"Mr. Creede is a noble kind of a man, isn't he?" she said, turning to where Hardy was still standing. "Won't you sit down, Rufus, and let's talk this over for a minute. But before you decide anything, I want you to get a good night's sleep. You are a free man now, you know, and if there's any worrying to be done it's my funeral—isn't it?"
If he heard her at all Hardy made no response to the jest. He stood before her, swaying dizzily as he groped about for his hat, which had fallen from his hand. Then at last a faint smile broke through the drawn lines in his face.
"That's right," he said, sinking down at her side, and as he settled back against the tree his eyes closed instantly, like a child whose bedtime has come. "I'm—I'm so dead tired I can't talk straight, Lucy—to say nothing of think. But—I'll take care of you. We aren't sheeped out yet. Only—only I can't—I forget what I'm going to say." His head fell forward as he spoke, his hands hung heavy, and he slipped slowly to the ground, fast asleep.
After two days and nights of turmoil and passion his troubles were ended, suddenly; and as she raised him up Lucy Ware bent down quickly under cover of the dusk and kissed his rumpled hair.
The gentle hand of sleep, which held Hardy in a grip that was akin to death, blotting out the past and dispelling all remembrance of his sorrows, failed utterly to abate the fighting spirit of Jefferson Creede or sap the Spartan grimness of his purpose. Worn by the destroying anger of the previous day, thwarted and apparently defeated, he rose up at the first glow of dawn and set about his preparations with an unemotional directness which augured ill for Jasper Swope. Before the sun was an hour high he had the town herd on the trail for Bender, entrusted to the care of Bill Lightfoot and several others of whom he wanted to be rid. The camp was dismantled, the packs were loaded upon the spare horses, and the outfit was ready to start for Carrizo Creek before breakfast was more than finished in the ranch house. After a final survey to make sure that nothing had been overlooked in the scuffle, the rodeo boss waved his hand to the leaders; then, as the train strung out up the canyon, he rode over to the house to say good-bye. The last farewell is a formality often dispensed with in the Far West; but in this case the boss had business to attend to, and—well, he had something to say to Kitty Bonnair, too.
Very quietly, in order not to awaken his partner—whom he had picked up like a tired baby and stored away in the darkened bunk-room the evening before—Creede opened the door of the living-room, greeted his lady-love with a cheerful grin, and beckoned Miss Lucy outside by a backward jerk of the head.
"Sorry to disturb you, Miss Ware," he said, "but we're movin' camp this mornin' and before I go I want to tell you about them cattle I'm just sendin' to town. If I didn't have other business on hand I'd go down with you gladly and sell 'em for you, but when you git to Bender you go to Chris Johansen, the cattle buyer, and give him this list. You won't savvy what it is but Chris will, and you tell him that if he don't give you the best market price for them cows he'll have to—lick—me! This is a dry year and feeders ain't much nohow, but I don't want to see no friend of mine robbed. Well, so-long, Miss Ware. Hope you have a good trip."
He gripped her hand awkwardly, picked up his bridle lash, and thrust one boot thoughtfully into the stirrup. Then, as if suddenly cognizant of a neglected duty, he snapped his foot out and threw the lash back on the ground.
"I'll say good-bye to the judge," he drawled, "so's to show they ain't no hard feelin'. Your old man don't exactly fit in these parts," he observed apologetically, "but he means well, I reckon. You can tell 'im some time that I was kind of excited when I quit."
His farewell was a sober and dignified affair, after the courtly school of the South—no allusions to the past, no references to the future, merely a gentlemanly expression of regret that his guest's visit should have been so suddenly terminated. But when he turned to Miss Kitty his masterful eyes began to glow and waver and he shifted his feet uneasily.
"Kin I speak with you a minute outside?" he said at last; and Kitty, still eager to read the heart of Man, the Unfinished, followed after him, laughing as he stooped to pass his high hat through the door.
"Come on out by the corral," he urged, confidently leading the way. When they were concealed by the corner of the fence he stopped and dropped his bridle rein.
"Well, we've had a pretty good time together down here, hain't we?" he observed, twisting the fringe of his shaps and smiling at her from beneath his forelock. "I ain't got but a minute—and there's some rough work ahead, I reckon—but I jest wanted to—well, I wanted to give you this." He dove down into his overalls' pocket and brought up a nugget, worn smooth by long milling around between his spare change and his jackknife.
"That's a chunk of gold I found over by Red Butte one time," he said, handing it over. "Thought you might want to keep it for me, you know. But say—" He crowded his hands into his pockets and canted his head to one side, ogling her roguishly.
Kitty had never observed just such conduct before, and she was curious.
"Why—what?" she inquired, tossing back her hair tantalizingly.
"Don't I git nothin' to remember you by, little girl?" he demanded, his voice vibrant with passion. "We've been pretty good friends, you know. In fact—well, say, don't I git jest one kiss?"
He drew her gently into his arms as he spoke, waited a fraction of a second for her to resist, and then kissed her, suddenly and with masterful violence.
"One more," he pleaded insistently. "No? All right then," he said, swinging gracefully up on his horse as she pushed him away. "I'll always remember that one, anyhow!"
He leaned forward and Bat Wings shot away up the canyon like a charger that sniffs the combat, thundering out across the parada grounds, swinging beneath the giant mesquite, and plunging down the bank that led to the creek. And all the time his rider sat with one hand on the cantle, his white teeth flashing back a wistful smile.
Taken by surprise Kitty Bonnair stood staring blankly after him, rubbing her cheek which burned hot where he had kissed her. She would always remember that kiss too, and all too late she remembered to become indignant. But, no one being about, she laughed low to herself and hurried back to the house, her eyes downcast and pensive. She had known many men and lovers in her time, but never a one like Jeff Creede.
There was a sound of hasty packing in the Dos S ranch house that morning, and the wagon drove noisily up to the door. Rafael carried out the steamer trunks and luggage, the snake-skins, the smoky opals, the Indian baskets, the braided quirts, and all the scattered plunder that the cowboys had given Kitty and that she could not bear to leave behind. He saddled up their horses, clattering recklessly into the bunk-house where Hardy was sleeping in order to get his blankets, and still, unmindful of noise or preparation, or the friends who must say good-bye, he lay sprawled on the rough blankets, dead with sleep.
Rafael kicked off the brake and started on his weary journey around Red Butte to Moreno's, which would take him the rest of the day; Judge Ware, possessed to get out of the country before he became particeps criminis to some lawless outrage, paced restlessly up and down the ramada, waiting for the girls to get ready; and Kitty and Lucy, glancing guiltily at each other, fidgeted around in their rooms waiting for Rufus to wake up.
"I'm ready," said Lucy at last, putting the final touches to the room which he had given up to her. "Are you, Kitty?"
Their eyes met in an uneasy stare, each wishing the other would speak.
"Yes," said Kitty, "but—shall we go without saying good-bye?"
"What in the world are you girls waiting for?" demanded the judge, thrusting his head impatiently in at the door. "I declare, I begin to think there is something in these jokes about Adam waiting for Eve to get her hat on straight. Now please come at once or we won't get to Moreno's in time for supper."
"But, father," protested Lucy, "Kitty and I do not wish to leave without saying good-bye to Rufus. Would you mind—"
"No, no!" exclaimed Judge Ware irritably, "if he chooses to sleep all day—"
"But, father!" burst out Lucy, almost tearfully, "he was so tired—he fell asleep as soon as he sat down, and I never did get him to consent to be my superintendent! Don't you see—"
"Well, write him a note then," directed the judge brusquely, "and leave it on his desk. Now, Lucy dear, really I'm getting so nervous I'm hardly accountable. Please hurry. And, Kitty, please hurry, too!"
Like two souls haled from the world without a word of explanation or confession, Kitty and Lucy both sat down under duress to pen a last appeal to the little man who, despite his stern disregard, somehow held a place in their hearts. Kitty could have wept with vexation at the thought of not seeing him again—and after she had brought her mind to forgive him, too! She wrote blindly, she knew not what, whether it was accusation or entreaty, and sealed the envelope with a bang of her tiny fist—and even then he did not awaken. Lucy wrote carefully, wrestling to turn the implacable one from his purpose and yet feeling that he would have his will. She sealed her note and put it upon his desk hesitatingly; then, as Kitty turned away, she dropped her handkerchief beside it. It was a time-worn strategy, such as only the innocent and guileless think of in their hour of adversity. When she ran back to recover it Lucy drew a dainty book from her bosom—Mrs. Browning's "Sonnets from the Portuguese"—and placed it across her note as if to save it from the wind, and between two leaves she slipped the forget-me-nots which he had given her at Hidden Water.
As the thud of horses' hoofs died away silence settled down upon the Dos S ranch house, the sombre silence of the desert, unbroken by the murmur of women's voices or the echo of merry laughter, and the sleeping man stirred uneasily on his bed. An hour passed, and then from the ramada there came a sound of wailing. Hardy rose up on his bed suddenly, startled. The memory of the past came to him vaguely, like fragments of an eerie dream; then the world came right and he found himself in the bunk-house, alone—and Tommy outside, crying as if for the dead. Leaping up from his blankets Hardy opened the door and called him in—hoarse, black, distorted, yet overflowing with love and affection. Poor little Tommy! He took him in his arms to comfort him, and bedded him down on the pillow. But when he stepped outside he found that his world too was vacant—the house deserted, the corrals empty, the rodeo camp a smouldering fireplace, surrounded by a wilderness of tin cans.
