THE LURE OF THE DIM TRAILS
By B. M. Bower
CHAPTER I. IN SEARCH OF THE WESTERN TONE
"What do you care, anyway?" asked Reeve-Howard philosophically. "It isn't as if you depended on the work for a living. Why worry over the fact that a mere pastime fails to be financially a success. You don't need to write—"
"Neither do you need to slave over those dry-point things," Thurston retorted, in none the best humor with his comforter "You've an income bigger than mine; yet you toil over Grecian-nosed women with untidy hair as if each one meant a meal and a bed."
"A meal and a bed—that's good; you must think I live like a king."
"And I notice you hate like the mischief to fail, even though."
"Only I never have failed," put in Reeve-Howard, with the amused complacency born of much adulation.
Thurston kicked a foot-rest out of his way. "Well, I have. The fashion now is for swashbuckling tales with a haze of powder smoke rising to high heaven. The public taste runs to gore and more gore, and kidnappings of beautiful maidens-bah!"
"Follow the fashion then—if you must write. Get out of your pink tea and orchid atmosphere, and take your heroines out West—away out, beyond the Mississippi, and let them be kidnapped. Or New Mexico would do."
"New Mexico is also beyond the Mississippi, I believe," Thurston hinted.
"Perhaps it is. What I mean is, write what the public wants, since you don't relish failure. Why don't you do things about the plains? It ought to be easy, and you were born out there somewhere. It should come natural."
"I have," Thurston sighed. "My last rejection states that the local color is weak and unconvincing. Hang the local color!" The foot-rest suffered again.
Reeve-Howard was getting into his topcoat languidly, as he did everything else. "The thing to do, then," he drawled, "is to go out and study up on it. Get in touch with that country, and your local color will convince. Personally though, I like those little society skits you do—"
"Skits!" exploded Thurston. "My last was a four-part serial. I never did a skit in my life."
"Beg pardon-which is more than you did after accusing my studies of having untidy hair. Don't look so glum, Phil. Go out and learn your West; a month or so will put you up to date—and by Jove! I half envy you the trip."
That is what put the idea into Thurston's head; and as Thurston's ideas generally bore fruit of one sort or another, he went out that very day and ordered from his tailor a complete riding outfit, and because he was a good customer the tailor consented to rush the work. It seemed to Thurston, looking over cuts of the very latest styles in riding clothes, that already he was breathing the atmosphere of the plains.
That night he stayed at home and dreamed, of the West. His memory, coupled with what he had heard and idealized by his imagination, conjured dim visions of what he had once known had known and forgotten; of a land here men and conditions harked back to the raw foundations of civilization; where wide plains flecked with sage-brush and ribboned with faint, brown trails, spread away and away to a far sky-line. For Phil Thurston was range-born, if not range-bred, His father had chosen always to live out on the edge of things—out where the trails of men are dim and far apart-and the silent prairie bequeaths a heritage of distance-hunger to her sons.
While he brooded grew a keen longing to see again the little town huddled under the bare, brown hills that shut out the world; to see the gay-blanketed Indians who stole like painted shadows about the place, and the broad river always hurrying away to the sunrise. He had been afraid of the river and of the bare hills and the Indians. He felt that his mother, also, had been afraid. He pictured again—and he picture was blurred and indistinct-the day when strange men had brought his father mysteriously home; men who were silent save for the shuffling of their feet, and who carried their big hats awkwardly in their hands.
There had been a day of hushed voices and much weeping and gloom, and he had been afraid to play. Then they had carried his father as mysteriously away again, and his mother had hugged him close and cried bitterly and long. The rest was blank. When one is only five, the present quickly blurs what is past, and he wondered that, after all these years, he should feel the grip of something very like homesickness—and for something more than half forgotten. But though he did not realize it, in his veins flowed the adventurous blood of his father, and to it the dim trails were calling.
In four days he set his face eagerly toward the dun deserts and the sage-brush gray.
At Chicago a man took the upper berth in Thurston's section, and settled into the seat with a deep sigh—presumably of thankfulness. Thurston, with the quick eye of those who write, observed the whiteness of his ungloved hands, the coppery tan of cheeks and throat, the clear keenness of his eyes, and the four dimples in the crown of his soft, gray hat, and recognized him as a fine specimen of the Western type of farmer, returning home from the stockman's Mecca. After that he went calmly back to his magazine and forgot all about him.
Twenty miles out, the stranger leaned forward and tapped him lightly on the knee. "Say, I hate to interrupt yuh," he began in a whimsical drawl, evidently characteristic of the man, "but I'd like to know where it is I've seen yuh before."
Thurston glanced up impersonally, hesitated between annoyance and a natural desire to, be courteous, and replied that he had no memory of any previous meeting.
"Mebby not," admitted the other, and searched the face of Thurston with his keen eyes. It came to Phil that they were also a bit wistful, but he went unsympathetically back to his reading.
Five miles more and be touched Thurston again, apologetically yet insistently. "Say," he drawled, "ain't your name Thurston? I'll bet a carload uh steers it is—Bud Thurston. And your home range is Fort Benton."
Phil stared and confessed to all but the "Bud."
"That's what me and your dad always called yuh," the man asserted. "Well, I'll be hanged! But I knew it. I knew I'd run acrost yuh somewheres. You're the dead image uh your dad, Bill Thurston. And me and Bill freighted together from Whoop-up to Benton along in the seventies. Before yuh was born we was chums. I don't reckon you'd remember me? Hank Graves, that used to pack yuh around on his back, and fill yuh up on dried prunes—when dried prunes was worth money? Yuh used to call 'em 'frumes,' and—Why, it was me with your dad when the Indians pot-shot him at Chimney Rock; and it was me helped your mother straighten things up so she could pull out, back where she come from. She never took to the West much. How is she? Dead? Too bad; she was a mighty fine woman, your mother was.
"Well, I'll-be-hanged! Bud Thurston little, tow-headed Bud that used to holler for 'frumes' if he seen me coming a mile off. Doggone your measly hide, where's all them pink apurns yuh used to wear?" He leaned back and laughed—a silent, inner convulsion of pure gladness.
Philip Thurston was, generally speaking, a conservative young man and one slow to make friends; slower still to discard them. He was astonished to feel a choky sensation in his throat and a stinging of eyelids, and a leap in his blood. To be thus taken possession of by a blunt-speaking stranger not at all in his class; to be addressed as "Bud," and informed that he once devoured dried prunes; to be told "Doggone your measly hide" should have affronted him much. Instead, he seemed to be swept mysteriously back into the primitive past, and to feel akin to this stranger with the drawl and the keen eyes. It was the blood of his father coming to its own.
From that hour the two were friends. Hank Graves, in his whimsical drawl, told Phil things about his father that made his blood tingle with pride; his father, whom he had almost forgotten, yet who had lived bravely his life, daring where other men quailed, going steadfastly upon his way when other men hesitated.
So, borne swiftly into the West they talked, and the time seemed short. The train had long since been racing noisily over the silent prairies spread invitingly with tender green—great, lonely, inscrutable, luring men with a spell as sure and as strong as is the spell of the sea.
The train reeled across a trestle that spanned a deep, dry gash in the earth. In the green bottom huddled a cluster of pygmy cattle and mounted men; farther down were two white flakes of tents, like huge snowflakes left unmelted in the green canyon.
"That's the Lazy Eight—my outfit," Graves informed Thurston with the unconscious pride of possession, pointing a forefinger as they whirled on. "I've got to get off, next station. Yuh want to remember, Bud, the Lazy Eight's your home from now on. We'll make a cow-puncher of yuh in no time; you've got it in yuh, or yuh wouldn't look so much like your dad. And you can write stories about us all yuh want—we won't kick. The way I've got the summer planned out, you'll waller chin-deep in material; all yuh got to do is foller the Lazy Eight through till shipping time."
Thurston had not intended learning to be a cow-puncher, or following the Lazy Eight or any other hieroglyphic through 'till shipping time—whenever that was.
But facing Hank Graves, he had not the heart to tell him so, or that he had planned to spend only a month—or six weeks at most—in the West, gathering local color and perhaps a plot or two? and a few types. Thurston was great on types.
The train slowed at a little station with a dismal red section house in the immediate background and a red-fronted saloon close beside. "Here we are," cried Graves, "and I ain't sorry; only I wisht you was going to stop right now. But I'll look for yuh in three or four days at the outside. So-long, Bud. Remember, the Lazy Eight's your hang-out."
CHAPTER II. LOCAL COLOR IN THE RAW
For the rest of the way Thurston watched the green hills slide by—and the greener hollows—and gave himself up to visions of Fort Benton; visions of creaking bull-trains crawling slowly, like giant brown worms, up and down the long hill; of many high-piled bales of buffalo hides upon the river bank, and clamorous little steamers churning up against the current; the Fort Benton that had, for many rushing miles, filled and colored the speech of Hank Graves and stimulated his childish half-memory.
But when he reached the place and wandered aimlessly about the streets, the vision faded into half-resentful realization that these things were no more forever. For the bull-trains, a roundup outfit clattered noisily out of town and disappeared in an elusive dust-cloud; for the gay-blanketed Indians slipping like painted shadows from view, stray cow-boys galloped into town, slid from their saddles and clanked with dragging rowels into the nearest saloon, or the post-office. Between whiles the town cuddled luxuriously down in the deep little valley and slept while the river, undisturbed by pompous steamers, murmured a lullaby.
