They parted from the family at the ranch with a light-hearted promise to stop again on their way down the river. When they would return they were gayly uncertain,—it might be ten days, it might be two weeks. It was a promise that nestled with delusive sweetness in Ruth Mary's thoughts, as she went silently about her work. She was helpful in all ways, and very gentle with the children, but she lingered more hours dreaming by the river, and often at twilight she climbed the hill back of the cabin and sat there alone, her cheek in the hollow of her hand, until the great planes of distance were lost, and all the hills drew together in one dark profile against the sky.
* * * * *
Mrs. Tully had been intending to spare Ruth Mary for a journey to town, on some errands of a feminine nature which could not be intrusted to Mr. Tully's larger but less discriminating judgment. Ruth Mary had never before been known to trifle with an opportunity of this kind. Her rides to town had been the one excitement of her life; looked forward to with eagerness and discussed with tireless interest for many days afterwards. But now she hung back with an unaccountable apathy, and made excuses for postponing the ride from day to day, until the business became too pressing to be longer neglected. She set off one morning at daybreak, following the horseback trail, around the steep and sliding bluffs high above the river, or across beds of broken lava rock,—arrested avalanches from the slowly crumbling cliffs which crowned the bluff,—or picking her way at a soft-footed pace through the thickets of the river bottoms. In such a low and sheltered spot, scarcely four feet above the river, she found the engineers' camp, a group of white tents shining among the willows. She keenly noted its location and surroundings. The broken timbers of the old bridge projected from the bank a short distance above the camp; a piece of weather-stained canvas stretched over them formed a kind of awning shading the rocks below, where the Chinese cook of the camp sat impassively fishing. The camp had a deserted appearance, for the men were all at work, tunneling the hill half a mile lower down. Her errands kept her so late that she was obliged to stay over night at the house of a friend of her father's, who owned a fruit ranch near the town. They were prosperous, talkative people, who loudly pitied the isolation of the family in the upper valley.
Ruth Mary reached home about noon the next day, tired and several shades more deeply sunburned, to find that she had passed the engineers, without knowing it, on their way down the river by the wagon road on the other side. They had stopped over night at the ranch and made an early start that morning. Ruth Mary was obliged to listen to enthusiastic reminiscences, from each member of the family, of the visit she had missed.
This was the last social event of the year. The willow copses turned yellow and leaf-bare; the scarlet hips of the rosebushes looked as if tiny finger-tips had left their prints upon them. The wreaths of wild clematis faded ashen gray, and were scattered by the winds. The wood dove's cooing no longer sounded at twilight in the leafless thickets. They had gone down the river and the wild duck with them.
But the voice of the river, rising with the autumn rains, was loud on the bar; the sky was hung with clouds that hid the hilltops or trailed their ragged pennants below the summits. The mist lay cold on the river; it rose with the sun, dissolving in soft haze that dulled the sunshine, and at night, descending, shrouded the dark, hoarse water without stilling its lament. Then the first snow fell, and ghostly companies of deer came out upon the hills, or filed silently down the draws of the canons at morning and evening. The cattle had come down from the mountain pastures, and at night congregated about the buildings with deep breathings and sighings; the river murmured in its fretted channel; now and then the yelp of a hungry coyote sounded from the hills.
The young men had said, among their light and pleasant sayings, that they would like to come up again to the hills when the snow fell, and get a shot at the deer; but they did not come, though often Ruth Mary stood on the bank and looked across the swollen ford, and listened for the echo of wheels among the hills.
About the 1st of November Mr. Tully went down to the camp at Moor's Bridge to build the engineers' boat. The women were now alone at the ranch, but Joe Enselman's return was daily expected. Mr. Tully, always cheerful, had been confident that he would be home by the 5th.
The 5th of November and the 10th passed, but Enselman had not returned. On the 12th, in the midst of a heavy fall of snow, his pack animals were driven in by another man, a stranger to the women at the ranch, who said that Enselman had changed his mind suddenly about coming home that fall, and decided to go to Montana and "prove up" on his ranch there.
Mr. Tully's work was finished before the second week of December. On his return to the ranch he brought with him a great brown paper bundle, which the children opened by the cabin fire on the joyous evening of his arrival. There were back numbers of the illustrated magazines and papers, stray copies of which now and then had drifted into the hands of the voracious young readers in the cabin. There were a few novels, selected by Kirkwood from the camp library with especial reference to Ruth Mary. For Tommy there was a duplicate of the wonderful pocket-knife that he had envied Kirkwood. Angy was remembered with a little music-box, which played "Willie, we have missed you" with a plaintive iteration that brought the sensitive tears to Ruth Mary's eyes; and for Ruth Mary herself there was a lace pin of hammered gold.
"He said it must be your wedding present from him, as you'd be married likely before he saw you again," Mr. Tully said, with innocent pride in the gift with which his daughter had been honored.
"Who said that?" Ruth Mary asked.
"Why, Mr. Kirkwood said it. He's the boss one of the whole lot to my thinkin'. He's got that way with him some folks has! We had some real good talks, evenings, down on the rocks under the old bridge,—I told him about you and Enselman"—
"Father, I wish you hadn't done that." The protest in Ruth Mary's voice was stronger than her words.
She had become slightly pale when Kirkwood's name was mentioned, but now, as she held out the box with the trinket in it, a deep blush covered her face.
"I cannot take it, father. Not with that message. He can wait till I am married before he sends me his wedding present."
To her father's amazement, she burst into tears and went out into the shed-room, leaving Kirkwood's ill-timed gift in his hands.
"What in all conscience' sake's got into her?" he demanded of his wife, "to take offense at a little thing like that! She didn't use to be so techy."
Mrs. Tully nodded her head at him sagely and glanced at the children, a hint that she understood Ruth Mary's state of mind, but could not explain before them.
At bedtime, the father and mother being alone together, Mrs. Tully revealed the cause of her daughter's sensitiveness, according to her theory of it. "She's put out because Joe Enselman chose to wait till spring before marryin', and went off to Montany instead of comin' home as he said he would."
"Sho, sho!" said Mr. Tully. "That don't seem like Ruth Mary. She ain't in any such a hurry as all that comes to. I've had it on my mind lately that she took it a little too easy."
"You'll see," said the mother. "She ain't in any hurry, but she likes him to be. She feels's if he thought more of money-makin' than he does of her. She's like all girls. She won't use her reason and see it's all for her in the end he's doin' it."
"Why didn't you tell her 'twas my plan, his goin' to Montany this fall? He wouldn't listen to it nohow then. He'd rather lose his ranch than wait any longer for Sis, so he said; but I guess he's seen the sense of what I told him. 'Ruth Mary ain't a-goin' to run away,' I says, 'even if ye don't prove up on her this fall.' You ought to 'a' told her, mother, 'twas my proposition."
"I told her that and more too. I told her it showed he'd make a good provider. She looked at me solemn as a graven image all the time I was talkin' and not a word out of her. But that's Ruth Mary. I never said the child was sullen, but she is just like your sister Ruth—the more she feels, the less she talks."
"Well," said Mr. Tully, "that's all right, if that's it. That'll all straighten out with time. It was natural perhaps she should fire up at the talk about marryin' if she felt the bridegroom was hangin' back. Why, Joe,—he'd eat the dirt she treads on, if he couldn't make her like him no other way! He's most too foolish about her, to my thinkin'. That's what took me so by surprise when word come back he'd gone to Montany after all; I didn't expect anything so sensible of him."
"'Twas a reg'lar man's piece o' work anyhow," said Mrs. Tully disconsolately.
"And you'll be sorry for it, I'm afraid. I never knew any good come of puttin' off a marriage, where everything was suitable, just for a few hundred acres of wild land, more or less."
"No use your worryin'," said Mr. Tully. "Young folks always has their little troubles before they settle down—besides, what sort of a marriage would it be if you or I could make it or break it?" But he bore himself with a deprecating tenderness towards his daughter, in whose affairs he had meddled, perhaps disastrously, as his better half feared.
* * * * *
The winters of Idaho are not long, even in the higher valleys. Close upon the cold footsteps of the retreating snows trooped the first wild flowers. The sun seemed to laugh in the cloudless sky. The children were let loose on the hills; their voices echoed the river's chime. Its waters, rising with the melting snows, no longer babbled childishly on their way; they shouted, and brawled, and tumbled over the bar, rolling huge pine trunks along as if they were sticks of kindling wood.
