FICTION

Dry Spell

Wind storms, dust storms, drought. It took faith not to move on to another valley . . . and another girl

ROLLIN BROWN May 1 1947
FICTION

Dry Spell

Wind storms, dust storms, drought. It took faith not to move on to another valley . . . and another girl

ROLLIN BROWN May 1 1947

Dry Spell

ROLLIN BROWN

I DIDN’T sleep much that night. I kept thinking about Bill Rayburn and the five years we had been partners on the Casson Creek ranch before the spring of the drought. We’d started in with 300 head of she-stock and a few sections of mortgaged land that I owned along the creek and built up the place from that, piling the luck of one good year on another while it lasted.

I could remember Bill Rayburn standing on the bluff above the creek, where he’d intended to build a new house when Cathy and he were married—a big man with wide shoulders and an easy grin, the old Stetson he wore shoved back on his head—and

hear him saying, “Clint, one of these days we’ll be running stock all the way from those rim hills down to Three Wells. Nothing can stop us now.”

But the drought had.

Hardly any snow had fallen during the winter, and by spring when the new grass started there was no moisture in the ground. The grass grew a few inches high and withered on the stems. There was no rain, and by early summer most of the water holes had gone dry. We’d been spending 12 to 15 hours a day in the saddle, trying to save the weaker stock. But after that it was no use.

I knew when Bill finally left for Salina Junction that he never wanted to see that range again, and I couldn’t blame him. We were right back where we had started five years ago—no, it was six years now. So the telegram I had had from Bill yesterday in town did not come as any surprise.

But I didn’t sleep much that night, thinking about Bill Rayburn and what this meant. The leaves left on the dry cottonwoods about the house kept rattling all night long; and at daybreak when I got up, the wind was raising clouds of dust across the bare creek fiats where other years the grass had grown knee-deep. That wind, it seemed, would never stop. While I was cooking breakfast, old Jim Stevens came in from the corral.

“The windmill at the trough ain’t pumped more than a bucketful all night.,” he said. “In another week the well will be dry.”

1 nodded to show I’d heard him, but there was no

use talking about it. Old Jim sat down in his place across the kitchen table and we ate breakfast. He had worked for Bill and me three years, and with the town full of younger hands who were out of a job because of the drought things looked pretty tough to him, I suppose.

“You best head up along the creek this morning, Jim,” I told him when the meal was finished. “Take a shovel with you and see how the spring above Jake Dunn’s line fence is holding up. That spring means a lot.”

He stumped away as far as the door, turning back. “I guess you won’t be needing me much longer, Clint,” he said.

I said I didn’t know. It all depended on what Lem Hawley at the bank had to say today, and how much money I could raise on that creek-bottom land which was blowing away. I told him I’d be at the bank all morning or somewhere around town with Cathy Bonner and Bill Rayburn, who was coming in on the 10 o’clock local. But that Bill didn’t intend to stay.

“If I could persuade Jake Dunn to let me drive in a few yards of tunnel on that spring,” old Jim muttered, “we’d get more water under the fence.”

I said, “Sure. But that wouldn’t be like Jake Dunn.”

It all went back to the third summer Bill and I had been together on Casson Creek and the two Mateo boys had been caught stealing calves. Bill had spent a month helping an Association deputy collect evidence against them, which had led to other trouble I never wanted to think about again. But because the Mateo brothers had once worked for him, Dunn had stood behind them; and being a

stiff-necked man, he couldn’t back down later without admitting he’d been wrong, and he was too stubborn for that.

“No, Bill tried to buy that spring two years ago,” I said. “When we had money to pay for it.”

Old Jim went out to the corral to get his horse. He was riding away up creek with a shovel across the saddle when I followed and started harnessing the bays. Little whorls of dust floated on the water of the trough. But I kept the team away from it because there’d be water for them in town.

It was three miles over to the Bonner place. Across creek the wind was behind and the wheels of the buckboard and hooves of the bays kicked up scudding clouds of dust which raced along ahead. From here I could see the cabin Cathy’s brother, Phil, had built on his homestead three years ago, and the school where Cathy had taught last winter, and beyond that the Elliots’ house. The Elliots were gone now, as were most of the others. Few of the homesteaders had enough money to last through a year without crops.

Phil Bonner had got a job with the railroad, leaving Cathy to stay on the homestead so he could prove up on his land. That started me wondering how many times, the past few months, I’d climbed to high ground above the creek of an evening to look across this way and see a light at the Bonner cabin and know everything was all right with her when Phil was away.

I’D STOPPED by yesterday with Bill’s telegram and given her a couple of letters from him which had been waiting at the post office. So she was expecting me this morning.

