Em by Margaret Collier Graham

I.

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."

"Then the women folks in our family will have to begin. I can get a dollar a day. The Burnham girls went, and they're as good as we are. I'm going, anyway,"—the girl's red lips shut themselves in a narrow line.

"Oh, they're all good enough, Emmy," protested Mrs. Wickersham; "it's nothing against them, only it's going out to work. You know the way men folks feel—I don't know what your brother will say."

"You can tell him I've set my heart on it. They have great fun over there. He wanted me to go camping to the beach with the same crowd of young folks this summer. I'll not stay at night, mother; I'll walk home every evening. It's no use saying anything, I'm going."

"Is Steve Elliott at the camp?" asked Benny, when his mother told him.

"She didn't say anything about him, Benny, but I suppose he is. Why?"

"I guess that explains it," said the invalid, smiling wistfully.

II.

Nearly every available grape-picker in the little valley was at Bassett's vineyard. There was a faint murmur of surprise when Em walked into the camp on Monday morning.

"I thought you weren't coming, Em," said Irene Burnham, curving her smooth, sunburned neck away from the tall young fellow who stood beside her.

"I changed my mind," said Em quietly.

"It's awful hot work," giggled Irene, "and I always burn so; I wish I tanned. But I'm going to hold out the rest of this week, if I burn to a cinder."

"'Rene's after a new parasol," announced her brother teasingly; "she's bound to save her complexion if it takes the skin off."

The young people gave a little shout of delight, and straggled down the aisles of the vineyard. The thick growth had fallen away from the gnarled trunks of the vines, and the grapes hung in yellowing clusters to the warm, sun-dried earth. The trays were scattered in uneven rows on the plowed ground between the vines, their burden turning to sweetened amber in the sunshine. The air was heavy with the rich, fruity ferment of the grapes. Bees were beginning to drone among the trays. The mountains which hemmed in the little valley were a deep, velvety blue in the morning light. Em looked at them with a new throb in her heart. She did not care what was beyond them as she walked between the tangled vine-rows. Stephen Elliott had left Irene, and walked beside her. The valley was wide enough for Em's world,—a girl's world, which is hemmed in by mountains always, and always narrow.

As the day advanced the gay calls of the grape-harvesters grew more and more infrequent. The sky seemed to fade in the glare of the sun to a pale, whitish blue. Buzzards reeled through the air, as if drunken with sunlight. The ashen soil of the vineyard burned Em's feet and dazzled her eyes. She stood up now and then and looked far down the valley where the yellow barley-stubble shimmered off into haze. As she looked, something straightened her lips into a resolute line and sent her back to her work with softened eyes.

"Do you get very tired, Em?" her brother asked, as she sat in the doorway at nightfall.

The girl leaned her head against the casement as if to steady her weary voice.

"Not very," she said slowly and gravely; "it's a little warm at noon, but I don't mind it."

"I thought sure I'd be up by this time," fretted the invalid, the yearning in his heart that pain could not quench turning his sympathy to envy.

"The doctor says you're getting on real well, Ben," said Em steadily.

The young fellow looked down at his wasted hands, gray and ghostly in the twilight.

"Was 'Rene there?" he asked.

"Yes."

"It isn't like having your sister go out to work, Benny," said Mrs. Wickersham soothingly; "just the neighbors, and real nice folks, too. I wouldn't fret about it."

On Wednesday morning, as Em neared the camp, she saw the grape-pickers gathered in a little group before the girls' tent. Steve Elliott separated himself from the crowd, and came to meet her.

"We've struck, Em," he said, smiling down at her from the shadow of his big hat.

"Who's we?" asked Em gravely.

"All of us. They're paying a dollar and a quarter over at Briggs's; we ain't a-goin' to stand it."

Em had stopped in the path. The young fellow stepped behind her, and she went on.

"Why don't you all go over to Briggs's and go to work?" she asked, without turning her head.

"Too far—the foreman'll come to time."

They came up to the noisy group, and Em seated herself on a pile of trays and loosened the strings of her wide hat; she was tired from her walk, and the pallor of her face made her lips seem redder.

Irene Burnham crossed over to the newcomer, shrugging herself with girlish self-consciousness.

"Isn't it just too mean, Em?" she panted; "I know they'll discharge us. That means good-by to my new parasol; I've been dying for one all summer, a red silk one"—

"Let up on the parasol racket, Sis," called one of the Burnham boys; "business is business."