One cool May evening, Ruth Mary, climbing the path from the beach, saw there was a strange horse and two pack animals in the corral. She did not stop to look at them, but, quickly guessing who their owner must be, she went on to the house, her knees weak and trembling, her heart beating heavily. Her father met her at the door and detained her outside. She was prepared for his announcement. She knew that Joe Enselman had returned, and that the time was come for her to prove her new resolve, born of the winter's silent struggle.
"I thought I'd better have a few words with you, Ruthie, before you see him—to prepare your mind. Set down here." Mr. Tully took his daughter's hands in his own and held them while he talked.
"You thought it was queer Joe stayed away so long, didn't you?" Ruth Mary opened her lips to speak, but no words came. "Well, I did," said the father. "Though it was my plan first off. I might 'a' know'd it was something more 'n business that kep' him. Joe's had an accident. It happened to him just about the time he meant to 'a' started for home last fall. It broke him all up,—made him feel like he didn't want to see any of us just then. He was goin' along a trail through the woods one dark night; he never knew what stunned him; must have been a twig or something struck him in the eye; he was giddy and crazy-like for a spell; his horse took him home. Well, he ain't got but one eye left, Joe ain't. There, Sis, I knew you'd feel bad. But he's well. It's hurt his looks some, but what's looks! We ain't any of us got any to brag on. Joe had some hopes at first he'd git to seein' again out of the eye that was hurt, and so he sent home his animals and put out for Salt Lake to show it to a doctor there; but it wan't any use. The eye's gone; and it doos seem as if for the time bein' some of Joe's grit had gone with it. He went up to Montany and tended to his business, but it was all like a dumb show and no heart in it. It's cut him pretty deep, through his bein' alone so long, perhaps, and thinkin' about how you'd feel. And then he's pestered in his mind about marryin'. He feels he's got no claim to you now. Says it ain't fair to ask a young girl that's likely to have plenty good chances to tie up to what's left of him. I wanted you should know about this before you go inside. It might hurt him some to see a change in your face when you look at him first. As to his givin' you your word back, that you'll settle between yourselves; but, however you fix it, I guess you'll make it as easy as you can for Joe. I don' know as ever I see a big strappin' fellow so put down."
Mr. Tully had waited, between his short and troubled sentences, for some response from Ruth Mary, but she was still silent. Her hands felt cold in his. As he released them she leaned suddenly forward and hid her face against his shoulder. She shivered and her breast heaved, but she was not weeping.
"There, there!" said Mr. Tully, stroking her head clumsily with his large hand. "I've made a botch of it. I'd ought to 'a' let your mother told ye."
She pressed closer to him, and wrapped her arms around him without speaking.
"I expect I better go in now," he said gently, putting her away from him. "Will you come along o' me, or do you want to git a little quieter first?"
"You go in," Ruth Mary whispered. "I'll come soon."
It was not long before she followed her father into the house. No one was surprised to see her white and tremulous. She seemed to know where Enselman sat without raising her eyes; neither did he venture to look at her, as she came to him, and stooping forward, laid her little cold hands on his.
"I'm glad you've come back," she said. Then sinking down suddenly on the floor at his feet, she threw her apron over her head and sobbed aloud.
The father and mother wept too. Joe sat still, with a great and bitter longing in his smitten countenance, but did not dare to comfort her.
"Pick her up, Joe," said Mr. Tully.
"Take hold of her, man, and show her you've got a whole heart if you ain't got but one eye."
It was understood, as Ruth Mary meant that it should be, without more words, that Enselman's misfortune would make no difference in their old relation. The difference it had made in that new resolve born of the winter's struggle she told to no one; for to no one had she confided her resolve.
* * * * *
Joe stayed two weeks at the ranch, and was comforted into a semblance of his former hardy cheerfulness. But Ruth Mary knew that he was not happy. One evening he asked her to go with him down the high shore path. He told her that he was going to town the next day on business that might keep him absent about a fortnight, and entreated her to think well of her promise to him, for that on his return he should expect its fulfillment. For God's sake he begged her to let no pity for his misfortune blind her to the true nature of her feeling for him. He held her close to his heart and kissed her many times. Did she love him so—and so?—he asked. Ruth Mary, trembling, said she did not know. How could she help knowing? he demanded passionately. Had her thoughts been with him all winter, as his had been with her? Had she looked up the river towards the hills where he was staying so long and wished for him, as he had gazed southward into the valleys many and many a day, longing for the sweet blue eyes of his little girl so far away?
Alas, Ruth Mary! She gazed almost wildly into his stricken face, distorted by the anguish of his great love and his great dread. She wished that she were dead. There seemed no other way out of her trouble.
The next morning, before she was dressed, Enselman rode away, and her father went with him.
She was alone, now, in the midst of the hills she loved—alone as she would never be again. She foresaw that she would not have the strength to lay that last blow upon her faithful old friend,—the crushing blow that perfect truth demanded. Her tenderness was greater than her truth.
* * * * *
The river was now swollen to its greatest volume. Its voice, that had been the babble of a child and the tumult of a boy, was now deep and heavy like the chest notes of a strong man. Instead of the sparkling ripple on the bar, there was a continuous roar of yellow, turbid water that could be heard a mile away. There had been no fording for six weeks, nor would there be again until late summer. The useless boat lay in the shallow wash that filled the deep cut among the willows. The white sand beach was gone; heavy waves swirled past the banks and sent their eddies up into the channels of the hills to meet the streams of melted snow. Thunder clouds chased each other about the mountains, or met in sudden downfalls of rain.
One sultry noon, when the sun had come out hot on the hills after a wet morning, Ruth Mary, at work in the shed-room, heard a sound that drove the color from her cheek. She ran out and looked up the river, listening to a distant but ever increasing roar which could be heard above the incessant laboring of the waters over the bar. Above the summit of Sheep Mountain, as it seemed, a huge turban-shaped cloud had rolled itself up, and from its central folds was discharging gray sheets of water that veered and slanted with the wind, but were always distinct in their density against the rain-charged atmosphere. How far away the floods were descending she did not know; but that they were coming in a huge wall of water, overtaking and swallowing up the river's current, she was as sure as that she had been bred in the mountains.
Bare-headed, bare-armed as she was, without a backward look, she ran down the hill to the place where the boat was moored. Tommy was there, sitting in the boat and making the shallow water splash as he rocked from side to side.
"Get out, Tommy, and let me have her, quick!" Ruth Mary called to him.
Tommy looked at her stolidly and kept on rocking. "What you want with her?" he asked.
"Come out, for mercy's sake! Don't you hear it? There's a cloud-burst on the mountain."
Tommy listened. He did hear it, but he did not stir. "It'll be a bully thing to see when it comes. What you doin'? You act like you was crazy," he exclaimed, as Ruth Mary waded through the water and got into the boat.
"Tommy, you will kill me if you stop to talk! Don't you know the camp at Moor's Bridge? Go home and tell mother I've gone to give 'em warning."
Tommy was instantly sobered. "I'm going with you," he said. "You can't handle her alone in that current."
Ruth Mary, wild with the delay, every second of which might be the price of precious lives, seized Tommy in her arms, hugged him close and kissed him, and by main strength rolled him out into the water. He grasped the gunwale with both hands. "You're going to be drowned," he shrieked, as if already she were far away. She pushed off his hands and shot out into the current.
"Don't cry, Tommy, I'll get there somehow," she called back to him. She could see nothing for the first few minutes of her journey but his little wet, dismal figure toiling, sobbing, up the hill. It hurt her to have had to be rough with him. But all the while she sat upright with her eyes on the current, plying her paddle right and left, as rocks and driftwood and eddies were passed. She heard it coming, that distant roar from the hills, and prayed with beating heart that the wild current might carry her faster—faster—past the draggled willow copses—past the beds of black lava rock, and the bluffs with their patches of green moss livid in the sunshine—hurling along, past glimpses of the well-known trail she had followed dreamily on those peaceful rides she might never take again. The thought did not trouble her, only the fear that she might be overtaken before she reached the camp. For the waters were coming—or was it the wind that brought that dread sound so near! She dared not look round lest she should see, through the gates of the canon, the black lifted head of the great wave, devouring the river behind her. How it would come swooping down, between those high narrow walls of rock, her heart stood still to think of. If the hills would but open and let it loose, over the empty pastures—if the river would only hurry, hurry, hurry! She whispered the word to herself with frantic repetition, and the oncoming roar behind her answered her whisper of fear with its awful intoning.
