THE FLYING-U'S LAST STAND
By B. M. Bower
1. OLD WAYS AND NEW
2. ANDY GREEN'S NEW ACQUAINTANCE
3. THE KID LEARNS SOME THINGS ABOUT HORSES
4. ANDY TAKES A HAND IN THE GAME
5. THE HAPPY FAMILY TURN NESTERS
6. THE FIRST BLOW IN THE FIGHT
7. THE COMING OF THE COLONY
8. FLORENCE GRACE HALLMAN SPEAKS PLAINLY
9. THE HAPPY FAMILY BUYS A BUNCH OF CATTLE
10. WHEREIN ANDY GREEN LIES TO A LADY
ll. THE MOVING CHAPTER IN EVENTS
12. SHACKS, LIVESTOCK AND PILGRIMS PROMPTLY AND PAINFULLY REMOVED
13. IRISH WORKS FOR THE CAUSE
14. JUST ONE THING AFTER ANOTHER
15. THE KID HAS IDEAS OF HIS OWN
16. "A RELL OLD COWPUNCHER"
17. "LOST CHILD"
18. THE LONG WAY ROUND
19. HER NAME WAS ROSEMARY
20. THE RELL OLD COWPUNCHER GOES HOME
21. THE FIGHT GOES ON
22. LAWFUL IMPROVEMENTS
23. THE WATER QUESTION AND SOME GOSSIP
24. THE KID IS USED FOR A PAWN IN THE GAME
25. "LITTLE BLACK SHACK'S ALL BURNT UP!"
26. ROSEMARY ALLEN DOES A SMALL SUM IN ADDITION
27. "IT'S AWFUL EASY TO GET LOST"
28. AS IT TURNED OUT
THE FLYING U'S LAST STAND
CHAPTER 1. OLD WAYS AND NEW
Progress is like the insidious change from youth to old age, except that progress does not mean decay. The change that is almost imperceptible and yet inexorable is much the same, however. You will see a community apparently changeless as the years pass by; and yet, when the years have gone and you look back, there has been a change. It is not the same. It never will be the same. It can pass through further change, but it cannot go back. Men look back sick sometimes with longing for the things that were and that can be no more; they live the old days in memory—but try as they will they may not go back. With intelligent, persistent effort they may retard further change considerably, but that is the most that they can hope to do. Civilization and Time will continue the march in spite of all that man may do.
That is the way it was with the Flying U. Old J. G. Whitmore fought doggedly against the changing conditions—and he fought intelligently and well. When he saw the range dwindling and the way to the watering places barred against his cattle with long stretches of barbed wire, he sent his herds deeper into the Badlands to seek what grazing was in the hidden, little valleys and the deep, sequestered canyons. He cut more hay for winter feeding, and he sowed his meadows to alfalfa that he might increase the crops. He shipped old cows and dry cows with his fat steers in the fall, and he bettered the blood of his herds and raised bigger cattle. Therefore, if his cattle grew fewer in number, they improved in quality and prices went higher, so that the result was much the same.
It began to look, then, as though J. G. Whitmore was cunningly besting the situation, and was going to hold out indefinitely against the encroachments of civilization upon the old order of things on the range. And it had begun to look as though he was going to best Time at his own game, and refuse also to grow old; as though he would go on being the same pudgy, grizzled, humorously querulous Old Man beloved of his men, the Happy Family of the Flying U.
Sometimes, however, Time will fill a four-flush with the joker, and then laugh while he rakes in the chips. J. G. Whitmore had been going his way and refusing to grow old for a long time—and then an accident, which is Time's joker, turned the game against him. He stood for just a second too long on a crowded crossing in Chicago, hesitating between going forward or back. And that second gave Time a chance to play an accident. A big seven-passenger touring car mowed him down and left him in a heap for the ambulance from the nearest hospital to gather on its stretcher.
The Old Man did not die; he had lived long on the open range and he was pretty tough and hard to kill. He went back to his beloved Flying U, with a crutch to help him shuffle from bed to easy chair and back again.
The Little Doctor, who was his youngest sister, nursed him tirelessly; but it was long before there came a day when the Old Man gave his crutch to the Kid to use for a stick-horse, and walked through the living room and out upon the porch with the help of a cane and the solicitous arm of the Little Doctor, and with the Kid galloping gleefully before him on the crutch.
Later he discarded the help of somebody's arm, and hobbled down to the corral with the cane, and with the Kid still galloping before him on "Uncle Gee Gee's" crutch. He stood for some time leaning against the corral watching some of the boys halter-breaking a horse that was later to be sold—when he was "broke gentle"—and then he hobbled back again, thankful for the soft comfort of his big chair.
That was well enough, as far as it went. The Flying U took it for granted that the Old Man was slowly returning to the old order of life, when rheumatism was his only foe and he could run things with his old energy and easy good management. But there never came a day when the Old Man gave his cane to the kid to play with. There never came a day when he was not thankful for the soft comfort of his chair. There never came a day when he was the same Old Man who joshed the boys and scolded them and threatened them. The day was always coming—of course!—when his back would quit aching if he walked to the stable and back without a long rest between, but it never actually arrived.
So, imperceptibly but surely, the Old Man began to grow old. The thin spot on top of his head grew shiny, so that the Kid noticed it and made blunt comments upon the subject. His rheumatism was not his worst foe, now. He had to pet his digestive apparatus and cut out strong coffee with three heaping teaspoons of sugar in each cup, because the Little Doctor told him his liver was torpid. He had to stop giving the Kid jolty rides on his knees,—but that was because the Kid was getting too big for baby play, the Old Man declared. The Kid was big enough to ride real horses, now, and he ought to be ashamed to ride knee-horses any more.
To two things the Old Man clung almost fiercely; the old regime of ranging his cattle at large and starting out the wagons in the spring just the same as if twenty-five men instead of twelve went with them; and the retention of the Happy Family on his payroll, just as if they were actually needed. If one of the boys left to try other things and other fields, the Old Man considered him gone on a vacation and expected him back when spring roundup approached.
True, he was seldom disappointed in that. For the Happy Family looked upon the Flying U as home, and six months was about the limit for straying afar. Cowpunchers to the bone though they were, they bent backs over irrigating ditches and sweated in the hay fields just for the sake of staying together on the ranch. I cannot say that they did it uncomplainingly—for the bunk-house was saturated to the ridge-pole with their maledictions while they compared blistered hands and pitchfork callouses, and mourned the days that were gone; the days when they rode far and free and scorned any work that could not be done from the saddle. But they stayed, and they did the ranch work as well as the range work, which is the main point.
They became engaged to certain girls who filled their dreams and all their waking thoughts—but they never quite came to the point of marrying and going their way. Except Pink, who did marry impulsively and unwisely, and who suffered himself to be bullied and called Percy for seven months or so, and who balked at leaving the Flying U for the city and a vicarious existence in theaterdom, and so found himself free quite as suddenly as he had been tied.
They intended to marry and settle down—sometime. But there was always something in the way of carrying those intentions to fulfillment, so that eventually the majority of the Happy Family found themselves not even engaged, but drifting along toward permanent bachelorhood. Being of the optimistic type, however, they did not worry; Pink having set before them a fine example of the failure of marriage and having returned with manifest relief to the freedom of the bunk-house.
CHAPTER 2. ANDY GREEN'S NEW ACQUAINTANCE
Andy Green, chief prevaricator of the Happy Family of the Flying U—and not ashamed of either title or connection—pushed his new Stetson back off his untanned forehead, attempted to negotiate the narrow passage into a Pullman sleeper with his suitcase swinging from his right hand, and butted into a woman who was just emerging from the dressing-room. He butted into her so emphatically that he was compelled to swing his left arm out very quickly, or see her go headlong into the window opposite; for a fullsized suitcase propelled forward by a muscular young man may prove a very efficient instrument of disaster, especially if it catches one just in the hollow back of the knee. The woman tottered and grasped Andy convulsively to save herself a fall, and so they stood blocking the passage until the porter arrived and took the suitcase from Andy with a tip-inviting deference.
Andy apologized profusely, with a quaint, cowpunchery phrasing that caused the woman to take a second look at him. And, since Andy Green would look good to any woman capable of recognizing—and appreciating—a real man when she saw him, she smiled and said it didn't matter in the least.
That was the beginning of the acquaintance. Andy took her by her plump, chiffon-veiled arm and piloted her to her seat, and he afterward tipped the porter generously and had his own belongings deposited in the section across the aisle. Then, with the guile of a foreign diplomat, he betook himself to the smoking-room and stayed there for three quarters of an hour. He was not taking any particular risk of losing the opportunity of an unusually pleasant journey, for the dollar he had invested in the goodwill of the porter had yielded the information that the lady was going through to Great Falls. Since Andy had boarded the train at Harlem there was plenty of time to kill between there and Dry Lake, which was his destination.
The lady smiled at him rememberingly when finally he seated himself across the aisle from her, and without any serious motive Andy smiled back. So presently they were exchanging remarks about the journey. Later on, Andy went over and sat beside her and conversation began in earnest. Her name, it transpired, was Florence Grace Hallman. Andy read it engraved upon a card which added the information that she was engaged in the real estate business—or so the three or four words implied. "Homemakers' Syndicate, Minneapolis and St. Paul," said the card. Andy was visibly impressed thereby. He looked at her with swift appraisement and decided that she was "all to the good."
Florence Grace Hallman was tall and daintily muscular as to figure. Her hair was a light yellow—not quite the shade which peroxide gives, and therefore probably natural. Her eyes were brown, a shade too close together but cool and calm and calculating in their gaze, and her eyebrows slanted upward a bit at the outer ends and were as heavy as beauty permitted. Her lips were very red, and her chin was very firm. She looked the successful business woman to her fingertips, and she was eminently attractive for a woman of that self-assured type.
