A soft yellow haze lay over the San Jacinto plain, deepening into purple, where the mountains lifted themselves against the horizon. Nancy Watson stood in her cabin door, and held her bony, moistened finger out into the tepid air.
“I believe there’s a little breath of wind from the southeast, Robert,” she said, with a desperate hopefulness; “but the air doesn’t feel rainy.”
“Oh, I guess the rains’ll come along all right; they gener’lly do.” The man’s voice was husky and weak. “Anyway, the barley’ll hold its own quite a while yet.”
“Oh, yes; quite a long while,” acquiesced his wife, with an eager, artificial stress on the adjective. “I don’t care much if the harvest isn’t earlier’n usual; I want you to pick up your strength.”
She turned into the room, a strained smile twitching her weather-stained face. She was glad Robert’s bed was in the farthest corner away from the window. The barley-field that stretched about the little redwood cabin was a pale yellowish green, deeper in the depressions, and fading almost into brown on the hillocks. There had been heavy showers late in October, and the early sown grain had sprouted. It was past the middle of November now, and the sky was of that serene, cloudless Californian blue which is like a perpetual smiling denial of any possibility of rain.
“Is the barley turning yellow any?” queried the sick man feebly.
“Oh, not to speak of,” she faltered, swallowing hard.
Her husband was used to that gulping sob in her voice when she stood in the door. There was a little grave on the edge of the barley-field. He had put a bit of woven-wire fence about it to keep out the rabbits, and Nancy had planted some geraniums inside the small inclosure. There were some of the fiery blossoms in an old oyster can at the head of the little mound, lifting their brilliant smile toward the unfeeling blue of the sky.
“There’s pretty certain to be late rains, anyway,” the man went on hoarsely. “Leech would let us have more seed if it wasn’t for the mortgage.” His voice broke into a strained whisper on the last word.
Nancy crossed the room, and laid her knotted hand on his forehead.
“You hain’t got any fever to-day,” she said irrelevantly.
“Oh, no; I’m gettin’ on fine; I’ll be up in a day or two. The mortgage’ll be due next month, Nancy,” he went on, looking down at his thin gray hands on the worn coverlet; “I calc’lated they’d hold off till harvest, if the crop was comin’ on all right.” He glanced up at her anxiously.
The woman’s careworn face worked in a cruel convulsive effort at self-control.
“It ain’t right, Robert!” she broke out fiercely. “You’ve paid more’n the place is worth now; if they take it for what’s back, it ain’t right!”
Her husband looked at her with pleading in his sunken eyes. He felt himself too weak for principles, hardly strong enough to cope with facts.
“But they ain’t to blame,” he urged; “they lent me the money to pay Thomson. It was straight cash; I guess it’s all right.”
“There’s wrong somewhere,” persisted the woman, hurling her abstract justice recklessly in the face of the evidence. “If the place is worth more, you’ve made it so workin’ when you wasn’t able. If they take it now, I’ll feel like burnin’ down the house and choppin’ out every tree you’ve planted!”
The man turned wearily on his pillow. His wife could see the gaunt lines of his unshaven neck. She put her hand to her aching throat and looked at him helplessly; then she turned and went back to the door. The barley was turning yellow. She looked toward the little grave on the edge of the field. More than the place was worth, she had said. What was it worth? Suppose they should take it. She drew her high shoulders forward and shivered in the warm air. The anger in her hard-featured face wrought itself into fixed lines. She recrossed the room, and sat down on the edge of the bed.