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30,000 on the Hoof

Country of origin: USA USA
Available texts by the same author here Dokument

Chapter 6

   September came, with its fringe of golden rod and its clumps of purple asters. The hot spell slowly surrendered to the cooling nights.
   Holbert had brought Lucinda a neighbourly gift in the shape of a setting-hen and a dozen eggs, which he vowed were worth their weight in gold on the range. Lucinda diligently watched the hen, and when the twelve little fluffy chicks hatched out, her delight was unconfined. She had developed a deep satisfaction in the birth of living things. The hen was a great pet, and kept her brood round the cabin. Lucinda feared the prowlers of the night, and shut up her little feathered family carefully at sundown.
   Towards the end of September, when the chickens had grown to a respectable size, Lucinda missed one, then another, both of which disappeared during the daytime. Logan took the matter seriously. It seemed that whatever they attempted was destined to failure. He told Lucinda that he believed a coyote or fox was to blame for the depredations. Lucinda's chickens continued to vanish, and she was unable to discover the source of their disappearance until one day she heard the mother hen squawking at a great rate. She hurried to the door just in time to see a wide-winged hawk flying towards the tree-tops with a struggling pullet in its talons. Then, if never before in her life, Lucinda experienced the blood lust mounting dangerously within her. She watched the hawk fly to a dead limb and there calmly begin to rend and devour the chicken. Logan was close at hand, working on a fence with which he intended to enclose a large area under the opposite wall. At Lucinda's call he came running.
   "Logan! It's a murderous hawk," she cried, in rage, pointing at the bird of prey. "It's eating my chicken--right before my eyes. Kill it!"
   "Hen-hawk," muttered Logan. He dashed indoors to emerge with his rifle. "If he sets there a second longer it's Katy, bar the door!"
   Logan elevated the rifle and appeared to freeze into a statue. Lucinda clapped her hands over her ears, but she watched. At the sharp crack of the rifle she saw a puff of red-brown feathers drift away on the wind, and the hawk, releasing its prey, pitched off its perch to sail heavily downwards.
   "He's hard hit, Luce," said Logan, grimly. "But we won't take any chances." As the hawk came along overhead, sagging, Logan shot again to bring it hurtling to the ground across the brook. He went to fetch it, while Lucinda returned to the cabin a little surprised at the fierceness of her feeling and its weakening reaction. It was a death-dealing place, this awful wilderness of pine ridge and grassy canyon. Now she clearly saw that it was well that Logan possessed as unerring an aim as he did and an unrelenting heart. Not for days did she recover completely from the sickening spectacle of that hawk calmly devouring her pullet alive. Logan had told her that both wolves and cougars loved hot blood--to tear down their prey and glut themselves while the deer or heifer was dying. Before, this would have shocked her, but gradually she was growing insensible to all but the most devastating crises.
   October came with a promise of the quiet, purple, smoky days of autumn. The leaves appeared to be slow in colouring. Logan said there had been slight frosts, and that if rain came with the equinox, which was late that fall, there would be a riot of gold and scarlet and purple.
   Every day Lucinda carried the baby in his basket across to where Logan was at work, and while he slept in the shade she helped her husband. He was on a big job which he hoped to complete soon so that he could drive to Flagg for winter supplies. He was building a fence of Toles, high enough to shut out any beast but a cougar, and here he meant to keep the seven calves born the past summer. Shed and corral had already been completed under the wall.
   After Logan finished the fence he began to cut the unmatured corn. It would make good fodder, he said. Lucinda laid the stocks in bundles, as they were too short to stack. Logan hauled two wagon-loads to the shed and stored them for winter.
   "Won't you take me to Flagg with you?" she asked pleadingly, one evening, after their field work was done.
   "And take the baby?" he asked, in surprise.
   "Of course. I couldn't leave him here."
   "Wouldn't it be hard on the kid?"
   "That is what has worried me. Would it be--very?"
