The far-Eastern company was counting its Western acres under water contracts. The acres were in first crops, waiting for the water. The water was dallying down its untried channel, searching the new dry earth-banks, seeping, prying, and insinuating sly, minute forces which multiplied and insisted tremendously the moment a rift had been made. And the orders were to “watch” and “puddle;” and the watchmen were as other men, and some of them doubtless remembered they were working for a company.
Travis, the black-eyed young lumberman from the upper Columbia, had been sent down with a special word from the manager commending him as a tried hand, equal to any post or service. The ditch superintendent was looking for such a man. He gave him those five crucial miles between the head-gates and Glenn’s Ferry, the notorious beat that had sifted Finlayson’s force without yet finding a man who could keep the banks. Some said it was the Arc-light saloon at Glenn’s Ferry; some said it was the pretty girl at Lark’s.
Whatever it was, Travis raged at it in the silent hours of his one-man watch; and the report had gone up the line now, three times since he had taken hold, of breaks on his division. And the engineer would by no means “weaken” on a question of the work, nor did the loyal watchman ask that any one should weaken, to spare him. He was all eyes and ears; he watched by daylight, he listened by dark, and the sounds that he heard in his dreams were sounds of water searching the banks, swirling and sinking into holes, or of mud subsiding with a wretched flop into the insidious current.
The Watchman, Marsing, Idaho irrigation pipe, 1941It was a queer country along the new ditch below the head-gates; as old and sun-bleached and bony as the stony valleys of Arabia Petrea; all but that strip of green that led the eye to where the river wandered, and that warm brown strip of sown land extending field by field below the ditch.
Lark’s ranch was the first one below the head-gates, lying between the river and the ditch, an old homesteader’s claim, sub-irrigated by means of rude dams ponding the natural sloughs. The worn-out land, never drained, was foul and sour, lapsing into swamps, the black alkali oozing and spreading from pools in its boggy pastures.
A few pioneer fruit-trees still bloomed and bore, undiscouraged by neglect, and cast homelike shadows on the weedy grass around the cabin and sheds that slouched at all angles, with nails starting and shingles warping in the sun.
Similar weather-stains and odd kicks and bulges the old rancher’s person exhibited, when he came out to sun himself of a rimy morning, when cobwebs glittered on the short, late grass, and his joints reminded him that the rains were coming. And up and down the cow-trail below the ditch, morning and evening, went his dairy-herd to pasture; and after them loitered Nancy, on a strawberry pony with milk white mane and tail.
The lights and shadows chased her in and out among the willows and fleecy cottonwoods and tall swamp-grasses; but Travis rode in the glare, on the high ditch-bank, and, although they passed each other daily, he had never had a good look at the “pretty girl at Lark’s.” But one morning the white-faced heifer broke away and bolted up the ditch-bank, and in a cloud of sun-smitten dust Nancy followed, a figure of virginal wrath with scarlet cheeks and wind-blown hair. Reining her pony on the narrow bank, she called across to Travis in a voice as clear and fresh as her colors:–
“Head her off, can’t you? What are you about!” This last to the pony, who was behaving “mean.”
“Ride to the bridge and head her this way. I can drive her up the bank,” Travis responded.
Nancy obeyed him, and waited at the bridge while he endeavored to persuade the heifer of the error of her ways. The heifer was not easily persuaded, and Travis was wet to the waist before he had got her out; but he lost nothing of the bright figure guarding the bridge, a slender shape all pink and blue and dark blue, with hair like the sun on brown water, and a perfect seat, and a ringing voice calling thanks and bewildering encouragement to her ally in the stream. And this was old Solomon’s daughter!
But “Oh, my Nancy!” the boys would groan, with excess of appreciation beyond words, and for that Nancy heeded them not: and now Travis knew that the boys were right.
“Thank you ever so much!” her clear voice lilted, as the discomfited runaway dashed down the bank to the path she had forsaken. “I’m ever so sorry she dug all those bad tracks in the ditch. Will they do any harm?”
Travis assured her that nothing did harm if only it were known in time.
“What is the matter with it, anyhow,–the ditch? Isn’t it built right?”
“The ditch is the prettiest I ever saw,” Travis responded, with all the warmth of his unrequited devotion to that faithless piece of engineering. “All new ditches need watching till the banks get settled.”
“Well, I should say that you watched! Don’t you ever stir off that bank?”
“I eat and sleep sometimes.”
“You must have a pretty dry camp up above. Wouldn’t you like some milk once in a while?”
“Thanks; I never happened to fall in with the milkman on my beat.”
“We have lots to spare, and buttermilk too, if you’re not too proud to come for it. The others used to.”
“I guess I don’t quite catch on.”
“The other watchmen, the boys who were here before you.”
“Oh,” said Travis coldly.
“Well, any time you choose to come down I’ll save some for you,” said the girl, as if that matter were settled.
