"This way, Ma'am," Tompkins was waving as Zen emerged from the grove. "Another of our usual mornings. Hope you slep' well, Ma'am." He stood deferentially aside while she ascended the three steps that led into the covered wagon.
Zen gave a little shriek of delight, and Tompkins felt that all his efforts had been well repaid. One end of the table—it was with a sore heart Tompkins had realized that he could not cut down the big table—one end of the table was set with a clean linen cloth and granite dishware scoured until it shone. Beside Zen's plate were grape fruit and sliced oranges and real cream.
"However did you manage it?" she gasped.
"Nothing's too good for Y.D.'s daughter," was the only explanation Tompkins would offer, but, as Zen afterwards said, the smile on his face was as good as another breakfast. After the fruit came porridge, and more cream; then fresh boiled eggs with toast; then fresh ripe strawberries with more cream.
"Tompkins, Ma'am; Cyrus Tompkins," he supplied.
"Well, Mr. Tompkins, you're a wonder, and when there's a new cook to be engaged for the Y.D. I shall think of you."
"Indeed I wish you would, Ma'am," he said, earnestly. "This road work's all right, and nobody ever cooked for a better boss than Mr. Transley—savin' it would be your father, Ma'am—but I'm a man of family, an' it's pretty hard—"
"Family, did you say, Mr. Tompkins? How many of a family have you?"
"Well, it's seven years since I heard from them—I haven't corresponded very reg'lar of late, but they WAS six—"
The story of Tompkins' family was cut short by the arrival of a team and mowing machine.
"What's up, Fred?" called Tompkins through a window of his dining car to the driver. "Breakfust is just over, an' dinner ain't begun."
For answer the man addressed as Fred slowly produced an iron stake about eighteen inches long and somewhat less than an inch in diameter.
"What kind of shrubbery do you call that, Tompkins?" he demanded.
"Well, it ain't buffalo grass, an' it ain't brome grass, an' I don't figger it's alfalfa," said Tompkins, meditatively.
"No, and it ain't a grub-stake," Fred replied, with some sarcasm. "It's a iron stake, growin' right in a nice little clump of grass, and I run on to it and bust my cuttin'-bar all to—that is, all to pieces," he completed rather lamely, taking Zen into his glance.
"I think I follow you," she said, with a smile. "Can you fix it here?"
"Nope. Have to go to town for a new one. Two days' lost time, when every hour counts. Hello! Here comes someone else."
Another of the teamsters was drawing into camp. "Hello, Fred!" he said, upon coming up with his fellow workman, "you in too? I had a bit of bad luck. I run smash on to an iron stake right there in the ground and crumpled my knife like so much soap."
"I did worse," said Fred, with a grin. "I bust my cuttin'-bar."
The two men exchanged a steady glance for half a minute. Then the new-comer gave vent to a long, low whistle.
"So that's the way of it," he said. "That's the kind of war Mr. Landson makes. Well, we can fight back with the same weapons, but that won't cut the hay, will it?"
By this time Y.D. and Transley, with four other teamsters, were observed coming in. Each driver had had the same experience. An iron stake, carefully hidden in a clump of grass, had been driven down into the ground until it was just high enough to intercept the cutting-bar. The fine, sharp knives were crumpled against it; in some cases the heavy cutting-bar, in which the knives operate, was damaged.
Y.D.'s face was black with fury.
"That's the lowest, mangyest, cowardliest trick I ever had pulled on me," he was saying. "I'm plumb equal to ridin' down to Landson's an' drivin' one of them stakes through under his short ribs."
"But can you prove that Landson did it?" said Zen, who had an element of caution in her when her father was concerned. She had a vision of a fight, with Landson pleading entire ignorance of the whole cause of offence, and her father probably summoned by the police for unprovoked assault.
"No, I can't prove that Landson did it, an' I can't prove that the grass my steers eat turns to hair on their backs," he retorted, "but I reach my own conclusions. Is there any shootin' irons in the place?"
"Now, Dad, that's enough," said the girl, firmly. "There'll be no shooting between you and Landson. If there is to be anything of that kind I'll ride down ahead and warn him of what's coming."
"Darter," said Y.D.—it was only on momentous occasions that he addressed her as daughter—"I brought you over here as a guest, not as manager o' my affairs. I've taken care of those affairs for some considerable years, an' I reckon I still have the qualifications. If you're a-goin' to act up obstrep'rous I'll get Mr. Transley to lend me a man to escort you home."
"At your service, Y.D.," said George Drazk, who was in the crowd which had gathered about the rancher, his daughter, and Transley. "That Pete-horse an' me would jus' see her over the hills a-whoopin'."
"I don't think it would be wise to take any extreme measures, at least, not just yet," said Transley. "It's out of the question to suppose that Landson has picketed the whole valley with those stakes. It is now quite clear why we were left in peace yesterday. He wanted us to get started, and get a few swaths cut, so that he would know where to drive the stakes to catch us the next morning. Some of these machines can be repaired at once, and the others within a day or two. We will just move over a little and start on new fields. There's pretty good moonlight these nights and we'll leave a few men out on guard, and perhaps we can catch the enemy at his little game. Let us get one of Landson's men with the goods on him."
Y.D. was somewhat pacified by this suggestion. "You're a practical devil, Transley," he said, with considerable admiration. "Now, in a case of this kind I jus' get plumb fightin' mad. I want to bore somebody. I guess it's the only kind o' procedure that comes easy to my hand. I guess you're right, but I hate to let anybody have the laugh on me." Y.D. looked down the valley, shading his eyes with his hand. "That son-of-a-gun has got a dozen or more stacks down there. I don't wish nobody any hard luck, but if some tenderfoot was to drop a cigar—"
"In that case I suppose you'd pray for a west wind, Dad," Zen suggested, "but the winds in these valleys, even with your prayers to direct them, are none too reliable."
"Everybody to work on fixing up these machines," Transley ordered. "Linder, make a list of what repairs are needed and Drazk will ride to town with it at once. Some of them may have to come out from the city by express. Drazk can get the orders in and a team will follow to bring out the repairs."
In a moment Transley's men were busy with wrenches and hammers, replacing knives and appraising damages. Even in his anger Y.D. took approving note of the promptness of Transley's decisions and the zest with which his men carried them into effect.
"A he-man, that fellow, Zen," he confided to his daughter, "If he'd blowed into this country thirty years ago, like I did, he'd own it by this time plumb to the sky-line."
When the list of repairs was completed Linder handed it to Drazk.
"Beat it to town on that Pete-horse of yours, George," he said. "Burn the grass on the road."
"I bet I'll be ten miles on the road back when I meet my shadow goin'," said Drazk, making a spectacular leap into his saddle. "Bye, Y.D!; bye, Zen!" he shouted while he whirled his horse's head eastward and waved his hand to where they stood. In spite of her annoyance at him she had to smile and return his salute.
"Mr. Drazk is irrepressible," she remarked to Transley.
"And irresponsible," the contractor returned. "I sometimes wonder why I keep him. In fact, I don't really keep him; he just stays. Every spring he hunts me up and fastens on. Still, I get a lot of good service out of him. Praise 'that Pete-horse,' and George would ride his head off for you. He has a weakness for wanting to marry every woman he sees, but his infatuations seem harmless enough."
"I know something of his weakness," Zen replied. "I have already been honored with a proposal."
Transley looked in her face. It was slightly flushed, whether with the summer sun or with her confession, but it was a wonderfully good face to look in.
"Zen," he said, in a low voice that Y.D. and the others might not hear, "how would you take a serious proposal, made seriously by one who loves you, and who knows that you are, and always will be, a queen among women?"
"If you had been a cow puncher instead of a contractor," she told him, "I'm sure you would long ago have ended your life in some dash over a cutbank."
Meanwhile Drazk pursued his way to town. The trail, after crossing the ford, turned abruptly to the right from that which led across country to the North Y.D. For a mile or more it skirted the stream in a park-like drive through groves of spruce and cottonwood. Sunshine and the babble of water everywhere filled the air. Sunshine, too, filled George Drazk's heart. The importance of his mission was pleasantly heavy upon him. He pictured the impression he would make in town, galloping in with his horse wet over the back, and rushing to the implement agency with all the importance of a courier from Y.D. He would let two of the boys take Pete to the stable, and then, seated on a mower seat in the shade, he would tell the story. It would lose nothing in the telling. He would even add how Zen had thrown a kiss at him in parting. Perhaps he would have Zen kiss him on the cheek before the whole camp. He turned that possibility over in his mind, weighing nicely the credulity of his imaginary audience.... At any rate, whether he decided to put that in the story or not, it was very pleasant to think about.