The hum of the young voices went on, mingled with gay, irresponsible laughter. Em got up and began to tie her hat.

"Where are you going?" asked one of the girls.

"I'm going to work."

"To work! why, we've struck!"

"I haven't," said Em soberly. "I'm willing to work for a dollar a day."

There was a little cry of dismay from the girls; Steve Elliott's tanned face flushed a coppery red.

"You ain't goin' back on us, Em?" he said angrily.

"I ain't going back on my word," answered the girl; "you needn't work if you don't want to; this is a free country."

"It isn't, though,"' said Ike Burnham; "the raisin men have a ring—there's no freedom where there's rings."

"I suppose they go into them because they want to," said Em, setting her lips.

"They go into them because they'd get left if they didn't."

"Well, if I was a raisin man," persisted the girl quietly, "and wanted to go into a ring, I'd do it; but if anybody undertook to boss me into it, they'd have the same kind of a contract on hand that you've got." She turned her back on the little group and started toward the vineyard.

Irene had drifted toward Steve Elliott's side and was smiling expectantly up into his bronzed face. He broke away from her glance and strode after the retreating figure.

"Em!" The girl turned quickly.

"Oh, Steve!" she cried, with a pleading sob in her voice.

"Em, you're making a fool of yourself!" he broke out cruelly.

The curve in the red lips straightened.

"Let me alone!" she gasped, putting up her hand to her throat. "If I'm to be made a fool of, I'd rather do it myself. I guess I can stand it, if you'll let me alone!"

III.

When Bassett's foreman rode into the vineyard at noon to talk with the strikers, he saw a wide brown hat moving slowly among the vine-rows.

"Who's that?" he asked, pointing with his whip.

"Em Wickersham," said one of the group sullenly.

The foreman turned his horse's head, and galloped down the furrow.

"Miss Wickersham."

Em straightened herself, and pushed back her hat.

"You don't want to give up your job?"

The girl shaded her eyes with her hand. There was an unsteady movement of her chin before she spoke.

"I'd like to work till Friday night," she said.

"Well, I'd like to keep you; but I don't know how it will be. I won't stand any of their nonsense,"—he jerked his head toward the camp; "I'm going to send over to Aliso Caņon for a wagon-load of pickers. I'm pretty certain I can get them, but they'll all be men; you might find it a little unpleasant."

"Who are they?" asked Em.

"Only a lot of ranchers picked up over the neighborhood," said the foreman. "I think I can find enough men and boys who are through harvesting. I'll try anyway."

"Will you be here all the time?" asked the girl.

"All of to-morrow and most of Friday," he answered, wondering a little.

"Well, I guess if you don't care, I'll stay; I guess they won't hurt me,"—the wraith of a smile flitted across her face.

"All right." The foreman urged his horse forward.

"The Wickershams must be hard pressed," he said to himself; "the girl looks pale. Confound those young rascals!"

Across at the camp Em could hear laughter and snatches of song. The soft rustle of the grape-leaves in the tepid breeze seemed to emphasize the stillness about her. Now and then a quail, tilting its queer little crest, scurried across the furrows and whirred out of sight. Pink-footed doves ran along the edge of the vineyard, mourning plaintively. The girl worked on without faltering, looking down the valley now and then through a blur that was not haze, and seeing always something there that dulled the pain of her loneliness.

The day wore on. Em had eaten her lunch alone, in the shadow of the cypress hedge. As the afternoon advanced and the sea-breeze wandered over the mountains in fitful gusts, the campers trooped homeward, still laughing and calling to each other with reckless shouts. Em straightened her aching limbs, and watched them as they went. 'Rene's pink dress fluttered close to the tallest form among them, loitering a little, and standing out in silhouette against the afternoon sky at the end of the straggling procession as it disappeared over the hilltop.

IV.

It was Friday evening, and Em laid five silver dollars on the kitchen table beside her mother.

"You can give that to Ben," she said wearily.

Mrs. Wickersham glanced from the money to her daughter's dusty shoes, and set, colorless face.

"Emmy, I'm afraid you've overdone," she said with a start.

"No, I haven't," answered the girl without flinching; "it's been a little hard yesterday and to-day, and I'm tired, that's all. Don't tell Ben."