“I’m afraid it is rather off my beat,” Travis hesitated, “but I’m just as much obliged.”
Nancy straightened herself haughtily. “Oh, it is nothing to be obliged for, if you don’t care to come.”
“I did not say I didn’t care,” Travis protested; but she was gone. The dust flew, and presently her dark blue skirt and the pony’s silver tail flashed past the willows in the low grounds.
“I shall never see her again,” he mourned. “So much for those other fellows spoiling her idea of a watchman’s duty. Of course she thought I could come if I wanted to. Did she ask them, I wonder?”
Nancy was piqued, but not resentful. The more he did not come, as evening after evening smiled upon the level land; the more she thought of Travis, alone in his dusty camp, alone on his blinding beat; the more she dwelt upon the singularity and constancy of his refusal, the more she respected him for it.
So one day he did see her again. She was sitting on the bridge planks, leaning forward, her arms in her lap, her hat tipped back, a star of white sunlight touching her forehead. She lifted her head when she heard him coming and put her hand over her eyes, as if she were dizzy with watching the water.
“How’s the ditch?” she called in a voice of sweetest cheer. She was on her feet now, and he saw how entrancing she was, in a blue muslin frock and a broad white hat with a wreath of pink roses bestrewing the tilted brim. Had they got company at the ranch? was his jealous reflection.
“How’s the ditch behaving itself these days?” she repeated.
“Much as usual, thank you,” Travis beamed from his saddle.
“Breaking, as usual?”
“Yes; it broke night before last.”
“Well, I don’t believe it’s much of a ditch, anyhow. I wouldn’t fret about it if I was you. Don’t you think I’m very good-natured, after your snubbing me so? Here I’ve brought you a basket of apples, seeing you wouldn’t spare time from your old ditch to come for them yourself. That in the napkin is a little pat of fresh butter.” She lifted the grape-leaves that covered the basket. “I thought it might taste good in camp.”
“Good! Well, I rather guess it will taste good! See here, I can’t ever thank you for this–for bringing it yourself.” He had few words, but his looks were moderately expressive.
Nancy blushed with pleasure. “Well, I had to–when folks are so wrapped up in their business. There, with Susan’s compliments! Susan’s the heifer you rounded up for me in the ditch. I know she made you a lot of work, tracking holes in your banks you’re so fussy about. Do you really think it is a good ditch?”
“I am positive it is.”
“Then if anything goes wrong down here they will lay the blame on you?”
“They are welcome to. That’s what I am here for.”
Nancy openly acknowledged her approval of a man that stood right up to his work and would take no odds of any one.
“The other boys were always complaining and saying it was the ditch. But there, I know it is mean of me to talk about them.”
“I guess it won’t go any further,” said Travis dryly.
“Well, I hope not. They were good boys enough, but pretty trifling watchmen, I shouldn’t wonder.”
Travis had nothing to say to this, but he made a mental note or two.
“When will you give me a chance to return your basket?”
“Why, anytime; there’s no hurry about the basket. Have you any regular times?”
He looked away, dissembling his joy in the question, and answered as if he were making an official report,–
“I leave camp at six, patrol the line to the ferry and back, lay off an hour, and down again at eleven. Back in camp at three, and two hours for dinner. On again at five, and back in camp at nine. I pass this bridge, for instance, at seven and nine of a morning, twelve and two afternoons, and six and eight in the evening.”
“Six and eight,” Nancy mused, with a slight increase of color. “Well, I can stop some evening after cow-time, I suppose; but it isn’t any matter about the basket.”
Six evenings, going and coming, Travis delayed in passing the bridge, on the watch for Nancy; six times he filled the basket with such late field-flowers as he could find, and she never came. On the seventh evening his heart announced her, from as far off as his eyes beheld her. This time she was in white, without her hat, and she wore a blue ribbon in her gold-brown braids,–a blue ribbon in her braids, and a red, red rose in either cheek; and her colors, and the colors of the sky, floated like flowers on the placid water.
“Well, where is the basket, then?” she merrily demanded.
“I left it behind, for luck.” “For luck? What sort of luck?” “Six times I brought it, and you were never here; so to-night I just kicked it into the tent and came off without it. It seems to have been about the right thing to do.”
“What, my basket!”
“Your basket. And it was filled with wild flowers, the prettiest I could find. It’s your own fault for not coming before.”
“I never set any day that I know of. I have been up to town.”
Travis was not pleased to hear it.
“Yes; and I saw your company’s manager. What a young man he is! I had no idea managers were ever young. And stylish–my! I’m sure I hope he’ll know me when he sees me again,” she added, coloring and dropping her eyes.
Travis grimly expressed the opinion that he probably would. Nancy continued to strike the wrong note with cruel precision; she could not have done better had she calculated her words; and all the while looking as innocent as the shining water under her feet,–and that last time she had been so kind!
