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       The Flockmaster of Poison Creek, p.1

          George W. Ogden / Western
The Flockmaster of Poison Creek

Produced by Roger Frank and the Online DistributedProofreading Team at https://www.pgdp.net


Neither spoke, a daze over them, the dull shock of death'sclose passing bewildering and deep. _Page_ 120]


THE FLOCKMASTER OF POISON CREEK


BY


G. W. OGDEN


AUTHOR OF


THE DUKE OF CHIMNEY BUTTE, THE LAND OF LAST CHANCE, Etc.


FRONTISPIECE BY P. V. E. IVORY


GROSSET & DUNLAP


PUBLISHERS NEW YORK


Made in the United States of America


Copyright


A. C. McClurg & Co.


1921


Published March, 1921


Copyrighted in Great Britain


CONTENTS


I The Sheep Country 1 II Swan Carlson 15 III The Fight 27 IV Keeper of the Flock 34 V Tim Sullivan 49 VI Eyes in the Firelight 57 VII The Easiest Lesson 67 VIII The Sheep-Killer 76 IX A Two-Gun Man 87 X Wild Riders of the Range 97 XI Hector Hall Sets a Beacon 111 XII One Comes to Serve 127 XIII A Fight Almost Lost 136 XIV The Lonesomeness 149 XV Only One Jacob 160 XVI Reid Begins His Play 173 XVII Hertha Carlson 181 XVIII Swan Carlson's Day 195 XIX Not Cut out for a Sheepman 207 XX A Million Gallops Off 212 XXI Tim Sullivan Breaks a Contract 222 XXII Phantoms of Fever 233 XXIII Concerning Mary 239 XXIV More About Mary 252 XXV One Man's Joke 262 XXVI Payment on Account 270 XXVII A Summons in the Night 287 XXVIII Swan Carlson Laughs 296 XXIX Sheepman--And More 308


THE FLOCKMASTER OF POISON CREEK


CHAPTER I


THE SHEEP COUNTRY


So John Mackenzie had put his foot upon the road. This after he hadreasoned it out as a mathematical problem, considering it as a matterof quantities alone. There was nothing in school-teaching at sixtydollars a month when men who had to carry a rubber stamp to sign theirnames to their checks were making fortunes all around him in sheep.


That was the way it looked to John Mackenzie the morning he set outfor Poison Creek to hunt up Tim Sullivan and strike him for a job.Against the conventions of the country, he had struck out on foot.That also had been reasoned out in a cool and calculative way. Asheepherder had no use for a horse, in the first place. Secondly andfinally, the money a horse would represent would buy at least twelvehead of ewes. With questioning eyes upon him when he left Jasper, andcontemptuous eyes upon him when he met riders in his dusty journey,John Mackenzie had pushed on, his pack on his back.


There was not a book in that pack. John Mackenzie, schoolmaster, hadbeen a bondslave of books in that country for four obscure, well-nighprofitless years, and he was done with them for a while. The less asheepman knew about books, the more he was bound to know about sheep,for sheep would be the object and aim of his existence. Mackenzie knewplenty of sheepmen who never had looked into any kind of a book but abank-deposit book in their lives. That seemed to be education enoughto carry them very nicely along, even to boost them to the statelegislature, and lift one of them to the United States senate. So,what was the use of worrying along on a mission of enlightenment atsixty dollars a month?


Mackenzie had not come into the West in a missionary spirit at thebeginning. He had not believed the youth of that section to be in anygreater depths of ignorance than elsewhere in this more or lessfavored land. But from his earliest years he had entertained romanticnotions, adventurous desires. With his normal-school certificate inhis breast pocket, tight trousers on his rather long legs, a shortvest scarcely meeting them at the waistband, he had traveled into theWest, seeking romance, alert for adventure.


