The dramatic story of a man who look time out from a battle with nature to put to rights the differences between two friends.
FOR seven days the wind came out of the northeast over the Powder Mountains and blew the skirts of a dust storm between Digger Hill and Bender Hill into the hollow where Lindsay was living in his shack. During that week Lindsay waked and slept with a piece of black coat-lining worn across his mouth and nostrils, but the dust penetrated like cosmic rays through the chinks in the walls of the cabin, through the mask and to the bottom of his lungs, so that every night he roused from sleep gasping for breath with a nightmare of being buried alive. Even lamplight could not drive that bad dream farther away than the misty corners of the room.
The blow began on a Tuesday morning and by twilight of that day he knew what he was in for, so he went out through the whistling murk and led Jenny and Lind, his two mules, and Mustard, his old cream-colored mustang, from the pasture into the barn. There he had in the mow a good heap of the volunteer hay which he had cut last May on the southeast forty, but the thin silt of the storm soon whitened the hay to such a degree that he had to shake it thoroughly before he fed the stock. Every two hours during that week he roused himself by an alarm-clock instinct and went out to wash the nostrils and mouths of the stock, prying their teeth open and reaching right in to swab the black off their tongues. On Wednesday, Jenny, like the fool and villain that she was, closed on his right forearm and raked off eight inches of skin.
Monotony of diet was more terrible to Lindsay than the storm. He had been on the point of riding to town and borrowing money from the bank on his growing crop so as to lay in a stock of provisions, but now he was confined with a bushel of potatoes and the heel of a side of bacon.
ONLY labor like that of the harvest field could make such food palatable and, in confinement as he was, never thoroughly stretching his muscles once a day, Lindsay began to revolt in belly and then in spirit. He even lacked coffee to give savor to the menu; he could not force himself to eat more than once a day potatoes boiled, or fried in bacon fat with the dust gritting continually between his teeth. He had no comfort whatever except Caesar, his mongrel dog, and half a bottle of whisky, from which he gave himself a nip once a day. Then in the night of the seventh day there came to Lindsay a dream of a country where rolling waves of grass washed from horizon to horizon and all the winds of the earth could not blow a single breath of dust into the blue of the sky. He wakened with the dawn visible through the cracks in the shanty walls and a strange expectancy in his mind.
That singular expectation remained in him when he threw the door open and looked across the black of the hills toward the green light that was opening like a fan in the east; then he realized that it was the silence after the storm that seemed more enormous than all the stretch of landscape between him and the Powder Mountains. Caesar ran out past his legs to leap and bark and sneeze until something overawed him, in turn, and sent him skulking here and there with his nose to the ground as though he were following invisible bird trails. It was true that the face of the land was changed.
As the light grew, Lindsay saw that the water hole in the hollow was a black wallow of mud and against the woodshed leaned a sloping mass of dust like a drift of snow. The sight of this started him on the run for his eighty acres of winter-sown summer fallow. From a distance he saw the disaster but could not believe it until his feet were wading deep in the dust. Except for a few marginal strips, the whole swale of the plowed land was covered with wind-filtered soil, a yard thick in the deepest places.
Two thirds of his farm was wiped out; two thirds of it was erased like a mysterious formula for life; and the work of nearly ten years was entombed. He glanced down at the palms of his hands, for he was thinking of the burning, pulpy blisters that had covered them day after day when he was digging holes with the blunt post auger.
He looked up, then, at the distant ridges of the Powder Mountains. Ten years before in the morning light he had been able almost to count the great pines which walked up the slopes and stood on the mountains' crests, but the whole range had been cut over in the interim and the thick coat of forest which bound with its roots the accumulated soil of a million years had been mowed down. That was why the teeth of the wind had found substance they could eat into. The entire burden of precious loam that dressed the mountains had been blown adrift in recent years and now the worthless underclay, made friable by a dry season, was laid in a stifling coat of silt across the farmlands of the lower valleys and the upper pastures of the range.
