LORETTA MELTON gazed unappreciatively, and ever more and more apprehensively, at the wide expanse of brown prairie through which her train had been rolling westwards for the last thirty hours. There is a great deal of prairie in Canada between Eastern Manitoba and the Rockies, which is some nine hundred miles, and in a vague way the girl felt much as the Ohio farmer visiting New York for the first time, who asked: “What’s it all about?”
Her imagination was not at all stirred by the vastness of the plains or their potentialities. An up-to-the-minute, twentieth-century girl, she possessed ideas of comfort expressed in terms of steam heat, electricity and janitor service; and of these the plains as a whole did not seem to hold out much prospect. It was a vital point for her, since she was going West to marry a man she had not seen for over three years, and who lived in a place she had not even been imaginative enough to hunt up on the map. Now her heart sank a little lower with every mile the train put between her and her luxurious home in the East.
Loretta entertained the haziest notions of the life she was to share with her husband on his place in Alberta. From his enthusiastic letters she had learned that he had “won out” and was doing very well. Lacking more accurate, if less colorful information, she had visualized him as something like the opulent-looking young settler with whose muscular and aggressive personality the highly-tinted cover of a pushful Western land company’s literature was adorned. This bronzed giant stood boldly out in the foreground, a musical comedy smile on his face, the neck of his shirt very much rolled down, the sleeves of the same garment very much rolled up, holding out a demonstrative sombrero towards the background, which was supplied by apparently endless square miles of golden grain. An inset—also colored—showed a smart-looking, two-storey, much-verandahed house with an automobile-show auto drawn up invitingly in front, the inference being that the bucolic Hercules was monarch of all he surveyed.
Now, west of Edmonton and on the last stage of her journey, she wondered if her future home and husband really did look much like that. It was not wholly the girl’s fault. Her mother was one of those vaporing, foolish women who seem to do so much more harm in the world than the merely bad ones. Mrs. Melton, by living example, proclaimed her belief that the country had been deliberately created by a benevolent Providence as an artistic background for fashionable summer resorts wherein jaded, urban society persons might idly disport and leisurely recuperate. Of course, the same worthy matron had brought up her daughters to regard the making of a “suitable” match as the be-all and end-all of their existence. She had frowned forbiddingly upon Loretta’s engagement to Dick Grayson before he left for the Northwest.
“Of course, he’s of good family and all that sort of thing, my dear,” she had said with oracular finality, “but”—shaking her head dubiously—“they’re decayed; sadly decayed. And you surely can’t expect me to approve of his manner? He dresses and behaves most reprehensibly. No, altogether, I’m afraid he’s impossible.”
“No, mother; he’s just unconventional,” the girl had pleaded. Even her youth and limitations could not hinder her realizing that Dick Grayson had qualities of sterling worth not markedly observable in the rather vacuous youths of her mother’s set. Also he dared to be himself, refusing to sacrifice his individuality to become a type.
SO, despite the maternal oracle, she had remained true to her promise; and when he wrote asking her to come out and marry him, she agreed. Moreover, the spice of adventure in it pleased her.
“What a perfectly atrocious proposal!” Mrs. Melton’s vociferous objection for a moment had been dangerously near a plebeian splutter. “At least, in common decency, he might come back here and marry you properly. He does not appear to have the remotest idea of what is due you—to say nothing of me.”
“He writes that a freighting contract he took—whatever that may be—ran him so far into the spring that he has had to throw himself into work on his place without a moment to spare.” Perforce Loretta quoted from the letter almost verbatim. “I don’t understand a bit of it, but I gather that every minute is precious out there at this time of year; so we could hardly expect him to lose two weeks or more coming back here to marry when we can just as well be married there. You see, he’s doing so well. He writes that he has a surprise for me. Also he cleared over five thousand dollars last year and expects to double that this year.”
Again Loretta quoted; and this time the quotation took effect. Mrs. Melton’s further attempts at expostulation had been decidedly more feeble. She had no objection to what she deemed love in a country cottage—if the lovers had money enough to move into a city mansion when the idyll palled. Also there were her other daughters still upon her hands. She had then begun to babble to her child about “the position you will assume in the society of the place, my dear,” adding something to the girl’s already colossal ignorance of what was before her. So, with all the limitations of environment and upbringing, with all her high-spirited ineptitude for uncomfortable practicalities, with her pert, slangy flippancy, Loretta went forth to meet life in the raw without one word of sensible preparation from family or friends.
“I do hope Dick has arranged to have my boxes taken home to-night,” she mused,' examining herself critically in the mirror of her purse as one more bare-looking prairie town dropped behind. “I can’t bear to think of all those lovely frocks—to say nothing of our wedding presents—lying strewn about one of these wretched depots all night. They might get stolen by Indians—or something.”
