It was nearing the middle of June, and it was getting to be a very hot June at that. For two days the trail-herd had toiled wearily over the hills and across the coulees between the Missouri and Milk River. Then the sky threatened for a day, and after that they plodded in the rain.
"Thank the Lord that's done with," sighed Park when he saw the last of the herd climb, all dripping, up the north bank of the Milk River. "To-morrow we can turn 'em loose. And I tell yuh, Bud, we didn't get across none too soon. Yuh notice how the river's coming up? A day later and we'd have had to hold the herd on the other side, no telling how long."
"It is higher than usual; I noticed that," Thurston agreed absently. He was thinking more of Mona just then than of the river. He wondered if she would be at home. He could easily ride down there and find out. It wasn't far; not a quarter of a mile, but he assured himself that he wasn't going, and that he was not quite a fool, he hoped Even if she were at home, what good could that possibly do him? Just give him several bad nights, when he would lie in his corner of the tent and listen to the boys snoring with a different key for every man. Such nights were not pleasant, nor were the thoughts that caused them.
From where they were camped upon a ridge which bounded a broad coulee on the east, he could look down upon the Stevens ranch nestling in the bottomland, the house half hidden among the cottonwoods. Through the last hours of the afternoon he watched it hungrily. The big corral ran down to the water's edge, and he noted idly that three panels of the fence extended out into the river, and that the muddy water was creeping steadily up until at sundown the posts of the first panel barely showed above the water.
Park came up to him and looked down upon the little valley. "I never did see any sense in Jack Stevens building where he did," he remarked. "There ain't a June flood that don't put his corral under water, and some uh these days it's going to get the house. He was too lazy to dig a well back on high ground; he'd rather take chances on having the whole business washed off the face uh the earth."
"There must be danger of it this year if ever," Thurston observed uneasily. "The river is coming up pretty fast, it seems to me. It must have raised three feet since we crossed this afternoon."
"I'll course there's danger, with all that snow coming out uh the mountains. And like as not Jack's in Shellanne roosting on somebody's pool table and telling it scary, instead uh staying at home looking after his stuff. Where yuh going, Bud?"
"I'm going to ride down there," Thurston answered constrainedly. "The women may be all alone."
"Well, I'll go along, if you'll hold on a minute. Jack ain't got a lick uh sense. I don't care if he is Mona's brother."
"Half brother," corrected Thurston, as he swung up into the saddle. He had a poor opinion of Jack and resented even that slight relation to Mona.
The road was soggy with the rain which fell steadily; down in the bottom, the low places in the road were already under water, and the river, widening almost perceptibly in its headlong rush down the narrow valley, crept inch by inch up its low banks. When they galloped into the yard which sloped from the house gently down to the river fifty yards away, Mona's face appeared for a moment in the window. Evidently she had been watching for some one, and Thurston's heart flopped in his chest as he wondered, fleetingly, if it could be himself. When she opened the door her eyes greeted him with a certain wistful expression that he had never seen in them before. He was guilty of wishing that Park had stayed in camp.
"Oh, I'm glad you rode over," she welcomed—but she was careful, after that first swift glance, to look at Park. "Jack wasn't at camp, was he? He went to town this morning, and I looked for hi back long before now. But it's a mistake ever to look for Jack until he's actually in sight."
Park smiled vaguely. He was afraid it would not be polite to agree with her as emphatically as he would like to have done. But Thurston had no smile ready, polite or otherwise. Instead he drew down his brows in a way not complimentary to Jack.
"Where is your mother?" he asked, almost peremptorily.
"Mamma went to Great Falls last week," she told him primly, just grazing him with one of her impersonal glances which nearly drove him to desperation. "Aunt Mary has typhoid fever—there seems to be so much of that this spring and they sent for mamma. She's such a splendid nurse, you know."
Thurston did know, but he passed over the subject. "And you're alone?" he demanded.
"Certainly not; aren't you two here?" Mona could be very pert when she tried. "Jack and I are holding down the ranch just now; the boys are all on roundup, of course. Jack went to town today to see some one.
"Um-m-yes, of course." It was Park, still trying to be polite and not commit himself on the subject of Jack. The "some one" whom Jack went oftenest to see was the bartender in the Palace saloon, but it was not necessary to tell her that.
"The river's coming up pretty fast, Mona," he ventured. "Don't yuh think yuh ought to pull out and go visiting?"
"No, I don't." Mona's tone was very decided. "I wouldn't drop down on a neighbor without warning just because the river happens to be coming up. It has 'come up' every June since we've been living here, and there have been several of them. At the worst it never came inside the gate."
