A Novel of To-day
By Robert Stead
"Chuck at the Y.D. to-night, and a bed under the shingles," shouted Transley, waving to the procession to be off.
Linder, foreman and head teamster, straightened up from the half load of new hay in which he had been awaiting the final word, tightened the lines, made an unique sound in his throat, and the horses pressed their shoulders into the collars. Linder glanced back to see each wagon or implement take up the slack with a jerk like the cars of a freight train; the cushioned rumble of wagon wheels on the soft earth, and the noisy chatter of the steel teeth of the hay-rakes came up from the rear. Transley's "outfit" was under way.
Transley was a contractor; a master of men and of circumstances. Six weeks before, the suspension of a grading order had left him high and dry, with a dozen men and as many teams on his hands and hired for the season. Transley galloped all that night into the foothills; when he returned next evening he had a contract with the Y.D. to cut all the hay from the ranch buildings to The Forks. By some deft touch of those financial strings on which he was one day to become so skilled a player Transley converted his dump scrapers into mowing machines, and three days later his outfit was at work in the upper reaches of the Y.D.
The contract had been decidedly profitable. Not an hour of broken weather had interrupted the operations, and to-day, with two thousand tons of hay in stack, Transley was moving down to the headquarters of the Y.D. The trail lay along a broad valley, warded on either side by ranges of foothills; hills which in any other country would have been dignified by the name of mountains. From their summits the grey-green up-tilted limestone protruded, whipped clean of soil by the chinooks of centuries. Here and there on their northern slopes hung a beard of scrub timber; sharp gulleys cut into their fastnesses to bring down the turbulent waters of their snows.
Some miles to the left of the trail lay the bed of the Y.D., fringed with poplar and cottonwood and occasional dark green splashes of spruce. Beyond the bed of the Y.D., beyond the foothills that looked down upon it, hung the mountains themselves, their giant crests pitched like mighty tents drowsing placidly between earth and heaven. Now their four o'clock veil of blue-purple mist lay filmed about their shoulders, but later they would stand out in bold silhouette cutting into the twilight sky. Everywhere was the soft smell of new-mown hay; everywhere the silences of the eternal, broken only by the muffled noises of Transley's outfit trailing down to the Y.D.
Linder, foreman and head teamster, cushioned his shoulders against his half load of hay and contemplated the scene with amiable satisfaction. The hay fields of the foothills had been a pleasant change from the railway grades of the plains below. Men and horses had fattened and grown content, and the foreman had reason to know that Transley's bank account had profited by the sudden shift in his operations. Linder felt in his pocket for pipe and matches; then, with a frown, withdrew his fingers. He himself had laid down the law that there must be no smoking in the hay fields. A carelessly dropped match might in an hour nullify all their labor.
Linder's frown had scarce vanished when hoof-beats pounded by the side of his wagon, and a rider, throwing himself lightly from his horse, dropped beside him in the hay.
"Thought I'd ride with you a spell, Lin. That Pete-horse acts like he was goin' sore on the off front foot. Chuck at the Y.D. to-night?"
"That's what Transley says, George, and he knows."
"Ever et at the Y.D?"
"Know old Y.D?"
"Only to know his name is good on a cheque, and they say he still throws a good rope."
George wriggled to a more comfortable position in the hay. He had a feeling that he was approaching a delicate subject with consummate skill. After a considerable silence he continued—
"They say that's quite a girl old Y.D.'s got."
"Oh," said Linder, slowly. The occasion of the soreness in that Pete-horse's off front foot was becoming apparent.
"You better stick to Pete," Linder continued. "Women is most uncertain critters."
"Don't I know it?" chuckled George, poking the foreman's ribs companionably with his elbow. "Don't I know it?" he repeated, as his mind apparently ran back over some reminiscence that verified Linder's remark. It was evident from the pleasant grimaces of George's face that whatever he had suffered from the uncertain sex was forgiven.
"Say, Lin," he resumed after another pause, and this time in a more confidential tone, "do you s'pose Transley's got a notion that way?"
"Shouldn't wonder. Transley always knows what he's doing, and why. Y.D. must be worth a million or so, and the girl is all he's got to leave it to. Besides all that, no doubt she's well worth having on her own account."
"Well, I'm sorry for the boss," George replied, with great soberness. "I alus hate to disappoint the boss."
"Huh!" said Linder. He knew George Drazk too well for further comment. After his unlimited pride in and devotion to his horse, George gave his heart unreservedly to womankind. He suffered from no cramping niceness in his devotions; that would have limited the play of his passion; to him all women were alike—or nearly so. And no number of rebuffs could convince George that he was unpopular with the objects of his democratic affections. Such a conclusion was, to him, too absurd to be entertained, no matter how many experiences might support it. If opportunity offered he doubtless would propose to Y.D.'s daughter that very night—and get a boxed ear for his pains.
The Y.D. creek had crossed its valley, shouldering close against the base of the foothills to the right. Here the current had created a precipitous cutbank, and to avoid it and the stream the trail wound over the side of the hill. As they crested a corner the silver ribbon of the Y.D. was unravelled before them, and half a dozen miles down its course the ranch buildings lay clustered in a grove of cottonwoods and evergreens. All the great valley lay warm and pulsating in a flood of yellow sunshine; the very earth seemed amorous and content in the embrace of sun and sky. The majesty of the view seized even the unpoetic souls of Linder and Drazk, and because they had no other means of expression they swore vaguely and relapsed into silence.
Hoof-beats again sounded by the wagon side. It was Transley.
"Oh, here you are, Drazk. How long do you reckon it would take you to ride down to the Y.D. on that Pete-horse?" Transley was a leader of men.
Drazk's eyes sparkled at the subtle compliment to his horse.
"I tell you, Boss," he said, "if there's any jackrabbits in the road they'll get tramped on."
"I bet they will," said Transley, genially. "Well, you just slide down and tell Y.D. we're coming in. She's going to be later than I figured, but I can't hurry the work horses. You know that, Drazk."
"Sure I do, Boss," said Drazk, springing into his saddle. "Just watch me lose myself in the dust." Then, to himself, "Here's where I beat the boss to it."
The sun had fallen behind the mountains, the valley was filled with shadow, the afterglow, mauve and purple and copper, was playing far up the sky when Transley's outfit reached the Y.D. corrals. George Drazk had opened the gate and waited beside it.
"Y.D. wants you an' Linder to eat with him at the house," he said as Transley halted beside him. "The rest of us eat in the bunk-house." There was something strangely modest in Drazk's manner.
"Had yours handed to you already?" Linder managed to banter in a low voice as they swung through the gate.
"Hell!" protested Mr. Drazk. "A fellow that ain't a boss or a foreman don't get a look-in. Never even seen her.... Come, you Pete-horse!" It was evident George had gone back to his first love.
The wagons drew up in the yard, and there was a fine jingle of harness as the teamsters quickly unhitched. Y.D. himself approached through the dusk; his large frame and confident bearing were unmistakable even in that group of confident, vigorous men.
"Glad to see you, Transley," he said cordially. "You done well out there. 'So, Linder! You made a good job of it. Come up to the house—I reckon the Missus has supper waitin'. We'll find a room for you up there, too; it's different from bein' under canvas."
So saying, and turning the welfare of the men and the horses over to his foreman, the rancher led Transley and Linder along a path through a grove of cottonwoods, across a footbridge where from underneath came the babble of water, to "the house," marked by a yellow light which poured through the windows and lost itself in the shadow of the trees.
The nucleus of the house was the log cabin where Y.D. and his wife had lived in their first married years. With the passage of time additions had been built to every side which offered a point of contact, but the log cabin still remained the family centre, and into it Transley and Linder were immediately admitted. The poplar floor had long since worn thin, save at the knots, and had been covered with edge-grained fir, but otherwise the cabin stood as it had for twenty years, the white-washed logs glowing in the light of two bracket lamps and the reflections from a wood fire which burned merrily in the stove. The skins of a grizzly bear and a timber wolf lay on the floor, and two moose heads looked down from opposite ends of the room. On the walls hung other trophies won by Y.D.'s rifle, along with hand-made bits of harness, lariats, and other insignia of the ranchman's trade.
The rancher took his guests' hats, and motioned each to a seat. "Mother," he said, directing his voice into an adjoining room, "here's the boys."
In a moment "Mother" appeared drying her hands. In her appearance were courage, resourcefulness, energy,—fit mate for the man who had made the Y.D. known in every big cattle market of the country. As Linder's eye caught her and her husband in the same glance his mind involuntarily leapt to the suggestion of what the offspring of such a pair must be. The men of the cattle country have a proper appreciation of heredity....
"My wife—Mr. Transley, Mr. Linder," said the rancher, with a courtliness which sat strangely on his otherwise rough-and-ready speech. "I been tellin' her the fine job you boys has made in the hay fields, an' I reckon she's got a bite of supper waitin' you."
"Y.D. has been full of your praises," said the woman. There was a touch of culture in her manner as she received them, which Y.D.'s hospitality did not disclose.
