He paused, as if waiting for his points to sink home; then he reached out and tapped his listener confidentially on the knee.
"Hardy," he said, "I like your style. You've got a head, and you know how to keep your mouth shut. More'n that, you don't drink. A man like you could git to be a boss sheep-herder in six months; you could make a small fortune in three years and never know you was workin'. You don't need to work, boy; I kin git a hundred men to work—what I want is a man that can think. Now, say, I'm goin' to need a man pretty soon—come around and see me some time."
"All right," said Hardy, reluctantly, "but I might as well tell you now that I'm satisfied where I am."
"Satisfied!" ripped out Swope, with an oath. "Satisfied! Why, man alive, you're jest hanging on by your eyebrows up there at Hidden Water! You haven't got nothin'; you don't even own the house you live in. I could go up there to-morrow and file on that land and you couldn't do a dam' thing. Judge Ware thought he was pretty smooth when he euchred me out of that place, but I want to tell you, boy—and you can tell him, if you want to—that Old Man Winship never held no title to that place, and it's public land to-day. That's all public land up there; there ain't a foot of land in the Four Peaks country that I can't run my sheep over if I want to, and keep within my legal rights. So that's where you're at, Mr. Hardy, if you want to know!"
He stopped and rammed a cut of tobacco into his pipe, while Hardy tapped his boot meditatively. "Well," he said at last, "if that's the way things are, I'm much obliged to you for not sheeping us out this Spring. Of course, I haven't been in the country long, and I don't know much about these matters, but I tried to accommodate you all I could, thinking—"
"That ain't the point," broke in Swope, smoking fiercely, "I ain't threatening ye, and I appreciate your hospitality—but here's the point. What's the use of your monkeying along up there on a job that is sure to play out, when you can go into a better business? Answer me that, now!"
But Hardy only meditated in silence. It was beyond contemplation that he should hire himself out as a sheep-herder, but if he said so frankly it might call down the wrath of Jim Swope upon both him and the Dos S. So he stood pat and began to fish for information.
"Maybe you just think my job is going to play out," he suggested, diplomatically. "If I'd go to a cowman, now, or ask Judge Ware, they might tell me I had it cinched for life."
Swope puffed smoke for a minute in a fulminating, dangerous silence.
"Huh!" he said. "I can dead easy answer for that. Your job, Mr. Hardy, lasts jest as long as I want it to—and no longer. Now, you can figure that out for yourself. But I'd jest like to ask you a question, since you're so smart; how come all us sheepmen kept off your upper range this year?"
"Why," said Hardy innocently, "I tried to be friendly and treated you as white as I could, and I suppose—"
"Yes, you suppose," sneered Swope grimly, "but I'll jest tell you; we wanted you to hold your job."
"That's very kind of you, I'm sure," murmured Hardy.
"Yes," replied the sheepman sardonically, "it is—dam' kind of us. But now the question is: What ye goin' to do about it?"
"Why, in what way?"
"Well, now," began Swope, patiently feeling his way, "suppose, jest for instance, that some fool Mexican herder should accidentally get in on your upper range—would you feel it your duty to put him off?"
"Well," said Hardy, hedging, "I really hadn't considered the matter seriously. Of course, if Judge Ware—"
"The judge is in San Francisco," put in Swope curtly. "Now, suppose that all of us sheepmen should decide that we wanted some of that good feed up on Bronco Mesa, and, suppose, furthermore, that we should all go up there, as we have a perfect legal right to do, what would you do?"
"I don't know," replied Hardy politely.
"Well, supposen I dropped a stick of dynamite under you," burst out Swope hoarsely, "would you jump? Speak up, man, you know what I'm talking about. You don't think you can stand off the whole Sheepmen's Protective Association, do you? Well, then, will ye abide by the law and give us our legal rights or will ye fight like a dam' fool and git sent to Yuma for your pains? That's what I want to know, and when you talk to me you talk to the whole Sheepmen's Association, with money enough in its treasury to send up every cowman in the Four Peaks country! What I want to know is this—will you fight?"
"I might," answered Hardy quietly.
"Oh, you might, hey?" jeered the sheepman, tapping his pipe ominously on the sidewalk. "You might, he-ey? Well, look at Jeff Creede—he fought—and what's he got to show for it? Look at his old man—he fought—and where is he now? Tell me that!
"But, say, now," he exclaimed, changing his tone abruptly, "this ain't what I started to talk about. I want to speak with you, Mr. Hardy, on a matter of business. You jest think them things over until I see you again—and, of course, all this is on the q. t. But now let's talk business. When you want to buy a postage stamp you come down here to Moroni, don't you? And why? Why, because it's near, sure! But when you want a wagon-load of grub—and there ain't no one sells provisions cheaper than I do, beans four-fifty, bacon sixteen cents, flour a dollar-ninety, everything as reasonable—you haul it clean across the desert from Bender. That easy adds a cent a pound on every ton you pull, to say nothin' of the time. Well, what I want to know is this: Does Einstein sell you grub that much cheaper? Take flour, for instance—what does that cost you?"
"I don't know," answered Hardy, whose anger was rising under this unwarranted commercial badgering. "Same as with you, I suppose—dollar-ninety."
"Ah!" exclaimed Swope triumphantly, "and the extra freight on a sack would be fifty cents, wouldn't it—a cent a pound, and a fifty-pound sack! Well, now say, Hardy, we're good friends, you know, and all that—and Jasp and me steered all them sheep around you, you recollect—what's the matter with your buying your summer supplies off of me? I'll guarantee to meet any price that Bender Sheeny can make—and, of course, I'll do what's right by you—but, by Joe, I think you owe it to me!"
He paused and waited impatiently for his answer, but once more Hardy balked him.
"I don't doubt there's a good deal in what you say, Mr. Swope," he said, not without a certain weariness, "but you'll have to take that matter up with Judge Ware."
"Don't you have the ordering of the supplies?" demanded Swope sharply.
"Yes, but he pays for them. All I do is to order what I want and O. K. the bills. My credit is good with Einstein, and the rate lies between him and Judge Ware."
"Well, your credit is good here, too," replied Swope acidly, "but I see you'd rather trade with a Jew than stand in with your friends, any day."
"I tell you I haven't got a thing to do with it," replied Hardy warmly. "I take my orders from Judge Ware, and if he tells me to trade here I'll be glad to do so—it'll save me two days' freighting—but I'm not the boss by any means."
"No, nor you ain't much of a supe, neither," growled Swope morosely. "In fact, I consider you a dam' bum supe. Some people, now, after they had been accommodated, would take a little trouble, but I notice you ain't breaking your back for me. Hell, no, you don't care if I never make a deal. But that's all right, Mr. Hardy, I'll try and do as much for you about that job of yourn."
"Well, you must think I'm stuck on that job," cried Hardy hotly, "the way you talk about it! You seem to have an idea that if I get let out it'll make some difference to me, but I might as well tell you right now, Mr. Swope, that it won't. I've got a good horse and I've got money to travel on, and I'm just holding this job to accommodate Judge Ware. So if you have any idea of taking it out on him you can just say the word and I'll quit!"
"Um-m!" muttered the sheepman, taken aback by this sudden burst of temper, "you're a hot-headed boy, ain't you?" He surveyed him critically in the half light, as if appraising his value as a fighter, and then proceeded in a more conciliatory manner. "But you mustn't let your temper git away with you like that," he said. "You're likely to say something you'll be sorry for later."
"Oh, I don't know," retorted Hardy. "It might relieve my mind some. I've only been in this country a few months, but if a sheepman is the only man that has any legal or moral rights I'd like to know about it. You talk about coming in on our upper range, having a right to the whole country, and all that. Now I'd like to ask you whether in your opinion a cowman has got a right to live?"
"Oh, tut, tut, now," protested Swope, "you're gettin' excited."
"Well, of course I'm getting excited," replied Hardy, with feeling. "You start in by telling me the sheepmen are going to take the whole country, from Flag to the line; then you ask me what I'd do if a Mexican came in on us; then you say you can sheep us out any time you want to, and what am I going to do about it! Is that the way you talk to a man who has done his best to be your friend?"
"I never said we was going to sheep you out," retorted the sheepman sullenly. "And if I'd 'a' thought for a minute you would take on like this about it I'd've let you go bust for your postage stamps."
"I know you didn't say it," said Hardy, "but you hinted it good and strong, all right. And when a man comes as near to it as you have I think I've got a right to ask him straight out what his intentions are. Now how about it—are you going to sheep us out next Fall or are you going to give us a chance?"
"Oh hell!" burst out Swope, in a mock fury, "I'm never going to talk to you any more! You're crazy, man! I never said I was going to sheep you out!"
"No," retorted Hardy dryly, "and you never said you wasn't, either."
"Yes, I did, too," spat back Swope, seizing at a straw. "Didn't I introduce you to my boss herder and tell him to keep off your range?"
"Oh, I don't know," said Hardy coldly. "Did you?"
For a moment the sheepman sat rigid in the darkness. Then he rose to his feet, cursing.
"Well, you can jest politely go to hell," he said, with venomous deliberation, and racked off down the street.
"FEED MY SHEEP"
The slow, monotonous days of Summer crept listlessly by like dreams which, having neither beginning nor end, pass away into nothingness, leaving only a dim memory of restlessness and mystery.