Lindsay did not think any more for a time. His feet and an automatic impulse that made him turn always to the stock first took him to the barn, where he turned loose the confined animals. Even the mules were glad enough to kick up their heels a few times, and fifteen years of hard living could not keep Mustard from exploding like a bomb all over the pasture, bucking as though a ghost were on his back and knocking up a puff of dust every time he hit the ground. Lindsay, standing with feet spread and folded arms, a huge figure in the door of the barn, watched the antics of his old horse with a vacant smile, for he was trying to rouse himself and failing wretchedly. Instead, he could see himself standing in line with signed application slips in his hand, and then in front of a desk where some hired clerk with an insolent face put sharp questions to him. A month hence, when people asked him how things went, he would have to say: "I'm on relief."
WHEN he had gone that far in his thinking, his soul at last rose in him but to such a cold, swift altitude that he was filled with fear, and he found his lips repeating words, stiffly, whispering them aloud: "I'll be damned and dead, first!" The fear of what he would do with his own hands grew stronger and stronger, for he felt that he had made a promise which would be heard and recorded by that living, inmost God of all honest men, his higher self.
Once more, automatically, his feet took him on to the next step in the day: breakfast. Back in the shanty, his lips twitched with disgust as he started frying potatoes; the rank smell of the bacon grease mounted to his brain and gathered in clouds there, but his unthinking hands finished the cookery and dumped the fried potatoes into a tin plate. A faint chorus came down to him then out of the windless sky. He snatched the loaded pistol from the holster that hung against the wall and ran outside, for sometimes the wild geese, flying north, came very low over the hill as they rose from the marsh south of it, but now he found himself agape like a schoolboy, staring up. He should have known by the dimness of the honking and by the melancholy harmony which distance added to it that the geese were half a mile up in the sky. Thousands of them were streaming north in a great wedge that kept shuffling and reshuffling at the open ends; ten tons of meat on the wing.
A tin pan crashed inside the shack and Caesar came out on wings with his tail between his legs; Lindsay went inside and found the plate of potatoes overturned on the floor. He called: "Come in here, Caesar, you damned old thief. Come in here and get it, if you want the stuff. I'm better without."
The dog came back, skulking. From the doorway, he prospected the face of his master for a moment, slavering with greed, then he sneaked to the food on the floor and began to eat, guiltily, but Lindsay already had forgotten him. All through the hollow which a week before had been a shining tremor of yellow-green wheat stalks the rising wind of the morning was now stirring little airy whirlpools and walking ghosts of dust that made a step or two and vanished. It seemed to Lindsay that he had endured long enough. He was thirty-five. He had twenty years of hard work behind him. And he would not, by God he would not be a government pensioner. The wild geese had called the gun into his hand; he felt, suddenly, that it must be used for one last shot anyway; as for life, there was a stinking savor of bacon that clung inevitably to it. He looked with fearless eyes into the big muzzle of the gun.
Then Mustard whinnied not far from the house and Lindsay lifted his head with a faint smile, for there was a stallion's trumpet sound in the neigh of the old gelding, always, just as there was always an active devil in his heels and his teeth. He combined the savage instincts of a wildcat with the intellectual, patient malevolence of a mule, but Lindsay loved the brute because no winter cold was sharp enough to freeze the big heart in him and no dry summer march was long enough to wither it. At fifteen, the old fellow still could put fifty miles of hard country behind him between dawn and dark. For years Lindsay had felt that those long, mulish ears must eventually point the way to some great destiny. He stepped into the doorway now and saw that Mustard was whinnying a challenge to a horseman who jogged up the Gavvigan Trail with a telltale dust cloud boiling up behind. Mechanical instinct, again, made Lindsay drop the gun into the old leather holster that hung on the wall.
Half a mile off, the approaching rider put his horse into a lope and Lindsay recognized, by his slant in the saddle, that inveterate range tramp and worthless roustabout, Gypsy Renner. He reined in at the door of the shack, lifted his bandanna from nose and mouth, and spat black.
"Got a drink, Bob?" he asked without other greeting.
"I've got a drink for you," said Lindsay.
"I'll get off a minute, then," replied Renner, and swung out of the saddle.
Lindsay poured some whisky into a tin cup and Renner received it without thanks. Dust was still rising like thick smoke from his shoulders.
"You been far?" asked Lindsay.
"From Boulder," said Renner.