Presently the trail turned abruptly up a gully leading into the hills. A huge cutbank, jutting into the river, barred the way in front, and its precipitous side, a hundred feet or more in height, kept continually crumbling and falling into the stream. These cutbanks are a terror to inexperienced riders. The valleys are swallowed up in the tawny sameness of the ranges; the vision catches only the higher levels, and one may gallop to the verge of a precipice before becoming aware of its existence. It was to this that Zen had referred in speaking of Transley's precipitateness.
Drazk followed the gully up into the hills, letting his horse drop back to a walk in the hard going along the dry bed of a stream which flowed only in the spring freshets. Pete had to pick his way over boulders and across stretches of sand and boggy patches of black mud formed by little springs leaking out under clumps of willows. Here and there the white ribs of a steer's skeleton peered through the brush; once or twice an overpowering stench gave notice of a carcass not wholly decomposed.
It was not a pleasant environment, but in an hour Drazk was out again on the brow of the brown hills, where the sunshine flooded about and a fresh breeze beat up against his face. After all his winding about in the gully he was not more than a mile from the cutbank.
"I reckon I could get a great view from that cutbank of what Landson is doin'," he suddenly remarked to himself. He took off his hat and scratched his tousled head in reflection. "Linder said to beat it," he ruminated, "but I can't get back to-night anyway, an' it might be worth while to do a little scoutin'. Here goes!"
He struck a smart gallop to the southward, and brought his horse up, spectacularly, a yard from the edge of the precipice. The view which his position commanded was superb. Up the valley lay the white tents of Transley's outfit, almost hidden in green foliage; the ford across the river was distinctly visible, and stretching south from it lay, like a great curving snake, the trail which wound across the valley and lost itself in the foothills far to the south; across the western horizon hung the purple curtain of the mountains, soft and vague in their noonday mists, but touched with settings of ivory where the snow fields beat back the blazing sunshine; far down the valley was the gleam of Landson's whitewashed buildings, and nearer at hand the greenish-brown of the upland meadows which his haymakers had already cleared of their crop of prairie wool. This was now arising in enormous stacks; it must have been three miles to where they lay, but Drazk's keen eyes could distinguish ten completed stacks and two others in course of building. He could even see the sweeps hauling the new hay, after only a few hours of sun-drying, and sliding it up the inclined platforms which dumped it into the form of stacks. The foothill rancher makes hay by horse power, and almost without the aid of a pitch-fork. Even as Drazk watched he saw a load skidded up; saw its apparent momentary poise in air; saw the well-trained horses stop and turn and start back to the meadow with their sweep. And up the valley Transley's outfit was at a standstill.
Drazk employed his limited but expressive vocabulary. It was against all human nature to look on such a scene unmoved. He recalled Y.D.'s half-spoken wish about a random cigar. Then suddenly George Drazk's mouth dropped open and his eyes rounded with a great idea.
Of course, it was against all the rules of the range—it was outlaw business—but what about driving iron stakes in a hay meadow? Drazk's philosophy was that the end justifies the means. And if the end would win the approval of Y.D.—and of Y.D.'s daughter—then any means was justified. Had not Linder said, "Burn the grass on the road?" Drazk knew well enough that Linder's remark was a figure of speech, but his eccentric mind found no trouble in converting it into literal instructions.
Drazk sniffed the air and looked at the sun. A soft breeze was moving slowly up the valley; the sun was just past noon. There was every reason to expect that as the lowland prairies grew hot with the afternoon sunshine a breeze would come down out of the mountains to occupy the area of great atmospheric expansion. Drazk knew nothing about the theory of the thing; all that concerned him was the fact that by mid-afternoon the wind would probably change to the west.
Two miles down the valley he found a gully which gave access to the water's edge. He descended, located a ford, and crossed. There were cattle-trails through the cottonwoods; he might have followed them, but he feared the telltale shoe-prints. He elected the more difficult route down the stream itself. The South Y.D. ran mostly on a wide gravel bottom; it was possible to pick out a course which kept Pete in water seldom higher than his knees. An hour of this, and Drazk, peering through the trees, could see the nearest of Landson's stacks not half a mile away. The Landson gang were working farther down the valley, and the stack itself covered approach from the river.
Drazk slipped from the saddle, and stole quietly into the open. The breeze was now coming down the valley.
Transley's men had repaired such machines as they could and returned to work. The clatter of mowing machines filled the valley; the horses were speeded up to recover lost time. Transley and Y.D. rode about, carefully scrutinizing the short grass for iron stakes, and keeping a general eye on operations.
Suddenly Transley sat bolt-still on his horse. Then, in a low voice,
"Y.D!" he said.
The rancher turned and followed the line of Transley's vision. The nearest of Landson's stacks was ablaze, and a great pillar of smoke was rolling skyward. Even as they watched, the base of the fire seemed to spread; then, in a moment, tongues of flame were seen leaping from a stack farther on.
"Looks like your prayers were answered, Y.D.," said Transley. "I bet they haven't a plow nearer than the ranch."
Y.D. seemed fascinated by the sight. He could not take his eyes off it. He drew a cigar from his pocket and thrust it far into his mouth, chewing it savagely and rolling it in his lips, but, according to the law of the hayfield, refraining from lighting it. At first there was a gleam of vengeance in his eyes, but presently that gave way to a sort of horror. Every honorable tradition of the range demanded that he enlist his force against the common enemy.
"Hell, Transley!" he ejaculated, "we can't sit and look at that! Order the men out! What have we got to fight with?"
For answer Transley swung round in his saddle and struck his palm into Y.D.'s.
"Good boy, Y.D!" he said. "I did you an injustice—I mean, about your prayers being answered. We haven't as much as a plow, either, but we can gallop down with some barrels in a wagon and put a sack brigade to work. I'm afraid it won't save Landson's hay, but it will show where our hearts are."
Transley and Y.D. galloped off to round up the men, some of whom had already noticed the fire. Transley despatched four men and two teams to take barrels, sacks, and horse blankets to the Landson meadows. The others he sent off at once on horseback to give what help they could.
Zen rode up just as they left, and already her fine horse seemed to realize the tension in the air. His keen, hard-strung muscles quivered as she brought his gallop to a stop.
"How did it start, Dad?" she demanded.
"How do I know?" he returned, shortly. "D'ye think I fired it?"
"No, but I just asked the question that Landson will ask, so you better have your answer handy. I'm going to gallop down to their ranch; perhaps I can help Mrs. Landson."
"The ranch buildings are safe enough, I think," said Transley. "The grass there is close cropped, and there is some plowing."
For a moment the three sat, watching the spread of the flames. By this time the whole lower valley was blanketed in smoke. Clouds of blue and mauve and creamy yellow rolled from the meadows and stacks. The fire was whipping the light breeze of the afternoon to a gale, and was already running wildly over the flanks of the foothills.
"Well, I'm off," said Zen. "Good-bye!"
"Be careful, Zen!" her father shouted. "Fire is fire." But already her horse was stretching low and straight in a hard gallop down the valley.
"I'll ride in to camp and tell Tompkins to make up a double supply of sandwiches and coffee," said Transley. "I guess there'll be no cooking in Landson's outfit this afternoon. After that we can both run down and lend a hand, if that suits you."
As they rode to camp together Y.D. drew up close to the contractor. "Transley," he said, "how do you reckon that fire started?"
"I don't know," said Transley, "any more than you do."
"I didn't ask you what you KNEW. I asked you what you reckoned."
Transley rode for some minutes in silence. Then at last he spoke:
"A man isn't supposed to reckon in things of this kind. He should know, or keep his mouth shut. But I allow myself just one guess. Drazk."
"Why Drazk?" Y.D. demanded. "He has nothin' to gain, and this prank may put him in the cooler."
"Drazk would do anything to be spectacular," Transley explained. "He probably will boast openly about it. You know, he's trying to make an impression on Zen."
"Of course it's nonsense, but Drazk doesn't see it that way."
"I'd string him to the nearest cottonwood if I thought he—"
"Now don't do him an injustice, Y.D. Drazk doesn't realize that he is no mate for Zen. He doesn't know of any reason why Zen shouldn't look on him with favor; indeed, with pride. It's ridiculous, I know, but Drazk is built that way."
"Then I'll change his style of architecture the first time I run into him," said Y.D. savagely. "Zen is too young to think of such a thing, anyway."
"She will always be too young to think of such a thing, so far as Drazk or his type is concerned," Transley returned. "But suppose—Y.D., to be quite frank, suppose I suggested—"
"Transley, you work quick," said Y.D. "I admit I like a quick worker. But just now we have a fire on our hands."
By this time they had reached the camp. Transley gave his instructions in a few words, and then turned to ride down to Landson's. They had gone only a few hundred yards when Y.D. pulled his horse to a stop.