She trembled with joy as the canon walls lowered and fell apart, and she saw the blessed plains, the low green flats and the willows, and the white tents of the camp, safe in the sunshine. Now if she be given but one moment's grace to swing into the bank! The roar behind her made her faint as she listened. For the first time she turned and looked back, and the cry of her despair went up and was lost, as boat and message and messenger were lost,—gone utterly, gorged at one leap by the senseless flood.
* * * * *
At half past five o'clock that afternoon the men of the camp filed out of the tunnel, along the new road-bed, with the low sunlight in their faces. It was "Saturday night," and the whole force was in good humor. As they tramped gayly along, tools and instruments glinting in the sun, word went down the line that something unusual had been going on by the river. There seemed to have been a wild uprising of its waters since they saw it last. Then a shout from those ahead proclaimed the disaster at the bridge. The Chinese cook, crouched among the rocks high up under the bluff, where he had fled for safety when he heard the waters coming, rushed down to them with wild wavings and gabblings, to tell them of a catastrophe that was best described by its results. A few provisions were left them, stored in a magazine under a rock on the hillside. They cooked their supper with the splinters of the ruined blacksmith's hut. After supper, in the clear, pink evening light, they wandered about on the slippery rocks, seeking whatever fragments of their camp equipage the flood might have left them. Everything had been swept away, and tons of mud and gravel covered the little green meadow where their tents had stood. Kirkwood, straying on ahead of his comrades, came to the rocks below the bridge timbers, from which the awning had been torn away. The wet rocks glistened in the light, but there was a whiter gleam which caught his eye. He stooped and crawled under the timbers anchored in the bank, until he came to the spot of whiteness. Was this that fair young girl from the hills, dragged here by the waters in their cruel orgy, and then hidden by them as if in shame of their work? Kirkwood recognized the simple features, the meek eyes, wide open in the searching light. The mud that filled her garments had spared the pure young face. Kirkwood gazed into it reverently, but the passionate sacrifice, the useless warning, were sealed from him. She could not tell him why she was there.
The three young men watched in turn, that night, by the little motionless heap covered with Kirkwood's coat. Kirkwood was very sad about Ruth Mary, yet he slept when his watch was over.
In the morning they nailed together some boards into the shape of a long box. There was not a boat left on the river; fording was impossible. They could only take her home by the trail. So once more Ruth Mary traveled that winding path, high in the sunlight or low in the shade of the shore. A log of driftwood, left by the great wave, slung on one side of a mule's pack saddle, balanced the rude coffin on the other. No one meeting the three engineers and their pack-mule filing down the trail would have known that they were a funeral procession; but they were heavy-hearted as they rode along, and Kirkwood would fain it had not been his part to ride ahead and prepare the family at the ranch for their child's coming.
The mother, with Tommy and Angy hiding their faces against her, stood on the hill and watched for it, and broke into cries as the mule with its burden came in sight.
Kirkwood walked with them down the hill to meet it. His comrades dismounted, and the three young men, with heads uncovered, carried the coffin over the hill and set it down in the shed-room. Then Tommy, in a burst of childish grief, made them know that this piteous sacrifice had been for them.
The tunnel made its way through the hill, the sinuous road-bed wound up the valley, new camps were built along its course; but when the young men sat together of an evening and looked at the hills in the strange pink light, a spell of quietness rested upon them which no one tried to explain.
* * * * *
The railroad has been built these two years. Every summer brings tourists up into the Bear River valley. They look with delight upon the mountain stream, bounding down between the hills with the brightness of the morning on its breast.
"There should be an idyl or a legend belonging to it," a pretty, dark-eyed girl with a Boston accent said to Kirkwood, one moonlight evening late in summer when the river was low, as they drifted softly down between its dim shores. "Poor little Bear River! did nothing human ever happen near you to give you a right to a prettier name?"
The river did not answer as it rippled over the bar, nor did Kirkwood speak for it; but the wood dove's melancholy tremolo came from the misty willows by the shore, and in some suddenly illumined place in his memory he saw Ruth Mary, sitting on the high bank in the peaceful afternoon, the sunshine resting on her smooth, fair hair, the shadow lending its softness to her shy, down-bent face.
The pity of it, when he thinks of it sometimes, seems to him more than he can bear. Yet if Ruth Mary had still been there at the ranch on the hills, she would have been, to him, only "that nice little girl of Tully's who married the one-eyed packer."
THE RAPTURE OF HETTY.
The dance was set for Christmas night at Walling's, a horse-ranch where there were women, situated in a high, watered valley shut in by foothills, sixteen miles from the nearest town. The cabin with its roof of shakes, the sheds and corrals, can be seen from any divide between Packer's ferry and the Fayette.
The "boys" had been generally invited, with one exception to the usual company. The youngest of the sons of Basset, a pastoral and nomadic house, was socially under a cloud, on the charge of having been "too handy with the frying-pan brand."
The charge could not be substantiated, but the boy's name had been roughly handled in those wide, loosely defined circles of the range where the force of private judgment makes up for the weakness of the law, in dealing with crimes that are difficult of detection and uncertain of punishment. He that has obliterated his neighbor's brand or misapplied his own, is held as, in the age of tribal government and ownership, was held the remover of his neighbor's landmarks. A word goes forth against him potent as the levitical curse, and all the people say amen.
As society's first public and pointed rejection of him the slight had rankled with the son of Basset, and grievously it wore on him that Hetty Rhodes was going, with the man who had been his earliest and most persistent accuser: Hetty, prettiest of all the bunch-grass belles, who never reproached nor quarreled, but judged people with her smile and let them go. He had not complained, though he had her promise,—one of her promises,—nor asked a hearing in his own defense. The sons of Basset were many and poor; their stock had dwindled upon the range; her men-folk condemned him, and Hetty believed, or seemed to believe, as the others.
Had she forgotten the night when two men's horses stood at her father's fence,—the Basset boy's and that of him who was afterward his accuser; and the other's horse was unhitched when the evening was but half spent, and furiously ridden away, while the Basset boy's stood at the rails till close upon midnight? Had the coincidence escaped her that from this night, of one man's rage and another's bliss, the ugly charge had dated? Of these things a girl may not testify.
They met in town on the Saturday before the dance, Hetty buying her dancing-shoes at the back of the store, where the shoe-cases framed in a snug little alcove for the exhibition of a "fit." The boy, in his belled spurs and "shaps" of goat-hide, was lounging disconsolate and sulky against one of the front counters; she wore a striped ulster, an enchanted garment his arm had pressed, and a pink crocheted tam-o'-shanter cocked bewitchingly over her dark eyes.
Her hair was ruffled, her cheeks were red, with the wind she had faced for two hours on the spring-seat of her father's "dead axe" wagon. Critical feminine eyes might have found her a trifle blowzy; the sick-hearted Basset boy looked once,—he dared not look again.
Hetty coquetted with her partner in the shoe bargain, a curly-headed young Hebrew, who flattered her familiarly and talked as if he had known her from a child, but always with an eye to business. She stood, holding back her skirts and rocking her instep from right to left, while she considered the effect of the new style; patent-leather foxings and tan-cloth tops, and heels that came under the middle of her foot, and narrow toes with tips of stamped leather;—but what a price! More than a third of her chicken-money gone for that one fancy's satisfaction. But who can know the joy of a really distinguished choice in shoe-leather like one who in her childhood has trotted barefoot through the sage-brush and associated shoes only with cold weather or going to town? The Basset boy tried to fix his strained attention upon anything rather than upon that tone of high jocosity between Hetty and the shiny-haired clerk. He tried to summon his own self-respect and leave the place.
What was the tax, he inquired, on those neck-handkerchiefs; and he pointed with the loaded butt of his braided leather quirt to a row of dainty silk mufflers, signaling custom from a cord stretched above the gentlemen's-furnishing counter.
The clerk explained that the goods in question were first class, all silk, brocaded, and of an extra size. Plainly he expected that a casual mention of the price would cool the inexperienced customer's curiosity, especially as the colors displayed in the handkerchiefs were not those commonly affected by the cow-boy cult. The Basset boy threw down his last half-eagle and carelessly called for the one with a blue border. The delicate "baby blue" attracted him by its perishability, its suggestion of impossible refinements beyond the soilure and dust of his own grimy circumstances. Yet he pocketed his purchase as though it had been any common thing, not to show his pride in it before the patronizing salesman.
He waited foolishly for Hetty, not knowing if she would even speak to him. When she came at last, loitering down the shop, with her eyes on the gay Christmas counters and her arms filled with bundles, he silently fell in behind her and followed her to her father's wagon, where he helped her unload her purchases.