Andy was attractive also, in a purely Western way. His gray eyes were deceivingly candid and his voice was pleasant with a little, humorous drawl that matched well the quirk of his lips when he talked. He was headed for home—which was the Flying U—sober and sunny and with enough money to see him through. He told Florence Hallman his name, and said that he lived "up the road a ways" without being too definite. Florence Hallman lived in Minneapolis, she said; though she traveled most of the time, in the interests of her firm.
Yes, she liked the real estate business. One had a chance to see the world, and keep in touch with people and things. She liked the West especially well. Since her firm had taken up the homeseekers' line she spent most of her time in the West.
They had supper—she called it dinner, Andy observed—together, and Andy Green paid the check, which was not so small. It was after that, when they became more confidential, that Florence Hallman, with the egotism of the successful person who believes herself or himself to be of keen interest to the listener spoke in greater detail of her present mission.
Her firm's policy was, she said, to locate a large tract of government land somewhere, and then organize a homeseekers' colony, and settle the land-hungry upon the tract—at so much per hunger. She thought it a great scheme for both sides of the transaction. The men who wanted claims got them. The firm got the fee for showing them the land—and certain other perquisites at which she merely hinted.
She thought that Andy himself would be a success at the business. She was quick to form her opinions of people whom she met, and she knew that Andy was just the man for such work. Andy, listening with his candid, gray eyes straying often to her face and dwelling there, modestly failed to agree with her. He did not know the first thing about the real estate business, he confessed, nor very much about ranching. Oh, yes—he lived in this country, and he knew THAT pretty well, but—
"The point is right here," said Florence Grace Hallman, laying her pink fingertips upon his arm and glancing behind her to make sure that they were practically alone—their immediate neighbors being still in the diner. "I'm speaking merely upon impulse—which isn't a wise thing to do, ordinarily. But—well, your eyes vouch for you, Mr. Green, and we women are bound to act impulsively sometimes—or we wouldn't be women, would we?" She laughed—rather, she gave a little, infectious giggle, and took away her fingers, to the regret of Andy who liked the feel of them on his forearm.
"The point is here. I've recognized the fact, all along, that we need a man stationed right here, living in the country, who will meet prospective homesteaders and talk farming; keep up their enthusiasm; whip the doubters into line; talk climate and soil and the future of the country; look the part, you understand."
"So I look like a rube, do I?" Andy's lips quirked a half smile at her.
"No, of course you don't!" She laid her fingers on his sleeve again, which was what Andy wanted—what he had intended to bait her into doing; thereby proving that, in some respects at least, he amply justified Hiss Hallman in her snap judgment of him.
"Of course you don't look like a rube! I don't want you to. But you do look Western—because you are Western to the bone Besides, you look perfectly dependable. Nobody could look into your eyes and even think of doubting the truth of any statement you made to them." Andy snickered mentally at that though his eyes never lost their clear candor. "And," she concluded, "being a bona fide resident of the country, your word would carry more weight than mine if I were to talk myself black in the face!"
"That's where you're dead wrong," Andy hastened to correct her.
"Well, you must let me have my own opinion, Mr. Green. You would be convincing enough, at any rate. You see, there is a certain per cent of—let us call it waste effort—in this colonization business. We have to reckon on a certain number of nibblers who won't bite"—Andy's honest, gray eyes widened a hair's breadth at the frankness of her language—"when they get out here. They swallow the folders we send out, but when they get out here and see the country, they can't see it as a rich farming district, and they won't invest. They go back home and knock, if they do anything.
"My idea is to stop that waste; to land every homeseeker that boards our excursion trains. And I believe the way to do that is to have the right kind of a man out here, steer the doubtfuls against him—and let his personality and his experience do the rest. They're hungry enough to come, you see; the thing is to keep them here. A man that lives right here, that has all the earmarks of the West, and is not known to be affiliated with our Syndicate (you could have rigs to hire, and drive the doubtfuls to the tract)—don't you see what an enormous advantage he'd have? The class I speak of are the suspicious ones—those who are from Missouri. They're inclined to want salt with what we say about the resources of the country. Even our chemical analysis of the soil, and weather bureau dope, don't go very far with those hicks. They want to talk with someone who has tried it, you see."
"I—see," said Andy thoughtfully, and his eyes narrowed a trifle. "On the square, Miss Hallman, what are the natural advantages out here—for farming? What line of talk do you give those come-ons?"
Miss Hallman laughed and made a very pretty gesture with her two ringed hands. "Whatever sounds the best to them," she said. "If they write and ask about spuds we come back with illustrated folders of potato crops and statistics of average yields and prices and all that. If it's dairy, we have dairy folders. And so on. It isn't any fraud—there ARE sections of the country that produce almost anything, from alfalfa to strawberries. You know that," she challenged.
"Sure. But I didn't know there was much tillable land left lying around loose," he ventured to say.
Again Miss Hallman made the pretty gesture, which might mean much or nothing. "There's plenty of land 'lying around loose,' as you call it. How do you know it won't produce, till it has been tried?"
"That's right," Andy assented uneasily. "If there's water to put on it—"
"And since there is the land, our business lies in getting people located on it. The towns and the railroads are back of us. That is, they look with favor upon bringing settlers into the country. It increases the business of the country—the traffic, the freights, the merchants' business, everything."
Andy puckered his eyebrows and looked out of the window upon a great stretch of open, rolling prairie, clothed sparely in grass that was showing faint green in the hollows, and with no water for miles—as he knew well—except for the rivers that hurried through narrow bottom lands guarded by high bluffs that were for the most part barren. The land was there, all right. But—
"What I can't see," he observed after a minute during which Miss Florence Hallman studied his averted face, "what I can't see is, where do the settlers get off at?"
"At Easy street, if they're lucky enough," she told him lightly. "My business is to locate them on the land. Getting a living off it is THEIR business. And," she added defensively, "people do make a living on ranches out here."
"That's right," he agreed again—he was finding it very pleasant to agree with Florence Grace Hallman. "Mostly off stock, though."
"Yes, and we encourage our clients to bring out all the young stock they possibly can; young cows and horses and—all that sort of thing. There's quantities of open country around here, that even the most optimistic of homeseekers would never think of filing on. They can make out, all right, I guess. We certainly urge them strongly to bring stock with them. It's always been famous as a cattle country—that's one of our highest cards. We tell them—"
"How do you do that? Do you go right to them and TALK to them?"
"Yes, if they show a strong enough interest—and bank account. I follow up the best prospects and visit them in person. I've talked to fifty horny-handed he-men in the past month."
"Then I don't see what you need of anyone to bring up the drag," Andy told her admiringly. "If you talk to 'em, there oughtn't be any drag!"
"Thank you for the implied compliment. But there IS a 'drag,' as you call it. There's going to be a big one, too, I'm afraid—when they get out and see this tract we're going to work off this spring." She stopped and studied him as a chess player studies the board.
"I'm very much tempted to tell you something I shouldn't tell," she said at length, lowering her voice a little. "Remember, Andy Green was a very good looking man, and his eyes were remarkable for their clear, candid gaze straight into your own eyes. Even as keen a business woman as Florence Grace Hallman must be forgiven for being deceived by them. I'm tempted to tell you where this tract is. You may know it."
"You better not, unless you're willing to take a chance," he told her soberly. "If it looks too good, I'm liable to jump it myself."
Miss Hallman laughed and twisted her red lips at him in what might be construed as a flirtatious manner. She was really quite taken with Andy Green. "I'll take a chance. I don't think you'll jump it. Do you know anything about Dry Lake, up above Havre, toward Great Falls—and the country out east of there, towards the mountains?"
The fingers of Andy Green closed into his palms. His eyes, however, continued to look into hers with his most guileless expression.
"Y-es—that is, I've ridden over it," he acknowledged simply.
"Well—now this is a secret; at least we don't want those mossback ranchers in there to get hold of it too soon, though they couldn't really do anything, since it's all government land and the lease has only just run out. There's a high tract lying between the Bear Paws and—do you know where the Flying U ranch is?"
"About where it is—yes."
"Well, it's right up there on that plateau—bench, you call it out here. There are several thousand acres along in there that we're locating settlers on this spring. We're just waiting for the grass to get nice and green, and the prairie to get all covered with those blue, blue wind flowers, and the meadow larks to get busy with their nests, and then we're going to bring them out and—" She spread her hands again. It seemed a favorite gesture grown into a habit, and it surely was more eloquent than words. "These prairies will be a dream of beauty, in a little while," she said. "I'm to watch for the psychological time to bring out the seekers. And if I could just interest you, Mr. Green, to the extent of being somewhere around Dry Lake, with a good team that you will drive for hire and some samples of oats and dry-land spuds and stuff that you raised on your claim—" She eyed him sharply for one so endearingly feminine. "Would you do it? There'd be a salary, and besides that a commission on each doubter you landed. And I'd just love to have you for one of my assistants."
"It sure sounds good," Andy flirted with the proposition, and let his eyes soften appreciably to meet her last sentence and the tone in which she spoke it. "Do you think I could get by with the right line of talk with the doubters?"
"I think you could," she said, and in her voice there was a cooing note. "Study up a little on the right dope, and I think you could convince—even me."
"Could I?" Andy Green knew that cooing note, himself, and one a shade more provocative. "I wonder!"
A man came down the aisle at that moment, gave Andy a keen glance and went on with a cigar between his fingers. Andy scowled frankly, sighed and straightened his shoulders.
"That's what I call hard luck," he grumbled, "got to see that man before he gets off the train—and the h—worst of it is, I don't know just what station he'll get off at." He sighed again. "I've got a deal on," he told her confidentially, "that's sure going to keep me humping if I pull loose so as to go in with you. How long did you say?"
