"If anybody gets curious about my coming over to see you, Mary, you might let them think I'm making love to you. It would help both of us."
Mary turned her eyes without moving her head, looking at him across her nose in the arch way she had, and smiled with a deep knowingness.
"Not so bad!" said she.
They let it go at that, understanding each other very well indeed.
Mackenzie returned to Dad's camp thinking that the way to becoming a flockmaster was a checkered one, and filled with more adventures, harsh and gentle, than he ever had believed belonged to his apportionment in life. But he could not blame Tim Sullivan for placing Reid above him in rating on account of the encounters they had shared, or for bending down a bit in his manner, or taking him for a soft one who could be led into long labors on the promise of an uncertain reward.
Truly, he had been only second best all the way through, save for that "lucky blow," as Tim called it, that had laid Swan out in the first battle. Now Swan and he were quits, a blow on each side, nobody debtor any more, and Reid was away ahead of anybody who had figured in the violence that Mackenzie had brought into the sheeplands with him as an unwelcome stranger lets in a gust of wind on a winter night.
In spite of all this, the vocation of sheepman never appeared so full of attractive possibilities to Mackenzie as it looked that hour. All his old calculations were revived, his first determination proved to him how deeply it had taken root. He had come into the sheep country to be a flockmaster, and a flockmaster he would be. Because he was fighting his way up to it only confirmed him in the belief that he was following a destined course, and that he should cut a better figure in the end, somehow, than he had made at the beginning.
Tim Sullivan thought him simple; he looked at him with undisguised humor in his eyes, not taking the trouble to turn his back when he laughed. And they had taken Joan away out of his hands, like a gold-piece snatched from a child. But that was more to his credit than his disgrace, for it proved that they feared him more than they scorned him, let them laugh as they might.
But it was time for him to begin putting the credits over on the other side of the book. Mackenzie took it up with Dad Frazer that evening, Rabbit sitting by in her quiet way with a nod and a smile now and then when directly addressed.
"I don't think you're able to go over there and let that feller off," Dad objected. "You can't tell about Swan; he may come round lookin' for more trouble, and you not half the man you was before him and that dog chawed you up that way."
"I think I'll make out, Dad. I'll keep my eyes open this time, anyhow."
"He may not be able to slip up on you any more, but if he crowds a fuss where'll you be at, with that hand hardly able to hold a gun?"
"It will be different this time if he does. I'm going back to the sheep in the morning, Dad. I've got to get busy, and keep busy if I ever make good at this game."
Dad grunted around his pipestem, his charge being burned down to the wood, and the savor too sweet on his tongue to lose even a whiff by giving room for a word in the door of his mouth. Presently the fire fried and blubbered down in the pipe to the last atrocious smell, and there followed the noise of more strong twist-tobacco being milled between the old shepherd's rasping palms. Rabbit toddled off to bed without a word; Dad put a match to his new charge, the light making him blink, discovering his curiously sheared face with its picturesque features strong, its weakness under the shadows.
"What did you think of Mary?" he inquired, free to discuss the ladies, now Rabbit was gone.
"Mary's a little bit of all right, Dad."
"Yes, and not such a little bit, either. Mary's some chunk of a girl; she'll grow up to a woman that suits my eye. You could do worse than set your cap for that little lady, it seems to me, John."
"Any man could. She's got a lively eye, and wise head, too, if I'm not away off."
"She looks soft when you first glance her, but she's as deep as a well. Mary ain't the build of a girl that fools a man and throws him down. Now, you take Joan, a kind of a high-headed touch-me-not, with that gingerbread hair and them eyes that don't ever seem to be in fifty-five mile of you when you're talkin' to her. I tell you, the man that marries her's got trouble up his sleeve. He'll wake up some morning and find her gone off with some other man."
"What makes you think that, Dad?"
"Not satisfied with what she's got, always lookin' off over the hill like a breachy cow calculatin' on how much better the grazin'd be if she could hop the fence and go tearin' off over there. Joan ain't the kind that settles down to nuss babies and make a man a home. Mary is. That's the difference between them two girls."
"Maybe you're right about it, Dad—I expect you are. You ought to know women if any man does."
"Well, neither one of 'em ain't a woman in the full meanin' of the word," Dad reflected, "but they've got the marks on 'em of what they'll turn out to be. The man that marries Mary he'll play safe; the feller that gits Joan takes on a gamble. If she ever does marry Reid he'll not keep her seven months. Shucks! I married a red-headed woman one time back in Oklahomey, and that blame woman run off with a horse-doctor inside of three months. I never did hear tell of that fool woman any more."
"I don't agree with you on the way you've got Joan sized up, no difference if your wife did run off with a horse-doctor. Her hair ain't red, anyway."
"Might as well be. You ain't so much of a hand at readin' people, anyhow, John; before you marry you ought to see a fortune-teller and have your hand read. You got away off on Reid, holdin' up for him agin' my judgment when he first come here on the range—don't you remember?"
"I didn't want to pass judgment on him in advance; that was all, Dad."
"Course, you couldn't be expected to know men and women like us fellers that's batted around among 'em all our lives, and you shut up with a houseful of kids teachin' 'em cipherin' and spellin'. I never did see a schoolteacher in my life, man or woman, that you couldn't take on the blind side and beat out of their teeth, not meanin' any disrespect to you or any of 'em, John."
"Oh, sure not. I understand what you mean."
"I mean you're too trustful, too easy to take folks at their word. You're kids in your head-works, and you always will be. I advise you strong, John, to have somebody read your hand."
"Even before marrying Mary?"
"We-el-l, you might be safe in marryin' Mary. If I'd 'a' had my hand read last spring before I come up here to this range I bet I'd 'a' missed the trap I stumbled into. I'd 'a' been warned to look out for a dark woman, like I was warned once before, and I bet you a dime I'd 'a' looked out, too! Oh, well, it's too late now. I guess I was fated."
"Everybody's fated; we're all branded."
"I've heard it said, and I'm beginnin' to believe it. Well, I don't know as I'd 'a' been any better off if I'd 'a' got that widow-lady. Rabbit ain't so bad. She can take care of me when I git old, and maybe she'll treat me better'n a stranger would."
"Don't you have any doubt about it in the world. It was a lucky day for you when Rabbit found you and saved you from the Four Corners widow."
"Yes, I expect that woman she'd 'a' worked me purty hard—she had a drivin' eye. But a feller's got one consolation in a case where his woman ribs him a little too hard; the road's always open for him to leave, and a woman's nearly always as glad to see a man go as he is to git away."
"There's no reason why it shouldn't work both ways. But fashions are changing, Dad; they go to the divorce courts now."
"That costs too much, and it's too slow. Walk out and leave the door standin' open after you; that's always been my way. They keep a lookin' for you to come back for a month or two; then they marry some other man. Well, all of 'em but Rabbit, I reckon."
"She was the one that remembered."
"That woman sure is some on the remember, John. Well, I ought 'a' had my hand read. A man's a fool to start anything without havin' it done."
Dad nursed his regret in silence, his face dim in the starlight. Mackenzie was off with his own thoughts; they might have been miles apart instead of two yards, the quiet of the sheeplands around them. Then Dad:
"So you're thinkin' of Mary, are you, John?"
Mackenzie laughed a little, like an embarrassed lover.
"Well, I've got my eye on her," he said.
"No gamble about Mary," Dad said, in deep earnestness. "Give her a couple of years to fill out and widen in and you'll have a girl that'll do any man's eyes good to see. I thought for a while you had some notions about Joan, and I'm glad to see you've changed your mind. Joan's too sharp for a trustin' feller like you. She'd run off with some wool-buyer before you'd been married a year."
ONE MAN'S JOKE
Mackenzie went across the hills next morning to relieve Reid of his watch over the sheep, feeling almost as simple as Dad and the rest of them believed him to be. He was too easy, he had been too easy all along. If he had beaten Hector Hall into a blue lump that day he sent him home without his guns; if he had pulled his weapon at Swan Carlson's first appearance when the giant Swede drove his flock around the hill that day, and put a bullet between his eyes, Tim Sullivan and the rest of them would have held him in higher esteem.
Reid would have held him in greater respect for it, also, and it might not have turned out so badly for Joan. He wondered how Reid would receive him, and whether they would part in no greater unfriendliness than at present.
Reid was not with the sheep when Mackenzie arrived where they fed. The flock was widely scattered, as if the shepherd had been gone a long time, the dogs seemingly indifferent to what befell, showing a spirit of insubordination and laziness when Mackenzie set them about their work. Mackenzie spent the morning getting the flock together, noting its diminished numbers with quickly calculating eye.
Reid must have been leaving the sheep pretty much to themselves for the wolves to take that heavy toll. Strange that Sullivan had not noticed it and put a trustworthy herder in charge. But Sullivan was more than a little afraid to show himself for long on that part of his lease, and perhaps had not taken the time to run his eye over the sheep. It was a matter to be laid before his attention at once. Mackenzie did not want this loss charged against him as another example of his unfitness to become a master over sheep on the profit-sharing plan.