And the ditch was as provoking as Nancy, rewarding his devotion with breaks that defied all explanation. It was not possible that the patience of the management could hold out much longer; and when he should have been dismissed in disgrace from his post, Nancy would lightly class him as another of those “good boys enough, but trifling watchmen.”
The first dry moon was just past the full. At nine o’clock the sky began to whiten above the long, bare ridge of the side-hill cut. At half past, the edge of the moon’s disk clove the sky-line, and the shadow of the ridge crept down among the willows and tule-beds of the bottom. At ten the shadow had shrunk; it lay black on the ditch-bank, but the whispering treetops below were turning in silver light that flickered along the cow-path and caught the still eye of a dark, shallow pool among the tules.
Nancy had chosen this night for a stroll to the bridge, where Travis might be expected to pass, any time between eight o’clock and moonrise. Instead of Travis came a man whom she recognized as one of the watchmen from a lower division. He saluted her, after the custom of the country, claiming nothing on personal grounds but the privilege to look rather hard at the girlish figure silhouetted against the water. It was yet early enough for sky-gleams to linger on still pools, or to color the wimpling reaches of the ditch.
Nancy was disappointed; she had not come out to see a strange rider passing on Travis’s gray horse. Her little plans were disconcerted. She had waited for what she considered a dignified interval, before seeming to take cognizance of her watchman’s hours; now it appeared that the part of dignity might be overdone. Had Travis been superseded on his beat? She was conscious of missing him already. Her walk home, through the confidential willows, struck a chill of loneliness which the aspect of the house did not dispel. All was as dark and empty as she had left it. Was her father still at work at those tedious dams? This had been his given reason for frequent absences of late, after his usual working hours; though why he should choose the dark nights for mending his dams Nancy had not asked herself. To-night she wanted him, or somebody, to drive away this queer new ache that made the moonlight too large and still for one little girl to wander in alone.
She searched for him. He was in none of the expected places; the dank fields were as empty as the house. She turned back to the ditch; from its high bank she could see farther into the shadowy places of the bottom.
Travis, meanwhile, had been leisurely pursuing his evening beat. He had overtaken one of his fellow-watchmen, on foot, walking to town, had lent him his horse for the last two miles to camp, and invited him to help himself to what he could find for supper, without waiting for his host.
“It is a still night,” said Travis; “I’ll mog along slowly up the ditch, and put in a little extra listening: it’s at night the water talks.”
Long after the rider had passed on, the tread of his horse’s hoofs was heard, diminishing on the hard-tramped bank; a loosened stone rattled down and splashed into the water; the wind rustled in the tule-beds; then all surface sounds ceased, and the only talker was the ditch, chuckling and dawdling like an idle child on its errand, which it could not be persuaded to take seriously, to the desert lands.
Travis came to the ticklish spot near the bridge, and stopped to listen. Here the ditch cut through beds of clean sand, where the water might sink and work back into the old ground, the sand holding it like a sponge, till all the bottom became a bog, and the banks sank in one wide-spread, general wash-out. The first symptom of such deep-seated trouble would be the water’s motion in the ditch,–whirling round and round as if boring a hole in the bottom.
Travis laid his ear to the current, for he could judge of the water’s movement by the sound. All seemed right at the bridge, but far up the ditch he was aware of a new demonstration. He listened awhile, and then walked on with long, light steps and gained upon the sound, which persisted, defining itself as a muffled churning at marked intervals, with now and then a wait between. The prodding was of some tool at work under water, at the ditch-bank.
He crossed to the upper side, and moved forward cautiously along the ridge, crouching that his figure might not be seen against the sky.
Nancy had gone up the cow-trail, past the low grounds, and was just climbing the bank when a dark shape, of man or beast, crashed down the opposite slope and shot like a slide of rock into the water.
A half-choked cry followed the plunge, then ugly sounds of a scuffle under the ditch-bank–men breathing hard, sighing and snorting; and somebody gasped as if he were being held down till his breath was gone.
“Get in there, you old muskrat! You shall stop your own breaks if it takes your cursed carcass to do it! Now then, have you got your breath?”
Nancy stayed only to hear a voice that was her father’s, convulsed with terror and the chill of his repeated duckings, begging to be spared the anguish of drowning by night in three feet of ditch-water.
“Mr. Travis,” she screamed, “you let my father be, whatever you are doing to him! Father, you come right home and get on dry clothes!”
Travis was as much amazed as if Diana with the moon on her forehead had appeared on the ditch-bank to take old Solomon Lark under her maiden protection; but no less he stuck to his prize of war.
“Your father hasn’t time to change his clothes just yet, Miss Nancy; he’s got some work to do first.”
“Who are you, to be setting my father to work? Let go of him this minute! You are drowning him; you are choking him to death!” sobbed the frantic girl. The shadow fortunately withheld the details of her father’s condition, but she had seen enough. Had Travis been drinking? Was the man bereft of his senses?