When he arrived at Jasper, which was only the inter-mountain West, andfar from the golden coast of his most fervid dreams, he found thatadventure and romance apparently had packed up and gone elsewhereyears ahead of him. There was nothing nearer either of them in Jasperthan a tame gambling-joint in the back end of a saloon, where greasy,morose sheepherders came to stake quarters on roulette and faro, whererailroaders squandered away their wages, leaving the grocerymenunpaid. And there was no romance for John Mackenzie in any suchproceeding as that.


Simple, you will see he was; open-faced and guileless as the day.Farm-bred, raw-boned, slow of speech, clear of eye, no vices, nohabits that pulled a man down, unless a fondness for his briar-rootpipe might be so classed. But in the way Mackenzie smoked the pipe itwas more in the nature of a sacrifice to his gods of romance than evena mild dissipation.


In the four years of his school-teaching at Jasper Mackenzie slowlygrew out of his extreme rawness of appearance. His legs hardened fromlong rambles over the hills, his face browned like an outdoor man's,his rustic appearance, his clabber-days shyness, all slowly dissolvedaway. But the school board was not cognizant of any physical or mentalstrengthening in him. He was worth sixty dollars a month to thatslow-thinking body when he came to Jasper; he was worth no more thansixty dollars when he threw up the job and left.


Romance and adventure had called him away to the road at last, but theromance of sheep-riches, the adventure of following a flock over thesage-gray hills. Maybe he would find it too late even to glimpse themwhen he arrived in the heart of the sheeplands; perhaps times hadshifted since the heavy-jowled illiterates whom he had met in Jasperbegan their careers with a few pounds of dried apples and uncommonendurance for hardships in the open fields.


Simple, they thought him down in Jasper, in the mild simplicity of apreacher or any man who would not fight. In their classification hewas a neutral force, an emasculated, mild, harmless creature who heldthe child's view of life from much association with children. He oftenhad heard it said.


A man never could advance to notability in a community that rated himas mildly simple; he would have a hard time of it even to becomenotorious. Only one man there had taken an interest in him as man toman, a flockmaster who had come into that country twenty years before,a schoolteacher like himself.


This man had kicked up the golden dust before Mackenzie's eyes withhis tales of the romance of the range, the romance of sheep-riches,the quick multiplication of a band run on the increase-sharing plan.This man urged Mackenzie to join him, taking a band of sheep onshares. But his range was in sight of Jasper; there was no romance onhis hills. So Mackenzie struck out for the headwaters of Poison Creek,to find Tim Sullivan, notable man among the sheep-rich of his day.


It was a five-days' journey on foot, as he calculated it--nobody inthat country ever had walked it, as far as he could learn--to TimSullivan's ranch on Poison Creek. Now, in the decline of the fifth dayhe had come to Poison Creek, a loud, a rapid, and boisterous streamwhich a man could cross in two jumps. It made a great amount of noisein its going over the boulders in its bed, as a little water in a vastarid land probably was justified by its importance in doing. It wasthe first running water Mackenzie had met since leaving the Big Wind,clear as if it came unpolluted by a hoof or a hand from its mountainsource.


But somewhere along its course Tim Sullivan grazed and watered fortythousand sheep; and beyond him were others who grazed and watered manytimes that number. Poison Creek might well enough merit its name fromthe slaver of many flocks, the schoolmaster thought, although he knewit came from pioneer days, and was as obscure as pioneer names usuallyare obscure.


And some day he would be watering his thousands of sheep along itsrushing vein. That was John Mackenzie's intent and purpose as hetrudged the dusty miles of gray hills, with their furze of gray sage,and their gray twilights which fell with a melancholy silence aschilling as the breath of death. For John Mackenzie was going intothe sheeplands to become a master. He had determined it all bymathematical rule.


There was the experience to be gained first, and it was cheaper to dothat at another man's expense than his own. He knew how the right kindof a man could form a partnership with a flockmaster sometimes; he hadheard stories of such small beginnings leading to large ownership andoily prosperity. Jasper had examples of its own; he was familiar withthem all.