"Transley!" he exclaimed, and his voice was shaking. "What do you smell?"
The contractor drew up and sniffed the air. When he turned to Y.D. his face was white.
"Smoke, Y.D!" he gasped. "The wind has changed!"
It was true. Already low clouds of smoke were drifting overhead like a broken veil. The erratic foothill wind, which a few minutes before had been coming down the valley, was now blowing back up again. Even while they took in the situation they could feel the hot breath of the distant fire borne against their faces.
"Well, it's up to us," said Transley tersely. "We'll make a fight of it. Got any speed in that nag of yours?" Without waiting for an answer he put spurs to his horse and set forward on a wild gallop into the smoke.
A mile down the line he found that Linder had already gathered his forces and laid out a plan of defence. The valley, from the South Y.D. to the hills, was about four miles wide, and up the full breadth of it was now coming the fire from Landson's fields. There was no natural fighting line; Linder had not so much as a buffalo path to work against. But he was already starting back-fires at intervals of fifty yards, allotting three men to each fire. A back-fire is a fire started for the purpose of stopping another. Usually a road, or a plowed strip, or even a cattle path, is used for a base. On the windward side of this base the back-fire is started and allowed to eat its way back against the wind until it meets the main fire which is rushing forward with the wind, and chokes it out for lack of fuel. A few men, stationed along a furrow or a trail, can keep the small back-fire from jumping it, although they would be powerless to check the momentum of the main fire.
This was Linder's position, except that he had no furrow to work against. All he could do was tell off men with sacks and horse blankets soaked in the barrels of water to hold the back-fire in check as best they could. So far they were succeeding. As soon as the fire had burned a few feet the forward side of it was pounded out with wet sacks. It didn't matter about the other side. It could be allowed to eat back as far as it liked; the farther the better.
"Good boy, Lin!" Transley shouted, as he drew up and surveyed operations. "She played us a dirty trick, didn't she?"
Linder looked up, red-eyed and coughing. "We can hold it here," he said, "but we can never cross the valley. The fire will be on us before we have burned a mile. It will beat around our south flank and lick up everything!"
Transley jumped from his horse. He seized Linder in his arms and literally threw him into the saddle. "You're played, boy!" he shouted in his foreman's ear. "Ride down to the river and get into the water, and stay there until you know we can win!"
Then Transley threw himself into the fight. As the men said afterwards, Linder fought like a wildcat, but Transley fought like a den of lions. When the wagon galloped up from the river with barrels of water Transley seized a barrel at the end and set it bodily on the ground. He sprang into the wagon, shouting commands to horses and men. A hundred yards they galloped along the fighting front; then Transley sprang out and set another barrel on the ground. In this way, instead of having the men all coming to the wagon to wet their sacks, he distributed water along the line. Then they turned back, picked up the empty barrels, and galloped to the river for a fresh supply.
Soon they had the first mile secure. The backfires had all met; the forward line of flames had all been pounded out; the rear line had burned back until there was no danger of it jumping the burned space. Then Transley picked up his kit and rushed it on to a new front farther south. At intervals of a hundred yards he started fires, holding them in check and beating out the western edge as before.
But his difficulties were increasing. He was farther from the river. It took longer to get water. One of the barrels fell off and collapsed. Some of the men were playing out. The horses were wild with excitement and terror. The smoke was growing denser and hotter. Men were coughing and gasping through dry, seared lips.
"You can't hold it, Transley; you can't hold it!" said one of the men.
Transley hit him from the shoulder. He crumpled up and collapsed.
A mile and a half had been made safe, but the smoke was suffocatingly thick and the roar of the oncoming fire rose above the shouts of the fighters. Up galloped the water wagon; made a sharp lurch and turn, and a front wheel collapsed with the shock. The wagon went down at one corner and the barrels were dumped on the ground.
The men looked at Transley. For one moment he surveyed the situation.
"Is there a chain?" he demanded. There was.
"Hitch on to the tire of this broken wheel. Some of you men yank the hub out of it. Others pull grass. Pull, like hell was after you!"
They pulled. In a minute or two Transley had the rim of the wheel flat on the ground, with a team hitched to it and a little pile of dry grass inside. Then he set fire to the little pile of grass and started the team slowly along the battle front. As they moved the burning grass in the rim set fire to the grass on the prairie underneath; the rim partly rubbed it out again as it came over, and the men were able to keep what remained in check, but as he lengthened his line Transley had to leave more and more men to beat out the fire, and had fewer to pull grass. The sacks were too wet to burn; he had to have grass to feed his moving fire-spreader.
At length he had only a teamster and himself, and his fire was going out. Transley whipped off his shirt, rolled it into a little heap, set fire to it, and ran along beside the rim, firing the little moving circle of grass inside.
It was the teamster, looking back, who saw Transley fall. He had to drop the lines to run to his assistance, and the horses, terrified by smoke and fire and the excitement of the fight, immediately bolted. The teamster took Transley in his arms and half carried, half dragged him into the safe area behind the backfires. And a few minutes later the main fire, checked on its front, swept by on the flank and raced on up through the valley.
In riding down to the assistance of Mrs. Landson Zen found herself suddenly caught in an eddy of smoke. She did not realize at the moment that the wind had turned; she thought she must have ridden into the fire area. To avoid the possibility of being cut off by the fire, and also for better air, she turned her horse to the river. All through the valley were billows of smoke, with here and there a reddish-yellow glare marking the more vicious sections of flame. Vaguely, at times, she thought she caught the shouting of men, but all the heavens seemed full of roaring.
When Zen reached the water the smoke was hanging low on it, and she drove her horse well in. Then she swung down the stream, believing that by making a detour in this way she could pass the wedge of fire that had interrupted her and get back on to the trail leading to Landson's. She was coughing with the smoke, but rode on in the confidence that presently it would lift.
It did. A whip of wind raised it like a strong arm throwing off a blanket. She sat up and breathed freely. The hot sun shone through rifts in the canopy of smoke; the blue sky looked down serene and unmoved by this outburst of the elements. Then as Zen brought her eyes back to the water she saw a man on horseback not forty yards ahead. Her first thought was that it must be one of the fire fighters, driven like herself to safety, but a second glance revealed George Drazk. For a moment she had an impulse to wheel and ride out, but even as she smothered that impulse a tinge of color rose in her cheeks that she should for a moment have entertained it. To let George Drazk think she was afraid of him would be utmost humiliation.
She continued straight down the stream, but he had already seen her and was headed her way. In the excitement of what he had just done Drazk was less responsible than usual.
"Hello, Zen!" he said. "Mighty decent of you to ride down an' meet me like this. Mighty decent, Zen!"
"I didn't ride down to meet you, Drazk, and you know it. Keep out of the way or I'll use a whip on you!"
"Oh, how haughty! Y.D. all over! Never mind, dear, I like you all the better for that. Who wants a tame horse? An' as for comin' down to meet me, what's the odds, so long as we've met?"
He had turned his horse and blocked the way in front of her. When Zen's horse came within reach Drazk caught him by the bridle.
"Will you let go?" the girl said, speaking as calmly as she could, but in a white passion. "Will you let go of that bridle, or shall I make you?"
He looked her full in the face. "Gad, but you're a stunner!" he exclaimed. "I'm glad we met—here."
She brought her whip with a biting cut around the wrist that held her bridle. Drazk winced, but did not let go.
"Jus' for that, young Y.D.," he hissed, "jus' for that we drop all formalities, so to speak."
With a dexterous spurring he brought his horse alongside and threw an arm about Zen before she could beat him off. She used her whip at short range on his face, but had not arm-room in which to land a blow. They were stirrup-deep in water, and as they struggled the horses edged in deeper still. Finding that she could not beat Drazk off Zen clutched her saddle and drove the spurs into her horse. At this unaccustomed treatment he plunged wildly forward, but Drazk's grip on her was too strong to be broken. The manoeuvre had, however, the effect of unhorsing Drazk. He fell in the water, but kept his grip on Zen. With his free hand he still had the reins of his own horse, and he managed also to get hold of hers. Although her horse was plunging and jumping, Drazk's strong grip on his rein kept him from breaking away.
"You fight well, Zen, damn you—you fight well," he cried. "So you might. You played with me—you made a fool of me. We'll see who's the fool in the end." With a mighty wrench he tore her from her saddle and she found herself struggling with him in the water.
"If I put you under for a minute I guess you'll be good," he threatened. "I'll half drown you, Zen, if I have to."
"Go ahead," she challenged. "I'll drown myself, if I have to."
"Not just yet, Zen; not just yet. Afterwards you can do as you like."