She waved from the door while I was turning into the yard, and 1 drew the bays around by t he steps, cramping the wheels of the buckboard. When Cathy came out I noticed she was wearing her best dress for Bill, and a new hat. Her hair was the color of ripe wheat straw. But long before this I’d known that she would always be the most beautiful girl in the world to me.

I said, “It’s pretty dusty on the road today, Cathy.”

She glanced down at the dress and back at me as though she hadn’t thought of that before, and at that instant a gust of wind tore the little hat from her head. I managed to catch it in mid-air, and handed it back to her. We both laughed and she said, “Well, I’ll just carry it till we get into town.”

I helped her into the buckboard after that and turned the team back to the road, past the schoolhouse and the Elliots’ place. A front window in the schoolhouse had been knocked out and boarded over, and the young peach and apple trees across the road stood l?are, stripped of their withered leaves by the wind. Mounds of sand and dust had piled up against any obstruction, and the Elliots’ homestead looked as though it had been deserted for years instead of only a few months. It would be a long while, I thought, before there were enough kids in the neighborhood to start up the school again.

“A country that can do things like this is no good,” I said. “I don’t blame Bill for getting out while he could.”

She sat beside me looking straight ahead, the wind in her hair. “It used to be nice here, Clint,” she said.

The spring before last had been the best I’d ever seen, I remembered. It was only last year that I’d first met Cathy Bonner at a gathering at the Elliots’ one evening, although Bill had been seeing a lot of her before that. She’d come out that summer to keep house for her brother and teach school the next winter. I remembered the way lamplight looked in her straw-yellow hair and how I’d stopped just inside the door, forgetting there was anybody else in the room when I first saw Cathy. Then Bill had taken me over and introduced us.

She was slim and moderately tall. She’d been my partner in two square dance sets. I could remember the feel of her hand as it touched mine, the small smile on her lips. While I danced with Julia Elliot, it was Cathy I watched. But it was Bill who’d walked Cathy up the road to the party, leaving his horse at the Bonner cabin, and Bill who took her home. Continued on page 24

Continued on page 24

Wind storms, dust storms, drought. It took faith not to move on to another valley . . . and another girl

Dry Spell

Continued from page 17

I waited for him at the far fence corner.

“What did you think of Cathy, Clint?” Bill asked when he finally came along.

I took a long while to think that over, riding back to Casson Creek with Bill. I spent a good many hours and days after that thinking about Cathy Bonner. But it was never something I could put into words.

“I’m bringing Cathy over to the ranch next Sunday,” Bill continued. “Be around somewhere, Clint. I want her to see the place and get to know you better.”

“You sound like this was pretty serious, Bill.”

“Yes, Clint,” he said, “it is.”

They’d ridden up creek to the line fence and stopped among the upper meadows for a picnic lunch before Bill brought Cathy around to the ranch the next Sunday. Up there among the meadows he’d asked Cathy to marry him, and she’d said yes. So that was that, I told myself, after they had left. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was fall in love with the girl my partner was going to marry.

1 thought a lot of Bill. It was Bill who could make a man like Lem Hawley at the bank see things the way he did with his words, and get what money we needed for more land or stock. Bill had all the dash and fire in him; I was the plodder in our partnership. I’d been going around with Julia Elliot some before that, and I started seeing more of her. I made up one excuse or another to keep away from Cathy for a while.

“Clint, why have you been avoiding me?” Cathy asked the next time we met.

I explained how busy I’d been with the ranch work.

“You don’t lie very well, Clint,” she said. “I wish we could be friends.”

“We’re going to be lifelong friends,” I told her. “I intend to have dinner with you and Bill every Sunday after you’re married. I hope you’re a good cook.”

She laughed. “That’s better.”

There was a sort of bitter-sweetness in being near her, watching the way she’d turn her head, the motions of her hands. Cathy and Bill and Julia and I fell into the habit of driving into town together to dances that fall. But afterward it was only the moments I’d been near Cathy that mattered. I knew by this time that I’d never be able to forget her. Just the sight of her now and then meant too much to me. I suppose she knew. I suppose it’s impossible for a man to feel like that about a woman and keep it hidden from her.

But there was a wall between us over which I’d never stepped, and that was the way it had to be.

I was glad for the hard, steady work that came along next spring, except for what the drought meant. It left no time to think. But after the waterholes dried up and Bill had gone, I knew he’d never be coming back to Casson Creek again to stay. The only reason he was returning now was to settle up his affairs with me and take Cathy away with him.

