WeirdSpace Digital Library - Culture without borders
30,000 on the Hoof
Zane Grey (1940) Country of origin: USA
Available texts by the same author here
Lucinda watched the drifting snow. It was late in the afternoon of a winter day. A steely brightness showed where the sun hung over the western fringe of the canyon, and black patches stood out on the south slopes where the snow had melted. The dry, scattered flakes swirled down; ceaselessly the wind moaned in the pines. During these winter months that ghostly wind had been the cruellest of Lucinda's trials. She hated it. She feared it. For ever it haunted her with the spectre of loneliness and isolation. When the storm-king raged out of the north, sometimes it drove her frantic. In the dead of night, when Logan slept beside her like a log, it was endurable, but she could not refrain from listening. There would come a lull, and then a faint moan far off. It would grow and swell, and sweep through the forest, mounting to a tremendous roar. She could feel the cabin move over the roots of the great swaying pines. The roar would move on, dying to a moan.
Twilight was creeping out from under the walls. It would soon be dark. When Logan did not come home by nightfall she would fall prey to uneasy worry. It was nearly time to begin supper. The fire was red, the kettle beginning to sing.
The months had dragged by. Logan Huett was not only a natural hunter, but also a rancher who had conceived a passion to kill predatory beasts. Day after day he left Lucinda by herself in the cabin. At first she nearly died of loneliness, but she never let her husband see that. She had her housework, her sewing, and her knitting--tasks she left numberless times to look out, as she was gazing now, unseeingly across the cold, white, black-tipped ridge to the outside world. Logan had killed nine cougars, and many coyotes. The wolves, however, had so far been too keen for him.
His herd, his poor little herd of cattle, had dwindled to the brindle bull and three cows. Calves, heifers, steers all gone, except the furry bags of bones! That had been heart-rending for Logan. He dreaded this would defeat his cherished hopes, yet he was a man whom nothing could stop. His one consolation was the growth of Lucinda's respect and love for him. In many ways Huett was wanting. He was neither callous nor selfish nor indifferent, but his great fault was his blindness to the martyrdom that he had nailed upon his wife. Long since, however, Lucinda had given herself to his project, and nothing could have swerved her from it now. She had resolved to make herself the helpmate of the pioneer. She had every qualification, but her one weakness was her sensitive mind, her emotional nature.
Hours on end she had pondered over the lives of the women who had come before her to this devastating West. What had happened to them? If they had been delicately organized as she was, they had become hardened to meet the callousness and brutality of the wilderness; or else they had died.
Lucinda was heavy with child now in this last winter month, and the feeling of life within her had been the best resistance to the morbidness of the early weeks of that season. She had always loved children. She longed for some of her own. She wanted passionately to give Logan the sons he would need in this long fight to success, but giving birth to them in this desolate hole in the forest appalled her as nothing else ever had. The nursing and caring for them as babies did not loom so terribly; nevertheless, it struck her deeply. When they grew old enough for her to teach--that would be her happy task; and when they were lads, big enough to ride and shoot and plant and chop, to do all Logan talked so fondly of--that would be wonderful.
She fought loyally against the tragedy that seemed inevitable, against the disillusionment which hung in the balance, against the magnifying fears that beset her.
Down across the pale track of daylight upon the snow Lucinda made out the dark figure of Huett, bowed under a burden, with the dog trotting beside him. Turning away from the window, she threw wood on the wire, lighted a pine cone, and set about her neglected supper task. Presently she heard a crunching of snow and pattering sounds, then the thud of a heavy pack upon the porch. The door opened, letting in a cold blast of air and flying snow. Logan came stamping in, virile and forceful, followed by the whining dog.
"You're late, Logan," said Lucinda, "so I thought I'd better wait till you came before getting supper."
"Hello, girl!--Late nothing. I'm early to what I expected," he replied, cheerfully. "Luce, this dog of yours will trail a cougar--any kind of cat, and bear, too. But she won't take a wolf track."
