Where the winter floods had scoured the lowlands clear, a fuzz of baby trees sprang up, growing to a rank prosperity and dying suddenly beneath the sun. Along the river's edge little shreds of watercress took root and threw out sprouts and blossoms; the clean water brought forth snaky eel-grass and scum which fed a multitude of fishes; in the shadows of deep rocks the great bony-tails and Colorado River salmon lay in contented shoals, like hogs in wallows, but all the time the water grew less and less. At every shower the Indian wheat sprang up on the mesas, the myriad grass-seeds germinated and struggled forth, sucking the last moisture from the earth to endow it with more seeds. In springtime the deep-rooted mesquites and palo verdes threw out the golden halo of their flowers until the canyons were aflame; the soggy sahuaros drank a little at each sparse downpour and defied the drought; all the world of desert plants flaunted their pigmented green against the barren sky as if in grim contempt; but the little streams ran weaker and weaker, creeping along under the sand to escape the pitiless sun.
As Creede and Hardy rode out from Hidden Water, the earth lay dead beneath their horses' feet—stark and naked, stripped to the rocks by the sheep. Even on Bronco Mesa the ground was shorn of its covering; the cloven hoofs of the sheep had passed over it like a scalping knife, tearing off the last sun-blasted fringe of grass. In open spaces where they had not found their way the gaunt cattle still curled their hungry tongues beneath the bushes and fetched out spears of grass, or licked the scanty Indian wheat from the earth itself.
With lips as tough and leathery as their indurated faces, the hardiest of them worked their way into bunches of stick-cactus and chollas, breaking down the guard of seemingly impenetrable spines and munching on the juicy stalks; while along the ridges long-necked cows bobbed for the high browse which the sheep had been unable to reach.
The famine was upon them; their hips stood out bony and unsightly above their swollen stomachs as they racked across the benches, and their eyes were wild and haggard. But to the eye of Creede, educated by long experience, they were still strong and whole. The weaklings were those that hung about the water, foot-sore from their long journeyings to the distant hills and too weary to return. At the spring-hole at Carrizo they found them gathered, the runts and roughs of the range; old cows with importunate calves bunting at their flaccid udders; young heifers, unused to rustling for two; orehannas with no mothers to guide them to the feed; rough steers that had been "busted" and half-crippled by some reckless cowboy—all the unfortunate and incapable ones, standing dead-eyed and hopeless or limping stiffly about.
A buzzard rose lazily from a carcass as they approached, and they paused to note the brand. Then Creede shook his head bodingly and rode into the bunch by the spring. At a single glance the rodeo boss recognized each one of them and knew from whence he came. He jumped his horse at a wild steer and started him toward the ridges; the cows with calves he rounded up more gently, turning them into the upper trail; the orehannas, poor helpless orphans that they were, followed hopefully, leaving one haggard-eyed old stag behind.
Creede looked the retreating band over critically and shook his head again.
"Don't like it," he observed, briefly; and then, unlocking the ponderous padlock that protected their cabin from hungry sheepmen, he went in and fetched out the axe. "Guess I'll cut a tree for that old stiff," he said.
From his stand by the long troughs where all the mountain cattle watered in Summer, the disconsolate old stag watched the felling of the tree curiously; then after an interval of dreary contemplation, he racked his hide-bound skeleton over to the place and began to browse. Presently the rocks began to clatter on the upper trail, and an old cow that had been peering over the brow of the hill came back to get her share. Even her little calf, whose life had been cast in thorny ways, tried his new teeth on the tender ends and found them good. The orehannas drifted in one after the other, and other cows with calves, and soon there was a little circle about the tree-top, munching at the soft, brittle twigs.
"Well, that settles it," said Creede. "One of us stays here and cuts brush, and the other works around Hidden Water. This ain't the first drought I've been through, not by no means, and I've learned this much: the Alamo can be dry as a bone and Carrizo, too, but they's always water here and at the home ranch. Sooner or later every cow on the range will be goin' to one place or the other to drink, and if we give 'em a little bait of brush each time it keeps 'em from gittin' too weak. As long as a cow will rustle she's all right, but the minute she's too weak to travel she gits to be a water-bum—hangs around the spring and drinks until she starves to death. But if you feed 'em a little every day they'll drift back to the ridges at night and pick up a little more. I'm sorry for them lily-white hands of yourn, pardner, but which place would you like to work at?"
"Hidden Water," replied Hardy, promptly, "and I bet I can cut as many trees as you can."
"I'll go you, for a fiver," exclaimed Creede, emulously. "Next time Rafael comes in tell him to bring me up some more grub and baled hay, and I'm fixed. And say, when you write to the boss you can tell her I've traded my gun for an axe!"
As Hardy turned back towards home he swung in a great circle and rode down the dry bed of the Alamo, where water-worn bowlders and ricks of mountain drift lay strewn for miles to mark the vanished stream. What a power it had been in its might, floating sycamores and ironwoods as if they were reeds, lapping high against the granite walls, moving the very rocks in its bed until they ground together! But now the sand lay dry and powdery, the willows and water-moodies were dead to the roots, and even the ancient cottonwoods from which it derived its name were dying inch by inch. A hundred years they had stood there, defying storm and cloudburst, but at last the drought was sucking away their life. On the mesa the waxy greasewood was still verdant, the gorged sahuaros stood like great tanks, skin-tight with bitter juice, and all the desert trees were tipped with green; but the children of the river were dying for a drink.
A string of cattle coming in from The Rolls stopped and stared at the solitary horseman, head up against the sky; then as he rode on they fell in behind him, travelling the deep-worn trail that led to Hidden Water. At the cleft-gate of the pass, still following the hard-stamped trail, Hardy turned aside from his course and entered, curious to see his garden again before it succumbed to the drought. There before him stood the sycamores, as green and flourishing as ever; the eagle soared out from his cliff; the bees zooned in their caves; and beyond the massive dyke that barred the way the tops of the elders waved the last of their creamy blossoms. In the deep pool the fish still darted about, and the waterfall that fed it was not diminished. The tinkle of its music seemed even louder, and as Hardy looked below he saw that a little stream led way from the pool, flowing in the trench where the cattle came to drink. It was a miracle, springing from the bosom of the earth from whence the waters come. When all the world outside lay dead and bare, Hidden Water flowed more freely, and its garden lived on untouched.
Never had Hardy seen it more peaceful, and as he climbed the Indian steps and stood beneath the elder, where Chupa Rosa had built her tiny nest his heart leapt suddenly as he remembered Lucy. Here they had sat together in the first gladness of her coming, reading his forgotten verse and watching the eagle's flight; only for that one time, and then the fight with the sheep had separated them. He reached up and plucked a spray of elder blossoms to send her for a keep-sake—and then like a blow he remembered the forget-me-not! From that same garden he had fetched her a forget-me-not for repentance, and then forgotten her for Kitty. Who but Lucy could have left the little book of poems, or treasured a flower so long to give it back at parting? And yet in his madness he had forgotten her!
He searched wistfully among the rocks for another forget-me-not, but the hot breath of the drought had killed them. As he climbed slowly down the stone steps he mused upon some poem to take the place of the flowers that were dead, but the spirit of the drought was everywhere. The very rocks themselves, burnt black by centuries of sun, were painted with Indian prayers for rain. A thousand times he had seen the sign, hammered into the blasted rocks—the helix, that mystic symbol of the ancients, a circle, ever widening, never ending,—and wondered at the fate of the vanished people who had prayed to the Sun for rain.
The fragments of their sacrificial ollas lay strewn among the bowlders, but the worshippers were dead; and now a stranger prayed to his own God for rain. As he sat at his desk that night writing to Lucy about the drought, the memory of those Indian signs came upon him suddenly and, seizing a fresh sheet of paper, he began to write. At the second stanza he paused, planned out his rhymes and hurried on again, but just as his poem seemed finished, he halted at the last line. Wrestle as he would he could not finish it—the rhymes were against him—it would not come right. Ah, that is what sets the artist apart from all the under-world of dreamers—his genius endures to the end; but the near-poet struggles like a bee limed in his own honey. What a confession of failure it was to send away—a poem unfinished, or finished wrong! And yet—the unfinished poem was like him. How often in the past had he left things unsaid, or said them wrong. Perhaps Lucy would understand the better and prize it for its faults. At last, just as it was, he sent it off, and so it came to her hand.
A PRAYER FOR RAIN
Upon this blasted rock, O Sun, behold Our humble prayer for rain—and here below A tribute from the thirsty stream, that rolled Bank-full in flood, but now is sunk so low Our old men, tottering, yet may stride acrost And babes run pattering where the wild waves tossed.
The grass is dead upon the stem, O Sun! The lizards pant with heat—they starve for flies— And they for grass—and grass for rain! Yea, none Of all that breathe may face these brazen skies And live, O Sun, without the touch of rain. Behold, thy children lift their hands—in vain!
Drink up the water from this olla's brim And take the precious corn here set beside— Then summon thy dark clouds, and from the rim Of thy black shield strike him who hath defied Thy power! Appease thy wrath, Great Sun—but give Ah, give the touch of rain to those that live!
As it had been a thousand years before, so it was that day at Hidden Water. The earth was dead, it gave forth nothing; the sky was clean and hard, without a cloud to soften its asperity. Another month and the cattle would die; two months and the water would fail; then in the last agonies of starvation and thirst the dissolution would come—the Four Peaks would be a desert. Old Don Pablo was right, the world was drying up. Chihuahua and Sonora were parched; all Arizona lay stricken with the drought; in California the cattle were dying on the ranges, and in Texas and New Mexico the same. God, what a thing—to see the great earth that had supported its children for ages slowly dying for water, its deserts first, and then its rivers, and then the pine-topped mountains that gave the rivers birth! Yet what was there for a man to do but take care of his own and wait? The rest was in the hands of God.