"Are you too tired to go to the church sociable this evening?" pursued the mother anxiously.

"Yes, I believe I am."

"I saw Steve Elliott and 'Rene Burnham driving that way a few minutes ago. I thought they was over at the camp." Mrs. Wickersham had resumed her work and had her back toward her daughter.

"They weren't there to-day," said Em listlessly.

"Does she go with him much?"

There was a rising resentment in Mrs. Wickersham's voice. Em glanced at her anxiously.

"I don't know," she faltered.

"I don't see how she can act so!" the older woman broke out indignantly.

The girl's face turned a dull white; she opened her lips to breathe.

"I used to think she liked Benny," Mrs. Wickersham went on, speaking in a heated undertone. "I should think she'd be ashamed of herself."

Em's voice came back.

"I don't believe Ben cares, mother," she said soothingly.

"I don't care if he doesn't, she'd ought to," urged Mrs. Wickersham, with maternal logic.

There was a sound of strained, ineffectual coughing in the front room. Mrs. Wickersham left her work and hurried away. When she came back Em was sitting on the doorstep with her forehead in her hands.

"Benny's got a notion he could drive over to the store to-morrow," her mother began excitedly; "he's got something in his head. He thinks if Joe Atkinson would bring their low buggy—I'm sure I don't know what to say;" the poor woman's voice trembled with responsibility.

Em got up with a quick, decisive movement.

"Don't say anything, mother. If Ben wants to go, he's got to go. I'll run over to Atkinson's right away."

Mrs. Wickersham caught her daughter's arm.

"No, no; not to-night. He said in the morning, he must be better, don't you think so, Emmy?" she pleaded.

"Of course," said Em fiercely. Then she turned and fastened a loosened hairpin in her mother's disordered hair. Even a caress wore its little mask of duty with Em. "Of course he's better, mother," she said more gently.

V.

It was Sunday, and the little valley was still with the stillness of warm, drowsy, quiescent life. At noon, the narrow road stretching between the shadowless barley-fields was haunted by slender, hurrying spirals of dust, like phantoms tempted by the silence to a wild frolic in the sunlight. The white air shimmered in wavy lines above the stubble. Em shut her eyes as she came out of the little church, as if the glare blinded her. Steve was waiting near the door, and a sudden, unreasoning hope thrilled her heart. He was looking for some one. She could hear the blood throbbing in her temples. He took a step forward. Then a red silken cloud shut out her sun, and the riot died out of her poor young heart. 'Rene was smiling up into his sunburned face from the roseate glory of her new parasol. Em walked home through the sunlight with the echo of their banter humming in her ears.

Ben sat on the porch watching for her, a feverish brightness in his sunken eyes.

"Was 'Rene at church?" he asked eagerly.

"Yes, Ben."

Em stood behind his chair, looking down at the cords of his poor, wasted neck. Her eyelids burned with hot, unshed tears.

"Did she look nice—did she have anything new?"

"Yes, she had a new parasol. She looked real pretty." The girl spoke with dull, unfeeling gentleness. Ben tried to turn and look up into her face.

"She's been wanting it all summer. I told her 'way long in the spring that I'd get it for her birthday. I wonder if she forgot it? I didn't have any idea I'd be laid up this way."

Em stood perfectly still.

"I'll bet she was surprised, Em," he went on wistfully; "do you think she'll come over and say anything about it?"

"She'd better," said Em, setting her teeth in her bright under lip.

The invalid gave a little, choking cough, and looked out across the valley. A red spot was moving through the stubble toward the house. He put up his hot hand and laid it on Em's cold fingers.

"Mother tried to fool me about the money," he said feebly, "but I think I know where she got it. I don't mean to forget it either, Em. I'll pay it back just as soon as I get up."

"Yes, Ben."

The girl dropped her cheek on his head with a little wailing sob.

"Yes, Ben, I ain't a bit afraid about my pay." Then she slipped her hand from under his and went into the house.

The red spot was drawing nearer. Mrs. Wickersham glanced through the open window at her son.

"Benny's looking brighter than I've seen him in a long time," she thought. "I guess his ride yesterday done him good."

And in her little room Em sat on the edge of the bed, staring at the wall through blinding tears.

"I wish I had it all to do over again," she said. "I'd do it all—even if I knew—for Ben!"