"Probably two weeks, the way spring is opening out here. I'd want you to get perfectly familiar with our policy and the details of our scheme before they land. I'd want you to be familiar with that tract and be able to show up its best points when you take seekers out there. You'd be so much better than one of our own men, who have the word 'agent' written all over them. You'll come back and—talk it over won't you?" For Andy was showing unmistakable symptoms of leaving her to follow the man.
"You KNOW it," he declared in a tone of "I won't sleep nights till this thing is settled—and settled right." He gave her a smile that rather dazzled the lady, got up with much reluctance and with a glance that had in it a certain element of longing went swaying down the aisle after the man who had preceded him.
Andy's business with the man consisted solely in mixing cigarette smoke with cigar smoke and of helping to stare moodily out of the window. Words there were none, save when Andy was proffered a match and muttered his thanks. The silent session lasted for half an hour. Then the man got up and went out, and the breath of Andy Green paused behind his nostrils until he saw that the man went only to the first section in the car and settled there behind a spread newspaper, invisible to Florence Grace Hallman unless she searched the car and peered over the top of the paper to see who was behind.
After that Andy Green continued to stare out of the window, seeing nothing of the scenery but the flicker of telegraph posts before his eyes that were visioning the future.
The Flying U ranch hemmed in by homesteaders from the East, he saw; homesteaders who were being urged to bring all the stock they could, and turn it loose upon the shrinking range. Homesteaders who would fence the country into squares, and tear up the grass and sow grain that might never bear a harvest. Homesteaders who would inevitably grow poorer upon the land that would suck their strength and all their little savings and turn them loose finally to forage a living where they might. Homesteaders who would ruin the land that ruined them.... It was not a pleasing picture, but it was more pleasing than the picture he saw of the Flying U after these human grass hoppers had settled there.
The range that fed the Flying U stock would feed no more and hide their ribs at shipping time. That he knew too well. Old J. G. Whitmore and Chip would have to sell out. And that was like death; indeed, it IS death of a sort, when one of the old outfits is wiped out of existence. It had happened before—happened too often to make pleasant memories for Andy Green, who could name outfit after outfit that had been forced out of business by the settling of the range land; who could name dozens of cattle brands once seen upon the range, and never glimpsed now from spring roundup until fall.
Must the Flying U brand disappear also? The good old Flying U, for whose existence the Old Man had fought and schemed since first was raised the cry that the old range was passing? The Flying U that had become a part of his life? Andy let his cigarette grow cold; he roused only to swear at the porter who entered with dust cloth and a deprecating grin.
After that, Andy thought of Florence Grace Hallman—and his eyes were not particularly sentimental. There was a hard line about his mouth also; though Florence Grace Hallman was but a pawn in the game, after all, and not personally guilty of half the deliberate crimes Andy laid upon her dimpled shoulders. With her it was pure, cold-blooded business, this luring of the land-hungry to a land whose fertility was at best problematical; who would, for a price, turn loose the victims of her greed to devastate what little grazing ground was left.
The train neared Havre. Andy roused himself, rang for the porter and sent him after his suitcase and coat. Then he sauntered down the aisle, stopped beside Florence Grace Hallman and smiled down at her with a gleam behind the clear candor of his eyes.
"Hard luck, lady," he murmured, leaning toward her. "I'm just simply loaded to the guards with responsibilities, and here's where I get off. But I'm sure glad I met yuh, and I'll certainly think day and night about you and—all you told me about. I'd like to get in on this land deal. Fact is, I'm going to make it my business to get in on it. Maybe my way of working won't suit you—but I'll sure work hard for any boss and do the best I know how."
"I think that will suit me," Miss Hallman assured him, and smiled unsuspectingly up into his eyes, which she thought she could read so easily. "When shall I see you again? Could you come to Great Falls in the next ten days? I shall be stopping at the Park. Or if you will leave me your address—"
"No use. I'll be on the move and a letter wouldn't get me. I'll see yuh later, anyway. I'm bound to. And when I do, we'll get down to cases. Good bye."
He was turning away when Miss Hallman put out a soft, jewelled hand. She thought it was diffidence that made Andy Green hesitate perceptibly before he took it. She thought it was simply a masculine shyness and confusion that made him clasp her fingers loosely and let them go on the instant. She did not see him rub his palm down the leg of his dark gray trousers as he walked down the aisle, and if she had she would not have seen any significance in the movement.
Andy Green did that again before he stepped off the train. For he felt that he had shaken hands with a traitor to himself and his outfit, and it went against the grain. That the traitor was a woman, and a charming woman at that, only intensified his resentment against her. A man can fight a man and keep his self respect; but a man does mortally dread being forced into a position where he must fight a woman.
CHAPTER 3. THE KID LEARNS SOME THINGS ABOUT HORSES
The Kid—Chip's Kid and the Little Doctor's—was six years old and big for his age. Also he was a member in good standing of the Happy Family and he insisted upon being called Buck outside the house; within it the Little Doctor insisted even more strongly that he answer to the many endearing names she had invented for him, and to the more formal one of Claude, which really belonged to Daddy Chip.
Being six years old and big for his age, and being called Buck by his friends, the Happy Family, the Kid decided that he should have a man's-sized horse of his own, to feed and water and ride and proudly call his "string." Having settled that important point, he began to cast about him for a horse worthy his love and ownership, and speedily he decided that matter also.
Therefore, he ran bareheaded up to the blacksmith shop where Daddy Chip was hammering tunefully upon the anvil, and delivered his ultimatum from the door way.
"Silver's going to be my string, Daddy Chip, and I'm going to feed him myself and ride him myself and nobody else can touch him 'thout I say they can."
"Yes?" Chip squinted along a dully-glowing iron bar, laid it back upon the anvil and gave it another whack upon the side that still bulged a little.
"Yes, and I'm going to saddle him myself and everything. And I want you to get me some jingling silver spurs like Mig has got, with chains that hang away down and rattle when you walk." The Kid lifted one small foot and laid a grimy finger in front of his heel by way of illustration.
"Yes?" Chip's eyes twinkled briefly and immediately became intent upon his work.
"Yes, and Doctor Dell has got to let me sleep in the bunk-house with the rest of the fellers. And I ain't going to wear a nightie once more! I don't have to, do I, Daddy Chip? Not with lace on it. Happy Jack says I'm a girl long as I wear lace nighties, and I ain't a girl. Am I, Daddy Chip?"
"I should say not!" Chip testified emphatically, and carried the iron bar to the forge for further heating.
"I'm going on roundup too, tomorrow afternoon." The Kid's conception of time was extremely sketchy and had no connection whatever with the calendar. "I'm going to keep Silver in the little corral and let him sleep in the box stall where his leg got well that time he broke it. I 'member when he had a rag tied on it and teased for sugar. And the Countess has got to quit a kickin' every time I need sugar for my string. Ain't she, Daddy Chip? She's got to let us men alone or there'll be something doing!"
"I'd tell a man," said Chip inattentively, only half hearing the war-like declaration of his offspring—as is the way with busy fathers.
"I'm going to take a ride now on Silver. I guess I'll ride in to Dry Lake and get the mail—and I'm 'pletely outa the makings, too."
"Uh-hunh—a—what's that? You keep off Silver. He'll kick the daylights out of you, Kid. Where's your hat? Didn't your mother tell you she'd tie a sunbonnet on you if you didn't keep your hat on? You better hike back and get it, young man, before she sees you."
The Kid stared mutinously from the doorway. "You said I could have Silver. What's the use of having a string if a feller can't ride it? And I CAN ride him, and he don't kick at all. I rode him just now, in the little pasture to see if I liked his gait better than the others. I rode Banjo first and I wouldn't own a thing like him, on a bet. Silver'll do me till I can get around to break a real one."
Chip's hand dropped from the bellows while he stared hard at the Kid. "Did you go down in the pasture and—Words failed him just then.
"I'd TELL a man I did!" the Kid retorted, with a perfect imitation of Chip's manner and tone when crossed. "I've been trying out all the darned benchest you've got—and there ain't a one I'd give a punched nickel for but Silver. I'd a rode Shootin' Star, only he wouldn't stand still so I could get onto him. Whoever broke him did a bum job. The horse I break will stand, or I'll know the reason why. Silver'll stand, all right. And I can guide him pretty well by slapping his neck. You did a pretty fair job when you broke Silver," the Kid informed his father patronizingly.
Chip said something which the Kid was not supposed to hear, and sat suddenly down upon the stone rim of the forge. It had never before occurred to Chip that his Kid was no longer a baby, but a most adventurous man-child who had lived all his life among men and whose mental development had more than kept pace with his growing body. He had laughed with the others at the Kid's quaint precociousness of speech and at his frank worship of range men and range life. He had gone to some trouble to find a tractable Shetland pony the size of a burro, and had taught the Kid to ride, decorously and fully protected from accident.
He and the Little Doctor had been proud of the Kid's masculine traits as they manifested themselves in the management of that small specimen of horse flesh. That the Kid should have outgrown so quickly his content with Stubby seemed much more amazing than it really was. He eyed the Kid doubtfully for a minute, and then grinned.
"All that don't let you out on the hat question," he said, evading the real issue and laying stress upon the small matter of obedience, as is the exasperating habit of parents. "You don't see any of the bunch going around bareheaded. Only women and babies do that."
"The bunch goes bareheaded when they get their hats blowed off in the creek," the Kid pointed out unmoved. "I've seen you lose your hat mor'n once, old timer. That's nothing." He sent Chip a sudden, adorable smile which proclaimed him the child of his mother and which never failed to thrill Chip secretly,—it was so like the Little Doctor. "You lend me your hat for a while, dad," he said. "She never said what hat I had to wear, just so it's a hat. Honest to gran'ma, my hat's in the creek and I couldn't poke it out with a stick or anything. It sailed into the swimmin' hole. I was goin' to go after it," he explained further, "but—a snake was swimmin—and I hated to 'sturb him."
