FLYING U RANCH
By B. M. Bower
CHAPTER I. The Coming of a Native Son II. "When Greek Meets Greek" III. Bad News IV. Some Hopes V. Sheep VI. What Happened to Andy VII. Truth Crushed to Earth, etc. VIII. The Dot Outfit IX. More Sheep X. The Happy Family Herd Sheep XI. Weary Unburdens XII. Two of a Kind XIII. The Happy Family Learn Something XIV. Happy Jack XV. Oleson XVI. The End of the Dots XVII. Good News
FLYING U RANCH
CHAPTER I. The Coming of a Native Son
The Happy Family, waiting for the Sunday supper call, were grouped around the open door of the bunk-house, gossiping idly of things purely local, when the Old Man returned from the Stock Association at Helena; beside him on the buggy seat sat a stranger. The Old Man pulled up at the bunk-house, the stranger sprang out over the wheel with the agility which bespoke youthful muscles, and the Old Man introduced him with a quirk of the lips:
"This is Mr. Mig-u-ell Rapponi, boys—a peeler straight from the Golden Gate. Throw out your war-bag and make yourself to home, Mig-u-ell; some of the boys'll show you where to bed down."
The Old Man drove on to the house with his own luggage, and Happy Jack followed to take charge of the team; but the remainder of the Happy Family unobtrusively took the measure of the foreign element. From his black-and-white horsehair hatband, with tassels that swept to the very edge of his gray hatbrim, to the crimson silk neckerchief draped over the pale blue bosom of his shirt; from the beautifully stamped leather cuffs, down to the exaggerated height of his tan boot-heels, their critical eyes swept in swift, appraising glances; and unanimous disapproval was the result. The Happy Family had themselves an eye to picturesque garb upon occasion, but this passed even Pink's love of display.
"He's some gaudy to look at," Irish murmured under his breath to Cal Emmett.
"All he lacks is a spot-light and a brass band," Cal returned, in much the same tone with which a woman remarks upon a last season's hat on the head of a rival.
Miguel was not embarrassed by the inspection. He was tall, straight, and swarthily handsome, and he stood with the complacence of a stage favorite waiting for the applause to cease so that he might speak his first lines; and, while he waited, he sifted tobacco into a cigarette paper daintily, with his little finger extended. There was a ring upon that finger; a ring with a moonstone setting as large and round as the eye of a startled cat, and the Happy Family caught the pale gleam of it and drew a long breath. He lighted a match nonchalantly, by the artfully simple method of pinching the head of it with his fingernails, leaned negligently against the wall of the bunk-house, and regarded the group incuriously while he smoked.
"Any pretty girls up this way?" he inquired languidly, after a moment, fanning a thin smoke-cloud from before his face while he spoke.
The Happy Family went prickly hot. The girls in that neighborhood were held in esteem, and there was that in his tone which gave offense.
"Sure, there's pretty girls here!" Big Medicine bellowed unexpectedly, close beside him. "We're all of us engaged to 'em, by cripes!"
Miguel shot an oblique glance at Big Medicine, examined the end of his cigarette, and gave a lift of shoulder, which might mean anything or nothing, and so was irritating to a degree. He did not pursue the subject further, and so several belated retorts were left tickling futilely the tongues of the Happy Family—which does not make for amiability.
To a man they liked him little, in spite of their easy friendliness with mankind in general. At supper they talked with him perfunctorily, and covertly sneered because he sprinkled his food liberally with cayenne and his speech with Spanish words pronounced with soft, slurred vowels that made them sound unfamiliar, and against which his English contrasted sharply with its crisp, American enunciation. He met their infrequent glances with the cool stare of absolute indifference to their opinion of him, and their perfunctory civility with introspective calm.
The next morning, when there was riding to be done, and Miguel appeared at the last moment in his working clothes, even Weary, the sunny-hearted, had an unmistakable curl of his lip after the first glance.
Miguel wore the hatband, the crimson kerchief tied loosely with the point draped over his chest, the stamped leather cuffs and the tan boots with the highest heels ever built by the cobbler craft. Also, the lower half of him was incased in chaps the like of which had never before been brought into Flying U coulee. Black Angora chaps they were; long-haired, crinkly to the very hide, with three white, diamond-shaped patches running down each leg of them, and with the leather waistband stamped elaborately to match the cuffs. The bands of his spurs were two inches wide and inlaid to the edge with beaten silver, and each concho was engraved to represent a large, wild rose, with a golden center. A dollar laid upon the rowels would have left a fringe of prongs all around.
He bent over his sacked riding outfit, and undid it, revealing a wonderful saddle of stamped leather inlaid on skirt and cantle with more beaten silver. He straightened the skirts, carefully ignoring the glances thrown in his direction, and swore softly to himself when he discovered where the leather had been scratched through the canvas wrappings and the end of the silver scroll ripped up. He drew out his bridle and shook it into shape, and the silver mountings and the reins of braided leather with horsehair tassels made Happy Jack's eyes greedy with desire. His blanket was a scarlet Navajo, and his rope a rawhide lariat.
Altogether, his splendor when he was mounted so disturbed the fine mental poise of the Happy Family that they left him jingling richly off by himself, while they rode closely grouped and discussed him acrimoniously.
"By gosh, a man might do worse than locate that Native Son for a silver mine," Cal began, eyeing the interloper scornfully. "It's plumb wicked to ride around with all that wealth and fussy stuff. He must 'a' robbed a bank and put the money all into a riding outfit."
"By golly, he looks to me like a pair uh trays when he comes bow-leggin' along with them white diamonds on his legs," Slim stated solemnly.
"And I'll gamble that's a spot higher than he stacks up in the cow game," Pink observed with the pessimism which matrimony had given him. "You mind him asking about bad horses, last night? That Lizzie-boy never saw a bad horse; they don't grow 'em where he come from. What they don't know about riding they make up for with a swell rig—"
"And, oh, mamma! It sure is a swell rig!" Weary paid generous tribute. "Only I will say old Banjo reminds me of an Irish cook rigged out in silk and diamonds. That outfit on Glory, now—" He sighed enviously.
"Well, I've gone up against a few real ones in my long and varied career," Irish remarked reminiscently, "and I've noticed that a hoss never has any respect or admiration for a swell rig. When he gets real busy it ain't the silver filigree stuff that's going to help you hold connections with your saddle, and a silver-mounted bridle-bit ain't a darned bit better than a plain one."
"Just take a look at him!" cried Pink, with intense disgust. "Ambling off there, so the sun can strike all that silver and bounce back in our eyes. And that braided lariat—I'd sure love to see the pieces if he ever tries to anchor anything bigger than a yearling!"
"Why, you don't think for a minute he could ever get out and rope anything, do yuh?" Irish laughed. "That there Native Son throws on a-w-l-together too much dog to really get out and do anything."
"Aw," fleered Happy Jack, "he ain't any Natiff Son. He's a dago!"
"He's got the earmarks uh both," Big Medicine stated authoritatively. "I know 'em, by cripes, and I know their ways." He jerked his thumb toward the dazzling Miguel. "I can tell yuh the kinda cow-puncher he is; I've saw 'em workin' at it. Haw-haw-haw! They'll start out to move ten or a dozen head uh tame old cows from one field to another, and there'll be six or eight fellers, rigged up like this here tray-spot, ridin' along, important as hell, drivin' them few cows down a lane, with peach trees on both sides, by cripes, jingling their big, silver spurs, all wearin' fancy chaps to ride four or five miles down the road. Honest to grandma, they call that punchin' cows! Oh, he's a Native Son, all right. I've saw lots of 'em, only I never saw one so far away from the Promised Land before. That there looks queer to me. Natiff Sons—the real ones, like him—are as scarce outside Calyforny as buffalo are right here in this coulee."
"That's the way they do it, all right," Irish agreed. "And then they'll have a 'rodeo'—"
"Haw-haw-haw!" Big Medicine interrupted, and took up the tale, which might have been entitled "Some Cowpunching I Have Seen."
"They have them rodeos on a Sunday, mostly, and they invite everybody to it, like it was a picnic. And there'll be two or three fellers to every calf, all lit up, like Mig-u-ell, over there, in chaps and silver fixin's, fussin' around on horseback in a corral, and every feller trying to pile his rope on the same calf, by cripes! They stretch 'em out with two ropes—calves, remember! Little, weenty fellers you could pack under one arm! Yuh can't blame 'em much. They never have more'n thirty or forty head to brand at a time, and they never git more'n a taste uh real work. So they make the most uh what they git, and go in heavy on fancy outfits. And this here silver-mounted fellow thinks he's a real cowpuncher, by cripes!"
The Happy Family laughed at the idea; laughed so loud that Miguel left his lonely splendor and swung over to them, ostensibly to borrow a match.
"What's the joke?" he inquired languidly, his chin thrust out and his eyes upon the match blazing at the end of his cigarette.
The Happy Family hesitated and glanced at one another. Then Cal spoke truthfully.
"You're it," he said bluntly, with a secret desire to test the temper of this dark-skinned son of the West.
Miguel darted one of his swift glances at Cal, blew out his match and threw it away.
"Oh, how funny. Ha-ha." His voice was soft and absolutely expressionless, his face blank of any emotion whatever. He merely spoke the words as a machine might have done.
If he had been one of them, the Happy Family would have laughed at the whimsical humor of it. As it was, they repressed the impulse, though Weary warmed toward him slightly.
"Don't you believe anything this innocent-eyed gazabo tells you, Mr. Rapponi," he warned amiably. "He's known to be a liar."
"That's funny, too. Ha-ha some more." Miguel permitted a thin ribbon of smoke to slide from between his lips, and gazed off to the crinkled line of hills.
"Sure, it is—now you mention it," Weary agreed after a perceptible pause.
"How fortunate that I brought the humor to your attention," drawled Miguel, in the same expressionless tone, much as if he were reciting a text.
"Virtue is its own penalty," paraphrased Pink, not stopping to see whether the statement applied to the subject.
"Haw-haw-haw!" roared Big Medicine, quite as irrelevantly.
"He-he-he," supplemented the silver-trimmed one.
Big Medicine stopped laughing suddenly, reined his horse close to the other, and stared at him challengingly, with his pale, protruding eyes, while the Happy Family glanced meaningly at one another. Big Medicine was quite as unsafe as he looked, at that moment, and they wondered if the offender realized his precarious situation.
Miguel smoked with the infinite leisure which is a fine art when it is not born of genuine abstraction, and none could decide whether he was aware of the unfriendly proximity of Big Medicine. Weary was just on the point of saying something to relieve the tension, when Miguel blew the ash gently from his cigarette and spoke lazily.
"Parrots are so common, out on the Coast, that they use them in cheap restaurants for stew. I've often heard them gabbling together in the kettle."
