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For more than two hours Kent sat outside in the shade of the house, and stared out over the black desolation of the coulee. His horse was gone, so that he could not ride anywhere--and there was nowhere in particular to ride. For twenty miles around there was no woman whom he could bring to Val's assistance, even if he had been sure that she needed assistance. Several times he tiptoed into the kitchen, opened the door into the front room an inch or so, and peered in at her. The third time, she had relaxed from the corpselike position, and had thrown an arm up over her face, as if she were shielding her eyes from something. He took heart at that, and went out and foraged for firewood.
There was a hard-beaten zone around the corral and stables, which had kept the fire from spreading toward the house, and the wind had borne the sparks and embers back toward the spring, so that the house stood in a brown oasis of unburned grass and weeds, scanty enough, it is true, but yet a relief from the dead black surroundings.
The woodpile had not suffered. A chopping block, a decrepit sawhorse, an axe, and a rusty bucksaw marked the spot; also three ties, hacked eloquently in places, and just five sticks of wood, evidently chopped from a tie by a man in haste. Kent looked at that woodpile, and swore. He had always known that Manley had an aversion to laboring with his hands, but he was unprepared for such an exhibition of shiftlessness.
He savagely attacked the three ties, chopped them into firewood, and piled them neatly, and then, walking upon his toes, he made a fire in the kitchen stove, filled the woodbox, the teakettle, and the water pail, sat out in the shade until he heard the kettle boiling over on the stove, took another peep in at Val, and then, moving as quietly as he could, proceeded to cook supper for them both.
He had been perfectly familiar with the kitchen arrangements in the days when Manley was a bachelor, and it interested him and filled him with a respectful admiration for woman in the abstract and for Val in particular, to see how changed everything was, and how daintily clean and orderly. Val's smooth, white hands, with their two sparkly rings and the broad wedding band, did not suggest a familiarity with actual work about a house, but the effect of her labor and thought confronted him at every turn.
"You can see your face in everything you pick up that was made to shine," he commented, standing for a moment while he surveyed the bottom of a stewpan. "She don't look it, but that yellow-eyed little dame sure knows how to keep house." Then he heard her cough, and set down the stewpan hurriedly and went to see if she wanted anything.
Val was sitting upon the couch, her two hands pushing back her hair, gazing stupidly around her.
"Everything's all ready but the tea," Kent announced, in a perfectly matter-of-fact tone. "I was just waiting to see how strong you want it."
Val turned her yellow-brown eyes upon him in bewilderment. "Why, Mr. Burnett--maybe I wasn't dreaming, then. I thought there was a fire. Was there?"
Kent grinned. "Kinda. You worked like a son of a gun, too--till there wasn't any more to do, and then you laid 'em down for fair. You were all in, so I packed you in and put you there where you could be comfortable. And supper's ready--but how strong do you want your tea? I kinda had an idea," he added lamely, "that women drink tea, mostly. I made coffee for myself."
Val let herself drop back among the pretty pillows. "I don't want any. If there was a fire," she said dully, "then it's true. Everything's all burned up. I don't want any tea. I want to die!"
Kent studied her for a moment. "Well, in that case--shall I get the axe?"
Val had closed her eyes, but she opened them again. "I don't care what you do," she said.
"Well, I aim to please," he told her calmly. "What I'd do, in your place, would be to go and put on something that ain't all smoked and scorched like a--a ham, and then I'd sit up and drink some tea, and be nice about it. But, of course, if you want to cash in--"
Val gave a sob. "I can't help it--I'd just as soon be dead as alive. It was bad enough before--and now everything's burned up--and all Manley's nice--ha-ay--"
"Well," Kent interrupted mercilessly, "I've heard of women doing all kinds of fool things--but this is the first time I ever knew one to commit suicide over a couple of measly haystacks!" He went out and slammed the door so that the house shook, and tramped three times across the kitchen floor. "That'll make her so mad at me she won't think about anything else for a while," he reasoned shrewdly. But all the while his eyes were shiny, and when he winked, his lashes became unaccountably moist. He stopped and looked out at the blackened coulee. "Shut into this hole, week after week, without a woman to speak to--it must be--damned tough!" he muttered.
