The Happy Family
"Chip of the Flying U," "The Range Dwellers," "Her Prairie Knight," "The Lure of the Dim Trails," "The Lonesome Trail," "The Long Shadow," Etc.
G.W. DILLINGHAM COMPANY
PUBLISHERS NEW YORK
1907, 1909, 1910, by STREET & SMITH. 1910, by G.W. DILLINGHAM COMPANY.
The Happy Family.
"... met the Ananias of the cow camp. I have knocked about cow camps, mining camps, railroad and telegraph camps, and kicked up alkali dust for many a weary mile on the desert. Yet wherever I went I never failed to meet him. He is part and parcel of every outfit.... He is indispensable, irresistible, and incorrigible; and while in but few cases can he be held a thing of beauty, he is certainly a joy forever—at least to those who have known his type with some degree of understanding...."
From a letter.
ANANIAS GREEN 7 BLINK 35 MISS MARTIN'S MISSION 61 HAPPY JACK, WILD MAN 90 A TAMER OF WILD ONES 118 ANDY, THE LIAR 178 "WOLF! WOLF!" 210 FOOL'S GOLD 241 LORDS OF THE POTS AND PANS 269
* * * * *
THE HAPPY FAMILY
* * * * *
Pink, because he knew well the country and because Irish, who also knew it well, refused pointblank to go into it again even as a rep, rode alone except for his horses down into the range of the Rocking R. General roundup was about to start, down that way, and there was stock bought by the Flying U which ranged north of the Bear Paws.
It so happened that the owner of the Rocking R was entertaining a party of friends at the ranch; it also happened that the friends were quite new to the West and its ways, and they were intensely interested in all pertaining thereto. Pink gathered that much from the crew, besides observing much for himself. Hence what follows after.
Sherwood Branciforte was down in the blacksmith shop at the Rocking R, watching one Andy Green hammer a spur-shank straight. Andy was what he himself called a tamer of wild ones, and he was hard upon his riding gear. Sherwood had that morning watched with much admiration the bending of that same spur-shank, and his respect for Andy was beautiful to behold.
"Lord, but this is a big, wild country," he was saying enthusiastically, "and the people in it are big and—"
"Wild," supplied Andy. "Yes, you've just about got us sized up correct." He went on hammering, and humming under his breath, and thinking that, while admiration is all right in its time and place, it is sometimes a bit wearisome.
"Oh, but I didn't mean that," the young man protested. "What I meant was breezy and picturesque. Things can happen, out here. Life and men don't run in grooves."
"No, nor horses," assented Andy. "Leastways, not in oiled ones." He was remembering how that spur-shank had become bent.
"You did some magnificent riding, this morning. By Jove! I've never seen anything like it. Strange that one can come out here into a part of the country absolutely new and raw, and see things—"
"Oh, it ain't so raw as you might think," Andy defended jealously, "nor yet new."
"Of course it is new! A commonwealth in the making. You can't," he asserted triumphantly, "point to anything man-made that existed a hundred years ago; scarcely fifty, either. Your civilization is yet in the cradle—a lusty infant, and a—er—vociferous one, but still an infant in swaddling clothes." Sherwood Branciforte had given lectures before the Y.M.C.A. of his home town, and young ladies had spoken of him as "gifted," and he had come to hear of it, and to believe.
Andy Green squinted at the shank before he made reply. Andy, also, was "gifted," in his modest Western way.
"A country that can now and then show the papers for a civilization old as the Phenixes of Egypt," he said, in a drawling tone that was absolutely convincing, "ain't what I'd call raw." He decided that a little more hammering right next the rowel was necessary, and bent over the anvil solicitously. Even the self-complacency of Sherwood Branciforte could not fail to note his utter indifference to the presence and opinions of his companion. Branciforte was accustomed to disputation at times—even to enmity; but not to indifference. He blinked. "My dear fellow, do you realize what it is that statement might seem to imply?" he queried haughtily.
Andy, being a cowpuncher of the brand known as a "real," objected strongly both to the term and the tone. He stood up and stared down at the other disapprovingly. "I don't as a general thing find myself guilty of talking in my sleep," he retorted, "and I'm prepared to let anything I say stand till the next throw. We may be some vociferous, out here twixt the Mississippi and the Rockies, but we ain't no infant-in-the-cradle, Mister. We had civilization here when the Pilgrim Fathers' rock wasn't nothing but a pebble to let fly at the birds!"
"Indeed!" fleered Sherwood Branciforte, in a voice which gave much intangible insult to one's intelligence.
Andy clicked his teeth together, which was a symptom it were well for the other to recognize but did not. Then Andy smiled, which was another symptom. He fingered the spur absently, laid it down and reached, with the gesture that betrays the act as having become second nature, for his papers and tobacco sack.
"Uh course, you mean all right, and you ain't none to blame for what you don't know, but you're talking wild and scattering. When you stand up and tell me I can't point to nothing man-made that's fifty years old, or a hundred, you make me feel sorry for yuh. I can take you to something—or I've seen something—that's older than swearing; and I reckon that art goes back to when men wore their hair long and a sheep-pelt was called ample for dress occasions."
"Are you crazy, man?" Sherwood Branciforte exclaimed incredulously.
"Not what you can notice. You wait whilst I explain. Once last fall I was riding by my high lonesome away down next the river, when my horse went lame on me from slipping on a shale bank, and I was set afoot. Uh course, you being plumb ignorant of our picturesque life, you don't half know all that might signify to imply." This last in open imitation of Branciforte. "It implies that I was in one hell of a fix, to put it elegant. I was sixty miles from anywhere, and them sixty half the time standing on end and lapping over on themselves. That there is down where old mama Nature gave full swing to a morbid hankering after doing things unconventional. Result is, that it's about as ungodly a mixture of nightmare scenery as this old world can show up; and I've ambled around considerable and am in a position to pass judgment.
"So there I was, and I wasn't in no mood to view the beauties uh nature to speak of; for instance, I didn't admire the clouds sailing around promiscous in the sky, nor anything like that. I was high and dry and the walking was about as poor as I ever seen; and my boots was high-heel and rubbed blisters before I'd covered a mile of that acrobatic territory. I wanted water, and I wanted it bad. Before I got it I wanted it a heap worse." He stopped, cupped his slim fingers around a match-blaze, and Branciforte sat closer. He did not know what was coming, but the manner of the indifferent narrator was compelling. He almost forgot the point at issue in the adventure.
"Along about dark, I camped for the night under a big, bare-faced cliff that was about as homelike and inviting as a charitable institution, and made a bluff at sleeping and cussed my bum luck in a way that wasn't any bluff. At sun-up I rose and mooched on." His cigarette needed another match and he searched his pockets for one.
"What about the—whatever it was you started to tell me?" urged Branciforte, grown impatient.
Andy looked him over calmly. "You've lived in ignorance for about thirty years or so—giving a rough guess at your age; I reckon you can stand another five minutes. As I was saying, I wandered around like a dogy when it's first turned loose on the range and is trying to find the old, familiar barn-yard and the skim-milk bucket. And like the dogy, I didn't run across anything that looked natural or inviting. All that day I perambulated over them hills, and I will say I wasn't enjoying the stroll none. You're right when you say things can happen, out here. There's some things it's just as well they don't happen too frequent, and getting lost and afoot in the Bad-lands is one.
"That afternoon I dragged myself up to the edge of a deep coulee and looked over to see if there was any way of getting down. There was a bright green streak down there that couldn't mean nothing but water, at that time of year; this was last fall. And over beyond, I could see the river that I'd went and lost. I looked and looked, but the walls looked straight as a Boston's man's pedigree. And then the sun come out from behind a cloud and lit up a spot that made me forget for a minute that I was thirsty as a dog and near starved besides.
"I was looking down on the ruins—and yet it was near perfect—of an old castle. Every stone stood out that clear and distinct I could have counted 'em. There was a tower at one end, partly fell to pieces but yet enough left to easy tell what it was. I could see it had kinda loop-holes in it. There was an open place where I took it the main entrance had used to be; what I'd call the official entrance. But there was other entrances besides, and some of 'em was made by time and hard weather. There was what looked like awhat-you-may-call-'em— a ditch thing, yuh mind, running around my side of it, and a bridge business. Uh course, it was all needing repairs bad, and part of it yuh needed to use your imagination on. I laid there for quite a spell looking it over and wondering how the dickens it come to be way down there. It didn't look to me like it ought to be there at all, but in a school geography or a history where the chapter is on historic and prehistoric hangouts uh the heathen."
"The deuce! A castle in the Bad-lands!" ejaculated Branciforte.
"That's what it was, all right. I found a trail it would make a mountain sheep seasick to follow, and I got down into the coulee. It was lonesome as sin, and spooky; but there was a spring close by, and a creek running from it; and what is a treat in that part uh the country, it was good drinking and didn't have neither alkali nor sulphur nor mineral in it. It was just straight water, and you can gamble I filled up on it a-plenty. Then I shot a rabbit or two that was hanging out around the ruins, and camped there till next day, when I found a pass out, and got my bearings by the river and come on into camp. So when you throw slurs on our plumb newness and shininess, I've got the cards to call yuh. That castle wasn't built last summer, Mister. And whoever did build it was some civilized. So there yuh are."
Andy took a last, lingering pull at the cigarette stub, flung it into the backened forge, and picked up the spur. He settled his hat on his head at its accustomed don't-give-a-darn tilt, and started for the door and the sunlight.
"Oh, but say! didn't you find out anything about it afterwards? There must have been something—"
"If it's relics uh the dim and musty past yuh mean, there was; relics to burn. I kicked up specimens of ancient dishes, and truck like that, while I was prowling around for fire-wood. And inside the castle, in what I reckon was used for the main hall, I run acrost a skeleton. That is, part of one. I don't believe it was all there, though."
"But, man alive, why haven't you made use of a discovery like that?" Branciforte followed him out, lighting his pipe with fingers that trembled. "Don't you realize what a thing like that means?"
