THE FLOCKMASTER OF POISON CREEK
G. W. OGDEN
THE DUKE OF CHIMNEY BUTTE, THE LAND OF LAST CHANCE, Etc.
FRONTISPIECE BY P. V. E. IVORY
GROSSET & DUNLAP
PUBLISHERS NEW YORK
Made in the United States of America
A. C. McClurg & Co.
Published March, 1921
Copyrighted in Great Britain
I The Sheep Country 1 II Swan Carlson 15 III The Fight 27 IV Keeper of the Flock 34 V Tim Sullivan 49 VI Eyes in the Firelight 57 VII The Easiest Lesson 67 VIII The Sheep-Killer 76 IX A Two-Gun Man 87 X Wild Riders of the Range 97 XI Hector Hall Sets a Beacon 111 XII One Comes to Serve 127 XIII A Fight Almost Lost 136 XIV The Lonesomeness 149 XV Only One Jacob 160 XVI Reid Begins His Play 173 XVII Hertha Carlson 181 XVIII Swan Carlson's Day 195 XIX Not Cut out for a Sheepman 207 XX A Million Gallops Off 212 XXI Tim Sullivan Breaks a Contract 222 XXII Phantoms of Fever 233 XXIII Concerning Mary 239 XXIV More About Mary 252 XXV One Man's Joke 262 XXVI Payment on Account 270 XXVII A Summons in the Night 287 XXVIII Swan Carlson Laughs 296 XXIX Sheepman—And More 308
THE FLOCKMASTER OF POISON CREEK
THE SHEEP COUNTRY
So John Mackenzie had put his foot upon the road. This after he had reasoned it out as a mathematical problem, considering it as a matter of quantities alone. There was nothing in school-teaching at sixty dollars a month when men who had to carry a rubber stamp to sign their names to their checks were making fortunes all around him in sheep.
That was the way it looked to John Mackenzie the morning he set out for Poison Creek to hunt up Tim Sullivan and strike him for a job. Against the conventions of the country, he had struck out on foot. That also had been reasoned out in a cool and calculative way. A sheepherder had no use for a horse, in the first place. Secondly and finally, the money a horse would represent would buy at least twelve head of ewes. With questioning eyes upon him when he left Jasper, and contemptuous eyes upon him when he met riders in his dusty journey, John Mackenzie had pushed on, his pack on his back.
There was not a book in that pack. John Mackenzie, schoolmaster, had been a bondslave of books in that country for four obscure, well-nigh profitless years, and he was done with them for a while. The less a sheepman knew about books, the more he was bound to know about sheep, for sheep would be the object and aim of his existence. Mackenzie knew plenty of sheepmen who never had looked into any kind of a book but a bank-deposit book in their lives. That seemed to be education enough to carry them very nicely along, even to boost them to the state legislature, and lift one of them to the United States senate. So, what was the use of worrying along on a mission of enlightenment at sixty dollars a month?
Mackenzie had not come into the West in a missionary spirit at the beginning. He had not believed the youth of that section to be in any greater depths of ignorance than elsewhere in this more or less favored land. But from his earliest years he had entertained romantic notions, adventurous desires. With his normal-school certificate in his breast pocket, tight trousers on his rather long legs, a short vest scarcely meeting them at the waistband, he had traveled into the West, seeking romance, alert for adventure.
When he arrived at Jasper, which was only the inter-mountain West, and far from the golden coast of his most fervid dreams, he found that adventure and romance apparently had packed up and gone elsewhere years ahead of him. There was nothing nearer either of them in Jasper than a tame gambling-joint in the back end of a saloon, where greasy, morose sheepherders came to stake quarters on roulette and faro, where railroaders squandered away their wages, leaving the grocerymen unpaid. And there was no romance for John Mackenzie in any such proceeding as that.
Simple, you will see he was; open-faced and guileless as the day. Farm-bred, raw-boned, slow of speech, clear of eye, no vices, no habits that pulled a man down, unless a fondness for his briar-root pipe might be so classed. But in the way Mackenzie smoked the pipe it was more in the nature of a sacrifice to his gods of romance than even a mild dissipation.
In the four years of his school-teaching at Jasper Mackenzie slowly grew out of his extreme rawness of appearance. His legs hardened from long rambles over the hills, his face browned like an outdoor man's, his rustic appearance, his clabber-days shyness, all slowly dissolved away. But the school board was not cognizant of any physical or mental strengthening in him. He was worth sixty dollars a month to that slow-thinking body when he came to Jasper; he was worth no more than sixty dollars when he threw up the job and left.
Romance and adventure had called him away to the road at last, but the romance of sheep-riches, the adventure of following a flock over the sage-gray hills. Maybe he would find it too late even to glimpse them when he arrived in the heart of the sheeplands; perhaps times had shifted since the heavy-jowled illiterates whom he had met in Jasper began their careers with a few pounds of dried apples and uncommon endurance for hardships in the open fields.
Simple, they thought him down in Jasper, in the mild simplicity of a preacher or any man who would not fight. In their classification he was a neutral force, an emasculated, mild, harmless creature who held the child's view of life from much association with children. He often had heard it said.
A man never could advance to notability in a community that rated him as mildly simple; he would have a hard time of it even to become notorious. Only one man there had taken an interest in him as man to man, a flockmaster who had come into that country twenty years before, a schoolteacher like himself.
This man had kicked up the golden dust before Mackenzie's eyes with his tales of the romance of the range, the romance of sheep-riches, the quick multiplication of a band run on the increase-sharing plan. This man urged Mackenzie to join him, taking a band of sheep on shares. But his range was in sight of Jasper; there was no romance on his hills. So Mackenzie struck out for the headwaters of Poison Creek, to find Tim Sullivan, notable man among the sheep-rich of his day.
It was a five-days' journey on foot, as he calculated it—nobody in that country ever had walked it, as far as he could learn—to Tim Sullivan's ranch on Poison Creek. Now, in the decline of the fifth day he had come to Poison Creek, a loud, a rapid, and boisterous stream which a man could cross in two jumps. It made a great amount of noise in its going over the boulders in its bed, as a little water in a vast arid land probably was justified by its importance in doing. It was the first running water Mackenzie had met since leaving the Big Wind, clear as if it came unpolluted by a hoof or a hand from its mountain source.
But somewhere along its course Tim Sullivan grazed and watered forty thousand sheep; and beyond him were others who grazed and watered many times that number. Poison Creek might well enough merit its name from the slaver of many flocks, the schoolmaster thought, although he knew it came from pioneer days, and was as obscure as pioneer names usually are obscure.
And some day he would be watering his thousands of sheep along its rushing vein. That was John Mackenzie's intent and purpose as he trudged the dusty miles of gray hills, with their furze of gray sage, and their gray twilights which fell with a melancholy silence as chilling as the breath of death. For John Mackenzie was going into the sheeplands to become a master. He had determined it all by mathematical rule.
There was the experience to be gained first, and it was cheaper to do that at another man's expense than his own. He knew how the right kind of a man could form a partnership with a flockmaster sometimes; he had heard stories of such small beginnings leading to large ownership and oily prosperity. Jasper had examples of its own; he was familiar with them all.
Some of them began as herders on the basis of half the increase from a stated number of sheep not more than ten years past. Now they looked upon a sixty-dollars-a-month schoolteacher with the eyes of superiority, as money always despises brains which it is obliged to hire, probably because brains cannot devise any better method of finding the necessary calories than that of letting themselves out by the month.
Tim Sullivan needed herders; he had advertised for them in the Jasper paper. Besides, Tim had the name of a man who could see the possibilities in another. He had put more than one young fellow on the way of success in the twenty years he had been running sheep on the Poison Creek range. But failing to land a partnership deal with Sullivan, Mackenzie was prepared to take a job running sheep by the month. Or, should he find all avenues to experience at another man's expense closed to him, he was ready to take the six hundred dollars saved out of his years of book bondage and buy a little flock of his own. Somewhere in that wide expanse of government-owned land he would find water and grazing, and there his prosperity would increase.
Sheep had visited the creek lately at the point where Mackenzie first encountered it, but there were no dusty flocks in sight billowing over the hills. Tim Sullivan's house was not to be seen any more than sheep, from the highest hill in the vicinity. It must be several miles ahead of him still, Mackenzie concluded, remembering that Poison Creek was long. Yet he hoped he might reach it by nightfall, for his feet were growing weary of the untrodden way they had borne him for a hundred and fifty miles, more or less.
He pushed on, now and again crossing the broad trail left by bands of sheep counting two or three thousand, feeling the lonesomeness of the unpeopled land softened by these domestic signs. Sunset, and no sight of a house; nightfall, and not the gleam of a light to show him either herder's camp or permanent domicile of man.
Mackenzie lingered beside the clamoring water in a little valley where the uncropped grass was lush about his feet, considering making camp there for the night. It was a pleasant place for a land so bleak, even in summer, as that country of high table-lands and rolling gray hills. As he started to unsling his pack he caught the dim note of somebody's voice raised in song, and stood so, hand on the strap, listening.
The voice was faint, broken by the distance, yet cheering because it was a voice. Mackenzie pressed up the hill, hoping to be able to thread the voice back to its source from that eminence. As he neared the top the voice came clearer; as he paused to listen, it seemed quite close at hand. It was a woman singing, and this was the manner of her song:
Na-a-fer a-lo-o-one, na-a-fer a-lone, He promise na-fer to leafe me, Na-fer to leafe me a-lone!
The valley whence came the song was quite dark below him, and darker for the indefinite blotch of something that appeared to be trees. In that grove the house that sheltered the melancholy singer must be hidden, so completely shrouded that not even a gleam of light escaped to lead him to the door. Mackenzie stood listening. There was no other sound rising from that sequestered homestead than the woman's song, and this was as doleful as any sound that ever issued from human lips.