Chip drew a sharp breath and for one panicky moment considered imperative the hiring of a body-guard for his Kid.
"You keep out of the pasture, young man!" His tone was stern to match his perturbation. "And you leave Silver alone—"
The Kid did not wait for more. He lifted up his voice and wept in bitterness of spirit. Wept so that one could hear him a mile. Wept so that J. G. Whitmore reading the Great Falls Tribune on the porch, laid down his paper and asked the world at large what ailed that doggoned kid now.
"Dell, you better go see what's wrong," he called afterwards through the open door to the Little Doctor, who was examining a jar of germ cultures in her "office." "Chances is he's fallen off the stable or something—though he sounds more mad than hurt. If it wasn't for my doggoned back—"
The Little Doctor passed him hurriedly. When her man-child wept, it Needed no suggestion from J. G. or anyone else to send her flying to the rescue. So presently she arrived breathless at the blacksmith shop' and found Chip within, looking in urgent Need of reinforcements, and the Kid yelling ragefully beside the door and kicking the log wall with vicious boot-tees.
"Shut up now or I'll spank you!" Chip was saying desperately when his wife appeared. "I wish you'd take that Kid and tie him up, Dell," he added snappishly. "Here he's been riding all the horses in the little pasture—and taking a chance on breaking his neck! And he ain't satisfied with Stubby—he thinks he's entitled to Silver!"
"Well, why not? There, there, honey—men don't cry when things go wrong—"
"No—because they can take it out in cussing!" wailed the Kid. "I wouldn't cry either, if you'd let me swear all I want to!"
Chip turned his back precipitately and his shoulders were seen to shake. The Little Doctor looked shocked.
"I want Silver for my string!" cried the Kid, artfully transferring his appeal to the higher court. "I can ride him—'cause I have rode him, in the pasture; and he never bucked once or kicked or anything. Doggone it, he likes to have me ride him! He comes a-runnin' up to me when I go down there, and I give him sugar. And then he waits till I climb on his back, and then we chase the other horses and play ride circle. He wants to be my string!" Something in the feel of his mother's arm around his shoulder whispered hope to the Kid. He looked up at her with his most endearing smile. "You come down there and I'll show you," he wheedled. "We're pals. And I guess YOU wouldn't like to have the boys call you Tom Thumb, a-ridin' Stubby. He's nothing but a five-cent sample of a horse. Big Medicine says so. I—I'd rather walk than ride Stubby. And I'm going on roundup. The boys said I could go when I get a real horse under me—and I want Silver. Daddy Chip said 'yes' I could have him. And now he's Injun-giver. Can't I have him, Doctor Dell?"
The gray-blue eyes clashed with the brown. "It wouldn't hurt anything to let the poor little tad show us what he can do," said the gray-blue eyes.
"Oh—all right," yielded the brown, and their owner threw the iron bar upon the cooling forge and began to turn down his sleeves. "Why don't you make him wear a hat?" he asked reprovingly. "A little more and he won't pay any attention to anything you tell him. I'd carry out that sunbonnet bluff, anyway, if I were you."
"Now, Daddy Chip! I 'splained to you how I lost my hat," reproached the Kid, clinging fast to the Little Doctor's hand.
"Yes—and you 'splained that you'd have gone into that deep hole and drowned—with nobody there to pull you out—if you hadn't been scared of a water snake," Chip pointed out relentlessly.
"I wasn't 'zactly scared," amended the Kid gravely. "He was havin' such a good time, and he was swimmin' around so—comf'table—and it wasn't polite to 'sturb him. Can't I have Silver?"
"We'll go down and ask Silver what he thinks about it," said the Little Doctor, anxious to make peace between her two idols. "And we'll see if Daddy Chip can get the hat. You must wear a hat, honey; you know what mother told you—and you know mother keeps her word."
"I wish dad did," the Kid commented, passing over the hat question. "He said I could have Silver, and keep him in a box stall and feed him my own self and water him my own self and nobody's to touch him but me."
"Well, if daddy said all that—we'll have to think it over, and consult Silver and see what he has to say about it."
Silver, when consulted, professed at least a willingness to own the Kid for his master. He did indeed come trotting up for sugar; and when he had eaten two grimy lumps from the Kid's grimier hand, he permitted the Kid to entice him up to a high rock, and stood there while the Kid clambered upon the rock and from there to his sleek back. He even waited until the Kid gathered a handful of silky mane and kicked him on the ribs; then he started off at a lope, while the Kid risked his balance to cast a triumphant grin—that had a gap in the middle—back at his astonished parents.
"Look how the little devil guides him!" exclaimed Chip surrenderingly. "I guess he's safe enough, old Silver seems to sabe he's got a kid to take care of. He sure would strike a different gait with me! Lord how the time slides by; I can't seem to get it through me that the Kid's growing up."
The Little Doctor sighed a bit. And the Kid, circling grandly on the far side of the little pasture, came galloping back to hear the verdict. It pleased him—though he was inclined to mistake a great privilege for a right that must not be denied. He commanded his Daddy Chip to open the gate for him so he could ride Silver to the stable and put him in the box stall; which was a superfluous kindness, as Chip tried to point out and failed to make convincing.
The Kid wanted Silver in the box stall, where he could feed him and water him his own self. So into the box stall Silver reluctantly went, and spent a greater part of the day with his head stuck out through the window, staring enviously at his mates in the pasture.
For several days Chip watched the Kid covertly whenever his small feet strayed stableward; watched and was full of secret pride at the manner in which the Kid rose to his new responsibility. Never did a "string" receive the care which Silver got, and never did rider sit more proudly upon his steed than did the Kid sit upon Silver. There seemed to be practically no risk—Chip was amazed at the Kid's ability to ride. Besides, Silver was growing old—fourteen years being considered ripe old age in a horse. He was more given to taking life with a placid optimism that did not startle easily. He carried the Kid's light weight easily, and he had not lost all his springiness of muscle. The Little Doctor rode him sometimes, and loved his smooth gallop and his even temper; now she loved him more when she saw how careful he was of the Kid. She besought the Kid to be careful of Silver also, and was most manfully snubbed for her solicitude.
The Kid had owned Silver for a week, and considered that he was qualified to give advice to the Happy Family, including his Daddy Chip, concerning the proper care of horses. He stood with his hands upon his hips and his feet far apart, and spat into the corral dust and told Big Medicine that nobody but a pilgrim ever handled a horse the way Big Medicine was handling Deuce. Whereat Big Medicine gave a bellowing haw-haw-haw and choked it suddenly when he saw that the Kid desired him to take the criticism seriously.
"All right, Buck," he acceded humbly, winking openly at the Native Son. "I'll try m'best, old-timer. Trouble with me is, I never had nobody to learn me how to handle a hoss."
"Well, you've got me, now," Buck returned calmly. "I don't ride MY string without brushing the hay out of his tail. There's a big long hay stuck in your horse's tail." He pointed an accusing finger, and Big Medicine silently edged close to Douce's rump and very carefully removed the big, long hay. He took a fine chance of getting himself kicked, but he did not tell the Kid that.
"That all right now, Buck?" Big Medicine wanted to know, when he had accomplished the thing without accident.
"Oh, it'll do," was the frugal praise he got. "I've got to go and feed my string, now. And after a while I'll water him. You want to feed your horse always before you water him, 'cause eatin' makes him firsty. You 'member that, now."
"I'll sure try to, Buck," Big Medicine promised soberly, and watched the Kid go striding away with his hat tilted at the approved Happy-Family angle and his small hands in his pockets. Big Medicine was thinking of his own kid, and wondering what he was like, and if he remembered his dad. He waved his hand in cordial farewell when the Kid looked back and wrinkled his nose in the adorable, Little-Doctor smile he had, and turned his attention to Deuce.
The Kid made straight for the box stall and told Silver hello over the half door. Silver turned from gazing out of the window, and came forward expectantly, and the Kid told him to wait a minute and not be so impatience Then he climbed upon a box, got down a heavy canvas nose-bag with leather bottom, and from a secret receptacle behind the oats box he brought a paper bag of sugar and poured about a teacupful into the bag. Daddy Chip had impressed upon him what would be the tragic consequences if he fed oats to Silver five times a day. Silver would die, and it would be the Kid that killed him. Daddy Chip had not said anything about sugar being fatal, however, and the Countess could not always stand guard over the sugar sack. So Silver had a sweet taste in his mouth twelve hours of the twenty-four, and was getting a habit of licking his lips reminiscently during the other twelve.
The Kid had watched the boys adjust nose bags ever since he could toddle. He lugged it into the stall, set it artfully upon the floor and let Silver thrust in his head to the eyes: then he pulled the strap over Silver's neck and managed to buckle it very securely. He slapped the sleek neck afterward as his Daddy Chip did, hugged it the way Doctor Dell did, and stood back to watch Silver revel in the bag.
"'S good lickums?" he asked gravely, because he had once heard his mother ask Silver that very question, in almost that very tone.
At that moment an uproar outside caught his youthful attention. He listened a minute, heard Pink's voice and a shout of laughter, and ran to see what was going on; for where was excitement, there the Kid was also, as nearly in the middle of it as he could manage. His going would not have mattered to Silver, had he remembered to close the half-door of the stall behind him; even that would not have mattered, had he not left the outer door of the stable open also.
The cause of the uproar does not greatly matter, except that the Kid became so rapturously engaged in watching the foolery of the Happy Family that he forgot all about Silver. And since sugar produces thirst, and Silver had not smelled water since morning, he licked the last sweet grain from the inside of the nose bag and then walked out of the stall and the stable and made for the creek—and a horse cannot drink with a nose bag fastened over his face. All he can do, if he succeeds in getting his nose into the water, is to drown himself most expeditiously and completely.