She dabbed a little powder on her well-shaped nose, guiding back a few rebellious tendrils of fair hair from her delicately tinted cheek, and then closed her purse and resumed her aimless staring through the window.
“Too bad I couldn’t have had a regular wedding." Her thoughts strayed lingeringly among bridal robes of white satin, bridesmaids, orange blossoms, a fashionable ceremony and all the thrills incidental to the business of getting married as she had known it. “Three years is terribly long to wait—but I suppose Dick’s worth every minute of it. Still, he’s asking an awful lot; and it is pretty hard to have to do the trick at the end of that unholy trinity of years in a dusty travelling suit and in the parlor of a country parson who’s forgotten what an honest-to-goodness brick church with a stone front looks like.”
Her vagrant, maiden fancies strayed to the man: had he altered? In a quite unconscious, masculine way he had been good-looking. Chafing at the restraints, the conventions, and the—to a man of his temperament—limited opportunities of their city, he had taken west with him as his sole worldly stock-in-trade a fine football record, such a smattering of more or less dubious education as his thorough going devotion to university sports had permitted him to acquire, bounding health and spirits—and a girl’s heart and promise. Many a man has reached fame and fortune in the Land of Lone Frontiers with less. The Northwest has a fashion of using those traits and capacities in a man that serve only to hinder him in older communities. “Deer Horn next, Miss!”
The colored porter stood at her elbow holding his whisk broom in that tentative manner which serves as a subtle reminder that destination and tipping time are both equally at hand.
“All right; dust me off.”
Loretta stood up carelessly, though her heart was beating fast, while something rose in her throat that threatened to choke her. Soon now she would find the answer to all those questions that had been perplexing and worrying her.
A TALL figure strode towards her as she stepped lightly from the train. With a little catch at her heart she recognized Grayson’s loosely knit form with its careless, easy grace. Even in her excitement she noticed that his old contempt for clothes had gone one further. On this, his wedding day, he wore a by no means new sombrero, brown tweed suit, grey flannel shirt with a soft collar, and a flowing black tie.
“Well, here I am, Dick.” It was characteristic that at such a time she should greet him with a commonplace.
Grayson flushed beneath his tan with the self-consciousness of the male as he stooped above her. After their first murmured greetings, there was a slightly awkward silence. Presently she sought refuge in a torrent of chatter.
“Dick, do please see that my trunks are put off all right. They’re full of lovely frocks and things. And our presents.... My, you should have seen them! They fairly snowed me under. Several excellent people seemed to get the same idea at the same time, so behold your bride with two electric chafing dishes and three ditto samovars. Anyhow, I brought them all along: for one thing I hadn’t time to get them changed—and I thought perhaps some of your neighbors might like the spare ones. Why, what’s the joke?” She broke off hurriedly as she caught the slow smile tugging at the corners of the straight-lipped mouth.
“Only that there’s no electricity, and the nearest neighbor who’d know what to do with the things if there were, is ten miles from us,” drawled Grayson in the quiet, low-toned speech he had acquired.
“Oh, I hadn’t thought of that.” The return of her old doubts, with vaguer new ones, sobered the girl for a few seconds. Then, her vivacity awaking anew as she saw her trunks tumbled out: “There are my things now.”
“I’ll have to come—or send—in for them, Lottie. I could only bring my light buggy—wagon’s being repaired. I guess we’d better be moving along. Parson Debs is due down the line later for a funeral; he’s waiting for us now.”
“But, Dick—your clothes.” She eyed him in astonishment. Was he not going to change? Did he actually mean to marry her dressed as he was?
For the moment he looked puzzled; then another slow smile deepened the lines in his lean, weather-beaten face.
“These are the gladdest rags I’ve got now—but they’re glad enough for anything in Deer Horn. You’ll soon get to understand. And I guess I’ve got altogether out of the way of thinking about fixings—never did care much, anyway, as you may recall. ’Member how wild your mother was that time I came for lunch in my riding kit and took you to the matinée?”
Despite her pique, Loretta smiled at the ludicrous incident. A moment later, as they moved across the rough ground to where the main street paralleled the single railroad track, she felt suddenly very forlorn and lonely: his words brought back vividly her old life that seemed so far away; the accustomed order of things that gives a sense of security.
AT the outset she was finding it almost impossible to make the necessary mental readjustments, to get the viewpoint of Deer Horn where the primal facts of life and nature balked so big that smaller, non-essential things—and among them the unwritten laws of convention—receded into a very dim background. Many of Loretta’s circle, while quite willing to do as the Romans do when in Rome, expect to become arbiters in Deer Horn. And that is a mistake.