She led them into another room, where a table was set for five. Linder experienced a tang of happy excitement as he noted the number. Linder allowed himself no foolishness about women, but, as he sometimes sagely remarked to George Drazk, you never can tell what might happen. He shot a quick glance at Transley, but the contractor's face gave no sign. Even as he looked Linder thought what an able face it was. Transley was not more than twenty-six, but forcefulness, assertion, ability, stood in every line of his clean-cut features. He was such a man as to capture at a blow the heart of old Y.D., perhaps of Y.D.'s daughter.
"Where's Zen?" demanded the rancher.
"She'll be here presently," his wife replied. "We don't have Mr. Transley and Mr. Linder every night, you know," she added, with a smile.
"Dolling up," thought Linder. "Trust a woman never to miss a bet."
But at that moment a door opened, and the girl appeared. She did not burst upon them, as Linder had half expected; she slipped quietly and gracefully into their presence. She was dressed in black, in a costume which did not too much conceal the charm of her figure, and the nut-brown lustre of her face and hair played against the sober background of her dress with an effect that was almost dazzling.
"My daughter, Zen," said Y.D. "Mr. Transley, Mr. Linder."
She shook hands frankly, first with Transley, then with Linder, as had been the order of the introduction. In her manner was neither the shyness which sometimes marks the women of remote settlements, nor the boldness so readily bred of outdoor life. She gave the impression of one who has herself, and the situation, in hand.
"We're always glad to have guests at the Y.D." she was saying. "We live so far from everywhere."
Linder thought that a strange peg on which to hang their welcome. But she was continuing—
"And you have been so successful, haven't you? You have made quite a hit with Dad."
"How about Dad's daughter?" asked Transley. Transley had a manner of direct and forceful action. These were his first words to her. Linder would not have dared be so precipitate.
"Perhaps," thought Linder to himself, as he turned the incident over in his mind, "perhaps that is why Transley is boss, and I'm just foreman." The young woman's behavior seemed to support that conclusion. She did not answer Transley's question, but she gave no evidence of displeasure.
"You boys must be hungry," Y.D. was saying. "Pile in."
The rancher and his wife sat at the ends of the table; Transley on the side at Y.D.'s right; Linder at Transley's right. In the better light Linder noted Y.D.'s face. It was the face of a man of fifty, possibly sixty. Life in the open plays strange tricks with the appearance. Some men it ages before their time; others seem to tap a spring of perpetual youth. Save for the grey moustache and the puckerings about the eyes Y.D.'s was still a young man's face. Then, as the rancher turned his head, Linder noted a long scar, as of a burn, almost grown over in the right cheek.... Across the table from them sat the girl, impartially dividing her position between the two.
A Chinese boy served soup, and the rancher set the example by "piling in" without formality. Eight hours in the open air between meals is a powerful deterrent of table small-talk. Then followed a huge joint of beef, from which Y.D. cut generous slices with swift and dexterous strokes of a great knife, and the Chinese boy added the vegetables from a side table. As the meat disappeared the call of appetite became less insistent.
"She's been a great summer, ain't she?" said the rancher, laying down his knife and fork and lifting the carver. "Transley, some more meat? Pshaw, you ain't et enough for a chicken. Linder? That's right, pass up your plate. Powerful dry, though. That's only a small bit; here's a better slice here. Dry summers gen'rally mean open winters, but you can't never tell. Zen, how 'bout you? Old Y.D.'s been too long on the job to take chances. Mother? How much did you say, Transley? About two thousand tons? Not enough. Don't care if I do,"—helping himself to another piece of beef.
"I think you'll find two thousand tons, good hay and good measurement," said Transley.
"I'm sure of it," rejoined his host, generously. "I'm carryin' more steers than usual, and'll maybe run in a bunch of doggies from Manitoba to boot. I got to have more hay."
So the meal progressed, the rancher furnishing both the hospitality and the conversation. Transley occasionally broke in to give assent to some remark, but his interruption was quite unnecessary. It was Y.D.'s practice to take assent for granted. Once or twice the women interjected a lead to a different subject of conversation in which their words would have carried greater authority, but Y.D. instantly swung it back to the all-absorbing topic of hay.
The Chinese boy served a pudding of some sort, and presently the meal was ended.
"She's been a dry summer—powerful dry," said the rancher, with a wink at his guests. "Zen, I think there's a bit of gopher poison in there yet, ain't there?"
The girl left the room without remark, returning shortly with a jug and glasses, which she placed before her father.
"I suppose you wear a man's size, Transley," he said, pouring out a big drink of brown liquor, despite Transley's deprecating hand. "Linder, how many fingers? Two? Well, we'll throw in the thumb. Y.D? If you please, just a little snifter. All set?"
The rancher rose to his feet, and the company followed his example.
"Here's ho!—and more hay," he said, genially.
"Ho!" said Linder.
"The daughter of the Y.D!" said Transley, looking across the table at the girl. She met his eyes full; then, with a gleam of white teeth, she raised an empty glass and clinked it against his.
The men drained their glasses and re-seated themselves, but the women remained standing.
"Perhaps you will excuse us now," said the rancher's wife. "You will wish to talk over business. Y.D. will show you upstairs, and we will expect you to be with us for breakfast."
With a bow she left the room, followed by her daughter. Linder had a sense of being unsatisfied; it was as though a ravishing meal has been placed before a hungry man, and only its aroma had reached his senses when it had been taken away. Well, it provoked the appetite—
The rancher re-filled the glasses, but Transley left his untouched, and Linder did the same. There were business matters to discuss, and it was no fair contest to discuss business in the course of a drinking bout with an old stager like Y.D.
"I got to have another thousand tons," the rancher was saying. "Can't take chances on any less, and I want you boys to put it up for me."
"Suits me," said Transley, "if you'll show me where to get the hay."
"You know the South Y.D?"
"Never been on it."
"Well, it's a branch of the Y.D. which runs south-east from The Forks. Guess it got its name from me, because I built my first cabin at The Forks. That was about the time you was on a milk diet, Transley, and us old-timers had all outdoors to play with. You see, the Y.D. is a cantank'rous stream, like its godfather. At The Forks you'd nat'rally suppose is where two branches joined, an' jogged on henceforth in double harness. Well, that ain't it at all. This crick has modern ideas, an' at The Forks it divides itself into two, an' she hikes for the Gulf o' Mexico an' him for Hudson's Bay. As I was sayin', I built my first cabin at The Forks—a sort o' peek-a-boo cabin it was, where the wolves usta come an' look in at nights. Well, I usta look out through the same holes. I had the advantage o' usin' language, an' I reckon we was about equal scared. There was no wife or kid in those days."
The rancher paused, took a long draw on his pipe, and his eyes glowed with the light of old recollections.
"Well, as I was sayin'," he continued presently, "folks got to callin' the stream the Y.D., after me. That's what you get for bein' first on the ground—a monument for ever an ever. This bein' the main stream got the name proper, an' the other branch bein' smallest an' running kind o' south nat'rally got called the South Y.D. I run stock in both valleys when I was at The Forks, but not much since I came down here. Well, there's maybe a thousand tons o' hay over in the South Y.D., an' you boys better trail over there to-morrow an' pitch into it—that is, if you're satisfied with the price I'm payin' you."
"The price is all right," said Transley, "and we'll hit the trail at sun-up. There'll be no trouble—no confliction of interests, I mean?"
"Whose interests?" demanded the rancher, beligerently. "Ain't I the father of the Y.D? Ain't the whole valley named for me? When it comes to interests—"
"Of course," Transley agreed, "but I just wanted to know how things stood in case we ran up against something. It's not like the old days, when a rancher would rather lose twenty-five per cent. of his stock over winter than bother putting up hay. Hay land is getting to be worth money, and I just want to know where we stand."
"Quite proper," said Y.D., "quite proper. An' now the matter's under discussion, I'll jus' show you my hand. There's a fellow named Landson down the valley of the South Y.D. that's been flirtin' with that hay meadow for years, but he ain't got no claim to it. I was first on the ground an' I cut it whenever I feel like it an' I'm goin' to go on cuttin' it. If anybody comes out raisin' trouble, you just shoo 'em off, an' go on cuttin' that hay, spite o' hell an' high water. Y.D.'ll stand behind you."
"Thanks," said Transley. "That's what I wanted to know."
The rancher had ridden into the Canadian plains country from below "the line" long before barbed wire had become a menace in cattle-land. From Pincher Creek to Maple Creek, and far beyond, the plains lay unbroken save by the deep canyons where, through the process of ages, mountain streams had worn their beds down to gravel bottoms, and by the occasional trail which wandered through the wilderness like some thousand-mile lariat carelessly dropped from the hand of the Master Plainsman. Here and there, where the cutbanks of the river Canyons widened out into sloping valleys, affording possible access to the deep-lying streams, some ranchman had established his headquarters, and his red-roofed, whitewashed buildings flashed back the hot rays which fell from an opalescent heaven. At some of the more important fords trading posts had come into being, whither the ranchmen journeyed twice a year for groceries, clothing, kerosene, and other liquids handled as surreptitiously as the vigilance of the Mounted Police might suggest. The virgin prairie, with her strange, subtle facility for entangling the hearts of men, lay undefiled by the mercenary plowshare; unprostituted by the commercialism of the days that were to be.