"Been buying out the store?" he opened the conversation.
"Buying more than father'll want to pay for," she drawled, glancing at him sweetly. Those entoiling looks of Hetty's dark-lashed eyes had grown to a habit with her; even now the little Jewish salesman was smiling over his brief portion in them. Her own coolness made her careless, as children are in playing with fire.
"Here's some Christmas the old man won't have to pay for." A soft paper parcel was crushed into her hand.
"Who is going to pay for it, I'd like to know? If it's some of your doings, Jim Basset, I can't take it—so there!"
She thrust the package back upon him. He tore off the wrapper and let the wind carry his rejected token into the trampled mud and slush of the street.
Hetty screamed and pounced to the rescue. "What a shame! It's a beauty of a handkerchief. It must have cost a lot of money. I shan't let you use it so."
She shook it, and wiped away the spots from its delicate sheen, and folded it into its folds again.
"I don't want the thing." He spurned it fiercely.
"Then give it to some one else." She endeavored coquettishly to force it into his hands, or into the pockets of his coat. He could not withstand her thrilling little liberties in the face of all the street.
"I'll wear it Monday night," said he. "May be you think I won't be there?" he added hoarsely, for he had noted her look of surprise, mingled with an infuriating touch of pity. "You kin bank on it I'll be there."
Hetty toyed with the thought that after all it might be better that she should not go to the dance. There might be trouble, for certainly Jim Basset had looked as if he meant it when he had said he would be there; and Hetty knew the temper of the company, the male portion of it, too well to doubt what their attitude would be toward an inhibited guest who disputed the popular verdict, and claimed social privileges which it had been agreed that he had forfeited. But it was never really in her mind to deny herself the excitement of going. She and her escort were among the first couples to cross the snowy pastures stretching between her father's claim and the lights of the lonely horse-ranch.
It was a cloudy night, the air soft, chill, and spring-like. Snow had fallen early and frozen upon the ground; the stockmen welcomed the "chinook wind" as the promise of a break in the hard weather. Shadows came out and played upon the pale slopes, as the riders rose and dropped past one long swell and another of dim country falling away like a ghostly land seeking a ghostly sea. And often Hetty looked back, fearing, yet half hoping, that the interdicted one might be on his way, among the dusky, straggling shapes behind.
The company was not large, nor, up to nine o'clock, particularly merry. The women were engaged in cooking supper, or were above in the roof-room brushing out their crimps by the light of an unshaded kerosene lamp, placed on the pine wash-stand which did duty as a dressing-table. The men's voices came jarringly through the loose boards of the floor from below.
About that hour arrived the unbidden guest, and like the others he had brought his "gun." He was stopped at the door and told that he could not come in among the girls to make trouble. He denied that he had come with any such intention. There were persons present,—he mentioned no names,—who were no more eligible, socially speaking, than himself, and he ranked himself low in saying so; where such as these could be admitted, he proposed to show that he could. He offered, in evidence of his good faith and peaceable intentions, to give up his gun; but on the condition that he be allowed one dance with the partner of his choosing, regardless of her previous engagements.
This unprecedented proposal was referred to the girls, who were charmed with its audacity. But none of them spoke up for the outcast till Hetty said she could not think what they were all afraid of; a dozen to one, and that one without his weapon! Then the other girls chimed in and added their timid suffrages.
There may have been some twinges of disappointment, there could hardly have been surprise, when the black sheep directed his choice without a look elsewhere to Hetty. She stood up, smiling but rather pale, and he rushed her to the head of the room, securing the most conspicuous place before his rival, who with his partner took the place of second couple opposite.
"Keep right on!" the fiddler chanted, in sonorous cadence to the music, as the last figure of the set ended with "Promenade all!" He swung into the air of the first figure again, smiling, with his cheek upon his instrument and his eyes upon the floor. Hetty fancied that his smile meant more than merely the artist's pleasure in the joy he evokes.
"Keep your places!" he shouted again, after the "Promenade all!" a second time had raised the dust and made the lamps flare, and lighted with smiles of sympathy the rugged faces of the elders ranged against the walls. The side couples dropped off exhausted, but the tops held the floor, and neither of the men was smiling.
The whimsical fiddler invented new figures, which he "called off" in time to his music, to vary the monotony of a quadrille with two couples missing.
The opposite girl was laughing hysterically; she could no longer dance nor stand. The rival gentleman looked about him for another partner. One girl jumped up, then, hesitating, sat down again. The music passed smoothly into a waltz, and Hetty and her bad boy kept the floor, regardless of shouts and protests warning the trespasser that his time was up and the game in other hands.
Three times they circled the room; they looked neither to right nor left; their eyes were upon each other. The men were all on their feet, the music playing madly. A group of half-scared girls was huddled, giggling and whispering, near the door of the dimly lighted shed-room. Into the midst of them Hetty's partner plunged, with his breathless, smiling dancer in his arms, passed into the dim outer place to the door where his horse stood saddled, and they were gone.
They crossed the little valley known as Seven Pines; they crashed through the thin ice of the creek; they rode double sixteen miles before daybreak, Hetty wrapped in her lover's "slicker," with the blue-bordered handkerchief, her only wedding-gift, tied over her blowing hair.
The far-Eastern company was counting its Western acres under water contracts. The acres were in first crops, waiting for the water. The water was dallying down its untried channel, searching the new dry earth-banks, seeping, prying, and insinuating sly, minute forces which multiplied and insisted tremendously the moment a rift had been made. And the orders were to "watch" and "puddle;" and the watchmen were as other men, and some of them doubtless remembered they were working for a company.
Travis, the black-eyed young lumberman from the upper Columbia, had been sent down with a special word from the manager commending him as a tried hand, equal to any post or service. The ditch superintendent was looking for such a man. He gave him those five crucial miles between the head-gates and Glenn's Ferry, the notorious beat that had sifted Finlayson's force without yet finding a man who could keep the banks. Some said it was the Arc-light saloon at Glenn's Ferry; some said it was the pretty girl at Lark's.
Whatever it was, Travis raged at it in the silent hours of his one-man watch; and the report had gone up the line now, three times since he had taken hold, of breaks on his division. And the engineer would by no means "weaken" on a question of the work, nor did the loyal watchman ask that any one should weaken, to spare him. He was all eyes and ears; he watched by daylight, he listened by dark, and the sounds that he heard in his dreams were sounds of water searching the banks, swirling and sinking into holes, or of mud subsiding with a wretched flop into the insidious current.
It was a queer country along the new ditch below the head-gates; as old and sun-bleached and bony as the stony valleys of Arabia Petrea; all but that strip of green that led the eye to where the river wandered, and that warm brown strip of sown land extending field by field below the ditch.
Lark's ranch was the first one below the head-gates, lying between the river and the ditch, an old homesteader's claim, sub-irrigated by means of rude dams ponding the natural sloughs. The worn-out land, never drained, was foul and sour, lapsing into swamps, the black alkali oozing and spreading from pools in its boggy pastures.
A few pioneer fruit-trees still bloomed and bore, undiscouraged by neglect, and cast homelike shadows on the weedy grass around the cabin and sheds that slouched at all angles, with nails starting and shingles warping in the sun.
Similar weather-stains and odd kicks and bulges the old rancher's person exhibited, when he came out to sun himself of a rimy morning, when cobwebs glittered on the short, late grass, and his joints reminded him that the rains were coming. And up and down the cow-trail below the ditch, morning and evening, went his dairy-herd to pasture; and after them loitered Nancy, on a strawberry pony with milk white mane and tail.
The lights and shadows chased her in and out among the willows and fleecy cottonwoods and tall swamp-grasses; but Travis rode in the glare, on the high ditch-bank, and, although they passed each other daily, he had never had a good look at the "pretty girl at Lark's." But one morning the white-faced heifer broke away and bolted up the ditch-bank, and in a cloud of sun-smitten dust Nancy followed, a figure of virginal wrath with scarlet cheeks and wind-blown hair. Reining her pony on the narrow bank, she called across to Travis in a voice as clear and fresh as her colors:—
"Head her off, can't you? What are you about!" This last to the pony, who was behaving "mean."
"Ride to the bridge and head her this way. I can drive her up the bank," Travis responded.
Nancy obeyed him, and waited at the bridge while he endeavored to persuade the heifer of the error of her ways. The heifer was not easily persuaded, and Travis was wet to the waist before he had got her out; but he lost nothing of the bright figure guarding the bridge, a slender shape all pink and blue and dark blue, with hair like the sun on brown water, and a perfect seat, and a ringing voice calling thanks and bewildering encouragement to her ally in the stream. And this was old Solomon's daughter!
