"It's just as well," he told her, nodding again in his solemn, weighty fashion; "everybody that amounts to anything has this fever of unrest. Back home we used to stack the wheat to let it sweat and harden. You're going through that. It takes the grossness out of us."
"Have you gone through it?"
"Years of it; over the worst of it now, I hope."
"And you came here. Was that the kind of an ambition you had? Was that all your dreams brought you?"
"But I've seen more here than I ever projected in my schemes, Miss Joan. I've seen the serenity of the stars in this vastness; I've felt the wind of freedom on my face." And to himself: "And I have seen the firelight leap in a maiden's eyes, and I have looked deep into the inspiring fountain of her soul." But there was not the boldness in him, nor the desire to risk her rebuke again, to bring it to his lips.
"Do you think you'll like it after you get over the lonesomeness?"
"Yes, if I take the lonesomeness."
"You'll take it, all right. But if you ever do work up to be a sheepman, and of course you will if you stick to the range long enough, you'll never be able to leave again. Sheep tie a person down like a houseful of children."
"Maybe I'd never want to go. I've had my turn at it out there; I've been snubbed and discounted, all but despised, because I had a little learning and no money to go with it. I can hide my little learning here, and nobody seems to care about the money. Yes, I think I'll stay on the range."
Joan turned her face away, and he knew the yearning was in her eyes as they strained into the starlit horizon after the things she had never known.
"I don't see what could ever happen that would make me want to stay here," she said at last. She got up with the sudden nimbleness of a deer, so quickly that Mackenzie though she must be either startled or offended, but saw in a moment it was only her natural way of moving in the untrammeled freedom of her lithe, strong limbs.
"You'll find a soft place on the side of the hill somewhere to sleep," she said, turning toward the wagon. "I'm going to pile in. Good night."
Mackenzie sat again by the ashes of the little fire after giving her good night. He felt that he had suffered in her estimation because of his lowly ambition to follow her father, and the hundred other obscure heroes of the sheep country, and become a flockmaster, sequestered and safe among the sage-gray hills.
Joan expected more of a man who was able to teach school; expected lofty aims, far-reaching ambitions. But that was because Joan did not know the world that lifted the lure of its flare beyond the rim of her horizon. She must taste it to understand, and come back with a bruised heart to the shelter of her native hills.
And this lonesomeness of which she had been telling him, this dread sickness that fell upon a man in those solitudes, and drained away his courage and hope—must he experience it, like a disease of adolescence from which few escape? He did not believe it. Joan had said she was immune to it, having been born in its atmosphere, knowing nothing but solitude and silence, in which there was no strange nor fearful thing.
But she fretted under a discontent that made her miserable, even though it did not strain her reason like the lonesomeness. Something was wanting to fill her life. He cast about him, wondering what it could be, wishing that he might supply it and take away the shadow out of her eyes.
It was his last thought as he fell asleep in a little swale below the wagon where the grass was tall and soft—that he might find what was lacking to make Joan content with the peace and plenty of the sheeplands, and supply that want.
THE EASIEST LESSON
"Why do they always begin the conjugations on love?"
There was no perplexity in Joan's eyes as she asked the question; rather, a dreamy and far-away look, the open book face-downward on the ground beside her.
"Because it's a good example of the first termination, I suppose," Mackenzie replied, his eyes measuring off the leagues with her own, as if they together sought the door that opened out of that gray land into romance that quiet summer afternoon.
"It was that way in the Spanish grammar," said Joan, shaking her head, unconvinced by the reason he advanced. "There are plenty of words in the first termination that are just as short. Why? You're the teacher; you ought to know."
She said it banteringly, as if she dared him to give the reason. His eyes came back from their distant groping, meeting hers with gentle boldness. So for a little while he looked silently into her appealing eyes, then turned away.
"Maybe, Joan, because it is the easiest lesson to learn and the hardest to forget," he said.
Joan bent her gaze upon the ground, a flush tinting her brown face, plucking at the grass with aimless fingers.
"Anyway, we've passed it," said she.
"No, it recurs all through the book; it's something that can't be left out of it, any more than it can be left out of life. Well, it doesn't need to trouble you and me."
"No; we could use some other word," said Joan, turning her face away.
"But mean the same, Joan. I had an old maid English teacher when I was a boy who made us conjugate to like instead of the more intimate and tender word. Poor old soul! I hope it saved her feelings and eased her regrets."
"Maybe she'd had a romance," said Joan.
"I hope so; there's at least one romance coming to every woman in this world. If she misses it she's being cheated."
Mackenzie took up the Latin grammar, marking off her next lesson, and piling it on with unsparing hand, too. Yet not in accord with Tim Sullivan's advice; solely because his pupil was one of extraordinary capacity. There was no such thing as discouraging Joan; she absorbed learning and retained it, as the sandstone absorbs oil under the pressure of the earth, holding it without wasting a drop until the day it gladdens man in his exploration.
So with Joan. She was storing learning in the undefiled reservoir of her mind, to be found like unexpected jewels by some hand in after time. As she followed the sheep she carried her books; at night, long after Charley had gone to sleep, she sat with them by the lantern light in the sheep-wagon. Unspoiled by the diversions and distractions which divide the mind of the city student, she acquired and held a month's tasks in a week. The thirsty traveler in the desert places had come to the oasis of her dreams.
Daily Joan rode to the sheep-camp where Mackenzie was learning the business of running sheep under Dad Frazer. There were no holidays in the term Joan had set for herself, no unbending, no relaxation from her books. Perhaps she did not expect her teacher to remain there in the sheeplands, shut away from the life that he had breathed so long and put aside for what seemed to her an unaccountable whim.
"You'll be reading Caesar by winter," Mackenzie told her as she prepared to ride back to her camp. "You'll have to take it slower then; we can't have lessons every day."
"Why not?" She was standing beside her horse, hat in hand, her rich hair lifting in the wind from her wise, placid brow. Her books she had strapped to the saddle-horn; there was a yellow slicker at the cantle.
"You'll be at home, I'll be out here with the sheep. I expect about once a week will be as often as we can make it then."
"I'll be out here on the range," she said, shaking her determined head, "a sheepman's got to stick with his flock through all kinds of weather. If I run home for the winter I'll have to hire a herder, and that would eat my profits up; I'd never get away from here."
"Maybe by the time you've got enough money to carry out your plans, Joan, you'll not want to leave."
"You've got to have education to be able to enjoy money. Some of the sheepmen in this country—yes, most of them—would be better men if they were poor. Wealth is nothing to them but a dim consciousness of a new power. It makes them arrogant and unbearable. Did you ever see Matt Hall?"
"I still have that pleasure in reserve. But I think you'll find it's refinement, rather than learning, that a person needs to enjoy wealth. That comes more from within than without."
"The curtain's down between me and everything I want," Joan said, a wistful note of loneliness in her low, soft voice. "I'm going to ride away some day and push it aside, and see what it's been keeping from me all the years of my longing. Then, maybe, when I'm satisfied I'll come back and make money. I've got sense enough to see it's here to be made if a person's got the sheep to start with and the range to run them on."
"Yes, you'll have to go," said he, in what seemed sad thoughtfulness, "to learn it all; I can't teach you the things your heart desires most to know. Well, there are bitter waters and sweet waters, Joan; we've got to drink them both."
"It's the same way here," she said, "only we've got sense enough to know the alkali holes before we drink out of them."
"But people are not that wise the world over, Joan."
Joan stood in silent thought, her far-reaching gaze on the dim curtain of haze which hung between her and the world of men's activities, strivings, and lamentations.
"If I had the money I'd go as soon—as soon as I knew a little more," she said. "But I've got to stick; I made that bargain with dad—he'd never give me the money, but he'll buy me out when I've got enough to stake me."
"Your father was over this morning."
"Yes, I know."
"He thinks my education's advanced far enough to trust me with a band of sheep. I'm going to have charge of the flock I've been running here with Dad Frazer."
"I heard about it."
"And you don't congratulate me on becoming a paid sheepherder, my first step on the way to flockmaster!"
"I don't know that you're to be congratulated," she returned, facing him seriously. "All there is to success here is brute strength and endurance against storms and winter weather—it don't take any brains. Out there where you've been and I'm going, there must be something bigger and better for a man, it seems to me. But maybe men get tired of it—I don't know."
"You'll understand it better when you go there, Joan."
"Yes, I'll understand a lot of things that are locked up to me now. Well, I don't want to go as much all the time now as I did—only in spells sometimes. If you stay here and teach me, maybe I'll get over it for good."
Joan laughed nervously, half of it forced, her face averted.
"If I could teach you enough to keep you here, Joan, I'd think it was the biggest thing I'd ever done."
"I don't want to know any more if it means giving up," she said.
"It looks like giving up to you, Joan, but I've only started," he corrected her, in gentle spirit.