Into such a country Y.D. had ridden from the South, trailing his little bunch of scrub heifers, in search of grass and water and, it may be, of a new environment. Up through the Milk River country; across the Belly and the Old Man; up and down the valley of the Little Bow, and across the plains as far as the Big Bow he rode in search of the essentials of a ranch headquarters. The first of these is water, the second grass, the third fuel, the fourth shelter. Grass there was everywhere; a fine, short, hairy crop which has the peculiar quality of self-curing in the autumn sunshine and so furnishing a natural, uncut hay for the herds in the winter months. Water there was only where the mountain streams plowed their canyons through the deep subsoil, or at little lakes of surface drainage, or, at rare intervals, at points where pure springs broke forth from the hillsides. Along the river banks dark, crumbling seams exposed coal resources which solved all questions of fuel, and fringes of cottonwood and poplar afforded rough but satisfactory building material. As the rancher sat on his horse on a little knoll which overlooked a landscape leading down on one side to a sheltering bluff by the river, and on the other losing itself on the rim of the heavens, no fairer prospect surely could have met his eye.
And yet he was not entirely satisfied. He was looking for no temporary location, but for a spot where he might drive his claim-stakes deep. That prairie, which stretched under the hot sunshine unbroken to the rim of heaven; that brown grass glowing with an almost phosphorescent light as it curled close to the mother sod;—a careless match, a cigar stub, a bit of gun-wadding, and in an afternoon a million acres of pasture land would carry not enough foliage to feed a gopher.
Y.D. turned in his saddle. Along the far western sky hung the purple draperies of the Rockies. For fifty miles eastward from the mighty range lay the country of the foothills, its great valleys lost to the vision which leapt only from summit to summit. In the clear air the peaks themselves seemed not a dozen miles away, but Y.D. had not ridden cactus, sagebrush and prairie from the Rio Grande to the St. Mary's for twenty years to be deceived by a so transparent illusion. Far over the plains his eye could trace the dark outline of a trail leading mountainward.
The heifers drowsed lazily in the brown grass. Y.D., shading his eyes the better with his hand, gazed long and thoughtfully at the purple range. Then he spat decisively over his horse's shoulder and made a strange "cluck" in his throat. The knowing animal at once set out on a trot to stir the lazy heifers into movement, and presently they were trailing slowly up into the foothill country.
Far up, where the trail ahead apparently dropped over the end of the world, a horse and rider hove in view. They came on leisurely, and half an hour elapsed before they met the rancher trailing west.
The stranger was a rancher of fifty, wind-whipped and weather-beaten of countenance. The iron grey of his hair and moustache suggested the iron of the man himself; iron of figure, of muscle, of will.
"'Day," he said, affably, coming to a halt a few feet from Y.D. "Trailing into the foothills?"
Y.D. lolled in his saddle. His attitude did not invite conversation, and, on the other hand, intimated no desire to avoid it.
"Maybe," he said, noncommittally. Then, relaxing somewhat,—"Any water farther up?"
"About eight miles. Sundown should see you there, and there's a decent spot to camp. You're a stranger here?" The older man was evidently puzzling over the big "Y.D." branded on the ribs of the little herd.
"It's a big country," Y.D. answered. "It's a plumb big country, for sure, an' I guess a man can be a stranger in some corners of it, can't he?"
Y.D. began to resent the other man's close scrutiny of his brand.
"Well, what's wrong with it?" he demanded.
"Oh, nothing. No offense. I just wondered what 'Y.D.' might stand for."
"Might stand for Yankee devil," said Y.D., with a none-of-your-business curl of his lip. But he had carried his curtness too far, and was not prepared for the quick retort.
"Might also stand for yellow dog, and be damned to you!" The stranger's strong figure sat up stern and knit in his saddle.
Y.D.'s hand went to his hip, but the other man was unarmed. You can't draw on a man who isn't armed.
"Listen!" the older man continued, in sharp, clear-cut notes. "You are a stranger not only to our trails, but our customs. You are a young man. Let me give you some advice. First—get rid of that artillery. It will do you more harm than good. And second, when a stranger speaks to you civilly, answer him the same. My name is Wilson—Frank Wilson, and if you settle in the foothills you'll find me a decent neighbor, as soon as you are able to appreciate decency."
To his own great surprise, Y.D. took his dressing down in silence. There was a poise in Wilson's manner that enforced respect. He recognized in him the English rancher of good family; usually a man of fine courtesy within reasonable bounds; always a hard hitter when those bounds are exceeded. Y.D. knew that he had made at least a tactical blunder; his sensitiveness about his brand would arouse, rather than allay, suspicion. His cheeks burned with a heat not of the afternoon sun as he submitted to this unaccustomed discipline, but he could not bring himself to express regret for his rudeness.
"Well, now that the shower is over, we'll move on," he said, turning his back on Wilson and "clucking" to his horse.
Y.D. followed the stream which afterwards bore his name as far as the Upper Forks. As he entered the foothills he found all the advantages of the plains below, with others peculiar to the foothill country. The richer herbage, induced by a heavier precipitation; the occasional belts of woodland; the rugged ravines and limestone ridges affording good natural protection against fire; abundant fuel and water everywhere—these seemed to constitute the ideal ranch conditions. At the Upper Forks, through some freak of formation, the stream divided into two. From this point was easy access into the valleys of the Y.D. and the South Y.D., as they were subsequently called. The stream rippled over beds of grey gravel, and mountain trout darted from the rancher's shadow as it fell across the water. Up the valley, now ruddy gold with the changing colors of autumn, white-capped mountains looked down from amid the infinite silences; and below, broad vistas of brown prairie and silver ribbons of running water. Y.D. turned his swarthy face to the sunlight and took in the scene slowly, deliberately, but with a commercialized eye; blue and white and ruddy gold were nothing to him; his heart was set on grass and water and shelter. He had roved enough, and he had a reason for seeking some secluded spot like this, where he could settle down while his herds grew up, and, perhaps, forget some things that were better forgotten.
With sudden decision the cattle man threw himself from his horse, unstrapped the little kit of supplies which he carried by the saddle; drew off saddle and bridle and turned the animal free. The die was cast; this was the spot. Within ten minutes his ax was ringing in the grove of spruce trees close by, and the following night he fried mountain trout under the shelter of his own temporary roof.
It was the next summer when Y.D. had another encounter with Wilson. The Upper Forks turned out to be less secluded than he had supposed; it was on the trail of trappers and prospectors working into the mountains. Traders, too, in mysterious commodities, moved mysteriously back and forth, and the log cabin at The Forks became something of a centre of interest. Strange companies forgathered within its rude walls.
It was at such a gathering, in which Y.D. and three companions sat about the little square table, that one of the visitors facetiously inquired of the rancher how his herd was progressing.
"Not so bad, not so bad," said Y.D., casually. "Some winter losses, of course; snow's too deep this far up. Why?"
"Oh, some of your neighbors down the valley say your cows are uncommon prolific."
"They do?" said Y.D., laying down his cards. "Who says that?"
"Well, Wilson, for instance—"
Y.D. sprang to his feet. "I've had one run-in with that ——," he shouted, "an' I let him talk to me like a Sunday School super'ntendent. Here's where I talk to him!"
"Well, finish the game first," the others protested. "The night's young."
Y.D. was sufficiently drunk to be supersensitive about his honor, and the inference from Wilson's remark was that he was too handy with his branding-iron.
"No, boys, no!" he protested. "I'll make that Englishman eat his words or choke on them."
"That's right," the company agreed. "The only thing to do. We'll all go down with you."
"An' you won't do that, neither," Y.D. answered. "Think I need a body-guard for a little chore like that? Huh!" There was immeasurable contempt in that monosyllable.
But a fresh bottle was produced, and Y.D. was persuaded that his honor would suffer no serious damage until the morning. Before that time his company, with many demonstrations of affection and admonitions to "make a good job of it," left for the mountains.
Y.D. saddled his horse early, buckled his gun on his hip, hung a lariat from his saddle, and took the trail for the Wilson ranch. During the drinking and gambling of the night he had been able to keep the insult in the background, but, alone under the morning sun, it swept over him and stung him to fury. There was just enough truth in the report to demand its instant suppression.
Wilson was branding calves in his corral as Y.D. came up. He was alone save for a girl of eighteen who tended the fire.
Wilson looked up with a hot iron in his hand, nodded, then turned to apply the iron before it cooled. As he leaned over the calf Y.D. swung his lariat. It fell true over the Englishman, catching him about the arms and the middle of the body. Y.D. took a half-hitch of the lariat about his saddle horn, and the well-trained horse dragged his victim in the most matter-of-fact manner out of the gate of the corral and into the open.
Y.D. shortened the line. After the first moment of confused surprise Wilson tried to climb to his feet, but a quick jerk of the lariat sent him prostrate again. In a moment Y.D. had taken up all the line, and sat in his saddle looking down contemptuously upon him.
"Well," he said, "who's too handy with his branding-iron now?"
"You are!" cried Wilson. "Give me a man's chance and I'll thrash you here and now to prove it."