But "Oh, my Nancy!" the boys would groan, with excess of appreciation beyond words, and for that Nancy heeded them not: and now Travis knew that the boys were right.
"Thank you ever so much!" her clear voice lilted, as the discomfited runaway dashed down the bank to the path she had forsaken. "I'm ever so sorry she dug all those bad tracks in the ditch. Will they do any harm?"
Travis assured her that nothing did harm if only it were known in time.
"What is the matter with it, anyhow,—the ditch? Isn't it built right?"
"The ditch is the prettiest I ever saw," Travis responded, with all the warmth of his unrequited devotion to that faithless piece of engineering. "All new ditches need watching till the banks get settled."
"Well, I should say that you watched! Don't you ever stir off that bank?"
"I eat and sleep sometimes."
"You must have a pretty dry camp up above. Wouldn't you like some milk once in a while?"
"Thanks; I never happened to fall in with the milkman on my beat."
"We have lots to spare, and buttermilk too, if you're not too proud to come for it. The others used to."
"I guess I don't quite catch on."
"The other watchmen, the boys who were here before you."
"Oh," said Travis coldly.
"Well, any time you choose to come down I'll save some for you," said the girl, as if that matter were settled.
"I'm afraid it is rather off my beat," Travis hesitated, "but I'm just as much obliged."
Nancy straightened herself haughtily. "Oh, it is nothing to be obliged for, if you don't care to come."
"I did not say I didn't care," Travis protested; but she was gone. The dust flew, and presently her dark blue skirt and the pony's silver tail flashed past the willows in the low grounds.
"I shall never see her again," he mourned. "So much for those other fellows spoiling her idea of a watchman's duty. Of course she thought I could come if I wanted to. Did she ask them, I wonder?"
Nancy was piqued, but not resentful. The more he did not come, as evening after evening smiled upon the level land; the more she thought of Travis, alone in his dusty camp, alone on his blinding beat; the more she dwelt upon the singularity and constancy of his refusal, the more she respected him for it.
So one day he did see her again. She was sitting on the bridge planks, leaning forward, her arms in her lap, her hat tipped back, a star of white sunlight touching her forehead. She lifted her head when she heard him coming and put her hand over her eyes, as if she were dizzy with watching the water.
"How's the ditch?" she called in a voice of sweetest cheer. She was on her feet now, and he saw how entrancing she was, in a blue muslin frock and a broad white hat with a wreath of pink roses bestrewing the tilted brim. Had they got company at the ranch? was his jealous reflection.
"How's the ditch behaving itself these days?" she repeated.
"Much as usual, thank you," Travis beamed from his saddle.
"Breaking, as usual?"
"Yes; it broke night before last."
"Well, I don't believe it's much of a ditch, anyhow. I wouldn't fret about it if I was you. Don't you think I'm very good-natured, after your snubbing me so? Here I've brought you a basket of apples, seeing you wouldn't spare time from your old ditch to come for them yourself. That in the napkin is a little pat of fresh butter." She lifted the grape-leaves that covered the basket. "I thought it might taste good in camp."
"Good! Well, I rather guess it will taste good! See here, I can't ever thank you for this—for bringing it yourself." He had few words, but his looks were moderately expressive.
Nancy blushed with pleasure. "Well, I had to—when folks are so wrapped up in their business. There, with Susan's compliments! Susan's the heifer you rounded up for me in the ditch. I know she made you a lot of work, tracking holes in your banks you're so fussy about. Do you really think it is a good ditch?"
"I am positive it is."
"Then if anything goes wrong down here they will lay the blame on you?"
"They are welcome to. That's what I am here for."
Nancy openly acknowledged her approval of a man that stood right up to his work and would take no odds of any one.
"The other boys were always complaining and saying it was the ditch. But there, I know it is mean of me to talk about them."
"I guess it won't go any further," said Travis dryly.
"Well, I hope not. They were good boys enough, but pretty trifling watchmen, I shouldn't wonder."
Travis had nothing to say to this, but he made a mental note or two.
"When will you give me a chance to return your basket?"
"Why, anytime; there's no hurry about the basket. Have you any regular times?"
He looked away, dissembling his joy in the question, and answered as if he were making an official report,—
"I leave camp at six, patrol the line to the ferry and back, lay off an hour, and down again at eleven. Back in camp at three, and two hours for dinner. On again at five, and back in camp at nine. I pass this bridge, for instance, at seven and nine of a morning, twelve and two afternoons, and six and eight in the evening."
"Six and eight," Nancy mused, with a slight increase of color. "Well, I can stop some evening after cow-time, I suppose; but it isn't any matter about the basket."
Six evenings, going and coming, Travis delayed in passing the bridge, on the watch for Nancy; six times he filled the basket with such late field-flowers as he could find, and she never came. On the seventh evening his heart announced her, from as far off as his eyes beheld her. This time she was in white, without her hat, and she wore a blue ribbon in her gold-brown braids,—a blue ribbon in her braids, and a red, red rose in either cheek; and her colors, and the colors of the sky, floated like flowers on the placid water.
"Well, where is the basket, then?" she merrily demanded.
"I left it behind, for luck." "For luck? What sort of luck?" "Six times I brought it, and you were never here; so to-night I just kicked it into the tent and came off without it. It seems to have been about the right thing to do."
"What, my basket!"
"Your basket. And it was filled with wild flowers, the prettiest I could find. It's your own fault for not coming before."
"I never set any day that I know of. I have been up to town."
Travis was not pleased to hear it.
"Yes; and I saw your company's manager. What a young man he is! I had no idea managers were ever young. And stylish—my! I'm sure I hope he'll know me when he sees me again," she added, coloring and dropping her eyes.
Travis grimly expressed the opinion that he probably would. Nancy continued to strike the wrong note with cruel precision; she could not have done better had she calculated her words; and all the while looking as innocent as the shining water under her feet,—and that last time she had been so kind!
And the ditch was as provoking as Nancy, rewarding his devotion with breaks that defied all explanation. It was not possible that the patience of the management could hold out much longer; and when he should have been dismissed in disgrace from his post, Nancy would lightly class him as another of those "good boys enough, but trifling watchmen."
The first dry moon was just past the full. At nine o'clock the sky began to whiten above the long, bare ridge of the side-hill cut. At half past, the edge of the moon's disk clove the sky-line, and the shadow of the ridge crept down among the willows and tule-beds of the bottom. At ten the shadow had shrunk; it lay black on the ditch-bank, but the whispering treetops below were turning in silver light that flickered along the cow-path and caught the still eye of a dark, shallow pool among the tules.
Nancy had chosen this night for a stroll to the bridge, where Travis might be expected to pass, any time between eight o'clock and moonrise. Instead of Travis came a man whom she recognized as one of the watchmen from a lower division. He saluted her, after the custom of the country, claiming nothing on personal grounds but the privilege to look rather hard at the girlish figure silhouetted against the water. It was yet early enough for sky-gleams to linger on still pools, or to color the wimpling reaches of the ditch.
Nancy was disappointed; she had not come out to see a strange rider passing on Travis's gray horse. Her little plans were disconcerted. She had waited for what she considered a dignified interval, before seeming to take cognizance of her watchman's hours; now it appeared that the part of dignity might be overdone. Had Travis been superseded on his beat? She was conscious of missing him already. Her walk home, through the confidential willows, struck a chill of loneliness which the aspect of the house did not dispel. All was as dark and empty as she had left it. Was her father still at work at those tedious dams? This had been his given reason for frequent absences of late, after his usual working hours; though why he should choose the dark nights for mending his dams Nancy had not asked herself. To-night she wanted him, or somebody, to drive away this queer new ache that made the moonlight too large and still for one little girl to wander in alone.
She searched for him. He was in none of the expected places; the dank fields were as empty as the house. She turned back to the ditch; from its high bank she could see farther into the shadowy places of the bottom.
Travis, meanwhile, had been leisurely pursuing his evening beat. He had overtaken one of his fellow-watchmen, on foot, walking to town, had lent him his horse for the last two miles to camp, and invited him to help himself to what he could find for supper, without waiting for his host.
"It is a still night," said Travis; "I'll mog along slowly up the ditch, and put in a little extra listening: it's at night the water talks."
