Chapter 23. The Water Question and Some Gossip
 

Miss Rosemary Allen rode down into One Man Coulee and boldly up to the cabin of Andy Green, and shouted musically for him to come forth. Andy made a hasty pass at his hair with a brush, jerked his tie straight and came out eagerly. There was no hesitation in his manner. He went straight up to her and reached up to pull her from the saddle, that he might hold her in his arms and kiss her--after the manner of bold young men who are very much in love. But Miss Rosemary Allen stopped him with a push that was not altogether playful, and scowled at him viciously.

"I am in a most furious mood today," she said. "I want to scratch somebody's eyes out! I want to say words. Don't come close, or I might pull your hair or something, James." She called him James because that was not his name, and because she had learned a good deal about his past misdeeds and liked to take a sly whack at his notorious tendency to forget the truth, by calling him Truthful James.

"All right; that suits me fine. It's worth a lot to have you close enough to pull hair. Where have you been all this long while?" Being a bold young man and very much in love, he kissed her in spite of her professed viciousness.

"Oh, I've been to town--it hasn't been more than three days since we met and had that terrible quarrel James. What was it about?" She frowned down at him thoughtfully. "I'm still furious about it--whatever it is. Do you know, Mr. Man, that I am an outlaw amongst my neighbors, and that our happy little household, up there on the hill, is a house divided against itself? I've put up a green burlap curtain on my southwest corner, and bought me a smelly oil stove and I pos-i-tively refuse to look at my neighbors or speak to them. I'm going to get some lumber and board up that side of my house.

"Those three cats--they get together on the other side of my curtain and say the meanest things!"

Andy Green had the temerity to laugh. "That sounds good to me," he told her unsympathetically. "Now maybe you'll come down and keep house for me and let that pinnacle go to thunder. It's no good anyway, and I told you so long ago. That whole eighty acres of yours wouldn't support a family of jackrabbits month. What--"

"And let those old hens say they drove me off? That Kate Price is the limit. The things she said to me you wouldn't believe. And it all started over my going with little Buck a few times to ride along your fence when you boys were busy. I consider that I had a perfect right to ride where I pleased. Of course they're furious anyway, because I don't side against you boys and--and all that. When--when they found out about--you and me, James, they said some pretty sarcastic things, but I didn't pay any attention to that. Poor old freaks, I expected them to be jealous, because nobody ever pays any attention to them. Kate Price is the worst--she's an old maid. The others have had husbands and can act superior.

"Well, I didn't mind the things they said then; I took that for granted. But a week or so ago Florence Hallman came, and she did stir things up in great style! Since then the girls have hardly spoken to me except to say something insulting. And Florence Grace came right out and called me a traitor; that was before little Buck and I took to 'riding fence' as you call it, for you boys. You imagine what they've been saying since then!"

"Well, what do you care? You don't have to stay with them, and you know it. I'm just waiting--"

"Well, but I'm no quitter, James. I'm going to hold down that claim now if I have to wear a sixshooter!" Her eyes twinkled at that idea. "Besides, I can stir them up now and then and get them to say things that are useful. For instance, Florence Hallman told Kate Price about that last trainload of cattle coming, and that they were going to cut your fence and drive them through in the night--and I stirred dear little Katie up so she couldn't keep still about that. And therefore--" She reached out and gave Andy Green's ear a small tweek--"somebody found out about it, and a lot of somebodys happened around that way and just quietly managed to give folks a hint that there was fine grass somewhere else. That saved a lot of horseflesh and words and work, didn't it?"

"It sure did." Andy smiled up at her worshipfully. "Just the same--"

"But listen here, nice, level-headed Katiegirl has lost her temper since then, and let out a little more that is useful knowledge to somebody. There's one great weak point in the character of Florence Hallman; maybe you have noticed it. She's just simply got to have somebody to tell things to, and she doesn't always show the best judgment in her choice of a confessional--"

"I've noticed that before," Andy Green admitted, and smiled reminiscently. "She sure does talk too much--for a lady that has so much up her sleeve."

"Yes--and she's been making a chum of Katie Price since she discovered what an untrustworthy creature I am. I did a little favor for Irish Mallory, James. I overheard Florence Grace talking to Kate about that man who is supposed to be at death's door. So I made a trip to Great Falls, if you please, and I scouted around and located the gentleman--well, anyway, I gave that nice, sleek little lawyer of yours a few facts that will let Irish come back to his claim."

"Irish has been coming back to his claim pretty regular as it is," Andy informed her quietly. "Did you think he was hiding out, all this time? Why"--he laughed at her--"you talked to him yourself, one day, and thought it was Weary. Remember when you came over with the mail? That was Irish helping me string wire. He's been wearing Weary's hat and clothes and cultivating a twinkle to his eyes--that's all"

"Why, I--well, anyway, that man they've been making a fuss over is just as well as you are, James. They only wanted to get Irish in jail and make a little trouble--pretty cheap warfare at that, if you want my opinion."

"Oh, well--what's the odds? While they're wasting time and energy that way, we're going right along doing what we've laid out to do. Say, do you know I'm kinda getting stuck on this ranch proposition. If I just had a housekeeper--"

Miss Rosemary Allen seldom let him get beyond that point, and she interrupted him now by wrinkling her nose at him in a manner that made Andy Green forget altogether that he had begun a sentence upon a subject forbidden. Later she went back to her worries; she was a very persistent young woman.