   "Would it? Well, I guess. Hard on you both. You've forgotten how rough that road is. I'll have a big load coming back. Reckon you better not risk it."
   Lucinda did not quite understand the gravity of her desire to visit Flagg, but she did not press Logan further. She wanted to, go to town, see people, make purchases with which Logan could not be trusted; she hated the thought of being left alone again--but none of these reasons accounted wholly for her intense wish to accompany him. At length she reluctantly decided to remain at home, and kept to herself one of her vague, queer intimations.
   "I'll have heaps of work when I get back," Logan said. "If we should have an early winter, I'd just be out of luck. And I'm afraid we will. I see birds dropping down here on their way south, and every varmint I've run across has thicker fur than last year. That's good, because I'm going to trap a lot of fur this winter. The acorns have thick hulls and they're falling already...By gosh, I was p sick about the corn and beans and cabbage that I forgot about the potatoes. Reckon they never grew at all. But that patch was planted in the black soil. Never saw such rich ground..."
   "I'll look, and if there are any I'll dig them," rejoined Lucinda.
   "Good. You'll find sacks in the shed...But doggone, I kind of hate to go this trip." He scratched his head. "No money. Six months of supplies. I need traps, and so many other things I haven't even counted them...Heigho. I'll need my credit this trip sure."
   "Why do you dislike taking credit?"
   "I don't. All farmers and ranchers live on it. But they have crops and herds coming on. My crop failed, and it'll be long before I raise any cattle. I must depend on the pelts I can trap. Last fall, when I was hunting over across the ridge, I ran on to a beaver dam that was a humdinger. Lake as big as this bench. Lots of beaver there. I'll work it this winter, till the snow gets too deep on top."
   Still Logan lingered on at the ranch, finding odd jobs to do. One of these was deflecting the outlet of the spring to run it down close by the cabin, a task that could well have been left, but Lucinda had found it handy to fill a bucket right at her door. About mid-October, when the weather was at its best, she advised Logan to go. She resisted sending for things she thought she needed, although she had begun to realize how she could do without almost everything. What she could not improvise, she dispensed with. Clothes, medicines, luxuries--these she had forgotten. And when she remembered, she thought of her trunk full of bride's dresses and flimsy garments. How useless here on the range! But she vowed she would not give up yet and grow old and never care about her appearance.
   It dawned upon Lucinda after a day longer that Logan wanted to ask her for money, but was ashamed. She thought it best to keep that five-hundred-dollar marriage gift intact, for there would come a time when she would need it more than now.. So she pretended not to guess his feeling, and when he finally asked her outright, she evaded both consent and denial. Nevertheless Logan left in a huff, perhaps because he had weakened to ask her. How sure she was that he would be glad some day for her strength!
   As the weather had cooled, Lucinda's energy had returned full tide. She felt that she would develop into a fit mate for Huett, if she could only learn to subjugate her thoughts to the practical tasks that confronted settlers. But she always thought and felt too acutely.
   The morning of Logan's departure, she left Coyote to guard the baby, and she went up the canyon to gather wild grapes. This was the first time she had ever been round the bend. Here the canyon did not have the characteristics that marked it below. The walls were hidden; the forest covered slope and floor; the brook poured out from a green-gold bank to leap over a ledge; the aspens blazed in golden glory and the maples burned scarlet. The grape-vines hung from oak trees along the brook, and their mingled foliage of bronze and russet added to the prevailing colour. The pines were scattered, allowing the sun to shine through in broad rays. Lucinda stopped to gaze in surprise and what was almost consternation. It was lovely there. She had never until that moment accorded any beauty to Sycamore Canyon. She had seen it first at the drab end of autumn, when her receptiveness had been blunted by her terrible disappointment.
   A flock of wild turkeys scattered as she approached the grape-vines. The big birds had been feeding there. Lucinda heard the "Put-put-put" of a hen calling young ones. She felt an affinity with that mother. Lucinda filled her basket in short order. The large purple grapes made those with which she was familiar in Missouri look insignificant.
