Herminia, mounted upon a dejected-looking sorrel pony, was climbing the gradual slope of a pine hill one morning in summer. She was a ‘Cadian girl of the old Bayou Derbanne settlement. The pony was of the variety known indifferently as Indian, Mustang or Texan. Nothing remained of the spirited qualities of his youth. His coat in places was worn away to the hide. In other spots, it grew in long tufts and clumps. To the pommel of the saddle was attached an Indian basket containing eggs packed in the cottonseed; and besides, the girl carried some garden truck in a coarse bag.
From the moment of leaving her home on the bayou, Herminia had noticed a slight lump in Ti Démon’s left forefoot. But to pay special attention to his peculiarities would have been to encourage him in what she considered an objectionable line of conduct. “Allons donc! You! Ti Démon! What’s the matter with you?” she exclaimed from time to time. They had long left the bayou road and had penetrated far into the pine forest. The ascent at times was steep and the pony’s feet slipped over the pine needles.
“I believe you doin’ on purpose!” she exclaimed vexatiously. “If I have done right I would walk myself from the firs’ an’ left you behind.” Ti Démon held his leg doubled at a sharp angle and seemed unable to touch it to the ground. At this, Herminia sprang from the saddle, and going forward, lifted the animal’s foot to examine it.
The leg was shaggy and might have been swollen; she could not tell. But there was no sign of his having picked up a nail, a stone, or any foreign substance.
“Come ‘long, Ti Démon. Courage!” and she tried to lead him by the bridle. But he could not be persuaded to move.
The girl stayed wondering what she should do. The horse could go no further; that was a self-evident fact. Her own two legs were as sturdy as steel and could carry her many miles. But the question which confronted her was whether she should turn and go back home or whether she should continue on her way to Monsieur Labatier’s. The planter had his summer home in the hills where there were neither flies, mosquitoes, fevers, fleas nor any of the trials which often afflict the bayou dwellers in summer.
It was nearer to go to the planter’s not more than three miles. And Herminia cherished the certainty of being well received up there. Madame Labatier would pay her handsomely for the eggs and vegetables. They would invite her to dine and give her a sip of wine. She would have an opportunity of observing the toilets and manners of the young ladies – two nieces who were spending a month in the hills. But above all there would be young Mr. Prospere Labatier who perhaps would say:
“Ah! Herminia, it is too bad! Allow me to lend you my horse to return home,” or else:
“Will you permit me the pleasure of escorting you home in my buggy?” These last considerations determined Herminia beyond further hesitancy.
With the piece of rope which she carried on such occasions, she tied Ti Démon to a pine tree near the sandy road in a pleasant, shady spot.
“Now, stay there, till I come back. It’s yo’ own fault if you got to go hungry. You can’t expect’ me to tote you on my back, Grosse bête!” She patted him kindly and turning her back upon him, proceeded to ascend the hill with a little springy step. She wore a calico dress of vivid red and a white sunbonnet from whose depth twinkled two black eyes, quick as a squirrel’s.
Ti Demon observed her with his dull eyes and continued to hold his foot from the ground like a veritable martyr. It was still and restful in the forest and if Ti Demon had not been suffering acutely, he would have enjoyed the peaceful moment. Patches of sunlight played upon his back; a couple of red ants crawled up his hind leg; he slowly swished his long, scant tail. The mocking birds began to sing a duet in the top of a pine tree. They were young; they could sing and rejoice; they knew nothing of the tribulations attending upon old age, Ti Demon thought to himself:
“If this thing keeps up, there’s no telling where it will land me.”
While he understood Herminia’s broken English and her mother’s ‘Cadian French, Ti Demon always thought in his native language, that he had imbibed in his youth in the Indian Nation.
He stood for some hours very still listening to the drowsy noises of the forest. Then a blessed relaxation began to invade the afflicted foreleg. The pain perceptibly died away, and he straightened the limb without difficulty. Ti Demon uttered a deep sigh of relief. But with the consciousness of returning comfort came the realization of his unpleasant situation. He could fancy nothing more uninteresting than to be fastened thus to a tree in the heart of the pine forest. He already began to grow hungry in anticipation of the hunger which would assail him later. He had no means of knowing what hour Herminia would return and release him from his sad predicament. It was then that Ti Demon put into practices one of his chief accomplishments. He began deliberately to unknot the rope with his old, yellow teeth. He had observed Herminia give it an extra knot and had even heard her say:
“There! If you undo that, Ti Demon, they’ll have to allow you got mo’ sense than Raymond’s mule.” The remark had offended him. He hated the constant association with Raymond’s mule to which he was subjected.
He managed after the persistent effort to untie the knot, and Ti Demon soon found himself free to roam whithersoever he chose. If he had been a dog he would have turned his nose uphill and followed in the footsteps of his mistress. But he was only a pony of rather low breeding and almost wholly devoid of sentiment.
