THE DOCTOR'S COW
"I am afraid she is done for," said the veterinary surgeon as he came out of the barn with Dr. Layton, after working for an hour over Brindle, who had broken into the feed bins, and devoured bran and middlings until she could eat no more. "But keep up the treatment faithfully, and if she lives through the night, she will stand some show of getting well."
The doctor walked down the driveway with the surgeon, and stood for a few minutes at the gate under the maple-trees that lined the sidewalk, talking earnestly. Then he went back into the house by the kitchen door. His wife met him, with the oft-repeated words, "I told you so; I said that boy would turn out of no earthly account."
"But he has turned out of some account," contradicted the doctor mildly. "In spite of this carelessness, he has been a great help to me during the last month. It was boyish ignorance more than mere carelessness that brought about this disaster. To be sure, I have cautioned him not to leave the door of the feed-room unfastened. But he had no idea how a cow would make a glutton of herself if she had a chance at the bins. You cannot expect a boy who was reared in a city tenement to learn all about the country, and the habits and weaknesses of cattle, in one short month. No, I shall not send him adrift again—not even if poor Brindle dies."
"You mean to say you are going to keep him just the same, John Layton?" cried the doctor's wife. "Well, if you are not the meekest man! Moses was not anything to you! He did lose his temper once."
The doctor smiled, and said quietly: "Yes, and missed entering the promised land on account of it. Perhaps I should have done the same thing in his place; but I am sure that Moses, if he were in my place today, would feel just as I do about discharging Harry. It is pretty safe to assume that he, even if he did lose his temper at the continual grumbling of the croakers who were sighing for the flesh-pots of Egypt, never ordered a young Israelite boy whose father and mother had been bitten by the fiery serpents and died in the wilderness, to clear out of camp for not putting a halter on one of the cows."
"John Layton, you are talking Scripture!" remonstrated the perturbed housewife, looking up reprovingly as she sadly skimmed the cream from the very last pan of milk poor Brindle would ever give her.
"I certainly am, and I am going to act Scripture, too," declared the doctor, with the air of gentle firmness that always ended any controversy between him and his excellent, though somewhat exacting, wife. "Harry is a good boy, and he had a good mother, too, he says, but he has had a hard life, ill-treated by a father who was bitten by the fiery serpent of drink. Now because of his first act of negligence I am not going to send him adrift in the world again."
"Not if it costs you a cow!" remarked the woman.
"No, my dear, not if it costs me two cows," reasserted the doctor. "A cow is less than a boy, and it might cost the world a man if I sent Harry away in a fit of displeasure, disgraced by my discharge so that he could not find another place in town to work for his board, and go to school. Besides, Brindle will die anyway, and discharging the boy will not save her."
"No, of course not. But it was your taking the boy in, a penniless, unknown fellow, that has cost you a cow," persisted the wife. "I told you at the time you would be sorry for it."
"I have not intimated that I am sorry I took the boy in," remarked the doctor, not perversely, but with steadfast kindness. "If our own little boy had lived, and had done this thing accidentally, would I have been sorry he had ever been born? Or if little Ted had grown to be thirteen, and you and I had died in the wilderness of poverty, leaving him to wander out of the city to seek for a home in God's fair country, where his little peaked face could fill out and grow rosy, as Harry's has, would you think it just to have him sent away because he had made a boyish mistake? Of course you would not, mother. Your heart is in the right place, even if it does get covered up sometimes. And I guess, to come right down to it, you would not send Harry away any more than I would, when the poor boy is almost heart-broken over this unfortunate affair. Now, let us have supper, for I must be off. We cannot neglect sick people for a poor, dying cow. Harry will look after Brindle. He will not eat a bite, I am afraid, so it is no use to call him in now. By and by you would better take a plate of something out to him; but do not say a harsh word to the poor fellow, to make it any harder for him than it is."
The doctor ate his supper hurriedly; for the sick cow had engaged every moment of his spare hours that day, and he had postponed until his evening round of visits a number of calls that were not pressing. When he came out to his buggy, Harry Aldis stood at the horse's head, at the carriage steps beside the driveway, his chin sunk on his breast, in an attitude of hopeless misery.
"Keep up the treatment, Harry, and make her as easy as possible," said the doctor as he stepped into his buggy.
"Yes, sir; I'll sit up all night with her, Dr. Layton, if I can only save her," was the choking answer, as the boy carefully spread the lap robe over the doctor's knees.
"I know you will, Harry; but I am afraid nothing can save the poor creature. About all we can do is to relieve her suffering until morning, giving her a last chance; and if she is no better then, the veterinary surgeon says we would better shoot her, and put her out of her misery."
The boy groaned. "O Dr. Layton, why do you not scold me? I could bear it better if you would say just one cross word," he sobbed. "You have been kinder to me than my own father ever was, and I have tried so hard to be useful to you. Now this dreadful thing has taken place, all because of my carelessness. I wish you would take that buggy whip to me; I deserve it."
The doctor took the whip, and gently dropped its lash across the drooping shoulders bowed on the horse's neck as the boy hid his face in the silken mane he loved to comb. Indeed, Dandy's black satin coat had never shone with such a luster from excessive currying as in the month past, since the advent of this new little groom, who slept in the little back bedroom of the doctor's big white house, and thought it a nook in paradise.
"There's no use in scolding or thrashing a fellow who is all broken up, anyway, over an accident, as you are," the doctor said, kindly. "Of course, it is a pretty costly accident for me, but I think I know where I can get a heifer—one of Brindle's own calves, that I sold to a farmer two years ago—that will make as fine a cow as her mother."
"But the money, Dr. Layton! How can I ever earn that to make good your loss?" implored the boy, looking up.