In the relentless heat of noon-day the earth seemed to shimmer and swim in a radiance of its own; at evening the sun set in a glory incomparable; and at dawn it returned to its own. Then in the long breathless hours the cows sought out the scanty shadow of the canyon wall, sprawling uneasily in the sand; the lizards crept far back into the crevices of the rocks; the birds lingered about the water holes, throttling their tongues, and all the world took on a silence that was almost akin to death. As the Summer rose to its climax a hot wind breathed in from the desert, clean and pure, but withering in its intensity; the great bowlders, superheated in the glare of day, irradiated the stored-up energy of the sun by night until even the rattlesnakes, their tough hides scorched through by the burning sands, sought out their winter dens to wait for a touch of frost. There was only one creature in all that heat-smitten land that defied the sway of the Sun-God and went his way unheeding—man, the indomitable, the conqueror of mountains and desert and sea.
When the sun was hottest, then was the best time to pursue the black stallion of Bronco Mesa, chasing him by circuitous ways to the river where he and his band could drink. But though more than one fine mare and suckling, heavy with water, fell victim, the black stallion, having thought and intelligence like a man, plunged through the water, leaving his thirst unquenched, refusing with a continency and steadfastness rare even among men to sell his liberty at any price. In the round corral at Hidden Water there was roping and riding as Creede and Hardy gentled their prizes; in the cool evenings they rode forth along the Alamo, counting the cows as they came down to water or doctoring any that were sick; and at night they lay on their cots beneath the ramada telling long stories till they fell asleep.
At intervals of a month or more Hardy rode down to Moroni and each time he brought back some book of poems, or a novel, or a bundle of magazines; but if he received any letters he never mentioned it. Sometimes he read in the shade, his face sobered to a scholarly repose, and when the mood came and he was alone he wrote verses—crude, feverish, unfinished—and destroyed them, furtively.
He bore his full share of the rough work, whether riding or horse-breaking or building brush corrals, but while he responded to every mood of his changeable companion he hid the whirl of emotion which possessed him, guarding the secret of his heart even when writing to Lucy Ware; and slowly, as the months crept by, the wound healed over and left him whole.
At last the days grew shorter, the chill came back into the morning air, and the great thunder-caps which all Summer had mantled the Peaks, scattering precarious and insufficient showers across the parching lowlands, faded away before the fresh breeze from the coast. Autumn had come, and, though the feed was scant, Creede started his round-up early, to finish ahead of the sheep. Out on The Rolls the wild and runty cows were hiding their newborn calves; the spring twos were grown to the raw-boned dignity of steers; and all must be gathered quickly, before the dust arose in the north and the sheep mowed down the summer grass. Once more from their distant ranches the mountain men trailed in behind their horses; the rodeo hands dropped in from nowhere, mysteriously, talking loudly of high adventures but with the indisputable marks of Mormon hay-forks on their thumbs.
Before their restless energy The Rolls were swept bare of market stock, and the upper end of the mesa as well, before the first sheep dust showed against the hills. The rodeo outfit left Carrizo and came down to Hidden Water, driving their herd before them, and still no sheep appeared. So long had they strained their eyes for nothing that the cowmen from the north became uneasy, dropping out one by one to return to their ranches for fear that the sheep had crept in and laid waste their pastures and corrals. Yet the round-up ended without a band in sight, where before The Rolls had been ploughed into channels by their multitude of feet.
In a slow fever of apprehension Hardy rode ceaselessly along the rim of Bronco Mesa, without finding so much as a track. Throughout that long month of watching and waiting the memory of his conversation with Jim Swope had haunted him, and with a sinister boding of impending evil he had ridden far afield, even to the lower crossing at Pablo Moreno's, where a few Mexicans and Basques were fording the shallow river. Not one of those veiled threats and intimations had he confided to Creede, for the orders from Judge Ware had been for peace and Jeff was hot-headed and hasty; but in his own mind Hardy pictured a solid phalanx of sheep, led by Jasp Swope and his gun-fighting Chihuahuanos, drifting relentlessly in over the unravaged mesa. Even that he could endure, trusting to some appeal or protest to save him from the ultimate disaster, but the strain of this ominous waiting was more than Hardy's nerves could stand.
As the town herd was put on the long trail for Bender and the round-up hands began to spit dry for their first drink, the premonition of evil conquered him and he beckoned Creede back out of the rout.
"I've got a hunch," he said, "that these sheepmen are hanging back until you boys are gone, in order to raid the upper range. I don't know anything, you understand, but I'm looking for trouble. How does it look to you?"
"Well," answered Creede sombrely, "I don't mind tellin' you that this is a new one on me. It's the first fall gather that I can remember when I didn't have a round-up with a sheepman or two. They're willin' enough to give us the go-by in the Spring, when there's grass everywhere, but when they come back over The Rolls in the Fall and see what they've done to the feed—well, it's like fightin' crows out of a watermelon patch to protect that upper range.
"The only thing I can think of is they may be held back by this dry weather. But, I tell you, Rufe," he added, "it's jest as well I'm goin'—one man can tell 'em to he'p themselves as good as two, and I might get excited. You know your orders—and I reckon the sheepmen do, too, 's fer 's that goes. They're not so slow, if they do git lousy. But my God, boy, it hurts my feelin's to think of you all alone up here, tryin' to appeal to Jasp Swope's better nature." He twisted his lips, and shrugged his huge shoulders contemptuously. Then without enthusiasm he said: "Well, good luck," and rode away after his cattle.
Creede's scorn for this new policy of peace had never been hidden, although even in his worst cursing spells he had never quite named the boss. But those same orders, if they ever became known, would call in the rapacious sheepmen like vultures to a feast, and the bones of his cattle—that last sorry remnant of his father's herds—would bleach on Bronco Mesa with the rest, a mute tribute to the triumph of sheep.
All that day Hardy rode up the Alamo until he stood upon the summit of the Juate and looked over the divide to the north, and still there were no sheep. Not a smoke, not a dust streak, although the chill of Autumn was in the air. In the distant Sierra Blancas the snow was already on the peaks and the frosts lay heavy upon the black mesa of the Mogollons. Where then could the sheep be, the tender, gently nurtured sheep, which could stand neither heat in Summer nor cold in Winter, but must always travel, travel, feeding upon the freshest of green grass and leaving a desert in their wake? The slow-witted Mexicans and Basques, who did not follow the lead of the Swopes, had returned on their fall migration with the regularity of animals, but all those cheery herders for whom he had cooked and slaved—Bazan, McDonald, the Swopes and their kin, who used the upper ford—were lost as if the earth had swallowed them up.
The stars were shining when Hardy came in sight of the ranch at the end of that unprofitable day, and he was tired. The low roof of the house rose up gloomily before him, but while he was riding in a hound suddenly raised his challenge in the darkness. Instantly his yell was answered by a chorus, and as Chapuli swerved from the rush of the pack the door was thrown open and the tall, gaunt form of Bill Johnson stood outlined against the light.
"Yea, Ribs; hey, Rock; down, Ring!" he hollered. "Hey, boys; hey, Suke!" And in a mighty chorus of bayings the long-eared hounds circled about and returned to the feet of their master, wagging their tails but not abating their barking one whit. Standing bareheaded in the doorway with his hair and beard bushed out like a lion's mane Johnson strove by kicks and curses to quiet their uproar, shouting again and again some words which Hardy could not catch.
At last, grabbing old Suke, the leader of the pack, by an ear, he slapped her until her yelpings silenced the rest; then, stepping out into the opening, he exclaimed:
"My God, Hardy, is that you?"
"Sure," replied Hardy impatiently. "Why, what's the matter?"
"Sheep!" shouted Johnson, throwing out his hands wildly, "thousands of 'em, millions of 'em!"
"Sheep—where?" demanded Hardy. "Where are they?"
"They're on your upper range, boy, and more comin'!"
"What?" cried Hardy incredulously. "Why, how did they get up there? I just rode the whole rim to-day!"
"They come over the top of the Four Peaks," shouted the old man, shaking with excitement. "Yes, sir, over the top of the Four Peaks! My hounds took after a lion last night, and this mornin' I trailed 'em clean over into the middle fork where they had 'im treed. He jumped down and run when I come up and jist as we was hotfoot after him we run spang into three thousand head of sheep, drifting down from the pass, and six greasers and a white man in the rear with carbeens. The whole dam' outfit is comin' in on us. But we can turn 'em yet! Whar's Jeff and the boys?"
"They've gone to town with the cattle."
"Well, you're dished then," said the old man grimly. "Might as well put up your horse and eat—I'm goin' home and see that they don't none of 'em git in on me!"
"Whose sheep were they?" inquired Hardy, as he sat down to a hasty meal.
"Don't ask me, boy," replied Johnson. "I never had time to find out. One of them Mexicans took a shot at Rye and I pulled my gun on him, and then the boss herder he jumped in, and there we had it, back and forth. He claimed I was tryin' to stompede his sheep, but I knowed his greaser had tried to shoot my dog, and I told him so! And I told him furthermore that the first sheep or sheepman that p'inted his head down the Pocket trail would stop lead; and every one tharafter, as long as I could draw a bead. And by Gawd, I mean it!" He struck his gnarled fist upon the table till every tin plate jumped, and his fiery eyes burned savagely as he paced about the room.