It was not the Fort Benton he had come far to see, so that on the second day he went away up the long hill that shut out the world and, until the east-bound train came from over the prairies, paced the depot platform impatiently with never a vision to keep him company.
For a long time the gaze of Thurston clung fascinated to the wide prairie land, feeling again the stir in his blood. Then, when a deep cut shut from him the sight of the wilderness, he chanced to turn his head, and looked straight into the clear, blue-gray eyes of a girl across the aisle. Thurston considered himself immune from blue-gray—or any other-eyes, so that he permitted himself to regard her calmly and judicially, his mind reverting to the fact that he would need a heroine to be kidnapped, and wondering if she would do. She was a Western girl, he could tell that by the tan and by her various little departures from the Eastern styles—such as doing her hair low rather than high. Where he had been used to seeing the hair of woman piled high and skewered with many pins, hers was brushed smoothly back-smoothly save for little, irresponsible waves here and there. Thurston decided that the style was becoming to her. He wondered if the fellow beside her were her brother; and then reminded himself sagely that brothers do not, as a rule, devote their time quite so assiduously to the entertainment of their sisters. He could not stare at her forever, and so he gave over his speculations and went back to the prairies.
Another hour, and Thurston was stiffing a yawn when the coaches bumped sharply together and, with wheels screeching protest as the brakes clutched them, the train, grinding protest in every joint, came, with a final heavy jar, to a dead stop. Thurston thought it was a wreck, until out ahead came the sharp crackling of rifles. A passenger behind him leaned out of the window and a bullet shattered the glass above his head; he drew back hastily.
Some one hurried through the front vestibule, the door was pushed unceremoniously open and a man—a giant, he seemed to Thurston—stopped just inside, glared down the length of the coach through slits in the black cloth over his face and bawled, "Hands up!"
Thurston was so utterly surprised that his hands jerked themselves involuntarily above his head, though he did not feel particularly frightened; he was filled with a stupefied sort of curiosity to know what would come next. The coach, so far as he could see, seemed filled with uplifted, trembling hands, so that he did not feel ashamed of his own. The man behind him put up his hands with the other—but one of them held a revolver that barked savagely and unexpectedly close against the car of Thurston. Thurston ducked. There was an echo from the front, and the man behind, who risked so much on one shot, lurched into the aisle, swaying uncertainly between the seats. He of the mask fired again, viciously, and the other collapsed into a still, awkwardly huddled heap on the floor. The revolver dropped from his fingers and struck against Thurston's foot, making him wince.
Thurston had never before seen death come to a man, and the very suddenness of it unnerved him. All his faculties were numbed before that terrible, pitiless form in the door, and the limp, dead body at his feet in the aisle. He did not even remember that here was the savage local color he had come far a-seeking. He quite forgot to improve the opportunity by making mental note of all the little, convincing details, as was his wont.
Presently he awoke to the realization of certain words spoken insistently close beside him. He turned his eyes and saw that the girl, her eyes staring straight before her, her slim, brown hands uplifted, was yet commanding him imperiously, her voice holding to that murmuring monotone more discreet than a whisper.
"The gun—drop down—and get it. He can't see to shoot for the seat in front. Get the gun. Get the gun!" was what she was saying.
Thurston looked at her helplessly, imploringly. In truth, he had never fired a gun in all his peaceful life.
"The gun—get it—and shoot!" Her eyes moved quickly in a cautious, side-long glance that commanded impatiently. Her straight eyebrows drew together imperiously. Then, when he met her eyes with that same helpless look, she said another word that hurt. It was "Coward!"
Thurston looked down at the gun, and at the huddled form. A tiny river of blood was creeping toward him. Already it had reached his foot, and his shoe was red along the sole. He moved his foot quickly away from it, and shuddered.
"Coward!" murmured the girl contemptuously again, and a splotch of anger showed under the tan of her cheek.
Thurston caught his breath and wondered if he could do it; he looked toward the door and thought how far it was to send a bullet straight when a man has never, in all his life, fired a gun. And without looking he could see that horrible, red stream creeping toward him like some monster in a nightmare. His flesh crimpled with physical repulsion, but he meant to try; perhaps he could shoot the man in the mask, so that there would be another huddled, lifeless Thing on the floor, and another creeping red stream.
At that instant the tawny-haired young fellow beside the girl gathered himself for a spring, flung himself headlong before her and into the aisle; caught the dead man's pistol from the floor and fired, seemingly with one movement. Then he sprang up, still firing as fast as the trigger could move. From the door came answer, shot for shot, and the car was filled with the stifling odor of burnt powder. A woman screamed hysterically.
Then a puff of cool, prairie breeze came in through the shattered window behind Thurston, and the smoke-cloud lifted like a curtain blown upward in the wind. The tawny-haired young fellow was walking coolly down the aisle, the smoking revolver pointing like an accusing finger toward the outlaw who lay stretched upon his face, his fingers twitching.
Outside, rifles were crackling like corn in a giant popper. Presently it slackened to an occasional shot. A brakeman, followed by two coatless mail-clerks with Winchesters, ran down the length of the train calling out that there was no danger. The thud of their running feet, and the wholesome mingling of their shouting struck sharply in the silence after the shooting. One of the men swung up on the steps of the day coach and came in.
"Hello, Park," he cried to the tawny haired boy. "Got one, did yuh? That's good. We did, too got him alive. Think uh the nerve uh that Wagner bunch! to go up against a train in broad daylight. Made an easy getaway, too, except the feller we gloomed in the express car. How's this one? Dead?"
"No. I reckon he'll get well enough to stretch a rope; he killed a man, in here." He motioned toward the huddled figure in the aisle. They came together, lifted the dead man and carried him away to the baggage car. A brakeman came with a cloth and wiped up the red pool, and Thurston pressed his lips tightly together and turned away his head; he could not remember when the sight of anything had made him so deathly sick. Once he glanced slyly at the girl opposite, and saw that she was very white under her tan, and that the hands in her lap were clasped tightly and yet shook. But she met his eyes squarely, and Thurston did not look at her again; he did not like the expression of her mouth.
News of the holdup had been telegraphed ahead, and all Shellanne—which was not much of a crowd—gathered at the station to meet the train and congratulate the heroes. Thurston alighted almost shamefacedly into the midst of the loud-voiced commotion. While he was looking uncertainly about him, wondering where to go and what to do, a voice he knew hailed him with drawling welcome.
"Hello, Bud. Got back quicker than you expected, didn't yuh? It's lucky I happened to be in town—yuh can ride out with me. Say, yuh got quite a bunch uh local color for a story, didn't yuh? You'll be writing blood-and-thunder for a month on the strength of this little episode, I reckon." his twinkling eyes teased, though his face was quite serious, as was his voice.
She of the blue-gray eyes turned and measured Thurston with a deliberate, leisurely glance, and her mouth still had that unpleasant expression. Thurston colored guiltily, but Hank Graves lifted his hat and called her Mona, and asked her if she wasn't scared stiff, and if she were home to stay. Then he beckoned to the tawny-haired fellow with his finger, and winked at Mona—a proceeding which shocked Thurston considerably.
"Mona—here, hold on a minute, can't yuh? Mona, this is a friend uh mine; Bud Thurston's his name. He's come out to study us up and round up a hunch uh real Western atmosphere. He's a story-writer. I used to whack bulls all over the country with his father. Bud, this is Mona Stevens; she ranges down close to the Lazy Eight, so the sooner yuh git acquainted, the quicker." He did not explain what would be the quicker, and Thurston's embarrassment was only aggravated by the introduction.
Miss Stevens gave him a chilly smile, the kind that is worse than none at all and turned her back, thinly pretending that she heard her brother calling her, which she did not. Her brother was loudly explaining what would have happened if he had been on that train and had got a whack at the robbers, and his sister was far from his mind.
Graves slapped the shoulder of the fellow they had called Park. "You young devil, next time I leave the place for a week—yes, or overnight—I'll lock yuh up in the blacksmith shop. Have yuh got to be Mona's special escort, these days?"
"Wish I was," Park retorted, unmoved.
"Different here—yuh ain't much account, as it is. Bud, this here's my wagon-boss, Park Holloway; one of 'em, that is. I'm going to turn yuh over to him and let him wise yuh up. Say, you young bucks ought to get along together pretty smooth. Your dads run buffalo together before either of yuh was born. Well, let's be moving—we ain't home yet. Got a war-bag, Bud?"
Late that night Thurston lay upon a home-made bed and listened to the frogs croaking monotonously in the hollow behind the house, and to the lone coyote which harped upon the subject of his wrongs away on a distant hillside, and to the subdued snoring of Hank Graves in the room beyond. He was trying to adjust himself to this new condition of things, and the new condition refused utterly to be measured by his accepted standard.
According to that standard, he should feel repulsed and annoyed by the familiarity of strangers who persisted in calling him "Bud" without taking the trouble to find out whether or not he liked it. And what puzzled Thurston and put him all at sea was the consciousness that he did like it, and that it struck familiarly upon his ears as something to which he had been accustomed in the past.
Also, according to his well-ordered past, he should hate this raw life and rawer country where could occur such brutal things as he had that day witnessed. He should dislike a man like Park Holloway who, having wounded a man unto death, had calmly dismissed the subject with the regret that his aim had not been better, so that he could have saved the county the expense of trying and hanging the fellow. Thurston was amazed to find that, down in the inner man of him, he admired Park Holloway exceedingly, and privately resolved to perfect himself in the use of fire-arms, he who had been wont to deplore the thinly veneered savagery of men who liked such things.