"Much of the range like out yonder?"
"Mostly," said Renner.
HE FINISHED the whisky and held out the cup. Lindsay poured the rest of the bottle.
"If much of the range is like this," said Lindsay, "it's gunna be hell."
"It's gunna be and it is," said Renner. "It's hell already over on the Oliver Range."
"Wait a minute. That's where Andy Barnes and John Street run their cows. What you mean it's hell up there?"
"That's where I'm bound," said Renner. "They're hiring men and guns on both sides. Most of the water holes and tanks on Andy Barnes' place are filled up with mud, right to the ridge of the Oliver Hills, and his cows are choking. And John Street, his land is clean because the wind kind of funneled the dust up over the hills and it landed beyond him. Andy has to water those cows and Street wants to charge ten cents a head-Andy says he'll be damned if he pays money for the water that God put free on earth. So there's gunna be a fight."
Lindsay looked through the door at that lump-headed mustang of his and saw, between his mind and the world, a moonlight night with five thousand head of cattle, market-fat and full of beans, stampeding into the northeast with a thunder and rattle of split hoofs and a swordlike clashing of horns. He saw riders galloping ahead, vainly shooting into the face of the herd in the vain hope of turning it, until two of those cow-punchers, going it blind, clapped together and went down, head over heels.
"They used to be friends," said Lindsay. "They come so close to dying together, one night, that they been living side by side ever since; and they used to be friends."
"They got too damn' rich," suggested Renner. "A rich man ain't nobody's friend... It was you that saved the two hides of them one night in a stampede, ten, twelve years ago, wasn't it?"
Lindsay pointed to Mustard.
"Now, I'm gunna tell you something about that," he said. "The fact is that those cows would've washed right over the whole three of us, but I was riding that Mustard horse, and when I turned him back and pointed him at the herd, he just went off like a Roman candle and scattered sparks right up to the Milky Way. He pitched so damn' hard that he pretty near snapped my head off and he made himself look so big that those steers doggone near fainted and pushed aside from that spot right now."
Renner looked at the mustang with his natural sneer. Then he said: "Anyway, there's gunna be a fight up there, and it's gunna be paid for."
"There oughtn't be no fight," answered big Bob Lindsay, frowning.
"They're mean enough to fight," said Renner. "Didn't you save their scalps? And ain't they left you to starve here on a hundred and twenty acres of blow-sand that can't raise enough to keep a dog fat?"
"Yeah?" said Lindsay. "Maybe you better be vamoosing along."
Renner looked at him, left the shack, and swung into the saddle. When he was safely there he muttered: "Ah, to hell with you!" and jogged away.
Lindsay, with a troubled mind, watched him out of sight. An hour later he saddled Mustard and took the way toward the Oliver Hills.
THE Oliver Hills lie west of the Powder Mountains, their sides fat with grasslands all the way to the ridge, and right over the crest walked the posts of the fence that separated the holdings of Andy Barnes from those of John Street. Lindsay, as he came up the old Mexican Trail, stopped on a hilltop and took a careful view of the picture. He had to strain his eyes a little because dust was blowing like battle smoke off the whitened acres of Andy Barnes and over the ridge, and that dust was stirred up by thousands of cattle which milled close to the fence line, drawn by the smell of water. Down in the eastern hollows some of the beeves were wallowing in the holes where water once had been and where there was only mud now. But west of the ridge the lands of John Street were clean as green velvet under the noonday sun. Scattered down the Street side of the fence, a score of riders wandered up and down with significant lines of light balancing across the pommels of the saddles. Those were the rifles. As many more cowpunchers headed the milling cattle of Andy Barnes with difficulty, for in clear view of the cows, but on Street's side of the fence, ran a knee-deep stream of silver water that spread out into a quiet blue lake, halfway down the slope.
He found a gate onto the Street land and went through it. Two or three of the line-riders hailed him with waving hats. One of them sang out: "But where's your rifle, brother? Men ain't worth a damn here without they got rifles."