At first peep of dawn Bill Johnson was in the saddle, his long-barrelled revolver thrust pugnaciously into his boot, his 30-30 carbine across his arm, and his hounds slouching dutifully along in the rear. Close behind followed Hardy, bound for the Peaks, but though the morning was cold he had stripped off his coat and shaps, and everything which might conceal a weapon, leaving even his polished Colt's in his blankets. If the sheep were to be turned now it could never be by arms. The sheepmen had stolen a march, Creede and his cowboys were far away, and his only hope was the olive branch of peace. Yet as he spurred up the Carrizo trail he felt helpless and abused, like a tried soldier who is sent out unarmed by a humanitarian commander. Only one weapon was left to him—the one which even Jim Swope had noticed—his head; and as he worked along up the hogback which led down from the shoulder of the Four Peaks he schooled himself to a Spartan patience and fortitude.
At last from a high cliff which overshadowed the broad canyon of the middle fork, he looked down and saw the sheep, like a huge, dirty-brown blot, pouring in a hundred diverging lines down the valley and feeding as they came. Higher and higher up the sides the old ewes fought their way, plucking at the long spears of grass which grew among the rocks; and the advance guard, hurrying forward, nipped eagerly at the browse and foliage as they passed, until, at last, some tempting bush detained them too long and they were swallowed up in the ruck. Little paths appeared in the leaders' wake, winding in and out among the bowlders; and like soldiers the sheep fell into line, moving forward with the orderly precision of an army. A herder with his dogs trailed nonchalantly along the flank, the sun glinting from his carbine as he clambered over rocks, and in the rear another silent shepherd followed up the drag. So far it was a peaceful pastoral scene, but behind the herd where the camp rustler and his burros should have been there was a posse of men, and each man carried a gun.
Hardly had Chapuli mounted the ridge before every head was raised; the swarthy Mexicans unslung their guns with a flourish, and held them at a ready. Yet for half an hour the lone horseman sat there like a statue, and if he resented their coming or saw the dust of other bands behind, he made no sign. Even when the guard of men passed beneath him, craning their necks uneasily, he still remained silent and immobile, like a man who has councils of his own or leads a force behind.
The leader of the vanguard of the sheep was a white man, and not unversed in the principles of war, for after trailing safely through the box of the canyon—where a single rock displaced would kill a score of sheep, and where the lone horseman had he so willed could have potted half of the invaders from the heights—he turned his herd up a side canyon to the west and hastily pitched his camp on a ridge. As the heat of the day came on, the other bands up the canyon stopped also, and when the faint smoke showed Hardy that the camp rustlers were cooking dinner, he turned and rode for the leader's camp.
Dinner was already served—beans, fried mutton, and bread, spread upon a greasy canvas—and the hungry herders were shovelling it down with knives in their own primitive way when Hardy rode up the slope. As he came into camp the Chihuahuanos dropped their plates, reached for their guns, and stood in awkward postures of defence, some wagging their big heads in a braggartly defiance, others, their courage waning, grinning in the natural shame of the peasant. In Hardy they recognized a gentleman of categoria—and he never so much as glanced at them as he reined in his spirited horse. His eyes were fixed upon the lone white man, their commander, who stood by the fire regarding him with cold suspicion, and to whom he bowed distantly.
"Good-morning," he said, by way of introduction, and the sheepman blinked his eyes in reply.
"Whose sheep are those?" continued Hardy, coming to the point with masterful directness, and once more the boss sheepman surveyed him with suspicion.
"Mine," he said, and Hardy returned his stare with a glance which, while decorously veiled, indicated that he knew he lied. The man was a stranger to him, rather tall and slender, with drawn lips and an eye that never wavered. His voice was tense with excitement and he kept his right thumb hooked carelessly into the corner of his pocket, not far from the grip of a revolver. As soon as he spoke Hardy knew him.
"You are Mr. Thomas, aren't you?" he inquired, as if he had no thought of trouble. "I believe I met you once, down in Moroni."
"Ump!" grunted Mr. Thomas unsociably, and at that moment one of the Mexicans, out of awkwardness, dropped his gun. As he stooped to pick it up a slow smile crept over the cowman's lips, a smile which expressed polite amusement along with a measured contempt—and the boss herder was stung with a nameless shame at the false play.
"Put up them guns, you dam' gawky fools!" he yelled in a frenzy of rage. "Put 'em up, I say. This man ain't goin' to eat ye!" And though the poor browbeaten Chihuahuanos understood not a word of English they felt somehow that they had been overzealous and shuffled back to their blankets, like watchdogs that had been rebuked.
"Now," said the sheepman, taking his hand from his gun, "what can I do for you, Mr. Hardy?"
"Well," responded Hardy, "of course there are several things you might do to accommodate me, but maybe you wouldn't mind telling me how you got in here, just for instance?"
"Always glad to 'commodate—where I can, of course," returned the sheepman grimly. "I came in over the top of them Four Peaks yonder."
"Um," said Hardy, glancing up at the rocky walls. "Then you must've had hooks on your eyebrows, for sure. I suppose the rest of the family is coming, too! And, by the way, how is my friend, Mr. Swope?"
He appended this last with an artless smile, quite lacking in bitterness, but somehow the boss herder felt himself discredited by the inquiry, as if he were consorting with thieves. It was the old shame of the sheepman, the shame which comes to the social outcast, and burns upon the cheek of the dishonored bastard, but which is seared deepest into the heart of the friendless herder, the Ishmaelite of the cow-country, whose hand is against every man and every man's against him. Hunger and thirst he can endure, and the weariness of life, but to have all men turn away from him, to answer him grudgingly, to feed him at their table, but refuse themselves to eat, this it is which turns his heart to bitterness and makes him a man to be feared. As Thomas had looked at this trim young cowboy, smooth-shaven and erect, sitting astride a blooded horse which snorted and pawed the ground delicately, and then had glanced at the low and brutal Mexicans with whom his lot was cast, a blind fury had swept over him, wreaking its force upon his own retainers; and now, when by implication he was classed with Jim Swope, he resented it still more bitterly.
"Dam'fino," he answered sullenly. "Haven't seen 'im for a month."
"Oh, isn't he with you this trip?" asked Hardy, in surprise. "I had hoped that I might find him up here." There was a suggestion of irony in his words which was not lost upon the mayordomo, but Thomas let the remark pass in silence.
"Perhaps his brother Jasper is along," ventured Hardy. "No? Well, that's Jim's earmark on those sheep, and I know it. What's the matter?"
"Matter with what?" growled Thomas morosely.
"Why, with Jim, of course. I thought after the pleasant times we had together last Spring he'd be sure to come around. In fact," he added meaningly, "I've been looking for him."
At this naive statement, the sheepman could not restrain a smile.
"You don't know Jim as well as I do," he said, and there was a suggestion of bitterness in his voice which Hardy was not slow to note.
"Well, perhaps not," he allowed; "but you know, and I know, that this is no pleasure trip you're on—in fact, it's dangerous, and I never thought that Jim Swope would send a man where he was afraid to go himself. Now I've got nothing against you, Mr. Thomas, and of course you're working for him; but I ask you, as a man, don't you think, after what I've done for him, that Jim Swope ought to come along himself if he wants to sheep me out?
"I've fed him, and I've fed all his herders and all his friends; I've grained his horses when they were ga'nted down to a shadow because his own sheep had cleaned up the feed; I've made him welcome to my house and done everything I could for him; and all I asked in return was that he would respect this upper range. He knows very well that if his sheep go through here this Fall our cattle will die in the Winter, and he knows that there is plenty of feed out on The Rolls where our cows can't go, and yet he sends you in where he's scared to go himself, just to hog our last piece of good feed and to put us out of business. I asked him down in Moroni if he thought a cowman had a right to live, and he dodged the question as if he was afraid he'd say something."
He stopped abruptly and looked out over the country toward Hidden Water, while the Mexicans watched him furtively from beneath their slouched hats.
"Expecting some friends?" inquired Thomas, with a saturnine grin.
Hardy shook his head. "No. I came out here alone, and I left my gun in camp. I haven't got a friend within forty miles, if that's what you mean. I suppose you've got your orders, Mr. Thomas, but I just want to talk this matter over with you."
"All right," said the sheepman, suddenly thawing out at the good news. "I don't have so much company as to make me refuse, even if it is a warm subject. But mebby you'd like a bite to eat before we git down to business?" He waved a deprecating hand at the greasy canvas, and Hardy swung quickly down from his saddle.
"Thanks. But don't let me keep you from your dinner. Here's where I break even with Jim Swope for all that grub I cooked last Spring," he remarked, as he filled his plate. "But if it was him that asked me," he added, "I'd starve to death before I'd eat it."
He sat on his heels by the canvas, with the boss sheepman on the other side, and the Mexicans who had been so cocky took their plates and retired like Apaches to the edge of the brush, where they would not obtrude upon their betters.
"They say it's bad for the digestion," observed Hardy, after the first silence, "to talk about things that make you mad; so if you don't mind, Mr. Thomas, we'll forget about Jim Swope. What kind of a country is it up there in Apache County, where you keep your sheep all Summer?"