The statement was so ambiguous that the Happy Family glanced at him doubtfully. Big Medicine's stare became more curious than hostile, and he permitted his horse to lag a length. It is difficult to fight absolute passivity. Then Slim, who ever tramped solidly over the flowers of sarcasm, blurted one of his unexpected retorts.
"I was just wonderin', by golly, where yuh learnt to talk!"
Miguel turned his velvet eyes sleepily toward the speaker. "From the boarders who ate those parrots, amigo," he smiled serenely.
At this, Slim—once justly accused by Irish of being a "single-shot" when it came to repartee—turned purple and dumb. The Happy Family, forswearing loyalty in their enjoyment of his discomfiture, grinned and left to Miguel the barren triumph of the last word.
He did not gain in popularity as the days passed. They tilted noses at his beautiful riding gear, and would have died rather than speak of it in his presence. They never gossiped with him of horses or men or the lands he knew. They were ready to snub him at a moment's notice—and it did not lessen their dislike of him that he failed to yield them an opportunity. It is to be hoped that he found his thoughts sufficient entertainment, since he was left to them as much as is humanly possible when half a dozen men eat and sleep and work together. It annoyed them exceedingly that Miguel did not seem to know that they held him at a distance; they objected to his manner of smoking cigarettes and staring off at the skyline as if he were alone and content with his dreams. When he did talk they listened with an air of weary tolerance. When he did not talk they ignored his presence, and when he was absent they criticized him mercilessly.
They let him ride unwarned into an adobe patch one day—at least, Big Medicine, Pink, Cal Emmett and Irish did, for they were with him—and laughed surreptitiously together while he wallowed there and came out afoot, his horse floundering behind him, mud to the ears, both of them.
"Pretty soft going, along there, ain't it?" Pink commiserated deceitfully.
"It is, kinda," Miguel responded evenly, scraping the adobe off Banjo with a flat rock. And the subject was closed.
"Well, it's some relief to the eyes to have the shine taken off him, anyway," Pink observed a little guiltily afterward.
"I betche he ain't goin' to forget that, though," Happy Jack warned when he saw the caked mud on Miguel's Angora chaps and silver spurs, and the condition of his saddle. "Yuh better watch out and not turn your backs on him in the dark, none uh you guys. I betche he packs a knife. Them kind always does."
"Haw-haw-haw!" bellowed Big Medicine uproariously. "I'd love to see him git out an' try to use it, by cripes!"
"I wish Andy was here," Pink sighed. "Andy'd take the starch outa him, all right."
"Wouldn't he be pickings for old Andy, though? Gee!" Cal looked around at them, with his wide, baby-blue eyes, and laughed. "Let's kinda jolly him along, boys, till Andy gets back. It sure would be great to watch 'em. I'll bet he can jar the eternal calm outa that Native Son. That's what grinds me worse than his throwin' on so much dog; he's so blamed satisfied with himself! You snub him, and he looks at yuh as if you was his hired man—and then forgets all about yuh. He come outa that 'doby like he'd been swimmin' a river on a bet, and had made good and was a hee-ro right before the ladies. Kinda 'Oh, that's nothing to what I could do if it was worth while,' way he had with him."
"It wouldn't matter so much if he wasn't all front," Pink complained. "You'll notice that's always the way, though. The fellow all fussed up with silver and braided leather can't get out and do anything. I remember up on Milk river—" Pink trailed off into absorbing reminiscence, which, however, is too lengthy to repeat here.
"Say, Mig-u-ell's down at the stable, sweatin from every pore trying to get his saddle clean, by golly!" Slim reported cheerfully, just as Pink was relighting the cigarette which had gone out during the big scene of his story. "He was cussin' in Spanish, when I walked up to him—but he shut up when he seen me and got that peaceful look uh hisn on his face. I wonder, by golly—"
"Oh, shut up and go awn," Irish commanded bluntly, and looked at Pink. "Did he call it off, then? Or did you have to wade in—"
"Naw; he was like this here Native Son—all front. He could look sudden death, all right; he had black eyes like Mig-u-ell—but all a fellow had to do was go after him, and he'd back up so blamed quick—"
Slim listened that far, saw that he had interrupted a tale evidently more interesting than anything he could say, and went off, muttering to himself.
CHAPTER II. "When Greek Meets Greek"
The next morning, which was Sunday, the machinations of Big Medicine took Pink down to the creek behind the bunk-house. "What's hurtin' yuh?" he asked curiously, when he came to where Big Medicine stood in the fringe of willows, choking between his spasms of mirth.
"Haw-haw-haw!" roared Big Medicine; and, seizing Pink's arm in a gorilla-like grip, he pointed down the bank.
Miguel, seated upon a convenient rock in a sunny spot, was painstakingly combing out the tangled hair of his chaps, which he had washed quite as carefully not long before, as the cake of soap beside him testified.
"Combing—combing—his chaps, by cripes!" Big Medicine gasped, and waggled his finger at the spectacle. "Haw-haw-haw! C-combin'—his—chaps!"
Miguel glanced up at them as impersonally as if they were two cackling hens, rather than derisive humans, then bent his head over a stubborn knot and whistled La Paloma softly while he coaxed out the tangle.
Pink's eyes widened as he looked, but he did not say anything. He backed up the path and went thoughtfully to the corrals, leaving Big Medicine to follow or not, as he chose.
"Combin'—his chaps, by cripes!" came rumbling behind him. Pink turned.
"Say! Don't make so much noise about it," he advised guardedly. "I've got an idea."
"Yuh want to hog-tie it, then," Big Medicine retorted, resentful because Pink seemed not to grasp the full humor of the thing. "Idees sure seems to be skurce in this outfit—or that there lily-uh-the-valley couldn't set and comb no chaps in broad daylight, by cripes; not and get off with it."
"He's an ornament to the Flying U," Pink stated dreamily. "Us boneheads don't appreciate him, is all that ails us. What we ought to do is—help him be as pretty as he wants to be, and—"
"Looky here, Little One." Big Medicine hurried his steps until he was close alongside. "I wouldn't give a punched nickel for a four-horse load uh them idees, and that's the truth." He passed Pink and went on ahead, disgust in every line of his square-shouldered figure. "Combin' his chaps, by cripes!" he snorted again, and straightway told the tale profanely to his fellows, who laughed until they were weak and watery-eyed as they listened.
Afterward, because Pink implored them and made a mystery of it, they invited Miguel to take a hand in a long-winded game—rather, a series of games—of seven-up, while his chaps hung to dry upon a willow by the creek bank—or so he believed.
The chaps, however, were up in the white-house kitchen, where were also the reek of scorched hair and the laughing expostulations of the Little Doctor and the boyish titter of Pink and Irish, who were curling laboriously the chaps of Miguel with the curling tongs of the Little Doctor and those of the Countess besides.
"It's a shame, and I just hope Miguel thrashes you both for it," the Little Doctor told them more than once; but she laughed, nevertheless, and showed Pink how to give the twist which made of each lock a corkscrew ringlet. The Countess stopped, with her dishcloth dangling from one red, bony hand, while she looked. "You boys couldn't sleep nights if you didn't pester the life outa somebody," she scolded. "Seems to me I'd friz them diamonds, if I was goin' to be mean enough to do anything."
"You would, eh?" Pink glanced up at her and dimpled. "I'll find you a rich husband to pay for that." He straightway proceeded to friz the diamonds of white.
"Why don't you have a strip of ringlets down each leg, with tight little curls between?" suggested the Little Doctor, not to be outdone by any other woman.
"Correct you are," praised Irish.
"And, remember, you're not heating branding-irons, mister man," she added. "You'll burn all the hair off, if you let the tongs get red-hot. Just so they'll sizzle; I've told you five times already." She picked up the Kid, kissed many times the finger he held up for sympathy—the finger with which he had touched the tongs as Pink was putting them back into the grate of the kitchen stove, and spoke again to ease her conscience. "I think it's awfully mean of you to do it. Miguel ought to thrash you both."
"We're dead willing to let him try, Mrs. Chip. We know it's mean. We're real ashamed of ourselves." Irish tested his tongs as he had been told to do. "But we'd rather be ashamed than good, any old time."
The Little Doctor giggled behind the Kid's tousled curls, and reached out a slim hand once more to give Pink's tongs the expert twist he was trying awkwardly to learn. "I'm sorry for Miguel; he's got lovely eyes, anyway."
"Yes, ain't he?" Pink looked up briefly from his task. "How's your leg, Irish? Mine's done."
"Seems to me I'd make a deep border of them corkscrew curls all around the bottoms, if I was doin' it," said the Countess peevishly, from the kitchen sink. "If I was that dago I'd murder the hull outfit; I never did see a body so hectored in my life—and him not ever ketchin' on. He must be plumb simple-minded."
When the curling was done to the hilarious satisfaction of Irish and Pink, and, while Pink was dancing in them to show them off, another entered with mail from town. And, because the mail-bearer was Andy Green himself, back from a winter's journeyings, Cal, Happy Jack and Slim followed close behind, talking all at once, in their joy at beholding the man they loved well and hated occasionally also. Andy delivered the mail into the hands of the Little Doctor, pinched the Kid's cheek, and said how he had grown good-looking as his mother, almost, spoke a cheerful howdy to the Countess, and turned to shake hands with Pink. It was then that the honest, gray eyes of him widened with amazement.
"Well, by golly!" gasped Slim, goggling at the chaps of Miguel.
"That there Natiff Son'll just about kill yuh for that," warned Happy Jack, as mournfully as he might with laughing. "He'll knife yuh, sure."
Andy, demanding the meaning of it all, learned all about Miguel Rapponi—from the viewpoint of the Happy Family. At least, he learned as much as it was politic to tell in the presence of the Little Doctor; and afterward, while Pink was putting the chaps back upon the willow, where Miguel had left them, he was told that they looked to him, Andy Green, for assistance.
"Oh, gosh! You don't want to depend on me, Pink," Andy expostulated modestly. "I can't think of anything—and, besides, I've reformed. I don't know as it's any compliment to me, by gracious—being told soon as I land that I'm expected to lie to a perfect stranger."
"You come on down to the stable and take a look at his saddle and bridle," urged Cal. "And wait till you see him smoking and looking past you, as if you was an ornery little peak that didn't do nothing but obstruct the scenery. I've seen mean cusses—lots of 'em; and I've seen men that was stuck on themselves. But I never—"
"Come outa that 'doby," Pink interrupted, "mud to his eyebrows, just about. And he knew darned well we headed him in there deliberate. And when I remarks it's soft going, he says: 'It is, kinda,'—just like that." Pink managed to imitate the languid tone of Miguel very well. "Not another word outa him. Didn't even make him mad! He—"
"Tell him about the parrots, Slim," Cal suggested soberly. But Slim only turned purple at the memory, and swore.