After much speculation he decided that Mona Stevens would not do for a kidnapped heroine. He could not seem to "see" her in such a position, and, besides, he told himself that such a type of girl did not attract him at all. She had called him a coward—and why? simply because he, straight from the trammels of civilization, had not been prepared to meet the situation thrust upon him-which she had thrust upon him. She had demanded of him something he had not the power to accomplish, and she had called him a coward. And in his heart Thurston knew that it was unjust, and that he was not a coward.
CHAPTER III. FIRST IMPRESSIONS
Thurston, dressed immaculately in riding clothes of the latest English cut, went airily down the stairs and discovered that he was not early, as he had imagined. Seven o'clock, he had told himself proudly, was not bad for a beginner; and he had smiled in anticipation of Hank Graves' surprise which was fortunate, since he would otherwise have been cheated of smiling at all. For Hank Graves, he learned from the cook, had eaten breakfast at five and had left the ranch more than an hour before; the men also were scattered to their work.
Properly humbled in spirit, he sat down to the kitchen table and ate his belated breakfast, while the cook kneaded bread at the other end of the same table and eyed Thurston with frank amusement. Thurston had never before been conscious of feeling ill at ease in the presence of a servant, and hurried through the meal so that he could escape into the clear sunshine, feeling a bit foolish in the unaccustomed bagginess of his riding breeches and the snugness of his leggings; for he had never taken to outdoor sports, except as an onlooker from the shade of a grand stand or piazza.
While he was debating the wisdom of writing a detailed description of yesterday's tragedy while it was still fresh in his mind and stowing it away for future "color," Park Holloway rode into the yard and on to the stables. He nodded at Thurston and grinned without apparent cause, as the cook had done. Thurston followed him to the corral and watched him pull the saddle off his horse, and throw it carelessly to one side. It looked cumbersome, that saddle; quite unlike the ones he had inspected in the New York shops. He grasped the horn, lifted upon it and said, "Jove!"
"Heavy, ain't it?" Park laughed, and slipped the bridle down over the ears of his horse and dismissed him with a slap on the rump. "Don't yuh like the looks of it?" he added indulgently.
Thurston, engaged in wondering what all those little strings were for, felt the indulgence and straightened. "How should I know?" he retorted. "Anyone can see that my ignorance is absolute. I expect you to laugh at me, Mr. Holloway."
"Call me Park," said he of the tawny hair, and leaned against the fence looking extremely boyish and utterly incapable of walking calmly down upon a barking revolver and shooting as he went. "You're bound to learn all about saddles and what they're made for," he went on. "So long as yuh don't get swell-headed the first time yuh stick on a horse that side-steps a little, or back down from a few hard knocks, you'll be all right."
Thurston had not intended getting out and actually living the life he had come to observe, but something got in his nerves and his blood and bred an impulse to which he yielded without reserve. "Park, see here," he said eagerly. "Graves said he'd turn me over to you, so you could—er—teach me wisdom. It's deuced rough on you, but I hope you won't refuse to be bothered with me. I want to learn—everything. And I want you to find fault like the mischief, and—er—knock me into shape, if it's possible." He was very modest over his ignorance, and his voice rang true.
Park studied him gravely. "Bud," he said at last, "you'll do. You're greener right now than a blue-joint meadow in June, but yuh got the right stuff in yuh, and it's a go with me. You come along with us after that trail-herd, and you'll get knocked into shape fast enough. Smoke?"
Thurston shook his head. "Not those."
"I dunno I'm afraid yuh can't be the real thing unless yuh fan your lungs with cigarette smoke regular." The twinkle belied him, though. "Say, where did you pick them bloomers?"
"They were made in New York." Thurston smiled in sickly fashion. He had all along been uncomfortably aware of the sharp contrast between his own modish attire and the somewhat disreputable leathern chaps of his host's foreman.
"Well," commented Park, "you told me to find fault like the mischief, and I'm going to call your bluff. This here's Montana, recollect, and I raise the long howl over them habiliments. The best thing you can do is pace along to the house and discard before the boys get sight of yuh. They'd queer yuh with the whole outfit, sure. Uh course," he went on soothingly when he saw the resentment in Thurston's eyes, "I expect they're real stylish—back East—but the boys ain't educated to stand for anything like that; they'd likely tell yuh they set like the hide on the hind legs of an elephant—which is a fact. I hate to say it, Kid, but they sure do look like the devil."
"So would you, in New York," Thurston flung back at him.
"Why, sure. But this ain't New York; this here's the Lazy Eight corral, and I'm doing yuh a favor. You wouldn't like to have the boys shooting holes through the slack, would yuh? You amble right along and get some pants on—and when you've wised up some you'll thank me a lot. I'm going on a little jaunt down the creek, before dinner, and you might go along; you'll need to get hardened to the saddle anyway, before we start for Billings, or you'll do most uh riding on the mess-wagon."
Thurston, albeit in resentful mood, went meekly and did as he was commanded to do; and no man save Park and the cook ever glimpsed those smart riding clothes of English cut.
"Now yuh look a heap more human," was the way Park signified his approval of the change. "Here's a little horse that's easy to ride and dead gentle if yuh don't spur him in the neck, which you ain't liable to do at present; and Hank says you can have this saddle for keeps. Hank used to ride it, but he out-growed it and got one longer in the seat. When we start for Billings to trail up them cattle, of course you'll get a string of your own to ride."
"A string? I'm afraid I don't quite understand."
"Yuh don't savvy riding a string? A string, m'son, is ten or a dozen saddle-horses that yuh ride turn about, and nobody else has got any right to top one; every fellow has got his own string, yuh see."
Thurston eyed his horse distrustfully. "I think," he ventured, "one will be enough for me. I'll scarcely need a dozen." The truth was that he thought Park was laughing at him.
Park slid sidewise in the saddle and proceeded to roll another cigarette. "I'd be willing to bet that by fall you'll have a good-sized string rode down to a whisper. You wait; wait till it gets in your blood. Why, I'd die if you took me off the range. Wait till yuh set out in the dark, on your horse, and count the stars and watch the big dipper swing around towards morning, and listen to the cattle breathing close by—sleeping while you ride around 'em playing guardian angel over their dreams. Wait till yuh get up at daybreak and are in the saddle with the pink uh sunrise, and know you'll sleep fifteen or twenty miles from there that night; and yuh lay down at night with the smell of new grass in your nostrils where your bed had bruised it.
"Why, Bud, if you're a man, you'll be plumb spoiled for your little old East." Then he swung back his feet and the horses broke into a lope which jarred the unaccustomed frame of Thurston mightily, though he kept the pace doggedly.
"I've got to go down to the Stevens place," Park informed him. "You met Mona yesterday—it was her come down on the train with me, yuh remember." Thurston did remember very distinctly. "Hank says yuh compose stories. Is that right?"
Thurston's mind came back from wondering how Mona Stevens' mouth looked when she was pleased with one, and he nodded.
"Well, there's a lot in this country that ain't ever been wrote about, I guess; at least if it was I never read it, and I read considerable. But the trouble is, them that know ain't in the writing business, and them that write don't know. The way I've figured it, they set back East somewhere and write it like they think maybe it is; and it's a hell of a job they make of it."
Thurston, remembering the time when he, too, "set back East" and wrote it like he thought maybe it was, blushed guiltily. He was thankful that his stories of the West had, without exception, been rejected as of little worth. He shuddered to think of one of them falling into the hands of Park Holloway.
"I came out to learn, and I want to learn it thoroughly," he said, in the face of much physical discomfort. Just then the horses slowed for a climb, and he breathed thanks. "In the first place," he began again when he had readjusted himself carefully in the saddle, "I wish you'd tell me just where you are going with the wagons, and what you mean by trailing a herd."
"Why, I thought I said we were going to Billings," Park answered, surprised. "What we're going to do when we get there is to receive a shipment of cattle young steer that's coming up from the Panhandle which is a part uh Texas. And we trail 'em up here and turn 'em loose this side the river. After that we'll start the calf roundup. The Lazy Eight runs two wagons, yuh know. I run one, and Deacon Smith runs the other; we work together, though, most of the time. It makes quite a crew, twenty-five or thirty men."
"I didn't know," said Thurston dubiously, "that you ever shipped cattle into this country. I supposed you shipped them out. Is Mr. Graves buying some?"
"Hank? I guess yes! six thousand head uh yearlings and two year-olds, this spring; some seasons it's more. We get in young stock every year and turn 'em loose on the range till they're ready to ship. It's cheaper than raising calves, yuh know. When yuh get to Billings, Bud, you'll see some cattle! Why, our bunch alone will make seven trains, and that ain't a commencement. Cattle's cheap down South, this year, and seems like everybody's buying. Hank didn't buy as much as some, because he runs quite a bunch uh cows; we'll brand six or seven thousand calves this spring. Hank sure knows how to rake in the coin."
Thurston agreed as politely as he could for the jolting. They had again struck the level and seven miles, at Park's usual pace, was heartbreaking to a man not accustomed to the saddle. Thurston had written, just before leaving home, a musical bit of verse born of his luring dreams, about "the joy of speeding fleetly where the grassland meets the sky," and he was gritting his teeth now over the idiotic lines.