As the slow grief of the forsaken came upon him he turned and went to his room, where the atmosphere of womankind still lingered to suggest the dear hands that were gone, and suddenly his eyes leaped to the letters left upon the table. It was Kitty's which he opened first, perhaps because it was nearest; but the torrent of inconsequential words confused him by their unreason and he turned to Lucy's, reading it over thoughtfully.
"We have waited a long time for you to wake up, and now father says we must go. You were so tired last night that I doubt if you heard a word I said, although I thought I was making a great impression in my new role as a business woman. I asked father to give me the ranch, not because I wanted to own it but to save you from your madness. The cattle are all mine now and I leave them in your care. Whatever you do I will consent to, if you will leave your guns at home. Is that too much for a friend to ask? I know that Mr. Creede is your friend too, and I admire your devotion to his cause, but I think you can do just as much for him and more by not risking your life in a battle against the sheep. They are so many, Rufus, and they have their rights, too. Father is confident that the Forest Reserve will be declared next Winter and then the sheep will be debarred forever. Can't you give over the fight for my sake? And I will pay you any price—I will do anything you ask; but if you should be killed or kill some other man, I could never be happy again, though I gained the whole world. Dear Rufus, please—but I leave it for you to decide—"
The note ended abruptly, it was not even signed, and Hardy could imagine the agitation in which it was written. Dear little Lucy, always thinking of others, always considerate, always honest and reasonable. If only Kitty—But no—in her own right as Queen of Love and of his heart, she was above all criticism and blame. It was a madness, deeper than his anger against the sheep, mightier than his fiercest resentment—he could not help it; he loved her. Changeable, capricious, untamed, she held him by her faults where virtues would hardly have sufficed in another. He had tried, and failed; so long as she was in the world he must love her. But what a life! He cast the letter from him and his heart turned to Jeff and the big fight, the battle that they had planned to wage together. In the rush and struggle of that combat he could forget the pangs which tortured him; he could have his revenge on life, which had treated him so shabbily! And yet—and yet—could he desert a friend like Lucy—Lucy who would give her life to make him happier, who had always by every act tried to make him forget his sorrows?
For a long time he sat with his head bowed, thinking. Then he rose up and took down his long-barrelled Colt's, fingered it lovingly, and thrust it, scabbard and all, into the depths of his war bag.
As he rode down the hill into the camp that afternoon Creede came out to meet him, and when his eyes fell upon the empty belt, he smiled knowingly.
"Well, you woke up, did you?" he inquired, laying one hand carelessly on the bulge in Hardy's right shap, where modest cowboys sometimes secrete their guns. "Um-huh!" he grunted, slapping the left shap to make sure. "I suspected as much. Well, I congratulate you, supe—if my girl had asked me I reckon I'd've give up my gun too. But she gimme a kiss, anyway," he added, tossing his head triumphantly.
"Who did?" demanded Hardy, coming suddenly out of his dream.
"Why, Kitty, sure," returned Creede artlessly; and then, noting the look of incredulity on his partner's face, he slapped him on the leg and laughed consumedly.
"Oh, you're not the only pebble on the beach," he cried. "Ump-um—there are others! Say, it's hell to be in love, ain't it?"
He looked up at Hardy, the laughter still in his cheeks, but for once there was no answering smile. The large gray eyes were far away and distant, fixed vacantly upon the dust cloud where the sheep gathered in the east. Then, as if dismissing some haunting vision from his mind, the little man shook himself and drew away.
"That's right," he said solemnly, "it is."
CHICO AND GRANDE
Between the mouth of Hell's Hip Pocket and the cow camp at Carrizo Creek there lie three high ridges and three broad valleys, all running north and south from the Peaks to Bronco Mesa—the heart of the upper range; and there in compact bands the invaders held their sheep. From the lower levels they strayed out gradually over the rocky mesa; above they clambered up toward the wooded peaks; but at night the sheepmen worked back to the three ridges and camped close together for defence. After many years of struggle they had at last obtained their legal rights—their sheep were up to the ears in grama, eating out the heart of the cow country—but Jeff Creede was just over the hill, and the Mexicans were afraid. For years now the huge form of "Grande" had loomed before them whenever they entered that forbidden range, and they had always given way before him. And now he had the little man Chico with him, the son of a soldier, so it was said, and a gentleman of categoria; he always carried a pistol and his eyes were stern and hard. What would not Chico and Grande do to them, now that they were like bees robbed of their long-hoarded honey, who have nothing left but their stings?
So the word passed around amongst the herders and camp rustlers, and Jim and Jasp rode from one camp to the other, cursing and exhorting and holding them to their work. The hour of victory had come, but their triumph was poisoned by a haunting fear for their sheep. One hundred thousand sheep—five hundred thousand dollars' worth—the accumulation of a lifetime—and all in the hands of these cowardly Mexicans, not half of whom would fight! For the day or two that they held together they were safe, but when they spread out—and spread they must, to reach the western pass—then the cowmen could rush them at night like lions that raid a corral, scattering one band after the other, and the coyotes would do the rest! That was the joint in the armor of the sheepmen, and it robbed them of their sleep.
Evening came, and the fires of the camp rustlers on the ridges lit up the dust cloud that hung in the east. The hateful bray of the sheep was hushed, at last, and the shrill yell of the coyotes rose from every hilltop, bidding farewell to the sun; for as vultures and unnumbered birds of prey hovered in the wake of barbarian armies, casting their dread shadows upon the living and glutting upon the dead, so the coyotes follow tirelessly after the sheep, gorging upon chance carcasses and pulling down the strays. As the wild, gibbering chorus rose and quavered back from the cliffs the cowmen at Carrizo glanced up from their supper and swore, and in the general preoccupation Hardy put down his plate and slipped away to the corral. He was sitting on the fence listening to the mad yelping of the coyotes and watching the shadows gather among the peaks, when Creede strolled over and joined him. There were times when he could read Hardy like a book, but at others the little man's thoughts were hidden, and he brooded by himself. On such occasions, after a sufficient interval, Jeff esteemed it his duty to break in upon these unprofitable ruminations and bring him back to the light. So he clambered up on the top log and joined in the contemplation of nature.
"Hear them dam' coyotes," he observed sociably. "They'd cry that way if they'd had a chicken dinner, all around. I bet ye every one of 'em has got wool in his teeth, right now. Never you mind, birdie," he continued, apostrophizing a peculiarly shrill-voiced howler, "I'll give you a bellyful of mutton pretty soon, if it's the last act. What you going to do now, Rufe?"
"Well," answered Hardy, "I think I'll try and earn my salary by moving a few sheep. And of course we want to gather every beef critter we can now, while they're fat. The sheep seem to be hugging the mountain pretty close. What's the matter with working the Pocket Butte to-morrow and while the boys are riding we'll warn all the stragglers down there to keep up against the hills; then as soon as we get 'em located we'll jump in some day and move 'em!"
"Huh?" inquired Creede, shoving back his hat and staring. "Did I hear you say 'move 'em'? Well—er—I thought you left your gun at home," he suggested guardedly.
"That's right," admitted Hardy, "but don't you let that worry you any. I told you I'd help move those sheep, and I'll do it! We don't need guns, anyhow. Why, I'd just as soon tackle a rattlesnake bare-handed as go after Jasp Swope with my six-shooter. That's just what he's looking for, boy, with all those thirty-thirties behind him, and he'll have plenty of witnesses there to swear us into Yuma, too. I tell you, Jeff, I've been thinking this over, and I believe my boss is right."
"Sure," said Creede, showing his teeth in the twilight.
"Say, let up on that, will you?" exclaimed Hardy irritably. "I'm talking business. Now you let me tell you something." He paused, and fixed his eye on the dust cloud, intently. "I've moved that many sheep twice," he said, throwing out his hand, "and I left my gun at home."
"That's right," conceded Creede.
"Well now, I'll tell you what I'll do," continued Hardy. "If you'll leave your gun at home too and stay with me on this I'll undertake to shoot the last sheep out through West Pass inside of a week. And the only chance we take is of getting shot at or arrested for assault and battery. The Territorial Prison end of this gun business never did appeal me, anyway."
"No—nor me either! But what's the scheme?"
The big cowboy leaned forward eagerly, his eyes flashing as he half guessed the plan.
"We ride out together," said Hardy, his voice far away, as if he saw it in his mind's eye, "unarmed—and we notify every sheep-herder we see to move. If Jasp Swope or any of his men kill us while we're unarmed it'll be cold-blooded murder, and there'll be witnesses to prove it. And if the sheep don't move, we'll move 'em! What kind of a crime is that, anyway—to drive sheep off the public range? There isn't an officer of the law within sixty miles, anyhow; and if anybody pulls a gun on us we can slug him in self-defence."
"Sure," agreed Creede, "but suppose one of them big-headed Chihuahua Mexicans should happen to shoot you?"
"Well then, I'd be dead," said Hardy soberly. "But wouldn't you rather be dead than shut up in that hell-hole down at Yuma?"
"Yes!" cried Creede, holding out his hands as if taking an oath. "I would, by God!"
"Well, come on then!" said Hardy, and they shook hands on it like brothers.
When the rodeo outfit was gathered together in the morning Jefferson Creede deliberately unstrapped his cartridge belt and threw his pistol back onto his bed. Then he winked at his partner as if, rightly understood, the action was in the nature of a joke, and led the way to Pocket Butte.
"You fellows rake the ridges to Bullpit Valley," he said, briefly assigning every man to his post. "Rufe 'n me'll hold 'em up for you about four o'clock, but don't rush the funeral—we're goin' to move a few sheep first."
He smiled mysteriously as he spoke, staving off their pointed queries with equivocal answers.