"Old Patsy sure has got it in for him," Happy Jack observed. "He asked Patsy if he ever had enchiladas. Patsy won't speak to him no more. He claims Mig-u-ell insulted him. He told Mig-u-ell—"
"Enchiladas are sure fine eating," said Andy. "I took to 'em like a she-bear to honey, down in New Mexico this winter. Your Native Son is solid there, all right."
"Aw, gwan! He ain't solid nowhere but in the head. Maybe you'll love him to death when yuh see him—chances is you will, if you've took to eatin' dago grub."
Andy patted Happy Jack reassuringly on the shoulder. "Don't get excited," he soothed. "I'll put it all over the gentleman, just to show my heart's in the right place. Just this once, though; I've reformed. And I've got to have time to size him up. Where do you keep him when he ain't in the show window?" He swung into step with Pink. "I'll tell you the truth," he confided engagingly. "Any man that'll wear chaps like he's got—even leaving out the extra finish you fellows have given 'em—had ought to be taught a lesson he'll remember. He sure must be a tough proposition, if the whole bunch of yuh have had to give him up. By gracious—"
"We haven't tried," Pink defended. "It kinda looked to us as if he was aiming to make us guy him; so we didn't. We've left him strictly alone. To-day"—he glanced over his shoulder to where the becurled chaps swung comically from the willow branch—"to-day's the first time anybody's made a move. Unless," he added, as an afterthought, "you count yesterday in the 'doby patch—and even then we didn't tell him to ride into it; we just let him do it."
"And kinda herded him over towards it," Cal amended slyly.
"Can he ride?" asked Andy, going straight to the main point, in the mind of a cowpuncher.
"W-e-ell-he hasn't been piled, so far. But then," Pink qualified hastily, "he hasn't topped anything worse than Crow-hop. He ain't hard to ride. Happy Jack could—"
"Aw, I'm gittin' good and sick of' hearin' that there tune," Happy growled indignantly. "Why don't you point out Slim as the limit, once in a while?"
"Come on down to the stable, and let's talk it over," Andy suggested, and led the way. "What's his style, anyway? Mouthy, or what?"
With four willing tongues to enlighten him, it would be strange, indeed, if one so acute as Andy Green failed at last to have a very fair mental picture of Miguel. He gazed thoughtfully at his boots, laughed suddenly, and slapped Irish quite painfully upon the back.
"Come on up and introduce me, boys," he said. "We'll make this Native Son so hungry for home—you watch me put it on the gentleman. Only it does seem a shame to do it."
"No, it ain't. If you'd been around him for two weeks, you'd want to kill him just to make him take notice," Irish assured him.
"What gets me," Andy mused, "is why you fellows come crying to me for help. I should think the bunch of you ought to be able to handle one lone Native Son."
"Aw, you're the biggest liar and faker in the bunch, is why," Happy Jack blurted.
"Oh, I see." Andy hummed a little tune and pushed his hands deep into his pockets, and at the corners of his lips there flickered a smile.
The Native Son sat with his hat tilted slightly back upon his head and a cigarette between his lips, and was reaching lazily for the trick which made the fourth game his, when the group invaded the bunk-house. He looked up indifferently, swept Andy's face and figure with a glance too impersonal to hold even a shade of curiosity, and began rapidly shuffling his cards to count the points he had made.
Andy stopped short, just inside the door, and stared hard at Miguel, who gave no sign. He turned his honest, gray eyes upon Pink and Irish accusingly—whereat they wondered greatly.
"Your deal—if you want to play," drawled Miguel, and shoved his cards toward Big Medicine. But the boys were already uptilting chairs to grasp the quicker the outstretched hand of the prodigal, so that Miguel gathered up the cards, evened their edges mechanically, and deigned another glance at this stranger who was being welcomed so vociferously. Also he sighed a bit—for even a languid-eyed stoic of a Native Son may feel the twinge of loneliness. Andy shook hands all round, swore amiably at Weary, and advanced finally upon Miguel.
"You don't know me from Adam's off ox," he began genially, "but I know you, all right, all right. I hollered my head off with the rest of 'em when you played merry hell in that bull-ring, last Christmas. Also, I was part of your bodyguard when them greasers were trying to tickle you in the ribs with their knives in that dark alley. Shake, old-timer! You done yourself proud, and I'm glad to know yuh!"
Miguel, for the first time in two weeks, permitted himself the luxury of an expressive countenance. He gave Andy Green one quick, grateful look—and a smile, the like of which made the Happy Family quiver inwardly with instinctive sympathy.
"So you were there, too, eh?" Miguel exclaimed softly, and rose to greet him. "And that scrap in the alley—we sure had a hell of a time there for a few minutes, didn't we? Are you that tall fellow who kicked that squint-eyed greaser in the stomach? Muchos gracios, senor! They were piling on me three deep, right then, and I always believed they'd have got me, only for a tall vaquero I couldn't locate afterward." He smiled again that wonderful smile, which lighted the darkness of his eyes as with a flame, and murmured a sentence or two in Spanish.
"Did you get the spurs me and my friends sent you afterward?" asked Andy eagerly. "We heard about the Arizona boys giving you the saddle—and we raked high and low for them spurs. And, by gracious, they were beauts, too—did yuh get 'em?"
"I wear them every day I ride," answered Miguel, a peculiar, caressing note in his voice.
"I didn't know—we heard you had disappeared off the earth. Why—"
Miguel laughed outright. "To fight a bull with bare hands is one thing, amigo," he said. "To take a chance on getting a knife stuck in your back is another. Those Mexicans—they don't love the man who crosses the river and makes of their bull-fights a plaything."
"That's right; only I thought, you being a—"
"Not a Mexican." Miguel's voice sharpened a trifle. "My father was Spanish, yes. My mother"—his eyes flashed briefly at the faces of the gaping Happy Family—"my mother was born in Ireland."
"And that sure makes a hard combination to beat," cried Andy heartily. He looked at the others—at all, that is, save Pink and Irish, who had disappeared. "Well, boys, I never thought I'd come home and find—"
"Miguel Rapponi," supplied the Native Son quickly. "As well forget that other name. And," he added with the shrug which the Happy Family had come to hate, "as well forget the story, also. I am not hungry for the feel of a knife in my back." He smiled again engagingly at Andy Green. It was astonishing how readily that smile had sprung to life with the warmth of a little friendship, and how pleasant it was, withal.
"Just as you say," Andy agreed, not trying to hide his admiration. "I guess nobody's got a better right to holler for silence. But—say, you sure delivered the goods, old boy! You musta read about it, you fellows; about the American puncher that went over the line and rode one of their crack bulls all round the ring, and then—" He stopped and looked apologetically at Miguel, in whose dark eyes there flashed a warning light. "I clean forgot," he confessed impulsively. "This meeting you here unexpectedly, like this, has kinda got me rattled, I guess. But—I never saw yuh before in my life," he declared emphatically. "I don't know a darn thing about—anything that ever happened in an alley in the city of—oh, come on, old-timer; let's talk about the weather, or something safe!"
After that the boys of the Flying U behaved very much as do children who have quarreled foolishly and are trying shamefacedly to re-establish friendly relations without the preliminary indignity of open repentance. They avoided meeting the velvet-eyed glances of Miguel, and at the same time they were plainly anxious to include him in their talk as if that had been their habit from the first. A difficult situation to meet, even with the fine aplomb of the Happy Family to ease the awkwardness.
Later Miguel went unobtrusively down to the creek after his chaps; he did not get them, just then, but he stood for a long time hidden behind the willow-fringe, watching Pink and Irish feverishly combing out certain corkscrew ringlets, and dampening their combs in the creek to facilitate the process of straightening certain patches of rebellious frizzes. Miguel did not laugh aloud, as Big Medicine had done. He stood until he wearied of the sight, then lifted his shoulders in the gesture which may mean anything, smiled and went his way.
Not until dusk did Andy get a private word with him. When he did find him alone, he pumped Miguel's hand up and down and afterward clutched at the manger for support, and came near strangling. Miguel leaned beside him and smiled to himself.
"Good team work, old boy," Andy gasped at length, in a whisper. "Best I ever saw in m'life, impromptu on the spot, like that. I saw you had the makings in you, soon as I caught your eye. And the whole, blame bunch fell for it—woo-oof!" He laid his face down again upon his folded arms and shook in all the long length of him.
"They had it coming," said Miguel softly, with a peculiar relish. "Two whole weeks, and never a friendly word from one of them—oh, hell!"
"I know—I heard it all, soon as I hit the ranch," Andy replied weakly, standing up and wiping his eyes. "I just thought I'd learn 'em a lesson—and the way you played up—say, my hat's off to you, all right!"
"One learns to seize opportunities without stuttering," Miguel observed calmly—and a queer look came into his eyes as they rested upon the face of Andy. "And, if the chance comes, I'll do as much for you. By the way, did you see the saddle those Arizona boys sent me? It's over here. It's a pip-pin—almost as fine as the spurs, which I keep in the bunk-house when they're not on my heels. And, if I didn't say so before, I'm sure glad to meet the man that helped me through that alley. That big, fat devil would have landed me, sure, if you hadn't—"
"Ah—what?" Andy leaned and peered into the face of Miguel, his jaw hanging slack. "You don't mean to tell me—it's true?"
"True? Why, I thought you were the fellow—" Miguel faced him steadily. His eyes were frankly puzzled.
"I'll tell you the truth, so help me," Andy said heavily. "I don't know a darned thing about it, only what I read in the papers. I spent the whole winter in Colorado and Wyoming. I was just joshing the boys."
"Oh," said Miguel.
They stood there in the dusk and silence for a space, after which Andy went forth into the night to meditate upon this thing. Miguel stood and looked after him.
"He's the real goods when it comes to lying—but there are others," he said aloud, and smiled a peculiar smile. But for all that he felt that he was going to like Andy very much indeed. And, since the Happy Family had shown a disposition to make him one of themselves, he knew that he was going to become quite as foolishly attached to the Flying U as was even Slim, confessedly the most rabid of partisans.
In this wise did Miguel Rapponi, then, become a member of Jim Whitmore's Happy Family, and play his part in the events which followed his adoption.
CHAPTER III. Bad News
Andy Green, that honest-eyed young man whom everyone loved, but whom not a man believed save when he was indulging his love for more or less fantastic flights of the imagination, pulled up on the brow of Flying U coulee and stared somberly at the picture spread below him. On the porch of the White House the hammock swung gently under the weight of the Little Doctor, who pushed her shipper-toe mechanically against a post support at regular intervals while she read.