   She rested several times on the way back to the cabin. The basket was heavy. And she kept looking back. The wildness and loneliness of the solitude did not prohibit beauty. Really they enhanced it, as Lucinda saw with clearer eyes. Logan's ruthless axe had not desecrated here.
   Lucinda resolved to go back often to that coloured glen. It grew upon her. Whatever had enlightened her or removed, the scales from her eyes, she must trust and cultivate. She had found melancholy happiness in the tending of her sunflowers; surely there was a relation between that and this new-found pleasure in the woodland. Since the coming of the baby she divined that it was a deeper and more motivating power than she had felt before. Huett's salvation depended upon lusty sons.
   Upon arriving at the cabin again, Lucinda set the basket of grapes upon the porch and curiously looked down the canyon. It appeared that she looked through a transformed medium. Grey field and winding brook, forbidding walls of stone and yellow, red-spotted slopes, high ravines choked with wild growth, and black-fringed ridges against the blue sky--all had become invested with a glamour as real as the purple haze that hung over everything like smoke.
   "Oh, if this--this only lasts!" cried Lucinda, and turned' to her work. It was to find that her task did not prohibit visual and mental study of the changed wilderness.
   She built a fire outdoors and put the large iron kettle upon it. How vividly this outdoor fire, the smell of smoke, and the kettle, recalled the autumn days at home when her mother made, peach jam and apple butter to preserve for winter! And hard on that succeeded the poignant pinch of her poverty. She' had nothing to preserve for winter except the wild grapes she had stolen from the turkeys.
   While these grapes were stewing Lucinda happened to think of the potato crop, long given up by Logan as a failure. She took the forked spade from among Logan's few tools, and hurried out across the canyon to the shaded swale of black soil. It was a long, narrow acre lined by some big pine trees. The shrivelled potato-plants were hardly to be found in the grass and weeds, but the outline of the long rows could be discerned.
   Lucinda shoved the spade deep under some dead vines and pried upwards. The spade stuck in something hard. Pulling it out, she uncovered the hill, to expose great brown potatoes, one of which showed the wet marks where the fork had pierced. Lucinda fell upon her knees in virtual rapture to dig energetically with her hands. Potatoes! Could she be dreaming? In that single hill she unearthed nineteen, all solid, perfect, and some as large as quart measures. Missouri could not boast of such potatoes as these. That black soil--mast, Logan called it, a mould of leaf and pine needle--accounted for such growth. But Lucinda could not trust to this one hill. She dug up another, to exhume half a dozen enormous ones. Then she tried a hill in another row, and then another, with a like result. Evidently they had matured early in the rich soil before the hot spell came.
   "Oh, it isn't all bad--Logan's luck!" she exclaimed, gladly. "What a pity he didn't find out before he left! He could have hauled a whole wagon-load to Flagg."
   She carried some of the potatoes back to the cabin, thinking that she would endeavour to dig and sick the crop before Logan's return. By mid-afternoon she had filled all her crocks with the grape-jam. Then she milked the two cows Logan had put in the pen, after which she got her supper.
   Sunset blazed gold and red down in the canyon, and when it faded the cool wind breathed down from the heights.
   At dusk Lucinda barred herself in the cabin. Coyote had been her only companion before, but now she had the bright-eyed, crowing baby. The mother side of her felt like a lioness; there remained, however, that stifled but resurging nature of Lucinda Baker which she feared would never grow callous to loneliness, to solitude, to dread of elemental things and the worse ones of the imagination.
   The wind did not rise and no wild beasts prowled about the cabin. Lucinda went to sleep and did not awaken until the hungry baby proclaimed his wants. When the smoky, still morning came, and Lucinda saw the white on the grass and the blanket of fog far down the canyon, she thought she had gained a victory over herself.
