"The present time being inopportune, and Shiner's temper too uncertain for a further avowal of my sentiments," he said, "I suggest that we turn off here and hit a few high spots for Chakchak. Stir up that slothful cayuse of yours. Maybe there's a lope left in him somewhere. See if you can comb it out with a quirt."
"I like your nerve!" she exclaimed. "Beaver Boy can run the heart out of that old buzzard-head of yours and come in dry-haired. Come on, or take my dust!"
The hoofbeats drummed dull thunder from the brown earth, and the dust cloud behind drew out and lengthened with the speed of their going. Side by side they swept through the silent land, breasting small rises, swooping down slopes, breathing their horses whenever they came to heavier ascents.
Sometimes as they rode knee touched knee. It gave Casey Dunne a strange but comfortable feeling of comradeship. He looked at the woman beside him, appreciating her firm, easy seat in the stock saddle, her management of Beaver Boy, now eager to prove his prowess against the buckskin's. He noted the rich colour lying beneath the tan of the smooth cheeks, the rounded brown throat, the poise of the lithe, pliant body and the watchful tension of the strong arms and shoulders as the big bay fought hard for his head and a brief freedom to use his full strength and speed in one mad heartbreaking burst. But most of all he noted and was attracted by the level, direct, fearless stare beneath the slightly drawn brows into the distances.
A brown girl in a brown land! It came to Casey Dunne, who was imaginative within the strict seclusion of his inner self, that she typified their land, the West, in youth, in fearlessness, in potentialities yet lying fallow, unawakened, in fruitfulness to come. What of the vagrant touch of the woman, the gold of the day, the clean, dry air and the glory of motion, the chord of romance within him vibrated and began to sing.
It invested her momentarily with a new quality, a new personality. She was no longer the Sheila McCrae he had known so well. She was the Spirit of the Land, a part of it—she was Sheila of the West; and her heritage was plain and mountain, gleaming lake and rushing river, its miles numbered by thousands, its acres by millions—a land for a new nation.
How many Sheilas, he wondered—young, strong, clean of blood, straight of limb—had ridden since the beginning of time into the new lands, and borne their part in peopling them. Fifty years before, her prototypes had ridden beside the line of crawling, creaking prairie schooners across the great plains toward the setting sun; little more than fifty years before that they had ridden down through the notches of the blue Alleghenies into the promised land of Kain-tuck-ee, the Dark and Bloody Ground, beside buckskin-clad, deckard-armed frontiersmen. Perhaps, centuries before that, her ancestresses had ridden with burly, skin-clad warriors out of the great forests of northern Europe down to the pleasant weaker south. But surely she was the peer of any of them—this woman riding knee to knee with him, the sloping sun in her clear, brown eyes, and the warm, sweet winds kissing her cheeks!
And so Casey Dunne dreamed as he rode—dreamed as he had not dreamed waking since the days when, a little boy, he had lain on warm sands beside a blue inland sea on summer's afternoons and watched the patched sails of the stone hookers, and the wheeling, gray lake gulls, and heard the water hiss and ripple to the long, white beaches. And, as he dreamed, a part of boyhood's joy in mere life awoke in him again.
Chakchak Ranch came into view. Its cultivated area smaller than that of Talapus, it was nevertheless as scrupulously cared for. The one might have served as model for the other. Here, also, were the straight lines of the ditches, the squares of grain fields beginning to show green, the young orchards, the sleek, contented stock, the corrals, and outbuildings.
But, as became the residence of a bachelor, the ranch-house itself was less pretentious. It was a small bungalow, with wide verandas which increased its apparent size. There Casey lived with Tom McHale, his right-hand man and foreman. The hired men, varying in number constantly, occupied other quarters.
Casey would have helped Sheila to alight, but she swung down, stretching her limbs frankly after the hard ride.
"That's going," she said. "Beaver Boy was a brute to hold; he wanted to race Shiner. He nearly got away from me once. My wrists are actually lame." She drew off her long buckskin gauntlets, flexing her wrists cautiously, straightening her fingers, prolonging the luxury of relaxing the cramped sinews.
"Let us now eat, drink, and be merry," said Casey, "for to-morrow—well, never mind that. But what would you like? Coffee, tea, claret lemonade? Tell me what you want."
"Too hot for tea. I'd like a dust eraser—a cold drink about a yard long."
"Hey, you, Feng!" Casey cried, to a white-aproned, grinning Chinaman, "you catch two ice drink quick—hiyu ice, you savvy! Catch claret wine, catch cracker, catch cake. Missy hiyu dry, hiyu hungry. Get a hustle on you, now!"
Feng, understanding perfectly the curious mixture of pidgin and Chinook, vanished soft-footed. They entered the living room of the bungalow.
"Stretch out and be comfy while he's rustling it," said Casey, indicating a couch. He himself fell into a huge wicker chair, flung his hat carelessly at the table, and reached for a cigar box.
Sheila dropped on the couch with a satisfied sigh, stretching her arms above her head, her hands clasped, every muscle of her relaxing. The comparative coolness, the quiet, the soft cushions were good after a day in the saddle. Down there on the Coldstream the strict proprieties did not trouble them. If any one had suggested to Sheila McCrae that she was imprudent in visiting a bachelor's ranch unchaperoned, she would have been both amazed and indignant. And it would have been unsafe to hint at such a thing to Casey Dunne. Indeed, the desirability of a chaperon never occurred to either of them; which was, after all, the best guarantee of the superfluity of that mark of an advanced civilization.
But in a moment Sheila was on her feet, arranging, straightening. "You're awfully untidy, Casey!" she said.
Indeed her comment was justified. The long table in the centre of the room was a litter of newspapers, magazines, old letters, pipes, and tobacco. Odd tools—a hammer, a file, a wrench, and a brad awl—mingled with them. On top of the medley lay a heavy revolver, with the cylinder swung out and empty, a box of cartridges, a dirty rag, and an oil can. In one corner stood half a dozen rifles and shotguns. From a set of antlers on the wall depended a case of binoculars, a lariat, and a pair of muddy boots. The last roused Sheila's indignation.
"Whatever do you hang up boots in your sitting room for?" she demanded.
"Why, you see," he explained, "they were wet, and I hung 'em up to dry. I guess I forgot 'em. It's not the right place, that's a fact." He rose, took down the offending footgear, and tossed them through the open door into the next room. They thumped on the floor, and Sheila was not placated.
"That's just as bad. Why, they were covered with dried mud, and now it's all over the floor. You're shockingly careless. Don't you know that that makes work?"
"For Feng, you mean. That's what I pay him for—only he doesn't do it."
But she shook her head, brushing the excuse aside as trifling, unsatisfactory. "It's a bad habit. I pity your wife, Casey."
"When you get one, I mean."
"Time enough to sympathize then. Now, Sheila, if it's all the same to you, don't muss that table up. I know where to find everything the way it is."
"Muss it up! I like that!" she responded. "Why, of all the old junk! Haven't you got a tool house? And it's an inch deep in dust." She extended her fingers in proof. "That dirty rag! And a gun and cartridges there for any one to pick up! You ought to be ashamed of yourself. Don't you know better than that? Don't you know you shouldn't leave firearms and ammunition together? It's as bad as leaving them loaded, almost."
"That's Tom's gun. Sail into him."
"You shouldn't allow it."
"Allow it! I never touch another man's gun. Nobody comes in here but Feng, and he doesn't matter. What's a Chink more or less?"
"But it's the principle. And what's this—down here? Why, Casey, it's—it's a hen!"
It was a hen. In a space between two piles of newspapers, flanked by a cigar box, squatted a white fowl, very intent upon her own affairs.
"Shoo!" said Sheila. But the bird merely cocked a bright eye at her, and uttered a little warning, throaty sound. Casey laughed.
"That's Fluffy, and she's a lady friend of mine. Poor old Fluff, poor old girl! Don't scare her, Sheila. Can't you see she's busy?"
"Casey Dunne, do you mean to tell me that you allow a hen to lay in your sitting room, on your table?"
"Of course—when she's a nice little chicken like Fluffy. Why not? She doesn't do any harm."
"I never heard of such a thing. The place for hens is in the chicken run. Casey, you're simply awful! Your wife—oh, heavens, what a life she'll have!"
"Nobody could help liking Fluff," he replied. "She's really good company. I wish I could talk her talk. She has a fine line of conversation if I could only savvy it."
Sheila sat down with a hopeless gesture. Fond of all living things as she was, she could not understand the tolerance that allowed a hen the run of the house. To her a hen was a hen, nothing more. She could name and pet a horse or a dog or any quadruped. But a hen! She could not understand.
But Feng entered with the two "ice drink"—a tray containing long glasses, tinkling ice, claret, lemons, cake, and biscuits. He set the tray upon the table. As he did so his hand came in contact with Fluffy. With a rasping cry of indignation she pecked him.
"Hyah!" cried Feng, startled, and reached for her impulsively.