On the first morning that Hardy took his axe and went down to the river he found a single bunch of gaunted cattle standing in the shade of the big mesquites that grew against Lookout Point—a runty cow with her two-year-old and yearling, and a wobbly calf with a cactus joint stuck across his nose. His mother's face showed that she, too, had been among the chollas; there was cactus in her knees and long spines bristling from her jaws, but she could stand it, while it was a matter of life and death to the calf. Every time he came near his mother she backed away, and whenever he began to nudge for milk she kicked out wildly. So Hardy roped him and twitched the joint away with a stick; then he pulled out the thorns one by one and went about his work.
Selecting a fine-leaved palo verde that grew against the point, he cleared a way into its trunk and felled it down the hill. He cut a second and a third, and when he looked back he saw that his labor was appreciated; the runty cow was biting eagerly at the first tree-top, and the wobbly calf was restored to his own. As the sound of the axe continued, a band of tame cattle came stringing down the sandy riverbed, and before the morning was over there were ten or twenty derelicts and water-bums feeding along the hillside. In the afternoon he cut more trees along the trail to Hidden Water, and the next day when he went to work he found a little band of weaklings there, lingering expectantly in the shadow of the canyon wall. As the days went by more and more of them gathered about the water, the lame, the sick, the crippled, the discouraged, waiting for more trees to be felled. Then as the feed on the distant ridges grew thinner and the number of cut trees increased, a great band of them hung about the vicinity of the ranch house constantly—the herds from Hidden Water and the river, merged into one—waiting to follow him to the hills.
For a mile up and down the canyon of the Alamo, the palo verde stumps dotted the hillside, each with its top below it, stripped to the bark and bared of every twig. As the breathless heat of July came on, Hardy was up before dawn, hewing and felling, and each day the long line of cattle grew. They trampled at his heels like an army, gaunt, emaciated; mothers mooing for their calves that lay dead along the gulches; mountain bulls and outlaws, tamed by gnawing hunger and weakness, and the awful stroke of the heat. And every day other bands of outlaws, driven at last from their native hills, drifted in to swell the herd. For a month Hardy had not seen a human face, nor had he spoken to any living creature except Chapuli or some poor cow that lay dying by the water. When he was not cutting trees on the farther ridges, he was riding along the river, helping up those that had fallen or dragging away the dead.
Worn and foot-sore, with their noses stuck full of cactus joints, their tongues swollen from the envenomed thorns, their stomachs afire from thirst and the burden of bitter stalks, the wild cattle from the ridges would stagger down to the river and drink until their flanks bulged out and their bellies hung heavy with water. Then, overcome with fatigue and heat, they would sink down in the shade and lie dreaming; their limbs would stiffen and cramp beneath them until they could not move; and there they would lie helpless, writhing their scrawny necks as they struggled to get their feet under them. To these every day came Hardy with his rawhide reata. Those that he could not scare up he pulled up; if any had died he dragged the bodies away from the water; and as soon as the recent arrivals had drunk he turned them away, starting them on their long journey to the high ridges where the sheep had not taken the browse.
Ah, those sheep! How many times in the fever of heat and work and weariness had Hardy cursed them, his tongue seeking unbidden the wickedest words of the range; how many times had he cursed Jim Swope, and Jasper Swope, the Mexicans, and all who had rushed in to help accomplish their ruin. And as the sun beat down and no clouds came into the sky he cursed himself, blindly, for all that had come to pass. One man—only one—at the mouth of Hell's Hip Pocket, and the sheep might have been turned back; but he himself had seen the dust-cloud and let it pass—and for that the cattle died. The sheep were far away, feeding peacefully in mountain valleys where the pines roared in the wind and the nights were cool and pleasant; but if the rain came and young grass sprang up on Bronco Mesa they would come again, and take it in spite of them. Yes, even if the drought was broken and the cattle won back their strength, that great army would come down from the north once more and sheep them down to the rocks! But one thing Hardy promised himself—forgetting that it was the bootless oath of old Bill Johnson, who was crazy now and hiding in the hills—he would kill the first sheep that set foot on Bronco Mesa, and the next, as long as he could shoot; and Jasp Swope might answer as he would.
Yet, why think of sheep and schemes of belated vengeance?—the grass was gone; the browse was cleaned; even the palo verde trees were growing scarce. Day by day he must tramp farther and farther along the ridge, and all that patient, trusting army behind, waiting for him to find more trees! Already the weakest were left behind and stood along the trails, eying him mournfully; yet work as he would he could not feed the rest. There was no fine-drawn distinction now—every palo verde on the hillside fell before his axe, whether it was fine-leaved and short-thorned, or rough and spiny; and the cattle ate them all. Mesquite and cat-claw and ironwood, tough as woven wire and barbed at every joint, these were all that were left except cactus and the armored sahuaros. In desperation he piled brush beneath clumps of fuzzy chollas, the thorniest cactus that grows, and burned off the resinous spines; but the silky bundles of stickers still lurked beneath the ashes, and the cattle that ate them died in agony.
Once more Hardy took his ax and went out in search of palo verdes, high or low, young or old. There was a gnarled trunk, curling up against a rocky butte and protected by two spiny sahuaros that stood before it like armed guards, and he climbed up the rock to reach it. Chopping away the first sahuaro he paused to watch it fall. As it broke open like a giant melon on the jagged rocks below, the cattle crowded about it eagerly, sniffing at the shattered parts—and then the hardiest of them began suddenly to eat!
On the outside the wiry spines stood in rows like two-inch knife blades; but now the juicy heart, laid open by the fall, was exposed, and the cattle munched it greedily. A sudden hope came to Hardy as he watched them feed, and, climbing higher, he felled two more of the desert giants, dropping them from their foothold against the butte far down into the rocky canyon. As they struck and burst, and the sickly aroma filled the air, the starved cattle, bitten with a new appetite, rushed forward in hordes to eat out their bitter hearts. At last, when the battle had seemed all but over, he had found a new food,—one that even Pablo Moreno had overlooked,—each plant a ton of bitter pulp and juice. The coarse and wiry spines, whose edges would turn an axe, were conquered in a moment by the fall from the precipitous cliffs. And the mesa was covered with them, like a forest of towering pin-cushions, as far as the eye could see! A great gladness came over Hardy as he saw the starved cattle eat, and as soon as he had felled a score or more he galloped up to Carrizo to tell the news to Jeff.
The mesa was deserted of every living creature. There was not a snake track in the dust or a raven in the sky, but as he topped the brow of the hill and looked down into the canyon, Hardy saw a great herd of cattle, and Creede in the midst of them still hacking away at the thorny palo verdes. At the clatter of hoofs, the big man looked up from his work, wiping the sweat and grime from his brow, and his face was hard and drawn from working beyond his strength.
"Hello!" he called. "How's things down your way—water holdin' out? Well, you're in luck, then; I've had to dig the spring out twice, and you can see how many cows I'm feedin'. But say," he continued, "d'ye think it's as hot as this down in hell? Well, if I thought for a minute it'd be as dry I'd take a big drink and join the church, you can bet money on that. What's the matter—have you got enough?"
"I've got enough of cutting palo verdes," replied Hardy, "but you just lend me that axe for a minute and I'll show you something." He stepped to the nearest sahuaro and with a few strokes felled it down the hill, and when Creede saw how the cattle crowded around the broken trunk he threw down his hat and swore.
"Well—damn—me," he said, "for a pin-head! Here I've been cuttin' these ornery palo verdes until my hands are like a Gila monster's back, and now look at them cows eat giant cactus! There's no use talkin', Rufe, the feller that wears the number five hat and the number forty jumper ain't worth hell-room when you're around—here, gimme that axe!" He seized it in his thorn-scarred hands and whirled into the surrounding giants like a fury; then when he had a dozen fat sahuaros laid open among the rocks he came back and sat down panting in the scanty shade of an ironwood.
"I'm sore on myself," he said. "But that's the way it is! If I'd had the brains of a rabbit I'd've stopped Jasp Swope last Spring—then I wouldn't need to be cuttin' brush here all Summer like a Mexican wood-chopper. That's where we fell down—lettin' them sheep in—and now we've got to sweat for it. But lemme tell you, boy," he cried, raising a mighty fist, "if I can keep jest one cow alive until Fall I'm goin' to meet Mr. Swope on the edge of my range and shoot 'im full of holes! Nothin' else will do, somebody has got to be killed before this monkey business will stop! I've been makin' faces and skinnin' my teeth at that dastard long enough now, and I'm goin' to make him fight if I have to put high-life on 'im!"
He stopped and looked out over the hillside where the heat quivered in rainbows from the rocks, and the naked palo verdes, stripped of their bark, bleached like skeletons beside their jagged stumps.
"Say, Rufe," he began, abruptly, "I'm goin' crazy."
He shook his head slowly and sighed. "I always thought I was," he continued, "but old Bill Johnson blew in on me the other day—he's crazy, you know—and when I see him I knowed it! W'y, pardner, Bill is the most reas-on-able son-of-a-gun you can imagine. You can talk to him by the hour, and outside of bein' a little techy he's all right; but the minute you mention sheep to him his eye turns glassy and he's off. Well, that's me, too, and has been for years, only not quite so bad; but then, Bill is plumb sheeped out and I ain't—quite!"
He laughed mirthlessly and filled a cigarette.