   That day, in addition to her other tasks, Lucinda dug three rows of potatoes, and spread them out to dry. Before she stopped she found it back-breaking toil. Yet it had made her happy as cooking and washing and mending never had. The dank odour of the black soil, the feel of the potatoes, the hot sun pouring down, and the sweat on her brow--all proof that she had the vigour and the will, that she was indisputably a pioneer wife--these raw sensations, added to the uplifting ones of yesterday, made her perceive her lot in a stronger, clearer light, made her begin to build against the outrageous shocks that she knew must ensue.
   Hour after hour Lucinda laboured in the field. If she halted occasionally to catch her breath or straighten her aching back, she gazed out at the ever-changing canyon scene. Sometimes she saw Logan's cattle down the grey stretch; often deer and turkeys watched her without fleeing; once a herd of elk, some with great antlered heads, rolled and cracked the stones on the slope. And every day the smoky veil of autumn deepened, the stillness grew more pronounced, the colours took on more fiery hues, the plaintive notes of birds heading south accentuated the silence. A living, breathing presence in the great forest seemed to hang suspended over them, waiting for a voice.
   At last, on the eighth day, Lucinda sacked the final pile of potatoes; and she viewed the field with more than satisfaction. Huett's amaze and gladness would be divided between sight of this abounding yield of potatoes and realization of his wife's prodigious labours.
   Lucinda finished strongly, but ruefully looked at her calloused palms and the capable, hands that had once been tender. She would never again see them white and soft, even if the dirt could be scrubbed out of the blistered skin. Her round arms were as brown as the oak leaves, and her tanned face had become impervious to the sun. The little wall-mirror told Lucinda that she was a handsomer woman than she had been a girl. But who was there to see her now? Logan never looked at her that way. Lucinda experienced a poignant return of the old yearning for friendly faces, gay voices, for the life that she had been brought up in. The old revolt against loneliness, against this bitter, forsaken range where she had blindly expected to find neighbours, women, close at hand, lifted its hydra-head and had to be cudgelled down. Neighbourly settlement of this land would never come in her day. She must resign that longing, she must make work, baby, and Logan fill her life. There was always compensation for loss. She believed in time she would find consolation in toil such as she had just ended.
   That afternoon the sun had faded under a grey haze. Lucinda marked the change only at sunset, when she missed the rose and gold colours. She feared it might mean a change in the weather. Wet, heavy roads would slow Huett, if not detain him. Probably he was far on his way home now. She refused to be depressed by the untoward sign, did her chores as usual, and went to bed early.
   Sooner or later Lucinda awakened. Apparently no sound had disturbed her rest. The child was asleep beside her. Coyote did not move. She listened. And she became aware of such silence as had never before lain upon that cabin. She could not tell where the window was, which proved that the night outside was as black as pitch. The air felt appreciably warmer.
   After a prolonged moment of suspense and uncertainty; a low rumble, almost indistinguishable, came up out of the south-west. It sounded far away. Lucinda wondered if it was a landslide somewhere in one of the canyons. Avalanches were heard infrequently, though they occurred in the spring or rainy season.
   Moments dragged on. It came again--a faint rumble, as if made by a rolling rock. Then a long interval ensued before the next disturbance, which seemed closer, louder, and was unmistakably thunder. Could it be a belated thunderstorm, at the end of October? Then she remembered Logan's telling her that some of the worst storms known to the canyon country of Arizona slipped up at night heralded by a few insignificant rumbles of thunder.
   Ah! Her arch-enemy, the wind! A long, strange sigh seemed to sift through the forest, on over the cabin, and down the canyon. It ceased. Lucinda strained her sensitive ears. Even the tips of the pines were silent. Then the still, oppressive heaviness and impenetrable blackness warned Lucinda that she had not sensed these before. Dread clamped down upon her.