It was past noon when Reid returned, coming riding from Swan Carlson's range. He came only near enough to Mackenzie to see who it was, galloping on to the wagon. There he unsaddled his horse and turned it to graze, setting about immediately to get his dinner. Mackenzie waited for a summons when the meal was ready, but received none. Presently he saw that Reid had no intention of calling him in, for he was sitting down selfishly alone.
Mackenzie determined there was not going to be any avoidance on his part. If unpleasantness must rise between them Reid would be the one to set it stewing, and it looked from a distance as if this were his intention. Mackenzie went to camp, his coat on his arm.
Reid had finished his dinner when Mackenzie arrived. He was sitting in the shade of some low bushes, his hat on the ground, smoking a cigarette. He looked up at the sound of Mackenzie's approach, smiling a little, waving his cigarette in greeting.
"Hello, Jacob," he said.
Mackenzie felt the hot blood rush to his face, but choked down whatever hot words rose with it. But he could not suppress the indignation, the surprise, that came with the derisive hail. It seemed that the range, vast, silent, selfish, melancholy as it was, could not keep a secret. What did Reid know about any Jacob and Rachel romance? How had he learned of that?
"How're you makin' it, Earl?" Mackenzie returned, pleasantly enough. And to himself: "He listened, the scoundrel—sneaked up on us and heard it all!"
"Oh, well enough," said Reid, coughing huskily.
If well enough, a little more of it would do for him, Mackenzie thought, noting with surprise the change that had come over Reid since they last met. The improvement that had begun in him during his first weeks on the range had not continued. Opposed to it, a decline appeared to have fastened upon him, making his flaccid cheeks thinner, his weary eyes more tired, his slight frame lighter by many pounds. Only his voice was unchanged. That was hearty and quick, resonant of enjoyment in life and a keenness in the pursuits of its pleasures. Reid's voice was his most valuable possession, Mackenzie knew; it was the vehicle that had carried him into the graces of many transitory friends.
"I thought Tim had sent some old taller-heel over to let me off—I didn't know it was you," said Reid, lying with perfect ease.
"Taller-heel enough, I guess," Mackenzie returned, detached and inattentive as it seemed, his mind fixed on dinner.
"I didn't think you'd be able to get out so soon from what Dad told me. Been havin' some trouble with your hand?"
"It's all right now." Mackenzie was making use of it to shake the coffeepot, only to find that Reid had drained it to the grounds.
"If I'd recognized you, Jacob, I'd made a double allowance," Reid said, lifting the corner of his big, unfeeling mouth in a twitching grin.
"You might cut out that Jacob stuff, wherever you got it," Mackenzie told him, not much interested in it, apparently.
"Can't you take a joke, Mackenzie?" Reid made the inquiry in surprised voice, with a well-simulated inflection of injury.
"But I don't want it rubbed in, Reid."
Reid grunted, expressive of derision and contempt, smoking on in silence while Mackenzie threw himself together a hasty meal. Frequently Reid coughed, always cupping his hand before his mouth as if to conceal from himself as well as others the portentous harshness of the sound.
"Did Sullivan send you over?" Reid inquired at last.
"He said for me to come when I was able, but he didn't set any time. I concluded I was all right, and came."
"Well, you can go back; I don't need you."
"That's for Sullivan to say."
"On the dead, Mackenzie, I don't see how it's going to be comfortable with me and you in camp together."
"The road's open, Earl."
"I wish it was open out of this damned country!" Reid complained. In his voice Mackenzie read the rankling discontent of his soul, wearing itself out there in the freedom that to him was not free, chafing and longing and fretting his heart away as though the distant hills were the walls of a prison, the far horizon its bars.
"Sullivan wants you over at the ranch," Mackenzie told him, moved to pitying kindness for him, although he knew that it was wasted and undeserved.
"I'd rather stay over here, I'd rather hear the coyotes howl than that pack of Sullivan kids. That's one-hell of a family for a man to have to marry into, Mackenzie."
"I've seen men marry into worse," Mackenzie said.
Reid got up in morose impatience, flinging away his cigarette, went to the wagon, looked in, slammed the little canvas door with its mica window shut with a bang, and turned back.
There seemed little of the carelessness, the easy spirit that had made him so adaptable at first to his surroundings, which Reid had brought with him into the sheeplands left in him now. He was sullen and downcast, consumed by the gnawing desire to be away out of his prison. Mackenzie studied him furtively as he compounded his coffee and set it to boil on the little fire, thinking that it required more fortitude, indeed, to live out a sentence such as Reid faced in the open than behind a lock. Here, the call to be away was always before a man; the leagues of freedom stretched out before his eyes. It required some holding in on a man's part to restrain his feet from taking the untrammeled way to liberty under such conditions, more than he would have believed Reid capable of, more than he expected him to be equal to much longer.
Reid came slowly over to where he had left his hat, took it up, and stood looking at it as if he had found some strange plant or unusual flower, turning it and regarding it from all sides. It was such strange behavior that Mackenzie kept his eye on him, believing that the solitude and discontent had strained his mind.
Presently Reid put the hat on his head, came over to Mackenzie's fire, and squatted near it on his heels, although the sun was broiling hot and the flare of the ardent little blaze was scorching to his face. So he sat, silent as an Indian, looking with fixed eyes at the fire, while Mackenzie fried his bacon and warmed a can of succotash in the pan. When Mackenzie began to eat, Reid drew back from the fire to make another cigarette.
"But will it pay a man," he said ruminatively, as if turning again a subject long discussed with himself, "to put in three years at this just to get out of work all the rest of his life? That's all it comes to, even if I can keep the old man's money from sifting through my hands like dry sand on a windy day. The question is, will it pay a man to take the chance?"
Reid did not turn his eyes toward Mackenzie as he argued thus with himself, nor bring his face about to give his companion a full look into it. He sat staring across the mighty temptation that lay spread, league on league before him, his sharp countenance sharper for the wasting it had borne since Mackenzie saw him last, his chin up, his neck stretched as if he leaped the barriers of his discontent and rode away.
"It's a long shot, Mackenzie," he said, turning as he spoke, his face set in a cast of suffering that brought again to Mackenzie a sweep of pity which he knew to be a tribute undeserved. "I made a joke about selling out to you once, Mackenzie; but it isn't a thing a man can joke about right along."
"I'm glad it was only a joke, Earl."
"Sure it was a joke."
Reid spoke with much of his old lightness, coming out of his brooding like a man stepping into the sun. He laughed, pulling his hat down on the bridge of his nose in the peculiar way he had of wearing it. A little while he sat; then stretched himself back at ease on his elbow, drooling smoke through his nose in saturnine enjoyment.
"Sullivan will double-cross you in the end, Jack; he'll not even give you Mary," Reid said, speaking lazily, neither derision nor banter in his way.
"Maybe," Mackenzie returned indifferently.
"He'd double-cross me after I'd put in three years runnin' his damned sheep if it wasn't for the old man's money. Tim Sullivan would pick dimes off a red-hot griddle in hell as long as the devil would stand by and heat them. He's usin' his girls for bait to draw greenhorns and work their fool heads off on promises. A man that would do that would sell his wife."
Mackenzie made no comment. He was through his dinner and was filling his pipe, mixing some of Dad Frazer's highly recommended twist with his own mild leaf to give it a kick.
"He played you into the game with Joan for a bait, and then I got shipped out here and spoiled that," said Reid. "Now he's stringin' you on for Mary. If you're as wise a guy as I take you to be, Jack, you'll cut this dump and strike out in business for yourself. There's a feller over east of Carlson wants to sell out—you can get him on the run."
"I couldn't buy one side of a sheep," Mackenzie replied, wondering why this sudden streak of friendly chatter.
Mackenzie ground Dad's twist in his palm, poured a charge of his pale mixture into it, ground them again together under the heel of his fist, Reid looking on with languid eyes, hat down on his nose.
"What did you do with that roll you used to carry around out here?" Reid inquired, watching the compounding of the tobacco.
"It was a mighty little one, Earl," Mackenzie returned, laughing pleasantly.
"It's big enough for me—hand it over!"
Reid flipped his gun from the scabbard, his elbow pressed close to his side as he reclined in the lazy, inoffensive pose, holding the weapon down on Mackenzie with a jerk which he must have practiced long to give it the admirable finish and speed.
PAYMENT ON ACCOUNT
Mackenzie raised his eyes slowly from his task of blending tobacco, looked for a moment into Reid's determined face, remembering with a falling heart that he had taken his own revolver off and hung it in the wagon when he came in, to relieve himself of the weight.
"Hurry—hand it out!"
Reid lifted himself slightly, elbow still pressed close to his side, raising his face a foot nearer Mackenzie's, his eyes drawn small, the corners of his mouth twitching.
Mackenzie's hands were poised one above the other, as he had suspended his milling operations. As quickly as the hand of a prestidigitator flashes, Mackenzie swept the one that held the tobacco, dashing the powdered mixture into Reid's eyes.