In their struggles they had been getting gradually into deeper water. At this moment they found their feet carried free, and the horses began to swim for the shore. Drazk held to both reins with one hand, still clutching his victim with the other. More than once they went under water together and came up half choking.
Zen was not a good swimmer, but she would gladly have broken away and taken chances with the current. Once on land she would be at his mercy. She was using her head frantically, but could think of no device to foil him. It was not her practice to carry weapons; her whip had already gone down the stream. Presently she saw a long leather thong floating out from the saddle of Drazk's horse. It was no larger than a whiplash; apparently it was a spare lace which Drazk carried, and which had worked loose in the struggle. It was floating close to Drazk.
"Don't let me sink, George!" she cried frantically, in sudden fright. "Save me! I won't fight any more."
"That's better," he said, drawing her up to him. "I knew you'd come to your senses."
Her hand reached the lash. With a quick motion of the arm, such as is given in throwing a rope, she had looped it once around his neck. Then, pulling the lash violently, she fought herself out of his grip. He clutched at her wildly, but could reach only some stray locks of her brown hair which had broken loose and were floating on the water.
She saw his eyes grow round and big and horrified; saw his mouth open and refuse to close; heard strange little gurgles and chokings. But she did not let go.
"When you insulted me this morning I promised to settle with you; I did not expect to have the chance so soon."
His head had gone under water.... Suddenly she realized that he was drowning. She let go of the thong, clutched her horse's tail, and was pulled quickly ashore.
Sitting on the gravel, she tried to think. Drazk had disappeared; his horse had landed somewhat farther down.... Doubtless Drazk had drowned. Yes, that would be the explanation. Why change it?
Zen turned it over in her mind. Why make any explanations? It would be a good thing to forget. She could not have done otherwise under the circumstances; no jury would expect her to do otherwise. But why trouble a jury about it?
"He got what was coming to him," she said to herself presently. She admitted no regret. On the contrary, her inborn self-confidence, her assurance that she could take care of herself under any circumstances, seemed to be strengthened by the experience.
She got up, drew her hair into some kind of shape, and scrambled a little way up the steep bank. Clouds of smoke were rolling up the valley. She did not grasp the significance of the fact at the first glance, but in a moment it impacted home to her. The wind had changed! Her help now would be needed, not by Mrs. Landson, but probably at their own camp. She sprang on her horse, re-crossed the stream, and set out on a gallop for the camp. On the way she had to ride through one thin line of fire, which she accomplished successfully. Through the smoke she could dimly see Transley's gang fighting the back-fires. She knew that was in good hands, and hastened on to the camp. Zen had had prairie experience enough to know that in hours like this there is almost sure to be something or somebody, in vital need, overlooked.
She galloped into the camp and found only Tompkins there. He had already run a little back-fire to protect the tents and the chuck-wagon.
"How goes it, Tompkins?" she cried, bursting upon him like a courier from battle.
"All set here, Ma'am," he answered. "All set an' safe. But they'll never hold the main fire; it'll go up the valley hell-scootin',—beggin' your pardon, Ma'am."
"Anyone live up the valley?"
"There is. There's the Lints—squatters about six miles up—it was from them I got the cream an' fresh eggs you was good enough to notice, Ma'am. An' there's no men folks about; jus' Mrs. Lint an' a young herd of little Lints; least, that's all was there las' night."
"I must go up," said Zen, with instant decision. "I can get there before the fire, and as the Lints are evidently farmers there will be some plowed land, or at least a plow with which to run a furrow so that we can start a back-fire. Direct me."
Tompkins directed her as to the way, and, leaving a word of explanation to be passed on to her father, she was off. A half hour's hard riding brought her to Lint's, but she found that this careful settler had made full provision against such a contingency as was now come about. The farm buildings, implements, stables, everything was surrounded, not by a fire-guard, but by a broad plowed field. Mrs. Lint, however, was little less thankful for Zen's interest than she would have been had their little steading been in danger. She pressed Zen to wait and have at least a cup of tea, and the girl, knowing that she could be of little or no service down the valley, allowed herself to be persuaded. In this little harbor of quiet her mind began to arrange the day's events. The tragic happening at the river was as yet too recent to appear real; had it not been for the touch of her wet clothing Zen could have thought that all an unhappy dream of days ago. She reflected that neither Tompkins nor Mrs. Lint had commented upon her appearance. The hot sun had soon dried her outer apparel, and her general dishevelled condition was not remarkable on such a day as this.
The wind had gone down as the afternoon waned, and the fire was working up the valley leisurely when Zen set out on her return trip. A couple of miles from the Lint homestead she met its advance guard. It was evening now; the sun shone dull red through the banked clouds of smoke resting against the mountains to the west; the flames danced and flickered, advanced and receded, sprang up and died down again, along mile after mile of front. It was a beautiful thing to behold, and Zen drew her horse to a stop on a hill-top to take in the grandeur of the scene. Near at hand frolicking flames were working about the base of the hill, and far down the valley and over the foothills the flanks of the fire stretched like lines of impish infantry in single file.
Suddenly she heard the sound of hoofs, and a rider drew up at her side. She supposed him one of Transley's men, but could not recall having seen him in the camp. He sat his horse with an ease and grace that her eye was quick to appraise; he removed his broad felt hat before he spoke; and he did not call her "ma'am."
"Pardon me—I believe I am speaking to Y.D.'s daughter?" he asked, and before waiting for a reply hastened to introduce himself. "My name is Dennison Grant, foreman on the Landson ranch."
"Oh!" she exclaimed. "I thought—I thought you were one of Mr. Transley's men." Then, with a quick sense of the barrier between them, she added, "I hope you don't think that I—that we—had anything to do with this?" She indicated the ruined valley with her hand.
"No more than I had to do with those coward's stakes," he answered. "Neither of us understand just now, but can we take that much for granted?"
There was something about him that rather appealed to her. "I think we can," she said, simply.
For a moment they watched the kaleidoscopic scene below them. "It may help you to understand," she continued, "if I say that I was riding down to see if I could be of some use to Mrs. Landson when the wind changed, and I saw I would be more likely to be needed here."
"And it may help you to understand," he said, "if I say that as soon as immediate danger to the Landson ranch was over I rode up to Transley's camp. Only the cook was there, and he told me of your having set out to help Mrs. Lint, so I followed up. Fortunately the fire has lost its punch; it will probably go out through the night."
There was a short silence, in which she began to realize her peculiar position. This man was the rival of Transley and Linder in the business of hay-cutting in the valley. He was the foreman of the Landson crowd—Landson, against whom her father had been voicing something very near to murder threats not many hours ago. Had she met him before the fire she would have spurned and despised him, but nothing unites the factions of man like a fight against a common elemental enemy. Besides, there was the question, How DID the fire start? That was a question which every Landson man would be asking. Grant had been generous about it; he had asked her to be equally generous about the episode of the stakes.... And there was something about the man that appealed to her. She had never felt that way about Transley or Linder. She had been interested in them; amused, perhaps; out for an adventure, perhaps; but this man—Nonsense! It was the environment—the romantic setting. As for Drazk—A quick sense of horror caught her as the memory of his choking face protruded into her consciousness....
"Well, suppose we ride home," he suggested. "By Jove! The fire has worked around us."
It was true. The hill on which they stood was now entirely surrounded by a ring of fire, eating slowly up the side. The warmth of its breath already pressed against their faces; the funnel effect created by the circle of fire was whipping up a stronger draught. The smoke seemed to be gathering to a centre above them.
He swung up close to her. "Will your horse face it?" he asked. "If not, we'd better blindfold him."
"I'll try him," she said. "He was all right this afternoon, but he was reckless then with a hard gallop."
Zen's horse trotted forward at her urging to within a dozen yards of the circle of fire. Then he stopped, snorting and shivering. She rode back up the hill.
"Better blindfold him," Grant advised, pulling off his leather coat. "A sleeve of my shirt should be about right. Will you cut it off?"
"There's no time to lose," he reminded her, as he placed his knife in her hand. "My horse will go through it all right."
So urged she deftly cut off his sleeve above the elbow and drew it through the bridle of her horse across his eyes.
"Now keep your head down close to his neck. You'll go through all right. Give him the spurs, and good luck!" he shouted.
She was already careering down the hillside. A few paces from the fire the horse plunged into a badger hole and fell headlong. She went over his head, down, with a terrific shock, almost in the very teeth of the fire.
When Zen came to herself it was with a sense of a strange swimming in her head. Gradually it resolved itself into a sound of water about her head; a splashing, fighting water; two heads in the water; two heads in the water; a lash floating in the water—
"Oh!" She was sure she felt water on her face....
"Where am I?"
"You're all right—you'll be all right in a little while."
"But where am I? What has happened?" She tried to sit up. All was dark. "Where am I?" she demanded.
