"Not very, mammy," he said; "but I ain't cold, nuther; an' thet's somethin'."
It was the way in the Hyer family to make the best of things; they had always possessed this virtue to such an extent, that they suffered from it as from a vice. There was hardly to be found in all Southern Tennessee a more contented, shiftless, ill-bestead family than theirs. But there was no grumbling. Whatever went wrong, whatever was lacking, it was "jest like aour luck," they said, and did nothing, or next to nothing, about it. Good-natured, affectionate, humorous people; after all, they got more comfort out of life than many a family whose surface conditions were incomparably better than theirs. When Jos, their oldest child and only son, broke down, had hemorrhage after hemorrhage, and the doctor said the only thing that could save him was to go across the plains in a wagon to California, they said, "What good luck 'Lizy was married last year! Now there ain't nuthin' ter hinder sellin' the farm 'n goin' right off." And they sold their little place for half it was worth, traded cattle for a pair of horses and a covered wagon, and set off, half beggared, with their sick boy on a bed in the bottom of the wagon, as cheery as if they were rich people on a pleasure-trip. A pair of steers "to spell" the horses, and a cow to give milk for Jos, they drove before them; and so they had come by slow stages, sometimes camping for a week at a time, all the way from Tennessee to the San Jacinto Valley. They were rewarded. Jos was getting well. Another six months, they thought, would see him cured; and it would have gone hard with any one who had tried to persuade either Jefferson or Maria Hyer that they were not as lucky a couple as could be found. Had they not saved Joshua, their son?
Nicknames among this class of poor whites in the South seem singularly like those in vogue in New England. From totally opposite motives, the lazy, easy-going Tennesseean and the hurry-driven Vermonter cut down all their family names to the shortest. To speak three syllables where one will answer, seems to the Vermonter a waste of time; to the Tennesseean, quite too much trouble. Mrs. Hyer could hardly recollect ever having heard her name, "Maria," in full; as a child, and until she was married, she was simply "Ri;" and as soon as she had a house of her own, to become a centre of hospitality and help, she was adopted by common consent of the neighborhood, in a sort of titular and universal aunt-hood, which really was a much greater tribute and honor than she dreamed. Not a man, woman, or child, within her reach, that did not call her or know of her as "Aunt Ri."
"I donno whether I'd best make enny more fire naow or not," she said reflectively; "ef this storm's goin' to last till mornin', we'll come short o' wood, thet's clear." As she spoke, the door of the hut burst open, and her husband staggered in, followed by Alessandro, both covered with snow, their arms full of wood. Alessandro, luckily, knew of a little clump of young cottonwood-trees in a ravine, only a few rods from the house; and the first thing he had thought of, after tethering the horses in shelter between the hut and the wagons, was to get wood. Jeff, seeing him take a hatchet from the wagon, had understood, got his own, and followed; and now there lay on the ground enough to keep them warm for hours. As soon as Alessandro had thrown down his load, he darted to Ramona, and kneeling down, looked anxiously into the baby's face, then into hers; then he said devoutly, "The saints be praised, my Majella! It is a miracle!"
Jos listened in dismay to this ejaculation. "Ef they ain't Catholics!" he thought. "What kind o' Injuns be they I wonder. I won't tell mammy they're Catholics; she'd feel wuss'n ever. I don't care what they be. Thet gal's got the sweetest eyes'n her head ever I saw sence I wuz born."
By help of Jos's interpreting, the two families soon became well acquainted with each other's condition and plans; and a feeling of friendliness, surprising under the circumstances, grew up between them.
"Jeff," said Aunt Ri,-- "Jeff, they can't understand a word we say, so't's no harm done, I s'pose, to speak afore 'em, though't don't seem hardly fair to take advantage o' their not knowin' any language but their own; but I jest tell you thet I've got a lesson'n the subjeck uv Injuns. I've always hed a reel mean feelin' about 'em; I didn't want ter come nigh 'em, nor ter hev 'em come nigh me. This woman, here, she's ez sweet a creetur's ever I see; 'n' ez bound up 'n thet baby's yer could ask enny woman to be; 'n' 's fur thet man, can't yer see, Jeff, he jest worships the ground she walks on? Thet's a fact, Jeff. I donno's ever I see a white man think so much uv a woman; come, naow, Jeff, d' yer think yer ever did yerself?"
Aunt Ri was excited. The experience was, to her, almost incredible. Her ideas of Indians had been drawn from newspapers, and from a book or two of narratives of massacres, and from an occasional sight of vagabond bands or families they had encountered in their journey across the plains. Here she found herself sitting side by side in friendly intercourse with an Indian man and Indian woman, whose appearance and behavior were attractive; towards whom she felt herself singularly drawn.