Page:O Henry Prize Stories of 1924.djvu/275

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time while you can! . . . What? . . . The boy? . . . If that’s all you’ve got to bother you, you’re in luck! . . . That woman who’s husband keeps the store’ll be glad to get Jom———” There followed a confused jumble of detached directions concerning an early departure. And when, shortly after dawn, Jem awakened, it was to find the cabin deserted, his mother gone; the fascinating stranger’s lure of riding forth to new untroubled fields, upon a camel’s back, had been too much for Meg Brown to resist.

What became of her, her son never learned. Wistfully he wondered why, if she had gone toward the mountains, she had not taken him along. But the settlement was not disturbed again by her.

. . . With the outbreak of the Civil War, the United States Government retired from the camel industry; the herds were scattered, strayed away. Quite recently one of the camels, bearing the old brand, was seen in a Mexican circus but otherwise—like Meg Brown—they have disappeared into oblivion—superseded milestones upon the highway of progress.

The next years were busy uneventful ones for Jem Brown. The man in charge of the camel train proved himself to be an expert in passing snap judgment; the storekeeper’s wife took immediate and affectionate charge of the little boy—and never regretted it. Jem more than paid his way, carrying water in pails which increased in size with his own growth; running endless errands upon willing feet; planting and weeding Mrs. Smith’s vegetable garden and helping her in the kitchen; working behind the counter of the store—but always, when he had a little time to himself, he went out beyond the edge of the town to stare, hungry-eyed, toward the mountains rimming the wide valley.

He was nineteen when an epidemic of typhoid carried off the Smiths within two days of each other and left him, without ties or funds, to face the future. His foster-father’s partner urged him to stay on in the store, offered inducements, but Jem was not to be beguiled; restlessness had overtaken him. “It’s gettin’ crowded-like here; too many folks.” Unconsciously he made a gesture toward the rainbow-tinted mountain peaks swinging up through the bright air under a