Over and over again the woman sang the three lines, a silence after the last long, tremulous note which reached to the traveler's heart, more eloquent in its expression of poignant loneliness than the hopeless repetition of the song. He grinned dustily as he found himself wishing, in all seriousness, that somebody would take a day off and teach her the rest of the hymn.
Mackenzie's bones were weary of the road, hard as he tried to make himself believe they were not, and that he was a tough man, ready to take and give as it might come to him in the life of the sheeplands. In his heart he longed for a bed that night, and a cup of hot coffee to gladden his gizzard. Coffee he had not carried with him, much less a coffeepot; his load would be heavy enough without them, he rightly anticipated, before he reached Tim Sullivan's. Nothing more cheering than water out of the holes by the way had passed his lips these five days.
He could forgive the woman her song if she would supply some of the comforts of those who luxuriated in houses for just this one night. He went on, coming soon to barbed wire along the way, and presently to a gap in it that let him in among the trees which concealed the house.
It was a small, low cabin, quite buried among the trees, no light showing as Mackenzie drew near, although the voice of the woman still rose in the plaintive monotony of her song.
Mackenzie put as much noise into his arrival as was possible by walking heavily, knowing very well that a surprise by night is not a good beginning for a claim of hospitality. The woman must have heard, for her song ceased in the middle of a word. At the corner of the house Mackenzie saw a dim light falling through an open door, into which the shadow of the woman came.
A little way from the door Mackenzie halted, hat in hand, giving the woman good evening. She stood within the threshold a few feet, the light of the lantern hanging in an angle of the wall over her, bending forward in the pose of one who listened. She was wiping a plate, which she held before her breast in the manner of a shield, stiffly in both hands. Her eyes were large and full of a frightened surprise, her pale yellow hair was hanging in slovenly abandon down her cheeks and over her ears.
She was a tall woman, thin of frame, worn and sad, but with a faded comeliness of face, more intelligence apparent in it than is commonly shown by Scandinavian women of the peasant class who share the labors and the loads of their men on the isolated homesteads of the Northwest. She stood so, leaning and staring, her mouth standing open as if the song had been frightened out so quickly that it had no time to shut the door.
"Good evening, madam," said Mackenzie again.
She came out of her paralysis of fright and surprise at the assuring sound of his voice. He drew nearer, smiling to show his friendly intention, the lantern light on the close, flat curls of his fair hair, which lay damp on temples and forehead.
Tall after his kind was this traveler at her door, spare of flesh, hollow of cheeks, great of nose, a seriousness in his eyes which balanced well the marvelous tenderness of his smile. Not a handsome man, but a man whose simple goodness shone in his features like a friendly lamp. The woman in the door advanced a timid step; the color deepened in her pale and melancholy face.
"I thought it was my man," she said, her voice soft and slow, a labored effort in it to speak without the harsh dialect so apparent in her song.
"I am a traveler, Mackenzie is my name, on my way to Tim Sullivan's sheep ranch. My grub has run low; I'd like to get some supper if you can let me have a bite."
"There is not much for a gentleman to eat," said she.
"Anything at all," Mackenzie returned, unslinging his pack, letting it down wearily at his feet.
"My man would not like it. You have heard of Swan Carlson?"
"No; but I'll pay for it; he'll have no right to kick."
"You have come far if you have not heard of Swan Carlson. His name is on the wind like a curse. Better you would go on, sir; my man would kill you if he found you in this house."
She moved a step to reach and lay the plate on a table close at hand. As she lifted her foot there was the sharp clink of metal, as of a dragging chain. Mackenzie had heard it before when she stepped nearer the door, and now he bent to look into the shadow that fell over the floor from the flaring bottom of the lantern.
"Madam," said he, indignantly amazed by the barbarous thing he beheld, "does that man keep you a prisoner here?"
"Like a dog," she said, nodding her untidy head, lifting her foot to show him the chain.
It was a common trace-chain from plow harness; two of them, in fact, welded together to give her length to go about her household work. She had a freedom of not more than sixteen feet, one end of the chain welded about her ankle, the other set in a staple driven into a log of the wall. She had wrapped the links with cloths to save her flesh, but for all of that protection she walked haltingly, as if the limb were sore.
"I never heard of such inhuman treatment!" Mackenzie declared, hot to the bone in his burning resentment of this barbarity. "How long has he kept you tied up this way?"
"Three years now," said she, with a weary sigh.
"It's going to stop, right here. What did you let him treat you this way for? Why didn't some of your neighbors take a hand in it?"
"Nobody comes," she sighed, shaking her head sadly. "The name of Swan Carlson is a curse on the wind. Nobody passes; we are far from any road that men travel; your face is the first I have seen since Swan put the chain on me like a wolf."
"Where does he keep his tools?"
"Maybe in the barn—I do not know. Only there never is anything left in my reach. Will you set me free, kind stranger?"
"If I can find anything to cut that chain. Let me have the lantern."
The woman hesitated, her eyes grown great with fright.
"My man, he is the one who choked two sheepherders with his hands. You must have read in the paper——"
"Maybe it was before my time. Give me down the lantern."
Swan Carlson appeared to be a man who got along with very few tools. Mackenzie could not find a cold-chisel among the few broken and rusted odds and ends in the barn, although there was an anvil, such as every rancher in that country had, fastened to a stump in the yard, a hammer rusting beside it on the block. As Mackenzie stood considering what could be done with the material at hand, the woman called to him from the door, her voice vibrant with anxious excitement:
"My man will come soon," she said.
Mackenzie started back to the house, hammer in hand, thinking that he might break the chain near her foot and give her liberty, at least. A pile of logs lay in the dooryard, an ax hacked into the end of one. With this tool added to the hammer, he hurried to the prisoner.
"I think we can make it now," he said.
The poor creature was panting as if the hand of her man hung over her in threat of throttling out her life as he had smothered the sheepherders in the tragedy that gave him his evil fame. Mackenzie urged her to a chair, giving her the lantern to hold and, with the edge of the ax set against a link of her chain, the poll on the floor, he began hammering the soft metal against the bit.
Once she put her hand on his shoulder, her breath caught in a sharp exclamation of alarm.
"I thought it was Swan's step!" she whispered. "Listen—do you hear?"
"There's nobody," he assured her, turning his head to listen, the sweat on his lean cheek glistening in the light.
"It is my fear that he will come too soon. Strike fast, good young man, strike fast!"
If Swan Carlson had been within half a mile he would have split the wind to find out the cause of such a clanging in his shunned and proscribed house, and that he did not appear before the chain was severed was evidence that he was nowhere near at hand. When the cut links fell to the floor Mrs. Carlson stood the lantern down with gentle deliberation, as if preparing to enter the chamber of someone in a desperate sickness to whom had come a blessed respite of sleep. Then she stood, her lips apart, her breath suspended, lifting her freed foot with a joyous relief in its lightness.
Mackenzie remained on his knees at her feet, looking up strangely into her face. Suddenly she bent over him, clasped his forehead between her hands, kissed his brow as if he were her son. A great hot tear splashed down upon his cheek as she rose again, a sob in her throat that ended in a little, moaning cry. She tossed her long arms like an eagle set free from a cramping cage, her head thrown back, her streaming hair far down her shoulders. There was an appealing grace in her tall, spare body, a strange, awakening beauty in her haggard face.
"God sent you," she said. "May He keep His hand over you wherever you go."
Mackenzie got to his feet; she picked up the ax and leaned it against the table close to her hand.
"I will give you eggs, you can cook them at a fire," she said, "and bread I will give you, but butter I cannot give. That I have not tasted since I came to this land, four years ago, a bride."
She moved about to get the food, walking with awkwardness on the foot that had dragged the chain so long, laughing a little at her efforts to regain a normal balance.
"Soon it will pass away, and I will walk like a lady, as I once knew how."
"But I don't want to cook at a fire," Mackenzie protested; "I want you to make me some coffee and fry me some eggs, and then we'll see about things."
She came close to him, her great gray eyes seeming to draw him until he gazed into her soul.
"No; you must go," she said. "It will be better when Swan comes that nobody shall be here but me."
"But you! Why, you poor thing, he'll put that chain on you again, knock you down, for all I know, and fasten you up like a beast. I'm not going; I'll stay right here till he comes."
"No," shaking her head in sad earnestness, "better it will be for all that I shall be here alone when he comes."
"Alone!" said he, impatiently; "what can you do alone?"
"When he comes," said she, drawing a great breath, shaking her hair back from her face, her deep grave eyes holding him again in their earnest appeal, "then I will stand by the door and kill him with the ax!"
Mackenzie found it hard to bend the woman from this plan of summary vengeance. She had suffered and brooded in her loneliness so long, the cruel hand of Swan Carlson over her, that her thoughts had beaten a path to this desire. This self-administration of justice seemed now her life's sole aim. She approached it with glowing eyes and flushed cheeks; she had lived for that hour.
Harshly she met Mackenzie's efforts at first to dissuade her from this long-planned deed, yielding a little at length, not quite promising to withhold her hand when the step of her savage husband should sound outside the door.
"If you are here when he comes, then it will do for another night; if you are gone, then I will not say."
That was the compromise she made with him at last, turning with no more argument to prepare his supper, carrying the ax with her as she went about the work. Often she stood in rigid concentration, listening for the sound of Swan's coming, such animation in her eyes as a bride's might show in a happier hour than hers. She sat opposite her visitor as he made his supper on the simple food she gave him, and told him the story of her adventure into that heartless land, the ax-handle against her knee.
A minister's daughter, educated to fit herself for a minister's wife. She had learned English in the schools of her native land, as the custom is, and could speak it fairly when family reverses carried her like a far-blown seed to America. She had no business training, for what should a minister's wife know of business beyond the affairs of the parish and the economy of her own home? She found, therefore, nothing open to her hands in America save menial work in the households of others.