For answer Y.D. clucked to his horse and dragged his enemy a few yards farther. "How's the goin', Frank?" he said, in mock cordiality. "Think you can stand it as far as the crick?"
But at that instant an unexpected scene flashed before Y.D. He caught just a glimpse of it—just enough to indicate what might happen. The girl who had been tending the fire was rushing upon him with a red-hot iron extended before her. Quicker than he could throw himself from the saddle she had struck him in the face with it.
"You brand our calves!" she cried in a fury of recklessness. "I'll brand YOU—damn you!"
Y.D. threw himself from the saddle, but in the suddenness of her onslaught he failed to clear it properly, and stumbled to the ground. In a moment she was on him and had whipped his gun from his belt.
"Get up!" she said. And he got up.
"Walk to that post, put your arms around it with your back to me, and stand there." He did so.
The girl kept him covered with the revolver while she released the lariat that bound her father.
"Are you hurt, Dad?" she inquired solicitously.
"No, just shaken up," he answered, scrambling to his feet.
"All right. Now we'll fix him!"
The girl walked to the next post from Y.D.'s, climbed it leisurely and seated herself on the top.
"Now, Mr. Y.D.," she said, "you are going to fight like a white man, with your fists. I'll sit up here and see that there's no dirty work. First, advance and shake hands."
"I'm damned if I will," said Y.D.
The revolver spoke, and the bullet cut dangerously close to him.
"Don't talk back to me again," she cried, "or you won't be able to fight. Now shake hands."
He extended his hand and Wilson took it for a moment.
"Now when I count three," said the girl, "pile in. There's no time limit. Fight 'til somebody's satisfied. One—two—three—"
At the sound of the last word Wilson caught his opponent a punch on the chin which stretched him. He got up slowly, gathering his wits about him. He was twenty years younger than Wilson, but a rancher of fifty is occasionally a better man than he was at thirty. Any disadvantages Wilson suffered from being shaken up in the lariat were counterbalanced by Y.D.'s branding. His face was burning painfully, and his vision was not the best. But he had not followed the herds since childhood without learning to use his fists. He steadied himself on his knee to bring his mind into tune with this unusual warfare. Then he rushed upon Wilson.
He received another straight knock-out on the chin. It jarred the joints of his neck and left him dazed. It was half a minute before he could steady himself. He realized now that he had a fight on his hands. He was too cool a head to get into a panic, but he found he must take his time and do some brain work. Another chin smash would put him out for good.
He advanced carefully. Wilson stood awaiting him, a picture of poise and self-confidence. Y.D. led a quick left to Wilson's ribs, but failed to land. Wilson parried skilfully and immediately answered with a left swing to the chin. But Y.D. was learning, and this time he was on guard. He dodged the blow, broke in and seized Wilson about the body. The two men stood for a moment like bulls with locked horns. Y.D. brought his weight to bear on his antagonist to force him to the ground, but in some way the Englishman got elbow room and began raining short jabs on his face, already raw from the branding-iron. Y.D. jerked back from this assault. Then came the third smash on the chin.
Y.D. gathered himself up very slowly. The world was swimming around in circles. On a post sat a girl, covering him with a revolver and laughing at him. Somewhere on the horizon Wilson's figure whipped forward and back. Then his horse came into the circle. Y.D. rose to his feet, strode with quick, uncertain steps to his horse, threw himself into the saddle and without a word started up the trail to The Forks.
"Seems to have gone with as little ceremony as he came," Wilson remarked to his daughter. "Now, let us get along with the calves."...
Y.D. rode the trail to The Forks in bitterness of spirit. He had sallied forth that morning strong and daring to administer summary punishment; he was retracing his steps thrashed, humiliated, branded for life by a red iron thrust in his face by a slip of a girl. He exhausted his by no means limited vocabulary of epithets, but even his torrents of abuse brought no solace to him. The hot sun beat down on his wounded face and hurt terribly, but he almost forgot that pain in the agony of his humiliation. He had been thrashed by an old man, with a wisp of a girl sitting on a post and acting as referee. He turned in his saddle and through the empty valley shouted an insulting name at her.
Then Y.D. slowly began to feel his face burn with a fire not of the branding-iron nor of the afternoon sun. He knew that his word was a lie. He knew that he would not have dared use it in her father's hearing. He knew that he was a coward. No man had ever called Y.D. a coward; no man had ever known him for a coward; he had never known himself as such—until to-day. With all his roughness Y.D. had a sense of honor as keen as any razor blade. If he allowed himself wide latitude in some matters it was because he had lived his life in an atmosphere where the wide latitude was the thing. The prairie had been his bed, the sky his roof, himself his own policeman, judge, and executioner since boyhood. When responsibility is so centralized wide latitudes must be allowed. But the uttermost borders of that latitude were fixed with iron rigidity, and when he had thrown a vile epithet at a decent woman he knew he had broken the law of honor. He was a cur—a cur who should be shot in his tracks for the cur he was.
Y.D. did hard thinking all the way to The Forks. Again and again the figure of the girl flashed before him; he would close his eyes and jerk his head back to avoid the burning iron. Then he saw her on the post, sitting, with apparent impartiality, on guard over the fight. Yes, she had been impartial, in a way. Y.D. was willing to admit that much, although he surmised that she knew more about her father's prowess with his fists than he had known. She had had no doubt about the outcome.
"Well, she's good backing for her old man, anyway," he admitted, with returning generosity. He had reached his cabin, and was dressing his face with salve and soda. "She sure played the game into the old man's hand."
Y.D. could not sleep that night. He was busy sorting up his ideas of life and revising them in the light of the day's experience. The more he thought of his behavior the less defensible it appeared. By midnight he was admitting that he had got just what was coming to him.
Presently he began to feel lonely. It was a strange sensation to Y.D., whose life had been loneliness from the first, so that he had never known it. Of course, there was the hunger for companionship; he had often known that. A drinking bout, a night at cards, a whirl into excess, and that would pass away. But this loneliness was different. The moan of the wind in the spruce trees communicated itself to him with an eerie oppressiveness. He sat up and lit a lamp. The light fell on the bare logs of his hut; he had never known before how bare they were. He got up and shuffled about; took a lid off the stove and put it back on again; moved aimlessly about the room, and at last sat down on the bed.
"Y.D.," he said with a laugh, "I believe you've got nerves. You're behavin' like a woman."
But he could not laugh it off. The mention of a woman brought Wilson's daughter back vividly before him. "She's a man's girl," he found himself, saying.
He sat up with a shock at his own words. Then he rested his chin on his hands and gazed long at the blank wall before him. That was life—his life. That blank wall was his life.... If only it had a window in it; a bright space through which the vision could catch a glimpse of something broader and better.... Well, he could put a window in it. He could put a window in his life.
The next noon Frank Wilson looked up with surprise to see Y.D. riding into his yard. Wilson stiffened instantly, as though setting himself against the shock of an attack, but there was nothing belligerent in Y.D.'s greeting.
"Wilson," he said, "I pulled a dirty trick on you yesterday, an' I got more than I reckoned on. The old Y.D. would have come back with a gun for vengeance. Well, I ain't after vengeance. I reckon you an' me has got to live in this valley, an' we might as well live peaceful. Does that go with you?"
"Full weight and no shrinkage," said Wilson, heartily, extending his hand. "Come up to the house for dinner."
Y.D. was nothing loth to accept the invitation, even though he had his misgivings as to how he should meet the women folks. It turned out that Mrs. Wilson had been at a neighboring ranch for some days, and the girl was in charge of the home. The flash in her eyes did not conceal a glint of triumph—or was it humor?
"Jessie," her father said, with conspicuous matter-of-factness, "Y.D. has just dropped in for dinner."
Y.D. stood with his hat in his hand. This was harder than meeting Wilson. He felt that he could manage better if Wilson would get out.
"Miss Wilson," he managed to say at length, "I just thought I'd run in an' thank you for what you did yesterday."
"You're very welcome," she answered, and he could not tell whether the note in her voice was of fun or sarcasm. "Any time I can be of service—"
"That's what I wanted to talk about," he broke in. There was something bewitching about the girl. She more than realized his fantastic visions of the night. She had mastered him. Perhaps it was a subtle masculine desire to turn her mastery into ultimate surrender that led him on.
"That's just what I want to talk about. You started breakin' in an outlaw yesterday, so to speak. How'd you like to finish the job?"
Y.D. was very red when this speech was finished. He had not known that a wisp of a girl could so discomfit a man.
"Is that a proposal?" she asked, and this time he was sure the note in her voice was one of banter. "I never had one, so I don't know."
"Well, yes, we'll call it that," he said, with returning courage.
"Well we won't, either," she flared back. "Just because I sat on a post and superintended the—the ceremonies, is no reason that you should want to marry me,—or I, you. You'll find water and a basin on the bench at the end of the house, and dinner will be ready in twenty minutes."
Y.D. had a feeling of a little boy being sent to wash himself.
But the next spring he built a larger cabin down the valley from The Forks, and to that cabin one day in June came Jessie Wilson to "finish the job."