"You know," he said, squinting his eyes down shrewdly, "that old feller ain't so durned crazy yet. He wanted some ammunition to shoot up sheep-camps with, but bein' a little touched, as you might say, he thought I might hold out on 'im, so he goes at me like this: 'Jeff,' he says, 'I've took to huntin' lions for the bounty now—me and the hounds—and I want to git some thirty-thirtys.' But after I'd give him all I could spare he goes on to explain how the sheep, not satisfied with eatin' 'im out of house and home, had gone and tolled all the lions away after 'em—so, of course, he'll have to foller along, too. You catch that, I reckon."
Creede drooped his eyes significantly and smoked.
"If it hadn't been for old Bill Johnson," he said, "we wouldn't have a live cow on our range to-day, we'd've been sheeped down that close. When he'd got his ammunition and all the bacon and coffee I could spare he sat down and told me how he worked it to move all them sheep last Spring. After he'd made his first big play and see he couldn't save the Pocket he went after them sheepmen systematically for his revenge. That thirty-thirty of his will shoot nigh onto two miles if you hold it right, and every time he sees a sheep-camp smoke he Injuned up onto some high peak and took pot-shots at it. At the distance he was you couldn't hear the report—and, of course, you couldn't see smokeless powder. He says the way them Mexican herders took to the rocks was a caution; and when the fireworks was over they didn't wait for orders, jest rounded up their sheep and hiked!
"And I tell you, pardner," said the big cowman impressively, "after thinkin' this matter over in the hot sun I've jest about decided to go crazy myself. Yes, sir, the next time I hear a sheep-blat on Bronco Mesa I'm goin' to tear my shirt gittin' to the high ground with a thirty-thirty; and if any one should inquire you can tell 'em that your pore friend's mind was deranged by cuttin' too many palo verdes." He smiled, but there was a sinister glint in his eyes; and as he rode home that night Hardy saw in the half-jesting words a portent of the never-ending struggle that would spring up if God ever sent the rain.
On the day after the visit to Carrizo a change came over the sky; a haze that softened the edges of the hills rose up along the horizon, and the dry wind died away. As Hardy climbed along the rocky bluffs felling the giant sahuaros down into the ravines for his cattle, the sweat poured from his face in a stream. A sultry heaviness hung over the land, and at night as he lay beneath the ramada he saw the lightning, hundreds of miles away, twinkling and playing along the northern horizon. It was a sign—the promise of summer rain!
In the morning a soft wind came stealing in from the west; a white cloud came up out of nothing and hovered against the breast of the Peaks; and the summer heat grew terrible. At noon the cloud turned black and mounted up, its fluffy summit gleaming in the light of the ardent sun; the wind whirled across the barren mesa, sweeping great clouds of dust before it, and the air grew damp and cool; then, as evening came on the clouds vanished suddenly and the wind died down to a calm. For a week the spectacle was repeated—then, at last, as if weary, the storm-wind refused to blow; the thunder-caps no longer piled up against the Peaks; only the haze endured, and the silent, suffocating heat.
Day after day dragged by, and without thought or hope Hardy plodded on, felling sahuaros into the canyons, his brain whirling in the fever of the great heat. Then one day as the sun rose higher a gigantic mass of thunder-clouds leapt up in the north, covering half the sky. The next morning they rose again, brilliant, metallic, radiating heat like a cone of fire. The heavens were crowned with sudden splendor, the gorgeous pageantry of summer clouds that rise rank upon rank, basking like newborn cherubim in the glorious light of the sun, climbing higher and higher until they reached the zenith.
A moist breeze sprang up and rushed into the storm's black heart, feeding it with vapors from the Gulf; then in the south, the home of the rain, another great cloud arose, piling in fluffy billows against the grim cliffs of the Superstitions and riding against the flying cohorts that reared their snowy heads in the north. The wind fell and all nature lay hushed and expectant, waiting for the rain. The cattle would not feed; the bearded ravens sat voiceless against the cliffs; the gaunt trees and shrubs seemed to hold up their arms—for the rain that did not come. For after all its pomp and mummery, its black mantle that covered all the sky and the bravery of its trailing skirts, the Storm, that rode in upon the wind like a king, slunk away at last like a beaten craven. Its black front melted suddenly, and its draggled banners, trailing across the western sky, vanished utterly in the kindling fires of sunset.
As he lay beneath the starlit sky that night, Hardy saw a vision of the end, as it would come. He saw the canyons stripped clean of their high-standing sahuaros, the spring at Carrizo dry, the river stinking with the bodies of the dead—even Hidden Water quenched at last by the drought. Then a heavy sleep came upon him as he lay sprawling in the pitiless heat and he dreamed—dreamed of gaunt steers and lowing cows, and skeletons, strewn along the washes; of labor, never ending, and sweat, dripping from his face. He woke suddenly with the horror still upon him and gazed up at the sky, searching vainly for the stars. The night was close and black, there was a stir among the dead leaves as if a snake writhed past, and the wind breathed mysteriously through the bare trees; then a confused drumming came to his ears, something warm and wet splashed against his face, and into his outstretched hand God sent a drop of rain.
The rain came to Hidden Water in great drops, warmed by the sultry air. At the first flurry the dust rose up like smoke, and the earth hissed; then as the storm burst in tropic fury the ground was struck flat, the dust-holes caught the rush of water and held it in sudden puddles that merged into pools and rivulets and glided swiftly away. Like a famine-stricken creature, the parched earth could not drink; its bone-dry dust set like cement beneath the too generous flood and refused to take it in—and still the rain came down in sluicing torrents that never stayed or slackened. The cracked dirt of the ramada roof dissolved and fell away, and the stick frame leaked like a sieve. The rain wind, howling and rumbling through the framework, hurled the water to the very door where Hardy stood, and as it touched his face, a wild, animal exultation overcame him and he dashed out into the midst of it. God, it was good to feel the splash of rain again, to lean against the wind, and to smell the wet and mud! He wandered about through it recklessly, now bringing in his saddle and bedding, now going out to talk with his horse, at last simply standing with his hands outstretched while his whole being gloried in the storm.
As the night wore on and the swash of water became constant, Hardy lay in his blankets listening to the infinite harmonies that lurk in the echoes of rain, listening and laughing when, out of the rumble of the storm, there rose the deeper thunder of running waters. Already the rocky slides were shedding the downpour; the draws and gulches were leading it into the creek. But above their gurgling murmur there came a hoarser roar that shook the ground, reverberating through the damp air like the diapason of some mighty storm-piece. At daybreak he hurried up the canyon to find its source, plunging along through the rain until, on the edge of the bluff that looked out up the Alamo, he halted, astounded at the spectacle. From its cleft gate Hidden Water, once so quiet and peaceful, was now vomiting forth mud, rocks, and foaming waters in one mad torrent; it overleapt the creek, piling up its debris in a solid dam that stretched from bank to bank, while from its lower side a great sluiceway of yellow water spilled down into the broad bed of the Alamo.
Above the dam, where the canyon boxed in between perpendicular walls, there lay a great lagoon, a lake that rose minute by minute as if seeking to override its dam, yet held back by the torrent of sand and water that Hidden Water threw across its path. For an hour they fought each other, the Alamo striving vainly to claim its ancient bed, Hidden Water piling higher its hurtling barrier; then a louder roar reverberated through the valley and a great wall of dancing water swept down the canyon and surged into the placid lake. On its breast it bore brush and sticks, and trees that waved their trunks in the air like the arms of some devouring monster as they swooped down upon the dam. At last the belated waters from above had come, the outpourings of a hundred mountain creeks that had belched forth into the Alamo like summer cloudbursts. The forefront of the mighty storm-crest lapped over the presumptuous barrier in one hissing, high-flung waterfall; then with a final roar the dam went out and, as the bowlders groaned and rumbled beneath the flood, the Alamo overleapt them and thundered on.
A sudden sea of yellow water spread out over the lower valley, trees bent and crashed beneath the weight of drift, the pasture fence ducked under and was gone. Still irked by its narrow bed the Alamo swung away from the rock-bound bench where the ranch house stood and, uprooting everything before it, ploughed a new channel to the river. As it swirled past, Hardy beheld a tangled wreckage of cottonwoods and sycamores, their tops killed by the drought, hurried away on this overplus of waters; the bare limbs of palo verdes, felled by his own axe; and sun-dried skeletons of cattle, light as cork, dancing and bobbing as they drifted past the ranch.
The drought was broken, and as the rain poured down it washed away all token of the past. Henceforward there would be no sign to move the uneasy spirit; no ghastly relic, hinting that God had once forgotten them; only the water-scarred gulches and canyons, and the ricks of driftwood, piled high along the valleys in memory of the flood. All day the rain sluiced down, and the Alamo went wild in its might, throwing a huge dam across the broad bed of the river itself. But when at last in the dead of night the storm-crest of the Salagua burst forth, raging from its long jostling against chasm walls, a boom like a thunder of cannon echoed from all the high cliffs by Hidden Water; and the warring waters, bellowing and tumbling in their titanic fury, joined together in a long, mad race to the sea.
So ended the great flood; and in the morning the sun rose up clean and smiling, making a diamond of every dew-drop. Then once more the cattle gathered about the house, waiting to be fed, and Hardy went out as before to cut sahuaros. On the second day the creek went down and the cattle from the other bank came across, lowing for their share. But on the third day, when the sprouts began to show on the twining stick-cactus, the great herd that had dogged his steps for months left the bitter sahuaros and scattered across the mesa like children on a picnic, nipping eagerly at every shoot.
