The land lay empty around them, lonely and still. On their right a ridge of hills with scattered cedars, on their left an open plain sweeping to a far horizon that offered a purple hint of hills. In all that vastness there was nothing but the creak and groan of the wagon, and overhead the sky, brassy with sunlight.
"It's only a couple of miles now," Jacob told her. "Just around that point of rocks." He pointed with his whipstock.
She felt her heart shriveling within her. "It's awfully dry, isn't it?"
"It's dry," Jacob's tone was abrupt. "It's been a bad year."
The team plodded, heads bobbing with weariness. The last town was fifty miles behind them, the last ranch almost as far. In all that distance they had seen not a ranch, a claim shack, or a fence . . . not a horse, a cow, or even a track.
At last he said, "I did not promise you much, and it is not much, but the land is ours and what the land becomes will be ours, too. The land is not only what it is, it is what we make it."
The heavy wagon rumbled on, endlessly, monotonously. The heat was stifling, their pace so slow they could not escape the dust. It settled over their clothing, their eyebrows, in the folds of their skin. The children, weary with the heat, had fallen asleep, and for that she was thankful.
The wagon reached the point of rocks, bumped over a flat rock, then rounded the point.
Her heart sank. Before them, and close under the shoulder of a hill, was a cabin, a solitary building, square and bare, without shed or corral, without shrubs, without a tree.
"There it is!" There was pride in Jacob's tone. "There's our house, Evie."
She knew how he felt, for in the three years of their life together she had learned this about him: that he had never known a home, had never possessed anything of his own beyond the clothes he wore, and his tools. He had worked hard to save the money for this move.
Drab it might be, barren it was, but to Jacob, a middle-aged man with years of hard work behind him, it was home. She warned herself that she must never forget that, and that she must do what she could to help him.
"We will plant trees, we will drill a well . . . you wait and see. First, I must buy some stock. We must have cattle."
The wagon rolled down a slight grade, and at long last they drew up at the door. The cabin was small, but it was well-built. The cloud of dust settled down over them, settled at last.
Laban awoke and sat up groggily. "Pa, are we there? Are we home?" he asked.
"Get down, son. We are here."
The cabin was build of native stone taken from the ridge back of the house, and it consisted of one large room. It had a peaked roof, with a loft and a ladder that reached to it. There was a large fireplace, a square table, a double bed, two chairs and a bench. The floor was of hard-packed earth. The water had to be carried from a water hole about twenty-five yards back of the house, and about twenty feet higher up the slope.
"The first cattle we sell," Jacob said, "we will put in a board floor."
The first cattle sold . . . would that be two years away? Or maybe three?
Three years on a dirt floor? She had always been poor, but not that poor. But she said nothing, for she had never complained; she never would complain. Jacob had thought of this too long and he would need help, not complaints or arguments.
They were here, and he still had four hundred dollars with which to buy cattle. He had dreamed of this, as he had told her, long before they were married--even before he had married the first time, before the children were born . . . One hundred and sixty acres and a cabin built with his own hands.
At daybreak, after a quick breakfast, Jacob stood with her a few minutes, looking toward the east. "I shall be gone several weeks. You have supplies enough, and you will have no need for money, but I have put aside fifty dollars that I do not need for cattle. Use it only if there is need."
It was not much, but it was the first money she had held in her hands since her father had died and left her two hundred dollars. When only five dollars was left of that money she had married Jacob Teale, a widower with two children. He was a stern but kind man, but bad luck had dogged him as if it owned him, and after three years they had this . . . no more.
"You will have the shotgun," he said, "and Laban is a good hunter. There are quail here, and sage hens. He might get a close-up shot at a deer. And you have supplies for at least a month, if you are careful."
They stood in the doorway, Evie and the children and watched him ride away on the sorrel, a straight, stiff-backed man, filled with plans and determination, who gave no thought to the imponderables, the little things which fortunes are made or broken.
Evie went back into the cabin and sat down at the table.
She must consider now. This was a time of drouth. The heat had parched and baked the land, sucking away the moisture from the grass, leaving the trees like tinder.
Jacob would be gone for weeks. There must be something to show when he returned, some things accomplished of which she could say, "There . . . this I have done."
She must be busy, and the children must be busy. There were three horses to care for. They must be fed, watered, ridden occasionally or worked.
They must explore the country around. They must spade up a kitchen garden and ditch it for irrigation from the spring. They must find what grass there was, and wood must be cut for fires now and those of the winter to come. There would be much hard work, but there must be other things, too. There must be amusement . . . something to do after work, and above all she must remember that Laban must be given more freedom, more responsibility, without forgetting that he was still a boy, a very young boy.
By sundown Jacob Teale was twenty miles east and turning up a draw to find a place to camp for the night. A small arroyo lay just over the crest, he recalled, and beyond it was thick clump of cedar. There was a hollow there among the rocks where water often collected. He turned up the bank of the draw, rode over the ridge and into the arroyo. His horse slid down the steep bank, and started up the opposite side.
A hoof came down on a loose slab of rock which gave way, and the horse fell, struggling for a foothold, then rolled over. Jacob's boot caught in the stirrup and when the horse rolled the pommel came down hard on his chest.
Something snapped inside. He felt no pain, no shock, only a kind of surprise.
The horse struggled, lunged, tried to rise, and fell back. And this time there was pain . . . a crushing, terrible, strangling pain.
But he was free of the horse's weight, even though his foot was still trapped beneath it. Somehow he rolled to an elbow and looked down at himself. His shirt and coat was red with blood. He felt faint and sick. Then he looked at the horse.
One leg was broken, an ugly compound fracture with the naked bone exposed.
He felt for his gun, drew it slowly and carefully. "Sorry, Ben," he said, and shot the horse in the head.
It stiffened sharply, then lay still.
A moment longer he remained on his elbow. He looked at the evening sky, where a star had appeared; he looked at the dusty arroyo, the bloody saddle. He could not live; even had there been a doctor, he knew that nothing could be done for him. The gun stayed in his hand, but it was not in him to use it.
He lay back, feeling a tearing within his chest. He looked up at the sky and said, "Evie . . . Evie, what have I done to you? . . . Laban . . . Ruthie . . . Lab . . ."
He tried to get up then. If he could drag himself back into the trail. If he could get back where somebody could find him. If he could . . .
He died then, and lay still, and the light wind of evening worried his hair, sifted a little dust into the creases of his clothing.
He died alone, as men in the West so often died, died trying to accomplish something, to build something, to go somewhere. Sometimes the sand buried those men's bodies, sometimes the coyotes scattered their bones, leaving a few buttons, a sun-dried boot heel, a rusted pistol.
Some of them were found and buried, but some dried up and turned to dust and the wind took the dust away. One of these was Jacob Teale.