"I oughtn't talk that way to you," she said, turning to him contritely, her earnest eyes lifted to his, "it's none of my business what you do. If you hadn't come here I'd never have heard of—of amare, maybe."
Joan bent her head, a flush over her brown cheeks, a smile of mischief at the corners of her mouth. Mackenzie laughed, but strained and unnaturally, his own tough face burning with a hot tide of mounting blood.
"Somebody else would have taught you—you'd have conjugated it in another language, maybe," he said.
"Yes, you say it's the easiest lesson to learn," she nodded, soberly now. "Have you taught it to many—many—girls?"
"According to the book, Joan," he returned; "only that way."
Joan drew a deep breath, and looked away over the hills, and smiled. But she said no more, after the way of one who has relieved the mind on a doubted point.
"I expect I'll be getting a taste of the lonesomeness here of nights pretty soon," Mackenzie said, feeling himself in an awkward, yet not unpleasant situation with this frank girl's rather impertinent question still burning in his heart. "Dad's going to leave me to take charge of another flock."
"I'll try to keep you so busy you'll not have it very bad," she said.
"Yes, and you'll pump your fount of knowledge dry in a hurry if you don't slow down a little," he returned. "At the pace you've set you'll have to import a professor to take you along, unless one strays in from somewhere."
"I don't take up with strays," said Joan, rather loftily.
"I think Dad's getting restless," Mackenzie said, hastening to cover his mistake.
"He goes away every so often," Joan explained, "to see his Mexican wife down around El Paso somewhere."
"Oh, that explains it. He didn't mention her to me."
"He will, all right. He'll cut out to see her in a little while, more than likely, but he'll come drifting back with the shearers in the spring like he always does. It seems to me like everybody comes back to the sheep country that's ever lived in it a while. I wonder if I'd want to come back, too?"
It was a speculation upon which Mackenzie did not feel called to make comment. Time alone would prove to Joan where her heart lay anchored, as it proves to all who go wandering in its own bitter way at last.
"I don't seem to want to go away as long as I'm learning something," Joan confessed, a little ashamed of the admission, it appeared, from her manner of refusing to lift her head.
Mackenzie felt a great uplifting in his heart, as a song cheers it when it comes gladly at the close of a day of perplexity and doubt and toil. He reached out his hand as if to touch her and tell her how this dawning of his hope made him glad, but withdrew it, dropping it at his side as she looked up, a lively color in her cheeks.
"As long as you'll stay and teach me, there isn't any particular use for me to leave, is there?" she inquired.
"If staying here would keep you, Joan, I'd never leave," he told her, his voice so grave and earnest that it trembled a little on the low notes.
Joan drew her breath again with that long inspiration which was like a satisfied sigh.
"Well, I must go," she said.
But she did not move, and Mackenzie, drawing nearer, put out his hand in his way of silent appeal again.
"Not that I don't want you to know what there is out there," he said, "but because I'd save you the disappointment, the disillusionment, and the heartache that too often go with the knowledge of the world. You'd be better for it if you never knew, living here undefiled like a spring that comes out of the rocks into the sun."
"Well, I must go," said Joan, sighing with repletion again, but taking no step toward her waiting horse.
Although it was a moment which seemed full of things to be said, neither had words for it, but stood silently while the day went out in glory around them. Dad Frazer was bringing his murmuring flock home to the bedding-ground on the hillside below the wagon; the wind was low as a lover's breath, lifting Joan's russet hair from her pure, placid brow.
And she must go at last, with a word of parting from the saddle, and her hand held out to him in a new tenderness as if going home were a thing to be remembered. And as Mackenzie took it there rose in his memory the lines:
Touch hands and part with laughter, Touch lips and part with tears.
Joan rode away against the sun, which was red upon the hill, and stood for a little moment sharply against the fiery sky to wave him a farewell.
"So easily learned, Joan; so hard to forget," said Mackenzie, speaking as if he sent his voice after her, a whisper on the wind, although she was half a mile away. A moment more, and the hill stood empty between them. Mackenzie turned to prepare supper for the coming of Dad Frazer, who would complain against books and the nonsense contained in them if the food was not on the board when he came up the hill.
It was dusk when Dad Frazer drove the slow-drifting flock home to its sleeping place, which tomorrow night very likely would be on some hillside no softer, many miles away. Only a few days together the camp remained in one place, no longer than it took the sheep to crop the herbage within easy reach. Then came the camp-mover and hauled the wagon to fresh pastures in that illimitable, gray-green land.
Dad Frazer was a man of sixty or sixty-five, who had been an army teamster in the days of frontier posts. He was slender and sinewy, with beautiful, glimmering, silvery hair which he wore in long curls and kept as carefully combed as any dandy that ever pranced at the court of a king. It was his one vanity, his dusty, greasy raiment being his last thought.
Dad's somber face was brown and weathered, marked with deep lines, covered over with an ashy, short growth of beard which he clipped once in two weeks with sheep-shears when he didn't lose count of the days.
Frazer always wore an ancient military hat with a leather thong at the back of his head drawn tight across his flowing hair. The brim of this hat turned up in the back as if he had slept in it many years, which was indeed the case, and down in the front so low over his brows that it gave him a sullen and clouded cast, which the redundancy of his spirits and words at once denied.
For Dad Frazer was a loquacious sheepherder, an exception among the morose and silent men who follow that isolated calling upon the lonely range. He talked to the dogs when there was nobody by, to the sheep as he scattered them for an even chance between weak and strong over the grazing lands, and to himself when no other object presented. He swore with force and piquancy, and original embellishments for old-time oaths which was like a sharp sauce to an unsavory dish.
Frazer was peculiar in another way. He liked a soft bed to pound the ground on after his long days after the sheep, and to that end kept a roll of sheepskins under the wagon. More than that, he always washed before eating, even if he had to divide the last water in the keg.
Now as he was employed with his ablutions, after a running fire of talk from the time he came within hearing to the moment the water smothered his voice over the basin, Mackenzie saw him turn an eye in his direction every little while between the soaping and the washing of his bearded face. The old fellow seemed bursting with restraint of something that he had not told or asked about. Mackenzie could read him like a thermometer.
"What's the matter, Dad—rattlesnakes?" he asked.
"Rattlesnakes nothin'!" returned the old man.
"I thought another one had been crawling up your leg."
"Nearer boey constructors! Anybody been here but Joan?"
Dad came over to the tail of the wagon, where Mackenzie had supper spread on a board, a box at each end, for that was a sheep-camp de luxe. He stood a little while looking about in the gloom, his head tipped as if he listened, presently taking his place, unaccountably silent, and uncomfortably so, as Mackenzie could very well see.
"You didn't lose a dog, did you, Dad?"
"Dog nothin'! Do I look like a man that'd lose a dog?"
"Well, Dad," Mackenzie said, in his slow, thoughtful way, "I don't exactly know how a man that would lose a dog looks, but I don't believe you do."
"Swan Carlson's back on the range!" said Dad, delivering it before he was ready, perhaps, and before he had fully prepared the way, but unable to hold it a second longer.
"Back on the range."
"So they fixed him up in the hospital at Cheyenne?"
"I reckon they must 'a'. He's back runnin' his sheep, and that woman of his'n she's with him. Swan run one of his herders off the first rattle out of the box, said he'd been stealin' sheep while he was gone. That's one of his old tricks to keep from payin' a man."
"It sounds like him, all right. Have you seen him?"
"No. Matt Hall come by this evenin', and told me."
"I'm glad Swan got all right again, anyhow, even if he's no better to his wife than he was before. I was kind of worried about him."
"Yes, and I'll bet he's meaner than he ever was, knockin' that woman around like a sack of sawdust the way he always did. I reckon he gets more fun out of her that way than he does keepin' her tied."
"He can hang her for all I'll ever interfere between them again, Dad."
"That's right. It don't pay to shove in between a man and his wife in their fusses and disturbances. I know a colonel in the army that's got seventeen stitches in his bay winder right now from buttin' in between a captain and his woman. The lady she slid a razor over his vest. They'll do it every time; it's woman nature."
"You talk like a man of experience, Dad. Well, I don't know much about 'em."
"Yes, I've been marryin' 'em off and on for forty years."
"Who is Matt Hall, and where's his ranch, Dad? I've been hearing about him and his brother, Hector, ever since I came up here."
"Them Hall boys used to be cattlemen up on the Sweetwater, but they was run out of there on account of suspicion of rustlin', I hear. They come down to this country about four years ago and started up sheep, usin' on Cottonwood about nine or twelve miles southeast from here. Them fellers don't hitch up with nobody on this range but Swan Carlson, and I reckon Swan only respects 'em because they're the only men in this country that packs guns regular any more."
"Swan don't pack a gun as a regular thing?"