Andy turned and smiled lazily down at him. "At the time I was there, I was all took up with the idea uh getting home. I couldn't eat skeletons, Mister, nor yet the remains uh prehistoric dishes. And I didn't run acrost no money, nor no plan marked up with crosses where you're supposed to do your excavating for treasure. It wasn't nothing, that I could see, for a man to starve to death while he examined it thorough. And so far as I know there ain't any record of it. I never heard no one mention building it, anyhow." He stooped and adjusted the spur to his heel to see if it were quite right, and went off to the stable humming under his breath.
Branciforte stood at the door of the blacksmith shop and gazed after him, puffing meditatively at his pipe. "Lord! the ignorance of these Western folk! To run upon a find like that, and to think it less important than getting home in time for supper. To let a discovery like that lie forgotten, a mere incident in a day's travel! That fellow thinks more, right now, about his horse going lame and himself raising blisters on his heels, than of—Jove, what ignorance! He—he couldn't eat the skeleton or the dishes! Jerusalem!" Branciforte knocked his pipe gently against the door-casing, put in into his coat pocket and hurried to the house to hunt up the others and tell them what he had heard.
That night the roundup pulled in to the home ranch.
The visitors, headed by their host, swooped down upon the roundup wagons just when the boys were gathered together for a cigarette or two apiece and a little talk before rolling in. There was no night-guarding to do, and trouble winged afar. Sherwood Branciforte hunted out Andy Green where he lay at ease with head and shoulders propped against a wheel of the bed-wagon and gossipped with Pink and a few others.
"Look here, Green," he said in a voice to arrest the attention of the whole camp, "I wish you'd tell the others that tale you told me this afternoon—about that ruined castle down in the hills. Mason, here, is a newspaper man; he scents a story for his paper. And the rest refuse to believe a word I say."
"I'd hate to have a rep like that, Mr. Branciforte," Andy said commiseratingly, and turned his big, honest gray eyes to where stood the women—two breezy young persons with sleeves rolled to tanned elbows and cowboy hats of the musical comedy brand. Also they had gay silk handkerchiefs knotted picturesquely around their throats. There was another, a giggly, gurgly lady with gray hair fluffed up into a pompadour. You know the sort. She was the kind who refuses to grow old, and so merely grows imbecile.
"Do tell us, Mr. Green," this young old lady urged, displaying much gold by her smile. "It sounds so romantic."
"It's funny you never mentioned it to any of us," put in the "old man" suspiciously.
Andy pulled himself up into a more decorous position, and turned his eyes towards his boss. "I never knew yuh took any interest in relic-hunting," he explained mildly.
"Sherwood says you found a skeleton!" said the young old lady, shuddering pleasurably.
"Yes, I did find one—or part of one," Andy admitted reluctantly.
"What were the relics of pottery like?" demanded one of the cowboy-hatted girls, as if she meant to test him. "I do some collecting of that sort of thing."
Andy threw away his cigarette, and with it all compunction. "Well, I wasn't so much interested in the dishes as in getting something to eat," he apologized. "I saw several different kinds. One was a big, awkward looking thing and was pretty heavy, and had straight sides. Then I come across one or two more that was ornamented some. One had what looked like a fish on it, and the other I couldn't make out very well. They didn't look to be worth much, none of 'em."
"Green," said his employer steadily, "was there such a place?"
Andy returned his look honestly. "There was, and there is yet, I guess," he asserted. "I'll tell you how you can find it and what it's like—if yuh doubt my words." He glanced around and found every man, including the cook, listening intently. He picked a blade of new grass and began splitting it into tiny threads. The host found boxes for the women to sit upon, and the men sat down upon the grass.
"Before I come here to work, I was riding for the Circle C. One day I was riding away down in the Bad-lands alone and my horse slipped in some shale rock and went lame; strained his shoulder so I couldn't ride him. That put me afoot, and climbing up and down them hills I lost my bearings and didn't know where I was at for a day or two. I wandered around aimless, and got into a strip uh country that was new to me and plumb lonesome and wild.
"That second day is when I happened across this ruin. I was looking down into a deep, shut-in coulee, hunting water, when the sun come out and shone straight on to this place. It was right down under me; a stone ruin, with a tower on one end and kinda tumbled down so it wasn't so awful high—the tower wasn't. There was a—a—"
"Moat," Branciforte suggested.
"That's the word—a moat around it, and a bridge that was just about gone to pieces. It had loopholes, like the pictures of castles, and a—"
"Battlement?" ventured one of the musical-comedy cowgirls.
Andy had not meant to say battlement; of a truth, his conception of battlements was extremely hazy, but he caught up the word and warmed to the subject. "Battlement? well I should guess yes! There was about as elegant a battlement as I'd want to see anywhere. It was sure a peach. It was—" he hesitated for a fraction of a second. "It was high as the tower, and it had figures carved all over it; them kind that looks like kid-drawing in school, with bows and arrows stuck out in front of 'em, threatening."
"Not the old Greek!" exclaimed one of the girls in a little, breathless voice.
"I couldn't say as to that," Andy made guarded reply. "I never made no special study of them things. But they was sure old. And—"
"About how large was the castle?" put in the man who wrote things. "How many rooms, say?"
"I'd hate to give a guess at the size. I didn't step it off, and I'm a punk guesser. The rooms I didn't count. I only explored around in the main hall, like, a little. But it got dark early, down in there, and I didn't have no matches to waste. And next morning I started right out at sun-up to find the way home. No, I never counted the rooms, and if I had, the chances are I'd have likely counted the same one more'n once; to count them rooms would take an expert, which I ain't—not at counting. I don't reckon, though, that there was so awful many. Anyway, not more than fifteen or twenty. But as I say, I couldn't rightly make a guess, even; or I'd hate to. Ruins don't interest me much, though I was kinda surprised to run acrost that one, all right, and I'm willing to gamble there was warm and exciting times down there when the place was in running order. I'd kinda like to have been down there then. Last fall, though, there wasn't nothing to get excited over, except getting out uh there."
"A castle away out here! Just think, good people, what that means! Romance, adventure and scientific discoveries! We must go right down there and explore the place. Why can't we start at once—in the morning? This gentleman can guide us to the place, and—"
"It ain't easy going," Andy remarked, conscientiously. "It's pretty rough; some places, you'd have to walk and lead your horses."
They swept aside the discouragement.
"We'd need pick and shovels, and men to dig," cried one enthusiast. "Uncle Peter can lend us some of his men. There may be treasure to unearth. There may be anything that is wonderful and mysterious. Get busy, Uncle Peter, and get your outfit together; you've boasted that a roundup can beat the army in getting under way quickly, now let us have a practical demonstration. We want to start by six o'clock—all of us, with a cook and four or five men to do the excavating. Bring it to pass!" It was the voice of the girl whom her friends spoke of as "The life of the party;" the voice of the-girl-who-does-things.
"It's sixty-five miles from here, good and strong—and mostly up and down," put in Andy.
"'Quoth the raven,'" mocked the-girl-who-does-things. "We are prepared to face the ups-and-downs. Do we start at six, Uncle Peter?"
Uncle Peter glanced sideways at the roundup boss. To bring it to pass, he would be obliged to impress the roundup cook and part of the crew. It was breaking an unwritten law of the rangeland, and worse, it was doing something unbusiness-like and foolish. But not even the owner of the Rocking R may withstand the pleading of a pretty woman. Uncle Peter squirmed, but he promised:
"We start at six; earlier if you say so."
The roundup boss gave his employer a look of disgust and walked away; the crew took it that he went off to some secluded place to swear.
Thereafter there was much discussion of ways and means, and much enthusiasm among the visitors from the East—equalled by the depression of the crew, for cowboys do not, as a rule, take kindly to pick and shovel, and the excavators had not yet been chosen from among them. They were uneasy, and they stole frequent, betraying glances at one another. All of which amused Pink much. Pink would like to have gone along, and would certainly have offered his services, but for the fact that his work there was done and he would have to start back to the Flying U just as soon as one of his best saddle horses, which had stepped on a broken beer bottle and cut its foot, was able to travel. That would be in a few days, probably. So Pink sighed and watched the preparations enviously.
Since he was fairly committed into breaking all precedents, uncle Peter plunged recklessly. He ordered the mess-wagon to be restocked and prepared for the trip, and he took the bed-tent and half the crew. The foreman he wisely left behind with the remnant of his outfit. They were all to eat at the house while the mess-wagon was away, and they were to spread their soogans—which is to say beds—where they might, if the bunk-house proved too small or too hot.
The foreman, outraged beyond words, saddled at daybreak and rode to the nearest town, and the unchosen half turned out in a body to watch the departure of the explorers, which speaks eloquently of their interest; for cowboys off duty are prone to sleep long.
Andy, as guide, bolted ahead of the party that he might open the gate. Bolted is a good word, for his horse swerved and kept on running, swerved again, and came down in a heap. Andy did not get up, and the women screamed. Then Pink and some others hurried out and bore Andy, groaning, to the bunk-house.
The visitors from the East gathered, perturbed, around the door, sympathetic and dismayed. It looked very much as if their exploration must end where it began, and the-girl-who-does-things looked about to weep, until Andy, still groaning, sent Pink out to comfort them.
"He says you needn't give up the trip on his account," Pink announced musically from the doorway. "He's drawing a map and marking the coulee where the ruin is. He says most any of the boys that know the country at all can find the place for yuh. And he isn't hurt permanent; he strained his back so he can't ride, is all." Pink dimpled at the young old lady who was admiring him frankly, and withdrew.
Inside, Andy Green was making pencil marks and giving the chosen half explicit directions. At last he folded the paper and handed it to one called Sandy.
"That's the best I can do for yuh," he finished. "I don't see how yuh can miss it if yuh follow that map close. And if them gay females make any kick on the trail, you just remind 'em that I said all along it was rough going. So long, and good luck."
So with high-keyed, feminine laughter and much dust, passed the exploring party from the Rocking R.