Silver reached the creek unseen, sought the deepest hole and tried to drink. Since his nose was covered with the bag he could not do so but he fussed and splashed and thrust his head deeper until the water ran into the bag from the top. He backed and snorted and strangled, and in a minute he fell. Fortunately he struggled a little, and in doing so he slid backward down the bank so that his head was up the slope a and the water ran out of the bag, which was all that saved him.
He was a dead horse, to all appearances at least, when Slim spied him and gave a yell to bring every human being on the ranch at a run. The Kid came with the rest, gave one scream and hid his face in the Little Doctor's skirts, and trembled so that his mother was more frightened for him than for the horse, and had Chip carry him to the house where he could not watch the first-aid efforts of the Happy Family.
They did not say anything, much. By their united strength they pulled Silver up the bank so that his limp head hung downward. Then they began to work over him exactly as if he had been a drowned man, except that they did not, of course, roll him over a barrel. They moved his legs backward and forward, they kneaded his paunch, they blew into his nostrils, they felt anxiously for heart-beats. They sweated and gave up the fight, saying that it was no use. They saw a quiver of the muscles over the chest and redoubled their efforts, telling one another hopefully that he was alive, all right. They saw finally a quiver of the nostrils as well, and one after another they laid palms upon his heart, felt there a steady beating and proclaimed the fact profanely.
They pulled him then into a more comfortable position where the sun shone warmly and stood around him in a crude circle and watched for more pronounced symptoms of recovery, and sent word to the Kid that his string was going to be all right in a little while.
The information was lost upon the Kid, who wept hysterically in his Daddy Chip's arms listen to anything they told him. He had seen Silver stretched out dead, with his back in the edge of the creek and his feet sprawled at horrible angles, and the sight obsessed him and forbade comfort. He had killed his string; nothing was clear in his mind save that, and he screamed with his face hidden from his little world.
The Little Doctor, with anxious eyes and puckered eyebrows, poured something into a teaspoon and helped Chip fight to get it down the Kid's throat. And the Kid shrieked and struggled and strangled, as is the way of kids the world over, and tried to spit out the stuff and couldn't, so he screamed the louder and held his breath until he was purple, and his parents were scared stiff. The Old Man hobbled to the door in the midst of the uproar and asked them acrimoniously why they didn't make that doggoned Kid stop his howling; and when Chip, his nerves already strained to the snapping point, told him bluntly to get out and mind his own business, he hobbled away again muttering anathemas against the whole outfit.
The Countess rushed in from out of doors and wanted to know what under the shinin' sun was the matter with that kid, and advised his frantic parents to throw water in his face. Chip told her exactly what he had told the Old Man, in exactly the same tone; so the Countess retreated, declaring that he wouldn't be let to act that way if he was her kid, and that he was plumb everlastingly spoiled.
The Happy Family heard the disturbance and thought the Kid was being spanked for the accident, which put every man of them in a fighting humor toward Chip, the Little Doctor, the Old Man and the whole world. Pink even meditated going up to the White House to lick Chip—or at least tell him what he thought of him—and he had plenty of sympathizers; though they advised him half-heartedly not to buy in to any family mixup.
It was into this storm centre that Andy Green rode headlong with his own burden of threatened disaster.
CHAPTER 4. ANDY TAKES A HAND IN THE GAME
Andy Green was a day late in arriving at the Flying U. First he lost time by leaving the train thirty miles short of the destination marked on his ticket, and when he did resume his journey on the next train, he traveled eighty-four miles beyond Dry Lake, which landed him in Great Falls in the early morning. There, with the caution of a criminal carefully avoiding a meeting with Miss Hallman, he spent an hour in poring over a plat of a certain section of Chouteau County, and in copying certain description of unoccupied land.
He had not slept very well the night before and he looked it. He had cogitated upon the subject of land speculations and the welfare of his outfit until his head was one great, dull ache; but he stuck to his determination to do something to block the game of the Homeseekers' Syndicate. Just what that something would be he had not yet decided. But on general principles it seemed wise to learn all he could concerning the particular tract of land about which Florence Grace Hallman had talked.
The day was past when range rights might be defended honorably with rifles and six-shooters and iron nerved men to use them—and I fear that Andy Green sighed because it was so. Give him the "bunch" and free swing, and he thought the Homeseekers would lose their enthusiasm before even the first hot wind blew up from the southwest to wither their crops. But such measures were not to be thought of; if they fought at all they must fight with the law behind them—and even Andy's optimism did not see much hope from the law; none, in fact, since both the law and the moneyed powers were eager for the coming of homebuilders into that wide land. All up along the Marias they had built their board shacks, and back over the benches as far as one could see. There was nothing to stop them, everything to make their coming easy.
Andy scowled at the plat he was studying, and admitted to himself that it looked as though the Home Seekers' Syndicate were going to have things their own way; unless—There he stuck. There must be some way out; never in his life had he faced a situation which had been absolutely hopeless; always there had been some chance to win, if a man only saw it in time and took it. In this case it was the clerk in the office who pointed the way with an idle remark.
"Going to take up a claim, are you?"
Andy looked up at him with the blank stare of preoccupation, and changed expression as the question filtered into his brain and fitted somehow into the puzzle. He grinned, said maybe he would, folded the sheet of paper filled with what looked like a meaningless jumble of letters and figures, bought a plat of that township and begged some government pamphlets, and went out humming a little tune just above a whisper. At the door he tilted his hat down at an angle over his right eye and took long, eager steps toward an obscure hotel and his meagre baggage.
There was no train going east until midnight, and he caught that train. This time he actually got off at Dry Lake, ate a hurried breakfast, got his horse out of the livery stable and dug up the dust of the lane with rapid hoof-beats so that he rode all the way to the first hill followed by a rolling, gray cloud that never quite caught him.
When he rode down the Hog's Back he saw the Happy Family bunched around some object on the creek-bank, and he heard the hysterical screaming of the Kid up in the house, and saw the Old Man limping excitedly up and down the porch. A man less astute than Andy Green would have known that some thing had happened. He hurried down the last slope, galloped along the creek-bottom, crossed the ford in a couple of leaps and pulled up beside the group that surrounded Silver.
"What's been taking place here?" he demanded curiously, skipping the usual greetings.
"Hell," said the Native Son succinctly, glancing up at him.
"Old Silver looked over the fence into Kingdom Come," Weary enlarged the statement a little. "Tried to take a drink with a nose bag on. I guess he'll come through all right."
"What ails the Kid?" Andy demanded, glancing toward the house whence issued a fresh outburst of shrieks.
The Happy Family looked at one another and then at the White House.
"Aw, some folks hain't got a lick of sense when it comes to kids," Big Medicine accused gruffly.
"The Kid," Weary explained, "put the nose bag on Silver and then left the stable door open."
"They ain't—spanking him for it, are they?" Andy demanded belligerently. "By gracious, how'd a kid know any better? Little bit of a tad like that—"
"Aw, they don't never spank the Kid!" Slim defended the parents loyally. "By golly, they's been times when I would-a spanked him, if it'd been me. Countess says it's plumb ridiculous the way that Kid runs over 'em—rough shod. If he's gittin' spanked now, it's the first time."
"Well," said Andy, looking from one to another and reverting to his own worry as he swung down from his sweating horse, "there's something worse than a spanked kid going to happen to this outfit if you fellows don't get busy and do something. There's a swarm of dry-farmers coming in on us, with their stock to eat up the grass and their darned fences shutting off the water—"
"Oh, for the Lord's sake, cut it out!" snapped Pink. "We ain't in the mood for any of your joshes. We've had about enough excitement for once."
"Ah, don't be a damn' fool," Andy snapped back. "There's no josh about it. I've got the whole scheme, just as they framed it up in Minneapolis. I got to talking with a she-agent on the train, and she gave the whole snap away; wanted me to go in with her and help land the suckers. I laid low, and made a sneak to the land office and got a plat of the land, and all the dope—"
"Get any mail?" Pink interrupted him, in the tone that took no notice whatever of Andy's ill news.
"Time I was hearing from them spurs I sent for." Andy silently went through his pockets and produced what mail he had gleaned from the post-office, and led his horse into the shade of the stable and pulled off the saddle. Every movement betrayed the fact that he was in the grip of unpleasant emotions, but to the Happy Family he said not another word.
The Happy Family did not notice his silence at the time. But afterwards, when the Kid had stopped crying and Silver had gotten to his feet and wobbled back to the stable, led by Chip, who explained briefly and satisfactorily the cause of the uproar at the house, and the boys had started up to their belated dinner, they began to realize that for a returned traveler Andy Green was not having much to say.
They asked him about his trip, and received brief answers. Had he been anyone else they would have wanted to know immediately what was eatin' on him; but since it was Andy Green who sat frowning at his toes and smoking his cigarette as though it had no comfort or flavor, the boldest of them were cautious. For Andy Green, being a young man of vivid imagination and no conscience whatever, had fooled them too often with his lies. They waited, and they watched him covertly and a bit puzzled.
Silence and gloom were not boon companions of Andy Green, at any time. So Weary, having the most charitable nature of any among them, sighed and yielded the point of silent contention.
"What was all that you started to tell us about the dry-farmers, Andy?" he asked indulgently.
"All straight goods. But there's no use talking to you bone-heads. You'll set around chewing the rag and looking wise till it's too late to do anything but holler your heads off." He got up from where he had been lounging on a bench just outside the mess house and walked away, with his hands thrust deep into his pockets and his shoulders drooped forward.
The Happy Family looked after him doubtfully.
"Aw, it's just some darned josh uh his," Happy Jack declared. "I know HIM."