Ti Demon walked leisurely down the slope, following the path by which he had come. It was a pleasing diversion to be thus permitted to roam at will. He did not linger, however, to nibble here and thereafter the manner of stray horses, for he knew well that the pine hill afforded little sustenance to man or beast; and he preferred to wait and whet his appetite with the luscious bits that grew below along the bayou. He appeared like a wise old philosopher plunged in thought.
By frequent stepping upon the rope dangling from his neck, it at length gave way, much to Ti Demon’s satisfaction.
“Now! If I could get rid of the saddle as easily!” thought him.
It was impossible to reach the girth with his teeth; he tried that. Then Ti Demon shook himself till his coat bristled; he rubbed himself against the tree; he rolled over on his side, on his back, but the only result which he reached was to turn the saddle so that it dangled beneath him as he walked. At this, he swore lustily to himself, like his master, Blanco Bill, used to swear so many years back in the Nation. He did not feel now like nibbling grass or amusing himself in any way. His one thought was to get home to his dinner of soft food and be rid of the hateful encumbrance beating against his legs.
When Ti Demon found himself standing before his home, he viewed the situation with sullen disapproval. The little house was closed and silent. The only living thing to be seen as the cat sleeping in the shade of the gallery. A line of yellow pumpkins gleamed along the boards in the sun. There was a hoe leaning up against the fence where Herminia’s mother who had been hoeing the tobacco plants had left it.
“Just as I thought,” grumbled Ti Demon. “I could ‘a sworn to it. That woman’s off gallivanting down the river again; dropped her hoe the minute Herminia’s back was turned. An’ those kids ought to be back from school; drat ‘em! A thousand dollars to a doughnut they have gone crawfishing. If I don’t shake this whole shootin’ match first chance I get, my name isn’t Spitfire.” It was the name Blanco Bill had given him at birth and the only one he acknowledged officially.
“There’s no opening gates or lifting latches or anything since they got them newfangled padlocks on,” he further reflected, “if there was, I’d get inside there and them cabbages and cowpeas would be nuts for me. Reckon I’ll stroll down an’ see if I can ketch Solistan at home.” Ti Demon turned again to the road and with a deliberate stride which sent the saddle bumping and thumping; he headed for the neighboring farm up the bayou.
There was nothing startling to Solistan in seeing Ti Demon staring over his fence. He simply thought Herminia had returned from the pine hill, that the animal had got loose from the “lot” and he went forward to drive him into his own enclosure, intending to take him home later, when he should be at leisure.
But Solistan’s astonishment was acute when he discovered Ti Demon’s condition; covered with clay and bits of sticks and bark, Herminia’s saddle hanging beneath him, and the blanket is gone. It was but the work of a moment to drive the pony back in the lot; to throw a measure of corn into the trough; to saddle his own horse and start off at a mad gallop.
“Wonder what all the commotion’s about,” thought Ti Demon as he attempted to munch the corn from the cob. “He didn’t take much trouble to pick an’ choose when he gave me this mess. This here corn mus’ be a hundred years old, or my teeth ain’t what they used to be.”
Solistan knew Ti Demon too well to believe that he had cut any capers which could have resulted in harm to Herminia. But the saddle must have turned with her; he might have stumbled and thrown her. A hundred misgivings assailed him, especially after he had been to her house and discovered the place deserted by all save the cat asleep in the shade of the gallery.
Solistan had started away just as he was, in his blue checked shirt and his boots heavy with the damp earth of the fields. He never dreamt of stopping to make a bit of toilet. He could not remember when he had in his life been prey to such uneasiness. He had known and liked Herminia all her life; but she was always there at hand, seems to be a natural part of the surroundings to which he was accustomed. It was only at that moment, when the menace of some dreadful and unknown fate hung over her, that he fully realized the depth and nature of his attachment for the girl.
Solistan rode far into the forest, his anxiety growing at every moment, and sick with dread of what any turn or bend in the road might reveal to him. He could not contain himself. He shouted for joy when he saw Herminia standing unharmed and motionless beneath a tall pine tree, as though she were holding a conversation and even some argument with his rugged majesty.
Her sunbonnet hung on her arm and her whole attitude was one of deep dejection. Herminia was in truth helplessly surveying the spot where she had so insecurely fastened Ti Démon, who had disappeared, leaving so much as a hair of his hide or tail to say that he had ever been there. This seeming treachery on the part of Ti Démon marked the culmination of Herminia’s mortification, and the tears were suffocating her.
Oh! it had been very fine up at the planters! Too fine indeed. There was a large house-party congregated for the day, and little Herminia standing on the back gallery with her eggs and garden truck had been scarcely noticed.