Long after the rider had passed on, the tread of his horse's hoofs was heard, diminishing on the hard-tramped bank; a loosened stone rattled down and splashed into the water; the wind rustled in the tule-beds; then all surface sounds ceased, and the only talker was the ditch, chuckling and dawdling like an idle child on its errand, which it could not be persuaded to take seriously, to the desert lands.
Travis came to the ticklish spot near the bridge, and stopped to listen. Here the ditch cut through beds of clean sand, where the water might sink and work back into the old ground, the sand holding it like a sponge, till all the bottom became a bog, and the banks sank in one wide-spread, general wash-out. The first symptom of such deep-seated trouble would be the water's motion in the ditch,—whirling round and round as if boring a hole in the bottom.
Travis laid his ear to the current, for he could judge of the water's movement by the sound. All seemed right at the bridge, but far up the ditch he was aware of a new demonstration. He listened awhile, and then walked on with long, light steps and gained upon the sound, which persisted, defining itself as a muffled churning at marked intervals, with now and then a wait between. The prodding was of some tool at work under water, at the ditch-bank.
He crossed to the upper side, and moved forward cautiously along the ridge, crouching that his figure might not be seen against the sky.
Nancy had gone up the cow-trail, past the low grounds, and was just climbing the bank when a dark shape, of man or beast, crashed down the opposite slope and shot like a slide of rock into the water.
A half-choked cry followed the plunge, then ugly sounds of a scuffle under the ditch-bank—men breathing hard, sighing and snorting; and somebody gasped as if he were being held down till his breath was gone.
"Get in there, you old muskrat! You shall stop your own breaks if it takes your cursed carcass to do it! Now then, have you got your breath?"
Nancy stayed only to hear a voice that was her father's, convulsed with terror and the chill of his repeated duckings, begging to be spared the anguish of drowning by night in three feet of ditch-water.
"Mr. Travis," she screamed, "you let my father be, whatever you are doing to him! Father, you come right home and get on dry clothes!"
Travis was as much amazed as if Diana with the moon on her forehead had appeared on the ditch-bank to take old Solomon Lark under her maiden protection; but no less he stuck to his prize of war.
"Your father hasn't time to change his clothes just yet, Miss Nancy; he's got some work to do first."
"Who are you, to be setting my father to work? Let go of him this minute! You are drowning him; you are choking him to death!" sobbed the frantic girl. The shadow fortunately withheld the details of her father's condition, but she had seen enough. Had Travis been drinking? Was the man bereft of his senses?
He was quite himself apparently,—hideously cool, yet roused, and his voice cut like steel.
"You had better go home, Miss Nancy, and light a fire and warm a blanket for your father's bed. He'll be pretty cold before he gets through with this night's work."
After this cruel speech he took no more notice of Nancy, but leaped upon the ditch-bank and began hurling earth in great shovelfuls, patting the old man on the head with his cold tool whenever he tried to clamber up after him.
"You'd better not try that," he roared in a terrible voice that wounded Nancy like a blow. "Get in there, now! Puddle, puddle, or I'll have you buried to the ears in five minutes!"
It was shocking, hideous, like a horrible dream. The earth rattled down all about Solomon, and frequently upon him; the water was thick with mud, and the wretched old man tramped and puddled for dear life, helping to mend the hole which he had secretly dug where no eye could discover, till the water had fingered it and enlarged the mischief to a break.
It was the work of vermin, and as such Travis had treated his prisoner. Nancy felt the insult as keenly as she abhorred the cruelty. She fled, hysterical with wrath and despair at her own helplessness. But while she made ready the means of consolation at home, her thinking powers came back, and, between what she suspected and what she remembered, she was not wholly in the dark as to the truth between her father and Travis.
There was no one to warm Travis's blankets, when he fell back upon camp about daybreak, reeking with cold perspiration, soaked with ditch-water and sore in every muscle from his frenzy of shoveling. He had had no supper the night before; his guest had eaten all the cooked food, burned all his light-wood kindlings, and forgotten to cover the bread-pail, and his bread was full of sand. He didn't think much of those tenderfeet, who called themselves ditch-men, on that lower division where there was no work at all to speak of.
He began—worse comfort—to consider his police work from a daughter's point of view. Alas for himself and Nancy! His idyl of the ditch was shattered like the tender sky-reflections that bloomed on its still waters, and vanished when the waters were troubled. His own thoughts were as that roily pool where he had ducked the old man in the darkness. He overslept himself, after thinking he should not sleep at all, and started down his beat not until noon of the next day. Halfway to the bridge on the ditch-bank he met Nancy Lark. She gave him a note, which he dismounted to take, she vouchsafing no greeting, not even a look, and standing apart while he read it, with the air of a martyr to duty.
Mr. Travis [the letter ran],—I am a death-struck man in consequence of your outrageous treatment of me last evening. I've took a dum chill, and it has hit me in the vitals through standing in water up to my armpits. If you think your fool ditch is worth more than a Human's life, though your company's enemy, that's for you to settle as you can when the time comes you'll have to. I don't ask any favors. But if you got anny desency left in you through working for that fish-livered company of bondholders coming out here to stomp us farmers into the dirt, you will call this bizness quits. I aint in no shape to fight ditches no more. You have put me where I be, and the less said on both sides the better, it looks to me. If that's so you can say so by word or writing. I should prefer writing as I aint got that confidence I might have. Yours truly,
"Miss Nancy," said Travis gently, "is your father very sick this morning?"
"I don't know," Nancy replied.
"Have you sent for a doctor?"
"He won't let me."
"Have you read this letter?" She flashed an indignant look at him.
"I wish you would, then."
"It is not my letter. I don't know what's in it, and I don't care to know."
"Do you know what your father was doing in the ditch last night?"
"Helping you to mend it, at the risk of his life, because you made him," Nancy answered quickly.
"Helping to mend a hole he made himself, so there would be a nice little break in the morning."
The subject rested there, till Travis, forced to take the defensive, asked:—
"Do you believe me?"
"What I have just told you about your father?"
"Oh," she said, "it makes no difference to me. I knew my father pretty well before I ever saw you. If you think he was doing that, why, I suppose you will have to think so. But even if he was, I don't call that any reason you should half drown him, and make him work himself to death beside."
"But the water was warm! And I did the work. What was it to tread dirt for an hour or so on a summer's night? Wasn't he in the ditch when I found him?"
"I don't know, I'm sure," said Nancy. "I know that you kept him there."
"Well, I hope he'll keep out of the ditch after this. Working at ditches at night isn't good for his health. But you needn't be alarmed about him this time; I think he'll recover. But remember this: last night I was the company's watchman; I had an ugly piece of work to do and I did it; but, fair play or foul, whatever may happen between your father and me, remember, it is only my work, and you are not in it."
"Well, I guess I'm in it if my father is," said Nancy, "and that is something for you to remember."
"Oh, hang the work and the ditch and all the ditches!" thought Travis; yet it was the ditch that had put color and soul and meaning into his life,—that had given him sight of Nancy. And it was not his work nor his convictions about it that stood between them now; it was her woman's contempt for justice and reason where her feelings were concerned. The case was simple as Nancy saw it; too simple, for it left him out in the cold. He would have had it complicated by a little more feeling in his direction.
"Well, have I got your answer?" she asked. "Father said I was to bring an answer, but not to let you come."
"He need not be afraid," said Travis bitterly. "If he will leave my ditch-banks alone, I shall not meddle with him. Tell him, if there are no more breaks there will be nothing to report. This break is mended—the break in the ditch, I mean."
"Then you will not tell?" Nancy stole a look at him that was half a plea.
"You would even promise to like me a little, wouldn't you, if you couldn't get the old man off any other way?" he mocked her sorrowfully. "Well, I had rather have you hate me than stoop to coax me, as I've seen girls do"—
He might be satisfied, she passionately answered; she hated him enough. She hated his work, and the hateful way he did it.
"You are an unmerciful man!" she accused him, with a sob in her voice. "You don't know the trouble my father has had; how many years he has worked, with nothing but his hands; and now your company comes and claims the water, and turns the river, that belongs to everybody, into their big ditch. I'd like to know how they came to own this river! And when they have got it all in their ditch, all the little ditches and the ponds will go dry. We were here years before any of you ever thought of coming, or knew there was a country here at all. It's claim-jumping; and not a cent will they pay, and laugh at us besides, and call us mossbacks. I don't blame my father one bit, if he did break the ditch. If you are here to watch, then watch!—watch me! Perhaps you think I've had a hand in your breaks?"
Travis turned pale. He had made the mistake of trying to reason with Nancy, and now he felt that he must go on, in justice to his case, though she was far away from all his arguments, rapt in the grief, the wrath, the conviction, of her plea.