Transley and Linder were so early about on the morning after their conversation with Y.D. that there was no opportunity of another meeting with the rancher's wife or daughter. They were slipping quietly out of the house to take breakfast with the men when Y.D. intercepted them.
"Breakfast is waitin', boys," he said, and led them back into the room where they had had supper the previous evening. Y.D. ate with them, but the meal was served by the Chinese boy.
In the yard all was jingling excitement. The men of the Y.D. were fraternally assisting Transley's gang in hitching up and getting away, and there was much bustling activity to an accompaniment of friendly profanity. It was not yet six o'clock, but the sun was well up over the eastern ridges that fringed the valley, and to the west the snow-capped summits of the mountains shone like polished ivory. The exhilaration in the air was almost intoxicating.
Linder quickly converted the apparent chaos of horses, wagons and implements into order; Transley had a last word with Y.D., and the rancher, shouting "Good luck, boys! Make it a thousand tons or more," waved them away.
Linder glanced back at the house. The bright sunshine had not awakened it; it lay dreaming in its grove of cool, green trees.
The trail lay, not up the valley, but across the wedge of foothills which divided the South Y.D. from the parent stream. The assent was therefore much more rapid than the trails which followed the general course of the stream. Huge hills, shouldering together, left at times only wagon-track room between; at other places they skirted dangerous cutbanks worn by spring freshets, and again trekked for long distances over gently curving uplands. In an hour the horses were showing the strain of it, and Linder halted them for a momentary rest.
It was at that moment that Drazk rode up, his face a study in obvious annoyance.
"Danged if I ain't left that Pete-horse's blanket down at the Y.D.," he exclaimed.
"Oh, well, you can easily ride back for it and catch up on us this afternoon," said Linder, who was not in the least deceived.
"Thanks, Lin," said Drazk. "I'll beat it down an' catch up on you this afternoon, sure," and he was off down the trail as fast as "that Pete-horse" could carry him.
At the Y.D. George conducted the search for his horse blanket in the strangest places. It took him mainly about the yard of the house, and even to the kitchen door, where he interviewed the Chinese boy.
"You catchee horse blanket around here?" he inquired, with appropriate gesticulations.
"You losee hoss blanket?"
"What kind hoss blanket?"
"Jus' a brown blanket for that Pete-horse."
"Where you catchee?"
"You no catchee horse blanket, hey?"
"No!" said the Chinaman, whose manner instantly changed. In this brief conversation he had classified Drazk, and classified him correctly. "You catchee him, though—some hell, too—you stickee lound here. Beat it," and Drazk found the kitchen door closed in his face.
Drazk wandered slowly around the side of the house, and was not above a surreptitious glance through the windows. They revealed nothing. He followed a path out by a little gate. His ruse had proven a blind trail, and there was nothing to do but go down to the stables, take the horse blanket from the peg where he had hung it, and set out again for the South Y.D.
As he turned a corner of the fence the sight of a young woman burst upon him. She was hatless and facing the sun. Drazk, for all his admiration of the sex, had little eye for detail. "A sort of chestnut, about sixteen hands high, and with the look of a thoroughbred," he afterwards described her to Linder.
She turned at the sound of his footsteps, and Drazk instantly summoned a smirk which set his homely face beaming with good humor.
"Pardon me, ma'am," he said, with an elaborate bow. "I am Mr. Drazk—Mr. George Drazk—Mr. Transley's assistant. No doubt he spoke of me."
She was inside the enclosure formed by the fence, and he outside. She turned on him eyes which set Drazk's pulses strangely a-tingle, and subjected him to a deliberate but not unfriendly inspection.
"No, I don't believe he did," she said at length. Drazk cautiously approached, as though wondering how near he could come without frightening her away. He reached the fence and leaned his elbows on it. She showed no disposition to move. He cautiously raised one foot and rested it on the lower rail.
"It's a fine morning, ma'am," he ventured.
"Rather," she replied. "Why aren't you with Mr. Transley's gang?"
The question gave George an opening. "Well, you see," he said, "it's all on account of that Pete-horse. That's him down there. I rode away this morning and plumb forgot his blanket. So when Mr. Transley seen it he says, 'Drazk, take the day off an' go back for your blanket,' he says. 'There's no hurry,' he says. 'Linder an' me'll manage,' he says."
"So here I am." He glanced at her again. She was showing no disposition to run away. She was about two yards from him, along the fence. Drazk wondered how long it would take him to bridge that distance. Even as he looked she leaned her elbows on the fence and rested one of her feet on the lower rail. Drazk fancied he saw the muscles about her mouth pulling her face into little, laughing curves, but she was gazing soberly into the distance.
"He's some horse, that Pete-horse," he said, taking up the subject which lay most ready to his tongue. "He's sure some horse."
"I have no doubt."
"Yep," Drazk continued. "Him an' me has seen some times. Whew! Things I couldn't tell you about, at all."
"Well, aren't you going to?"
Drazk glanced at her curiously. This girl showed signs of leading him out of his depth. But it was a very delightful sensation to feel one's self being led out of his depth by such a girl. Her face was motionless; her eyes fixed dreamily upon the brown prairies that swept up the flanks of the foothills to the south. Far and away on their curving crests the dark snake-line of Transley's outfit could be seen apparently motionless on the rim of the horizon.
Drazk changed his foot on the rail and the motion brought him six inches nearer her.
"Well, f'r instance," he said, spurring his imagination into action, "there was the fellow I run down an' shot in the Cypress Hills."
"Shot!" she exclaimed, and the note of admiration in her voice stirred him to further flights.
"Yep," he continued, proudly. "Shot an' buried him there, right by the road where he fell. Only me an' that Pete-horse knows the spot."
George sighed sentimentally. "It's awful sad, havin' to kill a man," he went on, "an' it makes you feel strange an' creepy, 'specially at nights. That is, the first one affects you that way, but you soon get used to it. You see, he insulted—"
"The first one? Have you killed more than one?"
"Oh yes, lots of them. A man like me, what knocks around all over with all sorts of people, has to do it.
"Then there's the police. After you kill a few men nat'rally the police begins to worry you. I always hate to kill a policeman."
"It must be an interesting life."
"It is, but it's a hard one," he said, after a pause during which he had changed feet again and taken up another six inches of the distance which separated them. He was almost afraid to continue the conversation. He was finding progress so much easier than he had expected. It was evident that he had made a tremendous hit with Y.D.'s daughter. What a story to tell Linder! What would Transley say? He was shaking with excitement.
"It's an awful hard life," he went on, "an' there comes a time, Miss, when a man wants to quit it. There comes a time when every decent man wants to settle down. I been thinkin' about that a lot lately.... What do YOU think about it?" Drazk had gone white. He felt that he actually had proposed to her.
"Might be a good idea," she replied, demurely. He changed feet again. He had gone too far to stop. He must strike the iron when it was hot. Of course he had no desire to stop, but it was all so wonderful. He could speak to her now in a whisper.
"How about you, Miss? How about you an' me jus' settlin' down?"
She did not answer for a moment. Then, in a low voice,
"It wouldn't be fair to accept you like this, Mr. Drazk. You don't know anything about me."
"An' I don't want to—I mean, I don't care what about you."
"But it wouldn't be fair until you know," she continued. "There are things I'd have to tell you, and I don't like to."
She was looking downwards now, and he fancied he could see the color rising about her cheeks and her frame trembling. He turned toward her and extended his arms. "Tell me—tell your own George," he cooed.
"No," she said, with sudden rigidity. "I can't confess."
"Come on," he pleaded. "Tell me. I've been a bad man, too."
She seemed to be weighing the matter. "If I tell you, you will never, never mention it to anyone?"
"Never. I swear it to you," dramatically raising his hand.
"Well," she said, looking down bashfully and making little marks with her finger-nail in the pole on which they were leaning, "I never told anyone before, and nobody in the world knows it except he and I, and he doesn't know it now either, because I killed him.... I had to do it."
"Of course you did, dear," he murmured. It was wonderful to receive a woman's confidence like this.
"Yes, I had to kill him," she repeated. "You see, he—he proposed to me without being introduced!"
It was some seconds before Drazk felt the blow. It came to him gradually, like returning consciousness to a man who has been stunned. Then anger swept him.
"You're playin' with me," he cried. "You're makin' a fool of me!"
"Oh, George dear, how could I?" she protested. "Now perhaps you better run along to that Pete-horse. He looks lonely."
"All right," he said, striding away angrily. As he walked his rage deepened, and he turned and shook his fist at her, shouting, "All right, but I'll get you yet, see? You think you're smart, and Transley thinks he's smart, but George Drazk is smarter than both of you, and he'll get you yet."
She waved her hand complacently, but her composure had already maddened him. He jerked his horse up roughly, threw himself into the saddle, and set out at a hard gallop along the trail to the South Y.D.
It was mid-afternoon when he overtook Transley's outfit, now winding down the southern slope of the tongue of foothills which divided the two valleys of the Y.D. Pete, wet over the flanks, pulled up of his own accord beside Linder's wagon.
"'Lo, George," said Linder. "What's your hurry?" Then, glancing at his saddle, "Where's your blanket?"