"I ain't never seen him with one on. Hector Hall he's always got a couple of 'em on him, and Matt mostly has one in sight. You can gamble on it he's got an automatic in his pocket when he don't strap it on him in the open."
"I don't see what use a man's got for a gun up here among sheep and sheepmen. They must be expecting somebody to call on them from the old neighborhood."
"Yes, I figger that's about the size of it. I don't know what Matt was doin' over around here this evenin'; I know I didn't send for him."
"Joan spoke of him this afternoon. From what she said, I thought he must be something of a specimen. What kind of a looking duck is he?"
"Matt's a mixture of a goriller and a goose egg. He's a long-armed, short-legged, gimlet-eyed feller with a head like a egg upside down. You could split a board on that feller's head and never muss a hair. I never saw a man that had a chin like Matt Hall. They say a big chin's the sign of strength, and if that works out Matt must have a mind like a brigadier general. His face is all chin; chin's an affliction on Matt Hall; it's a disease. Wait till you see him; that's all I can say."
"I'll know him when I do."
"Hector ain't so bad, but he's got a look in his eyes like a man that'd grab you by the nose and cut your throat, and grin while he was doin' it."
Mackenzie made no comment on these new and picturesque characters introduced by Dad into the drama that was forming for enactment in that place. He filled his pipe and smoked a little while. Then:
"How many sheep do they run?" he asked.
"Nine or ten thousand, I guess."
Silence again. Dad was smoking a little Mexican cigarette with corn-husk wrapper, a peppery tobacco filling that smarted the eyes when it burned, of which he must have carried thousands when he left the border in the spring.
"Tim was over today," said Mackenzie.
"What did he want?"
"About this business between him and me. Is it usual, Dad, for a man to work a year at forty dollars a month and found before he goes in as a partner on the increase of the flock he runs?"
"What makes you ask me that, John?"
"Only because there wasn't anything said about it when I agreed with Tim to go to work here with you and learn the rudiments of handling a band of sheep. He sprung that on me today, when I thought I was about to begin my career as a capitalist. Instead of that, I've got a year ahead of me at ten dollars a month less than the ordinary herder gets. I just wanted to know."
"Sheepmen are like sand under the feet when it comes to dealin' with 'em; I never knew one that was in the same place twice. You've got a lot of tricks to learn in this trade, and I guess this is one of them. I don't believe Tim ever intends to let you in on shares; that ain't his style. Never did take anybody in on shares but Joan, that I know of. It looks to me like Tim's workin' you for all he can git out of you. You'll herd for Tim a year at forty dollars, and teach Joan a thousand dollars' worth while you're doin' it. You're a mighty obligin' feller, it looks like to me."
Mackenzie sat thinking it over. He rolled it in his mind quite a while, considering its most unlikely side, considering it as a question of comparative values, trying to convince himself that, if nothing more came of it than a year's employment, he would be even better off than teaching school. If Tim was indeed planning to profit doubly by him during that year, Joan could have no knowledge of his scheme, he was sure.
On Joan's account he would remain, he told himself, at last, feeling easier and less simple for the decision. Joan needed him, she counted on him. Going would be a sad disappointment, a bitter discouragement, to her. All on Joan's account, of course, he would remain; Joan, with her russet hair, the purity of October skies in her eyes. Why, of course. Duty made it plain to him; solely on account of Joan.
"I'd rather be a foot-loose shearer, herdin' in between like I do, than the richest sheepman on the range," said Dad. "They're tied down to one little spot; they work out a hole in their piece of the earth like a worm. It ain't no life. I can have more fun on forty dollars than Tim Sullivan can out of forty thousand."
Dad got out his greasy duck coat with sheepskin collar, such as cattlemen and sheepmen, and all kinds of outdoor men in that country wore, for the night was cool and damp with dew. Together they sat smoking, no more discussion between them, the dogs out of sight down the hill near the sheep.
Not a sound came out of the sheep, bedded on the hillside in contentment, secure in their trust of men and dogs. All day as they grazed there rose a murmur out of them, as of discontent, complaint, or pain. Now their quavering, pathetic voices were as still as the wind. There was not a shuffle of hoof, not a sigh.
Mackenzie thought of Joan, and the influence this solitary life, these night silences, had borne in shading her character with the melancholy which was so plainly apparent in her longing to be away. She yearned for the sound of life, for the warmth of youth's eager fire beyond the dusty gray loneliness of this sequestered place. Still, this was what men and women in the crowded places thought of and longed toward as freedom. Loose-footed here upon the hills, one might pass as free as the wind, indeed, but there was something like the pain of prison isolation in these night silences which bore down upon a man and made him old.
A sudden commotion among the sheep, terrified bleating, quick scurrying of feet, shook Mackenzie out of his reflections. The dogs charged down the hill and stood baying the disturber of the flock with savage alarm, in which there was a note of fear. Dad stood a moment listening, then reached into the wagon for the rifle.
"Don't go down there!" he warned Mackenzie, who was running toward the center of disturbance. "That's a grizzly—don't you hear them dogs?"
Mackenzie stopped. The advance stampede of the terrified flock rushed past him, dim in the deeper darkness near the ground. Below on the hillside where the sheep bedded he could see nothing. Dad came up with the gun.
The sheep were making no outcry now, and scarcely any sound of movement. After their first startled break they had bunched, and were standing in their way of pathetic, paralyzing fear, waiting what might befall. Dad fired several quick shots toward the spot where the dogs were charging and retreating, voices thick in their throats from their bristling terror of the thing that had come to lay tribute upon the flock.
"Don't go down there!" Dad cautioned again. "Git the lantern and light it—maybe when he sees it he'll run. It's a grizzly. I didn't think there was one in forty miles."
Mackenzie took hold of the gun.
"Give it to me—hand me another clip."
Dad yielded it, warning Mackenzie again against any rash movement. But his words were unheeded if not unheard. Mackenzie was running down the hillside toward the dogs. Encouraged by his coming, they dashed forward, Mackenzie halting to peer into the darkness ahead. There was a sound of trampling, a crunching as of the rending of bones. He fired; ran a little nearer, fired again.
The dogs were pushing ahead now in pursuit of whatever it was that fled. A moment, and Mackenzie heard the quick break of a galloping horse; fired his remaining shots after it, and called Dad to fetch the light.
When the horse started, the dogs returned to the flock, too wise to waste energy in a vain pursuit. At a word from Mackenzie they began collecting the shuddering sheep. Dad Frazer came bobbing down the hill with the lantern, breathing loud in his excitement.
"Lord!" said he, when he saw the havoc his light revealed; "a regular old murderin' stock-killer. And I didn't think there was any grizzly in forty miles."
Mackenzie took the lantern, sweeping its light over the mangled bodies of several sheep, torn limb from limb, scattered about as if they had been the center of an explosion.
"A murderin' old stock-killer!" said Dad, panting, out of breath.
Mackenzie held up the light, looking the old man in the face.
"A grizzly don't hop a horse and lope off, and I never met one yet that wore boots," said he. He swung the light near the ground again, pointing to the trampled footprints among the mangled carcasses.
"It was a man!" said Dad, in terrified amazement. "Tore 'em apart like they was rabbits!" He looked up, his weathered face white, his eyes staring. "It takes—it takes—Lord! Do you know how much muscle it takes to tear a sheep up that a-way?"
Mackenzie did not reply. He stood, turning a bloody heap of wool and torn flesh with his foot, stunned by this unexampled excess of human ferocity.
Dad recovered from his amazement presently, bent and studied the trampled ground.
"I ain't so sure," he said. "Them looks like man's tracks, but a grizzly's got a foot like a nigger, and one of them big fellers makes a noise like a lopin' horse when he tears off through the bresh. I tell you, John, no human man that ever lived could take a live sheep and tear it up that a-way!"
"All right, then; it was a bear," Mackenzie said, not disposed to argue the matter, for argument would not change what he knew to be a fact, nor yet convince Dad Frazer against his reason and experience. But Mackenzie knew that they were the footprints of a man, and that the noise of the creature running away from camp was the noise of a galloping horse.
A TWO-GUN MAN
"You know, John, if a man's goin' to be a sheepman, John, he's got to keep awake day and night. He ain't goin' to set gabbin' and let a grizzly come right up under his nose and kill his sheep. It's the difference between the man that wouldn't do it and the man that would that makes the difference between a master and a man. That's the difference that stands against Dad Frazer. He'd never work up to partnership in a band of sheep if he lived seven hundred years."
So Tim Sullivan, a few days after the raid on John Mackenzie's flock. He had come over on hearing of it from Dad Frazer, who had gone to take charge of another band. Tim was out of humor over the loss, small as it was out of the thousands he numbered in his flocks. He concealed his feelings as well as he could under a friendly face, but his words were hard, the accusation and rebuke in them sharp.
