Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1177
Hal Brewton never forgets the day he stood on the railroad platform at Salt Fork, where he waited to meet Lutie Cameron, who was arriving from St. Louis to marry his uncle, Colonel Jim Brewton, the owner of the vast Cross B Ranch. Colonel Brewton is involved in a range war with nesters coming to rip the sod from the grazing lands in order to raise wheat.
On the day of Lutie’s arrival, two of the colonel’s cowhands are being tried for shooting at a homesteader on the Brewton range. Although the colonel’s lawyer, Henry McCurtin, wins the case, the opposition lawyer, young Brice Chamberlain, protests indignantly that the victory will not be permanent. Colonel Brewton is contemptuous of the lawyer’s warnings.
Lutie is a lovely woman, too lovely for that still-wild territory. When men see her, she wins them completely. Only Hal refuses to be moved by her charm. All that winter in an academy at Lexington, Missouri, he thinks of her as part of the destruction coming from the East to destroy the sea of grass he loves.
The following summer, he returns to a changed ranch house. Lutie filled it with furniture and flowers and planted a row of cottonwoods and tamarisks about it. Guests from the whole territory come and go. Officers from the Army posts, officials of the railroad companies, and neighboring ranchmen all find ample welcome at the home of Colonel and Mrs. Brewton.
The old-timers who knew the colonel before he married Lutie hope that she will settle down after having children. The babies are born, two boys and a girl; however, Lutie does not become any calmer. The third baby is scarcely in its cradle before she is dancing with Chamberlain as her favored partner. Colonel Brewton ignores the gossip that is whispered about Lutie.
Local politics concerning homesteading rights shift with the administration in Washington, D.C., for the territory depends upon appointments to its judicial staffs. For a while, Chamberlain has influential support from the government. Then, during another administration, the forces that back Colonel Brewton are in power, and the incoming tide of settlers seems to be checked. Hal reads of the change with great pleasure, but when he returns to Salt Fork, he discovers that Chamberlain is still in his law office on the Salt Fork plaza. He learns that hundreds of settlers are waiting nearby for a change in government that will permit them to stake claims upon the miles of land held by men such as Colonel Brewton.
Lutie then calmly announces that she is leaving her husband and children. She explains that she has had enough of the flat grass country and the fighting between ranchers and homesteaders. She claims she will be able to get possession of her three children—Jimmy, Brock, and Sarah Beth—later, by court action.
The town is informed that Mrs. Brewton is leaving for a visit in St. Louis. Most of the people know better. Their feelings are confirmed when they see Chamberlain with a bag packed, ready to head East on the same train; but the colonel paces the station platform, a gun belt buckled under his broadcloth coat. Chamberlain does not board the train.
A few days later, the colonel sends Hal to Denver, to give Lutie a thousand dollars—he knows that his wife’s cowardly lover has no intention of following her—but Hal can find no trace of Lutie in Denver. At the same time, a new administration appoints Chamberlain a judge of the district court. Back in Salt Fork, Hal sees the white-covered wagons of the emigrant trains moving westward into the range country. When Colonel Brewton plans to run the homesteaders off his land, a troop of cavalry from Fort Ewing is sent to guard him until all chances of his stopping the land grabbers are gone.
Studying for his medical degree, Hal spends three more years away from Salt Fork. When he returns, he discovers that his sea of grass is hopelessly despoiled. His uncle seems much older. The Brewton children are growing up wild, for their mother never sends for them.
One day, Hal sees Jimmy and Brock fighting in the dusty Salt Fork street. Then a nester among the onlookers calls out that he is betting on the Chamberlain brat. Hal hears for the first time the rumor that Brock is not his uncle’s son. Hal fires at the nester but misses. When Colonel Brewton appears, the crowd, even the jeering nesters, grows quiet.
As young Brock grows older, he becomes the image of Chamberlain. It is obvious that he realizes the truth and resents it. He takes to gambling, drinking, and barroom brawling. At last, he is caught cheating in a card game. For that disgrace Colonel Brewton cannot forgive him, but he continues to indulge the boy and pay his debts. By that time, Hal is practicing medicine in Salt Fork. He is glad when Sarah Beth, who was away at school, returns and begins to look after her father.
One day, Brock shoots and kills Dutch Charley, who accused Brock of using a woman to help him cheat at cards. Brock is locked up, but Chamberlain soon gets him out of jail. When Brock returns home, he defies Colonel Brewton and says he is leaving the Brewton ranch to go to work for Chamberlain’s interests. This last blow to the colonel’s pride permanently wrecks his health.
Brock now takes the name of Chamberlain, an act that cuts the old colonel still more. Brock begins to ride wild, shooting up towns and staging reckless holdups. He becomes the talk of the Southwest for his daring lawlessness. At last, he is trapped by a posse of homesteaders and held at bay in a cabin by twenty or thirty vigilantes.
That same day, Lutie unexpectedly returns. She is fifteen years older, but she still carries herself with quiet self-possession. Lutie immediately assumes her place in her household as though she had been away for fifteen days, not for fifteen years.
Meanwhile, the colonel rides out to the cabin where Brock is holding off the sheriff and the armed and angry nesters. With Hal, who was summoned to attend a wounded deputy, he breaks through to Brock, who lies dying from a bullet wound in his lung. They bring his body back across desolate country scorching in raw sunlight, with nesters’ families huddled about sagging shacks and plows rusting in fields where wheat will not grow in hot, rainless summers. Sand is beginning to drift among dugouts and rotting fence posts.
Brock is buried on the Brewton ranch. The stone inscribed with the name Brock Brewton is the old colonel’s challenge to all gossip and speculation around Salt Fork. He and Lutie take up their life where she broke it off years previously, and no one ever dares ask either the colonel or his wife where she was. It seems to Hal that the colonel finds peace at last.
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