On the steps the Kid was crawling laboriously upward, only to descend again quite as laboriously when he attained the top. One of the boys was just emerging from the blacksmith shop; from the build of him Andy knew it must be either Weary or Irish, though it would take a much closer observation, and some familiarity with the two to identify the man more exactly. In the corral were a swirl of horses and an overhanging cloud of dust, with two or three figures discernible in the midst, and away in the little pasture two other figures were galloping after a fleeing dozen of horses. While he looked, old Patsy came out of the messhouse, and went, with flapping flour-sack apron, to the woodpile.
Peaceful it was, and home-like and contentedly prosperous; a little world tucked away in its hills, with its own little triumphs and defeats, its own heartaches and rejoicings; a lucky little world, because its triumphs had been satisfying, its defeats small, its heartaches brief, and its rejoicings untainted with harassment or guilt. Yet Andy stared down upon it with a frown; and, when he twitched the reins and began the descent, he sighed impatiently.
Past the stable he rode with scarcely a glance toward Weary, who shouted a casual "Hello" at him from the corral; through the big gate and up the trail to the White House, and straight to the porch, where the Little Doctor flipped a leaf of her magazine and glanced at him with a smile, and the Kid turned his plump body upon the middle step and wrinkled his nose in a smile of recognition, while he threw out an arm in welcome, and made a wobbling effort to get upon his feet.
Andy smiled at the Kid, but his smile did not reach his eyes, and faded almost immediately. He glanced at the Little Doctor, sent his horse past the steps and the Kid, and close to the railing, so that he could lean and toss the mail into the Little Doctor's lap. There was a yellow envelope among the letters, and her fingers singled it out curiously. Andy folded his hands upon the saddle-horn and watched her frankly.
"Must be from J. G.," guessed the Little Doctor, inserting a slim finger under the badly sealed flap. "I've been wondering if he wasn't going to send some word—he's been gone a week—Baby! He's right between your horse's legs, Andy! Oh-h—baby boy, what won't you do next?" She scattered letters and papers from her lap and flew to the rescue. "Will he kick, Andy? You little ruffian." She held out her arms coaxingly from the top of the steps, and her face, Andy saw when he looked at her, had lost some of its color.
"The horse is quiet enough," he reassured her. "But at the same time I wouldn't hand him out as a plaything for a kid." He leaned cautiously and peered backward.
"Oh—did you ever see such a child! Come to mother, Baby!" Her voice was becoming strained.
The Kid, wrinkling his nose, and jabbering unintelligibly at her, so that four tiny teeth showed in his pink mouth, moved farther backward, and sat down violently under the horse's sweat-roughened belly. He wriggled round so that he faced forward, reached out gleefully, caught the front fetlocks, and cried "Dup!" while he pulled. The Little Doctor turned white.
"He's all right," soothed Andy, and, leaning with a twist of his slim body, caught the Kid firmly by the back of his pink dress, and lifted him clear of danger. He came up with a red face, tossed the Kid into the eager arms of the Little Doctor, and soothed his horse with soft words and a series of little slaps upon the neck. He was breathing unevenly, because the Kid had really been in rather a ticklish position; but the Little Doctor had her face hidden on the baby's neck and did not see.
"Where's Chip?" Andy turned to ride back to the stable, glancing toward the telegram lying on the floor of the porch; and from it his eyes went to the young woman trying to laugh away her trembling while she scolded adoringly her adventurous man-child. He was about to speak again, but thought better of it, and sighed.
"Down at the stables somewhere—I don't know, really; the boys can tell you. Mother's baby mustn't touch the naughty horses. Naughty horses hurt mother's baby! Make him cry!"
Andy gave her a long look, which had in it much pity, and rode away. He knew what was in that telegram, for the agent had told him when he hunted him up at Rusty Brown's and gave it to him; and the horse of Andy bore mute testimony to the speed with which he had brought it to the ranch. Not until he had reached the coulee had he slackened his pace. He decided, after that glance, that he would not remind her that she had not read the telegram; instead, he thought he ought to find Chip immediately and send him to her.
Chip was rummaging after something in the store-house, and, when Andy saw him there, he dismounted and stood blotting out the light from the doorway. Chip looked up, said "Hello" carelessly, and flung an old slicker aside that he might search beneath it. "Back early, aren't you?" he asked, for sake of saying something.
Andy's attitude was not as casual as he would have had it.
"Say, maybe you better go on up to the house," he began diffidently. "I guess your wife wants to see yuh, maybe."
"Just as a good wife should," grinned Chip. "What's the matter? Kid fall off the porch?"
"N-o-o—I brought out a wire from Chicago. It's from a doctor there—some hospital. The—Old Man got hurt. One of them cussed automobiles knocked him down. They want you to come."
Chip had straightened up and was hooking at Andy blankly. "If you're just—"
"Honest," Andy asserted, and flushed a little. "I'll go tell some one to catch up the team—you'll want to make that 11:20, I take it." He added, as Chip went by him hastily, "I had the agent wire for sleeper berths on the 11:20 so—"
"Thanks. Yes, you have the team caught up, Andy." Chip was already well on his way to the house.
Andy waited till he saw the Little Doctor come hurriedly to the end of the porch overlooking the pathway, with the telegram fluttering in her fingers, and then led his horse down through the gate and to the stable. He yanked the saddle off, turned the tired animal into a stall, and went on to the corral, where he leaned elbows on a warped rail and peered through at the turmoil within. Close beside him stood Weary, with his loop dragging behind him, waiting for a chance to throw it over the head of a buckskin three-year-old with black mane and tail.
"Get in here and make a hand, why don't you?" Weary bantered, his eye on the buckskin. "Good chance to make a 'rep' for yourself, Andy. Gawd greased that buckskin—he sure can slide out from under a rope as easy—"
He broke off to flip the hoop dexterously forward, had the reward of seeing the buckskin dodge backward, so that the rope barely flicked him on the nose, and drew in his rope disgustedly. "Come on, Andy—my hands are up in the air; I can't land him—that's the fourth throw."
Andy's interest in the buckskin, however, was scant. His face was sober, his whole attitude one of extreme dejection.
"You got the tummy-ache?" Pink inquired facetiously, moving around so that he got a fair look at his face.
"Naw—his girl's went back on him!" Happy Jack put in, coiling his rope as he came up.
"Oh, shut up!" Andy's voice was sharp with trouble. "Boys, the Old Man's—well, he's most likely dead by this time. I brought out a telegram—"
"Go on!" Pink's eyes widened incredulously. "Don't you try that kind of a load, Andy Green, or I'll just about—"
"Oh, you fellows make me sick!" Andy took his elbows off the rail and stood straight. "Dammit, the telegram's up at the house—go and read it yourselves, then!"
The three stared after him doubtfully, fear struggling with the caution born of much experience.
"He don't act, to me, like he was putting up a josh," Weary stated uneasily, after a minute of silence. "Run up to the house and find out, Cadwalloper. The Old Man—oh, good Lord!" The tan on Weary's face took a lighter tinge. "Scoot—it won't take but a minute to find out for sure. Go on, Pink."
"So help me Josephine, I'll kill that same Andy Green if he's lied about it," Pink declared, while he climbed the fence.
In three minutes he was back, and before he had said a word, his face confirmed the bad news. Their eyes besought him for details, and he gave them jerkily. "Automobile run over him. He ain't dead, but they think—Chip and the Little Doctor are going to catch the night train. You go haze in the team, Happy. And give 'em a feed of oats, Chip said."
Irish and Big Medicine, seeing the three standing soberly together there, and sensing something unusual, came up and heard the news in stunned silence. Andy, forgetting his pique at their first disbelief, came forlornly back and stood with them.
The Old Man—the thing could not be true! To every man of them his presence, conjured by the impending tragedy, was almost a palpable thing. His stocky figure seemed almost to stand in their midst; he looked at them with his whimsical eyes, which had the radiating crows-feet of age, humor and habitual squinting against sun and wind; the bald spot on his head, the wrinkling shirt-collar that seldom knew a tie, the carpet slippers which were his favorite footgear because they were kind to his bunions, his husky voice, good-naturedly complaining, were poignantly real to them at that moment. Then Irish mentally pictured him lying maimed, dying, perhaps, in a far-off hospital among strangers, and swore.
"If he's got to die, it oughta be here, where folks know him and—where he knows—" Irish was not accustomed to giving voice to his deeper feelings, and he blundered awkwardly over it.
"I never did go much on them darned hospitals, anyway," Weary observed gloomily. "He oughta be home, where folks can look after him. Mam-ma! It sure is a fright."
"I betche Chip and the Little Doctor won't get there in time," Happy Jack predicted, with his usual pessimism. "The Old Man's gittin' old—"
"He ain't but fifty-two; yuh call that old, consarn yuh? He's younger right now than you'll be when you're forty."
"Countess is going along, too, so she can ride herd on the Kid," Pink informed then. "I heard the Little Doctor tell her to pack up, and 'never mind if she did have sponge all set!' Countess seemed to think her bread was a darned sight more important than the Old Man. That's the way with women. They'll pass up—"
"Well, by golly, I like to see a woman take some interest in her own affairs," Slim defended. "What they packin' up for, and where they goin'?" Slim had just ridden up to the group in time to overhear Pink's criticism.
They told him the news, and Slim swallowed twice, said "By golly!" quite huskily, and then rode slowly away with his head bowed. He had worked for the Flying U when it was strictly a bachelor outfit, and with the tenacity of slow minds he held J. G. Whitmore, his beloved "Old Man," as but a degree lower than that mysterious power which made the sun to shine—and, if the truth were known, he had accepted him as being quite as eternal. His loyalty adjusted everything to the interests of the Flying U. That the Old Man could die—the possibility stunned him.
They were a sorry company that gathered that night around the long table with its mottled oil-cloth covering and benches polished to a glass-like smoothness with their own vigorous bodies. They did not talk much about the Old Man; indeed, they came no nearer the subject than to ask Weary if he were going to drive the team in to Dry Lake. They did not talk much about anything, for that matter; even the knives and forks seemed to share the general depression of spirits, and failed to give forth the cheerful clatter which was a daily accompaniment of meals in that room.
Old Patsy, he who had cooked for J. G. Whitmore when the Flying U coulee was a wilderness and the brand yet unrecorded and the irons unmade—Patsy lumbered heavily about the room and could not find his dish-cloth when it was squeezed tight in one great, fat hand, and unthinkingly started to fill their coffee cups from the tea-kettle.
"Py cosh, I vould keel der fool vot made her first von of der automo-beels, yet!" he exclaimed unexpectedly, after a long silence, and cast his pipe vindictively toward his bunk in one corner.
The Happy Family looked around at him, then understandingly at one another.