He was quite himself apparently,–hideously cool, yet roused, and his voice cut like steel.
“You had better go home, Miss Nancy, and light a fire and warm a blanket for your father’s bed. He’ll be pretty cold before he gets through with this night’s work.”
After this cruel speech he took no more notice of Nancy, but leaped upon the ditch-bank and began hurling earth in great shovelfuls, patting the old man on the head with his cold tool whenever he tried to clamber up after him.
“You’d better not try that,” he roared in a terrible voice that wounded Nancy like a blow. “Get in there, now! Puddle, puddle, or I’ll have you buried to the ears in five minutes!”
It was shocking, hideous, like a horrible dream. The earth rattled down all about Solomon, and frequently upon him; the water was thick with mud, and the wretched old man tramped and puddled for dear life, helping to mend the hole which he had secretly dug where no eye could discover, till the water had fingered it and enlarged the mischief to a break.
It was the work of vermin, and as such Travis had treated his prisoner. Nancy felt the insult as keenly as she abhorred the cruelty. She fled, hysterical with wrath and despair at her own helplessness. But while she made ready the means of consolation at home, her thinking powers came back, and, between what she suspected and what she remembered, she was not wholly in the dark as to the truth between her father and Travis.
There was no one to warm Travis’s blankets, when he fell back upon camp about daybreak, reeking with cold perspiration, soaked with ditch-water and sore in every muscle from his frenzy of shoveling. He had had no supper the night before; his guest had eaten all the cooked food, burned all his light-wood kindlings, and forgotten to cover the bread-pail, and his bread was full of sand. He didn’t think much of those tenderfeet, who called themselves ditch-men, on that lower division where there was no work at all to speak of.
He began–worse comfort–to consider his police work from a daughter’s point of view. Alas for himself and Nancy! His idyl of the ditch was shattered like the tender sky-reflections that bloomed on its still waters, and vanished when the waters were troubled. His own thoughts were as that roily pool where he had ducked the old man in the darkness. He overslept himself, after thinking he should not sleep at all, and started down his beat not until noon of the next day. Halfway to the bridge on the ditch-bank he met Nancy Lark. She gave him a note, which he dismounted to take, she vouchsafing no greeting, not even a look, and standing apart while he read it, with the air of a martyr to duty.
Mr. Travis [the letter ran],–I am a death-struck man in consequence of your outrageous treatment of me last evening. I’ve took a dum chill, and it has hit me in the vitals through standing in water up to my armpits. If you think your fool ditch is worth more than a Human’s life, though your company’s enemy, that’s for you to settle as you can when the time comes you’ll have to. I don’t ask any favors. But if you got anny desency left in you through working for that fish-livered company of bondholders coming out here to stomp us farmers into the dirt, you will call this bizness quits. I aint in no shape to fight ditches no more. You have put me where I be, and the less said on both sides the better, it looks to me. If that’s so you can say so by word or writing. I should prefer writing as I aint got that confidence I might have. Yours truly,
“Miss Nancy,” said Travis gently, “is your father very sick this morning?”
“I don’t know,” Nancy replied.
“Have you sent for a doctor?”
“He won’t let me.”
“Have you read this letter?” She flashed an indignant look at him.
“I wish you would, then.”
“It is not my letter. I don’t know what’s in it, and I don’t care to know.”
“Do you know what your father was doing in the ditch last night?”
“Helping you to mend it, at the risk of his life, because you made him,” Nancy answered quickly.
“Helping to mend a hole he made himself, so there would be a nice little break in the morning.”
The subject rested there, till Travis, forced to take the defensive, asked:–
“Do you believe me?”
“What I have just told you about your father?”
“Oh,” she said, “it makes no difference to me. I knew my father pretty well before I ever saw you. If you think he was doing that, why, I suppose you will have to think so. But even if he was, I don’t call that any reason you should half drown him, and make him work himself to death beside.”
“But the water was warm! And I did the work. What was it to tread dirt for an hour or so on a summer’s night? Wasn’t he in the ditch when I found him?”
“I don’t know, I’m sure,” said Nancy. “I know that you kept him there.”
“Well, I hope he’ll keep out of the ditch after this. Working at ditches at night isn’t good for his health. But you needn’t be alarmed about him this time; I think he’ll recover. But remember this: last night I was the company’s watchman; I had an ugly piece of work to do and I did it; but, fair play or foul, whatever may happen between your father and me, remember, it is only my work, and you are not in it.”
“Well, I guess I’m in it if my father is,” said Nancy, “and that is something for you to remember.”