IT MUST be wonderful country up there in the Santa Rosas,” I said. “Lem Hawley was telling me yesterday that they’ve had plenty of rain this year.”

“That’s what Bill writes in his letters,” she said. “There are big pines under the rimrock and streams flowing everywhere. And late wild flowers are still blooming there.”

We dipped into the big dry wash outside town and climbed the farther hill.

“Bill’s the kind that will always land on his feet,” I said. “Some men are born lucky, I guess.”

We drove into Three Wells along the main street. It was getting near traintime, so I took Cathy over to the station first; then 1 swung the bays across the square to the water trough and left them tied to a rail in front of the bank. Lem Hawley was sitting inside at his desk in a railed-off space across from the cashier’s window. He already knew what I wanted from the talk we’d had yesterday.

“Bill got in yet?” he asked.

“No. He’ll be here on this morning’s train.”

Lem Hawley placed the tips of his fingers together on his desk and shook his head at me. “You can’t hope to pull through this year with more than 300-400 head of stock,” he said. “That bottom land is already mortgaged like the stock for twice what it would bring in a forced sale. I’d as soon let you have the money on a promissory note, Clint. Why does it have to be $5,000?”

“That’s wtat Bill put into Casson Creek to begin with,” I explained.

He thought that over for a while. “How much water have you got left that you can depend on?”

I told him how old Jim and I had it figured. The well at the ranch was going dry, but there was a seepage hole in the back hills that was still flowing and another spring on South Fork. We were watering around 150 head below Jake Dunn’s line spring, where there was fair dry grass feed left over from last year.

“And suppose Jake Dunn decided to dam up that water on his own side of the fence?”

“No,” I said, “he can’tdothat. That water has always run down into the creek and cattle have used it since before his fence was built.”

Lem Hawley stared out into the street. “Did you know Pete Mateo was back?” he asked.

And there it was. I knew he was looking across to the far corner of the square, where the thing I’d been trying to forget for so long had happened. Bill and the Association deputy he was working with had followed the Mateo brothers into town that morning, three years ago, and from the side street watched them unload two fresh-killed calves at the alley door of a butcher shop there. Bill and the Association deputy closed in then, knowing they finally had all the evidence they needed.

Pete Mateo was in back. His brother, Joe, saw what was happening and ran around the front way to the corner with a gun in hand. I’d come into town early that morning to see about a shipping order, and was climbing from the buckboard at the railway station. I saw Bill standing down at the mouth of the alley and Joe Mateo coming into view with his gun. There was an old rifle in the bottom of the buckboard. 1 grabbed it up and yelled to Joe Mateo to stop.

But he paid no attention. The gun in his hand raised toward Bill, and I still don’t know what else I could have done. I fired and hit Joe Mateo low in the left shoulder, and the sound of the shot and the look on Joe Mateo’s face as he fell had been a nightmare in my mind ever since.

“No,” I said. “No, I hadn’t heard Pete Mateo was back.”

“I suppose you know Joe died in jail,” Lem Hawley said.

I said I did, and where this was all leading seemed plain enough. I turned away to leave the bank.

“About that money, Clint,” Lem

Continued on page 27

Continued from page 24

Hawley said. “Bring Bill in with you this afternoon and I’ll have the papers ready. Somebody’s got to have some faith in this country. Nothing else will pull us through.”

The train had come in before I reached the station and 1 saw Bill crossing the platform with his wide hat in one hand and his other arm around Cathy. Bill had on a new suit of clothes, and there was a new set to his shoulders that was different from the day he’d left for Salina Junction. His smile had a new confidence in it that he’d brought back from the Santa Rosas to this beaten land.

We shook hands and Bill said, “Good to see you, Clint,” and I knew he menant it. I felt the same way he did. We’d been partners on Casson Creek for a long while and gone a long way together, no matter how things had turned out in the end.

The three of us walked over to the hotel after that. Every few steps Bill had to stop and greet some friend. Everybody knew him and liked Bill and wanted to know how he’d made out in the Santa Rosas. Bill was full of his new plans. He could make you see the mountain meadows and rushing streams, the pines and high escarpment of the rim and cattle grazing the deep grass. We sat in a corner of the hotel lobby, and I noticed Cathy’s lips were parted like a child’s as she listened and watched Bill.

**For a share of the increase,” Bill explained to me, “I’ve got a year’s lease on this property. The owner is old and needed to leave . . . Well, maybe I did talk pretty big to him. But it’s a big thing, Clint. Salina Junction is full of drought-starved cattle that have been shipped in. With only a few thousand dollars down, a man could stock that range to capacity and clean up enough to buy the outfit another spring. It’s the kind of chance that doesn’t often come along.”