"See you later," he observed, turning his horse into a sheep trail, and with that the outfit was forced to be content.
The offending sheep were found feeding along the eastern slope of a long ridge that led down from the upper ground, and the herders were camped on the summit. There were four men gathered about the fire and as the cowboys approached three of them picked up their carbines and sat off to one side, fingering the locks nervously. The appearance of Jeff Creede spelled trouble to all sheepmen and there were few camps on Bronco Mesa which did not contain a herder who had been unceremoniously moved by him. But this time the fire-eating cowman rode grandly into camp without any awe-inspiring demonstrations whatever.
"Are those your sheep?" he inquired, pointing to the grazing herd.
"Si senor," responded the boss herder humbly.
"Very well," said Creede, "move 'em, and move 'em quick. I give you three days to get through that pass." He stretched a heavily muscled arm very straight toward the notch in the western hills and turned abruptly away. Hardy swung soberly in behind him and the frightened Chihuahuanos were beginning to breathe again after their excitement when suddenly Jeff stopped his horse.
"Say," he said, turning to the boss, "what you carryin' that cow's horn for?"
At this pointed inquiry the boss herder flinched and looked downcast, toying uneasily with the primitive instrument at his side.
"To blow," he answered evasively.
"Well, go ahead and blow it, then," suggested Creede amiably. "No—go on! I don't care what happens. Aw here, let me have it a minute!"
He grabbed the horn away impatiently, wiped the mouthpiece with his sleeve, drew a long breath, and blew. A deep bass roar answered to his effort, a bellow such as the skin-clad hunters of antiquity sent forth when they wound the horn for their hounds, and the hills and valleys of Carrizo and the upper mesa echoed to the blast.
"Say, that's great!" exclaimed the big cowboy, good-naturedly resisting the appeals of the herder. "I used to have one like that when I was a boy. Oh, I'm a blower, all right—listen to this, now!" He puffed out his chest, screwed his lips into the horn, and blew again, loud and long.
"How's that for high?" he inquired, glancing roguishly at his partner. "And I could keep it up all day," he added, handing the horn back, "only I've got business elsewhere."
"Oyez, amigo," he said, bending his brow suddenly upon the Mexican herder, "remember, now—in three days!" He continued the sentence by a comprehensive sweep of the hand from that spot out through the western pass, favored each of the three Chihuahuanos with an abhorrent scowl, and rode slowly away down the hogback.
"Notice anything funny over on that ridge?" he asked, jerking his head casually toward the east. "That's Swope and Co.—the Sheepmen's Protective Association—coming over to rescue companero." A line of rapidly moving specks proved the truth of his observation, and Creede's shoulders shook with laughter as he noted their killing pace.
"I tumbled to the idee the minute I set eyes on that cow's horn," he said. "It's like this. Every boss herder has a horn; if he gits into trouble he blows it and all hands come a-runnin' to shoot holes in Mr. Cowman—think I'll make one myself."
He halted behind a rock and scrutinized the approaching horsemen over the top.
"That's Jasp, in front," he observed impersonally. "I wouldn't mind ownin' that black mule of his'n, neither. We'll jest wait until they dip down into the canyon and then double in back of him, and scare up them hombres over at the mouth of Hell's Hip Pocket. We want to git 'em started out of that. I believe you're right, though, Rufe—we can run this bunch out without firin' a shot."
That evening after the day's riding Creede sat down on his heels by the fire and heated the end of an iron rod. In his other hand he held a horn, knocked from the bleaching skeleton of a steer that had died by the water, and to its end where the tip had been sawed off he applied the red-hot iron, burning a hole through to the hollow centre.
"Jim," he said, turning to one of the Clark boys, "do you want a little excitement to-morrow? Well then, you take this old horn and go play hide 'n' seek with Jasp. Keep him chasin', and while the rest of the boys are gatherin' cattle Rufe and me will move a few sheep."
"Well, say," broke in Ben Reavis impatiently, "where do us fellers come in on this play? I thought there was goin' to be a few shap lessons and a little night work."
"Well," responded the rodeo boss philosophically, "any time you fellers want to go up against them thirty-thirties you can do so. It's your own funeral, and I'll promise to do the honors right. But I'm a law-abidin' cuss myself. I'm all the law now, ever since I talked with Jim Swope—it's the greatest graft they is."
He paused, busily scraping his horn with a piece of glass.
"They's no doubt about it, fellers," he said at last, "we've been slow in the head. It's a wonder we ain't all of us makin' hat bands in Yuma, by this time. I used to think that if you didn't like a sheepman's looks the way to do was to wade in and work him over a little; but that's a misdemeanor, and it don't go now. It took as good a man as Rufe, here, to put me wise; but I leave my gun in camp after this. I've got them Greasers buffaloed, anyhow, and Jasp knows if he plugs me when I'm unarmed it'll be a sure shot for the pen. The time may come when guns is necessary, but I move that every man leave his six-shooter in his bed and we'll go after 'em with our bare hands. What d' ye say, Ben?"
Ben Reavis rose up on one elbow, rolled his eyes warily, and passed a jet of tobacco juice into the hissing fire.
"Not f'r me," he said, with profane emphasis.
"No, ner f'r me, either," chimed in Charley Clark. "A man stays dead a long time in this dry climate."
"Well, you fellers see how many of my steers you can ketch, then," said Creede, "and I'll move them sheep myself—leastways, me and Rufe."
"All right," assented Reavis resignedly, "but you want to hurry up. I saw a cloud o' dust halfway to Hidden Water this afternoon."
The next morning as the rodeo outfit hustled out to pick up what cattle they could before they were scattered by the sheep, Jim Clark, tall, solemn-faced, and angular, rode by devious ways toward the eastern shoulder of the Four Peaks, where a distant clamor told of the great herds which mowed the mountain slopes like a thousand sickles. Having seen him well on his way Creede and Hardy galloped down the canyon, switched off along the hillside and, leaving their horses among the rocks, climbed up on a rocky butte to spy out the land below. High ridges and deep canyons, running down from the flanks of the Four Peaks, lay to the east and north and west; and to the south they merged into the broad expanse of Bronco Mesa.
There it lay, a wilderness of little hills and valleys, flat-topped benches and sandy gulches threaded minutely with winding trails and cow paths, green with the illusion of drought-proof giant cactus and vivid desert bushes, one vast preserve of browse and grass from the Peaks to the gorge of the Salagua. Here was the last battle-ground, the last stand of the cowmen against the sheep, and then unless that formless myth, "The Government," which no man had ever seen or known, stepped in, there would be no more of the struggle; the green mesa would be stripped of its evanescent glory and the sheep would wander at will. But as long as there was still a chance and the cows had young calves that would die, there was nothing for it but to fight on, warily and desperately, to the end.
As Jefferson Creede looked out across that noble landscape which he had struggled so resolutely to save and saw the dust clouds of the sheep drifting across it, the tears came to his eyes and blinded his keen vision. Here at last was the end of all his struggles and all his dreams; another year, or two years, and the mesa would be devastated utterly; his cows would be hollow-flanked and gaunted; his calves would totter and die, their tender lips pierced with the spiny cactus upon which their hard-mouthed mothers starved; and all that fair land which he knew and loved so well would be lost to him forever. He raised his hand to his eyes as if shading them from the sun, and brushed the tears away.
"Well, look at those sons o' guns hike," he said, baring his teeth venomously, "and every band headed for Hidden Water! Go it, you tarriers—and if you can't stop to eat the grass, tromple on it! But wait, and if I don't push in some Greaser's face to-day it'll be because every one of them bands is headin' for the western pass."
He clambered slowly down from his perch and swung up into the saddle.
"Talkin' never did do much good with a sheep-herder," he observed wisely. "As the old judge used to say, 'you've got to appeal to his better nature'—with a club."
The most southerly of the seven bands was strung out in marching order, the goats in front, the hungriest sheep in the lead; and on both flanks and far behind, the groups and clusters of feeders, pushing out into the grassy flats and rearing up against the trees and bushes. Without a word to the herders Creede and Hardy took down their ropes and, swinging the hondas upon the goats, turned the advance guard northwest. The main herd and the drag followed, and then the herders, all in a bunch for courage.
"This is the last time I talk to you," said Creede, his voice stifled with anger. "Turn to the north, now, and keep a-goin'."
He put spurs to his horse and rode west to the second herd, and by noon they had turned all seven toward the western pass. Every herder had his cow's horn and some of them were blowing continually, but no one answered, and a messenger was sent east for aid. They camped for the heat of the day, making smoke upon the ridges, but no help came. As the sun sank low and the curly-necked Merinos rose up from their huddle and began to drift the Mexicans turned them perforce to the north, looking back sulkily toward the mouth of Hell's Hip Pocket where other smokes rose against the sky. Until the sun set they travelled, making their three miles and more, and not until they had corralled their flocks for the night did Chico and Grande, the little and big terrors of the sheep, give way from their strenuous labors.
It was two hours after dark when they rode wearily into the camp at Carrizo Creek. The fire was dying down to embers and the rodeo outfit, worn out, had turned in, some in the tin house, others outside, under the brush ramada to escape the dew. No one moved as they approached but Creede did not scruple to wake up Jim Clark in order to learn the news.
"How'd the old horn work?" he inquired cheerily.
"No good," grunted Clark, rolling over.
"Aw, go on, wouldn't they chase ye?"
"Nope. Nothin' doin'. Say, lemme sleep, will ye?"
"Sure," said Creede, "when I git through with you. Which way was them sheep travellin'?"