"Blood tells, you know. What did you do to-day?"
"Lord, let me see. What didn't I do?...First off Coyote chased a lioness up a tree--the biggest cat I've killed. After I skinned her out I visited my traps. Had a mink, marten, or beaver in each one of them. I skinned those out. Then I shot and hung a buck. We'll have fresh meat again. Coming home I had a look at the place we drove down to get in here. Snow all off. Think I'll begin work on that road we need so bad--I can cut trees and brush away, build a fence and a gate where I piled those poles, and be ready when the ground gets soft to grade a road out."
"How soon will that be, Logan?"
"I reckon pretty soon, if signs can be trusted. We must be well into March. Funny I couldn't find that calendar. I stuck it some place...It's getting time we should keep track of days on your account."
"Logan, I told you the baby would come in July."
"No, you didn't...Maybe I forgot. Anyway, I'm glad it'll be midsummer."
"You must have the doctor from Flagg for me."
"Well, I will if it's possible. But I'll sure have some woman to see you through it...Pour me a basin of hot water, Luce, and rustle supper."
Day by day the sun grew higher and warmer. The snow, except that which lay under the walls facing north, melted away, yet it seemed to Lucinda that spring came all at once. The turkey gobblers must have thought the same, because one day they began to gobble from every hilltop. It was a chorus Lucinda never tired of hearing.
The brook ran bank-full of smoky snow-water; the jays came back to squall in the trees; the warm winds began to dry up the boggy places.
"Got the road all graded out tip-top," said Huett, one evening. "Reckon to-morrow I'll mend harness and grease the wagon."
"You'll be leaving for town soon?" queried Lucinda, anxiously. She would be left alone--the bitterest test of the pioneer's wife.
"Not very soon, much as I'd like to," replied the homesteader, seriously..."We're most out of supplies. Holbert told me the road would be good here a month sooner than up beyond Mormon Lake. But there's a heap of work. I'll plot out the fields and gardens--clear them up and get ready to plough. My! what rich soil we have, Luce. We can live while we're starting that herd."
"Have you any money, Logan?"
"Not much. But my credit is good. Besides, I've got a pack of pelts to sell. If I'd known last fall what I know now, I'd have trapped a wagon-load of furs. That's a dodge I'll work next winter."
All too soon for Lucinda the time arrived that Huett had set to leave for Flagg. If he had been less practical and less engrossed with his important journey, the condition of roads, the prices of cattle and merchandise, he could not have failed to see Lucinda's vain effort to hide her agitation at this first parting; but he took his leaving as a matter of course, and evidently thought she did also. After he had gone Lucinda wept nearly the whole day. When night came she barred herself in the cabin, and stayed up late, busying herself at various tasks in the dim light. Coyote slept by the hearth. At times, involuntarily, Lucinda stopped her work to listen. At night it never rested--that awful wilderness, wind. It rustled along the ground outside, moaned under the eaves, mourned in the pines. After she went to bed it kept her awake until she buried her head under the blanket.
Compared with the night, the day was blessed relief, yet even the light had its drawbacks. She could see the frightening loneliness then--the long, winding, grey-walled canyon without a sign of life. She wanted some hunter or settler to happen along, although she feared even that. She worked the long hours away.
Doggedly she kept count of the days. On the afternoon of the tenth she heard the grind of iron wheels upon stone, and then Logan's trenchant call to the oxen. The dog flew out of the open door. Lucinda thrilled to her depths. She saw Logan driving down to the level, and felt that at last all was well with her once more.
Logan was clean-shaven. How handsome his tanned, lean face! His dark eyes beamed upon her. Lucinda felt weak with her relief, her happiness, her sense of utter dependence upon this man.
"Oh, Logan--I'm so glad--you're back!" She almost wept with relief of the strain that had burdened her.