She had been permitted to dine with them, wedged in between two stout old people; but she felt like an intruder and even perceived that the servants gave themselves the air of forgetting her. The young ladies’ volubility and ease of manners made her feel small and insignificant, and their fluffy summer toilets conveyed to her only the bitter conviction of never being able to reproduce in calico such intricacy of ruffles and puffs. As for Mr. Prospere, he had only exclaimed: “Hello! Herminia!” in passing hastily along with the gallery when she sat with her garden truck and eggs.
She could scarcely eat, for mortification and disappointment. She had not had an opportunity of relating the misadventure to her pony, and when, at left, the planter solicitously asked how she was going to get home, Herminia replied with forced dignity that she had left her horse tied a little below in the woods.
There was the wood all right, and there was Herminia, but where was the pony? That was the question which Herminia seemed to be asking of the big pine tree when Solistan rode up in such hot haste and flung himself from the saddle as if to reach out for some prize that he had pursued and captured.
“Oh! Solistan! I left’ Ti Demon fasten’ yere this mornin’; he couldn’ walk; an’ now he’s gone! Oh! Solistan! Someone must have stolen him!”
“Ti Démon is in my lot eating co’n for all he’s worth. The saddle was turned under him. I thought you’d got hurt.” Solistan wiped his steaming, beaming face with his bandanna; and Herminia felt at beholding him that she had never been so glad or thankful to see anyone in her life. And she could not think of anyone whom she would rather have seen at that moment; not even Mr. Prospere. Not even if he had come along and said:
“Allow me the pleasure of escorting you home in my buggy, Herminia!”
Solistan’s was a big, broad-backed horse, and Herminia sat very comfortably behind the young man on her way back to the bayou; holding on to his suspenders when the occasion required it.
After they had reached Solistan’s home and he had brought forth Ti Démon resaddled and refreshed, the following bit of conversation took place between them. Herminia was mounted, ready to start, and Solistan was still holding the animal’s bridle.
“That Ti Démon of yo’s is played out, Herminia. He isn’t safe, I tell you. He’ll play you a mean trick some these days. I have been thinkin’ you better use that little mare I traded with Raul for last spring.”
“Oh! Solistan! it would take too much corn to feed him. We got Raymond’s mule to feed; an’ Ti Démon eats fo’ three, him“
“Oh! shoot Ti Demon; his time’s over.”
“Shoot Ti Démon!” cried the girl, flushing with indignation. “You talkin’ like crazy, Solistan. I would soon think o’ taking a gun and shootin’ someone passin’ ‘long the road.”
“I’m jus’ talkin’,” laughed Solistan, perceiving the impression which his heartless remark had produced. “Ole Démon’s good for a long time yet. He’s plenty good to haul water or tote the children up an’ down the bayou road. But don’t you ever trust’ yourself in the woods with ‘im again.”
“You can be shot of that, Solistan.”
“And about feedin’,” he went on, greatly occupied with the buckle of Ti Demon’s bridle, “I could keep on feedin’ the horse, an’ if that plan doesn’t suit you, what you think ‘bout takin’ me long with the horse Herminia?”
“Taking you, Solistan!”
“Why not? We plenty ole ‘enough; you must be most eighteen, and I’m going; on twenty-three, me.”
“I better be goin’. We can talk ‘bout that ‘another time.”
“When, Herminia! When?” implored Solistan holding on to the bridle of her pony, “tonight if I come down yonder? Say, tonight?”
“Oh Solistan, let me go!”
“An’ what will you tell me, Herminia?”
“We’ll see about that,” she laughed over her shoulder as Ti Démon started away with a stiff trot.
But all the joy of life had forever left the breast of Ti Démon. Solistan’s sinister remarks had made a deep and painful impression which he could not rid himself of.
When, in the autumn following, the young farmer took Herminia to be his wife, and also took Ti Démon with the benevolent intention of feeding him all the rest of his life, it was then that Ti Démon’s days were given over to brooding upon the possible fate which awaited him.
Once in an unguarded moment, Ti Démon walked himself off, across Bayou Derbanne, along the Sabine and away from the haunts which had known him so long.
“If there’s going to be any shootin’,” reflected Ti Démon as he limped along, swishing his tail, “it’s time for me to be pulling my freight.”
It was during the winter following that Solistan one evening to his wife as she bent over the fire, getting their evening meal. “What you think, Herminia? Raul tole me when he was drivin’ his drove of cattle into Texas las’ month, they came ‘cross Ti Démon layin’ dead in the Bonham road. The little rascal must and been on his way to the Indian Nation.”
“Oh! Po’ Ti Démon!” exclaimed Herminia holding aloft the huge spoon with which she had been stirring the couche-couche. “He was a good and faithful horse! yes!”
“That’s true, Herminia,” replied Solistan with philosophic resignation, “but who knows! maybe it is all for the best!”