Loretta displayed the sheen and froth of hosiery and lingerie of a kind and quality hitherto unknown to Deer Horn as she picked a disgusted, dainty way across the muddy intersection. Her high-heeled shoes did not seem exactly adapted to the uneven wooden sidewalk down which Grayson led her. At the corner was a three-storey frame building referring to itself magniloquently—per medium of an enormous sign—as the King Edward Hotel. Next came a Chinese café, its windows adorned by curtains so dirty that they might have passed for a faded brown. A compatriot of the restaurateur had leaned against this structure, which was advertised as a “Top-Notch Eats Dispensary,” something in faded weatherboarding that upon closer examination revealed itself as a laundry. They passed the general store, outside which was ranged a disconsolate-looking assortment of wagons, buggies and democrats, both vehicles and animals liberally bespattered with the black mud of the trails, by no means as yet recovered from the disturbing effects of the spring thaw. The vista opening up beyond was lined indiscriminately by a much weather-stained livery barn—with a group of still more weather-stained looking men lounging in front—implement agents’ premises, real estate offices, and the usual frame houses and squalid shacks. Beyond these the street straggled off into the brush-mottled prairie stretching its immensity all around. In its course through town this “street” showed up sharply against the grass-selvedged wooden sidewalk as a churned-up ocean of black mud.
Grayson turned up one of the few cross streets and presently piloted her through a bare little front garden, in which no spring flowers bloomed, and so into the minister’s parlor where that functionary and two of the young fellow’s friends were waiting.
Loretta went through the ceremony as though in a dream.... It was all so unreal. The clergyman’s voice reached her dull ears like the drowsy drone of insects on a summer day.... She scarcely distinguished a word, making her responses mechanically when prompted. Everything was so different from all she had ever known or imagined of weddings.... When she stumbled out into the sunshine again, clasping the certificate the minister had given her, she hardly realized the fact that she was now a wife, that the great turning point of her life was at hand.
BUT on the trail in the buggy the girl—outwardly at least—became more her old, pert self. Her husband’s friends when introduced had greeted her with quiet, simple courtesy. Loretta missed the easy flow of compliments and clever, but shallow, small talk of the men she had known. These men had no answer for her gushing irrelevancies but a respectful silence, broken now and then by monosyllabic responses.
As Deer Horn dropped out of sight behind bluffs of poplar, thickly choked and fringed with “pussy” willows just blowing their satiny buds in the soft Chinook wind soughing gently over the awakening earth through the passes of the mountains, she nestled closer to the man. She felt the unaccustomed loneliness and vastitude weighing upon her. Flinging his disengaged arm about her shoulders protectingly he drew her to him, kissing her passionately, as she laid her tired, aching head on his shoulder and struggled with an almost uncontrollable desire to burst into a flood of weeping. For the first time they were alone together as man and wife. A delicious sense of possession thrilled him.
“How far is it to—to our place, dear, and whats it like?” she asked with shy stress on the “our,” as she drew herself up suddenly with deft little touches to hat and hair.
“About nine miles more. And I’d rather not tell you anything. Wait till you see.”
A flock of wild ducks flopped up from a slough beside the trail and flew low over the brush, as she cried:
“What a forsaken place it must be!”
“I hope you won’t think so, little girl. I want to make it seem a God-given place to you.” There was a faint trace of anxiety in his tone and in the suddenly narrowed eyes as he scanned the trail ahead. “It’s been home, friends, hope, work—everything that matters but one thing—to me for over three years. I want you to love it as I do, as I shall teach you to.”
“What’s the one thing your Robinson Crusoe prairie patch missed being for you, Dick?”
“The thing that mattered most of all—you,” he replied, turning to her with something in his eyes now that brought a warm flush to her cheek and neck.
He wrapped the dust cloth tenderly about her, for the wheels were throwing up great gouts of black mud. Then, after driving on for awhile in silence, he went on:
“When I first came here there was nothing. The railroad wasn’t through then, either. There was just, the prairie, the brush, the coyotes—and the fighting. You felt it was up to you to sit tight and beat the game. It made you feel good all over.”
Loretta looked at him in surprise. His face glowed with animation, his voice thrilled with enthusiasm. The struggle with the big, primal things had been the breath of life to him. He had thrown himself into that struggle with all the zest of his splendid youth and courage, counting everything left behind—except the one thing well lost if only he could wrest independence from the wilderness. The girl could not understand. She remembered his letters had been full of the same thing. She felt an unreasoning, jealous dislike of the country that had filled so large a place in his life.