"Don't be alarmed, Zen—I think your name is Zen," she heard a man's voice saying. "You've been hurt, but you'll be all right presently."
Then the curtain lifted. "You are Dennison Grant," she said. "I remember you now. But what has happened? Why am I here—with you?"
"Well, so far, you've been enjoying about three hours' unconsciousness," he told her. "At a distance which seems about a mile from here—although it may be less—is a little pond. I've carried water in the sleeve of my coat—fortunately it is leather—and poured it somewhat generously upon your brow. And at last I've been rewarded by a conscious word."
She tried to sit up, but desisted when a sudden twitch of pain held her fast.
"Let me help you," he said, gently. "We have camped, as you may notice, on a big, flat rock. I found it not far from the scene of the accident, so I carried you over to it. It is drier than the earth, and, for the forepart of the night at least, will be warmer." With a strong arm about her shoulders he drew her into a sitting posture.
Her eyes were becoming accustomed to the darkness. "What's wrong with my foot?" she demanded. "My boot's off."
"I'm afraid you turned your ankle getting free from your stirrup," he explained. "I had to do a little surgery. I could find nothing broken. It will be painful, but I fear there is nothing to do but bear it."
She reached down and felt her foot. It was neatly bandaged with cloth very much like that which she had used to blindfold Quiver. It was easy to surmise where it came from. Evidently her protector had stopped at nothing.
"Well, are we to stay here permanently?" she asked, presently.
"Only for the night," he told her. "If we're lucky, not that long. Search parties will be hunting for you, and they will doubtless ride this way. Both of our horses bolted in the fire—"
"Oh yes, the fire! Tell me what happened."
"I remember riding into the fire," she continued, "and then next thing I was on this rock. How did it all happen?"
"Your horse fell," he explained, "just as you reached the fire, and threw you, pretty heavily, to the ground. I was behind, so I dismounted and dragged you through."
"Oh!" She felt her face. "But I am not even singed!" she exclaimed.
It was plain that he was holding something back. She turned and laid her fingers on his arm. "Tell me how you did it," she pressed.
The darkness hid his modest confusion. "It was really nothing," he stammered. "You see, I had a leather coat, and I just threw it over your head—and mine—and dragged you out."
She was silent for a moment while the meaning of his words came home to her. Then she placed her hand frankly in his.
"Thank you," she said, and even in the darkness she knew that their eyes had met.
"You are very resourceful," she continued presently. "Must we sit here all night?"
"I can think of no alternative," he confessed. "If we had fire-arms we could shoot a signal, or if there were grass about we could start a fire, although it probably would not be noticed with so many glows on the horizon to-night." He stopped to look about. Dull splashes of red in the sky pointed out remnants of the day's conflagration still eating their way through the foothills. The air was full of the pungent but not unpleasant smell of burnt grass.
"A pretty hard night to send a signal," he said, "but they're almost sure to ride this way."
She wondered why he did not offer to walk to the camp for help; it could not be more than four or five miles. Suddenly she thought she understood.
"I am not afraid to stay here alone," she said, with a little laugh. It was the first time Grant had heard her laugh, and he thought it very musical indeed. "I've slept out many a night, and you would be back within a couple of hours."
"I'm quite sure you're not afraid," he agreed, "but, you see, I am. You got quite a tap on the head, and for some time before you came to you were talking—rather foolishly. Now if I should leave you it is not only possible, but quite probable, that you would lapse again into unconsciousness.... I really think you'll have to put up with me here."
"Oh, I wasn't thinking of that!... Did I—did I talk—foolishly?"
"Rather. Seemed to think you were swimming—or fighting—I couldn't be sure which. Sometimes you seemed to be doing both."
"Oh!" With a cold chill the events of the day came back upon her. That struggle in the water; it came to her now like a bad dream out of the long, long past. How much had she said? How much would she have given to know what she said? She felt herself recounting events....
Presently she pulled herself up with a start. She must not let him think her moody.
"Well, if we MUST enjoy each other's company, we may as well do so companionably," she said, with an effort at gaiety. "Let us talk. Tell me about yourself."
"First things first," he parried.
"Oh, I've nothing to tell. My life has been very unromantic. A few years at school, and the rest of it on the range. A very every-day kind of existence."
"I think it's the 'every-day kind of existence' that IS romantic," he returned. "It is a great mistake to think of romance as belonging to other times and other places. Even the most commonplace person has experienced romance enough for a dozen books. Quite possibly he has not recognized the romance, but it was there. The trouble is that with our limited sense of humor, what we think of as romance in other people's lives becomes tragedy in our own."
How much DID he know?... "Yes," she said, "I suppose that is so."
"I know it is so," he went on. "If we could read the thoughts—know the experiences—of those nearest to us, we would never need to look out of our own circles for either romance or tragedy. But it is as well that we can't. Take the experience of to-day, for example. I admit it has not been a commonplace day, and yet it has not been altogether extraordinary. Think of the experiences we have been through just this day, and how, if they were presented in fiction they would be romantic, almost unbelievable. And here we are at the close, sitting on a rock, matter-of-fact people in a matter-of-fact world, accepting everything as commonplace and unexceptional."
"Not quite that," she said daringly. "I see that you are neither commonplace nor unexceptional." She spoke with sudden impulse out of the depth of her sincerity. She had not met a man like this before. In her mind she fixed him in contrast with Transley, the self-confident and aggressive, and Linder, the shy and unassertive. None of those adjectives seemed to fit this new acquaintance. Nevertheless, he suffered nothing by the contrast.
"If I had been bright enough I would have said that first," he apologized, "but I got rather carried away in one of my pet theories about romance. Now my life, I suppose, to many people would seem quite tame and unromantic, but to me it has been a delightful succession of somewhat placid adventures. It began in a very orthodox way, in a very orthodox family. My father, under the guidance, no doubt, of whatever star governs such lucky affairs, became possessed of a piece of land. In doing so he contributed to society no service whatever, so far as I have been able to ascertain. But it so fell about that society, in considerable numbers, wanted his land to live on, so society made of my father a wealthy man, and gave him power over many people. Could anything be more romantic than that? Could the fairy tales of your childhood surpass it for benevolent irresponsibility?"
"My father has also become wealthy," she said, "although I never thought of it in that way."
"Yes, but in exchange for his wealth your father has given service to society; supplied many thousands of steers for hungry people to eat. That's a different story, but not less romantic.
"Well, to proceed. I was brought up to fit my station in life, whatever that means. There were just two boys of us, and I was the elder. My father had become a broker. I believe he had become quite a successful broker, using the word in its ordinary sense, which denotes the making of money. You see, he already had too much money, so it was very easy for him to make more. He wanted me to go into the office with him, but some way I didn't fit in. I've no doubt there was lots of romance there, too, but I was of the wrong nature; I simply couldn't get enthusiastic over it. As we already had more money than we could possibly spend on things that were good for us, I failed to see the point in sitting up nights to increase it. Being of a frank disposition I confided in my father that I felt I was wasting my time in a broker's office. He, being of an equally frank disposition, confided in me that he entertained the same opinion.
"Then I delivered myself of some of my pet theories about wealth. I told him that I didn't believe that any man had a right to money unless he earned it in return for service given to society, and I said that as society had to supply the money, society should determine the amount. I confessed that I was a little hazy about how that was to be carried out, but I insisted that the principle was right, and, that being so, the working of it out was only a matter of detail. I realize now that this was all fanatical heresy to my father; I remember the pained look that came into his eyes. I thought at the time that it was anger, but I know now that it was grief—grief and humiliation that a son of his should entertain such wild and unbalanced ideas.
"Well, there was more talk, and the upshot of it was that I got out, accompanied by an assurance from my father that I would never be burdened with any of the family ducats. Roy—my younger brother—succeeded to the worries of wealth, and I came to the ranges where, no doubt to the deep chagrin of my father, I have been able to make a living, and have, incidentally, been profoundly happy. I'll take a wager that to-day I look ten years younger than Roy, that I can lick him with one hand, that I have more real friends than he has, and that I'm getting more out of life than he is. I'm a man of whims. When they beckon I follow."
Grant had been talking intensely. He paused now, feeling that his enthusiasm had carried him into rather fuller confidences than he had intended.
"I'm sorry I bored you with that harangue," he said contritely. "You couldn't possibly be interested in it."
"On the contrary, I am very much interested in it," she protested. "It seems so much finer for a man to make his own way, rather than be lifted up by someone else. I am sure you are already doing well in the West. Some day you will go back to your father with more money than he has."
Grant uttered an amused little laugh.
"I was afraid you would say that," he answered. "You see, you don't understand me, either. I don't want to make money. Can you understand that?"