Mackenzie flared up at the raking-over Tim gave him, and turned his face away to hold down a hot reply. Only after a struggle he composed himself to speak.
"I suppose it was because you saw the same difference in me that you welched on your agreement to put me in a partner on the increase of this flock as soon as Dad taught me how to work the sheep and handle the dogs," he said. "That's an easy way for a man to slide out from under his obligations; it would apply anywhere in life as well as in the sheep business. I tell you now I don't think it was square."
"Now, lad, I don't want you to look at it that way, not at all, not at all, lad." Tim was as gentle as oil in his front now, afraid that he was in the way of losing a good herder whom he had tricked into working at a bargain price. "I don't think you understand the lay of it, if you've got the impression I intended to take you in at the jump-off, John. It's never done; it's never heard of. A man's got to prove himself, like David of old. There's a lot of Goliaths here on the range he's got to meet and show he's able to handle before any man would trust him full shares on the increase of two thousand sheep."
"You didn't talk that way at first," Mackenzie charged, rather sulkily.
"I took to you when I heard how you laid Swan out in that fight you had with him, John. That was a recommendation. But it wasn't enough, for it was nothing but a chance lucky blow you got in on him that give you the decision. If you'd 'a' missed him, where would you 'a' been at?"
"That's got nothing to do with your making a compact and breaking it. You've got no right to come here beefing around about the loss of a few sheep with a breach of contract on your side of the fence. You've put it up to me now like you should have done in the beginning. All right; I'll prove myself, like David. But remember there was another fellow by the name of Jacob that went in on a livestock deal with a slippery man, and stick to your agreement this time."
"I don't want you to feel that I'm takin' advantage of you, John; I don't want you to feel that way."
"I don't just feel it; I know it. I'll pay you for the seven sheep the grizzly killed, and take it out of his hide when I catch him."
This offer mollified Tim, melting him down to smiles. He shook hands with Mackenzie, all the heartiness on his side, refusing the offer with voluble protestations that he neither expected nor required it.
"You've got the makin' of a sheepman in you, John; I always thought you had. But——"
* * * * *
"You want to be shown. All right; I'm game, even at forty dollars and found."
Tim beamed at this declaration, but the fires of his satisfaction he was crafty enough to hide from even Mackenzie's penetrating eyes. Perhaps the glow was due to a thought that this schoolmaster, who owed his notoriety in the sheeplands to a lucky blow, would fail, leaving him far ahead on the deal. He tightened his girths and set his foot in the stirrup, ready to mount and ride home; paused so, hand on the saddle-horn, with a queer, half-puzzled, half-suspicious look in his sheep-wise eyes.
"Wasn't there something else that feller Jacob was workin' for besides the interest in the stock?" he asked.
"Seems to me like there was," Mackenzie returned, carelessly. "The main thing I remember in the transaction was the stone he set up between the old man and himself on the range. 'The Lord watch between thee and me,' you know, it had on it. That's a mighty good motto yet for a sheepherder to front around where his boss can read it. A man's got to have somebody to keep an eye on a sheepman when his back's turned, even today."
Tim laughed, swung into the saddle, where he sat roving his eyes over the range, and back to the little band of sheep that seemed only a handful of dust in the unbounded pastures where they fed. The hillsides were green in that favored section, greener than anywhere Mackenzie had been in the sheeplands, the grass already long for the lack of mouths to feed. Tim's face glowed at the sight.
"This is the best grazin' this range has ever produced in my day," he said, "too much of it here for that little band you're runnin'. I'll send Dad over with three thousand more this week. You can camp together—it'll save me a wagon, and he'll be company. How's Joan gettin on with the learnin'?"
"She's eating it up."
"I was afraid it'd be that way," said Tim, gloomily; "you can't discourage that girl."
"She's too sincere and capable to be discouraged. I laid down my hand long ago."
"And it's a pity to ruin a good sheepwoman with learnin'," Tim said, shaking his head with the sadness of it.
Tim rode away, leaving Mackenzie to his reflections as he watched his boss' broad back grow smaller from hill to hill. The sheepherder smiled as he recalled Tim's puzzled inquiry on the other consideration of Jacob's contract with the slippery Laban.
What is this thou hast done unto me? Did not I serve with thee for Rachel? Wherefore then hast thou beguiled me?
"Tim would do it, too," Mackenzie said, nodding his grave head; "he'd work off the wrong girl on a man as sure as he had two."
It was queer, the way Tim had thought, at the last minute, of the "something else" Jacob had worked for; queer, the way he had turned, his foot up in the stirrup, that puzzled, suspicious expression in his mild, shrewd face. Even if he should remember on the way home, or get out his Bible on his arrival and look the story up, there would be nothing of a parallel between the case of Jacob and that of John Mackenzie to worry his sheepman's head. For though Jacob served his seven years for Rachel, which "seemed to him but a few days, for the love he had to her," he, John Mackenzie, was not serving Tim Sullivan for Joan.
"Nothing to that!" said he, but smiling, a dream in his eyes, over the thought of what might have been a parallel case with Jacob's, here in the sheeplands of the western world.
Tim was scarcely out of sight when a man came riding over the hills from the opposite direction. Mackenzie sighted him afar off, watching him as each hill lifted him to a plainer view. He was a stranger, and a man unsparing of his horse, pushing it uphill and down with unaltered speed. He rode as if the object of his journey lay a long distance ahead, and his time for reaching it was short.
Mackenzie wondered if the fellow had stolen the horse, having it more than half in mind to challenge his passage until he could give an account of his haste, when he saw that the rider had no intention of going by without speech. As he mounted the crest of the hill above the flock, he swung straight for the spot where Mackenzie stood.
The stranger drew up with a short grunt of greeting, turning his gaze over the range as if in search of strayed stock. He was a short, spare man, a frowning cast in his eyes, a face darkly handsome, but unsympathetic as a cougar's. He looked down at Mackenzie presently, as if he had put aside the recognition of his presence as a secondary matter, a cold insolence in his challenging, sneering eyes.
"What are you doing over here east of Horsethief?" he inquired, bending his black brows in a frown, his small mustache twitching in catlike threat of a snarl.
"I'm grazing that little band of sheep you see down yonder," Mackenzie returned, evenly, running his eyes over the fellow's gear.
This was rather remarkable for a land out of which strife and contention, murder and sudden death were believed to have passed long ago. The man wore two revolvers, slung about his slender frame on a broad belt looped around for cartridges. These loops were empty, but the weight of the weapons themselves sagged the belt far down on the wearer's hips. His leather cuffs were garnitured with silver stars in the Mexican style; he wore a red stone in his black necktie, which was tied with care, the flowing ends of it tucked into the bosom of his dark-gray flannel shirt.
"If you're tryin' to be funny, cut it out; I'm not a funny man," he said. "I asked you what you're doing over here east of Horsethief Canyon?"
"I don't know that it's any of your business where I run my sheep," Mackenzie told him, resentful of the man's insolence.
"Tim Sullivan knows this is our winter grazing land, and this grass is in reserve. If he didn't tell you it was because he wanted to run you into trouble, I guess. You'll have to get them sheep out of here, and do it right now."
The stranger left it to Mackenzie's imagination to fix his identity, not bending to reveal his name. Hector Hall, Mackenzie knew him to be, on account of his pistols, on account of the cold meanness of his eyes which Dad Frazer had described as holding such a throat-cutting look. But armed as he was, severe and flash-tempered as he seemed, Mackenzie was not in any sort of a flurry to give ground before him. He looked up at him coolly, felt in his pocket for his pipe, filled it with deliberation, and smoked.
"Have you got a lease on this land?" he asked.
"I carry my papers right here," Hall replied, touching his belt.
Mackenzie looked about the range as if considering which way to go. Then, turning again to Hall:
"I don't know any bounds but the horizon when I'm grazing on government land that's as much mine as the next man's. I don't like to refuse a neighbor a request, but my sheep are going to stay right here."
Hall leaned over a little, putting out his hand in a warning gesture, drawing his dark brows in a scowl.
"Your head's swelled, young feller," he said, "on account of that lucky thump you landed on Swan Carlson. You've got about as much chance with that man as you have with a grizzly bear, and you've got less chance with me. You've got till this time tomorrow to be six miles west of here with that band of sheep."
Hall rode off with that word, leaving a pretty good impression that he meant it, and that it was final. Mackenzie hadn't a doubt that he would come back to see how well the mandate had been obeyed next day.
If there was anything to Hall's claim on that territory, by agreement or right of priority which sheepmen were supposed to respect between themselves, Tim Sullivan knew it, Mackenzie reflected. For a month past Tim had been sending him eastward every time the wagon was moved, a scheme to widen the distance between him and Joan and make it an obstacle in her road, he believed at the time. Now it began to show another purpose. Perhaps this was the winter pasture claimed by the Hall brothers, and Tim had sent him in where he was afraid to come himself.
