The Fawn


ALL that summer he had the feeling, quiet, watchful, of something following him. Not something that made him turn his head, or ride past patches of willows on the alert, as he had sometimes had to do when he was young and had bad neighbors. Nothing like that. There was nothing definitely frightening about it; rather a wistfulness, a haunting — as if, a little way behind him, someone were following, eager to speak to him, often on the edge of speaking, prevented by some hesitation or doubt.

He did not even know if it was a man or a woman.

He had no desire to take down his old Colt — ‘gun,’ he called it — from the wall above his bed and tie it, in its welloiled holster, against his leg, as he had done a score of times in his life, a little ashamed to be carrying it, but relieved. Nothing like that. Merely the sense of being followed.

And yet he knew it was the happiest summer he had known for years. To begin with, it was a summer of clover. The short white clover, the tall red clover. All around the ranch house and spreading everywhere it had been planted, or carried by irrigation water or manure. And he had always loved clover. The smell of it, the starry look of it; the bees tangled up in it, humming with busy drowsiness. He supposed that he loved clover because it reminded him of his boyhood in Ohio. It meant that man had dug in, too. That was the queer thing. You were only happy in wide, untouched countries where you could breathe, and yet at once you began to plant and trim and cultivate.

If you lay in the grass in the early afternoon, under that sound of the almost unnoticeable wind, under the sound of the flies, under every other sound, like a chord of the wind, you could hear the bees.

The clover was one thing, and the rain was another. After years of drought, the sky was wet again, and almost every day the rain marched up the valley, silvergray. Even the badlands, thirty miles south, red, ochre, mud-colored, were for a little while green, wherever that was possible.

Above all, for the first time in a long while, his entire family was with him. His daughter, back from Chicago and on a vacation before looking for another job; his son, in his last year at college; and, of course, his wife. His wife had been with him a good many years now.

His daughter was small and brighthaired; his son, tall and dark. They sat their horses as if they had been born there. Well, they should. They had ridden since they were three. He remembered the time he had first put his daughter on a horse. He could still feel the warmth of her tiny body, pressed in between him and the saddle horn.

He was glad he had made enough money, done well enough with his cattle and horses, to give his children a good start. To send them to good universities; one further east, one further west. It wasn’t a good thing to send children to their own state universities, if you could help it; that only narrowed them. They ought to get out and see something new; meet young people with other ideas and backgrounds. Then, when they came home, they were in a position to appreciate what they had and their own country.

His daughter — and that was another source of contentment — wanted to come home now. She had had enough of big cities; three years of them. She was the rancher, really. Crazy about horses and cattle. After a while he’d take her into partnership, and any young fellow she might marry.

It was lovely to see her ride a horse; so small, so bright-haired, so light in the saddle and on the bit. When she was eight he had shown her how to throw a rope and move quietly in and out among cattle.

His son was a fine fellow, too. Very satisfactory. But he wanted to be a geologist; a scientist. Well, that was all right. Every man to his own taste. Prejudice and ignorance were the only enemies. Some of these old stockmen, for example. Grand fellows! Lifelong friends of his! But too many of them thought the only thing that counted was the shape of a horse or a cow. You couldn’t fool them on a horse or a cow, and yet they overstocked their ranges — if they got the chance — and bought at the top of the market, and then wondered why they didn’t do well.

His daughter would know better than that.


Yes, it was a good summer.

June smelled and looked the way its name sounded. Confident, but a little bit shy. Everything turning green and spreading out like green water. And July was like its name, too. Things growing, in the short growing season of high altitudes, so that you could actually note their growth from day to day. Grass, and hay, and aspens, and willows along the ditches and streams. Out on their summer range his cattle were red and white-faced and sleek, and switched their tails luxuriously. And near the ranch, colts frolicked in the dusk.

He had never seen better wild flowers, either; coming in succession, one crop on top of another, so that the meadows and the forest openings were always a carpet of gold, or dark blue, or white, or crimson, or powder blue. That was a sign the country wasn’t being overfed. Yellow goatsbeard and dark blue larkspur. . . . You had to watch the latter! It poisoned cattle. And purple aster, and white and purple columbine, and arnica flowers, and wild geranium, and buckwheat, and Queen Anne’s lace, and yarrow. And in the dark forests tall, magnificent, dangerous wild carrot. And red coral flower. And lupine like blue skies, and penstemon, and harebells, and wild roses and hollyhock and cornflowers. And red monkey flower. And grass-ofParnassus. And the pink windflower and the purple virgin’s-bower. And the soft yellow pasqueflower, with its fuzzy stem and leaves. And, near swamps, the slender blue iris. Those, and later on fringed gentian, and open places solid with pink fireweed or ablaze with Indian paintbrush.

He was glad he knew the names of these. It made you feel more at home with them. His wife knew their names; and then, when he was a young fellow and had first come West, and was summer-herding for a big outfit east of the mountains, he had camped two seasons with an old cowpuncher who was something of a botanist. An astronomer, too. He’d lie out at night and talk about the stars as if they were stock.

You could never tell what a cowpuncher would turn out to be, or wouldn’t.

August was as rich as a full-uddered cow, after the June moon and the July moon had gone. During the July moon, at its fullness, he had had a curious moment. It had been breathless and amazing. Like love, only more lasting. His daughter played the piano, and she often played at night in the big room of the ranch house. He had had to go down to the corrals, and coming back he had heard the faint sound of the music, and had stood and let the moonlight pour over him. Far to the west, mountains as pointed and pale as spray jutted toward the sky, and the dark forests slumbered, and the silver of an irrigation ditch twisted away from his feet. And the white clover, all about him, looked like the Milky Way. He had had the curious feeling of standing among the stars.