Fluffy bounded from her nest, and fled shrieking for the door. Her fluttering wings brushed the contents of the tray. The long glasses and bottle capsized, rolled to the floor, and smashed, the crash of glass mingling with her clamour.
"What foh?" yelled Feng, in a fury. "Jim Kli, dam chickum spoiley icey dlink. Hiyu no good—all same son of a gun! S'pose me catch him, ling him neck!" And he darted after the hen, on vengeance bent.
But Casey caught him by the collar. "Never mind, Feng. That chicken all same my tillikum, you savvy. Hiyu good chicken; lay hiyu egg. You catch more ice drink!"
And when the angry Celestial had gone he lay back in his chair, and laughed till he was weak. Sheila laughed, too, at first half-heartedly, then more heartily, and finally, as she reconstructed Feng's expression, in sheer abandonment of merriment, until she wiped her eyes and gasped for breath.
"Oh—oh!" she protested weakly; "my side hurts. I haven't had such a laugh for ages. Oh, Casey, that chicken all same my friend now, too. It's coming to her. That Chink—how mad he was! But what a mess! And claret stains so. Your rug——"
She rose, impelled by her housewifely instincts to do what she could, and, glancing through the door, she saw a man standing by the veranda steps.
This was Tom McHale, Casey's friend and foreman. He was lean with the flat-bellied leanness that comes of years of hard riding, and a but partially subdued devil of recklessness lurked in his steady hazel eyes. He was a wizard with animals, and he derived a large part of his nourishment from Virginia leaf. He and Sheila were the best of friends.
"Howdy, Miss Sheila!" he greeted her. "I sure thought there was hostiles in the house. What you doin' to that there Chink? He's cussin' scand'lous. Casey been up to some of his devilment?"
"Come in and join us, Tom," said Casey. "Feng had a run-in with Fluff. Result, one bottle of claret and two glasses gone to glory."
"Also one Chink on the warpath," McHale added. "If I was in the insurance business I wouldn't write no policy on that there hen. She's surely due to be soup flavourin'. She ain't got no more show than if the Oriental was a coon. He's talkin' now 'bout goin' back to China."
"He always does when he gets a grouch. I wish I could get a white man."
"A white man that can cook hates to stay sober long enough to build a bannock," said McHale. "Chink grub has one flavour, but it comes reg'lar, there's that about it."
Feng entered with fresh supplies, and they drank luxuriously, tinkling the ice in the glasses, prolonging the satisfaction of thirst. McHale went about his business. Sheila picked up her hat and gloves, declaring that she must be going. Casey insisted on accompanying her. He shifted his saddle to Dolly, a pet little gray mare; not because Shiner was tired, but because there was a hard ride in store for him on the morrow.
They rode into Talapus in time for supper. Afterward Casey and McCrae discussed the coming of Farwell, and its significance.
"I pumped Corney Quilty a little," said Casey. "This Farwell is a slap-up man, and they'd never waste him on this little job without some good reason. I'm told he's bad medicine. Unpleasant devil, he seems. I wonder if they've got wise at all? If they have it will be mighty interesting for us."
"I'll chance it," said McCrae. "Anyway, we'll all be in it."
"That's a comforting thought," said Dunne. As he rode home that night he went over the ranchers one by one; and he was quite sure that each was trustworthy.
Farwell took charge of his construction camps, and immediately began to infuse some of his own energy into his subordinates.
But as a beginning he rode over the works, blue prints in hand, thus getting to know the contour of the country, and the actual location and run of the main canal and branch ditches, constructed and projected. With this knowledge safely filed away in his head, he proceeded to verify the calculations of others; for he had once had the bitter experience of endeavouring to complete work which had been based on the erroneous calculations of another man. He had been blamed for that, because it had been necessary to find a scapegoat for the fruitless expenditure of many thousands. So, having had his lesson, he was ever after extremely careful to check all calculations, regardless of the labour involved.
These things occupied him closely for some weeks. He saw scarcely anybody but his own men, nor did he wish to see anybody else. He intended to finish the job, and get out at something better. Therefore he plugged away day and night, and, so far as he could, forced others to do the same.
But the current of his routine was changed by so small a thing as a wire nail. He was returning from an inspection of his ditches, when his horse pulled up dead lame. Farwell, dismounting, found the nail imbedded to the head in the animal's hoof; and he could not withdraw it, though he broke his knife blade in repeated attempts. He swore angrily, not because it meant temporary inconvenience to himself, but because he sympathized with his horse; and, looping the reins over his arm, began to walk, the animal limping after him.
Half an hour of this slow progress brought him in sight of Talapus Ranch. It had been pointed out to him before; but it was with considerable reluctance that he decided, for his mount's sake, to turn into the trail to the house.
Sheila was on the veranda, and Farwell raised his hat.
"Miss McCrae, I think. You may remember me—Farwell. I'm sorry to trouble you, but my horse has picked up a nail. If I could borrow a pair of pliers or shoeing pincers——"
"Of course. Father is at the stable. I'll show you."
Donald McCrae, just in from a day of irrigating, shook hands, and took the horse's hoof between his knees with the certainty of a farrier.
"Right bang to the head," he observed, as he tried for a grip. "I'll have it in a minute. Hold him, now! Steady, boy! There you are!"
With a twist and an outward wrench he held up the nail between the tips of the pincers. He released the hoof, but the horse held it clear of the ground.
"Sore," said McCrae. "A nasty brute of a piece of wire, too. That's a mighty lame cayuse. You won't ride him for a week—maybe two."
"He'll have to take me to camp, or I'll have to take him."
"And that might lame him for two months. Leave him here. I'll poultice the foot if it needs it. You stay and have supper. Afterward we'll drive you over."
Farwell demurred, surprised. He considered all the ranchers to be leagued against the railway, and in that he was not far wrong. In his mind it followed as a corollary that they were also hostile to him, as he was hostile to them.
"Thanks! It's very good of you, but, under the circumstances—you understand what I mean."
"You needn't feel that way," McCrae returned. "When this country was just country, and no more, a white man was always welcome to my fire, my blankets, and my grub, when I had it. It's no different now, at Talapus. You're welcome to what we have—while we have it. There's no quarrel between us that I know of."
"No, of course not," said Farwell, not quite at his ease. If McCrae chose to put it on that footing he could not reasonably object. "Well, thanks very much. I'll be glad to accept your offer."
An excellent meal put him in better humour. By nature he was a hard man, who took life seriously, engrossed in his profession. He led a nomadic existence, moved continually from one piece of work to another, his temporary habitations ranging from modern hotels to dog tents and shacks. In all the world there was no spot that he could call home; and there was no one who cared a button whether he came or went. His glimpses of other men's homes were rare and fleeting, and he was apt to thank Heaven that he was not thus tied down.
But the atmosphere of the ranch appealed to him. Its people were not silly folk, babbling of trivial things which he neither understood nor cared to understand. Mrs. McCrae, as he mentally appraised her, was a sensible woman. In her husband—big, quiet, self-contained—he recognized a man as hard as himself. Young McCrae, silent, too grim of mouth for his years, was the makings of another hard man. But it was at Sheila that he looked the most, and at her if not to her his conversation was directed.
So much for the simple magic of a white dress. When he had seen her with Dunne, in a dusty riding costume, he had not been especially attracted. He had not thought of her since. Now, she seemed a different person. He liked her level, direct glance, her low, clear voice, the quiet certainty of each movement of her brown hands. Farwell, though his acquaintance with the species was slight, recognized the hall mark. Unmistakably the girl was a lady.
Sheila, listening, felt that her estimate of Farwell needed revision. He was a bigger man than she had thought, stronger, and therefore a more formidable opponent. It seemed to her monstrous, incongruous, that he should be sitting there as a guest and yet be carrying out a project which would ruin them. But since he was a guest he had the rights of a guest.
Afterward she found herself alone with him on the veranda. Her father and brother had gone to the stables, and her mother was indoors planning the next day's housework.
"You smoke, Mr. Farwell?" she said. "I'll get you some cigars."
"I have some in my pocket, thanks."
"No. Talapus cigars at Talapus. That's the rule."
"If you insist on it." He lit a cigar, finding to his relief that it was very good indeed. "Well, Miss McCrae, I must say your hospitality goes the full limit. I'm rather overwhelmed by it."
"What nonsense! Supper, a cigar—that's not very burdensome surely."
"It's the way things are, of course," he explained. "I'm not blind. I know what you were thinking about—what you are thinking now."
"I doubt it, Mr. Farwell."
"Yes, I do. You are wondering how I have the nerve to eat your food and smoke your tobacco when I'm here on this irrigation job."
It was her thought stripped naked. She made a little gesture, scarcely deprecatory. Why protest when he had guessed so exactly?
"I'm glad you don't feel called on to lie politely," said Farwell. "I'm pretty outspoken myself. I don't blame you at all. I merely want to point out that if I weren't on this job some one else would be. You see that. I'm just earning my living."
She was silent. He went on:
"I'm not apologizing, you understand, and I'm not saying anything about the rights of the ranchers or of my employers, one or the other. I don't care about either. I'm just concerned with my own business."