"Say," Pink began two days later to Andy, who was sitting on the shady side of the bunk-house staring absently at the skyline, "There's a word uh praise I've been aiming to give yuh. I've seen riding, and I've done a trifle in that line myself, and learned some uh the tricks. But I want to say I never did see a man flop his horse any neater than you done that morning. I'll bet there ain't another man in the outfit got next your play. I couldn't uh done it better myself. Where did you learn that? Ever ride in Wyoming?"
Andy turned his eyes, but not his head—which was a way he had—and regarded Pink slantwise for at least ten seconds. "Yes, I've rode in Wyoming," he answered quietly. Then: "What's the chance for a job, up your way? Is the Flying U open for good men and true?"
"It won't cost yuh a cent to try," Pink told him. "How's your back? Think you'll be able to ride by the time Skeeker is able to travel?"
Andy, grinned. "Say," he confided suddenly, "if that hoss don't improve some speedy, I'll be riding on ahead. I reckon I'll be able to travel before them explorers get back, my friend."
"Why?" dimpled Pink boldly.
"Why? Well, the going is some rough, down that way. If they get them wagons half way to the coulee marked with a cross, they'll sure have to attach wings onto 'em. I've been some worried about that. I don't much believe uncle Peter is going to enjoy that trip—and he sure does get irritable by spells. I've got a notion to ride for some other outfit, this summer."
"Was that the reason you throwed your horse down and got hurt, that morning?" questioned Pink, and Andy grinned again by way of reply.
"They'll be gone a week, best they can do," he estimated aloud. "We ought to be able to make our getaway by then, easy."
Pink assured him that a week would see them headed for the Flying U.
It was the evening of the sixth day, and the two were packed and ready to leave in the morning, when Andy broke off humming and gave a snort of dismay. "By gracious, there they come. My mother lives in Buffalo, Pink, in a little drab house with white trimmings. Write and tell her how her son—Oh, beloved! but they're hitting her up lively. If they made the whole trip in that there frame uh mind, they could uh gone clean to Miles City and back. How pretty the birds sing! Pink, you'll hear words, directly."
Directly Pink did.
"You're the biggest liar on earth," Sherwood Branciforte contributed to the recriminating wave that near engulfed Andy Green. "You sent us down there on a wild-goose chase, you brute. You—"
"I never sent nobody," Andy defended. "You was all crazy to go."
"And nothing but an old stone hut some trapper had built!" came an indignant, female tone. "There never was any castle, nor—"
"A man's home is his castle," argued Andy, standing unabashed before them. "Putting it that way, it was a castle, all right."
There was babel, out of which—
"And the skeleton! Oh, you—it was a dead cow!" This from the young old lady, who was looking very draggled and not at all young.
"I don't call to mind ever saying it was human," put in Andy, looking at her with surprised, gray eyes.
"And the battlements!" groaned the-girl-who-does-things.
"You wanted battlements," Andy flung mildly into the uproar. "I always aim to please." With that he edged away from them and made his escape to where the cook was profanely mixing biscuits for supper. All-day moves put an edge to his temper. The cook growled an epithet, and Andy passed on. Down near the stable he met one of the chosen half, and the fellow greeted him with a grin. Andy stopped abruptly.
"Say, they don't seem none too agreeable," he began tentatively, jerking his thumb toward the buzzing group. "How about it, Sandy? Was they that petulant all the way?"
Sandy, the map-bearer, chuckled. "It's lucky you got hurt at the last minute! And yet it was worth the trip. Uh course we got stalled with the wagons, the second day out, but them women was sure ambitious, and made us go on with a packadero layout. I will say that, going down, they stood the hardships remarkable. It was coming back that frazzled the party.
"And when we found the place—say, but it was lucky you wasn't along! They sure went hog-wild when they seen the ruins. The old party with the pompadoor displayed temper, and shed tears uh rage. When she looked into the cabin and seen the remains uh that cow-critter, there was language it wasn't polite to overhear. She said a lot uh things about you, Andy. One thing they couldn't seem to get over, and that was the smallness uh the blamed shack. Them fourteen or fifteen rooms laid heavy on their minds."
"I didn't say there was fourteen or fifteen rooms. I said I didn't count the rooms; I didn't either. I never heard of anybody counting one room. Did you, Pink?"
"No," Pink agreed, "I never did!"
Sandy became suddenly convulsed. "Oh, but the funniest thing was the ancient pottery," he gasped, the tears standing in his eyes. "That old Dutch oven was bad enough; but when one uh the girls—that one that collects old dishes—happened across an old mackerel can and picked it up and saw the fish on the label, she was the maddest female person I ever saw in my life, barring none. If you'd been in reach about that time, she'd just about clawed your eyes out, Andy Green. Oh me, oh my!" Sandy slapped his thigh and had another spasm.
Sounds indicated that the wave of recrimination was rolling nearer. Andy turned to find himself within arm's length of Uncle Pete.
"Maybe this is your idea of a practical joke, Green," he said to Andy. "But anyway, it will cost you your job. I ought to charge you up with the time my outfit has spent gallivanting around the country on the strength of your wild yarn. The quicker you hit the trail, the better it will suit me. By the way, what's your first name?" He asked, pulling out a check-book.
"Andy," answered the unrepentant one.
"Andy," Uncle Peter paused with a fountain pen between his fingers. He looked Andy up and down, and the frown left his face. He proceeded to write out the check, and when it was done he handed it over with a pleased smile.
"What did you do it for, Green?" he queried in a friendlier tone.
"Self-defence," Andy told him laconically, and turned away.
Half an hour later, Andy and Pink trailed out of the coulee that sheltered the Rocking R. When they were out and away from the fence, and Pink's horses, knowing instinctively that they were homeward bound, were jogging straight west without need of guidance, Andy felt in his pocket for cigarette material. His fingers came in contact with the check Uncle Peter had given him, and he drew it forth and looked it over again.
"Well, by gracious!" he said to himself. "Uncle Peter thinks we're even, I guess."
He handed the check to Pink and rolled his cigarette; and Pink, after one comprehending look at the slip of paper, doubled up over his saddle-horn and shouted with glee—for the check was written: "Pay to the order of Ananias Green."
"And I've got to sign myself a liar, or I don't collect no money," sighed Andy. "That's what I call tough luck, by gracious!"
* * * * *
The range-land was at its unpicturesque worst. For two days the wind had raged and ranted over the hilltops, and whooped up the long coulees, so that tears stood in the eyes of the Happy Family when they faced it; impersonal tears blown into being by the very force of the wind. Also, when they faced it they rode with bodies aslant over their saddle-horns and hats pulled low over their streaming eyes, and with coats fastened jealously close. If there were buttons enough, well and good; if not, a strap cinched tightly about the middle was considered pretty lucky and not to be despised. Though it was early September, "sour-dough" coats were much in evidence, for the wind had a chill way of searching to the very marrow—and even a good, sheepskin-lined "sour-dough" was not always protection sufficient.
When the third day dawned bleakly, literally blown piecemeal from out darkness as bleak, the Happy Family rose shiveringly and with sombre disapproval of whatever met their blood-shot eyes; dressed hurriedly in the chill of flapping tent and went out to stagger drunkenly over to where Patsy, in the mess-tent, was trying vainly to keep the biscuits from becoming dust-sprinkled, and sundry pans and tins from taking jingling little excursions on their own account. Over the brow of the next ridge straggled the cavvy, tails and manes whipping in the gale, the nighthawk swearing so that his voice came booming down to camp. Truly, the day opened inauspiciously enough for almost any dire ending.
As further evidence, saddling horses for circle resolved itself, as Weary remarked at the top of his voice to Pink, at his elbow, into "a free-for-all broncho busting tournament." For horses have nerves, and nothing so rasps the nerves of man or beast as a wind that never stops blowing; which means swaying ropes and popping saddle leather, and coat-tails flapping like wet sheets on a clothes line. Horses do not like these things, and they are prone to eloquent manifestations of their disapproval.
Over by the bed-wagon, a man they called Blink, for want of a better name, was fighting his big sorrel silently, with that dogged determination which may easily grow malevolent. The sorrel was at best a high-tempered, nervous beast, and what with the wind and the flapping of everything in sight, and the pitching of half-a-dozen horses around him, he was nearly crazed with fear in the abstract.
Blink was trying to bridle him, and he was not saying a word—which, in the general uproar, was strange. But Blink seldom did say anything. He was one of the aliens who had drifted into the Flying U outfit that spring, looking for work. Chip had taken him on, and he had stayed. He could ride anything in his string, and he was always just where he was wanted. He never went to town when the others clattered off for a few hours' celebration more or less mild, he never took part in any of the camp fun, and he never offended any man. If any offended him they did not know it unless they were observant; if they were, they would see his pale lashes wink fast for a minute, and they might read aright the sign and refrain from further banter. So Blink, though he was counted a good man on roundup, was left pretty much alone when in camp.
Andy Green, well and none too favorably known down Rocking R way, and lately adopted into the Happy Family on the recommendation of Pink and his own pleasing personality, looped the latigo into the holder, gave his own dancing steed a slap of the don't-try-to-run-any-whizzers-on-me variety, and went over to help out Blink.
Blink eyed his approach with much the same expression with which he eyed the horse. "I never hollered for assistance," he remarked grudgingly when Andy was at his elbow. "When I can't handle any of the skates in my string, I'll quit riding and take to sheep-herding." Whereupon he turned his back as squarely as he might upon Andy and made another stealthy grab for the sorrel's ears. (There is such a thing in the range-land as jealousy among riders, and the fame of Andy Green had gone afar.)
"All right. Just as you say, and not as I care a darn," Andy retorted, and went back to where his own mount stood tail to the wind. He did not in the least mind the rebuff; he really felt all the indifference his manner portrayed—perhaps even more. He had offered help where help was needed, and that ended it for him. It never occurred to him that Blink might feel jealous over Andy's hard-earned reputation as a "tamer of wild ones," or mistake his good nature for patronage.
Five minutes later, when Chip looked around comprehensively at the lot of them in various degrees of readiness; saw that Blink was still fighting silently for mastery of the sorrel and told Andy to go over and help him get saddled, Andy said nothing of having had his services refused, but went. This time, Blink also said nothing, but accepted in ungracious surrender the assistance thus thrust upon him. For on the range-land, unless one is in a mind to roll his bed and ride away, one does not question when the leader commands. Andy's attitude was still that of indifference; he really thought very little about Blink or his opinions, and the rapid blinking of the pale lashes was quite lost upon him.