He found John Street sitting a spectacular black horse just west of a hilltop, where the rise of land gave him shelter from ambitious sharpshooters. When he saw Lindsay he grabbed him by the shoulders and bellowed like a bull in spring: "I knew you'd be over and I knew you'd be on the right side. By God, it's been eleven years since I was as glad to see you as I am today,... Boys, I wanta tell you what Bob Lindsay here done for me when—"
"Shut up, will you?" said Lindsay. "Looks like Andy has got some pretty dry cows, over yonder."
"I hope they dry up till there's nothing but wind in their bellies," said John Street.
"I thought you and Andy been pretty good friends," said Lindsay.
"If he was my brother—if he was two brothers—if he was my son and daughter and my pa and ma, he's so damn' mean that I'd see him in hell-fire before I'd give him a cup of water to wash the hell-fire cinders out of his throat," said John Street, in part.
SO LINDSAY rode back to the gate and around to the party of Andy Barnes, passing steers with the caked, dry mud of the choked water holes layered around their muzzles. They were red-eyed with thirst and their bellowing seemed to rise like an unnatural thunder out of the ground instead of booming from the skies. Yearlings, already knock-kneed with weakness, were shouldered to the ground by the heavier stock and lay there, surrendering.
Andy Barnes sat cross-legged on the ground inside the rock circle of an old Indian camp on a hilltop, picking the grass, chewing it, spitting it out. He had grown much fatter and redder of face and the fat had got into his eyes, leaving them a little dull and staring.
Lindsay sat down beside him.
"You know something, Bob?" said Andy.
"Know what?" asked Lindsay.
"My wife's kid sister is over to the house," said Andy. "She's just turned twenty-three and she's got enough sense to cook a man a steak and onions. As tall as your shoulder and the bluest damn' pair of eyes you ever seen outside a blind horse. Never had bridle or saddle on her and I dunno how she'd go in harness but you got a pair of hands. What you say? She's heard about Bob Lindsay for ten years and she don't believe that there's that much man outside of a fairy story."
"Shut up, will you?" said Lindsay. "Seems like ten cents ain't much to pay for the difference between two thousand dead steers and two thousand dogies, all picking grass and fat and happy."
"Look up at that sky," said Andy,
"I'm looking," said Lindsay.
"Yeah. Kind of."
"Who put the blue in it?"
"Anybody ever pay him for it? And who put the water in the ground and made it leak out again? And why should I pay for that?"
"There's a lot of difference," said Lindsay, "between a dead steer on the range and a live steer in Chicago."
"Maybe," dreamed Andy, "but I guess they won't all be dead. You see that yearling over yonder, standing kind of spray-legged, with its nose pretty near on the ground?"
"I see it," said Lindsay.
"When that yearling kneels down," said Andy, "there's gunna be something happen—Ain't that old Mustard?"
"Yeah, that's Mustard," said Lindsay, rising.
"If you ever get through with him," said Andy, "I got a lot of pasture land nothing ain't using where he could just range around and laugh himself to death. I ain't forgot when he was bucking the saddle off his back and knocking splinters out of the stars, that night. He must've looked like a mountain to them steers, eh?"
Lindsay got on Mustard and rode over the hill. He went straight up to the fence which divided the two estates and dismounted before it with a wire pincers in his hand. He felt scorn and uttermost detestation for the thing he was about to do. Men who cut fences are dirty rustlers and horse thieves and every man jack of them ought to be strung up as high as the top of the Powder Mountains; but the thirsty uproar of the cattle drove him on to what he felt was both a crime and a sin. It had been a far easier thing, eleven years ago, to save Barnes and Street from the stampeding herd than it was to save them now from the petty hatred that had grown up between them without cause, without reason. The posts stood at such a distance apart that the wires were strung with an extra heavy tension. When the steel edges cut through the topmost strand it parted with a twang and leaped back to either side, coiling and tangling like thin, bright snakes around the posts.
YELLING voices of protest came shouting through the dusty wind. Lindsay could see men dropping off their horses and lying prone to level their rifles at him; and all at once it seemed to him that the odor of frying bacon grease was thickening in his nostrils again and that this was the true savor of existence. He saw the Powder Mountains lifting their sides from brown to blue in the distant sky with a promise of better lands beyond that horizon, but the promise was a lie, he knew. No matter what he did, he felt assured that ten years hence he would be as now, a poor unrespected squatter on the range, slaving endlessly not even for a monthly pay check but merely to fill his larder with—bacon and Irish potatoes! Hope, as vital to the soul as breath to the nostrils, had been subtracted from him, and therefore what he did with his life was of no importance whatever. He leaned a little and snapped the pincers through the second wire of the fence.