"You talk as women talk who only hear one side," he replied. "But you people down here don't know the company's intentions; they don't ask, and when they do they won't believe what they are told. That talk against companies is an old politicians' drive. This country is too big for single men to handle; companies save years of waiting. This one will bring the railroads and the markets, and boom up the price of land. The ditch your father hates so will make him a rich man in five years, if he does nothing but sit still and let it come.
"As for water, why do you cry before you are hurt? Nobody can steal a river. That is more politicians' talk, to make out they are the settlers' friends. We are the settlers' friends, because we are the friends of the country's boom; it can't boom without us. Why should I believe in this company? I'm a poor man, a settler like your father. I've got land of my own, but I can see we farmers can't do everything for ourselves; it's cheaper to pay a company to help us. They are just peddlers of water, and we buy it. Who owns the other, then? Don't we own them just as much as they own us?
"Come, if you can't feel it's so, leave hating us at least till we have done all these things you accuse us of. Wait till we take all the water and ruin your land. Most of these farmers along the river have got too much water; they are ruining their own land. So I tell your father, but he thinks he knows it all."
"He is some older than you are, anyhow."
"He is too old to be working nights in ditches. Tell him so from me, will you?"
"Oh, I'll tell him! I don't think you will be troubled much with us around your ditch, after this. I went to the bridge last night because I thought you were nice, and a friend. I had a respect for you more than for any of the others. I might have come to think better of the ditch; but I've had all the ditch I want, and all the watchmen. Never, till I die, shall I forget how my father looked," she passionately returned to the charge. "An old man like him! Why didn't you put me in and make me tread dirt for you? The water was warm; and I'm enough better able than he was!"
"I'll get right down here and let you tread on me, and be proud to have you, if it will cure the sight of what you saw me do last night. I was mad, don't you understand? I have to answer for all this foolishness of your father's, remember. It had to be stopped."
"Was there no way to stop it but half drowning him, and insulting him besides?"
"Yes, there is another way; inform the company, and have him shut up in the Pen. I thought I let the old man off pretty easy. But if you prefer the other way, why, next time there's a break, we can try it."
"I'm sure we ought to thank you for your kindness," said Nancy. "And if we are Companied out of house and home, and father made a criminal, we shall thank you still more. Good-morning."
Their eyes met and hers fell. She turned away, and he remounted and rode on up the ditch, angry, as a man can be only with one he might have loved, down to those dregs of bitterness that lurk at the bottom of the soundest heart.
He was but an idle watchman all that day, so sure he was that the ditch was right and Solomon the author of all his troubles; and Solomon was "fixed" at last. Weariness overcame him, and at the end of his beat he slept, under the lee of the ditch-bank, instead of returning to his camp.
Next morning he was riding along at his usual pace when it struck him how incredibly the ditch had fallen. The line of silt that marked the water's normal depth now stood exposed and dry, full two feet above its running, and the pulse of the current had weakened as though it were ebbing fast.
He put his horse to a run, and lightened ship as he went, casting off his sack of oats, then his coat and such tools as he could spare; he might have been traced to the scene of disaster by his impedimenta strewing the ditch-bank.
The water had had hours the start of him; its work was sickening to behold. A part of the bank had gone clean out, and the ditch was returning to the river by way of Solomon Lark's alfalfa fields. The homestead itself was in danger.
He cut sage-brush and tore up tules by the roots, and piled them as a wing-dam against the outer bank, and heaped dirt like mad upon the mats; and as he worked, alone, where forty men were needed, came Nancy, with glowing face, flying down the ditch-bank, calling the word of exquisite relief:—
"I've shut off the water. Was that right?"
Right! He had been wishing himself two men, nay, three: one at the bank, and one at the gates, and one carrying word to Finlayson.
"Can I do anything else?"
"Yes; make Finlayson's camp quick as you can," Travis panted over a shovelful of dirt he was heaving.
"Yes; what shall I tell him?"
"Tell him to send up everything he has got; every man and team and scraper."
Nancy was gone, but in a few moments she was back again, wringing her hands, and as white as a cherry-blossom.
"The water is all down round the house, and father is alone in bed crying like a child."
"There's nothing to cry about now. You turned off the water; see, it has almost stopped."
"Can I leave him with you?"
"Great Scott! I'll take care of him! But go, there's a blessed girl. You will save the ditch."
Nancy went, covering the desert miles as a bird flies; she exulted in this chance for reparation. But long after Finlayson's forces had arrived and gone to work, she came lagging wearily homeward, all of a color, herself and the pony, with the yellow road. She had refused a fresh horse at the ditch-camp, and, sparing the whip, reached home not until after dark.
Her father's excitement in his hours of loneliness had waxed to a pitch of childish frenzy. He wept, he cursed, he counted his losses, and when his daughter said, to comfort him, "Why, father, surely they must pay for this!" he threw himself about in his bed and gave way to lamentations in which the secret of his wildness came out. He had done the thing himself; and he dared not risk suspicion, and the investigation that would follow a heavy claim for damages.
Nancy could not believe him. "Father, do be quiet; you didn't do any such thing," she insisted. "How could you, when I know you haven't stirred out of this bed since night before last? Hush, now; you are dreaming; you are out of your head."
"I guess I know what I done. I ain't crazy, and I ain't a fool. I made this hole first, before he caught me at the upper one. I made this one to keep him busy on his way up, so's the upper one could get a good start. The upper one wouldn't 'a' hurt us. It's jest like my cussed luck! I knew it was a-comin', but I didn't think I'd get it like this. It's all his fault, the great lazy loafer, sleepin' at the bottom of his beat, 'stead o' comin' up as he'd ought to have done last evening. He wasted the whole night,—and calls himself a watchman!"
"Well, I'm glad of it," Nancy cried excitedly. "I'm just glad we are washed out, and I hope this will end it!" and she burst into tears, and ran out of the room.
She sat by herself, weeping and storming, in the dark little shed-room.
"Nancy!" she heard her father calling, "Nancy, child!... Where's that gal taken herself off to?... Are you a-settin' up your back on account of that ditch? If you are, you ain't no child of mine.... I'm dum sorry I let on a word to her about it. How do I know but she's off with it now, to that watchman feller. I'll be put in the papers—an old man informed on by his darter, and he on his last sick bed!... Nancy, I say, where be you a-hidin' yourself?"
Nancy returned to her forlorn charge, and after a while the old man fell asleep. She put out the lamp, for she could see to move about the room by the light of the sage-brush bonfires that flared along the ditch, lighting the men and teams, all Finlayson's force, at work upon the broken banks.
The sight was wild and alluring; she went out to watch the strange army of shadows shifting and intermingling against a wall of flame.
There was a distressful space to cross, of sand and slippery mud and drowned vegetation, including the remains of her garden; the look of everything was changed. Only the ditch-bank against the reddened sky supplied the usual landmark. Its crest was black with shovelers, and up and down in lurid light climbed the scraper-teams; climbed and dumped, and dropped over the bank to climb again, like figures in a stage procession. There was a bedlam roar and crackle of pitchy fires, rattle of harness, clank of scraper-pans, shouts of men to the cattle, oaths and words of command; and this would go forward unceasingly till the banks held water. And what was the use of contending?
Nancy felt bitterly the insignificance of such small scattered folk as her father, pitiful even in their spite. Their vengeance was like the malice of field-mice or rabbits, which the farmers fenced out of their fields into the desert where they belonged. What could such as they do either to help or hinder this invincible march of capital into the country where they, with untold hardships, had located the first claims? And some of them were ready enough, for a little temporary relief, to part with their birthright to these clever sons of Jacob.
"Out we go, to find some other wilderness for them to take away from us! We are only mossbacks," said the daughter of Esau.
As she spoke, half aloud to herself, a man rushed past her down the bank, flattened himself on his hands, laid his face to the water, and drank and paused to pant, and drank again, while she could have counted a score. Then he lifted his head, sighed, and stretched himself back with a groan of complete exhaustion.
The firelight touched his face, and showed her Travis: haggard, hollow-eyed, soaked with ditch-water, and matted with mud, looking as if he had been dragged bodily through the ditch-bank, like thread through a piece of cloth.
Nancy did not try to avoid him.
"Oh, is it you?" he marveled, softly smiling up at her. "What a splendid ride you made! Did nobody thank you? Finlayson said he couldn't find you when he was leaving camp."
Nancy answered not a word; she was trembling so that she feared to betray herself by speaking.