They came to a place where the roughly graded trail ran down into a steep dip, marking where a coulee crossed it at right angles. Brush had been laid in the bottom, but the mud, squelching through and over it, tugged and sucked at the buggy wheels and the hoofs of the big roan as though to drag them down. .
Loretta gave a shiver of disgust as they bumped their slow way up the further side.
“What a horrible road! I shouldn’t care for much of this.”
The man laughed carelessly.
“It’s not so long since there wasn’t any road, as you call it, at all, but just an old buffalo trail the Crees had used.
She was much too busy rearranging her ruffled person to reply, as he went on:
“I was one of the first on the ground; then two or three other young fellows took up homesteads around. From spring to fall we worked on our places putting in our duties. In winter some of us worked in the lumber camps; those who had teams got jobs freighting for railroad contractors. We were glad of the money to take back to our places in the spring. That’s the main reason why I couldn’t get back East for our wedding. I only got finished a few weeks back. I’ve been busy as a bird dog since—doing my spring plowing—and—other things.” He broke off with an enigmatic smile.
“You told me all about it,” the girl said rather petulantly. “Your letters were full of your place, your work, and the country.”
“Maybe I was so stuck on it because it meant you." Again he swept her into his arm in a masterful manner that made her heart beat faster. “When I found where I stood—and other things,” he said, releasing her and turning again to his driving with something of the same enigmatic smile, “I felt that I could ask you to come out.
THEY spoke but little during the remainder of the drive; each was busy with his or her own thoughts. The man, in a vague way, felt disappointed at his wife's apparent lack of sympathy. He seemed able to establish no point of contact with her except when they discussed people they both knew in the East; and that, after all lay behind.
Loretta, for her part, felt her doubts growing into certainties. Gradually a resentment against this man for bringing her here was crystallizing within her. She did not know how he had idealized her, investing her with qualities of courage and character she had never actually displayed; also he seemed not to have realized how the prairie might strike a girl bred as Loretta had been. His code was very simple—almost primitive one that has, perhaps, grown a trifle out of favor in certain over-civilized quarters: he believed that a woman’s place was at the side of her husband, wherever that might be, whatever his lot might be. In return the man must lavish upon her love, protection, tenderness. More than ready to fill his share of the bargain he expected as much from her, overlooking, perhaps, the fact that her ideas might not quite coincide with his, and also the fact that it takes two to make any real bargain.
“That’s all ours now from here on.” Grayson broke the silence at last, indicating with his whip the cleared, cultivated land west of the trail. “I got my patent for my original homestead, pre-empted another quarter and am buying a whole section—640 acres you know—besides. I’m going in for mixed farming, and I want plenty of room.”
Tired and disillusioned, Loretta made no intelligent, sympathetic comment. A more experienced eye would have seen at once that whoever, starting with little capital, had accomplished what Grayson had in three years must have slaved early and late from spring to fall. The brush had been cleared far back from the road allowance, a good acreage of virgin prairie broken and cultivated, the land well fenced. A fine red barn, with a corral to the rear and smaller buildings clustering near it, stood some distance away from the house, which now showed half hidden by a clump of poplars.
“Hold Dandy a minute while I open this gate."
The man passed her the lines, jumped out and swung open the flimsy contraption of light rails and wire.
“All right; drive him through, Lottie.”
“I—I don’t think I’d better, Dick,” she faltered doubtfully, looking at the narrow gateway and the sea of mud between. “I might steer him into a post or something."
The smile left his face. Loretta had never been very fond of riding as her sisters had. He remembered writing to advise her to learn to ride and drive, as she had ample opportunities to do. Apparently she had not cared to do so. Propping the gate back with a forked stick he squelched through the mud to the roan’s head, seized the lines almost roughly near the bit, and led him through. As he closed the gate and walked after the buggy his eyes narrowed while his face hardened as if he had come to some sudden decision.
“Here’s my stronghold,” he said a little later as they drew up before the low house, before which the road branched. One arm, the right, led to the barn and the outbuildings, the other wound round the side of the house and was lost in a thick clump of tall brush that cut off all view. “Go in and make yourself comfortable a minute while I take Dandy to the barn. I’ll be right with you, dear—for the home-coming.”
THE girl stood helplessly before the house, a two-room shack. So this was the home she had crossed a continent for, she mused. She was utterly wretched. Dully she wondered if this was how a plant felt when torn up by the roots and thrown down on strange earth. Her thoughts were all turned inwards; so she missed the sky which showed so marvellously blue through the tender green of the poplars, missed the gentle stirring of the pussy willows in the soft wind from the western sea beyond the mountains, missed the budding prairie roses and wild flowers straying everywhere round the grassy carpet which had been left round the shack undisturbed, missed the pure sweet air that all but broke in bubbles as wine poured into a chalice.