It seemed a foolish thing to squabble over a piece of grazing land where all the world lay out of doors, but Hector Hall's way of coming up to it was unpleasant. It was decidedly offensive, bullying, oppressive. If he should give way before it he'd just as well leave the range, Mackenzie knew; his force would be spent there, his day closed before it had fairly begun. If he designed seriously to remain there and become a flockmaster, and that he intended to do, with all the sincerity in him, he'd have to meet Hall's bluff with a stronger one, and stand his ground, whether right or wrong. If wrong, a gentleman's adjustment could be made, his honor saved.
So deciding, he settled that matter, and put it out of his head until its hour. There was something more pleasant to cogitate—the parallel of Jacob and Laban, Tim Sullivan and himself. It was strange how the craft of Laban had come down to Tim Sullivan across that mighty flight of time. It would serve Tim the right turn, in truth, if something should come of it between him and Joan. He smiled in anticipatory pleasure at Tim's discomfiture and surprise.
But that was not in store for him, he sighed. Joan would shake her wings out in a little while, and fly away, leaving him there, a dusty sheepman, among the husks of his dream. Still, a man might dream on a sunny afternoon. There was no interdiction against it; Hector Hall, with his big guns, could not ride in and order a man off that domain. A shepherd had the ancient privilege of dreams; he might drink himself drunk on them, insane on them in the end, as so many of them were said to do in that land of lonesomeness, where there was scarcely an echo to give a man back his own faint voice in mockery of his solitude.
Evening, with the sheep homing to the bedding-ground, brought reflections of a different hue. Since the raid on his flock Mackenzie had given up his bunk in the wagon for a bed under a bush on the hillside nearer the sheep. Night after night he lay with the rifle at his hand, waiting the return of the grisly monster who had spent his fury on the innocent simpletons in his care.
Whether it was Swan Carlson, with the strength of his great arms, driven to madness by the blow he had received, or whether it was another whom the vast solitudes of that country had unhinged, Mackenzie did not know. But that it was man, he had no doubt.
Dad Frazer had gone away unconvinced, unshaken in his belief that it was a grizzly. Tim Sullivan had come over with the same opinion, no word of doubt in his mouth. But Mackenzie knew that when he should meet that wild night-prowler he would face a thing more savage than a bear, a thing as terrible to grapple with as the saber-tooth whose bones lay deep under the hills of that vast pasture-land.
WILD RIDERS OF THE RANGE
Joan missed her lessons for three days running, a lapse so unusual as to cause Mackenzie the liveliest concern. He feared that the mad creature who spent his fury tearing sheep limb from limb might have visited her camp, and that she had fallen into his bloody hands.
A matter of eight or nine miles lay between their camps; Mackenzie had no horse to cover it. More than once he was on the point of leaving the sheep to shift for themselves and striking out on foot; many times he walked a mile or more in that direction, to mount the highest hill he could discover, and stand long, sweeping the blue distance with troubled eyes. Yet in the end he could not go. Whatever was wrong, he could not set right at that late hour, he reasoned; to leave the sheep would be to throw open the gates of their defense to dangers always ready to descend upon them. The sheep were in his care; Joan was not. That was what Tim Sullivan would say, in his hard way of holding a man to his bargain and his task.
Joan came late in the afternoon, rising the nearest hilltop with a suddenness quite startling, waving a cheerful greeting as if to assure him from a distance that all was well. She stood looking at him in amazement when she flipped to the ground like a bird, her face growing white, her eyes big.
"Well, what in the world! Where did you get those guns?" she said.
"A fellow left them here the other day."
"A fellow?" coming nearer, looking sharply at the belt. "That's Hector Hall's belt—I've seen him wearing it! There his initials are, worked out in silver tacks! Where did you get it?"
"Mr. Hall left it here. What kept you, Joan? I've been worried about you."
"Hector Hall left it here? With both of his guns?"
"Yes, he left the guns with it. What was the matter, Joan?"
Joan looked him up and down, her face a study between admiration and fear.
"Left his guns! Well, what did you do with him?"
"I suppose he went home, Joan. Did anything happen over your way to keep you?"
"Charley was sick," she said, shortly, abstractedly, drowned in her wonder of the thing he told with his native reluctance when questioned on his own exploits. "Did you have a fight with Hector?"
"Is he all right now?"
"Charley's all right; he ate too many wild gooseberries. Did you have a fight with Hector Hall, Mr. Mackenzie?"
She came near him as she questioned him, her great, soft eyes pleading in fear, and laid her hand on his shoulder as if to hold him against any further evasion. He smiled a little, in his stingy way of doing it, taking her hand to allay her tumult of distress.
"Not much of a fight, Joan. Mr. Hall came over here to drive me off of this range, and I had to take his guns away from him to keep him from hurting me. That's all there was to it."
"All there was to it!" said Joan. "Why, he's one of the meanest men that ever lived! He'll never rest till he kills you. I wish you'd let him have the range."
"Is it his?"
"No, it belongs to us; we've got a lease on it from the government, and pay rent for it every year. Swan Carlson and the Hall boys have bluffed us out of it for the past three summers and run their sheep over here in the winter-time. I always wanted to fight for it, but dad let them have it for the sake of peace. I guess it was the best way, after all."
"As long as I was right, my last worry is gone, Joan. You're not on the contested territory, are you?"
"No; they lay claim as far as Horsethief Canyon, but they'd just as well claim all our lease—they've got just as much right to it."
"That ends the matter, then—as far as I'm concerned."
"I wonder what kind of an excuse Hector made when he went home without his guns!" she speculated, looking off over the hills in the direction of the Hall brothers' ranch.
"Maybe he's not accountable to anybody, and doesn't have to explain."
"I guess that's right," Joan said, still wandering in her gaze.
Below them the flock was spread, the dogs on its flanks. Mackenzie pointed to the sun.
"We'll have to get to work; you'll be starting back in an hour."
But there was no work in Joan that day, nothing but troubled speculation on what form Hector Hall's revenge would take, and when the stealthy blow of his resentment would fall. Try as he would, Mackenzie could not fasten her mind upon the books. She would begin with a brave resolution, only to wander away, the book closed presently upon her thumb, her eyes searching the hazy hills where trouble lay out of sight. At last she gave it up, with a little catching sob, tears in her honest eyes.
"They'll kill you—I know they will!" she said.
"I don't think they will," he returned, abstractedly, "but even if they do, Rachel, there's nobody to grieve."
"Rachel? My name isn't Rachel," said Joan, a little hurt. For it was not in flippancy or banter that he had called her out of her name; his eyes were not within a hundred leagues of that place, his heart away with them, it seemed, when he spoke.
He turned to her, a color of embarrassment in his brown face.
"I was thinking of another story, Joan."
"Of another girl," she said, perhaps a trifle resentfully. At least Mackenzie thought he read a resentful note in the quick rejoinder, a resentful flash of color in her cheek.
"Yes, but a mighty old girl, Joan," he confessed, smiling with a feeling of lightness around his heart.
"Somebody you used to know?" face turned away, voice light in a careless, artificial note.
"She was a sheepman's daughter," he said.
"Did you know her down at Jasper?"
"No, I never knew her at all, Rach—Joan. That was a long, long time ago."
Joan brightened at this news. She ceased denying him her face, even smiled a little, seeming to forget Hector Hall and his pending vengeance.
"Well, what about her?" she asked.
He told her which Rachel he had in mind, but Joan only shook her head and looked troubled.
"I never read the Bible; we haven't even got one."
He told her the story, beginning with Jacob's setting out, and his coming to the well with the great stone at its mouth which the maidens could not roll away.
"So Jacob rolled the stone away and watered Rachel's sheep," he said, pausing with that much of it, looking off down the draw between the hills in a mind-wandering way. Joan touched his arm, impatient with such disjointed narrative.
"What did he do then?"
"Why, he kissed her."
"I think he was kind of fresh," said Joan. But she laughed a little, blushing rosily, a bright light in her eyes. "Tell me the rest of it, John."
Mackenzie went on with the ancient pastoral tale of love. Joan was indignant when she heard how Laban gave Jacob the weak-eyed girl for a wife in place of his beloved Rachel, for whom he had worked the seven years.
"Jake must have been a bright one!" said she. "How could the old man put one over on him like that?"
"You'll have to read the story," said Mackenzie. "It's sundown; don't you think you'd better be going back to camp, Joan?"
But Joan was in no haste to leave. She walked with him as he worked the sheep to their bedding-ground, her bridle-rein over her arm. She could get back to camp before dark, she said; Charley would not be worried.