"Same here, Patsy," Jack Bates agreed. "What they want of the damned things when the country's full uh good horses gits me."
"So some Yahoo with just sense enough to put goggles on to cover up his fool face can run over folks he ain't good enough to speak to, by cripes!" Big Medicine glared aggressively up and down the table.
Weary got up suddenly and went out, and Slim followed him, though his supper was half-uneaten.
"This goin' to be hard on the Little Doctor—only brother she's got," they heard Happy Jack point out unnecessarily; and Weary, the equable, was guilty of slamming the door so that the whole building shook, by way of demonstrating his dislike of speech upon the subject.
They were a sorry company who waved hands at the Little Doctor and the Kid and the Countess, just when the afterglow of a red sunset was merging into the vague, purple shadows of coming dusk. They stood silent, for the most part, and let them go without the usual facetious advice to "Be good to yourselves," and the hackneyed admonition to Chip to keep out of jail if he could. There must have been something very wistful in their faces, for the Little Doctor smiled bravely down upon then from the buggy seat, and lifted up the Kid for a four-toothed smile and an ecstatic "Bye!" accompanied by a vigorous flopping of hands, which included then all.
"We'll telegraph first thing, boys," the Little Doctor called back, as the rig chucked into the pebbly creek crossing. "We'll keep you posted, and I'll write all the particulars as soon as I can. Don't think the worst—unless you have to. I don't." She smiled again, and waved her hand hastily because of the Kid's contortions; and, though the smile had tears close behind it, though her voice was tremulous in spite of herself, the Happy Family took heart from her courage and waved their hats gravely, and smiled back as best they could.
"There's a lot uh cake you boys might just as well eat up," the Countess called belatedly. "It'll all dry out, if yuh don't—and there ain't no use wastin' it—and there's two lemon pies in the brown cupboard, and what under the shinin' sun—" The wheels bumped violently against a rock, and the Happy Family heard no more.
CHAPTER IV. Some Hopes
On the third day after the Happy Family decided that there should be some word from Chicago; and, since that day was Sunday, they rode in a body to Dry Lake after it. They had not discussed the impending tragedy very much, but they were an exceedingly Unhappy Family, nevertheless; and, since Flying U coulee was but a place of gloom, they were not averse to leaving it behind them for a few hours, and riding where every stick and stone did not remind then of the Old Man.
In Dry Lake was a message, brief but heartening:
"J. G. still alive. Some hopes".
They left the station with lighter spirits after reading that; rode to the hotel, tied their horses to the long hitching pole there and went in. And right there the Happy Family unwittingly became cast for the leading parts in one of those dramas of the West which never is heard of outside the theater in which grim circumstance stages it for a single playing—unless, indeed, the curtain rings down on a tragedy that brings the actors before their district judge for trial. And, as so frequently is the case, the beginning was casual to the point of triviality.
Sary, Ellen, Marg'reet, Sybilly and Jos'phine Denson (spelled in accordance with parental pronunciation) were swinging idly upon the hitching pole, with the self-conscious sang froid of country children come to town. They backed away from the Happy Family's approach, grinned foolishly in response to their careless greeting, and tittered openly at the resplendence of the Native Son, who was wearing his black Angora chaps with the three white diamonds down each leg, the gay horsehair hatband, crimson neckerchief and Mexican spurs with their immense rowels and ornate conchos of hand-beaten silver. Sary, Ellen, Marg'reet, Jos'phine and Sybilly were also resplendent, in their way. Their carroty hair was tied with ribbons quite aggressively new, their freckles shone with maternal scrubbing, and there was a hint of home-made "crochet-lace" beneath each stiffly starched dress.
"Hello, kids," Weary greeted them amiably, with a secret smile over the memory of a time when they had purloined the Little Doctor's pills and had made reluctant acquaintance with a stomach pump. "Where's the circus going to be at?"
"There ain't goin' to be no circus," Sybilly retorted, because she was the forward one of the family. "We're going away; on the train. The next one that comes along. We're going to be on it all night, too; and we'll have to eat on it, too."
"Well, by golly, you'll want something to eat, then!" Slim was feeling abstractedly in his pocket for a coin, for these were the nieces of the Countess, and therefore claimed more than a cursory interest from Slim. "You take this up to the store and see if yuh can't swop it for something good to eat." Because Sary was the smallest of the lot he pressed the dollar into her shrinking, amazed palm.
"Paw's got more money'n that," Sybilly announced proudly. "Paw's got a million dollars. A man bought our ranch and gave him a lot of money. We're rich now. Maybe paw'll buy us a phony-graft. He said maybe he would. And maw's goin' to have a blue silk dress with green onto it. And—"
"Better haze along and buy that grub stake," Slim interrupted the family gift for profuse speech. He had caught the boys grinning, and fancied that they were tracing a likeness between the garrulity of Sybilly and the fluency of her aunt, the Countess. "You don't want that train to go off and leave yuh, by golly."
"Wonder who bought Denson out?" Cal Emmett asked of no one in particular, as the children went strutting off to the store to spend the dollar which little Sary clutched so tightly it seemed as if the goddess of liberty must surely have been imprinted upon her palm.
When they went inside and found Denson himself pompously "setting 'em up to the house," Cal repeated the question in a slightly different form to the man himself.
Denson, while he was ready to impress the beholders with his unaccustomed affluence, became noticeably embarrassed at the inquiry, and edged off into vague generalities.
"I jest nacherlly had to sell when I got m' price," he told the Happy Family in a tone that savored strongly of apology. "I like the country, and I like m' neighbors fine. Never'd ask for better than the Flyin' U has been t' me. I ain't got no kick comin' there. Sorry to hear the Old Man's hurt back East. Mary was real put out at not bein' able to see Louise 'fore she went away"—Louise being the Countess' and Mary Denson's sister—"but soon as I sold I got oneasy like. The feller wanted p'session right away, too, so I told Mary we might as well start b'fore we git outa the notion. I wouldn't uh cared about sellin', maybe, but the kids needs to be in school. They're growin' up in ign'rance out here, and Mary's folks wants us to come back 'n' settle close handy by—they been at us t' sell out and move fer the last five years, now, and I told Mary—"
Even Cal forgot, eventually, that he had asked a question which remained unanswered; what interest he had felt at first was smothered to death beneath that blanket of words, and he eagerly followed the boys out and over to Rusty Brown's place, where Denson, because of an old grudge against Rusty, might be trusted not to follow.
"Mamma!" Weary commented amusedly, when they were crossing the street, "that Denson bunch can sure talk the fastest and longest, and say the least, of any outfit I ever saw."
"Wonder who did buy him out?" Jack Bates queried. "Old ginger-whiskers didn't pass out any facts, yuh notice. He couldn't have got much; his land's mostly gravel and 'doby patches. He's got a water right on Flying U creek, you know—first right, at that, seems to me—and a dandy fine spring in that coulee. Wonder why our outfit didn't buy him out—seeing he wanted to sell so bad?"
"This wantin' to sell is something I never heard of b'fore," Slim said slowly. "To hear him tell it, that ranch uh hisn was worth a dollar an inch, by golly. I don't b'lieve he's been wantin' to sell out. If he had, Mis' Bixby woulda said something about it. She don't know about this here sellin' business, or she'd a said—"
"Yeah, you can most generally bank on the Countess telling all she knows," Cal assented with some sarcasm; at which Slim grunted and turned sulky afterward.
Denson and his affairs they speedily forgot for a time, in the diversion which Rusty Brown's familiar place afforded to young men with unjaded nerves and a zest for the primitive pleasures. Not until mid-afternoon did it occur to them that Flying U coulee was deserted by all save old Patsy, and that there were chores to be done, if all the creatures of the coulee would sleep in comfort that night. Pink, therefore, withdrew his challenge to the bunch, and laid his billiard cue down with a sigh and the remark that all he lacked was time, to have the scalps of every last one of them hanging from his belt. Pink was figurative in his speech, you will understand; and also a bit vainglorious over beating Andy Green and Big Medicine twice in succession.
It occurred to Weary then that a word of cheer to the Old Man and his anxious watchers might not cone amiss. Therefore the Happy Family mounted and rode to the depot to send it, and on the way wrangled over the wording of the message after their usual contentious manner.
"Better tell 'em everything is fine, at this end uh the line," Cal suggested, and was hooted at for a poet.
"Just say," Weary began, when he was interrupted by the discordant clamor from a trainload of sheep that had just pulled in and stopped. "'Maa-aa, Ma-a-aaa,' darn yuh," he shouted derisively, at the peering, plaintive faces, glimpsed between the close-set bars. "Mamma, how I do love sheep!" Whereupon he put spurs to his horse and galloped down to the station to rid his ears of the turbulent wave of protest from the cars.
Naturally it required some time to compose the telegram in a style satisfactory to all parties. Outside, cars banged together, an engine snorted stertorously, and suffocating puffs of coal smoke now and then invaded the waiting-room while the Happy Family were sending that message of cheer to Chicago. If you are curious, the final version of their combined sentiments was not at all spectacular. It said merely:
"Everything fine here. Take good care of the Old Man. How's the Kid stacking up?"
It was signed simply "The Bunch."
"Mary's little lambs are here yet, I see," the Native Son remarked carelessly when they went out. "Enough lambs for all the Marys in the country. How would you like to be Mary?"
"Not for me," Irish declared, and turned his face away from the stench of them.
Others there were who rode the length of the train with faces averted and looks of disdain; cowmen, all of them, they shared the range prejudice, and took no pains to hide it.
The wind blew strong from the east, that day; it whistled through the open, double-decked cars packed with gray, woolly bodies, whose voices were ever raised in strident complaint; and the stench of them smote the unaccustomed nostrils of the Happy Family and put them to disgusted flight up the track and across it to where the air was clean again.
"Honest to grandma, I'd make the poorest kind of a sheepherder," Big Medicine bawled earnestly, when they were well away from the noise and smell of the detested animals. "If I had to herd sheep, by cripes, do you know what I'd do? I'd haze 'em into a coulee and turn loose with a good rifle and plenty uh shells, and call in the coyotes to git a square meal. That's the way I'd herd sheep. It's the only way you can shut 'em up. They just 'baa-aa, baa-aa, baa-aa' from the time they're dropped till somebody kills 'em off. Honest, they blat in their sleep. I've heard 'em."
"When you and the dogs were shooting off coyotes?" asked Andy Green pointedly, and so precipitated dissension which lasted for ten miles.
CHAPTER V. Sheep
Slim rising first from dinner on the next day but one opened the door of the mess-house, and stood there idly picking his teeth before he went about his work. After a minute of listening to the boys "joshing" old Patsy about some gooseberry pies he had baked without sugar, he turned his face outward, threw up his head like a startled bull, and began to sniff.