"A fine country," rejoined Thomas, "and I wish to God I was back to it," he added.
"Why, what's the matter with this country? It looks pretty good to me."
"Ye-es," admitted the sheepman grudgingly, "it looks good enough, but—well, I lived up there a long time and I got to like it. I had one of the nicest little ranches in the White Mountains; there was good huntin' and fishin' and—well, I felt like a white man up there—never had no trouble, you understand—and I was makin' good money, too."
His voice, which before had been harsh and strident, softened down as he dwelt upon the natural beauty of the mountains which had been his home, but there was a tone of sadness in his talk which told Hardy that ultimately he had suffered some great misfortune there. His occupation alone suggested that—for there are few white men working as sheep-herders who lack a hard luck story, if any one will listen to it. But this Shep Thomas was still young and unbroken, with none of the black marks of dissipation upon his face, and his eyes were as keen and steady as any hunter's. He was indeed the very type of fighter that Swope had sought, hardy and fearless, and at the same time careful. As they sat together Hardy looked him over and was glad that he had come out unarmed, yet though his host seemed a man of just and reasonable mind there was a set, dogged look in his eyes which warned the cowman not to interfere, but let him talk his fill. And the boss herder, poor lonely man, was carried away in spite of himself by the temptation of a listener; after many days of strife and turmoil, cutting trails, standing off cowmen, cursing Mexicans, at last to meet a white man who would just sit silent and let him talk! His stories were of hunting and fishing, of prospecting, and restless adventures among the Indians, and every time the conversation worked around towards sheep he led it resolutely away. And for his part, never for a moment did Hardy try to crowd him, but let the talk lead where it would, until of his own volition the sheepman told his story.
"I suppose you wonder what I'm doing down here," he said at last, "if I was so stuck on the Concho country? Well, I bet you wouldn't guess in a thousand years—and you ought to be a pretty good guesser, too," he added, with a gruff laugh. "Now, what do you think it was that put me on the bum?"
"Poker game?" queried Hardy politely.
"Nope," replied the sheepman, showing his teeth, "I'm winners on poker."
"You don't look like a drinking man."
"Naw—nor it wasn't women, either. It's something unusual, I tell you. I stood and looked at it for ten years, and never turned a hair. But here, I've been holdin' out on you a little—I never told you what it was I raised on my ranch. Well, it was sheep."
"Sheep?" echoed Hardy, "did you keep 'em there all Winter?"
"W'y sure, man. There's lots of sheep in Apache County that was never ten miles from home."
"Then why does Jim Swope bring his bands south every Fall? I hear he loses five per cent of them, at the least, coming and going."
"Ah, you don't understand Jim as well as I do. I was tryin' to make a livin'; he's tryin' to git rich. He's doin' it, too."
Once more the note of bitterness came into his voice, and Hardy saw that the time had come.
"How's that?" he inquired quietly, and the sheepman plunged into his story.
"Well, it was this way. I kept a few thousand sheep up there in my valley. In the Summer we went up the mountain, followin' the grass, and in the Winter we fed down below, where the ground was bare. It never got very cold, and my sheep was used to it, anyhow. The Navajos don't move their sheep south, do they? Well, they're away north of where I was. We jest give 'em a little shelter, and looked after 'em, and, as I says, I was doin' fine—up to last year."
He paused again, with his secret on his lips, and once more Hardy supplied the helping word.
"And what happened then?" he asked.
"What happened then?" cried Thomas, his eyes burning. "Well, you ought to know—I was sheeped out."
"Sheeped out? Why, how could that happen? You were a sheepman yourself!"
The boss herder contemplated him with an amused and cynical smile. "You ask Jim Swope," he suggested.
For a minute Hardy sat staring at him, bewildered. "Well," he said, "I can't figure it out—maybe you wouldn't mind telling me how it happened."
"Why hell, man," burst out the sheepman, "it's as plain as the nose on your face—I didn't belong to the Association. All these big sheepmen that drive north and south belong to the Sheepmen's Protective Association, and they stand in with each other, but we little fellows up in 'Pache County was nobody. It's about ten years ago now that the Swope outfit first came in through our country; and, bein' in the sheep business ourselves, we was always friendly, and never made no trouble, and naturally supposed that they'd respect our range. And so they did, until I found one of Jim's herders in on my ranch last Summer.
"Well, I thought there was some misunderstandin', but when I told him and his compadres to move it was a bad case of 'No savvy' from the start; and while I was monkeyin' around with them a couple of more bands sneaked in behind, and first thing I knew my whole lower range was skinned clean. Well, sir, I worked over one of them paisanos until he was a total wreck, and I took a shot at another hombre, too—the one that couldn't savvy; but there was no use cavin' round about it—I was jest naturally sheeped out.
"It looked like I was busted, but I wouldn't admit it, and while I was studyin' on the matter along comes Jim himself and offers me five thousand dollars for my sheep. They was worth ten if they was worth a cent, all fine and fat; but my winter feed was gone and of course I was up against it. I see somethin' would have to be done, and dam' quick, too; so I chased down to St. John and tried to git a higher bid. But these sheepmen stand in with each other on a proposition like that, and I couldn't git nawthin'.
"'All right,' I says to Jim, 'take 'em, and be dam'ed to you.'
"'The price has gone down,' says Jim. 'I'll give you four thousand.'
"'What!' I says.
"'Three thousand,' says Jim.
"'You'll give me five thousand,' says I, crowdin' my gun against his short ribs, 'or I'll let the light in on you,' and after that Jim and me understood each other perfectly. In fact, we got stuck on each other. Yes, sir, after I got over bein' excited and could listen to reason, he put it to me straight—and he was right.
"'What's the use of bein' the yaller dog?' he says. 'You can't buck the whole Association. But we've got room for you,' he says, 'so git on and ride.' And here I am, by Joe, leadin' the procession."
The sheepman paused and gazed at the band of sheep as they stood in a solid mass, their heads tucked under each other's bellies to escape the sun.
"Some of them sheep used to be mine," he observed, and laughed slyly. "That's the only thing between me and the boss. He's begged and implored, and cursed and said his prayers, tryin' to git me interested in the sheep business again; but like the pore, dam' fool I am I keep that five thousand dollars in the bank." His shoulders heaved for a moment with silent laughter, and then his face turned grave.
"Well, Mr. Hardy," he said, "business is business, and I've got to be movin' along pretty soon. I believe you said you'd like to talk matters over for a minute."
"Yes," answered Hardy promptly, "I'd like to make arrangements to have you turn out through that pass yonder and leave us a little feed for next Winter."
The sheepman cocked his head to one side and shut one eye knowingly.
"Oh, you would, would you? And what word shall I take back to the boss, then?"
"I expect I'll see him before you do," said Hardy, "but if you get ahead of me you can just say that I asked you to move, and so you followed out your orders."
"Yes," responded Thomas, smiling satirically, "that'd be lovely. But how long since I've been takin' orders off of you?"
"Oh, I'm not trying to give you any orders," protested Hardy. "Those come straight from Jim Swope."
"How's that?" inquired the sheepman, with sudden interest.
"Why, don't you remember what he said when he introduced me to you, down in Moroni? 'This is Mr. Hardy,' he said, 'a white cowman. If you have to go across his range, go quick, and tell your men the same.' You may have forgotten, but it made a great impression on me. And then, to show there was no mistake about it, he told me if I found any of his sheep on my range to order them off, and you would see that they went. Isn't that straight?"
He leaned over and looked the sheepman in the eye but Thomas met his glance with a sardonic smile. "Sure, it's right. But I've received other orders since then. You know Jim claims to be religious—he's one of the elders in the church down there—and he likes to keep his word good. After you was gone he come around to me and said: 'That's all right, Shep, about what I said to that cowman, but there's one thing I want you always to remember—feed my sheep!' Well, them's my orders."
"Well," commented Hardy, "that may be good Scripture, but what about my cows? There's plenty of feed out on The Rolls for Jim's sheep, but my cows have got to drink. We cowmen have been sheeped out of all the lower country down there, and here we are, crowded clear up against the rocks. You've stolen a march on us and of course you're entitled to some feed, but give us a chance. You've been sheeped out yourself, and you know what it feels like. Now all I ask of you is that you turn out through this pass and go down onto The Rolls. If you'll do that I can turn all the rest of the sheep and keep my cows from starving, but if you go through me they'll all go through me, and I'm done for. I don't make any threats and I can't offer any inducements, but I just ask you, as a white man, to go around."
As he ended his appeal he stood with his hands thrown out, and the sheepman looked at him, smiling curiously.
"Well," he said, at last, "you're a new kind of cowman on me, pardner, but I'll go you, if Jim throws a fit."
He advanced, and held out his hand, and Hardy took it.
"If all sheepmen were like you," he said, "life would be worth living in these parts." And so, in a friendship unparalleled in the history of the Four Peaks country, a sheepman and a cowman parted in amity—and the sheep went around.