“Will $5,000 do it, Bill?” I asked.

He looked at me and shook his head. “Don’t tell me you’ve talked Lem Hawley out of that much cash?”

“It’s about what you put into Casson Creek to begin with, Bill.”

He leaned forward, placing a hand on the arm of my chair. “Look, Clint. This thing is big enough for both of us,” he said. “There’s high range for the summers and sheltered canyons under the rim for winter’s graze. From the start I’ve got we can expand. Now is the time to do it. Let Lem Hawley have Casson Creek and the mortgages. Come along with Cathy and me. Phil Bonner is waiting up at the Junction to see Cathy and me married tonight. We’ll drive out to the ranch and pick up your things as well as hers. Clint, in a few years . . .”

It was like the old days I remembered when I’d first met Bill Rayburn and we were making our plans for Casson Creek. It made me feel lonelier than I’d ever been in my life. I could see the little pulse beating in the hollow of Cathy’s throat, but I was afraid to look into her eyes for fear my resolve would crumple and I’d lose the one thing I had left, my pride.

“No, Bill. I’ll stick it out here a while longer,” I said. “That’s part of my deal with Lem Hawley.”

We had lunch in the hotel dining room, and afterward walked over to the bank. Lem Hawley hadn’t finished with the papers yet and we had to wait. The wind had stopped and there was a hot dead stillness in the air. Distant thunderheads showed over the far back hills; but it had been like this often during thw months of the drought whenever the wind quit for a few hours and no rain had fallen on the land. When the wind started blowing again

and the clouds were gone, it left you with even less hope than before.

IT WAS about 20 minutes later that I noticed old Jim Stevens trotting in across the square. The old man spotted the team and buckboard at the bank rail right away. I watched him ride on past, glancing into the bank, and then stop at the corner. It looked as if he had something to tell me that he didn’t want to talk about in the bank.

I didn’t know what it was, but I knew where he’d been riding that morning. I’d signed my end of the papers by this time. Finally I turned to Bill and said, “Well, 1 guess there’s no point in my staying any longer, Bill.” He came over to me and we shook hands once more, neither of us finding much to say. It was better that way. Cathy stood beside him, looking up into my face.

“I can’t wish you any more happiness than I know you’ll have, Cathy,” I told her.“Write me sometimes.”

I knew I’d never forget the look of her, but it wasn’t the way I’d meant to say good-by. I walked out into the street, my eyes straight ahead. The dry dust stirred up under my boots with each step I took, and the clouds were piled up on the horizon like a curse. I drew a deep breath into my lungs and whispered under my breath, “Write me sometimes . . .”

Old Jim was still waiting on the corner.

“What is it, Jim?” I asked.

“Jake Dunn’s got a couple of teams and scrapers scooping out a tank below the line spring,” he said. “I thought you’d want to know about it right away. Pete Mateo is there with him.”

I wondered if Lem Hawley had known this was coming when I’d talked to him that morning. “Bill will want to use the buckboard to get Cathy’s things from the homestead,” I said. “I’ll take your horse, Jim.”

I climbed into his saddle and trotted out across the square. Dunn couldn’t dam up the overflow without violating a range water right, but thirsty cattle can’t wait while a court hears evidence and settles a dispute like that; and there was only one way 1 could think of to handle it.

When I reached the ranch I stopped and went into the saddle shed after a pair of wire cutters. The cutters weren’t in the drawer where I’d expected to find them, and while I was rooting around after them I noticed the rifle hanging on the wall under some old gear. It was the gun I’d picked up from the buckboard that day in town.

But just the sight of it hanging there in the scabbard covered with cobwebs and dust sickened me, and I knew that no matter what happened I didn’t want that gun. I found the cutters lying beside a roll of barbed wire on the floor, thrust them into my pocket and rode on up the creek.

By the time I reached the line fence the afternoon was about gone, and the men with scrapers had quit for the day. They’d thrown up a dike of earth against the fence, but some water was still seeping through. Thirty or 40 head of cattle stood here, dull-eyed and with bones sticking out under their hides, waiting for enough water to collect to satisfy their thirst. Before this bunch had had its drink and drifted away as many more cattle would have gathered by the fence. It made a man hurt inside to see them and hear their thirsty bawling all day long and all night, too, wherever there was the smell of water. It had been like that since spring.

The clouds were still there, rolled up black and high over the back hills, and below them the occasional white flash

of sheet lightning played across the sky. I used the cutters to open a 50yard hole in the fence so the stock could get at the water collecting behind the dam, and rode on through. It was about two miles across the hills to the Dunn ranch house.