Joan could not have said as much for herself. Her eyes were pools of trouble, her face was anxious and strained. She went silently beside Mackenzie while the dogs worked the sheep along with more than human patience, almost human intelligence. Frequently she looked into his face with a plea dumbly eloquent, but did not again put her fear for him into words. Only when she stood beside her horse near the sheep-wagon, ready to mount and leave him to his solitary supper, she spoke of Hector Hall's revolvers, which Mackenzie had unstrapped and put aside.
"What are you going to do with them, John?"
She had fallen into the use of that familiar address only that day, moved by the tenderness of the old tale he had told her, perhaps; drawn nearer to him by the discovery of a gentle sentiment in him which she had not known before. He heard it with a warm uplifting of the heart, all without reason, he knew, for it was the range way to be familiar on a shorter acquaintance than theirs.
"I'm going to give them back to him," he said. "I've been carrying them around ever since he left them in the hope he'd get ashamed of himself and come for them."
Joan started at the sound of galloping hoofs, which rose suddenly out of complete silence as the riders mounted the crest behind them.
"I guess he's coming for them now," she said.
There were two riders coming down the slope toward them at a pace altogether reckless. Mackenzie saw at a glance that neither of them was Hector Hall, but one a woman, her loose garments flapping as she rode.
"It's Swan Carlson and his wife!" he said, unable to cover his amazement at the sight.
"What do you suppose they're doing over here?" Joan drew a little nearer as she spoke, her horse shifting to keep by her side.
"No telling. Look how that woman rides!"
There was enough in her wild bearing to excite admiration and wonder, even in one who had not seen her under conditions which promised little of such development. She came on at Swan's side, leaning forward a little, as light and sure in the saddle as any cowboy on the range. They bore down toward the sheep-wagon as if they had no intention of halting, jerking their horses up in Indian fashion a few feet from where Mackenzie and Joan stood. The animals slid on stiff legs, hoofs plowing the soft ground, raising a cloud of dust which dimmed the riders momentarily.
Neither of the abrupt visitors spoke. They sat silently staring, not a rod between them and the two on foot, the woman as unfriendly of face as the man. And Swan Carlson had not improved in this feature since Mackenzie parted from him in violence a few weeks before. His red hair was shorter now, his drooping mustache longer, the points of it reaching two inches below his chin. He was gaunt of cheek, hollow of eyes, like a man who had gone hungry or suffered a sorrow that ate away his heart.
His wife had improved somewhat in outward appearance. Her face had filled, the pathetic uncertainty had gone from her eyes. She was not uncomely as she sat astride her good bay horse, her divided skirt of corduroy wide on its flanks, a man's gray shirt laced over her bosom, the collar open, showing the fairness of her neck. Her abundant hair was braided, and wound closely about her head like a cap. Freedom had made a strange alteration in her. It seemed, indeed, as if Swan Carlson had breathed into her the breath of his own wild soul, making her over according to the desire of his heart.
Mackenzie stepped out in invitation for Swan to state the occasion of his boisterous visit, and stood waiting in silence while the two strange creatures continued to stare. Swan lifted his hand in a manner of salutation, no change either of friendship or animosity in his lean, strong face.
"You got a woman, huh? Well, how'll you trade?"
Swan glanced from his wife to Joan as he spoke. If there was any recollection in him of the hard usage he had received at Mackenzie's hands, it did not seem to be bitter.
"Ride on," said Mackenzie.
Mrs. Carlson urged her horse with sudden start close to where Joan stood, leaned far over her saddle and peered into the girl's face. Joan, affronted by the savage impertinence, met her eyes defiantly, not giving an inch before the unexpected charge.
In that pose of defiant challenge Swan Carlson's woman peered into the face of the girl whose freshness and beauty had drawn the wild banter from her man's bold lips. Then, a sudden sweep of passion in her face, she lifted her rawhide quirt and struck Joan a bitter blow across the shoulder and neck. Mackenzie sprang between them, but Mrs. Carlson, her defiance passed in that one blow, did not follow it up. Swan opened wide his great mouth and pealed out his roaring laughter, not a line of mirth softening in his face, not a gleam of it in his eyes. It was a sound without a note to express human warmth, or human satisfaction.
Joan flamed up like a match in oil. She dropped her bridle-reins, springing back a quick step, turning her eyes about for some weapon by which she might retaliate. Hector Hall's pistols hung on the end-gate of the sheep-wagon not more than twenty feet away. It seemed that Joan covered the distance in a bound, snatched one of the guns and fired. Her own horse stood between her and the wild range woman, which perhaps accounted for her miss. Mackenzie was holding her wrist before she could shoot again.
Swan let out another roar of heartless laughter, and together with his woman galloped down the hill. Ahead of them the sheep were assembled, packed close in their huddling way of seeking comfort and courage in numbers, just beginning to compose themselves for the night. Straight into the flock Swan Carlson and his woman rode, trampling such as could not rise and leap aside, crushing such lambs as were not nimble enough or wise enough to run.
"I'll kill her, I'll kill her!" said Joan.
She panted, half crying, struggling to free her arm that she might fire again.
"All right, let 'em have it!" Mackenzie said, seeing the havoc among the sheep.
Swan and his woman rode like a whirlwind through the flock, the dogs after them with sharp cries, the frightened bleating of the lambs, the beating of two thousand hoofs, adding to the confusion of what had been a peaceful pastoral scene but a few minutes before. Joan cut loose at the disturbers of this peace, emptying the revolver quickly, but without effect.
Half way through the herd Swan leaned down and caught a lamb by the leg, swung it around his head as lightly as a man would wave his hat, and rode on with it in savage triumph. Mackenzie snatched the rifle from the wagon. His shot came so close to Swan that he dropped the lamb. The woman fell behind Swan, interposing herself as a shield, and in this formation they rode on, sweeping down the narrow thread of green valley, galloping wildly away into the sanctuary of the hills.
Mackenzie stood, gun half lifted, and watched them go without another shot, afraid to risk it lest he hit the woman. He turned to Joan, who stood by, white with anger, the empty revolver in her hand.
"Are you hurt, Joan?" he asked, in foolish weakness, knowing very well that she was.
"No, she didn't hurt me—but I'll kill her for it!" said Joan.
She was trembling; her face was bloodless in the cold anger that shook her. There was a red welt on her neck, purple-marked on its ridge where the rawhide had almost cut her tender skin.
"Swan Carlson has pulled his woman down to his savage level at last," Mackenzie said.
"She's worse than he is; she's a range wolf!"
"I believe she is. But it always happens that way when a person gets to going."
"With those two and the Hall boys you'll not have a ghost of a chance to hold this range, John. You'd better let me help you begin working the sheep over toward my camp tonight."
"No, I'm going to stay here."
"Swan and that woman just rode through here to get the lay of your camp. More than likely they'll come over and burn you out tonight—pour coal oil on the wagon and set it afire."
"Let 'em; I'll not be in it."
"They'll worry you night and day, kill your sheep, maybe kill you, if you don't come away. It isn't worth it; dad was right about it. For the sake of peace, let them have it, John."
Mackenzie stood in silence, looking the way Swan and his woman had gone, the gun held as if ready to lift and fire at the showing of a hat-crown over the next hill. He seemed to be considering the situation. Joan studied his face with eager hopefulness, bending forward a bit to see better in the failing light.
"They've got to be shown that a master has come to the sheep country," he said, in low voice, as if to himself. "I'll stay and prove it to all of them at once."
Joan knew there was no use to argue or appeal. She dropped the matter there, and Mackenzie put the gun away.
"I'm sorry I haven't anything to put on it," he said, looking at the red welt on her neck.
"I'm sorry I missed her," said Joan.
"It isn't so much the sting of a blow, I know," he comforted, "as the hurt of the insult. Never mind it, Joan; she's a vicious, wild woman, jealous because Swam took notice of you."
"It was a great compliment!"
"I wish I had some balm for it that would cure it in a second, and take away the memory of the way it was done," said he, very softly.
"I'll kill her," flared Joan.
"I don't like to hear you say that, Joan," he chided, and reached and laid his hand consolingly upon the burning mark.
Joan caught her breath as if he had touched her skin with ice. He withdrew his hand quickly, blaming himself for the rudeness of his rough hand.
"You didn't hurt me, John," she said, her eyes downcast, the color of warm blood playing over her face.
"I might have," he blamed himself, in such seriousness as if it were the gravest matter he had risked, and not the mere touching of a blood-red welt upon a simple maiden's neck.
"I'll be over early in the morning to see if you're all right," she told him as she turned again to her horse.
"If you can come, even to show yourself on the hill," said he.
"Show myself? Why, a person would think you were worrying about me."
"I am, Joan. I wish you would give up herding sheep, let the share and the prospect and all of it go, and have your father put a herder in to run that band for you."
"They'll not hurt me; as mean as they are they'll not fight a woman. Anyway, I'm not over the deadline."