In a week the flowers were up and every bush was radiant with new growth. The grass crept out in level places, and the flats in the valley turned green, but the broad expanse of Bronco Mesa still lay half-barren from paucity of seeds. Where the earth had been torn up and trampled by the sheep the flood had seized upon both soil and seed and carried them away, leaving nothing but gravel and broken rocks; the sheep-trails had turned to trenches, the washes to gulches, the gulches to ravines; the whole mesa was criss-crossed with tiny gullies where the water had hurried away—but every tree and bush was in its glory, clothed from top to bottom in flaunting green. Within a week the cattle were back on their old ranges, all that were left from famine and drought. Some there were that died in the midst of plenty, too weak to regain their strength; others fell sick from overeating and lost their hard-earned lives; mothers remembered calves that were lost and bellowed mournfully among the hills. But as rain followed rain and the grass matured a great peace settled down upon the land; the cows grew round-bellied and sleepy-eyed, the bulls began to roar along the ridges, and the Four Peaks cattlemen rode forth from their mountain valleys to see how their neighbors had fared.
They were a hard-looking bunch of men when they gathered at the Dos S Ranch to plan for the fall rodeo. Heat and the long drought had lined their faces deep, their hands were worn and crabbed from months of cutting brush, and upon them all was the sense of bitter defeat. There would be no branding in the pens that Fall—the spring calves were all dead; nor was there any use in gathering beef steers that were sure to run short weight; there was nothing to do, in fact, but count up their losses and organize against the sheep. It had been a hard Summer, but it had taught them that they must stand together or they were lost. There was no one now who talked of waiting for Forest Reserves, or of diplomacy and peace—every man was for war, and war from the jump—and Jefferson Creede took the lead.
"Fellers," he said, after each man had had his say, "there's only one way to stop them sheep, and that is to stop the first band. Never mind the man—dam' a herder, you can buy one for twenty dollars a month—git the sheep! Now suppose we stompede the first bunch that comes on our range and scatter 'em to hell—that's fif-teen thousand dol-lars gone! God A'mighty, boys, think of losin' that much real money when you're on the make like Jim Swope! W'y, Jim would go crazy, he'd throw a fit—and, more than that, fellers," he added, sinking his voice to a confidential whisper, "he'd go round.
"Well, now, what ye goin' to do?" he continued, a crafty gleam coming into his eye. "Are we goin' to foller some cow's tail around until they jump us again? Are we goin' to leave Rufe here, to patrol a hundred miles of range lone-handed? Not on your life—not me! We're goin' to ride this range by day's works, fellers, and the first bunch of sheep we find we're goin' to scatter 'em like shootin' stars—and if any man sees Jasp Swope I'll jest ask him to let me know. Is it a go? All right—and I'll tell you how we'll do.
"There's only three places that the sheep can get in on us: along the Alamo, over the Juate, or around between the Peaks. Well, the whole caboodle of us will camp up on the Alamo somewhere, and we'll jest naturally ride them three ridges night and day. I'm goin' to ask one of you fellers to ride away up north and foller them sheepmen down, so they can't come a circumbendibus on us again. I'm goin' to give 'em fair warnin' to keep off of our upper range, and then the first wool-pullin' sheep-herder that sneaks in on Bronco Mesa is goin' to git the scare of his life—and the coyotes is goin' to git his sheep.
"That's the only way to stop 'em! W'y, Jim Swope would run sheep on his mother's grave if it wasn't for the five dollars fine. All right, then, we'll jest fine Mr. Swope fifteen thousand dollars for comin' in on our range, and see if he won't go around. There's only one thing that I ask of you fellers—when the time comes, for God's sake stick together!"
The time came in late October, when the sheep were on The Rolls. In orderly battalions they drifted past, herd after herd, until there were ten in sight. If any sheepman resented the silent sentinels that rode along the rim he made no demonstration of the fact—and yet, for some reason every herd sooner or later wandered around until it fetched up against the dead line. There were fuzzy chollas farther out that got caught in the long wool and hurt the shearers' hands; it was better to camp along the Alamo, where there was water for their stock—so the simple-minded herders said, trying to carry off their bluff; but when Creede scowled upon them they looked away sheepishly. The padron had ordered it—they could say no more.
"Muy bien," said the overbearing Grande, "and where is your padron?"
"Quien sabe!" replied the herders, hiking up their shoulders and showing the palms of their hands, and "Who knows" it was to the end. There was wise counsel in the camp of the sheepmen; they never had trouble if they could avoid it, and then only to gain a point. But it was this same far-seeing policy which, even in a good year when there was feed everywhere, would not permit them to spare the upper range. For two seasons with great toil and danger they had fought their way up onto Bronco Mesa and established their right to graze there—to go around now would be to lose all that had been gained.
But for once the cowmen of the Four Peaks were equal to the situation. There were no cattle to gather, no day herds to hold, no calves to brand in the pens—every man was riding and riding hard. There was wood on every peak for signal fires and the main camp was established on the high ridge of the Juate, looking north and south and west. When that signal rose up against the sky—whether it was a smoke by day or a fire by night—every man was to quit his post and ride to harry the first herd. Wherever or however it came in, that herd was to be destroyed, not by violence nor by any overt act, but by the sheepmen's own methods—strategy and stealth.
For once there was no loose joint in the cordon of the cowmen's defence. From the rim of the Mogollons to the borders of Bronco Mesa the broad trail of the sheep was marked and noted; their shiftings and doublings were followed and observed; the bitterness of Tonto cowmen, crazy over their wrongs, was poured into ears that had already listened to the woes of Pleasant Valley. When at last Jasper Swope's boss herder, Juan Alvarez, the same man-killing Mexican that Jeff Creede had fought two years before, turned suddenly aside and struck into the old Shep Thomas trail that comes out into the deep crotch between the Peaks, a horseman in chaparejos rode on before him, spurring madly to light the signal fires. That night a fire blazed up from the shoulder of the western mountain and was answered from the Juate. At dawn ten men were in the saddle, riding swiftly, with Jefferson Creede at their head.
It was like an open book to the cowmen now, that gathering of the sheep along the Alamo—a ruse, a feint to draw them away from the Peaks while the blow was struck from behind. Only one man was left to guard that threatened border—Rufus Hardy, the man of peace, who had turned over his pistol to the boss. It was a bitter moment for him when he saw the boys start out on this illicit adventure; but for once he restrained himself and let it pass. The war would not be settled at a blow.
At the shoulder of the Peak the posse of cowmen found Jim Clark, his shaps frayed and his hat slouched to a shapeless mass from long beating through the brush, and followed in his lead to a pocket valley, tucked away among the cedars, where they threw off their packs and camped while Jim and Creede went forward to investigate. It was a rough place, that crotch between the Peaks, and Shep Thomas had cut his way through chaparral that stood horse-high before he won the southern slope. To the north the brush covered all the ridges in a dense thicket, and it was there that the cow camp was hid; but on the southern slope, where the sun had baked out the soil, the mountain side stretched away bare and rocky, broken by innumerable ravines which came together in a redondo or rounded valley and then plunged abruptly into the narrow defile of a box canyon. This was the middle fork, down which Shep Thomas had made his triumphal march the year before, and down which Juan Alvarez would undoubtedly march again.
Never but once had the sheep been in that broad valley, and the heavy rains had brought out long tufts of grama grass from the bunchy roots along the hillsides. As Creede and Jim Clark crept up over the brow of the western ridge and looked down upon it they beheld a herd of forty or fifty wild horses, grazing contentedly along the opposite hillside; and far below, where the valley opened out into the redondo, they saw a band of their own tame horses feeding. Working in from either side—the wild horses from the north, where they had retreated to escape the drought; the range animals from the south, where the sheep had fed off the best grass—they had made the broad mountain valley a rendezvous, little suspecting the enemy that was creeping in upon their paradise. Already the distant bleating of the sheep was in the air; a sheepman rode up to the summit, looked over at the promised land and darted back, and as the first struggling mass of leaders poured out from the cut trail and drifted down into the valley the wild stallions shook out their manes in alarm and trotted farther away.
A second band of outlaws, unseen before, came galloping along the western mountain side, snorting at the clangor and the rank smell of the sheep, and Creede eyed them with professional interest as the leaders trotted past. Many times in the old days he had followed along those same ridges, rounding up the wild horses and sending them dashing down the canyon, so that Hardy could rush out from his hiding place and make his throw. It was a natural hold-up ground, that redondo, and they had often talked of building a horse trap there; but so far they had done no more than rope a chance horse and let the rest go charging down the box canyon and out the other end onto Bronco Mesa.
It was still early in the morning when Juan Alvarez rode down the pass and invaded the forbidden land. He had the name of a bad hombre, this boss herder of Jasper Swope, the kind that cuts notches on his rifle stock. Only one man had ever made Juan eat dirt, and that man now watched him from the high rocks with eyes that followed every move with the unblinking intentness of a mountain lion.
"Uhr-r! Laugh, you son of a goat," growled Creede, as the big Mexican pulled up his horse and placed one hand complacently on his hip. "Sure, make yourself at home," he muttered, smiling as his enemy drifted his sheep confidently down into the redondo, "you're goin' jest where I want ye. Come sundown and we'll go through you like a house afire. If he beds in the redondo let's shoot 'em into that box canyon, Jim," proposed the big cowman, turning to his partner, "and when they come out the other end all hell wouldn't stop 'em—they'll go forty ways for Sunday."
"Suits me," replied Jim, "but say, what's the matter with roundin' up some of them horses and sendin' 'em in ahead? That boss Mexican is goin' to take a shot at some of us fellers if we do the work ourselves."
"That's right, Jim," said Creede, squinting shrewdly at the three armed herders. "I'll tell ye, let's send them wild horses through 'em! Holy smoke! jest think of a hundred head of them outlaws comin' down the canyon at sundown and hammerin' through that bunch of sheep! And we don't need to git within gunshot!"