When they reached the ranch and Mona's mother came to the door and invited them in, he declined almost rudely, for he had a feeling that once out of the saddle he would have difficulty in getting into it again. Besides, Mona was not at home, according to her mother.
So they did not tarry, and Thurston reached the Lazy Eight alive, but with the glamour quite gone from his West. If he had not been the son of his father, he would have taken the first train which pointed its nose to the East, and he would never again have essayed the writing of Western stories or musical verse which sung the joys of galloping blithely off to the sky-line. He had just been galloping off to a sky-line that was always just before and he had not been blithe; nor did the memory of it charm. Of a truth, the very thought of things Western made him swear mild, city-bred oaths.
He choked back his awe of the cook and asked him, quite humbly, what was good to take the soreness from one's muscles; afterward he had crept painfully up the stairs, clasping to his bosom a beer bottle filled with pungent, home-made liniment which the cook had gravely declared "out uh sight for saddle-galls."
Hank Graves, when he heard the story, with artistic touches from the cook, slapped his thigh and laughed one of his soundless chuckles. "The son-of-a-gun! He's the right stuff. Never whined, eh? I knew it. He's his dad over again, from the ground up." And loved him the better.
CHAPTER IV. THE TRAIL-HERD
Thurston tucked the bulb of his camera down beside the bellows and closed the box with a snap. "I wonder what old Reeve would say to that view," he mused aloud.
"Oh, a fellow back in New York. Jove! he'd throw up his dry-point heads and take to oils and landscapes if he could see this."
The "this" was a panoramic view of the town and surrounding valley of Billings. The day was sunlit and still, and far objects stood up with sharp outlines in the clear atmosphere. Here and there the white tents of waiting trail-outfits splotched the bright green of the prairie. Horsemen galloped to and from the town at top speed, and a long, grimy red stock train had just snorted out on a siding by the stockyards where the bellowing of thirsty cattle came faintly like the roar of pounding surf in the distance.
Thurston—quite a different Thurston from the trim, pale young man who had followed the lure of the West two weeks before—drew a long breath and looked out over the hurrying waters of the Yellowstone. It was good to be alive and young, and to live the tented life of the plains; it was good even to be "speeding fleetly where the grassland meets the sky "—for two weeks in the saddle had changed considerably his view-point. He turned again to the dust and roar of the stockyards a mile or so away.
"Perhaps," he remarked hopefully, "the next train will be ours." Strange how soon a man may identify himself with new conditions and new aims. He had come West to look upon the life from the outside, and now his chief thought was of the coming steers, which he referred to unblushingly as "our cattle." Such is the spell of the range.
"Let's ride on over, Bud," Park proposed. "That's likely the Circle Bar shipment. Their bunch comes from the same place ours does, and I want to see how they stack up."
Thurston agreed and went to saddle up. He had mastered the art of saddling and could, on lucky days and when he was in what he called "form," rope the horse he wanted; to say nothing of the times when his loop settled unexpectedly over the wrong victim. Park Holloway, for instance, who once got it neatly under his chin, much to his disgust and the astonishment of Thurston.
"I'm going to take my Kodak," said he. "I like to watch them unload, and I can get some good pictures, with this sunlight."
"When you've hollered 'em up and down the chutes as many times as I have," Park told him, "yuh won't need no pictures to help yuh remember what it's like."
It was an old story with Park, and Thurston's enthusiasm struck him as a bit funny. He perched upon a corner of the fence out of the way, and smoked cigarettes while he watched the cattle and shouted pleasantries to the men who prodded and swore and gesticulated at the wild-eyed huddle in the pens. Soon his turn would come, but just now he was content to look on and take his ease.
"For the life of me," cried Thurston, sidling gingerly over to him, "I can't see where they all come from. For two days these yards have never been empty. The country will soon be one vast herd."
"Two days—huh! this thing'll go on for weeks, m'son. And after all is over, you'll wonder where the dickens they all went to. Montana is some bigger than you realize, I guess. And next fall, when shipping starts, you'll think you're seeing raw porterhouse steaks for the whole world. Let's drift out uh this dust; you'll have time to get a carload uh pictures before our bunch rolls in."
As a matter of fact, it was two weeks before the Lazy Eight consignment arrived. Thurston haunted the stockyards with his Kodak, but after the first two or three days he took no pictures. For every day was but a repetition of those that had gone before: a great, grimy engine shunting cars back and forth on the siding; an endless stream of weary, young cattle flowing down the steep chutes into the pens, from the pens to the branding chutes, where they were burned deep with the mark of their new owners; then out through the great gate, crowding, pushing, wild to flee from restraint, yet held in and guided by mounted cowboys; out upon the green prairie where they could feast once more upon sweet grasses and drink their fill from the river of clear, mountain water; out upon the weary march of the trail, on and on for long days until some boundary which their drivers hailed with joy was passed, and they were free at last to roam at will over the wind-brushed range land; to lie down in some cool, sweet-scented swale and chew their cuds in peace.
Two weeks, and then came a telegram for Park. In the reading of it he shuffled off his attitude of boyish irresponsibility and became in a breath the cool, business-like leader of men. Holding the envelope still in his hand he sought out Thurston, who was practicing with a rope. As Park approached him he whirled the noose and cast it neatly over the peak of the night-hawk's teepee.
"Good shot," Park encouraged, "but I'd advise yuh to take another target. You'll have the tent down over Scotty's ears, and then you'll think yuh stirred up a mess uh hornets.
"Say, Bud, our cattle are coming, and I'm going to be short uh men. If you'd like a job I'll take yuh on, and take chances on licking yuh into shape. Maybe the wages won't appeal to yuh, but I'm willing to throw in heaps uh valuable experience that won't cost yuh a cent." He lowered an eyelid toward the cook-tent, although no one was visible.
Thurston studied the matter while he coiled his rope, and no longer. Secretly he had wanted all along to be a part of the life instead of an onlooker. "I'll take the job, Park—if you think I can hold it down." The speech would doubtless have astonished Reeve-Howard in more ways than one; but Reeve-Howard was already a part of the past in Thurston's mind. He was for living the present.
"Well," Park retorted, "it'll be your own funeral if yuh get fired. Better stake yourself to a pair uh chaps; you'll need 'em on the trip."
"Also a large, rainbow-hued silk handkerchief if I want to look the part," Thurston bantered.
"If yuh don't want your darned neck blistered, yuh mean," Park flung over his shoulders. "Your wages and schooling start in to-morrow at sunup."
It was early in the morning when the first train arrived, hungry, thirsty, tired, bawling a general protest against fate and man's mode of travel. Thurston, with a long pole in his hand, stood on the narrow plank near the top of a chute wall and prodded vaguely at an endless, moving incline of backs. Incidentally he took his cue from his neighbors, and shouted till his voice was a croak-though he could not see that he accomplished anything either by his prodding or his shouting.
Below him surged the sea of hide and horns which was barely suggestive of the animals as individuals. Out in the corrals the dust-cloud hung low, just as it had hovered every day for more than two weeks; just as it would hover every day for two weeks longer. Across the yards near the big, outer gate Deacon Smith's crew was already beginning to brand. The first train was barely unloaded when the second trailed in and out on the siding; and so the third came also. Then came a lull, for the consignment had been split in two and the second section was several hours behind the first.
Thurston rode out to camp, aching with the strain and ravenously hungry, after toiling with his muscles for the first time in his life; for his had been days of physical ease. He had yet to learn the art of working so that every movement counted something accomplished, as did the others; besides, he had been in constant fear of losing his hold on the fence and plunging headlong amongst the trampling hoofs below, a fate that he shuddered to contemplate. He did not, however, mention that fear, or his muscle ache, to any man; he might be green, but he was not the man to whine.
When he went back into the dust and roar, Park ordered him curtly to tend the branding fire, since both crews would brand that afternoon and get the corrals cleared for the next shipment. Thurston thanked Park mentally; tending branding-fire sounded very much like child's play.
Soon the gray dust-cloud took on a shade of blue in places where the smoke from the fires cut through; a new tang smote the nostrils: the rank odor of burning hair and searing hides; a new note crept into the clamoring roar: the low-keyed blat of pain and fright.
Thurston turned away his head from the sight and the smell, and piled on wood until Park stopped him with. "Say, Bud, we ain't celebrating any election! It ain't a bonfire we want, it's heat; just keep her going and save wood all yuh can." After an hour of fire-tending Thurston decided that there were things more wearisome than "hollering 'em down the chutes." His eyes were smarting intolerably with smoke and heat, and the smell of the branding was not nice; but through the long afternoon he stuck to the work, shrewdly guessing that the others were not having any fun either. Park and "the Deacon" worked as hard as any, branding the steers as they were squeezed, one by one, fast in the little branding chutes. The setting sun shone redly through the smoke before Thurston was free to kick the half-burnt sticks apart and pour water upon them as directed by Park.
"Think yuh earned your little old dollar and thirty three cents, Bud?" Park asked him. And Thurston smiled a tired, sooty smile that seemed all teeth.
"I hope so; at any rate, I have a deep, inner knowledge of the joys of branding cattle."
"Wait 'till yuh burn Lazy Eights on wriggling, blatting calves for two or three hours at a stretch before yuh talk about the joys uh branding." Park rubbed eloquently his aching biceps.
At dusk Thurston crept into his blankets, feeling that he would like the night to be at least thirty six hours long. He was just settling into a luxurious, leather-upholstered dream chair preparatory to telling Reeve-Howard his Western experiences when Park's voice bellowed into the tent:
"Roll out, boys—we got a train pulling in!"