Grayson’s voice, halting the horse at the barn a hundred yards away, reached her through the solemn bush with startling distinctness. It recalled her to the present. She opened the door and went in.
The room evidently served for everything but bedchamber. In one corner was a cook stove, with kitchen pots and pans on shelves above. A plain wooden table stood in the middle of the floor. A few kitchen chairs were littered about. In another corner stood pails of water, stove wood, an axe and a shot gun. The only decoration of the walls were coyote skins, their tawny shade relieved by two grizzled timber wolf pelts. A kerosene lamp, the chimney black with smoke, occupied a shelf. The lamp and pails, especially, caused her a feeling of repulsion.
“No running water, no wash basin—not even a decent sink—no electricity, no gas; nothing,” she said aloud with trembling lip, allowing herself the fatal luxury of self-pity.
Pushing aside two faded burlap curtains, she went into the inner room. It was even plainer than the other one. An iron bed, covered with blue cotton comforter, ran down one wall. Along the parallel wall were plain shelves, with clothes hanging from pegs on their under sides, Against the end wall was a bureau of golden oak and two chairs of the same wood. The walls were burlapped, evidently by an, amateur hand,
This was the last straw. Tired, sick at heart with disappointment, Loretta sank onto the bed and burst into a passion of weeping. Then her grief changed to resentment against him she deemed the cause. Sitting up she dried her eyes, powdered her face carefully to efface all traces of her outburst, crying as her cheeks showed two spots of angry color:
“How dare he bring me to such a place! It’s too horrible! It’s too unutterably squalid! I wouldn’t live here if he was the only man left alive. He can’t care for me in the right way or he’d never have asked me to come. Mother was right.... I was crazy not to forget him.”
There came to her vague thoughts of the lonely days she must spend while Grayson was out working; of the hard, unlovely toil, of the responsibilities which would heap upon her. She had never had to accept responsibility for anything. Even her personal appearance had been left largely in the experienced—and proportionately expensive—hands of fashionable modistes, hairdressers and masseuses. Her resentment hardened to bitter resolution as she heard him enter the outer room with a cheery:
“Well, what do you think of the old place?”
His light tone maddened her. Passing swiftly through the curtains she faced him, one clenched hand resting on the table.
“Why did you cheat me, deceive me, trick me?”
She spoke rapidly, passionately, without any careful choice of words, repressing with difficulty the flood of half-hysterical reproach trembling on her white lips.
“Why, what on earth’s wrong—Lot?”
“What’s wrong? Everything, I should think. You knew what my life was at home, and yet you dared to ask me out to a place like this”—sweeping her arm round the room with a gesture of comprehensive disgust—“to a place like that,” she pointed to the outside. “Is this the best you can offer one who has waited for you three years? And you pretend to care for me! You must have confounded your colossal affection for yourself and your precious prairie with your supposed feelings for me.”
“Wait a minute; don’t go so fast, Loretta.” He spoke quietly, though her sarcasm stung him to the quick. He, too, was tasting bitter disappointment. “Are you sure I deceived you, as you say? I tried to tell you what the life was like—and surely you had some ideas of your own. Are you sure you haven’t been deceiving yourself? Even if you had it all figured out differently, whose fault is that?”
Like a flash her impractical visions returned to her, but, if anything, the recollection served only to incense her further.
“You can’t get out of it that way. You should have known.... must have known.... that I’d never have come to you if I’d realized. No girl could stand it. Why, I’d go raving mad with sheer lonesomeness. And the work—would you want your wife to work the color out of her cheeks and her hands to the bone in such a jumping-off place as this?”
“They're doing it, Loretta.” His voice was very cold, his eyes hard, though had she not been so wrapped up in her own wrongs just then she might have caught the pain behind the hardness. “No country could even amount to a lone whoop without them. It was good enough for me to work in three years—for you. It's given me health, hope—and the money I came to get. You don’t know it yet, either. You mustn’t be led away by first impressions. Wait till I show—”
She brought her gloved hand down on the table with a bang.
“Wait! I like that. Wait!—after I’ve waited three years already! I’m through with waiting. I couldn’t—I wouldn’t—stay here for anything.”
“Our home’s here, Loretta.”
“Yours may be; mine’s not.”
He looked at her sharply, as if wondering if he had heard aright. Then: “You’re all wrong, Loretta. Perhaps it’s my fault in a way, but as for this shack—”
“It isn’t just the shack. It’s everything.... everything: the work, the loneliness, the squalor, the deadly dullness. It’s the—oh, I don’t know! I only know I’m going back.... where people know how to live.... back to my I own kind.”