They rode, eighteen ill-natured, uncomfortable cowboys, tumultuously away from the camp, where canvas bulged and swayed, and loose corners cracked like pistol shots, over the hill where even the short, prairie grass crouched and flattened itself against the sod; where stray pebbles, loosened by the ungentle tread of pitching hoofs, skidded twice as far as in calm weather. The gray sky bent threateningly above them, wind-torn into flying scud but never showing a hint of blue. Later there might be rain, sleet, snow—or sunshine, as nature might whimsically direct; but for the present she seemed content with only the chill wind that blew the very heart out of a man.
Whenever Chip pulled up to turn off a couple of riders that they might search a bit of rough country, his voice was sharp with the general discomfort. When men rode away at his command, it was with brows drawn together and vengeful heels digging the short-ribs of horses in quite as unlovely a mood as themselves.
Out at the end of the "circle," Chip divided the remainder of his men into two groups for the homeward drive. One group he himself led. The other owned Weary as temporary commander and galloped off to the left, skirting close to the foothills of the Bear Paws. In that group rode Pink and Happy Jack, Slim, Andy Green and Blink the silent.
"I betche we get a blizzard out uh this," gloomed Happy Jack, pulling his coat collar up another fraction of an inch. "And the way Chip's headed us, we got to cross that big flat going back in the thick of it; chances is, we'll git lost."
No one made reply to this; it seemed scarcely worth while. Every man of them rode humped away from the wind, his head drawn down as close to his shoulders as might be. Conversation under those conditions was not likely to become brisk.
"A fellow that'll punch cows for a living," Happy Jack asserted venomously after a minute, "had ought to be shut up somewheres. He sure ain't responsible. I betche next summer don't see me at it."
"Aw, shut up. We know you're feeble-minded, without you blatting it by the hour," snapped Pink, showing never a dimple.
Happy Jack tugged again at his collar and made remarks, to which no one paid the slightest attention. They rode in amongst the hills and narrow ridges dividing "draws" as narrow, where range cattle would seek shelter from the cutting blast that raked the open. Then, just as they began to realize that the wind was not quite such a raging torment, came a new phase of nature's unpleasant humor.
It was not a blizzard that descended upon them, though when it came rolling down from the hilltops it much resembled one. The wind had changed and brought fog, cold, suffocating, impenetrable. Yet such was the mood of them that no one said anything about it. Weary had been about to turn off a couple of men, but did not. What was the use, since they could not see twenty yards?
For a time they rode aimlessly, Weary in the lead. Then, when it grew no better but worse, he pulled up, just where a high bank shut off the wind and a tangle of brush barred the way in front.
"We may as well camp right here till things loosen up a little," he said. "There's no use playing blind-man's-buff any longer. We'll have some fire, for a change. Mama! this is sure beautiful weather!"
At that, they brightened a bit and hurriedly dismounted and hunted dry wood. Since they were to have a fire, the general tendency was to have a big one; so that when they squatted before it and held out cold, ungloved fingers to the warmth, the flames were leaping high into the fog and crackling right cheerily. It needed only a few puffs at their cigarettes to chase the gloom from their faces and put them in the mood for talk. Only Blink sat apart and stared moodily into the fire, his hands clasped listlessly around his knees, and to him they gave no attention. He was an alien, and a taciturn one at that. The Happy Family were accustomed to living clannishly, even on roundup, and only when they tacitly adopted a man, as they had adopted Pink and Irish and, last but not least important, Andy Green, did they take note of that man's mood and demand reasons for any surliness.
"If Slim would perk up and go run down a grouse or two," Pink observed pointedly, "we'd be all right for the day. How about it, Slim?"
"Run 'em down yourself," Slim retorted. "By golly, I ain't no lop-ear bird dog."
"The law's out fer chickens," Happy Jack remarked dolefully.
"Go on, Happy, and get us a few. You've got your howitzer buckled on," fleered Andy Green. Andy it was whose fertile imagination had so christened Happy Jack's formidable weapon.
"Aw, gwan!" protested Happy Jack.
"Happy looks like he was out for a rep," bantered Pink. "He makes me think uh the Bad Man in a Western play. All he needs is his hat turned up in front and his sleeves rolled up to his elbow, like he was killing hogs. Happy would make a dandy-looking outlaw, with that gun and that face uh his."
"Say, by golly, I bet that's what he's figurin' on doing. He ain't going to punch cows no more—I bet he's thinking about turning out."
"Well, when I do, you'll be the first fellow I lay for," retorted Happy, with labored wit.
"You never'd get a rep shooting at a target the size uh Slim," dimpled Pink. "Is that toy cannon loaded, Happy?"
"I betche yuh dassen't walk off ten paces and let me show yuh," growled Happy.
Pink made as if to rise, then settled back with a sigh. "Ten paces is farther than you could drive me from this fire with a club," he said. "And you couldn't see me, in this fog."
"Say, it is pretty solid," said Weary, looking around him at the blank, gray wall. "A fellow could sit right here and be a lot ignorant of what's going on around him. A fellow could—"
"When I was riding down in the San Simon basin," spoke up Andy, rolling his second cigarette daintily between his finger-tips, "I had a kinda queer experience in a fog, once. It was thick as this one, and it rolled down just about as sudden and unexpected. That's a plenty wild patch uh country—or it was when I was there. I was riding for a Spanish gent that kept white men as a luxury and let the greasers do about all the rough work—such as killing off superfluous neighbors, and running brands artistic, and the like. Oh, he was a gay mark, all right.
"But about this other deal: I was out riding alone after a little bunch uh hosses, one day in the fall. I packed my gun and a pair uh field glasses, and every time I rode up onto a mesa I'd take a long look at all the lower country to save riding it. I guess I'd prognosticated around like that for two or three hours, when I come out on a little pinnacle that slopes down gradual toward a neighbor's home ranch—only the ranch itself was quite a ride back up the basin.
"I got off my horse and set down on a rock to build me a smoke, and was gazing off over the country idle, when I seen a rider come up out of a little draw and gallop along quartering-like, to pass my pinnacle on the left. You know how a man out alone like that will watch anything, from a chicken hawk up in the air to a band uh sheep, without any interest in either one, but just to have your eyes on something that's alive and moves.
"So I watched him, idle, while I smoked. Pretty soon I seen another fellow ride out into sight where the first one had, and hit her up lively down the trail. I didn't do no wondering—I just sat and watched 'em both for want uh something better to do."
"Finding them strays wasn't important, I s'pose?" Happy Jack insinuated.
"It could wait, and did. So I kept an eye on these gazabos, and pretty soon I saw the hind fellow turn off the trail and go fogging along behind a little rise. He come into sight again, whipping down both sides like he was heading a wild four-year-old; and that was queer, because the only other live thing in sight was man number one, and I didn't see no reason why he should be hurting himself to get around to windward like that.
"Maybe it was five minutes I watched 'em: number one loping along like there wasn't nothing urgent and he was just merely going somewhere and taking his time for it, and number two quirting and spurring like seconds was diamonds."
"I wish they was that valuable to you," hinted Pink.
"They ain't, so take it easy. Well, pretty soon they got closer together, and then number two unhooked something on his saddle that caught the light. There's where I got my field glasses into play. I drew a bead with 'em, and seen right off it was a gun. And I hadn't no more than got my brain adjusted to grasp his idea, when he puts it back and takes down his rope. That there," Andy added naively, "promised more real interest; guns is commonplace.
"I took down the glasses long enough to size up the layout. Glasses, you know, are mighty deceiving when it comes to relative distances, and a hilltop a mile back looks, through the glass, like just stepping over a ditch. With the naked eye I could see that they were coming together pretty quick, and they done so.
"Number one looks back, but whether he seen number two I couldn't say; seemed to me like he just glanced back casual and in the wrong direction. Be that is it may, number two edged off a little and rode in behind a bunch uh mesquite—and then I seen that the trail took a turn, right there. So he pulled up and stood still till the other one had ambled past, and then he whirled out into the trail and swung his loop.
"When I'd got the glasses focused on 'em again, he had number one snared, all right, and had took his turns. The hoss he was riding—it was a buckskin—set back and yanked number one end over end out uh the saddle, and number one's hoss stampeded off through the brush. Number two dug in his spurs and went hell-bent off the trail and across country dragging the other fellow—and him bouncing over the rough spots something horrible.
"I don't know what got the matter uh me, then; I couldn't do anything but sit there on my rock and watch through the glasses. Anyway, while they looked close enough to hit with a rock, they was off a mile or more. So while I could see it all I couldn't do nothing to prevent. I couldn't even hear number one yell—supposing he done any hollering, which the chances is he did a plenty. It was for all the world like one uh these moving pictures.
"I thought it was going to be a case uh dragging to death, but it wasn't; it looked to me a heap worse. Number two dragged his man a ways—I reckon till he was plumb helpless—and then he pulled up and rode back to where he laid. The fellow tried to get up, and did get partly on his knees—and number one standing over him, watching.
"What passed I don't know, not having my hearing magnified like my sight was. I framed it up that number two was getting his past, present and future read out to him—what I'd call a free life reading. The rope was pinning his arms down to his sides, and number two was taking blamed good care there wasn't any slack, so fast as he tried to get up he was yanked back. From first to last he never had a ghost of a show.
"Then number two reaches back deliberate and draws his gun and commences shooting, and I commences hollering for him to quit it—and me a mile off and can't do nothing! I tell yuh right now, that was about the worst deal I ever went up against, to set there on that pinnacle and watch murder done in cold blood, and me plumb helpless.
"The first shot wasn't none fatal, as I could see plainer than was pleasant. Looked to me like he wanted to string out the agony. It was a clear case uh butchery from start to finish; the damnedest, lowest-down act a white man could be guilty of. He empties his six-gun—counting the smoke-puffs—and waits a minute, watching like a cat does a gopher. I was sweating cold, but I kept my eyes glued to them glasses like a man in a nightmare.