"Fine and dandy," commented Jim, "but how're you goin' to hold your horses to it? Them herders will shoot off their guns and turn 'em back."
"Well, what's the matter with usin' our tame horses for a hold-up herd and then sendin' the whole bunch through together? They'll strike for the box canyon, you can bank on that, and if Mr. Juan will only—" But Mr. Juan was not so accommodating. Instead of holding his sheep in the redondo he drifted them up on the mountain side, where he could overlook the country.
"Well, I'll fix you yet," observed Creede, and leaving Jim to watch he scuttled down to his horse and rode madly back to camp.
That afternoon as Juan Alvarez stood guard upon a hill he saw, far off to the west, four horsemen, riding slowly across the mesa. Instantly he whistled to his herders, waving his arms and pointing, and in a panic of apprehension they circled around their sheep, crouching low and punching them along until the herd was out of sight. And still the four horsemen rode on, drawing nearer, but passing to the south. But the sheep, disturbed and separated by the change, now set up a plaintive bleating, and the boss herder, never suspecting the trap that was being laid for him, scrambled quickly down from his lookout and drove them into the only available hiding-place—the box canyon. Many years in the sheep business had taught him into what small compass a band of sheep can be pressed, and he knew that, once thrown together in the dark canyon, they would stop their telltale blatting and go to sleep. Leaving his herders to hold them there he climbed back up to his peak and beheld the cowboys in the near distance, but still riding east.
An hour passed and the sheep had bedded together in silence, each standing with his head under another's belly, as is their wont, when the four horsemen, headed by Jeff Creede himself, appeared suddenly on the distant mountain side, riding hard along the slope. Galloping ahead of them in an avalanche of rocks was the band of loose horses that Alvarez had seen in the redondo that morning, and with the instinct of their kind they were making for their old stamping ground.
Once more the sheepman leaped up from his place and scampered down the hill to his herd, rounding up his pack animals as he ran. With mad haste he shooed them into the dark mouth of the canyon, and then hurried in after them like a badger that, hearing the sound of pursuers, backs into some neighboring hole until nothing is visible but teeth and claws. So far the boss herder had reasoned well. His sheep were safe behind him and his back was against a rock; a hundred men could not dislodge him from his position if it ever came to a fight; but he had not reckoned upon the devilish cunning of horse-taming Jeff Creede. Many a time in driving outlaws to the river he had employed that same ruse—showing himself casually in the distance and working closer as they edged away until he had gained his end.
The sun was setting when Creede and his cowboys came clattering down the mountain from the east and spurred across the redondo, whooping and yelling as they rounded up their stock. For half an hour they rode and hollered and swore, apparently oblivious of the filigree of sheep tracks with which the ground was stamped; then as the remuda quieted down they circled slowly around their captives, swinging their wide-looped ropes and waiting for the grand stampede.
The dusk was beginning to gather in the low valley and the weird evensong of the coyotes was at its height when suddenly from the north there came a rumble, as if a storm gathered above the mountain; then with a roar and the thunder of distant hoofs, the crashing of brush and the nearer click of feet against the rocks a torrent of wild horses poured over the summit of the pass and swept down into the upper valley like an avalanche. Instantly Creede and his cowboys scattered, spurring out on either wing to turn them fair for the box canyon, and the tame horses, left suddenly to their own devices, stood huddled together in the middle of the redondo, fascinated by the swift approach of the outlaws. Down the middle of the broad valley they came, flying like the wind before their pursuers; at sight of Creede and his cowboys and the familiar hold-up herd they swerved and slackened their pace; then as the half-circle of yelling cowmen closed in from behind they turned and rushed straight for the box canyon, their flint-like feet striking like whetted knives as they poured into the rocky pass. Catching the contagion of the flight the tame horses joined in of their own accord, and a howl of exultation went up from the Four Peaks cowmen as they rushed in to complete the overthrow. In one mad whirl they mingled—wild horses and tame, and wilder riders behind; and before that irresistible onslaught Juan Alvarez and his herders could only leap up and cling to the rocky cliffs like bats. And the sheep! A minute after, there were no sheep. Those that were not down were gone—scattered to the winds, lost, annihilated!
Seized by the mad contagion, the cowboys themselves joined in the awful rout, spurring through the dark canyon like devils let loose from hell. There was only one who kept his head and waited, and that was Jefferson Creede. Just as the last wild rider flashed around the corner he jumped his horse into the canyon and, looking around, caught sight of Juan Alvarez, half-distraught, crouching like a monkey upon a narrow ledge.
"Well, what—the—hell!" he cried, with well-feigned amazement. "I didn't know you was here!"
The sheepman swallowed and blinked his eyes, that stood out big and round like an owl's.
"Oh, that's all right," he said.
"But it wouldn't 'a' made a dam' bit of difference if I had!" added Creede, and then, flashing his teeth in a hectoring laugh, he put spurs to his horse and went thundering after his fellows.
Not till that moment did the evil-eyed Juan Alvarez sense the trick that had been played upon him.
"Cabrone!" he screamed, and whipping out his pistol he emptied it after Creede, but the bullets spattered harmlessly against the rocks.
Early the next morning Jefferson Creede rode soberly along the western rim of Bronco Mesa, his huge form silhouetted against the sky, gazing down upon the sheep camps that lay along the Alamo; and the simple-minded Mexicans looked up at him in awe. But when the recreant herders of Juan Alvarez came skulking across the mesa and told the story of the stampede, a sudden panic broke out that spread like wildfire from camp to camp. Orders or no orders, the timid Mexicans threw the sawhorses onto their burros, packed up their blankets and moved, driving their bawling sheep far out over The Rolls, where before the chollas had seemed so bad. It was as if they had passed every day beneath some rock lying above the trail, until, looking up, they saw that it was a lion, crouching to make his spring. For years they had gazed in wonder at the rage and violence of Grande Creede, marvelling that the padron could stand against it; but now suddenly the big man had struck, and bravo Juan Alvarez had lost his sheep. Hunt as long as he would he could not bring in a tenth of them. Ay, que malo! The boss would fire Juan and make him walk to town; but they who by some miracle had escaped, would flee while there was yet time.
For two days Creede rode along the rim of Bronco Mesa—that dead line which at last the sheepmen had come to respect,—and when at last he sighted Jim Swope coming up from Hidden Water with two men who might be officers of the law he laughed and went to meet them. Year in and year out Jim Swope had been talking law—law; now at last they would see this law, and find out what it could do. One of the men with Swope was a deputy sheriff, Creede could tell that by his star; but the other man might be almost anything—a little fat man with a pointed beard and congress shoes; a lawyer, perhaps, or maybe some town detective.
"Is this Mr. Creede?" inquired the deputy, casually flashing his star as they met beside the trail.
"That's my name," replied Creede. "What can I do for you?"
"Well, Mr. Creede," responded the officer, eying his man carefully, "I come up here to look into the killing of Juan Alvarez, a Mexican sheep-herder."
"The killin'?" echoed Creede, astounded.
"That's right," snapped the deputy sheriff, trying to get the jump on him. "What do you know about it?"
"Who—me?" answered the cowman, his eyes growing big and earnest as he grasped the news. "Not a thing. The last time I saw Juan Alvarez he was standin' on a ledge of rocks way over yonder in the middle fork—and he certainly was all right then."
"Yes? And when was this, Mr. Creede?"
"Day before yesterday, about sundown."
"Day before yesterday, eh? And just what was you doin' over there at the time?"
"Well, I'll tell ye," began Creede circumstantially. "Me and Ben Reavis and a couple of the boys had gone over toward the Pocket to catch up our horses. They turned back on us and finally we run 'em into that big redondo up in the middle fork. I reckon we was ridin' back and forth half an hour out there gittin' 'em stopped, and we never heard a peep out of this Mexican, but jest as we got our remuda quieted down and was edgin' in to rope out the ones we wanted, here comes a big band of wild horses that the other boys had scared up over behind the Peaks, roaring down the canyon and into us. Of course, there was nothin' for it then but to git out of the way and let 'em pass, and we did it, dam' quick. Well, sir, that bunch of wild horses went by us like the mill tails of hell, and of course our remuda stompeded after 'em and the whole outfit went bilin' through the box canyon, where it turned out Juan Alvarez had been hidin' his sheep. That's all I know about it."
"Well, did you have any trouble of any kind with this deceased Mexican, Mr. Creede? Of course you don't need to answer that if it will incriminate you, but I just wanted to know, you understand."
"Oh, that's all right," responded the cowman, waving the suggestion aside with airy unconcern. "This is the first I've heard of any killin', but bein' as you're an officer I might as well come through with what I know. I don't deny for a minute that I've had trouble with Juan. I had a fist fight with him a couple of years ago, and I licked him, too—but seein' him up on that ledge of rocks when I rode through after my horses was certainly one of the big surprises of my life."
"Uh, you was surprised, was ye?" snarled Swope, who had been glowering at him malignantly through his long recital. "Mebbe—"
"Yes, I was surprised!" retorted Creede angrily. "And I was like the man that received the gold-headed cane—I was pleased, too, if that's what you're drivin' at. I don't doubt you and Jasp sent that dam' Greaser in there to sheep us out, and if he got killed you've got yourself to thank for it. He had no business in there, in the first place, and in the second place, I gave you fair warnin' to keep 'im out."
"You hear that, Mr. Officer?" cried the sheepman. "He admits making threats against the deceased; he—"
"Just a moment, just a moment, Mr. Swope," interposed the deputy sheriff pacifically. "Did you have any words with this Juan Alvarez, Mr. Creede, when you saw him in the canyon? Any trouble of any kind?"
"No, we didn't have what you might call trouble—that is, nothin' serious."
