Em by Margaret Collier Graham
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
"No, I guess not," he said absently. "Has Lawson sent any word about the
"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
"Do you think that new medicine's helping Ben any?" she asked in an
"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
"Shall I put on some potatoes for yeast?" she asked, after a little
"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
"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
"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
"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.
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
"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
"'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
"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
"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
"Was 'Rene there?" he asked.
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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!"
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.
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.
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
"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
"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
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
"Was 'Rene at church?" he asked eagerly.
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
"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."
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!"