Some of them began as herders on the basis of half the increase from astated number of sheep not more than ten years past. Now they lookedupon a sixty-dollars-a-month schoolteacher with the eyes ofsuperiority, as money always despises brains which it is obliged tohire, probably because brains cannot devise any better method offinding the necessary calories than that of letting themselves out bythe month.


Tim Sullivan needed herders; he had advertised for them in the Jasperpaper. Besides, Tim had the name of a man who could see thepossibilities in another. He had put more than one young fellow on theway of success in the twenty years he had been running sheep on thePoison Creek range. But failing to land a partnership deal withSullivan, Mackenzie was prepared to take a job running sheep by themonth. Or, should he find all avenues to experience at another man'sexpense closed to him, he was ready to take the six hundred dollarssaved out of his years of book bondage and buy a little flock of hisown. Somewhere in that wide expanse of government-owned land he wouldfind water and grazing, and there his prosperity would increase.


Sheep had visited the creek lately at the point where Mackenzie firstencountered it, but there were no dusty flocks in sight billowing overthe hills. Tim Sullivan's house was not to be seen any more thansheep, from the highest hill in the vicinity. It must be several milesahead of him still, Mackenzie concluded, remembering that Poison Creekwas long. Yet he hoped he might reach it by nightfall, for his feetwere growing weary of the untrodden way they had borne him for ahundred and fifty miles, more or less.


He pushed on, now and again crossing the broad trail left by bands ofsheep counting two or three thousand, feeling the lonesomeness of theunpeopled land softened by these domestic signs. Sunset, and no sightof a house; nightfall, and not the gleam of a light to show him eitherherder's camp or permanent domicile of man.


Mackenzie lingered beside the clamoring water in a little valley wherethe uncropped grass was lush about his feet, considering making campthere for the night. It was a pleasant place for a land so bleak, evenin summer, as that country of high table-lands and rolling gray hills.As he started to unsling his pack he caught the dim note of somebody'svoice raised in song, and stood so, hand on the strap, listening.


The voice was faint, broken by the distance, yet cheering because itwas a voice. Mackenzie pressed up the hill, hoping to be able tothread the voice back to its source from that eminence. As he nearedthe top the voice came clearer; as he paused to listen, it seemedquite close at hand. It was a woman singing, and this was the mannerof her song:


_Na-a-fer a-lo-o-one, na-a-fer a-lone, He promise na-fer to leafe me, Na-fer to leafe me a-lone!_


The valley whence came the song was quite dark below him, and darkerfor the indefinite blotch of something that appeared to be trees. Inthat grove the house that sheltered the melancholy singer must behidden, so completely shrouded that not even a gleam of light escapedto lead him to the door. Mackenzie stood listening. There was no othersound rising from that sequestered homestead than the woman's song,and this was as doleful as any sound that ever issued from humanlips.


Over and over again the woman sang the three lines, a silence afterthe last long, tremulous note which reached to the traveler's heart,more eloquent in its expression of poignant loneliness than thehopeless repetition of the song. He grinned dustily as he foundhimself wishing, in all seriousness, that somebody would take a dayoff and teach her the rest of the hymn.


Mackenzie's bones were weary of the road, hard as he tried to makehimself believe they were not, and that he was a tough man, ready totake and give as it might come to him in the life of the sheeplands.In his heart he longed for a bed that night, and a cup of hot coffeeto gladden his gizzard. Coffee he had not carried with him, much lessa coffeepot; his load would be heavy enough without them, he rightlyanticipated, before he reached Tim Sullivan's. Nothing more cheeringthan water out of the holes by the way had passed his lips these fivedays.


He could forgive the woman her song if she would supply some of thecomforts of those who luxuriated in houses for just this one night. Hewent on, coming soon to barbed wire along the way, and presently to agap in it that let him in among the trees which concealed the house.


It was a small, low cabin, quite buried among the trees, no lightshowing as Mackenzie drew near, although the voice of the woman stillrose in the plaintive monotony of her song.