Winter, the wonted season of torrential rains, six weeks' grass, and budding flowers, when the desert is green and the sky washed clean and blue, followed close in the wake of the sheep, which went drifting past Hidden Water like an army without banners. But alas for Hidden Water and the army of sheep!—in this barren Winter the torrential rains did not fall, the grass did not sprout, and the flowers did not bloom. A bleak north wind came down from the mountains, cold and dry and crackling with electricity, and when it had blown its stint it died down in a freezing, dusty silence.
Then the mighty south—the rain—wind that blows up out of Papagueria, rose up, big with promise, and whirled its dust clouds a thousand feet high against the horizon. But, after much labor, the keen, steely, north wind rushed suddenly down upon the black clouds, from whose edges the first spatter of rain had already spilled, and swept them from the horizon, howling mournfully the while and wrestling with the gaunt trees at night. In shaded places the icicles from slow-seeping waters clung for days unmelted, and the migrant ducks, down from the Arctic, rose up from the half-frozen sloughs and winged silently away to the far south. Yet through it all the Dos S cattle came out unscathed, feeding on what dry grass and browse the sheep had left on Bronco Mesa; and in the Spring, when all hope seemed past, it rained.
Only those who have been through a drought know what music there is hidden in rain. It puts a wild joy into the heart of every creature, the birds sing, the rabbits leap and caper, and all the cattle and wild horses take to roaming and wandering out of pure excess of spirits. It was early in March when the first showers came, and as soon as the new feed was up Creede began his preparations for the spring rodeo. The Winter had been a hard one, and not without its worries. In an interview, which tended on both sides to become heated and personal, Jim Swope had denounced Hardy for misrepresenting his orders to his mayordomo, and had stated in no uncertain terms his firm intention of breaking even in the Spring, if there was a blade of grass left on the upper range.
The season had been a bad one for his sheep, windy and cold, with sand storms which buried the desert in a pall and drove many flocks to the hills; and as the feed became shorter and shorter vagrant bands began to drift in along the Salagua. In the battle for the range that followed herders and punchers greeted each other with angry snarls which grew more wolfish every day, and old Pablo Moreno, shaking his white head over their quarrels, uttered gloomy prophecies of greater evils to come. Sheep would die, he said, cattle would die—it was only a question now of how many, and of which. It was a coming ano seco; nay, the whole country was drying up. In Hermosillo, so they said, the women stood by the public well all night, waiting to fill their ollas; not for nine years had the rains fallen there, and now the drought was spreading north. Arizona, California, Nevada, all were doomed, yet paciencia, perhaps—and then came the rain. Yes, it was a good rain but—and then it rained again. Que bueno, who would not be made a liar for rain? But cuidado—behold, the ground was still dry; it drank up the water as it fell and was thirsty again; the river fell lower and lower and the water was clear; a bad sign, a very bad sign!
But if the young should wait upon the advice of the old there would be no more miracles. Creede and Hardy passed up the weather, strapped on their six-shooters, and began to patrol the range, "talking reason" to the stray Mexicans who thought that, because their sheep were getting poor, they ought to move them to better feed.
The time for friendship and diplomacy was past, as Hardy politely informed his employer by letter—after which he told Rafael to keep away from the post office and not bring him any more correo, if he valued his job. But though he had made his note to Judge Ware brief, it had said too much. He had suggested that if the judge did not like his change of policy he had better come down and see the actual conditions for himself—and the old judge came.
It was midafternoon of that fateful day when Creede and Hardy, riding in from up the river, saw Rafael's wagon in front of the house. This was not surprising in itself as he had been down to Bender for round-up supplies, but as the two partners approached the house Creede suddenly grabbed Hardy's rein and drew back as if he were on top of a rattlesnake.
"For God's sake," he said, "what's that? Listen!"
He jerked a thumb toward the house, and in the tense silence Hardy could clearly discern the sound of women's voices. Now you could ride the Four Peaks country far and wide and never hear the music of such voices, never see calico on the line, or a lace curtain across the window. There were no women in that godless land, not since the Widow Winship took Sallie and Susie and left precipitately for St. Louis, none save the Senora Moreno and certain strapping Apache squaws who wore buckskin tewas and carried butcher knives in their belts. Even the heart of Rufus Hardy went pit-a-pat and stopped, at the sound of that happy chatter.
"They're rustlin' the whole dam' house," exclaimed Creede, all nerves and excitement. "Didn't you hear that pan go 'bamp'? Say, I believe they're cleanin' house! Rufe," he whispered, "I bet you money we're jumped!"
The possibility of having their ranch preempted during their absence had been spoken of in a general way, since Jim Swope had gone on the warpath, but in his secret soul Rufus Hardy had a presentiment which made claim-jumping look tame. There was a chastened gayety in the voices, a silvery ripple in the laughter, which told him what Creede with all his cunning could never guess; they were voices from another world, a world where Hardy had had trouble and sorrow enough, and which he had left forever. There was soldier blood in his veins and in two eventful years he had never weakened; but the suddenness of this assault stampeded him.
"You better go first, Jeff," he said, turning his horse away, "they might—"
But Creede was quick to intercept him.
"None o' that, now, pardner," he said, catching his rein. "You're parlor-broke—go on ahead!"
There was a wild, uneasy stare in his eye, which nevertheless meant business, and Hardy accepted the rebuke meekly. Perhaps his conscience was already beginning to get action for the subterfuge and deceit which he had practised during their year together. He sat still for a moment, listening to the voices and smiling strangely.
"All right, brother," he said, in his old quiet way, and then, whirling Chapuli about, he galloped up to the house, sitting him as straight and resolute as any soldier. But Creede jogged along more slowly, tucking in his shirt, patting down his hair, and wiping the sweat from his brow.
At the thud of hoofs a woman's face appeared at the doorway—a face sweet and innocent, with a broad brow from which the fair hair was brushed evenly back, and eyes which looked wonderingly out at the world through polished glasses. It was Lucy Ware, and when Hardy saw her he leaped lightly from his horse and advanced with hat in hand—smiling, yet looking beyond her.
"I'm so glad to see you, Miss Lucy," he said, as he took her hand, "and if we had only known you were coming—"
"Why, Rufus Hardy!" exclaimed the young lady, "do you mean to say you never received any of my letters?"
At this Creede stared, and in that self-same moment Hardy realized how the low-down strategy which he had perpetrated upon his employer had fallen upon his own head a thousandfold. But before he could stammer his apologies, Kitty Bonnair stood before him—the same Kitty, and smiling as he had often seen her in his dreams.
She was attired in a stunning outing suit of officer's cloth, tailored for service, yet bringing out the graceful lines of her figure; and as Hardy mumbled out his greetings the eyes of Jefferson Creede, so long denied of womankind, dwelt eagerly upon her beauty. Her dainty feet, encased in tan high boots, held him in rapt astonishment; her hands fascinated him with their movements like the subtle turns of a mesmerist; and the witchery of her supple body, the mischief in the dark eyes, and the teasing sweetness of her voice smote him to the heart before he was so much as noticed.
No less absolute, for all his strivings, was the conquest of Rufus Hardy, the frozen bulwarks of whose heart burst suddenly and went out like spring ice in the radiance of her first smile.
"I knew you'd be glad to see me, too," she said, holding out her hand to him; and forgetful of all his bitterness he grasped it warmly. Then, tardily conscious of his duty, he turned to Jeff.
"Miss Kitty," he said, "this is my friend, Jefferson Creede—Miss Bonnair."
"I'm glad to meet you, Mr. Creede," said Kitty, bestowing her hand upon the embarrassed cowboy. "Of course you know Miss Ware!"
"Howdy do, Miss," responded Creede, fumbling for his hat, and as Miss Lucy took his hand the man who had put the fear of God into the hearts of so many sheep-herders became dumb and tongue-tied with bashfulness. There was not a man in the Four Peaks country that could best him, in anger or in jest, when it called for the ready word; but Kitty Bonnair had so stolen his wits that he could only stand and sweat like a trick-broken horse. As for Hardy he saw rainbows and his heart had gone out of business, but still he was "parlor-broke."
"I am afraid you didn't find the house very orderly," he observed, as Creede backed off and the conversation sagged; and the two girls glanced at each other guiltily. "Of course you're just as welcome," he added hastily, "and I suppose you couldn't help cleaning house a bit; but you gave us both a bad scare, all the same. Didn't you notice how pale we looked?" he asked, to mask his embarrassment. "But you were right, Jeff," he continued enigmatically.
"Does he always defer to you that way, Mr. Creede?" inquired Kitty Bonnair, with an engaging smile. "We used to find him rather perverse." She glanced roguishly at Hardy as she gave this veiled rebuke. "But what was it that you were right about?—I'm just dying to ask you questions!"
She confessed this with a naive frankness which quite won the big cowboy's heart, and, his nerve coming back, he grinned broadly at his former suspicions.
"Well," he said, "I might as well come through with it—I told him I bet we'd been jumped."
"Jumped?" repeated Miss Kitty, mystified. "Oh, is that one of your cowboy words? Tell me what it means!"
"W'y, it means," drawled Creede, "that two young fellers like me and Rufe goes out to ride the range and when we come back some other outfit has moved into our happy home and we're orphans. We've been havin' a little trouble with the sheep lately, and when I heard them pots and kittles rattlin' around in here I thought for sure some Mormon sheepman had got the jump on us and located the ranch."