"When he makes sure the fellow's dead, he rides alongside and flips off the rope, with the buckskin snorting and edging off—at the blood-smell, I reckon. While he's coiling his rope, calm as if he'd just merely roped a yearling, the buckskin gets his head, plants it and turns on the fireworks.
"When that hoss starts in pitching, I come alive and drop the glasses into their case and make a jump for my own hoss. If the Lord lets me come up with that devil, I aim to deal out a case uh justice on my own hook; I was in a right proper humor for doing him like he done the other fellow, and not ask no questions. Looked to me like he had it coming, all right.
"I'd just stuck my toe in the stirrup, when down comes the fog like a wet blanket on everything. I couldn't see twenty feet—" Andy stopped and reached for a burning twig to relight his cigarette. The Happy Family was breathing hard with the spell of the story.
"Did yuh git him?" Happy Jack asked hoarsely. Andy took a long puff at his cigarette. "Well, I—Holy smoke! what's the matter with you, Blink?" For Blink was leaning forward, half crouched, like a cat about to pounce, and was glaring fixedly at Andy with lips drawn back in a snarl. The Happy Family looked, then stared.
Blink relaxed, shrugged his shoulders and grinned unmirthfully. He got up, pulled up his chaps with the peculiar, hitching gesture which comes with long practice and grows to be second nature, and stared back defiantly at the wondering faces lighted by the dancing flames. He turned his back coolly upon them and walked away to where his horse stood, took up the reins and stuck his toe in the stirrup, went up and landed in the saddle ready for anything. Then he wheeled the big sorrel so that he faced those at the camp-fire.
"A man's a damned fool, Andy Green, to see more than is meant for him to see. He's plumb crazy to go round blatting all he knows. You won't tell that tale again, mi amigo!"
There was the pop of a pistol, a puff of blue against the gray, and then the fog reached out and gathered Blink and the sorrel to itself. Only the clatter of galloping hoofs came to them from behind the damp curtain. Andy Green was lying on his back in the grass, his cigarette smoking dully in his fingers, a fast widening red streak trailing down from his temple.
The Happy Family rose like a covey of frightened chickens before the echoes were done playing with the gun-bark. On the heels of Blink's shot came the crack of Happy Jack's "howitzer" as he fired blindly toward the hoof-beats. There was more shooting while they scurried to where their horses, snorting excitement, danced uneasily at the edge of the bushes. Only one man spoke, and that was Pink, who stopped just as he was about to swing into the saddle.
"Damme for leaving my gun in camp! I'll stay with Andy. Go on—and if yuh don't get him, I'll—" he turned back, cursing hysterically, and knelt beside the long figure in the grass. There was a tumult of sound as the three raced off in pursuit, so close that the flight of the fugitive was still distinct in the fog.
While they raced they cursed the fog that shielded from their vengeance their quarry, and made such riding as theirs a blind gamble with the chances all in favor of broken bones; their only comfort the knowledge that Blink could see no better than could they. They did not talk, just at first. They did not even wonder if Andy was dead. Every nerve, every muscle and every thought was concentrated upon the pursuit of Blink. It was the instant rising to meet an occasion undreamed of in advance, to do the only thing possible without loss of a second in parley. Truly, it were ill for Blink to fall into the hands of those three in that mood.
They rode with quirt and spur, guided only by the muffled pluckety-pluck, pluckety-pluck of Blink's horse fleeing always just before. Whenever the hoof-beats seemed a bit closer, Happy Jack would lift his long-barreled .45 and send a shot at random toward the sound. Or Weary or Slim would take a chance with their shorter guns. But never once did they pull rein for steep or gulley, and never once did the hoof-beats fail to come back to them from out the fog.
The chase had led afar and the pace was telling on their mounts, which breathed asthmatically. Slim, best he could do, was falling behind. Weary's horse stumbled and went to his knees, so that Happy Jack forged ahead just when the wind, puffing up from the open, blew aside the gray fog-wall. It was not a minute, nor half that; but it was long enough for Happy Jack to see, clear and close, Blink pausing irresolutely upon the edge of a deep, brush-filled gulley. Happy Jack gave a hoarse croak of triumph and fired, just as the fog-curtain swayed back maddeningly. Happy Jack nearly wept with pure rage. Weary and Slim came up, and together they galloped to the place, riding by instinct of direction, for there was no longer any sound to guide.
Ten minutes they spent searching the gulley's edge. Then they saw dimly, twenty feet below, a huddled object half-hidden in the brush. They climbed down none too warily, though they knew well what might be lying, venomous as a coiled rattler, in wait for them below. Slipping and sliding in the fog-dampened grass, they reached the spot, to find the big sorrel crumpled there, dead. They searched anxiously and futilely for more, but Blink was not there, nor was there anything to show that he had ever been there. Then not fear, perhaps, but caution, came to Happy Jack.
"Aw, say! he's got away on us—the skunk! He's down there in the brush, somewheres, waiting for somebody to go in and drag him out by the ear. I betche he's laying low, right now, waiting for a chance to pot-shot us. We better git back out uh this." He edged away, his eyes on the thicket just below. To ride in there was impossible, even to the Happy Family in whole or in part. To go in afoot was not at all to the liking of Happy Jack.
Slim gave a comprehensive, round-eyed stare at the unpromising surroundings, and followed Happy Jack. "By golly, that's right. Yuh don't git me into no hole like that," he assented.
Weary, foolhardy to the last, stayed longest; but even Weary could not but admit that the case was hopeless. The brush was thick and filled the gully, probably from end to end. Riding through it was impossible, and hunting it through on foot would be nothing but suicide, with a man like Blink hidden away in its depths. They climbed back to the rim, remounted and rode, as straight as might be, for the camp-fire and what lay beside, with Pink on guard.
It was near noon when, through the lightening fog, they reached the place and discovered that Andy, though unconscious, was not dead. They found, upon examination of his hurt, that the bullet had ploughed along the side of his head above his ear; but just how serious it might be they did not know. Pink, having a fresh horse and aching for action, mounted and rode in much haste to camp, that the bed-wagon might be brought out to take Andy in to the ranch and the ministrations of the Little Doctor. Also, he must notify the crew and get them out searching for Blink.
All that night and the next day the cowboys rode, and the next. They raked the foothills, gulley by gulley, their purpose grim. It would probably be a case of shoot-on-sight with them, and nothing saved Blink save the all-important fact that never once did any man of the Flying U gain sight of him. He had vanished completely after that fleeting glimpse Happy Jack had gained, and in the end the Flying U was compelled to own defeat.
Upon one point they congratulated themselves: Andy, bandaged as he was, had escaped with a furrow ploughed through the scalp, though it was not the fault of Blink that he was alive and able to discuss the affair with the others—more exactly, to answer the questions they fired at him.
"Didn't you recognize him as being the murderer?" Weary asked him curiously.
Andy moved uneasily on his bed. "No, I didn't. By gracious, you must think I'm a plumb fool!"
"Well, yuh sure hit the mark, whether yuh meant to or not," Pink asserted. "He was the jasper, all right. Look how he was glaring at yuh while you were telling about it. He knew he was the party, and having a guilty conscience, he naturally supposed yuh recognized him from the start."
"Well, I didn't," snapped Andy ungraciously, and they put it down to the peevishness of invalidism and overlooked the tone.
"Chip has given his description in to the sheriff," soothed Weary, "and if he gets off he's sure a good one. And I heard that the sheriff wired down to the San Simon country and told 'em their man was up here. Mama! What bad breaks a man will make when he's on the dodge! If Blink had kept his face closed and acted normal, nobody would have got next. Andy didn't know he was the fellow that done it. But it sure was queer, the way the play come up. Wasn't it, Andy?"
Andy merely grunted. He did not like to dwell upon the subject, and he showed it plainly.
"By golly! he must sure have had it in for that fellow," mused Slim ponderously, "to kill him the way Andy says he did. By golly, yuh can't wonder his eyes stuck out when he heard Andy telling us all about it!"
"I betche he lays for Andy yet, and gits him," predicted Happy Jack felicitously. "He won't rest whilst an eye-witness is running around loose. I betche he's cached in the hills right now, watching his chance."
"Oh, go to hell, the whole lot of yuh!" flared Andy, rising to an elbow. "What the dickens are yuh roosting around here for? Why don't yuh go on out to camp where yuh belong? You're a nice bunch to set around comforting the sick! Vamos, darn yuh!"
Whereupon they took the hint and departed, assuring Andy, by way of farewell, that he was an unappreciative cuss and didn't deserve any sympathy or sick-calls. They also condoled openly with Pink because he had been detailed as nurse, and advised him to sit right down on Andy if he got too sassy and haughty over being shot up by a real outlaw. They said that any fool could build himself a bunch of trouble with a homicidal lunatic like Blink, and it wasn't anything to get vain over.
Pink slammed the door upon their jibes and offered Andy a cigarette he had just rolled; not that Andy was too sick to roll his own, but because Pink was notably soft-hearted toward a sick man and was prone to indulge himself in trifling attentions.
"Yuh don't want to mind that bunch," he placated. "They mean all right, but they just can't help joshing a man to death."
Andy accepted also a light for the cigarette, and smoked moodily. "It ain't their joshing," he explained after a minute "It's puzzling over what I can't understand that gets on my nerves. I can't see through the thing, Pink, no way I look at it."
"Looks plain enough to me," Pink answered. "Uh course, it's funny Blink should be the man, and be setting there listening—"
"Yes, but darn it all, Pink, there's a funnier side to it than that, and it's near driving me crazy trying to figure it out. Yuh needn't tell anybody, Pink, but it's like this: I was just merely and simply romancing when I told that there blood-curdling tale! I never was south uh the Wyoming line except when I was riding in a circus and toured through, and that's the truth. I never was down in the San Simon basin. I never set on no pinnacle with no field glasses—" Andy stopped short his labored confession to gaze, with deep disgust, upon Pink's convulsed figure. "Well," he snapped, settling back on the pillow, "laugh, darn yuh! and show your ignorance! By gracious, I wish I could see the joke!" He reached up gingerly and readjusted the bandage on his head, eyed Pink sourly a moment, and with a grunt eloquent of the mood he was in turned his face to the wall.