Not being bred to it, nor the intention or thought of it as a future contingency, she suffered in humbling herself to the services of people who were at once her intellectual and social inferiors. The one advantage in it was the improvement of her English speech, through which she hoped for better things in time.
It was while she was still new to America, its customs and social adjustments, and the shame of her menial situation burned in her soul like a corrosive acid, that she saw the advertisement of Swan Carlson in a Swedish newspaper. Swan Carlson was advertising for a wife. Beneath a handsome picture of himself he stated his desires, frankly, with evident honesty in all his representations. He told of his holdings in sheep and land, of his money in the bank.
A dream of new consequence in this strange land came to Hertha Jacobsen as she read the advertisement, as she studied the features of Swan Carlson, his bold face looking at her from the page. She had seen men, and the women of such men sharing their honors, who had risen from peasants to governors and senators, to positions of wealth and consequence in this strange land with all the romance of a tale out of a book. Perhaps fate had urged her on to this unfriendly shore only to feed her on the bitter herbs for her purification for a better life.
The minister of her church investigated Swan Carlson and his claims, finding him all that he professed to be. Hertha wrote to him; in time Swan came to visit her, a tall, long-striding man, handsomer than his picture in the paper, handsome as a Viking lord with his proud foot on the neck of a fallen foe.
So she married him, and came away with him to the sheeplands, and Swan's hand was as tender of her as a summer wind. It was shearing time when they reached home; Swan was with her every day for a little while, gathering his flocks from the range into the shearing sheds. He was master of more than fifteen thousand sheep.
When the shearing was done, and Swan had gone with his wagons to ship the clip, returning with his bankbook showing thousands in added wealth, a change came into her life, so radiant with the blossoms of a new happiness. Swan's big laugh was not so ready in his throat any more; his great hand seemed forgetful of its caress. He told her that the time of idling now was over; she must go with him in a sheep-wagon to the range and care for her band of sheep, sharing the labors of his life as she shared its rewards.
No; that was not to her liking. The wife of a rich man should not live as a peasant woman, dew in her draggled skirts to her knees, the sun browning her skin and bleaching her hair. It was not for his woman to give him no, said Swan. Be ready at a certain hour in the morning; they must make an early start, for the way was long.
But no; she refused to take the burden of a peasant woman on her back. That was the first time Swan knocked her senseless. When she recovered, the sheep-wagon was rocking her in its uneasy journey to the distant range. Swan's cruelties multiplied with his impatience at her slowness to master the shepherd's art. The dogs were sullen creatures, unused to a woman's voice, unfriendly to a woman's presence. Swan insisted that she lay aside her woman's attire and dress as a man to gain the good-will of the dogs.
Again she defied his authority, all her refinement rising against the degradation of her sex; again Swan laid her senseless with a blow. When she woke her limbs were clad in overalls, a greasy jumper was buttoned over her breast. But the dogs were wiser than their master; no disguise of man's could cover her from the contempt of their shrewd senses. They would not obey her shrilled commands.
Very well, said Swan; if she did not have it in her to win even the respect of a dog, let her do a dog's work. So he took the collies away, leaving her to range her band of sheep in terrible labor, mind-wrenching loneliness, over the sage-gray hills. Wolves grew bold; the lambs suffered. When Swan came again to number her flock, he cursed her for her carelessness, giving her blows which were kinder than his words.
With the first snow she abandoned her flock and fled. Disgraceful as it was for a woman to leave her man, the frenzy of loneliness drove her on. With his companionship she could have endured Swan's cruelty, but alone her heart was dead. Three days she wandered. Swan found her after she had fallen in the snow.
His great laugh woke her, and she was home in this house, the light of day in her eyes. Swan was sitting beside her, merry in the thought of how he had cheated her out of her intention to die like an old ewe among the mountain drifts.
She was good for nothing, he said, but to sit at home like a cat. But he would make sure that she sat at home, to be there at his coming, and not running away from the bounty of a man who had taken a beggar to his bosom. Then he brought the chain and the anvil, and welded the red-hot iron upon her limb. He laughed when the smoke of her burning flesh rose hissing; laughed when he mounted his horse and rode away, leaving her in agony too great to let her die.
This summer now beginning was the fourth since that melancholy day. In the time that had passed, Swan had come into the ways of trouble, suffering a great drain upon his hoarded money, growing as a consequence sullen and somber in his moods. No more he laughed; even the distress of his chained wife, the sight of her wasting face and body, the pleading of her tortured eyes, could not move his loud gales of merriment again.
Swan had killed two of his sheepherders, as she had mentioned before. It grew out of a dispute over wages, in which the men were right. That was the winter following her attempt to run away, Swan being alone with them upon the stormy range. He declared both of them set upon him at once like wolves, and that he fought only to defend his life. He strangled them, the throat of each grasped in his broad, thick hand, and held them from him so, stiff arms against their desperate struggles, until they sank down in the snow and died.
Only a little while ago the lawyers had got him off from the charge of murder, after long delays. The case had been tried in another county, for Swan Carlson's neighbors all believed him guilty of a horrible crime; no man among them could have listened to his story under oath with unprejudiced ear. The lawyers had brought Swan off, for at the end it had been his living word against the mute accusations of two dead men. There was nobody to speak for the herders; so the lawyers had set him free. But it had cost him thousands of dollars, and Swan's evil humor had deepened with the drain.
Crazy, he said of his wife; a poor mad thing bent on self-destruction in wild and mournful ways. In that Swan was believed, at least. Nobody came to inquire of her, none ever stopped to speak a word. The nearest neighbor was twelve or fifteen miles distant, a morose man with sour face, master of a sea of sheep.
All of this Swan himself had told her in the days when he laughed. He told her also of the lawyers' drain upon his wealth, starving her days together to make a pebble of saving to fill the ruthless breach.
"Tonight Swan will come," she said. "After what I have told you, are you not afraid?"
"I suppose I ought to be," Mackenzie returned, leaving her to form her own conclusion.
She searched his face with steady eyes, her hand on the ax-helve, in earnest effort to read his heart.
"No, you are not afraid," she said. "But wait; when you hear him speak, then you will be afraid."
"How do you know he is coming home tonight?"
She did not speak at once. Her eyes were fixed on the open door at Mackenzie's side, her face was set in the tensity of her mental concentration as she listened. Mackenzie bent all his faculties to hear if any foot approached. There was no sound.
"The fishermen of my country can feel the chill of an iceberg through the fog and the night," she said at last. "Swan Carlson is an iceberg to my heart."
She listened again, bending forward, her lips open. Mackenzie fancied he heard the swing of a galloping hoof-beat, and turned toward the door.
"Have you a pistol?" she inquired.
"He is coming; in a little while he will be at the door. There is time yet for you to leave."
"I want to have a word with your man; I'll wait."
Mrs. Carlson got up, keeping the ax in hand, moved her chair to the other side of the door, where she stationed herself in such position as Swan must see her first when he looked within. She disposed the ax to conceal it entirely beneath her long apron, her hand under the garment grasping the helve.
"For your own sake, not his, I ask you not to strike him," Mackenzie pleaded, in all the earnestness he could command.
"I have given you the hour of my vengeance," she replied. "But if he curses me, if he lifts his hand!"
Mackenzie was more than a little uneasy on the probable outcome of his meeting with the tempestuous Swan. He got out his pipe and lit it, considering the situation with fast-running thoughts. Still, a man could not go on and leave that beaten, enslaved woman to the mercies of her tyrant; Swan Carlson must be given to understand that he would be held to answer to the law for his future behavior toward her.
"If I were you I'd put the ax behind the door and get his supper ready," said he.
Mrs. Carlson got up at the suggestion, with such readiness that surprised Mackenzie, put the ax back of the open door, stood a moment winding up her fallen hair.
"Yes, he is my man," she said.
Swan was turning his horse into the barn; Mackenzie could hear him talking to the animal, not unkindly. Mrs. Carlson put fresh fuel in the stove, making a rattling of the lids which must have sounded cheerful to the ears of a hungry man. As she began breaking eggs into a bowl she took up her song again, with an unconscious air of detachment from it, as one unwittingly follows the habit that has been for years the accompaniment to a task.
As before, the refinement of accent was wanting in her words, but the sweet melancholy of her voice thrilled her listener like the rich notes of an ancient violin.
Na-a-fer a-lo-o-one, na-a-fer a-lone, He promise na-fer to leafe me, Na-fer to leafe me a-lone!
Mackenzie sat with his elbow on the table, his chair partly turned toward the door, just within the threshold and a little to one side, where the flockmaster would see him the moment he stepped into the light. The traveler's pack lay on the floor at the door jamb; the smoke from his pipe drifted out to tell of his presence in the honest announcement of a man who had nothing to hide.
So Swan Carlson found him as he came home to his door.
Swan stopped, one foot in the door, the light on his face. Mrs. Carlson did not turn from the stove to greet him by word or look, but stood bending a little over the pan of sputtering eggs, which she shook gently from side to side with a rhythmic, slow movement in cadence with her song. Swan turned his eyes from one to the other, his face clouding for a moment as for a burst of storm, clearing again at once as Mackenzie rose and gave him good evening in cheerful and unshaken voice.
Mrs. Carlson had spoken a true word when she described Swan as a handsome man. Almost seven feet tall, Mackenzie took him to be, so tall that he must stoop to enter the door; lithe and sinewy of limbs, a lightness in them as of an athlete bred; broad in the shoulders, long of arms. His face was stern, his red hair long about the ears, his Viking mustache long-drooping at the corners of his mouth.
"I thought a man was here, or my woman had begun to smoke," said Swan, coming in, flinging his hat down on the floor. "What do you want, loafin' around here?"
Mackenzie explained his business in that country in direct words, and his presence in the house in the same breath. Mollified, Swan grunted that he understood and accepted the explanation, turning up his sleeves, unfastening the collar of his flannel shirt, to wash. His woman stood at the stove, her song dead on her lips, sliding the eggs from the pan onto a platter in one piece. Swan gave her no heed, not even a curious or questioning look, but as he crossed the room to the wash bench he saw the broken chain lying free upon the floor.