There was hurried dressing in the dark of the bed-tent, hasty mounting, and a hastier ride through the cool night air. There were long hours at the chutes, prodding down at a wavering line of moving shadows, while the "big dipper" hung bright in the sky and lighted lanterns bobbed back and forth along the train waving signals to one another. At intervals Park's voice cut crisply through the turmoil, giving orders to men whom he could not see.
The east was lightening to a pale yellow when the men climbed at last into their saddles and galloped out to camp for a hurried breakfast. Thurston had been comforting his aching body with the promise of rest and sleep; but three thousand cattle were milling impatiently in the stockyards, so presently he found himself fanning a sickly little blaze with his hat while he endeavored to keep the smoke from his tired eyes. Of a truth, Reeve-Howard would have stared mightily at sight of him.
Once Park, passing by, smiled down upon him grimly. "Here's where yuh get the real thing in local color," he taunted, but Thurston was too busy to answer. The stress of living had dimmed his eye for the picturesque.
That night, one Philip Thurston slept as sleeps the dead. But he awoke with the others and thanked the Lord there were no more cattle to unload and brand.
When he went out on day-herd that afternoon he fancied that he was getting into the midst of things and taking his place with the veterans. He would have been filled with resentment had he suspected the truth: that Park carefully eased those first days of his novitiate. That was why none of the night-guarding fell to him until they had left Billings many miles behind them.
CHAPTER V. THE STORM
The third night he was detailed to stand with Bob MacGregor on the middle guard, which lasts from eleven o'clock until two. The outfit had camped near the head of a long, shallow basin that had a creek running through; down the winding banks of it lay the white-tented camps of seven other trail-herds, the cattle making great brown blotches against the green at sundown. Thurston hoped they would all be there in the morning when the sun came up, so that he could get a picture.
"Aw, they'll be miles away by then," Bob assured him unfeelingly. "By the signs, you can take snap-shots by lightning in another hour. Got your slicker, Bud?"
Thurston said he hadn't, and Bob shook his head prophetically. "You'll sure wish yuh had it before yuh hit camp again; when yuh get wise, you'll ride with your slicker behind the cantle, rain or shine. They'll need singing to, to-night."
Thurston prudently kept silent, since he knew nothing whatever about it, and Bob gave him minute directions about riding his rounds, and how to turn a stray animal back into the herd without disturbing the others.
The man they relieved met them silently and rode away to camp. Off to the right an animal coughed, and a black shape moved out from the shadows.
Bob swung towards it, and the shape melted again into the splotch of shade which was the sleeping herd. He motioned to the left. "Yuh can go that way; and yuh want to sing something, or whistle, so they'll know what yuh are." His tone was subdued, as it had not been before. He seemed to drift away into the darkness, and soon his voice rose, away across the herd, singing. As he drew nearer Thurston caught the words, at first disjointed and indistinct, then plainer as they met. It was a song he had never heard before, because its first popularity had swept far below his social plane.
"She's o-only a bird in a gil-ded cage, A beautiful sight to see-e-e; You may think she seems ha-a-aappy and free from ca-a-re.."
The singer passed on and away, and only the high notes floated across to Thurston, who whistled softly under his breath while he listened. Then, as they neared again on the second round, the words came pensively:
"Her beauty was so-o-old For an old man's go-o-old, She's a bird in a gilded ca-a-age."
Thurston rode slowly like one in a dream, and the lure of the range-land was strong upon him. The deep breathing of three thousand sleeping cattle; the strong, animal odor; the black night which grew each moment blacker, and the rhythmic ebb and flow of the clear, untrained voice of a cowboy singing to his charge. If he could put it into words; if he could but picture the broody stillness, with frogs cr-ekk, er-ekking along the reedy creek-bank and a coyote yapping weirdly upon a distant hilltop! From the southwest came mutterings half-defiant and ominous. A breeze whispered something to the grasses as it crept away down the valley.
"I stood in a church-yard just at ee-eve, While the sunset adorned the west."
It was Bob, drawing close out of the night. "You're doing fine, Kid; keep her a-going," he commended, in an undertone as he passed, and Thurston moistened his unaccustomed lips and began industriously whistling "The Heart Bowed Down," and from that jumped to Faust. Fifteen minutes exhausted his memory of the whistleable parts, and he was not given to tiresome repetitions. He stopped for a moment, and Bob's voice chanted admonishingly from somewhere, "Keep her a-go-o-ing, Bud, old boy!" So Thurston took breath and began on "The Holy City," and came near laughing at the incongruity of the song; only he remembered that he must not frighten the cattle, and checked the impulse.
"Say," Bob began when he came near enough, "do yuh know the words uh that piece? It's a peach; I wisht you'd sing it." He rode on, still humming the woes of the lady who married for gold.
Thurston obeyed while the high-piled thunder-heads rumbled deep accompaniment, like the resonant lower tones of a bass viol.
"Last night I lay a-sleeping, there came a dream so fair; I stood in old Jerusalem, beside the temple there."
A steer stepped restlessly out of the herd, and Thurston's horse, trained to the work, of his own accord turned him gently back.
"I heard the children singing; and ever as they sang, Me thought the voice of angels from heaven in answer rang."
From the west the thunder boomed, drowning the words in its deep-throated growl.
"Jerusalem, Jerusalem, lift up your gates and sing."
"Hit her up a little faster, Bud, or we'll lose some. They're getting on their feet with that thunder."
Sunfish, in answer to Thurston's touch on the reins, quickened to a trot. The joggling was not conducive to the best vocal expression, but the singer persevered:
"Hosanna in the highest, Hosanna to your King!"
Flash! the lightning cut through the storm-clouds, and Bob, who had contented himself with a subdued whistling while he listened, took up the refrain:
It was as if a battery of heavy field pieces boomed overhead. The entire herd was on its feet and stood close-huddled, their tails to the coming storm. Now the horses were loping steadily in their endless circling—a pace they could hold for hours if need be. For one blinding instant Thurston saw far down the valley; then the black curtain dropped as suddenly as it had lifted.
"Keep a-hollering, Bud!" came the command, and after it Bob's voice trilled high above the thunder-growl:
"Hosanna in the high-est. Hosanna to your King!"
A strange thrill of excitement came to Thurston. It was all new to him; for his life had been sheltered from the rages of nature. He had never before been out under the night sky when it was threatening as now. He flinched when came an ear-splitting crash that once again lifted the black curtain and showed him, white-lighted, the plain. In the dark that followed came a rhythmic thud of hoofs far up the creek, and the rattle of living castanets. Sunfish threw up his head and listened, muscles a-quiver.
"There's a bunch a-running," called Bob from across the frightened herd. "If they hit us, give Sunfish his head, he's been there before—and keep on the outside!"
Thurston yelled "All right!" but the pounding roar of the stampede drowned his voice. A whirlwind of frenzied steers bore down upon him—twenty-five hundred Panhandle two-year-olds, though he did not know it then, his mind was all a daze, with one sentence zigzagging through it like the lightning over his head, "Give Sunfish his head, and keep on the outside!"
That was what saved him, for he had the sense to obey. After a few minutes of breathless racing, with a roar as of breakers in his ears and the crackle of clashing horns and the gleaming of rolling eyeballs close upon his horse's heels, he found himself washed high and dry, as it were, while the tumult swept by. Presently he was galloping along behind and wondering dully how he got there, though perhaps Sunfish knew well enough.
In his story of the West—the one that had failed to be convincing—he had in his ignorance described a stampede, and it had not been in the least like this one. He blushed at the memory, and wondered if he should ever again feel qualified to write of these things.
Great drops of rain pounded him on the back as he rode—chill drops, that went to the skin. He thought of his new canary-colored slicker in the bed-tent, and before he knew it swore just as any of the other men would have done under similar provocation; it was the first real, able-bodied oath he had ever uttered. He was becoming assimilated with the raw conditions of life.
He heard a man's voice calling to him, and distinguished the dim shape of a rider close by. He shouted that password of the range, "Hello!"
"What outfit is this?" the man cried again.
"The Lazy Eight!" snapped Thurston, sure that the other had come with the stampede. Then, feeling the anger of temporary authority, "What in hell are you up to, letting your cattle run?" If Park could have heard him say that for Reeve-Howard!
Down the long length of the valley they swept, gathering to themselves other herds and other riders as incensed as were themselves. It is not pretty work, nor amusing, to gallop madly in the wake of a stampede at night, keeping up the stragglers and taking the chance of a broken neck with the rain to make matters worse.
Bob MacGregor sought Thurston with much shouting, and having found him they rode side by side. And always the thunder boomed overhead, and by the lightning flashes they glimpsed the turbulent sea of cattle fleeing, they knew not where or why, with blind fear crowding their heels.
The noise of it roused the camps as they thundered by; men rose up, peered out from bed-tents as the stampede swept past, cursed the delay it would probably make, hoped none of the boys got hurt, and thanked the Lord the tents were pitched close to the creek and out of the track of the maddened herds.
Then they went back to bed to wait philosophically for daylight.
When Sunfish, between flashes, stumbled into a shallow washout, and sent Thurston sailing unbeautifully over his head, Bob pulled up and slid off his horse in a hurry.