"Look at the way he slouches along—like he was loaded to the ears with trouble!" Pink pointed out amusedly. "He'd fool anybody that didn't know him, all right."
"And he fools the fellows that do know him, oftener than anybody else," added the Native Son negligently. "You're fooled right now if you think that's all acting. That HOMBRE has got something on his mind."
"Well, by golly, it ain't dry-farmers," Slim asserted boldly.
"If you fellows wouldn't say it was a frame-up between us two, I'd go after him and find out. But..."
"But as it stands, we'd believe Andy Green a whole lot quicker'n what we would you," supplemented Big Medicine loudly. "You're dead right there."
"What was it he said about it?" Weary wanted to know. "I wasn't paying much attention, with the Kid yelling his head off and old Silver gaping like a sick turkey, and all. What was it about them dryfarmers?"
"He said," piped Pink, "that he'd got next to a scheme to bring a big bunch of dry-farmers in on this bench up here, with stock that they'd turn loose on the range. That's what he said. He claims the agent wanted him to go in on it."
"Mamma!" Weary held a match poised midway between his thigh and his cigarette while he stared at Pink. "That would be some mixup—if it was to happen." His sunny blue eyes—that were getting little crow's-feet at their corners—turned to look after the departing Andy. "Where's the josh?" he questioned the group.
"The josh is, that he'd like to see us all het up over it, and makin' war-talks and laying for the pilgrims some dark night with our six-guns, most likely," retorted Pink, who happened to be in a bad humor because in ten minutes he was due at a line of post-holes that divided the big pasture into two unequal parts. "He can't agitate me over anybody's troubles but my own. Happy, I'll help Bud stretch wire this afternoon if you'll tamp the rest uh them posts."
"Aw, you stick to your own job! How was it when I wanted you to help pull the old wire off that hill fence and git it ready to string down here? You wasn't crazy about workin' with bob wire then, I noticed. You said—"
"What I said wasn't a commencement to what I'll say again," Pink began truculently, and so the subject turned effectually from Andy Green.
Weary smoked meditatively while they wrangled, and when the group broke up for the afternoon's work he went unobtrusively in search of Andy. He was not quite easy in his mind concerning the alleged joke. He had looked full at the possibilities of the situation—granting Andy had told the truth, as he sometimes did—and the possibilities had not pleased him. He found Andy morosely replacing some broken strands in his cinch, and he went straight at the mooted question.
Andy looked up from his work and scowled. "This ain't any joke with me," he stated grimly. "It's something that's going to put the Flying U out of business if it ain't stopped before it gets started. I've been worrying my head off ever since day before yesterday; I ain't in the humor to take anything off those imitation joshers up there—I'll tell yuh that much."
"Well, but how do you figure it can be stopped?" Weary sat soberly down on the oats box and absently watched Andy's expert fingers while they knotted the heavy cotton cord through the cinch-ring. "We can't stand 'em off with guns."
Andy dropped the cinch and stood up, pushing back his hat and then pulling it forward into place with the gesture he used when he was very much in earnest. "No, we can't. But if the bunch is game for it there's a way to block their play—and the law does all our fighting for us. We don't have to yeep. It's like this, Weary counting Chip and the Little Doctor and the Countess there's eleven of us that can use our rights up here on the bench. I've got it all figured out. If we can get Irish and Jack Bates to come back and help us out, there's thirteen of us. And we can take homesteads along the creeks and deserts back on the bench, and—say, do you know how much land we can corral, the bunch of us? Four thousand acres and if we take our claims right, that's going to mean that we get a dead immortal cinch on all the bench land that's worth locating, around here, and we'll have the creeks, and also we'll have the breaks corralled for our own stock.
"I've gone over the plat—I brought a copy to show you fellows what we can do. And by taking up our claims right, we keep a deadline from the Bear Paws to the Flying U. Now the Old Man owns Denson's ranch, all south uh here is fairly safe—unless they come in between his south line and the breaks; and there ain't room for more than two or three claims there. Maybe we can get some of the boys to grab what there is, and string ourselves out north uh here too.
"That's the only way on earth we can save what little feed there is left. This way, we get the land ourselves and hold it, so there don't any outside stock come in on us. If Florence Grace Hallman and her bunch lands any settlers here, they'll be between us and Dry Lake; and they're dead welcome to squat on them dry pinnacles—so long as we keep their stock from crossing our claims to get into the breaks. Savvy the burro?"
"Yes-s—but how'd yuh KNOW they're going to do all this? Mamma! I don't want to turn dry-farmer if I don't have to!"
Andy's face clouded. "That's just what'll block the game, I'm afraid. I don't want to, either. None of the boys'll want to. It'll mean going up there and baching, six or seven months of the year, by our high lonesomes. We'll have to fulfill the requirements, if we start in—because them pilgrims'll be standing around like dogs at a picnic, waiting for something to drop so they can grab it and run. It ain't going to be any snap.
"And there's another thing bothers me, Weary. It's going to be one peach of a job to make the boys believe it hard enough to make their entries in time." Andy grinned wrily. "By gracious, this is where I could see a gilt-edged reputation for telling the truth!"
"You could, all right," Weary agreed sympathetically. "It's going to strain our swallowers to get all that down, and that's a fact. You ought to have some proof, if you want the boys to grab it, Andy." His face sobered. "Who is this Florence person? If you could get some kinda proof—a letter, say..."
"Easiest thing in the world!" Andy brightened at the suggestion. "She's stopping at the Park, in Great Falls, and she wanted me to come up or write. Anybody going to town right away? I'll send that foxy dame a letter that'll produce proof enough. You've helped ma a lot, Weary."
Weary scrutinized him sharply and puckered his lips into a doubtful expression. "I wish I knew for a fact whether all this is straight goods, Andy," he said pensively. "Chances are you're just stringing me. But if you are, old boy, I'm going to take it outa your hide—and don't you forget that." He grinned at his own mental predicament. "Honest, Andy, is this some josh, or do you mean it?"
"By gracious, I wish it was a josh! But it ain't, darn it. In about two weeks or so you'll all see the point of this joke—but whether the joke's on us or on the homeseekers' Syndicate depends on you fellows. Lord! I wish I'd never told a lie!"
Weary sat knocking his heels rhythmically against the side of the box while he thought the matter over from start to hypothetical finish and back again. Meanwhile Andy Green went on with his work and scowled over his well-earned reputation that hampered him now just when he needed the confidence of his fellows in order to save their beloved Flying U from slow annihilation. Perhaps his mental suffering could not rightly be called remorse, but a poignant regret it most certainly was, and a sense of complete bafflement which came out in his next sentence.
"Even if she wrote me a letter, the boys'd call it a frame-up just the same. They'd say I had it fixed before I left town. Doctor Cecil's up at the Falls. They'd lay it to her."
"I was thinking of that, myself. What's the matter with getting Chip to go up with you? Couldn't you ring him in on the agent somehow, so he can get the straight of it?"
Andy stood up and looked at Weary a minute. "How'd I make Chip believe me enough to GO?" he countered. "Darn it, everything looked all smooth sailing till I got back here to the ranch and the boys come at me with that same old smart-aleck brand uh talk. I kinda forgot how I've lied to 'em and fooled 'em right along till they duck every time I open my face." His eyes were too full of trouble to encourage levity in his listener. "You remember that time the boys' rode off and left me laying out here on the prairie with my leg broke?" he went on dismally. "I'd rather have that happen to me a dozen times than see 'em set back and give me the laugh now, just when—Oh, hell!" He dropped the finished cinch and walked moodily to the door. "Weary, if them dry-farmers come flockin' in on us while this bunch stands around callin' me a liar, I—" He did not attempt to finish the sentence; but Weary, staring curiously at Andy's profile, saw a quivering of the muscles around his lips and felt a responsive thrill of sympathy and belief that rose above his long training in caution.
Spite of past experience he believed, at that moment, every word which Andy Green had uttered upon the subject of the proposed immigration. He was about to tell Andy so, when Chip walked unexpectedly out of Silver's stall and glanced from Weary to Andy standing still in the doorway. Weary looked at him enquiringly; for Chip must have heard every word they said, and if Chip believed it—
"Have you got that plat with you, Andy?" Chip asked tersely and with never a doubt in his tone.
Andy swung toward him like a prisoner who has just heard a jury return a verdict of not guilty to the judge. "I've got it, yes," he answered simply, with only his voice betraying the emotions he felt—and his eye? "Want it?"
"I'll take a look at it, if it's handy," said Chip.
Andy felt in his inside coat pocket, drew out a thin, folded map of that particular part of the county with all the government land marked upon it, and handed it to Chip without a word. He singled out a couple of pamphlets from a bunch of old letters such as men are in the habit of carrying upon their persons, and gave them to Chip also.
"That's a copy of the homestead and desert laws," he said. "I guess you heard me telling Weary what kinda deal we're up against, here. Better not say anything to the Old Man till you have to; no use worrying him—he can't do nothing." It was amazing, the change that had come over Andy's face and manner since Chip first spoke. Now he grinned a little.
"If you want to go in on this deal," he said quizzically, "maybe it'll be just as well if you talk to the bunch yourself about it, Chip. You ain't any tin, angel, but I'm willing to admit the boys'll believe you; a whole lot quicker than they would me."
"Yes—and they'll probably hand me a bunch of pity for getting stung by you," Chip retorted. "I'll take a chance, anyway—but the Lord help you, Andy if you can't produce proof when the time comes."
CHAPTER 5. THE HAPPY FAMILY TURN NESTERS
"Say, Andy, where's them dry-farmers?" Big Medicine inquired at the top of his voice when the Happy Family had reached the biscuit-and-syrup stage of supper that evening.