Reid fired as he sprang to his feet, gasping and choking, momentarily blinded by the fiery tobacco. Mackenzie felt the bullet lift his hair as it passed his temple, and before it was many rods on its way through the canvas top of the wagon he had grappled with Reid and wrenched his gun away.
Reid had no hands for a fight, even if it had been in him to attempt it, being busy with his streaming eyes. He cursed Mackenzie as he sputtered and swabbed.
"Damn it all, Mackenzie, can't you take a joke?" he said.
"No, I don't get you—you're too funny for me," Mackenzie returned. "Here—wash your eyes."
Mackenzie offered the water pail, Reid groping for it like a blind man, more tears streaming down his face than he had spent before in all his life together. He got the rough of it out, cursing the while, protesting it was only a joke. But Mackenzie had read human eyes and human faces long enough to know a joke when he saw it in them, and he had not seen even the shadow of a jest in the twitching mask of Reid's unfeeling countenance as he leaned on his elbow holding his gun.
"You were right about it a little while ago," Mackenzie told Reid when he looked up with red, reproachful eyes presently; "this range isn't big enough for you and me." Mackenzie jerked his hand toward the saddle and bridle which Reid had lately taken from his horse. "Get to hell out of here!"
Reid went without protest, or word of any kind, wearing his belt and empty scabbard. Mackenzie watched him saddle and ride over the ridge, wondering if he would make a streak of it to Sullivan and tell him what a poor hand his school-teaching herder was at taking a joke. Curious to see whether this was Reid's intention, Mackenzie followed him to the top of the hill. Reid's dust was all he could trace him by when he got there, and that rose over toward Swan Carlson's ranch, whence he had come not more than an hour ago.
Pretty thick business between that precious pair, Mackenzie thought, and of a sort not likely to turn out of much profit to either them or anybody else. Carlson was a plain human brute without any sense of honor, or any obligation to the amenities of civilized society; Reid was simply an unmoral sharper.
It didn't make any difference where Reid went, or what he planned; he would have to stay away from that camp. That Mackenzie vowed, meaning it to the last letter. Tim Sullivan would be informed of this latest pleasantry at their first meeting, also, and hear a chapter from Mackenzie's heart on the matter of Joan.
Joan! If that leper Reid ever came near Joan, or ever blew the pollution of a word to her, he would nail him to the ground with a bullet, no matter that he was in debt to him for his life.
Mackenzie found the rifle that Sullivan had provided Reid for his defense under the bunk in the wagon, with ammunition enough to withstand a siege. Reid evidently had not been using the gun in practice very much, confining his rehearsals to the quick slinging of his pistol, rather, as the cunning of his hand in the attempted robbery that afternoon seemed to prove. Not wanting Reid to have any weapon to his hand in case he came back, Mackenzie buckled on the revolvers, hid the rifle near the wagon, and went back to guard the sheep.
Mackenzie felt himself softening in his judgment of Reid as the day drew toward evening. He feared he had been a little severe with him, taking his gun away and sending him off, surly and vindictive. Perhaps it was only a joke, as Reid had protested, although there had been no glimmer of jest in his eyes when he had slung out his gun.
Still, the boy was hardly responsible, oppressed by his load of dissatisfaction, harrassed and disturbed by that unbalancing ailment they called the lonesomeness. If he had come at it right, Mackenzie reflected, he could have had a hundred dollars or so, even though in staking him to it he would have been helping a criminal to escape.
He began to hope Reid would come back and try to square it. If he wanted the money to leave the country on then he could have it. Holding him there in the sheep country would not work his reformation, but would breed and store the virus of resentment, making him a truly dangerous man to set free to prey upon society when his term was done.
But Reid never would remain to finish his three years of penance there. Joan had seen it, even before his malady had fastened upon him so deeply. It might be a merciful deed to finance his going, and speed him toward the land of his desire. But how he would live in Mexico would be another matter. Perhaps he would work. At any event, he would be free.
Mackenzie had ranged his flock a considerable distance from the wagon, keeping to the hilltops above the sheep, according to the custom of herders. He was sitting in a gully, his back against the bank, feeling a weariness over him that he blamed mainly to the weight of the revolvers and cartridge belt in his weakened state, when he saw Reid coming back.
Reid broke over the hill beyond the sheep-wagon at a gallop, hatless, riding low, and the sound of shots behind him beat the tune to which he traveled. Mackenzie got to his feet, his weariness gone on the surge of concern that thrilled him. Hector Hall had come to collect his outstanding account at last.
And Reid was unarmed. Because of this he had been forced to flee before his enemy like a coward, against his nature, to his humiliation, Mackenzie knew. He should not have allowed Reid to leave camp without his gun, he would not have done it if he had reflected a moment on the risk of going unarmed when there was one abroad on the range who sought his life. If Reid should fall, Mackenzie felt he would be an accessory to the crime.
Two men were pursuing Reid. They drew up a moment on the hilltop, then came down the long slope at reckless speed, not wasting any more ammunition at that distance, which was not above two hundred yards, but dividing to cut off Reid's retreat, draw in on him then, and make an end of it at close range.
Reid halted at the wagon, where he made a hasty search for the rifle without dismounting, hidden for a moment from his pursuers. He was too far away to hear Mackenzie's shouted directions for finding the gun. On again toward Mackenzie he came, halting a little way along to look back at the men who were maneuvering to cut off any swerving or retreat that he might attempt. Mackenzie beckoned him on, shouting, waving his hat, running forward to his relief.
Mackenzie's thought was to give Reid his revolver, split the ammunition with him, each of them take a man, and fight it out. But Reid sat straight in the saddle, looking back at the two who came pressing on, seeming to fear them less than he hated the humiliation of seeking shelter under Mackenzie's protection. Mackenzie understood his feeling in the matter, and respected Reid for it more than for anything he ever had done.
While Mackenzie was yet a hundred yards from Reid he saw him swing from the saddle and shelter himself behind his horse. Hall and his companion were standing off warily, a good pistol shot from Reid, distrustful of this sudden change in his tactics, apparently believing he had come to the place he had selected to make his defensive stand. A little while they stood waiting for him to fire, then separated, the stranger circling to come behind Mackenzie, Hall moving a little nearer to Reid, who kept his horse before him with the craft of an Indian.
Hall stood a little while, as if waiting for Reid to fire, then rode forward, throwing a stream of lead as he came. Reid's horse reared, ran a few rods with head thrown wildly high, its master clinging to the bit, dragging over shrub and stone. Suddenly it collapsed forward on its knees, and stretched dead.
Reid flung himself to the ground behind the protection of its carcass, Hall pausing in his assault to reload. The man who had ridden a wide and cautious circuit to get behind Mackenzie now dismounted and began firing across his saddle. Mackenzie turned, a pistol in each hand, indecisive a moment whether to return the fellow's fire or rush forward and join Reid behind the breastworks of his beast.
The stranger was nearer Mackenzie by many rods than Hall, but still so far away that his shots went wide, whistling high over Mackenzie's head, or kicking dirt among the shrubs at either hand. Hall was charging down on Reid again, but with a wariness that held him off a distance of comparative safety.
In the moment that he paused there, considering the best and quickest move to make to lessen Reid's peril, the thought shot to Mackenzie like a rending of confusing clouds that it was not so much Reid's peril as his own. These men had come to kill him; their sighting Reid on the way was only an incident. It was his fight, and not Reid's, for Reid was safe behind his horse, lying along its body close to the ground like a snake.
This understanding of the situation cleared the air tremendously. Where he had seen in confusion, with a sense of mingling and turning but a moment before, Mackenzie now beheld things with the sharpness of self-interest, calculating his situation with a comprehensive appraisement of every yard that lay between him and his enemies. He was steady as a tree, light with a feeling of relief, of justification for his acts. It was as if putting off the thought that he was going into this fight for Earl Reid had taken bonds from his arms, leaving him free to breathe joyously and strike with the keenness of a man who has a wild glory in facing tremendous odds.
All in a moment this clearing of brain and limb came to him, setting him up as if he had passed under an icy torrent and come out refreshed and clear-eyed into the sun. He bent low behind a shrub and rushed down the hillside toward the man who stood reloading his pistol, his hat-crown showing above the saddle.
Reid was all right back there for a little while, he knew; Hall would hold off a bit, not knowing what he might meet by rushing in with precipitation. This one first, then Hall. It was not Reid's fight; it was his fight, Reid but an incident in it, as a sheep might run between the combatants and throw its simple life in peril.
The fellow behind the horse, too sure of his safety, too contemptuous of this shepherd schoolmaster whose notorious simplicity had gone abroad in the sheeplands exciting the rough risibilities of men, was careless of whether his target stood still or ran; he did not lift his eyes from the reloading of his gun to see. And in those few precious moments Mackenzie rushed down on him like a wind from the mountain, opening fire with not more than twenty yards between.
Mackenzie's first shot knocked leather from the saddle-horn. The horse squatted, trembling, snorted its alarm, trampled in panic, lifting a cloud of dust. And into this rising dust Mackenzie sent his lead, not seeing where it struck, quickly emptying one revolver, quickly shifting weapons from hand to hand, no pause in his hot assault.