He did not hear the sharp twanging sound of the parting strand, for a louder noise struck at his ear, a ringing rifle report full of resonance, like two heavy sledge hammers struck face to face. At his feet a riffle of dust lifted; he heard the bullet hiss like a snake through the grass. Then a whole volley crashed. Bullets went by him on rising notes of inquiry; and just behind him a slug spatted into the flesh of Mustard. Sometimes an ax makes a sound like that when it sinks into green wood.
He turned and saw Mustard sitting down like a dog, with his long, mulish ears pointing straight ahead and a look of pleased expectancy in his eyes. Out of a hole in his breast blood was pumping in long, thin jets. Lindsay leaned and cut the third and last wire. When he straightened again he heard the body of Mustard slump down against the ground with a squeaking, jouncing noise of liquids inside his belly. He did not lie on his side but with his head outstretched and his legs doubled under him as though he were playing a game and would spring up again in a moment. Lindsay looked toward the guns. They never should have missed him the first time except that something like buck-fever must have shaken the marksmen. He walked right through the open gap in the fence to meet the fire with a feeling that the wire clipper in his hand was marking him down like a cattle thief for the lowest sort of a death.
Then someone began to scream in a shrill falsetto. He recognized the voice of Big John Street, transformed by hysterical emotion. Street himself broke over the top of the hill with the black horse at a full gallop. He was letting the reins fly loose so that he could hold out a long arm on either side as he yelled for his men to stop firing. The wind of the gallop furled up the wide brim of his sombrero and he made a noble picture, considering the rifles of Andy Barnes which must be sighting curiously at him by this time; then a hammer stroke clipped Lindsay on the side of the head. The Powder Mountains whirled into a mist of brown and blue; the grass spun before him like running water; he dropped to his knees, and down his face ran a soft, warm stream.
Into his dizzy view came the legs and the sliding hoofs of the black horse, cutting shallow furrows in the grass as it slid to a halt, and he heard the voice of John Street, dismounted beside him, yelling terrible oaths. He was grabbed beneath the armpits and lifted.
"Are you dead, Bob?" yelled Street.
"I'm gunna be all right," said Lindsay. He ran a finger tip through the bullet furrow in his scalp and felt the hard bone of the skull all the way. "I'm gunna be fine," he stated, and turned toward the uproar that was pouring through the gap he had cut in the fence. For the outburst of rifle-fire had taken the attention of Barnes' men from their herding and the cattle had surged past them toward water. Nothing now could stop that hungry stampede as they crowded through the gap with rattling hoofs and the steady clashing of horns. Inside the fence, the stream divided right and left and rushed on toward water, some to the noisy, white cataract, some to the wide blue pool. A billowing dust cloud followed the stampede.
"I'm sorry, John," said Lindsay, "but those cows looked kind of dry to me."
Then a nausea of body and a whirling dimness of mind overtook him and did not clear away again until he found himself lying with a bandaged head on the broad top of a hill. John Street was on one side of him and Andy Barnes on the other. They were holding hands like little children and peering down at him anxiously.
"How are you, Bob, old son?" asked Andy.
"Fine," said Lindsay, sitting up. "Fine as a fiddle," he added, rising to his feet.
STREET supported him hastily by one arm and Barnes by the other. Below him he could see the Barnes cattle thronging into the shallow water of the creek. A scattering of young stock, still shut away to the rear, continued lowing piteously, but their turn would soon come.
"About that ten cents a head," said Andy, "it's all right with me."
"Damn the money," said Street. "I wouldn't take money from you if you were made of gold... I guess Bob has paid for the water like he paid for our two hides eleven years ago. Bob, don't you give a hang about nothing? Don't you care nothing about your life?"
"The cows seemed kind of dry to me," said Lindsay, helplessly.
"You're comin' home with me," said Street.