"I was coming to say good-by, when I had washed my face," he continued. "I got my time to-night."
"My time-check. They are going to put another man in my place. So you needn't hate me any longer on account of the ditch; you can transfer all that to the next fellow."
"Isn't that just like them? They never can do anything fair!"
"Like who? Do you suppose I'm going to kick about it? The only wonder is they kept me on so long."
Every word of Travis's was a knife in Nancy's conscience, to say nothing of her pride. She hugged her arms in her shawl, and rocked herself to and fro. Travis crawled up the bank a little way further, and stretched himself humbly beside her. The dark shadows under his aching eyes started a pang of pity in the girl's heart, sore beset as she was with troubles of her own.
"I'm glad it's duskish," he remarked, "so you can't see the sweet state I'm in. I'm all over top-soil. You might rent me to a Chinaman for twenty-five dollars an acre; and I don't need any irrigating either."
An irresponsible laugh from Nancy was followed by a sob. Then she gathered herself to speak.
"See here, do you want to stay on this ditch?"
"Of course I do. I wanted to stay till I had straightened out my own record, and shown what the ditch can do. But no management under heaven could stand such work as this."
"Then stay, if you want to. You have only to say the word. You said you'd inform if there was a next time, and there is. Father did it. He made this break, too; he made them both the same night, and didn't dare to tell of this one. Now, go and clear yourself and get back your beat."
"Are you sure of this you are telling me?"
"Well, I guess so. It isn't the sort of thing I'd be likely to make up. And I say you can tell if you want to. I make you a present of the information. If father isn't willing to take the consequences, I am; and they half belong to me. I won't have anybody sheltering us, or losing by us. We have got no quarrel with you."
"That is brave of you. I wish it was something more than brave," sighed Travis. "But I want it all myself. I can't spare this information to the company. You didn't do it for them, did you?"
"When I go telling on my father to save a ditch, I guess it will be after now," said Nancy. "If that rich company, with all its men and watchmen and teams and money, can't protect itself from one poor old man"—
"Never mind the company," said Travis. "What's mine is mine. This word you gave to me, it doesn't belong to my employers. You have saved me to myself; now I shall not go kicking myself for sleeping that night on my beat. It's not so bad—oh, not half so bad—for me!"
"Then go tell them, and get the credit for it. Don't you mean to?"
She could not see him smile. "When I tell, you will hear of it."
"But you talked about your record."
"I shall have to go to work and make a new record. Ah, if you would be as kind as you are brave! Was it all just for pride you told me this? Don't you care, not the least bit, about my part—that I am down and out of everything?"
"It's your own fault, then. I have told you how you can clear yourself and stay."
"And lose my chance with you! I was thinking of coming back, some day, to tell you—what you must know already. Nancy, you do know!"
"You forget," shivered Nancy; "I am the daughter of the man you called"—
"Is that fair—to bring that up now?"
"You mustn't deceive yourself. There are some things that can't be forgotten."
"How did I know what I was saying? A man isn't always responsible."
"I heard you," said Nancy. "There are things we say when we are raging mad at a person, and there are things we say when we think them the dirt under our feet. You kept him down with your dirt-shovel, and you called him—what I can't ever forget."
"And is this the only hitch between us?"
"I should think it was enough. Who despises my father despises me."
"But I do not despise him," Travis did not scruple to assert. "The quarrel was not mine; and I'm not a ditch-man any longer. I will apologize to your father."
"Oh, I know it costs you nothing to apologize. You don't mind father—an old man like him! You'd take him in, and give him his meals, and pat him on the head as you would the house-dog that bites because he's old and cross. Well, I'll let you know I don't want you to forgive him, and apologize, and all that stuff. I want you to get even with him."
"Be satisfied," said Travis. "The only count I have against your father is through his daughter. There is no way for me to get even with you. And when you have spoiled a man's life just for one angry word"—
"Not angry," she interrupted. "I could have forgiven you that."
"For one word, then. And you call it square when you have given me a piece of information to use for myself, against you! I will go back now and go to work. They can't say I haven't earned my wages on this beat."
He looked down at her, longing to gather her, with all her thorny sweetness, to his breast; but her attitude forbade him.
"Can't we shake hands?" he said. They shook hands in silence, and he went back and finished the night in the ranks of the shovelers,—to work well, to love well, and to get his discharge at last. Yet Travis was not sorry that he had taken those five miles below Glenn's Ferry: he had found something to work for.
The company's officials marveled, as the weeks went by, that nothing was heard of Solomon Lark. He had ever been the sturdiest beggar for damages on the ditch. If he lacked an occasion he could invent one; he was known to be a fanatic on the subject of the small farmers' wrongs: yet now, with a veritable claim to sue for, the old protestant was dumb. Had Solomon turned the other cheek? There were jokes about it in the office; they looked to have some fun with Solomon yet.
In the early autumn the joking ceased. There was a final reason for the old man's silence,—Solomon was dead. His ranch was rented to a Chinese vegetable-gardener who bought water from the ditch.
The company, through its officials, was disposed to recognize this unspoken claim that had perished on the lips of the dead. They made an estimate, and offered Nancy Lark a fair sum in consideration of her father's losses by the ditch.
It was unusual for a company to volunteer a settlement of this kind; it was still more unusual for the indemnity to be refused. Nancy declined, by letter, first; then the manager asked her to call at the office. She did not come. He took pains to hunt her up at the house of her friends in town. He might have delegated the call, but he chose to make it in person, and was struck by an added dignity, a finer beauty in the saddened face of the girl whom he remembered as a bit of a rustic coquette.
He went over the business with her. She was perfectly intelligent in the matter; there had been no misunderstanding. Why then would she not take what belonged to her? Companies were not in the habit of paying claims that were claims of sentiment.
"I have made no claim," said Nancy.
"But you have one. You inherited one. We do not propose to rob"—
She put out her hand with a gesture of appeal.
"My father had no claim. He never made one, nor meant to make one. I am the best judge of what belongs to me. I don't want this money, and I will never take one cent of it. But there is a claim you can settle, if you are hunting up claims. It won't cost you anything," she faltered, as if some unguarded impulse had hurried her into a subject that she hardly knew how to go on with. She moved her chair back a little from the light.
"There was one of your watchmen, on the Glenn's Ferry beat, who lost his place on account of those breaks coming one after another"—
"Yes," said the manager; "there were several that did. Which man do you refer to?"
The name, she thought, was Travis. Then, blushing, she spoke out courageously:—
"It was Mr. Travis. He was discharged just after the big break. You thought it was his carelessness, but it was not. I am the only one that can say so, and I know it. You lost the best watchman you ever had on the ditch when you took his name off your pay-roll. He worked for more than just his money's worth, and it hurt him to lose that place."
"Are you aware that he made the worst record of any man on the line?"
"I don't care what his record was; he kept a good watch. It's no concern of mine to say so," she said. Trembling and red and white, the tears shining in her honest eyes, she persisted: "He had his reasons for never explaining, and they were nothing to be ashamed of. I think you might believe me!"
"I do," said the manager, willing to spare her. "I will attend to the case of Mr. Travis when I see him. I do not think he has left the country. In fact, he was inquiring about you only the other day, in the office, and he seemed very much concerned to hear of your—of the loss you have suffered. Shall I say that you spoke a good word for him?"
"You need not do that," she answered with spirit. "He knows whether he kept watch. But you may say that I ask, as a favor, that he will answer all your questions; and you need not be afraid to question him."
Travis was given back his beat, but no more explicit exoneration would he accept. The reason of his reinstatement was not made public, and naturally there was gossip about it among other discharged watchmen who had not been invited to try again.
Two of these cynic philosophers, popularly known as sore-heads, foregathered one morning at Glenn's Ferry and began to discuss the management and the ditch.
"Travis don't seem to have so much trouble with the water this year as he had last," the first ex-watchman remarked. "Used to get away with him on an average once a week, so I hear."
"He's married his girl," the other explained sarcastically. "He's got more time to look after the ditch."
There is no sand, now, in Travis's bread; the prettiest girl on the ditch makes it for him, and walks beside him when the lights are fair and the shadows long on the ditch-bank. And it is a pleasure to record that both Nancy and the ditch are behaving as dutifully as girls and water can be expected to do, when taken from their self-found paths and committed to the sober bounds of responsibility.
Flowers bloom upon its banks, heaven is reflected in its waters, fair and broad are the fertile pastures that lie beyond; but the best-trained ditch can never be a river, nor the gentlest wife a girl again.