The stranger cursed his frightened horse, both hands busy with the beast to stay it from plunging away and leaving him exposed to something he had not counted on meeting. Mackenzie pushed on, firing at every step. The horse partly turned, head toward him, partly baring the scoundrel who was that moment flinging his leg over the saddle to seek a coward's safety. It was a black mare that he rode, a white star in its forehead, and now as it faced about Mackenzie, not thirty feet away, threw a bullet for the white spot between the creature's eyes. It reared, and fell, coming down while its rider's leg still lay across the saddle, his other foot held in the stirrup.
A moment Mackenzie stood, the smoking pistol in his hand, leaning forward like a man who listened into the wind, his broad hat-brim blown back, the smoke of his firing around him. The horse lay still, its rider struggling with one leg pinned under it, the other across the saddle, the spur of that foot tearing the dead creature's flesh in desperate effort to stir in it the life that no cruelty could awaken.
Leaning so, the wind in his face, the smoke blowing away behind him, Mackenzie loaded his revolvers. Then he ran to the trapped invader of his peace and took away his guns, leaving him imploring mercy and assistance, the dead horse across his leg.
Mackenzie was aware of shooting behind him all this time, but only as one is conscious of something detached and immaterial to the thing he has in hand. Whether Hector Hall was riding down on him in defense of his friend, or whether he was trying to drive Reid from the shelter of his fallen horse, Mackenzie did not know, but from that moment Hall was his business, no matter where he stood.
Putting out of the fight the man who lay pressed beneath his horse had been a necessary preliminary, a colorless detail, a smoothing away of a small annoyance in the road of that hour's great work. For the end was justified beforehand between him and Hall. It was not a matter of vengeance, but of justice. This man had once attempted to take away his life by the most diabolical cruelty that human depravity could devise.
This passed through Mackenzie's thoughts like the heat of a fire that one runs by as he swung round to face Hall. Apparently unconcerned by what had befallen his friend, Hall was circling Reid's dead horse, holding tenaciously to his intention of clearing the ground before him as he advanced. Reid snaked himself on his elbows ahead of his enemy's encircling movement, keeping under cover with admirable coolness and craft.
Mackenzie ran forward, throwing up his hand in command to Hall, challenging him as plainly as words to turn his efforts from a defenseless man to one who stood ready to give him battle. Hall drew off a little from Reid's concealment, distrustful of him even though he must have known him to be unarmed, not caring to put a man behind his back. Still drawing off in that way, he stopped firing to slip more cartridges into his automatic pistol, watching Mackenzie's rapid advance, throwing a quick eye now and then toward the place where Reid lay out of his sight.
Hall waited in that sharp pose of watchful indecision a moment, then spurred his horse with sudden bound toward Reid. He leaped the carcass of Reid's animal at a gallop, firing at the man who huddled close against its protection as he passed over. Mackenzie could not see Reid from where he stood, but he felt that his peril was very great, his chances almost hopeless in the face of Hall's determination to have revenge on his brother's slayer in defiance of what might come to himself when the thing was done.
Mackenzie ran a little nearer, and opened fire. Heedless of him, Hall swung his horse back at a gallop, firing at Reid as he advanced. Reid came rolling round the carcass of his horse to place himself in the protection of the other side, so nimble in his movements that Mackenzie drew a breath of marveling relief. If Reid was touched at all by Hall's vicious rain of lead, it could be only slightly.
Hall's headlong charge carried him several rods beyond Reid, the horse springing high over the barrier. Again Reid escaped, again he came rolling back to shelter, his body as close to the ground as a worm's. When Hall pulled up his sliding, stiff-legged horse and turned in the cloud of dust to ride once more upon his defenseless enemy, it was to face Mackenzie, who had run up and posted himself directly in his way.
Reid's dead horse lay not more than twenty feet behind Mackenzie. Hector Hall leaned glowering at him through the dust perhaps twice that distance ahead. A moment Hall leaned in that way, then came spurring on, holding his fire as if his purpose were to ride Mackenzie down in contempt.
Mackenzie fired, steady against the onrushing charge as a rock in the desert wind. He was thrilled by a calm satisfaction in meeting this man who had contemned and despised him, whose cold eyes spoke insults, whose sneering lips were polluted with the blasphemies of his filthy heart.
When Hall returned the fire he was so close that the flame of his weapon struck hot against Mackenzie's face. Mackenzie leaped aside to avoid the horse, untouched save by the spurting flame, emptying his pistol into Hall's body as he passed. A little way on Hall wheeled the horse and came riding back, but the blindness of death was in his face, his rapid shots fell wild among the shrubs at Mackenzie's side.
On past Mackenzie the horse galloped, Hall weaving in the saddle, the reins hanging free, his hands trailing at his sides. Mackenzie put his pistol in the scabbard with slow and deliberate hand, feeling that the battle was done, watching Hall as he rode blindly on.
A little way, and the horse, whether through some wild caprice of its own, or some touch of its dying rider, circled back, galloping down the long slope toward the man who had come to help Hall adjust his differences with these contemptible sheepmen. Hall's hat fell off as his head sank forward; he bent, grappling his horse's mane. So for a little way he rode, then slipped from the saddle, one foot entangled in the stirrup.
The horse stopped suddenly, as if a weighted rein had been dropped. Mackenzie ran down the hill to disengage Hall's foot. But his merciful haste was useless; Hall was beyond the torture of dragging at a stirrup.
Mackenzie released the foot with a sad gentleness, composed the dusty body, drew the reins over the horse's head and left it standing beside its dead master. Hall's companion in the raid was still struggling under his fallen horse, and from the vigor of his attempts to free himself Mackenzie gathered that he was not much hurt.
A moment's work set the scoundrel on his feet, where he limped on a whole bone, whole enough to ride on many a rascally foray again. Mackenzie said nothing to him, only indicated by a movement of the hand what he was to do. Limping painfully, the fellow went to Hall's horse, lifted his friend's body across the empty saddle, mounted behind it with a struggle, and rode in humiliation from the field, glad enough to be allowed to go.
Reid was standing beside his dead horse, watching the fellow ride away. So for a little he stood, as if he debated some movement against the man who had sought his life with such hot cruelty but a few minutes past, not turning to see whether Mackenzie came or went. Presently he took his coat from the saddle, slung it over his shoulder, looked after the retreating man again, as if debating whether to follow.
Mackenzie came up, Reid's pistol in his hand. This he offered, apology in his manner, but no words on his lips. Reid took it, silent and unmoved, shoved it into his scabbard, walked away.
From the manner of his going, Mackenzie knew he was not hurt. It was a comfortable thought for Mackenzie that his interference had at least saved Reid a wound. Doubtless he had saved him more. In that last charge, Hector Hall would have had his life.
A part of his tremendous obligation to Reid was paid, and Reid understood it so. But the knowledge of it seemed to gall him, so deeply, indeed, that it appeared he rather would have died than have Mackenzie succeed in his defense.
Reid stopped where Hector Hall's hat had fallen. He turned it with his foot, looking down at it, and presently picked it up. He made as if he would put it on, but did not, and passed on carrying it in his hand.
Mackenzie wondered what his plans might be, and whether he ought to go after him and try to put their differences out of the way. Reid did not stop at the wagon. He continued on to the top of the hill, defiant of the man who rode away with Hall's body, his pistol again on his thigh. There he stood looking this way and that a little while, as a man looks who is undecided of his road. Then he passed on. When Mackenzie reached the spot where Reid had stood, he was no longer in sight.
Mackenzie thought Reid might be going deliberately to seek the battle from which he had been obliged so lately to flee unarmed. Mackenzie waited on the eminence, listening for the sounds of fight, ready to hasten to Reid's assistance if he should stand in need of it again. So the last hour of the afternoon passed. Mackenzie turned back to his flock at length, believing Reid had gone on his way to the freedom he had weighed against his inheritance only a few hours before.
It was just as well then as another day, Mackenzie reflected, as he turned the sheep from their grazing. Not that he had meant to drive Reid out of the country when he told him to go, but it was just as well. Soon or late it would have to come to a show-down between them, and one would have been compelled to leave.
But how would Sullivan view this abrupt ending of the half-million-dollar penance, and the loss of three years' unpaid labor? Not kindly, certainly. It probably would result in the collapse of all Mackenzie's own calculations as well, and the blighting of his sheep-wealth dreams.
And that day he had slain a man in defense of Earl Reid's life, as Reid had killed in defense of his.
From the first hour he set his feet on the trail to the sheep country this culmination of his adventures had been shaping. Little by little it had been building, the aggression pressed upon him, his attitude all along one of defense. Perhaps when trouble is heading for a man, as this was inevitably directed, the best thing to do is rush to meet it with a club in the hand.
That was the way it looked to John Mackenzie that evening. Trouble will put things over on a man who is bent to compromise, every time. Undoubtedly it looked that way. But he had killed a man. It was a heavy thing to carry on his soul.
This depressing shadow thickened over him as the sun drew down to the hills, and he went working his flock slowly to the night's bedding-ground. The complaint of the lambs, weary from following and frisking the day through, was sadder to him than it ever had fallen on his ears before. It seemed a lament for the pollution of his hands in human blood, moving a regret in his heart that was harder to bear than fear.