"That is to say, the railway's," Sheila commented.
"I'm trying to point out that I'm a hired man, with no personal interest. But of course I'll do what I'm paid to do—and more. I never saw the time I didn't give full value for every dollar of my pay."
"I don't question it," said Sheila.
"You think I'm talking too much about myself," he said quickly. "That's so. I'm sorry. You people have treated me well, no matter what you thought, and I appreciate it. I've enjoyed the evening very much. I wonder"—he hesitated for a moment—"I wonder if you'd mind my riding over here once in a while?"
"Of course not—if you care to come," Sheila replied. Intuitively she divined that she had interested him, and she guessed by his manner that it was not his custom to be interested in young women. Apart from the ranchers' grievance against the corporation he represented, she had no reason for refusal. She rather liked his downrightness. Casey Dunne had said that he was a bit of a bully, but not a bluff. His extreme frankness, while it amused her, seemed genuine.
"Thank you!" he said. "I don't flatter myself that you want me particularly, and I'm quite satisfied with the bare permission. I'm not entertaining or pleasant, and I know it. I've been busy all my life. No time for—for—well, no time for anything but work. But this little job isn't going to keep me more than half busy. I've done all the hard work of it now."
"I didn't know it was so nearly finished."
"I mean I've been over the ground and over the figures, and I know all that is to be done. Now it's merely a question of bossing a gang. A foreman could do that."
Sheila could find no fault with the last statement. Obviously it was a fact. But the tone more than the words was self-assertive, even arrogant. She was unreasonably annoyed.
"Naturally you consider yourself above foreman's work," she commented, with faint sarcasm.
"I don't consider myself above any work when it's up to me to do it or see it left undone," he replied. "I've held a riveter and driven spikes and shimmed up ties before now. But a concern that pays a first-class man to do third-class work is robbing itself. This is the last time I'll do it. That's how I feel about it."
Sheila was not accustomed to hear a man blow his own horn so frankly. The best men of her acquaintance—her father, Casey Dunne, Tom McHale, and others—seldom talked of themselves, never bragged, never mentioned their proficiency in anything. She had been brought up to regard a boaster and a bluff as synonymous. To her an egotist was also a bluff. His bad taste repelled her. And yet he did not seem to stress the announcement.
"A first-class man should not waste his time," she observed, but to save her life she could not keep her tone free from sarcasm. He took up her meaning with extraordinary quickness.
"You think I might have let somebody else say that? Pshaw! I'm not mock-modest. I am a good man, and I'm paid accordingly. I want you to know it. I don't want you to take me for a poor devil of a line runner."
"What on earth does it matter what I take you for?" said Sheila. "I don't care whether you have a hundred or a thousand a month. What difference does it make to me?"
"None—but it makes a whole lot to me," said Farwell. "I'm interested in my profession. I want to get to the top of it. I'm halfway up, and time counts. And then to be sent down here on this rotten job! Pah! it makes me sick."
"I'm glad to hear you admit that it's rotten," said Sheila. "It's outrageous—a straight steal."
He stared at her a moment, laughed, and shook his head.
"You don't understand me. It's rotten from my standpoint—too trivial to waste time on."
"It's rotten from our standpoint. Can't you get away from your supreme self for a moment? Can't you appreciate what it means to us?"
"I know exactly what it means, but I can't help it. You know—but you can't help it. What are you going to do, anyway?"
"I don't know," she admitted, thinking of her conversation with Casey Dunne.
"You're sure you don't? We heard rumours—I may as well tell you—that the ranchers were prepared to make trouble for us."
"Then you've heard more than I have."
He eyed her a moment in silence. She returned his glance unwaveringly.
"I'm glad to know it," he said at length. "I don't want a row. Now, you people here—on this ranch—why don't you sell and get out?"
She thought it brutally put. "In the first place, we don't want to sell out. And in the next place who would buy?"
"That's so," he said. "I guess you wouldn't find many buyers. Still, if you got the chance——"
Whatever he was about to say was lost in a clamour of wheels and hoofs. Donald McCrae appeared in a buckboard drawn by a light team which he was holding with difficulty. He pulled them to a momentary halt.
"Now, if you're ready, Mr. Farwell. Jump in quick. These little devils won't stand. They haven't had any work for a week. All set? G'lang, boys!"
They started with a rear and a furious rush that flung Farwell back against the seat. In two hundred yards McCrae had them steadied, hitting a gait that fairly ate up the miles.
Farwell sat silent, chewing an unlighted cigar, turning a new idea over and over in his mind. This idea was to arrange for the purchase of Talapus Ranch by the railway's land department. None knew better than he that the taking of their water would mean absolute ruin to the McCraes, as it did to others. For the others he cared nothing. But he told himself that he owed something to the McCraes. They had treated him decently, like a white man. He was under a certain obligation, and here was a chance to return it many thousandfold. Also it would show the McCrae girl that he was no common employee, but a man of influence. He thought he had pull enough. Yes, when he came to think about it, it was a shame that people like the McCraes should lose everything. Nobody but the railway would buy their ranch, under the circumstances. But the railway could do so, and likely make a profit. That would be fair to everybody.
Once Farwell came to a conclusion he was prompt to act. He said, without preliminary:
"McCrae, what do you want for that ranch of yours?"
"It's not for sale now," McCrae replied.
"Everything's for sale at some price," Farwell commented. "What's a fair figure for it? I don't mean what you'll take—but what's it worth?"
"There's a thousand acres, and all good. There's no better land in the world. Then there's the buildings and fencing and stock and implements. Hard to say, nowadays. Why, raw land in little patches is selling at fancy figures. I should say as it stands—stocked and all—it's worth a hundred and fifty thousand of any man's money."
"If I can find a buyer at that figure will you take it?"
"No I'm not selling."
"Now, look here," said Farwell, "you say your place is worth one hundred and fifty thousand. That's with plenty of water for irrigation. Say it is. But what's it worth without water?"
"Without water," said McCrae slowly, "the land itself is worth about one dollar an acre. Twenty-five thousand would be an outside price for a crazy man to pay for Talapus."
"Exactly," said Farwell. "McCrae, you'd better let me try to find you a purchaser. For, if you hang on, just as sure as God made little red apples you'll be praying to Him to send you a crazy man."
McCrae was silent for a long minute, his eyes fixed on his horses' ears. "This is the first time," he said, "that it's been put up to me straight. I knew, of course—we all knew—but nobody had the nerve to come here and tell us so."
"Well, I have the nerve," said Farwell. "But I'm not saying it the way you think I am. I'm not talking as an official; I'm talking as a friend—as I'd like a man to talk to me if I were in your fix. I'm trying to get you to stand from under. Here's the situation, as plainly as I can put it: If you can't get water you will be forced to sell, and the best you can get is grazing-land prices. You know that. On the other hand, if you will sell now I think I can get you the price you named. Understand, I'm not doing this for a commission. I don't want one, and I wouldn't take one. I think the railway would buy on my recommendation if I put it strongly enough; and I'd do that for you people because—oh, well, just because I would. Now, there it is, McCrae, and it's up to you."
McCrae eased his team. His big shoulders seemed to droop, as if a heavy weight had been laid upon them. He fought his temptation in the darkness.
"No," he said at last, "I won't sell. But I'm obliged to you all the same. If the railway would buy us all out——"
"No!" snapped Farwell. "So that's why you won't sell. You think your friends will hold out, too. You've got a sort of a pool. It won't do you any good. The rest of them haven't the sand. I'll bet there isn't another man who would turn down such an offer as I've made to you. It will be each man for himself pretty soon."
"You're wrong," said McCrae. "We'll stay with each other. Casey Dunne had an offer from York. He didn't take it."
"Dunne is a fool!" rasped Farwell. Never guarded in speech, his instinctive hostility flared into hot words. "He won't get the chance again. He's one man we won't buy."
"I'm another," McCrae retorted swiftly. "Look here, Mr. Farwell, I was in this country when its only crop was buffalo hides and bad Indians. Land!—you couldn't give it away. I can show you a town with hotels and banks and paved streets and electric lights—a fine little town. Twenty-odd years ago I was offered the section that town now stands on, for a team and a two weeks' grubstake for a man and his wife. They wanted to get out, and they couldn't. I gave 'em the grub, and told 'em it was worth the price of it to me not to own the land. Yes, sir—and I meant it. I was that shortsighted. So were others. We thought the country would never fill up, just as we thought the buffalo would never be killed out, and we kept on drifting. When I woke up, the cheap lands were about gone. And then, ten years late, I made my grab for a piece of what was left. I hiked for this country that I knew ahead of everybody, and I picked out the best bunch of stuff there was in it, and I sat down to wait for the rush to catch up to me. Now it's caught me and the rest of us who came in early. And now you people tell me I've got to move off my reservation, and go away somewhere and begin again. I won't do it—I tell you I won't! And, what's more, don't you crowd me too hard—me and the rest of the boys—or there'll be hell a-popping right here. Now, you mind what I'm telling you."