"I hope you boys are going to attend to that contest business right away," she said, with a pucker between her eyes and not much twinkle in them. "There's something about that which I don't quite understand. I heard Florence Hallman and Kate talking yesterday about it going by default. Are you sure it's wise to put off filing your answers so long? When are you supposed to appear, James?"

"Me? On or before the twenty-oneth day of July, my dear girl. They lumped us up and served us all on the same day--I reckon to save shoe-leather; therefore, inasmuch as said adverse parties have got over a week left--"

"You'd better not take a chance, waiting till the last day in the afternoon," she warned him vaguely. "Maybe they think you've forgotten the date or something--but whatever they think, I believe they're counting on your not answering in time. I think Florence Hallman knows they haven't any real proof against you. I know she knows it. She's perfectly wild over the way you boys have stuck here and worked. And from what I can gather, she hasn't been able to scrape up the weentiest bit of evidence that the Flying U is backing you-- and of course that is the only ground they could contest your claims on. So if it comes to trial, you'll all win; you're bound to. I told Kate Price so--and those other old hens, yesterday, and that's what we had the row over."

"My money's on you, girl," Andy told her, grinning. "How are the wounded?"

"The wounded? Oh, they've clubbed together this morning and are washing hankies and collars and things, and talking about me. And they have snouged every speck of water from the barrel--I paid my share for the hauling, too--and the man won't come again till day after tomorrow with more. Fifty cents a barrel, straight, he's charging now, James. And you , boys with a great, big, long creekful of it that you can get right in and swim in! I've come over to borrow two water-bags of it, if you please, James I never dreamed water was so precious. Florence Hallman ought to be made to lie on one of these dry claims she's fooled us into taking. I really don't know, James, what's going to become of some of these poor farmers. You knew, didn't you, that Mr. Murphy spent nearly two hundred dollars boring a well--and now it's so strong of alkali they daren't use a drop of it? Mr. Murphy is living right up to his name and nationality, since then. He's away back there beyond the Sands place, you know. He has to haul water about six miles. Believe me, James, Florence Hallman had better keep away from Murphy! I met him as I was coming out from town, and he called her a Jezebel!"

"That's mild!" Andy commented dryly. "Get down, why don't you? I want you to take a look at the inside of my shack and see how bad I need a housekeeper--since you won't take my word for it. I hope every drop of water leaks outa these bags before you get home. I hope old Mister falls down and spills it. I've a good mind not to let you have any, anyway. Maybe you could be starved and tortured into coming down here where you belong."

"Maybe I couldn't. I'll get me a barrel of my own, and hire Simpson to fill it four times a week, if you please! And I'll put a lid with a padlock on it, so Katie dear can't rob me in the night--and I'll use a whole quart at a time to wash dishes, and two quarts when I take a bath! I shall," she asserted with much emphasis, "lie in luxury, James!"

Andy laughed and waved his hand toward One Man Creek. "That's all right--but how would you like to have that running past your house, so you could wake up in the night and hear it go gurgle-gurgle?, Wouldn't that be all right?"

Rosemary Allen clasped her two gloved hands together and drew a long breath. "I should want to run out and stop it," she declared. "To think of water actually running around loose in this world!! And think of us up on that dry prairie, paying fifty cents a barrel for it--and a lot slopped out of the barrel on the road!" She glanced down into Andy's lovelighted eyes, and her own softened. She placed her hand on his shoulder and shook her head at him with a tender remonstrance.

"I know, boy--but it isn't in me to give up anything I set out to do, any more than it is in you. You wouldn't like me half so well if I could just drop that claim and think no more about it. I've got enough money to commute, when the time comes, and I'll feel a lot better if I go through with it now I've started. And--James!" She smiled at him wistfully. "Even if it is only eighty acres, it will make good pasture, and--it will help some, won't it?"

After that you could not expect Andy Green to do any more badgering or to discourage the girl. He did like her better for having grit and a mental backbone--and he found a way of telling her so and of making the assurance convincing enough.

He filled her canvas water-bags and went with her to carry them, and he cheered her much with his aircastles. Afterwards he took the team and rustled a water-barrel and hauled her a barrel of water and gave Kate Price a stony-eyed stare when she was caught watching him superciliously; and in divers ways managed to make Miss Rosemary Allen feel that she was fighting a good fight and that the odds were all in her favor and in the favor of the Happy Family--and of Andy Green in particular. She felt that the spite of her three very near neighbors was really a matter to laugh over, and the spleen of Florence Hallman a joke.

But for all that she gave Andy Green one last warning when he climbed up to the spring seat of the wagon and unwound the lines from the brake-handle, ready to drive back to his own work. She went close to the front wheel, so that eavesdroppers could not hear, and held her front hair from blowing across her earnest, windtanned face while she looked up at him.

"Now remember, boy, do go and file your answer to those contests--all of you!" she urged. "I don't know why--but I've a feeling some kind of a scheme is being hatched to make you trouble on that one point. And if you see Buck, tell him I'll ride fence with him tomorrow again. If you realized how much I like that old cowpuncher, you'd be horribly jealous, James."

"I'm jealous right now, without realizing a thing except that I've got to go off and leave you here with a bunch of lemons," he retorted--and he spoke loud enough so that any eavesdroppers might hear.