Mackenzie sat above the resting sheep as the shadows drew toward him between the hills, a glow as of a distant city where the sun went down an hour past. The rifle was beside him, his pistol in his belt, for regret of past violence would not make the next hour secure. If trouble should lift its head in his path again, he vowed he would kill it before it could dart and strike.
No, it was not a joke that Reid had pulled on him that afternoon. Reid had meant to rob him, urged on to the deed by his preying discontent and racking desire to be away. Reid was on his way out of the country now, and if they caught him and took him before the judge who had sentenced him to this unique penance, he would have the plea that Mackenzie drove him out, and that he fled to save his life.
That might be sufficient for the judge; certainly it would be enough for Tim Sullivan. Sullivan would bring him back, and Mackenzie would be sent to pick up the trail of his fortunes in another place, with years of waiting between him and Joan, perhaps.
So Mackenzie sat with his moody thoughts, depressed, downhearted, regretting bitterly the necessity that had risen for taking away a fellow-creature's life. It bore on him heavily now that the heat of his blood had subsided; it stood before him an awful accusation. He had killed a man! But a man who had forfeited his right to live, a man who had attempted to take his life in the past, who had come again that day to hunt him like a coyote on the hills. The law would exculpate him; men would speak loudly of his justification. But it would stand against him in his own conscience all his days. Simple for thinking of it that way, he knew; simple as they held him to be in the sheep country, even down to old Dad Frazer, simplest among men.
He had no desire in his mouth for supper, although he set about preparing it, wanting it over before dark. No need of a blaze or a glow of a coal to guide anybody that might be prowling around to drop a bullet into him. That surly rascal who bore Hector Hall's body away might come back to do it, but the man who stood first in his thoughts and caution was Earl Reid, out there somewhere in the closing night with a gun on him and an itch in his hand to use it.
A SUMMONS IN THE NIGHT
Somebody was calling on the hill behind the sheep-wagon. Mackenzie sat up, a chill in his bones, for he had fallen asleep on watch beside the ashes of his supper fire. He listened, the rack of sleep clearing from his brain in a breath.
It was Dad Frazer, and the hour was past the turn of night. Mackenzie answered, the sound of a horse under way immediately following. Dad came riding down the hill with loose shale running ahead of him, in such a hurry that he took the sharp incline straight.
"What's the matter?" Mackenzie inquired, hurrying out to meet him.
"I don't know," said Dad, panting from excitement as if he had run the distance between the camps on foot. "Mary come over on her horse a little while ago and rousted me out. She said somebody just passed her camp, and one of 'em was Joan."
"Joan? What would she—what does Mary——?"
"That's what I said," Dad told him, sliding to the ground. "I said Joan wouldn't be trapsin' around this time of night with nobody, but if she did happen to be she could take care of herself. But Mary said she sounded like she was fussin' and she thought something must be wrong, and for me to hop her horse and come hell-for-leather and tell you."
"How many—which way were they going?"
"Two horses, Mary said, from the sound, but she didn't hear nobody's voice but Joan's. She got Charley up, and they run out and hollered, but she didn't hear nothing more of Joan. The poor kid's scared out of her 'leven senses."
"Which way did they go—did Mary say?"
"Towards Swan Carlson's ranch, she said."
Mackenzie swung into the saddle and galloped off, leaving Dad listening to the sound of his going.
"Nutty, like the rest of 'em," said Dad.
Carlson's house was not more than eight miles from the range where Mackenzie was running his sheep. He held his course in that direction as he rode break-neck up hill and down. He had little belief that it could have been Joan who passed Mary's camp, yet he was disturbed by an anxiety that made his throat dry, and a fear that clung to him like garments wet in the rain.
Reid could not have anything to do with it in any event, Joan or somebody else, for Reid was horseless upon the range. But if Joan, he was at entire loss to imagine upon what business she could be riding the country that hour of the night. Joan had no fear of either night or the range. She had cared for her sheep through storm and dark, penetrating all the terrors that night could present, and she knew the range too well to be led astray. It must have been a voice that Mary had heard in a dream.
Mackenzie felt easier for these reflections, but did not check his pace, holding on toward Carlson's house in as straight a line as he could draw. He recalled curiously, with a prickling of renewed anxiety, that he always expected to be called to Carlson's house for the last act in the sheeplands tragedy. Why, he did not know. Perhaps he had not expected it; maybe it was only a psychological lightning-play of the moment, reflecting an unformed emotion. That likely was the way of it, he reasoned. Surely he never could have thought of being called to Carlson's ranch.
In that fever of contradiction he pushed on, knees gripping his horse in the tensity of his desire to hasten, thinking to hold the animal up from stumbling as an anxious rider in the night will do. Now he believed it could not have been Joan, and felt a momentary ease; now he was convinced that Mary could not have mistaken her sister's voice, and the sweat of fear for her burst on his forehead and streamed down into his eyes.
From the side that he approached Carlson's house his way lay through a valley at the end, bringing him up a slight rise as he drew near the trees that stood thickly about the place. Here he dismounted and went on, leading his horse. A little way from the house he hitched his animal among the trees, and went forward in caution, wary of a dog that might be keeping watch beside the door.
There was no moon. The soft glow of a few misty, somnolent stars gave no light among the trees, no light shone from the house. Mackenzie recalled the night he had first approached that door and come suddenly around the corner into the pale beam of Hertha Carlson's lantern. Now the kitchen door might be shut, and there was no window on that side.
Mackenzie stopped to listen, his senses as keen as a savage's under his strain. One who has not approached danger and uncertainty, listening and straining in the night, cannot conceive the exquisite pitch to which human nerves can be attuned. The body then becomes a tower set with the filaments of wireless telegraphy, each of the thousand nerves straining forth to catch the faintest sound, the most shadowy disturbance. Even premonitions become verities; indistinct propositions tangible facts.
In that exalted pitch of nervous sensibility Mackenzie stood listening, fifty feet or less from the kitchen door. No sound, but a sharp scent of cigarette smoke came blowing from the dark house. Mackenzie's heart seemed to gorge and stop. Earl Reid was there. Perhaps Mary had not heard a voice in a dream.
At the closed door Mackenzie listened. For a little, no sound; then a foot shifted on the floor. Almost immediately someone began walking up and down the room, pushing a chair aside as if to clear the way. Mackenzie remembered the window high in the wall beside the stove and went hastily around the house to it, restraining himself from bursting precipitately into something which might be no concern of his or warrant his interference at all. It seemed so preposterous even to suspect that Joan was there.
Reid was pacing up and down the room, a lantern standing on the floor beside the chair from which he had risen. The place had been readjusted since the ruin that fell over it in Mackenzie's fight with Swan; the table stood again in the place where he had eaten his supper on it, the broken leg but crudely mended.
Reid seemed to be alone, from what of the interior of the house Mackenzie could see, shifting to bring the door of the inner room to view. It was closed; Joan was not there.
Mackenzie watched Reid as he paced up and down the kitchen floor. There was a nervousness over him, as of a man who faced a great uncertainty. He walked with bent head, now turning it sharply as he stood listening, now going on again with hands twitching. He threw down his cigarette and stamped it, went to the kitchen door, opened it and stood listening.
A little while Reid stood at the door, head turned, as if he harkened for the approach of somebody expected. When he turned from the door he left it open, rolled a cigarette, crossed to the door of the inner room, where he stood as if he debated the question of entering. A little while in that uncertain, hesitant way; then he struck a match on the door and turned again to his pacing and smoking.
Mackenzie almost decided to go to the open door and speak to Reid, and learn whether he might be of assistance to him in his evident stress. He was ready to forgive much of what had passed between them, blaming it to Reid's chafing against the restraint that was whetting him down to a bone.
Mackenzie felt now that he had not handled Reid in the right way. Reid was not of the slow, calculative, lead-balanced type of himself. He was a wolf of civilization, to whom these wilds were more galling than the bars of a prison. The judge who had agreed to this sentence had read deeply in the opaque soul of the youth.
Prison would not have been much of a penance for Reid. There he would have found intrigue, whispering, plottings; a hundred shadowy diversions to keep his perverted mind clear and sharp. Here he met only the silence of nature, the sternest accuser of a guilty soul. Reid could not bear the accusation of silence. Under it his mind grew irritable with the inflammation of incipient insanity. In a little while it would break. Even now he was breaking; that was plain in his disordered eyes.
Still Mackenzie hesitated to speak to him, watching him as he went with increasing frequency to the open door to listen. It was not his affair; Joan could not be there. Even if she were there, she must have come for a purpose good and justifiable, and of her own free will. But she was not there, and Reid was waiting for somebody to come. Swan Carlson or his wife, it must be, and what business they had before them in this unrighteous hour Mackenzie could not imagine. But plainly it had nothing to do with Joan.