A breath he paused over it, his eyes fastened on it in a glowering stare. Mackenzie braced himself for the storm of wrath which seemed bursting the doors of Swan Carlson's gloomy heart. But Swan did not speak. He picked up the chain, examined the cut link, threw it down with a clatter. At the sound of its fall Mackenzie saw Mrs. Carlson start. She turned her head, terror in her eyes, her face blanched. Swan bent over the basin, snorting water like a strangling horse.
There were eight eggs on the platter that Swan Carlson's woman put before him when he sat down to his supper. One end of the great trencher was heaped with brown bacon; a stack of bread stood at Swan's left hand, a cup of coffee at his right. Before this provender the flockmaster squared himself, the unwelcome guest across the table from him, the smoke of his pipe drifting languidly out into the tranquil summer night.
Swan had said no word since his first inquiry. Mackenzie had ventured nothing more. Mrs. Carlson sat down in the chair that she had placed near the door before Swan's arrival, only that she moved it a little to bring her hand within reach of the hidden ax.
Swan had brushed his long, dark-red hair back from his broad, deep forehead, bringing it down across the tips of his ears in a savage fashion admirably suited to his grave, harsh, handsome face. He devoured his food noisily, bending low over his plate.
"You want to learn the sheep business, huh?" said he, throwing up his eyes in quick challenge, pausing a moment in his champing and clatter. Mackenzie nodded, pipe raised toward his lips. "Well, you come to the right country. You ever had any work around a ranch?"
"No, I didn't think you had; you look too soft. How much can you lift?"
"What's that got to do with sheep?" Mackenzie inquired, frowning in his habitual manner of showing displeasure with frivolous and trifling things.
"I can shoulder a steel rail off of the railroad that weighs seven hundred and fifty pounds," said Swan. "You couldn't lift one end."
"Maybe I couldn't," Mackenzie allowed, pretending to gaze out after his drifting smoke, but watching the sheepman, as he mopped the last of the eggs up with a piece of bread, with a furtive turning of his eye. He was considering how to approach the matter which he had remained there to take up with this great, boasting, savage man, and how he could make him understand that it was any of society's business whether he chained his wife or let her go free, fed her or starved her, caressed her, or knocked her down.
Swan pushed back from the table, wringing the coffee from his mustache.
"Did you cut that chain?" he asked.
"Yes, I cut it. You've got no right to keep your wife, or anybody else, chained up. You could be put in jail for it; it's against the law."
"A man's got a right to do what he pleases with his own woman; she's his property, the same as a horse."
"Not exactly the same as a horse, either. But you could be put in jail for beating your horse. I've waited here to tell you about this, in a friendly way, and warn you to treat this woman right. Maybe you didn't know you were breaking the law, but I'm telling you it's so."
Swan stood, his head within six inches of the ceiling. His wife must have read an intention of violence in his face, although Mackenzie could mark no change in his features, always as immobile as bronze. She sprang to her feet, her bosom agitated, arms lifted, shoulders raised, as if to shrink from the force of a blow. She made no effort to reach the ax behind the door; the thought of it had gone, apparently, out of her mind.
Swan stood within four feet of her, but he gave her no attention.
"When a man comes to my house and monkeys with my woman, him and me we've got to have a fight," he said.
Mackenzie got up, keeping the table between them. He looked at the door, calculating whether he could make a spring for the ax before Carlson could grapple him. Carlson read in the glance an intention to retreat, made a quick stride to the door, closed it sharply, locked it, put the key in his pocket. He stood a moment looking Mackenzie over, as if surprised by the length he unfolded when on his feet, but with no change of anger or resentment in his stony face.
"You didn't need to lock the door, Carlson; I wasn't going to run away—I didn't wait here to see you for that."
Mackenzie stood in careless, lounging pose, hand on the back of his chair, pipe between his fingers, a rather humorous look in his eyes as he measured Carlson up and down.
"Come out here in the middle and fight me if you ain't afraid!" Swan challenged, derision in his voice.
"I'll fight you, all right, after I tell you what I waited here to say. You're a coward, Swan Carlson, you're a sheepman with a sheep's heart. I turned your woman loose, and you're going to let her stay loose. Let that sink into your head."
Carlson was standing a few feet in front of Mackenzie, leaning forward, his shoulders swelling and falling as if he flexed his muscles for a spring. His arms he held swinging in front of him full length, like a runner waiting for the start, in a posture at once unpromising and uncouth. Behind him his wife shuddered against the wall.
"Swan, Swan! O-o-oh, Swan, Swan!" she said, crying it softly as if she chided him for a great hurt.
Swan turned partly toward her, striking backward with his open hand. His great knuckles struck her across the eyes, a cruel, heavy blow that would have felled a man. She staggered back a pace, then sank limply forward on her knees, her hands outreaching on the floor, her hair falling wildly, her posture that of a suppliant at a barbarian conqueror's feet.
Mackenzie snatched the heavy platter from the table and brought Carlson a smashing blow across the head. Carlson stood weaving on his legs a moment as the fragments of the dish clattered around him, swaying like a tree that waits the last blow of the ax to determine which way it will fall. Mackenzie threw the fragment that remained in his hand into Carlson's face, laying open a long gash in his cheek. As the hot blood gushed down over his jaw Carlson steadied himself on his swaying legs and laughed.
Mrs. Carlson lifted her face out of the shadows of the floor at the sound. Mackenzie glanced at her, the red mark of Swan's harsh blow across her brows, as he flew at Swan like a desert whirlwind, landing heavily on his great neck before he could lift a guard. The blow staggered Carlson over upon his wife, and together they collapsed against the wall, where Carlson stood a breath, his hand thrown out to save him from a fall. Then he shook his haughty, handsome, barbarian head, and laughed again, a loud laugh, deep and strong.
There was no note of merriment in that sound, no inflection of satisfaction or joy. It came out of his wide-extended jaws with a roar, no facial softening with it, no blending of the features in the transformation of a smile. Mrs. Carlson struggled to her knees at the sound of it, lifting her moaning cry again at the sight of his gushing blood. Swan charged his adversary with bent head, the floor trembling under his heavy feet, his great hands lifted to seize and crush.
Mackenzie backed away, upsetting the table between them, barring for a moment Swan's mad onrush. In the anger-blind movements of the man he could read his intention, which was not to strike foot to foot, knee to knee, but to grapple and smother, as he had smothered the sheepherders in the snow. Across the overturned table Mackenzie landed another blow, sprang around the barrier out of the pocket of corner into which Carlson was bent on forcing him, hoping by nimble foot work to play on the flockmaster for a knockout.
Swan threw a chair as Mackenzie circled out of his reach with nimble feet, knocking down the stovepipe, dislodging a shower of tinware from the shelves behind. Carlson had him by the shoulder now, but a deft turn, a sharp blow, and Mackenzie was free, racing over the cluttered floor in wild uproar, bending, side-stepping, in a strained and terrific race. Carlson picked up the table, swung it overhead until it struck the ceiling, threw it with all his mighty strength to crush the man who had evaded him with such clever speed. A leg caught Mackenzie a glancing blow on the head, dazing him momentarily, giving Carlson the opening he desired.
In the next breath Mackenzie was down, Carlson's hand at his throat. Mackenzie could see Swan's face as he bent over him, the lantern light on it fairly. There was no light of exultation in it as his great hand closed slowly upon Mackenzie's throat, no change from its stony harshness save for the dark gash and the flood of blood that ran down his jaw and neck.
Mackenzie writhed and struggled, groping on the floor for something to strike Carlson with and break his garroting grip. The blood was singing in his ears, the breath was cut from his lungs; his eyes flashed a thousand scintillating sparks and grew dark. His hand struck something in the debris on the floor, the handle of a table knife it seemed, and with the contact a desperate accession of life heaved in him like a final wave. He struck, and struck at Swan Carlson's arm, and struck again at his wrist as he felt the tightening band of his fingers relax, heard him curse and growl. A quick turn and he was free, with a glimpse as he rolled over at Swan Carlson pulling a table fork out of his hairy wrist.
Mackenzie felt blood in his mouth; his ears were muffled as if he were under water, but he came to his feet with a leg of the broken table in his hand. Swan threw the fork at him as he rose from his knees; it struck the lantern, breaking the globe, cutting off more than half the dim light in which the undetermined battle had begun.
Over against the door Mrs. Carlson stood with the ax in her hands, holding it uplifted, partly drawn back, as if she had checked it in an intended blow. Swan tore a broad plank from the table top, split it over his knee to make it better fit his hand, and came on to the attack, bending in his slouching, bearish attitude of defiant strength. Mackenzie gave way before him, watching his moment to strike the decisive blow.
This maneuver brought Mackenzie near the door, where the wild-eyed woman stood, an ally and a reserve, ready to help him in the moment of his extremity. He believed she had been on the point of striking Swan the moment his fingers closed in their convulsive pang of death over the handle of the fork.
Swan followed, warily now, conscious of this man's unexpected strength and agility, and of his resources in a moment of desperation, making feints with his board as a batter does before the ball is thrown. Mackenzie passed Mrs. Carlson, backing away from Swan, sparring for time to recover his wind and faculties after his swift excursion to the borderland of death. He parried a swift blow, giving one in return that caught Swan on the elbow and knocked the plank out of his hand. Mackenzie sprang forward to follow up his advantage with a decisive stroke, when, to his amazement, Mrs. Carlson threw herself between them, the ax uplifted in her husband's defense.
"No, no!" she screamed; "he is my man!"
Swan Carlson laughed again, and patted her shoulder, stooping to recover his board. But he flung it down again, taking the ax in its place, pushing his woman, not without some tenderness in his hand, back into the corner, throwing himself in front of her, his wild laugh ringing in the murky room, stifling from the smoke of lantern and stove.