"There's something prowling this range that doesn't respect lines, Joan."
"You mean the grizzly?"
"Yes, the grizzly that rides a horse."
"Dad Frazer thinks you were mistaken on that, John."
"I know. Dad Frazer thinks I'm a better schoolteacher than I'll ever be a sheepman, I guess. But I've met bears enough that I don't have to imagine them. Keep your gun close by you tonight, and every night."
"I will," she promised, moved by the earnestness of his appeal.
Dusk was thickening into darkness over the sheeplands; the dogs were driving the straggling sheep back to the bedding-ground, where many of them already lay in contentment, quickly over the flurry of Swan Carlson's passing. Joan stood at her stirrup, her face lifted to the heavens, and it was white as an evening primrose under the shadow of her hat. She lingered as if there remained something to say or be said, something to give or to take, before leaving her friend and teacher alone to face the dangers of the night. Perhaps she thought of Rachel, and the kiss her kinsman gave her when he rolled the stone from the well's mouth, and lifted up his voice and wept.
Mackenzie stood a little apart, thinking his own swift-running thoughts, quickening under the leap of his own eager blood. But no matter for Jacob's precedent, Mackenzie had no excuse of even distant relationship to offer for such familiarity. The desire was urging, but the justification was not at hand. So Joan rode away unkissed, and perhaps wondering why.
HECTOR HALL SETS A BEACON
Mackenzie sat a long time on his hill that night, his ear turned to the wind, smoking his pipe and thinking the situation over while listening for the first sound of commotion among the sheep. He had pledged himself to Tim and Joan that he would not quit the sheep country without proving that he had in him the mettle of a flockmaster. Hector Hall had been given to understand the same thing. In fact, Mackenzie thought, it looked as if he had been running with his eyes shut, making boastful pledges.
He might have to hedge on some of them, or put them through at a cost far beyond the profit. It came that way to a boaster of his intentions sometimes, especially so when a man spoke too quickly and assumed too much. Here he was standing face to a fight that did not appear to promise much more glory in the winning than in the running away.
There had been peace in that part of the sheep country a long time; Mackenzie had come to Jasper, even, long after the feuds between the flockmasters and cattlemen had worn themselves out save for an outbreak of little consequence in the far places now and then. But the peace of this place had been a coward's peace, paid for in money and humiliation. A thing like that was not to be expected of Tim Sullivan, although from a business reasoning he doubtless was right about it.
It was Mackenzie's work now to clean up the camp of the Hall brothers, along with Swan Carlson, and put an end to their bullying and edging over on Tim Sullivan's range, or take up his pack and trudge out of the sheep country as he had come. By staying there and fighting for Tim Sullivan's interests he might arrive in time at a dusty consequence, his fame, measured in thousands of sheep, reaching even to Jasper and Cheyenne, and perhaps to the stock-yards commission offices in Omaha and Chicago.
"John Mackenzie, worth twenty thousand, or fifty thousand sheep."
That would be the way they would know him; that would be the measure of his fame. By what sacrifice, through what adventure, how much striving and hard living he might come to the fame of twenty thousand sheep, no man would know or care. There in the dusty silences of that gray-green land he would bury the man and the soul that reached upward in him with pleasant ambitions, to become a creature over sheep. Just a step higher than the sheep themselves, wind-buffeted, cold-cursed, seared and blistered and hardened like a callous through which the urging call of a man's duty among men could pierce no more.
But it had its compensations, on the other hand. There must be a vast satisfaction in looking back over the small triumphs won against tremendous forces, the successful contest with wild winter storm, ravaging disease, night-prowling beasts. Nature was the big force arrayed against a flockmaster, and it was unkind and menacing seven months out of the year. That must be the secret of a flockmaster's satisfaction with himself and his lot, Mackenzie thought; he could count himself a fit companion for the old gods, if he knew anything about them, after his victory over every wild force that could be bent against him among those unsheltered hills.
The Hall brothers were a small pest to be stamped out and forgotten in the prosperity of multiplying flocks. As for Swan Carlson, poor savage, there might be some way of reaching him without further violence between them. Wild and unfeeling as he seemed, there must be a sense of justice in him, reading him by his stern, immobile face.
As he sat and weighed the argument for and against the sheep business, the calling of flockmaster began to take on the color of romantic attraction which had not been apparent to him before. In his way, every flockmaster was a hero, inflexible against the unreckoned forces which rose continually to discourage him. This was true, as he long had realized, of a man who plants in the soil, risking the large part of his capital of labor year by year. But the sheepman's risks were greater, his courage immensely superior, to that of the tiller of the soil. One storm might take his flock down to the last head, leaving him nothing to start on again but his courage and his hope.
It appeared to Mackenzie to be the calling of a proper man. A flockmaster need not be a slave to the range, as most of them were. He might sit in his office, as a few of them did, and do the thing like a gentleman. There were possibilities of dignity in it heretofore overlooked; Joan would think better of it if she could see it done that way. Surely, it was a business that called for a fight to build and a fight to hold, but it was the calling of a proper man.
Mackenzie was immensely cheered by his reasoning the sheep business into the romantic and heroic class. Here were allurements of which he had not dreamed, to be equaled only by the calling of the sea, and not by any other pursuit on land at all. A man who appreciated the subtle shadings of life could draw a great deal of enjoyment and self-pride out of the business of flockmaster. It was one of the most ancient pursuits of man. Abraham was a flockmaster; maybe Adam.
But for all of the new comfort he had found in the calling he had adopted, Mackenzie was plagued by a restless, broken sleep when he composed himself among the hillside shrubs above the sheep. A vague sense of something impending held him from rest. It was present over his senses like a veil of drifting smoke through his shallow sleep. Twice he moved his bed, with the caution of some haunted beast; many times he started in his sleep, clutching like a falling man, to sit up alert and instantly awake.
There was something in the very tension of the night-silence that warned him to be on the watch. It was not until long after midnight that he relaxed his straining, uneasy vigil, and stretched himself to unvexed sleep. He could steal an hour or two from the sheep in the early morning, he told himself, as he felt the sweet restfulness of slumber sweeping over him; the helpless creatures would remain on the bedding-ground long after sunrise if he did not wake, waiting for him to come and set them about the great business of their lives. They hadn't sense enough to range out and feed themselves without the direction of man's guiding hand.
Mackenzie had dipped but a little way into his refreshing rest when the alarmed barking of his dogs woke him with such sudden wrench that it ached. He sat up, senses drenched in sleep for a struggling moment, groping for his rifle. The dogs went charging up the slope toward the wagon, the canvas top of which he could see indistinctly on the hillside through the dark.
As Mackenzie came to his feet, fully awake and on edge, the dogs mouthed their cries as if they closed in on the disturber of the night at close quarters. Mackenzie heard blows, a yelp from a disabled dog, and retreat toward him of those that remained unhurt. He fired a shot, aiming high, running toward the wagon.
Again the dogs charged, two of them, only, out of the three, and again there was the sound of thick, rapid blows. One dog came back to its master, pressing against his legs for courage. Mackenzie shouted, hoping to draw the intruder into revealing himself, not wanting the blood of even a rascal such as the night-prowler on his hands through a chance shot into the dark. There was no answer, no sound from the deep blackness that pressed like troubled waters close to the ground.
The dog clung near to Mackenzie's side, his growling deep in his throat. Mackenzie could feel the beast tremble as it pressed against him, and bent to caress it and give it confidence. At his reassuring touch the beast bounded forward to the charge again, only to come yelping back, and continue on down the hill toward the flock.
Mackenzie fired again, dodging quickly behind a clump of bushes after the flash of his gun. As he crouched there, peering and straining ahead into the dark, strong hands laid hold of him, and tore his rifle away from him and flung him to the ground. One came running from the wagon, low words passed between the man who held Mackenzie pinned to the ground, knees astride him, his hands doubled back against his chin in a grip that was like fetters. This one who arrived in haste groped around until he found Mackenzie's rifle.
"Let him up," he said.
Mackenzie stood, his captor twisting his arms behind him with such silent ease that it was ominous of what might be expected should the sheepherder set up a struggle to break free.
"Bud, I've come over after my guns," said Hector Hall, speaking close to Mackenzie's ear.
"They're up at the wagon," Mackenzie told him, with rather an injured air. "You didn't need to make all this trouble about it; I was keeping them for you."
"Go on up and get 'em," Hall commanded, prodding Mackenzie in the ribs with the barrel of his own gun.
The one who held Mackenzie said nothing, but walked behind him, rather shoved him ahead, hands twisted in painful rigidity behind his back, pushing him along as if his weight amounted to no more than a child's. At the wagon Hall fell in beside Mackenzie, the barrel of a gun again at his side.