"You're cockeyed, Johnnie," remarked Barnes. "My place is two miles nearer."
"My house is downhill all the way," answered Street.
"I got two females in my place to look after him," pointed out Andy Barnes.
"I got a nigger cook that's a doggone sight better than a doctor," said Street.
"I don't need any doctor," said Lindsay. "You two just shut up and say goodby to me, will you? I'm going home. I got work to do tomorrow."
This remark produced a silence out of which Lindsay heard, from the surrounding circle of cowmen, a voice that murmured: "He's gunna go home!" And another said: "He's got the chores to do, I guess."
Andy looked at John Street.
"He's gunna go, John," he said.
"There ain't any changing him," said John Street, sadly. "Hey, Bob, take this here horse, this here Nigger horse of mine, will you?"
"Don'cha do it!" shouted Barnes. "Hey, Mickie, bring up that gray, will you?... Look at that piece of gray sky and wind, Bob, will you? He'll take you all the way over the Powder Mountains and only hit the ground three times on the way."
"They're a mighty slick pair," said Lindsay. "I never seen a more upstanding pair of hellcats in my life. It would take a lot of barley and oats to keep them sleeked up so's they shine like this... But if you wanta wish a horse onto me, how about that down headed, wise-lookin' cayuse over there? He's got some bottom to him and the hell-fire is kind of worked out of his eyes."
He pointed to a brown gelding which seemed to have fallen half asleep as it stood.
ANOTHER silence was spread by this remark. Then someone said: "He's picked out Slim's cuttin' horse... He's gone and picked out old Dick... I guess he ain't got more'n two eyes in his head when it comes to picking a horse."
"Give them reins to Bob, Slim!" commanded Andy Barnes, "and leave the horse tied right onto the reins, too."
Lindsay said: "Am I parting you from something, Slim?"
Slim screwed up his face and looked at the sky.
"Why, I've heard about you, Lindsay," he said, "and today I've seen you. I guess when a horse goes to you, he's just going home; and this Dick horse of mine, I had the making of him and he sure rates a home... If you just ease him along the first half hour, he'll be ready to die for you all the rest of the day... He takes mighty kind to corn on the cob and apples is his main hold."
"Thanks," said Lindsay, shaking hands. "I'm gunna value him, brother."
He swung into the saddle and waved his adieu. John Street followed him a few steps, holding to one stirrup leather; in a similar manner Andy Barnes followed him on the other side.
"Are you gunna be comin' over? Are you gunna be comin' back, Bob?" they asked him.
"Are you two gonna stop being damn' fools?" he replied.
They laughed and waved a cheerful agreement and they were still waving as he jogged Dick down the hill. The pain in his head burned him to the brain with every pulse of his blood but a strange triumph rising in his heart let him almost forget the torment.
After a time, as the sun dropped toward the west, his knees began to weaken and his legs were flopping, but Dick knew him by this time and went along as steadily as the ticking of a watch. He was calm. He felt that he never would be impatient again, for he could see that he was enriched forever.
The twilight found him close to home and planning the work of the next days. If he put a drag behind the two mules he could sweep back the dust where it thinned out at the margin and so redeem from total loss a few more acres. With any luck, he would get seed for the next year; and as for food, he could do what he had scorned all his days—he could make a kitchen garden and irrigate it from the windmill.
It was dark when he came up the last slope and the stars rose like fireflies over the edge of the hill. Against them he made out Jenny and Lind waiting for him beside the door of the shack. He paused to stare at the vague silhouettes and remembered poor Mustard with a great stroke in his heart.
Caesar came with a shrill howl of delight to leap about his master and bark at the new horse, but Dick merely pricked his ears with patient understanding as though he knew he had come home indeed.
Inside the shanty, the hand of Lindsay found the lantern on its nail. The chimney squeaked up under the pressure of his fingers; from the match a narrow lip of flame ran over the wick. He lowered the chimney and turned up the wick until a yellow, steady triangle was rising. It brought a suffocating odor of kerosene fumes but even through this Lindsay could detect the smell of fried bacon and potatoes in the air. He took a deep breath of it, for it seemed to him the most delicious savor in the world.