”
The tears would come into his eyes.
The hired men were scattered over the extensive alkali tract, and were pounding the clods. Claude chose to work near a man called Neil. The boy liked Neil better than the other men, because he did not speak crossly.