It was dusk when I rode into the yards. A door was standing open on the porch with a light behind it. Somewhere behind the house a dog started barking. That old trouble and the way Dunn had backed up the Mateo brothers had ended any friendship between us, and it was a long while since I’d last been here. I reined my mount over to the porch steps and stopped and called Dunn’s name, staying in the saddle.

After a moment Dunn came through the lighted doorway and stood on the porch, peering at me in the gloom. He was a stooped, thickset man. I began by reminding him that range water rights are established by use, and ended by telling him about the hole I’d cut in the line fence.

“One way or another, Dunn,” 1 said, “1 aim to keep that hole open.”

His weight shifted from one boot to the other on the worn porch boards. “That won’t be necessary,” he muttered. “Pete must have got farther along with the job than I expected.”

I asked him what he meant by that. The dog had ceased barking and come around the porch corner by this time, growling at me or my horse. Then the dog yelped in a different way with somebody’s boot against his ribs. Dunn turned. In the white flash of lightning from the hills both of us saw Pete Mateo stepping up on the end of the porch with his back against the house wall. There was a gleam of light from metal in his hand before the flash made an utter darkness of the gloom.

DUNN yelled something in a tight choked voice. 1 suppose Pete Mateo had spent his time in prison blaming me for what had happened to Joe, brooding over it and nerving himself up till this was a thing he had to do. I threw myself from saddle to the porch steps, hearing the gun in Mateo’s hand roar once.

I landed on the steps on doubled legs and dived on across the porch toward Mateo, figuring I somehow had to reach him before he fired again. Then I heard Dunn grunting in the darkness, struggling with him. The gun fell to the porch boards with a small thud. Pete Mateo stumbled backward into the shaft of doorway light with the weight of us both against him, and went down there.

Dunn felt around on the porch till he found the gun. He stood over Mateo, breathing hard.

“So that’s what you came back for, was it, Pete?” Dunn said. “I never believed it before. I always thought you and Joe had met with a frame-up. But you can climb your saddle now and don’t never come back again or you’ll find a posse looking for you.” He turned to me. “Is that all right?”

I said it was all right with me. All I’d ever wanted was a chance to forget what had happened three years ago. “About the line spring,” Dunn con-

tinued. “More water is wasting back into the ground there than either your cattle or mine on this side of the fence get to drink. A tank in the clay bottom will help hold it for both of us. That’s what I started in to say to you. Send Jim Stevens up in the morning to lend a hand if he’s not too busy. You’ll have to tend to the work on your own side of the fence.”

He was a stiff-necked man and farther than that he could not unbend, and I understood that. 1 stepped back into the saddle.

“We’ll both be up in the morning to lend a hand,” I promised.

It was dark night when I rode back through the hole in the fence. But it was good to have this settled and know I had a neighbor on the far side of the fence again. Clouds covered the whole sky above, zigzagged with the flash of lightning from the east, and thunder muttered continuously from the hills. The air was hot and still, sultry with the feel of storm in it. It was too late in the year for rain to sprout a new crop of grass before fall, but with the waterholes filled and springs running this would be a different land.

I took off my hat and rode with my face lifted . . . and then I heard the wind.

It came rattling through the dry brush stems, whining far-off among the rocks. By the time I reached the bend dust was sweeping across the bottom flats once more, and the storm was gone. It was like all the other times when clouds had gathered there on the horizon, awakening hope that only turned into deeper despair. I bent my head against the wind, climbing the bluff, and from habit searched for a light across the creek.

The light of a window showed there, tiny and hazy through the dust. I stopped and studied it a while, wondering if some of the Elliot family had returned; then 1 crossed the creek. From the far bank I knew the light came from the Bonner cabin. I supposed it meant that Cathy and Bill had missed the evening train for the Junction, or through some misunderstanding Phil Bonner had come home tonight.

But when I turned into the yards it was Cathy who came from the door and stood alone on the stoop outside, waiting while I dismounted.

“Cathy,” I said.

Her face was in shadow and I could not see it plainly till I stopped beside her, and her head tilted back.

“Clint, it’s not only the good years that matter, is it?” she said. “It’s all the years, the hard as well as the good, that make up a lifetime, and it’s the faith you have in something that really counts. Bill will never understand that.”

I searched her face. “Has Bill gone, Cathy?”

“On the evening train. Old Jim drove me back here later,” she explained. “Clint, remember how the wild flowers blossomed all along Casson Creek last

year?”

“Yes, I remember,” I said, and took her into my arms at last, holding her close. “There’ll be another spring, Cathy.” ^