"Say, I smell sheep, by golly!" he announced in the bellowing tone which was his conversational voice, and sniffed again.
"Oh, that's just a left-over in your system from the dose yuh got in town Sunday," Weary explained soothingly. "I've smelled sheep, and tasted sheep, and dreamed sheep, ever since."
"No, by golly, it's sheep! It ain't no memory. I—I b'hieve I hear 'em, too, by golly." Slim stepped out away from the building and faced suspiciously down the coulee.
"Slim, I never suspected you of imagination before," the Native Son drawled, and loitered out to where Slim stood still sniffing. "I wonder if you're catching it from Andy and me. Don't you think you ought to be vaccinated?"
"That ain't imagination," Pink called out from within. "When anybody claims there's sheep in Flying U coulee, that's straight loco."
"Come on out here and smell 'em yourself, then!" Slim bawled indignantly. "I never seen such an outfit as this is gittin' to be; you fellers don't believe nobody, no more. We ain't all Andy Greens."
Upon hearing this Andy pushed back his chair and strolled outside. He clapped his hand down upon Slim's fat-cushioned shoulder and swayed him gently. "Never mind, Slim; you can't all be famous," he comforted. "Some day, maybe, I'll teach yuh the fine art of lying more convincingly than the ordinary man can tell the truth. It is a fine art; it takes a genius to put it across. Now, the only time anybody doubts my word is when I'm sticking to the truth hike a sand burr to a dog's tail."
From away to the west, borne on the wind which swept steadily down the coulee, came that faint, humming sing-song, which can be made only by a herd of a thousand or more sheep, all blatting in different keys—or by a distant band playing monotonously upon the middle octave of their varied instruments.
"Slim's right, by gracious! It's sheep, sure as yuh live." Andy did not wait for more, but started at a fast walk for the stable and his horse. After him went the Native Son, who had not been with the Flying U long enough to sense the magnitude of the affront, and Slim, who knew to a nicety just what "cowmen" considered the unpardonable sin, and the rest of the Happy Family, who were rather incredulous still.
"Must be some fool herder just crossing the coulee, on the move somewhere," Weary gave as a solution. "Half of 'em don't know a fence when they see it."
As they galloped toward the sound and the smell, they expressed freely their opinion of sheep, the men who owned them, and the lunatics who watched over the blatting things. They were cattlemen to the marrow in their bones, and they gloried in their prejudice against the woolly despoilers of the range.
All these years had the Flying U been immune from the nuisance, save for an occasional trespasser, who was quickly sent about his business. The Flying U range had been kept in the main inviolate from the little, gray vandals, which ate the grass clean to the sod, and trampled with their sharp-pointed hoofs the very roots into lifelessness; which polluted the water-holes and creeks until cattle and horses went thirsty rather than drink; which, in that land of scant rainfall, devastated the range where they fed so that a long-established prairie-dog town was not more barren. What wonder if the men who owned cattle, and those who tended them, hated sheep? So does the farmer dread an invasion of grasshoppers.
A mile down the coulee they came upon the band with two herders and four dogs keeping watch. Across the coulee and up the hillsides they spread like a noisome gray blanket. "Maa-aa, maa-aa, maa-aa," two thousand strong they blatted a strident medley while they hurried here and there after sweeter bunches of grass, very much like a disturbed ant-hill.
The herders loitered upon either slope, their dogs lying close beside them. There was good grass in that part of the coulee; the Flying U had saved it for the saddle horses that were to be gathered and held temporarily at the ranch; for it would save herding, and a week in that pasture would put a keen edge on their spirits for the hard work of the calf roundup. A dozen or two that ranged close had already been driven into the field and were feeding disdainfully in a corner as far away from the sheep as the fence would permit.
The Happy Family, riding close-grouped, stiffened in their saddles and stared amazed at the outrage.
"Sheepherders never did have any nerve," Irish observed after a minute. "They keep their places fine! They'll drive their sheep right into your dooryard and tell 'en to help themselves to anything that happens to look good to them. Oh, they're sure modest and retiring!"
Weary, who had charge of the outfit during Chip's absence, was making straight for the nearest herder. Pink and Andy went with him, as a matter of course.
"You fellows ride up around that side, and put the run on them sheep," Weary shouted back to the others. "We'll start the other side moving. Make 'em travel—back where they came from." He jerked his head toward the north. He knew, just as they all knew, that there had been no sheep to the south, unless one counted those that ranged across the Missouri river.
As the three forced their horses up the steep slope, the herder, sitting slouched upon a rock, glanced up at them dully. He had a long stick, with which he was apathetically turning over the smaller stones within his reach, and as apathetically killing the black bugs that scuttled out from the moist earth beneath. He desisted from this unexciting pastime as they drew near, and eyed them with the sullenness that comes of long isolation when the person's nature forbids that other extreme of babbling garrulity, for no man can live long months alone and remain perfectly normal. Nature, that stern mistress, always exacts a penalty from us foolish mortals who would ignore the instincts she has wisely implanted within us for our good.
"Maybe," Weary began mildly and without preface, "you don't know this is private property. Get busy with your dogs, and haze these sheep back on the bench." He waved his hand to the north. "And, when you get a good start in that direction," he added, "yuh better keep right on going."
The herder surveyed him morosely, but he said nothing; neither did he rise from the rock to obey the command. The dogs sat upon their haunches and perked their ears inquiringly, as if they understood better than did their master that these men were not to be quite overlooked.
"I meant to-day," Weary hinted, with the manner of one who deliberately holds his voice quiet.
"I never asked yuh what yuh meant," the herder mumbled, scowling. "We got to keep 'em on water another hour, yet." He went back to turning over the small rocks and to pursuing with his stick the bugs, as if the whole subject were squeezed dry of interest.
For a minute Weary stared unwinkingly down at him, uncertain whether to resent this as pure insolence, or to condone it as imbecility. "Mamma!" he breathed eloquently, and grinned at Andy and Pink. "This is a real talkative cuss, and obliging, too. Come on, boys; he's too busy to bother with a little thing like sheep."
He led the way around to the far side of the band, the nearest sheep scuttling away from then as they passed. "I don't suppose we could work the combination on those dogs—what?" he considered aloud, glancing back at them where they still sat upon their haunches and watched the strange riders. "Say, Cadwalloper, you took a few lessons in sheepherding, a couple of years ago, when you was stuck on that girl—remember? Whistle 'em up here and set 'en to work."
"You go to the devil," Pink's curved hips replied amiably to his boss. "I've got loss-uh-memory on the sheep business."
Whereat Weary grinned and said no more about it.
On the opposite side of the coulee, the boys seemed to be laboring quite as fruitlessly with the other herder. They heard Big Medicine's truculent bellow, as he leaned from the saddle and waved a fist close to the face of the herder, but, though they rode with their eyes fixed upon the group, they failed to see any resultant movement of dogs, sheep or man.
There is, at times, a certain safety in being the hopeless minority. Though seven indignant cowpunchers surrounded him, that herder was secure from any personal molestation—and he knew it. They were seven against one; therefore, after making some caustic remarks, which produced as little effect as had Weary's command upon the first man, the seven were constrained to ride here and there along the wavering, gray line, and, with shouts and swinging ropes, themselves drive the sheep from the coulee.
There was much clamor and dust and riding to and fro. There was language which would have made the mothers of then weep, and there were faces grown crimson from wrath. Eventually, however, the Happy Family faced the north fence of the Flying U boundary, and saw the last woolly back scrape under the lower wire, leaving a toll of greasy wool hanging from the barbs.
The herders had drawn together, and were looking on from a distance, and the four dogs were yelping uneasily over their enforced inaction. The Happy Family went back and rounded up the herders, and by sheer weight of numbers forced them to the fence without laying so much as a finger upon then. The one who had been killing black bugs gave then an ugly look as he crawled through, but even he did not say anything.
"Snap them wires down where they belong," Weary commanded tersely.
The man hesitated a minute, then sullenly unhooked the barbs of the two lower strands, so that the wires, which had thus been lifted to permit the passing of the sheep, twanged apart and once more stretched straight from post to post.
"Now, just keep in mind the fact that fences are built for use. This is a private ranch, and sheep are just about as welcome as smallpox. Haze them stinking things as far north as they'll travel before dark, and at daylight start 'em going again. Where's your camp, anyhow?"
"None of your business," mumbled the bugkiller sourly.
Weary scanned the undulating slope beyond the fence, saw no sign of a camp, and glanced uncertainly at his fellows. "Well, it don't matter much where it is; you see to it you don't sleep within five miles of here, or you're liable to have bad dreams. Hit the trail, now!"
They waited inside the fence until the retreating sheep lost their individuality as blatting animals, ambling erratically here and there, while they moved toward the brow of the hill, and merged into a great, gray blotch against the faint green of the new grass—a blotch from which rose again that vibrant, sing-song humming of many voices mingled. Then they rode back down the coulee to their own work, taking it for granted that the trespassing was an incident which would not be repeated—by those particular sheep, at any rate.
It was, therefore, with something of a shock that the Happy Family awoke the next morning to hear Pink's melodious treble shouting in the bunk-house at sunrise next morning:
"'G'wa-a-y round' 'em, Shep! Seven black ones in the coulee!" Men who know well the West are familiar with that facetious call.
"Ah, what's the matter with yuh?" Irish raised a rumpled, brown head from his pillow, and blinked sleepily at him. "I've been dreaming I was a sheepherder, all night."
"Well, you've got the swellest chance in the world to 'make every dream cone true, dearie,'" Pink retorted. "The whole blamed coulee's full uh sheep. I woke up a while ago and thought I just imagined I heard 'en again; so I went out to take a look—or a smell, it was—and they're sure enough there!"
Weary swung one long leg out from under his blankets and reached for his clothes. He did not say anything, but his face portended trouble for the invaders.
"Say!" cried Big Medicine, coming out of his bunk as if it were afire, "I tell yuh right now then blattin' human apes wouldn't git gay around here if I was runnin' this outfit. The way I'd have of puttin' them sheep on the run wouldn't be slow, by cripes! I'll guarantee—"
By then the bunk-house was buzzing with voices, and there was none to give heed to Big Medicine s blatant boasting. Others there were who seemed rather inclined to give Weary good advice while they pulled on their boots and sought for their gloves and rolled early-morning cigarettes, and otherwise prepared themselves for what Fate might have waiting for then outside the door.
"Are you sure they're in the coulee, Cadwalloper?" Weary asked, during a brief lull. "They could be up on the hill—"
"Hell, yes!" was Pink's forceful answer. "They could be on the hill, but they ain't. Why, darn it, they're straggling into the little pasture! I could see 'em from the stable. They—"
"Come and eat your breakfast first, boys, anyway." Weary had his hand upon the door-knob. "A few minutes more won't make any difference, one way or the other." He went out and over to the mess-house to see if Patsy had the coffee ready; for this was a good three-quarters of an hour earlier than the Flying U outfit usually bestirred themselves on these days of preparation for roundup and waiting for good grass.