Drazk's jaw dropped, but he had a quick wit, although an unbalanced one.
"Well, Lin, I clean forgot all about it," he admitted, with a laugh, "but when a fellow spends the morning chatting with old Y.D.'s daughter I guess he's allowed to forget a few things."
"Reckon you don't believe it, eh, Lin? Reckon you don't believe I stood an' talked with her over the fence for so long I just had to pull myself away?"
"You reckon right."
George was thinking fast. Here was an opportunity to present the incident in a light which had not before occurred to him.
"Guess you wouldn't believe she told me her secret—told me somethin' she had never told anybody else, an' made me swear not to mention. Guess you don't believe that, neither?"
"You guess right again." Linder was quite unperturbed. He knew something of Drazk's gift for romancing.
Drazk leaned over in the saddle until he could reach Linder's ear with a loud whisper. "And she called me 'dear'; 'George dear,' she said, when I came away."
"The hell she did!" said Linder, at last prodded into interest. He considered the "George dear" idea a daring flight, even for Drazk. "Better not let old Y.D. hear you spinning anything like that, George, or he'll be likely to spoil your youthful beauty."
"Oh, Y.D.'s all right," said George, knowingly. "Y.D.'s all right. Well, I guess I'll let Pete feed a bit here, and then we'll go back for his blanket. You'll have to excuse me a bit these days, Lin; you know how it is when a fellow's in love."
"Huh!" said Linder.
George dropped behind, and an amused smile played on the foreman's face. He had known Drazk too long to be much surprised at anything he might do. It was Drazk's idea of gallantry to make love to every girl on sight. Possibly Drazk had managed to exchange a word with Zen, and his imagination would readily expand that into a love scene. Zen! Even the placid, balanced Linder felt a slight leap in the blood at the unusual name, which to him suggested the bright girl who had come into his life the night before. Not exactly into his life; it would be fairer to say she had touched the rim of his life. Perhaps she would never penetrate it further; Linder rather expected that would be the case. As for Drazk—she was in no danger from him. Drazk's methods were so precipitous that they could be counted upon to defeat themselves.
Below stretched the valley of the South Y.D., almost a duplicate of its northern neighbor. The stream hugged the feet of the hills on the north side of the valley; its ribbon of green and gold was like a fringe gathered about the hem of their skirts. Beyond the stream lay the level plains of the valley, and miles to the south rose the next ridge of foothills. It was from these interlying plains that Y.D. expected his thousand tons of hay. There is no sleugh hay in the foothill country; the hay is cut on the uplands, a short, fine grass of great nutritive value. This grass, if uncut, cures in its natural state, and affords sustenance to the herds which graze over it all winter long. But it occasionally happens that after a snow-fall the Chinook wind will partially melt the snow, and then a sudden drop in the temperature leaves the prairies and foothills covered with a thin coating of ice. It is this ice covering, rather than heavy snow-fall or severe weather, which is the principal menace to winter grazing, and the foresighted rancher aims to protect himself and his stock from such a contingency by having a good reserve of hay in stack.
Here, then, was the valley in which Y.D. hoped to supplement the crop of his own hay lands. Linder's appreciative eye took in the scene: a scene of stupendous sizes and magnificent distances. As he slowly turned his vision down the valley a speck in the distance caught his sight and brought him to his feet. Shading his eyes from the bright afternoon sun he surveyed it long and carefully. There was no doubt about it: a haying outfit was already at work down the valley.
Leaving his team to manage themselves Linder dropped from his wagon and joined Transley. "Some one has beat us to it," he remarked.
"So I observed," said Transley. "Well, it's a big valley, and if they're satisfied to stay where they are there should be enough for both. If they're not—"
"If they're not, what?" demanded Linder.
"You heard what Y.D. said. He said, 'Cut it, spite o' hell an' high water,' and I always obey orders."
They wound down the hillside until they came to the stream, the horses quickening their pace with the smell of water in their eager nostrils. It was a good ford, broad and shallow, with the typical boulder bottom of the mountain stream. The horses crowded into it, drinking greedily with a sort of droning noise caused by the bits in their mouths. When they had satisfied their thirst they raised their heads, stretched their noses far out and champed wide-mouthed upon their bits.
After a pause in the stream they drew out on the farther bank, where were open spaces among cottonwood trees, and Transley indicated that this would be their camping ground. Already smoke was issuing from the chuck wagon, and in a few minutes the men's sleeping tent and the two stable tents were flashing back the afternoon sun. They carried no eating tent; instead of that an eating wagon was backed up against the chuck wagon, and the men were served in it. They had not paused for a midday meal; the cook had provided sandwiches of bread and roast beef to dull the edge of their appetite, and now all were keen to fall to as soon as the welcome clanging of the plow-colter which hung from the end of the chuck wagon should give the signal.
Presently this clanging filled the evening air with sweet music, and the men filed with long, slouchy tread into the eating wagon. The table ran down the centre, with bench seats at either side. The cook, properly gauging the men's appetites, had not taken time to prepare meat and potatoes, but on the table were ample basins of graniteware filled with beans and bread and stewed prunes and canned tomatoes, pitchers of syrup and condensed milk, tins with marmalade and jam, and plates with butter sadly suffering from the summer heat. The cook filled their granite cups with hot tea from a granite pitcher, and when the cups were empty filled them again and again. And when the tables were partly cleared he brought out deep pies filled with raisins and with evaporated apples and a thick cake from which the men cut hunks as generous as their appetite suggested. Transley had learned, what women are said to have learned long ago, that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, and the cook had carte blanche. Not a man who ate at Transley's table but would have spilt his blood for the boss or for the honor of the gang.
The meal was nearing its end when through a window Linder's eye caught sight of a man on horseback rapidly approaching. "Visitors, Transley," he was able to say before the rider pulled up at the open door of the covered wagon.
He was such a rider as may still be seen in those last depths of the ranching country where wheels have not entirely crowded Romance off of horseback. Spare and well-knit, his figure had a suggestion of slightness which the scales would have belied. His face, keen and clean-shaven, was brown as the August hills, and above it his broad hat sat in the careless dignity affected by the gentlemen of the plains. His leather coat afforded protection from the heat of day and from the cold of night.
"Good evening, men," he said, courteously. "Don't let me disturb your meal. Afterwards perhaps I can have a word with the boss."
"That's me," said Transley, rising.
"No, don't get up," the stranger protested, but Transley insisted that he had finished, and, getting down from the wagon, led the way a little distance from the eager ears of its occupants.
"My name is Grant," said the stranger; "Dennison Grant. I am employed by Mr. Landson, who has a ranch down the valley. If I am not mistaken you are Mr. Transley."
"You are not mistaken," Transley replied.
"And I am perhaps further correct," continued Grant, "in surmising that you are here on behalf of the Y.D., and propose cutting hay in this valley?"
"Your grasp of the situation does you credit." Transley's manner was that of a man prepared to meet trouble somewhat more than half way.
"And I may further surmise," continued Grant, quite unruffled, "that Y.D. neglected to give you one or two points of information bearing upon the ownership of this land, which would doubtless have been of interest to you?"
"Suppose you dismount," said Transley. "I like to look a man in the face when I talk business to him."
"That's fair," returned Grant, swinging lightly from his horse. "I have a preference that way myself." He advanced to within arm's length of Transley and for a few moments the two men stood measuring each other. It was steel boring steel; there was not a flicker of an eyelid.
"We may as well get to business, Grant," said Transley at length. "I also can do some surmising. I surmise that you were sent here by Landson to forbid me to cut hay in this valley. On what authority he acts I neither know nor care. I take my orders from Y.D. Y.D. said cut the hay. I am going to cut it."
"YOU ARE NOT!"
Transley's muscles could be seen to go tense beneath his shirt.
"Who will stop me?" he demanded.
"You will be stopped."
"The Mounted Police?" There was contempt in his voice, but the contempt was not for the Force. It was for the rancher who would appeal to the police to settle a "friendly" dispute.
"No, I don't think it will be necessary to call in the police," returned Grant, dropping back to his pleasant, casual manner. "You know Y.D., and doubtless you feel quite safe under his wing. But you don't know Landson. Neither do you know the facts of the case—the right and wrong of it. Under these handicaps you cannot reach a decision which is fair to yourself and to your men."
"Further argument is simply waste of time," Transley interrupted. "I have told you my instructions, and I have told you that I am going to carry them out. Have you had your supper?"
"Yes, thanks. All right, we won't argue any more. I'm not arguing now—I'm telling you, Y.D. has cut hay in this valley so long he thinks he owns it, and the other ranchers began to think he owned it. But Landson has been making a few inquiries. He finds that these are not Crown lands, but are privately owned by speculators in New York. He has contracted with the owners for the hay rights of these lands for five years, beginning with the present season. He is already cutting farther down the valley, and will be cutting here within a day or two."
"The trout ought to bite on a fine evening like this," said Transley. "I have an extra rod and some flies. Will you try a throw or two with me?"
"I would be glad to, but I must get back to camp. I hope you land a good string," and so saying Grant remounted, nodded to Transley and again to the men now scattered about the camp, and started his horse on an easy lope down the valley.