He tiptoed up and laid his ear against the inner door, and heard a smothered sobbing inside. That did not sound as if she were "mad," and he promptly cursed himself for a fool and a brute. With his own judgment to guide him, he brewed some very creditable tea, sugared and creamed it lavishly, browned a slice of bread on top of the stove--blowing off the dust beforehand--after Arline's recipe for making toast, buttered it until it dripped oil, and carried it in to her with the air of a man who will have peace even though he must fight for it. The forlorn picture she made, lying there with her face buried in a pink-and-blue cushion, and with her shoulders shaking with sobs, almost made him retreat, quite unnerved. As it was, he merely spilled a third of the tea and just missed letting the toast slide from the plate to the floor; when he had righted his burden he had recovered his composure to a degree.
"Here, this won't do at all," he reproved, pulling a chair to the couch by the simple method of hooking his toe under a round and dragging it toward him. "You don't want Man to come and catch you acting like this. He's liable to feel pretty blue himself, and he'll need some cheering up--don't you think? I don't know for sure--but I've always been kinda under the impression that's what a man gets a wife for. Ain't it? You don't want to throw down your cards now. You sit up and drink this tea, and eat this toast, and I'll gamble you'll feel about two hundred per cent better.
"Come," he urged gently, after a minute. "I never thought a nervy little woman like you would give up so easy. I was plumb ashamed of myself, the way you worked on that back fire. You had me going, for a while. You're just tired out, is all ails you. You want to hurry up and drink this, before it gets cold. Come on. I'm liable to feel, insulted if you pass up my cooking this way."
Val choked back the tears, and, without taking her face from the pillow, put out the burned hand gropingly until it touched his knee.
"Oh, you--you're good," she said brokenly. "I used to think you were--horrid, and I'm a--ashamed. You're good, and I--"
"Well, I ain't going to be good much longer, if you don't get your head outa that pillow and drink this tea!" His tone was amused and half impatient. But his face--more particularly his eyes--told another story, which perhaps it was as well she did not read. "I'll be dropping the blamed stuff in another minute. My elbow's plumb getting a cramp in it," he added complainingly.
Val made a sound half-way between a sob and a laugh, and sat up. With more haste than the occasion warranted, Kent put the tea and toast on the chair and started for the kitchen.
"I was bound you'd eat before I did," he explained, "and I could stand a cup of coffee myself. And, say! If there's anything more you want, just holler, and I'll come on the long lope."
Val took up the teaspoon, tasted the tea, and then regarded the cup doubtfully. She never drank sugar in her tea. She wondered how much of it he had put in. Her head ached frightfully, and she felt weak and utterly hopeless of ever feeling different.
"Everything all right?" came Kent's voice from the kitchen.
"Yes," Val answered hastily, trying hard to speak with some life and cheer in her tone. "It's lovely--all of it."
"Want more tea?" It sounded, out there, as though he was pushing back his chair to rise from the table.
"No, no, this is plenty." Val glanced fearfully toward the kitchen door, lifted the teacup, and heroically drank every drop. It was, she considered, the least that she could do.
When he had finished eating he came in, and found her nibbling apathetically at the toast. She looked up at him with an apology in her eyes.
"Mr. Burnett, don't think I am always so silly," she began, leaning back against the piled pillows with a sigh. "I have always thought that I could bear anything. But last night I didn't sleep much. I dreamed about fires, and that Manley was--dead--and I woke up in a perfect horror. It was only ten o'clock. So then I sat up and tried to read, and every five minutes I would go out and look at the sky, to see if there was a glow anywhere. It was foolish, of course. And I didn't sleep at all to-day, either. The minute I would lie down I'd imagine I heard a fire roaring. And then it came. But I was all used up before that, so I wasn't really--I must have fainted, for I don't remember getting into the house--and I do think fainting is the silliest thing! I never did such a thing before," she finished abjectly.
"Oh, well--I guess you had a license to faint if you felt that way," he comforted awkwardly. "It was the smoke and the heat, I reckon; they were enough to put a crimp in anybody. Did Man say about when he would be back? Because I ought to be moving along; it's quite a walk to the Wishbone."
"Oh--you won't go till Manley comes! Please! I--I'd go crazy, here alone, and--and he might not come--he's frequently detained. I--I've such a horror of fires--" She certainly looked as if she had. She was sitting up straight, her hands held out appealingly to him, her eyes big and bright.
"Sure I won't go if you feel that way about it." Kent was half frightened at her wild manner. "I guess Man will be along pretty soon, anyway. He'll hit the trail as soon as he can get behind the fire, that's a cinch. He'll be worried to death about you. And you don't need to be afraid of prairie fires any more, Mrs. Fleetwood; you're safe. There can't be any more fires till next year, anyway; there's nothing left to burn." He turned his face to the window and stared out somberly at the ravaged hillside. "Yes--you're dead safe, now!"
