With a blood-red sun at his back and a rosy tinge upon all the hills before him, Manley rode slowly down the western rim of Cold Spring Coulee, driving five rebellious calves that had escaped the branding iron in the spring. Though they were not easily driven in any given direction, he was singularly patient with them, and refrained from bellowing epithets and admonitions, as might have been expected. When he was almost down the hill, he saw Val standing in the kitchen door, shading her eyes with her hands that she might watch his approach.
"Open the corral gate!" he shouted to her, in the tone of command. "And stand back where you can head 'em off if they start up the coulee!"
Val replied by doing as she was told; she was not in the habit of wasting words upon Manley; they seemed always to precipitate an unpleasant discussion of some sort, as if he took it for granted she disapproved of all he did or said, and was always upon the defensive.
The calves came on, lumbering awkwardly in a half-hearted gallop, as if they had very little energy left. Their tongues protruded, their mouths dribbled a lathery foam, and their rough, sweaty hides told Val of the long chase--for she was wiser in the ways of the range land than she had been. She stood back, gently waving her ruffled white apron at them, and when they dodged into the corral, rolling eyes at her, she ran up and slammed the gate shut upon them, looped the chain around the post, and dropped the iron hook into a link to fasten it. Manley galloped up, threw himself off his panting horse, and began to unsaddle.
"Get some wood and start a fire, and put the iron in, Val," he told her brusquely.
Val looked at him quickly. "Now? Supper's all ready, Manley. There's no hurry about branding them, is there?" And she added: "Dear me! The round-up must have just skimmed the top off this range last spring. You've had to brand a lot of calves that were missed."
"What the devil is it to you?" he demanded roughly. "I want that fire, madam, and I want it now. I rather think I knew when I want to brand without asking your advice."
Val curved her lips scornfully, shrugged and obeyed She was used to that sort of thing, and she did not mind very much. He had brutalized by degrees, and by degrees she had hardened. He could rouse no feeling now but contempt.
"If you'll kindly wait until I put back the supper," she said coldly. "I suppose in your zeal one need not sacrifice your food; you're still rather particular about that. I observe."
Manley was leading his horse to the stable, and, though he answered something, the words were no more than a surly mumble.
"He's been drinking again," Val decided dispassionately, on the way to the house. "I suppose he carried a bottle in his pocket--and emptied it."
She was not long; there was a penalty of profane reproach attached to delay, however slight, when Manley was in that mood. She had the fire going and the VP iron heating by the time he had stabled and fed his horse, and had driven the calves into the smaller pen. He drove a big, line-backed heifer into a corner, roped and tied her down with surprising dexterity, and turned impatiently.
"Come! Isn't that iron ready yet?"
Val, on the other side of the fence, drew it out and inspected it indifferently.
"It is not, Mr. Fleetwood. If you are in a very great hurry, why not apply your temper to it--and a few choice remarks?"
"Oh, don't try to be sarcastic--it's too pathetic. Kick a little life into that fire."
"Yes, sir--thank you, sir." Val could be rather exasperating when she chose. She always could be sure of making Manley silently furious when she adopted that tone of respectful servility--as employed by butlers and footmen upon the stage. Her mimicry, be it said, was very good.
"'Ere it is, sir----thank you, sir--'ope I 'aven't kept you wyting, sir," she announced, after he had fumed for two minutes inside the corral, and she had cynically hummed her way quite through the hymn which begins "Blest be the tie that binds." She passed the white-hot iron deftly through the rails to him, and fixed the fire for another heating.
Really, she was not thinking of Manley at all, nor of his mood, nor of his brutal coarseness. She was thinking of the rebuilt typewriter, advertised as being exactly as good as a new one, and scandalously cheap, for which she had sold her watch to Arline Hawley to get money to buy. She was counting mentally the days since she had sent the money order, and was thinking it should come that week surely.