"The money? O, well, some day when you are a rich man, you can pay me for the cow!" laughed the doctor, taking up the reins. "In the meantime, make a good, trustworthy, honest man of yourself, no matter whether you get rich or not, and keep your 'thinking cap' on a little better."
"You had better eat some supper," said a voice in the doorway a little later, as Mrs. Layton came noiselessly to the barn, and surprised the boy kneeling on the hay in the horse's stall adjoining the one where Brindle lay groaning, his face buried in his arms, which were flung out over the manger.
The lad scrambled to his feet in deep confusion.
"O, thank you, Mrs. Layton, but I cannot eat a bite!" he protested. "It is ever so good of you to think of me, but I cannot eat anything."
"You must," said the doctor's wife, firmly. "Come outside and wash in the trough if you do not want to leave Brindle. You can sit near by and watch her, if you think you must, though it will not do a particle of good, for she is bound to die anyway. What were you doing in there on your knees—praying?"
The woman's voice softened perceptibly as the question passed her lips, and she looked half-pityingly into the pale, haggard young face, thinking of little Ted's, and wondering how it would have looked at thirteen if he had done this thing.
"Yes," muttered Harry, plunging his hands into the water of the trough, and splashing it over the red flame of a sudden burning blush that kindled in his ash-pale cheeks. "Isn't it all right to pray for a cow to get well? It 'most kills me to see her suffer so."
Mrs. Layton smiled unwillingly; for the value of her pet cow's products touched her more deeply than a boy's penitent tears, particularly when that boy was not her own. "There is no use of your staying in there and watching her suffer, you cannot do her any good," she insisted. "Stay out here in the fresh air. Do you hear?"
"Yes, ma'am," choked Harry, drying his face on the sleeve of his gingham shirt. He sat down on a box before the door, the plate of food in his lap, and made an attempt to eat the daintily cooked meal, but every mouthful almost choked him.
At about midnight, the sleepless young watcher, lying on the edge of the hay just above the empty manger over which a lantern swung, lifted himself on his elbow at the sound of a long, low, shuddering groan, and in another moment, Harry knew that poor Brindle had ceased to suffer the effects of her gluttonous appetite. Creeping down into the stall, he saw at a glance that the cow was dead, and for a moment, alone there in the stillness and darkness of the spring night, he felt as if he were the principal actor in some terrible crime.
"Poor old boss!" he sobbed, kneeling down, and putting his arm over the still warm neck. "I—I have killed you—after all the rich milk and butter you have given me, that have made me grow strong and fat—just by my carelessness!"
In after-years the memory of that hour came back to Harry Aldis as the dominant note in some real tragedy, and he never again smelled the fragrance of new hay, mingled with the warm breath of sleeping cattle, without recalling the misery and self-condemnation of that long night's watch.
In the early dawn, Dr. Layton found the boy lying beside the quiet form in the stall, fast asleep from exhaustion and grief, his head pillowed on the soft, tawny coat he had loved to brush until it gleamed like silk.
"Child alive!" he gasped, bending over and taking the lad in his arms, and carrying him out into the sweet morning air. "Harry, why did you not come and tell me, and then go to bed?" he cried, setting the bewildered boy on his feet, and leading him to the house. "Now, my boy, no more of this grieving. The thing is done, and you cannot help it now. There is no more use in crying for a dead cow than for spilled milk. Now come in and go to bed, and stay there until tonight; and when you wake up, the new heifer, Brindle's daughter, will be in the barn waiting for you to milk her. I am going to buy her this morning."
* * * * *
Five years after that eventful night, Harry Aldis stood on the doctor's front porch, a youth of eighteen, bidding good-by to the two who had been more to him than father and mother. He was going to college in the West, where he could work his way, and in his trunk was a high-school diploma, and in his pocket a "gilt-edge recommendation" from Dr. Layton.
"God bless you, my boy! Don't forget us," said the doctor, his voice husky with unshed tears as he wrung the strong young hand that had been so helpful to him in the busy years flown by.
"Forget you, my more than father!" murmured the young man, not even trying to keep the tears out of his eyes. "No matter how many years it may be before I see you again, I shall always remember your unfailing kindness to me. And can I ever forget how you saved me for a higher life than I could possibly have lived if you had set me adrift in the world again for leaving that barn door unfastened, and killing your cow? As long as I live, I shall remember that great kindness, and shall try to deserve it by my life."
"Pshaw, Harry," said the doctor, "that was nothing but common humanity!"
"Uncommon humanity," corrected the youth. "Good-by, Mrs. Layton. I shall always remember your kindness, too, and that you never gave me any less butter or cream from poor Brindle's daughter for my grave offense. You have been like an own mother to me."
"You have deserved it all, Harry," said the doctor's wife, and there was a tear in her eye, too, which was an unusual sight, for she was not an emotional woman. "I do not know as it was such a great calamity, after all, to lose Brindle just as we did, for Daisy is a finer cow than her mother was, and there has not been another chance since to get as good a heifer."
"So it was a blessing in disguise, after all, Harry," laughed the doctor.
"As for you, you have been a blessing undisguised from that day to this.
May the Lord bless and prosper you! Write to us often."
* * * * *
Four years passed, and in one of the Western States a young college graduate stepped from his pedestal of oratorical honors to take a place among the rising young lawyers of a prosperous new town that was fast developing into a commercial center.
"I am doing well, splendidly," he wrote Dr. Layton after two years of hard work, "and one of these days I am coming back to make that promised visit."
But the years came and went, and still the West held him in its powerful clutch. Success smiled upon his pathway, and into his life entered the sweet, new joy of a woman's love and devotion, and into his home came the happy music of children's voices.