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!”