"Well, what is it to be?" said Linder, coming up with the rest of the boys. "War?"
"War if they fight," Transley replied, unconcernedly. "Y.D. said cut the hay; 'spite o' hell an' high water,' he said. That goes."
Slowly the great orb of the sun sank until the crest of the mountains pierced its molten glory and sent it burnishing their rugged heights. In the east the plains were already wrapped in shadow. Up the valley crept the veil of night, hushing even the limitless quiet of the day. The stream babbled louder in the lowering gloom; the stamp and champing of horses grew less insistent; the cloudlets overhead faded from crimson to mauve to blue to grey.
Transley tapped the ashes from his pipe and went to bed.
"How about a ride over to the South Fork this afternoon, Zen?" said Y.D. to his daughter the following morning. "I just want to make sure them boys is hittin' the high spots. The grass is gettin' powerful dry an' you can never tell what may happen."
"You're on," the girl replied across the breakfast table. Her mother looked up sharply. She wondered if the prospect of another meeting with Transley had anything to do with Zen's alacrity.
"I had hoped you would outgrow your slang, Zen," she remonstrated gently. "Men like Mr. Transley are likely to judge your training by your speech."
"I should worry. Slang is to language what feathers are to a hat—they give it distinction, class. They lift it out of the drab commonplace."
"Still, I would not care to be dressed entirely in feathers," her mother thrust quietly.
"Good for you, Mother!" the girl exclaimed, throwing an arm about her neck and planking a firm kiss on her forehead. "That was a solar plexus. Now I'll try to be good and wear a feather only here and there. But Mr. Transley has nothing to do with it."
"Of course not," said Y.D. "Still, Transley is a man with snap in him. That's why he's boss. So many of these ornery good-for-nothin's is always wishin' they was boss, but they ain't willin' to pay the price. It costs somethin' to get to the head of the herd—an' stay there."
"He seems firm on all fours," the girl agreed. "How do we travel, and when?"
"Better take a democrat, I guess," her father said. "We can throw in a tent and some bedding for you, as we'll maybe stay over a couple of nights."
"The blue sky is tent enough for me," Zen protested, "and I can surely rustle a blanket or two around the camp. Besides, I'll want a riding horse to get around with there."
"You can run him beside the democrat," said her father. "You're gettin' too big to go campin' promisc'us like when you was a kid."
"That's the penalty for growing up," Zen sighed. "All right, Dad. Say two o'clock?"
The girl spent the morning helping her mother about the house, and casting over in her mind the probable developments of the near future. She would not have confessed outwardly to even a casual interest in Transley, but inwardly she admitted that the promise of another meeting with him gave zest to the prospect. Transley was interesting. At least he was out of the commonplace. His bold directness had rather fascinated her. He had a will. Her father had always admired men with a will, and Zen shared his admiration. Then there was Linder. The fierce light of Transley's charms did not blind her to the glow of quiet capability which she saw in Linder. If one were looking for a husband, Linder had much to recommend him. He was probably less capable than Transley, but he would be easier to manage.... But who was looking for a husband? Not Zen. No, no, certainly not Zen.
Then there was George Drazk, whose devotions fluctuated between "that Pete-horse" and the latest female to cross his orbit. At the thought of George Drazk Zen laughed outright. She had played with him. She had made a monkey of him, and he deserved all he had got. It was not the first occasion upon which Zen had let herself drift with the tide, always sure of justifying herself and discomfiting someone by the swift, strong strokes with which, at the right moment, she reached the shore. Zen liked to think of herself as careering through life in the same way as she rode the half-broken horses of her father's range. How many such a horse had thought that the lithe body on his back was something to race with, toy with, and, when tired of that, fling precipitately to earth! And not one of those horses but had found that while he might race and toy with his rider within limitations, at the last that light body was master, and not he.... Yet Zen loved best the horse that raced wildest and was hardest to bring into subjection.
That was her philosophy of life so far as a girl of twenty may have a philosophy of life. It was to go on and see what would happen, supported always by a quiet confidence that in any pinch she could take care of herself. She had learned to ride and shoot, to sleep out and cook in the open, to ride the ranges after dark by instinct and the stars—she had learned these things while other girls of her age learned the rudiments of fancy-work and the scales of the piano.
Her father and mother knew her disposition, loved it, and feared for it. They knew that there was never a rider so brave, so skilful, so strong, but some outlaw would throw him at last. So at fourteen they sent her east to a boarding-school. In two months she was back with a letter of expulsion, and the boast of having blacked the eyes of the principal's daughter.
"They couldn't teach me any more, Mother," she said. "They admitted it. So here I am."
Y.D. was plainly perplexed. "It's about time you was halter-broke," he commented, "but who's goin' to do it?"
"If a girl has learned to read and think, what more can the schools do for her?" she demanded.
And Y.D., never having been to school, could not answer.
The sun was capping the Rockies with molten gold when the rancher and his daughter swung down the foothill slopes to the camp on the South Y.D. Strings of men and horses returning from the upland meadows could be seen from the hillside as they descended.
Y.D.'s sharp eyes measured the scale of operations.
"They're hittin' the high spots," he said, approvingly. "That boy Transley is a hum-dinger."
Zen made no reply.
"I say he's a hum-dinger," her father repeated.
The girl looked up with a quick flush of surprise. Y.D. was no puzzle to her, and if he went out of his way to commend Transley he had a purpose.
"Mr. Transley seems to have made a hit with you, Dad," she remarked, evasively.
"Well, I do like to see a man who's got the goods in him. I like a man that can get there, just as I like a horse that can get there. I've often wondered, Zen, what kind you'd take up with, when it came to that, an' hoped he'd be a live crittur. After I'm dead an' buried I don't want no other dead one spendin' my simoleons."
"How about Mr. Linder?" said Zen, naively.
Her father looked up sharply. "Zen," he said, "you're not serious?"
Zen laughed. "I don't figure you're exactly serious, Dad, in your talk about Transley. You're just feeling out. Well—let me do a little feeling out. How about Linder?"
"Linder's all right," Y.D. replied. "Better than the average, I admit. But he's not the man Transley is. If he was, he wouldn't be workin' for Transley. You can't keep a man down, Zen, if he's got the goods in him. Linder comes up over the average, so's you can notice it, but not like Transley does."
Zen did not pursue the subject. She understood her father's philosophy very well indeed, and, to a large degree, she accepted it as her own. It was natural that a man of Y.D.'s experience, who had begun life with no favors and had asked none since, and had made of himself a big success—it was natural that such a man should judge all others by their material achievements. The only quality Y.D. took off his hat to was the ability to do things. And Y.D.'s idea of things was very concrete; it had to do with steers and land, with hay and money and men. It was by such things he measured success. And Zen was disposed to agree with him. Why not? It was the only success she knew.
Transley was greeting them as they drew into camp.
"Glad to see you, Y.D.; honored to have a visit from you, Ma'am," he said, as he helped them from the democrat, and gave instructions for the care of their horses. "Supper is waiting, and the men won't be ready for some time."
Y.D. shook hands with Transley cordially. "Zen an' me just thought we'd run over and see how the wind blew," he said. "You got a good spot here for a camp, Transley. But we won't go in to supper just now. Let the men eat first; I always say the work horses should be first at the barn. Well, how's she goin'?"
"Fine," said Transley, "fine," but it was evident his mind was divided. He was glancing at Zen, who stood by during the conversation.
"I must try and make your daughter at home," he continued. "I allow myself the luxury of a private tent, and as you will be staying over night I will ask you to accept it for her."
"But I have my own tent with me, in the democrat," said Zen. "If you will let the men pitch it under the trees where I can hear the water murmuring in the night—"
"Who'd have thought it, from the daughter of the practical Y.D!" Transley bantered. "All right, Ma'am, but in the meantime take my tent. I'll get water, and there's a basin." He already was leading the way. "Make yourself at home—Zen. May I call you Zen?" he added, in a lower voice, as they left Y.D. at a distance.
"Everybody calls me Zen."
They were standing at the door of the tent, he holding back the flap that she might enter. The valley was already in shadow, and there was no sunlight to play on her hair, but her face and figure in the mellow dusk seemed entirely winsome and adorable. There was no taint of Y.D.'s millions in the admiration that Transley bent upon her.... Of course, as an adjunct, the millions were not to be despised.
When the men had finished supper Transley summoned her. On the way to the chuck-wagon she passed close to George Drazk. It was evident that he had chosen a station with that result in view. She had passed by when she turned, whimsically.
"Well, George, how's that Pete-horse?" she said.
"Up an comin' all the time, Zen," he answered.
She bit her lip over his familiarity, but she had no come-back. She had given him the opening, by calling him "George."
"You see, I got quite well acquainted with Mr. Drazk when he came back to hunt for a horse blanket which had mysteriously disappeared," she explained to Transley.
They ascended the steps which led from the ground into the wagon. The table had been reset for four, and as the shadows were now heavy in the valley, candles had been lighted. Y.D. and his daughter sat on one side, Transley on the other. In a moment Linder entered. He had already had a talk with Y.D., but had not met Zen since their supper together in the rancher's house.