"Well, just what words passed between you? This gentleman here is the coroner; we've got the body down at the ranch house, and we may want to suppeenie you for the inquest."
"Glad to meet you, sir," said Creede politely. "Well, all they was to it was this: when I rode in there and see that dam' Mexican standin' up on a ledge with his eyes bulgin' out, I says, 'What in hell—I didn't know you was here!' And he says, 'Oh, that's all right.'"
"Jest listen to the son-of-a-gun lie!" yelled Jim Swope, beside himself with rage. "Listen to him! He said that was all right, did he? Three thousand head of sheep stompeded—"
"Yes," roared Creede, "he said: 'That's all right.' And what's more, there was another Mexican there that heard him! Now how about it, officer; how much have I got to take off this dam' sheep puller before I git the right to talk back? Is he the judge and jury in this matter, or is he just a plain buttinsky?"
"I'll have to ask you gentlemen to key down a little," replied the deputy noncommittally, "and let's get through with this as soon as possible. Now, Mr. Creede, you seem to be willing to talk about this matter. I understand that there was some shots fired at the time you speak of."
"Sure thing," replied Creede. "Juan took a couple of shots at me as I was goin' down the canyon. He looked so dam' funny, sittin' up on that ledge like a monkey-faced owl, that I couldn't help laughin', and of course it riled him some. But that's all right—I wouldn't hold it up against a dead man."
The deputy sheriff laughed in spite of himself, and the coroner chuckled, too. The death of a Mexican sheep-herder was not a very sombre matter to gentlemen of their profession.
"I suppose you were armed?" inquired the coroner casually.
"I had my six-shooter in my shaps, all right."
"Ah, is that the gun? What calibre is it?"
The officers of the law glanced at each other knowingly, and the deputy turned back toward the ranch.
"The deceased was shot with a thirty-thirty," observed the coroner briefly, and there the matter was dropped.
"Umm, a thirty-thirty," muttered Creede, "now who in—" He paused and nodded his head, and a look of infinite cunning came into his face as he glanced over his shoulder at the retreating posse.
"Bill Johnson!" he said, and then he laughed—but it was not a pleasant laugh.
PORTENTS OF WAR
There were signs of impending war on Bronco Mesa. As God sent the rain and the flowers and grass sprang up they grappled with each other like murderers, twining root about root for the water, fighting upward for the light—and when it was over the strongest had won. Every tree and plant on that broad range was barbed and fanged against assault; every creature that could not flee was armed for its own defence; it was a land of war, where the strongest always won. What need was there for words? Juan Alvarez was dead, shot from some distant peak while rounding up his sheep—and his sheep, too, were dead.
They buried the boss herder under a pile of rocks on Lookout Point and planted a cross above him, not for its Christian significance, nor yet because Juan was a good Catholic, but for the Mexicans to look at in the Spring, when the sheep should come to cross. Jim Swope attended to this himself, after the coroner had given over the body, and for a parting word he cursed Jeff Creede.
Then for a day the world took notice of their struggle—the great outside world that had left them to fight it out. Three thousand head of sheep had been killed; mutton enough to feed a great city for a day had been destroyed—and all in a quarrel over public land. The word crept back to Washington, stripped to the bare facts—three thousand sheep and their herder killed by cattlemen on the proposed Salagua Reserve—and once more the question rose, Why was not that Salagua Reserve proclaimed? No one answered. There was another sheep and cattle war going on up in Wyoming, and the same question was being asked about other proposed reserves. But when Congress convened in December the facts began to sift out: there was a combination of railroad and lumber interests, big cattlemen, sheepmen, and "land-grabbers" that was "against any interference on the part of the Federal Government," and "opposed to any change of existing laws and customs as to the grazing of live stock upon the public domain." This anomalous organization was fighting, and for years had been fighting, the policy of the administration to create forest reserves and protect the public land; and, by alliances with other anti-administration forces in the East, had the President and his forester at their mercy. There would be no forestry legislation that Winter—so the newspapers said. But that made no difference to the Four Peaks country.
Only faint echoes of the battle at Washington reached the cowmen's ears, and they no longer gave them any heed. For years they had been tolled along by false hopes; they had talked eagerly of Forest Rangers to draw two-mile circles around their poor ranches and protect them from the sheep; they had longed to lease the range, to pay grazing fees, anything for protection. But now they had struck the first blow for themselves, and behold, on the instant the sheep went round, the grass crept back onto the scarred mesa, the cattle grew fat on the range! Juan Alvarez, to be sure, was dead; but their hands were clean, let the sheepmen say what they would. What were a few sheep carcasses up on the high mesa? They only matched the cattle that had died off during the drought. When they met a sheep-herder now he gave them the trail.
Tucked away in a far corner of the Territory, without money, friends, or influence, there was nothing for it but to fight. All nature seemed conspiring to encourage them in their adventure—the Winter came on early, with heavy rains; the grass took root again among the barren rocks and when, in a belated rodeo, they gathered their beef steers, they received the highest selling price in years. All over Arizona, and in California, New Mexico, and Texas, the great drought had depleted the ranges; the world's supply of beef had been cut down; feeders were scarce in the alfalfa fields of Moroni; fat cattle were called for from Kansas City to Los Angeles; and suddenly the despised cowmen of the Four Peaks saw before them the great vision which always hangs at the end of the rainbow in Arizona—a pot of gold, if the sheep went around. And what would make the sheep go around? Nothing but a thirty-thirty.
The price of mutton had gone up too, adding a third to the fortune of every sheepman; the ewes were lambing on the desert, bringing forth a hundred per cent or better, with twins—and every lamb must eat! To the hundred thousand sheep that had invaded Bronco Mesa there was added fifty thousand more, and they must all eat. It was this that the sheepmen had foreseen when they sent Juan Alvarez around to raid the upper range—not that they needed the feed then, but they would need it in the Spring, and need it bad. So they had tried to break the way and, failing, had sworn to come in arms. It was a fight for the grass, nothing less, and there was no law to stop it.
As the news of the trouble filtered out and crept into obscure corners of the daily press, Hardy received a long hortatory letter from Judge Ware; and, before he could answer it, another. To these he answered briefly that the situation could only be relieved by some form of Federal control; that, personally, his sympathies were with the cattlemen, but, in case the judge was dissatisfied with his services—But Judge Ware had learned wisdom from a past experience and at this point he turned the correspondence over to Lucy. Then in a sudden fit of exasperation he packed his grip and hastened across the continent to Washington, to ascertain for himself why the Salagua Forest Reserve was not proclaimed. As for Lucy, her letters were as carefully considered as ever—she wrote of everything except the sheep and Kitty Bonnair. Not since she went away had she mentioned Kitty, nor had Hardy ever inquired about her. In idle moments he sometimes wondered what had been in that unread letter which he had burned with Creede's, but he never wrote in answer, and his heart seemed still and dead. For years the thought of Kitty Bonnair had haunted him, rising up in the long silence of the desert; in the rush and hurry of the round-up the vision of her supple form, the laughter of her eyes, the succession of her moods, had danced before his eyes in changing pictures, summoned up from the cherished past; but now his mind was filled with other things. Somewhere in the struggle against sheep and the drought he had lost her, as a man loses a keep-sake which he has carried so long against his heart that its absence is as unnoticed as its presence, and he never knows himself the poorer. After the drought had come the sheep, the stampede, fierce quarrels with the Swopes, threats and counter-threats—and then the preparations for war. The memory of the past faded away and another thought now haunted his mind, though he never spoke it—when the time came, would he fight, or would he stay with Lucy and let Jeff go out alone? It was a question never answered, but every day he rode out without his gun, and Creede took that for a sign.
As the Rio Salagua, swollen with winter rains, rose up like a writhing yellow serpent and cast itself athwart the land, it drew a line from east to west which neither sheep nor cattle could cross, and the cowmen who had lingered about Hidden Water rode gayly back to their distant ranches, leaving the peaceful Dos S where Sallie Winship had hung her cherished lace curtains and Kitty Bonnair and Lucy Ware had made a home, almost a total wreck. Sheep, drought, and flood had passed over it in six months' time; the pasture fence was down, the corrals were half dismantled, and the bunk-room looked like a deserted grading camp. For a week Creede and Hardy cleaned up and rebuilt, but every day, in spite of his partner's efforts to divert his mind, Jeff grew more restless and uneasy. Then one lonely evening he went over to the corner where his money was buried and began to dig.
"What—the—hell—is the matter with this place?" he exclaimed, looking up from his work as if he expected the roof to drop. "Ever since Tommy died it gits on my nerves, bad." He rooted out his tomato can and stuffed a roll of bills carelessly into his overalls pocket. "Got any mail to go out?" he inquired, coming back to the fire, and Hardy understood without more words that Jeff was going on another drunk.
"Why, yes," he said, "I might write a letter to the boss. But how're you going to get across the river—she's running high now."
"Oh, I'll git across the river, all right," grumbled Creede. "Born to be hung and ye can't git drowned, as they say. Well, give the boss my best." He paused, frowning gloomily into the fire. "Say," he said, his voice breaking a little, "d'ye ever hear anything from Miss Bonnair?"
For a moment Hardy was silent. Then, reading what was in his partner's heart, he answered gently:
"Not a word, Jeff."
The big cowboy sighed and grinned cynically.
"That was a mighty bad case I had," he observed philosophically. "But d'ye know what was the matter with me? Well, I never tumbled to it till afterward, but it was jest because she was like Sallie—talked like her and rode like her, straddle, that way. But I wanter tell you, boy," he added mournfully, "Sal had a heart."
He sank once more into sombre contemplation, grumbling as he nursed his wounds, and at last Hardy asked him a leading question about Sallie Winship.