"I'm such a fool," Val confessed, her eyes also turning to the window, "If you want to go, I--" Her mouth was quivering, and she did not finish the sentence.
"Oh, I'll stay till Man comes. He's liable to be along any time, now." He glanced at her scorched, smoke-stained dress. "He'll sure think you made a hand, all right!"
Val took the hint, and blushed with true feminine shame that she was not looking her best. "I'll go and change," she murmured, and rose wearily. "But I feel as if the world had been 'rolled up in a scroll and burned,' as the Bible puts it, and as if nothing matters any more."
"It does, though. We'll all go right along living the same as ever, and the first snow will make this fire seem as old as the war--except to the cattle; they're the ones to get it in the neck this winter."
He went out and walked aimlessly around in the yard, and went over to the smoking remains of the stable, and to the heap of black ashes where the stacks had been. Manley would be hard hit, he knew. He wished he would hurry and come, and relieve him of the responsibility of keeping Val company. He wondered a little, in his masculine way, that women should always be afraid when there was no cause for fear. For instance, she had stayed alone a good many times, evidently, when there was real danger of a fire sweeping down upon her at any hour of the day or night; but now, when there was no longer a possibility of anything happening, she had turned white and begged him to stay--and Val, he judged shrewdly, was not the sort of woman who finds it easy to beg favors of anybody.
There came a sound of galloping, up on the hill, and he turned quickly. Dull dusk was settling bleakly down upon the land, but he could see three or four horsemen just making the first descent from the top. He shouted a wordless greeting, and heard their answering yells. In another minute or two they were pulling up at the house, where he had hurried to meet them. Val, tucking a side comb hastily into her freshly coiled hair, her pretty self clothed all in white linen, appeased eagerly in the doorway.
"Why--where's Manley?" she demanded anxiously.
Blumenthall was dismounting near her, and he touched his hat before he answered. "We were on the way home, and we thought we'd better ride around this way and see how you came out," he evaded. "I see you lost your hay and buildings--pretty close call for the house, too, I should judge. You must have got here in time to do something, Kent."
"But where's Manley?" Val was growing pale again. "Has anything happened? Is he hurt? Tell me!"
"Oh, he's all right, Mrs. Fleetwood." Blumenthall glanced meaningly at Kent--and Fred De Garmo, sitting to one side of his saddle, looked at Polycarp Jenks and smiled slightly. "We left town ahead of him, and knocked right along."
Val regarded the group suspiciously. "He's coming, then, is he?"
"Oh, certainly. Glad you're all right, Mrs. Fleetwood. That was an awful fire--it swept the whole country clean between the two rivers, I'm afraid. This wind made it bad." He was tightening his cinch, and now he unhooked the stirrup from the horn and mounted again. "We'll have to be getting along--don't know, yet, how we came out of it over to the ranch. But our guards ought to have stopped it there." He looked at Kent. "How did the Wishbone make it?" he inquired.
"I was just going to ask you if you knew," Kent replied, scowling because he saw Fred looking at Val in what he considered an impertinent manner. "My horse ran off while I was fighting fire here, so I'm afoot. I was waiting for Man to show up."
"You'll git all of that you want--he-he!" Polycarp cut in tactlessly. "Man won't git home t'-night--not unless--"
"Aw, come on." Fred started along the charred trail which led across the coulee and up the farther side. Blumenthall spoke a last, commonplace sentence or two, just to round off the conversation and make the termination not too abrupt, and they rode away, with Polycarp glancing curiously back, now and then, as though he was tempted to stay and gossip, and yet was anxious to know all that had happened at the Double Diamond.
"What did Polycarp Jenks mean--about Manley not coming to-night?" Val was standing in the doorway, staring after the group of horsemen.
"Nothing, I guess, Polycarp never does mean anything half the time; he just talks to hear his head roar. Man'll come, all right. This bunch happened to beat him out, is all."
"Oh, do you think so? Mr. Blumenthall acted as if there was something--"
"Well, what can you expect of a man that lives on oatmeal mush and toast and hot water?" Kent demanded aggressively. "And Fred De Garmo is always grinning and winking at somebody; and that other fellow is a Swede and got about as much sense as a prairie dog--and Polycarp is an old granny gossip that nobody ever pays any attention to. Man won't stay in town--hell be too anxious."