"Don't want to make money? Why not?"
"Why should I?"
"Well, everybody does. Money is power—it is a mark of success. It would open up a wider life for you. It would bring you into new circles. Some day you will want to marry and settle down, and money would enable you to meet the kind of women—"
She stopped, confused. She had plunged farther than she had intended.
"You're all wrong," he said amusedly. It did not even occur to Zen that he was contradicting her. She had not been accustomed to being contradicted, but then, neither had she been accustomed to men like Dennison Grant, nor to conversations such as had developed. She was too interested to be annoyed.
"You're all wrong, Miss—?"
"I don't wonder that you can't fill in my name," she said. "Nobody knows Dad except as Y.D. But I heard you call me Zen—"
"That was when you were coming out of your unconsciousness. I apologize for the liberty taken. I thought it might recall you—"
"Well, I'm still coming out," she interrupted. "I am beginning to feel that I have been unconscious for a very long time indeed. Let me hear why you don't want money."
Grant was aware of a pleasant glow excited by her frank interest. She was altogether a desirable girl.
"I have observed," he said, "that poor people worry over what they haven't got, and rich people worry over what they have. It is my disposition not to worry over anything. You said that money is power. That is one of its deceits. It offers a man power, but in reality it makes him its slave. It enchains him for life; I have seen it in too many cases—I am not mistaken. As for opening up a wider life, what wider life could there be than this which I—which you and I—are living?"
She wondered why he had said "you and I." Evidently he was wondering too, for he fell into reflection. She changed her position to ease the dull pain in her ankle, which his talk had almost driven from her mind. The rock had a perpendicular edge, so she let her feet hang over, resting the injured one upon the other. He was sitting in a similar position. The silence of the night had gathered about them, broken occasionally by the yapping of coyotes far down the valley. Segments of dull light fringed the horizon; the breeze was again blowing from the west, mild and balmy. Presently one of the segments of light grew and grew. It was as though it were rushing up the valley. They watched it, fascinated; then burst into laughter as the orb of the moon became recognizable.... There was something very companionable about watching the moon rise, as they did.
"The greatest wealth in the world," he said at length, as though his thoughts had been far afield, searching, perchance, the mazy corridors of Truth for this atom of wisdom; "the greatest wealth in the world is to be able to do something useful. That is the only wealth which will not be disturbed in the coming reorganization of society."
Zen did not reply. For the first time in her life she stood convicted, before her own mind, of a very profound ignorance. Dennison Grant had been drawing back the curtain of a world of the existence of which she had never known. He had talked to her about "the coming reorganization of society"? What did it mean? She was at home in discussions of herds or horses; she was at home with the duties of kitchen or reception-room; she was at home with her father or Transley or Linder or Drazk or Tompkins the cook, but Dennison Grant in an hour had carried her into a far country, where she would be hopelessly lost but for his guidance.... Yet it seemed a good and interesting country. She wanted to enter in—to know it better.
"Tell me about the coming reorganization of society," she said.
"That is an all-night order," he returned. "Besides, I can't tell you all, because I don't know all. I know only very, very little. I see my little gleam of light and keep my eye close upon it. But you must know that society is always in a state of reorganization. Nothing continues as it was. Those who dismiss a problem glibly by saying it has always been so and always will be so don't read history and don't understand human nature."
He turned toward her as interest in his theme developed. The moonlight was now pouring upon them; her face was beautiful and fine as marble in its soft rays. For a moment he hesitated, overwhelmed by a sudden realization of her attractiveness. He had just been saying that the law of nature was the law of change, and nature itself stood up to refute him.
He brought himself back to earth. "I was saying that everything changes," he continued. "Look at our economic system, for instance. Not so many centuries ago the man who got the most wealth was the man with the biggest muscle and the toughest skin. He wielded a stout club, and what he wanted, he took. His system of operation was simple and direct. You have money, you have cattle, you have a wife—I'm speaking of the times that were. I am stronger than you. I take them. Simplicity itself!"
"But very unjust," she protested.
"Our sense of justice is due to our education," he continued. "If we are taught to believe that a certain thing is just, we believe it is just. I am convinced that there is no sense of justice inherent in humanity; whatever sense we have is the result of education, and the kind of justice we believe in is the kind of justice to which we are educated. For example, the justice of the plains is not the justice of the cities; the justice of the vigilance committee is not the justice of judge and jury. Now to get back to our subject. When Baron Battle Ax, back in the fifth or sixth century, knocked all his rivals on the head and took their wealth away from them, I suppose there was here and there an advanced thinker who said the thing was unjust, but I am quite sure the great majority of people said things had always been that way and always would be that way. But the little minority of thinkers gradually grew in strength. The Truth was with them. It is worthy of notice that the advance guard of Truth always travels with minorities. And the day came that society organized itself to say that the man who uses physical force to take wealth from another is an enemy of society and must not be allowed at large.
"But we have passed largely out of the era of physical force. To-day, an engineer presses a button and releases more physical force than could be commanded by all the armies of Rome. Brain power is to-day the dominant power. And just as physical force was once used to take wealth without earning it, so is brain force now used to take wealth without earning it. And just as the masses in the days of Battle Ax said things had always been that way and always would be that way, just so do the masses in these days of brain supremacy say things have always been that way and always will be that way. But just as there was a minority with an advanced vision of Truth in those days, so is there a minority with an advanced vision of Truth in these days. You may be absolutely sure that, just as society found a way to deal with muscle brigands, so also it will find a way to deal with brain brigands. I confess I don't see how the details are to be worked out, but there must be a plan under which the value of the services rendered to society by every man and every woman will be determined, and they will be rewarded according to the services rendered."
"Is that Socialism?" she ventured.
"I don't know. I don't think so. Certainly it does not contemplate an equal distribution of the world's wealth. Some men are a menace to themselves and society when they have a hundred dollars. Others can be trusted with a hundred million. All men have not been equally gifted by nature—we know that. We can't make them equal. But surely we can prevent the gifted ones from preying upon those who are not gifted. That is what the coming reorganization of society will aim to do."
"It is very interesting," she said. "And very deep. I have never heard it discussed before. Why don't people think about these things more?"
"I don't know," he answered, "but I suppose it is because they are too busy in the fight. When a self was dodging Battle Ax he hadn't much time to think about evolving a Magna Charta. But most of all I suppose it is just natural laziness. People refuse to think. It calls for effort. Most people would find it easier to pitch a load of hay than to think of a new thought."
The moon was now well up; the smoke clouds had been scattered by the breeze; the sky was studded with diamonds. Zen had a feeling of being very happy. True, a certain haunting spectre at times would break into her consciousness, but in the companionship of such a man as Grant she could easily beat it off. She studied the face in the moon, and invited her soul. She was living through a new experience—an experience she could not understand. In spite of the discomfort of her injuries, in spite of the events of the day, she was very, very happy....
If only that horrid memory of Drazk would not keep tormenting her! She began to have some glimpse of what remorse must mean. She did not blame herself; she could not have done otherwise; and yet—it was horrible to think about, and it would not stay away. She felt a tremendous desire to tell Grant all about it.... She wondered how much he knew. He must have discovered that her clothing had been wet.
She shivered slightly.
"You're cold," he said, as he placed his arm about her, and there was something very far removed from political economy in the timbre of his voice.
"I'm a little chilly," she admitted. "I had to swim my horse across the river to-day—he got into a deep spot—and I got wet." She congratulated herself that she had made a very clever explanation.
He put his coat about her shoulders and drew it tight. Then he sat beside her in silence. There were many things he could have said, but this seemed to be neither the time nor the place. Grant was not Transley. He had for this girl a delicate consideration which Transley's nature could never know. Grant was a thinker—Transley a doer. Grant knew that the charm which enveloped him in this girl's presence was the perfectly natural product of a set of conditions. He was worldly-wise enough to suspect that Zen also felt that charm. It was as natural as the bursting of a seed in moist soil; as natural as the unfolding of a rose in warm air....
Presently he felt her head rest against his shoulder. He looked down upon her in awed delight. Her eyes had closed; her lips were smiling faintly; her figure had relaxed. He could feel her warm breath upon his face. He could have touched her lips with his.
Slowly the moon traced its long arc in the heavens.
Just as the first flush of dawn mellowed the East Grant heard the pounding of horses' feet and the sound of voices borne across the valley. They rapidly approached; he could tell by the hard pounding of the hoofs that they were on a trail which he took to be the one he had followed before he met Zen. It passed possibly a hundred yards to the left. He must in some way make his presence known.
The girl had slept soundly, almost without stirring. Now he must wake her. He shook her gently, and called her name; her eyes opened; he could see them, strange and wondering, in the thin grey light. Then, with a sudden start, she was quite awake.