* * * * *
MISS MARTIN'S MISSION
When Andy Green, fresh-combed and shining with soap and towel polish, walked into the dining-room of the Dry Lake Hotel, he felt not the slightest premonition of what was about to befall. His chief sensation was the hunger which comes of early rising and of many hours spent in the open, and beyond that he was hoping that the Chinaman cook had made some meat-pie, like he had the week before. His eyes, searching unobtrusively the long table bearing the unmistakable signs of many other hungry men gone before—for Andy was late—failed to warn him. He pulled out his chair and sat down, still looking for meat-pie.
"Good afternoon!" cried an eager, feminine voice just across the table.
Andy started guiltily. He had been dimly aware that some one was sitting there, but, being occupied with other things, had not given a thought to the sitter, or a glance. Now he did both while he said good afternoon with perfunctory politeness.
"Such a beautiful day, isn't it? so invigorating, like rare, old wine!"
Andy assented somewhat dubiously; it had never just struck him that way; he thought fleetingly that perhaps it was because he had never come across any rare, old wine. He ventured another glance. She was not young, and she wore glasses, behind which twinkled very bright eyes of a shade of brown. She had unpleasantly regular hair waves on her temples, and underneath the waves showed streaks of gray. Also, she wore a black silk waist, and somebody's picture made into a brooch at her throat. Further, Andy dared not observe. It was enough for one glance. He looked again for the much-desired meat-pie.
The strange lady ingratiatingly passed him the bread. "You're a cowboy, aren't you?" was the disconcerting question that accompanied the bread.
"Well, I—er—I punch cows," he admitted guardedly, his gaze elsewhere than on her face.
"I knew you were a cowboy, the moment you entered the door! I could tell by the tan and the straight, elastic walk, and the silk handkerchief knotted around your throat in that picturesque fashion. (Oh, I'm older than you, and dare speak as I think!) I've read a great deal about cowboys, and I do admire you all as a type of free, great-hearted, noble manhood!"
Andy looked exactly as if someone had caught him at something exceedingly foolish. He tried to sugar his coffee calmly, and so sent it sloshing all over the saucer.
"Do you live near here?" she asked next, beaming upon him in the orthodox, motherly fashion.
"Yes, ma'am, not very near," he was betrayed into saying—and she might make what she could of it. He had not said "ma'am" before since he had gone to school.
"Oh, I've heard how you Western folks measure distances," she teased. "About how many miles?"
"I suppose that is not far, to you knights of the plains. At home it would be called a dreadfully long journey. Why, I have known numbers of old men and women who have never been so far from their own doors in their lives! What would you think, I wonder, of their little forty acre farms?"
Andy had been brought to his sixteenth tumultuous birthday on a half-acre in the edge of a good-sized town, but he did not say so. He shook his head vaguely and said he didn't know. Andy Green, however, was not famous for clinging ever to the truth.
"You out here in this great, wide, free land, with the free winds ever blowing and the clouds—"
"Will you pass the butter, please?" Andy hated to interrupt, but he was hungry.
The strange lady passed the butter and sent with it a smile. "I have read and heard so much about this wild, free life, and my heart has gone out to the noble fellows living their lonely life with their cattle and their faithful dogs, lying beside their camp-fires at night while the stars stood guard—"
Andy forgot his personal embarrassment and began to perk up his ears. This was growing interesting.
"—And I have felt how lonely they must be, with their rude fare and few pleasures, and what a field there must be among them for a great and noble work; to uplift them and bring into their lonely lives a broader, deeper meaning; to help them to help themselves to be better, nobler men and women—"
"We don't have any lady cowpunchers out here," interposed Andy mildly.
The strange lady had merely gone astray a bit, being accustomed to addressing Mothers' Meetings and the like. She recovered herself easily. "Nobler men, the bulwarks of our nation." She stopped and eyed Andy archly. Andy, having observed that her neck was scrawny, with certain cords down the sides that moved unpleasantly when she talked, tried not to look.
"I wonder if you can guess what brings me out here, away from home and friends! Can you guess?"
Andy thought of several things, but he could not feel that it would be polite to mention them. Agent for complexion stuff, for instance, and next to that, wanting a husband. He shook his head again and looked at his potato.
"You can't guess?" The tone was the one commonly employed for the encouragement, and consequent demoralization of, a primary class. Andy realized that he was being talked down to, and his combativeness awoke. "Well, away back in my home town, a woman's club has been thinking of all you lonely fellows, and have felt their hearts swell with a desire to help you—so far from home and mother's influence, with only the coarse pleasures of the West, and amid all the temptations that lie in wait—" She caught herself back from speech-making—"and they have sent me—away out here—to be your friend; to help you to help yourselves become better, truer men and—" She did not say women, though, poor soul, she came near it. "So, I am going to be your friend. I want to get in touch with you all, first; to win your confidence and teach you to look upon me in the light of a mother. Then, when I have won your confidence, I want to organize a Cowboys' Mutual Improvement and Social Society, to help you in the way of self-improvement and to resist the snares laid for homeless boys like you. Don't you think I'm very—brave?" She was smiling at him again, leaning back in her chair and regarding him playfully over her glasses.
"You sure are," Andy assented, deliberately refraining from saying "yes, ma'am," as had been his impulse.
"To come away out here—all alone—among all you wild cowboys with your guns buckled on and your wicked little mustangs—Are you sure you won't shoot me?"
Andy eyed her pityingly. If she meant it, he thought, she certainly was wabbly in her mind. If she thought that was the only kind of talk he could savvy, then she was a blamed idiot; either way, he felt antagonistic. "The law shall be respected in your case," he told her, very gravely.
She smiled almost as if she could see the joke; after which she became twitteringly, eagerly in earnest. "Since you live near here, you must know the Whitmores. Miss Whitmore came out here, two or three years ago, and married her brother's coachman, I believe—though I've heard conflicting stories about it; some have said he was an artist, and others that he was a jockey, or horse-trainer. I heard too that he was a cowboy; but Miss Whitmore certainly wrote about this young man driving her brother's carriage. However, she is married and I have a letter of introduction to her. The president of our club used to be a schoolmate of her mother. I shall stop with them—I have heard so much about the Western hospitality—and shall get into touch with my cowboys from the vantage point of proximity. Did you say you know them?"
"I work for them," Andy told her truthfully in his deep amazement, and immediately repented and wished that he had not been so virtuous. With Andy, to wish was to do—given the opportunity.
"Then I can go with you out to their farm—ranchero! How nice! And on the way you can tell me all about yourself and your life and hopes—because I do want to get in touch with you all, you know—and I'll tell you all my plans for you; I have some beautiful plans! And we'll be very good friends by the time we reach our destination, I'm sure. I want you to feel from the start that I am a true friend, and that I have your welfare very much at heart. Without the confidence of my cowboys, I can do nothing. Are there any more at home like you?"
Andy looked at her suspiciously, but it was so evident she never meant to quote comic opera, that he merely wondered anew. He struggled feebly against temptation, and fell from grace quite willingly. It isn't polite to "throw a load" at a lady, but then Andy felt that neither was it polite for a lady to come out with the avowed intention of improving him and his fellows; it looked to him like butting in where she was not wanted, or needed.
"Yes, ma'am, there's quite a bunch, and they're pretty bad. I don't believe you can do much for 'em." He spoke regretfully.
"Do they—drink?" she asked, leaning forward and speaking in the hushed voice with which some women approach a tabooed subject.
"Yes ma'am, they do. They're hard drinkers. And they"—he eyed her speculatively, trying to guess the worst sins in her category—"they play cards—gamble—and swear, and smoke cigarettes and—"
"All the more need of someone to help them overcome," she decided solemnly. "What you need is a coffee-house and reading room here, so that the young men will have some place to go other than the saloons. I shall see to that right away. And with the Mutual Improvement and Social Society organized and working smoothly, and a library of standard works for recreation, together with earnest personal efforts to promote temperance and clean-living, I feel that a wonderful work can be done. I saw you drive into town, so I know you can take me out with you; I hope you are going to start soon. I feel very impatient to reach the field and put my sickle to the harvest."
Andy mentally threw up his hands before this unshakable person. He had meant to tell her that he had come on horseback, but she had forestalled him. He had meant to discourage her—head her off, he called it to himself. But there seemed no way of doing it. He pushed back his chair and rose, though he had not tasted his pie, and it was lemon pie at that. He had some faint notion of hurrying out of town and home before she could have time to get ready; but she followed him to the door and chirped over his shoulder that it wouldn't take her two minutes to put on her wraps. Andy groaned.
He tried—or started to try—holding out at Rusty Brown's till she gave up in despair; but it occurred to him that Chip had asked him to hurry back. Andy groaned again, and got the team.
She did not wait for him to drive around to the hotel for her; possibly she suspected his intentions. At any rate, she came nipping down the street toward the stable just as he was hooking the last trace, and she was all ready and had a load of bags and bundles.
"I'm not going to begin by making trouble for you," she twittered. "I thought I could just as well come down here to the wagon as have you drive back to the hotel. And my trunk did not come on the train with me, so I'm all ready."
Andy, having nothing in mind that he dared say to a lady, helped her into the wagon.
At sundown or thereabouts—for the days were short and he had a load of various things besides care—Andy let himself wearily into the bunk-house where was assembled the Happy Family. He merely grunted when they spoke to him, and threw himself heavily down upon his bunk.
"For Heaven's sake, somebody roll me a cigarette! I'm too wore out to do a thing, and I haven't had a smoke since dinner," he groaned, after a minute.
"Sick?" asked Pink solicitously.
"Sick as a dog! water, water!" moaned Andy. All at once he rolled over upon his face and shook with laughter more than a little hysterical, and to the questioning of the Happy Family gave no answer but howls. The Happy Family began to look at one another uneasily.
"Aw, let up!" Happy Jack bellowed. "You give a man the creeps just to listen at yuh."