"Yuh hurt, Bud?" he cried anxiously, bending over him. For Thurston, from the very frankness of his verdant ignorance, had won for himself the indulgent protectiveness of the whole outfit; not a man but watched unobtrusively over his welfare—and Bob MacGregor went farther and loved him whole-heartedly. His voice, when he spoke, was unequivocally frightened.
Thurston sat up and wiped a handful of mud off his face; if it had not been so dark Bob would have shouted at the spectacle. "I'm 'kinda sorter shuck up like,"' he quoted ruefully. "And my nose is skinned, thank you. Where's that devil of a horse?"
Bob stood over him and grinned. "My, I'm surprised at yuh, Bud! What would your Sunday-school teacher say if she heard yuh? Anyway, yuh ain't got any call to cuss Sunfish; he ain't to blame. He's used to fellows that can ride."
"Shut up!" Thurston commanded inelegantly. "I'd like to see you ride a horse when he's upside down!"
"Aw, come on," urged Bob, giving up the argument. "We'll be plumb lost from the herd if we don't hustle."
They got into their saddles again and went on, riding by sound and the rare glimpses the lightning gave them as it flared through the storm away to the east.
"Wet?" Bob sung out sympathetically from the streaming shelter of his slicker. Thurston, wriggling away from his soaked clothing, grunted a sarcastic negative.
The cattle were drifting now before the storm which had settled to a monotonous downpour. The riders—two or three men for every herd that had joined in the panic—circled, a veritable picket line without the password. There would be no relief ride out to them that night, and they knew it and settled to the long wait for morning.
Thurston took up his station next to Bob; rode until he met the next man, and then retraced his steps till he faced Bob again; rode until the world seemed unreal and far away, with nothing left but the night and the riding back and forth on his beat, and the rain that oozed through his clothes and trickled uncomfortably down inside his collar. He lost all count of time, and was startled when at last came gray dawn.
As the light grew brighter his eyes widened and forgot their sleep-hunger; he had not thought it would be like this. He was riding part way across one end of a herd larger than his imagination had ever pictured; three thousand cattle had seemed to him a multitude—yet here were more than twenty thousand, wet, draggled, their backs humped miserably from the rain which but a half hour since had ceased. He was still gazing and wondering when Park rode up to him.
"Lord! Bud, you're a sight! Did the bunch walk over yuh?" he greeted.
"No, only Sunfish," snapped Thurston crossly. Time was when Philip Thurston would not have answered any man abruptly, however great the provocation. He was only lately getting down to the real, elemental man of him; to the son of Bill Thurston, bull-whacker, prospector, follower of dim trails. He rode silently back to camp with Bob, ate his breakfast, got into dry clothes and went out and tied his slicker deliberately and securely behind the cantle of his saddle, though the sun was shining straight into his eyes and the sky fairly twinkled, it was so clean of clouds.
Bob watched him with eyes that laughed. "My, you're an ambitious son-of-a-gun," he chuckled. "And you've got the slicker question settled in your mind, I see; yuh learn easy; it takes two or three soakings to learn some folks."
"We've got to go back and help with the herd, haven't we?" Thurston asked. "The horses are all out."
"Yep. They'll stay out, too, till noon, m'son. We hike to bed, if anybody should ask yuh."
So it was not till after dinner that he rode back to the great herd—with his Kodak in his pocket—to find the cattle split up into several bunches. The riders at once went to work separating the different brands. He was too green a hand to do anything but help hold the "cut," and that was so much like ordinary herd-ing that his interest flagged. He wanted, more than anything, to ride into the bunch and single out a Lazy Eight steer, skillfully hazing him down the slope to the cut, as he saw the others do.
Bob told him it was the biggest mix-up he had ever seen, and Bob had ridden the range in every State where beef grows wild. He was in the thickest of the huddle, was Bob, working as if he did not know the meaning of fatigue. Thurston, watching him thread his way in and out of the restless, milling herd, only to reappear unexpectedly at the edge with a steer just before the nose of his horse, rush it out from among the others—wheeling, darting this way and that, as it tried to dodge back, and always coming off victor, wondered if he could ever learn to do it.
Being in pessimistic mood, he told himself that he would probably always remain a greenhorn, to be borne with and coached and given boy's work to do; all because he had been cheated of his legacy of the dim trails and forced to grow up in a city, hedged about all his life by artificial conditions, his conscience wedded to convention.
CHAPTER VI. THE BIG DIVIDE
The long drive was nearly over. Even Thurston's eyes brightened when he saw, away upon the sky-line, the hills that squatted behind the home ranch of the Lazy Eight. The past month had been one of rapid living under new conditions, and at sight of them it seemed only a few days since he had first glimpsed that broken line of hills and the bachelor household in the coulee below.
As the travel-weary herd swung down the long hill into the valley of the Milk River, stepping out briskly as they sighted the cool water in the near distance, the past month dropped away from Thurston, and what had gone just before came back fresh as the happenings of the morning. There was the Stevens ranch, a scant half mile away from where the tents already gleamed on their last camp of the long trail; the smoke from the cook-tent telling of savory meats and puddings, the bare thought of which made one hurry his horse.
His eyes dwelt longest, however, upon the Stevens house half hidden among the giant cottonwoods, and he wondered if Mona would still smile at him with that unpleasant uplift at the corner of her red mouth. He would take care that she did not get the chance to smile at him in any fashion, he told himself with decision.
He wondered if those train-robbers had been captured, and if the one Park wounded was still alive. He shivered when he thought of the dead man in the aisle, and hoped he would never witness another death; involuntarily he glanced down at his right stirrup, half expecting to see his boot red with human blood. It was not nice to remember that scene, and he gave his shoulders an impatient hitch and tried to think of something else.
Mindful of his vow, he had bought a gun in Billings, but he had not yet learned to hit anything he aimed at; for firearms are hushed in roundup camps, except when dire necessity breeds a law of its own. Range cattle do not take kindly to the popping of pistols. So Thurston's revolver was yet unstained with powder grime, and was packed away inside his bed. He was promising his pride that he would go up on the hill, back of the Lazy Eight corrals, and shoot until even Mona Stevens must respect his marksmanship, when Park galloped back to him—"The world has moved some while we was gone," he announced in the tone of one who has news to tell and enjoys thoroughly the telling. "Yuh mind the fellow I laid out in the hold-up? He got all right again, and they stuck him in jail along with another one old Lauman, the sheriff, glommed a week ago. Well, they didn't do a thing last night but knock a deputy in the head, annex his gun, swipe a Winchester and a box uh shells out uh the office and hit the high places. Old Lauman is hot on their trail, but he ain't met up with 'em yet, that anybody's heard. When he does, there'll sure be something doing! They say the deputy's about all in; they smashed his skull with a big iron poker."
"I wish I could handle a gun," Thurston said between his teeth. "I'd go after them myself. I wish I'd been left to grow up out here where I belong. I'm all West but the training—and I never knew it till a month ago! I ought to ride and rope and shoot with the best of you, and I can't do a thing. All I know is books. I can criticize an opera and a new play, and I'm considered something of an authority on clothes, but I can't shoot."
"Aw, go easy," Park laughed at him. "What if yuh can't do the double-roll? Riding and shooting and roping's all right—we couldn't very well get along without them accomplishments. But that's all they are; just accomplishments. We know a man when we see him, and it don't matter whether he can ride a bronk straight up, or don't know which way a saddle sets on a horse. If he's a man he gets as square a deal as we can give him." Park reached for his cigarette book. "And as for hunting outlaws," he finished, "we've got old Lauman paid to do that. And he's dead onto his job, you bet; when he goes out after a man he comes pretty near getting him, m'son. But I sure do wish I'd killed that jasper while I was about it; it would have saved Lauman a lot uh hard riding."
Thurston could scarcely explain to Park that his desire to hunt train-robbers was born of a half-defiant wish to vindicate to Mona Stevens his courage, and so he said nothing at all. He wondered if Park had heard her whisper, that day, and knew how he had failed to obey her commands; and if he had heard her call him a coward. He had often wondered that, but Park had a way of keeping things to himself, and Thurston could never quite bring himself to open the subject boldly. At any rate, if Park had heard, he hoped that he understood how it was and did not secretly despise him for it. Women, he told himself bitterly, are never quite just.
After the four o'clock supper he and Bob MacGregor went up the valley to relieve the men on herd. There was one nice thing about Park as a foreman: he tried to pair off his crew according to their congeniality. That was why Thurston usually stood guard with Bob, whom he liked better than any of the others-always excepting Park himself.
"I brought my gun along," Bob told him apologetically when they were left to themselves. "It's a habit I've got when I know there's bad men rampaging around the country. The boys kinda gave me the laugh when they seen me haul it out uh my war bag, but I just told 'em to go to thunder."
"Do you think those—"
"Naw. Uh course not. I just pack it on general principles, same as an old woman packs her umbrella."
"Say, this is dead easy! The bunch is pretty well broke, ain't it? I'm sure glad to see old Milk River again; this here trailing cattle gets plumb monotonous." He got down and settled his back comfortably against a rock. Below them spread the herd, feeding quietly. "Yes, sir, this is sure a snap," he repeated, after he had made himself a smoke. "They's only two ways a bunch could drift if they wanted to which they don't-up the river, or down. This hill's a little too steep for 'em to tackle unless they was crowded hard. Good feed here, too.
"Too bad yuh don't smoke, Bud. There's nothing like a good, smooth rock to your back and a cigarette in your face, on a nice, lazy day like this. It's the only kind uh day-herding I got any use for."