“Oh, hang the work and the ditch and all the ditches!” thought Travis; yet it was the ditch that had put color and soul and meaning into his life,–that had given him sight of Nancy. And it was not his work nor his convictions about it that stood between them now; it was her woman’s contempt for justice and reason where her feelings were concerned. The case was simple as Nancy saw it; too simple, for it left him out in the cold. He would have had it complicated by a little more feeling in his direction.
“Well, have I got your answer?” she asked. “Father said I was to bring an answer, but not to let you come.”
“He need not be afraid,” said Travis bitterly. “If he will leave my ditch-banks alone, I shall not meddle with him. Tell him, if there are no more breaks there will be nothing to report. This break is mended–the break in the ditch, I mean.”
“Then you will not tell?” Nancy stole a look at him that was half a plea.
“You would even promise to like me a little, wouldn’t you, if you couldn’t get the old man off any other way?” he mocked her sorrowfully. “Well, I had rather have you hate me than stoop to coax me, as I’ve seen girls do”–
He might be satisfied, she passionately answered; she hated him enough. She hated his work, and the hateful way he did it.
“You are an unmerciful man!” she accused him, with a sob in her voice. “You don’t know the trouble my father has had; how many years he has worked, with nothing but his hands; and now your company comes and claims the water, and turns the river, that belongs to everybody, into their big ditch. I’d like to know how they came to own this river! And when they have got it all in their ditch, all the little ditches and the ponds will go dry. We were here years before any of you ever thought of coming, or knew there was a country here at all. It’s claim-jumping; and not a cent will they pay, and laugh at us besides, and call us mossbacks. I don’t blame my father one bit, if he did break the ditch. If you are here to watch, then watch!–watch me! Perhaps you think I’ve had a hand in your breaks?”
Travis turned pale. He had made the mistake of trying to reason with Nancy, and now he felt that he must go on, in justice to his case, though she was far away from all his arguments, rapt in the grief, the wrath, the conviction, of her plea.
“You talk as women talk who only hear one side,” he replied. “But you people down here don’t know the company’s intentions; they don’t ask, and when they do they won’t believe what they are told. That talk against companies is an old politicians’ drive. This country is too big for single men to handle; companies save years of waiting. This one will bring the railroads and the markets, and boom up the price of land. The ditch your father hates so will make him a rich man in five years, if he does nothing but sit still and let it come.
“As for water, why do you cry before you are hurt? Nobody can steal a river. That is more politicians’ talk, to make out they are the settlers’ friends. We are the settlers’ friends, because we are the friends of the country’s boom; it can’t boom without us. Why should I believe in this company? I’m a poor man, a settler like your father. I’ve got land of my own, but I can see we farmers can’t do everything for ourselves; it’s cheaper to pay a company to help us. They are just peddlers of water, and we buy it. Who owns the other, then? Don’t we own them just as much as they own us?
“Come, if you can’t feel it’s so, leave hating us at least till we have done all these things you accuse us of. Wait till we take all the water and ruin your land. Most of these farmers along the river have got too much water; they are ruining their own land. So I tell your father, but he thinks he knows it all.”
“He is some older than you are, anyhow.”
“He is too old to be working nights in ditches. Tell him so from me, will you?”
“Oh, I’ll tell him! I don’t think you will be troubled much with us around your ditch, after this. I went to the bridge last night because I thought you were nice, and a friend. I had a respect for you more than for any of the others. I might have come to think better of the ditch; but I’ve had all the ditch I want, and all the watchmen. Never, till I die, shall I forget how my father looked,” she passionately returned to the charge. “An old man like him! Why didn’t you put me in and make me tread dirt for you? The water was warm; and I’m enough better able than he was!”
“I’ll get right down here and let you tread on me, and be proud to have you, if it will cure the sight of what you saw me do last night. I was mad, don’t you understand? I have to answer for all this foolishness of your father’s, remember. It had to be stopped.”
“Was there no way to stop it but half drowning him, and insulting him besides?”
“Yes, there is another way; inform the company, and have him shut up in the Pen. I thought I let the old man off pretty easy. But if you prefer the other way, why, next time there’s a break, we can try it.”
“I’m sure we ought to thank you for your kindness,” said Nancy. “And if we are Companied out of house and home, and father made a criminal, we shall thank you still more. Good-morning.”
Their eyes met and hers fell. She turned away, and he remounted and rode on up the ditch, angry, as a man can be only with one he might have loved, down to those dregs of bitterness that lurk at the bottom of the soundest heart.
He was but an idle watchman all that day, so sure he was that the ditch was right and Solomon the author of all his troubles; and Solomon was “fixed” at last. Weariness overcame him, and at the end of his beat he slept, under the lee of the ditch-bank, instead of returning to his camp.
Next morning he was riding along at his usual pace when it struck him how incredibly the ditch had fallen. The line of silt that marked the water’s normal depth now stood exposed and dry, full two feet above its running, and the pulse of the current had weakened as though it were ebbing fast.