Mackenzie felt his hope break like a rope of straw at this unexpected turn of the woman. With those two mad creatures—for mad he believed the isolation and cruelty suffered by the one, the trouble and terror of the law by the other, had driven them—leagued against him it seemed that he must put down all hope of ever looking again upon the day.
If there was any chance for him at all, it lay in darkness. With this thought Mackenzie made a quick dash past Carlson, smashing the lantern with a blow.
There was one window in the room, a small, single-sash opening near the stove. Even this was not apparent for a little while following the plunge into the dark; Mackenzie stood still, waiting for his eyes to adjust themselves to the gloom. No sound but Carlson's breathing came from the other side of the kitchen. The square of window appeared dimly now, a little to Mackenzie's left. He moved cautiously away from it, yet not without noise for all his care. Swan let drive with his board at the sound of movement. His aim was good; it struck Mackenzie's shoulder, but fortunately with its flat surface, doing no hurt.
Mackenzie threw himself down heavily, getting cautiously to his feet again instantly, hoping to draw Carlson over in the belief that he had put him out of the fight. But Carlson was not so rash. He struck a match, holding it up, peering under it, blinking in the sudden light.
Mackenzie was not more than eight feet away. He closed the distance in a bound, swung the heavy oak table leg, and stretched Carlson on the floor. Mrs. Carlson began wailing and moaning, bending over her fallen tyrant, as Mackenzie could gather from her voice.
"You've killed him," she said; "you've killed my man!"
"No, but I will kill him if you don't open the door!"
Mackenzie stood by Carlson as he spoke, feeling his body with his foot. He bent over Carlson, exploring for his heart, fearing that he had killed him, indeed. His first efforts to locate a pulse were not assuring, but a feeble throbbing at last announced that the great ruffian's admirable machinery was stunned, not broken.
"Open the door; he'll be all right in a little while," Mackenzie said.
Mrs. Carlson was moaning in a sorrow as genuine as if the fallen man had been the kindest husband that fate could have sent her, and not the heartless beast that he was. She found the key and threw the door open, letting in a cool, sweet breath of the night. Under it Carlson would soon revive, Mackenzie believed. He had no desire to linger and witness the restoration.
Mackenzie had a bruised and heavy feeling about him as he shouldered his pack and hurried from that inhospitable door. He knew that Swan Carlson was not dead, and would not die from that blow. Why the feeling persisted as he struck off up the creek through the dew-wet grass he could not tell, but it was strong upon him that Swan Carlson would come into his way again, to make trouble for him on a future day.
KEEPER OF THE FLOCK
John Mackenzie, late schoolmaster of Jasper, marched on through the cool of the night, regretting that he had meddled in the domestic arrangements of Swan Carlson, the Swede. The outcome of his attempted kindness to the oppressed woman had not been felicitous. Indeed, he was troubled greatly by the fear that he had killed Swan Carlson, and that grave consequences might rise out of this first adventure that ever fell in his way.
Perhaps adventure was not such a thing to be sought as he had imagined, he reflected; hand to his swollen throat. There was an ache in his crushed windpipe, a dryness in his mouth, a taste of blood on his tongue. That had been a close go for him, there on the floor under Swan Carlson's great knee; a few seconds longer, and his first adventure would have been his last.
Yet there was a vast satisfaction in knowing what was in him. Here he had stood foot to foot with the strong man of the sheeplands, the strangler, the fierce, half-insane terror of peaceful men, and had come off the victor. He had fought this man in his own house, where a man will fight valiantly, even though a coward on the road, and had left him senseless on the floor. It was something for a schoolteacher, counted a mild and childlike man.
It had been many a year since Mackenzie had mixed in a fight, and the best that had gone before was nothing more than a harmless spat compared to this. The marvel of it was how he had developed this quality of defense in inactivity. There must have been some psychological undercurrent carrying strength and skill to him through all the years of his romantic imaginings; the spirits of old heroes of that land must have lent him their counsel and might in that desperate battle with the Norse flockmaster.
Adventure was not dead out of the land, it seemed, although this was a rather sordid and ignoble brand. It had descended to base levels among base men who lived with sheep and thought only of sheep-riches. Violence among such men as Swan Carlson was merely violence, with none of the picturesque embellishments of the olden days when men slung pistols with a challenge and a hail, in those swift battles where skill was all, bestial strength nothing.
Mackenzie hoped to find Tim Sullivan different from the general run of sheep-rich men. There must be some of the spice of romance in a man who had the wide reputation of Tim Sullivan, and who was the hero of so many tales of success.
It was Mackenzie's hope that this encounter with the wild sheepman might turn out to his profit with Tim Sullivan. He always had believed that he should win fortune fighting if it ever fell to his portion at all. This brush with Swan Carlson confirmed his old belief. If there was any good luck for him in the sheep country, it would come to him through a fight,
Mackenzie considered these things as he marched on away from Swan Carlson's homestead, thinking the safe plan would be to put several miles between himself and that place before lying down to rest. At dawn Swan would be out after him with a gun, more than likely. Mackenzie had nothing of the sort in his slender equipment. Imagine a man going into the sheep country carrying a gun! The gun days of the West were done; he had seen only one cowboy wearing one in his four years at Jasper.
Past midnight Mackenzie came to a little valley where somebody had been cutting hay. The late-risen moon discovered the little mounds of hay thick around him, the aroma of the curing herbage was blowing to him an invitation to stop and sleep. Let Swan Carlson come when he might, that was the place prepared for the traveler's repose.
Romance or no romance, riches or poverty, he was through with a woman's work, he told himself. Once there had been ideals ahead of him in educational work, but the contempt of men had dispelled them. If he could not find his beginning in the sheep country, he would turn elsewhere. A man who had it in him to fight giants wasn't cut out for teaching school.
Mackenzie sat with his back to a haycock thinking in this vein. The sound of running water was near; he went to the creek and bathed his throat, easing its burning with a deep swig. Back again to the hay, still building new victories, and nobler ones, on the foundation of this triumph over Swan Carlson, the red giant who choked men to death in the snow.
Morning discovered no habitation in reach of the eye. That little field of mown hay stood alone among the gray hills, unfenced, unfended, secure in its isolation, a little patch of something in the wilderness that looked like home. Mackenzie must have put many miles behind him since leaving Carlson's door. Looking back, he could follow the course of the creek where it snaked through the hills, dark green of willow and cottonwood fresh among the hemming slopes of sage, but no trace of Carlson's trees could he see.
Mackenzie had no flour to mix a wad of dough, and but a heel of a bacon side to furnish a breakfast. It was so unpromising in his present hungry state that he determined to tramp on a few miles in the hope of lifting Tim Sullivan's ranch-house on the prominent hilltop where, he had been told, it stood.
Two or three miles beyond the hay-field Mackenzie came suddenly upon a sheep-camp. The wagon stood on a green hillside, a pleasant valley below it where the grass was abundant and sweet. The camp evidently had been stationed in that place but a little while, for a large band of sheep grazed just below it, no bedding-ground being worn bare in the unusual verdure. Altogether, it was the greenest and most promising place Mackenzie had met in his journey, gladdening at once to the imagination and the eye.
The shepherd sat on the hillside, his dogs beside him, a little smoke ascending straight in the calm, early sunshine from his dying fire. The collies scented the stranger while he stood on the hilltop, several hundred yards above the camp, rising to question his presence bristling backs. The shepherd rose to inquire into the alarm, springing up with amazing agility, such sudden and wild concern in his manner as provoked the traveler's smile.
Mackenzie saw that he was a boy of fifteen or thereabout, dressed in overalls much too large for him, the bottoms turned up almost to his knees. Hot as the morning was beginning, the lad had on a duck coat with sheepskin collar, but in the excitement of beholding a visitor approaching his camp so early in the day, he took off his hat, standing so a moment. Then he cut out a streak for the wagon, a few rods distant, throwing back a half-frightened look as he disappeared around its side.
This was a very commodious wagon, familiar to Mackenzie from having seen many like it drawn up for repairs at the blacksmith shops in Jasper. Its heavy canvas top was stretched tightly over bows, made to withstand wind and rough weather, a stovepipe projecting through it, fended about with a broad tin, and a canvas door, with a little window in it, a commodious step letting down to the ground. Its tongue was cut short, to admit coupling it close behind the camp-mover's wagon, and it was a snug and comfortable home on wheels.
The dogs came slowly to meet Mackenzie as he approached, backs still bristling, countenances unpromising. The boy had disappeared into the wagon; Mackenzie wondered if he had gone to fetch his gun.
But no. Instead of a gun, came a girl, neither timidity nor fear in her bearing, and close behind her came the boy, hat still in his hand, his long, straight hair down about his ears. Mackenzie had stopped a hundred yards or so distant, not confident of a friendly reception from the dogs. The girl waved her hand in invitation for him to come on, and stood waiting at the wagon end.
She was as neatly dressed as the lad beside her was uncouth in his man-size overalls, her short corduroy skirt belted about with a broad leather clasped with a gleaming silver buckle, the tops of her tall laced boots lost beneath its hem. Her gray flannel waist was laced at the bosom like a cowboy's shirt, adorned at the collar with a flaming scarlet necktie done in a bow as broad as a band. Her brown sombrero was tilted, perhaps unintentionally, a little to one side of her rather pert and independently carried head.
At a word from her the dogs left the way unopposed, and as greetings passed between the sheepgirl and the stranger the wise creatures stood beside her, eyeing the visitor over with suspicious mien. Mackenzie told his name and his business, making inquiry in the same breath for Tim Sullivan's ranch.