"And what would you have done if he had?" continued Kitty eagerly. "Would you have shot him with that big pistol?" She pointed to the heavy Colt's which Creede had slung on his hip.
But this was getting too romantic and Western, even for Jeff. "No, ma'am," he said modestly. "We just carry that to balance us in the saddle."
"Oh!" exclaimed Kitty, disappointed, "and didn't you ever shoot anybody?"
Creede blushed for her, in spite of himself. "Well," he replied evasively, "I don't know how it would be up where you come from, but that's kind of a leadin' question, ain't it?"
"Oh, you have, then!" exclaimed Kitty Bonnair ecstatically. "Oh, I'm so glad to see a really, truly cowboy!" She paused, and gazed up at him soulfully. "Won't you let me have it for a minute?" she pleaded, and with a sheepish grin Creede handed over his gun.
But if there had been another cowboy within a mile he would have hesitated, infatuated as he was. Every land has its symbolism and though the language of flowers has not struck root in the cow country—nor yet the amorous Mexican system of "playing the bear"—to give up one's pistol to a lady is the sign and token of surrender. However, though it brought the sweat to his brow, the byplay was pulled off unnoticed, Hardy and Lucy Ware being likewise deep in confidences.
"How strange you look, Rufus!" exclaimed Lucy, as Kitty Bonnair began her assault upon the happiness of Jefferson Creede. "What have you been doing to yourself in these two years?"
"Why, nothing," protested Hardy, a little wan from his encounter with Kitty. "Perhaps you have forgotten how I used to look—our hair gets pretty long up here," he added apologetically, "but—"
"No," said Lucy firmly. "It isn't a matter of hair, although I will admit I hardly knew you. It's in your eyes; and you have some stern, hard lines about your mouth, too. Father says you spend all your time trying to keep the sheep out—and he's very much displeased with you for disobeying his directions, too. He gave up some important business to come down here and see you, and I hope he scolds you well. Have you been writing any lately?" she asked accusingly.
"No!" answered Hardy absently, "we don't have to fight them—"
"But, Rufus," protested Lucy Ware, laying her hand on his arm, "do take your mind from those dreadful sheep. I asked you if you have been doing any writing lately—you promised to send me some poems, don't you remember? And I haven't received a thing!"
"Oh!" said Hardy, blushing at his mistake. "Well, I acknowledge that I haven't done right—and you have been very kind, too, Miss Lucy," he added gently. "But somehow I never finish anything down here—and the sheep have been pretty bad lately. I have to do my work first, you know. I'll tell you, though," he said, lowering his voice confidentially, "if I can see you when no one is around I'll give you what little I've written—at least, some of the best. A poet at his worst, you know," he added, smiling, "is the poorest man in the world. He's like a woman who tells everything—no one could respect him. But if we can take our finer moods, and kind of sublimate them, you know, well—every man is a poet some time."
He hesitated, ended lamely, and fell suddenly into a settled silence. The hard lines about his lips deepened; his eyes, cast to the ground, glowed dully; and in every feature Lucy read the despair that was gnawing at his heart. And with it there was something more—a tacit rebuke to her for having brought Kitty there to meet him.
"We have missed you very much," she began softly, as if reading his thoughts, "and your letters were so interesting! Ever since I showed Kitty the first one she has been crazy to come down here. Yes, she has been reading 'The Virginian' and O. Henry and 'Wolfville' until it is simply awful to hear her talk. And ride—she has been taking lessons for a year! Her saddle is out there now in the wagon, and if she could have caught one of those wild horses out in that inclosed field I really believe she would have mounted him and taken to the hills like an Indian. I had to come down to take care of father, you know, and—aren't you glad to see us, Rufus?"
She gazed up at him anxiously, and her eyes became misty as she spoke; but Hardy was far away and he did not see.
"Yes," he said absently, "but—I shall be very busy. Oh, where is your father?"
A light went suddenly from Lucy's eyes and her lips quivered, but her voice was as steady as ever.
"He has gone down to the river," she said patiently. "Would you like to see him?"
"Yes," he replied, still impersonally; and with his head down, he walked out to where Chapuli was standing. Then, as if some memory of her voice had come to him, he dropped the bridle lash and stepped back quickly into the house.
"You mustn't notice my rudeness, Miss Lucy," he began abjectly. "Of course I am glad to see you; but I am a little confused, and—well, you understand." He smiled wanly as he spoke, and held out his hand. "Is it all right?" he asked. "Good-bye, then." And as he stepped quietly out the light came back into Lucy's eyes.
"I am going to hunt up the judge," he said, as he swung up on his horse; and, despite the protests of Jeff and Kitty Bonnair, who were still deep in an animated conversation, he rode off down the river.
It was not exactly like a draught of Nepenthe to go out and face the righteous indignation of Judge Ware, but Hardy's brain was in such a whirl that he welcomed the chance to escape. Never for a moment had he contemplated the idea of Kitty's coming to him, or of his seeing her again until his heart was whole. He had felt safe and secure forever within the walled valley of Hidden Water—but now from a cloudless sky the lightning had fallen and blinded him. Before he could raise a hand or even turn and flee she had come upon him and exacted his forgiveness. Nay, more—she had won back his love and enslaved him as before. Could it mean—what else could it mean? Nothing but that she loved him; or if not love, then she cared for him above the others. And Kitty was proud, too! Those who became her slaves must respect her whims; she would acknowledge no fault and brook no opposition; whatever she did was right. Yes, it had always been the same with her: the Queen could do no wrong—yet now she had put aside her regal prerogatives and come to him!
He hugged the thought to his bosom like a man infatuated, and then a chill misgiving came upon him. Perhaps after all it was but another of those childish whims which made her seem so lovable—always eager, always active, always striving for the forbidden and unusual, yet so dear with her laughing eyes and dancing feet that all the world gave way before her. He bowed his head in thought, following the judge's tracks mechanically as he cantered down the trail, and when he came to the hill above the whirlpool and looked down at the empty landscape he was still wrestling with his pride. Never in the two years of his exile had he so much as mentioned her name to any one; it was a thing too sacred for confidences, this love which had changed the deep current of his life, a secret for his own soul and God—and yet, Lucy Ware might help him!
And where in all the world would he find a more faithful friend than Lucy Ware? A secret shared with her would be as safe as if still locked in his own breast—and Lucy could understand. Perhaps she understood already; perhaps—his heart stopped, and pounded against his side—perhaps Kitty had told Lucy her story already and asked her to intercede! He dwelt upon the thought again as he gazed dumbly about for his employer; and then suddenly the outer world—the plain, rough, rocks-and-cactus world that he had lived in before they came—flashed up before him in all its uncompromising clearness; the judge was nowhere in sight!
A sudden memory of Creede's saying that he could lose his boss any time within half a mile of camp startled Hardy out of his dreams and he rode swiftly forward upon the trail. At the foot of the hill the tracks of Judge Ware's broad shoes with their nice new hob-nails stood out like a bas-relief, pointing up the river. Not to take any chances, Hardy followed them slavishly through the fine sand until they turned abruptly up onto a ridge which broke off at the edge of the river bottom. Along the summit of this they showed again, plainly, heading north; then as the ravine swung to the west they scrambled across it and began to zigzag, working off to the east where Black Butte loomed up above the maze of brushy ridges like a guiding sentinel. At first Hardy only smiled at the circuitous and aimless trail which he was following, expecting to encounter the judge at every turn; but as the tracks led steadily on he suddenly put spurs to his horse and plunged recklessly up and down the sides of the brushy hogbacks in a desperate pursuit, for the sun was sinking low. The trail grew fresher and fresher now; dark spots where drops of sweat had fallen showed in the dry sand of the washes; and at last, half an hour before sundown, Hardy caught sight of his wandering employer, zealously ascending a particularly rocky butte.
"Hello there, Judge!" he called, and then, as Judge Ware whirled about, he inquired, with well-feigned surprise: "Where'd you drop down from?"
This was to let the old gentleman down easy—lost people having a way of waxing indignant at their rescuers—and the judge was not slow to take advantage of it.
"Why, howdy do, Rufus!" he exclaimed, sinking down upon a rock. "I was just taking a little short cut to camp. My, my, but this is a rough country. Out looking for cattle?"
"Well—yes," responded Hardy. "I was taking a little ride. But say, it's about my supper time. You better give up that short-cut idea and come along home with me."
"We-ell," said the judge, reluctantly descending the butte, "I guess I will. How far is it?"
"About two miles, by trail."
"Two miles!" exclaimed Judge Ware, aghast. "Why, it's just over that little hill, there. Why don't you take a short cut?"
"The trail is the shortest cut I know," replied Hardy, concealing a smile. "That's the way the cattle go, and they seem to know their business. How does the country look to you?"
But the old judge was not to be led aside by persiflage—he was interested in the matter of trails.
"Cattle trails!" he exclaimed. "Do you mean to say that you do all your travelling on these crooked cow paths? Why, it is a matter of scientific observation that even on the open prairie a cow path loses nearly a quarter of its headway by constant winding in and out, merely to avoid frail bushes and infinitesimal stones. Now if you and Jeff would spend a little of your leisure in cutting trails, as they do in forestry, you would more than save yourselves the time and labor involved, I'm sure."