"Hello, wife! You and home look mighty sweet to me...Six months' mail for you. Heaps of it. And a whole canvas pack of bundles. Got all on your list, and added some on my own hook...How'd you manage without me?"
"I worked far better--and slept less," she said with an attempt at levity as she received the heavy pack he handed down.
"Any hombres show up round here?" he queried, halting in his task to fasten intent eyes on her.
"I haven't seen man nor beast since you left. Darling, I would have welcomed an Indian--or even a grizzly bear."
"Well, maybe...Here, I better lift this pack down. It weighs a ton." He balanced the long bundle on the wagon-wheel and, leaping down, carried it into the cabin. "Luce, I had some durn good luck. That explains the big load. You know those pelts I had and how you complained last winter because I killed and trapped the poor dear beasts? Well, I got eight dollars for beaver hides, five for mink and three for marten. What do you say to that? Saved me from going into debt! I've got supplies to last till fall, corn and beans and potatoes to plant. No end of seeds. And some much-needed farm tools. Best of all, I bought another little bunch of cows and heifers from Holbert. I'll have to rustle after them some', day soon...All paid for, Luce!"
"That's wonderful, dear. I'm so glad you didn't need to go in debt," exclaimed Lucinda.
"We'll begin all over again. Believe me, I wasn't the only rancher south of Flagg to lose stock last winter. Bad winter for varmints! That grey wolf ran amuck up Holbert's way...Lots of other news, but I'm not much of a hand to remember things. Reckon it'll come to me bit by bit...but one thing I do recall--old Geronimo broke out of the reservation with his braves, and made south for Mexico, killing and burning. By God, Crook should have hanged that old devil. I reckon my redskin friend Matazel was one of them."
"Matazel! You mean that grey-eyed Apache who swore he'd live to get even with you?" queried Lucinda, her face paling. "But isn't he dangerous?"
"You needn't be afraid, Luce," Logan assured her. "I'd; love to have a bat with him, but General Miles with a regiment of soldiers are hot-footing it on the track of the Apaches.' They'll get Geronimo eventually. It'll be a long, hard, bloody, chase, though. Apaches are light steppers and they cover ground."
"But wasn't this forest once their hunting-ground?"
"They ranged all through the Mongollons and the Matazels once upon a time. But that is past. We needn't worry about them, dear...Well, you read your mail while I unpack."
Lucinda felt an inexplicable reluctance to open her letters and bridge the measureless gap between the present and the past. But after the poignant plunge, she gained some nameless solace and strength. Life had gone on without any particular changes to her loved ones. It was an interesting and awesome thing to read the gossip of old friends. She received a melancholy pleasure in hearing about the vicissitudes of the teacher who had succeeded her with that unruly class. Lucinda's sister, having attained the mature age of sixteen, wrote that she would be happy to come West and marry a pioneer like Logan--if Lucinda would find him for her. Lucinda whispered, "God forbid!" under her breath and then felt amazement and shame. Had she come to such intolerance as that? But she decided she would nip in the bud any such growing sentiment. One Baker girl sacrificed to the vast empire of the West was enough! Altogether, then, Lucinda's letters re-established relations and renewed memories that were good for her.
Lucinda was glad to get outdoors with Logan. She found that being penned indoors for months had contributed much to her inclination towards morbid thought. Her energy came back, and with it something of enthusiasm. At least, she found some satisfaction in her yielding to work in the open. She laboured steadily at the planting, though not violently, and appeared to grow less heavy and loggy for the exertion.
To plant things in the earth seemed to Lucinda a happier and safer way to expend labour than to use it on the raising of cattle. In the main, the soil was sure. Lucinda loved the smell of the freshly tilled loam. She loved to get her hands in it.
Logan's especial pride was in the cornfield. Only a man of such enormous strength and endurance as he possessed could have ploughed and planted such a big field, alone and in such short time. Besides that, with Lucinda's help he put in an acre of beans, a large plot of potatoes and many rows of cabbage, and lastly a considerable area of turnips. He had a leaning towards produce that could be fed to stock.