He spoke deliberately, evenly, without raising his voice. His manner, even more than his words, expressed fixed determination. Farwell lifted his eyebrows, and puckered his lips in a silent whistle. His diplomacy was turning out badly, and he repressed an inclination to retort.
"Well, I'm sorry," he said. "I hoped we could fix this up. Think it over, anyway."
"I've done my thinking."
"But, man, you're on the wrong side of the fence, and you know it. The railway is too strong for you. What's the sense of bucking it?"
"Not much, maybe. I guess you mean well, and I take it friendly, but this ain't a question of sense."
"Of what, then?"
"Of a man's right to keep what he's worked for, and to live on the land he owns." McCrae replied. "That's the way I look at it."
It was the old question once more—older than the country, older than the Mayflower, older than the Great Charter wrested from John the King——the eternal battle between the common man and class or privilege. Here, in the new country, in place of the divine right of kings and the hereditary power of nobles, was substituted the might of money, the power of the corporate body, itself a creation of law, overriding the power which created it.
"Well, it's your funeral," said Farwell. "I can't help my job, just remember that. And of course I've got to earn my pay."
"Sure," said McCrae; "sure, I understand."
They were at the camp. Farwell jumped out inviting McCrae to put his team up and come to his quarters. McCrae refused. It was late; he must be getting back.
"Just as you say," said Farwell. "I'm coming over to your ranch now and then, if you don't mind."
"Come along," said McCrae. "Latchstring's always out. You, Jeff; you, Dinny! G'lang, boys!"
The buckboard leaped to the sudden plunge of the little road team. Farwell stood for a moment listening to the diminishing drum roll of hoofs, whir of spokes, and clank of axles in their boxes.
"The blamed fool!" he thought. "Well, I gave him his chance. But it's going to be hard on his folks." He shook his head. "Yes, it will be pretty hard on his wife and the girl—what do they call her? Sheila. Nice name that—odd! Sheila!" He repeated the name aloud.
"Hello, did you speak to me?" said the voice of his assistant, Keeler, in the darkness.
"No!" snapped Farwell, with unnecessary curtness; "I didn't."
At the end of a week Farwell told Keeler that he was going to ride over to Talapus. He added unnecessarily that he wanted to see how his horse was getting on. Whereat his assistant, who had very good ears, grinned internally, though outwardly he kept a decorous face. He did not expect his chief back till late.
But Farwell returned early, and spent a busy half hour in blowing up everybody from Keeler down. On this occasion he had not seen Sheila at all. She and Casey Dunne, so Mrs. McCrae informed him, were at the latter's ranch. Mr. Dunne, it appeared, was buying some house furnishings, and wanted Sheila's advice. Farwell took an abrupt departure, declining a hospitable invitation. He barely looked at the lame horse.
For another week he sulked in a poisonous temper. He was done with Talapus. He thought that McCrae girl had some sense, but if she was going traipsing all over the country with Dunne, why, that let him out. Maybe she was going to marry Dunne. It looked like it. Anyway, it was none of his business. But the end of it was that he went to Talapus again.
This time he found Sheila alone. The elder McCraes were gone to Coldstream in the buckboard. Young Alec was somewhere on the ditch. Sheila, flanked by clothesbasket and workbasket, sat on the veranda mending his shirts. The occupation was thoroughly unromantic, little calculated to appeal to the imagination. Nevertheless, it appealed to Farwell.
Largely because it is the perverse nature of man to believe that the Fates have set him in the wrong groove, Farwell, like many others whose lives have been spent in exclusively masculine surroundings, believed his tastes to be domestic. Not that he had ever pushed this belief beyond the theoretical stage; nor would he have exchanged places with any of his confreres who had taken wives. But he railed inwardly at the intense masculinity of his life, for the same reason that the sailorman curses the sea and the plainsman the plains. Just as the tragedian is certain in his inmost soul that his proper role is light comedy, while the popular comedian is equally positive that he should be starring in the legitimate; so Farwell, harsh, dominant, impatient, brutal on occasion, a typical lone male of his species, knowing little of and caring less for the softer side of life, cherished a firm belief that his proper place was the exact centre of a family circle.
Although he had never seen a home that he cared beans about—including the one of his childhood—the singing of "Home, Sweet Home" invariably left him pensive for half an hour. Theoretically—heretofore always strictly theoretically—he possessed a strong dulce domum impulse. And so the spectacle of Sheila mending her brother's shirts was one of which he thoroughly approved. It gave him a feeling of intimacy, as though he had been admitted to the performance of a domestic rite.
Sheila picked up a second shirt, inspected it critically, and frowned. "Now, isn't that a wreck?" she observed. "Sandy's awfully hard on his shirts." She nipped a thread recklessly between her teeth, shot the end deftly through the needle's eye, and sighed. "Oh, well, I suppose I must just do the best I can with the thing."
"Your brother is lucky," said Farwell. "My things get thrown away. No one to look after them when they begin to go."
"That's very wasteful," she reproved him. "Why don't you send them somewhere?"
"Where, for instance?"
"Oh, anywhere. I don't know. There must be women in every town who would like to earn a little money."
"Well, I haven't time to hunt for them. If you know any one around here who would undertake the job, I could give her quite a bit of work. So could the others."
"You don't mean me, do you?" laughed Sheila. "Sandy gives me all I can handle."
"Of course I never thought of such a thing," said Farwell seriously. "Did it sound like that?"
"No, I am joking. I think you take things seriously, Mr. Farwell."
"I suppose so," he admitted. "Yes, I guess I do. I can't help it. I'm no joker; no time for that. Jokers don't get anywhere. Never saw one that did. It's the fellow who keeps thinking about his job and banging away at it who gets there."
"The inference being that I won't get anywhere."
Farwell, puzzled momentarily, endeavoured to remember what he had said.
"I guess I made another break. I wasn't thinking of you. Women don't have to get anywhere. Men do—that is, men who count. I've seen a lot of fellows in my own profession—smart, clever chaps—but, instead of buckling down to work, they were eternally running about having a good time. And what did any of them ever amount to? Not that!" He snapped his fingers contemptuously.
"But wasn't that the fault of the men themselves? I mean that, apart from their liking for a good time, perhaps they hadn't the other qualities to make them successful."
"Yes, they had," said Farwell positively. "Didn't I say they were clever? It wasn't lack of that—it was their confounded fooling around. Almost every man gets one chance to make good. If he's ready for it when it comes, he's made. If he isn't—well, he isn't. That was the way with these fellows. When they should have been digging into the ground-work of their profession they weren't. And so, when good things were given them, they fell down hard. They lost money for other people, and that doesn't do. Now they're down and out—lucky to get a job with a level and one rodman to boss. There's no sympathy coming to them. It was their own fault."
He spoke positively, with finality, beating the heel of his clenched fist against his knee to emphasize his words. Evidently he spoke out of the faith that was in him. Not a line of his face suggested humour or whimsicality. Not a twinkle of the eye relieved its hardness. He was grave, dour, purposeful, matter-of-fact. He took himself, his life, and the things of life with exceeding seriousness.
Sheila regarded him thoughtfully. Somehow she was reminded of her father. There was the same gravity, marching hand in hand with tenacity of purpose, fixity of ideas; the same grim scorn of the tonic wine of jest and laughter. But in the elder man these were mellowed and softened. In Farwell, in the strength of his prime, they were in full tide, accentuated.
"Every man should have a good chance, and be ready for it," she replied; "but some men never get it."
"Yes, they do; yes, they do," he asseverated. "They get it, all right. Only some of them don't know it when it comes; and others are ashamed to own up that they've missed it. We all get it, I tell you, sooner or later."
"It may come too late to some."
"No, no, it comes in time if a man is wide awake. It's about the only square deal creation gives him. And it's about all creation owes him. It's right up to them then. If he's asleep, it's his own fault. I don't say it doesn't happen more than once; but it does happen once."
Plainly he was in deep earnest. He had no tolerance of failure, no excuse for it. According to his theory, every man at some time was master of his fate.
"Have you had your chance?" she asked.
"Not the big chance that I want. I've done some good work, here and there. But the big thing is coming to me. I feel it. And I'm in shape to handle it, too. When I do that, I'll quit working for other people. I'll work for myself. Yes, by George! they can come to me."
Sheila laughed at him. His absolute cocksureness was too ridiculous. But in spite of herself she was impressed by the sincerity of his belief in himself. And she realized that opportunity was apt to knock at the door of a man who believed in his own capacity for success and let others know it.
"I probably make you tired," said Farwell. "You asked me, and I told you. I'm not worrying about my future. Now, let's talk about yours. You were away when I was here last week."
"Yes, I was over at Chakchak."
"That's Dunne's ranch. Your mother said you were helping him choose some things from a mail-order catalogue."
"Furniture, linen, dishes, and a lot of other things." There was no embarrassment in her tone.
"Oh!" said Farwell; and as he uttered the word it resembled a growl. "Well, when is it to be?"
"When is what to be?"
"Why, the wedding, of course."