"Well, some was goin' straight up over the Four Peaks and the rest was p'intin' west. You and your old horn—I nigh blowed my fool head off and never got a rise! They was all blowin' them horns over by the Pocket this aft."
"Um," said Creede, "they was all blowin', hey? And what else was they doin'?"
"Shootin', fer further orders, and driftin' their sheep. They's about a hundred thousand, right over the hill."
"Huh!" grunted Creede, turning to his belated dinner, "what d'ye make of that, Rufe?"
"Nothing," replied Hardy, "except more work."
It seemed as if he had hardly fallen asleep when Creede was up again, hurling the wood on the fire.
"Pile out, fellers!" he shouted. "You can sleep all day bimebye. Come on, Rufe—d'ye want to find them sheep in the corral when you go back to Hidden Water?" And so with relentless energy he roused them up, divided out the work, and was off again for Bronco Mesa.
It was early when they arrived at the first deserted sheep camp, but search as they would they could see no signs of the sheep. The puny fire over which the herders had fried their bread and mutton was wind-blown and cold, the burros and camp rustlers were gone, and there was no guiding dust cloud against the sky. From the little butte where Creede and Hardy stood the lower mesa stretched away before them like a rocky, cactus-covered plain, the countless ravines and gulches hidden by the dead level of the benches, and all empty, lifeless, void. They rode for the second camp, farther to the west, and it too was deserted, the sheep tracks cunningly milled in order to hide the trail.
"They're gittin' foxy," commented Creede, circling wide to catch the trend of their departure, "but I bet you money no bunch of Chihuahua Greasers can hide twenty thousand sheep in my back yard and me not know it. And I'll bet you further that I can find every one of them sheep and have 'em movin' before twelve o'clock, noon."
Having crystallized his convictions into this sporting proposition the rodeo boss left the wilderness of tracks and headed due south, riding fast until he was clear of sheep signs.
"Now here's where I cut all seven trails," he remarked to his partner. "I happen to know where this sheep outfit is headin' for." With which enigmatic remark he jerked a thumb toward Hidden Water and circled to the west and north. Not half an hour later he picked up a fresh trail, a broad path stamped hard by thousands of feet, and spurring recklessly along it until he sighted the herd he plunged helter-skelter into their midst, where they were packed like sardines in the broad pocket of a dry wash.
"Hey there! Whoopee—hep—hep!" he yelled, ploughing his way into the pack; and Hardy swinging quickly around the flank, rushed the ruck of them forward in his wake. Upon the brow of the hill the boss herder and his helpers brandished their carbines and shouted, but their words were drowned in the blare and bray which rose from below. Shoot they dared not, for it meant the beginning of a bloody feud, and their warnings were unheeded in the melee. The herd was far up the wash and galloping wildly toward the north before the frantic Mexicans could catch up with it on foot, and even then they could do nothing but run along the wings to save themselves from a "cut." More than once, in the night-time, the outraged cowmen of the Four Peaks country had thus dashed through their bands, scattering them to the wolves and the coyotes, destroying a year's increase in a night, while the herders, with visions of shap lessons before them, fired perfunctory rifle shots at the moon. It was a form of reprisal that they liked least of all, for it meant a cut, and a cut meant sheep wandering aimlessly without a master until they became coyote bait—at the rate of five dollars a head.
The padron was a kind man and called them compadres, when he was pleased, but if one of them suffered a cut he cursed, and fired him, and made him walk back to town. Hence when Chico and Grande suddenly gave over their drive and rode away to the northwest the Mexican herders devoted all their attention to keeping the herd together, without trying to make any gun plays. And when the stampede was abated and still no help came they drifted their sheep steadily to the north, leaving the camp rustlers to bring up the impedimenta as best they could. Jasper Swope had promised to protect them whenever they blew their horns, but it was two days since they had seen him, and the two Americanos had harried them like hawks.
Never had armed men so lacked a leader as on that day. Their orders were to shoot only in self-defence; for a war was the last thing which the Swope brothers wanted, with their entire fortunes at stake, and no show of weapons could daunt the ruthless Grande and Chico. All the morning the cow horns bellowed and blared as, sweating and swinging their hondas, the stern-eyed Americanos rushed band after band away. Not a word was passed—no threats, no commands, no warnings for the future, but like avenging devils they galloped from one herd to the other and back again, shoving them forward relentlessly, even in the heat of noon. At evening the seven bands, hopelessly mixed and mingled in the panic, were halfway through the long pass, and the herders were white with dust and running. But not until dusk gathered in the valleys did Creede rein in his lathered horse and turn grimly back to camp.
His face was white and caked with dust, the dirt lay clotted in his beard, and only the whites of his eyes, rolling and sanguinary, gave evidence of his humanity; his shirt, half torn from his body by plunging through the cat-claws, hung limp and heavy with sweat; and the look of him was that of a madman, beside himself with rage. The dirt, the sweat, the grime, were as heavy on Hardy, and his eyes rolled like a negro's beneath the mask of dust, but weariness had overcome his madness and he leaned forward upon the horn. They glanced at each other indifferently and then slumped down to endure the long ten miles which lay between them and home. It had been a stern fight and the excitement had lulled their hunger, but now the old, slow pang gnawed at their vitals and they rolled like drunkards in the saddle.
It was a clear, velvety night, and still, after the wind of the day. Their horses jogged dumbly along, throwing up their heads at every step from weariness, and the noises of the night fell dully upon their jaded ears. But just as they turned into Carrizo Creek canyon, Creede suddenly reined in old Bat Wings and held up his hand to Hardy.
"Did you hear that?" he asked, still listening. "There! Didn't you hear that gun go off? Well, I did—and it was a thirty-thirty, too, over there toward the Pocket."
"Those herders are always shooting away their ammunition," said Hardy peevishly. "Come on, let's get back to camp."
"They don't shoot in the night-time, though," grumbled Creede, leading off again. "I'll bet ye some of them Greasers has seen a ghost. Say," he cried, "the boys may be out doin' some night ridin'!"
But when they rode into camp every man was in his blankets.
"Hey, what's all that shootin' goin' on over there?" he called, waking up the entire outfit in his excitement.
"Sheepmen," responded some sleeper briefly.
"Cleanin' their guns, mebbe," suggested another, yawning. "Did you move 'em, Jeff?"
"You betcher neck!" replied Creede promptly, "and I'm goin' back in the mornin', too."
The morning turned black, and flushed rosy, and fell black again, but for once the merciless driver of men slept on, for he was over-weary. It was a noise, far away, plaintive, insistent, which finally brought him to his feet—the bleating of ewes to lambs, of lambs to mothers, of wethers to their fellows, beautiful in itself as the great elemental sounds of the earth, the abysmal roarings of winds and waves and waterfalls, but to the cowman hateful as the clamors of hell. As Creede stood in his blankets, the salt sweat of yesterday still in his eyes, and that accursed blat in his ears, his nerves gave way suddenly, and he began to rave. As the discordant babel drew nearer and nearer his passion rose up like a storm that has been long brewing, his eyes burned, his dirty face turned ghastly. Grabbing up his six-shooter he stood like a prophet of destruction calling down the wrath of God Himself, if there was a God, upon the head of every sheepman. But even as he cursed the first dirty brown wave spewed in over the ridge and swept down upon their valley. Then in a moment his madness overcame him and, raising his heavy pistol, he emptied it against them defiantly, while the resounding cliffs took up his wrath and hurled it back. A herder with his rifle leapt up on a distant rock and looked toward their camp, and at the sight the black anger of Jeff's father came upon him, filling him with the lust to kill.
He rushed into the house and came out with a high-power rifle. "You will stand up there and laugh at me, will you?" he said, deliberately raising the sights. "You—"
He rested the rifle against one of the ramada posts, and caught his breath to aim, while the cowmen regarded him cynically, yet with a cold speculation in their eyes. Hardy alone sprang forward to spoil his aim, and for a minute they bandied words like pistol shots as they struggled for the gun. Then with a last wailing curse, the big cowboy snapped the cartridge out of his rifle and handed it over to his partner.
"You're right," he said, "let the dastard live. But if I ever git another chanst at Jasp Swope I'll kill him, if I swing for it! He's the boy I'm lookin' for, but you see how he dodges me? I've been movin' his sheep for two days! He's afraid of me—he's afraid to come out and fight me like a man! But I'll git 'im—I'll git 'im yet!"
"All right," said Hardy soothingly, "you can do it, for all of me. But don't go to shooting Mexicans off of rocks as if they were turkey buzzards—that's what gets people into the pen. Now, you just take my advice for once and wash some of that dirt off your face. You're locoed, man—you're not a human being—and you won't be until you wash up and get your belly full."
Half an hour later they sat down to breakfast, the burly fighting animal and the man who had taught him reason; and as they ate the fierce anger of the cowboy passed away like mists before the morning sun. He heaped his plate up high and emptied it again, drinking coffee from his big cup, and as if ashamed of his brutishness he began forthwith to lay out a campaign of peace. With sheep scurrying in every direction across the range in the great drive that was now on it was no use to try to gather cows. What they had they could day-herd and the rest would have to wait. The thing to do now was to protect the feed around the water, so that the cattle would not have to travel so far in the heat of summer. No objection being offered he gave each man a watercourse to patrol, sending one over into the Pocket to see what had happened to Bill Johnson; and then, with his gun packed in his bed, he started back with Hardy to watch over Hidden Water.