Lucinda planted sunflowers and golden-glow on the porch side of the cabin. These homely flowers would be reminders of her mother, with whom they were favourites.
Huett's estimate of the fertility of that canyon soil had not been without warrant. There was one section rich with black leaf-mould, where seeds sprouted as if by magic, and potatoes and cabbage came up almost over-night. Corn and beans followed as if loath to be left behind in the race for fecundity. Logan raved to his wife that Sycamore Canyon was a land of milk and honey.
However, he had reckoned without his host! The crows and gophers began at once to contest with Logan his right to the soil. Once more he became a hunter. Lucinda heard a carbine popping all day long. He planted props with old coats and hats all around the fields. He made scarecrows of dead crows, and it was only by the greatest vigilance that he saved his crops.
In June he took two days off to ride to Mormon Lake and drive back the new stock he had purchased from Holbert. When he turned these cows and heifers loose in the canyon no one would have guessed that he had suffered a grievous loss. Lucinda heard him laugh and whistle as he had while building the cabin. Then presently she heard him swear as never before. When his corns and beans attracted the deer, his rage knew no bounds. He did not want to shoot the deer; and every dawn and every dusk he and Coyote had to chase the four-footed destroyers out of the fields.
As Lucinda's time drew nearer she fell prey to the morbid old fears. Logan had assured her that Mother Holbert had brought forth a troop of children, counting her own and her daughters', and that she would come the instant Logan rode after her. Holbert had a light buggy in which the trip back could be made in four hours. Nevertheless neither Logan nor this experienced old mother could still the voice that whispered to Lucinda. It was like the voice in the pine-tops, that whisper of tidings from the unknown. Lucinda had all the yearnings, the hallowed anticipations of a mother, the vague feelings of fulfilment to come; and these were beautiful, all-satisfying, strong and sweet and rewarding. Nevertheless they did not preclude the dark forebodings nor the instinctive blind terror of child-birth. All these distressed her despite Logan's assurances that a woman would be with her. A presentiment that she would be left alone filled her with uneasiness.
Huett did not see this. He was kind, even loving, but he was stupid. Lucinda felt that she wanted to fly into a rage and flout him with his preoccupation in his practical tasks. Here she was about to go down into the valley of the shadow for him, for his offspring, and he felt no concern.
Logan rose at daybreak and rushed out to shout and shoot the deer out of the fields. All day he toiled in the fields; at night he ate like a wolf, smoked a pipe, and if he conversed at all, it was about his new-born calves, or his corn. He then tumbled into bed to sleep the sleep of honest toil. In the darkness of night, while Lucinda lay awake, helpless in the loneliness he had failed to break through, she almost hated him. Then when day came again she would reproach herself for such black thoughts. This burden was something a woman must bear alone.
Then one day she sustained a pang which instinctively warned her that the crucial time had come.
"Logan!--Go after Mrs. Holbert! Make haste!" she implored.
Her husband gave her one comprehending look and rushed out. A few minutes later Lucinda heard iron-shod hoofs cracking the rocks on the road. She sat down, composing herself with the courage of despair. Logan could be depended upon to return with someone in six hours or less. But that might be too late. She was but a woman whose intelligence grasped the inevitableness of the time, whose delicately sensitive nature shrank in terror from a repetition of that terrific first pang. It did not do any good to try to think how she would meet the situation alone. She felt the slow ascendancy of the animal. She was in the clutches of Nature. The pang recurred, to be prolonged into a paroxysm of agony. At its conclusion Lucinda heard voices and footsteps and Logan entered with a man and two women.
"Luce! talk about--luck," panted Logan. "I run plumb--into these good folks...Tom Warnock--his wife and mother--travelling south...They'll see us--through this."
Lucinda smiled a welcome to the kind-faced, eager women. Then she was seized again--dragged down to the primitive verge, where her last conscious thought was that she did not care for sympathy or help, or even for her life that was begetting life.