"Do you know Mr. Sullivan?" she asked. And as she lifted her eyes Mackenzie saw that they were as blue as asters on an October morning, and that her hair was a warm reddish-brown, and that her face was refreshingly pure in its outline, strong and haughty and brown, and subtly sweet as the elusive perfume of a wild rose of the hills.
"No, I don't know Mr. Sullivan; I've never even seen him. I've heard a lot about him down at Jasper—I was the schoolteacher there."
"Oh, you're up here on your vacation?" said she, a light of quick interest in her eyes, an unmistakable friendliness in her voice. It was as if he had presented a letter from somebody well and favorably known.
"No, I've come up here to see about learning the sheep business."
"Sheep business?" said she, looking at him with surprised eyes. "Sheep business?" this time with a shading of disgust. "Well, if I had sense enough to teach school I'd never want to see another sheep!"
Mackenzie smiled at her impetuous outburst in which she revealed in a word the discontent of her heart.
"Of course you know Mr. Sullivan?"
"He's my father," she returned. "This is my brother Charley; there are eight more of us at home."
Charley grinned, his shyness still over him, but his alarm quieted, and gave Mackenzie his hand.
"The ranch is about thirteen or fifteen miles on up the creek from here," she said, "You haven't had your breakfast, have you?"
"No; I just about finished my grub yesterday."
"I didn't see any grease around your gills," said the girl, in quite a matter-of-fact way, no flippancy in her manner. "Charley, stir up the fire, will you? I can't offer you much, Mr. Mackenzie, but you're welcome to what there is. How about a can of beans?"
"You've hit me right where I live, Miss Sullivan."
The collies came warily up, stiff-legged, with backs still ruffled, and sniffed Mackenzie over. They seemed to find him harmless, turning from him presently to go and lie beside Charley, their faces toward the flock, alert ears lifted, white breasts gleaming in the sun like the linen of fastidious gentlemen.
"Do you want me to get any water, Joan?" Charley inquired.
Joan answered from inside the wagon that no water was needed, there was coffee enough in the pot. She handed the smoke-blackened vessel out to Mackenzie as she spoke, telling him to go and put it on the fire.
Joan turned the beans into the pan after cooking the bacon, and sent Charley to the wagon for a loaf of bread.
"We don't have to bake bread in this camp, that's one blessing," she said. "Mother keeps us supplied. Some of these sheepherders never taste anything but their cold-water biscuits for years at a time."
"It must get kind of tiresome," Mackenzie reflected, thinking of his own efforts at bread-making on the road.
"It's too heavy to carry around in the craw," said Joan.
Charley watched Mackenzie curiously as he ate, whispering once to his sister, who flushed, turned her eyes a moment on her visitor, and then seemed to rebuke the lad for passing confidences in such impolite way. Mackenzie guessed that his discolored neck and bruised face had been the subject of the boy's conjectures, but he did not feel pride enough in his late encounter to speak of it even in explanation. Charley opened the way to it at last when Joan took the breakfast things back to the wagon.
"Have you been in a fight?" the boy inquired.
"Not much of a one," Mackenzie told him, rather wishing that the particulars might be reserved.
"Your neck's black like somebody'd been chokin' you, and your face is bunged up some, too. Who done it?"
"Do you know Swan Carlson?" Mackenzie inquired, turning slowly to the boy.
"Swan Carlson?" Charley's face grew pale at the name; his eyes started in round amazement. "You couldn't never 'a' got away from Swan; he choked two fellers to death, one in each hand. No man in this country could whip one side of Swan."
"Well, I got away from him, anyhow," said Mackenzie, in a manner that even the boy understood to be the end of the discussion.
But Charley was not going to have it so. He jumped up and ran to meet Joan as she came from the wagon.
"Mr. Mackenzie had a fight with Swan Carlson—that's what's the matter with his neck!" he said. There was unbounded admiration in the boy's voice, and exultation as if the distinction were his own. Here before his eyes was a man who had come to grips with Swan Carlson, and had escaped from his strangling hands to eat his breakfast with as much unconcern as if he had no more than been kicked by a mule.
Joan came on a little quicker, excitement reflected in her lively eyes. Mackenzie was filling his pipe, which had gone through the fight in his pocket in miraculous safety—for which he was duly grateful—ashamed of his bruises, now that the talk of them had brought them to Joan's notice again.
"I hope you killed him," she said, coming near, looking down on Mackenzie with full commendation; "he keeps his crazy wife chained up like a dog!"
"I don't think he's dead, but I'd like to know for sure," Mackenzie returned, his eyes bent thoughtfully on the ground.
"Nobody will ever say a word to you if you did kill him," Joan assured. "They'd all know he started it—he fusses with everybody."
She sat on the ground near him, Charley posting himself a little in front, where he could admire and wonder over the might of a man who could break Swan Carlson's hold upon his throat and leave his house alive. Before them the long valley widened as it reached away, the sheep a dusty brown splotch in it, spread at their grazing, the sound of the lambs' wailing rising clear in the pastoral silence.
"I stopped at Carlson's house after dark last night," Mackenzie explained, seeing that such explanation must be made, "and turned his wife loose. Carlson resented it when he came home. He said I'd have to fight him. But you're wrong when you believe what Carlson says about that woman; she isn't crazy, and never was."
That seemed to be all the story, from the way he hastened it, and turned away from the vital point of interest. Joan touched his arm as he sat smoking, his speculative gaze on the sheep, his brows drawn as if in troubled thought.
"What did you do when he said you had to fight him?" she inquired, her breath coming fast, her cheeks glowing.
Mackenzie laughed shortly. "Why, I tried to get away," he said.
"Why didn't you, before he got his hands on you?" Charley wanted to know.
"Charley!" said Joan.
"Carlson locked the door before I could get out." Mackenzie nodded to the boy, very gravely, as one man to another. Charley laughed.
"You didn't tear up no boards off the floor tryin' to git away!" said he.
Joan smiled; that seemed to express her opinion of it, also. She admired the schoolmaster's modest reluctance when he gave them a bare outline of what followed, shuddering when he laughed over Mrs. Carlson's defense of her husband with the ax.
"Gee!" said Charley, "I hope dad'll give you a job."
"But how did you get out of there?" Joan asked.
"I took an unfair advantage of Swan and hit him with a table leg."
"Gee! dad's got to give you a job," said Charley; "I'll make him."
"I'll hold you to that, Charley," Mackenzie laughed.
In the boy's eyes Mackenzie was already a hero, greater than any man that had come into the sheeplands in his day. Sheep people are not fighting folks. They never have been since the world's beginning; they never will be to the world's end. There is something in the peaceful business of attending sheep, some appeal in their meekness and passivity, that seems to tincture and curb the savage spirit that dwells in the breast of man. Swan Carlson was one of the notorious exceptions in that country. Even the cattlemen were afraid of him.
Joan advised against Mackenzie's expressed intention of returning to Carlson's house to find out how badly he was hurt. It would be a blessing to the country, she said, if it should turn out that Carlson was killed. But Mackenzie had an uneasy feeling that it would be a blessing he could not share. He was troubled over the thing, now that the excitement of the fight had cooled out of him, thinking of the blow he had given Carlson with that heavy piece of oak.
Perhaps the fellow was not dead, but hurt so badly that he would die without surgical aid. It was the part of duty and humanity to go back and see. He resolved to do this, keeping the resolution to himself.
Joan told him much of the sheep business, and much about the art of running a big band over that sparse range, in which this green valley lay like an oasis, a gladdening sight seldom to be met with among those sulky hills. She said she hoped her father would find a place for him, for the summer, at least.
"But I wouldn't like to see you shut yourself up in this country like the rest of us are," she said, gazing off over the hills with wistful eyes. "A man that knows enough to teach school oughtn't fool away his time on sheep."
She was working toward her own emancipation, she told him, running that band of two thousand sheep on shares for her father, just the same as an ordinary herdsman. In three years she hoped her increase, and share of the clip, would be worth ten thousand dollars, and then she would sell out and go away.
"What would you want to leave a good business like this for?" he asked, rather astonished at her cool calculation upon what she believed to be freedom. "There's nothing out in what people call the world that you could turn your hand to that would make you a third of the money."
"I want to go away and get some education," she said.
"But you are educated, Miss Sullivan."
She turned a slow, reproachful look upon him, a shadow of sadness over her wholesome young face.
"I'm nearly nineteen; I don't know as much as a girl of twelve," she said.
"I've never met any of those precocious twelve-year-olds," he told her, shaking his head gravely. "You know a great deal more than you're conscious of, I think, Miss Sullivan. We don't get the best of it out of books."
"I'm a prisoner here," she said, stretching her arms as if she displayed her bonds, "as much of a prisoner in my way as Swan Carlson's wife was in hers. You cut her chain; nobody ever has come to cut mine."
"Your knight will come riding over the hill some evening. One comes into every woman's life, sooner or later, I think."
"Mostly in imagination," said Joan. And her way of saying it, so wise and superior, as if she spoke of some toy which she had outgrown, brought a smile again to her visitor's grave face.
Charley was not interested in his sister's bondage, or in the coming of a champion to set her free. He went off to send the dogs after an adventurous bunch of sheep that was straying from the main flock. Joan sighed as she looked after him, putting a strand of hair away behind her ear. Presently she brightened, turning to Mackenzie with quickening eyes.
"I'll make a bargain with you, Mr. Mackenzie, if you're in earnest about learning the sheep business," she said.
"All right; let's hear it."
"Dad's coming over here today to finish cutting hay. I'll make a deal with him for you to get a band of sheep to run on shares if you'll agree to teach me enough to get into college—if I've got brains enough to learn."
"The doubt would be on the side of the teacher, not the pupil, Miss Sullivan. Maybe your father wouldn't like the arrangement, anyway."
"He'll like it, all right. What do you say?"
"I don't think it would be very much to my advantage to take charge of a band of sheep under conditions that might look as if I needed somebody to plug for me. Your father might think of me as an incompetent and good-for-nothing person."