"I'll be darned if I'd be as calm as he is," Cal Emmett muttered while the door was being closed. "Good thing the Old Man ain't here, now. He'd go straight up in the air. He wouldn't wait for no breakfast."
"I betche there'll be a killin' yet, before we're through with them sheep," gloomed Happy Jack. "When sheepherders starts in once to be ornery, there ain't no way uh stoppin' 'em except by killin' 'em off. And that'll mean the pen for a lot of us fellers—"
"Well, by golly, it won't be me," Slim declared loudly. "Yuh wouldn't ketch me goin' t' jail for no doggone sheepherder. They oughta be a bounty on 'en by rights."
"Seems queer they'd be right back here this morning, after being hazed out yesterday afternoon," said Andy Green thoughtfully. "Looks like they're plumb anxious to build a lot of trouble for themselves."
Patsy, thumping energetically the bottom of a tin pan, sent them trooping to the mess-house. There it was evident that the breakfast had been unduly hurried; there were no biscuits in sight, for one thing, though Patsy was lumbering about the stove frying hot-cakes. They were in too great a hurry to wait for them, however. They swallowed their coffee hurriedly, bolted a few mouthfuls of meat and fried eggs, and let it go at that.
Weary looked at then with a faint smile. "I'm going to give a few of you fellows a chance to herd sheep to-day," he announced, cooling his coffee so that it would not actually scald his palate. "That's why I wanted you to get some grub into you. Some of you fellows will have to take the trail up on the hill, and meet us outside the fence, so when we chase 'em through you can make a good job of it this time. I wonder—"
"You don't need to call out the troops for that job; one man is enough to put the fear uh the Lord into then herders," Andy remarked slightingly. "Once they're on the move—"
"All right, my boy; we'll let you be the man," Weary told him promptly. "I was going to have a bunch of you take a packadero outfit down toward Boiler Bottom and comb the breaks along there for horses—and I sure do hate to spend the whole day chasing sheepherders around over the country. So we'll haze 'em through the fence again, and, seeing you feel that way about it, I'll let you go around and keep 'em going. And, if you locate their camp, kinda impress it on the tender, if you can round him up, that the Flying U ain't pasturing sheep this spring. No matter what kinda talk he puts up, you put the run on 'em till you see 'em across One-Man coulee. Better have Patsy put you up a lunch—unless you're fond of mutton."
Andy twisted his mouth disgustedly. "Say, I'm going to quit handing out any valuable advice to you, Weary," he expostulated.
"Haw-haw-haw-w-w!" laughed Big Medicine, and slapped Andy on the shoulder so that his face almost came in contact with his plate. "Yuh will try to work some innercent man into sheepherdin', will yuh? Haw-haw-haw-w! You'll come in tonight blattin'—if yuh don't stay out on the range tryin' t' eat grass, by cripes! Andy had a little lamb that follered him around—"
"Better let Bud take that herdin' job, Weary," Andy suggested. "It won't hurt him—he's blattin' already."
"If you think you're liable to need somebody along," Weary began, soft-heartedly relenting, "why, I guess—"
"If I can't handle two crazy sheepherders without any help, by gracious, I'll get me a job holdin' yarn in an old ladies' hone," Andy cut in hastily, and got up from the table. "Being a truthful man, I can't say I'm stuck on the job; but I'm game for it. And I'll promise you there won't be no more sheep of that brand lickin' our doorsteps. What darned outfit is it, anyway? I never bumped into any Dot sheep before, to my knowledge."
"It's a new one on me," Weary testified, heading the procession down to the stable. "If they belonged anywhere in this part of the country, though, they wouldn't be acting the way they are. They'd be wise to the fact that it ain't healthy."
Even while he spoke his eyes were fixed with cold intensity upon a fringe of gray across the coulee below the little pasture. To the nostrils of the outraged Happy Family was borne that indescribable aroma which betrays the presence of sheep; that aroma which sheepmen love and which cattlemen hate, and which a favorable wind will carry a long way.
They slapped saddles on their horses in record time that morning, and raced down the coulee ironically shouting commiserating sentences to the unfortunate Andy, who rode slowly up to the mess-house for the lunch which Patsy had waiting for him in a flour sack, and afterward climbed the grade and loped along outside the line fence to a point opposite the sheep and the shouting horsemen, who forced them back by weight of numbers.
This morning the herders were not quite so passive. The bug-killer still scowled, but he spoke without the preliminary sulky silence of the day before,
"We're goin' across the coulee," he growled. "Them's orders. We range south uh here."
"No, you don't," Weary dissented calmly. "Not by a long shot, you don't. You're going back where you come from—if you ask me. And you're going quick!"
CHAPTER VI. What Happened to Andy
With the sun shining comfortably upon his back, and with a cigarette between his lips, Andy sat upon his horse and watched in silent glee while the irate Happy Family scurried here and there behind the band, swinging their ropes down upon the woolly backs, and searching their vocabularies for new and terrible epithets. Andy smiled broadly as a colorful phrase now and then boomed across the coulee in that clear, snappy atmosphere, which carries sounds so far. He did not expect to do much smiling upon his own account, that day, and he was therefore grateful for the opportunity to behold the spectacle before him.
There was Slim, for instance, unwillingly careening down hill toward home, because, in his zeal to slap an old ewe smartly with his rope, he drove her unexpectedly under his horse, and so created a momentary panic that came near standing both horse and rider upon their heads. And there was Big Medicine whistling until he was purple, while the herder, with a single gesture, held the dog motionless, though a dozen sheep broke back from the band and climbed a slope so steep that Big Medicine was compelled to go after them afoot, and turn them with stones and profane objurgations.
It was very funny—when one could sit at ease upon the hilltop and smoke a cigarette while others risked apoplexy and their souls' salvation below. By the time they panted up the last rock-strewn slope of the bluff, and sent the vanguard of the invaders under the fence, Andy's mood was complacent in the extreme, and his smile offensively wide.
"Oh, you needn't look so sorry for us," drawled the Native Son, jingling over toward him until only the fence and a few feet of space divided them. "Here's where you get yours, amigo. I wish you a pleasant day—and a long one!" He waved his hand in mocking adieu, touched his horse with his silver spurs, and rode gaily away down the coulee.
"Here, sheepherder's your outfit. Ma-aa-a-a!" jeered Big Medicine. "You'll wisht, by cripes, you was a dozen men just like yuh before you're through with the deal. Haw-haw-haw-w!"
There were others who, seeing Andy's grin, had something to say upon the subject before they left.
Weary rode up, and looked undecidedly from Andy to the sheep, and back again.
"If you don't feel like tackling it single-handed, I'll send—"
"What do yuh think I am, anyway?" Andy interrupted crisply, "a Montgomery Ward two-for-a-quarter cowpuncher? Don't you fellows waste any time worrying over me!"
The herders stared at Andy curiously when he swung in behind the tail-end of the band and kept pace with their slow moving, but they did not speak beyond shouting an occasional command to their dogs. Neither did Andy have anything to say, until he saw that they were swinging steadily to the west, instead of keeping straight north, as they had been told to do. Then he rode over to the nearest herder, who happened to be the bug-killer.
"You don't want to get turned around," he hinted quietly. "That's north, over there."
"I'm workin' fer the man that pays my wages," the fellow retorted glumly, and waved an arm to a collie that was waiting for orders. The dog dropped his head, and ran around the right wing of the band, with sharp yelps and dartings here and there, turning them still more to the west.
Andy hesitated, decided to leave the man alone for the present, and rode around to the other herder.
"You swing these sheep north!" he commanded, disdaining preface or explanation.
"I'm workin' for the man that pays my wages," the herder made answer stolidly, and chewed steadily upon a quid of tobacco that had stained his lips unbecomingly.
So they had talked the thing over—had those two herders—and were following a premeditated plan of defiance! Andy hooked at the man a minute. "You turn them sheep, damn you," he commanded again, and laid a hand upon his saddle-horn suggestively.
"You go to the devil, damn yuh," advised the herder, and cocked a wary eye at him from under his hat-brim. Not all herders, let it be said in passing, take unto themselves the mental attributes of their sheep; there are those who believe that a bold front is better than weak compliance, and who will back that belief by a very bold front indeed.
Andy appraised him mentally, decided that he was an able-bodied man and therefore fightable, and threw his right leg over the cantle with a quite surprising alacrity.
"Are you going to turn them sheep?" Andy was taking off his coat when he made that inquiry.
"Not for your tellin'. You keep back, young feller, or I'll sick the dogs on yuh." He turned and whistled to the nearest one, and Andy hit him on the ear.
They clinched and pummeled when they could and where they could. The dog came up, circled the gyrating forms twice, then sat down upon his haunches at a safe distance, tilted his head sidewise and lifted his ears interestedly. He was a wise little dog; the other dog was also wise, and remained phlegmatically at his post, as did the bug-killer.
"Are you going to turn them sheep?" Andy spoke breathlessly, but with deadly significance.
Andy took his fingers from the other's Adam's apple, his knee from the other's diaphragm, and went over to where he had thrown down his coat, felt in a pocket for his handkerchief, and, when he had found it, applied it to his nose, which was bleeding profusely.
"Fly at it, then," he advised, eyeing the other sternly over the handkerchief. "I'd hate to ask you a third time."
"I'd hate to have yuh," conceded the herder reluctantly. "I was sure I c'd lick yuh, or I'd 'a' turned 'em before." He sent the dog racing down the south line of the band.
Andy got thoughtfully back upon his horse, and sat looking hard at the herder. "Say, you're grade above the general run uh lamb-hickers," he observed, after a minute. "Who are you working for, and what's your object in throwing sheep on Flying U land? There's plenty of range to the north."
"I'm workin'," said the herder, "for the Dot outfit. I thought you could read brands."
"Don't get sassy—I've got a punch or two I haven't used yet. Who owns these woollies?"
"Well—Whittaker and Oleson, if yuh want to know."
"I do." Andy was keeping pace with him around the band, which edged off from then and the dogs. "And what makes you so crazy about Flying U grass?" he pursued.
"We've got to cross that coulee to git to where we're headed for; we got a right to, and we're going to do it." The herder paused and glanced up at Andy sourly. "We knowed you was a mean outfit; the boss told us so. And he told us you was blank ca'tridges and we needn't back up just 'cause you raised up on your hind legs and howled a little. I've had truck with you cowmen before. I've herded sheep in Wyoming." He walked a few steps with his head down, considering.