He was glad he was a ranchman! He was glad these things touched him so much he couldn’t talk about them.

He even took to riding with his family late in the afternoons, just because they were all there and it was nice to be with them. He who had done so much work on horseback, and ridden so many miles and hours looking for stock or going somewhere, that just to ride for pleasure or exercise seemed to him mildly absurd! But he rode now and enjoyed it. His wife liked to ride after her work was over. And he liked to watch her ride. She was still as slim and graceful as a girl. Sat up on a horse and looked about her. And her short gray hair wasn’t dull; it was bright like his daughter’s. She was a damned pretty woman, his wife, and he was glad that he had married her. He loved the way — riding behind her — she would turn her small head, alert for game. She always looked for game. It was an excitement that had never failed her in the twenty-six years of their marriage. Sometimes they saw game; a moose, black as an outflung shadow; elk like pools of sunlight in the forest; deer, bounding away.

The only thing he didn’t like to think about was what might happen later on. It wasn’t nice to think that after you had lived with a woman so long, couldn’t get along without her, maybe some day you would never see each other again; not even in some new strange shape.

He began to look for a fawn he had known the year before. A small, longlegged thing that had hung around the ranch during the snow and had been fed. He would know that fawn because he had taken it out of a drift fence, and he had seen that it had hurt its leg and was lame.

Everything becomes a habit. These rides became a habit. He missed them when he was too busy to take them. He got over being ashamed of them. He no longer hinted to his foreman, or ‘the boys’ working for him, that he was looking for stock or inspecting fields. He just went on them and enjoyed them. The hot bright afternoon of five o’clock. The dusk coming down from the hills and walking the forest. The evening coolness, leaf and herb scented, touching his hands and cheeks. The sunlight on the mountain meadows. The sudden great views of distance. One of the things about a big country was that every foot of it was different; presented new problems in horsemanship and finding your way. He began to take again a youthful pleasure in guiding his family, as if his wife were a girl, and his son and daughter children.

And he liked especially coming back in the evening to the ranch, down there in the little valley of its own. Somehow you appreciated your ranch after these small rides even more than when, after riding all day after stock — All day! Sometimes for days on end! Sometimes, in the fall, your chaps and coat and moustache covered with ice — you came back to its lights. Then it had been a question of warmth and food and bed; now, untired, you could look about you.

He liked sitting on the porch before supper, smoking a pipe, looking at the mountains across the valley, his dog beside him. His dog was growing old. He didn’t like that. Dogs didn’t live long enough. This was the nicest dog he had ever had. Smart! Wonderful eyes and a firm, cold nose. He wished he could talk to him. They had seen quite a lot between them. Some laughable things, too.


Yes, it was a fine summer — everyone together like this. His wife, and himself, and old Jim Murdoch, his foreman, and the children, and the dog. If it only wasn’t for that vague feeling he had of being followed; especially when riding, especially at dusk.

For a while he thought perhaps he was getting something. People had premonitions, he knew. And so he was careful to be calm and smiling in the presence of his wife. But he felt too well to be getting anything. At fifty-six, of course, you weren’t quite what you were at thirty. You couldn’t stand the gaff quite as much, but otherwise he was as good as he’d ever been. Better. He hadn’t taken on any weight. That presence, however, soft, following, bothered him.

It was the fawn—the lame one—that told him. The fawn as silent as the presence. He had been looking for the fawn all July and August, and then, toward the first of September, he saw it. They were riding down a little valley — his wife, his son, his daughter, and himself — and he was behind them, erect in his saddle, swaying to the trot of his horse, and suddenly his wife stopped and pointed, and he saw the fawn. About a hundred feet ahead, back a little in the trees. Dusk had come out from the trees, and the narrow valley smelled of willows and grass touched with frost. There was no sound except the creaking of the latigos as the horses breathed. It was the fawn all right. He recognized it even before it turned and bounded, gimplegged, away. And yet, of course, it wasn’t the fawn, but a young buck. A young buck, alert, suspicious. Funny, despite all his experience, that he had been half expecting to see a fawn. The fawn was a young buck. . . . Naturally! A whole year had passed.

When he looked again, where the young buck had stood was emptiness.

He narrowed his eyes suddenly. The presence had caught up to him; had touched his shoulder; was by his side, trying to tell him something, wistful, haunting.

A breath of wind passed over him as if it had come out of the forest; down the valley above the damp coarse grass beside the stream. It tightened the skin above his cheekbones, stirred the hair at the back of his neck. He straightened up in his saddle, and his eyes widened and he stared at the dusk.

Queer he hadn’t thought of it before!

It seemed to him that he was staring for countless miles: through the dark mountains and the forests that rimmed the valley, over the edge of a horizon beyond which there was no ending, but where light, unfiltered and dazzling, appeared again. He could see nothing but light.

He leaned forward and patted the neck of his horse; the warm, soft, silky, iron-gray neck. That was blood that made the warmth in the coolness — the beautiful, unconscious function of living.

He looked at his wife’s back. He loved to watch his wife ride. She was slim and graceful as a girl. Only a little while ago, to his way of thinking, she had been a girl. Life slipped through your hands like a well-oiled riata. . . . He ought to hurry back to that dog. Dogs, when they got older, missed people more and more.

Well . . . he had been a lucky man! He was still a lucky man.

He straightened up once more in his saddle and shook out his reins. ‘Get along!’ he said to his horse.

It would be nice to lope a little in the coolness. Besides, he ought to get back to that dog.

It was a relief to have found out what it was — the presence. Now it would no longer bother him. It was Time, of course. Time, untiring, inescapable. Always following you.