The Warnocks stayed three days at Sycamore Canyon, until Lucinda's condition was satisfactory to the womenfolk, and then they drove away, leaving Lucinda immeasurably grateful, and Logan a prey to doubt and gloom. He told Lucinda that Warnock, a rancher and cattleman of long experience, thought that this natural-fenced canyon was a delusion and a snare. True, it would keep cattle from straying and it was wonderfully fertile, but that was all the good the could say for it. He advised Logan to homestead some other range.
"What would you do, Luce?" he asked, appealingly.
Lucinda was sure Logan would never give up his canyon. He had dreamed of it for years; he had set his heart upon it, and no matter what the obstacles were he would rise superior to them. She knew that her part was to encourage and sustain.
"What do you care for Warnock's opinion?" she said sharply. "He was either envious or mistaken. He admitted you had a fenced range and a fertile one. Your strength and industry will make up for the drawbacks."
She had never before seen her husband respond so markedly to words from her. He brightened and cast off his pondering dark mood.
"Right! I should have come to you sooner," he declared. "I have my homestead, my cattle range. My dear wife and son! Surely I can work to deserve them."
The baby made a vast and inexplicable difference to Lucinda. When she recovered her strength, so that she could go about her duties, she was as happy as she had been miserable. Logan named his son George Washington Huett, and worshipped him. Lucinda could never have been convinced that her husband had it in him to waste time over an infant in a basket. But eventually she divined that this tiny son was Huett's self repeated, his perpetuation. Huett might be thinking that George would grow into a sturdy son to help conquer this wilderness. Whatever it was that went through the father's mind, it made Lucinda rejoice.
The canyon took on a transformation in Lucinda's eyes. Daily it grew in her sight until the long, grey sweep of range, the sloping, black-fringed walls were bearable. The great tall pines, never silent, always mournful, began to whisper a different language to her. The brook sang by day and the crickets by night that she must find herself and content her heart there. Such possibility had come with the baby.
In six weeks she was working with Logan in the fields. Many times they were driven indoors by the sudden electrical storms. As the days grew more sultry these storms increased in frequency and intensity. The sky would be azure blue, with cloud-ships of white sailing across. Then some would show with darkening, mushrooming centres, followed by an inky pall. Jagged forked lightning and splitting thunderbolts, peculiarly Arizonian in their intensity and power, awakened Lucinda's old fear of storms. And it grew in proportion to the vastly sharper and more numerous zigzag flashes and the looming, thundering volume of sound. The splitting shock and the crash of a struck pine added materially to the threat of the storm, as well as the hollow slamming of echoes from wall to wall. The smell of brimstone always preceded the smell of electrically burned wood. Rain poured in torrents upon the cabin roof.
"Nothing to be afraid of, wife," Logan said stolidly, as he watched from the open door. "Lightning never strikes down in a canyon. That's another good feature about our homestead."
This period of storm lasted less than a month. For Logan its worst feature was that it beat down his corn and washed the soil from the roots of his beans. It was followed by hot weather. Day after day grew hotter. The heat reflected from the stone walls and proved that Logan had planted his corn and beans in the wrong place, and had made no provision for a blasting torrid spell. His patch of beans burned up; his half-matured cabbage wilted as if under the blast of a furnace; his turnips withered, and at last the ten acres of corn, over which he had toiled early and late and which had been his pride, drooped sear and brown, leaf and ear dead on the stalk.
Huett took this sickening destruction of his crops bitterly to heart. It hurt him as had the depredations upon his cattle. His first herd--his first season's planting--all for naught!
"But, husband dear, look at our baby. Look at little George Washington!" exclaimed Lucinda, praying to say the right thing, to renew the courage of this headstrong defeated man.
Huett shouted, as if to the skies. "It was nothing. Only a lesson!...George and you are all that count--bless your hearts!"