"Oh, they're trying to make up their minds whether to bring the old fannin'-mill along or sell it and buy new when they get here," Andy informed him imperturbably. "The women-folks are busy going through their rag bags, cutting the buttons off all the pants that ain't worth patching no more, and getting father's socks all darned up."
The Happy Family snickered appreciatively; this was more like the Andy Green with whom they were accustomed to deal.
"What's daughter doin', about now?" asked Cal Emmett, fixing his round, baby-blue stare upon Andy.
"Daughter? Why, daughter's leaning over the gate telling him she wouldn't never LOOK at one of them wild cowboys—the idea! She's heard all about 'em, and they're too rough and rude for HER. And she's promising to write every day, and giving him a lock of hair to keep in the back of his dollar watch. Pass the cane Juice, somebody."
"Yeah—all right for daughter. If she's a good looker we'll see if she don't change her verdict about cowboys."
"Who will? You don't call yourself one, do yuh?" Pink flung at him quickly.
"Well, that depends; I know I ain't any LADY broncho—hey, cut it out!" This last because of half a biscuit aimed accurately at the middle of his face. If you want to know why, search out the history of a certain War Bonnet Roundup, wherein Pink rashly impersonated a lady broncho-fighter.
"Wher'e they going to live when they git here?" asked Happy Jack, reverting to the subject of dry farmers.
"Close enough so you can holler from here to their back door, my boy—if they have their say about it," Andy assured him cheerfully. Andy felt that he could afford to be facetious now that he had Chip and Weary on his side.
"Aw, gwan! I betche there ain't a word of truth in all that scarey talk," Happy Jack fleered heavily.
"Name your bet. I'll take it." Andy filled his mouth with hot biscuit and stirred up the sugar in his coffee like a man who is occupied chiefly with the joys of the table.
"Aw, you ain't going to git me that way agin," Happy Jack declared. "They's some ketch to it."
"There sure is, Happy. The biggest ketch you ever seen in your life. It's ketch the Flying U outfit and squeeze the life out of it; that's the ketch." Andy's tone had in it no banter, but considerable earnestness. For, though Chip would no doubt convince the boys that the danger was very real, there was a small matter of personal pride to urge Andy into trying to convince, them himself, without aid from Chip or any one else.
"Well, by golly, I'd like to see anybody try that there scheme," blurted Slim. "That's all—I'd just like to see 'em TRY it once!"
"Oh, you'll see it, all right—and you won't have to wait long, either. Just set around on your haunches a couple of weeks or so. That's all you'll have to do, Slim; you'll see it tried, fast enough."
Pink eyed him with a wide, purple glance. "You'd like to make us fall for that, wouldn't you?" he challenged warily.
Andy gave him a level look. "No, I wouldn't. I'd like to put one over on you smart gazabos that think you know it all; but I don't want to bad enough to see the Flying U go outa business just so I could holler didn't-I-tell-you. There's a limit to what I'll pay for a josh."
"Well," put in the Native Son with his easy drawl, "I'm coming to the centre with my ante, just for the sake of seeing the cards turned. Deal 'em out, amigo; state your case once more, so we can take a good, square look at these dry-farmers."
"Yeah—go ahead and tell us what's bustin' the buttons off your vest," Cal Emmett invited.
"What's the use?" Andy argued. "You'd all just raise up on your hind legs and holler your heads off. You wouldn't DO anything about it—not if you knew it was the truth!" This, of course, was pure guile upon his part.
"Oh, wouldn't we? I guess, by golly, we'd do as much for the outfit as what you would—and a hull lot more if it come to a show-down." Slim swallowed the bait.
"Maybe you would, if you could take it out in talking," snorted Andy. "My chips are in. I've got three-hundred-and-twenty acres picked out, up here, and I'm going to file on 'em before these damned nesters get off the train. Uh course, that won't be more'n a flea bite—but I can make it interesting for my next door neighbors, anyway; and every flea bite helps to keep a dog moving, yuh know."
"I'll go along and use my rights," Weary offered suddenly and seriously. "That'll make one section they won't get, anyway."
Pink gave him a startled look across the table. "You ain't going to grab it, are yuh?" he demanded disappointedly.
"I sure am—if it's three-hundred-and-twenty acres of land you mean. If I don't, somebody else will." He sighed humorously. "Next summer you'll see me hoeing spuds, most likely—if the law says I GOT to."
"Haw-haw-haw-w!" laughed Big Medicine suddenly. "It'd sure be worth the price, jest to ride up and watch you two marks down on all fours weedin' onions." He laughed again with his big, bull-like bellow.
"We don't have to do anything like that if we don't want to," put in Andy Green calmly. "I've been reading up on the law. There's one little joker in it I've got by heart. It says that homestead land can be used for grazing purposes if it's more valuable for pasture than for crops, and that actual grazing will be accepted instead of cultivation—if it is grazing land. So—"
"I betche you can't prove that," Happy lack interrupted him. "I never heard of that before—"
"The world's plumb full of things you never heard of, Happy," Andy told him witheringly. "I gave Chip my copy of the homestead laws, and a plat of the land up here; soon as he hands 'em back I can show you in cold print where it says that very identical thing.
"That's what makes it look good to me, just on general principles," he went on, his honest, gray eyes taking in the circle of attentive faces. "If the bunch of us could pool our interests and use what rights we got, we can corral about four thousand acres—and we can head off outsiders from grazing in the Badlands, if we take our land right. We've been overlooking a bet, and don't you forget it. We've been fooling around, just putting in our time and drawing wages, when we could be owning our own grazing land by now and shipping our own cattle, if we had enough sense to last us overnight.
"A-course, I ain't crazy about turning nester, myself—but we've let things slide till we've got to come through or get outa the game. It's a fact, boys, about them dry-farmers coming in on us. That Minneapolis bunch that the blonde lady works for is sending out a colony of farmers to take up this land between here and the Bear Paws. The lady tipped her hand, not knowing where I ranged and thinking I wouldn't be interested in anything but her. She's a real nice lady, too, and goodlooking—but a grafter to her last eye winker. And she hit too close home to suit me, when she named the place where they're going to dump their colony."
"Where does the graft come in?" inquired Pink cautiously. "The farmers get the land, don't they?"
"Sure, they get the land. And they pungle up a good-sized fee to Florence Grace Hallman and her outfit, for locating 'em. Also there's side money in it, near as I can find out. They skin the farmers somehow on the fare out here. That's their business, according to the lady. They prowl around through the government plats till they spot a few thousand acres of land in a chunk; they take a look at it, maybe, and then they boom it like hell, and get them eastern marks hooked—them with money, the lady said. Then they ship a bunch out here, locate 'em on the land and leave it up to THEM, whether they scratch a living or not. She said they urge the rubes to bring all the stock they can, because there's plenty of range left. She says they play that up big. You can see for yourself how that'll work out, around here!"
Pink eyed him attentively, and suddenly his dimples stood deep. "All right, I'm It," he surrendered.
"It'd be a sin not to fall for a yarn like that, Andy. I expect you made it all up outa your own head, but that's all right. It's a pleasure to be fooled by a genius like you. I'll go raising turnips and cabbages myself."
"By golly, you couldn't raise nothing but hell up on that dry bench," Slim observed ponderously. "There ain't any water. What's the use uh talking foolish?"
"They're going to tackle it, just the same," Andy pointed out patiently.
"Well, by golly, if you ain't just lyin' to hear yourself, that there graftin' bunch had oughta be strung up!"
"Sure, they had. Nobody's going to argue about that. But seeing we can't do that, the next best thing is to beat them to it. If they came out here with their herd of pilgrims and found the land all took up—" Andy smiled hypnotically upon the goggling group.
"Haw-haw-haw-w!" bawled Big Medicine. "It'd be wuth it, by cripes!"
"Yeah—it would, all right. If that talk Andy's been giving us is straight, about grazing the land instead uh working it—"
"You can mighty quick find out," Andy retorted. "Go up and ask Chip for them land laws, and that plat. And ask him what he thinks about the deal. You don't have to take my word for it." Andy grinned virtuously and pushed back his chair. From their faces, and the remarks they had made, he felt very confident of the ultimate decision. "What about you, Patsy?" he asked suddenly, turning to the bulky, bald German cook who was thumping bread dough in a far corner. "You got any homestead or desert rights you ain't used?"
"Py cosh, I got all der rights dere iss," Patsy returned querulously. "I got more rights as you shmartys. I got soldier's rights mit fightin'. Und py cosh, I use him too if dem fellers coom by us mit der dry farms alreatty!"
"Well, you son-of-a-gun!" Andy smote him elatedly upon a fat shoulder. "What do you know about old Patsy for a dead game sport? By gracious, that makes another three hundred and twenty to the good. Gee, it's lucky this bunch has gone along turning up their noses at nesters and thinkin' they couldn't be real punchers and hold down claims too. If any of us had had sense enough to grab a piece of land and settle down to raise families, we'd be right up against it now. We'd have to set back and watch a bunch of down-east rubes light down on us like flies on spilt molasses, and we couldn't do a thing."
"As it is, we'll all turn nesters for the good of the cause!" finished Pink somewhat cynically, getting up and following Cal and Slim to the door.
"Aw, I betche they's some ketch to it!" gloomed Happy Jack. "I betche Andy jest wants to see us takin' up claims on that dry bench, and then set back and laugh at us fer bitin' on his josh."
"Well, you'll have the claims, won't you. And if you hang onto them there'll be money in the deal some day. Why, darn your bomb-proof skull, can't you get it into your system that all this country's bound to settle up?" Andy's eyes snapped angrily. "Can't you see the difference between us owning the land between here and the mountains, and a bunch of outsiders that'll cut it all up into little fields and try to farm it. If you can't see that, you better go hack a hole in your head with an axe, so an idea can squeeze in now and then when you ain't looking!"