"Yes?" said Hardy coldly. There was a subtle tone of fault-finding in his employer's voice which already augured ill for their debate on the sheep question, and his nerves responded instinctively to the jab. Fate had not been so kind to him that day, that he was prepared to take very much from any man, and so he remained quiet and let the judge go the whole length.
"Why, yes, if you would stay about the ranch a little closer instead of going off on these armed forays against sheep—now just for example, how much would it cost to clear a passable trail over that ridge to the ranch?"
He pointed at the hill which in his misguided enthusiasm he had been mounting, and Hardy's eyes glittered wickedly as he launched his barbed jest.
"About a billion dollars, I guess," he answered, after mature consideration.
"A billion dollars!" repeated the judge. "A billion dollars! Now here, Rufus," he cried, choking with exasperation, "I am in earnest about this matter! I don't altogether approve of the way you and Jeff have been conducting my affairs down here, anyway, and I intend to take a hand myself, if you don't mind. I may not know as much as you about the minor details of the cattle business, but I have been looking into forestry quite extensively, and I fail to see anything unreasonable in my suggestion of a trail. How far is it, now, over that hill to the ranch?"
"About twenty-five thousand miles," replied Hardy blandly.
"Twenty-five thousand! Why—"
"At least, so I am informed," explained Hardy. "Geographers agree, I believe, that that is the approximate distance around the world. The ranch is over here, you know."
He pointed with one small, sinewy hand in a direction diametrically opposite to the one his boss had indicated, and struck out down a cow trail. It was a harsh blow to the old judge, and rankled in his bosom for some time; but after making sure that his superintendent was correct he followed meekly behind him into camp. On the way, as an afterthought, he decided not to put down his foot in the matter of the sheep until he was quite sure of the material facts.
They found Creede in the last throes of agony as he blundered through the motions of cooking supper. Half an hour of house-cleaning had done more to disarrange his kitchen than the services of two charming assistants could possibly repair. His Dutch oven was dropped into the wood box; his bread pan had been used to soak dirty dishes in; the water bucket was empty, and they had thrown his grease swab into the fire. As for the dish-rag, after long and faithful service it had been ruthlessly destroyed, and he had to make another one out of a flour sack. Add to this a hunger which had endured since early morning and a series of rapid-fire questions, and you have the true recipe for bad bread, at least.
Kitty Bonnair had taken a course in sanitation and domestic science in her college days, since which time the world had been full of microbes and every unpleasant bacillus, of which she discoursed at some length. But Jefferson Creede held steadily to his fixed ideas, and in the end he turned out some baking-powder biscuits that would have won honors in a cooking school. There was nothing else to cook, his kettle of beans having been unceremoniously dumped because the pot was black; but Kitty had the table spotlessly clean, there was an assortment of potted meats and picnic knicknacks in the middle of it, and Lucy had faithfully scoured the dishes; so supper was served with frills.
If the ladies had taken hold a little strong in the first spasms of house-cleaning, Jeff and Rufus were far too polite to mention it; and while the dishes were being washed they quietly gathered up their belongings, and moved them into the storeroom. Their beds being already spread beneath the ramada, it was not difficult to persuade the girls to accept Hardy's room, which for a man's, was clean, and the judge fell heir to Jeff's well-littered den. All being quickly arranged and the beds made, Creede threw an armful of ironwood upon the fire and they sat down to watch it burn.
Three hours before, Hidden Water had been the hangout of two sheep-harrying barbarians, bushy-headed and short of speech; now it was as bright and cheerful as any home and the barbarians were changed to lovers. Yet, as they basked in the warmth of the fireside there was one absent from his accustomed place—a creature so fierce and shy that his wild spirit could never become reconciled to the change. At the first sound of women's voices little Tommy had dashed through his cat-hole and fled to the bowlder pile at the foot of the cliff, from whose dank recesses he peered forth with blank and staring eyes.
But now, as the strange voices grew quiet and night settled down over the valley, he crept forth and skulked back to the house, sniffing about the barred windows, peeking in through his hole in the door; and at last, drawing well away into the darkness, he raised his voice in an appealing cry for Jeff.
As the first awful, raucous outburst broke the outer silence Kitty Bonnair jumped, and Lucy and her father turned pale.
"What's that?" cried Kitty, in a hushed voice, "a mountain lion?"
"Not yet," answered Creede enigmatically. "He will be though, if he grows. Aw, say, that's just my cat. Here, pussy, pussy, pussy! D'ye hear that, now? Sure, he knows me! Wait a minute and I'll try an' ketch 'im."
He returned a few minutes later, with Tommy held firmly against his breast, blacker, wilder, and scrawnier than ever, but purring and working his claws.
"How's this for a mountain lion?" said Creede, stopping just inside the door and soothing down his pet. "D'ye see that hook?" he inquired, holding up the end of Tommy's crooked tail and laughing at Kitty's dismay. "He uses that to climb cliffs with. That's right—he's a new kind of cat. Sure, they used to be lots of 'em around here, but the coyotes got all the rest. Tom is the only one left. Want to pet him? Well—whoa, pussy,—come up careful, then; he's never—ouch!"
At the first whisk of skirts, Tommy's yellow eyes turned green and he sank every available hook and claw into his master's arm; but when Kitty reached out a hand he exploded in a storm of spits and hisses and dashed out through the door.
"Well, look at that, now," said Creede, grinning and rubbing his arm. "D'ye know what's the matter with him? You're the first woman he ever saw in his life. W'y, sure! They ain't no women around here. I got him off a cowman over on the Verde. He had a whole litter of 'em—used to pinch Tom's tail to make him fight—so when I come away I jest quietly slipped Mr. Tommy into my shaps."
"Oh, the poor little thing," said Kitty; and then she added, puckering up her lips, "but I don't like cats."
"Oh, I do!" exclaimed Lucy Ware quickly, as Creede's face changed, and for a moment the big cowboy stood looking at them gravely.
"That's good," he said, smiling approvingly at Lucy; and then, turning to Kitty Bonnair, he said: "You want to learn, then."
But Kitty was not amenable to the suggestion.
"No!" she cried, stamping her foot. "I don't! They're such stealthy, treacherous creatures—and they never have any affection for people."
"Ump-um!" denied Creede, shaking his head slowly. "You don't know cats—jest think you do, maybe. W'y, Tommy was the only friend I had here for two years. D'ye think he could fool me all that time? Rufe here will tell you how he follows after me for miles—and cryin', too—when the coyotes might git 'im anytime. And he sleeps with me every night," he added, lowering his voice.
"Well, you can have him," said Kitty lightly. "Do they have any real mountain lions here?"
"Huh?" inquired Creede, still big-eyed with his emotions. "Oh, yes; Bill Johnson over in Hell's Hip Pocket makes a business of huntin' 'em. Twenty dollars bounty, you know."
"Oh, oh!" cried Kitty. "Will he take me with him? Tell me all about it!"
Jefferson Creede moved over toward the door with a far-away look in his eyes.
"That's all," he said indifferently. "He runs 'em with hounds. Well, I'll have to bid you good-night."
He ducked his head, and stepped majestically out the door; and Hardy, who was listening, could hear him softly calling to his cat.
"Oh, Rufus!" cried Kitty appealingly, as he rose to follow, "do stop and tell me about Bill Johnson, and, yes—Hell's Hip Pocket!"
"Why, Kitty!" exclaimed Lucy Ware innocently, and while they were discussing the morals of geographical swearing Hardy made his bow, and passed out into the night.
The bitter-sweet of love was upon him again, making the stars more beautiful, the night more mysterious and dreamy; but as he crept into his blankets he sighed. In the adjoining cot he could hear Jeff stripping slivers from a length of jerked beef, and Tommy mewing for his share.
"Want some jerky, Rufe?" asked Creede, and then, commenting upon their late supper, he remarked:
"A picnic dinner is all right for canary birds, but it takes good hard grub to feed a man. I'm goin' to start the roder camp in the mornin' and cook me up some beans." He lay for a while in silence, industriously feeding himself on the dry meat, and gazing at the sky.
"Say, Rufe," he said, at last, "ain't you been holdin' out on me a little?"
"Um-huh," assented Hardy.
"Been gettin' letters from Miss Lucy all the time, eh?"
"Well," remarked Creede, "you're a hell of a feller! But I reckon I learned somethin'," he added philosophically, "and when I want somebody to tell my troubles to, I'll know where to go. Say, she's all right, ain't she?"
"Who're you talkin' about?"
"Oh, you know, all right, all right—but, say!"
"It's a pity she don't like cats."
THE GARDEN IN THE DESERT
The sun was well up over the canyon rim when the tired visitors awoke from their dreams. Kitty Bonnair was the first to open her eyes and peep forth upon the fairy world which promised so much of mystery and delight. The iron bars of their window, deep set in the adobe walls, suggested the dungeon of some strong prison where Spanish maidens languished for sight of their lovers; a rifle in the corner, overlooked in the hurried moving, spoke eloquently of the armed brutality of the times; the hewn logs which supported the lintels completed the picture of primitive life; and a soft breeze, breathing in through the unglazed sills, whispered of dark canyons and the wild, free out-of-doors.