Mackenzie put as much noise into his arrival as was possible bywalking heavily, knowing very well that a surprise by night is not agood beginning for a claim of hospitality. The woman must have heard,for her song ceased in the middle of a word. At the corner of thehouse Mackenzie saw a dim light falling through an open door, intowhich the shadow of the woman came.


A little way from the door Mackenzie halted, hat in hand, giving thewoman good evening. She stood within the threshold a few feet, thelight of the lantern hanging in an angle of the wall over her, bendingforward in the pose of one who listened. She was wiping a plate, whichshe held before her breast in the manner of a shield, stiffly in bothhands. Her eyes were large and full of a frightened surprise, her paleyellow hair was hanging in slovenly abandon down her cheeks and overher ears.


She was a tall woman, thin of frame, worn and sad, but with a fadedcomeliness of face, more intelligence apparent in it than is commonlyshown by Scandinavian women of the peasant class who share the laborsand the loads of their men on the isolated homesteads of theNorthwest. She stood so, leaning and staring, her mouth standing openas if the song had been frightened out so quickly that it had no timeto shut the door.


"Good evening, madam," said Mackenzie again.


She came out of her paralysis of fright and surprise at the assuringsound of his voice. He drew nearer, smiling to show his friendlyintention, the lantern light on the close, flat curls of his fairhair, which lay damp on temples and forehead.


Tall after his kind was this traveler at her door, spare of flesh,hollow of cheeks, great of nose, a seriousness in his eyes whichbalanced well the marvelous tenderness of his smile. Not a handsomeman, but a man whose simple goodness shone in his features like afriendly lamp. The woman in the door advanced a timid step; the colordeepened in her pale and melancholy face.


"I thought it was my man," she said, her voice soft and slow, alabored effort in it to speak without the harsh dialect so apparent inher song.


"I am a traveler, Mackenzie is my name, on my way to Tim Sullivan'ssheep ranch. My grub has run low; I'd like to get some supper if youcan let me have a bite."


"There is not much for a gentleman to eat," said she.


"Anything at all," Mackenzie returned, unslinging his pack, letting itdown wearily at his feet.


"My man would not like it. You have heard of Swan Carlson?"


"No; but I'll pay for it; he'll have no right to kick."


"You have come far if you have not heard of Swan Carlson. His name ison the wind like a curse. Better you would go on, sir; my man wouldkill you if he found you in this house."


She moved a step to reach and lay the plate on a table close at hand.As she lifted her foot there was the sharp clink of metal, as of adragging chain. Mackenzie had heard it before when she stepped nearerthe door, and now he bent to look into the shadow that fell over thefloor from the flaring bottom of the lantern.


"Madam," said he, indignantly amazed by the barbarous thing he beheld,"does that man keep you a prisoner here?"


"Like a dog," she said, nodding her untidy head, lifting her foot toshow him the chain.


It was a common trace-chain from plow harness; two of them, in fact,welded together to give her length to go about her household work. Shehad a freedom of not more than sixteen feet, one end of the chainwelded about her ankle, the other set in a staple driven into a log ofthe wall. She had wrapped the links with cloths to save her flesh, butfor all of that protection she walked haltingly, as if the limb weresore.


"I never heard of such inhuman treatment!" Mackenzie declared, hot tothe bone in his burning resentment of this barbarity. "How long has hekept you tied up this way?"


"Three years now," said she, with a weary sigh.


"It's going to stop, right here. What did you let him treat you thisway for? Why didn't some of your neighbors take a hand in it?"


"Nobody comes," she sighed, shaking her head sadly. "The name of SwanCarlson is a curse on the wind. Nobody passes; we are far from anyroad that men travel; your face is the first I have seen since Swanput the chain on me like a wolf."


"Where does he keep his tools?"


"Maybe in the barn--I do not know. Only there never is anything leftin my reach. Will you set me free, kind stranger?"