He put his horse to a run, and lightened ship as he went, casting off his sack of oats, then his coat and such tools as he could spare; he might have been traced to the scene of disaster by his impedimenta strewing the ditch-bank.
The water had had hours the start of him; its work was sickening to behold. A part of the bank had gone clean out, and the ditch was returning to the river by way of Solomon Lark’s alfalfa fields. The homestead itself was in danger.
He cut sage-brush and tore up tules by the roots, and piled them as a wing-dam against the outer bank, and heaped dirt like mad upon the mats; and as he worked, alone, where forty men were needed, came Nancy, with glowing face, flying down the ditch-bank, calling the word of exquisite relief:–
“I’ve shut off the water. Was that right?”
Right! He had been wishing himself two men, nay, three: one at the bank, and one at the gates, and one carrying word to Finlayson.
“Can I do anything else?”
“Yes; make Finlayson’s camp quick as you can,” Travis panted over a shovelful of dirt he was heaving.
“Yes; what shall I tell him?”
“Tell him to send up everything he has got; every man and team and scraper.”
Nancy was gone, but in a few moments she was back again, wringing her hands, and as white as a cherry-blossom.
“The water is all down round the house, and father is alone in bed crying like a child.”
“There’s nothing to cry about now. You turned off the water; see, it has almost stopped.”
“Can I leave him with you?”
“Great Scott! I’ll take care of him! But go, there’s a blessed girl. You will save the ditch.”
Nancy went, covering the desert miles as a bird flies; she exulted in this chance for reparation. But long after Finlayson’s forces had arrived and gone to work, she came lagging wearily homeward, all of a color, herself and the pony, with the yellow road. She had refused a fresh horse at the ditch-camp, and, sparing the whip, reached home not until after dark.
Her father’s excitement in his hours of loneliness had waxed to a pitch of childish frenzy. He wept, he cursed, he counted his losses, and when his daughter said, to comfort him, “Why, father, surely they must pay for this!” he threw himself about in his bed and gave way to lamentations in which the secret of his wildness came out. He had done the thing himself; and he dared not risk suspicion, and the investigation that would follow a heavy claim for damages.
Nancy could not believe him. “Father, do be quiet; you didn’t do any such thing,” she insisted. “How could you, when I know you haven’t stirred out of this bed since night before last? Hush, now; you are dreaming; you are out of your head.”
“I guess I know what I done. I ain’t crazy, and I ain’t a fool. I made this hole first, before he caught me at the upper one. I made this one to keep him busy on his way up, so’s the upper one could get a good start. The upper one wouldn’t ‘a’ hurt us. It’s jest like my cussed luck! I knew it was a-comin’, but I didn’t think I’d get it like this. It’s all his fault, the great lazy loafer, sleepin’ at the bottom of his beat, ‘stead o’ comin’ up as he’d ought to have done last evening. He wasted the whole night,–and calls himself a watchman!”
“Well, I’m glad of it,” Nancy cried excitedly. “I’m just glad we are washed out, and I hope this will end it!” and she burst into tears, and ran out of the room.
She sat by herself, weeping and storming, in the dark little shed-room.
“Nancy!” she heard her father calling, “Nancy, child!… Where’s that gal taken herself off to?… Are you a-settin’ up your back on account of that ditch? If you are, you ain’t no child of mine…. I’m dum sorry I let on a word to her about it. How do I know but she’s off with it now, to that watchman feller. I’ll be put in the papers–an old man informed on by his darter, and he on his last sick bed!… Nancy, I say, where be you a-hidin’ yourself?”
Nancy returned to her forlorn charge, and after a while the old man fell asleep. She put out the lamp, for she could see to move about the room by the light of the sage-brush bonfires that flared along the ditch, lighting the men and teams, all Finlayson’s force, at work upon the broken banks.
The sight was wild and alluring; she went out to watch the strange army of shadows shifting and intermingling against a wall of flame.
There was a distressful space to cross, of sand and slippery mud and drowned vegetation, including the remains of her garden; the look of everything was changed. Only the ditch-bank against the reddened sky supplied the usual landmark. Its crest was black with shovelers, and up and down in lurid light climbed the scraper-teams; climbed and dumped, and dropped over the bank to climb again, like figures in a stage procession. There was a bedlam roar and crackle of pitchy fires, rattle of harness, clank of scraper-pans, shouts of men to the cattle, oaths and words of command; and this would go forward unceasingly till the banks held water. And what was the use of contending?
Nancy felt bitterly the insignificance of such small scattered folk as her father, pitiful even in their spite. Their vengeance was like the malice of field-mice or rabbits, which the farmers fenced out of their fields into the desert where they belonged. What could such as they do either to help or hinder this invincible march of capital into the country where they, with untold hardships, had located the first claims? And some of them were ready enough, for a little temporary relief, to part with their birthright to these clever sons of Jacob.