Mackenzie's thoughts reverted to the night he came to that cabin among the trees, guided thither by the plaintive melody of Hertha Carlson's song. What a fool he had been to linger on there that night waiting to see Swan, in the mistaken kindness to the woman the wild fellow had made his slave. If he had gone on that night, leaving the still waters of trouble unstirred, he would have walked in peace through his apprenticeship. Surely his crowding of trouble at Swan Carlson's door that night was the beginning of it all.
There was that door closed now on the inner room; on that night it stood open, the long chain that bound the Swede's wife running through it from the staple driven into the log. Mackenzie had not noticed the thickness of the door's planks that night, or the crudity of its construction. The handiwork of Swan Carlson was proclaimed from that door; it was rough and strong, like himself, without finish, loosely joined. Its planks were oak; great nails in them marked the Z of its brace.
Then Mackenzie turned his eyes upon Reid again. Reid went back to the inner door, pushed it, tried it with his foot. It seemed to be fastened within. Perhaps there was a reason for its strength; maybe Swan kept his crude treasures locked there in that small stronghold of logs while he roamed the range after his sheep. Reid did not appear greatly interested in the door, or what lay behind it. He turned from it almost at once, drew his chair in front of it, sat down, his right hand toward Mackenzie, the lantern light strong on the lower part of his body, his face in shadow from the lantern's top. Mackenzie quickened with a new interest, a new speculation, when he saw that Reid's holster hung empty at his belt.
At once Mackenzie decided to speak to Reid, certain that he had been through some misadventure in which he had suffered loss. He drew away from the window, going around the front part of the house to come to the kitchen door, thinking it might be wise to know the way the land lay around those premises.
This part of the house was little larger than the shack of boards that had been built to it. There was no opening in its solid log walls, neither of window or door save alone the door opening into the kitchen. The place was a vault.
Somebody was approaching, riding rapidly up the valley. There was more than one horse, Mackenzie could well make out as he stood at the corner of the house, listening. He saw Reid's shadow fall in the light that spread through the open door, and turned back to keep his watch at the window.
It was not the moment to offer friendship or sympathy to Reid. Something of Reid's own brewing was coming to a boil there, some business of his own was drawing to a head in that lonely cabin among the whispering trees.
Reid took up the lantern, stood a moment as if indecisive, placed it on the stove. Not satisfied with the way the light of it struck him there, apparently, he removed it and stood it in a corner. Whoever was coming, Reid did not want it known at a glance that his scabbard was empty. Mackenzie pressed a little nearer the window. When a man prepared for a meeting with that caution, he would do to watch.
Reid went to the open door, where he stood like a host to receive his guests. The riders were among the trees; coming on more slowly. Now they stopped, and Reid turned to light a fresh cigarette. The flash of the match showed his face white, hat pulled down on his brows, his thin, long gamester's fingers cupped round the blaze.
There fell a moment of silence, no sound of word, no movement of horse or foot upon the ground. Insects among the trees were grinding their scythes for tomorrow's reaping, it seemed, whirring in loud, harsh chorus such as one never heard out on the grazing lands.
Now the sound of footsteps approaching the door. Reid came back into the room, where he stood drawing a deep breath of smoke like a man drinking to store against a coming thirst. He dropped the cigarette, set his foot on it, crushed it to sparks on the floor.
Swan Carlson was in the door, the light dim on his stern, handsome face. Behind him stood his woman, a white wimple bound on her forehead like a nun.
SWAN CARLSON LAUGHS
"So, you are here?" said Swan, standing in the door, looking about him as if he had entered an unfamiliar place.
"Didn't you look for me?" Reid returned. He stood between Carlson and the closed inner door, foot on a rung of the chair in which he lately had sat, his attitude careless, easy.
"A man never knows," Carlson replied, coming into the room.
Hertha Carlson lingered just outside the door, as if repelled by the recollection of old sufferings there. Swan reached out, grasped her wrist, drew her roughly inside, pointed to a chair. The woman sat down, her eyes distended in fright, her feet drawn close to the chair as if to hide them from the galling chain that she had dragged so many weary months across the floor of her lonely prison.
Swan pulled a chair to the table and sat down, elbows on the board, facing Reid, a question in his attitude, his face, to which he at once gave words:
"Where's your woman?"
"Where's the money?" Reid countered, putting out his hand. "You threw me down after I delivered you three hundred sheep—you didn't come across with a cent—on the plea that one thief couldn't collect from another. All right, Swan; we'll forget the sheep deal, but this is another matter. Put your money in my hand; then we'll talk."
"Is she in there?" Swan pointed to the door behind Reid, half rising from his chair.
Reid put his hand to his empty holster, his body turned from Carlson to conceal his want of a weapon. Carlson jerked his head in high disdain, resumed his chair, his great hand spread on the table.
Mackenzie stepped back from the window, leveling his pistol at Reid's head. Joan was the subject of this infamous barter.
A moment Mackenzie's finger stiffened to send a bullet into Reid's brain, for he considered only that such depravity was its own warrant of death. But Reid was unarmed, and there was something in his attitude that seemed to disclose that it was a bluff. Joan was not there.
Joan was not there. She would not remain silent and unresisting, shut in a room while a cold-blooded scoundrel bargained to deliver her for a price like a ewe out of his flock. Reid was playing to even the deceit Carlson had put over on him in dealing for the stolen sheep. It was a bluff. Joan was not there.
Mackenzie let down the weapon. It was not the moment for interference; he would allow the evidence to accumulate before passing sentence and executing it with summary hand.
"Come across with the money before we go any further," said Reid, firm in his manner, defiantly confident in his bearing. "I've got to get out of this country before morning."
"I wouldn't give five hundred dollars for her," Swan declared. "How do I know she'd stay with me? She might run off tomorrow if I didn't have a chain on her."
Reid said nothing. He backed a little nearer the door as if he had it in mind to call the negotiations off. Swan looked at him with chin thrust forward, neck extended.
"She ain't here—you're a liar!" he charged.
"All right; there's a pair of us, then."
"I've brought my woman—" Swan stretched out his hand to call attention to her where she cowered in her chair—"fixed up to meet you like a bride. Woman for woman, I say; that's enough for any man."
"I don't want your woman, Carlson."
"You tried to steal her from me; you was lovin' her over on the range."
"What do you care? You don't want her."
"Sure I don't," Swan agreed heartily; "if I did I'd 'a' choked your neck over there that night. Woman for woman, or no trade."
"That's not our bargain, Carlson."
Reid spoke sharply, but with a dry quaver in his voice that betrayed the panic that was coming over him on account of this threatened miscarriage of his plans. Mackenzie was convinced by Reid's manner that Swan had read him right. Joan was not there.
The thought that Joan would accompany Reid in the night to Swan Carlson's house on any pretext he could devise in his crafty mind was absurd. It was all a bluff, Reid playing on Swan's credulity to induce him to hand over the money, when he would make a dash for the door and ride away.
Mackenzie stood close to the window, pistol lifted, thinking it all out between Reid's last word and Carlson's next, for the mind can build a castle while the heart is pausing between throbs.
"My woman for yours, that's a fair trade," said Swan. "I don't want to put no money in a wild colt that maybe I couldn't break. Open the door and bring her to me, and take my woman and go."
"Nothing doin'," said Reid, regaining his nonchalance, or at any rate control of his shaking voice.
"You're a liar, you ain't got no woman here."
"She's in there, all right—come across with the money and take her."
"How do I know you've got any right to make a trade? Have you got the papers to show she's yours?"
"I've got all the papers you'll ever need."
"You ain't got no papers—she's as much mine as she is yours. Open the door!"
Carlson got up, towering above Reid in his great height. He took off his hat and flung it on the table, stood a little while bending forward in his peculiar loose droop with arms swinging full length at his sides. Reid backed away from him, standing with shoulders against the door as if to deny him passage, hand thrown to his empty holster.
"You ain't got no gun!" Swan said, triumphantly. "I seen the minute I come in the door you didn't have no gun. I wouldn't fight a feller like you—you couldn't stand up to me like that other feller done here in this house one night."
Swan looked round the room, the memory of that battle like a light upon his stony face. He stood in silence, turning his head slowly, as if he found a pleasure in the stages of the past battle as recalled to him by the different locations in the place.
"You wanted me to kill that feller so he couldn't take your woman away from you, didn't you?" Swan said, contemptuously. "Over there that day me and you made that joke on him runnin' my sheep over into his. But he didn't take that joke—what? He stood up to me and fought me like an old bear, and he'd 'a' whipped me another time if it hadn't been for them dogs helpin' me. You bet your hat he would! Yes, and then you come up, and you said to me: 'Soak him another one!' And I looked at you, with red in my eyes. 'Soak him, put him out for good this time!' you says. And I looked at you another time, my eye as red as blood.
"'No,' I says, 'damn your skin, I'll not soak him when he's down, and you'll not do it, and no man ain't a goin' to do it! He's the only man on this range that can stand up to me,' I told you, 'and I'm goin' to save him to fight!' That's what I said to you. Well, he'll come after me when I take his woman away from him—he'll come after me so hard he'll make the ground shake like a train—and he'll fight me for her, a fight that men will remember! We'll roar like the wind, him and me, when we stand up and fight for his woman that I took away from him this night."