"I'm going to empty the water-bucket over yuh in a minute," Pink threatened, "Go get it, Cal; it's half full."
Andy knew well the metal of which the Happy Family was made, and the night was cool for a ducking. He rolled back so that they could see his face, and struggled for calm. In a minute he sat up and merely gurgled.
"Well, say, I had to do something or die," he explained, gasping. "I've gone through a heap, the last few hours, and I was right where I couldn't do a thing. By gracious, I struck the ranch about as near bug-house as a man can get and recover. Where's a cigarette?"
"What you've gone through—and I don't give a cuss what it is—ain't a marker for what's going to happen if yuh don't loosen up on the history," said Jack Bates firmly.
Andy smoked hungrily while he surveyed the lot. "How calm and innocent yuh all look," he observed musingly, "with your hats on and saying words that's rude, and smoking the vile weed regardless, never dreaming what's going to drop, pretty soon quick. Yuh make me think of a hymn-song my step-mother used to sing a lot, about 'They dreamed not of danger, those sinners of old, whom—"
"Hand me the water bucket," directed Pink musically.
"Oh, well—take it from the shoulder, then; I was only trying to lead up to it gradual, but yuh will have it raw. You poor, dear cowboys, that live your lonely lives watching over your cattle with your faithful dogs and the stars for company, you're going to be improved. (You'll sure stand a lot of it, too!) A woman's relief club back East has felt the burden of your no-accountness and general orneriness, and has sent one of its leading members out here to reform yuh. You're going to be hazed into a Cowboys' Mutual Improvement and Social Society, and quit smoking cigarettes and cussing your hosses and laying over Rusty's bar when yuh ride into town; and for pleasure and recreation you're going to read Tennyson's poems, and when yuh get caught out in a blizzard yuh'll be heeled with Whittier's Snowbound, pocket edition. Emerson and Browning and Shakespeare and Gatty" (Andy misquoted; he meant Goethe) "and all them stiffs is going to be set before yuh regular and in your mind constant, purging it of unclean thoughts, and grammar is going to be learnt yuh as a side-line. Yuh—"
"Mama mine," broke in Weary. "I have thought sometimes, when Andy broke loose with that imagination uh his, that he'd gone the limit; but next time he always raises the limit out uh sight. He's like the Good Book says: he's prone to lie as the sparks fly-upward."
Andy gazed belligerently at the skeptical group. "I brought her out from town," he said doggedly, "and whilst I own up to having an imagination, she's stranger than fiction. She'd make the fellow that wrote "She" lay down with a headache. She's come out here to help us cowboys live nobler, better lives. She's going to learn yuh Browning, darn yuh! and Emerson and Gatty. She said so. She's going to fill your hearts with love for dumb creatures, so when yuh get set afoot out on the range, or anything like that, yuh won't put in your time cussing the miles between you and camp; you'll have a pocket edition of 'Much Ado About Nothing' to read, or the speech Mark Anthony made when he was running for office. Or supposing yuh left 'em all in camp, yuh'll study nature. There's sermons in stones, she says. She's going to send for a pocket library that can easy be took on roundup—"
"Say, I guess that's about enough," interrupted Pink restlessly. "We all admit you're the biggest liar that ever come West of the Mississippi, without you laying it on any deeper."
Whereupon Andy rose in wrath and made a suggestive movement with his fist. "If I was romancing," he declared indignantly, "I'd do a smoother job; when I do lie, I notice yuh all believe it—till yuh find out different. And by gracious yuh might do as much when I'm telling the truth! Go up to the White House and see, darn yuh! If yuh don't find Miss Verbena Martin up there telling the Little Doctor how her heart goes out to her dear cowboys and how she's going to get in touch with 'em and help 'em lead nobler, better lives, you can kick me all round the yard. And I hope, by gracious, she does improve yuh! Yuh sure do need it a lot."
The Happy Family discussed the tale freely and without regard for the feelings of Andy; they even became heated and impolite, and they made threats. They said that a liar like him ought to be lynched or gagged, and that he was a disgrace to the outfit. In the end, however, they decided to go and see, just to prove to Andy that they knew he lied. And though it was settled that Weary and Pink should be the investigating committee, by the time they were halfway to the White House they had the whole Happy Family trailing at their heels. A light snow had begun to fall since dark, and they hunched their shoulders against it as they went. Grouped uncomfortably just outside the circle of light cast through the unshaded window, they gazed silently in upon Chip and the Little Doctor and J.G. Whitmore, and upon one other; a strange lady in a black silk shirtwaist and a gold watch suspended from her neck by a chaste, black silken cord; a strange lady with symmetrical waves in her hair and gray on her temples, and with glasses and an eager way of speaking.
She was talking very rapidly and animatedly, and the others were listening and stealing glances now and then at one another. Once, while they watched, the Little Doctor looked at Chip and then turned her face toward the window. She was biting her lips in the way the Happy Family had learned to recognize as a great desire to laugh. It all looked suspicious and corroborative of Andy's story, and the Happy Family shifted their feet uneasily in the loose snow.
They watched, and saw the strange lady clasp her hands together and lean forward, and where her voice had before come to them with no words which they could catch distinctly, they heard her say something quite clearly in her enthusiasm: "Eight real cowboys here, almost within reach! I must see them before I sleep! I must get in touch with them at once, and show them that I am a true friend. Come, Mrs. Bennett! Won't you take me where they are and let me meet my boys? for they are mine in spirit; my heart goes out to them—"
The Happy Family waited to hear no more, but went straightway back whence they had come, and their going savored of flight.
"Mama mine! she's coming down to the bunkhouse!" said Weary under his breath, and glanced back over his shoulder at the White House bulking large in the night. "Let's go on down to the stable and roost in the hay a while."
"She'll out-wind us, and be right there waiting when we come back," objected Andy, with the wisdom gained from his brief acquaintance with the lady. "If she's made up her mind to call on us, there's no way under Heaven to head her off."
They halted by the bunk-house door, undecided whether to go in or to stay out in the open.
"By golly, she don't improve me!" Slim asserted pettishly. "I hate books like strychnine, and, by golly, she can't make me read 'em, neither."
"If there's anything I do despise it's po'try," groaned Cal Emmett.
"Emerson and Browning and Shakespeare and Gatty," named Andy gloomily.
Whereat Pink suddenly pushed open the door and went in as goes one who knows exactly what he is about to do. They followed him distressfully and silently. Pink went immediately to his bunk and began pulling off his boots.
"I'm going to bed," he told them. "You fellows can stay up and entertain her if yuh want to—I won't!"
They caught the idea and disrobed hastily, though the evening was young. Irish blew out the lamp and dove under the blankets just as voices came faintly from up the hill, so that when Chip rapped a warning with his knuckles on the door, there was no sound within save an artificial snore from the corner where lay Pink. Chip was not in the habit of knocking before he entered, but he repeated the summons with emphasis.
"Who's there-e?" drawled sleepily a voice—the voice of Weary.
"Oh, I do believe they've retired!" came, in a perturbed feminine tone, to the listening ears of the Happy Family.
"Gone to bed?" cried Chip gravely.
"Hours ago," lied Andy fluently. "We're plumb wore out. What's happened?"
"Oh, don't disturb the poor fellows! They're tired and need their rest," came the perturbed tone again. After that the voices and the footsteps went up the hill again, and the Happy Family breathed freer. Incidentally, Pink stopped snoring and made a cigarette.
Going to bed at seven-thirty or thereabouts was not the custom of the Happy Family, but they stayed under the covers and smoked and discussed the situation. They dared not have a light, and the night was longer than they had ever known a night to be, for it was late before they slept. It was well that Miss Verbena Martin could not overhear their talk, which was unchivalrous and unfriendly in the extreme. The general opinion seemed to be that old maid improvers would better stay at home where they might possibly be welcome, and that when the Happy Family wanted improving they would let her know. Cal Emmett said that he wouldn't mind, if they had only sent a young, pretty one. Happy Jack prophesied plenty of trouble, and boasted that she couldn't haul him into no s'ciety. Slim declared again that by golly, she wouldn't do no improving on him, and the others—Weary and Irish and Pink and Jack Bates and Andy—discussed ways and means and failed always to agree. When each one hoots derision at all plans but his own, it is easy guessing what will be the result. In this particular instance the result was voices raised in argument—voices that reached Chip, grinning and listening on the porch of the White House—and tardy slumber overtaking a disgruntled Happy Family on the brink of violence.
It was not a particularly happy Family that woke to memory and a snowy Sunday; woke late, because of the disturbing evening. When they spoke to one another their voices were but growls, and when they trailed through the snow to their breakfast they went in moody silence.
They had just brightened a bit before Patsy's Sunday breakfast, which included hot-cakes and maple syrup, when the door was pushed quietly open and the Little Doctor came in, followed closely by Miss Martin; an apologetic Little Doctor, who seemed, by her very manner of entering, to implore them not to blame her for the intrusion. Miss Martin was not apologetic. She was disconcertingly eager and glad to meet them, and pathetically anxious to win their favor.
Miss Martin talked, and the Happy Family ate hurriedly and with lowered eyelids. Miss Martin asked questions, and the Happy Family kicked one another's shins under the table by way of urging someone to reply; for this reason there was a quite perceptible pause between question and answer, and the answer was invariably "the soul of wit"—according to that famous recipe. Miss Martin told them naively all about her hopes and her plans and herself, and about the distant woman's club that took so great an interest in their welfare, and the Happy Family listened dejectedly and tried to be polite. Also, they did not relish the hot-cakes as usual, and Patsy had half the batter left when the meal was over, instead of being obliged to mix more, as was usually the case.
When they had eaten, the Happy Family filed out decorously and went hastily down to the stables. They did not say much, but they did glance over their shoulders uneasily once or twice.
"The old girl is sure hot on our trail," Pink remarked when they were safely through the big gate. "She must uh got us mixed up with some Wild West show, in her mind. Josephine!"
"Well, by golly, she don't improve me," Slim repeated for about the tenth time.