As she lay there drinking it all in a murmur of voices came to her ears; and, peering out, she saw Creede and Rufus Hardy squatting by a fire out by the giant mesquite tree which stood near the bank of the creek. Creede was stirring the contents of a frying-pan with a huge iron spoon, and Rufus was cooking strips of meat on a stick which he turned above a bed of coals. There was no sign of hurry or anxiety about their preparations; they seemed to be conversing amiably of other things. Presently Hardy picked up a hooked stick, lifted the cover from the Dutch oven, and dumped a pile of white biscuits upon a greasy cloth. Then, still deep in their talk, they filled their plates from the fry-pan, helped themselves to meat, wrapped the rest of the bread in the cloth, and sat comfortably back on their heels, eating with their fingers and knives.
It was all very simple and natural, but somehow she had never thought of men in that light before. They were so free, so untrammelled and self-sufficient; yes, and so barbarous, too. Rufus Hardy, the poet, she had known—quiet, soft-spoken, gentle, with dreamy eyes and a doglike eagerness to please—but, lo! here was another Rufus, still gentle, but with a stern look in his eyes which left her almost afraid—and those two lost years lay between. How he must have changed in all that time! The early morning was Kitty's time for meditation and good resolutions, and she resolved then and there to be nice to Rufus, for he was a man and could not understand.
As the sound of voices came from the house Jefferson Creede rose up from his place and stalked across the open, rolling and swaying in his high-heeled boots like a huge, woolly bear.
"Well, Judge," he said, after throwing a mountain of wood on the fire as a preliminary to cooking breakfast for his guests, "I suppose now you're here you'd like to ride around a little and take stock of what you've got. The boys will begin comin' in for the roder to-day, and after to-morrow I'll be pretty busy; but if you say so I'll jest ketch up a gentle horse, and show you the upper range before the work begins."
"Oh, won't you take me, too?" cried Kitty, skipping in eagerly. "I've got the nicest saddle—and I bet I can ride any horse you've got."
She assumed a cowboy-like strut as she made this assertion, shaking her head in a bronco gesture which dashed the dark hair from her eyes and made her look like an unbroken thoroughbred. Never in all his life, even in the magazine pictures of stage beauties which form a conspicuous mural decoration in those parts, had Creede seen a woman half so charming, but even in his love blindness he was modest.
"We'll have to leave that to the judge," he said deferentially, "but they's horses for everybody." He glanced inquiringly at Lucy, who was busily unpacking her sketching kit; but she only smiled, and shook her head.
"The home is going to be my sphere for some time," she remarked, glancing about at the half-cleaned room, "and then," she added, with decision, "I'm going to make some of the loveliest water colors in the world. I think that big giant cactus standing on that red-and-gray cliff over there is simply wonderful."
"Um, pretty good," observed Creede judicially. "But you jest ought to see 'em in the gorge where Hidden Water comes out! Are ye goin' along, Rufe?" he inquired, bending his eyes upon Hardy with a knowing twinkle. "No? Well, you can show her where it is! Didn't you never hear why they call this Hidden Water?" he asked, gazing benignly upon the young ladies. "Well, listen.
"They's a big spring of water right up here, not half a mile. It's an old landmark—the Mexicans call it Agua Escondida—but I bet neither one of you can find it and I'll take you right by the gulch where it comes out. They can't nobody find it, unless they're wise enough to follow cow tracks—and of course, we don't expect that of strangers. But if you ever git lost and you're within ten miles of home jest take the first cow trail you see and follow it downhill and you'll go into one end or the other of Hidden Water canyon. Sure, it's what you might call the Hello-Central of the whole Four Peaks country, with cow paths instead of wires. The only thing lackin' is the girls, to talk back, and call you down for your ungentlemanly language, and—well, this country is comin' up every day!"
He grinned broadly, wiping his floury hands on his overalls in defiance of Miss Kitty's most rudimentary principles; and yet even she, for all her hygiene, was compelled to laugh. There was something about Creede that invited confidence and feminine badgering, he was so like a big, good-natured boy. The entire meal was enlivened by her efforts, in the person of a hello girl, to expurgate his language, and she ended by trying to get him to swear—politely.
But in this the noble cowboy was inexorable. "No, ma'am," he said, with an excess of moral conviction. "I never swear except for cause—and then I always regret it. But if you want to git some of the real thing to put in your phonygraft jest come down to the pasture to-morrow when the boys are breakin' horses. Your hair's kind of wavy, I notice, but it will put crimps in it to hear Bill Lightfoot or some of them Sunflower stiffs when they git bucked onto a rock pile. And say, if you call yourself a rider I can give you a snake for to-day."
"Oh, thank you, Mr. Creede," answered Miss Kitty, bowing low as she left the table. "Its tail, if it chanced to be a rattler, would be most acceptable, I am sure, and I might make a belt out of its skin. But for riding purposes I prefer a real, gentle little horse. Now hurry up, and I'll be dressed in half an hour."
Ten minutes later Creede rode up to the house, leading a sober gray for the judge, but for Kitty Bonnair he had the prettiest little calico-horse in the bunch, a pony painted up with red and yellow and white until he looked like a three-color chromo. Even his eye was variegated, being of a mild, pet-rabbit blue, with a white circle around the orbit; and his name, of course, was Pinto. To be sure, his face was a little dished in and he showed other signs of his scrub Indian blood, but after Creede had cinched on the new stamped-leather saddle and adjusted the ornate hackamore and martingale, Pinto was the sportiest-looking horse outside of a Wild West show.
There was a long wait then, while Diana completed her preparations for the hunt; but when Kitty Bonnair, fully apparelled, finally stepped through the door Creede reeled in the saddle, and even Rufus Hardy gasped. There was nothing immodest about her garb—in fact, it was very correct and proper—but not since the Winship girls rode forth in overalls had Hidden Water seen its like. Looking very trim and boyish in her khaki riding breeches, Kitty strode forth unabashed, rejoicing in her freedom. A little scream of delight escaped her as she caught sight of the calico-pony; she patted his nose a moment, inquired his name, and then, scorning all assistance, swung lightly up into the saddle. No prettier picture had ever been offered to the eye; so young, so supple and strong, with such a wealth of dark, wavy hair, and, withal, so modest and honestly happy. But, somehow, Jefferson Creede took the lead and rode with his eyes cast down, lest they should be dazzled by the vision. Besides, Jeff had been raised old-fashioned, and Golden Gate Park is a long, long ways, chronologically, from Hidden Water.
As the procession passed away up the canyon, with Creede in sober converse with the judge and Kitty scampering about like an Indian on her pinto horse, Hardy and Lucy Ware glanced at each other, and laughed.
"Did you ever see any one like her?" exclaimed Lucy, and Hardy admitted with a sigh that he never had.
"And I am afraid," observed Miss Lucy frankly, "you were not altogether pleased to see her—at first. But really, Rufus, what can any one hope to do with Kitty? When she has set her heart on anything she will have it, and from the very moment she read your first letter she was determined to come down here. Of course father thinks he came down to look into this matter of the sheep, and I think that I came down to look after him, but in reality I have no doubt we are both here because Kitty Bonnair so wills it."
"Very likely," replied Hardy, with a doubtful smile. "But since you are in her counsels perhaps you can tell what her intentions are toward me. I used to be one of her gentlemen-in-waiting, you know, and this visit looks rather ominous for me."
"Well, just exactly what are you talking about, Rufus?"
"I guess you know, all right," replied Hardy. "Have I got to ride a bucking bronco, or kill a sheep-herder or two—or is it just another case of 'move on'?"
He paused and smiled bitterly to himself, but Lucy was not in a mood to humor him in his misanthropy.
"I must confess," she said, "that you may be called upon to do a few chivalrous feats of horsemanship, but as for the sheep-herder part of it, I hope you will try to please me by leaving them alone. It worries me, Rufus," she continued soberly, "to see you becoming so strong-willed and silent. There was a whole year, when none of us heard a word from you—and then it was quite by accident. And father thinks you stopped writing to him with the deliberate intention of driving the sheep away by violence."
"Well, I'm glad he understands so well," replied Hardy naively. "Of course I wouldn't embarrass him by asking for orders, but—"
"Oh, Rufus!" exclaimed Miss Lucy impatiently, "do try to be natural again and take your mind off those sheep. Do you know what I am thinking of doing?" she demanded seriously. "I am thinking of asking father to give me this ranch—he said he would if I wanted it—and then I'll discharge you! You shall not be such a brutal, ugly man! But come, now, I want you to help clear the table, and then we will go up to Hidden Water and read your poems. But tell me, have you had any trouble with the sheepmen?"
"Why, no!" answered Hardy innocently. "What made you ask?"
"Well, you wrote father you expected trouble—and—and you had that big, long pistol when you came in yesterday. Now you can't deny that!"
"I'm afraid you've had some Western ideas implanted in your bosom by Kitty, Miss Lucy," protested Hardy. "We never shoot each other down here. I carry that pistol for the moral effect—and it's necessary, too, to protect these sheepmen against their own baser natures. You see they're all armed, and if I should ride into their camp without a gun and ask them to move they might be tempted to do something overt. But as it is now, when Jeff and I begin to talk reason with them they understand. No, we're all right; it's the sheep-herders that have all the trouble."