The Watchman by Mary Hallock Foote
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
It 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,"
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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
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
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
"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
"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,
"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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
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
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
"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
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
"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
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
"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
"It's your own fault, then. I have told you how you can clear yourself and
"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
"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
"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
The name, she thought, was Travis. Then, blushing, she spoke out
"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
"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.