“Going back.... back.”
GRAYSON repeated the words almost stupidly. His world, too, was rocking around him.
“Yes; I’m going back right away. If you care for me you’ll sell out here and take me somewhere else. I simply can’t stay. I daren’t! I’ll be glad to hear from you when you’ve got some idea of what a girl calls a home. Please take me back to the depot at once. I’m very tired."
“Do you realize what you’re saying—what you propose to do?”
“Yes, yes. Oh, don’t stand there talking any more! It’s no good. I’ve made up my mind.”
“For the last time—you mean it?” There was no pleading in his tone; his masculine pride had been wounded to its depths. Quickly his thoughts ran to judge her. So this was the girl for whom he’d worked, hoped and waited through the lonely years—a soft, shallow creature, seeking a life of graceful uselessness, insane pleasure, selfish comfort? She was unfit to be a real man’s mate in a real man’s country. He would argue with her no more. There was just one chance, he recollected dully; though he wondered if she would ever seem the same to him again, even if that chance gave her pause. So he added: “You haven’t let me say all I might, you know.”
“I certainly do mean it—and there’s nothing to be said I care about hearing. Even on the train I was afraid I was doing a crazy thing. Now I’m sure of it.”
“All right then, since that’s your decision. As to the future—well, perhaps we’d better not bring that in yet—the present seems to have been too much for us. I’ll go and put the horse in again. You’ll just be able to make the eastbound transcontinental.”
He walked out, his head slightly bowed, his eyes misty with pain, but his jaw hard set.
THE drive back was a most trying experience; they exchanged only the veriest and most necessary commonplaces. A great weariness and heartsickness gripped Loretta. On the way out, even with all her misgiving, there had been at least the interest of novelty, the excited wonder as to what her first home would be like; but now, added to physical lassitude, were the weight of disillusionment, the sickening sense of despair, the torturing uncertainty as to that future she was dashing upon so recklessly. It was all so pitifully different from her dreams. After a while a kind of apathy settled down upon her, dulling the first sharp pain and distress.
Of her husband, and how all this was to affect him and their subsequent relations, she thought as yet hardly at all. Once or twice came a twinge of doubting fear, as she wondered vaguely if this were the end of everything between them. He had hardened in the three years since she last saw him: then he’d been a boy with a strong strain of manhood in him; now he seemed a man without a trace of boyishness. Her knowledge was too limited to give her understanding of what his life in the Northwest had been. That life had left its traces in his eyes, and about his mouth when his face was not relaxed or in repose; but she had no lore to read such things. Only he’d impressed her in a vague way as a man with whom she couldn’t trifle or palter. Well, she decided, that must be left with the rest to the future. In her present state she was glad to postpone all troublesome calculation.
Grayson drove steadily on, his hat drawn low over his eyes, ever scanning the endless prairie horizons between the green bluffs. Suddenly he sat bolt upright, peering ahead keenly at a swiftly moving black dot far down the trail. The dot was soon revealed as a team and buggy coming to meet them. More than that, the driver was sending his team along at a mad pace.
The drumming of those racing hoofs, sweeping that rocking, swaying buggy so swiftly down upon them, and still more the sternness that had clamped down upon the bronzed features of the man beside her, startled Loretta from her apathy. Something was wrong—badly wrong.
Pulling over to the right of the trail till the off wheels of their buggy were only an inch or two from the muddy “ditch,” Grayson halted his horse. Whoever was driving so furiously was being given ample room to pass; but evidently nothing was further from the furious Jehu’s intentions.
LORETTA caught a confused, terrified vision of the two horses, manes tossing, nostrils wide and blowing, the whites of their eyes gleaming wickedly, as they were reined in so suddenly as to fling them back almost on their haunches. Then they were pulled right across the trail. A great, swarthy-featured man, long, black hair blowing about his flushed, empurpled face, jumped out, very deliberately tied the lines to a fence post, and then took his stand in the trail squarely before the man and the girl.
“I wuz lookin’ fer you,” he said truculently to Grayson.
“Were you?” The younger man’s lips had a slightly ironic curl. “Well, now you’ve seen me maybe you’ll be good enough to move your team and let me by—I’ve a train to make.”
The other laughed harshly.
“I wuz on my way to your place, young feller; but I guess mebbe this’ll do as well. I want my son.”
Grayson’s lips tightened to a thin line.
“Your son doesn’t seem to want you, McDowell. You’re the best judge of how you treated him when you had him, but he swears he’ll never go home to you again. He’s doing well working with me. I’m satisfied with him. The boy’s old enough to choose for himself—he does a man’s work—and if he likes to stay with me this season as he did last, why he can. And that’s all there is to it.”