Reid drew away from him, seeming to contract upon himself against the door, and whether Swan read it Mackenzie could not tell, but he could see from the window the sickness of fear spread over Reid's pale face.
"You ain't got no gun on you," Swan mocked, taking joy from that moment. "Hell! my old woman can lick you, and I'm goin' to make her do it. Then I'll take that feller's woman away from you and kick you to hell out of here!"
Swan turned to Hertha, who had left her chair on his first threatening move toward Reid. She had advanced a little way into the room, a wild fury in her face against the man who had bargained to bring another woman between her and her fierce, harsh-handed lord. Swan took her by the arm, his hand at her back as if to give her courage.
"Go on—lick him—choke him the way I showed you how to choke a man!"
Swan clapped his hands, stamping his foot sharply, as he had clapped and stamped to urge on the dog against Mackenzie that day they fought on the range. And like a dog that has strained on a leash the woman leaped, flinging herself upon Reid with a wild, high-shrilling cry.
Reid tried to guard his face against her fury, attempted to grapple her arms and hold her. She broke away, clawing his face, screaming her maniacal cry. In a moment they were a whirling tangle of arms, wild-flying hair, swaying bodies bent in fierce attack and desperate defense. The furious creature had Reid by the throat in the grip Swan had taught her, strangling out his life.
Reid clung to her wrists, struggling to tear her hands from his throat, thrashing wildly about before the closed door, his head striking it now as the woman flung him, now his shoulders as she bent him to force him to the floor.
Swan stood by, leaning forward in a pose of deep interest, deep satisfaction, savage enjoyment, his loose-hanging arms at his sides, his long mustaches down beside his mouth. He said nothing to encourage his woman in her mad combat, only seemed waiting the issue, ready to lay his hand to finishing it in the event that she should fail.
The fighting woman, still screaming above the din of their trampling feet, struggled to lift her knee to Reid's chest. Mackenzie turned from the window to interfere, not caring to see Reid go that way, no matter what sins lay upon his young soul. As he came running to the door, he saw Reid struggle to his feet, tear the mad woman's hands away, and strike her a sharp blow in the face.
There must have been surprising power in that slender arm, or else its strength was multiplied by the frenzy of the strangling man, for the woman dropped as if she had been struck with an ax. Swan Carlson, standing there like a great oaf, opened his immense mouth and laughed.
Reid staggered against the wall, hands at his throat, blood streaming from his nostrils, bubbling from his lips as he breathed with wide-gasping mouth. He stood so a little while, then collapsed with sudden failing, no strength in him to ease the fall.
Carlson turned to face Mackenzie, his icy mirth spent.
"It's you?" he said. "Well, by God, it's a man, anyhow!"
Carlson offered his hand as if in friendship. Mackenzie backed away, watchful of him, hand to his pistol.
"Who's in that room, Carlson?" he asked.
"Maybe nobody," Swan replied. "We'll fight to see who opens the door—what?"
There was an eager gleam in Carlson's face as he made this proposal, standing between Mackenzie and the closed door, his arm stretched out as if to bar the schoolmaster's nearer approach. He bent toward Mackenzie, no hostility in his manner or expression, but rather more like a man who had made a friendly suggestion, the answer to which he waited in pleasurable anticipation.
Mackenzie looked at him coldly, measuring his great strength, weighing his magnificent body down to the last unit of its power. Carlson's shirt was open at his throat, his laced boots came to his knees over his baggy corduroy trousers, his long red hair hung over his temples and ears.
"No, there's been fighting enough," Mackenzie said, thinking that Joan must be bound and gagged if in that room. Surely she would have spoken otherwise at the sound of his voice.
Hertha Carlson rose to her hands and knees, where she remained a spell like a creeping child, almost at Mackenzie's feet. Reid lay where he had sunk down, pitched forward in front of the closed door.
"I'll open it, then," said Swan in the same glowing eagerness. "It'll be a game—whatever I find I'll keep!"
"Don't touch it!" Mackenzie warned, drawing a little nearer, his weapon half out of the scabbard.
Mrs. Carlson rose between them, tall, disheveled, dress torn open at her bosom. She seemed dazed and oblivious to what was passing, stood a moment, hands pressed to her face as one racked by an agony of pain, went to the door, and out. Carlson stood staring after her a breath, his bold chin lifted high, a look of surprise passing like a light over his eyes.
"What I find will be mine," Carlson said, almost happily. "Come on—we'll fight like a couple of men!"
Carlson thrust his hand into the bosom of his shirt as he spoke, and drew out a revolver with a long sweep of his mighty arm, throwing his body with the movement as if he rocked with a wild, mad joy. Mackenzie fired as Carlson lifted the weapon to throw it down for a shot. Carlson's pistol fell from his shattered hand.
Swan stood a moment, that flickering light of surprise flashing in his eyes again. Then he threw back his head and shouted in the mad joy of his wild heart, his great mouth stretched wide, his great mustaches moving in his breath. Shouting still, as his Viking forebears shouted in the joy of battle, the roar of his great voice going far into the night, Swan rushed upon Mackenzie like a wounded bear.
Mackenzie gave back before him, leaping aside, firing. Checked a moment, more by the flash of the discharge in his eyes than by the bullet, it seemed, Swan roared a wilder note and pressed the charge. His immense, lunging body was dim before Mackenzie through the smoke, his uninjured hand groping like a man feeling for a door in a burning house.
Swan fell with the mad challenge on his tongue, and cried his defiance still as he writhed a moment on his back, turning his face to the open door and the peace of the night at last, to die. To die in greater heroism than he had lived, and to lie there in his might and wasted magnificence of body, one hand over the threshold dabbling in the dark.
Mackenzie took the lantern from the corner where Reid had set it in his studious play for the advantage that did not come to his hand, and turned back to the closed door. Reid lay as he had fallen, Carlson's revolver by his side. Mackenzie stepped over him and tried the door. It was unlocked, fastened only by the iron thumb-latch.
A moment Mackenzie stood, lifting the lantern to light the small room to its corners, then went in, peering and exploring into every shadow.
"Great God! She wasn't here at all! And I've killed a man for that!" he said.
He turned to the open door, stifled by remorse for what he had done, although he had done it in a fight that had been pushed upon him, as all his fights in the sheeplands had been pushed. He might have taken Swan at his manly offer to fight hand-to-hand to see who should open the door; or he might have allowed him to open it, and saved all violence between them.
And this was the end of Earl Reid's bluff to Carlson that he would deliver Joan to him there, bargained for and sold after the wild and lawless reasoning of the Norse flockmaster. And Swan had drawn his weapon with a glad light in his face, and stood up to him like a man.
"Throw it down here, Mackenzie—you can't get by with it this time!"
Mackenzie looked up from his daze of remorseful panic, slowly, amazedly, not fully realizing that it was a human voice he heard, to see Reid where he had scrambled to his knees, Carlson's gun in one hand, the other thrown out to support his unsteady body.
"You can have it, Earl," Mackenzie said, with the relief in his voice of a man who has heard good tidings.
"Hurry!" said Reid, in voice strained and dry.
"My gun's empty; you can have it too. I'm through," Mackenzie said.
As he spoke, Mackenzie jerked the lantern sharply, putting it out. Reid fired. Mackenzie felt the shot strike his thigh like the flip of a switch when one rides through a thicket. He threw himself upon Reid, and held his arm while the desperate youth fired his remaining shots into the wall.
Mackenzie shook Reid until he dropped the empty revolver, then took him by the neck and pushed him to the open door. And there the morning was spreading, showing the trees outlined against the east.
"Come out here and we'll talk it over, Reid." Mackenzie said.
Reid had nothing to say. He was sullen, uncontrite. Mackenzie waited a little while for him to speak, holding him harshly by the collar.
"Well, there's the road out of this country," Mackenzie said, seeing he would not speak. "This is the last trick you'll ever try to throw here on me or anybody else. I suppose you came here on one of Carlson's horses; go and get it, and when you start, head south."
Mackenzie felt the leg of his trousers wet from the blood of his wound, and began to have some concern lest an artery had been cut. But this he put off investigating until he heard Reid ride out to the dim road in front of Carlson's cabin, and go his way out of the sheeplands to whatever destiny lay ahead.
Then Mackenzie looked himself over, to find that it was not a serious wound. He bound up the hurt with his handkerchief, and turned his face away from that tragic spot among the cottonwoods, their leaves moving with a murmur as of falling rain in the cool morning wind.
"So I just took his gun away from him and slapped him and sent him on," said Joan.
"I thought that must have been the way of it," Mackenzie said, sighing as if his last trouble had left him.
"When he tried to make me believe I wasn't within seven miles of Dad Frazer's camp I got my suspicions up. The idea of that little town rat trying to mix me up on my range! Well, I was a little off on my estimate of where the wagons were, but that was because they'd been moved so many times while I was over home."
"I figured it that way, Joan."
"But what do you suppose he was tryin' to pull off on me, John, bringing me out here on the pretense you'd been all shot up in the fight with Hector Hall and wanted me?"