"What wedding?" She laid down her work and stared at him. Then she laughed, though the colour surged to her cheeks. "Oh, I see. You think I was choosing these things for Mr. Dunne's prospective bride?"
"Not a bit of course—unless Casey has deceived me shamefully. Can't a man furnish his house better without having a wedding in view?"
"He can, but usually he doesn't. That's my experience."
"I wasn't aware that you were married."
"Married?" cried Farwell. "Me? I'm not. I'm glad of it. I have enough to worry me now. I——" He came to an abrupt stop. "Oh, well, laugh away," he added. "I'll tell you what I thought. I thought you were going to marry Dunne."
Sheila's laughter closed suddenly. "You haven't the least right to think that or say it," she said coldly. "It's strange if I can't help a friend choose a few house furnishings without impertinent comment."
"Oh, come!" said Farwell. "I didn't mean to be impertinent, Miss McCrae. I know I'm too outspoken. I'm always putting my foot in it."
"Very well," said Sheila. "I think you said you wanted to speak to me of my future?"
"Yes. I spoke to your father about selling the ranch. He refused point-blank. What can we do about it?"
She shrugged her shoulders. "'We?' If he told you he won't sell, he won't. I didn't know you had spoken to him."
"Couldn't you persuade him?"
"I wouldn't try. I don't want Talapus sold. What right have you to hold us up? That's what it amounts to."
"There's a woman for you!" cried Farwell to the world at large. "Hold you up? Great Scott, that's just what I'm not doing! I offered him the value he put on the ranch himself, not a holdup price. I mean I offered to get it for him. I want you to put it up to him, and get your mother to help you. You ought to have some say in this. He ought to think of you a little."
"It's his ranch," Sheila returned loyally. "He knows what he's doing. When a man has made up his mind, women shouldn't make things harder for him by whining."
"That's right enough, too," said Farwell, whose masculinity was in thorough accord with the last sentiment. "But he is just the same as throwing away a hundred thousand dollars. I don't want to see it. I know what he's up against. I want him to get out while he can break even."
"What about the rest of the ranchers?"
"I don't care a hang for the rest of the ranchers."
"And why do you make a distinction in our favour?"
Farwell was not prepared with an answer, even to himself. Her bluntness was disconcerting. "I don't know," he replied. "It doesn't matter. The main thing is to make your father get out of the way of the tree, for it's going to fall right where he's standing. He can't dodge once it starts. And what hits him hits you."
"Then I won't dodge, either," she declared bravely. "He's right not to sell. I wouldn't if I were in his place."
Farwell slid back in his chair and bit his cigar savagely.
"I never saw such a family!" he exclaimed. "You've got nerve a-plenty, but mighty poor judgment. Get it clear now, what's going to happen. You'll have enough water for domestic purposes and stock, but none for the ranch. Then it won't be worth a dollar an acre. Same way with the rest. And now let me tell you another thing: Just as soon as the water is turned off, every rancher will fall all over himself to sell. That's what your father doesn't believe. He'll see when it's too late. It's rank folly."
"It's our own folly, Mr. Farwell!"
"You mean it's none of my business. Well, I make it my business. I butt in on this. I'll put it right up to him. I'll shove the money right under his nose. If he turns it down I'm done. I'll quit. And if you don't do your best to make him take it, you won't be dealing fairly with him, your mother, or yourself."
Sheila stared at him, quite unused to such a tone. He, an utter stranger, was arrogating to himself the position of friend to the family, presuming to criticise her father's wisdom, to tell her what she should do and should not do. But withal she was impressed by his earnestness. His advice, she could not believe, was entirely disinterested. At the same time, inconsistently, she was angry.
"Well," she said. "I must say you are 'butting in.' You—you—oh, you don't lack nerve, Mr. Farwell!"
"Don't worry about my nerve," he retorted grimly. "You'll have other troubles. For Heaven's sake have some sense. Will you do as I tell you, or won't you?" He leaned forward, tapping the arm of her chair with tense fingers.
"No," she answered positively, "I won't."
Young McCrae came around the corner of the house. He was hatless, coatless, muddy from his work in the ditches. A pair of faded blue overalls were belted to his lean middle by a buckskin thong, and his feet were incased in wet moccasins. He came noiselessly but swiftly, not of purpose, but from habit, with a soft, springy step; and he was level with them before they were aware of him. He came to an abrupt halt, his eyes on Farwell, every muscle tensing. For an instant he resembled a young tiger about to spring.
"Oh, Sandy," cried his sister, "what a mess! For goodness sake don't come up here with those muddy moccasins."
"Just as you say," drawled young McCrae. "I thought you might want me. Anything I can do for you, sis? Want anything carried in—or thrown out?" He accented the last words.
Farwell, who had read danger signals in men's eyes before, saw the flare of enmity in the young man's, and raised his shoulders in a faint shrug. He smiled to himself in amusement.
"No, there's nothing, thanks," said Sheila, quite unconscious of the hidden meaning of his words. "Better get cleaned up for supper."
McCrae swung on silently, with his rapid, noiseless step. Farwell turned to Sheila.
"Do this for me, Miss McCrae," he pleaded. "Give me a fair chance with your father if you won't help me with him. Don't tell your brother of what I'm trying to do. If you do that, his influence will be the other way."
"If my father has made up his mind, none of us can change it," said Sheila. "But I'll give you a fair field. I won't tell Sandy."
Farwell, in spite of previous virtuous resolutions, remained for supper. The elder McCraes had not returned. The young people had the meal to themselves; and Sheila and Farwell had the conversation to themselves, for Sandy paid strict and confined attention to his food, and did not utter half a dozen words. Immediately afterward he vanished; but, when Farwell went to the stable for his horse, he found the young man saddling a rangy, speedy-looking black.
"Guess I'll ride with you a piece," he announced.
"All right," Farwell replied carelessly. He did not desire company; but if it was forced on him he could not help it.
The light was failing as they rode from the ranch house. The green fields lay sombre in the creeping dusk. Nighthawks in search of food darted in erratic flight, uttering their peculiar booming notes. Running water murmured coolly in the ditch that flanked the road. Cattle, full of repletion, stood in contented lethargy by the watering place, ruminating, switching listlessly at the evening flies which scarcely annoyed them. The vivid opalescent lights of the western sky grew fainter, faded. Simultaneously the zenith shaded from turquoise to sapphire. In the northeast, low over the plains, gleaming silver against the dark velvet background of the heavens, lay the first star.
But Farwell paid no attention to these things. Instead, he was thinking of Sheila McCrae—reconstructing her pose as she bade him good-bye, the direct, level gaze of her dark eyes, the contour of her face, the cloudy masses of her brown hair. He was unconsciously engaged in the perilous, artistic work of drawing for his sole and exclusive use a mental "portrait of a lady"; and, after the manner of man attracted by woman, he idealized the picture of his creation. By virtue of this absorbing occupation, he quite forgot the presence of the brother of the woman. But a mile beyond the ranch young McCrae pulled up.
"I turn off here," he said.
"That so? Good night," said Farwell.
"There's something I came to tell you," McCrae pursued. "I'm not making any grand-stand play about it; but you'd better be a lot more careful when you're talking to my sister. Understand?"
"No, I don't," said Farwell. "I never said anything to Miss McCrae that her father and mother mightn't hear."
"Oh, that!" said young Sandy, and spat in disgust. "No, I guess you didn't—and you hadn't better. But you told her to do something—fairly ordered her. I heard you, and I heard her tell you she wouldn't. Perhaps you'll tell me what it was?"
"Perhaps I won't."
"Because I don't want to, mostly," said Farwell impatiently. "Also because it's none of your business. Your sister and I understand each other. Our conversation didn't concern you—directly, anyway."
"I'll let it go at that on your say-so," Sandy returned, with surprising calmness. "I'm not crowding trouble with you, but get this clear: You know why you're hanging around the ranch, and I don't. All the same, if you are up to any monkey business, you'll settle it with me."
Farwell's temper, never reliable, rose at once.
"Quite a Wild West kid, aren't you?" he observed, with sarcasm. "You make me tired. It's a good thing for you your people are decent." He crowded his horse close to the other. "Now, look here, young fellow, I won't stand for any fool boy's talk. You're old enough to know better. Cut it out with me after this, do you hear?"
"Where are you coming with that cayuse?" demanded young McCrae, and suddenly raked a rowelled heel behind the animal's shoulder.
Ensued five strenuous minutes for Farwell, wherein he sought to soothe his mount's wounded feelings. When at last the quadruped condescended to allow his four hoofs to remain on the ground simultaneously for more than a fraction of a second, young McCrae was gone; and Farwell, somewhat shaken, and profane with what breath was left him, had nothing for it but to resume his homeward way.
The astute Mr. Sleeman's prediction to Farwell—namely, that the attitude of the ranchers would affect land sales—proved correct. Naturally, owing to a perfect advertising machinery, a number of sales were made to people at distant points, who bought for speculation merely. But these, though well enough in their way, were not entirely satisfactory. The company needed actual settlers—men who would go upon the lands and improve them—to furnish object lessons from the ground itself to personally conducted, prospective buyers, who in turn should do the same, and ultimately provide the Prairie Southern branch of Western Airline with a paying traffic in freight and humanity.