"You can never tell what it might do," Park argued. "Yuh know yourself there's never been so much snow in the mountains. This hot weather we've been having lately, and then the rain, will bring it a-whooping. Can't yuh ride over to the Jonses? One of us'll go with yuh."
"No, I can't." Mona's chin went up perversely. "I'm no coward, I hope, even if there was any danger which there isn't."
Thurston's chin went up also, and he sat a bit straighter. Whether she meant it or not, he took her words as a covert stab at himself. Probably she did not mean it; at any rate the blood flew consciously to her cheeks after she had spoken, and she caught her under lip sharply between her teeth. And that did not help matters or make her temper more yielding.
"Anyway," she added hurriedly, "Jack will be here; he's likely to come any minute now."
"Uh course, if Jack's got some new kind of half-hitch he can put on the river and hold it back yuh'll be all right," fleered Park, with the freedom of an old friend. He had known Mona when she wore dresses to her shoe-tops and her hair in long, brown curls down her back.
She wrinkled her nose at him also with the freedom of an old friend and Thurston stirred restlessly in his chair. He did not like even Park to be too familiar with Mona, though he knew there was a girl in Shellanne whose name Park sometimes spoke in his sleep.
She lifted the big glass lamp down from its place on the clock shelf and lighted it with fingers not quite steady. "You men," she remarked, "think women ought to be wrapped in pink cotton and put in a glass cabinet. If, by any miracle, the river should come up around the house, I flatter myself I should be able to cope with the situation. I'd just saddle my horse and ride out to high ground!"
"Would yuh?" Park grinned skeptically. "The road from here to the hill is half under water right now; the river's got over the bank above, and is flooding down through the horse pasture. By the time the water got up here the river'd be as wide and deep one side uh yuh as the other. Then where'd yuh be at?"
"It won't get up here, though," Mona asserted coolly. "It never has."
"No, and the Lazy Eight never had to work the Yellowstone range on spring roundup before either," Park told her meaningly.
Whereupon Mona got upon her pedestal and smiled her unpleasant smile, against which even Park had no argument ready.
They lingered till long after all good cowpunchers are supposed to be in their beds—unless they are standing night-guard—but Jack failed to appear. The rain drummed upon the roof and the river swished and gurgled against the crumbling banks, and grumbled audibly to itself because the hills stood immovably in their places and set bounds which it could not pass, however much it might rage against their base.
When the clock struck a wheezy nine Mona glanced at it significantly and smothered a yawn more than half affected. It was a hint which no man with an atom of self-respect could overlook. With mutual understanding the two rose.
"I guess we'll have to be going," Park said with some ceremony. "I kept think ing maybe Jack would show up; it ain't right to leave yuh here alone like this."
"I don't see why not; I'm not the least bit afraid," Mona said. Her tone was impersonal and had in it a note of dismissal.
So, there being nothing else that they could do, they said good-night and took themselves off.
"This is sure fierce," Park grumbled when they struck the lower ground. "Darn a man like Jack Stevens! He'll hang out there in town and bowl up on other men's money till plumb daylight. It's a wonder Mona didn't go with her mother. But no—it'd be awful if Jack had to cook his own grub for a week. Say, the water has come up a lot, don't yuh think, Bud? If it raises much more Mona'll sure have a chance to 'cope with the situation. It'd just about serve her right, too."
Thurston did not think so, but he was in too dispirited a mood to argue the point. It had not been good for his peace of mind to sit and watch the color come and go in Mona's cheeks, and the laughter spring unheralded into her dear, big eyes, and the light tangle itself in the waves of her hair.
He guided his horse carefully through the deep places, and noted uneasily how much deeper it was than when they had crossed before. He cursed the conventions which forbade his staying and watching over the girl back there in the house which already stood upon an island, cut off from the safe, high land by a strip of backwater that was widening and deepening every minute, and, when it rose high enough to flow into the river below, would have a current that would make a nasty crossing.
On the first rise he stopped and looked back at the light which shone out from among the dripping cottonwoods. Even then he was tempted to go back and brave her anger that he might feel assured of her safety.
"Oh, come on," Park cried impatiently. "We can't do any good sitting out here in the rain. I don't suppose the water will get clear up to the house; it'll likely do things to the sheds and corrals, though, and serve Jack right. Come on, Bud. Mona won't have us around, so the sooner we get under cover the better for us. She's got lots uh nerve; I guess she'll make out all right."
There was common sense in the argument, and Thurston recognized it and rode on to camp. But instead of unsaddling, as he would naturally have done, he tied Sunfish to the bed-wagon and threw his slicker over his back to protect him from the rain. And though Park said nothing, he followed Thurston's example.