"Glad to see you again, Mr. Linder," said the girl, rising and extending her hand across the table. "You see we lost no time in returning your call."
Linder took her hand in a frank grasp, but could think of nothing in particular to say. "We're glad to have you," was all he could manage.
Zen was rather sorry that Linder had not made more of the situation. She wondered what quick repartee, shot, no doubt, with double meaning, Transley would have returned. It was evident that, as her father had said, Linder was second best. And yet there was something about his shyness that appealed to her even more than did Transley's superb self-confidence.
The meal was spent in small talk about horses and steers and the merits of the different makes of mowing machines. When it was finished Transley apologized for not offering his guests any liquor. "I never keep it about the camp," he said.
"Quite right," Y.D. agreed, "quite right. Booze is like fire; a valuable thing in careful hands, but mighty dangerous when everybody gets playin' with it. I reckon the grass is gettin' pretty dry, Transley?"
"Mighty dry, all right, but we're taking every precaution."
"I'm sure you are, but you can't take precautions for other people. Has anybody been puttin' you up to any trouble here?"
"Well, no, I can't exactly say trouble," said Transley, "but we've got notice it's coming. A chap named Grant, foreman, I think, for Landson, down the valley, rode over last night, and invited us not to cut any hay hereabouts. He was very courteous, and all that, but he had the manner of a man who'd go quite a distance in a pinch."
"What did you tell him?"
"Told him I was working for Y.D., and then asked him to stay for supper."
"Did he stay?" Zen asked.
"He did not. He cantered off back, courteous as he came. And this morning we went out on the job, and have cut all day, and nothing has happened."
"I guess he found you were not to be bluffed," said Zen, and Transley could not prevent a flush of pleasure at her compliment. "Of course Landson has no real claim to the hay, has he, Dad?"
"Of course not. I reckon them'll be his stacks we saw down the valley. Well, I'm not wantin' to rob him of the fruit of his labor, an' if he keeps calm perhaps we'll let him have what he has cut, but if he don't—" Y.D.'s face hardened with the set of a man accustomed to fight, and win, his own battles. "I think we'll just stick around a day or two in case he tries to start anythin'," he continued.
"Well, five o'clock comes early," said Transley, "and you folks must be tired with your long drive. We've had your tent pitched down by the water, Zen, so that its murmurs may sing you to sleep. You see, I have some of the poetic in me, too. Mr. Linder will show you down, and I will see that your father is made comfortable. And remember—five o'clock does not apply to visitors."
The camp now lay in complete darkness, save where a lantern threw its light from a tent by the river. Zen walked by Linder's side. Presently she reached out and took his arm.
"I beg your pardon," said Linder. "I should have offered—"
"Of course you should. Mr. Transley would not have waited to be told. Dad thinks that anything that's worth having in this world is worth going after, and going after hard. I guess I'm Dad's daughter in more ways than one."
"I suppose he's right," Linder confessed, "but I've always been shy. I get along all right with men."
"The truth is, Mr Linder, you're not shy—you're frightened. Now I can well believe that no man could frighten you. Consequently you get along all right with men. Do I need to tell you the rest?"
"I never thought of myself as being afraid of women," he replied. "It has always seemed that they were, well, just out of my line."
They had reached the tent but the girl made no sign of going in. In the silence the sibilant lisp of the stream rose loud about them.
"Mr. Linder," she said at length, "do you know why Mr. Transley sent you down here with me?"
"I'm sure I don't, except to show you to your tent."
"That was the least of his purposes. He wanted to show you that he wasn't afraid of you; and he wanted to show me that he wasn't afraid of you. Mr. Transley is a very self-confident individual. There is such a thing as being too self-confident, Mr. Linder, just as there is such a thing as being too shy. Do you get me? Good night!" And with a little rush she was in her tent.
Linder walked slowly down to the water's edge, and stood there, thinking, until her light went out. His brain was in a whirl with a sensation entirely strange to it. A light wind, laden with snow-smell from the mountains, pressed gently against his features, and presently Linder took deeper breaths than he had ever known before.
"By Jove!" he said. "Who'd have thought it possible?"
When Zen awoke next morning the mowing machines of Transley's outfit were already singing their symphony in the meadows; she could hear the metallic rhythm as it came borne on the early breeze. She lay awake on her camp cot for a few minutes, stretching her fingers to the canvas ceiling and feeling that it was good to be alive. And it was. The ripple of water came from almost underneath the walls of her tent; the smell of spruce trees and balm-o'-Gilead and new-mown hay was in the air. She could feel the warmth of the sunshine already pouring upon her white roof; she could trace the gentle sway of the trees by the leafy patterns gliding forward and back. A cheeky gopher, exploring about the door of her tent, ventured in, and, sitting bolt upright, sent his shrill whistle boldly forth. She watched his fine bravery for a minute, then clapped her hands together, and laughed as he fled.
"Therein we have the figures of both Transley and Linder," she mused to herself. "Upright, Transley; horizontal, Linder. I doubt if the poor fellow slept last night after the fright I gave him." Slowly and calmly she turned the incident over in her mind. She wondered a little if she had been quite fair with Linder. Her words and conduct were capable of very broad interpretations. She was not at all in love with Linder; of that Zen was very sure. She was equally sure that she was not at all in love with Transley. She admitted that she admired Transley for his calm assumptions, but they nettled her a little nevertheless. If this should develop into a love affair—IF it should—she had no intention that it was to be a pleasant afternoon's canter. It was to be a race—a race, mind you—and may the best man win! She had a feeling, amounting almost to a conviction, that Transley underrated his foreman's possibilities in such a contest. She had seen many a dark horse, less promising than Linder, gallop home with the stakes.
Then Zen smiled her own quiet, self-confident smile, the smile which had come down to her from Y.D. and from the Wilsons—the only family that had ever mastered him. The idea of either Transley or Linder thinking he could gallop home with HER! For the moment she forgot to do Linder the justice of remembering that nothing was further from his thoughts. She would show them. She would make a race of it—ALMOST to the wire. In the home stretch she would make the leap, out and over the fence. She was in it for the race, not for the finish.
Zen contemplated for some minutes the possibilities of that race; then, as the imagination threatened to become involved, she sprang from her cot and thrust a cautious head through the door of her tent. The gang had long since gone to the fields, and friendly bushes sheltered her from view from the cook-car. She drew on her boots, shook out her hair, threw a towel across her shoulders, and, soap in hand, walked boldly the few steps to the stream rippling over its shiny gravel bed. She stopped and tested the water with her fingers; then brought it in fresh, cool handfuls about her face and neck.
"Mornin', Zen!" said a familiar voice. "'Scuse me for happenin' to be here. I was jus' waterin' that Pete-horse after a hard ride."
"Now look here, Mr. Drazk!" said the girl, whipping her scanty clothing about her, "if I had a gun that Pete-horse would be scheduled for his fastest travel in the next twenty seconds, and he'd end it without a rider, too. I won't have you spying about!"
"Aw, don' be cross," Drazk protested. He was sitting on his horse in the ford a dozen yards away. "I jus' happened along. I guess the outside belongs to all of us. Say, Zen, if I was to get properly interduced, what's the chances?"
"Not one in a million, and if that isn't odds enough I'll double it."
"You're not goin' to hitch up with Linder, are you?"
"Linder? Who said anything about Linder?"
"Gee, but ain't she innercent?" Drazk stepped his horse up a few feet to facilitate conversation. "I alus take an interest in innercent gals away from home, so I kinda kep' my angel eye on you las' night. An' I see Linder stalkin' aroun' here an' sighin' out over the water when he should 'ave been in bed. But, of course, he's been interduced."
"George Drazk, if you speak to me again I'll horse-whip you out of the camp at noon before all the men. Now, beat it!"
"Jus' as you say, Ma'am," he returned, with mock courtesy. "But I could tell a strange story if I would. But you don't need to be scared. That's one thing I never do—I never squeal on a friend."
She was burning with his insults, and if she had had a gun at hand she undoubtedly would have made good her threat. But she had none. Drazk very deliberately turned his horse and rode away toward the meadows.
"Oh, won't I fix him!" she said, as she continued her toilet in a fury. She had not the faintest idea what revenge she would take, but she promised herself that it would leave nothing to be desired. Then, because she was young and healthy and an optimist, and did not know what it meant to be afraid, she dismissed the incident from her mind to consider the more urgent matter of breakfast.
Tompkins, the cook, had not needed Transley's suggestion to put his best foot forward when catering to Y.D. and his daughter. Tompkins' soul yearned for a cooking berth that could be occupied the year round. Work in the railway camps had always left him high and dry at the freeze-up—dry, particularly, and a few nights in Calgary or Edmonton saw the end of his season's earnings. Then came a precarious existence for Tompkins until the scrapers were back on the dump the following spring. A steady job, cooking on a ranch like the Y.D.; if Tompkins had written the Apocalypse that would have been his picture of heaven. So he had left nothing undone, even to despatching a courier over night to a railway station thirty miles away for fresh fruit and other delicacies. Another of the gang had been impressed into a trip up the river to a squatter who was suspected of keeping one or two milch cows and sundry hens.