She was also planning to seize upon the opportunity afforded by Manley's next absence for a day from the ranch, and drive to Hope on the chance of getting the machine. Only--she wished she could be sure whether Kent would be coming soon. She did not want to miss seeing him; she decided to sound Polycarp Jenks the next time he came. Polycarp would know, of course, whether the Wishbone outfit was in from round-up. Polycarp always knew everything that had been done, or was intended, among the neighbors.
Manley passed the ill-smelling iron back to her, and she put it in the fire, quite mechanically. It was not the first time, nor the second, that she had been called upon to help brand. She could heat an iron as quickly and evenly as most men, though Manley had never troubled to tell her so.
Five times she heated the iron, and heard, with an inward quiver of pity and disgust, the spasmodic blat of the calf in the pen when the VP went searing into the hide on its ribs. She did not see why they must be branded that evening, in particular, but it was as well to have it done with. Also, if Manley meant to wean them, she would have to see that they were fed and watered, she supposed. That would make her trip to town a hurried one, if she went at all; she would have to go and come the same day, and Arline Hawley would scold and beg her to stay, and call her a fool.
"Now, how about that supper?" asked Manley, when they were through, and the air was clearing a little from the smoke and the smell of burned hair.
"I really don't know--I smelled the potatoes burning some time ago. I'll see, however." She brushed her hands with her handkerchief, pushed back the lock of hair that was always falling across her temple, and, because she was really offended by Manley's attitude and tone, she sang softly all the way to the house, merely to conceal from him the fact that he could move her even to irritation. Her best weapon, she had discovered long ago, was absolute indifference--the indifference which overlooked his presence and was deaf to his recriminations.
She completed her preparations for his supper, made sure that nothing was lacking and that the tea was just right, placed his chair in position, filled the water glass beside his plate, set the tea-pot where he could reach it handily, and went into the living room and closed the door between. In the past year, filed as it had been with her literary ambitions and endeavors, she had neglected her music; but she took her violin from the box, hunted the cake of resin, tuned the strings, and, when she heard him come into the kitchen and sit down at the table, seated herself upon the front doorstep and began to play.
There was one bit of music which Manley thoroughly detested. That was the "Traumerei." Therefore, she played the "Traumerei" slowly--as it should, of course, be played--with full value given to all the pensive, long-drawn notes, and with a finale positively creepy in its dreamy wistfulness. Val, as has been stated, could be very exasperating when she chose.
In the kitchen there was the subdued rattle of dishes, unbroken and unhurried. Val went on playing, but she forgot that she had begun in a half-conscious desire to annoy her husband. She stared dreamily at the hill which shut out the world to the east, and yielded to a mood of loneliness; of longing, in the abstract, for all the pleasant things she was missing in this life which she had chosen in her ignorance.
When Manley flung open the inner door, she gave a stifled exclamation; she had forgotten all about Manley.
"By all the big and little gods of Greece!" he swore angrily. "Calves bawling their heads off in the corral, and you squalling that whiny stuff you call music in the house--home's sure a hell of a happy place! I'm going to town. You don't want to leave the place till I come back--I want those calves looked after." He seemed to consider something mentally, and then added:
"If I'm not back before they quit bawling, you can turn 'em down in the river field with the rest. You know when they're weaned and ready to settle down. Don't feed 'em too much hay, like you did that other bunch; just give 'em what they need; you don't have to pile the corral full. And don't keep 'em shut up an hour longer than necessary."
Val nodded her head to show that she heard, and went on playing. There was seldom any pretense of good feeling between them now. She tuned the violin to minor, and poised the bow over the strings, in some doubt as to her memory of a serenade she wanted to try next.
"Shall I have Polycarp take the team and haul up some wood from the river?" she asked carelessly. "We're nearly out again."
"Oh, I don't care--if he happens along." He turned and went out, his mind turning eagerly to the town and what it could give him in the way of pleasure.