"I don't know, Joan," Mackenzie said, lying like the "kind of a gentleman" he was.
"I thought maybe the little fool wanted to make me marry him so he could get some money out of dad."
"Maybe that was it, Joan; I pass it up."
"Dad Frazer says Earl was crazy from the lonesomeness and killing Matt Hall."
"I think he must have been, Joan. It's over—let's forget it if we can."
"Yes, you haven't done a thing but fight since you struck this range," Joan sighed.
Mackenzie was lying up in Rabbit's hospital again, undergoing treatment for the bullet wound in his thigh. He had arrived at Dad Frazer's camp at sunrise, weak from the drain of his hurt, to find Joan waiting for him on the rise of the hill. She hurried him into Rabbit's hands, leaving explanations until later. They had come to the end of them now.
But Mackenzie made the reservation of Reid's atrocious, insane scheme in bringing Joan from home on the pretext that the schoolmaster had fallen wounded to death in the fight with Hector Hall, and lay calling for her with his wasting breath. Mackenzie knew that it was better for her faith in mankind for all her future years, and for the peace of her soul, that she should never know.
"My dad was here a little while ago—he's gone over to put a man in to take care of your sheep, but he'll be along back here this evening. He wants to talk some business with you, he said."
"Well, we're ready for him, Joan," Mackenzie said. And the look that passed between them, and the smile that lighted their lips, told that their business had been talked and disposed of already, let Tim Sullivan propose what he might.
"I'll leave it to you, John," said Joan, blushing a little, her eyes downcast in modesty, but smiling and smiling like a growing summer day.
Tim Sullivan arrived toward evening, entering the sheep-wagon softly, his loud tongue low in awe for this fighting man.
"How are you, John? How are you, lad?" he whispered, coming on his toes to the cot, his face as expressive of respect as if he had come into the presence of the dead.
Mackenzie grinned over this great mark of respect in the flockmaster of Poison Creek.
"I'm all right," he said.
Tim sat on an upended box, leaning forward, hat between his knees, mouth open a bit, looking at Mackenzie as if he had come face to face with a miracle.
"You're not hurted much, lad?" he inquired, lifting his voice a little, the wonder of it gradually passing away.
"Not much. I'll be around again in nine or ten days, Rabbit says."
"You will," said Tim, eloquently decisive, as though his heart emptied itself of a great responsibility, "you will that, and as good as a new man!"
"She's better than any doctor I ever saw."
"She is that!" said Tim, "and cheaper, too."
His voice grew a little louder, coming thus to familiar ground in the discussion of values and costs. But the awe of this man who went fighting his way was still big in the flockmaster's eyes. He sat leaning, elbows on thighs, mouth still open, as respectfully awed as if he had just come out of a church. Then, after a little while, looking around for Joan:
"What was he up to, John? What was he tryin' to do with my girl?"
Mackenzie told him, in few words and plain, pledging him to keep the truth of it from Joan all his days. Tim's face grew pale through the deep brown of sun and wind. He put his hand to his throat, unbuttoning his collar with trembling fingers.
"But she was too smart for him!" he said. "I've brought her up a match for any of them town fellers—they can't put anything like that over on my little Joan. And you didn't know but she was there, locked in and bound hand and foot, lad? And you fought old Swan and laid him cold at last, hand to hand, man to man! Lord! And you done it for my little Joan!"
"Let's forget it," Mackenzie said, uncomfortable under the praise.
"It's easy said, lad, but not so easy done. A man remembers a thing the like of that with gratitude to his last hour. And we thought you an easy-goin' man, that could be put on and wasn't able to hold your own," said Tim, confessing more in his momentary softness than he would have done on reflection.
"We thought you was only a schoolteacher, wrapped up in rhymes and birds!"
"Just a plain simpleton that would eat out of anybody's hand," Mackenzie grinned.
"Not a simpleton, lad; not a simpleton. But maybe soft in your ways of dealin' with other men, lettin' 'em go when you ought to knocked 'em cold, the way you let Hall go the day you took his guns off of him. But we couldn't see deep in you, lad; you're no simpleton, lad—no simpleton at all."
Tim spoke in soothing conciliation, as if he worked to salve over the old hurts of injustice, or as if he dealt with the mishap of a child to whom words were more comforting than balm. He was coming back to his regular sheepman form, crafty, conciliatory; never advancing one foot without feeling ahead with the other. But the new respect that had come over him for Mackenzie could not be put wholly aside, even though Tim might have the disposition to do it. Tim's voice was still small in his mouth, his manner softened by awe.
"You've shown the mettle of a sheepman," Tim said, "and more. There'll be peace and quiet on this range now."
"I brought nothing but trouble to it. You had peace and quiet before I came."
"Trouble was here, lad, but we dodged it. There wasn't a man of us had the courage to face it and put it down like you've done it. Carlson and them Halls robbed me year in and year out, and stole the range I paid rent on from under my feet. Swan stole sheep from me all the time that boy was runnin' them next him there—I miss about three hundred from the flock today."
"Reid sold them to him, but didn't get his money. He complained about it to Swan last night."
"He'd do it," nodded Tim; "his father before him done it. It runs in the blood of them Reids to steal. I'll have them three hundred sheep back out of Swan's widow tomorrow."
"Is she over there with the sheep?"
"I didn't see her around."
"The poor creature's crazy from her hard usage and suffering. I think somebody ought to go over there and help her straighten things out."
"I'll see to it," Tim promised. "Yes, it must be done. Now that wild devil's dead we must be neighborly with the widow and give her a chance. I'll see to it tomorrow. Where's my Joan?"
"She's making some broth for my supper."
"That's right, that's right—she'll care for you, lad; I'll leave her here with Rabbit to care for you. Sure. She was for you, all along. I couldn't see it."
"Well, you've got it right this time," Mackenzie said.
Tim beamed. He rubbed his hands, great satisfaction in his face.
"I'll find somebody else for my Mary—we'll consider her no more," he said. "Let you go on with Joan in the bargain in place of Mary, and give me three years for her, and the day you marry her I'll drive over to you a thousand sheep."
"Nothing doing," said Mackenzie.
"Two years, we'll say—two instead of three, John. Joan will be her own man in two years; she'll be twenty-one. And the day you marry her I'll make it fifteen hundred sheep."
"She's her own man now under the laws of this state, and I'm taking her without a single head of sheep. You can keep them all—Joan is enough for me."
Tim was a greatly injured man. His face lengthened two inches, a look of reproach came into his eyes; he seemed on the point of dissolving in tears.
"You're not goin' to quit me and take away my girl, the best one of my flock, my ewe lamb, my Joan? I didn't think you'd turn on me like that, lad; I didn't think you had it in your heart!"
"You took away Joan's ewe lambs, and her buck lambs, and all her lambs, more than a thousand of them, after she'd served you through sun and storm and earned them like a man. No, I don't think I could trust you two years, Mr. Sullivan; I don't believe your memory would hold you to a bargain that long, seeing that it would be in the family, especially."
"I'll give Joan back her flock, to run it like she was runnin' it, and I'll put it in writin' with you both. Two years, we'll say, John—two short easy years."
"Don't you throw away your chances now, John, don't you do it, lad. If you marry my Joan now I'll give you not a sheep, not one blind wether! But if you'll stay by me a year for her I'll give you a weddin' at the end of that time they'll put big in the papers at Cheyenne, and I'll hand over to you three thousand sheep, in your own name."
"I'm not thinking as much about sheep as I was three months ago," said Mackenzie, yawning as though he had grown tired of the subject. "Joan and I have made our plans; you can approve them or turn them down. We're going away when we're married."
"Goin' away!" said Tim, his voice betraying the hollowness of his heart.
"But we're coming back——"
"Comin' back?" said Tim, gladness in every note.
"Joan's heart is in the sheep range—she couldn't tear it away if she tried. She thought she wanted to go, but I'll have hard work to get her farther than Jasper. Joan had the lonesomeness; she's cured now."
"She had, poor gerrel! I didn't see it, but I see it now. But you'll be comin' back!"
"Yes. Joan and I belong on the sheep range—we're both too simple and confiding to run around loose in the world."
Tim was looking at Mackenzie, his head tipped to one side a little in his great, new interest, his greater, newer understanding.
"You'll come back and make it home?" said he.
"Home," Mackenzie nodded. "There's no other place that calls. You can welcome us or turn us away, but we'll find a place on the range, and I've got money enough to buy us a little band of sheep."
"No need, lad, no need for that. What I have I'll divide with you the day you come home, for I've made a place in my heart for you that's the place of a son," said Tim.
Mackenzie knew the flockmaster had reached a point at last where he would stand, writing or no writing, for there was the earnestness of truth in his voice, the vibrant softness of affection. He gave the flockmaster his hand, saying no word. Tim took it between his own as if he held a woman's, and held it so while he spoke:
"And the place is here for you when you come back be it a year from now or five years. You're a sheepman now, John."
"And I'm more," said Mackenzie, with a contented sigh. "I'm a sheepwoman's man."