"I better go over and talk some sense into the other fellow," he said, looking up at Andy as if all his antagonism had oozed in the fight. "You ride along this edge, so they won't scatter—we ought to be grazin' 'em along, by rights; only you seem to be in such an all-fired rush—"
"You go on and tell that loco son-of-a-gun over there what he's up against," Andy urged. "Blank cartridges—I sure do like that! If you only knew it, high power dum-dums would be a lot closer to our brand. Run along—I am in a kinda hurry, this morning."
Andy, riding slowly upon the outskirts of the grazing, blatting band, watched the two confer earnestly together a hundred yards or so away. They seemed to be having some sort of argument; the bug-killer gesticulated with the long stick he carried, and the sheep, while the herders talked, scattered irresponsibly. Andy wondered what made sheepmen so "ornery," particularly herders. He wondered why the fellow he had thrashed was so insultingly defiant at first, and, after the thrashing, so unresentful and communicative, and so amenable to authority withal. He felt his nose, and decided that it was, all things considered, a cheap victory, and yet one of which he need not be ashamed.
The herder cane back presently and helped drive the sheep over the edge of the bluff which bordered Antelope coulee. The bug-killer, upon his side, also seemed imbued with the spirit of obedience; Andy heard him curse a collie into frenzied zeal, and smiled approvingly.
"Now you're acting a heap more human," he observed; and the man from Wyoming grinned ruefully by way of reply.
Antelope coulee, at that point, was steep; too steep for riding, so that Andy dismounted and dug his boot-heels into the soft soil, to gain a foothold on the descent. When he was halfway down, he chanced to look back, straight into the scowling gaze of the bug-killer, who was sliding down behind him.
"Thought you were hazing down the other side of 'em," Andy called back, but the herder did not choose to answer save with another scowl.
Andy edged his horse around an impracticable slope of shale stuff and went on. The herder followed. When he was within twelve feet or so of the bottom, there was a sound of pebbles knocked loose in haste, a scrambling, and then came the impact of his body. Andy teetered, lost his balance, and went to the bottom in one glorious slide. He landed with the bug-killer on top—and the bug-killer failed to remove his person as speedily as true courtesy exacted.
Andy kicked and wriggled and tried to remember what was that high-colored, vituperative sentence that Irish had invented over a stubborn sheep, that he might repeat it to the bug-killer. The herder from Wyoming ran up, caught Andy's horse, and untied Andy's rope from the saddle.
"Good fer you, Oscar," he praised the bug-killer. "Hang onto him while I take a few turns." He thereupon helped force Andy's arms to his side, and wound the rope several times rather tightly around Andy's outraged, squirming person.
"Oh, it ain't goin' to do yuh no good to buck 'n bawl," admonished the tier. "I learnt this here little trick down in Wyoming. A bunch uh punchers done it to me—and I've been just achin' all over fer a chance to return the favor to some uh you gay boys. And," he added, with malicious satisfaction, while he rolled Andy over and tied a perfectly unslippable knot behind, "it gives me great pleasure to hand the dose out to you, in p'ticular. If I was a mean man, I'd hand yuh the boot a few times fer luck; but I'll save that up till next time."
"You can bet your sweet life there'll be a next time," Andy promised earnestly, with embellishments better suited to the occasion than to a children's party.
"Well, when it arrives I'm sure Johnny-on-the-spot. Them Wyoming punchers beat me up after they'd got me tied. I'm tellin' yuh so you'll see I ain't mean unless I'm drove to it. Turn him feet down hill, Oscar, so he won't git a rush uh brains to the head and die on our hands. Now you're goin' to mind your own business, sonny. Next time yuh set out to herd sheep, better see the boss first and git on the job right."
He rose to his feet, surveyed Andy with his hands on his hips, mentally pronounced the job well done, and took a generous chew of tobacco, after which he grinned down at the trussed one.
"That the language uh flowers you're talkin'?" he inquired banteringly, before he turned his attention to the horse, which he disposed of by tying up the reins and giving it a slap on the rump. When it had trotted fifty yards down the coulee bottom, and showed a disposition to go farther, he whistled to his dogs, and turned again to Andy.
"This here is just a hint to that bunch you trot with, to leave us and our sheep alone," he said. "We don't pick no quarrels, but we're goin' to cross our sheep wherever we dern please, to git where we want to go. Gawd didn't make this range and hand it over to you cowmen to put in yer pockets—I guess there's a chance fer other folks to hang on by their eyebrows, anyway."
Andy, lying there like a very good presentation of a giant cocoon, roped round and round, with his arms pinned to his sides, had the doubtful pleasure of seeing that noisome, foolish-faced band trail down Antelope coulee and back upon the level they had just left, and of knowing to a gloomy certainty that he could do nothing about it, except swear; and even that palls when a man has gone over his entire repertoire three times in rapid succession.
Andy, therefore, when the last sheep had trotted out of sight, hearing and smell, wriggled himself into as comfortable a position as his bonds would permit, and took a nap.
CHAPTER VII. Truth Crushed to Earth, etc.
Andy, only half awake, tried to obey both instinct and habit and reach up to pull his hat down over his eyes, so that the sun could not shine upon his lids so hotly; when he discovered that he could do no more than wiggle his fingers, he came back with a jolt to reality and tried to sit up. It is surprising to a man to discover suddenly just how important a part his arms play in the most simple of body movements; Andy, with his arms pinioned tightly the whole length of them, rolled over on his face, kicked a good deal, and rolled back again, but he did not sit up, as he had confidently expected to do.
He lay absolutely quiet for at least five minutes, staring up at the brilliant blue arch above him. Then he began to speak rapidly and earnestly; a man just close enough to hear his voice sweeping up to a certain rhetorical climax, pausing there and commencing again with a rhythmic fluency of intonation, might have thought that he was repeating poetry; indeed, it sounded like some of Milton's majestic blank verse, but it was not. Andy was engaged in a methodical, scientific, reprehensibly soul-satisfying period of swearing.
A curlew, soaring low, with long beak outstretched before him, and long legs outstretched behind cast a beady eye upon him, and shrilled "Cor-reck! Cor-reck!" in unregenerate approbation of the blasphemy.
Andy stopped suddenly and laughed. "Glad you agree with me, old sport," he addressed the bird whimsically, with a reaction to his normally cheerful outlook. "Sheepherders are all those things I named over, birdie, and some that I can't think of at present."
He tried again, this time with a more careful realization of his limitations, to assume an upright position; and being a persevering young man, and one with a ready wit, he managed at length to wriggle himself back upon the slope from which he had slid in his sleep, and, by digging in his heels and going carefully, he did at last rise upon his knees, and from there triumphantly to his feet.
He had at first believed that one of the herders would, in the course of an hour or so, return and untie him, when he hoped to be able to retrieve, in a measure, his self-respect, which he had lost when the first three feet of his own rope had encircled him. To be tied and trussed by sheepherders! Andy gritted his teeth and started down the coulee.
He was hungry, and his lunch was tied to his saddle. He looked eagerly down the coulee, in the faint hope of seeing his horse grazing somewhere along its length, until the numbness of his arms and hands reminded him that forty lunches, tied upon forty saddles at his side, would be of no use to him in his present position. His hands he could not move from his thighs; he could wiggle his fingers—which he did, to relieve as much as possible that unpleasant, prickly sensation which we call a "going to sleep" of the afflicted members. When it occurred to him that he could not do anything with his horse if he found it, he gave up looking for it and started for the ranch, walking awkwardly, because of his bonds, the sun shining hotly upon his brown head, because his hat had been knocked off in the scuffle, and he could not pick it up and put it back where it belonged.
Taking a straight course across the prairie, he struck Flying U coulee at the point where the sheep had left it. On the way there he had crossed their trail where they went through the fence farther along the coulee than before, and therefore with a better chance of passing undetected; especially since the Happy Family, believing that he was forcing them steadily to the north, would not be watching for sheep. The barbed wire barrier bothered him somewhat. He was compelled to lie down and roll under the fence, in the most undignified manner, and, when he was through, there was the problem of getting upon his feet again. But he managed it somehow, and went on down the coulee, perspiring with the heat and a bitter realization of his ignominy. What the Happy Family would have to say when they saw him, even Andy Green's vivid imagination declined to picture.
He knew by the sun that it was full noon when he came in sight of the stable and corrals, and his soul sickened at the thought of facing that derisive bunch of punchers, with their fiendish grins and their barbed tongues. But he was hungry, and his arms had reached the limit of prickly sensations and were numb to his shoulders. He shook his hair back from his beaded forehead, cast a wary glance at the silent stables, set his jaw, and went on up the hill to the mess-house, wishing tardily that he had waited until they were off at work again, when he might intimidate old Patsy into keeping quiet about his predicament.
Within the mess-house was the clatter of knives and forks plied by hungry men, the sound of desultory talk and a savory odor of good things to eat. The door was closed. Andy stood before it as a guilty-conscienced child stands before its teacher; clicked his teeth together, and, since he could not open the door, lifted his right foot and gave it a kick to strain the hinges.
Within were exclamations of astonishment, silence and then a heavy tread. Patsy opened the door, gasped and stood still, his eyes popping out like a startled rabbit.
"Well, what's eating you?" Andy demanded querulously, and pushed past him into the room.
Not all of the Happy Family were there. Cal, Jack Bates, Irish and Happy Jack had gone into the Bad Lands next to the river; but there were enough left to make the soul of Andy quiver forebodingly, and to send the flush of extreme humiliation to his cheeks.
The Happy Family looked at him in stunned surprise; then they glanced at one another in swift, wordless inquiry, grinned wisely and warily, and went on with their dinner. At least they pretended to go on with their dinner, while Andy glared at them with amazed reproach in his misleadingly honest gray eyes.
"When you've got plenty of time," he said at last in a choked tone, "maybe one of you obliging cusses will untie this damned rope."
"Why, sure!" Pink threw a leg over the bench and got up with cheerful alacrity. "I'll do it now, if you say so; I didn't know but what that was some new fad of yours, like—"
"Fad!" Andy repeated the word like an explosion.
"Well, by golly, Andy needn't think I'm goin' to foller that there style," Slim stated solemnly. "I need m' rope for something else than to tie n' clothes on with."
"I sure do hate to see a man wear funny things just to make himself conspicuous," Pink observed, while he fumbled at the knot, which was intricate. Andy jerked away from him that he might face him ragefully.
"Maybe this looks funny to you," he cried, husky with wrath. "But I can't seem to see the joke, myself. I admit I let then herders make a monkey of me.... They slipped up behind, going down into Antelope coulee, and slid down the bluff onto me; and, before I could get up, they got me tied, all right. I licked one of 'en before that, and thought I had 'en gentled down—"