"I'll take the rock to my back, if you'll just slide along and make room," Thurston laughed. "I don't hanker for a cigarette, but I do wish I had my Kodak."
"Aw, t'ell with your Kodak!" Bob snorted. "Can't yuh carry this layout in your head? I've got a picture gallery in mine that I wouldn't trade for a farm; I don't need no Kodak in mine, thankye. You just let this here view soak into your system, Bud, where yuh can't lose it."
Thurston did. Long after he could close his eyes and see it in every detail; the long, green slope with hundreds of cattle loitering in the rank grass-growth; the winding sweep of the river and the green, rolling hills beyond; and Bob leaning against the rock beside him, smoking luxuriously with half-closed eyes, while their horses dozed with drooping heads a rein-length away.
"Say, Bud," Bob's voice drawled sleepily, "I wisht you'd sing that Jerusalem song. I want to learn the words to it; I'm plumb stuck on that piece. It's different from the general run uh songs, don't yuh think? Most of 'em's about your old home that yuh left in boyhood's happy days, and go back to find your girl dead and sleeping in a little church-yard or else it's your mother; or your girl marries the other man and you get it handed to yuh right along—and they make a fellow kinda sick to his stomach when he's got to sing 'em two or three hours at a stretch on night-guard, just because he's plumb ignorant of anything better. This here Jerusalem one sounds kinda grand, and—the cattle seems to like it, too, for a change."
"The composer would feel flattered if he heard that," Thurston laughed. He wanted to be left alone to day-dream and watch the clouds trail lazily across to meet the hills; and there was an embryonic poem forming, phrase by phrase, in his mind. But he couldn't refuse Bob anything, so he sat a bit straighter and cleared his throat. He sang well—well enough indeed to be sought after at informal affairs among his set at home. When he came to the refrain Bob took his cigarette from between his lips and held it in his fingers while he joined his voice lustily to Thurston's:
"Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Lift up your gates and sing Hosanna in the high-est. Hosanna to your King!"
The near cattle lifted their heads to stare stupidly a moment, then moved a few steps slowly, nosing for the sweetest grass-tufts. The horses shifted their weight, resting one leg with the hoof barely touching the earth, twitched their ears at the flies and slept again.
"And then me thought my dream was changed, The streets no longer rang, Hushed were the glad Hosannas The little children sang—"
Tamale lifted his head and gazed inquiringly up the hill; but Bob was not observant of signs just then. He was Striving with his recreant memory for the words that came after:
"The sun grew dark with mystery, The morn was cold and still, As the shadow of a cross arose Upon a lonely hill."
Tamale stirred restlessly with head uplifted and ears pointed straight before up the steep bluff. Old Ironsides, Thurston's mount, was not the sort to worry about anything but his feed, and paid no attention. Bob turned and glanced the way Tamale was looking; saw nothing, and settled down again on the small of his back.
"He sees a badger or something," he Said. "Go on, Bud, with the chorus."
"Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Lift up your gates and sing."
"Lift up your hands damn quick!" mimicked a voice just behind. "If yuh ain't got anything to do but lay in the shade of a rock and yawp, we'll borrow your cayuses. You ain't needin' 'em, by the looks!"
They squirmed around until they could stare into two black gun-barrels—and then their hands went up; their faces held a particularly foolish expression that must have been amusing to the men behind the guns.
One of the gun-barrels lowered and a hand reached out and quietly took possession of Tamale's reins; the owner of the hand got calmly into Bob's saddle. Bob gritted his teeth. It was evident their movements had been planned minutely in advance, for, once settled to his liking, the fellow tested the stirrups to make sure they were the right length, and raising his gun pointed it at the two in a business-like manner that left no doubt of his meaning. Whereupon the man behind them came forward and appropriated Old Ironsides to his own use.
"Too bad we had to interrupt Sunday-school," he remarked ironically. "You can go ahead with the meetin' now—the collection has been took up." He laughed without any real mirth in his voice and gathered up the reins. "If yuh want our horses, they're up on the bench. I don't reckon they'll ever turn another cow, but such as they are you're quite welcome. Better set still, boys, till we get out uh sight; one of us'll keep an eye peeled for yuh. So long, and much obliged." They turned and rode warily down the slope.
"Now, wouldn't that jar yuh?" asked Bob in deep disgust His hands dropped to his sides; in another second he was up and shooting savagely. "Get behind the rock, Bud," he commanded.
Just then a rifle cracked, and Bob toppled drunkenly and went limply to the grass.
"My God!" cried Thurston, and didn't know that he spoke. He snatched up Bob's revolver and fired shot after shot at the galloping figures. Not one seemed to do any good; the first shot hit a two-year-old square in the ribs. After that there were no cattle within rifle range.
One of the outlaws stopped, took deliberate aim with the stolen Winchester and fired, meaning to kill; but he miscalculated the range a bit and Thurston crumpled down with a bullet in his thigh. The revolver was empty now and fell smoking at his feet. So he lay and cursed impotently while he watched the marauders ride out of sight up the valley.
When the rank timber-growth hid their flying figures he crawled over to where Bob lay and tried to lift him.
"Art you hurt?" was the idiotic question he asked.
Bob opened his eyes and waited a breath, as if to steady his thought. "Did I get one, Bud?"
"I'm afraid not," Thurston confessed, and immediately after wished that he had lied and said yes. "Are you hurt?" he repeated senselessly.
"Who, me?" Bob's eyes wavered in their directness. "Don't yuh bother none about me," evasively.
"But you've got to tell me. You—they—" He choked over the words.
"Well—I guess they got me, all right. But don't let that worry yuh; it don't me." He tried to speak carelessly and convincingly, but it was a miserable failure. He did not want to die, did Bob, however much he might try to hide the fact.
Thurston was not in the least imposed upon. He turned away his head, pretending to look after the outlaws, and set his teeth together tight. He did not want to act a fool. All at once he grew dizzy and sick, and lay down heavily till the faintness passed.
Bob tried to lift himself to his elbow; failing that, he put out a hand and laid it on Thurston's shoulder. "Did they—get you—too?" he queried anxiously.
"The damn coyotes!"
"It's nothing; just a leg put out of business," Thurston hurried to assure him. "Where are you hurt, Bob?"
"Aw, I ain't any X-ray," Bob retorted weakly but gamely. "Somewheres inside uh me. It went in my side but the Lord knows where it wound up. It hurts, like the devil." He lay quiet a minute. "I wish—do yuh feel—like finishing—that song, Bud?"
Thurston gulped down a lump that was making his throat ache. When he answered, his voice was very gentle:
"I'll try a verse, old man."
"The last one—we'd just come to the last. It's most like church. I—I never went—much on religion, Bud; but when a fellow's—going out over the Big Divide."
"You're not!" Thurston contradicted fiercely, as if that could make it different. He thought he could not bear those jerky sentences.
"All right—Bud. We won't fight over it. Go ahead. The last verse."
Thurston eased his leg to a better position, drew himself up till his shoulders rested against the rock and began, with an occasional, odd break in his voice:
"I saw the holy city Beside the tideless Sea; The light of God was on its street The gates were open wide. And all who would might enter And no one was denied."
"Wonder if that there—applies—to bone-headed—cowpunchers," Bob muttered drowsily. "'And all—who would—" Thurston glanced quickly at his face; caught his breath sharply at what he saw there written, and dropped his head upon his arms.
And so Park and his men, hurrying to the sound of the shooting, found them in the shadow of the rock.
CHAPTER VII. AT THE STEVENS PLACE
When the excitement of the outrage had been pushed aside by the insistent routine of everyday living, Thurston found himself thrust from the fascination of range life and into the monotony of invalidism, and he was anything but resigned. To be sure, he was well cared for at the Stevens ranch, where Park and the boys had taken him that day, and Mrs. Stevens mothered him as he could not remember being mothered before.
Hank Graves rode over nearly every day to sit beside the bed and curse the Wagner gang back to their great-great-grandfathers and down to more than the third generation yet unborn, and to tell him the news. On the second visit he started to give him the details of Bob's funeral; but Thurston would not listen, and told him so plainly.
"All right then, Bud, I won't talk about it. But we sure done the right thing by the boy; had the best preacher in Shellanne out, and flowers till further notice: a cross uh carnations, and the boys sent up to Minot and had a spur made uh—oh, well, all right; I'll shut up about it, I know how yuh feel, Bud; it broke us all up to have him go that way. He sure was a white boy, if ever there was one, and—ahem!"
"I'd give a thousand dollars, hard coin, to get my hands on them Wagners. It would uh been all off with them, sure, if the boys had run acrost 'em. I'd uh let 'em stay out and hunt a while longer, only old Lauman'll get 'em, all right, and we're late as it is with the calf roundup. Lauman'll run 'em down—and by the Lord! I'll hire Bowman myself and ship him out from Helena to help prosecute 'em. They're dead men if he takes the case against 'em, Bud, and I'll get him, sure—and to hell with the cost of it! They'll swing for what they done to you and Bob, if it takes every hoof I own."
Thurston told him he hoped they would be caught and—yes, hanged; though he had never before advocated capital punishment.
But when he thought of Bob, the care-naught, whole-souled fellow.
He tried not to think of him, for thinking unmanned him. He had the softest of hearts where his friends were concerned, and there were times when he felt that he could with relish officiate at the Wagners' execution.