"You're afraid I haven't got it in me to learn—you don't want to waste time on me!" Joan spoke with a sad bitterness, as one who saw another illusion fading before her eyes.
"Not that," he hastened to assure her, putting out his hand as if to add the comfort of his touch to the salve of his words. "I'm only afraid your father wouldn't have anything to do with me if you were to approach him with any such proposal. From what I've heard of him he's a man who likes a fellow to do his own talking."
"I don't think he'd refuse me."
"It's hard for a stranger to do that. Your father——"
* * * * *
"You'll not do it, you mean?"
"I think I'd rather get a job from your father on my own face than on any kind of an arrangement or condition, Miss Sullivan. But I pass you my word that you'll be welcome to anything and all I'm able to teach you if I become a pupil in the sheep business on this range. Provided, of course, that I'm in reaching distance."
"Will you?" Joan asked, hope clearing the shadows from her face again.
"But we might be too far apart for lessons very often," he suggested.
"Not more than ten or twelve miles. I could ride that every day."
"It's a bargain then, if I get on," said he.
"It's a bargain," nodded Joan, giving him her hand to bind it, with great earnestness in her eyes.
"Yes, they call us flockmasters in the reports of the Wool Growers' Association, and in the papers and magazines, but we're nothing but sheepmen, and that's all you can make out of us."
Tim Sullivan spoke without humor when he made this correction in the name of his calling, sitting with his back to a haycock, eating his dinner in the sun. Mackenzie accepted the correction with a nod of understanding, sparing his words.
"So you want to be a flockmaster?" said Tim. "Well, there's worse callin's a man, especially a young man, could take up. What put it in your head to tramp off up here to see me? Couldn't some of them sheepmen down at Jasper use you?"
"I wanted to get into the heart of the sheep country for one thing, and several of my friends recommended you as the best sheepman on the range, for another. I want to learn under a master, if I learn at all."
"Right," Tim nodded, "right and sound. Do you think you've got the stuff in you to make a sheepman out of?"
"It will have to be a pretty hard school if I can't stick it through."
"Summers are all right," said Tim, reflectively, nodding away at the distant hills, "and falls are all right, but you take it winter and early spring, and it tries the mettle in a man. Blizzards and starvation, and losses through pile-ups and stampedes, wolves and what not, make a man think sometimes he'll never go through it any more. Then spring comes, with the cold wind, and slush up to your ankles, and you out day and night lookin' after the ewes and lambs. Lambin' time is the hard time, and it's the time when a man makes it or loses, accordin' to what's in him to face hardship and work."
"I've heard about it; I know what I'm asking to go up against, Mr. Sullivan."
"You want to buy in, or take a band on shares?"
"I'd rather take a band on shares. If I put what little money I've got into it I'll go it alone."
"That's right; it's safer to let the other man take the risk. It ain't fair to us sheepmen, but we have to do it to get men. Well, when we hit on a good man, it pays better than hirin' poor ones at fifty dollars a month and found. I've had old snoozers workin' for me that the coyotes eat the boots off of while they was asleep. You look kind of slim and light to tackle a job on the range."
Mackenzie made no defense of his weight, advancing no further argument in behalf of his petition for a job. Sullivan measured him over with his appraising eyes, saying nothing about the bruises he bore, although Mackenzie knew he was burning with curiosity to go into the matter of how and when he received them.
Sullivan was a man of calm benignity of face, a placid certainty of his power and place in the world; a rugged man, broad-handed, slow. His pleasure was in the distinction of his wealth, and not in any use that he made of it for his own comfort or the advancement of those under his hand. Even so, he was of a type superior to the general run of flockmasters such as Mackenzie had met.
"I'll give you a job helpin' me on this hay for a few days, and kind of try you out," Tim agreed at last. "I don't want to discourage you at the start, but I don't believe you got the mettle in you to make a flockmaster, if you want to call it that, out of."
"All right; I'll help you on the hay. Before I start in though, I'd like to borrow a saddle-horse from you to take a ride down the creek to Swan Carlson's place. I wouldn't be long."
"Carlson's place? Do you know Swan Carlson?"
Mackenzie told in few words how much he knew of Carlson, and his reason for desiring to visit him. Tim's wonder was too large to contain at hearing this news. He got up, his eyes staring in plain incredulity, his mouth open a bit between surprise and censure, it seemed. But he said nothing for a little while; only stood and looked Mackenzie over again, with more careful scrutiny than before.
"I'll go down with you," he announced, turning abruptly away to get the horses.
It was evident to Mackenzie that Sullivan was bewildered between doubt and suspicion as they rode toward Carlson's ranch, which the sheepman said was about seven miles away. But he betrayed nothing of his thoughts in words, riding in silence mainly, looking at the ground like a man who had troubles on his mind.
The silence of abandonment was over Carlson's house as they rode up. A few chickens retreated from the yard to the cover of the barn in the haste of panic, their going being the only sound of life about the place. The door through which Mackenzie had left was shut; he approached it without hesitation—Tim Sullivan lingering back as if in doubt of their reception—and knocked. No answer. Mackenzie tried the door, finding it unlocked; pushed it open, entered.
Sullivan stood outside, one mighty hand on the jamb, his body to one side under protection of the house, his head put cautiously and curiously round to see, leaving a fairway for Swan Carlson should he rise from a dark corner, shake himself like an old grizzly, and charge.
"Is he there?" Tim asked, his voice a strained whisper.
Mackenzie did not reply. He stood in the middle of the room where his combat with Swan had taken place, among the debris of broken dishes, wrecked table, fallen stovepipe and tinware, looking about him with grim interest. There was nobody in the other room, but the blood from Swan's hurt trailed across the floor as if he had been helped to the bed. Tim took his courage in both hands and came just inside the door.
"Man! Look at the blood!" he said.
"There's nobody here," Mackenzie told him, turning to go.
"She's took him to the doctor," said Tim.
"Where is that?"
"There's a kind of a one over on the Sweetwater, sixty miles from here, but there's no good one this side of Jasper."
"He'll die on the way," Mackenzie said conclusively.
"No such luck," said Tim. "Look! There's the chain he tied that woman of his up with."
"We'd better go back and get at that hay," Mackenzie said. "There's nothing I can do for Carlson."
"There's the table leg you hit him with!" Tim picked it up, plucking off the red hairs which clung to it, looking at Mackenzie with startled eyes. Mackenzie mounted his horse.
"You'd better shut the door," he called back as he rode away.
Tim caught up with him half a mile on the way back to the hay-field. The sheepman seemed to have outrun his words. A long time he rode beside Mackenzie in silence, turning a furtive eye upon him across his long nose now and then. At last it burst from him:
"You done it!" he said, with the astonished pleasure of a man assured against his doubts.
Mackenzie checked his horse, looking at Tim in perplexed inquiry.
"What are you talking about?" he asked.
"You laid him out—Swan Carlson—you done it! Man!"
"Oh, you're still talking about that," Mackenzie said, a bit vexed.
"It would be worth thousands to the rest of us sheepmen on this range if he never comes back."
"Why didn't some of you handle him long ago? A man of your build ought to be able to put a dent in Carlson."
"I'll fight any man that stands on two feet," said Tim, with such sincerity that it could not have been taken for a boast, "you can ask about me far and near, but I draw the line at the devil. I've stood up with four men against me, with meat cleavers and butcher knives in their hands, when I used to work as a sheep butcher back in the packin' house in Chicago, and I've come through with my life. But them was friends of mine," he sighed; "a man knew how they lived. Swan Carlson's got a wolf's blood in his veins. He ain't a human man."
"And this man is worth three hundred thousand dollars!" thought Mackenzie. And he knew, also, that the greatest treasure that the flockmaster could count was one not so greatly appreciated as a thousand sheep—that brave, ambitious little rebel, Joan.
"Maybe you've got the makin' of a sheepman in you," Tim said, thoughtfully, as they came in sight of the hay. "I've got an old man I could put you under till the dogs got used to you and you learnt their ways and found out something among the thousand things a man's got to know if he intends to make a success of runnin' sheep. Old Dad Frazer could put you onto the tricks of the trade quicker than any man I know. Maybe you have got the makin' of a sheepman in you. I'll have to think it over."
Tim took the four days they were at the hay to think about it. At the end of that time, with the hay in stack and the mowing-machine loaded into the wagon for the rough journey to the ranch, Tim unburdened his mind.
"I've decided to try you out, John," he announced, but shaking his head as he spoke, as if he doubted the wisdom of the venture. "I'll leave you here with Dad Frazer—he's over on Horsethief, about six miles across from Joan's range—and let him break you in. You understand, you don't go in on shares till you're able to handle at least two thousand head."
"I agree on that."
"And then there's another little point." Tim shifted his feet, jerked up his trousers, rubbed his chin in a truly Irish way. "That girl of mine, Joan, she's got it in her head she wants to be a lady, and go to college and put on agonies. No use in it, as I tell her. No girl that's got money needs any of the education stuff. I got on without it, and I made my money without it. Joan she wants you to give her some lessons. She made me promise I wouldn't take you on unless you'd agree to that as part of our conditions and contract."
Mackenzie had no need to put on a face of thinking it over seriously; he was entirely sincere in the silence he held while he revolved it in his mind. He doubted whether more learning would bring to Joan the contentment which she lacked in her present state. It might only open the door to a greater longing, or it might disillusion her when her feet had left these wild, free hills, and set a pang in her heart like a flame for the things which knowledge closes the door against the return for evermore.
"I'll tell you how to handle her to be rid of her soon," said Tim, winking craftily, seeing how the wind stood. "Discourage her, tell her she ain't got the mind for books and Latin and mathematics. All the mathematics she needs is enough to count her sheep and figure her clip. Tell her to put books out of her head and stick to the range, marry some good sheepman if one turns up to her taste, or pass them all up if she likes. But tell her to stick to sheep, whatever she does. She can be the sheep queen of this country in fifteen years; she's as handy with 'em now as I am, and I tell you, John, that's something that's hard for me to say, even of my own girl. But she is; she's as good a sheepman right now as I am or ever will be. But you don't need to tell her that."