“Out we go, to find some other wilderness for them to take away from us! We are only mossbacks,” said the daughter of Esau.
As she spoke, half aloud to herself, a man rushed past her down the bank, flattened himself on his hands, laid his face to the water, and drank and paused to pant, and drank again, while she could have counted a score. Then he lifted his head, sighed, and stretched himself back with a groan of complete exhaustion.
The firelight touched his face, and showed her Travis: haggard, hollow-eyed, soaked with ditch-water, and matted with mud, looking as if he had been dragged bodily through the ditch-bank, like thread through a piece of cloth.
Nancy did not try to avoid him.
“Oh, is it you?” he marveled, softly smiling up at her. “What a splendid ride you made! Did nobody thank you? Finlayson said he couldn’t find you when he was leaving camp.”
Nancy answered not a word; she was trembling so that she feared to betray herself by speaking.
“I was coming to say good-by, when I had washed my face,” he continued. “I got my time to-night.”
“My time-check. They are going to put another man in my place. So you needn’t hate me any longer on account of the ditch; you can transfer all that to the next fellow.”
“Isn’t that just like them? They never can do anything fair!”
“Like who? Do you suppose I’m going to kick about it? The only wonder is they kept me on so long.”
Every word of Travis’s was a knife in Nancy’s conscience, to say nothing of her pride. She hugged her arms in her shawl, and rocked herself to and fro. Travis crawled up the bank a little way further, and stretched himself humbly beside her. The dark shadows under his aching eyes started a pang of pity in the girl’s heart, sore beset as she was with troubles of her own.
“I’m glad it’s duskish,” he remarked, “so you can’t see the sweet state I’m in. I’m all over top-soil. You might rent me to a Chinaman for twenty-five dollars an acre; and I don’t need any irrigating either.”
An irresponsible laugh from Nancy was followed by a sob. Then she gathered herself to speak.
“See here, do you want to stay on this ditch?”
“Of course I do. I wanted to stay till I had straightened out my own record, and shown what the ditch can do. But no management under heaven could stand such work as this.”
“Then stay, if you want to. You have only to say the word. You said you’d inform if there was a next time, and there is. Father did it. He made this break, too; he made them both the same night, and didn’t dare to tell of this one. Now, go and clear yourself and get back your beat.”
“Are you sure of this you are telling me?”
“Well, I guess so. It isn’t the sort of thing I’d be likely to make up. And I say you can tell if you want to. I make you a present of the information. If father isn’t willing to take the consequences, I am; and they half belong to me. I won’t have anybody sheltering us, or losing by us. We have got no quarrel with you.”
“That is brave of you. I wish it was something more than brave,” sighed Travis. “But I want it all myself. I can’t spare this information to the company. You didn’t do it for them, did you?”
“When I go telling on my father to save a ditch, I guess it will be after now,” said Nancy. “If that rich company, with all its men and watchmen and teams and money, can’t protect itself from one poor old man”–
“Never mind the company,” said Travis. “What’s mine is mine. This word you gave to me, it doesn’t belong to my employers. You have saved me to myself; now I shall not go kicking myself for sleeping that night on my beat. It’s not so bad–oh, not half so bad–for me!”
“Then go tell them, and get the credit for it. Don’t you mean to?”
She could not see him smile. “When I tell, you will hear of it.”
“But you talked about your record.”
“I shall have to go to work and make a new record. Ah, if you would be as kind as you are brave! Was it all just for pride you told me this? Don’t you care, not the least bit, about my part–that I am down and out of everything?”
“It’s your own fault, then. I have told you how you can clear yourself and stay.”
“And lose my chance with you! I was thinking of coming back, some day, to tell you–what you must know already. Nancy, you do know!”
“You forget,” shivered Nancy; “I am the daughter of the man you called”–
“Is that fair–to bring that up now?”
“You mustn’t deceive yourself. There are some things that can’t be forgotten.”
“How did I know what I was saying? A man isn’t always responsible.”
“I heard you,” said Nancy. “There are things we say when we are raging mad at a person, and there are things we say when we think them the dirt under our feet. You kept him down with your dirt-shovel, and you called him–what I can’t ever forget.”
“And is this the only hitch between us?”
“I should think it was enough. Who despises my father despises me.”
“But I do not despise him,” Travis did not scruple to assert. “The quarrel was not mine; and I’m not a ditch-man any longer. I will apologize to your father.”
“Oh, I know it costs you nothing to apologize. You don’t mind father–an old man like him! You’d take him in, and give him his meals, and pat him on the head as you would the house-dog that bites because he’s old and cross. Well, I’ll let you know I don’t want you to forgive him, and apologize, and all that stuff. I want you to get even with him.”
“Be satisfied,” said Travis. “The only count I have against your father is through his daughter. There is no way for me to get even with you. And when you have spoiled a man’s life just for one angry word”–
“Not angry,” she interrupted. “I could have forgiven you that.”