"Did I ever hear from 'er?" repeated Creede, rousing up from his reverie. "No, and it ain't no use to try. I wrote to her three times, but I never got no answer—I reckon the old lady held 'em out on her. She wouldn't stand for no bow-legged cowpuncher—and ye can't blame her none, the way old man Winship used to make her cook for them rodeo hands—but Sallie would've answered them letters if she'd got 'em."
"But where were they living in St. Louis?" persisted Hardy. "Maybe you got the wrong address."
"Nope, I got it straight—Saint Louie, Mo., jest the way you see it in these money-order catalogues."
"But didn't you give any street and number?" cried Hardy, aghast. "Why, for Heaven's sake, Jeff, there are half a million people in St. Louis—she'd never get it in the world."
"No?" inquired Creede apathetically. "Well, it don't make no difference, then. I don't amount to a dam', anyhow—and this is no place for a woman—but, by God, Rufe, I do git awful lonely when I see you writin' them letters to the boss. If I only had somebody that cared for me I'd prize up hell to make good. I'd do anything in God's world—turn back them sheep or give up my six-shooter, jest as she said; but, nope, they's no such luck for Jeff Creede—he couldn't make a-winnin' with a squaw."
"Jeff," said Hardy quietly, "how much would you give to get a letter from Sallie?"
"What d'ye mean?" demanded Creede, looking up quickly. Then, seeing the twinkle in his partner's eye, he made a grab for his money. "My whole wad," he cried, throwing down the roll. "What's the deal?"
"All right," answered Hardy, deliberately counting out the bills, "there's the ante—a hundred dollars. The rest I hold back for that trip to St. Louis. This hundred goes to the Rinkerton Detective Agency, St. Louis, Missouri, along with a real nice letter that I'll help you write; and the minute they deliver that letter into the hands of Miss Sallie Winship, formerly of Hidden Water, Arizona, and return an answer, there's another hundred coming to 'em. Is it a go?"
"Pardner," said Creede, rising up solemnly from his place, "I want to shake with you on that."
The next morning, with a package of letters in the crown of his black hat, Jefferson Creede swam Bat Wings across the swift current of the Salagua, hanging onto his tail from behind, and without even stopping to pour the water out of his boots struck into the long trail for Bender.
One week passed, and then another, and at last he came back, wet and dripping from his tussle with the river, and cursing the very name of detectives.
"W'y, shucks!" he grumbled. "I bummed around in town there for two weeks, hatin' myself and makin' faces at a passel of ornery sheepmen, and what do I git for my trouble? 'Dear Mister Creede, your letter of umpty-ump received. We have detailed Detective Moriarty on this case and will report later. Yours truly!' That's all—keep the change—we make a livin' off of suckers—and they's one born every minute. To hell with these detectives! Well, I never received nothin' more and finally I jumped at a poor little bandy-legged sheep-herder, a cross between a gorilla and a Digger Injun—scared him to death. But I pulled my freight quick before we had any international complications. Don't mention Mr. Allan Q. Rinkerton to me, boy, or I'll throw a fit. Say," he said, changing the subject abruptly, "how many hundred thousand sheep d'ye think I saw, comin' up from Bender? Well, sir, they was sheep as far as the eye could see—millions of 'em—and they've got that plain et down to the original sand and cactus, already. W'y, boy, if we let them sheepmen in on us this Spring we'll look like a watermelon patch after a nigger picnic; we'll be cleaned like Pablo Moreno; they won't be pickin's for a billy goat! And Jim 'n' Jasp have been ribbin' their herders on scandalous. This little bandy-legged son-of-a-goat that I jumped at down in Bender actually had the nerve to say that I killed Juan Alvarez myself. Think of that, will ye, and me twenty miles away at the time! But I reckon if you took Jasp to pieces you'd find out he was mad over them three thousand wethers—value six dollars per—that I stompeded. The dastard! D'ye see how he keeps away from me? Well, I'm goin' to call the rodeo right away and work that whole upper range, and when the river goes down you'll find Jeff Creede right there with the goods if Jasp is lookin' for trouble. Read them letters, boy, and tell me if I'm goin' to have the old judge on my hands, too."
According to the letters, he was; and the boss was also looking forward with pleasure to her visit in the Spring.
"Well, wouldn't that jar you," commented Creede, and then he laughed slyly. "Cheer up," he said, "it might be worse—they's nothin' said about Kitty Bonnair."
Sure enough—not a word about Kitty, and the year before Lucy had spoken about her in every letter! There was something mysterious about it, and sinister; they both felt it.
And when at last the wagon came in, bearing only Judge Ware and Lucy, somehow even Jeff's sore heart was touched by a sense of loss. But while others might dissemble, Bill Lightfoot's impulsive nature made no concealment of its chiefest thought.
"Where's Miss Bunnair?" he demanded, as soon as Lucy Ware was free, and there was a sudden lull in the conversation roundabout as the cowboys listened for the answer.
"I'm sorry," said Miss Ware, politely evasive, "but she wasn't able to come with me."
"She'll be down bimeby, though, won't she?" persisted Lightfoot; and when Lucy finally answered with a vague "Perhaps" he turned to the assembled cowboys with a triumphant grin. "Um, now, what'd I tell you!" he said; and one and all they scowled and stabbed him with their eyes.
The rodeo camp was already established beneath the big mesquite, and while three or four careless cowmen held the day herd over against the mesa the rest of the outfit was busy raking The Rolls. It was all very different from what Judge Ware and Lucy had anticipated. There was no sign of excitement in their midst, no ostentatious display of arms or posting of patrols, and what surprised the judge most of all was that in their friendly gatherings around the fire there was no one, save Hardy, who would argue against the sheep.
The judge had been on to Washington and was possessed of all the material facts, but nobody was interested any more in the Salagua Forest Reserve; he had consulted with the Chief Forester and even with the President himself, laying before them the imminence of the danger, and they had assured him that everything possible would be done to relieve the situation. Did it not, then, he demanded, behoove the law-abiding residents of prospective forest reserves to cooperate with such an enlightened administration, even at the risk of some temporary personal loss? And with one voice the Four Peaks cowmen agreed that it did. There was something eerie about it—the old judge was dazed by their acquiescence.
Of all the cowmen at Hidden Water, Rufus Hardy was the only man who would discuss the matter at length. A change had come over him now; he was very thin and quiet, with set lines along his jaw, but instead of riding nervously up and down the river as he had the year before he lingered idly about the ranch, keeping tally at the branding and entertaining his guests. No matter how pedantic or polemical the old judge became, Hardy was willing to listen to him; and Lucy, hovering in the background, would often smile to hear them argue, the judge laying down the law and equity of the matter and Rufus meeting him like an expert swordsman with parry and thrust. Day by day, his prejudice wearing away from lack of any real opposition, Judge Ware became more and more pleased with his daughter's superintendent; but Lucy herself was troubled. There was a look in his eyes that she had never seen before, a set and haggard stare that came when he sat alone, and his head was always turned aside, as if he were listening. The sheep came trooping in from the south, marching in long lines to the river's edge, and still he sat quiet, just inside the door, listening.
"Tell me, Rufus," she said, one day when her father was inspecting the upper range with Creede, "what is it that made you so sad? Is it—Kitty?"
For a minute he gazed at her, a faint smile on his lips.
"No," he said, at last, "it is not Kitty." And then he lapsed back into silence, his head turned as before.
The wind breathed through the corredor, bringing with it a distant, plaintive bleating—the sheep, waiting beyond the turbid river to cross.
"I have forgotten about Kitty," he said absently. "For me there is nothing in the world but sheep. Can't you hear them bleating down there?" he cried, throwing out his hands. "Can't you smell them? Ah, Lucy, if you knew sheep as I do! I never hear a sheep now that I don't think of that day last year when they came pouring out of Hell's Hip Pocket with a noise like the end of the world. If I had been there to stop them they might never have taken the range—but after that, all through the hot summer when the cattle were dying for feed, every time the wind came up and roared in my ears I would hear sheep—baaa, baaa—and now I hear them again."
He paused and looked up at her intently.
"Do you know what that noise means to me?" he demanded, almost roughly. "It means little calves dying around the water hole; mothers lowing for their little ones that they have left to starve; it means long lines of cows following me out over the mesa for brush, and all the trees cut down. Ah, Lucy, how can your father talk of waiting when it means as much as that?"
"But last year was a drought," protested Lucy pitifully. "Will it be as bad this year?"
"Every bit! Did you notice that plain between Bender and the river? It will be like that in a week if we let them cross the river."
"Oh," cried Lucy, "then you—do you mean to turn them back?"
"The river is very high," answered Hardy sombrely. "They cannot cross." And then as a quail strikes up leaves and dust to hide her nest, he launched forth quickly upon a story of the flood.
The Salagua was long in flood that Spring. Day after day, while the sheep wandered uneasily along its banks rearing up to strip the last remnants of browse from the tips of willows and burro bushes, it rolled ponderously forth from its black-walled gorge and flowed past the crossing, deep and strong, sucking evenly into the turbid whirlpool that waited for its prey. At the first approach of the invaders the unconsidered zeal of Judge Ware overcame him; he was for peace, reason, the saner judgment that comes from wider views and a riper mind, and, fired by the hope of peaceful truce, he rode furtively along the river waving a white handkerchief whenever he saw a sheep-herder, and motioning him to cross. But however anxious he was for an interview the desires of the sheepmen did not lean in that direction, and they only stared at him stolidly or pretended not to see.