"It's terrible," sighed Val, "about the hay and the stables. Manley will be so discouraged--he worked so hard to cut and stack that hay. And he was just going to gather the calves together and put them in the river field, in a couple of weeks--and now there isn't anything to feed them!"
"I guess he's coming; I hear somebody." Kent was straining his eyes to see the top of the hill, where the dismal sight shadows lay heavily upon the dismal black earth. "Sounds to me like a rig, though. Maybe he drove out." He left her, went to the wire gate which gave egress from the tiny, unkempt yard, and walked along the trail to meet the newcomer.
"You stay there," he called back, when he thought he heard Val following him. "I'm just going to tell him you're all right. You'll get that white dress all smudged up in these ashes."
In the narrow little gully where the trail crossed the half-dry channel from the spring he met the rig. The driver pulled up when he caught sight of Kent.
"Who's that? Did she git out of it?" cried Arline Hawley, in a breathless undertone, "Oh--it's you, is it, Kent? I couldn't stand it--I just had to come and see if she's alive. So I made Hank hitch right up--as soon as we knew the fire wasn't going to git into all that brush along the creek, and run down to the town--and bring me over. And the way--"
"But where's Man?" Kent laid a hand upon the wheel and shot the question into the stream of Arline's talk.
"Man! I dunno what devil gits into men sometimes. Man went and got drunk as a fool soon as he seen the fire and knew what coulda happened out here. Started right in to drownd his sorrows before he made sure whether he had any to drown! If that ain't like a man, every time! Time we all got back to town, and the fire was kiting away from us instead of coming up toward us, he was too drunk to do anything. He must of poured it down him by the quart. He--"
"Manley! Is that you, dear?" It was Val, a slim, white figure against the blackness all around her, coming down the trail to see what delayed them. "Why don't you come to the house? There is a house, you know. We aren't quite burned out. And I'm all right, so there's no need to worry any more."
"Now, ain't that a darned shame?" muttered Arline wrathfully to Kent. "A feller that'll drink when he's got a wife like that had oughta be hung!
"It's me, Arline Hawley!" She raised her voice to its ordinary shrill level. "It ain't just the proper time to make a call, I guess, but it's better late than never. Man, he was took with one of his spells, so I told him I'd come on out and take you back to town. How are you, anyhow? Scared plumb to death, I'll bet, when that fire come over the hill. You needn't 'a' tramped clear down here--we was coming on to the house in a minute. I got to chewin' the rag with Kent. Git in; you might as well ride back to the house, now you're here."
"Manley didn't come?" Val was standing beside the rig, near Kent. Her white-clothed figure was indistinct, and her face obscured in the dark. Her voice was quiet--lifelessly quiet. "Is he sick?"
"Well--of course has nerves was all upset--"
"Oh! Then he is sick?"
"Well--nothing dangerous, but--he wasn't feelin' well, so I thought I'd come out and take you back with me."
"Man was awful worried; you mustn't think he wasn't. He was pretty near crazy, for a while."
"Oh, yes, certainly."
"Get in and ride. And you mustn't worry none about Man, nor feel hurt that he didn't come. He felt so bad--"
"I'll walk, thank you; it's only a few steps. And I'm not worried at all. I quite understand."
The team started on slowly, and Mrs. Hawley turned in the seat so that she could continue talking without interruption to the two who walked behind. But it was Kent who answered her at intervals, when she asked a direct question or appeared to be waiting for some comment. Betweenwhiles he was wondering if Val did, after all, understand. She knew so little of the West and its ways, and her faith in Manley was so firm and unquestioning, that he felt sure she was only hurt at what looked very much like an indifference to her welfare. He suspected shrewdly that she was thinking what she would have done in Manley's place, and was trying to reconcile Mrs. Hawley's assurances that Manley was not actually sick or disabled with the blunt fact that he had stayed in town and permitted others to come out to see if she were alive or dead.
And Kent had another problem to solve. Should he tell her the truth? He had never ceased to feel, in some measure, responsible for her position. And she was sure to discover the truth before long; not even her innocence and her ignorance of life could shield her from that knowledge. He let a question or two of Arline's go unanswered while he struggled for a decision, but when they reached the house, only one point was dearly settled in his mind. Instead of riding as far as he might, and then walking across the prairie to the Wishbone, he intended to go on to town with them--"to see her through with it."
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