The sun was well up as they topped the high ridge; and the mesa, though ploughed through and through by the trails of the hurrying sheep, still shimmered in its deceptive green. Not for a month had there been a cloud in the sky and the grass on the barren places was already withering in the heat, yet in the distance the greasewood and the palo verdes and giant cactus blended into one mighty sheet of verdure. Only on the ground where the feed should be were there signs of the imminent drought; and where the sheep had crossed the ground lay hard and baked or scuffled into dust. In the presence of those swift destroyers the dreaded ano seco had crept in upon them unnoticed, but soon it would scourge the land with heat and dust and failing waters, and cattle lowing to be fed. And there before their eyes, clipping down the precious grass, tearing up the tender plants, shearing away the browse, moved the sheep; army after army, phalanx and cohort, drifting forward irresistibly, each in its cloud of dust. For a minute the two men sat gazing hopelessly; then Creede leaned forward in his saddle and sighed.
"Well," he observed philosophically, "they're movin', anyhow."
They rode down the long slope and, mounting a low roll, paused again apathetically to watch a band of sheep below.
"Say," exclaimed Creede, his eyes beginning to burn, "d'ye notice how them sheep are travellin'? And look at them other bands back yonder! By Joe!" he cried, rising in his stirrups, "we've got 'em goin'! Look at the dust out through the pass, and clean to Hell's Hip Pocket. They're hikin', boy, they're hittin' it up for The Rolls! But what in the world has struck 'em?"
He stood up straight in his saddle, swinging his head from east to west, but no band of horsemen met his eye. He looked again at the flock below him—the goats, forever in the lead, heading straight for the western pass; the herders swinging their carbines upon the drag—and seemed to study upon the miracle.
"Have you got any money to spare, Rufe?" he inquired quietly.
"Sure," responded Hardy.
"Well, then," said Creede deliberately, "I'd like to make you a sporting proposition. I'll bet you forty dollars to the price of a drink that old Bill Johnson has been shootin' up their camps. Will you go me? All right, and I'll make you a little side bet: I'll bet you any money that Jim Swope has lost some sheep!"
He spurred his horse recklessly down the hill, grinning, and at the clatter of rocks the fearful herders jumped forward and raised a great clamor behind their sheep, whistling and clubbing their guns, but the heart of the monster Grande was no longer turned to wrath. He laughed and called out to them, leaping his horse playfully over washouts and waving his black hat.
"Cuidado, hombres," he shouted, "be careful—do not hurry—look at the nice grass!" But despite this friendly admonition the herders still yelled and whistled at their sheep, jabbing them spitefully with the sharp muzzles of their rifles until at last, all riot and confusion, they fled away bleating into the west.
The sheep were on the run, drifting across Bronco Mesa as if the devil was after them, and Creede could hardly stay on his horse from laughing—but when he drew near to Hidden Water his face changed. There was a fresh sheep trail in the canyon and it led away from the ranch. He spurred forward like the wind, his eyes upon the tracks, and when he came in sight of the house he threw down his hat and swore. Of all the God-forsaken places in Arizona, the Dos S Ranch was the worst. The earth lay bare and desolate before it; the woodpile had disappeared; the bucket was thrown down the well. Never had the flat, mud buildings seemed so deserted or Tommy so tragic in his welcome. The pasture gate was down and even that holy of holies, the branding corral, stunk of sheep. Only the padlocked house had been respected, and that perforce, since nothing short of a sledgehammer could break its welded chain.
Unfastening the battered door they entered the living-room which once had been all light and laughter. There lay the dishes all clean and orderly on the table, the floors swept, the beds made, some withered flowers on Hardy's desk.
"Huh," grunted Creede, looking it over coldly, "we're on the bum, all right, all right, now. How long since they went away?"
"'Bout a year," replied Hardy, and his partner did not contradict him.
They cooked a hasty meal and ate it, putting the scraps in the frying-pan for Tommy.
"Go to it, Tom," said Creede, smiling wistfully as the cat lapped away at the grease. "He never could git used to them skirts rustlin' round here, could he?" And then there was a long silence.
Tommy sat up and washed his face contentedly, peering about with intent yellow eyes and sniffing at the countless odors with which his world was filled—then suddenly with a low whining growl he lashed across the room like a tiger and leapt up into his cat hole. This was a narrow tunnel, punched through the adobe wall near the door and boxed in with a projecting cribbing to keep out the snakes and skunks. Through it when his protectors were away he could escape the rush of pursuing coyotes, or sally forth with equal ferocity when sheep dogs were about. He peered out of his porthole for a moment, warily, then his stump tail began to twitch, he worked his hind claws into the wood, and leapt. A yelp of terror from the ramada heralded his success and Creede ran like a boy to look.
"He's jumped one, by Joe!" he exclaimed. "What did I tell ye—that cat is a holy terror on dogs!"
The dog in question—a slinking, dispirited cur—wagged its tail apologetically from a distance, shaking its bloody ears, while Tommy swelled and hissed viciously at him from his stronghold. It was a sheep dog, part collie, part shepherd, and the rest plain yellow—a friendly little dog, too, and hungry. But the heart of Creede, ordinarily so tender, was hardened by his disasters.
"Git out of here!" he commanded roughly. "Git, you yap, or I'll burn you up with a bullet!
"This is what comes of leavin' your gun off," he grumbled, as he unbound his bed and grabbed up his pistol. But as he stepped out into the open to shoot, his barbarity was checked by a clatter of hoofs and, looking up, he saw Jasper Swope on his big black mule, ambling truculently in across the open.
"Hyar!" he shouted, shaking his fist angrily, "don't you shoot my dog, you—or I'll be the death of ye!"
"Oh, I don't know," responded Creede, bristling back at him. "Keep the blame pup away, then—and keep that other dog away, too, or my cat'll eat 'im up! Well, I notice you took the occasion to come down and sheep me out," he observed, as Swope pulled up before the door.
"I did not," retorted the sheepman promptly, but grinning nevertheless at the damage, "but I see some other feller has though, and saved me the trouble." He ran his eye approvingly over the devastated homestead; and then, rising in his stirrups, he plunged suddenly into his set speech.
"I've took a lot off'n you, Jeff Creede," he shouted, swinging his arms wildly, "but I've got a bellyful of this night work! And I come down to tell you that next time you shoot up one of my camps there'll be trouble!"
"I never shot up your old camp," growled Creede, "nor any other camp. I'm dam' glad to hear that somebody else did though," he added vindictively, "and I hope to God he fixed you good and proper. Now what can I do for you, Mr. Swope?" he inquired, thrusting out his chin. "I suppose you must be hurryin' on, of course."
"No!" cried Swope, slapping his saddle horn vehemently. "I come down here to git some satisfaction out of you! My sheep has been killed and my men has been intimidated on this here public range, and I want to tell you right now, Mr. Creede, that this funny business has got to stop!"
"Well, don't choke!" said the cowman, fingering his gun coldly. "Go ahead and stop it, why don't you?"
He paused, a set smile on his lips, and for a moment their eyes met in the baleful glare which rival wolves, the leaders of their packs, confer upon each other. Then Hardy stepped out into the open, holding up his hand for peace.
"You are mistaken, Mr. Swope," he said quietly. "Jeff hasn't shot up any camps—he hasn't even packed a gun for the last three days."
"Oh, he hain't, hey?" sneered the sheepman, showing his jagged teeth. "He seems to have one now."
"You betcher neck I have," cried Creede, flaring up at the implication, "and if you're lookin' for trouble, Jasp Swope, you can open up any time."
"W'y what's the matter with you?" protested Swope righteously. "You must have somethin' on your mind, the way you act."
Then without waiting for a reply to this innuendo he turned his attention to Hardy.
"He hain't shot up any camps," he repeated, "ner packed a gun for three days, hey? Now here's where I prove you a liar, Mr. Smarty. I seen him with my own eyes take six shots at one of my herders this very mornin'—and you was there!"
He punctuated his speech by successive downward jabs of his grimy forefinger as if he were stabbing his adversary to the heart, and Hardy turned faint and sick with chagrin. Never had he hated a man as he hated this great, overbearing brute before him—this man-beast, with his hairy chest and freckled hands that clutched at him like an ape's. Something hidden, a demon primordial and violent, rose up in him against this crude barbarian with his bristling beard and gloating pig eyes, and he forgot everything but his own rage at being trapped.
"You lie!" he cried passionately; and then in his anger he added a word which he had never used, a word which goes deep under the skin and makes men fight.
For a moment the sheepman sat staring, astounded by his vehemence; but before he could move the sudden silence was split by the yelp of a dog—a wild, gibbering yelp that made them jump and bristle like hounds that are assailed from behind—and, mingling stridently with it, was the harsh snarl of a cat. There was a swift scramble in the dust by the door, an oath from the sheepman, and the yellow dog dashed away again, with Tommy at his heels.
Creede was the first man to regain his nerve and, seeing his pet triumphant, he let out a whoop of derisive laughter.
"Ah-hah-hah!" he hollered, pointing with his pistol hand, "look at that, will ye—look at 'im—yee-pah—go after 'im, Tommy—we'll show the—"
The fighting blood of the sheepman sided in as quickly with his dog.
"I'll kill that dam' cat!" he yelled, swinging down from his saddle, "if you don't let up! Hey, Nip! Sick 'im!" He turned and motioned to his other dog, which had been standing dumbly by, and instantly he joined in the chase. "Sick 'em, boy, sick 'em!" he bellowed, urging him on, and before Creede could get his face straight the long, rangy brindle had dashed up from behind and seized Tommy by the back.
"Git out o' that!" thundered the cowman; and then, without waiting on words, he threw his gun down on the dog and fired.