"Let him go," he said. And to Mackenzie: "Don't try to throw any tricks on me, bud, but waltz around and get me them guns."
"They're hanging on the end of the coupling-pole; get them yourself," Mackenzie returned, resentful of this treatment, humiliated to such depths by this disgrace that had overtaken him that he cared little for the moment whether he should live or die.
Hall spoke a low, mumbled, unintelligible word to the one who stood behind Mackenzie, and another gun pressed coldly against the back of the apprentice sheepman's neck. Hall went to the end of the wagon, found his pistols, struck a match to inspect them. In the light of the expiring match at his feet Mackenzie could see the ex-cattleman buckling on the guns.
"Bud, you've been actin' kind of rash around here," Hall said, in insolent satisfaction with the turn of events. "You had your lucky day with me, like you had with Swan Carlson, but I gave you a sneak's chance to leave the country while the goin' was good. If you ever leave it now the wind'll blow you out. Back him up to that wagon wheel!"
Mackenzie was at the end of his tractable yielding to commands, seeing dimly what lay before him. He lashed out in fury at the man who pressed the weapon to his neck, twisting round in a sweep of passion that made the night seem to burst in a rain of fire, careless of what immediate danger he ran. The fellow fired as Mackenzie swung round, the flash of the flame hot on his neck.
"Don't shoot him, you fool!" Hector Hall interposed, his voice a growl between his teeth.
Mackenzie's quick blows seemed to fall impotently on the body of the man who now grappled with him, face to face, Hector Hall throwing himself into the tangle from the rear. Mackenzie, seeing his assault shaping for a speedy end in his own defeat, now attempted to break away and seek shelter in the dark among the bushes. He wrenched free for a moment, ducked, ran, only to come down in a few yards with Hector Hall on his back like a catamount.
Fighting every inch of the way, Mackenzie was dragged back to the wagon, where his captors backed him against one of the hind wheels and bound him, his arms outstretched across the spokes in the manner of a man crucified.
They had used Mackenzie illy in that fight to get him back to the wagon; his face was bleeding, a blow in the mouth had puffed his lips. His hat was gone, his shirt torn open on his bosom, but a wild rage throbbed in him which lifted him above the thought of consequences as he strained at the ropes which held his arms.
They left his feet free, as if to mock him with half liberty in the ordeal they had set for him to face. One mounted the front wagon wheel near Mackenzie, and the light of slow-coming dawn on the sky beyond him showed his hand uplifted as if he sprinkled something over the wagon sheet. The smell of kerosene spread through the still air; a match crackled on the wagon tire. A flash, a sudden springing of flame, a roar, and the canvas was enveloped in fire.
Mackenzie leaned against his bonds, straining away from the sudden heat, the fast-running fire eating the canvas from the bows, the bunk within, and all the furnishings and supplies, on fire. There seemed to be no wind, a merciful circumstance, for a whip of the high-striving flames would have wrapped him, stifling out his life in a moment.
Hall and the other man, who had striven with Mackenzie in such powerful silence, had drawn away from the fire beyond his sight to enjoy the thing they had done. Mackenzie, turning his fearful gaze over his shoulder, calculated his life in seconds. The fire was at his back, his hair was crinkling in the heat of it, a little moving breath of wind to fill the sudden vacuum drew a tongue of blaze with sharp threat against his cheek.
In a moment the oil-drenched canvas would be gone, the flaming contents of the wagon, the woodwork of box and running gears left to burn more slowly, and his flesh and bones must mingle ashes with the ashes, to be blown on the wind, as Hector Hall had so grimly prophesied. What a pitiful, poor, useless ending of all his calculations and plans!
A shot at the top of the hill behind the wagon, a rush of galloping hoofs; another shot, and another. Below him Hall and his comrade rode away, floundering in haste through the sleeping flock, the one poor dog left out of Mackenzie's three tearing after them, venting his impotent defiance in sharp yelps of the chase.
Joan. Mackenzie knew it was Joan before she came riding into the firelight, throwing herself from the horse before it stopped. Through the pain of his despair—above the rebellious resentment of the thing that fate had played upon him this bitter gray morning; above the anguish of his hopeless moment, the poignant striving of his tortured soul to meet the end with resolution and calm defiance worthy a man—he had expected Joan.
Why, based on what reason, he could not have told, then nor in the years that came afterward. But always the thought of Joan coming to him like the wings of light out of the east.
And so Joan had come, as he strained on his bound arms to draw his face a few inches farther from the fire, as he stifled in the smoke and heavy gases of the burning oil; Joan had come, and her hand was cool on his forehead, her voice was tender in his ear, and she was leading him into the blessed free air, the east widening in a bar of light like a waking eye.
Joan was panting, the knife that had cut his bonds still open in her hand. They stood face to face, a little space between them, her great eyes pouring their terrified sympathy into his soul. Neither spoke, a daze over them, a numbness on their tongues, the dull shock of death's close passing bewildering and deep.
Mackenzie breathed deeply, his brain clearing out of its racing whirl, and became conscious of Joan's hand grasping his. Behind them the ammunition in the burning wagon began to explode, and Joan, shuddering as with cold, covered her white face with her hands and sobbed aloud.
Mackenzie touched her shoulder.
"Joan! O Joan, Joan!" he said.
Joan, shivering, her shoulders lifted as if to fend against a winter blast, only cried the harder into her hands. He stood with hand touching her shoulder lightly, the quiver of her body shaking him to the heart. But no matter how inviting the opening, a man could not speak what rose in his heart to say, standing as he stood, a debtor in such measure. To say what he would have said to Joan, he must stand clear and towering in manliness, no taint of humiliation on his soul.
Mackenzie groaned in spirit, and his words were a groan, as he said again:
"Joan! O Joan, Joan!"
"I knew they'd come tonight—I couldn't sleep."
"Thank God for your wakefulness!" said he.
She was passing out of the reefs of terror, calming as a wind falls at sunset. Mackenzie pressed her arm, drawing her away a little.
"That ammunition—we'd better——"
"Yes," said Joan, and went with him a little farther down the slope.
Mackenzie put his hand to his face where the flames had licked it, and to the back of his head where his scorched hair broke crisply under his palm. Joan looked at him, the aging stamp of waking and worry in her face, exclaiming pityingly when she saw his hurts.
"It served me right; I stumbled into their hands like a blind kitten!" he said, not sparing himself of scorn.
"It's a cattleman's trick; many an older hand than you has gone that way," she said.
"But if I'd have waked and watched like you, Joan, they wouldn't have got me. I started to watch, but I didn't keep it up like you. When I should have been awake, I was sleeping like a sluggard."
"The cowards!" said Joan.
"I let one of them sneak up behind me, after they'd clubbed two of the dogs to death, and grab me and get my gun! Great God! I deserve to be burned!"
"Hush!" she chided, fearfully. "Hush!"
"One of them was Hector Hall—he came after his guns. If I'd been a man, the shadow of a man, I'd made him swallow them the day I took—the time he left them here."
"Matt was with him," said Joan. "You couldn't do anything; no man could do anything, against Matt Hall."
"They handled me like a baby," said he, bitterly, "and I, and I, wanting to be a sheepman! No wonder they think I'm a soft and simple fool up here, that goes on the reputation of a lucky blow!"
"There's a man on a horse," said Joan. "He's coming this way."
The rider broke down the hillside as she spoke, riding near the wreckage of the burning wagon, where he halted a moment, the strong light of the fire on his face: Swan Carlson, hatless, his hair streaming, his great mustache pendant beside his stony mouth. He came on toward them at once. Joan laid her hand on her revolver.
"You got a fire here," said Swan, stopping near them, leaning curiously toward them as if he peered at them through smoke.
"Yes," Mackenzie returned.
"I seen it from over there," said Swan. "I come over to see if you needed any help."
"Thank you, not now. It's gone; nothing can be done."
"I smelt coal oil," said Swan, throwing back his head, sniffing the air like a buck. "Who done it?"
"Some of your neighbors," said Mackenzie.
"I knowed they would," Swan nodded. "Them fellers don't fight like me and you, they don't stand up like a man. When I seen you take that feller by the leg that day and upset him off of his horse and grab his guns off of him, I knowed he'd burn you out."
Joan, forgetting her fear and dislike of Swan Carlson in her interest of what he revealed, drew a little nearer to him.
"Were you around here that day, Swan?" she asked.
"Yes, I saw him upset that feller, little bird," Swan said, leaning again from his saddle, his long neck stretched to peer into her face. "He's a good man, but he ain't as good a man as me."
Swan was barefooted, just as he had leaped from his bunk in the sheep-wagon to ride to the fire. There was a wild, high pride in his cold, handsome face as he sat up in the saddle as if to show Joan his mighty bulk, and he stretched out his long arms like an eagle on its crag flexing its pinions in the morning sun.