"If I can find anything to cut that chain. Let me have the lantern."


The woman hesitated, her eyes grown great with fright.


"My man, he is the one who choked two sheepherders with his hands. Youmust have read in the paper----"


"Maybe it was before my time. Give me down the lantern."


Swan Carlson appeared to be a man who got along with very few tools.Mackenzie could not find a cold-chisel among the few broken and rustedodds and ends in the barn, although there was an anvil, such as everyrancher in that country had, fastened to a stump in the yard, a hammerrusting beside it on the block. As Mackenzie stood considering whatcould be done with the material at hand, the woman called to him fromthe door, her voice vibrant with anxious excitement:


"My man will come soon," she said.


Mackenzie started back to the house, hammer in hand, thinking that hemight break the chain near her foot and give her liberty, at least. Apile of logs lay in the dooryard, an ax hacked into the end of one.With this tool added to the hammer, he hurried to the prisoner.


"I think we can make it now," he said.


The poor creature was panting as if the hand of her man hung over herin threat of throttling out her life as he had smothered thesheepherders in the tragedy that gave him his evil fame. Mackenzieurged her to a chair, giving her the lantern to hold and, with theedge of the ax set against a link of her chain, the poll on the floor,he began hammering the soft metal against the bit.


Once she put her hand on his shoulder, her breath caught in a sharpexclamation of alarm.


"I thought it was Swan's step!" she whispered. "Listen--do you hear?"


"There's nobody," he assured her, turning his head to listen, thesweat on his lean cheek glistening in the light.


"It is my fear that he will come too soon. Strike fast, good youngman, strike fast!"


If Swan Carlson had been within half a mile he would have split thewind to find out the cause of such a clanging in his shunned andproscribed house, and that he did not appear before the chain wassevered was evidence that he was nowhere near at hand. When the cutlinks fell to the floor Mrs. Carlson stood the lantern down withgentle deliberation, as if preparing to enter the chamber of someonein a desperate sickness to whom had come a blessed respite of sleep.Then she stood, her lips apart, her breath suspended, lifting herfreed foot with a joyous relief in its lightness.


Mackenzie remained on his knees at her feet, looking up strangely intoher face. Suddenly she bent over him, clasped his forehead between herhands, kissed his brow as if he were her son. A great hot tearsplashed down upon his cheek as she rose again, a sob in her throatthat ended in a little, moaning cry. She tossed her long arms like aneagle set free from a cramping cage, her head thrown back, herstreaming hair far down her shoulders. There was an appealing grace inher tall, spare body, a strange, awakening beauty in her haggardface.


"God sent you," she said. "May He keep His hand over you wherever yougo."


Mackenzie got to his feet; she picked up the ax and leaned it againstthe table close to her hand.


"I will give you eggs, you can cook them at a fire," she said, "andbread I will give you, but butter I cannot give. That I have nottasted since I came to this land, four years ago, a bride."


She moved about to get the food, walking with awkwardness on the footthat had dragged the chain so long, laughing a little at her effortsto regain a normal balance.


"Soon it will pass away, and I will walk like a lady, as I once knewhow."


"But I don't want to cook at a fire," Mackenzie protested; "I want youto make me some coffee and fry me some eggs, and then we'll see aboutthings."


She came close to him, her great gray eyes seeming to draw him untilhe gazed into her soul.


"No; you must go," she said. "It will be better when Swan comes thatnobody shall be here but me."


"But you! Why, you poor thing, he'll put that chain on you again,knock you down, for all I know, and fasten you up like a beast. I'mnot going; I'll stay right here till he comes."


"No," shaking her head in sad earnestness, "better it will be for allthat I shall be here alone when he comes."


"Alone!" said he, impatiently; "what can you do alone?"


"When he comes," said she, drawing a great breath, shaking her hairback from her face, her deep grave eyes holding him again in theirearnest appeal, "then I will stand by the door and kill him with theax!"



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