But prospective buyers proved annoyingly inquisitive. After looking at the company's holdings, they naturally wished to see for themselves what the country was good for; and the obvious way to find out was to visit the established ranches.
Sleeman could not prevent it—nor appear to wish to prevent it. In fact, he had to acquiesce cheerfully and take them himself. That was better than letting them go alone. But the very air seemed to carry rumours. In vain he assured them that there was no fear of trouble, that in any event the company would protect them; in vain he showed them the big canal and beautiful system of ditches, and pointed with much enthusiasm to the armour-belted, double-riveted clause in the sale contracts, guaranteeing to the lucky buyer the delivery of so many miner's inches or cubic feet of water every day in the year.
"It's like this," said one prospective buyer: "They ain't enough water for the whole country, and you're certainly aimin' to cinch some of the men that's here already so tight they can't breathe. If I buy water they're gettin' now, they're mighty apt to be sore on me. Dunno's I blame them, either. I like to stand well with my neighbours. Your land's all right, but I can't see where we deal."
And the attitude of this individual was fairly representative. Landlookers came, saw; but, instead of remaining to conquer the soil, the majority of them went elsewhere.
This was hard on Sleeman. He was a good salesman, and he had a good proposition; but he was handicapped by conditions not of his creating and beyond his control. And he knew quite well that, while a corporation may not give an employee any credit whatever for satisfactory results, it invariably saddles him with the discredit of unsatisfactory ones.
He foresaw that sooner or later—and very probably sooner—he would be asked to explain why he was not making sales. And he came to the conclusion that, as something was sure to start, he might as well start it himself.
His cogitations crystallized in the form of a letter to his chief, the head of the land department, wherein he told the bald and shining truth without even a mental reservation. And he intimated tactfully that if the department had another man whom they considered better fitted to deal with the unfortunate local conditions, he, Sleeman, would be charmed to assist him, or to go elsewhere in their service, if that seemed best to their aggregate wisdom. He worded his part of this letter very carefully, for he had seen as good men as himself incontinently fired merely because they could not deny themselves the luxury of a petulant phrase.
His letter bore fruit; for Carrol, the mighty head of the land department, came down to see things for himself.
Carrol, however, suffered from a species of myopia not uncommon among gentlemen who have for a long time represented large interests. He had so come to look upon Western Airline as an irresistible force, that the concept of an immovable body was quite beyond him. He had nothing but contempt for any person or set of persons—corporations with equal capital always excepted—rash enough to oppose any of its plans.
"Now, see here," he said at a conference with Sleeman and Farwell. "We can't afford to have our sales blocked this way. Our ditches will carry water now, and the dam itself is nearly completed. Open up the ditches and take all the water you can. Then we'll see whether there is anything in these yarns."
"But if we take water before we need it, we simply stiffen their hand," Sleeman objected. "We give them legitimate grounds to kick."
"They'll kick, anyway," said Carrol. "We need water to grow grass—if anybody should ask you. The sooner we take it the sooner we shall be able to acquire these ranches. Once the men see what they're up against they'll ask us to buy, which we'll do on our own terms. That's the programme. What do you think, Farwell?"
"You're the doctor," Farwell replied.
"You don't anticipate any trouble?"
"Not a bit," said Farwell contemptuously. "They'll howl, of course. Let 'em. In a month they'll eat out of your hand."
"Quite so," said Carrol; "that's how I look at it."
"There's one man, though," said Farwell, "whom I'd like to see get a fair price. That's McCrae, who owns Talapus Ranch. It's the biggest and best in the country."
"Will he sell now?"
"What has he got, and what does he want for it?"
Farwell told him.
"What is it worth, Sleeman?" And at his agent's appraisal, Carrol looked shocked and grieved. "Why, good Lord! Farwell," he said, "he wants almost what his ranch is worth."
"Funny that he should, isn't it?" sneered Farwell, who stood in no awe of Carrol. "Well, and that's what I want him to get."
"Can't do it," said Carrol decisively. "No money in it. Show me how I could make a profit."
"Cut it up into little chunks and sell it to those marks back East," Farwell replied. "I don't have to tell you your business. Make another Sentinel of it if you like."
The reference was to the town site of Sentinel, a half section of prairie which had been bought for three thousand dollars and sold as town lots on paper at a couple of hundred thousand to confiding, distant investors. It was still prairie, and apt to remain so. Carrol had engineered the deal, and he would have blushed if he had not forgotten how. As it was, he smiled sourly.
"I wish I could. Is this McCrae a friend of yours?"
"Put it that way," Farwell replied, frowning at the quizzical expression of Sleeman's eye. "He doesn't want to sell, but I want him to have the chance of refusing real money. He may take it, or he may not. Anyway, I make it as a personal request."
Carrol eyed him for a moment. He knew Farwell's reputation for uncompromising hostility to any one who thwarted his plans, accidentally or otherwise. Also Farwell was a good man. He was bound to rise. Some day, he, Carrol, might require his help and he kept a sharp eye on possibilities of that nature. So he said:
"It isn't business, but to oblige you, Farwell—all right, I'll take the chance that he won't accept. But it's sudden death, mind. No dickering. He accepts, or he doesn't. If not, he'll get just dry-belt prices with the rest when they surrender."
And so a few days afterward Farwell, armed with a check representing one hundred and fifty thousand dollars of lawful money, procured because he considered it likely to have a good moral effect, sought Talapus Ranch and Donald McCrae. And McCrae, as he feared, turned the offer down.
Farwell had calculated on producing the check at the proper psychological moment, in practically stampeding him. The trouble was that the psychological moment failed to arrive. McCrae showed no symptoms of vacillation. The issue was never in doubt.
"I told you before," he said, "I don't want to sell, and I won't sell."
"It's a hundred and fifty thousand cold cash—your own value," urged Farwell. "At 6 per cent. it's nine thousand a year from now to eternity for you and your wife and children. If you refuse, the best you can hope for is dry-land prices. It's your only salvation, I tell you."
"My word is passed," said McCrae. "Even if it wasn't, I wouldn't be harried off the little bit of earth that's mine. It's good of you to take this trouble—I judge you had trouble—but it's not a bit of use."
"Look here," said Farwell. "Will you talk it over with your family—your wife and daughter particularly? It's due to them."
"I will not," McCrae refused, with patriarchal scorn. "I am the family. I speak for all."
"The old mule!" thought Farwell. Aloud he said: "I want to tell you that in a few days you'll lose half your water. The rest will go when the dam is finished. This is final—the last offer, your last chance. I've done every blessed thing I could for you. Right now is when you make or break yourself and your wife and children."
"That's my affair," said McCrae. "I tell you no, and no." He plucked the oblong paper from Farwell's unresisting fingers. "A lot of money, aren't you?" he apostrophized it. "More than I've ever seen before, or will see again, like enough." Suddenly he tore the check in half, and again and again, cast the fragments in the air, and blew through them. "And there goes your check, Mr. Farwell!"
"And there goes your ranch with it," Farwell commented bitterly. "One is worth just about as much as the other now."
"I'm not so sure about that," said McCrae.
"I'm sure enough for both of us," Farwell responded.
With a perfunctory good-bye, he swung into the saddle, leaving McCrae, a sombre figure, leaning against the slip bars of the corral. He had anticipated this outcome; but, nevertheless, he was disappointed, vaguely apprehensive. In vain he told himself that it was nothing to him. The sense of failure persisted. Once he half turned in his saddle, looking backward, and he caught, or fancied he caught, the flutter of white against the shade of the veranda of the distant ranch house. That must be Sheila McCrae.
For the first time he realized that his concern was for her alone, that he did not care a hoot for the rest of the family. All this bother he had been to, all his efforts with old McCrae, his practical holdup of Carrol, even—he owned it to himself frankly—his failure to push the construction work as fast as he might had been for her and because of her. And what was the answer?
"Surely," said Farwell, straightening himself in the saddle, "surely to blazes I'm not getting fond of the girl!"
As became a decent, respectable, contented bachelor, he shied from the idea. It was absolutely ridiculous, unheard-of. The girl was all right, sensible, good-looking. She suited him as well as any woman he had ever met; but that, after all, was not saying much. He liked her—he made that concession candidly—but as for anything more—nothing to it!
But the idea, once born, refused to be disposed of thus summarily; it persisted. He found himself recalling trivial things, all pertaining to Sheila—tricks of manner, of speech, intonations, movements of the hands, body, and lips—these avalanched themselves upon him, swamping connected, reasonable thought.
"What cursed nonsense!" said Farwell angrily to himself. "I don't care a hang about her, of course. I'm dead sure she doesn't care for me. Anyway, I don't want to get married—yet. I'm not in shape to marry. Why, what the devil would I do with a wife? Where'd I put her?"