"Well, I betche there ain't no colony comin' to settle that there bench," Happy Jack persisted stubbornly.
"Yes there is, by cripes!" trumpeted Big Medicine behind him. "Yes there is! And that there colony is goin' to be us, and don't you forget it. It's time I was doin' somethin' fer that there boy uh mine, by cripes! And soon as we git that fence strung I'm goin' to hit the trail fer the nearest land office. Honest to grandma, if Andy's lyin' it's goin' to be the prof't'blest lie HE ever told, er anybody else. I don't care a cuss about whether them dry-farmers is fixin' to light here or not. That there land-pool looks good to ME, and I'm comin' in on it with all four feet!"
Big Medicine was nothing less than a human land slide when once he threw himself into anything, be it a fight or a frolic. Now he blocked the way to the door with his broad shoulders and his big bellow and his enthusiasm, and his pale, frog-like eyes fixed their protruding stare accusingly upon the reluctant ones.
"Cal, you git up there and git that plat and bring it here," he ordered. "And fer criminy sakes git that table cleared off, Patsy, so's't we kin have a place to lay it! What's eatin' on you fellers, standin' around like girls to a party, waitin' fer somebody to come up and ast you to dance! Ain't you got head enough to see what a cinch we got, if we only got sense enough to play it! Honest to grandma you make me sick to look at yuh! Down in Conconino County the boys wouldn't stand back and wait to be purty-pleased into a thing like this. You're so scared Andy's got a josh covered up somewheres, you wouldn't take a drink uh whisky if he ast yuh up to the bar! You'd pass up a Chris'mas turkey, by cripes, if yuh seen Andy washin' his face and lookin' hungry! You'd—"
What further reproach he would have heaped upon them was interrupted by Chip, who opened the door just then and bumped Big Medicine in the back. In his hand Chip carried the land plat and the pamphlets, and in his keen, brown eyes he carried the light of battle for his outfit. The eyes of Andy Green sent bright glances from him to Big Medicine, and on to the others. He was too wise then to twit those others with their unbelief. His wisdom went farther than that; for he remained very much in the background of the conversation and contented himself with answering, briefly and truthfully, the questions they put to him about Florence Grace Hallman and the things she had so foolishly divulged concerning her plans.
Chip spread the plat upon an end of the table hastily and effectually cleared by a sweep of Big Medicine's arm, and the Happy Family crowded close to stare down at the checker-board picture of their own familiar bench land. They did not doubt, now—nor did they Hang back reluctantly. Instead they followed eagerly the trail Chip's cigarette-yellowed finger took across the map, and they listened intently to what he said about that trail.
The clause about grazing the land, he said, simplified matters a whole lot. It was a cinch you couldn't turn loose and dry-farm that land and have even a fair chance of reaping a harvest. But as grazing land they could hold all the land along One Man Creek—and that was a lot. And the land lying back of that, and higher up toward the foothills, they could take as desert. And he maintained that Andy had been right in his judgment: If they all went into it and pulled together they could stretch a line of claims that would protect the Badland grazing effectually.
"I wouldn't ask you fellows to go into this," said Chip, straightening from his stooping over the map and looking from one sober face to another, "just to help the outfit. But it'll be a good thing for you boys. It'll give you a foothold—something better than wages, if you stay with your claims and prove up. Of course, I can't say anything about us buying out your claims—that's fraud, according to Hoyle; but you ain't simple-minded—you know your land won't be begging for a buyer, in case you should ever want to sell.
"There's another thing. This will not only head off the dry-farmers from overstocking what little range is left—it'll make a dead-line for sheep, too. We've been letting 'em graze back and forth on the bench back here beyond our leased land, and not saying much, so long as they didn't crowd up too close, and kept going. With all our claims under fence, do you realize what that'll mean for the grass?"
"Josephine! There's feed for considerable stock, right over there on our claims, to say nothing of what we'll cover," exclaimed Pink.
"I'd tell a man! And if we get water on the desert claims—" Chip grinned down at him. "See what we've been passing up, all this time. We've had some of it leased, of course—but that can't be done again. There's been some wire-pulling, and because we ain't politicians we got turned down when the Old Man wanted to renew the lease. I can see now why it was, maybe. This dry-farm business had something to do with it, if you ask me."
"Gee whiz! And here we've been calling Andy a liar," sighed Cal Emmett.
"Aw, jest because he happened to tell the truth once, don't cut no ice," Happy Jack maintained with sufficient ambiguity to avert the natural consequences.
"Of course, it won't be any gold-mine," Chip added dispassionately. "But it's worth picking up, all right; and if it'll keep out a bunch of tight-fisted settlers that don't give a darn for anything but what's inside their own fence, that's worth a lot, too."
"Say, my dad's a farmer," Pink declared defiantly in his soft treble. "And while I think of it, them eastern farmers ain't so worse—not the brand I've seen, anyway. They're narrow, maybe—but they're human. Damn it, you fellows have got to quit talking about 'em as if they were blackleg stock or grasshoppers or something."
"We ain't saying nothing aginst farmers AS farmers, Little One" Big Medicine explained forebearingly. "As men, and as women, and as kids, they're mighty nice folks. My folks have got an eighty-acre farm in Wisconsin," he confessed unexpectedly, "and I think a pile of 'em. But if they was to come out here, trying to horn in on our range, I'd lead 'em gently to the railroad, by cripes, and tell 'em goodbye so's't they'd know I meant it! Can't yuh see the difference?" he bawled, goggling at Pink with misleading savageness in his ugly face.
"Oh, I see," Pink admitted mildly. "I only just wanted to remind you fellows that I don't mean anything personal and I don't want you to. Say, what about One Man Coulee?" he asked suddenly. "That's marked vacant on the map. I always thought—"
"Sure, you did!" Chip grinned at him wisely, "because we used it for a line camp, you thought we owned a deed to it. Well, we don't. We had that land leased, is all."
"Say, by golly, I'll file on that, then," Slim declared selfishly. For One Man coulee, although a place of gruesome history, was also desirable for one or two reasons. There was wood, for instance, and water, and a cabin that was habitable. There was also a fence on the place, a corral and a small stable. "If Happy's ghost don't git to playin' music too much," he added with his heavy-handed wit.
"No, sir! You ain't going to have One Man coulee unless Andy, here, says he don't want it!" shouted Big Medicine. "I leave it to Chip if Andy hadn't oughta have first pick. He's the feller that's put us onto this, by cripes, and he's the feller that's going to pick his claim first."
Chip did not need to sanction that assertion. The whole Happy Family agreed unanimously that it should be so, except Slim, who yielded a bit unwillingly.
Till midnight and after, they bent heads over the plat and made plans for the future and took no thought whatever of the difficulties that might lie before them. For the coming colony they had no pity, and for the balked schemes of the Homeseekers' Syndicate no compunctions whatever.
So Andy Green, having seen his stratagem well on the way to success, and feeling once more the well-earned confidence of his fellows, slept soundly that night in his own bed, serenely sure of the future.
CHAPTER 6. THE FIRST BLOW IN THE FIGHT
Letters went speeding to Irish and Jack Bates, absent members of the Happy Family of the Flying U; letters that explained the situation with profane completeness, set forth briefly the plan of the proposed pool, and which importuned them to come home or make haste to the nearest land-office and file upon certain quarter-sections therein minutely described. Those men who would be easiest believed wrote and signed the letters, and certain others added characteristic postscripts best calculated to bring results.
After that, the Happy Family debated upon the boldness of going in a body to Great Falls to file upon their claims, or the caution of proceeding instead to Glasgow where the next nearest land-office might be found. Slim and Happy Jack favored caution and Glasgow. The others sneered at their timidity, as they were wont to do.
"Yuh think Florence Grace Hallman is going to stand guard with a six-gun?" Andy challenged at last. "She's tied up till her colony gets there. She can't file on all that land herself, can she?" He smiled reminiscently. "The lady asked me to come up to the Falls and see her," he said softly. "I'm going. The rest of you can take the same train, I reckon—she won't stop you from it, and I won't. And who's to stop you from filing? The land's there, open for settlement. At least it was open, day before yesterday."
"Well, by golly, the sooner we go the better," Slim declared fussily. "That fencin' kin wait. We gotta go and git back before Chip wants to start out the wagons, too."
"Listen here, hombres," called the Native Son from the window, where he had been studying the well-thumbed pamphlet containing the homestead law. "If we want to play dead safe on this, we all better quit the outfit before we go. Call for our time. I don't like the way some of this stuff reads."
"I don't like the way none of it reads," grumbled Happy Jack. "I betche we can't make it go; they's some ketch to it. We'll never git a patent. I'll betche anything yuh like."
"Well, pull out of the game, then!" snapped Andy Green, whose nerves were beginning to feel the strain put upon them.
"I ain't in it yet," said Happy Jack sourly, and banged the door shut upon his departure.
Andy scowled and returned to studying the map. Finally he reached for his hat and gloves in the manner of one who has definitely made up his mind to some thing.
"Well, the rest of you can do as you darned please," he delivered his ultimatum from the doorway. "I'm going to catch up my horse, draw a month's wages and hit the trail. I can catch the evening train to the Falls, easy, and be ready to file on my chunk first thing in the morning."
"Ain't in any rush, are yuh?" Pink inquired facetiously. "If I had my dinner settled and this cigarette smoked, I might go along—provided you don't take the trail with yuh."
"Hold on, boys, and listen to this," the Native Son called out imperatively. "I think we better get a move on, too; but we want to get a fair running start, and not fall over this hump. Listen here! We've got to swear that it is not for the benefit of any other person, persons or corporation, and so on; and farther along it says we must not act in collusion with any person, persons or corporation, to give them the benefit of the land. There's more of the same kind, too, but you see—"