"I have been sleeping!" she exclaimed, reproachfully. "You let me sleep!"
"No use of two watching the moon," he returned, lightly.
"But you shouldn't have let me sleep," she reprimanded. "Besides, you had to stay awake. You have had no sleep at all!"
There was a sympathy in her voice very pleasant to the ear. But Grant could not continue so delightful an indulgence.
"I had to wake you," he explained. "There are several people riding up the valley; undoubtedly a search party. I must attract their attention."
They listened, and could now hear the hoof-beats close at hand. Grant called; not a loud shout; it seemed little more than his speaking voice, but instantly there was silence, save for the echo of the sound rolling down the valley. Then a voice answered, and Grant gave a word or two of directions. In a minute or two several horsemen loomed up through the vague light.
"Here we are," said Zen, as she distinguished her father. "Gone lame on the off foot and held up for repairs."
Y.D. swung down from his saddle. "Are you all right, Zen?" he cried, as he advanced with outstretched arms. There was an eagerness and a relief in his voice which would have surprised many who knew Y.D. only as a shrewd cattleman.
Zen accepted and returned his embrace, with a word of assurance that she was really nothing the worse. Then she introduced her companion.
"This is Mr. Dennison Grant, foreman of the Landson ranch, Dad."
Grant extended his hand, but Y.D. hesitated. The truce occasioned by the fire did not by any means imply permanent peace. Far from it, with the valley in ruins—
Y.D. was stiffening, but his daughter averted what would in another moment have been an embarrassing situation with a quick remark.
"This is no time, even for explanations," she said, "except that Mr. Grant saved my life last evening at the risk of his own, and has lost a night's sleep for his pains."
"That was a man's work," said Y.D. It would not have been possible for his lips to have framed a greater compliment. "I'm obliged to you, Grant. You know how it is with us cattlemen; we run mostly to horns and hoofs, but I suppose we have some heart, too, if you can find it."
They shook hands with as much cordiality as the situation permitted, and then Zen introduced Transley and Linder, who were in the party. There were two or three others whom she did not know, but they all shook hands.
"What happened, Zen?" said Transley, with his usual directness. "Give us the whole story."
Then she told them what she knew, from the point where she had met Grant on the fire-encircled hill.
"Two lucky people—two lucky people," was all Transley's comment. Words could not have expressed the jealousy he felt. But Linder was not too shy to place his hand with a friendly pressure upon Grant's shoulder.
"Good work," he said, and with two words sealed a friendship.
Two of the unnamed members of the party volunteered their horses to Zen and Grant, and all hands started back to camp. Y.D. talked almost garrulously; not even himself had known how heavily the hand of Fate had lain on him through the night.
"The haymakin' is all off, Darter," he said. "We will trek back to the Y.D. as soon as you feel fit. The steers will have to take chances next winter."
The girl professed her fitness to make the trip at once, and indeed they did make it that very day. Y.D. pressed Grant to remain for breakfast, and Tompkins, notwithstanding the demoralization of equipment and supplies effected by the fire, again excelled himself. After breakfast the old rancher found occasion for a word with Grant.
"You know how it is, Grant," he said. "There's a couple of things that ain't explained, an' perhaps it's as well all round not to press for opinions. I don't know how the iron stakes got in my meadow, an' you don't know how the fire got in yours. But I give you Y.D.'s word—which goes at par except in a cattle trade—" and Y.D. laughed cordially at his own limitations—"I give you my word that I don't know any more about the fire than you do."
"And I don't know anything more about the stakes than you do," returned Grant.
"Well, then, let it stand at that. But mind," he added, with returning heat, "I'm not committin' myself to anythin' in advance. This grass'll grow again next year, an' by heavens if I want it I'll cut it! No son of a sheep herder can bluff Y.D!"
Grant did not reply. He had heard enough of Y.D.'s boisterous nature to make some allowances.
"An' mind I mean it," continued Y.D., whose chagrin over being baffled out of a thousand tons of hay overrode, temporarily at least, his appreciation of Grant's services. "Mind, I mean it. No monkey-doodles next season, young man."
Obviously Y.D. was becoming worked up, and it seemed to Grant that the time had come to speak.
"There will be none," he said, quietly. "If you come over the hills to cut the South Y.D. next summer I will personally escort you home again."
Y.D. stood open-mouthed. It was preposterous that this young upstart foreman on a second-rate ranch like Landson's should deliberately defy him.
"You see, Y.D.," continued Grant, with provoking calmness, "I've seen the papers. You've run a big bluff in this country. You've occupied rather more territory than was coming to you. In a word, you've been a good bit of a bully. Now—let me break it to you gently—those good old days are over. In future you're going to stay on your own side of the line. If you crowd over you'll be pushed back. You have no more right to the hay in this valley than you have to the hide on Landson's steers, and you're not going to cut it any more, at all."
Y.D. exploded in somewhat ineffective profanity. He had a wide vocabulary of invective, but most of it was of the stand-and-fight variety. There is some language which is not to be used, unless you are willing to have it out on the ground, there and then. Y.D. had no such desire. Possibly a curious sense of honor entered into the case. It was not fair to call a young man names, and although there was considerable truth in Grant's remark that Y.D. was a bully, his bullying did not take that form. Possibly, also, he recalled at that moment the obligation under which Zen's accident had placed him. At any rate he wound up rather lamely.
"Grant," he said, "if I want that hay next year I'll cut it, spite o' hell an' high water."
"All right, Y.D.," said Grant, cheerfully. "We'll see. Now, if you can spare me a horse to ride home, I'll have him sent back immediately."
Y.D. went to find Transley and arrange for a horse, and in a moment Zen appeared from somewhere.
"You've been quarreling with Dad," she said, half reproachfully, and yet in a tone which suggested that she could understand.
"Not exactly that," he parried. "We were just having a frank talk with each other."
"I know something of Dad's frank talks... I'm sorry... I would have liked to ask you to come and see me—to see us—my mother would be glad to see you. I can hardly ask you to come if you are going to be bad friends with Dad."
"No, I suppose not," he admitted.
"You were very good to me; very—decent," she continued.
At that moment Transley, Linder, and Y.D. appeared, with two horses.
"Linder will ride over with you and bring back the spare beast," said Y.D.
Grant shook hands, rather formally, with Y.D. and Transley, and then with Zen. She murmured some words of thanks, and just as he would have withdrawn his hand he felt her fingers tighten very firmly about his. He answered the pressure, and turned quickly away.
Transley immediately struck camp, and Y.D. and his daughter drove homeward, somewhat painfully, over the blackened hills.
Transley lost no time in finding other employment. It was late in the season to look for railway contracts, and continued dry weather had made grading, at best, a somewhat difficult business. Influx of ready money and of those who follow it had created considerable activity in a neighboring centre which for twenty years had been the principal cow-town of the foothill country. In defiance of all tradition, and, most of all, in defiance of the predictions of the ranchers who had known it so long for a cow-town and nothing more, the place began to grow. No one troubled to inquire exactly why it should grow, or how. As for Transley, it was enough for him that team labor was in demand. He took a contract, and three days after the fire in the foothills he was excavating for business blocks about to be built in the new metropolis.
It was no part of Transley's plan, however, to quite lose touch with the people on the Y.D. They were, in fact, the centre about which he had been doing some very serious thinking. His outspokenness with Zen and her father had had in it a good deal of bravado—the bravado of a man who could afford to lose the stake, and smile over it. In short, he had not cared whether he offended them or not. Transley was a very self-reliant contractor; he gave, even to the millionaire rancher, no more homage than he demanded in return.... Still, Zen was a very desirable girl. As he turned the matter over in his mind Transley became convinced that he wanted Zen. With Transley, to want a thing meant to get it. He always found a way. And he was now quite sure that he wanted Zen. He had not known that positively until the morning when he found her in the grey light of dawn with Dennison Grant. There was a suggestion of companionship there between the two which had cut him to the quick. Like most ambitious men, Transley was intensely jealous.
Up to this time Transley had not thought seriously of matrimony. A wife and children he regarded as desirable appendages for declining years—for the quiet and shade of that evening toward which every active man looks with such irrational confidence. But for the heat of the day—for the climb up the hill—they would be unnecessary encumbrances. Transley always took a practical view of these matters. It need hardly be stated that he had never been in love; in fact Transley would have scouted the idea of any passion which would throw the practical to the winds. That was a thing for weaklings, and, possibly, for women.
But his attachment for Zen was a very practical matter. Zen was the only heir to the Y.D. wealth. She would bring to her husband capital and credit which Transley could use to good advantage in his business. She would also bring personality—a delightful individuality—of which any man might be proud. She had that fine combination of attractions which is expressed in the word charm. She had health, constitution, beauty. She had courage and sympathy. She had qualities of leadership. She would bring to him not only the material means to build a house, but the spiritual qualities which make a home. She would make him the envy of all his acquaintances. And a jealous man loves to be envied.