Val, still sitting in the doorway, saw him ride away up the grade and disappear over the brow of the hill. The dusk was settling softly upon the land, so that his figure was but a vague shape. She was alone again; she rather liked being alone, now that she had no longer a blind, unreasoning terror of the empty land. She had her thoughts and her work; the presence of Manley was merely an unpleasant interruption to both.
Some time in the night she heard the lowing of a cow somewhere near. She wondered dreamily what it could be doing in the coulee, and went to sleep again. The five calves were all bawling in a chorus of complaint against their forced separation from their mothers, and the deeper, throaty tones of the cow mingled not inharmoniously with the sound.
Range cattle were not permitted in the coulee, and when by chance they found a broken panel in the fence and strayed down there, Val drove them out; afoot, usually, with shouts and badly aimed stones to accelerate their lumbering pace.
After she had eaten her breakfast in the morning she went out to investigate. Beyond the corral, her nose thrust close against the rails, a cow was bawling dismally. Inside, in much the same position, its tail waving a violent signal of its owner's distress, a calf was clamoring hysterically for its mother and its mother's milk.
Val sympathized with them both; but the cow did not belong in the coulee, and she gathered two or three small stones and went around where she could frighten her away from the fence without, however, exposing herself too recklessly to her uncertain temper. Cows at weaning time did sometimes object to being driven from their calves.
"Shoo! Go on away from there!" Val raised a stone and poised it threateningly.
The cow turned and regarded her, wild-eyed. It backed a step or two, evidently uncertain of its next move.
"Go on away!" Val was just on the point of throwing the rock, when she dropped it unheeded to the ground and stared. "Why, you--you--why--the idea!" She turned slowly white. Certain things must filter to the understanding through amazement and disbelief; it took Val a minute or two to grasp the significance of what she saw. By the time she did grasp it, her knees were beading weakly beneath the weight of her body. She put out a groping hand and caught at the corner of the corral to keep herself from falling. And she stared and stared.
"It--oh, surely not!" she whispered, protesting against her understanding. She gave a little sob that had no immediate relation to tears. "Surely--surely--not!" It was of no use; understanding came, and came clearly, pitilessly. Many things--trifles, all of them--to which she had given no thought at the time, or which she had forgotten immediately, came back to her of their own accord; things she tried not to remember.
The cow stared at her for a minute, and, when she made no hostile move, turned its attention back to its bereavement. Once again it thrust its moist muzzle between two rails, gave a preliminary, vibrant mmm--mmmmm--m, and then, with a spasmodic heaving of ribs and of flank, burst into a long-drawn baww--aw--aw--aw, which rose rapidly in a tremulous crescendo and died to a throaty rumbling.
Val started nervously, though her eyes were fixed upon the cow and she knew the sound was coming. It served, however, to release her from the spell of horror which had gripped her. She was still white, and when she moved she felt intolerably heavy, so that her feet dragged; but she was no longer dazed. She went slowly around to the gate, reached up wearily and undid the chain fastening, opened the gate slightly, and went in.
Four of the calves were huddled together for mutual comfort in a corner. They were blatting indefatigably. Val went over to where the fifth one still stood beside the fence, as near the cow as it could get, and threw a small stone, that bounced off the calf's rump. The calf jumped and ran aimlessly before her until it reached the half-open gate, when it dodged out, as if it could scarcely believe its own good fortune. Before Val could follow it outside, it was nuzzling rapturously its mother, and the cow was contorting her body so that she could caress her offspring with her tongue, while she rumbled her satisfaction.
Val closed and fastened the gate carefully, and went back to where the cow still lingered. With her lips drawn to a thin, colorless line, she drove her across the coulee and up the hill, the calf gamboling close alongside. When they had gone out of sight, up on the level, Val turned back and went slowly to the house. She stood for a minute staring stupidly at it and at the coulee, went in and gazed around her with that blankness which follows a great mental shock. After a minute she shivered, threw up her hands before her face, and dropped, a pitiful, sorrowing heap of quivering rebellion, upon the couch.