Thwarted in his efforts for peace the judge returned to camp deep in thought. The sheep were at his very door and nothing had been done to stay them; a deadly apathy seemed to have settled down upon the cowmen; after all their threats there were no preparations for defence; the river was not even patrolled; and yet if quick action was not taken the upper range might be irreparably ruined before the reserve was proclaimed. Not that he would countenance violence, but a judicious show of resistance, for instance, might easily delay the crossing until the President could act, or even so daunt the invaders that they would go around. It was not strictly legal, of course, but the judge could see no harm in suggesting it, and as soon as the cowmen were gathered about their fire that evening he went out and sat down by Creede, who lay sprawled on his back, his head pillowed on his hands, smoking.
"Well, Jefferson," he began, feeling his way cautiously, "I see that the sheep have come down to the river—they will be making a crossing soon, I suppose?"
Creede sucked studiously upon his cigarette, and shifted it to a corner of his mouth.
"W'y yes, Judge," he said, "I reckon they will."
"Well—er—do you think they intend to invade our upper range this year?"
"Sure thing," responded Creede, resuming his smoke, "that's what they come up here for. You want to take a last long look at this grass."
"Yes, but, Jefferson," protested the judge, opening up his eyes, "what will our cattle feed upon then?"
"Same old thing," answered Creede, "palo verde and giant cactus. I've got most of mine in the town herd."
"What!" exclaimed Judge Ware, astounded at the suggestion, "you don't mean to say that you are preparing to go out of business? Why, my dear Jefferson, this country may be set aside as a forest reserve at any minute—and think of the privileges you will be giving up! As an owner of cattle already grazing upon the range you will be entitled to the first consideration of the Government; you will be granted the first grazing permit; there will be forest rangers to protect you; the sheep, being transient stock and known to be very destructive to forest growth, will undoubtedly be confined to a narrow trail far below us; by the payment of a nominal grazing fee you will be absolutely guaranteed in all your rights and watched over by the Federal Government!"
"Oh, hell!" exclaimed the big cowboy, rising up suddenly from his place, "don't talk Government to me, whatever you do! W'y, Judge," he cried, throwing out his hands, "they ain't no Government here. They ain't no law. I could go over and kill one of them sheep-herders and you wouldn't see an officer in two days. I've lived here for nigh onto twenty-six years and the nearest I ever come to seein' the Government was a mule branded 'U. S.'"
He stopped abruptly and, striding out into the darkness, picked up a log of wood and laid it carefully upon the fire.
"Judge," he said, turning suddenly and wagging an accusing finger at his former employer, "I've heard a lot from you about this reserve, how the President was goin' to telegraph you the news the minute he signed the proclamation, and send a ranger in to protect the range, and all that, but I ain't seen you do nothin'! Now if you're goin' to make good you've got jest about three days to do it in—after that the sheep will have us dished. Maybe you could use your pull to kinder hurry things up a little—do a little telegraphin', or somethin' like that."
"I'll do it!" cried the judge, taking the bait like a fish, "I'll do it at once! I want your best horse, Jeff, and a guide. I'll wire the chief forester from Bender!"
"Keno!" said Creede sententiously, "and give my regards to Teddy."
As the old judge disappeared over the western rim the next morning the rodeo boss smiled grimly behind his hand, and glanced significantly at Hardy. Then, with the outfit behind him, he rode slowly up the canyon, leaving his partner to his steady job as "family man"—entertaining the boss.
For two days the sheepmen watched the river eagerly, waiting for a drop; then suddenly, as the snow water ran by and a cool day checked the distant streams, it fell, and the swift pageant of the crossing began. At sun-up a boss herder rode boldly out into the current and swam it with his horse; brawny Mexicans leapt into the thicket of palo verdes that grew against the cliff and cut branches to build a chute; Jasper Swope in his high sombrero and mounted on his black mule galloped down from the hidden camp and urged his men along. Still the same ominous silence hung about the shore where Juan Alvarez lay buried beneath the cross. There was no watcher on Lookout Point, no horsemen lurking in the distance; only the lowing of the day herd, far up the canyon, and the lapping of muddy waters. Across the river the low malpai cliffs rose up like ramparts against them and Black Butte frowned down upon them like a watch tower, but of the men who might be there watching there was no sign.
The sheepman studied upon the situation for a while; then he sent a messenger flying back to camp and soon a hardy band of wethers came down, led by an advance guard of goats, and their plaintive bleating echoed in a confused chorus from the high cliffs as they entered the wings of the chute. Already the camp rustlers had driven them out on the slanting rock and encircled the first cut with their canvas wagon cover, when Jasper Swope held up his hand for them to stop. At the last moment and for no cause he hesitated, touched by some premonition, or suspicious of the silent shore. One after another the herders clambered back and squatted idly against the cool cliff, smoking and dangling their polished carbines; the sheep, left standing upon the rock, huddled together and stood motionless; the goats leapt nimbly up on adjacent bowlders and gazed across the river intently; then, throwing up his hand again, the sheepman spurred his black mule recklessly into the water, waving his big hat as he motioned for the sheep to cross.
As the long hours of that portentous morning wore on, palpitating to the clamor of the sheep, a great quiet settled upon Hidden Water. Sitting just within the door Hardy watched Lucy as she went about her work, but his eyes were wandering and haggard and he glanced from time to time at the Black Butte that stood like a sentinel against the crossing. In the intervals of conversation the bleating of the sheep rose suddenly from down by the river, and ceased; he talked on, feverishly, never stopping for an answer, and Lucy looked at him strangely, as if wondering at his preoccupation. Again the deep tremolo rose up, echoing from the cliffs, and Hardy paused in the midst of a story to listen. He was still staring out the doorway when Lucy Ware came over and laid her hand on his shoulder.
"Rufus," she said, "what is it you are always listening for? Day after day I see you watching here by the door, and when I talk you listen for something else. Tell me—is it—are you watching for Kitty?"
"Kitty?" repeated Hardy, his eyes still intent. "Why no; why should I be watching for her?"
At his answer, spoken so impassively, she drew away quickly, but he caught her hand and stopped her.
"Ah no," he said, "if I could only listen for something else it would be better—but all I hear is sheep. I'm like old Bill Johnson; I can still shoot straight and find my way in the mountains, but every time I hear a sheep blat I change. Poor old Bill, he's over across the river there now; the boys have heard his hounds baying up in the high cliffs for a week. I've seen him a time or two since he took to the hills and he's just as quiet and gentle with me as if he were my father, but if anybody mentions sheep he goes raving crazy in a minute. Jeff says he's been that way himself for years, and now it's got me, too. If I get much worse," he ended, suddenly glancing up at her with a wistful smile, "you'll have to take me away."
"Away!" cried Lucy eagerly, "would you go? You know father and I have talked of it time and again, but you just stick and stick, and nothing will make you leave. But listen—what was that?"
A succession of rifle shots, like the popping of wet logs over a fire, came dully to their ears, muffled by the bleating of sheep and the echoing of the cliffs. Hardy leapt to his feet and listened intently, his eyes burning with suppressed excitement; then he stepped reluctantly back into the house and resumed his seat.
"I guess it's only those Mexican herders," he said. "They shoot that way to drive their sheep."
"But look!" cried Lucy, pointing out the door, "the Black Butte is afire! Just see that great smoke!"
Hardy sprang up again and dashed out into the open. The popping of thirty-thirtys had ceased, but from the summit of the square-topped butte a signal fire rose up to heaven, tall and straight and black.
"Aha!" he muttered, and without looking at her he ran out to the corral to saddle Chapuli. But when he came back he rode slowly, checking the impatience of his horse, until at last he dismounted beside her. For days his eyes had been furtive and evasive, but now at last they were steady.
"Lucy," he said, "I haven't been very honest with you, but I guess you know what this means—the boys are turning back the sheep." His voice was low and gentle, and he stood very straight before her, like a soldier. Yet, even though she sensed what was in his mind, Lucy smiled. For a month he had been to her like another man, a man without emotion or human thought, and now in a moment he had come back, the old Rufus that she had known in her heart so long.
"Yes," she said, holding out her hand to him, "I knew it. But you are working for me, you know, and I cannot let you go. Listen, Rufus," she pleaded, as he drew away, "have I ever refused you anything? Tell me what you want to do."
"I want to go down there and help turn back those sheep," he said, bluntly. "You know me, Lucy—my heart is in this fight—my friends are in it—and I must go."
He waited for some answer, but Lucy only turned away. There were tears in her eyes when she looked back at him and her lips trembled, but she passed into the house without a word. Hardy gazed wonderingly after her and his heart smote him; she was like some sensitive little child to whom every rough word was a blow, and he had hurt her. He glanced at the signal fire that rolled up black and sombre as the watcher piled green brush upon it, then he dropped his bridle rein and stepped quickly into the house.
"You must forgive me, Lucy," he said, standing humbly at the door. "I—I am changed. But do not think that I will come to any harm—this is not a battle against men, but sheep. No one will be killed. And now may I go?" Once more his voice became low and gentle and he stood before her like some questing knight before his queen, but she only sat gazing at him with eyes that he could not understand.
"Listen, Lucy," he cried, "I will not go unless you tell me—and now may I go?"
A smile came over Lucy's face but she did not speak her thoughts.
"If you will stay for my sake," she said, "I shall be very happy, but I will not hold you against your will. Oh, Rufus, Rufus!" she cried, suddenly holding out her hands, "can't you understand? I can't set myself against you, and yet—think what it is to be a woman!" She rose up and stood before him, the soft light glowing in her eyes, and Hardy stepped forward to meet her; but in that moment a drumming of hoofs echoed through the doorway, there was a rush of horsemen leaning forward as they rode, and then Jefferson Creede thundered by, glancing back as he spurred down the canyon to meet the sheep.