The man addressed as McDowell, always forbidding and saturnine looking, was positively villainous now. Moreover, he had obviously been drinking heavily. In the white heat of his passion his swarthy face assumed a ghastly hue. His black eyes glowed like live coals. His great shoulders heaved, his arms flailed wildly as he drew nearer till his evil features leered up at them over the splashboard, upon which he splayed one huge brown hand.
“Is it?” he stormed, so choked with his wrath that his speech was hoarse; inarticulate almost. “I’ll handle him anyway I please. And you too, you—”
Grayson’s mouth closed with a snap at the vile word. His eyes glinted dangerously. Loretta, clinging in terror to his arm, felt the great muscles beneath his sleeve ripple and tense.
“That’s enough of that, McDowell,” he warned, cold steel rasping in his tone, as it flashed in his eyes. "And, maybe you hadn’t noticed, there’s a lady present.”
“Is there?—where? I don’t see no lady.” The man leered insolently into Loretta’s white, strained face. Then, looking back at Grayson he went on mockingly: “Well, I’ve took a good look around an’ I hain’t seen nothin’ that wouldn’t as soon kiss me as you.”
Grayson seemed to fling the lines to Loretta and leap out of his seat, all in one continuous movement. His eyes shone with the light of battle. He went into that fight with his whole being, singing the old, old war music. All his pent-up pain of the last hour, all his hurt pride found an outlet now in the righteous anger that burned within him against the foul-mouthed bully. Despite the hampering mud he side-stepped, ducked, blocked, guarded, countered and swung occasional deadly lefts with a precision and fierce science that would have enraptured a fight lover.
Loretta’s first emotion had been one of utter horror. This was her first direct contact with physical violence. To her it seemed inevitable that the slighter and younger man must go down beneath the massive bulk and great strength of the heavily built stranger. Then, as she saw Grayson’s lithe skill and graceful strength in full play, watched his cool courage, his lightning-like moves and blows, her terror gradually faded into lively interest which in turn passed into admiration for his courage and prowess.
After five minutes’ fierce fighting back and forth, the men drew back as though by common consent. The aggressor, ominously calm now, tore off his coat and flung it down on the ground. Grayson did likewise, though he was careful to toss his garment onto a green spot beyond the “ditch.” Then they went at it again, hammer and tongs.
Grayson knew that he must keep his antagonist from getting in close. Those gorilia-like arms, that mountain of muscle would render him all but powerless, would beat him down, crush him inevitably if they once got within his guard. So he stood off, lightly stepping sideways and backwards, ducking, and every now and then shooting in a swift blow that shook and stung the other to madness. Try as he would McDowell could not get to grips with the lighter man, whose fast footwork and clever guard did so much to offset his weight disadvantage. There was strength too—the lithe, resilient strength of a steel spring—in Grayson’s clean-limbed frame toughened by hard, outdoor work; splendidly fit from clean, healthy living. But he did not escape unscathed. More than once those hammerlike fists, smashing through his guard, rained in on him. His features were streaked with blood, though only from flesh cuts of little or no real consequence.
LORETTA’S first terror reawoke at that sight. An almost irresistible desire to scream seized her; but she restrained herself. She must not distract the man who was fighting to avenge an insult put upon her. At that thought a sudden anger blazed up in her at the cause of the trouble. What a brute! And now she sensed an unaccountable thrill of joy at each blow of Grayson’s that got home. And when his assailant s breath began to come in gasps, when he began to be in obvious distress, she felt only fierce delight.
Even in her perturbation and excitement she wondered at such feelings, lighting had always seemed to her, in a vague, wholly impersonal fashion, a vulgar, brutal thing, very far removed from anything concerning her. Yet here she was, thrilling to every blow Grayson shot in, pausing with painful, breathless suspense every time his bear-like opponent bore down in one of his great rushes. So, in the days of chivalry, did the eyes of fair women spur on brave men to death and wounds in the lists.
She saw the fire of victory burn in Grayson’s eyes as his enemy flagged—saw and understood. And when the tide of battle turned for good and all in his favor and he began to press the other back, punishing him mercilessly, she felt impelled to call encouragement to him, to cheer him on. She only knew now that her man was fighting and winning—for her. She gloried in the strength of him, quivered with pride at the high courage of him. So powerful were her feelings now that she hardly paused to attempt analysis of them. But for the moment she was as primitive as he: and both were back to primal things, when men fought for their women, and those women looked on in tremulous delight to see them victorious.
THE stranger went down at last beneath a perfect hail of relentless blows, shielding his head blindly with both upflung arms. Then he cowered in the mud of the trail.