"Here—none of that, now!" shouted Swope, whipping out his own pistol, and as he leapt forward he held it out before him like a sabre, pointed straight for the cowman's ribs. His intentions may have been of the best, but Hardy did not wait to see. The brindle dog let out a surprised yelp and dropped. Before Creede could turn to meet his enemy his partner leapt in between them and with a swift blow from the shoulder, struck the sheepman to the ground.
It was a fearful blow, such as men deal in anger without measuring their strength or the cost, and it landed on his jaw. Creede had seen men slugged before, in saloon rows and the rough fights that take place around a town, but never had he seen a single blow suffice—the man's head go back, his knees weaken, and his whole body collapse as if he had been shot. If he had been felled like a bull in the shambles that goes down in spite of his great strength, Jasper Swope could not have been more completely stunned. He lay sprawling, his legs turned under him, and the hand that grasped the six-shooter relaxed slowly and tumbled it into the dust.
For a minute the two partners stood staring at each other, the one still planted firmly on his feet like a boxer, the other with his smoking pistol in his hand.
"By Joe, boy," said Creede slowly, "you was just in time that trip." He stepped forward and laid the fallen man out on his back, passing his gun up to Hardy as he did so.
"I wonder if you killed him," he muttered, feeling Jasp's bull neck; and then, as Hardy ran for some water, he remembered Tommy. But there was no Tommy—only a little heap of fur lying very still out in the open.
"My God!" he cried, and leaving the man he ran out and knelt down beside it.
"Pussy!" he whispered, feeling hopelessly for his heart; and then, gathering the forlorn little wisp of fur in his arms, he hurried into the house without a word.
He was still in hiding when Jasper Swope came to and sat up, his hair drenched with water and matted with dirt. Staring doubtfully at the set face of Hardy he staggered to his feet; then the memory of the fight came back to him and he glared at him with a drunkard's insolence.
"Where's my gun?" he demanded, suddenly clapping his hand upon the empty holster.
"I'll take care of that for you," answered Hardy pointedly. "Now you pile onto that mule of yours and pull your freight, will you?" He led the black mule up close and boosted its master into the saddle, but Swope was not content.
"Where's that dastard, Jeff Creede?" he demanded. "Well, I wanter see him, that's all. And say, Mr. Smart Alec, I want that gun, too, see?"
"Well, you won't get it," said Hardy.
"I will that," declared Swope, "'nd I'll git you, too, Willie, before I git through with you. I've had enough of this monkey business. Now gimme that gun, I tell ye, or I'll come back with more of 'em and take it!"
He raised his voice to a roar, muffled to a beast-like hoarseness by his swollen jaws, and the ramada reverberated like a cavern as he bellowed out his challenge. Then the door was snatched violently open and Jefferson Creede stepped forth, looking black as hell itself. In one hand he held the sheepman's pistol and in the other his own.
"Here!" he said, and striding forward he thrust Swope's gun into his hand. "It's loaded, too," he added. "Now, you—if you've got any shootin' to do, go to it!"
He stepped back quickly and stood ready, his masterful eyes bent upon his enemy in a scowl of unquenchable hate. Once before they had faced each other, waiting for that mysterious psychic prompting without which neither man nor beast can begin a fight, and Jim had stepped in between—but Hardy stood aside without a word. It was a show-down and, bulldog fighter though he was, Jasper Swope weakened. The anger of his enemy overcame his hostile spirit without a blow, and he turned his pistol away.
"That's all I wanted," he said, shoving the gun sullenly into its holster. "They's two of you, and—"
"And you're afraid," put in Creede promptly. He stood gazing at the downcast sheepman, his lip curling contemptuously.
"I've never seen a sheepman yet," he said, "that would fight. You've listened to that blat until it's a part of ye; you've run with them Mexicans until you're kin to 'em; you're a coward, Jasp Swope, and I always knowed it." He paused again, his eyes glowing with the hatred that had overmastered his being. "My God," he said, "if I could only git you to fight to-day I'd give everything I've got left!"
The sheepman's gaze was becoming furtive as he watched them. He glanced sidewise, edging away from the door; then, pricking his mule with his spurs, he galloped madly away, ducking his head at every jump as if he feared a shot.
"Look at the cowardly dastard!" sneered Creede bitterly. "D'ye know what he would do if that was me? He'd shoot me in the back. Ah, God A'mighty, and that dog of his got Tommy before I could pull a gun! Rufe, I could kill every sheepman in the Four Peaks for this—every dam' one of 'em—and the first dog that comes in sight of this ranch will stop a thirty-thirty." He stopped and turned away, cursing and muttering to himself.
"God A'mighty," he moaned, "I can't keep nothin'!" And stumbling back into the house he slammed the door behind him.
A gloom settled down over the place, a gloom that lasted for days. The cowboys came back from driving the town herd and, going up on the mesa, they gathered a few head more. Then the heat set in before its time and the work stopped short. For the steer that is roped and busted in the hot weather dies suddenly at the water; the flies buzz about the ears of the new-marked calves and poison them, and the mother cows grow gaunt and thin from overheating. Not until the long Summer had passed could the riding continue; the steers must be left to feed down the sheeped-out range; the little calves must run for sleepers until the fall rodeo. Sheep and the drought had come together, and the round-up was a failure. Likewise the cowmen were broke.
As they gathered about the fire on that last night it was a silent company—the rodeo boss the gloomiest of them all. Not since the death of Tommy had his eyes twinkled with the old mischief; he had no bets to offer, no news to volunteer; a dull, sombre abstraction lay upon him like a pall. Only when Bill Lightfoot spoke did he look up, and then with a set sneer, growing daily more saturnine. The world was dark to Creede and Bill's fresh remarks jarred on him—but Bill himself was happy. He was of the kind that runs by opposites, taking their troubles with hilarity under the impression that they are philosophers. His pretext for this present happiness was a professed interview with Kitty Bonnair on the evening that the town herd pulled into Moreno's. What had happened at this interview was a secret, of course, but it made Bill happy; and the more morose and ugly Jeff became about it the more it pleased Lightfoot to be gay. He sat on a box that night and sang risque ditties, his enormous Colt's revolver dangling bravely at his hip; and at last, casting his weather eye upon Creede, he began a certain song.
"Oh, my little girl, she lives in the town—"
And then he stopped.
"Bill," said the rodeo boss feelingly, "you make me tired."
"Lay down an' you'll git rested, then," suggested Lightfoot.
"A toodle link, a toodle link, a too-oodle a day."
"I'll lay you down in a minute, if you don't shut up," remarked Creede, throwing away his cigarette.
"The hell you say," commented Lightfoot airily.
"And last time I seen her she ast me to come down."
At this raw bit of improvisation the boss rose slowly to his feet and stalked away from temptation.
"And if anybody sees her you'll know her by this sign,"
chanted the cowboy, switching to an out-and-out bad one; and then, swaying his body on his cracker box, he plunged unctuously into the chorus.
"She's got a dark and rolling eye, boys; She's got a dark and rolling eye."
He stopped there and leapt to his feet anxiously. The mighty bulk of the rodeo boss came plunging back at him through the darkness; his bruising fist shot out and the frontier troubadour went sprawling among the pack saddles.
It was the first time Creede had ever struck one of his own kind,—men with guns were considered dangerous,—but this time he laid on unmercifully.
"You've had that comin' to you for quite a while, Bill Lightfoot," he said, striking Bill's ineffectual gun aside, "and more too. Now maybe you'll keep shut about 'your girl'!"
He turned on his heel after administering this rebuke and went to the house, leaving his enemy prostrate in the dirt.
"The big, hulkin' brute," blubbered Lightfoot, sitting up and aggrievedly feeling of his front teeth, "jumpin' on a little feller like me—an' he never give me no warnin', neither. You jest wait, I'll—"
"Aw, shut up!" growled Old Man Reavis, whose soul had long been harrowed by Lightfoot's festive ways. "He give you plenty of warnin', if you'd only listen. Some people have to swallow a few front teeth before they kin learn anythin'."
"Well, what call did he have to jump on me like that?" protested Lightfoot. "I wasn't doin' nothin'."
"No, nothin' but singin' bawdy songs about his girl," sneered Reavis sarcastically.
"His girl, rats!" retorted the cowboy, vainglorious even in defeat, "she's my girl, if she's anybody's!"
"Well, about your girl then, you dirty brute!" snarled the old man, suddenly assuming a high moral plane for his utter annihilation. "You're a disgrace to the outfit, Bill Lightfoot," he added, with conviction. "I'm ashamed of ye."
"That's right," chimed in the Clark boys, whose sensibilities had likewise been harassed; and with all the world against him Bill Lightfoot retired in a huff to his blankets. So the rodeo ended as it had begun, in disaster, bickering, and bad blood, and no man rightly knew from whence their misfortune came. Perhaps the planets in their spheres had cast a malign influence upon them, or maybe the bell mare had cast a shoe. Anyhow they had started off the wrong foot and, whatever the cause, the times were certainly not auspicious for matters of importance, love-making, or the bringing together of the estranged. Let whatsoever high-priced astrologer cast his horoscope for good, Saturn was swinging low above the earth and dealing especial misery to the Four Peaks; and on top of it all the word came that old Bill Johnson, after shooting up the sheep camps, had gone crazy and taken to the hills.
For a week, Creede and Hardy dawdled about the place, patching up the gates and fences and cursing the very name of sheep. A spirit of unrest hovered over the place, a brooding silence which spoke only of Tommy and those who were gone, and the two partners eyed each other furtively, each deep in his own thoughts. At last when he could stand it no longer Creede went over to the corner, and dug up his money.