A wife! Huh! Instantly he was a prey to misgivings. He recalled shudderingly brother engineers whose wives dragged about with them, living on the edge of construction camps under canvas in summer, in rough-boarded, tar-papered shacks in the winter; or perhaps in half-furnished cottages in some nearby jerk-water town.
He had pitied the men, fought shy of the women. Most of them had put the best face upon their lives, rejoicing in the occasional streaks of fat, eating the lean uncomplainingly. They led a migratory existence, moved arbitrarily, like pawns, at the will of eminent and elderly gentlemen a thousand or so miles away, whom they did not know and who did not know them. Continually, as their temporary habitations began to take on the semblance of homes, they were transferred, from mountains to plains, from the far north to the tropics. Their few household goods bore the scars of many movings—by rail, by steamer, by freight wagon, and even by pack train.
And there were those whose responsibilities forced them to abandon life at the front. These set up establishments in the new, cheap residential districts of cities. There the wives kept camp; thither, at long intervals, the husbands took journeys ranging from hundreds of miles to thousands. True, there were those who had attained eminence. These lived properly in well-appointed houses in eligible localities; and their subordinates kept the work in hand during their frequent home-goings. But the ruck—the rank and file—had to take such marital happiness as came their way on the quick-lunch system.
Now Farwell was a bachelor, rooted and confirmed. He had always shunned married men's quarters. When his day's work was done, he foregathered with other lone males, talking shop half the night in a blue haze of tobacco around a red-hot stove or stretched in comfortable undress in front of a tent. This was his life as he had lived it for years; as he had hoped to live it until he attained fame and became a consulting engineer, a man who passed on the work of other men.
His theory of his own capacity for domesticity, though sincere, was strictly academic. He had no more idea of putting it into practice than he had of proving in his own person, before his proper time, the doctrine of eternal life.
Now, into the familiar sum of existence, which he knew from divisor to quotient, was suddenly shot a new factor—a woman. He experienced a new sensation, vague, unaccountable, restless, like the first uneasy throbs that precede a toothache. He lit a cigar; but, though he drew in the smoke hungrily, it did not satisfy. He felt a vacancy, a want, a longing.
He became aware of a dust cloud approaching. Ahead of it loped a big, clean-limbed buckskin. In the straight, wiry figure in the saddle he recognized Casey Dunne. Dunne pulled up and nodded.
"Fine day, Mr. Farwell."
"Yes," said Farwell briefly.
"Work coming on all right?"
"That's good," Dunne commented, with every appearance of lively satisfaction. "Been to Talapus? See anything of Miss McCrae there?"
"She's at home, I believe," said Farwell stiffly.
"Thanks. Come around and see me some time. Morning." He lifted the buckskin into a lope again.
Farwell looking after him, experienced a second new sensation—jealousy.
Casey Dunne, busily engaged in strengthening a working harness with rivets, looked up as a shadow fell across the morning sunlight. The shadow belonged to Tom McHale.
McHale, like Dunne himself, had seen rough times. Older than his employer, he had wandered up and down the West in the good old days of cheap land and no barbed wire, engaged in the congenial, youthful occupation of seeing as much country as he could. In the process, he had turned his hand to almost everything which had fresh air as a collateral, from riding for a cattle outfit to killing meat for railway camps. He and Dunne had come into the Coldstream country at nearly the same time; but Dunne had some money and McHale none at all. Dunne bought land and hired McHale. They worked side by side to make the ranch. McHale bought forty acres from Dunne and worked out the price, bought more, and was still working it out. But apart from financial matters they were fast friends, and either would have trusted the other with anything he possessed.
"Say," said McHale, "there's something wrong. Our ditches ain't runnin' more'n half full."
Casey put down the hammer. "Maybe the ditch is plugged somewhere."
"She may be, but it ain't likely. I've followed her quite a piece. So I come to get me a cayuse to go the rest of the way."
"I'll go with you," said Casey, throwing the harness on a peg.
In five minutes they were loping easily along the ditch, with sharp eyes for possible obstructions. As McHale had said, it was running not half full, and seemed to be falling. The strong, deep, gurgling note of a full head of water was gone. Instead was a mere babble.
So far as they could see, the flow was unhindered by obstacles; there was no break in the banks. Even around the treacherous sidehill there was no more than the usual seepage. And so at last they rode down to the Coldstream itself, to the intake of the ditch, a rude wing dam of logs, brush, and sand bags, which, nevertheless, had served them excellently heretofore.
"I'm an Injun," McHale, ejaculated, "if the whole durn creek ain't lowered!" Because he came from a land of real rivers, he invariably referred to the Coldstream thus slightingly.
But unmistakably it had fallen. Half the dam appeared above the surface, slimy, weed-grown, darkly water-soaked. Naturally, with the falling of the water, the ditch had partially failed.
The two men looked at each other. The same thought was present in the mind of each. It was barely possible that a land or rock slide somewhere high upstream had dammed or diverted the current; but it was most improbable. The cause was nearer to seek, the agency extremely human.
McHale bit into fresh consolation and spat in the direction of the inadequate dam.
"I reckon they've started in on us," he observed.
"Looks like it," Casey agreed.
"We need water now the worst way. I was figurin' on shootin' a big head on to the clover, and after that on to the oats. They sure need it. What's runnin' now ain't no use to us. We got to have more."
"No doubt about that, Tom," said Casey. "We'll ride up to their infernal dam and see just what's doing."
"Good enough!" cried McHale, his eyes lighting up. "But say, Casey, them ditch-and-dam boys ain't no meek-and-lowly outfit. Some of 'em is plumb hard-faced. How'd it be if I scattered back to the ranch first. I ain't packed a gun steady since I got to be a hayseed, but——"
"What do you want of a gun? We're just going to look at things and have a talk with Farwell."
"You never know when you'll need a gun," McHale asserted, as an incontrovertible general proposition.
"You won't need it this time. Come along."
It was almost midday when they came in sight of the construction camp beside the dam. To their surprise, a barbed wire fence had been thrown around it, enclosing an area of some twenty acres. On the trail, a space had been left for a gate, but it had not yet been hung. Beside it stood a post bearing a notice board, and, sitting with his back against the post, a man rested, smoking. As they came up, he rose and sauntered into the trail between the gate-posts.
"Hey you, hold on there!" he said.
Dunne and McHale pulled up.
"Look a-here, friend," said the latter, "do you think you're one of them never-sag gates, or a mountain, or what? You want to see a doctor about them delusions. They'll sure get you into trouble some day."
"That'll be all right about me," the big guardian of the gate returned. "Just read that notice. This is private property."
They read it. It was of the "no-admittance" variety, and forbade entrance to all individuals not in the company's employ.
"We've got business here, and we're going in," said Casey, and began to walk his horse forward.
The man caught the bridle with one hand. The other he thrust into his pocket.
"You get back now," he ordered, "or you'll walk home."
Dunne stopped instantly. His companion's hand made one lightninglike motion, and perforce came up empty.
"And this," said Mr. McHale mournfully—"this was the time I didn't need a gun!"
"Well, you don't need it, do you?" said Casey. "Observe, the gentleman still keeps his sawed-off yeggman's delight in his pocket. Pull it, friend, pull it! Don't scorch the cloth by pressing the trigger where it is. Steady, Shiner, while the gentleman shoots you!"
The guardian smiled sardonically. "Amuse yourselves, boys, but don't crowd in on me."
"Just as you say," replied Casey. "By the way, you needn't tire your arm holding my horse. He'll stand. Besides, I don't like it."
The man released the bridle and stepped back. "Make this easy for me, boys, I don't want trouble, but I got my instructions."
"Now, you listen here," said McHale. "Lemme tell you something: It's just hell's tender mercy on you I ain't got a gun. If I'd 'a' had it, you'd been beef by the trail right now."
"There's always two chances to be the beef," the other returned, unmoved. "Go fill your hand before you talk to me."
McHale grinned at him. "I like you better than I did, partner. Next time you won't have no kick on what I hold."
"We want to see Farwell," said Casey.
"Why couldn't you say that before?" the guardian returned. "I'll take a chance on you. Go in."
They found Farwell at his quarters before a table covered with prints and tracings.
"What can I do for you?" he asked curtly.
"My ditch has gone half dry," Casey replied. "I observe, too, that the river is lower than usual; which, of course, accounts for the ditch. It occurred to me that perhaps you might account for the river."
"We have begun to take water for our lands," Farwell told him. "Possibly that has something to do with it."
"I shouldn't wonder," Casey agreed dryly. "Why are you taking water now?"
"That," said Farwell deliberately, "is entirely our own affair."
"It affects us. You can't possibly use the water, because your lands are not cultivated."
"The water benefits the land," Farwell rejoined coldly. "It shows intending purchasers that we are actually delivering a sufficient quantity of water. Our use of it is legitimate."
"It's a low-down, cultus trick, if you ask me!" McHale interjected forcefully.
"I didn't ask you," snapped Farwell; "but I'll tell you what I'll do. You make another remark like that, and I'll fire you out through that door."
McHale ignored Casey's significant glance.
