Mrs. Wickersham helped her son from his bed to a chair on the porch, and spread a patchwork quilt over his knees when he was seated.
“Don’t you want something to put your feet on, Benny?” she asked anxiously, with that hunger for servitude with which women persecute their male sick.
The invalid looked down at his feet helplessly, and then turned his eyes toward the stretch of barley-stubble below the vineyard. A stack of baled hay in the middle of the field cast a dense black shadow in the afternoon sun.
“No, I guess not,” he said absently. “Has Lawson sent any word about the hay?”
“He said he’d come and look at it in a day or two.”
Mrs. Wickersham stood behind her son, smoothing the loose wrinkles from his coat with her hard hand. He was scarcely more than a boy, and his illness had given him that pathetic gauntness which comes from the wasting away of youth and untried strength.
“I wanted a little money before the twenty-fourth,” he said, feeling one feverish hand with the other awkwardly. “I can’t seem to get used to being sick. I thought sure I’d be ready for the hay-baling.”
“The doctor says you’re doing real well, Benny,” asserted the woman bravely. “I guess if it ain’t very much you want, we can manage it.”
“It’s only five dollars.”
Mrs. Wickersham went back to the kitchen and resumed her dish-washing. Her daughter came out of the pantry where she had been putting away the cups. She was taller than her mother, and looked down at her with patronizing deference.
“Do you think that new medicine’s helping Ben any?” she asked in an undertone.
“Oh, I don’t know, Emmy,” the poor woman broke out desperately; “sometimes I think his cough’s a little looser, but he’s getting to have that same look about the eyes that your pa had that last winter”–Mrs. Wickersham left her work abruptly, and went and stood in the doorway with her back toward her daughter.
The girl took up her mother’s deserted task, and went on with it soberly.
“Shall I put on some potatoes for yeast?” she asked, after a little heart-breaking silence.
“Yes, I guess you’d better,” answered the older woman; “there’s only the best part of a loaf left, and Benny hadn’t ought to eat fresh bread.”
She came back to her work, catching eagerly at the homely suggestion of duty.
“I’ll finish them,” she said, taking a dish out of her daughter’s hand; “you brighten up the fire and get the potatoes.”
The girl walked away without looking up. When she came into the room a little later with an armful of wood, Mrs. Wickersham was standing by the stove.
“Emmy,” she said in a whisper, taking hold of her daughter’s dress and drawing her toward her, “don’t tell your brother I had to pay cash to the balers. It took all the ready money I had in the house: I’d rather he didn’t know it.”
“What’s the matter, mother?” asked the girl, looking steadily into the older woman’s worried face.
“He wants five dollars next week,” whispered Mrs. Wickersham, nodding toward the door; “I hain’t got it.”
The girl threw the wood into the woodbox and stood gazing intently at it. She had a quaint, oval face, and the smooth folds of her dark hair made a triangle of her high forehead. Two upright lines formed themselves in the triangle as she gazed. She turned away without speaking, and took a pan from the shelf and went into the shed-room for potatoes. When she came back, she walked to her mother’s side, and said in a low voice,–
“You needn’t worry about the money any more, mother. I’ll get it for Ben.”
” You, Em!”
“Yes; I’m going over to Bassett’s raisin-camp to pick grapes.”
“Oh, I don’t think I’d do that, Emmy!”
“Why, what’s wrong about it?”
“There’s nothing wrong about it, of course; I didn’t mean that. Only it seems so–so kind of strange. None of the women folks in our family’s ever done anything of that kind.”