The House That Was Not





BART FLEMING took his bride out

to his ranch on the plains when she

was but seventeen years old, and the

two set up housekeeping in three

hundred and twenty acres of corn and rye.

Off toward the west there was an unbroken

sea of tossing corn at that time of the year

when the bride came out, and as her sewing

window was on the side of the house which

faced the sunset, she passed a good part of

each day looking into that great rustling mass,

breathing in its succulent odors and listening

to its sibilant melody. It was her picture

gallery, her opera, her spectacle, and, being

sensible, -- or perhaps, being merely happy,

-- she made the most of it.



When harvesting time came and the corn

was cut, she had much entertainment in dis-

covering what lay beyond. The town was

east, and it chanced that she had never rid-

den west. So, when the rolling hills of this

newly beholden land lifted themselves for her

contemplation, and the harvest sun, all in an

angry and sanguinary glow sank in the veiled

horizon, and at noon a scarf of golden vapor

wavered up and down along the earth line, it

was as if a new world had been made for

her. Sometimes, at the coming of a storm,

a whip-lash of purple cloud, full of electric

agility, snapped along the western horizon.



"Oh, you'll see a lot of queer things on

these here plains," her husband said when

she spoke to him of these phenomena. "I

guess what you see is the wind."



"The wind!" cried Flora. "You can't see

the wind, Bart."



"Now look here, Flora," returned Bart, with

benevolent emphasis, "you're a smart one,

but you don't know all I know about this here

country. I've lived here three mortal years,

waitin' for you to git up out of your mother's

arms and come out to keep me company,

and I know what there is to know. Some

things out here is queer -- so queer folks

wouldn't believe 'em unless they saw. An'

some's so pig-headed they don't believe their

own eyes. As for th' wind, if you lay down

flat and squint toward th' west, you can see

it blowin' along near th' ground, like a big

ribbon; an' sometimes it's th' color of air,

an' sometimes it's silver an' gold, an' some-

times, when a storm is comin', it's purple."



"If you got so tired looking at the wind,

why didn't you marry some other girl, Bart,

instead of waiting for me?"



Flora was more interested in the first part

of Bart's speech than in the last.



"Oh, come on!" protested Bart, and he

picked her up in his arms and jumped her

toward the ceiling of the low shack as if she

were a little girl -- but then, to be sure, she

wasn't much more.



Of all the things Flora saw when the corn

was cut down, nothing interested her so much

as a low cottage, something like her own,

which lay away in the distance. She could

not guess how far it might be, because dis-

tances are deceiving out there, where the alti-

tude is high and the air is as clear as one of

those mystic balls of glass in which the sallow

mystics of India see the moving shadows of

the future.



She had not known there were neighbors

so near, and she wondered for several days

about them before she ventured to say any-

thing to Bart on the subject. Indeed, for

some reason which she did not attempt to ex-

plain to herself, she felt shy about broaching

the matter. Perhaps Bart did not want her

to know the people. The thought came to

her, as naughty thoughts will come, even to

the best of persons, that some handsome

young men might be "baching" it out there

by themselves, and Bart didn't wish her to

make their acquaintance. Bart had flattered

her so much that she had actually begun to

think herself beautiful, though as a matter of

fact she was only a nice little girl with a lot

of reddish-brown hair, and a bright pair of

reddish-brown eyes in a white face.



"Bart," she ventured one evening, as the

sun, at its fiercest, rushed toward the great

black hollow of the west, "who lives over

there in that shack?"



She turned away from the window where

she had been looking at the incarnadined

disk, and she thought she saw Bart turn pale.

But then, her eyes were so blurred with the

glory she had been gazing at, that she might

easily have been mistaken.



"I say, Bart, why don't you speak? If

there's any one around to associate with, I

should think you'd let me have the benefit

of their company. It isn't as funny as you

think, staying here alone days and days."



"You ain't gettin' homesick, be you, sweet-

heart?" cried Bart, putting his arms around

her. "You ain't gettin' tired of my society,

be yeh?"



It took some time to answer this question

in a satisfactory manner, but at length Flora

was able to return to her original topic.



"But the shack, Bart! Who lives there,

anyway?"



"I'm not acquainted with 'em," said Bart,

sharply. "Ain't them biscuits done, Flora?"



Then, of course, she grew obstinate.



"Those biscuits will never be done, Bart,

till I know about that house, and why you

never spoke of it, and why nobody ever comes

down the road from there. Some one lives

there I know, for in the mornings and at night

I see the smoke coming out of the chimney."



"Do you now?" cried Bart, opening his

eyes and looking at her with unfeigned inter-

est. "Well, do you know, sometimes I've

fancied I seen that too?"



"Well, why not," cried Flora, in half anger.

"Why shouldn't you?"



"See here, Flora, take them biscuits out an'

listen to me. There ain't no house there.

Hello! I didn't know you'd go for to drop the

biscuits. Wait, I'll help you pick 'em up.

By cracky, they're hot, ain't they? What you

puttin' a towel over 'em for? Well, you set

down here on my knee, so. Now you look

over at that there house. You see it, don't

yeh? Well, it ain't there! No! I saw it the

first week I was out here. I was jus' half

dyin', thinkin' of you an' wonderin' why you

didn't write. That was the time you was mad

at me. So I rode over there one day -- lookin'

up company, so t' speak -- and there wa'n't no

house there. I spent all one Sunday lookin'

for it. Then I spoke to Jim Geary about it.

He laughed an' got a little white about th'

gills, an' he said he guessed I'd have to look

a good while before I found it. He said that

there shack was an ole joke."



"Why -- what --"



"Well, this here is th' story he tol' me.

He said a man an' his wife come out here t'

live an' put up that there little place. An'

she was young, you know, an' kind o' skeery,

and she got lonesome. It worked on her an'

worked on her, an' one day she up an' killed

the baby an' her husband an' herself. Th'

folks found 'em and buried 'em right there

on their own ground. Well, about two weeks

after that, th' house was burned down. Don't

know how. Tramps, maybe. Anyhow, it

burned. At least, I guess it burned!"



"You guess it burned!"



"Well, it ain't there, you know."



"But if it burned the ashes are there."



"All right, girlie, they're there then. Now

let's have tea."



This they proceeded to do, and were happy

and cheerful all evening, but that didn't keep

Flora from rising at the first flush of dawn and

stealing out of the house. She looked away

over west as she went to the barn and there,

dark and firm against the horizon, stood the

little house against the pellucid sky of morn-

ing. She got on Ginger's back -- Ginger

being her own yellow broncho -- and set off at

a hard pace for the house. It didn't appear

to come any nearer, but the objects which had

seemed to be beside it came closer into view,

and Flora pressed on, with her mind steeled

for anything. But as she approached the

poplar windbreak which stood to the north

of the house, the little shack waned like a

shadow before her. It faded and dimmed

before her eyes.



She slapped Ginger's flanks and kept him

going, and she at last got him up to the spot.

But there was nothing there. The bunch grass

grew tall and rank and in the midst of it lay

a baby's shoe. Flora thought of picking it

up, but something cold in her veins withheld

her. Then she grew angry, and set Ginger's

head toward the place and tried to drive him

over it. But the yellow broncho gave one

snort of fear, gathered himself in a bunch,

and then, all tense, leaping muscles, made

for home as only a broncho can.





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