He fought against remembrance of that day; and for sake of diversion he took to studying a large, pastel portrait of Mona which hung against the wall opposite his bed. It was rather badly; done, and at first, when he saw it, he laughed at the thought that even the great, still plains of the range land cannot protect one against the ubiquitous picture agent. In the parlor, he supposed there would be crayon pictures of grandmothers and aunts-further evidence of the agent's glibness.
He was glad that it was Mona who smiled down at him instead of a grand-mother or an aunt. For Mona did smile, and in spite of the cheap crudity the smile was roguish, with little dimply creases at the corners of the mouth, and not at all unpleasant. If the girl would only look like that in real life, he told himself, a fellow would probably get to liking her. He supposed she thought him a greater coward than ever now, just because he hadn't got killed. If he had, he would be a hero now, like Bob. Well, Bob was a hero; the way he had jumped up and begun shooting required courage of the suicidal sort. He had stood up and shot, also and had succeeded only in being ridiculous; he hoped nobody had told Mona about his hitting that steer. When he could walk again he would learn to shoot, so that the range stock wouldn't suffer from his marksmanship.
After a week of seeing only Mrs. Stevens or sympathetic men acquaintances, he began to wonder why Mona stayed so persistently away. Then one morning she came in to take his breakfast things out. She did not, however, stay a second longer than was absolutely necessary, and she was perfectly composed and said good morning in her most impersonal tone. At least Thurston hoped she had no tone more impersonal than that. He decided that she had really beautiful eyes and hair; after she had gone he looked up at the picture, told himself that it did not begin to do her justice, and sighed a bit. He was very dull, and even her companionship, he thought, would be pleasant if only she would come down off her pedestal and be humanly sociable.
When he wrote a story about a fellow being laid up in the same house with a girl—a girl with big, blue-gray eyes and ripply brown hair—he would have the girl treat the fellow at least decently. She would read poetry to him and bring him flowers, and do ever so many nice things that would make him hate to get well. He decided that he would write just that kind of story; he would idealize it, of course, and have the fellow in love with the girl; you have to, in stories. In real life it doesn't necessarily follow that, because a fellow admires a girl's hair and eyes, and wants to be on friendly terms, he is in love with her. For example, he emphatically was not in love with Mona Stevens. He only wanted her to be decently civil and to stop holding a foolish grudge against him for not standing up and letting himself be shot full of holes because she commanded it.
In the afternoons, Mrs. Stevens would sit beside him and knit things and talk to him in a pleasantly garrulous fashion, and he would lie and listen to her—and to Mona, singing somewhere. Mona sang very well, he thought; he wondered if she had ever had any training. Also, he wished he dared ask her not to sing that song about "She's only a bird in a gilded cage." It brought back too vividly the nights when he and Bob stood guard under the quiet stars.
And then one day he hobbled out into the dining-room and ate dinner with the family. Since he sat opposite Mona she was obliged to look at him occasionally, whether she would or no. Thurston had a strain of obstinacy in his nature, and when he decided that Mona should not only look at him, but should talk to him as well, he set himself diligently to attain that end. He was not the man to sit down supinely and let a girl calmly ignore him; so Mona presently found herself talking to him with some degree of cordiality; and what is more to the point, listening to him when he talked. It is probable that Thurston never had tried so hard in his life to win a girl's attention.
It was while he was still hobbling with a cane and taxing his imagination daily to invent excuses for remaining, that Lauman, the sheriff, rode up to the door with a deputy and asked shelter for themselves and the two Wagners, who glowered sullenly down from their weary horses. When they had been safely disposed in Thurston's bedroom, with one of the ranch hands detailed to guard them, Lauman and his man gave themselves up to the joy of a good meal. Their own cooking, they said, got mighty tame especially when they hadn't much to cook and dared not have a fire.
They had come upon the outlaws by mere accident, and it is hard telling which was the most surprised. But Lauman was, perhaps, the quickest man with a gun in Valley County, else he would not have been serving his fourth term as sheriff. He got the drop and kept it while his deputy did the rest. It had been a hard chase, he said, and a long one if you counted time instead of miles. But he had them now, harmless as rattlers with their fangs fresh drawn. He wanted to get them to Glasgow before people got to hear of their capture; he thought they wouldn't be any too safe if the boys knew he had them.
If he had known that the Lazy Eight roundup had just pulled in to the home ranch that afternoon, and that Dick Farney, one of the Stevens men, had slipped out to the corral and saddled his swiftest horse, it is quite possible that Lauman would not have lingered so long over his supper, or drank his third cup of coffee—with real cream in it—with so great a relish. And if he had known that the Circle Bar boys were camped just three miles away within hailing distance of the Lazy Eight trail, he would doubtless have postponed his after-supper smoke.
He was sitting, revolver in hand, watching the Wagners give a practical demonstration of the extent of their appetites, when Thurston limped in from the porch, his eyes darker than usual. "There are a lot of riders coming, Mr. Lauman," he announced quietly. "It sounds like a whole roundup. I thought you ought to know."
The prisoners went white, and put down knife and fork. If they had never feared before, plainly they were afraid then.
Lauman's face did not in the least change. "Put the hand-cuffs on, Waller," he said. "If you've got a room that ain't easy to get at from the outside, Mrs. Stevens, I guess I'll have to ask yuh for the use of it."
Mrs. Stevens had lived long in Valley County, and had learned how to meet emergencies. "Put 'em right down cellar," she invited briskly. "There's just the trap-door into it, and the windows ain't big enough for a cat to go through. Mona, get a candle for Mr. Lauman." She turned to hurry the girl, and found Mona at her elbow with a light.
"That's the kind uh woman I like to have around," Lauman chuckled. "Come on, boys; hustle down there if yuh want to see Glasgow again."
Trembling, all their dare-devil courage sapped from them by the menace of Thurston's words, they stumbled down the steep stairs, and the darkness swallowed them. Lauman beckoned to his deputy.
"You go with 'em, Waller," he ordered. "If anybody but me offers to lift this trap, shoot. Don't yuh take any chances. Blow out that candle soon as you're located."
It was then that fifty riders clattered into the yard and up to the front door, grouping in a way that left no exit unseen. Thurston, standing in the doorway, knew them almost to a man. Lazy Eight boys, they were; men who night after night had spread their blankets under the tent-roof with him and with Bob MacGregor; Bob, who lay silently out on the hill back of the home ranch-house, waiting for the last, great round-up. They glanced at him in mute greeting and dismounted without a word. With them mingled the Circle Bar boys, as silent and grim as their fellows. Lauman came up and peered into the dusk; Thurston observed that he carried his Winchester unobtrusively in one hand.
"Why, hello, boys," he greeted cheerfully. But for the rifle you never would have guessed he knew their errand.
"Hello, Lauman," answered Park, matching him for cheerfulness. Then:
"We rode over to hang them Wagners." Lauman grinned. "I hate to disappoint yuh, Park, but I've kinda set my heart on doing that little job myself. I'm the one that caught 'em, and if you'd followed my trail the last month you'd say I earned the privilege."
"Maybe so," Park admitted pleasantly, "but we've got a little personal matter to settle up with those jaspers. Bob MacGregor was one of us, yuh remember."
"I'll hang 'em just as dead as you can," Lauman argued.
"But yuh won't do it so quick," Park lashed back. "They're spoiling the air every breath they draw. We want 'em, and I guess that pretty near settles it."
"Not by a damn sight it don't! I've never had a man took away from me yet, boys, and I've been your sheriff a good many years. You hike right back to camp; yuh can't have 'em."
Thurston could scarcely realize the deadliness of their purpose. He knew them for kind-hearted, laughter-loving young fellows, who would give their last dollar to a friend. He could not believe that they would resort to violence now. Besides, this was not his idea of a mob; he had fancied they would howl threats and wave bludgeons, as they did in stories. Mobs always "howled and seethed with passion" at one's doors; they did not stand about and talk quietly as though the subject was trivial and did not greatly concern them.
But the men were pressing closer, and their very calmness, had he known it, was ominous. Lauman shifted his rifle ready for instant aim.
"Boys, look here," he began more gravely, "I can't say I blame yuh, looking at it from your view-point. If you'd caught these men when yuh was out hunting 'em, you could uh strung 'em up—and I'd likely uh had business somewhere else about that time. But yuh didn't catch 'em; yuh give up the chase and left 'em to me. And yuh got to remember that I'm the one that brought 'em in. They're in my care. I'm sworn to protect 'em and turn 'em over to the law—and it ain't a question uh whether they deserve it or not. That's what I'm paid for, and I expect to go right ahead according to orders and hang 'em by law. You can't have 'em—unless yuh lay me out first, and I don't reckon any of yuh would go that far."
"There's never been a man hung by law in this county yet," a voice cried angrily and impatiently.
"That ain't saying there never will be," Lauman flung back. "Don't yuh worry, they'll get all that's coming to them, all right."
"How about the time yuh had 'em in your rotten old jail, and let 'em get out and run loose around the country, killing off white men?" drawled another-a Circle-Bar man.
A hand—the hand of him who had stood guard over the Wagners in the bedroom during supper—reached out through the doorway and caught his rifle arm. Taken unawares from behind, he whirled and then went down under the weight of men used to "wrassling" calves. Even old Lauman was no match for them, and presently he found himself stretched upon the porch with three Lazy Eight boys sitting on his person; which, being inclined to portliness, he found very uncomfortable.