"I'm goin' to town," he said briefly.
"All right," responded Hardy; and then, after meditating a while, he added: "I'll send down some letters by you."
Late that evening, after he had written a long letter to Lucy and a short one to his father, he sat at the desk where he had found their letters, and his thoughts turned back to Kitty. There lay the little book which had held their letters, just as he had thrust it aside. He picked it up, idly, and glanced at the title-page: "Sonnets from the Portuguese." How dim and far away it all seemed now, this world of the poets in which he had once lived and dreamed, where sweetness and beauty were enshrined as twin goddesses of light, and gentleness brooded over all her children. What a world that had been, with its graceful, smiling women, its refinements of thought and speech, its aspirations and sympathies—and Kitty! He opened the book slowly, wondering from whence it had come, and from the deckled leaves a pressed forget-me-not fell into his hand. That was all—there was no mark, no word, no sign but this, and as he gazed his numbed mind groped through the past for a forget-me-not. Ah yes, he remembered! But how far away it seemed now, the bright morning when he had met his love on the mountain peak and the flowers had fallen from her hair—and what an inferno of strife and turmoil had followed since! He opened to the place where the imprint of the dainty flower lay and read reverently:
"If thou must love me, let it be for nought Except for love's sake only. Do not say 'I love her for her smile—her look—her way Of speaking gently—for a trick of thought That falls in well with mine, and certes brought A sense of pleasant ease on such a day'— For these things in themselves, Beloved, may Be changed, or change for thee—and love, so wrought, May be unwrought so. Neither love me for Thine own dear pity's wiping my cheek dry— A creature might forget to weep, who bore Thy comfort long, and lose thy love thereby! But love me for love's sake, that evermore Thou mayst love on, through love's eternity."
The spell of the words laid hold upon as he read and he turned page after page, following the cycle of that other woman's love—a love which waited for years to be claimed by the master hand, never faltering to the end. Then impulsively he reached for a fair sheet of paper to begin a letter to Kitty, a letter which should breathe the old gentleness and love, yet "for love's sake only." But while he sat dreaming, thinking with what words to begin, his partner lounged in, and Hardy put aside his pen and waited, while the big man hung around and fidgeted.
"Well, I'll be in town to-morrer," he said, drearily.
"Aha," assented Hardy.
"What ye got there?" inquired Creede, after a long silence. He picked up the book, griming the dainty pages as he turned them with his rough fingers, glancing at the headings.
"Um-huh," he grunted, "'Sonnets from the Portegees,' eh? I never thought them Dagos could write—what I've seen of 'em was mostly drivin' fish-wagons or swampin' around some slaughterhouse. How does she go, now," he continued, as his schooling came back to him, "see if I can make sense out of it." He bent down and mumbled over the first sonnet, spelling out the long words doubtfully.
"I thought once how The-o-crite-us had sung Of the sweet years, the dear and wished-for years, Who each one in a gracious hand appears To bear a gift for mortals, old or young: And as I mused it in his an—"
"Well say, what's he drivin' at, anyway?" demanded the rugged cowboy. "Is that Dago talk, or is he jest mixed in his mind? Perfectly clear, eh? Well, maybe so, but I fail to see it. Wish I could git aholt of some good po'try." He paused, waiting for Hardy to respond.
"Say," he said, at last, "do me a favor, will ye, Rufe?"
The tone of his voice, now soft and diffident, startled Hardy out of his dream.
"Why sure, Jeff," he said, "if I can."
"No, no 'ifs' and 'ands' about it!" persisted Creede. "A lucky feller like you with everythin' comin' his way ought to be able to say 'Yes' once in a while without hangin' a pull-back on it."
"Huh," grunted Hardy suspiciously, "you better tell me first what you want."
"Well, I want you to write me a letter," blurted out Creede. "I can keep a tally book and order up the grub from Bender; but, durn the luck, when it comes to makin' love on paper I'd rather wrastle a bear. Course you know who it is, and you savvy how them things is done. Throw in a little po'try, will you, and—and—say, Rufe, for God's sake, help me out on this!"
He laid one hand appealingly upon his partner's shoulder, but the little man squirmed out from under it impatiently.
"Who is it?" he asked doggedly. "Sallie Winship?"
"Aw, say," protested Creede, "don't throw it into a feller like that—Sal went back on me years ago. You know who I mean—Kitty Bonnair."
"Kitty Bonnair!" Hardy had known it, but he had tried to keep her name unspoken. Battle as he would he could not endure to hear it, even from Jeff.
"What do you want to tell Miss Bonnair?" he inquired, schooling his voice to a cold quietness.
"Tell her?" echoed Creede ecstatically. "W'y, tell her I'm lonely as hell now she's gone—tell her—well, there's where I bog down, but I'd trade my best horse for another kiss like that one she give me, and throw in the saddle for pelon. Now, say, Rufe, don't leave me in a hole like this. You've made your winnin', and here's your nice long letter to Miss Lucy. My hands are as stiff as a burnt rawhide and I can't think out them nice things to say; but I love Kitty jest as much as you love Miss Lucy—mebbe more—and—and I wanter tell her so!"
He ended abjectly, gazing with pleading eyes at the stubborn face of his partner whose lips were drawn tight.
"We—every man has to—no, I can't do it, Jeff," he stammered, choking. "I'd—I'd help you if I could, Jeff—but she'd know my style. Yes, that's it. If I'd write the letter she'd know it was from me—women are quick that way. I'm sorry, but that's the way it is—every man has to fight out his own battle, in love."
He paused and fumbled with his papers.
"Here's a good pen," he said, "and—and here's the paper." He shoved out the fair sheet upon which he had intended to write and rose up dumbly from the table.
"I'm going to bed," he said, and slipped quietly out of the room. As he lay in his blankets he could see the gleam of light from the barred window and hear Jeff scraping his boots uneasily on the floor. True indeed, his hands were like burnt rawhide from gripping at ropes and irons, his clothes were greasy and his boots smelled of the corral, and yet—she had given him a kiss! He tried to picture it in his mind: Kitty smiling—or startled, perhaps—Jeff masterful, triumphant, laughing. Ah God, it was the same kiss she had offered him, and he had run away!
In the morning, there was a division between them, a barrier which could not be overcome. Creede lingered by the door a minute, awkwardly, and then rode away. Hardy scraped up the greasy dishes and washed them moodily. Then the great silence settled down upon Hidden Water and he sat alone in the shadow of the ramada, gazing away at the barren hills.
THE BIG DRUNK
The sun rose clear for the hundredth time over the shoulder of the Four Peaks; it mounted higher, glowing with a great light, and the smooth round tops of the bowlders shone like half-buried skulls along the creek-bed; it swung gloriously up to its zenith and the earth palpitated with a panting heat. Summer had come, and the long days when the lizards crawl deep into their crevices and the cattle follow the scanty shade of the box canyons or gather in standing-places where the wind draws over the ridges and mitigates the flies. In the pasture at Hidden Water the horses stood head and tail together, side by side, each thrashing the flies from the other's face and dozing until hunger or thirst aroused them or perversity took them away. Against the cool face of the cliff the buzzards moped and stretched their dirty wings in squalid discomfort; the trim little sparrow-hawks gave over their hunting; and all the world lay tense and still. Only at the ranch house where Hardy kept a perfunctory watch was there any sign of motion or life.
For two weeks now he had been alone, ever since Jeff went down to Bender, and with the solitary's dread of surprise he stepped out into the ramada regularly, scanning the western trail with eyes grown weary of the earth's emptiness.
At last as the sun sank low, throwing its fiery glare in his eyes, he saw the familiar figure against the sky—Creede, broad and bulky and topped by his enormous hat, and old Bat Wings, as raw-boned and ornery as ever. Never until that moment had Hardy realized how much his life was dependent upon this big, warm-hearted barbarian who clung to his native range as instinctively as a beef and yet possessed human attributes that would win him friends anywhere in the world. Often in that long two weeks he had reproached himself for abandoning Jeff in his love-making. What could be said for a love which made a man so pitiless? Was it worthy of any return? Was it, after all, a thing to be held so jealously to his heart, gnawing out his vitals and robbing him of his humanity? These and many other questions Hardy had had time to ask himself in his fortnight of introspection and as he stood by the doorway waiting he resolved to make amends. From a petty creature wrapped up in his own problems and prepossessions he would make himself over into a man worthy of the name of friend. Yet the consciousness of his fault lay heavy upon him and as Creede rode in he stood silent, waiting for him to speak. But Jeff for his part came on grimly, and there was a sombre glow in his eyes which told more than words.
"Hello, sport," he said, smiling wantonly, "could you take a pore feller in over night?"
"Sure thing, I can," responded Hardy gayly. "Where've you been all the time?"
And Creede chanted:
"Down to Bender, On a bender, Oh, I'm a spender, You bet yer life!
"And I'm broke, too," he added, sotto voce, dropping off his horse and sinking into a chair.
"Well, you don't need to let that worry you," said Hardy. "I've got plenty. Here!" He went down into his pocket and tossed a gold piece to him, but Creede dodged it listlessly.
"Nope," he said, "money's nothin' to me."
"What's the matter?" asked Hardy anxiously. "Are you sick?"
"Yes," answered Creede, nodding his head wearily, "sick and tired of it all." He paused and regarded his partner solemnly. "I'm a miserable failure, Rufe," he said. "I ain't got nothin' and I ain't worth nothin'. I never done nothin'—and I ain't got a friend in the world."
He stopped and gazed at the barren land despondently, waiting to see if his partner would offer any protests.