“Get up—unless you’ve not had enough.”
The man made no move.
Grayson stood over him and jerked him to his feet, saying:
“Take another look around and see if you can see a lady now.”
The man turned his battered face stupidly towards Loretta, as Grayson went on inexorably:
“Now take your team and pull out as quick as you like. You can’t go too quick for me. Only drive them the other way. This has been coming to you for some time. Now you’ve got it maybe you’ll lay off me and your son in future."
As the fellow picked up his coat and slunk off muttering to himself, Grayson went over and picked up his own jacket. He cleaned his face as well as he could with a pocket handkerchief and then, his coat over his arm, went up to Loretta, saying apologetically:
“I’m sorry—but I couldn’t let that drunken brute insult you like that. I might have taken what he said to me—for your sake; but I couldn’t stand the other. It was the last straw anyway. He’s a squatter near me. His boy has been working for me—couldn’t stand his father’s brutality. And he worked the poor kid to death. That’s all he wants him for—to work the boy to death while he hangs around in town drinking. There’s Indian blood in him.”
His amazement was plainly written on his somewhat bruised face.
“Yes; why not? He deserved it—every bit of it. I’m proud of you for what you did.”
THEY stood facing each other in the middle of the trail. The man who had been so soundly thrashed drove rapidly off, in the direction from which he’d come, leaving them alone in the great silence, shut in by the green bluffs and willow thickets.
“But you’ve never seen any of that sort of thing. It must have been horrible for you.”
Her eyes shone with pride—and something else that made his heart beat fast. He had awakened her at last, touched one of the deeps of her nature. The shock and disgust, the rude surroundings into which she had suddenly been transported, had been really an intense shock to the artificial in her. And she had been cradled and bred in artificiality. Now that the primitive had surged uppermost in her those rough surroundings somehow seemed a perfectly natural setting. Some of the vastness, the peace of the green immensity about her, had crept into her soul. She no longer dreaded life with the man she loved. She began to understand, though as yet only imperfectly, the primal joy he’d felt at wresting first livelihood, then success from the wilderness. That knowledge had been born in her when she saw him taming McDowell, the bully. It had grown rapidly in the light of the new understanding that had come to her as he fought. Now he was just her man. She was ready to play her part as his woman—his mate. The call of the primal had found her in primal environment: it had struck an answering chord in her being, a chord of which she’d known nothing; might never have known anything in different circumstances.
“It wasn’t at all,” she said. Then, with a quick change: “But aren’t you hurt?”
“Nothing to speak of: it looks worse than it is.”
With a puzzled look, he rested one hand on the splashboard, remarking as he looked up at her:
“Which way do we drive from here?”
“That way—back home.” She half turned in her seat to indicate the direction. “I seem to have changed the last twenty minutes till I hardly know myself. I can’t understand how I came to do as I did. Please forgive me—and try and forget it.”
She was indeed changed. Her old pert self-assurance was replaced by an earnest simplicity. She spoke no longer in her former flippant style, but with restraint—a touch of humility even. She had passed from an undeveloped, thoughtless, self-willed girl into a woman. His joy showed plainly on his upturned face. To him, too, had come a better understanding.
“I guess I was worse than you, Lottie.” He spoke gently, unconsciously scratching with his thumb nail at a mud splotch that had caked on the splashboard.
“Oh, no, no!”
“Yes; I was too selfish. I wanted you so much that I didn’t stop to think how life out here might strike you. I knew, too, what your life in the East had been. Besides, there’s worse yet.”
SHE said nothing, but her eyes propounded eager questions.
“I was sore at the way you behaved on the way out. I’d no business to be, I guess, but I was. So I thought I’d put you to a test: it was a crazy thing to do. I took you to the old shack I’d been living alone in to see if you really cared enough to stick it out with me there. That isn’t our home at all, Lottie. You might have known I wouldn’t ask you out to a place like that. You remember that road running round the shack to the left?”
“That leads to our house—the real home I’ve built and furnished for you. Getting that in shape for you was the contract that kept me so busy I couldn’t come East. I wanted it as a wedding present and a surprise for you. But I should have told you.”
There was a pause. Both felt they were treading upon delicate ground. Then she said softly, looking down at him: “Well, I measured up to your test anyway—I was quite ready to go back to your shack—or anywhere else—with you. We’ll always be glad to remember that. But—oh, do let’s get home now, dear. I can hardly wait.”
As he got in beside her a catbird throbbed his call to his mate, while the pussy willows nodded their silken heads as if they knew what was passing—and approved. And beyond the shack and the outbuildings a fine red pine house stood—waiting—the house of her dreams ; and his hope and work.