   Suddenly, lightning flared, weird and pale outside the window, to be followed almost instantly by an angry short clap of thunder. Lucinda gathered her endurance to withstand more; but there was no continued flash of lightning and roll of splitting clouds.
   Instead the wind gained strength in volume. Its soft, low moan swelled to a steady wail that grew, seemed swallowed up in an oncoming roar. Lucinda trembled under her blankets. This storm could be no less than the belated equinoctial disturbance--in that latitude a dreadful onslaught of the elements.
   A mighty roar of gale swooped over the canyon. Lucinda could sense that the fiercer stratum of wind passed over her cabin, missing all but the tops of the lofty pines. Above the tumult, up on the ridges, crash after crash split the din, witness to the fact that old and dead pines were falling like leaves before the blast.
   But Lucinda knew that the autumnal hurricane was no respecter of pines, even like those in the prime of life which surrounded the canyon. She heard them creak, she felt their sway in the lift of the cabin. That one giant with the blasted top--she was positive that one would crash. What was happening up on the ridge-tops was now of no moment to her. The menace was close at hand.
   A terrible splitting crack that drowned the uproar ended in an earth-jarring crash. Stones rattled down from the chimney. The cabin settled down from its leap, and the wind roared on as before, high up, with its steady whine punctuated by more shocks low down in the canyon. Then the flood-gates of the black sky opened to add a roaring deluge of rain to the frenzy of the wind.
   All the rest of the night Lucinda lay there stiffly, clutching her baby to her breast, until she was deaf and numb, insensible to pain and terror; the storm raged by and grey dawn broke.
   Arising wearily, she uncovered the red coals of her fire and replenished it with chips and cones. She made breakfast and fed the baby before gathering courage enough to look out. She heard the sullen chafe of the flooded brook. When she unbarred and opened her door the sun had arisen, bright and steely.
   Lucinda gazed out upon a changed canyon. The great pine had fallen so close to the cabin that some tips of its branches had broken against the wall. The other trees adjacent had withstood the gale. High up on the slopes windfalls were scattered about. The brook was a yellow river, swirling down the canyon, its muddy surface covered with driftwood and leaves. She would not be able to cross to milk the cows that day; and if Logan returned he would be compelled to camp on the other side. The glorious golden groves of aspen, the scarlet ravines, the patches of sumach, the thickets of oak and maple, only yesterday a mosaic of bronze and russet and purple, all appeared devastated of beauty and stood shrunken and drab under the cruel morning light. The drenched pines loomed dark, their foliage thinned of all their lacy brown. It was as if a blight had passed over the wilderness. Something was gone. The wind moaned its requiem in the tips of the pines. The still, warm, smoky, glamorous days, that seemed always afternoon, were as irretrievable as the fallen leaves.
   Lucinda did not see how the sun could shine so brightly. The elements of Nature were as relentless as the beasts that clawed and ripped live flesh. Another season had come, the herald of winter. These changes had to be. The days and weeks and months rolled on in their inscrutable cycle. Life also had to go on; and human beings were like leaves tossed about in the turgid flood. A nameless, imponderable force lay heavy upon her.
   Her depression wore away during the day, like the flooded brook, which gradually ran down to normal. With her endless tasks before her and the prospect of Logan's return nearing, Lucinda recovered from the shock. Every vicissitude was leaving her stronger. She began to divine that there was a lesson to be taught through all this, if only she could find the courage and necessary intelligence to absorb it. Still she feared blindly that she might be beaten down into the submissiveness and lethargy of an ox, although her common sense repudiated this.
   Next morning the brook had fallen low enough for Lucinda to ford it and milk the cows. At noon the sun was bright and warm. She emptied the sacks of potatoes and spread them to dry. Every few minutes she would halt in her task to gaze yearningly at the road to see if Logan was coming. He was long overdue. There was scarcely anything left to eat in the cabin...