The horses were all fed and everything tidy for the day, and several saddles were being hauled down significantly from their pegs, when Irish delivered himself of a speech, short but to the point. Irish had been very quiet and had taken no part in the discussion that had waxed hot all that morning.
"Now, see here," he said in his decided way. "Maybe it didn't strike you as anything but funny—which it sure is. But yuh want to remember that the old girl has come a dickens of a long ways to do us some good. She's been laying awake nights thinking about how we'll get to calling her something nice: Angel of the Roundup, maybe—you can't tell, she's that romantic. And right here is where I'm going to give the old girl the worth of her money. It won't hurt us, letting her talk wild and foolish at us once a week, maybe; and the poor old thing'll just be tickled to death thinking what a lot uh good she's doing. She won't stay long, and—well, I go in. If she'll feel better and more good to the world improving me, she's got my permission. I guess I can stand it a while."
The Happy Family looked at him queerly, for if there was a black sheep in the flock, Irish was certainly the man; and to have Irish take the stand he did was, to say the least, unexpected.
Cal Emmett blurted the real cause of their astonishment. "You'll have to sign the pledge, first pass," he said. "That's going to be the ante in her game. How—"
"Well, I don't play nobody's hand, or stake anybody's chips, but my own," Irish retorted, the blood showing under the tan on his cheeks.
"And we won't das't roll a cigarette, even, by golly!" reminded Slim. For Miss Martin, whether intentionally or not, had made plain to them the platform of the new society.
Irish got some deep creases between his eyebrows, and put back his saddle. "You can do as yuh like," he said, coldly. "I'm going to stay and go to meeting this afternoon, according to her invite. If it's going to make that poor old freak feel any better thinking she's a real missionary—" He turned and walked out of the stable without finishing the sentence, and the Happy Family stood quite still and watched him go.
Pink it was who first spoke. "I ain't the boy to let any long-legged son-of-a-gun like Irish hit a gait I can't follow," he dimpled, and took the saddle reluctantly off Toots. "If he can stand it, I guess I can."
Weary loosened his latigo. "If Cadwolloper is going to learn poetry, I will, too," he grinned. "Mama! it'll be good as a three-ringed circus! I never thought uh that, before. I couldn't miss it."
"Oh, well, if you fellows take a hand, I'll sure have to be there to see," Andy decided. "Two o'clock, did she say?"
* * * * *
"I hate to be called a quitter," Pink remarked dispiritedly to the Happy Family in general; a harassed looking Happy Family, which sat around and said little, and watched the clock. In an hour they would be due to attend the second meeting of the M.I.S.S.—and one would think, from the look of them, that they were about to be hanged. "I hate to be called a quitter, but right here's where I lay 'em down. The rest of yuh can go on being improved, if yuh want to—darned if I will, though. I'm all in."
"I don't recollect hearing anybody say we wanted to," growled Jack Bates. "Irish, maybe, is still burning with a desire to be nice and chivalrous; but you can count me out. One dose is about all I can stand."
"By golly, I wouldn't go and feel that foolish again, not if yuh paid me for it," Slim declared.
Irish grinned and reached for his hat. "I done my damnettest," he said cheerfully. "I made the old girl happy once; now, one Irish Mallory is due to have a little joy coming his way. I'm going to town."
"'Break, break, break, on thy cold, gray crags, oh sea, And I would that my tongue could utter the thoughts that come over me.'
"You will observe, gentlemen, the beautiful sentiment, the euphonious rhythm, the noble—" Weary went down, still declaiming mincingly, beneath four irate bodies that hurled themselves toward him and upon him.
"We'll break, break, break every bone in your body if you don't shut up. You will observe the beautiful sentiment of that a while," cried Pink viciously. "I've had the euphonious rhythm of my sleep broke up ever since I set there and listened at her for two hours. Josephine!"
Irish stopped with his hand on the door knob. "I was the jay that started it," he admitted contritely. "But, honest, I never had a hunch she was plumb locoed; I thought she was just simply foolish. Come on to town, boys!"
Such is the power of suggestion that in fifteen minutes the Happy Family had passed out of sight over the top of the grade; all save Andy Green, who told them he would be along after a while, and that they need not wait. He looked at the clock, smoked a meditative cigarette and went up to the White House, to attend the second meeting of the Mutual Improvement and Social Society.
When he faced alone Miss Verbena Martin, and explained that the other members were unavoidably absent because they had a grudge against a man in Dry Lake and had gone in to lynch him and burn the town, Miss Martin was shocked into postponing the meeting. Andy said he was glad, because he wanted to go in and see the fight; undoubtedly, he assured her, there would be a fight, and probably a few of them would get killed off. He reminded her that he had told her right in the start that they were a bad lot, and that she would have hard work reforming them; and finally, he made her promise that she would not mention to anyone what he had told her, because it wouldn't be safe for him, or for her, if they ever got to hear of it. After that Andy also took the trail to town, and he went at a gallop and smiled as he rode.
Miss Martin reflected shudderingly upon the awful details of the crime, as hinted at by Andy, and packed her trunk. It might be brave and noble to stay and work among all those savages, but she doubted much whether it were after all her duty. She thought of many ways in which she could do more real good nearer home. She had felt all along that these cowboys were an untrustworthy lot; she had noticed them glancing at one another in a secret and treacherous manner, all through the last meeting, and she was positive they had not given her that full confidence without which no good can be accomplished. That fellow they called Happy looked capable of almost any crime; she had never felt quite safe in his presence.
Miss Martin pictured them howling and dancing around the burning dwellings of their enemies, shooting every one they could see; Miss Martin had imagination, of a sort. But while she pictured the horrors of an Indian massacre she continued to pack her suit-case and to consult often her watch. When she could do no more it occurred to her that she would better see if someone could take her to the station. Fortunately for all concerned, somebody could. One might go further and say that somebody was quite willing to strain a point, even, in order to get her there in time for the next train.
* * * * *
The Happy Family was gathered in Rusty Brown's place, watching Irish do things to a sheep-man from Lonesome Prairie, in a game of pool. They were just giving vent to a prolonged whoop of derision at the sheep-man's play, when a rig flashed by the window. Weary stopped with his mouth wide open and stared; leaned to the window and craned to see more clearly.
"Mama mine!" he ejaculated incredulously. "I could swear I saw Miss Verbena in that rig, with her trunk, and headed towards the depot. Feel my pulse, Cadwolloper, and see if I'm normal."
But Pink was on his way to the back door, and from there climbed like a cat to the roof of the coal-house, where, as he knew from experience, one could see the trail to the depot, and the depot itself.
"It's sure her," he announced. "Chip's driving like hell, and the smoke uh the train's just coming around the bend from the big field. Wonder what struck her so sudden?" He turned and looked down into the grinning face of Andy Green.
"She was real insulted because you fellows played hookey," Andy explained. "I tried to explain, but it didn't help none. I don't believe her heart went out to us like she claimed, anyhow."
* * * * *
HAPPY JACK, WILD MAN.
Happy Jack, over on the Shonkin range, saw how far it was to the river and mopped the heat-crimsoned face of him with a handkerchief not quite as clean as it might have been. He hoped that the Flying U wagons would be where he had estimated that they would be; for he was aweary of riding with a strange outfit, where his little personal peculiarities failed to meet with that large tolerance accorded by the Happy Family. He didn't think much of the Shonkin crew; grangers and pilgrims, he called them disgustedly in his mind. He hoped the Old Man would not send him on that long trip with them south of the Highwoods—which is what he was on his way to find out about. What Happy Jack was hoping for, was to have the Old Man—as represented by Chip—send one of the boys back with him to bring over what Flying U cattle had been gathered, together with Happy's bed and string of horses. Then he would ride with the Happy Family on the familiar range that was better, in his eyes, than any other range that ever lay outdoors—and the Shonkin outfit could go to granny. (Happy did not, however, say "granny").
He turned down the head of a coulee which promised to lead him, by the most direct route—if any route in the Badlands can be called direct—to the river, across which, and a few miles up on Suction Creek, he confidently expected to find the Flying U wagons. The coulee wound aimlessly, with precipitous sides that he could not climb, even by leading his horse. Happy Jack, under the sweltering heat of mid-June sunlight, once more mopped his face, now more crimson than ever, and relapsed into his habitual gloom. Just when he was telling himself pessimistically that the chances were he would run slap out on a cut bank where he couldn't get down to the river at all, the coulee turned again and showed the gray-blue water slithering coolly past, with the far bank green and sloping invitingly.
The horse hurried forward at a shuffling trot and thrust his hot muzzle into the delicious coolness. Happy Jack slipped off and, lying flat on his stomach, up-stream from the horse, drank deep and long, then stood up, wiped his face and considered the necessity of crossing. Just at this point the river was not so wide as in others, and for that reason the current flowed swiftly past. Not too swiftly, however, if one took certain precautions. Happy Jack measured mentally the strength of the current and the proper amount of caution which it would be expedient to use, and began his preparations; for the sun was sliding down hill toward the western skyline, and he wished very much to reach the wagons in time for supper, if he could.
Standing in the shade of the coulee wall, he undressed deliberately, folding each garment methodically as he took it off. When the pile was complete to socks and boots, he rolled it into a compact bundle and tied it firmly upon his saddle. Stranger, his horse, was a good swimmer, and always swam high out of water. He hoped the things would not get very wet; still, the current was strong, and his characteristic pessimism suggested that they would be soaked to the last thread. So, naked as our first ancestor, he urged his horse into the stream, and when it was too deep for kicking—Stranger was ever uncertain and not to be trusted too far—he caught him firmly by the tail and felt the current grip them both. The feel of the water was glorious after so long a ride in the hot sun, and Happy Jack reveled in the cool swash of it up his shoulders to the back of his neck, as Stranger swam out and across to the sloping, green bank on the home side. When his feet struck bottom, Happy Jack should have waded also—but the water was so deliciously cool, slapping high up on his shoulders like that; he still floated luxuriously, towed by Stranger—until Stranger, his footing secure, glanced back at Happy sliding behind like a big, red fish, snorted and plunged up and on to dry land.