So after the work on the excavations had been properly started Transley turned over the detail to the always dependable Linder, and, remarking that he had not had a final settlement with Y.D., set out for the ranch in the foothills. While spending the long autumn day alone in the buggy he was able to turn over and develop plans on an even more ambitious scale than had occurred to him amid the hustle of his men and horses.
The valley was lying very warm and beautiful in yellow light, and the setting sun was just capping the mountains with gold and painting great splashes of copper and bronze on the few clouds becalmed in the heavens, when Transley's tired team jogged in among the cluster of buildings known as the Y.D. The rancher met him at the bunk-house. He greeted Transley with a firm grip of his great palm, and with jaws open in suggestion of a sort of carnivorous hospitality.
"Come up to the house, Transley," he said, turning the horses over to the attention of a ranch hand. "Supper is just ready, an' the women will be glad to see you."
Zen, walking with a limp, met them at the gate. Transley's eyes reassured him that he had not been led astray by any process of idealization; Zen was all his mind had been picturing her. She was worth the effort. Indeed, a strange sensation of tenderness suffused him as he walked by her side to the door, supporting her a little with his hand. There they were ushered in by the rancher's wife, and Zen herself showed Transley to a cool room where were white towels and soft water from the river and quiet and restful furnishings. Transley congratulated himself that he could hardly hope to be better received.
After supper he had a social drink with Y.D., and then the two sat on the veranda and smoked and discussed business. Transley found Y.D. more liberal in the adjustment than he had expected. He had not yet realized to what an extent he had won the old rancher's confidence, and Y.D. was a man who, when his confidence had been won, never haggled over details. He was willing to compromise the loss on the operations on the South Y.D. on a scale that was not merely just, but generous.
This settled, Transley proceeded to interest Y.D. in the work in which he was now engaged. He drew a picture of activities in the little metropolis such as stirred the rancher's incredulity.
"Well, well," Y.D. would say. "Transley, I've known that little hole for about thirty years, an' never seen it was any good excep' to get drunk in.... I've seen more things there than is down in the books."
"You wouldn't know the change that has come about in a few months," said Transley, with enthusiasm. "Double shifts working by electric light, Y.D! What do you think of that? Men with rolls of money that would choke a cow sleeping out in tents because they can't get a roof over them. Why, man, I didn't have to hunt a job there; the job hunted me. I could have had a dozen jobs at my own price if I could have handled them. It's just as if prosperity was a river which had been trickling through that town for thirty years, and all of a sudden the dam up in the foothills gives away and down she comes with a rush. Lots which sold a year ago for a hundred dollars are selling now for five hundred—sometimes more. Old ranchers living on the bald-headed a few years ago find themselves today the owners of city property worth millions, and are dressing uncomfortably, in keeping with their wealth, or vainly trying to drink up the surplus. So far sense and brains has had nothing to do with it, Y.D., absolutely nothing. It has been fool luck. But the brains are coming in now, and the brains will get the money, in the long run."
Transley paused and lit another cigar. Y.D. rolled his in his lips, reflectively.
"I mind some doin's in that burg," he said, as though the memory of them was of greater importance than all that might be happening now.
Transley switched back to business. "We ought to be in on it, Y.D.," he said. "Not on the fly-by-night stuff; I don't mean that. But I could take twice the contracts if I had twice the outfit."
Y.D. brought his chair down on to all four legs and removed his cigar.
"You mean we should hit her together?" he demanded.
"It would be a great compliment to me, if you had that confidence in me, and I'm sure it would make some good money for you."
"How'd you work it?"
"You have a bunch of horses running here on the ranch, eating their heads off. Many of them are broke, and the others would soon tame down with a scraper behind them. Give them to me and let me put them to work. I'd have to have equipment, too. Your name on the back of my note would get it, and you wouldn't actually have to put up a dollar. Then we'd make an inventory of what you put into the firm and what I put into it, and we'd divide the earnings in proportion."
"After payin' you a salary as manager, of course," suggested Y.D.
"That's immaterial. With a bigger outfit and more capital I can make so much more money out of the earnings that I don't care whether I get a salary or not. But I wouldn't figure on going on contracting all the time for other people. We might as well have the cream as the skimmed milk. This is the way it's done. We go to the owner of a block of lots somewhere where there's no building going on. He's anxious to start something, because as soon as building starts in that district the lots will sell for two or three times what they do now. We say to him, 'Give us every second lot in your block and we'll put a house on it.' In this way we get the lots for a trifle; perhaps for nothing. Then we build a lot of houses, more or less to the same plan. We put 'em up quick and cheap. We build 'em to sell, not to live in. Then we mortgage 'em for the last cent we can get. Then we put the price up to twice what the mortgage is and sell them as fast as we can build them, getting our equity out and leaving the purchasers to settle with the mortgage company. It's good for from thirty to forty per cent, profit, not per annum, but per transaction."
"It sounds interesting," said Y.D., "an' I suppose I might as well put my spare horses an' credit to work. I don't mind drivin' down with you to-morrow an' looking her over first hand."
This was all Transley had hoped for, and the talk turned to less material matters. After a while Zen joined them, and a little later Y.D. left to attend to some business at the bunk-house.
"Your father and I may go into partnership, Zen," Transley said to her, when they were alone together. He explained in a general way the venture that was afoot.
"That will be very interesting," she agreed.
"Will you be interested?"
"Of course. I am interested in everything that Dad undertakes."
"And are you not—will you not be—just a little interested in the things that I undertake?"
She paused a moment before replying. The dusk had settled about them, and he could not see the contour of her face, but he knew that she had realized the significance of his question.
"Why yes," she said at length, "I will be interested in what you undertake. You will be Dad's partner."
Her evasion nettled him.
"Zen," he said, "why shouldn't we understand each other?"
"Don't we?" She had turned slightly toward him, and he could feel the laughing mockery in her eyes.
"I rather think we do," he answered, "only we—at least, you—won't admit it."
"Seriously, Zen, do you imagine I came over here to-day simply to make a deal with your father?"
"Wasn't that worth while?"
"Of course it was. But it wasn't the whole purpose—it wasn't half the purpose. I wanted to see Y.D., it is true, but more, very much more, I wanted to see you."
She did not answer, and he could only guess what was the trend of her thoughts. After a silence he continued.
"You may think I am precipitate. You intimated as much to me once. I am. I know of no reason why an honest man should go beating about the bush. When I want something I want it, and I make a bee-line for it. If it is a contract—if it is a business matter—I go right after it, with all the energy that's in me. When I'm looking for a contract I don't start by talking about the weather. Well—this is my first experience in love, and perhaps my methods are all wrong, but it seems to me they should apply. At any rate a girl of your intelligence will understand."
"Applying your business principles," she interrupted, "I suppose if you wanted a wife and there was none in sight you would advertise for her?"
He defended his position. "I don't see why not," he declared. "I can't understand the general attitude of levity toward matrimonial advertisements. Apparently they are too open and above-board. Matrimony should not be committed in a round-about, indirect, hit-or-miss manner. A young man sees a girl whom he thinks he would like to marry. Does he go to her house and say, 'Miss So-and-So, I think I would like to marry you. Will you allow me to call on you so that we may get better acquainted, with that object in view?' He does not. Such honesty would be considered almost brutal. He calls on her and pretends he would like to take her to the theatre, if it is in town, or for a ride, if it is in the country. She pretends she would like to go. Both of them know what the real purpose is, and both of them pretend they don't. They start the farce by pretending a deceit which deceives nobody. They wait for nature to set up an attraction which shall overrule their judgment, rather than act by judgment first and leave it to nature to take care of herself. How much better it would be to be perfectly frank—to boldly announce the purpose—to come as I now come to you and say, 'Zen, I want to marry you. My reason, my judgment, tells me that you would be an ideal mate. I shall be proud of you, and I will try to make you proud of me. I will gratify your desires in every way that my means will permit. I pledge you my fidelity in return for yours. I—I—' Zen, will you say yes? Can you believe that there is in my simple words more sincerity than there could be in any mad ravings about love? You are young, Zen, younger than I, but you must have observed some things. One of them is that marriage, founded on mutual respect, which increases with the years, is a much safer and wiser business than marriage founded on a passion which quickly burns itself out and leaves the victims cold, unresponsive, with nothing in common. You may not feel that you know me well enough for a decision. I will give you every opportunity to know me better—I will do nothing to deceive you—I will put on no veneer—I will let you know me as I really am. Will you say yes?"