“For one word, then. And you call it square when you have given me a piece of information to use for myself, against you! I will go back now and go to work. They can’t say I haven’t earned my wages on this beat.”
He looked down at her, longing to gather her, with all her thorny sweetness, to his breast; but her attitude forbade him.
“Can’t we shake hands?” he said. They shook hands in silence, and he went back and finished the night in the ranks of the shovelers,–to work well, to love well, and to get his discharge at last. Yet Travis was not sorry that he had taken those five miles below Glenn’s Ferry: he had found something to work for.
The company’s officials marveled, as the weeks went by, that nothing was heard of Solomon Lark. He had ever been the sturdiest beggar for damages on the ditch. If he lacked an occasion he could invent one; he was known to be a fanatic on the subject of the small farmers’ wrongs: yet now, with a veritable claim to sue for, the old protestant was dumb. Had Solomon turned the other cheek? There were jokes about it in the office; they looked to have some fun with Solomon yet.
In the early autumn the joking ceased. There was a final reason for the old man’s silence,–Solomon was dead. His ranch was rented to a Chinese vegetable-gardener who bought water from the ditch.
The company, through its officials, was disposed to recognize this unspoken claim that had perished on the lips of the dead. They made an estimate, and offered Nancy Lark a fair sum in consideration of her father’s losses by the ditch.
It was unusual for a company to volunteer a settlement of this kind; it was still more unusual for the indemnity to be refused. Nancy declined, by letter, first; then the manager asked her to call at the office. She did not come. He took pains to hunt her up at the house of her friends in town. He might have delegated the call, but he chose to make it in person, and was struck by an added dignity, a finer beauty in the saddened face of the girl whom he remembered as a bit of a rustic coquette.
He went over the business with her. She was perfectly intelligent in the matter; there had been no misunderstanding. Why then would she not take what belonged to her? Companies were not in the habit of paying claims that were claims of sentiment.
“I have made no claim,” said Nancy.
“But you have one. You inherited one. We do not propose to rob”–
She put out her hand with a gesture of appeal.
“My father had no claim. He never made one, nor meant to make one. I am the best judge of what belongs to me. I don’t want this money, and I will never take one cent of it. But there is a claim you can settle, if you are hunting up claims. It won’t cost you anything,” she faltered, as if some unguarded impulse had hurried her into a subject that she hardly knew how to go on with. She moved her chair back a little from the light.
“There was one of your watchmen, on the Glenn’s Ferry beat, who lost his place on account of those breaks coming one after another”–
“Yes,” said the manager; “there were several that did. Which man do you refer to?”
The name, she thought, was Travis. Then, blushing, she spoke out courageously:–
“It was Mr. Travis. He was discharged just after the big break. You thought it was his carelessness, but it was not. I am the only one that can say so, and I know it. You lost the best watchman you ever had on the ditch when you took his name off your pay-roll. He worked for more than just his money’s worth, and it hurt him to lose that place.”
“Are you aware that he made the worst record of any man on the line?”
“I don’t care what his record was; he kept a good watch. It’s no concern of mine to say so,” she said. Trembling and red and white, the tears shining in her honest eyes, she persisted: “He had his reasons for never explaining, and they were nothing to be ashamed of. I think you might believe me!”
“I do,” said the manager, willing to spare her. “I will attend to the case of Mr. Travis when I see him. I do not think he has left the country. In fact, he was inquiring about you only the other day, in the office, and he seemed very much concerned to hear of your–of the loss you have suffered. Shall I say that you spoke a good word for him?”
“You need not do that,” she answered with spirit. “He knows whether he kept watch. But you may say that I ask, as a favor, that he will answer all your questions; and you need not be afraid to question him.”
Travis was given back his beat, but no more explicit exoneration would he accept. The reason of his reinstatement was not made public, and naturally there was gossip about it among other discharged watchmen who had not been invited to try again.
Two of these cynic philosophers, popularly known as sore-heads, foregathered one morning at Glenn’s Ferry and began to discuss the management and the ditch.
“Travis don’t seem to have so much trouble with the water this year as he had last,” the first ex-watchman remarked. “Used to get away with him on an average once a week, so I hear.”
“He’s married his girl,” the other explained sarcastically. “He’s got more time to look after the ditch.”
There is no sand, now, in Travis’s bread; the prettiest girl on the ditch makes it for him, and walks beside him when the lights are fair and the shadows long on the ditch-bank. And it is a pleasure to record that both Nancy and the ditch are behaving as dutifully as girls and water can be expected to do, when taken from their self-found paths and committed to the sober bounds of responsibility.
Flowers bloom upon its banks, heaven is reflected in its waters, fair and broad are the fertile pastures that lie beyond; but the best-trained ditch can never be a river, nor the gentlest wife a girl again.