"Rufe," he said, at last, his voice tremulous with reproach, "if you'd only helped me out a little on that letter—if you'd only told me a few things—well, she might have let me down easy, and I could've took it. As it was, she soaked me."
Then it was that Hardy realized the burden under which his partner was laboring, the grief that clutched at his heart, the fire that burned in his brain, and he could have wept, now that it was too late.
"Jeff," he said honestly, "it don't do any good now, but I'm sorry. I'm more than sorry—I'm ashamed. But that don't do you any good either, does it?"
He stepped over and laid his hand affectionately upon his partner's shoulder, but Creede hunched it off impatiently.
"No," he said, slowly and deliberately, "not a dam' bit." There was no bitterness in his words, only an acknowledgment of the truth. "They was only one thing for me to do after I received that letter," he continued, "and I done it. I went on a hell-roarin' drunk. That's right. I filled up on that forty-rod whiskey until I was crazy drunk, an' then I picked out the biggest man in town and fought him to a whisper."
He sighed and glanced at his swollen knuckles, which still showed the marks of combat.
"That feller was a jim-dandy scrapper," he said, smiling magnanimously, "but I downed 'im, all right. I couldn't quite lick the whole town, but I tried; and I certainly gave 'em a run for their money, while it lasted. If Bender don't date time from Jeff Creede's big drunk I miss my guess a mile. And you know, after I got over bein' fightin' drunk, I got cryin' drunk—but I never did get drunk enough to tell my troubles, thank God! The fellers think I'm sore over bein' sheeped out. Well, after I'd punished enough booze to start an Injun uprisin', and played the faro bank for my wad, I went to sleep; and when I woke up it seemed a lo-ong time ago and I could look back and see jest how foolish I'd been. I could see how she'd jollied me up and got me comin', playin' me off against Bill Lightfoot; and then I could see how she'd tantalized me, like that mouse the cat had when you was down in Bender; and then I could see where I had got the big-head bad, thinkin' I was the only one—and all the time she was laughin' at me! Oh, it's nothin' now—I kin laugh at it myself in a month; but I'm so dam' 'shamed I could cry." He lopped down in his chair, a great hulk of a man, and shook his head gloomily.
"They ain't but one girl I ever knowed," he said solemnly, "that wasn't stringin' me, and that was Sallie Winship. Sal liked me, dam'd if she didn't. She cried when she went away, but the old lady wouldn't stand for no bow-legged cowpuncher—and so I git euchred, every time."
For lack of some higher consolation Hardy cooked up a big supper for his low-spirited partner, and after he had done the honors at the feast the irrepressible good health of the cowboy rose up and conquered his grief in spite of him. He began by telling the story of his orgy, which apparently had left Bender a wreck. The futile rage of Black Tex, the despair of the town marshal, the fight with the Big Man, the arrest by the entire posse comitatus, the good offices of Mr. Einstein in furnishing bail, the crying and sleeping jags—all were set forth with a vividness which left nothing to the imagination, and at the end the big man was comforted. When it was all over and his memory came down to date he suddenly recalled a package of letters that were tied up in his coat, which was still on the back of his saddle. He produced them forthwith and, like a hungry boy who sees others eat, sat down to watch Rufe read. No letters ever came for him—and when one did come it was bad. The first in the pack was from Lucy Ware and as Hardy read it his face softened, even while he knew that Creede was watching.
"Say, she's all right, ain't she?" observed Jeff, when his partner looked up.
"That's right," said Hardy, "and she says to take you on again as foreman and pay you for every day you didn't carry your gun."
"No!" cried Creede, and then he laughed quietly to himself. "Does that include them days I was prizin' up hell down in Bender? Oh, it does, eh? Well, you can tell your boss that I'll make that up to her before the Summer's over."
He leaned back and stretched his powerful arms as if preparing for some mighty labor. "We're goin' to have a drought this Summer," he said impressively, "that will have the fish packin' water in canteens. Yes, sir, the chaser is goin' to cost more than the whiskey before long; and they's goin' to be some dead cows along the river. Do you know what Pablo Moreno is doin'? He's cuttin' brush already to feed his cattle. That old man is a wise hombre, all right, when it comes to weather. He's been hollerin' 'Ano seco, ano seco,' for the last year, and now, by Joe, we've got it! They ain't hardly enough water in the river to make a splash, and here it's the first of June. We've been kinder wropt up in fightin' sheep and sech and hain't noticed how dry it's gittin'; but that old feller has been sittin' on top of his hill watchin' the clouds, and smellin' of the wind, and measurin' the river, and countin' his cows until he's a weather sharp. I was a-ridin' up the river this afternoon when I see the old man cuttin' down a palo verde tree, and about forty head of cattle lingerin' around to eat the top off as soon as she hit the ground; and he says to me, kinder solemn and fatherly:
"'Jeff,' he says, 'cut trees for your cattle—this is an ano seco."
"'Yes, I've heard that before,' says I. 'But my cows is learnin' to climb.'"
"'Stawano,' he says, throwin' out his hands like I was a hopeless proposition. But all the same I think I'll go out to-morrow and cut down one of them palo verdes like he show'd me—one of these kind with little leaves and short thorns—jest for an expeeriment. If the cattle eat it, w'y maybe I'll cut another, but I don't want to be goin' round stuffin' my cows full of twigs for nothin'. Let 'em rustle for their feed, same as I do. But honest to God, Rufe, some of them little runty cows that hang around the river can't hardly cast a shadder, they're that ganted, and calves seems to be gittin' kinder scarce, too. But here—git busy, now—here's a letter you overlooked."
He pawed over the pile purposefully and thrust a pale blue envelope before Hardy—a letter from Kitty Bonnair. And his eyes took on a cold, fighting glint as he observed the fatal handwriting.
"By God," he cried, "I hain't figured out yet what struck me! I never spoke a rough word to that girl in my life, and she certainly gimme a nice kiss when she went away. But jest as soon as I write her a love letter, w'y she—she—W'y hell, Rufe, I wouldn't talk that way to a sheep-herder if he didn't know no better. Now you jest read that"—he fumbled in his pocket and slammed a crumpled letter down before his partner—"and tell me if I'm wrong! No, I want you to do it. Well, I'll read it to you, then!"
He ripped open the worn envelope, squared his elbows across the table, and opened the scented inclosure defiantly, but before he could read it Hardy reached out suddenly and covered it with his hand.
"Please don't, Jeff," he said, his face pale and drawn. "It was all my fault—I should have told you—but please don't read it to me. I—I can't stand it."
"Oh, I don't know," retorted Creede coldly. "I reckon you can stand it if I can. Now suppose you wrote a real nice letter—the best you knowed how—to your girl, and she handed you somethin' like this: 'My dear Mr. Creede, yore amazin' letter—' Here, what ye doin'?"
"I won't listen to it!" cried Hardy, snatching the letter away, "it's—"
"Now lookee here, Rufe Hardy," began Creede, rising up angrily from his chair, "I want to tell you right now that you've got to read that letter or lick me—and I doubt if you can do that, the way I happen to be feelin'. You got me into this in the first place and now, by God, you'll see it out! Now you read that letter and tell me if I'm wrong!"
He reared up his head as he spoke and Hardy saw the same fierce gleam in his eyes that came when he harried the sheep; but there was something beside that moved his heart to pity. It was the lurking sadness of a man deep hurt, who fights the whole world in his anguish; the protest of a soul in torment, demanding, like Job, that some one shall justify his torture.
"All right, Jeff," he said, "I will read it—only—only don't crowd me for an answer."
He spread the letter before him on the table and saw in a kind of haze the angry zigzag characters that galloped across the page, the words whose meaning he did not as yet catch, so swiftly did his thoughts rise up at sight of them. Years ago Kitty had written him a letter and he had read it at that same table. It had been a cruel letter, but unconsidered, like the tantrum of a child. Yes, he had almost forgotten it, but now like a sudden nightmare the old horror clutched at his heart. He steadied himself, and the words began to take form before him. Surely she would be gentle with Jeff, he was so big and kind. Then he read on, slowly, grasping at the meaning, and once more his eyes grew big with horror at her words. He finished, and bowed his head upon the table, while the barren room whirled before him.
From his place across the table the big cowboy looked down upon him, grim and masterful, yet wondering at his silence.
"Well, am I wrong?" he demanded, but the little man made no answer.
Upon the table before Hardy there lay another letter, written in that same woman's hand, a letter to him, and the writing was smooth and fair. Jeff had brought it to him, tied behind his saddle, and he stood before him now, waiting.
"Am I wrong?" he said again, but Hardy did not answer in words. Holding the crumpled letter behind him he took up his own fair missive—such a one as he would have died for in years gone by—and laid it on the fire, and when the tiny flame leaped up he dropped the other on it and watched them burn together.
"Well, how about it?" inquired Creede, awed by the long silence, but the little man only bowed his head.
"Who am I, to judge?" he said.
For a year the shadowy clouds had flitted past Hidden Water, drifting like flocks of snowy birds to their resting-place against the Peaks, and as the wind raged and the darkness gathered the cattle had raised their heads and bellowed, sniffing the wet air. In Summer the thunder-heads had mounted to high heaven and spread from east to west; the heat lightning had played along the horizon at night, restless and incessant; the sky had turned black and the south wind had rushed up, laden with the smell of distant showers. At last the rain had fallen, graciously, bringing up grass and browse, and flowers for those who sought them. But all the time the water lay in black pools along the shrunken river, trickling among the rocks and eddying around huge snags of driftwood, clear, limpid, sparkling, yet always less and less.