"That door there?" he asked innocently. "That big, wide door leadin' right outside into all that fresh air? You don't mean that one?"
"That's the one," Farwell returned angrily.
"Well, well, well!" said McHale, in mock wonder. "You don't say? And it looks just like a common, ordinary door, too. Do you reckon you got time right now to show me how it works?"
"Quit it, Tom," said Casey. "Farwell, I want to get right down to case cards. This is a raw deal. I ask you not to take water that you can't use."
"Not to mince matters with you, Dunne," Farwell returned, "I may as well say that we intend to take as much as we like and when we like. There's plenty of water left in the river. It's merely a question of building your dams to catch it."
"Will you say that there will be plenty when your big dam is finished?"
Farwell lifted his big shoulders in a shrug which coupled utter indifference with an implication that the future was in the hands of Providence.
"Good Lord, Dunne, there's no use talking about that!" said he. "We will take what water we want. You get what is left. Is that plain?"
"Yes," said Casey quietly. "I won't bother you any more."
"But I will," said McHale. "I'll just bother you to make good that bluff of yours about firin' me out of here. Why, you durn, low-flung——"
"Quit it!" Casey interrupted. "Stay where you are, Farwell, I'm not going to have a scrap. Tom, you come with me."
"Oh, well, just as you say, Casey," grumbled McHale. "I ain't hostile, special. Only I don't want him to run no blazers on me. He——"
But Casey got him outside and administered a vitriolic lecture that had some effect.
"I'm sorry, Casey," McHale acknowledged, contritely. "I s'pose I ought to known better. But that gent with the gun and Farwell between them got me goin'. Honest, I never hunted trouble in my life. It just naturally tracks up on me when I'm lyin' all quiet in camp. Course, it has to be took care of when it comes."
"There'll be enough to keep you busy," said Casey grimly. And apparently in instant fulfilment of the prophecy came the short, decisive bark of a six-shooter. By the sound, the shot had been fired outside the camp, in the direction of the gate.
"It's that cuss that held us up!" snarled McHale, and swore viciously.
Both men went up into their saddles as if catapulted from the earth. McHale yelled as he hit the leather—a wild, ear-splitting screech, the old trouble cry of his kind in days gone by—and both horses leaped frantically into motion, accomplishing the feat peculiar to cow and polo ponies of attaining their maximum speed in three jumps. They surged around the medley of tents and shacks, and came into the open neck and neck, running like singed cats.
A few hundred yards away, where the new sign-board stood beside the trail a horse struggled to rise, heaved its fore quarters up, and crashed down again, kicking in agony, raising a cloud of dust. Facing it, bending slightly forward, stood a man, holding a gun in his right hand.
Suddenly out of the dust cloud staggered a second, who rushed at the first, head down, extended fingers wildly clutching, and as he came he bellowed hoarsely the wild-bull cry of the fighting male, crazed with pain or anger. The gun in the hand of the first man flashed up and cut down; and, as it hung for an instant at the level, the report rapped through the still air. But the other, apparently unhurt, charged into him, and both went down together.
"It's big Oscar!" cried McHale. "That feller downed his horse. Holy catamounts! Look at them mix it! And here's the whole camp a-boilin' after us! Casey, did I hear you say this was the day I didn't need a gun?"
Before they could pull up they almost ran over the fighting men. The two were locked in ferocious grips. The big guardian of the gate was fighting for his life, silently, with clenched teeth, every cord and muscle and vein standing out with the heartbreaking strain put upon them.
For the big Swede was the stronger man. Ordinarily mild and sweet-tempered, he was now a wild beast. Foam blew from his mouth and flecked his soft, golden beard, and he rumbled and snarled, beast-like, in his throat. He made no attempt to strike or to avoid the blows which beat against his face; but with one arm around his enemy's neck, the hand gripping the nearer side of the jaw, and the other hand pushing at it, he strove to break his neck. Little by little he twisted it. Gradually the chin pointed to the shoulder, almost past it. It seemed that with the fraction of an inch more the vertebral column must crack like a stick of candy. But the hand on the jaw slipped, and the chin, released, shot back again, to be tucked desperately down against the breastbone.
"Get in here and pull Oscar off!" cried Casey as he leaped from his horse.
"Not in a thousand years," McHale responded. "He can kill him. Let him do it. Serve the cuss right."
"You cursed fool!" snarled Casey. "That gang will be here in half a holy minute. They'll pound Oscar to death if he's fighting then. Here, you crazy Swede, let go! Let go, I say! It's me—Casey Dunne!"
But Oscar was past reason. Once more he had got the palm of his hand beneath that stubborn chin and was lifting it from its shelter. As he put forth his huge strength, he roared out a torrent of Scandinavian oaths, interspersed with the more hardy varieties of Anglo-Saxon epithets.
"Catch hold of him," Casey ordered. "Jam your arm into his windpipe while I break his grip." As he spoke, he kicked the big Swede sharply on the left biceps. For an instant that mighty arm was paralyzed. Casey grasped his wrists and dragged them loose, while McHale, his forearm across the huge, bull-like throat, heaved back.
Oscar came apart from his victim slowly and reluctantly, as a deeply rooted stump yields to the pull of a purchase.
"He kel my Olga! He kel my Olga!" he vociferated. "He shoot her yust like she ban von vulf! By the yumpin' Yudas, you let me go!"
"Keep quiet, keep quiet, I tell you!" cried Casey. "You can get him later. See this bunch coming? They'll kill you with their shovels in half a minute."
The rush of men was almost upon them. They carried the tools which were in their hands the moment the shots were fired—mixing shovels, hoes, axes, pinch bars, and odd bits of wood and iron caught up on the impulse of the instant. Behind, straining every muscle to reach the front, ran Farwell.
Meanwhile Oscar's opponent had risen unsteadily to his feet. His eyes searched the ground, and he made a sudden dive. But McHale was before him.
He swooped on the revolver half buried in the dust, and whirled on the first comers, holding the weapon jammed tightly in front of his right hip.
"Don't crowd in on us with them shovels and things," he advised grimly. "There's lots of room right where you are."
The rush stopped abruptly. An ugly, short-barrelled gun in the hand of a man who bore all the earmarks of a hip shot was not to be treated lightly. There were rough and tough men in the crowd who were quite ready for trouble; but their readiness did not extend to rushing a gunman unless an urgent necessity existed.
Farwell broke through them, breathless from a sprint at top speed. He paid no attention whatever to McHale's weapon.
"What's the matter here?" he demanded. "You, Lewis, speak up!"
"This batty Swede tried to ride over me," Lewis replied. "I give him fair warnin', and then I downed his horse. When he hits the dirt he goes on the prod. These fellers pulled him off of me. That one's got my gun."
"You bet I have!" McHale interjected. "You tried to plug Oscar. I seen you cut down on him at about ten feet—and miss. Looks like you ain't got the nerve to hit anything that's comin' for you. You sorter confines your slaughter to harmless cayuses and such."
"Guess again," said Lewis, unmoved. "I thought I could stand the Swede off, that's why. I shot two foot high on purpose."
"You kel my Olga!" shouted Oscar. "Yust wait, you faller. Ay gat my goose gun, and Ay blow you all to hal! By Yudas, Ay gat skvare kvick!"
"This is crowding things," said Casey. "Mr. Farwell, you really must not plant gunmen by the trails with instructions to shoot our horses."
"Nobody has any such instructions," said Farwell. "This man tried to ride Lewis down, and he protected himself. I'm sorry it occurred, but we are not to blame."
"Without arguing that point," said Casey, "I warn you that we won't stand this sort of thing."
"If you fellows will keep off our lands there will be no trouble," Farwell responded. "We don't want you, and we won't have you. If you come on business, of course, that's different. Otherwise keep away. Also we don't want your stock grazing on our property."
"We may as well have an understanding while we're about it," said Casey. "The next man who pulls a gun on me—this Lewis, or anybody else—will have to beat me to the shooting. If you don't want your lands used as part of the range, fence them off. Don't interfere with a single head of my stock, either. And, if I were in your place, I'd offer this man about two hundred dollars for his mare, and throw in an apology."
"But you're not in my place," snapped Farwell. "Nobody is going to pull a gun on you if you behave yourself. If this man puts in a claim for his horse, I'll consider it, but I won't promise anything." He turned to his men. "You get back to work, the lot of you." Without further words, he strode off to the camp.
Lewis stepped up to McHale. "I'll take my gun if you're through with it."
McHale handed him the weapon.
"I don't reckon she's accurate at much over ten yards," he observed. "If I was you, I'd fix myself with a good belt gun. It ain't unlikely I packs one myself after this, and we might meet up."
"Organize yourself the way you want to," said Lewis carelessly, slipping the weapon in his pocket. "And if you're a friend of that big Swede, tell him not to look for me too hard. I don't want to hurt him; but I ain't taking chances on no goose guns." He nodded and marched off after the others.
The three men, left alone, stood in silence for a moment. Then Oscar, with a rumbling curse, began to strip saddle and bridle from his dead pet mare, the tears running down his cheeks.