   That night she slept poorly and was restless when awake. The dawning of a fine, clear day usually cheered Lucinda, but this morning she seemed distraught. Her work did not take her mind off Logan's failure to arrive. From anxiety she passed to dread.
   He would be coming soon; she felt that. But she surrendered to an impulse to climb from the canyon to watch along the road.
   She did not mind the journey, although little George was growing heavy. When she reached the top and drew out on the main road she sank to rest on the same log where she had waited for Logan that day the oxen ran away with her. The spot appeared unfamiliar. After gazing about, she decided a better view could be obtained up on the rocky bluff above the canyon road. Pantingly she climbed the short distance.
   From this location she could see the yellow road winding along the edge of the forest, and several miles beyond where it cut up over a bare ridge. As she watched, a moving white spot appeared. It was a prairie-schooner. The slow, snail-like movement attested to the team of oxen.
   "Oh! it's Logan!" she cried, breathless with relief and joy. "Baby, here comes your daddy now!"
   All at once Lucinda's queer, undefined dread vanished like a shadow over which the sun rose. How glad she was that she had come up to see him before he could reach home! It would be an hour yet before he turned off to descend into the canyon, and with so heavy a load he might be longer.
   "But he mustn't see me here!" exclaimed Lucinda; suddenly confronted by her childish anxiety. She hurried down the bluff and into the weedy road. Coyote had gone off chasing some animal. She called, but the dog did not return. As Lucinda went on; leaving the gate open, she wondered what Logan would say to the great fallen pine that had so nearly crushed the cabin? Probably he would take it practically, as he did nearly everything: "Gosh! that equinox laid a winter's firewood right at my door!" None the less, Lucinda felt that all was well again. It would be six months before he could leave her in the spring. Six long months without the dreaded lonely oppressiveness that had weighed upon her so heavily.
   She felt young and happy again, and her love for Logan welled up from an overflowing heart.
   When she surmounted the bench to the cabin she espied the numerous piles of huge potatoes shining out there in the sun. That unexpected stroke of good fortune, as well as her work, must fetch something really extravagant in the way of compliments from Logan Huett.
   Hot and panting, Lucinda went indoors to lay the sleepy baby in his basket.
   Suddenly she heard a sound outside. A padded step! Could that be Coyote? She would have run to the door, but something hindered swift movement. From the threshold she saw several ragged ponies. Two of them bore riders. Lean, dark, wild! They were Indians. And on the instant a tall savage strode from one side to confront her.
   Lucinda saw a handsome, sombre visage lighted by, piercing eyes of grey. Before her mind worked beyond sensation the Indian shoved her back into the cabin. He spat across the threshold and entered.
   "Me Matazel!" he announced, impressively, and he struck his beaded breast with a sinewy brown hand.
   That Apache! Lucinda was rooted to the floor. Logan's mortal enemy, the Apache who had sworn to get even--he was here! She seemed to grasp his lithe, magnificent presence, his ragged buckskin garb, though his eyes held hers with the hypnotic power of a snake. They were grey eyes, something like Logan's, and as they swept her body they grew terrible with a hot, searing blaze.
   "What do you want?" she cried.
   "Matazel get even! Matazel take Huett squaw!" he hissed, snatching at her. "Say no, me kill--burn cabin!"
   Suddenly Lucinda heard the shrill squeaking of wheels on Logan's wagon, coming down the steep road beyond the corrals. The Apache heard, too. With a piercing look at her, Matazel wheeled and strode silently from the cabin. Lucinda saw him join the Apaches. Avoiding the trail, they rode up the canyon, quickly out of sight.
   Lucinda's legs wobbled under her and she almost sank in collapse. Logan, the woodsman, would surely see the tell-tale signs of the Apache's visit. He would take up his rifle and trail Matazel. The Apaches had heard Logan. They would ambush and kill him. Logan must never know. As she heard the oxen splashing through the brook, Lucinda grasped a broom to run out and sweep away the moccasin tracks on the hearth.

Chapter 7 >