"I don't believe she'll take it, but it's the soundest advice I could give her," Mackenzie said.
"Work up to it gradual, lad; it can't be done in a day. Make the lessons hard, pile the Latin on heavy. Lord, I remember it, back in the old country, old Father MacGuire layin' it on the lads under his thumb. Devil a word of it sticks to me now, not even the word for sheep. I tried to remember some of it when they sent me up to the legislature in Cheyenne; I wanted to knock 'em over. But it had all leaked out. Discourage her, man; discourage her."
"Yes, that might be the greatest kindness I could do her in the end," Mackenzie said.
"I'll drop you off over there; you can stay in camp tonight with Charley and Joan. Tomorrow I'll come back and take you out to Dad Frazer's camp, and you can begin your schoolin' for the makin' of a master. But begin early to discourage her, John; begin at her early, lad."
EYES IN THE FIRELIGHT
"They call it the lonesomeness here," said Joan, her voice weary as with the weight of the day. "People shoot themselves when they get it bad—green sheepherders and farmers that come in here to try to plow up the range."
"Crazy guys," said Charley, contemptuously, chin in his hands where he stretched full length on his belly beside the embers of the supper fire.
"Homesick," said Mackenzie, understandingly. "I've heard it's one of the worst of all diseases. It defeats armies sometimes, so you can't blame a lone sheepherder if he loses his mind on account of it."
"Huh!" said Charley, no sympathy in him for such weakness at all.
"I guess not," Joan admitted, thoughtfully. "I was brought up here, it's home to me. Maybe I'd get the lonesomeness if I was to go away."
"You sure would, kid," said Charley, with comfortable finality.
"But I want to go, just the same," Joan declared, a certain defiance in her tone, as if in defense of a question often disputed between herself and Charley.
"You think you do," said Charley, "but you'd hit the high places comin' back home. Ain't that right, Mr. Mackenzie?"
"I think there's something to it," Mackenzie allowed.
"Maybe I would," Joan yielded, "but as soon as my share in the sheep figures up enough you'll see me hittin' the breeze for Chicago. I want to see the picture galleries and libraries."
"I'd like to go through the mail-order house we get our things from up there," Charley said. "The catalogue says it covers seventeen acres!"
Mackenzie was camping with them for the night on his way to Dad Frazer's range, according to Tim Sullivan's plan. Long since they had finished supper; the sheep were quiet below them on the hillside. The silence of the sheeplands, almost oppressive in its weight, lay around them so complete and unbroken that Mackenzie fancied he could hear the stars snap as they sparkled. He smiled to himself at the fancy, face turned up to the deep serenity of the heavens. Charley blew the embers, stirring them with a brush of sage.
"The lonesomeness," said Mackenzie, with a curious dwelling on the word; "I never heard it used in that specific sense before."
"Well, it sure gets a greenhorn," said Joan.
Charley held the sage-branch to the embers, blowing them until a little blaze jumped up into the startled dark. The sudden light revealed Joan's face where she sat across from Mackenzie, and it was so pensively sad that it smote his heart like a pain to see.
Her eyes stood wide open as she had stretched them to roam into the night after her dreams of freedom beyond the land she knew, and so she held them a moment, undazzled by the light of the leaping blaze. They gleamed like glad waters in a morning sun, and the schoolmaster's heart was quickened by them, and the pain for her longing soothed out of it. The well of her youth was revealed before him, the fountain of her soul.
"I'm goin' to roll in," Charley announced, his branch consumed in the eager breath of the little blaze. "Don't slam your shoes down like you was drivin' nails when you come in, Joan."
"It wouldn't bother you much," Joan told him, calmly indifferent to his great desire for unbroken repose.
Charley rolled on his back, where he lay a little while in luxurious inaction, sleep coming over him heavily. Joan shook him, sending him stumbling off to the wagon and his bunk.
"You could drive a wagon over him and never wake him once he hits the hay," she said.
"What kind of a man is Dad Frazer?" Mackenzie asked, his mind running on his business adventure that was to begin on the morrow.
"Oh, he's a regular old flat-foot," said Joan. "He'll talk your leg off before you've been around him a week, blowin' about what he used to do down in Oklahoma."
"Well, a man couldn't get the lonesomeness around him, anyhow."
"You'll get it, all right, just like I told you; no green hand with all his senses ever escaped it. Maybe you'll have it light, though," she added, hopefully, as if to hold him up for the ordeal.
"I hope so. But with you coming over to take lessons, and Dad Frazer talking morning, noon, and night, I'll forget Egypt and its fleshpots, maybe."
"Egypt? I thought you came from Jasper?"
"It's only a saying, used in relation to the place you look back to with regret when you're hungry."
"I'm so ignorant I ought to be shot!" said Joan.
And Mackenzie sat silently fronting her, the dead fire between, a long time, thinking of the sparkle of her yearning eyes, smiling in his grim way to himself when there was no chance of being seen as he felt again the flash of them strike deep into his heart. Wise eyes, eyes which held a store of wholesome knowledge gleaned from the years in those silent places where her soul had grown without a shadow to smirch its purity.
"There's a difference between wisdom and learning," he said at last, in low and thoughtful voice. "What's it like over where Dad Frazer grazes his sheep?"
"Close to the range Swan Carlson and the Hall boys use, and you want to keep away from there."
"Of course; I wouldn't want to trespass on anybody's territory. Are they all disagreeable people over that way?"
"There's nobody there but the Halls and Carlson. You know Swan."
"He might improve on close acquaintance," Mackenzie speculated.
"I don't think he's as bad as the Halls, wild and crazy as he is. Hector Hall, especially. But you may get on with them, all right—I don't want to throw any scare into you before you meet them."
"Are they out looking for trouble?"
"I don't know as they are, but they're there to make it if anybody lets a sheep get an inch over the line they claim as theirs. Oh, well, pass 'em up till you have to meet them—maybe they'll treat you white, anyway."
Again a silence stood between them, Mackenzie considering many things, not the least of them being this remarkable girl's life among the sheep and the rough characters of the range, no wonder in him over her impatience to be away from it. It seemed to him that Tim Sullivan might well spare her the money for schooling, as well as fend her against the dangers and hardships of the range by keeping her at home these summer days.
"It looks to me like a hard life for a girl," he said; "no diversions, none of the things that youth generally values and craves. Don't you ever have any dances or anything—camp meetings or picnics?"
"They have dances over at Four Corners sometimes—Hector Hall wanted me to go to one with him about a year ago. He had his nerve to ask me, the little old sheep-thief!"
"Well, I should think so."
"He's been doubly sore at us ever since I turned him down. I looked for him to come over and shoot up my camp some night for a long time, but I guess he isn't that bad."
"So much to his credit."
"But I wish sometimes I'd gone with him. Maybe it would have straightened things out. You know, when you stay here on the range, Mr. Mackenzie, you're on a level with everybody else, no matter what you think of yourself. You can't get out of the place they make for you in their estimation of you. Hector Hall never will believe I'm too good to go to a dance with him. He'll be sore about it all his life."
"A man naturally would have regrets, Miss Sullivan. Maybe that's as far as it goes with Hector Hall, maybe he's only sore at heart for the honor denied."
"That don't sound like real talk," said Joan.
Mackenzie grinned at the rebuke, and the candor and frankness in which it was administered, thinking that Joan would have a frigid time of it out in the world if she applied such outspoken rules to its flatteries and mild humbugs.
"Let's be natural then," he suggested, considering as he spoke that candor was Joan's best defense in her position on the range. Here she sat out under the stars with him, miles from the nearest habitation, miles from her father's house, her small protector asleep in the wagon, and thought no more of it than a chaperoned daughter of the city in an illuminated drawing-room. A girl had to put men in their places and keep them there under such circumstances, and nobody knew better how to do it than Joan.
"I'll try your patience and good humor when you start out to teach me," she told him, "for I'll want to run before I learn to walk."
"We'll see how it goes in a few days; I've sent for the books."
"I'll make a good many wild breaks," she said, "and tumble around a lot, I know, but there won't be anybody to laugh at me—but you." She paused as if considering the figure she would make at the tasks she awaited with such impatience, then added under her breath, almost in a whisper, as if it was not meant for him to hear: "But you'll never laugh at me for being hungry to learn."
Mackenzie attempted neither comment nor reply to this, feeling that it was Joan's heart speaking to herself alone. He looked away over the sleeping sheeplands, vast as the sea, and as mysterious under the starlight, thinking that it would require more than hard lessons and unusual tasks to discourage this girl. She stood at the fountain-edge, leaning with dry lips to drink, her wistful eyes strong to probe the mysteries which lay locked in books yet strange to her, but wiser in her years than many a man who had skimmed a college course. There was a vast difference between knowledge and learning, indeed; it never had been so apparent to him as in the presence of that outspoken girl of the sheep range that summer night.
What would the world do with Joan Sullivan if she ever broke her fetters and went to it? How would it accept her faith and frankness, her high scorn for the deceits upon which it fed? Not kindly, he knew. There would be disillusionment ahead for her, and bitter awakening from long-wrapping dreams. If he could teach her to be content in the wide freedom of that place he would accomplish the greatest service that he could bring her in the days of her untroubled youth. Discourage her, said Tim Sullivan. Mackenzie felt that this was not his job.
"Maybe Charley's right about it," she said, her voice low, and soft with that inherited gentleness which must have come from Tim Sullivan's mother, Mackenzie thought. "He's a wise kid, maybe I would want to come back faster than I went away. But I get so tired of it sometimes I walk up and down out here by the wagon half the night, and wear myself out making plans that I may never be able to put through."